Part II of the Proposal Anthology. The fanfic writers present their ideas on how Anakin and Padme became engaged.
They were on their way to Naboo. Unlike the journey to Naboo they had last taken, Padm? and Anakin were alone for most of the journey. This should have meant a strengthening of their bond, but Anakin was quiet and brooding. That was no mystery to Padm?. He had suffered so many losses in such a few days: his mother, his hand, his once-stable life, fellow Jedi.
She still felt hurt about his attitude. She thought that they had forged an unbreakable bond that day, when she bared the deepest part of her soul to him. Why won't he accept my comfort, my love, now?
Her thoughts bombarded her as the ship landed on her home planet. A mere night and day cycle and he'll be gone from my life forever.
When they landed on the planet and reached Padm?'s summer villa, Anakin excused himself for the night in the fewest words possible. As he went into the guest room and shut the door, she sighed. And he won't even talk to me.
After a few moments of hesitation, she opened the door to his room.
"Anakin." Her lips formed the word softly, slowly, gently.
Deep in meditation, he barely acknowledged her presence with a nod. His bionic hand reflected the low lighting of the room. Its shine was a coat of gold over a rotting wall: even the most precious, gaudy substance could not substitute for a reality lost forever.
Padm? sat down next to Anakin. For a split second, his intense blue eyes opened slightly. They caught the small scrap of wood that hung around Padm?'s neck. He let out a small gasp. Grabbing her hands in his, he stood, bringing Padm? up with him. He unclasped the chain around her neck, and held up the japor snippet. In a swift motion, he cracked it in half.
Padm? gasped. "Anakin?" she said uncertainly.
He turned one of the halves over into his one real hand. Something small fell out of the wooden trinket, and he closed his hand around it. Anakin then looked into Padm?'s eyes.
"Padm?..." Her name was a blessing emerging from a curse, security from fear, light begot of darkness, love and longing and eternity, a paradox on his lips.
"I...I don't know how to put this into meager words, my lady. My love." His dark blue eyes were filled with such tenderness. Not the fierce desire she had seen in him before, not a lightening strike that is brilliant for a moment and then is gone; but a slow-burning flame that leaves behind embers and soft ashes.
She could not utter a single word, not wanting to profane the pregnant silence that ensued, the soft darkness that matured their love from the hunger of bodies into the fusion of souls.
"My hand. I never knew it until it was gone. My freedom. I dreamed of it always, but never thought it could happen. My mother. I loved her, and someone else did. I wanted to free her, and someone else did. I wanted to save her, and no one could." His head went down, and she could see a salty droplet fall from a long-lashed eye.
"She's gone forever, and there's nothing I can do about it. But I can do another thing I've been meaning to do, and try not to lose another dear to me." He kneeled on the ground before her.
"Padm? Amidala, will you not only accept my love, but my soul, for all it is worth? Unlike my birth, I give my freedom willingly, and will enslave myself happily to my one true love." Padm? could hardly believe what he was saying.
She quickly regained her composure. "Anakin Skywalker, I do not accept your offer of slavery."
His face fell.
"I do not believe in mandatory servitude. However, I do take you, if you accept my soul in exchange for yours."
Delighted, he stood up and kissed her.
She was surprised. All the other kisses had been deep and probing, desiring something more. But this one was pure. It said what mere words couldn't: the love not of bodies, but of souls. The love a mother has for a child in her womb, a poet for his words, a true ruler for his people. Not for something that is desired, but for something that simply is.
It was as if the lovers were transported to another place, a place where love could play out against any background and in worse circumstances than theirs.
"I present myself as I am: one-armed, fatherless, inexperienced, arrogant former slave. And you accept me?" His voice was full of wonder.
"Anakin Skywalker, I take you just as you are: the touch of your arm more valuable than anything else, born of purity, unspoiled, confident, and a Jedi." Padm?'s eyes shone brighter than any of the stars that they could see out in space. To Anakin, there was nothing and no one else in the universe but her. He opened his hand, and Padm? glimpsed the most beautiful piece of jewelry she had even seen. Tiny silvery leaves clasped a stone that reminded her of the pale-blue waters of Naboo.
"When I was a child on Tatooine, I once went to an area of the desert that was an ocean millions of years ago. I dug around, and found a seastone, the only hope for water in a desert. I fashioned it into a ring. At that time, I was at the point where my life was beginning to feel hopeless. My dreams at night were like a cool escape from the dusty heat. At my lowest point of despair, I saw you, your face familiar from my night journeys. You were hope - my only hope. And then I got what I wished for: freedom. I knew that we would part, but my heart told me we would meet again. If the hope from my dream would be realized, my sign would be the japor snippet, with my love inside of it." He placed the ring on her finger, then took her hand.
They lay side by side, letting silence and love do the talking, until the dawn came: the Dawn of their new lives. The sun bathed them in its golden rays, binding them into One.
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She absolutely refused to leave his side, and no one tried to argue with her. For when Padm? Amidala laid her stubborn foot down, no one could pry it back up.
She watched as Anakin Skywalker was placed into a bacta tank aboard a Republic ship and was afterwards taken to a bed to rest. She never left his side.
For the first time in her life, Padm? thought of herself as a woman first and then a senator. There were moments when she felt bad for thinking in such a way when the rest of the galaxy was in turmoil. She felt especially guilty every time Master Obi-Wan Kenobi came to look in on Anakin. His presence reminded her of everything that Anakin was putting on the line for her. But then she would look down at the sleeping form, and the feelings of a woman in love overtook the duties of a senator.
Padm? truly loved Anakin. She had told him so just before they had entered the Geonosian arena, and there was no turning back. No taking back her words. No denying the declaration. To do so would be lying to herself, to the people around her, and most of all to the man she loved, and Padm? had always vowed to be honest and true.
Such honesty was crucial when it came to love. She almost laughed aloud as she suddenly recalled her conversation with Anakin in the meadow and the confession of her first "love."
Padm? reached out and squeezed Anakin's hand.
Anakin was a remarkably fast healer. The medics assured him that as soon as they reached Coruscant, he could be fitted with a prosthetic arm. Padm? briefly wondered how this replacement limb would affect him. As a Jedi, he would not care about the loss of his arm. He would not care if Padm? saw him with a hideous-looking prosthetic. He would know that she would love him no matter what.
Every time he woke up, her lovely face, etched with concern, was always looking down at him. The light seemed to create a halo around her. Padm? blushed as Anakin joked that the deep space pilots on Tatooine were both right and wrong.
Angels did exist, but they were definitely not from the moons of Iego.
Whenever Obi-Wan checked in on Anakin, he always left quickly, exchanging only a few brief words with his Padawan, little things that Padm? did not fully understand. She supposed it was part of Anakin's training. The Jedi Knight always seemed embarrassed when he left, as if he had interrupted a private and intimate moment. In truth, it wouldn't have mattered when he dropped by. Every moment with Anakin was intimate.
Every moment with him was special.
She never left his side until they reached Coruscant. Padm? boarded an air taxi that would take her to the senators' apartments, while Anakin and Obi-Wan climbed into a small speeder destined for the Jedi Temple. Padm? and Anakin looked back at each other. Even from a distance, the look in Anakin's eyes was clear.
She knew she had the exact same expression written all over her face.
He came by several days later, informing her that he would be escorting her back to Naboo. As she quickly gathered her things together, she noticed his new golden limb. Anakin followed her gaze to the fingers that opened and closed with a soft mechanical whirr.
Padm? crossed the bedroom and took Anakin's prosthetic hand in her own. The coldness meant nothing to her. She would love him, metal or no metal.
During the journey to Naboo, Anakin stayed by her side, much as she had stayed by his on the way to Coruscant. He didn't say anything to her aside from announcing their arrival. Once again, they took a gondola to her lake retreat. Once again, he helped her out. This time, however, he didn't let go of her hand, and she made no attempt to pull it away.
They slowly walked toward the terrace where they had shared their first kiss. The morning sun bathed them in warmth as they gazed out over the crystal blue water. Neither one was nervous or scared. They both knew the truth, and they had both accepted it. There was only a sense of peace as they both knew what was going to happen between them.
Finally, Anakin turned to her and broke the silence.
"I should ask you. It wouldn't be proper otherwise."
Padm? smiled, her heart melting at his chivalrous behavior.
"Then ask," she replied calmly, noticing how the water was the same shade of clear blue as his eyes.
He held her hand and ran his thumb over her fingers. "How long will it take for you to get a dress?"
Padm? blinked, her brow furrowing in confusion. Then she saw the look on Anakin's face, a look she knew all too well by now. The look where he turned his gaze downward and pressed his lips together slightly. The look that Anakin had whenever he was trying desperately not to laugh.
She ducked her head beneath his and looked up into his eyes, which were full of mischief. "Oh!" she cried, annoyed that he'd been playing with her. "I'm sure Palo wouldn't have done that."
Anakin laughed and caught her hand as she playfully swatted at his head. The laughter suddenly died as he gently pressed his lips to her palm. The touch made her heart race, and the intense look in his eyes did nothing to calm her. She could feel his warm breath against her hand as she gently brushed her fingers against his face.
After what seemed like eons, Anakin's grip tightened ever so slightly on her hand. Padm? could read his question in his eyes, but she wanted to hear him say it. She had often dreamed of such a moment, but it had been long ago when she had simply been a little girl who wanted to help people and not a queen who had to resolve their political tensions.
Anakin's voice did not falter at all.
"Will you marry me?"
It was now that Padm? had a choice. She could remember her duty to her people. She could say no and return to her life as a senator. She could turn Anakin away and say it was not worth it to give up the life of a Jedi Knight for her. She could have given so many reasons why she should refuse.
Not a single one came to mind as her warm brown eyes held Anakin's gaze.
He leaned forward and brushed his lips gently against hers. The kiss deepened as they wound their arms around each other, and Padm? only vaguely felt Anakin's metal hand pressed against her waist. Such details were trivial now. She felt something swirl around them, wrapping them in a shield to protect them from the evils of the galaxy. It seemed like the world around them had come to a complete stop and that only the two of them existed. Had that been true, she would not have complained. And so she was slightly disappointed when Anakin pulled away.
He smiled slyly. "So how long will it take you to get a dress?"
He had never failed to make her laugh.
Little did she know he would someday make her cry.
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The tall, handsome young man leaned languidly against the pillar, scanning the room with his stormy blue eyes. No outward betrayal of emotion showed on his face, but inside he was seething in a storm of feeling. His eyes sought out the beautiful brown-haired woman across the room. She was deep in conversation with a group of people when he caught her gaze. His eyes fixed on her deep brown ones and held them, staring deeply into them, sending her a message that only she could decipher. The room suddenly seemed to get warmer as the heat generated by the locked gazes of the young lovers escalated quickly.
As he watched her, she excused herself from the conversation and moved swiftly through the milling throng of beings, her gauzy white dress swirling around her shapely body as she felt the tug of his gaze calling her to his side. As he watched her wend her way through the crowded dance floor, his eyes never left hers - telling her without words how he felt about her.
The smell of her hair, like sunlight on flowers seemed to fill his senses as his eyes drank in her beauty. The jewels on her dress sparkled in the lights of the ballroom but to him they only detracted from the perfection that was Padm?. She was the sun of his world and he found himself a willing slave to her orbit, anything to be near her - she was intoxicating.
As she slipped around the last impediment between them, a large Twi'lek, and came fully into view again, he was stunned anew at the rush of love that he felt toward her - certain that his every thought was being broadcast to the hundreds of Republic citizens attending the ball. His gaze slid over her face, the beautiful brown eyes, the perfect porcelain skin, and the lush mouth that he could hardly wait to taste as she slid into his arms and met his kiss...
"Anakin!" Obi-Wan said, looking askance at his young Padawan who was caught in the grip of a powerful daydream. "Be mindful of your thoughts, they do betray you! You are a Jedi Knight in training, not some young fool who can fall in love with a Senator without consequences!"
Anakin blinked quickly as he opened his eyes and found himself staring into the angry blue eyes of his master instead of the beautiful brown eyes of his beloved Padm?.
"Our duty to protect the Senator from her assassins is over! You must keep your mind on the upcoming tasks before us! You cannot fall in love with her!" Obi-Wan stated sternly but quietly, looking his Padawan directly in the eye, mindful as ever that there were ears everywhere.
Anakin quickly looked away as the last remnants of the dream slipped away. As he came back to his surroundings he mumbled, "Yes, Master." The fingers of his prosthetic hand clenching reflexively. There really was no outward difference between the two hands now, but Anakin was still bothered by the fact that he wasn't whole anymore. Those feelings seemed to manifest themselves the most when his Master was calling him on his actions. One of Anakin's first tasks when he returned to the Jedi Temple had been to make his own prosthesis, far superior to the gold mechanical one they had given him before he left for Naboo.
"You look tired, Anakin. Is your hand bothering you?" Obi-wan asked, noticing the reflexive motion and looking at his Padawan with worry.
"It's fine, just takes some getting used to that's all," Anakin whispered as his hands clenched and unclenched at his side, one human and robotic. He strode away from his master and went to stand on the balcony overlooking the teeming city world of Coruscant. Obi-Wan followed him, an almost fatherly concern for the young man evident on his face.
"I'm worried about you, Anakin. The Council has decided that you are ready to take the Trials to become a Jedi Knight. You will have to be at your very best to succeed. I don't think now is the right time for you to take them but the Council has disagreed. You are to commence the Trials in the morning," Obi-Wan said as he walked up behind Anakin and put his hand on his Padawan's shoulder. "Do you feel that you need more time to prepare?"
"No! Master, I have been waiting for this day for years! I am more than ready to take the Trials and my place as a Jedi Knight. This is the best possible news that you could have brought me!" Anakin said excitedly, impulsively hugging the older man and in his exuberance, completely forgetting the fact that Obi-Wan didn't think he was ready.
"Anakin, relax. You still have to pass the Trials, remember?" Obi-Wan said, shaking his head at his Padawan. "I think that you should go to one of the meditation chambers and begin your preparations now. I will come and get you when it is time."
