The city of Theed swam with golden light as banners were hung from the red-tiled roofs of stately buildings.
A new day was dawning and with that day came a fantastic celebration the likes of which had not been seen since a glorious morning ten years before. Ten years since a great battle had been fought and won and ten years since the victorious citizens had marched through the streets of the capital city of the planet Naboo.
Padm? Naberrie, officially titled Queen Amidala, watched the preparations through a wide window in Theed Palace, a faint smile flickering over her delicate features. She had been the heroine at the Battle of Naboo; she was the one being honored today. The knowledge that those who were hanging the maroon-colored banners in the Palace Gardens now were probably thinking of their queen as they went about
their arduous tasks made Padm? slightly embarrassed. But she was happy and radiant in her ceremonial makeup. Naboo had been at peace ever since that day ten years before, and Queen Amidala had become more revered by her subjects than any other Naboo monarch before her.
She turned and lifted the watered silk of her gown with one white hand as she made into the center of the Grand Ballroom to confer with a member of her cabinet, Governor Krayne Narcon. The squat man with flaming red hair turned and smiled at the beautiful woman approaching him.
"The preparations for the masquerade tonight are just about finished, your Highness."
Padm? nodded regally. "And the reception this afternoon?"
"Everything is in order. Most of the guests have already arrived."
The queen paused for a moment, debating whether she should ask a question that had been plaguing her for the last hour. Taking her silence as a dismissal, Narcon turned away.
"Yes, your Highness?"
"A man is supposed to be here today for the celebration."
Narcon turned, his sudden curiosity carefully masked.
"What would be the gentleman's name?"
Padm? looked at Narcon hard.
"Ah, yes. I met Prince Organa as he arrived this morning. In fact, your Highness, upon arrival he asked if he could speak with you...privately."
Narcon studied the queen's face closely, trying to make out a blush beneath the thick makeup. None was to be found. Instead, the queen became even more rigid than before.
"Of course," Narcon said, "I told the prince that your Highness was incapable of holding private conferences with anyone today. The arrangements for the anniversary surely--"
"You are quite right, Governor Narcon. You may tell the prince that tomorrow I will see him at his convenience."
"Of course, your Highness."
Padm? turned, leaving the governor to speculate. As she left the room to continue overseeing preparations for the festivities later in the day, a touch of some indescribable emotion flitted through the depths of her eyes.
In the reception area of Theed Palace, sparkling monarchs, distinguished politicians, and the rest of the galaxy's elite mingled together as they daintily nibbled at cognu, a Naboo pastry soaked in rum. They were an intimidating group, shining and refined. Sticking out amidst the glitterati like a Wookiee in an Ewok village were two figures in drab brown robes.
The smaller of the two was a middle-aged man with very noble features, so noble that they out-classed many of the bejeweled sovereigns present. He was quiet, serene; his eyes were clear and watchful as they peered out from beneath an even fringe of auburn
hair. He seemed comfortable in his surroundings, or at the least, accepting of them, which was more than could be said of his companion.
The taller man was dragging his booted feet along the tiled floor like an uncooperative child. Upon further examination, the noble featured man's companion was an uncooperative child. He was barely nineteen years old, and if it weren't for his height, he would have appeared even younger. His earnest, though sulky expression was almost entirely hidden behind a mop of sandy hair that he habitually flicked out of his eyes with his left hand. The eyes themselves were
startlingly blue and slightly too large for the rest of his face, giving the boy a look of perpetual surprise.
The older man looked up to see Bail Organa approaching. Bail was the ruler of Alderaan, a peaceful green planet not unlike Naboo. His honesty and earnestness made him a favorite among both politicians and space pilots alike.
"Please, call me Bail."
Bail grinned at Obi-Wan. "So you are the Jedi sent to protect me, eh? I've heard a lot about you, Kenobi."
"About me?" Obi-Wan asked, turning towards the boy standing behind him. "I believe it is my padawan who has the notorious reputation."
Obi-Wan's apprentice responded by finally removing his eyes from the floor and glowering at his master.
"Anakin Skywalker," Obi-Wan said, lowering his voice to a carefully modulated near-warning tone. "This is the man the Council has requested us to watch."
"Yeah," Anakin mumbled, eyes back on the floor. "I know."
"Hello, Anakin," Bail said jovially.
Anakin glanced at the Alderaanian and frowned.
Obi-Wan rolled his eyes. "I apologize for my apprentice, Bail. He has made it his mission to make my life miserable."
Bail chuckled. "How surprising! I didn't expect the great hero of Naboo to be such a--"
Anakin looked up.
"--charming young man." Bail tilted his head, mischief in his eyes. "This party belongs to you, hero, as much as it belongs to anyone else. Are you two having a good time?"
"Yes," said Obi-Wan.
"No," said Anakin.
"Why not?" asked Bail.
"I don't like parties."
Obi-Wan couldn't take much more of this. "Yes, you do." He turned back to Bail for help. "He does. He's just being a pain today."
"Shut up, Obi-Wan."
Obi-Wan grabbed his student by the forearm. "Excuse us, Bail."
The Prince of Alderaan managed an embarrassed smile as the Jedi Knight pulled his apprentice away.
Once they were far enough from other people, Obi-Wan let go of Anakin.
"What's gotten into you?"
The boy unexpectedly switched from his monosyllabic mumbling to being extraordinarily articulate.
"Why do we have to be here, Master? Why are we running around the galaxy chauffeuring rich people to their meaningless parties?"
"We go where we're needed, Anakin."
"We are not needed here."
"There was an assassination attempt on Bail Organa. We are here to prevent another one from occurring."
"The attempt was on Alderaan, not Naboo," Anakin grumbled, flicking his hair out of his eyes. "Besides, who would be stupid enough to try to kill someone in the middle of a party?"
"The Jedi Council sent us to this planet because they felt it would be best if we attended the anniversary of our victory here."
Anakin scoffed. "Oh, so now we're doing public relations for the Order?"
Obi-Wan continued, undeterred by his padawan's skepticism. "And I accepted this mission because I thought you would like to return to Naboo."
Anakin's frustration turned to confusion. "Why would I want to return to Naboo? If you're so intent on pleasing me, get the Council to cook up an excuse to send us to Tatooine."
"You know very well the Council won't let you go anywhere near Tatooine until you have finished your training."
Anakin sighed. "I know, but--"
"No buts. You are a Jedi apprentice, Anakin. You do as the Council says. And I am your Master. You do what I say. And I say, Anakin, that you should enjoy this party. I don't understand why you refuse to. As I recall, you made a lot of friends last time you were on Naboo"
Anakin scowled. "Anything else you would have me do, Master?"
"Yes," Obi-Wan said. "Cut your hair, for-force-sake. You're barely recognizable as being a padawan and you can't even see out from under it."
"I'll cut my hair when you let me go and free my mother."
Obi-Wan shook his head and turned abruptly, back towards Bail and the cognu. Anakin sighed and flicked a stray hair out of his eyes as he was left all alone in the corner of the gorgeous room.
Padm? weaved her way through the crowded reception area, pausing every now and then to thank someone she barely knew for coming. She passed Marie of Monako and the blond princess smiled.
Padm? glanced uneasily to her left. She spotted the distinctive jet-black hair of Bail Organa bobbing up and down in the super-congested center of the room. She stepped to the side, placing Marie between herself and the Alderaanian prince.
"So good to see you, Padm?," the princess said with a smile.
The Nubian queen and the Monakan princess' friendship dated back to the time before either woman held a royal title. They had grown apart as their duties to their respective planets increased, but they honored their childhood friendship by calling each other by their real names.
"Are you enjoying the celebration?"
"Oh, very much. Rocker is, too," Tia said, inclining her head towards her husband, the prince of Monako. "We're planning on having matching costumes for the ball tonight, so we can make our bid for most romantic couple."
"I look forward to seeing it," the queen said, even though she knew she was walking into a trap. She peered over Tia's shoulder at Bail's dark hair, and realized that its owner was gradually heading in their direction. Padm? knew that Bail's immense popularity would hamper his progress towards her. Sure enough, the owner of a mass of red hair approached the prince and effectively detained him.
Tia turned and followed Padm?'s gaze. She turned back and grinned wickedly.
"Are Rocker and I going to have competition tonight, Padm??"
"I sincerely doubt it."
"I think Bail Organa would disagree with you there."
Padm? frowned at her friend. "He might."
Tia smiled at the Queen of Naboo for one long moment, then changed the subject. "Is Chancellor Palpatine here?"
"He has been invited," Padm? said. "But with his busy schedule, I don't think he will be able to come."
"Too busy bringing down the bureaucrats."
"Well, he is doing an excellent job. You must be pleased to have such a powerful leader who hails from this very planet."
"The Naboo are extremely grateful to the Supreme Chancellor."
The black hair of Bail Organa once again made its way towards the two women. Padm? could now make out his face. Bail winked at her. She turned away.
"I must be going, Tia. I believe one of my handmaidens requires a word with me."
Tia looked slightly miffed as Padm? made her escape.
Padm? skillfully performed a series of clever maneuvers to get as far away from Bail Organa as possible. But everywhere she turned, she thought she could still make out the Alderaanian prince's face. There was nowhere else Padm? could hide. Either she stood her ground - it was her party, after all - or she would be forced to sneak out through the sliding doors designed for the caterers to push in carts filled with cognu and other Nubian delicacies. This second choice was completely childish and most impolite, certainly not proper behavior for a queen.
The Queen of Naboo snagged a pastry off a cart as she slipped past an elderly waiter on her way to freedom in the service corridor.
The old man frowned. He was very sure the woman who had just exited into the servants' corridor was Queen Amidala herself.
He wasn't there to question, he was there to serve. The waiter laid out more cognu and thought glumly to himself:
It wasn't her. The wife has been saying I've getting a bit senile of late.
He paused by an Alderaanian prince who appeared to be looking for someone.
"Would you care for a pastry, sir?"
The confused young man turned to the waiter.
"No. No, my good man. I've, uh, had enough."
The waiter kept moving, looking for more hungry guests. The disappointed prince squeezed a gold ring he had been holding in his hand for most of the morning and whispered a woman's name to no one in particular.
Padm? walked down the service passage, her slippers making peaceful noises on the rivoc-tesh carpeting. She paused, considered her options, and activated a thin transparisteel door.
The fragrant smells of a small orchid-strewn patio rushed up to meet her. Padm? took a seat on a stone bench on one side of a high green hedge and shut her eyes. The little enclosed garden on the second floor felt like heaven after the cramped reception area where the smell of expensive perfume had been so strong that Padm? had had to concentrate on not gagging in front of her guests. She would have been able to
stomach the situation, but then Bail had started stalking her...
Padm? sighed loudly and unhappily.
A nearly identical sigh emitted from the other side of the hedge.
Padm? jumped. "Is someone there?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean...um...I'll go now, if you want."
It was a man's voice. He sounded flustered and embarrassed and very, very sweet. Despite her foul mood, Padm? smiled.
"No, no. Don't go back into that hellish place," she said. "I couldn't wish that on anyone."
The man chuckled softly. "It's not that bad."
He sounded rather young, the Queen thought. Maybe her age, maybe younger.
"Then why are you cowering behind this hedge?"
"I'm hiding from someone."
"Really?" Padm? asked. "So am I. Are you hiding from a woman?"
She turned and looked through the miniature leafy jungle that separated her from the mysterious young man. Padm? could see nothing but the slant of his back. He appeared to be playing with buckle of one of his boots.
He laughed, but it was a strained laugh. "No, I'm not...unfortunately. Are you hiding from a man?"
Padm? smiled. "Yes...unfortunately."
"Why 'unfortunately'? He hasn't threatened you, has he?"
She burst into laughter. "If he threatened me, would you do something about it?"
"Certainly. I'd go back in there and slap him around a bit."
"I'd pay to see that, I really would, but I don't think he plans to threaten me. He plans to marry me."
The other side of the hedge was silent. For a moment, Padm? thought he had run away.
Finally he spoke in such a quiet whisper that she had to strain to hear him. "...Marry you?"
"You don't want to marry him, do you?"
Padm? laughed again. She really liked this boy. There was some type of innocent sweetness radiating off of him. She couldn't really describe it. Padm? felt like she had known him for a long time, and more importantly, like she could tell him anything.
"No, I don't. But everyone I know wants me to. He's the ruler of a neighboring planet to Naboo, so our marriage would be kind of like an alliance."
"I'm not a fan of that type of diplomacy."
"Neither am I. But he's a handsome young prince who has everything. I should be in love with him; nearly everyone else is."
This time, they both laughed.
"I'm glad," Padm? finally managed to say. "Have you ever heard the fairy tale about the girl who married a prince and settled down in the big stone castle on top of a hill?"
"I think so."
"I never liked that story," the queen continued. "I always preferred the one where the girl flies away on the white draigon with the magical knight."
A violent cough sounded from behind Padm?'s back.
"Are you all right?" She turned around and tried to look at the man through the hedge. But he wasn't there.
Anakin Skywalker slipped off the stone bench. He plucked a red leaf from a large bush and crumpled it in his palm as he rounded the cover of the hedge.
And there she was.
She was frowning, slightly confused as she leaned in close to the leafy hedge. Padm? was looking for him, and if she leaned forward any further, she was going to fall into the shrubbery. Anakin couldn't help but smile.
Startled, Padm? turned. Her dark eyes made contact with his, and Anakin realized with disgust that he was blushing. But she smiled and suddenly Anakin didn't care how red his face was. She was the same young handmaiden who had floated into Anakin's junk store ten years ago, and she was beautiful.
"I thought you'd left."
Anakin shook his head. "Mind if I sit?"
"Not in the least." She scooted over and Anakin sat down next to her. She looked him over for a moment, her expression completely cryptic.
