Anakin awoke gasping, clearing the last of the bacta from his lungs with a strangled cough. Nightmarish images flitted across his mind, mingling with whispered words that gave him a new name and a new purpose. Again and again, he lived the horror of the... accident. He couldn't bear to think of it as a duel. A blue lightsaber swung toward him, the cold burn of its blade biting into his weapon hand. Then his desperate jump away... from the lip of the volcano into the caldera, clinging to a ledge not far above the bubbling magma until he lost consciousness. Anything had seemed better at the time than falling to his old master's attack. Fury fought with anguish as he remembered Obi-Wan's accusations of carelessness and lack of character and the madness that had welled up between them.
The rest, as they said, had become history. Anakin slumped back against the bed in exhaustion. He barely remembered how he had arrived in the med unit, the time filled with pain, rage, and a deep sense of betrayal. For the millionth time he wondered if things would have turned out differently if Qui-Gon had survived to train him as his Padawan. Twelve years he had struggled to gain acceptance from Obi-Wan. Ten years he had felt he never would be good enough for his master or the Jedi.
Sadly, he realized the end had begun when Amidala had accepted him as her husband/consort. At first, Obi-Wan had nothing good to say of the union, insisting a Jedi had no time for a family, much less a wife who ruled a planet. Somehow Anakin sensed his master actually felt jealous of the relationship between his Padawan and the queen. Though he might never prove it, Anakin firmly believed it but one reason for Obi-Wan's unspoken rejection and disdain.
He remember the other little differences that had continued to build and the only kindly ear seemed to come from then Chancellor Palpatine, who must have seen how distressed he was and offered to listen and help if possible. Palpatine had come to him, encouraging him to stand up for himself against his master and the Jedi council. Yes, he recalled bitterly, once again they had looked askance at him. Once again they turned away from his needs. Especially Yoda. That truly hurt. The complete wall Qui-Gon's old master put between them seemed almost palpable whenever they met.
Never again, Anakin vowed. He didn't have to listen to them any more. His marriage to Amidala had remained the only good thing in his life since the Jedi had cast him out. Now it seemed she had also turned from him and only the Emperor... Lord Sidious... would appreciate his need to search for justice. There would be time for revenge, but first he must heal himself.
Anakin took a deep breath, wincing at the pain of torn muscles and the burning of damaged airways. Though he no longer looked out from the liquid bacta, he realized he wore some sort of device to aid his breathing. Frustration at his helplessness threatened to overwhelm him. A deep, festering anger settled in his chest and pushed him to struggle from the bed. As he sat up, he found a pair of feminine hands firmly pressing him back to the mattress.
"Where do you think you are you going?" A tall, slender woman dressed in healer's robes stood frowning down at him. She looked...familiar. Ah, yes... Esme', one of Amidala's former handmaidens.
"I must leave this place..." he began, then realized he had no idea how long he had been unconscious. "What day is this?"
"Hmmph. Three weeks from when you arrived. And you're still not ready to leave." She shook her head at his expression, then gave a lopsided smile. "Considering you were left for dead, you're doing quite well actually."
As he continued to struggle to sit upright, she shook her head with a grimace and helped him to stand. He pulled the breathing device from his face and fought to breathe on his own. His knees felt made of water, but he forced himself to take a step, resenting the fact he relied on the much smaller woman's arm around his waist to remain standing. Slowly, he managed to take a step... then another, until he found himself standing before an open doorway.
Amidala stood there, watching him, tears pooling in her eyes. The healer muttered something under her breath, then spoke to the Queen.
"Your Majesty, I didn't expect you so early."
"I came to see my husband, Esme'. May I speak with him alone?"
He felt the healer stiffen beside him and sought her mind. Ahhh, she felt proprietary of him... wanted him for herself. Despite the pain it brought him, a smile tugged at his mouth. So, he might be maimed, but at least someone cared for him. Unlike his wife, who had abandoned him. Or so he had thought. He straightened away from the healer and deliberately walked toward Amidala.
