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Phantom Agony

By oblivion7

Thriller / Scifi

Chapter 1

PHANTOM AGONY

By oblivion7


Synopsis: Sometimes love and truth are not enough to escape destiny.


The first fingertip of sunlight played on Anakin's eyelids as he nestled deeper into Padme's neck. He let himself drift awake to her sweet smell, the succulent softness of her skin, the delicate rise and fall of her breathing. All too soon, another dawn blossomed, calling them apart.

Another day to drag him off to war.

He groaned gently as he felt her hand wander below his waist, willing him to come to her once more. Night had given him a few hours rest, more than usual; she had let him sleep, but her patience wouldn't last forever.

"I'm up," he mumbled with a grin, kissing her ear.

"For that, you're always up," she retorted with a yawn, running her fingers along his back up of his hair. She traced his scar with her free hand, eyes closed yet aware of every detail. He kissed her fingers, her palm, her neck. She responded with an urgent energy that surprised both of them.

She rolled away as the morning hazy brightness slowly overtook the room. Shrugging into a fine gauze robe, she turned to admire the lean muscular form basking in his last few moments' peace. If only he could stay this way always, she mused sadly. Sometimes I think the Jedi ask too much from him. No rest, no peace, no joy, no happiness—no wonder he still has nightmares!

She barely retained control of her blaze of anger, but not quite quickly enough. Not only did the baby squirm with concern, but Anakin's eyes became instantly alert to her change of mood. He turned to her gaze at her with a worried frown.

She leaned over and kissed his forehead reassuringly. "Rest a bit longer," she said softly. "You still have a little while before you have to go."

Wordlessly he reached for her swollen belly, and the child seemed to send a message. "Hmm," he said slowly. "Do I take that as an order or a suggestion?"

It took her a moment to catch his devilish grin. Annoyed, she made a swing for his head. He moved ever so slightly to avoid the blow, catching her arm and lightly tossing her back onto the cushions. She glared at him, but couldn't hold the irritation; his eyes danced with far too much merriment and mischief.

"Let me up," she commanded as sternly as she could manage. "We both have work to get to."

"Really," he replied, running his tongue between her breasts. "Such as …"

Grabbing a handful of hair, she pulled his face toward hers. "Such as council meetings, budget delegations and news reports," she said matter-of-factly—all rendered forgotten as she covered his mouth with hers.

Nearly an hour passed before he finally forced himself into the shower. She continued resting as he dressed, running his fingers over his light saber as he attached it to his belt. Kneeling by the bed, he nearly wept as he looked at the beautiful woman still drifting between love and sleep, her smile at once contented and sad. Eyes still closed, she reached up and drew him close.

"Come back to us," she whispered huskily. "As soon as you can, come back to us."

She released him with a heavy sigh, wriggling deeper into the coverlets. Anakin lingered a heartbeat longer, his mechanical hand crushing the bedcovers down to the frame as he fought to master his frustration. Standing quickly before he changed his mind, he covered the distance to the door in two enormous strides, gathering his cloak in his wake.

Following their usual custom, neither said good-bye.

Anakin took the service lift to the kitchen, his mood lightened as always by the smell of irresistibly rich food. Deftly avoiding the cook's aims to slap his hands away from the fresh baked goods, some dripping with cheese and butters, others wrapped around shredded meat and legume paste, he made his way down each side of the long serving table and filled himself with some of the best food on this side of the city. Dancing around the head cook, her six arms waving in righteous fury, he kissed her once on the cheek and twice on her single free hand.

"As always, my dear, only the finest from your skilled fingers," he crooned. Dodging her good-natured jabs, he gazed into her black eyes and toyed with her lips. "Until next time…" Anakin bowed gallantly and disappeared out the service entrance.

"There no gonna come that next time, you gamin!" She shrieked after him, as the others in the kitchen tried to contain their laughter. They danced to this tune each time the Jedi spent the night, which seemed more and more frequent. They enjoyed his brief visits; he gave them information that could only come from such a reliable source—though they knew he never revealed anything vital—and his gossip always set off several days of debate.

Hopping into his vehicle, Anakin lifted away and put the speeder on cruise. Today he chose the slowest lane instead of his usual breakneck pace to get to the Jedi temple. He let his thoughts wander free; soon enough he'd have to rein them in under the tight control needed to conceal his other life.

Strange that Chancellor Palpatine had helped him learn to do it; stranger still that despite all his other duties this great man not only took a deep interest in his life, but his feelings and concerns as well. Not that Master Kenobi didn't; Anakin knew that Obi-Wan did his best to understand. But Anakin knew from past experience that whenever certain subjects came up for discussion, Master Kenobi would give a slight shrug, an off smile and pat his shoulder with "…Don't worry; it will resolve itself in time. Mind your thoughts, padwan, and maintain control."

Anakin sighed, closing his eyes against the bright morning sun. He wished once more he didn't have to leave, that duty would fall to someone else, that this war would end, that somehow he and Padme could stop hiding and live normal lives—even though it meant leaving the Jedi Order. He'd begun to think that wasn't such a bad idea despite the restrictions they'd need to place on him afterward.

Yeah, he thought grimly. They'd try.

He remembered his last talk with Master Palp—damn, he almost said it again, referring to the Chancellor with the honorific title. Hard not to think of him as one, however; he had the wisdom and life experience of Master Yoda, possessed the forceful passion of Master Windu, and seemed to have an understanding of ancient Jedi ways that no one ever spoke about. Anakin had never studied much of the history before the last Sith war, and he'd listened with amazement as Palpatine related the good and bad of both sides.