"Yes Master, and thank you for everything," Anakin said.
Deep within the Jedi Temple, Anakin sat on a solitary meditation couch in a small, windowless room decorated in muted tones of sand and brown. As he began to prepare himself mentally for the challenge ahead, he could not help but think about the last few weeks, specifically the night that he asked Padm? to marry him...
Anakin and Padm? spent the long journey from Geonosis to Coruscant in Padm?'s ship sleeping and just holding each other. They could scarcely believe that they were still alive, and in relatively one piece after their harrowing experience in the execution ring.
Once they reached Coruscant, Anakin was immediately immersed in a Bacta tank and preparations were made to fit him with his prosthetic hand. Padm?'s wounds from the nexu had also been treated with Bacta but since they weren't as serious, she only needed a couple of hours of treatment in a tank.
Obi-Wan was surprised to see Padm? in the Medical Facility when he came to see how Anakin was getting along, but he had suspected that there was more than innocent concern on her part. After witnessing Anakin's rage and pain when Padm? had fallen out of the ship, he knew that his Padawan had developed dangerous feelings for the Senator from Naboo. Seeing her here, waiting for Anakin made Obi-wan realize that the feelings between them ran both ways and that he was powerless to stop them, unless he went to the Council. He had no proof, however, and he was loath to betray his Padawan's position to the Council without it. How he wished Master Qui-Gon was still here; he could really use his master's advice about this problem.
"Good morning Senator Amidala. How is our patient doing today?" Obi-Wan asked politely as he came into the tank room.
"He is getting out today. The hand is ready to be attached and then he will be able to relearn how to use it. He seems very impatient to be out of there and out here with us," Padm? said with a laugh as she watched Anakin awaken and swim over to the wall of the tank and plead with his eyes for them to hurry this process up.
"Patience is one thing that Anakin has never succeeded in mastering," Obi-Wan replied as he watched the droid roll over to the tank and begin the procedure to extract Anakin. The mechanical arm gleamed from a table in the corner, its garish gold color a marked contrast to the sterile white walls of the medical facility.
"Do you think it will take him long to regain the use of his arm?" a concerned Padm? asked Obi-Wan as her gaze slid from Anakin's face in the tank to the arm in the corner.
"According to the doctors, he should be able to have full use of his arm in only a couple of weeks. He will also be able to have a more normal looking prosthesis once his body adjusts to having an implant. Knowing Anakin though, it will be a time of much frustration as he will want to be able to master the use of it immediately."
Obi-Wan didn't really know why he was revealing so much of his thoughts to the Senator, but since she seemed to care as much about Anakin's well being as he did, he couldn't really see the harm in it. If she loved Anakin as much as he seemed to love her, she should know all about Anakin's impulsive nature by now.
"Oh, here he comes," Padm? said with a start, seeing anew the cauterized stump of arm that was to be a constant reminder of Anakin's battle with Count Dooku.
Finally freed from the tank after three long days of immersion, Anakin ripped the respirator out of his mouth in his haste to finally be able to talk to Padm?. The droid quickly wrapped him in a cotton robe and handed him a towel to dry his hair. Anakin haphazardly ran the towel over his head with his good arm and shivered a little as his body adjusted to the cooler air temperature. The Bacta had been very warm to stimulate the healing process and by contrast the air in the medical facility was very frigid.
"Padm?! Master! I am so glad to finally be out of that blasted tank! I was going crazy in there seeing everything going on out here but unable to participate in anything! Master, have you heard anything of Dooku, has he been caught yet?"
"No, Anakin but there is a bounty out on his head now that his part in the conspiracy has been discovered. He will not be able to show his face anywhere in the Republic without being hunted," Obi-Wan said as he looked at his bedraggled Padawan, whose hair was wetly plastered to his head, and who was minus the lower right arm that had saved Obi-Wan's life.
"Are you ready for your implant now?" the medical droid asked Anakin, smoothly rolling to a stop right in front of him.
"Yes, let's get this over with," Anakin replied through gritted teeth, with renewed hatred for the lost Jedi Master Count Dooku. Anakin's face registered the severe emotion that was seething inside of him; almost but not quite out of control.
"Anakin! Control yourself! You are broadcasting your feelings so widely that even a child could feel them!"
"I'm sorry Master, I am trying," Anakin said, looking contrite.
"I know Anakin that this cannot be easy for you but you must accept it and move on with your life. They say that you will have almost the same control with this mechanical hand as with your own."
"But it's not my own, is it Master!" Anakin interrupted, his eyes stormily glaring at the older Jedi. Obi-Wan's pained grimace made Anakin inhale deeply and exhale, letting the anger flow out of him as well. Padm? was looking at him in concern as the droid motioned him over to a chair set into the wall. A tray of implements lay on a table ready for the doctor to begin.
"I can see that I am doing nothing but upsetting you further, Anakin. I will take my leave now. Please come and find me when you are finished. The Council has given you as much time as you need to regain the use of your hand and I thought in the intervening time, you could escort Senator Amidala home to Naboo. The Senate is in recess for a couple of weeks in order for them to begin informing their constituents what has happened and what path the future will hold. There is going to be a war and many preparations need to be made." Obi-Wan bowed to Padm? and looked warmly at Anakin before spinning on his heel and striding toward the door. "Good luck, Anakin," he called as he walked out of the door.
Anakin breathed a mighty sigh of relief as Obi-wan left the room.
"Stars! I am glad he is gone! I have been wanting to hold you for the last three days," Anakin said to Padm? as he engulfed her in an embrace. She willingly went into his arms and met his lips for a soul-stirring kiss. That kiss abruptly ended as the droid hummed and tooted to itself, intent on its tasks and ignoring the humans entirely, but bringing back to them the reality of their surroundings.
"Do you think he suspects anything?" Padm? asked from the circle of his arms, looking at the door that Master Obi-Wan had just departed through.
"He suspects, but without proof he will do nothing. He will get none from me. The less he knows about us, the better. I am glad though, that he and the Council have given me leave to take you home. I want to go back to the resort and heal for a while. The peace and quiet of our last visit will be a long time in coming again and I want to spend some time alone with you. We have a lot of things to talk about," he said as he planted a quick kiss on her forehead before walking over and sitting in the chair. The doctor came in then and reattached the arm quickly and painlessly. In a short while, Anakin had a new golden arm to replace his lost one.
That night, Anakin and Padm? left Coruscant on Padm?'s starship, with Anakin at the controls. The couple was so eager to return to Naboo that they told no one they were leaving, save for Obi-Wan in a quick message sent to the Jedi Temple. Anakin knew that he would pay for his impudence later, but he couldn't wait to be alone with Padm? again.
As Obi-Wan read the quick message from Anakin he shook his head in disappointment over his Padawan's impetuous actions. Will the boy never learn? he thought to himself, as the blue image of Anakin faded. The implications of this latest action by his headstrong Padawan and Senator Amidala were not lost on Obi-Wan as he worried over the growing attraction between them, and what the consequences of it might be.
After arriving in Theed the next morning, they immediately went to the lake retreat where their love had first begun. Padm? had sent a quick message to Queen Jamillia from the ship telling the Queen that she was going to take a much-needed rest but she would be checking in with Queen Jamillia later in the week. Padm? also sent a message to her parents and to Sola to reassure them she was all right and that she and Anakin would be visiting them later in the week.
Anakin had big plans for his time with Padm?, chief among them asking her become his wife. Standing on the balcony outside of his room he gave some last minute instructions to Artoo, then looked around for Padm?.
She was looking out at the lake, at the balcony where they had shared that first, forbidden kiss. Padm?'s simple clothes accentuated her beauty and the sight of her almost brought Anakin to his knees. The cap-sleeved tunic was a deep cobalt color, with a softly draped neckline showing off her soft curves and making her skin glow with health. Her hair was pulled back at the crown by and then loose around her face in cascades of curls, his most favorite of all her hairstyles. Her tan colored pants were tucked into sturdy boots made of shaak leather. The outfit was perfect for the day he had planned.
Anakin walked over to her, his eyes drinking in her beauty. She returned his look and met it with an appraising one of her own. He was garbed in a simple tan tunic and darker brown pants with boots similar to hers. His sandy blonde hair was falling haphazardly and his blue eyes shone with happiness. He walked with a confidence that had been missing for the last couple of days and even his mechanical arm seemed to be less noticeable.
"How did you get my clothes here?" Padm? asked in wonderment as he came up beside her.
"I called Sola from Coruscant while you were packing and asked her to send over some appropriate vacation clothing for you. I knew you wouldn't have anything relaxed and comfortable with you in your apartments. Did she send the right things?" he asked anxiously.
"No wonder," Padm? mumbled blushing. She looked away quickly as the flush spread over her face and neck.
"What's wrong?" Anakin asked, taking her in his arms, concern written all over his face.
"It's nothing, just some of the things that she sent are a little, um racy," Padm? said as she blushed again, prettily. "I should have known it was her the minute I opened the drawers."
Anakin grinned wickedly at the word racy, his stomach jumping nervously as he took in Padm?'s blush and imagined the things that Sola had sent. Padm?'s sister had heartily approved of their burgeoning relationship and was actively encouraging them. Sola's huge smile as he had told her what he was planning was enough of a give away for Anakin to readily guess at some of the things that she had sent along for this trip.
Padm? cleared her throat softly, bringing Anakin's attention back to her.
"You look as though you want to devour me!" she said, laughing as he took her in his arms again and spun her around.
Anakin kissed her soundly and then, reluctantly drawing his lips away from hers, looked deep into her eyes and said, "I do."
"Sounds fun. I guess that means I pass inspection?" Padm? replied drolly, running her hands along his muscular shoulders, loving the feel of his strong body beneath her fingertips, his strong, wiry physique sending shivers down her back.
"Oh, yes, very much so. You take my breath away," Anakin said squeezing her a little tighter, the butterflies in his stomach becoming more frantic. He set Padm? down again and stood beside her, filling his mind with memories of her to savor when his Jedi duties called him away from her side.
"What do you have planned today? Artoo told me to wear something comfortable for walking. He also gave some of your instructions to Teckla but she wouldn't tell me what they were!" she said pouting slightly.
"It's a surprise," Anakin said mischievously as he grabbed Padm?'s hand and pulled her along to the dock. There was a two-person boat tied at the end of the pier and they strode quickly towards it. There were several packages tied into the storage compartment and though Padm? looked eagerly, she couldn't tell what any of them were. Anakin placed the small carrisack that he retrieved from Artoo in the back with the other packages and then turned to help her into the boat. He then jumped in himself. He could hardly wait to get this day started; there were so many things he wanted to do with her. The nuisance of his mechanical arm was only a slight bother as he took the craft out into the lake and sped towards the other shore. They arrived at their destination quickly and Anakin docked the small boat at the pier. He helped Padm? out of the small craft and then turning, used the Force, to lift the packages out of the boat and float them along behind them as they walked down the pier and over to the waiting rickshaw. A rolling droid was waiting patiently for them. Anakin loaded the bags quickly into the storage compartment of the vehicle and then, grinning hugely, picked up Padm? and gently deposited her into the cart. He captured her lips in a short, sweet kiss and then ran quickly around to the other side and leapt in. The droid took off as soon as he was settled, again giving Padm? no hint of their destination.
"How does the droid know where to go?" Padm? teased, looking at him out of the corner of her eye. "Did you use your mind tricks on him?"
"Nope," Anakin said, laughing. "Artoo told him our destination when he hired the rig."
"Oh," she said in mock disappointment, excited about the day that Anakin had planned. The ride took them through the beautiful countryside where they had spent many idyllic hours several weeks ago. Padm? smiled as the droid rolled into a beautiful meadow surrounded on three sides by lush waterfalls.
The meadow looked as beautiful as it had the last time they were here. It seemed like eons, even though it was less than a month ago. The tragic events of the past two weeks had sorely tested the resolve of the young couple and the idyllic times that they had spent here seemed to belong to another lifetime. Padm? smiled as she remembered herself during that time, fighting the inevitable, that she loved him as much as he loved her.
The cart rolled to a stop and Anakin jumped out. The soft smile that had come to her face as she remembered their previous visit to the meadow lingered. Anakin noticed her smile and gave her a huge grin in return. He helped Padm? out of the cart and then turned to busy himself with the packages in the rear. He pulled out a couple of small packages to carry, and then Force floated the rest of them behind him as he gestured for Padm? to precede him. He gave some soft-voiced instructions to the droid, who then rolled away, leaving them in complete privacy.
They walked out to almost the very spot where they had picnicked before. Anakin set down the packages that he was carrying and with a wave of his hand the others fell into a neat pile on the ground. Anakin quickly dug through them, bringing out a small tent and several blankets. He gave Padm? the small carrisack that he had gotten from Artoo earlier.
"I think we might be needing this soon," Anakin said as he handed it to her.
"Can I open it now?" Padm? asked, smiling at him, thanking him with her eyes for planning all of this.
"Yes," he said, watching her closely, anxious to see her reaction when she opened the bag.
Padm? quickly opened the small bag, pulling out a pair of woven black shorts for him and a stunning burgundy two-piece bathing suit for her. Padm?'s blush was instantaneous as she held up the skimpy bikini and then looked at Anakin. His blush followed quickly as their eyes met and they both burst out laughing. It was several minutes before they caught their breath again.
"Sola, again?" Padm? asked, still giggling slightly.
"Actually, I think your mother picked that one out," Anakin said straight-faced but was unable to hold it long at the look of shock on her face. He began laughing as he turned to set up the tent.
"I take it that we are going swimming then?" she asked him, holding up the suits and the two large towels that were in the bag.
"That was my plan, yes. Do you mind?" he said, turning toward her once again. "You told me the last time we were here that you used to love to swim so I thought we might do it now since we have the time."
