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Darth Vader barely makes it to the hyperbaric chamber in time.

He has lingered too long, desperate to convince himself of his ultimate success. Able to tear his attention away from his prize only long enough to check the monitors, he sat loathing the sound of his own breathing because it meant he could not hear hers. Victory should be-- is-- undeniable; Padme is once more a being of heartbeat and life, embodied and

(caught)

enmeshed in the fabric of existence. All biometric readings are holding steady, healer's cuffs monitoring the regular thumping of that sentimental organ and feeding nutrients into a body which has been

(starved? one cannot starve the dead…)

held in a stasis of deprivation for more than a galactic standard year. Time, once more, has changed its character on him-- it seems to move strangely now, though so many things (including light and color) have always been influenced by her presence. Every moment has been at his back until mere days ago, breathing cold lava

(for there comes a time when heat surpasses heat and must become its opposite, as light disperses particles into everlasting darkness)

down a neck no longer truly possessed of nerves. This has been his eleventh hour, his last chance, but Vader himself is a creature of last chances. His eyes do not blink as they once did, so he was able to look on her quite fully, with no worry that some fault of the mind presented an illusion. The visor sees only uncompromising reality, and utterly fails to diminish her. He could not bear to touch her, once the adrenaline of immediate action faded, fearing his approach would only wake her with its irrepressible noise.

And yet…

 

He motioned continually to E1-OH with a hand that felt heavy, clumsy. Again, check again. The droid, incapable of surprise or judgement, obeyed each time. It did not remind him of what the monitors so readily display, or of the data feed so easily accessible through his own visual systems. It did not point out that he has worked tirelessly on the micro-servos and neuro-impluse simulators in his newly cast hand to ensure it can out-perform the fine-motor detail of the one it replaced. That effort was tiresome, in may ways-- he had years of tinkering with the left only to find himself forced to mirror those steps with the right, and the latter was always his dominant grip. Gone are the days when he crushed mundane objects unintentionally, when he was dependent on the grossly imprecise installations of medi-droids he'd have melted down to slag if he could.

(He can't. He crushed them all unconsciously upon hearing that she…)

No. That is over and done with now. He may look upon the evidence, if not with his own eyes than with as close a facsimile as can be attained for now. He had no wish to leave the room for even a moment, and he holds her image carefully in his mind's eye. Present, a mere arm's length away; Padme resting, hair damp and curling on the white linen, one hand flung up beside her head in repose. He remembers her shielding her eyes on a Coruscant day-- all of which where bright, the city planet all burnished metal gleaming-- watching him land with a party of other luckless front-liners on leave. Trying to pick him out from a distance. Or is she wielding something off? Her palm facing out to block an expression of fear which, even Padme was willing to admit, is something you must never let the enemy see.

Best not to speculate. She might have been shielding herself from some dream's intense heat.

('What is it you remember?'
'Fire.')

 

And what of that other sound, which came before he strained to assure himself that air passed between those lips? What of the scream (if it may be called so prosaic a thing) which even now echoes over the roar which is his endless and constant companion? The sounds of torture, the death-agonies of even those traditionally made exempt from slaughter, no longer move him at all. Yet he was always more… attuned to any slight against her, no matter how often she reminded him-- in both word and deed-- that she was perfectly capable of looking after herself. A man looking to violate the natural order of the universe should, perhaps, not be so surprised at what lay beyond forbidden gates, but no words or expectations could conceptualize what he'd heard. To speak of 'death throes' is common. Was it life-throes he witnessed as she lay on the table in her funerary gown, soaked in the bacta which had been his last ditch effort to buy more time? It's insertion into the preservation casket had been risky in and of itself, and ensuring her breathing passages were clear had added more complexity to a endeavor of already immense occult detail. He'd had no choice, and fears now he may have pained her

(again, again, for she could not scream that first time, oh no)

deeply and needlessly. Damaged her in some way that will cost him everything once more. He'd searched her face, absorbing the essential anima she seemed to radiate even in repose. A sigh, a movement of eyes beneath delicate lids, a slight frown; he had never been able to pretend she was sleeping, before.

 

He dallied, insisted to himself that in another moment, perhaps two… then he would leave her side. Padme will not, he reassures himself presently, slip once more behind the obscuring veil from which he has so painfully freed her. It is only physical limitation that eventually forces his hand, for seventy-two cycles have passed since he took up this incomparable task, and that which resisted her release did so in the utmost measure. But her heartbeat is steady, respiration typical of rest, proteins eagerly being absorbed through the bands. The medi-sensors show no signs of neuropathic, psychogenic, or nociceptive distress, and all neural activity indicates she is experiencing delta wave sleep. The dreaming variety, unfortunately.

Check again. He ordered, even as he left.

