Chapter 43, Broken: The Price
"I do not love her."
His old teacher's gaze rested heavily on the young Sith.
(It was dream. It had to be a dream. Jinn's eyes had never been kind in life.)
"Love is not… strong enough a word for what I feel."
Vader hesitated, hating that he needed to ask when he already knew the answer, but he had to. "She will never love me, will she?"
The other did not answer. From the sadness that blinked in those grey eyes, he did not have to.
Tears burned in Vader's eyes. He blinked them back furiously, refusing to let them fall.
He kept slipping in and out of consciousness. His chest was on fire, being knitted by what felt like dragon-blood-tipped needles.
Once he was conscious enough to recognize his own chambers in the Imperial Palace, the fresco on the ceiling, light filtering through painted glass.
"He's awake," someone murmured redundantly.
He shifted his head until he could see the faces staring down at him– Darra's, Threepio's, the Jedi Healer's…
…and Padmé Naberrie's.
His breath caught.
He didn't hear what she said – or if at all she said anything – before the darkness took him again.
"If… if I had not chased her… if the bounty hunter had failed… if I had not", he could not say it out loud, "perhaps, perhaps she may have come to love me… in different circumstances?"
"Is that what you believe?"
"It's what I have to believe. It's what…" He blinked rapidly, feeling every pang of his bleeding heart. "I cannot live without her. Don't make me."
"Me? Who am I? You are the avatar of the Force. The choice has always been up to you."
(It had to be a dream.)
When he woke up again, it was with a finality that told him that the worst had past. The dull ache in his chest was nothing compared to the pounding in his head. Threepio's mechanical cry seemed to echo through his brain.
"Thank the Maker, you are finally awake!"
"Shut up, Threepio," he ordered – croaked. He tried to sit up in the bed he was lying in and his head spun. He shrugged the disorientation like an insignificant bug and ignored Threepio's cries of alarm as he got unsteadily to his feet.
A firm hand on his shoulder, a gentle push, and it was with utter ignominy that Vader fell back to the bed.
"My Lord, you need to rest. Your fever has broken but your body is still healing." Darra's voice was firm in its deference as she gently but firmly, pushed him back into a reposing position.
Vader had a lot to say to this – was about to say a great deal – but the words froze in his throat at the sound of the doors to his chamber sliding open and the sense of the presence that was gradually filling his senses.
It was changed, doubled in a way that he was too tired to try to understand. But it was unmistakable. His breath caught.
Darra paused in her ministrations. "You're here." Her voice was stiff; he could sense the strain in it and in her aura. "I thought we decided you'd come later…"
"Leave, Thel-Tanis," Vader managed to croak.
She didn't budge. Her aura tensed further. "My Lord, perhaps you had better-"
"Get out before I throw you out."
The good thing about Darra Thel-Tanis was that she rarely needed telling twice. She even had the good sense to drag the protocol droid along with her. Vader lifted his head from his pillow to watch her pass the dark figure by the doorway, watch the swift, mysterious exchange of glances that the two shared before Darra slipped out of his chambers and left him alone. With Padmé Naberrie.
Padmé turned to him. It only took him a few seconds to fill his gaze with her dark, bottomless eyes – and he turned his eyes to the ceiling above him.
"I'm surprised you didn't leave me to die," he whispered.
He felt her move nearer. "The thought crossed my mind," she said simply. "Your Hand left me no choice." And just like that, she killed the hope that had risen in his heart.
"I thought…" He couldn't finish the words. I thought you Jedi-Keepers were willing to die for your cause. The one I killed did. He certainly couldn't bring himself to utter the fear that had plagued him while he hunted her: that she would spite him in the worst way possible by taking her own life.
He didn't have to. "I was willing, yes. But I'm not ready to take others with me."
She didn't answer right away. She came nearer and out of the corner of his eyes, he saw the white hair peeking out from under her hood. "With the death of an Emperor with no heir, every Hand and every Grand Admiral would be vying for power. Civil war would be inevitable. Thousands, maybe millions will die."
Vader laughed. It echoed in his head and he groaned a little. "Your Jedi allies have spent centuries trying to bring down the Empire and never for one moment did they plan any semblance of order or continuity on the unlikely, impossible and hypothetical event that they succeed?"
She drew in a sharp breath. It struck him just how vulnerable he was right now. He was weak and injured and alone with a woman to whom he was still an enemy.
He did not care.
