Anakin is hiding something; Obi-Wan wants to know what. But another secret has come to light: Dooku's whereabouts. Now Anakin, Padmé and Obi-Wan are racing to find the count before he disappears again. (The sequel to 'Secrets', but can be read alone.)
"I think he's hiding something."
"Anakin?" Luminara's sharp tone drew Obi-Wan's gaze upward.
Half expecting to see censure in his friend's face for leveling such a charge at his padawan, Obi-Wan was relieved to note nothing more than open concern. He nodded and returned his attention to the yellow pinja fruit in his hand. He balanced the disc-shaped fruit on a blue plate and poised a knife above it.
Mid-slice, he paused as Luminara said, "What makes you think such a thing?"
Obi-Wan stared at the knife for a few seconds, then lifted his gaze once more. Luminara returned his regard, raising slender eyebrows high over blue eyes so deep that a person could dive into them and never surface. Obi-Wan blinked to prevent himself from doing just that. He sliced the fruit as he talked. "It's nothing I can pinpoint, more just a feeling I have. Sometimes when we're talking, his face ... shuts down, like a droid switching off."
"Do you sense anything through the Force?"
"No." Obi-Wan scowled. "And that's what has me the most puzzled. It's like he's a blank data-disc. I can't read him at all. He's shielding heavily, which is what makes me think he's hiding something. But I don't know what. I hope he hasn't done something foolish. Since Geonosis ... our trust level has diminished for some reason. Or, his has. And when I challenge him on it, he draws more deeply into himself."
"Well, if you're calling him a droid or a blank data-disc, I can certainly see why he might not want to talk."
"What do you mean?"
"He probably wants to be treated like the young man he is, not like some machine."
Obi-Wan's scowl deepened. "I'm not calling him those things to his face. I'm concerned for him and am making every effort to be reasonable. He's the one refusing to talk."
"Have the two of you ever been open with each other, really shared your feelings?"
Obi-Wan released a slow breath. "We don't have the kind of close relationship you had ... with Barriss." He shifted his cross-legged position, uncomfortable with being the first to mention Luminara's dead padawan. She nudged him under the low table, as if to signal that it was okay. His shoulders relaxed and he continued, "We respect each other, like each other. At least, I like him. Most of the time."
"Maybe he's picking up on ... the other times."
"I don't dislike him. But he frustrates me to the outer limits. I don't understand him, Luminara. I just don't -"
A giggle froze Obi-Wan. He narrowed his eyes and peered at his friend. "I should very much like to know what you think is so funny."
"Nothing you've said." Luminara tapped the plate, drawing his gaze to the intricate tattoos decorating her finger joints. "I have never seen pinja served in such tiny pieces."
Obi-Wan observed his handiwork, or rather his slaughter, of the fruit in question. He dropped the knife with a clatter and gave Luminara a wry glance. She burst out laughing. Obi-Wan smiled. Force, but it was good to hear her laugh again.
"Oh, Obi-Wan, thank you for tonight. I needed this so much. A chance to relax and not worry about whether I'm reacting properly or saying the right thing. A chance to get away from the awkward glances and abrupt changes of conversation when I walk into a room. A chance to laugh." She cupped her hand over his, her face suffused with a golden glow.
Sudden longing surfaced; Obi-Wan quashed it. He was not going to let a desire that could never be satisfied ruin this moment, or their friendship. Still, her touch sent sparks of uncomfortable awareness skittering up his arm. Feeling like a clumsy teenager, he jerked his hand free and stumbled to his feet.
He muttered, "You must be thirsty. I'll be right back."
Obi-Wan retreated to the kitchenette. He braced his hands against the counter and inhaled calm. This was the first time he had gotten together with Luminara since he had saved Padm? Naberrie from a terrorist attack and had spent several days squiring her through the streets of Coruscant to safety. Since he had kissed Padm? while thinking of Luminara, wishing ... Obi-Wan set aside the memory. Wishes had nothing to do with reality. And the reality was that he and Luminara were both Jedi, both dedicated to service in the Order. Friendship was all Obi-Wan could ever seek, was likely all Luminara ever wanted. He would not make the mistake his master had made. He straightened and pulled two glasses off a shelf.
"Something else is bothering you." Luminara spoke from the end of the counter.
Startled, Obi-Wan held his reaction to a twitch of his eye. He didn't look at his friend, but busied himself with filling the glasses.
"Obi-Wan, ... what is it?" Luminara crossed her arms, her hands resting over the copper- and bronze-colored metal bands that covered her upper arms.
Pasting a weak smile on his face, Obi-Wan turned and held out her glass. She took it, but didn't move. Obi-Wan shrugged. "I'm tired. Master Yoda has me attending meetings all day, every day. He has decided that I should be the Jedi representative on the Military Council that Bail Organa is heading up."
"And on top of full-day meetings, I hear you're still spending hours in the training rooms, honing your lightsaber skills. That can't be helping your fatigue. But that Military Council is just to mollify the Senate, isn't it?"
"Yes. They're afraid that the new military is wielding too much power and want to make sure that they have their say. I'm not sure who insisted the Jedi have a voice in matters, and I'm completely baffled as to what I did to Master Yoda to get him so upset with me that he would appoint me to the post."
Luminara chuckled. "Before you know it, they'll be making you a general."
"Force forbid. So far, my mandate is restricted to voicing my opinion on strategies and not committing the Jedi to the fight. Ever since Geonosis, Master Yoda has been striving to keep us from being drawn deeper into the conflict, despite heavy Senate pressure to the contrary. We need to regain an air of neutrality if we're ever to be effective as negotiators in the conflict."
"It might be too late for that." Sadness shadowed Luminara's eyes.
That she was still mourning the loss of her padawan was plain to see. Obi-Wan stepped beside her and leaned against the counter. He gave her a gentle bump with his shoulder, earning himself a watery smile. He wished he could take her pain away - a wish as pointless as any other he had made recently.
Luminara sniffed. "So tell me about this committee."
"That one word about sums it up. It's a committee. Endless talk. Although I do admire the deft way Bail handles the various members, including the military personnel. He has a fine mind." Obi-Wan paused. "Despite his taste in clothing."
"Obi-Wan! That's terrible. Why would you say such a thing?"
He smiled at Luminara's reaction. "It's hard to take a person seriously when he's decked out in so much ... frippery."
"So much ...?" Luminara peered up at Obi-Wan, eyes now clear and dancing. "And just what frippery is he guilty of wearing?"
"Oh, you know. The frills at the collar and cuffs." Obi-Wan pointed at his own neck and wrists. "The braid and excessive ornamentation on his tunics."
Luminara swung around to stand before him. "One could say the same thing about you, dear Jedi. Look at you. Undertunic, tunic, stolla, sash, belt, lightsaber, and a cloak when you go out. Isn't that ... excessive?"
"Is it?" She tapped her tattooed chin and quirked her eyebrows. "And what about me, Obi-Wan? Do I wear ... frippery?"
"Well ..." Obi-Wan ran an assessing gaze over her, a grin crinkling his eyes. "Now that you mention it, that head covering comes dangerously close. I've always wanted to ask you why you wear it. Surely it would be more comfortable to simply go without."
"Like my tattoos, my head covering is traditional to my home world, though I'm sure you know that. A woman leaves her hair unbound but covered. So it satisfies tradition, but also serves to keep my hair out of my eyes so I can see to fight when necessary."
"You must keep it short under there, though, or it would be uncomfortably hot."
Luminara smiled. She set down her glass and slid her hands to the back of her neck, then pulled off the covering. Obi-Wan blinked. Her hair hung thick and straight, almost ten centimeters below her collar. A black waterfall. He itched to feel the shimmering folds flow through his fingers.
In a conspiratorial whisper, Luminara said, "You must pretend I never did this, for on Mirial, only a woman's lifemate is supposed to see her hair."
Lifemate. Obi-Wan squeezed his eyes shut and drained his glass. He set it down with a thump and moved to step past Luminara. She stopped him with a hand on his chest. "What is it? What's wrong, Obi-Wan?"
"Tired. Yes, I know. And you're also being evasive."
"Thank you for that observation. You, my friend, are being nosy."
Obi-Wan opened his mouth and snapped it shut. Padm? had called him that. He eyed his friend warily. "Very well, I agree. Obnoxious is a better word for your behavior."
A clear laugh burst from the smaller Jedi. "You know I was referring to you, Obi-Wan Kenobi."
With a look of mock indignation, Obi-Wan started to protest, but found himself beguiled by her amazing blue eyes and the way they were sparkling with laughter. His expression softened. He shook himself and laughed. "You are absolutely right. I am completely obnoxious. Just ask my padawan."
"Ask me what, Master?" Anakin's voice came from the entry.
The two Jedi exchanged amused glances. Obi-Wan grinned as he realized that Luminara hadn't heard Anakin enter the apartment either. The padawan popped his head around the corner. Surprise flickered over his features, then disappeared.
Tilting his head, uncertainty in his voice, Anakin said, "You're in a good mood."
"Yes, as it happens," Obi-Wan replied. He crossed his arms. "And you're back a little early. I thought the shuttle from Obroa-Skai didn't arrive until closer to midnight."
"A good pilot, I guess." Anakin nodded at Luminara, his gaze lingering on her unbound hair for a few seconds. Obi-Wan could almost see the snide comment forming on his padawan's lips, though Anakin merely said, "Master Unduli. It's good to see you smiling again." He sent Obi-Wan a dubious glance, as if he could not quite believe his master capable of making anyone smile. Obi-Wan arched one brow.
"Thank you, Anakin. And you are looking well, too," Luminara replied. "Though I must say that the leather trimmings you sport come, well, dangerously close to frippery. Wouldn't you agree, Master Kenobi?"
Obi-Wan snorted and swallowed his rising laughter, a task made more difficult by the puzzled look Anakin wore. The padawan hesitated, then said, "Master? I spoke with Padm? via comlink on my way to the Temple, and I promised her I'd give her a hand with a project she has on the go." He paused. "If that's okay with you, I mean."
"You want to go over tonight?"
"Right away, if you don't have anything pressing for me to do."
The boy was being very deferential, not his usual arrogant self at all. His eagerness to see Padm? was showing. Obi-Wan found it hard to object to his padawan's friendship with the senator when he drew so much strength from his own relationship with Luminara. Still, he let Anakin chafe under a harsh gaze for a moment. When Anakin's face started to fall, he said, "Don't focus on the negative, young padawan. Your thoughts betray you. And whatever you do, ... don't overstay your welcome."
A smile broke across Anakin's face. "Of course not, Master." He spun and disappeared. The door whispered closed seconds later.
Obi-Wan stared at the spot where his padawan had stood. He was relieved to have Anakin gone. The boy was very astute. The last thing Obi-Wan wanted was to have him notice what Luminara had so far failed to see - that she inspired feelings in him beyond friendship.
Luminara dropped her head covering, jerking Obi-Wan from his reverie. She bent over and picked it up, her hair falling across her shoulders and into her face. When she straightened, Obi-Wan smiled and reached over to brush a strand of hair out of her eyes. His fingers lingered on her temple. Their eyes met.
The sapphire pools drew him into their depths before he realized what was happening. He couldn't look away, not even when he saw understanding dawning in them.
Luminara blinked and looked away, breaking the spell. "Oh, Obi-Wan." Her brow puckered. Her hand fluttered between them, then dropped. "I ... I should leave." She wheeled away and darted toward the foyer.
Obi-Wan caught up to her beside the sofa and grasped her arm. "Please, Luminara, don't go. I refuse to let my ... foolishness ... get in the way of our friendship."
Slowly, she turned around and peered into his face.
"Please stay." Panic edged his thoughts. "I can't lose your friendship. You are the only one I can talk to the way we do." He gave her a hopeful smile. "Laugh with me, Luminara. Laugh at my stupidity."
"It's ... not funny, Obi-Wan. It's heart-wrenching. It's touching. It ... hurts."
Obi-Wan touched his finger to her lips. "I can assure you, that was never my intent, my friend." He flung his arms out. "Hit me."
"I had the audacity to hurt you. So hit me. Your hardest swing. I won't even defend against it."
Luminara covered her mouth, muffling a laugh. "Stop it."
"I mean it. Knock me out cold."
This time the laugh broke free. "Okay, I'll stay. You are so pathetic."
Obi-Wan grinned. "A truly pathetic, and apparently obnoxious, lifeform. And I'm forever grateful that you have more compassion than I when it comes to such things."
Seriousness cloaked her features. She cupped her hand along his jaw. "I value our friendship, too, Obi-Wan, more than I can say. You know as well as I that it can never be more than that. So tell me what I can do to help you. To help us."
Gripping Luminara's elbow, Obi-Wan steered her toward the table and the now soggy pinja fruit. "To begin with, you can put that head covering back on."
"What? Don such needless frippery?"
Obi-Wan groaned. "Have mercy, friend."
An hour later, the two Jedi were still laughing with easy camaraderie. They exchanged tales of missions gone awry, each enduring the other's good-natured teasing. Luminara relaxed on the sofa, while Obi-Wan stretched out on the floor, propped on his elbow. He tossed bits of fresh pinja at her, which she easily caught, alternating between popping the fruit in her mouth and throwing pieces back at him.
Obi-Wan said, "Do you remember our joint mission on Ansion?"
Luminara snorted softly. "I remember you riding those great beasts like you had been born to it, while the rest of us were jostled about and bumped and bruised and almost tossed to the ground."
"I remember you throwing handfuls of sand into the air and our hosts getting most disgruntled with your ... lack of talent. Until the sand started molding into pictures before our eyes. It was one of the most incredible displays of Force control I've even been witness to. When you rose in the air, the sand spiraling around you, the silence was so profound ... I do believe you even impressed my padawan."
"High praise indeed."
It was Obi-Wan's turn to snort. "You have no idea how difficult he is to impress. His abilities have made him arrogant."
"Well, he is supposed to be the Chosen One."
"Chosen to drive me to an early funeral pyre."
"I know, I know. Add irreverence to my list of crimes, along with obnoxious and Force knows what else. You'll have to ask Anakin for a complete listing. He can catalogue my faults much more efficiently than I."
"You have so many. It must be difficult to keep track."
Obi-Wan leveled an annoyed look at his friend. She smiled broadly. He flipped another piece of pinja at her, which she threw right back.
"No more. I'm going to burst soon."
Dropping the fruit back on the plate, Obi-Wan flopped onto his back and stared at the ceiling, content to share the silence with Luminara. Her presence glimmered in the Force, a soothing balm. His relief at their getting past the awkwardness of his revealed feelings was enormous. He knew, with Luminara's help, he'd overcome this unexpected, unwelcome love and return to the simpler devotion of friendship. They would be able to share a lifetime of evenings like this one. A smile played over his lips.
"What are you -"
Luminara's question was cut short by the door chime sounding. Obi-Wan rolled over and pushed to his feet. "Enter." At his command, the door slid into the wall.
A Mon Calamari initiate stepped into the apartment and bowed. "Masters." He straightened and faced Obi-Wan. "Master Yoda requests your presence, Master Kenobi. He asks that you meet him right away, in the Star Room."
"Thank you," Obi-Wan replied. "I'll do so."
The young learner bowed again and hurried into the corridor as the door hissed closed. Obi-Wan gave Luminara an apologetic look.
She held up her hand. "It can't be helped." A twinkle entered her eyes. "Perhaps you've been put on active duty, General Kenobi."
Obi-Wan curled his lip. "A commission I will only accept if you are made my second-in-command."
"No, thank you. I will stick to negotiating."
"Well, my padawan often calls battle aggressive negotiations, something you are quite adept at when the situation calls for it. You'd be a natural."
"All the same, I will remain a simple Jedi. You will have to bask alone in the glory of battles won." She rose and smiled up at Obi-Wan. "I'm hopeful your ego won't puff up too much."
"You never can tell. What with my endless list of faults, egomania is certain to be included somewhere."
Luminara smiled. "True enough." She slipped her arms around his waist. "Please tell me I can still do this."
Obi-Wan returned the hug. "Always. Even if I ever have the misfortune to become an egotistical general." He pressed his cheek against the top of her head and inhaled her sweet herbal scent.
"Would you really consider such a post?"
"If the Council required it, though I'm certain it will never come to that." Another of his faults, according to Anakin - his desire to do the will of the Council. Why a simple concept like unquestioned obedience was so difficult for Anakin to grasp, was beyond Obi-Wan's understanding. The boy had to have a reason for everything.
Luminara stepped back. "We'll talk tomorrow. Maybe we can connect at lunch. I'm on Coruscant for the next few days, at least."
Obi-Wan nodded. "The Force be with you."
"And with you, dear friend."
Luminara left Obi-Wan standing in the middle of the room. After the door closed, he sighed and looked around, then tidied up, rinsing dishes and stacking them in the sterilizer. He wiped his hands on his stolla, pausing to finger the soft material, a smile tugging at his mouth. Frippery. He set aside his mirth, grabbed his cloak, and headed for the Star Room.
Master Yoda was waiting, a scowl marring his forehead. In deference to the master's size, Obi-Wan sank to his knees and sat back on his heels. He inclined his head in greeting.
Yoda huffed and began to pace, his gimer stick tapping the stone floor. It brought forth the memory of Yoda fighting Dooku, the stick and old age forgotten in the cocooning power of the Force. Yoda was a many-layered mystery, even to those who knew him well. Obi-Wan watched and waited. It was several moments before Yoda spoke.
"Transpired, an unsettling development has."
"In the Clone War?"
"Mmm." Yoda halted and narrowed his eyes. "Spoken to Senator Amidala recently, have you?"
"Not since the terrorist incident at the Bothan Embassy. Why?"
Yoda didn't reply. He waved his hand and activated the star map, turning the room into a miniature galaxy, then studied the stars for several moments. Finally, he used his gimer stick to point at a grouping of lights.
"The Hapes Cluster," Obi-Wan said, wondering at the change in subject. He knew he need only be patient and Yoda would reveal the reason.
Nodding, the ancient master said, "Returned from Hapes today, aboard a public transport, Jedi Shemdireh did. Wandering the lower levels of the ship, he was, when he heard a disturbance and rushed to it, frightening off an attacker. He stayed to help the victim, but too late, it was. Handed him a pouch, the victim did, and with his dying breath said it must reach Senator Amidala."
Obi-Wan raised his eyebrows. "A diplomatic courier?"
Yoda's ears flattened. "A personal courier."
"Really." Obi-Wan paused. "You opened the pouch."
Yoda clamped both his hands on his stick and lifted his chin. Obi-Wan recognized that look. Far be it from him to question the motives or actions of the wisest of all Jedi masters. He schooled his features to blandness and waited for Yoda to continue.
The Jedi master frowned at Obi-Wan for a moment, then said, "Has her own network of spies, the senator does. Discovered the whereabouts of Count Dooku, they may have."
Shocked, Obi-Wan stared at Yoda, unable to summon words as his thoughts skipped in all directions. That Yoda was expecting a response was evident in his expression. Obi-Wan cleared his throat. "Well, that certainly explains why her courier would be a target for murder."
The furrows in Yoda's forehead deepened. "Know nothing of this, you do?"
"Of course not, Master. I would never condone -"
"Yes, yes. Suspect you, I did not. I merely sought to confirm my belief." Yoda resumed pacing. "Concerned, I am, that the senator is acting alone. Without Senate knowledge. Without our knowledge. Why?" He jabbed the air with his stick. "Know this, we must. The senator still does not realize how dangerous Dooku is. Only the Jedi know, that darkness, he has embraced. Stopped, she must be, from continuing her hunt. And then ... find Dooku, we must. On this, much depends."
"Go to the senator, you will."
"Yes. If the murderer was sent by Dooku, then alerted he might already be. Act quickly, we must, before he disappears again."
"And if Padm? refuses to stop looking for Dooku?"
Yoda narrowed his eyes. "Allow that, I will not. A Jedi matter, this is. Hold you responsible for her actions, I will, and for her safety."
Obi-Wan held his tongue. He wondered if Yoda realized how stubborn a young woman Padm? was. If she had set her mind to the task, stopping her might be akin to stopping a stampeding herd of nerf. His thoughts crashed to a halt. Anakin. Did he know what Padm? was doing? Is that what he was hiding?
"Hm?" Obi-Wan blinked rapidly.
"Hear me, you did not." Disapproval stamped Yoda's features.
"I'm sorry, Master. What did you say?"
Yoda pointed at the chair in the center of the room, and the packet on its seat. "I said, take the pouch and return it to the senator."
"But surely you don't want her to know where -"
"Her pouch, it is. Keep it from her, I will not. Use reason, you must, to achieve your goal."
Obi-Wan started to speak, then stopped. He had the feeling that Yoda had just doomed him to failure. Giving Padm? that pouch would be like releasing a heat-seeking missile when the target was in sight. He stood and picked up the packet. "Are you certain this is what you want, Master?"
Yoda rapped his stick on the floor. "Question me, you will not."
"Yes, Master." Obi-Wan took a quick breath and spoke before he could think better of it. "It's just that Padm? sometimes thinks with her heart, not her head."
"Then, do her thinking for her, you will."
"But she -"
"Dismissed, you are, Obi-Wan."
Clamping his mouth shut, Obi-Wan gave a short bow, then strode from the room. His boots slapped against the marble floor. Master Yoda had to know that Padm? would try to chase after Dooku once she knew where he was. Why did Yoda want that?
Scowling, Obi-Wan rounded a corner, scattering a group of older initiates. Their surprised mutterings followed him down the corridor. He continued, unheeding, his pace eating up the distance to the nearest landing bay.
He wasn't looking forward to the coming argument with Padm?. And he already knew whose side Anakin would take.
Captain Typho greeted Obi-Wan in the foyer of Senator Amidala's multi-storied apartment. "Master Kenobi, it's a pleasure to see you again."
Obi-Wan bowed. He genuinely liked the head of Padm?'s security. He was a stern fellow who took his duties very seriously. Obi-Wan had never asked, but assumed Typho had lost his left eye in the line of duty. The eye patch lent an even grimmer aspect to the man. "How are you this evening, Captain?"
"I was fine until you walked through the door." Obi-Wan gave Typho a curious look and the man continued, "You only seem to show up when trouble is on the radar screen."
Pulling his cloak close about him, Obi-Wan said, "Surely you misjudge ..."
Slightly taller than Obi-Wan, Typho straightened to his full height and skewered the Jedi with a keen eye. "Are you here only for a visit, then?"
Obi-Wan inclined his head. "I confess, I'm here on business."
A quiet snort escaped from Typho. "I thought as much. Senator Amidala is in the main lounge, with Anakin if I'm not mistaken. Shall I announce you?"
"That won't be necessary. I'll find my own way." Obi-Wan bowed again and swept past the diligent captain. He doubted Typho ever mistook anything.
Obi-Wan strolled along the outer corridor, eyeing the blurred lights of Coruscant traffic by night. He paused and straightened his cloak. He was stalling, he knew. He didn't want to argue with Padm?. Though he'd known her for over ten years, their friendship was still quite new and precarious, especially given Anakin's sometimes defensive attitude toward him and Padm?'s obvious loyalty to Anakin.
Everything always came back to Anakin. The boy had defined his life since the day they had first met. I lost my master twice, first to Anakin, then to the Sith's blade. Refusing to let the old resentment take root, Obi-Wan closed his eyes, admitting that he sometimes wondered (feared?) if Anakin would be central to the rest of his life. Likely all masters had similar thoughts. When Anakin achieved knighthood, Obi-Wan would begin to walk a solitary path. An odd thought, that. He had always been either padawan or master. It would be strange to have to account for only himself. Strange, but ... not unwelcome. The stress of keeping Anakin in line was fatiguing.
The lanes of traffic came into focus, and Obi-Wan realized he had been standing before this window for several moments. He sighed. He had an assignment and pointless musing would not see it done. Hands clasped before him, he strode toward the archway at the end of the hall and into the lounge.
Obi-Wan jerked to a halt, eyes wide.
On the other side of the room, oblivious to everything, Anakin and Padm? were embracing.
And kissing. Passionately.
The Jedi master tried to clear his throat around the lump clogging it. The sound barely registered. Heedless, Anakin continued to ... to plunder Padm?'s lips. Obi-Wan worked his jaw, but no words emerged. What were they doing?
As he watched, Anakin swept Padm? into his arms, still kissing her, and started for the hall leading to the senator's bedroom. Alarm thrummed through Obi-Wan's veins. The bedroom. He found his voice.
The shout almost caused Anakin to drop Padm?. He jerked his head up, eyes round, cheeks flushed deep red. He set Padm? down and she brushed at her gown, studiously avoiding Obi-Wan's gaze.
"What do you think you are doing?" Each word was punctuated by a cracking step forward.
"I -" Anakin's nostrils flared and he pushed Padm? behind him.
"This is completely unacceptable." Obi-Wan fought to control his rising anger.
"No buts." Anakin's lips pressed together. Distress and something darker flickered over his features. Obi-Wan halted before the padawan and crossed his arms. "You are behaving in a manner unbecoming a Jedi. One does not take advantage of friendship in such a reprehensible way. Seduction, Anakin? What are you thinking? Are you even thinking? Come to your senses here."