"You're a Jedi," Padm? said and playfully pulled the padawan braid behind Anakin's right ear.
"Well - ow - I'm a padawan." Anakin reclaimed his braid and tucked it away safely behind his ear. "Hopefully, I'll be a knight soon."
Padm? grinned. "Do you have a white draigon?"
"He's parked in the main hanger."
"But I can't fly away with you. I'd have to get my master's permission first."
"That's very obedient of you."
"Oh, I'd probably end up going with you no matter what he says."
"I thought the master-apprentice bond was sacred."
"It's overrated. That's why I'm hiding from him now."
"You're hiding from your master? That's inappropriate behavior for a Jedi apprentice."
Anakin sighed. "I guess it is. I'm only doing it because I was very cruel to him earlier. I don't want to get in his way."
Padm?'s stare became intense as she gazed into Anakin's eyes. "Do you want some advice?"
"From you? I'd love some."
"Be kind to your master, no matter what he says. He's the best friend you'll ever have."
Anakin smiled. He hoped she was right. "I'll try. Would you like some advice about the situation with your prince?"
Padm? shifted on the bench and straightened her dress. "Go ahead. Give me guidance."
"Hold out for the draigon."
"We shall see." Padm? glanced at the transparisteel door. "I had better go. My security force is probably worried sick about me."
Anakin wished with all his heart that she would change her mind and stay out on the patio with him forever. But Padm? stood up and walked towards the door, her skirts shimmering as she went. Just as he was losing all hope, she turned back. She was insanely beautiful, Anakin thought. He couldn't understand how he'd managed to spend a decade so far away from her.
Padm? tilted her head towards him, making her earrings sing.
"Thank you for the advice, Ani."
Her laughter echoed through the service corridor as she disappeared.
Obi-Wan shut his eyes and marveled at the colorful speckles floating about in the darkness behind his eyelids.
He had a headache. He always had headaches after being around so many people.
He liked people, even the headache-inducing ones. Being in one room stuffed with so many though was impossible. All the needless talking irked him. He had spent a dozen years in the safety of the Jedi Temple, where there were hardly ever more than three people together in a room. No one ever made small talk in the Temple; those who had telepathic connections just didn't need it.
It was hard to meditate with a headache. He couldn't stop thinking about drums. Obi-Wan was not sure whether other people had this problem, but, whenever he had a headache, he couldn't stop visualizing drums. Huge drums, children's drums, handheld drums...ear drums. His ear drums were pulsating in rhythm with his heartbeat. Maybe that was what was giving him the killer headache.
Concentrating on his breathing helped. He was beginning to recede from the real world. From the bright sunlight. And the headache.
This wasn't working.
He wondered if anyone had tried to kill Bail yet.
There wasn't anyone around who could kill Bail. Except Anakin. Obi-Wan's apprentice certainly hadn't warmed to the prince earlier. The kid was such a menace. If ever there was a headache-inducer...
Where was Anakin?
Speak of the devil.
Obi-Wan opened his eyes and shifted his position on the floor . Anakin was standing in the doorway to the guestroom, rolling up the sleeves of his cloak to his elbows and then unrolling them again.
"Why do you always fidget?"
Anakin stopped abruptly, his sleeves still rolled.
"I didn't ask you to stop; I asked you why you do it."
Anakin frowned. "I do it...because... I don't know why I fidget. Bad habit, I guess."
Anakin paused, waiting for his master to say something philosophic about the meaning of fidgeting. Obi-Wan would have taken him up on it, but the pains in his head were getting sharper, preventing him from truly thinking straight.
Obi-Wan shut his eyes again. "Where have you been?" he mumbled.
Anakin flicked his hair out of his eyes for the thirtieth time that day and stepped further into the room, throwing Obi-Wan a slightly confused glance.
"I saw you slip away from the party hours ago. What have you been doing?"
"Oh? That's a new one for you, Anakin."
Anakin pouted, locking his large eyes on the gray rivoc-tesh carpeting. "You're angry with me."
"I am annoyed with you. What you did today to me and to Bail Organa was inexcusable," Obi-Wan said as he massaged his right temple. "If you plan to ever become a Jedi Knight - and I know you do - you must learn self-control. You have to be able accept your surroundings, no matter how loathsome they really are. And don't forget..."
Anakin plopped down on the floor next to Obi-Wan, listening to the lecture with only half an ear. He had heard this very same speech before, but he was prepared to hear it again. Anakin Skywalker was a good listener.
He had become a very good listener because of the bizarre amounts of practice he'd had with the renowned art of lecture absorbing. He suspected that there was a sign hanging from the back of his tunic that was printed in basic, black letters saying-LECTURE ME. Only Jedi Masters (and Obi-Wan, who was a Jedi Master in Anakin's eyes) could
see it. Whenever anyone susceptible to the sign spotted Anakin doing anything even mildly wrong, a moralistic tirade -- stuffed with incomprehensible, philosophical sayings from all the greats -- would spew forth from the afflicted Master's mouth.
Anakin had heard every lecture a Padawan could possibly hear. He had heard Master Mundi's "Your Focus Determines Your Reality" speech a total of seven times. He had sat through Master Windu's interminable "A Positive Attitude Guarantees Success" talk three times. Master Koon's "Respect Your Elders and Behave Yourself For Goodness' Sake" speech had been dispensed to Anakin a dozen times at least. He had even managed to memorize Yaddle's "A Lust For Adventure Will Get You Into A Lot of Trouble" speech. Every now and then he would let it loose on some of the younger apprentices in the Temple and watch them squirm. He had been forced to listen to Master Yoda's "Fear Leads To Anger/Hatred/Suffering" lecture so many times that the speech itself had been renamed by the other aspiring Jedi in the Order. Now it was just "The Anakin Lecture."
"...and after that harrowing day, Padawan Behovadesh never complained about his missions ever again. Anakin, do you understand the point I am trying to make?"
"Yes, Master. I realize my mistake and I shall do my best to try to adhere to your teachings in the future."
Obi-Wan moaned and flopped over backwards, spreading his arms out like the wings of a Boshkan eagle. "You didn't listen to a word I said, did you?"
Obi-Wan made a low guttural noise in his throat signifying his disapproval.
"I'm sorry, Obi-Wan. I've just been rather-"
"I've met a girl."
Obi-Wan fell silent instantly.
"When I left the party, I met her out in a garden," Anakin said, his eyes beginning to glow. "She had slipped out, too. That's why I've been thinking, Obi-Wan. I don't think I'll ever be happy until I slip out of another formal gathering and see her again."
"Yes. She's wonderful, Obi-Wan; you'll love her."
Obi-Wan sat back up and opened his mouth, prepared to speak. When words refused to venture forth, he shut it again.
Anakin continued, unaware of his master's shock. "I'm going to marry her. I had suspected that I would for a long time, I think. Now I'm sure of it."
Obi-Wan finally managed to speak. "Anakin..."
His padawan looked at him hopefully.
"I'm glad that you have these feelings. It attests to the fact that you are finally growing up. But you will never be allowed to marry anyone."
"I know the Jedi do not encourage marriage, especially for someone who hasn't even completed their training yet. But I thought I'd wait until I'm a knight, and then you could let me talk to the Council. I could convince them, Obi-Wan. I know I could."
"The Council has been wary of you from the beginning, Anakin. You have sensed it, I'm sure. You are a special case to them."
"Why am I a special case? Because I started training when I was nine? Because of Qui-Gon? WHY?!"
Obi-Wan flinched and quickly brought his hands back up to soothe his aching forehead. "Please don't yell. My head..."
Anakin's frustration petered out. "I'm sorry."
"I'm not going to stop you from seeing this girl. For now."
Anakin cheered, but then he hesitated. With Obi-Wan, you always had to wait for the other boot to drop before you rejoiced.
"But I have no doubt that she will prove a distraction from your training in the long run. Look out for yourself, padawan, and I shall discuss this with the Council upon our return to Coruscant. Meanwhile, I want you to think about your responsibilities to yourself and to the Jedi before you get involved with a girl. Do you understand?"
Anakin couldn't believe his master's words. For reasons he couldn't fathom, Obi-Wan was letting him get away with it. Anakin was tempted to extract his teacher's motives, but he feared that if Obi-Wan were questioned further, he might change his mind.
"I understand." Anakin smiled, relieved. "Thank you, Obi-Wan."
Obi-Wan braved his headache and smiled back. "You're welcome."
"I apologize for being such a brat earlier."
The tension in the room dissolved completely and Obi-Wan began to chortle.
"Do you accept my apology?" When Obi-Wan didn't respond, Anakin slapped him on the arm. "Hey, Master? Do you accept my apology?"
Before Obi-Wan could speak, Anakin slapped him again. When the boy closed in for a third, Obi-Wan snatched his arm and grabbed a handful of Anakin's hair, giving it a sharp tug. Anakin shrieked and struggled helplessly as Obi-Wan got him in a headlock.
"I won't accept until you accept my apology for having no patience with you earlier."
"No!" cried Anakin, straining to get out of the headlock. "I'll never accept, I'll never accept!"
Obi-Wan tightened his grip. "Surrender, padawan."
"No! AAAIIIIEEEEE!! Never!!!"
"No roughhousing in the palace, please."
Both Jedi looked up, although Anakin had a much harder time doing it with the headlock tightening. One of the Queen's handmaidens stood by the door of the room, trying very hard to restrain her laughter.
"I'm sorry if I have interrupted anything, but Her Majesty, Queen Amidala, requests you meet with her Captain of the Guard immediately."
"We shall meet with Captain Panaka shortly. Thank you," Obi-Wan said.
The handmaiden nodded and regarded the two men for a moment. "It appears that your apprentice is unable to breathe."
"Gaaaaaa!" Anakin said.
The azure monitors in the Palace Surveillance Office sparkled in the midday sunlight. The equipment packed into the small cubicle whirred comfortingly as it continuously displayed images of all the large ballrooms, side hallways, throne rooms, meeting facilities, and sleeping quarters in Theed Palace. Using these surveillance monitors, an addition to the Royal Security Force purchased with the profits of a particularly abundant jukon-fruit harvest three years before, the "fastest eyes on Naboo" were able to move with more speed than ever.
The esteemed Captain of the Queen's guard was seated in front of a small black-and-white screen, his dark eyes narrowed. Panaka was forever on the watch, completely ageless, and now, with one hardened hand gripping the monitor and the other resting gently on the hilt of his blaster, the Captain resembled a velvety panther prepared to strike at any moment. Even the two Jedi standing behind him felt rather humbled by Panaka's presence.
"About twenty minutes ago," Captain Panaka said, "an intruder was spotted sneaking down a residential corridor in the West Wing." He removed his hand from his blaster for a brief moment and motioned towards a different screen. "Over there."
Obi-Wan moved towards the monitor, immediately disappointed. The hallway was uninhabited and identical to just about every other corridor in the palace. It was not a restricted area. There were no hidden safes (none that Obi-Wan knew about, that is); there was no real reason for a mischief-maker to be sneaking around dark walkways in the
West Wing of Theed Palace.
Obi-Wan made light of this slight disappointment to Panaka and immediately received a correction from the Captain. "Nothing to be stolen maybe, but Her Majesty's quarters, as well as many of the guests' rooms reserved for the celebration this week, are not far from here. Our unwelcome guest, Jedi Kenobi, could do plenty of damage if he continues in the direction he was heading twenty minutes ago."
"You think he's an assassin?" Anakin asked, the anticipation in his voice clearly evident.
Panaka turned and smirked at the young apprentice. "That's why I called for you. You've been ordered to protect Prince Organa, correct?"
"Well, if this intruder does turn out to have malevolent intentions, you may get a chance to show me your stuff, Anakin."
Anakin smiled distractedly, his eyes scanning monitor after monitor for any sign of trouble. Despite his padawan's watchfulness, Obi-Wan saw the dark-robed figure first. A hooded cloak obscured the figure's face as it slipped out of the shadows on a large screen behind Anakin.
Panaka followed Obi-Wan's stare and stiffened. "The Queen's quarters," he whispered.
Anakin turned sharply and accidentally kicked a rather expensive-looking piece of equipment that began blinking at him angrily. "The Queen!" he yelped.
The figure glanced from side to side, presumably to make sure that there was no one around to stop him. Then he slipped through the door leading to the Queen's chamber.
No one in the Security Office saw the grainy image of a young woman standing on the other side of the door, holding out her hand to greet the intruder. The Naboo Security Force, with the addition of a headache-plagued Jedi Knight and his limping apprentice, were already sprinting through a courtyard, heading for the West Wing of Theed
"Governor Narcon told you I was busy."
The figure in the dark blue cloak shifted under the Nubian Queen's stare. "I know, my dear. But I have to see you."
"No, you don't." Padm? looked at the floor of her chamber and blew a stray hair away from her face. "You shall have your chance to see more of me than anyone could possibly handle. Until then-"
"Until then, I'd rather not see you."
The figure leaned in, the cloth folds of his hood brushing her shoulder. "Don't be afraid of what is to come, Padm?. Our future shall be wonderful."
"Then continue waiting patiently for the wonderful future and stop bothering me in the present."
He leaned in further, letting velvet cloth that obscured his face hide hers as well. "Oh, Padm?! I love-"
The chamber door opened with a mechanical whoosh and in mere seconds a dozen people filed into the Queen's bedroom.
Anakin, despite his injured foot, was the first person inside. "Padm?!" he cried, lightsaber in hand.
Obi-Wan Kenobi followed his padawan over the threshold. "Your Highness?" he called.
Captain Panaka entered after the two Jedi, along with half of his Security Force, blasters pointed at the intruder. "You!" the Captain said, pointing at the figure in blue. "Hands up now! Don't move!"