Most times, though, they spoke of his hidden life and worries. Palpatine proved more than merely sympathetic toward his dilemma; he showed genuine concern for Padme as well. Though Anakin never explained their love in detail, even the Chancellor could see that the two had a special bond. As his thoughts drifted back to their morning romp, he found himself painfully aroused yet again and almost ready to turn around and forget his responsibilities…after all, how could any Jedi understand how it felt? Making love with Padme gave him the only freedom he knew, with thoughts completely unguarded, his mind shared with someone who loved him without question or demand. While she wasn't gifted with Jedi powers, Padme seemed to have almost telepathic abilities that merged their thoughts so that both their minds and bodies existed on another plane…they would come back only with reluctance, sweating and crying, clinging tightly to the ecstasy for as long as it could last before reality invaded their private heaven.

Anakin shook his head to clear it, focusing on the here and now. The temple loomed in the distance, its spires gleaming with quiet strength and determination against the morning haze. Anakin arrived early for once, and found himself glad of it. It might draw less attention to him and more toward wider issues. Reining his thoughts by putting Padme into safe mental depths, he eased the speeder into its slip and killed the power.

He had to admit, the veil of deception became easier each time he used it. It also helped him conceal his feelings even when he felt hot with anger at the many injustices he helplessly watched. Thankfully the Masters were too occupied with matters relating to war and the breakdown of the Republic to notice his increased control.

Or so it seemed.


Pushing away from the desk, Padme rubbed her forehead thoughtfully. The senatorial reports remained pretty much the same, and the news of the wars did not give forth much hope of an easy solution. Gossip always flew rampant amid the senators, and aside from the growing concerns about Palpatine's increasing authority and the gradual decline of various freedoms, it seemed that Padme's increasingly obvious pregnancy led the topic of conversation. Speculation on the identity of father led to the creation of over a dozen betting pools. Many already placed their bets on Bail Organa, the handsome if quietly reserved senator from Alderran. Padme and Bail had kept up a visible friendship since her arrival, and aside from Palpatine he had served as mentor to guide her in the complexities of Corusant politics. The rumor that his wife remained unable to conceive through natural or artificial means left him as the logical choice. True, many still placed their bets on Anakin Skywalker, though even they held reservations since everyone knew of the severe restrictions placed on Jedi pupils. With only a scant handful of other choices, the talk continued richly peppered with ideas about when, where and even how the event happened.

Admittedly, Padme fed the rumors more toward Bail. Unfairly, she used their friendship to give the talkers even more fuel for the fires; whenever she appeared in the Senate, she made sure to draw him aside to speak privately yet always within sight of ever-prying eyes. She kept their conversations low enough to insure that no one overheard them completely, but plain enough to raise the right brows. Her first political lesson taught her that in love, war and politics what few rules existed could be bent and broken at will, giving her free rein to do anything, use anyone needed to draw attention away from her husband.

She smiled at the thought of Anakin, and felt the baby worm about restlessly. Touching her abdomen, she tried to sooth him—a boy, for certain—by telling him stories, singing or watching relaxing vids. Today, he seemed more on edge than usual. Padme could only sigh and wait for him to calm down, which grew more difficult as the due date drew closer.

She felt a touch of jealousy about the special bond between father and son. Anakin refused to use the force to actually "talk" to him, dreadfully afraid that he might harm him in his eager excitement. But neither of them could deny that whenever Anakin touched her belly, the child pressed back; that when Anakin came anywhere near the door—even entering through the back passages—she knew it because the boy would twist around to meet him. She never forgot, however, the morning she'd awakened to find Anakin's head against her and the boy's weight leaning against his father. That day she'd seen more peace in his face, heard more happiness in his light snore, felt more joy in their room than she'd dreamed possible.

If only it could last forever.

Her anger began to blaze again at the Jedi Order whose laws and demands threatened to drain the very essence of the man she loved. Maybe they had a justification for turning love into an evil concept, but to her it make them no better than the Sith they proclaim to oppose. From what little she'd read, the greatest fault of the Sith lay in their willingness to fulfill every wish, whim and desire—at the expense of any who stood in their way.

But her primary concern remained Palpatine's meteoric and magical rise to his present position. While not unusual to have the background of senate members kept secure, it seemed that Palpatine had no life until his first appearance at the local Naboo elections many years ago. Looking back now, she could see that even on Naboo he managed to amass a tremendous amount of power and privilege in a frighteningly short time. Yet his history proved sporadic at best, barely noting his birthplace and time, to say nothing of his family and their background.

Starting the search again, Padme tapped a few commands and sat back thoughtfully. She remembered that Anakin confided to her about the Chancellor's vast knowledge of the Jedi—much more than a normal citizen should possess. Did Palpatine ever get tested as part of a Jedi search? Or maybe a relative, child, close friend, or lover teach him secrets usually kept to those trained in the Jedi arts? If not the case, how could he have so much understanding and make such close study of the order without knowledge of the Jedi themselves?

The screen paused in silence, waiting for her response. She brought her attention back to the data and gazed in horror at what the screen showed.

Sith.

Somehow, she'd typed that dreaded word in place of Jedi, as she intended.

But how?

The room took on a sudden darkness, as though a diseased hand covered her in a moldy curtain, suspending time if only for a single breath. She looked around—everything seemed unchanged, with 3p0 standing with attentive concern and R2 still tapped in to the mainframe as watchdog. Yet she still felt perverted, as if some twisted mind invaded her soul for a quick taste of her strength.

