Six months later, Amidala, despite the protestation of every fiber of her being, went to Coruscant to ask for Palpatine's assistance in rebuilding Naboo. She doubted he would condescend to giving his one-time home world the aid they needed, but she swallowed her pride and prepared to make the request anyway. Beneath her noble, stated purpose, she admitted she hoped Ani would seek her out... alone... and tell her he wanted to come home.
Her shuttle had landed at the Imperial hangar late in the afternoon and Palpatine had deigned to provide her with an escort to the Imperial sector. Or so the Captain of the Guard had told her. Somehow she suspected the six-man guard had come more to make certain she remained under surveillance rather than for her protection.
She paced the length of her assigned quarters; much smaller and sparer than previous times she'd come as the Queen. Indeed, she believed them the same as the one's he'd given her on her visit as Padme' long ago. A flood of conflicting emotions rushed over her. Though she wanted to deny it, she feared her former Senator and fellow Naboo and despised his abuse of power. Mingled with this, a potent desire to see Ani and reassure herself he'd made peace with himself and healed... both his physical and emotional wounds. For a moment, she stood still, her gaze unfocused as she remembered that fateful trip to Coruscant to visit her Jedi friends.
Longing swept through her. Longing and frustration and grief at what she'd lost at Palpatine's hands. If not for the two tall, red-garbed sentries outside, she would have grabbed the scant belongings she had brought and fled back to Naboo. What a fool she'd been to expect help from Palpatine! What a fool to think she could have any influence on Ani's decision... A terrible heaviness settled in her chest as she realized she had again played into the Emperor's hands coming here. Too late, she understood her true reason for this visit. She wanted Ani back and she had thought she had a chance of convincing him to return to her.
The door slid open and she whirled to see the Emperor's Captain of the Guard sweep through in a swirl of blood red. So ostentatious... So ominous... She remembered the Senator's quarters from before; decorated in those tones with strange works of art throughout. With a haughty look, she faced the Imperial Guard.
"Well? Has he agreed to speak with me?" she dared in her best royal voice, glad it didn't shake or crack.
"The Emperor has granted you an audience," the disembodied voice behind the mask announced with a decided chill. "Come this way."
She followed him out the door, aware that her 'guards' fell in behind them as they made their way toward the Imperial quarters. With an effort, she kept from wringing her hands in anticipation of two somewhat fearful things... facing Palpatine while maintaining her calm and seeing Ani again. She would *not* fling herself into her husband's arms. She would *not*!
At last they reached their destination, the heavy double doors swinging wide to reveal the opulence of Palpatine's new home. Once again, she noted the deep red and black of the place and the chill within. As she walked the halls, she glanced around at the shadowed and quiet surrounding with a suppressed shudder. They approached a raised dais and Amidala could only stare at the man she thought she knew.
Palpatine had wrapped himself up in blackness. Gone were the deep blue robes of the Chancellor. Gone were any vestiges of a citizen of Naboo. Black and black and black... As she had seen him that hideous day of Ani's fall, he wore the Sith robes, the cowl drawn forward to hide all but his lower face. A terrifying smile stretched his lips and she had the awful feeling he enjoyed her discomfort.
"Ah, young Queen Amidala," he began, making her title seem a complete farce. "How may I be of assistance?"
The mockery in his words bit deeply, but she knew if she allowed him to intimidate her that she would most likely not leave alive. The Captain put a heavy hand on her shoulder, as if to push her to her knees. She ground her teeth until they creaked. By the Maker, she'd not kneel before this... this thing! Not pride, merely loathing for him keep her resisting the pressure on her to do just that.
"What? Not showing proper respect for your sovereign?" Palpatine asked, then cackled.
He nodded to the Captain, who applied even more pressure and touched the back of her knees with his foot. Her legs buckled and she stumbled forward to land hand and knees on the floor. From that position, she glared up at him.