The cloaked man took a step away from Padm? and crossed his arms haughtily. Bail Organa, Prince of Alderaan, removed his hood. "What is the meaning of this?!"
Anakin looked at Bail, looked at Padm?, and then flicked a sandy-colored strand of hair out his eyes.
Panaka stared at the Alderaanian prince stonily.
Padm? began to giggle. When she finally realized this wasn't appropriately aristocratic etiquette, she bit the edge of her right palm and continued to giggle.
Bail did not appreciate the humor of the situation. He immediately placed blame for this embarrassment on his two bodyguards. "Kenobi," he said, "I know that it is your duty to protect me. I can even understand why you and your sulky apprentice feel it necessary to follow me around. But to burst in on me with an army while I'm talking to my
fianc?e is completely uncalled for."
Anakin looked at Padm?. "Fianc?e?" he said, trying to absorb the truth that that word represented.
Looking at Anakin's dumbstruck expression dispelled Padm?'s bout of laughter. "Oh, Ani," she said, but could think of nothing else to add.
"Yes, fianc?e. We exchanged rings a month ago." Bail said. "Why are you making that face, Anakin? Were you trying to steal her away from me?"
Anakin ignored him. Or, to be more precise, Anakin did not even hear the prince to begin with. "Fianc?e?" he repeated.
Everything suddenly fell into place for Obi-Wan. He turned to Anakin. "You're in love with Queen Amidala?"
"Anakin!" Bail exclaimed, shocked more by Obi-Wan's lack of discretion than by the actual situation.
"Ani?" Padm? asked. Once again, she could think of nothing else to say.
"OBI-WAN!!!" Anakin looked as if he was fully prepared to go for his Master's neck at any moment. Everyone in the room (including nine well-trained security officers) was looking at him with large, surprised eyes, as if they were looking at a horrendous speeder bike accident. This is much worse than any speeder bike accident, Anakin thought. Now he was going to die. He was really going to die. What would Obi-Wan do if his apprentice suddenly collapsed like a rag doll? More importantly, what would Padm? do if he were to drop dead at this very moment?
Padm? finally managed to regain her composure. "Obi-Wan," she said, "I'm sure you're mistaken. Anakin is a serious student who wouldn't be foolish enough to allow anything to distract him from his work." She looked at Anakin, her dark eyes begging him to pull himself together and confirm her story.
"In love with Queen Amidala?" Anakin asked, never moving his gaze from her eyes. "Ha! That's a good one, Obi-Wan!"
Padm? frowned. Anakin couldn't lie to save his life.
"I have to go," Anakin said.
Captain Panaka had apologized to the Queen for his intrusion and had retreated back to his surveillance chamber, taking the Royal Security officers with him. Obi-Wan would have left with them, but he was afraid that Anakin would be roaming the palace halls. The Jedi Knight was not too eager to come across his apprentice after the scene that had just played out in Queen Amidala's bedroom.
Padm? looked at the floor as Bail recounted the most humorous parts of the last hour. The prince had not been amused by the embarrassing situation at the time, but now he seemed to find every second of his account side-splittingly funny. As he tried to describe the exact pinkish hue of Anakin Skywalker's face after Obi-Wan declared that his padawan was in love with Padm?, Bail sniggered so hard that the Queen thought he was choking.
Bail did not even bother to try to improve his case with his reluctant fianc?e. The prince switched from making fun of Anakin to spouting jealous remarks.
"You don't appear to be as amused as I am, Padm?."
"You shouldn't be laughing at him, Bail. He's just a kid."
"You're taking his side?"
Padm? sighed violently and furrowed her brow, making her entire face appear to collapse into itself.
"You are!" Bail said, raising his voice to a squeak. "You were trying to save him before and now you're defending him again. Is Anakin really my rival, Padm??"
"No!" Padm? cried, suddenly furious. "No, he's not! Anakin is my friend, Bail. I knew him when he was a child. I couldn't -- I can't let him be hurt like that."
Obi-Wan heard Padm?'s testament of loyalty with more than a little awe. She stood up for Anakin when Obi-Wan could not even begin to try. How long had she known him? Probably about an hour if one didn't count the week they had spent together ten tears ago. After an hour, Queen Amidala was more of a friend to Anakin than Obi-Wan had been in ten years' time.
Obi-Wan knew he wasn't much of a teacher. He was experienced and extremely well trained, but he felt completely incapable of imparting what he knew to someone else. He had been promoted to his current position far too quickly and with little thought, so little thought that during the first few months of time spent with the boy, he hadn't really even thought of himself as any kind of authority figure at all.
He had acted like Anakin's buddy, his big brother, the guy who laughed with him (and at him) but never really made any effort to improve him. When Obi-Wan had finally understood how he was meant to behave with his padawan, Anakin had become so used to Friend Obi-Wan that he couldn't accept Teacher Obi-Wan. Their bond was tenuous, forever frayed by violent winds. While Obi-Wan never had doubts about Anakin's potential, the knight was afraid that the only reason Anakin was an excellent apprentice was because of his natural gifts, his brilliance. Obi-Wan's lousy schooling made little difference to his padawan.
Now their friendship -- Friend Obi-Wan who had gotten in the way in the first place -- appeared to be disintegrating as well. Obi-Wan had inadvertently hurt Anakin. After warning his student about the danger of losing one's self-control, Obi-Wan had forgotten himself and had said the stupidest, most awful thing possible. And now he couldn't even summon up enough control to go out and confront Anakin again. But if this girl could do it...
"I'm going after him."
The queen and the prince looked at the Jedi simultaneously.
Obi-Wan looked at Padm?, associating her with Anakin and therefore feeling some bizarre need to throw apologies her way. "What I said...about Anakin and you...that was awful of me. I have to find him; I have to talk to him."
She stepped forward, a determined look in her eyes.
"It's not your fault, Obi-Wan," she said. "This is my mess. I shall fix it. I'll talk to Ani."
Bail looked on with mild disapproval.
Obi-Wan mulled over this for a moment. Anakin would respond better to the Queen, he thought. Maybe he would realize that she wanted to be his friend and nothing more. Then all this nonsense would come to an end and Anakin's training could resume. The Jedi Knight nodded gratefully. "Thank you, Your Highness," he said.
"Padm?," she said, as she slipped a red cloak over her narrow shoulders.
Obi-Wan smiled and nodded again. "Padm?," he said.
"Padm?," Bail Organa echoed, "are you sure this is wise? If you, not Skywalker's master, come after him like this, won't the kid...get the wrong idea?"
The queen turned, the fabric of her cloak curling dramatically around he waist. She wrinkled her nose at Bail and looked at Obi-Wan.
"Do you have any idea where Ani might be?"
"Try the canal," Obi-Wan said. "By the boathouse. I saw him there earlier, after he met you and claimed he needed time to think. If he needed time to think then-"
"-he'll need time to think now. I understand." Padm? activated the doorswitch and stepped out into the hallway.
"Padm?!" Obi-Wan called after her, "once you're done with him, could you please send Anakin to me? He needs to learn something today."
"He has already learned plenty today, believe me." She removed a chrono from her cloak pocket. "I'll have him back by three."
Little did Padm? know, she would end up delivering Anakin back to his master a full eight hours late.
The small pink stone skipped across the water, its speckled belly skating across the surface of the canal, propelling it towards the other side. The sun beat down on it, making the stone look less like a piece of rock and more like a bird, flying over the silver river. It was beautiful.
But then something happened. The stone lost momentum. It stopped flying and started bouncing, scattering shards of glassy water as it fumbled and fumbled. Finally it fell, gray foam swallowing its glittering body.
Anakin Skywalker stood very still, his head lowered as if he was mourning the passing of the poor lost rock. He bent down on one knee and fingered another stone. This one was much uglier, tan where the other had been pink, rough where the first had been smooth. Still, he liked it. He slid the stone away from the pebble-strewn ground and into his palm. He stood up and swung his arm back and forth, testing the weight of the stone, estimating the amount of spin he would have to give it to skip.
Then he reeled back, throwing his weight from one leg to the other. He brought his right arm forward and, with a flick of his wrist, sent the stone flying across the canal, leaving a tiny, perfect trail of foam in its wake.
Obi-Wan had taught him this. Anakin was not sure how his master had picked it up, but he hoped that Obi-Wan had learned it from Qui-Gon. He could imagine the Jedi Master standing here, taller than Obi-Wan, even taller than Anakin. Qui-Gon chose a grass-colored pebble, leaned forward, and launched it out the canal. To Anakin's surprise, it skipped all the way across and hopped out of the water on the other side, ready to take the journey again.
Qui-Gon waved to his green rock on the other side of the canal. Then he disappeared.
Anakin's tan stone also disappeared, sinking into oblivion about thirty meters out. Anakin lowered his head, once again mourning the passing of a loved one. Except this time the loved one was not a stone.
Padm? stood by the corner of the boathouse, tracing the edges of brick with the tips of her fingernails. Ahead of her, Anakin was skipping stones across the canal. As she had neared the dock, Padm?'s intentions had been to approach him and apologize for everything that had happened. But now, as she observed him from the side of the boathouse, she realized that she had lost her nerve.
Padm?, like most people in the Republic, had never really thought about the lives of the Jedi. During her rigorous schooling, Padm? had been taught very little about them. She knew the basics, of course, plus she had some background in the science, the Order's history, and a few tidbits of Jedi philosophy from a ledger she had once read. These lessons, small as they had been, actually made her more knowledgeable
She had always been interested in the Force, but she had assumed that it was something that anyone could study to understand, like biology or architecture. But now, as she watched Anakin Skywalker, Padm? realized that his world was not an intellectual one. As the young man focused his eyes on his skipping pebbles, Anakin suddenly seemed to disconnect himself from reality -- Padm?'s reality -- and appeared to have withdrawn to some other place, some secret corridor hidden deep within himself. He was fascinating, Padm? thought. The world that he had been introduced to over the last decade was not an intellectual one at all; it was a world of mysticism, a world, Padm? suspected, that would always be just out of her reach.
Now she couldn't confront him because she felt too unworthy to interrupt his strange, spiritual trance. Maybe she should just stand here and watch Anakin, forgetting about the apology she was supposed to be delivering and the celebration she was supposed to be hosting.
Anakin turned away from the canal, his large eyes boring into her. The afternoon sun reflected off his hair, making Anakin appear to have a ring of golden light outlining his face. His appearance reinforced the Padm?'s previous train of thought, and suddenly she became very nervous.
"Oh...hi," she said.
He smiled at her. "Hello. What are you doing here?"
Padm? gathered herself up and walked up to the edge of the dock, stopping next him. "Looking for you," she said.
His eyes widened for a moment, growing even larger than their normal size. Then he stooped and picked up a stone, beginning his skipping ritual again.
"Well, you've succeeded," Anakin said, leaning back and scanning the river.
"What?" Padm? asked, jumping slightly as another stone went skittering across the water.
"You've found me. How'd you manage that?"
"Obi-Wan thought you'd be at the docks."
Anakin frowned. "Obi-Wan told you I was here?"
Anakin raised his eyebrows until they were obscured by his hair. Then he lowered them again. "I'm not sure whether to be happy or upset."
"Why should you be upset?"
Anakin picked up another stone. "Because Obi-Wan knew where I was. Either I'm getting too predictable or he's been stalking me again."
Padm? laughed, her eyes sparkling more beautifully than the silver water.
Anakin skipped his stone and smiled. "You ask me why I'm upset, but you're not interested in why I'm happy."
"I know why you're happy, Ani."
His stone fell into the water, with a musical plop. He turned and looked at her, his eyes taking her in. He smiled again. "Yeah, I think you do."
She smiled back at him.
"Of course," Anakin said, dropping down among the pebbles into a sitting position, "after Obi-Wan's little outburst back there, everyone does."
Padm? crouched down in front of him, scanning his face, trying to decide how to phrase her next statement. "Ani, Obi-Wan didn't mean-"
"I don't care." Anakin turned his face away from her. "Obi-Wan is always so..." He struggled, searching for the worst words he could find. "Obi-Wan is always so Obi-Wan." He frowned.
Padm? sat down next to him, trying her best to ignore the small stones that immediately dug into her legs. She sighed.
Anakin continued. "He's stubborn and annoying...and always right. What he said - it was completely accurate."
Padm? shifted. "Ani-"
"He's right. I love you. I do. Always have, always will."
Padm? had tried to restrain herself, she had since the moment Obi-Wan had made his infamous pronouncement. But now she felt herself losing control. "How? Really, I don't understand how you could possibly lo-" she found herself unable to say the words, so she started over. "You don't even know me."
"Yes, I do. I know you. When you claimed you were just a trivial little handmaiden, I saw through it. I saw something in you that no one else saw."
"You thought I was an imaginary creature from a backwater world."
"Angels aren't imaginary!"
"Have you ever seen an angel?"
"No, but that's not the point." He leaned forward earnestly. "The point is that I-"
Padm? put her hand over his mouth. "You are a Jedi. I am a queen. I am engaged. Do you understand?"
His large blue eyes peered over her hand, searching her face for something she knew was not displayed there.
"Do you understand?"
"Oh, you are so impossible!" She removed her hand. "I don't understand how Obi-Wan deals with you."
Anakin stared into the water, his hair falling over his face. He didn't bother to flick it off.
Padm? yanked on the cord of her cloak unhappily.
"Do you want to go boating?"
She turned. Anakin was still looking at the canal with unfocused eyes.
"Do you want to go boating?" he repeated. "With me?"
Padm? felt like she was in a dream, a dream where things kept flying at her and she kept dodging them.
"All right," she said. "Let's go."
