Author's Note: I'm still not officially back but I've found a little time to write here and there over the last months.

This chapter has been a long time in coming and is, as you will all note, something of a turning point in the story. I debated posting this since I don't know when life will give me the time and peace I need to finish the next chapter - it's a very intense writing experience - but I felt this has waited long enough.

That said, it needs to be posted and it's *long*. Almost 8K words long [a dual chapter if you will *grin*] as I'm now going to try and keep "daily" events in the story in the single chapters they should be [unless absolutely necessary] :) It creates less confusion.

So… here's chapter 75 :)

Thanks for your patience.


Chapter 75

Vader's Flag Ship Exactor - Month Twenty Five, Day Twelve PEF

Morning

Vader woke several hours later to find Padmé still tucked against his chest and in his arms, her lashes half-moons of darkness against pale cheeks. The bruises under her eyes were no less pronounced despite the fact she'd been in his bed and asleep for the last - he glanced at the chrono - seven or so hours.

Seeing her to be deeply asleep, and peacefully, for the first time since her return to him, Vader was reluctant to move even though he knew he had to. He lay watching her, the even rise and fall of her chest in her exhausted slumber reassuring even as it was frustrating. How long had it been since she'd slept more than a couple of hours at a time? How long had it been since she'd slept through the night itself, not plagued by nightmares?

She murmured something in her sleep, exhaling softly, she tucked her head back towards his chest. He waited until she settled again before reluctantly easing away, gently untangling himself from her arms. She made a half-hearted attempt to maintain her hold before curling into a ball as he was able to escape.

Having her in his arms all night had been an unexpected and sudden boon of her reoccurring nightmares; horrors she still hadn't shared other than to say they were about the twins. He suspected there was more to them than that, but until she confided in him, there was little he could do to help her; more to the point, there was little help she would accept.

This shadow of his wife was disturbing enough when he saw her day to day, watching as she lost what little weight she could ill afford to; watching as her skin stretched over bone and muscle, her strength ebbing in ways he could feel but not see. To have her in his arms... he shook his head as he reached for his pants, slipping them on before he collected his robe.

He wouldn't be needed on the bridge today; with what few pockets of resistance taken care of and the Jedi eliminated and the General handling the logistics of setting up a garrison, he could afford to lounge a little. Still... he could put his time to good use and headed for his office.

Barefoot and bare-chested, he ensured the door was closed to the lounge before settling at his console. Calling up an encrypted channel, he sent a message to Cleek. To his surprise, the woman answered almost immediately - and her eyes widened fractionally as she took in his image before she offered a respectful bow.

"My Lord Vader; an unexpected pleasure."

"I have information for you, Cleek," he told her shortly, calling up the data he'd compiled on the twin's birthday. He'd been sifting through it himself, but Cleek needed to start following up the leads he felt should be investigated. He wasn't about to tolerate another example of her 'expertise' like the last time. "I'm transmitting the data to you now."

The agent waited silently and then her eyebrows rose as the transfer commenced. "You have new information, Lord Vader?"

"The date of their birth; Empire Day. I've compiled a list of the most likely and started from there." He selected a series of files to add to the transfer, masking his search criteria. "Hire more people; I want no more mistakes like the last time."

"If I do, Lord Vader, we run the risk of attracting unwanted attention; I dare not make this operation any bigger if you wish continued discretion."

Which he did; if Palpatine knew who he was searching for... Frustrated, Vader glared at the woman. "Then step up your search with what you do have. I want them found - now!"

"I'll need a day to two to peruse the search criteria and begin preliminary investigations into the information you sent me." Cleek's admission was obviously reluctant, and she didn't appear to be looking him in the face, but staring at his chest. "I can dispatch an operative to each location as soon as we have that preliminary survey completed. It won't be long now, my lord," she promised. "I'll inform you when we have something; Cleek out."

Pushing away from his desk, Vader made a sound of disgust. Cleek would need more information than he was willing to give her - like the fact the twins involved were his children - if he wanted to spur her to better efforts. He wasn't willing to make himself vulnerable to one of her type; not to mention the fact that if it was even whispered that he had children, Palpatine would hear of it and his chance of returning Luke and Leia to Padmé would be over.

No; he didn't dare chance it.

That didn't, however, mean he had to like it.

Exhaling his frustrations, he turned his attention to the next section of the data he'd pulled from the archives and began refining the list of places Cleek and her group of agents would need to check. He worked for over an hour, letting his determination for a swift and decisive end to this quest override his anger.

