Obi-Wan halted in front of Mace and executed a short bow. Mace jerked his head for the younger Jedi to enter the transport. Obi-Wan leapt to the top of the shallow ramp and swung around the partition into the passenger hold. He jerked to a halt and scanned the faces of the six beings already seated. He spun and faced Mace as the dark-skinned Jedi Master came up behind him.
"What's going on, Mace? Gathering seven masters that have padawans on solo missions? Has something happened?" Obi-Wan crossed his arms.
"It's not what you're thinking, Obi-Wan. Sit down," Mace replied.
"What am I thinking? That using padawans as couriers was a nerf-brained scheme to begin with? Because it was. I allowed Anakin to go against my better judgment, and now he's paying the price for my lack of vision. I should have stood firm and refused." Obi-Wan glowered at Mace.
"Are you finished?" Mace asked. His voice lowered. "Sit down. Now." Obi-Wan sank into the nearest seat, still eyeing Mace skeptically. The Jedi Master said, "Thank you. I've gathered the seven of you to help with a mission here on Coruscant, since you are between missions, however briefly, with your padawans safely completing missions of their own." He gave Obi-Wan a pointed look.
As the transport lifted off and swiveled to begin merging into Coruscant's heavy traffic, chagrin welled up inside Obi-Wan. He muttered, "Thank you so much for allowing me to make a total fool of myself."
A smile curled one corner of Mace's mouth as a few snickers sounded behind Obi-Wan. "You're welcome. It's quite heartening, actually."
"Truly," Mace said. "It shows how attached you are to your padawan, Obi-Wan, and that kind of bond is always a pleasure to observe."
Obi-Wan cast the Jedi Master a dubious look and buried his hands in opposing sleeves as he shifted to stare out the transparisteel porthole at the blur of buildings and traffic flashing by.
Mace's voice droned through his mind. "A coalition of mid-rim planets is holding a trade conference here on Coruscant, trying to solidify their bonds so that none are tempted to join the separatists. They have been meeting all week. Three threats from an unknown extremist group have been intercepted by the security team assigned to the delegation. The most recent -- and most serious -- threat was received this morning, and coincided with a security breach that has yet to be rectified. Am I boring you, Obi-Wan?"
Continuing to look out the small window, Obi-Wan replied, "Not at all. They want us to join the security team and offer a little extra protection to this gaggle of senators."
"Senators and heads of state."
Obi-Wan nodded absently. A voice from behind him asked, "Where is the conference being held?"
"At the Bothan consulate," Mace said. "It's a large complex. To date, the team has been relying heavily on technology to keep the site secure. But since the breach this morning, it was thought prudent to assign a Jedi to each dignitary as an extra precaution."
"Eight dignitaries?" the voice asked.
"Ten. Two Jedi are already on site, assigned when the first threat was received."
Baby-sitting, thought Obi-Wan darkly. He immediately gave himself a mental shake and shunted his resentment aside. He'd been touchy ever since Anakin had left him six days ago to complete their mission on Anobis by himself. He had orchestrated a hasty end to the trade negotiations and had hastened back to Coruscant to find that Anakin still hadn't returned from Fondor, which was far too close to current Clone War hostilities for Obi-Wan's liking. His mind kept conjuring up images of the kind of trouble his padawan could get into -- and how fast he could get into it. He had tried to warn Mace against sending Anakin out alone, but the Jedi Master had just scoffed. 'Anakin acquitted himself admirably on Geonosis, and we're spread too thin not to use the older, reliable padawans in such cases. It's is a simple courier mission that poses no threat whatsoever. He can't possibly get into trouble.' Obi-Wan heaved an inner sigh. You have no idea, Mace. No idea at all.
Perhaps an easy assignment like this was just the thing to get his mind off Anakin. Setting his thoughts aside, Obi-Wan spent the rest of the ride centering himself in the Force.
The Bothan consulate was an imposing structure -- a series of stacked rectangular components with rounded corners and large windows that echoed the building's tiered design. The walls were almost iridescent and seemed to change color as the sun shifted; on a bright day such as this it gave the building a shimmering mirage effect. The Jedi transport pulled up alongside a broad boulevard fronting the main entrance, locked smoothly onto a docking clamp and the landing ramp lowered. The Jedi filed down the ramp and into the building.
The security team was awaiting the Jedi's arrival in a spacious atrium that soared upwards for three levels and was capped by a starburst skylight stretching out to each corner. Obi-Wan gave half of his attention to the briefing that the head of security had immediately launched into; the rest of his mind catalogued his surroundings. His full attention snapped to Mace as he began to hand out assignments. Mace ran down the list quickly. As he cited the location of each leader, the Jedi assigned to that being peeled away from the group and headed off to find his charge.
When only Mace, Obi-Wan and a Corellian Jedi remained, Mace paused. "The three remaining leaders are in the complex, but security isn't sure just where." Mace's gaze narrowed when Obi-Wan arched one brow. The younger Jedi thought it prudent to keep quiet and smoothed his features to blandness. Mace eyed him for a second, then continued, "Obi-Wan, you protected Senator Amidala recently. Any ideas where she might wander off to unattended?"
Obi-Wan's mind went as blank as his expression. Padm?, here? He chided himself. Why not here? Naboo was a Mid-Rim planet, and Padm? was fighting as hard as anyone to save the Republic. After a few seconds, Mace prodded, "Obi-Wan?" The Jedi blurted the first thing that came to mind. "Naboo is a lush green planet. Are there any gardens in the complex?" As soon as he said it, he knew the rightness of his thought.
The head of security said, "Yes. The main conservatory is on this floor. The far end of the east wing. But it's a good half kilometer from here."
"Any outside entrances nearby?" Mace asked. The security guard shook his head. Mace turned to Obi-Wan. "The senator is your responsibility, Obi-Wan. If anything happens in the meantime, get her out and get her back to the Temple any way you can."
"Why not the Senate? It's much closer."
"We have no idea who is behind these extremists. Everyone is suspect until we know more."
Obi-Wan silently added, And politicians are the most suspect of all beings. He didn't wait for any further instructions; he wheeled and headed toward the conservatory. A familiar feeling of dread shivered through his thoughts. He broke into a run. The wide corridor rang with the rapid reports of his heels slapping against stone. Something wasn't right. Why hadn't security cams spotted Padm? entering the conservatory? Unless they had been tampered with in this sector. Obi-Wan picked up his pace, sprinting toward the graceful stone archway that spanned the entrance to the gardens.
A thunderous blast cracked the air. The shockwave from the explosion slammed into the Jedi's back at the same second he lunged through the arch. The force picked Obi-Wan up and hurtled him through the air.
Tucked in the far corner of the sprawling indoor gardens, under the broad leaves of a massive caiblir tree, Padm? sat, trying to summon the energy for another day of hard bargaining. She was so weary of having to be polite -- especially with the Bothans who argued over every word. She started, mid-yawn, when an explosion rocked the bench on which she sat. She glanced up to see dust and debris rolling into the conservatory.
A brown ball catapulted ahead of the cloud, unfolding to become a cloaked figure. The easily distinguished silhouette of a Jedi Knight was swallowed by the bank of dust as soon as he touched down. A few seconds later the figure emerged from the dusty billows, striding directly toward Padm?. Her heart lurched. Anakin? She narrowed her eyes. No, but there was something familiar in that walk.
The Jedi wiped the ashen coating from his face with the sleeve of his cloak. Padm? stood and took a half step forward. Her eyes widened as the Jedi neared. Obi-Wan, here? She glanced over his shoulder, searching for his ever-present padawan. She stumbled backwards and sank back onto the bench. He was alone. Where was Anakin? She forced her tightly-intertwined fingers to relax and met his solemn gaze. She didn't notice she was holding her breath until he halted before her and bowed his head briefly.
"Senator, we have to get you out of here."
Fear flashed through Padm?'s thoughts. "It takes two to make a 'we', Master Kenobi. Where ..." She swallowed, forcing herself to calmness. "Where is Anakin? Don't tell me he's ... in that."
Padm? peered over the Jedi's shoulder. Flames were licking along the walls of the corridor in search of fuel. Sparks from severed electrical wires spat through the archway and peppered the mossy undergrowth near the entrance. Tendrils of fire blazed to life and began devouring the dry plant life. Their exit was blocked.
Panic reared up for a nanosecond. Surely Obi-Wan wasn't so much the Jedi that he would put rescuing her before his padawan's safety. Her breath caught when his eyes twitched, some indefinable emotion flashing through them, as if he had read her thoughts. She crossed her arms. "Where is he?"
Obi-Wan stared at Padm? for half a beat. He could sense the fire growing behind him; soon it would engulf the whole of the far wall. He was trying to rescue her and she was practically accusing him of leaving his padawan to burn. A far cry from the welcome she had offered him before Geonosis. Had she come to think so little of all Jedi, or just him? He clenched his jaw and looked away to hide his irritation.
The Jedi's brow was marred by a scowl. Padm?'s glare deepened, but the man didn't even seem to notice. He raised his hand and waved at the nearest window. The glass blew out of its frame. He pointed at every window in turn, glass shattering outwards each time. Fresh air rushed into the room, fueling the fire. The flames leapt higher. Smoke began to churn near the ceiling of the large room.
"Anakin is on a solo mission," Obi-Wan said as he pulled Padm? to her feet. "What are you wearing under this thing?"
"Get the dress off. It's too difficult to move in."
Padm? glanced down. The burgundy brocade with its gold trimmed bodice and wide skirt was extremely formal, but she'd been expecting to sit in negotiations, not flee from a fire. She had a mental image of the dress exploding in flames. She tugged ineffectually at the top; Obi-Wan grabbed the shoulders of the dress and yanked. Unexpected awareness sparked along her skin. The tearing sound hid Padm?'s gasp. She jerked away and kicked free of the material. The light grey bodysuit covered her from shoulder to knee. Before she could feel self-conscious, Obi-Wan's cloak settled over her shoulders. He fastened it under her chin and grabbed her wrist, dragging her toward one of the blown-out windows.
"As Jedi go, you are incredibly rude," Padm? muttered as she stumbled after the Jedi, managing to slip her free hand into one of the sleeves of the cloak. She coughed as smoke began to swirl downwards. Sweat tricked down her neck; fear seeped into her mind.
Obi-Wan couldn't believe what he was hearing. She wanted courtly manners when a fire was reaching out to engulf them. He lacked the patience to pander to ridiculous whims today. He lengthened his stride.
A cracking spun him around. A slender tree -- now a flaming torch -- began to fall towards them. Obi-Wan released Padm?'s wrist and flung his hand out, giving the tree a Force shove. It crashed onto the bench Padm? had been sitting on. Sparks billowed into the air. Obi-Wan coughed, grabbed Padm?'s hand and dashed towards the window.
Padm? gagged, desperate for fresh air. Obi-Wan pulled her onto the ledge and spun her so she was facing him. He clamped his hands on her shoulders and stared into her eyes with a dark, unfathomable gaze. Padm? froze. Her throat went dry. She had the sudden, shocking feeling he was going to kiss her. She couldn't tear her gaze from his.
Obi-Wan tugged at her wrists and moved her hands behind his neck; her fingers intertwined reflexively. He leaned forward so their noses almost touched. His arm snaked around her waist as his breath ghosted across her lips. "Hang on."
Clutching her close, he jumped.
Padm? shoved Obi-Wan. He stepped further back into the alley. She followed and struck out at his chest again.
Obi-Wan arched one brow. "For stripping that unsightly dress off you? I'm not the least bit sorry I did that." His response earned him a hard poke. He rubbed his chest and smothered a smile.
"Not for getting me out of the dress, you core dweller. For doing that to me." Padm? flung her arm out and pointed at the Bothan consulate.
Peering over her shoulder at the flames issuing out of the conservatory windows, Obi-Wan shrugged. "I'm not going to apologize for rescuing you, either."
"Look at that chasm you jumped, Obi-Wan. Weren't you the least bit concerned about how deep it is? You could have easily miscalculated."
The anger blackening Padm?'s eyes almost made him laugh out loud. She had spunk, he had to admit that much. Instead he blandly replied, "But I didn't." It wasn't very wide at all; an easy leap.
Her nostrils flared. She pursed her lips then said, "Your arrogance is astounding. Why couldn't we have used the line on your belt and just lowered ourselves a couple of levels and then re-entered the building on an undamaged floor?"
"Because your meeting is under attack by extremists who are likely in the building this very moment." A glint on the roof caught his eye. He pulled Padm? into the shadows as a blaster bolt bit into the ferrocrete.
"You have an answer for everything," she snapped. "I suppose you're going to say you weren't even thinking of kissing me."
Consternation furrowed his brow. "Kiss you? Why would I do that?" He paused. "Oh. On the ledge. I was trying to keep you focused on me, relaxed, so you didn't panic and throw us off balance. Could we continue this argument someplace where we aren't being shot at?"
Padm?'s scowl cleared. She blinked and glanced up at the consulate's roof, then at Obi-Wan, concern filling her brown eyes. Obi-Wan sighed in relief. He took her by the arm to lead her away. As he did so, he glanced over his shoulder at the building they'd just vacated. Another figure appeared on the rooftop. He could make out the being putting something to its face -- probably electro-binoculars. Obi-Wan narrowed his gaze. What were security shooting at them for? Another streak of red drove them further into the alley. Obi-Wan decided he didn't want to hang around and ask why.
They stuck to the alleys, with their deep shadows and narrow passages. Several blocks later, Obi-Wan called a halt. It could take a good week to get back to the Temple on foot. They needed a plan. Padm? crouched and leaned against the wall, not even bothering to ask Obi-Wan what he was up to. She looked lost in thought. The Jedi took quick stock. His distinctive Jedi garb made them highly visible. They needed a hideout, or a change of clothing. Obi-Wan smiled. Or both, he thought.
Pulling out his comlink, Obi-Wan flipped it open to find it was dead. The blast, he realized. Certain kinds of detonations emitted an electro-magnetic shockwave concurrent with the physical one that could knock out communications and power. It made sense that this kind of attack would use such a tactic.
Tucking the useless comlink away, Obi-Wan crept to the alley's opening to get his bearings and found he didn't recognize anything in the immediate area. Strolling onto a busy footbridge, he glanced both ways. One rail was crowded with beings talking and pointing toward the smoking consulate several blocks away. He blended into the group of curious onlookers and asked someone if the Senate had been attacked. The helpful pedestrian explained what building was burning and pointed out where the Senate building was relative to where they stood. Obi-Wan quietly thanked the woman and gave her mind a nudge through the Force, urging her to forget their encounter. He made his way back to the alley and found Padm? in the same spot he'd left her.
Squatting in front of the young woman, Obi-Wan asked, "Are you okay, Padm??"
"Do you think my attendants, my friends, are still alive?" she whispered.
Obi-Wan could see the flicker of fear in her gaze and knew she was thinking about the assassination attempt before Geonosis that had claimed seven lives, including her own decoy. His answer was emphatic. "Yes."
Padm?'s gaze flickered up to meet Obi-Wan's. "How can you be so sure?"
"I can't, but I can believe it to be so. We dare not go back and check. Mace told me to get you to the Temple if anything happened. Focus on that, Padm?. The other Jedi in the building will do everything in their power to make sure everyone is safe."
Obi-Wan kept his expression calm while Padm? studied it. She nodded and pushed away from the wall to stand, clutching the Jedi cloak. Obi-Wan led her to the end of the alley. He pulled up the hood to conceal Padm?'s features, and explained that they had to navigate short stretches of two main thoroughfares before they could return to the relative safety of dark alleys.
As they moved into the flow of foot traffic, Obi-Wan draped his arm across Padm?'s shoulder and drew her to his side. Though they both walked with heads down, Obi-Wan was alert to every movement around them. A faint floral perfume rose and filled Obi-Wan's senses. A corner of his mind registered the warmth of Padm?'s body and its slender frailty. The latter was illusion, he knew, but he still found himself driven by the desire to protect her. If only for Anakin's sake. The two had a close friendship: one from which Anakin seemed to draw much strength. Obi-Wan pulled Padm? closer and ushered her to their destination.
Fifteen minutes later, the pair stood in an alley, outside a weather beaten durasteel door that had once been painted blue, bits of paint still clinging here and there. The building sat on the corner of a busy intersection, not far from the Senate. In an eyeblink, a flood of memories swept through Obi-Wan's mind. The last time he'd been here was with Qui-Gon. It had been far too long. With a sad smile, he pulled the back door open and guided Padm? into a dim foyer.
The kitchen clatter of a busy restaurant echoed down the hall. Obi-Wan pointed Padm? to the side and up a narrow staircase. She hesitated at the top of the stairs, glancing over her shoulder at the Jedi. Obi-Wan nodded. Padm? palmed the door controls and stepped inside when the door retracted into the wall.
Obi-Wan followed and closed the door. The apartment was cheery. Here the blue was powdery and fresh, accented by light grey furniture and floral accents.
"Papa? Is that you?" A female voice called from a room to the left. "How many times have I told you to use the lift we had installed? Those stairs --" The woman broke off as she stepped into the room. She stared at the intruders with momentary alarm, then curiosity.
Obi-Wan smiled broadly as he took in Astri Oddo's rosy cheeks, dark eyes and riotous mass of matching dark curls. He noted her advanced pregnancy with a twinge of surprise and said, "Hello Astri."
"Obi-Wan?" Astri asked. Her face lit up. "Obi-Wan Kenobi! It is you." She planted her hands on her hips. "How dare you take so long to darken our doorway, you, you son of a Kowakian monkey-lizard."
Silent laughter jiggled Obi-Wan's shoulders. "I deserve a scolding, Astri, but it would be more effective if you weren't grinning like a Hutt." He quickly continued, "This is ... my friend, Padm?. And you've probably already guessed we have appeared on your threshold in need of help."
Padm? pulled back her hood and nodded at the older woman. Astri's gaze turned thoughtful as she glanced at Padm?, then Obi-Wan, then back to Padm?. Had she recognized the Senator from Naboo? Irritation rippled through the Jedi's mind when he looked into
Astri's shrewd eyes and realized she thought they were a couple.
Searching for a distraction, Obi-Wan asked after Astri's father. "How is Didi? Surely he must be retired by now."
A smile tugged at Astri's mouth. "Didi is still driving me crazy. He sits behind the till all day, greeting customers and telling me how to run my restaurant, though he's off visiting friends today."
"Well, you did keep the name of 'Didi's Restaurant', after all. Besides, I'm sure you blithely ignore everything he says." When Astri nodded, Obi-Wan added, "I hear from other Jedi that this place has become quite a trendy eatery. Very popular with senatorial aides and other up-and-comers."
Astri snorted. "Didi hates it. He far preferred the 'good old days' when riffraff and spicers were the majority of his clientele and half of them left without paying. He misses the intrigue, the buying and selling of information, and his old Jedi friends who used to drop by -- like Qui-Gon." She trailed off into thought for a few seconds. "Did I ever tell you how sorry I was about what happened?"
"Yes, you did, Astri," Obi-Wan replied gently. "You sent a very nice handwritten note with some red spicy-smelling sauce spilled on it. I still have it."
Sparing him a wry glance, Astri turned her attention to Padm?. "We're being rude. Please sit. Then Obi-Wan can explain why he's dragging you around Coruscant when you're clothed in little more than his cloak."
Obi-Wan cleared his throat. "That's just it, Astri. We need a change of clothing."
"Ah. Something not quite so ... Jedi, perhaps?"
Astri shook her head. "How do you manage to get yourself into these messes, Obi-Wan?"
"It's a rare talent," he muttered. When Padm? smothered a quiet snort, Obi-Wan nudged her in Astri's direction.
Astri just smiled serenely and said, "Make yourself comfortable. We might be a while. If you're interested, the holovid is set to the news. The controller is built into the arm of the chair." With that, the two women disappeared down a short hallway and into the room at the end, closing the door behind them.
Padm? stared in the mirror, amazed by the transformation. Deftly applied make-up had made her cheeks and nose appear thinner, and had pulled her eyes into shadow. Very dramatic. For a brief moment she felt like a holovid star preparing for a role in an espionage thriller. The fact that Dorm? remained in the consulate facing very real danger shunted that thought aside. While Padm? silently reviewed their options, Astri continued to regale her with memories of Obi-Wan as a teenager as she fastened Padm?'s hair into a simple bun at the base of her neck. The stories conjured a very different picture of the Jedi Master than Anakin tended to describe.
Their gazes met in the mirror, and Astri nodded. Padm? stood. The russet tunic and leggings were baggy, but serviceable. Slightly too long, Padm? had to roll up the sleeves and tuck the pant legs into her mid-calf high boots. Astri handed her a black sash to use as a belt. As Padm? fastened it, she followed Astri back into the lounge.
The Jedi was perched on the edge of the chair, intent on news coverage of the attack on the Bothan consulate. He didn't turn when Padm? halted directly behind the chair. She caught the older woman's gaze. "What do you think, Astri? Can you work your magic on Obi-Wan?" She feathered her fingers through the Jedi's hair where it curled over his collar, a teasing touch. "Perhaps you could cut the hair, and dye it black."
Padm? snatched her hand away when Obi-Wan spun, a frown furrowing his brow. "My hair is ..." His eyes widened and he stared at Padm?.
The silent gaping stretched over a long moment; discomfort began to swirl in the pit of Padm?'s stomach. "What?" she demanded.
Shaking his head, Obi-Wan said, "What did Astri do to you?"
Padm? smiled. "Isn't it amazing?"
"Amazing?" The frown returned. "Your hair is the same color as your clothing. It's almost orange. You look like, like ..."
"Like someone else? Wasn't that the general idea?" Padm? asked sweetly. "And now it's your turn."
Astri interrupted, "Obi-Wan, look. You're on the news."
All three turned their attention to the broadcast. A stern-looking female newscaster was saying, "... believed that the Jedi Knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi, used the cover of the attack to kidnap the Senator from Naboo, Padm? Amidala Naberrie." Padm?'s likeness appeared beside Obi-Wan's. He said, "What?", at the same moment Astri cried, "Senator?"
Padm? poked his shoulder. "Shh." She fought to reach beyond her shock and focus on what was being said.
"... is armed and extremely dangerous. Anyone spotting him, should not approach, but should contact planetary security immediately."
Sliding around the chair to sit on its arm, Padm? took Obi-Wan's hand and squeezed, seeking to comfort herself as much as him. "It's all some silly misunderstanding. We'll just call--" She broke off as Mace's face appeared behind the newscaster.
"Jedi Master Mace Windu was caught in the explosion. He has been transported back to the Temple for treatment. His condition is extremely critical and Temple healers refused to comment on whether he is expected to survive." Obi-Wan's face re-appeared. "This is just in: Coruscant Security is confirming that they have proof of Knight Kenobi's involvement in planning the attack on the consulate, though they are unsure as to whether there were any targets other than Senator Amidala. The other Jedi assigned to the summit, as well as most of the mid-rim leaders in attendance, are still missing. The Rodian Prime Minister, Jusna Toblic, is confirmed dead. The senator for Rodia --"
Padm? flicked off the holovid. Obi-Wan stared at the base of the holo projector, his eyes blinked rapidly, and she knew he was still processing what they'd heard.
"How could they implicate you in such a terrible act?" Astri asked.
Obi-Wan was silent. Padm? covered his hand and absently stroked his knuckles, something she often did with Anakin when he poured out his frustrations. Obi-Wan's gaze shifted to their hands, then flashed up to Padm?'s face. His eyes sparked with grim determination. A shudder ran down her spine and she released his hand -- he neither wanted nor needed comfort. He looks like he could slay phantoms. For a nanosecond, she almost felt sorry for whomever was foolish enough to pick Obi-Wan as their scapegoat.
"Do you remember the men on the roof?" Obi-Wan asked.
Padm? nodded. "They were shooting at us."
"They were dressed in C-Sec uniforms," Obi-Wan said.
"You don't think they really were security officers?" Astri asked.
Obi-Wan shook his head. "No. But they must have someone inside the force. Someone who could plant false information."
