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Love Like Ghosts

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There are very few people who know the location of the Rebel Alliance’s base on Naboo. Even fewer who know the names of any of the people who work there.

So when Padmé gets up on a cold morning, the windows frosted and harsh wind rattling the doors of the large house that’s been the headquarters of the Alliance for nearly two decades, to see a package with her name on it sitting on the doorstep, her heart stops in her chest.

No one else is up yet — there are around eight or nine of them who live there full-time and always a few others from other bases stopping in, but Padmé always gets up early for a few moments of peace. Usually she just enjoys the quiet, brews a cup of tea, looks out the windows as the sun comes up before she has to close the blinds to make sure no one can see in off the street. Today, she’s just glad that no one is there to tell her she’s being an idiot as she picks up the package and brings it inside, setting it on the scarred wooden table that’s fed probably hundreds of Alliance members over the years.

It’s a sealed box, about the size of her torso and light enough to carry without much trouble, and on the top it only has her name. No address. Meaning someone delivered it personally at some point during the night. Padmé knows that means they’ll have to move the base, and it feels like a loss, even though she’s always been good at compartmentalizing and doing what needs to be done. Every other base has been moved at least once, but the Naboo base has held strong since the earliest days. For nearly ten years Padmé didn’t leave this place. Her children grew up here, under the artificial light, leaving only in darkness. It’s not a fully happy past, but this place holds more memories than nearly any home she’s ever had.

Pushing away thoughts of practicalities — what they can pack, what they should leave, how fast they can acquire another base — she runs her hands down the sides of the box, finding a latch quickly, and a matching one on the other side. Her fingers take hold of it, but she doesn’t open it immediately.

There’s a non-zero chance that this box contains explosives. Bringing it inside is one thing, but opening it seems a little too risky, even for her. Padmé picks up the box and carries it out to the back yard. Her bare feet are immediately greeted by a light dusting of snow and she winces at the cold as she makes her way down the stairs. The sun is rising in over the mountains, and in the distance Padmé can see the skyline of Theed, faint in the dim light.

The neighbours will start getting up soon, so Padmé doesn’t waste time. She sets the box down a reasonable distance from the house and doesn’t waste time in unsealing it, bracing for impact.

No impact comes, but as the box hisses and the lid glides off, the smell of rot hits her so hard she nearly gags. She doesn’t want to look at what’s inside, but the lid is off in seconds and her eyes are drawn in before she can close them.

In the box is a decapitated human head.

It takes every bit of her self-control not to let out a shriek of horror. She does recoil, falling back into the grass, the snow melting and soaking into her nightgown. She’s seen many, many horrible things in the course of her life, and this isn’t even in the top ten, but it’s unexpected enough that she still has to fight back nausea and fear.

She lets herself sit back on the ground for thirty seconds before pushing down the horror and nausea and getting up on her knees to look in the box again. The head is still just sitting there, lying on its side, the tongue lolling out. The skin is greyish, and going by that and the smell of rot, she would guess that the head has been separated from its owner for maybe a week.

Sitting next to the head are two things: an Imperial rank badge — Grand Moff — and a note. She reaches down past the nose, her stomach roiling, and picks it up. It’s brief and to the point.

Grand Moff Tarkin is dead, and you have your proof. This is a gift for goodwill. I would like to meet with you, alone. The Palace Square in Theed, tomorrow, an hour before midnight.
— An ally

Padmé stares at the note in baffled shock, reading it over and over again, for maybe a minute, and then looks back at the head. Now that she knows, it’s obvious that it is, indeed, Grand Moff Tarkin. She can’t comprehend the fact that his severed head is meant to be a gift, though. Maybe as proof that this ally is… serious? About wanting to overthrow the Empire?

It’s certainly one way to show a willingness for direct action. Padmé has to force back a highly inappropriate laugh at that thought.

The sun is coming up and the package is, if disturbing, not dangerous in and of itself, so Padmé re-seals it and carries it back inside, closing blinds and curtains behind her as she goes.

*

“You can’t go,” Sabé declares.

“I appreciate the thought, Sabé,” Padmé says, and rubs at the middle of her forehead with her thumb. She’s starting to get a headache. “But if this potential ally has enough access to Imperials that they can take them out… we don’t advocate for murdering our opponents, obviously, but you can’t deny it would be very helpful to have this kind of access.”

