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The Ghosts on Coruscant

Chapter Text

Vader had little patience for those who disturbed his meditation sessions. There were only a precious few things left for him to enjoy, and while meditation counted as one of those, dealing with Imperial bureaucrats and their incompetent fumbling did not.

Reluctantly, he put his mask and helmet back on, before summoning the officer into his chambers. The officer, who was holding a datapad in his visibly trembling hands, was obviously aware of Vader’s aversion of his presence, as he seemingly preferred to stay at the door and not step further into the room.

“I believe you have something for me,” Vader said.

“Y-yes, my lord.” The officer’s voice grew thin. “As per your request, an up-to-date list of recent prisoners in this facility.”

“Leave it on my desk,” Vader ordered. “And leave.”

“My lord, I—I require you to sign this—“


“But my lord—“

“You will require nothing of me,” Vader stated, breathing heavily through his mask. He had no time for such nonsense when there were still plenty of Jedi survivors hiding in every remote corner of the galaxy. “Now begone, I have work to do.”

The officer was not eager enough to die that he would have insisted on the dreaded Sith Lord to follow the Imperial protocol to the letter. In fact, he did not seem to need any further encouragement for seeing himself out as he almost dropped the datapad on the desk in his hurry to leave.

Vader sensed the officer's crippling fear surrounding him in the Force, which he found utterly disgusting. He simply could not stand these incompetent, pathetic excuses of military officers, who could not hold their posture in front of him. He despised all those cowards he had nothing in common with. For him, they were nothing but walking, talking reminders of the cruelty of fate and his own repulsiveness, and he surely did not need any more of those.

As soon as the officer had hurried off the room, Vader took the datapad and started examining its contents. If the Emperor had known what he was up to, he would likely have reminded him that he had other, more important duties elsewhere and that it was the Inquisitors’ job to keep their eye on prisoners, passenger traffic and other as mundane things, but Vader did not trust them or their abilities enough not to do regular double checks. Rooting out the remaining Jedi was, after all, his mission. He had to see it through, as he had nothing else left to live for. Even serving the Emperor fell secondary to ensuring the end of the Jedi.

He carefully went through the alphabetically ordered list he had been provided with. It seemed to be just as redundant as ever, as such lists usually contained only highly irrelevant information about highly irrelevant people, until he reached the letter ‘S’ and, all of sudden, he felt a major disturbance in the Force.


[Cell #366: Skywalker, Sabé

Suspected of rebel activity. Risk level: Low to medium. Note: Resisted arrest; confiscated an ELG-3A blaster pistol from the prisoner. No ID to be found.]


For the briefest moment, he could do nothing but stare at the name on the screen, as raw, unrelenting rage began to boil within him. His mechanical hands clenched violently around the datapad, breaking its screen with a loud crack. Skywalker. That name, with everything it had ever meant to anyone, should have fallen into oblivion years ago, and yet some lowly rebel scum had the audacity to try and hide behind it.

He let the broken datapad drop on the floor. There were no Skywalkers left in the galaxy. Anakin Skywalker had personally taken care of that by choking his pregnant wife to death in a fit of jealousy and rage.

Vader, in his seething rage, did not care whether the charges against this wretched prisoner were true or not, and even less he cared about the Imperial laws and the legal procedure for sentencing prisoners to death. He was going to execute this impostor tonight, and he was not intending to grant her a merciful death under any circumstances. 

And he would kill anyone who would interfere.

Vader stormed through the Imperial Palace at nightfall, all the way down to the prison blocks below ground level. His mechanical hand laying restlessly on the handle of his lightsaber, he was reveling in his bitter, burning hatred for that cursed name and its tainted legacy. No one dared to disturb him until he reached the lower levels, where he was stopped by an active ray shield and the prison warden, Rancarl Foulorga. Vader remembered him vaguely from the days of the Republic. The man had been a mere social climber back then, always lurking around the old Senate Building, desperately hoping to get his foot in the door.

“Lord Vader,” Foulorga greeted him, looking slightly surprised at his late visit. “Pardon me, but as the commanding officer of this facility, I must ask you to state your business. We were not expecting–“

“I have come to perform an execution.”

“An execution?” Foulorga swallowed loudly. “I—I was unaware… There was no indication of… My lord, may I ask the name of the prisoner in question?”

“Sabé Skywalker.”

Foulorga became absorbed in his files for a while. “Unfortunately, my Lord, there is no such order filed in our system,” he said nervously as he turned his attention back to Vader. “Therefore I must decline your request.”

“I believe there is a misunderstanding between us,” Vader said. “I shall be more precise then. If you value the life of yours and your subordinates, you will take down this ray shield.”

“I–I can always run another check,” Foulorga hurried to reply, his face visibly sweating. “Yes, yes… That much I can do. I’m quite sure I’ll find the right file if you just let me—“


“I—very well,” Foulorga muttered. He reluctantly took down the ray shield and let Vader pass, as he had finally figured out that he would prefer losing only his job, not his life. “I must say, this is a very unusual situation, my lord, and I’m afraid I must file my objection—“

“Your objections do not concern me.”

As soon as Vader reached the right cell, he heard the faint noise of rustling fabric and sounds of some kind of fighting. The cell door was open, which was not something he would have expected to see. Judging by the sounds, it was clearly not because of an escape attempt. He stayed outside, observing the ongoing situation from the shadows of the hallway. 

“Hands off me—!“

“Shut your pretty little mouth already, rebel scum!” One of the two stormtroopers in the cell hit the prisoner across her face with the flat of his blaster.

“You shouldn’t have done that.” The prisoner’s voice was hoarse from exhaustion. “I still have legal rights, you ignorant piece of—!”

“You gave up any rights you might’ve had when you decided to team up with those rebels, sweetheart,” said the other stormtrooper. He was holding the prisoner firmly in place. “Should have thought that before ending up down here with us, shouldn’t you?”

“Leave me be.” It sounded more like an order than a plead.

“Shut up, woman!” The first stormtrooper barked at her face. “Or do I have to make you?”

The prisoner lowered her gaze as if she was trying to hide behind the messy cascade of her raven hair, even though she must have known that her efforts were in vain. There was no place to hide from her assaulters. One of the stormtroopers blocked Vader’s view, but he needed not to see her face to know that she was in great pain because, surprisingly enough, he could sense her agony flowing freely within the Force, as if there was something familiar about her. It was unexpected since the sole connection between him and this stranger was her obviously feigned name.

The stormtrooper who was holding the prisoner suddenly groped her backside. “It’s not very often we pretty ones like you down here, you know.”

Vader watched silently from the shadows as the prisoner apparently found her will to fight again. She writhed against her restraints and kicked the stormtrooper holding her in the shin, forcing him to focus on holding her in place with both of his hands again.

“Now, now,” the other stormtrooper cooed mockingly. “There’s no need to put up a fight. Can’t we just be friends for a while, lovely? You must know how lonely a soldier’s life can be…”

“Do know that I will not submit to your acts of crime,” the prisoner stated in confident, unexpectedly poised tone, considering the situation she was in. “I know my rights.”

“C’mon now…” The stormtrooper who was holding her grabbed a fistful of her hair and forcibly tilted her head upward. “How about a little kiss, eh? Just one, and we’ll let you be, okay?”

When the pale light hit her face, Vader recognized her immediately, despite the bleeding wound on her cheek and an assortment of rapidly forming bruises all over her face.

She was Anakin Skywalker’s wife.

His wife.


Vader ignited his lightsaber, as for the first time in a long time everything was crystal clear for him. There was no room left for confusion in the storms of his mind. In the flow of the moment, his unawareness of all the facts did not matter. There was no room for questions, such as how he could have not known that he did not know that she was alive.

He needed no other guidance but the Force itself.

No one would touch her, a mere ghost or not, and live.

The stormtroopers were way too slow to even attempt to defend themselves from his fierce attack. He ran his lightsaber through the nearest trooper, no questions asked, and the other he choked to death – not with the Force, but with his gloved, mechanical hand instead. He could feel the trooper’s life force rapidly depleting, yet he did not loosen his grip until Padmé interfered.


Reluctantly he let the lifeless body of the stormtrooper drop to the floor as he slowly turned to Padmé, bracing himself for facing her after all the years and after everything he had done.

“You had no right to kill those men,” she remarked.

If she was afraid of him, he did not sense such thing. All he could sense was her intense loathing for him, which drowned her every other emotion, if there were any.

“Those troopers were overstepping their boundaries,” he commented. “Yet I do not expect you to be grateful.”

Why would he have expected such thing? He was well aware of his reputation of a dreadful Sith Lord. It was more than likely that she detested his presence even more than she had detested those troopers and their atrocities. A sudden wave of anger swept over him. She should have been grateful, should she not? Had he not saved her from those brutes?

“Grateful?” she snapped. “Grateful for what? I didn’t ask for more manslaughter. You have destroyed enough lives as it is, Lord Vader.”

“No,” he said. Suddenly, his thoughts were with the Emperor and his lies. “Not enough.”

He was utterly relieved of the fact that she could not see his scorched face or recognize his deep, highly processed voice. Part of him felt hollower than ever since his fall into darkness. The part that was dying to reveal himself to her, though a much larger part of him that was too ashamed of what he had become.

After a swift thought process, he realized that he could never do such a thing. In his reality, there was no room left for such boyish fantasies. He might have saved Padmé from harm for now, but the longer she would stay in an Imperial prison, the more vulnerable she would become. The best he could do for her now was to hide his true identity from her, and also her true identity from everyone else. He owed her that much, and she deserved better than being forced to learn the macabre truth of her husband.

He could do nothing but harden himself. Anakin Skywalker died years ago, and that was the end of the story. There was no reason to dig him up from his fiery grave. There was nothing but scattered remains left of the shining Jedi Knight who Padmé had been married with. The only thing there was left was the pain, which Vader did not wish to share with the only woman he had ever loved.

And then there were other, even more pressing reasons.  


"It seems, in your anger, you killed her."


The Emperor had taken Padmé from him once. He would not let that happen again, whatever it would take. He could not bear the thought of Padmé in the hands of the Emperor, who would, without doubt, use her as leverage to tighten the leash around his neck even further. Or perhaps the Emperor would simply kill her for sport, to ensure his undivided loyalty. He was not going to allow any of it to happen.

“They should have been court-martialed, not murdered in cold blood on your whim!” Padmé’s sharp tone interrupted his dark thoughts and dragged him back to reality.  

“That would have changed nothing. They deserved punishment for their crimes,” he said. “I delivered.”

“And what about your crimes, Lord Vader?”

“You may rest assured...”

He finally turned off his lightsaber and turned with a flourish of his black cloak. “As I am already punished… Miss Skywalker.”

Chapter Text

A few moments after Vader left, more stormtroopers came to clean up the mess. They hauled the bodies away in silence, refusing to address Padmé’s vocal concerns about what was going to happen next. It seemed to her that they were acting under strict orders not to make any contact with her. They ignored her demands to be told when her trial would take place, which did not particularly ease her concerns about whether she would be granted a proper trial at all.

At first, she was worried that the Imperials would accuse her of the deaths. Although she soon figured out that it would be impossible to pin the murders on her. There had to be surveillance cameras everywhere in such a high-security facility, and besides, there was no way that the Imperials would not recognize lightsaber-inflicted injuries. Any decent crime investigator would inevitably conclude that Vader was behind the murders, which she considered a great relief, even though she could not deny that something about the whole incident felt off.

Although it was widely known throughout the galaxy that Vader was a merciless killer who melt no remorse at all, him slaughtering his own men to spare a prisoner from being assaulted made no sense to her. Rebels did not have much intel about him, as no one seemed to know who he truly was and where he had come from, but everyone who had ever met him knew that he was probably the last person in the entire galaxy to care about a prisoner’s plight.   

It was only then that it occurred to her that Vader had never stated his business in her cell. She had hard time to believe that a man of his reputation did not have anything better – or, in his case, worse – to do than stalk around the cell blocks in the middle of the night and prey upon his own men.

No, Vader’s sudden appearance could not have been a mere coincidence. That much she could tell for sure.

She realized that if Vader would have wanted her dead, he would have killed her and been done with it, no questions asked. His actions seemed to make less and less sense by the minute, unless…

She felt the blood rush from her face. “No,” she gasped. “That can’t be…”

Could he possibly have figured out her true identity? And what was even worse, could he also know about the twins? Even though she understood that it was highly unlikely, considering the extent of precautions that had been made to guarantee their safety, her budding anxiety was not eased.

She could not stand the thought of losing her beloved children, her sole reason to keep on fighting for better future, to the same monster she had lost her husband to.

In fact, the only thing that had prevented her from going out in a blaze and trying to kill Vader with her bare hands, was the very thought of Luke and Leia. She knew that she had to live to fight another day to give them a chance to grow up in a galaxy free from the Empire’s oppression. She would have gained nothing by laying down her life in a doomed attempt to avenge Anakin’s death.

Her chest felt heavy from thinking the twins, though she could wring a little comfort out of the fact that they were safe and sound with the Organas, far away from the Empire’s grasp. Being all but forced to give up her children had broken her heart, and her only solace was knowing that Bail and Breha were in a position to give them a good life, while she herself was not.

Safe with you, they will be not.” She remembered Yoda’s words. “Find them, the Empire must not.”

She had begged to be let to raise her children under a forged identity on some remote planet on the far end of the Outer Rim. Yoda had denied her request, insisting that the twins might be the only hope there was left for the galaxy.

At least Bail and Breha had been much more considerate about such a delicate situation than Yoda. They had refused to proceed with the custody plan without Padmé’s explicit consent. They had kindly given her time to think it through, and ultimately she had concluded that for the sake of both her children and the galaxy she so dearly loved, she could not afford being selfish in the matter. Her personal loss could never be on par with the future of the galaxy.

Not to mention that Luke and Leia deserved better than to be forced to live as refugees with her, constantly dreading for the day the Empire would finally locate their hiding place.

With a heavy heart, she had agreed to proceed with the plan, figuring that Yoda would not have suggested it, if he would not have genuinely believed that it served the best interests of both the twins and the future of the galaxy. Her only condition had been that the twins would be told the truth about their heritage when they were older.

Soon after the new-found Organa family had returned to Alderaan, Padmé had decided to put her faith in the recently established Rebel Alliance. She had hoped that in that way at least Luke and Leia would live to see the day democracy would be restored upon the galaxy.

And now, her faith had led her into an Imperial prison. Although she had known the risks before she had volunteered for the mission.

She sat on the chilly floor, burying her sore face in her hands and let out a weary sigh. She had already lost her sense of time, yet she assumed that she must have been wandering restlessly around her cell for at least a few hours now. It had to be almost morning already.

She dismissed the idea of even trying to get some rest as utter impossibility, even though at the same time she was bitterly aware that she would need herself at her sharpest to overcome the hardships of days to come. Sooner or later, they would come and interrogate – and probably torture – her to shake information out of her. It was now more crucial than ever that she would be able to keep her façade up.

It was only then that she understood that there was always the possibility that they would simply accuse her for treason and execute her. The Empire had held public executions before and made examples of political prisoners to both intimidate and discourage those who shared their ideals. She had thought that she had accepted that possibility when she had agreed to take part in the mission, but now, as ending up dead seemed to be the most probable outcome, she was devastated at the thought of never seeing her children again. 

She closed her eyes to prevent hot tears rolling down on her bruising cheeks. To stay strong, she forced herself to keep her dearest, most painful memories close at heart. She needed the reminder of the reasons why she was still fighting.

Her fingers found their way to the japor snippet she still wore around her neck. Not a single day passed by without her thinking about Anakin. She could still not remember all the details of the night he had died. He had fallen to the dark side, and even though she had not fully understood what that even truly meant, she had been certain of her ability to pull him back from the brink of the destructive abyss of his own mind.

But everything had went wrong from there. 

She was certain that if only Anakin had lived, she would have been able to help him, in one way or another, but no. Everything had gone wrong, and Anakin was gone forever. Obi-Wan had told her the night he had practically sneaked into the medical bay to see her.

“Obi-Wan,” Padmé begged. Her voice was thin and hoarse. “You must tell me what happened to Anakin. No one here agrees to tell me anything. Obi-Wan, it—it drives me crazy. We’re friends, we’ve been friends for years. Please, I must know what became of him—“

“Oh, I know,” Obi-Wan said in his crisp Coruscanti accent. “Master Yoda didn’t agree with me, hence the secrecy, but I think you need to know the truth.”

It was only then that Padmé noticed that he was wearing heavy robes, fitting for travel. His face was mostly hidden under his hood, but the cloth did not quite manage to conceal his weary expression and uncharacteristically disheveled beard. She could not help but notice that he now looked older than his years.

He sat beside her sickbed, looking slightly alarmed. “I’ll tell you everything you need to know, but you must promise me something first.”

“Anything,” she hurried to say. “I’ll promise you anything. I just need to know—wait, Obi-Wan, are you leaving?”

“Yes, I am, and I’d advise you to do the same as soon as you have recovered,” he stated. His tone was stark, all its usual gentleness as good as gone. If Padmé had not been all too familiar with the Jedi Code, she would have thought that the man was deeply frightened by something – or someone. “He must not find you. Promise me that you will go into hiding.”

Padmé frowned. “I don’t understand…” she said. “What in the stars are you talking about? Hiding from who? Surely Palpatine himself wouldn’t—“

“Promise me, and I’ll tell you.”

“I don’t—very well, then,” she said after a pregnant pause. “I promise.”

“Darth Vader,” Obi-Wan said. He briefly lowered his gaze as he spoke, as if he would not have dared to meet her eyes. “He’s a Sith Lord. Palpatine’s new apprentice. He… killed Anakin, and he’d certainly come after you and the twins, if he were to know you’re alive. As I said, Master Yoda and I disagreed upon the matter of telling you about him. Master Yoda would have spared you from the details, but I thought it’d be better if you knew what’s at stake. Vader’s too powerful, Padmé. If he were to learn that Anakin’s offspring lived, he’d not hesitate to tear entire star systems apart to find them.”

“Obi-Wan, I don’t know—“

“The only hope for your children is that the Empire will never learn about them,” he said, “or you. The arrangements for your funeral are already in motion. A decoy body will be used.”

“Wait, no…” she muttered, still trying to put the pieces together. Although her memories were hazy at best, she did not remember seeing this Darth Vader on Mustafar. There was only Anakin. “How can be so sure? Did you see him killing Anakin—?”

“We were betrayed, Padmé. We all were. The Jedi, The Republic… and Anakin,” he said, laying his calloused hand on hers. “I saw the Sith consume everything that there was left of him with my own two eyes. There was nothing left of him to save. He was gone. I am so, so sorry. If only—“

“I know,” she interrupted him as she could not bear to hear any more, not even bothering to hide her tears any longer. She did not want to think Anakin’s last moments in the hands of such a monster.  

She gave his wrist a weak squeeze, as she was still recovering from the severe complications she had suffered during her labor. “You loved him too.”

“That I did,” he admitted, “and I’ll mourn for the man he once was, but one day we both must learn to let him go. There’s nothing we can do to bring him back. We’ll only lost ourselves if we keep hanging onto what-ifs and false hopes.”

She could hardly believe what she was hearing. Obi-Wan and Anakin had been the closest of friends, a master and his apprentice. A Jedi or not, how could Obi-Wan be so eager to let go? “How can you say something like that? He was your—“

“Please, Padmé, there’s not much time. Master Yoda believes that one day a new hope will rise,” he said. “Until then, we must lay low. Dwelling in the past won’t help us.”

He seemed anxious to leave, but she was not about to let him go just yet. “Wait,” she urged. “Where will you go?”

“I have a place in mind, far away from here,” he said vaguely. “Master Yoda wishes me to continue my training there. It might be for the best, if the details remain a secret for now. It’s safer that way, for both of us.”

She nodded almost imperceptibly. “I understand.”

“Our time will come,” he said. “We just have to be patient and not throw our lives away.”

“Will I see you again soon?”

She had already lost her husband, and she was about to lose her children. She could not bear the thought of losing a dear friend, too.

“I doubt it,” he said regretfully. “We both are considered more or less dead in the eyes of the Empire. It’s probably for the best if we take no risks, to see that it will stay that way.”

She looked up at him, her eyes glistening with tears. “I agree,” she said, letting out a heavy sigh. “So, this is goodbye, then.”

“Padmé,” he said, gently squeezing her shoulder before taking his leave. “May the Force be with you.”

The unforgiving chill of her cell dragged her back to her most depressing reality. At that moment she was rather sure that if the Force had ever truly been with her, it had forsaken her long before now. Had she not lost everything she had held dear? Anakin was dead, Luke and Leia were far out of her reach, and she had not heard from Obi-Wan in years.

She was alone in this mess, only with her flimsy fake identity as her only shield between her and the Empire’s ire.

Not that she had not been aware of the risks of taking up such a name, but the combination of the names of her former handmaiden and her dead husband was the only one she could have come up with fast enough under the pressure of a blaster rifle being held to her head. It had been one of those do-or-die situations she was all too familiar with, and she had, once again, chosen to live.

Although how far that choice would take her remained to be seen.

After another hour or so, an obviously high-ranking Imperial officer entered her cell with a small convoy of stormtroopers on his coattails. Their blaster rifles were all aimed at her, which made her heart clench – not just from fear, but also from anger in front of the blatant injustice they most likely were here to commit.

As there could be only one reason for such procedure. “I demand an explanation, officer,” she snapped furiously. “What in the stars is this–“

“Silence, prisoner. We are only following our orders.” The officer put handcuffs on her as he spoke.

Padmé still had enough hard-boiled politician left in her not to submit to such atrocity without protesting. “This is an illegal execution. How could you possibly, in good conscience, commit such a crime against an Imperial citizen?”

She tried her best to imagine that she was once more in the middle of a heated debate in the Galactic Senate. It had been years, but she was almost as confident as ever in her ability to make her case, even though in the back of her mind she realized that this was not some lousy representative of the Trade Federation or the Banking Clan, but a well-greased part of Imperial war machine she was trying to convince. The task was not to be a simple one.

“There has been no trial. I haven’t been charged with any crime, let alone proven guilty,” she stated firmly. “You can’t possibly proceed with my execution without a proper–“

“Execution?” The officer raised a brow, looking mildly confused. “I have absolutely no idea of what you’re talking about. According to my orders, you’re to be transferred, not executed.”

Padmé could not help but let her façade of self-confidence drop for a second. “Transferred?” she asked, eyes widening in surprise and terror. Somehow, that sounded even worse. “Where will I be taken, and on whose authority? I demand the name.”

“The request of your transfer was made by Lord Vader,” the officer said, shuddering slightly. “A highly unusual request, yes, but my only concern is to follow orders, not to question them.”

Yes, it definitely was even worse.

Chapter Text

Padmé’s frantic efforts to calm herself by taking deep breaths were in vain. A convoy of stormtroopers escorted her through several elevators, vaulted doorways protected with ray shields and meandering hallways. Afraid of what was going to happen to her, part of her almost wished that they actually would have executed her right there in her cell and been done with it. That way, she could have taken her secret to her grave.

But much to her surprise, and contrary to her assumptions, they did not take her to a cell block more suitably equipped for torturing prisoners for valuable information. The austereness of the prison block began to fade out, replaced with more regal, yet just as sinister surroundings. Had she not known better, she would never have guessed that the Imperial Palace had once been the home and headquarters of the Jedi Order.

Wherever the stormtroopers were taking her, the journey seemed to be unexpectedly long, and it gave her time to think. She could not help but wonder what in the stars Vader could have wanted from her. Stormtroopers were perfectly capable of slaughtering Rebels on their own; they did not need a Sith Lord, of all things, to carry out such a simple task for them.

By now, it was clear to her that Vader wanted her alive. She simply could not come up with any reason for that she could possibly live with, although in her current situation she could not do much else than to brace herself for whatever a man of his reputation would want of her. Each and every imaginable scenario twisted her guts into knots and made her want to throw up. 

One of her stormtroopers escorts pushed her into another elevator in more rough manner that would have been necessary.

Deciding to push her luck a little, she glared at the Imperial officer accompanying the convoy. “Would you care to tell me where you are taking me, officer?” she asked, miserably failing to hide the sharp edge in her voice.

The officer gave her a stern look, as if he was weighing whether to answer her or ignore the question. “To Lord Vader’s personal quarters,” he finally replied.

For a half second, she was almost certain that she saw a faint glint of compassion in his dull eyes as he spoke. “You must know you don’t have to do this.” She lowered her voice to a whisper, yet remaining fully aware of the sheer hopelessness of attempting to convince him to free her. But she had to try. She could not give up on hope now, however desperate her situation seemed to be.

The officer did not even bother to respond. In a sense, she understood him, as by Imperial standards indulging in a prisoner’s attempts to negotiate without explicit orders to do so would surely have been considered no less than an act of treason.

Vader paced restlessly back and forth in his chamber, toying with the ELG-3A blaster pistol that had reportedly been confiscated from the prisoner upon capture. He would have recognized the delicate design of that particular model anywhere. Padmé had carried similar weapon during the Clone Wars. This belongs to her, he thought, glaring at the gun. I feel it in the Force.

This time, it was not just the Emperor – or the Force or his own treacherous eyes – deceiving him. Although he had been forced to accept her death long time ago, along with the now rather dubious fact that she had died by his hand, he was certain that none of this was a trick of mind. She is alive, he thought, a jolt of anger running through him. She has been alive all these years.

She had lived, while he had become the most faithful servant of the Emperor, who in turn had led him to believe that he had lost everything that night on Mustafar.

His empty hand clenched into a fist as he felt his rage brewing deep within him, poisoning him from the inside.

And yet, if serving the Emperor had brought anything more than misery into his pathetic existence, it would be certainty. In its own twisted way, being the Emperor’s most obedient servant – a pliant subject to his will – was a relief. His Master, and his Master alone, had forgiven his sins and left him no room to dwell in Anakin Skywalker’s past mistakes.

As Skywalker no longer existed. There was only Darth Vader, who had forgotten what uncertainty felt like, until now.

The task of arranging Padmé to be released into his custody had been simple – but what next? With having her stay in his quarters, he could ensure that no further harm would come to her in the prison, but that was nowhere near good enough for him.

If the Emperor had not explicitly ordered him to stay on Coruscant for now, he could always have taken her to his fortress on Mustafar. But even though he generally felt no obligations to follow his Master’s orders to the letter, preferring to achieve the desired results in his own, often more practical and straightforward ways, he now found himself reluctant to risk the Emperor finding out what he had discovered.

He knew he could not keep her presence hidden from the Emperor forever, not here on Coruscant, but such a minor setback did nothing to dilute his sheer determination. He was not going to lose her again, regardless of whatever sacrifices it would take and whoever he would have to destroy to keep her.

It was then that his dark thoughts were disrupted by his assistant droid, who announced that the stormtrooper convoy he had been waiting for had arrived and requesting for access to the tower. He granted the droid permission escort the convoy in and decided that he would figure out the rest of his plan later. Putting the blaster he had been toying with back on his desk, he strode to the vestibule to greet the convoy.

The officer saluted and guided the prisoner to step forward. “As per your request, my lord, here is the prisoner,” he said.

Vader inspected her closely, fully prepared to kill the officer, as well as the whole convoy of stormtroopers, if he were to detect any fresh injuries on her. Padmé clamped her eyes shut, shuddering at the ominous rattle of his respirator.

“I have seen your record, officer,” he finally said. “You have a promising career at such young age. Leave this prisoner’s transfer out of your daily report and do not mention it to anyone, and I shall see your career to prosper even further.”

“I–I understand, my lord,” the officer stammered, looking simultaneously nervous and utterly pleased. “Thank you, my lord.”

“I presume I do not have to remind you of the consequences of failing me, officer.”

“O-of course not, my lord.”

After the officer and his stormtroopers had left the tower, Vader made an unadorned gesture with his hand to remove Padmé’s handcuffs with the Force. As soon as she was unbound and the handcuffs clattered to the floor, she began to rub her chafed wrists.

Vader gestured her to follow him further into the tower. “I am pleased to see that you are mostly unharmed.”

Padmé scoffed in disdain. “Unharmed?” she snapped, momentarily forgetting that she was in no position to start an argument. She vividly recalled being manhandled, struck with a flat of a blaster straight to her face and harassed in an inappropriate manner, and yet Vader had the audacity to refer to her condition with such dismissiveness.

She pointed her finger at her own bruised face. “Does this look anything like ‘mostly unharmed’ to you, Lord Vader?”

“For what it’s worth, I will personally see to your safety from now on.”

Padmé shook her head in disbelief. “In that case, you and I have very different definitions of safety,” she said. “I, for one, don’t feel particularly safe in the presence of a known mass murderer and war criminal.”

Vader could easily feel her fear in the Force, but to his mild surprise, there was something else along. Another emotion, one that was raw and overwhelming enough to suppress all her other emotions, even her fear.

It was hatred. Pure, personal hatred – and it was targeted at him. Not even at everything his very existence might have represented to her, but at him. Although she might have despised the Emperor and the Empire as a whole, her seething hatred seemed to be reserved for him alone, and her repulsion for everything else paled in comparison. 

“You must wonder why I have brought you here,” he said.

Padmé stubbornly refused to sit down when Vader gestured her to do so. “You could say that.”

Despite being able to hide his true feelings behind his mask, he felt rather uneasy. He was certainly not used to handle situations like this. “I am… curious about you, Miss Skywalker,” he said, emphasis on the name Skywalker. “There are a lot of insignificant people with insignificant names in the galaxy, yet you have chosen that one to hide behind.”

Padmé shot a furious glare at him. “Don’t you dare to play that game with me,” she blurted out, uncomfortably aware of the hot tears rolling down her sore cheeks. Perhaps she should not have shown her true feelings so openly, but there was no way for her to stop now. “I know it was you. I know what you did. You killed him, and if you had me hauled here to kill me as well, I suggest that you get on with it. Just do it. Just end this… this macabre theater of yours, as I have no interest to be part of it.”

Anger and bitterness began to boil within him as he briefly imagined his wife sharing her life with another man. He had to fight the impulse to grab her shoulders, push her against the wall and demand her to reveal the bastard’s name before it occurred to him that he had no right. I am not the man she once married, he bitterly reminded himself.

“I have killed many men,” he growled through his mask. The thought of the high probability of ‘him’ being some worthless Rebel scum who now rotted in an unmarked mass grave was oddly satisfying to him. “Perhaps you wish to be more specific.”

“Anakin Skywalker!” she cried out. “He was my husband, and you killed him. Don’t even bother to pretend you didn’t, you twisted son of a–!”

Vader flinched upon hearing that cursed name. “Who told you that?” he interrupted.

“You are sorely mistaken, if–“

Who told you?

Padmé winced at his aggressive tone. Assuming that Vader would know if she lied, she resolved to tell part of the truth. “A Jedi told me.”

Vader clenched his fists in anger. “Kenobi,” he muttered. It had to be Kenobi, as no one else would have known the truth about what happened that night on Mustafar. Only his former Master could be weak enough to resolve to lie about his true fate, too ashamed of his final failure among countless others. “Obi-Wan Kenobi told you that.”

“I don’t–“

“Where is he now?” Vader probed. “Where is he hiding?”

“I–I don’t know, I swear,” Padmé cried out. It was the truth. Obi-Wan had refused to tell her about his plans, and now she finally understood his reasoning. She could not tell whether she would have been brave enough to attempt to lie to Vader, had she known anything about Obi-Wan’s whereabouts. “I haven’t seen in almost ten years.”

Vader was fuming at the thought of his foolish old Master spreading those poisonous lies and turning her against him in the same way he had done eight years before. Everything I did, I did for her, he recalled bitterly. In his anger, he stubbornly chose to dismiss his prior acknowledgement that his selfishness and hunger for power had also played a major part in his actions. 

For a moment there, he felt the urge to hurt her – to choke her to the verge of death and beyond for believing in Kenobi’s lies – but, as unexpected as it was, something held him back. He felt a burst of light searing through the darkest and most desolate depths of his tormented mind, bringing some of his – no, not his, but Anakin Skywalker’s – most repressed feelings and memories back to surface.

Unwilling and afraid to endure Skywalker’s burning shame and sorrow, Vader felt trapped. It frightened him, and so did the very thought of the Emperor’s retaliation, if he were to sense his weakness.

He felt like he had no other choice but to wrench himself back into his familiar, forgiving darkness. “Kenobi was right,” he snarled. “Anakin Skywalker was weak, and I destroyed him.”

It was the only way. The less Padmé knew, the better. As much as he hated to admit it to himself, he loathed and feared the thought of her discovering his true identity and seeing what he had become. He could not bear the thought of her realizing that there was nothing left of the dashing Jedi Knight that had been Anakin Skywalker.

It was the Jedi she had loved, not this half a man, half a machine he had been reduced to, and for a moment there, he despised himself for deluding himself into believing that his insane plan of his would lead anything better than the misery that had taken over his pitiful excuse of a life.

But this was the path he had chosen for himself.

Her shoulders trembling, Padmé hung her head. “I know,” she said, her tone dripping with agony, “and now you have me. Are you going to destroy me as well?”

Vader breathed heavily through his mask. “No.”

“So, what do you intend to do with me, then?”

“That remains to be seen,” he replied sternly. All he could think was that he was not going to lose her again. “As I said, I intend to keep you safe from harm for now. You need to know nothing else at this time.”

Padmé frowned. “What is that supposed to mean?” she asked, crossing her arms.

“It means that you will stay here,” he said. “You will not leave this tower. The droid will show you your room, and if you need anything, you come directly to me. Do I make myself clear?”

“I–I don’t understand what–“

“Your comprehension is as irrelevant as it is unnecessary,” Vader interrupted harshly. “Now, there are other things that require my immediate attention. For now, my droid will see to your needs”—he glared at the droid as he took his leave—“do not disturb me tonight unless it’s urgent.”

“Of course, Master Vader,” the droid chirped before turning clumsily to Padmé. “May I show you your room, Mistress? It had quite a view, I might add. I am certain that you will enjoy your stay with us.”

Padmé shook her head in disbelief, still trying to figure out what had just happened. “Pardon me if I have doubts,” she said, swallowing around the lump forming in her throat.

Although she immediately recognized the uncanny resemblance between Vader’s droid and the one Anakin had once given to her as a gift. Oh, how I miss Threepio, she thought.

As unexpected as it was, the familiar-looking droid’s presence eased her anxiety a little. Compared to Vader’s company, having the droid around felt like a remarkable improvement anyway. “Very well then,” she said, more amicably than before, as she realized that her unfortunate situation was hardly the droid’s fault. “Lead the way.”

The droid led her into a spacious, yet ascetically decorated room. There was a single bed, a small desk and a closet, but not much else to see. “And here we are, Mistress,” the droid announced.

As the droid had promised, there indeed was a window. It’s a small one, Padmé thought, but maybe it would be sufficient for an escape attempt?

The droid noticed her interest towards the window. “Oh no, I would not recommend that, Mistress,” he exclaimed. “The chance of survival is approximately zero to none.”

Padmé did not need to question the droid on the matter, as one peek outside the window was enough to confirm his statement. She let out a weary sigh and threw herself on the bed, not even bothering to wipe the tears rolling down her cheeks.

Her hopelessness seemed to cause distress to the droid. “Oh, my,” he chirped in alarm. “Please, Mistress, do not cry. The chance that everything will turn out to be perfectly fine is approximately two thousand six hundred and thirty to one!”

Chapter Text

Padmé groaned in protest when the droid Vader had assigned to her escort last night clanked in her room and opened the blinds, letting daylight in. She would not have wanted to wake up to another day of captivity, but it seemed that she was not given a choice in the matter.

“Good morning, Mistress,” SD-D4 chirped briskly. “May I suggest you a nice little walk around the tower, to familiarize yourself with your new accommodation? It’s such a fine morning, and the balcony provides the most extraordinary view, if I may say so. Not to mention that according to my memory, you haven’t left this room in—oh dear—forty-nine hours and thirty-two minutes. Master Vader surely wouldn’t mind if I show you around.”

Padmé gave her head a violent shake. “No, thank you,” she said distantly. “As far as I’m concerned, prisons are the same everywhere. I’m not interested.”

Although she realized it was the droid’s overenergetic enthusiasm that riled her up more than it probably should have. While it might not have been the droid who had decided to lock her up in this terrible place with little to no hope of escaping, she still would have appreciated not to be constantly reminded of her rather troublesome situation—or the fact that if there had ever been any hope for a rescue party to begin with, it was fading away by every passing moment. Despite their limited resources and manpower, Rebel operatives had been quite successful in infiltrating Imperial facilities and even organizing prison breaks in the past, but to invade a Sith lord’s personal quarters to rescue a single prisoner? It was not very likely scenario, and she knew it.

First of all, they could not possibly know that she had been abducted by Darth Vader himself, and even if they would learn about what happened, they would immediately realize that attempting to free her would be an act of sheer folly. The leaders of the Rebellion would know better than to send their people on a suicide mission, and she respected that. As she would not want others risking their lives for her sake, she would simply have to find her way out of Vader’s clutches on her own. Perhaps she could even manage to extract some valuable intel in the process?

Speaking of Vader, Padmé was uncertain whether she should have been relieved or utterly terrified about the fact that she had not heard of him after being left to the tender mercies of his rather overeager droid. She was still expecting this macabre theater of being treated like some wealthy and well-respected guest in a fine Coruscanti hotel being soon turned into a series of torture-infused interrogation sessions, but judging by his absence, it certainly did seem like Vader had lost his interest in her after locking her up in this wretched tower.

SD-D4, however, seemed not to be discouraged of her pouting at all. “I took the liberty of bringing you breakfast and a change of clothes.” He gestured clumsily to the small tray on the desk that smelled absolutely delicious, and a neatly folded garment on the back of the chair. “Oh, and a fully functional refresher can be found behind this door over here…”

“Well, thank you, but I don’t really have the appetite,” Padmé said, though her stomach loudly disagreed with her on the matter, as she had refused to eat anything after being brought to Vader’s tower. The droid had brought her the most delicious looking dishes, one after another, but she had rejected them all and only drunk small amounts of water to prevent dehydration.

Even though she knew she could not stay functional without food for much longer, she could not deny herself the odd satisfaction of the droid having to report his Master that she had once again refused his treats. Whatever twisted game he’s trying to play with me, she thought, I can play it too.

“But Mistress,” SD-D4 exclaimed. “According to my data, you haven’t eaten in—”

“Rest assured, I’m very much aware,” Padmé interrupted. “I know exactly how long I’ve been without food, as I don’t recall ever being this hungry before, thank you very much. Stop pestering me, and while you’re at it, you might as well cut the coddling. I’m a captive here, not a guest, and no amount of that—that attempted hospitality of yours will make me forget that I’m here against my will.”

The droid let out a distressed beep. “Oh dear,” he said. “It tends to slip my Master’s mind that I’m not a protocol droid. It must be the lack of experience in human interaction that prevents me from recalibrating to cater your wishes better. My apologies, Mistress.”

Padmé glared at the droid in disbelief. “Lack of experience, hmm?” she repeated, raising one brow. “You can’t possibly expect me to believe you haven’t been ‘taking care of’ all those other poor souls your vile Master must have dragged here before me.”

“It occurs to me that we may have a misunderstanding, Mistress,” SD-D4 said. “There have been no others. According to my built-in log of Master Vader’s visitors, the average time a visitor spends here in this tower approximately six minutes and forty-three seconds. In addition, the average survival percentage of his visitors is—”

Padmé threw her pillow at the droid. “Don’t you dare to tell me that.”

“Oh—oh, I understand,” SD-D4 hurried to say. “Very well, at any rate, there is no indication of other overnight guests before your arrival, Mistress.”

Padmé’s heart sank at the droid’s throwaway mention of the lack of overnight guests before her. She had hoped she could have tricked the droid into unknowingly helping her form a more educated guess of what Vader could possibly have wanted from her, but if this was indeed the first time he had brought anyone here for a longer stay…

She sprang to her feet and hurried to the desk, ignoring the delicious looking breakfast tray as she picked up the attire the droid had brought for her. With a suspicious look on her face, she examined it. Even though she was not sure what she had expected, she still was rather surprised to find out that the dark grey dress that closely resembled an Imperial uniform was, in fact, quite modest. It was fitted, yes, but not too fitted, the fabric seemed relatively sturdy, and the neckline as well as the hem were acceptable. She recalled wearing much more revealing dresses than this in the Senate.

From the corner of her eye, she noticed that the droid had taken yet another liberty and started to change her linen. She took the chance to glance longingly at the breakfast tray, stubbornly deciding to persevere and not touch it. Then again, allowing herself to use the refresher was an entirely different thing. “Umm, excuse me?”

SD-D4 immediately turned to her. “Yes, Mistress?”

“I believe we got off an unnecessarily rough start, don’t you think?” She carefully chose a gentler tone than before, considering the possibility that befriending the droid could turn out to be useful—and even if did not, a droid—any droid—would surely be more pleasant company than Vader. “I’d be happy if we could start over. May I ask your name?”

“But of course, Mistress! How rude of me to not introduce myself earlier,” the droid chirped in excitement. “I am a modified version of a SD-D4 service droid mode. Master Vader has made most of my modifications by himself.”

Padmé raised a brow in a mild surprise. “He can do that?” As far as she knew, Vader had earned his sinister reputation exclusively from slaughtering thousands and thousands of the Empire’s enemies all around the galaxy. She would never have guessed he would also be a capable engineer, let alone that he would have had time to tinker with mechanics. “I imagined spreading terror and destruction in the name of the Empire being quite time-consuming.”

Her interest seemed to please SD-D4. “Oh, yes. Master Vader is indeed quite crafty,” he assured. “He even has his own workshop in his fortress on Mustafar—”

Padmé’s eyes widened in sudden confusion. “Wait,” she interrupted, raising her hand to signal the droid to stop talking. “Did you just say Mustafar?”

“Oh dear.” SD-D4 seemed to realize that he most likely was not encouraged to openly discuss his Master’s personal affairs. “Please, Mistress, do not mention my babbling to my Master. He will dismantle me for sure—!”

Padmé offered the droid a gentle smile. “Don’t worry,” she said soothingly. “It’ll be our little secret. I was the one who asked, and we wouldn’t want your Master to get angry at us both, would you agree?”

“Oh, thank you, Mistress,” SD-D4 said. “Thank you so much. Yes, yes, I most definitely agree!”

“Well, now that we share a mutual secret, we’re basically friends, aren’t we?” Padmé asked. “Would you mind if I call you Esdee from now on?”

“I think I might even like that.”

“It’s settled, then,” Padmé said, patting the droid’s metallic shoulder. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d very much like to use the refresher. You may return my breakfast to the kitchens, Esdee.”

“But Mistress—?”

“And please be kind and tell your Master that I won’t be eating a single bite until he can be bothered to explain me why he insists to keep me locked up here,” Padmé said with feigned nonchalance as she walked past the droid towards the refresher.

Vader had spent the last two days fervently trying to figure out what to do with Padmé—and failing miserably. He had refused to leave his meditation chamber before reaching clarity, but every path he took only seemed to lead deeper and deeper into darkness. Any plan he managed to come up with he ended up discarding, but not even his raging frustration could have dampened his determination to find the solution that needed to be found.

After years of solid certainty, there was now an obstacle on his path, and the Force was reluctant to show him a bypass. Anakin Skywalker was deemed to be gone forever, but Skywalker’s pride—one of his many flaws—seemed to stand as an impenetrable wall between him and his objective, as he had come to realize there was no way he could ever, under any circumstances, take off his helmet and reveal his burnt, scarred face to Padmé. His shame alone would have been enough to hold him back, as it festered in his very soul and burned his guts hotter than the fiery pits of Mustafar ever did, but even if there would have been a way to crush the lingering remnants of Skywalker’s pride, there was another, even more persistent enemy—the Emperor. 

It had been the Emperor, who had put him into his wretched suit that alone kept him alive and shaped him into what he had become, molding and twisting his mind over and over again, until there was nothing left of Anakin Skywalker in his soul. Since then, his life as the Emperor’s personal instrument of death and destruction had been relatively straightforward. Having no other purpose than rousing terror in his Emperor’s enemies left little room for questioning beliefs.

But if Anakin Skywalker was truly gone, why was he feeling such conflict now?

Vader had no memory of desiring anything for himself before Padmé came back to his life, but now part of him wanted not only to overthrow the Emperor but also make him suffer as he had suffered. Part of him that wanted to avenge the lies that had cost him his future—and his family, as it occurred to him that he did not know what came of his child. He had assumed their unborn baby had died with Padmé, but since her death had been nothing but another of the Emperor’s lies, could the child have survived as well?

The very thought of the possibility of the child—his child—being alive sent another wave of most bizarre emotions sweeping over him, as he had not felt such confusion, uncertainty and something that distantly resembled hope in the longest time.

Although there was no way he could ask Padmé directly anytime soon without risking exposing himself and revealing his true identity. Even then, he was determined to find out the fate of his child sooner or later. And before that, there was another, even more pressing matter for him to attend to—his revenge. He could not falter now and step off the path he had chosen for himself eight years ago. He could not give in to the pull of the light and allow hope rot him from the inside and render him weak. The dark side was stronger. It had always been stronger, as it would always be, and he knew he would need himself at his strongest to challenge the Emperor.

Almost reluctantly, he let the darkness creep back in and suppress the odd warmth that had sneakily slithered its way into his chest. He was fully aware that he would need to harness the full power of the dark side to defeat his enemy, and that he could not afford to show any signs of weakness. Preparations would take time he did not have, as hiding Padmé from the Emperor’s all-seeing eyes would become more difficult and dangerous by each passing day. The Imperial Court was crawling with treacherous, yet mostly incompetent snakes that spent their days scheming and fighting over mere scraps of the Emperor’s attention as it was—and yet it were his own emotions that formed the greatest threat to his secret. If the Emperor were to get wind of his true intentions, he would not hesitate to strike where it hurt Vader most.


The problem was that he had never truly mastered the art of releasing his emotions into the Force. Anakin Skywalker’s inability to refrain from forming attachments had once played a key part in his fall from grace, but Vader was not going to allow such doubts and childish fears to lead everything to ruin this time around.

He knew he would have to quench the dull ache within his chest and keep Padmé at arm’s length. He could not let his own desires to get the upper hand, or there would not be any chance of success. It was a risky plan, but it was also the only one he had. It will work, he thought. I will make it work. All he had to do was to empty his mind of the one fear that had already made its nest within, hollowing him out inside.

What if Padmé would still hate him—and not just the masked menace the galaxy knew by the name of Darth Vader, but him—after learning the truth? What if she could never forgive him for what he did? And who could blame her if she would?

Who could blame her when he had been the one who had let the one moment he could have turned back to go to waste? Who could blame her after he had chosen cruelty and selfishness over her wellbeing? Succumbing to his pain and the thick black hatred pouring out of his heart, he had hurt the one person he had desperately wanted to save, damning the rest of the galaxy. It had been him who had choked her, leaving her on the brink of death for a lie he had shaped out of his own fears and boyish jealousy. It had been him who had chosen to believe his own delusions instead of the love of his life.

And now there was no way he could ever have expected Padmé to forgive him, and he loathed himself for it. 

It was then that his grim thoughts were interrupted by SD-D4, who clanked into his quarters. “Master, I am here to inform you that Miss Skywalker has once again refused to eat,” he announced. “As her appointed caretaker, I am obliged to share my concerns of her physical and mental wellbeing—”

Vader usually showed more leniency toward droids than organic beings, as they were generally more straightforward and less incompetent, but after such an unsatisfying meditation session his patience was already growing thin. “Silence,” he commanded. “I do not care of your concerns. In case you do not wish to be dismantled, you will go back to her at once and tell her I shall be expecting her in the meeting room at sundown.”

“Of course, Master, right at once!” SD-D4 chirped anxiously. “Is there anything else you wish me to take care of beforehand?”

“After you have made sure that Miss Skywalker has fully understood what is expected of her tonight, you will go and inform the kitchen staff about my meeting with a Naboo diplomat,” Vader said, breathing heavily through his mask as he spoke. “See that they will prepare a three-course dinner of finest Naboo cuisine, served with a bottle of Domaine de la Maison sur le Lac, for my guest.”

SD-D4 gave him an acknowledging beep. “I will see it done,” he said. “Anything else, Master?”

Vader briefly entertained the thought of giving his droid a fair warning of Padmé’s stubbornness, but ultimately decided against it. “For your sake, make sure that she will be there.”

Chapter Text

While Anakin Skywalker might have had his virtues, patience was never one of them. That much Darth Vader would admit to having in common with that foolish boy. He paced restlessly around the meeting room, inspecting what SD-D4 had accomplished during the day. Everything seemed to be in order for the evening, as he noticed that both his droid and the kitchen staff had done a decent job with following his instructions. 

The sun had almost gone down behind the half-closed blinds, but Padmé was conspicuous by her absence. Breathing ominously through his mask, Vader shifted his attention to SD-D4. 

“I was under impression that the task I gave you was simple,” he hissed in frustration. “Where is she?”

The droid gave a nervous beep. “Yes, Master, about that…” he began. “Unfortunately, Miss Skywalker wasn’t in very good mood earlier today. It must be a common symptom of malnourishment for human beings, I imagine. I believe she was quite … pardon me, Master, I’m looking for the right word… ah, yes… reluctant to meet with you tonight. Reluctant, that was it. Although it has occurred to me that my human interaction circuit might require slight readjustment, so I reserve the—”

Vader groaned. “Her mood does not concern me,” he snapped. “I gave you clear instructions to make sure she will be here.”

“I am so, so sorry, Master. I assure you, I tried,” SD-D4 hurried to say. “She—she promised to consider! Yes, yes, that she did, and according to my calculations, there’s still a twenty-seven point nine percent chance that she might actually show up, even though—”

The droid yelped out of sheer terror as Vader lashed out and pushed him violently against the wall with the Force. 

“You have failed me for the last time,” Vader snarled. With the Force as his aid, he began to rip his droid’s joints apart, one by one. “If you are too incompetent to carry out my orders, then you are worthless to me. I should have turned you into scrap metal a long time ago.”

It was then that Padmé appeared at the door. “I assure you, there’s no need for such brutality, Lord Vader,” she said in an icy tone. “I’m here now, so perhaps you would kindly consider leaving the poor droid alone. He’s done nothing to deserve your ire, and neither has the galaxy you’ve mercilessly terrorized for the past decade, I might add.”

Vader let SD-D4 clatter on the floor, as he had suddenly lost all interest in venting his anger at the droid. “You came.”

Padmé let out a dry laughter. “Oh, I wasn’t aware I had a choice,” she said as she hurried across the room to help the more or less broken-down droid to stand up. “You poor thing, let me help you… Yes, yes, that’s it… Up we go...”

She escorted the broken droid out of the room. Upon her return, Vader could not help but notice that despite the only partially healed bruises scattering across her cheeks and eyes red and swollen from crying, Padmé had not lost even the slightest trace of her beauty and grace during their long years apart. Even though she now was a known Rebel associate and a traitor, and she should have treated as such, suddenly all Vader could see was the woman Anakin Skywalker had once loved so desperately that his love had doomed them both. 

He gestured to the table, where the finest Naboo cuisine galore was awaiting. “Have a seat,” he urged. “There is much to discuss, but first, you must eat.”

Padmé’s eyes flew open in surprise as she stared at the several neatly arranged plates and bowls of her favorite dishes. It had been years since she had last had freshly baked five blossom bread, yet she would have recognized its rich scent anywhere. And she almost could not believe her eyes at the sight of what looked like obviously well-prepared shaak pot roast. 

One of the bowls was filled to the brim with freshly picked shuura fruit, served with a tiny cup of sweet cream to dip them in. The sight made her heart clench, and not only for homesickness but also for one of her fondest memories of Anakin. 

Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What’s the meaning of all this?” she asked, nodding toward the table. She did not really suspect any foul play with the food, as she was unpleasantly aware that someone as vile and powerful as Vader would not have needed to drug or poison her to have his way with her. Perhaps her former political opponents in the Senate could have resorted to such methods, but men like Vader usually had different, and much more straightforward, means to achieve their goals. If only I knew what he wants of me , she thought. 

“You will be staying here until I decide otherwise,” Vader declared. “But your time here will only be as painful as you desire it to be. I fail to see how starving yourself would ease your adapting to the situation.”

Padmé shuddered at the blatant insensitivity of Vader’s words and his lack of compassion. How could he speak of such things so calmly, as if it was perfectly normal to abduct a prisoner from her cell, only to have her locked up elsewhere, and simply expect her to adapt to the situation? How could he seem to be so completely… detached from his emotions? From anything that supposedly made him human? 

She had thought she had already witnessed the full spectrum of the Empire’s cruelty during her time with the Rebel Alliance, fighting the Empire side by side with those who, like her, still believed in justice and democracy, and yet she could not help but fear that whatever had happened to Vader to turn him into the grim menace he was now, it had to be something far, far worse than she could possibly imagine.  

Reluctantly, and mostly to hide her dizziness after a couple of days without food, she took a seat. “Very well, Lord Vader,” she said. “If I eat, will you agree to negotiate the terms of my stay?”

“I am not much of a negotiator,” Vader said. “And you are hardly in any position to strike a negotiation.”

If Padmé had not known better, she would have thought Vader sounded… slightly amused. “You, obviously, know more about me than I know about you, my lord,” she said softly as she leered over the dinner that had clearly been prepared specifically for her and not just any person of Naboo origin. Even the wine was her favorite brand. 

She glanced yearningly at the bowl of shuura fruit. “Why do I get the feeling that I just might sleep better if I refrained from asking how in the stars you , of all people, happen to know my favorite dessert,” she sighed. 

Vader took the opposite seat. “It would be wise.”

Padmé glared at him. “Since you’re aware of such minor details,” she began, “I assume you also know that I’m not one to meekly submit in front of injustice. For now, you may have me at your mercy, my lord, but you’re sorely mistaken if you expected me to give in without discussing the possibility of a more… mutually acceptable agreement first.”

“I see,” Vader said. “A politician to the end.”

“Oh, I have no doubt you would indeed consider ending me before the night is over,” Padmé said with feigned confidence as she filled her plate with a portion of each main course. “This is a very nice dinner, I give you that, but if you’re looking to buy information, it’s not going to happen. I’ll never give up the location of our base.” 

“I do not buy information, I take it,” Vader said grimly. “Perhaps it would set your mind at ease if I told you that those Rebel fools are no longer a concern of mine.”

Padmé snorted. “That’s a rather bold claim, coming from someone who has hunted us tirelessly for nearly a decade.”

“For a time, I only lived to serve the Emperor. It was his will to see your feeble Alliance to be crushed under his heel,” Vader said. “I obliged, as it was expected of me.”

Padmé arched a brow in disbelief. “What are you, a servant?” she asked. “Or a mere slave, then?”

I’m a person, and my name is… “Yes,” Vader replied after a long pause. 

It was true, in a way the young Anakin Skywalker had been unable to comprehend. The arrogant Jedi could never have determined the true meaning behind the dying slaver queen’s cryptic words. I am a slave… just as you are

But Vader knew better. Breaking the chains alone was never enough. “I used to be,” he continued. “Until it turned out that the Emperor is but a fraud.”

Barely able to believe her ears, Padmé nearly dropped her spoon. “If—if this is some kind of a trick, in order to accuse me of treason, Lord Vader, I must inform you that—”

Vader raised his hand to silence her. “No tricks,” he said. “The Emperor must die.” 

“I—I don’t know what prompted such a daring statement, but… I can’t disagree with it.” Padmé was unpleasantly conscious of her trembling voice. “Yet I fail to understand my role in all this. You claim not to care about the Rebel Alliance, and it appears we now have a common enemy, so… is there any particular reason for you to keep here?”

There was a fleeting moment during which Vader was almost certain that Padmé’s hazel eyes were prying through his mask. 

“What—what if I asked you to let me go?” 

With her sincere plea came the blinding ray of light, seeping straight into the darkest pits of Vader’s mind, planting doubts and asking unwanted questions he had no answers for. He stared at Padmé. Anakin Skywalker had loved her, but that he had been too weak to keep her. Vader was stronger. He could accomplish what that inadequate boy could not. He could tear apart the Emperor along with every other delusional fool that would try to take her away from him.

But if you truly love her, wouldn’t you fulfill her wish and let her go? Wouldn’t that be the right thing to do? Skywalker wronged her. Do you wish to repeat his mistake? 

The answers were like strands of light within the Force. They were right there, floating around him. He only would have to reach out, and he almost did, before realizing that it would be an act of weakness he could not afford now, not when he was so close to mend the past mistakes of Anakin Skywalker. This time around, he would destroy the Emperor and not let the woman he loved slip through his fingers. 

And so he let his dark desires to drown out the newborn brightness in him. Otherwise, everything would be lost forever.

His prosthetic hands clenched into fists under the table. “No,” he murmured. He could not possibly let her go, not again. “No. It cannot be done. Do not ask again.”

Padmé let out a disappointed sigh as she poured herself a glass of wine. “Very well,” she said. “Perhaps I should have known it would be way too optimistic to hope that Darth Vader would have a heart.” 

“You must have other requests.” Vader ignored the insult. Mere words might have felt like vibroblades between Anakin Skywalker’s ribs, but he was different. He knew that words held no true power. “Name your wishes, and I will see to them personally.” 

“I do have one, in fact,” Padmé said, rotating her glass idly between her dainty fingers as she spoke. “The accommodations have been acceptable so far, but I need fresh air. The balcony your droid kindly suggested won’t do. I need to feel real ground under my feet.”

“It will be arranged.” Letting her out to the city was not an option, but Vader already had something else in mind. “Anything else?”

“I would also expect you to treat Esdee with more respect.”

“I already respect droids more than people as it is,” Vader protested. 

“Given how little respect you have for people, I’m quite sure there’s room for improvement in that department,” Padmé said. There was a sharp edge to her nonchalant tone. “Then, I have one more request for you, my lord.” 

“I am listening.”

“You claim the Emperor has to die…” she began. “Are you planning to do it… by yourself? Are you going to kill him?”

“Yes,” Vader replied. “The Emperor will die by my hand.”

“Then I’m asking you to let me help you.”

“You have already done more than enough,” Vader said. “Without you, Padmé, I wouldn’t have been able to see through the Emperor’s lies.”

Padmé gave a little shiver at hearing her name said in Vader’s rumbling baritone. His heavily processed voice echoed at the back of her mind long after he had stopped speaking. It was not really a surprise that he knew her name, considering everything else he seemed to know about her, but there was something rather disturbing about the way he had said it. Something she could not quite put her finger on.  

After Padmé decided that she was done with her negotiation attempts, they spoke very little. The fine vintage wine did miracles to her nerves, allowing her to enjoy her absolutely delicious meal without worrying too much about the faux pas she had committed by eating alone while having company. It had not escaped her notice that Vader did not eat, nor even remove his helmet. 

On the spur of the moment, she decided that Vader might have been right about one thing, after all. Perhaps she could not escape from her captivity at the time being, but she indeed did not need to make things worse than they already were simply out of spite, or did she? 

Besides, she had to admit that the former Senator in her had missed a more comfortable, more predictable way of life than the Rebel Alliance could have provided. There was nowhere she could have gone, so she might just as well have allowed herself a taste. 

Unable to brush off the peculiar feeling that behind his mask, Vader was watching her closely, she sliced a shuura fruit in half, then in quarters, before dipping a piece in the cup sweet cream. There was something almost familiar about the scene, yet she could not quite wrap her mind around the reason for it.  

After finishing her dessert, she stood up and walked to the window that covered the entire wall. She admired the iconic Coruscanti skyline in silence, unable to deny that she had missed the buzzing capital during her years underground. The deafening noises of skyline traffic, the silhouettes of skyscraping towers, the flecks of lights decorating the scenery after sundown, and the eternal liveliness of the city that never truly slept…

It was a delightful sight. Combined with the gratification from a fine dinner and the almost empty wine glass in her hand, it was almost delightful enough to make her overlook the fact that she was sharing with no other man but her husband’s murderer.

But only almost.  

Her body slightly swaying, she averted her gaze from the window and turned back to Vader. “Lord Vader, I—I’m afraid I’m not feeling well,” she said, her voice strained, as it occurred to her that she could not suffer his presence a moment longer. “I wish to retire to my room.”

Vader rose from his chair and stepped beside her. “I understand,” he said, breathing ominously through his mask. “Do you need me to escort you back to your room?”

Yet he immediately figured that her answer would likely be a reasonable ‘no’ and scolded himself for his boyish rashness. He was not the dashing knight Anakin Skywalker had been, there was no reason for him to act like one. “Need me to call the droid for your escort,” he corrected himself. 

Padmé made a brief gesture of refusal with her hands, quivering at the suffocating feeling of her captor’s shadow looming over her. “No—no, there’s no need for that. Thank you for the dinner,” she said as politely as she could as she rushed toward the door. “Good night, Lord Vader.”

“Good night, Padmé.”

On her way back to her room, that glorified prison cell, she could not help the tears from falling down her sore cheeks. What in the stars had made her believe for one standard second that she could possibly have made any of this less painful? The wine, obviously , she thought bitterly. 

But no amount of fancy wine could ever truly take away the pain of being captured by the monster and murderer that was Darth Vader.

In her room, she did not even bother to undress, as all she wanted was to crawl under her blanket and fall asleep as soon as possible, hoping that the night would wash away the remorse of listening to Vader’s poison-dripping words.    

Since as far as she knew, Vader was not capable of anything but inflicting pain. What would he have known about soothing it, anyway?

Chapter Text

Padmé shed the lingering remnants of a particularly persistent nightmare, as she woke up at a blooming headache and the already familiar clinking of SD-D4’s clumsy movements in her room. She immediately regretted her choice not to undress last night, as her dress now felt awfully sticky against her sweaty skin. The keen morning light seeping through the blinds dazzled her sore eyes, so she fluttered her eyelids rapidly to get used to the sudden brightness. 

There were still traces left of her prior anxiety, mixed up with the ever stinging realization that she had woken up to another day in captivity. A night’s sleep had not helped her to shake off her regrets of letting her guard down in Vader’s presence. Apparently, the former Senator in her had wanted to believe that her confinement was nothing but a game of politics – a twisted game, perhaps – but a game, nevertheless. The kind that could be played by two. The same former Senator had hoped to be able to eloquently talk her way out of this mess, but the captive Rebel operative suffering from a budding hangover begged to differ.

She might have drunk only a couple of glasses of wine, but then again, she was unaccustomed to drinking these days. The Rebel Alliance did not host galas nor arrange banquets in honor of diplomatic visits, they infiltrated Imperial facilities, salvaged parts of mostly outdated spacecraft and fought and won individual battles, but never the war. All in all, there was seldom any reason to celebrate anything. 

Despite her nausea and unusually grim thoughts, she was utterly glad to see that SD-D4 seemed fully recovered from Vader’s outburst of rage, as she could not help but partly blame herself for the droid getting injured. “Good morning, Esdee”, she said, offering him a gentle, if not a little half-hearted smile. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, yes, thank you for asking, Mistress”, he chirped as he set a breakfast tray on the desk. “Thanks to my built-in self-repair program. It’s automated, and fortunately most efficient, as my Master has a bit of a temper, you see.”

“I’m quite aware of that.” She let out a half bitter, half amused laughter before continuing in a more serious tone. “Be this as it may, he still has no right to abuse you.”

“Oh, you’re talking about that little incident last night?” The droid sounded almost genuinely surprised. “Rest assured, Mistress, that was absolutely nothing. In fact, your presence seems to have calmed him down quite a bit. I daresay he’s been… kinder.”

Padmé shook her head in dismay. “Last night wasn’t a very convincing demonstration of his alleged kindness”, she said. “He may have convinced you, but he has to do much better than that to convince me.”

“Will you help him, Mistress?”

The droid’s question, in all its genuineness, was not something she would have expected to hear. “Well, Esdee…” She hesitated. It was not her responsibility, and she would have preferred to avoid Vader’s presence at all costs, but on the other hand, if getting involved would make things easier for both herself the droid… “We’ll see. I can promise nothing more.”

She excused herself to go to the refresher, as she was eager to wash away the sweat and grime of her skin. The droid had brought her a clean dress, identical to the previous one. After dressing up, she combed her chestnut hair into a sleek top knot and prepared for another day of wandering aimlessly around the tower, studying the dusty vitrines full of sinister-looking artifacts of both Jedi and Sith origin. Not that she would have dared to touch anything, of course not, but there simply was not much else to do during the long days. She had not even seen the news in days. Therefore, she had not the slightest idea of what was happening in the galaxy. “Should’ve asked for a HoloNet access”, she thought as she stepped out of the refresher.

Padmé decided not to bother with rejecting her meals any longer. She ate her breakfast quietly, watching SD-D4 changing her sheets and tidying up the room with divided attention. It was eventually the droid who broke the silence. “Let me know when you’re finished, Mistress”, he chirped. “My Master wishes to see you in the lounge afterward.”

She took a sip of her tea as she gave the droid a suspicious look. “Did he mention any reason for that?”

“No, Mistress”, he replied. “However, I believe it might be about your recent request for fresh air.”

She was rendered speechless by surprise, as she had not expected Vader to see to her request so soon. When she thought about it, she could not even begin to guess what he might have planned, as she could hardly believe that he would have particularly anticipated fulfilling that particular part of her needs. In fact, she had fully expected his apparent leniency turning out to be just a bunch of empty promises; a flimsy attempt to gain her compliance, and nothing more.

In any case, she had to remind herself that she could not claim to understand the exceptional way the Sith Lord’s mind worked.  

Downstairs Padmé found Vader from the dimly-lit lounge, being almost able to feel his dark presence in the shadows before entering the room. He stood in front of another vitrine of ancient artifacts in silence, staring intensely through the dust-covered glass. She could not help but shiver as she approached him.

“You wished to see me, my Lord.”

“Yes”, he said, his tone as emotionless and monotone as ever. He gestured her to follow. “How are you feeling?”

Her posture stiffened at his abrupt question. If she would not have known better, she would have mistaken his concern for compassion – but did she truly know better? She could not come up with a solid answer, so the question remained lingering at the back of her mind. Vader had not hurt her, not even threatened her with any kind of violence so far, and even though she did not feel particularly safe in his presence, she had to admit that she would likely have had it worse in the Imperial prison.

She cleared her throat. “Better”, she managed to blurt out, being annoyed at herself for wondering if she should have apologized for her unmannerly disappearance last night. However, she assured herself that she had no reason to apologize for not wanting to spend any more time than it was necessary in her captor’s company. “I hope you don’t expect me to apologize for leaving early last night.”

“That is irrelevant to me”, he replied as the two walked next to each other, making their way through the eerie corridors of the tower that had once been a home of the Jedi. She was barely able to keep with his pace.

“You must wonder where I am taking you.”

“Why, yes”, she said, worrying her lip in anticipation. “I do, in fact.”

Vader shut down a ray shield and gestured her to go in first. “You will see soon enough”, he said as he followed her to a secluded courtyard, shadowed by the four towers of the Imperial Palace. “This arrangement does not please me, but perhaps it will please you.” 

Padmé looked around in awe as she stepped on the elegant, yet almost overgrown stonework path that led further to the most alluring garden she had seen in a long time – or perhaps ever. The garden seemed mostly untended, but instead of withering away, it had continued growing on its own. For a fleeting moment, she could do nothing but admire the flamboyance of the bewildered garden. 

She crouched to brush an exotic-looking crimson flower with her fingertips before turning back to Vader, whose dark figure loomed behind her. “What is this place?”

Vader crossed his durasteel-covered arms over his chest. “It used to be a meditation garden for the Jedi”, he explained, sounding reluctant. “It was burned to the ground after the Order was destroyed. The Emperor built another to bask in the demise of an old enemy.”

He plucked a weed and crushed it in his fist. “The Emperor has built countless monuments for his victories”, he said. “This one is nothing but abandoned. No one comes here anymore.”

“It’s… beautiful”, Padmé sighed breathlessly, not knowing how to describe the botanical brilliance before her eyes in a more suitable manner. At first glance, it looked like there could have been plants from every corner of the galaxy. “I must confess that I didn’t expect to find such beauty here, in the heart of the Empire.”

Vader took a step beside her, and even though she did not turn to look at him, she was strangely sure that despite the sinister-looking mask hiding his face, his gaze was fixed on her. “Neither did I.”

Upon comprehending his words, Padmé pretended to be examining the nearby cloudflower vines with unparalleled interest, as she was uncomfortably certain that unlike her, Vader was not referring to the garden at all. She felt her cheeks flushing, as his rasping breath sent uninvited shivers down her spine. Could it be that Vader, of all people, was attempting to… flirt with her? All of a sudden, her mind was racing wild with thoughts, but despite trying her hardest, she failed to come up with a sharp comeback to rebuff such unwanted advances from her captor. Part of her wanted to snap at him, make her sheer resentment for him clear as a day, but there was… something else too, another feeling, a more familiar one, hovering at the back of her mind and mixing up with her lukewarm repulsion.

Please, don’t look at me like that.

The right words, if there were any, got lost somewhere on the way. She took a sharp breath, in an attempt to break the unsettling silence that was about to ensue between them with an indiscreet change of topic, but Vader was faster than her. “Walk with me”, he proposed – or ordered, as she could not tell for sure.

Padmé followed him further into the lush shadows of the bewildered garden, spotting familiar flora here and there along their way. She stopped abruptly by one of the neglected flowerbeds, as a subtle but familiar scent floated by. “No, it couldn’t be…” She closed her eyes, imagining that she was back in the Royal Gardens of Naboo. “Rominaria flowers?”

“You… like them?”

“These plants grow in my homeworld, my Lord”, she explained, yearning to pick up one, but ultimately deciding against it. “My handmaidens and I used to make flower crowns out of these. There was a saying that they smell like powdered babies. Such a silly thing to say, isn’t it? I used to laugh at it, never believed it, not until–“

Padmé fell silent in the middle of a sentence, realizing that she had endangered her children with her idle talk. Obi-Wan had warned her that Darth Vader might be after the twins years ago, and here she was now, about to reveal the truth of their existence out of her girlish nostalgia. She had lost them once, burning her own heart to ashes to protect them from the threat of the Sith. The very thought of losing them again, and this time for good, just because of her own naivety made her heart clench in guilt and sorrow. She was better than this, was she not? Despite all the talk of overthrowing the Emperor, there was no trusting to Vader and his intentions, as the man was nothing but a violent murderer. Perhaps he only wanted to get rid of the Emperor to become one himself and rule in his place, after all?

Vader tensed as he felt a sudden disturbance in the Force as if a tremendous wave of sorrow had just swept over Padmé, leaving her thoughts open and vulnerable. Regardless of his burning desire to learn the truth, he did not dare to delve deeper into her mind as he feared what he might discover. He hated as much as he feared the possibility that the baby could have had perished as a result of his own cruelty and lack of self-control.

Yet, he could no longer carry on without learning the truth of Anakin Skywalker’s child – his child. “Is it true?”

Right at that moment, it occurred to her that Vader had obviously known about the children for the whole time, and all of this seemed to have turned out to be some kind of a sick game, after all. “I – I’m afraid I don’t understand, my Lord.”

“What they say about the plants, is it true?” He asked, dreading what the answer might be. “My sources indicate you were with a child during the fall of the Republic.”

Her heart was racing wild as she was desperately trying to decide how to proceed with the alarming situation at hand. She could – no, she absolutely had to – lie about the truth and put her own life in grave danger, as she was certain that Vader would not hesitate to strike her down if he was to detect foul play.

“The baby… He didn’t make it, my Lord”, she whispered as her voice broke. A more or less convenient lie to hide the fact that there had been two babies, not just one. Her chin trembled, and her fear for not seeing them ever again poured out in a stream of uncontrollable tears. “There was nothing the med droids could have done to save his life.”

Vader had never been rendered as powerless as he was now, in front of Padmé’s agony. He would have wanted to pull her into an embrace, comfort her and take away his share of the grief of the loss, as he felt that half of it rightfully belonged to him, but his shame was holding him back. He was painfully aware that he should have been there with her. He would have been there, if only he had not fallen into the web of the Emperor’s lies.

He loathed himself for not being able to do nothing to soothe her pain, as nothing that was in his power to do could not have changed the past and brought their child back to life. He was vehement to have someone to blame for this excruciating misery, the Emperor or Anakin Skywalker and his infinite weakness or anyone, but in that one blazing moment, he finally realized he had no one else to blame but himself.

Padmé shuddered at the sudden weight of Vader’s gloved hand on her shoulder. She turned to him with tears in the corners of her eyes. “My Lord?”

He hesitated before he spoke. “I would not have wished such a harrowing experience upon you.”

She shook his hand off her and stabbed a finger at his durasteel-covered chest. “You know what, my Lord? Your droid claims not to understand human interaction, but compared to you, he’s a natural talent”, she said furiously. “Here you have the audacity to claim you care about my loss. If that’s supposed to be the case, perhaps you shouldn’t have murdered my husband.”

“Anakin Skywalker deserved his fate”, he stated. “Would you not agree that he never brought anything but pain and misery to those who cared about him?”

“That’s not true!” She exclaimed with a fierce expression on her face, as it was obvious to her that Vader knew absolutely nothing about the man he had mercilessly slain eight years ago. “Not everyone got to see that side of him, but he was a good man. The kind that never passed an opportunity to help those in need. He was so much more than a war hero. He was a dedicated Jedi, a good friend… and a caring husband.”

“Yet, he turned to the Dark Side and betrayed everyone who counted on him.”

“Just as he was betrayed, by you and your wretched Emperor”, she said, reciting what Obi-Wan had once told her about Anakin’s death. He may have had thought that Anakin could not have been saved, but she had never truly taken his words to her heart. “I was there. I saw him in his darkest moment, and I swear by the stars that there was still good in him. If only he had lived, I would’ve found him and dragged him back to the Light where he belonged, even if it had been the last thing I ever did.”

For a second Padmé thought that she had finally gone too far; that Vader would be so full of her disrespectfulness that he would grab his lightsaber and run her through right there where she stood. Apparently, he was not, as she noticed a slight change in his posture, and for a fleeting moment, he looked almost like he had been… defeated?

There was a prolonged silence. “You are a bold woman, Padmé Amidala”, Vader said. “Perhaps it’s no wonder that Anakin Skywalker was so eager to lay down his loyalties to save your life, after all.” He took a significant pause before speaking again. “Yet, I did not come here to discuss Skywalker’s personal history. There is something you must know, and not much time.”

Padmé gave him an inquiring look, wiping her eyes with her sleeve to be sure there were no more tears. “Well, in that case, now is as good a time as any.”

“I will be leaving the palace by nightfall”, he said.

“What?” She blurted out. “Where are you going? What about–“

Vader raised his hand to silence her. “You need not to worry”, he said.

She scoffed at the absurdness of his words. “You may rest assured, my Lord, that I’m not worrying. Not for you, at least”, she said, crossing her arms over her chest in defiance, “but since you’re obviously planning to leave me here for stars know how long, I need to know what you’re doing and when you’re going to come back.”

“I seek to retrieve a holocron that may contain vital knowledge for defeating the Emperor”, he explained. “A certain bounty hunter has informed me that it is now in his possession, thus I have arranged a meeting with him in the Undercity.”

“When will you come back?”

“I must ensure that no one can follow my tracks, as those lawless criminals can’t be trusted”, he said. “I shall return in three days.”

Padmé could not help herself but wonder. “And if you don’t?”

“I always will”, he replied. “I trust you not to do anything foolish during my absence. You may come down here whenever you wish, SD-D4 will provide you with the access codes and take care of your other needs while I am gone.”

Padmé had mixed feelings about Vader’s unexpected notice. There was a part in her that was utterly glad about his departure, a part that was already making plans for an escape attempt, but there was also another, perhaps even a little louder part, that was in discomfort of the thought of being abandoned to her own devices. “Very well”, she said, a little sourly. “Safe travels, my Lord.”

“Until we meet again.”

Chapter Text

“Can you imagine what irritates me most about him?” Padmé asked from the SD-D4 who she was helping with clearing the table after breakfast. Her rapidly growing frustration with her own treacherous subconscious seeped into her tone. Vader might have had left the palace, but apparently he still refused to leave her thoughts.

“I’m afraid I can’t, Mistress”, SD-D4 replied. “Unfortunately, my programming is not designed for guessing games.”

Padmé aggressively wiped the table with a damp cloth, as if all her recent hardship was deriving from that quite innocent piece of furniture. “It must sound ridiculous to you, I know it sounds ridiculous to me, but there are those little fleeting moments that make me feel like there’s something familiar about him. Almost like I knew him”, she said, vexed. “I don’t know how he does it, how he tricks me, over and over again, to believe there’s something humane in him, something salvageable and almost good – and then he blows it all up as he goes and reminds me of every single reason I have to detest him.”

Utensils clanged together as SD-D4 clumsily collected them from the table. “That must be quite unsettling for you, Mistress.”

She worried her lip in irritation. “No, Esdee, my dear”, she corrected with a soft sigh. “It’s not ‘quite unsettling’, it’s absolutely maddening.”

As much as she sympathized with the droid, she could not help but miss more compassionate company. He was a good listener, and definitely a notch up from Vader in terms of overall pleasantness, but even then he could not possibly substitute for a flesh and blood friend with a basic understanding of the very concept of emotional support. 

She tossed the rag aside and glanced at the droid, desperately yearning for a glimpse of empathy, but to no avail. “And the worst part is that now he’s gone and I’m trapped in this forsaken place to my own devices.”

“Well, I’m led to believe that acquiring your custody was not a simple task for my Master”, the droid said briskly as he loaded the catering trolley. “He surely wouldn’t have left you without deliberating, but fear not, Mistress, as he has assigned me to take care of–“

“Okay, stop. Stop. First, I’m not some inanimate object for him or anyone to be ‘acquired’, Esdee. I’m a living, breathing, feeling person, and I have my own life out there, outside these walls. I have every right to be upset”, she said sharply. “And second, I’m perfectly aware that he has you to keep me in check, thank you.”

“I might have preferred a different phrasing myself, but–“

“Esdee, please!”

“Oh dear”, he lamented. “My sensors are indicating that I must have done it again. I assure you, Mistress, I did not mean to upset–“

Padmé patted the silver plating of SD-D4’s shoulder, reminding herself that the poor droid still was not the one to blame for her misery, let alone her disobedient thoughts. At that moment, she simply was much more interested in genuine comfort than cold hard facts, and the droid could only offer the latter.  “Don’t worry, Esdee”, she said. “I know you didn’t.”

She quickly pulled her hair into a slightly messier ponytail than she would have preferred. “You know what, I think I’ll go and have a little walk in the gardens.”

She abruptly slipped out of the room, not wanting to give the little too officious droid enough time to object. After all, Vader had promised she could go to the gardens whenever she wished, and she was determined to do so without a droid chaperon on her tail. As the door hissed shut behind her, she closed her eyes for a second and took a deep breath, feeling utterly lost – and alone. She would desperately have needed a shoulder to lean, if not to cry on, but since there were none available, getting some fresh air to clear her head came as the second-best option.

As she walked along the shadowy corridor, she could not help but be disappointed by her sudden unenthusiasm and apparent lack of focus. Where was that fierce Rebel operative she used to be, the one who was hardened by her sorrow and never-ending terrors of the Emperor’s reign? The one who surely would have figured out a solid escape plan by now? She had indeed tried a couple of obviously locked doors last night and even found a promising hatch that could have had led into a ventilation duct if she only had managed to pry it open, but she had to admit that her efforts had been half-hearted at best.

It had to be Vader’s lingering presence in the back of her mind that kept knocking her off balance, she decided. Otherwise, she would already be halfway back to the Rebel base, or so she tried to convince herself. And yet, instead of working with her breakout, her stubborn thoughts kept either flashing back to her stroll in the gardens with Vader or bombarding her with questions she had no sufficient answers for.

Where exactly had Vader gone? Who was he meeting? Would he return in three days, as he had promised? What if something went wrong? Would he be alright?

She shook her head violently as if trying to get rid of such absurd thoughts. If something happened to Vader, would that not be nothing but a relief to the entire galaxy? Would she not celebrate his long-awaited death among thousands of others? She was not so sure anymore, not after learning that the Emperor had deceived Vader, too. If she could not have blamed the Senate or the Jedi or Anakin for blindly falling into his clutches, how could she blame Vader for it with good conscience?

Oh, but she could. And she definitely should, as she reminded herself of the facts.

Obi-Wan had once told her that Anakin, who had been the strongest and bravest of the Jedi, had fought Vader and perished. She figured that if Vader could have singlehandedly defeated Anakin in battle, he had to be immensely powerful. She could hardly believe that even the Emperor could have de facto forced him into submission. In fact, it seemed crystal clear that Vader had made the choice to pledge himself to the Emperor all by himself, for whatever unspeakably sinister and likely selfish reason that might have been.

It had been his own damned choice, and she had every reason to loathe him for it.

As soon as she reached the final ray shield between herself and fresh air, she deactivated it with the access code she had been provided and stepped outside. The sudden brightness took her by surprise and dazzled her for a few seconds, as her eyes were no longer used to daylight. The brisk wind mussed her hair and yanked at the hem of her dress, carrying the scent of a pending storm. She briefly thought of going back inside to look for a jacket or something, but ultimately decided against it.