Through clenched teeth, Anakin said, "You don't understand."
"Nor do I want to. This time you have gone too far, young one. You will learn your place and will start behaving according to the Code -"
"Blast the Code!"
Obi-Wan's breath caught. He scowled, carving deep lines between his brows. His voice was deadly quiet. "What ... did you say?"
"You heard me."
Anakin started to turn away, but Obi-Wan yanked him back. "You had better have a reasonable explanation for your outburst, my young padawan learner."
"Stop calling me that!"
Obi-Wan's grip tightened. "Explain your actions now, or we'll return to the Temple and you can explain them to Master Yoda."
Anakin shook himself free. His face distorted as he fought an inner battle, the intensity of which surprised Obi-Wan. Finally, Anakin blurted, "We're married."
For a long moment, Obi-Wan forgot to breathe. His heart failed to beat. With a roar, his blood resumed rushing through his veins. A merciless pounding began behind his eyes. Anger erupted. "How dare you lie to me! What in blazes do you think to gain by -"
"It's true, Obi-Wan." Padm?'s voice struck the Jedi momentarily dumb.
Groping behind him, Obi-Wan felt for the sofa and sank onto it. He stared blankly at the pair before him, rubbing his chilled and clammy fingers, noting his icy toes, deciding he was going into shock. That was ridiculous. One did not slip into a state of shock from simply hearing that ...
"It's true?" he whispered. "True?" He leaned his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands. Without looking up he asked, "Was it true when we were fleeing through the streets of Coruscant, Padm??"
Obi-Wan snapped his head up. "You sought my friendship, yet you said nothing."
"I couldn't. It was Anakin's ... It wasn't ..." Her brow wrinkled as she battled dismay.
Anakin said, "Padm? told me to tell you, Master. Remember? That night in your room, right after you had rescued her? But ... I couldn't. I knew you wouldn't understand."
"I wouldn't understand." Obi-Wan laughed, a short bark. "What's to understand? You're an aspiring Jedi Knight, forbidden from forming such attachments - and for a good reason, I might add - and you just up and, and ..." Another bark. "You're dead right I don't understand." He stood and began to pace. "How long?"
When no answer was forthcoming, Obi-Wan halted before Anakin. "I said, how long?"
Anakin avoided his gaze. "Right after Geonosis. When I escorted Padm? back to Naboo."
"When you ..." Obi-Wan scowled, something niggling on the edge of his awareness. He narrowed his eyes. "Where?"
"I told you, Master. On Naboo."
"No. Where on Naboo?"
"Up in the lake country where we first hid from the assassin. There's a villa -"
"Blast!" Obi-Wan spun and strode to the window. Hands folded tightly across his chest, he saw nothing, his sight turned inward, to a vision he'd had the night Anakin had tried to tell him. Anakin and Padm? kissing, a shimmering lake behind them. He spoke quietly, to himself. "The Force showed me, but I refused to see. It tried to warn me, but I ignored it. Am I so Force-blind then? So insensitive to its leading?" Silently, he cried, Master, help me. But there was no reply, only rising despair. I knew they liked each other, but still I agreed to let him escort her home. If I hadn't ... This is my fault. I've failed. Again. Oh, Force. He slumped into a chair beside the window and closed his eyes.
Summon quiet. There is no emotion; there is peace. Set
Absorb the truth. There is no ignorance; there is knowledge. Accept it and learn.
Breathe in calm. There is no passion; there is serenity. Breathe out anger.
Seek the Light. There is no death; there is the Force. Resist the urge to strangle Anakin.
Questing inward, Obi-Wan reached for his center of calm. It proved as elusive as catching the wind.
"Obi-Wan?" Small hands clasped his. "Obi-Wan, are you all right?" He blinked his eyes open and stared at Padm?, crouched before him, concern wreathing her features. She was incredibly beautiful. He could see why Anakin was attracted to her. She said, "I've never seen you like this, Obi-Wan. Please don't be angry. It will be all right. I promise."
The promise of a politician. Obi-Wan winced inwardly at his judgmental attitude. He pulled his hands from her grasp and stood. He studied Anakin as he weighed their options. Padm? moved to stand beside Anakin and took his hand, facing Obi-Wan as if waiting for sentencing. Obi-Wan crossed his arms, holding his cloak close and warding off the chill he felt. After several minutes, he said, "We can fix this."
Anakin's expression turned quizzical. "Fix?"
Obi-Wan nodded. "Yes. What kind of a ceremony were you married in? Civil?"
Padm? said, "A local holy man performed the rites."
"Good. That's easier. We'll travel to Naboo and get the marriage annulled."
Anger contorted Anakin's face. "We'll do no such thing."
Obi-Wan stepped forward. "Be mindful of your feelings, Padawan. Do not let them control you. This is the only reasonable -"
"Space reason!" Anakin's limbs quivered. "I will not pretend the last few months never happened! Padm? is my wife. I love her and she's going to remain my wife."
"Patience, Anakin. Think this through. You have to realize -"
"Realize what, Obi-Wan? That you are totally incapable of understanding me? I already know that. Do you even know what love is? Have you ever once felt love for anyone? If you had the slightest clue what it feels like, you'd know I can't turn my back on our love. Tell me, Master, do you have a heart or a central processing unit?"
Obi-Wan strove to tamp his surging frustration. "Not only is that a highly unfair accusation, it has no bearing on this situation. I'm concerned for you and I'm trying to help."
"By making the situation disappear? It's not going away, Obi-Wan. We are married - and we're staying that way."
Shaking his head, Obi-Wan pinched the bridge of his nose. "Don't you realize what you've done?" Eyes pleading, he met his padawan's steely gaze. "All your life you've wanted to be a Jedi. I can't begin to recall how many times you told me that. And now, on the verge of success, you would throw it all away?"
"I'm not throwing anything away."
Obi-Wan gaped for a heartbeat. "That's ... Think, Anakin. For once, take a moment and think it through. If we don't deal with this, you will be expelled from the Jedi Order!"
"Now who's the one dwelling on negative thoughts?"
"Expelled! And all our hard work will be for nothing."
"Be careful, Master. Your thoughts betray you. Our hard work? It seems all you're really concerned about here is how this will affect your standing as a Jedi master."
Obi-Wan jabbed his finger at Anakin. "Don't twist my teachings and throw them back in my face." He dropped onto the sofa, forearms on thighs, and stared at his hands, willing his anger to subside. His breath huffed out in short bursts. As he focused on the Force, his breathing began to even out, his muscles started to relax.
Padm? sat beside him and spoke softly. "It was wrong of us not to tell you sooner, Obi-Wan, but you have to try to understand how we feel. Put yourself in our position. If it were you and Luminara -"
"Master Unduli?" Anakin cried.
"Hush, Anakin. Please, Obi-Wan. If you had a reasonable chance at making a life with the one you love, wouldn't you take it?"
Puzzlement lacing his tone, Anakin said, "Obi-Wan and Master Unduli?"
"Anakin!" Padm? said. "Stop being so rude. Obi-Wan, please talk to me." He lifted his head and she continued, "You trusted me with the secret of your heart. I won't betray that. Neither of us will." She shot a pointed look at Anakin. "But tell me the truth, wouldn't you marry her if you could?"
"No." Obi-Wan held Padm?'s brown gaze. "No. We are Jedi. Nothing can change that fact. We are both committed to the Jedi Order. There is a reason for the proscription about loving. It's not to be cruel, it's not because the Order wants to control every aspect of our lives, it's not because Jedi lack hearts. It splinters our focus, gives our enemies a target. Anakin is a Jedi. You are now his point of weakness. Anyone wishing to attack him, need only target you. Luminara and I will remain mere friends because it's the right thing to do, because as friends we support and strengthen each other without demands, without ... draining expectations."
"There is strength in love," Padm? whispered.
"And there is madness. I've seen both, Padm?. I was younger than Anakin when my master found love - with another Jedi. She was ripped from his life, kidnapped, then killed. It drove him to the brink of madness, to the shadowlands bordering the Dark Side." Obi-Wan rested his hand on Padm?'s shoulder. "I loved Qui-Gon as a father. He was my master and I was helpless in the face of his despair and grief. I almost lost him then, but I fought to save him with every gram of strength the boy I was possessed." He shifted his regard to Anakin. He needed to speak as he never had before - maybe all this had happened because he was too reserved with his feelings. "I know we sometimes disagree, but you are my padawan. I care deeply for you and ... I don't want to lose you, Anakin. I'm fighting for you, here, now. Please help me."
Anakin gave him a pained look. "I love her, Master."
"You are a Jedi, Padawan."
"I love her too much to leave her."
"Are you willing to pay the price your love will demand? Are you willing to give up your dream?"
"She is my dream. She is my life."
Oh, Force. I failed you, Master. Forgive me. Obi-Wan closed his eyes. Help me to forgive myself.
The silence stretched into awkwardness. Finally, Padm? said, "Obi-Wan? I know this is a bad time to ask, but ... why did you come here? Was it to get Anakin? Are you being sent on a mission?"
The assignment. He'd forgotten all about it. Setting aside his worries for the moment, Obi-Wan stood and folded his arms, his training as a Jedi re-asserting itself. He sent Anakin a glance warning him their discussion wasn't over, then faced Padm?. "A courier of yours was returning to Coruscant from the Hapes Cluster. He was murdered aboard the transport."
A frown puckered Padm?'s brow. Her eyes darkened to near black.
Her silence was telling; she knew what that courier had been searching for. Obi-Wan felt the pouch beneath his fingers, tucked under his sash. If he didn't give it to her, she wouldn't know about Dooku. One less argument. One less worry. Master Yoda's admonition rang through his thoughts. Obi-Wan sighed. Much as it would make things easier, he couldn't disobey Yoda. It went against a lifetime of learning and trust. Slowly, he pulled the pouch from its hiding spot and held it out to Padm?. "He gave this to a Jedi before he died, with instructions it be delivered to you."
She took the packet and turned it over. "It's been opened."
Obi-Wan nodded. "By Master Yoda. I read the contents, as well, on my way over here. I don't know what kind of game you're playing or why you're searching for Count Dooku, but apparently, you've found him." He arched his brow. "It's your move, Senator."
"I hate the way he suddenly began calling you Senator. He says it with such ... contempt, it makes me want to -"
"Shh." Padm? touched Anakin's lips and snuggled closer. She glanced at the bedroom door, acutely aware of Obi-Wan's presence on the other side. She knew he wouldn't stoop to eavesdropping, but he might be monitoring Anakin's feelings through their master-padawan bond. "He sees my searching for Dooku as a plot hatched by a scheming politician. My duplicity only proves his low opinion of my kind. Don't you see, Ani? Our silence about being married has shattered any trust that may have existed between him and I. His faith in us is ... shaken. I can't say I blame him."
"Well, you never told me about him and Master Unduli, and I'm not holding that against you." Anakin paused and stroked Padme's hair. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"For the same reason I didn't tell him about us. It wasn't my secret to tell. Though his secret was much less harmful." She sighed. "He shouldn't have had to find out this way. I never thought to see Obi-Wan Kenobi so ... so ..."
Padm? heard the satisfaction in Anakin's tone and was tempted to hit him. She sat up and frowned at him. "That's right. Upset. He's always in control, always calm."
"The perfect Jedi." Anakin sneered.
"Perhaps. Is being in control so bad, Ani? I have to be in control when I'm in a meeting or at a negotiating table, and I often wish I had his exceptional discipline. Did you notice that every time his control started slipping, he withdrew and regained it? It cost him terribly to stay calm in the face of our revelation. He has feelings as much as you do; he just chooses to keep them in check."
"Why are you defending him?"
"Why are you being so callous? He's your master. And because of us, he's deeply disappointed. More than that, Ani, he's hurting. I didn't need Force abilities to see that. Doesn't it bother you?"
Anakin shrugged and looked away. Padm? pursed her lips. He was sulking. He couldn't be reasoned with when he was like this. She slipped off the bed and crossed to the window. Lifting one of the blind's slats, she peered outside. She hated having to stand as a buffer between the two men. A little more reasonableness on both their parts would go a long way to healing their rift. Instead, it seemed to be growing.
Warm fingers clasped Padm?'s shoulder. She closed her eyes and dropped her hand. The blind clattered. Anakin's voice sounded right beside her ear. "We could sneak away. Chase Dooku without our self-appointed shadow." He planted a kiss below Padm?'s ear.
"No, Anakin. Running is no better than hiding."
"But you heard him. The Jedi want us to back off. Well, I'm not going to. I have a score to settle with Dooku."
The count needed to be stopped, but why had she ever let Anakin talk her into this search? Maybe because she had never expected it to yield any results. Padm? caught a glimpse of Anakin's outstretched golden arm, flexing, forming a fist. She shuddered.
"Are you cold? Let's go back to bed." He gently turned Padm? around and kissed her, a deep probing kiss that left no question as to his intent.
Drawing back, Padm? shook her head. "I ... I'm tired, Ani. I don't want to ... Not with Obi-Wan in the next room. It's like having your father here."
Anakin threw a resentful glance at the door. "Why did you let him stay?"
"He didn't give me a choice. He's not going away, Anakin, not until this business with Dooku is finished. You heard him: Yoda charged him with keeping me safe. You've told me yourself how stubborn he is when it comes to completing an assignment."
"To the letter, exactly as the Council directs." Anakin frowned. "So what are we going to do about it?"
"We aren't going to do anything. He didn't say he was going to force us to comply. So we are going to calmly continue on. If he wants to come with us, then let him. The extra lightsaber will come in handy if we actually catch up to Dooku."
Anakin snorted. "Dooku won't defeat me a second time. I still think it would be easier to knock out a window and -"
Padm? clamped her hand over Anakin's mouth. "Not another word, unless you want to be first out that window - without a safety cable."
Lowering her hand, Anakin chuckled. "I've done worse."
An image imprinted itself on Padm?'s mind: Anakin free-falling through the canyons of Coruscant. What was frightening was that he had done just that - and likely enjoyed it. Another shudder raked her spine. Could hunting Dooku prove to be more dangerous yet?
She had a bad feeling about this.
The data-disc twirled through his fingers as he surveyed the deserted command center with satisfaction. A few scattered papers, a broken monitor, an overturned chair - it had the look of a place abandoned in haste. A cold smile touched his lips.
A robotic voice interrupted his inspection. He arched one dark brow and waited for the droid to continue.
"Your shuttle is ready for take-off, Count Dooku."
"Thank you. Wait for me there. I shall join you directly."
As it was programmed to do, the droid sketched a bow before retreating. Yan Dooku inclined his head, though the droid did not see. He demanded courtly manners from all his minions, be they automated or sentient beings. It amused him - and was no less than his rightful due.
Taking one more turn around the facility, he paused and casually pressed his thumb onto a dusty surface. Cloak swirling, he strode toward the exit with a martial posture. As he passed the last counter, he flicked the data-disc, then paused to watch it tumble to the floor, land on its edge and roll to a stop, partially under a chair leg.
He smiled again and headed for his waiting shuttle.
Spine stiff, Anakin walked behind his master and Padm? toward the waiting ship. A Naboo yacht. Obi-Wan had thought it better if they didn't use an official Republic transport. Padm? had agreed.
Obi-Wan had thought a great many things - and he had voiced every one of them. In the process he had either ignored whatever Anakin had suggested, or he had outright rejected the ideas. He always sounded so blasted reasonable, that Padm? usually took his side before it could even become an argument. Anakin's resentment simmered below the surface, waiting for an excuse to boil over.
And now, Anakin could tell by his purposeful stride that Obi-Wan considered himself in charge of this mission, despite his continued attempts to talk them out of going.
Obi-Wan jogged up the landing ramp and swung left, heading toward the cockpit. Anakin paused at the base of the ramp. This ship was slightly longer than a royal cruiser, with a narrower wing span, but of similar design. Silver instead of gold, as sleek as its more opulent counterpart. Anakin imagined Obi-Wan slipping into the pilot's chair. His jaw clenched. He wondered if he could come up with a reason for Obi-Wan to leave the ship, if only for a moment. That's all he needed to get the ship airborne; it was already prepped, its engines running.
Padm? paused at the head of the ramp and peered down at Anakin. "Are you coming? If you've changed your mind, it's not too late to tell Obi-Wan and go home."
To face the Jedi Council for daring to enter the forbidden state of marriage. At least Obi-Wan had agreed to a truce on that issue until this was over. If nothing else, the hunt for Dooku gave Anakin time to mentally prepare for when he would stand before the Council. He would show them no fear. And he would not back down.
In a simple blue flightsuit trimmed with silver, her hair pulled back in a braided bun, Padm? looked so tentative, so ... vulnerable, that Anakin had to smile. "Hang on. You know I haven't changed my mind." He strode up the ramp and framed her face with his hands. "I was right all those years ago on Tatooine, you know. You are an angel. My beautiful angel." As she started to smile, he kissed her, reinforcing his words with a lingering touch.
Anakin lifted his head to see Obi-Wan leaning against the open bridge hatch, arms crossed, watching them like a Hutt eyeing a pile of credits. He remained unmoving as Anakin and Padm? paced up the aisle and brushed past him to enter the cockpit.
Obi-Wan stepped onto the spacious bridge behind Anakin. He paused by the astromech droid in the center of the flight deck and patted its silver dome. "Hello, Artoo." The droid whistled and tooted in reply.
The smile Obi-Wan gave the droid irritated Anakin. He crossed his arms, not bothering to keep the challenge from his voice. "So, Master. Who's the pilot? I'm sure you've already decided."
The smile fell away. Obi-Wan considered his padawan for a moment. Anakin sensed Padm?'s narrowed regard, but kept his gaze on Obi-Wan. He knew he should be treating his master with the respect demanded of a Jedi, but Obi-Wan's scorn, his condemnation of the previous night, still tainted Anakin's feelings, painting them dark and defensive. His disappointment. No, not that. Padm? was wrong. Obi-Wan wasn't distressed; he was his usual faultfinding self.
The older Jedi said, "I expected you to pilot the ship, Padawan. After all, you are the best pilot here, if a trifle suicidal."
Surprise blanked Anakin's thoughts for a nanosecond. He bit back a smile as he slid into the pilot's seat. "All right." He gripped the yoke. "It's nice to see you finally confirming my superior skill. Next you'll be admitting I'm better with a lightsaber." He toggled a switch, retracting the landing ramp and closing the outer hatch.
"It takes more than physical skill to be a good Jedi, my padawan."
"So you admit I'm better than you."
"Only in your mind, young one. Tactics are half the battle. You have to out-think your opponent."
Tension gripping his shoulders, Anakin lifted off. He eased the ship into traffic and vectored toward the outbound spacing lanes. Obi-Wan always found a way to turn compliments into criticism. Nothing he ever did pleased his master. Sometimes he wondered why he kept trying.
"I'm not needed here. I'll retire to my cabin," Obi-Wan said. "Do either of you have a preference in quarters? Since there are three cabins available, I'll take whatever is left over."
Anakin steered around a lumbering freighter and increased forward speed. "Padm? and I are going to share the forward cabin."
"You most certainly are not." Irritation flared, but before Anakin could retort, Obi-Wan continued, "I tolerated last night because we were in the senator's home and the choice was hers. But here, we're essentially on assignment. I'll have nothing taking away from your focus, Padawan. That includes your lovely ... wife."
"We're the only ones onboard. Who's here to see, or care?"
"You have no right." Jaw clenched, Anakin kept his eyes on the control panel as he jabbed at the number pad with a golden finger, entering the hyperspace co-ordinates. "Artoo, confirm co-ordinates." The droid beeped twice.
"I have every right. I'm still your master. And before you think to circumvent my orders, think again. I will enforce them. Count on it." Obi-Wan paused. "In fact, I think you've just made my choice for me. I'll be taking the middle cabin.
Anakin gritted his teeth as air hissed between them. Padm? reached over from the co-pilot's chair and laid her hand on Anakin's arm, her touch bringing with it a measure of calm. "Please, Anakin, Obi-Wan, this isn't worth bickering over. Obi-Wan is your master, Anakin, and I think we should respect his wishes."
"Wishes? Orders, you mean. Watto was less demanding when I was a slave."
Anakin could feel Obi-Wan's stern gaze. He reinforced the shields in his mind as he activated the hyperspace engines. He leaned back as stars elongated into iridescent streaks, unsure whether that was a quiet sigh he had heard.
"Very well, then," Obi-Wan said. "I'm sure you two would rather be alone." In the reflection of the viewscreen, Anakin saw Obi-Wan incline his head. "Anakin. Senator."
"My wife has a name."
A pause. "Of course she does." Obi-Wan's reflection gave a short bow. "Amidala."
The cockpit door hissed open. The Jedi's steps rang down the metal aisle. The door closed, cutting off the sharp sound.
As he turned aside, Anakin's smile was cut short by Padme's perturbed expression. "Ani, you were baiting him. You shouldn't do that. Was he angry? Is that why he suddenly became so formal?"
Anakin shrugged. "He sometimes gets like that when he's feeling ..." His brow furrowed. "... uncomfortable." He returned his gaze to the hypnotic whirl of hyperspace.
Uncomfortable. That was ridiculous. Obi-Wan had the most amazing, irritating ability to adapt to any situation. Ever calm. Anakin's frown deepened. But he hadn't been calm last night. Anakin hadn't thought anything could jolt Obi-Wan Kenobi out of that famous Jedi reserve. His brow cleared. It almost made his master more likable.
Anakin looked over, then leaned over. He gave Padm? a smile and a kiss. The shadow in her brown eyes lifted. Anakin grinned. With Padm? at his side, he was ready for anything. He had a good feeling about this mission.
There is no emotion; there is peace. No comfort pervaded those words today. Obi-Wan sat cross-legged on his bunk, palms lightly cupping his knees. There was no solace to be found anywhere on this ship, not even in the knowledge that he was missing days of Military Council meetings, nor had there been for the previous three days. The whole situation was exceedingly awkward. Obi-Wan released a measured breath and inhaled the same way.
Anakin had challenged him each day, acting like he expected Obi-Wan to condone his and Padm?'s union. That's what letting them share quarters would amount to - acceptance. Absolution. Some days, the boy didn't have a radiation particle of sense. Or remorse.
Not a boy. A man. A married man. Oh, Force.
A hitch entered Obi-Wan's breathing; he stretched outward, drawing the Light to himself, wrapping it around him like a favorite old cloak. Serenity returned.
Anakin exhibited an appalling lack of control. That was the problem - teaching control to one who had no desire for it. To one who reveled in the thrill of the moment. Anakin spun glorious auras in the Force when he was on the edge, racing at breakneck speeds, pushing speeders through vertical dives almost impossible to pull out of, free-falling, anything where life was at risk. He seemed to equate control with ... slavery.
And Anakin Skywalker was, above all, a free spirit. One who apparently refused to be tamed.
Obi-Wan opened his eyes and scowled at the bulkhead. Had Anakin married simply because it was forbidden? A different form of risk, one that placed his future in peril instead of his physical being? No. Not consciously, at any rate. The affection he had observed between Anakin and Padm? was genuine.
What I could have with Luminara.
Never. To succumb to his passions would be to repudiate who he was, what he would always be. A Jedi.
With Jedi power came the responsibility to wield it wisely, for the benefit of the galaxy. That only happened when you were aware every moment, in control at all times. If he could not impart the importance of control to Anakin, his failure would be complete, for without control, Anakin could never achieve knighthood.
I promised you, Master. I promised to train the boy.
Obi-Wan released an agonized breath. His master, with his affinity for the Living Force, would have been a better teacher for Anakin. The Force had chosen Qui-Gon for the task; Obi-Wan had received the assignment by default.
Because I let him die.
Some days, the task of training Anakin felt like a punishment for that failure. No! Obi-Wan slammed the side of his fist against the bulkhead, immediately regretting the action when pain spiked up his arm. He flexed his fist.
No. He refused to yield to his negative thoughts. He would follow his master's lead - focus on the moment - and leave the rest where it belonged, in the Force. Obi-Wan massaged his hand. Isn't that what Mace had told him? That if Anakin were the Chosen One, the prophecy would be fulfilled?
No matter what.
That put matters out of Obi-Wan's control. And he freely admitted that he very much liked being in control. Acknowledging that weakness was much easier than letting it go.
A rap on the door shifted Obi-Wan's focus outward. "Enter."
The hatch swished into the wall and Padm? greeted him from the corridor. "We'll be coming out of hyperspace in a few moments." She peered at him. "Did you injure your hand?"
Obi-Wan halted his massaging. "It's nothing."
She gripped the metal door frame. "Obi-Wan ... I want to apologize for -"
He held up his aching hand. "No. We need to focus on what's waiting for us, not on what cannot be settled today. This is not the time to discuss your ... union."
"But Anakin -"
"Or Anakin's behavior. Focus on the moment. On the mission. Dooku is a dangerous opponent. We cannot afford to underestimate him; nor can we let anything distract us."