"I came as one ruler to another." Gods, how that galled her to say. "Not as a subject. Naboo lies in ruins. Most of our people have died. Those who survived struggle to reestablish some sort of viable way of making a living."
"What has this to do with the Empire, Amidala? This is not our concern."
She rocked back on her heels, trying to gain her composure. "I came to you as a former Naboo citizen to ask a boon. To ask that you provide us with the means to return Naboo to at least a ghost of its former glory."
For a moment, she worried he would have her struck down where she sat. Then he gave a bark of humorless laughter.
"And what would you give me in return, Amidala? What have you or Naboo to offer me?" he asked so softly she barely heard his words, yet when she leaned forward they struck her like a blow.
Memories of his last words on the balcony on Naboo returned with a vengeance.
Oh, and once he's in better shape, see to it you do your part. Get yourself with child. I need fresh blood if the Sith are to survive.
No. Absolutely not. Never would she put a child of hers and Ani's in this monster's hands. Nor would she give anything of Naboo to him if she could possibly avoid it.
"At this point, Naboo cannot offer you anything except a promise to supply a portion of our goods to you once we become solvent again."
"Not sufficient, my dear. You know exactly what I require," he murmured, a smirk on his lips.
Oh, and once he's in better shape, see to it you do your part. Get yourself with child. I need fresh blood if the Sith are to survive.
"I regret to inform you that remains out of the question. If necessary, Naboo will continue to labor toward restoration without Imperial assistance." She leaned forward to rise, her eyes on the floor and wondering if he would prevent her from leaving. A black gloved hand stretched before her gaze, offering her support and help. Without looking into his eyes, she took that offer and stood to face Palpatine once again.
"May I return to my home?" she ventured, noting how Palpatine's lips continued to curl in a malevolent smile.
"Of course, but I desire that you remain for just a little while longer to contemplate again what I propose. If you change your mind about my offer, you have the means to contact me," Palpatine told her with a nod to the black cloaked figure at her side. "Perhaps you would desire to see our 'guest' to back to her quarters, my apprentice?"
"If that is your wish, my master," came the oddly distorted, yet eerily familiar voice.
"Certainly. I wouldn't want to come between husband and wife, now would I?" The Emperor made a dismissive gesture and Amidala felt her arm taken in a firm grasp as they headed for the door. The guard remained in the Palpatine's quarters and she could only believe that the Sith Master had complete confidence in his apprentice's loyalty.
She wanted to cry.
Vader sensed Amidala's grief and what remained of his heart ached in concert with hers for entirely different reasons. As Palpatine's apprentice and so much more, he had vowed to put aside personal concerns during his training. And while this had sounded suspiciously similar to the Jedi creed, Palpatine assured him it didn't mean he couldn't enjoy life at all, merely that he must be aware of his larger responsibilities in the long run. Therefore, when Amidala returned to Coruscant, his Master had given him leave to spend time with her once she made known her reasons behind requesting an audience.
He'd stood behind his Master's throne, listening to Amidala's bid for help in Naboo's reconstruction and wondered at his Master's words. Yet again he remembered another vow he'd made. No matter what he heard, he must believe Palpatine worked for the greater good. If he would not go insane with the implications of his choice, he must refuse to think anything of those odd words between Amidala and the Emperor. So he walked silently beside her as they returned to her quarters, restraining his need to take her in his arms and reassure himself she was real and not another fevered dream that had plagued him since he'd left Naboo.
Once they arrived, they stood before it... not looking at each other, not saying a word for several minutes. The only sound between them remained the hiss and rasp of his respirator, a terrible reminder of all that had gone before. Time stretched on until Amidala could no longer stand his nearness.
She turned to him, peering into the darkness of yet another hood. In the hall's dim light, she could barely make out the glint of his eyes above the mask covering his lower face. Yet even so, she felt him reach out to her with his mind, his mental voice filled with the same yearning she felt, the same grief. How could she refuse that silent plea for her to accept his decision?