Despite the less than perfect weather, the garden was just as stunning in all its emerald lushness as it had been yesterday. Padmé found herself eager to explore it further now that she had the chance to do it all by herself. She followed the stonework path and was eventually drawn deeper into the denseness of the long-abandoned garden. She ventured through the bewildered vegetation of the most verdant parts of the garden until she stepped under an arch covered with a tangle of thick vines and found herself at what seemed an abandoned plaza, secluded by overgrown hedges.

She let her gaze wander over the rather intriguing sight before her. There was an enormous artificial waterfall catching her eye at first. The steady stream descended into a small pond, shrouded with a fine mist. She figured the pond was likely inhabited with all kinds of rare and exotic fish from throughout the galaxy. Oh, and there was even a charming little gazebo on the far side of the pond, and…

It was only then that she realized she was not alone in the garden at all.

There was a young woman, likely a few years younger than she was, sitting in the gazebo, leaning on her elbows and staring at her intensely through the clouds of mist. Padmé felt her heart clench violently in her chest, as she took an abrupt step backward and almost slipped on the wet pavement. No one was supposed to be here, Vader had said so himself!

She flinched. What was she supposed to do now? Run back inside and never come back? Confront the stranger and try to find out what she was doing here? She had no idea, but apparently the stranger had, as the girl gracefully stepped out of the gazebo and approached her with an apologetic smirk on her faintly freckled face. 

“Oh, stars. I did startle you, didn’t I?” She asked, running her fingers nervously through her golden locks. Padmé could say nothing but nod rigidly, still dumbfounded by the girl’s sudden appearance. “I didn’t mean to, I swear!” The girl hastily raised her hands in reassurance. “I just really didn’t expect to see anyone down here, you know?”

“I – I could say the same”, Padmé replied, slightly stuttering. “I was… informed that no one was supposed to be here.”

The girl flashed her a wide grin. “Well, you’re not terribly wrong”, she said. “No one, indeed, should be here. This place is off-limits, but I won’t tell if you won’t.”

“I’d appreciate that”, Padmé said, giving her a lukewarm smile as she was could not decide whether she was more afraid of, her presence being revealed to the Emperor or Vader’s reaction upon hearing about her unexpected encounter with the girl.

“Hey, I don’t blame you”, she said mischievously. “It’s quite pretty down here, don’t you think? I come here whenever I manage to steal a few minutes for myself.”

“You… work here? In the palace?” The question had already escaped her lips before she noticed that the girl wore a uniform dress quite similar to hers.

“Down in the kitchens, yeah”, the girl confirmed with a firm nod. “Loading dishwashers and scrubbing tables with droids. It’s not too fancy, I know. See, Daddy was a TIE pilot in the Imperial Navy. We had it pretty good, but then one day Daddy’s starfighter crashed and he, you know, went with it. Passed away. Died. Probably exploded, they never found the body. I always wanted to follow his footsteps and become a pilot myself, but that didn’t quite work out for me. I guess they never got my application in the Academy.”

“I’m sorry”, Padmé said, distantly realizing there was something off with the girl’s casual tone when speaking of such tragic and life-altering events, yet she could not quite put her finger on it. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but where’s your mother?”

The girl shrugged. “Daddy told me she left when I was little”, she said nonchalantly. “I don’t remember her at all. Does that make me an orphan? I guess it does. Daddy’s friends in the Navy pitied me enough to use their contacts, so they could get me this lousy job.”

Padmé felt a vicious sting in her heart as a fleeting thought of her own children speaking about her in the similar uncaring manner one day made the blood froze in her veins. As much as she wanted to loathe Vader, she found herself clinging to the hope that he would succeed in his plan overthrow the Emperor, realizing that she had surprisingly little interest in his ulterior motives at the time being.

“I’m quite surprised they didn’t kick you out in the streets”, she said sourly, being painfully aware that she should have curbed her tongue. As if she did not know that the galaxy was crawling with homeless children, left orphaned by the Clone Wars and later the Emperor’s ceaseless conquests for total dominance over the galaxy. It would have been absurd to claim that the Republic had been utterly blameless for the tragedy, but then again, the Empire did not seem to care about the poor and oppressed at all.   

Much to Padmé’s surprise, the girl burst in giggles. “Oh, you can’t begin to imagine my surprise when they didn’t. Guess I should be thankful”, she said before slapping her hand over her mouth in a theatrical manner. “Here I just ramble and ramble before even bothering to introduce myself. Where are my manners? I’m Sereena, Sereena Vox, and you – don’t tell me, let me guess – you must be that Naboo diplomat, yeah?”

Padmé hesitated. “Well, yes”, she finally said as she politely offered her hand for a handshake. “Sabé Skywalker. Nice to meet you, Sereena.”

Having to lie to Sereena made Padmé feel rather uneasy, as the girl seemed quite sweet and friendly, if not a little eccentric. And yet, she understood that she could not have revealed her true identity to an Imperial employee she had only just met, regardless of whether she happened to enjoy her company to some extent or not. It was not only short-sighted but extremely dangerous. “Actually, I think I should–“

“No, please… I beg you, don’t go just yet”, Sereena pleaded, grabbing Padmé’s sleeve before she could excuse herself. “It’s just… It’s not that I have too many friends around here, you know? The kitchen staff consists mostly of droids and doddering seniles, and you seem really nice, and…I don’t know, I just thought if you would like to come and sit with me for a while.”

Sereena pointed her thumb over her shoulder. “I even have blankets and those little cakes over there”, she tempted. “Just do me a favor and don’t mention the cakes to that meddlesome droid that brings your meals, as they might have been meant for your supper.”

Padmé could not help but relate to Sereena’s apparent loneliness. She knew Vader would not have approved the choice she was about to make, but then again, he was not present to witness her making it. “Well, when you put it like that, how could I resist?”

She followed Sereena into the decrepit gazebo, and just as the girl had promised, there were a nest of warm blankets and a small plate filled with tiny, sugary cakes waiting for them. The setting was rather inelegant but cozy, and it distantly reminded her of her youthful years back in Naboo, as there had been quite a few hidden nooks and almost imperceptible alcoves for her to hide within and share court gossip with her handmaidens in the Royal Gardens.

They sat down, and before Padmé could even realize, a couple of hours had already passed. During her confinement, she had almost forgotten how much she enjoyed having such light-hearted and naturally flowing conversations. They shared idle stories about their childhoods and future dreams and everything between, which was a welcome change from the grimness of her recent discussions with Vader.

Assuming the cover of a Naboo diplomat came easy to her, as it was not too far from truth, and even if her new friend accidentally brought up a more awkward subject, she found it relatively easy to subtly guide her back to her obvious favorite topic of conversation: the distinctive features of contemporary starfighter models.

In fact, Sereena’s bubbling enthusiasm for quality spacecraft reminded her of someone. “You and my husband would have had a lot in common”, she laughed after another rambling monologue about engine units.

Sereena glanced at her curiously. “You mean he’s a pilot?”

“He was a pilot, among other things”, Padmé said avoidantly, as it occurred to her that she might have said too much, and by doing so, risked her cover. As much as she wanted to trust Sereena, who seemed to be a real sweetheart, she had to keep in mind that, above all else, the girl was an Imperial employee. “He was a military officer in the Grand Army of the Republic during the Clone Wars.” Technically, it was not a lie.

“Oh, wow. That must be hard for you.”

Due to her recent dealings with both Vader and his tactless droid, Padmé could not have been bothered with being too confused by Sereena’s youthful bluntness. “Well, of course, I can’t deny–“

“Oh, I bet he was handsome”, Sereena interrupted, lacing her words with a dreamy sigh. “A real poster boy.”

Apparently, Sereena’s sheer curiosity had no limits. Padmé flashed her a bashful, yet half-hearted smile before looking away to hide her sudden sadness, as some of her most cherished memories of Anakin came flooding back to her. “You’re… not wrong”, she said coyly, repeating Sereena’s earlier words. “He was the most beautiful man I’ve ever met.”

“Being married to a real pilot, a handsome one, even, and then…” Sereena muttered, rocking back and forth on the bench she was sitting on as if she was trying to wrap her thoughts around what she had just heard. “I can’t even begin to imagine how you deal with… you know?”

In her mind, Padmé sought fervently a way to steer the conversation away from her past, which turned out to be easier said than done, as she felt kind of obliged to explain her feelings over her tragedy to her young and perhaps a little naive friend. “I’d be lying if I said it was always easy. It’s not”, she explained in a gentle tone. “I miss him a great deal every day, but… It’s been years, and eventually, I had to let go of the past and keep on living. He’d have wanted me to go on, I’m sure of that.”

Sereena shook her head rapidly from side to side. “Oh, no, no, no”, she said, obviously amused by such a misunderstanding. “I didn’t mean that, not at all.”

Padmé slightly tilted her head and blinked in confusion, wrapping her blanket tighter around herself. “Pardon me, Sereena, but I don’t think I follow you.”

There was something slightly unsettling in the girl’s grin. “Come on now, as if you didn’t know what I’m talking about!”

“I’m afraid I really don’t–“

“Oh, please”, Sereena laughed, waving her hand dismissively. “You can’t possibly expect me to believe you’re here on some nonsense diplomatic mission, so you may as well be honest with me.”

Padmé frowned, as she had not the slightest idea of what Sereena was going on about. Could the girl have figured out that she was, as a matter of fact, a prisoner and not a diplomat? And if she had figured it out, what in the stars could have been so funny about it? “I am being honest with you, Sereena”, she said, even though it was not completely true. “But I still don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

“Let’s just say Darth Vader doesn’t particularly strike me as a man who would spend night after night entertaining diplomats, ordering them all kinds of sweet treats from the kitchens”, Sereena said cunningly, her amber eyes twinkling with mischief. “He has never done such a thing before. You’re his mistress, aren’t you? I must know, have you seen his face? What does he look like? You must tell me everything! I bet he’s not that handsome, as otherwise, he wouldn’t be hiding under that hideous bucket all day, every day. It’s a bit weird, you know? Having him skulking around without knowing who he truly is under those ridiculously expensive and kriffing ugly cybernetics.”

Padmé inhaled sharply, unable to hide her disbelief at Sereena’s blatant assumptions. “No, Sereena – no! That’s not true, that’s – that’s absolute nonsense”, she said, her voice shaky. “Where did you get that idea? And no, I haven’t – wait, what do you mean? Are you implying that no one around here knows his identity?”

Sereena shrugged indifferently. “No one but the Emperor, I guess”, she said. “Of course, there have always been rumors, ever since day one…”

“What rumors?”

“Well, there’s plenty, but since you asked, one, in particular, comes to mind…” Sereena said cryptically, observing Padmé’s reactions to her words as she spoke. “Some say that he was a Jedi who fell to the Dark Side, a traitor to his Order and the Republic. That’s quite popular theory if I might add.”

Padmé grimaced at Sereena’s words. Could that be true? How in the stars could something like that have happened under the noses of the Jedi Council? Her stomach twisted in knots at the thought of Anakin, Obi-Wan and the entire Jedi Order being betrayed by someone they had trusted with their lives.

Could Palpatine have used Vader as a tool to lure Anakin to the Dark Side?

“I wouldn’t recommend straight up asking him, though”, Sereena said while picking up stray crumbs with her fingertips. “From what I’ve gathered, that’s pretty foolproof way get yourself killed.”

But Sereena’s warnings were in vain, as Padmé had already made her decision. She would find out the truth about Vader’s identity, even if it would be the last thing she would ever do. A plan was already forming in her mind. There had to be clues, hidden in the shadows of Vader’s tower, and she still had a couple of days left before he was supposed to return.

She rose abruptly, letting her blanket fall to the ground. “It’s getting late, isn’t it?”, she said, glancing at the darkening sky as she adjusted her dress. “Meeting you was a pleasant surprise, Sereena, first of its kind since I ended up here.”

All of a sudden, Sereena leaped to hug her. “It was so nice to meet you too, Sabé! I’ve never had a real friend before”, she said, her eyes glistening with sheer joy. “I may call you a friend, right?”

Padmé inhaled sharply, as the sudden endearment caught her off guard. “But of course”, she promised, lightly stroking her golden hair. “I think I could use a friend.”

"I knew it! Oh, and don't worry", Sereena said, winking at her before starting to gather her things. "Your little secret is safe with me." 

On her way back inside, Padmé was trying to figure out whether meeting Sereena Vox had been the best or the absolute worst thing that had happened to her after getting caught.

At least it was the weirdest, that was for sure.

Chapter Text

“I’m not sure about this, Alizsu,” Iajel said doubtfully. He jumped to sit on the workbench and put his hand on hers, preventing her from cleaning her blaster pistols for a moment.

Alizsu glared icily at the other Twi’lek and slapped his hand away, sneering at him. “Well, I am,” she said. “Just think about all those credits and stop being such a kriffing idiot, for a chance. You know just as well as I do that we need the money from this job.”

“Ten thousand credits…” he muttered, shaking his head in disbelief.

She attached her blasters back to her utility belt. “Yeah, what of it?”

He shrugged. “Don’t you think that’s a bit… excessive?”

“Oh, you gotta be kidding me!” she groaned. “This is our kriffing chance, you stupid prick, and what are you doing? Complaining, as always. Tell me, Iajel, why should we care if our client is a moron and places such a bounty on the head of some dusty old curio collector?”

“That’s exactly what I’ve been asking myself,” he said. “If this damned job is supposed to be so easy, why would anyone pay so handsomely for it? Why hire a dozen bounty hunters for getting rid of just one man? There’s something fishy about this job, mark my words.”

Alizsu sighed. “Listen to yourself, Iajel,” she said absentmindedly, focusing on polishing her vibroknife instead of his words. “There’s nothing to be worried about. You’re just overthinking it, as you always do.”

“One of us has to,” he muttered. “Since you aren’t thinking at all.”

She backhanded him viciously across the face. “I’m not thinking, huh? You know what I’ve been thinking nonstop for the past six months?” She grabbed his collar and jerked him closer. “Can you guess, huh? I bet you can come up with something, smartass.”

“Ouch”, he groaned. “I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t mean to—“

“Your debt to Jabba!” she barked, ignoring his pleading tone. “Your kriffing debt and how to pay it back, that’s what I’ve been thinking about. That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out for the last six months straight, while you’ve done nothing but sat on your arse and criticized my every decision. It was I who killed that bounty hunter he sent for you, remember? It was I who smuggled us off that wretched dustball, or have you forgotten that, too?”

“Of course I haven’t forgotten—“

“It was I who got us this job, so we can finally get that nasty old slug off our backs, and what do I get in return?” she asked, spreading her arms. “More complaining. More insults.”

“Alizsu, please, listen to me,” he begged. “I’m just worried, okay? Worried about you. About us. If something about this job goes awry—“

Alizsu reached out and lifted his chin. “Hey, you know me. It’s gonna be okay. You know I’ve never let you down, and I’m not intending to start now,” she assured, her tone a tad gentler now. “There’s some pretty big names involved in this job, I’ve heard. They even say Boba Fett is gonna be the head of this operation. It’s not gonna blow upon us, I promise.”

Iajel’s eyes widened in surprise. “Boba Fett?” he repeated, dumbfounded. “That Boba Fett?”

“Oh, there’s other bounty hunters going by that name I’m not aware of?” she said mockingly. “Just think about it. As if a guy of his reputation would stick his neck out for this job if it wasn’t going to be worth it.”

“I guess you’re right, then,” Iajel said, still not fully confident. Fett just had to know something they didn't.

“I’m always right.”

It would have been remarkably easy for one to end up being relieved of the burden of worldly goods in the infamous Coruscant underworld, but the seedy inhabitants of the lower levels and their nefarious ways weren't a concern for Vader. Those who were aware of his reputation would never have dared to cross him in the open, and those who weren't would still have been intimidated enough by his menacing appearance to stay out of his way. He stormed his way through the diverse crowd humans and aliens alike, not bothering with keeping a low profile, as he knew he wouldn't be able to benefit from anonymity anywhere within Imperial space, especially not here on Coruscant.

His meeting with the well-known bounty hunter, Boba Fett, who claimed to be in possession of the Sith holocron, would be taking place in an abandoned foundry. Fett’s choice of location is more than suitable for setting up lethal traps and ambushes, he thought to himself. That much was obvious. Yet it necessarily didn't have to mean anything more than Fett understanding the worth of his prize and not wanting to leave anything to chance.

Fett was nothing if not a professional. Vader could respect that.

And yet, he wasn't planning to leave anything to chance, either. His sole purpose for being here was to retrieve the holocron, and it didn't matter to him many people he would have to kill in order to achieve his ends. He would have preferred to not let Padmé out of his sight, but if the holocron would turn out to be what he was looking for, this detour would be worth his while. The Emperor was a cunning enemy, far too strong for him to beat for the time being, but unlocking the secrets of the holocron could change everything.

It was a calculated risk; the one he was willing to take. Whether he was doing it for Padmé or himself, he could not tell. He would have expected the Force to assist him with determining the correct course of action, but for now, his vision was blurred. His meditation sessions no longer granted him clarity and insight but instead made him feel lost. It was like going in endless circles, swaying between the dark side and the light in the opaque haze of his mind.

The Sith in him desired to have it all. The Sith in him, burning in his lust for power, refused to be forced to choose between Padmé and the Imperial throne. The Sith in him knew he could have both, and he was unwilling to compromise. The Sith knew how to make things the way he wanted them to be. The Sith would not trust Padmé to make the right choice this time and stay by his side, so he would have to make that choice for her. He would not allow her to refuse her rightful place as his Empress, not this time. He would not hesitate to force her into submission, if necessary.


You’re a good person, don’t do this.


But the Sith’s ever enticing whispers no longer were the only voice echoing from the depths of his mind. Now, there was another, an equally alluring but much more serene one, pleading him to turn back and face his past. It did not matter how much he despised it; how much he wanted to silence it for good, the other voice remained. And as long as it remained, persistently reminding him of what had been and what might still be, he could not crush the final lingering fragments of Anakin Skywalker scattered inside him, despite his best efforts.

And yet, by the time he arrived at the foundry, his sheer determination alone was enough to suppress the lure of light inside him. He pushed his emotions back, ultimately ignoring his inner conflict, for the time being, to ensure nothing could get between him and his mission.

There were no guards outside, which did not surprise him at all. He figured that if Fett had brought company, he would not have announced it to him straight away. Even though he might have had little respect for the trade of bounty hunters in general, he was quite aware of this particular one’s reputation throughout the galaxy. Many, if not most bounty hunters died young – good riddance, he thought to himself – but Fett had been around long enough to prove himself resourceful, Vader had to give him that. If some less experienced, less reputable bounty hunter had claimed for possession of a holocron, he might have not even considered confirming it worthy of his time.  

Before entering the foundry, he reached for the Force to scout ahead. It became clear that Fett indeed had not come alone, as he sensed at least several living entities inside the building, their emotions – anticipation, excitement, greed, impatience, and stress, for example – so tangled and entwined with one another that he was unable to figure out their exact number from his position. If he had to guess, he would have said that there were more than ten but less than twenty people inside.

But he did not have to make such guesses, as their exact number did not matter to him. For all he cared, there could have been hundred heavily armed bounty hunters prowling for him, and he would slaughter each and every one of them with no remorse if they were foolish enough to cross him.

The double doors were both ripped off their hinges. He stepped inside the dark hall, not bothering to try and hide his presence. “Show yourself, bounty hunter,” he growled out loud, making sure that Fett and his people knew he had arrived, as he had no patience for their pathetic games. “I have come to claim what belongs to me.”

As Vader had already suspected, they were waiting for him. Spotlights, set to point downwards to the doors, were lit. The rays of light that cut through the thick darkness of the hall were so bright that they would have blinded a regular person for a few seconds at least, granting the band of bounty hunters the advantage they were looking for, but due to his visor, the sudden change in lighting had no effect on him.

His gloved fingers trailed over the hilt of his lightsaber, hooked on his belt. “I do not recommend playing these games with me,” he warned. “Give me the holocron, Fett, and I shall let you leave this place unharmed.”

He recognized the distinct sound of a jetpack being launched somewhere a few levels above him, and after a few seconds, a man in traditional Mandalorian armor and a helmet that covered his face landed in front of him. “Lord Vader,” he greeted.

“Fett,” Vader growled impatiently, as he sensed that the bounty hunter had the holocron with him. He could feel the immense power of such an object vibrating violently in the Force. “Hand over the holocron.”

Fett chuckled darkly behind his helmet. “I think not,” he said. He took the holocron out of his pocket and flashed it to him. “I’m no fool, Vader, I always knew this little device here could fetch me a better deal than you offered.”

Vader’s hands clenched into fists. “Explain.”

“You weren’t the only person who contacted me about the holocron,” Fett said. “Your offer was decent enough, I’ll give you that, but it wasn’t the best one. Far from it.”

“You are wasting my time, bounty hunter,” Vader growled, as his patience was growing thing.

Since he had gone rogue and was no longer acting on behalf of the Emperor, he could not have spent tens of thousands of credits without drawing Palpatine’s attention. He should have had been aware of the possibility of a higher bidder appearing, but his desire for the holocron and its hidden secrets had temporarily blinded him for taking precautions.

“I can kill you and take the holocron from your dead body if death is what you seek.”

“The only death I seek today is yours,” Fett announced before launching his jetpack again and jumping in the air. The bounty hunter was nimble to pull out his blaster and start firing at him, but Vader was prepared and managed to deflect the shots with his lightsaber. 

Fett’s initiative must have been a signal for others since as soon as he had opened fire, blaster bolts began to rain upon Vader from the higher levels. They fired at him relentlessly from both sides of the hall, forcing him to move and look for a better position.

In the meantime, Fett landed on top of a pile of nearby crates and used his flame projector to set the oil someone—probably Fett himself—had spilled all over the entrance on fire, effectively blocking Vader’s escape route.

Not that he would have needed one.

An inferno like that would spread rapidly through the hall and soon burn the entire building to the ground. He knew what it was like to burn alive, and thus he had no intention to stay around long enough to get trapped inside by the flames. 

The bounty hunters did not seem to realize that the smoke grenades they kept throwing at him did nothing to slow him down. The Force was with him, so he did not need his eyesight to locate the enemy. As he deflected the shots coming from the front with his lightsaber, effortlessly bouncing them into the walls and ceiling, he sensed a small number of bounty hunters on a metal ramp directly above the blaze set by Fett, shooting him from behind.

He reached for the Force and clenched his hand into a fist, causing the flimsy metal structures holding the ramp together to creak in their joints, and in the next moment, the whole ramp came crashing down, plunging the screaming men into the flames.

But Vader did not stop there. He leaped upwards with the Force as his aid and landed onto a scaffold beside the wall. He caught the three bounty hunters preying upon him off guard, as they were not familiar with the ways of the Force and obviously had not expected him to be able to reach them so fast.

He ran his lightsaber through the first two before they had time to react, and the third, a female alien with heavy blasters, he pushed across the hall with the Force.

On the opposite side of the hall, Iajel was trying to get a clear shot at the bounty with his sniper rifle, which should have been relatively easy, given his position, if it weren’t for the thick, black smoke that blurred his vision and made his lungs feel heavy and breathing difficult.

Alizsu covered him, observing the ongoing fight – though she was not sure whether it should have been called a fair fight or simply a mass murder – on the lower levels in sheer terror. No bounty in the whole galaxy was big enough to take chances against an enemy like that.

The fire Fett had set was spreading like wildfire, shutting down all possible escape routes, one by one. She had not expected to be the one to regret pushing for this particular job, but witnessing this black-garbed enemy with one of those laser swords of old legends effortlessly slaughtering each and every one of those bounty hunters whose careers she could only have had admired from afar, made her change her mind. Curio collector, my ass, she thought to herself as she rolled from under another collapsing structure and leaped for safety.

 “Iajel, we have to get out of here, now!” she shouted over the blaster fire. “This place is gonna blow up any minute now, and trust me, we don’t want to be here when it happens!”

“No – no, not just yet!” Iajel shouted back. Just a few steps closer, just a few, and then we’ll be free forever, he thought to himself, trying to figure out the enemy’s exact position from the flickering flashes of red amongst the smoke. “I almost have him!”

“You fool!” she screamed, coughing from the toxins in the air. “Don’t you see, that thing must be one of those crazy space wizards we heard about back on Tatooine! We’ll never stand a chance! We must go!”

Iajel was reluctant to avert his eyes from his scope. “Aren’t they supposed to be long gone?” he shouted back.

“I don’t know about you, but that one doesn’t look very dead to me!” she screamed, gesturing at the dark-cloaked menace slashing his way through the others.

Vader was aware that his time was running out. While the remaining bounty hunters had kept him occupied, Fett had retreated to the higher levels of the building, likely looking to secure his escape through one of the narrow skylight windows. The ceiling would come down any minute, and chasing the agile bounty hunter around would take time he didn't have.

As soon as he detected Fett moving almost directly above him, he threw his lightsaber at the pipe the bounty hunter was trying to balance himself on, cutting it off from the ceiling and forcing him to jump down to his level.

“The holocron,” Vader demanded. His lightsaber returned to his hand, making a buzzing noise as it flew through the air, and he immediately aimed it at the man slumped on the floor. “Now.”

Fett stood up shakily, coughing behind his helmet. “You want this little trinket here so bad?” He took the holocron out of his pocket and threw it across the hall. “Have it your way, then.”

Once again, Fett launched his jetpack, but his fate had become irrelevant to Vader at the very second he'd released his fingers from around the holocron. Vader growled in frustration, his fist clenching around the hilt of his lightsaber in building rage, as he slashed it through the railing, clearing himself a path back to the ground level, as a collapsed rafter had already blocked the path he had used before. He leaped down and landed solidly with the Force as his aid. He could not see the holocron, not through the thick smoke, but it did not matter. He could still sense its power, calling for him from the far end of the hall.

“Iajel—Iajel, listen to me!” Alizsu begged. “You’re getting us both killed! I swear I’ll kill you myself if I have to drag you out of this hellhole!”

“Don’t you see?” Iajel pointed his finger to the upper levels. Fett had broken the skylight window to escape the foundry. “Fett’s leaving. All the others are dead. There’s no one left to collect the bounty but us! Jabba will be satisfied, and we’ll still be rich! I can finally buy you a ship!”

“I don’t want a kriffing ship!” Alizsu screamed, though her words were not completely true. She'd always dreamed of a spaceship of her own to scour the galaxy with, but she also knew that no ship would do them any good if they were dead. “He’s only leaving because he sees what you fail to see! That thing can’t be killed! Not by us!”

“Have a little faith in me, Alizsu. I have him on my sights right now,” Iajel murmured. His finger brushed gently over the trigger. “Just one step closer, you blasted—“

Iajel, no, no, watch out!”

Vader was almost there—only a few steps more; only a couple of heavy obstacles to remove from his way with the Force—and he would be close enough to stretch his hand out and claim the holocron.

But then, without any warning, yet another rafter came loose. It crashed down to the floor, right between him and the holocron, bringing down a scaffold and crushing one of the remaining bounty hunters, a young Twi’lek with a sniper rifle, underneath.

Smoke and dust were everywhere, and the fire was already surrounding him from every side, flames licking his cloak.

He heard a sharp cry from the rubble. Another Twi’lek, a female. Severely injured, yet still alive. “Oh, no—no, no, no!”

The Twi’lek had likely broken her both legs in the fall, Vader noted to himself. She struggled as she tried to writhe herself from under the debris. “No, Iajel—you can’t do this to me! Please, wake up! Don’t you dare to die on me now!” She forcefully dragged herself into a sitting position and crawled her way to her dead associate, pressing her forehead against his before bursting into tears. “No, not this way! You were not supposed to die!”

Vader watched her weeping in silence, feeling her tremendous grief pulsating violently in the Force. He could sense her life force depleting by the second as if she'd lost her will to live at the very moment the other Twi’lek had drawn his last breath.

“Kill me,” she whispered hoarsely, not looking at up him. She cradled the dead Twi’lek’s head in her lap, gently caressing his blood-covered cheek. “Kill me like you killed the others. I can’t save myself. I can’t walk, and even if I could, I can’t—I just can’t go on without him. Please, I just—just do it, I beg you. Don’t let me burn to death, please—“

Vader's inner conflict tore him apart. He knew what it was like to burn alive, only that he'd kept dying but never truly died. It'd be a gruesome way to die, perhaps the most gruesome way there was.

And yet, he wasn't the one to be known of his mercifulness toward his enemies. Before now, he would have let this pathetic excuse of a bounty hunter burn without thinking it twice. He would have thought she deserved her fate for crossing him. “You shouldn't have come here.”

She turned his gaze to him, tears running down her cheeks. “We only wanted to be free, nothing more,” she slurred through her tears. “Jabba would've had him killed. My stupid, simple, beloved fool of a brother, he should never have taken that smuggling job that nasty slug offered to him. He lost the cargo, of course, he would lose the cargo, he was just a boy then, but—but he did it for me. To save me.”

Vader already knew enough to determine the answer to his question, but he wanted to hear it from her. “From what did he save you?”


He knew she was telling the truth. He could recognize the flickering images of her past experiences, her uncertainty of the future eventually twisting into despair, her defiance and dissatisfaction with the life of a slave, all of it matched seamlessly to his most repressed memories of growing up as a boy slave on Tatooine.

His memories.

“Very well, I shall grant your wish,” he finally said. The holocron, as well as the entire mission, was already lost to him. He would barely have time to get out. He could have left already, but something was holding him behind. A hint of emotion he struggled at grasping, as he had not experienced it in many years.

It was not pity, but compassion.  

“I—I loved him so much, you know,” she sobbed. “If only I had told him, instead of being mad at him… Always mad at him… about everything…”

Vader stayed silent, as he had nothing to add. She wanted to die, he needed to leave. There was not much else to discuss. He could always have demanded her to tell him who was behind this sloppy mess of an ambush, but he had no time nor particular interest in that. The holocron had been all that mattered to him, but due to his personal failure, its secrets were now lost forever.

He reignited his lightsaber and ran it through the Twi’lek’s chest, granting her as quick and painless death as he could. As much as he once had wanted to, Anakin Skywalker never made his dream of freeing the slaves of Tatooine to come true, but at least now one of them was free forever.   

As soon as he was done, he saw himself out of the burning foundry. His torn cloak swirled in the brisk wind as he walked away from the huge explosion that emerged only a few moments after he had stepped out of the building.

And yet, he did not wish to wallow in his failure, as he already had more pressing matters at hand. The person who had hired the bounty hunters had not only wanted the holocron but to see him dead, which meant that they would eventually strike again.

…Which meant that Padmé was in grave danger.

Chapter Text

Being left to her own devices without any way to contact people outside the tower or access for the HoloNet, it would have been treacherously easy to lose track of time, and yet Padmé was unpleasantly aware that Vader had already been gone for four days instead of three, as promised.

She paced restlessly around the lounge, too dim for her liking, as she was having a break from her little research project. She had not wanted to stay idle and compliantly wait for Vader’s return, so she had coaxed SD-D4 to bring her what seemed an endless stack of old datapads.

Browsing through a datapad after another had already made her eyes sore, and she would have desperately needed to find something, even a slightest clue would have been enough to help her stay motivated, as giving up had already started to sound all too tempting.

She had hoped her little project would not only distract her from wallowing in her misery of being locked up in such a dismal place but also help her solve the mystery of Vader’s true identity. After talking with Sereena, the thought of Vader’s secret had not left her thoughts for a single moment.

The datapads her reluctant droid helper had brought to her contained all kinds of old and thereby no longer classified military records from the beginning of the Empire, but after days of skimming through those countless lists of names and promotions and studying long and unbelievably detailed post-battle debriefs cluttered with military jargon, she had to admit that she got nothing on her mysterious captor.

Judging by the utter and complete lack of mentions of his personal or military history before the rise of the Empire, her conclusion was that the man who went by the name of Darth Vader could as well have manifested out of thin air during the final, decisive days of the Clone Wars. He could as well not have even existed before the Emperor had needed him to carry out his atrocious orders, almost as if Palpatine had personally handcrafted him out of nothing but dust and smoke.

But that could not have been the truth, at least not the whole truth, or could it? She let out a heavy, frustrated sigh as she sat down on a divan. No one was without a past, she thought to herself, not even someone like Vader

She picked up yet another datapad that would probably turn out to contain just as irrelevant information as the previous ones. Due to her long and mostly successful career as a politician, she should have been more than capable of digesting the key parts of lengthier reports and paying attention to details, but now she caught her attention constantly drifting back to Vader, which was starting to get on her nerves.

Tearing old wounds open by trying to solve the puzzle and thereby find a reason for everything that happened on Mustafar eight years ago could be nothing but a fool’s errand, and she should have been focusing on getting out instead, but she could not stop. Not now, not yet.

“Esdee?” She called as she noticed that her reluctant little helper had returned with more datapads. “I’m curious, have you heard from Lord Vader yet? He should have returned by now, shouldn’t he?”

“Yes, yes, I’m very much aware of his prolonged absence – and no, Mistress, I’ve heard nothing of him since he left the palace”, the droid moaned. “Not a single word. Oh, my poor Master, something terrible must have happened to him.”

She gave a dry, mirthless laughter. “I wouldn’t particularly describe him as ‘poor’.”

In fact, she was quite certain that nothing in the entire galaxy could have hurt Vader, let alone kill him. At least not the Rebel Alliance, she thought to herself, slightly bitterly. They would know better than to attack Vader directly, which meant that they would not find out about her situation either.

“Do you think he’s all right, Mistress?” The droid probed. “According to my most recent calculations, the possibility of–“

“Well, he doesn’t strike me as a guy who cares too much about odds”, she said drily. “Maybe we shouldn’t either. Yes, I do believe he’s all right and coming back any moment now.”

“Oh dear. I do hope you’re right, Mistress.”

She tried to mutter back something at least relatively comforting, but her attempts to console the distressed droid were nothing but half-hearted at best, as she also found it highly concerning that Vader had not contacted his droid about his delayed return. If SD-D4 was right and something had happened to Vader, it would be only a matter of time before the Emperor’s people would come to search the tower and find her.

And she doubted Palpatine would be as thrilled to see her as Vader had seemed to be.

The droid looked troubled. “Oh dear, this is terrible. So very terrible, indeed. What should we do now, Mistress?”

She cocked a brow at him. “Why, I thought you were left in charge, Esdee.”

“I was given… instructions”, the droid admitted. “Very precise instructions, but not precise enough to cover an unexpected situation like this. My Master never told me what to do if he goes missing. I must confess, Mistress, I’m a little lost here.”

She was dumbfounded. “He, what, left without telling you what to do if he doesn’t come back?”

The droid looked almost as if he would have wanted to shrug, but his joints did not allow him. “There has been no need for assuming alternative protocols until now, as he has always come back before”, he said. “And he always will, to quote him directly."

She noted that such a statement sounded ridiculously overconfident, even coming from Vader. “Then I suppose we can’t do much else than wait, for now.”

On the fifth day, Padmé was really starting to get worried.

She was awake and fully dressed by the time SD-D4 came to bring her breakfast. She had not slept well, hence knowing that if Vader would not return soon, it would become imperative for her to get out of the tower as soon as possible, one way or another. There had to be some way to contact him, or at least find out where exactly in the Undercity he had gone.

And yet, her options were growing thin. She had already searched the tower from top to bottom, with the sole exception of Vader’s personal quarters, but how in stars would she gain access to his office? It would be another impossible task, unless…

She glanced cautiously at the droid that was serving her morning tea. As Vader’s personal service droid, he would surely have the access codes. “Esdee, my dear”, she began, desperately trying to not sound too suspicious, even though she doubted the droid’s ability to pick up such nuances in tone. “It’s been five days. Don’t you think we should do something? And by something, I mean taking a peek in Lord Vader’s office.”

The droid almost dropped the aluminium teapot to the floor. “What an atrocious idea”, he chirped anxiously. “Pardon me, Mistress, but are you feeling quite well? Oh dear, please don’t tell me you caught something from the garden? Do you feel feverish? Do you need to see a medical droid? For suggesting something so – no, no, it would be madness. Absolute madness!”

Padmé was not one to give up so easily, let alone one to passively wait for horrible things to happen on their own. “You must understand that we have to do something”, she said calmly, as if she had been explaining something complex to a human child. “What do you think your Master would say when he comes back and finds out you did not even try to find a way to contact him?”

“He would be most pleased with my ability to follow orders and stay out of trouble, Mistress.”

She bit her lip in concentration. Negotiating with representatives of the Trade Federation had been a child’s play compared to negotiating with a droid that was apparently as stubborn as his wretched Master.

“You’re a very smart and capable droid, aren’t you? Then you surely understand that if something has happened to him and he’s somewhere out there in dire need of help, I doubt he would be that pleased with your lack of effort”, she persuaded. “If we take a quick look, we might find something that would help us to figure out where he’s gone and who he’s meeting. He doesn’t even have to know.”

“And if we find any coordinates, we could send a probe droid to his alleged location to look for him?”

She lifted her brow at him. “A probe droid?” She had been so invested in her quest for the truth of Vader’s past that the thought had not truly crossed her mind until now, but SD-D4 did not need to know that. “Um, yes – yes, that’s exactly what I had in mind.”

“Excellent thinking, Mistress!” The droid rejoiced. “Might I suggest we make haste and proceed with this magnificent plan of yours immediately?”

As they took their leave, Padmé wondered briefly whether Vader had in fact programmed his droid to praise his every plan without questioning and whether his every plan was as reckless as his most recent one seemed to be.

Then again, she thought to herself, who am I to criticize his recklessness when I’m about to break and enter a Sith Lord’s personal quarters myself.

Though she left it unsaid, she was more interested in finding clues about Vader’s true identity than figuring out his whereabouts. The Emperor, in triumph of his deceitful victory, might have had everything changed in the former Jedi Temple, now the Imperial Palace, as there was nothing left in the entire building that even remotely reminisced its past, but Padmé could not help but hold hopes of finding something that could illuminate who Vader truly was behind his terrifying mask.

By the time they reached the blast doors that separated Vader’s quarters from the rest of the tower, and much to Padmé’s disappointment, SD-D4 seemed to be having second thoughts.

“I must inform you that I have recalculated our chances, Mistress, and the possibility of premature death for you – if and when my Master will be unhappy with us trespassing, that is – is approximately sixty-seven point nine percent”, the droid announced in his most official tone. “Not to mention that for me, the possibility of ending up becoming spare parts is so astonishingly high that I don’t even dare – bother, I mean bother! – to start calculating, but–“

She bit her lip impatiently. It was not that she would have wanted to spend more time inside than it was absolutely necessary. “Would be a darling and calm down, Esdee? You don’t need to worry a thing”, she promised. “Please, do correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s no way for us to get caught unless Lord Vader happens to return right here and now and catch us in the act. And if he does, I promise to take responsibility.”

The thought of being caught and thereby having to explain why they were breaking and entering his quarters in the first place was, in fact, scaring her a great deal, but then again, she reminded herself that Vader had promised that she would not get hurt – and he had also kept his word so far. It would be for the best if she would be the one to take the blame instead of the poor, and yes, occasionally annoying droid.

She smiled encouragingly at the doubtful looking droid. “I promise you he won’t hurt you”, she said, feeling a little hollow inside as the words escaped her lips, knowing that if Vader truly wanted to take out his anger at the droid, there was not much she could do about it.

It seemed her best chance was to hope that Vader’s promises had been something more than a cheap effort to appease her. “I – I think I know how to handle him if it ever comes to that.” I surely hope I do.

The droid looked like he was almost considering her offer, but then he let out an alarmed screech. “Oh dear, no – no!” He moaned. “I can’t do this, Mistress, my Master explicitly ordered me to–“

“Why don’t you take a step back and tell me what he exactly ordered you to do?”

The droid hesitated for a few seconds, probably trying to decide whether sharing his instructions with her would lead to imminent doom or not, before projecting a holographic message in between them.

I must leave for an urgent mission”, Vader’s heavily processed voice boomed through the lounge. “For the next three days, I expect you to watch for… Miss Skywalker. Make sure all her needs are met but do not let her wander – or leave the tower, as she might attempt to do. You should acknowledge that she is prone to trouble. Your responsibility is to see that that there will be none of that.”

Padmé’s eyes narrowed in disbelief. “I’m prone to trouble?” She repeated, clicking her tongue at the wild absurdity of Vader’s statement. The only trouble she had gotten herself into lately was getting caught in the first place and ending up in prison, and she highly doubted that Vader had any knowledge or personal interest in her past beside her capture. “As if he, of all people, would know anything about me. Who does he think he is?”

And yet, she had to remind herself that Vader still had not given any reason for abducting, or rescuing, her from the prison and hiding her in his tower that would stand up to closer inspection. She felt she was missing a vital piece of the puzzle, and she was becoming more and more certain by the minute that the missing piece held the answers she was looking for. 

She will be safe and completely unharmed upon my return.” The hologram Vader punctuated his words with clenching his gloved fist. “Consequences of failing me in a task of this importance will be dire.”

The droid winced at Vader’s words and his quite eloquent gesture following. Padmé, who was gathering the remnants of her own faltering courage as well, gave him a reassuring smile. “Don’t forget what I said”, she reminded him. “I tend to keep my promises. Oh, and if we are to interpret Lord Vader’s words literally, his orders only covered the first three days after his departure, so technically you’re clear, my friend.”

“There’s approximately a ninety-nine point nine percent chance that my Master would not appreciate your wits in the matter, Mistress”, the droid muttered. “I wouldn’t recommend using that particular argument with him.”

She let out a half-hearted laughter. In a situation less dire than the one they were in, the droid’s dry and most likely unintended humor could have been entertaining. “Just let me worry about him and focus on getting us in, please”, she urged. “You do have the access codes, right?”

“But Mistress, of course I do!” If she had not known better, she would have thought the droid sounded almost offended. “I’m his personal service droid, one of a kind. How would I be able to serve him efficiently, if I didn’t have the access codes?”

Not that she would have expected it, not from someone as cruel and vile as Vader, but it seemed to her that he and his droid shared a special bond. She had never bonded with a droid in a similar way herself, but she recognized the mutual trust between the two, as it somewhat resembled the remarkable, yet a highly unusual bond that had once existed between Anakin and his old astromech droid, R2-D2.

Not to mention that not everyone would have trusted as an important task as guarding a prisoner to a droid. “I don’t know whether he’s capable of genuinely caring for others, but at least he seems to trust you a great deal”, she said as she watched the droid working with the doors.

“I might not be the best droid to evaluate my Master’s demeanor. Not prior to my next routine maintenance, as I have finally requested my social circuit to be replaced with more effective one”, he said. “But I have served him a long, long time. I would say he might be capable of grasping the concept you mentioned, Mistress, but I wouldn’t be so sure that he would be willing to accept that particular trait in himself.”

Padmé frowned at his words. “Slow down, Esdee. I’m not sure if I follow.”

“I’m afraid I’ve already said too much”, he said. “My Master would no doubt dismantle me if he were to know about this, and even if that wouldn’t be the case, I believe I might be unable to describe my recent observations in satisfyingly precise manner, Mistress“

“Would you be so kind and try?” She asked, struggling with hiding her rousing curiosity. “For me. Please.”

The droid seemed reluctant at first. “Very well, if you insist”, he chirped. “I believe there might be a correlation between his – oh dear, how do you organics phrase such things – inner conflict and your sudden appearance, Mistress. Since you were brought here, he has spent increasing amounts of time in his meditation chamber, but I doubt his sessions are granting him what he’s seeking. It seems to me that he’s being even more tense than usual. On edge, as you humans might prefer to say.”

Padmé scoffed at his words. “If my presence truly causes him so much distress, I can’t understand why he insists to keep me locked up here”, she sighed. “What in stars could he want from me…”

She did not expect the droid to answer the question she had mumbled under her breath, but much to her surprise, he did. “Between you and me, Mistress, I daresay he doesn’t know it himself, either.”

Padmé was uncertain whether she would have wanted Vader to figure that particular detail out soon or not.

Shortly after SD-D4 inserted the access codes, the doors slid open in front of them. “I’ve done as you asked, Mistress. I assume you don’t want me to calculate the odds for us being doomed?”

“Oh, Esdee, aren’t you a fast learner.”

Despite her best efforts, she struggled with hiding her anticipation as they stepped inside, as she did not wish to alarm the droid about her primary intentions. All she needed now was to muster her courage and prepare herself for whatever she might discover here, as she was unpleasantly aware that it was her husband’s murderer’s personal possessions she was about to rummage through for clues, after all. 

The droid turned on the lights, and Padmé did not hesitate to do a quick scan across the room. Vader’s office looked exactly like she had imagined it would. It was, obviously, more spacious than the room that had been assigned to her, but otherwise it was just as stark as comfortless, as unlike the Emperor, Vader did not seem to care much about unnecessary conveniences.

She turned back to SD-D4. “We shouldn’t waste our time.”

“On that, we agree.” The droid sounded nothing short of relieved. “How would you expect me to assist you, Mistress?”

She knew she would be done with her task much faster if the distressed droid would not be breathing down her neck. “Would you be dear and on the lookout for any trouble?” She suggested. “I promise to be as quick as I can.”

“At once, Mistress.”

She could not help but think to herself that she might have preferred Sereena for her accomplice, instead of a shy of obsessive-compulsive droid, though she would have never even considered endangering the girl by asking her help for something as foolish as breaking and entering a Sith Lord’s office.

Such a daring coup was not something Senator Amidala of the Galactic Republic would have been up to either, but for better or worse, she was no longer that woman.

As soon as the droid vanished from her sight, she dashed towards Vader’s desk. In contrast to the office’s ascetic emptiness, his desk was cluttered with all kinds of things. There were datapads, much alike to those she had been browsing through the previous day, spare parts, ancient-looking trinkets she would not have dared to touch – and her own blaster pistol that had been confiscated from her upon her capture.

Against her better judgment, she decided to take it. She knew she should not have left traces of her uninvited visit, but then again, she doubted that Vader would even notice something that did not even belong to him in the first place was missing. Her blaster had been almost buried under a pile of datapads, anyway.

She was not wearing her utility belt, but the blaster was fortunately small enough to fit into the pocket in front of her dress.

After being reunited with her old weapon, she decided to take a look at the datapads gathering dust on the desk. Instead of old military records, Vader seemed to be more interested in lists of recent prisoners in Imperial facilities and passengers of various spaceships that were operating mostly in the Outer Rim territories.

She quickly skimmed through a few of them, but with no luck. Lists of seemingly arbitrary names did not help her to figure out Vader’s past, but then there were quite a bunch of reports regarding alleged sightings of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Her heart began racing wild at her finding. She had not heard of Obi-Wan in years, and though she was aware of the Empire being still on the hunt for remaining Jedi, she had not expected to stumble upon his name here in Vader’s office. Why is his name resurfacing now? She mentally asked herself. And what does he have to do with all this?

Not for the first time, she found herself wondering if Obi-Wan had told her the whole truth about Anakin’s death. Due to severe complications during childbirth, her own memories of those final days of the Clone Wars were hazy on the edges, but it still had not escaped her that Obi-Wan had been strikingly vague about the details before his abrupt departure.

His vagueness had never truly ceased from bothering her, but as the days she had spent pondering over his words had become weeks, and weeks had turned months, she eventually was forced to let go of her delusions that everything Obi-Wan had told her had been only a terrible misunderstanding and that Anakin would be alive somewhere out there, waiting for the first opportunity to return to her side. Letting go of her hopes, however naïve they had been, had felt like betraying his memory, but as she had realized that she would never be able to let go of her grief, if she had kept nourishing her vain hopes and wallowing in what-ifs, she had been out of other options.

Not that things would have been that simple, even with Anakin surviving Mustafar. With a heavy heart, she could have had forgiven his actions, maybe she even already had in the deep of her broken heart, but forgetting his dark deeds would have been much more demanding task.

He would have had to change his ways, but she would have been there for him, guiding his faltering steps back to the light, and she would have done it gladly. Though she was painfully aware that what had been done could not have been undone, she would still have supported him in his efforts to make things right, as she knew he would have wanted to. She would not have left him alone to drown in his regrets she knew he would have had, as she had always seen what others had not.


There’s good in him… I know there is… still…”


The ever-glimmering spark of light within him, pure and bright, radiating from his very soul. It had still been there, twinkling faintly behind his eyes on that night on Mustafar.

But none of it mattered any longer. Anakin was gone, as he had been for years, and there was nothing she could have done for him now. She swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat and resumed to the task at hand. There had to be something to be found, something of relevance…

Swallowing her tears back to her aching heart, she fervently proceeded to rummage through the desk, refusing to admit that despite all her efforts, she had reached nothing but another dead end. All those tiny fragments she had managed to collect were all for nothing, as she still lacked the one piece she needed to connect the dots and tie everything together.

She reclined her arms on the desk and sighed, trying to hold back from screaming out her frustration. I must have missed something, she thought to herself. But what – what could have I missed? What else is there?

It was then, when SD-D4 clanked in, interrupting her looping thoughts. “You must hurry, Mistress!” The droid chirped anxiously, stamping on the floor in distress. “My sensors have detected someone entering the tower.”

“I – I’m coming, Esdee!” She cried out, her hands trembling wildly as she tried to set everything back in their original places with little success. “Hold on!”

“Please, Mistress, make haste!”

She swept her stray hair from her sweaty forehead and rushed out the blast doors at the last moment. As soon as she heard the heavy steps approaching along the nearest corridor, she was absolutely certain that the comer was Vader, and much to her surprise, she felt oddly relieved about his return. Though the unexpected wave of relief did not stay with her for long, as it suddenly occurred to her that she still had the blaster she had taken from Vader’s office with her, bulging visibly in her front pocket.

She barely had time to shove the gun behind the divan’s cushions before Vader emerged from behind the corner. Her eyes widened at the sight of his visible weariness and hunched posture. His cloak was torn and his suit, as well as his mask and helmet, was coated in soot and dust and something that looked ominously like blood.

For a few seconds, they simply stared at each other silently from opposite sides of the lounge. Yet, it was SD-D4 who broke the silence. “It was her idea!” The droid shrieked, raising his clumsy arms in defense. “Oh, you must believe me, Master, I had nothing to do with this utter and complete mess, please do not dismantle me, I–“

Vader's unexpectedly calm reaction took her by surprise, considering how she had seen him react his droid's alleged incompetence before. “Silence”, he groaned under his breath. “Go and prepare my meditation chamber.”

To her, it seemed that he forgot his droid’s entire existence, as his attention was already shifting elsewhere before the droid had even vanished from their sights.

She flinched as he walked towards her, grabbing her arms as he pulled her closer. Though his firm grip was not particularly gentle, he was not hurting her either. “You are unharmed”, he said, breathing heavily through his mask in exhaustion. “You are safe.”

She raised a brow at the somewhat surprised undertone she believed she was detecting in his voice. Not quite daring to look up to the featureless curves of his mask, so she lowered her gaze. “Well, yes, I am”, she admitted. “But you clearly aren’t. What happened? We thought – I thought, that you might have –“


“There were whispers that you’d been killed.”

“I’m all right. It feels like we’ve been apart for a lifetime.”


“My injuries are insignificant”, he stated, still not letting his grip loosen on her arms. “Nothing else matters to me right now but your safety, Padmé.”

She shuddered at the way he said her name. “I – I don’t understand.” Her voice lowered to a quiet, almost inaudible whisper. Was she, or were they both, in greater danger than she had imagined? “What’s happening?”

It was only then when she noticed that Vader’s suit was torn open and his side was bleeding with fresh blood. She hesitated for a second or two before reaching her hand out and placing it on his wound. “You’ve lost a lot of blood, my Lord”, she gasped as she could not even begin to imagine what had happened, as from the Rebel point of view, Vader was all but invincible. “May I?” She asked cautiously. “Take a closer look, I mean. I know a thing or two about tending wounds.”

It was Vader’s turn to flinch. “No”, he retorted. He took a hold of her wrist and removed her hand from his side as gently as he could, as unaccustomed as he was to express any kind of tenderness, before continuing in a less harsh tone. “I do not expect you to tend my wounds.”

She stepped backward. “With all due respect, my Lord, what do you expect of me, then?” She asked, crossing her hands across her chest. “I get the feeling you’re keeping me in the dark about too many things. I must know what’s going on.” Among a few other things, starting with your true name.

She had not expected him to let her rousing defiance slide, but he did. “I know”, he said. “I will see you tomorrow morning, and then we will talk. There is something you must know.”

Chapter Text

Vader cursed his apparent lack of focus, as yet another of his meditation sessions was about to turn out to be fruitless. The feel of Padmé’s gentle touch lingered on the severed skin of his wounded side, despite the sturdy material of his suit that had blocked any direct contact, sending foreign, yet pleasant tingles throughout what was left of his body. Though it had been hours since he had forced himself to jerk her hand away in fear of being exposed and send her away, he could not think of anything else, let alone focus on his frustratingly flickering connection with the Force. 

Though he had known there was no other choice, not if he desired to keep his secret safe, a small part of him, the lonely, miserable and touch-starved one, had hated having to reject her offer of help. He should not have feared her reaction if the truth were to come out, yet he could not help it. He had – temporarily, as it seemed – gotten rid of such inconveniences as fear and insecurity by submitting to the Emperor’s teachings, but now the crippling fear of loss and abandonment he had once banished from within himself had gouged its way back, following the faint glimpses of light that had made their home in his forlorn heart.

And yet, the Dark Side of the Force was overwhelmingly strong in him, not allowing him to abandon its ways so easily by replacing his lust for power and control with something as trivial and worthless as love and compassion. His inner darkness was becoming more frantic in its efforts to quell each and every of those newly found nests of light inside him, and in its incipient desperation for securing its foothold, its intoxicating whispers had become not only louder but also more tantalizing.

The darkness knew the ways of his troubled mind, his blind spots and shortcomings, entangling around his doubts regarding Padmé and toying with them. It was bombarding him with visions, similar with ones that had once plagued Anakin Skywalker’s dreams and eventually driven him mad, and a handful of new ones, as well.

A particularly vivid image of the incredulous grimace on Padmé’s face if she were to conclude that he, a burnt, limbless husk of a man dependent on a life-supporting suit of armor, was all that was left of her husband haunted his mind and disturbed his meditation, making it all but impossible to stay focused.

She might have claimed her undying love for the memory of her late husband, and he might have latched onto her misguided claims like a starving Felucian leech, refusing to accept that she would be nothing but repulsed of him if she were to realize that he, the so-called memory of Anakin Skywalker, was responsible for wreaking such havoc upon the galaxy in his furious attempts to cut all ties with his old life – and destroying everything she had held dear in the process.

Worse yet, he had assaulted and nearly killed her in a fit of jealous rage. It would have been delusional to build up hopes that she would forgive him, let alone care for him ever again, but the darkness within him did not bother to concern itself with such minor inconveniences as her acceptance.

And yet again, the darkness within him stirred his thoughts with its attempts to remind him that she had not appreciated his great sacrifice eight years ago on Mustafar. Why should he have trusted her to make the right choice on her own this time around? Bending her into submission, if necessary, would be the most direct and efficient way to achieve his ultimate goal of not having to let go of Padmé ever again, but he no longer had the luxury of such simplicity when evaluating his preferred course of action. His mind – his most crucial, yet most unreliable asset – had turned into a battleground for the darkness and the newly found light within him, as there were now two opposing forces clashing against each other, creating unwarranted conflict in him as a result.

But as the battle on the edges of his mind remained unsettled, the Force adamantly refrained from illuminating his path. He decided to cut his meditation session short, realizing that there were no answers nor solace to be found from the depths of his unfocused mind for the time being.

The pale morning sun had barely broken through the Coruscant skyline when he stepped out of his meditation chamber. “SD-D4”, he growled at his droid who had been waiting outside. “Go and inform Miss Skywalker that she will be expected to receive me in ten minutes.”

“It will be done”, came the droid’s hurried reply. “Is there anything else I can assist you with on this fine and quite early morning, Master?”

“There is an urgent matter I must discuss with her, and today, I have less patience for deficiency than usual”, Vader warned. Despite a night spent in a bacta tank, he was sore from the battle against the bounty hunters, in addition to his chronic pain, and another failure of a meditation session had served only to make him surlier. “No messing around this time. There will be no complications.”

“Of course not, Master Vader.”


“Esdee?” Padmé mumbled from under her blanket. She groaned in protest when the droid turned the lights on, stubbornly refusing to open her eyes. Vader’s ambiguity regarding his injuries had kept her awake until dawn, and she most definitely did not feel ready to face another day of uncertainty and isolation just yet. “What is it?”

“I am so, so sorry to interrupt your sleep, Mistress. It’s my Master. He wishes to see you”, the droid said, rather apologetically. “I must bring to your attention that I, for one, acknowledge the most unorthodox timing for this appointment and would have recommended rescheduling, but you must know how my Master is by now. He wasn’t particularly in his best mood, so I had to–“

Her intended sigh turned into a yawn as she reluctantly threw her feet over the side of the bed. “I get it, I get it”, she muttered, her voice hoarse from sleep. She certainly did get it. Though she left it unsaid, she was rather uncertain whether Vader had even once been in a particularly good mood during her stay.

If the droid would have harassed her awake for basically any other reason, she would have either attempted to negotiate postponing whatever it would have been or thrown a pillow at him, or preferably both, but she was too familiar with Vader’s antics by now to expect anything else than him barging in and dragging her out of bed if she were not to show up. “I need a moment”, she said. “I’ll be downstairs in a bit.”

“A very short moment, I dare to hope”, the droid said, sounding worried. “My Master will be here in a few minutes, and he, I might add, was particularly emphatic about his distaste for delay.”

Her eyes, still a little sore from being pried open so abruptly, widened in surprise. “Wait, he’s coming here?” She yelped. “In a few minutes?”

The droid seemed nervous. “Well, yes”, he stuttered. “I believe he said the matter is urgent, but I’m afraid I don’t know anything more.”

She scoffed. “Is he always that cryptic or is it just around me?”

As she jumped out of bed and hurried to get dressed before Vader’s arrival, she wondered what such urgency could possibly mean, as she had not expected him at such an early hour. As a matter of fact, it had seemed to her that, except for a few exceptions, Vader had mostly avoided her company so far, despite all the effort he must have had to put in arranging her release to his custody. She quickly recalled the events that had lead her here, into his clutches, and could not imagine that the stormtroopers who had first captured her in the Anoat system or the quite officious prison warden who she had met briefly when she was brought in were pleased with Vader’s likely unsanctioned actions.

Only a couple of minutes after SD-D4 had left to fetch her breakfast from the kitchens, she heard heavy footsteps at the door. “Padmé”, Vader called her through the door. Had she not known who she was dealing with, she would have thought she detected a note of discomfort in his tone. “I must speak with you. Are you, ah, decent?”

She struggled not to snort out an incredulous laugh, as she would have considered Vader being the last person in the entire galaxy to be concerned about whether someone was properly dressed. “Well, yes. Come in, my lord”, she said, being unable to fully hide her sour amusement.

Though Vader did not seem to notice – or care. As soon as he entered the room, his tall, dark presence spread out across the relatively small space and filled it completely, making her shudder at the fleeting sensation of being suffocated.

She instinctively crossed her arms across her chest. “With all due respect, my lord, it’s still quite early”, she said, sweeping her gaze up to the featureless curves of his mask. “You’re finally going to tell me what happened to you, I assume?”

Vader gestured her to take a seat, while he remained standing. “I sense fear in you”, he rumbled. “Fear that might not be entirely misplaced. I must know, did something unusual happen when I was gone?”

Her heart began to pound rapidly with fear and anxiety. She was painfully aware of the alleged consequences of lying to Vader, but if she were to tell him about meeting Sereena in the gardens, she might as well sign the poor girl’s death warrant. “Pardon me, my lord, but you might have to be more specific with me”, she said evasively, her voice coming out more confident than she felt. “Unusual like what?”

“Did anybody attempt to contact you?” He asked. “Or harm you in any manner?”

She weighed her next words carefully, knowing that even the slightest mistake on her part could bring doom upon both Sereena and herself. “No, my lord”, she finally said, “not that I can think of.”

From a certain point of view, she was telling the truth, was she not? She had met the kitchenhand by a mere coincidence, and she had certainly not tried to cause her harm. Not even the little cakes she had offered her had been poisoned. Sereena was, well, quite peculiar, she thought to herself, but dangerous? I don’t think so.

“I’m as fine as I can be, given the circumstances”, she continued after a short pause, giving her captor a cautious glance as she spoke and noticing that his damaged suit was already put back together and that he wore a new cloak over his broad shoulders. “How about you, my lord? You certainly do look... better.”

To her, it seemed that Vader did not quite know how to answer her, so he cut her short. “Enough of pleasantries”, he said. “I came to see you for a reason. My mission turned out to be a failure, as an unknown enemy had set a trap for me.”

She frowned at his words. “An unknown enemy?” Her voice lowered to a startled whisper, as if she was afraid that somebody could hear their conversation, barge in and accuse them for treason. “Could it have been the Emperor? Is it possible that he has found out what – what you’re planning to–?“

“No”, Vader stated, sounding way too confident for Padmé’s liking.

“With all due respect, my lord, but how can you be so sure?” She asked, a note of disbelief in her voice. As a Chancellor, Palpatine had had the entire Senate wrapped around his finger. Why could he not be fooling Vader now? “The Emperor is nothing if not cunning.”

“And that is exactly why he cannot be behind this”, he explained. “If it were the Emperor to set me a trap, it would have been lethal and I would be dead. This trap was clumsy and amateurish, it was nowhere near the Emperor’s level of subtlety and finesse.”

She scoffed. “You certainly sound like an admirer, my lord.”

“The Emperor is a force to be reckoned with. Only a fool would underestimate such an enemy”, he remarked drily. “And yet, I have sensed there is another.”

“Another enemy?” She would have rolled her eyes if she could have broken them away from staring his masked, expressionless face. “Just what we needed.”

He gave her a short nod. “One that prefers to stay hidden and operate from shadows”, he said, his voice giving away that he considered it cowardice to take such an indirect approach. “A lesser enemy, for sure, compared to the Emperor’s might, but equally dangerous, if not taken care of soon.”

She imagined that Vader must have had many enemies, even aside from those who simply hated the Empire and wanted to see its fall. “Do you have any idea who it could be, my lord?” She asked, dreading what his answer might be. Setting traps and hiring bounty hunters certainly did not sound anything the Rebel Alliance would do, even if they could afford it. “Did you find any clues?”

“No”, he said sternly, breathing heavily through his mask, “but whoever they are, their sources of information are solid. They knew exactly what I was after, where the meeting was taking place and which bounty hunter to bribe. My only conclusion can be that this enemy has been spying on me for some time now.” Which means that they know about you, my love.

“Then we must root them out before it’s too late”, she said breathlessly as she jumped off her chair, still processing everything she had just heard. “It would be catastrophic if they were to join forces and share everything they know with the Emperor.”

He raised his hand to stop her. “No – I must root them out before it is too late”, he said. “You are to do nothing but stay out of harm’s way.”

His condescending words stirred something inside her. She crossed her arms, throwing a challenging look at him. “With all due respect, which is very little at this point, I politely decline to do that, my lord”, she said with icy calmness she did not feel. “Had my safety ever been your primary concern, you would never have hauled me here in the first place. I don’t know for what vile reason you insist to keep me locked up here, but it’s not to keep me safe, that’s for sure. It would be nothing but delusional to believe otherwise.” 

Suddenly feeling tears forming in the corners of her eyes, she turned her back to him and walked to the only window of her room. She gently touched the glass, seeing her weary reflection in it, staring back at her with watery eyes. Oh, how much she longed for freedom, as she was endlessly tired with her loneliness and uncertainty – and Vader. “You took my life from me, my lord, and despite knowing you couldn’t care less, I want you to know that I resent you for it.”

He took a heavy breath before speaking, the rasping sound of his respirator making her shiver. “That I did”, he said. “I cannot blame you for your emotions towards my actions. I do not expect you to understand.”

She turned back to him. “Well, I don’t understand”, she snapped before letting her expression soften. “But it won’t stop me from wanting to help you. I want the Emperor gone just as much as you do. Please, my lord, don’t shut me out. Let me help you. You don’t have to do this alone. You don’t have to be alone.”

Despite the mask covering his face, Padmé was certain that Vader’s gaze was fixed on her. She stared back, not quite daring to hope that this time he would actually consider her offer of help. “You think I can’t carry my own weight, don’t you?” She asked, raising one brow. “I used to be a politician, but I’ve had my share of battles. I’m quite capable with a blaster. I can fight.”

“On the contrary, I do not doubt your combat skills at all”, he said. They had once fought side by side on Geonosis, as well as many other occasions, after all. There was no reason to question her ability in battle. “I read your file. You took down two Imperial stormtroopers and wounded a third one before taken into custody.”

“That is correct, my lord.”

“Stormtroopers may be required to undergo a disciplined training program, yet they are nothing but common soldiers”, he remarked. “I doubt this unknown enemy is a common soldier to be taken out with a blaster.”

“All the more reason for you to stop being so stubborn and let me assist you”, she said, stepping closer to him. She remembered having these same old arguments years ago with Anakin, but she certainly had not expected having to revisit them with his murderer. “You said you believe this new enemy has been spying on you for some time now, right? It surely sounds that you could use another pair of eyes to identify them.”

“I brought you here to keep you out of harm, not to endanger you further.”

She let out a grim chuckle. “You know what? For the very person who murdered my husband, you surely do sound a lot like him”, she retorted, too offended with his overprotectiveness to hold back any longer. “He, too, believed that he could protect people he cared about from every imaginable threat. But you, you are heartless. You care about nothing and no one, and still, you apparently insist to believe the very same concept he did, despite it becoming his downfall. Tell me, my lord, what do you get out of it? What motivates you?”

She certainly had not planned to lash out on Vader like that, but now that she had done it and there was no turning back, she could not help but admire the effect her words had on him.

After a long pause, he finally spoke again. “I accept your offer”, he said sternly, his mechanical voice sounding unusually strained. “Do not make me regret my decision.”

And with those words he turned around swiftly and left the room, leaving her wondering whether she had just made an enormous mistake. She was astonished by what had just happened, as she had previously thought that nothing she could do or say would affect Vader and his decisions in any imaginable manner. Apparently, he was not made of stone, and there indeed was a real, thinking and feeling human being under his suit of armor.

A real person.

A person whose identity was still hidden from her, but for the time being, she could not do much else but add that particular unsolved mystery in the alarmingly growing pile of others unsolved, and obviously more urgent, mysteries.    

Soon after Vader had taken his abrupt leave, SD-D4 returned from the kitchens with a breakfast tray. “I see that you have concluded your business with my Master”, he commented as he clumsily set the tray on the desk. “I am so very much delighted to see you are all right, Mistress.”

She chuckled at the droid’s remark, still basking in her satisfaction of the way she handled the situation with Vader. “Mm, and why wouldn’t I be?”

“Pardon me, Mistress, I don’t think I–“

“Let’s just say that I’m finally starting to learn how to handle that insufferable Master of yours, my dear Esdee”, she hummed contently.

“Oh”, the droid said. “What an unexpected turn of events.”

“What an unexpected turn of events, indeed.”

She devoured her breakfast like a hungry Loth-cat, anticipating the thought of Vader trusting her enough to let her assist him in the task of rooting out this new enemy. Not that it was not deeply concerning that such an unidentified enemy existed in the first place, but she had to admit that it felt good to finally get to do something and, hopefully, be useful again.

As she looked forward to proving her usefulness to Vader, she first waited patiently SD-D4 turning his back to her, as he proceeded to change her sheets, then picked up a pen and hastily wrote a short message in a corner of a napkin.

I need to talk to you. Meet me in the gardens? Tomorrow after breakfast. -S.

She hid the napkin under her empty plate, desperately hoping that Sereena would be the one to see her message, in hopes that she would be able to direct her to potential clues, as the kitchenhand had seemed to know a great deal about everything that was going on in the Imperial Palace.

Chapter Text

It soon turned out that finding answers no longer was as easy feat to perform as it used to be. In order to avoid drawing the Emperor’s attention to his misdeeds, Vader could not have utilized his rather unique status in the Imperial Army to gain access to the Empire’s finest intelligence resources, as there were always those overly eager officers vying for promotion who would not hesitate to report his unsanctioned actions in hopes that the Emperor would eventually agree to strip him of his title and privileges for overstepping his boundaries for the one last time.

Grudgeful officers and their petty complaints, deriving from delusions of the meek and powerless, would not have concerned him, as they had never concerned him before, but for Padmé’s sake, he could not afford to risk the Emperor intervening, as the foul truth was that he was not ready to challenge his deceitful Master yet. Perhaps, if he had succeeded in retrieving the Sith holocron and harnessed its ancient secrets, the tables would have been turned, but he realized it was no use to wallow in what could have been. He had no other choice but find another way to muster his strength and become one with the Force, unleashing his full potential to destroy his true enemy, but without the holocron, it would not be a simple task and it would not happen overnight.

And besides, there was another, more pressing matter that required his attention. There was yet another enemy to crush under his feet before it would, finally, be Palpatine’s turn to meet his fate.

But as infuriating as it was for him to admit, he was not accustomed to operating rogue and not have the full might of the Empire behind his attempts to secure satisfying results. For all his raw strength and power in the Force, he could not possibly exterminate an enemy he could not find.

Of course, he could always have gone to scour the seediest cantinas of the Undercity by himself and interrogate the regulars there, that would surely have brought results, but such an option was off the table now that it seemed evident that whoever had set the bounty hunter trap was aware of Padmé’s presence.

Though he was most displeased with her stubborn eagerness to get involved, he had to admit, with great reluctance, that her previous experience in dealing with assassination attempts as a queen and later, a senator could prove vital in their now shared attempts to unveil the identity of the fool behind the mess that had cost him the holocron.

She could indeed prove to be a great asset that should not be too hastily dismissed. Or a great weakness.

He turned to SD-D4. “Bring Miss Skywalker to me”, he ordered. “Tell her I have urgent business to discuss with her.”

“At once, Master.”

He tapped the dimly gleaming surface of his desk with his prosthetic fingers, watching idly as the droid took his leave. His previous discussion with Padmé, her accusations towards him and his motivations in particular, had been tormenting him ever since, as he could not have found solid answers for the questions she had barraged him with.

What indeed motivated him, if even the revenge he had anticipated for days already tasted like ashes in his mouth? For all his might, he could not change the past. Nothing could, he understood it now. Slaying the Emperor, as satisfying as it might be, would not bring back everything he had cast away in his desperation to save his wife’s life. He had personally taken care of destroying what little there might have been left to salvage. His old life, the Jedi, the Republic – everything was long gone. His wife might have returned from her alleged death, but for what end? He harbored no delusions that she could have cared for the mere husk of a man he had been reduced to, let alone love the monster he had let himself become.

For the moment, even the Sith within him was silenced by the very image of the terror and disbelief on her face, if she were to uncover the truth.

Padmé’s arrival disrupted his grief-stricken thoughts. Casting his crippling misery aside, he was pleased to notice that the bruises on her face had mostly healed. Yet, not even the sight of her ravishing beauty watered down the rage stirring inside him at the memory of discovering his long lost love languishing in a prison cell, being assaulted by some fools of stormtroopers. Every part of him would have slaughtered the troopers who had dared to hurt her again without second thoughts, if given the chance, regardless of consequences.

“You wished to see me, my lord.”

“That is correct”, he said, his voice slightly strained. He gestured her to have a seat.

She hesitated, looking a little nervous. “Before we focus on the task at hand”, she began, her voice faltering almost inconspicuously. “May I speak freely?”

“I may have chosen to keep you here for now”, he said, “but that does not mean you should hesitate to speak your mind in my presence.”

“In that case, I–I'd like to apologize for my previous inconsideration”, she said, slowly regaining fragments of her natural confidence. “I revised what I said yesterday, and while my opinion remains the same, I should've chosen my words better. I let my emotions get the best of me and spoke too harshly. As far as I’m concerned, we share the same goal, and I shouldn’t have jeopardized our promising… partnership with my personal feelings.”

A momentary silence well between them, the only sound breaking it being Vader’s rasping breath. “You have nothing to apologize for”, he finally said. “I respect your honesty.”

But Padmé felt a stinging jab in her heart at his words, as she was uncomfortably aware that she had been nowhere near as honest to Vader as he seemed to believe. She had not only conveniently forgotten to mention about her association with Sereena but also outright lied about the fate of her children. The thought of Vader learning the truth about the twins made her feel sick in the stomach, as she could not even dare to begin to imagine what he would do if he were to discover that they were alive and how it would affect not only his plan regarding the Emperor but also her life expectancy.

She hastily decided that for now, the best course of action would be changing the topic. “So, Esdee mentioned that you had something you wished to discuss with me.”

Vader handed her a datapad. “I have consisted a list of the bounty hunters involved in the foundry incident”, he explained. “Do any of these names sound familiar to you?”

“Let’s see… Connecting the dots often turns out to be the hardest part”, she said, skimming through the list of names, both human and alien alike. “Yes – yes, my lord, I indeed recognize some of these people. There’s Boba Fett, of course, his reputation precedes him, but according to Rebel intelligence, most of these others are hardboiled professionals too, and not some local thugs trying to weasel out of their spice debts. Many of these men and women have caused a lot of trouble for Rebel supply lines over the last few years.”  

“Perhaps then I should have shown them my gratitude on the behalf of the Empire”, he commented drily, “before taking their lives.”

She bit her lip to keep from voicing her disdain, deciding to let his cruel remark slide. Though it would have been naïve of her to claim that Rebel soldiers never indulged in unnecessary violence by unleashing their anger and frustrations on their Imperial prisoners, she had personally condoned none of it. She had always wanted to believe for a peaceful solution for the conflict, as she had firmly believed that the foundations of the New Republic should be built on hope and democratic consensus, not on decaying bodies of innocent victims of the war.

But her once so bright and principled mind was now plagued with doubts. What if there was no peaceful solution? What if she was only pretending that she still hoped for one? As if she would not have clawed the eyes out of the Emperor’s head with her bare hands if given the chance. As if she did not long for revenge for what happened to her family.

As if she had not already become numb to war and violence rampaging through the galaxy. She threw a cautious glance at Vader from the corners of her eyes. Why else she would have joined forces with such a monster?

She let out a sigh, forcing herself to focus on the task at hand. “With all due respect, my lord, I believe you might have underestimated the Emperor’s role in this”, she said. “This many high-profile bounty hunters to hunt down one man… The person who hired them must be wealthy.”

“That does not have to be necessarily true”, he pointed out. “It is obvious that Fett alone was meant to survive the encounter, the fire, and the following explosion. Others were doomed from the start, they simply were not aware.”

“What are you suggesting, my lord?”

“That it is entirely possible that the fool behind this mess never had the sufficient credits, to begin with”, he explained, “as they might not have intended to pay them in the first place.”

She lowered her head, for both trying to hide her feelings and wrap her thoughts around what she had just heard. All those people on Vader’s list were sacrificed, but for what? “All those wasted lives…” she sighed. “Whoever did this, what could they have hoped to achieve by pitting all those people against you? Could they have truly believed that a bunch of bounty hunters could have… killed you, my lord?”

“That seems highly unlikely.”

She shook her head. “I’m afraid I’m out of theories, my lord”, she said. “What in the stars could they have tried to do?”

“What fools and cowards always do”, he snarled, his hand clenching into a fist. “To create a diversion. They would not have lured me out without reason. Whatever they were planning, it seems they either wasted their chance or they are playing the long game.”

“Either way, it looks like we can’t do anything for now but wait for their next move”, she said. “Do you mind if I keep the datapad for a while? I thought I could take a walk in the gardens and take a closer look at these names. Perhaps a hint of fresh air would help me think.”

“As you wish”, he said, knowing that he had no use for a list of seemingly arbitrary names. “Meanwhile, I shall meditate more on this matter.”

She was about to take her leave, as Sereena was likely already waiting for her in their secret spot when Vader grabbed her shoulder. His gloved fingers dug into the fabric of her dress, not hard enough to hurt, just hard enough for her to feel the rigidness. “Padmé”, he said, his voice strained with tension. “Stay safe.”

She halted, unsure of how she should react, and let out a startled laughter. “Judging by the recent events, out of the two of us, you seem to be in greater danger”, she said softly, nervously reaching out to touch his hand with her own, feeling the tenseness of his grip melting away as soon as their fingers met. “You… fear for me, my lord?”


“And here I thought Sith Lords were above such mundane emotions.”

“We are not.”

For a few moments, they stood there in silence. She clamped her eyes shut, resisting an unforeseen temptation to lean back against his broad chest and forget everything that was going on for a while. Forget all the enemies, both known and unknown, surrounding them everywhere, forget everything she was afraid to lose and what she had already lost, forget that the strong arms she suddenly craved to have around her were not Anakin’s, but his murderer’s.

But she did not have to resist for long, as Vader soon retreated his hand and let go of her.

On her way to the gardens, Padmé was unable to tear her thoughts from the most bizarre moment she had just shared with Vader. She simply could not comprehend where those occasional, intimate and strangely familiar moments were coming from, and why. The only thing she knew was that she was not supposed to feel safe or cared or good in his presence under any circumstances, but she did, knowing that if she had kept her eyelids shut for only a few seconds more, it would have been treacherously easy to succumb into his darkness and let herself forget that he was capable of nothing but cruelty and killing and destruction.

By the time she reached the final ray shield between her and lushness of the garden, she had already decided that such a moment of weakness could not have derived from anything but her burgeoning feeling of loneliness resonating within her.

Just as she had presumed, Sereena was already waiting for her in the decrepit gazebo next to the small pond and the artificial waterfall descending into it. The blonde girl with amber eyes and faintly freckled face waved wildly at her, gesturing her to join her.

“I was almost starting to think you wouldn’t come”, Sereena said, squeezing her tightly.

“Stars, Sereena, let me breathe”, Padmé laughed, flashing her a genuine smile and hugging her back. In terms of personality, the kitchenhand might have been a little peculiar, but she could not deny that her sweet affectionateness was a welcome change to Vader’s cold and emotionless façade. “It’s good to see you.”

“It’s good to see you too”, Sereena replied. “So, how’s your honeymoon?”

Padmé’s cheeks flushed. “I thought I made it clear that there’s nothing like that between me and Lord Vader”, she said in a slightly condescending tone, uncomfortably aware of the fact that the moment she had shared with him only a few minutes ago would definitely have counted for ‘something like that’. “I’m simply assisting him in something. In fact, I might be staying around for a while.”

The girl blinked curiously at her. “Something?”

“I’m afraid the details are, uh, classified.”

For the first time, it crossed her mind that perhaps it would be a grave mistake to drag Sereena along into something so dangerous, after all. She knew she was acting too selfishly for simply associating with the girl and thereby exposing her to Vader’s wrath. Senator Amidala of the Galactic Republic might have reconsidered, but the woman she was today was too desperate to get closer to her ultimate goal of seeing the Emperor overthrown and ensuring her children’s safety to think straight.  

“Figures.” Sereena shrugged nonchalantly. “I just thought that perhaps I could’ve helped in some way. There’s nothing a girl wouldn’t do for a friend.”

“As a matter of fact, perhaps you can help”, she said, ultimately deciding that asking would not hurt anyone. “I know this is a lot to ask, but… would you know if someone here in the Imperial Palace held grudges against Lord Vader?”

Much to Padmé’s surprise, Sereena burst into uncontrollable laughter. “What a silly question!” she giggled. “Would I know? Oh, Sabé…” She clearly struggled with not falling off the bench she was sitting on. “Hello, have you met him? He’s not exactly the most beloved person around here if you know what I mean. There’s hardly anyone around here who wouldn’t want him gone. Well, except the Emperor, of course. I bet he couldn’t be more overjoyed to have such a beast at his command. Oh, the things some people would be willing to do to get rid of him…”

She frowned in suspicion. “What kind of things?”

Sereena hesitated for a few seconds, looking around to make sure they were alone. “Unspeakable things. Terrible things.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Things that would be considered treasonous. Not that anyone would be stupid enough to actually act on their desires. Such a person would be out of their mind, for sure.”

Padmé lowered her voice as well. “Forgive me, Sereena, but I have to ask”, she whispered. “If someone would be stupid enough, who that might be? If I asked you to come up with one name, could you do it…” She bit her lip in both anxiety and anticipation. “For me?”

Sereena looked puzzled at the abrupt question of hers. “I can’t say for sure yet, but I certainly can look into it”, she promised. “Just because we’re friends. I know you can’t go in detail, but it would certainly help if you had something for me to keep my eyes open for, you know?”

Padmé took Vader’s datapad out of her front pocket. “Very well, I have this”, she said hesitantly, handing the device to Sereena. “I would look into it myself, but… my hands are tied at the moment. I need you to understand I’d never ask you to get in trouble for my sake, but if you happen to hear that someone is having unsanctioned dealings with bounty hunters…”

Sereena waved her hand dismissively. “I get it, I get it”, she said. “Hey, snooping around is my specialty. If someone around here is dabbling with naughty stuff, you’d be the first to hear about it. After myself, of course.”

“I don’t know to thank you enough for your–“

The kitchenhand hushed her with a self-confident smile. “It’s nothing”, she assured her. “I should be the grateful one here, you know? You’re the fancy diplomat type around here, and I’m just a ne’er-do-well and, stars forbid, an orphan. I’m just glad I can do something for you, and that I can call you a friend.”

Padmé smiled at the golden-haired girl sitting beside her. “I’m honored to call you a friend, Sereena.”

Sereena seemed to radiate with joy as she rose from the bench she was sitting on. “Well, I guess my break is over”, she said. “I’ll find a way to let you know when I have something.”

