Vader has been patient. He's bided his time and bitten his tongue and betrayed his master yet again (that stings less than he expected, after learning that Sidious has been lying to him for the past seventeen years, and, if he were to be honest with himself, for the thirteen years before that), and the few times he's seen Princess Leia, he's walked away before saying something he shouldn't. Some lessons, it seems, have finally taken hold, though only because of how important this is to him.
But his patience is at an end. It is only because he's been repeatedly deployed to the Outer Rim that he's managed to hold his tongue this long, and now he is back on Coruscant and being forced to attend Empire Day celebrations with Sidious when he'd rather be celebrating his daughter's birthday.
"Come, my friend," Sidious says with a knowing chuckle, "do you not revel in the glorious Empire we have created?"
"Yes, my master," he replies sullenly, his ever-present anger seething in the Force. His rage makes Sidious cackle with evil glee, and even his vaunted foresight has failed to show him that his day of reckoning is rapidly approaching. Vader just has to suffer through yet another Empire Day first. This day is a tragedy, a travesty, a remembrance of the day he lost everything (the day he threw everything away, but no, he can't let himself think that, even now).
But everything is not lost. His daughter lives, a tiny fiery dynamo who reminds him of Padmé at her most determined, of himself at his most righteous. Watching her cordially excoriate the Senate for their selfish cowardice is the only time he can secretly acknowledge that there might have been something of Anakin Skywalker worth salvaging, something Padmé Amidala had once loved.
And she was taken from him by his master's lies, for seventeen--eighteen now--long years. Well, no more. He will speak to her tonight at the Senatorial Ball, and then together they will overthrow the Emperor. He has the power and she, the political acumen to rule the galaxy. There is no need to wait for Bail Organa's piddling rebellion to gather its strength. They only wish to restore the Republic, rather than understanding that its failure was inherent in its structure. Leia will be wise and benevolent and the galaxy will thrive under her rule. And for those who oppose her, well, he will happily serve as her strong right arm.
The Imperial throne is the only gift he wishes to give her, but he still manages to make a small trinket, a bracelet cobbled together from discarded lightsaber parts and silka beads. Once he might have felt confident in buying such a gift for his wife or his padawan, but now he hesitates and second-guesses himself—any purchase he makes will cause gossip, and even if he didn't care about subjecting the princess to such a thing, word would get back to his master, inviting scrutiny that none of them can bear. No, best he give her something made with his own (he laughs bitterly at the thought) hands, as unfashionable as it might be.
The ball is in full swing when he arrives, and he's forced to spend the first hour of it surrounded by toadies and sycophants all jockeying to get closer to the Emperor. His disdain for the whole lot of them is clear in the Force, and it pleases his master enough that he's released from their bootlicking earlier than usual.
Leia is dressed in white, her hair up in complicated braids, and his chest aches as he watches her flash that dazzling politician's smile she inherited from her mother at one being and then another as she moves gracefully across the dance floor.
Vader doesn't dance; he'd given up capering like a fool with everything else in his old life, so he has to wait for the princess—his daughter (and the wonder of that will never cease)--to get tired of having her feet stepped on to speak with her.
Leia is sipping a glass of Chandrilan wine when he approaches. "Your Highness."
She inclines her head. "Lord Vader." Her smile now is dim and false. "Happy Empire Day."
"Indeed." He puts a hand on her elbow and feels her flare of alarm in the Force. He tries to keep his hold gentle but firm. "I must speak with you." He tilts his head towards the balcony doors. "Outside." He's made sure the surveillance on this particular balcony is video only, and has already prepared to have the footage erased after he downloads it for his own files.
She looks up at him, no sign of fear on her face, and somehow manages to meet his gaze despite the mask. It must be the Force. Perhaps she feels it too, the connection between them sparking to life now that he's aware of her true parentage. "Of course," she says, her curiosity easily overcoming her fear.
