A/N: Oh my goodness, I'm SO sorry it took me so long to update! Good news: I've got two chapters written and ready to be posted as of now. I'll wait a few days with the new update, though. Bad news: after those two chapters, you may have to wait months for another installment. Real life is just insane at the moment.
Huge thanks to those of you who kept nudging me!! *hugs* I wouldn't have been able to make it this far without you.
As always, the more you review, the sooner the next update is going to be!
What happened in the last chapter: Padme and Anakin reunited, and he took her to the Rebel Base. Even though they still love each other more than ever, five years of deception have opened a huge rift in their relationship. Padme was introduced to Maya, a very close friend of Anakins, and met Luke and Leia, who were quite reluctant at accepting her as their mother. The question is, will they ever?
The sound of an opening door wakes me up. My breath rattled, I sit up, expecting to see Anakin, or—my heart does a mad, almost nauseating jolt in my chest—Leia to come and see me. But it is Maiia.
Disappointment burning in my throat, I try to smile at her, and her almond-shaped eyes smile back in the same manner.
"Sorry to wake you," she apologises. "I was searching for Leia."
My eyes widen. "Why, what happened to her?" I gasp.
Maiia raises her hands quickly. "No, it's nothing to worry about," she tries to reassure me. "Sometimes she likes to disappear, and we let her have her fun. But now"—she looks at the floor, clearly uncomfortable—"Anakin needs to talk to her."
I have a very shrewd idea as to why would Anakin need to talk to her, and judging by the embarrassed heaving of Maiia's shoulders, so does she. My stomach drops, memories burning every inch of my skin like acid.
Maiia goes to the door. "Well, I better leave," she says hastily.
But there is something else I want to talk to her about.
"Wait!" I call. She turns around, expectant.
I bite my lip and tug a loose strand of hair behind my ear. "You told me that there was a chance that I might regain my ability to walk again," I say awkwardly. "And a couple of hours ago, a strange thing happened—my toe twitched."
A most peculiar expression crosses over Maiia's face. "Are you sure?" she asks slowly.
She smiles uncertainly. "This is good."
Suddenly, there is tension in the air. It clouds from the slightly damp walls, floats from beneath the bed, swirling around Maiia and I, so thick that I can nearly lift it with my finger.
"You said that treatment is possible," I continue. "Could you… could you help me to be able to walk again?"
Maiia's face stiffens as thousands of different emotions flicker over it. Her dark brown eyes suddenly pitch black in the dim light, she nods very slowly.
"I can try," she says quietly. "But this is no light task."
My mouth twitches in what I hope is smile. "Thank you," I say as quietly. "Just one more thing… could we keep it a secret from Anakin?"
She frowns, clearly thinking why I would want to keep something that important a secret. To tell the truth, I don't know it either—it just feels right to me. And there is a piece of me that dreams how Anakin's eyes will light up when one day I'll gracefully rise from the hoverchair, how we will run in the jungle together on that day, hand in hand, how we can swim together like we did on Naboo…
"Of course, we can try. But I hate keeping secrets from him."
For a fleeting second, there is guilt reeling in her eyes—an emotion so intense and haunted that makes my breath stuck in my throat. But the moment is gone, and her eyes express nothing but sadness again.
She nods at me and walks to the door. Already by the exit, she hesitates and turns around.
"You know, he's happier than I've ever seen him," she says conversationally, smiling slightly. "It's astonishing how much your coming back healed him."
I stare at her black hair twisted in a rigorous knot, shining blue in the dim artificial light, at total loss what to say. Before I come up with a decent answer, Maiia hits the opening button and disappears behind the door.
The Base is enormous, and the maze is breathtaking. The natural darkness of the cave is dispersed by the dim glow of artificial lamps carefully installed onto the ceiling. My skin seems to be tinged a soft orange from their light. I fly randomly from one path to another, searching for Anakin or the twins, yet they are nowhere in sight. There are simply too many beings here—I've come across the Jedi, droids, and technicians talking about the Imperial spy droids.
The Empire is still out there, cruel and ready to attack. The vastness and the gloomy darkness of the cave make me feel trapped, and the sensation of utter helplessness rolls over me with a wave of cold sweat under the thick fabric of my tunic. The life on the Base is at the edge of a knife, waking up every day to check the skies and feel a brief surge of relief that we haven't been discovered by the Empire yet, that there still at least one more day to plan, to prepare for the fight, to live…
I come to a halt before a wide arch forking into three passages, all of them equally dark and winding. There is a detailed map over my head, but it says little to me. Where could my family be—somewhere down the central one, or did they follow the left path? I wrap my arms around me and take a deep breath, regretting once more my inability to call upon the Force and track them down.
The faint echo of approaching footsteps comes out of the depths I left behind me. I turn around just in time to see a man clad in beige robes emerge from the corner, and I smile as I recognise him. It is Obi-Wan.
His eyebrows rise into his greying hair. "Padmé?"
"Hello, Obi-Wan," I reply, buzzing closer to him.
"Are you searching for Anakin?" he asks with a knowing smile.