Chapter Text

A couple of days later Padmé stared into the mirror on the wall of her small room, finger-combing her messy cascade of hair into place. There had been no word from Sereena yet, but the comm silence had turned out to be a quite welcome break from the grandiose mess that had become her life. As gravely as she was worrying for the girl’s safety, she could not help but be thankful for being given a couple of uneventful days to catch her breath after everything that had happened recently.

But even though her transition from a reluctant, yet desperate freedom fighter to even more reluctant and desperate prisoner of the second most dreaded Sith Lord in the galaxy had been all but smooth, she had noticed she was already adapting to the plight of her situation. To her further dismay, even her daily routines had begun to form around her new circumstances. Nothing of it should have felt so much as acceptable, but in its own twisted way, it did. 

While Vader himself was seemingly still avoiding her company whenever he could, Padmé found it futile to try to get him out of her head, as there were traces of his dark presence lingering in every corner of the tower. She could not escape him, not even in her thoughts. Whether he was physically present or not, he was holding her on a leash, and while it might have been a relatively loose leash, considering who was holding the other end of it, it was a leash, nevertheless.

Despite all the privileges she had been granted so far, she was still a prisoner. That was something that had a tendency to slip her mind during those fleeting moments Vader, deliberately or not, let his guard down in her presence, allowing her to see that there was something more than just an emotionless killer without remorse behind that mask. She would never have expected such protectiveness, however condescending it might have been, from someone like him. As if there could have been a glimpse of genuine compassion and care behind his actions, as naïve and ridiculous as it sounded even to her own ears.

Either way, it was becoming harder by day for her to keep in mind that such a murderer, war criminal and, possibly, traitor to the Republic should not have been trusted. A part of her certainly wanted to rely on the alleged goodness of Vader’s intentions, even though it did not make much sense even to herself. There were so many signs of danger and deception floating heavy in the air, but at the same time she understood that putting her trust in him might be the only chance of survival for both her and her children. She had no other choice but to grant him the benefit of the doubt, despite him not deserving any of it.

But however hard she tried, she could no longer deny that there was something intriguing about Vader, something faintly familiar, yet heart-wrenchingly terrifying in his antics; something that made their every interaction linger in the back of her mind long afterwards, something that kept urging her to start questioning everything she had believed in for the last eight years. Yet, she felt she lacked the willpower to tear open that particular scar amongst the many others in her heart.

It was not that she was not aware of all those inconsistencies, blank spots and unanswered questions regarding Anakin’s demise, but out of fear and sheer stubbornness, and for the sake of her faltering sanity, she had chosen to keep muting those rising doubts creeping on the edges of her mind… until now.

Ironically enough, it was not that she had never thought about that spine-chilling possibility before, either. What she did not dare to put into words had first crossed her mind eight years ago, soon after Obi-Wan had left her with the vaguest explanation of what had happened that night on Mustafar. She had definitely considered the possibility of Obi-Wan being mistaken or even lying about Anakin’s fate during those devastatingly long, sorrow-stricken months after the fall of the Republic. In her darkest, most desperate moments, she had even hoped for it. Hoped that he was still alive somewhere out there. Hoped for the slightest chance of finding him and dragging him back to the light where he belonged, despite everyone else failing to see the good in him and despite everything he had done.

In the midst of months of depression, it would have been treacherously easy to let go of all perspective and keep not living, but merely existing in such a unrealistic, even twisted dream, but eventually she had managed to convince herself that she was stronger than that and that she still had plenty of reasons to keep on living in the present and start building a new life from the ashes of what could have been.

At first, she had only been able to go on and keep on fighting because of her children, even though she could have seen them only every now and then, but after a few years she found herself thriving for a better future not only for her children nor the galaxy, but also for herself, believing that it was what Anakin would have wanted for her, regardless of everything that had happened. She had sealed her most cherished memories of him in her heart, stubbornly choosing to remember him not from his darkest and most misguided deeds but his loving and passionate, yet so very vulnerable heart.

But now, all of a sudden, those twisted hopes and unspeakable fears buried in the back of her mind were not seeping, but rushing back to her consciousness, making her weak in the knees as her grasp of reality was falling apart.

Perhaps Vader turning up at her cell in the middle of night and rescuing her from being assaulted by stormtroopers could have been a mere coincidence – a strange coincidence, but a coincidence, nevertheless – but arranging her release to his custody? She had not dared to guess his likely dubious motives back then, but in hindsight, his actions seemed to make even less sense than before. His obvious reluctance to explain his intentions towards her? Combined with all those small details he seemed to know about her past that might have been meaningless per se, but still unexpected for him to be aware of?

Padmé only noticed that she had been biting her lip for the whole time when she tasted her own blood in her mouth, but she could not be bothered to do anything about the bleeding in the middle of her racing thoughts. What about the oddly persistent rumor of Vader being a former Jedi she had heard from Sereena? And what about those reports of alleged sightings of Obi-Wan Kenobi on his desk? Nothing of it made any sense to her, unless…

“No… That can’t be…” She could see her mouth moving in the mirror, but no audible words came out from her lips, as she suddenly felt like she was suffocating from her lungs were crushing in. She took an abrupt step backwards, bracing herself against the nearest wall to prevent herself from falling off balance. “That’s not possible… He can’t be…

The words got stuck in her throat, forcing her to gasp for air. She could not say it out loud. She could not say the words and thereby allow such a nightmare get foothold in the reality where Anakin Skywalker had died a hero – a fallen hero, but a hero, nevertheless – and not lived only to become a monster.

She leaned against the wall and let herself sink to the floor, burying her face in her hands as she let out a confused sob. From a certain point of view, Anakin and Vader being the one and same person made perfect sense, and then again it did not make any sense at all, not to her. She had to put her fears aside and start putting the pieces together. If only there would have been a way to contact Obi-Wan, but he had been out of her reach for years now. Although, she recalled him being clear in his statement that Anakin was killed by Vader.

And Vader himself had not denied such claim, either.

She shook her head in disbelief. Could they both, unknowingly of each other, have been lying to her? Of course, she realized that Obi-Wan was first and foremost a Jedi, and the Jedi used to be known of their reasonings being mostly unfathomable to the majority, but even though he would have chosen to hide the truth from her for some reason she likely could not begin to understand, she was fairly convinced that Anakin would not have let her live in a lie and grieve for him, had he been alive.

And even though he simply would not have been aware of her being alive, which would have been likely due to the excessive precautions she had agreed to take to protect Luke and Leia from the Empire, surely he would have revealed his identity by now. It would have been unspeakably cruel to lead her to believe otherwise, but then again, Vader was cruel to the core, was he not? He was vile and corrupt and purely evil in ways she could never imagine Anakin to be, not even in his darkest moments.

“Obi-Wan told me terrible things.”

“What things?”

“He said you’ve turned to the Dark Side… that you… killed younglings…”

She was shaking uncontrollably as she stared forward with empty eyes, desperately trying not to come to the conclusion she was so afraid of. Flickering memories flashed rapidly before her eyes, tearing her aching heart at the seams. There had to be something she had missed; something that would prove that she was simply losing her mind, as the sole thought of the possibility of Anakin and Vader being the same person was utterly unbearable to her.

In order to not lose it completely, she refused to accept such possibility to exist. It had to be that being cut off from the outside world and being held prisoner had finally driven her mad. She bit her already sore and bleeding lip, bitterly refusing to believe in her own delusions. Anakin had always been rash in his actions, prone to base his decisions on feelings and assumptions instead of facts, but surely he would have come back to his senses by now, after so many years? She could not imagine Anakin, of all people, believing he was doing the right thing by enslaving entire systems and slaughtering thousands and thousands of people in the name of the Emperor.

There’s good in him… I know there is… still…”

Slowly she dragged herself up from the cold floor, trying to collect herself after her mental breakdown. She had never stopped believing that there had been still some pure, incorruptible goodness left in Anakin that night, and she certainly was not about to stop believing it now, deciding that there was no way for Anakin and Vader being the same person. She saw no choice but to keep clinging to her persistent belief in Anakin’s ultimate goodness to retain at least some of her sanity.

Her legs barely held her up as she lurched back to the mirror. For a few seconds she toyed with the japor snippet she was carrying around her neck before hiding it carefully under the high collar of her dress and letting out a half defeated, half relieved sigh. “I won’t have it”, she whispered hoarsely to her pale, drooping reflection. “I won’t let his memory to be stained with any of this nons–“

But her moment of reassurance was cut short as she heard loud sounds of shattering glass and something she assumed was collapsing shelves, followed by a high-pitched scream that made her blood run cold. I have a bad feeling about this, she mentally noted as she leapt at the door. Despite the shaken state of her mind, she did not need to guess twice to figure out who was yelling – and why.

A lump of guilt knotted in her stomach as she rushed down the steep stairs. She realized she should never have dragged Sereena into this mess in the first place, but she had let her eagerness to prove her usefulness to Vader to cloud her judgement. It did not matter that the kitchenhand had offered to lend a hand first; she should have been the more responsible of the two of them. Her entire world might have been shrunk to fit inside walls of Vader’s tower, but Sereena’s was not. She might have lost everything she held dear, but Sereena was still so bright and young, her entire life still ahead of her. Padmé knew she would never forgive herself if something happened to her.

As soon as she entered the lounge, not bothering with avoiding the shards of broken glass scattered all over the floor, she froze at the sight of Sereena catching her breath on the floor, desperately trying to crawl away from the shadow looming over her. The girl noticed her arrival and opened her mouth to say something, likely to beg for help, but Vader cut her voice off by clenching his free hand into a fist in the air. Padmé climbed over a collapsed shelf, watching in sheer terror Sereena grabbing her throat and trying to tear off the phantom grip around her neck, but Padmé knew all too well that her attempts would be in vain.

She leapt forward and stepped between Vader and Sereena with a furious, yet terrified look on her face. “What in the stars you think you’re doing? Let her go!”

“Move aside”, Vader growled out his order. “This is not your concern.”

Padmé let out a weary sigh, glancing over her shoulder. Vader was wrong, as he simply was not aware that the girl coughing her lungs out on the floor was her concern to the highest degree. “That… might not be entirely true, my lord”, she confessed, all too tempted to lower her gaze, so she would not have to meet his stare. She certainly did not need to see his eyes to know that he was on the verge of making a terrible mistake. “She’s here only because of me.”

“Explain yourself.”

Sereena gasped sharply for air behind her back. ”Sabé… Sabé, please…” she squeaked in agony, her voice tiny and frail from choking. “Please, tell him… Tell him this is all a big misunderstanding…”

Padmé instinctively crouched down to shield Sereena from further harm, despite knowing that there were not much she could do, had Vader chosen to unleash his wrath on the poor girl. “Hush, Sereena, it’s over. It’s over now. You won’t die. He won’t hurt you anymore, I won’t let him”, she promised to the frightened girl before turning back to Vader. “I should’ve told you earlier”, she said, her voice strained with regret. “This is Sereena Vox. She works down in the kitchens. We kind of stumbled upon each other while you were… gone. I didn’t plan any of it, I swear. It was a mere coincidence. She’s…” Padmé glanced at the blonde girl cowering behind her back, briefly wondering whether any of this would have happened if she had been more honest with both Sereena and Vader. “She’s my friend. I believe she can be trusted.”

Vader remained silent for a few seconds, the only sounds in the room being his rasping breath and Sereena’s stifled sobs, before he called for SD-D4 with the commlink integrated into his helmet.

It took a while for the droid to pass through the maze of shattered glass and collapsed furniture. “Oh dear”, he said, marveling at the chaos. “What disorder. What disorder indeed. I wonder who gets to be the lucky droid to clean up this clutter.”

Vader’s patience was growing thin. Sereena winced as he reached his gloved hand out towards her. “Your code cylinder”, he barked. “Hand it to me. Now.”

He snatched the tiny device from her, opened the back panel of his droid and inserted the cylinder in an applicable slot. “Is this girl what she claims to be?”

“Analyzing data, Master…” 

Padmé was anxious to hear the results of the droid’s analysis. She had been so sure about Sereena’s trustworthiness from the start, but what if she had been wrong, after all? What if Sereena would turn out to be a lackey of either the Emperor or that other, still unidentified enemy? What if she had accidentally compromised both Vader’s plan and her children’s safety in her desperate longing for company?

“This access device is assigned to Sereena Vox”, the droid’s mechanical voice finally announced. “According to the Imperial database, she is assigned to food supply duty here in the Imperial Palace. I have her commanding officer’s contact information available, if you wish to confirm–“

“That would be unnecessary”, Vader said, igniting his lightsaber as he spoke. “She knows too much. I will not suffer loose ends.”

“No, no, no”, Sereena cried out, her panicking gaze drifting over to Padmé as she took an abrupt step backwards and almost tripped over. “Please, Sabé, you must do something! Make him listen – I only wanted to help you, you know that, don’t you? I – I don’t want to die! Not like this–“

Padmé saw no other choice but to clutch tightly onto Vader’s durasteel-covered arm to prevent him from running the girl through with his lightsaber right there. “Please, my lord”, she appealed. “You once said that if I had any requests, you would see to them, remember? I have one now. Don’t make me live with her death on my conscience. She’s innocent. This is all my fault, not hers.”

Vader did not answer her nor turn off his lightsaber, but he did not proceed with his intention to kill Sereena, either.

“If you need someone to take your anger out on, you can have me. Hurt me, if you must, but spare her life, that is all I ask of you.”

“I made you a promise that you will be unharmed.”

Oh, she had not forgotten. “Will you live up to that promise, my lord?”

After a few excruciatingly long seconds, Padmé closed her eyes in sheer relief and let go of his arm as she heard the distinctive noise of a lightsaber being turned off.

“It seems the Force is with you today, girl”, he said to Sereena as he hooked his lightsaber back to his belt.

Sereena struggled to get back on her feet, shaking the shards and dust off her dress. Her palms were bleeding, and her uniform dress was stained with blood. “Thank you, Lord Vader, thank–“

“Now begone, before I change my mind.”

Sereena did not waste time with staying around and trying her luck any further. She picked up her code cylinder and rushed to the corridor without looking back, soon vanishing behind the corner.

SD-D4 was the first one to break the ominous silence that had descended on the lounge. “My goodness”, he moaned. “What an awkward situation–“

Vader gave the droid an order to start cleaning up the mess before turning his menacing attention back to Padmé. “I would not have expected you to be so foolish”, he snapped, reproachfully pointing his black-clad index finger at her. “What were you thinking?”

Padmé gave him her most scornful glance as she waved his hand off. “What were you thinking?” she retorted, regaining some of her poise as she spoke. “She was telling the truth, Esdee confirmed it, and you still wanted to kill her. What kind of a–“

“You could not have known that, not until now, yet you chose to associate with that girl, regardless of consequences”, he interrupted sharply. “This is not the Senate, Padmé. There is no person in this entire building who would not sell you out for a chance to bask in the Emperor's attention, if they were to know about you. You are playing a dangerous game.”

“Don’t you dare to lecture me, my lord. The Senate was no different”, she remarked, crossing her arms over her chest. “As if there were never any trouble. There were Separatist spies and infiltrators lurking behind every corner, even assassins, but we could handle ourselves. I could handle myself.”

Vader scoffed sourly, suddenly burning to remind her of all those times he had had to come for her rescue, all because she had chosen to misplace her trust in two-faced fools, like Clovis. “Is that so?”

“If I didn’t know you better, I would say you’re being sarcastic with me, my lord”, she snarled.

“I merely wished to remind you that the Senate was under the protection the Jedi Order”, he said. “There are no Jedi in the Imperial Palace to protect you.”

The incident with Sereena had pushed her earlier contemplations off her mind for a moment, but as she no longer had to acutely fear for the girl’s life, it all came back to her. She recalled deciding to let go of such false beliefs, based on nothing but her own mindless delusions, but Vader’s remarkably familiar ability to infuriate her with his constant condescending protectiveness, not to mention his apparent urges to prevent others from breathing on a whim, forced her to reconsider that decision.   

It was her turn to scoff at his words.  “Oh, is that so?”

She needed to know the truth.

Chapter Text

Padmé did not remember when she had last been so utterly and completely uncertain of what she wanted. She needed to know the truth, of that she was certain, but did she truly want to know? Was she mentally prepared for dealing with the aftermath, regardless of who Vader was behind his mask? She was not sure, but at the same time she knew she could not bear the uncertainty eating her alive much longer without going insane.

“Take of your mask.” Her words were meant to be a demand, not a request, regardless of her faltering voice. “Show me your face and prove your claim. I dare you, my lord.”

Vader was standing opposite to her, remaining silent as he weighed his options. The situation, in all its direness, reminded him of an old lesson of the Jedi Anakin Skywalker had stubbornly refused to learn. A lesson he had deemed even more insignificant after assuming the identity of Darth Vader, and yet, it did not seem to matter whether he was a frightened slave boy from a desert planet in the Outer Rim, a troubled young Jedi struggling with meeting the expectations set for the Chosen One, or a dreaded Sith Lord, the second most powerful being in the galaxy – he still could not prevent change, regardless of how strong or determined he was to achieve his end. 

At that moment it became crystal clear to him that things were, yet again, changing, as they always were, and regardless of what he might have wanted, he had no power to stop it, as it was already happening. He knew it, and it was not because of her choice of words; not because of the slightest shift in her tone that demanded answers; not even that almost imperceptible tremble of her lower lip that he would not have caught if he had not known where to look.

He knew it, because he could feel it in the Force, despite his recently blurred vision. Whether Padmé herself was aware of it or not, she already knew the truth. She might have refused to accept it, but deep down in her heart she knew, nevertheless.

There was a slight disturbance in the Force; a small tremor, but not nearly small enough to slide past him – or the Emperor, he thought as his idle hands clenched into fists at his sides. If he could feel Padmé’s hopes and fears, intertwined with one another, scrambling and shifting within the loose, yet treacherously detectable flow of her emotions drifting through the Force, surely the Emperor, in all his might, could sense her presence as well. 

But he would not let the Emperor take her from him, not this time. He would not let it happen all over again, however high the cost might be. Her hatred for him and his own crippling shame he could endure, but losing her for the second time.

And yet, there was no stopping the process that had already been set in motion; no way to prevent the inevitable fallout to come. Whether it was Padmé figuring out the truth or the Emperor starting to suspect that he was hiding something from him, he could not stop it from happening. In front of change, he was rendered powerless – and he hated it.

All he could do now was slow it down. “I know what you seek. I can feel your struggle”, he said, truthfully. A part of him had known from the start that Padmé would eventually manage to put the pieces together, but he could not allow it to happen just yet.

To protect her from the Emperor, he now understood what was needed of him. He had to hide the final piece, his undying love for her, from her – or shatter the entire puzzle into pieces, if necessary. “You would do well for yourself to let go of the past.”

Padmé took a cautious step closer to him. “I don’t believe you”, she declared, her voice more confident than her posture. “Not unless you prove it. Take off your mask and your helmet and prove you weren’t–“, she inhaled sharply, still not quite daring to say his name out loud, “– a Jedi Knight. Show me that there’s no goodness left in that vile soul of yours.”

Much to his surprise, Vader felt a sudden urge, laced with light and tingling with hopefulness, to submit to her judgement. To remove his helmet, kneel in front of her and beg for her forgiveness for his darkest deeds. He trailed his prosthetic fingers across the dimly gleaming side of his helmet, briefly brushing them over the opening mechanism, before letting his hand fall down to his side.

He could not do it. He could not afford to lose his focus, not now. He was too close to achieve what Anakin Skywalker never could. The Jedi had been nothing but a failure; his life had been nothing but a sore mistake. He could not have overthrown the Emperor, despite his misguided delusions. He would never have succeeded.

But Vader was determined to succeed. “I sense a great deal of pain in you”, he said, his voice strained with anguish. There was a storm raging inside him; a bloody battle between the light side and the ever relentless darkness. ”What you would learn would only worsen it further. I do not wish that upon you.”

She let out a mirthless laughter. “With all due respect, my lord, what do you, of all people, know of pain?” she taunted. “Aside from inflicting it on others, of course. What do you know of being hurt so deeply that there’s no words to describe the pain? What do you know of having everyone you loved and everything you lived for taken away from you? What do you know of being alone and lost in the dark, with absolutely no one to turn to?”

He could have said he knew plenty of it. How could he not, when she had practically described all that was his life, leaving out only the parts with guilt and shame, ensuing from knowing that it had all been his fault, and his fault alone.

But he chose another path, the more familiar one, and denied his past. Otherwise he might not have the strength to keep his guard up and pretend he did not care. “I have no patience for this”, he said sternly, breathing heavily through his mask as he turned his back to her, letting the darkness within him take over and coil tightly around his broken heart. “This conversation is over.”

But Padmé, now as frustrated as she was desperate, was unwilling to give up without a fight this time around. She hastily glanced across the disheveled lounge, looking for any means to keep him around a little longer to pry the truth out of him.

Her eyes caught a faint flash of silvery metal amongst the tousled cushions on the divan. There had been so much going on since her self-guided tour to Vader’s quarters that she had already forgotten the blaster she had recovered from his office. Okay, this is it, I’m officially out of my mind, she thought as she leapt forward and grabbed the gun.

Her hands were shaking as she less than nimbly switched the setting from the stun mode she personally preferred to kill and aimed at Vader’s withdrawing back. “No, my lord”, she said hoarsely, her heart racing wildly within her chest. “I’m afraid it’s not over yet.”

Vader stopped, but did not turn around to face her. He did not need to see her with his eyes to know what she was up to. “Ah, I see you have found your blaster.”

“I took it from your office”, she confessed, figuring that trespassing was much lesser offense than the one she was committing now.

He had figured as much. “I cannot imagine what you thought you would gain by breaking and entering my quarters.” 

“I was looking for clues”, she said, painfully aware that she should have taken the shot by now. No Rebel should have hesitated in her position. Her finger trembled on the trigger, but she could not quite bring herself to pull it. “I wanted to know more about you. About who you truly are. My blaster wasn’t the only thing I found. If you won’t take off your mask, then answer me this… Why are you after Obi-Wan Kenobi? How do you even know he’s still alive? Why do you care so much for one Jedi, hmm?”

“You are sorely mistaken if you think you can outwit me.”

She chose to ignore such an obvious attempt of deflection. “And you’re even more sorely mistaken if you think you can intimidate me”, she retorted, crossing her arms over her chest. “Thanks to you, I’ve had plenty of time to think these things through, and I politely refuse to believe that you weren’t a good man; that you weren’t–“

No, he could not bear her saying that name, his name, out loud and crumble what was left of his defenses. He made a swift turnaround and disarmed her with the Force, grabbing the slim blaster from the air as it flew across the room. “Anakin Skywalker is dead, and Kenobi, as elusive as he has turned out to be, will soon enough follow the footsteps of his foolish apprentice”, he growled, crushing the delicate weapon in his gloved fist and dropping the bent fragments drop to the floor as a brutal wave of darkness consumed him. “If you do not wish to share their fate, I would suggest you cease from chasing after dead men and delusions.”

Her stubbornness, at its worst, could compromise his plan to destroy the Emperor. Without giving her chance to object, he grabbed her arm and dragged her back upstairs. “You will stay here until told otherwise and pray that your fondness for getting yourself in trouble will not alert unsought attention”, he snarled as she shoved her roughly in her room. “Unless you wish to find out that the Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.”

“No, please!” she begged, but he was, both mentally and physically, out of her reach. She could almost feel the cold, dark aura surrounding him, swiftly building an impenetrable wall between them. “Don’t leave me here–“

“Do know that I do not relish having to do this.”

“Please, my lord, I beg you–“

But her pleas were in vain, as Vader left the room without looking back once. The door glided shut after him, and Padmé, as startled and shaken as she was, did not need to try it to know that she was trapped. Swallowing her tears, she dropped down on her bed and cradled herself, shaking her head in agony.

What a fool I am, she mentally blamed herself as she rubbed her numb arm with her other hand. What was I thinking? Whoever that man is, he can’t be who I wanted, maybe even hoped… and most definitely feared him to be. Not ever. I should’ve taken that shot when I still had chance. What he did to Sereena was – oh, why in the stars that poor girl had to come here? I should’ve warned her not to…

For the moment being, she felt utterly ashamed of herself and her girlishly naïve hopes that had led her to into hasty conclusions. She should have known better than to let Anakin’s memory to be stained with such nonsense. Her late husband had been troubled, yes, and misguided to the highest degree, but there had been so much light in him, too much to be quelled for good even in his darkest hour... But there was obviously no light in Vader, that much he had proven, even though he had refused to reveal his face to her.

Perhaps getting to the bottom of the mystery of Vader’s identity was utterly meaningless, after all. Why would she concern herself with his past, if there was nothing to be salvaged?

Vader stormed downstairs, still furious from learning that Padmé had not only disobeyed a direct order but also acknowledgingly endangered herself by revealing her presence to that girl. He could not help but fear that he would be unable to hide his secret from the Emperor much longer; fear that he was still too weak to confront his deceitful Master, and being forced to accept his own weakness infuriated him more than anything that Padmé could ever have done.

Then, the realization struck him – he was not angry with Padmé, but with himself and his own ineptitude in front of what seemed to be an impossible task. And yet, she had been the one to bear the consequences of his ill-directed rage, again. Had he not learned anything from the past?

Before proceeding into his personal quarters, he stopped to pick up the fragments of Padmé’s blaster from the floor. He examined the pieces of wood and bent metal closely, wondering why she had not taken the shot. He had given her the opportunity, after all. A part of him might even have hoped that she had shot him, and by doing so, shattered his juvenile desires. She was afraid, he reminded himself as he was engulfed by a ferocious wave of self-loathing. That was all. She does not care for me, why would she?

He glanced at SD-D4. “Come with me.”

“Oh, but Master, wouldn’t you want me to clean up this terrible mess fir–?”

“This is not the time to test my ire”, he interrupted, a warning tone to his voice.

“Oh”, the droid huffed. “Oh, I see. Coming, Master.”

Since meditation no longer granted him those precious, yet fleeting moments of calmness and clarity, he decided to resort to a more mundane method to force himself to calm down and see things more clearly. Tinkering with mechanics had often done the trick for Anakin Skywalker in the distant past – and besides, SD-D4’s routine maintenance was long overdue. Perhaps switching a suboptimal part or two would take his mind away from the disaster he had, once again, created all by himself. He carefully put the pieces of Padmé’s blaster on his desk and grabbed his toolkit.

SD-D4 let out a sound that distantly resembled a relieved sigh. “Oh, finally. It’s been forever”, he moaned as Vader proceeded to screw open his front panel. “Would requesting for an additional oil bath be too much?

“Be still”, Vader ordered, ignoring most of the droid’s babbling. He could always have shut him down for the duration of the maintenance, but as strange as it sounded even to his own ears, he kind of preferred the droid’s company to being alone with his own grim thoughts.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, Master, but how is Miss Skywalker?” SD-D4 asked. “She seemed very, very upset.”

“Yes”, Vader said sternly, already having regrets for not shutting the droid down, as he did not particularly wish to be reminded of his most recent failure. “I am aware.”

“Well, according to my calculations, the odds are in favor of everything turning be alright, Master”, the droid said nonchalantly. “I’m very confident that you’re already figuring the most efficient way to make amends for this rather awkward situation as we speak–“

Vader scoffed. “And why exactly would I be doing that?”

“Oh, Master, please. I might not be a protocol droid, but I am not blind, either”, the droid said. “Human behaviors aren’t my area of expertise, but from what I’ve gathered, an honest apology might be the preferred course of action in this particular situation.”

“I do not recall asking for neither advice nor your opinion”, Vader warned. “You are awfully bold, given that plugging this cable here”, he demonstrated his words by tugging a slender cable inside the droid, effectively causing a slight electrical discharge, “into this port here would vaporize you in less than seconds.”

SD-D4 winced at the crackling noise coming from inside him. “Oh, no – ouch”, he yelped. “No, no, you didn’t, Master, but might I still remind you that I’ve been programmed primarily to assist you – and assist you I will, though it would be much, much easier if you would refrain from vaporizing me for now, of course.”

Vader let out a frustrated sigh. SD-D4 was nothing if not persistent to the core, and he had only himself to blame for the droid’s rather insufferable personality traits, as he had been the one to build him, after all. As much as he had once desired to shed the skin of Anakin Skywalker, apparently he could not have resisted a subconscious urge to build his new droid with Skywalker’s very first creation in mind.

“Very well”, he finally said, after contemplating the droid’s words. He would never have admitted it out loud, but he indeed might have been in need of a little help, as it became clear to him that he had obviously forgotten how to show care and basic empathy long time ago. Despite the direness of the situation they were in, and despite the enemies lurking behind every corner, Padmé deserved better than he apparently had to give. “What do you suggest?”

The droid was visibly thrilled to help. “Personally, I think you might want to start with gaining her trust, Master”, the he stated. “An anecdote of a more personal nature, if I may. If one has to constantly fear for their life, I’m afraid that might not offer the most optimal foundation for –“

“I would never hurt her”, Vader objected as he carefully detached a circuit and replaced it with another. “She knows that.”

“Does she, though?” the droid countered. “Judging by what I witnessed today, I wouldn’t be too certain about that. Oh, and here’s another thing! In order to gain her trust, I firmly believe that you would have to trust her in return – and show it to her. Such a curious thing, the concept of mutual trust. It's so very... human, isn’t it?”

Vader screwed SD-D4’s front panel back in place. “Very”, he said drily as he briefly glanced at the bent parts of Padmé’s blaster on his desk.

An idea started to form in his mind.

Chapter Text

The lights of the city seeped through the half-closed blinds of Padmé’s room, awakening her from her restless sleep. It was already late, and she did not recall falling asleep in the first place, but the evidence spoke for itself. Her head felt awfully light, her eyes were red and sore from tears she did not remember shedding, and her dress – one of those Imperial uniform dresses SD-D4 kept bringing for her – was all wrinkled, and the heavy fabric felt itchy against her sweaty skin.

She exhaled in defeat as everything that had happened earlier rushed back to her. Sereena had gotten lucky, but Padmé was uncertain whether her own luck was about to run out. How many times she could defy Vader before getting burned? 

She did not particularly feel like getting up, being all too aware that she could not leave the room, so she stayed in bed, listening to the steady hum of traffic and watching idly as the city lights danced on the ceiling.

Her thoughts kept drifting back to Sereena. She knew she should never have asked the girl to get involved and risk her life like that, but then again, there was nothing she could do about it now, and berating herself from her mistake would not change anything or make it better. Yet, she was anxious to hear from her and make sure that she was alright after such a harrowing experience.

Besides, the kitchenhand seemed to know her way around the palace, she must have been aware of the consequences of getting caught. Maybe she has found something, Padmé thought, her hopes rising a notch. She might have… quite unique personality, yes, but she’s not crazy, nor a fool. She wouldn’t have stuck her neck out like that just to say hi. Maybe she indeed has something. Something she didn’t want to fall in wrong hands.

Her thoughts were cut short and she was driven out of bed by loud clanking noises as SD-D4 entered the room with a dinner tray and a pile of clothes, fresh from the laundry. “Good evening, Mistress.”

She could not help but be slightly surprised to see the droid. “Good evening to you too”, she greeted as she took a seat. “I must admit, I’m relieved to see that at least your Master isn’t planning to starve me to death.”

“Oh, Mistress, I am quite certain that he has no such intentions”, SD-D4 reassured her. “I would provide the odds, of course, but since I’ve been led to understand you prefer a less exact approach to–“

She forced a smile on her face. “Aren’t you a fast learner?”

“How kindly put, Mistress.”

As soon as the droid set the tray on the desk and turned his attention elsewhere, namely in sorting out the laundry, Padmé took a quick peek under the lid of the tray, hoping to find any sign of Sereena. For once, her hopes were rewarded, as there was a small package, wrapped in brown paper, next to her plate. She impatiently tore the package open, finding a small holoprojector device inside.

“Esdee, my dear”, she said, being barely able to hide her anticipation. “On second thought, it’s been a stressful day. I don’t think I have the appetite for such a heavy meal. Would you be a darling and return my dinner to the kitchens with my sincere apology?”

“Of course”, he replied. “Would you want me to bring you something else? Maybe some fruit and biscuits? Oh, and some Gatalentan tea for the nerves, perhaps? It would be my pleasure to–“

She shook her head. “There’s no need for that, but I appreciate your offer”, she said, hiding the holoprojector in her pocket as she spoke. “Actually, I’d like to retire for the night, if you don’t mind. I’m not feeling so well, but it’s nothing a good night’s rest won’t cure–“

The droid turned back to her. “Oh no”, he moaned. “Are you ill, Mistress? Feeling feverish? In need of acute medical assistance? I must alert Master Vader immediately–“

She abruptly leaped to her feet. “No!” she exclaimed, realizing her excuse of choice had obviously been a terrible mistake. “It’s… it’s nothing. I’m just tired, that’s all. And besides, it’s late. Lord Vader surely wouldn’t wish to be bothered with something so trivial.”

“On the contrary, my Master seems to be uncharacteristically invested in your wellbeing”, he corrected.

She nervously bit her lower lip. “What if you just brought me a nice cup of tea instead?”

“Very well.”

Padmé was not too fond of having to trick SD-D4, but what other choice did she have? While Vader might have had kept his promise not to cause her physical harm, he certainly did not seem too eager to extend such mercy to others. After the unfortunate incident with Sereena, she had no intention of making the droid, too, an accessory to her misdeeds.

But she would not sit on her hands and do nothing, either. It was not her style. At the very second the door hissed shut after SD-D4, she took the holoprojector device from her pocket, snapped it open and played the most recent recording.

As she had expected, a hologram transmission of Sereena emerged in front of her. “Stars, I sure do hope that meddlesome droid didn’t mess up with my package.” The sound quality was far from perfect, but Padmé could still recognize her bubbly voice. “As for obvious reasons I think I should keep a low profile for a while and avoid getting in trouble. Actually, now when I think about it, I don’t think I even knew what ‘trouble’ really meant until today. You – you saved my life, Sabé, and risked yours for my sake”, despite the low quality, Padmé detected a slight tremble in her voice as she spoke, “No one has ever… I just… I don’t know how I could ever repay your kindness. I knew you were nice, but… such selflessness! You sure are full of surprises, my friend. I was sure I was going to… that he was going to – that was so kriffing creepy! He’s so creepy… Well, at least now I’ve something to tell my future nonexistent grandchildren, huh? Something more exciting than scrubbing tables and serving meals.

Padmé watched closely as the hologram Sereena paced restlessly back and forth, occasionally stepping over the edges of the holoprojection and temporarily disappearing from her sight. 

I know what you must be thinking”, she said, wearing a little smirk. “'Why, Sereena, why! Why you had to be so damn stupid and prance straight into trouble without thinking twice!’ Well, I can guarantee that’s exactly what I’ve been wondering myself, trust me. Wasn’t one of my brightest moments, that’s for sure.

Padmé let out a half-hearted laughter as it seemed clear that at least Sereena’s rather unique sense of humor had survived Vader. “You’re not exactly wrong”, she muttered, regardless of knowing that Sereena could not hear her.

But hear me out! I had my reasons, you see. I know, I know, I got a bit ahead of myself. Should’ve waited for a safer opportunity to contact you and set up a secret meeting, but oh, Sabé, I just couldn’t resist”, Sereena said mysteriously, obviously enjoying keeping her in suspense. “Okay, I confess, I’ve always wanted to see how the infamous Lord Vader lives, but… there is something else, too. Something I wanted to tell you in person. As it happens, I just might’ve found something. Or someone, to be more specific. A person who fits precisely into your description of someone who bears a personal grudge against Vader and who just might be dumb enough to act on such a self-destructive desire...

Padmé was thrilled to hear the rest of it. “Come on, tell me who is it…”

…But I’m afraid I’ve got nothing confirmed just yet”, Sereena admitted, shrugging apologetically. “I need a couple of days more to sort it out, okay? We wouldn’t want an innocent man getting hurt, wouldn’t we?

Padmé’s disappointment with Sereena not having anything concrete yet was brief as she realized the girl was right. Regardless of how concerned she was for her family’s safety, pinning such an atrocious crime on a possibly innocent man without solid proof to back their accusations would not be the right thing to do. Taking that route would only lead to an inevitable tragedy. Better to be safe than sorry, she decided. It would be terrible if they rushed to act on a false alarm, as they would likely only alert the real enemy that they were on his tracks.

In the meantime, you can keep the device. It’s faster and probably safer way to stay in touch than sending notes through that half-witted droid”, Sereena pointed out as Padmé briefly glanced at the somewhat rickety device in her hand. It definitely was not the latest or even the second latest model of such devices, and it had some scratches on the surface. “I know, it’s old, somewhat broken and it has only one frequency. Not much of a reward of saving one’s life, I suppose. Anyway, do me a favor and keep it out of Lord Vader’s sight, will you? I really don’t think I’d want to bump into him again anytime soon if you know what I mean. Oh, but, gotta go now! I’ll contact you as soon as I have something. Sereena out.

The transmission ended abruptly with Sereena mock saluting before vanishing from sight. At first, Padmé struggled with gathering her thoughts as she was uncertain what to make of the pieces of information she had just acquired.

If Sereena was on the right track, she would soon have a name for her. A name she would give to Vader, who would undoubtedly take care of the threat in his terrifying, yet undeniably effective way. She did not take joy in the idea, but she could no longer hide from the truth, either. The last decade of grief and loss had changed her and not necessarily in a good way. She realized she had become more ruthless over the years; more willing to do whatever it takes to keep her loved ones out of harm’s way; apparently desperate enough to ally herself with a Sith Lord. Recently, more often than she would have cared to admit, she had found herself justifying her choices as the only choices she had.

But she had no regrets. Not one. She had already lost too much and sacrificed even more to lay down her weapons and give up now. She had survived this long when her friends and loved ones had perished due to the future Emperor’s machinations. She needed to see this through. She needed to see Palpatine pay for his atrocities, not only against the galaxy but against her family.

Tried as she might to assure herself she was ultimately striving for the greater good, her motivations were, before anything else, personal. It had been personal long before she had fallen into Vader’s clutches in the first place, and because of that she could not afford to relate with or even pity the person, this hidden enemy, who had chosen to place himself as an obstacle between her and her goal of witnessing the Emperor’s demise with her own eyes.

Yet, her contemplations were cut short by SD-D4 clanking in with her tea, but much to her dismay, apparently he had not come alone. She could hear Vader’s heavy steps and the ominous sound of his respirator before he even entered the room and drowned the small space in his dark presence, giving her barely enough time to hide Sereena’s holoprojector in her pocket.

She twitched nervously in her chair, scowling sourly at SD-D4, who set a small tray – a steaming cup of tea and a couple of biscuits – on her desk. “Please, do not look me like that, Mistress”, he moaned guiltily in response. “My recent observations of human behavior and relations merely suggested that perhaps an honest approach would be–“

Vader raised his hand to silence the droid. “My droid informs me you have reported symptoms of an unidentified illness.”

Padmé had not expected to see Vader again so soon, and she definitely would have appreciated if he had stayed away for a little longer, not only because she was frustrated with his condescendence and violent antics, but also because she found it immensely hard to think straight in his presence.

“Lord Vader”, she greeted icily, making it clear she had no desire to speak with him. “Then I must inform you that your droid is worrying too much. As far as I’m concerned, I’m perfectly healthy. Suffering from slight dizziness can’t be too unusual, if one has first been forced to witness her friend almost getting killed and then locked up in her rather tiny room, hmm?”

“You should not have interfered.”

“And you shouldn’t have me hauled in this glorified prison cell in the first place if you wished not to be scolded of your cruelty.”

“Perhaps my droid was mistaken”, he said, the raspiness of his voice covering any detectable undertones. “As this alleged illness of yours has obviously not affected your ability nor eagerness to speak your mind.”

She took a graceful sip of her tea. “That is correct. Now, if you’re quite finished, I bid you good night, my lord. I believe we have nothing else to discuss with each other at this hour.”

“Very well.”

She watched in mild annoyance as Vader turned his back to her as he was about to take his leave. Though much to her surprise, he was halted by SD-D4, who gave an uncharacteristically loud and distinctively disapproving beep at his attempt to leave the room. “Pardon me, Mistress”, the droid said, his artificial tone suspiciously amused, “but I believe my Master isn’t quite finished yet.”

She cocked a brow and tilted her head to one side. “Oh, this I need to hear.”

Vader turned slowly back to her. His throat felt even more raw and dry than usual, as the right words were stuck right in, scraping the inside of his throat. He knew what he had to do, and for once, he knew what he wanted, but he had not anticipated reaching for it to be as difficult as it seemed to be. He was not used to this, not used to admit his mistakes and act accordingly. There is nothing to fear, he thought, yet he was afraid. Terrified, even.

While he might have had shed Anakin Skywalker’s skin, his morals and values, and lost everything the young fool of a Jedi had held close to his heart in the process, Anakin’s fears of rejection and abandonment had never truly ceased to exist within the core of his very being. Those same fears that had once backed him against an imaginary wall and fueled up his insecurities to the point where he had not seen any other way to escape the pain but to fall into the embrace of the dark side and letting it cloud his judgment.

It had been his mistake then. It was his responsibility now.

There had been times when he had been eager to find a scapegoat for his misery. He had blamed the Senate in all its incompetence, the Jedi Order and the oblivious fools of the Council, Kenobi above all others, and of course, the Emperor himself.   

But while the Emperor had undisputedly been the driving force behind the fall of the Republic, Anakin’s fall had been nothing but his own doing. He saw it now, more clearly than ever.

And yet, he had to fight his overwhelming desire to use the Force to throw SD-D4 out of the window.

“I came here tonight to ask your forgiveness”, he finally said, his voice strained with anguish and tension.

“Pardon me – what?

“You heard me.”

“I certainly did, but I wouldn’t mind hearing it again”, she said as a cunning, yet lukewarm smile crept up her face. “Just to be sure I heard you properly, my lord.”

Vader groaned. “I came to apologize”, he repeated, his gaze behind his mask fixed on her. “I should not have…”

Padmé could not have imagined Vader, of all people, to be one to struggle with finding the right words, let alone be willing to make amends in the first place. “Attacked my friend?” she suggested, but not in a hostile way, as there was a softer edge to her tone now. “Lashed out at me when I tried to stop you? Locked me up here?”

“No – and yes”, he said. “I do not trust this friend of yours, but I trust you.”

Another loud beep from SD-D4 ensued. While Padmé could not claim to be fluent in binary, she recognized the tone being a notch more encouraging this time.

“You deserve to be respected, not abused”, Vader continued, despite having to force each word out of his mouth. Saying such thing out loud made him feel he was not falling, but floating through the impenetrable darkness of his own mind, each word blowing holes for the light to seep in. “This is why I apologize for my actions.”

Padmé leaped to her feet and cautiously stepped closer to him. She studied his tall, dark and menacing presence towering over her and realized that perhaps for the first time since her transfer to Vader’s custody, she was not particularly afraid of him. Not that she would have dared to ask, let alone demand, him to reveal his face again, it was definitely too soon for another attempt – but still.

She cleared her throat. “I – I believe I can appreciate the gesture, my lord”, she said, carefully weighing her next words. “But at the same time, I’m afraid words alone don’t carry much weight. Will you promise to mend your ways and show me that you can be trusted as well?”

“If that is what you ask of me, then my answer is yes.”

“And if I asked to be treated not only with respect but as your equal?”

Vader flinched at her words. “We have concluded this issue before”, he said, more sternly than before. “I shall not let you leave. It cannot be done.”  

“I’m not asking to leave”, she said, the sudden gentleness of her voice taking even herself by surprise. It indeed was what she should have not asked, but absolutely demanded – but it was not what she wanted. Not anymore. “I won’t deny I’m not afraid nor that I couldn’t be regretting this in days to come, but I want to see this through. I want to see the Emperor fall. I want to be there with you. By your side as your equal, not in your shadow as your prisoner.”

She almost reached to take his gloved hand in her own to put emphasis on her dedication, but ultimately decided against it. “I’m not asking you to let me out, but to let me in.”

Vader crossed his arms over his broad chest. “You have to be more precise.”

“No more condescendence, no more fancy Sith titles”, she clarified. “No more curfews nor groundings. I need you to understand that the concept of staying out of sight is not foreign to me. Do I need to remind you that I’m practically a dead woman? On the contrary to what you might believe, I understand the necessity of laying low better than most.”

“Do I need to remind you allowing yourself to be caught by Imperial troops?”

She shuddered at the memory of her brief time in the prison. “A most unpleasant experience”, she admitted. “An unfortunate mistake I chose to learn from. Will you choose to learn from yours? Or will you prefer laying down and allowing yourself to be consumed by them?”

“Very well”, Vader replied after contemplating her words for a moment. Padmé’s ability to mirror his most repressed fears and doubts was nothing short of remarkable – and it made him uneasy. And yet, however relentless his inner darkness raging within him was, apparently, it could not overwhelm his love and respect for the woman who had once been his wife. “I accept your terms.”

“In that case, I accept your apology as well.”

“So that is settled, then”, he said. “There is yet something else I wish to show you tonight. Come with me.” His commanding tone earned yet another cautionary beep from SD-D4, whose presence he had absolutely forgotten a good while ago. “If you will. You do not have to.”

The corner of Padmé’s mouth turned up in a lopsided smile. Maybe, and just maybe their unexpected partnership was not an entirely lost cause, after all. “Perhaps I could be convinced”, she said, slightly warily. “May I ask what it is?”

“I merely thought you might be interested in leaving the palace for the night”, he said, more eager to see her reaction that he would have wanted to admit. “I have my shuttle prepared.”

She could almost not believe what she was hearing. “Isn’t that dangerous?” she asked, raising a brow in visible confusion. Dangerous – and wonderful?

“Yes”, he admitted. “Although I am under impression that imminent danger has not bothered you before.”

“What are we waiting for, then?”

Chapter Text

It was easier said than done to keep up with Vader’s pace, yet Padmé did not even consider asking him to slow down. Somewhere at the edges of her mind, she knew she still should not have trusted Vader and his intentions too blindly, despite their quite promising agreement earlier. Yet, she blissfully let the thought of getting out of the dim and dusty tower, even if it was just for a night, and breathing the relatively fresh air of the surface level of the city cloud her judgment.

She let Vader lead her into the maze of shadowy corridors and eerie halls with darkened windows, through countless heavily secured doors and elevators, bitterly marveling at every sinister detail. Not only the Jedi were gone, but also every lingering remnant of their memory was wiped out as well, almost as if they had never existed in the first place. 

Due to the late hour, they only encountered a few droids and not human personnel at all on their way down to the docking bay, but Padmé nevertheless wore a heavy black cape with an enormous hood to hide her features as a precaution, since many, if not the majority of the palace employees had previously worked for the Galactic Senate. Some had probably even attended her false funeral on Naboo eight years ago, and while Vader being seen accompanied by an unidentifiable associate was one thing, being seen with a presumably dead senator was another. She certainly did not wish her presence being exposed to the wrong eyes, as it was more than likely that Vader was right. Scarcely anyone would let such a once in a lifetime opportunity of basking in the Emperor’s personal attention slip through their fingers. Well, there’s always Sereena, she thought, who’s done nothing but been helpful. All those risks she’s taken for me… She just doesn’t seem the type to betray her friends for personal glory.

But her growing fear for Palpatine pushed her warm thoughts towards Sereena aside. Shuddering at the thought of the fiend who tore her family apart being so close, perhaps only a few floors above them, she turned to Vader as another heavily secured door slid open in front of them with a soft hiss.

“It’s been a while”, she said, keeping her voice low. She was quite sure that even though she might have lost track of time, Palpatine surely had not. “Have you heard anything from… him?”

Vader did not need to ask for clarification. “No”, he replied. “Not yet.”

Padmé reminded herself that she was more than allowed to speak her mind. “Don’t you think that’s… a little too convenient?” she asked, arching a brow. “We both know what he’s capable of. Do you really believe he doesn’t know about me, you–?” About us. About what you – we – are planning to do?

“I will not lie to you. The Emperor’s silence can only mean one of two things”, he said as he let her enter the docking bay before him. “He either knows and is waiting for the perfect moment to make his move – or he does not know, and his apparent absence is nothing but another of his gruesome tests.”

She blinked. “Tests? For who? You?”

“Yes”, he replied sternly.

Vader contemplated on how much he could tell without revealing the truth. It was not common knowledge that in fact, the Emperor despised him, his faulty apprentice, as much as he despised the Emperor, his deceitful Master. The Emperor indeed fancied testing the loyalty of his subordinates in his morbid, yet most efficient ways, but the ordeals Sidious had devised precisely for testing not only his loyalty but also his patience and self-control were cruel beyond measure, as the Emperor was aware of his every weakness. After all, Sidious had carefully cultivated the flaws of Anakin Skywalker’s personality for over a decade, tenderly nourishing the brash young Jedi’s repressed fears and insecurities in order to twist him around his little finger, all the way to the point where he only needed to pull the right strings to get exactly what he wanted from him.

The Emperor knew that while inflicting physical pain served as an adequate method of punishment for failure, he often preferred an entirely different approach whenever it came down to truly tormenting his apprentice and testing not only the limits of his resilience but also his devotedness.

As the Emperor knew that both Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader shared the same nemesis – their own minds.

His own mind. 

At least on the bridge of his personal flagship or in the cockpit of his TIE fighter, he could almost cope with the wretchedness that was his life. In the midst of constant battles against the Rebels and countless other enemies of the Empire, he had purpose. Skywalker had always felt most comfortable and confident in the middle of action, and Vader was no different.

But here on Coruscant, he had nothing but ruin and shadow, and because of that, the Emperor’s favored method was simply to keep him grounded, to deliberately keep him off duty, and leave him to his own devices for as long as he would see fit. Being left alone with his grim thoughts, with nowhere else to go and absolutely no one to turn to, he was forced to wander back and forth through the lingering ruins of his lost destiny, accompanied only by his own misery and the burning sensation of Sidious’s glee in the Force.

Vader imagined that his devious Master particularly enjoyed knowing that he had no escape from his suffering. It was no coincidence that even the suit that was supposed to keep him alive was not only impractical and uncomfortable but also excruciatingly painful to wear. It might have been built primarily for sustaining his life, maintaining his vital organ functions and protecting what was left of his mutilated body, but secondarily it was yet another form of inescapable punishment for an incompetent apprentice, too unbalanced and blinded by his own rage to beat his former Master in a lightsaber duel.

The suit was a punishment that would never let him forget his failure on Mustafar, not for a second. A punishment that would effectively keep him on his knees, groveling in his rage and guilt and shame, reminding him of the sour disappointment he had turned out to be for his new Master.

But whereas his self-hatred could indeed be harnessed to fuel his rage, allowing him to draw strength from his infinite misery, he would never be able to unlock his full potential using such a pathetic, worthless emotion as his anchor, which would be exactly what the Emperor counted on.

Without Padmé, he could not have imagined finding his focus again. He could not lose her. He could not set her free and let her go, whether he would have wanted it or not. “There is nothing we can do about the Emperor now”, he said truthfully, his fists clenching on his sides. Part of him wanted to turn around, rush into the throne room and challenge the Emperor right there, but he knew better. His rash actions had not helped Padmé before, and they would not help her now either. “All I can give to you tonight is one stolen moment out of his shadow.”

His sudden tension did not escape Padmé’s notice. “It’s alright”, she said soothingly. Perhaps it was less than she could have hoped, but definitely more than she had expected. “Where are we going?”

Vader yanked open the door and let Padmé climb in his private shuttle first. He might have preferred the agility of a starfighter to the clumsiness of a mere transport vessel, but at least his shuttle could attain an acceptable maximum speed – and more importantly, it was decently armed. He was certain the Emperor would not, under any circumstances, jeopardize the order of his capital city by launching an attack on him in the open, but the threat of the other enemy was still out there and could not be ignored lightly.

He began preparing the shuttle for departure. “Where would you want to go?”

Padmé took the copilot’s seat and glanced at him. Had they been able to leave the planet, she would have agreed to go anywhere, as long as ‘anywhere’ would have been as far away from Coruscant as possible. Or perhaps she would have wanted to go Alderaan, to make sure her children were safe and sound.

Thinking about the twins made her heart sink, so she forced herself to focus on the present. “Let me guess, going to one of the nicer cantinas around here and grabbing a couple of drinks isn’t an option?”

“It would be most unwise.”

She gazed absentmindedly through the narrow windscreen. “I thought as much”, she said, lacing her words with a soft chuckle. Vader certainly did not strike her as someone who would spend his leisure hours in cantinas – and besides, she had not seen him drinking or eating anything during their time together, which had led her to the conclusion that he likely was unable to ingest food and liquids in the first place. “In that case… I’d want to go somewhere far enough from here to be able to gaze at the skyline and not see the palace’s silhouette against it.”

The engines hummed as the shuttle took off. “That can be arranged”, Vader said as he steered the ship out of the docking bay. 

Padmé considered, briefly, offering her help with piloting, but Vader did not seem to be in need of any help. Of course, no Rebel could have avoided hearing stories about Vader’s devastating piloting skills or witnessing the sheer destruction he alone had caused to the Rebel fleet over the past decade, but she still had not expected such striking familiarity in his mannerisms. Though perhaps she should have, considering the recent events and especially her suspicions of his true identity.

She glanced at him every now and then as they flew through the city. Vader certainly was a confident pilot. Almost too confident, she thought as she witnessed his daring, not far from reckless maneuvers through the heavy air-traffic, effortlessly shuttling between skylanes. It was almost as if she was reliving a memory. How many times had she been flying through Coruscant nights with Anakin, her heart throbbing at the boldness of the stunts he had pulled?

She had hoped to be able to bury her suspicions for the time being, as there were other pressing matters to deal with – namely revealing the identity of their hidden enemy – but how could she push her feelings aside when basically everything she had found out so far seemed to lead back to her presumably dead husband? There were so many unanswered questions floating in the air, and she was becoming more certain by the day that all the answers that had been stubbornly eluding her were to be found behind Vader’s mask.

“Wherever we’re going, I need to have a word with you when we get there”, she said, her voice thin and hoarse. If only she had brought a bottle of water with her…

Then, all of a sudden, a bright red warning light started flashing on the dashboard, followed immediately by a loud alarm. “It seems we are not going anywhere”, Vader growled, frantically pulling switches and pushing several buttons, but his actions did not seem to have any effect. “The engines are compromised.”

The shuttle abruptly veered off the skylane and started to rapidly lose altitude. Padmé could not help but clasp her eyes shut as she was certain that they would crash straight into the skyscraper in front of them, but Vader managed to spin the shuttle away from the harm’s way, just in time to evade crashing into the wall.

“Why is this happening?” she asked, her pulse racing as she squeezed the arms of her seat. “Why now? We aren’t under attack – or are we?”

“I performed the most recent safety inspection myself. Not a single malfunction was detected”, Vader said. “My only conclusion can be that our unidentified enemy has sent their regards.”

“Are you saying they sabotaged the shuttle?” Padmé’s eyes widened in horror. “That they’re trying to… kill us? Right here and now?”

“So it would seem.”

Padmé leaped up to her feet with some difficulty, swaying wildly from side to side before managing to support herself against the dashboard and the back of her seat. “Try to find somewhere safe to land”, she shouted over the alarms and the deafening thrumming of the overheated engines. “I go check the back–“

Vader made a swift turn in the air to avoid a head-on collision with a heavy freighter, causing Padmé to fall back to her seat. “No”, he countered. It might not have been the first time he caught himself missing Anakin Skywalker’s old astromech, R2-D2 – and yet, he was determined to make sure it would not be the last time, either. “I need you to sit down and hold on tight. The situation is under my control.”

Padmé could hardly believe what she was hearing. As far as she knew, there was only one person in the entire galaxy who would still believe they still had their vessel under control when it was on fire and about to crash into the ground within the next few minutes, given it would not crash into a skyscraper or another ship before that, and that person was supposed to be dead.

“Under your control? Don’t you think that’s quite an overstatement?” she shouted back as thick black smoke billowed from the engine room and flooded into the cockpit, making it harder to breathe and practically impossible to see anything. “You must bring the ship down immediately or we both die! How could you even–?”

“I have the Force.”

“May the Force be with you then”, she groaned. “May the Force be with us both.”

Vader was uncertain where the thought came from and why, but all of a sudden he was uncharacteristically determined to find a better way to save their hides than to crash land into the middle of the crowded streets of the city. He knew bringing the ship down here would not only alert the Emperor and leave them vulnerable to their yet unidentified enemy, who undoubtedly would be preying on them on the crash site, but also cause plenty of civilian casualties.

Deviating from the dark path he had chosen for himself a long time ago and breaking his downward spiral of destruction by taking the tougher route to avoid harm to civilians was the most Anakin Skywalker thing he could possibly have done, but he had already made his decision. He would not let all those people die while it was in his power to prevent it. It was the right thing to do, he could feel it in the Force.

There were plenty of suitable landing pads throughout the city, many of them secluded enough for him to perform a crash landing with no casualties. All he needed to do was to locate one and fly what was left of the shuttle there before they would lose too much altitude to be able to reach it.

He concentrated on his connection with the Force, reaching for his ability to see beyond what was in his sight and visualizing the city in his mind. The landing pad he was looking for was nearby, only a few hundred meters away from their position. Not any pilot could make it there with a malfunctioning control system and failing engines.

But he was not just any pilot.

Vader turned to Padmé. “Brace yourself. We’ll be coming in hot”, he warned, grabbing her arm as she began fumbling with her seatbelt. “No. Leave it off.”

She shook her head in terror. “Have you lost your mind?” she asked. “Why in the stars would I–?”

“You will see soon enough.”

They had almost reached their destination when the shuttle’s dorsal stabilizer came off with a loud crack, sending the shuttle in an uncontrollable spin through the air. As soon as they crossed the edge of the landing pad, Vader did not hesitate, but instead leaped to his feet and lifted Padmé into his arms. With the Force on his side, he did not have too much trouble with maintaining his balance as he proceeded to the door and kicked it open.

“You will have to trust me now”, he said. “I will not let you fall.”

Padmé gazed down at the landing pad that still seemed to be so far below them that she immediately regretted her choice to take a look. She was aware enough of what Force-users were capable of, yet there was only one person she would have trusted to be able to pull off what she assumed Vader was planning to do. “I don’t think I have much of a choice, do I?”

Vader did not reply, but instead leaped off the shuttle with Padmé safe in his arms, using the Force to ease their landing only a few seconds before the blazing remnants of the shuttle crashed into the wall at the back of the landing platform and exploded into flames. He shielded her from the rubble, his black cloak wavering behind his back and getting torn by the heated wave of pressure washing swiftly over them.

He noticed Padmé was trembling in his arms. “Are you hurt?” he asked.

“No”, she whispered, her voice shaking and her heart trying to beat its way through her chest. It was not that she had not been in hopeless situations before, but it had certainly been a while since her last near-death experience. She was, in fact, glad that everything had happened so fast and there had not been too much time to think what could have happened, had Vader not been there. “No, I don’t think so. I – thank you for being there for me. Again. I don’t – I don’t even dare to think what could’ve happened if you hadn’t–“

“Do not thank me”, he interrupted. “Without me, you would not have become in danger in the first place.”

She gestured him to let her down, and he complied. “Well, I’m not going to take my words back”, she said, wincing as she glanced over her shoulder at the fire. “Despite our… rather unsettling history, I’m grateful we are in this together.”

Vader was at loss to what to say. He was most uncertain what to make of her words or even of himself. “Very well”, he said restlessly, glancing briefly at the sky. “Guardian droids will be here soon to investigate the fire. It would be wise if we leave the scene before their arrival.”

He was anxious to return to the palace, perhaps indulge in meditation to clear his conflicted mind, but she grabbed his durasteel-covered arm to stop him. “Wait”, she hurried to say, running her gaze over the skyline. The spot they had crash-landed on was, in fact, quite charming, as it did not matter in which direction she looked, she could not see the distressing silhouette of the Imperial Palace from where she stood. “You’re probably right, but… Could way stay for a little longer?”

“You… would want to stay?”

“Well, yes”, she replied, a hint of desperation in her voice. “Please.”

He contemplated on her wish, knowing that lingering around would certainly not be the wisest course of action, but then again, he had made a promise to her. He had promised to take her away from the palace for a night. “Perhaps we could stay a while”, he finally said. They definitely should have returned to the palace immediately and continued their investigation for rooting out their hidden enemy, but it had to wait. “If that is your wish.”

She let her hood fall off as she sat on a crate and gave him a genuine and relieved, but also exhausted smile. Despite, or maybe because of, what had just happened, she could use every moment of fresh air she could get.

“I believe this moment is as good as any to return this to you”, Vader said, detaching something sleek and silvery from his belt and handed it to her. “It is good as new.”

She arched a brow in surprise. “That’s my old blaster”, she said as she took it from Vader and examined it. “I thought it was as good as gone.”

“I repaired it”, he admitted.

“I can see that”, she said, marveling at Vader’s handiwork before lifting her frowning gaze back to him. “And I appreciate the gesture, I really do, but... why?”

“It has occurred to me that I may not always be there to protect you”, he said, deciding to leave out the part that involved SD-D4 lecturing him about his blatant mistreatment of her. “You must be able to protect yourself. When the time comes, you must not hesitate."

“Well, aren’t you full of surprises tonight?” she said, a coy smirk dancing on her lips. Part of her had certainly expected nothing more than empty promises of trust and equality from him. Being trusted with a blaster was not something she would have thought of being a realistic option, not to mention that repairing her own gun was an uncharacteristically kind gesture from Vader. “So, you were honest with me, after all...”

No, he had been anything but honest with her without even realizing it himself, as it had turned out that apparently Anakin Skywalker was not as dead as he should have been, despite his overwhelming desire to let the Jedi fool and his tainted legacy decay and be forgotten out of shame.

It was the same shame that prevented him from telling her the truth now. The moment is not right, he reassured himself, allowing the lingering darkness of his ever-conflicted mind smother the unexpectedly alluring brightness within him – and stubbornly deciding to ignore how hard it had become to remain in the shadows of the dark side.

But for Padmé’s sake, he had to stay in the darkness. He had to stay focused. I will tell her, he thought. Later.

“We had a mutual agreement”, he said, avoidantly. “I have no intention of altering it.”

Padmé put the blaster aside and hopped off the crate. It might have been strange, considering that she had almost died a few moments ago, but for the first time in a very long time, she felt a genuine spark of hope resonating within her chest. Perhaps there would still be a future for her, for her children and even for Vader. Deciding not to care whether it was appropriate or not, she wrapped her arms around his neck, leaning her cheek against his durasteel-covered chest. After a moment, he seemed to accept her closeness and relax as he pulled her closer in his embrace, and much to her surprise, she felt no fear nor discomfort. She, in fact, felt safer than in a long time, almost as if she finally was where she was supposed to be.

In that one blazing moment, she could not even interest herself in solving the mystery of his true identity. Whoever Vader was behind his mask, he made her feel warm and safe and, above all else, human – and for the time being, it was all she needed. She simply could not find the strength to ruin the moment and, once again, ask him to reveal his face. I will ask him, she reassured herself. Later.

She knew she should have been terrified – for not being terrified, if not for anything else – but she had to face that she was not. She knew she should have been utterly disgusted by her shifting, treacherous feelings, but it did not seem to matter for the time being. Nothing seemed to matter but the solace she found in his arms. Even his heavy, machine-regulated breathing that used to make her hair stand on end sounded about as terrifying as a Loth-cat’s purr would have sounded.

A tiny voice at the back of her mind urged her to ask – no, beg – him to let her go, but she found herself lacking the willpower. Even if he would have fulfilled her wish, what then? What would she do? Where would she go? How could she ever return to the Rebel Alliance after everything that had happened? How could she ever look her fellow Rebels in the eye and tell them she had had her one chance to end the threat of Darth Vader, and by doing so deal a serious blow to the Emperor’s prevalence over the galaxy, but she had not taken the shot?

She realized she could do no such thing. “Vader, I–“

She was interrupted by loud sirens from the distance.

“We must leave”, Vader urged. “Come quickly.”

Chapter Text

In his seething rage, Vader had straightaway dismissed the idea of meditating on the matter of the unidentified enemy and their latest machinations. Instead, he kept pacing restlessly around his dimly lit quarters, impatiently waiting for SD-D4 to return from his task, as he had sent the droid down to the docking bay to download the security surveillance footage covering the last couple of days before his unfortunate trip with Padmé.

He was running out of time, and more importantly, Padmé was running out of time. He could feel it in the Force. If the Emperor was not already aware of the uninvited guest within the palace walls, soon he would be. Vader mentally declared that the time for careful planning and strategy to lure his elusive enemy out in the open was over.

I shall find them, he thought, reaching to clutch the air with his gloved fist. In one way or another, someone will die for making an attempt on my wife’s life.

Except that Padmé was not his wife. She had once been married to Anakin Skywalker, yes, but not to the ruined husk of a man that was left of him. And yet, only thinking about her soothed him and dissipated his anger. It was solely the lingering memory of her warmth, radiating from her gentle touch, that motivated him to resist the urge to storm down to the docking bay and slaughter every single engineer and maintenance attendant who could, even theoretically, have tampered with his ship's engines. A few weeks ago, or perhaps only a few days ago, he certainly would have done it without thinking twice, and he would have done it with no remorse at all, but whether he was prepared to acknowledge it or not, his personal opinion was no longer the only one he cared about.

Of course, part of him knew that he should not have read too much into that fleeting moment of unexpected intimacy between them, yet apparently he could not help himself. His compulsive desire to keep her to himself and hide her from the galaxy that would only try to take her away from him if given the chance, was slowly but steadily turning into something else, something more genuine and pure, something that he could barely recognize after eight long years of distancing himself from everything that had once made him human, and he most definitely did not know what to make of such unwarranted feelings he should not have been harboring in the first place.  

He should have been able to assure himself that Padmé did not care for him, that she was merely relieved to survive the crash and wanted to express her gratitude, nothing more. He should have understood that Padmé could never care for him, not after everything he had done, and even if she could, the sheer hideousness of his burnt and broken body would chase her off. 

But why, then, did his wayward mind constantly slither back to her? Why, then, was he so foolishly eager to bask in her vivid presence in the Force and latch onto the slightest shift in her emotions he had sensed last night when he had pulled her into his embrace?

He should have known better than to foster illusions of redeeming himself to become once again worthy of her love. He was too far gone, too entangled with the dark side, and his crimes against the galaxy were too great. Attempting to redeem himself would be nothing but a fool’s errand, and every step he would take towards such a misguided goal would be two steps away from the path – the only path – to the Emperor’s demise.

Although, it had occurred to him that he had already stepped off that path and let himself become distracted by his burgeoning feelings, not only once or twice but thrice. Perhaps granting that Twi’lek bounty hunter a merciful death had cost him nothing, and since there had been matters of greater importance to be handled, agreeing to spare that foolish kitchenhand’s life against his better judgement had seemed to be a relatively insignificant misstep that had required no further concern.

But he could not possibly explain his sudden whim to go to such great lengths to avoid civilian casualties in similar manner. It had been an enormous risk that could have cost him everything. It had been a choice of compassion and kindness, and making such choices was not the way of the Sith.  

For the Sith, such puny emotions as empathy and compassion were considered as obvious signs of weakness, and love was merely an obstacle to overcome on the path to absolute power. Such emotions were worthless, although they could be easily manipulated by those who possessed the power and desire to do so.

Chancellor Palpatine had once taught that to Anakin Skywalker, and Vader knew that Emperor Palpatine would certainly not hesitate to reiterate that particular lesson to him.

He knew he should, for Padmé’s sake, suppress his feelings before it would be too late.

It was almost noon when SD-D4 – finally, as Vader mentally added – returned from his task. “I have excellent news, Master”, the droid chirped joyfully as he clanked in. “I’ve brought the footage you requested, it’s all safely stored in my memory core.”

“Good work”, Vader said impatiently. “Show it to me.”

The droid froze. “Pardon me, Master, but did you just…”, he seemed to struggle with finding the right words, “…compliment me?”

“I merely commended your ability to follow orders”, Vader replied coolly. “If you do not wish me to reconsider your usefulness to me, I would suggest you do not say another word until we are done here.”

Vader did not need to repeat his order, as SD-D4 complied and projected the holographic record from the docking bay in the space between them.

At first, nothing seemed to deviate from the usual. All engineers and maintenance attendants seemed to be perfectly focused on their respective tasks, and there seemed to be no one around who did not belong there. “Fast it forward”, he growled.

But as soon as the footage reached the point where the personnel retired for the night before his trip with Padmé, the quality of the recording dropped dramatically. After a few seconds of blurriness and missing audio, the footage from the docking bay disappeared, only to be replaced with a strange symbol, perhaps some kind of a crest, that looked distantly familiar to him.

“Ah, Lord Vader, at last. You expected finding me would be easy, didn’t you?” Even though Vader could not recognize the scrambled, mechanical-sounding voice, the mocking tone to their tone did not go unnoticed by him. “You obviously don’t know me. No, no, it's okay. I understand, I really do. Why would you know me? It’s not like you’ve ever paid any attention to those whose lives you’ve ruined and whose destinies you’ve mercilessly crushed under your heel.”

Vader gestured SD-D4 to pause. “Is there a way to restore the missing footage?”

“Oh dear. I’m terribly, terribly sorry, Master, but I’m afraid that is impossible”, SD-D4 said apologetically. “My analysis indicates that the one who did this left absolutely nothing behind to be restored.”

“Very well”, Vader said, his fists clenching on his sides as he stared at the strangely familiar symbol in front of him. “You may resume.”

The voice burst into hysterical laughter. “But I know you, and I know you're nothing but a brute and a murderer. An abomination. Maybe I didn’t get you this time either, but rest assured, there’ll always be next time, and the next after that. Your payment for what you did to my Master is long overdue, and I'm afraid the only currency I'll accept is blood.”

As soon as the recording ended and the hologram disappeared, Vader shifted his attention to SD-D4. “I must speak with Miss Skywalker immediately”, he said. “Bring her to me.”

Padmé, however, was pacing restlessly around her room, trying to wrap her head around everything that had happened last night. It was one thing to have a clandestine night out ruined by an assassination attempt – and she was no stranger to such mishaps, after all, given her career history as an outspoken politician and her secret marriage with a Jedi knight – but finding herself in the arms of a Sith lord before the night was over was another, and she had absolutely no idea of what to make of it.

There was, apparently, no way for her to shrug off her complicated feelings, and the more she sought to sort them out to make some sense of them, the more messy and entangled they seemed to become. And yet, whether she liked it or not, she was way past pretending she did not realize what was happening to her and what – or more precisely, who – was the cause behind it.

Try as she might, there was no denying that she cared for Vader, despite everything he was, everything he represented and everything he had done – and despite not even having seen his face. At first, she had merely feared and despised him, just as any sane person would do, yet she recalled that after some time she had caught herself being able to endure his presence for short moments at a time without immediately becoming sick to her stomach.

She had never expected her feelings towards him develop anywhere past that point, and here she was now, her heart aching from the utter impossibility of the situation. Oh, stars, when did this even happen, she asked herself as she ran her fingers through her hair in distress. How did I let this happen?

She did not know what to make of such unwarranted feelings, but she certainly did know that she should not have them.

And what was even worse, she was alarmingly aware that she could not ignore the disturbingly high probability of Vader being Anakin for much longer. The more she delved into the proof – his extraordinary skills as a star pilot being the latest addition to the growing pile – she had gathered so far, the harder it was to continue dismissing their ominous similarity as something she would not have dared to consider further in fear of being right – or wrong, as she considered both options equally devastating.

She also knew that, either way, she would eventually have to come to terms with that dreadful possibility and, in case she was right, choose what to make of it. She was far from being prepared for that, but then again, how could she possibly have ever prepared herself for discovering that her allegedly dead husband had not only chosen the dark side instead of their love, but also wreaked havoc across the galaxy and slaughtered hundreds – no, thousands – of innocents over the past decade?

She let out a heavy sigh as she leaned against the wall, feeling utterly defeated by her situation. How could she ever look him into the eye and see the same person she had once fallen in love with? And even if it eventually turned out that she had been wrong about his true identity, how could she, in that case, look herself into the eye and admit that she was slowly but steadily falling for her husband’s murderer? At this point, she could not even say which alternative would be worse.

Either way, she had to admit to herself that she was elbow deep in a terrible, terrible mess, the kind Corellians would have described as hellish. She needed to learn the truth, yet she knew by now that she could not possibly force Vader to reveal his true identity to her. I demanded him to earn my trust, she reminded herself. Perhaps I need to earn his to make him talk.  

For better or worse, her fervent thoughts were interrupted by SD-D4 entering the room. “Good day, Mistress”, he greeted. “I am here to inform you that my Master wishes to discuss a certain matter with you. A rather urgent matter, I might add.”

“Let's not keep him waiting then.”

She followed the droid downstairs to Vader’s quarters, focusing all her willpower on trying to appear as calm and collected as ever, despite the chaos that was tearing her head apart, as they entered the dimly lit study together.

Vader chose not to waste time with formal greetings, despite his desire to make sure that Padmé was feeling alright after everything that had happened last night. Instead, he merely ordered SD-D4 to play the tampered part of the security footage again before turning to Padmé. “I need you to watch this and tell me what you see”, he said with more than a hint of impatience in his voice.

Padmé frowned at the heavily distorted voice. So, this is the culprit for the bounty hunter massacre and the shuttle sabotage, she thought.

“I don’t recognize that voice”, she murmured under her breath, gazing at the rather ornamental symbol slowly rotating in the air. It looked familiar enough to her, yet she could not pinpoint where and when exactly she had seen it. “But that crest… I’m absolutely certain that I’ve seen it before.”

Vader nodded. “So have I.”

But he could not recall where he had seen it, either, not even with the Force as his aid. Reluctantly, he reached towards his most repressed memories – Anakin Skywalker’s memories – but his attempts seemed to be in vain. He had buried those particular memories too long time ago and too deep.

There were no solid answers to be found in the Force, only brief glimpses of what might or might not have been long time ago in another life.

A deafening roar of a strange beast. A confession. Intense joy, only to be overwhelmed by fear. Chains clinking. A witty remark. An echo of a distinctively deep voice. A distant flash of silver. Blaster fire. More blaster fire. Lightsaber whooshing. A sharp jolt of pain.

And then, an abandoned helmet lying on the trampled sand.

Perhaps it could have belonged to a clone trooper. “The Clone Wars”, he rumbled. “Could you have seen it during the Clone Wars?”

Padmé glanced at Vader, unsure of what had prompted his suggestion. “It’s possible. I can’t say for sure, it’s been too long”, she said.

Although, now when she thought about it, Vader could actually be right about it, as his mention of the Clone Wars indeed rang a bell.

She turned to SD-D4. “Correct me if I’m wrong, Esdee, but there must be some kind of archive here in the palace, right?” she said, cocking a brow. “Could you possibly dig me up recordings of old HoloNet News from during the Clone War?”

“I can certainly do that, Mistress”, the droid said, turning clumsily to look at Vader. “Assuming that my Master would authorize such a task, of course.”

“Very well”, Vader said. “Be on your way, but do not linger.”

As soon as SD-D4 had left the room, Padmé shifted her attention back to Vader. “Care to make an educated guess on who it could be?” she asked, a sharp edge to her tone. Such a mystery would have been so much easier to solve, had he not killed so many people over the years. “Considering their claim that you killed their Master... Are we dealing with a Jedi?”

“No”, Vader stated firmly. “Revenge is not the Jedi way.”

Padmé looked at him with a puzzled expression on her face. “What other options there are?” she inquired. “Another Sith, then?”

“So it would seem.”

Before receiving the message from the enemy, Vader would definitely have deemed the possibility of an unidentified Sith operating on Coruscant, in the heart of the Empire, impossible, but now he had to admit that it made sense. There had been quite a few practitioners terrorizing the galaxy during the Clone Wars. They had, of course, been nothing but mere puppets to serve Sidious’s whims, yet any of them could, theoretically, have had trained their own apprentices in secret, as unlikely as it was that they could have been able to conceal their treachery from Sidious.

But there were no other options.

They had to be dealing with a Sith.

As much as he hated to admit it to himself, the mere possibility of someone being able to trick the Emperor gave him a spark of sorely needed hope of victory. If this pathetic miscreant with their cowardly tactics managed to exist under the Emperor’s all-seeing eye…

Perhaps the Emperor was not, after all, entirely invincible. “We will find and destroy them”, he reassured Padmé, who had a concerned frown on her face, “and after that, the Emperor himself.”

Padmé wrapped her arms around herself, trying to comfort herself. “Two Sith…” she whispered, her voice slightly trembling. “I don’t know, Vader… This could be more than I bargained for.”  

Vader hesitated for a few seconds before pulling her into a tight embrace. Prepared to back off, he extended his senses for any hint of discomfort, but there was none. “Do not be afraid”, he murmured, clumsily raising his hand to stroke her hair.

Padmé pulled back a little to meet his gaze. “I’m not afraid to die, but I am afraid”, she confessed, leaning her forehead gently against his chest. “I’m afraid of what will happen, if we are to fail.”

“I will not let it happen”, Vader said. “I will not fail you, Padmé.” Not this time.

Chapter Text

“So, did you find everything I asked for?”

SD-D4 let out an affirmative beep. “Yes, Mistress,” he said. “As per your request, I have brought a quite broad collection of old HoloNet news from during the Clone Wars.”

“Very good, Esdee”, Padmé said, flashing him a gentle smile. “Shall we begin?”

As determined as ever, Padmé had decided to begin with her new research project early in the morning. She had even asked SD-D4 to serve her breakfast in the lounge, as she did not wish to waste any of the precious time she could have spent with going through the old news recordings the helpful droid had managed to dig up for her. Although, she was displeased to find out that Imperial propaganda had, apparently, reached even old, archived news that predated the Empire, as she immediately noticed that most of the recordings were obviously altered afterward. She recalled that not a day passed by during the Clone War without the HoloNet praising the Jedi and their heroic sacrifices on the front lines, but now there were no traces left of them, not a single mention of the greatest heroes and protectors of the once-great Republic, as if they had never existed in the first place.

Padmé had to grudgingly admit that it made perfect sense, considering Palpatine’s known efforts to erase the Jedi from the history and cast their legacy into oblivion. The results were most impressive since, despite the Jedi being gone for a mere decade, it seemed that the majority already considered them nothing but a long-forsaken myth.              

She gestured SD-D4 to skip to the next recording, desperately hoping that Vader was right about their elusive enemy not being a Jedi because if they happened to be one, she would be wasting her time with watching these heavily altered, propaganda-ridden news.

The droid complied. Padmé squinted her eyes to get a clearer look at the details of the recording that was supposed to give a brief overview of the decisions made in the Senate during yet another emergency session called by the Supreme Chancellor. Old holovids were certainly not known for their splendid quality, and even though she was accustomed to paying attention to small details and absorb a lot of information in a short time, she had to focus hard to keep her thoughts from wandering.

She bit her lip in slight frustration, acknowledging that she had, once again, come to a dead end. “Next, please”, she urged, glancing at SD-D4.

Her posture straightened and her senses sharpened as the next recording, one she did not remember ever seeing during the Clone War, started playing. Judging by the worse than usual quality of the recording and the swaying holorecorder movements, she figured that it must have been recorded in secret. Her suspicions were confirmed by the newscaster’s voice that announced that the footage, provided by an anonymous infiltrator, was leaked from a Separatist gala, hosted by no one else than Count Dooku himself.

Padmé could not help but admit that not even the poor quality of the recording could dim neither the sheer eloquence of Dooku’s speech nor his undeniable charisma the entire Separatist Confederacy had been built on. She had had the questionable honor of meeting the ambitious Count in person only a few times, one of the most memorable occasions being that one time she had urged Anakin to join her in her attempt of rescuing Obi-Wan from the Separatists, resulting them both being captured and almost executed in the Petranaki arena on Geonosis.

How could she possibly forget the day she had finally surrendered to her feelings and confessed her love? As much as she had feared for their lives, how could she not want to preserve the memory of the terrible events that had eventually led them to seal their star-crossed love with wedding vows in secret, with only a couple of trusty droids as their witnesses?

Although Padmé remembered Dooku mostly from his dark deeds and his ruthlessness, the recording reminded her that he had also been a rather handsome man, despite his old years. He was a few inches taller than his human peers, his silvery hair and beard were neatly trimmed and combed, and his attire was radiating elegance in its stark simplicity. Leaving the Jedi Order, returning to his homeworld of Serenno and reclaiming his title and heritage as a nobleman had undoubtedly made him rich beyond measure, yet he had never struck her as one to flaunt his wealth. Even in such a formal event as the Separatist gala shown on the recording, he wore no complicated headwear, like his Neimoidian allies from the Trade Federation did, or any expensive jewelry, except for…

The holorecorder zoomed in, and all of a sudden, it was right there in front of her eyes. The symbol she was looking for, forged into the silvery brooches that were holding his sleek black cloak in place.

She jumped on her feet. “Esdee – Esdee, it’s there! The symbol! Pause it!”

The still image, with its quality artificially improved by SD-D4, confirmed her discovery. The symbol was undoubtedly identical to the one that had been attached to the transmission Vader had shown her on the previous day. So, Dooku was the Master, she mentally concluded. Now, we only need to find the apprentice...