It wasn't until he was calm again, having felt he was accomplishing something, that he finally shut the console down and went back into the lounge.

Padmé wasn't anywhere he could see and he headed for his room, surprised to find her still in his bed as he approached. Her back was to him as she lay on her side, the indent of her waist calling to his arms; the need to hold her after his morning's efforts welling up within him.

Taking a chance on the fact that she hadn't objected to his presence the night before, he slid back onto the bed. Mindful that he shouldn't push his luck, he discarded his robe but not his pants before crawling back under the sheets. She stiffened as he touched her, indicating she wasn't asleep as he'd assumed. Sliding his arm about her waist, and then gently drew her along the sheets into his embrace.

She had plenty of time to resist, to object or to roll away if she'd wanted; she didn't do anything. She said nothing and Vader looked down at her where she lay with her back to him, her eyes open as she stared into nothingness.

The quiet sadness that had enveloped her was still singing with the charged emotions of the night before, but they were once again muted. Suppressed by her indomitable will - or perhaps his presence? He didn't know; all he cared about was the fact that she lay quietly in his arms, accepting the embrace without fuss or fight as he curved his body about hers. Seeing her like this brought out his protective instincts and he had no desire to aggravate any of the issues between them by starting a discussion; especially not one where she might refuse him and hurt herself further.

Instead of saying anything, he pressed a gentle, lingering kiss to her temple, lay his head next to hers and closed his eyes.

The irritating buzz of his comlink woke him next from somewhere on his bedside table. His head shot up and he was instantly aware of the vacant space beside him. Frowning, he reached for the offensive instrument and flipped it on. "Vader."

"My lord, there's been a complication in the Toydarian capital. You're needed on the bridge, sir."

Of course he was; wasn't anyone able to do anything without him? Frustrated, he ran one hand through his hair. "I'll be right there, General."

Slipping his comlink into his pocket, he quickly dressed, sliding the glove onto his right hand, closing the fasteners as he exited his bedchamber. He spied Padmé immediately back at the viewport but there had been a major shift between them; he could feel it.

The hostility that normally surrounded her had faded to be replaced by... something. Something he couldn't identify.

Striding towards her, he stopped a few feet away to examine her profile. She still looked haggard, tired and worn out; he'd have liked nothing better than to take her back to bed for a week - and do nothing but sleep. Perhaps then...

He opened his mouth to ask-

And his comlink sounded again, the summons unwelcome in the silence and he watched her shoulders stiffen and then relax, an almost imperceptible sag. "Your Empire needs you."

He frowned at the comment. Mild though it was, it was laced with disapproval. "I'll be back later. We'll talk then."

She didn't say anything, continuing to watch the world below the ship in the viewport and Vader turned with a shake of his head before heading for the door to the suite. Once this whole Toydarian mess was over with, he wasn't invading another planet - no matter how necessary - until he'd had some uninterrupted time with his wife!


Afternoon

The mess on the bridge didn't take as long as Vader was anticipating and while he couldn't wait to get back to Padmé, he still didn't know what he was going to say to her about that morning. He'd felt her withdrawing from him again, resisting his attempts to get closer, and it was both frustrating and disheartening. Needing some time to organize his thoughts, he collected Artoo and headed for his work shop.

Once there, he removed his glove and, collecting his tools, found the hover board he kept for his use and slid under his fighter.

Artoo toodled a question, coming over with a series of wires in his grasping arm and a holo of the system Vader was examining.

"I'm not avoiding Padmé - thanks." Accepting the wires, Vader connected them to the appropriate joints, knowing Artoo would solder them on later. A hydrospanner was proffered in his peripheral vision and he accepted it, starting to loosen the bolts Artoo's diagram showed had to come off to allow the addition to the system he'd upgraded that still needed work. "I should be there right now, but I don't know what to do Artoo. I let Lieutenant Colonel Adams go home because his wife was having a baby and Padmé... Padmé didn't take it well."

Artoo's question made him laugh, once.

"What do I mean by that? She had a meltdown, Artoo; I've never seen her like that. As if...as if..." he shook his head, unable to articulate what it was exactly. "I left Threepio with her."

"If nothing else, he makes her smile." He smiled faintly at Artoo's blatted comment before it died again and he spoke abruptly. "She had another nightmare last night, one that was bad enough she climbed into bed with me."

The surprised whistle from Artoo made Vader smile briefly as he put the first of the bolts he was removing aside. "If only! But no; not like that. She needed to be held. The closer she gets to me, the more I feel like I'm losing her, Artoo. I don't know what to do."

