Here's the next chapter as promised. And it's more than twice as long as the last. Sorry for the discrepancy in length, but I couldn't find any better place to break.

Anyway, enjoy the long chapter!

Chapter III: The Visit

They stood for a moment, silent, simply staring at one another, not quite able to believe that the other was really there. It was always like this when the Jedi allowed her to see him. Anakin was so overcome by the feeling of being truly alive again that he found himself unable to move or speak. He was uncertain how Padmé felt in those moments—he was so stunned by the sudden sensation of feeling that he was incapable of sensing her own thoughts and emotions. He could do nothing but gaze at her in awe.

He sometimes wondered how the Jedi could look at her and not be blinded.

Padmé, as always, was the first to speak. "Anakin," she whispered, breathing his name like a prayer, and then he could move again.

He crossed the space between them in two long strides, taking her in his arms and burying his face in the crook between her neck and shoulder. And then he felt her slim arms circle round him in return, and for a moment, everything was right with the universe. He could almost have cried.

"I missed you," he mumbled against her neck, when he could speak again. To his disappointment, she pulled away slightly, but only enough so that she could look at him. Her eyes were sparkling with something that was neither joy nor sorrow, but perhaps a little of both.

"You did?" she asked, radiant with wonder.

He contrived to look offended, but he was so grateful for her mere presence that he did a very poor job of it. "Of course I missed you!" he exclaimed, and was about to give her a searing kiss to show her just how much, but she stopped him, nodding towards the corner of the room.

He had completely forgotten that Dooku was even there. The Jedi sat, doing a credible impression of looking quite comfortable, though Anakin knew it had to be an act, considering that Dooku was sitting in the same chair he had used before. He was facing slightly away from them, reading something on a datapad, and steadfastly ignoring them. But Anakin thought he could make out the edges of a smile on the other's face.

He turned back to Padmé and shrugged, but she was already speaking again. The mere sound of her voice was so beautiful to him that he had to force himself to actually hear the words.

"I know you missed me, Ani," she said, reaching up to stroke his face. "It's just that you've never actually said it before. You surprised me."

He sighed, bringing his forehead to rest against hers. "I know," he said softly. "And I'm sorry. But I'm learning…slowly." He gave her a lopsided grin. "It's just that I'm not used to being able to feel things so openly. I don't mean to hurt you."

She saw the fear behind his eyes, and wrapped her arms more tightly about him, trying to reassure him. He was always so terrified of hurting her.

"And you don't," she said softly, her eyes studying his intently. "I always know what you feel, even if you don't say it." She allowed herself a rather mischievous smile. "Though it is nice to hear you say it, now and then."

He nodded and drew her closer, as though trying to convince himself that she was real. "I know," he murmured into her hair. "And I am trying." Swallowing a thick, almost overpowering surge of emotion, he added, quietly, "I love you."

Their eyes met, and she leaned forward slightly to receive his kiss. It was gentle, and warm, and it left healing in its wake.

When they parted, he gave her a rueful smile and said, "I'd offer you a seat, but I think you remember how awful the furniture is in here. Master Dooku can attest to that."

For the first time since entering the room, Dooku looked up from his reading, scowling at Anakin's use of the title.

"Indeed, Milady," he said gallantly, with just a touch of sarcasm, "I would never sit in a lady's presence, except in this case I fear it is a courtesy."

Padmé stared at him, then burst into a fit of giggles. It wasn't even that funny, really, but she had missed her husband so much that the simplest things could make her laugh, if only he was there. She had not let go of his hand once since entering the room, and she didn't intend to.

"Well then, Master Jedi, I must thank you for your courtesy," she replied, still chuckling. "And not in this matter only," she added more seriously, her gaze turning towards Anakin.

Dooku merely shrugged. "A Jedi's life is to serve, Milady," he said. "I apologize if my colleagues may seem to have forgotten that."

"I am grateful that you, at least, have not," she told him, then turned back to Anakin, her eyes almost laughing. "But really, Anakin, I've been standing most of the day! There must be somewhere to sit!"

Anakin had the nerve to laugh at her, but she wasn't about to complain. His laughter had always been all too rare, and therefore all the more treasured. "I'm afraid the floor is probably the most comfortable," he said ruefully. "At least it's not lumpy."

Padmé scowled, but dutifully sat on the floor, drawing him down beside her and leaning back against his chest. "If they won't release you, Anakin," she muttered, "the least they can do is get you some decent furniture. I shall see that they do," she added haughtily, with a proud tilt of her chin.

In spite of everything, Anakin couldn't help but grin at her expression. She was ever the politician.

