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Vader followed her long, spiraling trail of misery through the Palace—while the low, black glittering ceilings of his Master's design rendered some of the hallways impassable to him, it was the Force that gave him sight at all, and it was the Force he followed through the caverns of the Palace to the Hand's quarters. The Hand's quarters were much nearer to his Master's than his own—Vader's were situated in the Southern Spire, adjacent the tower that housed his Master. Vader scarcely used them. In the Temple, that spire had once been—the layers of the créche, for the youngest of all the Jedi. Soaked, eternally, in their blood. The Hand's quarters bordered his Master's, his Master’s presence slick and black and oily around him the closer he drew to its source, somehow oppressive and distant. I am all that you are and more, it seemed to beckon, in the Dark. The girl's misery only sharpened the feeling. I am all that she is and more. Look at me, in jealousy.



His presence here would be dangerous. For his Master, he would have to design an image of what his Master wished to see—and his Master would enjoy the sight of himself most fondly, so Vader couched himself in the dripping memory of his Master watching him bellow in pain like a scavenger feeding off the scraps of a carcass. His Master would believe he was watching the Hand to rip her suffering off of her like a starving beast, feed off of the knot of the Dark surrounding him at all times like a hurricane, a fluttering insect drawn to a kill. A scavenger picking at the meat his Master had left behind. The tie in the Force between Master and apprentice lived in him at the bottom of his heart, gnawing at his soul, but its closeness meant he could convey to his Master his intent without ever letting the girl see it. She would have had enough of the steady, watchful observation of her screams, the boiling rotten pus underneath it all, her Master's joy at her torture. She had no retreat, either—she had no missions, only demands, only quarters just a breath from their Master. He did not consider it a mark of his Master's favor that the girl was lodged closer to his Master than Vader himself was—he considered, in point of fact, much the opposite. He tried not to think about it very much at all. He occupied himself with his work—his Master demanded constant conquest, and that, at least, Vader could provide. It left little room for idle considerations.



He hovered behind the closed door. It was plain, a sliding sheet of dark durasteel—bathed in red, by his lenses. Vader reached for the undertow that tied he and the girl, an inexplicable connection that bound them, inexorable, lodged firmly between them since he had understood her Force sensitive nature. He had theorized that their shared connection to their Master defined it, but—dangerously—it felt secluded, secretive, a pull at the top of his heart. Dangerous, because there were not supposed to be secrets, from his Master. At worst, mild omissions, slight misdirections. But this felt like lying, which was prohibited. Leia tapped the connection in return, a faint nervous twinge to it, and he opened the door with a flick, despite the prickling sensation of his own disobedience prickling his spine.



Her rooms were understated but fine, the quarters of a treasured inequal; she was not in the main reception chamber, nor the adjacent washroom and bedroom, but he followed the thin miserable thread of her to a storage closet, ostensibly for out-of-season clothing, had the girl been permitted to care much about fashion. These rooms had been designed for the wealthy. Vader preferred austerity by nature, and they unnerved him, but never more than the girl herself unnerved him. Leia was only a dark robed slip of a thing in the corner, arms folded harshly above her knees, face buried in the coarse black robes—a blur, mostly, to him. Easily mistaken for a blot on the mask's lens, were it not for the deep wellspring of power that flooded from her. Stronger, even, than their Master fully realized; and though it might have been a betrayal of his Master's confidences, Vader continually failed to inform his Master of his miscalculation, another disobedience that settled heavily in his ribcage, like heavy iron. He tried not to bring his Master's scalding eyes on himself, the girl, and their unfounded, easy connection in the Force, even still. They were such hateful eyes.



"What does—what does he want now," she said, harshly. Leia attempted to warp her voice into something stronger, but she was hissing, spitting in bone-deep pain. Vader wondered, gravely, how long it would be, before her body began to fail; she was young, and strong, but he had been both of those, once, too. The Force was limitless. The body was not. "What does he want, what could he—what could he—"



"I offer no requests from the Emperor," Vader interrupted. He didn’t bother correcting her that his Master had never explicitly defined whether Vader held any dominion over the Emperor’s Hand; merely indicated that it was not his business, and he was not to think about it, unless the thinking may have improved his connection to the ephemeral Darkness. He thought about it anyway. It was a dangerous game to play.