Padm? sighed. "I admire your dedication, Obi-Wan. I realize you don't want to be here, that you're only here because Master Yoda ordered you to protect me."
Obi-Wan gave her a slight smile. "What makes you think I don't want to be here? I want to see Dooku brought to justice as much as any Jedi. What I don't want, is for you to be involved. It's much too dangerous."
She pursed her lips. "Are you treating me like glasswork again? Implying I'm much too delicate to fight?"
An argument from their days spent together on the streets of Coruscant, one that coaxed another, broader, smile from Obi-Wan. "I'm not foolish enough to lay such a charge before you, Senator. But do you realize your skills as a Force-blind warrior are no match for Dooku?"
She sniffed. "That ... is why I included two Jedi in my entourage."
"Very wise of you, Senator." Was it? Dooku had defeated them once.
"Padm?. My friends call me Padm?. We were friends not so many days ago. I would still be your friend, if you would let me, Obi-Wan. Anakin and I both need your friendship."
"Friendship implies trust. Not just giving, but receiving."
Padm? bit her lip. Obi-Wan could sense her distress radiating outwards. Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I would give anything to erase those months of silence."
Obi-Wan felt a tinge of remorse. He wanted to overcome the worry, the ... distress he had been battling since the moment he had witnessed that telling embrace. He wanted to accept Padm?'s apology. It was ... impossible. No, not impossible - just painful, and so very hard.
Instead, he chose to take his own advice. "Focus on the moment, Senator. On the mission. Our survival may depend on it."
Padm? glanced over her shoulder as Obi-Wan entered the cockpit and took the navigator's seat behind Anakin. Artoo was their navigator, but the seat offered an excellent view of the planet growing ever larger in the viewscreen. Mottled browns with a smattering of pale green, very little blue.
Obi-Wan had waited several moments before following Padm?. Perhaps he had needed the time to regain his composure. Perhaps she had upset him again when she had only meant to make things right. How do you repair a friendship fractured by distrust?
From the corner of her eye, Padm? watched as Obi-Wan fixed his regard on the planet. His sharp gaze reminded her of ... a shadow slayer. His features hardened, almost imperceptibly.
He knew this place.
"Anakin?" Padm? shifted in her seat. "What's the name of this planet again?"
Without turning, Anakin replied, "Melida/Daan."
A glance at Obi-Wan revealed him to be unmoving. Maybe he wasn't even listening. She said, "Were you ever sent here on a mission?"
The ship quivered as atmosphere wrapped around it. Padm? frowned. "Didn't the computer files mention something about it being torn apart by civil war?"
"That was well before my time," Anakin replied as he banked the yacht left, heading for the northern hemisphere. "It said there hadn't been any open conflict here in over seventeen years. Why?"
Seventeen years. Obi-Wan would have been a padawan then, a few years younger than Anakin was now. Padm? peered at the landscape as it became more defined. Vast tracts of rocky hills.
"Padm??" Anakin said.
"Hm? No reason. I was just wondering why Dooku would have chosen such a peaceful place, so far from current hostilities, for his command center."
Glancing askance, Padm? saw Obi-Wan's eyes narrow. He sat up straighter. Over Artoo's sudden beeping, he said, "We have company."
"I see it," Anakin said.
Padm? peered at the forward sensor and the twin blips arrowing toward them. "Friendlies?" As she spoke, the blips separated.
"I don't think so," Anakin replied. "Shields to max."
Taking a breath, Padm? settled at her controls and re-routed all available power to shielding, suddenly ruing that they were flying weaponless. She stole a glimpse at Obi-Wan. Except for the fact that his restraint belts were in place, he now appeared ... relaxed. Anakin, on the other hand, looked flushed, intense. A smile played with the corner of his mouth. Padm? strapped in, yanking the belt as tight as it would go.
Two starfighters flashed by, one on either side. Rear sensors showed the ships circling around to approach from behind. Padm? adjusted the shields, double aft.
The first hit jolted the ship left. As Anakin leveled it out, Obi-Wan said in a mild tone, "I think they mean business."
"They haven't even tried to communicate," Padm? said, glancing at the dark comm panel.
"You know what Jar-Jar would say." Anakin winked at her. "How rude."
Another laser found its mark, making the yacht shudder.
"Pay attention to your piloting, Padawan."
Anakin grinned. "Yes, Master." He pulled the yoke and dove for the surface.
The fighters followed. Padm? gripped the chair's armrests as Anakin worked to evade the attack, juking the controls about in a random pattern. Red beams streaked by the ship. Two more found their mark.
Padm? said, "Shields are down forty-five percent."
Anakin jerked the ship right. "Re-route all extra power." And up.
"Okay." Anakin's voice went suddenly calm. "Then hang on."
Padm?'s eyes grew wide as Anakin veered right and down, straight toward a cliff face. A cleft appeared. Anakin stood the ship on its wing and shot into the narrow chasm. One of the blips disappeared. The gap widened and Anakin leveled out. Rock flashed by, impossibly close. The ship dipped under a natural stone arch. Banked left, then right. A pillar loomed ahead. Anakin laughed as he steered around it going - Padm? glanced at the power levels - almost full throttle.
"Just like the canyons on Coruscant," Anakin said.
"Without the power couplings," Obi-Wan commented.
The blip on the rear sensor remained. Several more hairpin turns and the canyon opened to a broad valley. A double salvo rocked the ship. Anakin's knuckles turned white on the yoke, his countenance now grim.
"The starboard shield is down," Padm? said, worry creeping into her voice.
Another hit. The yacht shook and began pulling right.
"I don't think I can hold it." Anakin spoke through gritted teeth.
"You are not allowed to crash, Padawan."
"Yes ... Master."
Padm? bit back a cry as the ground rushed up to meet them.
Obi-Wan bit back a groan and opened his eyes. His head pulsed in time to the emergency lighting blinking overhead. He squinted past the pain and peered at the viewscreen, covered by a spray of dirt and uprooted shrubbery.
He shifted his attention to his padawan, slumped over the controls. Anakin's Force signature was vibrant, as always. When Obi-Wan nudged him through the Force, Anakin stirred and whispered, "Padm??" Again, louder. Padm? moaned. Her eyes fluttered open. The young couple reached across the console toward each other. Their fingers intertwined. Only then did Anakin turn.
"Master? Are you all right?"
"Fine. And you?"
"My ribs feel bruised."
The yoke. Obi-Wan nodded and studied the transparisteel for damage. "We were expected."
"I don't know what makes you think that." Anakin unstrapped and helped Padm? to her feet. "This seems to have become the standard greeting Jedi receive upon arrival on a new planet."
"Hardly, my young padawan." Obi-Wan released himself from his restraints and pushed to his feet. He rubbed his neck, trying to ease the knot of tension. "Get Artoo to run a full diagnostics report, structural and mechanical."
"I'm aware of what I need to do, Master."
Obi-Wan started to speak, then stopped. Anakin was a good pilot. He did know what to do. "Good. See to it. I'll check on the whereabouts of our escort and see what this crash looks like from the outside."
Sounding indignant, Anakin said, "I didn't crash, Master."
Obi-Wan gave his padawan a dubious look.
"It was an emergency landing, that's all."
Padm? hit Anakin on the arm. Obi-Wan snorted quietly and headed for the landing ramp. It protested as it opened, a shrill grinding sound that caused the pain in Obi-Wan's head to spike. He winced and switched the controls. The ramp hovered mid-air. He strode off the end and dropped the meter to the ground. Agony bolted through his skull, then subsided. He took a deep breath and scanned the area.
The ship had cut a deep furrow into the earth, and now lay with the front third buried by debris. Other than dents and scratches, Obi-Wan couldn't see any exposed damage. He climbed onto the ship's hull to get a better look around. His padawan had landed on a narrow strip of green bordered by fields of boulders. A good pilot, indeed.
Off to the left, black smoke spiraled up from behind a starfighter-sized slab of granite. Obi-Wan slid off the fuselage, pushed through thick undergrowth, then scrambled over rocks and between massive boulders. He paused when the wrecked fighter came into view, and glanced back at the yacht. The fighter must have been traveling too close. Debris from their impact must have blinded him.
Obi-Wan advanced toward the crumpled ship, suddenly reluctant. The canopy was torn away, and the pilot lay half out of the cockpit, arms dangling as if he were reaching for help. Obi-Wan felt for a pulse. Nothing. He stared at the back of the cracked helmet for a moment, then gingerly lifted the pilot's head and peered under the visor.
He didn't recognize the man. Relief whooshed out of him as he let go of a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. He gently released the dead pilot and sat on the nearest boulder, willing the tremor in his hands to cease. Not Nield. Not anyone he knew from his time on Melida/Daan. He wiped his mouth and beard, and berated himself for reacting so foolishly. Insects buzzed as he centered himself in the Force.
When a tentative calm reasserted itself, Obi-Wan headed back to the ship. Anakin met him at the head of the landing ramp. "What took you so long, Master?"
"Our second escort crashed when we went down. I went to check on him." Obi-Wan peered at the horizon. "He didn't survive."
"Too bad. It would be nice to know if Count Dooku had sent him, or if he was local."
"Dooku, I think." The style of flightsuit didn't match his memories.
Anakin nodded. "Diagnostics indicate we should be able to fly. The underbelly collapsed a few millimeters, so the landing gear is useless, but there are no stress fractures. The right stabilizer is damaged. I was just going to see what I could do with it. Do you ... want to give me a hand?"
Obi-Wan blinked and focused on his padawan. He felt as if he were viewing him from a great distance - from twenty-two years ago. He needed some time alone. "I trust you to make the repairs, Anakin. I'll be in my cabin."
Surprise flickered across Anakin's features, quickly replaced by a smile. "I'll let you know as soon as we're good to go."
With a nod, Obi-Wan retreated to his cabin. Two hours later, a knock jolted him from his mostly painful recollections. Though he had felt compelled to face the memories, he was glad for the interruption. Anakin informed him they were going to try lifting off. Obi-Wan made his way forward and took his seat behind his padawan.
The engines whined, building to a crescendo before the ship shuddered and began to rise. Padm? clapped; Anakin gave her a grin.
Staring at the darkness beyond the viewscreen, Obi-Wan said, "How far are we from our target co-ordinates?"
"A little less than five thousand kilometers," Anakin replied.
"Stay low to the ground. Avoid population centers. And no running lights. Use the Force to navigate."
Anakin smiled and edged the power upwards until it registered three-quarters. They hurtled through the night, flying blind. Exultation rolled off Anakin in waves. Padm? gave Obi-Wan a concerned look. He shrugged. If Anakin made a mistake, they wouldn't have to worry about picking up the pieces - there'd be too few to bother with.
Obi-Wan considered pointing that fact out to Anakin, then decided against it, too weary to face a clash with Anakin right now, and unwilling to mar his padawan's luminescent joy. Let this be a test of Force control - and let Anakin pass it with ease. He closed his eyes and plunged into his much-needed center of calm, immersing himself in the Light.
A shadow hovered on the horizons of his mind. He gathered strength, preparing for the moment it would reveal itself.
"Ani, please slow down," Padm? whispered.
With a grin, Anakin said, "Don't worry. We're almost there."
"How can Obi-Wan remain so calm when you're trying to kill us all?"
"Ever calm, that's my master." Calm on the outside, at least. Anakin shrugged. "He's hiding inside the Force, Padm?. Shielding himself from my ... recklessness."
"Well, it's very inconsiderate of him to do so when I can't do likewise."
Anakin chuckled. "Trust me, Padm?. I'd never let you get hurt."
"I do trust you, Ani." Padm? sighed. "I'd just trust you more if you were going a little slower."
"Okay, since you put it that way, I'll slow down." Anakin toggled the power levels to half impulse, then to a quarter.
"We're here, aren't we?"
Anakin quirked one eyebrow and glanced at Padm?, noting her flashing eyes. "Yes."
"You are such a tease."
"The quickest wit in the galaxy," came the comment from behind Anakin.
"Only in a dozen or so systems, Master. Jedi shouldn't exaggerate, you know."
At Padm?'s unladylike snort, Anakin smiled again. He set the ship down behind a ridge. They had raced through the night to meet the rising sun. It broke over the rocky crest in a blaze of gold. Squinting against the glare, Anakin twisted a dial, darkening the transparisteel, then turned to face Obi-Wan. "Shall we head out now, or do you need to rest, Master?"
Obi-Wan's eyebrow twitched. "I'm not the one who spent the journey in focused concentration."
"The Force energized me. Padm?? What about you?"
"I'm tired, but I'd rather go. I'm too keyed up to sleep."
"Anakin's flying does that to a person."
"It wasn't Anakin's flying," retorted Padm?. "It was your orders. Fly low. No running lights." She shuddered.
Anakin smirked at Padm?'s defense of him, pride infusing his thoughts.
"Yes, his skills are quite remarkable under such circumstances." Obi-Wan stood abruptly. "But I did not specify a speed, Senator." He paced from the cockpit.
Another rebuke wrapped in praise. Anakin hammered his armrest. He jerked to his feet. Padm? rose and blocked his path, both hands radiating warmth where they pressed against his chest. Anakin lost himself in her compassionate umber gaze, then gathered her into his embrace and inhaled her sweet scent. He whispered, "I'd go crazy without you."
"You're so much stronger than you think, Ani."
"No, I'm not. You are my strength. I love you so much, Padm?."
They shared a gentle kiss. Padm? broke it off, and pressed her cheek against Anakin's chest as she hugged him.
"I love you, too, Ani."
Anakin glanced over her head to the open hatch. "He's a fool."
"Obi-Wan? He's your master. Why would you say such a thing?"
"If what you said about him and Master Unduli is true, he could have what we have. But he's too ... blinded by the Code. Too rigid. It's a wonder he defied Master Yoda to take me as his padawan. But even that was only because he felt bound by his promise to Qui-Gon."
"He was motivated by love."
"Not love of me. Until Qui-Gon died, I was just a pathetic lifeform -"
"Ani! Obi-Wan would never call you that."
"He did. Just before Qui-Gon came and took me from my mother. Jar-Jar slipped and told me about it." Anakin pulled Padm? closer. "He had no idea ... about my life as a slave, about me, my dreams. I was just an inconvenience. He had it so easy, growing up as Qui-Gon's padawan. He never faced what I faced, never felt lost or alone ..."
"You can't know that."
"Please don't defend him." Anakin framed her face with his hands, one flesh, one metal. "I'm still an inconvenience to Obi-Wan. Especially when I don't do things his way." He glared at his robotic hand. "He wants a droid, not a padawan."
"Maybe we could give Threepio to him." Padm?'s attempt to lighten his mood didn't even draw a twitch of a smile. She cupped her hand over Anakin's prosthetic. "You'll never be an inconvenience in my eyes."
"Just that little boy from Tatooine."
"I can't even see him any more, Ani. I see the man he has become. A man I love terribly."
Anakin bent his head down so his breath whispered across her lips. "Actually ... I think you're very good at it."
He claimed her lips in a slow dance that pulled him into a vortex of passion, fed by her warm response. She stepped back, leaving him gasping for air. Cheeks flushed, eyes gleaming, Padm? shook her head when Anakin stepped toward her. "Obi-Wan's waiting."
"Anakin! So is Count Dooku, if we haven't delayed too long already." She retreated to the hatch, one hand resting on her blaster's holster, and cast Anakin a winsome smile. "Coming?"
Anakin rolled his eyes. "Artoo, lock down the ship. Don't let anyone onboard except the three of us." He reached for his cloak, then decided against wearing it, and headed after Padm?, his lightsaber thumping against his thigh. He caught up to her at the base of the ramp.
"Where is he?"
Padm? pointed at the ridge, where Obi-Wan crouched beside a rock the same size as he. Like Anakin, he had left his cloak on the ship. He didn't move as they approached and knelt beside him.
Anakin gave a cursory glance to the shattered city in the valley, then returned his regard to Obi-Wan. Subtle emotions flitted over his master's face, but never landed, signs of turmoil an untrained eye would never see. Ten years had taught Anakin what to look for. Even then, he was rarely certain of what lay beneath Obi-Wan's serene exterior. Except when he was being lectured.
At this moment, Obi-Wan's poise seemed as fragile as the broken city at which he stared. It puzzled Anakin, and, he realized, unsettled him.
"What is this place?"
Padm?'s question drew Anakin's regard back to the ruins. Crumbling outer walls, barely a building intact. Walls and half walls jutting up like the decaying ribs of a kryat dragon's skeleton.
Anakin wrinkled his brow in thought. "I'm pretty sure the co-ordinates matched those of Melida/Daan's former capital."
"Zehava," Obi-Wan whispered. Even in the warm morning light, his face looked pale.
Anakin opened his mouth, snapping it shut when Padm?'s fingers clamped on his arm. He scowled at her motion for silence, but held his tongue. They turned their attention to Obi-Wan.
When he finally continued speaking, it was in a soft, trance-like tone. "They fought over this city for centuries, the Melida and the Daan. Control alternated back and forth, wiping out entire generations, fueling the dispute with martyrs. Then the Young rose up. Youths from both sides who just wanted the killing to stop ..." Obi-Wan closed his eyes, whispered a barely audible, "Oh, Cerasi," then fell silent for several minutes. He opened his eyes and said, "The Young defeated both the Melida and the Daan. With the help of ... the Jedi ... they negotiated a lasting peace." Obi-Wan stood abruptly and crossed his arms. "Except it didn't last. Five years later - seventeen years ago - a short, vicious war reduced the city to rubble. All sides agreed to abandon Zehava and start afresh. The new capital lies 500 kilometers to the southwest."
Anakin rose and held out his hand to pull Padm? to her feet. He didn't release her hand, but caressed her thumb with his own. "How are we supposed to locate Dooku's lair in that wasteland?"
"It won't be hard," Obi-Wan replied. "I know exactly where it is."
Padm? tilted her head, not looking half as surprised as Anakin felt. He narrowed his gaze, his tone dubious." And where would that be?"
"Very near the city center. The Hall of Evidence on Glory Street."
Anakin heard the surety in Obi-Wan's voice. It was annoying. But it felt right, which was even more irritating. He cleared his brow and quashed his annoyance. Obviously, Obi-Wan had studied the available background information more thoroughly than he had, though he was certain he had perused everything the scant databanks on the ship had to offer.
There was something about Obi-Wan's reaction to this place that was vaguely disturbing. Anakin couldn't quite target what it was. "Master?" When Obi-Wan met Anakin's gaze, he asked, "Who was Cerasi? A Jedi that was killed here?"
Obi-Wan's grey-blue eyes clouded over. He turned away without answering.
The shadow haunted Obi-Wan's steps. He knew its name now, could taste its bitter gall. It was Betrayal and it cloaked this place in a suffocating shroud. I left this behind. I moved past it. The putrid stench of bitter memories rose up to clog Obi-Wan's senses and cloud his mind.
Obi-Wan stood atop a pile of stones that had once been part of Zehava's nearly impenetrable defenses. He studied the rubble-strewn street before him - and he knew. Dooku had chosen this site to taunt him with the memory of his betrayal.
His betrayal of the Jedi. His betrayal of Qui-Gon.
Needing air, Obi-Wan inhaled deeply. Ashes mixed with oxygen. He dropped his gaze to the charred rock at his feet and nudged it with one boot. Yes, he knew with absolute certainty that Dooku had chosen Melida/Daan because of him. What he didn't know was how Dooku had known he would join the hunt.
Anakin and Padm? pulled themselves up to stand beside Obi-Wan. Padm? wiped black hands on her blue flightsuit, leaving mournful streaks. Obi-Wan glanced up from them, arrested by her concerned expression.
"You were the Jedi who brokered that peace, weren't you?"
"No." Obi-Wan felt his face harden. He looked away, to the partially collapsed tower behind Padm?. "Qui-Gon did."
He leaped from the rock pile and strode down the street. He heard Padm?'s running steps, followed by Anakin's heavier ones. They caught up to him, matched his pace and flanked him, like guards leading him to an interrogation.
"But you were Qui-Gon's padawan," Padm? said.
"That's right," Anakin added. "You told me that you became his padawan just after you turned thirteen. And all this happened seventeen years ago. So five years before that, when peace was first achieved, you were already-"
"I'm capable of doing the math, Padawan." Obi-Wan kept his gaze forward.
"But you had to have -"
Halting, Obi-Wan glared at Anakin. "Had to what? Had to have been at my master's side? Blindly-devoted, unquestioning, unthinking, unbending Jedi that I was and am? Where else could I have possibly been? Isn't that right, my padawan learner?" He folded his arms to stop them from shaking. "Let me tell you this, young one: honor is a choice. Obedience is a path we choose. And so is disobedience. Each path has its own price." He glanced at Padm?. "Possibly its own reward, but always its own burden."
Obi-Wan took three steps before Anakin grabbed his upper arm and swung him around. He shot an irritated glance at the offending hand; Anakin released his grip, looking suddenly contrite. A look that lasted only seconds. Belligerence entered the padawan's voice. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"None of us are free, Anakin. Our only freedom is in choosing our form of slavery. We can be slaves to our integrity and ideals, or we can be slaves to our baser natures, our passions. Once one is chosen, changing allegiance comes at a terrible price."
Obi-Wan marched away, looking neither right not left, aware of Zehava's corpse all around him, reminding him of his past choices. His wrong choices. He reached for the Force, but it grazed his senses and slipped away.
Anakin shouted, "The galaxy isn't black and white, Obi-Wan! It's full of shades of grey."
Without slowing or raising his voice, Obi-Wan said, "Look around you, Padawan. This is what darkness has wrought. Look upon this destruction and tell me there is no Dark Side. Tell me you would rather stumble around, lost in the grey shadowlands that give way to darkness, than to serve the Light. Grey is a terrible place to be, young one. It is a lonely, perilous precipice where a single misstep can plunge you to ruin."
Padm? half ran to keep up with Anakin's long strides. She grasped his hand and held tight, her eyes on Obi-Wan's rigid back.
"I never said there was no Dark Side. Do you have any idea what he's talking about?" Anakin whispered harshly.
"I'm not sure, but I think he's talking about himself." Except for that comment about rewards. That had been aimed at her. Obi-Wan had made it clear which path he thought Anakin trod upon when it came to her.
She caught Anakin's doubtful look and sighed. "Please leave it be, Ani. Give him some space and let him deal with his ghosts."
She nodded. "He was here, all those years ago. Whatever happened hurt Obi-Wan very deeply. Can't you see it? In the way he's walking, the way he's talking. It's like the wound has re-opened and the ghosts hovering around him are prodding it."
"Are you sure you aren't Force sensitive?"
Padm? snorted. "Years of political wrangling teach you to read other beings - how successful you are in doing so determines how long you survive in the arena. Jedi are adept at hiding their feelings. That I can read Obi-Wan at all just confirms the depth of his pain."
"You must be very good at your job."
Anakin chuckled and squeezed her hand. Padm? knew she should be irked that Anakin was ignoring the fact his master was troubled, but his obvious pleasure in her was ... a refreshing balm. She smiled up at him and was rewarded with dancing eyes. As they walked, he leaned down and kissed her cheek.
Ahead, Obi-Wan disappeared around a corner. Padm? glanced around. The hush of this ... graveyard ... became acute. Cold. Anakin's warmth radiated through their linked hands, repelling Padm?'s sudden unease.
The silence was broken by the ricocheting whine of laser fire.
"Master!" Anakin released Padm?'s hand and dashed toward the street onto which Obi-Wan had turned. The whistle and ping of lasers grew louder. Dread gripped Anakin's thoughts. He shoved it aside.
Rounding the corner, Anakin skidded to a halt. Obi-Wan hunkered beside a burned out speeder turned on its side. Hampered by his position, he warded off a hail of fire from battle droids advancing through the rubble of a ruined building on the left.
A red beam whizzed past Anakin's face. He ducked and glanced right. Droids approached Obi-Wan from that side as well. One had noticed him.
Obi-Wan yelled, "Get out of the line of fire, Padawan!"
Another shot narrowly missed Anakin. He didn't need any other encouragement. He retreated to the corner where Padm? was crouched and peering at the battle, blaster in hand. He touched her arm. "Pick off as many as you can, but retreat if they head this way."
She gave him a suspicious glance. "Where will you be?"
"I'm going to circle around and attack from behind."
Anakin didn't answer. He was already running. Five meters along, a door was wedged partly open by debris. He clambered over and into the shell of what was once someone's home. Chunks of ceiling and broken furniture blocked his path; he vaulted from one heap to the next, never slowing to get caught by the miniature avalanches he set off. One final leap carried him to the top of a dilapidated wall.
Below him, the last of a dozen battle droids were marching into the street from the ruin where they had lain in wait. They poured a steady stream of laser fire into the blackened speeder protecting Obi-Wan's back.
Anakin opened himself to the Force and hurdled from the four-meter wall, the Force enhancing his leap. He hit the ground and rolled. His lightsaber snapped to life as he sprang to his feet, the first swing cutting down two droids. He spun and danced, slicing his way down the line of mechanical enemies, his saber a blur, the Force flooding through him.