She had killed Ferus. Vader remembered that like something in a dream but it had happened. He had clung to that memory in his delirium and hinged all his hopes on it. But nothing had changed. No matter how much it injured him to admit it, no matter how desperately he wanted – needed – to believe that Padmé Naberrie had stopped hating him…
She had not.
And so her next words came to him like a laser through his heart:
"I have decided to accept your offer."
No Sith Emperor had ever taken an Empress before. No Sith Emperor had ever wanted to. The power that made a Force adept attuned to the Force was not an ability that was passed along the bloodline: it manifested completely at random – or so it seemed. It was whispered amongst the Emperor's own that once upon a time, the old adepts had a better understanding of the pattern that the Force used in selecting its children. It was whispered that perhaps this knowledge still remained with the Jedi.
(That the knowledge certainly remained with the Jedi Keepers.)
However, no Sith had ever possessed this knowledge – or was even convinced of its existence. The futility of starting a dynasty that could not be sustained and the complete lack of interest that the Sith had in affection or families made it a non-issue.
He didn't know what to say – what to feel. He had never met a pregnant woman before, at least not knowingly. He had no concept of babies or children or family.
But when he looked at Padmé's swollen form and realized that that was the cause of the strange doubling of her aura – that life was growing inside her – life that he had put in there
(no matter how that had come about)
he had felt his heart clench with something. It was almost like what he had felt when he looked at Padmé's image all those years ago. Longing, almost a kind of hunger. A desperation to have something that he didn't understand – that he didn't understand wanting to have – a desperation that he didn't even know could be satisfied.
But Padmé let him put his shaking hands on her belly, let him feel the life there moving, kicking, alive, his…
And he realized that yes, he could have this.
(It had to be a dream.)
A New Order was at hand.
In every world, the populace turned out in droves to celebrate the wedding of the young Emperor to the mysterious and beautiful woman and if there was a forced gaiety in the young women's giggles; or if an old man punctuated a bawdy joke by a swift glance at the night sky (was that a moon in the horizon? Or… something else?), it mattered not.
At first, the Hands did not know where the Empress fit in the Imperial chain of command – but they learnt it very quickly. The old ways were no more, as Vader had wasted no time in letting them know when – after they had quietly and effectively murdered Darra Thel-Tanis – he had publicly and brutally decimated half of their ranks.
The Hands would never convene again.
That was just the beginning.
The Jedi were 'pardoned'. Officially, the Emperor extended amnesty to all who claimed to be or swore allegiance to the Jedi and provided them with peaceful exile on the planet of Endor. A lot more than he would have liked – and that the Empress had hoped for – took the pax. With no Grandmaster and their Guardian apparently in alignment with their enemy, they were nerf without a nerfherder. Those lived out their lives in relative peace on that planet. Some clung to their blood-deep allegiance to the Guardian and pledged allegiance to the Empress. The Emperor found a use for them. Some refused to surrender. Of these, those that remained on Yavin were destroyed along with the moon. Those that scattered across the Empire, seeking shelter, made excellent game for the Emperor's and his children's hunting sprees.
The Empress gave birth to two children – male and female. Whatever hopes were entertained against the start of a dynasty were dashed within hours of their birth. With a midi-chlorian count even higher than their father's, the Vader twins were the Emperor's blood heirs in every sense of the word.
The New Order had come to stay.
"Which will you choose?"
Few things could take the Emperor's attention away from his children. The Empress was one of them. She walked up to where he stood at the balcony, watching the twins spar below and he thought how perverse it was that after all these years, the sight of her still made his heart tighten with longing and resentment.
"Of the two," she said, when he did not answer. "Which will you choose?" She asked the question with every appearance of the indifference she always displayed in matters concerning her children but he could see the light of curiosity in her eyes.
"Neither," he retorted, looking from her to the twins. His daughter had scaled up the ramp and was using her vertical advantage to rain down blows on her brother. He took advantage of a break in her focus and with a pull on the Force that broke goosebumps on Vader's neck, sent his sister crashing down to the floor.
"You will not hand over the Empire to the twins?" The Empress's voice was incredulous.
"I will hand it over to both of them."
She laughed. It was not a pleasant laugh. He thought, sadly, resignedly, that he had never heard her laugh pleasantly. "You still hold on to that impossible ideal."
"The Sith Order was founded by twins," he said softly with feigned patience. And then – because he could not resist – "Didn't the Jedi tell you that?"