At first, a roaring wave of sheer excitement rushed over her, as she realized that by figuring out the Sith Master’s identity, they were already so much closer to finding and luring out his slippery apprentice and removing the threat of them teaming up with the Emperor. The twins are almost safe, she mentally added.

Half of the mystery was solved, and all that was left was to…

But it was then when another, a lot more dreadful realization hit her, and it her hard, making her collapse back onto the divan. “No…” she whispered, her hand flying to her mouth as though she was about to throw up. “No!”

Her limbs started shaking uncontrollably, but she could no longer feel them. The walls she had, more or less unconsciously, built around her already broken heart, to protect herself from the devastating truth she had known for some time now, came crashing down, but she was too numb to react, too numb to think or cry or even scream.

She was too numb to do anything but stare into the emptiness, her mind closing off from her physical surroundings. Her heart was racing, her vision was blurring, and she could only barely acknowledge the distressed droid pacing in place beside her, being unable to make any sense of his blabbering.

Vader was Anakin.

Anakin was Vader.

How could she ever wrap her mind around that and stay sane through the process? She had tried her best to find an alternative, any alternative, desperately latching onto every other possible explanation for Anakin’s disappearance and Vader’s sudden appearance, however illogical they had sounded even to her own ears, while she had casually ignored all the holes in Obi-Wan’s story and later dismissed all proof she had gathered during her time with Vader, deeming that she needed more, always a little more, despite the truth being right there before her eyes for the whole time.

But now, her back was shoved against the wall, and there was nowhere to run from the truth. She could no longer turn a blind eye to it. This enemy, whoever they were, had to be aware of Vader’s true identity as well, as they had known who to blame for Dooku’s demise. It was Anakin who killed him, she thought, her heart sinking into the pit of her stomach. I still remember the night he told me

Yes, she remembered it like it had happened yesterday. It had been one of those starless, devastatingly long nights near the end of the Clone War. She had already been close to her due date, and the twins – or the baby, as she had still been unaware of her twin pregnancy back then – had kept her from falling asleep. Anakin had come to visit her in secret, climbing in through the balcony window of her apartment. As soon as he had stepped into the light, she had known something had to be grievously wrong. His face had looked grimmer than ever before, and she could easily have told that he had been crying. The dark circles under his eyes had suggested that he had not slept for several nights. He had pulled her into his arms, into an embrace more desperate than particularly tender, and buried his face into her hair. She recalled asking him what was going on, and he had confessed that he had deviated from the ways of the Jedi and killed an unarmed and defenseless man.

After she had found out the said man was Dooku, she had felt nothing but sheer relief for a moment, since in her books Dooku had been far from defenseless, let alone innocent. She had even dared to hope that the death of the charismatic Separatist leader would speed up the end of such a destructive conflict as the Clone War had been from the start. It had been solely the fact that it had been the Supreme Chancellor who had prompted the deed that had troubled her. She had immediately criticized Palpatine’s intrusion, claiming that he had lost his grasp of the limits of his authority a long time ago and that the Senate had given him too much power. Anakin had become defensive of his mentor and father figure of sorts, causing them to have a short, yet fierce fight that had swiftly ended with Anakin crying against her chest and her trying to comfort him with her best ability.

She sighed, resisting the urge to slump down on the floor and cease to exist.

It would certainly have been easier to be wrong on this particular matter. As much as she hated to admit it, it would have been a lot easier to accept that Anakin was gone and nothing in the universe could ever bring him back from the dead. It would even have been easier to bear the guilt of slowly, yet inevitably, falling in love with his murderer – but this? How in the stars was she ever supposed to deal with the now undeniable fact that Anakin, the love of her life, had done all those terrible things? That all those unspeakable atrocities, all those crimes he had committed against the galaxy, had been his conscious choices?

She turned her hollow stare at SD-D4. “I must talk to… him”, she whispered hoarsely, finding herself being unable to say either of his names out loud at the moment. “I must talk to him now. Where is he?”   

The droid seemed relieved that she had, at least partially, come back to her senses. “Oh, goodness”, he groaned. “I must assume my Master didn’t tell you–“

Not once before had she been so close to losing her patience with the poor droid. “Tell me what?” she interrupted, rather harshly. “I want him here now. I’m done, Esdee. I’m done with his wicked games and all these ridiculous excuses. This charade has to come to an end.”

Not that she would have known what to say or do – or even what she wanted. Part of her certainly craved to finish the crime she had blamed this so-called Darth Vader for a nearly a decade, tear off his helmet and strangle him to death with her bare hands, and yet another part of her wanted nothing more than to persuade him to leave this horrible place with her and go somewhere safe, somewhere far, far away, where the Emperor, or anyone, could not hurt them anymore.

But above all else, she was dying to hear his side of the story. Without hearing it, how could she ever figure out what to make of what she had just discovered?

“Pardon me, Mistress, but I’m afraid that might be impossible to arrange at the moment.”

She defiantly crossed her arms. “And what is that supposed to mean?”

“The Emperor”, the droid explained. “He has finally summoned my Master to the throne room. I believe he’s on his way as we speak.”

Vader stormed through the dimly lit halls and corridors of the Imperial Palace, mentally preparing himself for a meeting with the Emperor that was long overdue. The Emperor’s invitation – or his order, depending on the point of view – was not at all unexpected, as Vader had anticipated that the day when he would, finally, be summoned into the throne room to once again display his obedience and loyalty would likely come sooner than later. Perhaps he might have preferred a later date for such meeting, as he certainly would have wanted to get rid of his other, frustratingly elusive enemy before having to shift his attention back to the Emperor, but it seemed he was given no choice in the matter. The Emperor had chosen to summon him now, and much to his dismay, he could not have figured out his deceitful Master’s intentions for such a meeting.

It was entirely possible that the Emperor merely wished to bask in his misery, perhaps offer a mockingly gentle reminder of who was the one holding the leash, but since Vader could not tell for sure, his uncertainty kept gouging at his chest and undermining his frantic efforts to stay calm and focused.

He was painfully aware that he could not afford even the tiniest misstep in the Emperor’s presence, as he knew more than well enough that the Emperor would sense even the slightest flicker in his emotions. One tiny crack in the walls of the fortress that was his mind would be more than enough for the Emperor to figure out that he was hiding something. One misplaced thought, and everything he had done, the extreme measures he had taken to protect Padmé from the Emperor, would have been in vain.

Vader’s hands clenched into fists on his sides, as he could not stand the thought of his own treacherous mind, his own weakness, giving away the secret and causing him to lose Padmé all over again. He would not let it happen.

Before stepping into the elevator that would take him to the throne room, he stopped for a moment and carefully considered his options. Regardless of whether he would be able to hide his secret in the depths of his mind, his rapidly growing resentment for the Emperor and his reluctance to bend the knee would certainly not go undetected – or unpunished.

Vader saw no other choice but to close his eyes behind his mask, take a deep breath and forcibly let go of his hatred, releasing the heavy burden of emotions plaguing his mind into the Force, instead of following the ancient ways of the Sith and latching onto his anger and refining it further to fuel his dark powers. At first, the Jedi practice he had given up a long time ago, deeming it pointless, felt strange and unnatural to him, but contrary to his former beliefs, he had not completely forgotten how to perform such a task. Setting aside his feelings and calming down his inner conflict left his mind serene.

Vader stepped into the elevator and soon entered the throne room with a mind clear of distractions, paying no attention to the red-cloaked Imperial guards lining his path. He stepped forward and kneeled before the throne, fixing his gaze on the shiny black floor, just as he had done countless times before.   

“What is thy bidding, my Master?”

The Emperor leaned slowly forward from the depths of his throne. He let a full minute pass, relishing his apprentice’s submissiveness, before allowing him to stand up. “Rise, Lord Vader”, he finally said, wearing a thin smile on his disfigured face that was mostly covered by the hood of his pitch-black robe.

As soon as Vader complied, the Emperor gestured his royal guards to leave, the gaze of his tainted yellow eyes fixed upon his apprentice. “Do you know why I have summoned you?”

“No, my Master.”

“There has been a great disturbance in the Force”, the Emperor said, his taunting smile still not fading. “Have you not felt it, my apprentice?”

“I have felt no such thing, Master”, Vader lied, feigning obliviousness, although being perfectly aware that the Emperor was subtly probing at his mind and even making observations of his body language as they spoke.

The Emperor’s glowing eyes became slits. “That is most disappointing”, he murmured, lacing his bony fingers together as he spoke. “I cannot help but wonder if your feelings on this matter are quite clear, Lord Vader.”

“They are clear, my Master”, Vader said with counterfeit confidence. The less the Emperor would believe he knew, the better. 

“Perhaps then you should have sensed that we have a new enemy”, the Emperor said scornfully. “A new threat to my Empire.”

Pretending that he was merely adjusting his helmet, Vader lifted his head to see if there was anything in the Emperor’s demeanor that would give away how much he knew, but his efforts were in vain. Had he not already figured out that the Emperor was likely already aware of the most unexpected appearance of this new Sith, he might have been unable to hide his inner struggle from him.

“I assume we shall deal with this threat accordingly”, Vader said, bowing his head and silently wondering whether the Emperor knew more about his recent run-ins with the said enemy than he let on. “What do you expect of me, my Master?”

The Emperor leaned back into the depths of his throne, his hooded, misleadingly frail-looking figure almost disappearing into the shadows. “Patience, my friend.” There was a mocking edge to his tone. “I am quite sure that in time you will have your chance to strike the final blow upon this enemy and, once again, prove your loyalty to me.”

The Emperor’s malicious smile widened. “As I have foreseen it.”

Chapter Text

Whether she liked it or not, Padmé had to come to terms that there was no way in the universe for her to politician her way around her dreadful discovery of the truth, or that she had, apparently, been held prisoner by her allegedly dead husband, for that matter. No matter how she tried to reason with herself and her mixed emotions, her only conclusion could be that what Anakin had chosen to become was clearly not something she could make a compromise around, as she undoubtedly would have done with some dubious sounding Senate bill, to reach a more satisfying outcome at another, more crucial front.

All her life, she had preferred to use reason over emotion; to use deliberate consideration over rash actions, while Anakin had been her more impulsive and enthusiastic counterpart, but now, now she was forced to abandon all hope for having a calm and civilized discussion with him about his terrible life choices. 

Perhaps, if he had been honest with her from the very start and immediately told her the truth, there could have been a slight chance for her to manage to keep things civil, but since Vader – or Anakin, as she now had to mentally correct herself – had chosen to add insult to injury and deliberately keep her in the dark, attempting to gain her trust with his vile and dishonest ways and, much to her dismay, with notable success, that option was definitely off the table.

And now when she thought about it, she could not help but ask herself how far he would have let things escalate between them, had she not discovered the truth first. Not that she could even have begun to understand the ever-mysterious ways of the Force, but she certainly recalled Anakin always being strangely sensitive to her feelings, which swiftly led her to the conclusion that he likely had to be more than aware of her dawning feelings for him – or, technically, for Vader – and he still had not told her the truth nor at least rebuffed her advances, stemming solely from her loneliness and touch starvation, or so she had thought.

She had berated herself for harboring such feelings, but in light of her shocking discovery, her most unexpected emotional struggles suddenly started to make sense. After Anakin’s alleged death, it had taken years for her to fully recover from her loss, but even after all that time, even when she had, finally, felt ready to keep on living and pursue her dream of restoration of democracy to ensure a better future for her children, she had never found herself interested in starting to see new people, not in a romantic way, at least.

A few years ago, during one of her rare visits to Alderaan to see the twins, Queen Breha had offered to set her up with some of her friends among the Alderaanian nobility. Padmé recalled being grateful to the Queen for having her best interest in mind, yet she had felt all but obliged to decline her kind offer. She simply could not have imagined herself adapting to such a quiet, sophisticated way of life alongside some traditionalist – as in boring – heir of one of the Great Houses of Alderaan, not after Anakin.

And then, Vader had come into her life, so suddenly and unexpectedly, and changed everything, breaking every rule and principle she had stood for. Little had she known that the Sith Lord’s oddly familiar embraces had only made her feel so safe and good because he indeed had held her in his arms countless times before.

Padmé stared absently through the blinds that only let a little light seep in. In her mind, she kept asking herself the same questions over and over again. Why did he not tell the truth right away? What was he thinking? Did he, actually, believe that she would not have eventually found out the truth on her own? Could he really have thought so lowly of her?

Never had she felt so hurt and betrayed in her life, not even on that terrible night on Mustafar, right before falling unconscious from the lack of oxygen to her lungs. She had, after all, been forced to give up her life’s work and even her own children – and for what? She barely managed to resist her sudden urge to tear the blinds down and scream as her bottomless sorrow, her disappointment and, yes, her seething anger tore her up inside, mercilessly hammering at what was left of her shattered heart.

And yet, the rational, still barely functioning side of her brain kept reminding her that she had two possible approaches to the situation and that she would have to choose soon.

She was, indeed, tempted to confront him and lash it all out, force him to face her most justified anger at what he had decided to become and what he had chosen to leave behind, knowing all too well that she would undoubtedly lose all control over herself in the process. Or she could keep her dreadful discovery to herself, hide her inner turmoil to her best ability and keep focusing on the task at hand, all the way until she could be sure that her children – their children, she grudgingly corrected herself – were truly safe from both Dooku’s vengeful apprentice and the Emperor himself.

It was only then that it occurred to her that Anakin was not even aware that he was a father, as she had lied about her childbirth during their stroll in the gardens, claiming that the baby had died and that there had been nothing the med droids or anyone could have done about it. She buried her face in her hands as her shoulders shook violently. Stars, he did not even know that there had been two babies to begin with!

Protecting the twins had been the sole reason she could have set her personal feelings aside and trust Vader and his intentions in the first place, otherwise she could never have made it this far. Perhaps, for their sake, she should have been able to force herself to set her feelings aside once more and keep feigning her obliviousness for his true identity, no matter how agonizing pretending everything was fine would be.

She stood by the window, completely losing her sense of time as she was contemplating on what she would do or say when Vader returned from his meeting with the Emperor, but by the time she finally heard his heavy footsteps and his labored breathing from the hallway, her mind went blank. For all her conversational abilities, she could not come up with anything proper.

She heard him approaching her, halting a few steps behind her, yet she could not bear having to turn around and face him, not now. “It’s Dooku”, she whispered, her voice feeble and thin, as she wrapped her arms around herself to keep from trembling, but with little success. “He was the Master, he –“

Vader did not need to hear any more. He would not, in fact, have needed to hear even that much to realize what was happening. Or what had already happened. As soon as he had entered the tower, he could have sensed the jolts of Padmé’s emotions, swirling violently in the Force.

“So, you have learned the truth.”

Padmé turned swiftly around, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. “That’s it?” she snapped. “That’s all you have to say?”

“What would you wish me to say?” Vader countered, crossing his arms over his broad chest.

Her pain was not only clearly visible to him, but it also pounded at him in the Force, letting his long-repressed guilt pierce the walls of his mental fortress and finally break through. His guilt would have swiftly overwhelmed him if it was not for the dark side still maintaining a steady foothold inside him.

“Words are useless. They have no power to change the past”, he continued, his voice holding no detectable emotion. “What is done is done.”

Padmé shook her head violently, stubbornly refusing to believe what she was hearing. “Why?” she asked, tears flowing freely down her cheeks. “Just tell me why, Anakin. Help me understand. Why did you–“

“Do not call me that”, Vader snarled, his looming presence now towering over her. No matter how hard he tried to fight back and muffle her voice from his ears, he could not entirely escape the tingling sensation of hearing her voice wrapping around that name. His name. Anakin.

It made him feel weak and unfocused, as if it was making him forget his purpose, and he knew he could not afford that. “Anakin Skywalker is dead, and dead he shall remain.”

Padmé directed her most defiant glare at him. “That’s not true. You know that just as well as I do. You can’t escape from who you are”, she said, infusing her tone with makeshift confidence. “You can’t escape from the consequences of your actions. Not anymore. I won’t let you.”

To convince him that she was not fooling around, she ripped the japor snippet necklace, hidden under the collar of her dress, from her neck, snapping the old bantha leather cord. “You might’ve forgotten your true self, but I haven’t. Oh, I haven’t”, she said, gazing straight at where his eyes should have been behind his mask, as she offered the necklace to him to look at, effectively lacing her fingers with his. “A boy named Anakin once gave this to me. You gave this to me. Don’t you remember? Look me in the eye and say that you don't remember, I dare you.”

“I am no longer that person”, Vader said, his voice strained. He pushed the necklace back to Padmé, almost as if the tiny trinket had burned him through his gloves, refusing to accept that particular memory. “It is foolish of you to latch onto a fading memory.”

“Well, then I must be a fool”, Padmé retorted. “And yet my point remains. I’m not the same person you left for dead on Mustafar, either. How could I be, after everything–?”

“It was not my choice to leave you”, Vader interrupted. “I would never have left you. I would have come back for you if it was not for the Emperor convincing me that you were dead…“

He paused at that, inhaling sharply before finishing his sentence. “…That I had killed you and the child.”

Padmé frowned, knowing all too well that her treacherous heart should not have fluttered at the reveal that he had not deliberately chosen to leave her behind. “You almost did kill me”, she pointed out, deciding to focus on the hard facts and choosing to leave her pregnancy and its results unmentioned, just in case. “If it hadn’t been for Obi-Wan, I’d certainly have died that night.”

Vader turned away from her, half because of his shame and half because he was determined to refrain from unleashing his hatred of Obi-Wan upon her.

Padmé, on the other hand, raised her hand and, yet cautiously, trailed her dainty fingers across the side of his helmet, encouraging him to turn back to look at her. “But I’m still alive”, she whispered, her eyes glimmering with tears. “And I’m here. We can still fix this. It’s not too late, I promise.” Don't let it be too late.

In a way, she now understood why Obi-Wan, who had always been wiser than his years, had chosen to lie to her about Anakin’s fate. She imagined that he likely would have wanted to spare her from the agony of finding out what had become of her beloved husband, and she certainly knew herself well enough to realize that she would have gone to look for him as soon as she would have had recovered enough from her childbirth, had she known that he had survived.

Obi-Wan must have had realized that too. And still, she firmly believed that she would have deserved the truth, however painful learning it would have been. “Tell me what happened”, she said hoarsely, glancing at Vader.

At first, Vader entertained the thought of telling her everything. There was no denying that the moment was suitable enough. He could have told her everything that had happened on Mustafar, how he had lost a lightsaber duel against his old Master, how he had lost his limbs, how falling into the lava pit had burned his body unrecognizable and, above all else, he could have confessed her his own damned foolishness, but he was ultimately held back by his vanity, stemming from his inner darkness, unwilling to lose any more ground to the light that had already been ignited in him.

The darkness nesting within him, as cruel and relentless as ever, was not willing to let go of what had once been willingly offered to it. It is all in the past, it whispered to him, feeding its intoxicating words to him, one by one, its enticing voice echoing from the depths of his subconscious, sounding as seductive as ever. It does not matter. You sacrificed everything to become powerful enough to save the woman you loved, and powerful you have certainly become. Powerful enough to crush the shadow that keeps you on the leash. Would you give it all up now, after every painful step you have taken? After every agonizing choice you have made to distance yourself from your former weakness?

But the light was not rendered silent, either. There is a great strength to be found in being true to oneself, a pleasant, serene voice reminded him. If only you turned back and faced up to what you have done, you could still find peace and atonement. Nothing is ever truly lost for one with pure intentions. You only have to trust the Force, Anakin, and let go of –

No, not like this. Vader refused to allow his mind to, once again, become a battleground for the darkness and the light. To destroy the Emperor, he needed to stay focused. Padmé would never understand, let alone accept his choices, he concluded, reluctantly deciding that he would only be wasting his time with trying to convince her.

“Obi-Wan once thought as you do”, Vader finally said, grabbing her shoulders, more roughly than he had originally intended. “But he was wrong about me, and so are you. There is no turning back.”

Padmé refused to be intimated by his violent antics. She yanked herself free from his grip. “Snap out of it”, she said sharply, snapping her fingers for emphasis. “This is not you.”

Vader went silent for a few seconds, and for a fleeting moment, Padmé entertained the thought of telling him about the twins, in hopes that learning the truth would have brought him back to the light, but she swiftly decided against it. Anakin might indeed be the father, but if he truly wished to so persistently refuse his true name along with his past, perhaps, in that case, he did not deserve to know about the twins.

She decided that unless he would accept his own past and admit to his mistakes, there was no trusting him. Until then, there was no way she would even dream of using her children’s safety as a bargaining chip.

And yet, she desperately wanted to believe there was still good in him. Something she could use as leverage to bring him back to his senses. There had to be, or else all her efforts had been for nothing. “Tell me, did you even intend to tell me the truth?” she asked, slightly afraid of what his answer might be. “Or were you planning to lead me on for stars know how long? Tell me. I must know.”

Vader shifted his weight uncomfortably. “I would have told you the truth eventually”, he admitted truthfully.

“What held you back?” she inquired, her voice growing demanding, yet desperate. “Why didn’t you just tell me the night you came into my cell?”

“There were more pressing matters to attend to,” he said scornfully. “Delving into the distant past seemed far from relevant at the time.”

It was a lie, as Vader recalled that part of him had been burning to tell her the truth from the very start, yet at the same time he had been utterly ashamed of what he had become, dreading of what her reaction might have been if she were to see his scarred face and his horrifically severed body with her own eyes.

Padmé scoffed sourly. “Distant past? Far from relevant?” she repeated. “In case you’ve forgotten that too, we were married, Anakin. For eight years, I’ve lived the life of a widow. I thought I had lost you forever. I mourned you. It was a lonely, comfortless life. Had I known you were still alive...”

The thought had definitely crossed Vader’s mind before, and now that Padmé had practically brought up the topic herself, he no longer could contain his venomous curiosity. “I assume you eventually took a new lover to warm your bed, then.”

She let out an incredulous laughter. “Now that’s far from relevant, don’t you think?” she responded with a rather harsh edge to her tone. For someone who was so stubbornly determined to convince her that Anakin was as good as gone, he certainly was not too concerned about pretending that he did not share his tendency of unwarranted jealousy. “And, for the record, I didn’t. Let’s just say there were, hmm, more pressing matters to deal with, as you so very eloquently put it.”

Vader stared at her in silence, making it impossible for Padmé to even begin to guess what he might have been thinking. She wiped her damp cheek with the back of her hand, trying to calm herself down. There was simply too much going on in her mind for her to wrap her thoughts around everything she had discovered that day. Part of her certainly rejoiced that Anakin was alive, yet another part feared that Obi-Wan might have, after all, spoken the truth. What if there truly was not enough left of Anakin for her to piece back together?

And yet, despite knowing that it might have been a fool’s errand, she refused to even consider that option. “I never ceased to believe in the good in you, Anakin. I won’t give up on you now”, she said softly, taking one of his gloved hands in hers. “I’ll help you to remember who you once were. If you only let me.”

Suddenly, Vader did not find the strength to pull away from her light, despite the darkness hissing warningly from the edges of his mind. “Why would you do that?” he heard his own voice asking. “After everything I have done?”

Due to his severed nerve endings being connected to his cybernetics, Vader felt her squeezing his hand. “You must realize I can’t condone your actions”, she said, her voice filled with sadness. “But even if I wanted, I couldn’t turn my back on you, not with a good conscience. Palpatine had us all fooled, remember? The Jedi, the Senate, even the poor clones… We all were nothing but pawns in his schemes, but you… He had chosen you for… this, hadn’t he? He always seemed to treat you with great respect. Hold you on a pedestal, so to speak. That couldn’t have been a coincidence.”

Vader gave her a short nod. He had figured a long time ago that the Emperor had indeed planned his seduction to the dark side early. Yet, when he had finally realized that he had been fooled, it had no longer mattered to him, as he had already lost everything. “It was not a coincidence”, he admitted.

“What could you have done?” Her question was mostly rhetorical, though. “What could any of us have done, had Palpatine chosen differently?”

Vader’s free hand clenched into a fist. “I could have killed him”, he murmured. “And nothing of this would have ever happened.”

“There will be another chance”, Padmé reassured him. There was a dark edge to her tone that sounded rather unnerving to even her own ears, yet she could not help it. For someone who had always preferred peaceful solutions over violence, she certainly was determined to be there to witness Palpatine getting what was coming for him.

Thinking about Palpatine’s forthcoming demise made her feel a little bold. “Let me take care of drawing out this Sith apprentice”, she offered. “I’ve got the clues, and I think I have a plan. All I need now is a little trust from you.”

Behind his mask, Vader frowned. “Does this plan of yours involve your trespassing friend from the kitchens?”

“As a matter of fact, it does”, she admitted, rather confidently.

Last time she had spoken with Sereena, the girl had mentioned being on a trail of a potential suspect. Perhaps they would be able to connect the dots and find this elusive enemy by combining their findings.

Although knowing that he was in no position to criticize her judgment, Vader was still not entertained by the idea. “Very well”, he finally said. As reluctant as he was to let Padmé take the reins of the investigation, he could not help but acknowledge that by doing so he would be allowed to redirect his focus on finding the way to defeat the Emperor.

Padmé nodded. “It’s settled then.”

And yet, she did not need to be a Jedi to be perfectly aware of the still unanswered questions hanging heavy in the air between them, silently waiting to be attended to. Although the matter of Vader’s true identity had been settled, the outcome had raised a whole bunch of entirely new issues for them to settle in the near future.

What would happen after all this was over? What would all this mean for them and the wreckage of their relationship? Or their family, for that matter? Would there still be something left worth salvaging? And even if there would be, how could they ever work their way around the fact that even with the Emperor gone, Anakin would still be considered a war criminal throughout the galaxy? And how could she work her way around everything he had done after the dust would have settled? 

She decided that figuring all that out would be a matter for another day.

Chapter Text

After everything that had happened that day, Padmé’s head was spinning from her more or less futile attempts to wrap her mind around Anakin being alive. It was still hard to believe, despite the crystal clear evidence. The very thought of Anakin living, or maybe merely just existing, encased in that gleaming black armor, made her heart both soar and sink. The more rational side of her brain kept reminding her that she should not make rash decisions about what to do with all that information she had uncovered that day; that she should wait and see what would happen and, above all else, remember to listen to her heart and not act blindly. 

She realized that there was no denying the terrible things Vader had done throughout the last decade, but there had to be some good left in him, too. Anakin she had once known and loved from the bottom of her heart would not have wanted any part in this. He would never have chosen to become Darth Vader, had he known the consequences, she was sure of it. There had still been good in him on that ill-fated night on Mustafar, she had seen it in his eyes, and she reasoned that if any lingering remnants of that goodness were still intact, perhaps all was not lost just yet.

Even before she had managed to gather enough pieces of the puzzle to truly start suspecting his identity, she had figured out that something terrible had happened to him; something that had left his body in a state where it could not survive without the life-supporting features of his armor, and since it had now been revealed that Vader had been Anakin the whole time, it was not difficult at all for her to put the rest of the pieces together.

It had been Obi-Wan Anakin had fought, and lost, against.

It had been Obi-Wan who could not have brought himself to finish the job and kill Anakin after lethally wounding him. That was the reason Anakin was still alive. Of course, she thought. That’s the reason his story never made perfect sense

The thought of how different her life would have been, had Anakin succeeded in slaying his old friend and mentor that night, crossed her mind, making her blood run cold. It was frighteningly easy for her to imagine that glittering golden cage he would undoubtedly have shoved his family in and cast away the key. She would not have wanted that, not for herself and especially not for her children, and that was the reason she could not truly be angry with Obi-Wan. In a way, he had saved both her and the twins from even worse fate.

She forcefully brushed such a terrifying thought aside. That night she had failed to make him see the error of his ways and drag him back to the light, but she could, and she most certainly would, try again. He could still be saved, she was certain about it.

And yet, his obviously extensive physical injuries did not concern her nearly as much as his mental state did. When it came to injuries of the body, she knew there was little that could not be mended with the aid of technology and proper medical expertise, but treating injuries of the mind was a different matter entirely. While Palpatine had undoubtedly had his hand in twisting Anakin’s mind with his manipulative machinations, the choice of turning to the dark side and murdering hundreds, if not thousands of innocents, including defenseless children, had ultimately been his own. Knowing how prone Anakin was to lose himself in guilt and remorse, she could not help but fear that helping him could be far beyond her abilities.

But she had never been one to give up that easily. The real question was that would Anakin even want to face up to his past and turn back to the light after embracing the darkness and committing unspeakable atrocities for so many years? She did not know the answer, and she highly doubted that Anakin – or Vader – knew it either.

And still, she was determined to help him find that answer. Even though it made her heart ache within her chest, she felt the need to remind herself that, regardless of what the answer would be, it had to be his choice, not hers. She could help him, she could choose to stay by his side and smooth his path back to the light to her best ability, but he had to be the one to take the first decisive step. She could hold his hand, she could coax and encourage him, but never walk that path for him, and while she could not deny the temptation of dropping on her knees before him and begging him to make the right choice, if not for his own sake, then for the sake of her and their children, she did not need to know the ways of the Force to be able to tell that it did not work that way.       

The choice had to be his own, but as far as she was aware, he was not quite ready to step on that path just yet. Realizing that there was not much she could do to do about it for the time being, as Vader had already disappeared into his personal quarters, she fished the tiny holoprojector device Sereena had given to her and snapped it open.

“Sereena?” she called tentatively. “Sereena, are you there? Come in, please, I need to speak with you.”

After a couple of seconds of rattling noises, a small holographic projection of Sereena appeared above the device. “Oh, hi, what’s going on?” she asked cheerfully. “Haven’t heard from you for quite some time now. I was starting to worry, you know?”  

Padmé paused for a second and a half, briefly contemplating on how much she would be able to tell without compromising her ever-growing pile of secret, her most recent discovery of Vader’s true identity being only the zherry on the cake.

And yet, as much as she despised herself for having to hide her own identity from the only person who had been nothing but sweet and kind to her from the start, she realized it was for the best.

“I’m sorry, Sereena. It’s been… a busy few days, so to speak. Remember when I asked your help to find and identify someone with a personal motive to wish harm on Lord Vader?” Padmé asked, waiting for Sereena to nod before continuing. “Let’s just say that whoever they are, they’ve kept themselves busy as well.”

Sereena blinked, tilting her head from side to side in visible curiosity. “Oh? Come on, tell me”, she urged. “Spill the juicy details.”

Padmé then proceeded to summarize the essentials of the shuttle sabotage incident and the following holographic message from the culprit. Upon finishing her story, she sighed, rubbing her temples in slight distress while wondering how in the stars she was supposed to break the bad news to her young friend whom she, in retrospect, should not have dragged into this terrible mess in the first place.

“I wouldn’t want to worry you”, she said, her tone apologetic. “But I’m afraid we’re dealing with nothing less than a Sith lord here. It’s my fault you got hurled into this, I should’ve known better. I should’ve been more responsible. Sereena, I want you to know that if you want to back out, I wouldn’t blame you. Had I known there were yet another Sith involved in all this, I’d never asked you to put your life at risk for me. I’m so terribly sorry that it has come to this.”

Sereena cocked a brow, still seeming more curious than alarmed. “Another Sith, you say? Well, the more the merrier", she snickered, waving her hand dismissively and earning a concerned glance from Padmé, who could barely believe her ears before realizing that judging by her youthful looks, Sereena must have been but a child when the Republic fell into the clutches of the Sith and the Jedi Order was purged. Perhaps she simply did not know much about the Force and its various wielders. “You worry too much, Sabé. It’s about time something happens around here. Most days, it’s silent as a tomb here anyway.”

For some, namely the Jedi, this place really is a tomb, Padmé thought, reminding herself that both the Jedi, and even more so, the Sith had been shrouded in mystery throughout history, and certainly not everyone had the privilege of being married to one.

She threw a cautious glance at Sereena. “Don’t you think you might be taking this a little too lightly?” she asked. “How much do you know about the Sith?”

Sereena shrugged indifferently. “Not much”, she admitted, in her characteristically detached and nonchalant way. “They’re supposed to be some ancient space wizards with those noisy laser swords and a remarkable desire to conquer every inch of the galaxy, right? Oh, and they have extremely short fuses, or is that just Vader? He’s one of those, isn’t he?”

Padmé told herself that it was no surprise, after all, that Sereena had figured that out on her own, considering that she had almost ended up being impaled by Vader’s lightsaber only recently. “That's just Vader”, she said, rather drily. “And yes, that’s correct.”

Sereena looked puzzled for a moment. “So, if he’s a Sith, then the Emperor must be one as well, right?”

“Yes, the Emperor indeed is a Sith lord, and a very powerful one, for that matter”, Padmé replied. “But right now I’m much more interested in this rather elusive third one. We haven’t been able to lure them out, and I fear deeply for what they could be plotting even now. I’d wish to unravel this most unpleasant mystery as soon as possible, and I’d like to do it discreetly.”

Sereena’s amber eyes flickered with mischief. “Finally, this is starting to get interesting”, she chirped. “What do you think, could they still be lurking somewhere in the palace?”

“We shouldn’t overlook that possibility, considering that they were able to sabotage Lord Vader’s private shuttle and tamper with the palace’s surveillance system”, Padmé said after a brief consideration. “Although, I can’t imagine how they hide their presence from both Lord Vader and the Emperor. This is, after all, their arena.”

“I suppose you’re right”, Sereena said. “Unless… they’ve got someone to do their dirty work for them?”

Padmé’s expression sharpened slightly as she leaned forward, lowering her voice a notch. “Someone from Serenno, perhaps?”

Dooku had, after all, been from there, so it would only make sense if his apprentice also had ties into that particular star system.

“Remember when I told you I was on the trail of someone?” Sereena countered. “Can’t say for sure where he’s from, but he’s not from Coruscant, that’s for sure. See, the thing is, as loyal servants of the Empire, we employees aren’t supposed to hold allegiances to our origins, in case of military conflicts breaking between the Empire and our homeworlds. We’re expected to stay loyal to the Empire, and the Empire only, blah blah blah. You know the drill by now, don’t you? So, we aren’t exactly allowed to keep any personal possessions to remind us from our past lives. Sentimentality doesn’t really fly around here, but it’s not like anyone actually cares about such a stupid rule.”

Padmé frowned. “Where are you getting at?” she asked. “I’m not sure if I follow.”

A sly smile creeped across Sereena’s youthful features. “So, where I’m getting at is that basically everyone here has some cheap trinket or silly memento from their homeworld hidden under their pillow”, Sereena said, speaking increasingly fast with each new sentence. “We could do some digging together to find clues about your mysterious Serennian, and my suspect’s room would be just as good place to start as any, don’t you think?”

Padmé could not help but be somewhat skeptical about Sereena’s plan. “I don’t think we can just stroll in there”, she said. “This place is crawling with stormtroopers. What if someone sees us? How could we possibly explain–“

“You’re still worrying too much, Sabé”, Sereena interrupted. “Trust me, I’ve got this. I’ll smuggle you in through a maintenance corridor. There should be just droids down there. We can easily sneak past a few clankers.”

“And what then?” Padmé asked. “What if he’s there?”

“He won’t be”, Sereena promised. “I know his schedule, he’s on overnight duty. We’ll have plenty of time to scour his room.”

Padmé had not expected such thoroughness from Sereena’s plan. “Astounding”, she said. “You’ve really thought this through, haven’t you?”

Sereena gave her a wide grin. “What can I say, I’m full of surprises”, she said cheerily. “Just give me a half an hour to make some… preparations. If you can keep Vader off my back, I should be able to slice the door and get you out of that damned tower.”

“Lord Vader shouldn’t be giving us any trouble”, Padmé hurried to assure Sereena, who was clearly getting ahead of herself. “He allows this investigation, and he knows that I’m working with you. You don’t need to worry about him at all.”

“Oh”, Sereena blurted. “Oh, well, that’s unexpected. That’s… a good thing, right?”

Padmé noticed that Sereena looked somewhat less relieved than she would have expected. “Very much so”, she replied, being nothing but genuinely glad that this little expedition of theirs would not have to become just another secret to be thrown on top of her pile. “I must make some preparations as well. I’ll meet you at the doors in thirty minutes, is that okay?”

“Roger, roger”, Sereena said, offering her another of her mock salutes before disappearing from sight, effectively shutting down the transmission.  

Padmé put the holoprojector device back in her pocket and called for SD-D4. “Esdee?” she called. “Would you kindly inform your Master that I’ll be leaving for my investigation in a few moments?”

The droid let out an acknowledging beep. “At once, Mistress”, he said.

SD-D4 was already halfway out of the lounge before turning clumsily back to her. “Oh goodness, I almost forgot. For safety purposes, my Master would strongly advise you to cover your face outside the tower. I took the liberty to have your cloak dry cleaned and pressed after your nightly trip with him.”

Padmé raised an eyebrow at the droid. “He would advise – or insist?” She let out a weary sigh. It had been a rough day, so she had no spare energy left to argue. “Very well. I’ll be sure to grab my cloak before I leave.”

“Oh, thank you, Mistress, thank you so much”, SD-D4 said. “I must say that I quite eagerly wish for your safe return. Between you and me, it has recently occurred to me that my Master isn’t exactly the most pleasant company when he’s stressed and worrying for your safety.”

Padmé let out a mirthless laughter. “Trust me, Esdee, I’m quite aware of that side of him”, she assured the droid, giving a gentle pat on his shoulder plate. “A little too aware, I might add.”

“As I might have mentioned multiple times before, human relations aren’t my particular area of expertise”, the droid said. “But I can tell my Master cares very deeply for you. I have no doubt he would do anything in his might to save you, if something bad were to happen. He would most certainly burn down entire star systems to–“

Padmé grimaced. “You must promise me not to give him any ideas”, she warned.

After parting ways with the droid, Padmé, realizing that she was running late, hurried to her room to grab her things. For safety purposes indeed, she thought as she slipped her blaster into its holster, hoping that she would not have to resort to it, and threw her cloak around her shoulders before heading to the elevator that would take her downstairs to meet with Sereena.

Sereena was already there when she got there, leaning restlessly against the wall, waiting for her. “There you are”, she greeted her. “Huh, you certainly look worse for wear than the last time I saw you around, and I can totally see you’ve been crying, don't even bother to deny it. He’s giving you a hard time, isn’t he?”

It was not that Padmé was not aware of her disheveled appearance, she had simply been too busy dealing with more pressing matters to pay too much attention to the sickly paleness of her skin or the dark circles around her eyes.

“You could say that”, she murmured. As much as she would have wanted to have someone to talk to, she knew that the mess going on inside both her head and her heart was something that she would have to figure out herself. And besides, she thought, the less she knows, the safer she would be.

She pulled the hood of her cloak over her head. “Shall we?” she asked, glancing suspiciously over her shoulder even though they were the only two people in the dimly lit corridor. “I’d prefer this to be over sooner rather than later, and not getting caught would be a pleasant surprise as well.”

Sereena waved her hand dismissively. “Worry not, my dear Sabé. Stealth is my specialty”, she said, radiating with sheer confidence. “Vader will have you back before he even notices that you’re–“

It was then that the elevator door slid open with a sharp hiss. “Esdee?” Padmé exclaimed as the droid stepped clumsily over the threshold. “What are you doing here?”

“I did as you told, Mistress, and, well, my Master decided to assign me to accompany you on this mission”, the droid chirped anxiously, pacing nervously in place. “To guarantee your safe return. This most certainly wasn’t my idea, I assure you, but he insisted.”

Sereena scoffed sourly, looking like her birthday had just been cancelled. “So much for stealth, then”, she snapped. “That clanking will alert half the palace, not to mention that it drives me crazy. I vote that we just stuff him into the nearest trash compactor and be done with it.”

“I’m afraid that’s not an option”, Padmé said, conciliatory. “But I’m sure we can find a sufficient compromise.”

Chapter Text

Sereena turned her back abruptly on Padmé, almost as if she had something to hide. “No compromises,” she hissed through her gritted teeth, making it nearly impossible for Padmé to make out her words. “That glorified piece of scrap metal isn’t coming with us. That wasn’t the plan.”

Padmé glanced sideways at Esdee with a puzzled look on her face. “But Sereena,” she said, tactfully hiding her confusion, as she had done countless times during her time in the Senate. “The good thing with plans is that they can always be altered for the better, and besides, I’ve had the honor to work with Esdee before, and let me assure you that he’s very capable droid—“

Esdee let out a pleased beep. “Why, thank you, Mistress.”

“I’m quite certain,” Padmé continued, “that having him with us could turn out to be—“

“A disaster,” Sereena interrupted, her tone harsh and uncharacteristically cold. “It will turn out to be a disaster. Those... those machines are good for nothing but messing around and ruining everything.”

“What an extraordinarily rude statement!” Esdee exclaimed, earning a silencing glare from Padmé. “Lord Vader may have his flaws, but at least he—usually—recognizes that we droids are sentient beings.”

“Esdee, please,” Padmé said, putting a particular emphasis on the last word, figuring that it would do no good if the two antagonized each other now, when there was so much at stake. “Be a darling and let me handle this, will you?”

Padmé frowned, not recalling seeing Sereena so tense before, her shoulders slumped and her fingernails digging into the skin of her palms. All of a sudden, she resembled some kind of wounded creature —a prey or a predator, it was difficult to tell—with her usual bubbly enthusiasm all but gone. She had certainly taken notice that Sereena had not seem to hold much respect for Esdee, recalling her calling the droid meddlesome and annoying on multiple occasions before, but she still would not have expected such hostility from her now.

There was something about Sereena's suddenly changed behavior that felt off to her.

She approached Sereena cautiously. “Sereena?” she said softly, letting her know that she was coming closer before laying her hand gently on her shoulder, only for her to flinch away from her touch. “What’s wrong? I can’t help but notice that you seem to be a little on edge here.” Is there something I should know?

Sereena remained silent, providing no answer or explanation. “May I ask what you have against Esdee? Or droids in general?” Padmé continued her gentle probing. “You don’t have to tell me, but since we’re in this together, I’d like to know, if there’s something that—“

“Bad memories,” Sereena said, her voice almost, but not quite, breaking. “That's all. That's the story. I don’t want to talk about it, okay?”

“I can certainly respect that,” Padmé assured her, hoping that making such a promise would help to calm her down. “For what it’s worth, I might understand what you’re going through. The memories of the horrors of the Clone Wars are still haunting me in my dreams. I swear I can still sometimes hear that clanking noise of Separatist battle droids—“

“I said I don’t want to talk about it!” Sereena snapped.

“I’m sorry, Sereena. I didn’t wish to upset you,” Padmé said as she kept taking mental notes of her reactions.

It was becoming obvious to her that Sereena’s distaste for droids had something to do with the Separatists, which did not bode well, considering that the whole mystery she was trying to unravel here was revolved around the late Count Dooku. Padmé knew, arguably better than most, that the chaos and destruction caused by the Separatists and their endless battalions of battle droids rampaging through the galaxy had left thousands and thousands of people severely traumatized, but in this case, she could not help but suspect that there was something else going on with Sereena.

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of in harboring such feelings,” Padmé continued, hoping that she would be lucky enough to gain some additional information. She had, after all, done many similar missions for the Rebel Alliance, collecting vital intel by bumping into people of importance in upper class cantinas, feigning ignorance and carefully, yet steadily, steering discussions towards anything that would help the Rebels strive for another day. “Being afraid is what makes us human, Sereena.”

Sereena went silent, as if she was having some kind of debate in her mind. “No—no, that’s where you are wrong”, she finally mumbled. “Being afraid is what makes us weak.”

Padmé struggled to stay calm and collected and keep her face neutral. “For now, we might have to agree to disagree on that”, she said, throwing a concerned glance over her shoulder. The last thing she wanted was to be spotted by patrolling stormtroopers and have to explain what they—an allegedly dead woman, a droid and a kitchenhand with alarmingly Sith-like beliefs—were doing there. “We can certainly continue this most interesting discussion at another time. Right now, I suggest we set aside our differences, be polite and respectful to each other and then proceed with our slightly altered plan.”

Esdee let out a rather condescending beep. “I am always polite, Mistress,” he announced. “It’s in my programming.”

Padmé nodded. “What about you, Sereena?” she asked. “Can you do that?”

Sereena turned around slowly, still looking somewhat reluctant. “Yes—yes, I think so,” she muttered absently, gesturing the other two to follow. “Yes, you’re right. Silly me. Sorry about that, I don’t know what came over me. The droid can come. Yes—yes, he can come. It won’t matter in the end. It won’t matter at all.”

Sereena’s fervent muttering did not particularly ease Padmé’s burgeoning suspicions. The kitchenhand had certainly acted peculiar before, but never that peculiar. Something was gravely wrong, it was becoming more certain by the minute.

She realized that it was about time she started taking into account the possibility of Sereena being a willing—or unwilling—lackey to the elusive Sith lord. Could it be that Sereena was their eyes and ears in the Imperial Palace?

Or worse, could Sereena herself be the Sith Lord they were looking for?

Padmé had to admit to herself that, once again, her suspicions seemed to make perfect sense. Sereena certainly knew her way around the palace—and she knew starships. Judging by what she had seen, sabotaging Vader’s shuttle without getting caught would have been mere child’s play to Sereena.

It crossed her mind that she should have called the plan off immediately and find out whether her suspicions were true. She could have brought up her concerns with Sereena or she could have contacted Vader, but she swiftly realized that she could do neither, not if she wished to solve the mystery once and for all. I have to do this, she thought. For Luke and Leia. It’s the only way.

And besides, even here, in the heart of the Empire, she was far from defenseless. She slipped one hand beneath her cloak, brushing her fingers lightly over her hip holster as they dashed through the silent corridors.

If there was foul play involved, Padmé thought that her best bet would be to play along as long as she could—and feign obliviousness to her best ability. “I’m glad you’re still with us,” she said to Sereena, forcing a smile on her face to hide her true feelings. “I couldn’t do this without you.”

Sereena did not turn to meet her gaze. “The pleasure is all mine,” she said before abruptly stopping at a door, or rather a hatch.

Padmé figured it had to be the entrance to the maintenance corridor Sereena had mentioned before, watching closely as Sereena used her code cylinder to open the hatch. The hatch creaked open, revealing a narrow shaft with a sturdy-looking ladder descending into pitch-black darkness. Padmé peeked down through the shaft, but there was no way of telling how deep the shaft went or what was waiting at the bottom. Perfect setting for a trap, she thought, glancing sideways at Sereena, hoping to catch a glimpse of what she was thinking, but her freckled face remained unreadable to her.

Sereena seemed to take notice of her attentions shifting. “Down, down, down we go,” she said, her tone lacking its usual cheerfulness. “I’ll go first and make sure the way is clear.”

Padmé gave her a rigid nod. “I’ll be right behind you.”

As soon as Sereena disappeared down the ladder, Esdee let out a faint series of rather concerned beeps. “I’m afraid I must request for your attention for a moment, Mistress,” he said. “I’m aware you prefer not hear the odds, but I’m obliged to inform you that I took the liberty to run a tactical analysis on the situation, and there’s a ninety-two point seventy-eight percent chance that your droid-hating associate is not telling the truth. I suggest you should reconsider the possibility of my Master being right about her all along.”

“I agree,” Padmé admitted, lowering her voice to almost a whisper.

Once again, everything had gone too smoothly, which, now that she thought about it, seemed to be a solid pattern with her interactions with Sereena. The kitchenhand always just happened to be there, ready to nudge her to just the right direction, knowing all the right answers and coming up with all too flawless plans.

It was all too convenient to be a mere coincidence, and it was starting to seem unpleasantly obvious to Padmé that their entire friendship had been nothing but a ruse. “We might indeed be walking into a trap.”

“Oh dear,” Esdee moaned. “We should alert my Master immediately.“

“No,” Padmé said calmly. “Not just yet. Listen to me carefully, Esdee. If Sereena is the Sith Lord who’s been preying upon us, then she knows she can’t match Vader’s strength in combat. That’s why she’s been trying to assassinate him. That’s why she won’t reveal herself – and that’s why we can’t involve him yet, not until we have proof. She won’t show her true colors unless she believes she has the upper hand.”

Padmé put her hand on Esdee’s shoulder plate for emphasis. “We must trick her to believe she’s already won,” she said. “Do you understand? That’s the only way we can catch her red-handed.”

It was then that she heard Sereena’s voice from down below. “It’s safe,” she hollered from the bottom of the shaft. “C’mon now, it’s not like we’ve got all day!”

Part of her still wanted to trust her; to believe there was some perfectly innocent explanation to everything. Part of her wanted to believe that they would laugh together at her paranoid suspicions when all this was over and the real culprit had finally been dealt with, but the more she thought about it, the clearer it became that there were no other viable options. Who else the culprit could be, if not Sereena? She had to remind herself that Palpatine had already demonstrated what the Sith were capable of and how cunningly they could disguise themselves to be able to walk among their prey in broad daylight, and besides, even her more recent dealings with the Sith indicated that, apparently, nothing was impossible for them.

“I’ll go in first,” she whispered to Esdee. “I’ll let you know if it’s safe down there. If you don’t hear from me, you must not give in to panic.”

“Panic? Me?” Esdee exclaimed. “Perish the thought.”

Padmé stepped onto the ladder. “If you don’t hear from me, you must contact Anak—“, she abruptly cut off her sentence, “Vader, I mean. You must contact Vader immediately. Don’t linger around, and for the love of the stars, don’t try to be a hero.”

“Oh goodness,” Esdee said. “I’m indeed programmed to do many things, but to perform heroic actions? No, no. I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Padmé climbed down the ladder and landed gracefully on the floor below. At first, she could not see anything, not even a crimson red lightsaber blade she had fully expected to meet her throat as soon as her feet met the ground, but then again, she did not need her eyes when her nose could tell that what Sereena had called a maintenance corridor, she would call a sewer. The floor was treacherously slippery under her feet, and the wall felt disgustingly slimy under her hands when she supported herself against it, trying to find solid footing. I’ve been in worse places, she mentally reminded herself as she squinted her eyes to adjust to the sudden change of lighting.

She signaled to Esdee that it was safe to come down. The poor droid struggled with climbing down the ladder, and Padmé could not help but admit that despite her possible ulterior motives, Sereena had a solid point when she argued against bringing along a droid. Esdee was not the most agile droid, and Vader had certainly not designed him with stealth and subtlety in mind.

It took a long time before Esdee, finally, reached the bottom, dropping down with a loud metallic thud that echoed along the narrow corridor. “Most unpleasant experience,” he objected, turning on his flashlight implant to illuminate their way. “Most unpleasant indeed.”

As they proceeded to follow their guide, who was already far ahead of them, Padmé contemplated Sereena’s motive. If she truly was the Sith Lord in question, she was after revenge, but was that the whole story, or could there be something else yet to be uncovered? She could not tell, but she hoped her daring decision to follow Sereena would cast some light to help her understand better what she was after and why she had chosen to follow such a dark path.

They hurried after Sereena, catching up with her at another ladder, identical to the one they had climbed down. “The servants’ quarters are right above us,” Sereena said, grabbing the ladder. “We’re running behind schedule here, but if we’re quick enough, we’ll still have time to do check his room before the stormtrooper guards change shifts.”

Padmé followed Sereena out of the shaft and then proceeded to help Esdee. Against all her expectations—and with Sereena’s rather reluctant help—she was able to pull the droid out.

“His room is right around the corner,” Sereena said, pointing over her shoulder with her thumb.

As soon as they stepped around the corner, they saw that the door was already open. Padmé glanced at Sereena, who glanced back at her and shrugged, reciprocating her confused expression. “There’s something fishy going on around here,” she said. “Let’s find out what.”

Before Padmé was able to collect her thoughts and decide how to proceed, Sereena leaped forward and took a look inside. “Uh oh,” she said, tilting her head at the sight. “I guess whoever you’re looking for got here first. Come and see for yourself.”  

Padmé hurried to the open door and gasped. There was a young man, presumably the occupant of the room, lying on the floor, only barely alive and visibly in great pain. He’s dying, she realized. She had seen too far too many people die to be mistaken.

“N-no…” the man croaked, trying to move, but it seemed that his lower body was immobilized.

Without second thought, Padmé rushed inside the room, gesturing Esdee to follow her inside. Of course, Esdee was not a med droid, and she herself was not much of a medic either, she knew that, and yet she figured that if she could do anything to ease that poor man’s final moments—and if she could get the man to tell her who did this to him—her efforts would not be in vain.

She kneeled to his side and dabbed his sweating forehead with a piece of cloth she tore off her the hem of her cloak. “You’re severely injured. Don’t try to move,” she said soothingly, trying to comfort the dying man. “Struggling will only make the pain worse.”  

She might have had chosen to dedicate her life to the Rebel cause, but she had also made a conscious choice to not let her sorrow turn into burning black hatred within her chest. She had made a choice to not let it consume her and burn her heart to ashes. She was aware that many of her friends and associates in the Rebels would have rejoiced this man’s inevitable death, but she did not. She had never celebrated the lives that had been lost, and she certainly was not about to start now.

Imperial or not, no one deserved to have to die alone. “I’m sorry this happened to you,” she whispered, stroking a wisp of damp hair from his face, painfully aware that this poor man’s death was completely unnecessary, and it could have been prevented, had she been able to lure the Sith out of hiding sooner. “But I must ask, who did this to you?”

He had foam coming out of his mouth now, and his widened eyes were filled with immense panic. “G-go away,” he rasped, coughing blood onto the floor as he spoke. “Leave—“

Padmé bit her lip in an effort not to let her frustration get the better of her. “Please, I beg you,” she said with a hint of sheer desperation, cradling his feverish head in her hands. “Tell me who did this to you. I must know this.”

“B-behind you…” It was all he could say before his body went limp in her arms.

Padmé turned her head swiftly, only to see Sereena casually leaning against the doorframe, looking ominously amused. “So sickeningly sweet,” she said nonchalantly, covering a yawn with her free hand. "Are you quite finished?"

Her heart sank as the agonizing realization hit her. “It’s you,” she said, her voice ringing hollow as she leaped back to her feet. “You’re the Sith we've been looking for.”

Sereena chuckled darkly. Her amber eyes were now glittering gold. “Has anyone ever told you that your compassion will be your undoing?” she asked as a malicious smirk creeped across her face.

“All this time…” Padmé said, her voice slightly trembling as Vader's words rushed back to her.There is no person in this entire building who would not sell you out for a chance to bask in the Emperor's attention.

She now knew should have listened to him. “You lied to me.”

“Now, now,” Sereena tutted. “At least I had the courtesy of telling you my real name. Can’t say the same about you, can we… Padmé?”

Padmé grimaced at hearing her name. “How long have you known?” The question escaped her lips before she could help it. “Did you... did you always know? Since the day we met in the gardens?”

Sereena let out an amused laughter. “No,” she said. “When you first showed up, I didn’t have the faintest idea who you were or what you were doing here. All I knew was that Vader had never shown any signs of caring about anyone during my time here, and then, all of a sudden, he seemed to be… very interested in you and your wellbeing, ordering you all those sweet treats from the kitchens and everything. At first, I was merely curious about you, I swear! Never expected you to turn out to be such a jackpot. Never expected you to be his wife, of all things… I bet you can’t begin to imagine my surprise on learning this delicious little detail you failed to mention to me. Must have slipped your mind, hmm?”

Esdee let out a confused beep. “Pardon me, Mistress, but is she telling the truth?” he asked. “Are you married to my Master? This is preposterous! I must admit, I’m barely familiar with the concept, but one of you should have informed me, I could have better accommodated your—“

Padmé bit her lip to prevent herself from screaming. “Not now,” she hissed to the droid before shifting her attention back to Sereena. “How? How did you find out?”

Sereena waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, it wasn’t that tricky,” she said. “Not that tricky at all. As long as I can remember, Vader has never ordered anything from the kitchens for himself, and then, all of a sudden, we were supposed to prepare a three-course dinner of Naboo cuisine for his guest. Let’s just say it piqued my interest. I did some research on you and found out all kinds of interesting things about you and your secret marriage to the Jedi knight who murdered my Master in cold blood and everything. It took some time to figure it all out, of course. I managed to put the pieces together only recently, around the same time as you did, I assume. Not all of us have all the time in the galaxy in our hands. Some of us have to sweat in the kitchens, pretend to be friends with utterly dull former senators and queens to learn their secrets, plot assassination attempts and such.”

All of a sudden, Sereena seemed to be seething with rage, blood vessels breaking on her face. “I should be thankful to him,” she snapped. “I nurtured my hatred for the Count’s murderer for years. I let my rage brew and boil in my heart without even knowing that the monster who ruined my life was still alive. I had feared learning the truth would strike me down; that it would be a curse too heavy to bear, but no… It was a gift. A wonderful, wonderful gift. Without learning the truth, I’d never have been able to achieve such focus. It amplified my powers and made me so much stronger than I could ever have become on my own, without a proper Sith Master to guide my footsteps.”

At this point, Padmé was more disappointed than truly surprised. “No, that can’t be… That doesn’t make sense,” she pointed out. “You claim that you figured Vader’s true identity around the same time as I did, but the attempts made on his life and mine preceded that.”

“I never said I didn’t want him dead long before I learned who he was, did I?” Sereena pointed out, sourly. “It’s been a little project of mine for quite a while now. Let’s just say that learning the truth about him gave me a motivation boost of sorts.”

“But why?” Padmé asked. Of course, she realized that there were plenty of reasons for anyone to want him dead. “Why did you, of all people, want him dead?”

“Well, wouldn’t you like to know that?” Sereena taunted. “And I’d love to tell you, I really do, but as I said, we’re running on a bit of a tight schedule here. It’s time to say good night.”

Before Padmé had time to react, Sereena backed out the room. The door hissed shut, leaving Padmé, Esdee and the dead Imperial locked in. A few seconds later, thick, faintly greenish gas began to pour into the room. “What in the stars is this?” Padmé shouted through the door.

“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about.” She heard Sereena’s muffled voice from the other side. “Just a little something to keep you from bothering me until I decide what to do with you. You looked so tired earlier, I thought you’d appreciate a good night’s sleep.”

“My sensors indicate it’s nerve toxin, Mistress,” Esdee commented. “I believe the dose isn’t lethal to your species, but I’d still suggest that we direct our undivided attention to coming up with a plan.”

Padmé covered her nose and mouth with her hand. “Agreed,” she said, letting her gaze run around the room. There had to be some way to put a stop to Sereena’s vile plans. The toxin containers were mounted in the ceiling, so they were out of her reach, and besides, trying to disable them would only expose her to the gas.

She heard Sereena clicking her tongue loudly behind the door. “So ungrateful”, she chided. “But that’s the deal with you entitled types, isn’t it? You should at least be a little more appreciative of the effort I put in figuring out just the perfect dose. My test subject was extremely helpful in finding the lethal flaw in my otherwise perfect formula. It’d have been such a shame if you had died. Prematurely.”

Padmé glanced at the dead body on the floor. “Oh shut up, Sereena!” she yelled.

It was then that she noticed a ventilation duct on the back wall of the room. It seemed wide enough for her to crawl through, and she could even reach it by getting on the desk first, but the problem was that the cover was intact and the screws seemed tight. She could always have shot the cover with her blaster and hope for the best. Maybe a couple of blaster bolts would even have done the trick. Yet, she swiftly realized that shooting in such a tiny room could end in a disaster.

But she still had one more trick up her sleeve she could try, but she had to be fast. Without thinking twice, she hopped on the desk and plucked a hairpin, one of the few she had not lost during or after getting caught, from her hair and proceeded to work the screws with it. “Almost there…” she muttered, ignoring the nausea that brought bile into her mouth and messed with her eyesight. “Almost…”

“Please, Mistress, you must make haste,” Esdee moaned.

After a moment that felt like an eternity and a half, Padmé finally managed to remove each four screws holding the grill cover in place. The duct seemed narrower than she had hoped, but with some luck, she would be able to pull Esdee in, if she tried. “We must go now,” she whispered to the droid. “I’ll help you in.”

“Oh, Mistress, I’m afraid that I won’t fit in there,” Esdee said. “And even if I did, I would only slow you down. According to my calculations, you have a thirty-seven point eighty-six percent chance to actually make it without me. Therefore, I volunteer to stay behind and slow that evil, droid-hating scum down to my best ability.”

“This is hardly time to argue,” Padmé said. “Come on now, we have to hurry!”

“I’m afraid I must insist,” Esdee said. “And, frankly, I’m quite sure that my Master would agree with my decision.”

Padmé pulled herself up into the duct, trying not to think what Sereena would do to the poor droid when she found out that she had escaped from her trap. “You don’t have to do this,” she said, reaching her hand out to the droid. "You don't have to sacrifice yourself!"

“Nonsense, Mistress. You must go now,” Esdee urged. “If this is a goodbye, I must let you know that it’s been an honor to—“

“It’s not,” Padmé said emphatically, trying to reassure him, or maybe herself. “I’ll send help as soon as I get out of here, I promise.”

“Go—and do not look back, Mistress.”

Padmé had not even realized how much she had grown to care for Esdee, not until now, when she had no choice but to leave him behind, with little hope of ever seeing him again. And yet, she understood that Esdee was right. She should not look back, and she could not let her grief to prevent her from surviving yet another hopeless situation. She had done it many times before, she could, and she most certainly should, do it again. I’ll make sure his valiant sacrifice won’t be for nothing, she thought as she crawled deeper into the shaft.

Her exposure to the nerve toxin, however brief it had been, had sapped her energy, but as tempted as she was to lay down and close her eyes, just for a little moment, she forced herself to keep going.

When she finally saw light at the end of the shaft, she could not help but hope that she would not bump straigth into patrolling stormtroopers or something even worse, knowing all too well that she had no strength left to put up a fight to defend herself. Under her clothes, her skin was burning, and every single muscle in her body ached as the fever set it. Summoning the last remnants of her waning strength, she exerted herself to push the hatch off and crawl out of the shaft, only to hear heavy footsteps approaching her from the other side of the hall. Not daring to lift her gaze, she cowered under the dark shadow that draped over her shivering body like a plush blanket.

It was then that she heard the familiar sound of Vader’s labored breath rasping harshly through his respirator and understood that she was no longer in danger.

She did not protest when he lifted her up in his arms. “You are safe now," he said. 

“I—I know,” Padmé replied, struggling against her fatigue and nausea. As much as she would have wanted to lean her head against his durasteel-covered chest and let him to take care of her, she had not forgotten Esdee’s plight. She had to stay awake a bit longer. “Esdee, he—Ani, it was her, for this entire time, it was her—Sereena—you were—you were right about her. I’m—I’m so sorry, this is all my fault—”

“No. None of this is your fault,” Vader soothed her, clumsily stroking a stray strand of hair back behind her ear. He felt uncertain of whether he wanted to scold her for her recklessness or express his admiration for her for her courage. Perhaps a little bit of both. “The failure in eliminating this threat in due time is mine alone.”

Back in the tower, Vader gently laid her down on the divan. “You must rest now,” he said sternly. “I have already dispatched the 501st to recover the remains of my droid and begin the search for her. She will not get far. I will lead the search party myself.”

With a swirl of his cloak, Vader turned to make his leave, but Padmé stopped him, slowly reaching out her trembling hand and touching his forearm. “What if,” she slurred, struggling with finding the words she was looking for, “I asked you to stay here with me?”

Vader acknowledged that the task of finding the the stray Sith girl was crucial, and time was a luxury they should not have wasted, but for him, Padmé was priority. For him, Padmé had always been priority, ever since the day they met in Watto's shop all those years ago. 

“I trust my men. They are capable enough to carry out my orders on their own. If you wish me to stay,” he said. “Then I will stay.”

Chapter Text

Vader watched silently as Padmé fluctuated between feverish sleep and wakefulness in his arms. He was well aware that he should have been leading the search party, but he had made his choice. Contrary to his earlier statement that he trusted his men well enough to trust them with such a crucial task as finding the stray Sith girl, he realized that his decision to stay behind had born entirely out of selfishness, not trust. It was not a realization he welcomed with open arms, although he could not completely dismiss it either.

But his burning desire to never again let Padmé out of his sight overwhelmed him and clouded his judgement. He would rather deal with the possible consequences of his short-sightedness later than leave her side for another second.

They had lain there for hours, entangled in each other’s arms, almost like the lovers they had once been in another life. As tempted as he was to slightly adjust his posture after staying still for so long, he could not bring himself to disturb her gravely needed rest. Occasionally, he heard her murmuring a few inarticulate words against his shoulder before falling back to unconsciousness, but apart from that, she was peaceful in her slumber.

As Vader held her against his chest, he could not ignore the hot warmth of her fever-ridden body gradually seeping through his armor. The odd sensation brought back long lost memories of those stolen moments of passion and intimacy they had shared all those years ago, but now those all too vivid images brought him nothing but pain and regret.

Although he bitterly recalled that Anakin Skywalker had once treasured each and every one of those memories. The Jedi had shamelessly reveled in how her skin felt beneath his fingertips and how her soft moans sounded in his ears whenever his duties had pulled him away from Coruscant for weeks or even months at a time.

Now, of course, such intense memories only reflected yet another part of their severely damaged relationship that could not be salvaged. He could never again be the lover Skywalker had been, among so many other things.

But the Dark side was relentless. It was not willing to leave his tormented mind alone with regrets. There were grim visions, emerging from the darkest corners of his mind and creeping into his consciousness. There were seductive voices slithering in his thoughts and forming into uncontrollable temptation to dismiss every other conclusion but the one he desired to be true.

All of a sudden, Vader found himself reluctant to even consider any other explanation than that their reunion could only have happened because the Force willed it. It had to be the Force that had guided Padmé back to his arms.

And if the Force did not concern itself with his shortcomings, Padmé should not do so either. She should not position herself above the Force by questioning its will.

He glanced down to her. Even in such a disheveled state, she looked as beautiful as ever as she rested her head against his chest. All he could think was that this was how it was always meant to be.

Had he not known this from the very moment he, a mere slave boy back then, had laid his eyes on her for the first time and asked if she was an angel from the moons of Iego? She was, and had always been, his destiny. She belonged to him. He would not allow her to be torn away from him.

Not this time.

They could try. The fraud Emperor and that girl, a mere child who pretended to understand the ways of the Sith, they could indeed try. With the Force on his side, he would strike them down and crush their pathetic attempts to prevent him from claiming what was his. He would destroy them both, starting with rectifying his mistake of sparing that wretched girl’s life in the first place.

His facial muscles twitched in irritation as the memory of his failure to recognize her treachery plunged him into a pit of seething rage in mere seconds. It scraped his nerves and burned him inside out. He should have seen through such a pitiful façade of feigned innocence and helplessness. Realizing that she was too young to even be properly trained, as she must have been a mere child when Dooku had met his end at his hands all those years ago, only inflamed his anger further.

It was now obvious to him that she had taken advantage of Padmé’s compassionate heart and used her kindness as a shield – and then daringly counted on his unwillingness to shatter that shield into splinters. He was now forced to accept that it had been his own ineptitude in front of his feelings that had let the enemy slip from his grasp; that it had been his inner conflict that had clouded his judgement and led exactly into the disaster he had tried to frantically avoid. This has happened before, he thought as his mind raced back to the day Anakin Skywalker had let his crippling fear of losing Padmé overwhelm him.

Padmé shifted slightly in his arms as a pained whine broke from her chest. It was only then that Vader became aware of how tight his grip on her had gotten.

Her eyes fluttered open. “How–how long have I –,“ she murmured drowsily.

Slowly, she became aware of her surroundings, but much to Vader’s surprise, she made no immediate attempt to break away from his embrace.

“It does not matter,” he said. “How do you feel?”

Padmé tilted her throbbing head up to meet his gaze. “I’ve seen better days,” she admitted, her voice hoarse. Her fever might have been subsiding, but she could still feel the lingering effects of the nerve toxin dulling her senses and rendering her limbs heavy and sluggish. “To be honest, I feel like I’ve been run over by a herd of bewildered banthas.”

Vader rose carefully and eased her pliant body back onto the divan. “You may rest as long as you see fit,” he said sternly as he unclasped his cloak and wrapped it around her. A clumsy display of affection, for sure, yet still better than what he could have accomplished with words. “I expect to hear from my men any moment now.”

It was then that the memories of her escape and Esdee’s bravery rushed back to her. “What about Esdee?” she worried, dreading what the answer might be. “Did they find him? Is he alright?”

“I do not know yet what became of my droid,” Vader replied. “The girl is the primary target. Everything else comes secondary.”

Mercy was not generally something Vader was inclined to grant his enemies, and this particular enemy had had the audacity to hurt his wife. Once again, in his all-consuming anger, minor details such as him being but a far cry from the man she had once married seemed vastly irrelevant.

“She will be found and dealt with accordingly”, he said.

Padmé sighed as she closed her eyes and laid her head back down. She knew that in her current state there was little she could do to help the poor droid, even though his plight was direct consequence of her reckless actions. She let her fever-ridden mind wander back to Sereena’s betrayal and, much to her dismay, it occurred to her that she felt nothing but hollow emptiness in her chest, right there where the grief and regret should have been gnawing at her heart.

She knew she could always have blamed herself for letting Sereena twist her around her little finger and use her as a pawn in her wicked games. She could always have berated herself for being too trustful of her intentions and taking far too great risks in her eagerness to protect her children, and yet she refused to do so. It had to be done, she concluded. Otherwise, we still wouldn’t know that it’s her. We’d still be at the starting point.

And most of all, she was afraid of what would become of her if she let go and ceased from believing. Her unflinching faith in goodness in humanity alone had carried her this far, through all the hardships, and she feared what would be left of her if she gave up on her beliefs now. She could not allow herself to give up on something as vital as hope, not when there was still so much at stake.

Although she understood the abstract nature of the very concept of hope. The entire Rebel Alliance might have been built on it, but for most people within the ranks, its meaning varied tremendously. There were soldiers and star pilots who were driven solely by their instinct to survive another day. For them, hope meant nothing but the slightest possibility to live to see yet another sunrise. There were plenty of people, human and alien alike, who dreamed of victory or revenge or both, but they did not seem to believe in them hard enough to see past such small victories and short-term gains.

But Padmé had always been one to look beyond the bare necessities and see the bigger picture. There had to be a reason for all those sacrifices and perpetual suffering throughout the galaxy. There had to be something more; something greater to achieve. For her, there was no intrinsic value in blowing up Star Destroyers and killing thousands of people in endless battles across the space.

There had to be hope for rebuilding the foundations of the Republic and restoring democracy. Hope for better future for the children of the galaxy, who were too young to know anything but war and oppression. Hope for healing and salvation, perhaps even redemption, for individual beings, who were bent but maybe not broken.

She glanced at Vader, who stood by the window, staring through the blinds and looking restless. Hope, she thought hazily before falling back asleep. Even for him.

Vader felt a portion of Padmé’s thoughts in the Force, yet he found himself reluctant to probe any further. Not particularly because he respected her privacy, but because he was dreaded of what he might find. Part of him was convinced that how she felt about him was ultimately irrelevant and that she would eventually understand his reasoning for keeping her close and restricting her personal freedom. The same part that believed that in time she would come to terms with her fate, accept her rightful place by his side and soon rule the galaxy with him, as his Empress.

But as much as he despised himself for it, he could no longer deny that there was a third party involved, who demanded justice for her. He might have spent a decade trying to banish the last lingering remnants Anakin Skywalker within himself, but then Padmé had come back to his life. She had gathered the scattered pieces and carefully put him back together – only the final piece was missing.

She had not even done it out of fear or pity, but out of love for the man he had once been. Vader could feel it in the Force. But her love, as pure and uncomplicated as it was, did not belong to him. It belonged to the wretched Jedi he had been trying to forcefully distance himself from for so long. He could rage and scream and struggle, but never change it. He could, without doubt, force her into submission, but not into loving him.

Vader was supposed not to care whether she loved him or not, but for Anakin, her love was, and had always been, everything. Anakin had always put her needs above his own, until the day he had bent the knee and succumbed to the darkness within.

Until the day he had become Vader, who was plagued with his desire to consume and possess.

And now the two of them, Vader and Anakin, fought fiercely over dominance on the battlefield of his harrowed mind.

It was then that the integral comlink of his helmet chimed and disrupted his fervent thoughts.

“Commander,” he greeted. “I have been expecting your report.”

“Lord Vader, sir.” The commander sounded exhausted. “We have successfully located your droid. He appears to be in a functioning state, and–“

“The droid does not concern me,” Vader interrupted. “Do you have her?”

“Negative, sir,” the commander admitted. “She’s left no trail for us to follow, but the men are relentless in their pursuit. I’m sure it’ll be only a matter of time–“

“That is not good enough, Commander,” Vader said sternly. “I expect results, not excuses.”

“Aye, sir,” the commander said. “Request to shut down the nearest spaceports.”

Vader considered briefly his commander’s request. Such procedures often caused inconvenience to civilians, and inconvenience to civilians, without exception, led to widespread complaints.

Civilians and their petty complaints were normally the least of his concerns, but this time he could not afford word of his machinations reaching the Emperor. “Permission denied”, he said, aware of how keen his Master was about keeping exemplary order in his capital system. Arbitrary lockdowns of public spaces did not fit in his description of order. “The Emperor shall not be troubled with your incompetence.”

“But, sir–“

“Were my orders not clear, Commander?” Vader barked. “Find that girl and bring her to me. I want her alive.”

“Understood, sir,” the commander stated, his voice distinct with distress. “What about the droid? Should I order the men to run a few tests on him before sending him back to you? Just in case of malfunctions, or–“

“That will be unnecessary,” Vader said, growing more irritated with the apparent inefficiency of his troops by the minute. “I shall deal with the droid myself. Double your search. Assign all available troops to find and arrest the girl.”

Vader paused, letting his words sink in. “And do not fail me again, Commander.”

Without further comment and visibly displeased, Vader cut off the transmission. His hands clenched into fists at his sides as he contemplated the possible consequences of this enemy, once again, slipping through his fingers.

He flinched as he felt Padmé’s hand on his arm. Apparently, she was awake again. “Bad news?”

“They found the droid,” he replied sternly. “But the girl is as good as gone.”

Padmé let her hand fall back to her side. “Why do I still feel that we haven’t seen the last of her yet?”

“We most certainly have not,” Vader agreed as he turned to meet her gaze, “but the next time will be the last. That pretender is out of her parlor tricks.”

Padmé lowered her gaze. “Well, yes, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to meeting her again,” she murmured, sounding defeated. She fished the tiny holoprojector Sereena had given to her from her pocket, dropped it onto the floor and crushed it under her heel. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she used that thing to track us both. We might now know what we’re up against, but at what cost? What if she goes straight to the Emperor? What if she already has?”

“If that is so, the Emperor’s retaliation will be swift, and it will be harsh,” Vader said. There was not much he could say to comfort her. “We will know.”

“And what then?”

“We shall endure.” Vader’s voice came out flat and harsh. “I am not letting go of you.”

“Neither am I letting go of you,” Padmé said, her tone surprisingly unyielding, considering that she was still convalescent. She reached on her toes and gently caressed the side of his faceplate. “The real you, under this thing.”

Vader knew he should have rebuffed her delusions before they infected his mind as well, and retreated behind his mental barriers, but he could not bring himself to shut himself from her compelling words. “Do you not fear what you might find underneath?”

Padmé crossed her arms over her chest. “Why would I?” she countered. “I know who you are and what you are capable of, arguably better than you do, Anakin. You are much stronger and wiser than you give yourself credit for. You can do better than this. Be better than this.”

Vader exhaled sharply through his mask. “You are many things,” he said sternly, not even bothering to chide her for using that damned name anymore. She had made up her mind, he realized. It was due time for him to make up his own. “Coward is not among them.”

Padmé went silent. Eight years ago, she had made her decision to not follow Anakin down the dark path he had chosen for himself. Although she might have, against all odds, grown to care for Vader a great deal, she found herself just as unwilling to let him drag her into his darkness this time around.

But she was more than eager to reach out for him and lend him a hand.  

“When I refused you that night, my defiance almost cost me my life,” she reminded him, but there was no bitterness in her tone, only a hint of sadness. “I couldn’t follow you into the dark back then, and I won’t do it this time either. If you ever ask that of me, I will only refuse you again. And again. As many times as I have to.”

She took his gauntleted hand in her own and gave it a weak squeeze. “It won’t do any good if we both lose ourselves for… whatever this is between us,” she whispered hoarsely, her eyes glazing over as she spoke. “Anakin, I – I’ve forgiven you. You never asked for my forgiveness, but I’ve chosen to give it. Could you do the same? Accept the past and forgive yourself? That’s the only way, and you know it. All you have to do is choose. Take my hand and come back to me. Come back to light.” I beg you.

At that very moment, Vader despised himself more than perhaps ever before. Part of him wanted once again to latch onto her offer; to unclasp his helmet and reveal his ruined face; to drop down on his knees and beg for her forgiveness, regardless of whether she had already forgiven him or not.

But he could do no such thing. As long as the Emperor lived and breathed, he could not steer away from the path he had chosen for himself.

“I can”—he pulled his hand back, barely able to look her in the eye—“do no such thing. It is too late for me.”

Padmé frowned at him. “I don’t understand,” she stated. “What are you so afraid of?”

“You are mistaken,” he snarled back at her. “I am not afraid.”

It was, of course, a lie. Fear was inseparable part of being a Sith. All Sith were afraid of something, either betrayal or losing their power, if nothing else. He, too, was afraid of great many things, most of them coiling around his fear of losing her again, in one way or another.

But Padmé was not having it. She was not having it at all. “You’ve never been much of a liar, Ani,” she snapped, intentionally provoking him with the old nickname of his.

Her words, every single one of them, burned Vader from the inside as his inner conflict kept tearing him apart. The gulf between what his heart desired and what he felt that was required of him was growing too wide for him to simply ignore its existence.

He remembered the feeling all too well from the life Padmé was trying to pull him back into.   

As useless as the practice had lately been to him, he felt sudden urge to retreat to the solitude of his quarters and meditate. “This argument is pointless,” he said. “You do not know the power of the Dark side.”

Padmé bit her lower lip in frustration. She was close, she knew it. His resolve was already crumbling. “I may not know the Force as you do,” she said. “But, as I said, I know you. I know that deep down you’re a good person. You can still choose to be that person. Let go of your hate.”

Vader clenched his teeth and said nothing. He was a force to be reckoned with on any battlefield; no ordinary foe could hope to challenge him. His ability to endure physical pain was widely considered unnatural, but this – this was different kind of battle and different kind of pain. The kind he could not endure a moment longer.

“We shall discuss this matter again at another time,” he said, his voice strained. "If that is what you wish."

“Oh, you can count on it.”

Later, in the privacy of his meditation chamber, Vader removed his mask and helmet. The hyperbaric environment let him breathe extended periods of time without the aid of its integrated respiratory system. He stared down at the helmet in his hands, running his prosthetic fingers over its gleaming surface.

His own distorted reflection stared back at him. He might have accepted what had happened to him long time ago, even considered it a fair price for expanding his understanding of the power of hate and suffering, and yet he harbored no illusion that Padmé would share his opinion. She would, without doubt, be repulsed at the sight of his ruined face. 

Her perseverance tested the very limits of his patience in a way no one, with the sole exception of the Emperor himself, would ever dare to test him. But she did not understand, and he could not have brought himself to make her. 

He closed his eyes and let his mind sink deeper into the Force. Lately, he had seen nothing but darkness, speckled with luminous spots of lights trying to lure him off the path into treacherous quagmires of weakness. But this time, images drifting across his vision were crisp and clear. He saw Padmé. She was severely injured, suffering. The sensation of her pain twisted his stomach into tight knots. There was a lot of blood. No, he mentally corrected himself. Not blood. 

The crimson red tinting his vision was not from blood, but from a lightsaber. A Sith lightsaber. He could barely see the form of the blade, but his vision did not allow him to determine whom it belonged to. Was it the Emperor's? Or did it belong to the Vox girl?

Or was it his own lightsaber? Would he, after all his efforts, be the one to raise his saber hand against her?

He could not hear her voice, but he could see her lips form the words. Please, don't.

"No," he groaned. He would never. It could not be. It had to be some kind of a trick. "No!"

Only barely aware of his surroundings, he reached for the Force and blasted the chamber open. He could not even be bothered with putting his helmet and mask back on, despite the instant pain in his lungs. In his outburst of rage, he swiped everything off his desk with a single effortless wave of his hand, before he collapsed against the nearest wall. 

It was only then that he understood that he loved Padmé. That he truly loved her, and not the mere sensation of having her in his possession. It was then that he realized that there were still fragments of his love – Anakin Skywalker's love – for her that had not been tainted by his darkness living inside him. Fragments that remained pure enough to help him overcome his selfishness and burning desire to possess.

Pure enough to help him muster his strenght and make the right choice.

Chapter Text

“Commander,” Vader rumbled, his voice stern. “I have been expecting you.”

The commander greeted him with a formal salute and stood to attention. “Lord Vader, sir."

The commander had certainly gone great lengths to hide his nervousness from him, Vader had to give him that. He maintained his posture remarkably well, even for a soldier, but he still could not prevent Vader from feeling his growing apprehension in the Force. Vader sensed that his mere presence put the commander at unease, and the steady rasp of his respirator made his hair stand up on the back of his neck.

“You have not brought me anything of value, Commander,” Vader said. “Explain.”

“We didn't find her,” the commander said, lowering his head. “We've failed you, my lord.”

The 501st Legion was well-renowned throughout the Empire for their brutal effectiveness. Knowing the consequences of failure, they tended to succeed in delivering results more often than other legions. Vader was well aware that each and every stormtrooper under his command would rather choose a swift death in the hands of enemy than return with empty hands and face his wrath.

