So, he had come back.
She'd always said he would, even if she'd secretly never expected it to come true. It had, though. It had. At least that was what her son claimed.
The aging woman curled deeper into the passenger's seat.
Yet she was not sure if she wanted to see him now or ever again. What good would a meeting accomplish besides reopening and festering old wounds? And what if he betrayed her again?
It would kill her.
"Second thoughts?" a quiet voice asked.
"No." Her reply was forceful and quick. Maybe too quick. Brushing a few flying wisps of hair from her eyes, Padm? inclined her head and studied the young man to her side. If he had noticed the hasty speed of her response, his face gave no sign of it. Then again, Jedi could be deceptive....
"You don't have to do this," he continued, his gaze fixed on the vast sea of desert as he piloted the speeder. "I never wanted to pressure you into it. I... think he'd understand." He took his eyes off the landscape to look at Padm?. "You want to turn back?"
Biting her lip and then closing her eyes, Padm? reflected on the question. Yes, she wanted to go back. She wanted desperately to go back to those safe days when the past had been buried deep, when her old life could not follow or haunt her. But was it worth admitting? Turning away now would send the message that she was afraid. And she could not admit to being afraid. Not now.
Not to him.
Her eyelids opened. "No," she repeated, evenly meeting her son's concerned gaze. She thought her voice sounded more certain this time.
Luke looked away and nodded.
For several minutes, they traveled without speaking, and Padm? took the opportunity to silently absorb her surroundings: the fiery, first sun descending toward the horizon, the desolate, parched earth begging for rain, but receiving no mercy. It was uncanny how similar this night was to the first she had spent on the planet, over thirty standard years ago. Her life seemed to have come full circle. Apparently, Tatooine would not only be a place of beginning, but also one of closure and reconciliation.
Or so she hoped.
It was strange how life could take twists and turns. Padm? had remained in hiding for two decades while doing the little she could for relief organizations. She hadn't joined the Alliance or lived close to her children out of fear that her involvement would draw Vader's unwanted attention. Too many precautions had been taken to hide the past well.
When the Rebellion triumphed at Endor, however, a desire had stirred in her, a hope that maybe she could recover a little of what was lost. Her children. She had contacted the two rebel heroes, Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker, and offered to provide a DNA sample to confirm her relation. But when they'd arrived at her home on Acta three weeks later, she saw from their eyes that through the Force they already knew the truth.
Padm? had known they would want explanations, and she'd expected hard questions: What had Vader been like before the turn? How was it possible for her to have loved such a corrupt figure? Leia hadn't asked anything, however, only stared at her with wide eyes-two brooding orbs that mirrored Padm?'s own. And Luke's questions were short, uncomplicated...
"Would you be willing to see him again? To talk things over?"
The speeder wove through the desert valley. The mountainous region grew larger, and soon, Padm? could make out a white shape at the foot of the region. It looked like a building. Their destination.
Luke began slowing the speeder, and several meters from the building, they came to a stop in the air. They hovered in the vehicle for a breathless moment, then the ship settled to the ground. Dust rose, forming a small cloud around the speeder, giving the evening a dreamlike quality. Luke opened his door and stepped out. As the door clicked shut, the dust, reflecting light from the setting suns, settled in a haze of rose and orange on the speeder, on its seats, on Padm?'s clothing. Mesmerized, she watched the particles float, twist, twirl.
Padm? blinked and changed her focus to Luke. He was studying her intently, his head tilted to the side and brow furrowed. Gods, did he look like...
"With what?" she asked, trying to tear her thoughts from her former husband.
Luke nodded toward the speeder. "The door."
Padm? looked down to her side. The door was still closed, and her hand was grasping the handle with an electric intensity. The knuckles shone bone white. Her hand felt frozen. She did not know if she had strength to twist the handle.
"That's okay. I think I've got it," she answered, trying to make her tone sound lighthearted. With surprising determination, Padm? unlatched the door, stepped onto the sand, and moved to stand by Luke, who was sitting on the hood of the speeder. She leaned against the bumper and swallowed hard.
"So this is it?" She gestured toward the building.
It was a modest dwelling, constructed from the type of native, off-white clay of which most homes on Tatooine were built. Anakin had explained years ago that the material was good for keeping the buildings cool under the blistering suns and insulated during the chilly desert nights.
But these walls were soiled. Some of the rock was crumbling. If Obi-Wan had lived here, as Luke had claimed, then the place must be decades old. Or maybe Tusken Raiders had plundered it after he'd left, if there were any alive after Anakin had...
No, she would not dwell on that dark memory. Not now.
"Yeah," Luke said and nudged a rock with a booted foot. Clearing his throat, he looked up. "But he knows we're here... so..."
"So I shouldn't stall," Padm? finished bluntly.
He blushed. "I..."
"I'm sorry." Her voice immediately became apologetic. "I shouldn't have said that. It's just..." Padm? trailed off, wondering how to express her turmoil of emotions. She looked hard at the building before them and then finished flatly, "This isn't going to be easy." It was not an adequate explanation, but it was the best she could give.
"I know," he said quietly. "I know."
"I should go." Padm? turned toward her son. Luke did not meet her gaze. He was staring off at an indistinct point with a faraway look in his azure eyes. Just as she was about to ask him if he was all right, he blinked, and the look was gone.
