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Untitled Document


"For the same reason that men do it -
the economics of the arrangement.
It's intimacy without intricacy."



Part 19: The Fallacy of an Epiphany.

It can't be true, Anakin murmured to himself as he stared at the com device, waiting for the machine to play the briefing from Pais again. He had been repeating those four words silently to himself ever since he left the Supreme Chancellor's residence, followed by another nine he felt sure would convince him, providing they were repeated often enough, that is. He had to mean someone else, some other briefing.

Yet every time he watched the holo, his doubts grew, reducing the voice that uttered those thirteen words to a plaintive whisper. He had a healthy ego, something he was well aware of, though perhaps not as much as his mentors would prefer, one usually stubborn and constant in the belief of her love. However his fears were equally powerful, captured within the hold of that Krayt dragon caged inside his core, fears which were locked in a duel with the voice.

At the moment, those fears were winning.

Innocent gestures that when he first saw them escaped his notice, now held an adulterous significance. Glances away from the camera he now knew were directed at each other. Hands hidden under the large expanse of Alderaanian Kiirn that he now knew were secretly clasped together, or perhaps even caressing their neighbour's thigh. Each repeat of the briefing only served to damn them further in his horrified gaze.

His memory wasn't helping their case either, for it seemed to be deliberately recalling every piece of their past and interpreting it in another, far darker way. Her argument about why they shouldn't have a relationship. Their age difference, which never bothered him until now, was also abruptly rendered as another motive. Admitting her feelings, just before they entered the Geonosian arena, now seemed a deliberate ploy, her certainty that they were going to die there no certainty at all. Both of them were pre-prepared to fight their way out, he now recalled.

The decision of the Council for her to be escorted home by him when he knew that Yoda and Obi-Wan had to be aware of what he felt for her. Neither of them had been discreet after the duel with Dooku and the return to the Temple on Coruscant. And finally her insistence upon a secret ceremony on the balcony of her villa in Varykino, now appeared to be a disguising detail with the aim to placate his insistent pursuit of her.

Their alleged wedding night, in the afterglow of their love making, the look in her eyes he had caught, gone so fast he'd believed it was a product of his imagination, now the key to a truth; one of disappointment. He hadn't satisfied her. But she hadn't helped him to do so either. Which was deliberate, he could see that now. She had wanted the whole business over and done with as quickly as possible so she could get back to Coruscant.

And see him. As the briefing began playing from the beginning once more, Anakin turned his focus for the first time on to his mentor. He recalled all those meetings with the Queen his master had before they left Naboo ten years ago. The mocking conversation they had in the turbolift on their way up to the Nubian residence. His slight turn of the head when Anakin had embarrassed him by trying to give her a compliment. Her put down reply, reminding him of his youth and naiveté. His loss of temper every time Anakin so much as mentioned her name, or affected to care about her.

Everything that had puzzled him before made more sense now he knew the reason behind it all. They were humouring him, using him as a shield for their secret relationship. Distracting those who would disapprove of their love by pretending it was he at fault. Waiting until the reforms in the Order took place, whereupon they would reveal the truth, having no more need to hide their feelings.

Leaving him alone once more. All his life, people had left him. They promised him love, but that love was always false, or it never lasted, someone or something took them away from him. First there was his father, whoever he was, man or the Force, depending on whether he believed Watto, his mother or the Council. Anakin knew that there was nothing which could determine definitively all the way, he never saw his mother with anyone who could have been a possibility. Then Qui-Gon, who swept into his life, bargained away his hardships and showed him off to a larger world. Only to be taken away from him, first by the Council, then by the Sith on Naboo.

His mother, guiding him, protecting him, loving him, until she let him go to achieve his dream, believing he was safely in the hands of a Jedi Master. Anakin knew she had few choices, little to offer him if he stayed with her on Tatooine, but he also had the future she never foresaw, and wondered lately if she had, whether she would have been so eager to let him go. Or whether he would have been so eager to try to become a Jedi if he had known her fate ten years ago.

Obi-Wan cared for him he believed, though now he wondered if that were true, in light of what he had seen in this briefing. He had warm memories of his early Padawan years under Obi-Wan's care, but they were now tainted by the times he disagreed with his mentor, or when Obi-Wan declared that he was disappointed in him. Soured too, by the condemnation, the inability within his master to let him be with the woman he loved.

And now Padmé, who denied she cared for him, then contradicted that vocal denial by showering him with affection from the moment they met. He still remembered her words on the ship on the way to Coruscant when she covered him with a blanket because she saw he was cold. Many things will change when we reach Coruscant, Ani. My caring for you will not be one of them. She lied to him even then, uttering those words while she pretended to be a handmaiden when she was the Queen. Deceived him into thinking they were equals. That everything he dreamed involving them was possible.

For ten years he had kept his word, honoured his vow that they would marry one day. She blushed as she met him in her residence, kissed him on Naboo at her villa, on Geonosis in the arena, at their wedding in Varykino. Yet always her words contradicted those displays of affection, except for that one time. I truly deeply love you. Could he still believe that quiet whisper, when she had denied the truth of those words more often than she said them?

Questions began to form in his mind, as he attempted to deny it to himself once more, wondering how it possible that his mentor, the most code bound Jedi of them all, favourite of Yoda and the Council could do this. It required a deception he had not thought Obi-Wan capable of. Padmé too, though he knew her well enough to realise that she was always concealing something from him. Usually it was to do with her work as Senator, not the affair he now suspected her of having.

He tried to doubt it, he wanted to believe what he now saw was false so desperately, but such determination only continued to convince him that it was so. That they had been having a relationship since Naboo, deliberately deceiving him by pretending to return his feelings, to keep him from realising the truth that the Supreme Chancellor had seen.

What kept him questioning however, was the vague way in which Palpatine had told him the news. Directness was always a penchant of the Chancellor's and Anakin admired the man for it, such a refreshing contrast to the cryptic mannerisms of the Council and his Master. Yet for this matter he had been vague, when Anakin expected him to apologise for noticing the relationship and then tell him about it. He had been direct when he congratulated him about his marriage to Padmé after all. Why had he been vague, unless Anakin was mistaken about which press conference he meant?

It can't be true. He had to mean someone else, some other briefing. Perhaps those thirteen words still had a power over him after all.

But still he continued to watch the briefing, staring into the holo of the three figures until his vision began to blur with threatened exhaustion.

Waiting for a victor within the internal duel between his Krayt dragon and those thirteen words his inner voice was still shouting.

Nineve Jade exited the private residence of her master via the same method that every secret agent or contact of his used; an old abandoned waste disposal tunnel. Situated several metres below ground, the other entry and exit point took her into the heart of the district of Coruscant known as The Works. Inside a disused warehouse, where her ship sat waiting.

Outwardly her stance was professional; the cold hardened, almost military demeanour of a highly trained assassin. Her red gold hair was slicked into a long plait, falling rigidly down upon her back. Her soft skin was encased in a dark emerald jumpsuit, which showed off all her curves whilst simultaneously rendering them unattainable. She walked with a swift, assured pace, her eyes fixed on her destination; the cockpit of her sleek and efficient, heavily equipped fighter, yet always alert, like the rest of her senses, should anyone be waiting in the shadows to confront her.

Inwardly she was fuming.

She thought her master had better respect for her than this.

True, she merited punishment for the failure of her Pais sabotage, but he had no right to force her to endure the indignity of this particular mission. After all, she had never failed him before, there was no reason for him to demote her not just in his eyes but in the eyes of everyone who had heard of her and the power she wielded for her master. Delegating this kind of mission to her was an insult to her intelligence and to her training, forcing her to make use of the disgusting occupation most suspected her of working for on the rare occasions the Sith lord that was her master invited her to some public function.

Not to mention having to sit through his patronising lecture on where she had gone wrong, followed by an equally humiliating talk concerning the details of her next assignment, how he had managed to arrange her indoctrination, as it were, into something which, not only had she learned about years ago, but was an active member of, unbeknownst to her master.

Nor did she plan on telling him any time soon either. He may give her a job, provide her with the means to live, to heal her when she was injured - the last of which had happened to be at his hands, which she had just recovered from - but he did not, nor ever would, own her. She would keep herself independent from his schemes for as long as she could. It would be, perhaps, the only way she might survive them. His opinion on the group he had secured her indoctrination to was laughable, especially when she heard what he wanted her do once she had established herself as a member.

Only now, as she entered the cockpit of her sleek and efficient, heavily equipped fighter, did she begin to fully comprehend how dangerous his plan was. If she obeyed his orders and succeeded in accomplishing what his evil insidiously scheming mind instructed her to achieve, the consequences for the Republic would be devastating. Worse than the violent end that the Clone Wars he previously tried to ensure had in mind. The psychological effects alone held the potential to damage every citizens' morale permanently. His scheme was vicious, subtle, and scandalously gruesome. It contained a malicious streak few of his other plans possessed. Which was why it terrified her when none of his schemes ever had before.

