Sins of the Father:  Chapter 6
by indie



The private shuttle does not take Padmé to the formal palace entrance.  Instead, she is secreted to one of the myriad lesser entrances.  Padmé follows Lorian inside the palace, trailed closely by Mehht.  

"This way," a human female in her mid twenties says, ushering them toward a modified skycar.  No doubt the palace's monstrous size makes such conveyances a necessity.  Dutifully they climb inside and are quickly whisked along a corridor wide enough to accommodate a half dozen bantha standing shoulder to shoulder.

Padmé assumes that Korto must be dealing with the impending Imperial dinner.  She's glad for the reprieve.  She isn't in the mood to look at that repulsive creature.  It's several long moments before Padmé realizes that they aren’t heading toward the teeming center of the palace.  They seem to be venturing into progressively more remote sections.  She glances at Lorian, but he doesn't seem to be bothered.  Padmé takes a measure of comfort in that and sinks back in her seat.

The skycar eventually slows and then comes to a stop at the end of a rather non-descript corridor far from any formal reception hall.

"I'm not sure –" Padmé starts, but the young driver is already out of the skycar and hurrying around to open Padmé's door.

"This way, milady," she says, bowing deeply.

Padmé steps from the skycar and follows the young woman to a coded door.  The woman steps to the side and waits.  It occurs to Padmé that she's waiting on Padmé to palm the security reader.

Why exactly some random door in the depths of the Imperial Palace should be coded to accept her palmprint, Padmé doesn't know, but she tries it.  There's a barely audible hiss as the door pockets itself.

Padmé walks through the door to find herself in a small workshop.  There are no windows.  The walls are bare.  There are two tables set against the far wall with various electronics and droid parts in differing stages of disassembly.  There's another coded door on the right.  It's all very neat and tidy and rather depressing with a smell somewhere between sweat and servo lubricant.

Padmé looks at Mehht and sees a confused expression that mirrors her own.  Lorian stands sentry in the corridor.  Before Padmé can question the driver, the woman rushes off in the modified skycar.  Now they're stranded in a big supply closet in the bowels of the castle. 

Great.

Again, Padmé glances at Lorian who for the first time in a week, doesn't seem particularly intent on protecting her life.  Padmé realizes that this could very well be an ambush.  Orn Free Taa or Mas Amedda or the Hapan Queen Mother – or better yet, all of them – arranged to have her kidnapped or killed.  Lorian is obviously on their payroll.  It disappoints Padmé that it was this easy for them to get rid of her.

Padmé stalks over to one of the tables and grabs a bladed tool.  She hands it to Mehht in silence.  She'll be damned if she's going without a fight.  She picks up a hydrospanner.  Just about anything can be lethal if you hit someone hard enough with it.  She glances at the closed door on the right and then back toward Lorian and the corridor.

"Keep an eye on him," she says to Mehht.

Padmé heads to the coded door and again, it accepts her palmprint and opens.  The room is smaller and dimmer.  Like the workshop, there are no windows.  In the gloom, Padmé can discern a sleeping couch against one of the walls.  The rest of the room is empty, but as Padmé stands there in confusion, another door on the far end of the room slides open to reveal Anakin, still damp from his shower, a white towel slung low across his hips.  There are no ysalamiri here and he obviously sensed her presence, but he seems as perplexed as she as to why she’s standing in the middle of what must be his bedroom.

Padmé opens her mouth to speak and realizes she has no idea what to say.  She opens her mouth again.  Finally she says, “One of your staff picked me up at the north entrance and brought me here.”

Anakin steps farther into the room and the light from the refresher provides a good deal of illumination.  “Are you alone?” he demands, clearly irritated at the idea.

“No,” she replies quickly.  She glances over her shoulder toward the door only to discover that it slid shut behind her.  “Mehht’s in the workshop,” she says.  “And Lorian is out in the corridor.”  Padmé now realizes that Lorian didn’t betray her.  He knew – even though she didn’t – that they were in Anakin's private quarters. 

