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in another time and in another place

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This story begins with an empty box of condoms.

Well.

This story really starts with the moment Bly walks in on Boots in flagrante delicto with a nat-born lieutenant.

Bly carefully keeps his eyes trained on Boot’s wide-eyed, tomato-red face rather than the broad, naked pectoral muscles of one of the 327th’s newest shinies. He inhales deeply and launches into a well-rehearsed, polite speech.

Unfortunately, Bly has all too much experience with this sort of situation. The Kaminoans are the undisputed masters of asexual reproduction, but their knowledge of sexual reproduction is rather lacking. After a few months in the field and far too many incidents better off left unspoken, the captains and commanders of the various clone legions had come together and taken it upon themselves to do the necessary research. Cody had drawn up the necessary requisitions, Fox had typed up a recommended list of resources, and Wolffe had garnered the dubious distinction of “first commander to test-drive their new system.”

Bly wraps up his little lecture by plucking out a handful of condoms from his tool belt. He carefully places the little pile on the nearest surface and takes one last opportunity to remind the two lovers of the importance of locks before backing out of the small office with all due haste. He closes the door behind him with a quite snick and goes about his day with only a small, mental note to check the storage cabinets for a fresh supply of prophylactics. 

It's only much later, as Bly is rummaging through the cabinet in question that he realizes that there is no fresh supply to be had. Months away from the Core have left their shelves looking rather empty and sad, and with a sigh, Bly realizes that Boot now owns the very last set of condoms on the whole ship.

And so it comes to pass that when Jedi Knight Aayla Secura finally grabs her beloved, quiet commander by the back of his hair and drags him in for a long, wet kiss, the kind that makes his dick harden and his toes curl…they have no condoms. Now, this is not the end of the world, of course, but to the young lovers who have denied themselves so long and who are still shaking from the force of their desire, half-stripped naked in Aalya’s too-small bunk, it certainly feels like it.

(In another world, in another universe, Boot’s lover had possessed the good sense to lock the damn office door beforehand, and so Bly had never walked in on them and had never felt the need to offer up the last available condoms in the ship. In that universe, Aayla and Bly’s lovemaking had continued on, unhindered and without consequence.)

(This is not that universe.)

“I’m clean, you know,” Bly mutters gruffly as he keeps his eyes on featureless ceiling above. He kind of wants to suffocate himself with the lumpy pillow that smells just like Aayla. “I get tested regularly—I’m trying…well, I’m trying to set a good example for the men. Not that…I mean, if that was something you were worried about.”

And Aayla smiles slowly and wickedly, pouncing on Bly and whispering that she too is clean, ever since her last test, a long, long time ago, and there’s been absolutely no one since then.

As they crash together, neither one even thinks of the possibility of a child—everyone knows that clones are sterile, carefully engineered by the Kaminoans.

(But as the incident with Boots so keenly demonstrates, the Kaminoans have never had a true understanding of their clones’ sexual and reproductive capabilities. In a way, the fact that they had never subjected this marketing claim to rigorous quality checks is entirely too predictable.)

So when Aayla begins to turn pale and thin, her body racked by constant vomiting and bouts of dizziness, they think nothing of it, except to worry that she has caught a virus on some far-flung, ill-explored Outer Rim planet. Hatchet, their medic, draws a blank after half a dozen tests come back negative.

“There’s nothing for it, General,” the no-nonsense, self-deprecating clone says, brow furrowed tightly. “You need a real doctor—one of them Jedi Healers. Not some half-baked clone who barely passed six months of emergency medical training.”

“Don’t talk about yourself like that,” Aayla retorts fiercely. She leans back against the starchy sheets of the medical ward and dabs at a bit of sick at the corner of her lips. “And don’t be ridiculous—the nearest Healer is…well, I don’t even know where. But it can’t be close.”

“The Temple has Healers,” Hatchet says crisply, gathering up his supplies and stacking them into his aid kit. He and Bly share a look when they think Aayla isn’t watching.

(Ridiculous. As if she’s not always watching Bly, aware of his every breath.)

“The Temple Healers are far too busy dealing with the fallout from the Battle of Coruscant. It’d be madness to burden Master Che with a stomach bug!”

“It’s not just a stomach bug. You can hardly stand—and don’t think I don’t know that you’ve been using the Force to bolster your strength!” Hatchet retorts angrily. Aayla’s eyes flash to Bly accusingly. “Oh, don’t look at him, he wasn’t the one to tattle on you—we all know what you look like when you’re run ragged and pulling way too hard on that mystic energy shit.”

Aayla huffs and doesn’t deign to respond. Instead, she changes tack.

“Regardless, I cannot flee back to Coruscant at such a crucial moment. Felucia—”

“Is an important battle,” Bly interrupts, in that sure but spare way of his, the same tone he’s used before hundreds of battles.  “The men must be focused on retaking the planet.”  

(Aayla knows that when he says: “The men must be focused”, he really means “I must be focused” and it is this that finally sways her. She will never forgive herself if Bly throws himself in front of a blaster shot meant for her, all because she has some weirdly strong version of the flu.)

She sighs in acceptance and tips her forehead to meet Bly’s. Their fingers tangle together.

“May the Force be with you,” she whispers and tries to ignore the darkness rippling around them.

***

“That’s not possible,” is the first thing Aayla blurts out when Master Vokara Che delivers the news.

The other Twi’leki female raises an eyebrow.

“If you’re confused, I could explain the mechanisms,” Master Che replies dryly, as she wipes the clear ultrasound gel off Aayla’s still taut stomach.

(She’s always had a wicked sense of humor, Vokara Che, but lately the war and death and darkness have stripped even that from her. It’s hard to express how much this moment means to her, to be able to deliver happy news, for once in this Force-forsaken war.)

“That’s not—I mean, I’m not stupid, I swear, but he’s—he can’t have children.”

“Ah. A clone, then?”

Aayla blushes a deep, nearly-black cobalt and says nothing, which, of course, is an answer in and of itself.

“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time those Kaminoans tried to hide something in the clones’ medical history from us,” Healer Che harrumphs. “Just last month, they were here, in my wards, castigating me for daring to treat the clones in an unauthorized facility after the Battle of Coruscant.”

“I—”

Master Che has been healing Jedi since she was a Padawan herself, none-of-your-business-years-ago now, and has tended to innumerable scrapes, fevers, and coughs. And when those scrapes, fevers, and coughs proved too strange, too quick, too strong to treat? Well, then she tends to the mental ills of the shell-shocked friends, Masters, lovers, and grand-padawans left behind. This is how she knows damn well what a panicking, emotional Jedi looks like, no matter what the Council may preach, no matter what Aayla and other brave Knights of her age-group may proudly claim, no matter what the Code may claim.

So she softens and lays a light hand on Aayla’s arm, a gentle touch meant to help Aayla pull back her thoughts, racing at the speed of light, and calm her respiration. Che waits patiently.

“You have options, if that is something you’d like to discuss—”

“No,” Aayla says immediately, without a second or even a first thought. Because while she’s never planned to become a mother, the thought that she and Bly somehow managed to survive the war long enough to get their shit together and make this child…well.

Aayla knows a gift from the Force when she sees one and this is a gift of the greatest magnitude.

“The war will be over soon, won’t it?” Aalya says, smiling brightly up at Master Che. Her heart and mind are full of an all-encompassing sort of joy.  “Now that Dooku is dead and Master Kenobi has been sent after General Grievous. My child will be born to peace.”

(Oh, how wrong she is.)

***

Aayla is pulled abruptly from sleep some unknown number of hours later. 

Bly is crying out in panic, tugging on their nascent Force-bond wordlessly and inexpertly from thousands of light-years away. For a moment Aayla can hardly breathe through the pain, but then in an instant, the pain transforms to nothingness and…Oh, Force, Aayla would have rather lived in agony the rest of her life than deal with what this suddenly empty bond must mean.