She didn't wait for him, but went to sit in one of the chairs, looking out over the landscape. The room's view opened onto the plain beneath the palace, the air heavy with moisture. Anakin managed to make it to the chair opposite her then sat clumsily, his innate gracefulness gone with his injuries. He grimaced, then watched his wife, wanting her to turn to him, wanting her to love him again.
"But I do love you, Ani," she whispered, tears spilling from her eyes. She quickly swiped at them and turned to him. "Why, Ani? Why did you leave the Jedi? Was it our marriage? If so, I never wanted that."
"Am... love... it wasn't you. I couldn't take Obi-Wan's disregard. Not only did he object to our marriage from the start, he didn't want me to help you. Then too, he didn't want me to work for the Emperor..." Anakin paused, seeing Amidala flinch at Palpatine's name. "Not you, too. Why, Am? What do you have against him? He is from Naboo and has worked to bring order to the Galaxy."
She looked away again and when she spoke her voice conveyed such sadness, such pain Anakin instinctively reached out to her. His hand dropped when she didn't return the gesture.
"I know, Anakin. I've seen what he is... I thought he wanted the best for us, but now I realize it was all pretense. He doesn't intend for me to live any longer than I'm useful to him. During the Neimoidian invasion, I was his target, but his tool failed him. Instead, Qui-Gon died and I survived. He's never cared if all of Naboo was destroyed as long as he gained what he wanted... power. And I let him do it. He never tried arranging a proper defense for us against the Mandalorians and all those years ago I let him manipulate me into that vote of no confidence. I acted as his agent to depose a true friend... Chancellor Valorum. Perhaps that's what hurts the most. And now... he's taking you from me."
Anakin bowed his head, amazed at the pain he felt from what she said. It didn't make any difference in the decision he had made. He would still follow his new master. Yet he had hoped Amidala would return to him. One last time he would try to make her see that what he wanted was best.
"Beloved... he only wishes for order... for the chaos that threatens the galaxy to end. He wants justice and peace. I've tried it the Jedi way and found it wanting. Now I have a master who will see that the best for everyone is done. I've promised him I will be his eyes and ears... his strong physical presence to enforce the laws of the Republic."
And if you believe that, Ani, you are deluding yourself. He wants your talents, your strength to strangle freedom, not enforce any laws... except his own.
Amidala's thoughts reached him, her eyes filled with sorrow and reproach.
Through his will, calling on the Force, Anakin rose and went to her. He knelt before her, taking her tiny cold hands in his own. Together they stared at their joined hands; his with the still pink skin around the wrist of the right hand Obi-Wan had taken where it joined with a cybernetic replacement. A painful reminder of yet another betrayal.
"My heart... I would never do anything to harm you. Surely you must know that."
"Ani... I know you mean well... you don't know the beast within Palpatine's breast. He is greedy, Ani. And devious. Never in all the years I have known him did I truly realize what he was... until now. He has revealed his plan to me... he wants a child from you... from me. A child he can exploit and mold into his tool." She took a shuddering breath and squeezed his hands for a moment. "I want your children, my love, but not for such a purpose. What kind of world do you think they will grow up in? I wish--"
Anakin stopped her words with a kiss. A niggling sense she spoke the truth intruded and he didn't want to believe her. Somehow he must convince her she was wrong. That he hadn't thrown away everything he believed in. He hadn't saved his mother, he hadn't saved Qui-Gon... he must save Amidala and help his master bring structure to the embroiled worlds. If Anakin had any say the Rim Worlds would be a part of it, too. He hated slavery... how well he remembered growing up a piece of property.
She broke away with a sob. "Oh, Ani.."
"Hush, love. I'm not the man I was before, but I can still love you. Let me give you comfort... and comfort me." He gathered her into his arms, relishing her body against his. At least he felt alive again, for however short a time they had together. Despite the injuries he sustained he would have this with her one last time before he joined his master.
He rose, pulling strength from the Force, and picked her up. He quieted her protests he would hurt himself with a quick kiss, then lay her on the couch that sat against the wall. Pooling all his resources he used the Force to ease his breathing, soothe his aches and pains. He refused to let Obi-Wan's victory get in the way of making love to Amidala. She looked up at him with a crooked half smile, caressing the scarred flesh of his face with her soft hand.