Anakin seems placated by her explanation and his posture relaxes.  Padmé tries not to stare.  It’s difficult.  The room is so ascetic there really isn’t anything else to hold her attention.   There are four dull gray walls.  And the sleeping couch.  She immediately looks back to Anakin.  He’s trying not to laugh, clearly amused by her unease. 

“I need to dress,” he says.  “You’re welcome to stay and watch.  Again.”

She hears his chuckle and she turns on her heel and heads back to the workshop.

***

Anakin isn’t chuckling as another modified skycar driven by another anonymous Imperial lackey conveys them to the palace’s Grand Ballroom.  Anakin is dressed, as always, in his traditional black Jedi attire, though these garments are more expensively tailored than his daily wear.  Padmé is seated next to him and the back of her hand occasionally brushes against the ebony nanosilk covering his thigh.  There is no denying the luxurious feel of the fabric.  She tries to ignore the feel of his thigh pressed against hers.

Anakin doesn’t seem to notice as they’re regularly jostled against one another.  His earlier teasingly wolfish demeanor is gone.  He stares straight ahead.  Glares might be more appropriate.  He’s clearly not looking forward to the evening with much enthusiasm and Padmé takes comfort in that.

The driver stops near a small alcove.  Anakin absently helps Padmé from the skycar and in a rare show of chivalry, waits until Lorian does the same for Mehht.  Lorian leads the way through the alcove and into a private anteroom that will lead directly to the Grand Ballroom.  Leia is waiting in the anteroom.  She ignores Padmé entirely and glares daggers at her father.  “You’re late,” she says.

“I was busy,” he snaps.  "In the future I'll make certain Mas Amedda knows my social calendar won't be scheduled at his convenience."

Leia is angry, but holds her tongue.  For the first time, Padmé appreciates that in her absence, it has fallen upon Leia to act in her stead.  Guilt seizes her heart.  Leia is sixteen years old.  It shouldn’t be her duty to manage her father’s Empire.  It’s not healthy.  Leia is far older than her age would indicate – and Padmé doesn’t believe that to be a good thing.

Leia’s gown is black shimmersilk.  The scooped neck reveals far more of Leia’s décolletage than Padmé finds prudent.  If the look on Anakin’s face is any indication, he agrees with his wife.  The gown’s low cut is accentuated by Leia’s jewelry.  She wears a necklace of chunky silver squares that had been a gift to Padmé from Breha Organa many years ago.  Leia’s long chestnut hair has been braided and then the braids coiled in a double strand on top of her head.  Other than the neckline, the rest of Leia’s gown is modest enough.  The hem is long, barely skirting the floor.  The sleeves are long as well, though they are made of sheerer semi-transparent fabric.  The gown displays Leia’s youthful figure to its best advantage.

“Lady Soh?” Padmé asks, gesturing toward Leia’s gown.

Leia finally deigns to acknowledge her mother.  “Of course,” she says.  “You know how haughty the Hapans are.  I want to impress them.”

“It’s a beautiful gown,” Padmé admits.  “It’s very becoming.”

Leia allows herself a small smile that shaves years off her appearance.  “Thanks,” she says softly.  She looks pointedly at Padmé’s heavy velvet cloak.  “You can leave that in here,” she says.

Padmé nods and reaches for the clasp before her resolve fades.  She shrugs out of the cloak and blindly hands it to a nearby steward.  Her cheeks flame, but she forces herself to meet her daughter’s gaze.

Leia’s eyes go wide as she takes in her mother’s gown.  The bodice is a black synthleather corset that leaves Padmé’s shoulders and a large part of her chest bare.  The mermaid style skirt is woven with a metallic thread that twinkles in the light.  The fingerless black synthleather gloves run the entire length of both arms.  Padmé’s hair is pulled back from her face, but her long curls cascade down her back in the same chestnut tone as Leia’s hair.

“I guess I’m not the only one worried about making an impression,” Leia says with a wry smile.