Sabé crosses her arms, glaring down at the box, her fingers twitching towards her blaster. Padmé can’t blame her. She’s had many near-death experiences over the years, starting with nearly dying in childbirth and culminating five years ago when she’d broken over a dozen bones falling out of an exploding Alliance ship. Sabé has every right to be overprotective. But that doesn’t make her right.

“Isn’t the real question how they found us?” Luke asks, craning his neck to look into the box. “And if they already know where we are, why would they wait until mom shows up in Theed to kill her? They could’ve already blown this place up if that was what they wanted. Or taken her from her bed.”

“That’s a good point,” Padmé says before Sabé can say something snappish to Luke. “Whatever this potential ally wants, it can’t just be me dead or this base exposed. They’d have already done it.”

“False sense of security. Maybe they want your trust, so they can find more bases and more Alliance members to kill.”

Padmé has to resist rolling her eyes. She knows, of course, that Sabé’s concern is perfectly logical, that it’s more than likely that someone with access to Imperial command wants them exterminated. But… she just isn’t getting a gut sense of danger. She’s spent the last nineteen years protecting her back, and she’s gotten a very keen sense for dangerous situations and people. Whatever this is, it’s just not pinging her radar. It doesn’t read as safe, exactly, just… not out to harm her.

“I’m not getting much malevolence from this,” Luke says, and then blinks, shaking his head a little. “Well, some, because it’s a severed head. But I think mom’s right. I don’t think whoever sent this means harm to us or her. Leia would probably have a better idea, but… well, you know.”

Padmé does know. Leia is on Alderaan, has been on and off for the past three years, training to take over Bail Organa’s senate seat as his “adopted daughter, who has been kept out of the public eye for her own protection”. She’d been the one to go, out of her and Luke, because at the time she’d been significantly more advanced at the more subtle uses of the Force, including hiding her talents at it — a necessity, since she has to spend a lot of time in the presence of Imperial Force-users in order to sit on the Imperial Senate.

Padmé doesn’t regret sending her, because she’s been a massive help to the Alliance from Coruscant and Alderaan, but of course she misses her — and at times like this, her skills would come in handy.

No matter. She trusts Luke’s judgement, especially when it aligns with her own.

“I’m going,” she says, and raises at hand at Sabé’s immediate disagreement. “No arguments. I’m going alone.”

Sabé’s eyebrows vanish into her hairline, and Luke blinks at her in surprise. “That seems a little reckless,” Luke says, more diplomatically than Padmé probably deserves.

“It’s what the note said and I’m not going to alienate this potential ally right away. You two and anyone else who wants can accompany me into the city, and keep your distance during the actual meeting.” Saying it out loud, she knows that Luke is right about it being reckless, but she just… she just knows this is what she needs to do. “I’m not going to argue about it. That’s my final word on the topic.”

And because she’s one of the highest-ranking generals in the Alliance, certainly the highest-ranking Alliance leader on Naboo, her word is law. Sabé looks mutinous, but doesn’t say another word. Padmé seals the box again. “We need to move the base. Get everyone to start packing while I figure out where we’re going.”

*

The next night, Padmé’s speeder stops six blocks away from the Theed Palace Square. In the driver’s seat, Luke puts it into park, and Padmé gets out. She’s wearing a cloak, long and heavy enough to keep out the chill, and two blasters hang from her belt. Another is tucked up her sleeve.

She’s gotten used to being over-prepared. It’s saved her life before.

It’s been a long time since she’s gone into a situation like this, and her nerves are singing, but her hands are steady when she tests the charge of each blaster and puts it back into place. It’s all muscle memory. She’s not afraid.

“I’ll send a comm when I’m done the meeting,” she tells Luke. “Get out of the city.”

He looks like he wants to argue, but seems to think better of it. “Be safe,” he says instead. From the backseat, Sabé nods her agreement. The speeder pulls away, leaving Padmé standing alone in the street.

It’s a cold night — it’s not snowing, but there are frozen patches on the sidewalk and her breath is visible in the light from the streetlamps as she begins to walk towards the Theed Palace Square. Her fingers are cold, even in her gloves; she flexes them and tucks them under her arms, wrapping her cloak a little closer around herself.

There are very few people around, but Theed doesn’t have a curfew — the Alliance has done a very good job of keeping quiet, to the point where Naboo is seen as one of the most Imperial-adapted planets, and its citizens are allowed more freedoms as a result — so Padmé doesn’t get more than a second look from the stormtroopers patrolling the streets. There are a few more people near the Palace Square, and Padmé melts into the crowd, her eyes sweeping the area, looking for whoever she might be meeting.