Shaking slightly, she dragged herself back to the present. With a nervous shrug, she drew a breath and decided to read on, hoping that the shadow came only as the result of her concern.

"R2… you're certain about this channel's security?" Padme frowned at the sudden thought that checking on the Grand Chancellor could alert him in some way.

"Oh absolutely, Miss Padme," 3p0 interjected quickly. "In fact, it's nearly impossible for any senatorial or republic decryption tracer to detect your computer use. R2 says he used…" Suddenly 3p0 became horrified. "What? You're using pirate encryption? R2, that's illegal! You can't involve the senator in such behavior! How could you…!"

Padme laughed aloud. "It's all right, 3p0," she assured him with a calming stroke on his flailing arm. "After all, what better way to safeguard a terminal than to use the only codes that no one's broken yet?"

She admired the little R2 unit's resourcefulness. Use of illegal codes demanded extreme skill; pirates made them so unusually complex and self-altering that they almost seemed to have a life of their own. Even the Jedi threw up their hands in frustration, finally abandoning attempts to control smuggler traffic in the hope that they did as much damage to Gunray and his group as to the Republic. The Separatists forced the Order to focus on much more serious problems, so the already thriving black market enjoyed a rare reprieve. Gazing at the screen, she could almost see how the encoding worked—a chance that close association with the Force could have rubbed off on her? Or could the baby have that much effect on her already?

She felt the infant stir restlessly as she focused on her options. There were very few she could trust to help get the information she needed, and the danger for them was even greater than for her. The child sensed this and displayed his concern the only way he could. She stood and spoke reassuringly, amazed at how much he seemed to understand and smiling as she felt him relax. Smart kid, she thought as she changed clothes. Already has a good grasp of politics. I only hope he learns to temper his abilities and never get found by the Jedi.

A vain, foolish hope, she knew, but one that might gave her a small measure of comfort for his future.


The room began to darken as the last of the council left, but Anakin had not moved. Yoda waddled in his direction, sensing smoldering worry, frustration and concern despite the calm exterior. He squatted in front of the padwan and carefully placed his cane between them, as if drawing a line separating their positions.

"Unwell you seem, young Skywalker", Yoda began, earlets twisting slightly. "If speak of the trouble you do, solve it we might."

Anakin bit his lip, hesitant to voice his thoughts. Years of training had shown him the futility of expressing himself to most of the council members; even ObiWan had proved unable to advise him. Yet his life continued its downward spiral and with war escalating around him, Anakin knew he needed to find some way to come to grips with his internal conflicts.

After some time, Anakin looked into the depths of those wise eyes, his own contorted features begging for help. Yoda nodded before he could speak.

"Concerned you remain about Dooku", Yoda stated.

Anakin shrugged helplessly. "I can't get his face out of my mind," he said hoarsely. "I failed to follow my instincts. I…disarmed him, and then I...I just..." His voice trailed as the anguish of guilt and pain coursed his face.

"Without weapon, Dooku kneeled before you, but helpless—no", Yoda chided. "Never underestimate powers of any dark Jedi. Even without weapon a powerful enemy he remained. Destroyed you he could have, if more time you took."

"But he didn't," Anakin replied tightly. "I mean, maybe he couldn't. In any case I should have brought him to trial. That's the law, right? "

"Great difficulty, bringing Dooku to trial may have caused," Yoda reminded him. "Many supporters he still had. Possible it might for him to escape. Even worse matters would have become."

"But… murder is still wrong!"

Yoda nodded slowly, his earlets twisting tightly in opposite directions. Something else ate at young Skywalker's heart, more serious than just the death of a criminal. "Perhaps. Unable to see all sides, times make us. Much now seems hidden from us; truth even, we cannot see. Rashness, your act showed, with impulse and revenge as your response. Dwelling on regrets, we cannot afford. Learn from this we all must. Remind us, it does, that to dark side thinking any may give in."

Anakin remained disturbed. "Master Yoda...laws must apply to everyone, I thought. I mean, if we Jedi can play games around them, what makes us better than the Separatists or even the Sith? Didn't the Sith lords stretch existing laws to fit their own ends?"

Yoda waved his hand dismissively. "To the dark side, we have not fallen. Understand now more completely the Force, the Council does. Ease your thoughts on this you must, young Skywalker. Necessary, if not honorable, your actions proved. Now with General Grievous must we still deal. More deadly than his master Dooku, he may turn out."

Yoda could see that his words fell onto a deeply troubled mind. Skywalker strained to keep from getting to his feet and pace the room, which Yoda observed many times as his way of working off his feelings.

Part of him knew Anakin's murder of Dooku gave justification for immediate expulsion from the Order, but in truth Yoda felt relieved to have his old padwan out of the way. During their saber battle, Yoda found himself surprised and alarmed at the sheer strength of Dooku's enhanced Jedi abilities, which seemed to rival his own. The darkness surrounding him only served to increase the deadliness of his power. He shuddered to think of the difficulty of their present position if Dooku stood on one side of the galactic plane and Grievous on the other, both with droid armies at their command. Would the clones have proven capable to handle such a monumental task?

Thankfully, Skywalker's unpredictability made it unnecessary.

He repressed a sigh. More than platitudes, Skywalker needs, Yoda told himself. All this time, and the boy still needed to learn mental calming when he felt overwhelmed. But the time to correct him required a more peaceful and controlled future. Against his better judgment, Yoda put Anakin's concerns at the back of his mind.