She tumbles out of bed in her barely used Temple apartment and stumbles towards the windows. She grounds herself in the here and now, leaning her cheek against the cool transparisteel and gazes out at the dark Coruscanti sky and thousands of glittering skyscrapers. She focuses on this artificial landscape, to separate herself from those last, confusing images Bly had inadvertently projected from Felucia before his death. She breathes in and out for one moment, then two, then lets loose a low, hoarse keening noise, full of heartbreak.

She bangs her fist against the glass in a helpless rage.

There’s nothing she can do for Bly, because Bly is dead, dead before he even knew of the child he fathered, and Aayla wants to scream—

She catches a flash of white trooper armor in the distance and frowns.

(And maybe if it was any other night, she would have dismissed it. After all, it is not like clone troopers are a particularly rare sight these days, especially in the weeks since the Battle of Coruscant shattered everyone’s sense of safety and the Senators demanded a sharp increase in patrols. But Bly’s pain and sense of…betrayal? She doesn’t know quite how to classify what she felt, but whatever it is, it is still ringing in her ears, making her paranoid and jumpy, and laser focused on sight unfolding before her.)

She watches, a furrow in her brow and uneasiness growing in her gut as the single flash of white she caught earlier resolves itself into hundreds of troopers marching steadily towards the Temple, a shadowy figure at their head and a great, roiling emptiness where hundreds of unique clone Force signatures should be.

She straightens abruptly, a well-practiced sense of calm overtaking her, the same calm that guides her feet and sharpens her mind before battle.

(It’s almost a relief to slip into the all too familiar role of General Secura and let Aayla fade into the background and push that terrible maw of pain to the side, where it can’t hurt her.)

She barely remembers the next frantic hour, the alarms she raises and the orders she snaps out, effortlessly taking charge of the children, sick, and elderly. All of them are too inexperienced in war and all too ready to accept her orders, any orders at all.  

(Bear Clan run, run, run, just pretend it’s a game.)

There are some who don’t believe her at first, who don’t want to believe.

(No, these aren’t the nice clones, you can’t trust these clones.)

But all too soon they can all feel the roiling, sickening darkness for themselves, a thousand lights flickering out of existence in the Force.

(Master Drallig’s gone to the entrance halls to hold off the clones, no we can’t wait for him, he’s not coming back.)

In that moment, it is only Aayla’s calm directions that keep them stumbling forward, out and towards the hangar, the only remotely defensible location in this giant, beautiful building that was never meant to be a fortress.

(For Force’s sake, leave your plants behind, Master Sinube.)

It is all Aayla can do to guard the back of the fleeing mass of padawans and younglings, to grab at the stragglers and force them forward when despair swallows them whole and they freeze in place.

(Master Che, we don’t have the time or ship space to save the terminal patients, I know, I know, but you can’t stay behind with them either, we’ll need healers no matter where we’re headed next.)

“Master Secura,” one of the young initiates, a dark-skinned human with a head full of small braids, says eventually, as the sound of blaster bolts echo against the reinforced blast doors of the hangar. She’s holding a lightsaber awkwardly in one hand—

(This is a real saber, not for training, not like you’re used to, but you’ll need it to protect yourself.)

Aayla dares to take her gaze off the doors for a mere moment, to the swirling, packed room of Jedi—young and old—behind her. She frowns.

“Why have you stopped the evacuation?”

 “There are no more ships,” the initiate swallows and bravely, futilely tries to push her fear into the Force.

“Oh,” Aayla breathes, her own fear cresting for a moment before her battle-hardened instincts manage to wrestle that feeling back and lock it away.

“I sent out the emergency beacons,” Master Nu reminds Aayla, wringing her pale, knobby hands worriedly, as she sees the dead look in Aayla’s eyes. “Someone will come.”

“Who?” Aayla sighs. She suddenly feels ancient next to this wrinkled old woman, the wisest Jedi of an entire generation and yet so unbearably naïve. “You sent out that broadcast an hour ago. They should have come by now—if they were coming at all.”

She unclips her lightsaber and tosses it from hand to hand, in preparation for what to come—

(She’s not afraid to die, she’s never been, but she wraps a blanket of light around the vaguely formed Force tendril in her abdomen, to make sure that her unborn child will not have to feel the darkness closing in around them the way Bly did.)

“But what will we do?” the initiate insists. She juts her pudgy chin out defiantly. “You can’t be giving up.”

“What’s your name?” Aayla asks quietly, as she sinks into a low crouch that puts her at eye level with the initiate. She holds out a hand and carefully repositions the human girl’s fingers around the saber.

“Reva,” the girl replies, the second syllable wobbling as there is a particularly loud screech from the blast doors.

“Reva. I’m Aayla.”

This inspires a small, childish roll of the eyes.

“I know who you are,” Reva sighs, her fear momentarily replaced by exasperation, just as Aayla intended, just as she and Bly used to do for the shinies of the 327th.

(They’d always looked young to her, no matter what their physical age, but there’s a fresh hell to be had in playing this song and dance with a chubby-cheeked youngling like Reva.)

“Good. Then you know I will not be giving up. I need you to do the same.”

Reva bites her lip, chewing thoughtfully.

“I—I’m scared.”

“I know. But I’m counting on you, okay? I need you to do your part and be strong and brave, so I that can focus on my part.”  

“But—"

“Look!” another youngling cries out, pointing triumphantly to the horizon. “They’re coming!”

And Aayla squints into the dark, her stomach sinking to the depths of her toes, because she thought she was being smart, leading everyone to the hangar, but instead she’s just led them straight to the slaughter and now she must watch the remainder of her people are turned to ash—

A glint of sliver, then two, then four, then ten, twenty, thirty.

A row of gleaming Nubian silver cruisers stream across the sky, headed straight and true for the hangar. Aayla’s breath catches, then breaks as the first of the ships lands and a young, vaguely familiar dark-haired woman waddles out from the already half-open gangway, shouting commands as she cradles her heavily pregnant belly.

“On the ships now! Come on, come on!” she shouts, herding children and adults alike onto her ship with almost military precision.  She picks up one of the babies—a bundle of green and brown, stares at him quizzically for one moment, and then passes him off to the golden protocol droid that has wandered out after her. “Baby Yoda’s all yours, Threepio.”

“Oh, my! Bless my circuits—”

“Senator Amidala?” Aayla calls out, her voice raspy with smoke and hope she dares not give voice to. Her fingers are still clenched tight around her saber. The woman whips around at her name, which Aayla takes to mean she’s guessed right. Being stuck in the Outer Rim Sieges, she doesn’t interact much with Senators, and the woman is almost unrecognizable out of her usual Nubian regalia, but Padmé Amidala’s presence is hard to miss, either in person or in the Force.  Aayla grasps her forearm and prevents the Senator from overbalancing. “What—”

“I got your distress call,” Amidala replies, as if it’s obvious. More and more ships begin to touch down, pilots and Senatorial handmaidens running out to help the young and injured onto the ships. She peers around Aayla’s shoulder, her face scanning the crowd for a brief moment. “Where is An—Master Skywalker?”

Aayla glances at Amidala’s pregnant belly, then to the hand-carved, clearly Tatooinian pendant she’s worrying between her fingers, then back down to her belly.

(Force damn it, Bly was right.)

When she finally raises her eyes back to Amidala’s face, the human woman’s jaw is set, chin tilted up in defiance.

“He—” Aayla bites her lip, hesitating, weighing her options. She knows very little, of course, except that during this entire evacuation she’s never once seen Skywalker, which makes no sense, especially since she knows he was in the Temple only hours earlier. There are innocents to defend and impossible odds to defeat—if he could have, Anakin would have come running.

(He’s endangered the outcomes of enough of the 501st and 327th’s joint missions to do exactly that.)

Her drawn-out silence seems to be answer enough and Amidala’s entire face crumples in on itself.