"No matter what, Ani, remember I love you. Even if you turn from me... even if I must leave you... I will always care for you."
He pulled her close, feeling her hands against his back, stroking him, and holding him as she had their wedding night and the nights after. They seemed a million years ago and desire nearly drowned him. Though she wasn't his first, he had been hers. Yet she had come to him so eagerly, wanting to join with him... so full of passion and need.
Now he needed her and she seemed to sense it. She held nothing back, kissing his poor wounded face as though it didn't matter how ugly it had become. Though he hadn't seen himself since the "accident" he knew how he must appear. But Amidala acted as though he was no different than before.
He lay beside her and threw a leg over hers. The feel of her softness nearly drove him to distraction, yet he clamped a tight hold on himself. Despite his own need, he kept the pace slow. She moaned, her body straining toward his. He felt the heat rise from her to join his own as he relearned her. A whimper escaped her and brought him close to foregoing his resolve to remain unhurried. As he continued his ministrations he watched her face. Her eyes closed, her nostrils flared and a light sheen of perspiration beaded her brow and above her lips.
"Please, Ani... I want you," she murmured.
"Yes... I know... soon, soon," he reassured her, then continued his torture of them both. He took her hand and placed it on him to let her know how much he wanted her too. "But you must help me. I haven't the strength yet to do this properly. You must take the initiative. You must be the aggressor."
"Anything, Ani... just tell me what to do."
He guided her until they once again enjoyed the coupling of body and soul. A look of pained concentration flitted across her face and he knew she was uncomfortable with this physical expression of his love. He forced himself to hold still until she could adjust.
She lay against him, chest to chest, and kissed his neck. Ever so slowly he began, until tiny moans escaped her. Within minutes she rose above him in increasing need. Anakin ground his teeth, pressing his fingers into the flesh of her waist as he fought back his own fulfillment. Then, without warning, she cried out and he merged completely with her until she collapsed on his chest. Drenched in perspiration, Anakin's exhaustion caught up with him. He had pushed himself to the limit of his strength. He did not regret it, yet he knew he must return to his bed and his breathing apparatus soon or he would never make it under his own power.
"You should go. Others will wonder where you are and Ií³¦í°ust go back to that thing I need to survive."
She didn't reply at first and what he believed sweat trickling on his chest proved to be her tears. He looked down at her, meeting only the crown of her head, her long dark brown hair spread against his pale skin. She still hugged him close, refusing to let him go. With a sigh, she pushed away and rose, letting him slide from her body.
"Let me dress, Ani. Then I'll call Esme'. "
"Call her now. I need to get back to the respirator."
"Call her... I... I don't know how much longer..." He stopped, taking a rasping breath and struggling to rise.
"Gods, Ani... I never should have... By the Force, this was foolish!" She pulled on her clothes, quickly straightened his and ran for the healer.
She returned with Esme' and a portable respirator in moments. The room had grown dim to Anakin and the healer had to call for a gurney to transport him back to his bed. Grimly, Esme' saw him reinstalled in the unit, then turned to her queen.
"Your Majesty, we must implant a respirator or he won't survive. We've done massive reconstruction of parts of his body. His right hand, his left hip and part of his left leg were shattered in the fall and replaced with cybernetic components. His lungs were severely damaged from the volcanic fumes and I fear he may require a super-rich oxygen atmosphere in order to live. Only extremely short times away from it will be practical."
"Do what you must, Esme'. How soon can he leave?" No longer did she use Padme's voice, now she totally became Queen Amidala. Emotionless, businesslike. She had left him already.
"Once we manufacture the respirator implant he should be stable enough to transfer. Where will he go?"
"To his master... to Palpatine. Send him to Coruscant."
Farewell, beloved. I must never see you again.
Her thoughts rang clear, yet left him with questions. Why?
"As you wish, Your Majesty." Esme' turned to her workers and ordered them to begin.
Amidala watched for a moment, then turned to leave. She stopped a few steps away and returned. Wordlessly, she took his hand... his real hand and placed it on her face.