The boathouse was a sturdy wooden structure that had recently been restored from its previously dilapidated state. Despite the shiny metal boatlocks and the newly polished beams holding the roof, the whole thing still looked ancient. Boats of all shapes and size bobbed on the darkened water, creating an odd hum that sounded like the entire boathouse was breathing.
Padm? gave Anakin the grand tour, explaining how the interior had been reconstructed and how the unpleasant smell of dead fish had been removed. Anakin concentrated hard and decided he could still smell something awful, but he had enough tact not to mention this to Padm?.
She paused by a dark red rowboat, built for two, and shrugged jovially. "This is it," Padm? said. "There's only one set of oars so I guess we can just take-"
She turned around and realized that her sailing companion was missing.
"-turns," Padm? finished. She retraced her steps along the boatlocks. "Ani?"
There was a pause just long enough to convince her that Anakin had probably fallen in.
Then she heard a soft little noise and she knew exactly what had happened.
"Whoa..." Anakin whispered, completely in awe.
He was kneeling on the other side of the boathouse, bowing to a shiny little number that was pretty much all engine. It looked like a gleaming water-logged rocket with a small seat stuck on top.
"The Hydro-Logarithm 1650," Anakin said, practically drooling. "Model TXG, refined from the THG. 34 kk engine, turbo spinners, power steering." He grinned at Padm?. "Cushioned seats."
Padm? looked at the tiny perch on top of the engine and frowned. "Cushioned seat," she said, then changed her mind. "Cushioned stool."
Anakin's response was to hop on board and start her up. The engine grumbled for an instant and then started roaring amiably. Anakin grabbed the rudder and looked at the queen expectantly.
She just stared at him.
He cleared his throat.
"We can't both fit on that. Come on, Ani. You know we can't fit."
He scooted forward an inch. "There's plenty of room. Hop on."
She bit her lip and shook her head.
"Padm?, please? I'll - I'll let you drive."
"I wouldn't drive that thing if you paid me."
He sucked in his cheeks and looked at her with big eyes.
"Stop making that face at me!" Padm? said. "I'm not going. I'm not."
He batted his eyelashes.
Padm? burst into laughter. "You look like an idiot."
He grinned. He knew he had won.
She deactivated the boatlock and took a step towards the Hydro-Logarithm. "If I fall off and drown, it's your fault."
"I can live with that." Anakin grabbed her hand, and in a moment, they were both squeezed onto the seat.
He compressed the accelerator, and they jetted out the boathouse arch, cutting a silver arc across the canal.
"If you don't hold on to something," Anakin yelled over the engine, "you will fall off and drown."
She took a breath and grabbed the sides of his arms. "We're going to die."
Anakin laughed and squeezed the throttle. The little boat/engine took such a sharp turn that Padm? could have sworn that the surface of the water skimmed her cheek.
She screamed. "We're going to die! Ani, we're really going to die!"
"I'd rather go like this than any other way!" He put on the steam and the humungous engine sang.
"You want to drown in a Nubian canal?"
"No, I want to die in the sunlight, going at a high speed."
He rounded the corner of a marble palace, turning sharply and soaking them both. Padm? leaned in, burying her face in Anakin's dripping robes, muffling her laughter and her screams.
"I swear, Ani, if you ruin my hair, you are going to die speeding in the sunlight."
He turned and smiled at her.
The little boat veered to the right, heading straight for a column supporting a wire bridge.
The expressions on both their faces were priceless. Anakin made one of his patented turns, nearly capsizing the boat and scattering a school of ducks.
"Oh..." Padm? said.
"You doing all right back there, Padm??" Anakin yelled.
"I'm going to be sick."
"Don't worry; that's normal." Anakin slowed down, almost to a stop. "Guess what?"
"Oh..." Padm? said.
"It's your turn to drive."
In any other case, Padm? would have protested. She would have told Anakin the truth, that despite the bountiful amounts of training she had received in a rainbow of different subjects, she really had no aptitude for piloting pieces of metal. She would have told him to drive back to the docks and let her off. She would have reminded him that they were both far too young to die.
But two things prevented Padm? from rejecting Anakin's offer. The first was that it wasn't an offer at all; Anakin had meant it as a statement (something along the lines of "I'm Anakin, you're Padm?, and you're driving, hon."). The second reason was that after all of the day's absurd events, Padm? felt like she was the only person on the planet that was even remotely sane. Therefore she felt compelled to do something absolutely crazy.
"Is this how you steer?" Padm? asked, gesturing at the rudder as the two passengers switched seats.
"Uh-huh," Anakin said, taking his place behind the queen. "And you press the accelerator -- down there, that's right -- to make you go faster."
"Oh, really? The accelerator makes you go faster?"
"Don't be smart with me, young lady. I know I'm not a very good teacher."
Padm? pushed the pedal to the metal, giggling nervously as the engine kicked in. "That's because you're usually the one getting taught."
"Exactly." Anakin leaned over her shoulder to observe his student. "You're not doing so bad."
"What a lovely compliment."
They were following the canal through the residential district of Theed. Modest salmon-colored houses whisked past them, a few curious citizens leaning out the round windows to see who was riding such a noisy vehicle in the middle of the day.
Padm? gently adjusted the rudder, enjoying watching the canal curve gracefully around the edges of the Hydro-Logarithm. The clear water quickly hypnotized her. Silver splashes of liquid appeared to be playing with her, responding to her every move and lapping up the sides to moisten Padm?'s slippers just when she least expected it. She started humming a popular Alderaanian love song to herself.
Anakin, slightly annoyed by the love song, interrupted her reverie. "You steer like a woman."
"I case you haven't noticed, I am a woman." She changed course and started trailing a renegade duck.
The duck turned it green head to glare at the approaching boat. It pumped its webbed feet and began to swim in a tight circle in order to avoid Padm?. Instead of continuing on her merry way, Padm? decided to up the insanity factor and continue to stalk the unfortunate bird. She tugged a bit harder on the rudder and continued to tail the little beast.
"Are you trying to kill that duck?" Anakin, it seemed, became overly critical if he wasn't in the drivers' seat.
"Yes," Padm? said, irritated. "I'm hungry."
She was forced to give up the chase, however, when the duck came to its senses and remembered it had been born with wings.
Anakin cheered for the duck's escape, shielding his eyes as he watched it fly over the tiled roofs. "Cruelty to animals! Padm?, I never knew you had it in you."
"Didn't I explain to you before that you don't know me?" Padm? said, feeding the engine more gas. "What about cruelty to humans? Remember who was trying to sink us earlier?"
"I wasn't trying to sink us. I was having fun. Padm?, look at those wimpy wide turns you keep making! You're too conservative."
"You're too radical," she shot back.
Anakin made several hoarse sounds to signal he was angry, but Padm? suspected he was probably grinning. We've got ourselves a crafty one here, she thought. She glanced down, suddenly realizing that the Hydro-Logarithm was going extremely fast. Abnormally fast, actually. The water was behaving strangely, splashing messily on either side of the bow.
Anakin noticed it, too. "I didn't know this beauty could travel so fast."
Padm? tried not to seem distressed. She straightened her back and forced a laugh. "I go as fast as I want to go."
Anakin's hands tightened on her shoulders. He was worried. "You'd better slow down."
She eased up on the accelerator, but they continued to shoot down the canal, the water carrying them faster and faster.
"Where are we, Padm??" Anakin asked, his voice rising. "Where does this river lead?"
"I don't know; I've never been here before."
Behind her, Anakin swore under his breath in Huttese.
All of a sudden, an ominous rumble could be discerned over the roar of the engine. Anakin forgot about manners and swore out loud. "POODOO! TURN AROUND!"
Padm? did her best to imitate Anakin's super sharp turns, jamming the rudder into the side of the hull. The boat began to turn, creaking like an elderly woman. Anakin, disapproving of her performance, leaned over her and pushed the rudder some more.
The little boat made the turn successfully, but the strength of the current now began pulling them backward, pushing them towards the waterfall which Anakin and Padm? could now no longer see. Anakin was screaming something at her, but Padm? could not understand him over the thunder of the cascade and the pounding in her ears.
The engine gagged and gagged, killing itself in order to win the race against the current. Despite its efforts, the Hydro-Logarithm 1650 (Model TXG with a 34 kk engine and a cushioned stool) lost. As the boat tipped and fell into the downward stream, Padm? felt an arm reach around her chest and grab her, pulling her from the confines of the boat. As queen and Jedi plunged over the side of a monstrous waterfall, Padm? understood something Anakin shrieked over the buzz in her head. Something about "going to die."
Growing up on a desert planet, Anakin Skywalker hadn't had very many opportunities to swim. On Tatooine, all water was imported from a neighboring system and then rationed off among the citizens of Mos Espa. As a slave, the most water Anakin had ever seen was some vile, murky stuff in a small pail that Watto had handed to him. He had seen a couple rainstorms, but those had been few and far between. Rain was so rare on Tatooine that every time there was a storm (always extremely violent and destructive on that particular hemisphere), the villagers celebrated the disaster as a good omen. It had stormed in Mos Espa the day Anakin was born. Go figure.
To tell the truth, he had not had any opportunities to swim at all until, through a series of improbable events, he'd ended up living on Coruscant in the pool-equipped Jedi Temple. The first time Obi-Wan introduced him to the pool, Anakin had been so shocked ("You mean people can actually float in this stuff?") that he found himself unable to go anywhere near the water's edge without cackling like a madman. Obi-Wan got a kick out of retelling that little adventure. But, with his master's help, Anakin had learned to swim, picking it up rather quickly once he had conquered his giggles.
Anakin silently thanked Obi-Wan as he struggled against the rushing water to reach the surface of tide pool beneath a Nubian waterfall. The force of the cataract kept pushing Anakin towards the bottom of the river, keeping him from surfacing and taking a much-needed breath. He kicked hard, using all the strength he could muster to propel himself away from the violent power of the waterfall smashing down on the tide pool. He could make out trees and a blue sky shimmering above him on the ceiling of the water, taunting him.
Anakin became certain that this watery death was a punishment for having drowned so many stones earlier. Here he was, sinking like a rock in silver waves, experiencing such a tragic end after all that wonderful skipping over the water's surface.
Maybe it was inspired lunacy. Maybe it was all the adrenaline pumping through his system and fogging his mind. Maybe it was the lack of oxygen in his brain. Whatever the cause, for one moment, Anakin saw everything very clearly. He saw that his previous thought, the one about dropping like a stone after a spectacular run, wasn't that far from the truth at all. He wouldn't die now. But later, once he had established more momentum and had learned to enjoy the sunlight, then tragedy would be ready to strike. He was going to lose that momentum and the sun would be obscured by the clouds and he would fall into the depths and there would be no one to--
What was he doing? Mulling over old nightmares while he was drowning?
Anakin curled his hands into fists and gave himself a hard force push. He popped up out of the grip of the waterfall and broke the surface of the pool. Anakin squinted as the bright daylight hit him and took a huge breath of air. His hair was plastered annoyingly over his eyes, the narrow padawan braid sticking to his nose. In this half-blind state, he called out frantically for Padm?.
"I'm here," he heard her say, her voice tight with worry.
Anakin had to use both his hands to push the wall of wet hair out of his face. Once that obstruction was disposed of, he saw Padm? sitting on the grass by the edge of the tide pool, soaking wet. He paddled over to her and pulled himself out of the water, falling onto the warm grass next to her. He shut his eyes and tried to catch his breath.
"I thought you were dead," Padm? said.
"I got-" Anakin paused and took another breath. "I got caught under the waterfall."
Padm? nodded. "We lost the boat."
"I knew we would."
"I probably would have stayed on board if you hadn't pulled me out. I would have been killed, trapped underwater. You saved me, Ani."
Anakin gasped again. "Yeah, well..."
"Your specialty seems to be saving me."
"That and falling off waterfalls."
Padm? frowned. "You've...fallen off waterfalls before?"
Anakin nodded. "On Malastare. With Obi-Wan. It was-" He took a huge mouthful of air. "-funny."
"Ok, stop talking." Padm? said, moving closer to him. "Breathe."
Anakin did just that for a full ten minutes.
Padm? interrupted him by leaning over and removing the braid that was still sticking to his nose. "You look ridiculous."
Anakin looked at her, at the smeared makeup and the wet bun hanging loosely by her neck. "You look beautiful."
She shook her head and stood up. "We have to get back to the palace. I have to prepare for the midnight masquerade and I promised Obi-Wan I'd bring you back." She grabbed Anakin's hand and pulled him up.
"All right," Anakin said.
"How?" Padm? asked.
"How do we get back?"
"Why are you asking me? This is your planet. How do we get back?"
"I guess we'll walk."
"Walking -- wow -- I would have never thought of that. Are we just going to walk up this waterfall? Or how about up this sheer cliff?"
"Oh, stop it!" Padm? said. "We can get back up into Theed through the North Gate. We'll walk there."
"North Gate, ok. Which way?"
Padm? wrapped her wet hands around his. "Through the woods."
Anakin grimaced at the thick mass of dark leaves behind them.
"I have a bad feeling about this," he said.
Against his will, Anakin pushed at the curtain of leaves, creating a hole for the two of them to squeeze through.
"Don't say that," Padm? said as she ducked under his arm. "If you say that, something bad is guaranteed to happen."
"I have a bad feeling about this," Anakin said, stepping into the forest and closing the curtain of leaves behind them.
The ground was slightly muddy and unstable. Anakin, who still wasn't quite steady on his feet, had to maneuver across the landscape, taking care to step on the sturdiest, most moss-covered areas. Padm? appeared to be using the same strategy, bouncing across the grassy patches, every now and then splashing up waves of mud. This was not a pretty sight.
"This is awful," Padm? said.
"The North Gate wasn't my idea." Anakin slipped and his foot quickly stuck in the mud. "Oh, great."
"Well," Padm? said. "I don't think it can be much further."