The remaining droids noticed his presence and wheeled to attack. Anakin somersaulted back and up, landing on a toppled archway. His lightsaber wove a green shield. Two droids fell from deflected shots. Then another. He flung out his arm, sending the last three droids smashing into a semi-collapsed wall.
Anakin peered at the other company of droids, just in time to see the last one jerk and collapse. He powered down his blade and blew out his breath.
A hush shrouded the street. Then Padm? burst from cover, darting toward Obi-Wan. Anakin's heart tripped. Master! He reached Obi-Wan before her and knelt, his search for injuries aborted by Obi-Wan's fierce expression. Anger brushed Anakin's senses, causing a fissure of alarm. Was Obi-Wan angry at him?
"Are you okay, Master?"
"Fine." The word was bitten off. Sharp.
"You are not fine," Padm? said from beside Anakin. "I saw you get hit."
At the stubborn look seeping into Obi-Wan's eyes, Padm? sighed and directed a pointed glance to where he clutched his left arm. She crouched, laid her blaster on the ground, and peeled Obi-Wan's fingers back. Blood encirlced a gash in his sleeve.
Trying to be gentle, Padm? wedged her fingers into the tear and opened it to her inspection. The laser wound was shallow and had already stopped bleeding. Above that injury, a second, older one, drew her eye. From his fight with Dooku, she realized.
Sitting back on her heels, she said, "We need to clean that, make sure infection doesn't set in. How did it happen? You seemed to be fending off the attack."
"A shot pierced the speeder." A heavy scowl marred Obi-Wan's brow.
"That could happen to anyone," Padm? remarked.
His voice dropped. "It's less than I deserve."
The ire in that declaration startled Padm?. She exchanged a worried glance with Anakin and studied Obi-Wan. His expression was distant. He was angry with himself, she realized.
"I don't understand, Master." Anakin said.
Obi-Wan blinked and glanced from Padm? to Anakin and back. He pushed to his feet and hooked his lightsaber on his belt. Padm? watched him scan the street. He said, "I reacted exactly as Dooku wanted. I let where I was distract me."
Padm? and Anakin rose at the same time. Padm? said, "Do you mean Dooku chose this place as his base because he knew it would bother you?" When Obi-Wan nodded, she said, "But that means he knew you would come. How could he know that?"
Obi-Wan peered at the devastation ahead, the scarred landscape, searching for signs of further trouble. "Dooku was once Yoda's padawan. He knows his master well." His thoughts blinked back to Geonosis. 'Master Kenobi, you disappoint me. Yoda holds you in such high esteem.' He yanked himself to the present. Apparently, Qui-Gon and Dooku had discussed Qui-Gon's various missions - along with his padawan.
And his padawan's mistakes.
Halting his thoughts, Obi-Wan reached inward, toward his center of calm. One could not change the past; one could only learn from it. Melida/Daan was the past. Qui-Gon had forgiven him and had taken him back.
But still ... the memory of the way Qui-Gon had flinched when Obi-Wan had told him he was staying on Melida /Daan - Qui-Gon's visible but silent struggle, his pain, the way he had refused to look at him, had turned away without a word - that memory rose to haunt Obi-Wan anew. The remembered pain washed through him and he closed his eyes, seeking to release that hurt to the Force, seeking to weave the Light's comfort around him.
A touch caused him to start. Padm? dabbed at his burn with a med-pad. He winced at the fire the contact awakened. He stood motionless while Anakin handed her a small roll of gauze from the med-kit compartment on his belt. Without speaking, Padm? wrapped the bandage around Obi-Wan's arm, tunic and all. Her silence was ... soothing. It spoke of understanding, of friendship.
Anakin said, "How could Dooku know our route to know where to place an ambush?"
Obi-Wan replied, "Likely, he has droids positioned throughout the city."
Padm? said, "Then we will need to ... focus on the mission."
Her gentle chiding caused Obi-Wan to send her a wry glance. "You should know I don't appreciate having my own words flung back in my face. But your point is taken. Dooku will not find me so easily distracted a second time."
She smiled. "Of course not."
Obi-Wan rotated his shoulder and nodded to himself. The burning was already fading. A mere surface wound, unlike the one above it. Dooku had sliced deeply when he had struck. The healers had reconstructed the damaged muscles, voicing their disapproval when Obi-Wan had refused cosmetic repair. Some things were not meant to be forgotten.
He started down the street. "Keep your senses open, Padawan. We must be cautious."
Obi-Wan heard the mild reproach in that reply. Again deserved. After all, it wasn't Anakin who had walked into a trap. He lengthened his stride, unclipping his lightsaber as he went, relishing its familiar grip, its weight and the way it felt like an extension of himself.
They proceeded down smashed avenues, skirting craters and collapsed buildings. Anakin and Obi-Wan let Padm? keep to the center of the roadways while they spread out, alert to the slightest suggestion of danger, eyes constantly flicking over the ruins. Nothing stirred. The only sound was the whisper of Padm?'s flightsuit.
During the next hour, the totality of the devastation began to wear on Obi-Wan's mind. He had heard about the battle that had leveled Zehava, about country-dwelling Melida and Daan sweeping out of the hills, each intent on reclaiming the city and renewing the feud, but seeing it ... Smelling air still acrid after seventeen years. Feeling the rubble of broken lives beneath his boots.
How many of his friends - people who had dedicated their lives to establishing peace by whatever means necessary - had died during that final attack?
Not Nield. Obi-Wan knew his fear of seeing his friend dead in that fighter's cockpit had been irrational, for Nield still occupied a seat in the unified government. Obi-Wan blinked. His old friend had become a politician. He glanced at Padm?, aware of the nudge in the Force. The momentary guilt. Not all politicians were faithless.
But she had broken faith, his faith, even as she had kept Anakin's. Could he fault her for remaining loyal to the one she loved? As Nield had remained loyal to Cerasi, even in her death.
He glanced around, seeing Zehava in a new light. Perhaps Nield had pushed for the ruined city to remain untouched, a testimony against the deadly forces unleashed by the desire for power. Zehava stood as one massive Hall of Evidence - a scar to remind the people to be vigilant against future evil. Like his own scar from Dooku.
Approaching a corner, Obi-Wan held up his hand, halting Anakin and Padm?, who were slightly behind him. He motioned for them to join him. They did, searching his face with curious eyes.
He whispered, "This is Glory Street. Our destination is a plaza, two blocks west. The Hall of Evidence is a long, low black building, no windows, only one entrance."
"It sounds like another trap," Anakin said.
Obi-Wan conceded the point with a single nod. "Nevertheless, that is the location of Dooku's base." He eyed Padm?. "I would prefer it if you waited here, Senator. The risk -"
"Is mine to take, Master Kenobi."
He studied her a moment longer, seeing her brown eyes blacken with determination. He said, "Very well. Anakin -"
"I will guard her with my life, Master."
"I expected no less. I was going to say, watch our backs." Obi-Wan thumbed the control on his lightsaber, but didn't ignite it. "I'll take the lead."
Obi-Wan expanded his knowing as he searched through the Force, mildly surprised to find the way before them devoid of life forces except for a few skittering rodents. Droids, though hard to detect, were easy to hear. If you were listening. He strode into the middle of Glory Street, mindful of every sound.
The plaza came into view. It was remarkably untouched. Obi-Wan's mind folded in on itself. Again, he saw the forces aligned against each other. The Young and the Elders, led by Nield and Wahutti. One Cerasi's friend; the other her father. Again, he saw her popping up through a grate in the fountain and running toward the Hall, red hair flying, shouting for them to stop. Through the tunnel of time he saw himself running toward her, saw the shots ripping into her body, saw himself cradling her as she died.
He slowed to a halt. Oh, Cerasi, why did peace require such a high price?
"Master? Do you want me to take the lead?"
Obi-Wan scowled and stared at his lightsaber. "No, Padawan."
"You seem ... distracted."
Inhaling slowly, Obi-Wan chose not to answer. Anakin was right, of course. He scrutinized the plaza, seeing nothing but dust, sensing no menace in the lingering melancholy of this place. His memories seemed a bigger threat to him than Dooku at this moment. He inhaled again, gathering glimmering threads of the Force, finding the serenity he needed, sensing his padawan's puzzlement.
Staring at the door that led down into the Hall of Evidence, Obi-Wan perceived what they would find. He suspected Dooku was greatly amused by this game he was playing.
"Master?" Anakin resisted the urge to shake his master, but only because he sensed Obi-Wan touching the Force. Instead, he lowered his own shields for a moment and did something he had not done in a long while: he reached out through their master-padawan bond with a pulse of concern.
Obi-Wan tilted his head, his expression thoughtful. "Proceed, my young padawan."
Anakin shared an odd glance with Padm?.
Obi-Wan said, "It's empty. Let's see what Dooku has left behind for us to find."
"Empty?" Anakin's shields snapped back into place as irritation spiked. "Then why did you lead us on this little chase?"
"Because I only just realized it."
"So ... what was this? Some game designed to taunt you because of whatever happened here when you were young? A message ... meant for you?"
Obi-Wan arched one brow. "Possibly."
"Yes, is what you mean. You weren't even the one looking for him. We -" Anakin broke off and stared at his master. His nostrils flared as knowing seeped into Obi-Wan's eyes. He lifted his chin, defiance surging.
"We." Obi-Wan folded his arms. Classic lecture position. "You talked Padm? into financing a search for Dooku."
Anakin knew the drill. Let your master describe your offense without judgment - even though his posture screamed condemnation.
"Yes, Master." Anakin narrowed his gaze. Now he was supposed to be thankful for a thinly disguised lecture-cum-tirade designed to aid his own journey and enlightenment. He knew them all by heart. Rather than wait for this one - sure to be the set-aside-self-and-focus-on-service talk - or invite more unbiased descriptions of his shortcomings, Anakin wheeled and stalked toward the entrance to the Hall of Evidence.
He jogged down the wide steps and entered the building without pause, trusting in Obi-Wan's assessment. He tapped a control panel by the door, surprised when banks of overhead lights flickered to life. Whatever this Hall had been previously, it was now one big, deserted control center, complete with hastily abandoned workstations and overturned chairs.
Anakin zeroed in on the raised dais at the far end of the room and paced toward it. In the center of the platform, an ornate, old-fashioned desk squatted like a sleeping beast. Its wooden surfaces were imbued with echoes of life-force, an island of warmth in a sea of cold, lifeless metal. He stepped onto the dais and ran his fingers along its fluted edge, then sat in its equally out-dated pedestal chair. Dooku's chair. He could feel it.
Obi-Wan stood in the doorway, watching him like he was a mynoch chewing on a power cable. His voice echoed off the polished black walls. "I wasn't aware I had dismissed you, Padawan."
"I am serving the Jedi, Master. I'm tracking down a criminal who needs to be brought to justice."
A pause and Obi-Wan said, "Could I at least deliver the lecture before you respond to it?" He stepped inside, glancing around, his face bland to the point of being droid-like. Anakin knew he was remembering what this place had been and cataloguing the changes.
Padm? entered and palmed the door control. It swished closed. She scanned the room, her expression verging on frustration.
Obi-Wan started to stroll around, his manner alert, as if he expected the chairs to rise up and attack him. He halted and met Anakin's gaze. "It's your motivation that concerns me, Padawan."
His motivation was his business. Why should Obi-Wan care so long as the results were satisfactory? Anakin scowled as he felt a quiet prod, a ripple in the Force. He bent his head and started searching the desk drawers. He sensed Obi-Wan continuing his search of the workstations, thankful his master wasn't pushing the issue.
It was this place ... it had a strange effect on Obi-Wan, one that caused turmoil to leak outward from his aura. Anakin wasn't sure if he felt concern, or relief that his master's focus lie elsewhere for a change.
Anakin's fingertips bumped something in the bottom drawer. He touched the multi-faceted object, then took it from its nest, keeping it out of sight as he examined it. A holocron. Anakin stared. An encrypted Jedi encyclopedia. He held it loosely, not wanting to activate the hologram of the gatekeeper. Had Count Dooku taken this from the Archives?
A thought sent a small shockwave through Anakin's mind. Perhaps Dooku hadn't stolen this holocron; perhaps he had made it.
Obi-Wan glanced up sharply. He stared at Anakin. The Force vibration, not even a ripple, was gone now. He was certain it had come from his padawan.
"Is something wrong, Anakin?"
The padawan shifted, then raised his head. "No, Master. I just had a ... disturbing sense of Dooku's presence." He stood and strode toward Obi-Wan, his almost perpetual scowl in place - until his gaze shifted to Padm? and his countenance cleared.
Obi-Wan shook his head and crouched by a chair where he thought he'd spotted something. He found a data-disc, half hidden under the leg. He twirled it through his fingers, trying to decide why this disk concerned him.
Padm? hopped onto the ledge beside him, her frustration evident in the way she clenched the edge of the countertop. Anakin joined her, laying his arm across her shoulders. Such casual possessiveness. Obi-Wan turned from it and sank into a cross-legged position as he continued to finger the disk and puzzle over it.
"Tell me, Master." Anakin's tone was conversational, in a studied sort of way. "What happened here that bothers you so much?"
Obi-Wan's fingers froze. Did he owe his padawan an explanation? He resumed fiddling with the disk, eyes fixed on it. He felt a familiar nudge, as light as ever, not demanding, only prompting, always giving him the choice. Follow or turn away.
The Force swirled. Anakin had reached out through the master-padawan bond in the plaza, for the first time in months. Obi-Wan needed to give something in return. But ... The shadow hovered by his shoulder, whispering darkness, breathing deceit. Betrayal. Unforgivable.
You forgave me, Master.
Obi-Wan inhaled and opened himself to the Light. In a timeless moment that had to have lasted several, the truth revealed itself. Obi-Wan's eyes flew open. He flowed to his feet and stood before Anakin, searching his padawan's closed features. Anakin returned the stare without blinking.
Folding his arms, Obi-Wan said, "I betrayed my master."
Interest sparked in Anakin's eyes. He straightened. "You ... betrayed Qui-Gon? How?"
"I became one of the Young. I thought I had found a cause worth living for, friends worth dying for. When he left Melida/Daan, I refused to go. I gave him my lightsaber."
"Your lightsaber," Anakin whispered. Louder, he said, "But that's a Jedi's life. To give it up ..."
Obi-Wan clenched his jaw. Even now, it was hard to say. "Is to cease being a Jedi."
Turmoil churned in his padawan's gaze, and Obi-Wan knew he was wondering how he would be able to give up his lightsaber. Something the Council would certainly call on him to do if he did not agree to annul his marriage.
Padm? said, "What happened?"
Obi-Wan tucked the data-disc into his belt and gave his beard a single stroke. "At first it was ... exhilarating. I was part of something bigger than myself, something important. But then, attitudes began to shift. Bit by bit, I was isolated by the Young, rejected because I was neither Melida nor Daan. Only Cerasi stood by me. I existed in greyness. I could barely touch the Force. For the first time I knew what it was to be alone. When Cerasi was killed ..." Obi-Wan took a soothing breath and felt the Force upholding him. "I was devastated. I realized I had turned my back on the one thing that was truly bigger than my selfish desire to belong, the one thing truly worth committing to."
"The Jedi," Padm? said.
With a nod, Obi-Wan continued, "I had to humble myself to ask the Jedi for help. The Young's victories were decaying; the situation was spiraling out of control. Yoda sent Qui-Gon back. When he handed me my lightsaber, the Force rushed to me and welcomed me home."
"He forgave you? Just like that?" Incredulity laced Anakin's tone.
"No. He neither forgave me nor accepted me back as his padawan. Not for quite some time." Obi-Wan squared himself. Stance wide, he let the truth shine forth in his eyes as he held his padawan's gaze. The truth he had only just realized. "Betrayal is often a killing blow to a relationship, my young padawan."
Anakin searched his master's face, and Obi-Wan saw understanding alight. "You think I betrayed you, don't you, Master?"
Of all the feelings Obi-Wan had been struggling with since discovering Anakin's secret, the one that had hit him the hardest was one he hadn't even identified. Until now. "You did, Padawan. And not just me. You betrayed the Jedi and all to which you claim to have committed yourself."
Ire waged war with the desire for control in Anakin's features. "That's not true. All I did was marry the woman I love. I'm still committed to the Jedi."
"Really? You went behind my back. You deceived me with months of silence. You knew of the prohibition, and you willfully defied it. You chose the path of disobedience, my padawan, just as I did so many years ago." You hurt me, Padawan, as I hurt my master. And now I know why it was so hard for Qui-Gon to forgive me.
How could he have been so blind? All the pain he had felt upon facing the place of his past betrayal had been amplified by his own sense of being betrayed by Anakin. It was so obvious, and yet, so difficult to move past. Anakin hadn't meant to hurt him, any more than he had meant to hurt Qui-Gon. He knew he had to forgive his padawan, or the hurt would fester in his own soul, mutating into resentment, or possibly something darker.
Obedience is a path we choose. Obi-Wan hesitated for a second, then chose to forgive Anakin. The feeling would follow, it was enough to know the deed was done.
Something approaching defiance entered Anakin's eyes, making Obi-Wan sigh inwardly with frustration. He released the emotion into the Force - he could only control his own reactions, not his padawan's.
Anakin said, "And will you forgive me, Master?"
He doesn't ask, he only wants to know if I will give. He feels no remorse. Obi-Wan arched one brow. Now was not the time to reveal his decision. "Forgiveness is the most precious gift one can receive. As my master before me, I cannot give it lightly. When trust is broken, it is difficult to rebuild, fragile and more easily destroyed a second time. Perhaps the better question is: are you willing to help me rebuild the trust between us?"
Anakin slid to his feet. "If it means having to do everything your way, then I'm not sure. I'll have to think about it, Master."
Obi-Wan had done all he could do for the moment. He felt at peace with what had transpired. "Fair enough." He glanced at Padm?, who had listened to their exchange with extreme attentiveness. The understanding in her brown eyes gave him hope that all was not lost. "Now, perhaps it is time we had a little talk with Count Dooku."
"How are we supposed to do that?" Anakin said. "He could be anywhere in the galaxy. We don't even know where to begin looking."
Obi-Wan took the data-disc and flipped it through the air to his padawan. "Yes, we do. He left us an invitation. He wants to be found, my young padawan. I would hate to disappoint him."
Anakin caught the disk and eyed it with a predatory gleam. He slid it into a pouch on his belt and nodded. "Let's go, then." He paced toward the door.
Obi-Wan gave Padm? a short bow and waved his hand. "After you, Senator."
She dropped to the floor and peered at him for a few seconds. "Thank you, Master Kenobi."
Obi-Wan watched her walk away. He had the feeling she had just thanked him for his honesty, not for his manners. He smiled and followed her. Anakin was already at the door controls, impatience clouding his face. Padm? stopped in front of the door and gave him a smile. Anakin grinned and palmed the controls.
Over the swish, Obi-Wan heard a familiar, whir-click. Droids. He yelled, "No!" as he dived at Padm?.
Obi-Wan hit Padm? from behind like a runaway speeder at the same second twin bolts of agony burrowed into her thigh.
Anakin screamed, "Padm?!"
Jedi arms wrapped around her; she hit the floor, the wind driven from her lungs. Over the roaring in her ears she heard Obi-Wan yell, "The door!"
"There's no lock!"
Padm? wheezed, desperate to breathe. Finally, air rushed back into her body and she gasped. Her body shuddered, and arms held her more tightly. The spots before her eyes began to fade, revealing a scowling Obi-Wan. Fire consumed her left leg.
Metallic thudding matched the pounding in her skull.
The scene flashed through her mind: turning from Anakin, catching a nanosecond's glimpse of droids before Obi-Wan had tackled her. He moved slightly, causing pain to flash outwards from her leg. She bit back a moan as the spots blanked her vision again. The agony was building as the initial shock wore off.
"It won't hold them long, Master. I'll take Padm?. How is she?" Anakin said.
"Her leg is injured. It will have to wait until we get out of here."
Padm? felt extra hands slide under her. Anakin. Obi-Wan's hands withdrew. Anakin lifted her, bumping her leg. She screamed.
The pain engulfed her, sucking her into a black hole.
"Master, Padm? fainted." Anakin trembled at the power of the fear rising up, threatening to overtake him.
"That's likely for the best, Padawan. We have to move quickly."
Obi-Wan spun away from the sharp look Anakin shot toward him, and headed toward the center of the room, pivoting, searching. Anakin blew out his dread, eyes fixed on Obi-Wan, willing himself to draw strength from the ... stillness ... radiating outwards from his master. If there were ever a time he needed Obi-Wan's infuriating calm, it was this moment. He couldn't bear it if they couldn't save Padm?. He held her close and moved farther into the room, away from the relentless hammering on the door. It was beginning to buckle. They didn't have much time.
"Here!" Obi-Wan leaped onto a counter and stared at the ceiling. "It appears I'll owe yet another escape to a ventilation system. One has to wonder if they were a Force-inspired invention."
Anakin glared at his master. "I don't care! Hurry up."
As he ignited his lightsaber, Obi-Wan gave Anakin an enigmatic glance. "No snide comments in the face of danger, my padawan? Don't you feel like engaging in aggressive negotiations any more today?"
"No! I want to get Padm? to safety!"
"As do I, young one." He flicked his wrist four times, severing a bolt securing each corner. Obi-Wan stepped aside as the grate cover fell away.
Anakin peered upwards. "Where does it lead?"
"Straight to the roof, apparently. I see another grate and what appears to be a metal canopy above that. I need you to lift me so I can cut through."
Nodding, Anakin closed his eyes, already reaching for the Force. Obi-Wan's Force signature glowed strongly in his mind. Without hesitating, Anakin manipulated the Force, holding and lifting his master through his thoughts.
"Not too quickly, Padawan, or you'll slam me into the grate and you'll have two unconscious people on your hands."
Anakin pursed his lips and slowed the rate of ascent.
While he concentrated on holding his master mid-air, part of him mind catalogued the hum of the lightsaber, the battering of the door, Padm?'s heartbeat. A moment later, a clatter sounded. And then another.
"I'm through. Boost me just a little higher."
Anakin pushed with the Force. His master's startled yell made him cringe. Perhaps he had used a little too much ... force.
"Send Padm? up, a little gentler than you did me, if you please."
Squinting upward, Anakin saw a disheveled Obi-Wan eyeing him. "Sorry, Master." Behind him, metal creaked. He didn't look, but concentrated on levitating Padm?'s limp body toward his master. She rose, rotating slowly, her head lolling back and arms dangling. Anakin stared, refusing to let the worry overwhelm him, refusing to lose his grip on the Force.
He was shaking when Obi-Wan reached down and grabbed her, hauling her onto the roof. Blaster fire spun him around, lightsaber already in hand. He deflected several shots from the single droid firing through a crack where the door was wedged open.
Anakin hopped onto the counter and repulsed two more shots. He gleaned Force tendrils, latching onto them and jumping straight up. He shot through the vent and twisted to land on the roof beside Obi-Wan.
"What now, Master?"
"I've already alerted Artoo by comlink. He's traced our exact co-ordinates through the link and should be lifting off right about now." Obi-Wan tugged his sash from beneath his belt and began to tie it around Padm?'s leg.
It wrenched Anakin's gut to see Padm? hurt. He turned from the sight to peer at the sky. Since his master was already dealing with the wound, he paced toward the edge of the roof.
Obi-Wan shouted, "Anakin, no!"
Three blaster bolts whined past Anakin's head and he ducked. He lifted his chin to peer over the edge, drawing another flurry of shots. "I take it the building is surrounded."
"A safe assumption, Padawan."
"Dooku needs to make up his mind. Either he wants us to face him or he wants us dead."
"I have a strong feeling it's both. He will be disappointed if we let a few droids kill us off, since he wants to do the job himself, but he wants a worthy challenge, so he's testing us."
Anakin scuttled back and knelt by Padm?. He held her hand and glanced at her wounded leg. A circlet of blood stained Obi-Wan's sash. "And what do you want, Master?"
"Oh, I want Dooku to be disappointed - about a great many things. But this isn't one of them. I would rather not be defeated by his mechanical puppets."
Anakin listened to the clattering below them. The droids were trying to find some way to follow them up the shaft. He scanned the horizon, anxiety nibbling at his resolve. He was just about to complain about Artoo's slowness when he spotted the yacht approaching low, with no running lights. Anakin smiled. Artoo was a quick learner.
The perimeter droids started peppering the yacht with laser fire as soon as it appeared over the plaza. The pinging grew louder as the ship hovered above them, repulsors hissing, and the ramp squealed open.
Obi-Wan ignited his lightsaber and motioned for Anakin to get Padm? to the ship. He stayed close, re-directing several blaster shots that ricocheted off the hull toward them. The ramp floated two meters above the roof. Anakin grabbed the Force and leaped, charging up the ramp the instant he touched it. A laser bolt followed him into the ship, zipping past his metal arm so close it singed cloth.
Behind him, Obi-Wan shouted, "Take off, Artoo!"
