Chapter 78


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


Morning

Vader woke to find his arms, and his bed, empty. Blinking, he yawned and stretched, scratching his head as he looked around perplexed, a nagging ache in his gut telling him he'd not eaten in some time. Still, the ache in his gut had nothing to do with the confusion that had struck him. Hadn't Padmé been in bed with him?

"Padmé?"

She didn't answer and he was reminded of the previous night. Not of coming in to find her in the throes of a nightmare, but of arriving back in the suite after interrogating the Hutt.

"Padmé?" he raised his voice.

"Here." Her faint reply reached him and Vader threw back the covers.

"Where are you?" he didn't wait for a reply as he stepped naked into the doorway, frowning. He found her turning to face him, her eyes widening and then a smile curving her lips. "There you are."

"Where else would I be, Anakin?" Her gaze dropped and then quickly shifted back to his face. "It's not like I'm free to leave."

"You're not a prisoner here, Padmé," without looking, he stretched out his hand and called his robe to him. Shrugging into it, he belted it loosely before approaching her. "I wish you wouldn't think of yourself as one."

"It's hard not to with the guards at the door." She sighed as he neared where she was standing at the viewport, turning back to the view.

Unable to resist, he slid his hand along the base of her spine as he drew near, drawing her close against his side as he did so. "If I knew you were completely safe without them, I'd dismiss them in a heartbeat." She was silent and Vader frowned, looking down at her. "You didn't think they were there to keep you in, did you?"

"A month ago they were."

"A month ago you kept trying to leave," he countered, brushing his lips against her temple. "A month ago you weren't willing to let me help you."

"A month ago I didn't want your help," she agreed softly, almost sadly. "What happened to us, Anakin? How did we ever get from where we started to now?"

He didn't have an answer for her and rewrapped his arms around her back. Holding her, he tucked her head under his chin and stared sightlessly at the viewport. Vader had some ideas as to what had happened to her, but she knew very well what had happened to him even if she wouldn't acknowledge it. Bringing it up wouldn't help him, though, so he held his peace. Padmé wanted to spend her time with Anakin so Anakin he'd be. To a degree. If it kept her in his arms and sharing his bed, he had no intention of breaking the status quo.

"You're up early." He murmured the observation, ducking his head to brush his lips against her temple. "Trouble sleeping again?"

"Some," she conceded before lifting her chin and looking at him. "Not as much as before, though."

"Sleeping with me is helping then, is it?" Vader couldn't resist the tease, a smirk crossing his lips, meaning it in every connotation that it could be taken in.

Padmé, his brilliant wife, had no trouble following his line of thought and, where she might once have blushed, this time she answered him with a grin of her own, a sparkle in her eyes he'd not seen in some time. "Hmm, possibly. Everything's a bit of a blur. Exhaustion will do that to me."

"I, milady, will take that," he ducked his head to kiss her gently, speaking against her lips "as a compliment."

Her grip on him tightened as she returned his kiss, pressing herself against him, only to pull back after several moments. When their lips broke, her expression was again solemn, almost sad.

"What is it?"

"Are you negotiating again today, Anakin?"

"I have to finalize the deal that was proposed, why?"

"Can I come with you today?"

"I can't chance it, Padmé. We went over this yesterday - it's too dangerous."

"You'd be with me, I couldn't be safer."

"I can't take that risk. The entirety of the Galactic population believes you're dead, save for a select few. I'd like to keep it that way."

"Anakin..." she sounded exasperated. "You can't hide me away forever."

"Watch me." He bent to hold her again and found her resisting and rigid in his arms. "What?"

"You don't mean that, do you?"

Realizing his error, he flashed her a half smile. "It was a joke, Padmé. I was teasing you." She didn't look convinced and he ran his fingers gently through her hair. "A time will come, my love, where you will need to be acknowledged officially as my wife again. When that day comes, I want your survival to be a surprise."

"Why?"

"Call me selfish," he tilted his forehead to hers, "but I'd like to keep you to myself for a while. The fewer people who know your alive, the fewer the demands on your time will be. Not only that, it also gives us time to find Luke and Leia without interference. The moment the galaxy knows you're alive is when the bounty hunters will begin looking." Vader shook his head. "I can't, I won't, subject them to that."