Padm?'s hands felt clammy. She wiped them on her pants as she stood. "Then we have to get you back to the Temple as quickly as possible. A taxi, maybe."
"I can call one." Astri levered herself to her feet and rubbed her lower back.
"No." Obi-Wan's tone was firm. "If they're announcing it on the news, that means they've issued a PWA."
"What's a PWA?" Padm? asked.
"Planet wide alert." Obi-Wan stood and met Padm?'s puzzled gaze. "It means that every public transport vehicle will have our picture, and every citizen using the transport system will have to thumb a scan pad as they get on board. We can do whatever we want to change our outward appearance, but by the time we get where we're going, security will be waiting. And I get the feeling they will shoot first and ask questions after, especially if there are squads of C-Sec officers on hand who are really terrorists that would love to see me take the blame for their deed."
"Can't I just open a link directly to the Temple?" Astri asked. "You could ask them to come and get you."
"The attackers will be monitoring all communications, hoping for that very thing."
"What about using the Force to contact someone?" Padm? suggested.
"If they're as thorough as I suspect they are, they'll be watching for any unusual movement at the Temple. And I can't risk the political fallout that could bombard the Jedi if there is even a whisper that the Order as a whole had anything to do with this attack. We've been under close scrutiny ever since it became public knowledge that the separatists are led by a former Jedi."
"So to protect themselves, the Jedi will cut you loose and just hope you can make it back on your own?" Padm? crossed her arms, frustration rising.
A hard edge crept into Obi-Wan's voice. "I'm the one doing the cutting here, Padm?. I'll not place the Order in an untenable position. Neither will I risk you. I think you should stay here with Astri until it's safe for someone to come and get you."
Padm? narrowed her eyes. "And where are you going?"
"Back to the Temple."
"Which is where Mace told you to take me. Isn't that what you told me on the way here? You aren't leaving me behind."
"I think it's safer if you stay here."
"If you leave without me, I will head straight for the consulate and give myself up to the nearest Coruscant Security officer."
Astri gasped. "You can't do that. It might be one of the attackers."
Padm? arched one brow and gave Obi-Wan a smug look. His expression turned deceptively blank. "Why are you being so ... unreasonable?"
Padm? just stared.
"Fine. Come with me." He crossed his arms and pinned her with a stony glare. "But you will do exactly as you're told, or I will let you turn yourself in."
"A hollow threat if I ever heard one," Padm? replied.
"Try me. The last thing I need is a --"
"A what, Obi-Wan? Wait. Let me guess. You don't want to have to worry about ... a sniveling politician slowing you down."
"Your description, not mine, Senator. Mace thought we should avoid the Senate, but maybe you should just return there on your own and claim you escaped my clutches. That ought to buy you a few choice newsvid interviews."
Padm? stiffened. "For your information, I do not snivel. And I'm not out to get my image on the news. If you're trying to get me angry so I'll stay behind, it's not going to work. Someone has to watch your back."
"If you're implying that I can't --"
Astri stepped between them. "Children. Enough bickering. You need to be getting on your way. My husband is somewhat taller and broader than you, Obi-Wan, so we should be able to find you something different to wear. And we do have to fix the hair so it's slightly more difficult to identify you."
Obi-Wan turned a puzzled face to Astri. "You have a husband?"
The woman patted her protruding stomach. "Don't they teach you the basics of reproduction at the Temple? Of course, I have a husband. He travels a lot, but he's around enough to make a difference. Unfortunately, he has our only vehicle, so I'll have to call a taxi to get to the Temple."
"Temple?" Obi-Wan said. "You aren't going to the Temple."
"Yes, I am. As soon as you leave. I'll return your things and let them know what you're planning. I just need a logical reason to go there -- someone's sure to ask."
Padm? suggested, "What about something to do with your pregnancy?"
"That's a wonderful idea. Is the healer who helped cure Didi all those years ago still working? What was her name?" Astri scanned Obi-Wan's face.
Padm? stepped beside Astri and looked to Obi-Wan expectantly. She watched his glance bounce between the two women and was sure she saw resignation flicker through those grey eyes.
"Winna di Yuni." Obi-Wan added, "And yes, she's still an active healer."
Padm? stifled a smirk. Astri said, "Perfect. I'm on my way to the Temple to consult with her about a complication that has arisen with my pregnancy. She'll recognize my name. No one would be suspicious of a woman in my delicate condition."
"You're about as delicate as a rock crusher, Astri," Obi-Wan replied with mock severity.
Padm? heard the affection in his voice and fought sudden surprise. That's silly, she told herself. Anakin can't possibly be the only Jedi who has feelings. Abruptly, Padm? turned away and moved to stare out a window while a chuckling Astri herded Obi-Wan into the bedroom. Padm? recalled the last time she had been together with Anakin. He chaffed under Obi-Wan's tutelage, claiming the man was an automaton, incapable of feeling, of understanding. But she could sense that something simmered under the normally serene surface of this Jedi. It was ... disturbing.
Did Obi-Wan suspect the truth of her and Anakin's relationship? Some of his actions had been so intimate, so ... unlike the Obi-Wan she thought she knew. It was almost like he was taunting her, daring her to tell him the truth. She had to remember to avoid his eyes. They saw too much.
Hair now black, slicked back and tied in the tiniest of ponytails. Beard darker. Tunic and leggings such a dark green they almost appeared black. The mandarin-styled tunic didn't look the slightest bit Jedi. Neither did the black sash at his waist. The lightsaber pressed against Obi-Wan's spine where it was tucked under the sash. Astri had offered to spray paint his brown boots, but he had declined. This was as good a transformation as they were going to get in less than twenty minutes.
Obi-Wan strode into the living room. Padm? turned from where she stood at the window and eyed him up and down. She said, "You should have done something to blacken the boots. They look out of place."
Astri shot him a triumphant look and Obi-Wan rolled his eyes. He stepped up to his old friend and clasped her shoulders, then gave her a brief hug, folding himself over her large abdomen. He laid his hand on Astri's stomach and gave her a stern look. "Take care of yourself, and of this little one." The baby chose that second to kick; Obi-Wan felt the nudge. He smiled and saw his reflection in Astri's eyes. He gave her another quick hug. "Thank you, Astri. Say hello to Didi for me."
"After you are safely home," Astri replied. "Didi couldn't keep a secret for all the cooking spices on Commenor."
Obi-Wan nodded and turned toward Padm?. He hesitated. She looked forlorn and brave at the same time. Guilt stabbed him. She might be a politician, but he couldn't imagine her sniveling. Exploding maybe. She struck him as a woman of strong convictions. Part of him did want her to come along so he could keep her under his protection; part of him desperately wanted her to stay behind. This was Coruscant -- a place where betrayal lurked in every other doorway.
Padm?'s gaze locked onto his and Obi-Wan found himself unable to look away. Her brown eyes were like deep pools, drawing him in. How many negotiations had been won with this hypnotic gaze? A throat cleared. Obi-Wan dropped his gaze to Padm?'s boots. His voice was gruff. "We'd better go."
Padm? slipped past him. Astri grabbed Obi-Wan's sleeve, her voice quiet, teasing. "Keep your eyes where they belong, Obi-Wan. And keep your little senator safe."
Obi-Wan whispered. "Don't jump to wrong conclusions, Astri. She is not, and never will be, my little senator. The only thing we have in common is my padawan." He silently added, I don't even like the woman.
Astri didn't understand. No one did. Not when it came to the unattached lifestyle of the Jedi. It was too costly to be romantically involved. It splintered your focus, sometimes led to madness and destruction, as it almost had with Qui-Gon. Besides, if he were free to be romantically inclined, it would be with someone who shared his ideals, not with someone as self-centered and shifty as a ... politician. Wouldn't that make Luminara laugh? At least it might make her smile. She had been so solemn and withdrawn since her padawan, Barriss, had been killed on Geonosis. He missed his friend's smile. Obi-Wan frowned, setting aside the distracting thoughts, as he followed after Padm?.
At the end of the alley they paused and Obi-Wan pointed out the public turbolift on the other side of a footbridge. He told Padm? that he'd be right behind her, and not to look back. Padm? nodded once, lifted her chin, and entered the river of pedestrians. Her orange-brown figure was easy to track, which bothered Obi-Wan a little. But she certainly didn't resemble the Senator from Naboo. And no one would associate a lone female with a kidnapping.
When Padm? was just stepping onto the bridge, Obi-Wan melted into the living current. He slouched a little, assuming a posture and gait that made it appear he was strolling, when, in fact, he was gaining on Padm?. He was a little more than a meter away from her when he paused to linger on the arching span. He peered into the chasm for a few seconds, watching her progress from the corner of his eye. She was nearing the turbolift, so Obi-Wan spun and headed in her direction, his stride loose.
A familiar blue uniform approached Padm? from the other direction. Obi-Wan held his breath until the C-Sec officer passed her, oblivious to her identity. When the Jedi met the officer, he stepped aside and inclined his head in greeting. The officer returned the gesture and continued on his way.
A small smile on his lips, Obi-Wan picked up his pace. Padm? was shaking her head to an offer to enter an already full lift. She crossed her arms and waited for the next lift, tapping her toe. The lift opened and she stepped on. Obi-Wan sprinted the last two meters and caught the door just before it closed. He smiled and shrugged at the beings on the lift, then wheeled and faced the front.
Padm?'s presence on his left registered acutely in his awareness. Obi-Wan stared at the indicator lights as the lift dropped to its next stop, where most of the beings spilled onto the street. He braced the door open for them, nodding to each one in turn. The next stop saw the remaining few beings exit.
Obi-Wan pressed the touch pad, sending the lift plummeting another seventy-five levels.
"Heading for the basement, are we?" Padm? whispered.
"You have no idea. We won't even be halfway to the ground."
The lift lurched to a halt and Obi-Wan exited, stepping over an oily puddle, then offering his hand to assist Padm?. She halted a step beyond the puddle and stared. The light was murky, with only a slash of blue high above hinting at sunshine. Inky shadows sprawled across the walkway with lazy menace. Carelessly strewn garbage added to the obstacle course looming before them. No breeze stirred, and noxious odors eddied in the wake of beings plowing to their destinations with heads down.
It never ceased to amaze Obi-Wan how densely populated Coruscant was, even at this level. When you lived your life in the heights, it was easy to forget anything or anyone lived below you. And those eking out an existence lower yet were all but forgotten.
Padm? wrinkled her nose. "It gets worse than this lower down?"
"Oh, yes. The lowest levels make this look like a stroll through some palace gardens," Obi-Wan replied as he grasped her elbow and propelled her forward. "We are no where near the underbelly of Coruscant. This is more like ... the armpit."
"Well it certainly smells like it."
"You'll get used to it."
"I doubt it. The whole place needs a good long shower."
"Did you notice that puddle back at the turbolift? That's the condition of the rain at this level. Believe me, you don't want a shower." Obi-Wan guided Padm? around a pile of rags that twitched and muttered.
A few minutes later, Padm? asked, "Aren't we rather conspicuous in these outfits?"
"Because they're neat and clean? Not to worry. You'd be surprised how many upper level denizens descend to these depths to get their thrills. Plenty of gambling dens and inns are ready to take their money and give them a walk on the wild side. But no matter how they're dressed, they're easy to spot. Just look for the ones who are visibly nervous."
"So you're telling me, whatever I do, don't act afraid."
"They smell fear down here. It seems to incite bloodlust."
Silence fell. Obi-Wan dropped his hand to the small of Padm?'s back to steer her around a haphazard pile of broken duracrates that was undoubtedly someone's home. Though she had tensed, he didn't remove the hand. They needed to appear as a 'couple' to anyone who happened to notice them. Heat from Padm?'s body pooled in his palm and coiled up his arm. Even with garishly orange hair, she really was far too pretty to ignore. Obi-Wan snatched his hand away.
Astri latched onto both sides of the open taxi door and hauled herself out. First her stomach disembarked, then the rest of her followed. She massaged her lower back with the knuckles of her right hand and reached back to snatch her tote bag off the seat with her left. The taxi zipped back into traffic before she could turn around to face the imposing main entrance of the Jedi Temple -- the only entrance non-residents were allowed to use.
Her awkward spread-legged gait would have marked her as a swoop rider, if not for her easily distinguished silhouette. As she lumbered across the plaza toward a gate flanked by two Jedi and two members of Coruscant Security, the baby pushed up against her ribs. Astri pushed back with her free hand. For the umpteenth time she reminded herself that in less than two weeks this little one would make his appearance and she would rediscover her feet as actual appendages and not swollen, aching lumps. The baby kicked her in the ribs, and Astri gasped. It couldn't happen soon enough.
A pained expression still etched her features as she halted before the security check. The Jedi seated at a computer terminal cast her a compassionate glance and asked her to state her name and business.
Here goes. "Astri Oddo. I have an appointment to see Healer Winna di Yuni." She patted her stomach while the Jedi squinted at the monitor.
"I'm sorry, Mistress Oddo. We have no such record."
Both C-Sec officers took a step forward.
"Please check again," Astri said. "I'm sure I have the right time."
A few seconds later, the Jedi shook his head and turned a mournful gaze to her. "Perhaps you have the wrong day."
The baby kicked again and Astri sagged against the desk, not even having to fake the pain, only having to let it show. "Could you please check with Healer di Yuni personally? I'm positive it was today."
The Jedi nodded quickly and opened a comlink channel. Astri could feel the assessing gaze of the other Jedi -- a Twilek -- and kept her gaze glued to the first fellow. A vaguely familiar voice that fairly bristled with energy burst forth from the speaker. "Winna di Yuni here."
"Winna, this is Knight Selanin at the main gate. We have ..."
"Astri Oddo," Astri supplied.
The Jedi nodded. "... Astri Oddo here who says she has an appointment with you, but we have no record of it."
A short pause and the voice loudly demanded, "What was the name again?"
"Astri Oddo," Knight Selanin repeated.
"Just a moment. Ah, yes. I've written it down, so she must be correct. An oversight on my part, I'm sure. Do you have someone there who could show her the way down?"
"I'll have Knight Branim escort her to turbolift E-12. Could you have a healer meet them there?"
"I have a moment. I'll meet Mistress Oddo myself."
"Very good." Knight Selanin signed off and gave Astri a kindly smile.
One of the officers stepped forward and waved a security wand in front of Astri and behind her, from head to toe. He nodded and motioned for her to pass through.
The elderly healer was waiting at the turbolift. Her eyes twinkled upon seeing Astri. She clasped both of Astri's hands and said, "My child. How good to see you again. Now let's go see how this pregnancy of yours is coming along." She dismissed the knight escorting Astri with an absent wave and ushered her onto the lift.
The ride down to the med-center was silent. When they stepped off the lift, Astri asked, "Is there a refresher nearby? This baby alternates between kicking my ribs and using my bladder as a punching bag. Right now it's doing the latter."
"This way." Winna di Yuni said with a smile. She led Astri through a waiting room and pointed down a short hallway.
When Astri returned, Winna was sitting down, waiting patiently. The soft lighting diminished her wrinkles, and Astri could see the lovely young woman Winna had once been. Her advanced age was countered by the peace radiating from her features, and she was still lovely. Winna patted the empty seat beside her and Astri eased herself into the chair, then sighed with the pleasure of being able to rest her feet.
"You are almost at full term. But I have the feeling your pregnancy is not the real reason you finagled your way into the Temple," Winna said.
"You don't mince words, do you?" Astri asked.
"When you reach my age, you no longer feel you have the time for such niceties." Winna paused and a shrewd look entered her green eyes. "I had to think quickly to recall your name. You're lucky I have almost perfect recall for such things. When I treated your father almost fourteen years ago, you and he were involved in a mission assigned to Qui-Gon Jinn. It was a small leap to realize you are here because of Obi-Wan Kenobi." She cocked one eyebrow and waited.
Astri felt at a loss for words, amazed by Winna's astute assessment and unsure where to begin. Finally she hefted her tote bag onto her lap, then held it out to Winna. The elderly healer took the bag and set it at her feet. Astri cleared her throat. "The bag contains Obi-Wan's things. His clothing, actually."
"I see," Winna said slowly. "And how did you come to have them in your possession?"
"Obi-Wan came to me for help earlier this afternoon. I gave him and Padm? -- I mean the senator -- a change of clothing."
Winna held up her hand for silence. "I don't think I'm the being that needs to hear this. But the one you should be telling is just down the hall." She grabbed the bag and stood up. "Come."
Reluctance pooled in her limbs, but Astri forced herself to follow the healer, albeit rather slowly. The familiar feeling of being in over her head swamped her. Why did she so often act without thinking things through? Winna opened a door and waited for Astri to pass through first. A sense of impending doom caused Astri to hesitate on the threshold. She took a deep breath and moved into the room.
The cluster of monitors, surrounding a single med-cot, drew Astri forward like a magnet. She halted by the bed rail and clutched it as she stared down at the tangle of tubes and monitor patches and respirator that almost rendered the being in the midst of it all unrecognizable. On the other side of the cot, a small female dressed in the light blue tunic of a healer, clutched the dark-skinned hand of her patient. She appeared to be deep in concentration.
"That's the Jedi Master hurt in the explosion," whispered Astri. "Master Windu. Will he live?"
"We are hopeful," Winna replied. "At first, only the constant Force connection of a healer kept him with us. There has been slight improvement. It isn't his bodily injuries, but rather his mind that isn't responding."
"Why did you bring me here?"
Winna touched Astri's shoulder and drew her attention away from the bed. "To speak with Master Yoda."
Astri's gaze fell on the diminutive Jedi Master who sat quietly in the corner. He peered at them with a vaguely detached curiosity. His shuttered eyes held a look that made him appear immeasurably old, and very sad. The urge to comfort him arose in Astri. She glanced at the Jedi fighting for his life on the med-cot and feared it was beyond her ability to do so.
Winna led Astri over to the master and sat her down beside him. Still Yoda said nothing. Astri wrung her hands and searched his face. She glanced at Winna, who only nodded. Astri closed her eyes for a second, then looked into Yoda's dull green eyes. "I have news of Obi-Wan."
The change was instantaneous. The winged ears perked up. The eyes widened and sparked with interest. Yoda said, "Trying to connect with him, I have been. Sense him, I cannot."
"Perhaps he's shielding himself for some reason, Master," Winna suggested.
Astri frowned. Shielding? What did that mean? She felt the intensity of the Jedi's gaze and set her curiosity aside. "I gave them clothing ..."
"Them?" Yoda interrupted.
"Obi-Wan had a young woman named Padm? with him. The news said she is a senator." Yoda nodded curtly. Astri rubbed her stomach absently as she continued, "I helped them both alter their appearances a bit. Hair dye. Change of clothes. Make-up. And I gave Obi-Wan some credits. Not a lot, just what I had on hand." She glanced at Winna, who smiled encouragingly, set her bag down at Yoda's feet and retreated to Master Windu's side. Astri said, "Obi-Wan's Jedi clothes are in the bag, but he still has his lightsaber. Did I ... Was I right to help them?"
"Mmmm. Wise, it was, that contact the Temple directly, Obi-Wan did not. Framing him, someone obviously is."
"Obi-Wan said that when he and, ah, Padm?, escaped the building, there were people dressed like Coruscant Security on the roof who shot at them."
Yoda pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. After a moment he said, "What they look like now, I need to know."
"Obi-Wan's hair is black and tied in a little ponytail. He's wearing dark green with a black belt. The ... the senator is dressed all in russet and her hair is, ah, close to the same color. Can you send Jedi to help them?"
"One, perhaps. Watching us closely, the security forces are. Know you, where they intend to go?"
Astri frowned. "Obi-Wan didn't say much. Only that he was heading back here. While I was doing his hair he mentioned traveling nearer the surface, but he didn't say how many levels down. I do know he plans on staying on foot for the time being." She paused. "I wish I could be of more help."
"Aided us much, you have. A good friend, you are. To Obi-Wan. To the Jedi."
"The Jedi saved my father once. And Obi-Wan saved me. How could I do nothing in return?"
Winna returned to stand beside Astri. "Mace is beginning to show marked improvement."
A quiet sigh escaped from Yoda. He gave Astri a small smile. "Tell Mace your news, I will. Help his recovery, it will."
"How can you possibly tell him ...? Oh. Can you do that through the Force?"
Yoda nodded. "Affect many things and touch many lives, a single act can. Thanks to you, also know where to look for the attackers, we now do. Owe you a debt, we do. Repay it, we will."
Astri pushed herself up out of the chair. "Just find Obi-Wan and get him home safely. That's all I ask." She looked to Winna, who merely smiled and led the way back to the turbolift.
The healer halted by the lift and held out a comlink. "This is programmed to connect directly with my personal link. If you need anything, or learn anything, just call. I'm sure no one is monitoring a mere healer's communications."
"Thank you." Impulsively, Astri gave Winna a quick hug. "And thank you for remembering me."
Astri stepped onto the turbolift and watched the rising indicator lights. She decided she had been watching too many b-grade holovids lately. Impending doom, my stars. She snorted. Utter foolishness.
It had been dark for some time in the middle reaches of the canyons of Coruscant, though the strip of sky high above was only now fading to black as twilight leeched away. Almost regretful that she had insisted on coming, Padm? needed no encouragement at all to stay close to Obi-Wan's side. She wished he hadn't withdrawn his touch as they negotiated this murky underworld -- it had been oddly comforting. After listening to Anakin for so many months, she never thought anything about Obi-Wan, other than his ruthless efficiency, could console her.
At times Padm? had felt sure eyes were watching them. Different times she'd thought she heard footsteps matching theirs. Once, a swoop had swung in close to the walkway and seemed to glide beside them for a few meters before swinging up and away, toward the higher traffic lanes.
The traffic at this level consisted almost exclusively of merchant transports and the odd swoop or personal speeder. Obi-Wan had pointed out how many warehouses existed down here. Warehouses and factories and taverns. Plenty of taverns. Padm? studied the one they were nearing at the moment.
The exterior was streaked with grime, so thick the two windows barely allowed any light to escape. Several dark growths seemed attached to the walls near the doorway. When one shifted, Padm? realized they were beings, most likely bi-pedal, but concealed so completely by voluminous cloaks that it was impossible to tell for sure.
Obi-Wan's hand slipped into Padm?'s grasp and squeezed. The sudden touch startled her, but she managed to keep it hidden. He headed for the tavern's entrance. Trepidation rose in her chest like two mynocks flapping and searching to escape confinement. What was he thinking? How could he even consider entering one of those criminal havens? She shuddered. Obi-Wan must have felt that, because he tightened his grip, sending her a silent warning. Padm? glanced up at the non-stop traffic that streaked between the buildings like a million falling stars. So far from all that light and movement, menace crowded around them with the thickening darkness. Maybe any kind of shelter was better than none. Rather than let her unease show, Padm? lowered her gaze.
The Jedi strode boldly between the entrance guardians, Padm? trailing in his wake. One of the cloaks uttered a muffled curse; another cloak answered with a rude comment about 'slumming'.
Inside, a wall of heat, thick with the odor of unwashed bodies, slammed into the pair. Pillars inset with yellow lighting dotted the large room, giving off a warm dingy light. Raucous laughter and loud exchanges bounced off the walls. Off to one side, a dome of silence hung over two sabaac tables. The players were hidden by rings of onlookers.
Obi-Wan and Padm? wended their way between crowded tables and serving droids toward a bar lining the back wall. Obi-Wan leaned against the bar and pulled Padm? against him, wrapping his arm snugly around her waist. She opened her mouth to protest, when it struck her he was silently telling any interested onlookers that she was off limits. Heat started to creep up her neck. She did not appreciate being treated like a possession. When she tried to squirm away, Obi-Wan just held her tighter. The feel of his powerful body, so different from Anakin's youthful form, was quickly imprinting itself in her memory. It was a contrast both fascinating and infuriating. Padm? gritted her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut for a second.
When she opened her eyes, the barkeep stood before them, bestowing a jaded, knowing look upon the both of them. The heat spread to Padm?'s cheeks.
Obi-Wan said, "Our transportation has broken down. Some distance away, I'm afraid, and we haven't come across a turbolift. Do you have any rooms to let?"
