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Kenobi was, apparently, on Nar Shadaa.

His instinct was to doubt it. Kenobi was not a fan of criminal underworlds or city planets. But then, Kenobi's mission preferences were elaborated in a great number of Jedi reports that had found their ways to the classified files of the Empire. Beyond that, there was him, the man's former apprentice. Kenobi might well have made the tactical decision to avoid worlds reminiscent of his usual preferences while on the run.

It also might have been a stopping point, meant to arrange transit or a new identity, or simply a mistaken report. Kenobi might be long gone by the time he arrived. He might never have been there in the first place.

Regardless, he would go, because the Emperor bid him. He would ascertain if Kenobi was on Nar Shadaa, and if not if he had recently been there. If he was still present, he would eliminate the threat.

A memory rose in him at that thought, as they had an unfortunate tendency to do. Five years ago: he had sprawled on a chair in Kenobi's quarters, as he had frequently done when he had possessed that much control and freedom in the use of his limbs. Kenobi had been attempting to bring him up to speed on the details of a mission they had just been assigned.

Anakin – he had been permitted to be Anakin then – had not been paying attention. They had docked on Coruscant less than twenty-four hours before, and had been out of combat less than forty-eight. A haze had drifted over him; he had not felt quite in control of what came out of his mouth, let alone the direction of his thoughts.

Kenobi had been going over tedious details, the political subterfuge exercised by the Separatist cells on the planet they were going to, their recruiting tactics. He had been irritated with Anakin's patience.

Anakin had said, at last, “Come off it, Master. I know the mission. Find the threat, eliminate it, go home. I've got it, right?”

Kenobi had looked at him and sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yes,” he said. “I suppose that is the essence of the matter.”

In the present, he let the memory hang in the air for a moment. He smelled, briefly, the tea the Jedi once drank, a cultivar indigenous to the long ago destroyed world of Dantooine. He tasted the peculiar scent of air on Coruscant, a product of the particularities of the planet's artificial, planet-wide air-filtering system. He felt the restlessness of a healthy body; and the peculiar exhaustion below it of war.

He let the memory drain out of him again.

That had been in the past, from a time when he served a more duplicitous master. He had been permitted to be disrespectful and rash towards Kenobi, out of what the man must have thought was kindness. Yet he had been no more free than he was now. It would not do to forget that and reminisce.

This was particularly the case in light of his current mission. In twelve hours he would be on Nar Shadaa with his personal troops.

Closing down his personal communicator, he returned to the pressurized chamber in order to rest. The technology had recently received an upgrade and he was still unused to it; he fumbled the connections between his breathing apparatus and the chamber twice before he got them connected.

He was woken after only three hours of rest by the alarms in his suit, informing him that he was receiving a sub-optimal level of oxygen. It seemed the connections had either come loose or he had failed to fasten them correctly the third time as well.

This was typical. The upgrades invariably made things function worse, not better. He sometimes suspected it was intentional: an effort of Palpatine's to keep him from adjusting and coming to see his condition as a fact of life, not worth misery or attention.

Other times he knew this to be paranoia. The truth was that Palpatine did not think of him enough to bother. He had been a temporary entertainment, a prize demonstrating Palpatine's utter dominion over the Jedi, for a few short months on Coruscant. Then Palpatine had gotten bored and relegated him to enforcement on the Rim, chasing down those few trained Force sensitives who had survived the purge. If the updates were unhelpful, it was only the result of apathy. He lived by the grace of technology meant for other situations, half-adapted to him and handed over to keep him from totally outliving his function.

Once he might have patched it himself, rendered it more helpful to him. At least when he had been owned by the Jedi he had been able to tinker with his prosthetic arm, fix the irritations it caused and upgrade it as he pleased. No longer was that true. His one attempt to examine the workings of the chamber had resulted in a humiliating lecture from the medical personnel in charge of his health, ending with a totally unnecessary threat to pass the complaint to the Emperor – technically his only superior.

He had received the message long before they reached that threat: his body did not belong to him, and unlike the Jedi, Palpatine would not release it temporarily into his own care.

He was not going to get back to sleep like this. The holographic display attached to the pod offered him a recommendation for a tranquilizer injection. Instead, he disconnected the breathing apparatus and pushed a button to receive his mask.

At least he was still permitted to decide to get out of bed at night. He realized it was not out of any respect for his autonomy, but rather because Palpatine wanted him available to answer the comm at all hours.

He found a sheet of plas on his desk – he preferred to do much of his planning on materials that could not be programmed with key loggers these days – and began to take notes on the last known espionage habits of Kenobi.

 

Halfway across the Nar Shadaa sky bridge, Padmé paused. The straps of the grocery bags dug into her shoulders, and her fingers were sweating on the package from the bakery, but she had no attention for them.

Looking out over the city in the dusk, she watched neon and holographic displays blinking on in a wave over the curve of the horizon, as sunset progressed. The glow reflected off of exhaust in the atmosphere, lighting up the air itself neon, becoming its own, pseudo-natural display above the city.

Padmé felt very small, very invisible in the dusk, surrounded by people and watching that artificial glow. For a moment everything was wiped away, and she existed only as a component of the crowd, a witness to that display.

For a moment, everything was alright.

Then a speeder screeched over head, far too close to the sky bridge. She flinched and ducked; her next thought when she came up was for the eggs in one of the baskets. Leia was going through a phase where eggs were one of the only things she would eat, if Padmé had broken too many she would have to go back.

Then Obi-wan would grumble over the budget as he did every damn week, and they would probably fight about it again. He would suggest that he could do the shopping if she found it difficult to carry things home on foot. She would snap at him that that would do the rest of them a lot of good when an Imperial stormtrooper caught him levitating a dropped grocery bag and carted him off to be murdered.

She tried to recapture the moment, looking back over the bridge, but it had passed. The world and its recent history had dropped back over her like the veils and cloaks of formal attire on Naboo. The outside world was still there, but muffled, and she was cut off by the care she had to take with her movements. She couldn't interact.

Padmé sighed, shifted the bags on her shoulders, and started walking home.

When she arrived, she found Obi-wan sitting in the main room of the apartment, reading the news on his datapad. Luke was asleep in a nest of blankets on the floor nearby. Meanwhile, Leia was playing some kind of game involving running over her rag doll repeatedly with several toy speeders. Padmé decided not to ask.