"Remember me. Don't ever forget who you are, Ani. Don't let him turn you to the Dark Side." She bent close to him. "I love you. Always."
Then she was gone... a painful memory of what could have been. And he was alone... scarred in body and in soul. They would pay. Every one of the surviving Jedi would pay and justice would be done. He motioned to the healer.
"I... need... to... see..." He gasped around the respirator.
"Don't fight it, my Lord. Let the machine work for you. Breathe as you would normally."
Frustrated, Anakin grabbed her hand. "My face... I have to see it."
Esme' frowned. "I don't know if that's wise, my Lord."
"Do it. Bring me a mirror," he ordered. She hesitated and he reached out with the Force to squeeze her slender neck. "Now... or you'll feel more than that."
The healer rubbed her neck, a frightened look on her face, and scurried away to find a mirror. Reluctantly, she handed it to him and stood back as he studied the wreck he had become.
Gone was the face he had seen reflected for twenty-one years. He had never believed himself vain, but now he had no reason to ever be proud of how he looked. Most of his hair had been burned from his scalp and pink skin covered a great deal of it. His face bore jagged scars on the crown and left side and the respirator covered his lower face. A cold rage settled inside his chest. He would become Palpatine's most feared servantíµ¢í¹³ fist of justice. No one would dare oppose him.
He thrust the mirror back at Esme' and contemplated her earlier words. He needed an environmental suit. Fine... he would design one that would add to his mystery and inspire fear and respect.
"Make it black... and the main part will be leather. I want a helmet and a cape... not that pathetic thing the Jedi wear, but a proper cape."
"My lord?" Esme' whispered her question, touching her neck as though she expected more of the same.
"You heard me. Since I must be a prisoner of this thing I will make the most of it. Bring me some sketches... I'll approve it. Until then, leave me alone. All I need is a data link. I need to study what's going on in the Republic."
"Yes, Lord Skywalker."
"And from now on you will call me Lord Vader as my Master has named me. Anakin Skywalker died in that volcano."
Within the week, Esme' had pieced together a temporary respirator implant. Anakin took to wearing his black robes again, keeping the hood up to hide what he considered his hideous face. The healer had conveyed his requirements for an outfit. All that remained to complete was the helmet. Until then, a partial mask covered his mouth and nose, protecting the damaged tissue from contact with normal atmosphere.
He shunned mirrors and spent the majority of his time planning how to confront what remained of the Jedi. They could run, they could hide, but he would find them. And he'd make certain Obi-Wan paid. For his old master had robbed him of what made him a man... His self-respect, his pride and his health. Becoming a Sith would return the first two, the last he could only dream of in his new prison of cybernetics and armored clothing. He vowed once Darth Sidious saw to the final adjustments in his healing, the new Lord Vader would rise from the ashes as the fabled Phoea bird had... Only he would wreak havoc, not bring the promise of renewed life.
Like a possessed man, he pushed his injured body to heal with a combination of healing trances and exercises. Beneath the damaged parts, he could sense his body toning, the cybernetics enhancing his strength. Impatiently, he awaited the time he could board the shuttle under his own power and return to Coruscant and his new life.
Amidala had left him to his own devices and he felt a strange reluctance to seek her out. After their last time together, she'd shut herself off from him... A fact which continued to pain him. He didn't really care if she agreed with his decision. That didn't change the fact he loved and still wanted her with every cell in his body. If she didn't want him, he would abide by her decision. Yet it pained him no little amount and he made a pledge to himself that he would continue to provide protection for her, even if she didn't want it.
At last the time arrived for him to depart. He strode up the shuttle's ramp, his black cloak swirling around him... Black as his mood as he realized Amidala would not see him off. Would not give him at least a last farewell. Esme' stood at the bottom of the ramp, indecision written on her face. Though he'd never asked for it, somehow she'd given her loyalty to him. He turned, giving her an appraising look.
"I would join you, Lord Vader. You will need someone who understands your medical needs. Perhaps... perhaps the Emperor will not begrudge your own personal healer," she ventured.