Anakin grabbed a branch and pulled himself out of the mud. "Are you going to marry Bail?"
"You pick the most dreadful times to bring these things up."
"Another specialty. Are you going to marry Bail?"
"I have his ring on, don't I?" Padm? leapt over a ditch and held out her hand for Anakin to see.
He frowned. "Padm?, you're not wearing a ring."
She scrutinized her fingers and her face fell. "Oh, no..."
"You lost it?"
"You probably lost it in the tide pool."
Anakin looked at her dumbstruck face, amused but trying very hard to hide it. "It's just a ring."
"That ring was from made from the pearl of an oyster the Kranig Golden Sea. It symbolized our total commitment to each other. Now I've lost it."
"You didn't mean to."
She nodded. Anakin managed to avoid the mud as he stepped on the same patch of moss she was standing on. He pulled a leaf out of her wet hair.
"He'll be happy that you're back, safe and sound."
She smiled. "I know. I don't know why I'm being so stupid..."
"You're not being stupid."
"I am. First I avoided Bail at the party. Then I fell off a waterfall with you. Now I've lost this ring. I'm acting like a completely different person." She turned and looked up at his face, and found herself at a loss for words. "Like a completely different person," she repeated. "I don't know what's gotten into me..." She trailed off, looking up at Anakin with wide wet eyes.
He looked back at her. "Maybe it's for the best."
"Everything." He leaned in, smiling at her flat wet hair and the patch of dirt on her chin.
She didn't move away.
He leaned in further.
"I'm stuck," Padm? said, looking down at her feet.
"I can't move my feet. I'm stuck."
Anakin looked down. As he had spoken to her, Padm? had retreated off of the moss. Now her slippers were in the mud. And she was sinking.
"I'm not trying to be funny, Ani. I really can't get out." She leaned down and tried to pull one foot out of the mud.
"Padm?, don't move! You're standing in quicksand, I think."
She paled. "Quicksand?"
"It sucks you in if you try to move."
Padm? made a small noise and looked at Anakin pleadingly. She made the noise again. "Help," she said.
He reached over and grabbed both her arms, pressing them together. She was shaking. He gave a sharp pull and she gasped.
"I'm sinking faster! Ani, this isn't working!"
He pulled again, but she didn't budge. The mud was now almost up to her knees.
"Well, if you don't hurry up and do something the Naboo aren't going to have a ruler!"
Suddenly, a thick branch of a hido tree bent towards Padm?. Her eyes widened.
"Wha..." she said.
"Grab it." Anakin ordered her, his brow creased. "Now."
She did as she was told. The branch shot up, catapulting Padm? out of the mud and up into the hido tree.
She peered down at Anakin through the branches. "We are having such spectacularly awful luck."
"We certainly are."
"You're very welcome."
They stayed this way for a moment. Anakin stood on a bit of moss, Padm? sat up in a tree. Both of them were muddy and wet and exhausted. Then they laughed. They laughed for a very long time.
Padm? finally managed to recover from her laughing fit long enough to suggest they continue walking towards the North Gate.
"It's not much further," she said as she began sliding to the edge of the hido tree branch.
"I believe you," Anakin said, holding out his arms, prepared to catch the Queen as she jumped from the leafy heights. "We were going uphill before and now people aren't that far away."
Padm? readied herself, pausing to admire the final stages of a glorious sunset from the hido tree. Then she jumped into Anakin's arms. He blushed furiously and put her down.
"You can sense that people are near?" she asked.
"Yeah, I think." Anakin turned his head, tuning in to a frequency Padm? could not hear. She waited expectantly. After a minute, Anakin spoke, his voice calmer, more thoughtful than usual. "Someone's coming this way."
"Really?" Padm? ventured out further into the swamp, her feet sloshing in the damp moss.
"I think so," Anakin said from behind her. "I still have problems with relative distance. Sometimes I think I sense a nearby presence, when what I'm really sensing is someone very far away." He shrugged. "Obi-Wan says I'm just too sensitive. I get too many signals, all at once, and it confuses me. That's why I can't meditate."
Padm? frowned. "What?"
"Nothing, forget it. I'll tell you some other time."
Far away, Padm? thought she heard the distinctive crackle of a broken twig.
"Something is coming," Anakin said.
"Hello?!" Padm? called into the quickly darkening woods. "Is someone there?"
"Padm?," Anakin said. The way he said her name made Padm? shiver. There was something fiercely protective in his voice, something reverent. She had never heard anyone say her name like that before. "Something's coming, Padm?" Anakin said. But she was too stunned to hear him. "Something's coming!" he repeated urgently.
She turned and looked at Anakin, her eyes wide. "What!"
He ran towards her, grabbed her arm, and sprinted back to the hido tree. Before she could protest, he lifted her up, replacing her on the branch she had just been removed from.
"Ani, what are you do-"
The rincola leapt from a bush, gray eyes flashing, swinging its two long snouts into the air like sharp horns above its round head. It gnashed both sets of yellow teeth and scurried towards Anakin, its short legs moving faster than Padm?'s eyes could pick up.
"Oh," Padm? said. "Well that explains things."
A sharp noise ripped through the air, and a blue light leapt into existence. The lightsaber illuminated Anakin's face. He didn't look so young when he had that thing in front of him.
He advanced on the growling rincola, poised for the kill.
"No! Ani, you can't kill that!"
Both the beast and the Jedi faltered, disturbed by her tone.
"It's a rincola," Padm? said. "There are only about seven of these left on Naboo. I've been trying to save this species for years."
The endangered beast charged at Anakin, who deactivated his saber and deftly leapt away from the animal, making a dash for Padm?'s tree. He grabbed a branch and hoisted himself up. The rincola recovered form the padawan's deception and made a fantastic jump towards the branch Anakin dangled from, fastening both rows of pointed teeth around Anakin's lower leg.
Anakin shut his eyes, hurriedly channeling the Force to ease the blinding pain. Once this was partially accomplished, Anakin kicked the creature between the snouts with his other foot and the rincola was forced to disengage. It fell into the mud with a soft thud. Anakin pulled his injured leg up into the tree, out of the rincola's reach.
The creature screeched, bouncing up and down below the tree, snapping its jaws rigorously. The rincola showed no signs of giving up, keeping up the chase despite the fact that its prey was obviously out of range. It was an incredibly stupid animal, Padm? thought. No wonder they were practically extinct.
"How could you possibly want to save this species?" Anakin asked, spitting the last word out like an insult.
"Rincola's are stupid, I'll give you that. But that shouldn't prevent me from looking at them any differently from a huku bird or a wambaa. Are you all right?"
"I'm ok. Stings a little." Anakin poked at his wound curiously. He reminded Padm? of a small child who had scraped his knee and couldn't stop picking at it.
Below them, the rincola continued circling the tree, feeling sorry for its hungry little self.
Anakin and Padm? sat next to each other on the thick hido branch, watching the world beneath, neither of them saying a word. The rincola's high-jinks, its pitiful attempts to climb the tree and jump on the tree and fly over the tree and run into the tree, made for excellent entertainment.
The Nubian sun fell beneath the reach of the forest, dyeing the mud and trees an ominous blue. Anakin stopped watching the crazy rincola, feeling slightly ashamed for having reveled in the helpless beast's stupidity in the first place, and turned his attention up towards the sky. It was a clear night and the stars had come out to play, shimmering happily above the leafy ceiling.
Anakin loved them, a love simpler, more primal than any other kind of love he had ever felt. The stars had been there since the beginning, and Anakin was sure they would be there at the end. He marveled at them now, lying back away from Padm? on the branch, his face calm. He had been to some of these pinpricks of light -- many of them -- and from which ever star he ended up on, he could look out and see the rest them, shining at him and only at him. It was almost like they were following him across the galaxy, from Tatooine to Coruscant, from Coruscant to Naboo. The stars were infinite, benign, yet intimate, too. Looking at the stars was like coming face to face with the Force itself. The creator, the protector, the guide -- whatever you wanted to call it -- was looking back at Anakin, smiling. Anakin stared at it, his jaw set, his eyes very far away. Then he smiled back.
"The galaxy can be a wonderful place, can't it?" Anakin whispered, his words floating off into the sky.
"Yes, it can." Padm? had answered in the stars' place. She was sitting with her back against the trunk of the hido, her legs crossed gracefully, like a statue. He could not actually see her, but he could feel her thoughts, the way her gaze slowly shifted from the rincola to Anakin. What did she see when she looked at him?
"You've really grown up, Ani."
Is that what she saw? An adult? Anakin liked this.
"You think so?" he asked. "How can you tell?"
He could see Padm?'s smile in the stars. He lifted one hand and traced it in the air in front of him.
"Well, for one thing," Padm? said, "you're very tall."
She laughed. Anakin traced that in the sky, too.
"And the way you look now, watching the stars. You look like a philosopher."
"I look like a Jedi."
"That, too. Are you philosophizing now, Jedi?"
"Yes, I guess I am."
She spread herself out on the branch like him, except she lay on her stomach, the top of her head barely touching the top of his. "Do you mind if I join you?" Padm? asked. "You shouldn't philosophize by yourself."
"Because you may come to the wrong conclusions. What are you philosophizing about?"
Below them, the rincola spotted a purple pigeon pecking at a slightly edible flower. The exhausted beast suddenly had a new burst of speed as it bounded after the frightened bird, abandoning the two humans in the tree.
Anakin, like a true philosopher, answered Padm?'s question with one of his own. "Do you ever feel like the entire universe is taking one huge breath?"
Padm? shifted slightly, turning his question over in her head. "I guess you're a better philosopher than I am. You'd better explain."
"There's nothing really to explain, Padm?. That's just how I feel right now. Everything is stacked into a tower and it's all standing very still now."
"And taking a huge breath." She understood after all.
"Right. Everything's stacked up. And I think it's going to fall very soon."
"Because everything's so quiet, I guess. The whole galaxy is so peaceful, so still. That won't last forever; it can't. If the galaxy is taking a huge breath, it will have to let that breath out."
Padm? listened to this without blinking. "The tower has to fall, Ani. It's inevitable. I agree with you there. But why do you think it's going to fall now? Why not in ten years or a hundred or a thousand?"
Anakin shrugged. "There's just an electricity in the air. If you close your eyes and listen very hard, you can hear it crackling."
Both of them closed their eyes. The light breeze that had been blowing stopped in its tracks. Even the crickets fell silent.
The only thing Anakin could hear was Padm?'s breathing, soft and strangely distant. He realized with a start that he had been holding his own breath for a very long time. He exhaled and opened his eyes.
"The calm before the storm," Padm? whispered into the darkness. "It's beautiful."
The stars sat thoughtfully in the black sky. Anakin glared at them suddenly, angry that they refused to tell him why things had to be the way they were. The sky would fall down on him one day, the stars knew that, yet they still insisted on grinning at Anakin, refusing to help him.
"When the storm hits," Anakin said, "nothing will ever be the same again."
Padm? moved, searching for and finding his hand. She filled it with her own and gave it a squeeze. Suddenly, everything was all right.
"Don't worry," she whispered. "Some things never change." Then she kissed the top of Anakin's head.
Anakin stirred and sat back up on the branch. "The rincola's gone," he said. "What time is it?"
Padm? let go of his hand and rifled through the pockets of her cloak, looking for her chrono. Finally she located it, the chain gleaming faintly in the night.
Padm? answered Anakin's question by groaning. "Ten," she said.
"That's not so bad. The party doesn't start for another two hours."
"I should have been back at the palace hours ago! Do you have any idea how long it will take to get me into my costume?"
"Wear something else. Come on, let's go."
Anakin hopped down from the hido, searching warily for the rincola.
"I have nothing else to wear, certainly nothing that is simple enough to get into in half an hour."
"Why must you wear such ridiculous clothes?"
Padm? screwed up her face at Anakin, dismayed by his tactlessness. She jumped from the tree, executing a perfect landing by herself, in spite of the fact that Anakin had been perfectly prepared to catch her.
"I have to wear them. Tradition."
"Tradition is overrated."
"According to you, Ani, everything is overrated. Besides, you should not be ragging tradition. You are part of the Republic's oldest tradition."
"The Jedi, I see. All right, they aren't overrated. But masquerades certainly are."
The two friends started walking again. The ground had hardened as the night had cooled, making the going much less rough.
Padm? smiled at Anakin. She was annoyed with him, of course, but Padm? was also pleased that he was there to annoy her in the first place. It felt good to have friendly spats with someone.
"You're right," she said. "Masquerades are overrated. They are a stupid tradition."
"Ha!" cried Anakin triumphantly. "I win!"
"My friend, the Princess of Monako-her and her husband have the most awful masquerade tradition. They come in matching costumes." Just thinking about them made Padm? laugh out loud. "They do it every year. Last summer they came as Artesian wranglers. They had matching plastic blasters and these hilarious pointed hats."
A glowbug appeared, illuminating Anakin's face. His eyes glittered yellow in the odd lighting. He had some mischief planned.
I'm in for it now, Padm? thought. I've stuck an idea in his head and it won't come out until I agree to it.
"We could do that."
Padm? frowned. "Wear pointed hats?"
More glowbugs appeared, their plump bodies periodically bursting into yellow fireworks.
"Matching costumes," Anakin said. "I bet we could beat the Monakans at it. You and me."
They both laughed, giggling at the very thought of showing up at the upscale party. The Queen and the Jedi dressed ridiculously and dressed the same.
"Padm?, it's too good to pass up. You've got to do it."
He was right. She hated to admit it, but she agreed with him.
"If we ever get back to the palace, and, with our luck, we probably won't, I'll do it. You saved my life, so I owe you something. If it means participating in one of your dim-witted schemes, then so be it. Are you happy now, Ani?"
He gave her a bright yellow grin.