“The grocery shopping's done,” she said, when she had set the bags down on the counter and Obi-wan still sat, apparently oblivious to her presence.

She found herself doing this a lot: stating the obvious, or repeating herself three or four times, trying to get a reaction out of Obi-wan. He was infuriatingly placid, almost passive. He rarely even got angry when she picked at him; he would only continue to state what he considered obvious in unreasonably calm, slightly derisive tones.

She remembered how Anakin had complained about him, and how she had laughed it off, saying that it was better than having a temper. She understood all too well now.

Obi-wan hadn't moved. “I said,” she repeated, louder, “I've brought the groceries home.”

“Ah, I see,” he said, not looking up. “Thank you, Setaré.”

“It would be helpful,” Padmé said, not looking at him, “To have some help putting groceries away, after walking two kilometers with heavy bags. For example.”

“Of course, my apologies,” Obi-wan said, and got up.

That was the thing. Most of the time he wouldn't even do her the justice of fighting.

At least he was willing to watch the children – although Padmé had barely been willing to let him do that in the beginning. He had so recently suggested separating them, from each other and from her, as though he had the right to make that decision. No, as though that decision was obvious and had already been made.

At first she had only been willing to leave one twin with him at a time, afraid that she would come back to find him and one of her children vanished, but hoping he would stay for fear of the other falling into Imperial custody. The first time she was driven to leave the apartment by herself – their apartment on Inu had been a one room efficiency over a candy store and the smell had gone from appetizing to driving her insane in three days – she had rushed home, panicked that she would find the place empty, be left all alone.

He hadn't left them. The twins were still with her. He seemed to be respecting her right to make choices for them, as their only remaining parent. He seemed to have accepted that Jedi custodial rights over Force sensitives were a thing of the past.

She hoped.

She wondered, often, what things would be like if Anakin had lived, if she had gone into hiding with him instead. Would he play with the twins as readily as Obi-wan, laugh with Luke and point out butterflies to him, answer Leia's questions with more patience than Obi-wan? Would he be more willing to help Padmé with housework, or would he leave everything up to her, accustomed to droid custodians in the Temple? Would they fight more or less, laugh together, make dinner together?

What would it have been like to raise children together, to live together? To be truly married? What would have happened if Anakin had lived?

Lived as he had truly been, as himself, and not the half-sane, rambling monster that she had spoken to for the last time on Mustafar?

Even then, he had still been Anakin, Padmé thought, angrily – as she had a thousand times before over the past three years. He had been listening to her – ranting and power-mad, yes, but he had been talking, reaching towards her, still seeking her approval. He hadn't raised a hand to her, hadn't even been able to lie to her – until Obi-wan had emerged from her ship and convinced Anakin that Padmé had been conspiring to have him killed.

It made her so angry – with Anakin, and with Obi-wan too. If Obi-wan had taken his own damn ship instead of helping himself to hers. If either of them had waited five more minutes. If Anakin hadn't assumed she knew Obi-wan was there. She would have had him, she was sure of it.

There were folk tales on Naboo about this kind of thing. Their politics were infamously complex and vicious, and in the past it had been much worse – their planet had once been rife with the kind of assassination plots and rebellions that had inspired the ceremonial use of body doubles. There was one story in particular she often thought of lately, about the king who murdered his wife for plotting to have him killed, only to discover it had been a misunderstanding and commit suicide.

Padmé had always hated that story. She fiercely resented waking from childbirth to discover she had been recast as one of the main characters.

At least, she thought, irritably stacking canned legumes, Ziba had been dead. She hadn't had to live with the consequences of her husband's misunderstanding, betrayal of her, and death. She hadn't had to go into hiding with the actual conspirators against her husband and spend years in cramped, foreign apartments playing house.

She wasn't naive. She knew Anakin had been a murderer already by the time she found him on Mustafar, that Obi-wan had been doing the only thing he could think of to stem the loss of life. But it hadn't helped. Going after Anakin had done nothing to help the Republic, because Anakin had only ever been a pawn, one easily replaced by Palpatine. The pain of Anakin's betrayal of had faded with him out of Padmé's reach forever, while she had to live with Obi-wan every day.

Vainly she tried to remember that moment on the bridge, when Nar Shadaa had seemed as beautiful as the lake country for a moment, when everything had been peaceful. She could only glimpse a memory of the feeling, not the emotion itself.

“Mom,” Luke said, tugging at her skirt. She looked down, startled out of her thoughts. “Mom, I'm hungry.”

“What do we say when we're hungry, Luke?” she asked, trying to turn a sigh into a smile. None of this was the twins' fault. Sometimes, she thought they were the only thing that made life worth living these days.

“Can I have a snack,” Luke chanted dutifully.

“A snack,” Leia called from her spot on the floor, distracted from her game. “Mom, Uncle Ben, I want a snack!”

“Ask nicely, Leia,” Obi-wan said from where he stood by the small fridge, checking the eggs. She saw, to her relief, that none were broken.

Fine,” Leia said. “Can I have a snack, please.”

“Yes, you may both have snacks,” Padmé said. “Would you like,” she tried to think what was unclaimed by future meal plans and wouldn't take an hour over the stove, “Eggs or sandwiches?”

Padmé was an awful cook. Going into politics so young meant that many of the skills of daily life that people were expected to master on Naboo were neglected for the daughters and, rarely, sons reserved for public life. She could write a speech or a legal brief, pick out the tiny mistakes in wardrobe that identified someone trying to pass as a higher class on Naboo, and navigate the complicated web of favors owed and patronage granted through each conversation on Coruscant – but she hadn't been able to make toast without a dedicated appliance for it or sew a rip in her skirt when she and Obi-wan fled Mustafar.

Those were the skills she needed now, living by the tiny amount of credits they could make on temporary work with bad ID, in cramped apartments with minimal kitchens. She had learned to sew at least passably on Inu, working for a dressmaker and assisted in turn by her meticulous knowledge of Core fashion; but she hadn't had time for cooking.

“Eggs,” Leia said, predictably.

“Sandwich,” Luke disagreed, crossly. “I want cherry jam.”

“I'll make the eggs, if you get Luke's sandwich,” Obi-wan said.