While Obi-Wan headed toward the cockpit, Anakin hurried into Padm?'s cabin and laid her out on the narrow bunk. He brushed loose tendrils of hair from her eyes, bent over and kissed her forehead. Her eyes fluttered open. Eyes dark with pain. Anakin channeled slender threads of the Force into her body, an unraveled skein of warmth and comfort. The tension in her limbs and face eased a little. She mouthed, I love you.
The engines revved, carrying them up and away from Zehava.
Good riddance, thought Anakin. Dooku had yet another thing to answer for.
The droid tilted its head, humming as it did when receiving a transmission. It clicked and straightened its head. "My lord, the ground troops report that all three targets escaped. Their ship is now space bound."
Yan Dooku peered out the bubble windscreen of the cockpit at the variegated browns of Melida/Daan. Nothing less than he expected. He hoped Kenobi had appreciated his ... homecoming.
"Jump when ready, FA-4."
"Yes, my lord." The droid pilot accelerated away from the planet. A minute later the ship made the jump to hyperspace.
For several moments the mesmerizing tunnel of light captured Yan's gaze. Again, curiosity arose as to why Master Sidious had insisted on his leaving that holocron behind. Kenobi wouldn't hesitate to turn it over to the Council to be destroyed. He suspected the reason revolved around that whelp Kenobi was training, though he wasn't sure he cared to speculate. Still ... someday he would need an apprentice. If Skywalker's impulsiveness could be tamed, he might make a suitable candidate.
Yan rose and informed the pilot he would be in the lounge. He entered the regrettably cramped space and stretched out on the only acceleration couch. What the ship lacked in size it made up for in speed. And he wanted to arrive at their destination well before Kenobi so he could prepare a proper welcome.
It had been brilliant of his assassin to time that courier's murder to coincide with the arrival of a Jedi. Either that, or the Force had truly been with him. It had assured Kenobi's involvement as nothing else could. Yoda was so predictable. The friendship between Senator Amidala and Kenobi had guaranteed Yoda would send his favorite pet on this mission.
A pet for a pet. Yan smiled. How amusing that Master Sidious still harbored anger over a decade old, especially since that wrath was not aimed at him. Obi-Wan Kenobi had no idea how powerful an enemy he had made that fateful day on Naboo.
The fool. Even when he had been told the truth, Kenobi had denied it, clinging to the notion of a Republic that no longer existed. A Republic where peace and justice ruled. That dream was dead - and no good men existed with strength enough to resurrect it. Power came to the powerful, and what made one powerful rarely allowed for goodness.
Now Kenobi ... was the epitome of a good Jedi, believing without question whatever his masters told him. Acting without question, just as the Jedi demeaned themselves by letting the Senate dictate to them. Yan snorted. How his padawan had ever trained one such as Kenobi was beyond him. It had to have driven Qui-Gon mad, faced with such rigidity day after day, though Yan didn't know - Qui-Gon had spoken about his padawan very little in those last few years, except to say that Kenobi would make a good Jedi. As if that were a compliment. The fact that Kenobi was unable to think or act outside his little Jedi box was reason enough to see him dead.
It was reason to see most Jedi dead.
Brave, but foolish. That seemed to have become the unofficial Jedi motto. And Kenobi was about to live by it yet again. He had to know he was walking into a trap. But walk in, he would.
He would live by it - and die by it.
Anakin sat cross-legged on his bunk, aware of the faint vibrations of the hyperspace engine. He closed his eyes and lifted his face to the ceiling, letting the thrum wash over him, soothe him.
The engine was running smoothly because of him - a fact that gave him great satisfaction. He was the one who had discovered and repaired the cylinder that had been creating a hiccup in the energy cycle. Of course, Obi-Wan's praise had been served up with a reminder that it was Anakin's landing that had damaged the ship in the first place, so it was only right that Anakin repair the problem. As if Obi-Wan would rather Anakin had plowed into boulders than greenery - that would have taken care of any question concerning any repairs.
Before the rising irritation could gain a foothold in his mind, Anakin shunted the feeling aside and emptied his mind of everything except the engine's hum. After a few moments, he expanded his knowing beyond himself, noting Padm?'s quiet aura in her cabin - she was still sleeping - then moving on to sense his master's Force signature in the cockpit.
The way the Force enhanced Obi-Wan's presence, Anakin knew he was meditating. Anakin opened his eyes and stared at the hatch. A shiver of tension passed through his abdomen. He willed himself to calmness.
Anakin reached out and dimmed the cabin lights to minimum. He withdrew the palm-sized object from his med-kit and set it on the pillow.
A Jedi holocron. A dozen questions swirled to the surface of Anakin's mind; there was only one way to answer his curiosity. His hand hesitated over the crystalline vault of Jedi knowledge as he was assailed by misgivings. He knew what Obi-Wan would expect him to do - hand it over like an obedient padawan and apologize for concealing its existence from him.
He would. Anakin took a slow breath. He would hand it over to Obi-Wan as soon as his master ceased his meditations. His hand quivered. It was only a holocron. What harm could there be in activating it, just to find out which Jedi master had created it?
No harm. After all, knowledge was a cornerstone of Jedi teaching.
Anakin activated the holocron and sat back, palms resting on his thighs. The holocron began to glow from within, like stardust. A small blue figure flickered as static ran through it, then consolidated and hovered above the holocron. A ghostly miniature of Count Dooku, cape fluttering, hands loose at his sides.
Turn it off.
The face of the man that had taken his right arm captivated Anakin. Even as a holo, Dooku exuded a commanding presence. The tension returned. Anakin's heartbeat accelerated slightly, like a speeder merging into traffic.
Turn it -
"Greetings, Jedi. I am Yan Dooku, the gatekeeper of knowledge. Before you pose a question, consider this: there is no Light or Dark Side. The Force is one vast spectrum of power. The Dark Side is merely a term frightened Jedi leaders have created to infect others with their fear of powers they do not understand. Ask yourself if you are one of the weak-minded who quails at the thought of such power, or if you are one of the few truly courageous enough to grasp all the Force has to offer. If you are the former, crawl back into your decaying Temple and continue hiding from the truth - I want nothing to do with you."
Dooku's holo fell silent and seemed to regard Anakin with eyes that missed nothing. Anakin's pulse hammered erratically.
Yoda's voice whispered, "The Dark Side, I sense in you, Count Dooku." Anakin couldn't remember ever hearing Yoda say that; where had that thought come from? The words seemed to bounce off rock, like in a cave. Geonosis? He had been unconscious while Yoda had battled Dooku.
Confusion rippled through Anakin's mind, but still he sat, transfixed by the blue figure. The Dark Side. What if Dooku was right and Yoda wrong? His breathing sounded loud in his ears.
Sudden echoes of anguish tore through his soul. I will be the most powerful Jedi ever. I promise you.
Anakin's fingers dug into his knees. The moment stretched as he stared at the holo, still silent, waiting for a first question. He had to focus on his hand to get it to lift, to reach out, to deactivate the holocron. His breath whooshed out as Dooku's figure disappeared. He covered his face with shaking hands and strove to regain his composure. Droplets of sweat tickled his fingertips.
Dooku's words ricocheted through his thoughts. To grasp all the Force has to offer.
No. Anakin lifted his head. No. He tucked the holocron back into his belt pouch and rose from the bed. A second of vertigo tremored through him. He blew out his breath and started for the door.
Down the corridor, toward the cockpit, Anakin's steps slowed as he passed Obi-Wan's cabin. He halted in front of Padm?'s door and rested his palm against it. He closed his eyes as uncertainty flared anew.
He reached toward the door panel. He needed to talk to Padm?, to figure out -
Anakin froze as Padm?'s door slid into the wall, his gaze swallowed by the shadowy cabin, unable to penetrate the gloom.
"Padawan? What are you doing?"
Was that a hint of accusation in Obi-Wan's tone? Anakin's nostrils flared as he sought his center of calm. He turned his head to see his master, stance wide, arms crossed, eyes ... concerned? No, he had to be mistaken.
Obi-Wan stepped forward.
Anakin said, "It's not what you think, Master. I just wanted to ... check on Padm?, and talk to her if she was awake." His fingers brushed against the med-kit pouch on his belt and lingered.
Obi-Wan's blue-grey eyes turned speculative. He closed the distance between them. "I believe you, Padawan. I was meditating and felt a slight disturbance in the Force." He laid his hand on Anakin's shoulder and Anakin stifled a wince. Obi-Wan spoke softly. "I know you are worried about her, but you mustn't let that worry control you. Concentrate. Scan her life-force. The bacta ointment is speeding her healing, as are your Force ministrations. She will likely be up and about tomorrow."
"I ... I know, Master." Anakin looked away. "It's just that -" The holocron seemed to be burning a hole through his belt. If he didn't speak, it would burn right through and drop to the floor. "There's something -"
I will be the most powerful Jedi ever.
Obi-Wan squeezed Anakin's shoulder. "Relax, my young padawan. Discharge your fear into the Force."
... infecting others with their fear ...
"I'm not afraid, Master. I'm not afraid of anything."
An amused smile settled on Obi-Wan's lips. "None of us are immune to the effects of fear, Anakin. It's what we do with it when we feel its touch that matters. We must acknowledge it and release it."
"Yes, Master." Anakin's fingers played with the latch on the pouch. "But I'm not afraid."
"There's no question you are one of the most fearless beings I have ever encountered." Obi-Wan dipped his chin, indicating Anakin's hand. "But in this instance, your fidgeting is betraying you."
"Is ... something else bothering you, Padawan? Something besides Padm?'s injuries?"
Anakin couldn't bring himself to answer. Obi-Wan would be furious with him for not handing over the holocron right away. Anakin could already feel the sting of his scorn. Right now, this moment, the genuine concern radiating from his master was such ... a welcome change. He didn't want to lose that. He couldn't stand the thought of more criticism.
"Padawan, what is it?"
He would get rid of the holocron himself. No one need ever know of it. "Nothing." Anakin's hand lowered to his side, even as his shields rose a little higher. "Nothing, Master. You're right. I'm worrying when I shouldn't be." He nodded toward Padm?'s bunk, shrouded in darkness. "I'd like to sit with Padm? for a while, ... if that's okay."
Obi-Wan dropped his hand and stepped back. "Very well. But keep the hatch open."
As if they would do anything when Padm? was recovering from double laser burns. Anakin's lips thinned. He nodded tersely and walked into the darkened cabin. The shadows enveloped him.
Padm? stretched and glanced around her cabin. She was bored. Restless. She didn't care if Obi-Wan had told her to stay off her feet as much as possible; she needed to move. Besides, it had been two days. If she stayed in bed for the remaining thirty hours it would take to reach their destination, she would be so stiff she wouldn't be able to move.
Twinges of pain zipped through her thigh like tiny electrical pulses as she swung her legs over the side of the bunk. She paused for a moment, weaving her dark hair into a loose braid and waiting for the discomfort to fade. That wasn't so bad.
Hand braced against the wall, Padm? slowly rose, balancing on her uninjured right leg. She shifted some of her weight to her left leg, wincing when a stronger shock of pain gripped her. It quickly passed, replaced by a dull palpitation. She could stand that.
With tentative steps, Padm? made her way to the entrance. She paused to don a thick, floor-length robe that Anakin had discovered in with the extra refresher supplies. He was always so thoughtful - and there was no way she could get her flightsuit on without help right now. Neither did she think Obi-Wan would appreciate her stumbling around the ship wearing only a camisole and underwear. She grimaced and yanked the belt snug.
Padm? limped to the cockpit, still leaning on the bulkhead. Her leg throbbed with each step. Even with that, it felt good to be on the move. The hatch swished open and Padm? entered the flight deck. Empty.
A trilling beep sounded.
"Oh. Hello, Artoo. I didn't see you hiding in that corner. Do you know where Anakin and Obi-Wan are?"
A whistle. Padm? didn't feel like plugging the astromech droid into the console to get a translation. "Never mind. I'll find them. The exercise will do me good."
The droid emitted what sounded like a mournful sigh.
Padm? smiled. "Don't worry, Artoo. I'll be fine. I have the best care outside of the Jedi healing wards in the Temple."
She turned and began the arduous trek toward the aft of the cruiser, past the cabins and the galley. The small lounge was deserted. With a grimace, Padm? sank onto an acceleration couch and rested for a few minutes.
A memory surfaced, of Anakin at her beside, deep in concentration, of the warmth that had shielded her mind from pain, and of the love suffusing that warmth.
Smiling now, Padm? stood and hobbled across the open space toward the cargo bay. They had to be either there or in the engine room. Knowing Anakin ... A Corellian would place his credits on the engine room.
At the cargo bay door, she paused. Faint sounds penetrated the reinforced metal. Apparently, the Corellian would have lost the bet.
Padm? touched the door controls. She entered the mostly-empty space slowly, arrested by the sight of the two Jedi in heated battle. Her heart lurched. A few seconds of observation revealed that they were merely sparring. As Padm?'s heartbeat resumed a normal pace, she berated herself for thinking the worst.
But they were so intense, so focused, they hadn't even noticed her entrance.
Padm? blinked, noticing Obi-Wan's lack of attire. He was stripped to the waist, his upper torso bathed in a sheen of sweat that emphasized his muscles, his mature, powerful build. Padm? flushed and forced her attention aside. In comparison, Anakin was completely clothed. He had always found space to be uncomfortably cold. Beneath his leather stolla, sweat had soaked the front and sides of his tunic. They had obviously been practicing for some time.
Since they showed no signs of stopping, Padm? sidled over to the meter-high duracrate upon which Obi-Wan's tunics were neatly stacked. She pushed them aside and settled on the crate, eager for the chance to watch Jedi in practice combat. The distraction was rendering her leg pain less noticeable.
As she watched, Anakin feinted and stepped toward his master. In a move almost too quick to follow, Obi-Wan disarmed Anakin. The darkened lightsaber clattered to the deck.
Anakin snatched up his weapon and began to orbit around Obi-Wan. The master pivoted once, then halted while his padawan continued to circle.
Padm?'s gaze was drawn to Obi-Wan's exposed left arm. The smaller, already-fading laser wound was eclipsed by the red gash above it. Surely the Jedi healers could have at least lessened the severity of the scar. It looked so ... angry.
"I've already -"
Padm? studied Anakin. His lips thinned in a familiar gesture of frustration. His circling continued, a stark contrast to Obi-Wan's utter stillness. When he spoke, the words were forced through clenched teeth.
"I must concentrate on the inner circles of defense."
"That's right. We were both trained to fight in the middle and outer circles. Very effective against lasers, even against Jedi with similar training." Obi-Wan flexed his left arm; the scar seemed to smile. "Dooku defeated both of us up close, in the inner circles. His archaic style is designed for lightsaber duels. We must learn -"
Circling behind Obi-Wan, Anakin struck without warning. Padm?'s gasp was cut short when Obi-Wan spun and successfully blocked the blow. For long seconds, the locked blue and green blades sizzled and spat. They seemed thinner than usual, less virulent. Some sort of low-level training setting, Padm? decided.
Obi-Wan wheeled away. Anakin followed. "So you want me learn from Count Dooku, do you, Master?" He attacked with something akin to ferocity.
His face lined with concentration, Obi-Wan fended off the initial flurry. Finally, he said, "We must always seek to learn from our opponents." He fell silent as the battle continued. Several moments later, Anakin closed in and Obi-Wan sent his lightsaber cartwheeling through the air.
Before it could hit the deck, Anakin stretched out his arm and the weapon flew back to his hand. The green blade flashed to life and arched down. Again, Obi-Wan blocked and forced Anakin's blade to hissing immobility.
"Do not let your frustration control you, Padawan. You have the Force ability to defeat me. Look how well you are doing with your off hand - you have already overcome that obstacle. But you cannot just trust the flow. You must anticipate." He stepped back and parried two quick blows. "Think."
Padm? cringed at the tension coiling in Anakin's limbs. Robotic hand clenching and unclenching, he stalked around Obi-Wan like a Trandoshan whose prey had escaped. This time, Obi-Wan did not expose his back to his padawan.
The master whispered, "Calm, Anakin."
Padm? found herself repeating the phrase in her mind like a mantra. Calm, Anakin, calm.
Gradually, Anakin's movements changed from jerky to lithe. His features smoothed. Padm? realized she was breathing easier.
When the two Jedi joined battle again, even Padm? could see that Anakin was holding his own in close. Though Obi-Wan's forehead gleamed, a half smile tugged at his mouth. Anakin frowned as he pressed the attack.
Another hail of blurred strikes and Anakin's lightsaber sailed toward Padm?, landing centimeters from the duracrate. He spared her a glance as he summoned the weapon back to his grip.
"You enjoy humiliating me." The green blade extended once more.
"No, Padawan. I enjoy seeing you stretch beyond what you think you are capable of." The blue blade winked out. "Enough for today."
Anakin switched off his lightsaber and sketched a bow. Obi-Wan returned it, then shook his head. A spray of droplets flew in every direction from his collar-length hair. Anakin stepped back with a scowl as he allowed his master to proceed first off the practice floor.
Obi-Wan halted beside the duracrate and toweled himself with his undertunic. Padme's gaze flicked to his chest. The sour odor of sweat caused her nose to wrinkle.
Answering her questioning look, he said, "I dislike having to make a dozen repairs on my tunics after a sparring session. A little burn ointment is simpler." Obi-Wan smiled and slipped into the undertunic. "My apologies for offending your nose, Senator. I shall head directly to the refresher." He arched his brows. "How is your leg today?"
Since Melida/Daan, the way he said senator had softened, almost to the point of sounding like an endearment - the way he used to call her friend. Padm? held to the hope he would soon remember how to pronounce her name. She smiled. "It's healing quite nicely, Master Kenobi."
Obi-Wan nodded and glanced over his shoulder to where Anakin hovered behind him, scowl still in place. "Good job, Padawan." He picked up his other clothes and strode from the cargo bay.
Anakin's scowl deepened.
"What's wrong, Ani?"
"I'm waiting for the but."
Padm? tilted her head and listened to Obi-Wan's quiet whistling. She shrugged melodramatically. "No buts today, my darling padawan. Your master is apparently pleased with your efforts ..." She gave him a mischievous glance. "... despite your being unable to hang onto your weapon."
Anakin snorted. "For months, he's been spending every spare moment practicing while I've been doing courier runs for the Council. He didn't take his defeat very well." He stepped close and his blue eyes cleared. "I like the way you say darling padawan much better than Obi-Wan's my very young padawan."
"I'll tell him for you. Maybe he will start calling you that."
Anakin touched his left fingers to Padm?'s mouth. "No, thank you." He leaned forward and his lips replaced his fingers. Moments later, Anakin straightened. "Maybe Obi-Wan is planning to take a very long shower. We could -"
"No, Anakin." Padm? had to quell her rising desire as she gave him a severe look. "You don't want to do anything to wreck your master's good mood."
"It's not his mood that concerns me." A boyish grin split his face.
Padm? suppressed a laugh and schooled her features. "Carry me to my quarters, darling padawan." Hope sparked in Anakin's eyes, disappearing when Padm? added, "Then you may proceed to your own cabin and follow your master's lead. You stink almost as much as he did. Like a baby nerf instead of a papa."
Anakin swept Padm? into his arms. She managed to conceal the shiver of pain.
As he strode forward, Anakin said, "You are a heartless woman, Padm? Naberrie Skywalker."
"Yes, I am." Padm? smiled up at him. "But I think you know who stole my heart and reduced me to such a mean condition."
Anakin's smile lit his features in a way that always melted Padm?'s insides. She rested her head against his chest and listened to his steady heartbeat. It was a good thing she had already given him such a firm "no". She didn't think herself capable of refusing him a second time.
Obi-Wan slouched in the pilot's chair, fist tucked under his chin, as he stared at the readout. What had been the cause of that microburst transmission that occurred while he had been meditating two days ago? Artoo's diagnostics couldn't even pin down its origin.
He shifted his gaze to the hyperspace swirl. With all the minor glitches they had discovered since leaving Melida/Daan, what was one more? All the other ship's systems seemed to be displaying problems, so it was hardly surprising that communications would, too. The circuits had to really be scrambled if point of origin couldn't be traced.
It was almost time to exit hyperspace. Obi-Wan knew he needed to focus on what was waiting for them, but his mind kept leaping back to that transmission. He had a bad feeling about it.
Qui-Gon had always said to trust your feelings. But there was nothing he could do about this one - he had tried it all. Nothing but give the worry to the Force.
Obi-Wan sighed. A precept that was sometimes easier said than done.
Padm? entered the cockpit and slid into the co-pilot's chair. She was back to wearing her flightsuit. He gave her tentative smile a brief nod.
"You're moving much better today."
"Thanks to your and Anakin's diligent care. My leg's barely aching at all. Only quick movements set it off."
"Well, let's hope you don't have to move quickly, then." Obi-Wan glanced over his shoulder. "Where's Anakin?"
"Fiddling with the electrical system. The hot water disappeared as soon as I stepped under the 'fresher spray."
Obi-Wan lifted one brow. "That could make for a quick dip."
Padm? gave him a look of mock indignation. "You are laughing at me, Master Kenobi. That's most ... un-Jedi-like."
"Did I laugh?" Obi-Wan returned his attention to the readout so she wouldn't see him smile.
"Not out loud, perhaps."
Obi-Wan didn't answer. He enjoyed this gentle banter - it was reminiscent of their friendship. He peered at the data stream as his thoughts jumped back to that night. Would he have rather not walked in on Padm? and Anakin, lived in ignorance and kept his trust? Padm? would still be his friend. Anakin ... would still have a future as a Jedi. And he wouldn't be in a position where he had to turn his own padawan over to the Council for punishment - and, unless Anakin changed his mind, banishment.
How could they think the love they professed was worth the price they would have to pay? Obi-Wan could not imagine Anakin finding peace in any situation outside the Jedi Order. Whether or not he was the Chosen One, he was meant to be a Jedi.
Padm? interrupted his thoughts. "What has you looking so somber? Meeting Dooku?"
Obi-Wan shifted and studied the young woman for a moment. Even in a simple bun and unadorned flightsuit, she was beautiful. And he knew her to be a woman of integrity, possessed of inner beauty. How could she ask Anakin to give up his life? Her expression turned curious. He said, "I don't want to offend you, but may I ask a personal question?"
Curiosity faded to uncertainty. "I ... suppose."
Obi-Wan glanced at Padm? rubbing her leg, likely not even realizing she was doing it. "Do you love Anakin, or do you simply love the utter devotion with which he loves you?"
Indignation flared, darkening her brown eyes. "That ... that ..."
"Is impudent, I know. But I would like to know."
Padm? stiffened. "I happen to love your padawan, Master Kenobi. For you to imply otherwise is ... reprehensible. I would never have agreed to marry him just ... just to feed my vanity. I'm not so completely selfish as you seem to imply."
Taken aback by the vehemence of her response, Obi-Wan spoke quietly. "I'm not implying anything. I'm only seeking to understand."
"You know what it is to love. Why can't you accept that your padawan could do likewise?"
"It's not the loving. It's the choice to willfully destroy that boy's life. His future."
"His ..." Padm? worked her jaw, the fury evident in her every line. "I've done no such thing. I only want what's best -"
"He will be banished from the Order, Senator." Why couldn't he make her realize that?
"No. It's not as bad as that. We'll explain everything to the Council. They'll understand. I will always support Anakin in his work as a Jedi."
"Being a Jedi is not an office job that you leave behind you when the chime sounds ending your shift. It's a way of life. It defines your thoughts, your actions, your every moment. It is the most serious and deepest of commitments."
"I know that. And I fully support Anakin's commitment. It is so unfair of you to just sit back and pass judgment without ... without ..."
"Pass judgment about what?" Anakin's voice came from the cockpit entrance.
Obi-Wan winced inwardly. He shouldn't have brought this up. He peered at the hyperspace countdown. Three minutes.
When Padm? didn't respond to Anakin's inquiry either, Obi-Wan could sense his padawan's growing turmoil. He could feel Anakin's eyes on the back of his neck. The shockwave of anger that accompanied Anakin's realization, exploded outward from his aura and hit Obi-Wan like a physical blow.
Blast. "Padawan, control your feelings. Let go your anger."
"Let go ..." Anakin spoke through clenched teeth. "You broke the truce. You promised you wouldn't bring this up, then when my back is turned ..."
Obi-Wan swung to his feet as Anakin sucked in oxygen. "Enough, Padawan."
"No! It is not enough! How am I supposed to trust you, when you so easily break your word? You want me to prove myself trustworthy, but you can do anything you -"
"Enough." Stepping up to his padawan, Obi-Wan folded his arms and peered into roiling dark blue eyes. "I was out of line. I apologize."
A deep frown creased Anakin's brow. "You ..."
"Apologize." Obi-Wan felt Anakin's anger leaking away. He let go a slow breath. "I may have spoken the truth as I see it to Padm?, but you're right. I had agreed to not discuss your ... union until after the mission." Why did he have so much trouble even thinking the word, marriage? He glanced at Padm?'s shuttered expression. "I hope you will both accept my apology. It won't happen again."