"Neither would I." she conceded the point softly and then changed the subject. "Will you be long with the Hutt?"

"Are you bored without me to distract you?" his tone was soft and teasing but there was no mistaking the flash in her eyes - the pained reflection of a woman who had no distractions and worries aplenty. "It shouldn't take as long today. I know there's not much to keep you occupied in here-"

"I'll be fine, Ani."

"Are you-" his stomach chose that moment to make its displeasure at missing dinner the night before known, "-sure?" Her lips twisted as he watched and Vader sighed. "Breakfast first. I don't have to leave just yet."

The relief in her eyes nearly smote him but he buried it deep and instead turned her towards the kitchenette where Threepio could be heard messing around with the dishes. "I don't know what you did to him, but Threepio's become quite the accomplished chef."

"He seems to think it's his job to take care of me."

"Seems?" Vader chuckled. "It is - when I'm not here to do it, that is."

"Then you shouldn't criticize him. Threepio knows everything he does about cooking because of everything he's tried to entice me to eat."

Vader frowned, not liking the reminder and liking even less the way it wiped the faint smile from her lips and returned the haunted look to her eyes. He tucked her fractionally closer to his side. "No more trying," he scolded, forcing himself to smile and drawing a questioning look. "I'll feed you myself if I have to."

"I'm not a child."

"And I would never," deliberately, his smile became an appreciative leer, "think of you as one."

"I'd be worried if you did!"

His smile turned suddenly genuine at the indignation in her tone and interjected a teasing note into his voice to hide the very real concern that she'd fall into old habits if he didn't do something to change them. "I've got this thing for older women," he teased her, bending his head to brush his lips against her ear. "One former Senator of Naboo in particular."

"Anyone I know?"

The hitch in her words was gratifying. "Someone..." Vader teased only to lift his head reluctantly as they reached the kitchenette and Threepio came into view and began to speak.

"Oh, Mistress Padmé! And the Master! It is so good to see the two of you like this once again!"

"Good morning, Threepio," Padmé's greeting was accompanied by a rare, small smile and Vader held his peace as she observed the counters with a shake of her head. "You've been busy."

"Not at all," the droid denied cheerfully. "I simply put together several of your favorite morning meals in the hope that you would find one of them satisfactory." If he'd needed to breathe, Vader was certain Threepio would have paused right there, but he just continued, string after string of words. "It is most gratifying to know that you are once again eating. It would be remiss of me to offer something that would change that."

Vader leaned down as they stepped to the table and she sat, putting his lips to her ear and tuning out the droid. "He has an off switch for a reason, you know."

The look she sent him made him grin as he settled across from her. Threepio quickly brought their meals to the table, chattering all the while about good fortune and continued health. Vader ignored the chatter, as he had almost from the moment he'd switched the droid on, but Padmé seemed to be honestly paying his prattle real attention and Vader observed, amused, as she complimented and commented where appropriate, in between bites of her meal.

She'd taken only a half dozen forkfuls before putting it down to answer one of Threepio's questions, when Vader finally had enough.

"Threepio."

"Sir?"

"That's enough. Let us eat in peace."

"Oh!" he sounded mortified. "How rude of me! My humblest apologies, Master, I had no intention of-"

"Threepio."

The droid scuttled from the room immediately, leaving he and Padmé in pace. He turned his gaze back to his wife to find her watching him, her expression serious.

"What?"

"You didn't have to send him away."

"He's preventing you from eating," he pointed to her half eaten meal with his fork. "You're still too thin, Padmé. I won't take any risks with your health."

"Talking to Threepio is hardly-"

"He's preventing you from eating," Vader frowned before spearing another bite off his plate, interrupting her again. "And now so am I. Eat." He made to bring his fork towards her, "or I'll feed you myself."

Padmé lifted her own fork and took another bite even as he ate the one on his own. Their meal passed in relative silence and peace with Threepio gone, but Vader could see he was losing her. The sadness that had been ever present since her arrival was already creeping its way back in. He needed to find the twins for her. Soon. If progress wasn't made quickly, heads would roll and necks would break to ensure he could find someone who would.

