by Grey V
Darth Vader knelt before his Master's throne, in the observation room on the highest floor of the Emperor's palace. The two of them were watching a holovid of the celebrations in the streets below. It was Empire Day once more, the eighteenth such day in the Emperor's reign, and the people of Coruscant were eager to rejoice. Today they could forget the distant violence of the Rebellion. Even the stormtroopers who normally walked the streets were nowhere to be seen, their armor forgotten as they cheered with the rest. The holovid image, throngs of people filling the street in an impromptu parade, reminded Vader of other celebrations he had seen. There had surely been others before it, but the earliest he could clearly remember had been the first Empire Day, precisely one year after the Emperor had risen to the throne.
They'd sat together in a room much like this one: draped in rich black and red, with not a single mirror to be seen, the corners hiding shadows. Back then, it had been the former Chancellor's Office, as the palace had not yet been completed. We went to the Senators' Dinner, Vader thought, and then we returned, sat by the window, and my Master taught me the Litany. All the names of our predecessors in the Sith Order, one by one, with their epitaphs. He'd knelt, head bowed, listening to his Master's words until the Litany had reached the Sith Lords he'd known himself.
"Darth Maul, the Staff of Hate. Darth Tyranus, the Sacrificial General. And then we two, who--"
"'Sacrificial General'? That's almost like an insult," he'd said softly, without meaning to, and then immediately cringed behind his mask. He had interrupted his Master. That was a dangerous thing to do, and had been so even in those early days, when the Emperor had been much more forgiving of Vader's errors. Even so, the Master had merely frowned.
"Not at all, my Lord Vader. Sacrifice is a sacred concept within our Order. The darkness calls us all to sacrifice." His eyes had found his hands, twisted and ruined by his own power, and had lingered there for a time.
"By Lord Tyranus' death, all of this is possible. Our power, our glory... our great Empire." He'd paused. "His was the blood that bought you, Lord Vader. You would be wise to think well of him." There was a hint of something strange in those words: tenderness, perhaps, or maybe just weariness; whatever it was, Vader had kept the memory of it locked away within his mind, where it soothed his many pains. He had not fully understood his Master's lesson that day -- strange, that he who had sacrificed so much might not understand -- but he had memorized the litany just the same, taking each epitaph within himself. That long, slow cadence of word and thought had brought him peace many times since then... though perhaps, in these latter days, it had lost much of its magic.
Lately, it seemed as if no peace could ever belong to him, or to his Master.
Outside, the celebrations were growing more fervent. The room was suddenly lit by reflections of fire, red and gold and green. In the next instant came the pop of the explosion, and then the distant whumph as the engineers launched the next firework. He could not hear the cheering, here so high above the streets, but surely it was there. All of the people loved Empire Day, even those who hated the Empire itself. On that day, they were allowed to celebrate, and only the Force might know that they celebrated the continuance of their own precarious lives, not that of the man who ruled them. The Emperor snapped off the holovid with a wave of his hand, settling back into the depths of his throne.
"What are you thinking, my apprentice?" The question was only just voiced, but of course, the Emperor did not need voice to command his servant. He had no need to ask, either -- if he wished, he could simply take the answer from Vader's mind the way one might pick up a slip of paper from a cluttered desk -- but he did ask, and Vader was grateful for it. It allowed him to smooth the edges of his answer, just a bit.
"I was thinking of the first Empire Day we shared, my Master. We sat together, just as we are now, and you taught me the Sith Litany."
There was a long pause, and for a moment Vader feared that he'd given a wrong answer. He watched as his Master slowly lifted a hand, watched for a hint of blue fire that might become ripping, searing lightning... but his Master only leaned his head upon his hand, the wrist disappearing into the shadows of his hood.
"I do not recall it," he said at length. "I can no longer... remember that."
Vader lowered his eyes behind his mask. Not long ago, his Master had given the last scraps of his humanity to the Darkness, exchanged for the ever-increasing power required to sustain his existence. Afterward, he had become ruthlessly, inhumanly efficient in spreading chaos. He strengthened the Dark Side of the Force in every action, and foretold all things that might threaten his rule. His power was now so great that only one thing was beyond him: he who had once manipulated the entire galaxy was now pathetically at sea when it came to matters of human feeling. It was not that he did not care, or that the thoughts and emotions of men were beneath him.
Simply put, he was no longer a being who could understand such things, not even his own fading memories.
A strange, quiet sadness welled up inside Vader. Ah, so I can still feel, he thought.
I wish I could not.
He knew that no one would grant that wish. He had run out of wishes a long time ago, on Mustafar, and there was nothing he could ever do to get them back. For a moment, he felt his Master's pain very clearly, because it was his own, as well.
"Master," he said softly. The other man did not react, nor even breathe. "My Master... if you wish, I will remember it for you."
"What?" It might as well have been a sigh, as soft as it was.
"I will remember." Vader touched his mind to his Master's, and opened his thoughts, welcoming. The Emperor leaned against him in the Force -- and suddenly his own actions seemed ridiculous to Vader, like a single man trying to hold up a great tower -- but somehow it worked. He could feel his Master, and the strange, unnatural needs that drove him, echoing about the smooth, expressionless void that had once been the Emperor's human heart.
Remember, Vader thought, and did. That place and time came back to him in perfect clarity: the Chancellor's old room, and the bright colors of the fireworks on his mask, and he and his Master together, when they had still been able to feel. He could hear the Emperor's slow, croaking voice as it recited the Litany, a voice he'd always loved, back then, even after it had been ruined. Behind it was the memory of another voice, the wise, measured tones of his dear friend, the Supreme Chancellor of the Republic. For just a moment, he could see that slight, sardonic smile, could see the way Palpatine always tangled his hands, one in the other, lost in thought.
Vader had not seen that man in nearly twenty years, not even in his memories. For him, the things that had happened before that first Empire Day were always hazy, but now... He shut his eyes tight behind his mask, and remembered with all his strength, so that his Master might be able to see it, too.
"Ah," the old man murmured, lost in the memory his apprentice had conjured. "So I was, so..."
Vader could not see his Master's tears, hidden as they were by the hood of his robe, but he could feel them in the Force. Each was a tiny drop of starshine, devoured by the darkness even as it fell. He knew that these would be the last -- though the two of them had some distance left to go together, those miles would not be marked by tears.
At least, not by the tears of the Sith.
His Master gave a low, soft cry in the dark, and Vader drew closer to him in the Force, as close as he could be. There will not be many more Empire days, he thought, and what humanity there was left in him was glad. The Force was changing, starting to shift, as if the galaxy was beginning to wake up from a long night's dream. Soon it will be over, he soothed, though he was not sure if the thought was meant for his Master, or himself. Perhaps both.