I nod, then chuckle ruefully. "This place is so large!" I gesture with my hands vaguely somewhere to the ceiling.
"Yes, it takes some time to get used to it. But don't worry, Padmé—within few weeks you'll feel like you were born here." His smile is reassuring, but his eyes tell me that he likes the caves no more than I do.
"I guess," I mutter vaguely, rubbing my shoulders in an attempt to warm them.
Obi-Wan continues to scrutinise me. "Anakin doesn't like it here either," he says quietly. "If it weren't for Luke and Leia, he would hardly return to the Base."
"And the twins?" I ask breathlessly.
He shrugs. "They are children. They love playing hide and seek here, or just wander around. The Rebellion is just like a big game for them… although they know everything about the danger, and surprisingly, they take it seriously." He gazes unseeingly at the moist walls glimmering softly from the light, shaking his head back and forth in the tiniest gesture. "They are very mature for their ages…"
Leia's sweet face, set in a cold mask of indifference, floats before my eyes. Mature she may be, my daughter didn't pause, didn't give me a chance to explain myself. She and her brother simply left. Or am I being the childish one, hoping for a hug and 'Mummy I love you' after everything that had happened?
Obi-Wan chuckles suddenly. "If someone had told me several years ago that my cocky and rebellious Padawan would have children as intelligent and mature as Luke and Leia are, I would've never believed them. Although, they can be some little devils at times."
"People change," I say quietly. "Anakin isn't the same person he used to be."
Avoiding Obi-Wan's intent stare, I look at the three winding passages before me. Like in fairy tales, the left one—the narrowest one—leads to death, the middle one to happiness, and the right one—the darkest one—is the path to the unknown. Which path is ours? For all the changes we have been through, for all the pain and agony that lie between us, yet for all the love that is there, which path will we choose?
I feel Obi-Wan's eyes on me as he lays his hand on my shoulder. "Come on," he says softly. "I'll lead you to them."
Guided by the Force, he steps into the right passage.
Our steps echo faintly in the eternal moisture; an underground stream in the distance murmurs something. The path twists round, descending, and the half-dried layer of sweat on my back makes me shiver even despite the stiffness of the suddenly hot air. There are openings on the walls—pitch dark, sinister hollowness, and several times we had to step over narrow bridges built over large cracks and pitfalls opening right beneath out feet. It is a dark and lifeless road.
"What can they possibly do in this passage?" Obi-Wan mutters anxiously, crossing over another narrow bridge, the sound of churning water roaring dangerously underneath. I have the advantage of simply flying over it.
"What's wrong with it?"
"There is nothing wrong with it," Obi-Wan replies stiffly, casting an eloquent glance at chasms on the walls. "I just don't like where it leads."
I catch up with him, pulling a damp tendril of hair from my eyes. "And where does it lead?"
Obi-Wan sighs heavily. "This station is designed to self-destruct if the damages from the hostile attack are too severe—we can't afford the Empire getting any files in case we lose. Those files include the locations of the surviving Jedi, our allies, our plans… Self-destruction can be cancelled either from the main computer, or from the main generator which is where we're heading to"—he points with his hand ahead—"However, it is also possible to destroy it from there."
I frown. "They must have wanted some privacy."
"I think so too," Obi-Wan agrees with me, though his mouth is set in a disapproving gesture.
We continue descending in hollow silence broken only by the sound of Obi-Wan's feet and the soft buzzing of my hoverchair. A part of me wonders whether I'm masochistic, for I am desperate to talk my children who turned away from me. Automatically, I draw my arms over my heavy chest, as if trying to squeeze myself so tightly that the hole has no chance of ripping me apart.
After a while, the echoes change—I can distinguish distant voices bouncing off the moist walls. Even though they almost merge with the murmur of the underground stream, I hear a man's voice arguing with a little girl. With every step we take, the voices grow clearer and clearer, and very soon, we are close enough to make out words. The air is almost unbearably hot and vibrates with the power of the generator.
Obi-Wan halts and casts me a serious look that it almost grim. "Anakin, Luke and Leia are ahead—I'm sure you can already hear them."
I nod and mutter something incomprehensible. My stomach does a mad jolt.
"I better leave you alone with them," he says. With the slightest smile, he turns around and goes back.
For a moment, I stare after him, listening to the echo of his retreat, clasping my wet, shaking hands. For a fleeting second, I believe to hear the echo whispering 'should've taken the left tunnel' at me, but then I understand that it was only a trick of my imagination. Slowly, almost involuntarily, I take a deep breath and move forwards, to the voices and to the humming of the machine.
"—and then Master Yoda told me that strong with the Force I was," Leia's sweet voice rolls at me from beyond the corner.
"How could you have spoken with your Mother like that?" Anakin interrupts her. His voice is bitter and cold.
"She's not our mother yet," Luke intervenes quietly.
Stopping just behind the corner from their line of sight, I picture my son looking at his feet as he speaks, small and yet already full of dignity.
"Then, Luke and I tried to levitate Master Yoda with the Force—you know, just to try it out on a living creature, he's small enough so we thought it'd be easy to lift him—" Leia babbles on, ignoring the rising tension in the air that even I can feel.
