Looking up at the bleak brown gates of the seedy palace made Padme wish she'd written a will before she left the Lars moisture farm. A note for the children, at least. She tugged a flask from her belt and let a few sips fall into her mouth before flexing into tense readiness. Her gloved hand fell on the door, creating sonorous reverberations that seemed excessive for her small hands.
This had better not be a fool's errand. Her acquaintance with Shmi Skywalker had been short, but her mother-in-law deserved better than this.
The telescopic peephole ejected itself from the door with a squeak, making Padme start. “Identify yourself!” a droid ground out from behind the door.
“Jeela Daivik. I wish to speak to Jabba.” She'd seen the Hutt before, falling asleep on a viewing terrace above the Boonta Eve Classic track. Now, more than twenty years later, she found herself wishing she'd paid more attention to the sleazy gangster. Not that she hadn't had much more reason to be concerned about what was happening in the race itself, but now she had to negotiate with Jabba for the freedom of a slave once freed already.
“He will see you now.” The telescope retracted itself into the door. Padme took a deep breath, shivering despite the thick heat that blanketed the desert with Tatoo 1 and 2 both in the sky.
The door ground against the pale rock as it opened, making her wince. Even through the thick scarf wrapped around her head, the noise was piercing. No one stood behind the door to greet her, so she stepped forward. A few more steps took her into the shadow inside the palace. She did her best to ignore the door grinding shut behind her as she strode through the long hallway.
Two guards stepped out from the deepest shadows to block her path with ratty old pikes. She came to an abrupt stop. “Please allow me to pass.” Even after all these years, she could still summon the commanding voice of a Queen and Senator. The tusked guard on the left gave their partner a shifty look, then stepped back. The other guard was a little slower, but after taking a look at Padme's face, they too moved back.
Maybe it would be better not to question what the stench of the room was. Even through the throng Jabba's figure – if so ill-defined a shape could be called a figure – made itself known, as did his loud calls in Huttese, for more drinks, Padme thought, though her grasp of the language was sketchy. Well, she didn't have time to improve it now. Trying not to squint despite the reeking smoke rising from... somewhere, Padme forced her way through the crowd and into the lowered floor space right in front of Jabba's throne.
A note played on a trumpet as if a song was about to start, but Jabba let out a grunt that halted all sound in the room. Tendons tightened. Padme forced herself not to reach for her blaster. Aggressive negotiations might have been more exciting, but they were also much more dangerous.
Jabba turned rheumy eyes on her. His body convulsed with an attempt at laughter. Padme waited for the dark green protocol droid next to the Hutt to translate the low gurgling rumbles that followed.
It took the droid a moment to catch up. “The Mighty Jabba asks what such a small and lowly individual seeks his audience.”
Padme took a deep breath, pulled her hand away from her blaster again and straightened her back. “I am here to talk to you about a slave you own.” The next words caught in her throat. If what she'd heard had been just a rumour, this was where the entire scheme collapsed. “A woman by the name of Shmi Skywalker.”
A small creature with huge ears yipped into the silence, drawing Padme's gaze to its cushion, caught in the curl of Jabba's tail. Jabba himself regarded her in silence for a few moments, before shifting his viscous weight backwards and letting out a roaring laugh that made him wobble like jelly. A few of the garishly garbed people in the room offered their own tentative amusement. Padme stayed frozen, gaze falling to the grille in the floor. What kind of trap had Jabba set there?
Jabba's rumbling laugh turned to grumbling words as Padme tried to breathe slow enough to settle her nerves. The protocol droid once again reeled forward as it realised its service was required. “The Mighty Jabba has no desire to negotiate the sale of such an excellent slave. Although he will be happy to offer you a sample of her cooking, should you accept his offer of hospitality."
Had he really assumed she was here to buy a slave off him? Padme forced her shoulders back. “I am not here to negotiate a price for the slave. I wish to see her set free.”
This time Jabba burst out laughing with no contemplative silence to precede the thick rumbling. The protocol droid began to squeak as it rushed to translate Jabba's next uttering. “The Mighty Jabba wonders what, precisely, you think you will achieve by making such demands of him.”