“No, no, no,” she whispers, mostly to herself. “I’d know, I’d know, it can’t be…”

And Aayla wraps up this small, somehow breakable woman—a vaguely familiar acquaintance in some ways and a total stranger in others, but in this one particular way, in this one particular moment, completely and totally known to Aayla—as she breaks down and sobs.

Aayla allows her a moment before they make their escape.

(It’s all she can allow.)

***

Amidala doesn’t cry when they receive the broadcast.

She sits at the pilot’s chair and just watches, her lips slowly turning flat and white and pinched as she watches Sheev Palpatine declare the Jedi traitors and himself an Emperor.

Then the applause starts.

“Turn it off,” Aayla tells Threepio. The protocol droid hurries to comply as Aayla lays her free hand across Amidala’s shoulder. The human woman continues to stare, dead-eyed into the black abyss outside. “Watching does you no good.”

“I had him elected Chancellor, you know,” Padmé says, her voice leached of all life and echoing strangely in the pilot’s cabin.  A handful of older initiates and junior Padawans are crowded around behind them, but their heartbeats, their breaths, ever flutter of their bodies is strangely quiet, so much so that Aayla almost forgets they are there at all. Their flotilla of refugees has drifted in dead-space for nearly a week now, paralyzed by the unknown. They’d received one short message early on, a coded missive from one of Amidala’s former handmaidens, warning them to stay away from Naboo and any other Republic planets. But with no explanation or follow-up, they’d been left to stew in their own ever worsening anxiety, each ship a veritable powder keg of emotions. When the high priority broadcast alert from the Senate had finally come through, everyone who was old enough to understand what was going on had rushed to the front of the ship, determined to eavesdrop.  At the time, it’d seemed a blessing to have some news, any news, even if they all had known it was probably bad.

(It’s so much worse.)

There’s a yelp of surprise and Aayla’s head whips around.

Apprentice Healer Seo blushes a bright red and anxiously wrings her hands.

“I’m s-sorry—it’s just. Um. Senator? I think you’ve gone into labor?” she says, voice petering out into nothingness.

Amidala glances down, a numb sort of shock still dulling her movements, and Aayla’s follows her gaze to the puddle of water forming at the vee of her legs.

“Oh.”

They’re all frozen for one long moment.

Then—

“Senator, is there a medbay aboard? No, how about a bed? Threepio, you and Daara are going to find a planet for us to land on—preferably one with no clones but some sort of medical facility. Everyone else, out, distract the younglings—not you, Reva, you’re going to listen to every single word out of Seo’s mouth. She says jump, I want you to ask how high.”

“What—no, I can’t!” Seo’s voice has shot up four octaves in four words. She glances around, panicked, but the other Padawans are already starting to flee. “I’ve only ever delivered one baby!”

“Well, that’s one more baby than anyone else here has delivered, so congratulations, you’re now in charge,” Aayla responds, calmly pulling Amidala to her feet and shuffling towards the sleeping quarters.

“I—!”

Now, Healer Seo,” Aayla repeats, trying very hard not to project her annoyance. The girl clamps her mouth shut and grabs the goggle-eyed Reva, muttering something about clean water and scissors.

“It’s too early,” Amidala whispers, bleakly, as she allows Aayla to half-carry her into the hallways. “Months too early.”

“Yes, well, I’m told stress can do that,” Aayla responds tartly. She cycles quickly through the veritable library of information Healer Che had given her on humanoid pregnancy shortly after her own diagnosis. “And twins often aren’t carried to term. So not completely unexpected.”

Amidala stops abruptly, digging her heels in so that Aayla is forced to stop as well or risk hurting her.

“Twins?” she whispers, wide eyed.

Aayla blinks at her.

“Yes? It was hard to tell before, when they were all wrapped up around each other, but now they’re up and moving around and there are definitely two Force signatures. Didn’t you have a prenatal exam…?”

Amidala only opens and closes her mouth, no sound escaping.

(Aayla valiantly stops herself from banging her head against the nearest bulkhead.)

***

             “You’re late,” Aayla informs the startled and rather bedraggled looking Obi-Wan Kenobi, forty-three and a half hours after that terrible broadcast.

They have ended up on Yavin 4—part of some sort of far-flung, obscure archaeological survey funded by one of Senator Bail Organa’s great-aunts once removed or something like that—after the Alderaniaan Senator had finally gotten ahold of them on a special encrypted com line. He’d promised food, shelter, and medical aid, but even still, Aayla—Palpatine’s declarations fresh in her mind—had wanted to ignore those hails. Aayla had been reluctant to trust, well, anyone really, but Padmé—

(And after holding her hand through thirteen hours of bloody, sweaty childbirth, listening to her pained pleas for Skywalker, and wiping away her tears of joy when she clutched those shrieking bundles to her chest and whispered their names into their downy hair…well. She is Padmé now, not Amidala, not ever again.)

—had vouched loudly and emphatically for Organa. And when they’d finally (finally) responded Masters Kenobi and Yoda had nearly shoved the good Senator out of the way in their haste to see Aayla’s (and Seo’s and Chesik’s and Daara’s and Grogu’s) face for themselves.

(And oh, Force, Aayla knows they’ve been to the Temple, Senator Organa said as much, but even if he hadn’t, she would have known from the droop in Master Yoda’s shoulders and the furrows in Master Kenobi’s brow and the raw, unfiltered joy in their faces when their eyes met hers across millions of parsecs.)

Without further ado, she marches forward and dumps a squalling Leia in Kenobi’s arms, the medical officers and droids from Organa’s operation streaming around them, rushing to help the ever-harried Apprentice Healer Seo. Yavin 4 is remote, but the project is impeccably run to the spirit and the letter of Alderaanian law, which requires fully operational, level one trauma centers for any off-planet worksite.

 Kenobi barely manages to catch the baby, his grief buried under some mix of befuddled confusion and wonder. He glances between Leia and Aayla, his mouth half-open in shock.

“I beg your pardon—?”

“She won’t stop crying unless someone’s carrying her,” Aayla responds, with the crispness of a Jedi Master and GAR General who has not slept in approximately three standard days. She purses her lips and unceremoniously begins rearranging Kenobi’s robes and the baby in question so that Leia can wriggle closer.

(An exhausted Padmé, still too weak to leave her bed, had taught Aayla how to make a Nubian swaddle so that she could carry Leia around the cruiser—the constant movement and new sights seem to be the only things that calm Leia.)

Master Yoda and Senator Organa watch with wide eyes. Aayla can’t tell if it is fascination or horror.

“She prefers skin to skin contact,” she explains. “Seo says we have to keep her warm.”

“And this has to do with me being late…how exactly?”

Aayla cocks a hip and lets loose a put-upon sign.

“I never signed up to babysit Skywalkers,” she explains, in what she thinks is a very patient and understanding tone of voice. “That’s your job. Congratulations, Uncle Obi-Wan, she’s inherited your padawan’s temperament.”

Kenobi freezes and Aayla is nearly felled by the jagged well of pain that slices through the Force. She stares at the other Master in shock and distantly hears several younglings break out into a fresh round of tears.

“She—I. This is…is Anakin’s daughter? He’s…he has a daughter?”

“And a son,” Padmé’s voice adds quietly, as an Alderaanian medical droid brings her forward in a hover-chair. Her face is pale, and she clutches Luke close to her body, as if she can protect him from all the darkness in the Galaxy from the force of her will alone. “I’m sorry, Obi-Wan. We should have told you.”

Kenobi glances back and forth between Luke and Leia, his face cracking into a million shattered pieces.

“Oh, Force, I’ve failed him—”

“No, this doesn’t mean that Anakin loved you any less. Only that he was scared.”

“Fear. Leads to the Dark Side it does,” Master Yoda intones knowingly and Aayla kind of wants to pick the little troll up and punt kick him across the ship, because yes, he’s probably right, but can’t he see that this is not the time? Except that a silent conversation seems to pass between the two Masters and a sinking, sucking pit begins to form in Aayla’s stomach. Her hand flies out to grip at Padmé’s shoulder—half to ground herself and half to lend her strength to the other woman.