As always, the mention of her former allies made her flinch and when she spoke, her voice was harsh. "Those twins lived for hundreds of years. Do you plan on giving your children immortality?"
"So you know the old stories," he murmured, taking perverse delight in the anger he provoked. "I wonder that the Jedi were not ashamed to hold onto them."
The twins had exchanged weapons now. His son had taken his daughter's light-saber while the sister wielded the vibro-whip the brother favored. One expert flip of the whip and the boy's blade went scattering across the floor and out. Another flip of the whip and his legs went down from under him.
"You didn't answer my question."
"Nor have you mine." And in truth, he wanted to annoy her almost as much as he wanted to know this. "What stories did the Jedi tell you about the battle between Darth Bane and the Jedi Grandmaster? About the twins and the founding of the Sith Empire?"
She didn't answer.
"So they did tell you." He realized this with some surprise.
A Force choke had undermined the girl and her brother quickly recovered the fallen weapon. She had traded the whip for a vibro-axe and the two of them were going at it with a shard of sparks so fierce that he could barely make them out.
It was a wonder that they didn't kill themselves with these 'friendly' spars.
"You know what they told me?" The Empress declared suddenly and there was something in her voice that made Vader turn full and look at her.
In many ways, she had not changed a bit from the woman whom the bounty hunter had given to the Sith Apprentice almost ten years ago on that landing platform. Her skin was still flawless, those old tattoos long faded and gone, her hair darkened into its glossy shade. In many ways, she was far more beautiful. She was the Empress and on her husband's insistence, no expense had been spared in maintaining the health and beauty of his wife, of the mother of his children. Dressed in clothes that old Padmé Naberrie would not have dreamed of pulling off, plied with beauty regimens and treatments that could almost stop a human from aging, she gave credence to the claim that was made of her as the most beautiful woman in the world.
But in other ways, in ways that Vader refused to dwell on, in ways that he was (Sith Lord or not) afraid to dwell on, she was nothing at all like the woman he met all those years ago. There was a lack of mercy in her eyes, a brutality in her smile, and a ruthlessness in some decisions she made in the spheres of influence allocated to her
(that he put there)
that had not been there that day that he had looked behind him and seen her awake and unafraid in his home.
The way she looked at him now reminded him of that. That the Empress who stood before him was, in many ways, not the woman whose picture
(he had fallen more than in love with)
had made him want to possess her.
"What?" Vader asked roughly when she didn't continue, just smirked up at him in a way that told him she was picking her words with the utmost care in order to inflict them were they would do the maximum damage.
Absent mindedly, he sensed the twins had lost their weapons and each was holding the other in a Force choke-hold.
"The founding twins – Yoda and Yaddle? They loved each other. In their own perverted Sith-accursed way, they cared for each other. Maybe because they weren't always Sith. Who knows? But your children, Lord Emperor? They hate each other. They have from the moment they were born. Do you know why you can never give your Empire to both of them? Because it's only a matter of time before one of them kills the other. And by the looks of things," her eyes cut to the fight below. Until then, he hadn't even realized that she was paying the children any attention, "you should count yourself lucky if they don't kill each other first."
She didn't wait for an answer. She didn't have to.
After the twins were born, Vader had had many foolish, sentimental thoughts and in the throes of one, he had asked the Empress if she would ever forgive him.
The memory of her laughter remained with him to this very day.
Even then he had not wanted to admit to himself that the only reason she returned to him was because she had found a way to use his children to punish him.
He would separate the twins later. For now, the Emperor of the known world bowed his head in his arms and wept in his heart.
"I cannot live without her. Don't make me."
"Me? Who am I? You are the avatar of the Force. The choice has always been up to you."
"Then if this is it. If this all I can get, then I'll take it. I choose this."
The gray eyes shimmered with the sadness that Vader refused to let himself succumb to.
(Dreams were supposed to pass in time.)
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Squee! I bet a lot of you thought that this story was abandoned, didn't you? Well, to be honest, so did I. But I decided to screw everything and finish what I started. I love this story, this 'verse, and I have a definite ending in mind. So it will get done. And as a prize to faithful readers, I have a special PM-only (or email only) cookie that will go up to the first twelve people that post a review. The only 'rules' are that you write a proper review: more than six words; more than 'good job' but actually comment on the story and that you remember to leave your email address if you are posting without a account. Thanks for reading!