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“A guard?” Padmé repeats. “Obi-Wan, I don’t need a guard, I'm fine.”

“I'm sure you are,” Obi-Wan says, and Padmé only feels a little guilty about the exhaustion in his voice. “But that last attack was too close, Padmé. I—the Rebellion can't risk losing anyone else, and particularly you.”

Padmé lifts her chin, looks away. She should step back, that tone means. She should find a quiet place and raise her children and stay out of danger while people fight and risk their lives to stop her former husband and the terror he’s spreading across the galaxy. But—

Padmé has never done the easy thing. She’s tried to only do the right thing, and the handful of times she failed are all steps leading here. Making the same mistake again isn't an allowable personal failing.

“There’s too much to be done,” she says, and looks back to meet the holo’s flickering gaze. “Our base on Ithor was compromised, and I can't take the time to vet a bodyguard—”

“Then it’s a good thing,” Obi-Wan says with careful cheer, “that I found one for you.”

Padmé pauses, a little surprised. Obi-Wan’s been keeping a lower profile than anyone else in the galaxy, careful to always stay three steps ahead of Vader as he’s hunted across systems. That he would take the time to meet with anyone is startling. Unless—

“Someone you know?” she asks, raising a brow at him.

Obi-Wan’s smile is only there for an instant, but the sight of it is something like a relief. “An old friend. She should be waiting for you on Nar Shaddaa. You had mentioned you had a meeting there, yes?”

Once Padmé’s meetings were grand senate rooms and poised, precise bureaucrats, politicians skilled at doublespeak and cultivating agendas. Now she’s going to a Hutt-controlled moon to meet with a group of smugglers who might be willing to offer the Rebellion enough passage along their routes and in their ships that they can keep their network of spies intact. Padmé smiles, bittersweet, and curls her arms around herself a little, but nods.

“She knows who I am?” she asks Obi-Wan, because it’s a secret that the Rebellion tries halfheartedly to keep, in between all its other business. Less for her sake, she thinks sometimes, than for her children.

The whole galaxy knows that Darth Vader was once Anakin Skywalker, fallen into darkness, and that his children, if found, would be the emperor’s greatest prize. Padmé likes to think that the emperor wants her for her work with the Rebel Alliance, her position at its head, but she knows, in an angry, aching way, that Palpatine mostly just wants her as a thing to dangle over Anakin's head. His wife, saved by Sith powers, brought back from the brink of death. never mind that at that point Anakin had already slaughtered a temple full of younglings. Never mind that Padmé hates what he’s become more than anything else in existence.

Most of the rebels know who she is. The emperor certainly knows who she is. She’s never been sure if Anakin does.

There's a pause, careful, suspicious. “Well,” Obi-Wan says carefully, and when Padmé levels an exasperated look at him, he raises his hands. “In my defense, it was a very quick and dirty sort of negotiation. We were both being shot at, at the time. But she knows about the meeting and will attempt to get there in time to cross paths with you. All you have to do is not shove her off the roof of a building.”

“He was trying to assassinate me at the time,” Padmé says, giving Obi-Wan a flat look. “As long as this bodyguard won't do the same, she should be fine.”

“She is incredibly loyal to the cause,” Obi-Wan says, a gentle reassurance. “There's no need for concern, Padmé.”

Easy for you to say, Padmé almost tells him, but keeps her mouth closed and doesn’t let the words out. She’s had more than enough practice to know when things like that aren’t helpful.

“Any information from the Kaminoans yet?” she asks instead, and Obi-Wan sighs.

“I have a few leads,” he says. “Lama Su isn't anywhere close to as popular as he once was, it seems, and there are discontents I might be able to persuade to deactivate the chips. But it will take some time. The reign of the emperor has touched very little here, for better or worse.”

“If you need anything,” Padmé says, because Obi-Wan might be the Negotiator, but she was a politician too, once.

Obi-Wan’s smile is tired, but genuine. “Thank you, Padmé. I’ll keep in touch. And the twins?”

Padmé smiles back. “They’re well. I think I might need your help sooner rather than later, though. They fell out of a tree yesterday and floated all the way down.”

Obi-Wan laughs, and just for a moment he looks younger, like silver hasn’t started to bleach his hair and beard. “Oh dear. Because precisely what two rambunctious seven-year-olds need is the Force to help them in their mischief.”