Another question came from the spunky astromech and Vader exhaled his frustration, spinning the next bolt free. "I've looked. If you were thinking that the holo of the twins being born would hel-"

Artoo cut him off with an indignant blat.

"And just what do you mean by that?" Vader turned his head to the side to examine his friend, his eyes narrowed.

There was a series of whistles in explanation and Vader pulled himself out from under his fighter. Still on the board, he didn't get to his feet.

"Distracted? Of course I was distracted! Didn't you think I would be by the birth of my own children?"

Unexpectedly, Artoo's arc welder jumped to life and an arc of lightning zapped Vader. He cursed, pushing Artoo away. "Dammit, Artoo, that stings!"

The droid scolded him, twisting its dome back and forth as if in distress... or disgust.

Vader, who'd been in the process of shaking his left hand to dissipate the sting of that bolt, stopped and looked up sharply. "Another holo?"

A few more whistles and beeps along with an affirmative noise followed.

"Gee I'm sorry, Artoo," Vader returned caustically as he pushed to his feet, his anger making his movements jerky. "I guess I was a little side tracked by the one where Padmé nearly died. I should have just ignored it."

The droid wailed mournfully, an apology.

"I know, I know." Vader sighed, thrusting his hands into his hair and gripping, hard, before letting them fall to the side. "Just tell me what I'm looking for, buddy. Give me a hint. Something, anything; I'm getting desperate here. She's slipping away, Artoo. I can't lose her again."

This time Artoo's tone was subdued, as if realizing this was one area where Vader couldn't be pushed, and he beeped a series of instructions.

"A holo that's set while Padmé's falling into her coma? I've seen it." There was a raw note in Vader's voice he refused to acknowledge; that sight had affected him far more than he was willing to admit, even to Artoo. "Threepio was there, Artoo; he watched it happen."

The negative note that Atroo sounded was short and clipped.

"No? What do you mean no? I've seen the holo; I've watched it a dozen-" his voice hitched and he covered it with a cough. "There's nothing else there."

Artoo made a noise like a sigh and tried a different tactic.

"Listen?"

An affirmative bleep was his response.

"Listen to what?"

The astromech offered a timestamp and Vader sighed. "Fine. Here," he pulled the data rod, containing the memory recovered and recompiled files from Threepio that he didn't dare leave anywhere but on his person, from a pocket and offered it to Artoo. "Play it for me while I work; maybe I'll think of something."

Artoo made a rude noise but accepted the rod, his inside whirling as Vader settled back to the hover board and slid back under the fighter.

Padmé's voice was the first to greet him, the core of anger and pain in her words very much matching what he'd been exposed to since her arrival and he smiled faintly. She was talking about organizing a raid, something about a power core; her speech was well thought out, but even as she spoke, Vader was working on his ship and analyzing her plan.

He could see a few flaws, areas where a Jedi or Force adept would come in handy, but overall his wife had an excellent attention to detail and she provided everyone with three plans in the event the first or second didn't work. The third plan was more of an escape route than anything else.

Letting her voice wash over him - but not really paying attention to the dialogue - he set back to work on the fighter. He pulled off the last of the bolts before removing the panel they attached. The new upgrade parts had been left nearby and he extended his hand, calling the canisters to him using the Force. He slipped them into the drive stream, hooking them up with expert fingers before adjusting the wires to allow for the power drain they'd inevitably cause.

He was in the process of slipping the last of the wires in place when Padmé's angry tones froze him in place.

"-don't want to hear about it, Threepio," she was snapping. "I've told you already; I don't want to talk about them until they're found!"

Until they're... the twins! He tuned back into the conversation, the holo of the system he was repairing still visible. Artoo wasn't playing the visual component to the sound files at the moment and wouldn't until asked.

Threepio's voice was next, distress clearly audible in his own recording. "I assure you, Mistress Padmé, I would not bring them up if I did not think-"

"That's just it, Threepio, you don't think! You have no idea just how... how hard it is for me. Are you trying to make it worse?"

Vader closed his eyes against the saturated sound of Padmé's voice. She was angry, yes, but more than that, he could recognize the same sense of desolation he felt from her daily. She was fighting emotion, anger and despair, and Threepio's insistence had made it worse.

"Of course not, my lady," the droid assured her, "I have no desire to make this more difficult for you, in fact I believe I have something you may wish to see."

"Unless it's my children in your arms reaching to hug me, there's nothing I want from you, Threepio."

"But I-"

"No buts. Do not ever speak of them again to me until I have them safely back in my arms, is that clear?"