Mixed emotions flickered across Anakin's face. His glare softened, but only slightly. He opened his mouth to speak - only to be silenced by the hyperspace warning signal.
The moment was lost. Obi-Wan stifled his frustration and stepped aside. "One minute until reversion to real space. Your chair awaits, Pilot."
Anakin sniffed and peered at the viewscreen for a few seconds. He nodded and brushed past Obi-Wan to take his seat. Padm? gave them both an enigmatic look and faced forward. Obi-Wan took the navigator's chair, his mind now fully on the mission.
He toggled a switch and his monitor brought up this quadrant's navigational charts. He had paid little attention before now, leaving Artoo to help Anakin with astro-navigation. Oh, he knew the target co-ordinates, but hadn't bothered to place them in his mind's eye. That had been a mistake.
Anakin announced reversion to real space. Obi-Wan felt the sublight engine kick in, but didn't look up.
He ran his finger over the screen, tapping it when he noticed the name of the next system Rim-ward. The Meerian System. Bandomeer. Another name from his past. But not one that touched a nerve - it was the planet where Qui-Gon had accepted him as his padawan. Dooku was playing another game, but Obi-Wan was missing the point. He frowned.
What system was this? The monitor read 'YG-6312'. A meaningless designation assigned by some scientist. Nothing that triggered any memories.
"Target planet is in sight," Anakin announced.
Obi-Wan turned his attention to the planet beginning to fill the viewscreen. "A name?"
"Just a designation. YG-6312-a. One of three designated planets in the system."
Hardly a surprise. Obi-Wan studied the planet. Mostly blue and white - a water planet like Mon Calamari. He glimpsed Padm? gaging his reaction to the planet. He shook his head and she returned to her own study of their destination.
The yacht shimmied as they entered the atmosphere. They dropped below the thick cloud cover and swooped over a seemingly endless ocean.
Anakin said, "Confirm planetary co-ordinates, Artoo." He glanced at Padm?. "Nice of the Count to give us such precise directions. We'd be searching for days, otherwise."
Nice, indeed. Obi-Wan narrowed his eyes and squinted at the horizon. Tension began to collect in his limbs. He reached inward to his center of calm and the anxiety dissipated. He cupped his right hand over his left bicep, tracing the ridges of the scar beneath his tunic. Dooku would not find him so easily defeated a second time.
"We should be making visual contact in two minutes," Anakin announced.
Obi-Wan straightened, all attention focused forward. A speck appeared on the horizon, quickly growing in size to become a brown landmass. "Slow to quarter impulse, Padawan."
"Yes, Master." Anakin reached for the throttle.
The whitecaps became discernible as the ship slowed. The landmass jutted up sharply from the water. Obi-Wan's squint carved deep furrows between his eyebrows. There was something familiar ...
A loud thud and the ship rocked, its wing skimming a wave and sending up an arching spray.
"What was that?" cried Padm?.
"Nothing's showing on radar," Anakin said as he increased elevation slightly.
Obi-Wan gripped his armrests. "Switch to infrared."
Anakin muttered a Huttese curse. "The airspace above us is swarming with heat sources. Must be lifeforms from that island." He paused. "Big lifeforms."
Another clunk and the ship veered dangerously before Anakin brought it under control. Through gritted teeth, he said, "Whatever they are, they aren't friendly."
Before Obi-Wan could agree the ship was pounded by a double strike. Padm? gasped as a third blow, directly above the cockpit, drove the nose toward the water, giving them a far better view of the whitecaps than Obi-Wan wanted.
"Poodoo," Anakin whispered.
Water crashed over the viewscreen.
Anakin hauled back on the yoke. The nose of the ship had started to lift when the first wave had broken over it. Now his hands shook with the strain of trying to break free of the water sucking at the ship.
The yacht skipped across several crests, its hull crumpling a little more with each impact, as if the ship were striking ferrocrete instead of water. A loud crack and groan reverberated through the cockpit. The ship lost all forward momentum.
"What happened?" Padm? asked.
Anakin didn't need to look at Artoo's readout. "A belly seam gave out. The underside is splitting open." He tore at his restraint belt. "We have to abandon ship."
Padm? leaped to her feet. Anakin followed. He halted when he caught sight of Obi-Wan's dark expression.
Obi-Wan blinked and focused on Anakin, his eyes grey and stormy. "This is hardly your fault, Padawan. At least you kept us on the surface."
Anakin glanced at the submerging viewscreen. "Not for long." He headed aft and yelled, "Come on, Artoo!"
The ship moaned and creaked as it foundered. Power flickered out, replaced by strobing emergency lights. The ship began to list to the port side. Dishes Anakin had left on the counter clattered out of the galley in front of him.
Ahead, Padm? was already digging through the storage compartments between the lounge and cargo bay. The ship screamed as it tilted more. The storage doors swung wide and the contents tumbled out. Padm? jumped back with a yell.
"What are you looking for?" Anakin said. "We need to get -"
"There." Padm? pointed at a glaring orange bundle. "Life-raft. Now we just have to find a way out."
The landing ramp was submerged. Anakin said, "Cargo bay ramp." It was on the starboard side.
The ship listed a few more degrees, and the wall became the floor. Artoo squealed. Anakin spun to see Obi-Wan righting the droid and setting it on the new deck. Artoo whistled its thanks.
Uncertainty swamped Anakin. "Master?"
"There's no time for messing with hatches, Anakin. Sense where the waterline is and cut above it."
Anakin nodded. He jumped onto the nearest couch, glad they were all secured to the deck, and climbed onto the upended arm. Taking his lightsaber, he switched it on, studied the ceiling - now wall - for a second, then plunged the blade into it. Slowly, steadily, he carved through several layers of durasteel.
"Hurry, Ani," Padm? said. "I can hear water leaking into the cargo bay."
Sweat beaded on Anakin's upper lip and along his hairline. He drew deep, oxygen-rich breaths, shoring up his trembling muscles with the Force.
The emergency siren started whooping. Anakin snorted. A little late for that. He could hear his master whispering, "Steady. That's it. Good."
The lightsaber completed its circle. Anakin pushed with the Force, sending the metal plug flying away from the ship. He glanced out the hole. "We've less than a meter clearance, Master."
"Here's the life-raft," Obi-Wan said. "Catch."
Anakin turned and snagged the oversized bundle, the Force-enhanced toss almost throwing him off balance. He shoved the raft out the hole and followed, careful not to touch the still-hot metal edges. Triggering the inflation device, Anakin threaded the tow rope through his metal fingers and let the inflating raft fall into the water.
"Padm?," he called down the hole, "get out here. Hurry."
He watched her scramble up the couch. Water lapped at his ankle. She stood and stretched toward the hole. Anakin reached down with his left hand and grabbed hers. She clutched his forearm with her free hand. He leaned back, then pushed from his knees to his feet as he hauled her out of the ship.
Padm? threw her arms around Anakin's waist as he stepped back. The ship creaked and shifted, almost pitching them into the water.
"Jump into the raft." Anakin gave Padm? a nudge. "Go."
She jumped, just as water started pouring into the makeshift hatch. The durasteel hissed, spewing tendrils of steam into the air. Anakin tried to see beyond the gush of water.
Anakin caught a glimpse of silver and white. He jerked back, narrowly missing getting smacked by Artoo as the droid shot from the hole with a scream. He heard a splash, but all his attention was focused on the hole.
The ship began to sink faster. In seconds, Anakin was knee-deep. He stared at the disappearing opening, barely able to breathe.
Anakin startled. He steeled himself, wheeled and lunged, landing half in the boat. He kicked while Padm? grabbed his tunic and pulled. He rolled into the raft, gasping for air, for relief from the rising dread.
The raft began to rotate. Anakin sat up and glanced around. Artoo was clinging to a safety line on the stern with clamped pincers. Anakin scowled at the vortex beginning to form, water swirling around the raft.
"We'll be sucked under." Anakin unlocked the oars and began to row with every ounce of energy he possessed. He was making little headway against the pull of the whirlpool. Padm?'s brown eyes held his gaze, reflecting his worry.
The raft began to surge forward. Anakin paused, oars poised above the water. Still the boat continued steadily away from the growing whirlpool.
Padm? twisted around. "It's Artoo!"
Anakin craned his neck to see past Padm?. A churning wake spread out behind the little droid. Anakin laughed with sheer relief. "Artoo! Your built-in fan drill. That's brilliant."
Artoo whistled and continued to propel them away from the crash site.
A muffled roaring drew Anakin's gaze to the center of the vortex. A mass of bubbles and roiling water broke the surface in a sputtering geyser. Silence fell with the last water drop.
Artoo ceased acting as the outboard motor. Anakin stared at the still water, willing Obi-Wan to surface. He felt Padm?'s eyes as the blood drained from his face. His lungs seized up, only able to wheeze in a trickle of air. He scanned the surface of the water as far as he could see. No tell-tale dark spot bobbed up.
Waves washed over the crash site, as if it had never been, and carried the raft toward the distant shore.
A shadow passed over the waves and the raft. Anakin ignored it. He heard Padm?'s voice but couldn't make sense of the words.
His breath started to come in ragged gasps as he tried to fight past the blinding pain, to scale the wall of fear preventing him from accessing the Force.
No! The cry echoed through his mind. He couldn't lose his mother and now Obi-Wan, too. It wasn't fair. This couldn't be happening. Obi-Wan was the closest thing he had to a father. Don't let it be true. Oh, Force. Almost the last thing they had done was argue. Let it be a dream.
Wake me up!
Anguish ripped from his throat in a long drawn-out wail. "Obi-Wan!"
Anakin's cry shivered over Padm?'s skin. If possible, he looked more distraught than the night he had told her about slaughtering the Tuskan Raiders that had killed his mother. His face was as white as Artoo's body.
Padm? crawled across the rubbery floor of the raft and snuggled against Anakin's side, needing comfort as much as she wanted to give it. She coiled her arms around his midsection and held tight. He didn't react.
He felt so cold. Worry mixed with the grief. "Ani? Ani, please talk to me." A tear escaped and flowed down Padm?'s cheek.
Oh, Obi-Wan. What had he told her once, that he was a difficult Jedi to kill? A trickle of tears followed that first one. Obi-Wan hadn't been killed. He had died making sure everyone else made it to safety.
A swell lifted the raft momentarily. A shadow swept over them.
Padm? peered into the sky. Her eyes grew round. She straightened and shook Anakin's shoulder. "Ani, we have a problem."
Anakin blinked but his eyes didn't focus. Padm? shook him harder. "Anakin! Snap out of it!"
His eyes cleared. She winced at the depth of pain glittering there. He frowned. "What?"
Padm? pointed skyward. Still frowning, he looked up. His jaw dropped.
Above them, a silvery creature circled. It looked to be nearly half the size of the cruiser, with an oblong body and a wing span at least a third wider than its length. Powerful legs were tucked against the massive body.
As they watched, it spiraled higher, then closed its wings and began to dive, streaking toward the water. Toward them.
It took Anakin a heartbeat to register what was happening. That thing thought they were its lunch. He glanced at Padm?'s fearful expression. She was never afraid. He scowled. She'd be killed if he didn't do something.
"Artoo, get us moving."
Anakin squeezed his eyes shut and stretched for the Force with swelling desperation. It crashed over him, fed by his fear. He flashed his thoughts outward, to the creature. Its mind was ... ravenous. He tried to wedge his thoughts in, to take control, but the animal was too focused on food. On them.
Chest heaving, Anakin gathered the Force and struck. He opened his eyes to see the creature veer and dive into the water, a mere two meters from the raft, which bobbed over the waves created by the impact.
The creature shot out of the water several meters away, a man-sized green fish wriggling in its beak, and flew toward the island, its great wings lifting in slow, graceful flaps.
"That could have been us," whispered Padm?.
"It wasn't." Anakin scrutinized the skies for more of the creatures. He could see dozens of specks circling the far-off island. Their destination. He grimaced. "But it looks like we're heading toward its nesting grounds."
"How far away is it?"
"I'm guessing at least fifteen kilometers." Anakin tilted his head. "Artoo, can you propel us that far?"
The droid emitted a mournful drone.
"That's sounds like a 'no'," Padm? said.
"The salt water is probably seizing up its circuits." Artoo gave an affirmative beep and Anakin nodded. "I thought so. Take us as far as you can, Artoo, then we'll haul you into the raft."
"What about those creatures? This bright orange is sure to attract more of them."
"I'll take care of them." Anakin scanned the overcast skies, almost wishing another one would make an appearance - anything so he didn't have to think about ... Anakin sniffed and pressed his lips together, barring any thought of ... what had happened.
He walled himself in, walled the pain out, focused on the moment. Only the moment.
It wasn't long before he got his wish. Every so often, one of the distant creatures would leave its orbiting of the island and head out to sea. Hunting. Anakin tracked each one with utmost care. Now, one of the creatures was heading in their direction.
Anakin found the creature in the Force. He could tell by its vague hunger that it hadn't spotted them yet. Before it could focus on them, Anakin took control of the primitive mind and steered it away from them. It made a wide circle and sailed westward.
Two more creatures met the same harmless fate. After an hour of zigzagging, Artoo struggling against crosscurrents, the small droid signaled that it was unable to continue. It took Anakin and Padm? together to pull the droid into the raft. It landed on its side.
"Sorry, Artoo," Anakin said, "I think you'll have to stay like that for now." He patted its dome.
Padm? took the oars before Anakin could protest. "You have to keep those, those draigons at bay."
Less than fifteen minutes later, Padm? admitted defeat. "The currents are too strong."
Before they traded places, Anakin gave her a kiss. "Thank you for trying." She nodded but looked disgruntled.
The shore was much closer. Artoo had to have gotten them halfway there. Now Anakin could see cliffs, and beyond those, smoking cones that could only be volcanoes. Not his idea of a pleasant retreat, but he doubted Dooku had pleasant in mind. The draigons, for lack of a better name, were certainly effective sentinels, for they had to have been what had knocked the ship from the sky. Had they behaved naturally, attacking an intruder, or had they been driven to attack? Anakin sighed. It didn't matter at this point. He began to row.
Padm? acted as lookout, reporting any move in their direction by the draigons. Each time one headed their way, Anakin continued rowing as he stretched out through the Force to turn the draigon away. Each successive warding off drained a little more energy, took a little more concentration. The mindlessness of rowing helped to keep his mind clear and open to the Force, though except for that one channel of power, he kept his innermost self ensconsed behind thick walls, safe from the threatening grief.
Thirst soon parched his throat. Padm? discovered a pouch set into the rear panel that contained a collapsible jug and water purification tablets. The resulting potable water was flat, but did the job.
The afternoon wore on. As they neared the island, the number of draigons spotting them increased, as did the effort it took to turn them away. Three times Anakin had to resort to knocking them away with an invisible fist.
They could hear the crash of the surf when the attacks stopped. Relief surged as Anakin decided the water had be too shallow for diving this close to shore. His muscles quivered as he leaned into it, putting what little energy remained into a final push for the shore. Artoo whined when a wave picked them up and hurled them toward the rocky beach. The bottom scraped against rock as the raft came to a rest.
Anakin slumped over the oars, nausea stirring his stomach. He swallowed rising bile and tried to inhale enough oxygen to get his limbs to stop shaking.
The memory, of the water gushing through the hole in the ship's hull, slammed into him. Anakin threw himself to the side, doubling over the inflated wall as he retched and heaved until his stomach could offer up nothing beyond painful spasms.
He heard Obi-Wan's voice saying, "This is hardly your fault, Padawan." But it was. It was.
Yan Dooku peered through the electro-binoculars. The scene - tinged amber by the hologram through which he looked - was one that brought frustration boiling to the surface.
A droid. The padawan. The senator.
Where was the master? Yan's eyes narrowed. Kenobi was attempting to play with him. Concealing himself, trying to outflank his position. The fool would soon find that he had picked the wrong opponent in a battle of wits.
And what if Kenobi hadn't escaped the ship? What if he were dead? Highly unlikely. Yan zoomed in closer, focusing on the padawan. But if Kenobi had not survived his welcoming committee ... the padawan would pay for failing to safeguard his master, for failing to keep him alive for the death that was planned for him.
Yes, no matter what Master Sidious had said in regards to the boy, Skywalker would pay dearly, Yan promised himself. And he was a man of his word.
Padm? rubbed Anakin's back as he vomited, then fought dry heaves for several moments. Her eyes brimmed with tears. She was certain he was suffering from more than just exhaustion. She didn't know how to ease his pain when she could barely keep her own from spilling over.
She lifted her face to the sky and watched the monstrous draigons circle high overhead. The way they floated with wings outstretched made her wonder if some of them were sleeping on the fly. How long until one noticed them here?
Anakin sat up and turned toward her, misery distorting his features. "I was too slow. Just like with Mom. Too slow ..."
"No, Ani." Padm? pulled him into her embrace. "You did everything you could." She held him for a minute, feeling his tears soak her flightsuit. Finally, she whispered, "I'm sorry, Ani, but we have to get off this beach before a draigon comes to investigate."
He pulled back and nodded, looking almost relieved to have something else to think about. "It's ... going to be dark soon. I think we should, should just hide until morning, when we'll both be more rested."
"Yes. Let's get Artoo unloaded." Padm? considered the rocky shore. "Maybe we can turn the raft upside-down and jam it between two boulders. It would provide us with a little shelter."
They set to work. After releasing a little air from the front and rear sections of the raft, they searched for a suitable site. Anakin spotted it first. When they flipped the raft over, they were relieved to discover the underside was a dark brown, far less eye-catching than the top and sides. They wedged the raft between two boulders sheltering a narrow strip of sand, causing it to buckle in the middle like an inverted 'V'.
Padm? brushed her hands on her flightsuit, and surveyed their makeshift tent with satisfaction. It was almost dark. Already a moon had slipped over the horizon. Anakin helped Artoo get positioned in a rock cleft where the droid could stand watch.
He returned to her side. "How's your leg? I'm sorry if I made you do too much."
"It's okay." Padm? took Anakin's hand and squeezed. "It's aching a little, but not much more than a fresh bruise might." She peered up at him. "What now?"
Anakin shrugged. "Sleep, I guess. I'm sure a plan will present itself in the morning."
Padm? smiled weakly. She wondered if Anakin knew how much he sounded like Obi-Wan sometimes, using his phrases, his inflections. She looked away, and her breath caught at the sight of a third moon rising over the ocean. One red; two blue. "Look, Ani. Isn't it beautiful? How many moons does this planet have?"
"I think the data mentioned five."
Though she could have soaked in the vision of the multi-colored moons for longer, she could hear the fatigue in his voice. "Let's get some sleep."
Under their raft-tent, Padm? stretched out on Anakin's left side. She laid her head on his chest and draped her arm over his stomach. His heart beat a steady rhythm beneath her ear. His arm curled around her shoulders. His fingers caressed her upper arm.
Moments later, Anakin took hold of Padm? and rolled her over him so she was on her back. He propped himself up with his metal arm and brushed trembling fingertips over her cheek.
"Don't hate me, Padm?."
"I could never hate you, Ani." His lips silenced her, tentative, exploratory.
He lifted his head. "I need ... " He drew a shuddering breath. "Force help me, Padm?, I need to know ... to know we're alive. To ... to fill this emptiness before it swallows me whole." He kissed her again, more insistent this time. "I love you so much. I would die if anything ever happened to you. I just want to ..."
Padm? framed his face between her hands. "It's all right, Anakin." She smiled, though he couldn't see it in the darkness. "We are married after all."
Anakin groaned. "Are you sure?"
"Oh, yes, darling padawan." Padm? stopped, afraid she had said the wrong thing.
A second later Anakin's lips whispered over hers. "Teach me to love you even more."
"I don't think that's possible. You're already a master in that." Before she could say more, Anakin kissed her again and swept her away on a tide of passion.
Anakin woke with a start, his heart pounding in his ears, drowning out the nearby surf. He sat up, trying to pinpoint the source of the disturbance. Something didn't feel right.
Moving slowly, so as not to disturb Padm?, Anakin untangled his limbs from hers, groped around until he found his belt, and backed out of the shelter on his hands and knees. He straightened, a shiver causing him to remember his leather stolla, still draped over Padm?.
Memories of their fierce, desperate loving flickered through his mind. Not loving - more like impassioned comfort. He set the thoughts aside to focus on his unease as he fastened his belt, his fingers seeking his lightsaber's reassuring feel.
Picking his way over the rocky beach, Anakin made his way eastward along the shore. The horizon was melting from grey to a pale gold. He had to skirt around several immense boulders, shallow waves lapping over his boots. The brine clogged his nostrils with its sharp tang.
The nearby cliffs retreated slightly, giving way to a wider shore. Anakin stopped. Ahead a dark form lay amongst the rocks, half in water. Anakin approached cautiously.
The sun broke over the horizon, revealing the form to be human. Heart in his throat, Anakin sprinted forward. Before he even got there, he could tell. The layered tunics. The belt. The high boots.
Anakin fell on his knees beside his master, barely noticing the pain that spiked up his legs. He rolled Obi-Wan onto his back and scanned his deathly pale face. Anakin held his breath and touched his fingers to Obi-Wan's neck, seeking a pulse, as he stared at the breathing apparatus still lodged between his master's lips.
A pulse. Anakin could just feel it over his quivering fingers, but it was there. A laugh of sheer joy exploded from him. It was answered by a moan, barely audible. Anakin swiped at the stray tear and gently extracted the breather from Obi-Wan's mouth.
His master inhaled reflexively, the breath shuddering through his frame.
Anakin took an icy hand, eyes fixed on it as he rubbed vigorously. His relief flowed out in a whispered stream. "Thank the Force, Master. Don't ever scare me like that again. Do you have any idea how, how much I ... Never mind. You'd probably lecture me for worrying too much. But why didn't you contact me, let me know? I know, I know. Don't focus on the negative. All that matters is that you're alive. And I found you. Thank the Force. I found you."
A hoarse voice said, "What ... took you ... so long?"
Anakin's gaze shot to Obi-Wan's face. The sight of those bloodshot blue-grey eyes under salt-encrusted eyebrows brought a grin to Anakin's face. "Sorry, Master. You should have called."
Obi-Wan licked at cracked lips. "Did." He closed his eyes. "A wall."
His hand stilled. Anakin stared at his master as realization sank in. The shield he had created in his mind to keep the pain at bay ... had also prevented Obi-Wan from connecting through their bond. Guilt eroded his happiness. He forced the feeling aside. There was nothing he could do about it now. Obi-Wan was alive, he reminded himself. Focus on that.
"Come on, Master. Let's get you back to the shelter."
Anakin stepped over his master and slid his robotic hand under Obi-Wan's shoulder blades, then hoisted him to his feet. Though Anakin could see Obi-Wan struggling to stand, he sagged, a dead weight.
Blowing out a breath, Anakin shifted and bent his knees to swing Obi-Wan over his shoulder in a rescue lift. Obi-Wan grunted, but didn't protest. After a moment, Obi-Wan's limbs dangled slack and Anakin knew his master had lost consciousness. Probably for the best. Over someone's shoulder wasn't the most comfortable way to be transported.
His long strides ate up the distance back to the overturned raft. When the shelter came into sight, Artoo started to whistle and beep. The sound brought Padm? scurrying out of the temporary tent, blaster in hand. She froze when she spotted Anakin.
Another grin broke free. "He's alive, Padm?."
Padm? gaped at the figure flung over Anakin's shoulder as he drew near. "Obi-Wan? But how?"
"I don't know. He didn't stay conscious long enough for me to find out." Anakin halted by the shelter entrance and absorbed Padm?'s expression of growing wonder. "His breather was still in his mouth, so I have to assume ..."
"That he swam? All that way? No wonder he's unconscious." Padm? pointed at the shelter.
Anakin nodded and lowered himself to his knees. With Padm?'s help, Obi-Wan was soon comfortably positioned. Anakin regretted the lack of blankets as he laid his stolla over his master's chest. He sat cross-legged at Obi-Wan's head and simply stared, recalling the abject grief he had suffered yesterday, amazed at the difference a day could make.
If only his mother could have survived her deadly ordeal. Would a day have made the difference for her? If he had been a day earlier, she might still be alive. He had been too slow.
Obi-Wan frowned in his sleep. Anakin's fingers reached out and sought to smooth his brow. Anakin hadn't been too slow in this case - he had been too ... selfish, too absorbed by his own pain to hear his master's call. Obi-Wan had spent close to eighteen hours in the water and had been saved ... by his own stubbornness, no doubt. Not by his padawan as should have been the case.
Anakin hadn't thought he would ever be thankful for Obi-Wan's obstinacy. But he was.
Padm? dribbled water over Obi-Wan's parched lips. She looked up and they shared a smile. Her brown eyes glowed with the knowledge that it would be all right.