“Speaking from experience?” Padmé raises a brow at him, and smiles at the perfectly guiltless look he returns. “We’ve been meditating, but Leia doesn’t have much patience for it, I'm afraid.”

“Hmm.” Obi-Wan strokes his beard for a moment. “I can try teaching her a few simple katas when I'm there next. Some Jedi meditate better in motion. I know Anakin certainly did.”

Padmé’s daughter is very like Anakin, she thinks sometimes—she’s strong-willed, outgoing, opinionated, with little interest in compromise. But at the same time, Leia has compassion, a heart that’s too big for her own good, and a boundless, almost aggressive faith in people.

“I think that would help,” she agrees quietly. “Luke could use help figuring out where his feet are supposed to go, too.”

Obi-Wan snorts softly. “I'm sure he could. It’s a little early to start lightsaber training, but I think I can come up with something helpful.” Something beyond the range of the holoprojector makes him turn, and instantly the humor slides out of his face. “I have to go, Padmé. Be careful.”

“May the Force be with you, Master Obi-Wan,” Padmé says quietly.

Obi-Wan’s expression is wry. “And with you. Farewell.”

The image flickers out and dies, and Padmé leans against the table for a moment, just breathing. Closes her eyes, wishing for one mad moment that she was a Jedi too, and could feel Obi-Wan’s presence in the universe, just so she can know he’s all right.

She’s not a Jedi, though. She never has been, and has never truly wanted to be. Instead, she just has to have faith, like everyone else.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Chin up, eyes forward.

Padmé keeps moving.

The Nar Shaddaa meeting isn't a trap for the Rebels.

Or, rather, it isn't just a trap for the Rebels.

The spokeswoman for the smugglers Padmé’s meeting with hears the first shout and curses viciously, then grabs for her blaster. “Imperials,” she hisses, and lunges to bar the door. Padmé hurries over as well, and together they topple a heavy shelf down in front of the door, blocking it with a crash. Someone outside is shouting for the smugglers to give themselves up, and Padmé grimaces, checks her blaster.

“Yours?” she asks with wry amusement, and the smuggler laughs.

“I think they're too polite to be yours,” she says, and jerks her head towards the narrow grate in the ceiling. “You climb?”

Padmé eyes the woman, who’s far closer to seven feet than she is to six, and then the room’s high ceiling. “Willing to give me a boost?” she asks.

The woman grins and leans up on her toes, pushing the grate up, and a section of ceiling with it. “Careful,” she warns, and then cups her hands in front of her and leans down. Padmé gets a foot in the cup of her palms and jumps, and the smuggler practically throws her into the passage. It’s a wide crawlspace, bigger than it looks from the ground, and Padmé slides forward as the smuggler hauls herself up behind her. The crawlspace ends at the far wall, and the smuggler leans past Padmé to shove open another door.

“Long drop,” she warns, just as a burst of wind rocks Padmé back. It’s disconcerting to look out and see the open air of Nar Shaddaa’s skylanes, the stomach-lurching fall straight down the side of the building, but Padmé doesn’t hesitate. She grabs the edge of the opening and swings herself out, finding purchase on the narrow ledge. Around the corner is the room they just left, and Padmé eyes it, then slides sideways until the ledge crosses above a balcony two floors down. Carefully, quickly, she swings herself down and drops, and the smuggler follows her.

When the woman straightens, she’s grinning, all sharp teeth and curling horns. “Not squeamish?” she asks.

“Not about this,” Padmé says, a challenge, and meets her yellow gaze. Doesn’t think about Sith eyes, or Anakin when she last saw him, the harsh they turned you against me! that she could only answer with you did that yourself, Ani. “Our deal?”

“We’ll meet again. Three days?” the woman suggests. “Cantina by the spaceport.”

Padmé frowns, not fond of the delay, but not willing to protest, either. That the smuggler still wants to try is a good sign already. “Very well. Nightfall?”

The smuggler offers her a hand, and when Padmé clasps it, the woman’s grip is amusingly careful. “Nightfall,” she agrees, and then leaps from the edge of the balcony in one powerful spring. Padmé’s heart leaps into her throat, but the woman comes down right on top of a waiting speeder, shoves the driver with pleased familiarity, and waves merrily as she puts on a burst of speed and disappears into the press of traffic.