Polishing off his food, Vader set his fork aside and took a sip of his drink while observing her. Padmé was chewing slowly, more slowly than before, and he wondered if she was full, his gaze dropping to the barely half cleared plate in front of her. "Not hungry?"

"Full," she countered, after taking a sip of her own drink.

"You should finish what's on your plate."

"I'm full, Anakin."

"I don't-"

"You know I'll make myself sick," she cut him off this time, "if I eat too much so soon after not eating very much for so long. If I'm hungry later, I'll have some more, okay?"

He didn't like it, but could see the logic within her statement. As a kid, he'd gorged himself at almost every meal upon being granted his freedom and spent days regretting it until Qui-Gon and Padmé, ironically, had urged him to eat smaller meals throughout the day. It had taken the promise that there would be food later, and it wouldn't be taken away, to get him to agree to it, but eventually he'd stopped being sick and been able to meal normal sized meals. It had just taken time. "Fine," he agreed reluctantly. "As long as you'll eat later."

"I will."

"Promise?" he pressured her for it, knowing he probably shouldn't, but the memory of her passing out wasn't something he wanted a repeat of.

"I promise, Anakin," her lips twitched. "You're worse than Threepio."

"I have a vested interest in your continued, and improved, good health than Threepio." His counter was soft. "Not just for my sake or yours, but for Luke and Leia - whenever we find them."


It was almost like getting slapped in the face with reality.

Padmé's temper spiked at his words as she pushed back from the table, her hands on the top, her seat crashing to the floor behind her. "You think I don't know that?" the words escaped before she could check them. "You think I need the reminder that they're out there somewhere? That they're beyond my reach? Every day, every minute, I live with that reality. I have to accept-"

He made to stand, his expression concerned. "Padmé-"

"Don't!" She put her hands out, fending him off when he would have come closer. "I don't want your apologies, or your platitudes! I've been searching for them for two years, Anakin! Two years!" She practically screamed the accusation at him, unaccountably hurt by the idea that he felt she needed reminding. "I don't need to be reminded by their absentee father, who abandoned us for power, that I have a reason, or a need, to take care of myself!"

Spinning on her heel, she stormed from the room, narrowly avoiding Threepio who was coming to investigate the ruckus. She didn't hear what explanation Anakin gave the droid, the unfairness of the whole situation weighing her down. She was shaking. Her stomach clenched, threatening to rebel and expel the food she'd just eaten, and Padmé forced herself to take a deep breath as she stepped up to the viewport and placed both hands on the sill.

The nerve of him! How dare he presume to think to tell her she needed to keep her strength up to find their children?

Her fingers flexed on the sill as Toydaria turned slowly below the viewport, the star at the center of the system lost somewhere behind its mass. Just like Luke and Leia, it was beyond her reach, beyond her view; did he really think she needed to be reminded of that? Their absence was like a dull blade to her chest; a seeping, septic wound that was slowly killing her.

Anger seemed to be the only refuge she'd found. Anger at him - for failing her, them, when they'd needed him most. Anger at Mon and Bail for taking her children and hiding them, keeping their location from her even now. Anger at the galaxy for not having given up their location yet; she'd searched so much of it, and yet it was only a fraction of the places they could be hiding.

The task before her could take the remainder of her life, years that could slip by with her children never knowing their real parents. Years of worry that would kill her, millisecond by millisecond, day by day, until this shell she'd become was nothing more than a whisper of a ghost.

What if we never find them?

The question rose unbidden in her mind, the terror of it barely having the chance to sink its claws into her heart before strong, supportive arms slid around her waist, Anakin's breath whispering across her cheek. "We'll find them, Padmé. I promise you."

His low vow sent her spinning in his arms, her hands pressing against his chest to break his hold. "Stay out of my mind!"

"I wasn't reading your mind," he frowned, releasing her a little but not completely, his hands grasping her hips and leaving very little space between them. "I felt it."

"You felt what, Anakin?"

"Your despair."

