Apologies for the delay between chapters. These past months have been rough ones with very little time for writing or editing. But I have no intention of abandoning this story, so please bear with me! Thank you for all your lovely reviews and the encouragement to continue. It means the world to me and it really does help. I hope you enjoy this chapter! Let me know what you think!
"Back to reality," said Padme flatly.
Their small shuttle was just breaking through Coruscant's upper atmosphere and the ship groaned and resisted as the thickening air pressed and burned against it. She could relate to its reluctance entirely.
Her husband looked equally irritated at the prospect of returning to business as usual. "Three days is much too short a time for honeymooning," he muttered. They had entered a cloud bank that plastered itself against the forward viewport, so he spared a glance at the scopes and proximity indicators before giving her a rueful smile. She smiled back, trying not to be ruffled by the fact that he really ought to be glued to the scopes instead of staring at her. He always insisted that with the Force he had very little need for many of the gadgets and gauges that pilots swore by, and he was easily the best pilot she had ever seen…
…but she still didn't like it. Suppressing the urge to lecture him about safety, Padme tried to think of positive things. Images of a secluded fortress at the edge of a warm and verdant forest filled her mind the instant she let it empty, and she felt the familiar twinge of longing for the planet where they had spent a wonderful three days.
"Where are we?" she asked when stepping off the boarding ramp onto damp green grass. Thousands of trees reached for the sun, branches stretching hundreds of feet into the clean, moist air. She was surrounded by every shade and variation of green that she could imagine and quite a few that she had no name for. Moss climbed the trees and hung in great curtains that stirred gently in the wind.
"This planet doesn't have a name," Anakin replied, never looking away from her astonished face. "I have a secure safe house here, far away from any intelligent life. You said you wanted to get away from the media…" he finished with a grin. "Well?" he prompted.
Padme could smell water somewhere nearby, and her mind wandered far away to her childhood in the Lake Country of Naboo. She waited for a stab of pain, but it never came. This tiny, obscure world was green and welcoming enough to remind her of home, but unlike enough that it didn't trigger memories to the point of pain. She smiled. "Anakin, it's absolutely beautiful."
"You're thinking about it again."
She started out of the half-trance of memory. "What?"
"Our planet," he replied, finally glancing at the scopes again, before turning back to her.
His reply was interrupted by the pinging of the proximity indicator. He adjusted his trajectory and stared out the viewport as the clouds finally thinned. The sparkling cityscape appeared as the veil of mist peeled away and Padme stifled a sigh. She wasn't looking forward to what was going to come next.
Anakin guided their shuttle toward the Imperial Palace complex with one hand and entered the necessary clearance codes with the other. The comm crackled to life almost instantly. "Welcome back, Lord and Lady Vader. Your landing pad has been prepared for your arrival."
Anakin guided the shuttle toward the landing pad that had extended outward from the vast complex he called home and set the ship down without so much as a bump. He powered down the engines and they sat in thick silence.
"I'm going to miss you," she said quietly.
"I'll be here tonight," he said, matching her somber tone. "I promise."
"I wish we could stay like this forever," Padme sighed. She was stretched out on a blanket beside the lake, her head resting on Anakin's arm. It was long after sunset, and the night had turned dark and cool. The stars looked shockingly bright and close, and their light was the only light to be found on the dark shore. She turned her face and drank in the sight of Anakin staring upward, transfixed. His eyes were speckled with reflected starlight, and she could almost see the little boy he had once been as he gazed in wonder at the stars.
He finally noticed her staring and pulled her closer. "They look so much brighter here than on Coruscant," he said, sounding faintly embarrassed. "Yes," she replied and kissed his cheek before she raised herself on one elbow to regard him. "You look like a little boy looking at the stars like that."
He looked perplexed, and she laughed. "It's adorable."
His expression shifted rapidly through something like offense before it morphed into something much more devious. He pulled her down on top of him. "And you like adorable, milady?" he said.
"Oh, absolutely." He kissed her slowly and Padme forgot all about the stars.
Anakin left as soon as he kissed her goodbye. Padme retreated into his (their, she corrected herself) living space and was confronted by a mountain of boxes and a fussy protocol droid.
"Mistress Padme!" the gleaming state of the art prototype sounded as stressed as only a protocol droid could manage. "These were delivered this morning. I believe they are your things," it finished importantly, turning its photoreceptors toward the pile as though offended by the clutter.
"Thank you…" she trailed off, realizing that she had never learned the designation of Anakin's droid. She decided to deal with that later. "Did TC-05 make it here?"