Left hand still resting on Obi-Wan's head, Anakin extended his artificial limb. Padm? wrapped her fingers around his golden digits and squeezed. Thanks to a myriad of sensors, Anakin could feel it, could almost pretend that she was holding his real hand. They were all alive - that's all that mattered at this moment. Not Dooku, not the fact their ship was lost.
The Force ensconced them in a bubble of serenity. Anakin reveled in the warmth, made sweeter by Padm?'s presence and love. Everything would be fine. He could feel it.
He had felt worse, he knew he had. He just couldn't seem to dredge up a memory of when. It wasn't pain so much as ... helplessness. He felt so weak, he could barely wiggle his little finger. Liquid trickled over his lips. He licked at it.
Finally, Obi-Wan summoned the energy required to open his eyes. Two concerned and hopeful faces floated above his, surrounded by halos of garish orange.
He tried to speak but only managed a rusty croak. Padm? shushed him and lifted his head. She could be very bossy, at times. Brackish water trickled over his lips and down his throat. He swallowed to keep from choking, then whispered, "More, please." Padm? obliged and more soothing liquid squirted into his mouth.
She lowered his head to a pillow of sand. Obi-Wan closed his eyes and spoke quietly. "How long since you found me?"
"Four hours, Master. You really should rest some more."
"Yes. I don't think ... I have any choice." Obi-Wan sighed and slipped back into troubled dreams. Of his padawan's fear and Dooku's laughter and water washing him away, always away, when he needed to get closer. Finally the dreams were swept aside as the soothing river of Force engulfed him and submerged him in its timeless healing flow.
When next he awoke, he was alone under what he could now see was the overturned raft. The air was heavy, stifling. Sweat gathered in his hair and pooled at the base of his neck. Dooku came to mind and his thoughts flew to his lightsaber. He was relieved by the comforting feel of its hilt resting against his thigh. Cloaks were easily replaced, but his lightsaber ... was the only thing that stood between him and whatever death Dooku had planned for him.
Anakin's head popped into view and disappeared again. "Padm?, he's awake."
The two young people crawled under the shelter, their body heat immediately adding to the rising temperature. Obi-Wan eyed the clear jug in Padm?'s hand. This time, he propped himself up on his elbows while she gave him a drink.
Obi-Wan grimaced. "That's terrible water."
"I know," Padm? said. "Purification tablets only do so much to make salt water drinkable."
With a nod, Obi-Wan laid back. His energy was returning, but he didn't see any reason to exert himself at the moment. He wanted to be as rested as possible before facing Dooku. Something that would happen soon, he was certain.
"Master? May I ask what happened? I was so sure ... I mean, when you never surfaced ..."
Obi-Wan closed his eyes, only to have a flood of memories overtake him. The water pouring into the ship with such force he knew he could never get past its flow. Getting his breather in place with seconds to spare. Anchoring himself while water flooded the ship and pulled it under the surface. The dive to the ocean floor, too fast, almost causing him to black out. The jarring impact. Swimming out the hole Anakin had carved and getting clear of the ship before it slid off the shelf that had temporarily arrested its descent. Swimming back to the surface, slowly, so bends didn't incapacitate him. Too slowly.
Surfacing to ... nothing. No raft in sight. No answer to his call. Just a wall of pain. And the realization Anakin thought him dead. Hours of crawling through the ocean, mostly underwater where the surface waves didn't bother him. Endless swimming, floating on the surface to rest, followed by more swimming. Fighting currents, one predatory fish, and closer to shore, the rip tide that had almost dragged him back to the depths. His connection with the Force becoming tenuous as his energy waned.
Obi-Wan frowned. He didn't recall the last kilometer or so. He remembered surfacing and seeing the island, silhouetted by the light of five moons, unsure whether he had the strength to reach the shore. But after that ... he couldn't say whether he swam the distance or was carried by the rising tide.
"Master? Are you okay? If you'd rather rest some more ..." Anakin trailed off into a quiet sigh. Not quite frustration, but edging that way.
"No. I don't want to sleep any more." Obi-Wan took a few breaths, centering himself, then, as a Jedi reporting to the Council, he recited what had happened after he had levitated Artoo out of the opening with rather more force than necessary.
When he finished, the silence was almost as thick as the heat.
Finally, Anakin said, "See? Didn't I tell you he was stubborn?"
"Ani, that's terrible." Padm? took Obi-Wan's hand, her fingers running over his knuckles. "We're both very thankful you're so ... tenacious, Obi-Wan."
"My padawan's assessment is a fair one, Senator. But I do appreciate your concern."
"Concern?" Padm? said. "Anakin was ... You have no idea how -"
...distraught Anakin had been, Obi-Wan finished silently. Oh, he knew. He had felt the fear. It was heartening in one aspect, but totally inappropriate. A Jedi should never be ruled by his feelings to the point of incapacity. Anakin should never have shut himself off the way he did. But Obi-Wan couldn't bring himself to point out that fact. He knew the pain of losing his master. After all, it was a flash of inappropriate emotion - anger - that had given him the wherewithal to defeat that Sith creature when Qui-Gon had been killed. A moment of pure rage born of pain. One that still shook him if he unlocked the memory. Yoda was the only one who knew of it - the Jedi master had searched his soul and declared him free of the tainted shadow.
Obi-Wan's diligence against a repetition of the event was extreme. As was his concern when his padawan exhibited impatience, even hints of anger. Obi-Wan knew the vile taste of darkness. He sometimes wondered if he were too hard on his padawan in his efforts to protect him.
Pushing to a sitting position, Obi-Wan studied the rocky beach beyond their shelter. Slender shadows falling to the east. Past midday. He suddenly felt that they needed to be moving.
"I don't suppose either one of you has a stash of nutrient bars tucked away?" Obi-Wan asked.
"No," Anakin replied. "Do you?"
Obi-Wan checked a pouch. He pulled out a single bar, its wrapping sodden. He opened it and sniffed, unable to hide his grimace. "A bit salty, I'm afraid." He held it out. "Any takers?"
In unison, Anakin and Padm? said, "I'll stick to water."
Tossing the bar aside, Obi-Wan said, "Good choice. Now let's see this island that harbors Dooku's next trap."
Obi-Wan crawled into the open. He sat back on his heels and looked around. Ocean in front of them, cliffs behind, draigons overhead. Obi-Wan blinked.
Draigons. His mind folded. An emergency stopover at a nameless planet on the way to Bandomeer. He shook his thoughts clear and scanned the cliffs, noting the caves dotting the rock faces - caves dug by the sharp-clawed draigons. How had Dooku found this place? And why?
Deep down, Obi-Wan recognized that he was bothered by how much Dooku knew of his own years as a padawan. Obi-Wan had met Dooku a few times, but only in passing. It was obvious that Qui-Gon had remained close to his former master, to the point of discussing his own padawan's successes and failures. Likely Qui-Gon had sought Dooku's advice when he could. For how many years? Right to the end, when Obi-Wan's and Qui-Gon's differing philosophies had caused friction between them? Friction, Obi-Wan reminded himself, but never disunion. They had always worked and fought as a team, their bond forging them into a single unit.
Something he had always strived for with his own padawan. Something he had never quite achieved. Another failure. No. Obi-Wan rejected the negative thought. Dooku was waiting. There was no room for failure this day, not even for thought of failure.
Obi-Wan stood, pleased he felt no weakness in his legs. The Force had restored his energy. His fingers rested against his lightsaber."Have you searched for Dooku's lair?"
Anakin and Padm? flanked him. His padawan said, "A little. I didn't want to explore too far afield with you ..." He gave Obi-Wan a quizzical glance. "Are you sure you feel up to facing Dooku, Master?"
"Very sure. Now, what did you discover?"
Anakin pointed at a promontory that stood out from the nearest cliff like one of the free-standing towers on Coruscant. "I can't explain it exactly, but near the top of that outcropping, there's ... a presence. Not Jedi, but ... with echoes of it."
Obi-Wan nodded. "Who else but Dooku? Very good, Padawan." He squinted as he studied the slender cone of rock, with tapering sides, not quite vertical, that would make for a relatively easy climb. "I don't see any cave openings up there." After another moment's scrutiny, he said, "There's something - a discoloration in the rock."
"It could be the play of light," Anakin suggested.
"Or it could be Dooku concealing an entrance." Obi-Wan glanced at Padm?, then Anakin. "There's only one way to find out."
"We're going to climb up there?" Padm? sounded dubious.
Obi-Wan tilted his head. "Your leg is still recovering. I think you should stay behind with Artoo."
"Not a chance. There's extra carbon rope with the raft. I'll tether myself to Ani."
Obi-Wan heard the obstinacy in her tone. And they called him stubborn. He turned his gaze back to the waiting precipice.
"I won't let her fall, Master." Anakin paused. "We did have some difficulty with those draigons on the raft. If they spot us on the cliff, we won't have any protection."
"How did you defend against them on the raft?" Obi-Wan asked.
"With the Force."
"And I can assure you that the Force will be with us on that cliff, young one. You should know that by now."
Do you know I'm here, Dooku? Obi-Wan flung the silent challenge at the towering rock. Prepare yourself to meet my blade. Unless you cede, its justice will be swift and sure.
Lowering the electro-binoculars, Yan Dooku smiled. He knew Kenobi had survived. The fool didn't have sense enough to succumb to a simple death like drowning.
It wouldn't be long now. He relished the coming confrontation. It was not just his master's vengeance that would be meted out this day. Obi-Wan Kenobi would pay for both the deaths he had caused all those years ago on Naboo - though Master Sidious need never know about his desire to avenge Qui-Gon. The last pure acolyte of the Living Force. If there had been more like him, more willing to stand up and do as the Force willed instead of what the Council demanded, perhaps Yan would not have forsaken the Order ... But in the end even Qui-Gon had rejected Yan's quest for understanding the arts few had the courage to even think about, never mind study. Their convictions had diverged on that one point, and though it had declined after Kenobi's initial betrayal, their friendship had remained. Until Kenobi had failed to protect his master.
Yan scanned the sky, green when seen through the amber hologram screen that hid his sanctuary from the ravenous eyes above. Green with a few golden clouds floating on the breeze. Quite pleasant.
A perfect day for a Jedi to die.
"Freeze," Anakin whispered.
The others did so, Obi-Wan above him, Padm? below him. For what had to be the tenth time, Anakin extended himself through the Force, entering the mind of the draigon falling from the sky toward them. He planted the vision of rock, just rock, nothing to eat on the cliff. He pictured the ocean. A fish. Big, green, juicy.
A gust of air ruffled his clothes as a translucent leather wing, twice his own height, flapped less than a meter from his face. The draigon caught an air current and drifted out to sea.
"That was a little too close," whispered Obi-Wan. "Sometimes I think you enjoy seeing how long you can leave it before you turn them away."
"Not true, Master. This one was very hungry."
"Well, I have no desire to see myself served up as the main course for a nest of squawking baby draigons." Obi-Wan resumed climbing.
Anakin grimaced at the image that brought to mind. "Nor do I, Master." Drowning was bad enough; how could he explain that one to Master Yoda? He reached for the next handhold, taking extra care to remain aware of his surroundings. He was glad they were almost there, and that the steep climb wasn't overly difficult, just time-consuming. Still, the combination of physical and mental exertion was draining.
Minutes later, he sensed the rope go taut a nanosecond before it happened. Below him, Padm? stifled a gasp as she slipped. Anakin braced, barely giving at all when the rope jerked against his waist. He peered under his right arm, watching as Padm? regained her footing, then gave him the okay signal. The rope slackened as she pulled herself up. Force, but Padm? was brave. This was the third time she had slipped. The first time she had cried out, but now that she knew Anakin wouldn't let her fall, she was close to silent.
Anakin shifted his weight and allowed himself a moment's rest, pressed against the cliff. A rock jutted against his belt, digging his med-kit pouch into his side. He could feel the outline of the holocron. He peered out at the watery horizon and wished he had left it in his cabin. It had been in his hand as he had searched the room for a hiding place, but at the last second ... he had slipped it back into the pouch. That holocron should be at the bottom of the ocean right now. That's where it belonged. Not -
Inhaling sharply, Anakin pushed all thought of the holocron aside. Focus on the moment. He lifted his gaze, studying the rock for his next handhold while his artificial limb held him securely in place.
He had finally found a use for his metal hand. With a thought, he had deactivated the pain signals, so it remained unaffected by scrapes and bruises - unlike his aching left hand. He found himself relying on it more as they ascended the cliff, knowing its grip would not fail, knowing he could trust his and Padm?'s safety to its golden fingers.
Above him, Obi-Wan stopped frequently, clinging to the rock face as he marshaled his strength. Anakin suspected he was coming close to overtaxing himself after exhausting himself in the ocean such a short time ago, but there was no point in saying anything now. They were over three-quarters of the way to the top. Obi-Wan only had to find the energy to go a short distance more.
And then he had to face Dooku.
Anakin shunted aside his negative thoughts. And was immediately glad he did. Another draigon was heading toward them, drifting in downward spirals. This one was only curious. Anakin stretched out through the Force and easily turned it aside.
Peering upward, Anakin saw that Obi-Wan was only meters from a ledge that was directly below the increasingly visible hologram of rock. From this angle the holo shimmered in the light, like a midday mirage on Tatooine. Anakin paused to rest again, letting his prosthetic take most of his weight, as he tracked Obi-Wan's progress. He felt Padm?'s hand brush his heel, but didn't look down. Obi-Wan was trembling, ever so slightly.
As Anakin watched, his master's grip gave way.
Obi-Wan felt himself sliding. Down the slope. Into the past.
His fingers brushed over a crack and he jammed them in, his left shoulder wrenching as his slide came to an abrupt halt. Finding purchase for his feet, he hugged the warm rock and squeezed his eyes shut.
Now he knew why Dooku had chosen this place. Another reminder of failure. It was here that a young boy, aching to be Qui-Gon Jinn's padawan, had finally realized his dream was dead. That Qui-Gon didn't want him, would never want him. The pain - the agony of defeat - rose, fresh as the day he had first felt it almost twenty-three years ago. Obi-Wan exhaled. No. He pushed past the pain to touch the Force. The Light absorbed and dissipated the remembered hurt. This place had not been the end of the path, but merely a rocky beginning that he and Qui-Gon had overcome. It had strengthened their bond, not weakened it.
Obi-Wan smiled. Dooku had not chosen wisely this time.
"Are you okay, Master?" came a whisper from below.
"Yes, Padawan. More than okay."
Feeling suddenly invigorated, Obi-Wan pulled himself up the remaining three meters to the ledge and settled down on it to await his padawan's arrival. He slipped into a light meditation that was more reflection than contemplation. He lifted his face to the warm sunlight, recalling sparring and laughter and learning. Battling together, healing together, meditating together. Master and padawan. Together. More than just teacher and student. More than comrades in arms. Not quite father and son. But friends.
The breeze caressed his cheek and Obi-Wan's eyes sprang open. Master? He shook himself and watched Anakin as he helped Padm? onto the ledge. The Force seemed to whisper, and he tilted his head to listen. He hadn't been enough of a friend to his padawan, too much the teacher, too focused on being a good master. Obi-Wan nodded. That needed to change. Luminara had hinted at that fact. He only hoped it wasn't too late.
Anakin echoed Obi-Wan's cross-legged position. Padm? slumped against Anakin, massaging her thigh. His left arm draped across her shoulders. Obi-Wan studied them. In ways, they seemed to have become more of a team in a few short months than he and Anakin had ever been. Which made it less likely Anakin would leave Padm?, and more likely he would be banished from the Order. Obi-Wan looked away. That worry was a distraction he could ill afford right now.
"How long do you want to rest, Master?"
"I had fifteen minutes while I waited for you. We don't want to try Dooku's patience too much, my young padawan. Five minutes more, then if you feel ready, I think we should proceed."
"Very well, Master. I'm ready when you are."
After a few more moments of letting the Force refresh him, Obi-Wan stood, his head just reaching the bottom of the hologram and what could now be discerned as a cave entrance.Anakin crouched and motioned for Padm? to stand. Of the three, she looked the least prepared to face conflict - the climb had strained her injured leg.
Obi-Wan nodded at his apprentice. "Follow my lead."
The young couple exchanged glances. Obi-Wan quirked a brow. So they had discussed his right of leadership on this mission, had they? They would just have to live with it. Dooku had set a trap for him - he wasn't about to let anyone else walk into it first.
Without another word, Obi-Wan curled his fingers over the ledge and sprang up with a boost from the Force. He passed through the electrical warmth of the hologram and landed a meter inside the cave, hand on his lightsaber. He was greeted by silence.
As he looked around, he heard Anakin helping Padm? up from the ledge. The large cave, almost circular, stretched the whole diameter of the rock spire. On the far side, another hologram hid a second entrance. Sunlight filtered through the holo, casting an amber glow over everything.
Dooku stood silhouetted against that far opening. Silent and alone.
Obi-Wan took two steps forward. The cave had once been two semi-circular caverns and now only a narrow stone arch separated them. This half contained nothing but an acceleration couch with two silver crates stored under it. Another step. No obvious signs of technology. This place was no command center. It served a single purpose.
"Greetings, Master Kenobi." Dooku's deep voice echoed slightly in the empty chamber. "How pleasant of you to visit me in my humble abode."
"How could I refuse such a ... carefully worded invitation?" Obi-Wan continued his cautious approach, eyes scanning the cave, ears listening for the arrival of a ship carrying droids. He glanced at Padm? and Anakin, noting his padawan's tense posture, lightsaber already unclipped.
Anakin started forward. Obi-Wan held up his hand and motioned for the padawan to circle around to the left while he continued a direct approach. "Together this time, Padawan."
Amusement entered Dooku's face. He arched his dark brows. "Surely you haven't come to receive a second lesson in defeat, Master Kenobi? There is no Yoda to save you this time, you know."
Obi-Wan smiled. Dooku's needling couldn't harm him while he was centered in the Force. He crossed under the stone arch and paused, four meters away from the older man. "You'll find I'm a quick learner, Dooku. But I have no desire to fight you. In fact, I need to thank you."
Though it was quickly hidden, the surprise that flashed across Dooku's face was satisfying. From the corner of his eyes, Obi-Wan saw Anakin stop and glare at him as if he'd sprouted brain tails.
Dooku lifted his chin, his silver beard appearing gold in this light. "May I ask why ...?"
Inclining his head, Obi-Wan said, "For leading me to Melida/Daan, of course. What you meant for harm, the Force used for healing and enlightenment."
"How unfortunate that your ... enlightenment will not save you." Dooku's smile didn't reach his eyes. He pointed at the near wall.
Obi-Wan spun, but too late. A blue forcefield sprang into existence between the two chambers, powered by transmitters hidden in the arch. On the other side of the energy barrier, Anakin and Padm? stared at him, horror stamping their faces.
Yan could feel the fear emanating from young Skywalker, and he reveled in it. The padawan was terrified of losing his master - and well he should be. Yan clasped his hands behind his back and strolled along the mouth of the cave before turning to face Kenobi.
"Do you understand, yet, why I have chosen this setting, Kenobi? Why I led you first to Melida/Daan before bringing you here? Please, share your new insights."
Kenobi's hand flexed over his lightsaber, but he left his weapon untouched. His gaze kept flicking to the forcefield. Yan knew the truth would occur to the man soon - even Jedi caught on eventually.
Finally, Kenobi said, "You wanted to crush me with the reminder of how I betrayed the Jedi."
"Not just the Jedi, young fool."
Kenobi conceded the point with a nod. "True. I betrayed my master, but he taught me the power of forgiveness."
Yan glimpsed Senator Amidala limping around the perimeter of the other chamber. He dismissed her. The padawan stood before the glimmering barrier, repeatedly clenching his golden fist, frustrating rolling off him with the power of the ocean's surf. And something else. Yan narrowed his gaze. A faint shadow of ... himself. Well, well. He had received the transmission that the holocron had been activated, and now Skywalker carried it with him. Odd that Kenobi hadn't mentioned it.
Yan's gaze flicked back to the open features of his opponent. Kenobi didn't know about the holocron. How interesting. In a gesture of studied grace, Yan unhooked the chained medallions holding his cape and swirled it over his head before tossing it aside. The metal clinked as it landed on the floor. Kenobi tensed, ever so slightly.
With a dismissive flick, Yan said, "Forgiveness is a sign of weakness. Only one response is suitable for betrayal." He paced away from the lip of the cave's mouth. "Qui-Gon never wanted to take you as his padawan, you know. Yoda forced him to it." Kenobi's stillness was irritating. "He didn't want you, just as you didn't want your padawan."
A trace of hostility rippled out from Skywalker. Yan smiled. "Did Yoda force you to it, as well?"
"No." Kenobi finally moved, sidling toward the center of the floor. "Against Master Yoda's wishes, I took Anakin as my padawan, to fulfill a promise to my master." Kenobi glanced askance at the boy. "I have never regretted my decision."
"How fortunate for you. I'm sure Qui-Gon did regret his. In fact, I know he did." Yan dropped his voice to a whisper. "Twice betrayed."
Kenobi returned to stillness. Yan could see the understanding beginning to dawn as the Jedi's gaze jumped from him to the forcefield and back. "You wish for my death to echo Qui-Gon's. With my padawan watching helplessly." His jaw clenched.
A reaction at last. Yan was beginning to wonder if the fool was more machine than man. He nodded. "The only suitable death for one such as you, for a master of betrayal."
Skywalker began to pace along the wall of energy, his entire focus on his master. The senator continued running her hand along the cave wall. If not for Master Sidious's express orders against it, he would have enjoyed dispatching them after he was finished with Kenobi.
"If you think to shock me with such a charge, you're sadly mistaken, Dooku. I've accused myself of the same thing for years. But again, I must thank you for opening my eyes to something that only became clear when you activated that forcefield." Kenobi glanced at his padawan and Yan could almost feel the pulse of warning in that look, the signal for the boy to calm himself. It didn't work. Kenobi said, "Qui-Gon ran ahead. When he should have waited for me to back him up, he didn't. Just as I should have kept my padawan at my side while approaching you. We both cut ourselves off. I carry a measure of blame for his death, but ... so does he." There was wonder in Kenobi's voice. Yan pressed his lips together. The fool continued, "Anakin will carry no blame for my death, if it comes this day." His expression turned thoughtful. "Some believe you left the Order because of Qui-Gon's death. And now you stand denouncing me. You've turned yourself into a judge, but you judge wrongly, Dooku. I ask you to reconsider. Return to the Temple with me. Stand before the Council and explain your actions, accept your responsibility. I will guarantee your safety if you need such assurances."
Shock and growing anger radiated from Skywalker. Kenobi's offer did not sit well with his padawan.
"Very good, Kenobi." Yan stepped toward the man. "Ever the faithful Jedi, seeking reconciliation even where there can be none. Seeking peace when what you desire is vengeance. Think of all the dead Jedi on Geonosis and ask yourself if you truly wish to safeguard me, the author of such destruction. Those Jedi were as foolish as you, Kenobi. They only met the fate they deserved, as you will meet the fate you deserve." He glanced at the padawan, who was nearly quivering with frustration, his lightsaber clenched in his left hand. "Prepare to see your master die, boy." Hatred filled Skywalker's eyes, almost causing Yan to laugh. He was going to enjoy this.
Yan unclipped his lightsaber. His thumb hovered over the switch. He felt the power swelling and welcomed the familiar sensation.
Anakin's anger was palpable. Obi-Wan tried to connect through their bond, but it was walled off. Raising his lightsaber, he said, "Padawan, calm yourself." The words had some effect: he felt Anakin's turmoil shift as he struggled to rein in his emotions.
"Yes, boy," Dooku said. "You must greet your master's fate with Jedi acceptance."
Obi-Wan could sense Anakin's control slip. He suddenly realized that Dooku was playing on Anakin's fear to distract him. Though he regretted the necessity, he set aside concern for his padawan and focused on Dooku alone.
As if sensing his attitude shift, Dooku assumed the en garde position. Obi-Wan did likewise, shifting his weight to the balls of his feet. For a moment, gazes locked and neither moved. Dooku powered up his blade.
The forcefield winked out.
Obi-Wan stepped back, repelled by the shock of anger that burst from Dooku. The Count flung out his hand. Blue lightning streamed from his fingertips, hurling Padm? away from the hidden control panel she had discovered. She struck the wall with a thud and crumpled to the floor.
"No!" Anakin's tormented wail echoed as he leaped and blocked the lightning with his lightsaber.
Dooku waved his hand. The acceleration couch sailed toward Anakin, clipping his arm as he jumped back. His lightsaber appeared to be yanked from his grip by an invisible hand. It flew between Dooku and Obi-Wan, out the cave's entrance. Anakin charged at Dooku.
"Enough!" Obi-Wan's command halted the padawan. "Anakin, see to Padm?. This isn't your fight. I will handle it."
Emotions warred over Anakin's features. He clearly wished to inflict harm upon Dooku - reason enough to keep him out of the way. He was perilously close to losing all control. Obi-Wan silently willed his padawan to back down.
"Yes, boy. Stay out of the way, or you will lose more than just an arm." Dooku gave Obi-Wan a condescending look. "Let your master die the honorable Jedi death he so desires."