Kenobi inhales deeply and tucks Leia deeper into the fold of his robes. His voice quavers and he won’t look at Aayla, at Padmé, at anyone.

“I—Senator Amida—Padmé. Anakin has…he’s Fallen to the Dark Side.”

Aayla bites her lip and stares at Master Yoda’s claws folded over his gimmer stick and silently begs him to deny it.

(Anakin, Fallen? Little Ani, Fallen? The tiny little boy who’d tested into her Advanced Piloting Seminar and who Quin had sternly instructed her to look after because Obi-is-such-a-mother-tooka-and-is-driving-me-crazy-so-we’re-going-to-help-him-with-his-new-Padawan and who spoke Ryl with her and who she and Bly and Hatchet stayed up half the night playing drinking games with? That Anakin?)

But no one denies it or rushes to protest and Kenobi continues, nervously eyeing Padmé’s deathly pallor.

 “I wouldn’t believe it—couldn’t believe it—but I saw the recordings from the Temple. I saw him lead the clones in their slaughter, cut down Master Drallig, pledge his allegiance to…to Palpatine. It makes no sense—”

“It makes perfect sense,” Padmé says, her voice gone all heavy. “Ani’s always been loyal to a fault. Most of the time, it’s a good thing. Except this time around he’s placed his trust in the wrong person and destroyed the entire Republic in the process.” 

Obi-Wan jerks and curls inward, as if personally hurt by Padmé’s matter-of-fact acceptance.

“Destroy the Sith, we must,” Yoda interjects once more, tapping his gimmer stick authoritatively against the ground. “Confront young Skywalker, Obi-Wan must. Face the new Emperor, my task is.”

Aayla can feel her fists balling inwards, the darkness of the Force closing in around her as she realizes how very alone they—she—are. When she’d first heard Master Kenobi’s voice crackling over the com, she’d thought for a moment she wouldn’t have to do this all so alone…

“Don’t be ridiculous,” a stern, no-nonsense voice retorts. As one, they all turn as to stare at the sudden interloper—Master Nu, leaning heavily on a pre-pubescent Twileki girl she’d been considering taking as an apprentice Archivist, before…well, before. Her lips are pursed into a thin line, her thin white-grey eyebrows drawn sharply downwards.

It’s the first time that Aayla’s ever seen Master Yoda speechless.

“Master Nu—” Kenobi begins, only to fall silent at a sharp, chopping motion from the human woman’s hand.

“We’re weakest alone—Palpatine knows this, it’s why he waited to strike until we were spread thin and he could pick us off one by one. Splitting up and challenging the Sith to a duel will accomplish nothing but getting yourselves killed.” Master Nu stabs a finger towards the younglings huddled quietly just a few feet away, watching the tableau with wide eyes and clearly eavesdropping. “Forget Skywalker, forget Palpatine, they are your highest priority now. They are all that is left of our people. And I refuse to allow you fools to die and leave Master Secura to protect them all by herself, with only the help of a few wizened old bats such as myself.”

Kenobi opens his mouth, protest in the deep corners of his mouth—

(Because if Aayla knows anything, it’s that where Skywalker goes, Kenobi is sure to follow, and if Skywalker has actually, finally managed to pull some stupid shit that he can’t be saved from, Kenobi’d damn well kill himself trying anyways)

—but Padmé reaches out and lays a gentle hand over Kenobi’s own hand, still cradling Leia’s head.

“Obi-Wan,” Padmé implores. He locks eyes with her. His eyes widen abruptly and he shakes his head, slowly at first and then faster.

“I—I can’t…you shouldn’t trust me with them, not after…I failed him.”

“As long as they are alive, you haven’t failed anybody,” Padmé insists, lifting Luke so that he can open his oh-so-blue-eyes and blink sleepily. Kenobi seems entranced. “Please. I can’t do this alone.”

“Obi-Wan, safe the Skywalkers will not be, unless dead the Sith are,” Master Yoda interrupts, his own voice sharp and scolding.

“Naberries,” Padmé retorts, her own voice practically acidic. Even Organa seems taken aback and Luke begins to whimper. Padmé begins to rock her son and visibly pushes her anger away. “They are Naberries—Ani wants…wanted them to be Naberries. He said—”

“—that free-born children take free names,” Kenobi finishes for her, mouth slowly and painfully shaping the words.

Padmé smiles sadly and nods.

Kenobi straightens and steps forward to stand beside Aayla, on the opposite side of Padmé’s hover chair.

Master Nu and Aayla exhale with relief.

Master Yoda huffs.

“I’m sorry, Master,” Kenobi says as he turns to face the tiny, green Jedi.

(Kenobi always did like to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.)

***

Ahsoka Tano finds them on Yavin a month later.

Well, technically it is Luke and Leia who find her. The twins have been restless and fussy—

(Fussier than normal anyways.)

—for weeks, calming only when their scans pick up a small junker on approach to the system. Around her, their makeshift council of Jedi survivors and Nubian allies is panicking, but Aayla only watches the baby securely tucked into Kenobi’s arms and happily gumming on a hand.

She narrows her eyes at the little thing—she thinks it is Luke this time—who only blinks back beatifically and smacks his lips.

“Wait,” Aayla interrupts. Half-formed plans of scrambling a lightweight Nubian fighter and who should pilot it grind to a halt as all eyes turn to her. They do that a lot now, Masters Nu and Che, look to Aayla. Sometimes it’s Padmé if they have a question on the latest political broadcast from Coruscant or other planets that may be sympathetic to their plight, but mostly it’s Aayla. She’d tried to defer to Master Kenobi at first—with Master Yoda off on his harebrained suicide quest, he is the most senior Councilor at hand—but he’d only smiled absently and immediately turned his attention back to Luke and Leia.

(He does that a lot these days.)

In the silence, Aayla extends her senses into the great, gaping maw of darkness of the Force. She takes a moment to carefully search, alert for the faintest impression of a familiar Force signature. Her master is—was, perhaps? Her heart thumps with bone-shattering grief—a Shadow and so Aayla is more trained than most Jedi in the art of searching the Force while also concealing oneself and she tells herself that this is why she never find any other survivors, the few other times she’s dared to do this. That the remaining Jedi, smart as they are, know better to reveal themselves in the Force and make themselves easy targets for the Sith.

(She doesn’t dare think otherwise.)

On a hunch, she follows the bright, bubbling, unformed thread that is Luke’s presence in the Force, stretching out across the expanse of space. She watches—well, it’s more of a feeling really and not at the same time, but after three years with the 327th, she’s gotten a lot better at trying to explain the Force to non-Jedi—Leia’s own thread intertwine with Luke’s, spinning and spiraling until they form one larger, sparkling rope. And yet further on where that rope wraps, almost playfully, with—

Ahsoka Tano,” Aayla breathes, her eyes flying open.

Kenobi’s head snaps up and Master Che looks like she’s about to cry from sheer joy.

“You’re sure? How did she even…” Padmé asks, clutching at her skirt.

(Because she may be a refugee but she’s Padmé Amidala so of course along with hundreds of Jedi younglings, her ships had spirited half of her wardrobe off Coruscant. All of the Nubian diplomatic vessels had carried several changes of clothes, for her and other officials aboard, and many of the Jedi, including Aayla, were all too grateful to have clothing that did not smell of smoke and death.)

“Luke,” Aayla says, with a shrug and gesture to the child. Kenobi cocks his head.

“We’ll have to work on shielding a little earlier than I had planned,” he mutters. He smiles fondly. “Oh, look at you, already ruining all of my careful plans.”

“May we witness your reunion?” Master Nu asks, almost eager. Padmé looks confused and Aayla leans over.

“It’s considered rude to “watch” other Jedi in the Force without their express permission,” she whispers.

Kenobi bites his lip.