She couldn't help but think that it stood more than a fair chance of actually proceeding as he had foreseen.
If she obeyed his orders. Nineve grimaced as she contemplated that temptation once more. Never before had the possibility of outrightly disobeying him occurred to her. She had seen the punishment he delved to those who rebelled against him. The pain and suffering seared across their mind and body as they attempted to endure it. Hers, earned by the failure of the Pais sabotage had been mild in comparison to some. Few escaped the vicious grip of his sithly power. Even thinking of the word mutiny was liable to penetrate his perceptive and paranoid mind, with dangerous consequences for those concerned. To actually forgo all caution and self-preservation by acting on such thoughts was quite another matter.

But Nineve knew that she had been contemplating such a mutiny from the moment she entered the old disused sewer tunnel. As soon as she felt she was out of the region of her master's questing, sithly mind, free to think of her own thoughts without the possibility of interference or retribution from him. Her chosen destination was an act of rebellion in itself, for her assignment should have prevented her from leaving Coruscant for a long time.

She also knew that this mutiny had been simmering in her brain almost from the beginning of her servitude to the Sith lord. Another by-product perhaps of her determination to survive his schemes and not perish as all his other agents and contacts had before, during and after her. Usually at the wrong end of a lightsaber or his Sith lightning anger. Sometimes with her, or another witnessing, for he liked to have spectators at these events, as their every reaction, whether conscious or unconscious, gave him a sense of pleasurable power.

Imperial assassins, she knew, were only as good as their last kill. Discretion, swiftness, and caution were valued, as well as intelligence and oddly enough, beauty. In a female good looks were deadly, for too often for those who they were sent to kill trusted that their disarming appearance meant that they would never do them wrong. Beauty overwhelmed suspicion, especially when coupled with a haunting vulnerability that spoke of a hard past. An expression which she never needed to fake, for it was acquired naturally by the lifestyle she led. Alone, no friends, many long term lovers with no strings, one master, and a surplus of kills, either by her own hand, or stood witnessed to, in the form of her master's ruthlessly gruesome disposal.

Long term lovers. She chuckled mirthlessly as that phrase echoed in her mind. It was one way of looking at the members of the List she supposed. She was pretty sure that it was how most of the members viewed Coruscant's most notoriously worse kept secret society. A form of relaxation, a break from their complex, career driven lives. Certainly it was the view she first employed when she joined, until one encounter led to something quite unexpected.

She fell in love. She, Nineve Jade, the Sith Lord's Hand, fell in love. Something she never believed was possible. Something she attempted to ensure would never come to pass. Assassins were encouraged to live in isolation. No family, no ties, nothing that allowed them to be traced by anyone who may come after them, especially their employers. The drawback was that such isolation gave you a feeling of loneliness which was so intense, that when you found something which breached the isolation, the intervention was almost as bad as the addiction. Such feelings immersed themselves around you, drowning you, utterly and completely. Once you dived in, there was no way out.

Nineve had tried to resist. Stubbornness had been a character trait of hers for as long as she could remember, withstanding all obstacles, until now. Now that previously hardened will of duracrete withered under the slightest touch or softly spoken word. The feelings within her were even more powerful than the Force. That swirling mass of energy, born of everyone and everything, that bound the universe together, crumbled under one four letter word. Within the power of that word, she was bound, helpless, imprisoned. Something she hated being from the earliest awareness of her existence and swore when her master allowed her to breach the walls to become his Hand, never to endure in her life ever again.

But he was imprisoned just as much as her, and in that lay a certain strength. One she had never known before, and which, she now knew so intimately, that she wondered how she had coped being without such a trait for so long. And that strength grew with each and every encounter, endured each and every moment which they spent apart, giving her the courage to commit acts she had never imagined herself committing. Such as rebelling against the man who practically raised her. The Sith lord who delegated tasks to her that he, in his lofty position could not run the risk of doing himself. Not without being revealed for who he really was, in all his evil, sithly incarnate glory.

That courage was within her now, deep inside of her, encompassing her every step, from the moment her master - that wasn't right, for he wasn't her master, not anymore - dismissed her so casually from his sight, even before. The strength of that four letter word ran deep within her veins, as deep as the forceful energy her former employer taught her to recognise, to harness and use. Now she was using something else, something far more powerful than the forceful energy, yet so startlingly similar in so many ways. One she had never known was within her, that she previously thought herself capable of feeling, even expressing. Until someone else had taught her to realise, to recognise, to harness and to use.

She was on her way to see that someone now. In outright mutiny against her former master, risking certain death when he found out, for he would, he always found out. She should care about that discovery, fear it, having witnessed the deadly mortal retribution it bought many, many times, yet neither cares could touch her. Love had given her that strength, that immunity, that protection. It had given her power, in the way that nothing else, not even the Force, ever could.

For a moment she dwelled on that revelation, her fingers touching controls, firing up her sleek, heavily equipped fighter, her eyes gazing through the view screen, not over the district of The Works, but further, far away, towards the sculptured towers of the Jedi Temple. Did they know, she wondered. Were they even aware of the power which lay in that four letter word they denied themselves through the rigid regulations known as the Code. Like her they had been taught and trained to ignore the strength which could be found in the emotion of that word. For fear that it would damn them, as it once damned their ancestors a millennia ago. A power which had since been forbidden to be recognised, harnessed and used, by both sides, light and dark.

Maybe that was the reason.

He was surprised to receive the coded signal, though his face betrayed nothing beyond his usual reaction to calls of this nature. Unlike most coms from this unique device, it was a violation, for it allowed identification of the caller, in a group where anonymity was a prized commodity. Effortlessly he resumed his previous occupation, waiting for the right moment when he could make his excuses without inviting comment for his doing so. When such a time came, he rose from his chair, and made his way out of the bar, towards the turbolifts.

His journey up to the room was solitary, undisturbed by nothing except his ruminations as to why he was receiving this coded signal now, in light of all that had passed between them during their last encounter.
Coming to a halt outside the door to the room, he tapped the encrypted sequence of symbols which would grant him entry upon the small remote which was encased within the veneer. Once accepted the barrier slid aside, allowing him to enter, closing after he crossed the threshold.

Inside there was no light, save for that which was provided by the surrounding buildings, giving the furniture within a somewhat eerie quality. Silently he let his vision adjust to the muted system, until his eyes could distinguish the silhouette of her curved and slender figure, outlined against the transparisteel.

"I thought you weren't coming back," he ventured carefully, catching her almost desolate expression reflected by the transparent surface before her.

"So did I," she answered, her tone resigned, the words so softly spoken he had to strain his senses to hear them.

For a moment he evaluated her seemingly casual pose, the unusual vulnerability which she was revealing to him. When he finished, he could only reach one, inescapable conclusion. "You're in trouble."

A brief smile, humourless, devoid of joy, but nonetheless beautiful, breached her pained features as she replied. "So are you."

He caught the innuendo in her tone just as she had in his judgement of her. "Why?" He asked, advancing forward from his stance by the door.

There were many ways she could have confided in him, but, as usual, she made him work for the confession, just as she had for every facet of their relationship. "I've left my job."

He knew that could not be the only explanation for her return and her expression, she was too much of a fascinating complexity for that. "There are other jobs."

She shook her head at his seeming incomprehension. "You don't understand."

"Then explain it to me," he softly requested, taking another pace towards her.

For the first time since he had known her, she appeared to be at a loss for words. When she did speak, her response chilled him to his very bones. "My ....boss... if he finds me he will kill me."

Not if he had anything to say about it, he silently vowed to himself. However he knew such a display of commitment would not comfort her. "Everyone dies."

"And anyone with me," she added as if he had not spoken.

Several more paces forward, until he reached the middle of the room. "I'm serious," he replied, his tone warm as he acknowledged her concern for his existence.

"So am I," she returned, her voice firm and unyielding.

Another couple of paces forward as he took note of her response. "Consider me warned," he uttered, his tone deceptively mild.

Whether she caught the meaning beneath his reply was unclear, her next words could have been just as a much a warning to herself as well as to him. "It will be dangerous."

At last he conquered the distance between them, his hands slipping themselves around her waist, bending his head to nose aside her curly scarlet tresses until his mouth could close upon her ear. "Remember who you're talking to."

"How could I forget?" She countered before her eyes closed and a soft moan of pleasure escaped her lips in response to his decision to feast on her skin. "I still have the bruises."

"You wanted that spar, I seem to recall," he reminded her as his assault upon her skin continued. "Its not my fault that you laid yourself open."

Swiftly she turned round in his arms, her gaze meeting his, causing him to cease his previous caresses.

"Seriously, Garen, I don't want to lose you."

"You won't," he solemnly assured her. "Nineve, you're stuck with me."

Part 20: Bladed Wings Upon A Star.

"Gentled beings," the Paisian host began as the delegations arose from their companionable discussions into silence so they could hear what he about to announce. Producing a thick wad of flimsi, he waited for their eyes to settle upon his serene features before continuing. "As a result of your many conference sessions during your time spent as our guests, I have here the first draft of what will become a peaceful treaty between the Republic, the Separatist Confederacy and the Jedi Order."

Paisian aides, who were for the first time granted access to the conference room, now took the sheets of flimsi from their superior and began handing a copy of the treaty out to every member of the delegations. Wafer copies were handed out to the Senate aides and confederacy assistants. Silence continued to reign over the room as everyone began reading the draft and making what notes they felt were necessary.