"I don't really blame them," he said, evidently to her surprise. "I don't think they have much for themselves, either, and I would hardly expect them to give their best to a prisoner." He looked away, trying to hide his guilt. "They've treated me much better than I would have expected, actually. Much better than, well…" He trailed off, unable to finish, but he didn't need to. Padmé knew what the Sith had done to their prisoners.

She turned slightly and cupped his face between her hands, forcing him to look at her. "Yes," she said softly. "But you treated me much better than this, even before there was anything between us." She allowed a gleam of challenge to show in her eyes as she added, "If the Jedi truly believe in compassion to all living beings, I would like them to prove it."

Anakin said nothing in reply, but the fingers of his right hand brushed softly across her cheek, and she heard him sigh. On a sudden whim, she took his hand in her own and kissed the dark, livid burn scar that ran along the underside of his elbow. He had very nearly lost that hand in battling his master, and even so the proximity of Palpatine's lightsaber had left a permanent scar.

"How are you feeling?" she asked gently.

It was a rather strange change of subject, but Anakin knew what she meant. "I'm all right," he said, pulling his arm gently but firmly away and wrapping it about her waist instead. He hated the way his scars saddened her. "Nothing hurts any more. I can even do my exercises without any trouble breathing."

"That's wonderful!" she exclaimed, giving him such an enthusiastic hug that he had to laugh.

"Yes, well," he said, shaking his head, "I'm still terribly out of shape. If you gave me a lightsaber right now, I doubt I could even manage to defeat Kenobi."

Padmé frowned at the note of disdain in his voice. Obi-Wan Kenobi had been her friend, both before the days of the Empire and in the early stages of the Rebel Alliance, but he had made a singularly bad impression on her husband. With the exception of Dooku, Anakin had yet to meet a Jedi he found even remotely tolerable, but he came perilously close to despising Obi-Wan.

To be fair, though, she had to admit that it was not entirely Anakin's fault. Obi-Wan, as the only Jedi to kill a Sith in over four thousand years, had been appointed his chief guardian, and had made it clear from the beginning that he did not trust Vader at all, and that he did not want Padmé seeing him.

Ever.

She had to admit that she hadn't been very pleased with Obi-Wan herself, lately. But she still considered him a friend.

Anakin noted her frown and quickly apologized. And she forgave him, as she always did, remembering when his infractions had been considerably worse than a mere insult to one of her friends.

She took his hand and kissed the center of his palm, then leaned back against him and closed her eyes. She wished they could stay like this forever.

"See, Ani," she murmured without opening her eyes. "This floor isn't so uncomfortable."

He grinned and kissed her temple. "No, I guess it's not. Not with you here, anyway."

They settled into a comfortable silence, broken only by the occasional sound of Dooku typing something on his datapad. He still appeared to be steadfastly ignoring them, and it was almost like being really alone. Anakin was eternally grateful.

He could have stayed like that forever, but they only had a short time, and she had not yet told him anything about herself.

"Padmé?" he said, shaking her gently in case she was really asleep, though he sensed that she wasn't. She opened her eyes and blinked lazily up at him. "You haven't told me anything about you yet," he prompted. "And how are things with the Senate? I don't get much news in here."

She scowled at his mention of the New Republic's governing body. He had to ask about the one thing she'd wanted to avoid. He had a way of doing that, sometimes.

"Impossible! That's what they are," she groused. "One would think that, after such a terrible crisis as a ten-year dictatorship, people would be willing to work together! But no, it's the same old bickering and posturing…" She broke off with a sigh.

"An old hand at politics, I see," came the sardonic voice of Yan Dooku. "Some things never change, Milady. But it is the price we pay for democracy."

"I know," she said softly. "But sometimes, I just get so frustrated with it all, and I wonder if it might not have been better if Anakin had become emperor and we could have—"

"Don't ever say that!" Anakin cut her off with surprising vehemence. He added, more gently, "If I had defeated him in order to take his place, I would have become him. And you would not have known me anymore."

Padmé shivered. She knew he was right, and it frightened her.

"I'm sorry," he whispered miserably. "I didn't mean to ruin what little time we have…" He chewed at his lip for a moment, then blurted, "Tell me something else. Something good."

"Something good, hmm?" she asked, allowing him to change the subject. They didn't have much time left, after all. "Well, I've finally found an apartment. Sabé and Dormé are helping me move in this week. And I brought holos!" She pulled a holo-viewer from the pocket of her senatorial robes and displayed it triumphantly to him. "See, this is the sitting room, and I was thinking we could paint it blue with a pale grey trim, and maybe some blue-grey sofas, and then…"

Anakin knew nothing at all about decorating, but he could listen to her chatter about it forever. He was flattered that she actually wanted his opinion. She said that he ought to have some say, since he would be living there soon himself, and he was too happy just being with her to shatter her illusions with cold reality. That would come later, when she had gone and he was left alone.