And it was exactly as he had intended it to be. He believed that certain ruthlessness was essential in achieving satisfactory results, and he had no patience for catering to weaklings. Under his command, any signs of weakness were to be rooted out before they could be discovered and then exploited by the enemy.

He was a leader who inspired his troops through fear. Many considered his methods unnecessarily cruel. Some were even brave enough to voice their opinions, but he had never been one to concern himself with bureaucrats and their petty criticisms. Everything he had done, he had done under the Emperor’s mandate, and for the longest time, that was all he cared about. 

Although Vader no longer put his faith in the Emperor, he still did not quite consider failure as something that should go unpunished under any circumstances.

His commander knew this too. He dropped on his knees and removed his helmet. “I accept full responsibility of our lack of success, my lord,” he said grimly.

Vader breathed heavily through his respirator. “I warned you not to underestimate this threat, Commander,” he snarled.

The commander lowered his head. “I assure you, sir, we did everything in our power to carry out your order and bring this traitor to justice,” he said. “My squad almost had her on Level 1315, but she had laid a trap for us. Good soldiers were lost down there, my lord. Good men.”

Looming over his kneeling commander, Vader reached for the Force and probed his thoughts. Instead of crippling fear before certain death, all he sensed was peaceful acceptance for what was to come. The commander was all but certain that he had done all he could and more. He did not weep nor beg for mercy, not even when Vader ignited his lightsaber.

He brought his blade close to the commander’s bare neck, ready and willing to unleash his wrath upon him, but something held him back. This man is a decent soldier, he surprised himself thinking. A loyal soldier.

Anakin Skywalker would have been honored to fight alongside someone like him.

Vader glanced down to the commander. It was only then that the acknowledgement hit him. The grave responsibility of the failed mission should have been his to bear, not his commander’s. He should have been leading his men from the front, as he always did, and yet he had chosen to stay behind. Padmé might have asked him to do so, but the choice had been his own.

And besides, Vox had, for yet unknown reason, eluded detection for months, if not years. She had proven to be a slippery target, even for a Sith lord. What chances would mere stormtroopers have had?

Vader clenched his teeth his frustration. He was bursting to vent his anger on someone, anyone, but for another yet unknown reason, he could not bring himself to kill the soldier before him.

Anakin Skywalker had once been an ambitious, even ruthless, leader, but he had never asked more of his men than he demanded of himself.

Vader exhaled the breath he had not realized he was holding and let his tension fade. “Rise, Commander,” he said as he turned off his lightsaber and hooked it back to his belt. “Your task here is yet to be completed. Rally your men and form patrols to guard the palace property. I expect your men to be stationed and ready for action by nightfall.”

The commander looked nothing less than astounded by the mercy shown to him. “I – sir, yes, sir,” he stammered as he struggled to get back on his feet. “I’ll begin preparations at once.”

Knowing better than to test the Dark Lord’s patience any further, he refrained from asking clarification for the questions crossing his mind.

And yet, Vader could sense his confusion in the Force. ”Yes,” he rumbled, answering one of the questions that bothered his commander. “She will return here tonight. I have… foreseen this.”

Lacking the time and patience to entertain his commander’s curiosity, Vader turned around to take his leave. The board was set, and the pieces were all in motion. Now that Vox was out of tricks and forced into hiding, it was his turn to make his move against the Emperor before the two could join forces.

He was not nearly as prepared as he would have preferred to be, but the Force vision he saw the other night finally made him realize that they were running out of time; that Padmé was running out of time. Whatever was going to happen, it was going to happen tonight. The storm was already gathering, and Vader still had a few crucial arrangements to make before it hit.

As much as he hated having to do what he saw as his only option to prevent his vision from coming true, he had already made his decision. He was tempted to rage against it, to bend the reality – break it in two, if he had to – to find a more desirable solution, if he had to.

But now, he finally realized what he should have realized years ago.

He could not stop the change.

Now all that was left for him was to live by his decision and not falter before the raging storm of emotions stirring inside his conflicted mind. It is the only way, he reminded himself as he strode across the hall towards his tower, only way to save her life.

Vader stepped out of the elevator only to find out that Esdee had, apparently, found his way back. The droid let out an enthusiastic beep at the sight of him, stomping in place and seeming eager to be reunited with his Master.

“Oh goodness, my Master, there you are. Let me just tell you much delight it brings to me to be back home, after such a harrowing experience,” he exclaimed, offering to take his Master’s cloak.

“Esdee,” Vader said flatly, ignoring the droid’s offer.

“It is so very good to see you, Master – and Mistress Padmé too. Is she alright? Please, you must to tell me she’s alright,” the droid said cheerfully. “Oh, and now that the topic came up, you should have told me about your marriage – and her real name, for the sake of my poor, overheated circuits! I could have optimized my–“

Vader cut his chatter short. “She is alright,” he said, coldly dismissing the rest of his droid’s concerns. “Are you functioning properly? All your parts seem to be intact.”

“Why, yes, I certainly do think so,” Esdee said. “That malicious, droid-hating, sticky-fingered scum wasn’t too pleased to find out that Mistress Padmé got away. Oh, Master, she wasn’t pleased at all. I was manhandled. Tortured, if you will, and threatened with all kinds of terrible, terrible things I don’t dare to repeat, but I don’t think she caused too serious damage to my basic functions, Master.”

“Very good,” Vader said, “I have an urgent task for you.”

“Urgent?” Esdee blurted out. “Oh dear. I was looking forward to a nice, proper oil bath first, and then perhaps a full maintenance check. You must understand, Master. It’s so very discomforting when strangers get handsy with my precious parts–“

“That will have to wait,” Vader interrupted harshly. “Now, I need you go down to the hangar bay and speak with the chief engineer. You will tell him that you are under orders to requisition a shuttle equipped with hyperdrive system, functioning deflector shields and laser cannons in both front and rear.”

“Yes, Master,” Esdee said, letting out a slightly defeated beep. “Of course, Master. At once. Anything else?”

“You will also tell him that said shuttle is expected to be fully prepared and ready for departure by nightfall.”

“But Master!” Esdee moaned, in disbelief. “According to my calculations, average time taken to complete such an order is approximately two days, eighteen hours and thirty minutes, rounded down to the nearest half hour. The chief engineer will, for sure, refuse this kind of request. What am I supposed to–“

“Then you will let him know who gave you the order,” Vader concluded the argument. “Go now, and report directly to me when you have accomplished this task.”

A few hours later, Vader stood alone on the balcony. He stared blankly at the vivid Coruscant sunset and could not help but notice that, in some bizarre way, the oppressive stillness of the moment – the final calm before the storm – reminded him of another moment in another life. Anakin Skywalker, too, had once gazed off into the distance and wept out of helplessness before committing to a life-altering decision.

Little had he known that his decision would not help his wife, but instead kill his unborn child and plunge the galaxy into a decade-long darkness. Instead of love, Skywalker had put his faith in his new powers and turned himself into the very threat he had been so devoted to protecting her from.

Skywalker, in his indecisiveness, had shed tears, but Vader did not. Certainty might have eluded him ever since the night he had stormed into the Imperial prison to slay some fool of a Rebel who dared to try and hide behind the Skywalker name, only to stumble upon his allegedly dead wife, but he had found it again.

After everything he had done, Vader knew he could never, not in a thousand lifetimes, atone for his crimes. The galaxy would never forgive him, but then again, the galaxy’s forgiveness was indifferent to him. It was too late for him to do right by all the people he had wronged over the past decade, but perhaps he could still do right by the one person he loved.

Skywalker might have turned his back on love and left it to wither in darkness. What Vader needed to do now was to turn around to preserve that love and selflessly embrace what was left of it, without hope of personal gain.

Vader needed to put his faith in the purity of his love and, after a decade of sheer hopelessness, hope that it would be enough to thwart the darkness within him from twisting and corrupting it into something that would only lead to ruin.

It was then that he heard cautious footsteps behind him. “Anakin?” Padmé said softly. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Where have you been all day? I was worried that something might’ve happened…”

“You no longer need to worry,” Vader said, reluctant to turn around and face her, as if he was afraid that the mere sight of her might undermine his resolve.

Padmé frowned. “What’s going on?” she asked, stepping to his side. She needed no Force powers to know that something was out of place.

“The time has come for me to confront the Emperor,” Vader declared. “It will happen tonight.”

Padmé inhaled sharply as she laid her hand on his durasteel-covered arm. “You really think we’re ready for this?” she asked, her voice laced with disbelief.

Vader had to force himself to lift his head to meet her eyes. “You will not be here when it happens.”

“What in the stars are you talking about?”

It took all his willpower to force the words out. “I set you free, Padmé,” he said, his voice strained with anguish. “I have arranged a shuttle for you. It will be waiting for you in the hangar bay at nightfall.”

She was not believe what she was hearing. “W-what?”

“I will not let you become the Emperor’s pawn,” Vader explained, barely able to look her in the eye. “You will be hurt if you stay. I saw it.”

“You… saw it?” she repeated, raising an eyebrow. “You mean you had another dream? It doesn’t have to mean anything, Ani. We both should know that by now. You saw me die in childbirth, remember? I didn’t.”

“Our child did,” Vader pointed out. “Our child paid the price of my lack of vision. It will not happen again.”

Padmé felt blood rush from her face as she turned her gaze away from him. She had avoided this topic, being unsure whether she should trust him. How in the stars could she bring herself to lie him again? It had been so much easier when she had still believed that the man behind the mask had murdered the father of her children in cold blood.

But he was not the murderer. He was the father. He has the right to know, she reminded herself, weighing her options. She could not even begin to imagine his reaction, if she were tell him that he was a father of not just one, but two beautiful children.

She could not help but entertain the idea of telling him the truth. What if she actually told him that he had a daughter? A daughter who might have inherited her mother’s looks, but also her father’s fierceness – and most definitely his temper? And what if she told him that he had a son? A kind and gentle son, who would never have to face the hardship of slavery?

Assuming that Palpatine will never learn about their existence, she mentally added.

Tears welled up in her eyes, but she did not bother to wipe them. Instead, she gripped the railing of the balcony to steady herself before turning back to Vader. “Anakin…” She swallowed, struggling to find the right words. “Oh, Ani, I – I might not have been honest with you about everything.”

For a few seconds, the only noise breaking the ominous silence was the sound of Vader’s respirator.

“You may hate me after hearing what I’m about to tell you,” she whispered, her tears now rolling freely down her paled cheeks. “You may be angry with me. I wouldn’t hold that against you. All I ask is that you don’t hurt me. Can you promise me that?”

“Yes,” Vader said. “I promise.”

She took his gloved hands in her own and squeezed them gently, still unsure of whether she was about to make the gravest mistake of her life. “I didn’t dare to tell you earlier, and I won’t apologize for that”—she clamped her eyes shut and exhaled sharply before snapping them open again—“but I won’t let you live in a lie, either. They live, Anakin. They’re safe, both of them.”

Behind his mask, Vader frowned. “They?”

“Don’t you understand?” she asked, her voice thin and hoarse, but her eyes smiling. “Our children, Ani. Luke and Leia. They’re alive.”

Vader flinched at her words, as if she had suddenly spoken some foreign and unintelligible language. “How…” he murmured under his breath, utterly astounded by the reveal, but not quite daring to believe it. “How is this possible?”

“I never knew I was pregnant with twins,” Padmé said, truthfully. “Not until I gave birth. It was nothing less than a miracle that the three of us survived. We wouldn’t have, if it wasn’t for Obi-Wan. He saved us.” She lowered her gaze, as if she was afraid of Vader’s reaction to the mention of his old mentor’s name. “You were dead, or so I was led to believe. Obi-Wan told me you died that night. I didn’t know what to do, Ani. All I wanted was that our children wouldn’t have to grow up in fear.”

She lifted her head to look at up him. “All I wanted was to protect them from the Emperor,” she said, breathlessly, “and from you. Master Yoda believed it would be for the best if… other people were to raise them.”

For a moment, Vader could do nothing but stare at her, the vicious storm of emotion raging in his mind and dulling his senses. Part of him acknowledged that he should have been infuriated by the part his old masters had played in keeping his children away from him, but for the first time in years, he could not have cared less for settling his feud with Kenobi.

He was a father of two living children.

From all his emotions tangled together, the first one to stand out was triumph. All of a sudden, his selfless intentions to let Padmé go were all but crushed under the sinister realization that there were now other, more desirable options on the table.

In a moment of crippling self-doubt, he let the darkness creep in and wrap around his thoughts.

There were visions of possibilities he had been eager to let slip from his grasp only a few minutes ago. If Padmé trusted him enough to tell him the truth about the children, she might trust him enough to bring them to him, if he asked. Now that there were not only one, but two heir apparents to his legacy, he could easily overthrow the fraud Emperor and claim the Imperial throne for himself – and his family.

It was then that Vader sensed that Esdee had returned from his task, and with a single, effortless gesture, he froze the droid in place with the Force, preventing him from entering the balcony. Padmé, too, glanced at the door’s direction, but did not see anything through the dimmed glass.

Slowly, Vader reached his hand to stroke her damp cheek. It was treacherously easy to imagine her as his Empress, ruling the galaxy by his side. The Emperor and his Empress. The politician and her conqueror. Perhaps she would resist at first, but surely she would choose her precious children over any moral obligations – and if not, he could always make her.

He let his hand fall back to his side. No, he screamed, but only in his thoughts. This is not what I want. He was tempted to give in to his desire to choose the easiest path. The darkness stirred, twisting his mind and pushing him all the way to the brink of madness – and he pushed back, causing the glass that separated the balcony from the rest of the tower shatter and the shards fall all around them.

And then, the darkness went silent.

“Are you angry with me?” Padmé barely dared to ask.

“No,” Vader hurried to say. It was only then that he became aware of the odd ache of his facial muscles. For the first time in eight years, he was smiling. “No, I – This is more than I could ever have hoped for.”

Padmé could not help but leap to hug him in relief. Somewhere deep inside her logical mind, she realized that even if they both survived – and even if the Emperor did not – their struggles would be far from over. While she knew that Bail and Breha harbored no illusion that the arrangement with the twins’ custody was permanent by any means, she also knew that they would fiercely protest against allowing Darth Vader anywhere near them.

But then again, everything felt too surreal to her to think so far ahead. Right now, she could not even tell whether she was laughing or crying. “You will love them,” she said between sobs, burying her face into Vader’s chest and only barely remembering to mind the control panel of his armor. “One day soon you will meet them, and you will love them so much, Ani.”

Vader wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer. “I know I will,” he murmured.

Although, he did not intend to fool himself into believing that they would ever love him, if they were to meet. It was more than likely that they would be scared of him – and later, when they were old enough to understand the full extent of his crimes against the galaxy, despise him.

After a few moments, Padmé pulled back to meet his gaze. “They’re on Alderaan,” she said. “You remember Bail Organa, my friend and colleague from the Senate? He and his wife kindly agreed to take care of the children for me. I won’t lie to you, Anakin, they won’t be happy when they learn about… you. About us. But they’re good people. They will understand, if we tell them everything after we've first dealt with the Emperor.”

“No,” Vader said. “I will deal with the Emperor. You will leave tonight.”

Padmé shot him a defiant glare. “You can’t possibly believe that I’d leave you now, after everything we’ve been through,” she said, crossing her arms across her chest. “You need me, you said it yourself. We’re in this together. We’ve always been in this together, Anakin, through the good times and the bad. I won’t leave.”

“You were honest with me,” Vader said. “I might as well return the favor.”

“What do you mean?”

“I might not be able to defeat the Emperor,” he admitted. Perhaps, if he had stayed true to his commitment to the dark side, the odds would have favored him, but the pull of the light had turned out to be too strong. “If I challenge him and he strikes me down, there will be no one left to protect you and our children from him.”

“Then don’t challenge him!” Padmé exclaimed, momentarily refusing to acknowledge how mindless her suggestion sounded, even to her own ears. As long as the Emperor lived, they would never be safe – and the same applied to their children. “Come with me. Let’s leave this terrible place together. We can go get the twins and, I don’t know, run. Hide somewhere far beyond the Outer Rim.”

The sun had almost set behind the Coruscant skyline. “You must go,” Vader said, not allowing himself to entertain the idea of leaving with her. It was an option that had never truly existed in the first place. “Esdee will go with you. Get into that ship and jump into hyperspace as soon as you leave the planet’s orbit. Get the children and hide. That is the only way to keep them from the Emperor.”

“So, this is goodbye, then?”

“You must not come back here, ever,” Vader said, avoiding having to give her a direct answer. “And you must not attempt to contact me.”

“When will I see you again?” she asked.

“I do not know, Padmé.”

She reached her hand to stroke the flat side of his helmet. “You must promise me,” she whispered. “Promise me we will see each other again.”

Part of Vader wanted to remove his helmet for just a little while, so he could have shared one last kiss with her, but the other part, more selfish part, understood the sheer foolishness of the idea. Even more than that, he wanted her to remember him as the dashing, handsome Jedi he had once been, and not the charred husk of a man he was now.

He made the gesture to unfreeze his droid, allowing him to join them. “I can promise no such thing,” he said. “Goodbye, Padmé.”

She turned to make her leave, but then she turned back, in hesitation. “Anakin, I–“

“Go,” he groaned, effectively cutting her off. He could sense her feelings towards him in the Force, and he feared that if he allowed her to voice them, he would no longer be able to do the right thing and let her go.

Chapter Text

There had not been time for long goodbyes. Vader had been adamant about it, barely giving Padmé enough time to collect her belongings, consisting of her blaster and a few other things she had been allowed to keep upon capture, before ushering her into the elevator.

She put her cloak on and pulled up the hood. As the elevator door slid shut before her, she shot one last longing glance at Vader and prayed to the stars that they would see each other again soon – or at all.

Her heart heavy, she clung onto her final glimpse of his black-clad figure. It can’t be meant to end like this, she thought, finding herself reluctant to even consider the possibility the possibility that fate, or the Force or perhaps mere coincidence, could have brought them back together only to hurl them apart once more. I haven’t even seen his face.

She had considered asking Vader again to remove his helmet and reveal his face but ultimately decided against it for two particular reasons. First, she felt like asking him would have equaled accepting that she might not get another chance to see his face, and second, she did not wish to risk turning their last moments together into an argument.

And yet, as the elevator hit the ground floor, she caught herself wondering whether she should have strived harder to convince him to steer away from his plan to challenge the Emperor tonight, or at least persuade him to let her stay and offer what little help she could. She understood that she was a politician, diplomat, and an occasional spy, not a soldier, but the thought of Vader facing someone as powerful and dangerous as the Emperor alone chilled her to the bone.

Although she was not oblivious to the irony of her heart’s desire to stay by Vader’s side. She had not forgotten how she had struggled against being held captive, or the long weeks of despair and isolation she had spent wanting nothing more than to escape that wretched tower and reclaim her life and personal freedom. She had tested every control panel, hidden switch and hatch she had stumbled onto during her attempts to find a way out. She had despised her captor from the bottom of her heart and even considered going out in a blaze of glory by attempting to shoot him.

But now all that felt nothing but a distant memory to her as if it had happened to someone else, in someone else’s life. None of that mattered anymore, because all that, all her hardships, had happened before she had learned the equally devastating and wonderful truth behind Vader’s menacing mask.

Now every fiber of her being urged her to turn around, take the elevator back to the tower and simply refuse to leave unless they were to leave together. How could she possibly leave him now when there was no guarantee that they would ever see each other again?

But she did not turn back. As much as it pained her to admit it, she knew that Vader was right. He’s right, she kept reminding herself as she strode through the dimly lit halls with Esdee at her heels, I must put the twins first and go to Alderaan.

And yet, despite her long and mostly successful career as a professional politician, she could not imagine how in the stars she would even begin to explain this entire mess to Bail and Breha. She had been gone for so long, they must already have assumed that she was dead by now. She figured that Vader had probably had Esdee erase all indications of her presence from the Imperial database, so even if the Rebels had, at some point, managed to slice into their system,s they would have found nothing about her whereabouts. 

So, they were probably not expecting her to crash an Imperial ship, of all things, into their front door in the middle of the night and inform them that the twins were in a great danger, that their biological father was actually alive and happened to be Darth Vader – and that her desperate confession to him could potentially have brought doom upon their peaceful homeworld.

She knew that if the Emperor were to learn the truth about Luke and Leia, he would try and claim them by any means necessary. Bail and Breha would, of course, never comply with his demands, but instead, they would lay down their lives to protect the twins, she was painfully certain of that. Had she believed otherwise, she would never have consented to leave her children with them in the first place.

They would refuse to hand her children over to the Emperor, even though they knew all too well what happened to those who defied his will. The Empire would launch a full assault upon Alderaan and strip them from what little sovereignty they still have left, she realized, her blood turning into ice. Thousands would die. All those innocent people… It’d be all my fault.

But whether she liked it or not, it was all out of her hands now. She had made the choice to trust Vader and put her faith in the good in him, heedless of consequences. All she could do now was to hope that he would prove worthy of that trust.

She glanced sideways at Esdee. “What do you think?” she asked, absentmindedly. “Did I do the right thing? Or a terrible mistake?”

“Due to my rather limited understanding of human psychology and decision-making process, I’m afraid that my guess would be uneducated at best,” Esdee said apologetically. “I couldn’t tell you the odds if my life depended on it.”

“It’s not the odds I’m asking for, but your honest opinion.”

“Very well, Mistress, if you insist,” Esdee said. “My honest opinion is that I believe that you already know the answer and merely wish me to provide you emotional support, which is not my particular area of expertise, I might add.”

Padmé sighed. “You know what? You’re probably right,” she said, offering the droid a half-hearted smile. “I know that telling him felt the right thing. They’re his children as much as mine. I suppose he had the right to know, but that wasn’t the reason I told him. Not the only reason, at least.”

“May I ask your other reasons, Mistress?”

“This must sound incredibly foolish to you,” Padmé said, “but I told him because I wanted to give him something to fight for. Something he would consider precious enough to… do what must be done. It was risky, and selfish too, I know, but I had to do it.”

Although she did not elaborate, she did not mean overthrowing the Emperor, but overcoming the dark side and coming back to the light.

Esdee made an abrupt stop and turned his head awkwardly to meet her gaze. “I may be just a droid, but I know Master Vader,” he said, rather confidently. “Your sentiment was admirable enough, I suppose, but might I remind you that he already had all he needs to, well, do what must be done. He had you.”

“And yet he chose to send me away.”

“That was such an unexpected turn of events,” Esdee admitted. “I’ve served as his personal assistant for years, and he’s never, not once, struck me as one to commit acts of selflessness. Such things never seemed to be part of his repertoire, so to speak. He’s changed, Mistress, all because of you.”

“I know,” Padmé said, unintentionally adding a hint of frustration to her tone. She feared that with her gone, the Emperor could undermine all her efforts to pull Vader back to the light. “If only there had been more time…”

The Vader she had come to know had been a cruel and selfish man with little redeeming qualities. He had not even seen her as a person with her own will and desires, but instead a prized possession to shove into one of those dusty vitrines he kept his Sith artifacts and other ancient treasures in.

But the Vader she had come to know would never have set her free.

It must have been Anakin making that choice.

Although she recalled that selflessness had not always come easy for him either, but his sheer determination had enabled him to overcome his shortcomings. Perhaps that same determination could help him to overcome the temptations of the dark side as well?

It was then that her train of thought was cut short by the sound of heavy footsteps of approaching stormtrooper patrol from around a nearby corner. Her heart pounding rapidly against her chest, she grabbed Esdee’s arm and yanked him behind the nearest pillar with her.

The droid gave a startled warble. Padmé raised her finger to her lips to silence him. “Shh.”

As soon as the patrol emerged from behind the corner, she took a daring peek at the troopers and noticed that they were too heavily armed to be on regular guard duty. They were also in a great hurry as if they were looking for something – or someone. She leaned frozen against the pillar and clamped her eyes shut, not daring to move a muscle, not until she could no longer hear the clacking of their boots echoing up the corridor.

She shot the droid a puzzled look. “What are they doing?” she asked, frowning. “Where are they going?”

“I’m afraid that your guess is as good as mine, Mistress,” Esdee replied. “I suggest we make haste. If they lock down the hangar bay, then we’re stuck here for good.”

“You’re right,” Padmé acknowledged. “Let’s go then.”

As soon as they arrived at the hangar bay, they encountered a most unpleasant surprise in the form of a couple of engineers working overtime and blocking their way to their shuttle. Padmé dashed to take cover behind an empty cargo container and gestured Esdee to follow her example.

“Oh dear,” Esdee moaned, earning a silencing glare from Padmé. “No one’s supposed to be down here at this hour. They must have been under orders to make up for the delay caused by the preparation of our vessel. What do we do now, Mistress? How could we possibly get on board without being seen?”

Padmé peeked at the engineers from behind her cover. They seemed to be repairing a damaged TIE fighter that, unfortunately enough, happened to be right next to their shuttle. She evaluated their chances to sneak into the ship without being noticed, but judging by their previous mission together, she realized that Esdee would never make it. 

After a couple minutes of frantic plotting, she came up with an idea. “We need a distraction,” she whispered to the droid. “To be more precise, we need you to be that distraction.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Esdee grumbled. “Why am I not surprised at all?”

Padmé offered the poor droid an apologetic smile. “Okay, so,” she said, sounding determined. “First of all, do you think those men would recognize that you work for Vader?”

“Well, they certainly should recognize me!” Esdee said, a little offended, before continuing proudly, “as I happen to be a unique model. One of a kind, so to speak.”

“Good,” Padmé continued. “Would you then be a dear and go and tell those men that there’s, unfortunately, a slight problem with the paperwork regarding Lord Vader’s recent shuttle commission that needs to be settled at the earliest convenience?”

“But Mistress,” Esdee yelped. “Such documents are stored in the Chief Engineer’s office!”

“I thought as much,” Padmé said calmly. “Perhaps you could humbly request them to escort you to see those documents? And if they seem reluctant to assist you, you could always drop a subtle hint of not wishing to bother Vader himself with something as trivial at such a late hour. That should be more than enough to motivate them to help you, don’t you think?”

“Why, yes,” Esdee replied. “I certainly do believe that mentioning my Master would indeed… enhance their enthusiasm to cooperate. What would be the next step, Mistress?”

“Let us assume that our engineer friends over there would rather take a break from their task than discuss our imaginary little problem with Vader,” Padmé said, her smile nothing short of sly. “You must, of course, be very thorough with those documents. Thorough enough to give me enough time to get on board, learn the controls and prepare the ship for our hopefully very swift departure.”

Esdee let out an acknowledging beep. “And the third step would be me informing them that there must have been a misunderstanding and that everything seems to be perfectly fine with the documents after all, am I correct?”

Padmé nodded vigorously. “Exactly so,” she said, nervous excitement creeping into her voice. “You may even want to politely apologize for wasting their precious time and inform them that Lord Vader also expects you to perform a proper inspection to his ship to make sure that his instructions have been followed to the letter. I happen to believe that our poor overexerted engineers…“

“…will be quite delighted to hear that I won’t be needing any further assistance and that they can return to their duties?” Esdee finished the sentence, earning yet another vigorous nod from her. “Compared to the average quality and success rate of our plans, I must admit that this particular one sounds rather decent to me. I will see you soon, Mistress.”

Padmé watched from her hiding spot as Esdee clumsily strode across the hangar and approached the two engineers, putting the first part of their plan in motion. At first, she was pleased to see that everything seemed to be going exactly as they had planned, but her moment of triumph was cut short as it turned out that the engineers seemed to believe that they both would not be needed for a droid escort duty. The engineer Esdee had approached first left with the droid, but the other one turned back to the ion engine he had been working with before the interruption.

She chewed her bottom lip as she weighed her rather limited options, soon realizing that her best and probably only chance would be trying to sneak onboard behind the remaining engineer’s back and hope that he would be too focused on his task to notice her.

Deciding not to waste any more time, she tiptoed between the empty containers and other cargo, slowly but steadily approaching the shuttle. She was nothing less than relieved to notice that the ramp was down and that all she had to do was to silently slip in without having to fumble with any unfamiliar controls while trying not to be spotted.

Unfortunately, as soon as she took her first tentative step on the ramp, it gave a loud creak and alerted the engineer, who quickly turned around to seek for the source of the noise. “Hey!” he yelped. “Who the hell are you supposed to be? That’s Lord Vader’s shuttle, you know.”

As much as Padmé disliked the Imperial uniform she had been forced to wear for convenience reasons, she was now glad that there had not been enough time to change back to her own clothes since right now, her uniform was likely the only reason why she was not surrounded by a dozen stormtroopers already.

“Oh,” she blurted out, frantically trying to collect herself and remain as calm as possible. “Oh, my. I’m terribly sorry, there are too many ships down here. I’m looking for mine. It was brought here a few days ago for, uhh, annual maintenance. Could you possibly help me to find it?”

The engineer looked suspicious. “I didn’t quite catch your name, Miss,” he pointed out.

“Ah, yes, where are my manners? Sereena Vox, from the catering,” she said, without blinking an eye. “My sincere apologies. It’s been… a rough couple of days.”

“Right,” the engineer said sourly, crossing his arms over his oil-stained chest. “Why would someone from catering even need a ship at this hour?”

“I have, uhh, been granted permission for a personal leave,” she said, right before deciding that a half-truth would be better than an outright lie. “Family crisis.”

The engineer grunted. “And here I wasn’t even allowed to attend my own father’s funeral.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Surely that was only because your job is so much more important than mine.” She even honeyed her voice up a bit, although never being too fond of using lowly methods such as flattery as a means to achieve her ends. If only there wasn’t so much at stake…

“Damn right it is,” he grumbled sourly, although Padmé was almost certain that she saw a flicker of satisfaction flashing in his eyes. “Anyone can scrub tables and serve those bleak meals, I suppose, but what would you do if they gave you a dead ion engine and two hours tops to fix it, huh?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t have the faintest idea what to do,” she said, feigning confusion. “Maybe you could show me how you professionals do it?”

“Well, I suppose I could. It’s not like my mate is coming back in another few minutes, anyway,” he said, turning his back to her. “Come on then. We can see to your ship right after–“

There it was, the exact moment Padmé had been waiting for. She acted swiftly and without hesitation as she drew her blaster, made a quick check that it was set to stun, and only then pulled the trigger. Imperial or not, she did not wish to hurt an unarmed man any more than it was absolutely necessary.

As the incapacitated man collapsed to the floor, Padmé shoved her gun back to her hip holster. “I’m sorry,” she muttered as she grabbed his feet and dragged him behind nearby fuel barrels, “but I had to do this.”

Estimating that she did not have more than a few minutes before Esdee would return with the other engineer, she rushed into the shuttle to make herself familiar with the cockpit. The controls certainly seemed somewhat different compared to her own Nubian royal starship, but she refused to let such minor differences to dilute her efforts. Starships aren’t essentially that different, she thought, fully aware that people like Anakin, or even Sereena, would vocally disagree with such statement.

But right now, all she needed to do was to figure out how to get the engines running; everything else would have to wait until they were safely out of blaster range. 

“Come on now…” she muttered fervently to herself as she tried only vaguely familiar-looking buttons and switches one by one. “Okay, this one turns on the lights, good to know… but let’s turn them back off for now… What about this one?”

It took a few long minutes for her to become certain enough that she just might be able to take off with the ship and fly out of the hangar before stormtroopers would flood in and shoot them down. Judging by the rattling noise coming from the outside ramp, Esdee had found his way back.

“What did you do to the other engineer?” he moaned, pacing nervously at the hatch. “You surely didn’t… Mistress, I must ask, is he dead?”

“No, I didn’t,” Padmé said calmly. “He’s fine. He’s just taking a well-deserved nap. Would you kindly pull the ramp up and close the hatch?”

Esdee gave a relieved warble. “Thank goodness, we don’t need any more trouble than we already have,” he said as he proceeded to follow her instructions. “For a moment there, I feared that you might have taken a page from my Master’s playbook.”

Padmé pulled the switch that she assumed to launch the engines. It seemed that their luck had not run out just yet, as it turned out that her assumption was correct. The deafening noise coming from the engines drowned out the startled yelps of the remaining engineer. The ship turned out to be surprisingly easy for her to keep steady as she piloted them out of the hangar doors that, fortunately enough, were controlled by motion detectors. She had fully expected having to blast them open with the ship’s guns, which she had yet no idea how to shoot with.

Esdee glanced at the radar. “No Imperial ships following us,” he announced, “yet.”

“Don’t be so pessimistic, my friend.”

As soon as they reached a safe distance from the Imperial palace, Padmé steered the shuttle to nearby skylane and joined the air traffic jam to scrape together some time to make up her mind about being free. Part of her had hoped that as soon as she got out, she would no longer have doubts about leaving, but it turned out that such hopes were in vain. I’m only a hyperspace jump away from seeing Luke and Leia again, she thought, why in the stars I’m still having these doubts?

She glanced sideways at Esdee, who sat beside her on the co-pilot’s seat. “I can’t help but wonder, Esdee, why did you assume that my first choice would have been killing that engineer?” she asked, trying to distract herself from her heart tearing her in two.

“I must have been spending too much time with my Master,” he replied. “We both know his preferred method of… obstacle removal.”

Padmé sighed. “We certainly do”, she said flatly as they got stuck in the traffic. “Unlike him and many others, I don’t cherish taking lives. I’m not saying that I haven’t killed before, no. I have killed, and I’ll do it again if I have to, but I’ve never enjoyed it. I’ve seen too many good people become numb to the constant death and violence as it is. It happened all the time throughout the Clone Wars, even to the best of us. The Senate, even the Jedi… We all had committed our lives to serve the Republic, but as the war dragged on, we apparently forgot that our first duty was to the people of the Republic, not to the Supreme Chancellor and his whims. Oh, Esdee, it was us who allowed people to become numbers to be treated as mere resources to be distributed to our mindless war effort against the Separatists. It was us who accepted using a clone army, of all things, without blinking an eye.”

She pulled the air brake lever a little too hard, causing Esdee bump face-first into the dashboard and nearly fall off his seat. “I used to wonder why more people didn’t protest against the Empire,” she sighed, losing herself in her regretful thoughts for a moment. “It was before I realized that for the majority, nothing had changed. Palpatine capitalized on our mistake to raise an entire generation that knew nothing but war and sacrifice. What there was for them to protest–”

It was only then that she became aware that Esdee was obviously having a problem. Judging by the metallic clinking, even some of his parts had gotten loose. “Ouch,” he moaned. “I think I lost something.”

“Oh – I’m sorry, Esdee,” she hurried to apologize. “I’m still learning the controls. Did you hurt yourself badly?”

“It’s rather difficult to tell…” the droid complained as he clumsily crouched to pick up his missing parts. “Only a couple bolts, it seems, and… Oh, what’s this supposed to be? I don’t recognize this! Why do I have this?”

Padmé frowned, glancing sideways at him. “What?” she asked, sounding concerned. “What did you find?”

The droid handed her a tiny device. Her heart skipped a beat as she immediately recognized what it was. Rebel spies used similar listening devices to eavesdrop private conversations by hiding them in places where no one would find them, if not by coincidence.

She did not need to guess twice who might have slipped such a device inside Esdee. “Sereena…” she muttered furiously. “She’s been listening to us for stars know how long–“

It was then that the devastating realization hit her. Esdee had been there, right behind the glass Vader had shattered down during her confession. “She knows everything,” she whispered, sense of dread creeping into her stomach and twisting her insides into knots. “She knows about the twins… and Alderaan.”

“Oh dear.”

“How… how did this even happen?” Padmé cried out, veering the ship off the skylane and slowing down the speed in fear of crashing into something in her growing panic. “I can’t believe that Vader didn’t run any checks on you upon your return!”

“I assure you that I did request for a maintenance check, I most definitely did,” Esdee hurried to say, “but my Master was very, very determined to send me to secure our means to escape first. Your means to escape, to be more specific. You must understand, Mistress. You know his very nature, don’t you? Oh, he can be so stubborn! When he’s made a decision…”

“…nothing and no one can change his mind,” Padmé finished his sentence for him, letting out a heavy sigh. “Trust me, I know.”

She took a deep breath, accelerated and made a sharp U-turn in the air, although at least this time around, Esdee had braced himself for her less than elegant maneuvers. “Well, that settles it then,” she stated. “We’re going back.”

“But Mistress!” Esdee exclaimed, gripping the armrests as if his life was depending on it. “We should already be halfway to Alderaan by now!”


“You must realize that this is madness!” he yelped. “Madness!”

“Yes, Esdee," she said flatly. "I'm aware."

“And here I thought my Master was the reckless one of you two,” he grumbled, giving a defeated warble. “It turns out that I was wrong about him – you’re even worse!”

“I know."

If the Emperor had no need for his services, Vader seldom left the solitude of his tower whenever he happened to be on Coruscant. He never went down to the courtyard gardens, the one time he had decided to show its hidden beauty to Padmé being the sole exception – until now. He was uncertain of what had brought him there, of all places, but his intuition told him that there was a reason for him to be there tonight.

He had expected the mere thought of Padmé burning what little was left of his heart to ashes, but instead, he felt relief. Padmé and the children were no longer in immediate danger, and all that was left for him was to defeat the Emperor or perhaps simply keep him occupied as long as he could, to give his family more time to find a safe haven.

Nothing else mattered to him. Whatever was going to happen to him, he was willing to accept it with serenity he had not felt since being still a mere Padawan learner. There is no emotion, he caught himself reciting the old Jedi tenets he had once sworn to erase from history, there is peace.

After a decade of darkness and despair, he had found his peace.

And he had no regrets.

Perhaps he would never meet his children, his own blood and flesh, in person. If he died here tonight, they would in time come to know him only as a monster history would never forget or forgive. His legacy would become heavy to bear, but perhaps he could still do this one thing right in his life and give his children a galaxy free of the terrors of the Sith as his last, and only, gift to them.

He would do that, or die trying.

It was then that he felt an ominous presence closing in on him. The artificial waterfall cascaded over the rocky outcrops and drowned out the sound of approaching footsteps, but he could still feel the suffocating darkness in the Force.

“Good evening, Lord Vader.” Vader could hear the glee dripping off the Emperor’s voice. “What an unexpected coincidence.”

Of course, there was nothing unexpected or coincidental in their late meeting, and they both knew it.

What was quite unexpected was that the Emperor had not come alone. A hooded figure emerged from the shadows behind him, keeping at a respectable – or cowardly – distance. Her hood could not hide the smug smile creeping over her face.

“Yes… I can feel your anger,” the Emperor said, briefly closing his eyes as he reveled in his apprentice’s misery. “You wish to strike her down. You wish to ignite your lightsaber and run her through right here and now, don’t you?”

Vader chose to not waste his strength by trying to hide his feelings from the Emperor. “What is she doing here?” he asked instead.

“Such impatience. This exemplary young Imperial citizen is here tonight as my personal guest,” the Emperor said, glancing at Sereena over his shoulder and gesturing her to come closer. “You, Lord Vader, are strong in the Force, perhaps even unnaturally so. You must be wondering why her attempts to evade your detection have been so successful.”

Chapter Text

“Please, Mistress, be reasonable!” Esdee moaned as the ominous silhouette of the Imperial Palace emerged before their eyes once again. “Every stormtrooper within the district will know by now that we’re flying a stolen ship. They will shoot us down at sight!”

Instead of paying heed to the droid’s words, Padmé kept her eyes fixed on the viewport. “Would you be so kind and turn off the lights, please?”

“Turning off the lights won’t help, they will still hear us coming,” Esdee insisted. “Any attempt to land will only get us both killed, and I, for one, would strongly prefer not getting killed tonight.”

“So, it’s a good thing that we won’t be landing, isn’t it?” Padmé said with calmness she did not feel, as her fear for Luke and Leia – and for Vader, too – made her blood run cold. “And we won’t be staying around for long. Now, I need you to step in and take over the controls. Drop me off on Vader’s balcony and hide the ship, but keep the engines running.”

“What?” Esdee exclaimed. “Where I’m supposed to–?”

“You’re a clever one, Esdee. I’m sure you’ll come up with something. All you need to do is find a sufficient spot for hiding and stand by. I’ll go get Vader,” Padmé said. Although she had justified her decision to turn back with the necessity of warning him about Sereena, she imagined that she could just as well try and convince him to postpone his plans and leave the palace with her. “I can’t let him do this, I–I have to talk him out of it, I just have to.” I can’t lose him again, not like this.

“Why do I get this feeling that talking him out of anything might be easier said than done?” Esdee grumbled, even though he knew better than to object further.

Padmé unfastened her safety belt as they approached Vader’s tower. “I’ll let you know when we’re ready for pickup. You can keep the ship airborne for a while, can you?”

“Well, to be completely honest with you, Mistress, I’ve never flown a ship before,” Esdee admitted. “As you are probably already aware, my Master prefers to fly himself, but I do believe the basic skill set is included in my programming. I should indeed be able to keep the ship from crashing into anything. For a while. Short while. If that’s absolutely necessary, I mean.”

Padmé grimaced but withheld comment. “That will have to do,” she concluded as she realized that she was running out of time to argue further. For all she knew, Vader could already have gone to confront the Emperor.

For all she knew, he could already be dead by now.

And then there was the matter of Sereena. Padmé could not tell what Sereena’s ulterior motives might have been, aside from getting her long-awaited revenge on Vader, but she had to admit that whatever the girl wanted, she now had quite a bargaining chip in her sleeve. The Emperor can’t find out about the twins, she thought as she sprang from her seat, I have to stop her.

She rushed to the hatch and popped it open. “Keep the ship as steady as you can,” she instructed over her shoulder, “I’ll bring your Master back in one piece, I promise.”

“Good luck, Mistress.”

Padmé took a deep breath and jumped off the ship, dropping to the balcony in a crouch. Since Esdee had left the tower with her, there had been no one left to clean up the broken glass Vader had shattered down before the nightfall. She cautiously tiptoed through the thousands and thousands of shards and slivers of dimmed glass and entered the tower.

“Anakin? Are you still in here?” she hollered into the darkness of the unlit tower, her heart thrumming in her chest. “Please tell me you’re still around!”

But there was no response. Reluctant to accept that she had come too late and that Vader was already gone, Padmé searched through every room and cabinet she had access to – and slammed her fist against every door she could not pry open, frantically screaming his name while fumbling with the controls – but it was no use. The tower was abandoned. “Anakin, please,” she whispered into the void, her voice cracking into a desperate sob.

For a moment there, she did not know what to do. Had there not been so much at stake, she would have been more than tempted to give in to her urge to collapse to the floor and weep her heart out. The palace might as well have been an enormous maze, and it was crawling with stormtroopers. How in the stars was she ever supposed to find Vader and talk some sense into him before getting caught? It sounded nothing short of impossible.

But she had to try.

Down in the forsaken gardens, Vader chose to remain silent. Although he was all too aware of his inability to hide his true feelings from the Emperor, he refused to amuse his deceitful Master further with openly expressing his confusion. Had he overlooked the possibility of a conspiracy against him or not, he still doubted that the Emperor and that wretched girl could have been working together from the start. It made no sense to him.

Vader figured that if the Emperor would have truly wanted him dead, he would never have risked the success of such a coup by trusting the task to this untrained, undisciplined girl and a bunch of lousy mercenaries. Similarly, if the Emperor would have desired to snatch Padmé away from him without implicating himself, there would have been countless more reliable ways to abduct her than letting this girl to trick her into one of her flimsy traps.

It was then that he noticed that Sereena looked just as confused as he felt, and so his suspicions were confirmed. It was not her loyalty the Emperor wanted, but something entirely else. It became obvious to him that his Master had merely been using her, but to what end, he could not yet say.

The Emperor seemed to have taken notice of her perplexed expression as well. “Yes, my young friend,” he murmured, dark amusement creeping into his voice. “It was I who shrouded you in shadows and thus allowed you to avoid Lord Vader’s and his Inquisitors’ attention. Without my interference, I’m afraid you would have perished the night you first arrived on Coruscant. It was I who fed your false confidence in your feeble powers and encouraged your dabbling in your rather juvenile enthusiasm for personal revenge. Your attempts for Lord Vader’s life were crude, almost concerningly so, but fortunately”–a malicious smile cracked his disfigured face as he briefly shifted his attention to Vader–“my apprentice here was too… preoccupied to remain mindful of his surroundings.”

Sereena’s mouth hanged open as she twitched nervously under the Emperor’s tainted gaze. “I–I don’t understand, Your Highness,” she stammered, taking a half step back as if there had been anywhere to run in the first place. “Why would you p-protect me?”

Still remaining silent, Vader inclined his head towards the Emperor and leered at him with scornful curiosity. He had spent most of the last decade scouring the galaxy to hunt down and slaughter rogue Force-users at the behest of his Master, only to discover now that said Master had gone out of his way to conceal this pathetic excuse for a Sith from him – but why?

“The very night you arrived, I foresaw that you, a mere child from some backwater planet, of all things, would eventually have a hand in securing the future of my Empire.” The Emperor’s tone was lazy and uninterested, almost as if he was bored. “In what way, I could not determine precisely, not until you came to me tonight. In the meantime, it was crucial to my plans to keep Lord Vader off your trail long enough to grant you time and resources to fulfill your destiny.”

The Emperor’s face lit up with fiendish glee. “Show him,” he urged. “Show Lord Vader what you showed me.”

Sereena, who seemed to have recovered from discovering that it had been the Emperor who had orchestrated all her recent accomplishments, flashed a vindictive grin at Vader. She fished a holoprojector device from the folds of her cloak and snapped it open.

A flickering image of Vader and Padmé appeared above the device.

Vader swallowed the lump forming in his throat as he tried to push back the storm raging inside his mind. He did not need to see or hear more to be able to figure out what had happened and how it had happened. Sereena knew everything, and so did the Emperor – and it was all because of him. In his desperate attempt to save Padmé from the Emperor’s wrath, he had brought doom upon his own children.   

They’re on Alderaan,” Padmé’s recorded voice announced, leaving no room for misinterpretation. “You remember Bail Organa, my friend and colleague from the Senate? He and his wife kindly agreed to take care of the children for me.

Vader clenched his teeth and breathed heavily through his mask as white-hot rage began to boil beneath his fire-ravaged skin. His gloved fingers tightened instinctively around the hilt of his lightsaber.

He should have killed that girl when he had the chance. He could still kill her. All he needed to do was ignite his lightsaber and run it through her chest...

The Emperor briefly closed his eyes as he savored the moment. “Yes… I can feel your anger,” he murmured as the image in front of them vanished. “This is a glorious day for our Empire, my friend. Anakin Skywalker’s offspring alive and well... Who could have anticipated that those fools of the Rebels would turn out to be more successful at hiding their secrets than my own apprentice?”

“You knew,” Vader said flatly. “The disturbance you told me about, it was but a mere test. This entire time, you were aware of Padmé’s presence in the palace.”

The Emperor chuckled darkly. “Yes... It was most disappointing that you chose to deny me the delight of greeting Miss Amidala in person, but I assure you, there will be another chance for a proper audience… perhaps even sooner than you might anticipate, my apprentice.”

Vader tensed at the Emperor’s words. “I shall not be denied what belongs to me,” he snarled from between his gritted teeth. “Do not ask that of me, my Master.”

The Emperor placed his bony hand on Vader’s forearm in a paternal manner. “I sense that, in your anger, you have completely misunderstood my intentions,” he said. “Allow me to enlighten you, Lord Vader. You shall have your precious family. Bring your children to me, and we shall end this tiring charade of hiding and secrecy together. As honored guests of our Empire, your wife and children will find themselves showered in privileges and luxuries they never knew existed. They shall be given their private quarters and a cadre of hand-picked bodyguards. They will be safe, I assure you, even during your absence… and they will be yours. With our powers combined, who would dare to dream of tearing them away from you? Is that not what your heart desires, my old friend?”

Try as he might to keep his mind focused and keep the Emperor from dripping venom into his heart, Vader could not help but become allured by his Master’s tactfully chosen, yet treacherous words. Even though he knew that the Emperor’s power over him only grew stronger by each passing moment of self-doubt and indecision, he found himself reluctant to simply dismiss such a gracious offer.

All he wanted was to be with his family, and the Emperor knew it.   

“In due time, we shall introduce the young Skywalkers to the ways of the Force and train them together,” the Emperor added, his tone almost endearingly soft.

But the Emperor was not to be trusted, and Vader knew this. There were hidden meanings behind each of his poison-laced promises. Private quarters and bodyguards, for example, were nothing but more embellished words for prison cell and its guards to keep his family locked up tightly. The Emperor would undoubtedly intend to turn his family into leverage to ensure his further obedience and extinguish any thoughts of betrayal.

“You once convinced me that I had killed my wife,” Vader snarled. “You lied to me back then. Why should I listen to more of your lies now?”

The Emperor clicked his tongue in disapproval. “Your eagerness to forget that it was I who rescued you and brought you back from the brink of certain death does you no credit, my apprentice,” he chided. “It was not I who betrayed your trust, but the Jedi. They were unexpectedly wise to separate your wife and children from each other and hide them from us. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kenobi had his hand in devising such a plan. Perhaps your concerns in regards to his intentions towards your beautiful wife weren’t misplaced, after all…”

Vader tensed as the mention of his old Master’s name sent a surge of anger and jealousy through him. He clamped his eyes shut and gritted his teeth as dark visions of Padmé and Obi-Wan entangled in each other’s arms drifted across his mind, obviously planted there by his current Master. This is not real, he assured himself, struggling to shake off the dark influence from his mind. Her feelings for me were genuine, I felt it. This is but another of Sidious’s tricks.

“Had I been aware of her survival, I assure you that I would have done everything in my power to reunite you with your beloved wife,” the Emperor continued. “As a token of my goodwill, I will give you a fleet and send you to Alderaan with my mandate to obtain your prize by any means necessary, but before your departure, there is yet one more matter for us to settle.”

It was then that Sereena chimed in. “What about me, Your Highness? You made me a promise,” she said earnestly. “Will you now take me as your apprentice and teach me the ways of the Sith?”

The Emperor inclined his head slowly towards her as if he had forgotten about her presence, which, of course, was not the truth, and Vader knew it. “Yes… I made you a promise of teaching you a valuable lesson,” he said. “It has recently come to my attention that you once considered my previous apprentice your Master. I presume you are already aware of his fate, aren’t you?”

Sereena glanced icily at Vader. “That abomination murdered him in cold blood,” she hissed.

The Emperor shot an emotionless look at Vader. “That is correct,” he said, turning back to Sereena. “Can you guess what made him commit such a cruel deed and slaughter an unarmed man?”

Sereena did not seem to understand that she was about to be betrayed, but Vader had seen this happening too many times before not to recognize the pattern.

“Because he’s a monster,” Sereena said, her voice cracking, “and that’s what monsters do.”

“Perhaps he indeed is a monster,” the Emperor said, “but even monsters can be tamed. Even monsters can be taught obedience. It was I who gave him the order. Perhaps you can tell me why Tyranus – Dooku, as you might have known him – had to die?”

Sereena’s amber eyes widened in shock and disbelief. “What?” she blurted out, her trembling fingers clutching around the curved hilt of her lightsaber. “I–I don’t understand…”

Vader recognized the weapon’s unusual design immediately. It had once belonged to Dooku.

The Emperor cackled drily. “To become true Sith, you must understand that there can be only two, a master and an apprentice. In his pride, Tyranus always expressed reluctance to submit to the principles of the Sith,” he explained. “He fancied the idea of expanding his false influence by luring young fools, such as yourself, with mediocre abilities to do his bidding and, for a time, I allowed him his playthings. Of course, and much to his misfortune, his usefulness eventually came to its end… and I’m afraid that so has yours, my young friend.”

Sereena winced under the Emperor’s malicious gaze. “Your Highness?” Her voice was shrill. “B-but your promise… I brought you proof of Vader’s betrayal! Why not get rid of him and take me as your new apprentice?”

The Emperor gave her an evaluating look. “Very well, if you insist,” he said. “Perhaps you have, indeed, earned your chance to prove your worth... Kill Lord Vader, and I shall gladly make you my apprentice.”  

Of course, both Vader and the Emperor knew that Sereena would never succeed in carrying out such a task, and judging by the shivering of her shoulders and the panicked expression cracking her freckled face, she knew it too.

The Emperor gestured Vader to step forward. “Kill her,” he said nonchalantly as if he was talking about the weather. “Unless you wish to see her suffer, I suggest you make haste. There are matters of greater importance for us to attend to, my apprentice.”

Vader ignited his lightsaber but made no move against her yet. This is no duel, he thought as he stared down at the trembling girl cowering under his shadow, but a slaughter. Dooku himself might have been a masterful duelist, but whatever little he had managed to teach to this girl before his untimely demise, it obviously had very little to do with the art of lightsaber combat. Vader noticed that she barely even knew how to properly hold her weapon, and describing her fighting stance as unrefined would have been the overstatement of the century.

Breaking effortlessly through Sereena’s pathetic attempt to parry, he disarmed her with one solid swing of his lightsaber. She dropped to her knees, her glassy eyes staring up at him in fear, waiting for him to finish what he had started. Vader did not know what he had expected, perhaps a witty remark or another insult, but there was none to be heard.

All he needed to do was run her through with his lightsaber – or perhaps decapitate her, as he had once done with Count Dooku – and be done with it. He had wanted to kill her for so long, submitting to his anger now would have been so easy, and yet something held him back.

His hesitation did not go unnoticed by the Emperor. “Kill her now,” he urged. “Do it.”

It was then that Vader realized that if he now succumbed to his anger and his overwhelming desire for revenge, he would never be able to escape the trap of the dark side and become the father and husband his family deserved, and that was exactly what the Emperor was counting on.

He lowered his lightsaber and allowed Sereena to rise. “Perhaps the Force is with you tonight, after all,” he growled. “If our paths are to cross again, you will die.”

Sereena did not hesitate to snatch her lightsaber from the dirt and disappear into the shadows of the overgrown garden, but Vader could not have cared less, as his attention had already drifted back to the Emperor. “You were right, my Master,” Vader said, pointing his lightsaber at the Emperor. “There are matters of greater importance to be taken care of.”

The Emperor’s amused expression did not give away whether he was surprised by Vader’s disobedience or not. “A short-sighted choice, even from you,” he murmured. There was a hint of gloat in his tone as if he knew something Vader did not. “Do enlighten me, my apprentice, what ignited such a change of heart?”

“Her fate does not concern me. It is you who must die by my hand tonight, my Master,” Vader said, his tone full of spite, as he lunged forward, putting all his strength behind a devastating blow. “I should have killed you a long time ago.”

“Ah, I see now that your foolish infatuation with Miss Amidala has deceived you into believing that you can redeem yourself and become a Jedi once more,” the Emperor said mockingly as he rather effortlessly evaded the attack.

With a wave of his hands, the Emperor sent a barrage of lightning at Vader, who proceeded to deflect the assault with his lightsaber, despite the immense effort it required.

Little did Vader know that Padmé had just entered the garden, looking for him.

Chapter Text

Both hands clutching her blaster, no longer set on stun, Padmé sprinted through the doorway and stepped into the darkness of the secluded courtyard, barely even noticing that the ray shield that separated the garden from Vader’s tower had already been disabled. He must’ve gone through here, she thought, a flicker of hope igniting inside her. I must hurry.

Despite the churning fear in the pit of her stomach, she no longer bothered with treading silently and staying out of sight. Dead leaves rustled and twigs crunched loudly under her feet, and yet her desperate need to reach Vader before he could do anything irrevocable outweighed every single rational thought in her mind. She knew that she was too close to reunite her family once and for all to even consider the possibility of giving Luke and Leia anything less than that. It did not matter if she had to fight entire battalions of stormtroopers or even Palpatine himself with her bare hands; she was determined to overcome every obstacle on her path if that was what it took to find Vader and stop him from making this terrible mistake.

But how can I find him, she asked herself, if I can’t even find my way through this damned garden? Even in broad daylight, navigating in the overgrown garden had been relatively tricky, but now, in the middle of the night, it seemed nothing short of impossible. Squinting and blinking her eyes to adjust to the lack of light, she started looking for any signs of recent visitors or other visible anomalies. The stonework path she remembered from her prior visits had apparently overgrown with weeds some time ago, but after a few minutes of frantic searching her attention was drawn to patches of trampled undergrowth she assumed was caused by heavy footsteps. 

She then proceeded to follow the trail deeper into the forested garden. Her heart sank as her eyes caught a brief flash of crimson somewhere between the trees. It was gone in a blink of an eye, but she could have sworn that it came from a lightsaber. Despite her sudden urge to run headlong into the direction she had seen it, she forced herself to stop and listen. She held her breath, and for a few seconds, the only sounds breaking the ominous silence were the thrumming of her heart and the wind whistling through the Tchuspera bushes nearby.

But then she heard the slow, predatory footsteps creeping closer through the rotting leaves and turning the blood in her veins into ice.

Her knuckles were already turning white from gripping her blaster. “Who’s there?” Her tone was cautious. “Show yourself!”

At first, all she could hear was the indistinct rustling of leaves a few meters away from her spot, but it was swiftly followed by the unmistakable hum of an igniting lightsaber… and tongue clicking. “As you wish, though you could’ve asked a bit nicer!” said the all too familiar voice. “Where are your manners, Senator?”

The sudden red brightness revealed Sereena being the stalker in the dark, but she certainly looked different than Padmé remembered her. Sereena’s words might have been spoken in a mockingly lighthearted tone, but her facial expression was lacking its distinctive mischievousness. Upon noticing her swollen eyelids, broken blood vessels and blotchy cheeks, Padmé could not help but ask herself if Sereena had been crying.

But what little sympathy she might have had for her former friend was rapidly smothered by the sting of betrayal she felt. “Don’t tell me you did what I think you did,” she said, her tone half desperate, half furious. “Don’t tell me you involved the Emperor in this. They’re just children, Sereena. They’re innocent.”

Swaying slightly in place, Sereena burst into hysterical laughter that sounded strangely like a sob. “No one’s innocent, least of all those brats of yours. I don’t care how hideous Vader looks behind his mask,” she said, her tone unusually shrill, “I just wish I could’ve seen his face when he realized that he and his spawn are doomed. Don’t you see, Padmé – he’s a monster. Vader’s a monster. A walking nightmare. An abomination to the Force. He shouldn’t even exist! I couldn’t kill him, but let me assure you, he’s going to die soon enough. Maybe they even each other, he and the Emperor. Oh, yes, that’d be something! I–I hope they will. They’re both monsters. Monsters and traitors! They deserve each other, don’t you think?”

Padmé gritted her teeth, fighting the urge to pull the trigger. Whatever had happened between the three Sith, she could only assume that it had not gone according to Sereena’s plans. She reminded herself that it would be better to get to the bottom of the situation first, before making any rash decisions.

“You made a mistake by putting your faith in the Emperor,” she said with more calm than she felt. “I don’t know what he promised to you to coerce you into cooperation, but it’s safe to assume that he never intended to keep his end of the bargain. He never does. You’re not the first one he’s deceived over the years, but if we work together—“

“No!” Sereena shrieked, brandishing her lightsaber in a dangerous looking manner. “It’s over! There’s no ifs or buts or any other loopholes left to change any of this. No other options. I’m done, and so are you. There’s no light left in this blasted galaxy. No hope. But it wasn’t always like this. Before I kill you… you must know… I wasn’t always like this.”

“I’m not going to let you kill me, Sereena,” Padmé said. Her voice softened a notch, as though she was explaining something to a particularly petulant child, though she did not lower her gun. “There’s always other options aside from heedless violence. There’s no need for us to be enemies. Let go of your hatred and help me fix this, and I’ll forgive you for lying to me and endangering my children. You can always start over, Sereena, somewhere far away from here. Or you can even come with us. Just tell me what you were after; what made you join forces with the Emperor in the first place, and I’ll help you find an alternative way, I promise.”

“If Vader survives the Emperor, he’s going to kill me,” Sereena scoffed. “He said it himself. Pardon me if I’m not too thrilled about sticking my neck out for your, or his, sake.”

“I convinced him not to hurt you before,” Padmé pointed out. “I can convince him again. I promise he won’t harm you. I just need you to talk to me, Sereena. Help me understand why you did all these terrible things. I know, Sereena, I know that I never knew the real you, but if that bubbly and enthusiastic, spacecraft-loving girl ever truly existed, I refuse to believe she would’ve gone this far without a good reason.”

“Stop pretending that you could ever understand me or my choices! You were a damned queen in your homeworld! Your family must’ve been rich enough to shower you in credits. They must’ve loved you so very dearly! How could you possibly know what it was like to be born to parents who never wanted you,” Sereena cried out, her shoulders trembling uncontrollably. “My good-for-nothing mother drunk what little money my father managed to scrape together to keep us from being sold to slavery. I was five years old when he took this big off-planet job and promised to return with enough money to get us all out of that desolated hellhole… He never came back.”

Padmé frowned. “Am I to assume that the story of your father being an Imperial pilot was simply another of your lies?” she asked insipidly. “Was there ever any truth in anything you told me about your past?”

“I didn’t lie to you about my father!” Sereena retorted. “He indeed became a TIE fighter pilot, but not until much later. I’ll get to that if you only let me finish. So… weeks turned into months, and months turned into years, and I waited and waited for his return. Every morning, before sunrise, I went all way to the local spaceport to ask about that rusty old cargo ship that had taken my father away. I only stopped going there after my mother finally found out and beat me up for wasting the time I could’ve spent earning her drinking money. She was always a nasty piece of work, my mother, but it only got worse after it turned out that I had the Force. We hadn’t the faintest idea what it all meant or what it was even called. My mother thought I was sick, but no healer in our miserable little mining town could tell what was wrong with me. They didn’t know the Force. There were no Force users around to explain, let alone teach me how to use it. All I knew was that sometimes I could convince the greediest fruit vendor in the marketplace to give us a better price for desert plums and make small things float in the air, but other times… I couldn’t. It made my mother furious. In her eyes, there was only one thing worse than her only child being a freak: her only child being a useless freak.”

Padmé could not help but be a little skeptical. “You were a little girl. A child,” she said. “How did you get away?”

“A few years later it occurred to me that I didn’t want to live all my life like that,” Sereena said. “If I was lucky, my lovely mother only beat me every other day, but unlike you, I wasn’t born under a lucky star. One night, I waited until my mother passed out from drinking, as she always did, and took my chance to run away. I went all the way back to the spaceport I had avoided for years and found out that there was another ship, loaded with precious cargo – yes, slaves, you guessed it – about to depart. Despite not knowing where it was heading, I used the Force to persuade the captain into letting me on board.”

Padmé pursed her lips in disapproval but withheld comment. It had never been much of a secret that the Separatists had used slave labor. Resorting to slavery was just one of the many atrocities they had committed over the years under Count Dooku’s vicious command. “And that’s how you ended up on Serenno?”

Sereena nodded. “Pretty much, yeah,” she admitted. ”When I got there, I had no money, not a single credit on me. I figured out that I needed a job, a change of clothes and preferably a roof over my head. One of the local food vendors I attempted to trick into giving me free samples pitied me enough to not alert the guards. Instead, she gave me a ration bar and sent me off to Dooku’s castle, as she had heard that he was hiring new servants. Well, it turned out that the Serennians weren’t as thrilled about using child labor as my old homeworld had been. They would’ve turned me away at the doors if it wasn’t for the Count himself. Back then, I didn’t know what the word ‘count’ even meant, as my homeworld was ruled by crime syndicates instead of nobility, but when I saw him there, ah-so-gracefully descending the stairs and approaching me, an unclean child in ragged clothes, with that piercing look in his eyes, I just knew that he had to be the most powerful being I had ever seen; perhaps the most powerful being in the entire galaxy. His presence in the Force was so strong… so vibrant… I had never felt anything like that in my life. He dismissed his entire staff with a single effortless wave of his hand and gestured me to follow. No words were needed, when there was the Force.”

Padmé raised a brow in disbelief. “He made you his apprentice just like that?” she asked. “I find that rather difficult to believe.”

“No, he didn’t,” Sereena corrected. “In fact, he wasn’t around too much, as he was often gone with his other apprentices. I never met any of them, but I had figured there were at least a few others over the years. Too young for fighting wars, I was left with his house servants, except for occasional lessons every now and then. At first, he explained to me that the Force wasn’t an illness, as my mother had believed, but a gift. He gave me small tasks to improve my skills during his absence, but that was pretty much it. It didn’t matter much to me, not at that time. His people treated me well, and for the first time in my life, there was a place for me to call home. No one in the castle beat me or yelled at me. I had a good life”—she winced and let out a weak sob as if the memory caused her pain—”and then the Jedi and your precious Republic just had to ruin everything. A few days before the Clone Wars broke out, he took me with him to oversee one of his droid factories on Geonosis. I had never seen a battle droid before, and suddenly there were thousands and thousands of those damned machines marching in precisely straight lines before my eyes. I sometimes still hear their clanking before drifting off to sleep. Clunk – clunk – clunk. It was then that I realized that my life was on a brink of change and that there was no way for me to stay in control of my future. Clunk – clunk – clunk. Standing there on the balcony and watching entire battalions of battle droids marching by made me remember what it was like to be afraid, and I hated it. Geonosis. The bugs. Those damned droids. I hated all of it. My Master had no sympathy for my distress, not that I expected any, and instead of words of comfort and reassurance, he gave me a promise.”

“What promise?”

Sereena let out a long, whimpering sigh. “He promised me that the war would be over soon,” she said, “and that my formal training would begin right after there would be nothing left of the Republic but smoldering ruins. He gave me no other instructions but to nurture my hatred until his return.”

“But the war never ended, not in his lifetime…” Padmé muttered. “Little did he know that Palpatine had never intended him to see the end of the Clone Wars.”

It was then that the devastating realization hit her. If only she had been honest with Sereena from the start and told her who she truly was, Sereena just might have returned her honesty, and perhaps this catastrophe could have been prevented from happening.

Anakin had once told her all about the events that had led to Dooku’s death. In retrospect, it was obvious that Palpatine had always intended Anakin to kill Dooku and eventually assume his position as the future Emperor’s sole apprentice. If I had told Sereena the truth to begin with, she thought to herself, biting her lower lip in agony, maybe she’d never have trusted Palpatine.

“Sereena, I–I'm so sorry, I didn’t realize,” she hurried to say. “I should’ve trusted you… been honest with you... None of this needed to happen.”

But her words clearly did not reach Sereena, who stared off into the distance behind Padmé, who in turn could not help but fear that Sereena was already dangerously near to her breaking point. What would happen if she lost her mind, Padmé was not too keen to find out.

“Just like my father, my Master never came back from the war,” Sereena continued absentmindedly, still slightly swaying in place. “Serenno was hurled into chaos, but the nobility only cared about bickering over who should take the throne instead of taking care of people’s needs, but none of that mattered to me, not anymore. Serenno was the only home I had ever known, but my life there was over. You see, I had never been anything but a burden to my mother. I didn’t want to become a burden to the house servants too. They had become like a family to me. A real family. They took care of me after my Master’s death. ‘This is your home, Sereena’, they said. ‘But of course, you don’t have to leave’, they said. I knew I should’ve left – I knew it, damn it! They cared about me! I should’ve left before the Inquisitors came. I could’ve saved them!”

“The Inquisitors?” Padmé asked with a confused look. “Who–?”

“Brutes and bloodhounds, that’s who they are!” Sereena said furiously, visibly tensing at the memory. “Their only purpose is to hunt down and kill any remaining Jedi. I was no Jedi, but they didn’t care. I hated the Jedi for murdering my Master, but they didn’t care! They claimed I was a threat and demanded Dooku’s servants to hand me over, but the servants… they refused. They wanted to protect me and buy me some time to escape. I never asked them to sacrifice themselves for me, I never wanted any of that to happen! I was hiding in my Master’s quarters, powerless to do anything but listen to their helpless screams as they were slaughtered… in Darth Vader’s name. They were unarmed, untrained to combat, but did the Inquisitors care for that, either? No. They weren’t trained to care, but to kill mercilessly and with no remorse. That must sound rather familiar to you, yeah?”

Padmé grimaced at Sereena’s words as she finally understood why it had been so crucial for Obi-Wan and Yoda to disappear. If they had stayed, their presence would only have brought misery on everyone around them. “Yes,” she said, hanging her head. “It does.”

“I sliced open one of my Master’s strongboxes and took its contents, a handsome sum of credits and one of his spare lightsabers, and ran for my life,” Sereena recalled, her voice uneven and wavering. “I stole a landspeeder, rushed to the spaceport and hid in the cargo hold of a freighter that was just about to leave for Coruscant. I expected I could lose my pursuers and disappear into the crowd there. What I didn’t expect was to stumble across my father. One night, I was scavenging the lower levels for food and shelter, and then, all of a sudden, I sensed his presence nearby. At first, I didn’t believe it. Hell, I didn’t even want to believe it! He was supposed to be dead, I thought. If he wasn’t dead, why hadn’t he come back all those years ago? But the Force doesn’t lie, Padmé. He was alive, and he was there.”

Padmé shot her a surprised look. “What in the stars had brought him on Coruscant?”

Sereena made a dismissive gesture with her hand. “Oh, you know. The usual,” she said, her voice mockingly nonchalant. “During his assignment, he had met somebody younger and more beautiful than my mother. Much nicer, too. Can’t really blame him, can I?“—she burst into maniacal laughter—“I loved him, I hoped for his return for years, I went back to that stupid little spaceport every single day, and for what? To find out a decade later that he never even cared! That he had a new life. A nice, cozy little life. A pretty wife. A very decent job in the Imperial Navy. Not that I was going to let him get away with it. Oh, no.”

“What did you do?” Padmé asked, already dreading what the answer might be.

“I did exactly what my Master had told me to do,” Sereena replied. “I nurtured my hatred. I wanted to kill my father for abandoning me. I could’ve killed him, but, see, he was too useful to get rid of just yet. So, I pretended to be grateful when he let me stay with him and his wife. I became close with his new wife, even agreed to call her mother. It was sickening, but that nasty little family thief, she loved it. She was only a few years older than me, and already pregnant. Such a lovely lady she was, but unfortunately, it was due time for my dear father to learn that actions had consequences.”

Padmé inhaled sharply. “You killed a pregnant woman,” she said flatly. Part of her did not want to believe what she was hearing, but another part could not have been less surprised, not at this point. “Only to break your father’s heart.”

“With nerve toxin, yes”, Sereena admitted. Her tone held no remorse. “One of my earlier formulas. I planned it for months, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. It was all too easy to make it look like an accident. Daddy dearest was devastated, but I was there for him, pretending to be that loving, forgiving daughter. All because I still needed the place to stay to start my search for my Master’s murderer. Father’s Imperial contacts turned out to be very helpful in my little project. As soon as I found out that my Master was killed by an allegedly dead Jedi, I no longer needed my father alive. It was time to reunite him with his beloved family.”

“You told me he died in a starfighter crash.”

Sereena giggled hysterically. “Oh, but he did die in a starfighter crash,” she said. “I didn’t lie about that, just left out the part where I tinkered with his TIE fighter’s engines the night before the ah-so-unfortunate accident that left me orphan.”

It all seemed to tie in together seamlessly. It was Dooku’s money Sereena had used to hire Boba Fett to lure Vader into a trap, and she had known her way around toxicants and spacecraft sabotage because she had studied those particular methods to kill her enemies before.

And she was no stranger to pretending to be someone she was not to get what she wanted, either. Padmé needed no further proof to be assured that this time Sereena was telling the truth. “But none of this explains why you sought for the Emperor’s help,” she pointed out.

“Well, according to my sources, the murderer, Anakin Skywalker, was supposed to be already dead,” Sereena said. “So, I thought I no longer needed to find and kill him myself. I found myself lacking a purpose. I was a learner with no teacher to guide me, but Coruscant was nothing like that wretched dustball I was born on. There, I had been but an unwanted anomaly, a freak, but here in the capital, I wasn’t alone. I sensed something. Someone. Someone much more powerful than my Master had ever been.”

“The Emperor.”

“Yes,” Sereena confirmed. “I felt his dark presence everywhere as if he was calling for me through the Force. Didn’t know he actually was, not until tonight. I needed a mentor, and I was not planning to settle with anyone less than the most powerful being in the galaxy. But you could not just march into his throne room and introduce yourself. Oh, no. I figured I needed to get my foot in the door, so I used my father’s contacts to get a job from the palace and get closer to the Emperor himself. Then, it occurred to me that he already had an apprentice: the monster who had sent those damned bloodhounds to hunt down and kill me. Vader. And what would’ve been a better way to prove my worth than killing my future master’s current apprentice, hmm? To make some space. I already hated Vader. I’d have gotten two blister fleas with one swat if I killed him. Unfortunately, he turned out to be pretty much impossible to kill.”

Padmé's finger was trembling over the trigger of her blaster. “So you decided to let the Emperor finish the job for you,” she said, a flare of anger surging through her, “by selling out my children.”

Sereena shrugged. “How was I supposed to know those brats were so damn important to you?” she said, staring at Padmé with a crazed look in her glowing golden eyes. “It was nothing personal, I swear. My quarrel was never with you. Perhaps, in another reality, we could’ve been friends. But now, it’s too late for us. For me.”

“Sereena, please, listen to me,” Padmé said, releasing one hand from her grip on her blaster to reach out for Sereena. “It’s not too late to turn away from this madness. We’ve all made mistakes in the past, but we don’t have to let those mistakes define us. It doesn’t have to be our mistakes that write our stories, but our choices to learn from them and become better versions of ourselves.”

“It’s our choices that show us what we truly are, you say?”

Padmé gave her a nod, and for a moment there, she was almost certain that she had managed to convince her. “Come with me, Sereena. Help me fix this,” she pleaded. “We’ll find you a teacher. A Jedi teacher. Not all of them are gone. I’m sure that one day the Jedi Order will be restored, and they would be glad to have you.”

Sereena fell silent for a moment, looking hesitant.

“I can’t say I share your admiration for Dooku,” Padmé continued, “but I’m sure your desire for revenge relies on sentiment, not inherent wickedness. There’s hope in sentimentality. Why not use that hope to rise above the selfishness and cruelty of the Sith?”

It was then that Sereena burst, again, into hysterical laughter. “Now I know I underestimated you,” she said, pointing her lightsaber at Padmé’s chest. “You’re not just naïve, but ridiculously stupid. I told you your compassion will be your undoing, don’t you remember? You should’ve left when you had the chance. Maybe I can’t kill Vader, and I wouldn’t even dream of killing the Emperor, but you… oh, you can still die, and nothing in the galaxy would bring me more joy than knowing how much misery your death will bring to Vader. Assuming that he’ll live long enough to find out, of course.”

“I don’t want to fight you, Sereena,” Padmé said, a warning edge to her voice. “But I will fight if I must.”

But the time for speeches was clearly over, and the time for aggressive negotiations had come. Sereena let out a furious screech as she lurched forward. Instinctively, Padmé ducked down to dodge the ferocious, yet crude swing of the lightsaber cutting through the air. She threw herself in the dirt and rolled through the decaying undergrowth to elude the following frenzied blows, clutching her blaster like a madwoman.

She rolled onto her back, trying to get back to her feet, but Sereena was faster. She leaped forward and brought her lightsaber above her head to strike a finishing blow. “Die, you—!“

Adrenaline rushing through her veins, Padmé braced herself against the ground and kicked Sereena in the stomach as hard as she could, causing her to yelp in pain as she momentarily lost her balance. Padmé inhaled sharply as Vader’s words rushed back to her. It has occurred to me that I may not always be there to protect you, she recalled him saying, you must be able to protect yourself. When the time comes, you must not hesitate.

And this time around, she did not hesitate.

She pulled the trigger, not just once or twice, but thrice.

Sereena barely managed to deflect the first bolt, sending it flying towards the nearby bushes, but both the second and third pierced her chest. She froze, her golden eyes widening in shock and terror as her lightsaber slipped from her fingers and dropped to the ground with a low thud. Her hands flew to her chest, clutching at the heavy fabric of her cloak as she fell to her knees.

“Why…” she croaked. Her eyes dimmed as life escaped them. “Why couldn’t you just die?”

Then, she collapsed to the ground, no longer breathing.

Padmé panted heavily as she pushed herself back to her feet, brushing off most of the dirt and dead leaves from her clothes. With shaking hands, she shoved her blaster back into its holster. Sereena had forced her hand, and now she was dead because of it. There was nothing more I could’ve done, Padmé thought to herself as she stared emptily at the body lying in the ground. She was already gone.

Sereena had made her choice, and she had made hers. In a sense, Sereena had, indeed, underestimated her and the lengths she was willing to go to save her family. “I never wanted it to come to this,” she whispered, despite knowing that Sereena was already gone and could not hear her.

After hearing Sereena’s story, she realized that the poor girl had never known peace in her life, and she could not help but hope that Sereena would at least find it in death. It pained her to have to leave Sereena’s body there, but at the same time, she was perfectly aware that she could not stay a moment longer. In time, she would undoubtedly mourn the person Sereena could have been under different circumstances, but right now, she needed to shift her focus to the living.

Vader was somewhere near, she knew it, and he needed her help.

Despite all his skill and immense power at his disposal, Vader’s attempts to deflect the unrelenting barrage of Force lightning the Emperor kept hurling at him were in vain. He groaned in pain as another bolt of lightning slipped through his parry and burned its way straight through his shoulder plate. The lightning storm crackled about him, slowly, but steadily, tearing his armor apart. His respirator was already failing, and he knew that it was only a matter of time before the rest of his life-support systems would stop functioning, effectively preventing him from continuing the fight.

He had always been aware of the crucial imperfections in the design of his armor and the restrictions in its functionality. His armor was not only unnecessarily heavy and limiting his movements, but also constructed with obsolete technology. While it might have provided more than sufficient protection against lightsabers and blaster fire, it had never been intended to endure Force lightning without suffering severe malfunctions.

Instead of being a mere coincidence, it was undoubtedly a deliberate feature, adding to the lengthy list of precautions the Emperor had taken over the years to keep him on a short leash.

As the battle went on, it became clear to him that the Emperor was even stronger than he had anticipated. Not even the black hatred he harbored in his soul seemed to augment his powers enough to allow him to breach his Master’s defenses.  

The Emperor knew this too. “Look at you now, my foolish apprentice,” he said, a mocking edge to his voice. “What are you but ash and ruin?”

Vader harnessed his fury and plunged forward, but the Emperor was not nearly as frail as his appearance suggested. It only took little effort from him to stay out of Vader’s reach.

The Emperor cackled maliciously at Vader’s struggle. “You were always a failure, Lord Vader, and a traitor to everything you once held dear, were you not?” he said as he ceased from attacking and allowed Vader to take breath, clearly desiring to end his apprentice’s life as slowly and painfully as possible. “You were never to reach your true potential, but perhaps one of your children will… the other is destined to share your fate. Yes… yes… I never intended to let them both live.”

Vader’s uneven breathing sounded even more labored than usual. Death was circling him, creeping closer by the minute. “You shall not have them,” he snarled. “Padmé– “

But the Emperor unleashed another barrage of Force lightning from his hands to silence him. “Yes… Once more you have let your foolish infatuation to burn your destiny to ashes,” he said with sadistic glee. “Perhaps you deceived yourself to believe that she would love you like she loved the boy you once were, hmm? Yes, yes… I can feel your thoughts… My poor apprentice… You truly hoped that she would not turn away in disgust at the very sight of your face, and yet you feared to reveal yourself to her. Yes… Deep down, you knew better, did you not? You were wise to refuse that from her. She would have despised you, had she seen how you have ruined yourself.”

Powerless to pursue the fight, Vader slumped to his knees and roared in pain as another surge of lightning burned holes in his chest plate and shut down another of the life-support systems that kept him alive. Now, in his most desperate moment, he stretched out to the Force. Forgive me, my love, he released the thought into the Force, I failed you. The Emperor is too powerful. There is no way for me to save our children.

As he reached out for Padmé in his thoughts, a warm, familiar presence flooded into his consciousness through the Force. No, he thought to himself. It cannot be… This must be yet another of the Emperor’s tricks… But even in his agony, and even though the pain had blurred his senses, he soon realized that the presence he felt was too strong to be a mere delusion.

It was Padmé. She had come back for him.

For Anakin Skywalker.

It was then that searing light breached through the walls of his inner darkness and filled him with deep understanding. For this entire time, Padmé had been right about him. In her endless patience, she had seen what he had refused to see in himself. Anakin Skywalker was not gone. He had never been truly gone, only shattered into fragments and scattered all over his tormented soul.

And it had been Padmé, who had picked up each fragment and put them back together with tender care and understanding, despite his failure to give her anything back but misery and maltreatment.

There was no greater or more delicate gift than the unconditional love she had chosen to give him. From that moment on, he, in turn, chose to be worthy of that gift. He would save her, and he would save their children, even if it would cost his own life.

His family would be safe, even if he would not be there to see it.

As he finally understood that his hatred would never make him powerful enough to take down the Emperor, but there just might be even greater strength to be found in selflessness. The kind of strength that the Emperor, who had dedicated his entire existence to his desire for power and personal gain, could never begin to understand.

Brushing off the pain, he mustered his strength and slowly rose back to his feet. The deafening crackling of the Emperor’s powers drowned out the steady roar of the artificial waterfall as he tried to beat his disobedient apprentice back to submission, but it was no use.