Padmé smiles at her daughter and there is a moment of synchronicity.  They have their differences and their differences are many, but neither of them wants Ta’a Chume anywhere near Anakin.

“You look stunning,” Leia says seriously.

Padmé’s smile widens.

Luke enters the anteroom wearing a simple black tunic and trousers.  His gaze falls on Padmé and he stops short. 

The moment Leia and Padmé began discussing fashion, Anakin tuned them out entirely.  But noticing his son’s sudden stop, Anakin follows Luke’s gaze.  His eyes travel over Padmé’s body and she can see when he realizes why this moment is familiar.  His features harden, his muscles tense like a tusk cat scenting prey. 

“You look … lovely,” he says intently.

“Thank you,” Padmé says, attempting to keep her tone light.  She looks from Luke to Leia and back.  Both of her children are clearly bewildered by their parents’ behavior.  “We should go,” Padmé says.  “Our guests are waiting.

***

The dinner is stiflingly formal.  Padmé is seated at a large round table, Anakin on her left.  Leia sits at  Anakin’s left, next to the Queen Mother’s eldest son, the Chume’da, Kalen.   Ta’a Chume is seated between Kalen and her younger son, Isolder.  Next to Isolder, Luke completes the circle.

The setting is uncomfortably intimate for Padmé’s taste, but it is demanded by Hapan protocol.  Only royalty can be seated at Ta’a Chume’s table.  Padmé wonders if Anakin is enjoying the irony.  She fully expects him to mention Watto at any moment, just to ruffle the Queen Mother’s feathers.

But then again, perhaps not.  Despite his professed dislike for politics, Lord Vader is far more adept at it than the Jedi Knight, Anakin Skywalker, ever was.  The Hapans are, as Padmé expected, almost repulsively beautiful.  Perhaps over the years Padmé has come to appreciate the grace of imperfection, the truth of flaws.  Ta’a Chume, Kalen and Isolder are aesthetic perfection and Padmé finds it supremely unattractive.

Padmé has no insight into Anakin’s thoughts.  He is carefully masking his reaction to the Hapan royals.  He’s surprisingly cultured, carefully navigating the potential mine field of Ta’a Chume’s small talk.  It’s quite possible he does find the Queen Mother attractive.  She is undeniably beautiful with luxurious reddish gold hair and deep green eyes.  However, this dinner has brought Ta’a Chume’s failings into sharp focus.  She is the Queen Mother of a matriarchal, hereditary lineage – and she has no daughter.  Padmé takes careful notice of Ta’a Chume’s regular, critical glances at Leia.

“We were most pleased when your Senate’s Vice Chair extended the invitation of a formal visit,” Ta’a Chume says.

“Indeed,” Anakin replies blandly. 

"We hope our visit wasn't interrupting more pressing business," Ta'a Chume says.  Her tone is light and the words are careful, but there's something in her eyes.  Ta'a Chume is angry.  They were kept waiting tonight and she is most displeased.

"Actually it was," Anakin says bluntly. 

Padmé fights the urge to sigh.  She knew his good behavior could only last so long.

"I was finalizing negotiations," he continues.  "It was most inconvenient to be called back to Coruscant."

Padmé's concern that Anakin is attracted to the Hapan Queen Mother wanes considerably with each passing moment – though her worry that he may start a war with the Hapes Consortium is growing.  She also wonders what exactly it was he was negotiating.  The only negotiations she ever knew Anakin to engage in involved a lightsaber.

"Perhaps our future visits won't be so abrupt."  These words are spoken by Kalen.  His eyes are fixated on Leia.  It’s obvious that he wishes to head off a confrontation between Ta’a Chume and Anakin if only because it would complicate potential future encounters between him and Leia.

Leia doesn’t return the sentiment and seems to be doing her best to ignore the Chume'da.  Padmé is secretly glad her daughter isn't yet so mercenary that she will feign interest in the young man.  Being the Chume'la – the future Queen Mother - of the Hapan Consortium would most certainly be a position of power.  Of course, then Leia would have Ta'a Chume for a mother-in-law.  Apparently, Leia isn't willing to pay that price. 