One hand lifted to her face and though she stiffened, Padmé allowed him to touch her, needing the reassurance as much as she needed the proof that he was there. That she wasn't imagining the soft smile before her eyes, or the strength in the hands holding her. Until her capture, there had been many a night she'd woken reaching for him with such certainty, only to find her dreams were nothing more than fantasy and her reality the nightmare she feared most. "You shouldn't."

"Shouldn't what?"

"Feel what I'm feeling."

"You broadcast it, Padmé," his thumb caressed the curve of her face. "Not intentionally, I'm sure, but your feelings on Luke and Leia are unmistakable. I want to help you." He paused and smiled faintly. "If you'll let me."

"I don't want your help." Even as the words left her lips, Padmé knew there was no fire behind them. For all a small, nagging voice in the back of her mind was telling her not to trust him, to not let him hurt her again, she wanted to. She couldn't. Not completely and not fully just yet, but she could accept his offer of help, couldn't she? Anakin had resources at his finger tips that she could only dream of. If she could just access the galactic database, even for a few minutes, it was possible she might be able to find something her previous attempts had missed.

"You want something of me."

Hesitating for just a moment, she decided it was worth asking for. Even if he said no, at least she knew where she stood. "Access to your galactic database." Anakin's expression darkened for a fraction of a second and Padmé, in her current frame of mind, took it as an instant rejection. She pushed at him, stepping out of his reach and moving back towards the couch. "But you'll never give it to me, will you? You have to be the hero even now, when just letting me look at it could-"

"I didn't say no, Padmé."

"But you didn't say yes, either," frustrated, she turned on him. He hadn't, surprisingly, followed her. "I know where I've already looked, Anakin, if you'd just let me search for ten minutes-"

"It's too dangerous."

"Five minutes," she pleaded. "Just give me five minutes, Anakin, and I could-"

"No."

"No?" It was as if he'd doused her in ice water. "Just 'No' - you said you want to help me!"

"I do."

"I told you how and you won't even consider it?"

"Not yet."

"Why not?"

"It's too dangerous. For you. For them." He stepped towards her but didn't reach for her. "The Emperor doesn't know you survived, Padmé. I can't let him know. If he knew, he'd do everything he could to take you from me."

"It's worth the risk if it means finding Luke and Leia!"

"No it's not!" he practically snapped, his eyes flashing dangerously. "I didn't spend the better part of the last year trying to get you back just to have you taken away from me again!" This time he did touch her, his hands settling on her shoulders. "Losing you once practically killed me, Padmé. Losing you again..." Anakin pulled her close and she went willingly, feeling the sting of tears behind her eyes as his voice trembled, his lips against her temple as he embraced her fiercely. "I'd never survive it."

The rawness of the statement hit close to home and echoed her own desolation at his abandonment of her and their dreams. Of her own trials when she'd woken to find her world had changed; that her twins had been taken and her husband was gone, overrun and willingly consumed by the monster of Vader. Or so she'd believed. The man holding her wasn't the monster she'd seen on the holos or read about on the holonet. The man who held her was the man she'd spent many long nights yearning for. Her voice was barely choked, audible whisper. "Anakin-"

"I have people looking for the twins," he told her gruffly. "People I can trust. They just need a little time."

"The more time they're away from us-"

"I know. I know." he pulled back a little.

Padmé looked up into his face, reminded of a time when she'd been carrying the twins and he'd said a much similar response. Just over two years had passed since that conversation, and yet, she could see echoes of the person he'd been then in him now. Had it really been that long? Had they really changed so much?

"Let me do this my way - for now - okay?" He cracked a half smile. "I want this to end with us as a family, not with gaining Luke and Leia only to lose you. If the price is a few of months of time in exchange for a lifetime together, I'm more than willing to pay it."

"A few months." She could feel her heart sinking to her toes, her expression falling. "That's at least another ninety days, Anakin!"

"Ninety days in exchange for ninety years," his fingers brushed her hair back from her face. "If I don't see any progress from my people by then, I'll let you have access to the database."

"Thirty days."

This isn't a negotiation, Padmé. These things take time."

"Thirty days, Anakin. If we don't see results by then, I want to continue my own search."