"Worry no more, young Skywalker", Yoda said soothingly, calling for his stick and rising slowly. "Focus you must; work to do, there remains. Time you need to truly master your use of the Force. Calm, you must keep, to face what awaits us."

Anakin sighed. "Learn what, Master? And from who? The librarian can't answer all my questions, and I've already defeated every practice level available!"

Yoda's eyes narrowed slightly. "Yet failed the test, did you not?" Yoda reminded him stiffly. "Your errors you must unlearn. Ready yourself you must, for the next time."

"But...how will I know which of my mistakes to correct?" Anakin nearly flew to his feet, his frustration plainly seen in every effort to remain still.

"Guide you, the Force will," Yoda called over his shoulder as he waddled toward the door. "Time you must take. Many battles you will fight soon. Prepare you must."

Anakin closed his eyes in the tomb-like darkness. He tightened his left fist hard enough to draw blood as he fought to relax. Brushed off again with the same response to his questions: give it time, the answers will come to you, have patience.

He seemed cursed to always have more questions than answers, and no one had time to show him just how to hear the Force when it decided to answer him. Master ObiWan had tried to explain, but usually gave up with a defeated shrug. He failed to understand that for Anakin, the Forcealways spoke to him, surrounded him, touched and enveloped him, not just as something he summoned when only needed. He could no more turn it "off" than he could stop breathing. It made him more sensitive and aware of his surroundings, acting as a constant companion that served as both blessing and burden.

Padme remained the only constant, his one anchor in an ever darkening and turbulent sea.

He wished he could ask someone, anyone about the new information Palpatine had given him. Though excited to learn it, he found himself even more uneasy with the knowledge that a non-Jedi knew of matters even the council would not speak of, let alone teach. After all, the Council must have good reasons for suppressing obscure portions of Jedi history—and everyone maintained some secrets. But forbidden or not, he would do anything, learn anything, kill anyone to keep his family safe.

That last thought sent a shiver down his spine that even tingled his mechanical hand. He stared at it for a long while, mesmerized as the metal gave off tiny sparkles in the darkness. Could he accept this as his future? To fight, to die, or worse, to live as pieces of metal, a machine unable to touch or taste or feel...or care...

He shook off the thoughts. Master Yoda spoke truth, as usual. He needed to clear his mind and get control of himself. The death of Dooku had affected him much more deeply than he'd realized, and he needed to find a way to get it out of his system. Though he still couldn't figure out what went done wrong during the tests-except for the nanosecond of losing his concentration when a flash of Padme appeared at the corner of his consciousness-he'd worry about that later.

Right now, he needed to think. Alone.

Anakin took public transport to the older southern sector several hours walk from the Temple. Forgotten by all but the least of the planet's citizens, the area had fallen victim to deceit and betrayal by the very constitution it had nurtured. Sights and smells of abandonment assaulted Anakin as he thoughtfully made his way along. Dried saliva, stale ale, decayed food, fresh urine. The homeless and the hopeless wandered about, some making their way uptown, others sweeping the streets with eyes, limbs and tools, seeking bare survival or blissful escape.

Anakin absorbed it all with relaxed familiarity: the stench of the dead and the half alive, the heat radiating from the petrified buildings, the sex traders, the food stalls, the equipment maintenance droids, the pawnbrokers. Others found it offensive, but Anakin often felt more comfortable sleeping down here than in the Jedi temple.

It reminded him of his past. How he'd failed, once. And why he would never fail again.

No one on the Council would approve of his private room. The Jedi enjoyed the appearance of free spirits who owned little more than clothes and a light saber. This wasn't the first time Anakin used his association with Padme to obtain something personal. He could have chosen an apartment in a better area, but here no one would likely recognize him or even care about a Jedi in their midst. So much the better; his pride still smarted from having to maintain submissive silence during the council session. He should have gone with Obi-Wan to act as back up. When finally ordered to talk, he'd bitten back telling all the Chancellor's discussions as well as the musings he'd overheard about how to Palpatine planned to handle the Senate. After all, Anakin reasoned, someone needed to take command since the senators seemed bent on squabbling while Jedi and those serving in the armed forces lost their lives to protect the hapless Republic.

He stopped at a hovel whose walls slumped against pocked stone supports. It sat on a nearly forgotten corner of an area choked with tenement housing for the poorest and least desirable citizens. The door opened with a turn of thought, closing silently behind him. The tattered souls on the street had paid him no heed; their survival usually depended on selective blindness. Not that Anakin cared, since he could easily help them forget if necessary.

Activating the filtration system helped clear some of the stale air. The room reminded him of his life on Tattooine, sleeping on a solid slab covered in his mother's quilts, listening for any sound that might indicate life outside the small window, comforted by his mother's breathing from outside the door. Now for the first time he could enjoy true privacy, a luxury he never enjoyed either as slave or apprentice, and the circulators kept the outside noise to a minimum.

He waved a wall panel open and had a cool drink drift toward him. Twisting a finger, he opened and turned up the bottle, letting the bitter brew slide down his throat. Yet another indulgence, he grinned, though he'd had plenty of it repairing ships for outbound pilots as Watto sought ways to overcharge for his services. Not that Jedi didn't drink, but it seemed they rarely did so without an official mandate.

He ate a small meal of dry bread and hard cheeses, then stripped off his clothes. Keeping his light saber in sight, he stretched out on the thin mattress and closed his eyes, trying to organize his thoughts and feelings.