"Come out when you're ready. I'll be staying here in front." He paused before adding, "Out of earshot, though." She nodded. He'd proposed to remain with her for emotional support and possible protection, but she had quickly turned down the offer. Anakin would never harm her. That could not have changed.
Luke patted her on the shoulder and tried to move away, but Padm? pulled him into a hug.
"Thank you." Her words were barely above a whisper.
"Don't hesitate to get me if you need me. Okay, Mother?"
Mother. A smile lighted her face.
"I'll be all right."
Luke broke the hug, and after meeting her eyes for a brief moment, squeezed her arm and turned away. A little distance from the speeder, he sat down on the earth and crossed his legs so that he was sitting in what looked like a Jedi meditation pose. Padm? remained standing by the vehicle for a few moments longer, then forced herself to begin approaching the building.
In the evening sky, Tatooine I and II burned like rubies cast into a fire. Red light seeped from the heavens and bled into the earth, tinting the rocks and sands and Obi-Wan's home with a pink hue. The sunset's rosy color reflecting off the dwelling's walls reminded Padm? of a particular pink shimmersilk scarf she had played with as a child. She'd loved to dance around the house with the cloth, telling her mother and sister that a white wedding dress would not do for her fateful day. Her dress would be the color of millaflowers, the color of love. In the rush after the Battle of Geonosis, however, her childhood wish went unfulfilled. Anakin had insisted on a quick marriage, and so Padm?'s mother's dress had been used for the ceremony that was to mark the beginning of lifelong happiness....
Padm? briefly closed her eyes. When she reopened them and looked again at the building's rosy reflection, she could not help but think that pink was also close to red.
The color of blood and pain.
She continued weaving around the rocks and then stopped in front of the home's entranceway. It had no door or form of covering to keep out the chilly winds of the desert night. She wondered how the house stayed warm. In the middle of the night the temperature could drop to... She drew her robes closer. Was there really a need to keep warm? Could he feel? Or was he merely a machine - cold, calculating, and unfeeling?
Padm? did not know and was unsure if she wanted the answers. Claiming that the old Anakin Skywalker was back from the dead, Luke had tried to persuade her to be more understanding. He'd encouraged her to let go of the past, to forgive.
Forgive? Forgive the crimes he had committed across the galaxy? Padm? dug her nails into her palms. Forgiving meant forcing herself to...care. But she did not want to care anymore, because caring caused pain.
And, gods, was she sick of pain.
In fact, not only was Padm? tired of hurting, she was afraid of it. During the years following Anakin's fall, she had grown increasingly withdrawn. Old friendships had withered. New ones were never encouraged. Two hopeful suitors even proposed, but she had declined both offers. One heartbreak was enough.
Padm? bit her lip. Stalling was no longer an option. He could probably sense her presence.
Drawing a deep breath, she took a few steps past the threshold, and once in the main room, looked around. Dust covered the floors, and a few pieces of what looked like medical equipment lay on a table. A single wooden chair sat a little ways from the table's side. Besides these pieces, no other furniture or objects filled the space. The barren room somehow gave the building a sense of sadness, if a house's atmosphere could be labeled with a human emotion.
With small, slow steps she crossed the room and took the corridor to her right. There were no windows. The light was dim, so she let her hands glide along the rough walls, navigating her, guiding her. The hallway reminded Padm? of one of the corridors in her home on Naboo that she had feared crossing at night as a child. Both were dark, charged with tension.
Her right hand brushed a smooth surface. Wood. A door. She knocked twice, but heard no answer. Hesitantly, she pushed the door open and walked into the room. There was a sinister hissing. Her head snapped toward the sound.
Padm? drew a quick breath. She had seen the holos, but viewing in person the flickering lights of his breastplate and the towering height of his black form was another experience altogether.
Suddenly, the breaths of his respirator grew more pronounced. Each inhalation and exhalation sounded like the throbbing of a drum. The beats filled the room, making the atmosphere more oppressive.
Padm? opened her mouth to say something, but found herself powerless to break the silence. The words she had planned died at her lips, whether from fear, or pain, or anger, or surprise - or a combination of them all - she could not tell. Then again, it was not her burden to speak. He had brought them to this point. He had dug the gaping chasm that gulfed between them, and it was not her duty to begin to bridge it, if it even could be bridged.
Yet maybe it was his plan to speak first, for almost immediately a flat, cold, harsh voice spoke.
And at the sound of the voice, a whirlwind of emotions hit the life-hardened woman, causing her chest to throb with deep pain, a sensation she never wanted to feel again. The mechanical tone seemed to convey the essence of all she feared, of everything she'd been running from for the last twenty years. Memories flashed before her mind's eye. Time seemed to swirl. And suddenly, Padm? was drowning in her realization of all that was lost and all that could have been....
"Why?" she whispered.
How long had it been? Twenty years? Twenty-five? He could not remember. It felt as if he'd spent the last two decades in a tomb, locked and sealed off from the galaxy. He had lost track of the years in the darkness of his cage. At one time he would have been ashamed for forgetting. Now it just filled him with a sense of emptiness. He had tried too hard to push her memory away and succeeded better than he'd ever imagined. Palpatine was probably laughing in his grave.
Anakin wondered what Padm? would think of him now. Would she consider him a monstrosity? Almost definitely. Evil? Undoubtedly. In fact, Anakin agreed with those assessments of himself. He could not understand how Luke tolerated him. If he were the boy, he would have killed Vader...Anakin...long ago. (Even now, months after the Battle of Endor, it was difficult remembering his old name.) But then, Luke was a better man than Anakin was or would ever be. He did not know where his son got his aggravating, endless wisdom. Certainly not from the Skywalker side.