Thank you,” Padmé said, heartfelt, forgetting her earlier irritation in a heartbeat.

He had been as mystified by the Rim housing market as her and had started out with no better idea how to clean a toilet, but the Jedi paid a little bit of lip service to self-sufficiency. He at least could cook the basics and he had been improving. Padmé was exceptionally grateful for that some days.

Anakin had loved to cook, she thought, stomach churning while she cut slices from the fresh loaf of bread. Whenever he had the time, he had taken over the kitchen in the Senator's apartment on Coruscant, gleeful at her willingness to pay for imported spices from Tatooine. He had been so anxious to find out whether she liked his childhood favorites that she would have pretended anyway, but it turned out he was amazing in the kitchen, so it hadn't been necessary.

Padmé spread jam and butter together on the sandwich and cut it into triangles with the knife, taking more care than she needed to, handing the food over to Luke reluctantly. She could do so little for them. They had mediocre food and cheap, mended clothing and no space at all - but then, her children had been born refugees, raised in hiding. They thought this was normal. This was all they had ever known.

On that thought, Padmé went to start the dishes while Obi-wan stood over the stove, whisking eggs.

He glanced at the twins - Leia was spinning in circles on the floor, while Luke intently examined his sandwich from all angles. Then he leaned into her to say, mostly covered by the sound of water in the sink, "There's news." He said it in one of their handful of mutual languages, Core Tw'ileki, which the twins didn't speak. Once one of them realized something was being hidden the two of them inevitably ganged up on the adults for days.

"What happened?" She already knew it wasn't good news. Obi-wan's face was drawn, his mouth tight.

"Darth Vader is coming to Nar Shadaa," he said. "It was only a rumor this morning, but I sense him now in orbit." He hesitated. "I believe he may be coming for me."

They had been waiting for something like this.

They were always waiting for something like this. But last time, Obi-wan's contact had warned him a week in advance, giving them time to buy new identities and make their way off planet on a refugee ship. The time before that, one of Padmé's clients had commissioned a dress for a routine affair that required the attendance of several Imperial officials. They had had an entire month to flee, trying to keep their preparations from the twins so they wouldn't tell the children they played with.

Darth Vader - the mysterious Jedi hunter of the Emperor, credited with dozens of murders - was already in orbit. He might be on planet within hours. It might be too late.

 

When his shuttle touched down on Nar Shadaa, the quadrant of the Imperial Base was pitch black. Only the lights of the landing strip showed in the darkness. There was a mandatory curfew in the area for security reasons; the civilian businesses that served base staff shut down at night.

Despite this, he looked out of the window into the darkness and felt that the sun was rising.

It was an irrational feeling, and a strange one at that. He very nearly crushed it, focusing on the task at hand and the subdivision of necessary preliminaries within it. He must ensure appropriate quarters were available for himself and his division, greet the base administrator currently standing on the landing pad, face visible from a distance with the infrared vision in his helmet and stark with terror, and complete many other pointless tasks. He was not in the custom of paying more attention than necessary to his feelings, lately; they were a problem, in the current situation.

But he had been trained too well by the former Jedi - by Obi-wan - not to understand that strange, irrational emotions were often the work of the Force. While he did not claim to serve the Force with utmost obedience, it was a fool who would ignore its urgings completely

Still in the foremost chamber of the shuttle - the base administrator would wait for him; the man had little choice - he stilled. He could not assume a traditional meditative pose, and his control over his breathing patterns was limited in the suit. But he could limit his focus and expand it, detach from the mundane discomfort of life and reach outward; examine that feeling of sunrise for the source of the light.

She was here.

His breath should have quickened, his heart should have sped up - but the breathing apparatus rushed in and out, steadily, incapable of speeding; and his heart was likewise kept steady by it and the drugs administered by the suit. Only emotion in the strictest, most abstract sense was his, and there he felt--

Disbelief, primarily. Pain at the reminder of memories he tried not to allow to rise to him.

(He had had so little time with her, so little happiness - and like a slave sold away, he now must keep those memories to sustain him for the rest of his life. They were so easy to rub thin through overuse. He had worn holes in most of his memories of his mother by the time he was fifteen years old, no longer certain which of the details he went over at night were real and which he had imagined. he could remember only all the times he had thought of her instead of her, herself.)

Curiosity, rising below those emotions; this could not be her, so then who or what was it? Another woman, so like her as to stand out as a near-duplicate in the Force? Merely an opportunity on Nar Shadaa he had not yet considered, who might offer something like what she once had? (Impossible, that.)

And as he prodded the feeling more, as it did not dissolve, a rising excitement at the idea that she might really be here--

That he might not, for all of his undeniable crimes, have murdered his wife--

He could not think this. Not now, not here.

He would consider the matter at greater length at a later time.

He rose and strode from the shuttle to greet the Imperial base administrator.

 

Three hours passed before he had the time and privacy necessary to think.

The Emperor had spoken grandly of quarters particularly for him, adapted to his needs, available in every military base he might be called to - impossibly, insincerely. What he could be provided with was a room in the base hospital that could be pressurized and turned into an appropriate environment to allow him to rest safely and to remove his helmet and those pieces of the suit that were meant to come off.

There were real disadvantages to this, and he was not particularly looking forward to what might be a lengthy stay as he oversaw the search of an entire planet. The room was not meant as living quarters, for a start; the only beds in the hospital were cots unsuited to his height and the weight of the suit and his additional limbs. They would in fact have been impressively uncomfortable to him even prior to his last meeting with Obi-wan. He would not sleep soundly between that and the makeshift nature of the air modifications. He would also have to leave every morning through the base hospital in order to attend to his duties.

There was no communication unit in the room. Finally, there was none of the monitoring equipment that his quarters were typically furnished with, assuring the Emperor total control of his body and actions through his technology and agents.

Perhaps he would not mind an extended stay on Nar Shadaa after all.

Once he had assured the doctor it would serve and dismissed him, he unpacked the few possessions he would need for this particular mission, and sat down on the cot. He took a moment - a tiny thing, one moment - to revel in the feeling of being temporarily unmonitored. The suit's controls were localized; it would continue to function according to its programming, but no new instructions could be received. The Emperor would not know what he did, here - provided he did not behave like a fool.