Then again, Leia probably doesn't think she needs to pay that price.  She's already heir apparent to the Galactic Empire.  Padmé's head aches.  If she can get through this dinner without her husband or daughter starting a galactic war, it will be a success.

"Your necklace is gorgeous," Padmé says to Ta'a Chume.

Ta'a Chume is obviously taken off guard by the complement, but pleased.  With insincere modesty, she touches her impeccably manicured fingertips to the sparkling gems precisely the same shade of green as her eyes.  "We are humbled you noticed," she says with a poison-sweet smile.

Ta'a Chume's use of the royal we grates on Padmé's nerves, but she smiles placidly nonetheless.  The Queen Mother looks pointedly at Padmé's left wrist.

"Does your Emperor not give you jewels?" Ta’a Chume asks with a smirking grin. 

Padmé knows the words were spoken only to goad Anakin.  "On the contrary," Padmé replies, touching the Japor snippet protectively.  "My husband has given me many lovely jewels."  She tactfully omits the part where she attempted to sell them and he murdered the unfortunate pawn broker who bought them.  "This particular piece has sentimental value."

Ta'a Chume arches one perfectly plucked eyebrow.  Padmé can feel Anakin's gaze on her, but she refuses to look at him. 

"We would be most honored if you shared the story with us," Ta'a Chume says predatorily.  Her gaze narrows.  "The chain appears to be made of hair."  She smiles viciously.  "A lost love, perhaps?"

Padmé finds it difficult to breathe for a moment and she forces her face into a blank mask.  Ta'a Chume is right in so many ways, but her venomous bite has missed its target by a wide margin.  The wound which Ta'a Chume probes wasn't caused by the type of betrayal for which she is hoping.  Padmé knows the Queen Mother wants to publicly embarrass Anakin by bringing his long-absent wife’s fictitious, illicit affair to light.  She will be sorely disappointed.

Padmé ignores the last question.  "The Japor wood rune was a gift from my husband the first time we met," she explains, her voice perfectly measured.  She forces her lips into a smile.  "The lock of hair is his Padawan braid.  Jedi learners cut it when they become Knights.  Jedi are forbidden possessions.  The lock of hair is the only thing Anakin ever truly owned as a Jedi."

Ta'a Chume almost frowns – but not quite.  Frowning, no doubt, would cause wrinkles and that is even more unacceptable than losing her verbal skirmish.  Somewhat de-fanged, the Queen Mother ceases her attack, letting Padmé and Kalen carry the bulk of the conversation.  The rest of the dinner passes uneventfully. 

Padmé has to stop herself from releasing a sigh of relief as the last of the dishes are removed and the guests begin milling around the expansive room.  She excuses herself from the table and walks toward the open archway that leads out onto a terrace with a spectacular view of Galactic City.  Lorian follows her at a discrete distance.  She walks to the railing and stares out at the city.  The night air is uncomfortably cool, but she finally feels like she can breathe.

Luke leans his hip against the railing near her, arms crossed over his chest.  She looks at him and does not try to mask any of the exhaustion she feels.  Nothing tonight has gone as anticipated.

"Pretty surreal, huh?" he says.

Padmé laughs humorlessly.  "Which part?"

"All of it.”  His mood sobers.  "All of us," he says quietly.  "Together."

Padmé takes a moment to appreciate that this is the first time that she, Anakin and the twins have been in the same place at the same time in Luke and Leia's memory.  "It could have been worse, I suppose," she admits.

Luke is quiet for a moment.  "I'd never heard that story," he finally says.  She looks at him and he indicates the Japor snippet at her wrist.  "Was it true?"

Padmé nods.

"How old were you two when you met?" Luke asks softly.

"I was fourteen," she says.  "He was nine – he'll say he was ten.  He wasn't."

Luke brow furrows.  "I didn't realize he was that young.  I always thought he was already a Jedi when you met."

