Luke had come back from the second Death Star with a badly wounded man who then spent three entire months in a tank of bacta. Leia'd asked Luke about him.
"A former Jedi enslaved by the Emperor," Luke had said.
It hadn't been a lie, and Leia had had bigger things to worry about than one more scarred relic of the Old Republic. (She hadn't told Luke yet about Maz Kanata giving her the lightsabre he'd lost in Cloud City. She did not intend to. Truth be told, she occasionally wanted to order an investigation to find why Maz Kanata had had it, but the Rebellion had had bigger problems. Aside from that, she forgot she even had the blasted thing.)
(Or at least that was what she told herself, late at night, when it waited, heavy at the bottom of the chest under her bed, and kept her from sleep, the weight of it pressing down on her breath like Alderaan.)
When Luke told her the man had made it out of bacta, she'd been happy for Luke. He'd never admitted it, but she knew a part of him was still trying to atone for all those who had died when he had blown up the first Death Star. Maybe all it would take for her brother to smile again would be one life saved. And so she was happy that the man made it out of medical.
Aside from that, she forgot about the man.
It was late, that evening. The night was clear and she was not looking at the sky. The stars were wrong, but that didn't matter. Anywhere in the galaxy she would know where to look for Alderaan's sun. Any time it would break her heart.
"Leia Organa," a voice rasped.
Leia turned around. Extensive burn scars, intense dark eyes -- they should be pale, she thought, absurdly -- and a breathing modulator wrapped around his throat. Luke's Death Star redemption.
"Yes?" For the life of her, she could not imagine what this man wanted with her.
"I am sorry." He paused. The modulator whined once. Twice. "For Alderaan."
Of course. He had to be the only person in the base, and what sometimes felt like the entire galaxy, who had not offered apologies or condolences for that yet. It used to make her angry, but now it just made her resigned. What else could they say? Not saying anything would, surely, be worse.
It would not. She pretended, often, that Alderaan still lived. That the forests and hills of her childhood, the enchanted rivers, the soaring towers, the birds in the trees, the fading skies and the setting sun, still existed out there in the galaxy, same as they had always had. That her home was more than a bubble of crystalline memory in the middle of her thoughts. That it was right behind the horizon and she could go back, if she wanted.
That her father would speak to her, one day soon.
"I am sorry," the man said again.
"It was not your fault," she said on auto-pilot.
He tilted his head; it looked painful. "It was."
She looked at him, then. Really looked at him. She had her eyes open, but she imagined opening them again. There was a great dark shadow wrapped around him like a cape. His eyes burned, white-hot like the heart of a star. They were pale, after all.
"Vader," she said.
He nodded. She could see the pain it caused him in ugly purple stripes, down his neck and across his shoulders. It was not enough pain to pay her back.
She wanted to kill him.
The force of it made her stop breathing for a moment. The rage in her, trapped in the place where her chest became her throat, pulsed like a neutron star. She wanted to kill him. Force, how she wanted to, like she'd never wanted anything else before, on a primal, visceral level.
She reached out with her hand to choke the life out of him. It would be so easy. She wouldn't even need to touch him.
She stopped. Dropped her arm. What was she doing?
A quick death was more mercy than he deserved. If she'd known who he was when Luke had brought him back, she'd have left him to die a long slow painful agony and ripped her revenge out of that, bloody and raw.
But she hadn't -- and she'd talk to Luke about that, later -- and the Rebellion's medical resources had already been wasted on him.
"Kill me," he said. "Please."
"No." She refused to give him anything he wanted, even death. She took her rage, folded it tight and fed it to the furnace of its own heat. She was still angry, but she was no longer seconds away from strangling him.
He sat on the floor. His every move was considered and slow, as if moving through water or an ocean of pain, but there was still a deadly sort of grace to the movement.
She looked down at him. "Why?"
"It is customary to kneel when one wishes to apologise and I have made myself and my son an oath to know no more master, to kneel to no one else. This seemed an acceptable compromise," he said.
"It had become too painful to stand," Leia said. She knew her brother. He had meant what he had said, but he had not meant it as literally as Vader was taking it. She knew that and Vader knew it too; for all his faults, the man was no fool.
"That is certainly true, from a certain point of view." If he could smile, he would have.
She sneered. "From a certain point of view?"
"Something my master once said." He almost began to shrug, but stopped himself. Pain, again, was curtailing his options.
"Are you -- Are you quoting Palpatine at me?" The rage was back, same as if it never left. She spat the Emperor's name at Vader's feet.