"Indeed. Very well. Prepare yourself. I depart within the hour." He spun back toward the shuttle's interior, determined not to think of Amidala and failing. His breathing rasped and hissed, becoming even harsher and he knew he could blame his damaged lungs only partially for the burning pain in his chest. He would not give in to the weakness of tears. That he put behind him. Never again would he allow himself to care so deeply for another. It only led to pain and suffering.
He moved to the cockpit, readying the shuttle for flight. Esme' hurried up the ramp and settled into the passenger area. Without acknowledging her presence, he closed the ramp door and fired the engines up. As his hands moved over the controls, he let the pleasure of flying take over. At least he still had that. Nothing could take that from him.
Amidala watched Esme' leave with mixed feelings. She understood Ani thought the healer had attached herself to him out of a misplaced loyalty. Little did he know that Amidala had tasked her with watching over him. Gods, how could she let him go? To all outside appearances, the former ruler of Naboo seemed made of ice. Inside, she wept and railed at the terrible things she had lived through and the losses she had born. This last blow had crippled her... Left her as damaged as her poor deluded husband. And that monster, Palpatine...
She shuddered at the memory of his plans to use any children they had in his evil schemes. It had pained her greatly to avoid Anakin since that last time. How many times she had stopped herself mid-stride as she unconsciously sought him out? Her body ached with the need to go to him, yet she feared she might unwittingly follow through with the loathsome command Palpatine had given her.
With wooden steps, she made her way to the hangar, arriving as the shuttle's ramp closed. He would pilot it, she knew it in her bones. Only in flying could he lose himself so he could forget for at least awhile. The shuttle's powerful engines lit and within minutes, the vessel became a disappearing speck in Naboo's cloudy sky.
"Farewell, my beloved. Farewell..." Her voice choked off and the tears she'd held back so long fell heavily. Outside the hangar, a storm descended, rain falling in sheets to match her weeping. Her steps slow and heavy, Amidala returned to her lonely quarters to contemplate what her empty future without her Ani might hold.
Palpatine had Anakin escorted to his new quarters. He'd moved into even a larger suite, though he had plans to build a palace... On the Jedi Temple site, if he had his way. But first things first. He must ensure his apprentice's loyalty. The young man knelt before him.
"What is thy bidding, my Master?" he asked, his voice deepened and hollowed through the respirator's amplifier.
"That you regain your health, my apprentice. Then we will see to finishing your training." Palpatine's eyes traveled past Anakin to the young woman standing behind him. "And I see you've brought someone with you. Esme', isn't it? Hmmm... Why don't you go with her to the hospital? I've instructed them to provide all the newest technology and you may tinker with your uniform to your heart's delight there. As my apprentice and the one to whom I will assign certain... delicate... missions, I need your appearance to be one of strength... One that will strike terror in the hearts of those less than willing to understand our purpose." He paused. "For now, that is all. Return to me once you've finished your... repairs."
He dismissed the young man, correctly reading the deep-seated anger and pain Anakin felt toward both Amidala and Obi-Wan. That suited him just fine, for that would help fuel the former Padawan's need for revenge and that fell in perfectly with his plans. Not long, not long at all and he would see the Temple tumble, its guardians slain and pushed into oblivion. Then, and only then, could he purge history of their sickly tenets and their memory. But first, he must leak 'information' that they had been responsible for the terrible things the galaxy had experienced in the Clone Wars. Turn the general population, sheep that they were, against the very people who had, in actually, worked to help them.
Sniveling cowards and dunces all. He would use their very distrust in the unseen to unravel the Jedi as the Jedi had destroyed the Sith. Indeed, he considered it only fair to use such tactics. Soon he would have the entire galaxy, Core worlds and Rim Worlds alike in his grasp and he would feed on the power, growing in strength until no living creature could challenge him and win. Not even one with the Force abilities he sensed young Skywalker possessed. The only regret he had remained the fact that the boy hadn't fathered a child on Amidala. Well, there still remained time. He could sense she still grieved for him and he... Well, that tie he would allow to live for a while yet. At least until he knew for certain something came of the union.