Padmé shakes her head.  "He thought I was an angel,” she says wistfully.  “According to him, the moment he saw me, he knew he'd marry me."  She takes a deep breath and releases it.  "At the time, I was a Queen and he was a slave."  She looks at Luke.  "Your father's force of will is quite impressive."

Luke nods in agreement.  They stand in silence for several long moments.  Finally, Luke offers her his arm and she takes it with a smile, allowing him to escort her inside.  The melancholy sensation in her chest grows. 

Luke and Leia are shocked to find that their parents once cared for each other.  Padmé clearly remembers just how desperately she loved Anakin – and how his Fall broke her heart and her spirit.  It bothers her that anyone, not least of all, her own children, could think her marriage to Anakin is one of convenience – it’s anything but.

***

As the evening wears on, Padmé begins to regret her decision to attend, wishing instead that she had stayed at the ODP offices.  Maybe then her head and heart wouldn’t ache this way.  This night has been interminable.  After her short respite on the terrace, Padmé was quickly thrust back into the role of dutiful hostess.  She’s spent the last hour doing her best to keep Anakin and Ta’a Chume on civil terms.  She thinks it would be easier to keep two rabid vornskyrs from fighting.  She has finally given up, leaving them to their own devices while she searches out Mehht.

Padmé no longer cares to tread lightly with the Hapans and she no longer fears that Ta’a Chume might gain influence over Anakin.  Whatever Mas Amedda’s plan may have been, it has failed spectacularly.  The Queen Mother’s interest seems to have been limited strictly to Leia – and Leia seems so steadfastly indifferent to the Chume’da that there’s no use worrying about that front.

Padmé scans the room for Mehht, but cannot locate her through the throng of resplendently attired Imperial sycophants.  She turns and finds Lorian standing several paces away.  “Where’s Mehht?” she snaps.

Lorian looks supremely irritated to be asked the question, but he ironically nods in Mehht’s direction without looking.  Padmé rolls her eyes.  Men.

Padmé forges through the crowd ignoring the speculative glances and whispers.  She doesn’t know why she thought she could return to Coruscant and play Empress.  She has no patience for this.

Mehht is standing near one of the Grand Ballroom’s servant entrances, arms crossed over her chest, glaring at Korto.  The two are obviously having a standoff.  Were Padmé in a better mood, she would likely be amused.  Korto is several orders of magnitude larger than Mehht, yet she is clearly undaunted. 

As Padmé nears, she can hear Korto’s raspy voice and see the sheen of sweat on his crimson skin as he gestures at Mehht in agitation.  Mehht holds her ground.  Were Mehht not dressed in the pale green empire waist shimmersilk gown, Padmé might have thought they were back in Anchorhead haggling with Jawas over the latest round of sub-par droids.

“What’s going on?” Padmé demands.

Korto’s head whips in her direction and he glares at her, so agitated he forgets to grovel appropriately.  “It’s none of your concern,” he snaps.

This is just the outlet Padmé has been needing.  She would love nothing more than to channel all of her irritation and heartache at this vile creature.  “Excuse me?” Padmé replies, her voice icy.

Korto seems to realize what he’s just done and he opens his mouth to offer what would likely be an apology, but he is clapped soundly on the back by Orn Free Taa.

“Your maid has stolen something from us,” Taa says darkly.

“She’s not my maid,” Padmé counters.  She glances at Mehht and Lorian steps closer to both of them. 

Stolen?” Mehht says incredulously.  “She’s a person.”

Padmé gasps in outrage at the implication.

Mehht is still railing at the Twi’leks.  “You don’t own her.  You piece of – “

“Silence!” Taa bellows.  “She is mine and you will tell me where she is.”

“Slavery is forbidden,” Padmé seethes.  She can almost feel Lorian’s hand hovering, ready to pull her out of Taa’s path if necessary, but even that fact isn’t sufficient warning.  She is too outraged, too disgusted to worry about Orn Free Taa’s retribution.