 

 

The chamber hisses closed around him in a series of three beats: atmospheric, microbial, and the final emergency fall-back. It is the same sterile medley that accompanied the opening of Padme's preservation casket-- such a quiet and prosaic sound, given the task it heralded.

"Padme lives," he says again, this time aloud, in the tones granted him by the suit's vocoder. It is not a voice made for awed whispering, able only to bark and boom. Yet perhaps that is better. It is… difficult to hear her name uttered by this timbre, but the statement itself sounds more concrete. Inarguable. Only half-conscious of the movement, he sinks to his knees with a swiftness that betrays its substitution for simply falling. He may rest now, having freed her from her catafalque.

'So you have,' murmur cold desert simoons threading through the back of his mind. The floor of the chamber is a pittance-- he can cross it in four strides, and it is much dominated by the chair he can not quite haul himself up to just at present. His hulking form must appear ludicrous, wedged almost in the half-bow of a Knight, though there are none under the antiseptic lights to ever see. The brilliance from above is almost overwhelming, able to cast only the most pitiful pools of shade to mock his form and, while the walls are the regulatory white of any infirmary, not a single surface gleams. Clean, of course, but utterly matte. What use has he of reflections?

'You have freed her,' the ephemeral, undeniable chill of the winds persist, 'but who can free you? You walk about in your tomb.'

 

Not true-- or not _quite_ true.

While the suit's biometric monitoring systems have been warning him of immanent collapse for over 40 minums-- bold, floating alerts at the corners of his vision, vermillion against the omnipresent red of the visor-- Vader is still too much of a mechanic to heed them, even under normal circumstances. He has suffered himself to have many masters, but the suit will not be one of them. He has pushed many machines past their endurance, driven them to performances others could only dream of. That the suit has him trapped, defines the borders of his world with physical dependencies is irrefutable, but he will give no more ground than absolutely necessary. If he himself has never been without a master, than machines have always been his serfs. If he cannot bend them for this vital task, then he is not worthy of Her at all.

He is reminded, with bitter irony, of Master Yoda's 'belief' exercises, during which the diminutive master would inquire amidst the younglings as to the difference in technique when using the Force to lift a crate, versus something much larger, like a B-wing. This question always elicited imaginative-- and sometimes desperately creative-- answers, but provoked from certain 'presumptive' padawan only a narrowing of the eyes. How the little sage would stand there, chin resting on claws resting on cane, his aqueous eyes so calm! The question was a snare; philosophical or physical, a trap is a trap, and any slave worth his or her moisture can spot one coming a parsec away. 'No difference, there is,' was the final answer, always followed up with a lecture on 'size matters not'. Once you understood this, once you believed, then everything must bow to the new order, or so said the old wizard. Metaphysical acrobatics, for which Vader has the least patience of all.

Has he not, however, believed this victory into being? He, whose constituent parts once belonged to a boy over whom so many in the Temple despaired? Their high-flung philosophy is now only a guttering flame, while Lord Vader need only summon an encrypted feed to gaze once more on desire made manifest. Any image communicated to the chamber screen is completely inaccessible to any command identifier other than that of his suit. The slightest attempt at an injection signal will cause the little infirmary to secure itself and notify him without delay. By necessity, the hyperbaric chamber remains in his shuttle while Padme is safely concealed in the bunker below, but he does not intend for this distance to remain.

 

Yet, having so assiduously seen to this monitoring, he now feels a curious sense of hesitancy to employ it. She rarely turned when he came into a room, particularly if they were in mixed company, but she always seemed to know he was there without looking. And he would know that she knew, seeing some slight alteration in her posture, in the atmosphere around her, or the way she carefully moved her hands to make a point. There was, Padme had said from the first, a weight to his blue gaze.

('Please don't look at me like that.' Sharpness sheathed in protocol, in the velvets of ritual, when really she seemed to be reproaching him for growing up.
Instead of denying it, he pressed further. 'Why not?'
'It makes me uncomfortable.')

Should he summon her image to the screen now, as a legendary mage conjures visions in a still pool, would she still feel that pressure, be disturbed by the palpable nature of his regard? It seems invasive to watch her that way, almost inspiring a sense of guilt, though surely his actual presence is more disruptive. Of shame, almost-- though not so terrible as the self-loathing he felt when he looked down upon her earlier. She seemed so small and fragile, despite her show of imperiousness in the 'fresher. (And he had only to see that look of willfulness, of careful truce and extreme-self reliance, to know Padme has been returned to him entirely.) Her gaze had been on him, curious and evaluating even as the flush of life continued to seep slowly back into her skin. Fear and confusion showed themselves only as wariness and, of course, she had refused to see her exposure as any sort of strategic disadvantage. He knew that look of old; those changeable eyes narrowed, accessing some puzzle within.