The barkeep rubbed his grizzled chin and eyed them up and down. "six hundred credits."
"That's skylane robbery," Obi-Wan commented.
"Hit the streets, stranger. Then you'll know what skylane robbery is."
Obi-Wan paused. "You have a point."
He retrieved a credit chip from a pocket hidden by his black sash and handed it over. The barkeep scanned it and handed it back. He jerked his head toward a shadowed staircase to his right and told them the room number, then slid an access disk across the counter. Obi-Wan picked it up and inclined his head in thanks. He pushed away from the bar and clasped Padm?'s hand, not releasing it until they stepped into the room.
Padm? surveyed the simple room. To the right was a small double bed. A single repulsor chair was tucked into the far corner beside a heavily-curtained window, just across from a built-in holovid projector. On the left, a narrow door led to a cramped refresher. A musty smell permeated the room, and several water stains marked the ceiling.
Biting back a comment about the stellar accommodations, Padm? turned to see Obi-Wan crouched down, fiddling with the door control panel. The casing dangled by a single fastener, revealing a tangle of wires.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Anakin showed me how to circumvent a door's locking mechanism."
"And that would be so ....?"
"So no one can unlock the door from the hallway."
Padm?'s tone was filled with false innocence. "What? You don't trust our neighbors?"
Obi-Wan shot her a scathing look. "Should I?"
Padm? sat on the edge of the bed. "You're behaving in a most un-Jedi-like manner this evening."
Stopping what he was doing, Obi-Wan pivoted. Still in a crouch, right knee on the floor, he rested his left forearm across his thigh and peered at Padm?. Even though she was higher than he, she got the distinct feeling he was looking down his nose at her. His voice was clipped. "Explain."
Suddenly uncomfortable, Padm? said, "I was kidding, Obi-Wan. You know -- trying to lighten the mood."
"You referred to something in particular. I'd like to know what."
Irritation pricked her mind. "Well for one thing, you made up that ridiculous story about a broken down transport, and I was always under the impression that Jedi didn't lie. Unlike us politicians."
"The transport that delivered me to the Bothan consulate was quite likely damaged in the explosion, so I told the truth -- from a certain point of view."
Padm? stared at Obi-Wan, incredulity momentarily blanking her mind.
"What else?" he prompted.
Giving her head a shake, Padm? said, "Well now you're tampering with the lock. Willfully destroying someone else's property."
"Are you looking for an argument? Something else must be bothering you if you're mentioning such petty things. I paid for this door three times over, and I don't care if I wreck the lock if it keeps you safe. Neither do you. So what's the real issue here?"
His abruptness left Padm? feeling rather taken aback. Here was the Jedi Master that Anakin complained about, and she didn't much appreciate being exposed to Obi-Wan's hard edge, almost as if he were made of the same sharp corners and unyielding materials as the rest of this city planet. She closed her eyes as the memory arose of standing at the bar downstairs, his iron grip holding her prisoner against his firm body. Her mind rebelled at the rudeness of his actions, but her body was another matter. Her traitor body. It angered her that the memory of his touch should affect her at all; it felt like a betrayal of Anakin and his love.
"Well?" Obi-Wan's quiet voice was demanding.
Padm? met his relentless regard. "You're different."
One eyebrow arched. "You can thank Astri for that." Obi-Wan fingered an errant lock of his own black hair while he eyed Padm?'s rusty tresses.
"I don't mean how you look. You are not the Obi-Wan I knew on Naboo. The one who was always worried about doing what was right. And you're not the ultra-polite Obi-Wan who was assigned to guard me all those months ago. You're ... harder somehow. I'm not sure I like it."
"Naboo was over ten years ago, Padm?. Should it surprise you that I've changed? I was amazingly naive, considering I was older than Anakin is now. I've seen enough of the way things are run in this republic to make the most trusting of souls cynical."
"The way things are run ..." Padm? pursed her lips. "By politicians, you mean."
Obi-Wan inclined his head, but said nothing.
"Is that where your enmity springs from?" Padm? raised both her eyebrows and tried to inject a light note into her voice. "Are you flirting with the Dark Side, Obi-Wan Kenobi? Hating politicians? Hating me because I am one?"
Obi-Wan snorted. He stood abruptly, his shadow falling across Padm?, the strength emanating from him suddenly feeling intimidating. His gaze caught hers, and Padm? felt like a womprat surrounded by a circling pack of swoop riders. The sound of her breathing seemed to fill the room.
"I don't hate you, Padm?. I refuse to hate anyone, no matter what their chosen profession. What are you afraid of, Padm??"
She glanced down at her hands tightly clasped in her lap. "I'm not afraid, I'm--" She broke off when his fingers gripped her chin and tilted her face back up. She blinked repeatedly, trying to escape his scrutiny.
Harshly, Obi-Wan said, "You're afraid of me. What kind of lies or half-truths has Anakin been feeding you?"
When Padm? couldn't think of an answer, he swooped across the room to stare out of a crack in the curtains. Padm? wanted to follow him; she couldn't find the strength to stand. Instead, she stared at that granite back and rigid stance. A gradual awareness stole over her, of the way the dark green tunic accentuated the breadth of his shoulders and his narrower hips, of the way the material clung to his muscled thighs. Her stomach flipped, yet she couldn't tear her gaze away. It was infuriating -- she didn't even like him.
Padm? squeezed her eyes shut, willing Anakin into her thoughts. His touch, his kiss. She wasn't afraid of Obi-Wan; she was afraid of this unwelcome and completely illogical notice her body was taking of his. As if she had suddenly realized that Obi-Wan was not just a Jedi Master, but also a man. She had to find a way to neutralize this inexplicable interest. She was a married woman.
A secretly married woman.
She's afraid of me. What has Anakin told her? Obi-Wan clenched and unclenched his jaw. He couldn't get his mind to accept that one simple idea and move on. He had a mission to accomplish; it shouldn't matter what Padme thought of him. But it did. Was he really so different from the youth he had been? She'd said he was harder. Of course he had to be hard, surely she must realize ...
A hand on his arm froze his thoughts. Obi-Wan held his breath. Padme made no move to turn him around or to stand beside him. Neither did she remove her hand. Awareness skittered up and down his arm.
From behind, Padm? said, "I need to understand you, Obi-Wan. I don't like hiding and I don't accept orders blindly. Please don't shut me out the way you always --"
"Shut Anakin out?" he rasped. He cleared his throat. After a moment he said, "I have been a Jedi all my life. Always expected to control my emotions. Anakin can't seem to grasp the importance of that, but I can't change it, not even for him." He frowned. Where had that come from? "If my harshness offends you, I apologize. You saw what we have to travel through. You know what we're up against."
"Yes, but I still don't understand why we even have to travel at this level. Wouldn't we make better time if we were higher up?
What drove you down here?"
"Coruscant Security." Padm? was silent, so Obi-Wan continued, "They don't venture down this far unless called to a major disturbance. They'll have all their informers notified to be on the lookout for us, but even then, there is a lag time, and some informants might not have even gotten the message yet. It buys us time."
"Okay. I can accept that. But why --"
"No." Obi-Wan spun and stared down at her. "Sometimes there is no why. I listen to that day in and day out from Anakin. He has to have a reason for everything. I told you from the start that I want simple obedience. I am following where I sense the Force leading. Let that be reason enough."
"I ..." Padm? sighed. "I'll try, Obi-Wan. But this whole situation is so frustrating. I just want to understand what's happening. I feel so ... powerless."
"And you think I don't? I was just about blown to bits this morning -- in an explosion intended to claim you as one of its victims. Do you have any idea how helpless that made me feel?" Padm? shook her head and puzzlement filled her eyes. His sudden frustration drained. "Contrary to what Anakin believes, Padm?, I do have feelings, and right now I'm feeling very protective of you, like this whole mess is my fault. I will do whatever it takes to keep you safe." He paused, wondering if he was frightening her even more.
"This is Coruscant. Softness has no place here."
Understanding seeped into her gaze. "And so you become a phantom slayer."
Obi-Wan's thoughts stumbled. "A what?"
"You heard me."
"Yes, but I don't have a clue what you're talking about."
Padm? pursed her lips and stepped back. "It was just a thought that occurred to me in Astri's apartment, about ... this side of you. The fearless Obi-Wan who can vanquish shadows. You don't know the meaning of defeat." She hesitated a second, then drew near again and laid her hand on his chest. Obi-Wan's heart hammered a solid beat under her palm.
Didn't know the meaning of defeat? Obi-Wan almost wanted to laugh. He had tasted so much defeat in training Anakin that he thought it must be oozing from his pores. His awareness of her touch grew. "What are you doing?" he whispered.
She met his gaze boldly. "Offering you my friendship, Obi-Wan. Yes, you frighten me when you are like this, but not enough to scare me off. I would ... be your friend if you would allow it."
Exactly what he didn't need. Complicate a mission with an emotional entanglement, even one as innocent as friendship. He was
walking a knife-edge of control as it was. Had been ever since the explosion -- more like, since Anakin had left him on Anobis. "I am not in the mood for games. You're friends with Anakin. Be happy with that. He would not approve of our doing something so drastic as ... liking each other." An odd look passed over Padm?'s features. Obi-Wan frowned. He had been trying to make a joke, lame as it might be. Anakin wouldn't dare attempt to dictate who Padm?'s friends were. Would he?
As if she had heard his thoughts, Padm? replied, "Anakin does not decide who I am friends with, Obi-Wan. I just thought it might make this journey easier, if we at least tried to ... like each other. I'm sorry you find the prospect so galling. It's not like I'm trying to, to charm you into bed with my wiles, political or otherwise."
A laugh burst free from Obi-Wan, taking his tension with it.
Padm? looked startled. She planted her hands on her hips. "What? Is finding me attractive so completely out of the realm of possibility that you would laugh?"
Obi-Wan hesitated. How had the discussion taken this turn? "No. I'm not blind to the fact that you're a beautiful woman, Padm?. You're just ... not my type."
Speculation entered Padm?'s gaze. "Not. Your. Type." She stepped close. Too close. "I didn't think Jedi were allowed to even think about such things. And what is your type, Master Kenobi?"
Obi-Wan stared at her forehead. "That is hardly your business, Senator."
"No, no, no. You are not going to stonewall this conversation, oh Jedi Master of Avoidance. I want to know what Obi-Wan Kenobi finds attractive in a woman."
"How did we even get on this topic? It's totally irrelevant to our current situation."
Irritation fringed Obi-Wan's thoughts. He drilled his gaze into hers. "And if I admitted that I wished you were my type, if I took you in my arms and kissed you passionately, would you drop the subject?"
Padm? swallowed. Her eyes grew larger. "Passionately? Y-you? You're kidding." She swallowed again. "Aren't you?"
"About which thing? About wanting you to be my type or about having a drop of passion in my veins?" Obi-Wan leaned closer, touching his nose to hers. "Why don't we try it and find out?"
With a sharp intake of breath, Padm? jumped back. "I, I don't think ... Anakin would ... I mean, you aren't ..." She spun away, her voice suddenly regal and clear. "This conversation is over."
A smile played around Obi-Wan's lips. It fell away when he replayed her words. What would Anakin do if he kissed Padm?? What did Anakin have to do with any of this, beyond his being Padm?'s friend? He needed to clear his mind. Padm? was muddling his ability to
"I'm going to step under the 'fresher. Call me if there is even a whisper of movement on the other side of the door."
Obi-Wan tossed his lightsaber on the bed, stalked to the refresher and locked the door behind him . He leaned against the counter and took several deep breaths. It wasn't helping. Confusion clung to his thoughts. He stared into the mirror, cataloguing the strain lines framing his mouth and fanning out from clouded grey eyes. He reached over and cranked the refresher controls. He quickly stripped and stepped under the tepid flow, sighing as the cool water sluiced over his body.
He couldn't shake the feeling that Padm? was hiding something. What bothered him most was not being able to figure out why it mattered.
Padm? turned the lightsaber over in her hands. She ran her fingers over the bold styling details and sighed. Am I crazy, taunting Obi-Wan about such a thing? Do I want him to find out? She dropped the weapon beside her on the bed.
She had never liked Anakin's insistence on secrecy, even when he promised it would only be for a short time. But the days had dragged into weeks, and it was obvious that the Jedi Master knew nothing about the true nature of her relationship with his Padawan. Relief warred with anger. Maybe she should just tell Obi-Wan. As soon as the thought surfaced, Padm? dismissed it. She couldn't betray Anakin in that manner -- he had faced so much betrayal in his life.
Betrayal. Padm? sighed again. Did Obi-Wan even know he was attractive to women? The combination of physical and mental strength was very ... appealing. How odd she had never noticed that before; she wished she hadn't noticed it now. He was usually ensconced behind a high Jedi wall of reserve. In one day she had seen more of the man who was Obi-Wan than she had ever even thought existed. It was a side of him that Anakin needed to see more often.
In an attempt to clear her mind, Padm? tilted her head and listened to the hiss of water coming from the refresher. She frowned and turned her attention to the outer door, but now that she was aware of the sound, she couldn't block it out. And with the sound, came the vivid image of what Obi-Wan looked like under the 'fresher's spray. Heat crept up her neck. This was getting ridiculous.
She sincerely hoped that trying to become Obi-Wan's friend would reduce this disturbing awareness of him.
Padm? tapped the controls embedded in the headboard and stared at the holovid that sprang to life across the room. Two political analysts were discussing the ramifications for Rodia of the death of that planet's leader. Padm? flicked through several other choices, settling on a sappy holovid she remembered watching as a child. She reached back to turn up the volume when she realized the hissing had stopped, so she settled down and tried to focus on the vid. Her imagination leapt repeatedly to the refresher. Obi-Wan stepping out of the 'fresher. Obi-Wan toweling off. Obi-Wan getting dressed.
With a groan, Padm? flopped onto her stomach and punched the pillow. She squeezed her eyes shut, relieved that it was Anakin who sprang to mind.
She must have dozed, exhaustion finally overcoming her. Padm? stirred restlessly and tried to come fully awake as hands tucked a blanket around her. Ani. She smiled. Groggily, she whispered, "Hold me."
"Shh. Go to sleep." Despite the gruffness, the low voice soothed her back into slumber.
Even pushed over to the bed so he could prop up his legs, the chair had been an uncomfortable place to sleep. It had almost been a relief when Padm? had started to thrash. Soft words had failed to comfort her, so Obi-Wan had stretched out beside her and had taken her in his arms. She had settled immediately, turning to him and snuggling against his chest with a small sigh. Afraid to move, lest he wake her, Obi-Wan had puzzled over her reaction. She was certainly used to sleeping with ... someone. He had refused to speculate, had refused to acknowledge the way her body molded against his, had focused instead on the Force, between them, around them, in them.
Obi-Wan had finally slept, only to be awakened almost immediately. A glance at the chrono on the base of the holovid projector told him it had barely been fifteen minutes since he'd closed his eyes. He only listened to the night sounds for a few seconds before the one that had woken him was repeated. Whispers in the hallway.
Without hesitation, Obi-Wan clamped his hand over Padm?'s mouth and shook her. A muffled cry heralded her return to wakefulness. He hushed her and told her they had to run. In the dark, her head nodded understanding behind his hand. He rolled from the bed, tucked his lightsaber under the sash, and pulled Padm? to her feet, then led her around the chair to the window. It opened easily.
The fetid night air seeped into the room. Behind them, quiet scraping told Obi-Wan an attempt to jimmy the lock was in progress. He knew stealth would be abandoned once they realized the mechanism had been tampered with.
"Time to jump again," Obi-Wan whispered. His declaration was met with a resigned sigh. Padm? didn't resist when he drew her against him. "Don't worry, we're just dropping to the street this time."
They stepped onto the window ledge together. Padm? gripped him around the waist. Obi-Wan lifted her off her feet and stepped into the air. They landed gently in a pool of darkness between two islands of dim light. When no alarm sounded, Obi-Wan took Padm?'s hand and began to run. He matched his pace to hers.
A half block later, an alley bisected the street, and they swung into it. Except for a slash of pale light marking where the next street was, they were surrounded by an almost impenetrable darkness. Obi-Wan sensed the being moving to block their path, even before its large silhouette obstructed the beckoning light. He urged Padm? to continue toward the next street and let go of her hand to charge the being. He leapt into the air, coming down feet first into the creature's chest. With a grunt, it staggered back a step. Obi-Wan landed, spun and launched his foot toward the being's face. His heel connected with a chin of some sort. A muted "Oof," was followed by the thud of a skull connecting with ferrocrete.
Padm? was almost to the street when Obi-Wan caught up and took her hand again. She squeezed it but kept her silence. They rounded the corner without slowing. Three blocks later they reduced their pace to a brisk walk and Obi-Wan released her hand.
"Who were they?" Padm? asked quietly. She pressed the heel of her palm against her ribs.
"No idea. Common thieves or terrorists or C-Sec -- I didn't want to wait around and ask."
"Do you think we lost them?"
"We have to assume not. If they were part of the terrorist group, they now know our general location and will soon have the area blanketed." Obi-Wan glanced skyward. Still dark. But in little more than an hour it would begin to lighten. He didn't want to be out in the open when that happened.
"So we need to vacate this sector quickly."
"Maybe we could hitch a ride."
"I'm sure C-Sec will be along shortly. They will gladly offer us a lift."
"Why wait?" Padm? pointed across the street, near the end of the block, where a transport was moored at a lighted loading bay. One figure maneuvered a grav sled onto the transport while another stacked crates on a second sled.
A smile tugged at Obi-Wan's mouth. While he had been casting his attention behind them, searching for signs of pursuit, Padm? had been scouting ahead for a way of escape. Impulsively, he reached up and touched her on the cheek. "Good job."
Hastily, they made their way over the nearest footbridge and doubled back to the warehouse. They waded into the shadows between the transport and the wall of the bay and listened to the idle chatter of the two laborers. It was soon apparent from the conversation that the loading was almost complete. Obi-Wan crept to the edge of the shadows, Padm? right behind him. While one worker boarded the transport to get the engines fired up, the other guided the grav sleds into a far corner.
Obi-Wan and Padm? slipped on board and hunkered down in a corner of the cargo hold behind some durocrates. Moments later the shadow of the second worker floated past them and the loading ramp raised, sealing shut with a clang.
As the transport lifted, the engine whined with effort, causing vibrations to skitter over the floor and through their heels. Padm? whispered, "Wasn't that a little too easy?"
"Unbelievable as it may be, things aren't always difficult."
"What happens if their destination is some freighter orbiting the planet?"
"Won't happen. This type of transport isn't even equipped for low orbit space travel."
"But we could end up anywhere on the planet?"
"What if they're delivering supplies to the Senate, or to Coruscant Security?"
"Space the thought, Senator."
Weak light filtered into the hold through a view panel set into the door. Padm?'s hair looked brown instead of that hideous shade of orange, and her eyes appeared to be fathomless black pits. Force, she was beautiful. And incredibly brave. Obi-Wan returned her round, earnest gaze with a calm look. She sighed and broke eye contact, then sidled over so they were side by side. A moment later, Padm? laid her head on his shoulder. Obi-Wan started to stiffen, but forced himself to stay relaxed. Many long minutes after that his own head sagged against hers.
The hypnotic murmur of the engine lured Obi-Wan into a shallow state of rest, on the edge between awake and asleep. He felt it when Padm? took his hand and brushed her thumb over the knuckles, but try as he might, he couldn't summon the energy to react. He decided all he really needed was a short snooze. The thought was barely complete when darkness descended.
Again, Padm? found herself running a finger over her cheek, reliving Obi-Wan's touch. Callused, but gentle. Strength under control. She loved Anakin's impulsiveness, but sometimes she wished ... No. She would not do this. She loved Anakin. Period.
Obi-Wan's head pressed against hers as he slept, trapping her head against his shoulder. An intimacy he wasn't even aware of. She couldn't move without waking him, something she was loathe to do. She was certain he had spent most of the night awake, guarding her.
When the vehicle slowed to a stop, hovered for a moment, then began backing up, Padm? elbowed Obi-Wan in the ribs. He jerked his head up and looked around sharply. Padm? moved her head in slow circles in attempt to loosen her stiff neck muscles. She didn't know how Obi-Wan could stay in one position for so long.
Padm? met the Jedi's quizzical gaze. He asked, "How long have I been asleep?"
She arched one eyebrow thoughtfully. "I'm not quite sure. A couple of hours."
"What?" Shock filled Obi-Wan's eyes. "Force, we could be halfway through the next quadrant."
"But we're not where they think we are."
Obi-Wan shot her an enigmatic glance.
They fell quiet as ringing footsteps sounded down the corridor. The door hissed open and a human in dark brown overalls stepped into the cargo hold. He halted. Padm? and Obi-Wan pressed themselves into the slim shadows. The worker turned and shouted, "How about grabbing a caf and some grub at Riggle's before we unload?" An affirmative reply spurred the worker back into motion. He wheeled and continued aft. Padm?'s breath escaped in a slow leak as the loading ramp lowered and settled with a dull thump.
When the other worker had passed by and all was quiet, Padm? asked, "What now?"
"We need to hole up and decide that."
"Maybe there's an empty office or other space in this warehouse where we could hide."
Obi-Wan nodded. "Let's find out. It must be early morning rush hour by now. I'd rather be out of sight until that's over. In fact, I'm not sure we should travel in daylight at all."
Obi-Wan stood up and started forward. He halted and looked back at Padm? with an expression approaching impatience. She tried to stand and winced as sharp bolts of pain shot up her spine. She held out her hand for assistance. Obi-Wan clasped it and pulled, so hard that she popped to her feet and stumbled against his chest. His hands steadied her. Their gazes locked.
Padm? lost herself in those misty blue-grey eyes, wondering if she could ever navigate through that fog to rediscover the man inside. She became acutely aware of the strength radiating out from his hands where they clamped onto her upper arms, and of the solidity of his chest only centimeters from her own as their lungs seemed to rise and fall in perfect unison. Her regard slipped downwards, to be arrested by the sight of his thin firm lips. He had threatened to kiss her. She licked her top lip.
Obi-Wan stepped back abruptly. Padm? almost gasped as cool air rushed against her, replacing Obi-Wan's warmth. As she followed the Jedi out of the ship, gaze glued to his heels, she struggled to push back the confusing rush of emotion and sensation that threatened to overwhelm her. She was not attracted to this fascinating and frustratingly reserved Jedi. She was married. Happily married to Anakin. His passion and adoration and youthful vigor were intoxicating. He would mature. He would --
Padm? failed to notice that Obi-Wan had stopped moving until she squished her forehead and nose against his spine. She hastily back-stepped and jerked her attention to her surroundings. They stood at the base of the transport's loading ramp, in the midst of a cavernous warehouse. A few piles of duracrates were scattered around the floor. Bright morning light streamed through a row of narrow windows set high in the back wall.
"Where are all the workers?" Padm? whispered, afraid to disturb the thick silence echoing through the almost empty building.
"Good question. We're obviously higher up, if the sunlight is anything to go by. Premium space not being used probably means we've stumbled into an illegal operation."
"But what about the company logos on the workers' clothing and on the transport? Everything looks so ... above board."
"Which only means this is a big and well-organized ... business. We'd better get out of sight." Obi-Wan pointed to a row of rooms built into the left wall. A stairway led to a catwalk ringing the warehouse and another set of doors, directly above the bottom ones. "Let's try upstairs."
Obi-Wan took the stairs two by two; Padm? was struck by his ability to be close to silent on a metal staircase. She ascended slower as she focused on keeping her footfalls quiet. By the time she reached the top Obi-Wan was halfway along the catwalk fronting the rooms, pausing at each door, then moving on. He motioned for her to hurry.
At the last door, he palmed the controls and the door retracted silently into the wall. He ushered Padm? inside, closing and locking the door. A skinny window in the corner let in a chunk of light that diffused through the room, making artificial light unnecessary.