Taa sneers, weaving slightly.  Even at arm’s length, Padmé can clearly smell the Rylothan yurp on his breath.  “Stay out of it, harpy,” Taa growls.  “You wouldn’t know anything about it.  She’s a courtesan.  And she owes me money.  You wouldn’t understand.  You don’t know anything about pleasing a man.  Why don’t you go back to your rock in the Outer Rim and play in the dirt.”

“Enough.”

Anakin’s voice is deathly quiet, but it carries easily.  He grasps Padmé’s upper arm and forces her back several steps, away from Orn Free Taa. 

“My Lord,” Taa snarls, “forget propriety.  You could have an Empress.  A real Empress at your side.”

Anakin raises a hand and Orn Free Taa gurgles, scratching at his throat. 

“You are going to leave,” Anakin says with barely restrained fury.  “Now.”

Anakin releases the Force choke and Orn Free Taa doubles over, straining for breath.  Korto grabs him, dragging him out the servants’ entrance.

Padmé watches them go and then realizes they’ve created quite the scene.  Anakin turns to look at the crowd.  “There’s nothing to see,” he says darkly.  Almost in unison, people turn away, pretending to be distracted, none of them wishing to incur the Emperor’s wrath.

Anakin looks at Mehht.  “Get her out of here,” he snaps at Lorian.  Lorian dutifully ushers Mehht out the same door Korto just used.  Anakin takes Padmé’s elbow in a light, but unbreakable grip and steers her toward the anteroom where they met Luke and Leia earlier. 

Padmé avoids meeting the gaze of anyone they pass.  Orn Free Taa was raging. No doubt his insults are already on HoloNet.  Her cheeks burn with humiliation.  And insecurity eats at her.  What if Taa was right?  What if she is a joke?  Forget Ta’a Chume.  What if Padmé is her own worst enemy and it was a mistake to return to Coruscant? 

She hates this.  She hates doubting herself.  She hates the reason she needed to return.  And damn it, her pride is wounded – grievously so.  And now Anakin is parading her through the Grand Ballroom when all she wants to do is curl up and hide.

As soon as they enter the anteroom, Padmé jerks her elbow.  Anakin allows her to pull free, at the same time using the Force to shut the door behind them. 

Padmé spins around to face him.  “Do I look like a real  Empress?” she asks bitterly.

His eyes rake over her, but he hesitates for a moment before he answers.  “Of course,” he replies.

She steps closer, eyes narrowing.  “You’re lying,” she says. 

His lips pull into a thin, grim line and she knows she was right. 

The knowledge wounds her unexpectedly – even after all the vitriol Orn Free Taa just spewed.    She goes on the offensive before she even realizes what she’s doing.  “Perhaps someone more refined then,” she offers acidly.  “Maybe Ta'a Chume.” 

Her anger seems to amuse him and his lips curve into a small smile.  His gaze traces over her body and he doesn’t bother to hide his obvious approval.  “You misunderstand me,” he says.

“Then perhaps you should explain yourself,” she replies curtly.  “Because it sounded like an insult to me.” 

His gaze narrows, and warning prickles tingle across her exposed skin.  She’s so tied up in knots from the evening’s emotional rollercoaster that she can’t think straight. 

He takes one step, then another and she forces herself not to retreat.  Anakin is a predator and she has no desire to be run to ground.  He’s standing so close that the hem of her dress brushes the toes of his boots.  Her corseted cleavage brushes against the firm expanse of his muscled chest.  She wants to look up, to glare up at him, but she can’t.  She stares straight ahead at the black synthleather of his tabard, her body tingling with a sensation that's not quite fear, not quite anger.

The knuckles of his flesh and bone hand brush lightly across her cheekbone and she can’t prevent her eyes from fluttering shut for a moment.  “You asked me if you look like an Empress,” he says, his voice low and husky.

She tries to nod, but it’s the barest of movements.