 

Sprawled as he is on the painfully pristine floor of the chamber, Vader finds himself yearning for the distant, calculating tenor that so typically characterizes his thoughts these days. His mind hums with the power he has channeled, considerations for the now perilous future, and all the strange uncategorized feelings Padme herself inspires with such ease. It occurs to him that perhaps this pilfered form, this conglomerate of spare parts, is not equal to containing his own essence-- not when it is ignited this way. Certainly, the hyper-oxygenated environment cannot repair or ease the damage done by channeling the Force in this manner. Under normal circumstances, Vader is in no way dependent on the chamber. Its function is restorative, of course, allowing for maintenance, healing, and the care of his remaining organic exterior. It is also more conducive to rest, though the latter isn't much of an endorsement. But he had done his best to make sure the facility is not necessary-- no warrior should allow themselves to be hobbled so. He has augmented the suit to self-sustain for up to three months. Despite the appearance of the chest plate, there is no real central nexus to the system, and so any superficial (and most serious) damage does not produce a cascade effect. It is not the machine protesting Vader's exertions.

It is the remains of the man.

 

Leaving the visual feed aside for the moment, he merely performs another check on vital signs, intensely gratified to see they hold steady still. Padme's flesh-- unspeakably lovely though it may be-- has already proven unequal to the tenacity of her spirit, whilst he is more obdurate than ever. He is now even taller than she, a grotesque gift of the Emperor's emphasis on the symbolic. The suit provides only the most vague impression of the tactile, a functional sense of weight and environment. He can crush every day objects in his fist, and did so unintentionally as he was adjusting to his new form. His control and judgement are better now, but he could not bear it if he damaged her.

('Again,' adds the sinuous little voice, which represents nothing save the machine-born obsession with enumerating all facts. 'She clawed at her throat, she sank to her knees. She looked and said she knew you not.')

The construction which is Vader must tower, must terrify, and there is no denying that he saw Padme tense upon catching full sight of him. Unnatural stillness, as if preventing a flinch beneath the chill of his long shadow. No accompanying look of defensiveness actually bloomed upon her face, however. Only caution, question. Dare he take this as some instinctual knowing on her part and, should she recognize some shard of her husband persists, how can he rejoice whilst at the same time purging it immediately?

He is therefore in a quandary of selfhood that would unhinge most sentient beings entirely. Vader is utterly immune to it for several reasons. First, the selfhood of any slave must be mutable, in order to hide this precious possession from (and prevent any damage by) the master. Also, unique to the foundation of his being is a capacity for will not dependent on faith or imagination. Therefore, he had commanded, demanded, of the Force, 'Yield her up, give her over. She is not yours,' with an audacity only one other had dared before.

 

It was hardly that simple, of course, as his current state attests. Thrusting away the helmet, he unseals the upper portion of the mast and flings that away, too. Huge gulps of over-purified air are drawn past the bothersome mouth-guard; the carefully regulated temperature still stings against his thin, scarred flesh.

So the Force had not stirred, had not acknowledged, and the boiling rage of the Dark Side only pushed his goal farther away. He then applied what he had learned with vindictive care, found stillness, and pushed. The galaxy's most impatient padawan (or so Obiwan claimed) exercised infinite patience in one regard. He had practiced relentlessly for that moment with whatever material was available, having acquired quite the collection of grotesqueries over the past year. (Thus inspiring some rather gruesome rumors about his dining habits amongst Imperial officers, as well.) Each cell, every youngling knew, has a midi-chlorian; each midi-chlorian generates life. Not just organic life, Darth Plagueis' teachings held, but essence-- a thousand tiny threads leading back to the opal-gold being he sought. 'She is not yours,' he had insisted, furiously calm, 'the way may be shut, but not to me. I am not the thief here.'

 

After steps more complex and arduous than he cares to remember at present, the Force at last had screamed. An ultra-instinctual agony that was unlike any disturbance Vader had ever encountered in the archives, let alone experienced himself. It had been wholly beyond the realm of comprehension, as if the ordinary had been altered in such a sudden yet subtle fashion that everything looked mercilessly foreign while being exactly the same. On Tatooine, there was a common saying, 'You can't get water from a stone.' For that thin sliver of a moment, the aphorism echoed in the Sith Lord's mind; paring into a rock as though it were a ripe fruit, or cutting into a breathing creature to find it was only made of leftover bread dough.

Vader's quest has been a constant balancing act of subterfuge and strategically applied truths. It was Kenobi who taught him, though not purposefully, that the best way to lie is to coat the deception in fact. He has told his new Master that he seeks power beyond that of which the Jedi could dare to dream, has demonstrated methods for prolonging physical agony via his gifts, much to Palpatine's skeletal delight. To think the Emperor would not have felt such an event such as this resurrection is the very height of lunacy. Even the dullest of sensitives would have felt that momentary skip in reality to some degree. Vader is on the barest edges of the Rishi Maze, but Sidious is strong and the apprentice's Force signature too evident in a galaxy now almost devoid of adepts.