Anakin reached out with the Force. Only a few kilometers away now. Soon, he would see her again. Soon.
Yet was that really what he wanted?
He could not be certain. When Luke first told him that Padm? was still alive, Anakin had been stunned into silence. His shock was then replaced by a feeling of betrayal, which was replaced by more familiar emotions...pain and, yes, hate. Some demons were better left buried. Some wounds were better left untouched. Luke shouldn't have brought the news. After finding his voice, Anakin's first impulse was to strike out at his son. He'd even raised a hand to lash out, but before he could land a blow, Luke had Force pushed him to the wall and pressed a lightsaber's hilt against his throat. Anakin had not even seen him move. The boy was good.
Or maybe he, Anakin, was just getting old.
His son had later apologized, claiming that his self-defense reflexes sometimes got the better of him. Anakin wished the boy had not said anything. Luke was always apologizing for things that were not his fault, for things he still did not understand. His son was still in many ways na?ve and innocent.
Luke seemed to have gained acceptance of his father by separating him into two identities: Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader. But to Anakin the line separating the personas blurred. It was difficult for him to discern where Anakin Skywalker ended and Darth Vader began. And that fact terrified him. He knew that as long as he lived, the man with the heart of a machine would live, too, and Anakin feared what Vader could still do. He was willing to die if it meant that Vader would remain dead as well. Neither of their deaths would be a great loss, and truth be told, there was no purpose to Anakin's life any longer. Except the boy. Luke was the only person who gave him a reason to keep fighting.
But even so, Anakin sometimes wished he had died alongside Palpatine. It was the least he deserved for his crimes. What he truly deserved was to suffer...immensely. He was suffering now. Not enough, though. Never enough. After slaying Palpatine with his lightsaber when their plans to convert Luke had failed early during the Battle of Endor, the enormity of his crimes had dawned on him. The nightmares started soon after. Nightmares of countless specters, mouths hanging open in silent screams and eyes widening in mute torment more terrible than the pain of a thousand dying krayt dragons. Once, Luke had given him a sedative to help him fall into a deep sleep, where the nightmares could not follow. But follow they did, and that night he could not wake from them.
Anakin did not take the sedative again.
So with only his son and the ghouls from his nightmares for company, he'd agreed to Luke's plan to hide as he helped his son reestablish the Jedi Order and bide his time until justice or death finished him. Yet Luke should have known better than to bring him back to Tatooine. He should have known that he would want nothing to do with this cursed hiding place, Obi-Wan's old hovel. Here, Anakin could no more ignore reminders of his old master than he could ignore the feelings generated by the knowledge that Padm? still existed.
And there were times, brief, transient moments, when he forgot his past and expected Mother to come walking across the dunes after a day's labor. Those times were the worst, for soon he'd remember the cruel twist of fate, and the darkness would begin to fill him again. Thank the Gods, fewer of those moments occurred now.
Anakin paced the room, from the window to the opposite corner back to the window, and then stopped. Suddenly, from the silent communications between his billions of midi-chlorians and cells, he knew they had arrived. Luke's presence shone like a beacon of light - his son had indeed been aptly named. And under the boy's brilliant aura he could detect another presence...her presence. It drifted through the Force like the caressing waves of a running brook, leaving him awed and...
Dismayed. Her aura had shades of darkness, of ice that he did not remember. He must have done that to her. He had created that darkness.
Anakin moved deeper into the shadows. What would he tell her? There was no clear place to begin, and even if he tried to start somewhere, there was too much to say. In fact, many of his actions had no explanation.
He could call this off now. It was not too late. But as he thought that, he knew he could not bring himself to do it. Anakin had an overwhelming desire to see her again, even if it was the last time he would be able to do so. Especially if it would be the last time. A selfish desire, perhaps, but one he could not ignore.
He sensed Padm?'s slow approach to the building and wondered if he should go to the entrance to greet her. Then he thought better of it. A cruel, mechanical husband welcoming his long lost wife home. A ridiculous image. Comical even.
And there was also the issue that he felt too afraid to make the first contact.
So for a few minutes that seemed to blend into eternity, he waited in the darkness. Alone. Anxious. Afraid. A shuffle from the hallway disturbed the quiet. Two knocks. The door creaked open, and Anakin retreated, his throat feeling dry and parched.
A figure with elegant posture and flowing robes stepped inside, her hooded face hidden from his view. In the dim light she was an apparition, a ghost from the past. The room fell unnaturally quiet, and the tension became thin ice, threatening to crumble into chaos with the first spoken word.
Anakin decided to risk breaking it.
"Padm?," he breathed. He meant to speak her name quietly, as reverently one would speak the sacred name of a god. The vocal modulator grated and distorted the sound, however, until it came out harsh, threatening. At one time he would have drawn strength from the depersonalization it created, but now he only cursed the machines that kept him alive. He did not care if it was a miracle from the Force that he could still breathe, walk, and speak. Anakin was sick of being cut off from humanity. He was tired of being supported by cold, twisted pieces of metal and wires. Yet worst of all was that he knew that he had slowly created the monstrosity he was, just as he had built droids long ago in his youth.
"Why?" she whispered, voice trembling.
"Padm?, I'm... sorry."
It was a pathetic response, and they both knew it.