When everyone reached the end of the document, the flimsi was placed upon the transparisteel conference table, beneath which ran a series of scanners wired to pick up and collate the notes and or queries each delegate had made, before printing the changes on the sheets before them to read and review once more.

A tediously longwinded yet necessary process, Bail mused silently as he read through the newly printed draft before him, taking in what notations others had left. But at last they were heading towards the clear skies of peace. When they first arrived on Pais to sit down in a conference room, he hadn't really believed peace would be possible. Oh, he had wanted it with every fibre of his being, but a part of him feared that there was too much blood shed for peace to wash away.

Geonosis had been a shock to everyone, whether they had been a part of the battle, or just read the reports which filtered through the HoloNet or security committee meetings. Immediately some had washed their hands of the matter, ignored the casualties, the violence, the tangled political mess, claiming that it was none of their concern, for they were not a Jedi, Separatist, soldier or politician. Then there had been some who wanted everyone else to hear and accept their opinion on the entire affair, however judgmental and uninformed that opinion might be. Beings who all too happy to procrastinate about war and peace and anything else that they deemed worthy of having an opinion about, but Force help anyone who dared to express a different view.

He remembered standing on that balcony overlooking the parade of the Republic's latest technological advancements. Of those large, rather fearsome in appearance, space ships, hovering over an expanse of white armoured clone soldiers. Reports from Geonosis were still filtering through, despite the return of the Jedi contingent, much depleted. The enormity of what they had committed themselves to had yet to truly sink in, the Senate was still adjusting to the vote in favour of granting the Chancellor executive powers.

But what he remembered most of all was the sense of foreboding within his mind as he stood with the rest of the Senate's Loyalist Committee. A premonition almost, of a future he feared to contemplate. As he stared at line upon line of white armoured troopers, the pure colour a seeming symbolic contradiction of the fury they were about to unleash, he could see this mass swarming on other worlds, in space combat with the Separatist droids. The wounded returning to the Core, the powers of the executive office growing, the quiet resignation of the silent majority who wished for nothing more than peace, and the political mess to leave them alone. He wondered when all of it would end and if they had not made a terrible mistake by committing themselves to this sort of armament.

Relief had never come so swift as it did when he was summoned to the Senate to hear Count Dooku's offer for treaty negotiations on Pais. And as he silently counted the numerous show of support in the Senate, he was not the only one who felt such an emotion. Clearly the sight of those large space ships and line upon line of white armoured clone soldiers had woken everyone to the ramifications of war, causing them to take a step back and realise that peace was a much more preferable alternative.

There were some however, of whom he had not believed capable in holding such thoughts; those whose industries would have benefited from the demands war would bring, and who volunteered for the delegation with such a nefarious motive in mind. He was pleased to be proved wrong, as he saw their signatures of agreement by each paragraph, even citations where the language could be improved to eliminate certain loopholes. Clearly the damage caused by the saboteur had caused them to rethink their previous motives for joining the delegation to Pais.

As he waited for the treaty changes to be assimilated and dispersed once more, Bail reflected on the explosion and the aftermath. The rapid destruction of the previously peaceful discussions into almost violent verbal debates on who was responsible for the sabotage. If Count Dooku had not stepped in when he did, Bail was sure that would have been the end of the peace conference, not to mention the possibility of further negotiations. His proposal that they should continue merely to deny those behind the sabotage victory was a suitably apt response as it had the effect of fighting a battle, only without the causalities that the total destruction of talks would have ensured.

Though what followed after their Paisian host had guided them into another conference room was nothing to do with the peace talks, but rather a thinly veiled PR stunt designed to assure the Republic and the Confederacy that peace would still be possible, despite whatever reports they may have heard of an explosion on Pais.

A highly crafted political show, even down to who would represent each delegation and the backdrop for them to sit before while the feed was broadcast. Untouched Paisian countryside surrounding the remains of the conference room, wrecked by the explosion, behind the leader of the Separatists, Senator Amidala, who as leader of the opposition in the Senate was de facto head of the Republic delegation and Master Kenobi, now a known figurehead of the Jedi Order, thanks to accounts of his actions on Naboo and Geonosis.

Thinly veiled and highly crafted aside, the briefing had done the job. No more attempted sabotages had taken place, allowing them to get on with the business of forming a treaty. Bail wondered however if they had escaped unscathed. While it was true that the saboteur had not tried again, there was the possibility that they simply saw through the stunt and decided to bide their time, or try another approach. After all, when this treaty was deemed acceptable to all, it still required ratification from the Senate and the governing body of the Confederacy, something which he was by no means certain their delegations could ensure.

Pais was a neutral world, but the drawback of its chosen vocation was isolation. The world benefited from the most up to date technology, allowed the guests to govern their own concerns without having to leave, but there was a distance here which no Republic world or Separatist planet possessed. Bail was surprised that those who they had left behind were content to let them form this treaty, for it would have been quite easy for the war to erupt beyond the point of no return before the delegations could leave Pais. And if someone had realised that, they would know that no one belonging to the delegations would be able to stop them from doing so.

Another draft of the treaty appeared before him, and he pushed his thoughts aside to read through the document once more. Ignoring the temptation to skim-read paragraphs, for the treaty was long and full of political jargon, he trained himself to recognise the innuendo, search his intellect for words that could not be held up to another interpretation.

If the peace between the Republic and the Confederacy was to succeed, they needed an airtight treaty which could stand the test of scrutiny. Only then could he be content to return to Coruscant, then to Alderaan, for a much needed vacation with his wife. Breha.

At the thought of her name he almost smiled, letting the demeanour of Senator and Prince of the House of Organa drop to reveal the man behind the reputation. It was one thing he would be grateful to Dooku for. If he had gone ahead with the war, he would have to cancel the vacation he arranged to surprise her when they suffered another loss in the child bed.

Once more the treaty transmitted and collated itself through the wired conference table, as he pondered if it was too early to call in a favour with the Jedi. They were renowned for having expert medics, healers as they called them. His best friend Tryn Netzl may have put him in touch with one of the best fertility specialists in the Republic, but if he was honest with himself, he and Breha had exhausted that avenue long ago. Since his first meeting with Master Kenobi, he, Padmé and the Jedi had talked frequently, discussing the peace treaty, who could be behind the sabotage, whether they could trust Dooku. There was an ease about their conversation that he had not expected, talking with a member of the Order.

Part of him grimaced as he as he realised how that sounded. He had been so determined to distrust the negative propaganda campaign that he forgot to censor his own ruminations. He had been sceptical of meeting with the Jedi. As much as he respected them now, he had held reservations about their position with regards to the governance of the Republic. There were times when their methods of handling things left a lot to be desired. However, since meeting them, he had often wondered if the Senate was just as much to blame for their unorthodox style. He noticed that officials had the habit of taking the Jedi for granted, and then judging them without a concept of their motives and talents.

Working with their delegation as he had done ever since he came to Pais taught him that there was more to a Jedi than the ability to sense and manipulate the Force. They were intelligent, charismatic, and confident. Highly trained diplomats, with a political finesse thrown in that you rarely saw outside of the executive branches of the Senate. Strip away all their skills, the mysticism of their ability to use the Force, they were just like anyone else. And it was a privilege to know them.

A soft beeping sound broke his ruminations, causing him to glance down at the flimsi before him once more. The treaty was ready and waiting for another read through. Bail focused his mind and began.

It can't be true. He had to mean someone else, some other briefing. Those thirteen words still had a power over Anakin, even when he woke to find the briefing from Pais still playing on its programmed repeated loop the next morning. Closing down the com panel, he rose from the desk and left his quarters, knowing that the only way he would be able to reach a conclusion as to who he should believe, was to confront the being who had brought the matter to his attention in the first place.

Hurriedly, ignoring the other Jedi about the halls at this time of day, he made his way through the Temple to the hanger where the speeders were kept. Leaping into his silver continuously modified model, which as a result was far more advanced when compared to the standard cruisers issued to the temple, he fired up the repulsors, lifting the craft into air. Dodging the dawn mainstream traffic in his usual suicidal manner, he made good time in reaching his destination; the residence of the Supreme Chancellor.

Palpatine's residence appeared all that was dark and unwelcoming, but Anakin ignored the sights which would persuade any other visitor that the occupant was asleep and to come back another time. He reasoned that the Chancellor wouldn't have said anything unless he expected him to return. And Palpatine had said he was welcome to visit any time. This conversation had to be conducted now, he needed to be back in time for his training session with Master Windu. While Obi-Wan accepted his apprentice's penchant for tardiness, and turned a blind eye to his whereabouts, the head of the Jedi Council required explanations, and Anakin had no desire to meet with the Vaapad Master's disapproving stare by telling him that he had gone to see the Chancellor.

Despite his skill in learning the Vaapad form, Anakin found that he still had yet to earn the full approval of the Korun master. Mace Windu was a highly trained Jedi who worked his students hard, by the use of one on one, long and intense training sessions. At every acquirement of a new move, or presentation of the next one to master, the risk to using such a move within the dark side was underlined. Frankly Anakin was getting tired of the constant reminding, though at first he had wondered if it was a test of Master Windu's, as the Councillor had been suspicious of him from the moment he first walked into the Council chamber as a boy of nine.