The Force still prodded him. He knew that the air he breathed in was filtered twice, by the room itself and by the mask; nevertheless he thought he smelled apple blossoms, common on Naboo. She had once used them as perfume on Coruscant; she had confessed to him that she did it out of homesickness, that the scent was considered a cheap thing on Naboo, and there she had always favored jasmine.

Anakin hadn't known the difference. He had tried not to be insulted by the implication that she had not wanted to come off as cheap, herself. He had only known the scent of her perfume, and associated it with her.

With hours to spare and no particular expectation of sleeping easily, he opened himself to the Force and let it take his mind where it would.

It was difficult. He had not often accepted the Force's will lately. Images came to him not from the Force but from his own mind: Obi-wan's face at Mustafar, and another view of him in his robes, standing at the window in their quarters in the Jedi Temple. Padmé - he could use her name here, shielded by the Force, where he did not normally dare even in his thoughts - frowning at her datapad, strand of hair wrapped around her finger. Padmé with tears in her eyes, screaming he had changed. Padmé, lying on her back in their bed that first night, their wedding night, laughing - not at him but with him, with the joy of it. Her veil spreading around her and falling off her hair, flowers spread between the sheets and throughout her room for the wedding, a custom of Naboo meant for luck and long life and happiness.

He supposed their marriage had had one of the three. They had always been happy, when they were together.

Some of the memories, he wanted to push away and reject; others he wanted to dwell in, relive in detail. He had to do neither, to let them come and go, to see where his mind would take him when at last the clutter was gone. He had to see where they were leading him to.

He had never been very good at this part.

The images that came were at first almost dreams, senseless and random as Force visions sometimes were. He knew, still, that they were not the goal he sought. He saw a boy, fair haired as he had once been but dressed in the clothing of a free child, walking on Tatooine, clinging to a man's hand. He saw his mother, young - years younger than he had ever known her - with a bruised and painted face, mouthing words soundlessly and tears running down her face. He saw his own mask consumed by flame in the forests of a world he did not know.

He saw a pedestrian street on a city world - perhaps the slums of Coruscant, perhaps another world in the Core or Inner Rim like Taris, perhaps on Nar Shadaa itself. The buildings were poorly repaired, stained by graffiti, the actual street cracked and repaired cheaply too many times. He had never lived on a street like this, but he had seen them many times, whether on Jedi missions or sneaking out on Coruscant. They were the kind of places people disappeared in, if they didn't have enough credits to do it in style.

The street led to a sort of plaza, a clear open space connecting together lobby floors of the towering buildings. This was the town square of the city planets, high above the ground, connected by poorly maintained infrastructure - bridges and streets and elevators - and improvised, dangerous ladders and rope bridges built by the residents. Generally you would have access to a certain distance in any given direction and certain locations, but there were limits. In order to reach other areas of planets, you needed a speeder, and very few of the residents could afford them.

This was how segregation of the rich and poor, and on some planets between species and ethnic groups, was achieved. It was also how the working opportunities of the poor were carefully limited, shepherding them into situations that could border on slavery themselves. If you had access to only two or three factories and several dozen shops in which to work, what choice did you really have? What kind of expenditure would it be to seek work elsewhere, to become unemployed and then move, and what guarantee did you have that the next neighborhood's choices would be better?

He let these thoughts, spurred by the image, come, and he let them go, and he watched.

There were children on the plaza - ten or twelve, he thought, a mix of boys and girls, humans and twi'leks and rodians, making him think it was most likely a Rim world, Outer or Inner. While there were exceptions, in the Core humans and aliens tended to live very segregated lives. They were playing some kind of game - he did not have the patience to decipher it - involving running and jumping and chasing each other.

On the edge of the group were a handful of younger children, toddlers, minded by a bored looking teenage girl. She read from a datapad he guessed might be homework - or work for pay, depending on the world and her family. His eyes were drawn to two of the younger children in particular. There was a girl with dark, glossy hair that reminded him of Padmé's, and a boy, fair-haired, talking to her and waving his hands. He guessed they might be siblings. They weren't so much more alike than the others, but there was something in the way they clustered together, the similarity of their bearing.

A door opened, not on the plaza itself but one story above, connected downward by a rusted metal staircase. The door had been painted bright blue, the staircase a flaking red; small changes, attempts to mark out individuality or bring a little decorativity or simply prevent the residents from getting lost.

A woman stepped out, and he wanted to see her face, but he could not picture it. She was wearing pants of a lightweight fabric and a wrapped tunic that came down to the knee - unremarkable female clothing in many poor cosmopolitan areas, of a kind manufactured by the millions in factories, single size and cheap. Her shoes, likewise, were sandals made of foam. Her hands - they bore recent wear, small cuts and calluses from needlework. Nevertheless they were not the hands of a woman poor from birth, they were too soft under it. There was something familiar about those hands.

Her hair came down in shining near black braids to the hip, one hanging down her back and the other passing her jaw, coming down over her shoulder. Past her jaw he could see her face, he knew her. She was Padmé.

She was alive; and there was a certainty, an immediacy to the vision that told him this was no mere hypothetical or alternate possibility. She was alive, and she was here, on Nar Shadaa, he did not need to identify the clothing or the street to know it.

She looked down the staircase, called out to the children below. The girl he had been watching at first, three or four with the dark hair, called up, excited. Her brother got up and waved with both hands.

Padmé came down the staircase, avoiding the steps with holes in them with a practice that told him she knew the area well. She crouched, picked up the fair headed boy and cradled him to her chest, extended a hand to the girl-

To her son and her daughter, her children. To their children. The ages were right, about three years old. They would have been born not long after he had last seen her. The boy's coloring was very like his own as a child, and not at all like Padmé's or those members of her family he had met and seen pictures of. Padmé and their children were alive.

He had children - a son and a daughter. They had both been right, he thought, giddiness rising in him. They had a son and a daughter.

He wanted to know them. He wanted their names, their histories, their birthday. He wanted to lift the dark haired girl clutching Padmé's hand, carry her safely up the twisted staircase instead of leaving Padmé to choose which child to carry and which to watch. He wanted to know what they were like. Did they have favorite foods, holidays, games? He would have to ask Padmé - there was so much time he had missed, but there was so much more, they were still so young. He would find them, and-

And what? he asked himself. The vision dissipated, and he found himself back in the hospital room, sterile and silent, alone with himself.