"That sounds wonderful, Anakin. I love how you remember the smallest things that I say and then turn them into wonderful surprises for me. You are the most thoughtful man that I have ever encountered," Padm? said as she stepped closer to him, sliding her arms around his waist and laying her head on his chest. "I do love you so very much, Anakin. You make me completely, deliriously happy, happier than I have been in a long, long time."
Anakin felt the warmth of her love spreading through him as her words warmed his heart.
"Ah, Padm?, I love you more than life itself and I would do anything to make you happy. I am yours, forever." He put his fingers gently under her chin, tipping it up to receive his gentle kiss. He slid his lips over hers, the passion quickly rising between them as he slowly deepened the kiss, slanting his lips over hers again and again, losing himself in her arms.
As they stood there, locked in each other's embrace, time stood still and the world shrank to the circle of their arms. The wind still blew softly through the meadow, making the flowers dance on their stalks, but the young lovers were oblivious to anything but each other. Anakin slowly pulled his lips from hers and, taking the suits and towels; he led her to the tent.
"You can change first. There are some things I need to set up so that we can eat when we get back from our swim," he said, pulling aside the flap and holding it up for Padm? to enter.
"Thank you for today, and just for being you." She whispered, her eyes shining with the love that she felt for him. She pecked him softly on the cheek as she walked by him to enter the tent.
Anakin smiled and then closing the tent flap went to busy himself among the packages and try to keep his mind off of her changing in the tent just a few feet away.
Padm? pulled her hair up into a quick bun and then quickly changed into the skimpy two-piece suit. Wrapping the large towel around herself, she stepped outside. Anakin had set up a small awning over a table and chairs and was pulling things out of the packages.
"I almost forgot to give you some shoes to wear when you walk to the water," Anakin said as he ran over to her side, giving her some soft waterproof slippers to wear. He knelt down and helped her put them onto her feet.
"You thought of everything," she breathed as he stood up and smiled at her.
"I tried to. Let me know if I forgot anything and I can have Artoo bring it to us."
"Oh, Ani," Padm? laughed, reaching up to caress his cheek. "You are so sweet to be doing this."
"It's nothing. I am going in to change now. No peeking! And stay out of the packages, they are for later," Anakin laughed as he brushed by her, moving into the tent.
Padm? went to the table and sat in one of the chairs to wait for him. She had to do something to keep her mind off the thoughts that were swirling through her head as she pictured him inside the tent changing his clothes. She craned her neck, trying to look in the packages that he had opened. There was a bag full of her favorite shuura fruit, a picnic lunch in a cold pack box, a couple of wineskins covered in dewy drops and several thick blankets along with other things that she couldn't identify from where she was sitting.
"I'm ready!" Anakin yelled as he walked out of the tent. "You didn't look in the boxes did you?"
Padm? smiled at him and shook her head no.
Anakin walked over to where she was sitting and held out his hand to her. She rose gracefully and they walked hand in hand over the slight hill to where the spill pool of the waterfalls lay. It was a beautiful sight, the rainbows dancing on the spray, and the sun glinting off of the water. They laid their towels and shoes on a small rock and ran toward the water. Anakin was almost overcome when Padm? took off her towel; the sight of her in that revealing suit was delectable; it fit her like a glove, following the curves of her body like a lover's caress. He sent a mental thanks to Sola for sending the outrageous clothes for her that Padm? would have never chosen for herself.
Padm? kept stealing glances at Anakin's healthy young body as they ran to the edge of the water, noticing that the shorts he was wearing were snug and fit his lean body very well, the black fabric contrasting nicely with his bronzed body. They were both so busy looking at each other that they didn't realize when they hit the water and the coolness of it shocked them both back to their senses. They tiptoed into the water, their hands reaching out and grabbing hold of each other as the water rose higher and higher around their bodies. The bottom dropped out suddenly and they floated next to each other, fingers still entwined.
"You did say you knew how to swim, right, Anakin?" Padm? asked, grinning, as he looked uncomfortably around him. He grinned back at her suddenly, the uncomfortable feeling passing quickly as he realized anew who his companion was. Padm? wouldn't make fun of him or try to incorporate some lesson into their swim, as Master Obi-Wan would have.
"Yes, Master Obi-Wan threw me into the pool soon after I became his Padawan and wouldn't let me out until I learned how. I couldn't get up until I learned how to float. I found out later that the water was only up to my chest but that was the only way that he could think of to make me learn." Anakin looked deeply into her chocolate brown eyes, thinking again how lucky he was to have this woman in his life, to have her love him. She met his intense blue gaze and thought almost exactly the same thing about him.
The next two hours passed quickly as the pair wove in and out of each other's arms, playing and splashing each other with the water.
They reluctantly left the water when their skin started to wrinkle and the coolness of the lake was almost too much to bear. They waded out of the water hand in hand and up to the bank where the towels and shoes lay. Anakin picked up Padm?'s towel and wrapped it gently around her body before pulling his own around him. He pulled her into his arms and she laid her head on his bare chest listening to his heartbeat.
"That was fun," she said with her lips pressed against his warm skin.
"Yes it was, are you hungry now?"
"A little," Padm? said laughing as his stomach gave a huge growl, announcing that it would like to be fed, quickly.
He laughed as well and smiled at her with that little boy look that no woman could resist. "I am starving. Let's go eat!"
They ran back up the hill towards their small campsite.
When they got back to the campsite, Anakin gently pushed her toward the tent saying, "I am going to get everything set up, you go and dry off. Just hand me my clothes and I will change out here."
Padm? slipped inside the tent and handed Anakin the small pile of clothing that he had left inside.
As Padm? dropped the tent flap back down, Anakin ran the towel quickly over his body and hair, and then, moving off to the side of the tent, changed back into his tunic and pants. As soon as he was finished dressing, he sprinted down to where the awning was set up and started to pull things out of the boxes.
With the basket that Teckla had packed for him that morning, he quickly set the table. She had included a beautiful set of dishes and silverware along with it. He made a mental note to thank her for her thoughtfulness when they returned to the retreat. He then spread several of the thick blankets that he had brought along on the ground next to the awning. Pulling four plump pillows out of another box, he laid them on top of the blankets. He didn't know how much longer Padm? would be so he worked as quickly as possible to get everything done before she finished changing. Everything was going to be perfect, he thought to himself and he knew that he would remember this day for as long as he lived.
Padm? stepped out of the tent and made her way down to where Anakin was busily rummaging through the remaining boxes. Her breath caught in her throat as she took in the scene before her. Anakin had set a beautiful table and then loaded it with all of her favorite foods. He must have asked Sola what I liked, she thought, smiling at his thoughtfulness. The afternoon sun was warm and languid warmth seeped into her as she looked at Anakin moving around the campsite. She realized again how sweet and attentive he was and gave silent thanks that she had finally given in to the love that she had for him, had finally told him the truth about how she felt as he had done the last time they were here.
Padm?'s hair was loose again and fell softly around her shoulders and down her back in soft curls. The soft fabric of the tunic and pants were so comfortable to wear after the formal clothing that she normally wore in her Senatorial role. Padm? wished that she could spend every day like this one; with the man she loved on her home planet, being just Padm? and Anakin together, without having to worry about the ills of the Republic. She came up quietly behind him and slipped her arms around his waist, laying her head on his shoulder.
"I was wondering if you were ever going to come out of there or if I was going to have to come in and get you," Anakin said smiling as he gave her hands a quick squeeze where they rested against his stomach. It chose just that moment to give another loud groan, making them both laugh.
"I guess I have made you wait long enough to eat," she said, giggling still as she released him and walked over to the small table. He turned around and reached out to hold her chair so she could sit down.
"Thank you, Ani. This is wonderful," Padm? said softly as he helped her move in closer to the table.
"You're welcome Padm?, now let's eat," Anakin said, seating himself in the other chair.
The food was delicious and a welcome treat after playing in the lake that morning.
Anakin was ravenous, his appetite having returned with a vengeance with the peaceful surroundings and loving comfort of having Padm? all to himself. He hadn't eaten this well in a long time and that combined with his joy at being in Padm?'s company made him want to eat everything in sight. His hunger helped to take his mind off of the nervousness that he had been feeling ever since he had decided to ask Padm? to marry him.
Padm? found that she was starving, also, the morning's activity having worked up her appetite as well. The events of the last couple of weeks had taken their toll on her, also. The peace and quiet of Naboo and Anakin's loving companionship were bringing back the healthful glow that she usually had.
They ate in companionable silence for several minutes, enjoying the beautiful scenery and each other's company.
As the last of the food disappeared into Anakin's mouth, the nervousness that had been held at bay returned in full force. He reached down into the bag at his feet and pulled out several plump, yellow shuura fruit and put them on the table between them.
Padm? grinned hugely at the sight of her favorite dessert. A grin tugged at Anakin's mouth as he sliced one and Force floated a piece of it over to her, reminding each other of the last time they had shuura fruit together.
Padm? bit the piece of fruit out of the air, bringing a shout of laughter from Anakin and a grin from her. She reached over to grab another piece but Anakin was quicker, wiggling his fingers slightly and the fruit danced just out of her reach.
"Let's eat our dessert over on the blanket, okay?" he asked standing, gathering the remaining fruit in his hands.
"Okay," she replied, pulling back from the table and moving over toward the soft blankets and mounds of pillows that he had brought along. She sat; leaning backward, supporting her weight with her hands as she looked up at his tall, lean frame. She let her eyes roam over his body, thinking that he had lost a little weight. That could be fixed with a few more meals like the one today and several days of rest, away from everything and everyone but each other.
The other hurts that he had withstood would never fully heal. His metallic arm looked garish against his warm, bronze skin but the shadows that had been haunting his eyes were finally gone and the ready smile that had first captured her heart was once again firmly in place as he juggled the fruit and tried to sit down next to her at the same time.
The fruit bounced out of Anakin's hands and landed all around him as he laughingly gave up and flopped down beside her and rolled over onto his stomach. He looked at the beauty of the surroundings and then the beautiful woman sitting beside him and knew without a doubt, this was going to be one of the happiest days of his life.
Padm? reached out to ruffle Anakin's hair and he rolled onto his side, catching her fingers in his mechanical hand and bringing them to his lips. He softly kissed them, savoring the feel of her soft skin. He picked up one of the fruit slices with his other hand and slowly brought it to her lips. Padm? nibbled at it, her lips brushing his fingers as she ate the succulent treat. The intimate act brought blushes to both of their faces as they locked gazes and moved toward each other, their lips seeking out each other's.
Anakin tasted the sweet fruit and even sweeter Padm? as his tongue gently reached out to trace her lips. Her tongue darted out to meet his and then the kiss took on a life of its own. She fell into his arms and he rolled over onto his back, pulling her down on top of him. His hands, one mechanical and one human, caressed her back, his good hand winding through her damp hair and pulling it through his fingers.
Her hands roamed in his hair as well, the short strands tickling her fingers as their mouths dueled in passion's dance. He rolled them over, his arm supporting his weight as he slowly broke the kiss. He leaned his forehead to hers as they fought to regain their breath and equilibrium.
"I love kissing you, I could spend forever doing it and it would never be enough. You taste of sunlight and sweet and I lose myself in your arms." He breathed into her ear as he lifted his head and brushed his cheek against hers.
"Oh, Anakin, you make me happier than I ever thought possible. I can't imagine my life without you and how empty it was before you came back to me. I want to remember this day forever," she told him as her lips traced the outline of his ear.
Shivers of delight danced up and down Anakin's spine as her warm breath tickled his ear.
"Padm?, I knew the moment that I laid eyes on you that I was going to love you forever," Anakin whispered, gazing into her eyes, losing himself in their depths.
"I only wish that I had known then as well. I wouldn't have let ten years pass without seeing you again," she replied as she tenderly caressed his cheek.
Sitting up, she continued softly, "When I saw you again, I was overwhelmed. You sent all of these feelings that I had never let myself have before coursing through me. I couldn't stop thinking about you. Every time I was near you my stomach was so full of butterflies that I couldn't think straight. You were so handsome with your beautiful blue eyes and that sandy blond hair. And you were so tall! You certainly grew up to be a handsome man." As she finished speaking, Padm? leaned down to brush her lips against his.
Anakin quickly caught her lips and deepened the kiss, his mouth sliding over hers again and again. He could lose himself here, kissing her warm, sweet mouth. The kiss ended softly and he pulled her down with him again, rolling her over onto her back, leaning above her on one elbow. "I've thought about you every day for the last ten years and now it seems like a dream that you are really here in my arms. You intoxicate me; you are in my soul, haunting me with your beauty. I dream about you every night and awaken in pain when I realize that you aren't really there with me, that it was only a dream. I love you Padm?, more than anything else in the galaxy. I don't want it to be only a dream anymore. I want you to be with me all of the time. I want to wake up in your arms and go to sleep every night wrapped around you," he whispered tenderly.
Reaching into his pocket Anakin pulled out a small box. He placed it on her stomach and slowly opened it. A simple gold ring lay nestled in the white padding.
"This was my mother's ring from Cliegg. He gave it to me right before the funeral. I know it isn't much but it would mean the world to me if you were to wear it. Padm?, will you marry me?"
The love shining in her eyes gave him his answer before the throaty words poured out of her. "Oh, Anakin, I love you so much. I want all of that too. I cannot bear to be apart from you. Yes!" she cried joyfully, tears sliding from her eyes. He took the ring out and set the box aside. Taking Padm?'s hand in his, Anakin slid the small ring onto her finger and then kissed her deeply, feeling her soft body beneath his and her presence in the Force as well.
The passion that inflamed them reached out to engulf them in its embrace. The two separate halves became one. Anakin reached down to pull the blanket up to cover them as they gave in to the feelings that had been long denied.
The door to the small room slid open, rousing Anakin from his memories. He stood, shaking himself slightly as he prepared to meet the destiny that had been foretold in prophecy. He was the Chosen One and he would bring balance to the Force, eventually. Master and Padawan walked out of the small room together to face the day.