(Once, a particularly nasty Dug told a young slave boy to go home, to stay off the racetrack and stick to rolling dice in Mos Espa's dusty streets. 'Off with you, meat sack,' he'd spat, 'you cannot afford to be here. Here, we play only for keeps.')

 

"I know that," Vader rasps aloud presently. He must expect attack at any moment, a siege upon the mind which-- supposedly-- must always remain open and unvarnished before his Master. Palpatine will wait, bide a while until he thinks there has been some loosening of bulwark, a lapse of judgement in giddy relief. With an expression of distaste he is no longer aware of (indeed, he stopped in thinking terms of his own facial expressions some time ago), the Sith unhooks a small feed tube from its compartment in the chair. He cannot be bothered to drag himself onto the seat, though, instead drawing the length of hose out until its small metal spigot can be held to his almost lipless mouth. The healers say-- or said, since they were later dispatched with due to their intimate knowledge-- that such specialized skin may simply require more time to heal. The nutrigel slipping past the abused flesh, however, is the only substance simple enough for his stomach to process. It has an oily, brown-green iridescent look to it that suggests an incredibly foul flavor-- perhaps it is something of a blessing that he no longer truly possesses a sense of taste.

"She is safe," he rasps to himself between hateful sips. "She is safe." Over and over again-- if it didn't sound like cryptic nonsense from his broken voice alone, it does in his frantic repetition. A statement of fact, and of truth he intends to uphold; as in the Nubian game called Devil's Towers, it is imperative to protect one's queen. False promises aside, Vader has never believed the Emperor disinterested in Plagueis' secret. The concept of extending or recalling life must make Palpatine ravenous, especially given his present state.

A harsh sound echoes in the white and unreflective chamber. A terrible little warble so decayed it takes Vader himself more than a few moments to identify it as the sick remains of his own chuckle. It sounds worse raw than it does through the stygian vocoder. The sudden notion that accompanies it is so triumphant, so entertaining, that he doesn't bother to stifle the noise even as he motions for the lights to dowse completely. His laughter rattles, as he does, in the shapeless darkness.

The apprentice has succeeded where the Master failed, and by grace only of this: Palpatine, the great philosopher and politician has been looking for a profound revelation, the key to immortality.

From the beginning, Vader has behaved as any mechanic would, looking only for those tools necessary to hold onto what is his.


* * * * *

An old Jedi proverb holds that there are two aspects of the Force which bow to no being's command: death, and time.

Darth Vader-- that which was salvaged and re-stitched from the charred remains of Anakin Skywalker-- has now proven that this, as with most Jedi teachings, is a lie. Yet the evidence was only a side-effect of that which he sought, a road so long and strange it holds little in common with the clean, careful walkways of the Temple.

 

He has never been particularly concerned with the latter aspect, but the past few years have seen him become obsessively preoccupied with the first. Windu once argued, during interminable hours of philosophy review, that Time was lifespan of the Force and Death merely the reaction of all finite things within it-- a pretentious way of saying they amounted to the same thing. The image resurfaces, as so many of the moments from the life he has abandoned, in an idle moment, and is as easily suffocated as many of its brethren. Though his new allegiance and recent actions have proven him one of its most devoted agents, Vader declared himself an enemy of Death long before taking up the mantle of Sith.

('Some day, I will be the most powerful Jedi of them all. I will even be able to stop people from dying.')

Foolish words from a child more foolish still-- pathetic creature who accepted Obiwan's advice, dallying in the catechism of 'dreams pass in time' when his mother's life could have been saved. No Jedi can achieve victory over Death but, from the moment he wakes to hear those words

('Is she safe?' he'd asked. And how the Emperor had laughed!)

from his duplicitous Master, Vader had known he must grind that reaper, mortality, beneath his heels. He will not suffer thieves.

 

The man he was before had few possessions; it could be argued that he never even owned himself. Chattel as a child and a tool as an adult. The Jedi barely bothered to dress up their slavery, for did he not utter 'yes, master' until the words were a meaningless mantra, long after he was 'freed'?

He holds no delusions about his status now, having traded one whip hand for another. This master, many would argue, is far more sadistic and cruel. Yet this straight-forward malice is almost redemptive, and Vader has always preferred direct aggression. The Emperor is a man of myriad complexities, plans within plans, and manipulative agendas (much of which bores his apprentice just as much as dry philosophy once did), but what he wants is simple.

Power.

It is all and everything; Palpatine's deity and divine conviction, and the only instance in which the old bastard would bow his head is at the altar of his own all-consuming ambition. The many masters and often unfathomable (not to mention contradictory) expectations of Anakin Skywalker's life are gone now. The incarnation forged by fire has but one Master, whose promises have proven as worthless as those of the Jedi. The time will come; it will come, when the ways of the Sith have made Vader the warrior Skywalker could never have been, and the cycle of apprentice and master shall follow the Dark Side's ordained path.