This however, was seemingly belied by the reluctant approval with which his contemporaries were now regarding him. The Temple was no exception to the saying news travels fast, within minutes of his first lesson everyone was talking about him, speculating what he had done to earn the honour of becoming Master Windu's latest student. After the initial ego boost of acquiring such an honour had worn off, Anakin felt that they were not asking the right question; that instead they should be pondering about what latest breach of Jedi training had he committed now to incur the close surveillance of the second master of the Temple.

Even though it was barely dawn, the entrance floor of Five Hundred Republica was still occupied by aides and or owners of the illustrious residences that this luxurious apartment building contained. One slight application of the Force and he managed to weave past them, though a few were doubtless wondering what he was doing there at this time of morning, even those who did not recognise him. Heading for the turbolift, he was fortunate to find one which was devoid of passengers for his journey to the penthouse level, where the Chancellor's apartment, along with his wife's and a few other notable members of the Senate were located.

Or perhaps they were fortunate, for no one needed to witness his stormy expression as he marshalled his arguments. He remembered the last time he felt this level of anger, on Tatooine, when he slashed his saber through the tent in which his mother had died, intent on destroying the entire tribe. Even now he could not remember any of faces of the beings he had massacred. Men, women, children, none of them mattered, except as the murderers of his mother. For that night he had been judge, jury and executioner. For that night he had been a God, his lightsaber an extension of his wrath.

Until he caught sight of Padmé's fear stricken expression, the magnitude of what he had done was incomprehensible. Only her horrified features caused him to feel guilt over the crime he had committed. The level of horror he had sunk to. Before seeing her, his only concern had been whether the rage he experienced reached his master or anyone at the temple, particularly Master Yoda. He had forgotten she would have a view on the matter too, and one quite different from the Order, but every bit as terrifying.

He was amazed that he managed to persuade her to agree to marry him after witnessing her fearful expression. Somewhere between the message from Obi-Wan and the dodge droid run before capture, trial and sentence, she had lost whatever made her fear him. By the time he escorted her back to Naboo, she was ready to commit herself to him forever. Why after that, he wondered, had the doubts surfaced once more? When had his ability to persuade her faded away, to be replaced by what he had seen on that recording of the briefing from Pais. When did she remember that he terrified her again?

At that moment the turbolift came to a halt and the door slid back, urging him into the reception hall of the Supreme Chancellor's residence. Anakin pushed aside his wayward thoughts to focus on the task at hand. Stepping out of the small circular chamber he took a glance around the room, somewhat surprised not to see Palpatine's major-domo, who usually never seemed to sleep. His current location held a shrouded, sleep ridden appearance, as if it were attempting to press on him the possibility of coming back at a far more sociable hour.

As usual, he was oblivious to observing such niceties.

Carrying on through, as if he had every right to be here at this time of the day, Anakin was quite surprised to be halted by the normally wide open doors of the Chancellor's living area. He remembered Palpatine saying to him once that he preferred beings to feel comfortable with him, assured that he would see them any time, that his office should not inhibit them. In short, his door would always be open, no matter where he was, or when it was. However, before him now were two closed doors, barring him from entering the residence any further. This somewhat imposing barrier cast an uneasy atmosphere about the penthouse apartment which he had never experienced before, unveiling a different side to the man he had known nearly all his life.

Before he was even aware of his actions he was hesitantly raising his fist to the door, his knuckles intent on a collision course with the surface of the veneer. A half hearted attempt at best however, and he was already stepping back away from the barrier, ready to turn and go home, when to his surprise the doors slid open.

"Anakin?" Chancellor Palpatine uttered, his eyes blinking steadily, as if he was trying to wake himself up. "What are you doing here so early, my boy?"

If he had been focusing on anything, he would have noticed the dark garments that the Nubian was wearing, topped off with a black cloak that was almost Jedi in its simplicity. He might have even observed the telltale walk of a man carrying a lightsaber. But none of these worrying factors even registered with his self-consumed mind, which currently only seemed capable of playing that briefing from Pais on a constant playback loop.

"What did you mean about the fickleness of women and the frailty of love?" He asked him, his voice soft but deadly, a microcosm of anger. "Just what was it that you saw in the briefing from Pais?"

"The briefing from Pais?" Palpatine frowned as if confused. "My dear boy, I hope this has not kept up all night?"

A sudden surge of relief flooded through his drought-ridden mind, effortlessly sinking the vast amounts of pent-up worry and anger which had fuelled his odd dream conquered sleep. Strange how one inappropriate visit could have the power to settle his concerns when thirteen words had done nothing but prey upon his thoughts since he last left this penthouse apartment.

However, as he nodded in confirmation, the flood proved to be the last flow before someone pulled the plug to drain, as his companion's expression turned sympathetic. Within minutes there was a consoling arm placed about his shoulder, and he was hauled through that previously closed barrier into the living area.

"I had hoped you would pay that comment no mind," Palpatine was saying as he guided him to the nearest soft furnishings and sat him down before fetching a replenishing drink. Placing the medicinal dose in his mechanical hand, the Supreme Chancellor added, "I can see now that it was a mistake to let so much pass in a mere slip of the tongue."

"How long..." Anakin trailed off, taking a sip of the ale before his voice decided to fail him further.

"You've know them better than I do, m'boy," Palpatine replied. "How long do you think is possible?"

The young Padawan shrugged helplessly. In truth, Obi-Wan and Padmé had just as much of a foundation for a relationship as he had with her, save for the difference in the age and experience. However, until recently, he had never considered his master to be anything but a bound by the code Jedi.

"What do I do?" he sighed hopelessly, realising too late that he had spoken out such a despairing query out loud.

A certain look graced the Supreme Chancellor's features, one which the too much lauded Chosen One had trouble putting a name to. "What do you want to do?" He asked.

Silence reigned the residence as Anakin contemplated the number of motions running through his mind, none of them good moves for any of the parties concerned. Truth be known, he was not sure what he would do when they returned from Pais, assuming what he believed he saw was true. Part of him was still hoping that what he had seen implied on the briefing was just a product of his fear of losing her.

"I don't know," he at last answered, the tone a whisper akin to despair. Closing his eyes he fell back against the confines of the sofa, raising his free hand to cover them, as he let loose all the pent up turmoil within his mind, his strength in hiding the emotion exhausted.

Opposite him the Supreme Chancellor smiled a sithly grin as he delved into those mired emotions, the Sith master within rejoicing at the vulnerability which the Chosen One was showing. Everything with his future apprentice never quite went exactly as he had foreseen, Anakin was too unpredictable even for the power of the dark side. But at this moment, Sidious knew it would not take much to seduce the boy away from the Order. The union with the Nubian Senator had been his undoing, just as he had hoped, though much sooner than he had anticipated.

He supposed he should be grateful for Dooku's sudden prickling of a conscience. If the Count of Serenno had not asked for peace talks, he would not be sitting with the Chosen One right now. Instead Anakin would be far away, fighting the Clone Wars, as the little green troll had named them. By bringing the Republic and the Separatists to the brink of war Sidious hoped to expose and inure his future apprentice to violence and death, the conflict helping him to grow all the more powerful in the Force.

He had not realised that peace talks days after the boy's secret marriage would accomplish the same end result. Such a revelation astonished him, for he realised that perhaps he should have known the boy would be vulnerable now, recovering as he was from the twin tragedies of his massacre on Tatooine and Geonosis. Add the separation from his wife just days after the secret ceremony which joined them together and you had the recipe for conversion.

The timing was fortuitous. Before Anakin arrived, he had been working late in his role as Sith lord, confirming his suspicions that his Hand had betrayed him. Since summoning her from Pais after the sabotage to the peace talks failed to produce a breakdown into conflict, he had given her new orders, contingent to staying on Coruscant. However, he had since discovered that she had ignored those orders, taking her ship and departing from the planet. Inquiries he made with his other agents soon revealed her destination. She had returned to Pais. For what reasons he could not be certain. But her betrayal had left a hole in his plans, a hole which had to be filled.

And perhaps Anakin was in a position to do so. Sidious considered the boy before him, still exhausted by groundless worry that his wife was being unfaithful to him, with his master. Courtesy of a comment he had made during their last evening together. Doubtless revenge was coursing through the boy's mind, though what manner such revenge would take was as yet uncertain. In his guise as Palpatine he would have to coax the Chosen One into choosing the right path. It would require patience and a delicate touch, not the bullying method he had perfected for the Clone Wars conversion.

But the reward was sweet, and task suitably challenging for a powerful Sith lord in need of an occupation. Sidious smiled and set to work.

"I am here, Master Yoda," Obi-Wan began after he had activated the holo. He had woken to a beeping sound which he discovered to be coming from the comm device, and hurriedly dressed when he recognised the encircled bladed wings upon a star, the symbol of the Jedi Council, indicating that a member of that illustrious body was contacting him. "What's wrong? Has something happened to Anakin?"

