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Rumours of my Demise

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It was Padme's idea. She'd called out to him, as they lurched through space, fleeing the destruction of everything they'd known and loved, and Obi-Wan had gone to her, horrendously certain that he was going to lose her too.

"Padme Amidala cannot live in a galaxy where he has come to be what he is," she said, weakly, and Obi-Wan bowed his head, feeling tears building. The last straw, the very last thing he could bear.

Then her hand found his, and she told him what they had to do.

"But he's dead," Obi-Wan said, trying to convince himself.

She shook her head, tears in her eyes, and in this, as in so many other things, she was proven correct.

*

She was so amazingly convincing that Obi-Wan believed it, even knowing. His heart hammered against his ribs, the room disappearing around him, the child in his arms kicking, starting to grizzle, as it (he) picked up on his distress.

Her last words had been, "There is still good in him."

Obi-Wan sent the medical technicians from the room, sent the child with them, both of them. Sat alone with her in that clinical room until he realised she was watching him.

"Why that?" he asked.

"Because it belonged with the one who has died," Padme answered, her eyes serene and clear.

"We'll never fool him," he warned.

She shifted, winced a little. "We won't have to," she said, confidence like steel in her. "He will fool himself."

*

Padme watched her own funeral from a distance, gazing down from the balcony of apartments that overlooked the processional route along which an anonymous body, robed and ornamented and disguised, was moving, surrounded by mourners.

"So many people," she said, sounding a little bewildered.

"You were well loved," Obi-Wan said, from near the door. He had played his part already, folding cold, unknown fingers around the carved amulet that she still hadn't explained to him. Shedding tears he had not had to feign. Excusing himself from further proceedings, and feeling sympathy on him like a weight. He shifted his shoulders against the wall. "The people will always mourn the loss of grace and wisdom."

Padme shook her head. She was standing tall and stern at the railing, and Obi-Wan was sure that, even hooded and robed, she'd be recognised. "They should be mourning the loss of freedom," she said, voice cold.

"Too much for them," Obi-Wan said. "They are only people."

"That will not save them," she said.

Her hands were on the railing, gripping hard, her knuckles tightening towards white. Worried, Obi-Wan stepped up beside her. She was only days out of bed, and shouldn't even have been that, but they couldn't keep her in the medical facility. Only the four of them knew - the two here, Yoda, Bail - and if they were to have any chance at safety, it had to remain that way. In any case, Padme was the most adamant of all of them. She would be up, she would be active. She could not afford time to wallow in bed. She could not afford time to grieve.

Her face was pale, looking down over the procession, but she was steady. Obi-Wan remained at her elbow, watching her.

"You know," she said blankly, not looking away from the funeral, "he was so certain in his jealousy, towards the end. So monumentally convinced that you and I were having an affair. Sometimes I thought I might as well, and at least have something to warrant punishment."

There didn't seem to be anything to say to that, so Obi-Wan said nothing, looking down over the procession, the muted play of colours, the dimmed light of mourning and twilight.

"I should have a new name as well," she'd said that morning, as they'd planned where they were going, who they were going to be. How they were going to disappear.

Obi-Wan wasn't sure he'd ever be able to think of her as Mary. Then again, he was having trouble thinking of himself as Ben.

*

"She named him Luke," Obi-Wan told Beru, as she beamed at the child. He knew, in that moment, that they'd made the right decision here. Never mind safety, the other considerations, the look in Padme's eyes when they'd agreed the twins should be separated (all of them had agreed, even her, she hadn't objected in any way beyond that shard of anguish momentarily bright in her face). Here was a place Luke would be welcomed, cherished, sheltered. Loved. And maybe, somehow, that would be enough.

Already, so very small, he looked like his father. Anakin's eyes. His hair.

Later that night, Obi-Wan watched Beru putting the boy to bed, rocking him until he (unwillingly, almost) went to sleep. She smiled at him. "All babies have pale eyes and hair," she said, even though Obi-Wan hadn't said a word. "Eyes darken; hair falls out and grows back a different colour."

He had to smile at that, at her attempt, even though he didn't think it would happen here. And that was why. That was why.

"There's something in his face," Beru said, laying Luke down, stroking one chubby cheek. "Hard to tell this early, of course. And I scarcely met her at all."

"Sometimes I think I scarcely knew her better," Obi-Wan said from the door.

There were no questions in Beru's eyes - never were - just sympathy. "Will you stay?" she asked.

"Tonight only. After this... best we are not too friendly. I'm here to keep you all safe, not bring you into danger, should any arrive." They both know who he meant, even if none of them had mentioned him by name. "I'll find somewhere nearby. Do my best to disappear."

She nodded, absently, looking down at Luke. And then took a deep breath. He watched it settle upon her, this sudden realisation of a new life. Of the way things must be. "Well, then. Good night, Ben."