Of course, that leaves Padmé with the remainder of a building to navigate, and a whole host of Imperial forces to avoid.

With a wry breath, she pushes her hood back, because looking like she’s hiding will just get her noticed faster. Adjusts her cloak to hide her blaster, strips off her gloves, and undoes the knot of her hair, letting it fall around her to hide her face. There’s little to be done about the black suit she’s wearing, meant to help her fit through tight spaces in circumstances just like this, but if she plays this right there won't be any second looks at her anyway.

Putting on her best air of distracted concern, she heads across the balcony, to where a door opens back into the building, and pushes through. There’s a man in the empire’s black uniform at the end of the hall, and Padmé keeps her head down, pretends to be digging through her pockets as she passes him towards the lift. Feels his glance, prickling the back of her neck, and hears a step, but a moment later the lift doors open and she slips in. When she lifts her head, he’s watching her, but Padmé gives him her best shy smile and hopes that her years of always wearing heavy makeup in the Senate will let her pass unnoticed now. It’s always worked before.

It seems to work this time, too. The man frowns, turns and lifts his wrist to murmur something into his comm, but he doesn’t make any move towards her. Padmé watches him pace towards the far end of the hall as the doors slide shut, and breathes out, careful and slow.

This part never seems to get any easier, somehow.

Street level in Nar Shaddaa isn't always the best place to be, but it’s better than trying to hide in the building itself. Padmé leaves with dignity, not running, and tries not to look at the armed clone troopers waiting around the base. Any of them could be someone she knows, a man she met before, turned into a puppet for Sidious, and something in her aches with fury. Injustice, she thinks, and doesn’t close her eyes. This is the death of liberty and everything she fought for all her life. They’ve slipped so far backwards, so far down into darkness, and even if Anakin wasn’t the cause of it, he’s the lever used to usurp power. He’s the one who helped massacre the Jedi, right down to the youngest children in the creche.

Those could have been her children. Luke and Leia are powerful in the Force. Born a few years earlier, they could have been victims of Anakin as well.

She lifts her chin, keeps moving. She can't stop now.

“Lady!” a too-familiar voice calls, faintly distorted by a helmet. “Hey, lady, stop!”

Sithspit. Padmé debates for half an instant what to do, whether she should run or turn and face the trooper. He’s armed, and so is she, but his side has a hell of a lot more blasters, and she’s trying to keep her cover. She hesitates, eyeing the cover of the next street—

“Mom!” a voice cries, and hands grab her arm. Small hands, and Padmé’s been a mother long enough now that she doesn’t even flinch. “Mom, where were you? We’re going to be late!”

Padmé looks down into bright blue-green eyes, a young face that’s too serious for the petulant words. The boy, young, widens his eyes at her pointedly, and Padmé doesn’t hesitate. She puts a hand on spiky brown hair and says, “Sorry, sweetheart, I just had to finish up a few comms for work.”

Relief flickers over the boy’s face, but he hides it a moment later, says, “Mom’s been getting antsy. It’s annoying.”

“I have not,” a woman says, and Padmé glances up just as a hand settles on the small of her back. A woman with dark hair and Chalactan marks of Illumination smirks lightly at her, a warning in her eyes, and says, “Dearest, don’t listen to our son maligning me.”

Familiarity is a wash of warmth and relief. Padmé never knew Master Depa Billaba personally, but she saw her on the Jedi High Council, met her in passing. Easy enough to recognize her now, even with years between them and in unfamiliar surroundings. Easy enough, too, to recognize a rescue when it’s offered.

“Are you saying you didn’t miss me?” she asks, looking up at Depa through her lashes, and Depa laughs.

“I miss you even when we’re together,” she says, and leans in.

The kiss is light and quick, the kind of thing Padmé never had the chance to share with Anakin, and it takes effort not to freeze in surprise. Padmé can act, though, and she buries her response, tucks it away and instead just smiles.

“You're ridiculous,” she says, and turns to offer the clone trooper a smile. “Sorry, yes?”

The trooper steps back instead of forward, grip on his blaster easing. “Nothing, ma’am,” he says, and turns, heading back towards the entrance.