Her breath hitched, and the misery boiled quickly into a fury. Leia rocked back and forth, her breathing quickening, and hitching again, and quickening again. "Then why—why are you here," she sobbed. "Why are you here, why are you here, why—"



Why was a good question. It was not often one Vader asked himself. His respirator cycled, high and ominous, the burst of hard and cold oxygen flooding his lungs and then the pathetic rasp as it left; when it had been new to him, he had struggled with the artificial deepness of the breath, how it had scraped the bottom of freshly scarred lungs. He had adjusted, but even still the length of breathing out left him lightheaded.



"Our Master has a peculiar leading hand," he said. "It can be unpleasant."



I see, he said in the Force, the low, reverberating, ash-and-smoke voice he had in the world beneath the flesh. He could not recall what he sounded like, the idea of it a blur in his mind, voices on voices cracking together, so he sounded that way within the Force. They were not words he could say out loud.



Leia wailed, and the sound rippled in the ether, striking him with the power of an electro-whip—for a moment he was only the burning sand, the suns beating down on shredded skin, sand grinding thick in his open wounds and blood running down him, cooler than the burning air he sucked in. You're a loan, whelp, now get my money's worth and pick up your feet, in the scrawl of Huttese. Harsh words in and out of the ear, carved deep into him—his eternal exchange of hands. Blood clotted the sand like water would have, and Anakin had been so thirsty he had wanted to try wringing it out and drinking it.



When he came back to himself, in the flood of dulled and sharp ache he was, in the red eyes and the cold, the cold like a knife down his throat every time his lungs forced themselves in and out, Leia was staring at him. He could not see it, but he could feel it, the weight of it. Her eyes would never be gold, not unless she took Vader’s place; as an adherent, she did not train to be so close to the Dark Side that it warped her physical self, blurred pieces of her and made them unreal. They were simply human eyes. But they scalded, too, even when he couldn’t see them precisely—he thought they were dark.



"I saw that, Vader," she said. He could not exactly see her eyes blown wide, but he knew that they were. He also felt the joy she threw at him with her mind, her desperation to have something, anything, to use as a weapon against the bodies she shared space with. If she knew her own power in the Force, she would cease to fear Vader at all, but as it were she settled for petty knives, the only purchase she had.



Vader's skin prickled uncomfortably. "Understand, then. That is the leading hand. Our Master's is the only leading hand. We have transcended the control of all powers but power itself, and you should feel pride. You are the chosen."



"I don't want to be controlled," she snarled. "Not by you, not by anyone. Why would you want that?"



Vader's anger flared through him, hot and quick. "You will come to appreciate the wisdom of his vision in time," he snapped. "His training is less unpleasant if you do not resist it. That is when the Dark Side is strongest with you.”



"That's what he wants!" Leia screamed. "He wants me to—to—be his."



There had been an end to that sentence, something the girl had meant to say; but she lost the strength to finish, and somehow the broken-off pitiful end of it was more poignant than any words she could have said.



Vader jabbed a finger at her. "You breathe because he lets it," he said. "I breathe because he lets it. This galaxy breathes its collective breath because he lets it. He wants for nothing, because he is in possession of all. He does not want for you to be his. He has you. The stars tilt to his axis, the light falls to his command, and this is for the best. It is all for the best. We are as he wants, and that is how it will be."



Leia screamed wordlessly, and slammed her hands into her temples—over and over and over, until Vader closed the softest thread of the Force he could muster around her wrists. Something about the gesture—her desperation clawing up his throat, how loudly she screamed it through the Force, how she used it against him as keenly as someone would a blade—it unnerved him, left him unsettled, even nauseous. She was but a girl. He had been a child, when he had met his Master, but Leia had known the illusion of freedom, had lived a scrap of a childhood on Alderaan in idyllic peace. She was not made for the brutal truth. It unsettled Vader; he himself was cruel, he himself was malevolent and wicked, and he did not understand where and why he was unsettled. He had murdered children that were Leia’s age, mercilessly. He heard their screams at all hours, in the back of his mind, their screams of terror and pain.



"I want to go home!" she howled, straining against invisible restraints. She bucked and kicked, but her wrists were not freed. He did not let them go. Causing herself a head injury after receiving their Master's attentions would, undoubtedly, worsen her state. "Let me go! Take me back, take me back, I hate you—take me back! I want my—I want my—let me go!"



Her voice had risen to an unreasonable pitch, and Vader lowered his hand and his grip in the Force. I want my parents, she had almost said. Leia's pain lashed him like a whip, but deeper, somewhere hidden mostly from himself, it lashed like the sharp pain of his mother's sweaty hands on open lashes, his mumbled I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry—the weakness. It struck him like lightning.