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Count Dooku had escaped. Anakin Skywalker tried to come to terms with this as he lay on the floor of the gunship with his head cradled in Padm? Amidala's lap and his right arm now an agonizingly painful and charred stump. He looked around the gunship at his companions: Obi-wan Kenobi was gravely wounded, using all his reserves of strength and skill in the Force to stay conscious despite the pain. Yoda stood at the gunship doorway gazing reflectively into the rapidly descending Geonosian night where his onetime Padawan had fled, while the gunship carried them back to the forward command center. And Padm? was holding him gently, soothing him as always, with her very presence.
Thoughts and images of the day's events raced around Anakin's mind, finally settling onto one thought: defeat. Anakin had been defeated by Count Dooku. He had failed in battle, and had lost his right hand. He was maimed. Less than a man. Anakin groaned and shifted, letting his right arm slide off his chest. The stump hit the hard metal floor causing a jarring pain so severe that Anakin's entire body was wracked by its spasm. He was barely aware of the scream he uttered, and barely aware when Padm? laid his head back down on the floor, getting on her feet like a general in battle and directing the clone troopers on the gunship to get Anakin into a stretcher. Anakin's last thought was of how beautiful Padm? looked as she bent over him before he faded into a merciful unconsciousness.
"Anakin? Anakin! Can you hear me?" Padm?'s mellifluous voice slowly drew Anakin back into wakefulness. He opened his eyes, and looked around the medical station in confusion. Padm? smiled in relief. "Finally. How are you feeling?"
The memory of what had happened in the Geonosian hanger returned to assault Anakin in a rush. He groaned and then felt for his right arm under the blanket. Unexpectedly, he felt a hand there. Anakin pulled back the blanket with his left hand and saw the gleaming gold mechanical hand that had been attached to the stump of his right wrist. The pain was gone, and surprisingly, he had sensation with this new hand. The sensors were crude, though, and the movements of the mechanical hand were clumsy. The rudimentary sensory feedback from the mechanical hand made Anakin feel as though he were wearing a thick, leather glove. Like a newborn child unacquainted with its limbs, Anakin flexed his golden fingers and stared in fascination at the new appendage.
"How are you feeling?" Padm? asked again, refocusing Anakin's attention. He looked up at her, amazed as always at her ethereal beauty. Now, for the first time, though, he did not gaze at her with hope and longing. The defeat on Geonosis lay heavily on his spirit. He was maimed and no longer worthy of her or of the Jedi. He had failed Obi-wan. His beloved mother was now gone. Without the four pillars of his existence, Anakin felt lost, confused. He managed to compose himself before answering casually, "I feel a little groggy."
Padm? smiled encouragingly, and patted his hand, "It's no wonder. You've been out for nearly two days."
"Two days?" Anakin sat up, surprised. He looked around. He was in the medical quarters on Coruscant normally reserved for the exclusive use of members of the Senate. The room was elaborately decorated, and looked very different from the more austere quarters used by the members of the Jedi Academy. "How did I end up here?"
"Supreme Chancellor Palpatine gave special orders that you be brought here. He even came to see you, but you were still unconscious. Obi-wan is here, too," Padm? replied.
"Obi-wan is here? How is he?" Anakin asked, looking around.
"I've been better," Obi-wan said, pushing aside the heavy curtains that separated his bed from Anakin's. Obi-wan had bandages wrapped around his left shoulder and arm and around his right thigh, where he had been wounded in battle with Count Dooku. He walked with a slight limp, "How are you, Anakin? Hello, milady."
Padm? smiled at Obi-wan from her seat at Anakin's bedside, "Hello, Master Kenobi. It's good to see you on your feet. The bacta ointment seems to have done wonders for your wounds."
Obi-wan smiled, "Yes, milady." He looked down at Anakin's bent head and the smile disappeared from his face. "I wonder, milady, if I could have a word alone with my Padawan."
"Of course," Padm? said, as she rose to leave the room. She stepped into the hallway past the medical droid who was entering the room to administer more treatments to Anakin. As Padm? closed the door, she turned and saw Yoda approach.
They greeted each other, and then Padm? said, "I was just going to get something to drink. Would you like to walk with me?"
Yoda nodded and they set off down the hall to the elevators that led to the Senate dining room. "Well, are you, Senator Amidala?" Yoda asked.
"Yes, thank you," Padm? said, "Just some cuts and bruises. Nothing too bad."
"Return to Naboo, soon, you will," Yoda remarked.
Padm? hesitated. She didn't want to return to Naboo just yet. After a year of hard work to prevent it, it was a terrible blow to learn that an Army of the Republic had been created, in spite of her best efforts. There was also the unsettling news that the Senate had given Supreme Chancellor Palpatine emergency powers. Much as she felt she owed the Supreme Chancellor for his aid over the years, Padm? had an uneasy feeling that by giving the Supreme Chancellor emergency powers the Senate had taken its first step down a slippery slope. The democracy and order she so loved was poised even closer on the brink to disaster and anarchy. Padm? felt the moment was critical and she wanted to be where she could be most useful. Moreover, Padm? wanted to stay close by Anakin until he recovered. The last time they'd separated, she hadn't seen him again for ten long years. Who knew how long another separation might last? "I think I want to stay in Coruscant a little longer," she said, cautiously.
"Still unsafe, you are," Yoda observed. "Dooku and the Trade Federation - still a danger to you, they are."
"Why just me?" Padm? asked, exasperated, "I'm not the only one in the Senate who is opposed to the Trade Federation's practices, and I'm not the only one opposed to civil war within the Republic. I only want peace!"
"Infected with the Dark side they are. In you, they see integrity. Dedication. Perseverance. Very powerful qualities they are. Very powerful. Dangerous to your foes, you are, Lady."
"I don't want to run and hide," Padm? said, as they reached the elevator at the end of the corridor. Padm? pressed the button.
"Valuable you are to the Republic," Yoda said, "Need you more than ever in these times of crisis we do. More useful alive than dead, you are...hmmm?"
"I'll be of no use hidden away on Naboo," Padm? said, as they entered the elevator.
"Return at the next session of the Senate, you can," Yoda suggested as the elevator doors closed. "In the meantime, safer you are on Naboo."
"I don't want to leave just yet," Padm? insisted, stubbornly.
"Not the only reason for your hesitation is the Senate," Yoda observed, astutely.
Padm? turned quickly, "What do you mean?"
"Other reasons you have to stay. Help you there, I can," Yoda said, cryptically, as the elevator doors opened. They stepped out of the elevator into the Senate dining room. "Get you a drink, may I?"
After the doors had closed behind the medical droid, Obi-wan sat down next to Anakin, noting his Padawan's dejected appearance.
"What is it, Anakin?" Obi-wan asked.
"I'm sorry I failed you, Master," Anakin said, not looking up.
"What do you mean?" Obi-wan asked.
"I rushed in before I stopped to think - and I failed you," Anakin said, stumbling over the words.
"Are you sure you're all right? This humility is most unlike you. Perhaps you sustained head injuries the medical droid overlooked?" Obi-wan asked in a rare attempt at levity.
Anakin looked up reproachfully, "I didn't listen to you, and I failed to defeat Dooku. And now I've lost my hand. I'm - I'm not even a whole man any more, much less a Jedi."
The levity was gone. Obi-wan assumed his usual severe demeanor, "Don't talk like a fool, Anakin! Size and strength of body don't matter to a Jedi! It's strength in the Force. And in you, the Force is stronger than any one else I've ever met. Qui-Gon saw it. That's why he wanted me to train you. In you, I see the potential for a great Jedi. All you need are experience, and a way to curb your impulsiveness. The experience - well, you'll learn from your mistakes, like everyone else. If you can only concentrate on curbing your recklessness -" Obi-wan paused. Anakin was looking obdurate, and it was clear that he was still disconsolate and disbelieving, "Yes, Anakin, you made a mistake in the hangar, but you've paid for it. You'll learn from this and grow. No more nonsense about not being a whole man. You'll start training with your new hand as soon as you get a clean bill of health from the medical droids. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Master." Anakin sighed and looked down again. Suddenly, Anakin stiffened as he saw the shiny glint of an object that lay half-hidden in the folds of his blanket. He reached forward and plucked out a small jappor snippet. Anakin fingered the carved trinket, as a whole host of memories flooded his mind. Ten years ago, he had given this piece of carved shell to Padm? as a keepsake; back then, she had been Queen Amidala of Naboo, and he just a little ex-slave boy. Anakin thought back to his first meeting with Padm?, when he thought she was an angel. His opinion of her certainly hadn't changed over the years.
Now, seeing this snippet again, Anakin was torn between happiness and despair. Part of him was overjoyed that Padm? had kept this charm for so many years. On the other hand, if Padm? had kept the snippet for so long, why had she left it here, now? Was this Padm?'s way of saying that she had changed her mind? That she was disappointed by his failures on Geonosis and now wanted to break off their relationship?
"What is it?" Obi-wan asked, noting the slight frown that creased Anakin's forehead. Obi-wan felt a wave of despair emanate from his Padawan; even though Obi-wan didn't know of the significance of the snippet Anakin held in his hand, the Jedi Master had a fairly good idea why Anakin was suddenly so depressed. "Be mindful of your thoughts, Anakin, and stop focusing on the negative."
Anakin barely heard him. "Yes, Master," Anakin said, reflexively.
Obi-wan rose and looked down at his Padawan. "As soon as your wounds have healed I want you back in training," Obi-wan reiterated. "You have a lot of work to do to prepare you for your trials."
The blinking lights on the instrument panel signaled that the solar-sail ship was ready for takeoff. Count Dooku adjusted the controls on the instrument panel a little more and then saw the new blinking light. He pressed the button for the incoming message. A hologram appeared before him.
"Greetings, my master," Dooku said to the hologram.
"Lord Tyranus," the hologram of Darth Sidious said, "Before you leave on your mission to Lanterell, I have one more task for you."
"What is your bidding, my master?" Dooku asked.
"We still have not carried out the assassination of Senator Amidala," Darth Sidious said, "She is still a danger to me and to our cause."
"The tide is turning to our cause. Civil war has begun. She will have no power now that the Senate is hamstrung."
"She is not only a danger in the Senate. She has too much influence over young Anakin Skywalker. That boy can do much for our cause and I want him on our side." Darth Sidious did not add that he had foreseen the danger that Padm?'s future children would pose for him. "I want her eliminated. Without her, our path to Anakin is clear."
"She's surrounded by Jedi on Coruscant," Dooku observed. "It will be difficult to approach her at this time."
"She will not stay there long. I have information that she is returning to Naboo, soon. I want her dead."
Count Dooku gave a slight bow in his seat, "I hear and obey, my master."
"Very good," Darth Sidious said, with a smile of evil satisfaction, "I knew I could trust you. Good luck on your negotiations with the Lanterelli." The hologram vanished. Dooku sat in contemplation for a few moments before he leaned forward and tapped a few keys on the console to transmit another communication.
"Ow!" Anakin fell backward as he was stung by a blast from the remote. "This is useless! I feel like a new initiate!"
R2-D2 beeped in sympathy as he launched the remote again.
Anakin scrambled to his feet, lightsaber poised, and blast shield down on his helmet. He managed to hold his own for five minutes before the remote struck again. In a fit of exasperation and pique, Anakin tore off the helmet and threw both his helmet and his lightsaber on the training mat.
The door to the room opened, and Obi-wan and Yoda entered.
"Anakin!" Obi-wan reprimanded, seeing the lightsaber on the mat. "What have I told you about your lightsaber?" Using the Force, Obi-wan lifted the lightsaber and returned it to Anakin's grip.
"I'm sorry, Master," Anakin said, before adding, petulantly, "What's the use? I can't get this blasted hand to do anything." He shook his right hand with a look of disgust on his face.
"More to a Jedi than his hand," Yoda reproved. "Told you this, Obi-wan has."
"Stretch out with your feelings," Obi-wan suggested.
What good is any of this? Anakin bit back his retort. "Yes, Master," Anakin said, picking up the helmet. He put it on, lowered the blast shield and readied the lightsaber again. R2-D2 released the remote again.
Whap! Whap! Whap! For several minutes, Anakin leapt around the room as graceful as a dancer as he dueled with the remote, parrying blasts from all directions. Finally, the remote stopped. Anakin removed his helmet.
"You see?" Obi-wan said, "Much better."
"It still feels stiff," Anakin said, looking at his mechanical hand, disgustedly.
"Away put your weapon. A new assignment you have," Yoda said.
"Assignment?" Anakin looked at Yoda in surprise as he turned off his lightsaber. What could he possibly do, now? It would take months of training with his new hand before he could reach the level of skill he'd had before.
"Senator Amidala needs an escort to return to her to Naboo," Obi-wan said.
"Oh." Far from the elation Obi-wan expected to see, Anakin appeared depressed at the news. What had happened? Obi-wan wondered. Come to think of it, Anakin seemed to have been avoiding Padm? since he was discharged from the medical bay and returned to the Jedi Temple. Padm? had come twice to inquire about him, but he'd refused to see her both times. Privately, Obi-wan thought this separation was for the best, but Yoda opined that Anakin needed to regain his confidence, and needed to start with a simple mission.
"Senator Amidala will be returning tomorrow. Her aide, Dorm?, and Captain Typho will be accompanying you."
"Danger, I sense around her," Yoda said, "Return she must for her own safety. Reluctant, though, she is to leave. Persuade her, your presence will. As a friend, reassure her, you will."
Escort Padm? to Naboo! The last thing Anakin wanted to do at this moment was to see Padm?. Instead of making him feel stronger and more sure of himself, each training session seemed to make Anakin feel more hopeless and useless. Moreover, he hadn't been sleeping well. Foreboding nightmares haunted him, keeping him tossing and turning. Self-doubt and uncertainty were new to Anakin, and he felt himself awash in despair. He felt he was no longer worthy of Padm?, and he was sure that Padm? felt the say way. She was everything that was good and pure and admirable, while he was a mess! He opened his mouth to protest, and then shut it abruptly. Was this a test? Was the Jedi Council testing him with this mission? Anakin looked at Obi-wan and Yoda with his face carefully schooled to conceal his dismay. "Yes, Masters."