"Eighty days."

"Fifty five," she shook her head. "I'm not waiting three months for some strangers who're motivated by credits to try and find our children!"

"Seventy." He seemed to realize she was serious. "And I'll help you."

"Sixty."

"Seventy, Padmé. This is a delicate operation if we want to find them properly."

Searching his expression, Padmé reluctantly nodded, seeing she'd get nothing more from him. Seventy days. Ten more weeks of wondering and waiting for a sign that her babies had been found. Ten more weeks for them to grow and forget, if they had any memories of her at all. Ten more weeks of them wondering why their parents, why their mother hadn't wanted them - which couldn't have been further from the truth. "Seventy days."


Vader left his suite not long after the discussion with Padmé, called away by Asajj. He entered the training salle with sweeping steps, his expression dark. "This had best be important, Ventress."

"Master," she practically purred the term, her smile malicious. "I'm so sorry, did I pull you away from your plaything."

A curl of his fingers and twist of his wrist and she was hanging in the air, gasping for breath as she clutched at her throat. "Your desire for death appears to have been enhanced since our last discussion."

"I… meant no-" she gasped, choking and Vader eased his hold just enough that she could get the minimal air required without passing out, but still be in extreme pain, "-disrespect!"

Vader curled his fingers and then released them, flexing the invisible hand around her throat without letting it go entirely. "The only thing keeping you alive, my apprentice, is the fact a Jedi has no dispatched you yet."

"You-" -gasp- "-need me!"

His laughter was low and dark as he drew her forward with a motion of his hand. "The only thing I need you for," she continued to thrash and kick, struggling against the hold there was no way for her to break, "is your head - as a gift to the Emperor!"

"I have the lightsabers!" The words rasped from her lips, halting his hand.

Vader eased his grip. He'd have liked nothing better than to continue squeezing the life from her, as he almost had before - this time for good - but her words gave him pause. She'd accomplished her task. Failures, his own Master had readily taught him, were to be punished and successes rewarded. "Show me."

Asajj stretched one hand behind her towards a bundle on the mat of the training salle. "There."

Keeping her elevated, his grip on her throat now enough to just be uncomfortable, but not crippling, Vader stretched out his other hand and called the bundle to him. Using the Force, he unwrapped it to find three lightsaber hilts instead of the two he was expecting. "A bonus?"

"A padawan."

Asajj's feet hit the mat with a muffled thump as he released her from the Force grip, keeping one eye on her as she rubbed her throat, the other on the weapons. "A padawan. Advanced enough for their own lightsaber."

"But not for combat," she practically spat the words. "Once the Master was gone, the little one was of no consequence."

"Did you kill it?" Vader lifted both eyes back to the adept. "Or simply steal its weapon?"

"The only good Jedi is a dead Jedi," she snapped back, visibly trembling as she refrained from going for her weapons. Vader mentally urged her to give into that desire; he could have used a good work out. He was disappointed when she didn't. "I'd no sooner leave behind a Jedi brat than you would!"

Looking at her and knowing her history, Vader had no reason to doubt her. "As expected." He flipped the bundle closed. "It's rumored that Jedi Master Fisto was seen on Belkadan and two more Jedi sightings of a human on Eriadu and a Bimm Jedi on Balmorra."

"Master Fisto."

"A rumor only," Vader cautioned her. "Balmorra is closest, I recommend you begin there. The sighting is solid and there is an informant on the ground in the area of the Jedi."

"This will take some time, Master; the planets are scattered across the galaxy."

"All the more reason," turning to go, he opened the door, "for you to leave immediately."

"Trying to keep me away from your precious Padmé, Skywalker?"

"If you wish to keep your tongue," Vader didn't even turn as he picked her up in a force grip and slammed her into the wall hard enough for the audible crack of bone, "keep it in your head. Disappear, Ventress, and do not return for some time - unless you wish to leave in pieces."


Author's Note: My apologies for waiting until the end of the month, it's been a rather difficult one that has left me no time for me and several parts of this chapter needed heavy editing off the first draft. I'll see everyone in the spring/summer - stay safe everyone!