"No. You... is that why you called me here? You want me to listen to your apologies and words of regret?"
"I wanted to die after Kenobi told me what you had done! And you expect me to believe that in some sudden epiphany you regret it all, Vader?"
"That is not my-"
"Vader, isn't it? It's the name I hear over the holos. Leia...she told me a lot about what Vader did to her."
Anakin stood frozen. This bitterness, sarcasm, and fear were not the reactions he had been expecting. To be honest, he did not know what exactly to expect, but it certainly was not this. As Obi-Wan had often reminded him, he had always been a shortsighted fool.
Anakin felt a spark of anger beginning to ignite, and with great struggle, he quelled it before it could rise into a flame. Everything was not his fault. How could Padm? have expected him to know about their daughter? She was the one who had hidden the truth from him, and even if he could be blamed for many things, he could not be blamed for this.
He paused to gain calm and then spoke evenly. "I did not know Leia's true identity until the Battle at Endor. If I had known, I would have never brought her so much pain. You must believe that."
"You still don't understand, do you?" Padm?'s voice had elevated in volume and intensity, and Anakin worried briefly if Luke was overhearing their conversation. "It shouldn't have mattered if she was your child or not! All sentient beings deserve dignity and respect. How many times had we discussed that, over and over! Gods, you were a Jedi!" She receded deeper into the room's shadows. "I...I...don't know why I let Luke talk me into this. I really don't. If you wanted us to meet so we could put things right...I'm sorry. Nothing is going to fix what you did to me, to...us. There are just some things in life you can't let go. There's too much to...just too much....
"Damn you," she whispered, her arms crossing to hug her shoulders. "Why?"
For one of the few times in his life, Anakin's eloquence failed him. He always had an answer, a biting comeback or quip, for everything. But words were not coming to him now. This embittered woman was drastically different from the Padm? that he remembered, and he could think of nothing to say to take away the pain. What was he thinking by having her come here? He had brought enough suffering upon her as it was.
"You are... right, as always," Anakin found himself saying. "I had a foolish notion..." he trailed off, his words sounding flat, sour even to his own ears. " I should leave. I apologize. This was a mistake." With a whish of his cloak, he moved to go.
"No. Wait. Just...say what you have to say. I owe Luke at least that much. And you. I owe it to you."
He stepped back. Just say what he had to say? Did she think he had a speech rehearsed? What he really wanted to do was to hold her close and whisper, "I'm sorry," over and over until the past disappeared and life became what it used to be before he followed Palpatine and threw his happiness away in a mad gamble for power. But that was not possible. He did not dare touch her as he was now. It would be a...desecration.
Speech was all he had left.
"I do not know why I went through with this. I suppose it was for the same reason you decided to come." Anakin was unsure what that reason was, but blindly hoped his words had struck a familiar chord.
Padm? moved closer to a wall, leaned against it for support, and then inclined her head upward, as if to look him in the eye. He wished he could see her face, but the hood of her robe was hiding it, obscuring her expression.
"So in other words, you don't know why you want to speak with me."
It was no longer a question where Leia had picked up her sarcasm. And Anakin thought that he had been the one with sarcastic tendencies. Apparently, life could change people, make them bitter. He had learned that lesson the hard way.
There was an awkward pause, and the conversation threatened to die. But Anakin would not let that happen. He would try another tack, find something else for them to discuss. The reference to their daughter... he would take that and continue talking.
"I still cannot believe that I failed to see the resemblance, although I suppose that was for the best."
"I was referring to Leia." He turned his back to Padm? and moved to the corner of the room so that he could look out the window. The second sun was almost completely hidden by the horizon. If he had been alone, he would have considered removing his helmet to see the colors of the sunset in their natural brilliance. As a child, Anakin had loved watching the Tatooine sunsets; they were one of the few redeeming aspects of the Sith-forsaken planet.
He spoke without turning around. "I saw the similarities between you and our son right away, even if I tried my best to ignore them - the fearlessness, the compassion, the blind idealism. He takes more after you than me."
"What did you do to him?" Padm?'s voice was barely above a whisper, but it had a threatening ring, reminding Anakin of why she had been an effective adversary while serving as Naboo's queen and senator. "I know you hurt him. I can see it in his eyes sometimes."
"I would have thought our daughter would have been delighted to fill you in on those details," Anakin responded, and to his surprise, the words were not laced with malice. A few months ago they might have been bitten out, dripping with bitterness, but now they contained only sadness.
"Leia hasn't brought it up yet. I don't think she's ready to talk about it."
"Then what did he tell you?"
"Luke won't say anything. He just keeps telling me that what happened in the past doesn't matter because the man called Vader is dead."
Anakin made a low, guttural sound of amusement. "I see that the boy is learning to twist the truth almost as well as Kenobi."
"Is it true?" Padm? pressed.
Was it true? Was Vader dead? Who was he, really? Son, slave? Apprentice, Jedi? Servant, Dark Lord? Anakin didn't know. He had never known. He liked to think he was just Anakin. Himself. But he wasn't sure what that meant. He wished he could believe Vader was gone, turned to dust with the death of the Emperor. That was a lie, though, because Anakin would wake in the darkness of the night to hear those sickeningly familiar whisperings of the Dark Side of the Force, those voices that reminded him of what he could still be, and he remembered what he was capable of.
"I wish it was so, but unlike Luke, I believe that Vader is still inevitably a part of me."