 

Vader does not serve the abstract, nor is the treasure he seeks a thing of wealth or expansive domination. The walls he sought to storm belonged to the Bitch-Goddess Death, who was so known on Tatooine for her caprice and half-ruined face. A beauty to be sure, of carmine lips and eyes the color of deep pools one could never find on such a desolate world. But, beneath her cloak of sand, what she hid so coquettishly was not even the face of a hag, but something far worse-- which drove men into madness beyond telling. On Naboo, of course, Death is embodied much differently. A planet of such abundance could hardly do otherwise. Male; a stone-faced immortal, beautiful save for his great serpentine fangs, whose bride is the springtime goddess. This god procured his beloved through trickery, or so ran Padme's narration one night as she lay with her own young husband, close and shielded from the Lake Country rains. Nubians are fond of duplication and reflection; decoys, word-plays, paintings and murals which seem to change if the eye lingers too long.

She was sent back to Naboo to be interred; sent back to her people as if they had any right to take more from her after she had bled herself dry in their name. It smacked of Obiwan, quite frankly-- seeking to rob his former apprentice of the right even to mourn the wife whose loyalties he'd tried to turn. It pleases Vader-- insofar as anything pleased him, in those days-- to know the Jedi's machinations were what ultimately afforded him the opportunity to save the only thing worth saving. On Naboo-- as on Alderaan-- the dead are secret and sacred. The corpse is not allowed to decay until the appropriate elaborate and esoteric rituals have been performed, most particularly if the death is a matter of State. The process, depending on one's rank and familial theology, can take days.

 

How surprising, then, to have emerged from the pain-forge of his reconstitution to find so little objective time had passed! He had endured centuries of torture, days beneath the burning twin suns of merciless needles and nerve reconstruction. Only his screaming underscored the accumulation of moments, like the wind howling through the Dune Sea. This surgical agony had risen to a degrees where the aid was indistinguishable from the burning tumult which preceded it. All was betrayal, nauseous necessity, and the rage that was the lifeblood of the Dark Side. The whir and hiss of bone saws, lancets, and laser-scalpels became the screams and pitiful gasps of dying younglings; the new mechanical metronome of his breathing their constant refutation.

 

On the other side of this aphotic abyss, he emerged as a thing both unmade and new. He is stronger-- a fact his new Master had readily acknowledges. He is also different in ways which were not immediately apparent, and of which he is in no hurry to inform the Emperor. The mind which contained fully the memory of the identity he abandoned had become colder… streamlined, compartmentalized, and remolded into a perfect conduit for the hatred and anger which are even now his constant companions. This is a power the Jedi could never fathom, and it is no wonder they sought to conceal it with their teachings of the Light.

Three days comprised the whole of the surgeries that saved him for this facsimile of life. Too much time, if not for Kenobi's vindictive choices. Certainly, it was far too long in the eyes of Lord Sidious, familiar though he was with Nubian customs. Whatever method Plagueis employed for revival, Palpatine believed it involved the extension of existing life, or revival immediately after its extinction. This, too, has served Vader well; his Master saw no harm when the new Sith claimed the body, confiscating it to the shock, dismay, and general disgust of the Naboo.

Padme doesn't belong to them, no matter the delusions of the rabble. Her service to her people-- to the citizens of the galaxy-- had been for nothing, exercised as they were amidst ungrateful mongrels who would not listen. Her calls for change had fallen on deaf ears, as had her attempts to expose the Senate for what it was. And is-- under Palpatine, it is still only a show to appease the naive, though now it is fortunately drained of any power. She would have seen, eventually, how much better centralized power is; how the singular will of someone competent can so outweigh the directionless, conflicting interests of the masses.

That said individual must always be Palpatine is in no way a requirement.

 

Vader had been glad for the numbing, fiery support of the Dark Side when he first beheld Padme again. It would have been too terrible to bear otherwise. He is not unfamiliar with corpses. In many ways, they formed the secondary architecture of the Clone Wars for, although the majority of the conflicts were fought with clones and droids, they were frequently augmented with groups of Jedi and the natives of the planet in question. For years, the bodies of the Tuskens-- endlessly, exponentially repeated until they formed their own landscape-- had haunted Anakin's dreams. As the war dragged on, however, they bothered him less and less. Corpses became much like the mangled parts, wires, and gutted chassises of fallen battle droids. Components, nothing more. In this same way, he tells himself that the purge at the Temple was easy, once the initial bile had been fought down.

(It wasn't easy. It wasn't easy at all.)