Padmé breathes out, dizzy with relief, and doesn’t pull away when Depa links their arms together. “Thank you,” she murmurs, and Depa smiles warmly.

“I’m just glad I made it in time,” she returns, pulling Padmé down the street. The boy falls in on Padmé’s other side, and beneath the fall of his cloak Padmé catches a glimpse of a familiar shape. A lightsaber, which means he’s likely a padawan. Another one that survived, and Padmé buries the urge to wrap her arms around him just for that. Too many Jedi children have died, these past few years.

“Old Ben’s promised bodyguard, I assume?” Padmé asks, a little amused, and Depa hums in easy agreement.

“That Old Ben,” she drawls, amused. “Such a character. I assume he didn’t tell you it was me?”

“He might have gotten to it eventually, but we were interrupted,” Padmé says, even though she knows better. Obi-Wan has always kept things close, and the years of paranoia have only made him worse.

Depa snorts, but draws Padmé down another narrow street. “Well, at the very least he told me who I was supposed to be guarding, and now I understand why.” She casts a sideways glance at Padmé, thoughtful, and then says, “Caleb, the door, if you would.”

The boy ducks ahead of them, to where a shadowed doorway marked with graffiti is tucked back in a recess. When he punches in a code, it slides open, and Depa steers Padmé through before she lets go and steps back, waving it closed behind them.

“I’ll admit,” she says into the quiet room. “When I heard Padmé Amidala was the leader of the Rebel Alliance, I was surprised.”

Padmé takes a breath and turns to face her, gathering her hair up between her hands and deftly twisting it into a practical knot. “Because I was a senator?” she challenges, raising a brow at the Jedi Master.

Depa doesn’t budge, just watches her. “No,” she says after a moment, and her gaze is too clever, too sharp for comfort. “Because you’re in love with Anakin Skywalker.”

“I was,” Padmé admits evenly, and holds Depa’s gaze. “Once. But if he was the man who became Darth Vader, I don’t think I ever knew him well enough to really love him. I don’t want to have loved a man who could do what Anakin has done.”

Depa lets out a soft, wry breath. “Unconditional love is all well and good,” she agrees, “but…unwise, I think. We should all have lines.” Stepping forward, she bows to Padmé, and says, “Master Depa Billaba, at your service, Senator. This is my padawan, Caleb Dume.”

Caleb bows to her as well, but his gaze is curious when he lifts his head. “You were married to Anakin Skywalker?” he asks. “When he was still a Jedi? But isn't that against the Code?”

“It is,” Padmé says, soft. It’s a confession, even though she’s said it too many times for it to feel new. “And it was a mistake. It cost us everything, and I regret it.”

Not enough to regret Luke and Leia. Not really. But Anakin used the danger she was in as an excuse in his fall to the Dark Side, and the body count from that keeps rising. Padmé only ever wanted to help people, as queen or as senator. And now she’s the reason for so much suffering. She hates it.

“There’s still light,” Depa says, and steps closer. Long, warm fingers curl around Padmé’s, sending an unexpected tremor through her, and when Depa smiles at her, Padmé can't quite look away. She’s light, in a way Obi-Wan is too tired and heartsick to be. Depa is everything Padmé remembers admiring in the Jedi, and it makes her ache. “There’s still hope, Senator.” She pauses, and then corrects, with amusement, “Commander.”

Padmé offers her a wry smile in return, because the title still fits awkwardly, militaristic when she never wanted to be. They have to stop the advance of the Empire somehow, though, and this is the only way. Politics won't work anymore.

(She remembers Ani saying aggressive negotiations and hates him, hates him so much she could choke on it. Never again. She won't let him win. Not ever.)

“Just Padmé,” she tells Depa, and pulls herself up straight. “This place is safe?”

“Very,” Caleb answers, and his smile is quick and shy when she glances at him. “I helped with the safeguards.”

“My strategist,” Depa says cheerfully. “You have more business here, then, Padmé?”

“Three days from now, by the spaceport,” Padmé confirms, and Depa grins.

“Well,” she says. “I hope you don’t mind some tight quarters until then, but I think we can manage to stay hidden that long at least.”

Padmé smiles wryly. “I’ll survive,” she says, and—

It’s the truth. It always has been. But…Depa’s presence might make it just a little bit easier.