He gave her a smile, because it was not, any of it, her fault. "Good night, Beru."

*

He'd thought Padme might visit. Be unable to stop it, unable to control herself, have to see it for herself. But days passed, and weeks, and months (and the sand, the sand got into everything, made every small part of life gritty, in every fold of cloth, between your teeth, against your skin) and she didn't come.

Obi-Wan realised she'd learned to control such impulses, and wished, fervently, that it had never had to be so.

*

Well, finally, he heard, familiar disparaging tones in the void of his meditation, the day a knock came on his door, jerking him up out of the depths.

Ebullient excitement welled up, met concern coming down, throttling it - for who would be knocking on his door, out here? He'd arranged a simple remote messager - just an alarm, really - for Beru, should she need him, and Obi-Wan did his best to discourage visitors in general.

He summoned his lightsaber, gestured the door open.

A slender silhouette staggered into the room, out of the wind that was tearing at its drapery. "The sand," it gasped, a familiar voice (in a very different way from the one he'd just left in meditation). "In the name of all that's good, I'd forgotten the sand."

It took a long moment, juggling names - time to drop his weapon, cross the room to force the door closed against the howling wind - to be able to speak. "Mary," he said, when he was able, standing next to her near the door, now in the quiet.

She shook her head, sand shivering off her loosened headscarf, and looked up at him. "Ben," Padme said.

It seemed she'd not totally controlled such impulses, after all.

She was haggard, her eyes tired, her body drooping as she leaned against the wall. More lost from her than a sandstorm could have stripped. She shook her head again, slowly, one hand at her temple. There was dried blood beneath her fingernails, flaking on her arm, where the cloth of her sleeve fell back. "I don't even... So tired. I was on my way back... Needed repairs, and you're not... not Empire, here. And then I thought..." She squeezed her eyes shut. "I don't even know why I'm here."

"Mary," he said, and she fell, into his arms. By the time he laid her on his bed, she was already asleep.

He heard her shifting, later, after the storm had blown itself out and he'd opened the shutters a little to admit the golden late afternoon. She came out into the main room, still with dark circles carved beneath her eyes, but looking firmer on her feet. It was a relief, really. Her frailty frightened him.

"Something to drink?" Obi-Wan offered, and poured for her when she nodded.

She cradled the beaker. "I'm sorry," she said, but it was strong, a statement, and so very like her that he almost smiled.

"You needed a place to rest," he said. "The Force provides." A small smile; a joke. Some days, now, it felt like that sort of thing was all the Force would aid them in ever again. So hard to avoid despair, alone in the desert. "Am I allowed to ask where you were coming from?"

"Best not," she said, returning the smile, and then looking down at the beaker. It was simple, cheap, unimpressive. Not worthy of close consideration.

"Did you want to see him?" Obi-Wan asked.

Padme's head came up. "No," she said, a little too quick and a little too loud. She took a breath (and he didn't interrupt, waited for her to gather herself) and set down the beaker. "No," she repeated, her tone more moderate this time. "They don't deserve that, me looking over their shoulders, playing at favourite aunt. It's not fair."

It had the sound of something said before, said many times, repeated until it became an assertion, a mantra. Obi-Wan didn't look at her, so that she wouldn't have to lie with him watching. He didn't know, perhaps it would matter.

There was silence, coloured in russets and gold by the light coming through the window, and Tatooine could be beautiful, in moments, all the more so for the harsh majority. She said, a certain off-handed nonchalance wafting like a veil over her voice, "But how is he?"

Obi-Wan looked up at her then, and smiled. "He's thriving. Just learning to walk, and he's running Beru ragged keeping up with him. Endlessly curious. He likes to pull my beard."

She was beautiful, despite the fatigue that still etched her. Limned in gold, eyes dark with a fierce yearning and harsh knowledge. Had they ever, any of them, Anakin included (Anakin especially) thought she was truly this strong?

"They love him," Obi-Wan said, and she smiled, a soft, sad thing.

"And you?" she asked then, picking up her beaker again. "How are you?"

As if that was the spark, he remembered, and his excitement bubbled back up, the joy of finally hearing his Master's voice again. The thought that now, finally, he could begin what he was here to achieve. "Well," was all he said, and he grinned.

Padme grinned back, sudden, unexpected, and in that moment somehow entirely unchanged. "It is good to see you," she said, with a space where his name would have been said. Not giving him any name at all, which was a gift of its own.

"Yes," he agreed. "And you."

*

She didn't visit again, but she sent communications. Vocal only, no picture, and mentioning no defining people or places or events, so that if they fell into the wrong hands they would cause no suspicion.

Dear Ben, she began them. Or Hello, Ben. Or sometimes just I can't remember whether I've already told you about...

At the end, they simply stopped; she didn't sign off with a name. Well, I suppose that's everything. Or You must be bored. To which he always wanted to reply, Yes, but not when you're speaking.