With a vicious slash of his lightsaber, Vader cut off the hands that had been tormenting him. The Emperor’s final attempt to fall back and escape the inevitable failed, as Vader pushed him back with the Force and sent his lightsaber spiraling through the air, towards his now defenseless foe.

The weapon hit its target, plunging through Sidious’s chest.

And so the Emperor of the first Galactic Empire was dead.

As it should be, Vader thought to himself mere seconds before collapsing to the ground, the life-support systems of his suit damaged beyond functioning. As it should be…

It was then that Padmé stepped into the clearing. “No!” she screamed from the bottom of her lungs as she saw Vader’s motionless body lying on the ground. “No, Anakin – no!”

Chapter Text

Sliding on the wet grass and dirt, Padmé rushed over to Vader and sank to her knees beside him. Damp mud soiled the uniform she wore as a disguise, yet she barely even noticed. “Anakin… Anakin, please,” she cried out hoarsely as she grabbed his shoulders and shook him more roughly than she had intended. “Don’t do this to me, not now… not after everything we’ve been through.”

Her eyes widened in horror as she noticed the scorch marks all over his armor and smelled the smoldering cloth of his cloak. As she surveyed the damage further, she became aware of the control panel that she figured was meant to regulate his respirator being compromised as well. “No,” she gasped. “Don’t die on me now, I – I beg you!”

She looked around frantically, as her first instinct was to seek help, but there was no one around to provide it. They were surrounded by nothing but death and decaying plants. Both the Emperor and Sereena were dead, and all she could do now was to pray to the stars that Vader would not end up joining them.

A heavy silence fell over the garden. She took his gauntleted hand in her own and gently pressed it against her cheek. “Don’t – don’t leave me like this,” she whispered, swallowing around the lump forming in her throat. “It can’t be meant to end this way – it can’t!”

But she already knew, arguably better than most, that all good things could come to an end in most abrupt and unpredictable ways. She already had lost Anakin once, unable to stop his downward spiral into the darkness, and now he was slipping through his fingers yet again. On the brink of despair, all hope drained from her heart, she had no doubt that fate – or the Force, or whatever higher power that supposedly dictated the destinies of all living beings – could be cruel enough to tear them apart once more.

It was not fair, but as she had figured out a long time ago, life seldom was.

Vader’s gauntlet soon became soaked with her tears. “You must know, I’m so proud of you, Ani. You have come such a long way,” she said, her voice breaking in a sob. She wiped her eyes with her free hand and let out a desolate chuckle. “I know you. I know that you probably thought that wouldn’t notice, but I did. Oh, I did notice. All those little things… I can barely begin to imagine how… how hard it must have been for you, but you did it. You chose to embrace the good in you. You chose the light. I always knew you had it in you… even after all these years. I knew…”

She shot a brief glance at the Palpatine’s maimed body that laid on the dirt a few meters away from their position and choked back a bitter sob. Although it was expected that the Empire would, sooner rather than later, fall apart without its Sith leaders and that the Republic could be restored, there was a moment when none of that mattered to her. There had been times when her only solace had been her dreams of the end of the Empire, but seeing the Emperor gone did not bring her joy in the way she had always imagined it would.

She could not imagine herself celebrating the end of this oppressive era with her fellow Rebels, knowing in her heart that each and every one of them would be celebrating Vader’s death just as wholeheartedly as they would celebrate the Emperor’s. While she would never blame them for that, she could never share their joy, either.

Despite knowing how immensely selfish it was from her, she found herself bitterly regretting that she had not pushed harder to convince Vader to leave Coruscant with her. Without him, this victory for justice and democracy tasted nothing but ashes in her mouth. 

She pressed her forehead against Vader’s shoulder. “Stars know that you’re the most stubborn man in the galaxy,” she gasped between sobs. “Don’t give up on me now. You’re stronger than this. I know you are. Wake up, love… We have to go. Our children wait for us. Your children, Ani…”

But there was no response to her desperate pleas.

Her body trembled uncontrollably as she threw herself against Vader’s chest and wrapped her arms around him, weeping and rocking herself back and forth. Despite realizing that she could not afford to stay around for much longer, as there were still entire battalions of stormtroopers out there searching for her, Esdee and the ship they had stolen, she could not imagine forcing herself back to her feet and walking away from him, not ever.

“I won’t give up on you. I won’t,” she whispered. “This time we either leave together or not at all.”

It was then that Vader drew a harsh, labored breath in her arms. “Padmé…” he rasped. “You… you came back…”

Padmé flinched at the rattling sound of his damaged respirator as if she did not dare to believe her ears at first. “Anakin!” she gasped as she leaned back to meet his gaze. “You’re – you’re alive, thank the stars!”

“You came back… to me,” he slurred deliriously.

“I – I couldn’t leave you to face the Emperor alone,” she said. “I was supposed to stop you from doing this, but I was… delayed. Oh, Ani, you’re badly injured. We need to get you medical attention. Esdee must already be waiting for our signal. We must go immediately, and–”

“Padmé… Padmé, listen to me,” Vader said. “There is no time… Help me take this mask off.”

She swallowed around the lump in her throat. For stars knew how long, she had ached to see his face again, but this was not the way she had imagined, or wanted, it to happen. “Wouldn’t that… kill you?” she asked, her voice cracking at the last words. “I won’t let you die.”

“Nothing can stop that now,” Vader insisted. “Just for once more, let me look on you with my own eyes.”

With trembling hands, she carefully lifted his helmet and put it aside before removing his faceplate and exposing his charred features. For a moment there, she could not do much else than stare at him, tears welling in her eyes. Her heart clutched at the sight of his pale and horrendously scarred face, but not because she was disgusted, but because for a moment there, she felt his pain as her own. She had figured out a long time ago that his suit had other, more vital purposes aside from intimidating the Empire’s enemies, and yet the extent of his injuries took her by surprise.

Perhaps she should have been shocked by his looks, or scared, or both, but when she looked down into his eyes – eyes that were blue and not glowing yellow – all she felt was fondness and relief and pure, unconditional love.

Since the man who looked back at her, his eyes filled with sorrow and regret and burning shame, was no longer the Sith Lord known by the name of Darth Vader.

He was Anakin Skywalker.



Padmé reached out to cradle his head between her hands as she wept. “Your eyes…” she whispered huskily. “It is you. Oh, Anakin…”

Too ashamed to properly meet her gaze without his mask on, Anakin attempted to divert his eyes from her, wondering whether she pitied him enough to refrain from openly expressing her disgust. Without his mask, he was no longer a powerful Sith Lord, one that was feared throughout the galaxy, but a broken and beaten man, a disgraced Jedi, who had committed unspeakable crimes against the galaxy he had once sworn to protect from evil and destroyed everything he had once loved so dearly.

It was then that the Emperor’s words came back to him. She would have despised you, had she seen how you have ruined yourself. Perhaps he had been right, or perhaps his words had been nothing but another of his cleverly crafted lies to knock him off balance.

Either way, it no longer mattered. Sidious was dead, and Anakin imagined that he would soon follow his deceitful Master to the grave.

He opened his mouth to speak, but the words froze in his throat, rough and dry as Tatooine deserts. What could he have said? He was dying, and no words were going to change that, or mend any of his wrongdoings, many of which he had committed against the woman he loved. 

If Padmé would have chosen to walk away and leave him to die alone, he would not have held that against her.

But she did not walk away. Her lower lip trembled uncontrollably as she caressed the back of his scarred head. She leaned in, a gentle smile spreading across her face, briefly brushing his lips with her own before lurching forward and kissing him fiercely.

Anakin flinched at the unexpected sensation. He gathered the remnants of his strength to reach out and stroke her damp cheek with his gloved thumb and succumbed to the warmth radiating from her. The kiss, it was tender and desperate and, oddly enough, comforting in ways that words could never be.

“I love you,” Padmé murmured when she was finally forced to pull away to catch her breath, pressing her forehead against his. “I love you so much, Ani.”

Barely able to speak without the mask, Anakin coughed violently, gasping for air. “I… I love…”

Smiling through her tears, Padmé put a finger on his chapped lips. “Hush,” she said soothingly as she planted a kiss on his forehead. His skin felt freezing cold against her warm lips. “I know. Save your strength. We have to get you out of here. We must go before–“

“No, Padmé,” Anakin interrupted, his voice feeble and thin, and yet more recognizable than Vader’s rumbling baritone had ever been. “It… it is you who must go. I will… only slow you down. The Emperor’s guards will be here soon. Now go… leave me…”

Padmé shook her head in refusal. “No. No, you’re coming with me,” she said in a firm tone that left no room for argument. “I came here to save you.”

Anakin groaned in pain as he struggled to draw the air into his failing lungs. “You already have… saved me,” he said, knowing that without her, he would never have been able to find his way out of the darkness. “You were right… about me. Tell our children… you were right.”

“Oh, you will tell them yourself,” Padmé retorted. “I didn’t fight my way to get back here only to let you die in my arms. Now, where’s your comlink?”

Anakin slowly turned his head and nodded towards his helmet. Padmé did not hesitate to reach out for it. “Esdee? Esdee, come in,” she called tentatively after fumbling with the controls. “I found him. He’s badly injured”—she shot a sharp glance at Anakin—“but will live. We’re in the gardens and need a quick evac.”

“Oh.” Esdee’s reply came over the rattling noise. “Oh dear.”

Padmé had never been so relieved to hear the droid’s anxiety-ridden voice. “You must hurry,” she said emphatically. I don’t know how much time he has left.

“I will be there in a moment, assuming I don’t crash this bloody thing into a wall. Or a tree. Or a–“

Too exhausted to even roll her eyes, Padmé turned off the comlink and put the helmet aside. She turned back to Anakin and offered him an encouraging, yet weak smile. “He’s on his way,” she said as she helped him to ease his head onto her lap. “Stay with me, love. We’re going to be gone from here soon enough.” And, frankly, that’s not a moment too soon.

In the meantime, she tried her best to keep him warm as she kept murmuring soothing words about how the nightmare was finally over and how everything was going to be fine, uncertain whether she was trying to convince him or herself. Try as she might, she could not brush off her concerns about what was going to happen next.

There was no guarantee that anyone would offer them assistance.

She quickly skimmed through their options. She still had family on Naboo, but not even they were aware that she had feigned her death all those years ago to protect her children from the Empire. She could not even begin to imagine their reaction if their allegedly dead daughter were to appear at their doorstep, wearing an Imperial uniform and begging for help for the most hated man in the galaxy. Naboo has suffered greatly under the Emperor’s rule, she reminded herself, even if my parents wanted, they might not be in a position to help us.    

The Rebel Alliance headquarters on Yavin 4 might have had a sufficient medical facility, but Padmé harbored no illusion that the Rebels there would be eager to help them, either. On the contrary, they would probably blow their shuttle off the sky at sight. And even if they didn’t, she mentally added, they might just as well execute us both as traitors as soon as we land. Even though the Rebels had received countless Imperial defectors over the years and accepted them into their ranks with open arms, it would have been self-deception to assume that they would ever extend such leniency to Vader.

As much as Padmé would have wanted to spare the Organas from what would undoubtedly escalate into a political incident, she had to admit that Alderaan was their only option. Bail and Breha were good and kind, level-headed people, and her old and most trusted friends, and yet she could not help but fear that even they would refuse to help them. The Organas detested the Empire, and they most definitely despised Vader.

And yet there was nowhere else they could go. 

It was nothing short of a miracle that Esdee managed to bring the shuttle down without crashing into trees and rocks and rubble along the way. Padmé watched in exhaustion as the droid extended the landing ramp and joined them, exclaiming loudly at the sight of his injured Master. Together, they supported Anakin, for he could not walk, and dragged him on board. They barely managed to get him into the cabin before he went unconscious. 

"Stay strong, my love," she murmured almost inaudibly, knowing that he would not hear her anyway. "I'll carry us both through this. You'll see." 

En route to Alderaan, Padmé distantly realized that she should have been preparing not only an explanation of the situation but also an alternative plan for if things were to go south. The Organas would undoubtedly expect her to explain why she had brought Darth Vader to their doorstep.

She looked over her shoulder where Anakin laid unconscious in the cabin and let out a defeated sigh. How can I even begin to explain all this to Bail and Breha, she asked herself. How can I possibly tell them that he’s the father of the children they’ve so kindly taken care of for all these years? How can I ask them to help me save his life? How could they ever trust my judgment on this?

And yet, she understood that she had no other choice but to put Anakin’s life in their hands and hope for the best.

She glanced at Esdee. “I fear that they will think that I’m out of my mind,” she said. “They might even deny me from seeing the twins.”

“That is possible, Mistress,” the droid replied laconically.  

Turning her gaze back to viewport, Padmé let out yet another sigh. At least Luke and Leia were now safe, and they would remain safe, even if the Organas would deem her too unstable to be allowed anywhere near them.

They did not speak again until they emerged from hyperspace and approached Alderaan. “Mistress,” Esdee said, interrupting her train of incoherent thought. “I believe we are receiving a transmission.”

Padmé nodded rigidly as she braced herself for what was to come. “Put them through.”

A stern female voice came over the ship’s intercom. “This is Lieutenant Chabiv of Alderaanian consular security,” she said. “State your business, Imperial.”

“This is Padmé Amidala, a former queen and senator of Naboo and a friend of House Organa,” Padmé introduced herself, her voice crisp and clear and holding authority she did not feel. “I have urgent business with the Viceroy Bail Organa. I must speak with him immediately.”

The lieutenant hesitated. “I can send him a message, I suppose,” she said. “What do you wish me to tell him, ma’am?”

“I bring dire news from Coruscant,” Padmé said. Technically, she was not lying, as she doubted that the Imperial-controlled HoloNet News would have covered the Emperor’s death yet. It was likely that they would attempt to withhold the news from spreading. “It’s… confidential, but I can’t stress enough the importance. Please, find the Viceroy and tell him that Padmé Amidala wishes to speak with him. That’s all.”

“Very well, ma’am,” the lieutenant finally said. “I see what I can do.”

After a moment that felt like an eternity, another incoming transmission broke the pregnant silence that had fallen upon the cockpit.

“Padmé?” Bail Organa’s incredulous voice came over the speakers. “Is that really you?”

“Yes,” Padmé hurried to say. “Yes, Bail – it’s me.”

“Thank the stars,” Bail exclaimed. “We didn’t dare to hope… not after all this time… We did everything we could to find you after we heard of your capture. I had Alliance Intelligence track you into an Imperial prison facility on Coruscant, but then your trail simply… vanished. We feared the worst. Where have you been all this time? And how did you–?”

“Bail, please, listen to me,” Padmé interrupted. “I need your help. The Emperor is dead. The man who killed him… he’s with me. Here, on the ship. He’s badly injured and in need of urgent medical assistance.”

“What? How – I can barely believe what I’m hearing,” Bail said, sounding both confused and concerned. “But if you say it’s true, then it is true. But… who’s the hero of the hour, then? Someone I know? I must inform my wife immediately. She would undoubtedly want to hold a ceremony for his heroic deeds as soon as his wounds have been treated.”  

Padmé bit her lower lip in distress. “You… have met him, yes. He was a Jedi, once,” she said hesitantly. Another technically-not-a-lie. “Bail, the situation… it’s more complicated than you think, but I need you to trust me and not tell anyone just yet, not even Breha. Meet me at the landing pad and bring a medical capsule with you.”

“I don’t understand,” Bail said in a serious tone. “You sound rather uneasy, my friend. As if something was off.”

“I’ll explain everything as soon as we have landed and he's getting treatment, I promise,” Padmé said, her voice dripping with desperation. “Please, Bail, you have to help me. I have no one else to turn to.”

“Alright, alright. Calm down, Padmé. Of course, I’ll help you,” Bail said calmly. “I'll see you at the landing pad behind the palace and have our droids to prepare the medical bay for our mysterious hero.”

“There's one more thing,” Padmé said, squeezing her eyes shut as she spoke. She hated to have to do this to her dear friend, but as countless times before, she felt like she had no choice. “I need you to come alone.”

Chapter Text

Alderaan was such a beautiful world of snow-capped mountains, lush forests and countless lakes with crystal waters, not to mention its stunning architecture, designed to complement the planet’s natural beauty. Padmé recalled always enjoying her occasional diplomatic missions to Alderaan, long before the planet had become the only place she could see her children with her own eyes and be ensured of their perpetual safety.

After instructing Esdee to extend the landing ramp, she opened the hatch. She glanced over her shoulder and gestured the droid stay in the ship before stepping outside and filling her lungs with crisp mountain air.

Much to her relief, Bail had kept his promise of coming alone, except for the medical assistance she had requested. She spotted him waiting for her on the other side of the landing platform with a pair of 2-1B surgical droids and a medical capsule. Although Bail’s rigid posture, crossed arms and stern look on his face reminded her that she should not take his help for granted. In fact, she could not even begin to imagine his reaction upon learning the truth. Is he going to help is, she asked herself, or banish us both from Alderaan for life, or worse, I cannot tell.

Uncomfortably aware of her Imperial attire and the message it might send, Padmé strode across the platform, shielding her face from the scalding wind with one hand as she approached Bail.

She forced an exhausted smile. “Bail,” she greeted, trying her best to remain as calm as collected as she imagined him remembering her, despite her hoarse, broken voice, eyes reddened from crying and outfit that screamed betrayal. “You can’t possibly imagine how good it is to see you.”

Bail did not hesitate to pull her into a warm hug. “I barely dared to believe that it truly was you,” he said. “We were so afraid that we might never see you again, my dear friend.”

Padmé briefly lowered her gaze. “And I fear that before the night is over you might actually hope that you didn’t,” she sighed. “There are no words in any language I know to express how sorry I am, for everything.”

“What in the stars are you talking about?” Bail asked, frowning. He pulled back and glared at her uniform with a concerned look on his face. “May I ask why you are dressed like an Imp–?”

“Listen to me, Bail, please. There is no time. I’ll tell you the whole story without leaving out a single detail, I promise, but I’m afraid it has to wait a little longer,” Padmé cut him off, glancing over her shoulder nervously. She did not need the Force to understand that Anakin was running out of time. “I refuse to lie to you, Bail. You won’t like this. Breha won’t like this, either. I assure you, I’m not oblivious to the disconcerting position I’ve put you both by bringing him here, but – Bail, he’s dying. I can’t let him die. I just can’t. Not now. If only there had been any other place we could’ve gone, but there wasn’t. You and Breha are the only ones who can help him now. I know you wouldn’t do it for him, and I’m not trying to call in favors here, but – please, Bail, I beg you to at least consider–“

Bail put his hands gently on her trembling shoulders to calm her down. “Slow down, Padmé. It’s okay. It’s over. You’re safe now. You’re with us,” he said soothingly. “As much as I dread to imagine the hell those Imperial bastards must have dragged you through to break you, I can assure you that no one can hurt you anymore. I will see to it, my friend. That’s a promise.”

Padmé let out a weary sigh. “I’m fine, Bail. I truly am.” It was a lie, and they both knew it. “It’s not me I fear for.”

As tempting as it would have been to urge him to promise he would help before telling him certain essentials about the situation at hand, Padmé could not bring herself to do that. Knowing that Bail was nothing if not a man of honor, the rare kind who owned up to his promises, she refused to even consider stooping so low. As determined as she was to save Anakin’s life, she would never force such obligation upon Bail.

“From what I gather from the situation – your clothes, the shuttle you came in – I can only assume that you have brought us an Imperial,” Bail said. “There’s no need to worry. If what you’re telling us true and this mystery man of yours is the one who so kindly assisted the Rebellion in, um, dethroning Palpatine, he’s welcome here. Imperial or not. He wouldn’t be the first one to defect, nor the last, I daresay.”

“I don’t think you underst–“

“The wind is picking up,” Bail pointed out. “We should get you inside and see that the hero of the hour gets the medical assistance he needs, don’t you think? Don’t look so grim, I’m sure there’s no reason for us to not help him.”

Padmé could do nothing but watch in terror as Bail instructed his droids to retrieve the patient from the shuttle. “I think you just might be able to come up with a handful of perfectly good reasons soon enough,” she muttered, already dreading the moment that warm, welcoming smile would be washed away from her friend’s face.

The 2-1B droids soon returned with the medical capsule, followed not far behind by nervously fretting Esdee. “Oh, Mistress, thank goodness,” the droid moaned, stepping clumsily onto the landing ramp and spreading his arms in confusion. “What is happening? Where are they taking my poor Master? What are they going to do with him?”

Padmé noticed Bail glancing sideways at her, raising a brow, as he approached the capsule. Holding her breath, she followed him a few steps behind.

Bail flinched at the sight and cursed heavily under his breath. Even without his helmet on, Vader’s armor was perfectly recognizable.

“Allow me to explain–“

Bail turned swiftly to her, looking both shocked and deeply offended. “How?” he snapped. “How could you possibly explain something like – Padmé, by the stars, don’t you realize what you have done? After all our sacrifices, your sacrifices, and precautions we took to protect Luke and Leia, you bring him here? Of all places?”

“Please, Bail, let me finish,” Padmé pleaded. “Trust me, I know what this looks like, but he would never hurt them.”

“Are you completely out of your mind?” Bail exclaimed, spreading his arms wide in both anger and confusion. “How could you say that? This man… It’s the damned Darth Vader we’re talking about! Master Yoda and Obi-Wan warned us about him, how could you have forgotten that, let alone his other crimes, so easily? We were supposed to hide the twins from him, not to offer them on a silver plate!”

“You don’t understand,” Padmé insisted. She inhaled sharply and looked up at Bail. “He’s their father, Bail. Look at him. It’s – it’s Anakin.”

Bail’s eyes widened and jaw dropped slightly as he shot an incredulous glance at the medical capsule. Padmé was not particularly surprised that he had not immediately recognized Anakin in his current state, as he and Bail had only ever been casual acquaintances at best.

“So it is true… For this whole time, Skywalker was alive,” Bail muttered, rubbing his temples in distress before turning back to Padmé. “I had my suspicions, I always did, but the Jedi… were Jedi about it. They were eager to keep their secrets. To protect us all from this devastating truth, I suppose. I never probed further. Perhaps I should have, but I, too, feared that the truth might have been too much for us all to bear. A traitor to the Republic and a Sith Lord…”

It was Padmé turn to look surprised. “You had suspicions,” she repeated flatly, too exhausted to even raise her voice. “Suspicions you never, not once, bothered to bring up with me?”

Bail nodded apologetically. “It is a decision that I regret deeply,” he admitted with genuinity in his voice. “I must confess, I simply didn’t know what to do. We were still uncertain whether you were to fully recover from your injuries when Master Yoda and Obi-Wan left Alderaan. They gave us no instructions but to keep you and the twins safe and help you hide from the Empire. I was concerned that sharing my suspicions with you could have disrupted your recovery, or worse.”

Padmé crossed her arms, half defiantly, half because she was freezing. “And what is that supposed to mean?”

“I know you, and I know that you’d have gone to look for him and that nothing in the galaxy could have stopped you,” Bail explained. “What if I had been wrong all along? What if my suspicions would have turned out to be nothing but a terrible misunderstanding? Such mistake could have cost us your life. I wasn’t willing to gamble with something as precious.”

In her heart, Padmé knew that what Bail was saying was true. Had she been as much as hinted that Anakin could have been alive, she would undoubtedly have gone looking for him, regardless of consequences. Although she had always considered herself a reasonable and level-headed person, who only ever made measured decisions, she had to remind herself that her handmaidens, let alone anyone who had served in the Royal Naboo Security Forces during her two terms as queen, would have heartily disagreed.

“I know what you must be thinking of me now,” Bail continued. “That I deliberately kept you in dark to keep you from reuniting with your family. I assure you, that was never my intention. Breha and I, we love Luke and Leia from the bottom of our hearts. We have cared for them and raised them as our own, yet never deluded ourselves to think that our arrangement were to be permanent. We swore to take care of them until it’d be safe for you to take your rightful place as their mother. They had already lost their father. For their sake, I was nothing less than determined to make sure that they wouldn’t lose their mother, too.”

Rendered wordless, Padmé struggled to gather her thoughts. Part of her understood Bail’s reasoning, but another part of her felt hurt and betrayed. I had the right to know, she thought. It was bad enough that Obi-Wan had chosen to conceal the truth from her, but on the other hand, Obi-Wan had always been, first and foremost, a Jedi. She doubted that she could never figure out, let alone understand his reasons.

Bail, on the contrary, had always shared her values and vision, and she would have expected him to trust her in something as important as this. “You should have told me nevertheless,” she said. “I believe you and appreciate the intention, but the decision should have been mine to make.”

Bail nodded. “You’re right. I apologize,” he said. “In my defense, as time passed and news of Vader’s dark deeds started to spread throughout the galaxy, I became more and more certain that I had been wrong. Although I can’t say I knew Skywalker personally, I couldn’t possibly believe that a Jedi Knight, of all people, one who had once devoted his life to defend the Republic could have fallen so far. Do I really need to repeat the crimes he’s committed against our galaxy? Name all our friends and associates he’s killed in cold blood? Remind you of the Jedi younglings he slaughtered?”

“I know what he’s done,” Padmé said firmly, yet her tone was laced with despair. “And I know that I have nothing but my word to give you as proof, but he’s changed. It’s… difficult to explain, but I know it to be true. He saw the error in his ways. He killed Palpatine to keep the twins safe from him. He wishes them no harm. I’m not asking you to overlook his crimes or forgive him, Bail. I’m asking you to save his life.”

“That’s quite a favor you’re asking, my friend,” Bail said in a serious tone. “Thousands, if not millions, would celebrate his demise, and I can’t say I’d blame them. I might have seen enough suffering to not find joy in even more death, but I can’t disagree that the galaxy would be better place without him. Even if I believed you, I’m afraid that the rest of the Rebel Alliance, let alone the rest of the galaxy, wouldn’t see it that way.”

“Well, do you believe me, then?” Padmé could not help but ask.

“I’d certainly want to,” he said stiffly, as if he was weighing every word that came out of his mouth.

“During our time in the Senate, we both worked tirelessly to preserve lives, not to let them go waste,” Padmé appealed, blinking back tears. “We both opposed the war because we didn’t want more lives to be lost for such a mindless cause. All lives were valuable to us, so we never discriminated between our own people and the Separatists. We both knew that hate could only breed more hate. Do you think that it would be justice to let him die now, without making the effort to save his life?”

Bail let out a heavy sigh. “You know just as well as I do that there’s no unambiguous answer to that question,” he said. “Very well, I suppose I can allow his treatment, but you must know I can’t, or won’t, grant him any further protection. If he lives, he eventually must answer for his crimes in one way or another. You know what's the punishment for treason.”

Padmé took his hand in her own and gave him a weary smile. “That’s all I’m asking for,” she said. “I don’t know how I could ever thank you enough.”

Bail ordered his 2-1B droids to take the patient to the medical wing. “I have a bad feeling about this,” he muttered as he gestured Padmé and Esdee to follow him inside.

Padmé glanced wistfully over her shoulder at the pair of droids and the medical capsule between them. Part of her would have preferred to stay by Anakin’s side, yet she knew that his fate was now out of her hands. She decided that it was for the best if she let the droids to do their job without distractions. 

Besides, she could no longer remember when was the last time she had slept or had something to eat. She now had the ominous feeling that she would need to gather her strength for the days to come. Even if Anakin were to survive the night, it seemed that their troubles were far from over.

Bail glanced sideways at Padmé. “I assume you don’t mind if I have our technicians to have a look at the droid. Its memory bank might contain crucial information about the Empire.”

Esdee let out an offended beep, but Padmé hushed him swiftly. “Of course,” she said. “That’s the least we can do.”

“Even with Palpatine gone, disbanding the Empire and tracking down the scattered remnants may turn out to be more tricky than anticipated,” Bail pointed out as they strode through the courtyard. “If the Moffs won’t see reason and stand down, I’m afraid that there will be a civil war.”

“Let us hope it won’t come to that,” Padmé said absentmindedly as they walked past a couple of guards and entered the Royal Palace. The last thing they needed now was more war, yet she was bitterly aware that more often than not people’s tendency to resolve conflicts with violence could not be helped.

Bail stopped as they approached the guest suites. “There’s still a few hours before sunrise,” he said, gesturing at the suite that had been prepared for Padmé. “I suggest you get some rest. Breha will want to see you at breakfast, and we both will be most interested in hearing about your time in captivity. I had our servant droid to bring you more comfortable clothes and a holotransmitter in case there’s someone you wish to contact to. If there’s anything you need, you only need to ask.”

“Thank you, Bail... Listen, before you retire for the rest of the night, I need to ask you something,” Padmé began hesitantly. “What about the children? I'd wish to see them as soon as possible.”

“You’ll see them in the morning,” Bail promised, putting his hand on her shoulder encouragingly. “We shall tell them the truth, just as we agreed eight years ago.”

Padmé raised a brow. “The whole truth?”

“I don’t know, Padmé,” Bail said, glancing at her warily. “I might suggest that we discuss the matter in the morning with Breha. It’s not a decision we should make lightly – or rashly. We don’t even know yet if Vader's going to make it.”

Padmé nodded. “You’re right,” she said, even though deep down in her heart she knew – or at least hoped – that Anakin would be stubborn enough to refuse to give up now. “I don’t wish to upset them. Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing them, and dear Breha, of course.”

She was already turned to head to her room when Bail stopped her by laying his hand gently on her arm. “I need to ask you something as well,” he said. “Something I struggle to understand. Your eagerness to defend him, after everything he’s done, after all the people he's hurt… after all this time... You still love him, don’t you?”

Padmé flinched at his words. “Yes,” she finally admitted, after a deliberate pause. “I do.”

Perhaps no one got to choose who they fell in love with, but love itself, it was a choice. She had chosen to turn around and go back to Anakin. She had chosen to believe in forgiveness and second chances. Not that she expected Bail to understand her choice, but in the end, she did not need him to understand. For the first time in a very long time, she had been allowed to make a choice out of her free will, not just out of sheer necessity, and that alone was enough reason for her to embrace it. Since she had been forced to live in a lie for so long, her love was the one truth she was determined to hold on to. 

The guest suite was much more pleasant looking than her small room in Vader’s tower had been. She sat on the most charming canopy bed that unsurprisingly provided a lot more comfort than she was used to after having the questionable honor to enjoy the Imperial hospitality for so long.

The large, ornamental window opened to the mountains, and despite being both utterly exhausted and scared for what the near future held in store for her family, she could not help but admire the beautiful view for a while.

After taking a long overdue bath and getting rid of the sweaty, itchy Imperial uniform she had been wearing for good, she changed to the flowy nightgown she found folded on the bed. Bail was right; I need to get some sleep, she thought. A couple of hours will have to do, if I wish to visit the medical wing before having breakfast with Bail and Breha.

Part of her wanted nothing more than to crawl in bed and fall asleep, but there was something she needed to take care of first. She could not afford to fall apart now when Anakin still needed all help he could possibly get. Knowing all too well that she would never be able to haul them both through the ordeals to come alone, she decided to try to contact the one person in the entire galaxy who still might – and just might – be willing to once more stand by Anakin’s side.

She turned on the holotransmitter on the nightstand, set the frequency she and Anakin had once used for their private communications, hoping that she had not been the only one he had used that particular frequency with, and started recording.

She inhaled sharply. “Ahsoka,” she said hoarsely, swallowing back her emotion. The mere thought of seeing Anakin's old Padawan again made her heart sing. “It’s me, Padmé. Yes, I’m alive. It’s… a long and rather unbelievable story, and I wish I could tell you everything right away, but I’m afraid that might be too dangerous, in case this transmission falls in wrong hands. There's too much at stake. If this message reaches you, then I must ask you to come to see me on Alderaan as soon as you can. There’s something you need to know. Ahsoka… It’s about Anakin. He needs your help. We both do.”

Chapter Text

After but a few hours of restless thrashing in her extravagantly comfortable bed, Padmé grudgingly gave in to her frustrations and abandoned the idea of getting the sleep she would have sorely needed. Instead, she got up, checked her messages—no response from Ahsoka—and dressed in the traditional Alderaanian day gown she found from the closet. The finely woven gown was without doubt handpicked for her by one of Queen Breha’s handmaidens. It was cream white, finished with intricate azure embroidery and the most delicate silver-clasped belt. Surprisingly enough, it fit her like a glove, despite the weight she had lost during months of captivity.  

Yet, regardless of an attire fit for royalty, a brief look in the mirror revealed that she was from looking well. No outfit, however elegant, could distract attention away from the dark circles under her eyes or her protruding cheekbones. She barely even recognized her pale, expressionless face and empty eyes that stared back at her from the mirror.

Holding back a yawn, she whipped her hair into an uncharacteristically disheveled heap on the top of her head and left the room. Although she knew that she was now supposed to feel safe, she could not quite shake off the uneasiness she felt inside when passing a pair of royal guards posted right outside her suite. Had the guards been there last night when she had arrived, she could not tell for sure. There had been too much on her plate back then.

But if she was supposed to be safe, and if everything was supposed to be fine from now on, why was she feeling like she was watched?

And why was she feeling so detached and insecure about the foreseeable future in ways that she did not recall bothering her during her time with Vader?

As much as she had despised him for it, she could not deny that Vader—no, Anakin—had taken care of her and made her feel bizarrely safe in his own crude ways. Now that it was her turn to take care of him in return and make sure that nothing bad could happen to him, she felt alone and strangely powerless. Alderaan was where she should have been surrounded by countless friends and allies, yet she could not quite keep her discomfort and overwhelming uncertainty at bay. She knew that she was supposed to trust the Organas with her life, but how could they possibly trust her after hearing her story? How could they not shun her for her actions—or lack of them?

Try as she might, she could not silence the tiny voice in the back of her mind, reminding her that many, if not most, of her Rebel friends and associated would likely consider her no more than a traitor if they were to learn the truth of her time on Coruscant.

The truth about how she had hesitated to take the shot on Vader and bring the Empire on its knees when she had the chance. The truth about how she had given up her plans of escaping with all the intel she could possibly have managed to gather after a couple flimsy attempts, only to offer her vicious captor her cooperation, instead of her contempt.

Not to mention the truth about how she had found unexpected solace in his arms and even harbored feelings for him long before discovering his true identity.

The mere thought made her shudder. There was a question she had been dreading to ask herself, lingering at the back of her mind and prodding her every once in a while. Against her better judgment, she had justified her decision to help the man who was responsible of countless crimes against the galaxy by declaring that everything she had done, she had done for her family—but what if it had turned out that Anakin was dead and Vader indeed was someone entirely else?  

Would she still have made the same exact choices? Would she still have turned back after being given the chance to leave and never look back? Would she still have brought him here and stood by him, while risking being charged for treason?

She did not have the answers. Perhaps she would never have them.

And yet she had a plethora of other concerns to keep her mind busy for the time being. On her way to the medical wing, she caught herself wondering whether Ahsoka had received her transmission in the first place. And even if she had, would she be willing to come back for Anakin’s aid after everything he had done?

It was only then that it occurred to Padmé that she did not even know whether the Togruta was still out there. She had never been truly able to keep tabs on her whereabouts, not after they both had been forced into hiding, but according to what Sereena had told her about the Inquisitors, she could not help but fear for the former Jedi’s safety.

Nono, I’m absolutely positive that she’s somewhere out there, safe and sound, she mentally brushed off her concerns as she strode through the peacefully quiet courtyard of long rows of flower beds, polished stone benches and statues of pure white marble, mildly regretting that she had not grabbed a shawl to chase away the chill. Anakin was a far better mentor than he ever gave himself credit for. If anyone can survive out there on their own, it’s Ahsoka.    

Although she had not forgotten that Ahsoka’s ultimate decision to leave the Jedi Order after being falsely accused of sedition against the Order and the Republic itself had hurt Anakin deeper than he had ever cared to admit. In fact, Padmé had always suspected that he had considered Ahsoka’s decision not only a major personal failure but also somewhat an insult, despite Ahsoka’s choice to walk away from the Order having absolutely nothing to do with him and his performance as a mentor.

And yet her persistent attempts to coax him to open up about his true feelings in order to help him deal with the grief of having to let go of his young apprentice had failed miserably. She recalled that Anakin had stubbornly refused to talk about what had happened and how he had felt about it, immediately sinking into one of his moods whenever Ahsoka’s name was brought up, even if just in casual conversation.      

It had become painfully obvious to her that Ahsoka’s decision had struck not only Anakin’s pride but his very heart.

If we are to get through this in one piece, as a family, she thought as she passed yet another pair of royal guards and entered the waiting room. Our children must be taught to speak out and not bottle up their emotions. None of this can happen again, ever. It’s our responsibility to put an end into this destructive spiral of shame, silence, and secrecy.

As she approached the pure white marble counter, she was immediately greeted by a nurse droid. “Good morning, Miss”—the droid checked on its datapad—“Amidala. How can I be of service?”

Padmé cleared her throat. “I’ve come to see the patient who was brought here late last night,” she said. “Is he”—she could not bring herself to finish her original sentence—“going to be all right?”

The droid hummed serenely while checking on its datapad again. “Ah, yes, here it is. I am very pleased to inform you that, against all our expectations, the patient survived the surgery to remove and replace his defective life support system, artificial organs and prosthetics with more advanced technology. His condition is critical, but stable as we—oh, there is no need to worry, dear. I assure you that our medical specialists are working non-stop to ensure his survival and eventual recovery,” it said, handing its datapad to Padmé. “The details are all covered in here, or we can set you up with an appointment with one of our specialists for even more detailed rundown of the undertaken and planned procedures. Oh, and there is still the matter of optional plastic surgery to improve—ah, well, perhaps this discussion should be postponed until after—”

“Definitely,” Padmé interrupted flatly, taking a look at the datapad. “Pardon me, but I was under impression that you were merely supposed to do the bare minimum to save his life. All these procedures, expensive prosthetics and such… sound rather extensive to me. I’m grateful—no, more than grateful—but has the Queen truly authorized all this? Or the Viceroy?”

“Alderaan is a peaceful planet, my dear,” the droid said in a pleasant tone as if they were discussing the weather. “We are seldom granted the opportunity to hone our skills in treating more complicated medical conditions than flu, hypothermia or an occasional case of space sickness. Therefore we have been given free hands with the patient—such a thrilling challenge for our specialists, for sure. All expenses for the replacement prosthetics and cybernetic aids have been covered by Queen Breha herself.”

“Oh,” Padmé managed. “That’s… that’s good news.”

Despite figuring that Breha’s generosity likely had nothing to do with her harboring sympathy for Anakin, Padmé could not help but be grateful. Of course, the sooner he would recover, the sooner he could be put under interrogation, and eventually charges, for his involvement in the Empire’s rise and crimes, but it was not something she could not afford to worry about just yet. We’ll figure it out, she mentally reassured herself. I’ll figure it out, somehow.

The nurse droid disrupted her train of thought. “Is there something else I can do for you today, Miss Amidala?”

Padmé only vaguely noticed that she was looming over the counter, her fingers gripping the marble edge. “May I see him?” she asked with more than a hint of desperation in her voice.

“I’m afraid that is not possible at the moment due to the high risk of infections,” the droid said apologetically. “Depending on our progress, it may take at least a few standard days before we can allow visitors.”

Padmé gave a disappointed nod. “I understand,” she said. “Would you be so kind and send for me when that happens? I—I’m his wife. I believe I have the right to be informed.”

She had not become an apprentice legislator at the age of twelve for nothing; she knew that from legal perspective, marriages were usually considered to end at the point when one or more parties were declared dead—and, technically, they both were—but she doubted that the nurse droid’s programming contained that particular piece of legal knowledge. Either way, she found herself desperate to grasp at any chance to see Anakin, to be able to hold his hand and tell him that she loved him before they could be torn apart from each other again.

“Very well, Miss Amidala,” the droid hummed. “I will see to it.”

The sun had already sneaked above the snow-capped mountaintops by the time she left the medical wing. She had to rush to make it back to the grand entrance hall before being summoned to the banquet hall where the royal family was usually served their meals.

As soon as she strode through the high-arched doorway and entered the hall that was bathed in sunlight, Queen Breha rose from her seat at the end of the long table and hurried across the marble door to welcome her with open arms and a warm smile on her face.

“Good morning, Padmé,” Breha said affectionally and pulled her into an unexpectedly informal hug, “and welcome to Alderaan. I hope you did find your accommodation suitable for your needs after such a trying journey.”

Padmé pulled back with an appropriate curtsy. “More than suitable,” she said, forcing a smile. Part of her was slightly disappointed that the twins were not there, even though she had not expected them to be. “I am most grateful for your hospitability, Your Majesty.”

“Let us lay down such titles and formalities here,” Breha urged, laying a delicate hand on Padmé’s shoulder and gesturing towards the table with the other. “Please, sit down with us. You must be starving.”

Padmé did not object when Breha walked her to the table. She shifted her attention to Bail as she took the seat opposite him. “Any news from Coruscant yet?” she asked, not bothering to try and hide her eagerness to know.

What if they had not heard anything? What if they were not going to believe her story, after all?

Bail took the liberty to pour fresh and mineral-rich spring water into their goblets. “Curiously enough, we haven’t been able to make contact with our agents on the capital,” he replied. “No transmission has gotten through, and the HoloNet has been shut down too. My only conclusion can be that the Imperials are jamming all means of communications to prevent something disadvantageous to the Empire from reaching the public.”

Breha glanced at Padmé over the rim of her intricate goblet. “Bail told me what you told him about the Emperor,” she said. “We have chosen to believe you. However, I believe that it would be beneficial for us all to hear the full story. My apologies for having to ask you to dwell on what must have been a highly traumatic experience for you, but I’m afraid we have no choice on the matter. Understanding the… circumstances better would undoubtedly help us to provide you the support you need.”

“All we ask of you is your honesty,” Bail added with a stern look on his face before letting his expression soften. “We are here for you, Padmé. I know this must be confusing to you, considering everything you’ve been put through, but I need you to understand that we are on your side.”

Breha gave a confirming nod. “If you wish to talk with a professional, all you need to do is ask,” she said. “Just a word from you, and I’ll have it arranged.”

It was then that Padmé’s fork dropped with a loud clatter. “Oh, for the stars’ sake!” she snapped before she could stop herself, unable to quell the violent trembling of her shoulders as it all came out. “I appreciate your concern, and I’ll be eternally grateful for everything you have done for me and my family, but—please, my friends—you don’t have to walk on eggshells around me. There’s nothing wrong with me or my capability to understand the severity of the situation. I’m so, so sorry for putting you both in such a difficult position, but I didn’t do it out of unawareness. I understand that my actions have consequences. I’ve already accepted that, so can we—can we discuss the situation as it is? There’s no need for gloss over my part in this. I’m not damaged, not broken. I can handle it. ” I’m not going crazyor am I?

The Organas exchanged a concerned glance with each other. Breha put down her goblet and leaned forward to take one of Padmé’s hands in her own. “I’m sorry, my friend. We never meant to upset you,” she assured her soothingly. “Perhaps we shouldn’t have brought this up just yet. We trust you, Padmé. We only want that is best for you.”

It was Bail’s turn to nod. “Best for you, Luke and Leia, and the rest of the galaxy,” he added emphatically. “I’m looking forward to hearing from our agents on Coruscant. As soon as we can confirm Palpatine’s fate, I’ll have to summon the rest of the Alliance to Alderaan to determine our next course of action. Our people will undoubtedly have questions, and we simply thought that hearing your story might help us form the answers. I wouldn’t want to put pressure on you, and perhaps I should’ve chosen my words better, but—”

“No—no, you’re right,” Padmé hurried to say. She was uncomfortably aware that she had no real, fact-based reason to distrust the Organas and their intentions, and yet she had lost it in front of them. “You did nothing wrong, neither of you did. I—I don’t know what got into me. I shouldn’t have—I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Breha said, smiling gently. “It’s all right.”

But despite the Queen’s soothing words, all Padmé could think was that she could not afford to break down and fall apart if she wished to be with her children. The Organas would never leave her alone with the twins if they doubted her mental stability. As it should be, she thought. They had sworn to keep her children safe—the sole reason she had agreed to proceed with Yoda’s plan, to begin with.  

She took a long sip from her goblet and sighed. “I tell you everything,” she finally said. “I’ll tell you the whole story, the whole truth, without adding or leaving out anything.”

And she indeed did tell them the truth, starting from when she first got captured in the Anoat system and ending at their daring escape from Coruscant in a stolen shuttle. The Organas listened in silence as she told them everything, every tiny detail about what had happened. She told them about Sereena and her role in everything that had happened; about how she had ultimately discovered Vader’s true identity after weeks of suspicion and uncertainty; about their final fight against Sereena and the Emperor in the overgrown garden.

It was almost noon when she finally finished her story. “I wish I had evidence to support my claim,” she said, hanging her head. “But all I have is my word.”

“I already had our technicians to take a look at the droid you brought with you,” Bail said. “Everything you told us seems to match seamlessly with the information they managed to extract from its memory banks. We believe you, Padmé.”

Breha inclined her head towards Padmé. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t make our situation any less complicated,” she said as she rose from her seat and walked to the window. “What we have in our hands is a man proven to be capable of both selfless heroics and unspeakable crimes; one who might have both doomed and saved our galaxy"—she turned back to look at Padmé—“how does one judge a person such as him?”

Bail rubbed his temples and let out a sigh. “He might have killed the Emperor, but one good deed hardly makes him a saint,” he added, shaking his head. “Not after everything he has done in the name of his Emperor, not even though he once was a Republic hero.”

Knowing that there was nothing she could have said and come off unbiased, Padmé let her gaze drop to her hands. “We aren’t exactly without fault, either,” she said, directing her words to both Bail and Breha. “As rulers and senators, we failed our duty to the people of the galaxy. We failed to protect them from the evil that rose from amongst our own, and yet we have worked tirelessly to restore the government that let down quadrillions of people because we believe in it. If we truly believe that the Republic deserves second chance—that we deserve second chance to make it right this time around—shouldn’t we extend the same courtesy to Anakin? Everyone deserves a fair trial, even him.”

“I agree,” Bail said. “But even with the Emperor gone, it could take years before such a high-profile trial can be held. Until then, there will be chaos and there will be disorder. People will demand justice, and frankly, I cannot blame them. There will be those who will try to take justice into their own hands, too, and there’s only so much we can do to protect him. Our hands are tied—”

“I’ll protect him.” There was newly found firmness and determination in Padmé’s voice. “He’s my family. It’s my—”

It was then that the door was pushed open and a young girl with her hair bound in two buns on both sides of her head swooped into the room. “Uncle Bail,” the girl cried, her cheeks brightly flushed with annoyance. “Luke took my Ewok plush again and now he won’t tell me where he put it!”

Padmé noticed that Bail did not seem to be particularly surprised by the intrusion. “Well, Leia, did you ask him nicely?” he inquired in a neutral tone as he rose from his seat.

Leia puffed her cheeks full of air and furrowed her brow, clearly preparing to express how offended she was by such a question, but then she noticed Padmé, and a wide smile spread over her face. “Aunt Padmé! No one told me Aunt Padmé was here!”

For a moment there, Padmé could not do anything but gawk at the girl, her daughter, with her jaw slightly open. There she was, her baby girl, all grown up and ready to conquer the galaxy—or at least the twins’ playroom.

And she still remembered her. All those years since her last visit, all those parsecs between them, and her beloved daughter still remembered her.  

Padmé glanced warily at Bail and Breha, looking for advice, or perhaps permission. They both smiled at her, and when Breha gave her a small, almost unnoticeable nod, she no longer hesitated. Instead, she rushed over to Leia, dropped on her knees and pulled her daughter into a hug. “Stars, Leia, look at you,” she murmured into her hair, no longer able to keep her voice from breaking or her eyes from watering. “Oh, just look at you… You’ve grown so much!”

Leia pulled back and looked at her in youthful confusion. “Yes, but… why are you crying?” she asked, inclining her head. “Are you sad to see me?”

Words temporarily stuck somewhere in her throat, Padmé sniffled, and then opened and closed her mouth several times. “Oh, no, not at all,” she managed. Simultaneously smiling and crying, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “No, sweetheart, I’m so happy to see you. So happy that I barely know what to say.” Oh, I love you so, so much, my daughter.

Chapter Text

Since the late Emperor had never been one to make regular public appearances, verifying his death turned out to be much more complicated than anticipated. The Imperial propaganda machine doing everything in its power to conceal the truth from public, it took two standard weeks from the Rebel agents on Coruscant to come up with proof Bail needed for disbanding the Imperial Senate. The Rebel leaders deemed the chaos and disorder caused by the denunciation of the Empire and the following dissolution of the Senate a necessary evil, in order to prevent the toppled Empire from choosing a successor—a puppet—to keep the Senate, and thereby the galaxy, on its leash.

While the majority of now-former senators chose to either support the Empire or stay neutral, fearing the brewing military conflict turning into a full-scale civil war, surprisingly many were brave enough to rally their systems behind the Rebel cause. There were now hundreds, if not thousands, of people, human and alien alike, arriving Alderaan—the new Rebel Alliance headquarters—every day. As the Imperial fleet was now scattered and torn by infighting over leadership, even those systems that had never dreamed of openly supporting the Rebels out of fear of the Empire’s retaliation were now sending resources to help with the effort to end the oppression and restore democracy to the galaxy.

Every morning there were dozens of newly arrived pilots, technicians, medical personnel and other specialists, as well as volunteering civilians, awaiting their assignments in the front of the Royal Palace. Padmé was there, too, looking for a certain familiar face in the crowd, but it was starting to seem that Ahsoka was not coming. Yet she had no other choice but to cast her disappointment aside and focus on her new duties, as much to her delight, she had been assigned to assist negotiations with neutral systems for cooperation and aid. Mon Mothma, the de facto leader of the Rebel Alliance, had asked her personally, although reminding her that she was no under obligation to accept the assignment in case she needed more time to adjust to her restored freedom.

The Organas had encouraged her to take her time to rest and recover from her ordeals, but Padmé had reassured them that keeping herself busy was exactly what she needed to retain her sanity in this trying time.

Now that her days were crowded with attending holoconferences and organizing in-person meetings with important dignitaries from neutral systems, a lot was depending on her expertise. Negotiating access to hyperspace lanes in the Outer Rim and securing supply lines for the Rebels made her feel more alive than she had felt in a long time. Back in the Imperial Palace, she had been but a pawn in the schemes of the Sith, but this—this was different. This is my arena, she thought as she attended the first meeting of the day, this is something I can handle.

But even though she had her hands full with her new duties, she never failed to find time to visit Anakin, who was still unconscious, and tonight was not an exception.

It was already late by the time Padmé dragged herself into the medical wing. Both the medical droids and the royal guards posted outside the doors had retired for the night, but it did not stop her, as she was allowed to come and go as she pleased. Feeling exhausted, yet satisfied after hours of remarkably successful negotiations, she knew she could not lie down and get some well-deserved rest before making sure that Anakin was all right. It was just as Bail has predicted; there were already rumors about how, and by whose hand, the Emperor had died spreading like wildfire among the newcomers. A few people had recognized her as well. She could not help but fear that it would be only a matter of time before someone would do the math and figure out the rest.

There was only a dim night light left to illuminate Anakin’s pale, scarred features as Padmé tiptoed into his room, the door hissing shut behind her. She had been told that he was recovering fast, and even though the medical reports she had been provided with had stated that the damage to his lungs was irreversible, the sound of his breathing was already much less intrusive than when he had still been encased in Vader’s armor. Since it had turned out that Palpatine had cared very little about his apprentice’s wellbeing, Padmé held hopes that the proper healthcare Anakin was receiving now would ease his pain enough to make all their efforts worthwhile.

“Good evening, love,” she said quietly as she took a seat beside his bunk, even though she knew he could not hear her. Talking to him, perhaps sharing a couple details about her day, especially if she had happened to be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the twins—it was a silly habit she had adopted over the weeks. “I was pleased to hear there's been an improvement to your condition. The nurse kindly told me you could wake up any day now.”

She took one of his prosthetic hands, now covered in high-quality synthskin, in hers and let out a weary sigh. “I’m looking forward to that day,” she murmured, “but I’m afraid, too. I can’t tell what is going to happen to us. To you. Bail wants to help, but there’s only so much he can do for you. He promised you a fair trial. Perhaps—perhaps, if you cooperate—if you tell them everything they want to know about the Empire, Palpatine’s plans, everything—it might help your case?”

And yet she was unsure whether she was trying to convince Anakin, who could not even hear her, or herself. Deep down in her heart, she doubted that he could tell them anything they would consider crucial enough to turn the tide in his favor, let alone have him pardoned. She was aware of how selfish it was of her to even dare to hope something so absurd, but she could not help herself. She knew former stormtroopers, even officers, who had gained their former enemies’ trust by providing a few clearance codes or perhaps coordinates to secret bases, but to think of the Rebel leaders extending that same courtesy to Darth Vader himself—no, that was not going to happen. Not ever, unless…

Padmé lowered her gaze. “I’m afraid we might need a miracle,” she said, gently stroking Anakin’s palm with her thumb. “But miracles do happen. We found each other again. That surely counts as one, don’t you think?”

She stifled a yawn with the back of her hand. “Oh, and I saw little Luke the other day,” she said. “I can’t wait for you to meet him. He looks just like you when we first met. He has your eyes—and your hair, too. I wonder if his hair gets darker when he gets older like yours did.”

She briefly recalled that day in all those years ago, and even though she could no longer remember what that shabby little junk shop in Mos Espa had looked like, she remembered a few of Anakin’s very first words to her as clearly as it had all happened just yesterday. A person, not a slave, she thought as she reached to caress his icy cold forehead, running her fingers tenderly along the fissures of his scorched skin, and your name is Anakin.

All she could do was hope that he, too, would remember that when he woke up. His armor and that menacing helmet gone, it was already treacherously easy to forget that he still held the power to tear the palace apart, stone by stone, and slaughter everyone inside, if he wished.

“Bail and Breha have taken good care of the twins,” she continued. “Not that I expected anything less. We, uh, agreed not to tell them about us, about who we are, until you have fully recovered.” She yawned. “It’s almost like torture, you know, seeing them around every day and not being able to be their mother. It’s not easy, but it’s for the best, I know it. We’ll tell them together, if—if—” If this is still what you want.

Padmé leaned back onto her seat and wrapped herself into the blanket the nurse had kindly brought her a few days ago. She realized that Anakin had not particularly agreed to be brought to Alderaan and that she could only guess what he might do when he woke up. What if he has no intention of helping us? Padmé asked herself. What if he has second thoughts about leaving all that behind now that the Emperor is gone?

She glanced at Anakin. “No, that’s not true,” she mumbled drowsily under her breath. “I have faith in you, love.”

She could not help but notice that the armchair was unexpectedly comfortable, and it was pleasantly warm under the blanket, in contrast to the blizzard battering the courtyard right outside the window. In fact, she found herself growing more indifferent to the thought of having to get up from her cozy chair and walk through the freezing darkness to get back to her suite by the minute.

The next time Padmé woke up was to a loud bang outside the door. It was still dark outside, the blizzard drastically reducing visibility to next to nothing. At first, she could not remember where she was and why, but as soon as the situation came flooding back to her, the first thing she realized was that she had fallen asleep—and the second was that they were in trouble. Then came another bang, even louder than the first one, followed by heated whispering. She could not quite make out the words, but it became clear to her that there were at least three, maybe four people trying to forcefully enter the room.

With trembling hands, she fumbled for her blaster only to remember that she was no longer carrying it with her. It was supposed to be safe in Alderaan, but now it occurred to her that as long as she was planning to stay by Anakin’s side, nowhere was safe enough.

There was absolutely nothing in the room she could have used as a makeshift weapon, so when the door finally gave in, all she could do was to stand between Anakin’s bed and the intruders. Just as she had estimated, there were four people altogether, led by a red-skinned Zabrak female with a vibroknife and a fierce expression on her tattooed face.

The group of four looked confused. “You wasn’t supposed to be here,” one of them, a tall and broad-shouldered human male with a flamethrower, rumbled. “No one was supposed to be here.”

Padmé folded her arms. “And yet here I am,” she said with more confidence than she felt as she studied the attackers. Their equipment did not leave much room for doubt about their intentions. Reflexively, she reached for her comlink. “Either you leave now or I call the guards.”

“Ah, ah, not so fast,” the Zabrak snapped maliciously and pulled what Padmé immediately recognized as a Republic-issue EMP grenade from the Clone Wars from her vest. “If you as much as touch that comlink, I’ll fry it up… along with the machines that keep that monster alive. Your choice, lady.”

Padmé flinched, then let her hand drop to her side. The Zabrak nodded appreciatively and tucked the grenade back into her vest.

“One way or another, Darth Vader dies tonight,” a third intruder, who stood in the shadows behind the others and whose features Padmé could not quite distinguish in the dim light, declared in an ominous tone. “You, however, don’t have to go down with him. Stand aside, and you won’t get hurt.”

“No,” Padmé said curtly, her heart racing wildly in her chest. “I won’t let you.”

“What’s wrong with you, woman?” the Zabrak growled, waving her vibroknife at Padmé. “What kind of a fool wishes to die for someone like—?”

“It doesn’t matter,” the tall human interrupted. “Vader must be controlling her—and the Organas, too, for they have allowed this to happen under their roof—with his dark sorcery, but it ends here. It all ends here. We kill him and burn this place down to make sure the darkness he carries within may never rise again.”

“Ssstand aside,” hissed the fourth intruder, a vicious-looking Trandoshan male, in a predatory tone. “Or we have no other choice but to treat you as an enemy of the Rebellion.”

“Last time I checked, the Rebel Alliance didn’t stand for murder and vengeance!” Padmé exclaimed. “This is no justice. He deserves a fair trial—”

The Zabrak scoffed sourly. “You tell that to Ryloth, lady. You tell that to Mon Cala,” she snarled from between clenched teeth. “You tell that to every star system the Empire has terrorized over the decade. Me, I’m done with kriffing politicians preaching their noble ideals from their ivory towers.”

“Did we come here to have a nice little chat or what?” the Trandoshan asked. “Let’sss be done with it!”

The Zabrak nodded to the human and the Trandoshan. “Restrain her,” she barked her order, tightening her grip of her vibroblade. “I’ll deal with Vader myself.”

Padmé did her best to put up a fight, but there was only so much she could do alone and unarmed against two obviously seasoned fighters. She managed to land a punch or two, but ultimately they subdued her with ease. “No!” she screamed as she struggled against the Trandoshan’s vicelike grip, rendered powerless to do anything about the Zabrak assassin approaching Anakin’s bed, her sizzling blade outstretched. “No—leave him alone!”

Indifferent to Padmé’s desperate pleas, the Zabrak prepared to cut Anakin’s throat. “If you only knew how long I’ve waited for this moment,” she murmured ecstatically. “This is for—“

It was then that someone, a hooded stranger, shattered the window and burst into the room, sending glass raining down to the floor. The stranger was fast, almost unnaturally so, as they sprang back to their feet and lunged forward. The Zabrak tried to obliterate them with vicious slashes of her vibroknife, but the stranger evaded every strike with what seemed little effort before disarming her with one swift kick at her wrist.

“Who the kr—?”

Yet the Zabrak’s confusion did not last long. She groaned furiously as she spun around to throw a series of ferocious punches at the stranger, who all but danced out of her reach. Padmé could do nothing but watch in awe as the stranger thwarted the Zabrak’s attempt to grab the Trandoshan’s blaster rifle to use it as a melee weapon.

The stranger drew their weapon. Padmé was temporarily blinded by the sudden brightness that filled the room, but the familiar hum of a lightsaber—no, two lightsabers—igniting simultaneously made her realize that they had been rescued from the assassins.

The stranger pointed their pure white blades at the Zabrak, sending her flailing backward in terror. “Stand down,” they said, their voice ringing authority. “You are beaten.”

The Trandoshan gasped in surprise. “It’sss a Jedi!” he hissed as he released his grip of Padmé and backed against the wall.

“It can’t be,” murmured one of the intruders from the shadows. “The Jedi are extinct.”

The human dropped his flamethrower. “Why would a Jedi, of all people—”

Then the alleged Jedi shook their hood off and revealed their face. “I am no Jedi.” It was Ahsoka Tano, standing tall and proud and fearless in the middle of the room, offering a stern look to the group of assassins. “But I’m familiar with their ways. Lay down your weapons. It’s over.”

It did not take long for the royal guards to arrive and take the assassins away for further questioning. Her weapons sheathed, Ahsoka studied the prisoners in tense silence, then pulled one of the guards aside for a moment to share her observations.   

It was only after the guards and their prisoners were gone that Padmé found her words again. She leaped forward to hug Ahsoka. “You came,” she said, her voice trembling from the pounding of her heart. “I almost didn’t dare to hope—”

“Of course,” Ahsoka said, her tone softer. “I’m sorry I couldn’t come sooner. I suppose I could have contacted you, but I hesitated. Didn’t want to risk my message falling in wrong hands. So many already know what is going on. ” She glanced over her shoulder at the broken door. “Too many. Are you all right?”

“It’s okay,” Padmé hurried to say. “It’s all good now that you are here.”

Ahsoka turned to Anakin’s bed. “How is he?”

“Still unconscious, but stable,” Padmé replied. “The medical droids expect him to wake up any day now.”

Ahsoka let her gaze alternate between Anakin and the remnants of Vader’s armor on the nearby counter where the medical droids had been studying them and sighed. “Oh, Skyguy…” she trailed off. “I shouldn’t have left you.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Padmé reminded her, laying a comforting hand on the Togruta’s shoulder. “None of us could have stopped any of this from happening. Palpatine had us all fooled. The Senate, the Jedi Council… and Anakin.”

Ahsoka laced fingers with her. “I always thought he was dead,” she said flatly, staring at Anakin, who was blissfully unaware of everything that had happened in the room over the past thirty minutes. “I thought he got killed in the Jedi Purge, but no—he was the killer. I was his Padawan, I should have... There must have been something more I could’ve—”

Padmé shook her head. “No, Ahsoka,” she said. “Anakin made his choice because he believed it was the right thing to do. When has anything, or anyone, stopped him from doing what he thinks is right?”

Out of old habit, Ahsoka could not help but roll her eyes. “Classic Skyguy. What a fine mess you’ve gotten us into this time,” she muttered, throwing a sharp glance at him before turning back to Padmé. “I want to help.”

Padmé could not possibly have been more relieved to hear her words. “Thank you,” she said hoarsely. “You don’t know how much that means to me. To both of us.”

“You have to tell me everything,” Ahsoka said, then added more emphatically, “in the morning. You look like you could use some rest.”


“Don’t worry about Anakin,” Ahsoka said. “I’ll watch over him. He once believed in me when no one else did. It’s time to return the favor. Go. Get some sleep. The Force knows you need that. ”

Chapter Text

The formerly peaceful banquet hall was now always noisy and crammed with people during meal hours, as the Royal Palace now provided accommodation for hundreds of Rebels, and even more were housed in the endlessly long, even rows of tents on the palace grounds. The Royal Palace might not have been designed for being used as a base for military operations, but the Rebel leaders had agreed that anything was better than squatting in the ancient tombs on Yavin 4.

As Padmé strode through the high-arched doorway and entered the hall, the breakfast crowd fell completely silent. For a few seconds there, dozens of people stared at her in perplexity, even in dismay, and then returned to their meals, as if nothing unusual had happened.

Even though no one seemed to dare make eye contact with her, the sideway glances they shot at her when they thought she was not looking did not escape her notice. They know what happened last night. Everyone knows, she realized as she walked past the long lines of tables, furtive whispers following her across the pure white marble floor. And they’re not just avoiding methey’re scared of me, unsure of where my loyalties lie.

She soon found an empty table by one of the enormous windows that allowed the banquet hall bathe in sunlight; a sufficiently sheltered nook for her breakfast meeting with Ahsoka. Yet Padmé could not help but feel that finding such a perfect spot for a private conversation in a hall crowded with people had very little to do with luck. As soon as she placed her tray on the table and sat down, the people at the nearby tables started to look like they had just remembered they were in a hurry. Utensils clinked and chairs scraped the floor as they fled the hall, obviously not wanting to be associated with her.

She wrapped her chilling hands around her thermal mug and let out a weary sigh. There had been a handful of familiar faces, people she had considered friends, among those who had gawked at her as if they had seen a ghost. Although she understood their reservations, their open contempt troubled her—even though trading the trust and benevolence of many of her allies and now apparently former friends for Anakin’s life had been a conscious choice, one she would make again without hesitation.

Yet she had known from the start that there would be consequences. There’s consequences to everything we do, she reminded herself, her thoughts lingering with Anakin, and even Sereena. What’s left for us is to determine whether those consequences are something we can live with.

And besides, her situation was not half as bad as it could have been, as she still had Mon Mothma and the Organas on her side. Mothma’s pacifist ideals and her gentle authority, as well as the respect the Rebels held for Bail and Breha, surely helped keeping hostilities in check. Without their support, she doubted the Rebels would have allowed her, an alleged traitor, to walk free among them.

All she could do now was to prove worthy of their trust and support, and perhaps things would settle down eventually. As long as the Empire still had their fleets and the sheer manpower to demolish entire star systems, there were more pressing matters for her to worry about than her interpersonal relationships. She was here to reunite her family and restore democracy to the galaxy, and neither task was going to be easy, not even without any additional trouble.

And she knew she could not stop now. She had to maintain her focus on the present and work tirelessly for restoring peace, or her gnawing fear for Anakin’s ultimate fate would quickly consume her. Legally speaking, she was painfully aware of how limited his options were, but she was not going to allow that, or anything, to dilute her determination. I’m not giving up on him, not ever, she thought, her hands trembling around her mug. There has to be a way. Something we haven’t taken into consideration.

It was then that Ahsoka arrived. She took the opposite seat. “Good morning,” she said, her expression indescribable. “How are you feeling? Did you get any sleep?”

Padmé forced a smile. “Good morning to you too, Ahsoka,” she said as she took a sip of her now lukewarm tea, vastly ignoring its bitter aftertaste. “I’m certainly resting easier now that you’re here.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” Ahsoka proceeded to unwrapping her ration bar. “I’m coming from the medical wing. Anakin’s fine. The med droids expect him to wake up today. They asked me to bring you the message.”

Padmé’s heart fluttered with anticipation. “Finally, some good news,” she sighed, putting her mug down to prevent her drink from spilling.

To be able to speak with Anakin, to hold him, to tell him everything about the twins… There were a couple holoconferences on her afternoon schedule, but after a brief consideration, she decided that they were nothing her colleagues could not handle without her. “I think I’m going to cancel my schedule for the rest of the day. I want to be there for him when he wakes up.”

“If you don’t have anything against it, I’d like to be there too,” Ahsoka said. “It’s just… I need to hear his side of the story. I want to help him. No, I’m going to help him, and nothing in the galaxy can stop me from doing just that, but… I need to know, Padmé. I need to hear it from him. In his own words. I need to hear his reasons—and yours, too. You truly have faith in him, don’t you?”

It would have been easy to mistake her words for a genuine question, but Ahsoka’s eyes gave out that she already knew the answer. It was not a question, but a perceptive observation.

Padmé let her gaze drop into her lap. “I know what this looks like. Believe me, I do. If someone had told me a year ago that it would come to this…” she trailed off. “My Anakin… Darth Vader…”

“How did you find out?” Ahsoka could not quite conceal her curiosity.

“Now that I look back, I know I knew the truth a lot sooner than I allowed myself to accept it,” Padmé recalled. “And then one day I simply found myself running out of options. He didn’t tell me. I figured it out on my own. He wanted to tell, I suppose, but he—”

“—kept telling himself he couldn’t do it.” Ahsoka took the liberty to finish her sentence for her. “Because facing the truth would have forced him to face his past as well, right?”

“Something like that, I imagine,” Padmé said. “We didn’t have the time to talk things through. There was so much going on. Palpatine wasn’t our only enemy. There was another, a Sith girl of your age, or maybe younger. Palpatine lured her in with false promises of power.”

“Like he did with Anakin?”

Padmé nodded. “Like he did with Anakin.”

“You must know, I never crossed paths with Vader—Anakin—during my years in hiding,” Ahsoka said, glancing out of the window. The crystal clear morning sky showed no trace of the last night’s blizzard. “I had heard of his vile deeds, and fought off his Inquisitors whenever they found my trail and came after me, but I never met him in person. Now, I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if I did… Would I have recognized him? Would he have recognized me? Would he even have cared if he did? Or would he have killed me? I guess I’ll never know.”

“Had you recognized him, what would you have done?”

“Tried to help him,” Ahsoka replied, her tone adamant. “Just like I’m trying to do now. The problem is we’re running thin on allies.” She let her gaze go around the hall. “Everyone here is frightened, I can feel it in the Force. Their trust will not come easily, if ever. We need more allies. People we can trust.”

“Bail and Breha are on our side, and so is Senator Mothma,” Padmé pointed out. “I know she wants to put an end to this bloodshed just as much as I do.”

“It’s a good start, but far from enough,” Ahsoka said, inclining her head to one side. “We need people who are willing to speak for Anakin. You represented me when I was put on trial, but I doubt they’ll ever let you represent him.”

“I’m afraid you’re right,” Padmé sighed. “A conflict of interest. It would be inappropriate.”

Ahsoka offered her an encouraging smile. “I just may have an idea,” she said. “I just need first to—”

It was then that their conversation was interrupted by Mon Mothma approaching their table. Much to Padmé’s delight, she was accompanied by a rather familiar droid.

“Senator Mothma,” Padmé greeted politely before turning to Esdee. She had not seen the droid since their arrival to Alderaan, as her new duties, as well as her concerns for Anakin, had kept her busier than she had expected. “Oh, Esdee, it’s so good to see you. How have you been? Bail’s people have treated you well, I hope.”

Esdee let out a cheerful beep. “It is so very good to see you as well, Mistress Padmé,” he chirped. “I must admit that I’ve never felt much enthusiasm for strangers getting handsy with my precious parts, but other than that, I have no complaints at all. In fact, working with these good people has been quite a pleasant experience. Very different from working with Master Vader, I might add. In fact, I have already compiled a humble list of proposals to improve our professional relationship that I must present to my Master at his earliest convenience.”

Padmé had not forgotten how poorly Vader had treated his droid. “Well, then,” she said, offering the droid a sincere smile. “I’m confident that he will take your proposals into serious consideration.”

“This SD unit has indeed been invaluable help with locating several hidden Imperial shipyards,” Mon Mothma praised. “Our Alliance wouldn’t be where we are today without his efforts, and the same could be said about you. Speaking of which, Padmé, could I borrow a moment of your time?”

“Of course,” Padmé assured, gesturing Mon Mothma to take a seat. “How may I help you?”

Mon Mothma’s delicate jewelry chimed together as she sat down. “As I believe you’re already aware, we have recently been in talks with Naboo,” she said. “Queen Calista openly supports our cause, and so do the Gungan people. As far as we understand, they have a genuine wish to officially join our Alliance, but there has been… dissenting voices in the court, slowing down the initial process.”

Padmé furrowed her brow in concern. Although she might not have been able to visit Naboo in years, she had never stopped caring about her home planet or worrying for its people. “Imperial sympathizers?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Mon Mothma admitted, threading her fingers together. “Palpatine himself may be gone, but his shadow still lingers over the Naboo people. Now, the Queen has personally requested your presence at the negotiations, in hopes that a public appearance of a beloved former ruler might not only bolster morale, but also help to shed light on Palpatine’s treachery. She believes you can make a difference, and frankly, I agree with her.”

“The Senator is right,” Ahsoka interjected. “Who could possibly have more insight into Palpatine’s schemes than you? You were there when it all began.”

Padmé stared emptily at Ahsoka. “I was not only there,” she mumbled. “I helped him, Ahsoka. I helped him to seize power in the Senate. It was I who called the vote to remove Chancellor Valorum from office, for Palpatine advised me to take such course of action.”

“You only did what you deemed necessary to protect your people, my dear,” Mon Mothma said softly. “And now, you have the opportunity to help them once more.”

“When would I have to leave?” Padmé asked. “How long would I be gone?”

“Captain Antilles has kindly agreed to take you to Theed and act as your escort as well as your personal bodyguard for the duration of your stay,” Mon Mothma replied. “The negotiations are expected to last at least for a week—if everything goes smoothly, that is. Either way, it would be for the best if you set out before noon.”

Padmé’s eyes widened in surprise. “Before noon?” she repeated. How could she possibly travel off-planet now and be gone for days, possibly longer, when Anakin was supposed to wake up within the next few hours? “I—I don’t know about this, Senator.”

“I understand that your situation is a little bit… tight. Yet I can’t stress enough how important it would be for our Alliance to secure this victory without unnecessary bloodshed.” Mon Mothma paused, then continued emphatically, “Will you accept this mission, Padmé? I would be in your debt.”

For a moment there, Padmé was rendered speechless by Mon Mothma’s request. Even though she might have been estranged from her home planet, she was still familiar enough with the political climate in the court to understand how dire the situation had to be. The Queen will need all help she can get to sway the public opinion. She needs me. Naboo needs me, perhaps more than ever, she thought, biting her lower lip in distress, but then again, so does Anakin.

As much as Padmé would have wanted to follow her heart’s desire and refuse the mission, for then she could have been there for Anakin when he woke up, she forced herself to think long-term. If she would succeed, and Naboo would officially join the Rebel Alliance, it would be a significant step toward restoring peace and democracy to the galaxy. Although her heart already ached at the thought of leaving, perhaps it was time to set her personal feelings aside and think about the greater good. She knew that Anakin’s feelings would be hurt, that he would undoubtedly feel abandoned, even betrayed, but as much as she cared about him, she also knew she could not dance around his feelings forever.

She concluded that there had to be limits for how much she could allow herself to sacrifice for their love. There was no other way for the two of them to try and fix what had once been broken between them. Anakin, too, would have to learn to understand that. If he’s truly committed to mending his ways, he will. I have faith in him, and besides, Padmé thought, carefully weighing her options, Mon Mothma is a powerful ally, one we can’t afford to lose. I wouldn't be surprised, if she were to become the first Chancellor of the New Republic. In the long run, proving my devotion to our mutual goal of ending this terrible conflict with as little bloodshed as possible could help Anakin in the trial to come.

It was then that Ahsoka caught her gaze and gave her a subtle, almost imperceptible nod, encouraging her to make the right choice.

“I accept,” Padmé finally said. It would be just a few days, and then she would be back by Anakin’s side. “If you will excuse me now, I have to go upstairs and pack my things. You may inform Captain Antilles that I’ll meet him in an hour.”

As they rose from their seats, Mon Mothma held out her hand to shake Padmé’s. “We are most grateful,” she said, smiling in obvious relief. “Thank you, Ambassador Amidala.”

Not long after their breakfast business had been concluded, Padmé strode through the breezy courtyard and the long lines of tents, dragging a heavy suitcase behind her. Much to her relief, most people were either working on their shifts or otherwise too busy to pay too much attention to her and Ahsoka, who had agreed to accompany her before heading back to the medical wing.

As they approached the launch pad where Padmé was supposed to meet with Captain Antilles and board the Tantive IV, Ahsoka grabbed her arm and stopped her. “Padmé, wait,” she urged, her head-tails flapping in the mercilessly blowing wind. "Before you go, I just need you to know that you don't have to worry about Anakin."

“I’m afraid it’s easier said than done,” Padmé said wryly. “I need you to know something as well. Listen, Ahsoka… I don’t think Anakin ever expected to survive the battle against the Emperor. I have my reasons to believe his plan was to sacrifice himself to give our children a future he never had. As I said before, we never truly had a chance to talk these things through, which means that I can barely begin to guess how he might react to… I don’t know, to all this. I had hoped to be there, not least for being able to mediate between him and those who have all the right reasons to hate him. Now, it seems, that task will fall to you.”

Ahsoka leapt forward to give her one last hug. “It’s going to be all right. I’ll keep him in check,” she assured. “I promise there’ll be more than just smoldering ruins left when you return.”

Padmé gave her a half-hearted smile to conceal her concerns. “I might have to hold you to that. Goodbye, Ahsoka.”

Leaving Ahsoka behind, Padmé approached the Tantive IV and Captain Antilles, who was already waiting for her by the loading ramp. Although she did not recall meeting the man before, she assumed from his uniform that he served the House of Organa.

The captain saluted politely. “Good day, m’lady. Raymus Antilles,” he introduced himself. “I bid you welcome aboard. May I take your luggage?”

Padmé let the tall and, in his own way, quite handsome captain with broad shoulders and a strong jawline take care of her suitcase and allowed him to lead her on board the CR90 corvette.

Captain Antilles gestured her toward the passenger suites. “For your convenience, Senator Mothma have assigned you a protocol droid to assist you on your mission,” he said, stopping at one of the sliding doors. “And this is you, m’lady. The droid awaits you inside.”

“Thank you, Captain Antilles,” Padmé said. “I’m looking forward to our cooperation.”

The captain offered her a warm smile. "So do I," he said. “You may just as well call me Raymus, m’lady.”

Padmé returned the smile. “Then you may call me Padmé.”

Much to her surprise, as soon as she entered her suite and the door slid shut behind her, she was greeted by yet another familiar droid. “Oh, good day. You must be Ambassador Amidala,” the golden-plated droid said. I am See—"

"—Threepio!" Padmé blurted out, excited to see an old friend.  

“Why, yes,” Threepio said, sounding as confused as ever. “How extraordinary of you to know my name. I must apologize, Ambassador, but I have no memory of any earlier acquaintance with you.”

“It’s all right,” Padmé said softly, knowing perfectly well that his memory had been wiped eight years ago. Threepio might not remember her, but she surely felt soothed by the droid’s presence, knowing that this way part of Anakin was with her, even with half the galaxy between them. 

Wait for me, love, she thought as she heard the engines starting below the deck. She pressed her hand against the viewport, taking one last look at the Royal Palace. Wait for me, and for the love of the stars, don't do anything stupid.

At the same moment the Tantive IV took off, a certain patient’s eyes fluttered open in the medical wing.

Chapter Text

In his brash arrogance, Anakin Skywalker, the fabled hero with no fear, had not often stopped to contemplate the possibility of his own death. What it would be like? How it would happen? Who would be the one to strike the final blow and send him into the Netherworld of the Force? For him, there had never been much reason to waste time for seeking answers on such meaningless questions. As long as he could remember, it had been his compassion, later twisted into fear, for others that had not only driven him to the brink of madness, but also defined him as both a Jedi and a human being.

His own fate had never concerned him enough to keep him from hopping into the cockpit of his starfighter and venturing into the most reckless maneuvers the galaxy had ever seen. He had never hesitated to resort to battle strategies so daring that they had earned him both contempt and respect of his fellow generals.

He had never been afraid to die, if only the stakes had been high enough—and in the Clone Wars, they had always been. 

But the Clone Wars were long over. Now, he did not know where he was and how he had ended up there. All he could see, both around him and within, was blinding white light. Floating in the whiteness, he felt oddly purposeless. All that was left was peaceful serenity.

And then he heard it. “No one can kill a Jedi.” The words were his own, he recognized them, but not the voice, eerie and distant, that had spoken them.

Master Qui-Gon was first to come in his mind, as Qui-Gon had been the first one to prove the childish belief he had used to cling to as a small boy vastly untrue. Those simple words, stemming from the youthful ignorance of a boy, a mere child, held no real power. Jedi could be killed. Anakin had learned that lesson early. A decade and a half later, he alone had slaughtered dozens of them.

No one can kill a Jedi.” It was that same eerie voice again, only clearer than before. And it certainly sounded like Qui-Gon.

But Master Qui-Gon was gone, too. Anakin had not forgotten that. Squinting, he tried to bring his sight into focus to find out if he had company, but his attempts were in vain.

If he heard Qui-Gon, did that mean that he was dead, too? Or had he merely lost his eyesight?

Was any of this even real?

And even if he was dead, how would he know? There was nothing around him to be seen but endless whiteness. Even his hatred, the thick, black essence clouding his mind, was gone. Vader, who had born of his hatred, who had been sustained by it, was gone, too.

In his newfound clarity, Anakin could not help but wonder if Vader had ever truly existed outside of his own, tormented mind in the first place. Had Vader ever been anything more than a physical manifestation of his deepest, darkest nightmares? Or had Vader always lived inside his mind, only awaiting to be awakened?

Anakin could not tell where he ended and Vader began. Perhaps no one could.

Either way, Vader would not have known the answer for his question. Am I dead? According to the Sith beliefs, death was nothing but yet another obstacle to overcome on the path to immortality, as well as the natural outcome for the sort of mistakes that were only made by the weak and unworthy. For those who were too weak to conquer death, there was nothing worth further pondering about it. If he was dead, all that was supposed to be left for him was to rot in his own misery for all eternity, but strangely enough, he did not feel particularly miserable about his situation.

No one can kill a Jedi.”

“W-who are you?” Anakin forced himself to reach out to the mysterious voice. He immediately noticed that his own voice sounded different, too. Younger and much softer, no longer distorted by the voice synthesizer of Vader’s mask. “Master Qui-Gon? Is—is that you?”

The stranger neither denied nor confirmed Anakin’s assumption. “You have come far, Anakin,” he said serenely. “I could not possibly be more proud of you, my boy.”

Anakin scowled in puzzlement. Even with the darkness lifted, Vader’s sins would be his to bear, forever. “You are wrong, Master. You were wrong about me from the start,” he said hoarsely, despite not being able to tell whether he was truly speaking with Qui-Gon or just a fragment of his own imagination taking shape through the Force. “There’s nothing to be proud of about me. You should never have brought me to Coruscant with you. I failed you, Master. I failed everyone. There’s no going back for me.”