C-3PO, who had been standing next to R2-D2 turned to his counterpart, "Oh, dear. I don't think I enjoy space travel very much."
"You wished to speak with me?" The oily voice of the Neimoidian, Nute Gunray was obsequious.
Dooku looked at the hologram of Nute Gunray, "Yes, Viceroy. I need your assistance on a matter of interest to you."
"What is it you ask?"
"Senator Amidala. There is some unfinished business there, don't you agree?"
"Yes, yes!" The obsequiousness was dropped. "She still lives when we have tried so many times to kill her!" Nute Gunray appeared very agitated.
"Here is your chance," Dooku said. "I have reliable information that she will be returning from Coruscant to Naboo on her yacht with a small escort tomorrow. Can I count on you to arrange an 'accident'?"
"I thought our agreement was for you to kill her," Gunray said, accusingly.
"If not for the treachery of the Republic, we would have," Dooku replied, injecting a note of regret into his voice. "But things are different now. You needed me to kill her when it was too risky for the Trade Federation to be exposed, but now your allegiance to the Separatists has been declared openly. There is no longer a reason why you cannot kill her yourself. I would personally try again, but I am currently busy in negotiations to persuade more star systems to join our cause. In any case, our treaties with the Commerce Guild and the Banking Clan have strengthened our position, and I believe you can be paid very handsomely for this job. Would you be willing to do it?"
"Yes, yes!" Nute Gunray clapped his hands in childlike glee.
"One thing, though," Dooku added, "One of her escort is Anakin Skywalker. The situation has changed and I need him alive."
"A Jedi? A Jedi will escort her?" Nute Gunray looked suddenly wary. "This changes things."
"You mean you won't cooperate?" Dooku asked.
"I believe I can do as you ask," Nute Gunray said, his voice turning oily again, as he added, "But the fee for this will be considerable."
"You will find me most generous," Dooku said, hiding his irritation and contempt, "But, be warned. I do not deal mercifully with failure."
"I understand. Consider Amidala dead!" Nute Gunray replied, before his hologram vanished.
Several thousands of aircraft hangars dotted the surface of Coruscant with hundreds of thousands of ships launched or landing every day. In every hangar, a fleet of maintenance and cleaning droids serviced the ships and the hangars almost continuously. They were overlooked as part of the landscape. No one ever noticed the droids. No one noticed the droid that entered the hangar housing the sleek, silver ship in the early evening. No one noticed when the cleaning droid attached the modified homing beacon to the underside of the ship. The homing beacon was hidden behind the engine allowing it to shut off power to the hyperdrive engine by remote control. As the device was attached, it opened its metal case, and began to emit a low frequency signal. The cleaning droid finished cleaning the floor of the hangar and moved on to the next hangar.
"Padm?! Padm?, where are you?"
A heavy mist swirled around Padm?, and she was running, breathing heavily, a look of fear in her eyes. "Oh, Anakin!" she sobbed, "Anakin - why?"
"Padm?! Padm?, come back!"
Anakin tried to follow her but his legs felt like lead; he couldn't move. From farther away, he could hear the soft echo of her voice, "Anakin, I love you! Please don't do this! I thought that you loved me - that you would never hurt me - not like this!" Her voice rose, "No, Anakin, no!"
Anakin awoke with a start.
"May the Force be with you, Anakin," Obi-wan said.
"And may the Force be with you, Master," Anakin replied before he turned to Padm?. "Shall we go?"
"Yes," Padm? said, puzzled by the change in Anakin's behavior over the last few days, and the cold tone of voice he used now.
"Come, milady," Dorm? said, "The sooner we return to Naboo, the better."
Captain Typho came to the doorway of the spacecraft. "Everything is ready. Please come on board, milady."
The four of them boarded the H-class Naboo yacht followed by R2-D2 and C-3PO. The hatch closed, and within moments, the graceful silver ship lifted off into space.
Obi-wan watched as the ship lifted off and tried to suppress the apprehension he felt as he returned to his speeder. He returned to the Jedi Temple for his meeting with Yoda and Mace Windu.
That same morning, in another quadrant of Coruscant, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine stood with Mas Amedda and Senator Bail Organa of Alderaan watching the deployment of several thousand clone troopers, the first soldiers of the new Army of the Republic.
"Would you like to rest, milady?" Dorm? asked as Padm? entered her suite.
"No, thank you, Dorm?," Padm? replied, "But please, ask Anakin to come here."
"As you wish, milady," Dorm? said, withdrawing from the room. She headed toward the cockpit where Anakin sat with Captain Typho. The Captain was setting the coordinates for hyperspace and Anakin was listlessly toying with his lightsaber handle. C-3PO and R2-D2 were settled in behind them.
"Lady Padm? wishes to see you, Master Anakin," Dorm? said.
"Hold on just a few moments," Captain Typho said, "Dorm?, strap yourself in. We're about to make the jump into hyperspace." Captain Typho turned on the intercom, "Senator Amidala, we're about to make the jump to hyperspace. You need to strap yourself in."
Dorm? and Anakin strapped themselves into their chairs. Captain Typho pulled on the lever, and through the windows, the stars in the distance became straight lines as the ship sped into hyperspace.
After a few moments, reluctantly, Anakin unstrapped himself, rose, and headed toward the back of the ship, dreading the interview to come.
Padm?'s suite occupied the largest portion of the ship. The ship had been given to her when she became Senator of Naboo. In keeping with her status, the living quarters were impressively decorated and imposing. Padm? barely noticed the surroundings as she paced the sitting room. Her hand moved instinctively to her neck where she was used to fingering her string necklace with the jappor snippet. Padm? felt more nervous as she remembered she had lost the snippet and she thought back over the last few days, trying to remember where she could have lost the charm. When the door slid open, Padm? turned to face Anakin, every nerve taut, her fears and confusion over the last few days returning in a rush.
"Dorm? told me you wished to see me," Anakin said, as she turned. The door slid closed behind him.
Padm? wanted to rush into his arms, but Anakin's forbidding stance held her back. She stiffened her spine; adopting the regal pose she had once used as Queen and said, "Thank you for coming. Would you like something to drink?"
Anakin shook his head, "No, thank you, milady."
Padm? paused, not sure what to say next, and then burst out, "What's the matter, Anakin? Why have you been avoiding me?"
Anakin hesitated. He looked down at her beautiful face, which was pale. She wore a lovely dress made out of a pearly, iridescent material that shimmered with her movements, and her thick, dark hair was intricately bound with silver coils. More than ever, he wanted to hold her, and kiss her rose petal lips, but as he flexed his mechanical hand, he felt more unworthy than ever. I don't deserve her, he told himself, fingering the scrap of carved jappor shell in his pocket with his good hand. He remembered the nightmares he'd been having, and the horrifying premonition that he might endanger her very life. I should give her up, for her sake. His pride prevented him from spilling out his insecurities, and instead, he became angry.
"I've been busy," he said, in a clipped voice, as his hands clenched and flexed reflexively.
"Too busy to see me?" she asked, incredulously. "I came to see you twice at the Jedi Temple, and you wouldn't see me both times. They said you were busy, but even Jedi have time to rest."
"What are you, my keeper?" Anakin asked, angrily, "I've been training! It took years for me to reach my skill level with the lightsaber, and now I've got to start all over again! I don't have time to spend playing around! As you said, milady, I'm not a full Jedi, yet - I have my training to complete. I have work to do!"
"Playing around?" Padm?'s voice was almost a whisper. "Is that what it was all about? After all you said! You - you said I was in your soul. You said that you thought about me, dreamed about me - that you would do anything I asked. Was that all just a game to you? Did you mean any of it?"
"As I recall, you told me to go back to the real world," Anakin said coldly, while inside his heart was twisting in pain, "And so I have."
"Then you're saying it was all a lie?" Padm? was becoming angry herself, "You were just amusing yourself before? Well, I'm sorry to be so much trouble. An important Jedi Padawan like yourself - well, I'm sure you have more worthwhile things to do with your time. You should have told me beforehand, and I would have refused your escort. We could easily have hired someone from local security and you could have been spared this useless exercise!" Padm?'s voice rose, "You're excused, Anakin." She raised her hand in an imperial gesture and then turned to leave the room.
Padm? entered her bedchamber and closed the door behind her. She was trembling, and her breath was coming shallowly. Alone now, she could drop all pretense of hauteur.
Padm? sank slowly to her bed. She was in too much shock to cry. Her thoughts whirled confusedly around in her mind. After all his declarations of love, his impassioned pleading - none of it meant anything to him! Was it possible? Could she have been such a fool? Her heart contracted in agony as she thought of his handsome face. Her beautiful knight. No - not her knight. Was he ever hers? A little anger crept into her thoughts.
Why did he have to come into her life and turn it upside down? She was perfectly contented before he had returned to her life. Then again, she admitted to herself, she had never before felt so alive as she did when Anakin was near. With him, she felt the colors around her to be more vivid, all her senses were more attuned and she was more herself than she had ever been before. It was too cruel of Anakin to have given her such a taste of happiness and then to snatch it away so wantonly. Padm? stiffened her shoulders. She would get through this. She had suffered pain and adversity before - and she told herself that this would be the last time she would succumb to the folly of love.
Padm? emerged from her suite a few hours later. She was pale, but calmer and more composed. Padm? walked purposefully toward the cockpit where the others were gathered. Captain Typho was adjusting controls on the instrument panel. Dorm? sat in the chair behind him. C-3PO and R2-D2 were still stationed at the rear of the cockpit, and Anakin was pacing.
Padm? refused to look at Anakin. She approached Captain Typho. "I wish to transmit a message to Queen Jamillia."
"Of course, Senator," Captain Typho said. He tapped in some keys at the console and a moment later, Queen Jamillia's hologram appeared before them. Padm?, Dorm? and Captain Typho all bowed before their monarch.
"Greetings, your Majesty," Padm? said, "I'm sorry to disturb you."
"Your calls are always welcomed," Queen Jamillia replied, graciously, "I'd heard of some disturbing events and I'd feared for your safety. I'm glad to see that you are well."
"Thank you, your Majesty," Padm? said, "Yes, there have been some very disturbing events in the Senate and elsewhere recently. I'm returning to Naboo, now. If it pleases your Majesty, I would like to request an audience with you upon my arrival."
"Of course, Senator," Queen Jamillia said, "You know, you do not need to ask. I'm anxious to hear what you have to say."
"Thank you, your Majesty. One other thing: Can I ask your assistance in arranging a ship to send my escort back to Coruscant as soon as we land?"
Before Queen Jamillia could reply, Anakin quickly said, "I'm sorry to interrupt. Greetings, your Majesty, but it won't be necessary."
Padm? gave Anakin a furious look, as the Queen gave her reply, "If any assistance is needed later, Master Jedi, you've only to let me know."
"Thank you, your Majesty," Anakin said.
"Senator," the Queen added, "I look forward to meeting with you. I await your safe arrival."
"Thank you, your Majesty," Padm? said, bowing again. Queen Jamillia's hologram vanished. Padm? shot Anakin another furious glance, and left the cockpit.
Before the door closed behind her, Anakin followed her out, "What did you mean by ordering me a transport?"
Padm? turned to Anakin, "What did you mean by interrupting? How dare you interfere with my orders?"
Anakin was amazed. Before Padm? had come into the cockpit, Anakin had been in torment, hating himself for what he had said to Padm?, even as he told himself it was necessary. He had felt horrible for causing pain to such a tender creature; but this coldly enraged virago was no tender creature. She was formidable, and more beautiful than ever in her fury, with her dark, flashing eyes, and the red flush that tinted her cheeks. Padm?'s challenging glare brought an answering glower from Anakin.
"When I need help with something, I'll let you know, Padm?," Anakin snapped.
"It's Senator Amidala to you!" she said. "I thought I'd made it clear to you that your services were not necessary. I was merely making things easier for you."
"I'll arrange my own transportation!" Anakin shouted.
Before Padm? could reply, the ship gave a sudden lurch as the hyperdrive engines were abruptly cut. Padm? was caught off guard and fell forward. With his quicker reflexes born of years of training, and his sense of the Force, Anakin only stumbled for a moment before he sprang forward to catch her.
"Are you all right?" Anakin asked, anxiously, his antagonism forgotten, as he caught her in his arms.
Padm?'s angry retort was cut off by the urgent call over the intercom from Captain Typho, "Senator Amidala, are you all right?"
"I'm all right," Padm? replied, as she straightened up, and deliberately moved away from Anakin. "What's happened?"
"There's trouble, here," Captain Typho said. "Our hyperdrive engines have stopped, and it looks like - oh, no...Federation ships!"
The argument was forgotten. Both Anakin and Padm? raced to the cockpit. The scene that greeted them was grim. Three enormous destroyer starships belonging to the Trade Federation appeared to be closing in on them.
"Oh, my stars!" Dorm? was gasping, "Captain Typho, why can't you get us back into hyperspace? They're going to kill us!"
"The instruments are haywire," Captain Typho said, "The hyperdrive engines aren't responding - it's like they just shut off. The sublight engines are responding, but we'll never be able to outrun those ships on sublight speed."
"They're doing this to us," Anakin said as he strapped himself into the cockpit next to Captain Typho. "They've cut the hyperdrive...but I don't think they're trying to kill us."
"Why do you say that, Master Ani?" C-3PO asked. R2-D2 beeped next to him.
"It's - it's just something I sense," Anakin said, "I think they want to capture this ship. Captain Typho, set primary and secondary deflector shields."
"They're already up," Captain Typho responded.
Anakin pulled back on the control levers and the ship abruptly turned into a ninety-degree dive, sending both C-3PO and R2-D2 reeling. Anakin grinned. This was just another podrace with some big opponents, "Let's give them a run for their money."