The words rang in the air like a curse, and through the Force, Anakin felt Padm? radiate fear. He turned from the window to face her.
"But you should know," he continued, "that I will never allow Vader to control me again. Never."
Padm? was quiet for a moment, as if wrestling with this information. Then she whispered, "How can you be sure?"
He wasn't, but Force, he needed to believe it. "I have seen what the Dark Side can do. It destroyed almost all that I had. I will not let it consume the little I have left."
Anakin paused, and suddenly in a breathless wave, he was reminded of all that he had lost to the darkness. His children. His wife. His life. How he had wanted children in his younger years. Their accepting and innocent nature was beautiful. Anakin had always enjoyed the company of kids, and they had enjoyed his. There had been a priceless connection with many of the younger padawans in the Jedi Temple, a connection he had never managed to make with Obi-Wan, a connection he only found again with...
Padm?. As he studied her from behind his mask, the depth of her distance from him was evident. A gaping hole of deceit, lies, and pain lay before them. A hole, Anakin recognized, that he had dug. He wanted the gap to disappear, but could not find the path to take to cross it. Maybe it could not be crossed. Maybe trying was not worth the pain.
And in crystal clarity, his last conversation with Padm? came back to him, mocking him. Anakin remembered their rising voices as they'd disagreed about Palpatine's rise to power, and Padm?'s beautiful eyes turning to black pearls as her apprehension rose. He remembered his hate tasting like blood and his sickening desire to strike his wife, to put her in her place. He remembered Padm?'s sobs. His curses. The slamming door. He remembered walking alone on the streets that night, crying in anger and pain and loneliness.
How he remembered what an arrogant fool he had been.
Anakin felt himself losing control over his closely harnessed emotions. Despair was grabbing him by the throat, threatening to choke him. Padm? needed to leave now, before he did or said something that he would regret. The seductive darkness still called, foreshadowing false promises, and despite his oath to never give into that darkness again, he did not know if he would continue to have the strength to resist its beckons.
"Please. Leave me. I cannot..." Anakin paused, trying to calm himself before he went on. "I simply wanted to tell you how...wrong...I was about...everything. I would take it all back if I could. I never wanted to hurt you. It was not supposed to turn out this way. I planned on coming back for you to take you to the capital. I was going to give you everything I always wanted to give you, but never could, as a Jedi. Security. Wealth. Family. Under Palpatine our marriage would not have needed to be secret."
"I wouldn't have followed you." Padm?'s response sounded forced, tight.
"I suppose... not. But at the time I liked to entertain such fantasies. I thought I could still reason with you."
Padm? crossed her arms and shook her head. "Why did it have to come to that?" Her voice was soft. "I was happy as we were. I didn't need any of that."
"I was not content."
"I don't understand."
"It is...difficult to explain." Anakin lapsed into silence for a few moments, trying to form his thoughts into a coherent statement. How could he articulate the feeling he'd had that there was nowhere for him to go? How could he accurately describe the fear and the helplessness...the powerlessness he had felt to save himself from the despair? It was as if life had cornered him to a wall, and no matter how much Anakin tried to beat and tear at the oppressive force holding him down, he'd never been able to break free.
Frustrated, he turned away, unable to look at Padm? any longer. He wanted to make her understand, but didn't know if words would be sufficient, for despite his eloquence, they had always failed him when he needed them the most. Nevertheless, he would try to explain.
"I was an outcast. The Chosen One. I felt utterly...alone, Padm?. Do you know what that is like? Feeling as if there is no one to turn to? I lost hope. Palpatine offered a way out. I thought it would be a way to put everything right. So I took it."
"You weren't alone." Padm?'s voice overflowed with hurt. "You had me."
"I did not want to drag you into my conflicts. I wanted to shelter you from them."
"You had Obi-"
"No," Anakin cut in. There would be no discussion of that.
"But the innocent lives," Padm? continued quietly. "Alderaan? Billions of people, and you stood by and watched. You could have saved them. An entire planet and culture destroyed. How? How could you watch and do nothing? Did you hate Leia that much? And not just Alderaan...the Jedi...they were your friends. I'm not talking about Obi-Wan or the Council. But what about the Jedi you played with as a padawan, or the children who died during the siege of the Temple? How could you have ever followed Palpatine's orders?"
Calm. Calm. Calm. Anakin needed to be calm. He wondered if Padm? knew how greatly her words affected him. He guessed not. She probably considered him emotionless and stoic. But it was only a fa?ade, and how Anakin Skywalker tired of the part. Dark Vader had brushed critical words aside and met malice with hatred of his own, leaving most who crossed him dead where they stood. Yet now words pierced his black armor. They crawled beneath his skin, or whatever was left of it, burrowing deep, bringing with them emotions he'd forgotten he could feel. Words hurt. And they caused pain because they carried what he didn't want to hear - the truth.
Crossing his arms behind his back, he turned his gaze once again to the landscape beyond the window. The second sun had drifted beyond the horizon of sand, but the stars had not completely appeared.
The stars. As a child, he'd aspired to visit every solar system. That goal had changed as he grew older, but not wiser. Darth Vader had wanted to harness and control the stars, foolishly believing that such control would give him inner stability. Vader had forgotten an important certainty, however, which every child of the desert knew: You cannot hold all the grains of sand in your hands. A few always slip by, and when you try to catch them, even more will flow from your grasp. So it is with stars.
So with power.