"If you disappear to return to them, they will die," Vader said, evenly. This I have lived, he did not say, but he might as well have, for how raw he felt after he spoke. His Master had told him, not too long after his rebuilding, that he had known from the very first that Vader would be his. His Master had told him that he had arranged for the death of Anakin’s mother, had paid a fine sum not for her life, but for what Anakin would do when it was taken. The days after had been a strange haze of fury, until, finally, Vader had centered himself, and known deep in his soul that even if his fate was not carved in the stars, there was nowhere he could have run that his Master would not have found him. If it was not carved in the stars by their nature, it was carved there by his Master, who controlled them all.



Leia choked on her breath. "Don't—please don't, they can't, they—"



"They will not be harmed, because you will not return to them," Vader said.



Leia screamed wordlessly again, and, compelled by—compelled by some deep memory of a dark-haired girl, his love's cousin, young and upset, or by the memory of a girl with bright blue eyes, gifted in the Force and gifted in jar'kai but far too trusting—Vader stepped back from the doorway and raised another hand, calling the Force to him. He pulled the writhing teeth and talons out of the Dark, and commanded warmth, and heaviness, and tried to recall the oldest of his memories—the darkness off his mother's shawl, and the soft roughness of her touch, and even perhaps the sting of salty sweat in grit-ridden wounds.



"When you are sound, we will discuss further," Vader said, stilted even to his own ears, and he backed away and strode back to the foyer of her quarters, abandoning Leia to the Force swaddled about her. She remained raw like an exposed nerve in his chest, her pain sharpening into the physical, her thrumming ache and heartsickness simmering slowly back into the grooves in her it had dug; but she had control over the tides of it, and that was where the strength was hidden.



Eventually, she tapped the expanse of the Force between them, and he pulled back his own presence to allow the cool, carving river of hers to flicker back to life. Several moments later, she wandered cautiously into the foyer, for once squarely in his field of vision, rather than beneath it, or caught in his peripheral. He almost always sensed Leia, rather than saw her—she had always taken to hiding in his blind spots—but his sight was far from useful to him, and she knew well enough that being invisible to him would not hide her from the Force.



"I didn't know you were supposed to be here today," she said, softly.



Vader considered her. There was a dark blotch on her cheek. He could not discern if it was blood or a bruise. "It was not intended. The situation on Sirulara resolved far more quickly than anticipated."



"Because you killed the ruling council, the way you'd wanted to," she said.



Vader inclined his helmet. "I kill traitors and I kill fools."



Leia scrubbed at her eyes. She looked impossibly young—she was still only thirteen standard, though she felt so much older to his senses. In her heart she had seen more, faced more. The gesture made something in him clench even then—for the hundred thousandth time since he had known her, he imagined a different life, a better life, and a happier girl with a happier mother. "I don't want to think about it," she mumbled.



"Then do not. It is simple. You are injured?"



Leia shivered. "Nothing I can't—nothing I can't handle."



Vader shifted his weight. Several months ago the open wounds studding his left stump had become dangerously infected, and since rigorous debridement, what was left had become more sensitive—the ache fired more fiercely. Sometimes he fantasized he could feel the shaved edge of his bone shattering through ragged end of it. "Do not impair your functioning. Request a medical droid, and be done with it."



He would leave, when it entered. The sight of such unforgiving metal—intolerable. Too many times, he had looked into such a sculpted mask, too many times it had been—he would leave.



"Not now," she said, in a small voice.



"As you wish."



Leia stared at him a breadth longer. "What I saw," she began.



"You did not see," Vader snapped. "It was, as all foregone things are, inconsequential. Do not dwell on the inconsequential."



"Fine," she hissed. "Maybe you're okay with it. Maybe you're fine with that creature ripping you open whenever he feels like it, maybe you're just lovely being his chewtoy, maybe—maybe you can just take it—but I can't, I can't, and if I can't get out, I want to turn it off. I want to not care at all. How do you do it?"



Vader stilled for what he felt was an eternity, his mind carefully, and constantly, blank. Before he could understand what he was saying, he was speaking, perhaps from the part of himself that remembered the lashes, and the stinging sweat. "In the Tatooini dialect of Huttese, there are two words for anooba pups," he said. "One for the domesticated working animal, one for the wild creature. A wild anooba pup is a small beast of ferocious promise. It will lose its milkteeth and it will become a predator of brutal capability. The sounds that arrange together to create your name exist in a hundred languages in that same order, but in that one, the word for a wild-born pup is layuh. So I would not strip you of your promise, were I your teacher."