"Nothing wrong there is," the Grand Master answered, his surroundings revealing the location to be not the Council chamber, but his private meditation suite, reserved for only the most private and usually most important conversations. "Merely wished to speak to you about Anakin's progress I did."

"And does he make progress?" Obi-Wan asked, his gaze fixing on the other Jedi Master who had been given permission to join Yoda in his meditation room, Anakin's current instructor.

Mace Windu nodded slowly, his serious expression revealing little as usual. Whether he still held reservations about Anakin's future Obi-Wan was unable to determine. "He's taken to the Vaapad style well, even adapting some of it slightly to include the forms he learned from you and Master Drallig."

Obi-Wan nodded, not surprised to learn as much. Evaluating the Korun Master's grim facial expression, he made excuses for his pupil, an all too common habit when discussing the Chosen One with senior Jedi. "He has a habit of doing that. Improvising to see if he can make things work better."

"Knows few limits his confidence does," Yoda observed thoughtfully. "Becoming a powerful Jedi he is."

An ominous silence greeted that statement as his companions attempted to determine what the Grand Master meant as well as whether they agreed with such a sweeping statement. Neither could deny that they still shared some doubts on that score, nor that the Grand Master obviously felt those same concerns, else he would have chosen to utter a different epithet. As Yoda was all too fond of saying, not to mention reminding his pupils, power does not make one great.

"His skills do him credit," Obi-Wan murmured at last, knowing there had to be some reply to Master Yoda, even if it was a noncommittal one at that.

"More have you to say, Master Obi-Wan?" Yoda prompted with several taps of his gimer stick. "Champion him you once did. Now so thoughtful. Why?"

Obi-Wan shrugged. It was clear that Yoda had summoned him not for a defence of his Padawan, yet here he was prodding for such a response. He felt he was being tested just as much as Anakin. "I'm not sure what you would have me say, Master."

"Nothing I would have you say," Yoda admonished with another series of taps. "Determine what to say you must."

"You think him ready for the trials?" Mace ventured to ask.

Abruptly the gimer stick was raised from the floor and pointed at the Korun Master. "Say that I did not! Assume that you must not."

"Then why did you call us here, Master, if not to debate Anakin's readiness for the trials?" Obi-Wan inquired.

Yoda let his arm return to his previous position, then snorted. "Talked with you, Qui-Gon did?"

Mace clasped his hands together and leaned forward, intrigued, obviously uninformed of the appearance of the late master to Yoda and Obi-Wan beforehand, while Obi-Wan froze before slowly nodding in agreement. "Yes, Master."

"Talk to you of Anakin, did he?"

Once again Obi-Wan nodded. "He told me that Anakin has failed me, Master. And that the failure would cost us all."

Yoda nodded, humming at the reply, but adding another snort at the end. "Become ominous and vague in the Force, your master has. No longer concerned with the now, but the future, he is. More to learn, your Padawan has, but little of it can we teach. Acquire what is missing by himself he should. Nevertheless, undertake the trials Anakin must."

Silence greeted this judgement, as the Grand Master probably expected. After Geonosis the general opinion amongst the Council had been that Anakin was not ready to undertake the trials. This was not in light of his actions on Geonosis, but more in a judgement arising from the culmination of his time in the Order.

It was a common misconception that the transition from Padawan to Knight happened to every Jedi as soon as they reached a certain age. Usually it was dependent on their skills, maturity and self discipline. Some Padawans had been declared knights as young as fourteen standard years, others not until their thirtieth naming day. Determining when a Padawan was ready to undertake the trials was an art, unique to every initiate.

However this was the first time Obi-Wan knew of that a Padawan would undertake the trials so soon after a judgement that further training was needed. Or with so much self discipline to master. There was an admittance of failure implicit in Yoda's pronouncement, but who had failed whom? Even without the benefit of hindsight Obi-Wan knew he had not been ready to take on a Padawan, but he felt justified in doing so after spending time with the youngling on Naboo, and in light of Qui-Gon's dying request. Yet his master had admitted now that he was wrong to demand that Obi-Wan undertake such a responsibility.

Despite the assurances of the Grand Master and Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan could not help but feel he had failed Anakin. Never before had a Padawan been so unprepared for their trials, nor had the Order been resigned to just promote an unready initiate. Another exception made for the Chosen One once more, and just as equally distasteful the example set. Not that Anakin would be told any of this. So determined to become a Jedi, the boy was sure that his trials were unreasonably delayed, set far behind those of his agemates. In truth, he was not the first to undertake them, but nor was he the last.

"Tell him tomorrow you will, Master Kenobi," Yoda instructed, causing Obi-Wan to bow his head in acknowledgement. At least the traditions would be observed, which was some comfort he supposed. "Upon your return the knighting ceremony perform we will."

With that Yoda signed off, leaving Obi-Wan in worse comfort than he had experienced before he realised who the call was from. Silently he stared at the enduring symbol of the Council, the encircled bladed wings upon a star, his mind unable to deny the ominous signs which the emblem had suddenly appeared to acquire.

Part 21: A Time For Us.

"Delegates," their Paisian host greeted them with that next morning as they assembled at the conference table, the epithet designed to assign none of those present a superiority over another. "Yesterday we sat here and drafted a significant document. Today I ask you all to declare your allegiance by signature to uphold the wisdom of that treaty agreed by everyone here within this room."

There was a lengthy pause as the Senators, Jedi and members of the Separatist Confederacy read through the pads before them. One final check that everything needed to be covered by the treaty was couched within the words suitably and understandably, before committing themselves to the peace with a retinal scan. That the treaty would be ratified not just through the Senate but every planet involved was merely a formality, but the delegates were required to make sure there were little, if indeed any grounds for dispute.

Obi-Wan pushed aside his trepidation concerning his future conversation with Anakin in order to give the document before him the full attention which it deserved. After the bloodshed of Geonosis it was important that this peace treaty was upheld. The onus to keep the peace would not just be on the Jedi, but each of the delegates present. And, inevitability, if it failed, to them would the responsibility and guilt fall.

Just as it was with the conversation last night, there was nothing within the peace treaty to provide any comfort or reassurance. Words mattered little when there was an ideology at stake, as he had learned, not just to his cost, but that of the Republic. Nevertheless, he could see nothing wrong within the treaty before him. Raising the pad to his face, he allowed the device to record his retina on the document. An acknowledgement of which would be dispatched to the master treaty which their Paisian host currently held.

Padmé read through the words before her, conscious of the implications this treaty held not just for those present, but for the Republic, Confederacy and the Order as a whole. If any part of this treaty was declared unacceptable by any of the governments involved, everyone here would be to blame for not allowing for such a possibility. Unlike the Military Creation Act, none of them could afford for this treaty to be bungled. Doubtless there would be those who felt obliged to uphold the peace, just as she had felt when she learned on Geonosis that her representative had signed the very act she had risked her life to oppose.

Not that she blamed Jar Jar for his actions. If the MCA had not been rushed through the Senate, the Chancellor not granted executive powers to enable it, she and many of the Jedi on Geonosis would have been killed, or made prisoners of war. Count Dooku would never have listened to his conscience, and this peace treaty would never have existed. As distasteful as peace might have become to some beings, this was the happier alternative for everyone concerned. Reaching the end of treaty, she raised the pad to her eyes, allowing the device to record her allegiance.

Bail Organa kept one eye discreetly focused on the other delegates, watching as each one of them read through the peace treaty, some beings occasionally turning to their aides for consult when a word or term failed to be understood. Determined to have a fair gathering of all sides to negotiate this treaty, not everyone here could claim a fluency in language or diplomacy. This was a vitally important document, none of the beings responsible for its drafting and ratifying it could afford to remain ignorant regarding any of the clauses.

That they had succeeded in crafting this peace treaty was incredible. When they first came here, the bloodshed of Geonosis still fresh upon every being's mind, it had been doubtful that such a peace would be accorded. Nor in such a civilised manner by a number of his colleagues whom back in the Senate he could never count on for support in getting certain bills ratified into law. Granted there were a number of reasonable, like-minded fellow Senators present; Padmé Amidala, Mon Mothma, Garm Bel Iblis and Finis Valorum to name a few. There were some here whom he may not know to count as friends but know he could count on their support as well. However, the sizeable number of delegates whom previously he could not call upon for support could have made things extremely difficult, even perhaps sabotaging the treaty altogether.

But no one had. And whilst previously a good outcome such as this might have troubled him as auspicious, the point was that shortly this peace treaty would be ratified. No more would the Republic be troubled by the need for an army or any other potentially warmongering policy. At least not until this event was a moment in history, and he was not a man who borrowed trouble for the future. On the contrary he did everything to ensure that the future would take place. Raising his pad to his face, he let the device record his retinal agreement to the terms of the treaty, then sat back and waited for the rest of the delegates to finish ratifying it.

When the required number of scans - in other words all - were recorded in the master treaty which their host was holding, the Paisian rose from their seat to address those present once more.

"Delegates, you just have witnessed the treaty I hold," the Paisian uttered. "Note that this is a momentous day in the history of your governments. In one standard hour, a formal ratification of this peace treaty will be recorded by esteemed members of the HoloNet Broadcast Association. In the evening, this establishment will be hosting a reception to celebrate the declaration of peace between the Republic and the Separatists. Until then, I wish you good day."

