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Five years later

Sequins, satin, velvet, and a myriad of other luxurious fabrics skimmed the senate building's steps that evening. A chandelier of twinkling stars shone upon the guests in their finery, the dazzling display of which Coruscant seldom saw. An event such as this came just once or twice in a lifetime. Not a single invitee had failed to attend.

Such was the singular pull of Senator Padmé Skywalker's retirement gala. To some of her oldest friends and colleagues, that name still looked odd, printed on the elegant invitations instead of "Amidala." But over the past five years, most had grown accustomed to her married name, which she now preferred even in professional context. The days of obscuring that part of her identity were long over.

Yet while her personal life was widely known, her reasons for retiring weren't. Even after the birth of her third child two years ago, she went on record saying it would be many, many years before she withdrew from politics. So her distinguished guests were as glamorous as they were curious. Some even felt inclined toward resentment, feeling the senator had misled her people, all of whom loved her dearly. But most held their tongues and suspended judgment, certain she wouldn't have made this decision in haste or under ill advisement. That simply wasn't like her.

The grand banquet hall was abuzz with anticipation as dignitaries from all over the galaxy mingled. Dignitaries, as well as a few miscellaneous attendees – the youngest of which were seated in the front row of silk-draped chairs, kicking their feet restlessly.

"Grandma Jobal, where's mom and dad?" asked Luke for the hundredth time that evening.

The older woman glanced over the twins' heads and rolled her eyes at Ruwee, who was bookending them three seats away.

"They're still getting ready backstage, Luke," she tried to keep her tone patient. "It won't be much longer now. Try to sit still!"

That was easier said than done for both the boy and his sister Leia. Prior to leaving for the gala that afternoon, Jobal had asked her daughter if she and Anakin fed these children sugar by the cupful. Currently, her biggest fear was they'd fidget their formal attire to shreds. Especially Leia's silk organza gown that had cost a pretty penny and then some.

At least two-year-old Zade was easier to handle. The toddler sat comfortably on his grandmother's lap, content with sucking a ring of plastic keys to death. Occasionally he'd throw an inquisitive look up at his grandmother, pale blue eyes round with wonder, but a few reassuring words were all he needed to resume his mindless play.

To Jobal's right sat Sola and Darred with their daughters, whom puberty had rendered awkward and self-conscious – and no less infatuated with their uncle, much to their chagrin. It didn't help that at twenty-seven, Anakin continued to improve with age. His quick temper and impulsive mannerisms had matured considerably over the past several years. Many attributed it to the inevitable growth that came from parenting. Others suspected it had something to do with his mended relations with the Jedi council.

Both schools of thought were correct. It was a blessed combination of both that had smoothed Anakin Skywalker's rough edges and hewn one of the noblest Jedi Masters the Order had ever seen. And it was that Jedi Master who, alongside his distinguished wife, strode onstage now amid deafening applause.

Beneath an arbor of flowering vines, the pair stood holding hands behind the podium. Self-conscious grins and flushed cheeks beamed upon the audience until the clapping finally died down.

"Friends, family, and colleagues, my heartfelt thanks for your attendance today," Padmé began, needing no datapad to reference. "Each of you represents a piece of my heart and soul. Some pieces just happened to travel a little farther than others to be here," she winked at those in the front row.

"When you received invitations to this, my retirement gala, you no doubt were surprised. And when you saw me arrive on stage a minute ago, you were likely expecting a grand speech by Padmé Skywalker, the eloquent orator," she continued. "But my reasons for retiring are not nearly as fascinating as rumors suggest, and the explanation won't be grand either. At least, not in the same manner as my previous speeches."

Pausing to share a warm, intimate smile with her husband – whose high Jedi garb had never looked more regal – Padmé stepped back from the podium and tucked one hand under her curved stomach, which had been obscured by her high-wasted, billowy gown. With the exception of the Naboo visitors in the front row, the audience reacted with hushed exclamations of wonder and surprise.

"With the impending arrival of my fourth child, and after much deliberation and introspection, I thought it best to retire from the public sphere. This decision has been long coming. Despite what my official statements led you to believe, I wrestled with this choice often during the past five years. When Queen Apailana allowed me to continue serving after Luke and Leia's birth, I felt obliged due to her generosity. She knows and understands my current feelings. I depart her service on amiable terms."

The crowd sat in awed silence, hanging on her every word. Sitting immediately behind Ruwee and Jobal, Obi-Wan and company were particularly mesmerized. Anakin had kept both of these secrets well hidden the past few months.

"If I could compose a letter of gratitude to everyone I hold dear, it would stretch from here to my homeland of Naboo and back ten times," tears danced on the brims of her eyelids. "Serving and knowing all of you has been the most magnificent gift I could hope for – with the exception of my husband and children," she smiled up at Anakin again. "With them as my witnesses, I will never forget the glorious years we shared serving the Republic. Continue to protect and guide it well. Just as you all hold a piece of me, I will always carry a piece of you, even when I'm halfway across the galaxy."

She'd misled them, saying it wouldn't be a grand speech. The ensuing applause testified as much. So did the standing ovation that accompanied it. Blushing furiously, Padmé felt Anakin's right arm – the one that had been restored three times in the past eight years – tuck her close to his side. Luke and Leia came running onstage a moment later, released by the cheers and shouts of everyone behind them. Padmé's teeth gleamed in a joyful, uninhibited grin as they clung to her and Anakin's legs.

After an eternity of applause, another voice broadcast itself from the far corner of the stage. Chancellor Bail Organa stood with microphone in hand and a grin of his own.

"A lady of grace, integrity, and passion to the last," he walked toward the family. "You will be missed, senator Skywalker, and never forgotten. As a token of our deep, abiding appreciation, the galactic senate presents you with this commemorative plaque, engraved with your likeness, years of service, and signed by dozens of your closest comrades."