He glares at the couple canoodling on the balcony until they hurry away, flustered, and then turns to Leia. He clasps his hands behind his back, but that feels too formal, so he hooks his thumbs inside his belt instead. It's been many years since he felt like he didn't know what to do with his hands; if they were still organic, he's sure his palms would be sweating. As it is, all his carefully thought-out speeches desert him and this is the one person to whom he does not wish to offer threats, which are his usual mode of communication these days.
As much as he wishes to look upon her face without his helmet between them, he's glad it hides his discomfort now.
Leia leans agains the balcony railing and waits, the Force tinged with her growing impatience as well as her curiosity.
Vader clears his throat, which his vocoder translates into a growl and he frowns before attempting to find the right words. He pushes aside the memory of standing on another such balcony with her mother, in the soft Naboo twilight. He reaches into one of the pouches on his utility belt and brings out the box containing her gift. "Your Highness--Leia. I have held my tongue too long and I feel compelled to tell you--"
She holds up a hand, forestalling him. Only because she's his daughter does he allow it. "While I'm conscious of the honor you do me, Lord Vader, I'm afraid I'm much too young to consider marriage at this time."
He rears back in shock and for the first time in many years feels his face grow hot with mortification. "No," he shouts, causing heads to turn even inside the ballroom, and forcing him to lower his voice. He considers killing them all for witnessing this moment, even all unawares, but there are too many to cover up, and Leia would probably not approve. He steps closer to her and tilts his head down to meet her gaze. "I am your father. And indeed you are much too young to marry." He doesn't pause to let these revelations sink in, or to think about his own hypocrisy, since he'd been but a year older when he'd married Padmé. "Who has been importuning you?"
Leia stares up at him in shock, her lips parted, and the glass of wine in her hand drops to the floor and shatters, staining the hem of her gown purple. It looks far too much like blood for Vader's comfort (not that he has been bothered by the sight of blood over the last eighteen years).
"I—" she starts and then stops, her confusion and incredulity starting to give way to anger. That, as much as anything, convinces him of their relationship. "Is this some sort of joke, Lord Vader?"
"Is my reputation one of jests and japes, Your Highness?"
"No," she says. "No, it is not."
"I assure you, I am quite serious." When she doesn't respond, he continues, "Today is your birthday, is it not?"
"And the Organas told you that your birth parents died in the war. Is that not so?"
"It is." Her eyes widen. "But my biological father was," she swallows hard, "Anakin Skywalker." It's barely a whisper.
"That name no longer holds any meaning for me," he replies, "but it is who I once was. It is who your mother knew me as."
She blinks at him. "Senator Amidala."
"Yes." Emotions he hasn't felt in eighteen years surge to the surface and resound in his voice despite the vocoder.
She shivers as a mouse droid scurries by the clean up the broken glass around her feet, and he can feel her shock and dismay in the Force.
"Princess. Leia." He holds out the box again. "I brought this gift for you, for your birthday, to mark this new beginning between us." He presses it into her hands when she doesn't take it, and curls his fingers around hers for a moment, so small and delicate, the nails bitten at the cuticles, much as his had once been. It's as unbecoming a princess and senator as it was a Jedi, but it also highlights how young she is.
"The Organas are aware," he says, and tries to leash his anger at them for stealing her away from him. He knows who must have made that decision, and Kenobi will pay eventually, but right now, he needs to keep calm and win Leia over. "We have...come to an accommodation."
"I don't—This is all very sudden, Lord Vader."
He wants to shout that no, it's eighteen years too late, but that will only attract more attention. People are probably already beginning to gossip about him keeping her out here this long. He can only hope his master misconstrues his focus on her much in the way Leia originally had—it will mean more mockery, but he can withstand that to protect her.
"I know it is a shock to you, but trust your instincts, Leia. Reach out with your feelings and the Force will guide you."
"The Force?" she scoffs. "I'm not—I don't know anything about the Force."
"No," he says, "but you will learn." He clenches a fist. "I will teach you. And together we will overthrow the Emperor and rule the galaxy."
Leia takes a step back, his gift still clutched in her hand. "You mean, overthrow the Emperor and restore the Republic."