Looking at Padme's body, however, had filled Vader with a near-religious terror. The cover of the preservation casket was laced with a phosphorescent webbing of gold within the vacuum-sealed duraglass; biological agents to assist with the maintenance of cellular vigor. It cast a dim, ethereal light on that beautiful, but inappropriately placid face, throwing its expressionlessness into stark relief. His Padme had never been devoid of emotion. Even as Amidala, or standing proudly in her Senate pod, she had projected an almost palpable aura of being-- of confidence and oddly approachable command.

That which composed his Beloved had become only an inert object, abandoned and blasphemous in its mocking similarity to the exquisite soul it once had housed. A doll, an idol, like the excruciatingly detailed milk-glass goddesses of Dubhe-- gorgeous, but ultimately dependent on the investment of belief. Vader knew then with absolutely certainty: he must not only determine Palgueis' method for re-exciting midi-chlorians; but also retrieve the ineffable substance that made Padme herself, and return it to its coffer of flesh. He became a man who sought not the mystical cup, but the wine within; not the Kyber crystal of legend but the light which shone through it, granting its glamor.

 

Only this potentiality that allowed Vader to endure. The value and aching emptiness of the object made its presence difficult to tolerate and-- because it was still the well-known form he paid homage to as both boy and man-- it exerted also a fascination and attraction. He has sloughed off many of the morals the Jedi saddled him with, but he still has his own (often incomprehensible to others) code of ethics. From this half-mindless idolatry, even he must shrink.
Only the tongueless and fickle desert gods know what Palpatine thinks he's doing with his prize.

 

Like many a miser before him, he then became possessed by the desired object, a portion of himself always preoccupied with its care and safekeeping. Vader, however, was also beset with symptoms rare even amongst the covetous. That is, torment by that which he guarded-- drawn and repulsed in nearly equal measure. He could barely stand to be in the same room with it, but the compulsion to keep it in sight was equally strong, haunted as he was by the possibility of accidental damage or deliberate sabotage.

He had kept the sealed bier in a central windowless chamber, ringed by the elaborate security and monitoring systems that riddle his Imperial apartments. Living retainers are not to be endured anywhere therein; the Sith is always attended upon by droids-- either of his own design or heavily altered-- alone. A phalanx of these he built solely to ensure the constant upkeep and care of a treasure which, while not living, he also refused to recognize as dead. Despite the spartan chamber, a hushed and funerary atmosphere quickly infiltrated the space, the sort of half-anticipatory awe and placid petition which were so common in temples on Naboo.

And would they not have come to her, the Naboo, if she'd lain in Theed's elaborate Necropolis with other legendary figures? Intercede for us, o wise departed! Take pity, listen… Oh, no-- she did enough for that in life! He has become her sole penitent, and grave are his sins. Yet he will rectify this; he will show her-- gently, as he should have all along-- make her understand, and the thought of failure does not even occur to him consciously.

Vader's mind has changed-- is changing, still. Some of this may be laid at the door of the Dark Side he has now so enthusiastically embraced, but that is not the sole author. It is his own maddeningly regular, unstoppable breath; the intersection of organic and the machine. The fleshy remnants are weak, despite still technically outnumbering their artificial counterparts, and those augmentations have become mutable. They are a part of him, wending even into his thoughts. It is parabolic-- he has progressed so far into absolute, cold reality that he has curved backwards to arrive at madness. He is unhinged because he has achieved the ultimate sanity, which no organic being was ever made to bear.

 

This change, at least, banished the final lingering Jedi response to unnecessary slaughter, and any pretense to sentient compassion. Killing is his primary occupation (not so drastic a transition, from a certain point of view). Inspiring fear comes close at its heels. Beware, they whisper in the ranks of the officers, in the meager remnants of the once powerful merchant clans, amongst the royal hangers-on and nobility of the Imperial Court. Oh, beware the Emperor's displeasure, for his wrath is separate and animate. Draw his ire and you will find Vader, the death's head, at your door.

He oversees the siege of Ithor; half the population gone in three nights. On Deneb, he strides amidst streets choked with the bloated corpses of citizens exposed to poison gas. The Kessel Miner's Union no longer shouts its slogans, for their lungs have undergone explosive decompression from the expedient application of a Star Destroyer's laser canons to their oxygen reclamation facility. Kashyyyk is practically charred to cinders, its hairy denizens sold into slavery the galaxy over.

(They are all of them slaves, every last being in the Empire, so what does it matter if some are more clearly labeled than others?)

The Banking Clan, so foolishly seduced by Dooku, has been reduced to an arrangement of headless stumps, and the Techno Union Army is nothing but slag. It is a campaign of subjugation the likes of the which the galaxy has never seen. A wave of the Emperor's twisted, arthritic hand and histories vanish, cities are erased. Eventually, says the demon regnant, whole planets will be demolished.

