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"Padmé!” Sabé says graciously upon her return, leaning back in her seat. Her voice is all cheer and honey. “You've returned.”

Padmé spares her a flat look. Her bodyguard has abandoned their carefully-practiced royal tone, a clear signal she feels safe enough that they needn't maintain formality; but a quick glance along Sabé's body reveals the casual positioning of her fingers on the arm of her chair (three pressed together, index separate from the rest but not touching the thumb) that provides an important addendum. But not safe enough to drop the charade completely; we may still be observed accidentally.

It is not a question of distrusting the Jedi; information they do not have is information they need not worry about protecting. Their enemies would notice if two trained Jedi knights risked everything to protect the life of a handmaiden.

And speaking of which.

Padmé throws her grease rag at Sabé's face; the girl snatches it out of the air without so much as blinking. “You'll pay for that,” Padmé promises, but she can't hide the warmth in her voice or the laughter she's failing to entirely contain. Sabé thinks it's funny to occasionally abuse her position as royal double. Padmé agrees, of course, because her friend's little revenge for the stress of the past few days (and certain unhelpful comments in a crisis) was masterfully done and harmless, and even served to heighten their cover.

This is not to say that she intends to let her handmaiden get away with it without a grease rag to the face. Clearly, her honor is at stake.

“That was unprofessional,” Sabé notes mildly, rubbing her palm to work out the grease stain. She's smirking, but has never been one to allow her emotions to interfere with her devotion to duty. Particularly when her duty lets her heap menial tasks upon the queen to whom she has sworn undying loyalty.

“I'll show you unprofessional.”

Sabé sticks her tongue out, and Padmé draws a great deal of satisfaction from throwing a second rag at her. This one is dodged, and her handmaiden rolls her eyes.

“You are not making this easier,” she complains.

Padmé's lips twitch as she crosses the room to lean against the arm of Sabé's chair, which is actually hers. “And you're having entirely too much fun with this, my lady.” Sabé glances sharply at her, but Padmé's voice is quiet enough that not even a Jedi could have heard her over the hum of the engines. Padmé winks and kisses the top of her head before drawing her hood back up.

She folds her hands in front of her—right on top of left, with the thumb tucked under and four fingers flat and pressed together. Report, it says, and Sabé draws herself up to speak, and they are politicians again.

“You what.”

It's not, actually, the dangerous semi-robotic monotone they have affectionately nicknamed the Amidala Voice; but it's extremely close. Sabé is not amused.

Padmé gives the sweetest and most demure smile in her retinue, bowing and kissing her hand while her bodyguard glares daggers at her. “I'm going with them.”

It's only because she knows her so well that she's able to notice Sabé's eye twitch.

“I could order you to stay,” she points out tersely. A direct order, given in front of the Jedi, would force her queen to either obey or give up the masquerade. From someone who takes their duties as seriously as Sabé, it is not an idle threat.

Padmé's eyes flash a warning, and Sabé flicks her gaze down in a quick, silent apology. They are (as they have always been, as they must be) perfectly in tune with one another; if Sabé cannot read her mind it's not for lack of trying, and she comes as close to it as anyone possibly could without being a Jedi. It is only one of the countless reasons Padmé trusts this girl with her life—and more than her life. It is why they are still alive, why there are times it almost ceases to matter which of them is acting as queen or servant because they hold one another in such high esteem.

It is how Padmé knows perfectly well that her bodyguard is being irrational.

And Sabé knows it too, and Padmé knows she knows it, but that doesn't mean she has to like the idea. Still. Padmé's duty is to the people of Naboo. She owes it to them to reach Coruscant safely and rouse the Senate, and she cannot do that if she's captured. If the Federation has managed to trace their ship, it's better she be away from it; regardless of the circumstances, she cannot be safer than anonymous and guarded by a Jedi Master.

“She is much safer this way,” Eirtaé points out, and Sabé glances over her shoulder. Padmé could almost laugh at the irritated look on her double's face when she realizes they are completely right. She doesn't, out of respect for the girl's feelings. What she does do is tighten her shoulders and lift her chin. She is grateful to Sabé for her loyalty, and she respects the duty she feels to defend her queen—but not so far as to let Sabé's need to personally keep her from harm interfere with her actual safety.

“I am not asking you for permission,” she says, low and intent, and Sabé closes her eyes for a brief moment before sitting up straighter in her chair.

“Go then,” she says with a careless wave of her hand and all the assumed authority of the Queen of Naboo.