With a wince, Vader heard Threepio give his reluctant compliance. "Pause that file Artoo." The droid toodled his acceptance as Vader finished the connection he was working on and closed the panel, reattaching the bolts. Pushing himself out from under the fighter, he scooped a rag from the floor and rubbed his greasy hands. "Play that bit again - the fight between Threepio and Padmé - but this time show me what images are on file too."

Artoo did as requested and Padmé's angry countenance immediately sprang into his view. The recording was everything he suspected it would be; her expressions exactly the way her voice implied them to be. Except he saw through it now. He saw below the anger to the core of her frustrations and, in doing so, he could read her expressions.

Her stoic facade was similar to the one she'd often worn when forced to watch him go off to war in a crowd, but he could see through that as well. What she wasn't saying came through loud and clear. Threepio having the gall to speak with her about her children hurt; hurt far worse than she'd expected. Probably, he reflected as he watched her order Threepio never to speak of the twins again, because it was so unexpected.

The holo ended with Padmé turning on her heel and storming away. Still, it wasn't her image that held his attention or pricked his curiosity. "What did Threepio mean when he said he had something Padmé might want to see, Artoo?"

It was a simple, thoughtful question that got a reaction he wasn't expecting.

Vader fell away in surprise, catching himself on outstretched hands behind him, as Artoo let out a squeal. His dome rotating as he suddenly fired his boosters and propelled himself several inches into the air with delight. He chittered, coming down to the ground with a thump before letting loose a series of squeals and beeps, turning in a tight circle and then stopping before Vader.

Collecting himself, Vader regarded his friend, his tone dry. "I take it that's what you were trying to get me to see?"

An enthusiastic affirmative beep made Vader smile faintly as he pushed himself to his feet once more. "Mark that for me so I can find it when I get back." Artoo made a sound before spitting out the data rod and Vader bent to collect it, turning it thoughtfully in his hand. "I hope you're right about this, Artoo."

Artoo's confidence was infectious as the droid turned back to the fighter and Vader collected his glove before heading back to the private office connected to his suite. He left the door closed, knowing Padmé would be none the wiser for his presence, and slipped the data rod into the console.

Keying in the access code, he decrypted the data, pulled up Artoo's bookmark and played the file again, this time without audio. It was a short clip but it obviously led into something else; something about the twins. Tapping the keyboard, he started a search for any related data, finding several pathways.

He found a discussion between Padmé and Threepio where she'd ordered him to stop looking after her, telling the droid that the only orders he should be following from then on were hers. He found a couple of other related arguments, carefully sifting through related data until he eliminated the pathways to their completion.

It was nearly dinner time before he discovered something crucial and, when the holo flashed into existence from where it had been buried and merged with another file as fragmented data, he froze.

Staring back at him was a holo portrait of the twins; Luke and Leia, barely hours old, lying together in a bassinette.

The holo shifted to a close up of their faces, revealing the details of their features - which were his and which were Padmé's; who took after which branch of their family trees.

Unlike the holo where Padmé had given birth, this was no wide angle shot, unable to be resolved into closer detail - and he knew; he'd tried.

This was an image, as seen through Threepio's eyes, of his children in their first hours of life; children who had never known their mother or father. Children who clung to one another with their little baby hands, seeming to draw comfort from the contact.

This was what Artoo had been urging him to find.

An image of the twins; an image Padmé could see even if she couldn't hold it. This was something tangible, something she could memorize, look at; see. This was proof; a memory she could build on. Faces she could give the children in her dreams.

His hands trembling, he took a few minutes to collect himself as the impact of what this image meant hit him. Unable to take his eyes off it, he reached into one of the drawers in his desk and pulled out a holo projector and recorder. Hooking it up, he transferred the shifting holo to disc. He made two copies; one for his own records, to go with the discs already hidden high on his shelf in the lounge, and one for his wife.

Taking a moment as he shut down his console, he exhaled and inhaled, the excitement over the find one he felt the need to share immediately. Padmé would be beside herself! Striding back into the suite, he opened his mouth to call her, only to pause when his gaze fell on the napping form in the lounge.

She was sleeping again - and that made him hopeful.

More and more he was finding that she was sleeping, seeming to snatch bits and pieces here and there and, over the last couple of nights when she'd turned to him, slept longer and better than she had in a long time. He'd sensed no nightmares, or rather, nothing as tangible as those that ambushed her when she tried to sleep alone on the sofa.

He sighed, crouching to look at her before glancing at the holodisc and player in his hand.