Obi-Wan retired to his room, where he set up the com to talk with his Padawan. Already his mind was preparing himself for the conversation as though it were akin to aggressive negotiations. So much of his time with his Padawan was spent in negotiation and rarely did the debate go his way. Not without Anakin making his displeasure known, usually to all concerned. Keying in the access codes, first for Coruscant, then the Temple, then his quarters, he rehearsed his opening gambit and sent a prayer to the Force that his Padawan would take the news at face value and in a positive manner.

As usual the com device emitted a short series of beeps, designed to alert the person being hailed that there was a call waiting. Most messages allowed for only a certain number of times that the sequence would be repeated before asking the caller to leave a message. Usually Obi-Wan would have taken such an opportunity, even though it meant merely delaying whatever debate he might have with Anakin rather than avoiding it altogether. In this case however, the traditions of the trial demanded that he waited for Anakin to answer, so he bypassed the message locking cycle.

He never bothered to count the number of times that the sequence repeated itself before Anakin answered the call, as his Padawan never replied straight away. However, he was sure on this occasion that the bypass system was worn out by the time the blank screen cleared, revealing a bleary-eyed, stormy countenance within the visage of the Chosen One.

"Are you alright?" He asked, his previous strategy replaced by his concern for the boy.

"I'm fine," Anakin answered. "I just didn't sleep well. What's going on?"

Obi-Wan recognised the tone, and wisely refrained from inquiring further. Unless Anakin was willing to talk, he would not get an explanation any time soon. "The Council have requested your presence. They wish to give you details on your new assignment."

Immediately there appeared a certain spark in his Padawan's eyes. "A solo assignment?"

"Yes," Obi-Wan replied. "Otherwise known as your trials."

Rapidly the clouds cleared from Anakin's countenance. His apprentice suddenly appeared as eager as a youngling, untainted by the horrors of Zonama Sekot. The youngling Obi-Wan often missed.

"My trials!" Anakin cried. "Do you know what it is? Will I be done before you come back? Do I need to wait for your return?"

"No, I don't know what it is," Obi-Wan replied, "Padawan's Masters are never granted that privilege unless their apprentice chooses to tell them about the mission. No, you do not need to wait for my return, you must complete your trial without my advice or guiding hand. And as to whether you'll be done before I return, that depends on you, the nature of the trials, and the will of the Force."

"Of course," Anakin acknowledged. "I shall do my best not to disappoint you, master."

"You never have," Obi-Wan murmured. "I'll let you go and prepare. I have a press conference to attend."

His apprentice frowned. "A press conference? Not like the last one, is it? There hasn't been another explosion, has there?"

"No, we've crafted and signed the peace treaty," Obi-Wan replied, puzzled by Anakin's reaction to what had been a parting comment.

"Oh," his Padawan exhaled with something almost akin to relief. "I guess I'll see you upon my return then, Master. May the Force be with you."

"And with you, Anakin," Obi-Wan returned before signing off. For a moment he pondered the reaction his apprentice displayed. However, he could not think of anything that had been wrong with that briefing about the delegates determination to continue inspite of the bombing of their conference room.

Brushing the mystery aside, he disappeared into the refresher, preparing himself for the press conference.

On Coruscant, his apprentice practically leapt from his chair, all thoughts from the turmoil in which he had spent the night before forgotten. At last, he was to undergo the trials and become a knight. He had no doubt about his success. It was necessary, not just for himself, but for his wife. Once he was a knight he didn't have to worry about keeping his marriage a secret from the Order. He could shout it from the rooftops of the Temple if he felt so inclined.

Knowing the Council would not take well to his present appearance, Anakin took care to make himself into the dutiful Padawan of Master Kenobi before leaving the quarters he shared with his master. A thought crossed his mind as he headed down the corridor towards the grand lobby for the turbolifts which would take him to the council chamber. Would he be able to have his home outside the temple walls when he told them of his marriage to Padmé? He knew knights were allowed to have their own quarters, but he would feel uncomfortable living with his wife in the Temple. The Nubian Senatorial Residence was much nicer with its penthouse location and breathtaking views.

For the entire journey up to the council chamber he indulged himself in the luxury of imagining he was already knighted. Picturing his wife's reaction, that of the Chancellor's, his master and the rest of the Order. He recalled Obi-Wan's knighting ceremony, performed when they returned from Naboo. A mysterious occasion, cloaked in smoke and lightsabers, but one his master seemed touched by, as much as he understood his master back then.

Permitted to attend due to his status as the knight's new Padawan learner, He had witnessed Obi-Wan kneel before Master Yoda within a circle of drawn lightsabers, the mark of his Padawan achievements severed by the Grand Master's blade. One by one those present had congratulated him, before he made his way to Anakin's side. A marked contrast to what he had seen of Obi-Wan on Naboo, a silent constantly watching pupil, highly critical of the way his master had acquired Anakin, yet evidently talented in lightsaber combat. For the most part Qui-Gon had seemed to ignore him, yet Obi-Wan remained by his side.

He supposed Obi-Wan had given that same attention during his own training, as much as he had resented such protection at times. Yet he had been on his own for several days now, except when he had to spend sessions with a soul healer or Master Windu, and he found himself missing his master's presence. For all their disagreements, Obi-Wan had been a constant in his life, a shield against an unpredictable, sometimes horrifying universe. Against a Council determined to see the dark side in him.

The turbolift came to halt, causing Anakin to rapidly school his thoughts. It would not do to have such negative opinions within his mind when meeting the Council. They might just refuse to give him his trials and he could not have that. He was a Jedi knight, had been for years. It had just taken the Council awhile to acknowledge his rank.

As he walked down the small corridor which led to the grand entrance of the Council Chamber, he allowed himself to contemplate what sort of mission he would be given for his trials. Not an escort mission, or a duel with a Sith, unfortunately, he had already been through those trials, gaining a wife and losing an arm in the process. As much as he would have liked either of those challenges, the Council would probably choose something he had never experienced before. Although what that could be, he had no idea, he'd certainly experienced plenty compared to the average Padawan.

With that last thought he came to a halt before the grand entrance of the Council Chamber, the closed barrier managing to appear somewhat imposing to his much vaunted ego. Clearing his mind of the wayward scattered thoughts which currently littered his psyche, Anakin brushed himself down and pressed the admittance request control.

As the doors swished sideways, permitting him to enter, he took in the sight of every seat in the Council full, a rare and somewhat unsettling sight. He had thought some had joined the delegates from Pais, but clearly if they had, those had already returned, indicating that the parties were close to an agreement. Usually one or another were represented by blue holos as they toiled away on missions no other Jedi could be trusted with. To see them all present reminded him too much of his first introduction to them as a youngling slave boy recently freed. Suddenly Anakin felt his confidence plummet through the floor, his bravado replaced by a tingling fear that he was about to lose everything.

"Padawan Skywalker," Mace Windu began, leaning forward in his seat, his right as head of the Council to open proceedings. "I take it you received your master's message regarding our summons?"

Gone was the recent friendliness he had experienced during their training sessions in the form of Vaapad. Anakin gulped, feeling very much like a nervous youngling. "Yes, Master Windu. I came as soon as he informed me."

Yoda moved his gimer stick to rest under clasped hands below his chin and in a manner which was eerily reminiscent of that first meeting ten years ago, he murmured, "how feel you?"

Unlike that meeting however, Anakin knew that the Council would not take kindly to false courage. "Apprehensive of the fate which awaits me."

"Learned much you have," Yoda observed, leaning back into the confines of his chair, the gimer stick resting at an angle. "Remember your training, help you it will."

"Yes, Master," Anakin replied solemnly.

"A mission for you we have," Yoda revealed.

Anakin nodded, his dark blue eyes slowly taking the measure of every Council member, and then gathered himself, making sure that they knew he was ready to prove himself to all of them if he had to, as he waited for the details of his trials to be revealed.

Padmé surveyed the ball-gown Dormé had packed for her somewhat apprehensively. Ordinarily she would have no compunction attending the function this evening in such sumptuous attire, but on this occasion the gown revealed a little too much skin for her liking. She knew that custom required she danced and the thought of some guests who were bound to ask her, and whom she could not refuse, touching her skin, was unsettling to say the least. Not to mention the ones whom ordinarily she would have no problem dancing with.

Abandoning the dress for a moment she rummaged through the rest of her wardrobe to see if her handmaiden had packed anything more suitable. Due to the sudden nature of these negotiations Padmé had not had the time to assist Dormé in the packing. She had been too busy attending the Senate as the Senators and the Chancellor picked who to send to Pais. Added to that she had to select a representative to govern in her absence, then converse with Queen Jamillia and the government back on Naboo. Finally soothe a Gungan whose feelings were a little saddened by her decision not to have him as her representative this time. As much as she held affection for Jar Jar, Padmé dread to think what he might do if she left him to run her office again, however instrumental his last actions within that role of office had been regarding the blood shed on Geonosis.

