by Grey V
There was a dark place at the edge of the river, where the roots of a tree had sketched out a little hollow. Inside, a boy named Palpatine shivered, curling himself into a ball, his shoulders shaking against the wet earth. This was his secret place, kept hidden from his master. He had come here so that he might suffer in private.
He always suffered, though the wounds from his most recent beating had mostly healed. His Master Plagueis was very good at healing, unnaturally so, but his healing never blunted Palpatine's pain. Pain was a lesson, Plagueis said, the greatest lesson a Sith Lord had to learn. Palpatine had always been a part of the Sith Order. He had been born to be Sith, and so he knew better than to let his master see him cry. For those of the Order, there could be no tears that did not mislead, no honest smiles, and no laughter that was not twisted by contempt.
Though Palpatine was Sith, he was also a little boy, and so he cried when his pain and loneliness grew too great to contain. There was a secret place inside his heart, small and dark, much like his hollow by the river. He hid things there, things like tears and weakness, things that would displease his master. In this place he was able to keep a few scraps of feeling: a vague memory of his mother, long since gone, and the kind touch of the little hunting greysor his master had given him to raise.
He'd loved its rough black fur and the sleek grace it displayed as it coursed after prey at his command. He'd found understanding in its simian eyes, understanding that Plagueis never showed him. The greysor had called Palpatine its master, in its own way, and the young Sith had taken great pride in its service, until the day his own master had forced him to torture and kill it.
"You must learn never to love, Sidious," Plagueis had said, using Palpatine's Sith name. Palpatine had barely been able to hear him over the greysor's oddly human screams. "Love only brings pain. Do you understand?"
Sidious had always known pain, and only briefly love, so his master's lesson was easy to understand. There was another lesson beneath it, one that he believed his master had not intended to teach.
I will kill you, Sidious had thought. Someday, I will be powerful, mighty, unlimited, and no one will ever hurt me again.
Palpatine shook, and gave a quiet sob, his rage and pain too much to contain. His master would sense them, surely, and punish him later... or perhaps not. Pain and rage were acceptable emotions for a Sith, after all. He shut his eyes tight, pressing his back against the earth, reaching out helplessly for the Force. His master said that the Force was an unthinking object, nothing but a tool to be used, but sometimes it spoke to Palpatine. It told him of wonderful things yet to come: the murder of his master by his own, strong hands, and an empire that would tremble before his power.
Please, he called. Please, come to me, I need you.
The Force came, warm and gracious, and he lost himself in it, sighing gratefully. Thank you, he told it. My friend...
It withdrew from him, as if to deny his words, and he gasped, reaching for it desperately. It was all that he had -- if the Force left him, he would be alone for the rest of always, and the thought of that threatened to destroy him. He thrashed against the roots of the tree, grinding the mud into his dark robes, crying out wordlessly. In his sudden terror, he could send only a senseless, jumbled plea to the Force, in which was encoded his heart's true need.
In response, it seemed to him that the Force paused, regarding him. I WILL GRANT YOU A WISH, LITTLE SIDIOUS. He grew still, hardly daring to breathe. Had the Force really said that?
ONE WISH, it said, as if in answer. CHOOSE WISELY.
For a moment, Sidious thought of power. If he had that, he could have so many fine treasures: endless, boundless pain for his master, total domination over every living being, and a glorious variety of torture that he could apply to the galaxy itself. He wanted those things, and nearly asked for them, but then he paused. He was an exceedingly clever boy, and wise beyond his years; thus, he knew better than to ask for something that he could achieve himself. Power would be his. He would take it, rip it from the very fabric of the universe, and so he had no need to ask for it. Instead, he should ask for a completely impossible gift, something he could never have otherwise.
Sidious opened his mouth to reply, but it was Palpatine who answered. The small, secret place in his heart yearned for something, something he could never, ever admit... but perhaps, because he was only a boy of nine years, and because he was speaking to the Force, it would be all right to ask for it.
"Please," he whispered, his voice cracked from weeping. "I'm so alone. It hurts to be alone. Please give me a friend of my own, someone strong and gentle like my greysor." Because he was only a boy, his wounded heart added, Someone who will love me.
Above and around him, the Force trembled, quivering with destiny and strange fate. SO BE IT, it told him, and he wept with joy. YOU SHALL HAVE A FRIEND.
In the years that followed, Sidious would come to believe that he had merely imagined the wish he'd made by the river. No friend ever appeared to him, and he grew up to be subtle and vicious, a wielder of great, terrible power.
"I could never have made such an idiotic wish," he laughed, licking his master's lifeblood from his hands.
"I must have made the other one, for look, it has come true!"
Many years later, Sidious shivered, his shoulders trembling against the cold durasteel of his Imperial throne. He hurt terribly. His body was failing him, eaten away by the demands of his power, and he felt that he would soon die. His throne room was empty of all but shadows, and he himself was the deepest, darkest one, his heart completely impenetrable. There was no secret place in him, anymore, and no room for wishes.
He coughed suddenly, curling in on himself, lung-blood splattering from his cracked lips. It splashed upon his robes, his hand, and the armrest of his throne; a little of it stained the armor of another shadow, one that knelt obediently before him.
"My Master," the shadow said, and of course it was foolish to think that there was any kindness or understanding in his mechanical voice. Lord Vader was incapable of such, made that way by his Master Sidious, who had taught him all the ways of the Sith.
"Master," Vader's voice came again, cautious and slow. "May I rise, my Master?"
Sidious wanted to grant his apprentice this, but he couldn't seem to stop coughing -- somewhere deep inside him, something was breaking, and he could no longer speak. His apprentice seemed to understand, and stood, towering over his master.
He will kill me, now, Sidious thought. I have grown weak.
Instead, Vader moved to stand beside his master. His huge, artificial hand came to rest on Sidious' sunken back, the touch as gentle as it was strong.
"Rest now, my Master." Not even Sidious could deny what he heard there, though it was surely impossible, as impossible as the warmth he felt as his apprentice stroked his back. Suddenly, the pain within him lessened, and he felt a rush of tremendous strength and energy. He felt the touch of the Force, and the touch of his apprentice, and somehow they were the same, both solid and accepting. He would not die, the Force told him. Not yet, not before he found his destiny... and when he did, he would be with his apprentice as he died, just as he had been for the last twenty years. He would never be alone.
"That will be all, Lord Vader," Palpatine said. His back was straight and proud once more, as it had been in his youth, and warm from Vader's touch. There were other words on his lips, words he could not admit... but because he was only an old man of ninety, and because he was speaking to his own apprentice, he felt that it would be all right to say them.
"Thank you, my friend."