"I...wanted order, Padm?," Anakin began explaining. "To most individuals the deaths in the Clone Wars were just a set of incomprehensibly high numbers. But I understood those numbers. I felt them. One moment I was talking to friends, fellow Jedi and pilots, over the com links, and the next I was feeling their screams of pain through the Force as their ships were blasted apart, wiped out in useless battles against the Separatists. I was sick of the death. I wanted it to end, not to see more people die.
"Palpatine...he promised that he knew a way to bring order. The Senate was crumbling. You admitted it, I remember. You were sick of the corruption, too. We talked about this on Naboo, that first time."
Even though he could not see her face, he felt her temperature rise. "Even then, you thought that a totalitarian regime was less-"
"I did not think of it as a totalitarian regime," Anakin pushed on. "I thought of it as a... forceful measure...to bring peace, much needed peace to the galaxy. A euphemism, perhaps. Things are only sickeningly clear in hindsight."
He uncrossed his arms and his gloved right hand trailed over the dirty windowsill, creating a path in the dust. "I accepted that destroying Alderaan was a necessary measure at the time, that such violence would make the rebels fear us enough to stop fighting." His fingers clenched into a fist. "Don't you see? I thought it would bring the chaos to an end, Padm?. I...."
He stopped again, and the hiss-shush of his respirator gave the atmosphere a melancholy, somber touch. To his ears, his deep inhalations and exhalations were the ticking of a chronometer, marking the passage of his life, reminding him of all that he had let slip by. And if he listened closely, he could hear Padm?'s lighter breaths countering his. They made a duet, one singing a light melody of future promises, the other droning a dark song of lost opportunities.
"When you compromised your integrity once," Padm? interjected softly, "you made it easy to compromise it forever."
"I know. I..." And for the first time in months, Anakin blessed his mask. Tears. They felt so foreign. For many years he had forgotten how to cry. "Padm?, go. You should not be in the presence of the likes of me. You deserve better. You have the children."
"But before you go, I want to ask something of you. Not that I deserve-" He turned toward his wife. "Let me see your face again."
She did not reply immediately, as if reluctant to comply, so Anakin pushed on. "The real reason why I asked for you to come was because I wanted to see you...one last time. It was selfish. I realize that now."
Padm? dropped her head and stared downward as if to find strength and answers from the dust covering the floor. "No, I don't mind that. It's just..." Her voice was sad, wistful. "I don't look like the girl you knew. I'm...an old woman."
"And I hardly look like the man you once knew." He hesitated before slowly adding, "You...think I loved you only for your beauty, don't you." It was not a question, or even an accusation. It was a simple statement of the truth, as he thought she saw it. In fact, he never fully understood why she had loved him. What precious little she had seen was gone now: his dashing looks, his lighthearted and wry humor. And sometimes he wondered if Padm? had loved him for even that. Maybe she had merely been in love with the idea that he was madly in love with her. It would explain why she had hastily agreed to marry him after the battle of Geonosis.
"How can you say that?" Padm? looked up and stepped closer. "All this time, did you really think I felt that way?"
"If you didn't, then let me look at you again."
She was silent for a moment before she breathed, "All right. Okay." Anakin was surprised. He had expected her to put up more of a fight, but maybe she was too tired, both physically and emotionally, to think of comebacks or counter arguments.
Her hand touched the edge of her hood, hesitated, and then drew the head covering away. The first thing Anakin noticed was her hair. Gone were the chocolate locks, the silky tresses that had cascaded down her back. They were replaced by gray-streaked hair cropped to her chin. He realized that he could barely remember the face of the girl he married all those years ago. Vader had pushed away the image of what the long-gone Padm? looked like and locked the memory of her profile away in the back of his mind. In fact, Vader had told himself that his love for Padm? had not been love at all - merely an infatuation with an idol Anakin Skywalker had created in his mind. Or maybe Palpatine had fed him the lie. It didn't matter. What mattered was that he had half believed it. He'd swallowed the excuse, ignoring the bitter aftertaste, because it was the only way to stay sane.
Even as Padm? had pulled back her hood, an irrational part of his mind expected to see the exquisite face that Vader had suppressed from his memory. But the face before him was an ordinary face. An aged face. A face of a tired mother who was worrying about the welfare of her children and about what tomorrow would bring.
Yet, Anakin realized... he didn't care. He had never given a damn about the Nubian face paints, the elaborate senatorial gowns, the meticulous hairstyles. This woman before him was Padm? through and through. His angel. Lover, wife, mother, with dark eyes that held the power to silently convey a thousand messages.
And she was beautiful.
"As...breathtaking as ever."
Padm? tilted her head to the side, and smiling slightly, said, "You were always an awful liar. I guess that hasn't changed."
"You give me no reason to lie now."
Her face muscles tensed, giving her the look people have when they try to hold back tears. Then she gave another smile, but a sadder one this time. Unable to resist, he gently touched her face. And as his gloved hand lightly traced down Padm?'s cheek, the countless images of those he had murdered flashed before his mind's eye.
But now he knew with brilliant clarity what he had to do to put the faces to rest.
In fact, he had already taken the first step.
Her hood fell to her shoulders, and Padm? felt increasingly vulnerable. It was as if a protective veneer had been scratched away. Many thought her strong, but that was merely a common misconception. Padm? had, in actuality, always felt much smaller than most made her out to be. Especially now, with the dark figure towering before her.