As tempting as the thought was, making a comment about how much pleasure Jabba seemed to derive from merely wielding the image of importance wouldn't help. “Shmi Skywalker has already been a free woman. You do your honour no favours to keep her enslaved.”
Had Shmi's slave chip been reactivated after the Tusken Raiders had taken her? Padme shoved the thought aside with a sharp exhalation. She was here to rescue Shmi, not to get caught up in her own concerns. That was not behaviour worthy of a former Queen and Senator. The grille on the floor caught her attention again as she looked away from Jabba and his slimy gaze. Suspicious thing to have in the middle of the floor. While his gaze wandered over to the lagging protocol droid, Padme edged back a few steps, onto solid stone.
“The Mighty Jabba has no need of honour,” the protocol droid chirped, squeaking more and more as it spoke. “Although he will be happy to test yours, should you be determined to remove this slave woman from his service.”
Padme frowned, but her questions were answered as the floor shuddered underneath her. This time her fingers wrapped tight around her blaster as she jumped back, watching the grille recede into the floor under her feet, revealing a musty pit. The stench she'd picked up earlier seemed to be even stronger here. Someone moved up behind her and poked her in the back with something metallic, making her stumble forward. She probably didn't want to be in that pit.
Gloved and clumsy fingers slipped on the blaster's dials, but she'd had this trusty little thing for a long time. As the poking from behind got more insistent, she aimed the blaster at the ceiling and fired. The grappling hook whistled and snapped as it locked into place. She let the wire pull her towards the ceiling, feet out so she wouldn't bounce too hard. Something deep down in the pit let out a hungry, rasping roar; she shut her eyes and winced as Jabba's throne scraped forward across the floor. Was this set up for some kind of blood sport? Maybe she'd rather not know. It hadn't gone to plan for Jabba, in any case; he looked up at her with narrowed – though still huge – eyes, waving his stubby arms around as if that would bring her down.
The wire would hold her weight a while before letting her fall, but it would still be preferable to get away from the ceiling on her own time. Jabba's throne was right beneath her now. She turned her head. A guard in full armour stood where she'd been a moment ago. Must have been trying to shove her into the pit.
Another look around, and then she settled on a plan. As Jabba looked down to rumble orders at the guards scattered throughout the room, she twisted her body around and released her grip on the trigger. She managed to land right behind Jabba and jabbed the barrel of the blaster into the folds of his neck.
He made a squawking sound that hushed the room. Padme took a deep breath. Queen and Senator. “I'm not here to harm you. But if Shmi Skywalker is not released...”
The guards she could see around Jabba's bulk had frozen. Jabba gurgled something at the protocol droid. “The Mighty Jabba agrees to release the slave from service, on the condition that you cease to threaten his life.”
A hasty capitulation, considering the earlier statement that Shmi made an excellent slave – Padme did her best not to shudder at the thought – but individual slaves probably weren't important enough to a Hutt crime lord that he'd risk his life for one. Padme nodded and moved the blaster away. “Thank you, Jabba.”
She couldn't see his face, but the gurgle he emitted sounded resigned.
Two guards behind thick-visored helmets brought a woman with greying hair to the front door as Padme stood waiting. “You've got your slave, now get out of here,” one of them muttered as the door ground open, letting the hammer of double sunlight hit Padme's back. She acknowledged the guard with a dignified nod and turned to the woman as the pair retreated.
“Do we know each other?” The woman frowned. “You seem familiar.”
Padme swallowed the lump in her throat. “Shmi Skywalker, yes?”
Shmi nodded, folding her arms. Padme took a deep breath, breaking into a smile. “Padme Amidala. It's been a long time since we met -”
Shmi's eyes widened. “Padme Amidala? Queen and Senator of Naboo?”
Padme nodded, realising with momentary guilt that she'd been disguised as a handmaiden when she'd taken shelter in Shmi's house. “I visited your house in disguise, in the company of Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice.”