The stranger gave a soft chuckle. “Oh, but my dear boy, you did come back,” he pointed out. “Had you not abandoned your destructive ways and fulfilled your destiny, I believe we wouldn’t be having this conversation. In the end, you turned your back to the darkness and vanquished the evil of the Sith once and for all, and by doing so, you brought balance to the Force. You truly are the Chosen One, Anakin.”

“I don’t believe you.” A frustrated edge creeped to Anakin’s voice. He had never been much of a believer of that old prophecy, and he certainly was not about to start now. “I made those choices. Every single one of them. They weren’t made for me. The Force didn’t made them for me. This is all my fault, Master.”

“What is truly curious about prophecies is that they don’t simply come true,” the stranger said, “they have to be made true. It's in their very nature. It were your choices, Anakin, that made all this possible.”

“And what does that even matter anymore?” Anakin snapped. “It’s a Jedi prophecy, but the Jedi are no more. I killed them, Master. I killed them all.”

“Be careful not to give yourself too much credit, Anakin,” the stranger said, but with distinct gentleness in his voice. “There are still a few left, hiding in the farthest corners of the galaxy. Given more time, I have no doubt you could have killed every last of them. And yet you forget that even if you would have carried through with such evil, there was always this one particular Jedi you could not bring yourself to kill, not entirely. The one you didn’t know what to do with, so you spared him and kept him hidden out of sight… for another to find.”

It was then that Anakin remembered. “Padmé…” he trailed off as his memories rushed back to him, rapidly filling the blanked void of his mind.

“Indeed, Queen Amidala’s courage is unparalleled. It was her who reached out to the Jedi you had imprisoned within yourself and walked you back to the light, but she could only do that because you allowed her to take your hand,” the stranger explained. “Had she not succeeded, another would have come, eventually. A new hope. One of your children, perhaps? Now, I imagine, we shall never know which one.”

“Master Qui-Gon, please,” Anakin began, his voice laced with distress. Whatever this was, and whoever he was speaking with, it no longer mattered to him. All he cared about now was getting back to his family. Would they accept him, he could not tell, but nothing would stop him from reaching out to them, not now. “Am I—am I dead? Please, Master, I must know.”

“Dead?” The stranger sounded mildly surprised, if not outright amused. His voice echoed in Anakin’s head, causing him to feel increasingly nauseous. “No, I don’t think you are, my boy.”

Anakin grunted in relief. “How do I get back, then?”

The stranger chuckled again. “Have you considered opening your eyes?”

It was the sound of his own ragged breathing that pulled him back to reality. Slowly, his eyes fluttered open. The same bright, blinding whiteness was still there, but this time around his eyes responded with burning sensation that would have made him scream in agony, if his lungs would not have been in fire as well. Every desperate gasp for air felt like sand scraping the inside of his damaged windpipe. He did not recall feeling pain this raw in years, not after becoming encased in Vader’s armor and being constantly injected with a synthetic neurotoxin to take the edge off.

He heard voices all around him, but could not make out the words. Soon after, the lights were dimmed and the burning sensation in his eyes eased off. His throat felt too raw and dry to form words, for he silently mouthed his thanks. Soon after, he felt someone squeezing his forearm, while someone else fitted something—some sort of apparatus, perhaps—on the lower half of his face. As soon as he heard the magnetic clamps fastening behind his neck, his breathing became remarkably easier.

His first lucid thought was with Padmé. If only he could move his limbs, he could get up and…

“Please, sir, you must cease your fidgeting,” one of the medical droids stated. “There is no need to worry about your eyesight, as you will have it back in no time.”

Yet Anakin all but ignored the droid, as it was not his eyesight he was worried about. “Padmé?”

“I’m sorry, Master.” Yet another familiar voice from the past; one he had not expected to hear ever again. “For now, you’re stuck with me.”

Anakin could hardly believe his ears. It had to be yet another trick stemming from the depths of his troubled mind, it had to… “A-Ahsoka?” he groaned as he tried to lift himself up, only to cry out in pain and crumble back down. “How—?”

As soon as the medical droids finished checking Anakin’s vital signs, Ahsoka gestured them to leave the room. “Lay still,” she urged. “There will time for explanations later. Do you know where you are? Do you remember what happened?”

“I—” Anakin began, but the words got caught in his hoarse throat. He had not the faintest idea of where he had been taken, but he most certainly remembered what had happened. He remembered everything. “The Emperor… Palpatine… is he gone?”

“Yes,” Ahsoka confirmed, “and his wretched Empire is coming crashing down, all because of you, Anakin.”

It became clear to Anakin that his former apprentice was not putting any effort into hiding her true feelings from him. Unlike an average Jedi, Ahsoka had never been one to be afraid of her feelings. It had been something that had connected them one to another from the very beginning, shaping their relationship and allowing it to grow beyond the traditional boundaries of relationships between Jedi Masters and their students. Everything Ahsoka felt right at that moment, she was inviting Anakin to feel with her, despite their Force bond being broken years ago.

And for the first time in ages, Anakin did not struggle against his feelings or try to deny them or wish them away. Instead, he let Ahsoka in. He allowed himself to feel her sheer relief for his apparent recovery, her compassion and care, even a hint of respect, but also her heartfelt disappointment and the deep blue sorrow surrounding it all.

It would have been treacherously easy for him to let his guilt and shame block out everything, every unwanted feeling or thought that forced him acknowledge everything he had done and reminded him of the burden he would have to live with from now on, but there was something about him, a newfound clarity of himself, that helped him overcome his fear and not let it overwhelm him.

“And… Padmé?” he asked eagerly. “Is she safe?”

“Oh, she’s fine,” Ahsoka assured him. “She saved your life by bringing you here to Alderaan after you got injured.”

“Where is she now?” Anakin continued as he tried his best to ignore the hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. Why isn’t she here? Why didn’t she stay?

“On her way to Naboo,” Ahsoka replied with the faintest hint of cautiousness in her tone. “She was sent on a diplomatic mission to assist negotiations of Naboo joining us in our efforts to restore peace to the galaxy.” She wanted to be here for you, Anakin. More than anything, I know this for certain.

Anakin swallowed to relieve a choked feeling in his throat, as a sudden wave of shame and embarrassment washed over him, burning at the backs of his sore eyes. I’m such a fool. Of course she’s not here, he berated himself, averting his gaze and dropping what flaky bond there had been forming between him and Ahsoka, refusing to acknowledge her certainty in the Force. She has no reason to be here. Why would she have anything to do with me after everything I did to her?

Ahsoka gave him a wary look. “Anakin, please,” she attempted. “Look at me. Don’t shut me out like this.” I can only help you if you let me.

But Anakin no longer allowed himself to feel Ahsoka’s presence in the Force. “Ahsoka…” His fists clenched on the thin blanket. “Leave me be. I wish to be alone.”

At first Ahsoka hesitated, but then she rose from her seat. “Okay, have it your way for now,” she sighed. “I brought you some clothes and an extra blanket in case you’re cold. I’ll be there in the waiting room if you need me.” I understand you need time. We'll talk again later.

As soon as Ahsoka left the room, Anakin forced himself into a half-sitting position and took a look at his surroundings. Despite his eyes being still sore, his eyesight was already returning. He realized he was in a med bay, a well-equipped one. How long he had been there, he could not tell. Had he not sent Ahsoka away, he could have asked her. The clothes—a set of tunics, loosely fitting pants, pair of boots, and a hooded robe, similar to those worn by the Jedi—and the extra blanket she had mentioned were waiting for him on a nearby nightstand.

He let his gaze drop to his hands, now covered in what looked—and felt—like high-quality synthskin, not that pathetic excuse for it Palpatine’s surgical droids had used for his equally pathetic prosthetic limbs after Mustafar. These people, whoever they were, had taken good care of him, yet he failed to understand their reasoning. The fact that they had not killed him alone proved that the Rebels obviously needed something from him, but why go into such lengths and waste so much resources for his sake? It doesn’t make any sense, he thought, fully aware of the position he was in, unless…

His thoughts floated back to Padmé, as he remorsefully recalled everything that had happened in past few months; everything that had derived from his raging desire to keep her to himself. In his own stubbornness and short-sighted stupidity, he had almost gotten her killed. Again. How could he possibly have expected her to be there for him after stripping her of her freedom and keeping her as a prisoner for such a long time?

It was then that her words rushed back to him. I love you. I love you so much, Ani.

But the moment she had held him in her arms and confessed her love felt as distant as a dream, almost as if it had never happened in the first place. What other purpose her words could have served but to bring some crumbs of comfort to a dying man? What feelings she might have harbored for him that he had felt through the Force that night meant nothing now that she was free to make her own choices.

Now that she was free of him.

As the realization hit him, he buried his face in his hands and wept, no longer able to keep the heavy burden of his sins and his shame alike from rushing over him and instantly overwhelming him. Why would Padmé, let alone their children, accept him in their lives after everything he had done? She should have left me to die, he thought, his whole body trembling with emotions he had repressed for nearly a decade.

And again, how treacherously easy it would have been to let the feelings he was at best unequipped to handle take the reins and turn into something worse, but something held him back and stopped him from allowing his paranoid thoughts free reign.

With his sheer determination and what little was left of his Jedi training, he forced himself to stop right there. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths through the new respiratory mask he had been provided with. He was supposed to be mindful of his thoughts, not let them have control over him and drown him in his misery. He was supposed to better than this now that he had, apparently, been given a second chance. No, he thought, staring emptily at his open palms. I won’t be consumed by this temptation, not this timenot ever again.

It was then that he was jolted back to reality by the door sliding open and someone entering the room. The comer was not Ahsoka, and certainly not Padmé, but a tall and aristocratic, handsome and yet stern-looking man Anakin remembered from the distant past. Despite the man’s impeccably neutral expression, Anakin could feel his contempt for him through the Force.

“Senator Organa.”

Bail scoffed. “So, for the better or the worse, you lived,” he said stiffly, “and here I find myself wondering how you would prefer to be addressed. Padmé all but begged us to save Anakin Skywalker’s life, so let me ask you something. Am I looking at Skywalker… or someone else?”

For the longest time, Anakin had refused to acknowledge that name and everything that came with it. Those who had recognized him, or simply seen him without his helmet on without having the slightest clue about his true identity, he had killed without thinking twice. How easy it would have been, how mindlessly simple and straightforward, to reach out and crush the Senator’s throat with a single effortless motion. 

The urge lingered, clawing at the back of his mind, and yet he resisted. “That... is my name,” he said flatly.

Bail’s fine garments rustled softly as he took a seat beside the sickbed and leered down at Anakin. “I can’t say I’m not relieved to hear that,” he said. “Well, then. Pardon me for being blunt, but this is not a courtesy call. As I understand you’re still in recovery, I shall keep this as brief as possible. Yet there is much to discuss about your… rather complicated situation.”

Chapter Text

“In case you haven’t figured it out yet, you are in the custody of the Alliance to Restore the Republic,” Bail said in a matter-of-fact tone. “To be more precise, you are our prisoner and will remain one for an indefinite time. I’m here to tell you what that means in practical terms, as well as to answer your questions, if you have any.”

Bail Organa was not a coward, Anakin had to give him that. On the other hand, he hardly expected, let alone wanted, anyone to cower in front of his disgraceful self. Clearly, Organa had no such intentions.

Not that Anakin would cower under Organa’s scrutiny, either. “A prisoner with no restraints,” he said flatly, rubbing his wrists as he stretched to test his new prosthetics. There was tension in his voice, but not hostility. “A bold decision.”

Bail sighed. “Let us do ourselves a favor and acknowledge the realities, shall we?” he said. “We both know that if you wished to take your leave, no restraints would keep you from doing so. Perhaps you could take it as a sign of our goodwill, as well as a proof that we harbor no immediate intention to harm you. Eventually, you will be expected to answer for your crimes in court, but right now, as we speak, restoring democracy and rebuilding the Republic are our first and foremost priorities. To put it bluntly, your cooperation in achieving these goals would be highly appreciated, as well as remembered in the trial to come.”

“I’ll fight your war for you if that's what you want,” Anakin said haughtily, a hint of impatience creeping into his tone. He understood his situation and did not need nor want it to be sugarcoated for him. In fact, he found himself wishing that Organa would simply say what he had to say, be done with it and leave him to be. “I don’t care what happens to me. All I want is to be with my family.”

“You are hardly in any position to impose such conditions, Skywalker,” Bail pointed out. “Not to mention that our leadership most certainly didn’t agree to spare your life, only to shove you straight back into a cockpit of a starfighter and have you sow even more terror, but in our name this time around. Our alliance is seeking to end this unfortunate conflict as peacefully as possible, not to let it escalate further into a full-scale war.”

Anakin corrected his posture, trying his best to ignore the jolt of pain caused by his sudden movement. “You are fools to let down your guard,” he snapped. “You don’t know the Empire as I do. You are already at war, whether you want it or not.”

To his mild surprise, his backtalk seemed to neither bother nor offend Bail, who remained as calm and collected as ever.

“If that is so, then we can only hope that you allow us to benefit from your... insight to help us save as many lives as we are able. We already took the liberty to take a look at your personal droid’s memory bank, but we would be grateful if you joined us in our next council meeting in person and assisted us in determining the wisest course of action.”

“Don’t you understand? The Empire is powerless without its leaders,” Anakin said, referring to both Palpatine and himself. “The momentum is yours for now, but it won’t last forever. Strike now, and strike hard. It’s the only way to end this. The more time you waste now, the more you'll regret it when they come for you.”

“That decision isn’t yours to make,” Bail said sternly, “but I assure you, there will be a more suitable time for you to make your case. For now, there are other things for us to discuss.”

Anakin could barely contain his frustration. Vader had never considered the minor threat the Rebel Alliance might have had imposed his first priority, as he had been much more devoted to hunting down the remaining Jedi. Yet Anakin should have known that these rebels and their soft ideals suffered from the same exact weakness the Republic had once suffered: neglecting the idea of timely action in favor of endless debates. “Such as?”

“Our alliance wishes to make you an offer. Before we go into the details, I’m afraid I must require an unambiguous answer,” Bail said. “Will you stand with us and help us to restore peace in the galaxy—in our terms?”

Anakin could not help but notice that Organa’s wording made it sound almost like they needed him more than he needed them. They are desperate, he realized. Desperate to end the war they are too weak to even accept being part of. Even though he considered these people worthy of neither his assistance nor his loyalty, he understood that it would have been foolish of him to refuse his best, and perhaps only, chance to get closer to his family.

It would have been tempting to dismiss Organa as simply another weak-willed politician who would hide behind empty phrases, but there was something more about him. Something Anakin could not quite put his finger on, but it was there nevertheless. And besides, Padmé had always held her colleague in high regard.

Anakin narrowed his sore eyes. “Yes.”

“We are most grateful,” Bail said with a noticeable hint of relief in his voice. “And now…”

Anakin was uncertain what to expect when Bail called one of the medical droids back into the room. His attention was immediately drawn to the small metallic case the droid had brought with him. “What’s that supposed to be?” he asked, leering suspiciously at the case.

Bail sighed. “It’s not easy to admit this, but what you did was a great service for the galaxy. Yes, Padmé told us everything. In exchange for your assistance, and after thorough consideration, our leaders have—some of us more reluctantly than the others—agreed to grant you the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “But as you can surely understand, we can’t simply give away our trust.”

“It would be foolish of you if you did.”

“Precisely,” Bail said. “Now, I believe it’s in both our interests for you to stay alive. We could always put you in a high-security cell, forbid visitors for the sake of your own safety, and post multiple guards at all exits to prevent any additional assassination attempts, which could turn out to be tricky in our current situation. As you might imagine, we are running thin on resources, and your past actions have ensured that you will never run short of enemies.”

“Assassins already?” Anakin snarked. “It seems not every rebel is as fond of wasting time as some.”

Bail disregarded him, then gestured the medical droid to open the case. The sleek metallic cover slid open and revealed a transmitter chip similar to those that slave owners planted within the bodies of their slaves to prevent them from escaping in the Outer Rim territories.

“This tiny device here is the alternative we have decided to offer you.”

It took everything Anakin had in him not to lash out in white-hot rage and kill Organa right there where he stood. “No,” he snarled through his clenched teeth.

Bail made a calming gesture with his hands. “This wouldn’t, of course, have to be a permanent arrangement,” he assured. “With the chip intact, you would be permitted to move freely within the palace and its grounds. Additional privileges would be granted if you follow our rules. Break them, or attempt to remove the chip on your own, and our troopers would be instructed to shoot to kill. I’m going to trust you to understand the necessity of preventing you from stealing away and joining forces with the enemy.”

Anakin scoffed. “Why bother with blasters when you could just set off the detonator and be done with it?”

“Detonator?” Bail repeated, sounding not only confused but also deeply disturbed by the very idea of planting explosive chips in living beings, even if they were prisoners. “I’m afraid I don’t follow you, Skywalker. These particular chips are designed solely for tracking purposes. We use similar technology to track our lost vehicles and spacecraft. No explosives.”

Behind his half-mask, Anakin pursed his lips. “How long?” he asked, his voice strained.

“As long as we see fit,” Bail replied. “I won’t lie to you, Skywalker. Earning our trust will not be an easy task for you to accomplish. Had Padmé not vouched for you, I wouldn’t believe it was even possible, and yet here we are. She gave you a solid head start. The rest will be up to you.”

A warm sensation washed over Anakin, significantly relieving his tension. Padmé still cared about him, she had to. “And… what about her?” he asked before he could stop himself. “Let's say I agreed to play by your rules and take that damned chip... then I could see her, right?”

“That would obviously be her prerogative,” Bail replied. “As long as you would stay within the palace property, we would have no desire to restrict who you can associate with—but there’s one exception.”

Anakin stared at Bail, waiting for him to continue.

“The twins. For now, you will stay away from them,” Bail said emphatically. “You will not approach them, not speak to them, not make contact of any nature with them. Do I make myself absolutely clear?”

Padmé stared absentmindedly through the main viewport as the Tantive IV dropped out of hyperspace and approached the orbit of Naboo. From space, the planet, its grassy hills and deep blue lakes, looked exactly as she remembered it, yet she could not help but wonder how much must have had changed during her long absence. She had hoped to return one day, but certainly not like this. In her wildest dreams, she had wanted to bring her children along and introduce them to what could have been their home, had fate been a little kinder to their family, but now that, too, had to wait.

But what’s a few days compared to the rest of our lives?

She had been asking herself that same question over and over again but tried as she might to ignore the hollow feeling gnawing at her chest, she had been unable to brush it off. The decision to leave had not been an easy one, and every parsec that took her farther from Anakin and the twins only made her doubt herself more, but what other choice did she have? By accepting the mission Mon Mothma had offered to her, she had the chance to not only help her home planet to break free from the Empire’s iron grip but also secure important allies for the trial to come.

Because in the end, her family was not something she was willing to make compromises around. She was not going to settle with crumbles, not now when she was so close to having it all. She wanted her children to have a father they could see and touch and speak with, and not only through the bars of a prison cell. From her point of view, Anakin was just as much a victim as he was a villain, and he deserved a second chance just as much as anyone else.

But what she wanted for herself, that was a different, and much more complicated, matter. It was something she had not been ready to contemplate, not until now. She had already deduced that Anakin deserved a second chance, but what about their relationship? She had changed too much to go back to how things used to be and pretend that was what she wanted, and she hoped that Anakin would agree.

She loved him. Oh, she loved him so much, that much she knew for certain, but she also knew that there was only so much love alone could do. Love could not mend the old wounds, let alone heal the trauma, but perhaps it could still lay the foundation for something new. Something that would be based on equality, mutual respect, trust and communication. If her hopeful vision of the future was something Anakin, too, could see himself living with, she already knew she would be more than enthusiastic to give it a try. Oh, no, I shouldn’t get ahead of myself, she reminded herself, a slight flush rising on her cheeks. It’s too early to make such plans. I don’t even know if sharing his life with me is what he truly wants after everything that happened. There should be plenty of time to figure all this out later.

It was time for Tantive IV to land. Padmé realized that it was also time for her to shift her focus from family matters to the task at hand. This is for us. For our family, she thought as she took the co-pilot’s seat and buckled herself up. After a shy of a decade apart from each other, surely they could do a few days more if there was even the tiniest possibility that it would help them to remove the final obstacle standing between them.

She trusted Ahsoka to watch Anakin's back, but even more importantly, she trusted him to stay true to his decision to turn back to light. And with that trust, she allowed her current mission to occupy her thoughts.

Raymus pulled his eyes from the controls and glanced at Padmé. “You must be thrilled to be back home.”

Padmé smiled half-heartedly. “Very,” she said. Tactfully hiding her true feelings, she wondered if the sight of her beloved home planet should have ignited something more in her. What she felt now was nothing compared to her longing to be with her family. Wherever they were, that was where her heart was going to be, always.

There had been times when she could have juggled between her career and what her heart truly desired, but now she could not help but feel that things might have changed without her noticing.

Raymus sighed. “Serving House Organa is a great honor,” he said. “Yet sometimes I find myself wishing my duties didn’t take me away from home for so long periods at a time.”

“Someone is waiting for you back home?”

“My wife and our children.”

Padmé gave him a curious look. Even though they had become sort of friends during the trip, indulging in all kinds of casual conversations while speeding through hyperspace, personal affairs had mostly been kept off the table. “I didn’t know you had children.”

“Two daughters,” Raymus replied. “Around the same age as yours.”

Padmé blinked. “I—I’m sorry, I didn’t—I wasn’t aware that you knew about Luke and Leia,” she stammered. “I didn't know Bail had told you, or anyone.”

“No—no, I simply assumed,” Raymus hurried to say. “My daughters are friends with Queen Breha’s young wards, and the Viceroy was rather adamant about your safe return. Pardon me, m’lady—Padmé—I was out of line making such assumptions.”

“No, no, it’s all right. Besides, you are not wrong. Bail and Breha have my eternal gratitude for everything they have done for my children.” Padmé knew she was not obliged to offer explanations, yet she did not let it stop her. “You must know, it was never my first choice to leave them. I missed them every day, but knowing how much love and care they were given… how safe they were with Bail and Breha… Unlike me, they were in a position to give Luke and Leia the childhood I always wanted them to have. It... it didn't feel right, but it was the right thing to do, I know that much in my heart.”

“This must sound rather hollow to you, but I think I understand. Perhaps better than you would imagine,” Raymus said. “I might not have known you for long, but I can already tell that people like us only want what is best for our children. Our galaxy has been at war for longer than my daughters have lived, but House Organa has always cherished peace. Through my service to them, and perhaps with a little bit of luck, my daughters may one day look back to their childhood without all their memories being tainted by the terrors and tyranny of the Empire. That’s what keeps me going and helps me sleep easier at night... For what it’s worth, I think what you did was nothing but admirable. The way I see it, you're a good mother for your children, Padmé, and a good person, too.”

If only the same could be said about their father. Raymus did not have to speak his mind out loud for Padmé to know exactly what he was thinking, as the uneasy silence that fell between them told her more than enough. If he had figured out that she was Luke and Leia’s mother, surely he had already figured out the rest of the story by now.

“So, uh, should I contact the Royal Naboo Security Forces and inform them of our arrival?” Raymus asked, breaking the awkward silence.

“No,” Padmé replied. “And if you don’t mind, I would prefer to avoid heading straight to the royal hangar. Let us take the scenic route to the palace, instead. There should be a remote landing pad not too far away from the palace. Here, let me enter the coordinates.”

Raymus cleared his throat. “Am I to understand that you don’t trust Queen Calista’s intentions?”

Padmé gave him a hardened glare. “I trust no one’s intentions,” she said. After what had happened with Sereena, she was not going to fall blindly into a trap set by another friendly-seeming stranger. “I know very little about this Queen and her relations with the Empire. Walking through her streets might provide us the insight we need. Until we know more, I would very much like us to lay low and not draw attention to our arrival.”


Padmé turned around in her seat. “Threepio, you stay with the ship,” she addressed the gold-plated droid. If she had learned anything from her time in the Imperial Palace, it was that clumsy droids and clandestine missions did not particularly mix. “Keep the engines running until you hear from us.”

“I beg you pardon, Ambassador Amidala, but I am most certainly not an astromech,” C-3PO objected. “Artoo would be much better suited for such a menial task. Oh, where is that useless little rust bucket when I need him?”

“Don’t worry, Threepio,” Padmé reassured him. “Artoo isn’t here, but I’m sure you will do just fine.”

The landing went smoothly. Hiding their weapons under the simple cloaks and rough-spun ponchos they pulled over their much more noticeable formal garments, Padmé and Raymus entered the unexpectedly empty streets. It was almost noon, and the streets and plazas should have been crowded with Theed citizens running their daily errands, but there was nobody to be seen. I know I was gone for long, Padmé thought, furrowing her brow in concern at the sight of general stores and cozy little boutiques she remembered from her youth with their windows covered with boards, but this is not the Theed I remember—where is everybody?

She could not help but notice how the trees rimming the cobblestone streets had been cut down and gardens razed to the ground, only to be replaced with ludicrous statues of Palpatine. They also spotted a wide variety of Imperial propaganda posters and prohibition signs declaring curfews and other strict restrictions attached to nearly every door and column as they strode through the streets.

Padmé tore one of the posters off, crumpled it in her fist and tossed it aside, bewildered by what the Empire had done to the planet and people she had once sworn to protect. Barely able to hold herself together, she collected herself and turned to Raymus. “I’m afraid the situation is a lot worse than we anticipated,” she said. “We have to be careful.”

“So it would seem,” Raymus admitted with a serious look on his face. “We shouldn’t stay here in the open. For all we know, they might already know we are here. They may be looking for us as we speak.”

Padmé nodded. “You’re right. Let us be on our—”

It was then that Raymus spotted something, or someone, moving in the shadows of a nearby alleyway. Instinctively, he took a step between Padmé and the stranger to block their line of sight and his blaster from its holster. “I don’t want to shoot you,” he said, “but I will if you don’t come out right this instant.”

Holding her blaster by the barrel above her head as a sign of surrender, the stranger, a young woman, stepped out of the shadows and approached them deliberately slowly. “Don’t shoot. I’m not your enemy,” she said nervously. “My name is Nané. I’m one of Queen Calista’s handmaidens, and I came here to warn you.”

Raymus raised a brow at Padmé, who gave him a small nod. “Lower your weapon. Let’s hear her out,” she said to him as she evaluated the young woman’s appearance. Despite her ragged clothes, she certainly carried herself like a royal handmaiden. “I believe she might be telling us the truth.”

Slowly, and perhaps slightly reluctantly, Raymus sheathed his blaster. Nané followed his example before turning to Padmé. “Ambassador Amidala, m’lady,” she said. “It saddens me deeply that you, of all people, had to see our beautiful capital in its current state.”

“How could Queen Calista let this happen?” Padmé asked.

Nané sighed. “I don’t understand it, either,” she said, sounding thoroughly miserable. “They say Emperor Palpatine is gone and that the Empire is no more, but my queen, she made no resistance when Grand Moff Tarkin and his troops came and took over. I fear for her safety, and I fear that her loyalty to the people of Naboo has been… compromised.”

“Compromised?” Padmé narrowed her eyes. "Compromised how?”

“She hasn’t left her quarters in weeks, let alone made public appearances to appease the people. The palace is crawling with stormtroopers. No one is allowed to enter the throne room, not even us handmaidens,” Nané explained. “I’ve known her since we were children, and I’d trust her with my life. You must believe me when I say this isn’t like her. Freedom and sovereignty are her core values, but now it seems she’s left her people to their own devices, scared and vulnerable to Imperial abuse. People go missing every night. Entire families, they just… vanish without a trace. My queen allows this, but she can’t possibly be doing this willingly, she just can’t. I refuse to believe it. I… I must beg you to help me to get to the bottom of this. Please, m’lady, will you help me? For my queen’s sake... For Naboo’s sake.”

Padmé placed her hand on Nané’s trembling shoulder. The poor woman looked like she could burst into tears at any moment. “We are with the Rebel Alliance. We came here to help. This wasn’t quite what we had expected, but—”

“Thank you, m’lady. Thank you so much,” Nané choked out. “I tell you everything I know, but we can’t stay here for much longer. They saw your ship and know you're here. There are already patrols looking for you.”

“Wait,” Raymus interjected. “We should contact the headquarters and tell them to send reinforcements. We couldn’t possibly take on the Empire all by ourselves.”

Nané shook her head. “You can’t do that,” she said. “The Empire is monitoring all communications. Attempting to contact your allies now would only give away our location.”

“She’s right,” Padmé said. “Right now, our first and foremost priority should be getting inside the palace undetected, find the queen and figure out on whose side she truly is. Only she can tell us why Tarkin is here and what the Empire wants from Naboo. There are a few hidden passages we could use to get into the throne room without getting caught on the way there.”

“I know the way past the patrols,” Nané added. “Follow me.”

After agreeing to follow Nané’s lead, Padmé and Raymus were taken through several shadowy alleyways and nearly overgrown sidewalks. Although the Royal Palace was not too far away from where they had landed, they had to take a few detours to avoid stumbling into stormtroopers patrolling all the main streets.

As they approached the secret entrance, Padmé turned to Nané. “So, I believe it’s safe to assume that everything Queen Calista told to our allies on Alderaan to lure me here was a lie.” She cocked a brow. “This was all a ruse, wasn’t it? Naboo has no plans of joining the Rebel Alliance, and there are no negotiations to be held.”

“Not any that I know of,” Nané admitted. “It certainly looks like she spun a story to get you here, but I can’t fathom why.”

“I imagine we’ll know soon enough,” Padmé said drily.

Raymus glanced at her grimly. “M’lady… Padmé,” he began. “May I speak freely?”

“Please do.”

“I acknowledge that I was assigned as your bodyguard, not an advisor, but I’m afraid I must object to this plan. We should abandon the mission, return to the ship and leave while we still can,” he said. “You heard her. In one way or another, Tarkin has the queen under his thumb. It’s too dangerous for you to remain here, but I… understand that it’s your call. This is your home, and these are your people.”

Padmé’s eyes darted between her two companions. She knew Raymus was right. The wisest course of action would have been to return to Alderaan immediately and appeal to the Alliance High Command to send a fleet to liberate Naboo… which they would undoubtedly refuse to do, as what little evidence they had suggested that Queen Calista had indeed allied herself with the Empire willingly.

She knew it would not be safe to stay, yet her heart advised against abandoning Naboo. If Nané was right, and the Empire was indeed forcing Queen Calista’s hand in the same way the Trade Federation had attempted to force her into submission all those years ago, how could she possibly turn her back to Naboo and its people now?

“I know Tarkin. Men like him are nothing if not ruthless,” she finally said. “He’s no stranger to violence and cruelty to achieve his means. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s blackmailing the queen to do his bidding.” She glanced at Raymus. “My decision is to stay and do what I can to help Nané, but I need you to know that you’re under no obligation to follow me. From this moment on, you are relieved of your duties.”

“No offense, m’lady, but only Viceroy Organa can do that,” Raymus said, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “As your bodyguard—and, if I may be so bold, your friend—I must refuse to leave. I will stay and assist you to my best ability.”

Padmé gave him a genuine smile and touched his arm. “Thank you.”

As they entered the hidden tunnel, it was Padmé’s turn to take the lead and guide her companions through the humid darkness. Much to her surprise, she still had the way memorized, even though she had not used the ancient network of tunnels that ran beneath the palace in years.

The tunnel took several twists and turns before turning upwards. After a few more minutes of tunnel crawling, they finally reached their destination. “Look,” Padmé whispered, gesturing her companions look through the stained glass painting that let them see straight through into the throne room. “The queen is inside… and she’s not alone.”

“My queen…” Nané gasped softly. “What have you done?”

Slumped into the depths of her throne, Queen Calista looked pale and sickly. She was dressed all in black, and not even her heavy makeup could quite hide that her eyes were red and swollen from crying. Instead of Tarkin, she was accompanied by an unknown Imperial officer and a cadre of stormtroopers.

Padmé, Raymus and Nané heard the officer’s mocking tone through the stained glass. “There’s no reason to be so sour, my dear queen. You've been a valuable asset to the Empire, and as long as you continue to be useful, no further harm will come to your people.”

“You left me no choice.” Queen Calista’s voice broke into a whimper. “Soon, you will have what you came here for, and when you do, I expect my people to be freed and returned to their homes at your first convenience.”

The officer snickered. “Freed?” he repeated. “I don’t think so. We will take our leave as soon as the Grand Moff has secured his prize, but your precious people, I’m afraid, have already been shipped off-planet to serve the Empire’s needs.”

Queen Calista seemed to muster what little courage she had left as she rose from her seat, heedless of the stormtroopers who each aimed their E-11 blaster rifles at her. “W-What?” she cried out. “This was not part of our agreement! I only agreed to lure Ambassador Amidala into your trap in exchange for the freedom for my people!”

“The terms of our little agreement have been changed,” the officer said harshly. “In case you haven't noticed, you're no longer in charge, and any attempt to disobey will only ensure that more people will be taken. Tread carefully, my queen.”

Defeated and utterly miserable, Queen Calista sank back into her throne and fell silent.

Behind the stained glass painting, Nané tugged at Padmé’s sleeve to get her attention. “I knew it,” she whispered fervently. “I knew she would never willingly agree to this monstrosity!”

Padmé put her forefinger on her lips. “Shh,” she urged. “We don’t want to let them know we’re listening.”

“But what are we going to do?” Nané insisted. “They’re practically holding her as a hostage!”

“I might have an idea,” Padmé said. “Do you happen to know if Captain Typho is still in command of the Security Forces?”

“He is.” Nané nodded. “Or was. The Security Forces were decommissioned and replaced with Imperial troops soon after the Empire took over. They’re still around, but their role is mostly ceremonial now.”

Padmé looked closely at Nané, assessing both the situation and the handmaiden's prowess. “Very well,” she said, weighing her words carefully. “I think my idea might work, but not without your help. I won’t lie to you, there will be risks. I wouldn’t wish to put you in danger, but I’m afraid that would be necessary to make this work. But I would never force you to endanger yourself. You only have to say the word, and we’ll think of something else.”

“I’m a royal handmaiden,” Nané said staunchly. “My loyalty has no limits. I’ll do what I must.”

Padmé gave her a warm smile before gesturing both Nané and Raymus to step closer. “So, here's the plan…”

Chapter Text

A few seconds was all it took for full effect of Organa’s words to set in, and then Anakin could no longer rein himself in—not that he particularly tried, either. The line had been crossed, and from then, everything happened so fast it was just a blur. One moment, he’d been barely awake, riddled with pain, lying in his sickbed, and the next he ripped off all the tubes attached to him, leaped to his feet and used the Force to slam Organa into the wall. Organa’s chair clattered to the floor, only for Anakin to kick it out of his way as he approached the man as if he’d been a predator cornering his prey.   

Startled out of his calm and collected facade, Organa yelped in surprise when Anakin pinned him to the wall. “I knew you weren’t a coward, but I wasn’t aware you had a death wish,” Anakin snarled through his gritted teeth. Ignoring that his lungs—or what was left of them—were on fire and that only the adrenaline rapidly flooding into his veins kept the pain from knocking him off his feet, he reached out to clutch the air with his fist. “I can arrange that.”

From the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of Organa’s 2-1B droid slipping out of the room, presumably to seek help, but in the heat of his rage, Anakin couldn’t have cared less. Organa wouldn’t stop him, and neither would any number of Alderaanian royal guards nor Rebel troopers.  

He’d kill them all if he had to, every single one of them. Starting with Organa. 

Desperate for air, Bail clawed at his throat, but it was no use. “C-Come to your senses, S-Skywalker,” he hissed, eyes widened with sheer terror. “You don’t want to do th—”

Anakin tightened his invisible grip around Organa’s throat to silence him. “You know nothing about me,” he rasped, “and you’re gravely mistaken to think that you, some tracking chip, or your pathetic band of insurgents could keep me from what belongs to me.”   

Bail’s throat wheezed. “This—this isn’t what Padmé wanted!”

“Padmé’s not here,” Anakin snapped. It only made him angrier, to hear this fool speak her name out loud as if he had the right and reminding that she'd abandoned him just like that. “It’s just me and you.”

It was then that Ahsoka tried to enter the room, only for Anakin to raise his free hand and use the Force to stop the door before it could open enough for her to slip through the narrow gap. She peeked through the gap and gasped at the sight inside. 

“Anakin—Anakin, stop! Let him go. He’s not your enemy.” She articulated as clearly and calmly as she possibly could in such a troubling situation. “He doesn’t wish you harm.”

“Walk away, Ahsoka.” There was a warning in Anakin’s voice. “This isn’t something you want to get involved in.”

Bail’s face was already starting to turn blue, and Ahsoka realized there was no time to try and talk her way through the door. Seeing no other choice but to force her way into the room, she reached to the Force and tried to pry the door open, only to find out that even in his convalescence, Anakin was immensely strong in the Force, and the door didn’t budge an inch. 

Grunting and groaning in exertion, she put forth all her strength and pushed. The door twitched slightly, only to get stuck again in front of even stauncher resistance. 

She banged her fist on the door. “Stop this madness before it’s too late,” she urged. “I don’t want to fight you!”

“Whose side are you on, anyway?” Anakin yelled back, drawing ragged breaths through his half-mask as he tried to maintain his hold over both Organa and the door. 

“What do you think? Yours, of course!” Ahsoka cried out in exasperation. “That’s exactly why I have to stop you!” 

Blinded by his rage, Anakin decided that he wouldn’t let anyone stop him, not even Ahsoka. If his former apprentice was foolish enough to try and cross him, he wouldn’t hesitate to strike her down. “You don’t understand,” he growled. “They’re my children.” 

Ahsoka squeezed her eyes shut before snapping them open again. “Yeah? And this is the kind of father you want to be, huh?” She knew she was stirring up a Thunian wart-hornet nest there, but what other choice did she have but to taunt Anakin and draw his attention—and anger—to herself if she were to save Bail’s life? 

Bail’s death would only snuff out all hope for Anakin himself, and that wasn’t something Ahsoka was going to let happen, not on her watch. “What do you think Luke and Leia would do if they walked in and saw you now, huh? Do you think they would be proud of you?”

“I don’t want to hurt you, Ahsoka,” Anakin growled. “Back off. Now. For your sake.”

“Stars, Anakin, listen to yourself, will you? Luke and Leia don’t even know you! For all they know, their father could've died back in the Clone Wars! Do you think they would love you for murdering the man who took them in and raised them out of the kindness of his heart while their biological father was too busy hunting his former allies and friends and committing war crimes? Do you think they would ever accept you like this?” Ahsoka yelled. It broke her heart to have to say such terrible things, but she knew she had to keep going. Anakin had to be close to his breaking point, she could feel it in the Force. Yet what would happen then, she couldn't tell. “Look at yourself! Look at what you’re doing! Bail’s like a father to them! You claim to care about your children. Do you want them to fear and resent you? That’s what you want, huh?”

“He’s not their father!” Anakin growled with a strained note of possessiveness in his voice. “I am.”

Ahsoka’s shoulders already trembled from the immense effort of trying to keep the door from sliding shut, and only her sheer willpower kept her from falling to her knees. For Anakin’s sake, she had no choice. “Then start acting like one!” she shouted through the door, but there was now a different, more desperate edge to her tone. Please, Anakin, don’t do this. You still have a choice. Don’t you dare to break Padmé’s heart… and don’t break mine.

While Anakin’s still recovering body started showing signs of failing under exertion, his connection to the Force remained as strong as ever, but instead of aiding him, it had something else in store for him. A room started disappearing around him as a vision, as clear as vivid as they came, emanated from the depths of his troubled mind. 

And then he was no longer in his room. Instead, he found himself standing on the edge of a bottomless abyss, and soon he realized that he wasn’t alone. There was a boy, perhaps in his early twenties, with him. My son, he realized. Luke.    

But the Luke of his vision was bruised and beaten, and there was no fight left in him. The boy was in tears, gravely injured and bleeding. What have I done? Anakin asked himself in sheer terror as he couldn’t do anything but watch himself reaching out and offering his black-clad hand—Vader’s hand—to the boy swaying on the brink of certain death. He heard himself speaking in Vader’s voice, attempting to persuade the boy to come with him.

But the Luke of his vision refused him. 

So all he could do was to watch Luke allowing himself to fall into his demise, all because the boy obviously despised him so much that he’d chosen death over joining his father. Powerless to stop him; to do anything, Anakin tried to scream, but no sound came out.  

Suddenly jolted back to the present, he staggered backward in confusion, losing his hold over both Organa and the door. Bail fell to the floor, coughing and gasping for air, but Anakin barely even acknowledged his presence anymore. No. It was the sole thought in his mind. No… this… this isn’t what I wanted. 

The door moved a few inches, allowing Ahsoka to slide halfway through the gap and reach out for him. “Anakin,” she said softly. There was no judgment in her voice. “It’s alright. Just listen to me. Listen to my voice, okay? Nothing irreversible has happened just yet. You can still stop this. You can still choose. You only have to let me in. To let me help. Please.”  

But the Force wasn’t done with Anakin just yet, and so he was involuntarily hurled into another vision of some twisted form of the future. He didn’t recognize his surroundings this time, either, but it certainly looked like he was in some kind of a detention cell, perhaps in some Imperial facility. The boy of his previous vision was gone, but there was another. A girl, dressed in all white, sobbing and shivering at his feet on the gleaming black floor. 

The girl lifted her tear-stained face to meet his gaze, and then the realization hit him. Those eyes… Padmé’s eyes. No, no, no, he lamented. Leia

She begged for mercy, but apparently there was none to be given. Tried as he might, Anakin couldn’t seize the control of his vision and stop himself from commanding the IT-O interrogation droid accompanying him to pursue tormenting her. Again, he raged and screamed, but it was no use. There was no escape from this nightmare, neither for him nor his daughter.  

It was then that he was finally jolted back to reality, his heart racing from exertion and adrenaline. He yelped in confusion, then stumbled backward and fell back onto the edge of his bed. Meanwhile, Ahsoka pried open the door of which their tug-of-war had jammed for good, and then there was the aristocratic Bail Organa, catching his breath on the floor, all red-faced and panting. 

Ashamed by his own actions, Anakin lowered his gaze. All he could think at that moment was that he was supposed to be better than this. How couldn’t he have seen past his anger? How couldn’t he have thought about the direct consequences of such an outburst? He was no longer the second in command of the mighty Empire, but a prisoner of war. Their fear for me is only surpassed by their hatred, he thought, and here I chose to feed both.     

“I—I didn’t mean this to happen—” His voice cracked with remorse. Even though he couldn’t have cared less about Organa himself, he’d had his share of dealing with noblemen in the past. He knew there was always a price for wounding their delicate pride. Vader had never concerned himself with their petty attempts of retaliation, but Vader was supposed to be gone. All that was left was Anakin Skywalker, the disgraced Jedi, and he certainly wasn’t above consequences. “I’m—I’m sorry.”    

Ahsoka all but ignored Anakin and rushed over to Bail, helping him back to his feet. “Are you hurt?” 

Bail nodded his thanks to her while dusting off his shoulders. “I think I’ll live,” he said wrily. “I don’t think anything is broken.”

“It might be for the best if you had a med droid to check you,” Ahsoka suggested. “Just in case.”

Bail raked back his disheveled hair. “Agreed,” he said before turning to Anakin, throwing him a cold, hard stare. “Well, Skywalker... Let us hope that little demonstration of yours made you feel better. You certainly looked like you could blow off some steam.” 

“What?” Anakin snapped. “Are you trying to say you provoked me… on purpose?”

“Of course not,” Bail said calmly. “I stand behind my words. You’re an unstable and dangerous man, Skywalker. I hope this... incident will remain as an isolated case, but I’m sure you now understand our need to take certain precautions with you. I don’t know if Padmé told you, but she only ever agreed to leave Luke and Leia in our custody because we swore to protect them from any harm. That what we’re going to continue to do, with or without your approval.”

“I would never hurt Luke and Leia,” Anakin protested, even though he knew exactly how hollow his words had to ring to Organa’s ears. “Never.”

Bail rubbed his sore throat. “I would be so much more inclined to believe you if you hadn’t tried to kill me a few minutes ago.”

Understanding that there was very little he could have said or done to make things look any brighter for himself at that moment, Anakin fell silent. He could already tell that Organa was a man of principle, and arguing with someone like him would lead nowhere.  

Bail took his leave, only to turn back at the ruined door. He let his expression soften a bit. “For what it’s worth, I’m not one to bear grudges. Believe it or not, but I understand. Having you here… Well, let’s just say that not even in our wildest dreams did we expect such a turnabout. We all need to adapt and make certain sacrifices to make things work between us. This hasn’t been easy for us, but it can’t be easy for you, either. So, let us forget this unfortunate incident and start over, shall we? I’ll gladly refrain from mentioning what happened here today. In return, I would only ask you to reconsider your approach to our… trust issues. Personally, I would much rather have you here as our ally, not an adversary, but there’s only so much my words can do to appease those whose fear and reservations couldn’t possibly be more justified.”   

Anakin pursed his lips in hesitation but ultimately nodded. “Very well.”

“You don’t have to decide now. Take your time. I’ll come back tomorrow, so we can talk again,” Bail said. “Meanwhile, feel free to take a walk around the palace property and familiarize yourself with our home, if your condition allows it. An old Alderaanian proverb says that mountain air is good for the nerves. I’ll inform the guards, just in case. Oh, and Ahsoka…” Bail turned to her, glancing at what was left of the door and rolled his eyes, yet a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “That was the second door this week… Please, try not to make it three.”

Ahsoka smiled apologetically. “Acknowledged.”

As soon as Bail left the room, his elegant cape billowing behind him, Ahsoka sat beside Anakin on the bed and, after a brief hesitation, put her hand on his trembling shoulder. “So…”

“So, yeah, I screwed up.” Anakin’s tone was sulky and defensive, almost as if they’d been going over just another mission gone south back in the Clone Wars. “That’s what you want to hear, right? Look, I haven’t changed my mind. It’s—it’s not that I’m not grateful for everything they’ve done to keep Luke and Leia safe, but they’re my children, alright? These people... they had no right to… Ahsoka, I know what I’ve done, okay? I know why they hate me, and I sure as hell know that I deserve it... I don’t expect you to understand, but I’m not going to stand back. I meant what I said. I’ll do whatever they ask of me, but I won’t let them keep my children from me. That’s why you’re truly here, right? To stop me?”

Ahsoka gave him a sidelong glance. “Anakin… I know you too well to even dream of trying to change your mind.” A small smile lit up her face. “You make your own choices. Always have.”

Anakin glanced back at her. “Why did you come, then?”

“To make sure you know there are still people who care about you. People who are glad to have you back, even after… you know. People who will support you, no matter what. And besides, I owe you one. You were the only person who didn’t straight up believe I was guilty when the Jedi and the Republic accused me of all those terrible things back in the Clone Wars and had me expelled from the Order. You were the only one who didn’t abandon me.”

“Didn't stop you from leaving.”

“I had to go, but I’m here now,” Ahsoka said, taking his hand in her own, “and I won’t leave you, not this time.” 

“That doesn’t make any sense, Snips.” Anakin scowled at her and pulled his hand back to himself. “You know I’m guilty of everything they’re going to accuse me of—and worse. You know, I believed in Palpatine’s vision of how to bring peace and order to the galaxy, and when it turned out he’d only ever been in it for himself, Vader... I didn’t care. I believed in the Empire. Perhaps I still do... more than to this pathetic excuse of a rebellion, anyway. Everything I did, I did because I believed it was necessary—or because I didn’t care. I killed hundreds—no, thousands—and never paid heed to their cries for mercy. The only pain I cared about was my own, and I’ll be damned I don’t assume the responsibility for what I did... but your situation was different. I defended you because it was the right thing to do. That hardly means that you should stick your neck out for me now. You were innocent of the crimes you were accused of.”

“But you couldn’t have known that,” Ahsoka pointed out. “They had solid evidence against me, remember? Not even Master Kenobi stood by me, but you did.”

“I don’t want to bring you down with me, Ahsoka,” Anakin said grimly. Even after all those years, he realized he still felt the need to protect her. “You don’t have to do this.”

I know.” Ahsoka gave him a lopsided smile. “It won’t stop me.”

Anakin rolled his eyes. “It seems there’s no arguing with you,” he sighed. “I wonder where you learned to be so stubborn.”

“I had a good teacher.” Ahsoka laughed before being interrupted by her stomach growling. “Hey, I thought I could go and grab some lunch. Care to join me?”

Anakin shook his head. “I don’t think neither I nor the people here are ready for me sharing tables with them,” he said. “Besides, I think I already gave Senator Organa enough grey hair for one day.”

“Bail might be a politician to the bone,” Ahsoka said thoughtfully, “but he’s a good man. One of the very few there is. The good news is that he’s on our side. Try not to antagonize him, okay?”

“I can try,” Anakin said scornfully. “No promises.”

“Master Yoda wouldn’t settle with that answer, but fortunately, I’m not him,” Ahsoka said as she hopped off the bed.

Anakin scoffed. “Fortunately for you,” he muttered. 

After Ahsoka left, a medical droid barged in and ran a few tests on him. All the results indicated that his recovery was progressing unexpectedly well and that even though a full recovery would take weeks, or maybe months, the prognosis looked good. Then the droid left too, and Anakin caught himself pondering Organa’s offer. Not the idea of transmitter chip of which he still found just as repulsive as before, but the idea of getting some fresh air and testing his new prosthetics. While he took Organa for little more than a fool for allowing him such a long leash, he couldn’t deny that the thought of leaving the stale-aired med bay for a while was more than just mildly tempting... 

A few moments later, he stepped out of the refresher, dressed up in the Jedi-like clothes Ahsoka had brought him and headed outside. There were a pair of royal guards at the doors, both suddenly gripping their ceremonial weapons as if their lives depended on it. Anakin could sense their tension as he strode through the doors and out onto the courtyard. 

Even though the medical droid had advised against it, Anakin couldn’t help but rip his mask off, close his eyes and fill his ravaged lungs with the crisp and clear mountain air. It was painful, the sensation of unfiltered air scraping the inside of his windpipe, but definitely worth it. 

He then put his mask back on pulled his hood over his head, made a loop around the property while carefully avoiding the most crowded spots. He wasn’t at all afraid of facing the people’s ire and having them hurl their insults at him, but there was a time and place for everything. Picking up fights and causing even more hassle than he already had wouldn’t get him any closer to his children, he understood it now. Vader might have gotten what he wanted through intimidation and violence, but Vader had never been worthy of his children’s love, not in the way Anakin so desperately longed to be. 

Later, he headed toward the main body of the palace, hoping to find a secluded nook, perhaps an embrasure or a balcony, to get some clarity and gather his thoughts in solitude before returning to the med bay. He encountered a few people on his way to the palace, but none of them seemed to recognize him. These rebels apparently didn’t wear uniforms, and they seemed to take in anyone who happened to wind up at their door, so he figured there was no reason for them to pay attention to just another stranger such as him. It’s truly no wonder they have spies and assassins running free among their ranks, he thought. This… thing they have going on here… it’s not a military organization; it’s a mess.

And yet he caught himself wondering what his role would end up to be in all this as he wandered his way up marble stairs and stepped onto one of the many balconies he found upstairs. Bail Organa and the other Rebel leaders could fool themselves to think they could avoid bloodshed all they liked, but Anakin hadn’t lied when he had told Organa he knew the ways of the Empire. The Emperor was gone, but what Palpatine had ever been but a visionary, an architect? The true threat was the Imperial Navy led by living men and women, all capable leaders and cunning strategists, who were now driven by their lust for retaliation and revenge. They don’t understand, Anakin thought as he observed a ragtag group of Rebel soldiers chatting about this and that while cleaning their blasters by their tents. Palpatine never considered these people a threat, and that’s what protected them from his wrath. A word from him, and I’d have led my men to wherever they were squatting back then and crushed them with ease. But that fool, Tagge, Rae Sloane… Tarkin… among many others, they have all the reason to unleash the Empire’s full might upon these poor fools.

But it was then that he felt a sudden disturbance in the Force that jerked him back to the present. He felt a presence, both foreign and yet oddly familiar at the same time. Another assassin, perhaps someone he knew from his past, would have been his first guess, but a brief glance over his shoulder ensured that no one had followed him to the balcony. 

Not that any proper assassin would have chosen to strike somewhere as open as a balcony in the middle of the day, anyway. 

He let his gaze rake fervently over the crowded courtyard. There were no lies in the Force. He wouldn’t have felt such a tremor without a reason. At first, he spotted nothing and absolutely no one worthy of note, but then…

His heart clutched at the sight of two children in identical pure white winter coats, playing in the fresh snow right next to the main entrance of the palace. A young boy with fair, tousled hair was running from another kid, a girl with two long braids. The boy didn’t get far before the girl caught him, and they both fell onto the soft snow, laughing and throwing snow at each other. 

Anakin’s hands gripped the balcony railing, knuckles white. His heart was pounding from all those emotions he didn’t even know he was capable of feeling. Tears welled up his sore eyes, but he was far too mesmerized to even consider averting his gaze. It didn’t make any sense to him, none of it did. How could something so pure and innocent even exist in the first place? In a galaxy so corrupted and miserable? And how could it be that he, who had committed nearly every sin imaginable, could have had his hand in bringing such a miracle into existence? 

It was freezing outside, but he could have stayed there on the balcony and watched his children playing for hours without ever feeling cold. On the contrary, he didn’t remember the last time he’d felt so warm. So happy. If only Padmé was here with me.

For a moment there, he couldn’t have cared less that Luke and Leia didn’t even know he was there and that all he could do was to watch them from afar without being able to talk to them or to pull them closer, hold them tightly against his chest and tell them how much he loved them. For a moment, just watching them was more than enough for him, but as soon as someone who he could only assume to be Queen Breha came and herded them back inside, the warmth he felt inside snuffed out.

He wanted more.

And he knew he shouldn’t.

But he did.

It was already late, but even though Anakin knew it’d be foolish to hope he’d catch another glimpse of Luke and Leia tonight, he had to all but force himself to leave the balcony and head back to the bleak and lonely med bay. I’ll come back tomorrow, no matter what, he swore as he supported himself against the wall to get down the stairs. If they want to keep me from talking to them, fine, but no one ever said anything about watching.

For men like Darrem Coshi, the utter and complete chaos that had followed Emperor Palpatine’s death had been nothing short of a dream come true. Not that Darrem would ever say such things out loud, of course, but still. He’d graduated from the Corulag Academy with less than average grades and never expected to rise among the ranks enough to achieve his ambitions, but the Emperor’s death and Darth Vader’s mysterious disappearance had opened doors that had previously been shut to him. 

But not even in his wildest dreams could he have fathomed that one day he’d end up in the service of Grand Moff Tarkin himself. Much to his delight, Tarkin hadn’t shown even the slightest interest in his grades nor his service history. All the Grand Moff had requested from him was his unwavering loyalty and proclivity for ruthlessness. Ruthless was good. Ruthless was certainly something Darrem could do. 

He’d considered himself the luckiest man in the galaxy ever since the day he’d first boarded the nearly fabled Executrix, and now it looked like his good luck was going to continue, as suddenly one of the stained glass paintings decorating the marble-walled throne room moved aside. Two individuals stepped out of a tunnel that Darrem could only assume to be some kind of secret passage.

And who else might be aware that such passages even existed, if not a former queen?

Queen Calista grimaced at the sudden turnabout, looking like she could fall off her throne any minute, but Darrem’s lips curled in a malicious grin. “Ambassador Amidala, I presume,” he gloated. “What a pleasant surprise. What a pleasant surprise, indeed.”

With their hands above their heads, the Ambassador and her alleged bodyguard approached the throne. “In the flesh,” the Ambassador said icily. “We're here to surrender.” 

Darrem gestured the stormtroopers under his command to step forward. “Men, relieve the Ambassador and her escort of the burden of their weapons,” he ordered. “I’ll comm the Grand Moff and let him know that we finally have what we came for.”

“Yes, sir,” the troopers echoed.   

The bodyguard struggled against his captor’s hold, but it was no use. All he got for his troubles was a blaster butt between his ribs. “Now that we decided to honor you with our presence,” he groaned. “Perhaps you could tell us why Tarkin wants Ambassador Amidala in the first place?”   

Darrem turned back to the prisoners. “Perhaps you’re in luck and the Grand Moff will tell you himself,” he said. “He’s on his way.”

His face shone with self-satisfaction when the Grand Moff finally strode into the throne room with four of his black-clad death troopers to secure his prize. Even though he already knew that Tarkin seldom commended his men for good work, Darrem certainly felt some praise was in order now that everything had proceeded so incredibly smoothly. 

He saluted as the Grand Moff approached him, already preparing himself to act humble—but not too humble, of course. He’d make sure that Tarkin would understand his immense value to the Empire. Nothing brightens a day like a promotion, he thought as he grabbed Ambassador Amidala’s arm and shoved her forward.

“Here’s the prisoner, as requested,” Darrem announced, unable to fully hide the pride from his voice.  

Tarkin briefly glared at the prisoner before turning back to Darrem. “Colonel Coshi,” he said calmly. Darrem had expected at least a small smile, perhaps even an appreciative nod of sorts, but the Grand Moff’s face remained expressionless. Uncomfortably expressionless, he might add. “This is most unfortunate. I was under the impression you had something valuable for me.”

Darrem’s eyes grew wide and his jaw dropped. “S-sir? I don’t understand—”

Tarkin lifted the prisoner’s chin with two fingers and looked indifferently down into her green eyes. “This woman,” he began, “is not Padmé Amidala.”

“B-but how?” Darrem asked, dumbfounded. “How is this possible? If that’s not Amidala, then who—?”

He got his answer as the blast doors slid open and Captain Typho and his group of twenty to thirty armed men wearing the armor and insignia of the Naboo Security Forces barged in and quickly surrounded them. Even with Tarkin’s death troopers, Darrem realized they were vastly outnumbered. Oh, kriff.

A woman who could be none other than the damned Padmé Amidala stepped forward from among the guards, aiming her delicate blaster pistol at them. “It seems you’ve overstayed your welcome,” she said. “Yet I don’t wish to turn this into a bloodshed—”

“—But I do,” came a high-pitched voice. 

Darrem and his men looked around frantically, trying to locate the source of the voice, but when they finally found it, it was already too late. Queen Calista had pulled a blaster from the secret compartment of her throne.

"Keep your filthy hands off my handmaiden."

Without further hesitation, she shot Darrem Coshi in the head—and started a firefight.    

Chapter Text

Turning the throne room into a battlefield hadn’t been part of Padmé’s plan, but apparently, Queen Calista had decided otherwise. From the corner of her eye, she saw the Queen rushing to release Raymus and Nané from their binds. The three didn’t seem to need her help, so she ducked down to dodge a stray blaster bolt and leaped into cover behind one of the long tables Captain Typho’s men used for shelter. 

Biting her lower lip in distress, she peered over the edge and fired a couple of shots while trying to figure out their best option. She'd hoped to talk the Imperials to surrender without a fight, and even though it had occurred to her that Tarkin’s involvement alone might have thwarted such a plan, she couldn’t help but wish the Queen could have reigned herself in, even if for just a moment longer. 

Now, it looked like their best bet to have some light shed on the Empire’s intentions was to capture Tarkin and bring him back to Alderaan for questioning, which was already turning out to be easier said than done. Padmé knew men like Tarkin didn’t rose to positions of power by staying around to fight losing battles. For men like him, honor was nothing but a convenient offering to be sacrificed on the altar of ruthless efficiency. In Tarkin’s books, losing a few stormtroopers as casualties would be nothing compared to allowing a valuable leader, namely himself, to fall into enemy hands. 

She risked another quick peek, and just as she had predicted, Tarkin and his black-clad troopers were already making their leave, sacrificing Colonel Coshi’s entire squad to secure their own means of escape. 

Meanwhile across the room, Nané, who had reclaimed her blaster from a fallen stormtrooper, and Queen Calista were covering each other while keeping the remaining troopers from flanking Captain Typho’s men.  

Padmé waved at Raymus to get his attention. “Raymus!” she cried out, knowing she couldn’t possibly pursue Tarkin and his men all by herself. “We can’t let Tarkin escape!”

Raymus, on the other hand, was wrestling with not just one but two stormtroopers at a time. One of the troopers had lost his helmet in the tumult of hand-to-hand combat. “I’m a little… preoccupied here,” he groaned, then landed a solid punch on the helmetless trooper’s jaw.    

Swallowing back a curse, Padmé pulled back into cover and pushed a stray lock of hair from her sweat-soaked forehead. Blaster bolts whistled all around and above her, making it hard to focus on thinking. Right next to her, one of Captain Typho’s men got hit and fell to the floor, dead. 

Leaning against the table, Padmé gripped her blaster, knuckles white, and before she even realized, her thoughts lingered back to Anakin. I left his side and came here to do something meaningful… to make a difference, she thought almost bitterly as a sudden wave of regret, frustration and white-hot anger she’d felt hardly ever before washed over her. What should have been an ordinary, although vital diplomatic mission to save lives—Anakin’s life among them—had turned into yet another bloodbath, and frankly, she’d had enough of it. She’d had enough of it all. 

If Tarkin slips through our fingers now, this whole trip was for nothing, she thought. No negotiations… no hope for alliance... I left Anakin for nothing      

Blinking back her tears, she forced herself to focus. There had to be something left to be accomplished here; something to be done to make what might as well have been the hardest decision of her life to be worthwhile. How could she possibly give up now and return to Alderaan with empty hands?  

Her previous uncertainty, now turned into stomach-churning regret, nearly rendered her paralyzed, but somehow she managed to convince herself that she'd come too far to stop now.

In one way or another, the Empire had to be stopped. 

She swallowed around the knot of emotion in her throat and rushed from her cover, dodging blasterfire from both remaining stormtroopers and Captain Typho’s men alike, to go after Tarkin, who had already disappeared through the blast doors. 

Even in the thick, red haze of her emotions, she realized that going alone must have been the stupidest, most reckless thing she’d ever done, and yet she kept going, barely even able to feel her feet or hear the blasterfire echoing all around her. Her long-repressed emotions, her fear, frustration, and seething anger, finally flowing free, she couldn’t turn back. 

She distantly heard Raymus’s voice calling to her, but didn’t respond. I have to do this

For longer than she could remember, she’d devoted her life to galactic politics. The countless personal sacrifices she’d made to further her career as a politician, she hadn’t made in hope of personal gain but because she’d believed that only through her hard work and perseverance, she could become the difference she wanted to see in the galaxy. And for the longest time, she’d desperately tried to compromise; juggle between duty and love—and to what end? It hadn’t particularly worked the first time around. She’d always set the needs of the Republic above her own, but now, there were people who needed her more than the Republic ever could: the family she’d fought so relentlessly to reunite.   

The family she loved more than she could ever have loved the Republic she’d given the best years of her life to, only to watch it all come crumbling down. 

She wasn’t going to let that happen to her family, too. 

And all of a sudden, all she could ask herself was, what the hell was she doing there? She’d come to Naboo to help Anakin, but now it finally occurred to her that nothing in the worlds could have helped him more than waking up to a galaxy in which he no longer walked alone in the shadows, but unconditionally loved. 

In politics, she’d been accustomed to carefully determining her next moves far into the future to always stay one step ahead, but love… oh, love didn’t work like that at all. Love was different, wild and unpredictable in its twists and turns. In love, she’d have to take what she could and hold on to what she had. 

Only then did she understand that they would find a way through this storm, like every storm before, but only if they stayed together and didn’t let the galaxy tear them apart again. Underestimating the power of their love had been Palpatine’s downfall, and she’d be damned if she let it be hers, too.   

Her head spinning, she rushed along the corridor, gripping her blaster in her trembling hands. As soon she caught her first glimpse of Tarkin and his men’s backs, she pulled the trigger over and over and over, but none of her shots hit their targets. 

One of Tarkin’s troopers turned casually around and fired at her, the strafe of bolts scraping the marble pillar she took cover behind and missing her only by inches. 

“Ambassador Amidala.” She heard Tarkin’s posh voice, sneering at her. “How thoughtful of you to join us after all.”

After briefly catching her breath, Padmé leaned from her cover to shoot again, but another of Tarkin’s troopers caught her timing and shot her in the arm before she could take the shot. 

Screaming in agony, she fell to the floor, clutching her arm against her chest. No… not like this, she thought as her crippling fear of never seeing Anakin and the twins again flooded through her like ice. Her vision already flickered from exhaustion and pain, but she could still hear the ominous thudding of the troopers’ combat boots as they approached her, heeding Tarkin's orders. 

With everything she had left, she tried to drag herself out of their reach, but it was no use. She knew she’d never make it, so she rolled over onto her back and to make her last stand. With her uninjured hand, she grabbed her blaster from the gleaming marble floor and took as many shots as she could until her blaster clicked empty after running out of fuel.

And then everything went black. 

When Padmé regained her consciousness, she found herself back in the throne room, lying on a reclinable mattress of sorts. Despite her sore arm, thudding headache, and utter and complete exhaustion, she propped herself up on her uninjured elbow and looked around. There were other wounded nearby, both Captain Typho’s men and stormtroopers alike, getting their wounds treated by Queen Calista’s handmaidens and a few 2-1B medical droids. 

Much to her relief, Raymus seemed to be mostly unharmed, apart from some bruising to his face. He hovered over her, his dark brow knitted in concern. “Thank the stars you’re awake,” he said. “Are you alright?”

Padmé groaned softly as a med droid came by and exposed her throbbing arm to change her bandage, but her attention was already shifting to more important business than her injuries. “Tarkin?” she inquired. “What happened? Did you get him? Please tell me you did.”

Raymus shook his head apologetically. “We were right behind you,” he said. “We got there right in time to rescue you, but those damned death troopers slowed us down and bought Tarkin just enough time to slip away. He had a shuttle waiting for him outside. We… lost him. His flagship and the rest of his fleet… gone. Vanished into hyperspace. I’m sorry, Padmé.”

Padmé hissed in pain as she scooted back on her mattress, careful not to let her disappointment show.  

“With all due respect, you shouldn’t have run away like that,” Raymus said sternly, but not without gentleness. “Tarkin wouldn’t have lured you here without a reason. Had he caught you there—”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.” Padmé put emphasis on her words to make it clear that she meant what she said. “I wish there was a way for me to explain... to somehow justify my actions, but I’m afraid—I’m afraid that wasn’t my brightest moment, nor my most graceful assault, that’s for sure. And what is worse, I put you and the others at terrible risk. That can’t happen again—and it won’t. I promise you that.”

Ironically enough, she, in fact, felt like her moment of realization had been one of her brightest moments in a long time. Only now did she see clearly how much things had changed over the years. How much she had changed. There had been a time when she’d been if not happy, then at least content with juggling between her career and her heart’s desire, but that time was long gone. After everything she’d been through, she deserved to take a time out and see to her own needs and desires for a change. 

She decided she needed to talk to Mon Mothma as soon as she could. There had to be other people to be assigned to these missions to far away systems. People who still had their whole hearts in it. She clearly didn’t, and she could no longer bear having to tear her heart in two, either. 

“We already questioned some of the stormtrooper survivors,” Raymus continued, pulling Padmé back to the present. “They doubted even their commanding officer, that slimy son of a bantha, knew the details of Tarkin’s plans here.”

“There has to be someone who knows something,” Padmé sighed. “Anything.”

“I might be able to help with that,” Queen Calista interjected softly. She adjusted the heavy hem of her intricated black gown and took a seat on the floor beside them. “And I do also believe that an apology is in order. I am so, so sorry, Padmé. I made a grave mistake. When they came and took my people, I saw no other way to save them but to submit. Now, I do realize that I should have looked deeper before committing to such a sinister deed. It now occurs to me that I didn’t only betray the trust of those I’ve sworn to protect but a beloved queen and a symbol of freedom to our people... When I was but a small girl, my mother used to tell me stories about you and your bravery during the Trade Federation blockade. I always wanted to be like you, to become as headstrong and courageous and as you, but, apparently, I couldn’t live up to my childhood hero. And yet I must know, can you ever forgive me?”

Padmé took Queen Calista’s pale, trembling hand in her own and smiled weakly. “Apology accepted, Your Majesty,” she said. “Please don’t be so hard to yourself. As inspiring as such bedtime stories must be for young girls, I imagine they often fail to mention that I had plenty of help. What transpired here in this throne room all those years ago wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the Gungan people, my trusted handmaidens, a young boy who simply happened to be in the right place at the right time, and even two of the finest Jedi I’ve ever known, no less. Whereas I was surrounded by friends and allies, you were alone, separated from your handmaidens and political advisors, even your guards. And when you could have chosen apathy, you still tried to help your people. I can respect that, even though your actions could have cost me everything.”

“I may not deserve your forgiveness, but I’m grateful for it all the same,” Queen Calista said, gently squeezing Padmé’s hand. “And while I may never be able to properly compensate for your kindness, I think I might still be able to help you with your efforts against the Empire.”

“Do you have any idea why they abducted your people, Your Majesty?” Raymus asked. “How many did they take?”

Queen Calista sighed as she rubbed her temples. “Hundreds, I’m afraid,” she said. “I was led to believe they only took my people as hostages to ensure my... cooperation, but no. They have taken my people in an undisclosed location off-planet. For what undoubtedly sinister purpose, I cannot tell, but they must be found and rescued, nevertheless. But first, I must call a meeting with my advisors and arrange a public speech. The people… they are afraid. They have the right to know what is going on—and what was my part in all this.”

Padmé made a mental note to ask Anakin for insight into Tarkin’s motives, hoping he might know why the Empire would abduct innocent people. 

“And what about Ambassador Amidala?” Raymus continued. “There must have been a reason they wanted her, of all people.”

“There was,” Queen Calista admitted. “They wouldn’t tell me, but I overheard a private conversation between Tarkin and one of his officers. As far as I understand, they sought to conduct a prisoner exchange. Ambassador Amidala for—”

Padmé’s uninjured hand flew to her mouth. “Anakin,” she gasped. “They wanted Anakin.”

“That’s preposterous! The Rebel Alliance would never have agreed to make such a trade,” Raymus objected before looking at Padmé. “With all due respect, of course.”

Of course, they wouldn’t have agreed to it, but in the end, their disagreement wouldn’t have mattered. Deep down, Padmé knew for certain that Anakin wouldn’t have heeded their decisions. No restrictions, no hefty promises nor even direct threats would have stranded him. He would have come for her aid, and nothing in the galaxy would have stopped him. Tarkin must have known, she thought. He must have counted on that.  

She turned back to Queen Calista. “The Rebel Alliance seeks to end the threat of the Empire and restore the Republic Naboo used to be part of,” she said. “If I may be so bold, I suggest you raise the topic with your allies and advisors in the court. We must prevent this from happening again, but we can't that without help.”

Queen Calista nodded. “I shall do that,” she said, her expression determined. “It’s the least I can do after leading you astray. My advisors will surely understand that it would be unwise for Naboo to stand alone in these uncertain times.”

“Pardon me for interrupting, Your Majesty, but it’s critical that we contact our allies on Alderaan and let them know what happened here,” Raymus said. “We’d be grateful if you provided us with the means to send a transmission.”

Queen Calista gestured Nané to step in. “My handmaiden shall show you to the holoterminal,” she said before turning back to Padmé. “If you don’t mind, I’d wish to speak with you in private.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Padmé said. “Oh, and Raymus? Would you be so kind and…” she paused, briefly wondering if she should ask him to send her regards to Anakin and tell him not to worry for her, “ Threepio and have him prepare our transport for us? I’d very much like to leave for Alderaan as soon as possible.”

Soon, they would be on their way back, and then there would be plenty of time to talk things through, face to face. 

“But your arm…” Raymus looked confused. “Are you sure?”


As soon as Raymus and Nané were gone, Queen Calista helped Padmé to her feet. “Leaving so soon? Oh, I had hoped you to would stay as our guests at least for a few weeks. I wouldn’t dream of sending you on your way until your wounds are properly healed,” she said. “And besides, I have a proposition for you.”

Padmé gave the Queen a sidelong glance. “A proposition, Your Majesty?”

“Before you came, the Imperials… murdered one of my most trusted advisors in cold blood,” Queen Calista said mournfully. “But as much as I grieve for him, I know I cannot afford this tremendous loss to slow down our tireless work. Especially not now when our people are in dire need of reassurance that they can still trust the government to have their best interest in mind. Pardon me for being blunt, Padmé, but I can’t think anyone better to fulfill this position than you.”

“I’m honored for your gracious offer, I truly am,” Padmé said. “But I have to refuse. I’m… needed elsewhere, and I’ve already been gone for too long.”

“There must be some way to convince you to change your mind.”

Padmé shook her head, smiling. "My apologies, Your Majesty, but I’m afraid there isn’t,” she said, deciding not to further disclose her reasons, afraid that she might not be able to reign her emotions in if she allowed herself to think about her family. “As soon as Raymus returns, we shall take our leave.” 

Queen Calista returned her smile. “I understand,” she said, offering her hand. “In that case, thank you for your courage and understanding, as well as everything you did here today, for which I am forever in your debt. I hope we shall meet again under more pleasant circumstances. Safe travels, my friend.”

“I hope that too.” Padmé shook the Queen’s hand. “Goodbye, Your Majesty.”

Before leaving, Padmé took the time to record two holomessages and left them for Nané to deliver. In the message she recorded for Queen Calista’s public forum, she exposed the extent of Palpatine’s lies and deceit and encouraged the Naboo citizens to stay strong and united in these trying times. The second, more personal message was addressed to her parents and her sister, as she didn’t want them to learn she was alive from the press.

Later, aboard the Tantive IV, Padmé accompanied Raymus in the cockpit. Clutching her injured arm against her chest, she stared wistfully out the main viewport as the ship took off. 

“A credit for your thoughts,” Raymus said, unexpectedly. 

Padmé let out a heavy, defeated sigh. “I can’t help but wonder,” she began, sounding thoroughly miserable. “Did we truly achieve anything by coming here? Even if Queen Calista eventually succeeds in swaying the public opinion, and Naboo would officially join our efforts against the Empire, the process could take months. Years, even. Tarkin got away. So many people died. Hundreds of innocent people are missing, and we don’t have the slightest clue that might lead us to them. We might have put an end to their operation here, but unless we figure out their plans soon, nothing will stop them from doing this again in another system far away from here.”

“At least now we know the Empire is up to something sinister,” Raymus pointed out. “Mon Mothma and Viceroy Organa are eager to hear our report. We may be onto something here.”

It was still early by the time Bail Organa dropped by, but Anakin was already awake. Or still awake, after tossing and turning around in his sheets for a good part of the night, unable to sleep with the Force constantly humming at the edges of his awareness. Now that he’d seen his children with his own eyes, even if just from afar, his longing to be with them, to get to know them, to give them everything he had and more, was rapidly becoming unbearable.  

The churning emptiness he’d felt inside ever since regaining his consciousness was now filled with transcendent joy, but such strong emotions never came to him without their less pleasant counterparts lurking around the depths of his tormented mind. Conquering entire star systems, that was something he could do with relative ease, but conquering his crippling fear of rejection, of abandonment, of never being good enough? To become the man he longed to be—the man his family deserved—he knew that was a battle he couldn't avoid for much longer. 

“Good morning,” Bail said. His tone held no trace of hostility, but no particular sympathy, either. 

Anakin responded with a stiff nod, his expression steeling. Even though he might have developed some respect for Organa in the wake of their previous encounter, he hadn’t forgotten that the man remained an obstacle to his heart’s desires. 

In Vader’s universe, there had only ever been one way to deal with obstacles, but what had Vader ever been but a tool? A crude instrument, a brutal reminder of what could have been, forged in the fires of Mustafar to carry out his Master’s will and his Master’s will alone. To be his own master and carve his own path through the consequences of his actions, Anakin now understood he’d have to separate himself from his old ways completely to learn how to be Anakin Skywalker again. 

He glanced at Organa and reached to the Force, soon finding what he was looking for. He’d already figured out that while half of these rebels would never give him the benefit of the doubt, the other half silently hoped he’d single-handedly save them from the war to come so they could all go back home. Organa, on the other hand, didn’t seem as eager to neither condemn nor commend him as the others. 

“I’m afraid I can’t stay for long,” Bail continued. “There are a great many things that require my attention this morning. So, allow me to ask, have you reconsidered our terms?”

“Do it,” Anakin blurted out, swallowing back any insulting remarks trying to escape his mouth. As much as he loathed the very idea of a transmitter chip under his skin, being thrown into a cell was no longer an option to him. With the chip, he’d at least be able to sneak back to that balcony and watch his children without causing a hassle. “Just… just do it.” Before I change my mind.     

“Very well.” Bail sounded both relieved and mildly surprised. “I must say, I’m rather—”

“Your opinion is irrelevant to me,” Anakin snapped. “I’m not doing this for you.”

“Fair enough,” Bail said calmly, then called for the med droid, who then came and began the procedure. “I still believe your cooperation is an important, even necessary, step toward a fruitful partnership between us. How could our people ever get used to your presence if they never saw you walk among us as one of us? If there’s a path to mutual trust and acceptance to be found, I’m fairly certain this is it.”

Anakin had his doubts about Organa’s vision but remained silent. Organa didn’t need to know that it wasn’t these people’s trust and acceptance he was after. He didn’t believe in their cause nor their means to achieve their ends, but in the end, his beliefs didn’t matter. Even as a young Jedi with very limited knowledge of galactic politics, he’d perceived the system as deeply flawed. He’d believed that the built-in apathy of the Senate encouraged nothing but inaction and inefficiency. Now, it certainly frustrated him how these people were so devoted to bringing it back without acknowledging how easily such flaws could have been exploited.

But even though Vader had failed to see it, the Empire had been just as far from ideal government as the Republic, and the systematic oppression Vader had justified—and enforced—as necessary to restore law and order to the galaxy now made Anakin nauseous. 

As the med droid finished patching Anakin up, Bail began to take his leave. “I’m looking forward to seeing you at our strategic meeting tomorrow morning,” he said. “I’ll make sure to send someone to pick you up.” 

Not long after Bail and his droid had left, Anakin found himself back on that secluded balcony. He watched Luke and Leia building their own little fort out of snow, and it took everything he had in him not to hop off the balcony and walk across the courtyard to join them. Even though he knew he shouldn’t have been there and that he was already pushing his luck, there was no way he could have given up what felt his only anchor to his sanity. With Padmé gone, he desperately needed a reminder that there would still be a place for him in the galaxy that had every imaginable reason to hate him. A reminder that his struggles hadn’t been for nothing, and there would still be something worth waiting for in store for him if only he could be patient. 

Unfortunately, patience had never been one of his virtues, and before he could quite stop himself, his desperate longing got the best of him, and he reached to the Force on a curious whim. He hadn’t planned it, and he most certainly realized that he shouldn’t have done it, but as soon as he felt the Luke and Leia’s star-bright presence in the Force, he knew there was no way for him to pull back. He had to get closer, he simply had to, and the only way to do it was through the Force.

As if in trance, he watched as the twins simultaneously lifted their heads and exchanged a look with each other before looking around in alarm. Please, don’t be scared, he begged, yet he could only hope they'd hear him. Even though he could already tell they both were extraordinarily strong in the Force, he also knew they lacked proper training and likely wouldn't understand what was happening. 

Clearly anxious to get back inside, Leia tugged at her brother’s sleeve, but Luke seemed reluctant to leave as if he would have wanted to keep looking. Luke, Anakin thought, desperately trying to reach his son and let him know he hadn’t meant to startle them. It’s all right… you are safe. Nothing is going to hurt you, not ever

For a few seconds there, Anakin was almost certain that he’d reached Luke’s consciousness, but the moment was gone as soon as it came, and their not quite a bond broke off. All he could do was watch from afar as Luke finally shrugged and turned around to follow his sister back inside, but not without casting one last, lingering look over his shoulder before disappearing through the doors.

Scolding himself for his impulsivity, Anakin stormed off the balcony, his dark robes billowing behind him. What have I done? He’d let his eagerness to get to know his children blind him, and now he’d have to pay the price for his short-sightedness. Now, the twins were scared of him, and that was the last thing he would have wanted to happen. 

After wandering around the empty halls and corridors for a while, lost in his grim thoughts and not paying much attention to his surroundings, he was jerked rather painfully back to reality by something, or someone, bumping into his shin from under a table in the middle of a dimly lit hallway. “What the—?” 

A blue and white astromech droid emerged from under the table, and that particular astromech, Anakin would have recognized anywhere. “Artoo?” He could hardly believe his eyes. “What are you doing here?” 

Another sharp bump, now followed with sincerely offended beeping. 

Instinctively, Anakin dropped on one knee to the droid’s level. “Yes… it’s me,” he sighed. “Ah, I see they didn’t wipe your memory. Yes… I know. I’m sorry. Ow! I know. Yes. Uh-huh. I know!

After finally hurling his last insult at him, R2-D2 let out a long, melancholic whistle and bumped against Anakin’s knee, much gentler than before. 

Anakin closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against R2-D2’s domed, silver head and let out a sigh. “I missed you too,” he said softly.   

Then, the door across the hallway suddenly slid open, and Luke’s small, blonde head poked in. “You found him!” The boy beamed. “You found Artoo!”