What would he do? What could he do?

He was here to kill Obi-wan, and if Padmé was on this planet where Obi-wan had been sighted most likely they were together in hiding. Padmé had chosen to trust him over Anakin - and, he supposed, she had been right to. Obi-wan had not killed her - well, neither had he; but Obi-wan had not held her in a choke hold with the Force, cutting off her air, causing damage he had believed for years had ended her life. Obi-wan had not assaulted her. Obi-wan had not had the part Anakin had taken in destroying the democracy Padmé loved.

If Padmé had gone into hiding with their children, was living now in a slum on Nar Shadaa where she had to carry their children over dangerously rickety metal stairs to reach their house; if she worked with her hands instead of in the Core palaces she had once occupied, waited on by servants and droids--

Well, it was him she was hiding from. He had driven her to it, terrified her and nearly murdered her and betrayed her. He could not expect that his reception would be a welcome one; and that was as it should be. Padmé had more than just cause to repudiate him. She had not died; she had only left him.

Too, it was not only he who would be interested in Padmé and her children. If he went to them, conspicuous as he now was, he would lead the Imperial base straight to them. Force sensitives were to be killed at birth when identified. And that was if the Emperor did not take special interest in Anakin Skywalker's children.

They would be better off dead. He closed his eyes. Better dead, than manipulated from birth by a master far more interested in their personal lives than most of those of Tatooine ever had been, by a master who wanted to learn to control thoughts. Best to be dead, as the Jedi younglings of the Temple were better dead, as most of the Jedi themselves were. Death was its own kind of freedom, the last attainable, impossible to revoke. The dead could not be bartered or manipulated or tortured or raped; they were beyond all of it, beyond pain itself.

It was a truth he had been raised with.

The suit kept him alive, regardless of his own wishes and despite all he had done to discover its workings. Death was a freedom that was denied to him. He would see his children dead before he saw them delivered to Palpatine; but he would first, preferably, see them free.

He knew now that Padmé was alive, and his children with her. That was one thing he had done, one thing he could sustain himself with the thought of. Perhaps the Force would continue to grant him visions, new memories to sustain himself with.

And perhaps, even, he had something to work for now. If the Emperor were overthrown, he could make the universe safer for his children. He could allow Force sensitives to live past detection, halt the warrants on democratization activists and other supposed traitors - the nonviolent ones, at least.

He understood what the Force been telling him now: he had hope again.

Of course, there was still the matter of his mission to kill Obi-wan, and how to handle it without endangering Padmé.

 

"You have to go," Padmé said, early the next morning. The twins were still asleep in the second room, curled up together in their bed against the wall. It gave them time to conference in privacy. "We'll be alright without you, and we're not very - interesting, by ourselves."

Obi-wan frowned at her over the cup of caf he had cradled in his hands. "I can't go without you."

"They'll be watching the ports, you'll have to stow away, and the twins aren't old enough to hide for long." As much as Obi-wan sometimes irritated her, the thought of being without him - being the only adult with the twins, the only one who knew everything - made her feel like she was losing her mind.

They were on their floor's balcony, where the twins wouldn't overhear if they woke. They stood together, leaning against the railing in the midst of laundry from their own household and the next two. A pair of Obi-wan's trousers, not quite dry, fluttered in the breeze. Padmé thought he would have to wear them damp - but no, she shouldn't bring them down early, shouldn't give any sign she knew he was leaving. Many women were left by men in these neighborhoods, no one would be surprised. She might even escape persecution if he was caught - as long as the police didn't recognize Padmé Amidala. As long as they believed her children weren't his.

"Setaré, I can't possibly leave you and the twins in danger like that," Obi-wan said. "We must all go."

"He's looking for you," Padmé said, fighting to keep her voice measured and persuasive instead of coming out in an angry hiss. "You're the Jedi, you're the one whose warrant has been blasted up and down the galaxy. I'm only of interest to the Empire if I'm giving speeches, and I'm not. The twins weren't born yet when we left. He's looking for you."

"Amongst other things." Obi-wan was infuriatingly steady. "He has also been sent to hunt Force sensitive children."

Padmé shivered at the words, at the thought of Luke and Leia murdered so young. And yet-- "Many parents bribe the doctors," Padmé said. "Especially here. Even more children aren't born in hospitals, aren't recorded at all officially. They can't possibly be the only Force sensitive toddlers left on Nar Shadaa, and they don't send Darth Vader after administration problems. If they were trying to crack down on parents avoiding the tests, we'd hear about it. It would take months or years. But you've told me--" and Anakin had told her long ago, "Trained Jedi are easier to sense in the Force.

"The same way you can tell he's here, he knows that you are. If you're gone, we're no more interesting than any other single mother on Nar Shadaa with untested children. If you're here, you'll lead him straight to us."

The thought of trying to make ends meet and find care for the children without him was also exhausting, but she knew women who did it. She had friends here who did it and would help her. The woman upstairs had three, the youngest Luke and Leia's age. Her most recent boyfriend had vanished without warning eight months ago, just before their arrival.

Obi-wan stared down into the caf, oblivious to her and to the view of the city below. "You are correct insofar as the information you have is accurate. I am afraid there are some... gaps."

More lies and evasions from the Jedi. Padmé couldn't even be surprised anymore. "Tell me and I'll be able to make an informed decision."

"Darth Vader may be here for me," Obi-wan said. "But he also may be here for you, and the twins themselves. I venture if he doesn't already know, he will be very interested as soon as he finds out about your continued life."

"Why?" she asked, blankly.

"He was not always as he is now," Obi-wan said. "He was once a Jedi. When the Empire came, he betrayed the order and turned to hunting his colleagues."

Padmé supposed Anakin couldn't be the only one Palpatine had twisted. "And he would be interested in Luke and Leia because, what - he knew their father?"

"In a manner of speaking," Obi-wan said after a pause. "The mask is because of injuries he sustained during the fall of the Republic. I assume he needs it to breathe. Padmé. Darth Vader is Anakin Skywalker. He is the twins' father."

She heard the words, but she could barely understand the implications.