 

The Jedi are little more than a fairy story now, treated as old legend despite their very recent extinction. Their mere mention is too dangerous, making nervous denizens of the galaxy relegate them to the land called Past. The Temple was razed to the ground, but even that was not enough for Sidious. He will leave nothing to chance, assiduously burning and corrupting every scrap in the Archives. But such total effacement takes time, and Vader has always had a talent for exploiting the blind spots of others. Secretly, he combed through the towers of tomes slated for the incinerator, searching for a word, a phrase that might aid him. That he was able to hide his quest from his Master is no small feat, but it is not really surprising either. As a Jedi, the creature that was Skywalker had been able to conceal his precious blasphemy-- the very love and possession forbidden by the order. Now he carries something equally forbidden to the Sith.
That is, hope.

That the well-spring of this present emotion lies in his old devotion is easy to ignore. The Emperor attributes the constant, volcanic fermenting of anger to thwarted possession. He thinks his apprentice has been broken by failure, and Vader is all the more gratified for it. Dangling on promises, is the Hutt saying-- they were fond of hooking their own kind up like worms, leaving them suspended over a riotous mob. Sidious had never known Plagueis' secret, and now neither Master or apprentice speak of that deceitful promise which finally bought dead Skywalker's loyalty.

Vader searched methodically, ceaselessly, but for quite some time it seemed in vain. The Jedi, of course, would never have openly discussed something as openly heretical as resurrection. To become one with the Force was seen as the natural order of things and the laudable goal of all the Order's members. Yet, once he knew what he was looking for, Vader was able to detect a few oblique references. Appalled warnings in regards to personal affection, an almost pathological fear of emotional intimacy.

Like many Sith, he had begun to suspect that Plagueis was once a Jedi. Erased from Temple histories, punished with namelessness by those he betrayed-- but not so completely as to destroy what became Vader's first true lead. Supplementing the official record had been on one crumbling synth-paper chronicle, so decayed it might have fallen apart before it could be burned. The author referenced an expulsion, held up as an example of Jedi magnanimity. The Order was gracious, they had given their brother a second chance. The woman he had transgressed with was dead, victim of a plague that swept up entire planets. Without her temptation, and with enough repentance, they condescended that he might return to the fold.

In that Sith sin of pride, the historian went on, the guilty Jedi turned on the Order and rejected the offer out of hand. It seemed his tempting outsider was survived by a daughter and, in one small passage, the censor failed to render her also unknown.

Her name was Bast.


* * * * *

He returns to her swiftly, of course. The gravity between them

(which cannot be seen and therefore must be darkness)

allows for nothing else. Vader's own rest consists of the vile protein mixture, twenty minutes of the semi-conscious state he must now call sleep, and the type of centering exercises he has not had to concern himself with in decades. The Sith Lord is neither soothed nor replenished by these actions, but he did not expect to be. The Light Side of the Force is forfeit, and the Dark invigorates only with its own elements. Anger, fear, hatred.

('Possession is of the Dark Side.')

True enough. And Vader does feel obscurely gentled by the sight of her, that well-loved form now settled in a true attitude of sleep amongst the rosy shadows of the glow-globes. Salvage, as so many of his gifts to her have been. These came from a Nubian cruiser, impounded by the ever-ambitious Captain Tarkin; what few personal annotations Plagueis left indicate it is best to stir… the patient's memory with the subtly familiar, all the while avoiding that which might be too overwhelming. At least, at first-- for more lurks in the undermind than even the sages may know, Plagueis wrote. Despite the heavy snow of sedative in her veins, it is clear Padme's sleep is restless. She had partly thrown off the embroidered quilt, while the robe has inadvertently fallen to expose one creamy shoulder and a hint of lush breast. The crushed emerald velvet is heavy and warming, but adheres faithfully to the curves of her body; here hip and buttock, there the turn of an ankle crossed over the opposite foot's arch. There's a hint of ripeness to her belly, where…

('Well. Some things must after all pass in time, and are best not thought of.')

Both robe and duvet are hers, taken from the single chest's worth of her possessions he was able to rescue. Palpatine has been assiduous about erasing any who refused to bow to his new regime, setting fire to many Senate apartments under the thin guise of spice-trader arson. That Padme, and a good many of the others amongst the Delegation of 2000, died along with the Republic is of little consequence. (And certainly those who _have_ bowed, like Organa and Mon Mothma, have sold themselves into a lifetime of surveillance and their families into a perpetual status of hostage.) Sidious' vanity is such that he must blast away every hint of the unflattering, as Tusken Raiders burn the tents, bodies, livestock, and all possessions of any rival tribe they slaughter. 'May even the sands disremember you,' is a loose translation of the victory cry.