She gets to the Palace Square five standard minutes before the time of the meeting, and sits down on a bench that faces the palace. There’s a bit of nostalgia as she looks at the building, cold and lifeless in the dark. It’s an Imperial command centre now. It’s been a long time since she lived there.

Her chrono beeps softly on the hour, and she silences it, looking around again. There are a few people milling around. No one stands out.

Someone taps her shoulder from behind.

It’s only down to sheer luck that she doesn’t end up shooting the woman behind her. Within half a second, she’s on her feet and her blaster is pointing into the face of a Twi’lek, who looks extremely unimpressed.

“Padmé Amidala, I presume?” she asks in a strong Coruscanti accent. “Would you mind putting down the blaster?”

Padmé lowers it and slides her finger off the trigger, though she doesn’t loosen her grip. The woman glances at it and sighs.

“I’m here to bring you to your contact. If you would follow me?”

“I was told the meeting was here.”

“You were not. You were told to come here. The contact does not think you would like to hold this meeting in public.” She quirks a brow and adjusts her jacket. She’s dressed like an Imperial officer in cold-weather gear, but without rank badges. Padmé can’t tell if she actually works for the Empire and doesn’t want to be identified, or if she stole the uniform as a cover.

“Well, my contact is wrong. I’m not going away to someone’s house or ship. I’m staying in public,” Padmé snaps.

“You will not be harmed or taken anywhere without your consent. You can even keep your weapons. But if you want to meet, you can follow me. There is no other option.”

Padmé’s first instinct is to shoot the woman and run. Her second, calmer instinct is to tell this woman that she will meet publicly or not at all, and the contact can leave information at the doorstep of the old base if they’re willing to meet those terms.

But Padmé came here for information. Luke knows where she is, and can find her if she’s taken. And it’s possible that there is a good reason for this meeting to be held somewhere more private.

She doesn’t want to go. But it seems like her best option.

She loosens her slowly numbing fingers off the blaster and holsters it back in her sleeve. The woman smiles her approval.

“Follow me.”

*

It’s a short walk to the city spaceport from the Palace Square. Padmé sends a quick message to Luke over her chrono — moving locations, don’t worry yet, if contact lost please follow — and the woman doesn’t seem to care, which makes her feel slightly more at ease.

Only slightly, though. This sector of the city is very quiet at this hour of the night, with few people around — stormtroopers included — and almost no lights shining out of windows. Padmé can tell, by the time they get to the spaceport, that there’s no one and nothing near enough to hear her scream. If she’s taken, it’ll be up to luck, skill, and Luke’s tracking abilities for her to get away if she needs to.

The spaceport is closed at this hour, and the woman has to punch in a code to get inside. Padmé doesn’t manage to see what it is, which is disappointing, but she supposes she can blast her way out if it comes to that. Inside it’s completely dark and the woman turns on a light to show their way down the hallway, which branches off into various hangars. Padmé sees flashes of powered-down ships and large containers as they walk deeper into the complex.

Near the end of the hallway, they take a left and there’s a light at the end of the short corridor. It’s a door to a private hangar. Padmé stops for a moment, feeling almost paralyzed. Her feet don’t want to move forward.

The woman stops too and turns to Padmé. “This is your stop, Amidala. Get out here or find your own way home.”

Her tone strikes a nerve, which Padmé is almost sure was intentional. She takes a breath and continues forward, towards the light at the end of the corridor. The door is closed, the light leaking through the fogged window and out the sides; Padmé taps the button and it slides open. Her eyes take a moment to adjust, and then—

Darth Vader stands in front of her.

This time, she doesn’t bother stopping her shot.

Her blaster bolt goes into his shoulder and she hears a groan of pain, and turns to run. The Twi’lek woman is gone and the corridor is pure darkness, but her heart is pounding in her throat and panic is rushing through her veins; she hits a wall, turns, keeps running. She stumbles, clutches her blaster tighter, and hears a lightsaber ignite.

“Padmé,” calls an artificially deep voice. “Stop running. I will not hurt you.”

She turns and sees him following her down the hallway, slow and deliberate. His lightsaber glows red as blood, reflecting off his black helmet. His breathing is loud and terrifying and everywhere. It’s like watching death walking towards her — and, really, it is.

She starts to run backwards, firing off a shot at his chest. She’s about to turn and sprint with all her strength when he deflects it, a motion so fast she can barely see it, and the blaster bolt hits the wall and burns a sizzling hole. And then when she tries to turn, she can’t move. Her body is completely restrained. The blaster falls out of her hand, hitting the ground with a metallic thud.