Did he dare give it to her? Did he dare not? How much worse would it be if she discovered he had it later? Turning the disc over, he noted the dark circles under Padmé's eyes had softened further, but she was still too pale; too thin.

Giving her the disc was a calculated risk.

Not unlike, he reflected darkly, flying that damaged capital star ship into the main droid control ship in that blockade around Ryloth.

As much as he knew the idea would work, and had worked, the backlash was unknown. In that circumstance, he'd been in an escape pod with Artoo before the ship had exploded; here he had no such safety net. Regardless of the risk to himself, though, as in the situation with the Droid blockade of Ryloth, the gains far outweighed the risks.

If Padmé reacted the way he suspected he would, this little gem of a holo would open up lines of communication between them again - and not just for the snappy arguments she seemed to be trying to pick. Snappy arguments that seemed to be a way to remind herself that accepting his embrace wasn't something she should.

The very thought that she might act more like the woman he'd married, the woman he'd loved, cinched it; she needed to see the holo sooner rather than later.

Vader placed the holo recorder on the table for her to find when she woke and turned to hit the 'fresher for a shower and a change of clothes. He'd barely crossed the threshold when his comlink sounded and he quickly slapped one hand over it, glancing back towards Padmé as he hoped it hadn't woken her. Seeing no response from the lounge area, he flicked it on. "Vader."

"My apologies, Lord Vader," the General's tone was harried as Vader dialled down the volume, "I know you asked not to be disturbed, but the representative from the Hutts has made contact. They've requested a holo conference immediately to discuss arrangements for renegotiation of the current treaty to be held tomorrow morning."

Throwing a look over his shoulder, Vader frowned at the sofa where Padmé lay, knowing there was no way out of this; he couldn't pass off this responsibility and would have to deal with it personally. He'd been expecting it; just not today.

It figured

He should have expected something like this after finding that holo. Much as he wanted to, he couldn't stay; as Padmé had pointed out earlier, his Empire needed him. Reluctantly, he headed for the door, leaving his wife on the sofa behind him with one last look.

"I'll be right there, General."


Evening

Padmé woke with a start.

"Oh! I am sorry, Mistress Padmé," Threepio apologized immediately, bending to collect the item he'd knocked off the table; the sound that had woken her. "I was trying not to wake you."

"It's okay, Threepio," she assured him, glancing about the room with a frown, the scent of something delicious making her mouth water and her stomach growl. "Are you cooking again?"

"You missed lunch again, my Lady," he scolded, his tone disapproving. "I had thought to tempt you with one of your favorite dishes for dinner."

"It smells delicious, Threepio and I am hungry."

"You are? Excellent! Would you like me to bring you a plate?"

"That's okay," she assured him, pushing to her feet with a weary motion. She sighed, feeling the weight of her grief pressing down on her once again; a despair that hadn't ebbed or faded despite how much she'd been reluctantly leaning on Anakin. "I'll join you in the kitchen."

"Very well; I will get your supper ready, my Lady."

Padmé rubbed one hand across her eyes, trying to rid herself of the lethargic feeling that always accompanied waking; the need to return to slumber and the dread of sleeping only to wake in a nightmare. Nightmares, she reflected with a heavy heart, that were occurring with more intensity and frequency. Her throat closed and she sank back to the couch, dropping her face into her hands.

She didn't know how much more of this she could stand; how much longer would it take before she entered a catatonic state and didn't come out? How much longer until there was no hope of finding Luke and Leia?

"My Lady?"

"Coming Threepio."

Taking a deep breath, she rubbed her hands over her face, straightened her hair by combing her fingers through it and headed for the kitchenette.

The droid was waiting with a steaming plate of something she couldn't identify, though it smelled familiar. She sniffed and it took her a moment to identify it. "Shaak steaks?"

"A special order," Threepio informed her proudly, slipping a plate onto the table. "Lord Vader has given me leave to order anything I wish for your meals. He is most concerned that you are not eating and has specifically requested I tempt you with every treat and favorite food in my memory banks."

Padmé smiled faintly, her stomach churning. She didn't like the idea of Vader being nice despite the fact she'd finally, reluctantly, given up on trying to cope with her nightmares by herself. Just because she turned to him for comfort, didn't mean she had to like it.

"Is it not to your liking," Threepio queried worriedly, "I seem to recall you-"

"It's fine, Threepio," she couldn't deal with the droid right now. "Go do a charge cycle; I need some time to myself, okay?"

"I am under orders-"

"Mine," she cut in sharply, "should be the only ones that matter; we've been over this, Threepio. Vader is not Anakin no matter how much he looks like him."