Dooku's ability to read him so clearly still stung. He couldn't deny that both fear and anger warred inside him. But awareness did nothing to solve the problem. He could see why the Jedi warned that such emotions lead to the dark side. Yet Palpatine's words also came to him, not giving him comfort but justification for the heat of his passions.

He closed his eyes, seeking a middle ground. He had to find a way to save his family, to use his power for good, to save others the way he failed to save his mother.

Anakin barely moved from his bed for two days.

Nights alone always felt painful and empty, but at this moment it filled his need. He could never hide the guilt, the anxiety, and especially the fear. These would all too easily visible to Padme's sharp senses, and he had no words to explain it.

CALM YOU MUST HAVE TO TOUCH THE FORCE, Master Yoda had always reminded him in an exasperated tone. In the temple, calm proved the most elusive of his lessons, but here it came more easily. As the lights flickered across his windows, so too did the glitter of the force inside him start to dance and sing. A pleasant feeling, for certain, but still not the complete tranquility he sought.

His talk with the Chancellor overshadowed his attempt to maintain quiescent thoughts. The fact that Palpatine possessed knowledge unavailable to ordinary Jedi proved as disturbing as his passion to learn more. He wondered again why the Jedi withheld such information; they probably based their teaching on tradition and convenience. Maybe if he could get his hands on the information in Palpatine's office, he could give it to the Council. It might even start a new order of training for the Jedi…

Anakin sat on the edge of the bed, ignoring the air blowing on his sweaty back, his eyes staring on mechanical hand that seemed to gaze back at his thoughts. This is wrong, he repeated to himself. These thoughts amounted to amounted more than common thievery and arrogance. But how else will I prevent my nightmare from coming true?

He shuddered as he remembered his mother dying in his arms. His eyes darkened as his anger again flared. If only the Jedi had let him see her one day earlier. If they had only listened to him, sending a rescuer. If he mastered the power that seemed the stuff of legend, he could undo the past.

If,if,if.

His head began to ache with the furious intensity of his thoughts. He knew that despite his worries, the greater good came before his personal concerns, even at the expense of his selfish desire to keep Padme alive.

But Anakin found himself tiring of duty and caring about anything he considered less important than his own interests. Padme meant more to him than all the Jedi training of the ages, and he had no intention of letting her die. Maybe he could find a way to stop the Sith lord and save Padme; once found, maybe he could even learn from him for a while, just long enough to get what he needed. Then he could pass this on the Jedi council and from there, who knows? They might even listen for once. Yet he couldn't shake truth in the Chancellor's warning that the Jedi kept themselves neither neutral nor innocent in their seemingly non-political decisions and actions. History, especially in the last age, had shown them just as likely to bend and break the law as any rebel separatist, doing so whenever it suited their secretive purposes.

Now about to experience fatherhood, other thoughts invaded his mind-space, crowding out the ability of the force to quench the storm rising inside him. He knew he faced a veiled path leading to an uncertain future, and Anakin knew he should take time to get mastery over his thoughts..

But not tonight. He would think it over later. He would make time later to find answers and get Padme to safety long before his torrid dreams overtake him.

He stood and pulled on his clothes with a sudden overwhelming hunger. Three nights alone proved quite enough for him to reach a resolution. Besides, right now he needed Padme's keen mind and clear thinking as much as he needed food, and even more than desire for her body.

Anakin grinned wickedly. Well, maybe not that much more.


Padme leaned against the heavy senate doors, rubbing her temple as she tried to ease her mind of the madness inside. Between senseless senators and a frustratingly believable Chancellor, she feared she'd go insane if she spent another second in chambers. If the man got much more power, he could dissolve the Senate entirely, giving him absolute control without so much as a whisper of protest.

Oh, but rest assured, she repeated bitterly, he'll return that power as soon as the dangers pass.

Right.

Padme spat out a few curses that would make a pirate blush, and she didn't much care whether anyone heard. It seemed that reason had fled the world, leaving them at the mercy of chaos and torture, and anything coming from her mouth could hardly count as improper.

She slid toward the shadows, seeming to hide her condition, but actually just seeking a moment of privacy. Options seemed to fade as quickly as they came to her, both with senators and her research of the Chancellor's past. Only a handful remained as supporters of the Old Republic. More and more of the hard-line pacifists yielded to the Chancellor's radical changes, driven by fear of a Separatist victory; others merely saw a means for profit. Even the investigation of Palpatine had reached a dead end, as though his life before Naboo never existed.

Distracted by her concerns, Padme hardly noticed the shadow crossing in front of her. She felt a strong hand take her elbow, linking a muscular arm to hers and gliding effortlessly across the hall toward the [entryway]. Calm and composed, Padme started to draw the small weapon always hidden in the generous folds of her gown, but stopped in surprise when she recognized her kidnapper.

Jarne grinned impishly at her, his beautiful sea-green eyes dancing. She gave him a dreamy smile. She would never admit it, but a single look from Jarne Syuba could make her feel the same giddiness that came from Anakin's open gaze. He had hands of pure magic, a voice that sent chills through her spine, and a smile that could put her foulest mood to rest. He even had a delicious heavenly scent about him.

If only he weren't a Tiresian.

"Where exactly do you think you can steal me off to without someone noticing?" Padme managed to say once she caught her breath.

Jarne Syuba put a finger to his lips. "In due time, my lady," he crooned softly. "Let's keep the mystery in our encounter. After all, I assume the father of your baby remains unknown?"

She stifled a laugh. "To the public, anyway," she replied. "But what's going on? You usually don't make yourself visible, especially since the Jedi Council censured you."