"Look, there are fighters attacking from behind!" Dorm? pointed out, looking down at the radar console.
"I think they're trying to herd us in the direction of the starships," Anakin said as he yanked abruptly on the controls again, bringing the H-class around in another direction. The wild flying was confusing the Federation ships, causing them to break up their standard tactical formation.
As Anakin was maneuvering the ship, Padm? quickly raced out of the cockpit into the gunport that was above and behind the cockpit. The gunport had been added onto the ship in the past year when the security threat to Padm? had increased. She strapped herself into the seat and raised the gunport platform. She switched on the gun, training it on the six fighter ships that were attacking, and within moments had the closest fighter in radar lock. She fired, hitting the ship. Padm? felt a momentary glow of satisfaction as the ship exploded, and then immediately began tracking the next ship. At that moment, Anakin took their ship on another abrupt turn, disrupting her line of sight. In frustration, Padm? swiveled in her seat, realigning the gun.
Below, in the cockpit, Anakin turned the ship around on full power, with full power on the front deflector shields as he aimed the H-class toward the nearest starship. The abrupt turn and the swiftness of his attack took the starship off guard; instead of turning on the tractor beam to pull in the H-class, the captain of the Federation ship swerved to avoid the attack, and, inadvertently, hit his sister ship, which had been following too closely. At the last moment, Anakin pulled his ship into a steep dive, dodging the Federation ships.
Klaxons and lights blared on both Federation starships as the collision caused damage to the ships, disabling them and taking them out of commission.
"Ha!" Anakin shouted gleefully, as he swerved the ship around again, now trying to outdistance the last Federation starship.
Above the cockpit, Padm? had just hit the third fighter ship. As she swiveled the gun around, a pulse from one of the attacking fighters hit the H-class; the deflector shields absorbed most of the impact, but Padm? noticed that the shields were weakening. "Blast," she muttered, "A couple more direct hits, and we're done for." She adjusted her scopes and fired again.
In the cockpit, Anakin was starting to get worried. The last Federation ship was crafty, having learned from the mistakes made by the other two. He was having difficulty outrunning this ship, and he, too, noticed that the deflector shields were weakening.
"They're closing in," Captain Typho said, as he tried to adjust the controls to channel more power to the shields, "I don't think we'll be able to hold out much longer."
From the back of the cockpit, R2-D2 rolled toward the computer access plug, and gave a soft beep, as he extended his controller arm.
"Just what do you think you're doing, tampering with this machine?" C-3PO demanded.
R2-D2 gave another series of beeps as his controller arm attached into the plug.
"What do you mean the ship has been sabotaged?" C-3PO asked, "What are you talking about? What do you know about this?"
R2-D2 continued to beep as his controller arm whirled inside the plug.
"Damn!" Anakin said, as he made another turn, "Captain Typho, can't you get more power into the starboard engine?"
"We're at maximum power, now," Captain Typho replied, adjusting more controls, "I don't think we can hold out like this much longer."
"I'll never outrun them if we can't get past this speed," Anakin muttered.
"Override the hyperdrive bypass? What?" C-3PO was getting indignant, "What makes you think you can save us? We're about to be blown into smithereens and you're having delusions of grandeur!"
Another blast from the attacking fighters rocked the ship. It sounded as though it had hit the gunport.
"Padm?!" Anakin yelled, almost taking his hands off the controls, "Padm?! Are you all right?"
Dorm? quickly unbuckled herself from her seat and ran up to the gunport to find Padm?.
"They're getting into tractor beam range!" Captain Typho warned.
Another blast rocked the ship.
"Rear deflector shield is gone," Captain Typho said.
"Blast it!" Anakin swore, "They're not going to get their hands on her!"
On board the Federation ship, the captain smiled in anticipation. The H-class was now in range. What a handsome bonus this ship would bring! However, just as the Federation ship turned on its tractor beam, R2-D2 finished his override of the hyperdrive shutdown. The H-class vanished from sight as it shot back into hyperspace.
"We got away!" C-3PO exclaimed jubilantly to R2-D2, "You're brilliant! I knew you could do it!"
Anakin launched himself out of his seat, and raced up into the gunport. There was a lot of damage to the outer walls, and some equipment in the gunport had been shaken loose. The gunport itself, though, was empty. Dorm? had already taken Padm? downstairs. Anakin ran down the stairs and toward Padm?'s quarters. He burst into Padm?'s suite just as Dorm? was heading out to fetch Padm? a warm drink.
Padm? was stretched out on a couch, with a bruise on one cheek and her lovely dress now torn and in complete disarray. Dorm? had covered her legs with a light blanket. Padm? appeared dazed at first, but when she saw Anakin, she frowned.
"Padm?! Are you all right?" Anakin rushed to her side, all pretenses of coldness and aloofness gone. "I thought you'd been killed!"
"I'm fine," Padm? said, frostily, "Now you can return to your Jedi Order and report on a successful mission."
"No wonder love is forbidden for the Jedi!" Anakin burst out, stepping away from her and pacing the room, "Why do you have to make things so complicated?"
"What does love have to do with anything?" Padm? asked, "You made it very clear that you were just amusing yourself."
"I wasn't amusing myself!" Anakin defended himself. "I -" he hesitated. He was still reluctant to give voice to his fears and concerns, his reasons for keeping her at bay, "Listen, I just came here to make sure that you're all right."
"I told you I was fine. Thank you for your assistance, Anakin. You're excused."
Anakin stiffened, "Of course, your Majesty."
"You know I'm not a queen any longer," Padm? protested.
"Oh, really? Ordinary people on Naboo behave with this high-handedness and condescension?"
"You're the last person to lecture me on proper behavior, Anakin!" Padm? retorted, sitting upright, "And I said you were excused! Please leave!"
"With pleasure, milady!" Anakin said, as he stalked his way across the room and left.
"This is unacceptable!" Nute Gunray shouted as he paced the length of the command center on his battleship. "How could three Federation starships failed to have captured her? I want the captains of all three ships returned to the hives on Neimoidia!"
"Yes, Excellency," Gunray's lieutenant, Rune Haako replied, bowing.
"And send in the freighter ship!" Gunray commanded.
"But, Excellency!" Haako protested. The freighter ship in question was a Corellian cargo ship the Trade Federation had stolen some months ago in an unreported act of space piracy. Its markings had been changed to disguise it as a legitimate cargo ship belonging to one of the thousands of major corporations who did business within the Republic. This disguise allowed it land unchallenged in hundreds of star systems where the Trade Federation was no longer welcomed. The Trade Federation occasionally used this ship for small smuggling operations it ran in conjunction with its more legitimate businesses. In this instance, as part of a backup plan, Gunray intended to send a little surprise to Senator Amidala for her arrival on Naboo.
"This plan is too dangerous," Haako argued. "They will all be killed, and Count Dooku wanted Skywalker alive."
"I want Amidala dead!" Gunray replied, "I don't care who dies with her! Besides, we killed dozens of Jedi on Geonosis; what does it matter if one more Jedi dies? Send in the freighter!"
"As you wish, Excellency," Haako replied.
Padm?'s ship returned to Naboo just as the sun was rising on Theed City. For security purposes, Captain Typho did not broadcast its arrival and maneuvered the ship into the commercial spaceport rather than the private one reserved for high government officials.
The spaceport was a large building. The lower level of the main terminal was a large, circular room whose ceiling towered three stories overhead. Large marble pillars supported the second and third floor balconies and the ceiling. Between the marble pillars were archways to tunnels that led to the docking stations on all three levels. Two intricately carved marble staircases were placed opposite each other leading up from the ground floor. The ceiling was composed of a large, glass skylight that lent an airy feel to the entire structure. An enormous brass and crystal chandelier hung suspended from the skylight.
After the ship successfully landed, Padm? sent a last communication to the palace to inform Queen Jamillia of her arrival and the party disembarked. Dorm? wore a beautiful, flowing gown of sea green embroidered in intricate patterns with gold thread. A gold diadem adorned her hair, which was elaborately dressed. In keeping with the deception, Anakin and Captain Typho escorted Dorm? while Padm? followed in a dark blue, close-fitting uniform worn by personnel who worked on board commercial aircraft. A blaster hung at her side. Behind Padm? trailed R2-D2 and C-3PO.
The party emerged from the docking tunnel into the main terminal. Even early in the morning the terminal was a beehive of activity. Hundreds of humans, Gungans and other species were hurrying through the terminal on their way to and from their ships. As he crossed into the center of the terminal, Anakin felt a sudden prickling of the hairs on the back of his neck. Reflexively, he shouted, "Get down!" and in one sweeping move pushed both Padm? and Dorm? to the ground. A fraction of a second later, a laser blast tore through Dorm?'s shoulder - a laser blast that would have killed her but for Anakin's quick action.
The sound of the laser blast and Dorm?'s scream of pain caused mass panic in the terminal. The assembled crowd screamed in fear and fled in all directions. The injured Dorm? hampered Padm?'s group. "Save yourself, milady!" Dorm? gasped, as Padm? tried to lift her.
"No! You're coming with us!" Padm? insisted.
R2-D2 positioned himself beside Padm? to help shield her. Behind them, Captain Typho and Anakin sighted four gray clad assassins who were leaning over the third floor balcony railing shooting down at them. Captain Typho returned fire and managed to hit one assassin who fell over the balcony railing, screaming. Captain Typho turned to Padm?, who was trying to pull Dorm? to safety while shooting at the assassins with her blaster. "We've got to go, milady!" Captain Typho knew Padm? would not leave without Dorm? and he lifted the injured girl easily, dragging Padm? along with him to the safety of the marble pillars under the balconies. As he ran, Typho tapped the intercom on his uniform and yelled out, "We're under attack! Send reinforcements. I repeat: Senator Amidala is under attack! Send reinforcements!" R2-D2 and a panicked C-3PO followed.
Behind them, Anakin guarded their retreat as he parried several laser blasts with his lightsaber. With his left hand he used the Force to lift one of the astonished assassins off his feet and threw him against a wall, knocking him unconscious. Anakin then turned quickly, parrying the shots from the remaining two assassins as he also retreated to the alcove under the balcony. One of the parried shots ricocheted back to hit the assassin who fired the shot. This third assassin fell without a sound. The last assassin raced behind a marble pillar to continue firing but was dispatched by another shot from Captain Typho. By this time, the terminal was emptied, the crowd having fled. A few bodies of innocent bystanders littered the floor in the center of the terminal.
"We've got to get out of here!" Captain Typho urged, picking up Dorm? again, "Come on, milady, down that tunnel!"
Just as Padm? got to her feet, the entrances to all the tunnels except four shut. From the remaining open tunnels, four Federation super battle droids rolled out, stopping in the center of the room. Behind them, the remaining tunnel doors closed, too.
"The stairs!" Captain Typho urged Anakin, "The second floor tunnels have no doors! You've got to get up there! Take her!"
Anakin grabbed Padm?'s arm and they dodged behind the marble pillars toward the nearest staircase. The battle droids immediately began to fire. Captain Typho stayed behind with Dorm? and began to fire shots at the Federation droids. R2-D2 rolled toward the nearest computer access panel. Padm? and Anakin made it to the first set of pillars and from behind it, Padm? began to fire on the advancing droids.
"You can't seem to stay out of trouble for one second," Anakin said as he lifted his hand, and used the Force to send the nearest Federation droid reeling backward. It flew back into two other droids, knocking them down as easily as bowling ball pins. One last droid remained. Parrying the droid's shots with his lightsaber, Anakin quickly led Padm? to the staircase. He shielded her with his body as he went up the staircase backward, continuing to parry shots with his lightsaber. From behind them, Captain Typho fired more shots, finally knocking out the last droid as Anakin and Padm? reached the second floor.
"I don't go looking for trouble," Padm? replied as they headed for the nearest tunnel entrance. Suddenly, six more super battle droids rolled out from the second floor tunnels, and began to advance toward them. Three of the droids blocked off their way back down the staircase. In the other direction, a droid was approaching along the balcony toward them; two more droids were firing from the balcony opposite them. Anakin and Padm? retreated behind the nearest marble pillar. Using the Force, Anakin sent the nearest battle droid in front of him flying. It hit a marble pillar behind it, knocking down the pillar. The section of balcony immediately above the pillar crashed down, blocking that route entirely.
"Cover me, Padm?!" Anakin yelled as he reached into his belt for his cable. Padm? leaned out from behind the marble pillar and continued to fire on the advancing droids who were blocking the stairs. From below, Captain Typho raced toward the stairs, also firing on the droids.
Left behind, C-3PO was frantic, "We've got to get out of here! Are you sure you know what you're doing?"
R2-D2 gave a series of beeps and whistles.
Dorm? leaned against the nearest pillar and used her good arm to fire at the droids who were attacking Padm? and Anakin.
"Well, hurry up! We're going to be smashed to bits if this keeps up!" C-3PO urged his counterpart.
Padm? fired a shot that hit one of the nearest droid's joints, causing the droid to stumble and list sideways. Its firing mechanism still unimpaired, the droid continued to fire shots. Anakin pulled out the cable from his belt and threw the hook up toward the chandelier. The hook caught, and Anakin shouted, "Grab on!" Padm? wrapped her arms around Anakin's waist and he launched them both over the balcony railing swinging on the cable to reach the floor of the main level.
Just as Anakin and Padm? landed, R2-D2 gave a triumphant beep and the tunnel entrances all opened at once. At that moment, one of the Federation droids shot down the supports holding up the overhead chandelier.
"Look out!" Captain Typho shouted.
Anakin and Padm? leapt forward, just as the chandelier crashed onto the floor behind them, missing them by mere inches. "You don't go looking for trouble but you like to find situations requiring aggressive negotiations, is that it?" Anakin asked.
Padm? laughed in spite of herself, and she and Anakin rushed toward Dorm?. Anakin lifted Dorm? in his arms, and they headed toward the nearest tunnel entrance. From behind them, Captain Typho ducked under the stairs, and, using the cover of the marble pillars, raced along under the balcony toward them, still firing on the nearest Federation droid.