"I am only trying to help, Mistress," Threepio informed her stiffly, shuffling away. "Lord Vader is correct; you are under nourished and it has ever been my responsibility to ensure-"

She blocking him out, turning her attention to the steak. With her stomach in knots at the mention of Vader, her confusion and uncertainty as to him and his actions drove away her appetite. With a sigh, she collected the plate and returned to the lounge, frowning as she rounded the end of the sofa and spied the items Threepio had knocked off the coffee table earlier when he'd been trying not to wake her.

Though what he had been trying to do was still a mystery.

Settling the steak on the table, she picked up the disc and player, turning the disc over in her hand as she noted it was unmarked. Frowning, she set the player on the table and slid the disc in before stepping back, wondering why Vader - Anakin? - hadn't just left her a message on a datapad.

The image that sprang to life on the holo screen was totally and completely unexpected; two cherub like faces, small and scrunched in their first hours of life. Staring at the holo, Padmé's eyes widened as she realized she was looking at two infants, twins, lying together in some kind of bassinette.

The pain that gripped her chest was immediate, driving away her ability to breathe and she clutched her chest, a sense of betrayal swelling within her so fiercely she'd have gladly strangled Vader that that moment if he'd been before her. Looking away, she gritted her teeth against the sense of desolation that was never far, the very fabric of her heart feeling as if it were being unraveled thread by thread.

How could he be so cruel? How could he even think I'd want to see someone else's... someone's...

One hand covered her mouth as she fought sudden tears, struggling to hold in a sob. These children were someone else's babies and he'd... he'd sadistically left it here for her to see. Left it for her to find; to remind her of what she'd lost!

She felt the urge to be sick before the rational part of her brain, the part that had been listening and watching to Vader's actions and words over these last weeks when it came to her, her nightmares and the twins. It counselled caution, a second look at the holo before she jumped to conclusions.

Vader wouldn't have been so solicitous and then so cruel after he'd sworn to find them, would he?

As much as Padmé didn't want to look back, she couldn't help herself. Something within her was telling her she needed to and, with tear glazed eyes, she did, watching as the holo shifted, zooming in on the twins, bringing their features into sharp and distinct focus.

And her breath caught in her throat for a completely different reason, her knees wobbling as her legs gave out and she sank to the ground, staring with wide eyes at the holo before her.

The baby had Skywalker eyes; Anakin's eyes.

Luke.

The knowledge hit her with the force of a speeding swoop bike.

She was staring at Luke; her baby, her son!

A half sob caught in her throat, partially a laugh she didn't feel, but the wonder of that moment was too much. Tears streaked her cheeks unbidden and unnoticed as she eased forward, the holo changing back to that of the two infants in the bassinette, holding hands and she laugh-sobbed again, reaching out this time to touch the holo.

It became fuzzy as her hand passed through and this time her sob wasn't accompanied by a laugh.

Her babies; her children. Luke and Leia, together in the image before her, just hours after they'd been pushed from the sanctuary of her body; just hours after she'd slipped into a coma and left them to the mercies of Bail and Mon. Left them to be stolen, unknowingly submitting them to the mercies of people she'd once believed to be trustworthy; lost in the galactic tapestry of life that often seemed boundless.

"I'm sorry," she whispered to their images, more tears sliding down her cheeks, her arms empty and aching as she wished the images were real, wished she'd held them even once but this... this was precious. This was unthinkably kind of the man who'd once been her husband.

A totally un-Vader-like act that had come from nowhere to blindside her.

This was an Anakin gesture; something he would have done to make her feel better, to give her hope. It was totally unexpected from the man he'd become and disarmed her completely. It made her yearn for his company, to have him share this with her. Honestly share it; as parents who missed their children.

Padmé didn't know how long she sat there, her food forgotten and cold, while staring at the holo, tears sliding down her cheeks. She didn't feel the way her legs ached from being in one position for too long, or the way her muscles threatened to cramp. She didn't notice the way her hands were clenched in the carpet fibers to keep from reaching for the holo.

A holo, she'd realized quickly, that went from the dual shot of the twins to a portrait of Luke, back to the dual shot, and then a portrait of Leia. It cycled continuously and she couldn't take her gaze away from it.

It wasn't until she felt a shift in the presence of the room that she became aware of her surroundings; aware of his return. She could feel his gaze even as she became aware of the fact he was slowly advancing towards her.

