Chapter Five – Padmé
I actually gasp at the first feeling of water on my skin.
It is hot, and the sensation is better than anything has been in a long, long time. I haven't bathed, really, for months, at least.Personal hygiene isn't a big concern when you're worrying about where to get your next meal.
I stare at my body ruefully, at the protruding ribs and dirty, bruised skin. Then, grinning painfully, I carefully slip another leg into the heated water. Slowly, achingly, I slip my entire body under, inch by inch. The water is quickly tainted by the dirt and whatever else coats my body, but that's of little concern to me. Sighing, leaning my head against the rim, I think, This is heaven.
The 'fresher unit is fairly grandiose, as far as those things go. Black and silver decorate the entire thing, top to bottom, in geometric, twisting designs. But beneath it all, there is a sort of pure functionality; imposed, rigid and unyielding. It reminds me of this room's owner, and I feel taken aback for a moment, knowing that I am washing in Darth Vader's house, that this all belongs to him. My mind, refusing to obey me, wonders if the Dark Lord himself has bathed in this very location.
I am torn between laughing and gasping at the thought.
Touching my hair, I grimace at feeling the tangled, snarled, impossible mess. The 'droid that brought me here left quickly afterwards, trusting me with the amenities of sink, bathtub and the various bottles scattered around.
I can feel some kind of instinct taking me over, guiding me mechanically through rituals of bathing, makeup and dressing I haven't observed in years. I feel accustomed to them, as if I am simply returning to an old habit left behind.
I scrub every inch of myself, until the grime and dirt washes away. It reveals the starkness of my condition; there is some lean, hardened muscle, stretched and scraped meagerly, but most of it is literally skin and bone. I don't touch my hair, can't even imagine dealing with it as is right now.
Finally, I rise out of the bathtub, leaving the water a brackish, disgusting color, and me clean. It makes me feel hungry – starving, actually. I suppose Vader will feed me, eventually.
There are clothes waiting for me, obviously scrounged together in a hurry. A soft, gray tunic of Imperial order and breeches, ugly and utilitarian. The undergarments are adequate, although I can't imagine where Vader found them.
I cannot help the sudden familiarity in my thoughts towards the Dark Lord. It is dangerous, perhaps, that I do not fear him as abjectly as I should. I can force myself to feel only a weary sort of anticipation towards him, towards all of it. His purpose for me will come eventually, and maybe I will be useless to him in the end.
But, for the moment, I can content myself with indulging in this, with tactile sensations and luxuries I do not know how to remember. It is all I have.
I see the scissors laying on the counter, waiting for me.
And then, there is the mirror, the thing that I have avoided ever since I walked into this room.
Taking a deep breath, I turn to face what has become of myself.
The face that greets me is old, but not haggard. Just... starving, in more ways than one.
My cheekbones protrude sharply, and there are lines around my eyes. I look ill-nourished, poor, desperate. My hair is horrible, really, all impossible snarls that I can never really hope to get out.
The imperial uniform doesn't really fit. It is too long in some places, and too short in others. The gray almost washes out my individuality, makes me a fixture in this place like the droid or the sink or the lighting.
I lift one finger, the cuticle peeling and red, to my lips, feel them with my fingertip. They are cracked and dry, but I knew that already. Smiling, I look all different types of bitter and broken.
But there is something changed, something different now.
The last time I looked in a mirror, while I was still on the street, I was too delirious with thirst and hunger to really register what I saw. But I remember the look in my eyes, the utter hopelessness and apathy. I truly didn't care, didn't give a damn about who I was or where I was going or anything. It just seemed... irrelevant at the time. I was more and more part of the underbelly, sinking into the darkness with each passing day.
Now, my eyes look alive, awakened, and there is something sharp and shrewd glimmering in their depths. I am not beautiful, in this moment. My appearance reflects age and cynicism. But there is still something, something that was not before, hovering around me, and aura. It is indescribable, however much I would like to pin it down with words.
I allow myself one more moment of silent reflection, and then, shrugging, I reach for the scissors.
My hair is now short and rudely cut, in spikes and patches. I brushed as much of it as I could, and cut off the rest. The skin on my neck is tingling, feeling strange and exposed. I also applied whatever cosmetics I found, but it doesn't really help, much. My overall appearance has improved, but not by much. I now look slightly less deranged, and slightly more like a fugitive.
Snorting, I look away. Perhaps I was vain, once. What else could Vader's former consort have been?
You're making presumptions, I chided myself. You still don't know... anything. And you promised yourself you wouldn't think about that.
Feeling distressed, my fingers itch to smooth the Japor carving, to trace its edges and lines. I inhale sharply when I realize that it has been taken along with the rest of my tattered clothing, gone.
Panic begins to settle in on me, and I dig my fingernails into my palms. That had been my last link to my life before. I had relied on it, had studied it in the late, midnight hours of the night, had...