“I would like to talk,” he says, like he doesn’t have her restrained, like she isn’t obviously afraid for her life. “I am going to release you. Please follow me.”

Padmé can move again a moment later, and Vader regards her for a moment before turning, his cloak swishing, and walking back towards the hangar. His lightsaber is still ignited, but she thinks it might just be for the light.

For a moment Padmé doesn’t follow. Considers running again. If she were younger and more afraid, less experienced, she probably would. Vader doesn’t seem to want to hurt her, but that doesn’t mean he won’t.

And logically, she should run. But she can’t lie: now that she’s thinking about it, she’s intensely curious about why Lord Vader, of all people, would defect. Or at least be willing to murder other Imperials. He’s always been the Emperor’s weapon and she’s never heard even a whisper of a rumour of this kind of disloyalty. If he’s willing to talk to her, this might provide an unprecedented opportunity to access Imperial command.

She picks up her blaster, hesitates, and turns the safety on before sliding it up her sleeve holster and following.

*

Vader doesn’t say another word until they’re seated on his ship. He serves Padmé a glass of Naboo vintage wine and takes nothing for himself, just watches as she takes a hesitant sip. It’s very good, she can tell, but mostly she appreciates that her hands don’t shake as she holds the wineglass.

It’s not poisoned. He had shown her the sealed bottle before opening it, and she knows the taste of most common poisons anyway. And if he wants to kill her, poison is immensely impersonal compared to a lightsaber.

“I know you must have questions,” he says. “Ask.”

Padmé lifts her chin, places down the wineglass. This is Darth Vader, but she’s in her element here: negotiations, politics. It’s been her life since she was a child and she is very, very good at it.

“Why did you send me Grand Moff Tarkin’s head?” she asks.

Vader doesn’t respond immediately. She thinks he’s staring at her for a moment, though she can’t see anything behind the visors over his eyes. “As I said. A token of goodwill.”

“Right. I’ve never heard even a rumor that you are anything but loyal to the Empire. Why should I believe you?”

Vader pauses again, for longer this time, and Padmé is about to declare this question a loss and move on when he says, “I recently discovered something that made me reevaluate my priorities. My… my children are alive and involved in the Rebel Alliance. I want to help.”

“You’re becoming a double agent because you found out about… about children?” It feels like a weak excuse. For some Imperials, sure, but Darth Vader? It seems unlikely. But Padmé makes a mental note to check up on her notes about Darth Vader’s potential identities. If any of them are connected to Alliance members, it could help narrow it down.

“I did not choose this life. I thought I had no choice. I see, now, that I do.”

“So you found out your children are alive, decided to become a double agent, and decided to prove your loyalty by killing Grand Moff Tarkin and sending his head to my doorstep? Why did you send it to me?”

There’s another pause, like he’s weighing his words. Padmé wishes she could see his face, because it’s very hard to figure out someone’s motives if you can’t actually see how they react to anything.

“Once I made my discovery, I began secret research into Alliance bases and heads of bases. Yours was the first I found.”

It doesn’t make sense — their base stayed hidden for two decades for a reason — but that’s not important now. Padmé pushes onward. “So what do you want from me? Don’t say nothing, because I know it won’t be nothing.”

“I want to give information to your Rebel Alliance and allow you to make more aggressive strikes against the Empire.”

“That’s not what you want.”

He pauses. “I would like to meet my… children.”

Definitely lying. Though maybe not about finding out someone he loves is in the Alliance. That seems possible, if surprising, since Darth Vader is not known for his attachments. No, he’s just lying about it being his children. She’s not sure how she knows that, but she does.

“You’ll have to tell me who they are, for that.”

“Let me prove myself first,” he says immediately.

“How?”

“I’ll take you to the Spire on Stygeon Prime and show you a list of double agents attempting to infiltrate the Rebel Alliance.”

“The Spire is a prison.”

“It also contains hard copies of sensitive information.”

Padmé considers. If Vader is telling the truth, this is a massive opportunity for the Alliance. She knows that Luke or Sabé would be shouting her down for even considering going somewhere with someone like Vader, and she knows they’re right, it’s just… she trusts him. She doesn’t know how or why, but she trusts him.

“I’ll go with you,” she finds herself saying, and hopes she’s not making a fatal mistake.