Padm? scowled as she scanned the room. It was completely empty. Floor, ceiling and walls were padded with a slightly spongy blue material that she had never seen before. She reached out and poked a wall. It felt like the smooth padding on public transports -- just enough to ease your discomfort, but not enough to be truly comfortable. She turned to Obi-Wan with a puzzled frown.
He answered her unasked question. "It's called 'Unfiltrate' -- a material that listening devices can't penetrate. This must be a safe room. No sound gets in or out." He nodded toward the corner. "Even the window is sealed. I'd guess it's one-way glass."
"Then this might be a terrible place to take shelter, if we're in some criminal hide-out."
"There were no fingerprints on any of the last three doors, including this one. And dust on the catwalk suggested it hasn't been used in some time. We should be fine. Besides, these looked to be modular units, stacked one atop the other, so the downstairs rooms are probably identical. Criminals are generally lazy. They won't walk up the stairs if the same facilities are available on the ground floor."
"You seem to know an awful lot about this kind of setup."
"Criminal activity is increasing at an alarming rate across the whole galaxy, as you might have noticed. As Jedi, we make it our business to study our opponents."
Padm? leaned against the nearest wall and slid to the floor. After the metal floor of the transport, it was soft as a pillowy cushion. Obi-Wan eased to the floor to sit cross-legged, facing her. Padm?'s stomach rumbled and she looked away from the amusement breaking through his cloudy eyes.
She focused on tucking a rusty orange pant leg back inside her black boots and asked, "What now?"
"Now I find out where we are so we can figure out where to go. If we traveled as long as you said, we could be a month or more away from the Temple by foot. That might not be an option any longer."
"Couldn't we just ... borrow the transport?"
"And have another criminal organization after us? I'd rather not resort to that if we don't have to. Far better to ... borrow ... a private vehicle if we must. But if we're that far from the Temple, any theft would zero C-Sec in on us before we could get to safety. All Coruscant vehicles have registered transponders built into them that the Transport Commission can trace if need arises. They work very closely with C-Sec personnel to 'keep our sky and space lanes running safely and efficiently'."
One eyebrow quirked. "Does that conclude the advertising portion of this mis-adventure?"
His expression hardened. "I fail to see our predicament as something to joke about."
Padm? fought the desire to make a face at him. "So sorry. I forgot that you're the only one allowed to make snide comments during tense situations."
His eyes narrowed for half a second, then blandness stole over his features. For some reason, that only irked Padm? all the more.
She shifted her gaze to stare out the window. Her stomach growled again.
"What are you waiting for?" she snapped. "Shouldn't we get going?"
"Not we. I will head out as soon as that transport is unloaded and the workers are occupied somewhere other than the middle of the warehouse."
Padm? didn't answer. He was treating her like Alderaanian glasswork. Trying to leave her tucked away on a shelf when a dangerous task presented itself. He should know better than that after Geonosis. A wary silence stretched out between them, punctuated occasionally by a soft rumble from Padm?'s empty stomach. She steadfastly refused to meet his gaze as her thoughts raked over and over their current plight.
Eventually, she caught herself peering at the Jedi out of the corner of her eye. His eyes were closed; he appeared perfectly relaxed. She stared at the measured movement of his chest, the green material just snug enough to hint at the muscles it concealed. The rhythmic action was soothing; calm reasserted itself.
"They're gone." Obi-Wan's voice snapped her gaze up to his face. Heat flushed her cheeks, as if she'd been caught doing something wrong.
She shunted aside her embarrassment. "How do you know?"
"I've been monitoring them through the Force. So far as I can tell the whole building is empty."
"What about security cams?"
"They should be easy to circumvent." He rose smoothly. "I'll be as quick as I can."
Padm? scrambled to her feet. "No." He regarded her curiously. Padm? lifted her chin. "I've been thinking about it, and I should be the one to go out."
Crossing his arms, Obi-Wan replied, "Absolutely not."
Padm? took a calming breath. "Think about it. You don't look all that much different. Just your hair color, really. Whereas, even you admitted I look like a completely different person." His face looked carved from granite. Padm? continued, "Wildly different hair color. Make-up that alters my features. You know there aren't a handful of beings on this planet that would stand a chance of recognizing me. Not to mention the fact that a woman by herself would never be suspected of being a kidnap victim." When he still didn't answer, Padm? planted her hands on her hips. "Stop being unreasonable, Obi-Wan."
The Jedi replied, "I haven't said a thing."
"You didn't need to. Your expression is saying it all. You have to let me be the one to go."
"I have to do no such thing. You came along on the agreement that you would do as I said. My decision is final."
"Even when your decision puts us in more danger? That's completely illogical."
They stared at each other. Obi-Wan's eyes were dark and stormy, his stance subtly combative. Padm? refused to look away this time; she refused to be intimidated. Slowly furrows in his forehead deepened until he was glowering at her. Padm? felt her resolve beginning to crumble under that look.
Before her nerve gave way, she quickly took a step forward and forced boldness into her voice. "What is that look for? You know I'm right."
After a long moment, Obi-Wan replied, "But that doesn't mean I have to like it."
Padm? blinked her confusion away. Realization hit and a smile blossomed. "You're going to let me go." She launched herself at him and threw her arms around his neck, then jumped back just as quickly, brushing her hands on her pants. "I, I knew you would be reasonable. I just knew it."
Obi-Wan continued to frown. "This isn't a senatorial banquet I've just given you permission to attend, Padm?. We don't have any idea what could be waiting for us out there. And if that was C-Sec or the terrorists banging on our door last night, they could have gotten a description of you from the barkeep. I'm letting you go only because your argument is logical. Understand?"
Padm? nodded. Wordlessly, Obi-Wan turned to the door. He led the way down the stairs and across the warehouse floor to a side door between the bay door and a heavily shuttered and barred window, below the catwalk. The transport was gone, making the large space seem even more cavernous.
Glancing around, Padm? asked, "What about security cams?"
"While you're gone, I'll find the control panels and see if I can rig them, or at least erase anything incriminating. But I'll be waiting right here when you get back." He took her hand and turned it palm up, then tapped it. "Use that code when you return, so I don't think you're someone else and attack you." He didn't let go of her hand, but placed the credit chip in it and curled her fingers around it. "Hopefully there's enough credit remaining so you can bring us back something to eat. Don't risk anything just for food, though. Trust your instincts. If they're telling you to run, then get back here. I'd rather listen to your stomach growl than have something happen to you. Find out our location. Get some food if you can. Be as quick as you can."
Padm? gave a solemn nod. One corner of her mouth lifted. He almost sounded like Governor Bibble lecturing her before an important negotiating session. She couldn't resist teasing him. "And don't worry, I'll tell you all about the banquet and what everyone wore the second I get back."
Something dark and unreadable flashed through his eyes. A hint of menace dropped his voice. "You do that, Senator."
Padm? fled into the streets of Coruscant.
The open-air market was the same crowded noisy place it always was. Beings of all sorts and sizes jostled their way down the makeshift aisles between booths where sellers hawked any kind of food you could think of, and several you never would have dreamed of.
Astri made her way through the mob, struggling to make her rounds to her usual vendors. Mid-morning and it was promising to be a hot day. Astri's feet were already swollen, and to make matters worse, her lower back had been aching steadily ever since the discomfort had woken her in time to see the dawn. Not a stellar beginning to the day. She silently blamed the child nestled all snug and cozy in her abdomen. At least one of them was comfortable. Come to think of it, the babe hadn't kicked her all morning. Just several times through the night.
Astri sighed and wedged between two Grans to reach her favorite herb seller. While she was making her selections the sensation grew that she was being watched. It was the second time she'd felt like a gaze was boring into the back of her head. As the friendly Rodian behind the counter filled the little jars she'd brought with her choices, she tried to look around surreptitiously, but couldn't spot anything or anyone that seemed unusually interested in her.
With a shake of her head, Astri paid for her herbs and waddled back into the flow of beings, suddenly wanting nothing more than to go home and rest her throbbing feet. This pregnancy was playing havoc with her body, her emotions, and now, her imagination.
Leaving her remaining stops for another day, Astri gladly left the market behind.
The foot traffic was moderately busy in this sector. Padm? let the stream of beings carry her along while she got her bearings. There were several levels above this one, but the streets were open and filled with light. After her foray into the lower, or rather, middle reaches, of Coruscant, this was a welcome change.
The warehouse where Obi-Wan waited was situated in the middle of a kilometer-long block of warehouses. The intersection ahead was guarded by four restaurants, and a large flashing sign announced that the one on this corner was named "Rigg_e's". Not wanting to cross a footbridge if she didn't have to, Padm? figured she might as well drop in on the transport workers' choice of eateries. That decision made, Padm? strode forward purposefully, trying to recall her old dramatics teacher's words of advice.
The restaurant was dim after the glaring brightness outside, and made dimmer by the maroon colored walls. Padm? glanced at the smattering of patrons as she approached the counter to the left, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to her. As she stood willing the waiter scurrying around behind the counter to notice her, the smell of fried food assaulted her senses and made her insides clench uncomfortably. The waiter finally headed her way, just in time to be greeted with a growl from her stomach.
His lipless mouth curled in a cruel approximation of a smile. Grey skin stretched over prominent cheekbones as the smile widened while the being eyed Padm? up and down. She brushed at her wrinkled clothing and met his gaze with what she hoped was a brassy look.
"I need to know where I am," Padm? said.
Hairless brows arched. Light glinted off his bald scalp as the being leaned forward, elbows on the counter. In nasal tones, he asked, "Why wouldn't you know where you are?"
Padm? rolled her eyes as if having to explain something for the tenth time. "We were partying last night. You know how it goes. Hop from one place to the other to the other. I lost track. Woke up in a warehouse. Can you imagine that? I don't even know how I got there." Padm? sighed and primped her hair. "It must have been a great party."
The being snorted. "Or a great hit of glitterstim." He lisped the 's'. "Where are your party pals?"
"They just left me there. Can you imagine that? I got some really weird looks when I stumbled out of that office. And now I don't even know where I am, and I'm late for work. The director is going to go meteoric."
"Oh, you know, holovids. The afternoon vid-operas, actually. Do you watch 'As the Planets Collide'?"
The being shook his head.
"You should. A lot more males watch than will admit it, you know." Padm? wiggled her eyebrows subtly. "Our show is a lot more ... revealing than most." She leaned forward conspiratorially. "Tell me your name and I'll tell security to let you in to a recording session."
"So, Jove," Padm? whispered, "Be a friend. What are our co-ordinates?"
Jove rattled them off and Padm? beamed. "You are such a lifesaver, Jove. I'll find a way to repay you." She paused. "You wouldn't have any fresh fruit I could buy, do you? I have piles of allergies, you know. Can't eat hardly anything that's been cooked." She slid her credit chip across the counter and exaggerated a grimace. "I hope there's enough left on this chip to pay for it."
Jove took the credit from her and nodded. A minute later he returned with a bag containing a variety of fruits. "To eat on your way." He handed her the chip. "No charge."
Padm? batted her eyelashes. "Aren't you just the sweetest? I hope I see you at the studio. Real soon." She blew him a kiss, spun and headed for the exit.
A hand snagged Padm?'s wrist, stalling her at the table closest to the door. She swallowed the lump of fear and smiled down into a heavily jowled, ruddy-faced human sporting a white handlebar mustache. In a scratchy voice he asked, "You look mighty familiar. Do I know you?"
Padm? stared at him, her mind blank. She gave herself a shake and said, "Why, you must be one of my fans, darling." The grip loosened a little as a flicker of confusion entered the man's gaze. Padm? leaned down and pecked his cheek. "Thank you. Keep watching, okay? Every day, mind you." She pulled her hand free and flounced out of the restaurant.
Head down, Padm? hugged the building fronts as she scurried back toward the warehouse. Sweet Naboo, she'd been positively brazen. Her drama class would have applauded such a performance. She pulled a plump purple sarangi from the bag and bit in, desperately hoping it would calm her roiling stomach.
Padm? collided with a blue chest. Her head jerked up and she stared into the face of a young smooth-faced C-Sec officer. He frowned. "Are you all right, miss?"
"I-I'm fine, officer. Just ... just late for work."
He nodded and stepped aside. "Watch where you're going next time."
Padm? nodded. "Thank you."
Brushing past him, it was all Padm? could do not to break into a run.
The waiting was driving him crazy.
Setting up a loop in the security cam record banks so that all that was recorded was an empty warehouse had taken eight minutes. Waiting patiently by the door had lasted approximately three minutes. For seven minutes, Obi-Wan was occupied by the highly un-Jedi-like activity of pacing, until he schooled himself to stillness. That was ten minutes ago.
With every second that passed, he grew more certain he had made a grave error. How long could it possibly take to do two simple little things? Had she been identified? Captured? Was she, even now, in the hands of C-Sec? Or the terrorists? For the sixth time in two minutes he started to get up, determined to find her, risks be spaced. For the sixth time he urged himself to wait just a little longer and settled back on his heels.
Anakin would never forgive him if he let something happen to Padm?. Force, he wished she would hurry up.
Ninety seconds later a light 'tap, tap, tap, space, tap' sounded on the door. Obi-Wan remained kneeling, hands resting palms up on thighs, breath leaking out in a slow hiss. Padm? slipped into the warehouse before the door had fully retracted. She hit the auto-lock button, glanced around and approached Obi-Wan.
"Have you been sitting like this the whole time I was gone?"
"Five minutes." Obi-Wan peered at the door. "It should have only taken you five minutes."
"Oh? I didn't think it took me very long."
Padm?'s voice turned syrupy. "Were you worried? Isn't that sweet?"
Obi-Wan's glance bounced off her scornful expression. A muffled shout penetrated the durasteel door. Obi-Wan shot to his feet and grabbed Padm?'s wrist. He dragged her toward the staircase, up the stairs, down the catwalk and into the safe room without slowing or uttering a sound.
The door hissed shut as Obi-Wan wheeled to face Padm?. He regarded her with sudden bemusement, wondering why she appeared to be fuming. Obi-Wan finally found his voice. "Is something wrong? Did something happen out there?"
"You," Padm? spat. "You're what's wrong. What was that, that Trandoshan act all about? I felt like captured prey being dragged back to the hunter's lair."
Obi-Wan stared at her, confusion uppermost in his mind. "I wanted us to get out of sight."
"You didn't think I could do it," Padm? accused.
Obi-Wan's reply was tentative. "Okay, I admit I was a little worried. Is that a crime?"
"Yes." Obi-Wan jerked his head back a centimeter and frowned. Padm? said, "When you treat me like a criminal, almost yanking my arm from its socket and hauling me to my padded cell, then yes, it is a crime. Contrary to your belief, I am neither fragile nor helpless."
"My belief? I think you are highly capable, if a little impulsive. It's Anakin who's always talking like you're this incredibly fragile --"
Padm? slapped his face. "Leave Anakin out of this."
Obi-Wan eyed her ruefully for a moment. He rubbed his cheek. What had that been for? Finally, speaking softly, he said, "How can I leave Anakin out of anything? Concern for him, for his future as a Jedi, fills my moments and days. And he is apparently the only thing we have in common ... Senator."
Uncertainty flickered through her eyes. "That's ... that's ridiculous. You just don't want to admit that you might have the same basic beliefs as a lowly politician. Where exactly do we rate in your scheme of things, Obi-Wan? Somewhere below nerf herders?"
Crossing his arms, Obi-Wan raised one eyebrow. "Nerf herders make an honest living."
"Oh!" Padm? flung her arms wide. "So we're lumped in with the criminals and other lowlifes, is that it? You obnoxious, elitist ... Jedi! You think we spend our days in endless committee meetings, coming up with new ways to fleece the public and grow fat on the proceeds while the noble Jedi are toiling ceaselessly, sacrificing their lives, for peace and justice. You think that no mere politician could possibly desire such lofty goals, scum that we are. Have you ever, ever met a politician you liked, Jedi Kenobi?"
Obi-Wan blinked. Obnoxious? Elitist? He ignored the unsettling feeling such charges awoke. "Of course I've met individuals who seemed pleasant enough. I've had a few dealings with Bail Organa and he strikes me as very earnest. Finis Valorum is a good man -- Qui-Gon considered him a friend. But look where being a good man got him in politics."
"It placed him in the highest position in the Senate." Padme paused and her eyes narrowed. "That comment was aimed at me, wasn't it? The person who called for a vote of non confidence against Chancellor Valorum." She peered toward the window. Her voice dropped. "I don't think I'll ever forget his face -- the look of despair -- in the seconds after I made the call. I regretted my rashness, but ... I had to do something. My people were dying." She sighed. "Valorum was a good man. I deserve your scorn."
Obi-Wan stole to her side and laid a hand on her shoulder, relieved that her anger had drained away. "You were young. Sometimes I get the feeling that everything that happened around that blockade was carefully planned. That all of our reactions were anticipated and even manipulated. Except your decision to seek out the Gungans. Qui-Gon and I were both amazed by that one, and the way it turned out, whoever was behind everything was likely equally surprised."
"You called me impulsive."
"Yes. Anakin told me it was your decision to wing to Geonosis to rescue me, without a clue about what you were walking into. You and Anakin are alike in that -- and are both involved in careers where impulsiveness is anathema. One of the reasons you like each other, I suspect."
She jerked away. "I told you to leave him out of this. I tire of listening to you decry him. I wonder why you even bother continuing to train him if you think so little of him."
"I happen to like Anakin. But I'm not blind to his faults."
"Meaning I am." She crossed her arms, her body stiff and unyielding. "What about your faults, Obi-Wan? Your arrogance is apparently limitless. First you treat me like an errant child --"
Padm? turned and stared. "You're sorry?"
"Yes. I behaved in an unseemly manner. I couldn't stop from worrying about Anakin's reaction if anything should happen to you. He values your friendship above ... almost anything, I think." He halted and held up his hand. "I have no desire to be slapped again. I will cease speaking rather than offend you further." He sank into a cross-legged position and rested his hands on his knees.
Padm? glared down at him. "That's it? You're just going to stop talking? You're just going to shut down like some droid? You are ... insufferable. You don't give me the satisfaction of reacting to my anger. You don't even flinch when I slap you. I think Anakin's right -- you are incapable of emotion. An automaton." She stomped her foot, an exclamation point to her tirade. A moment later, her voice flat, she said, "While you're not talking, I hope you take the time to decide what our next move will be."
Obi-Wan closed his eyes, seeking his center of calm. He heard the annoyance in Padm?'s huff, heard her move to the other side of the room. Her verbal attacks were hurtful, but understandable, perhaps. She was under a lot of stress and he was the only target she had. But her touchiness over Anakin baffled Obi-Wan. Had the two of them argued? Anakin hadn't seemed out of sorts the last time Obi-Wan had seen him, but perhaps they had been in touch since then.
Maybe he needed to reconsider Padm?'s offer of friendship, if only to learn what was bothering her. She really was reasonably likable, apart from her profession. He, on the other hand, was insufferable and obnoxious. It was unlikely the offer still stood.
Yet another sigh escaped her lips. Padm? stretched out on the cushioned floor and determined to try and sleep. It was better than enduring more taut and uncomfortable silence. What made it worse was the knowledge that Obi-Wan didn't share her tension. He sat unmoving, serene in appearance. It was most irritating.
The only verbal exchanges they'd had since he had retreated into himself were a whispered foray to the refresher and Obi-Wan asking, and her telling, the location coordinates. Hearing them, Obi-Wan had immediately sunk back into thoughtfulness.
She still couldn't believe she had slapped him.
But he was so infuriating sometimes she wanted to scream. At least she was in the right room for it; no one would hear a thing. How could Anakin put up with this kind of lengthening silence? As a politician, words were her stock in trade. Obi-Wan had taken control of the situation by refusing to speak -- she was supposed to be the one making those choices, deciding when to talk, or not talk.
Halting her thoughts, Padm? sighed. Sweet Naboo, now she was starting to sound like a sniveling politician. Maybe this imposed silence was a gift. Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a sniveling politician, than to open it and remove all doubt.
Why should she care what Obi-Wan Kenobi thought of her? He disdained her career. He rejected her offer of friendship. Maybe he had no need of hers or anyone else's. How could you live like that without becoming an automaton?
But isn't that what Anakin claimed Obi-Wan was at times? Still, how could she have said it to his face? What had he thought of her outburst? She regretted it, but wasn't quite sure how to tell him. She was off to a fine start in trying to win his friendship. The only good thing her anger had accomplished was to drive her physical notice of the Jedi into hiding.
Padm? closed her eyes and tried to empty her mind of any thoughts. Her efforts met with little success. Sleep, she decided, could be a long time coming. She wasn't sure what Obi-Wan was planning for their next move, but she hoped it happened soon.
The waiting was driving her crazy.
Daylight was seeping from the sky. Astri stood at the window of her bedroom and stared unseeing at the streams of traffic flowing by. She massaged her lower back as best she could. Nothing she had done through the course of the day had helped to ease the ache. The pain left her feeling distracted and restless. She hadn't even bothered to check in at the restaurant; she trusted her head cook to keep things running smoothly.
Astri drifted over to stand before her full-length mirror. She stood sideways and ran her hands over her bulging stomach, then rolled her tunic up and splayed her fingers over skin stretched so tight, it was ready to split open. She inhaled as deeply as she could -- which wasn't very deep at all -- and watched her stomach rise. Air hissed from her lungs. This baby couldn't be born soon enough to suit her. How was she going to endure two more weeks?
The waiting was driving her crazy.
Thinking she should have a bite to eat, she headed toward the kitchen. Part way there she stopped, not really wanting to eat after all. Her father would nag her mercilessly if he was here, but Didi was gone for two days visiting friends over in Sector Six. Wandering into the lounge, Astri sank slowly into her favorite chair and hoisted her legs, one at a time, onto a footrest positioned for just that purpose. Her finger was hovering over the power button for the holovid when she heard a noise on the stairs. She frowned and braced her hands on the armrests. That couldn't be Didi, and Gelff wasn't due back for two days either.
Astri was halfway out of her chair when the door burst open.
The muscles in Obi-Wan's arms and shoulders shook with strain. He focused on letting the Force flow through him to help maintain the handstand. But his concentration wavered. He tucked his chin to his chest and let himself fall. He lay spread-eagled on the floor, staring at the ceiling. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Padm? glance his way, then resume her silent vigil at the window.
What was he waiting for? Darkness? It was too far to walk back to the Temple. They had to find a way to make contact. One Jedi was all he needed. One Jedi to slip out and pick them up. But how to do that presuming the terrorists were monitoring the Temple? Any move right now could alert them, not only to Padm?'s and his location, but to Jedi involvement with him. Their enemies had to keep thinking the Temple had cut him off. So they sat, in a padded room, three thousand kilometers from their best hope for rescue.
No one had identified them or pinpointed their location yet, or they would have already come blasting through the door. Here, they were safe. And that, realized Obi-Wan, was the biggest problem of all.
Here, secure in their little cocoon, they had no immediate fear of discovery, and Obi-Wan had no present concerns for Padm?'s safety. The cocoon was paralyzing him, making him unwilling, unable to act. She was safe.
Obi-Wan's awareness of her was building. He noticed the slightest movement, the quietest sigh. Her body's natural perfume teased his senses and confused his thoughts. He was alone with a beautiful woman, in a place unknown to anyone, where they could be neither seen nor heard. Obi-Wan shunted aside the foolish thought before it could finish forming. This was his padawan's friend, a woman he barely liked.
But he did like her. And her bluntness with him had only served to increase that feeling, which was odd, considering how thoroughly she had insulted him.
He would have to think about what she had said. After this mission was over.
Obi-Wan curled his legs up and over his head. Halfway through the backwards somersault, he braced his hands and pushed, vaulting himself to his feet. He paced from the door to the outer corner away from the window, and back, suddenly stopping. He forced himself to calmness, despite his need to expend some energy.
He was a Jedi. He could wait, listen. The Force would tell him when it was time to move. He returned to sitting on the floor and released his tension in a long slow breath. Luminara admired his ability to adapt to almost any situation. Self imprisonment with a person who detested him was simply another of those situations.
His stillness was driving her to move. The restlessness filling her was almost beyond bearing.