He shrugged. "Their censure is meaningless," he said as he slowed slightly, letting others in the sun-filled breezeway see them together. "They know they can't kill me without exposing themselves as having lost much of their use of the Force. Right now, they can't afford to lose face, and certainly not on account of a Tiresian."

With no time to acknowledge his statement, Padme merely waved to stunned onlookers and watched as she floated along with her captor. Whatever set Jarne off had to mean a life and death issue at stake. Since his expulsion from the Jedi order—ironically on the same day as his ascent to master—he had kept a low but insistent profile. She had become friends with Syuba, his female self, shortly after her first year as a senator. Syuba had helped her learn the ways and means of not-so-well-known senate proceedings, shortening her naïveté by many years, making Padme a heralded voice in much shorter time than expected. Syuba hadn't told her about Jarne, her slightly older male half, but shortly after meeting the frustratingly beautiful man she'd learned the truth of their lives-and the Jedi showed themselves less than the perfect guardians of their public face.

Their training of Anakin did little to dispel that truth.

Jarne stopped suddenly when they reached the doors to a back hallway near the dining area. Keeping their movements the center of attention, he paused to press his face to her neck, breathing heavily and passing his hand over her swelling abdomen. She shivered with delight, putting her arm around him and making sure all eyes saw her enjoying his presence. Of course, if this got back to Anakin, she'd have serious explaining to do even though he knew both of them.

"I'm here to rescue you, my lady," he crooned aloud. ""Lunch?"

"As always," she replied with a wink.

They slipped through the doors and past the startled kitchen help, making their way to the service entrance. His speeder waited a short block away, still warm from his arrival. He lifted her inside and hopped next to her, then eased away as he waved to pointing chatterers.

Jarne stayed in the lower air traffic, preferring not to draw unnecessary attention and keeping away from irate drivers with too much power and too little time. Padme thought back to why the Jedi expelled him and still failed to understand. Pride, she mused yet again. The Jedi hated making public any mistakes in judgment, loathed the fact that while they had sensed the power of the force in the infant Syuba, they failed to understand the secret that the Tiresians had kept hidden for generations: as hermaphrodites, Tiresian gender did not become fixed until old age. When Syuba became a Jedi apprentice, their race seemed on the verge of extinction due to the difficulty of their youths coping with the private gender changing and keeping the truth of it hidden from outsiders. It wasn't important when Tiresia existed as an isolated world, but their skill as architects and healers soon created a great demand among those able to afford them. With such exposure came new ways of thought, including the idea that gender inconsistency was impossible; this eventually drove many of them to suicide. Learning the mental control of the Jedi became their salvation, but at the cost of a secure future for Syuba and the few others chosen for Jedi training.

Embarrassed and concerned at their belated discovery of Syuba's physiology, the Jedi Council censured her on the day of her elevation to Jedi Master. Their demand of silence in return for a quiet dismissal did not apply to Jarne, who continued helping Tiresians until an entire generation of youths learned enough to teach others. Though regularly harassed by authorities at the instigation of older Jedi, Jarne Syuba managed to maintain himself as a specialist in the "liberal distribution and acquisition of commodities"—a profession recently made more profitable by the ever-increasing threat of an all out galactic war.

Needless to say, the Jedi no longer chafed at his presence; in some ways they found themselves grateful for such a gifted ally.

Padme came to appreciate Jarne more and more as time passed. He kept her company during Anakin's increasing absence, and Syuba had helped them both get through many rough times in their marriage. She often wondered whether Jarne or Syuba would eventually dominate so a mate could be taken, but both seemed content with their shared consciousness.

Jarne set the craft down near a dense area on the outskirts of the city center, populated more by living quarters than business and politics. They walked the short way to a plant infested open café well known for its herbal drink mixes—many of them powerful enough that the smell alone could flatten the strongest alcoholic. Jarne seated her and placed a short order, kissing her hand and making such a fuss that anyone would assume the normal behavior of an expectant father.

Padme finally pushed him away, playful but firm. "Enough," she said with a warning smile. "You didn't bring me out her to praise my weight gain."

"Oh, but I did!" Jarne protested. "I can't have folks thinking that this baby belongs to Bail Organa. Good looking he is, but he hasn't the balls to go outside his wife."

"Really," Padme drawled. "What makes you so sure?"

Jarne laughed. "Our honorable senator may not keep clean in his thoughts, but so far he hasn't backed any daydreams with action. I could, however, arrange a holo that makes him look as though he might have strayed with a certain lovely senator of my acquaintance…"

"…Who just happens to possess a jealous Jedi husband?" she reminded him softly.

He appeared chastened. "Did you really need to remind me?" He looked at her wistfully. "If only you'd waited…"

Padme waved her hand. "If I'd waited for you, I'd find myself old and in my grave. Besides, you couldn't stay faithful if your lives depended on it."

"But think of the fun we'd have in the meantime," his eyes sparkled and she almost lost herself in their magic once again.

Padme pulled herself together when their drinks arrived. "So what did you find so important that you kidnap a senator at midday?"

Jarne threw back his drink in a single gulp, then became deadly serious. "I got the special info you needed," he said slowly. "But Padme…you've got to get Anakin away from here. Both of you need to get the hell out of this place before everything falls apart, and believe me, time works against you starting yesterday!"