"Will you come in, Ani?" she murmured, touching his arm for a moment.
He hesitated, then bowed his head and followed her into the room. Briefly, he allowed her to see into his thoughts. So much pain, so much anger... and so much need for reassurance of her love. Every part of her nurturing soul cried out to pull him close and give him comfort, no matter how much she disapproved of his choice.
"Ani, will you come back with me?"
"Anakin Skywalker no longer exists, Amidala. Who I am now owes allegiance to the Emperor..." He avoided her eyes for a moment, then when his gaze returned to hers a strange look settled there. "My Master has given me the name Vader. I have much to learn from him, yet he assures me he will give me the power to make my own decisions."
Amidala couldn't say a word, fearing she might blurt out exactly what she thought of the Emperor's 'generosity.' She didn't care what that thing told Ani, she knew better. Once he considered something his own, he'd never let it go. And sadly enough, he considered Ani his to do with as he saw fit. While she might not understand Ani's abilities entirely, what she did understand was his potential to do great things... or horrible things. Obi-Wan had explained to her some of what Yoda had foreseen and it chilled her. Somehow, some way, she must continue to try to reach her husband. If that meant she must remain here... So be it. Naboo still lay in ruins, its people so few her presence meant little.
"Am... Please... Stay with me," he asked, his request mirroring her very thoughts.
"Very well. But I must let Sabe' and the others know. They'll worry if I don't."
"Will you join my in my quarters this evening?"
Did he remember that last time in these rooms? Did that make him uncomfortable here? Remembering his old life?
"I would love to, Ani. When?"
"I will send for you," he told her and swept from the room in a swirl of black.
The room seemed unnaturally silent and empty once he closed the door and Amidala stood staring at the spot he'd last occupied. Vader... It seemed so difficult to think of him that way. For she continued to see the man she loved in him, no matter the ominous stranger he appeared. Perhaps she could still touch his heart. Only time would tell.
A young man, dressed in a severe gray uniform, a peaked hat perched on his dark blond hair, came to retrieve her before the dinner hour. She followed him through the empty hallways, wondering where the many occupants of the Imperial Senate were at this time. Had they retreated to their quarters? Memories of earlier times, when the Senators and their aides would greet her as she traversed these very corridors. Somehow, the deserted atmosphere seemed foreboding, as if the residents sensed their own doom hanging over their collective heads.
She and her escort arrived at Vader's quarters in a few minutes. The officer knocked on the door, then stood aside with a nervous glance her way. He stiffened even more when the portal swung open and revealed the occupant.
"Lord Vader, I have brought your wife as you requested. Will there be anything else you require?"
"Not at the moment, Lieutenant. However, I desire that you remain available in the event I do require your services at a later time this evening." He held his gloved hand out to Amidala. She took it and allowed him to pull her inside."You are dismissed until further notice," Vader told him, shutting the door without waiting for an answer.
As if he immediately forgot his subordinate, he turned to her, studying her intently. Amidala's face burned and she tingled from head to foot at his perusal. Almost, she could feel his hands on her, touching her intimately as he had done so many times in the past.
A tiny whimper of need escaped her and it was all he needed. In one swift movement, he swept her into his arms, holding her so closely she could feel the small box implanted in his chest pressing against her own. She bit back a sob and pressed him even nearer, despite the discomfort. He remained her Ani in her mind and he needed her solace.
"Dearest, let me stay here with you. At least for awhile," she begged him.
"Only for a short time, Am. He won't let me have you here all the time. But for this time, I'll gladly have you with me." He spoke smoothly around the respirator's stimulus to breathe and she realized how far he'd come since they'd last been together.
"Are you better? Has Esme' helped you to heal?"