Padmé smiles a bit at resuming the deception, pressing another lingering kiss to her bodyguard's cheek. It could easily be mocking again, but she hopes Sabé can tell it for the reassurance it is. If anyone in the galaxy can read Padmé that well, she can. She shrugs her hood off—how the girls can stand these things is a mystery to her, she feels blind and smothered—and is about to run off after the departing Jedi when Sabé clears her throat pointedly.

“And, Padmé...”

Padmé looks over her shoulder and raises an eyebrow.

Sabé's lips twitch, but her eyes are deadly serious. “If you come back to us with so much as a scratch, I will personally chain you to a bulkhead.”

Padmé rolls her eyes, dips into a brief and sarcastic curtsy, and lets herself off the ship.

Rabé closes the door behind Anakin as gently as she can.

“He adores you, my lady,” she says. “You're very good to him.”

The smile Padmé gives her in response is thin, but grateful. “I only wish I could have seen him off properly,” she frets, and looks like she might wring her hands until Eirtaé catches her wrist expertly to remove the gloss on her nails.

“You'll see him again, my lady,” Rabé assures her. She has no way of knowing this for certain, of course, except that her mistress is a force of nature and will find a way to keep tabs on the boy if she wishes. “Here. You've no more appointments today; you'll worry less when you're more comfortable. Sabé, can I—?”

Sabé shifts closer to the queen to let her slip past; her fingers are still dutifully working at the knots of Padmé's elaborate robes, and Rabé does not envy either of them their trappings of state. She can't even imagine having to put up with the kinds of hairstyles their lady is required to sport for hours at a time. She does her part to help them both. It's not easy to disassemble this kind of sculpture without resulting in a tangled mess; Sabé for all her many talents is hopeless at it, which is why she sticks to clothes.

(Rabé does not in any way stifle a grin at an inward comment about her fellow handmaiden being very, very good at getting the queen out of her clothes. It would be highly inappropriate and anyway she rather hopes nothing happens between them for roughly another two and a half years. She's got good money in the palace betting pool.)

The worst of the pressure is taken off the queen with the simple removal of a few strategic hairpins, and Padmé sighs with relief—whether at Rabé's handiwork or Sabé finally working the heavy feathered shoulder pads free it's difficult to tell, but their mistress is positively basking and it's gratifying enough to know she's part of the reason.

Eirtaé sets the queen's hands down to pass her a glass of cold water as Rabé rolls her shoulders and starts mercilessly attacking the updo she had put so much effort into setting up that morning. She will make no progress with a comb—it has to be fingers at first, and then a soft brush with long bristles to work out some of the stiffness before any real progress can be made. And then a few pieces can only be made possible with thread wound through them; she saves those for last. Their lady will only really feel human again after a bath, but she can at least make her comfortable.

“Close your eyes, my lady,” Eirtaé instructs quietly, and the queen hums contentedly as her handmaiden starts in on removing the ceremonial makeup.

“I'm sorry you've all been under such stress recently,” she murmurs, and as the Queen Amidala fades with her regal severity the girl is very nearly Padmé again. “I've no idea what I would do without you.”

“I'm sure you would find a way to intimidate the Trade Federation on your own, my lady,” Rabé says politely.

“But it would be very boring,” Sabé adds with a warm smile, squeezing her lady's hand and guiding another layer of stiff, heavy robes off her shoulders.

“You can't imagine,” Padmé agrees, and Sabé raises an eyebrow in an uncannily good impression. “Well,” she corrects. “You may have some idea.”

Mollified, Sabé begins working on the series of buttons holding the queen's last layer of formal robes together, and Eirtaé speaks up. “Not every day,” she says, setting aside the towel she's been using and placing a damp cloth over the queen's face. “I envy you less and less, my lady.”

Sabé gives a victorious ha! under her breath as she finally works the last tiny button free and lifts the vest-like garment over Padmé's head, leaving her in a dove-gray open robe and a plain shift. “Finally,” she mutters as she hands it off to Eirtaé. “She's right, you know, my lady,” she adds seriously. One hand comes up and brushes a stray lock of hair behind the queen's ear. The action is unconscious and inexpressibly tender, Sabé's thumb brushing along her lady's temple; Rabé almost feels like an intruder and wonders for a moment if she should leave them alone, but Padmé's hair is still half-sculpted. “It's hard enough just keeping you alive. I couldn't stand making your decisions every day. I only hope we make it easier for you.”

Rabé has almost finished the first half of her lady's hair by now, and Eirtaé folds the last of Padmé's robes and moves off to draw a bath.

“As I said,” Padmé repeats, eyes shining. “I don't know what I'd do without you.”

“Sabé, for pity's sake sit down.”