Obi-Wan listened to them, and again, and occasionally a third time, even after he'd recorded a response, sent it off into space. He let her voice fill the rooms in which he lived, and on finer days, in the clement mornings or the lazy afternoons, he let it spill out into the desert through open windows.

When he sent his responses, he always jumped straight in. Never began with her name. There is, as always, absolutely nothing going on on this dust-speck of a planet. Or Isn't it strange how times passes, both the slowest trickle and a flood? Or You always sound so sad.

He erased that one, and tried again.

This was how Obi-Wan spent his days, the days that seeped past like water through rock, and yet seemed as vast as an ever-widening river behind him whenever he looked. He listened to her, and meditated, communing with Qui-Gon, and arranged the occasional entirely accidental meeting with the Lars family and their young addition.

It occurred to him sometimes that he spent more time with the dead than with the living.

*

I'm sorry we never told you we were married. I wanted to. But I wanted to for his sake, because I knew it had to be breaking something inside him to have that secret from you. For my sake... I was terrified of the fact that you'd disapprove. And how could I ever keep him against you? As long as he said no, kept us hidden, I kept him. I was safe.

She was still speaking, but Obi-Wan realised he hadn't heard anything in long minutes. There was a step at the open door, a cleared throat. Obi-Wan fumbled the player off (she died mid-word), turned and rose in one movement, hand going out, ready to summon.

It was a homely silhouette in the doorway. Just a Tattooine farmer. "Owen," Obi-Wan said.

Owen Lars stepped inside, ducking under the doorframe. He shifted, dusting his hands on his trousers. "That..." he gestured at the player. "Was that her?"

"The past," Obi-Wan said. Wondered if he was at all convincing. "All too easy to become lost in it."

There came the sound of quicker, sandy feet, and a barely knee-high figure ricocheted into the room. Owen moved fast, catching him as he went past. Luke wriggled in his grip. "Leggo."

"I thought I told you to stay in the speeder." Owen sounded partly stern, but mosty exasperated. The tone brought a smile to Obi-Wan's face.

"Ben!" Luke declared, pointing. Whether in recognition or explanation, Obi-Wan had no idea. Who could honestly claim to understand the mind of a toddler?

"Hello," Obi-Wan said, as seriously as he could, and Luke beamed back at him.

Owen picked the boy up, long-suffering and stoic. "There's word going about that there's a big storm system coming up from the south. Could be a long blow. You need anything before you batten down the hatches?"

"I should be alright. But thank you for the warning."

A nod, and Owen left, lugging his squirming burden.

Obi-Wan didn't touch the player. Picked up the recorder instead. Sat, staring into space, for a very long time until he began: I saw the boy today. He has his eyes. He has your face.

*

Padme's second visit was just as unexpected as her first, though on a finer day, and she arrived without drama, pulling up in a speeder as he lugged the water pump outside to begin the long-overdue process of scouring the grit out of it.

She was entirely swathed in fabric that blended into the landscape, close-wound against the desert wind. She'd remembered the sand, this time. "Come on," she said, leaning over the side of the speeder. "Get dressed. It's market day. I'll take you shopping."

He didn't go down to the market, judging it better to keep as out of the way as possible, have Beru pick up things for him as he needed them. But he seemed to be unable to deny her.

The market was crawling, an organic mass of people entwining themselves more tightly together. Padme had pushed back her veil. There was, he noticed, a scar on her cheek, far back, near her ear. Just a small one, a little apostrophe of injury. He didn't know how she had come by it. She hadn't told him.

The children were raucous and uncontrollable, playing some complicated game unintelligible to adults, entirely conducted at knee height, running between legs and under stalls. Luke was amongst them, of course, but he broke off, grinning, when he almost collided face-first with Obi-Wan's shin. "Ben!" he declared. "Rek said you were dead and I hadn't seen you in ages, so I wasn't sure--"

"I'm not dead," Obi-Wan said with a smile, the smile he couldn't help whenever he was presented with the vibrant, bursting reality of Luke Skywalker. "Not yet, at least."

Luke caught sight of Padme, then. She was standing a little behind and beside Obi-Wan, so that he could feel the press of her robe against his own. With those young eyes upon her - Obi-Wan wondered if she was struck, as it seemed he was every single time, by the resemblance - she stepped forward, and bent down a little, closer to his level. "Hello," she said, very simply. "I'm Mary."

Obi-Wan watched them as though they were a tableau, a work of art. A memory. The woman was beautiful, even with the scar, with the lines that age and troubles were starting to etch into her skin, even with her hair all back, beneath a wound headscarf. The boy was small and blond and serious. Obi-Wan wondered if this was what her first meeting with Anakin had been like. If she was thinking of that as well.

Luke looked up at him again. "Is she your wife?" he asked, with a little frown.