*

She sends Luke another comm just before they lift off. Leaving planet by own volition, should be back within the week, looking for important information. Will check back daily, send for me if a day is missed.

She knows he’ll be absolutely furious and might not believe her, but protocol requires him to listen to her message, so his hands are tied unless he’s willing to go against command. It’s not a good feeling, worrying him like this, so she has to hope that Vader’s information is worth it.

Once they’re off Naboo — going through the official channels is a strange experience, given all of Padmé’s years of illegal transport on and off the planet — Vader hovers around the galley awkwardly. “You may want to rest,” he says after a few moments of silence. “There is a spare cabin.”

“Do I know you?” Padmé finds herself asking, without fully choosing to. It feels ridiculous — where would she have known Darth Vader, even before he became who he is? — but she can’t think of any other explanation for the odd trust she has in him.

Vader is entirely still for a moment before he says, “No. No, you do not know me.”

It feels like a truth that’s still somehow a lie. Padmé considers and dismisses the possibility of confrontation. “All right. I’m going to bed. If you kill me in my sleep, please know that you will likely never gain access to the Alliance.”

He makes a noise that could almost be a laugh behind that vocal modulator, and Padmé gets the sense that it was startled out of him. She finds herself smiling, just a bit.

*

That night, Padmé dreams of a red planet and fingers tightening around her throat as she’s surrounded by fire and rage.

*

She wakes up gasping, clutching at her throat. It’s intact, and when she runs to the refresher to look in the mirror, it’s unbruised. She doesn’t know how long she stands there, trembling.

Mustafar was the worst day of her life. She lost her husband, she nearly lost her life and her children. She can still remember everything about the moment Obi-Wan came back and told her that Anakin had died: how the ashy air had almost seemed to choke her, how she’d fallen to her knees and screamed to the black sky. How Obi-Wan had wrapped his arms around her, hesitant, and she’d pulled him closer because any comfort was better than the black hole that was her heart.

She still understands very little about what led to the confrontation on Mustafar. She knows Anakin went dark, that he tried to kill her, and that he died, but she doesn’t know why, and she doesn’t know what happened after. She’d gone into hiding and had her children, and helped found the Rebel Alliance shortly after.

The truly strange thing is that she doesn’t think she remembers dreaming about that night before. She doesn’t understand why she would’ve dreamed about it now.

In the back of her mind, there’s — a thought. A slowly-forming theory. But she doesn’t want to look at it, doesn’t want to consider it, so she pushes it down. Goes back to bed, and falls asleep, and doesn’t dream again.

*

And of course she’s woken by being thrown into the wall.

Her head hits the metal wall with an audible clang and she nearly bites her tongue off trying not to scream. Red lights are flashing and alarms are blaring. The ship seems to tilt hard to one side again and then stabilize a bit, enough that Padmé manages to get to her feet and make her way to the cockpit as the ship sways under her bare feet.

In the cockpit, Vader is at the controls, rapidly flicking switches and adjusting controls. “What’s going on?” she asks at almost a shout. Outside, she can see — not hyperspace. They’re moving too fast to make out any detail, but they’re not in hyperspace anymore. The flashes of light and dark around them are physical things, not space.

“We dropped out of hyperspace,” Vader says.

“I can see that!” Something large and dark slams into the viewport and they both jump. “Why? Where are we?”

“A planet. I don’t know where, the navigator's offline. And I don’t know how this happened, but—”

The ship tilts as the lights on the dashboard flicker and die, and for a moment, Padmé can see the ground, distant below them. And then they start to fall.

“Hold on,” Vader says, and reaches for her as the ground rushes up to meet them and everything goes black.

*

The next time Padmé wakes up, the first thing she feels is the cold. It’s all around her — it’s inside her.

And then she feels the pain, and the cold doesn’t seem to matter so much anymore.

There’s something in her stomach, something large and sharp and jammed inside her, and she can feel herself bleeding out around it. She can’t move a muscle without sending waves of pain through her entire body.

Her eyes are closed. She breathes in and out, shallow breaths through her nose, and counts to one hundred. When she gets there, the pain hasn’t reduced, but she feels like she’s in better control of it. She opens her eyes.

There’s sky above her, blue with a few wispy clouds drifting along. If she moves her eyes — not her head, she’s not going to try that yet — she can see the snow-dusted tops of trees. Of course it has to be winter here, too. They couldn’t have landed on a tropical planet or even somewhere that’s currently summer. Of course not.