Padm? paced the length of the room like a caged animal. She had seen a krayat dragon in captivity once. It had done the same thing. Back and forth along one wall of its cage, until it had worn a path so deep it hindered the dragon's steps. Such tenacity and singleness of purpose had been both a sad and frightening thing. And now, she was that dragon; she could not stop.
She wanted to. She wanted to exhibit the same calmness radiating out from Obi-Wan. Truly, she did. Almost as much as she wanted to strangle him.
Padm? shivered and forced her attention back to the world beyond the window, forced herself to remain unmoving before the dark pane.
The sun was down and darkness was reclaiming the upper levels, seeping up from the planet surface where nothing ever banished it. Soon, they would be able to move unseen, if that's what Obi-Wan was waiting for. A soft sigh escaped. She didn't look forward to another night on the streets of Coruscant. Such a harsh and forbidding planet. All angles and sharp edges. There was no fluidity, no room for the ebb and flow of nature, no room for gentleness. At times like this she missed Naboo with an ache that was almost painful.
Padm? dared a quick glance in Obi-Wan's direction. Still unmoving. She snorted.
Obi-Wan's eyes flew open. His gaze captured and held hers with the power of a tractor beam. His eyes were calm, radiating a strength she wanted to draw upon, rely upon. She wanted this man as her friend.
Padm? crossed the room, never taking her eyes off Obi-Wan. She sat facing him, mirroring his position, her knees brushing his. He watched her, silent, eyes simmering with mild curiosity. Padm? took his hands, relishing the warmth that seeped into her cold fingers. Awareness shivered across her shoulders.
"Tell me how you do it."
"Do what?" Obi-Wan tugged gently as if trying to free himself, but Padm? held fast. She wanted to feel ... connected. She wanted to draw from his power.
"How do you stay so calm, so still?"
"The Force --"
"But Anakin is never like this."
A furrow rippled across Obi-Wan's brow and disappeared. "Anakin is young."
Padm? scrutinized the Jedi for a few seconds. "No. You think it's more than that, don't you?"
"I thought you didn't want to talk about Anakin."
She placed his hands back on his knees and covered them with her own. "If he is our only connective, then talking about him is a starting point." Her brow creased. "I realize I was terribly rude to you before, and I understand if you want nothing to do with me, but ... I need to talk, Obi-Wan. The silence is suffocating me."
"I want a conversation. That requires two people. I want to get to know my ... Anakin's master, not from what he's told me, but from what you tell me. I want you ..." Padm? trailed off as she tried to silence the inner whisper that said, ... kiss me, just once. In truth, sitting here, so close to him that his scent snared her imagination, she realized that while a kiss might lead to momentary pleasure -- and boundless guilt -- she knew that what she really craved was this man's approval.
Obi-Wan tilted his head. "Yes? Continue. You want me to what?"
Padm? shrugged, a casual gesture that hid the uncertainty she felt. "To know me as a person instead of dismissing me as a politician. That is only one part of me, Obi-Wan. And contrary to your opinion, not all politicians are unregenerate core dwellers."
A smile crept across Obi-Wan's lips. Padm? flashed him a shy smile in return. She said, "See? I made you smile. Now how many politicians can claim that victory?"
Obi-Wan chuckled. "Very few indeed, Senator."
Padm? tapped his hand with pretended irritation. "Don't call me that. Why is it that you call me Senator, then turn right around and call me Padm?? Most beings still address me by the more formal Amidala."
Obi-Wan frowned. "Does my informality offend you? With Anakin, it's Padm? this, Padm? that, so for the most part, I have come to think of you as Padm?."
"Keep the informality. Please. Padm? is what my friends call me."
"Is that what you want? To be friends? With an obnoxious, elitist, insufferable ... Jedi?"
Padm? rolled her eyes. "Not to mention one with a voice recorder for a memory. Yes, I still want to be friends. And contrary to what you think, I believe it's what Anakin would want. After all, we are the two most important --" Padm? bit her lip and dropped her gaze to Obi-Wan's hands, loosely cupped over his knees.
Obi-Wan stared at the top of Padm?'s head. The two most important people in Anakin's life? Why was she suddenly so self-conscious admitting that? Anakin had no qualms in naming Padm? as his best friend. 'The only one who understands me,' was how he had put it to Obi-Wan. More than once.
"A mistake," he whispered. He froze when he realized he'd spoken aloud.
Padm?'s voice was flat and very quiet. "You think our friendship would be a mistake? Do you despise me that much?"
"No. I was thinking about my letting Anakin pursue your friendship to the extent he has."
Padm? jerked her head up, a jumble of expressions vying for supremacy on her delicate features. Consternation won out. "What do you mean?"
"He tries my patience to the utmost. I turn my back for an instant and he sneaks off. I've stopped bothering to track him down, because he inevitably shows up, freely admitting he was at your apartment. Why don't you tell him to stop being a pest?"
Color drained from her face. "Anakin is no pest."
"I'm sorry. I really am grateful for the way you've befriended him. He always returns from his visits so much calmer than normal, centered, at peace -- if only for a few moments. He never complains when I name his punishment for his furtive behavior, just nods and does it." Obi-Wan stared over Padm?'s shoulder. "Of course, later, when the most recent visit has worn off, he returns to his restlessness, his endless ... seeking. On missions his pent up energy is ... distracting."
"Your stillness agitates him."
"Does his energy -- his restlessness -- ever infect you? Cause you to feel the same way?"
"Does his passion ever ignite your senses? Inspire you to act?"
Obi-Wan heard the hopeful tone in Padm?'s question and wondered at it. His reply was quiet. "No. His passion makes me afraid. For him." He silently added, I'm a Jedi. Fear should not be able to touch me.
When Padm? didn't respond, Obi-Wan closed his eyes and slid back into silence.
Padm? chewed her lip and studied Obi-Wan's features. So stoic, yet fringed with care. She couldn't deny that she wished Anakin possessed a healthy measure of this man's self-assurance, his inner strength. In some ways, Ani was so very fragile. But his utter devotion more than made up for it. And his passion for life, for everything, did inspire her to strive, even harder, to work for what was good and right in the Republic.
How could you live without passion? Obi-Wan's eyes flew open and Padm? realized she had asked the question aloud.
"Passion clouds your mind, disrupts your peace and weakens your connection with the Light Side."
"What about your connection with ... with other beings, Obi-Wan?" She took his hands again; he didn't resist. "Who are your friends?"
His eyes narrowed for a moment. "I have friends." Padm? raised her brows expectantly. Obi-Wan scowled and said, "Yoda and Mace are friends, as well as mentors. And though it may surprise you, I do count Anakin as a friend. We usually get along quite well."
"I know you don't tell Anakin your deepest thoughts. Are you telling me that you share your every worry and joy with ... with Master Yoda? With Mace Windu?"
Padm? watched Obi-Wan's eyes lose their focus and his features soften. For a few seconds he was somewhere else, with someone else.
"Who is she?"
His gaze snapped back to her face. "Who's who? What makes you think I was thinking about a she?"
"I'm not blind, Obi-Wan."
He slipped his hands from under hers and started to scuttle backwards. Padm? clasped his knees and shook her head. The Jedi Master of Avoidance was not going to slip from her net this time. She gave him her sternest glare.
He looked more amused than intimidated. "She's a friend, Padm?. A dear friend. Nothing more."
"I think I knew that. Somehow I think you could only be dear friends with someone who shares your Jedi outlook on life. Her name?" Somehow, it made Obi-Wan seem more human, to know there was someone he cared deeply about.
Obi-Wan gave her a slight glance of annoyance, but it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. "Luminara Unduli."
"Does Anakin know her?"
"Yes. We were on a mission together just before we were assigned to protect you from that assassin. Is the interrogation over now?"
He rose, a quick fluid motion.
Padm? scrambled to her feet and intercepted his attempt to move away. She rested her hand on his chest and stared into his clouded gaze. She wasn't sure of what she was doing. She only knew she didn't want this tenuous connection between them to be severed.
"Talk to me, Obi-Wan. Pretend I'm your dear friend, Luminara."
Obi-Wan watched Padm?'s lips move. Pretend. If Luminara were here now ...
The last time he had seen Luminara, he had held her while she silently soaked his tunic with her grief. Her padawan was dead. She was so stoic in public, as he had been when Qui-Gon had died. But behind closed doors ...
Obi-Wan stared at the lips, quite similar in shape to Luminara's, though not quite so full. It was foolishness, pretending. But he couldn't look away from those lips.
He reached up and ran his finger along the bottom lip, imagining it stained dark. He traced the woven pattern that was tattooed on Luminara's chin. If Luminara were here now ... Would he just hold her, comfort her? His head moved closer; his gaze fixed on her lips.
Obi-Wan closed his eyes. His lips brushed over hers.
Padme froze. Her stomach clenched as Obi-Wan's lips began to explore hers. At his gentle coaxing, the desire to respond began to surface. Padm? fought against it, though she found herself unable to move away. She stared at his eyelids, willing him to look at her, to realize what he was doing before she no longer cared.
How long had this desire lay submerged in the back of his mind? Her lips were soft and pliable under his. Obi-Wan groaned quietly. The longing to see Luminara's shocking blue eyes drove his own open. He found himself staring into round orbs of liquid brown.
Shock rippled through Obi-Wan's being. He jerked back and wheeled away. His chest heaved. How did Padm? get him to do things, say things he would never ... ?
What had he done?
"Sweet Naboo," Padm? whispered, her voice shaky. "That was quite the conversation."
Obi-Wan's voice was hoarse. "Force, Padm?, I'm s--"
"Don't say it, Obi-Wan. I know you weren't kissing me. She must be very special. I thought you said passion clouded the mind."
His throat constricted. "We are ... just ... friends."
Obi-Wan cringed at her quiet snort. She said, "Is that so? Then you have an amazing amount of self-control."
"You say that like it's a curse."
"I think maybe it is."
"We are Jedi. We are friends." Obi-Wan squeezed his eyes shut. That is all they would ever, could ever be. He swallowed; the knowledge tasted bitter.
"What if you weren't Jedi?"
Obi-Wan inhaled calm, pivoted and folded his arms across his chest. "What ifs are pointless. The real question is: What were you trying to achieve? Were you trying to make the Jedi admit he is weak, succumb to his emotions, what?"
Padme pressed her lips together. A long moment later she said, "None of that. I want you to trust me, Obi-Wan. I want you to ..." She frowned. "To look at me with the same ... joy ... that filled your eyes when you saw Astri, a friend you hadn't talked to in fourteen years, was it? But the years fell away from you and I saw an Obi-Wan that ... that I wanted to know. I'm sorry if you don't think me worthy of your friendship, because I think you worthy of mine." She strode to the window and stared into the street.
Obi-Wan watched her, his thoughts churning. He had never kissed Astri like that, but then he hadn't exactly kissed Padm? either -- from a certain point of view. He had heard the sincerity in Padm?'s tone. Finally he crossed the room. He took her hand and tugged. They both slid down the wall and leaned against it. Another moment passed. Obi-Wan hesitated, then draped his arm across Padm?'s shoulder. "I would be honored to name you friend, Padm? Naberrie. You are a fine woman and ... a credit to ... your profession."
She leaned her head on his shoulder. "You almost choked on those words, Obi-Wan. Be careful, lest you start taking a liking to politicians in general."
A silent chuckle shook his frame. "Not much chance of that happening." He paused. "You won't mention that kiss to Anakin, will you?"
"What do you care? It's not like it meant anything."
Obi-Wan frowned. "That's a very good question." A thought danced out of reach on the edge of his knowing. "Maybe you can tell me that, Padm?. Why do I care? What am I not understanding here?"
Padm? stiffened and started to pull away. "I am tired, Obi-Wan. Please tell me we aren't going to spend the night walking."
Obi-Wan cocked one eyebrow. Now who was avoiding? He would let her. For now. "I think we can get a few hours sleep. I'm not sure, but I don't feel like it's time to move. Still, we do need to get back to the Temple. Or rather, we need to find a way to contact the Temple without attracting notice."
Padm? relaxed back against his shoulder. "What about Astri? If she was successful at entering the Temple once, she might be able to do it again."
"If ..." Obi-Wan nodded. "I think you're right. She's our best hope. If she can get word to them, they can send someone for us."
"How do we contact her."
"That's the easy part. The office downstairs has a comlink."
"And the hard part?"
"Maybe there isn't one." His words sounded weak, even to his own ears.
Astri bit the inside of her mouth as another contraction gripped her stomach for a full ten seconds. They weren't growing more powerful yet, but they were becoming more frequent. She glared at the captor eyeing her from her couch, steadfastly refusing to show the slightest weakness or reveal to him that she was in labor.
The swarthy human rubbed the thick stubble coating his jaw and said nothing. He was the leader of this little group, she knew. Astri despised his silence and his crafty gaze. Black feral eyes that seemed to miss nothing. When they'd first broken into the apartment, he'd made mention of tracking her connection to Obi-Wan through C-Sec files after her visit to the Temple, but he was no C-Sec officer. The sloppy way he wore the uniform told her that much. When he'd questioned her, she knew her eyes had told him what he'd wanted to know -- that Obi-Wan had been here. She hated herself for giving him away like that. She hated this man for making her betray her Jedi friend. So she focused on that hate. If all he saw in her eyes was hatred, he wouldn't find any more answers.
The sound of the two accomplices rummaging through her bedroom and office drifted down the hall. Horror at the violation she was being subjected to rose in her mind. Another contraction clamped down and she gripped the arms of the chair. Definitely harder this time. Astri struggled to keep her breathing calm and even. Fifteen seconds. She silently cursed all of that pre-natal training that had reinforced timing everything: the lengths of contractions, the breaks in-between. It was agony to think her baby was going to be born this night with these vile men her only attendants.
Three hours. Why had they stayed so long? What were they looking for? Why couldn't they just find it and leave?
Barely five minutes later another contraction hardened her abdomen. Astri squeezed her eyes shut and tried to absorb the pain. When it passed, she stared straight ahead and whispered, "Please leave. I don't have whatever it is you're looking for."
The captor pushed his stocky body off the couch and took two long strides to stand over her. He used the barrel of his blaster to lift her chin and drilled his gaze into hers. "You don't seem to understand. You are what we want. You are the key. The Jedi used you once to contact the Temple. We have given him no choice but to use you again."
"You don't know Obi-Wan if that's what you think. He will find a way. He will walk halfway across the planet if that's what it takes."
"If he were alone, I might agree with you. But he's not alone, is he?"
Astri glared at the man. By the stars, she hated him. He sneered and returned to the couch.
Three contractions later, the accomplices returned to the lounge, eating Astri's food and drinking Astri's beverages. She glared at them with all the loathing she could muster. The young dark-skinned human wouldn't meet her gaze. The Bothan laughed and tossed a juice container to the leader, who caught it and set it on the floor by his feet.
Six contractions after that the comlink went off. Astri's gaze shot to the black eyes of her captor. Didi, please let it be Didi. Or Gelff. Not ... The Bothan grabbed the back of her tunic and hauled her to her feet. He shoved her toward the receiver unit and she fell to her knees with a cry. A contraction gripped her belly. The blaster lifted her chin again, and she stared into the face of the leader kneeling beside her. His eyes scanned her face as she blinked away droplets of sweat. Astri's breathing turned shallow as fear and pain mixed together.
The leader pressed his blaster to Astri's stomach and said, "Answer it. If it's him, cooperate fully. Find out where he's at."
Astri nodded shakily. He toggled the audio switch. She took a breath and said, "Astri here."
"Astri? It's Obi-Wan." Her heart sank. "We need your help. Did you manage to get into the Temple yesterday?"
"Y-yes. No trouble a-at all."
A pause and Obi-Wan asked, "Are you okay, Astri?"
The leader shot her a warning look. "F-fine. Baby's just acting up, that's all."
"Oh. Listen, is there any chance you could find a reason to go back tonight? I don't know, maybe use your pregnancy as an excuse again? If not, early morning would work, I suppose."
"Tonight is okay." Astri glanced at the blaster threatening her unborn babe. "I ... I could pretend to be in early labor."
"Perfect. I need you to get our location to them. We hitched a ride and ended way too far away from the Temple to walk. We need them to send a Jedi to pick us up. Just one. Understand?"
Astri sighed inwardly. The blaster nudged her stomach. "Go ahead, Obi-Wan. I'm listening."
He rattled off the coordinates. "Got that?" Astri glanced at the leader and he nodded. "Y-yes, Obi-Wan. I've got it."
"Great. We're in a warehouse in the middle of the block. The name V-2 Industries is on the outside. Big letters. Hard to miss."
"I'll tell them. Be careful, Obi-Wan."
"You know me, Astri. We'll be fine. I'd better go. And thanks." The link went dead.
Defeat rang through her thoughts as Astri got one foot under her and started to push up. Her water broke with a gush, soaking her pants and puddling on the floor.
The Bothan cried, "What the--"
"Nothing to worry about," said the leader. "Our helpful little missus is in labor. That's all."
Astri stared at the floor as fat teardrops dripped off her chin and plopped into the puddle. He'd known all along. Energy leaked from her pores.
The leader lifted her chin again. "Describe us to any authorities, and we will know. Do that, and I will come back, or send
another, to kill this baby that is struggling to be born. Do you understand?"
Astri nodded. The leader stood and stepped away.
A blast sizzled through the air and melted the comlink. Startled, Astri jerked away and stared at the man, horror stamping her mind and features. A contraction seized her and held her in an unrelenting grip. She sank to the floor, biting her tongue to stop from crying out, as her three tormentors looked on.
"Let's just kill her and get on with it," the Bothan said.
The contraction tightened even more as silent screams echoed through Astri's mind.
"No," the leader said, his tone harsh. "To kill a politician is a statement. To kill a helpless, pregnant woman is murder."
"What about killing a Jedi?" the Bothan asked.
"When he's protecting a political leader? That's simply expedient." The leader strode toward the stairs. "Seal shut both the door and the lift with your blasters. Then we'll go hunting."
The contraction faded along with the sound of footsteps on the stairs. Astri crawled to her chair and managed to pull herself up to sit on the footstool. She reached down the front of her tunic and pulled Healer di Yuni's comlink from between her breasts, thankful the monsters hadn't thought to strip-search her. Fingers shaking, she flipped the unit open and activated it.
Seconds later the healer's voice crackled from the speaker. "Winna di Yuni."
"It's Astri Oddo calling. This is an emergency."
Astri quickly told of her captors and Obi-Wan's call and location. "You have to get someone over there. Quickly." She gasped as another contraction set in with alarming speed and intensity.
"What is it? What's wrong?" Winna demanded.
"The baby!" Astri cried. "My baby's coming."
"You must get here, child. Right away. Such a traumatic onset--"
"I'm locked in. I can't ..." Panic magnified by pain stole her words. She panted, anxiety blanking her mind. Winna's sharp voice pulled her thoughts away from the all-consuming agony.
"Get to your bed. Get as comfortable as possible. Keep this link open. I'll talk you through things until I get there." A brief pause. "Do you understand, child?"
Astri gasped, forced the words out. "Yes. Bed."
The contraction reluctantly eased its hold and Astri forced herself to stand. She walked gingerly toward her bedroom, leaning heavily on one hand propped against the wall, while the other clutched her lifeline to sanity. She vaguely heard Winna calling out instructions, speaking on another comlink. She was almost to the bedroom door when another contraction drove her to her knees. She cried out
Winna's voice was loud and steady. "I'm on my way, child. Stay calm. Breathe."
Astri struggled to focus on the soothing tone as she sank to the floor, unable to move, caught in a vise grip like she'd never imagined. Gelff and I are going to have words over this. That Selonian owes me big time.
"Astri? Astri? Are you with me, child?"
Astri's gasping breaths echoed around the hallway. "I, I don't think you're going to get here in time. I don't think--" Pain crashed through her mind and she crammed her knuckles in her mouth to muffle the scream straining to break loose.
Obi-Wan ran his fingers over the comlink controls, a scowl darkening his expression. Padm? leaned up against the edge of the desk.
"What's wrong, Obi-Wan?"
He shook his head slowly. "I'm not sure. I sensed an unusual amount of fear in Astri's voice, and that's not like her at all."
"So what do we do?"
"The only thing we can do. We wait. Astri's word is good. Though it might not hurt to explore this place a little and see if there's a back door."
"Why would we need a way out if help is coming?"
"Call it my natural caution surfacing. I have a bad feeling about this, and if I learned one thing from all those years as Qui-Gon's padawan, it's to trust my feelings."
Padm? smiled into his clouded, ever-so-serious eyes. The memory returned. He had kissed her. Well, it hadn't really been her he was kissing, but it had felt like it. And it had been nice. Very nice. She couldn't quite bring herself to feel guilty about that. She leaned forward. "I'm glad you trust your feelings."
Obi-Wan pulled back, as if he sensed her train of thought. "We have things to do."
"I know that. But I look into your eyes and see the Jedi rising to the surface, and I can't help but want to sit with my friend for a few moments more."
His eyes softened to the color of the sky on a hazy summer day. A smile grew. "You are a strange woman, Padm? Naberrie. Anakin is lucky to have you for a friend. As am I."
A looming melancholy seemed to cling to the gloomy recesses of her mind, and Padm? sighed wistfully as she slipped to her feet. It was harder being Obi-Wan's friend than being his adversary. She wanted, more than ever, to tell him the truth. And now she had another secret to keep. Obi-Wan had kissed her. No, Padm? admonished herself, he had kissed Luminara. But she still wouldn't mention it to Anakin.
Following Obi-Wan around the warehouse, dimly lit by street and traffic light seeping in through the high windows, Padm? watched with a twinge of regret as the Jedi came to the fore while he searched the building, studied the layout, and paused to consider each area. His casual stroll became lithe stalking. His attention seemed to radiate outwards while remaining intently focused. The confident aura dared lurking shadows to attack.
With each passing moment, Padm? felt more distanced from him. The Obi-Wan who had welcomed her friendship had retreated so deep inside the Jedi that barely a trace of him remained. Padm? stared at the lightsaber in Obi-Wan's hand and the way his thumb idly stroked a ridge on the hilt as he studied the entrances. He didn't acknowledge her existence, and she knew he was dismissing her in his planning.
Planting her hands on her hips, she said, "Well?"
His gaze snapped to her face. He spun and strode across the floor. "Come."
Padm? struggled to shunt aside annoyance as she jogged to keep up. Obi-Wan skirted a pile of duracrates in the far corner and halted. Padm? moved to his side and followed his downward gaze. She asked, "Why are we staring at the floor?"
"There's a sewage grate under this crate." He crouched and pointed at a few millimeters of metal lip peeking out from under the large box. "All we have to do is shift the crate and we have our back door."
Padm? wrinkled her nose, but said nothing. The crate scraped loudly across the ferrocrete as they pushed it back. Obi-Wan hefted the heavy metal lid, setting it aside, and suddenly stepped into thin air, letting himself drop down the shaft. Padm? gasped and peered over the edge. A short distance below, the blue glow from Obi-Wan's lightsaber bathed his features and the glistening walls of the tunnel. The light extinguished and she jerked backwards as he leaped straight up, wheeling in mid-air to land beside the hole.
"It's a little cramped, but we won't be crawling on hands and knees."
"If you're so certain that we'll have to leave that way, why don't we just go now? Why stay and fight?"
"Because there's always a chance I'm wrong. And if I'm not, I should very much like to find out who's hunting us."
"That's simple: someone who wants us both dead."
Obi-Wan cast her an unreadable glance and turned his attention to the other side of the building. His weight shifted subtly. From her own training, Padm? knew the signs. Battle stance.
"You hear something?" she whispered.
His reply was hushed. "Danger sense. Someone's coming."
"Maybe it's the other Jedi we're waiting for."
"He'd be broadcasting through the Force, searching for me, warning me of his approach." Obi-Wan turned toward her, his face a mixture of shadows, dark and darker. "If I go down, take to the sewers until the end of the block. You still have the credit chip? Use it to get to the Temple. No. Try Chancellor Palpatine. He's closer. He'll keep you safe. Should have thought to send you there in the first place."