Obi-wan was quiet beside her on the balcony. Sound filtered into her awareness gradually - the laundry shifting and flapping in the wind, the distant sound of speeders far above these neighborhoods, their downstairs neighbor singing morning prayers to some religion Padmé couldn't name. The soft hum of dozens of electric appliances, street lights, water rushing through the plumbing in the walls.

Anakin was alive. Anakin was alive.

She remembered, in the same distant, fuzzy way she would recall a long ago dream, his face on Mustafar. The words she had thought, then and so recently - I almost had him! She had wished she could only have had another chance before that final duel...

She had another chance, now.

Or was that a delusion? She had heard about Darth Vader. And--

"In that case, it's all the more necessary that you leave," she heard herself say in the voice she had once used from the throne of Naboo - quiet, but still thundering in its disapproval. "He may not be able to sense me and the twins, but he knows you too well to miss you, and he will definitely come straight here."

Her mind seemed to leap and race, made sharper in her desperation. She could no longer trust Anakin the way she once had - but she also didn't know if she could trust Obi-wan.

He had told her Anakin was dead. If Darth Vader was coming for them, it would endanger the children all the more, preventing Padmé from understanding the threat. What if he had died without telling her? What if they had been separated?

Obi-wan closed his eyes. "You must come."

"But not with you," Padmé said. "They don't test children for Force sensitivity at the ports, and they'll be looking for - for a single man if it's you, or for a woman and one child if it's me. A man and a woman and a child if they think we're together. I'll find a group to travel with, use our savings on good ID, and we'll get out. I hope. But we can't go together, not with Vader watching."

Obi-wan looked at her, then bowed his head.

"You're right. I'll go before they wake, so they don't cause a fuss. Don't tell the neighbors I'm gone--"

"Until you don't come home, I know," Padmé said, and sighed. "We went to all of that effort to convince them you're my brother and not my boyfriend, too."

"Brothers can be scheming and irresponsible as well," Obi-wan said drily, and she tried not to understand that he was thinking of Anakin.

He left just after dawn. She wanted to follow him; she wanted to run after him with the twins, screaming, don't leave me alone! She wanted to slap him for lying to her, shake his shoulders and scream that he had betrayed her, again. She wanted to throw herself on the floor and wail.

She did none of those things. She had a dress order to complete; the client's house girl was coming in the company speeder to pick it up at four. She had to finish by then if she wanted to pay the rent next week.

And if she wasn't going to be here to pay the rent, well, she would need the money for bribes.

The twins were upset when Obi-wan didn't return home that evening, but she put them off, telling them that they must have needed him at work. He had been out all night before, if rarely. They believed her, or at least pretended to, and at last she got them down to bed.

But Padmé lay awake long after their breathing had smoothed out and the whispering and giggling across the room had stopped. She was used to Obi-wan's presence in the bedroom on the next bed, used to the knowledge that if someone came in the night, he would hold them off while she fled with the children. She was used to shouldering a shared burden.

Now, she didn't know when she would see him again. If she would see him again.

She couldn't bear to do this alone.

That was the thing. Padmé had endured invasions, been a fugitive on her own planet and on what seemed to be dozens of Rim worlds, all blending together in her head into an endless parade of worlds over the last three years. She had endured plenty in her time - but always, there had been people.

On Naboo, before, during and after the invasion, she had been surrounded by her handmaidens, her closest and constant companions. Trained to be her doubles, with her twenty-five hours a day, they had sometimes seemed to be one single organism called Amidala rather than a series of individual girls. Some of them had continued on with her as a Senator; others had been replaced by new attendants. She had had more privacy then, of course - it was not the same kind of position as Queen - and there had been time away from them with her family, or alone in the Senatorial apartments, so that she had felt herself more one person. But they had always been available when she wanted them, along with a flood of advisers, staff, the damn droids. Her family - both her birth family and Anakin - had been no further than a comm call away.

These years had worn away at her sense of self and her sanity; she had always before been a part of the extended organism of Naboo society and the smaller community that was her family lineage. Now she found herself standing on her own without either. But she had the twins, and she had had Obi-wan, who had seen it all. He had carried the burden of knowledge and exile with her, so that they could occasionally lift it from each other's shoulders.

The twins were so young - too young, really, to be comfort. It might have been different with a few more years behind them, if they were old enough to be told and keep it a secret; old enough to have adult conversations with. But for now, Obi-wan's absence, most likely permanent, meant total, painful isolation for Padmé. Staring up at the cracked ceiling, feeling her sanity fray with hours of semidarkness on what was only the first night, she didn't think that she could do it.

They could say whatever they wanted - they already had. But they were both in hiding, living without permanent comm numbers or names, in temporary and unrecorded housing, skipping town whenever they had to. (Eight months was a long time, for them.) Most likely they wouldn't find each other again. She might never know if Obi-wan had been caught.

She couldn't do it.

She rose, comforted Leia over breakfast when she cried for Uncle Ben, convinced Luke to get dressed through a tantrum, and fed them all toast. (Leia, miraculously, actually ate hers for once.) Then she crossed the floor, knocked on the door of one of their neighbors. The residents were a male couple who had a teenage daughter and a relatively steady income, and let Obi-wan borrow their cooking pots when he and Padmé had first moved in.

The one who answered was the one Padmé liked better, who sometimes came to sit with her while she sewed and watched the twins. "Hey, Setaré. Ben didn't come back last night?"

"I need to go look for him at work," Padmé said, relieved by the excuse. "I don't know--" She didn't have to fake her anxiety, swallowing. "I need to find out what happened. He might be in jail, or worse. Can I leave the twins with you?"

Her ID card had no address, so there was no real way of finding the twins from her possessions. They wouldn't take it well if both of the adults in their life vanished - but at least there would no longer be anything to connect them to the devouring past.

 

There was a train between regions on Nar Shadaa a few neighborhoods away. Padmé spent an exorbitant amount by her hourly wage to get a speeder taxi to take her there, with no walk ways linking them, and had plenty of time to have second thoughts once she was sitting in a car with her head against the window.

This was Anakin, she told herself. Anakin had always listened to her apart from - that last time. He wouldn't be particularly angry or hysterical, now. Obi-wan wouldn't leap out from behind her shoulder. He would listen to her.