Anakin shot Obi-Wan a glance, one that seemed to contain a shadow of regret. Obi-Wan nodded and Anakin ran to Padm?, who was just beginning to stir. Obi-Wan fixed his regard on his opponent.
"Not quite the well-trained puppet that you are, Kenobi. Too bad you will never get the chance to rectify your poor instruction."
Obi-Wan smiled. "Do you plan to kill me with words, Dooku? You certainly seem to have a surplus of them. If you seek to gain the satisfaction of seeing me strike first, you will be waiting a very long time."
Dooku sneered. "Ah, yes. Another foolish Jedi teaching rears its head. Defense, never attack."
Instead of responding, Obi-Wan let himself savor the refreshment of the Force infusing the stillness within. He waited, saber unlit, for Dooku to make the first move. The golden light filling the cave glimmered with the awareness of impending conflict. On the edge of Obi-Wan's awareness, Anakin's presence hunkered, not focused on him, but on Padm?. For all intents, it was just Dooku and himself, as if the forcefield were still activated.
Dooku struck. The blow drove Obi-Wan back a step. Blue and red blades spat as they locked. Obi-Wan had forgotten how strong Dooku was - strength enhanced by darkness. He twisted his wrist, forcing the red blade to the side.
The battle began in earnest. Furious strikes and counterstrikes. Dooku stayed close, seeking to breach the inner circles of defense. Obi-Wan repelled his attacks. Step by step, he retreated under the onslaught. It took all his concentration to ward off Dooku, anticipate his moves, block his laser-fast blows.
Sweat trickled down Obi-Wan's neck. He wheeled away from an undercut. A whisper in the Force sent him backpedaling out of Dooku's reach. His chest heaved as he listened.
Dooku advanced, victory gleaming in his eyes. He circled. Obi-Wan pivoted. Dooku attacked. Obi-Wan parried and retreated out of blade's reach. In a heartbeat, the Force reminded Obi-Wan of the other reason this place was important to his past - and his future. It was the first place where he had ever given himself totally to the Force, in a desperate battle against swarming draigons.
Nothing held back. Not even his life.
Marshaling his strength, Obi-Wan warded off another flurry of blows and retreated again. He could see the certainty of his death in Dooku's expression. Obi-Wan offered acceptance of that fact to the Force - he would fight the remainder of this battle as it should have begun: not anticipating, but letting the Force anticipate.
Letting go ... letting the Force ...
Obi-Wan smiled as the Light heeded his invitation and took control of his fate.
Foolish Jedi. Defeat was at hand, and he smiled.
Yan felt the re-direction of the Force. He hesitated, taking in Kenobi's serene countenance. From a long-forgotten corner of his mind, Master Yoda's voice whispered, "Luminous beings are we."
At the intrusion, his thoughts turned to stone. Kenobi's pathetic powers were no match for his. Luminous or not, this Jedi's crude matter was about to be dispatched.
Had Qui-Gon exhibited the same tranquillity before his death? Quite likely. His padawan had never feared death.
Yan lunged. His red blade hissed. Kenobi parried the attack and fought back with a skill that surprised Yan. Early in the fight, he had wondered if Kenobi had been studying sword play - now he knew.
The battle fluctuated, neither side giving way. Yan broke off and circled warily, looking for an opening. His breath was coming hard and he worked to control it. "I commend you, Master Kenobi. You haven't been idle since last we met." He sought to give himself a moment to regroup.
Kenobi didn't move, not even to protect his back when Yan paced behind him. "A Jedi never passes an opportunity to study an opponent. I'm not quite the fool you take me for, Dooku."
"I prefer Count Dooku, or my lord, if you please."
"A stolen title doesn't make you worthy of respect, ... Dooku."
Yan channeled the flare of anger to his waning energy. He would not be pricked by mere words. He said, "I will enjoy teaching your padawan learner the true nature of the Force, Kenobi."
The Jedi blinked. As quickly as Yan had felt the tremor of unease, it was gone. Yan circled again, until he faced Kenobi's back. He thrust his blade forward.
Kenobi spun and blocked the strike.
The Force consumed Obi-Wan, transformed him into a mere conduit for its power. He had felt such purity of Light only a few times in his life as a Jedi, and each time it filled him with awe of the majesty that was the Force.
Dooku was transparent. The Force revealed his every move before he made it, exposed every tell-tale muscle twitch and eye blink. Time slowed, lengthened, allowing Obi-Wan ample time to follow where the Force lead in a deadly dance as intricate and beautiful as the Force itself. Obi-Wan gave no thought for himself; there was only the Force.
In the back of his mind, he could feel Anakin and Padm?'s attention, their silent encouragement feeding into the positive flow of energy.
And he could feel the warmth of Qui-Gon's smile.
Yan stumbled back, barely shifting his blade in time to block Kenobi's blow. Frustration roiled through his veins. His age was working against him. He hadn't thought the contest would become one of perseverance.
For the first time he considered the possibility of defeat. The thought summoned a fresh wave of wrath and power. And a vague disquiet deep in the shadows of his mind - a disapproval that prevented him from using less than honorable means to defeat Kenobi, that came from ... he wasn't sure.
Yan fought, wielding the full force of his anger, raining down a storm of powerful blows. He banished the disquiet, banished the doubt. But still, he couldn't breach Kenobi's defenses.
If he could not achieve physical conquest, he would do the next best thing. The victory was his, regardless, for as long as Kenobi's padawan kept his holocron a secret.
Yan reached out his thoughts and called the creature chained to his will.
Kenobi pressed the attack, forcing Yan backwards until he felt the gaping void behind him. As Kenobi arched the blue blade toward his torso, Yan smiled.
And powered down his lightsaber.
The red blade vanished. Obi-Wan stemmed his attack, his blue blade halting only centimeters from Dooku's chest.
Mockery entered the older man's eyes. "Ever the Jedi. It makes you quite predictable, Master Kenobi."
Obi-Wan didn't answer as he sought to regulate his breathing. Neither did he move his blade. He noticed Dooku's heel sliding backwards.
Anakin bellowed. Obi-Wan half turned to see his padawan charging, then spun back as Dooku launched himself through the hologram and out of the cave. Anakin lunged at him and overbalanced. Obi-Wan snatched his padawan's tunic hem and yanked him back to solid ground.
Switching off his lightsaber, Obi-Wan watched Dooku land on the back of a draigon. The creature flew over the ocean, its great wings flapping with lazy grace.
"You had him!" Anakin shouted.
"Calm yourself, Padawan."
A ship dropped out of a cloud and vectored toward the draigon. Dooku's sailship - Obi-Wan recognized it from Geonosis. The craft matched the draigon's speed. Dooku reached up to grab a cable Obi-Wan couldn't see, and was lifted off the draigon's back.
"You could have ended this! Why didn't you kill him when you had the chance?" Anakin shook his golden fist in Obi-Wan's face. "He deserves to die!"
Obi-Wan turned from watching Dooku's escape, his expression severe. "A Jedi does not kill unarmed opponents, my very young padawan."
Nostrils flaring, Anakin flung his arm outward. "You let him get away! The victory was yours!"
"A victory gained by murder is the meanest defeat. Outcome is not everything. If you compromise your integrity to achieve your goal, all you are ... is compromised. And the Force is no longer with you. A Jedi without the Force as his ally is a mere shadow of what he was meant to be. I know who I am, young one. Compromise is not an option." Obi-Wan peered across the rocky headlands, turned golden brown by the hologram, butting against emerald waters.
Obi-Wan felt Anakin's anger seeping away. They would have to talk about this further. A glint caught his eye. But not right now. Apparently, they were about to receive company.
Glancing at Padm?, who had joined them and was holding Anakin's hand, Obi-Wan hesitated. Was her presence the only reason Anakin had released his ire? Setting aside the thought for later consideration, he noted she appeared unscathed by Dooku's attack. He nodded. She returned the gesture.
"You distracted Dooku at a critical moment, Senator, finding that control panel. I hope you are not paying too dearly for your bravery." When Padm? shook her head, Obi-Wan asked, "Does the panel you discovered also control the holograms?"
"Yes," Padm? replied.
"Anakin, de-activate this one so our guests can see where we're situated." He indicated the blip that was taking the form of a Republic Cruiser.
"I'll do it." Padm? headed across the cave with a barely discernible limp.
The hologram winked out. The cruiser approached the cave entrance and hovered, rotating and sliding into position so the landing ramp was aligned with the mouth of the cave. The ramp extended to reveal a very small, very familiar form.
"Master Yoda!" Anakin cried. "How did you know where to find us? You're too late, though. Master Kenobi ... let Dooku escape."
Yoda's ears flattened. His lips pursed. He leaned on his gimer stick and said nothing.
Obi-Wan folded his arms. "You used us as bait." He caught sight of Jedi robes in the shadows behind Yoda. His cloudy gaze held Yoda's green one. "No, that's not quite right. We were ... a distraction. Don't you think I had the right to know such a thing?"
Yoda lifted his chin. "Use that tone with me, you will not, Master Kenobi. Tell you, I could not, for Dooku would have seen the knowledge in your eyes. Appeared alone, you had to, or the surprise was lost."
Obi-Wan snorted silently. "Anakin was right. You were too slow."
"Wasted time, we did, tracing our tracking device to the bottom of the ocean."
"I'd offer to retrieve it for you, but I've had enough swimming for quite some time." He had never dared, nor ever been able to hold onto irritation when facing Yoda. He gave the ancient Jedi master a slight smile. "Do you have room aboard for a few passengers?"
Yoda's expression lightened; his green eyes sparked. "Room, we have, Master Kenobi."
Obi-Wan inclined his head. "Thank you." He paused. "Could we land on the beach for a few moments? We need to retrieve Senator Amidala's droid and my padawan ... needs to find his lightsaber."
Yoda directed a heavy scowl at Anakin. "Lightsaber, hmm? A Jedi's life, his lightsaber is. Never, should a Jedi lose it. Careless, that is."
Anakin lowered his head. "Yes, Master Yoda." From the corner of his eye, he gave Obi-Wan a withering glance.
Obi-Wan swallowed his laughter and leaped across the small gap to the landing ramp.
Obi-Wan finished his verbal report, the last words seeming to echo around the Jedi Council chamber. He stood, hands clasped before him, and stared over the heads of the only two masters present.
When neither Yoda nor Mace spoke, Obi-Wan's gaze drifted around the perimeter of the room. It felt almost desolate with all the other masters' chairs removed, a mere shell of what it had been. Certainly not the focal point of power he remembered from when he had served as Qui-Gon's padawan. The masters who had survived Geonosis had abdicated their Council seats, opting to serve the Jedi in the field where they were needed most. Only Mace and Yoda remained, with the unanimous approval of the Jedi.
Still the silence stretched. Obi-Wan closed his eyes and strove for patience.
Mace finally spoke. "How did you feel about your padawan's ... secrecy?"
Staring into obsidian eyes, Obi-Wan repeated what was in his written report and what he had already explained, "It took me some time to realize, but ... mostly I felt betrayed."
"Now ... I have forgiven him. I could do no less than my master did for me."
Mace leaned forward and studied Obi-Wan. Apparently satisfied, he sat back. "Have you told him?"
Obi-Wan considered this. "Not in so many words, I suppose. I should ... all things considered."
Yoda said, "And what things might those be?"
Obi-Wan gave Yoda a puzzled look. "Considering that he's facing banishment, of course."
The two masters exchanged hooded glances. It was Yoda who broke the awkward silence. "Know the will of the Council so well, do you, Master Kenobi?"
A frown settled on Obi-Wan's brow as he stared at Yoda. "What do you mean? Surely you aren't going to let him continue as a Jedi? He has shown no remorse. He continues to refuse to consider annulment of the marriage. We have no alternative but to -"
"Obi-Wan, you must understand." Mace stood, drawing himself to his full height, forcing Obi-Wan to look up. "The Dark Side is rampant right now. It cloaks its acolytes from our view, including the Sith that has remained outside our abilities to locate for over ten years. It draws powerful Jedi like Count Dooku into its web of deceit. We cannot allow someone as ... gifted as Anakin Skywalker to venture out from under our protection. He must remain a Jedi."
Blowing out a breath, Obi-Wan strove to come to terms with what he was hearing. "I should very much like to know how you plan to handle this illicit marriage then. Will you make it public? Are Jedi now allowed to seek such intimacies, the prohibition shattered by a headstrong teenager?"
Mace gave Obi-Wan a quelling look. "The marriage will remain a secret, known only to the beings in this room, along with those on Senator Amidala's staff who already know."
"That's ridiculous!" Obi-Wan spun and marched to the window, to the spot where Even Piell used to sit. "I refuse to be party to such a deception." He stared at the late afternoon traffic; it blurred in his vision.
"You have no choice." Mace's tone was stony.
His padawan: the Chosen One, the exceptional one, and now ... the exception to the rule. Resentment whispered through his thoughts; he shunted it aside. Not turning, Obi-Wan braced his hands on the ledge. "A Jedi always has a choice. The paths of obedience and disobedience are always before him. This cannot be the will of the Force. I cannot train Anakin under such conditions."
"Why not?" Yoda's voice grated across Obi-Wan's nerves.
Why not abandon integrity? Why not abandon truth? Obi-Wan unclenched his jaw. "Because I will no longer have a shred of validity in Anakin's eyes. Nothing I say will hold any authority. I assured him that he would be facing banishment, as I live and breathe the Jedi Code, I assured him. And now ..." His voice dropped to a whisper. "... it appears I have lied. How can I possibly continue as his master?" Pain knifed between his ribs. Pain of defeat, of failure. He labored to accept it, to release it to the Force.
"Very well," Yoda said.
Hope rose, soothed the hurt.
The ancient Jedi master said, "Too old he is, to be given a different master. If continue to train him, you will not, then take his trials, he will."
"No!" Obi-Wan spun around, horror welling up at the thought. "You can't do that!"
"Master Kenobi, calm yourself." Yoda slapped the tile floor with his stick.
"But you can't! He's not ready!"
"Stop! Difficult you are being, and tolerate it, I will not. Do not speak again until under control, you are."
Obi-Wan glared, chest heaving. He closed his eyes and swallowed, then sank to the floor and leaned against the wall below the window. Cool seeped from the stone into his body. He focused on the caress of its smooth touch, the fine grain of texture not even noticeable through his tunic, except for his awareness through the Force. The pattern of tile beneath him. Obi-Wan let the flow surround him, infuse him, show him the truth. He caught an echo of a vision that lingered in the room: a dark valley with multiple shadowy paths. Perhaps he judged Yoda and Mace too harshly. They did only what they thought best; they did not choose lightly to set aside tradition and walk this questionable path.
When he opened his eyes, Obi-Wan stared at the chamber doors, beyond which Anakin waited. No matter what, Anakin had now passed out of his reach. He could no longer shape the young man's destiny. As he accepted that painful truth, gave up all thought of control, a burden lifted, replaced by the soothing presence of the Force.
Quietly, Obi-Wan said, "It doesn't feel right. I'm certain that Anakin will be able to overcome any physical obstacle you present to him. The more difficult, the more he will excel. But he needs guidance. He is too often governed by his emotions. I admit that Padm? is a calming influence in his life, but ..."
Yoda said. "Know what happened on Tatooine, do you? When young Skywalker found his mother?"
Obi-Wan didn't comment on the change of topic. "He told me she died in his arms, that he had to fight his way out of the Raiders' camp."
"Mmm." Yoda's eyes were hooded. "Felt nothing, you did, when he found her?"
"When Anakin was on Tatooine ... I was exploring Dooku's lair on Geonosis. My senses were strangely muted - the cloaking effects of Dooku's Dark Side powers, I expect. Then when I was enjoying the hospitality of the dungeon, the forcefield restraints were modulated such that I couldn't even sense Dooku when he stood two meters away. Why do you ask?"
Obi-Wan almost scoffed. Yoda had a reason for everything he did or said. He would have to question Anakin about the incident again. He scowled, realizing he no longer held that right, that Anakin was under no obligation to answer any of his queries.
Yoda said, "Afraid, you are."
The frown faded and a smile flitted over Obi-Wan's lips. Still he stared at the door, tracing its sunburst patterns. Was the sun rising or setting? "Only in the way a master worries over and hopes for his padawan's success. I feel ... the Force's presence. I know now the path I must walk. No, Master Yoda, I am not afraid."
"Then accept the Council's ruling, you will?"
Obi-Wan inhaled several times, deep and slow. He rose and moved to the center of the room, finally turning to face Yoda and Mace. He studied each in turn, noting their serious expressions, their concerned eyes. They were as doubtful as he. Even so, Obi-Wan felt a familiar tug. Why would the Force lead them down such an uncertain path?
He bowed low, acquiescing to a presence only felt. "I accept the will of the Force, Masters. May it be with us all."
As he spun to leave, he caught Yoda's mildly disapproving gaze. He strode out of Council chambers that seemed suddenly devoid of authority.
Outside the chambers, Obi-Wan halted in front of Anakin and folded his arms. The doors slid closed, shielding them from curious eyes. First acknowledging Padm?'s presence with a nod, he studied the young man for long moments. His padawan no more.
Concern darkened Anakin's blue eyes. Finally, some hesitation over his fate, perhaps even remorse over his actions. Obi-Wan arched one brow. No. Not likely.
Obi-Wan's own words filtered through his thoughts. Honor is a choice. Obedience is a path we choose. It lay before him now. The Force beckoned. It only required a single step. Each moment was but a single step. Focus on the moment.
"Qui-Gon never let me forget that a Jedi's life is a hard one," Obi-Wan said. "Not all are suited to it. But for those who succeed, for those who do what they thought they could not, the reward ... is truly knowing who they are. A priceless gift that few receive."
He could see the knowledge in Anakin's eyes now - the certainty that he was about to be cast out of the Jedi Order. Obi-Wan didn't disavow Anakin of his notion. It was Yoda's place to reveal the will of the Council, not his. Obi-Wan reached out and clasped Anakin's shoulder. "I'm sorry I could not be the master you needed." When Anakin would have spoken, Obi-Wan rushed ahead. "I only have one thing left to offer you."
Obi-Wan dropped his hand and watched the creases on Anakin's forehead deepen. No one could scowl quite so earnestly as his pad-, as Anakin.
"What is it, Master?" the younger Jedi whispered.
"My friendship." Obi-Wan extended his right hand and took the first step on the path.
Anakin stared at the offered hand with a blank expression that turned to puzzlement when he lifted his face. "I don't understand, Master."
A smile tugged at Obi-Wan's mouth as he savored the sweetness of obedience. "My friends call me Obi-Wan." He shot Padm? a wry glance. "I'm asking for the chance to be a better friend than I was a master."
Anakin started to protest; Obi-Wan silenced him with a look. He cleared his brow. Some habits would be difficult to break.
After searching Obi-Wan's face for a minute, Anakin reached out with his metal hand. It was warm as it clasped Obi-Wan's.
The older Jedi nodded and released his grip. "Now, Pad-" He shrugged and offered a slight smile. "Best not keep the Council waiting any longer, Anakin." As the young man turned away Obi-Wan whispered, " The Force be with you."
The chamber doors closed behind Anakin. Obi-Wan felt a worried gaze. He set aside a faint sadness and turned to the young woman still standing beside him. "Anakin will need you more than ever, Padm?."
A smile broke through her concern. "So I'm Padm? again, am I?"
"If you can tolerate the friendship of one rather obnoxious, elitist Jedi."
"I might be able to ... if he will forget what I called him during a trying time."
"Becoming my friend was a trial?"
"You're being deliberately difficult, Obi-Wan."
"But not obnoxious, I hope."
"I see what you're up to." She shot a glance at the doors. "But, I'm afraid you failed, Master Kenobi. You can't distract me from my worries today."
"Failure and I are old friends." He bowed, preparing to take his leave.
The fear in Padm?'s voice stopped him. "What's happening in there?"
"That's not for me to say." He reached out and traced her jaw with his index finger. "You're a brave woman, Padm?. You'll face whatever comes with grace. If you and Anakin ever need my help ... just ask. I won't fail you again."
Obi-Wan wheeled and strode to the stairs. He jogged down a level and slipped onto the balcony ringing the spire. Countless times, he and Qui-Gon had discussed their Council debriefings here, a tradition he had continued with Anakin. A sense of Qui-Gon still lingered here; perhaps that was why Obi-Wan kept returning.
He longed to talk to his master, just one more time. But wishing was pointless. Regardless, he knew that Qui-Gon would tell him to -
Let it go.
Obi-Wan's heart stopped. When it re-started, it was hammering. He had often heard Qui-Gon's voice in his head, but had attributed it to his own subconscious recalling his master's teachings. But this ... this voice had been outside his head. Obi-Wan turned slowly, his hands reaching behind to grip the balustrade. He searched the empty balcony. There was something ...
He had heard it. He wasn't mad. Tentatively, Obi-Wan said, "Master?" He felt suddenly foolish, speaking to the air. Chiding himself, he stepped away from the rail.
Release it to the Force, Padawan.
Obi-Wan's knees wobbled. He grabbed the railing again and closed his eyes, fighting back surging emotion. How could this be? He took a shuddering breath. Did he care? It was real, that's all that mattered.
"Why?" Obi-Wan whispered. "Why did you take so long to come to me? I've needed your counsel so often ..."
You are ... difficult to connect with, my friend.
A strangled laugh escaped. Difficult. Anakin would be the first to agree. "I failed you, Master. I didn't train him the way -"
Let it go.
Obi-Wan nodded. He would leave the past where it belonged. It had been the Force's leading to offer Anakin his friendship, and he had obeyed. They would be friends, he could feel it. There was so much he wanted to tell Qui-Gon, so many questions he wanted to ask. Obi-Wan smiled. "I talk to you sometimes, you know, as if you're really in the room."
The smile turned to a broad grin. Obi-Wan opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by pounding footsteps.
Luminara burst onto the balcony, looking as if she had run up the spire's stairs instead of using the turbolift. No cloak, head covering askew, chest heaving. Obi-Wan laughed, drawing her puzzled gaze. As she walked toward him, she shed all signs of upset, dignity and grace returning to her movements.
Halting before him, Luminara planted her hands on her hips and turned her face up to his, subjecting him to close scrutiny. "Obi-Wan, I thought ... I was certain I felt ... that you needed me ..." Her voice trailed off and a slight pucker appeared between her brows. "But you are ... fine. I can feel your tranquillity." A scowl crept onto her brow. "Why are you so peaceful?"
"My apologies. I can try to regain my previous state of agitation, if you wish."
She tapped him on the chest. "Don't be foolish. What happened in the Council? Can you talk about it?"
Obi-Wan shrugged. "I don't see why not. It will soon be common knowledge." He released a slow breath. "Anakin is to take his trials."
"But he's not ready, you've said so many times."
"My opinions on the matter are no longer relevant. I ... need to tell you something, my friend, to have someone to whom I can speak openly ..."
Slender dark brows arched. "Something I'm not supposed to know?"
"Your secret will be safe with me, Obi-Wan. You know that."
Hesitating, Obi-Wan stretched out his senses, expecting a cautionary feeling, but the Force was silent. Thankfully. In remarkably few sentences he detailed Anakin's secret marriage and what the Council had decreed.
When he was finished, Luminara studied him for a moment. "You were right that he was hiding something. More than either of us ever imagined. I sense ... that you've already forgiven him. You've accepted the Council's ruling and moved on." She reached up and cupped her hand along his jaw. "I'm proud of you, Obi-Wan."
Laying his hand over hers, Obi-Wan smiled. "I've released it all, my friend. My hopes, my disappointments. I see the path before me - the path of obedience."
"Yes, you have released everything. I can feel it." Luminara's expression turned questioning. "I know I have no right to ask ..."
"Ask anything. You are my closest friend."
"That night, in your apartment ... What I saw in your eyes that night is gone now, and I know it's for the best. I treasure your friendship, Obi-Wan." She bit her dark bottom lip. "Now that it isn't a problem, could we ... could you ..." She took a sharp breath. "Would you kiss me? Just once?"
Obi-Wan stared. "But you were ..."
"So very tempted that night, Obi-Wan. If I hadn't tried to flee, I might have ..."
"You want to kiss me." Amazement filled his thoughts.
"Oh, you can be so difficult sometimes, Obi-Wan." Luminara slipped her hand from beneath his. "Yes. I wanted to that night, and I want to right now. To ... see what it might have been like."
"Several people have told me, today, how difficult I can be." When Luminara would have stepped back, he rested both hands on her shoulders. "I would very much like to kiss you, Luminara. Just once." Obi-Wan smiled as he leaned toward her.
Let it go, Padawan.
Luminara's eyes grew wide. Obi-Wan touched his finger to her lips and quietly said, "I will, Master. In a minute."
Obi-Wan stared into Luminara's vibrant blue eyes, and slid his hand around to cup the back of her neck. Her hair teased his fingers. Lost in the depths of her shimmering gaze, he lowered his head until her breath whispered against his cheek. He closed his eyes as their lips met.