He did not say Master. It would have been heresy, because the title of Master was reserved only for the Sith Master. Sith Apprentices had taken adherents many times in the long and bloody history of the Sith, but they would never allow themselves to be referred to as Master. He said teacher, though that ought not have been the word, either—it was far too much like the way of the Jedi, the way that he had massacred, until all that was left were smoking corpses and runaways too terrified to breathe their own names.



"That is your promise. Your fury. I would not take it from you. I would give it use," Vader clarified, after a beat of her silence. She would do well, given the care; she needed focus, and purpose, she needed walls beyond the Emperor's and a service to him that was not always beholden to his heel. She would be a fine adherent, finer than any Inquisitor before her, blessed with power and rage and a curious boldness that was the byproduct of grace under pressure. The Dark would suit her well, if she were given a chance to give herself to it. The errant thought—the wild, half-second image of his Master's decapitated head, with Leia established as a Sith Lord in full, no mere acolyte, no mere adherent, but a Lord of Darkness—he would deny having until he was dead. But for one wild, agonizing half-second, all he felt was joy and greed.



Leia stared at him. "You'd just be the same, then," she hissed. "You'd carve my back into ribbons while I screamed and laugh about it and it'd be—it'd be—"



"I have differences in methods," Vader interrupted. He was strangely grateful she had not felt their Master's Sith Lightning, as of yet—or at least, he believed she had not, because he had not seen the marks it left behind.



Leia buried her face in her hands. "I want out," she said, tiredly.



"Do we not all yearn for the impossible," Vader said. "Your back. You are bleeding."



The Force rang with it. Her shoulders slumped. "It was about control," she said. "I wasn't supposed to move. I couldn't—I couldn't help it, and he—you know."



Vader pointed to the rounded, half-circle couch. "Sit on the back of it," he said. "I will hail a medical droid. You will wait."



"I don't," and then she stopped, sucked in a breath, and said, "I don't want you to leave. He's the only one outside of you I ever get talk to, and I can't—I can't. It can't be just me and him. I'll take anything."



Vader paused. "I am not known for my stellar company."



It can't be just me and him, he thought, idly. Once, had told his Master secrets he wouldn't have breathed about with anyone else he'd loved. Once, the idea of his Master, and himself—the two of them, alone—would not have seemed so horrendously bleak. It would have seemed, even, a generous respite. His Master was such a gifted liar.



"You see my problem," she sneered, even as she gingerly pulled herself up and sat on the back edge of the couch.



"I do not," Vader said, slowly. "I do not—yes. I will stay."



"You say things like they make sense," Leia muttered.



Vader pressed the button that would hail a Palace medical droid on the side-door interface, just a flick of the Force—the stumps of his legs were slick and sticky with old and new blood, raw and worn from overuse and the months it had been since his last debridement. Part of the reason he was on Coruscant at all was his overdue debridement, a procedure he was successfully delaying the longer he entertained his Master by dallying with the former Princess of Alderaan. He was, however, attempting to avoid unnecessary motion.



He pulled back the Darkness again, ripping out its teeth, declawing it, sending a gentle brush of it to sense the state of Leia's back. He felt the heat of fresh wounds, already red-rimmed and swelling, and the blood dried to the cloth of her black robes. She could sense his prying—he used to have more confidence in her ability to ward him off, but these days, these days she was glassy and dull and keeled even to him, at times. The truth was that she was not always the wildborn anooba pup he had met; some days, she was blank, and listless, and he loathed it, maybe more than he should, for reasons he couldn’t entirely explain. But tonight, she was comfortably spiteful, her own strength hovering near his, a silent and indomitable reminder that if he strayed too far, she would fight back. Touch me with that hand, and I will take it, he'd heard her snarl, once, at one of the Royal Guard. He preferred the image of Leia with a bleeding, rough-hewn hand in her teeth, than the one with the low eyes that mumbled, yes, Master, no, Master.



"We will need to soak it," he said, finally.



"You could just rip it off."



Vader's respirator cycled once, evenly. "I will not," he said, and turned on his heel, stalking towards her washroom. It was down a darkened side hall, the doorway to the washroom proper neither tall nor wide enough to permit him, so he raised and filled a cup with the Force and carried it to his own hand. After a moment's thought, it was joined by a folded cloth. He twisted—turning a circle in place to start back down the hall—and returned to a Leia scowling over her shoulder.



"The meddroid will be here," she said.