The protocol droid emitted a sound that sounded like a sniff of indignance. "I believe so. The unit is over here," it said, gesturing stiffly toward the far end of the room, where TC-05 was standing limply, clearly powered down. "Thank you so much," Padme replied politely. "You may go about your duties and Teecee will help me unpack." Anakin's droid departed in a huff.
Padme flipped the switch on Teecee's neck; his photoreceptors lit up as his gears whirred to life. "Mistress!" he said immediately, sounding genuinely glad to see her. Together they got started on the mountain of boxes that represented Padme's life.
One day in Imperial Center was enough to make Vader long to run back to his secluded safe house with Padme and never return. The corridors of the Imperial Palace reminded him of the tunnels of Tatooine Sand Worms; inside, there was nothing but darkness and filth, and the further in you ventured, the more likely it was that something would bite you. The assistants and political liaisons that surrounded the Emperor were a shadowy and dangerous lot. Vader knew about the various underhanded dealings and power plays that they were involved in, and he was disgusted with the lot of them. They were a part of the necessary evils involved with maintaining the facade of a functioning governing body in the Senate, but they turned his stomach nonetheless. He was eager for the day when Palpatine would dissolve the Senate, and the glorious Empire he had created would be maintained through strength and the healthy fear it instilled in the public. Then perhaps he walk through the corridors of the Imperial Palace without feeling as though a metaphorical knife would be plunged into his back. Or a physical one, for that matter.
After a brief audience with the Emperor, which was surprisingly painless and perfunctory, he spent the day wallowing in paperwork in his Senate office. He made very little progress and spent most of the day staring out his window or at the desk terminal where Padme had once sorted through stacks of flimsiplast. He fleetingly thought about asking her to come over and help him, but he knew that they would never get any work done.
He sighed and returned to his work. At least the Emperor hadn't sent him off planet, so he could look forward to seeing his wife.
When he made a dent in the massive backlog of messages and work that had managed to build up over the course of three days, he rushed home as quickly as he could manage, cursing the traffic the entire way. When at last he touched down on his personal landing pad and navigated through the extra layers of coded security panels he had installed just prior to the wedding, and swept past two pairs of armed guards posted at the door from the landing bay and the door to the domestic portion of the complex, he felt almost physical relief when he saw Padme. She was kneeling on the floor of the large sitting area, rifling through one of the many boxes scattered around the room. He distantly recognized that she had been unpacking when he noticed that a few of her keepsakes had found their way to various shelves and surfaces. The plaque she had given him was settled on a table in the hallway, obviously waiting for a proper hanging place.
The walls and room still looked bare, even though their sterile emptiness had been injected with bright dots of vitality. He felt a brief stab of regret that he had not been able to commission a painting from her artist friend. It wasn't for lack of trying - he had made inquiries and Palo Neruta was nowhere to be found. Vader frowned to himself as he wondered again about whether he had truly scared the artist that badly…
Padme looked up and finally saw him. A smile lit up her face, already flushed with the effort of carrying and arranging, and Anakin thought he had never seen anything so beautiful. "Anakin!" she called out, climbing to her feet and coming over to embrace him. She took his hands and pulled him from the hallway into the sitting room.
"So," she paused to gesture around them. "What do you think?"
There wasn't much of a change, just a few extra datebooks lining the shelves, a couple of graceful porcelain figures, and a single holo on the empty wall. He moved closer until he could make out the images. It was a holo she had taken on the last day of their honeymoon. The floating image showed him leaning in to kiss Padme's cheek as she laughed towards the camera. After a moment she turned to kiss him back. The holo paused, flickered, and began again.
"We need to take a few holos, at least." Padme insisted when he groused about her carting the holo camera around with them. "Holos are memories, Anakin. And memories are important." Her voice had grown soft and low and he recognized the taint of grief in her tone. He absolutely could not have that.
"Fine," he relented. "If you're going to insist, then I can think of some excellent holo opportunities…" He leaned in to kiss her cheek and she laughed. She finally kissed him back properly and, he noticed happily, put the camera down.
"Anakin, I wish…" she said after a moment, and he heard the sadness seeping into her voice again. His heart clenched. He waited for her to finish. She sighed. "I wish we weren't leaving tomorrow."
"And why is that?" he prompted quietly.
"You'll be back to business as usual, and we won't… we won't be together so much. I…" she trailed off, looking tired. "I rely on you. Maybe too much."
She looked slightly wilted and gray, and Anakin immediately gathered her into his arms. "Padme," he began, pressing his lips to her hair, "You will always be the most important thing to me." She felt small and fragile in his arms. "Nothing will keep us apart. I promise."
