It couldn't be. She was dead. She'd been dead for a decade. Gone from the world of the living, lingering in his memory forever. Wearing him down, the burden of her demise weighing heavy on his shoulders. The guilt, the pain, the anger. The sorrow, and all the tears of self loathing he would have cried had he still had the ability.
Now, Vader remained frozen in place. Immobilized, unable to focus on anything but the familiar visage poised in front of him. Had he not been so in tune with the Force, with the world around him, he might have assumed it an illusion. A trick of the mind, like so many times before. A dream, turned into a living nightmare just like every vision of her his rare, troubled bouts of sleep would provide.
But no. He could feel it. He could feel the beat of her heart, hear the sound of her heavy, determined breaths. He could see the decisiveness on her face, her hazel eyes hard set and crinkled by faint lines of age. Her brows furrowed, a crease forming between them. The way her hand shook, not in fear but in resolute, stubborn bravado as she clung to the handle of her blaster.
He recognized the way her lips pursed, the way her jaw became increasingly hard set as she sized him up. A stray strand of dark hair falling into her eyes, he had the immediate urge to reach out and brush it aside - as had he done so often in the past. Did she know who he was? Could she tell? Or did she simply know him by the monster he had become?
"Padmé..." he would have breathed lightly, had he still possessed the ability to use his own vocal chords.
Instead, the dictation came out harsh as ever through the processor. More machine than man. He was transfixed, aching. He'd thought all of these years apart from her would have made the feelings for her evaporate. But then, the world he thought he knew had made sure he would never see her again. He'd never been prepared for a moment in which he might actually stand face to face again.
"I quite imagine privacy might favour the sort of conversation we'd benefit from exchanging, don't you agree, Lord Vader?"
Even her voice was the same. Age had done nothing to it, not yet. Soft and smooth, but brazen with a toughness. And there was a hint of spite to it, one he did not recall. At least, not hinted towards him. Thankful for the mask concealing his eyes, and any emotion his scarred face might reveal, Vader offered a curt nod of acknowledgement. His best guess was to assume she either knew exactly who he was, or had no clue. Likely Obi Wan would have either filled her in on every detail to give, or left her completely in the dark so as to save her the suffering.
Instead of swinging his ignited light saber, the man opted to shut it off and fasten it to his belt. At first, he gestured for the petite woman to take the lead, but her suspicious narrow eyes revealed that she had no trust towards him not using her unguarded back in his favour. Instead, Vader lowered his hand and took the lead.
They were alone, the battle field raging on outside the building, but here they were safe. Vader sensed no additional presence, his silence giving him time to recompose himself albeit a near impossible feat. He could focus on nothing but Padmé's footsteps trailing behind him, so aware of the close proximity. To the woman he'd assume long dead. To the woman he'd denied his feelings for, despite knowing deep within the core of his black soul he would always love more than anything in the world.
Turning around, the man stopped by the control panel. It gave him access to the holographic recordings of the events transpiring outside if he so wished, but for the moment, he made sure they remained blank and dead. If the respiratory system hadn't been controlling his breathing, he would have been gasping; chest heaving with nervousness. As of now, none of is was visible behind his emotionless mask of terror.
Padmé reluctantly moved to holster her blaster, turning her head to the side as if taking in her surroundings before folding her arms across her chest. Vader took the opportunity to do a second once over, drinking in her appearance. He ached to hold her in his arms, but refused with all his might to acknowledge any such thoughts. He would be unable to truly feel her warmth through his cybernetic limbs, and the thick material of his suit. It would do him no favours. Combing her stray hairs behind her ears, Padmé tucked her unusually simple braid behind her back and straightened up. There was a tiny, snow white streak hinting at her right temple.
"Thank you for your courtesy, my lord," said the woman finally, both tone and composure tense.
Vader's response was almost as mechanical as his cybernetic prosthetics. All the usual stoic, noncommittal distance he was known for putting up. The way in which his mind was going haywire along with his emotions was inconvenient, but not impossible to mask. Despite the way he felt the sentiments bleeding through the surface. Had he possessed the ability, his eyes would have been stinging with the beginnings of tears. Yet, Vader would prevail - not Anakin Skywalker's dead heart.
"You know why I'm here, don't you."
"I was informed of your official passing a decade ago, Amidala," Vader interjected, fear urging him to cut off the woman's words.
Fear of what?