He didn't reply, just released her and led her toward another room in the suite. In the center stood a large black ovoid contraption, its use a mystery to her. With a flurry of numbers punched into a pad on the side, he activated it. Steam hissed from the thing as its jaws opened to reveal a small circular chamber. Inside, computer terminals surrounded a circular seat. To one side, a semi-circular bench sat before a writing surface and opposite that what appeared a cot of some sort. Was this where he actually lived?
"Welcome to my meditation chamber. Here I am able to remove this mask and feel air on my face while I do some of my work. I can also rest here... if I can."
"May I join you here?"
He shook his head. "Not for any prolonged time, Am. The oxygen concentration once it's closed would prove too much for you within about thirty minutes. I can adjust it, but any less than fifty percent becomes... uncomfortable."
"I don't care, Ani. I want to be with you without the mask. Take it off and be with me as you were, scars and all. They aren't important. And I can tolerate it for awhile," she insisted.
She sensed his inner struggle, but at last he stepped inside and offered her assistance up into the chamber. As the top descended, she fought against claustrophobia for a moment. Then she looked over at him, sitting in the central seat, waiting... and she knew she had made the right decision.
Air hissed into the chamber, making her a bit light-headed, but she refused to complain. He pushed back the hood and robotic arms moved toward him from the ceiling to disconnect him from his respirator and allow him to breathe the air without mechanical aid. Another set of droid hands took away the box on his chest and she could see where the implants melded with his anatomy.
She took in the terrible evidence of his injuries and it pained her further. A deep gash over the crown of his head on the left side with a matching one over the right side of his jaw. The scars from the burns had lightened and shown silver over his scalp. He must have shaven what remained of his hair, for not one sprouted from his head except his eyebrows.
"You should go. Let me have the droids replace--"
"No! I will not leave you," she interrupted vehemently, understanding he thought he repelled her. More quietly, she continued. "I love you, Ani. No matter if your Master calls you Vader and you have made a choice I regret, that truth will never change."
She moved to sit beside him, leaning against his side and caressing his flesh's old wounds. For a moment, she felt him resist her comfort, then he pulled her into his arms, kissing her deeply, then lifting her into his lap.
"Force, Am. I need you so much. How I've missed you... Thought you'd turned from me. Couldn't stand me."
"Never, Ani. Unless you make me leave you again, I won't go."
"Be with me, Am. At least this once. We haven't much time and I want to be with you... face to face," he begged her.
Without words, she let him know how much she felt the same. For the last time, she held him near as her husband, touching his heart, soul, and body as they had done in the past. Passion consumed them, lighting fires they'd both believed dead until she lay beside him on the narrow bunk, her eyes heavy lidded.
"Love..." she whispered.
"It's time. You must go. Any longer and it will damage you and I couldn't stand that," he murmured, then kissed her damp temple.
"I know. May stay outside? Or see you in the morning?"
He didn't say anything for a few moments, then her heart sank at his reply.
"My master may require me for something and he will not wish to share that with you. Though he does not object to our union, there are things... I can't do it, Am. What we had is gone... I... I thank you for this. It meant more to me than you can know, but it would be safer for you if you returned to your quarters."
She pushed up, grieving once again for her husband's loss. Palpatine would never release him. Well, she would take what she could get for as long at that creature allowed her near Ani.
Once he helped her dress, his mechanical aides assisted him in donning the mask and respirator controls on his chest. He pulled the hood over his head, then opened the chamber. With every move, she sensed him withdrawing further and further. And when he stepped out and held out his hand to her, she realized she no longer faced her husband, Anakin Skywalker, but the dreaded Sith Lord, Darth Vader.
How long they could continue thus, she had no idea, but she knew she lived on borrowed time. For once their lovemaking had the intended result Palpatine desired, she must flee for not only her own life, but for that of the child her love created. Perhaps she should leave now, before such a thing could happen, but perversely, she wanted that living proof that all she'd cared for in Ani hadn't died. Indeed, she had begun to believe it might be the only way to defeat the Emperor and return Ani to the light.