That would explain why her fingers and toes seem to be slowly going numb. It doesn’t explain the injury, or the ringing in her ears. She remembers waking up to flashing lights and something around her throat — no, that was a dream. Were the lights in the dream, too? That doesn’t make sense. She was on a ship that went into emergency mode, and crash-landed here.

On a ship, with—

With someone. Who? Her mind flashes to Anakin and she has to close her eyes to force down the tears that want to come. Not Anakin. Anakin is dead.

She considers, for a moment, the disjointedness of her thoughts, the trouble keeping focus, the ringing in her ears — head injury. A concussion. Probably affecting her memory, too.

Padmé!”

She blinks and goes to look at the source of the faint shout before a blinding wave of pain stops her. She grits her teeth and squeezes her eyes shut.

Padmé!”

This shout sounds closer. She can’t open her mouth to call out, to help whoever it is find her, so she just keeps her eyes closed. Keeps breathing.

“Padmé.” The voice is close. It’s found her. Under the modulation, she swears she hears relief. Tenderness.

Reverence, she thinks, and wonders where that came from.

Gloved hands touch her face and she opens her eyes. It’s a testament to how badly injured she is that she doesn’t move away when she sees her own face reflecting back in Darth Vader’s eyes, or whatever passes for them on his helmet.

“I’ve got you,” he says, and she blinks, slowly. For a moment she swears she can see Anakin leaning over her, and she’s struck by a wave of grief.

“Anakin,” she manages to say, and Vader goes completely still as he’s checking her pulse. “My husband. He hurt me and then he died. But I still miss him.” The motions of her jaw hurt, they pulse in her stomach, but she can’t stop speaking. “He left me alone.”

Vader stands. For the first time she can see his body, and he’s injured too: one of his arms is hanging on by electrical threads. There’s a smoking crater in his suit near the other shoulder. He seems entirely unconcerned by his injuries as he moves away and comes back holding a medkit.

“Don’t talk,” he says, and Padmé feels something pressing into her arm before a cold sensation starts spreading from that spot. “Don’t move. I will never abandon you again.”

She starts to frown, opens her mouth to ask when he abandoned her, exactly, but before the words can form everything starts to go dark again.

*

When Padmé wakes up for — the fourth time that day, how did that happen — most of the pain is gone and Vader is the first thing she sees. The effects of the concussion seem to have, if not fully gone away, been somewhat muted, and she’s thinking more clearly now. In retrospect, it’s very clear what happened — the ship crashed, part of it impaled her, and she took a rather bad hit to the head. And Vader dragged himself, injured and probably some distance away, to find her and help her. Now he faces away from her, using the light from outside to — reattach his arm? She can’t quite tell, but that’s what it looks like. She looks away from him and looks around, taking in her surroundings.

She’s in what seems to be a cave, and in the corner there’s a roaring fire that raises the temperature slightly above freezing. She’s lying on — something that’s certainly softer than rock and raised above floor level. Something salvaged from the ship? And most significantly of all, she doesn’t seem to be impaled. When she moves her arms, it doesn’t hurt, and when she drops her hands to her stomach, she feels layers of bandages and nothing else.

There’s a spark of light from where Vader is standing, and she glances over at him just in time to see him pop his arm back into its socket. Or something similar in mechanical terms. He turns and sees her looking at him, and freezes for a moment. The memory of his frozen shock when she said Anakin’s name earlier comes unbidden, and she can’t help but wonder exactly what that was about. Of course, she isn’t even sure why she was thinking about Anakin in the first place.

“You’re awake,” he says, and walks towards her. Slower than she would’ve expected — it seems that his arm wasn’t the only injury. “How do you feel?”

“What did you do to me?” Padmé asks. It sends a spark of pain through her jaw, though it’s much less painful than before.

“My droid performed rudimentary surgery to remove the shrapnel and begin the healing process, with high-quality bacta,” Vader says. “And gave you some medication for your concussion. You should survive your injuries, but it recommended that you don’t move for the next few hours.”

Vader pauses for a moment, and then turns away from her. “I have not been honest with you.”

“How so?”

He’s silent for so long she thinks he’s not going to respond. When he does, it’s like his words are being dragged out of him. “When you asked if you knew me. You do not know me. But you knew the man I was before.”

“Who were you before?”

She hears him take a deep, almost shaking breath before he speaks, and for a moment she almost wants to tell him to stop, that she doesn’t want to know. She feels almost sick and she has no idea why. She doesn’t want to know this truth.

But if there’s one thing Padmé has learned, it’s that the truth always — always, always — makes itself clear eventually, especially if you don’t want to know it.