Reluctantly she gave up the search for another gown as she reached the last garment in her wardrobe. Despite her misgivings she would have to wear the purple Nubian silk. Shredding her current garment she disappeared into the refresher, showering away all the hours of peace treaty signing and public briefings. A treaty declaration in front of the esteemed HoloNet press was never a fun gathering at the best of times, and this bunch had been particularly annoying. Half way through the questions she was beginning to wish their Paisian host had not allowed to be asked, all concern for the peace treaty had subsided in favour of scandal mongering. She wouldn't have been surprised if the group had been gathered from the society section.

Emerging from the refresher, she picked up the gown, noticing the extra layer attached to the hanger with much relief. Thankfully she slipped on the transparent skin shift that Dormé had thoughtfully included, which while it did nothing to hide her beauty certainly protected her flesh from unwanted attention. Then she unhooked the purple silk and carefully gathered the garment around her body. As she fastened the discreetly hidden clips Padmé moved to standing before the mirror, wordlessly surveying her reflection. Even with the skin coloured shift the silk clung to her. Anakin would throw a fit if he saw her wearing this to a Senate function, let alone this celebration. She was thankful no press had been permitted to cover the occasion.

There it was again, that irrational fear of her husband's temper, the one which appeared when he confessed to her the full horror of his bid to rescue his mother on Tatooine. Not just fear at what he had done, but fear concerning the nature of what he had done would do to him. Jedi or no, there were laws, moral laws against committing such atrocities. She'd been half tempted to tell his master, but there was no way she could burden Obi-Wan with this. He worried too much over Anakin as it was, and perhaps with good reason. However, that kernel of fear refused to go away, continuing instead to grow deep inside her.

And now it was daring to exercise a command over where she went, who she saw and what she wore. Padmé blinked at the regal woman staring back at her, knowing the reflection was only surface deep. Where was the girl who had donned a handmaiden's uniform, formed a previously impossible alliance and rescued her blockaded planet?

A spark flashed into her eyes as she recalled those somewhat innocent days, almost untainted by the dirty politicking she was more familiar with now. Reassuring herself that the girl was still there, underneath the finery and the fear, she fixed her hair into an artful stylish coil her handmaiden would have been proud of, then determinedly turned away from the mirror and walked out of the room.

More than a few fellow delegates turned to gaze at her as she headed down the corridor to the turbolifts. Senator Amidala was a beautiful woman and those who previously thought of her as only young and intelligent were now beginning to realise that third asset. She was a valuable colleague to have and those she passed began to see that the Senate was not the only place where they would be proud to have such a woman by their side.

The turbolift was already occupied, and when the door swished aside, the passenger gave out a long, low whistle of appreciation, followed by an elaborate bow, before reaching out to take her hand, bestowing upon the soft skin a devoted kiss. "Milady, you look stunning."

Padmé blushed, but inwardly the candle inside her which was that girl who had secured the peace and freedom of her world, acquired a strength to its flame. "Thank you, Garen," she added as entered the lift. "Will Master Kenobi be joining us?" She asked, knowing that the Jedi delegation were all on the same floor, between the area of the hotel occupied by the Separatists and the section by the Senators.

"Momentarily. He has been detained by the Council," Garen informed her. Privately he wondered what his friend would make of the Nubian Senator's ensemble. A smirk crossed his face. He'd give anything to be there when his friend caught sight of Senator Amidala. If anything could make Kenobi drop his mask and reveal the feelings for her, this dress could.

The turbolift resumed its journey down to the grand entertaining floor, which Pais had installed with magnificent reception rooms, featuring expansive views of the planet's glorious countryside. At night the view was lit by soft glowing torches, allowing for the divine exposure of the land under a starry sky.

A few dignitaries were already present when Padmé entered, Garen offering his arm to her in true courtly fashion. Some were engaging in dancing to the classical music an orchestra of Paisians were performing, but most were quartered off the sides and corners of the room, talking, or else out on the promenade decking, enjoying the views.

"Would you care to grace my hand with yours, milady?" Garen asked, and she nodded, allowing him to elegantly sweep her off on to the floor into the waltz.

Memories flooded into her mind of dancing lessons, and the celebrations after freeing her planet from the blockade; the various social occasions she had attended as Queen then Senator. Padmé had danced with Jedi before, as well as her fellow colleagues, and as always one could tell the difference between those who had trained privately, at the usual finishing schools, or the Temple. For her, the Jedi seemed to produce the superior dancing partner, a by-product of the lightsaber forms she supposed.

Garen was a superb dancer, as she quickly discovered, able to lead her through the steps of the most intricate waltz. Forgetting all outside influences she allowed herself to swept way in the beauty of the steps, the silent admiration of an attractive, intelligent man who flirted with her without fear of, or desire to let such a dalliance touch her heart, along with the occasional quip of conversation when the music and dance allowed.

Afterwards he escorted her off the floor into the corner of the room occupied by Senators Organa, Mon Mothma, Bel Iblis and, to her surprise, Count Dooku, who looked humbled to be considered welcome in such company.

"Senator Amidala," he remarked, bowing before her. "May I say what a pleasure it has been to converse with you in much more hospital circumstances. I hope you will allow this treaty as the foundation of a new and more favourable understanding between us."

Padmé nodded, she was not above a reconciliation of sorts, however much a part of her still found difficult to trust or like the man after what injuries he inflicted on Obi-Wan, Anakin and the Jedi. "Of course, Count."
"The Count was discussing with the us possibility of allowing delegates from the Separatists to stand in the Senate," Bel Iblis revealed.

She raised an eyebrow at that. "As part of continuing the foundations formed from the peace treaty?" she murmured thoughtfully.

"Exactly," Dooku replied. "Do you think the Chancellor would be amenable to such representation?"

Padmé stared at him considering. There was a slight smile on his face which suggested that he knew much more than he was willing to let on, and not just about the Chancellor. "Such a decision would be up to the members of the Senate," she replied, "but with the support of the delegation here, such a custom might be practised."

"Would you be one of the delegates, Count?" Garen asked.

"Yes," Dooku replied. "I am considering returning to Coruscant for a time. I would like to talk with the esteemed members of the Jedi Council, if they are willing to grant me such a privilege."

"I am not authorised to speak for them," Garen replied. "But I am sure I can find someone who is."

Padmé frowned at his reply. "I thought a few of the Council were here for the negotiations?"

"A few were, yes," Garen confirmed, "but they have since returned, as their services are required in the Core. A few Padawans are taking their trials, and all Council members are required to be present for the mission briefings. Master Kenobi's among them," he added, as the grand entrance foyer into the ballroom admitted the Jedi in question.

Some of the guests present turned to glance at the new arrival, taking in the sight of a Jedi Knight in dress uniform with a measured stare, all realising how attractive the knight in question was. Padmé felt her heart skip a beat as she cautioned herself to take a deep breath when his grey blue gaze met hers across the crowded room. If she had the power to slip behind his Jedi mask she would have been as discomposed of what he was thinking as he was by what she was wearing. He knew she was beautiful, but rarely had he seen her in anything which showed off that beauty. The gown clung to her curves, her long dark her hung in elegantly coiffure curls, restrained by sparkling jewels of the same shade as the silk which covered her skin. An image of him peeling away those silks and gemstones sprung to mind, causing his heart to hunger.

"Padawan Skywalker is to undergo his trials?" Count Dooku sought to confirm, unknowingly breaking the spell between the Chosen One's Master and the Nubian Senator. "I would have thought the darkness of Geonosis earned him his knighthood like that Sith duel did his master."

"The Council desired that he be given time to recover from the injuries he suffered on Geonosis. And Obi-Wan requested that Anakin be granted the traditional trials," Garen informed him, as his friend crossed the ballroom to join their group. "An honour he wished he had earned himself," he added quietly.

"As I heard, he had earned that honour well before the incident on Naboo," the Count of Serenno murmured quietly. "My old pupil was just reluctant to lose him so soon to the ranks of the Knights."

Padmé raised an eyebrow at that, then hurriedly schooled her features into unthinking serenity as Master Kenobi finally joined them.

"Senators, Count," he greeted in his rich Core accent. "Garen."

"Good evening, Obi-Wan," Garen returned. "Your talk with Anakin went well?"

"As well as I hoped," Obi-Wan replied. "He was brimming with enthusiasm." Privately he wondered how long that would last. Though the Council had not revealed the details of the mission to him - that was up to the whim of his apprentice - he did not think it would meet with Anakin's expectations.

"Master Kenobi, Count Dooku has just informed us that he was planning a sojourn on Coruscant," Bail Organa informed him.

"Is that so?" Obi-Wan murmured, turning to the Count.

Dooku nodded. "I had hope to spend a little time in the Senate and Temple, if the Council will permit me that honour."

"I shall speak with them about it," Obi-Wan replied.

Bail finished his drink, handing the glass to nearby waiter, then he held out his hand to the beautiful Nubian Senator. "Padmé, may I have this dance?"

Padmé placed her hand in his outstretched one and allowed herself to be swept out on to the dance floor once again.

Obi-Wan turned to watch her, unaware of the expression which flitted across his face as he did so. Fortunately Garen was the only one who caught sight of it. He too wished he could dance with the lady who held his heart, but Nineve had decided to remain in their room, believing it would be unwise for her to show her face down here, as amongst the delegates there were some beings who might recognise her.