And if not... at least she would know. She wouldn't live the rest of her life cursing herself for being a coward. The twins might well be safer, disappearing into the depths of Nar Shadaa, never knowing who they were. Padmé would not tell Anakin about them - not unless she was sure. She would tell him she had miscarried, or that the child was stillborn, as a result of the - the violence.

How would she even get to Darth Vader, to Anakin? Padmé didn't know as much as she would have liked about Imperial bases or the Jedi hunter, but she knew what she could find on the censored holonet, what she had observed herself. Imperial agents traveled in a cloud of attendants and soldiers, never alone for thirty seconds at a time, rarely out of secured areas - the same way Padmé herself had when she was a Queen. She wasn't a politician anymore. It wouldn't be as simple as knocking on his office door and asking for a private chat.

In the end, Padmé relied on the same quality that she and Obi-wan feared - Anakin's ability to sense her presence. She exited the train in the retail district nearest the main Imperial base on Nar Shadaa, found a cantina, and waited.

It was nerve wracking. She hadn't been further than the plaza outside their apartment for much time in too long; even more rarely did she go without a child in tow or an errand to run. She kept reflexively checking for Luke and Leia and panicking to find them gone, before remembering she had gone out alone. She felt exposed, highly visible whenever stormtroopers crossed the street - a usual affair, she gathered by the lack of interest in the cantina, so close to the base. At one point three of them came in with helmets off. They went to order drinks and hassle the bartender about the selection available, and Padmé thought her heart might burst out of her chest with panic.

Staring over her drink through a curtain of loose hair, afraid that if she twitched wrong a stormtrooper might turn around and declare her under arrest, she thought: you expect Anakin to recognize your presence like this?

 

He was vividly and unpleasantly aware when Kenobi left the planet. Whatever ship he was on presumably had looped over the base in its orbit prior to obtaining the height of vacuum. He felt the presence of a fully trained Jedi - once usual, now rare - crackle overhead, laced with the peculiar associations of Kenobi - a smoldering resentment that he had told himself he no longer possessed in anything but memory. Then, that presence was gone.

He ordered the base to check the flight paths of all launches and identify the ships in Imperial airspace at 1000 hours, but he suspected it was already useless, and this was shortly confirmed. The ship might have been any number of freighters carrying products from Nar Shadaa's poorly regulated manufacturing trade, one of several passenger vessels or - less likely - a governor's messenger ship.

He conveyed orders across Imperial space to have the relevant vessels impounded and searched at their destinations, but he did not expect much from it. There were generally many opportunities to slip off board a ship that had just landed, particularly in the sort of badly patrolled, poorly run Rim ports that awaited most of the ships. Furthermore, it was likely that several or all of those ships were carrying illegal cargo and had arrangements to ensure that searches would not be an obstacle to their trade.

With some dread and a large quantity of irritation, he began drafting his report and the mandatory apology to Palpatine. (As though it was his fault that Nar Shadaa's port security were invariably corrupt, incompetent, or more typically both.)

Not more than an hour into this affair, he became aware of another problem: she was nearby.

He felt her presence, not just on Nar Shadaa where she would blend into the hum of sentient, not particularly Force sensitive life, but nearby. She was most likely within a few kilometers. She must be in the Imperial base itself - and he fought to keep himself calm at that thought, aided by the drugs administered continuously by the suit - or close by outside, perhaps among the shops that had sprung up to serve base personnel with recreation, basic necessities and refreshment.

He tried to push this knowledge back and focus on the report, holding to his earlier resolve - but he found it impossible to avoid reaching the nagging conclusion that she would not come here by accident.

What other reason could there be? She was here for him.

Or possibly to sabotage the base, but in that case he should probably be aware of the matter anyway.

He stood and left the office lent to him without preamble, dismissing the guards at his door. He did not need bodyguards; he was nearly impossible to kill for any ordinary dissident, unfortunately. He would soon leave Nar Shadaa again, content that Obi-wan Kenobi had left and would either be intercepted at another port or not. Perhaps he might delay his return to Coruscant and punishment by selecting the most likely destination from those identified ships and intercepting it on a faster Imperial military vessel. For now, however, he had little business and every right to go into the retail district serving Imperial personnel, as amusingly frustrating as the mental image of attempting to enjoy himself in a cantina was now.

He would proceed to her general area; she could not possibly miss him on the street. If she really had come to attract his attention, presumably she would let him know. If not, he would allow her to flee back into the depths of Nar Shadaa, and return to Palpatine as he was bid.

His resolve nearly faltered at the way the crowds outside reacted to him. There was a hushing followed by soft whispering, people turning away or ducking into shops and doors, or stopping dead to stare. He did not often go into public without official business now. But she was waiting for him, and he could not leave her to wait unanswered.

He reached a square outside the cantina where she waited and halted, attempting to find something he might reasonably occupy his time with while she prepared, either to go to him or to flee. His gaze settled on a display of fruit, the owner of which choked on her morning coffee and rapidly got up to offer him whatever he wanted free of charge.

He could not eat, and he drily informed her of such, though with thanks, and then--

"I believe Lord Vader has come to speak with me," Padmé said, behind him.

He had never heard her voice make quite that sound before. He had heard her commanding, angrily or calmly; shrieking and pleading; laughing, teasing. He had never heard her voice go so soft, or break in fear.

"You are correct," he said, hating his voice, hating the mask's alteration of his voice. He turned, slowly.

She wore a skirt today, hanging in voluminous folds nearly to the ground. Over it was another of the mass-produced wrap tunics, and her hair was coiled over her head.

Despite the fear in her voice, meeting her gaze, he saw only unclouded determination.

"There is one thing you could do," he said to the fruit seller abruptly. "You have a back room, a stock room, perhaps?"

"Yes," the woman said, voice quavering.

"You could lend it to us for a few minutes," he said. "We will soon be gone, and cease frightening off your customers."

There was more whispering at that, but other officers did considerably worse in their spare time and about as, if not more, publicly. There was nothing scandalous on Nar Shadaa about five minutes of private conversation with a strange woman - Palpatine's views on the human sexual division had not been propagated so far so successfully.

Also, he could not take off the suit in uncontrolled environments. A fine husband Padmé would find him now.

They were led through the fruit store to the stock room; he had to duck his head to avoid knocking it into hanging baskets and shelves. Padmé fared better, sized less grotesquely for the space. The fruit seller told them - as well she would to him - to take as long as they needed and closed the door firmly; they heard her footsteps retreat.