Of her revealing just how much she knew? Of her wrath? Her pain? Her tears? Padmé seemed nowhere near close to any such emotions, anger perhaps, but not uncontrolled. Whatever reaction she was going to settle for, it was warranted. She must know everything. And he remembered her face on Mustafar, before he betrayed her - no, before she betrayed him. He'd been intent on saving her life, where had he gone wrong? He'd made her cry, he'd broken her heart; he'd crushed her soul. He'd murdered her - yet, here she was. Living, breathing. Alive. And the words tasted bitter on his tongue.
Padmé shook her head, sighing.
"We both know why I'm here, as I said. It's... taken me much longer than I'd intended, initially. When I learnt about... what you'd done. All of your crimes, all of the... I wanted to believe you were incapable of such horror. I wanted to believe you were still the gentle, loving man I once knew."
The woman's face remained hard set, and even though her eyes were slightly pained, there were no tears. It made Vader's heart ache, and he ground his teeth in frustration. He knew what she was referring to, knew he should be quick to shoot her down. To lie, and tell her it was a mistake. That he had no idea what she was referring to. That he had never met her, only read of her well documented history and perhaps seen her face on holo net as a child.
But they both knew better. He knew she would never go along with it, never let him brush their past aside. Vader knew then, that she had been given the entire truth. So, as an affirmation of sorts, the man opted for silence.
"You were never a cruel man, Anakin," Padmé pointed out after the heavy emptiness of the silent room had began to irk her, Vader could tell from her stance and shift in posture.
"What has transpired cannot be altered at this point. The Skywalker you knew is no more, he died on Mustafar and shall remain buried there in the ashes."
That was not a complete lie. The Anakin Skywalker that Padmé had known him as was indeed gone, withered by life into something harsher and cruder. At least, for the most part. Yet, Vader knew that as much as he shielded himself from his memories, they would never completely go away. If anything, they had helped fuel and feed into the Dark Side, and into his descent. They were the entire foundation for the powers he now possessed.
The fact that Vader would not admit; that he was still very much Anakin Skywalker.
Padmé nodded, taking a few steps towards Vader before stopping as if hesitant. Then, she opted to begin pacing slowly around the room, inspecting closely a lascivious portrait of the Emperor adorning the wall. She grimaced, if only momentarily before glancing back at the man. Vader felt her gaze boring holes into his soul. He wanted to leave, needed to get away from her if he wanted to keep any trace of sanity he had left. Curling his hands into tight fists at his sides, instead, he waited.
"Perhaps so. But I refuse to believe that's the entire truth. Perhaps... you're different, perhaps you've changed. But to what extent? I... realize that the things you've done would be enough to transform anybody into, I suppose," said the woman, after processing the tiny tidbit of information she'd acquired. "But... there's more to you. If you were indeed as different as you proclaim, why haven't you killed me? After all, I know everything about your past and who you were. Isn't that something you've been working persistently to prevent? You want to bury the past, you say, and if you were to kill me now, that past would be gone with me."
She was right, Vader knew it and so did Padmé. Her lips remained pursed, but there was an ounce of triumph to her expression now. A wry, knowing one. She had leverage over him, and they were both very aware.
Slowly, deliberately, Vader strode towards the woman. She remained steadfast, still as if rooted to the floor. But not out of fear. Which was oddly calming, and welcoming. The man could hardly recall the last time - with the rare exception of Palpatine himself and the sneering governor Tarkin - that somebody had been unfazed by his presence. He instilled fear, terror even. But in Padmé's hazel eyes, there was only determination; and sorrow. A bitter sorrow running deep, and threatening to match his own.
"Indeed. It would be a simple task to rid myself of the secrets you keep."
The same booming, powerful mechanical tone. Some of Vader's own emotions might seep through occasionally, but for the most part, the vocoder was unable to express gentler notes. Still, Padmé remained unwavering the further he approached. He slowed his steps mere inches in front of her, looming over her tiny form. Her head tilted slightly backwards to hold his gaze even through the cold eyes of his face plate.
"But you won't, will you."
It was a statement; the woman's voice as determined as ever. She knew it; knew he could never harm a hair on her head. Not anymore, not when he had her here right in front of him.
It sunk in then. The reality. Palpatine's lies became tangible; became slithering snakes around Vader’s neck, dripping venomous words into his ear as they formed a ready noose. His master had told him that he killed Padmé. That she was dead, buried, gone forever. Along with their child. Along with their life. None of it was truth. That was enough to spur some sort of physical reaction, as Vader flinched. It was barely visible. But in the moment it happened, he knew she had noticed. He knew she saw his struggle.