His breathing modulator creaked ominously. "Kenobi."
"He was not your master." She put emphasis behind the 'not', like poking at a bruise.
"From a certain point of view." He paused, half a second longer than necessary. "He said it more than once."
"Don't feel obligated to do the same."
He looked up at her. The fire behind his eyes had dimmed. "I truly am sorry for Alderaan. I was only following orders. That's never been an excuse."
She nodded. It was no excuse, barely even an explanation.
He waited. Did he think she would kill him? She would not. If he was there and he was alive, the only way not to have wasted resources on him was for him to make himself useful to the Rebellion.
Mon could handle him. Or perhaps not. She'd known Skywalker before the war, after all, if only barely, and she'd been Leia's parents' friend since before Leia had been born. She'd been there, in the direct aftermath of Vader's birth. Of everyone in the Rebellion, Mon was the second after Leia with the most personal reason to want this man dead.
Everyone in the Rebellion wanted Vader dead. Even Luke had nightmares of Bespin. They left him screaming in the night, flesh hand curled hard enough against metal wrist to cut through the skin.
"Why apologise at all?" Leia asked Vader.
"What I did to you and Alderaan was wrong. It's a debt I can't repay." He fell silent.
She let the silence speak for her. Of course he could not repay it -- a kindness or not, she would have killed him had he suggested otherwise.
He spoke again, his voice even quieter than before, "I became Vader to end a war. I wanted to bring peace, freedom, justice and security to the galaxy. I brought none of it."
Leia did not like what it said about her, that she understood him. Faced with the same choice, she might have become Vader too. It seemed like such an easy choice -- damn one soul or damn the galaxy.
"Why did you believe you could do these things?"
"I was young and foolish. Palpatine..." His hands twisted in his lap and the creak of leather carried all the way to her ears. He was silent a long time. No further explanation was forthcoming.
"How long did you believe you had done them?" She wondered when he'd realised he'd lost his soul for nothing. Had he thought Alderaan a necessary sacrifice too? Or had he thought to damn her world like he'd damned his soul, in fire and blood? She could believe either one of him; she might have done either one herself, in another life.
He looked up at her again. Because of the scars, there was nothing left of his features and there was no way to tell if she looked like him. In that moment, though, his eyes were her eyes, burning bright with rage enough to tear the galaxy apart and build something new on the ashes. Something better.
She nodded. Long enough was answer enough, whether he meant he'd believed until the end or regretted it as soon as the decision was made. Long enough was time enough for him to know he'd lost his soul for nothing more than becoming a cautionary tale.
Her cautionary tale. She was her father's daughter, after all. Not just Bail, but this complete stranger as well, and Breha, of course and --
"Mister Skywalker," she said. She waited until Vader acknowledged how she'd addressed him before continuing. "Tell me about the mother of your children."
She'd thought he was angry before. No. Now he was angry.
"Why." He sounded like the old Vader, the monster in the cape, her nightmare in a mask. That he could do so despite the modulator was truly testament to the power of the Force or the force of his will, if indeed there was a difference at all.
"Luke is my brother," she told him. That was a familial relationship she would gladly claim. Anything else that that entailed was another matter.
It was as if the sun had risen again or as if someone had punched her in the chest with pride and joy. She took a step back. Her back hit the railing. That brief pain, that was hers. The rest of it -- the pride, the joy, the grief, the rage -- that was Vader's, not hers.
"Your mother would be so proud," he said.
"She was," Leia said and for the first time she was glad her mother had died years and years ago; Breha never saw what Alderaan became. Neither, for that matter, had Luke's mother.
Vader was silent, trying to see if it had been a jab at him. The fact that it wasn't surprised them both. Facts, however, were facts and if they could be twisted, they could also simply be.
"What kind of woman falls in love with Darth Vader?" Leia asked in the silence grown too loud. With a jab between them they were on surer footing.
"Her name is Padmé," he said. Leia would have wept for him, had he been anyone else, that he was still in love with a woman so long since dead and gone and that he loved her like she lived still, somewhere close beyond the horizon.
Leia stepped away from the railing and sat down in front of him, on the cold hard ground with the sky above full of stars and planets, but missing Alderaan still. She listened to Vader talk about the Senator who might have saved the Republic, if only she'd lived. She'd heard the story before, of course, from her father -- her real father -- but every story told again was told anew and behind Vader in the doorway, there since 'Mister Skywalker', was someone who'd never heard the story.
Luke, framed in light.