Jar Jar Binks, dressed in unusually fancy clothes, tumbled out of the woods, scattering the glowbugs. "Queen Amidoll! Wesa bean lookin for yous."
Anakin looked at the Gungan with wide eyes. "Jar Jar!"
Jar Jar gave Anakin a narrow look, sticking his nose out sharply. "Ani? ANI!" He gave Anakin a huge hug, spouting happy gibberish.
A few other Gungans came tottering into the clearing, watching Jar Jar amusedly.
"Jar Jar," Anakin asked from beneath the creature's skinny arms, "are we near the palace?"
Jar Jar let go of Anakin and smiled, revealing his white square teeth. "Yousa in the gardens, Ani. Wesa goin to da party as we spake."
"We are in the palace gardens, Jar Jar?"
The Gungan nodded. "Come with mesa. Wesa goin back now."
They began walking. Padm? slowly began to recognize the hedges and the trees. They really were in her garden. Theed Palace rose up out of the blackness in front of her, the arched windows glowing. She leaned over and linked arms with Anakin, who was busy catching up with Jar Jar.
"We were sitting in a tree -- lost -- in my backyard."
"Even better," Anakin whispered, "there's a rincola loose in your backyard."
Jar Jar continued talking, making a joke about a "boondercasa in zee kifu." Anakin laughed appreciatively. He really loved the Gungan; they were friends. Padm? smiled wide. Anakin was friends with all the world.
"Ani," she whispered.
"I know what we should dress up as for the masquerade."
She let go of his arm and slipped away, walking through a side door that a very peeved Panaka was holding open. "You'll see!" she cried.
Anakin, in a way, was looking forward to seeing the expression on Obi-Wan Kenobi's face when his wayward student appeared for his lessons nearly eight hours late. He knew it was very, very wrong for a padawan to actually take pleasure in aggravating his master. But Anakin couldn't help it.
He found Obi-Wan in his quarters, scratching at his beard as he pondered over the contents of a ledger entitled "The Dislocation of Emotions in Post-War Gromodans - A Study." Anakin stood in the doorway and began his "I'm about to confront my angry Master" fidgeting, picking at the dried muck on his cloak.
Obi-Wan was really lost in that Gromodan study; he didn't look up.
Anakin watched Obi-Wan, batting around the idea of sneaking off without saying a word to him. But Anakin didn't follow up on that idea. He suddenly realized how much he liked his Master.
He had always liked his Master. Obi-Wan was his friend. He had been the first friend Anakin had had at the Temple, and the only friend who he felt safe enough with to voice his fears about his mother and his training. And Obi-Wan had always listened to these fears.
Then, of course, he would remind Anakin that fear led to anger, which led...
But Obi-Wan was always there. Always sitting cross-legged on the floor meditating or studying something incomprehensible. Always giving Anakin that sharp look with his eyes or flashing his "I know what you've been up to, Padawan" smile. Always trying to teach him some new lightsaber parry. Always trying to figure out why Anakin could never meditate. Always being Obi-Wan and always being there.
Always scratching that infernal beard. Anakin had once commented that it looked like a womp rat had curled up and died on Obi-Wan's face. He couldn't remember what Obi-Wan's response to this forthright observation had been. Probably a jibe about Anakin's hair.
He really liked Obi-Wan.
"You had better get yourself cleaned up, Anakin. You look like the Swamp monster from Kiren Dash."
Obi-Wan didn't sound angry. The look on his face wasn't especially entertaining. Anakin was a bit disappointed.
Anakin marched off to the 'fresher, overcoming his initial disappointment and instead deciding that he really, really liked Obi-Wan.
Behind him, his master smiled his "I know what you've been up to, Padawan" smile and turned the page in his ledger.
Padm? entered her quarters, surrounded by her handmaidens and walking on air. The girls were bemoaning the fact there was no time to get the Queen into her elaborate costume. But Padm?, still reeling from her many adventures with Anakin, could not have cared less. Anakin's plan now dominated her thoughts and she found herself looking forward to performing her duties that night.
This seemed rather odd to Padm?. She had never really looked forward to any formal gatherings before. She had always felt out of place. adm? was, after all, only a solemn peasant girl with a sense of duty who had, through her many talents, ended up milling with high-and-mighties whose true calling was enjoying the good life. She felt much more at home negotiating, strategizing, and performing the other more serious tasks that monarchs perform.
She dreaded parties. Unlike her other obligations as the Queen of Naboo, she had never been trained for them.
But she was not dreading the masquerade. She couldn't understand why.
After Rab? was done groaning about the costume being a lost cause, Padm? quickly rifled off the small amount of items she would need for her new costume.
The handmaidens sighed in relief. They were glad their queen had found a solution to the recently discovered problem.
"My Ginta Day gown, do we still have it?" Padm? asked.
Sach? nodded and snatched the unwieldy dress from a nearby hanger, the gauzy stratums of white netting flapping about. Padm? took the expensive gown and, to the other girls' amazement, tore off layer after layer of gauze from the skirt.
"I'll need these," Padm? said.
Several of the girls gave the queen odd looks before fluttering off to find the other specified items for the new costume.
It was only after they had collected most of the necessary ma terials that Sab? realized what was going on. They were not making just one costume. They were making two.
And Sab? was pretty sure she knew who the queen was making the extra one for.
Once the girls were gone, Padm? washed up, amazed at how filthy
she was. She could not even remember a time in her life when she had been so coated with dirt, though living near the swamps meant that she must have flirted with a mud pile at least once during her childhood.
She laughed as she scrubbed at her hands. She didn't mind the dirt at all. In a way, she actually enjoyed it.
She mentally thanked Anakin for insisting on taking that boat ride.
Padm? stopped everything she was doing and stared at her own reflection in a gold-plated mirror.
That was it.
She had been trying to figure out why she was behaving so differently, why she was looking forward to a party, why she was trekking off across a forest without really noticing the mud, why she was ripping her clothes apart and why she was torturing ducks. Now
she knew the answer.
Padm? looked down at her newly cleaned hands. They were shaking.
She had met him in the garden this morning. Since then, he had managed to erase everything in her life that was neat and clean and certain. All he had to do was look at her with those amazing eyes and all her carefully stacked piles would come toppling down.
When she was standing knee deep in mud and Anakin was telling her that all was for the best, Padm? had realized something was wrong
She had been sinking in quicksand. She had been chased by a rincola. She had driven the Hydro-Logarithm 1650 off a waterfall. And Anakin had always been there to save her.
Anakin, Anakin, Anakin.
What a great name.
Padm? walked through her chambers barely seeing anything. A blinking yellow light drew her out of her musing. It was the holonote, a clever little device sitting near the door where visitors could jot down little messages to Padm? if she was not present. Someone had left her a note.
Padm? accessed the message, the refined curly handwriting popping out at her like a rincola jumping from the thicket.
She had forgotten about Bail.
It seems that Skywalker has kept you longer than you planned. I pray you haven't eloped with him yet, my dear.
I apologize for my rudeness earlier. Your love and respect for your friends is an admirably quality, a quality which your cold, heartless Bail is quite envious of. Henceforth, he swears that any friend of yours is a friend of his.
Yours, a reformed man who wishes to reserve the first dance of the night with his lady love
Rab? came in, a pile of pearl-colored fabric glistening in her arms.
"We haven't much time, your Highness."
Padm? looked at the white cloth, cringing as a familiar feeling of dread circulated through her body.
Padm? paced about her quarters, going over her options and using all the strategizing skills a sovereign could possibly muster. Rab? had been sent off on yet another apparel reconnaissance mission, this time to the guest room of the princess of Monako to beg for an extra costume. The handmaiden would be back in a moment, bringing with her a new dress for the queen, a dress that Padm? would have to wear that night if she wanted to dance with her fianc?e and not feel ashamed.
The matching costumes she had made for herself and Anakin sat on a nearby chair, neatly folded and rather dejected-looking. Padm? looked at them sadly, wishing that she could throw all her obligations to the wind and rush off in the glittering white clothing to meet Anakin.
He will probably be arriving shortly for his half of the costume, Padm? thought. Then she would have to look into his eyes and tell him that he was free to follow his half of the plan, but she would not follow hers. She was going to be on Bail Organa's arm tonight, not Anakin Skywalker's. He knew she was engaged; he wouldn't be upset. He would realize that this was the way things had to be.
Is this the way things had to be?
Padm? knelt by the matching costumes and smoothed out the wrinkles in hers, stretching out ephemeral wings clipped to the shoulders of the beaded silk. They were beautiful. Whatever Rab? ended up bringing back from Tia wouldn't be half as nice.
A soft knock sounded from the entryway.
"Rab??" Padm? called, getting to her feet.
"No, it's me."
Padm? shut her eyes very tightly and wished she could sprout a pair of her own wings and fly far away. "Anakin...come in."
She heard footsteps and then Anakin poked his head through the door to her room. He flicked a strand of hair away from his glowing face and smiled happily. "Hi."
She made her best attempt to smile back and failed rather miserably.
"I know why you're sad," Anakin declared and smiled a very successful smile at her.
"I don't think you do," Padm? said, looking anywhere but at him.
Anakin's smile faded. "Did something happen to the costumes?"
"No," Padm? said, gesturing towards the heap of white happiness sitting next to her. "They're right here."
Anakin's grin returned in full force. "Whoa..." He picked up his costume and played with the wings, transfixed with the color changes along the surface of the gauze. When he spoke his voice had the same reverential quiver it had had in the woods. "I thought - I thought you didn't believe..."
"I don't have to believe in the existence of a creature in order to make a costume of it."
Anakin extended the wings and flapped them affectionately. "So we're both going to be angels tonight. Brilliant, Padm?, absolutely brilliant." He looked at her, his azure eyes clear and intense. "But you're wasting your time. You don't have to dress up to look like an angel. You already ARE an angel."
"Please, Ani, don't say that. Don't say anything."
Anakin fell silent, absent-mindedly continuing to flap a wing.
Padm? forlornly studied the pattern on her slippers. "I can't do this with you."
"Why?" Anakin set his jaw, apparently trying to convince her by looking as determined as possible. She saw through it. She saw that he was beaten and he knew it all too well.
"You know why, Ani."
He nodded ever so slightly and violently shoved a wave of brown hair up his forehead.
Padm? tried her best to placate him. She stepped toward him and folded the wings of the angel costume. "You can wear that if you like. I want you to. But if you do, you must understand that you will be the only angel at the ball tonight."
He nodded again and put his costume under his arm.
"You sure Bail doesn't want this?" he asked.
"Bail wouldn't appreciate the joke."
"Ok. Well, I - I guess this is goodbye, then."
"I guess so."
He turned to leave, sighed, then suddenly turned back towards Padm? and grabbed her hand.
For a moment, she thought he was going to pull her away. Off into the main hanger where his white dragon was parked. Out into the star-laden skies, traveling faster than the blink of an eye. Going, going...
She didn't know where they would go.
It didn't really matter anyway, because Anakin had no intention of taking her away with him. Instead of pulling her along by the wrist, Anakin simply marveled at Padm?'s tiny hand and finally laid a kiss on her palm.
Anakin followed this slightly botched act of chivalry up by placing a placing something in Padm?'s hand and closing her fingers around it. "You'll need this, I think."
Padm? smiled, slightly bemused by the whole conversation. "What is it?" she asked. She tried to unclasp her hand, but Anakin wouldn't permit it, squeezing his own fingers around hers.
"You thought you lost it. You did. But I borrowed a speeder from Panaka and drove like mad to get it back."
He relinquished her hand and started for the door, his costume still tucked under his arm. "It was in the tide pool, like I said," he called over his shoulder, then exited her chamber without another word.
Padm? opened her hand, though she already knew what would be there. The gold ring, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, sat serenely in the center of her palm.
The prince had asked a famous Alderaanian craftsman to fashion it. The craftsman had sent some of his lackeys out to the Kranig Golden Sea to hunt for oysters. They had stayed out there for several days before bringing back the cream of the crop in pearls. The craftsman had fashioned it over a purple flame, goggles protecting his eyes from the brilliant sparks. Then he had given it to Bail and Bail had given it to her.
Anakin had jumped into a pond under a waterfall, groping about until he had found what he was looking for. Then he had brought it back to her, knowing he was going to receive another "I'm marrying somebody else" lecture when he returned. He had done it anyway.
Everything was clear to Padm? now. In a way, it always had been.
Rab? entered with the new costume, a frilly pink unidentifiable thing that Padm? ignored completely. She picked up her angel costume and lifted one evanescent wing, loving it with all her heart. Yes, everything was very clear now.
Padm? didn't put Bail's ring back on.
Obi-Wan called his Padawan's name as he slipped on his cloak, ready for the night's festivities.
"I'm coming!" Anakin called from the guest chambers, obviously annoyed by his master's insistence.
Obi-Wan realized that he was smiling rather idiotically, and quickly erased the expression from his face. Anakin was up to his old games -- disappearing for long stretches of time and then returning with a convoluted plan that he was determined to carry out -- and Obi-Wan couldn't help but feel thankful. They had spent the last few years stewing in the Temple, training extremely hard and, regretfully, ignoring the outside world entirely. Anakin had never actually complained about the seclusion, but Obi-Wan had become adept at observing the restlessness churning in Anakin's eyes.
Their mission on Naboo -- protecting a benevolent prince on a peaceful planet -- was bordering on absurd, but it was a chance for master and apprentice to see the galaxy and meet a few of its inhabitants.
Anakin had spent the day roaming the woods with Queen Amidala. That could be categorized as both seeing the galaxy and meeting people. Mission accomplished.
"What are you so happy about?" Anakin asked, entering into the hallway.
Anakin smiled brightly. "You're happy because of me?"
"That's right. What is this?"
