There are many Rebels who would love to torture Darth Vader, and none of them know how. Their dreamed-of methods are physical, and rarely worse than what he endures on a daily basis without their efforts.
The Emperor also loves to torture Darth Vader, and he does know how.
It is Empire Day, which means a great many festivities, a lot of pomp and ceremony, and a multitude of lies about how the Empire came about.
That many of them feature Padme Amidala, Queen and Senator of Palpatine’s homeworld, honored martyr for the Empire, and the beloved wife of Darth Vader’s former self, is as much to torture Vader as it is to inspire the hearts and minds of the citizenry. The Emperor knows it, Vader knows it, the Emperor knows he knows, and the Emperor has added an extra layer of cruelty to this year’s torment by bringing the current Queen of Naboo to join the festivities as an honored guest, and assigning Vader to see to her needs and wishes.
She is not Padme. She is too short, too young; the shape of her face is wrong, the eyes too dark. But the gravitas and artistry of the Queen of Naboo is an identity all its own, and the regal, brightly-bedecked figure and the coordinating retinue of handmaidens draw memories from their deep recesses to burn in his mind, more painful than lava.
He starts to bow before he can catch himself, Jedi style, and then he’s committed and has to continue or look foolish. “Your Majesty,” he says to her. He can feel the Emperor’s regard on them, his amusement, and focuses on his own mild sense of humiliation at the slip. It’s better than the alternative.
“Lord Vader.” The voice isn’t Padme’s. The mind, which he brushes at more faintly than usual, is nothing like Padme’s either. Half-unthinking, he casts his mind among the handmaidens, finding only that the Queen is the one dressed as the Queen and that they all, regardless of political sentiment, love her. She has the Emperor’s patronage, this one—Naboo elects their royalty—and his favor. The Queen is a little bit afraid of him, and a little bit giddy about having him at her command for the day.
The Emperor gives orders, a schedule, speeches and appearances and a formal ball this evening, and dismisses them. The Queen of Naboo returns to her suite for the first of several costume changes—Naboo royal customs are ridiculous—with Vader following in her wake and half a dozen handmaidens in military-precise formation around them.
This afternoon he will stand beside her on a dais while the Emperor tells the story of Padme Amidala’s death. It will be fiction, propaganda that puts the blame upon the vanquished Jedi, a plot amongst traitors to deprive the new Emperor of his greatest supporter, and Vader will cut himself to near shreds on the sharpness of his longing to believe it.
His greatest supporter? Hardly that, Vader is dimly aware in these moments when he lets himself think of her, hurting himself in preparation for the greater agony to come. She had been frightened, those last few days, and she had never supported the granting of emergency powers to the Chancellor. She had worried about Anakin, too, fearful of the wrong things.
She had worried she might lose him to the darkness, when instead he had lost her to it.
He stands in opulent quarters, the chatter of handmaidens filtering in from the next room, and half-indulges, half-torments himself with the imagination that the Emperor’s story is true.
Padme, strong and clever and kind as she always was, but her eyes open, her idealism tempered with understanding, her love for the Republic shifted to the more deserving Empire. Not up in the audience of the Senate—he’s seen the recordings—and not watching with distress in her eyes, not murmuring something whose transcript he’s never been able to bring himself to read. No, this Padme stands proud at the Emperor’s side, her eyes bright with purpose, joyful at the accomplishment.
This Padme would celebrate with him afterwards, would announce their marriage to the galaxy now that there were no Jedi to forbid it, no scandal in a Senator marrying him. He would fall asleep in her arms, and not have to sneak away.
And—why not? Perhaps with him present, no, most assuredly with him present, she would not die at the hands of these fictional assassins. And there would be no fight between them, no mistrust, no interference from his once-brother, Kenobi, who would have, should have, died. He would not be injured, and he would be there with his new powers to protect her from death as she gave birth.
She would be alive, and she would be beautiful as angels, and it would be her service to which the Emperor commanded Vader today. Perhaps there would be no Rebellion, as she was so good at diplomacy, and so many of the Rebels were her friends and close colleagues in the Senate, who might have seen reason better with their trusted Senator Amidala explaining it to them. Perhaps today would be the celebration of a truly peaceful Empire, and Darth Vader, years further along in his studies of the Dark Side, would stand with her, with their child, perhaps more children, and listen to the Emperor tell the story of the birth of the Empire that she would someday inherit.
It hurts. It is agony keener than fire against his skin, but he has made an intimate friend of pain. He will endure this torment of dreams that can never be true. It will distract him from the greater suffering of truths he can never escape.
The door to the bedchamber opens, and the Queen of Naboo walks out, surrounded by handmaidens. Her dress is black, her crown dazzling, the effect an ornate counterpoint to his armor and the Emperor’s simple black robes. Around her, the handmaidens gleam red like Royal Guards.
The Queen of Naboo is not Padme. She is too short, too young, her mind too different. Her face, white-painted and accented with red, is not Padme’s face, though it is the face of the Queen of Naboo, whom Padme once was.
It is not enough, but nothing in his life ever has been.
“Your Majesty,” he says, the other Queen of Naboo bright in his mind, and this time when he bows, it is not a mistake, though neither is it, precisely, directed to her.