Padmé accepted the oval bronze gift with a few more tears. It was beautiful, and far beyond anything she expected to receive.

"A larger version of this plaque will also adorn the entrance hall of this senate building. There it will hang for future generations to respect and admire. And of course, you are welcome to see it whenever you wish – our halls are ever open to you and yours, dear lady."

More thunderous applause. Padmé feared the senate dome would collapse from the reverberations.

"Thank you Bail," she brushed a tear aside. "For once in my career, I'm at a loss for words."

"You need say nothing, Padmé. It is we who owe you something, not the other way around." Turning to Anakin, Bail extended a firm hand to shake. "The same goes for you, Master Skywalker. I know of no other couple who has given half as much to the Republic. Your combined sacrifice is truly legendary."

Interrupting the scene was Luke, who tugged on his mother's dress urgently. Padmé leaned down for him to whisper in her ear.

"We have one vote for opening the buffet now!" she laughed, ruffling his blond hair. The crowd echoed her amusement.

"Then by all means, let it be open!" Bail raised a hand toward the catering crew, who lifted the lids off four dozen food platters. Tantalizing wafts of warm hors d'oeuvres soon filled the room, and the next thing she knew, Padmé was off the stage and in the arms of her family with eager guests swarming nearby.

"You look so lovely tonight," Jobal kissed her daughter's cheek before embracing Anakin. "And you! To be able to call you my son-in-law! It still takes my breath away sometimes."

Ryoo and Pooja elbowed each other violently at that comment. Sola didn't notice as she hugged her sister next.

"I knew this day would come sooner or later. With children like these, it's amazing you held out as long as you did!"

"And another on the way," Obi-Wan interjected, joining the family circle with a disarming smile. "Ever since that temple bombing five years ago, Anakin's taken it upon himself to repopulate the Order," he winked at the Naberries. "Two more before you replace the six lives lost, Anakin."

"You've always had a funny way of saying 'congratulations,'" Anakin shook his head, laughing. The two Jedi slapped each other's backs and stood back just as Bail and Vice Chair Mon Mothma approached.

"Once again, I feel like I'm the last to know about this," Mon brushed Padmé's belly after hugging her.

"Oh, you're hardly the last," Obi-Wan smirked. "Leave it to Anakin to conceal this sort of thing for dramatic effect."

"Hey, no harm done this time," Anakin defended. What an incredible gift and testament to their brotherhood that they could joke about their darkest period. Equally incredible was the council's magnanimous response in the aftermath. After promoting Anakin to Master with barely ten seconds of deliberation, Jedi code was amended to allow exemptions for marriage on a case-by-case basis. Some exemptions already occurred, as with the case of Ki-Adi-Mundi, but the new provisions allowed for broader reasons than species' survival.

In short, love was now satisfactory, so long as the Jedi (or Jedis) involved could demonstrate it did not impede their use of the Force or commitment to the Order.

Just as Anakin had demonstrated. To a degree even Mace Windu acknowledged with every nod he now gave Skywalker. In and out of council meetings, Anakin at last received the reverence and regard he'd tirelessly sought for so long.

Ironically – or perhaps, appropriately – he obtained that respect only once he was willing to sacrifice it all. To die without Master status… without ever seeing his children grow in the Force… without having the chance to fully vindicate himself in Obi-Wan's eyes… this was the humility he boldly chose. And because he'd chosen it, he was freed from having to endure it. Fate was often funny in its doling of ethical lessons.

"No harm at all," Bail replied. "Unless you count losing one of the most honorable senators in the entire Republic's history harmful. I know I've asked this a hundred times, Padmé, but are you positive this is the choice for you?"

Padmé took no offense at the Chancellor's query. Smiling, her eyes grew distant. "I'm positive. Out of everything I've learned during my political tenure, one poignant lesson is that there are seasons in life. Phases, as some call them. Some last longer than others, but they all teach us something. And we must move on once they've taught us all they can."

"With wisdom like that, tell me again why didn't you run for Chancellor?" Bail sighed.

"Because I knew someone even better for the job," she elbowed him. "You're far wiser than you give yourself credit for, Bail. Which is why you received a nearly unanimous vote – everyone knows you're far too grounded and level-headed to ever abuse your role as Palpatine did."

"Well, thank you, but anyone would abuse it less than he did. Even Tatooine gangsters would have reigned with more scruples."

Padmé laughed. "True, but gangsters wouldn't have helped the Jedi track down Grievous and end the war just two weeks after being inaugurated."

"If the price was right, you never know," Obi-Wan joked. "But in all seriousness, Chancellor Organa, your plaque of honor is hanging in the temple for the same reason Padmé's will hang here. Your contribution to the Republic's lasting peace is unparalleled."

"It was a group effort," Bail insisted. "True victories always are."

"Here, here!" Anakin raised his champagne glass. "To group efforts, past, present, and future!"

The clinking of nine goblets – one of which contained sparkling grape juice instead of champagne – joined the bustling sounds of the joyful celebration, which lasted well into the night. That is, for the majority of attendees. The Skywalker children were escorted home by Dorme at their usual bedtime, owing to the busy day that awaited them tomorrow. Though it would be a few years before Zade joined them, Luke and Leia began Jedi training at the crack of dawn.

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A sweet, sappy ending, courtesy of Anakin blacking out instead of Obi-Wan during the Invisible Hand's crash landing... and the cascade of events that happened as a result.

A million thanks to those who read, reviewed, and/or enjoyed this story! I hope you found it half as satisfying as I do.

Another dramatic/epic plot is in the works… but I won't spoil the surprise. Thank you, thank you, thank you again for reading, and I hope you find many more enjoyable stories! :D

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