Anakin frowned confusedly. Then he looked down at his clothing and understood.
Obi-Wan examined him for a moment. In the light from the hallway, his white tunic and slacks appeared to be glowing faintly, like a small star seen from thousands of light-years away. The strange pointed wings extending from his shoulders made Anakin seem unreal, like he was hanging on to existence by a thread and Obi-Wan would have to grab him to prevent the boy from disappearing entirely.
Obi-Wan tipped his head slightly, trying to shake off the unsettling idea. This was Anakin, his student, standing in front of him. He was really there, he existed, and he wasn't going anywhere.
"Isn't this wizard?" Anakin asked. He lifted one foot and spun himself around in a circle. "Look at these wings!"
"What is this?" Obi-Wan repeated.
"A Iegoan angel. Padm? made it for me. What do you think?" Anakin spun around again, his wings shifting elegantly behind him.
"Padm? made this for you?" Obi-wan asked. "The Queen?"
Anakin stopped spinning and nodded. "But you don't have to worry about her anymore, Master. We're not getting married."
"Seeing as she's engaged to someone else, I assumed you weren't."
Anakin nodded again, this time slightly less decidedly. "I've given up, I guess."
Obi-Wan put his hand on Anakin's shoulder, trying to remember what it was like to be young and broken-hearted. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault. Not entirely, anyway. But maybe...this is for the best."
"No," Obi-Wan said. "I'm sure it's not. I suppose this is probably just the way things should have worked out."
Anakin looked at him, eyes wide and sad. Obi-Wan was struck again with the sensation that he wasn't there at all.
He continued, storing the feeling away for later consideration. "Things hardly ever work out in the best way possible, Anakin, remember that. Our paths can be straight every now and then, but for the most part, they twist and curl in frustrating ways. We must trust the Force and learn that when things happen, good or bad, they happen because they should happen. They are supposed to happen."
Anakin said nothing.
"We had better go, Padawan."
Anakin looked down at the floor for a moment, his expression inscrutable. Obi-Wan tightened his grip on his student's shoulder, deciding that if Anakin disappeared, he would disappear as well.
"I won't disappear," Anakin said, shaking Obi-Wan's hand off and beginning his march down the corridor to the Grand Ballroom. "Not yet."
Obi-Wan watched him, silent and unhappy. Then he followed.
The hallways leading to the Grand Ballroom were dark and empty. The high curved ceilings and the gray columns were beautiful, Anakin thought, just as everything on Naboo was beautiful. But sometimes, even the most beautiful things seemed so cold and distant, so removed from the form they used to be in. This morning, the palace had been jaw-droppingly gorgeous, standing straight against time and war. Now it was beginning to remind Anakin Skywalker of a vacuous canyon, a place devoid of life and meaning.
Obi-Wan walked next to him, trying to lend Anakin as much support as he could. Anakin appreciated this, but it was only making him feel worse. This fiasco was Anakin's fault, all of it. Anakin had gone after the Queen; Anakin had almost gotten her into a heap of trouble. He hadn't listened to reason and he hadn't listened to himself. He had
Obi-Wan was trying to distract him from this fact, trying to distract himself from it. Over the past few minutes, Obi-Wan had invoked a few old masters, laughed at a few of his own nervous jokes, and had patted Anakin's shoulder sympathetically. He was probably doing the right thing, but his heart wasn't in it. Obi-Wan was trying to project an image of himself to his student, an image that said that Obi-Wan could help, Obi-Wan was not afraid. But Obi-Wan was afraid, and Anakin wished that he would just come out and say so.
A low hum floated down the empty hall, sprinkled with baritone laughs and high feminine shrieks. They were approaching the party.
Obi-Wan stopped Anakin for a moment, his face tight, obviously wishing to drive something home in Anakin's head before they entered the ballroom.
"Don't worry," he said. "Whatever happens, should happen. There isn't any other way."
His advice sunk into the space behind Anakin's eyes, sunk down into nothingness, ignored and alone.
The hum continued, not really growing any louder. Not until the two Jedi turned a corner. Then the noise hit them like a tidal wave, numbing their senses and driving away any apprehension.
Anakin shut his eyes, preparing himself.
A glassy bubble floated above his head, a violet fluid tumbling along its surface in delicate waves.
Anakin opened his eyes and gaped at the thousands of bubbles flying overhead, sheltering the shining heads of the masked guests. Countless sights and sounds hit him all at once, rendering any type of sensible observation useless.
Odd, it actually reminded him of meditation.
The bubble above Anakin's head dissolved, emitting a low musical note before fading into nothingness.
He was ready.
Anakin spotted Bail Organa on the other side of the ballroom. He was speaking with one of Padm?'s advisors, flashing his pearly-white teeth and slapping his companion on the back.
Anakin didn't resent him, really. Bail seemed to be a friendly person and he certainly was an excellent politician.
Did he deserve Padm??
Anakin hopped from one foot to the other, his wings following him uncertainly.
No one deserved Padm?. She was too good. Too good. Steady and strong, standing alone on the ruins of a Gungan Temple, revealing her true nature -- that was Padm?.
Bail noticed the two Jedi and waved them over. Obi-Wan turned to his apprentice, the expression on his face almost pleading. For a moment, Anakin thought his master was going to ask for his student's permission to talk to Bail.
Instead, Obi-Wan whispered, "Are you coming?"
"No," Anakin said. "I'm just going to stand right here." He planted his feet on the marble floor and stood very still, watching the party. Obi-Wan looked at him for a moment and Anakin didn't even have to read his thoughts to know he was worrying about the same things that he had been pondering outside their guest chambers.
"I'm just going to stand right here, Master." Anakin repeated. "Go away."
Obi-Wan nodded and let his student be.
The party was in full swing now. Translucent curtains of bubbles wafted over the dance floor, obscuring the guests, but somehow magnifying them as well. They were dressed to the nines. Women wore huge creations that made them look more like huge mountains of expensive cloth than like anything else. Men wore strange headpieces and colorful masks, their puffy sleeves (a Nubian tradition) ballooning out, ready to explode. Alien species wore even more alien costumes
On an elevated platform, three Killocks, their fine hair done up in fascinating vertical golden ringlets, played melodic tunes that they had written for the occasion on sets of ochre jacari flutes. The multi-colored bubbles spewed forth from the instruments popping on cue and creating fantastic music, which the guests obviously appreciated.
The entire room was teeming with exotic visions -- with frills and tassels and masks and jacari flutes and headdresses and enormous jewels and lots and lots of bubbles - so many visions that Anakin thought he might just pass out on the floor from sensory overload.
But he didn't pass out.
The blurry menagerie of sights and sound, the smeared mess of color and fabric, resolved itself into one white beacon of hope.
Anakin's eyes went very wide. His wings bobbed up and down for a moment, not quite sure what to do with themselves.
She was at the top of a stairwell, looking down at the proceedings. Her entrance had probably been announced somehow, but Anakin's head had been spinning too quickly to catch it.
Among the glitter and the ruffles, she shone.
He had never seen anything like it before. Never.
But Padm? Naberrie, Queen Amidala, stood at the top of the stairwell, and she shone. A part of Anakin's mind, a part that wasn't completely paralyzed, scanned her, recorded every detail of her clothes, the beads, the loose dark hair, the...the wings extending from her shoulder blades, waving a friendly greeting to him.
Anakin looked terribly stricken.
A thin strand of light hair fell in his face. He didn't try to get rid of it.
Her eyes flitted over the party, flipping and diving about the room like one of the many musical bubbles. Then those eyes -- so absolutely perfect -- found a place in the ballroom to rest on.
She looked at Anakin, her pale, more than a bit terrified expression mirroring his own. She kept her eyes on him, her gaze refusing to be diluted by mounds of silk, expensive hats, or by waves of liquidy bubbles.
She looked at him.
And he could do nothing but look back.
The party stopped as the guests noticed her. And noticed him. Without any organization, without a signal, the partygoers stopped dancing and started edging towards the walls. A channel appeared, leading from the foot of the staircase to Anakin Skywalker. The path was clear.
Padm? lifted her dress and started down the stairs, never taking her eyes off Anakin.
Without even realizing what he was doing, Anakin took a step forward. He couldn't even se the guests anymore. They seemed to have faded into the walls. If he focused hard he saw a faded image of Obi-Wan, his expression a mixture of wonder and horror. He could see Bail this way, too. He was, well, he was--
The image disintegrated as he neared the foot of the staircase. She was there to meet him. He wanted to say something, to ask her why she was doing this, to beg her to stop, to get down on his knees and thank her from the bottom of his heart, to shoot off some clever one-liner that would make her smile. But she smiled at him, and realized that everything had already been said. Just as he had known what to do when he was face to face with the starry sky, he knew what to do now. He smiled back.
Obi-Wan wasn't quite sure what to think. His padawan was leading a queen across a ballroom. His padawan was being gawked at by the galaxy's most powerful people. His padawan was...dancing?
Did Anakin know how to dance?
The dance floor cleared as the couple made their way out into the center of the room. Anakin and Padm? paused, both of them looking coolly at the music platform, waiting for the beautiful Killocks to start churning out more bubbles. The aliens shifted on their cushions uneasily, unsure of what to do. Their queen was dressed the same as this strange young man, and now they wanted to dance. Was this proper? Wasn't she a serious monarch involved in a serious relationship with another serious monarch?
Padm? held their gaze, calmly waiting for the music to begin, her dark eyes displaying her unshakeable belief that the music would have to begin, no matter who she chose to dance with. The incredulous whispers of the other guests bounced off of her, as if some impenetrable shield protected the young queen.
Anakin wasn't so sure of himself. He scanned the ballroom uneasily, stopping momentarily on Obi-Wan. He smiled at his Master apologetically. Obi-Wan nodded at him, acknowledging his apology and accepting it. Everything was happening because it should happen. He had said that and he believed it, even if things hadn't turned out the way he had expected them to.
The Killocks exchanged glances among themselves, trying not to look in Padm?'s direction. Then they started to play their jacaris, the lilac bubbles moving out over the crowd once again, swooping and spinning gleefully. The music started.
Padm? held out her small hand to Anakin, tilting her head forward in a slight bow. He echoed it.
The music was relatively quick and happy, just pleasant enough to invite the guests to join Anakin and Padm? on the dance floor. The Killocks were going for something bland and unromantic, something that would both please the Queen but wouldn't anger her board of advisors. It was a wise choice.
Anakin and Padm? began to dance, holding each other's hands and swinging about. Anakin, as Obi-Wan had suspected, didn't know how to dance. Not at all. But he was doing a pretty impressive job of pretending to know what he was doing, mimicking his partner's movements and laughing whenever he made a mistake.
The two looked spectacular together; there was no doubt of that. Their eyes were bright, they hair shone; light seemed to be surrounding them, illuminating the two dancers -- it seemed to be coming less from the silver chandeliers and more from the couple themselves.
Their wings followed their movements as well, but they, unlike Anakin, knew exactly what they were doing. They flickered and curled elegantly, unreal and dazzling as they swiped through walls of bubbles.
But it wasn't their physical appearance that captivated the party. There was an invisible force at work here, uniting the pair on the dance floor and somehow elevating them above all things mundane. Obi-Wan sensed something, some connection between Anakin and Padm?, an extra current of electricity that seemed to be growing stronger by the second.
Other intrepid couples ventured out across the marbled floor, linking arms and swaying to the lilting notes of the musical bubbles. Skirts billowed out and air rushed across the floor, sending bubbles on their merry and making soft tendrils of hair tremor.
Obi-Wan watched this, standing very straight with his hands behind his back. Next to him, Bail Organa slumped over and put his hands on his knees. He shook his head blandly.
"Oh, hell," Bail said.
Everything was moving very quickly, Padm? thought. The music spun, dresses whirled, the air flapped noisily in her ears. Her feet were moving so fast that she could no longer keep up with them; it felt like they had been disconnected from her body entirely and she was just watching them from above.
She had the odd feeling that she might fly away if this continued much longer, Her wings would extend, her slippers would hover above the floor for a moment, and then she would take off.
She tightened her grip on Anakin, hoping that he would anchor her to the floor.
He squeezed her hands in response, tilting his head towards her cheerfully. She felt her previous confusion dissipate a little bit.
"This is crazy," she said, more to herself than to Anakin.
His laughter vibrated across his arms and through her.
"Absolutely insane," Anakin agreed. "I mean, I'm - I'm dancing!"
Padm? smiled and moved closer to him, throwing one arm over his shoulder. Nearby, a rather large woman gasped at this scandalous gesture. Her headpiece shook like an excited bantha as she whispered to her bored husband about the queen's actions being "such an outrage" and how "a young woman should know how to behave herself these days, especially if she's a queen."
"Besides," the woman croaked, her face turning ferociously red, "I thought Queen Amidala was seeing that nice Organa fellow. The prince. A very nice man, don't you agree?"
"Yes, dear," her husband said.
"Who is she dancing with, anyway? That boy in the ridiculous costume! And that little braid! Great balls of Tibanna gas, does he think he's some sort of Jedi or something? Bah! Since when has impersonating a monk attracted women? The Queen is quite mad, don't
"Yes, dear," her husband said.
The woman shook her head incredulously. "My word!"
Padm? chose to ignore them, succeeding for the most part. Old frumpy women with moral systems that were impossible to abide by did not concern her, should not concern her. What she was doing tonight -- the actions that outraged some of her more close-minded guests -- meant more to her then looking respectable, than impressing these people. What she was doing now felt right, like a star was glowing in the core of her being, filling her with light and warmth and...rightness. Padm? tried to recall what she was like the day before, without the star inside of her -- when Anakin was still a little boy she had not seen in ten years and she was a monarch with a celebration to oversee -- but found herself quite unable to.