“I don’t know how happy she’ll be,” he warns. “We didn’t exactly part on the best of terms.”

“For Shiraya’s sake,” Padmé says, shoving a little at Kenobi’s shoulder with an exasperated smile. “That girl’s flown halfway across the galaxy to find us, don’t you dare leave her in suspense for a single second longer.”

Kenobi pauses only a moment longer before dipping his chin in acquiesce to Master Nu, Master Che, and Aayla, and then sinking into the Force, extending a tentative feeler.

Ahsoka’s explosive joy rings throughout the Force.

Outside, Aayla can hear the younglings begin to chant and squeal, unintentionally caught up in the tidal wave of Ahsoka’s happiness. Even Padmé begins to laugh, Force-null but the air practically vibrating.

Padmé twirls around three brave younglings who’ve climbed up the side of the ancient Yavinese pyramids, trying to find the source of this effervescent feeling.

(“I knew it! I knew it! She’s so cool.”)

Master Nu is trying hard not to cry, clutching her hands together. Aayla feels the life in her belly turn over and grumble a little at the disturbance of its lovely nap. Master Che freezes, her mouth dropping open as she points at Aayla’s still-slight bump, which of course only sets off Padmé, Master Nu, and even the younglings.

And there is poor Kenobi, still just trying to concentrate long enough to transmit a series of coordinates to Ahsoka.

They all tumble out of the makeshift Council room, hurrying across the jungle to the half-open clearing where they’re planning to meet Ahsoka. They gather a small trail of padawans and younglings, whispering that Padawan Tano’s alive and she’s here.

(“If she made it, do you think Knight Hayth made it too? Xe asked me to be xir padawan before xe left for the front. We were going to make it official when…”)

Padmé races up the ship ramp as soon as it hits the ground, meeting Ahsoka halfway and enveloping the teenage Togruta in a fierce hug.

Ahsoka holds herself stiff for a moment before sinking into Padmé’s hug with a broken sort of desperation.

“As soon as I saw the news, I knew you were going to be right in the middle of it. I hoped…but when you didn’t give any speeches, I feared…” Ahsoka whispers. She pauses and then breathes out harshly, straightening up and clasping Kenobi’s arm warmly and catching Aayla’s eye before continuing to glance around. “So. Where’s Skyguy?”

Kenobi pales.

“Ahsoka, he…he’s not—”

“No, I felt him! He’s the one who reached out, who led me here. It was kinda weak and weird, so I figured he was injured, but I’d recognize his Force signature anywhere. Don’t try to tell me it wasn’t him.”

“He’s not here. It was Luke and Leia you felt. His children,” Aayla interjects, with both Padmé and Kenobi suddenly voiceless in the face of Ahsoka falling to pieces in front of them.  Still, Aayla can’t bear to grind the tiny pieces of Ahsoka’s heart to dust and so she offers the only bit of hope she can.

(She doesn’t know how Padmé and Kenobi break the news. She knows that they do it later that night, in private and in hushed voices, and that it leads to a drawn-out argument that lasts well into the night and does not really end so much as come to a bitter stalemate.)

“His children?” a strangely unfamiliar and yet familiar voice repeats.

Aayla’s eyes fix onto the ice-blond clone in 501st blue standing at the top of the ramp.

Many of the younglings begin to spiral whimpering panic attacks, as others shuffle nervously and Aayla’s adrenaline rises. She clenches her fist around her saber as Ahsoka tucks the clone behind her protectively.

(And Force if she doesn’t look exactly like Skywalker and Kenobi in that moment).

“It wasn’t his fault,” she says. The clone shifts uneasily behind her and falls backwards until the shadow of the ship hides his painfully familiar face. “It wasn’t any of their faults—there was a control chip in their heads. But it’s gone now—I swear it. Go on, feel him in the Force if you don’t believe me.”

Aayla brushes against his mind and chokes back the feeling of his mind—totally bright and utterly unique and so gloriously right. But really, Aayla doesn’t even need to reach out, because now it all makes sense—Bly’s panic as he realized he was losing control, the sense of betrayal as his own body disobeyed his orders.

(That darkness wasn’t death—it was loss of free will.)

“How did you save him?” Aayla demands, only one thought pounding through her head.

(Bly’s alive.)

(Bly’s alive.)

***

Kamino is as miserably cold and rainy as always.

(“I’ve always wondered why the long-necks spent so much time cloning, instead of building ships to get the hell off this planet,” Bly had once commented on a visit to the training center.)

Their greeting is as chilly as the weather—while the normally unflappable Minister Lama Su and Senator Halle Burtoni seem mildly inconvenienced by the sight of Aalya, once Jedi Master and supposed ally, they are positively unenthused to see Padmé Amidala. The tiny brunette regards their Kaminoan greeting committee evenly from within the foyer, her sopping curls dripping big fat drops of water onto the too-white floors.

(It’s just her and Padmé—Kenobi had taken one look at Ahsoka’s murderous face and unsubtly suggested that perhaps she stay on Yavin.)

 Finally, she raises an eyebrow.

“I suppose now I understand why you were so determined to kill every single one of my clone rights bills,” Padmé finally says to Senator Burtoni. “I’d begun to think that you just hated me personally.”

“I know humanoids can be quite emotional, so this may be hard for you to understand, but we do not take sides,” the Kaminoan Senator declares. On anybody else, Aayla would have sworn she saw an eyeroll. “My opposition to your foolish idealism had nothing to do with you and everything to do with fulfilling the terms of our agreement with Lord Tyrannus.”

“You built the army that destroyed a millennium of democratic rule,” Padmé retorts. “How is that not taking sides?”

“What our clients do with their merchandise is none of our business—we ourselves are strictly neutral,” Minister Su explains, melodic voice as even keeled as ever.

(Aalya wonders if Lama Su had watched the clones murder Master Ti from one of his little walkways, high above the training grounds—he wouldn’t have helped, she thinks, but he might have wanted to watch the culmination of this little plan, out of clinical curiosity more than anything else.)

“Funny thing about neutrality, it only works so long as you are willing and able to toss someone else onto the fire,” Padmé says, her lip curling with disgust.  “And while I don’t doubt your willingness, you suddenly find yourselves without a lot of options. The Jedi are gone, the Senate completely under Palpatine’s sway, and the Separatists falling in line. Congratulations, your army did its job so well, that it made you Palpatine’s greatest threat—the only people in the galaxy who could raise an army large enough to challenge his grip on power.”

“And you know all too well how Palpatine deals with threats,” Aayla murmurs. The Kaminoans go unnaturally still as the truth of her words rings through the Force. Padmé glances between Su and Burtoni, her eyes sharp and calculating beneath lowered lids.

“Which is of course why you agreed to see us,” Padmé says. Burtoni blinks silently, which the human woman seems to take as confirmation. “It’d be sanctions of some sort, I’d guess—something to do with restricting cloning or forbidding new contracts?”

The Minister Su’s head bobs and weaves as he turns back to face them.

“It is our only export, a source of wealth and bargaining chip all in one,” Minister Su says, slowly. “Now our allies in the Senate no longer return our calls, while more and more pro-human bills line up in committee queues.”

“Sheev was always such a bigot,” Padmé murmurs, almost to herself. “They cheered when he declared war, they cheered when he declared himself Emperor, and they’ll cheer again as he drags you before the Courts and justifies the complete eradication of your people. Unless you help us and in doing so, help yourself.”

“As if you have any interest in helping us,” Senator Burtoni scoffs.

“Well, frankly, no,” Padmé says, bluntly. Aayla eyes her nervously. “You aided in the genocide of not just the Jedi, but of the clones themselves. Whatever Palpatine has planned for you is surely no less than you deserve. However, I can assure you that I am very interested in thwarting the Empire, and in this we have a common enemy.”