Eirtaé, after being summarily ignored, rolls her eyes.

“I mean it. You're wearing a hole in the floor.”

It will mend,” Sabé growls.

Rabé sighs.

Senate sessions are always like this for Sabé. They all take their queen's safety personally. Their entire purpose is to keep her safe; they train constantly to ensure that they have prepared for any eventuality, any possible attack that could harm her. That training is useless if they can't be with her, and none of them like being separated for long.

But it's so much worse, for her double. Technically they are all equals—but Sabé would always tacitly outrank them even if her position was not explicitly more significant. She shares a profound connection with the queen, a bond the others cannot hope to truly share. At times it's hard even for them to tell the queen apart from her most beloved servant.

Sabé does not react well to being parted from her.

“She's fine,” Rabé said soothingly. She nods toward their holodisplay, which is showing the live feed from the Senate floor, as if Sabé has looked away from it for more than two seconds in the last standard hour. “Look, you can see her. She's fine.”

“She's alone,” Sabé insists. It's not precisely true. Senator Palpatine is standing with their lady, a solid and reassuring presence; she is surrounded by near millions of others, covered from every angle by thousands of cameras, and there are guards at the door to which her balcony connects—Palpatine's own, likely more competent and loyal than regular city guards.

But they are not with her. Such is Senate protocol. Representatives, assistants, witnesses, and advisors are permitted on the balconies; personal guards and weapons are not, except for symbolic or ceremonial weapons from certain cultures in which the absence of such a weapon is a grave insult. It is a rule commonly broken among the more paranoid, but the only way to achieve such a thing is through bribery and their queen will not stoop to it. It is admirable but inconvenient; and unfortunately the dedication and combat skill of the Handmaids of Naboo is well-known enough now that they are classified as bodyguards, and banned from the Senate floor.

Sighing, Rabé waits until their half-frantic double walks past her again before casually sticking out a leg and tripping her up. Sabé tumbles onto the cushions lining their room, and Eirtaé shoves a glass of some sort of alcohol at her before she can struggle to her feet again.

“I still don't like it,” Sabé grumbles, but then the Senate finally acknowledges their queen, and they quiet down to watch.

“Stop squirming,” says Padmé sternly, and Sabé sends her only a mildly annoyed look before murmuring her obedience.

“It's not serious, my lady.”

Padmé shoots her one of those frigid looks that is inherently royal and continues bandaging Sabé's blaster wound. Her double did not allow herself to be subdued easily; the blaster burn on her arm is the most severe, but a good deal of her ceremonial makeup is gone as well and there is a nasty bruise forming on her cheek.

“You should have surrendered,” Padmé scolds. Sabé gives a long-suffering sigh as her queen prods along her skull, checking for head injuries; she winces only a little when Padmé's free hand presses on her bruised cheek. “You'd already rescued me!”

Sabé looks at her through her eyelashes and smiles. “What,” she says, “and dishonor my queen?”

Padmé shakes her head. “I mean it. You're too important to risk yourself like that.”

“Risking myself for you is my job, my lady. I do it proudly.”

Padmé opens her mouth, then closes it again. Nodding, she squeezes Sabé's shoulder and sits against the wall next to her. Sabé, hesitating more than is usual, leans gingerly against her shoulder. When she is not shrugged away she relaxes more fully into her lady's side and is rewarded with a soft smile and another, gentler squeeze at her elbow as the queen bumps her head gently against her bodyguard's.

“You did well,” Padmé says, and wonders why the words suddenly feel so awkward in her mouth.

Sabé lowers her gaze and blushes faintly. “I'm sorry I failed with the Gungans, my lady,” she says, looking anywhere but at her queen. “I didn't know what to say.”

Padmé waves her concerns off with an apologetic look. “No, it wasn't fair to ask it of you,” she says. “You've never negotiated an alliance before.” A mischievous smile crosses her face and she flicks a loose strand of hair out of Sabé's face and kisses just above her poor abused cheekbone. “That's why I get to be queen.”

Sabé grins, which is exactly what Padmé had been hoping for. “And I get to sit on your throne and look pretty when you don't feel like it.”

“Don't forget enacting dramatic rescues.”

Sabé bumps her shoulder tiredly. “You are hardly a damsel in distress, my lady.”

Padmé leans over and kisses her—properly, this time, the way she's been wanting to forever, and it's brief (because this is new and they are tired and sore) but it is perfect.

“Don't forget it,” she grins. Sabé is too stunned to react for a moment, and by then her queen has already hauled herself to her feet and gone off to see about organizing medical attention for the refugees.