Obi-Wan shook his head, but before he could say anything, Padme said, "No, I'm Ben's friend. A very old friend."

She was given a look of intense suspicion. "You don't look that old."

Padme laughed, and it was a sound of other times, other planets, other lives, but Luke didn't hear any of that, of course. He smiled up at her, growing easy in the fall of her laughter. "And you don't look that young," she said.

"That's because I'm not. I'll be six..." He frowned again, calculations beyond his ability cascading behind his eyes. He gave up. "One day."

"Really?" She put out a hand, touched his hair, more a caress than a tousle. "So old?" Her fingers, Obi-Wan noticed, were trembling, just the faintest flutter against the thick shock of Luke's hair. It was so much like his father's had been, unruly and surprisingly soft.

The boy was looking up at her, and Obi-Wan cleared his throat. "Luke," he began.

But once again Padme cut in. "You should go back to your parents," she said, standing up straight, folding her hands together at her waist. Prim. Distancing.

"They're not really my parents," Luke said, serious. "They're my aunt and uncle."

"They'll be missing you, regardless," she told him.

"Off you go," Obi-Wan said, leaning down to lay a hand on Luke's small shoulder. He smiled. "And tell Rek you've seen me, but I'm a ghost."

With a whoop of laughter, Luke scampered off.

They stood a moment longer, in a small self-created eddy of the market flow, not speaking. Not even looking at each other. And then Obi-Wan said, "Were you worried I was going to tell him?"

In the corner of his vision, she shook her head. "I was worried I might." She turned to him, so he looked at her. There were no tears in her eyes, but he didn't think that meant anything. Not on this planet; it was hard to cry here. "I'm leaving," she said. "Not just here, but Alderaan as well. It's getting too dangerous, Ben. Trying to live with the rebellion... I can't risk the increasing attention, can't risk leading them to you all. Not the children, or the Organas, or you."

"I know," he said, and he did. Had known this for a very long time. Had been waiting for her to leave him again since she opened her eyes, lying on that table where the twins were birthed, and their mother died.

She could not live in a galaxy where he has come to be what he has. It had, always, only been a matter of time.

*

She took him back to his house, piloting the speeder with an unthinking economy of movement that reminded Obi-Wan more of himself than of her. Neither of them naturally born to such aptitude, shaping it through practice and necessity. He wondered if she hated it as much as he always had. Not that it would matter, for her. Padme would not complain. Would simply do as was necessary.

She came inside with him, sliding past him as he waited, closing the door once she was past. He'd closed the shutters when they went out, and it was very dim inside. He lit a lamp, the glow from it limpid and pale.

When he turned around, she was unwinding her headscarf; the fall of cloth, the revealing shimmer of her hair, the hypnotic movement of her arms. She folded the cloth, set it aside, and continued, without pause, to the fastenings of her robe.

"Padme," he said, not knowing what would come next. Not daring to think.

She looked at him, turned to face him. "You are not a Jedi any longer, Ben."

"But now..." he said, and realised that he did, indeed, want her. Very badly. He closed his eyes against it, against her gaze, steady on him across the too-small room. She would leave, she was going to leave. Forever. If he held her now, would he be able to let her go? "Why now?"

"Because I want to be sure I am finished with this life before going on to the next." She had moved. She was right in front of him. Obi-Wan could not open his eyes. "Obi-Wan. Please."

And perhaps he could, after all.

She was so beautiful, somehow more so now than ever before. Her sadness had balanced her. Anakin had loved a spirited girl; Obi-Wan saw a woman.

"There are so many ghosts here," he said. His hand had lifted; he touched a finger to the scar he'd noticed earlier, far back on her cheek, near her ear. The mark her life after death had left upon her. Not nearly the only one.

She met his gaze steadily, turning her cheek only slightly into his palm. "There is only one," she said. "And he has been mourned enough."

He stepped forward, or she did, but she was in his arms, and he lowered his mouth to hers, her hair soft against his skin. She tasted of sand, and regret, and the long corridors of the past.

But also of herself. Of here and now, a moment shaped in his hands upon her, her lips whispering his name. Their breath together in the darkness.

*

Later, nearly a year and a half later, he would hear that she was dead, fallen in a rebel action against the supply lines of the Imperial Starfleet.

She'd left him, the morning that she'd left him completely, so very early that the sunlight was still gentle, wrapping her up even as she wrapped herself, winding the headscarf back over her hair. She'd paused at the door, before stepping out of his life, and said, "Look after the boy. He will be able to do what we cannot."

The last thing she'd said to him and thus, he realised, once he heard the news, her last words.

He didn't believe it, of course. Wouldn't believe it until he saw her body. Remembering with a smile how convincing she'd been, he suspected not even then.

They were all dead, though. Their times were past. They were just too stubborn to give up.