(There’s a little kick in Aayla’s belly, as if her child wishes to emphasize such a display of bulldozing zeal. She wonders if her child will grow up to emulate its Aunt Padmé’s example and can’t decide if thought inspires happiness or exhaustion.)

“So you’d suggest that we make our people even more of a target by confirming all of Palpatine’s suspicions and allying with you?”

“Hmm, perhaps, but you would no longer be the only target. Palpatine uses the GAR to keep planets in line—a million guns held to a million heads. Without that firepower, he’ll have a thousand little rebellions to quell, and no time to focus on one little watery planet of cloners.”

“He might take revenge!”

“He might,” Aayla interjects. “But right now, he is going destroy Kamino unless you do something. So, I’d take these odds if I were you.”

Minister Su and Senator Burtoni turn and stare at each other, one, two, then three interminably long blinks.

“I suppose you’d like us to hand over the codes to the control chips,” Minister Su says, finally, as Senator Burtoni’s shoulders dip in what looks like resignation.

Padmé and Aayla pointedly do not look at each other

(If the Kaminoans want to believe that once they’ve hacked the chips and handed over control, the clones will still be enslaved, just to a different master for a different purpose, well Padmé and Aayla certainly won’t correct them.)

For the first time since this terrible, stupid, slogging war began and Aayla was thrust into military service, she begins to feel as if they’ve actually won a great battle and that the end may be in sight.

***

Of course, it’s not as easy as all that, for all of Aayla’s optimism.

Rex warned them, even as they add their own modifications to the hack—a short debriefing of sorts that will offer the clones some explanation of the chips and how to safely remove them, along with a list of coordinates indicating friendly planets such as Naboo, Alderaan, and yes, Yavin, where free clones may be able to find aid.

“They won’t thank us. They might just turn their blasters on themselves as soon as they remember what they’ve done,” Rex had intoned, all too bleakly as he eyed Aayla’s ever growing baby bump.

(“What they were forced to do,” Ahsoka had reminded him, touching the palm of her hand to the back of his, the way she had a hundred times before, whenever the blond clone said such things.)

But Aayla had gone ahead anyways and pressed that big red button and spent the rest of the night holed up with Ahsoka and Padmé in Yavin IV’s com room, eagerly scanning for any messages for help. And when those never came, for any information that could be gleaned from the heavily censored, pro-Imperial Holonet. For a while, Luke and Leia kept them all entertained with a round of their favorite game, tummy-time-with-Aunt-Ahsoka, but soon enough not even their happy little burbles could distract from the distressing silence.

“Couldn’t you…?” Padmé asks with a wiggling motion of her fingers near her head. Aayla only tilts her head. “With the Force?”

“Not without alerting Old Wrinkly Ball of Darkness to our location,” Ahsoka sighs. She boops Luke’s nose one last time.

(They’ve never consciously talked about it, but they never use the word Emperor or Lord Sidious or Darth or anything so ridiculously self-important to describe Sheev Palpatine.)

 “They’re back though, I know it,” Ahsoka continues. “The whole Force lit up as soon as we disabled the chips. And those Star Destroyers Senator Organa was tracking—the ones that just disappeared…it can’t be a coincidence.”

“They probably aren’t reporting anything because they just haven’t noticed yet,” Aayla points out. “The reporters never cared very much about the clones during the Republic. I doubt things have suddenly changed in the Empire.”

“Yes,” Padmé agrees, with a heavy sigh. “I do suppose that’s rather why Palpatine’s plan worked.”

“Still, why isn’t anyone saying anything?” Ahsoka continues, frustration clear in her voice. Aayla and Padmé share a sad smile at the show youthful impatience and—

(Dear Force, when did Aayla start sounding like her grandmaster?)

“Don’t worry, it’s only a matter of time until the clones do something sufficiently dramatic enough that even a willfully blind reporter won’t be able to ignore it,” Padmé assures her. Her lips twitch. “After all, they did work with you Jedi for three years.”

“Hey, I resemble that statement,” Aayla shoots back, with very little heat.

(Padmé gives her a very pointed look when, two months later, Commander Cody pushes Grand Moff Tarkin out of an airlock live on intergalactic news.)

(Kenobi looks so proud he could cry.)

***

After kindly telling Palpatine to go suck a bag of dicks and walking off with three-quarters of his fleet, the clones keep to themselves. They engage to free their brothers or to help shepherd other refugees out of the Core, but largely seem content to watch the Empire destroy itself from within.

(Aayla recognizes the wisely cautious hand of Plo Koon guiding this strategy and is glad at least some of the Wolf Pack survived.) 

As Padmé predicted, the decimation of Palpatine’s army emboldens his critics and shakes his allies. Oh, there are still plenty of people willing to carry out the Sith’s cruel and devious plans, whether out of zealotry or a desire for power—

(There’s still Anakin, not that Aayla ever says this out loud around Padmé or Ahsoka or Rex or Kenobi, but she sees the look in their eyes whenever rumors swirl of a mysterious “Lord Vader” and the trail of wanton destruction he leaves in his wake. But he’s too busy playing power games with Palpatine to hunt down the remaining Jedi, which means that bringing him in for justice and/or rehabilitation is very near the bottom of Aayla’s rather large to-do list.)

—but not many and certainly not everyone.

“It’s always hardest to be the first,” Padmé remarks, as she and Aalya kick back with a bottle of sparkling Aldera cider (non-alcoholic, of course) and watch one of Organa’s stirring speeches for justice. Kenobi is babysitting Luke and Leia for the night. “It’s very lonely to stand up when you’re not sure anybody else will follow. But after that first person, everyone else is all too happy to follow.”

“Do you wish it was you up there?” Aayla gestures with her half full glass to the podium the projection of Organa stands upon. Padmé raises an eyebrow.

“You say that as if I didn’t write half that speech for him,” she remarks wryly. Aayla laughs and Padmé’s façade cracks, a small, girlish giggle escaping before she sobers once more. “I don’t know. Maybe a little. Maybe a lot. Maybe one day. Maybe never. I don’t know. I still want to help, but sometimes I remember being fourteen and the confidence, the righteousness, the purpose…And then I bent a little. At the time, I told myself it was only a little and that it was only because I’d grown wiser to the politics of it all, but looking back… If that fourteen-year-old Queen saw the twenty-seven-year-old Senator, I don’t know that she’d recognize me. I don’t think she’d even like me.”

“Which version of yourself do you prefer?”

Padmé tilts her head.

“Somewhere in the middle, I think.” She takes another sip of and huffs a laugh. “Shiraya, I was so unbearably naïve back then. It’s a wonder Sabé didn’t push me down the stairs.”

“I think about it myself now and again,” Aayla admits, with a quirk. “You’re the one who wanted to broadcast our location to the whole Galaxy.”

Padmé shifts and straightens from her inelegant slouch, eyes narrowing in preparation for a fight. It’s the sort of face that inspires a highly specific type of adrenaline rush.

(She’d once thought of it as Skywalker’s Bad Idea face, but now calls it the Naberrie Noble Foolishness face. She doesn’t know if Skywalker had gotten his particular brand of stubbornness from his wife or vice versa or if they’d both just been born with it and that’s what had attracted them to each other in the first place, but she likes to think he’d laugh and agree that Naberrie Noble Foolishness was a much better name.)

“And you’re the one who said you wanted the clones to find you and for the lost Jedi to come home. How can they do that if they don’t know where you are?”

“I don’t…I don’t know that they’d consider this home, exactly. If they’d want to reunite with the Jedi, even if they did know where we are.”

“Whyever not?”

“I failed them.”

“I’d argue the fault lies with Palpatine—”

“No!” Aayla bursts out, startled by the strength of her own conviction and the sudden volume of her words. “I may not have activated that chip, but even before then, the clones were little better than slaves, forced to serve a Republic that wouldn’t even grant them citizenship. And, yes, maybe I treated them well, maybe I knew they were more than just cannon fodder, maybe I celebrated their individuality and called them my brothers, but doesn’t that make it worse, really? Palpatine violated their humanity, but at least he’s consistent—he never even considered them sentient in the first place.”