And if she planned how to decorate their bedroom, and even shyly asked about a future child's room, well, what would it hurt? They could never have children, of course, not as long as he remained a prisoner of the Jedi, but Padmé had been so strong through everything, and if she needed this fantasy, he would not take it from her. It was his dream, too, but he had always been more pessimistic than she. He knew that it was just a dream.

He remembered the last time they had talked about children. It seemed almost another lifetime ago. He had still been Vader, and she had secretly been his wife. And he had planned to overthrow Palpatine someday, and become emperor himself, and then they could be married openly, and they could have children without the fear of Palpatine stealing them away.

But that had never happened, as he had known even then, somehow, that it wouldn't. He did not really regret the way things had turned out. Padmé was alive, and well, and really, what else mattered? And she had her democracy, and a husband who had once been a monster, but at least he wasn't anymore.

He had no right to ask for anything else.

"And I was thinking we could hang your Gvanish in the dining room…" she was saying.

"You still have that?" he asked, amazed. It was one of the few things Vader had had in common with his master: they had both been art collectors. But, at least according to Padmé, Vader's taste in art had been vastly superior to Palpatine's. The Gvanish had been her favorite.

"Yes," she laughed. "Though it wasn't easy, I tell you! They were auctioning off your entire estate, so I actually had to buy it!" Her voice softened as she added, "I also bought Varykino. Again."

"Good," he murmured, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. "I wouldn't want to lose that."

"Me neither," she whispered. Both were silent for a moment, lost in the memory. Even in the midst of darkness, there had been moments of joy.

And Anakin could never forget that it was this memory which had saved him.

But the sparkle in her eyes told him there was more she had not told him about this auction. "And what else did you buy?" he asked, teasing.

"Well…" she drawled. "You remember those specialty Var Adanish pots and pans of yours?"

"You didn't!" he exclaimed, laughing in sheer joy. From what she could tell, Anakin Skywalker had three passions in life: his wife, flying…and cooking. It was an odd mix, to be sure, but it was one of the things she loved about him.

"I did," she told him, grinning. "And I expect some of your famed ralthin as soon as you come back to me."

His face fell slightly at that, and she watched the play of emotions there. Once, his face had been as expressionless as the stone behemoths lining the royal avenue in Theed. But that was Vader. Anakin had a vast array of expressions, and she was still learning them all. She watched now as he consciously decided to set aside what he knew was true and go along with her fantasy world, in which he would be returning home with her any day now.

"Well," he said at length. "I suppose I could manage that. But only if you promise to keep Sabé out of the kitchen! How anyone could do that to eggs…"

Padmé burst into a fit of giggles, and was about to reply when there came a rather insistent rapping at the door.

Anakin's good humor instantly evaporated, and she felt her own vanish with it. Her husband swallowed thickly and looked away, the muscles in his face contorting with almost physical pain.

Their two short hours were up.

Dooku rose soundlessly and offered them an apologetic bow as he moved to open the door. When it whisked aside, Master Yoda was the first to enter, and he did not look very pleased.

The rest of the Council followed him, each of their expressions variations on a theme of grim. Anakin took one look at their faces and resolved himself to another long week without seeing Padmé.

"Senator Amidala," Yoda began. Anakin thought he sounded rather cross. "At an end, this visit is."

Padmé shot him a glare that probably would have killed a lesser being. "At least give me a moment to say goodbye," she said angrily, and turned her back to the Jedi before anyone could respond.

Anakin looked perfectly miserable, and she knew that his expression mirrored her own. She reached up and brushed her fingers softly along the line of his jaw, trying to memorize his face, but he caught her hand in his and kissed it desperately, as though afraid that she would disappear before his eyes.

"I love you," he whispered with something akin to despair.

Padmé tried urgently not to cry. It would hurt him far too much. Later, when she lay in bed alone in her new apartment, then she would cry.

"I know," she murmured, taking his own hand and kissing it gently. "And I love you."

"Senator," Ki-Adi-Mundi began, and Padmé turned and glared at him.

"Yes, all right!" she snapped and turned back to Anakin, closing her eyes for one last, brief kiss. When it ended, she turned quickly away, unable to bear the exquisite torture in his blue eyes.

Without once looking back, she practically fled the room, afraid she would break down if she stayed a moment longer. The Jedi followed her, and the door swished shut with a certain finality. Anakin was left alone. Even Dooku had gone.

He stood for a moment, staring at the door, then with a soft groan he sank slowly to the ground, his back pressed against the wall. He remained there for some time, doing nothing, thinking nothing. And finally, for the first time in days, he fell asleep.

He dreamed that his mother was singing a soft lullaby as she rocked him to sleep. But he could not understand the words.


Next chapter: Padmé and Dooku form a plan…