“Your husband.”

For a moment, Padmé can’t breathe. The air freezes in her lungs, and she’s staring, she’s entirely still. The universe is tilting around her and if she moves, she might shatter.

In front of her is a monster. In front of her is her husband. And everything makes sense.

Vader — Anakin — no, he’s still Vader, the man he was is not who he is now — isn’t moving either. He’s waiting for her to react, but she’s not sure she can.

Everything makes sense. The suit was for the injuries. There is no voice modulator; it’s his breathing mask. And he had every reason to believe that she was dead, along with their children, and he’s always been prone to impulsiveness and poor decision-making; if he believed he had nothing left in the universe — his wife and child dead, his best friend having betrayed him — he would turn to who he had left. Palpatine. The Emperor.

It all makes sense.

Twenty years ago, she’d thought he was dead. And the worst part of this is that she can’t tell if that would have been worse.

“I’m sorry,” he says, after probably full minutes of silence. She’s breathing again. She’s staring. The pain is starting to come back. “I cannot — I do not have enough apologies for what I’ve done—”

“Do you have more painkillers?” she says, cutting him off. He nods and silently retrieves some. He gestures her away when she tries to take them out of his hand, and gestures for her to open her mouth. She does, and his fingers brush against her lips, her tongue as he places the pill in her mouth. It dissolves, bringing the warmth of painless healing with it. As he moves away, she can feel her lips tingling, just a little, where he touched them.

These seem to be the type of painkillers that don’t bring tiredness, so she sits up, noting the muted pain in her stomach and her head. “Is there food here?” she asks, looking away from Vader.

“Yes,” he says. “Ration bars. Some quick meals. Protein paste.”

“The protein paste, please. I don’t think my stomach is healed enough to digest real food.”

Vader leaves and returns quickly, snowflakes clinging to his cloak, and hands the food to her. He doesn’t try to feed it to her.

The pattern continues for the next few hours. Padmé asks in clipped tones for what she needs, and Vader gets it quickly and without any extraneous discussion. He gives her space. Stokes the fire. She wraps herself in her cloak — which he’d fetched from the wrecked ship, in surprisingly good condition — and sits down by the fire as night begins to fall on this strange planet.

“Why did you do it?” she asks quietly, watching the sky turning to darkening shades of blue. The fire and a few emergency lamps are their only light. “Turn to the dark side. To Palpatine — to the Empire. Kill all those people. And why are you doing this?”

Vader is quiet for a moment, but he’s spent the last hours being subservient to her. Getting her anything she needs. And she knows he can tell that she needs answers. He looks at her and then away again.

“Did Obi-Wan tell you who led the raid on the Temple?”

“No.”

“It was me.” He stares into the fire. The flickering flames reflect on his visors. “I killed the ones the clones couldn’t. I killed younglings.”

It’s not worse than anything Padmé already knew Vader had done, but the words still make her feel cold all the way down to her bones. Her fingers touch her stomach, instinctively. “But why did you do that?”

“I had nightmares. Of you dying in childbirth. None of the Jedi would help me prevent it, but Palpatine promised me that I could save you if I learned the ways of the Sith. But that was how I lost you. And then I thought you died anyway. My sacrifice — of my own soul, of everything I thought was right — was useless. I had no one except him. So I stayed. Until I went to Coruscant a month ago and I saw a girl who looked just like you.”

“Leia.” The word is barely a breath, and horror courses through Padmé’s veins. She hadn’t considered that. None of them had.

“Leia Organa. I thought it was just my guilt. I thought I was imagining it. But her fire, her passion, her resistance — it was like staring into a picture of you. So I did some research to remind myself that it was impossible, that she was the child of the Organas. Imagine my surprise when my most skilled slicers discovered that not only did she not appear on a single record until three years before, her birthday is also dated to the day after your alleged death.”

“Oh,” Padmé breathed. Out of all the things she considered an exposure risk, Leia being seen by the man who was once her husband was not one of them. Palpatine didn’t worry her; he’d always had a blind spot for anything that he considered unimportant.

“Yes. So I tracked her movements, and discovered communications to Alderaan and Naboo. And I found you.”

“You found me.” She’s about to ask how, but he plows on.

“I was going to tell you before, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want — I didn’t want you to look at me like you are now.” He falls silent, and Padmé realizes two things: that she’s fairly certain she’s never heard her husband say this much at once, and that despite the difference in his voice… he sounds far more like Anakin Skywalker than he did when they first met. It’s like telling the truth allowed him to access the younger version of himself: the man he was when he married Padmé on that beautiful day on Naboo.