Imminent fury rocks into me, hard and close like a glove. Vader has no right to take that from me, has no right to even look at it. Thinking of the last tie to my life lying in a garbage heap somewhere, buried, I hold back a small scream.
Not really thinking about what I am doing, I stalk towards the door. It hisses open quickly. Feeling my rage grow with every step I take, I walk blindly through Vader's home, not really knowing where I'm going, aching deeply for a confrontation.
Something tugs at me, a kind of instinct fluttering and pulsing. I chose to trust it, and follow the sensation through the twisting corridors to where it leads me. Everywhere I go the apartment becomes more cold, even more forbidding, and I feel a sudden, vehement hate for the elaborateness of the decoration. It is like gold covering slime, I think vengefully.
And then I am there.
The doorway is open to the chamber before me, but everything is flooded in shadow. I can taste some sort of acrid, bitter presence, lingering in the darkness. The sound of rhythmic, machine-like breathing echoes menacingly. I hesitate, the flood of my rage suddenly dampening. It feels like I am poised at the entrance to some sort of primitive cave of a beast.
Squinting into the blackness, I can make out the form of a chair, massive and broad-shouldered. Swallowing hard, I remind myself the reason why I'm here, and my anger reasserts itself.
I step boldly into the room. The tile is cold on my bare feet, but I make a very careful effort not to cry out. Every muscle of mine is held under rigid control, and every breath is an attempt not to gasp. I wait, seething in the shadows for what seems like eternity before he turns around.
The lights rise, to half-power, and I observe quietly before looking at him. This room appears to be some sort of a study, with dark wood paneling and a huge, pretentious-looking desk dominating the center. There are other artifacts littering the corners and the walls that I do not recognize, and perhaps do not wish to.
And Vader seems to be directly looking at me now, and I refuse to wither under his scrutiny. I can feel his eyes raking over me; my hair, my face, my clothing, my lack of shoes. Sitting in the chair does not decrease the daunting nature of his presence; it only amplifies it.
In one hand, he holds the snippet of Japor. It is dwarfed by the hugeness of his palm, and my jaw clenches to see it in his possession.
For a moment, neither of us do anything but breathe. My eyes are fixated on the small, precious necklace he holds, and I can feel the razor-edge line of his focus on me.
"Do you remember where you got this?"
His voice is demanding, rough, imperious. Biting my lip, I chose submissiveness as my response. It chokes me, a little, but the small snippet of Japor is more important than my pride.
Another silence. His fingers close, concealing the necklace from view. I close my throat off before I can make some sort of wordless protest. Biting my lip, I look away from him, down, anything to avoid staring into those inhuman, demonic eyes...
"Don't call me that."
It takes me a fraction of a second before I realize what he's referring to.
"How would you prefer I address you, sir?" It is difficult to keep some kind of petulant sarcasm from my voice, but I manage.
I can suddenly feel the weight of the responses he's holding back. The breathing never slows down, never reveals his hesitation. I don't understand how he is so transparent to me, at this moment. But he is, painfully, awkwardly so.
"You may call me Lord Vader."
I don't know why it feels like a concession.
He stands, then, towering over me. In the half-light, he looks even more terrifying and elemental than usual. I close my eyes, unwilling to give into fear again. Something hard and steel has taken me over, is supporting me even now.
"Do you remember where you got it?"
The intensity of his glare bores into me before I look away. I answer mechanically, as if by rote.
"All I remember is awakening on Coruscant's streets, with no memory of my past life, and it being around my neck. Lord Vader."
He nods abruptly, and then pauses, revealingly.
"Don't fear me." The words are sudden, and seem more like a command than a plea.
I laugh shakily, involuntarily.
"I'm doing my best, sir."
"I will not harm you."
The words are a vague sort of promise, and I relax. Tension flows from my muscles, leaving me shaky and exhausted.
I can feel him studying my sudden weakness. I wonder what of me meets his approval, and what does not. I am incredulous that he could see anything in me as I am now.
"What do you call yourself?"
"I have had no need of a name, Lord Vader. On the streets... everyone is anonymous."
Perhaps I am deceiving myself, but I believe that he sighs, once, quietly, and then turns away from me. I blink, casting down my eyes to the floor. It is best to behave as a servant towards him, for now at least.
A memory comes to me, of something Vader had yelled in anger and denial before he crumpled at my feet. The memory of his grief still shakes me, still leaves me confused and helpless, but...
"Before, did you call me... Padmé?"
The word is strange on my lips, exotic and foreign-tasting. I honestly want to feel something saying it, a quiver of remembrance, anything. But I don't, not at all. It feels like saying someone else's name, someone that I only knew in passing acquaintance.
"Yes," he says. The answer is simple, and weary. I see his head bow once, as if in mourning, and then he turns towards me again, extending one black glove.
He drops the Japor snippet into my hand, and my fingers close quickly around it, greedily. His fingers hesitate briefly above mine, but then he withdraws quickly.
"Keep hold of that," Vader murmurs. "It is more precious than you could ever realize."