She knew that this was right. Let them whisper about it all they wanted.
She threw her other arm over Anakin's shoulder and looked deep into his eyes, losing herself in them, but finding him there, waiting for her. What a glorious feeling!
"You're doing well," she said.
"You think so?" he whispered.
Padm? nodded. "Dancing isn't so hard, once you get the hang of it. It's just a matter of letting yourself go. Of letting the music guide your steps and anticipating what your partner will do next."
"Not that different from lightsaber dueling." Anakin said.
Padm? laughed, and the odd light-headed feeling that had been plaguing her for the last few minutes completely disappeared. "Isn't the goal of lightsaber dueling to intimidate your opponent and ultimately kill him?"
Anakin wrapped his arms tightly around her waist and lifted Padm? above the ground, spinning her around. Her wings flapped happily, glad that they were finally getting a chance to be airborne.
"Your point?" Anakin asked, carefully replacing Padm? on the ground. "Isn't that the goal of dancing, as well?"
"I suppose so," Padm? said, slightly out of breath. "Certainly if you keep spinning me like that, I'll be meeting my maker much sooner than I expected."
"Wouldn't want that," Anakin said. Then he spun her again.
The Killocks slowly stopped exhaling as the music reached its crescendo. The flow of bubbles began to decrease; the musical notes became fainter. One bubble, a sleek golden sphere, floated high above the crowd, its filmy surface caressing the arched painted ceiling. Its hollow compatriots continued to dissolve, finishing off the measure.
Everyone stopped dancing, and craned their necks, observing the king of the bubbles. It made its way down from the ceiling, rejoining the party agreeably. It floated above dukes and duchesses and senators and journalists, ending its journey just over the elegant head of Queen Amidala. She reached up for it, extended one long finger, and popped the golden bubble.
The music stopped; the audience clapped. Anakin and Padm? exchanged a look and began maneuvering away from the dance floor, stopping when they had reached a less congested corner by the balcony doors. Anakin turned to her, his eyes shining with an intensity that meant he had something very important on his mind.
"People are angry at you for this, Padm?."
"You are a queen, first and foremost. Your people are what matters. I don't -- I don't want to be a problem."
"You're not a problem, Ani. You'll never be a problem, not even if you try."
"This does not hurt my people, Anakin. The people whose safety I am responsible for do not care about my personal life. They care about my leadership, my ability to protect them from harm, my compassion. That is what matters to them."
"The Naboo are terribly lucky to have you. If they can't see that--"
"They can see it. Don't let the reactions of these guests fool you."
Anakin nodded, his eyes growing wider and lighter. "I love you."
Padm? shut her eyes and watched her entire life up until this statement flash across her mind. It seemed so trivial, really. Three words that Anakin had actually already said to her earlier today. But now they meant so much more. These syllables, these noises, meant everything.
"Love," she whispered, trying to figure out what secret meaning lay beneath that word.
"Love never ends," Anakin said suddenly.
The secret meaning. Padm? opened her eyes. "Never?"
Anakin shook his head.
"What about infidelity, betrayal, divorce? Love ends there."
"That's not love. Not the real kind. That's just lust or misplaced affection or a bad mistake. Not love. Love sneaks up behind you just when you least expect it and whacks you on the head with a hydrospanner. The ringing stays in your ears forever, Padm?. Love
Padm? looked at him in wonder, not sure whether to laugh or...or do something completely unexpected. "You're a funny little boy," she whispered.
Half of Anakin's mouth peaked up in an almost-smile.
"I should talk to Bail," Padm? said. "Give him back his ring."
"Are you sure about this?"
She squeezed his arm. "Stop being so level-headed, Ani Skywalker. You've won, do you understand? You've won. Wait here, I'll be right back."
Padm? turned and started across the floor, ready for Bail.
Anakin watched her, watched her wings, his eyes glowing with the remains of his previous intensity and the beginnings of a profound happiness.
Padm? made her way across the ballroom, ignoring the stares from other couples heading out for the next dance. She knew where Bail was; out on the dance floor, even though she had tried to be blind to everything but Anakin, she had nonetheless been forever aware of Bail's every heartsick grimace. Padm? had made great pains to stop herself from feeling miserable, but as she neared Bail Organa, her guilt climbed up her throat and formed a sour lump behind her tongue.
Obi-Wan was making a grand effort to engage the prince, telling him a long tale about a series of bizarre adventures Obi-Wan and Anakin had had on Malastare. Bail was watching the dancing disconsolately, but as Padm? approached his gaze shifted to her. She was surprised by the fact that his face was not easy to read. His expression was completely blank - Bail's eyes were bright, but his strong, thin lips were pressed together hard, the tension quite visible in his jaws. She thought he might be trying to mask a very intense rage, but Padm? really couldn't be sure.
Obi-Wan broke away from his story when he noticed Bail was no longer listening, stopping midsentence. He focused his blue eyes on the Queen, making him the last person in the room who hadn't already done so.
Padm? stopped in front of Bail, her slender arms falling straight at her sides. Her wings spread out behind her, shining and thin. One dark strand of hair cut across her flushed cheek, swaying with every breath.
"I'm sorry," Padm? said, her voice quivering slightly. The impenetrable shield that had been guarding her throughout the party had dissolved.
Bail nodded. "Crazy world."
Bail shifted and looked past Padm?, out into the room. She turned, though she already knew what he was looking at.
Anakin was standing in the corner she had left him in, leaning against a column and meeting Bail's stare, his eyes large and round.
Padm? smiled mildly, the blush beginning to filter out of her face. "I know."
"You shall be happy then?" Bail asked.
"I hope so."
"Then I approve. My greatest wish has been for your happiness, my dear."
They both smiled and Padm? embraced him, her arms curving gracefully around Bail's square shoulders.
"And galactic peace." Bail said. "Your happiness and galactic peace."
"You're halfway there," Padm? said, her voice muffled by his collarbone.
"Excellent. But if Skywalker breaks your heart, I shall be after him with a hovercannon."
Padm? let go of him and laughed.
"Oh, Bail, thank you. I'm so very sorry."
"Don't be, Padm?. If we were married and you were miserable, I would feel far worse."
She nodded. "You're a good man."
"And you're a good woman. And I'm sure Skywalker-"
"-Anakin is a very good man as well." Bail winked and flashed her his brightest, whitest grin. He had recovered enough to seem like his old self. "And Obi-Wan here is an excellent man. Better than any of us." Bail turned towards the Jedi Knight, his eyes twinkling. "You should hear his joke about the Jedi Council, my dear girl. It's the funniest thing you will ever hear."
Obi-Wan smiled. "It is not very funny at all, Padm?. Bail is just easily amused."
Bail chortled merrily.
Padm? felt a mound of laughter welling up in her chest. Things weren't bad at all.
Obi-Wan tried his very best to rain on her parade. "No one here seems to be too kindly disposed towards your actions tonight, your Highness."
"I've noticed, Obi-Wan."
"Their reaction is nothing compared to what the Jedi Council-"
"-will do when they hear of this."
Padm? nodded, feeling very much like a small child being scolded. "I understand. What should I do?"
Obi-Wan shrugged. "I don't know. I suppose we could-"
"Be happy," Bail said rather suddenly. "Please, darling. There is nothing else for you to do. Just be happy."
Padm? exchanged a meaningful look with Obi-Wan. "Yes," Obi-Wan said. "I agree."
"The Supreme Chancellor is here, you know," Bail said. "He came in just before you made your grand entrance."
"What?" Padm? gasped. Chancellor Palpatine had witnessed the odd series of events that had taken place over the last hour in the Grand Ballroom? This information deeply disturbed the Queen. It was one thing to shock a bunch of shallow aristocrats, but it was quite another to make a fool of herself in front of the Supreme Chancellor of the Republic. Especially this Supreme Chancellor. Palpatine always caused Padm? to be on her highest guard, at her most poised. She always tried to act ten years older than she really was when she met the Supreme Chancellor. She was not sure why he caused such a strong reaction in her, but Padm? supposed she somehow, on some level, needed to remain at least one step ahead of the politician.
"The Supreme Chancellor is here?" she asked incredulously, hoping that Bail had been mistaken.
"Yes," Bail said, his gaze once again shifting to something behind Padm?. "And he appears to be getting along quite nicely with your beau, my dear."
Supreme Chancellor Palpatine shook the hand of a plump aristocrat with wide ugly features and ruddy cheeks. The aristocrat chattered on and on about a new Republic sanction that was interfering with the development of his rudderback pony ranch. Palpatine nodded sympathetically, told the man that he would look into the problem as soon as he could, smiled warmly, and happily thought that once his plans were truly in motion, these pitiful fools wouldn't know what hit them.
The aristocrat thanked Palpatine and the Chancellor moved off.
He was tired of this -- tired of being approached by mindless dignitaries, tired of being crowded in a room, bodies packed together so closely that it was hard to breathe, making the palace ballroom resemble a morgue during a violent epidemic.
Palpatine crossed his arms and watched the revelers, allowing just a little disdain to creep into his light blue, nearly transparent irises.
They were celebrating a futile victory, these pompous idiots.
They were laughing and dancing while their destruction was already upon them.
Palpatine took a glass of champagne from a nearby waiter and began sipping it blandly, counting the minutes until the party would end.
Then he saw Skywalker.
The boy was leaning against a column twenty-five meters away from the Chancellor, positioning himself at a strange angle so that he wouldn't crush a pair of costume wings attached to his back. He was swirling the contents of a wineglass dejectedly, every now and then throwing an uneasy glance off to the other side of the room.
Palpatine approached him quietly, almost sorry to disturb him.
"It must be hard."
Anakin turned sharply, jamming his wings into the marble column. "Chancellor Palpatine! I -- I'm sorry, I didn't hear you."
Palpatine smiled. "Dozing off, young Skywalker? I don't blame you. Only those with little sense and large amounts alcohol in their systems can enjoy functions such as this."
Anakin tried to smile, but his attention was quickly diverted by the fact that one of his wings had a rather large dent in it.
"I was saying that it must be hard to be able to stand here, at this party, knowing that these people disapprove of you so."
"Yes," Anakin said, "it is hard."
"You're very brave."
Anakin looked at Palpatine, his expression quite surprised. "You approve?"
"Of you and Queen Amidala?"
"I think that standing up for what you believe in is always the right thing to do. But my approval should not matter."
The boy smiled genuinely, obviously pleased by his answer. "You're right, Chancellor. Thank you."
Palpatine nodded and took a sip of his champagne.
Anakin continued, his eyes lighting up. "And these people have such little sense and so much alcohol in their systems that their approval would not matter anyway."
Both of them laughed. Palpatine knew, as they laughed, that everything would resolve itself just in the way he had foreseen.
"You certainly have been distinguishing yourself of late, Skywalker. I've heard about your piloting feat on Rondida. Those cretins had it coming"
"Thank you, sir, but the Rondians were just misguided."
"Misguided?" Palpatine frowned. "They revolted against Republic authority; they ousted their governor and killed several high-ranking officials."
"They wanted to be free," Anakin said. "If people think they are not free, they can do some pretty brutal things. The Rondians were confused, Chancellor. I didn't like what my Master and I were forced to do there."
Palpatine met Anakin's eyes, trying to mask his approval with a wave of sternness.
Anakin looked away, ashamed. "I'm sorry, sir. I got a little carried away..."
Palpatine nodded paternally. "I don't think Jedi are allowed to be 'carried away' by their emotions, young Skywalker."
"They're not. It's a weakness."
"Guard your weaknesses carefully, Skywalker. The future will be a trying time."
Anakin nodded. "Yes. Thank you, Chancellor. Good luck guarding your weaknesses."
"I wish the same for you, my friend. It has been a pleasure talking with you."
Palpatine began to walk away, then suddenly he turned back to Anakin and raised his champagne glass, a beatific smile on his face.
"To the Republic," the Chancellor said.
Anakin solemnly raised his glass and repeated, "To the Republic."
Palpatine nodded and turned to go. He found himself face to face with Queen Amidala, back to retrieve her dancing partner.
"I am honored that you have come," she told him, with a regal half-bow.
"A lovely party, your Highness," Palpatine said.
"Thank you, Chancellor, for everything you have done for our people. I cannot thank you enough."
"You are very welcome, your Majesty. And best of luck to you. I think that you are going to need it."
Queen Amidala nodded and whispered, "Thank you," once more.
Palpatine walked away, letting the two of them be, still smiling.
The party continued, bright and powerful. Palpatine no longer scoffed at it, though. His annoyance had been replaced by satisfaction and anticipation of all the things to come.
He watched Anakin and the Queen, dressed as Iegoan angels, talking quietly, ignoring everything around them. Palpatine let his guard drop for a moment, and a cruel smile spread across his face like a thick noxious liquid. He had just realized something quite humorous, a piece of irony that made his heart beat fitfully until his whole chest throbbed.
The woman who had made him Chancellor was in love with the man who would make him emperor. This opened up a whole new set of doors for Palpatine, all of which he would gladly walk through in order to get what he wanted.
And he would get what he wanted.
He observed his two chosen quietly, watching the love shining in their eyes, growing happier every second.
If the scene had been frozen at that moment, everything would be beautiful, almost perfect.
The guests were happy and docile, for the moment forgetting about their scandalous queen.
Obi-Wan Kenobi and Bail Organa were talking as friends, noble and strong.
Anakin Skywalker had his arm around Queen Amidala, holding her hand and resting his cheek on her hair. The queen was looking up at the bubbles congregating at the ceiling, her face shining and gorgeous. She turned and whispered something to Anakin, something Palpatine just managed to catch above the din.
"The calm before the storm," she whispered. "It's beautiful."
Above them, a low rumble echoed through the sky as the first shot of a galactic war was fired.
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