She gazed at him in disbelief. "I don't get it. I mean, I know things got into an uproar because of the Separatists, but…"

"Forget the damn Separatists!" For just an instant, she could swear Anakin instead of Jarne sat next to her. Jarne brought himself under control with a deep breath. "There's more than that, and you know it. Palpatine's not just going to get control of the Senate, he'll soon dissolve the Republic itself. We give it less than two years before he takes absolute control."

Padme shook her head. "You're taking this too far," she said. "Just what do you think the Jedi will do, stand around watching patiently? They'll find the necessary steps to stop him, whatever it takes."

Jarne sighed, covering his face with his hands. Padme recognized this as the first stage of change; Syuba would appear next to her in a heartbeat. His voice lightened, his skin smoothed, his structure shrank just a bit as he continued.

"The Jedi find themselves spread too thin already, and there aren't enough of them left. General Grievous hunts them like trophy animals, and so far they haven't shown an ability to stop him. Even when they do, it will cost even more lives to stop this war. Once Palpatine gets the Senate behind him—or worse, destroys it altogether—he'll have the military at his full disposal and nothing to stand in his way. Even the Jedi can't fight an entire army of clones."

Padme wanted to argue, but the words strangled in her throat. The little she had discovered about Palpatine confirmed Jarne's warning as right on target, and the feeling of loss and defeat returned once again.

Syuba took Padme's hand. "For the sake of the baby and the man you love, get out of here! I know the problems trying to tear him away from the Jedi—he thinks he has to prove himself to them. But no matter what he does, they'll never see his gifts until its too late. " She held up a hand, seeing the question on Padme's face. "There's no time to explain," she went on. "Suffice it to say I understand how the council thinks, and right now it's not rational."

"But…they've put Anakin on the council," Padme protested. "I know he's not a master, and there's a lot of controversy about why he's there…"

"Padme..." Syuba lowered her voice, glancing around casually. "You can't believe it an accident that Anakin got asked to sit on the Council as Palpatine's rep. You've learned enough to know or at least suspect that the Chancellor is playing the Senate and the Council against each other, with Anakin as the catalyst to ignite the fuse." She sighed, her eyes moist. "He's getting used as a pawn by all sides in a nasty political game where both of you will end up as the losers."

Padme shook her head. "You see conspiracy everywhere," she chided. "You can't think that the Jedi would abuse Anakin by setting him up for the

Chancellor to use?"

Syuba patted her hand. "Dear, they'll use whomever and whatever they decide necessary to obtain their goals. In the histories I've studied and seen, Jedi aren't much different than the Sith. Only the methods change, not the means."

Padme felt herself heat with anger, but part of her knew Syuba spoke the truth. Besides, she couldn't stay angry for long; once that infectious Tiresian grin crept across Syuba's face, it softened her words and lightened the mood. But the truth of it still stung, still remained in the air between them like mist refusing to burn away with sunrise.

"Will he see the Chancellor today?" Syuba asked, as her gaze moved upward. A security patrol moved lazily overhead, seeming to make a routine pass over the district. When a second appeared, however, hovering near the first then moving toward their speeder, Syuba became visibly tense. The third patrol had a listener pointed openly in their direction, and even Padme became alarmed.

"Try to stay relaxed," she told Syuba, leaning over with a genuine smile and touching her face. "Lately it's become normal for security to watch the movements of senators." She looked directly at the patrol, waved and said greetings in three tongues. "They like to make sure we don't consort with disreputable persons, or create plots the overthrow of the government. One more freedom that's altered but not eliminated. Anyway, I'm sure they'll enjoy hearing what we have to say about the baby."

Syuba's eyes sparkled. "Have they figured out about...us?" she crooned smoothly, caressing Padme's cheek.

"Shhh!" Padme winked. "I very much doubt it since, I remind you, nearly every one thinks of Bail as the father. Which, I still say, is very possible."

"Or me," Syuba repeated, leaning the chair back and hooking her thumbs into her belt. "After all, we get on well, you and Jarne and me..."

All three patrols suddenly whisked away as though someone set their tails aflame. Both women burst out laughing, with wondering eyes staring at them from all sides. It gave Padme a way to distract her mind from the thoughts Syuba had given her; with every moment she felt more and more lost whenever she tried to come up with a way to save the man she loved more than life itself. Events carried them along like a storm-lashed whirlpool, tearing them apart even as it drew them deeper and deeper toward the abyss...

Syuba tossed a few credits on the table and motioned for them to leave. Taking Padme's arm, Jarne moved the disconcerted senator to a waiting taxi, paying the fare in advance though senators could ride for free. Again, Padme found herself off balance; Jarne and Syuba could interchange almost in the blink of an eye, which always made mature Tireseans difficult befriend until one came to accept it as natural.

"Listen to me," he insisted as he kissed her neck. She managed a loud sigh; with both their hands caressing the baby, he slipped the data crystal between them. "Be careful, Padme. Get out while you can. If you don't…"

In less than a whisper, he disappeared.


For once, the politician found herself at a loss for words.

Watching him shower, she felt uncertain about how much to tell him. How do you explain to a man without family that the one man he looked to as a grandfather possibly possessed a tool controlled by some outside power—and could cause his downfall?

Of course, he wouldn't believe her without proof.

Sitting at the screen, she recalled the files she had carefully stored on the crystal using the passcodes she'd gotten from R2. She sighed with relief; for a breathless instant, she feared it destroyed.

"...Tell me what?"

Still dripping as he stepped from the shower, Anakin's love of getting drenched remained unchanged from the first day he stepped into running water. She hesitated again. How she loved the light in his eyes! Her news would darken that innocence, shading his face with the too familiar furrowed brow and bristling posture that already struck nervous fear in many who faced him. But this couldn't wait.