As his hand lightly brushed her cheek, Padm? wondered once more why she had agreed to come. The former politician had planned a scathing speech to condemn the monster. And yet, the senator in her had failed to speak. Not out of pity. Those who embodied cruelty and hate deserved none. Men who hurt their wives and children, not to mention the masses, were repulsive figures, and Amidala felt no sympathy for their kind. But Amidala's voice did not prevail at this time. Amidala had remained harsh, expecting perfection and discipline, but Padm? had always had the softer heart of a child. Maybe this child in her - the young girl who believed in second chances--had silenced the politician.
"Let me look at you," the impulsive child whispered.
The dark figure in front of Padm? jerked back. In the dim light, he appeared to be an impenetrable slab of ebony, its midnight perfection disturbed only by the quiet red and yellow lights flashing at the middle. It was strange, for suddenly the shadow's helmet appeared not to be the skull of a repulsive phantasm, but a dark remnant of a lost man who had forgotten how to live.
Or maybe not a man lost, but a man revived.
"It's your turn," she persisted. "Let me see your face."
The shadow took another step back. "No. I...want you to remember me as I was. Not like...this." He gestured vaguely to indicate his mechanical form.
"Once, a young man said that he would do anything I asked." Padm? briefly pursed her lips, then asked, "Did he lie?"
To her surprise, there came dark, mechanical rumbling. Laughter.
"You always knew how to twist me around your finger, didn't you?"
He did not reply immediately, merely cocked his head as if studying her, and then looked away toward the room's corner. "Don't ask this of me." The hiss of his respirator seemed to have a hint of sadness. And pleading.
"Please," Padm? quietly said. As the dark form of her former husband remained impassive, she held her breath, feeling that time had frozen. Then the moment of timelessness and eternity dissolved as the now familiar, deep voice spoke in a resigned monotone.
"I cannot last without it for long. For a few minutes at most."
So the young man who once had promised her the universe had not lied, after all.
Slowly, his large, powerful hands touched the helmet, and the air hissed with the release of oxygen as the top-most part was first removed. Underneath was an innermost layer. On this portion, metal twisted with wire in mechanics that Padm? would never understand. Its complexity was at the same time both terrible and breathtaking. She wondered how a man could live in this ebony shell for over two decades. Was there not a point when the icy touch of plastic and metal would freeze the mask wearer's last remnant of humanity? Only a few months ago, that had seemed to be the case. Yet Padm? could no longer be certain. It was as if her understanding of the universe had been shaken, and she had still not found her footing out of fear that if her feet touched seemingly safe ground, she would slip again.
She waited for the rest of the mask to be removed, but the gloved hands clung to the first layer, hesitating to put it down and take off the second.
"Here, let me..." Tentatively, Padm? stood on tiptoe and pulled off the last layer. During her years of hiding, she had never allowed herself to wonder about the face behind Vader's helmet. Vader was Vader. Anakin was Anakin. Her mind refused to intertwine and connect the two figures in her subconscious. They had remained separate because it had been easier to continue living that way. It had been easier to subconsciously believe that Anakin Skywalker had been completely burned away in molten rock, and Darth Vader had unconnectedly then risen from the shadows like a ghost in a horror holo film. No remnant of a human remained beneath the mask, in Padm?'s mind.
Yet the face she saw now dispelled that notion - a face disfigured with horrible scars, but a human face, nonetheless. Its skin was pallid from years without a sun's touch, and in the room's darkness, sections of the tissue burned crimson black from hate, lava, and fire's marks. A friend and mentor had contributed to this. What would Obi-Wan say now, if he could? Would he be close to embracing his pupil? She thought he would, and that gave her courage to look further at the sagging flesh and deep cerulean shadows outlining the sunken eyes...
Padm? felt cold as two pale blue orbs met her gaze. They had the look of gray mist, fog, and rain blended together in a spring Naboo morning. She had expected to find unrecognizable eyes of harsh steel. Eyes of malice. The eyes of Darth Vader. But these.... She swallowed. These were the same eyes of the cute boy from Tatooine who had won her friendship, and the kind-hearted man who had later won her heart. In these blue pools, the woman could not find a monster, a murderer, an unfaithful husband.
She saw an elderly person. Confused. Tired. Lost. Hopeless.
She saw Anakin.
She saw herself.
"Still devilishly handsome, hmm?"
He was still Anakin, witty to the last.
Padm? rested her hand on the back of his neck. Gently pulling his face closer to hers, she brushed a kiss on the scarred tissue of what remained of his cheek. "No need to be ashamed," she whispered.
A hard, gloved hand firmly grasped her wrist.
"Padm?, wait. Please..." Anakin's voice trembled vulnerably without the vocal modulator. He sounded like an old man. "I never stopped-" His face seemed to freeze as the words abruptly ceased. Padm? understood, however. His expression spoke with more depth and meaning than words could.
"I...I know," she whispered. Her lips pursed briefly as her eyes met his ice gaze. "Gods," she continued, her words spilling almost by themselves, "I wish I could go back and change life. You don't know how much I want to...to do things over again. You know what I would give to do things over again? Everything would be different."
"I think we all would do life over if we could. I..." Anakin struggled with his next breath. "I would, too."
Padm? felt her throat constrict, her stomach tighten into a knot.
"I..." It would be so much easier to walk out. It was even her right. But she would not let herself. For once, damn her pride. Padm? would not let it control her any longer.
"I'm sorry," she said, swallowing hard.