He huffs in frustration. Damn the Republic and all it's taken from him. But he cannot say that to her, in all her youth and naive optimism. "Politics is not my area of expertise," he says instead. It is only the truth. "The details of your rule can be worked out later."
She gives him a searching look, one that makes her seem older than her years, but says nothing.
"You can confirm this with the Organas," he says grudgingly.
"I will." Her mouth curves in a half-hearted attempt at a smile that fails to manifest. "You've given me a lot to think about, Lord Vader." She pauses in the doorway and glances back over her shoulder at him. "Thank you for the gift."
Happy birthday, Leia, he thinks. I'll be in touch.
Her shoulders stiffen, and he's sure she's heard him through the Force. Then he turns and stares up at the bright Coruscant night. It was not a joyous reunion, but even he was not foolish enough to hope for such a thing. She hadn't repudiated him outright, and for now, that would have to be enough.
Leia leaves the ball immediately after her encounter with Vader, claiming that she needs to change out of her now stained dress. Nobody stops her; being alone with Darth Vader for more than a few moments would be considered reason enough for a quick exit. She's aware of the whispers following her on her way out, but her mind is stuck on Vader's final words, not the ones he'd spoken, which are disturbing enough, but the ones that are still reverberating inside her head.
Leia's heard the rumors about Vader's arcane powers, that he can pluck the thoughts right out of your skull, and she's been diligently trained to resist interrogation, but no one ever said anything about him being able to put thoughts into her head. It does lend some credence to his claim, though, if even a small part of her father's--Bail's--stories about the Jedi are true.
It's late here on Coruscant, which means it's even later in Aldera, and she's already had her birthday call with her parents, so she should wait until morning to call them. She remembers, suddenly, the strange call from them a few weeks ago, and somehow knows it was about this, that Vader isn't lying to her. He is—was—Anakin Skywalker. He is her biological father. The part about wanting to overthrow the Emperor could be a trap, but it also has the feel of the truth, in that same way she's always known when someone is lying, or been able to read a room with little more than a glance and a few deep breaths. She'd thought it was simply training and good instincts, but perhaps it's something more.
She dismisses her maid and eels out of her stained dress easily enough on her own. She pulls on her softest cotton pajamas, then unpins her braids; she can sleep in them like this and she'd rather be alone while she tries to figure out how she feels about her conversation with Vader.
She looks at the gift he'd pressed on her. It's not ticking, at least. She grins ruefully to herself and tugs at the blue ribbon wrapped around the box. It comes undone easily, and she sets it aside. The box is small and made of real wood; there's a symbol she doesn't recognize carved into the lid and she sets that aside for consideration as well.
There's a bracelet nestled inside, made of links of durasteel interspersed with blue and purple silka beads, and one clear cylinder shaped crystal. The crystal warms against Leia's skin when she drapes the bracelet over her wrist, and she becomes aware of a faint humming sound in the distance, as if music is playing in another room.
It's a pretty trinket, not something she'd have expected from Darth Vader, but given his revelations, it fits. She's a little impressed, actually, by the thoughtfulness of it, or she would be if it came from anyone else.
Instinct tells her to check the box again, and she discovers a small comm unit tucked inside the lid. It's not like anything she's ever seen before, and it's locked to an unfamiliar and unidentifiable comm code. Vader's, she assumes, shivering as she recalls his last words.
Despite the tangle of her thoughts, she falls asleep quickly, but has a confusing welter of dreams—Alderaan explodes and a million voices cry out in terror as she watches; a stormtrooper is drowned by a dianoga in a garbage chute; a man awakes from carbon freeze and kisses her. Vader is there for all of it, his breathing relentless and familiar and somehow comforting instead of terrifying while she strangles a Hutt with a heavy chain.
"Leia," he says, holding a hand out to her. "Leia, you're dreaming. Wake up."
Leia wakes with a gasp, her scalp prickling with sweat beneath her braids. A glance at the chrono on her night table shows her that it's late enough to be early in Aldera; her parents will be just starting their day.
Her fingers tremble at the memory of her dreams and she forces them still as she punches in the comm code, the secret one, with multiple encryptions.