"I don't remember... I've never seen them before." There was a heavy silence that followed her soft, husky statement, but Padmé didn't notice it, wasn't aware that her words affected him in any way. She was too focused on what she was feeling, what she was seeing and couldn't tear her eyes away. "I never... I never knew just how beautiful they were."

"Are," he told her just as softly, coming to join her. Vader crouched next to her, gently tilting her head so she would look at him, breaking her visual contact with the holo. "They are beautiful; just like their mother. Leia's going to look just like you one day."

She laughed, a sad, watery sound. "Luke's going to look like you," her hand reached up hesitantly to gently touch his cheek, just under his eyes. "He's got your eyes."

"And your lips; the girls won't have a chance." They shared a look and his dropped deliberately to her semi-seated-sprawled position. "That doesn't look very comfortable, Padmé."

She hadn't noticed.

Vader shook his head as he got the gist of her blank stare and slid his arms about her. Shifting her position and settling onto the floor with her, his back to the couch, as he drew her against his chest. Padmé didn't object, going willingly, as she adjusted her position to be sitting sideways across his lap, her head on his shoulder as she turned her gaze back to the holo. Vader's arms remained about her, one loosely about her waist, one hand gently stroking her hair and toying with the ends.

"Better?"

She didn't say anything, didn't mention it or fight it, but her head shifted and her forehead touched the side of his neck; the line of his jaw. "Leia's got my mother's cheekbones."

"And my mother's chin," he agreed softly. "She really will look just like you, you know."

"Not quite." the admission was pained. "But Luke doesn't really take after me at all."

"He has your eyebrows."

"My eyebrows?"

Vader nodded, his cheek rubbing over the top of her head. "They're very good eyebrows."

"Do you think they're blonde, like yours were when you were on Tatooine?"

He squeezed her tightly, letting her know she wasn't alone, and Padmé sank ever deeper into his embrace. This was the man she'd missed; the man without pretence. The man who'd loved and supported her; the man who'd held her when she'd cried, or made time to celebrate when she'd succeeded.

This was her Anakin.

"I don't know. He might take after you and be a brunette. Leia might be blonde."

"Or they might both have black hair," Padmé closed her eyes and his lips touched her skin, reassuring and supportive; empathetic. He was suffering as much as she was, only he hid it better. "I miss them, Ani."

"I do too." He hesitated again. "Did I do the right thing here, Padmé?"

"The holo?"

He nodded, seemingly uncertain.

Her arms slipped around his waist and she squeezed him tightly, her throat closing. "You have no idea what this means to me, Anakin. This... this makes it all real."

"I wasn't sure if you wanted it," he admitted. "Or if it would make things harder for you."

"Never," she denied fiercely.

He drew back so he could look down into her face, his blue eyes stormy and pained. "I've seen what's happening to you, Padmé. I saw how hard their lifeday was and then the incident the other day with the Lieutenant Colonel and the nightmares..." he shook his head, lifting the hand at her waist to cup her cheek. "I couldn't stand seeing you so sad; so hurt. When I found this... I knew you had to have it."

"Thank you, Ani; thank you... so much." Tears slid down her cheeks despite her fervent words. "I just wish... I wish they were here so I could hold them."

Vader pulled her back into his arms, wrapping them both about her as he tucked her head under his chin and gently rocked her, feeling the same. "So do I, my love." Padmé clung to him, burrowing closer, taking heart in his rough admission. "I wish they were here," he continued softly, letting her cry, "so I could see them in your arms."

"If only we knew where they were," she whispered brokenly, her grip on him tightening, never taking her gaze from the holo. "If we knew, I could... we could..."

Vader stilled, rubbing one hand down her back before easing away from her again so their eyes could lock. His were still stormy, intent, and he adjusted his grip on her again, keeping one arm behind her back as he gently brushed the tears from her cheeks with his thumb. "I promise you, Padmé," he swore softly, completely Anakin in those moments to her eyes and ears; an echo of another promise he'd once made her. "I promise I'll find them so we can be a family; so you can hold them and tell them you love them. I promise I'll bring them back to you."

Searching his gaze, she wanted to believe him. Desperately and completely without hesitation - but she knew the odds stacked against them. "Can you?"

"I will do everything in my power to make it happen, my love," he swore, searching her face. His head moved fractionally towards hers and stopped. It was an unconscious echo of their first kiss when he'd been so nervous; as he appeared to be hesitant to her reception of him now. "I will bring Luke and Leia home; I promise."

"Anakin."