He thought for the first time that she was alone, without the children in his vision. Well - why should she take them to meet their father, the monster? What sane woman would?

"Well," Padmé said, drawing out her breath, and sat down on a packing crate.

He doubted the flimsy wood would withstand his weight and consequently remained standing. "Well," he echoed. "I am here. I assume this was the outcome you desired."

"It was," Padmé said, laughed nervously. "I am - I'm glad to see you, Ani. I'm glad you're alive."

He hadn't heard even his full name in years; the nickname was almost unendurable under the circumstances. He let it pass. "I would not fault you for wishing otherwise, given the events of our... last meeting."

"No," Padmé said, inexplicably angry. "I didn't - Obi-wan stowed away on my ship, Anakin. I didn't know he was there, I didn't bring him to kill you. If you had just let me explain..."

"We might well have avoided this," he agreed.

He had practiced this moment over and over again in his head, in the weeks after her death - what he thought had been her death - and his own rebirth. But all of his tirades and apologies and pleading had been only fantasy, impossible to articulate. In the end all he could think to say was, "My actions were... inexcusable." And, hastily appended: "I am sorry, Padmé."

"I know," Padmé said, though her pale face spoke otherwise. "I knew you would be, Ani. They told me you were dead."

"Obi-wan?" Vader inquired. "Then he was with you."

She shook her head. "The doctors," she said vaguely. "There was news - your death was announced, it was on the list of Jedi killed..."

He had seen that announcement, so it was possible that it was true; and he would allow her to attempt to protect Obi-wan. They had obviously been together, found on the same world, but she could hardly lead him to Obi-wan now. He was not foolish enough to leave her with a specific destination to give up. "As I was told by Palpatine that I had killed you. Very well; we have believed each other dead, and we were wrong."

"What now?" Padmé said. She sat up straight, the packing crate like her throne. Her hands were still in her lap, and her words carried the force of an imperial query or edict; she would, he thought with affection, make a truer Emperor than Palpatine ever could. "What do we do, Anakin?"

"I am afraid I can give you no positive outcome on that score. I am Palpatine's..." He could not bear to say 'slave.' "Servant. I live, travel and work at his bidding; and this suit and my injuries make disappearing difficult."

"It must be possible to do something," Padmé said. "You're a young man, Ani, it can't be--"

"I require the mask or a pressurized, atmosphere-controlled chamber to breathe," he said, starting with the simplest. "My skin requires protection over most of my body. Drug administration is also controlled by the suit, requiring monitoring of vital signs. I almost died in that duel. Any replacement would be - perhaps not recognizable instantly as Darth Vader but likely as conspicuous. They would also be expensive and likely require months of healing time. Padmé. I am grateful for this chance to speak to you. I am grateful to lay eyes on you one last time. But this must be the last time, because it is too late for me, and I would not see you executed or imprisoned."

Palpatine would be all too glad to have Padmé in his hands. She had been beloved, by her own people and later by the disaffected of the Republic who still sought an answer within the system. He would likely use them the way masters often used married slaves, insurance against each escaping alone and a leash on the other's behavior.

"I don't believe that," Padmé said, still in the voice of command, speaking as though her mere words would make it so. He almost believed that the universe would rush to obey. "It's never too late, Anakin."

He was not willing to say it again, and so he fell silent, listening with displeasure to the rush of the breathing apparatus.

"Anakin," Padmé said, perhaps sensing she was losing him and his attention, "I've asked you to come away with me before, and both times you refused - you said it was impossible, on Coruscant and on Mustafar. Do you still believe it wouldn't have helped?"

If he had gone with her on Mustafar--

There had been blood on his hands, though less than now. There had been blood on his hands since he first killed on a Jedi mission at the age of thirteen. He had still been free, relatively anonymous with an unaltered body except for his hand. They might well have vanished somewhere - not on Naboo as she had suggested, where the Emperor would look, but on some nameless Rim world like this one. He might have seen his children born; they might have called him father from when they first learned to talk.

He had been so caught up in what he had done for the Emperor and the knowledge that he could be easily swept in with the perpetrators of the Jedi coup if he disobeyed now. Too, there had been the knowledge that if he turned back he would have to acknowledge what he had done. If he had listened to her, instead of being overwhelmed by it--

Yes, perhaps then they would have made a life together. It would have been difficult, particularly for her, deprived of her family; but he supposed he had done that to her anyway.

"No," he said. "It might have helped, then. But what use is the past?"

"Ani." Padmé leaned forward, took his gloved hand in hers without recoiling from it. (Did she know how much blood had soaked those black gloves, both metaphorical and literal?) "If you were wrong then, could you be wrong now?"

He had no answer to that.

"Come with me," she said, eyelashes lowered, pressing his glove to her cheek; and as always, Anakin Skywalker had no strength to do anything but obey.

He remembered her force of command and her charisma and her beauty, her compassion and strength of will; but - shamefully - he had done what many had, and forgotten in her absence how intelligent Padmé was.

They discussed practicalities quickly, knowing that their privacy and security was limited. He went over the bank accounts he had access to and how they could be drawn on, what he knew about the monitoring of the suit itself. She looked up and reviewed medical facilities on Nar Shadaa and nearby, what was known of their skill and their confidentiality, the sympathies of individual doctors. He, having the experience of Tatooine gnawing at his back like a nightmare, did not need advice about how to hide or excuse withdrawals of credits and strange movements - though her knowledge of cross-galaxy banking systems was useful.

They made a plan, the way they had once planned a wedding in secret; how they had once planned to hide their children.

He did not ask about those children. He would have time to know them, their names and their personalities, later. The final stage of the plan was how, when he had recovered and could move freely, they would meet again.

 

Six months later, after skin grafts and subsequent recovery, after the installment of a contained pump dispensing painkillers at command and after he had learned to use and carry a smaller, transparent mask and oxygen tank that would let him breathe, after the doctors had done their best to reconstruct something of his face (and therefore make him less recognizable to Palpatine)--

He would never again be who or what he once was. As he stared down freedom for the first time in his life, he thought that perhaps that was a good thing.

On another Rim city world, sitting on a stoop lined with flowers, Padmé waited. Anakin went to her, and to his children.