"I... let everybody believe I had died. Obi Wan knew the truth, of course. Ahsoka knew. I won't reveal who else, but they are few and loyal. Only people I can trust. And we both know you wouldn’t dare pry my mind for additional information."
Once again, she was right. She knew him, knew his limitations.
"You do not know me, Amidala. Perhaps you believed you knew me once, but no longer."
"That's not true," it was Padmé's turn to interject.
She had always been bold, and straight forward. She would never waver, never resist using what advantage she could in dire situations. Quick on her feet, even quicker thinking on spot.
"I know you better than anyone else. Perhaps I made a mistake once, when I said you were a good man. But," she paused, gaze wavering for the first time as if she herself was indecisive as to whether she herself wanted to utter whatever she was about to admit, "but deep down, you are the same man I married. I've taken all this time, because I... needed to make a decision. An important decision. It goes against everything that I am, everything that I know and ever believed."
Vader remained silent, still towering over the petite woman. Uncharacteristically patient. Somewhere deep down in his heart, there was a flicker of light gnawing. However far away, however brief, it was palpable.
Padmé was alive, he hadn’t taken her life on Mustafar. And, as she reached out with one of her tiny hands, he stayed in firmly place. Allowed her to press her palm flat against his chest, right above the chest plate; over his still beating heart. One of the few organs he had left that weren't manufactured, one of the last pieces of him that was still genuine - still human. It leapt, against his will; its pace picking up unregulated. And Vader knew she must be able to sense that too; must be able to recognize it even after all these years apart.
"I still love you. In spite of everything you've done, and all the people you hurt. Perhaps it makes me a vile person, perhaps it makes me the monster, as much as..." she shook her head, gaze still downcast, "I came here for that reason. I... can't fight it any longer. I needed to see you. However much you've changed, however much I've changed."
It went beyond Vader’s control, the way in which his arms moved. They felt clumsy and uncooperative; so unfamiliar with displaying anything but cruelty and violence. Yet, his gloved, synthetic hands found their way. Without hesitation, they cupped the sides of Padmé’s gaunt, weary face. His wife's face.
The face he'd seen in his dreams, that had haunted his very existence. No longer a memory. Her complex was as pale as he remembered; her cheeks still rosy, and for the first time during their meeting, her hazel eyes were slightly glassy when he tilted her head upwards. Creased by fine, barely pronounced age lines. She must feel his eyes on her.
And suddenly an irrational sense of uncertainty came over him. Insecure of how she might react when presented with the scarred and grotesque appearance he now possessed. But, still, if she could accept and somehow forgive all the atrocities he had committed; she must be able to accept that too. Padmé had never been judgmental.
"I love you, Anakin," she reaffirmed, cradling Vader's large hands in her smaller ones; and although he could barely feel the actual touch, his memory filled in for the missing sensation.
"I love you too."
It sounded foreign, his booming mechanical voice now professing the still overwhelming love. But it came as if on cue, beyond his control. Before he realized it, he had already said the words. His heart ached, but at the same time; it was growing warmer. Emotions he had not allowed himself to feel in what likened a lifetime slowly pouring over him in waves.
The second time he spoke her name. He'd missed saying it, had forbidden himself to as much as utter the syllables; to even think it. He'd referred to her ever since Mustafar only as Her. Had forced himself to ban her name as much as possible. The pain that name had brought unimaginable, but now; it carried with it relief, and a sense of coming home.
"I... have been fighting with the Rebellion. I think you would have suspected as much, but... if you can't, I - I still need to see you. I can't abandon my cause, you know that. I still wish for a free galaxy, and to reinstate the senate and overthrow the Empire. Those are my only true motives, my only motivation. But I can't live without you, not anymore."
"I want to keep seeing you. I know it might be the death of me, perhaps of both of us."
Vader gave a curt nod, knowing full well the weight of what she was implying. Knowing the death penalty for treason would fit nicely on his head was this to make the news - although, with the knowledge he now possessed, his hatred for the Emperor had become a wish to rid the galaxy of him.
Vader couldn't deny himself this. Cupping Padmé’s tender face in his palms; brushing her smooth cheeks with his thumbs, he watched her shut her eyes and smile. A sad, forlorn smile. But it meant the world; her love for him strong as ever. His love for her reignited, rekindled - reemerging from the desolate cell in which he'd restrained it.
“Please, Anakin,” she whispered, her tone a thinly veiled plea.
Anakin didn’t hesitate.
"So be it."