"How can you even think that?" Anakin nearly hisses, his voice trembling with angry disbelief. "She carried you for nine long months, she gave you birth and she loves you. Of course, she is your mother."
"I don't—"Luke starts and breaks mid-word, apparently under his father's glare.
"—but we couldn't. Master Yoda blocked us, tapped his stick and said that—"
"Leia, will you stop that?" Anakin says calmly, each word separate and distinct.
Her reluctance nearly palpable, she obeys, and a deep silence is a heavy weight on my ears.
"Please, understand," Anakin says softly, wearily. "That your mother had no choice. She suffered a lot, too."
"Oh no, she had choice!" Leia interrupts. "She faked her death because she didn't love us, because she didn't want us. She could have returned to us, but she chose not to. She left us, she left you, and if she suffers now, she deserves it!"
Leia's words linger in the air and then seep through my skin into my veins, burning hot and painful. Behind the corner, there's a sharp intake of breath and a loud, ringing silence.
"She's here," Luke says quietly. I believe to feel his blue eyes pierce the thick stone and stare directly at me.
My cover blown, I have no other alternative than to leave my hiding spot and fly forwards. The loud humming of the generator—a magnificent pillar of a machine—hits my face in a wave of hot, metallic air. Leia's eyes are narrowed with contempt, an expression looking at odds with her slightly plump face, with her dark brown hair neatly made in two braids. Anakin's face is inscrutable, but Luke looks at me with the strangest glint in his eyes that is almost sympathetic.
"I can explain everything," I nearly whisper. A part of me is sickened at how apologetic, almost pleading my voice sounds. How unappealing I must look—weak, self-conscious, aged, sweaty… I was different before. I was strong, beautiful, self-confident—where did it all go? Or is old Padmé merely sleeping beneath that new persona I became?
Leia's face rivals Palpatine's in her coldness as she shakes her head, her lips pursed in a thin, colourless line. "There's nothing to explain. And now, I'm going to see Maiia."
Without any further glance at me, without looking at anyone, she storms off, her braids dangling behind her, and this time, Anakin doesn't stop her. He just continues staring at me, his face almost as blank and lifeless as on that fateful day when he found me in my shop on Deralia.
Looking determinedly at the floor, Luke follows his sister. Without thinking about it, acting only on instincts—or on desperation that is swallowing me—I grab his arm and spin him around to face me.
"Luke," I breathe. My arm is shaking badly, like the rest of my entire body.
Surprisingly gently, Luke takes my arm with his small fingers and lowers it onto my lap. His eyes bore deep into mine, and I see no contempt there, no hatred. Only sympathy and compassion, pure and unconditional.
"Give us time, M-m-mummy," he says softly. For a fleeting moment, he gives me a light squeeze, and before I can register his touch, he turns around and runs away, following Leia. I stare after him open-mouthed, rubbing the spot on my hand where he touched me.
"That went better than I expected it would," Anakin's voice says behind me. A moment later his hand touches my shoulder. "Even though my son… our son has always been very compassionate, I didn't even dare to hope that he'd accept you so quickly."
"He hasn't accepted me yet," I contradict, still staring at the blackness that swallowed him. "And Leia…" I swallow and break off, unable to continue.
Anakin's mechanical hand tightens around my shoulder so that it almost hurts. "Well, what did you expect, Padmé? A hug, a kiss and 'I love you'?"
I hang my head. "I didn't… But I didn't expect that either."
Anakin sighs behind me. His grip loosens somewhat. "She's only a child, and it's not easy for her. Try to understand her."
I spin around and stare at him, but he's avoiding my eyes, staring at the ceiling as though it will crash if he averts his gaze from it. His jaw is tense, and his eyes are an icy blue substance—not my Ani's eyes. My stomach jitters strangely.
"It's just hard for me," I whisper, the words a heavy, viscous mass on my tongue. "I'm a mother who has been rejected. And it hurts… when she keeps talking about Maiia."
Anakin stares down at me, and his facial expression is wrong, horribly wrong. Memories rise up within me with a sickening roll of nausea.
"Maiia has been a better mother figure for them so far," he says barely audible. "And you... you could have returned to us, but you chose not to, and...and..." His voice cracks. "I don't know if I'll ever, ever forgi-"
The generator emits a loud, humming sound and Anakin breaks off mid-word. Nearly blind from disbelief, I stare into his cold blue eyes for miles and miles till the very bottom, yet seeing nowhere a sign of apology or lie. The machine hums dangerously again, the dance of green and red control lights is a smear to my eyes.
Anakin's expression softens; the frozen blue of his eyes melts. "I'm sorry," he says softly. "I didn't mean that."
But I know he did. He opens his mouth to say something, but a shrill beeping of a comlink stops him. His eyes still on me, he activates it, and I register a vague surprise at Utuug's bluish image rising from the tiny gadget.
"Anakin, we need you in the conference room," Utuug says hastily.
Anakin frowns. "What is it?"
The other Jedi's face is grave and I feel chills running down my spine despite the unbearable heat.
"Our scouts report that the Empire has found our location."