I. The Scourge
In the Alderi underground, they were calling the plague "Palpatine's Scourge." Leia Organa knew this because at ten, she was intimately familiar with the palace's ventilation system. No one actually told her anything, especially after the Queen got sick. She also knew not to repeat the things she heard, especially the ones about the underground.
The newscasts called it the Scarlet Plague, for the red flush its victims took on as the capillaries in their faces and extremities burst, and for the suppurating sores of the final stages. The victims died from massive hemorrhaging, if they didn't die of dehydration first. In the capital city, there was an unprecedented increase in accidental deaths due to falling from rooftops.
They wouldn't let Leia into her mother's room. She knew they just didn't want her to see; her father had gone in a few times, in a biohazard suit that made him look unnervingly like an Imperial trooper. When Breha became delirious, one of the later stages of the disease, Bail stopped visiting her. He hadn't slept in at least a week--neither had Leia--and he looked pale and gaunt.
She had never seen her father like that before.
Leia sat outside her mother's door and refused to move. Bail tried reasoning with her before giving up and having the droids bring her food. He was too tired to argue, and that scared her more than anything else.
The med droids wouldn't tell her anything.
Her father called up an interchangeable series of bland, clean-shaven, gray-clad Imperial officers on the holo. At first he requested help--Alderaan's resources were strained, especially with the capital city in quarantine. They all said the same thing: they would put in a request, the Empire had finite resources. Then he begged, and seeing her father beg made Leia want to hit something, preferably the officers.
On the seventh day of her vigil outside Breha's door, her father came to her. "Leia," he said. "You have to return to your room. Lord Vader is coming here."
Leia remembered Vader, vaguely--the last time he had come to Alderaan, she had been only five or six. She remembered her father's nervous face when he told her nurses to dress her. She remembered saying the polite greeting she'd been taught. She hadn't wanted to look at him--he was like a giant, and something about him made her feel like hiding, as if he were peering at her brain--but she had, because it was polite.
Vader was important. "Will he help us?" Leia asked.
Bail sighed. "I hope so," he said, laying a hand on her shoulder. Then, "I doubt it. Vader holds no love for me or for Alderaan."
"What if I ask?" Leia asked, taking Bail's hand.
Bail shook his head. "I don't want him to see you," he said. "Vader is a dangerous man."
II. The Princess
Vader had been given the diplomatic suite, in the newest part of the palace. Leia could have gone through the ventilation system, but she didn't want to risk getting caught, and she doubted her father had warned Vader's guards to turn away the Princess of the Royal House of Alderaan.
"I am here to see Lord Vader," she said to the guards outside the suite, trying to look as regal as possible. She had worn gray today, because it made her eyes look bigger and she desperately hoped Vader had some kind of human pity in him.
The guards exchanged a look. "He left orders not to be disturbed," one said.
"She is the Princess of Alderaan," the other replied, but neither made a move to open the door lock or com Vader.
Leia took a deep breath. "I will announce myself," she said, sliding past the guard on the left, hitting the door controls, and darting inside before she could let the guards--or fear--stop her.
The door slid shut behind her with a hiss of compressed air. It was dark inside, and almost humid, the climate controls clearly dialed to a subtropical setting. There was a faint chemical smell in the air that Leia didn't recognize.
He was there, suddenly, looming over her as the lights came up, although they remained dim. "Princess. I see that courtesy is no longer a pride of the House of Alderaan."
She sank into her deepest curtsey, keeping her eyes fixed on her boots. Vader's voice was deep and even, his air filter or respirator or whatever it was hissing regularly. She couldn't tell how angry he was, but she could still breathe, so that had to mean something.
"I'm sorry, Lord Vader," she said, remaining in her curtsey. "It's the Plague."
She sensed Vader stiffen, somehow, his mood grow blacker, and she trembled. She had to go on. "We've asked and asked for assistance. Please help us, Lord Vader. My mother--" Her voice cracked and she had to fight back tears.
She felt Vader's hands on her arms, the leather of his gloves cooler than she expected, and shivered. He could break her; had killed others for less disrespect.
"Rise, Princess," he said. "Come sit with me."
They sat on the elegant but uncomfortable couches in the suite's lounge. "What do you want of me?" Vader asked.
"I don't know," Leia said. "You can make things happen in the Empire. We need medical assistance, help developing a vaccine. There are--"
She stopped, horrified at what she had been about to say.
"You may speak freely, Princess," Vader said, with an edge to his voice that had not been there before. "I assure you there are no listeners here, and I will not hold anything a child says against her."
"There are rumors," Leia whispered. "Rumors that there is already a vaccine, already a treatment, because this is--"
She stopped. Vader held up a hand. "I see," he said, his tone still opaque to her, although she had a terrible feeling he was not surprised. "I will do what I can, Princess. My power is likely not so great as you think."
"Thank you, Lord Vader," she said.
"You should return before you are missed," he said, and at her start of surprise, "I do not think you came here with Prince Organa's blessing."
"I had to. My mother--" Leia broke off, suddenly choked with tears.
"Go back to your family." Vader's deep voice was oddly gentle. "I will try to help you."
III. The Sword
The next time Darth Vader spoke with Leia Organa was over a holo. She was perfectly coiffed and dressed in a heavy, expensive white silk robe of simple cut, the traditional dress of a maiden of the House of Alderaan. She was stiff and pale, almost as white as her gown. "Lord Vader," she said. "Alderaan wishes to thank you for your assistance."
Vader was still angry about the Scarlet Plague. Leia's rumors had been right: it was a military experiment, tested on a Core world with advanced medical treatment available. The Emperor's pet horror-engineers had pronounced it a success. Vader was disgusted, but he has learned long ago that the justice he had joined Palpatine for was as much a lie as the Jedi creed. He still believed in the Empire, but not in Palpatine.
"You are welcome, Princess," he said, and then, although he knew her answer before he asked, "How is the Queen?"
Leia looked away. "She...it was too late for her," Leia said, her voice thick with tears. "She has passed over."
"I am sorry."
"I grieve with Alderaan," Leia said, and Vader was suddenly angry. This was Bail's doing, how quickly the girl pushed aside her own feelings for the sake of duty. She was only a child, a child whose mother had died.
Vader dimly remembered a mother dying, long ago--not his mother, he had no mother--someone's mother. She had been kind and gentle, not unlike the Queen of Alderaan, and no one had wanted him to grieve for her. "You should have come to me first," he said. "I have many responsibilities. I almost did not visit Alderaan."
Leia said nothing.
Vader was at a loss. Finally he said, "Forgive me, Princess. I have duties I must attend to."
Leia curtseyed, a graceful, well-trained gesture. "Again, we thank you for your assistance, Lord Vader."
"Too little, it seems," Vader said, and turned off the holounit.
With a gesture, he dimmed the lights in the room and sat in the darkness for a long time, looking out at the stars, points of static on his helmet's viewscreen. Once they'd meant something to him--a half-remembered dream more bright than the reality.
The Alderi Princess awoke something in his heart, something better kept asleep. It was almost like protectiveness, or something worse, something weaker.
It must not happen again.
Still, years later, when the Princess of Alderaan flinched back against him as her entire world died, Vader wished--for a moment so brief it passed before the searing glow of the explosion had faded from his helmet's viewscreen--that his steadying hand on her shoulder could be comforting.
In another life, she might have been his daughter.