"Let's go!" C-3PO urged as R2-D2 withdrew his arm from the access plug. The entire party retreated down the nearest tunnel, with Captain Typho guarding their rear, firing on the advancing droids. As they emerged from the other end of the tunnel, soldiers from Queen Jamillia's guard arrived.
"There are still four more of them left!" Padm? said, pointing behind her.
"Quick, come with me, Senator," the captain of the guard said. "I'll take you to Queen Jamillia right away." The captain waved his arm, sending troops into the spaceport to deal with the droids.
"She's been injured," Padm? said, indicating Dorm?, "She needs help."
"We'll take care of her," one of the guard lieutenants said, taking Dorm? from Anakin. "Come with us."
"This is an outrage!" Queen Jamillia said, as she heard Padm?'s story of her journey home. "The Trade Federation has gone too far. You're a Senator of the Republic!"
"Nute Gunray isn't acting alone," Padm? said. "He's getting help from Count Dooku and the Separatists."
"What do you mean?" her Majesty asked.
Padm? sighed. "I should have started at the beginning." She detailed what she had learned from Obi-wan about the meeting between Dooku, the Trade Federation, the Commerce Guilds, the Techno-Union Army and the Geonosians, and how they plotted together to start a civil war. She then went on to describe what she knew about the changes in the Senate and the creation of the Army of the Republic.
Queen Jamillia was in shock when Padm? was finished. She was able to keep her composure as befitted a queen and she kept her voice steady, "I think this means civil war. We must take what steps we can to prepare our own armies. I will speak with the Gungans. I will ever be on the side of peace and democracy, but now it doesn't really seem clear to me what that side is."
Sio Bibble, the governor of Naboo leaned forward, scandalized, "Your Majesty! Do you know what you're saying? That amounts to treason!"
"You misunderstand me," Queen Jamillia said, "I stand for the Republic, but it seems there may not be a Republic much longer. I believe it is my duty to fight to restore the old order. That is all I'm saying." The Queen turned to Padm?, abruptly changing the subject. "Senator Amidala, it appears that your safety is still in question."
"What I want to know is how the Trade Federation knew of my plans," Padm? said, "Very few people knew my travel itinerary, and the decision to land at the commercial spaceport was made at the last minute."
"I'm sure Dooku and the Separatists have spies everywhere," Sio Bibble said, before adding, "But they weren't as well informed as you feared; they didn't know where you would land. Just before you arrived in the palace, we received reports that several crates of illegally smuggled Federation battle droids were found in Theed City's other four spaceports. We are trying to track down the ship or ships that might have unloaded those crates."
"I could ask the Jedi Council for permission to start a formal investigation of this incident," Anakin offered.
"That's a sound plan," Queen Jamillia said. "I will also petition the Senate to start an investigation on behalf of Senator Amidala." The Queen turned back to Padm?, "What are your plans now that you've returned?"
"My plans are to return to the Lake Country again, for now," Padm? said. "I wanted to stay on Coruscant, but Master Yoda persuaded me to stay here until the next meeting of the Senate."
"Is even the Lake Country secure when the Trade Federation dares to wage war in Theed City?" Sio Bibble asked.
"I can't spend my whole life running," Padm? replied, "And I have to believe that there is haven here on Naboo. Besides, if Naboo is threatened, then it is my job to stay and to help restore safety here. I'm going back home."
"We thank you for your assistance in bringing Senator Amidala safely home, Master Jedi," Queen Jamillia said, graciously, to Anakin. "You will always have welcome here on Naboo."
"Thank you, your Majesty," Anakin said, bowing.
"Perhaps you can do one last favor for us, and escort Senator Amidala back to the Lake Country. Once she is safely there, I will rest a little easier."
"That won't be necessary," Padm? said, not looking at Anakin.
"I insist," Queen Jamillia overrode Padm?'s protests, "I would like you to have more security."
"I meant I would like to stay and look after Dorm? and make sure she's better before I leave for the Lake Country."
"She'll get the best medical care in Theed City, Senator," Queen Jamillia said, "But I think you should leave Theed City. Your safety is important to me, Senator. We need you more than ever in these times of danger."
Padm? gritted her teeth, unable to find an excuse to send Anakin away, and nodded her agreement with the Queen.
"It will be my pleasure to escort Lady Padm?," Anakin said, bowing again to the Queen.
The journey to the lakeside retreat was long and made even longer for Padm? and Anakin by the uncomfortable silence in the speeder during the trip. At first, C-3PO had made a lot of aimless small talk as he commented on the passing scenery, but the chatter finally got on Padm?'s nerves. About an hour into the trip, Padm? finally lost her patience and reached over to shut down the droid.
"Thank you!" Anakin said, sounding vastly relieved. "I can't believe I didn't do that myself!"
Padm? smiled, but the humor vanished quickly as the strained atmosphere returned. During the rest of the trip, Padm? occasionally glanced at Anakin, but he appeared to be engrossed in his own thoughts and withdrawn. They boarded the gondola on the edge of the lake and arrived at the island retreat as the sun was setting. As Padm? stepped out of the gondola, she sighed. Much as she would like to send Anakin right back to Theed, Padm?'s ingrained hospitality would not allow her to do so without first offering him a meal and a night's rest.
"Would you like to stay the night, and leave in the morning?" Padm? asked. The invitation sounded forced, despite her good intentions.
Anakin nodded and picked up Padm?'s luggage. He followed her up the steps to the flagstone terrace and sent C-3PO and R2-D2 indoors. As the gondola sped away, Anakin surprised Padm? by reaching forward and touching her shoulder.
Padm? turned around. "What is it?"
Almost immediately, Padm? found herself engulfed in Anakin's embrace. He bent forward and captured her lips in a kiss that wiped out all her thoughts. All her anger and resentment melted in the wake of the drugging kiss that left her confused and trembling, with all her love and yearning returning in full force.
"Anakin?" Padm? asked. She tried to marshal her confused thoughts. Her lip trembled, uncertainly, "Anakin, please! I can't keep up with you! One minute you say that you love me, and the next you push me away, and now you kiss me - I don't understand!"
"I was being a fool," Anakin said. "I'm sorry if I hurt you, Padm?. I love you. I never stopped loving you."
Hope and nascent happiness swept through Padm?'s body, but she was still uncertain, "Then what did you mean when you said you were only amusing yourself?"
"Padm?, you know I've always loved you. You made me so happy when you finally said that you loved me too. But when we returned from Geonosis, I felt I was a failure. I stopped believing I deserved you. And I thought you stopped caring for me."
"Why would you say that?" Padm? asked, truly mystified.
Anakin reached into his pocket and took out the jappor snippet.
Padm?'s eyes widened. "You had it? I've been looking for this for days! Where did you find it?"
Anakin was incredulous. "Are you telling me you lost it?"
"Of course!" Padm? said, as she reached for the trinket.
Anakin looked away into the sunset, as a faintly embarrassed blush tinted his cheeks.
"What's the matter?" Padm? asked.
"I - I thought that you had left this on purpose," Anakin said, as he met Padm?'s gaze. "I thought that you were disappointed in me, and that you wanted to break things off."
"Why in the galaxy would you think something like that?" Padm? was incredulous.
Anakin sighed, "I felt I'd failed everyone. I failed Obi-wan when I was defeated by Dooku. And I failed you when I let you fall out of the transport."
"But there was nothing you could have done to prevent that!"
"I could have gone after you to save you," Anakin said.
"Your duty was to go after Dooku, to do your job protecting the Republic. There was nothing you did then that I would wish otherwise," Padm? argued.
"But I felt I should have gone after you," Anakin said, "And before that, I felt I failed my mother when she died. Then, later, when I fought Dooku and lost my hand, I felt so hopeless -"
Padm? reached for Anakin's mechanical hand, "But you lived. Count Dooku may have escaped, but you lived to fight him another day."
"- And I began to have terrible dreams," Anakin continued, "Dreams about you."
"Dreams are dreams," Padm? countered, "They don't always come true, and you can't be ruled by them. Oh, Anakin, you've been so hard on yourself! You're not a failure! Why didn't you tell me any of this before?"
"It was too humiliating," Anakin admitted, "I was so ashamed. I felt unworthy of you. You're everything that's pure and perfect, and I didn't feel worthy enough to touch your shoes. When you came to see me at the Jedi Temple, I couldn't bring myself to meet you because I was afraid you'd tell me it was all over between us."
"But, I told you that I loved you! How could you think I'd change my mind so easily?" Padm? asked.
"I guess everything happened too quickly. I was afraid and confused, and I could only think that I didn't deserve you."
"Then, what happened to change your mind?" Padm? asked.
Anakin grinned, "Well, you're alive, now, aren't you? I helped to save you both times you were attacked on your way back here. It seems that you need someone to keep you out of trouble."
"And you think you're the one?" Padm? asked, smiling.
The grin faded from Anakin's face, "I was in agony today. When those droids began to attack us, I thought you were going to die - a thousand times, I thought you were going to die. Padm?, I love you so much. I want to be there for you when you need me. While we were coming back here from Theed City, I kept thinking I never wanted to leave you."
Happiness was surging through Padm?'s heart, "What are you saying, Anakin?"
"I want you to marry me, Padm?," Anakin said, clasping Padm?'s hands in his own, "I want you to be my wife."
Padm? looked down at their clasped hands. She had been through an emotional tidal wave in the past day, and she was trembling. Fear, hope, anguish, happiness - every emotion she experienced was flowing through her in waves, "We'd still have to keep it a secret," she said, finally, "You have your Jedi Order; it's been your family, and I couldn't bear to have you give them up."
"I don't care if we have to keep it a secret," Anakin said, "I don't care if anyone else knows. I just need to know in my mind and heart that you're my wife, and that you've pledged to love me. I want to make you as happy as you've made me. Please, Padm?, say 'yes'."
Padm? raised her eyes, shining with love and happiness, and kissed Anakin, "Yes, Anakin, I love you, and I never want to leave you."
On the flagstone terrace by the lakeside, the Naboo holy man read the text of the sacred, ancient marriage ceremony. Padm? wore a lovely dress of delicate, white lace, her beautiful face shining with joy. Anakin wore his formal Jedi robes, looking more than ever the knight of Padm?'s dreams. They clasped their hands as they pledged their love for each other. The holy man completed the ceremony and left them to share their first wedded kiss as the sun set over the lake.
Return to the Table of Contents
Across the Stars
"Once again, young Skywalker, the Republic is in your debt."
The hologram was small - only about a third of a meter tall - and the resolution low, but Anakin could still make out a wide smile pulled across the features of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. The translucent blue image flickered and momentarily seemed to sink beneath the bedsheets as R2-D2 shifted position for a better signal.
"Many Jedi lost their lives in your service this day," Anakin said, squaring his shoulders in an attempt to appear professional despite his prostrate condition. "I only lost an arm."
"And yet you survive to serve again," Palpatine said. "Your act of bravery demonstrates your value."
Anakin gave a lopsided smile. "My Master doesn't see it that way. If I'd listened to him, perhaps we could have taken Dooku together."
Palpatine shrugged. "Perhaps." His lips formed a quizzical frown. "And perhaps you would not have been as powerful had you supressed your emotions. Perhaps the battle would have been ended before Master Yoda's fortunate intervention. Perhaps you and your master would be dead now and my office would have two less Jedi to call upon in this time of need." He stood taller. "You doubt yourself, Anakin. I am not interested in second-guessing valour. On behalf of the Republic, I offer my gratitude."
"I can think of no better gift, Supreme Chancellor."
"Nonetheless, you shall have one. The finest prosthetic technology shall be placed at your disposal upon your return to Coruscant."
Anakin reflexively looked to his right arm ... or rather, it's crude cable and plastoid doppelganger. A tight-fitting bandage, just above the elbow, served to demarcate the line between metal and flesh, visible where the sleeve of his medical smock had been rolled back. "A small thing compared to your friendship, sir." He felt the truth of those words. The most powerful man in the galaxy, squandering his time on a slave from a backwater world ... an unthinkable honor indeed ... perhaps that's why Obi-Wan doesn't seem to approve.
"To be sure." Palpatine's expression turned fatherly. "You know that you should not hesitate to call on me for anything. Now take your well-deserved rest. I have important matters of state to attend to." The Supreme Chancellor moved to close the transmission.
"There is one thing, your excellency," Anakin said quickly.
Palpatine straightened. "Yes, my son?"
Anakin's eyes became distant. His mouth twisted. "I require advising on a ... question of romance."
A sly look crept over Palpatine's face. "Indeed? You are a much younger man than I, Anakin. What need have you of my advice?"
Anakin shifted forward, resting his back against the headboard. "Because ... I can't go to the Jedi." Palpatine raised an eyebrow. "I mean, there are issues with the Jedi Code...."
"The Jedi Code," said Palpatine, somewhat sternly, "did not allow the Council to foresee the crisis on Geonosis, nor the defection of Count Dooku. In fact, I had the assurances of Master Windu himself that such an eventuality was impossible." He smiled again, comfortingly, as if he sensed the charged nervousness that filled Anakin's mind. "You think I suggest blasphemy."
"No, Chancellor! Of course not."
"Codes and strictures have their place, my young Jedi, but they must operate under the guideance of your heart." He spread his arms wide. "Had we not challenged established authority, how would Naboo have been liberated from Federation oppression? Had we not revised existing power structures, we would presently be lacking an army to defend our cherished posterity."
Anakin nodded slowly. "You speak wisdom, Chancellor."
Palpatine smiled. "Trust your feelings, young one." He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "And should you require an intercessor, recall that certain powers are newly at my disposal." As Anakin nodded intently, Palpatine made as if to turn away, then paused. "This question of romance ... it would not have anything to do with Senator Amidala, would it?"
Anakin flushed deeply.
"Ah, I see. It should please you to know that there are few women I admire more, certainly none of her age and character. And now, my friend, I must say good-bye. An important dignitary has just arrived. Please ..." A narrow grin. "... keep me informed."