Vader came to an abrupt stop behind her, and, unceremoniously, dumped the water down her back. She yelped, loudly, and then Vader said, "The medical droid will not do this."



"I would hope not!" she snapped. She curled forward and cupped her elbows. "A little warning, next time. That was cold.”



Vader held out a hand. With the Force, he called on the water—molecule by molecule—and held it to the dried, scabbed blood on her back. It would be easier for him to split his concentration, hold it, warp the water himself, than to prepare a proper soak. It would function similarly.



"Do you use the Force for everything," she said.


"There is no reason not to."



"I hate it," she whispered. "I want it out. I don't want to sense him all the time. I wish he'd never—I wish I'd never even been here, at all, because it'd be better than—"



"Such things are not worth considering," Vader said. "The Force gives you power."



He had once begged Obi-Wan Kenobi to strip his sensitivity to the Force away, because of how badly it burned in his mind, the overwhelming effort it took to attempt to think around the screaming. The memory prodded him, but it was immaterial.



"And what power do you have," she said.



Vader growled. The vocoder spat out static. "Caution yourself," he said. "Poking a monster that stands beside you does not make you brave, it makes you a fool."



She shuddered. "I hate it when you do that," she said.



"Your hate will change nothing."



Leia shuffled, her dry amusement rolling through the Force. "Typical," she said.



The medical droid arrived, then, beeping an access code, the door sliding back to reveal it. Vader let the water soaking Leia's back splash to the floor, in a puddle of clotty, translucent red.



"It will be—more simple, to peel the robe back now," he said, flicking a hand at the cloth he had also brought. The Force twirled it across the floor, soaking the water, soaking her blood.



Despite the rawness of his stumps, Vader turned and paced the length of the foyer while the droid worked, injecting Leia with a local anesthetic after the back of her robes were cut and carefully cleaning each slice, stitching as necessary and then packaging the cuts in bacta. It was the skull, so to speak—he saw them so often. Hollow-eyed, he would see them with scalpels whittling away at him—peeling back his distorted flesh while he screamed, unfeeling, ignorant to every moment he begged them to stab him finally in the throat—in his initial reconstruction, when his ribcage had been remade, when one had hovered over his chest with a whirring saw and seared through the bone—



"You keep losing it today," Leia said, loudly.



Vader reeled. "That is not for you to comment upon," he hissed. "Focus on your healing."



"Your pacing stresses me out," she whined.



"Your temper tantrums stress me out," Vader growled. "You will find a way to withstand it. Droid, do you dally? Continue your work."



The droid hastily dropped its mask and settled back into work. It was an hour or so, a tense one, but finally the droid did one last wipe-down of the afflicted area and packed on the final bandages, and then Vader stopped it before it left and pulled the latch that activated a general memory wipe.



"You didn't have to do that," she said.



"My Master is of the belief that I am here to enjoy your suffering, not allow you to ease it," Vader said, shoving the droid mid-wipe into the hall. "Appearances must be maintained."



Leia was still huddled on the edge of the couch, her arms wrapped around her chest. Vader's eyes, poor though they were, snagged on the sharp jut of her shoulders, the deep crevice of her breastbone, the shadows carved beneath her cheekbones. Had he watched the droid work, he would have seen ribs pressed hard through her skin, the hills and valleys of a too-visible spinal cord. Rage, hot and heavy, funneled through him like a storm; control he understood, his Master's unpleasantness he lived and knew and understood, but to starve the girl this young seemed patently cruel. His Master had taught Vader how to subsist without sustenance, had withheld it to do so, but with Leia's training so preliminary—so untied to the Force—it was purposeless, it was pointless. It was all pointless—she was an adherent, a servant for when Vader could not be available, what purpose did their Master have in training her as brutally as he had trained Vader? A waste of time—and a waste of a girl, because such rigorous training so early would only dig her an early grave.



She was shivering, and still staring at him.



"There is potential," Vader said. "In you, to be a proper Sith adherent. But he is the Emperor, and perhaps he is not investing in you—the way that—perhaps there is another way. He is but one man before the galaxy. He does not—have the time."



"Another way," she said, dully.



"There are two Sith," Vader said, carefully. "I can train an adherent. I have trained the Inquisitorius. The precedent is there. It is not against the ways of the Sith. It would be a matter of... if he would allow it to be done."



Leia sat up straighter. "Tell me what kind of potential."



"I am not known for being persuasive."



"Get persuasive," she said, furiously. "And fast. Now tell me what kind of potential."

And if Vader had been looking for a place to begin, the fury that she held then, that was good as any.