Anakin's eyes squinted and his gaze grew more piercing. "You never wronged me."
"I have." Padm? felt tears well in her eyes. "But I...I'm going to try to let the past go now." Her voice faltered slightly as she recognized the illogical flow of her thoughts. "Am I even making sense anymore?"
"I... think I understand."
"Do you really?"
His gaze flickered across her face. "You are right, you know. I do not deserve forgiveness."
Padm? began shaking her head. "No...you've just got to look back, then let go as well."
"I know. But you need to try."
Anakin's words grew increasingly more broken as his lungs struggled to find air. "My crimes... forgiven...not by...me." Padm? could hear the soft rattling of his lungs at his next inhalation. "Mask," he managed to breath.
Padm? placed the helmet back into his gloved hands, and he methodically secured it on again. When he was done, Anakin walked back to his favorite position at the window and spent several moments looking at the desert landscape in the starlight.
"Luke's been waiting for us for a long time."
He was changing the subject. Anakin knew ways of subtly manipulating conversations in order to skirt uncomfortable issues. The technique had been frequently practiced and nearly perfected during his years of study under Obi-Wan. But it had never fooled Padm?.
"Anakin, there's still man in you."
"That is where both you and Luke are mistaken." His tone took a harsh, sharp edge and had a finality that left no room for argument. Padm? lifted her chin. She would argue anyway.
"If you believe that, then everything Luke did for you was for nothing."
He pivoted around. For a brief moment, the tension grew electric and thick enough to slow the slice of a steel blade. As the black eye screens of Anakin's helmet seemed to bore into her, Padm? wondered if this was why Luke had offered to come along. But the tension quickly passed, and Anakin turned his back to her, dismissively.
"Tell him that, if you'd like. And also tell Luke to make sure that the ship will be ready to travel to Edra after your journey."
"That's part of the New Republic."
"But-" Understanding hit her like a blaster's bolt. "No. What about the New Jedi Order? Luke needs you!"
"There is not much I can help him with anymore."
"You... can't do that to him."
Still refusing to turn around, Anakin replied, "A part of coming to terms with what one has done is taking responsibility for those actions. I will not hide from them any longer."
Padm? wondered if he was referring to the New Republic or the events of his past. Maybe both.
"I'm coming then."
"You cannot." His uncompromising tone again. "And make sure Luke understands that he will not be accompanying me either."
Padm? shook her head. "He'll never agree."
"You're probably right. But in the end he will comply. Padm?, you know I have to do this. Do not try to dissuade me. You're only making this harder than it already is. Please...go."
The desire to protest was strong, but this time Padm? could not bring herself to argue. She had faced her demons. It was his turn now.
"Then may the Force be with you," came her whisper.
Finally, Anakin turned around. His next words were spoken slowly, as if each one had been carefully thought out and weighted. "May the Force... bless you with well-deserved happiness for the rest of your days."
Despite the somber atmosphere, Padm? felt the corners of her lips twitch into a smile. "Thank you," she said simply. Her gaze lingered shortly on Anakin's dark form as she tried to memorize this last moment, then before losing her composure, she turned and left the room.
Past the winding corridors she walked, past the desolate main room, and at the house's exit way she paused to absorb the gentle elegance of the desert in the starlight. As her fingers trailed over the threshold's wooden frame, Padm? said a silent prayer for Obi-Wan, her gallant friend and confidante, who had eked out the last years of his long life in this sandy hiding hole. It was due to his vigilance that Luke had survived. Nothing she could ever say or do could repay that debt.
She leaned against the doorway. The cooling winds whistled through the valley. The sands stirred. There was a weight to the air. It reminded her of one of the great rainstorms of Naboo, a memory so old that it had taken on the quality of a hazy dream....
When she had been eight years old, the rains had fallen for over one moon cycle, and at points it had seemed like the storm would never end. Yet Padm? remembered the morning when she had awoken to see sunlight creeping through the cracks of her shutters. She'd tiptoed out to the balcony, and in the silence after the storm, there could unmistakably be heard the sound of...life.
Gazing at the Tatooine sky now, Padm? felt that same sense of awe, of happiness she'd felt as a child, knowing that the storm was over. And as she admired the mountains and desert sprawled before her, the aged woman suddenly remembered that red did not only represent blood or pain. It was also the color of redemption. And forgiveness.
Feet slightly sinking into sand with each step, Padm? slowly wove around the rocks and made her way to Luke. When side-by-side, he stood and they began walking toward the speeder. No words were spoken. None needed to be said.
As they walked, a part of her, that nagging, pessimistic voice which always tried hard to be heard, wondered if this was the end. But this time the voice quickly fell silent. Padm? knew she would see Anakin again, not only at his trial, but Force be willing, in the next life as well. There, they would not be old, broken people who were wary of life's hardships, but young, carefree, innocent. They would be happy and not suffer for it.
And even if the Force failed to grant that last wish, she would continue to see Anakin in the children. She would find him in Luke's eyes, in the way he smiled, and in Leia's stubbornness, in her passion for life.
Luke unlocked the doors to the speeder, and he and Padm? seated themselves in the vehicle. The doors closed. The ignition started. And as the speeder fired toward the transport, bittersweet tears trailed down Padm?'s cheeks. For the first time in years, she felt strangely comforted. And she felt free.
Original cover by GaylenKenobi. HTML formatting copyright 2004 TheForce.Net LLC.