Shmi breathed out a laugh and let her arms fall. “My lady...”
“There's no need for that.” The twin suns were hot enough to make Padme's thoughts slow. “It's been a while since I held office.”
Shmi nodded, a smile settling on her face despite the sombre tone of her next words. “What brings you back to Tatooine?”
The crumbling inside Padme's chest came back hard. She forced a smile and said, “That might be better discussed somewhere we can sit down out of the sun. It's... a long story. We can return to the Lars household. You can meet your grandchildren.”
Shmi blinked. “Grandchildren?”
Padme nodded, her smile genuine for a moment against the weight in her chest. “Grandchildren. They'll be happy to see you.”
Padme had to fight to keep her own tears down as she watched Shmi sip at her drink with her head down. It hadn't been easy to explain what had happened to Anakin, how the very word Mustafar was still cloaked in grief and shock. Had the poor man not then become the Emperor's greatest weapon, perhaps she'd have had a chance to move on.
“He was always so kind.” Shmi spoke softly, not with Anakin's hesitancy, but Padme could see the son's mannerisms in Shmi. “How did he... change so much?”
Padme shrugged and took a sip of her own drink to conceal the shiver. “The Emperor and Anakin became good friends while Anakin was an apprentice. I think... there were parts of the Jedi Code that Anakin struggled with, and Palpatine was...” Then Padme shut her eyes and had to stop talking for a moment. Padme and Obi-Wan had spent enough time on the journey back to Coruscant from Polis Massa considering their mistakes and Anakin's, both desperate for an answer that Obi-Wan had soon given up on finding. “I think Palpatine exploited that discomfort. I can't be sure what else he did... but Anakin was manipulated into the position he's in now.”
“What use would the Emperor have for him?”
Padme was about to retort that a Jedi as powerful as Anakin made an excellent servant, then caught herself. She had to be honest, but Shmi didn't deserve sharp words. “Palpatine wanted a... a tool. As powerful as Anakin was, he was an excellent target... and already dissatisfied with the Jedi Order.” And Padme herself had contributed to that, she was sure. For all that she'd protested when he first confessed his love, she'd hardly hesitated at the thought of marriage, against the rules of the Order.
“And no one noticed in time?” Shmi lifted her head, her gaze hollowed out by the tears gathering in her eyes. That was pain that Padme recognised. “Master Qui-Gon... he seemed a sensible man, and his apprentice...”
Padme winced. “Master Qui-Gon... was killed not long after we visited you, during the Battle of Naboo. His apprentice, Obi-Wan... he trained Anakin in the Jedi ways.” She sighed and looked down at the green drink in her cup. “He seemed to... suspect something, and he certainly had some inkling of my and Anakin's relationship before I confirmed it for him... but seeing Anakin fall seemed to take the heart out of him.”
Shmi nodded slowly. Padme raised her cup to her face as if that would cover her shame. The sorrow that had hung around Obi-Wan on the way back to Coruscant had been much worse than that, but what good would it do to burden Shmi with everyone else's grief on top of her own?
Shmi shook her head. “There must be some good left in him. If the Emperor manipulated him... surely he can see what the Empire's doing to the Republic.”
The phrasing seemed odd to Padme, but she decided not to comment. “I believe there is. He made bad choices... terrible choices... but he did much of it to protect me and the children.” Then she caught herself and added, “Well, he didn't know I was pregnant with twins at the time, so he thought he was protecting just one child.”
Shmi managed a smile, forcing a nervous chuckle. That was encouraging. Padme returned the smile. “I don't think he went to the Dark Side because he wanted power for himself. There should be... something redeemable there.” At that point her words failed her. Obi-Wan had cast doubt on her certainty often enough that she'd begun to believe him, but watching the twins grow up and grow into their father's shoes...
Luke had the faith in kindness. Whiny and indecisive though he could be – but what else could be expected at the age of ten – he wanted to see the best in people. Once he outgrew his naive tendency to trust everyone without critical thought, that tendency would serve him well. And Leia... dear Leia. Padme recognised her own interest in politics and law reflected in Leia's argumentative tendencies, but the passion that drove her arguments, that was Anakin.