Anakin sprang to his feet and backed into the shadows, swiftly pulling his hood over his head as he leaned against the wall. What was he supposed to do now? He’d already startled Luke once today, so he didn’t want to repeat that mistake by letting the boy see his ruined face. If only the Force could grant him the ability to go invisible... R2-D2, on the other hand, rolled over to Luke and positioned himself protectively by his side.

Luke patted R2-D2’s head and brushed the droid’s alarmed beeps off with a soft chuckle. “Don’t worry, Artoo,” he reassured the droid. “He’s not a threat.”

“And how would you know that, little one?” Anakin asked before he could stop himself. All things considered, the boy shouldn’t have been so trusting, even though, for obvious reasons, Anakin found himself reluctant to scold him for it. “You don’t know who I am.” 

“Maybe not, but I’ve seen you before,” Luke said with confidence unusual for his age. “In my dreams. I know you wouldn’t hurt me. I don’t know why I know. I just… know. Does it sound strange to you? My sister says it does, but I know she shares the same dream.”

Had Anakin's heartbeat not been machine-regulated, his heart would definitely have skipped a beat. It’s the Force. Every fiber of his being screamed at him that he shouldn’t be having this conversation, but how could he possibly back off now that his son had come to him? He hadn't initiated their encounter, so, technically, he wasn’t breaking any rules. 

And if it was the Force that had brought them together, who was he, or Bail Organa, to deny its will?

Luke tilted his head. "So, did you come to play hide-and-seek with us?" he asked, his bright blue eyes twinkling.  

Chapter Text

Anakin cleared his throat. “No, I don’t—I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said. He hadn’t, after all, come to play games. 

Although he could no longer tell how he’d imagined his first meeting with his children would be like, he was quite certain that hiding from his son in the shadows of an empty hallway had never been part of any plan or vision his subconscious could possibly have cooked up. 

Luke blew a stray lock of blonde hair off his forehead and stepped into the faint spot of sunlight in the middle of the floor, not paying heed to R2-D2’s cautious whistling. “I’m Luke,” he said briskly. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?” 

The boy was observant, Anakin had to give him that. “Perhaps I did,” he managed. “What made you think so?”

“You wouldn’t be so scared of me if you didn’t know who I am,” Luke pointed out. “But you don’t have to be scared, I promise. I don’t bite.”

Anakin scoffed silently. The boy read him like an open book. “I am not scared.”

Luke tilted his small head. “Then why are you hiding from me?” he asked and reached out to him, offering his hand. “Come.”

Anakin backed closer to the wall. “No,” he rasped.

“It’s okay,” Luke encouraged him. “Take my hand. Come to the light.”

Yet Anakin remained frozen, unsure what to do. He wanted to take his son’s hand, he truly did, but was he ready for the consequences? Was he prepared to bear the sight of that innocent little face twisting in disgust and horror? 

“Please?” Luke took a step closer to him, still stubbornly offering his hand. “I’d like to see you.”

There is no escape. It was something Vader had often declared to his enemies before striking them down in cold blood, but now it was Anakin himself who’d been backed into a corner—by his own son, no less. 

Vader might have entertained the idea of his offspring as nothing more than an asset; a deadly tool to be employed to overthrow the false Emperor and seize his Empire for himself and his doubtlessly unwilling family, but now that he looked Luke with his own eyes—with Anakin’s eyes—he couldn’t help but feel deeply ashamed. 

For Vader, Luke and Leia would have been little more than a precious possession to be molded to his needs. Vader would have demanded their love and respect and taken it for granted, while deep down Anakin dreaded that he might not deserve any of that, not after everything he’d done.

Either way, it’d now be their decision, not his. At that moment, he finally understood that regardless of how his children would perceive him, his loyalty lied with them and them alone. He felt no obligations to the Empire he’d helped to build, and he most certainly didn’t believe in this pathetic excuse of a rebellion and their ridiculously idealistic goals. In his opinion, the old Republic had been weak and corrupted and it’d deserved to crumble. He didn’t trust these people who seemingly wanted to bring back the old system without admitting it’d been flawed and vulnerable to exploit. 

If they truly sought to end this destructive conflict, he’d help them any way he could, but not because he believed in their cause.    

But his family? Now that was something he would gladly put his faith in. 

Dragging a heavy breath through his new mask, Anakin allowed Luke to take his hand and pull him into the slim streak of light that sliced the floor. He dropped on one knee and let his hood fall. “This is why I didn’t want you to see me, little one,” he said, having to force each word out. “I didn’t want to scare you.”

But instead of stumbling backward, or screaming, or running away, as Anakin had fully expected him to do, Luke raised his other hand ran his small thumb over his cheek where his ravaged skin met the durasteel edge of his mask. 

“It is you!” Luke beamed, his gentle face melting into a radiant smile. “I knew it!”

Anakin was just about to ask the boy to elaborate, but he was interrupted by the door sliding open again. “Luke? Where are you?” A crisp and clear girl’s voice that could belong to none other than Leia hollered from the hallway. “I can’t find Artoo anywhere and this is getting bor—who’s that supposed to be?”

R2-D2 rolled over to Leia and made a circle around her. She gave the droid a gentle pat but never averted her increasingly suspicious gaze from her twin brother and the stranger accompanying him.

“You know we aren’t supposed to talk to strangers,” she scolded Luke, her arms akimbo. “Uncle Bail won’t like this.”    

“But Leia!” Luke insisted, his voice pitching up half an octave. “He’s no stranger. He’s the one we’ve seen in our dreams, don’t you see?”

Leia looked doubtful. “I don’t know about that...” she said hesitantly, almost as if she wouldn’t have wanted to admit that she knew what her brother was talking about. “Those were just dreams, Luke. Just... dreams. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything.”

Slowly, so he wouldn’t startle her, Anakin rose to his feet. Much to his surprise, Leia didn’t back off or give off any other signs of fear. Yet she remained tense and cautious around him. He could already tell her trust wouldn’t come as easily. Wise girl, he thought to himself. Wise and courageous, like her mother.

Now, that he finally saw his daughter up close, he realized how much she physically resembled Padmé. It wasn’t just the color of her eyes or her hair or how she wore it in two buns at each side of her head, but also the way how her brow knit together in concern and the certain indescribable graciousness of her eight-year-old’s demeanor. She truly was a princess, just like her mother had once been a queen.    

There was this little voice in his head that kept telling him to shut up when he still could, and yet he heard himself saying, “Leia… You look just like your mother.”  

Leia’s eyes lit up. “You know our mother?” 

Her straightforward question took Anakin by surprise. “I—umm.” His voice trailed off into hesitant, tense silence. I’m not very good at this, he thought. 

Luke tugged at his sleeve. “When will she come back?” he asked. The longing note in the boy’s voice all but broke Anakin’s heart. “Uncle Bail and Aunt Breha always say she’ll come back for us, but when? We’ve been waiting forever, but she never comes back. Maybe… maybe she’s just forgotten us.”

“She’s not!” Leia snapped. A slight flush rose to her cheeks.

“How can you be so sure?” Luke asked. 

“I don’t know, Luke. I just… know it,” Leia continued, looking puzzled. “I just know, okay?”

Anakin laid his hand on Luke’s shoulder. “Your sister is right,” he said softly. “Your mother loves you both very dearly.”

Luke tilted his head and glanced up at Anakin. “Then why did she leave us?” 

R2-D2 gave an ominously sigh-like whistle and shifted nervously on his feet. Anakin decided to ignore him as he sat on the floor, shifted into a cross-legged position and gestured the twins to follow his example. “Do you remember her?” he asked the twins, his eyes darting between them. “Do you remember anything?” 

Luke shrugged, but Leia gave a shy nod as she stepped closer and sat on the floor opposite Anakin, yet still keeping a safe distance from him. “She was very beautiful,” she whispered. “Kind, but… sad.” 

“But why was she sad?” There seemed to be no limits to Luke’s youthful curiosity. Being so observant and curious by nature, Anakin couldn’t help but notice that the boy would have made an excellent Jedi. “Was it because of us? Was it because she didn’t... want us?”

“No,” Anakin hurried to say. He couldn’t bear the thought of Luke and Leia thinking they were unwanted. “Your mother… she wanted nothing as much as to be with you. It wasn’t you who made her sad… That was all your father’s doing.”

Luke sat down beside his sister. “Because he died in the Clone Wars?”

Anakin raised a brow. “That’s what they told you, huh?”

Leia shook her head. “Uncle Bail and Aunt Breha never told us much about him,” she recalled. “Only that he fought in the Clone Wars.”

“And that he was very brave,” Luke added almost dreamily.

“Bravest of them all,” Leia concluded. Then, she glanced up at Anakin. “But you fought in the Clone Wars too, didn’t you?”

“I did,” Anakin admitted. “How could you tell?” 

“You’re hurt,” Leia pointed out. “Badly. Did it happen in the war?”

Anakin sighed. “No.” He couldn’t bring himself to lie to his children. How could he possibly deny them the truths that had been denied from him for so long? They had the right to know, didn’t they? “What happened to me was my own doing. I did something terrible. Something unforgivable. I had to be stopped. So someone did.”

He couldn’t quite bring himself to say Obi-Wan’s name out loud, and yet he couldn’t help but briefly wonder where his old master was now and what he would have thought about all this. Vader had been so blindly devoted to find and destroy Kenobi that he’d refused to even consider the possibility that his old master could have died a long time ago without the word of his death ever reaching him. 

Anakin, on the other hand, was strangely certain that Obi-Wan was still alive, hiding in some remote corner of the galaxy, likely unaware of everything that had transpired here. 

In his heart, and even though he realized he hadn’t given his old master much choice in the matter, he still carried hate for Obi-Wan for turning on him, mutilating him and leaving him to burn instead of granting him a merciful death after besting him. 

But then again, had Obi-Wan struck him down on Mustafar, he wouldn’t be here now. He’d never have gotten the chance to meet his children.  

Leia gave him a perplexed look. “I don’t think I understand. Couldn’t you just have said you’re sorry?” she asked, sounding genuinely confused. “Aunt Breha always says there nothing that an honest apology can’t fix.”

Anakin could barely withhold a bitter laughter. “No, little one,” he said wistfully. “That’s not always how it works. You’ll learn that when you’re older. I’m afraid I could spend the rest of my life trying to make things right, and it still wouldn’t be enough. Some wounds can’t be mended, no matter how hard we try.”

“But you shouldn’t let that stop you from trying,” Luke insisted. “Uncle Bail always says that more important than success is that we never stop striving to be better.”

Behind his mask, Anakin smiled to himself. “Your Uncle Bail has taught you well.” He reached out to ruffle the boy’s hair. That kid, he was a good one. They both were. “I can, and will, try. I promise.”

It was then that Leia narrowed her eyes as if she’d just realized that something didn’t add up. “So, if you know our mother, then you must know what happened to our father too,” she pointed out. There was certain sharpness to her tone. “Is he… gone?”  

It was nothing less than a miracle that R2-D2 didn’t fall to the floor out of his poorly contained anxiety. “Hush, Artoo,” Luke said to the nervously whistling droid. “I want to hear this.” 

Only then did Anakin realize that he was trapped. There was no way for him to back out of this, and the worst, or the best, thing about it was that he didn’t even want to. In that one, fleeting moment, he couldn’t have cared less about what Bail Organa, or even Padmé, would have thought about him and what he was about to do. 

Because if he were to be in Luke and Leia’s shoes, he’d have hated to be kept in darkness. It’d been, after all, his crippling fear of loss and abandonment that had once driven him straight into Palpatine’s clutches. How could he possibly allow his children to remain under the impression that their parents had never cared enough to stay around? How could he allow them to believe they hadn’t been good enough and leave them vulnerable to people like Palpatine? 

He glanced out the only window that let some light in the dim hallway. The pale sunlight burned his sore eyes, but he didn’t care. Not all wounds could be mended, he’d just said that himself, but some of them could—and he’d be damned if he’d let this one fester.  

To hell with anyone who had ever thought they would be able to keep him from telling his children the truth. Whether or not he deserved to have them in his life, it didn’t matter to him. It was no longer about him. It was about Luke and Leia. They deserved to better than to live in a lie. They deserved to know they were loved.

He lowered his gaze briefly and dragged a heavy breath. “Your father… is alive,” he said through his gritted teeth, his eyes frantically darting between the twins. 

R2-D2 screamed. 

Luke and Leia all but held their breath. 

It was now or never. 

“I am your father.”  

A stunned silence fell over the hallway. Not even R2-D2 seemed to have anything to add. Luke and Leia stared at Anakin, their eyes wide and filled with emotion he couldn’t quite give a name to.  

“Search your feelings,” he said. “You know it to be true.”

For a split second, he regretted his choice to tell them the truth. Perhaps he should have heeded to Bail Organa’s warnings... Perhaps he should have asked Padmé’s opinion before messing with Luke and Leia’s heads like that… And perhaps he should have realized that they probably were better off without him.   

But then Luke took his hand in his own. “I know,” he said softly. “I think that… I’ve always known.”  

Leia, on the other hand, wasn’t as easily convinced as her brother. She scrunched her little nose in confusion. “So do I,” she whispered, her small shoulders trembling from both bafflement and wonder. “But why? How? How is that even possible?”

“The Force is strong in our family,” Anakin explained. “I have it, and so do you two.”

“The Force?” Luke and Leia repeated in unison. 

It occurred to Anakin that he might not be best suited to teach about the intricacies of the Force. His approach to the Force had always been more practical than theoretical. He’d trained one Padawan, but what good had ever come out of that? Ahsoka had been his responsibility, and yet he’d failed to protect her, so she’d left the Order. 

Vader had trained his Inquisitors, too, but they’d been nothing but tools, forged to serve a single purpose. Fulfilling that purpose had never required a particularly deep understanding of the ways of the Force.

“The Force connects everything in the universe. It connects us and binds us together,” he said hesitantly, almost as if he’d have expected Obi-Wan or Master Yoda to poke in and correct him any moment. “It allows us to know things. To feel things. It’s a pathway to many different abilities, but it takes years of training and a lot of patience to learn to use it properly.”

Leia yawned. “Sounds boring.”

Anakin chuckled. As if he hadn’t felt the same way about Obi-Wan’s first lessons. It was no secret that he’d always enjoyed lightsaber sparring more than early meditation sessions. That’s my daughter, he thought. Not that there was ever any doubt.

He glanced at the window as an idea came to him. “I wouldn’t be so certain about that, little one,” he said mischievously as he made a smooth gesture with his hand and pushed the window open with the Force. A chilling breeze from the outside blew a puff of fresh snow inside, but instead of letting it fall onto the floor, he sent in swirling slowly around the twins. 

Luke and Leia’s jaws dropped. First, they gasped in unison, and then rushed to try and catch the enormous snowflakes on their tongues, giggling and squealing in sheer excitement. 

Anakin wasn’t sure if he’d ever felt as warm inside as he felt now. Perhaps he shouldn’t have felt so satisfied with himself after using the Force to impress his children, but he couldn’t help it. Hell, he didn’t even want to. What was the Force even good for, if not for conjuring smiles on one’s children’s faces?   

After entertaining the twins for a moment, he sent the rest of the snow back outside and used the Force to close the window. 

“I want to learn to do that!” Luke announced. “Can you teach me?”

“And me!” Leia added, her brown eyes twinkling.

Acknowledging that sooner than later he’d have a lot to explain to the Organas, Anakin sighed. “Perhaps later,” he said, even though he wasn’t sure when that ‘later’ would be. 

None of this should have happened, and yet he wouldn’t have given up this precious moment with his children for anything. 

As attuned to the Force as he was now, he suddenly became hyperaware of the transmitter chip under his skin. It’d be only a matter of time until Bail or someone else would notice that both he and the twins had gone missing and come looking for them. This moment, it was a stolen one, and he knew it wouldn’t last... so he decided to do the one thing he possibly could to extend it. 

As his one final addition to his already disturbingly long list of foolish and extremely inconsiderate things he’d done that day, as well as a desperate attempt to buy more time with his children, he reached to the Force for the one last time and scrambled the signal of his chip. Whether he’d get ten minutes or an hour, it didn’t matter. He decided the consequences would be worth it all the same. 

It was then that the twins seemed to remember their previous discussion, and their expressions turned grave. “B-but why did you leave us?” Luke asked, only barely able to hold back his tears. “Why didn’t you come back sooner?”

Anakin sighed. Even he realized that they were far too young to hear the full story. One day, they wouldn’t be, and then he would tell them the whole truth about the night he made the biggest mistake of his life and chose to pursue darkness instead of love.

And he’d be the one to make sure that nothing and no one could ever seduce his children to follow the dark and destructive path he’d once chosen for himself. He’d protect them. That’d be his one gift for them; the only one he had to give.   

But for now, he’d have to settle for a more child-friendly version of the story. “I didn’t come because I didn’t know where to find you,” he said, carefully weighing his words. “Your mother was wise to hide you from me. I… haven’t always been a good man. You were safer without me, and so was your mother. She brought you here because she knew you’d be safe and protected here. Your Uncle Bail and Aunt Breha have taken good care of you, haven’t they?”

The twins nodded. 

“So, if you’re our father, and you’re here...” Leia started to put the pieces together. “Who’s our mother?”

“And where is she now?” Luke added. “Is she coming here too?” 

Meanwhile, Padmé could barely remember the last time she’d slept or eaten anything more nutritious than a ration bar. Under different circumstances, she might have been uncomfortably aware of her disheveled appearance as she stepped off the landing ramp of the Tantive IV to be greeted by a small welcoming committee, but right now she had more pressing matters at hand.

Her eyes searched for Anakin from among the people lined up at the landing platform, but much to her dismay, he was nowhere to be seen. Although Bail and Ahsoka were there, both looking nothing but eager to hear her news from Naboo. 

As she rushed over to them, dragging her heavy suitcase behind her, she was stopped by one of Mon Mothma’s aides. “Excuse me, Ambassador Amidala,” he said. “Senator Mothma requests your immediate presence at the—“

“Miss Amidala, would you please look at these documents—“  

“Pardon me, but we need you to sign—” 

For a split second, Padmé was sure she’d finally lose it. It was only by a miracle, and her iron self-control, that she managed to keep herself together. She didn’t have time or patience for this, not now. All these people needed something from her, always something more, it was a neverending circle.   

She turned to the golden droid following in her wake. “Threepio, would you be so kind and handle this for me?” she asked, rubbing her temple with her free hand. “I give you my full authorization.”

C-3PO gasped. “Oh, goodness.”    

It was then that Bail pulled her into a tight hug. “Thank the stars you are all right,” he said, sounding genuinely relieved. “We were devastated to hear about what happened. Had we known about Queen Calista’s treachery, we would never have sent you there.”

Padmé gave him a stiff nod. “I know, Bail. I know,” she sighed. She’d already compiled a full report and given it to Raymus to be presented to the Rebel leaders and she most certainly didn’t wish to summarize it now. “It’s all right. I gave Captain Antilles my report.”

Ahsoka furrowed her brow in concern at the sight of Padmé’s bandaged arm. “You’re injured,” she remarked. “Should we take you to the medical wing?”

Padmé shook her head. “No, no,” she said, stubbornly ignoring her throbbing arm. “I’m sorry, I know I’m not at my most tactful. It’s been a long trip, and I’m glad to see you both, but I really must talk to Anakin as soon as possible. I hoped to see him here, in fact.”

Ahsoka exchanged a worried look with Bail. “I haven’t seen him all day,” she admitted. “Have you?”  

“Not since the morning.” 

Padmé raised her brow at the small device Bail pulled from his pocket. Do I even want to know, she asked herself, but ultimately decided to add Bail’s device to the rapidly growing list of things she needed to bring up with Anakin. 

It was then that all blood rushed from Bail’s face. “No signal.”

Ahsoka closed her eyes and reached to the Force, only to snap them open a few seconds later. “I think I know where he is,” she said ominously. “And I’m afraid he’s not alone.”

Padmé’s heart sank. After witnessing how Vader had reacted when he first learned about Luke and Leia’s existence, she firmly refused to believe Anakin would do anything to hurt them. Yet she couldn’t help but fear for their safety, as she knew exactly how recklessly Anakin could act under pressure. It wouldn’t be the first time he did something mindless out of love, she thought.

Her eyes darted between Bail and Ahsoka. “We must find them,” she said with a grave expression on her face and dropped her suitcase. “Now.”

“Follow me,” Ahsoka said as she turned around and started running back to the palace, her long head-tails twirling behind her.

Padmé and Bail struggled to stay at the heels of a former Jedi as she dashed through the halls and empty corridors. They were both red-faced and panting as they finally reached their destination. Ahsoka was already there, standing by a blast door and waiting for their arrival.

Ahsoka gestured at the door. “I sense they are inside."

Padmé bit her lower lip in distress. “Open it.”

The door slid open, and the three barged in, unsure what they would find inside. They indeed found Anakin and the twins inside, sitting on the floor and doing… absolutely nothing of significance. It almost looked like they were just having a nice little chat together as if there was nothing unusual about it. 

Luke and Leia glanced over their shoulders to see who was coming, and for a split second, they all six stood stock-still. 

“That’s it,” Bail finally snapped, reaching for his comlink. “I’ll comm the guards.”

Padmé touched his arm to stop him. “No, wait!” she urged. “Look. They’re not in danger. They’re… all right.” 

Slowly, Anakin rose to his feet. “Padmé…”   

All Padmé could do was stare at Anakin, who looked both apologetic and embarrassed and yet somehow the happiest man in the entire galaxy. 

First, she took a cautious step forward him, completely unprepared for the avalanche of emotion that took her over as she saw him there with the twins. My family, she thought, her heart racing, reunited at last.  

Then, she could no longer hold herself back. All of a sudden, she couldn’t have cared less about their audience; about Bail’s potential disapproval; about anything that wasn’t strictly about her beloved family. 

“Ani,” she gasped as she ran over to him, tears flowing freely down her cheeks. “Oh, Ani… I missed you so much.”

Anakin scooped her up in his arms and twirled her around. “You came back,” he murmured softly as he pressed his forehead against hers, barely able to comprehend what was going on. “You came back to me…”  

Padmé cupped his face with her hands. “As soon as I could,” she whispered, her voice breaking. “There’s so much I want to tell you.”    

Luke and Leia’s eyes skittered between Anakin and Padmé. Then, Luke turned to his sister and whispered triumphantly, “I knew it.”

Leia folded her little arms. “No, you didn’t!” she snapped. “Besides, I knew it first!”

“Nuh-uh!” Luke insisted. “I knew it first! I’m stronger with that… that Force thing!”

Leia nudged at him. “That’s not how the Force works, dummy!”

Padmé raised a brow at Anakin as he gently eased her back down. “You told them, didn’t you?”

Anakin gave a flippant shrug. “Well, I was just getting there...” 

They both dropped down on their knees and wrapped Luke and Leia into one big hug. This wasn’t how Padmé had imagined they’d reveal the truth to them, but now that it’d already happened, she couldn’t imagine any better way.   

Padmé wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "If only you knew how much I missed you every day," she said. “Can you ever forgive us?”

Luke and Leia exchanged a cunning look. “Maybe,” Luke said with youthful seriousness. “If you promise you’ll never ever ever leave us again.”

Leia started counting something with her fingers. “And if you promise to con… comp… compensate for all those birthday presents we never got from you!” she said and showed eight fingers.

Padmé and Anakin burst into tearful laughter. “What do you think?” she asked him. “Can we do that?”

Behind his mask, Anakin smirked. “Absolutely.”

Meanwhile, Ahsoka leaned casually against the doorframe with a wide, heartfelt grin on her face, and not even Bail could seem to prevent a genuine smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Now, now. That's quite enough excitement for one day,” he finally said, addressing Luke and Leia. “I believe your parents have adult things to discuss, and you two are already terribly late from your afternoon class.”     

“I can take them,” Ahsoka suggested. “Come on now, little ones.”

“But I don’t want to go just yet,” Luke objected. “I want to stay here with Dad and see more cool Force tricks!”

Anakin ruffled Luke’s hair, his heart melting upon hearing the boy’s words. “I’ll show you more, but only if you go to the class and do your homework too,” he said. “Off you go.”

Padmé shook her head, smiling. “You’ve been in their lives for less than a day and you’re already spoiling them rotten,” she chided. 

Leia tugged at Padmé’s sleeve. “When will we see you again?” she asked. 

“Soon,” Padmé said. “We’re not going anywhere. That’s a promise.”

Later, when Bail, Ahsoka, and the twins were gone, Anakin held Padmé in his arms in the empty hallway. For a long while, they simply stood there, leaning against each other as the peaceful, serene silence stretched out between them. 

It was Anakin who finally broke it. “I’m so, so sorry, Padmé,” he rasped. “About everything. I wronged you... I hurt you… I know there’s no way I could ever take back the damage I’ve done. I just need you to know I’m sorry.”   

Padmé tilted her head back to meet his gaze. “I know, Ani, and I forgive you,” she said softly. “We can fix this together. I don’t know how or how long it’s going to take, but I know we can do it… if that’s what you want.”

“What I want…” Anakin’s voice trailed off in confusion. “You already know what I want. The real question here is if that’s what you want. The way I mistreated you, kept you locked up, took away your freedom… I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want anything to do with me after all those terrible things I did.”

Padmé took his hands into her own. “I’m not going to lie to you, Ani. It’s not going to be easy for me to learn to trust you again,” she said, her voice strained with hurt. “But it's not impossible, either. I know what you think. You think I left for Naboo because I wanted nothing to do with you, but that’s not true. I needed time, that’s for sure, and I needed to clear my head, but during my time away I realized something. Back on Coruscant, I told you I loved you, remember?”

Anakin lowered his gaze. Oh, yes, he remembered. “You don’t have to explain,” he sighed. “I understand. You thought I was going to die. Those words were meant to comfort a dying man, nothing more. I wouldn’t hold you onto that.”

Leaning forward, Padmé lifted his chin. “No, Ani,” she corrected. “Listen to me. I meant what I said. I still do. During my time away, I realized I want to make this work between us. I know it’d be… different… and that we’d have to take it slow... and that we’re not quite what we used to be.”

Anakin backed off from her and walked to the window, his shoulders slumped. “I don’t know,” he said, glancing at her over his shoulder. “I love you more than anything, you know that, but I'd be a fool to ask you to stay. It wouldn’t be the right thing to do. Look at me. I’m not the man you once fell in love with.”

Padmé strode over to him, climbed up onto the window seat with an enticing smile on her face, inviting him to step closer. “Don’t you think that’s for me to decide?” she asked, trailing her finger along the smooth, faintly gleaming surface of his new mask. “Does this come off?”

“It might.”

“Can you breathe without it?”   

“For a bit,” Anakin replied. “Why?”

“Show me and find out.” 

Hesitantly, Anakin reached for the magnetic clasps of his mask. “I thought you just said something about taking things slow.”

Padmé chuckled. “Maybe not that slow,” she purred. “For the love of the stars, take that thing off and kiss me already.”

It wasn’t that she didn’t realize there was much to discuss, but she simply couldn’t deny this from herself any longer. She loved Anakin, she truly did, and she desperately longed for proof that he loved her back. That everything that had happened; everything she’d been through over the last few months, hadn’t been for nothing. She knew they’d soon need to set proper boundaries for their relationship; to schedule a formal meeting with Bail and Breha to sort out how to proceed with the twins; to discuss everything that had happened on Naboo, but right now—right now all she wanted was to feel loved for a moment before having to return to her responsibilities. She'd earned that. 

And much to her delight, Anakin didn't seem to object. He set his mask aside and cupped her face in his hands. His breathing became harder and harsher, but he didn’t seem to mind. Then, he leaned in and asked, “You sure you want this?”

Padmé smiled against his mouth. “Oh, yes.”

The first kiss was chaste and sweet as their lips barely touched, but soon it turned out that was nowhere near enough for either of them. Gradually, their tongues grew greedier, and before long there was no way they could possibly keep their hands off each other. 

As gently as he could, Anakin backed Padmé against the wall and settled onto the window seat with her, pressing hungry kisses along her neck and jawline. He nested beside her and put his arm around her shoulder. Padmé snuggled up against his chest, feeling that finally, after all these years, she was exactly where she wanted to be. 

Before long, Anakin was forced to put his mask back on, but even then, neither of them felt like getting up and returning to the reality where their future was riddled with uncertainty just yet. The threat of the Empire was just as far from being eliminated as before, and after that, Anakin would still be tried for his crimes.  

Padmé buried her face into Anakin’s dark robes. “Ani?” she murmured drowsily. “Are you still awake?”

Humming in acknowledgment, Anakin glanced down at her. It was only then that he noticed the bandages around her arm. “You’re hurt,” he said. “What happened?”

“It’s nothing,” Padmé said. Right now, she’d have preferred a good, long nap instead of going over her failure of a mission. They could always speculate about the Empire’s mysterious plans tomorrow, couldn’t they? 

“Tell me.” There was a firm, demanding undertone to Anakin’s voice. 

“I ran away from my bodyguard and got shot,” Padmé said evasively. “They patched me up right there at the spot. No one else got hurt.”

Tightening his hold around her shoulders, Anakin scoffed. “Some bodyguard,” he muttered sourly. “I thought you were supposed to be on a diplomatic mission.”

“So did I,” Padmé sighed. “At least until Tarkin showed up. Please, Ani, can we talk about this to—?”

“Tarkin?” Anakin snapped. “What does Tarkin have to do with any of this?” 

Padmé used her uninjured arm to shift her position so she could look him in the eye. “Very well.” She gave up, deciding she was far too exhausted to argue with him. “On Naboo, we discovered that the Imperials had been abducting hundreds of local people and sending them off-planet. Do you know why would they do such a thing? What could they possibly need them for? Surely they wouldn't have needed hundreds of prisoners to guarantee the Queen's cooperation.” 

Behind his mask, Anakin pursed his lips in concern. Much to his dismay, he knew exactly what they were doing. It’d been an ambitious plan even before the Emperor’s demise, but he had no doubt Tarkin could still make it work. 

“It’s the Death Star...” His voice trailed off. “Tarkin is striving to complete the Death Star.”

Padmé frowned. “The... what?”

“It’s a moon-sized battle station, designed to destroy entire planets,” Anakin explained. “That’s what the Empire needs to regain complete control over the galaxy. It's the only way, and Tarkin knows it.”

“Destroy entire… No, Anakin, that’s impossible,” Padmé objected. “You must be mistaken. Even if it was possible to construct such a monstrosity, it'd cost billions of credits. We already froze the Empire’s funding weeks ago. They couldn’t possibly have—“    

“The Death Star was Palpatine’s pet project,” Anakin pointed out, slightly irritated that Padmé didn’t seem to believe him. “He always had sufficient funds stashed in his private vaults, well hidden from the Imperial Senate. With Palpatine's money and slave labor, Tarkin has everything he needs to complete that station within a year.”

Padmé covered her mouth with her hand. “We can’t let that happen,” she gasped. “What are we going to do?”  

Anakin reached out to caress her cheek. “We still have time to destroy it before it’s fully operational,” he said. “I'll meet with the Rebel leaders early in the morning and tell them everything I know. There’s no way they wouldn’t take this level of threat seriously.”

Chapter Text

Anakin attended the meeting and told the Rebel leaders everything he knew about the Death Star project. And he attended the one after that. And the one after that. For eleven standard months, he attended every single meeting they ever scheduled, including those he wasn’t invited in, and frantically tried to convince them to see reason, cut off the unnecessary political squabbling and stop wasting manpower and resourced that should have been directed to finding and destroying the Death Star before it could become fully operational.

But despite his persistence, his attempts had been in vain. Most of the Rebel leaders, of which many were politicians without too extensive military experience, had refused to even entertain the possibility that he might have been telling the truth, and even those precious few who had been inclined to listen to his warnings had ultimately turned him down for his lack of solid proof. He had even asked them to give him a ship and offered to go and find that proof, but, of course, they had firmly denied his request out of reluctance to allow their most precious prisoner to leave the planet.

It was, of course, more or less public knowledge that he remained their prisoner in name only, and only because he allowed it. No one had dared to raise the issue of restricting his personal freedom, not even after his two consecutive slips. He could only assume that Bail Organa had decided that it would be for the best if the Rebels would not be given more reason to antagonize him. Yet the relations between him and the Rebel Alliance remained as flammable as ever, to say the least. No one was particularly content with the ongoing status quo, but for better or for worse, even the most vocal opposition to keeping him off the leash seemed to realize that a fragile partnership with the man who was once known as Darth Vader was better than no partnership at all.

As he knew that none of the Rebel leaders, most of whom were spineless cowards in his book, would ever have had guts to ask, let alone demand him to leave, he persistently kept attending their meetings. They allowed him to participate and even speak freely, yet they refused to grant him a seat in their council or even a proper military rank, despite his cooperation and knowledge being the sole key to their most significant accomplishments against the Empire over the past year.

It frustrated him. He wasn’t impressed by the Rebel Alliance’s way to do things, and he wasn’t keen on impressing them, either, but knowing that he could have done so much more to end the conflict and restore peace to the galaxy kept gnawing at him. As even though he didn’t particularly care about the fates of these people, he cared about his family. With a fully operational Death Star, the Empire could seize the control of the galaxy once more, and there would be nowhere safe for Padmé and the twins. That battle station needed to be destroyed, and these people, incompetent fools or not, were in the best position to perform such a feat.

So once again, he stood there in the shadows, leaning against the wall with his arms folded in thinly veiled defiance, and listened to Mon Mothma’s presentation for their plans for the next cycle.

She turned on the CS-Mark 12 holoprojector in the middle of the conference room. A sizeable hologram of the galaxy map appeared above the device, casting a blue hue upon the room. “As some of you may already be aware, our next step will be sending a fully loaded relief force to deliver vital supplies and rebuilding equipment to Ryloth.” She zoomed in on the map. “The Ryloth system has suffered greatly under the—“

Anakin scoffed from the shadows. “Another mercy mission?” He didn’t bother to conceal the aggravation trickling into his voice. “It’s no use.”

General Davits Draven shot a contemptuous glance at him. “Haven’t we gone through this a million times already, Skywalker? Aside from a few minor skirmishes, we haven’t heard anything from the Empire in months. Tarkin’s fleet has all but vanished somewhere beyond the Outer Rim. We’ve been fighting stragglers. For all we know, Tarkin might already have admitted his defeat. He’s on the run, not building some imaginary battle station the galaxy has never seen before. It’s a perfect time to shift our focus from warfare to rebuilding the galaxy you and your blasted Emperor rendered into ashes.”

Anakin ignored the insult as he was used to hearing those. “Rebuilding vital infrastructures will take months. Months we simply don’t have,” he said. These people didn’t know Tarkin as he did. Tarkin was as cunning as he was patient: he wouldn’t mind his adversaries gloating about their alleged victory if it would give him an upper hand in days to come. “The Death Star—”

“—doesn’t exist, and it never will,” Draven interrupted, finishing Anakin’s sentence for him. “We’d be utter and complete fools to act solely because you tell us to do so and spread out our forces to what would likely turn out to be nothing but a wild bantha chase.”

Behind his mask, Anakin gritted his teeth. By staying in one place they would only make themselves a target, but, of course, these people would refuse to listen to him. He knew what they saw when they looked at him. They saw Darth Vader, the Emperor’s enforcer and the most hated man in the galaxy—and who could blame them?  

“You led the orbital strike on the Imperial shipyards at Kuat yourself, General. You got the coordinates as well as crucial intel about their defense protocols from me. Would you describe that mission as a wild bantha chase?” Anakin asked, his tone icy. He had seen the reports. The mission had been a major success.

He didn’t particularly like Draven, and Draven most certainly didn’t like him. After feeding the Rebels nothing but precise intel for months, Draven’s insistence on distrusting him seemed a spiteful decision, instead of a logical one. 

Draven glared at him. “Don’t flatter yourself, Skywalker,” he said. “As if any amount of intel could ever make us forget the damage you’ve done.”

Generally, Anakin didn’t mind others shunning him for his past, but he lacked the patience for stubborn fools who rather risked millions of innocent lives—including the lives of his wife and children—than accepted the facts simply because a wrong person asked them to do so. 

He swept his gaze deliberately slowly across the rest of the Rebel leaders. “You’re afraid, the whole lot of you. You’re afraid of me when you should be afraid of what’s coming. I’ve done everything in my power to help you. What could I possibly gain by lying about something like this? The Death Star is real, whether you like it or not.”

Draven rose from his seat and stood face to face with Anakin. “You tell me, traitor,” he snapped. “Traitor to the Republic… Traitor to the Empire… Forgive me if your sense of loyalty doesn’t particularly impress me.”

Anakin stared bleakly down at Draven. With his new prosthetics, he wasn’t quite as tall as Vader had been, but still taller than an average human man. “Then you’re in luck because I’m not here to impress you,” he said wrily. “I’m here to save your lives.”

“So you keep saying,” Draven pointed out. “You have indeed made yourself invaluable for the Rebellion. Some of us may already believe that we wouldn’t be where we are now without you, but I’m not one of those. I remember. I remember Palpatine. He toyed with the Republic for years, convincing us that we wouldn’t survive a day without his guidance and pushing us into a pointless war. How are we supposed to know that you aren’t playing the long game with us, huh?”

“My family is here,” Anakin snarled from behind his gritted teeth. “Their fate will be the same as yours. It wouldn’t hurt you to start considering that I wish you no harm.” And if I did, you would be the first one to know, General.

It was then that Bail rose from his seat, stepped between the two, and spread his hands in a conciliatory fashion. “Gentlemen, please,” he said calmly. “I’m fairly certain that we should be able to discuss these matters in a civil manner. Anakin, we already agreed to send Captain Syndulla and her crew to scour the far edges of the Outer Rim for any signs of this Death Star, as you requested. I suggest that we wait until we hear from her before doing anything hasty—”

Hasty?” Anakin snapped. His eyes sparkled with frustration and poorly concealed anger. “Don’t you understand? There will be no time to discuss this matter in a committee when they come for us—and they will come for us. That battle station has the ability to blast this entire planet into oblivion. Are you truly willing to risk that, Organa? Aren’t you sworn to protect Alderaan and its people?”

The holoprojector chimed, disrupting the conversation. “How convenient. We’re receiving a transmission from Captain Syndulla,” Mon Mothma announced. “Let us cease the infighting and hear her out, shall we?”

The galaxy map vanished, only to be replaced with a holoimage of a Twi’lek woman. Anakin only knew Hera Syndulla by her reputation, but he was inclined to believe that she was the best choice for such an important mission—after himself, of course.

“Ghost to Alliance Headquarters. It’s Captain Hera Syndulla.”

“It’s a great relief to hear from you, Captain,” Mon Mothma said. “We have been waiting for your report. Some of us more anxiously than others, I might add. Have you found anything that could lead us to Tarkin?” 

Hera shook her head, her lekku swinging from side to side. “No,” she said. “All we have found is a few abandoned outposts in the Batuu system. Entire settlements, emptied of people. No signs of fighting. Almost as if the people have vanished in thin air. Unfortunately, all the evidence suggests that whatever happened to those settlements and the people who lived there, it happened months ago. The trail has gone cold. It’s impossible to tell if the Empire is behind it.”

“Of course the Empire is behind it,” Anakin cut in, earning a few disapproving glances from the Rebel leaders by speaking without permission. “Tarkin has taken those people and subjected them to slavery. It’s the Naboo incident all over again. How can’t you see that?”

But Mon Mothma paid no heed to his words. “Thank you for your report, Captain. You and your crew have done everything we asked, and more,” she said. “It seems there’s nothing more for you to accomplish out there. You may return to the base at your earliest convenience.”

Anakin had heard enough. There was nothing more for him to accomplish here in the meeting, either. He saw it now. They wouldn’t listen to him before it would be too late. He was no stranger to arguing with authorities about what would be the best course of action, but never before there had been so much at stake. How could no one else see it?

His heavy robes billowed behind his back as he rushed out of the conference room with his fists clenched at his sides. The sky darkened at the same pace as his mood as he headed back home.


Not only to ease the political pressure on the Organas and snuff out the persistent rumors of them taking personal interest in protecting a war criminal but also to give her and Anakin some long-overdue privacy to rebuild their relationship from scratch and get to know their children, Padmé had bought them a charming little apartment by the mountainside, not too far away from the Royal Palace. She had had the apartment completely renovated to include bedrooms for the twins and an intricate ventilation system to keep the air pressure sufficient for Anakin to be able to breathe without his mask inside the house, for which he was grateful.

It was usually easy for Anakin to leave his frustrations, his fears and his unrelenting anger outside the door after his unsuccessful attempts to make the Rebel leaders see reason, but not today. Today, it had been almost a year since he had figured out Tarkin’s plans. He knew they were running out of time. As much as he had enjoyed every second of being with his family, learning to know his children and making amends to his wife, he knew that such happiness, such overwhelming joy, wouldn’t last. Not if the Rebel leaders wouldn’t pull their heads out of the sand and act soon.

As he stormed inside, his hands clasped tightly behind him, he found Padmé from the living room, going through her schedule of meetings and negotiations for the next week. She lifted her gaze from her datapad to greet him, but as she noticed his grim expression, she furrowed her brow in concern. “What’s wrong, love?”

“I can’t do this anymore,” Anakin said, his voice strained. “I’ve done everything they asked and more, but I can’t stay put and wait for Tarkin to come and doom us all any longer. I have to go, Padmé. Tonight. I’ll steal a ship and go find the proof to convince Mon Mothma and the rest of those incompetent cowards that the Death Star is real.”

Padmé rose from her seat and approached him. “Anakin—Ani, no, you can’t do that,” she said, lowering her voice into a stifled whisper. “There has to be a better way to make them listen.”

Anakin removed his mask and gave her a resigned look. “You know what they see when they look at me,” he said. “The time of talking is over. I have to do this. For you. For our family.”

Padmé shook her head. “Don’t you think our family is already under enough scrutiny as it is?” she asked. “If you do this, Bail can’t—and he certainly won’t—cover for you anymore. I fear for the consequences. What if—?”

“No,” Anakin snapped, his voice suddenly so cold that it made Padmé shiver. “They wouldn’t try and take Luke and Leia away from us. They wouldn’t dare.”

“You don’t know that,” Padmé objected. “Bail and Breha trust us to have their best interest in mind. If you betray that trust now—”

Anakin glared at her. “I have their best interest in mind,” he said, his voice harsh and uncompromising. “If the Organas will condemn me for protecting my family, so be it. Don’t argue with me, Padmé. I’m not in the mood.”

Cautiously, Padmé took the mask from Anakin’s hands and set it aside. He didn’t need the mask inside the house, but how could she make him see that he wouldn’t have to wear that other, invisible mask around her, either? “Ani, please,” she said softly and took his hands in her own. “I don’t want to argue with you. Don’t do this.”

“I have to.”

“I’m not talking about your mindless plan,” Padmé said. “I’m talking about… this. Us. Don’t shut me out.”

Anakin pressed his forehead against hers as he drew a ragged breath. “I’m not going to lose you, and I’m not going to lose our children,” he murmured. “Not again. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

“Oh, Ani,” Padmé sighed. “You worry me when you say such things.”

“There are more pressing things for you to worry,” Anakin said. “You were there on Naboo. You saw what they’re capable of and how far they’re willing to go. Tarkin’s not going to stop, Padmé. Not unless we make him.”

“You’re afraid. We both are,” Padmé said, her voice gentle and calming. “But this time around, we’re together in this. And this time, we’ll stay together, no matter what. We’ll figure this out tomorrow, alright? There has to be something we can do. Ahsoka is going to stop by in the morning to bring the twins. We should talk to her before doing anything we might regret later.”

Suddenly, Anakin’s expression brightened. He’d almost forgotten.

As it would have been unfair to the twins to have them move in straight away with parents they barely knew, Anakin, Padmé and the Organas had agreed that for now, it would be for the best if Luke and Leia would spend half the week with them and the other half with the Organas to give them time to adjust and get to know their biological parents.

As much as Anakin longed to spend his every waking hour with his beloved children, he realized that this was the right way to do it. Even though his heart all but broke every time he had to watch them leave, he now knew that love required time and patience to grow. Vader had been wrong to force Padmé to stay with him, but Anakin wasn’t going to repeat his mistakes.

This one thing in his life he was going to do right.

He sighed and pulled Padmé in a tight hug, burying his face in her hair. “I shouldn’t have raised my voice at you,” he said regretfully. “I’m sorry.”

“I know. It’s alright,” Padmé said. Then, she glanced over her shoulder. “Esdee, would you be a dear and make us some tea?”

SD-D4’s durasteel head poked from the kitchen. “At once, Mistress,” he chirped. Vader’s old assistant droid had adjusted to their new domestic lifestyle arguably better than his masters.

But at the moment SD-D4 laid the traditional Alderaanian tea tray on the table, the doorbell chimed.

Anakin raised a brow at Padmé. “I thought you said Ahsoka and the twins were coming tomorrow.”

“Perhaps she forgot,” Padmé said. “I’m not expecting visitors. Who else it could be at this hour?”

Much to their mutual surprise, their late visitor wasn’t Ahsoka. Anakin narrowed his eyes in suspicion as the door slid open. “What are you doing here?”

He was staring at Bail Organa.

“Bail, please, come in,” Padmé said in a more conciliatory manner. “We were just about to have some tea.”

Bail held up his hands in refusal. “Thank you for your kind offer, Padmé, but I’m not staying,” he said, looking ominously uncomfortable. “Pardon me for showing up unannounced at such a late hour, but I’m afraid that my business here is urgent and can’t wait until morning.”

“Has there been problems with those fuel cell negotiations with the Sullustans?” Padmé asked.

“On the contrary, the Sullustans are very pleased with the outcome, all thanks to you.” Bail lifted his gaze to Anakin. “In fact, I must speak with you. In private, if you don’t mind, Padmé.”

“Whatever you have to say, you can say in front of her,” Anakin said icily. “We don’t keep secrets from each other.”

Bail sighed as he briefly rubbed his temples. “I have been thinking about what you said about my commitment to protect of Alderaan and its people. You were right. I’m not willing to risk it,” he said. “And yet my hands are tied. With more time, I might have been able to convince our leaders to act, but—”

“It’s too late for that,” Anakin interrupted. “Get to the point.”

“Very well, I’ll get straight to the point then,” Bail said. “I have come to ask for your help. Our agents managed to capture a member of Tarkin’s inner circle. He got caught on Ord Mantell where he was negotiating with local crime syndicates about smugging certain goods for the Empire’s needs.”

Anakin folded his arms. “I don’t see what all this does have to do with me.”

“He was brought here last night, but not even our best interrogators have gotten anything useful out of him,” Bail said. “He must realize that the Empire has the upper hand. He’s stalling for time. Time we, according to you, don’t have. I must warn you both, for what I’m going to ask of you isn’t going to stand up to scrutiny, so—”

“So you want me to do the dirty work and beat the confession out of him.”

“Well, I would certainly have chosen my words more tactfully, but I must admit that our interrogation techniques… might lack certain ruthlessness, yes,” Bail said. “I have chosen to put my trust in you. If you told us the truth and this… this Death Star truly exists, then you were right from the start. We are in war… and in war, there are only bad and worse choices.”

“Bail…” Padmé put in. “You can’t possibly mean…”

Bail let out a heavy sigh. “The Imperials don’t fear us, but they do fear Darth Vader,” he said as he drew his personal key device from his pocket and dropped it on the table, almost as if it had burned his hand. “The others wouldn’t agree, but if my giving up my values is the price for the lives of billions of innocent people, I’m willing to pay it.”

Anakin wouldn’t have expected Bail Organa, of all people, to be the first to see reason. “I will make him talk,” he said grimly. “Kill him, if I have to.”

Chapter Text

Reluctant to let Anakin depart into the starless night, Padmé buried her face in his shoulder, her fingers tangling in the heavy weave of his cloak. “You don’t have to do this.” She made little effort to hide the resignation in her voice as she knew him too well to truly hope to change his mind. “Bail knows the consequences if you get caught. He should never have asked you. If they find you in an Imperial prisoner’s cell in the middle of the night, no one is going to believe you weren’t there to set him free. You’ll be accused of treason, Ani.”

Anakin glanced at her from beneath his hood. “I’ll be accused of treason anyway,” he said with a grim expression. Even though they consistently avoided the topic to make the most of what little time they might still have left together, they both knew that the chances that he would walk out of the upcoming trial alive were thin. This way, he might at least have a chance to secure a future for his family. “What’s one more act of treason to me now? Your friend Organa, too, must have realized that. He did the right thing by coming here tonight. It’s about time someone here understood that we’re at war. If only the rest of his lot would follow his example…”

Padmé let out a weary sigh. “There’s still time. You don’t have to do this tonight. We could talk to Bail again tomorrow,” she suggested half-heartedly. “There have to be other options.”

“There are,” Anakin said darkly. “We either allow ourselves to be destroyed, or we fight back with everything we got and live to fight another day.”

“Anakin, I still don’t know about—”

Padmé gasped softly as Anakin grabbed her shoulders and pulled her against his chest a little harder than he had meant to. “I’m not going to lose you again,” he cut her off, his tone as adamant as his hold was firm. He simply couldn’t allow her to talk him out of what had to be done. He couldn’t. “I learned my lesson, Padmé. This time, I’ll keep you and the twins safe, and this time, I’ll succeed. I promise. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to accomplish that.”   

Blinking back tears, Padmé tilted her head back to meet his gaze. “I don’t want to lose you, either.” Gently, she cupped his face and ran her thumb across the edge of his mask. “Oh, Ani, you know how I worry when you talk like that…” 

Anakin raised a brow in question. He sensed there was something she left unsaid. “What is it?”

Padmé struggled to put her concerns into words that would reach him. How in the stars was she supposed to reveal her fears without hurting his feelings—or worse, upsetting him? The last thing she wanted now was Anakin leaving into the jet black night mistaking her concerns for distrust and resenting her for it.

But perhaps there simply wasn’t a particularly gentle way to say what she felt needed to be said. “I trust you,” she finally said. It had taken months for her to learn to say those words again without hesitation, but their hard work to rebuild their damaged relationship from scratch had paid off in the end. They had come such a long way together, from captor and captive to unexpected allies, even friends of sorts—and ultimately, lovers. “I trust your judgment. It’s not that. It’s—it’s you, Ani. I fear for you. Let us assume Bail is right. Let us assume bringing back Vader is what the galaxy needs tonight. I—I understand what needs to be done. I don’t have to like it to understand the necessity. All I’m asking you is to remember me and our children, and even more importantly, remember yourself.” Don’t get lost in the darkness, my love.

“So, that’s what this is all about,” Anakin snapped. His eyes darkened as he towered over her. “You don’t think I can handle myself. You expect me to give in and turn back to the Dark Side at the first setback, isn’t that right?”

Retaining her calmness, Padmé took his hands in her own and laced her fingers with his. She didn’t need the Force to feel how tense he was. “No, Ani, that’s not what I meant,” she said. She had known this could happen, and yet she refused to let him go without having this particular discussion first. It wasn’t easy for either of them, but it had to be done. Their relationship was no longer a secret based on lies and deception. They had to be honest with each other to keep things working. “I trust you to come back to me—to us—after this dark deed is done, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to hear you say it.”

Anakin dragged a heavy breath through his respirator. All things considered, Padmé’s concerns weren’t unreasonable, or unfair, by any means.

The darkness might always have been an inextricable part of him, and perhaps it would always be, but never again would he allow it to control his destiny. Despite his good intentions, he might not ever be able to completely separate himself from the man he had once allowed himself to become, but now, it was different. Now, he had something to fight for.  

He felt his tension easing off. “Alright,” he finally said, his tone gentler than before. Padmé’s unfaltering willingness to believe in him was the greatest gift he had ever received, and this time around, he thrived to be worth it. “Point taken.”

He lightly rested his chin on her head and murmured, “I’ll always find my way back to you, love. Don’t you ever doubt that.”

Smiling to herself, Padmé gave a little nod of acknowledgment—and relief. “I know,” she almost whispered as she finally let her hands slip away and backed off. “Be careful, my love. Be safe.”

Despite the cold seeping uncomfortably into her bones, Padmé remained on the chilly veranda for a while, watching Anakin’s back disappear into the void of the night. She couldn’t help but notice that with his long black cloak billowing in the wind and with his hood over his head, he even looked like Darth Vader again.

She pulled her delicately embroidered shawl tighter around her shoulders and shivered. It wasn’t that she didn’t care for Vader, no. She hadn’t told Anakin, but she hadn’t forgotten how she had started developing feelings for Vader long before discovering his true identity. At first, her feelings had confused, even repulsed her, but now, when she thought about it, they made perfect sense. As what she had once assumed were two separate men, a cold-blooded murderer and his poor, misguided victim, different like day and night, had always been the same person.

According to what she assumed to be Obi-Wan’s reasoning for not telling her the truth all those years ago, Anakin had ceased to exist the moment Vader had emerged from the darkest depths of his troubled heart. Perhaps separating his lost apprentice in two in his mind made it easier for Obi-Wan to cope with what had happened on Mustafar and what his duty as a Jedi had required him to do, but Padmé couldn’t bring herself to share Obi-Wan's belief. 

Mustafar had, after all, been far from being the first instance she had seen the very darkness inside Anakin that had later overwhelmed him and manifested in the form of Vader.

Venturing deep into her memories, she remembered that deeply troubled young Jedi railing against his perceived powerlessness to prevent his mother’s death in a shabby garage on a desert planet. How could she ever forget his rage-riddled confession of mindless violence and murder? Ever since she had known the darkness nesting in the depths of his tormented mind and accepted it as part of him. Some other woman—a wiser woman, perhaps—might have forced herself to muster what willpower she had and simply refused to fall in love with him, let alone marry him after only a couple of weeks, but Padmé had never been that woman.

She had known what she wanted and made a conscious choice to love Anakin despite his flaws. And then she had made that same choice again as she had decided to give their relationship a second chance, even after everything he had done and made her suffer through. Anakin had hurt her, nearly killed her in a fit of misdirected jealousy and rage, and committed terrible crimes against the galaxy they both had once sworn to protect, but in her heart, she had always known the innate goodness in him. She had known he had everything he needed to choose a different path.

And instead of shunning him for his flaws, she had chosen to embrace that goodness in him and despite the skeptics and the ill rumors surrounding them, her choice had never been anything but her own. This was what she wanted. Anakin was what she wanted, and she harbored no regrets in her heart, only hope and a sincere dedication to ensuring that Luke and Leia would never have to face the same choices with their father.   

After casting one last wistful glance in the direction Anakin had disappeared mere moments ago, she finally returned inside. “Esdee,” she called. “Would you be a dear and pour me a glass of wine? I find myself in need of something more potent than tea to soothe my nerves tonight.”

The palace courtyard was silent, save the fresh snow crunching under Anakin’s heavy boots. He reached inside his cloak and took out his datapad to double-check the detailed instructions Organa had forwarded to him earlier in the evening to memorize the layout of the palace grounds. According to his unexpected co-conspirator, he would have a few minutes at best to get inside the detention block beneath the palace before new guards would come and assume their positions.

He reached to the Force but didn’t detect any life forms nearby. If he had harbored any lingering doubts regarding Organa’s intentions, they were gone. They might never become friends, not after everything that had happened, but not even Anakin could deny that Organa was a man of honor first and a politician second. Men like that wouldn't dirty their hands with deception. Besides, Alderaan was the seat of Organa’s power. Had the man truly wanted to get rid of him, he wouldn’t have stooped low enough to set a trap for him when he could simply have ordered his arrest, instead.

This time around, Anakin was sure that Organa was on his side. The right side.

Anakin dragged a deep breath through his respirator and allowed his focus to shift back to the task at hand. With Organa’s instructions, getting inside the palace without getting caught should be relatively easy. It was what would come next that was the tricky part. He was no stranger to intimidation, torture, or murder, but he couldn’t deny the part of him that had already grown accustomed to a very different way of life. The simple pleasures of domesticity he hadn’t expected to experience first-hand, such as sharing the bed with his beloved wife without either of them having to slip away before sunrise to protect their mutual secret and getting to be a father to his precious children and seeing them growing and learning, were something he had come to cherish a great deal.

Leia’s already grown an inch and a half this year, he caught himself thinking as he strode across the empty courtyard, his hands clasped behind his back. Little Luke isn't going to hear the end of it in a while.

But this wasn’t the time or place to think of his children who were sleeping soundly only a few floors above, blissfully unaware of how far their father was willing to go to keep them safe. There was no other choice for him but to empty his mind by snuffing out what newfound uneasiness he might have felt tugging at the back of his conflicted mind and bring forth the dormant beast from his heart.

As soon as he reached the blast doors to the detention block and stuck the key device Organa had provided him with into the electronic lock, he heard familiar beeping behind him. He threw a swift glance over his black-clad shoulder and, much to his surprise, found out that R2-D2 had followed him.

“Artoo?” Anakin barely remembered to keep his voice low. He had barely seen his old astromech after their brief reunion almost a year ago. They had been practically inseparable throughout the Clone Wars, but that was a long time ago, and now R2-D2 was stationed in the service of Captain Antilles. “What are you doing here? Did Organa send you to spy on me?”

R2-D2 gave a slightly offended chirp. “So, you came on your own, then?” Despite being out of practice, Anakin still managed to make at least some sense of the droid’s explanatory whistling. “To… keep me out of trouble, huh?”

He hadn’t expected company, but he was grateful for it, nonetheless. He patted the R2-D2’s domed head, earning a pleased beep from the droid. It was good to have him back, even if it was just for the night.

The doors gave a low hum as they slid open. “Take care of the security cameras, Artoo, and keep the lights out,” Anakin instructed. Whatever is going to happen here tonight, it’ll happen without an audience.

As R2-D2 gave an affirmative beep and whirred down into the lower levels to locate the control room, Anakin headed towards where he assumed to find the miserable wretch of a prisoner who had deluded himself into believing that Tarkin's secrets were safe with him. Adjusting his respirator to imitate the harrowing sound of the machine that had once pumped air into Vader’s ravaged lungs, he approached the cells. But instead of finding his prey already on his knees or backed into the farthest corner of his cell as he had anticipated, he found the man calm and collected and, much to his dismay, expecting him.

The prisoner was a tall and sturdy, bald human sporting several cybernetic implants and other augmentations. “Good evening, Lord Vader,” he greeted, straightening his disheveled uniform as if there was nothing unusual or unexpected about the situation at hand. “I had hoped they would send you.”

Hadn’t it been for the lack of light, Anakin would hardly have been able to keep his face from betraying his confusion. “Skip the pleasantries,” he said sourly. “You will tell me what I want to know.”

“I’m afraid I must decline your request, my lord.”

Swallowing a frustrated groan, Anakin fumbled for his lightsaber, only to remember that he no longer had one. But since when had he needed a lightsaber to torment his adversaries? He felt his anger starting to boil in his veins, sweeping away every rational thought. The fear he had persistently kept at bay since discovering that Tarkin sought to finish what the late Emperor had started crept upon him, gnawing at his nerves and threatening to break loose at any given moment. 

Instinctively, he raised his hand, preparing to unleash his wrath on his prey and choke the breath out of him, but something held him back. Not like this, Anakin reminded himself as he utilized what little control he still had over his emotions and forced himself to unclench his fist. This isn’t how I want this to happen.

Acting out of anger and paying no heed to consequences posed a trap for the unwary—the same trap Sidious had once lured him in by encouraging him to let go of the reins and cede the control over the white-hot rage that burned in his heart. He would be damned if he would let that happen again. It couldn’t happen again, not ever. He had promised to Padmé—and himself.

Never again would he let the darkness knock him off balance, or worse, embrace it. If he were to slay this man to accomplish what he had come for, it would be the last resort, not the first.

He mustered what was left of his focus and made a different, much less distinctive gesture with his hand. “You will tell me what I want to know.”

The prisoner gave a ragged chuckle. “A Jedi mind trick?” Anakin didn’t miss the mockery in his tone. “Oh, how the mighty have fallen.”

Anakin crossed his arms across his chest. “None of this happened by accident,” he said, electing to ignore the prisoner's mockery. “You allowed yourself to be caught.”

“That is correct. I have come to bring you a message.”

“Whatever it is, and whoever it’s from, I’m not interested,” Anakin growled, pounding his fist against the durasteel bars. He hadn’t come here to play games, and his patience was already running dangerously thin. “All I want from you is the coordinates to wherever Tarkin’s holed up so I can put an end to this threat once and for all. Speak up, and you just might survive the night. Deny me, and you’ll soon find out that I have so much more than mind tricks in store for you.”

Slowly, the cyborg prisoner began to unbutton his uniform, revealing a small safety deposit box implanted in the middle of his chest. “Let’s not do anything we might regret later, my lord,” he said, retaining his almost disturbingly calm demeanor. “My orders dictate that I am to deliver this message to you… or self-destruct.”

Anakin found himself unwilling to find out whether or not the prisoner was bluffing. “Very well," he groaned. "Who sent you?”

“Why, Emperor Palpatine, of course.”

Anakin flinched. “That’s a lie,” he objected, his voice coming out hollow and strained. “Palpatine is dead. I killed him myself.”

There was no room for doubt. Not even Darth Sidious could have cheated death, let alone mastered the secrets of immortality. As badly hurt and delirious Anakin himself had been after striking the final blow against the shadow that had taken everything from him, he had felt Sidious’s oppressive presence shattering into million pieces and scattering into the Force at the moment of his death. There was no coming back from that—or was there?

The prisoner punched in the sequence that opened the box in his chest, took out a faintly glowing Sith holocron, and handed it to Anakin from between the bars. “See for yourself, my lord.”

It had been a long time since Anakin had last sensed such a disturbance in the Force. His mouth ran dry, and the invasive noise of his readjusted respirator he was no longer accustomed to made it difficult for him to stay in the present moment. Even though he realized that the situation was rapidly spiraling out of his control, there seemed to be no other option but to play along—for now.

Pushing his raging fears and frustrations aside, Anakin used the Force to activate the holocron. Blinding flashes of red light forced him to squeeze his eyes shut, and when he opened them again, a spectral figure of the late Emperor had emerged from the torrents of dark energy pouring out from the device. “And so we meet again, my apprentice,” Sidious drawled, clapping his hands slowly in mocking admiration. “Yes… I underestimated you. Such power… such devotion… Who could have known that you, a mere shadow of your former self, had it in you? Now, you truly are the master of treachery and deception… Darth Vader… the last Lord of the Sith.”

Anakin’s fists clenched at his sides. “Vader is no more,” he snarled. “The Sith are no more. Don’t you understand, Sidious? It’s over. You lost. You’re dead, and the Empire you spent years building lies in ruins. There’s nothing left for you here.”

Sidious let out a dry chuckle that echoed ominously throughout the walls. “Oh, but that is where you are mistaken, my old friend,” he said softly. “My body is gone, perhaps, and yet my memory lingers. For one treacherous apprentice, I have a thousand loyal servants waiting to carry out my orders. I assure you, the galaxy will never be quite free of me, and neither will you… nor your beloved family, for that matter.”

Anakin realized that he should have renounced his onetime Master and destroy the holocron while he still could, but instead, he heard himself asking, “What do you want?”

A malevolent smile spread across Sidious’s disfigured face. “All in good time,” he said. “All in good time…”

Remembering the reason why he was there in the first place, Anakin glanced up at Sidious, furrowing his brow in anger. “The Death Star,” he said, finally coming to an understanding. “Tarkin never wanted the battle station for himself. You had him build it for you.”

“Oh, no,” Sidious said with glee. “On the contrary, I had him build it for you, my friend—a parting gift if you will. All you have to do is take it.”

“I want nothing to do with it—or you,” Anakin snapped. “Soon, I will find this technological terror of yours and destroy it.”

“Let us assume you do. But what will happen then, I wonder,” Sidious mused. “Perhaps you have deluded yourself into thinking that your new friends will pardon you for your crimes, even hail you as a hero, hmm? You may have forgotten yourself, Lord Vader, but I assure you, your new masters never will.”

Anakin hated how, even in death, Sidious saw deep enough into his soul to pick up the foolhardy hope he harbored in his heart but hadn’t dared to admit even to himself until now. He might have kept telling himself that everything he had done—every humiliation he had subjected himself to and every insult he had tolerated from those who would never bother to give him the benefit of doubt—he had done to secure a future for his family, but whenever he thought about that future, didn’t he picture himself in it, too?

“That’s not my name anymore,” he said. “And I serve no master but myself.”

“No?” Sidious said, amused. “And yet you came down here in the middle of the night to do their bidding, desperate to earn their trust. So docile… so obedient… You have allowed yourself to become toothless, my friend. Your old master Kenobi would certainly be proud.”

Anakin felt the fire in his veins bursting into flames. “Shut up,” he snarled. “You don't know anything."

“Oh, I know some things. I know your heart,” Sidious murmured. “I know your fears. I know your dreams. Only through me can you be truly free to pursue them. Accept my guidance once more. Allow me to complete your training from beyond the grave and share the secrets I kept from you, and you shall have everything you ever wanted. Refuse me, and my memory will haunt you and your offspring forever.”

“And why should I believe a thing you say?” Anakin asked. “Nothing about you was ever true, Sidious, least of all your words. You’re dead. Gone. Rotting away in a nameless grave, and even that is more than you deserve. There’s nothing you can do to hurt my family anymore.”

“I am gone,” Sidious said cryptically. “And yet I am everywhere. I am the wine your wife is drowning in her fear of who she knows you are inside. I am the nightmare plaguing your children's sleep. I am the madness itching right underneath your skin. Can you feel me?”

“Liar!” Anakin roared. “You are dead! I killed you, and you can be sure that the same fate awaits every single one of your lackeys.”

But Sidious’s malicious grin only widened at Anakin's outrage. “And what if said lackeys,” he said softly, relishing every syllable, “were to be your precious children?”

For a moment there, Anakin felt like his heart stopped beating. Perhaps it did. “No!”

On the verge of losing his mind out of sheer terror, he lunged forward and reached to the Force, no longer able to contain his seething rage. He crushed the holocron with his powers, shattering the wretched device into pieces he sent raining to the duracrete floor. "I've had enough of you and your lies!” he shouted as the spectral figure of Sidious vanished. "Begone!"

But at the moment the holocron was destroyed, the cyborg prisoner who had brought it was electrocuted to death by what Anakin could only assume was a hidden cybernetic implant connected to the holocron he had just eradicated.

His heart racing in his chest, he tore the bars apart with the Force and barged in, dropping to his knees beside the body, but there was nothing he could have done. It was too late. The man was gone, along with Anakin’s only chance to prove the Rebel leaders that the Death Star existed. “No!

Meanwhile, a few floors above, Luke and Leia jolted awake from a shared nightmare.

Chapter Text

“No, no, no—no!

If only there had been a way to undo what he had just done, Anakin would have done it, even if he would have been forced to subject himself to more of his onetime master’s filth. Despite never holding the Death Star project in high esteem, he would rather have taken his chances with Sidious himself than his wretched superweapon, but now, both were steadily drifting even farther from his grasp, along with his own faltering sanity. Nothing about what had just happened made sense to him. For all his might in the Dark Side, Sidious was only a man, and men were generally easier to destroy than fully operational battle stations with the power to devastate entire planets.

The problem was that Sidious was supposed to be already dead. He died… I felt it in the Force, Anakin reminded himself, fervently trying to figure out how any of what had just happened was possible. Their destinies had been intertwined for too long for him to be mistaken about the darkness lifting at the moment the last breath of life faded away from his old master’s body. The dead don’t come back to life.

Now that the holocron that was supposed to be the key to everything was shattered into pieces, and the man who had brought it was dead, there was no way for Anakin to get answers to the questions tormenting his mind and driving him insane.

He knew both Sidious and Sidious’s former master, Darth Plagueis, had once sought means to cheat death. The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural, he recited the words that had once swayed him to betray everything he had held dear in his mind. Sidious had dangled the promise of sharing his knowledge in front of him, but in the end, his promise had turned out to be empty. Neither Sidious nor Plagueis before him had uncovered the secrets of immortality—or had they?

Anakin doubted it. Obsessed with bringing his presumably dead wife back to life, Vader had eventually picked up where the other two Sith had left off. He had searched far and wide, but to his knowledge, not even the ancient Sith—or Jedi, for that matter—had truly mastered the art of resurrection, and even if they had, their secrets had sunk into oblivion during wars that had dragged on for centuries. If there would have been something worthwhile to be found, surely he would have discovered it a long time ago.

Unless Sidious had discovered it first and deliberately hiding his findings from him to lead him astray once more.

Anakin slammed his gloved fist against the floor and hung his head. “No,” he muttered. “It can’t be…”

On the verge of what he could only think of as a panic attack, he fumbled for the dimly glowing fragments scattered all over the floor, but it was no use. With his vision rapidly blurring around the edges and what was left of his body trembling violently, it was almost as if the holocron parts were consciously eluding his grasp, mocking him for his abasement.

Light-headed and dizzy, he attempted to stand up, only to collapse back onto the filthy duracrete. “Padmé…”

How was he ever going to explain to her? How was he going to return home empty-handed and tell her that everything they had gone through together had been for nothing?

And how was he going to protect his family from an enemy that couldn’t be killed? He was already stretched thin and wrung out from fighting on way too many fronts for way too long: the lingering remnants of the Empire, the looming threat of the Death Star on the horizon, the rebels who weren’t supposed to be his enemies any longer but who certainly treated him like one—and now, Sidious rejoining the fray. 

All of a sudden, he couldn’t stop hot tears of anger and frustration welling up his eyes. This is hopeless, he finally understood. It’s all hopeless. No matter how strong he was in the Force, there was no way for him to fight against all those who strived to keep him apart from his family, not within the strict boundaries this new way of life had set for him. 

His hands clenched into fists. Had he known Sidious wasn’t gone for good, he would never have as much as considered wasting time trying to compromise with Bail Organa and the rest of the fools who supposedly led this pathetic excuse for a rebellion. Trying to gain their trust had been rotten work from the start, hadn’t it?

Gritting his teeth in barely contained fury, he was certain that even Padmé would have understood the necessity of taking immediate action, even if it would have meant taking over the Rebel Alliance and forcing them to snap out of their apathy and stagnation.

She would have understood, wouldn’t she?

As like in all Sidious’s previous, carefully crafted lies, there was a grain of truth in these new ones as well. A grain of truth Anakin couldn’t deny, no matter how hard he tried. Once more, he found himself in the position of a servant. He was a pawn in some cosmic game, rendered powerless to make a difference, wasn’t he? Had he kept doing things his way and made the Rebel leaders listen to his warnings—forced them, if necessary—the threat of the Death Star would have been dealt with months ago, leaving Sidious deprived of all his allies and fancy toys of mass destruction.

It occurred to him that with his body all but convulsing with fear and rage, there was scant comfort to be drawn from the fact that he was no longer trapped in Vader’s armor, for he still couldn’t escape the prison of his broken body. His machine-regulated organ functions allowed no outlet for him to naturally ease the panic stemming from the crippling powerlessness he hadn’t felt since he was a young Jedi, desperate to do anything to keep the love of his life safe from his nightly visions.

“No!” he panted. “Not this time… not again…”

Bracing himself for the pain he knew would follow, he slammed his eyes shut and shoved his breathing mask to the side, dragging a few deep, ragged breaths to ease off his anxiety. This is what he wants, he reminded himself as he panted on the floor, trying to ignore the searing pain of his charred lungs as he strived to make some sense of his frenzied thoughts. He wants me angry… he wants me like this

And Anakin was determined to not give Sidious that satisfaction. He wasn’t going to fall into his clutches ever again. He owed that much to not only his wife and children but to himself. Undoubtedly, his old master expected him to resort to most drastic measures imaginable and ruin everything he had worked so hard for, but that wasn’t going to happen. Not this time around.

He wasn’t going to lose either his family or himself to Sidious’s schemes ever again.    

It was then that R2-D2 rolled in through the debris. The dead body on the floor earned Anakin an offended beep from the droid. “Calm down, Artoo,” he said, putting his mask back on. “That wasn’t my doing. It was—it was Palpatine."

The astromech rolled back a little and warbled in confusion. “I don’t know,” Anakin grunted. He pulled himself into a sitting position, leaned against the wall and let out a resigned sigh, gesturing at the holocron pieces scattered all over the floor. “I wish I did, but as you can see, there’s nothing to be done about it now. This was all for nothing.”

R2-D2 bumped gently into his leg and whistled in disagreement. “What?” Anakin blurted. “You think something useful can still be salvaged from this mess?”

Anakin tried not to get his hopes up, but he couldn’t help it as he watched his old astromech extending his utility arm to pick up the fragments and storing them inside his hidden compartment for further analysis. If R2-D2 would be able to extract something, anything, from the disintegrated parts of the holocron that could help him to prove the Rebel leaders that the Death Star was real and that Palpatine was behind it, that would surely give them more than enough reason to act.

Bracing himself against the wall, he pushed himself back to his feet. There wouldn’t be much else he could do here tonight, and he already longed to return to Padmé’s side, despite the dire news he now carried. “Thanks, Artoo,” he said, giving a pat on the droid’s domed head. “Come to see me as soon as you find something, alright?”

If you find something, he reminded himself.

After informing Bail about the disastrous outcome and having him send someone down to the holding cells to clean up the mess, it was almost sunrise when Anakin finally returned home. Though the skies had cleared after a night snowstorm, the sloping roof and windows of their modest little cabin were now encrusted with fresh snow. Even with Sidious’s return troubling him a great deal, he couldn’t deny that the sight was calming. It’s good to be home, he thought, tired and weary from the night’s ordeal, but heartily relieved to be back home, all the same. It’s good to have something to fight for.   

Assuming Padmé was still asleep, he closed the door behind him as quietly as he could. He unclasped his cloak and put it away, then took a quick peek in the kitchen. SD-D4 was drooping in a chair, his power saving mode on. There was no reason for Anakin to wake him up, so he left him to be.

But the moment he reached the living room, his attention was drawn to the empty wine glass on the table, and Sidious’s words rushed back to him. I am the wine your wife is drowning her fear of who you are inside. He stumbled over the table, took the glass in his gloved hand, and studied it in the hazy early morning light. As soon as he noticed the faint lipstick stains on the rim, his grip, though unconsciously, shattered the glass, sending a shower of shards all over the floor and leaving him clutching what little remained of it.   

It wasn’t long after that he heard Padmé rushing down the stairs, pulling her translucent dressing gown tighter around herself. Startled, she stopped at the door, her stare alternating between Anakin and the mess on the floor. “Ani?” she called, her voice still hoarse from sleep. “What’s going on? Is everything alright?”

Slowly, he turned to look at her. “You’re afraid of me,” he stated. “Aren’t you?”

Clearly not understanding what he was going on about, she frowned. “No, Anakin—no.” She shook her head, her disheveled hair cascading down over her shoulders and back. “Ever since we came here, there hasn’t been a day that I haven’t been afraid for you—an old habit, if you will—but afraid of you? No. That’s not something I’ve felt in a long time.”

He knew she was telling the truth, for he couldn’t sense the slightest sliver of fear or doubt in the Force.

She extended her hand to him. “Come,” she said softly. “We’ll clean up this mess before Ahsoka and the children come over. Right now, I want to show you something.”

It was Anakin’s turn to frown. “What?”

She nodded her head towards the stairs. “You’ll see,” she said. “Come.”

He didn’t have the slightest clue of what to expect as he followed his wife upstairs to their bedroom. Leaning against the doorframe with a puzzled look on his face, he watched in silence as she rummaged through her closet, obviously looking for something specific—but what? Shortly, she returned to him, handing him a small, rather ordinary-looking crate. Judging by the thick layer of dust on the lid, Anakin figured the crate must have been hidden in the closet for some time now, though he didn’t recall seeing it before.

It turned out to be slightly heavier than it looked, too. “What’s in there?” he asked, raising a brow.

“Just open it,” she insisted.

“Alright then…”

The crate opened with a hissing sound, revealing an object Anakin would have recognized anywhere: Vader’s faceplate. Scowling down at the menacing piece of armor that had once hidden his ruined face and instilled fear in the Empire’s enemies, he ran his fingers over its smooth surface before taking it out of the crate to study it further.

His memories of the night he had fought—not killed, as it had turned out—Sidious were vague at best, but he was fairly certain that like his lightsaber, his helmet, too, had been left behind. He hadn’t seen it ever since.

He would have imagined his wife being the last person to cling onto something that could only be an infinite source of bad memories for her. “How come this is in your possession?” he finally managed, glancing at her in bewilderment and disbelief. “Why would you have this?”

She gave half a shrug, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot. “Well, during the chaos that ensued after Palpatine’s death, the Imperial Palace was raided by scavengers and common burglars. Everything that wasn’t nailed down was stolen to be sold in the black market, or so I was told,” she began. “A few months ago, our allies happened to catch a smuggler trying to sneak Palpatine’s belongings off Coruscant, and I—well, I happened to be present when they brought the contraband here to be properly sorted, as they would say. Had they found this, they would have destroyed it, I'm sure of it, and I—I just couldn’t let that happen.”

Ignoring the sting he felt at hearing her referring to Sidious, his death no longer being as self-evident as Anakin had believed, he frowned. "But why? Why would you, of all people, want to—and why didn’t you tell me?”

“Believe me, I asked myself the same question,” Padmé sighed. She took the mask back from him and put it carefully—gently, even—back in the crate and put the crate away before meeting his gaze again. “I can’t change the past. I would if I could, for your sake and mine, I would. But I can’t, and I can’t embrace this part of you, either, not while remaining honest to myself and who I am, but what I can do is accept it. Vader will always be part of you—and me. I understand that now. I hesitated to tell you because I wasn’t sure how you would react. I didn’t know if you would want to ever lay your eyes on that thing again. I didn’t even know if I would ever want to look at it again, I just—I just knew I couldn’t let them have it.”

For a moment there, Anakin didn’t know what to say. “I have one more question,” he finally said. “Why tell me now?”

“Because I know you. You have doubts, you always do. You’ve not changed as much as you think, love,” Padmé said softly, lacing her fingers with his. “And I know nothing I could say would set your mind at ease so I decided to show you, instead. I’ve made my choice, Ani. This may not be the life either of us had pictured for us, but this is the one we have. This isn’t the beautiful lakehouse on Naboo but a rickety cabin, and nearly everyone here would rather see us gone than to let us help, but we have each other. I’m not going everywhere, not ever. If you stay with me—if we stay together— we will get through this. This isn’t the first storm we’ve stood up to, nor the worst. Might not be the last, either, but what’s so different about this one, anyway?”   

Behind his mask, Anakin opened his mouth and closed it again, almost as if he had suddenly lost his ability to speak. She was so beautiful, and she loved him, and she wasn’t going anywhere, but even though part of him, the selfish part, would have desired nothing so much as to sweep her off her feet, carry her to bed and ravish her, he knew he would have to ruin the moment. There were no secrets between them. He had said that himself. 

He would have to tell her, right here and now, and wipe that serene smile off her face, no matter how much he hated having to do it.

“Padmé, listen to me,” he began, his voice strained, as he locked his eyes on hers. “There’s something I must tell you. It’s Sidious. Palpatine. He’s behind the Death Star. Behind everything. He’s—he’s not gone.”

Padmé frowned. “What in the stars are you talking about?” she asked, shaking her head in disbelief. “You must have mistaken. I was there, remember? I saw him… I saw his body. He was as dead as he could be.”

Letting out a resigned sigh, Anakin hung his head as he proceeded to explain everything that had happened during the night, not leaving a single detail out. He could barely fathom to look her in the eye as he spoke, for all her sweet words and softly spoken reassurances, he wasn’t oblivious to how very little he had to give in return for her unfaltering faith in him. He had been a handsome man once, but now he was but a charred husk, the vast majority of his injuries being far beyond the skills of any healer. He was no longer a Jedi Knight nor General Skywalker of the Grand Army of the Republic, revered for his heroic deeds, but the most hated man in the galaxy, personally responsible for countless deaths and an immeasurable amount of suffering throughout the galaxy he had once sworn to protect.

And regardless of whether or not he would live to see the end of this war, the long shadow of his crimes would always loom over his children. If he couldn’t even protect them from the enemy who sought to harm them, then what was he good for?

“Artoo's investigating what’s left of the holocron. He might be able to figure out if there are more clues to be found,” he said. “There’s nothing more I can tell you until I hear from him.”

It took a sweet moment for Padmé to process everything she had just heard, but when she finally looked back at him, the sheer determination in her eyes took him by surprise. “Then there’s nothing more we can do about it tonight,” she said, her tone firm and hardened as if nothing in the universe could have shaken her resolve. Anakin couldn’t help but admire her for it. “We’ll talk to Ahsoka in the morning and figure this out together. She’ll help us, I’m sure of it. We’ve all been fighting in this war ever since we were children. In one way or another, we’ll find a way to fix this and get rid of Palpatine—and for good this time. But before that, we both need to rest. We still have a couple of hours before Ahsoka and the twins come over, and I wouldn’t mind spending it in your arms.”  

Anakin allowed her to remove his breathing mask, and not long after, he found himself nuzzling the back of her neck under the cozy blankets, relishing the sensation of her smooth skin against his ruined lips. It didn’t take long for her to fall back asleep, and even though he knew he wouldn’t be able to follow her example, not after everything that had happened earlier in the night, he couldn’t deny that Padmé’s confidence was rather contagious. For all his restlessness, he couldn't help but relax as he felt her warmth against his cold, ravaged skin.

We’re in this together, he thought drowsily as he wrapped his arm tighter around her. As it should be.