 

Many of the items in the chest are either prosaic or mystifying to Vader. He has no idea which how many will have true meaning for her. There is a slim screen reader, along with a few volumes of classic bound tomes in Nubian and Alderaanian. (One of these had an inscription within which he could not translate, and he nearly destroyed it for thinking of how Organa liked to 'trade' recommendations with Padme.) A few pairs of slippers and articles of clothing hastily gathered or already packed, among which was the gown of a handmaid-- an old contingency plan, or did she have a more powerful premonition than she let on? Loose amidst these larger items are a half-empty bottle of perfume, data crystals whose encodings he has not yet bothered to crack, and a chipped miniature of a Nubian goddess he snatched from her dressing table.

('It's broken,' her young husband once observed.
'No,' she wagged a playful finger, 'it's lucky. I put it in my pocket for my very first exam, and I passed. I kept passing, even after my roommate chipped it during a prank.'
'That's not luck,' he'd muttered, setting it down carefully all the same. 'That's just you.')

There is also an old tin of embroidery floss and a half-finished blanket done in red and gold. The traditional Nubian colors for initiations-- weddings, coronations, births. Red is supposedly the color of vibrant joy. That, of course, he has taken the liberty of removing.

(For indeed, there are many things he would return to her. Opportunities that were missed and might now be recaptured, chances of which they could not previously have dreamed.
But not that. Alas, never _that_.)

 

The japor snippet was not amongst those items in the trunk, but it was easy enough to recover. Padme was wearing it still, when the end came (he may take some hope from that), and the Naboo intended to inter her with it. A little over seventy-two cycles ago, Vader unwound it from her fingers as he began the complex task of… securing her return. Despite its immersion in bacta-- which was hardly kind to her funerary garments-- it is unscathed. Like all products of Tatooine, it is resilient.

When summoned, E1-OH brings him the pendant, dangling from one of its many functional appendages. It seems quite small in Vader's hand, but it is clean now and looks much as it always has. The droid departs when waved away, leaving the room entirely. All of the Sith's creations require few prompts, and none of them are by any means verbose.

The necklace, for all its delicacy and seemingly diminished size, appears also to have acquired new weight. Vader cannot-- need not-- take his attention from Padme to study it though. After all, each groove is familiar, though the finger (in fact, almost the entire hand) he cut so long ago in his enthusiastic carving is now less than ash. How surprised he'd been upon their reacquaintance, to find she'd kept it. A few thin white scars from the Battle of Naboo were all the physical evidence by which he might remember her. He needed no such memento; her image stayed with him so powerfully it seemed at times he could summon her at will, as angels are told to have been summoned by those they guard. It was weakness to have kept the slave-boy's offering, but a weakness he treasured because it was hers. It was unusual for Padme to show her hand so, especially when claiming-- damning-- them both to be bound by their honor.

 

Secrets came to bind them instead, and silence, both of which he preferred. She'd felt concerned, at times cagey or unfathomably guilty for having led him astray. He could have told Padme he was hers before even Qui Gon turned assessing eyes on that useless slip of a boy, who so readily swallowed nonsense even Jinn was naive enough to imbibe. Convergences and prophecies and beings Chosen by the Force. If Fate pushed threads or loaded die with any of her many hands that day, it was to usher Padme's path just so. Giving voice to such sentiments would not soothe her, he knew; she did not understand that secrecy bound them closer, allowed him to own a little part of her that no one else would ever see. Or perhaps she would, in that mundane mysticism which came to her so instinctively, have divined the whole truth before he finished the first sentence. For all its greenery, Naboo was more a world of mirrors than even glittering Coruscant; doubles and decoys, mazes and hidden meanings.

 

While aware of the disturbance he brings with him, Vader never the less succumbs to the draw, taking the few strides to her bedside. Standing over her, he can see the faint frown casting itself on her features, the small noise of distress at the back of her throat. Her fingers twitch, seeking or tracing.

To ask for her name had been presumptuous; so much of her essential nature seemed so readily available that Vader had lost sight of practical expectations. What few resources he has indicate that personal details return gradually, larger facets of self preceding more intricate knowledge of events. Yet he had been gratified to see the half-conscious motion of her hand, attempting that elaborate shape that symbolized her. The two symbols he himself has barely mastered, though she gave them to him freely enough. The name of her true self, uttered on on one of Tatooine's innumerable, endlessly heated noons.

Though her hand is unconsciously open, waiting, Vader still takes a few moments to come to a decision-- or one which he is pretending not to have reached long ago. He reaches out, fitting that delicate palm to his own larger one, closing his fingers with the utmost care. His free hand tucks the medallion away in one of his belt's many pouches. The japor snippet will always belong to Padme, a token of that which cannot be articulated, but it has attained a new and dangerous quality. The potency of memory is not to be underestimated. A time will come when the return of the necklace is appropriate, but not now.

Standing there at Padme's bedside, on legs which will not tire, holding her hand with one that cannot feel, even Vader is honest enough to admit it will likely be a very long while.

.