The hologram winked out. At the bedside, R2-D2 rotated his polished dome and tweedled softly.
"What do you think, Artoo?" Anakin mused, sinking back into his pillow. "Good advice?" The astromech let out a non-committal whistle. "Threepio," Anakin said loudly.
In the corner of the room, near the closed entrance, the golden protocol droid's eyes lit up, its posture straightening. "Yes, Master Anakin?"
Anakin looked around the cramped, austere room and grimaced. The soft light and placid green walls were supposed to be soothing, but he found the effect maddeningly boring. On the wall to the left of his bed was a rectangular sill, the durasteel shutter closed. "Is that a functioning window?" he asked.
C-3PO cocked his head. "I believe so, sir."
"Then why isn't it open?"
R2-D2 produced a long warble.
"Artoo informs me that the sight of hyperspace travel has been known to disturb patients." The droid paused. "Would you like me to alter the room's parameters, Master Anakin?"
Anakin shook his head. "No, I'll take care of it." It's about time I got around to this. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He hadn't actually drawn on the Force since the battle with Dooku. Oh, he'd opened himself to it, allowed himself to feel the area where his arm had been, sensed the machine now integrated with his upper forearm. Nor had he closed himself off to its presence when he'd lain, writhing in unbearable pain, on the floor of the Geonosian hangar. He'd remained fully open, letting all his misery and blind anger ride the current of Force that washed over him like black lightning, until Padm? had clasped her warm hand in his own ... only then had he let the Force slip away.
In the past, he'd been taught and even applied healing trances, Jedi techniques to calm the mind and soothe the body. But lying there, soaked in agony, he'd stubbornly refused to apply them, bitten back the pain, swallowed it. Had that been the reason for the sad disapproval in Master Yoda's wide eyes? It didn't matter. He didn't want the pain to go away. He deserved the pain. Because he hadn't been strong enough. Because he had disgraced the memory of his mother's murder. Pain was his justice. It would make him stronger.
Now, as he grasped the Force, felt its life-giving current, he was reminded again of things warm and comforting. His mother's gentle hand sweeping across his brow. The Supreme Chancellor's firm hand on his shoulder. Padm?'s deceptively delicate hand in his own ... her lips against his mouth ...
With a cry of anger Anakin pushed, and the wall-shutter flew up, exposing the interior surface of a chaotic tunnel of light and shadow. Anakin sank further into his bed and watched the wild interplay, let his consciousness sink into shifting patterns.
Padm? ... how can I do right by you ... without destroying us both?
He awoke with a start to the smooth hiss of an opening door. How long had he been out? Hours, perhaps? Seconds?
A huge smile split his face, and, careful to keep his mechanical arm concealed beneath a swath of bedsheet, he turned to face the doorway. She stood there, a vision of loveliness in a flowing white dress. Her hair was pulled back into twin spirals, meeting at the back and flowing across her neck and shoulders. But her most beautiful adornment was the smile he knew she wore just for him. "Hello, Padm?. Come in."
She stepped gracefully inside and looked him over, her eyes a curious mixture of intrigue and concern. "How are you feeling?"
"I've been better."
She sat down on the padded stool next to his bed. "I just finished transmitting my report to the Loyalist Committee."
"How did it go?"
Padm? tried to look optimistic. "Senator Organa wasn't exactly pleased."
Anakin made a gruff noise. "He doesn't need to be pleased. We do what must be done." His eyes drank in the sight of her face, the smooth color of her cheeks. "No makeup?" he noted with some surprise.
She shook her head. "I'm tired of masks."
Anakin opened his mouth, then closed it. They watched one another for a long moment.
Near the open doorway, R2-D2 approached his counterpart with a series of beeps and tweedles.
C-3PO looked down in annoyance. "I don't know why it should concern me if there are repairs to Senator Amidala's ship that need to be made. That sounds rather your field of expertise."
A querying whine.
"No, I don't see why you should need my help!"
A long blatt.
C-3PO drew back. "The audacity! After the fine mess you got me into in that horrid foundry, I've half a mind to walk straight away and have nothing to do with you ever again."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you!" With a huff, the golden droid stepped into the hall and began to stalk away.
Anakin couldn't resist a smile as he regarded R2-D2. The squat droid seemed to wink as its treads carried it into the corridor. The door hissed shut.
"Our droids fight like an old married couple," Anakin said.
"It would be a shame to separate them," she replied with an equally playful grin.
He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. There was a meadow fragrance that seemed to hang in the air. "Padm? ... I'm glad you're here."
"I wanted to see how you were doing."
"It's not just that. I wanted to talk to you." He opened his eyes and swallowed, feeling only slightly less awkward than a Dug with a stubbed finger. "About what you said to me, down there ... just before the arena."
"Yes?" Her eyes were wide and compassionate. He almost had to look away.
"I want you to know that I understand ... we thought we were going to die. And now that things are back to normal ..."
"Are things 'back to normal?'"
"I just mean that...." He took a deep breath. "You're a senator again," he said quietly. "You have duties, I realize that. I won't get in your way. If you..."
Lips against his cheek.
A scant eternity later, she pulled back, delicate mouth shaped into a teasing smile. "Anakin, you're blushing."
He cleared his throat and indicated his right arm. "Blood loss was minimal," he murmurred.
Padm?'s eyes twinkled. Then a more serious expression came over her. She ran a hand slowly down the hot skin of his cheek. "What was it like ... facing him in combat?"
Anakin's gaze became distant. "Like confronting a force of nature. Pure focus. Pure determination. And all that power ... I know he's gone over to the Dark Side, but ... well, it's easy to see why he's so revered among the Jedi. You know, I almost admire him."
"I've heard it said that the people we admire most are the most dangerous to us."
He nodded. "I've been thinking about that, and about the Jedi. Sometimes I wonder if we're taking the right aproach. If Master Yoda was right to act the way he did."
Padm? frowned. "Master Yoda saved your life, and Master Kenobi."
Anakin leaned forward. "Yes, but shouldn't a Jedi have the strength to make sacrifices? To do what needs to be done, for the greater good? Dooku was the inferior swordsman, but he still won the battle ... and Master Yoda let it happen. Who knows what damage Dooku will do now?"
Padm? placed a hand on his shoulder. "And who knows how much good you'll do, alive! Do you regret it, Anakin?"
"Of course not." He shrugged. "Then again, you'd probably have it a lot easier if I wasn't around to complicate things...." He tried to frame the jibe with a sarcastic half-smile, but the words choked in his throat. He saw tears glistening in the corners of her eyes and felt a sudden stab of shame. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "That wasn't fair."
"Don't worry about me." She wiped her eyes. "What about you?" Her gaze drifted to the folds of cloth that covered his right side. Gingerly, she pinched the sheet between her fingers. When he offered no resistance, she pulled gently until the mechanisms were completely exposed. Anakin's jaw was tight, his expression guarded. She ran her left hand through his hair reassuringly. "Does it hurt?"
Anakin shook his head. "I can't feel it ... in the Force, I mean. It's strange. It operates just like a normal biological arm, you know. The synapses don't know the difference. A normal person would close their eyes and be able to pretend it never happened. But a Jedi will never be able to forget...."
"What you've lost?"
He nodded, face tightening with remembered pain. "I've felt it before. With my mother. And ... with you." She looked at him questioningly. "When you fell into the dunes," he explained. "I thought I'd lost you, and it was like I'd lost a part of myself. I was so afraid." He looked away suddenly as a thin tear slipped down his cheek. "A Jedi should not know fear," he said, his tone thick with bitterness.
Padm? placed a hand on his arm. "Fear is a part of love. How else do we know to value something, unless we aren't afraid to lose it?" She paused. Anakin seemed to stiffen, and she became aware that her hand was caressing warm metal. She jerked it back in alarm. "Oh. I'm sorry. I should have asked ..."
He released a harsh laugh. "You're acting like it's a possession. Like you need my permission to touch it." He raised the arm from the bed. It bobbed in the air like a dead branch in the wind. "This is me, Padm?."
"I'm sorry, Anakin." She realized that she was staring at the skeletal appendage, and her attention quickly turned to his face.
"I understand. It's distracting." He made an amused noise, turning his hand around, watching miniature pistons fire and artificial tendons contract. "Who wouldn't be distracted by this."
Her reaction was surprisingly firm. "You can't be ashamed of what you are, Anakin."
"Ashamed? I'm a Jedi."
In a swift, decisive move, Padm? clasped the artificial hand in her own. Anakin, startled by the move, squeezed back reflexively. After a moment, his alarm subsided, replaced by an almost childlike wonder. "Your skin..." he said softly. "I can feel it. It's so warm...."
"I love you," Padm? said. The words came simply, slipping out before she was truly certain she was going to say them. "All of you," she continued. She could see the doubt in his eyes; the unspoken accusation - Who could love a machine? Or was that actually his voice in her mind? Had they grown that attuned? After a spike of sympathy, she fixed him with a stare usually reserved for Senate hearings. "If you were more machine than man, my loving you would remain."
Anakin looked away, breathing deeply and slowly to cover his agitation. "It's still distracting." Then he flashed a toothy smile and squeezed. Padm? gasped in momentary alarm at the sudden pinch. "But it's made me stronger." He released her hand and turned over his artificial limb, examining it in detail, suddenly delighted. "Drawing on the Force, I can do more with this than I ever could with flesh and bone." He made a tight fist. "The next time Dooku and I meet, things will be different."
Padm? felt a phantom chill. "You really think you'll meet him again?"
Anakin's grin was feral. "Count on it." He flexed the prosthetic. "I'll get a more sophisticated covering, of course. A black glove maybe. That would be prime." He looked up at her. "Supreme Chancellor Palpatine will personally see that I get anything I need, you know, just as soon as we get to Coruscant."
She stood, her aspect suddenly self-conscious, he thought. "We're not going to Coruscant," she said.
She smiled, almost shyly. "We're going to Naboo."
"That sounds nice." He shifted position on the bed, angling his chest towards her. "But what about my master?"
"I spoke with Master Kenobi. He believes I'm taking you my Lake Retreat to recouperate."
Now Anakin wore a wry grin. He slid his upper body higher so that he was almost sitting up straight. "He believes?"
"I want to show you something," Padm? said. He was surprised when she actually blushed ... even more surprised when she plunged a hand into the neckline of her dress. He flushed redder than Geonosian dust, but she only smiled coyly and withdrew her closed hand. She held it up for his inspection.
Cradled in her palm was a tiny pendant, intricately carved, made of wood. "I've kept it close to me, all these years."
Another tear slipped down Anakin's cheek, but this one was offset by the most tender of smiles. "Jira...." he whispered. "Old Jira ... she told me to save it, that it was very special. She said I should only give it to my true love, to the one that I would..." He broke off, turning an even deeper shade of red. "I think I knew, even then."
Her hands pressed together. "It's a token of engagement?" she ventured.
Anakin looked away. "I was just a kid ... I couldn't see the future. I didn't know about the Jedi Code, or politics, all the things that are keeping us apart."
Padm? sighed deeply. "Anakin, you must understand ... my whole life has been procedure, codes of conduct, rules of order ... it's a life I chose willingly, and without regrets, knowing that it was the correct path, because of my love for my people."
"Padm?...." He shut his eyes, raising his flesh-and-blood hand like a wall between them. "Please, you mustn't continue. I don't think I could take it right now, if..."
"Please, let me finish." She took a deep breath. "I've come to realize that if I were ever to ... bend the rules ... it could only be for love. Do you understand?"
"I want to...." His teeth clenched, and for a moment she thought he was actually experiencing physical pain. A rivulet of sweat threaded down his temple. "More than anything in the galaxy, I want you to be saying what I think you're saying. But I don't dare dream." He exhaled deeply and looked at her with haunted eyes. "I've come to realize that if I truly value you ... It's not fair to ask you to put your career in jeopardy."
"But I'd be asking the same thing of you."
His fists grabbed at the bedsheets in frustration. "You know how I feel!"
"You told me you couldn't live a lie," she said gently.
"The lie would be living one day apart from you." His breath quickened, the words seemed to pour out of him. "I need you, Padm?. More than my own flesh and blood. That's truth. And I will do anything ... anything ... make any sacrifice."
"Are Jedi allowed to marry?"
The question struck him like a thunderbolt. The response formed in his mind instantaneously, and he thrust it at her like a spear. She released a small gasp, and before she could speak, he had drawn her close to his face. She hovered above his joyfully skewed mouth, felt the delight radiate from his skin like heat. "The Jedi be damned," he whispered, and kissed her.
It was a mature kiss, a convicted kiss. It started hard and direct, then collapsed into breathless ecstacy. Indeed, Padm? was so swept up that she failed to register the subtle shudder of deck plates as the vessel dropped out of hyperspace; did not see the gentle arc and curve of Naboo, gleaming jewel-like through the exposed viewport; remained completely incognizant of the fact that the fingers which pressed so eagerly into the flesh of her rounded shoulder were not remotely human.
A galaxy away, in a cavernous metal structure that stank of oil and ozone, two shadowy figures moved in the fading red twilight.
"Everything is going as planned," breathed the shorter of the two figures in a low, rotted voice.
The creature which in another lifetime had been Count Adulphis Dooku nodded as he walked. He ran a hand across his snowy beard. "Young Skywalker yet lives."
From beneath the voluminous folds of his cowl, the other revealed a crooked smile. "Yes, I know. It is as I anticipated."
The taller one paused in his pace. This was new information. "Does this, too, suit your plans, Master?"
The nexus of darkness surrounding the bent figure of Darth Sidious seemed to intensify. "I sense your concern is for your own future, Lord Tyranus." Shrouded shoulders twitched ... a silent corruption of good-humor. "Do not worry." Cold breath hissed between the Sith Lord's teeth. "His undoing is already in motion."
There was a sound that might have been a laugh, or perhaps the rustle of cloth on stone, and the pair of figures was swallowed up by the darkness.
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