“Ah.” Padmé rolls the stem of her wine glass between her fingers and contemplates the sloshing liquid. “If that’s really how you feel, then you should honor the clones by giving them the choice to decide who’s really at fault.”

“What?”

“They’ve had so many other choices taken from them and now you’re doing it again—deciding for them that they should be angry at the Jedi and pre-emptively taking yourself out of that difficult conversation.”

“I’m not…I—ugh. I hate it when you’re right.”

Padmé smirks into her drink.

“So you’ll do it?”

“There’s other considerations. What of the Sith hunting us?”

“Palpatine doesn’t take risks, he makes plans and only pulls the lever when he feels secure,” Padmé says with a dismissive wave of her hand. “And right now, with half his Empire gone and the other half eyeing his throne, he’s not going to risk sending what little manpower he has left halfway across the Galaxy.” Her face softens. “I only saw what happened in the Temple from a distance so I can’t say that I truly understand what you went through, but I do not not understand either. It’s a risk to be sure, but well worth it in my opinion.”

“It’s not my decision to make.”

“Well, now that’s an actually valid counterargument. But I’m sure if you asked the rest of your people, they’d agree with me. They love their family—be that clone or Jedi—far more than they fear Palpatine.”

(Padmé’s right. The vote isn’t even close.)

But apart from two Star Destroyers and a small armada of likely-illegally-acquired smuggling ships that set up a protective perimeter around the moon and a very sternly worded broadcast which advises Imperial vessels to stay well clear of the system, nothing much changes.

Yes, the clones are here, some of them anyhow. But their ships are oh so conveniently parked on the other side of the system, close enough to patrol, but far enough away to avoid actual interaction with the Jedi. They allow Rex to travel freely between the fleet and the moon, but let their coms fade into staticky silence the moment any of the Jedi ask for docking permissions.

The younglings pester Aayla for answers and she doesn’t know what to say.  It’s Aayla’s own fault, for letting slip that she was working to bring the “good” clones back and getting their hopes up.  The dark wounds engendered by attack on the Temple could not outweigh the memories of the clones who’d escorted their Generals or Commanders on leave or hung around the hangars while they waited to ship out. The clones who played hide and seek with Jedi younglings, trying to hide their laughter when those same younglings used the Force to cheat and miraculously “find” them after only a minute or two of searching; who helped Master Nu reshelve an entire section on Mandalorian history and asked thoughtful questions while doing so; who helped herd recalcitrant Jedi into the healing wards for their checkups—those clones were as much a part of the fabric of the Jedi Order as the Jedi themselves. For some of the newest younglings, it had been the only version of the Order they’d ever known. For the oldest Knights, these newfound companions had been a blessed balm in the middle of a terrible war.

“We should read to them too,” young Reva announces one night during storytime. Back at the Temple, storytime had been a treasured time in the creche, but mostly reserved for the smallest of the younglings. Now they all clamor around Master Nu, who has spent the past few months of Yavin IV refining her narration techniques, from an awkward monotone recitation of Jedi history to eager, multi-character reenactments of the greatest moments of myth and legend.

Master Nu pauses, datapad half raised. She tilts her head and Reva juts out her lower lip stubbornly. Padmé, who has learned to braid Reva’s dark, kinky human hair—

(This used to be Crechemaster Nuun’s job. She’d been a quiet human, of a similar skin and hair phenotype as Reva, who had always braided the little girl’s hair into neat little rows. But she’d died trying to protect Reva and the rest of her clan and so Padmé had gone hunting through her stacks of fashion holos for information. This latest attempt was certainly better than her first, but she was nowhere near as fast as Nuun had been and so they used storytime to distract Reva during the long and boring process.)

—gives the girl a gentle tap of reprimand.

“Even if you have a good point, you can’t expect everyone to just automatically agree with you. Defend your position,” she murmurs. Reva harrumphs.

“They’re all alone up there and we have coms,” she says, in a duh tone of voice, which now that she says it, really does make perfect sense. She looks to Master Nu, who nods in approval.

“A most excellent idea, young one. However, I may be rather nervous, so I must ask that we read an old and familiar story that you all know well so that when I falter you can join in. Is this acceptable?”

The younglings cheer in agreement.

(The clones don’t stay anything in response to the nightly story broadcasts, but neither do they jam the signal or explicitly ask for it to stop.)

Commander Gray is the first one to reach out. Though judging from the uncomfortable look on the clone’s face it’s very much an act driven by necessity rather than by desire.

Gray stands awkwardly at the entrance of his beat-up low altitude assault transport and stares back at Aayla.

“I’m not used to seeing them so empty,” Aayla remarks, finally collecting herself enough to respond, but not quite enough to come with anything but the most inane of observations.

“It’s just me,” Gray says quickly. “We didn’t know how…well the rest of the men decided to stay in orbit. I don’t mean any harm, I swear it.”

“I never said you did.”

But Gray continues as if she never spoke.

“I’ll leave as soon as I can. I didn’t mean to trouble you. Only…I’ve got Commander Dume aboard.”

“Caleb?” Aayla’s breath stutters out unevenly.

(When they’d first sent out that message, she’d hoped that the surviving Jedi would hear the broadcast and come flooding back to Yavin, but…well, Aayla should know better than to get her hopes up by now.)

“And Depa?” Aayla blurts out, once more unable to fully quell her foolish daydreams or keep them to herself. Gray’s eyes shutter close and Aayla curses her sleep-fogged brain.

“She bought him time to run. He’s a good kid—knew how to hide and to stay hidden while we…weren’t us.”

“And once you were you again, you found him and brought him home. Oh, Gray.”

There’s a beat of awkward silence and Gray begins to shuffle backwards.

“I’ll go grab him now. It was a long flight. I told him to catch some sleep.”

A few seconds later, the clone commander reappears, gently leading a foggy-eyed boy with dark, sleep mussed hair out. He squints, then widens his eyes and smiles—half disbelieving hope and half endless grief.

(Aayla swears to the Force that her child will never know what it is to smile like that.)

“It’s really you!” Caleb exclaims. For all his joy, he sticks close to Commander Gray—almost like a human-sized space barnacle. “See, Gray, I told you the message wasn’t a trap.”

“Take care of him,” is all Commander Gray says, gruff and carefully keeping his eyes focused on Aayla.

 He starts to move away but is stopped abruptly by the death grip Caleb has on his arm.

“You’re leaving me?” he cries out, pre-pubescent voice thin and reedy.

Gray bites his lip, eyes darting furtively to Aayla. He straightens his shoulders.

“I have to, kid,” he says. “I know I was all you had for a while there, but you’re home now. You’re with your people. You don’t need me anymore.”

“I’ll run away to—to—to Daiyu!” Caleb declares impetuously, a mulish glint in his eye. “And you’ll have to come chasing after me.”

“That’s…” Commander Gray pinches the bridge of his nose between two fingers. He looks over to Aayla for help, but she only shrugs and holds out her hands.

“Don’t look at me. I happen to agree with Caleb—you are welcome here. You and all of your brothers.”

“That’s not—” Gray huffs out a frustrated sigh. “You—all of you Jedi—don’t need to keep looking at…a constant reminder of the worst day of your lives.  We want—I want you to be safe. I want you to feel safe.”

“But you make me feel safe!”

Commander Gray’s eyes go flat.

“I shot at you, Caleb. I almost killed you. I did kill General Bilaba. I don’t—”

“That wasn’t you!” Caleb insists, chin sticking out. “It wasn’t—we could feel you all go dead in the Force.”

“I—” Commander Gray pauses for a long moment. Then, in a small voice. “We? Do you mean…did the General—did she know before…that I didn’t mean to—?”

“She knew,” Aayla interjects. Gently, but firmly she lays a hand on Gray’s pauldron. He hunches his shoulders and begins to sob quietly, long and low. Caleb wraps his commander in a fiercely protective hug.