Padm? lifted her chin. "I'm not leaving without you, Obi-Wan. Friends don't do that."
Gently, he grasped her jaw with one hand. "The only thing that will prevent me from leaving with you is death, Padm?. And I'm a difficult Jedi to kill." He released her. "Watch my back. Wasn't that your excuse for coming on this little jaunt?"
Obi-Wan paced the middle of the shadowy docking area and halted, face to the doors. He shook out his shoulders and became very still. Padm? blinked. If she hadn't known he was there, she might have missed him, even though he stood in the open.
Padm? peered over the top of a duracrate and clung to the hope that they were over-reacting. Minutes later, that hope shattered when the side door blew into the warehouse.
Padme winced as the warehouse door crashed to the floor less than two meters from Obi-Wan. He didn't stir. Blue uniforms streamed through the opening. Someone thought to hit the light panel and banks of overhead lighting flickered to life. The uniforms froze momentarily at the sight of the man, clad in dark green, standing motionless in the middle of the floor, the lightsaber in his hand the only hint he was Jedi. One uniform waved his hand, and the others came to life, stringing out in front of the docking bay door.
The first uniform took a half step forward. "Are you Obi-Wan Kenobi?"
"I am," the Jedi replied.
"You're under arrest."
"Show me your arrest warrant."
The leader nodded; the eight men crouched and began firing. But Obi-Wan was already leaping high and to his right. He landed on crates three meters from where Padm? hid and smoothly deflected a second hail of red bolts. One man fell victim to a ricocheted shot.
Obi-Wan leapt again. He landed in the midst of the string of attackers A slicing arch of blue cut down two men. Obi-Wan side-stepped; a shot meant for him caught another. He lunged, spearing one man, then wheeled and cut the blaster out of the next one's hand.
Spinning again, Obi-Wan faced off against the two remaining assailants. Fear and anger were stamped on their faces. Padm? watched with baited breath as the scene momentarily froze. She could hear the drone of Obi-Wan's blade and the ragged breathing of his opponents. And then red fire spewed from the blasters. Obi-Wan advanced slowly, parrying each bolt with apparent ease.
A hand clamped over her mouth. Padm? cried out, but the sound was lost in the meaty fingers that were almost smothering her. She was pulled backwards and slammed against another crate. A glittering hazel gaze bored into hers and a blaster dug into the base of her neck. She scanned the dirty blond hair and broad face of the man who had led this attack.
"Not a sound," he whispered as he lowered his hand from her mouth. "Or Naboo will lose its pretty little senator."
Defiant, Padm? replied, "I thought that's what you wanted."
"All in good time. Let's see how your bodyguard is faring." He grabbed Padm?'s wrist and twisted it around, forcing it up high between her shoulder blades. Padm? gasped, arcing her body slightly to the side to try and relieve the pressure. The blaster migrated to the side of her neck.
The man sidestepped into the open in time to see Obi-Wan wheel towards them as the last attacker sank to the floor. The Jedi spotted Padm? and hesitated, then started forward, his pace measured. He flicked off his lightsaber and continued advancing.
"Do you want to see her die here and now?" the leader asked. "Toss the weapon down, Jedi."
Obi-Wan halted and did as he was told. The lightsaber rolled to a stop beside Padm?'s toe. Obi-Wan took another step forward. "You'd be wise to release her. Your men are all dead or injured. It will go better for you if you show some prudence here."
"You're the one who should have thought to restrain yourself. Though I do thank you for the impressive scenes of carnage you have provided for the newsvids. They'll eat up the story of the rogue Jedi who kills C-Sec officers with the same nonchalance used to murder a senator."
"No one would believe that."
"They already do." The blaster shifted again and pressed against the side of Padm?'s head, just above her ear. She stared intently at Obi-Wan, clinging to the calm in his gaze. She did not want to give her captor the satisfaction of sensing her fear.
Padm? forced herself to speak. "I don't understand what you seek to gain, with the attack on the consulate or with my death. Can't you at least tell me why I have to die?"
"When the false governments fall, the true one shall reign." He crouched, forcing Padm? down with him. "Pick up the Jedi's weapon."
Padm? reached down with her free hand and felt around blindly. Her fingers found the hilt and wrapped around it. The lightsaber was still warm from Obi-Wan's touch. She was jerked upright. Obi-Wan glanced from the weapon to her face.
The terrorist said, "Now hold it against your gut, right below the ribs."
Dread turned her breathing shallow. Padm? met Obi-Wan's gaze. She could almost feel him willing her to stay calm. Without taking his eyes off her, Obi-Wan said, "If you do this thing, you will be dead three seconds after her."
"And my mission will be a success." He nudged Padm? with the blaster. "Do it."
"Do it yourself, you coward!" Padm? cried. She flung the lightsaber at Obi-Wan and threw herself to the ground. Her shoulder wrenched painfully and she twisted, landing on her back. The terrorist stumbled and swung the blaster toward her. A humming blue light flashed past her face. The blaster, hand still attached, cartwheeled away.
Padm? rolled away as Obi-Wan hopped over her. He grabbed the terrorist by the neck and jammed his now unlit lightsaber hard into the man's midsection, making the air whoosh out of him. The Jedi snarled.
She struggled to her feet, clutching her throbbing shoulder, then moved to stand beside Obi-Wan. Fear flickered through the terrorist's eyes, then disappeared as he glanced to Padm? and back. "You're the coward, Jedi. Not me. Do it." Obi-Wan shoved the lightsaber a little deeper. The terrorist sneered. "Coward."
"Unlike you," Obi-Wan whispered harshly, "I do not shed unnecessary blood. Not even when the blood runs through the veins of a worthless bottom feeder such as yourself." Obi-Wan took a half step back, jerked the lightsaber out and up, and cracked the man on the temple. He crumpled at the Jedi's feet.
"I thought you wanted to find out who was after us. I don't think you'll get him to talk now."
Obi-Wan stared at the limp form. "Oh ... right. I'm afraid the sight of him about to kill you put it out of my mind."
Turning to Padm?, Obi-Wan gathered her into his arms. He pressed his cheek against her head and whispered, "Thank the Force you're so brave, Padm?. I never would have forgiven myself ... Anakin ..." He squeezed. Her breath caught. Obi-Wan held her at arm's length. "What?"
"My shoulder. It's nothing."
He started to reach toward it when the wail of sirens caused them both to stop. The sound was growing louder, quickly.
"More C-Sec," Padm? said. She glanced at the uniformed man at their feet. "Do we wait so see if these ones are legitimate?"
Obi-Wan peered toward the gaping doorway. He shook his head. "Even real C-Sec officers will be likely to open fire when they spot this mess. They won't immediately know these aren't their own men. We'd better retreat."
Padm? sighed. "Why did I know you were going to say that?" She gripped her upper arm to keep her shoulder immobile, walked over to the severed hand, grimaced as she removed the blaster from it, tucking the weapon under her sash. She faced Obi-Wan. "Lead on, friend."
Yoda stood in the middle of the empty room and pivoted, face tilted upward and eyes closed. Echoes of the Force were vibrant in this place, shimmering as they transformed the room into a cocoon of light. He opened his eyes and stared at the blank blue wall for a long moment, curious as to why Padm? and Obi-Wan would leave behind such a strong residue of peace in this place, especially when he considered the scene that had greeted them upon entering the warehouse. Lips pursed, he turned and shuffled out onto the catwalk to look down upon the warehouse floor.
Off to the left, near the bottom of the stairs, medics attended a group of four wounded men dressed in C-Sec uniforms. They were guarded by other men in C-Sec uniforms. Yoda sighed. Such a mess. Thankfully, Jedi Knight Rura-Kel had arrived on the heels of the C-Sec unit dispatched to the scene as backup. He had been able to convince the unit commander to run a check on the supposed C-Sec men they'd found littering the warehouse like kurdu logs on the beach after a typhoon.
The Jedi Master's gaze was drawn to the large bay door where five covered bodies were neatly lined up, awaiting transport to the C-Sec morgue. Off to the side of the bodies, Mace Windu leaned on a cane, yet still managed to glower down at the grim, golden-skinned commander. It was time to intercede.
Yoda made his way slowly down the stairs. Was there ever a man as stubborn as Mace? He should be resting. The day previous he had been teetering on becoming one with the Force; now he felt it was his personal duty to find Obi-Wan and bring him back to the Temple, just because he had given the younger Jedi this assignment.
A fickle thing, honor is. Yoda paused at the bottom of the stairs and scanned the wounded men. Hazel eyes brimming with hate glared back at him. Yoda narrowed his gaze, taking in the bump on the man's temple and the right arm that ended in a cauterized stump. There was no mistaking the lightsaber wound -- or the light of fanaticism glittering in those eyes. This man would gladly die for whatever or whomever had started this terrible chain of events. Death before dishonor. Yoda sighed again. Were the Jedi any different? Not fanatics perhaps, but willing to die for what they saw as right. He shook off his melancholy thoughts and nodded to the man with the hazel eyes. The man sneered, then spat on the floor.
Gimer stick tapping, Yoda made his way to where Mace and the C-Sec commander stood deep in conversation. He took in the pale lines wreathing Mace's mouth and radiating out from his eyes. The dark-skinned Jedi Master had almost reached his limits of endurance. He needed to rest. But Yoda knew he wouldn't.
The commander, arms crossed, black bushy eyebrows straining to meet, glanced down at Yoda and nodded curtly. Mace kept his gaze glued to the C-Sec officer and said, "Commander Skelty refuses to retract the L-5 alert about Obi-Wan, even though he realizes it practically amounts to a death warrant."
The commander scowled. "We've been over this already, Master Windu. Until the identities of these men are confirmed, we have to treat this as multiple homicide. And combined with the earlier evidence tying Kenobi to the explosion, we have little choice but to list him as armed and extremely dangerous."
"That evidence was planted, and you know it," Mace said.
"I know you said it was planted."
Yoda's gaze bounced between the two men. Before Mace could retort, Yoda said, "Arguing in circles, you are, while Obi-Wan gets farther away."
"Rura-Kel went down the sewers to see if he could get a sense of which way Obi-Wan went," Mace said. He glared at Skelty. "And if he finds anything, Jedi will continue the search."
"This is a C-Sec investigation. You are bound by your own Jedi precepts to assist us, not stand in our way. You will hand over any clues or evidence you discover."
"Obi-Wan is a Jedi. We will find him and return him to the Temple."
"I'm looking at dead bodies in C-Sec uniforms. Kenobi did that. C-Sec is bringing him in."
"Dead or alive?" snarled Mace.
"Right now, I don't care," Skelty replied.
"Stop!" Yoda whacked his gimer stick on the ferrocrete. The two men startled and looked down at him. Yoda planted both hands on his stick and said, "Cooperate fully with Coruscant Security Forces, we will." He cut off Mace's reply with a glance. "And expect C-Sec to give Obi-Wan the benefit of the doubt, I do. Serious charges, these are, but many questions surround them. Interrogate Obi-Wan's friend, Astri, we must. And the identities of these men must be discovered. Focus on the blond one with the stump, you need to." He paused. "As for Obi-Wan, Commander, warn your men not to shoot first, you should. Responsible, you do not want to be, for more deaths of men in security uniforms. One of our best warriors, Obi-Wan is. Blasters will not stop him."
Skelty hesitated, then nodded and sent a chagrined glance Mace's way. With a similar expression, Mace extended his hand. Skelty grasped it and said, "We'll find him. Together."
"Together," Mace echoed.
Satisfied, Yoda nodded, though a corner of his mind remained skeptical that Obi-Wan would be found, especially if he had headed toward the surface. Few Jedi and fewer C-Sec officers knew the depths of Coruscant as well as Obi-Wan -- he'd often been forced to chase through those murky levels in pursuit of his padawan.
A swarthy C-Sec officer stepped up to the group and saluted the commander. His black gaze slipped to Yoda and Mace, then returned to Skelty. "Sir. I'd like to extend the search parameters and bring in more bodies to aid in the search."
Skelty glanced at Mace, who shrugged. "Permission granted, Major. I'll leave the details in your capable hands. Just remind the men to be cautious -- and not to shoot first."
"Will do. But ... " The major's regard dropped to the row of bodies laid out at their feet. "They might not listen, sir, given the circumstances." He saluted again and strode away, his broad back stiff and unyielding.
Yoda frowned. "Trust this man, do you?"
"Major Tem's been with C-Sec for years. I've never seen him without his uniform looking like he's slept in it for several nights running. Drives me crazy. But, yes, I trust him."
Yoda didn't reply, the major already dismissed from his thoughts. Puzzled as to why Obi-Wan was shielding so strongly, Yoda closed his eyes and quested through the Force, as he'd done so often in the past thirty hours. But beyond the trace of the young Knight that Yoda sensed in this place, he could find nothing.
Yoda glanced back up at the open door on the upper level and heaved an inner sigh.
Obi-Wan had pushed Padm? as fast and as far as she could go. Now, ninety levels down and five kilometers away from the warehouse, he stopped. Padm? stumbled against him and he carefully guided her into an alley, empty except for a nest of rodents inside a broken crate. He settled her on a pile discarded slats and crouched beside her.
The Jedi winced at the pain radiating off her like heat off a malfunctioning hyperdrive. He swiped her brow and ran a thumb along her cheekbone. Softly he said, "Let's take a look at that shoulder now."
"Did we lose them?" Her voice sounded weak.
"I hope so."
"Wh-what happened to your Jedi contact?"
"I doubt Astri ever contacted the Temple. I believe she must have been discovered by our pursuers. Nothing else could explain the fear I sensed in her voice, or the sudden appearance of those attackers."
"I hope she's okay. They wouldn't harm a pregnant woman, would they?"
Seeing again in his mind, the hate-filled eyes and the blaster held to Padm?'s head, Obi-Wan swallowed the answer that rose to his lips. Instead he prodded Padm?'s shoulder gently. She gasped loudly, and moaned as he continued his examination. Finally, he said, "It's amazing you made it this far without collapsing. I'm no healer, but I'm pretty sure you've dislocated it. We'll need to set it back in proper alignment."
"Will it hurt?"
"About like setting a broken bone with no anesthetic, I expect."
"Oh? Is that all?" Her attempt at levity faded into a sigh. "Have you ever had that done to you?"
"Yes. Once or twice."
"So, what are we waiting for? If you can do it, I can."
Obi-Wan took Padm?'s hand and caressed it. "Perhaps I should use a Force suggestion to put you to sleep."
"Just do it, Obi-Wan."
The Jedi hesitated, recalling the painful procedure -- painful even with the Force's cushioning presence. In the dark alley, he couldn't see Padm?'s eyes, but he knew they were shining with determination. Air leaked from his lungs and he whispered for her to ready herself.
Laying his hands gently on her shoulder, Obi-Wan stretched out through the Force to determine exactly which way the bones had to be shifted. When he was certain of what had to be done, he gritted his teeth and tightened his grip. Padm? tensed. Obi-Wan jerked his arm, hard and fast. Padm? screamed and went limp in his arms.
The scratching and scurrying of small frightened animals rose, then died away. In the near distance, the feral howl of an awakened hunter rent the uneasy silence.
Her moan changed to a long, drawn-out 'Ahhhhhhhhhh!" When the contraction finally passed, Astri collapsed against the headboard, desperately sucking in oxygen.
"How much longer?" Her voice was as ragged as her breathing.
The blue-robed Jedi healer sat on the edge of the bed. "Soon, very soon."
"It's been going on so long. There ... there must be something wrong." Astri tried to summon the mental energy to battle growing panic.
Winna di Yuni took Astri's hand. "Such is the way with first deliveries. Everything is proceeding just fine. It is normal to feel anxious, child, especially when your lifemate is not at your side."
The pressure of another contraction began to build. Through clenched teeth, Astri said, "If he were here, I'd kill him."
With a soft smile, Winna replied, "That is a normal reaction, as well."
The pain washed over Astri, consuming her. She clung to the healers hand. The contractions were almost continuous now -- ninety seconds long with only fifteen to twenty seconds rest between each one. It seemed a lifetime ago that a Jedi Knight, with Winna a step behind, had broken into the apartment and found her at the foot of her bed. The hours since then had been a blur of pain and the marshaling of energy to face more pain.
The next fifteen minutes passed in relative silence, except for the sound of Astri's labored breathing. Winna held her hand, wiped her brow, gently caressed her abdomen.
Astri's eyes flew open. "I - I need to push. Now!"
Squeezing her hand, Winna replied, "Not yet, child. Ride out the feeling. Short breaths. Don't push."
Astri tried to ignore the growing need. She did as Winna asked, her breath expelling in rapid puffs. When the sensation eased, Winna positioned Astri's knees and placed Astri's hands upon them. She looked deep into Astri's gaze, her voice calm. "When the feeling returns, do as your body asks. Look in the mirror. Your baby is ready now."
Astri stared across the room to the full length mirror that Winna had, at some point, repositioned so it faced the bed. Her eyes grew large at the sight of her baby's head crowning. She blinked back moisture and smiled tentatively at the healer. Winna nodded.
The contraction went from barely there to durasteel in an eyeblink. The need to push overwhelmed Astri. She barely heard Winna's words of encouragement as she clutched her shins and pulled them toward her chest, straining with all her might. The contraction eased and Astri let her head fall back. It felt as if there was a melon trapped between her legs. The discomfort had barely registered when another vise grip clamped around her middle and she was again pushing with every last joule of energy.
In the mirror, Astri watched the baby's head emerge. Suddenly, the pressure was gone. She propped herself up on her elbows and Winna urged her on. One last little push and a red, already-squalling baby slipped into the Jedi healer's sure grip.
Astri stared at the baby -- her baby! -- with its scrunched up face and mop of wet, black hair and fist waving defiantly. Laughter and tears both bubbled over as Winna laid the babe in her arms.
He stood on the precipice, overlooking one of the millions of Coruscant's canyons, and stared hungrily into the night. A C-Sec officer of Bothan origins approached him.
Conscious of eyes that could be watching, Tem refrained from a more familiar greeting and said, "Report, Lieutenant."
"The Jedi has returned. As you predicted, he could not determine Kenobi's path."
Tem nodded and asked, "Are the spy-bots prepared?"
"Yes, sir. They are programmed to survey every major intersection between here and the Jedi Temple, as you ordered."
"Very good. Order them released."
The Bothan saluted and marched toward the C-Sec mobile command center. Tem allowed himself the luxury of a sneer. As soon as the Jedi and the senator were dead, his mission would be at an end, and he could return to his honored leader's side. Another was already in place and being groomed to take over his role in C-Sec. It was time. Seven years in this duracrete cesspool was seven years too long. Though before he left, he wished he could meet whoever it was that was financing their efforts. He had once overheard the tail end of a communication that made it clear their benefactor lived on Coruscant. Even that wouldn't matter as soon as their goals were met.
Let other revolutionists waste their lives battling clones in a war they could not win. He would stand on his homeworld, a free man, sooner than any of them. Because he had a weapon he wielded with utmost efficiency. Terror. The terror of assassination. The terror that caused political leaders to quail and give way, fearing for their own lives.
It had felt good to be merciful to the Oddo woman, or rather, to her unborn babe. It would feel good to kill the senator and know her queen back on Naboo quivered with fear. But it would feel better to kill a Jedi.
Tem narrowed his eyes. Those Senate puppets had forced his people to accept a crippling treaty -- one that had subjected them to cruel masters and had all but destroyed their culture. Because of greed. Now the Clone War dominated Senate business and kept eyes away from their insignificant mid-rim homeworld, giving them the opportunity to win their freedom and regain control of their planet, of their lives. The Jedi, with their interfering ways, were the only creatures who could reasonably cut short their glorious plans. Tem peered into the chasm and whispered, "My prey never escapes, Kenobi. Get ready to die."
"A Jedi is always prepared to die."
Tem startled inwardly, but kept outwardly calm. He glanced askance at the approaching dark-skinned Jedi. He arched one black brow. "You move quietly for such a big man." He did not fear this man; he had been schooled in the art of deceiving Jedi.
Mace Windu halted beside Tem and said, "I would move more quietly if not for this cane." He peered into Tem's face. "So why should Obi-Wan be ready to die on this particular day?"
Tem carefully channeled his anger. "Five of my comrades were slain this night. Five good C-Sec officers, all trained to follow procedure. They would not have initiated this slaughter. Kenobi is a murderer."
"Nothing is certain. And your commander told you to pass the order not to shoot first."
"And I responded that the men might not listen."
"Meaning you are one of the ones not listening. Why?"
"We protect our own."
"So do we."
"The Jedi would go to war over this rogue member?"
"Obi-Wan is no rogue. There is an explanation for these events. He is a good and honorable man. Even as a child, his heart was as big as a rancor's."
"A rancor is good for nothing but killing."
"If you think that, you know nothing of those magnificent beasts." Mace leaned heavily on his cane. "You have a hard job ahead of you. Obi-Wan knows these streets well. I should leave you to it. Though I wanted to let you know your commander okayed my staying with the mobile unit. Perhaps we will have the opportunity to get to know and understand each other a little better."
"And what of your partner?"
"The little green Jedi."
Mace studied him for a few seconds. "Master Yoda is returning to the Temple with Knight Rura-Kel. He wants to be there when Obi-Wan returns." The Jedi inclined his head and turned away.
Tem stared after the Jedi as he made his way to the mobile command unit. He carefully dampened his anger. That had been foolish, speaking his thoughts aloud. He had no intentions of slipping up again. The Jedi was suspicious of him. Let him be. It wouldn't save his friend.
Resigned, Tem shrugged. If he had to put up with a Jedi, at least it was the human one.
Perhaps it could be arranged for this Jedi to have a fatal accident. Tem's tight smile never reached his eyes. Two Jedi instead of just one. Great honor would be his if he could make it so.
The predator continued to dog their trail as it had for some time now.
Obi-Wan slipped from one shadow to the next, skirting pools of light. Few pedestrians braved this dilapidated warehouse district in the middle of the night, and Obi-Wan had yet to meet anyone, though he had spotted three beings across the yawning chasm that was the street.
Padm? stirred in his arms. He held her close and picked up his pace. Urgency drove the Jedi forward. For a moment he thought their pursuer was letting them go; disappointment pricked his thoughts when he sensed the hunter also speeding up. And closing in.
Scanning ahead, Obi-Wan spotted a bridge connecting this extended block with the next. If he could get over the bridge, perhaps they would move out of this predator's territory
Behind them, a low growl sounded. Obi-Wan threw himself sideways against a ferrocrete wall; his shoulder absorbing the blow and cushioning Padm? from harm. A flash of brown fur flew past Padm?'s dangling feet. Obi-Wan quickly set her down on the sidewalk and positioned himself between her and their attacker.
A shaggy four-legged creature that easily stood chest-high to Obi-Wan, now stood between them and the bridge. Power fairly quivered through its limbs and over the large hump on its back. Froth dripped from pointed teeth as the creature seemed to grin at the Jedi's predicament. These normally gentle creatures, from the planet Gyndine, were sometimes tormented into insanity and used in dogfights for those who mixed a love of gambling with bloodlust, and Obi-Wan knew he now stared into the red gaze of a gynhound gone mad. Had it slain its owner and escaped? Surely no one would be crazy enough to release such a dangerous animal.
The gynhound took a step forward, pointed ears flat against its head, nostrils flaring in its wide snout. Obi-Wan stepped toward the hound and powered up his lightsaber. At the sight of the blue glow, the gynhound flattened itself to the ground; the low droning growl grew louder. It crept forward another meter. Obi-Wan also advanced, swinging the blade slowly back and forth. He tried to touch the creature's mind with a Force suggestion of fear, but that only seemed to make the madness in its eyes grow brighter.
Obi-Wan moved closer still, keeping eye contact with the hound. The second its gaze shifted, he knew it had wanted to draw him away from its intended prey. Padm?. He took a single step back, and the gynhound catapulted into the air, high over Obi-Wan's head.