“I don’t know what an Empress looks like,” he admits.  He hesitates for a moment and she senses that he’s struggling for the appropriate words.  “You look like the women from my childhood,” he finally says, his voice so quiet.  “The rich women, wives of the wealthy merchants.” 

He touches her again, this time it’s his fingertips against her jaw.  “Your skin is too tan,” he says.  He’s leaning even closer now and she can feel his breath against her temple.  “It’s obvious you’re not from Coruscant.”  His prosthetic fingers curl into the material of her gown, gripping the fabric tightly at her hip, pulling her closer to him.  She doesn’t fight, frighteningly eager to feel the length of his body against her own.  His lips rest against her temple.  “You smell,” he says on an exhale, “like home.”

Blindly, she seeks out his lips.  She can’t prevent the moan that escapes her throat at the first taste of him.  Of their own accord, her arms lock around his neck and he pulls her flush against his body, forcing her up on tiptoe.

Even at their most familiar, Anakin always overwhelmed her senses.  But it's been many long years since he last touched her.  The fact that he’s touching her now, that he finds her desirable  - heat coils in the pit of her stomach.  He breaks the kiss, nuzzling across her jaw and biting gently into the exposed flesh of her neck.  Her mouth opens on a gasp and he pulls her closer, at the same time forcing her backward, pinning her against the wall.  Her fingertips bite into the corded muscle of his shoulders and she tries to wrap one of her legs around his.  The gown's mermaid skirt is too narrow, preventing her.  Anakin solves the problem by grabbing the hem and hitching the material up to her thigh, at the same time insinuating one of his legs between hers.  One of her hands threads through the short hair at the nape of his neck, urging his mouth back to hers.  He complies, kissing her long and hard with teeth and tongue, roughly renewing his claim on her. 

Someone clears their throat loudly.

Padmé breaks off the kiss, but Anakin still has her pinned to the wall.  She has to lean to the side to see around him.  Luke is standing in the anteroom, his expression unreadable. 

"Your absence is conspicuous," Luke says carefully.

Padmé gently urges Anakin to release her.  He ignores it. 

"Ta'a Chume is asking – "

"We heard you," Anakin bites out.  "Leave."

Padmé waits until the door closes behind Luke.  Anakin is breathing hard.  His color is flushed.  She doesn't want to imagine how disheveled she looks. 

"Mas Amedda is a fool," Anakin says curtly, "if he thinks Ta'a Chume would prove more pliable than you.  I suspect that tonight's dinner will bring that fact to light."

"You’re not considering a relationship with the Queen Mother?" Padmé asks.  She's already certain Anakin is not, but her pride has been wounded many times today.

With a humorless laugh, Anakin releases her and steps back.  He drags a hand through his hair, pacing the small room.  "One wife is sufficient headache," he says.  "I don't need another."

"Is that all I am?" she asks.  "A headache?"

She stands there, lips swollen, hair falling loose around her shoulders.  The gown is rumpled.

His gaze is intent, cruel.  "What you are," he says, "is a wife in name only."  He steps closer again, forcing her to crane her head back to meet his gaze.  "If you want your charity causes or to play hostess at fancy parties, that's fine.  I will allow that.  But you came here tonight wearing that dress like I'm still a boy and you still set the rules." 

She tries to look away, but he grabs her chin, forcing her to look at him.  "Never forget," he says, "that I am your Emperor and your husband.  Everything you have – including your freedom – is at my discretion."

He releases her so abruptly that Padmé stumbles back a half step.  This did not work out the way she planned.  Her eyes burn, but she will not cry.  Not now.  Not in front of him.  He stands at the door, waiting and she walks to an ornate mirror.  She takes longer than absolutely necessary – to annoy him.  She smoothes down her hair and does her best to repair her gown.  There's nothing she can do about her swollen lips or flushed complexion. 

She takes a deep breath and joins him at the door.  As his hand fits into the small of her back, she fights the temptation to push him away.  Despite how strained things are between them, she is relieved he seems as eager as she to keep that knowledge private. 

***
 

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