“I’ve got him, don’t worry,” Caleb says solemnly.

Aayla inclines her head and backs away.

Depa would be proud, she whispers across the Force.

***

Bly isn’t the first clone to come home, but nor is he the last.

(The clones who’d marched on the Temple have the hardest time forgiving themselves. Some of them eventually make their way to Yavin. Most never do.)

When the 327th enters orbit, Aayla is eight months pregnant and tired of not being able to see her feet or the man she loves. She tried to distract herself the way she knows best, but had only failed miserably when Master Che chased her away from any sort of manual labor. And now that she’s finally managed to sneak away from the Twi’leki healer’s beady eyes and be of use to her people—

“I’m pregnant, not an invalid,” she snaps in frustration as she stares down a resolute Initiate and sheepish looking clone.

(She’s ninety percent cetain she can feel Master Windu’s presence in the Force, all furrowed brows of Severe Disappointment. But Master of the Vaapad or not, he’d never had to try and calm his temper while carrying around an extra thirty pounds and a plethora of inconvenient hormones, so as far as Aayla is concerned, he can stick his saber where no star system ever shined.)

Boil only winces.

“Maybe the Archives can wait?” he suggests tentatively. “I know Master Nu was excited when you gave her the go ahead, but I don’t think she meant for you to go tearing up all the vines yourself.”

“We’re finally at a place where we can start rebuilding,” Aayla argues back, crossing her arms over her burgeoning chest. “A meditation hall instead of a medical wing, mosaics instead of crops, a library instead of a barrack! How can I just sit back and do nothing?”

“You’re not doing nothing.” Reva blows out a big sigh. “You know, when Master Che told me to keep you away from anything stren-u-ous, I didn’t think it would be nearly this hard.”

“Master Che told you what?”

“Oh, um, I definitely wasn’t supposed to repeat that,” Reva says, a little sheepishly. Boil looks despondent.

“In Master Che’s defense, I think her directive was also partly to keep Reva busy. She can be pretty single-minded, sometimes,” he confides.

“Hey!” Reva yelps indignantly.

“But also, it’s not like you’re doing nothing. Decanting Bly’s kid is more than enough work. It didn’t sound easy, from what the long-necks said.”

Aayla opens her mouth to properly explain all the ways that humanoid pregnancy was not like clone decantation, but that’s when the Force shifts—like a stubborn cog finally slotting into place and allowing the rest of Aalya’s life to finally, finally start humming along the way it was always meant to. She inhales sharply and turns on her heel, away from Reva and Boil shouting in surprise, and jogging—

(Far slower than the all-out sprint she wants, but far faster than the sedate waddle that Master Che would have prescribed)

—towards their makeshift little port.

Jacks is the first to see her.

“You’re so round!” he blurts out as Hatchet ducks out from the belly of the ship and lightly slaps his brother upside the head.

“As if she couldn’t still kick your ass with one hand tied behind her back,” he says with a roll of his eyes. Aayla catches them both up in a gigantic hug and begins to half-laugh, half-cry.

And when she looks up, Bly is standing there—a thick and scary new scar across the expanse of his neck and clad in strange, drab civilian garb, but still undeniably her Bly. She lets go of Jacks and Hatchet and stumbles forward, one step then two, until she’s finally in Bly’s arms.

“Clumsy,” he remarks with a quirk of his mouth and his arms tightening around her. Aayla huffs a laugh and buries her face in his shoulder.

“It’s half your fault I’m like this anyways,” she says, voice muffled by the weird cape thing he has going on. She feels more than hears Bly’s chuckle.

“I came as soon as I heard,” he assures her.

“It took a while to raise him on coms,” Rex interjects, dry and pointed, from where he’s helping a limping Nick off the ship. “Didn’t bother responding to any of our hails until you sent out your big message and by then they were clear on the other side of the galaxy.”

“Admiral Kallus showed us holos of the Temple,” Nick says quietly. “Some sort of power trip to let us know he was in charge and you were…gone.”

“And that we’d good as damned you when we insisted you go back,” Hatchet adds.

“Oh,” Aayla breathes. “But you didn’t—you saved my life.” Reva and Boil have finally caught up—well, it looks like Reva was carried there by Boil, who actually did most of the catching up, and now has three different younglings hanging from his person. He wheezes and waves weakly at his brothers. Aayla bites her lip and gestures to the small crowd. “Their lives too. When I felt you cry out in the Force—it gave us the warning we needed.”

“I—what? You…really?”

“Master Secura was the one who saved,” Reva pipes up. She places her hands on her hips. “She helped us escape and called for help. I dunno what would’ve happened without her.”

Aayla pales at the thought of a defenseless Temple, filled to brim with untrained, panicking younglings and Knights unhardened by war. She quickly redirects the rushing river of her thoughts elsewhere.

“But I was there because of you,” she interjects firmly and rests one hand over her bulging stomach. “And now we are all here, alive, because of you. The Force works in mysterious ways.”

Bly hesitates, looking torn and so Aayla extends her other hand, dragging Bly’s to cradle the lower part of her belly, right where her little youngling likes to kick. She waits one moment, then two, and then gives the baby a little poke in the Force.

It grumbles and shifts, sending out two irate kicks before falling right back to sleep.

Bly’s eyes widen.

“That’s…?”

“Yes,” Aayla replies, smiling so hard she feels as if her face is about to split in two.”

“And she’s—he’s—okay? They’re not…I mean, there’s nothing wrong with them? Genetically, you know?”

“No,” Aayla whispers back. “No, she’s perfect.”

“She?”

“We’re getting a niece?” Boots interrupts excitedly as he disembarks the gunship and bounds over.

(Boots—the very same clone whose inability to lock a door had resulted in this child’s conception and ended up saving the Galaxy from a far darker path, though neither Aayla nor Boots himself will ever really know this little fact.)

Jacks and Checker groan and shove at their vod’ika.

“Way to ruin the moment,” they groan but Aayla only laughs affectionately.

“My daughter is very lucky to have so many uncles,” she agrees with a nod. Boots beams. “But we will have to start immediately clearing out a temple if we want it ready in time for the little one’s arrival.”

“A whole temple?”

“A small one,” Aayla clarifies. “Many of the vod prefer to stay with their battalions, even without a war. Trying to find structures big enough to hold everyone is a feat, so we’ve resorted to excavating some of the more derelict temples. If a battalion wants to fix it up, it’s all theirs.”

“What are the time parameters for this mission?” Nick asks, nervously chewing at his bottom lip. He glances to Aayla’s midsection. “I just…I want to make sure we have enough time to check the structural stability before the baby’s here.”

“Excellent idea, Nick,” Bly interrupts smoothly, his voice full of command. Aayla can practically see the 327th’s spines straighten. “Jacks, Boots, Nick, I want you surveying potential sites immediately and—”

“We can help!” two of the younglings chime in, dropping from their perch on Boil’s shoulders and rushing forward to grab the clones’ hands.  “We’ll show you the best temples.”

“Very good. Hatchet, you’re to consult with the Jedi Healer, Master…?”

“Che,” Aayla adds. Bly nods decisively.

“Master Che. Determine how many weeks we have until delivery and any other relevant health information on human-Twi’lek pregnancies and early infanthood. I would like a briefing on my desk by the end of the week—make sure to include an executive summary that can be distributed to all of the men. Checker and myself will take inventory—”

“Belay that order,” Hatchet interjects. “Medical officer override. Helping the General takes priority—that baby isn’t going to name itself.”

“Name…?” Bly looks a little overwhelmed.  “But surely…I know nat borns take a while to start speaking, but I’m sure we can wait until she can name herself. Can’t we?”

(“Oh boy,” Reva groans, far too young for such dry humor. Aayla suspects Kenobi has been giving lessons. “This is going to be fun.”)

Aayla can only bury her face in Bly’s shoulder and laugh.