The Jedi leapt to meet it. His lightsaber speared the hound, gutting it with a single sideways sweep. The hound yowled and twisted, its claws raking Obi-Wan's left forearm as it fell lifeless to the sidewalk. Obi-Wan landed beside the dead creature and dropped to one knee. He winced at the twin furrows of fire cutting into his arm.
As Obi-Wan drew on the Force to shunt aside the pain, the sense of urgency returned with alarming clarity. He stared at the limp form at his feet -- this creature had not been the source of his unease. They had to keep moving.
Scooting, in a crouch, to Padm?'s side, Obi-Wan knelt beside her and met her unfocused gaze, which quickly cleared as it bounced from Obi-Wan to the gynhound and back. Caution crept into her eyes as she glanced up and down the street.
"There was only one," Obi-Wan said. "But we need to keep moving. How's the shoulder?"
"I can walk."
Obi-Wan nodded and helped Padm? to her feet. He kept her on his right and held his left arm tightly against his midsection, channeling the Force through the wound to stem the bleeding and minimize the fierce stinging, as they moved toward the bridge.
There was no point in telling Padm? that mere walking would do them no good; she'd know that soon enough if no solution presented itself. It was a small comfort to know she was perfectly capable of handling that blaster tucked under her sash, but worrisome that she might well be forced to fire it. Obi-Wan released his concern into the Force, along with his pain. He took a moment to bask in the warm sense of Padm?'s presence at his side -- her friendship.
Obi-Wan's boots slapped the end of the bridge and his attention jumped upwards. A chill rushed down his spine. The hunter was up there somewhere. And he was on the move. Obi-Wan could feel it.
Astri's eyes fluttered open and she startled. A pair of intense green eyes were peering back at her. She glanced around the room, her gaze returning to settle on the green face of the diminutive Jedi master perched at her bedside. Slowly, the vague memories returned -- of Winna and the Jedi Knight whisking her and her baby back to the Jedi Temple for observation and rest. She had been far too exhausted to argue.
Yoda looked about to speak when Winna di Yuni swept into the room. She halted by the bed and focused her keen regard on the Jedi master. "It is the middle of the night. I'll not have you disturbing my patient," she clipped. "If you're here to try and drag information out of the poor child, you can think again."
Astri stared, dumbfounded, at the healer. She had the distinct feeling that no one usually dared speak in such a tone to Master Yoda. The healer and master glared at one another for a moment.
Clearing her throat, Astri said, "I'm okay, Winna. I won't faint under the force of a few questions."
The healer sternly assessed her charge. She pursed her lips. "Are you sure, child? I don't want you to get more worn out when you are supposed to be resting."
The concern in her voice was a soothing balm to Astri. She smiled warmly, and a web of fine wrinkles spread out from Winna's eyes as she returned the smile. Astri asked, "Is the baby still sleeping?"
Winna nodded and turned her attention back to Yoda. She scowled, "Five minutes. No more." With that, she spun and hurried out of the room.
Yoda harumphed gruffly. Astri stifled a chuckle. She should be sleeping, she knew, but her curiosity was piqued and she would never be able to sleep now anyway, not with her mind whirling like it was.
After thirty seconds of silence, Astri said, "I think Winna was very serious about her time limit. What did you want to talk to me about, Master Yoda?" As if I don't know.
"Sorry, I am, that you have gone through such a terrible time. And glad that the babe was safely delivered." Yoda paused. "Need to know all you can tell me about your attackers, I do."
Astri heaved a sigh. "They didn't really attack me. They used me for bait. Somehow they knew that Obi-Wan would contact me again. And when he did, and he told me where he was so that I could tell you, they left. I just know they were planning to trap Obi-Wan." She turned worried eyes to the master's solemn gaze. "Please tell me Obi-Wan is okay. I couldn't bear to think I had caused him harm."
"Escaped the trap, he did. But, know how he fares, I do not. Keeping shields up, he is, and his caution puzzles me."
Astri scowled as she thought. Her brow cleared and she shrugged. "He seems to care for this Padm?. Maybe he's just hiding his concern over their situation from her, and is doing this shield thing in the process."
Yoda's ears perked up. "Cares for her? Told you this, did he?"
How could one so wise, be so dense? Astri eyed the Jedi master skeptically. "No, he didn't tell me. But there was something between them. A tension." She snickered and quietly added, "The kind of tension that can easily lead ... wherever."
Yoda cleared his throat and squinted thoughtfully.
Astri turned an innocent expression to the frowning Jedi and asked, "Is that all you needed to know?"
"Need you to describe the beings involved, I do. Found, they must be."
As Astri detailed all that she remembered about her three captors, Yoda's frown grew more and more pronounced. She trailed to silence and eyed the Jedi master warily. Tension radiated out from him like heat from a flaring cooking element. His eyes were shuttered and his gaze withdrawn.
Yoda looked up suddenly. "Thank you. Get this information to Mace, I must, and hope I'm not too late." He slid from the chair and started around the bed.
Astri propped herself up on her elbows. "Mace Windu? The Jedi who almost died? How will telling him help Obi-Wan?"
Pausing, Yoda met her uncertain gaze. "Helping to search for Obi-Wan, Mace is. But the one who searches is also the hunter."
Astri stared after the small Jedi as his halting gait quickly carried him from the room. The door remained ajar and she heard a plaintive wail growing louder as it drew closer. Her baby was awake. Thoughts of Obi-Wan and Yoda's cryptic statement fled like the night shadows before the dawn.
"How many spy-bots have you deployed?" Mace leaned over Tem's chair and peered at the tracking beacons on the large monitor.
The swarthy C-Sec major shifted and drummed his armrest. "A few thousand maybe."
Mace's eyebrows shot up. "That's quite a few. Are you authorized to initiate actions that generate that kind of expense?"
"I wasn't aware the Jedi were conducting an audit of C-Sec financial affairs."
Mace eased himself into the empty chair to his right and sighed as he massaged his aching thigh. It had been a long night and it was barely past midnight. The major had been terse and highly uncooperative. Nothing Mace could finger, of course. Just little comments like that one that put him in his place as a passive observer. This was one C-Sec officer who was going to collaborate with the Jedi only so far as he had to, and not a micron farther. Mace wished he could pinpoint the source of Tem's animosity, but the man held himself in so tightly that no trace of emotion was leaking out.
And Mace wished with equal fervency that Obi-Wan would send out some kind of signal through the Force, but he was keeping to himself as tenaciously as Major Tem. All Mace could do was wait. This stalemate couldn't continue forever.
A vague unsettling sensation was burrowing into his thoughts, and Mace was beginning to hope that the vast resources of the Coruscant Security Forces would not be enough to discover Obi-Wan's whereabouts.
"You don't have a better plan, and you know it," Padm? whispered from the side of her mouth. She smiled sweetly into Obi-Wan's scowling visage
Turning her attention to the street ahead, Padm? bit back a sigh. Halfway down the block, light spilled from a tavern's windows to illuminate a row of swoops huddled together like a herd of banthas in a sandstorm. Obi-Wan had admitted that swoop gangs would have any tracking devices on the swoops disabled. It you had to borrow a vehicle, better one that was harder to trace.
Obi-Wan laid his arm across her shoulders. She smiled inwardly at this silent acceptance of her declaration. She curled her arm around his back and found his left hand resting against his spine, right beside his lightsaber. She clasped the hand gently, not wishing to irritate his wound. It was wise he chose to hide both the weapon and the wound from sight. They were promoting the illusion of being a couple, yes, but his touch gave solace that Padm? relished just now.
Finally, Padm?'s visual search discovered the being whose presence Obi-Wan had detected. A human, lanky and dark. As they drew closer, Padm? amended her judgment to include stringy and ... greasy. She fought a grimace and swung away from Obi-Wan to sashay towards the first swoop in the line-up. She affected a throaty laugh and tickled her fingers over the seat of the powerful machine. A glance told her what they'd hoped was the case: that with a guard watching over the vehicles, the swoops weren't locked down.
Padm? swung her leg over the machine and settled on the seat, running her hands up and over the curved handlebars. She met the gaze of the guard as he strode toward her. His beady scrutiny revolted her, inspiring the breathlessness lacing her words. "Is this your machine? It's so incredibly ... powerful." Padm? twitched her eyebrows and refused to allow herself to flinch as lewd speculation entered the guard's eyes.
He leaned over and trapped her hands on the control grips. "Down doing a little slumming? You could ditch the stiff and I'll show you how a real man parties."
Padm? peered over the man's shoulder and almost giggled at the sight of Obi-Wan glowering at her -- his irritation looked very realistic. She turned an assessing eye back to the man leering at her. Sweet Naboo, he needed a dip in the refresher. She whispered, "Would you promise to take me for a nice, long ride? I just love the feel of so much power between my legs."
The guard's lip curled into a twisted smile and Padm? swallowed a rising nausea. He leaned closer. Before he could reply, a quiet thud sounded and he slumped unconscious over the swoop's front end. Padm? met Obi-Wan's dark gaze. "What took you so long? I thought you were going to stand there and let him maul me." She suppressed a shudder.
"You were getting into the part a little too completely for my liking," Obi-Wan whispered as he hauled the man off the swoop. "It must have shocked me into inaction."
She lifted her chin. "Would you rather I did a bad job of acting and had him sound the alarm? Then you could have had a nice little fight with the whole gang."
Obi-Wan sent her another dark glance as he dragged the limp, unconscious guard into the shadows. Padm? narrowed her eyes. She was not going to be intimidated by his Jedi glare. A few seconds later he dashed back to the machine and hopped onto it behind Padm?. He reached around her and gripped the controls.
"I can sit behind you," Padm? said.
"No. This is more secure."
The engine thrummed to life, barely noticeable above the raucous noise issuing from the tavern. Padm? doubted any alarm would be sounded before the guard awoke.
Padm? found herself wedged between the rising hump of metal before her and the firm wall of flesh behind. Obi-Wan's thighs lay snug against hers, and his chest pressed against her back. The heat from his body wrapped around her and enveloped her in a sense of well-being. Even riding a swoop, full throttle, Obi-Wan was still and calm. Padm? felt safe. Untouchable.
The swoop swung sharply to the left.
"What?" Padm? said, her voice rising over the revving engine.
"It's nothing," replied Obi-Wan. "I just feel like I should avoid the main thoroughfares. We're taking the scenic route."
Padm? glanced around dubiously. Forbidding and grimy walls rose on either side of them. She tilted her head and studied the heavier traffic with its alluring streams of light high above them.
Obi-Wan seemed to sense what she was thinking. "Up is too dangerous," he whispered in her ear. "We'll be fine. I promise. Get some rest."
She sighed and settled against the Jedi's chest. His heartbeat vibrated softly through her ribs around to her own chest where it joined with her heartbeat so she could no longer tell them apart. The feeling of complete safety returned and lured her toward sleep. As her head lolled to the side, Padm?'s final thought was that she could never feel secure enough to sleep in Anakin's arms barreling through the night on a swoop.
Astri jerked awake. Her heart pounded in her ears. She glanced at the bedside chrono. Three a.m. What had woken her?
Something banged. Astri flinched. That's what she'd heard in her dream. Far down the corridor Astri heard muffled voices. She stared at the door for a few seconds, then suddenly realized those voices had to be very loud -- out there. Someone was very upset.
The volume increased. As did the stridency.
Anxiety seized Astri's mind. She glanced to the bassinet tucked in the corner where her baby slept undisturbed. That voice. That awful voice rang through her mind. Threatening her that he'd be back if she told. Astri's hand clamped over her mouth. She'd told Yoda everything. Stars alive, he was back. He'd come to kill her baby.
Breathing ragged, Astri scanned the room. No exit except the door to the corridor. Think. There was no time. She ground the heels of her hand into her eyes. Think. What would Obi-Wan do? Astri's head snapped up. She had to fight. That monster was not going to touch her baby.
Astri swung her feet to the floor and stood. She swayed as vertigo assailed her. Clutching the edge of the bed, she stumbled to the end and paused to marshal her balance.
The voices were growing louder.
Taking a deep breath, Astri lunged across the two meter distance from bed to corner. She slammed into the wall beside the bassinet and rolled to press her back against the ferrocrete. Her breathing was coming in short gasps.
Footsteps. Loud. Cracking against the tile floor.
Astri pushed herself away from the wall and stood between her baby and the door. Dizziness blurred her vision. Her knees wobbled. She felt the blood draining toward her feet. I feel ... I never faint. I can't ...
The door crashed open just as Astri's legs buckled. The floor sped toward her. But I never faint.
Yoda paced the floor. "Again. Again. Try again."
The bleary-eyed knight manning the comm station shook his head. "I'm sorry, Master Yoda. Something must be jamming Master Windu's transmission. We've been trying for over an hour. It might be faster to just send someone to wherever Master Windu is."
"Know where he is, I do not," snapped Yoda. He stopped. "My apologies. Worried, I am. Your fault, this is not. Try the command center again, please. Perhaps, find out where they are, we can."
A moment passed, during which Yoda stood frozen, hands capping his gimer stick.
The knight shook his head. "I don't understand. They aren't responding, or acknowledging our communication in any way, but everything indicates the signal is getting through."
Yoda closed his eyes. Now there were two to worry about. Obi-Wan and Mace. It wasn't always an easy thing, releasing your worry to the Force.
"Should I keep trying?" the knight asked.
Yoda nodded and sank into a crouch. Obi-Wan might be out of touch, but he could try to warn Mace of the danger, even if he couldn't pass on the details. Yoda's consciousness skated along tendrils of the Force as he sought Mace's signature. Pulsing warmth and a kaleidoscope of light enveloped the ancient Jedi; worry blew away like dust on the wind.
Warm air whipped out of the sultry darkness, streaming over the swoop's windscreen to whisper seductive promises of rest in Obi-Wan's ears. Their roundabout course had added hours to their journey, ensuring they would arrive at the Temple in daylight. And if that was the case, Obi-Wan knew he needed to be rested and alert.
The detour had given rise to a sense of security, and so they rode the slightly busier lanes a little higher up. Obi-Wan no longer felt urgency thrumming through his veins; he had no sense of looming peril at all. And as his danger sense had waned, his awareness of Padme had risen. She was snuggled between his arms, head resting against his shoulder, sound asleep. The smell of her hair filled his nostrils. One of Padm?'s hand had drifted down and loosely clasped his thigh. That innocent touch was ... disconcerting. It reminded him of holding Luminara, wanting so desperately to ease her pain, wanting to ... to step beyond the bounds of friendship. Knowing it was impossible.
Silver flashed. Obi-Wan swerved. A large transport, crash whistle squealing, missed the nose of the swoop by centimeters as the hulking vehicle pulled into the line of traffic. Padm? jerked upright and Obi-Wan swung to the right, into an exit lane. His hands were shaking as he slowed the swoop.
They were moving through an office district. Obi-Wan spotted a parkade and eased under the overhang protecting the entrance. He zipped the swoop between ineffectual barriers and coasted to the back corner of the deserted parkade, stopping behind a broad pillar that offered partial concealment from the street.
Obi-Wan sat, eyes closed, hands still gripping the controls, and focused on breathing. In and out. Slow and even. He groped for his suddenly elusive center.
Padm? shifted and eased one leg over the swoop. "What's wrong?" she whispered.
Eyes still closed, Obi-Wan replied, "I wasn't concentrating and almost got us killed."
"You're tired. You need to rest."
"Don't make excuses for me."
Her hand found his face in the dark and framed it with her small hands. "I'll do as I please, Obi-Wan Kenobi. If I say you're tired, then it is so."
"You are a very bossy senator, aren't you?" He smiled, though she couldn't see it.
"Terribly bossy. I always get my way. And don't you forget it."
Obi-Wan swallowed a groan.
Padm? straightened and rested her palms on his chest. Concern filled her voice. "Something's wrong. Tell me."
"Nothing's wrong, Padm?."
"You're a lousy liar, Obi-Wan."
"A Jedi trait. It's why we don't do it."
"What had you been thinking about that was so distracting?"
Obi-Wan peered into the darkness. "You were sleeping in my arms and it made me remember. The last time I saw Luminara she was deep in mourning. I couldn't ... take away her pain. All I could do was hold her."
"That's what she needed you to do, Obi-Wan."
"I wanted to do more than hold her."
"Jedi confession time, is it?" Padm? chuckled. "I've created a monster. Your secret is safe with me, oh Jedi Master of Stuffiness."
Through clenched teeth, Obi-Wan said, "I am not stuffy."
"I was just teasing, Obi-Wan."
"Well I am not stuffy. Just because I strive to act in a manner befitting a Jedi and don't give in to every nerf-brained impulse--"
Padm? clamped her hand over his mouth. "Quiet, Obi-Wan. If you're referring to Anakin, I have no desire to argue with you right now. Just tell me the plan."
Obi-Wan released his irritation. "Sleep. I need to be alert when we arrive at the Temple."
"On the ferrocrete floor. Not the best accommodations, I'm afraid."
"I'm sure I've had worse. I just can't think of any right now."
Obi-Wan dismounted from the swoop and helped Padm? get settled in the dark. She stretched out by the pillar and Obi-Wan laid down beside her so they were back to back. They shared what little warmth they could.
A moment later Padm? whispered, "Are you at all comfortable?"
"No," Obi-Wan replied.
"Good. I'd hate to be alone in that."
The Jedi snorted quietly. "Good night, Padm?."
"Sweet dreams, Obi-Wan. May they be filled with a certain dear friend."
Obi-Wan shook his head. How long would it take before she told Anakin and he was teasing him about the same thing? "And who will you be dreaming of, Padm??"
A long pause. "Good night, Obi-Wan."
Fear gripped her throat as she rose toward consciousness. My baby. I have to save my baby. Astri moaned and tried to struggle free. Someone was holding her. A familiar voice was murmuring softly. Not words; indistinct sounds of comfort.
Astri forced her eyes open. She blinked as she strained to bring the room into focus. Eyes as blue as a cloudless day stared back at her. She gasped, then started to cry. What's wrong with me? I never cry.
"Shhh. It's okay, Astri. Everything will be fine." The deep rasping voice of her husband caressed her ears. She hid her face against his chest as the stream of tears turned into a torrent.
When her roiling emotions finally subsided and her crying was reduced to the odd hiccup, Astri said, "You're home early."
Gelff's arms tightened around her. "I'm sorry, Astri. I'm so sorry. You needed me and I wasn't there. When I walked into our apartment and saw the mess, saw that you were gone, I have never felt such anguish. Thank the stars that the Jedi had left a message telling where to find you. But I got here and some overzealous healer wasn't going to let me see you. Said you were resting."
"Oh, Gelff. That was you yelling? I thought ..."
"Yes, it was me. Nothing was going to keep me from getting to your side, Astri. They didn't even tell me ... I didn't even know you had had our baby until ..." Gelff drew a deep breath. "Until I walked in here just in time to see you crumple to the floor. I thought ..."
Astri sighed. "It doesn't matter. You're here now."
Gelff lifted her off the floor and carried her to the bed. He gently laid her down and then stretched out beside her. Astri smiled and rubbed the heavy stubble on his jaw. "You should go introduce yourself to your newborn."
"I will wait until the babe awakes," Gelff whispered. "Then you can introduce us. Right now I just want to be with you and know you are okay. You are so incredible. The Jedi who met me at the main entrance and escorted me here apparently helped break into the apartment with a healer. He told me what he knew of what you went through."
"Hush," Astri said. "I don't want to talk about it right now. I just want to be with you and know you are really here."
Gelff's smile lit his eyes, turning them a sparkling azure. He enfolded Astri in his arms. A throat cleared, but Astri didn't even look. "Hello, Winna. Were you the unfortunate healer trying to keep my husband from my side?"
"Indeed I was," the elderly Jedi replied from the doorway. "And for good reason. Look at the two of you. How will you get any rest like that?"
"I will rest better like this," Astri replied. "Within these arms I will have no bad dreams of men coming to hurt me, or my baby."
"Well, he certainly is big enough to scare most beings away," Winna commented.
"Actually, Gelff is smaller than his father." Astri stifled a yawn.
"Get some sleep," Winna clipped. "The baby will be awake and hungry soon enough. And Gelff, you will bring the baby to your wife, when the time comes. I do not want her out of bed and on her feet for any reason."
"What if I need to use the refresher?" Astri asked.
"He's big enough. He can carry you."
With that the healer closed the door, leaving the new family alone. Gelff chuckled. "Is she always that overbearing?"
"I think so. She even bossed Master Yoda, and I don't think anyone does that."
"Then we'd better do as she says. You need to sleep."
"Will you be here when I wake up?"
"Wild nerf couldn't drag me away. Never again, Astri. As of now, my traveling-for-work days are done."
Astri's eyes drooped closed. She whispered, "I love you, Gelff. And I'm glad you'll be staying close to home. But I think we need to talk about which one of us has the next baby." She fell asleep with her husband's low chuckle chiming in her ears.
Mace Windu propped his boot on the low parapet and absently massaged his sore leg as he stared across the wide canyon to the Jedi Temple, silhouetted against the rising sun. Major Tem had finally come to the conclusion that Obi-Wan had escaped their net, and had ordered the mobile command unit moved to this plaza across from the Temple. The C-Sec search had become a wait, with all the searchers strung out to form -- Tem hoped -- an impenetrable perimeter around the Temple. Every approach was under surveillance by spy-bots. Every available officer was in position.
With a grimace, Mace silently conceded that Tem could well be successful in his attempt to capture Obi-Wan, if the young knight insisted on trying to reach the Temple. The prospect didn't sit well with the Jedi Master, not when he considered that Tem would probably prefer to kill Obi-Wan over simply arresting him. The major claimed his attitude arose from Obi-Wan having downed five C-Sec officers, but Mace felt something else was at work. Unfortunately, that something else was proving elusive to pinpoint. Tem could teach some Jedi a thing or two about shielding their emotions.
A buzzing noise intruded upon his awareness. Mace glanced over his shoulder. In the early morning light, six beings -- four human males and two Twilek -- had started a game of clipdisc on the almost-deserted plaza. Each being was balanced on a hoverboard, right hand gripping the control handle atop the single post rising up from the nose of the board. Mace scowled as he watched the riders swoop and dodge, clipping the padded hoverdisc with their boards. Each pass and interception was met with hoots and hollers by the other players. Why didn't Tem shoo them away? Mace decided letting the game continue was the major's way of lending normalcy to the scene, and he turned away.
As he continued to study the Temple, Mace considered the warning Yoda had sent him through the Force. Grave danger. But from where, or who? Since his comlink was dead and C-Sec units were off limits, Mace was sorely tempted to make the short trek to the Temple and find out what Yoda knew. But his instincts bade him stay. He couldn't risk being away when Obi-Wan arrived. He might be the knight's only hope for survival.
Once again, Mace stretched out through the Force, seeking for some sign of Obi-Wan. Even though he didn't expect to succeed, the Force's warmth was a balm in the chilly morning. It soothed his senses and calmed his thoughts.
His knee buckled when the hoverdisc bounced off the back of his leg. Mace twisted in time to see two hoverboard riders bearing down on him. One clipped the disc and it ricocheted back at Mace. The other swung to intercept. His board skidded sideways, catching Mace on the shin. Mace jumped sideways. His sore leg bumped against the parapet and he lost his balance. The second rider came at him, holding out his hand. At the last second, the rider jerked his board and knocked Mace's knee.
Thrown backwards by the blow, Mace grabbed for the ledge and got a handful of air.
Padm? shivered and levered her eyes open. She was only warm where her body touched Obi-Wan's. She snuggled closer, pressing her back against his. Her side was numb.
The sound of a motor echoed around the pillars, then cut off. Faint footsteps rang across the far side of the parkade.
"Time to go," Obi-Wan whispered.
"For a few moments. Long enough to know you're as cold as I am and that we need to move before we freeze to this ferrocrete."
Obi-Wan shifted, popped to his feet and brushed off his clothing. Padm? sat up and stared at him, afraid to open her mouth lest she start to sputter. How could he be so agile when she could barely move? It wasn't fair. He reached down and pulled Padm? to her feet, steadying her when her left side almost refused to hold her weight.