"I've…found some info on the Chancellor's background I think you should see," she bubbled out more quickly than she'd intended.

Anakin's immediate response frightened the very air from the room, the heat of his anger seeming to erase the warm wetness from his skin.

"Not you too."

His voice fell dangerously low, his hand clenched into a blistering white fist. "I thought at least you had some respect for a man in his position. Why are you snooping into his private life? It's bad enough the Jedi have me reporting his every word and move, but I'd have expected better from someone in the Senate itself!"

Padme sensed the already situation slipping out of control. Seeing the darkness in his eyes, she forced herself to swallow her fear and pressed on.

"Ani, it's not what you think," she responded quickly, stroking his tightened shoulder and trying to smile. "I just thought…that you might like to know where he came from. His past stays so mysterious, so shrouded, we don't even know exactly when he came to Naboo, let alone how he became senator."

Anakin closed his eyes, relaxing a bit. "Sorry," he mumbled, managing a half smile. "I guess I just get tired of hearing negative things about the one man who's tried to help me all these years. I know he's not perfect, but he's at least doing something to set things right."

Padme bit back a response. If only Anakin would open his mind! Part of her wanted to scream, but having grown up with a close family, she could understand his desperation to hold on to what little he had in the way of kin. And on the surface, Palpatine displayed sincere kindness and understanding, much more so than most Jedi.

"You know I'd rather have you hate me for telling you the truth than adore me for telling you lies," she said, resting against his wet chest. "I'm not trying to turn you against him. I just discovered...things you should know for yourself. You wouldn't even have to report it to the Council, since you're not getting it from Palpatine directly."

He mulled it over briefly, then nodded. "You're right, as usual," he admitted. "And I could never hate you, Padme. It would mean my death if we couldn't stay together."

The sincerity in his eyes, the tender innocence of his whisper almost convinced her not to show him, to keep the information on the storage crystal to herself. He had already lived through so much pain, so much death, so much betrayal and distrust, yet even now peace remained his ultimate elusive dream.

But she reminded herself of the importance of this knowledge. For the war to end and allow them to live normal lives, Anakin needed to see the facts about his chosen mentor. Drawing her courage she took his hand, leading him to the flickering screen on the table. Stepping in front of him, she initiated the retrieve function and glanced at him, pointing.

"Watch," she told him, barely keeping the pride of her accomplishment out of her voice.

He peered over her shoulder, then gave a confused shrug.

"What exactly should I see?" he asked, looking from her to the screen. "According to this entry, the data crystal never held any info."

She whirled, gazing in disbelief. She pounded the controls and shook the screen, nearly ripping the entire unit from the table. Anakin took her wrists gently, drawing her close and whispering softly to calm her. Padme raged on, swearing enough to embarrass the most hardened pirate.

"He did it! Damn him, he somehow managed to destroy it!"

Nothing Anakin said would ease her anger, so he held her for several moments, letting her vent her frustration on him, the table, the machines, the room and the universe at large. Finally, her energy spent, she collapsed on the divan, lost. He stayed next to her for a while longer, wishing he could stay for

the entire day but knowing he had duties demanding his attention. For now, he reminded himself yet again. Soon I'll tell everyone, and I don't care who doesn't like it...

He brushed his lips against her neck, felt her relax despite her mood, then gave her a genuine smile.

"That's better," he said softly. "I'm sorry to have gotten you upset."

"It's not you," she snapped without meaning to. "It's just that..."

He held up a hand. "Tell you what," he said, rising to finish getting dressed. "See if you can find that information again. I have to get to the Council this morning; now that the Chancellor has me there as an "observer', I guess I'd better go 'observe'. With Obi-Wan going after Grievous and Yoda on Kasshyyk, there's not much to do but wait for news. Once I'm finished there, I'm invited to a briefing with the Chancellor, but I'll cut it short and come back here before dinner." He grinned as he buckled on his lightsaber. "Then you can just tell me what you found. Besides, I hate boring meetings and dull report sessions."

He gave her a deep, passionate kiss, taking off even as she regained her breath.

Padme still felt the weight of his shadow when he left; the rooms felt much more empty without him. It got worse each time. She turned again to the display-and nearly screamed in horror.

THANK YOU, MY DEAR, FOR NOT TELLING HIM THE TRUTH. I WORRIED THAT YOU WOULD DELAY HIM, BUT I FEEL RELIEVED THAT YOU DIDN'T. HE SHOWS HIMSELF A MOST RELIABLE AND TRUSTWORTHY CANDIDATE-DON'T YOU THINK?

As if able to read her reaction, the colors on the screen cascaded from blues to reds to yellows to black and back again. Padme felt herself freeze as though paralyzed; even R2 could only rock gently in place, unable to make a sound. The entire room felt oppressive, an isolated pocket in time, one she understood had trapped her into fulfilling its agenda.

SURELY YOU DIDN'T THINK I WOULD LET YOU SHOW HIM THE

CONTENTS OF THAT DATA CRYSTAL, the voice continued. AND SINCE YOU CHOOSE TO SHOW RATHER THAN TELL WHAT YOU FOUND, YOUR CHANCE IS GONE AND I WILL HAVE HIM FOR MYSELF JUST AS I HAD FORSEEN. OH, AND DON'T BOTHER WAITING UP FOR HIM. HE WON'T COME BACK TO YOU TONIGHT. AT LEAST, NOT THE AS SAME MAN..."

The screen went black. Only silence remained.


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