Those children were Anakin's children as much as they were Padme's, and she could see Anakin's goodness in the pair. There had to be something good left in Anakin.
Boots on the ground outside startled Padme out of her thoughtful reverie. “Padme? Are you around?”
“In here, Owen,” Padme called, trying to make her smile reassuring for the startled Shmi. Owen stamped into the room rubbing at his beard.
“Does Leia ever stop asking questions? Don't think I've ever been that thoroughly grilled on politics since the troopers came through rounding up traitors after Empire Day.”
“What did she start on today?” Don't laugh at him. That was unexpectedly difficult.
“The usual. Farming and hyperspace.” He shuffled around the kitchen opening drawers and cupboards at random, oblivious to his stepmother's presence in the room. “I don't think she's got her head around the hyperspace routes yet.”
“It'd be stranger if she had. They're complex and wide-ranging.” Padme glanced at Shmi, whose face had settled into good-natured perplexity as she leaned back in her chair. Would she have to call Owen's attention to the third person in the room? She'd told Beru what she was going to Jabba's palace to do, and Beru wouldn't have kept that a secret from Owen.
“I suppose.” He turned around, then started forward, bumping his hip on the table. “Shmi?”
Padme bowed her head, attempting to conceal her giggles. Shmi nodded, her smile easing into the crow's feet around her eyes. “It's good to see you, Owen.”
Owen stepped back and ran a hand over his head. “I honestly thought Beru was pranking me.”
“Would she?” Padme asked as innocently as she could manage.
Owen shook his head with rounded eyes as he pulled out a chair and fell into it. “Well, if she wouldn't, I wouldn't put it past the children to put her up to it.”
“Where are they?” Shmi asked, leaning forward with a sudden gleam in her eye.
Owen blinked, then grinned as he realised. “Only next door. Give me a moment, I'll call them in here.” He put a hand on the table to push himself upright and shuffled outside into the fading orange sunlight. Shmi seemed to be breathing a little harder as she sat back again.
“I'm sure they'll be glad to see you.” Padme didn't know what else to say.
Padding boots only gave Padme a couple of seconds' warning before Luke hurried into the room, his sister close behind. As Luke paused inside the door to brush his hair out of his eyes, Leia took one look at Shmi and rushed to hug her. “Grandmother!”
She must have recognised Shmi from one of the holo images that Owen kept. Shmi wrapped an arm around Leia, and reached her other arm out to Luke, who needed no more invitation to clamber into his grandmother's lap and lean close to her. All three were smiling, and the satisfaction on their faces as the twins hugged their grandmother made the crumbling ache in Padme's chest ease a little.
Leia was the first to look at Padme. “Did you find Grandmother today while you were gone?”
Padme looked down and sighed. “It's probably best if I don't tell you that. It's not a nice place.” Thank all that was holy that Jabba hadn't tried to restore Shmi's slave chip. Shmi hadn't seemed too concerned about it when Padme asked, but she'd lived with it in her body for the first half of her life. To Padme the thought was still shocking.
With a sideways glance at Padme, Shmi dipped her head in subtle approval. Luke sat up and twisted around in Shmi's lap to look at Padme. “Have you found what you're looking for here on Tatooine yet? I'm getting fed up of the sand.”
Padme chuckled at his petulancy. Sometime in the midst of the Clone Wars, she'd asked Anakin how long it took to develop a strong dislike of sand while living on a desert planet like Tatooine. He'd estimated a couple of months to get annoyed with it, and a permanent dislike after a year or two. So far that seemed to hold up. “I think so. I still need to talk to old Ben, though.”
Luke nodded. Shmi frowned. “You're looking for something in particular here?”
Setting her cup aside on the table, Padme nodded. “I'll explain later.” As she got out of her chair, she added, “You two need to get to bed.”
Leia rolled her eyes. “It's still light out.”
“Tomorrow's going to be a long day,” Padme returned. “Come on.”