She waved him away and asked, "How is your arm?"
"I barely feel a thing. How's you're shoulder?"
"It's okay." Padm? paused and sniffed. "Do I smell as awful as you?"
Obi-Wan chuckled. "Very likely. A souvenir from the sewer portion of our tour."
"We ought to complain to the tour company about that unexpected deviation in our travel plans."
"You were the one who wanted to see Coruscant up close and personal."
Padm? rolled her eyes. She was not going to win this verbal sparring match. "So, what do we do now?"
"A globefruit for breakfast, and then we make our final run for the Temple."
"You have globefruit with you? I love globefruit." Padm? looked into Obi-Wan's sparking eyes. She felt suddenly foolish. Of course he didn't have any. Neither of them carried a pack. She scowled. "You can be a terrible tease."
One side of Obi-Wan's face lit up with a crooked smile. "Only with my friends. No globefruit, sorry. How about a kiss for luck?"
Padm? snorted. "In your dreams."
"You never did tell me who --"
"Are you driving, or am I?" Padm? crossed her arms.
"I am." Amusement flickered through his gaze. "Someday, you'll tell me. Friend."
"We've been spotted." Obi-Wan spoke right beside Padm?'s ear so she could hear him.
"How do you know?" She shouted over the roar of the engine and other traffic.
"Spy-bot." Obi-Wan scanned ahead, searching for more signs of Coruscant Security. Nothing stood out, which concerned him. They were walking into a well laid out trap. "Hang on. We're going in hot." And fast, he added silently, as he opened the throttle.
The swoop jumped ahead. Obi-Wan sometimes complained to Anakin that he hated flying, but that was only partly true. He hated it when Anakin was at the helm -- because it meant he was not in control. But he also knew how much Anakin reveled in, almost needed, the outlet speed offered, so he usually let him fly. And Anakin was the better pilot. But Obi-Wan could hold his own -- like now, weaving in and out of traffic, slowing down for nothing.
The avenue was broad, and this early the traffic was fairly light. As they had neared the Temple, Obi-Wan had taken the swoop to one of the higher sky lanes because all of the vehicular accesses to the Temple were on the upper levels. It was easier to maneuver here, but it offered less cover. Now that they'd been spotted, caution was pointless.
For the first time in days, Obi-Wan expanded his knowing beyond himself and Padme. He was immediately met by the strong Force presence of Yoda, who was obviously searching for him. Rather than attempt to communicate, Obi-Wan simply returned his focus to the task at hand, but left his shielding lowered so Yoda could track him. The Jedi master would sense how close they were. If Yoda could help them, he would.
Obi-Wan leaned into a curve. The swoop tipped sharply as they barreled around the corner at full tilt. Silently, Padm? held on, her back pressed against Obi-Wan's chest. As soon as they leveled out, Padm? pulled the blaster from under her sash and rested it against her thigh. Obi-Wan smiled. He liked her style.
The Temple came into view when they passed a hulking transport.
Two more spy-bots registered out of the corner of Obi-Wan's eye. His danger sense hummed louder the closer they got to safety. Suddenly it felt like peril surrounded them, instead of just being ahead. Obi-Wan glanced over his shoulder and spotted two C-Sec cruisers pulling into the flow of traffic.
No turning back. Obi-Wan narrowed his gaze and focused on the goal. A small landing pad now only a kilometer away. He pursed his lips as three cruisers rose from the pad and started toward them. He swerved left, suddenly dropping below traffic and circling sharply when two more cruisers flashed toward him from that direction. A troop of C-Sec swoops shot up from the lower levels, cutting off that escape.
Obi-Wan steered the swoop to the right, the only direction they'd allowed him. For a second he thought he saw an escape route, then a C-Sec cruiser filled the hole.
The first laser flashed by on their right. Obi-Wan jerked the swoop right in the laser's wake as a bolt of red sizzled through the air to their left. Obi-Wan dodged several more shots as they neared the edge of the space lanes.
A shot clipped their underbelly. The swoop began to pull sharply to the left. One stabilizer gone. Obi-Wan fought to keep the swoop level and veered toward a small plaza fronting an office complex. Their altitude dropped dangerously and they suddenly found themselves hurtling towards a wall.
Obi-Wan shouted, "Let go. We have to jump."
He latched onto Padm?'s waist and the Force at the same instant. Launching from the swoop seconds before it slammed into the wall, Obi-Wan let the shockwave from the blast give them the final impetus they needed to clear the low parapet skirting the plaza.
They landed running. Laser bolts bit into the ferrocrete at their heels. The sheer wall of an office tower stopped their dash to freedom. Obi-Wan spun and planted himself. His lightsaber sprang to life and wove a protective shield before them. He sensed Padm? crouching behind him, tense and ready to fight.
They were far too exposed, with nowhere to go. A line of C-Sec officers advanced towards them on foot, while the vehicles hovered well away from the plaza. Over the edge was no option. Obi-Wan ignored the nagging sense of looming defeat swelling within and opened himself fully to the Force as he concentrated on deflecting each shot.
Still, the line closed in. And the hunter was in its midst. He could sense it.
Mace exhaled a measured breath, counting as he released his discomfort with his air. His shoulders and ankles ached from bracing himself in the chimney-like crevice for the last hour. Again he had to remind himself not to look down ... into endless nothing.
As he had fallen, Mace had somersaulted and twisted, redirecting his body toward the wall. Everything had seemed to move in slow motion. The recess in the wall and reaching out. His fingers catching on a narrow ledge. Using the Force to hang on and cushion the wrenching pull of gravity. Wedging himself in his safe haven. Voices above him calling, shouting. Running footsteps, then Major Tem's voice, demanding to know what had happened -- a flat tone that had prickled over Mace's skin. His questions had sounded robotic -- or practiced -- and had urged Mace to let them think he had disappeared into the murky depths of the canyon.
The explosion had kindled Mace's need to move.
His fingers curled over the ledge. Mace inhaled the Force and vaulted over the edge. Right back where he'd started. He crouched, taking in the scene in an instant. The plaza was ringed by C-Sec vehicles. Less than ten meters to Mace's left, Obi-Wan was caught in a tightening cordon of security officers.
Without hesitation, Mace charged forward. His leg threatened to give way; he shored it up with the Force. He unclipped his lightsaber as he ran, and cracked one officer on the back of the skull as he broke through the line. A laser bolt whisked past his ear. The next found its mark -- scratching his left shoulder with white hot heat.
Mace stumbled, then catapulted the remaining distance, somersaulting and twisting to land on his feet facing the advancing men. His violet blade immediately joined Obi-Wan's in deflecting fire.
"Nice of you to drop in," Obi-Wan said. "Not sure you should stick around though."
"Why is that?" Mace shunted aside the burning ache in his shoulder and focused on the streaks of red winging toward them. He deflected each in turn. He knew he was still too weak to survive a prolonged fight.
"They seem determined to write out my arrest warrant with my blood," Obi-Wan said.
"Then take the fight to them. I'm in no shape to fight, but I can guard the senator." Mace sensed her behind him, and the way her frustration pulsed through her aura. She obviously didn't like just sitting still in such a situation. He shot a quick glance at Obi-Wan and nodded. "Go. Just try to not kill anyone."
As Obi-Wan leapt to the side, Mace's gaze collided with Major Tem's. Hatred radiated out from that black stare with the intensity of a supernova.
Padm? bit back a cry when Obi-Wan leapt away. She squeezed her eyes shut for a second. They flew back open of their own accord. She couldn't look away.
Obi-Wan sailed toward the end of the line. His heel knocked the temple of the closest man as he landed. Padm? held her breath and watched in amazement as Obi-Wan danced and wove his way down the line. He used the nearest officers as living shields. Several fell, wounded by their own comrades. With minute precision, Obi-Wan cut and parried, spun and lunged. Never killing, only disarming or wounding.
Padm? eased out of her crouch. No shots were aimed their way, as every C-Sec officer concentrated on Obi-Wan. She whispered, "It's ... beautiful. Almost like he's dancing."
"He is," Mace replied. "The Force leads, he follows."
Obi-Wan's grace and agility almost made Padm? forget the deadly nature of his dance. Then she noticed the remaining officers spreading out, trying to encircle the Jedi. Her breath caught in her throat. She raised the blaster and took aim.
Mace grabbed her wrist and shook his head. "He wouldn't want you to kill anyone here, Senator. Not C-Sec officers. Not even to save his life."
Padm? choked back a frustrated sob. Don't die, Obi-Wan. Anakin couldn't bear it. I couldn't bear it.
Obi-Wan saw each bolt before it was fired, knew each move before he took it. Dip and parry. Spin and deflect. Lunge. Uppercut. Twist. The Force pulsated through and around him. He sensed the web spreading out, surrounding him. Seeking to destroy him. Still he danced.
The Force beckoned him forward. He willingly followed. Into the circle of death. With no one to protect his back, he knew he would fall. But all that mattered was this moment -- and the will of the Force.
He leapt high in a corkscrew spin that turned his blue blade into a whirling blur. He touched down, prepared to die.
A loudspeaker boomed across the plaza. "Cease fire! This is Commander Skelty. Cease fire immediately!"
The command echoed over the suddenly frozen tableau. Obi-Wan stood in battle stance, chest heaving, his lightsaber humming in front of him. Around him, C-Sec officers exchanged uncertain glances.
Mere meters beyond the cordon surrounding Obi-Wan, a C-Sec transport descended toward the plaza. A meter above the deck, the hatch opened and a stream of officers flowed out of the transport and encircled the existing ring.
Obi-Wan closed his eyes for a nanosecond and powered down his blade. He clipped it to his belt. To continue the fight was to invite carnage. He didn't know which of these men were really C-Sec and which weren't. If they chose to kill him, so be it. He opened his eyes and met the black stare of a swarthy C-Sec major. His hatred was palpable.
The hunter. Obi-Wan held the gaze of his enemy, and wondered from whence the enmity grew. He didn't know this man. But he had met
the Dark Side before. And this man was steeped in it.
The loudspeaker sounded again. "All Security personnel within the circle are to put down your weapons."
Obi-Wan blinked his surprise. Malice flared in the major's eyes. He raised his blaster and took aim at Obi-Wan's chest. The Jedi dove towards the major, slightly to the left. He landed on his hand and swung his legs in a long arc. His boots caught the major at the ankle and swept his feet from under him. The blaster fired harmlessly into the air.
Rolling smoothly into a crouch, Obi-Wan flowed to his feet and watched impassively as two officers from the outer cordon wrestled binders onto the major. All around the circle, weapons clattered to the ground.
Two figures emerged from the transport. Bemused, Obi-Wan regarded Yoda and a golden-skinned C-Sec commander approaching him. Yoda shuffled with inherent dignity, his chin held high and ears level. His green eyes shone with pride, even as his lips pressed together sternly. Obi-Wan clenched his jaw to keep from smiling, and dropped to one knee.
The double cordon opened. The Jedi master and C-Sec commander halted in front of Obi-Wan. The knight dipped his chin to his chest and waited for Yoda to speak.
It was the commander who broke the silence. "Obi-Wan Kenobi, all charges pending against you are hearby dropped."
Obi-Wan's head jerked up. His eyes questioned Yoda, who nodded his affirmation. Obi-Wan stood and turned to the commander. "All charges?"
"Yes," Commander Skelty replied. "The officers you killed at the warehouse weren't C-Sec at all, as it turned out. But then, I suspect you knew that." Obi-Wan nodded as the commander continued, "Your Master Yoda alerted me to the, ah, warning bells he had when he met Major Tem. Under his advice, I put my own surveillance operation into effect. Unfortunately, the only way we could discover his inclinations was to put you at great risk. And Master Windu, as it turned out."
Obi-Wan frowned in confusion. "What happened to Mace?"
"An attempt was made on his life. We got it all on surveillance holos. We took the suspects into custody once they were well away from the scene, and I fully expect they will turn out to be connected with Tem. Master Yoda confirmed that it was Tem who used your friend, Astri Oddo, as bait to discover your whereabouts. And now we have Tem for this attempt on your life." Skelty paused. "I don't know how many of these men will turn out to be part of his operation, but I thank you for not killing any of them."
Obi-Wan nodded curtly. A disturbance to the side drew his attention. A smile grew at the sight of Padm? elbowing her way through the ring of C-Sec officers. She dashed towards Obi-Wan and threw herself at him. He hugged her grimly.
Suddenly remembering where he was, Obi-Wan unloosed Padm?'s grip and stepped back hastily. He felt Yoda's intense scrutiny and strained to dissipate the heat creeping up his neck and across his cheeks. Couldn't he even accept a hug without someone coming to a wrong conclusion?
Skelty cleared his throat. "Chancellor Palpatine has asked that I personally escort Senator Amidala back to her apartments. If you are ready, we can leave immediately, Senator."
Obi-Wan could almost feel Padm? don her political persona, and he had to squelch his irritation. Her voice was very quiet. "As you wish, Commander." She turned to Obi-Wan. "Thank you, Master Kenobi, for your diligent protection." She extended her hand.
Taking her hand, Obi-Wan brushed his thumb across her fingers, and then touched his lips to her knuckles. He lingered a second longer than necessary. "It was my honor to serve you thus, Senator."
Obi-Wan released her hand and swept into a low bow. When he looked up Padm? was already walking toward the transport.
Skelty's second-in-command was crouched beside Yoda, chattering in his ear. He listened half-heartedly as the man droned on about running in-depth security checks on every officer involved in the search operation Tem had headed.
The Jedi master's attention was focused on Obi-Wan, as Mace led him to a speeder waiting to whisk him to the Temple. Obi-Wan had yet to fully raise his shields again. Sadness, resignation, perhaps even longing -- these emotions swirled and eddied through the young knight. What had transpired these last few days to arouse such stark feelings?
A bond had been formed between the knight and the senator. Yoda hoped Obi-Wan knew what he was doing. He sighed.
Obi-Wan spun, his shields snapping into place as his gaze zeroed in on Yoda. They stared at each other for a long moment. Yoda inclined his head in honor of the proud Jedi who faced him with no trace of fear or regret. Obi-Wan visibly relaxed and vaulted into the back seat of the speeder. He clapped Mace on the shoulder and smiled when the dark-skinned Jedi winced. Mace said something and Obi-Wan laughed.
Yoda watched the speeder zip into the unending river of traffic, nodding absently as the man beside him continued his droning chronicle of C-Sec efficiency.
Obi-Wan held the babe in his arms. He chucked the tiny chin and looked up to smile at Astri. "Can baby boys be beautiful? This one is. Beautiful." He returned his attention to clear blue eyes staring out of a cherubic face. He brushed his fingertips over a thick mat of black hair. Reluctance tugged at his thoughts as he laid the baby back in his mother's arms.
The door opened and a tall black-haired man stepped into the room. Obi-Wan stood as the man's long stride ate the distance between them. The Jedi extended his hand. "I'm Obi-Wan Kenobi."
A durasteel grip caught Obi-Wan's hand and squeezed. Obi-Wan smiled tightly and looked up into eyes as blue as the baby's . Gelff wasn't quite as tall as Qui-Gon had been, but close. The man's assessing gaze softened and he said, "Gelff Nardo. Pleased to finally meet you."
His hand was released, and Obi-Wan surreptitiously flexed his fingers behind his back. He had been prepared to accept a black eye from the man, instead he had been offered friendship. Astri had herself a good man.
Gelff sat on the edge of the bed and curled his arm around Astri. He slipped a large finger into the baby's tight little reflexive grip. A lump of wistful longing clogged Obi-Wan's throat as he regarded the family before him. An image arose in his mind -- he and Luminara and ... Obi-Wan shunted the thought aside. Jedi didn't have children, only friendships. He cleared his throat. "What did you name him?"
"Jalal," Astri replied.
"Jalal Nardo." Obi-Wan smiled. "A strong name. And he will be strong, with you as his parents and Coruscant his home."
"No," Gelff replied tersely.
Obi-Wan arched one brow. Astri smiled apologetically. "Ever since our union, Gelff's parents have been asking us to take over the family farm. They have been raising Gelff's other two children by his first union -- Lithia and Druce. We've decided it's time to make our two families into one. "
Obi-Wan exclaimed, "Farm? You?"
"Don't look at me like that," Astri admonished.
"Sorry. It's just that ..." Obi-Wan shrugged. "Where is this farm?"
"Selonia," Gelff replied.
"Corellian system," Obi-Wan said. He grinned. "You'll do fine there, Astri. Especially since Jalal will have a brother and sister, with a few more to come, I'm sure."
Astri blushed. She glanced up at Gelff. Their gazes lingered, and Obi-Wan knew he no longer existed for them. He suddenly didn't want to witness what he could never experience.
Not bothering to say good-bye, Obi-Wan slipped out of the room. He paused by a large window in the waiting room and inhaled slow breaths as he stared blindly at the skyscape. It struck him that Padm? had escaped without revealing who it was she dreamed about. He hoped she found the happiness he could never seek.
Obi-Wan wheeled around, almost crashing into Winna. Force, she'd healed him more times than he cared to remember. Now her eyes reflected the overwhelming sadness that was threatening to crush his soul. He'd always been transparent to her. She held out her arms.
Shaking his head, Obi-Wan swept past her offered comfort. He needed some time alone.
Padm? stared blindly out the window. She felt incapable of motion. She had kept her promise to Anakin. And she had befriended the enigmatic Obi-Wan Kenobi. He wasn't so mysterious after all. And neither was he the ogre Anakin sometimes claimed. She should be happy. So why did it feel like she had betrayed them both?
No time to examine her thoughts -- duty called. Duty always called. Padm? felt suffocated by duty. She needed ... she wanted ...
Her silent longings trailed into a quiet sigh.
Dorm? appeared at her side. Dear Dorm?. Padm? had been so relieved when she'd found out that, after the explosion, the remaining Jedi had ushered most of the consulate's denizens to safety -- Dorm? included. Now her most trusted attendant stood silently by her side for a moment.
"You are troubled, Senator." Dorm? spoke softly.
"I am in need," Padm? replied, equally quietly.
"Please let me help."
"You cannot." Padm? stopped, the sudden urge to go to Obi-Wan, to tell him the truth, rising to the fore. She turned to Dorm?. "How much time until the banquet begins?"
Dorm? glanced at her chrono. "Eighty-five minutes. Fifteen of which will be spent in travel." She hesitated. "But ..."
"Anakin arrived just a few minutes ago. He is ... pacing. Should I show him in, or shall we deal with your other concern first?"
Padm? took a soothing breath. "No. It was nothing of importance. Show him in."
Padm? stiffened as she faced the door. She despised deception. And theirs was going to end. Tonight. She loved Anakin too much to let him continue lying to his master and friend. To her friend. Anakin could tell Obi-Wan, or she would, it was Anakin's choice. But it was time that Obi-Wan learned the truth.
He had kissed a married woman. Not that he had meant to kiss her -- maybe someday his intended target would feel his gentle caress. Padm? smiled as the door opened and her husband hastened toward her.
The ceiling was completely unchanged from an hour ago. Obi-Wan knew because he had been staring at it the entire time. He couldn't summon the will to do anything. His mind was blessedly blank. And he liked it that way. If he wasn't thinking, he wasn't thinking of her. He had to pull himself together. But ... not yet. He needed to mourn this unexpected desire for a family. He needed to say good-bye to a dream that had never really been his. Somehow.
Had Qui-Gon ever faced this battle? He had loved and had lost Tahl. The person, not the dream. Force, how could he look into Luminara's eyes the next time she dropped by? She would see the truth. But she was gracious; she would offer to help him in any way she could. It was one of the things he loved about her. Love. Friendship was a form of love. It would be enough. It would have to be -- he wasn't going to lose her, lose what they had.
A quiet whoosh sounded from the living area. The outer door. Anakin. Still, Obi-Wan couldn't dredge up the energy to move. He heard a rustling in the doorway and slowly turned his head towards the sound.
Anakin leaned against the doorjamb, arms crossed, flesh over top of metal, looking as lazily arrogant as ever. His voice held a tint of ire. "Why would Master Yoda feel the need to waylay me the second I stepped inside the Temple? Why would he feel obligated to ask me if I had ever noticed anything ... suspicious... between you and Padm??"
Obi-Wan blinked his astonishment. "Likely because he saw friendship and it surprised him, knowing as he does, how little I like politicians."
Tension eased from Anakin's frame. He flexed the golden fingers of his artificial arm and stepped into the room. "Padm? told me what happened. She ..." He peered out the window above Obi-Wan's head. "She was very insistent that I tell you ..."
Obi-Wan sat up, sensing the turmoil in his padawan. "Tell me what?"
Anakin said nothing. After a moment, shutters seemed to fall over his face and he stared at Obi-Wan with unfathomable eyes. "Thank you. She insisted I say 'thank you' for her."
"She already told me that herself." Obi-Wan's eyes narrowed. "Are you keeping secrets from me, Padawan?"
Anakin snorted. Disdain infused his expression. "How could a padawan keep a secret from his master? Especially one so powerful as you, Obi-Wan?" He retreated and paused by the doorway. "Do you mind if I retire and give you my report in the morning? I'm tired."
"Did you run into any trouble?"
"No. It was incredibly boring. The space freighter I was hitching a ride from broke down. Such a simple repair I could've done it in my sleep." Anakin inclined his head toward the hallway. "May I?"
Obi-Wan waved his okay. He stared at the empty doorway. An image arose in his mind, of Anakin and Padm? kissing, a shimmering lake behind them. He shook his head. He was tired, too. What foolishness, to think his dilemma was shared by his padawan.
Luminara would laugh. Obi-Wan smiled. It would be worth a little embarrassment to hear her laughter again.
Yoda stopped drawing circles in the sand with his gimer stick. He lifted his face to the artificial light bathing the Room of a Thousand Fountains. He closed his eyes, stretched out his senses and immersed them in the Force. He inhaled slowly and went back to his circles.
A shadow fell across the diminutive Jedi master. Obi-Wan sat on the bench beside him. "If you have a concern, please ask me directly next time."
"Mmm. Foolish, I was, to ask young Skywalker such a thing. So clouded, everything was, that struck by a moment of uncertainty, I was." He peered out of the corner of his eye at Obi-Wan. The knight looked strained, tired, as if he had been up all night, but Yoda could sense his inner peace. "Should I be worried, Obi-Wan?"
"My days spent with Padm? turned us into friends. Is that cause for concern?"
"No," Yoda replied. He drew another circle. "Fleeting for some, happiness is."
"Happiness is not our goal."
"Do you ever desire it, Obi-Wan?"
"I ..." Obi-Wan looked into Yoda's green eyes and smiled. "You mean the happiness that family brings? Yes, I do. I think I would be less than a man if I didn't. But ... I am also a Jedi. Friendship will suffice."
"Mmm. Wise you are, for one so young."
"Young? Sometimes I feel more ancient than you, Master. Sometimes I feel like I'm an old man standing in the middle of a wind-torn desert, eroding into nothing. Watching my years of service blow away, like particles of sand before a tempest."
Unease trickled down Yoda's spine. "Prophetic, I hope that feeling is not. Well lived, a life lived in service is. Happiness vanishes. Service remains. Seeks always to serve, a Jedi does."
"Yes, Master." Obi-Wan stood. He took a step and halted. "Do you think that I'm obnoxious? Or ... elitist?"
Arching his brows, Yoda leaned on his gimer stick. "Serious charges, those are. Meditate on them, you must. Where did you ...?"
Obi-Wan waved the question away. "It doesn't matter. And now, I must go wake the charge that has made me wise beyond my years. I'll make a Jedi of him if it kills me."
Yoda snorted. He watched Obi-Wan walk away, noted the power ... and the arrogance in his step. He sensed that, someday, Obi-Wan would lose that arrogance in a crushing defeat. But it would not break him.
And what doesn't break you, makes you stronger.
A Jedi, you are, Obi-Wan. A Jedi, you will remain, until one with the Force, you become. Yoda drew another circle and nodded to himself.
Original cover art by Cosmic. HTML formatting copyright 2003 TheForce.Net LLC.