Mama's face is concerned beneath the smile, and Papa doesn't even try to hide his worry. "Leia? Is everything all right?"
"It's true, isn't it," she says without explanation. "About Vader."
Her parents exchange a worried look. "He spoke to you?"
"Last night." She holds up her wrist. "He gave me a birthday present."
Another look, this one puzzled and incredulous, and then Papa says, "Is that a kyber crystal?"
"Is it?" Leia touches it, the smoothness of the stone warm against her fingertip. "It's warm and, call me crazy but," she lowers her voice, "I think it's singing to me."
"That is a very special gift, Leia," Mama says.
Papa lets out a gusty breath. "And a very dangerous one," he adds. "Keep it hidden in public."
"You don't seem surprised."
Papa huffs again. "Vader's never been a patient man. We suspected he wouldn't be able to hold off from speaking to you, despite our agreement that he would."
"You didn't want him to tell me?" Leia asks, annoyed that they'd keep such an important secret from her despite understanding why they'd want to.
"It's dangerous," Mama says.
Papa nods. "He's dangerous." He sighs. "We always worried this day would come, and to be honest, it's gone better than we could have hoped. But he is not safe, Leia. He may care for you, but that won't stop him from hurting you."
"But he's helping us?" she presses.
Even in the blue light of the holocam, Papa looks tired. He rubs his forehead and pinches the bridge of his nose. "For now."
"He said we could settle the politics later," she offers. "After--" she can't bring herself to say it, even on this heavily encrypted comm. Not when her room could be bugged.
"He's never cared much for politics," Papa allows.
"Then perhaps we should take him at his word," Leia says. "I know he's done terrible things, but haven't you always told me we should believe people who are trying to change? Who want to be better?" He's not what she expected when she discovered who her birth father was, but if he was good once, couldn't he be good again?
"I've also always told you that when people show you who they are, you should believe them."
Leia bows her head. "That's true. But he wasn't lying."
"No, I'm sure he wasn't. But he's--"
"Volatile," Mama interjects. "And murderous when he doesn't get what he wants."
"Is that what happened to Senator Amidala?"
"He spoke of her?" Papa asks, surprised.
"No. Well, a little. Just confirming what I already knew."
"And how did you know this, Leia?"
Leia looks away. "I just did." The Force, she thinks. It must have been. "Mon told me a few things, too."
Papa sighs and scrubs a hand over his face. "Mon and I will be having a talk about appropriate conversational subjects very soon."
"She said you were good friends with the senator," Leia prompts. She lets him think she hasn't noticed that he didn't answer her question. The lack of answer is answer enough, and she doesn't want to think about that.
Papa smiles, then, wide and genuine. "Yes, I was. She was an amazing woman, and you remind me of her in many ways." His voice softens. "She'd be very proud of you."
Leia hugs that knowledge close; Amidala was a fantastic politician, and it's that, more than any closer relationship, that warms her.
"What would she do?"
Papa laughs, but there's an edge to it. "She died believing there was still good in Vader."
"Then we should honor that belief," Leia says firmly. "I'm not saying we should invite him to family dinner, but as long as he's willing to help, we should accept that. If something changes, we'll deal with it." Her instincts are telling her this is right, this is not just wishful thinking or the desire to do what her birth mother would have. She takes a deep breath and squares her shoulders. "I'll deal with it."
Papa looks like he wants to argue, but Mama gives her a warm smile slightly tinged with sadness. "We're proud of you too, Leia. But be careful."
"Of course, Mama. I always am." Papa snorts in disbelief but doesn't argue. "I'll let you go," she says. "I'm sure you're very busy. I love you."
"We love you too," they say in unison, and she cuts the call.
She leans back against her pillows and touches the bracelet on her wrist. When she closes her eyes, she can feel the crystal murmuring softly, bolstering her belief that this is the right thing to do. Then she takes Vader's comm link in hand, and makes the call.
"Leia," he says, and even over the heavily secured connection, she can hear something like pleasure in his tone (or in the Force).
"Lord Vader," she says, and her voice doesn't quiver, "tell me more about the plans you mentioned last night."