After all, he relied on her too.
He watched the loop twice before turning back to her. "I like it," he declared, "for one very important reason."
She raised an eyebrow at him. "What's that?"
"It inspires me," he replied, and quickly moved to kiss her.
Later that evening, Anakin discovered that Padme's things had found their way into the refresher and the bedroom as well, and he couldn't help but feel satisfied by the fact that their belongings were settled side by side in every room, underlining the fact that this was her home as well as his. They had settled on hanging the Nubian plaque on the wall opposite the bed. The splash of yellow in the gray and black room was like a single ray of sunlight that had managed to pierce a stormy cloud bank. He quite liked it.
He stared at the plaque a long time that night and repeated the words in his mind. The sorrow may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning. With the words gleaming brightly in the light of Coruscant's never-ending traffic, and his wife safely tucked into his side, he thought that perhaps it might be true.
He woke to find Padme staring at something with a look somewhere between confusion and distaste. "I hope you're not making that face at me," he muttered as he sat up.
"No," she replied distractedly. "I've just received some interesting mail…"
Warning klaxons blared in his mind. "Was that screened by security?" he asked urgently, a list of ways to harm someone through mail delivery - and the nearly infinite list of people angry enough with him to try it - streaming through his mind. He fought the urge to grab it away from her and summon the security team. Padme was already waving off his concerns.
"Yes, yes," she said dismissively, still furrowing her brow at the heavy paper she was holding. "Teecee brought it in a moment ago and said that it had all been cleared."
"Did they check for biological agents?" he insisted. She finally lowered the paper to give him a longsuffering look.
His security team would have screened for everything. He willed himself to calm down, and quickly changed course. "Is that real paper?"
"Yes," she answered, handing it to him. "It's an invitation to a gala at the Imperial Palace. Grand Moff Jenkyns invited me… and you." She reached down and retrieved another similarly grand envelope, this one with gold lettering. Anakin realized that there was an entire stack of them beside her. Lord and Lady Vader was elegantly printed on the front of each one. "They're all invitations to big events. Holomovie premieres, political fundraisers, government galas… even birthday parties. I don't know any of these people!" she finished in bewilderment.
Anakin grinned at her. "Now you know my suffering," he said. "I am constantly invited to the most ridiculous events by people who don't know or like me. It's the cost of being a high profile figure, I'm afraid."
She groaned and studied the invitations with a comically hopeless look on her face. "Poor Padme," he said lightly. "You used to be safely obscure… but then you married me."
She threw her pillow at him.
Anakin was feeling surprisingly upbeat. He still had lots of catching up to do after his scant three days away, but it was hard to feel crushed even by the futility of bureaucracy when Padme had kissed him goodbye only a few minutes before. He walked through the high security corridor that led to his office and thought that the day might pass without difficulty and then he could go see how Padme was faring in her fight against the Imperial social legion…
…his steps ground to a halt. A messenger droid was floating in front of the closed doors of his office; the red light blinking slowly on its chest plate indicated that it was carrying a message for him. It was likely a message from the Emperor.
He swallowed down his sudden worry and stepped forward into the droids scanning range. Its photoreceptors instantly swiveled toward him, and after a quick scan, it spoke. "Lord Vader," it acknowledged.
"You have a message for me?"
"Voiceprint confirmed. You have one message, sir."
"Come inside, then." He keyed in the security code and the droid followed him into the empty office. The doors slid shut and he moved to stand by the window-wall behind his desk, clasping his hands tightly behind his back. "Proceed."
"Emperor Palpatine has a delicate mission for you, My Lord. He wishes you to study the enclosed file-," the droid's chest plate slid open, revealing a small datapad, "-and act accordingly."
Vader made no move to retrieve the datapad and the droid placed it on the desk with its spindly utility clamp.
"That is all?"
"The Emperor also commands you to make contact with him after you have looked over the file, sir."
Vader gritted his teeth. "Very well."
"That is all, my Lord. Have a pleasant day," it finished in its empty electronic tone, and floated back into the hall. The doors hissed shut. Sunlight poured in through the transparisteel behind him, reflecting off the datapad's shiny surface with a light that seemed strangely cold and sharp.
Palpatine's missions were never pleasant affairs. They were usually covert clean up jobs that involved quiet threats, manipulations, or assassinations. For the first time he could remember, he felt ill at the thought of it. He moved to pick up the datapad and his thumb drifted toward the power button.
"Nothing will keep us apart. I promise."
He hoped it was a promise he could keep.