“Well,” she says quietly. “Thank you for telling me. I don’t forgive you, but — thank you.”

He nods, and they fall silent again, watching the fire as the sky turns black and the moons rise on the horizon, as snow builds up in flurries, as they wait out the night.

*

Padmé’s comm was smashed in the ship crash, and she has to hope that Luke or someone else is on their way, because she realizes the next morning that they’re running out of food and the situation is entirely unstable. They have no communications. No way of fixing the ship. No way off this planet.

And she doesn’t think she trusts the man here with her further than she can throw him. Which is no distance at all, right now.

Her injuries are healing. Vader’s droid makes an appearance the next morning to check her status, and declares her in no danger of death if she continues on her current course. She takes painkillers herself and tries to forget the feeling of Vader’s fingers on her jaw, brushing her tongue.

It’s been a long time since anyone has touched her. Vader is not her husband, but she still finds herself wanting to be close, wanting to touch what passes for his skin.

It makes her feel almost sick, but she can’t stop thinking about it. She’s missed Anakin like a missing limb for twenty years, and now he’s here again and she wants. She wants things to be different, she wants him to be the man he once was. She finds herself dreaming of Mustafar and then of the early days of their marriage, when they were young and in love and spending every stolen moment together like it would be their last.

It hurts, right in her breastbone, wondering what she would do to be back there.

*

Three days into their strange, tense partnership, Padmé spots a ship on the horizon. She lets Vader know and he sends up a flare. Within five minutes, the ship is landing in front of their cave.

It’s strange to realize that she thinks of it as theirs .

Vader almost goes out to greet the ship, but Padmé sees a flash of dark hair through the window and knows immediately who it is. Unthinkingly, she lays a hand on his chest and pushes back; he stops, turns his head to look at her. She feels herself going red.

“It’s Leia. I don’t think she should see you first.”

Padmé goes out alone. The ship’s ramp descends and Leia is out instantly, completely underdressed and seemingly not caring about the cold or snow. She nearly wraps Padmé in a hug before she sees the bandages that peek out through the holes in Padmé’s shirt, and settles for a gentle, one-armed embrace.

“What happened?” she asks. “Are you okay? Were you — were you left here? Luke said you made contact to say you’d be travelling and then there was radio silence. This was the last signal from your comm and he sent me.”

“Our ship crashed,” Padmé says.

“Who is with you?” Leia looks behind Padmé, and goes entirely still.

“Leia—”

You!” She bares her teeth and has her lightsaber out in seconds, burning hot right next to Padmé. “What did you do to her, you Imperial scum—”

“You can put away the lightsaber, Senator Organa,” Vader says calmly. “I did nothing to your mother, except tending to her injuries..”

“My—” The blood drains out of Leia’s face and she hurriedly turns off her ‘saber and sticks it in her pocket. She’s broken her cover, and Padmé can see the process of realizing that.

“Leave,” Vader says. “I will not request accommodation.” And there’s Vader again, not a hint of the man Padmé knew before. “I would request a communicator, so that I may call for help.”

“Give it to him,” Padmé says, and Leia stares at her in bewilderment.

Him? He’s — he’s a Sith! A murderer!”

“He saved my life. Allow him to save his own.”

Leia looks like she’s going to argue more, but she seems to realize that leaving Vader to die here is a little cruel, even for her. Silently, she gets a spare comm from the ship and throws it to Vader without ceremony.

“Come on,” she says, and Padmé makes her way onto the ship. It’s not one she recognizes — it must belong to the Organas. She sits down heavily in the co-pilot’s seat and starts to feel pain creeping in around her temples, her stomach — the painkillers are wearing off.

Leia takes the pilot’s seat and takes off. As they rise, Padmé can see Vader on the ground below them, looking up.

She has no idea how she feels now. She’s full of conflicting emotions, now that her most pressing concern — getting off this planet alive — is resolved. She’s angry, and relieved, and afraid, and a million other things that she can’t name.

She knows nothing for sure. Except that Vader has a soft spot for her, and if she can use that to the Alliance’s advantage, it’ll be worth any emotional anguish.

And if it comes down to it, if he’s lying about wanting to help, if she meets him on a battlefield someday… she’s only one who could get close enough to end him.

This is the start of something. She doesn’t know how it’s going to end.

It’s going to be a long journey.