He groaned softly at the plea in her voice and this time his head did dip, giving her ample time to escape if she so chose; but Padmé didn't want to escape. She sobbed once, softly, and tilted her head to his as his lips settled over hers as her hand slid from his waist, up his chest and curled around the back of his neck. His kiss was sweet, heartfelt; a promise in its own right and an affirmation of the vow he'd just made.

Closing her eyes, Padmé gave herself up to the kiss, tears and hope mingling as she shifted her grip on him, the hand at the back of his neck sliding up to bury itself in the wealth of his hair.

His fingers stroked her face, cupping it, tracing the contours as he adjusted the pressure of his lips, tilting his head to kiss her properly. His lips moved across hers, undemanding, almost in supplication; a kiss she'd not felt in years. This wasn't the demanding insistence of a man who believed her to be his right - this wasn't Vader kissing her; this was Anakin.

Anakin, who held her; touched her.

Anakin, whose hands were sliding along her waist, under the hem of her shirt, his fingertips dipping into her waistband.

Anakin, whose leather glove was rough, yet soft, against her cheek.

Anakin, whose breath mingled with hers, her name a prayer on his lips.

The sweetness of the kiss didn't last, couldn't, and quickly, ever so quickly, desire stirred between them. His tongue feathered the seam of her lips and she didn't deny him, kissing him back just as deeply, just as passionately. It turned ravenous, but not like before; not like it had been the previous two times since their reunion.

This wasn't just lust; wasn't a reclaiming or a source of anger. It wasn't a need that was being fulfilled simply because Padmé needed the outlet of his touch; needed to forget.

This was more; this was a mutual coming together. A celebration; a meeting of equals on equal footing.

It was like... coming home.

Unconsciously, she pressed into that touch, needing to feel his skin against her own, aching for it, for the affirmation that she wasn't the ghost she saw in the mirror but a living, breathing woman with needs and desires beyond the shadow of what she was becoming. Breaking the kiss, she tilted her forehead to his as she shifted in his lap and made him groan.

"I need you, Anakin," she whispered huskily, tears on her lashes as she pressed her chest against his. "Make love to me."

Again there was a moment's hesitation on his end, his words strained, almost pained. "Are you sure?"

"Remind me what it is to be alive," she told him, brushing her lips across his again. "Remind me what it is to live; make love to me - with me. Remind me..."

Vader surged to his feet, Padmé securely in his grasp, and headed for his bedchamber; a bedchamber that was about to become theirs again. He brushed a soft kiss across her lips as he crossed the threshold, his blue eyes intense as Padmé looked up into them, trying not to read beyond what she needed to see. She needed this; needed him.

"Anakin?"

He said nothing, simply took those last steps to the bed and then laid her down with an achingly tender gesture. Her throat closed as he looked at her for a moment and she stretched her arms out in silent invitation. He groaned softly and followed her down.

...

...

In the aftermath of their lovemaking, Vader held her close with a gentle touch, running his fingers up and down the line of her spine, her tracing gentle circles on his chest. He tilted his head to look at her, still recovering from the most intense, heartfelt bout of loving they'd shared yet, bar none.

Bending forward, he pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead before closing his eyes and tilting his head back with a soft sigh. This was what he'd been missing; this was why he'd searched for her for so long for. She completed him.

Padmé had held nothing back, throwing herself into their lovemaking with an abandon and focus he'd never seen before. There had been no tears, no plea; simply a man and his wife coming together in the truest expression of their inner selves. An expression of their sorrows and shared desolation; comforting one another as only two souls as close as theirs could.

It left him feeling surprisingly uneasy; vulnerable.

Padmé soft words feathering across his chest drew him from his thoughts.

"Where did you find it?"

He didn't even pretend not to follow her thought process, still raw from the experience himself. "Threepio had it in his memory processors." He smiled faintly, his grip tightening on her fractionally. "It was buried pretty deep; Artoo helped me find it."

"Artoo." She curled impossibly closer, tightening her grip on him. "Thank you, Ani," she whispered even as he felt a warm moisture tickle his chest; her tears dripping to anoint his skin. "Thank you..."

He bent his head to kiss her crown as she drifted off, still in his arms. Turning, he stretched out one hand and called the covers to him, pulling them up as she shivered and sighed softly. Vader adjusted their positions for something more comfortable and conductive to sleeping only to find sleep elusive. His hand continued to stroke her back soothingly, absently, his gaze on her face, his mind on the events that had brought them to this moment.

Bending close, he brushed his lips over hers in the barest whisper of a kiss. "Sleep, my love," he told her softly. "No nightmares will find you in my arms."

As if in response, she nuzzled him - and Vader smiled.