Leia shook her head. Shmi chuckled and pulled Leia a little closer. “You need your sleep. I'll tell you a bedtime story, if you want.”
That seemed to satisfy both children. “Thank you,” Padme murmured to Shmi as she took Luke and Leia's hands and led them out into the open centre of the homestead.
Shmi just smiled. “It's a pleasure.”
“So you're going to try to bring Anakin home?”
Padme had expected Shmi to be shocked at the thought – even if Darth Vader was more of a horrific myth than a real person out here in the Outer Rim, his reputation was as terrifying as the black suit he wore – but she seemed inquisitive more than anything. “Yes. That's what I'm planning to do.”
“If what you've said about the Empire is true... you could be putting yourself at great risk.” Shmi folded her arms and gave Padme a serious look, framed by the hanging leaves of the mysterious plant in the centre of the homestead. Padme still hadn't found out what it was.
“It is a risk.” Trying to explain this made Padme shiver. “But I was thrown into battle at the age of fourteen. I'm used to risks. I'd rather take that risk than see Anakin live out the rest of his life a slave of the Emperor in that suit.”
Shmi flinched. “Of course.” Her head drooped as Padme waited for her own heartbeat to settle. The setting of the suns made the light in the sky shift shades constantly.
“Shmi!” Beru called from across the courtyard. “The guest room's ready. It's not perfect, I had to fix it in a bit of a hurry, but it should be comfortable.”
“Thank you, Beru,” Shmi called back, before turning a soft and pained gaze back on Padme, who flinched. Pain cannot be remembered.
“He fell apart when he thought you'd been killed.” The words were hard to say, and Padme wasn't sure they were the right ones in any case, but she had to fill the silence of unasked questions and unanswered hurt. “He couldn't protect you, and he... he hated that.” Hatred, the last step before the Dark Side, according to Obi-Wan. Could she mention the Tusken Raiders who'd died, how Anakin had fallen apart in front of Padme, how she hadn't even known how to pick up the pieces of the crumbling Jedi? He'd tried so hard to save his mother, and yet... What would he make of the fact that Shmi was alive? Padme forced the thought from her mind. Behind that mask that people knew as Darth Vader, it'd be impossible to see what Anakin Skywalker felt.
“He thought that people should always help each other, and he couldn't.” Shmi's warbled, low tones made Padme shiver. She looked down at her boots, unable to face Shmi's gaze for a moment.
“You'll be leaving Tatooine as soon as you can find a ship to get you where you need to go?”
Padme started, then nodded, eyes still a little wide as she did.
Shmi forced a smile. “I'll go with you. I want to see my son again.”
“We can bring him home.” Shmi took a step forward. Despite the smile, her eyelashes looked damp. “We can bring Anakin back.”
Gulping down her shock, Padme managed to smile. In the purple glow of that moment of twilight, they embraced each other. Padme couldn't help but shake a little. Between them, they could do what she and Obi-Wan had failed to do ten years ago on Mustafar.
“I suppose we should turn in.” Shmi's voice croaked a little with the weight of emotion wrapping around her throat. “Tomorrow will be a long day, you said.”
Padme nodded, trying not to think of all the reasons why. Obi-Wan was going to be difficult to convince, she knew it. “You're right. Thank you, Shmi.”
“Thank you, Padme. I wouldn't have had a chance to see my son again if you hadn't come for me.”
For all that Padme still had trouble justifying that to herself as anything but selfish motives, she nodded. “I couldn't do anything else. Goodnight, Shmi.”
“And to you too.”
They shared a last smile before Shmi walked straight across the courtyard to the guest room and Padme turned back to the door that led to the three small rooms where she and the twins slept. Luke would be sound asleep already. Leia, not so certainly. Still, she'd learnt to be sensible about how long she stayed up reading as she got older. Padme could leave her to her own devices and go to sleep as soon as her mind would let her. The thought of having Anakin back in her life was a thrilling one, but Darth Vader's mask still played a harsh melody in the back of her mind.