"Dance with her," Garen whispered to his friend, referring to Padmé, concealing his grin as a fleeting expression of shock flitted through Obi-Wan's face.

The comment was beautifully timed, as the music finished before the orchestra prepared for the next piece. Bail escorted Padmé back to their cadre, practically right in front of the Coruscanti master.

Obi-Wan thought of Anakin back home, then found the beautiful Senator's brown eyed gaze, seeking out his own. With a elegant bow, he held out his hand. "Would you do me the honour, milady?"

Padmé found herself swept back to the moment he had held her in his arms after the explosion, then to their reunion when he and his padawan were assigned to protect her against the attempts made on her life,before she discovered what Anakin felt for her still. She placed her hand in his. "It is I who would be honoured, Master Kenobi."

No one but the Knight and the lady witnessed him bestowing a kiss upon that hand before moving it to rest against her heart in the required position of dance. As he swept her out on to the floor it was as if there was no one else in the universe but them. For as long as the music played they felt a wealth of limitless possibilities gracing their minds. A thousand temptations begging to be contemplated, even played out.

A series of possible futures mapped themselves out within their imaginations, enticing their hearts as their bodies moved as one in the steps of dance. Not even the Force was cautioning them, other than the occasional word to the wise. To be mindful of all which had passed to give them this time, this place. That divine being of energy had faith that they would endure every storm. What they needed now was a glance of what the future could bring, if they possessed a mind and desire to bring such an event about. One powerful enough to linger within their memory, long after the last note faded away.

Part 22: Initiation.

Anakin Skywalker slumped into the private booth of the little tavern he had found and surveyed the menu for alcohol. Normally he would be disgusted with himself for resorting to such a method in order to survive a mission, but on this occasion, his boredom was such that he had to make an exception. If he didn't finish this evening without getting thoroughly and utterly drunk, then this planet had no redeeming qualities.

Selecting a reasonably priced ale that was well within his budget for the mission, Anakin spent the time it took for the waiter droid to bring him what he planned to be his first in a series of drinks, contemplating how to explain away this part of the mission expenses. There was no way his meagre personal savings would cover the eventual bill, for despite the fact that he usually hated being drunk, thanks to the Jedi technique of cleansing toxins from the body, he could hold his drink more than most. Tonight however, those skills would be forgotten.

Providing he was sober long enough to remember them.

The droid placed the first glass of lum before him and Anakin decided to show off by draining the liquor in one go. Motioning the machine to bring him another, he leaned back into the confines of the nerf leather covered seats and reflected over what had led him here.

When the Jedi Council sprung this mission on him as his trials, he had been hoping that the mission details were a cover for devious undertakings followed by a lightsaber duel at the end of it. Assignments from the Order rarely managed to remain simple and whenever he or his master were involved, never failed to be interesting. So far, this mission had managed to accomplish both goals, or rather failures, and it was only his first day.

Instead of featuring a cover for operational deception followed by aggressive negotiations, the mission turned out to be exactly what the Council had told him it would; a simple, practically mind-numbingly straightforward verbal negotiation on ownership rights regarding a local mine, in which a vast source of highly valuable durasteel had recently been unearthed. The mine was family owned and naturally the owners wanted to keep it within the family. Their local council however, wanted the profit laced from the selling of the durasteel to benefit the entire planet, something it could also quite easily do, while not depriving the family who owned the mine from seeing some of its riches either.

Talks arranged first by the planet's governing body and then by the Senate had resolved nothing, causing the members involved to turn to the Jedi.

Who, in their dubious wisdom, had decided to send him.

A wisdom which Anakin found himself questioning almost from the moment he had been given the assignment. Wondering why they decided to send him as opposed to one of their trained negotiators who hadn't gone to Pais, or one of the Council members who had returned, or better still another senior Padawan ready for his or her trials, who had some background in negotiations such as these. It was not that that he didn't believe himself capable, it was just usually he let Obi-Wan handle these types of talks, while he remained alert, waiting for the moment in the talks where they turned sour, when a lightsaber might need to be used.

He also couldn't help but wonder if there was something deliberate about the Council's decision to send him here. Almost as if they expected him to fail, so he would return to the Temple a humbler and much more willing to learn Padawan. He would not put such deviousness past the Council, especially since their decision to have him undergo his trials had come mere weeks after Geonosis and their orders that he recuperate, learn to use his prosthetic, and visit a soul healer. Surely Master Windu's conclusions gathered from teaching him Vaapad could not have altered their opinions about him this much.

Anakin had spent much of the talks pondering these thoughts in his head and reaching no useful, or for that matter, comforting, conclusions. Attempting to find some now, in this tavern which he had sought out for the sole purpose of getting drunk, would accomplish nothing either, except the failure to lose his sobriety.

Soundlessly he allowed himself to concentrate on nothing more but the gap between each drink, until he lost count of how much he had consumed. Then he allowed his fingers to slip inside his tunic pocket to caress the gift which the Chancellor had given him before he left his residence that tormented dawn.

At first glance the little gold device held nothing remarkable about it. No one could be blamed for believing it to be nothing more a small, portable comlink. Which, as the Chancellor had explained to him, was precisely what it was. But it was also a comlink with a difference. Not only did it contain a small viewscreen, allowing the user to scan listed numbers, but it also held a built in voice modulator, which disguised both the person using the device, and who they were speaking to.

A perfect comlink for undercover missions, one might conclude, except that these comlinks could only be used by anyone and everyone who had access to them. It was the fact that this access was vigorously controlled which rendered the comlinks mysterious and unusual. For nobody could have one without the invitation of another who had one. Nor did an owner know who else possessed one, unless they happened to see the device about their person. And when it was almost indistinguishable from a normal comlink, acquiring such knowledge was impossible.

The Chancellor had impressed upon him never to reveal that it was he who had given him this device, and Anakin had been a little puzzled by that, until the Chancellor explained that anonymity was the very basis behind the comlink, and vital to all those who owned one. For if the knowledge was ever revealed to the Republic at large, the Senate and the Order were liable to collapse under the weight of the scandal involved.

Such an explanation naturally caught his attention. At first he had been incredulous at the very idea of the Jedi being involved in something scandalous. But the Chancellor assured him that it was indeed the case. After assuring the older man that he would betray nothing of what had passed between them this evening, Anakin came to learn, much to his horror, that scandal was a perfectly apt description.

And an utter understatement.

The comlink he held in his hand, as he discovered that night, and others like it, belonged to members of an exclusive, invitation only, clique, otherwise known as the List. A group of individuals, anonymous in all but number, grouped together through one dubious interest. Via one call through this comlink or any other, two members would met up and spend the night with each other. Without names or credits, or the slightest form of commitment exchanged between them. In short, what he had access to in his hand at this moment, was the universe's largest free brothel.

On Tatooine, as a slave owned by first the Hutts and then Watto, he had grown used to the concept of beings selling themselves. The flesh trade in all its vices had flourished on the lawless planet, where the harsh weather and lack of water made almost anything a valued commodity. By the time he could walk and talk he knew the facts of life, or rather, the acts which normally led to producing life, as well as the steps which the beings involved strove to avoid doing so. He had seen females and males, though thankfully not himself or his mother, being bartered over for all manner of pleasurable sins. Childish innocence was not a concept beings from Tatooine understood, yet alone believed existed.

He had often wondered what would have happened if the Hutts had never sold he and his mother to Watto, or if Qui-Gon had never freed him from slavery. Cliegg Lars would have hardly wanted him getting in the way of his pursuit of his mother, if Watto had kept him that long. He had proved himself useful in fixing things, but he would have soon outgrown the ability to compete in the pod races. No, Anakin had come to the conclusion that Watto would have sold him on as soon as he was too tall to fit into the pods. And his mother would be able to do nothing but watch. If he was lucky he had might have got himself sold as a bodyguard, or a mercenary, or a soldier, even a pirate. But Tatooine auctions also catered to the brothels of the universe, and none of them would be as dainty as the List purported to be.

Becoming a Jedi Padawan however, had hardly protected him from the darker side of the known universe either. Nearly every mission he and his Master had been sent on dealt with the murkier side of the Republic, or those worlds situated on the fringe of that alliance of planets, augmenting the knowledge he had gained from his childhood on Tatooine. Curious and chafing under Obi-Wan's training, Anakin had sought out all forms of amusement he could, from the mildest to the most dangerous, becoming adept at avoiding his master, who usually hauled him out of them either for a personal reprimand, or a formal one in front the of Council.

When he had met Padmé again, he had been surprised to find her as innocent in the murkier dealings of the universe as she was ten years earlier. Frightened of shocking her, he had concealed what he learned, allowing her to believe he was even more innocent than she upon their wedding night. Now however, he began to wonder if such was really the case. For the Chancellor had implied that all of the Senate were aware and possibly members, of the List, along with a significant proportion of the Order.

He remembered once more that brief flash of disappointment he had caught during their brief honeymoon in the villa at Varykino. The one so rapidly hidden he became convinced that he had imagined it. The unusual closeness between her and his master that he saw in the briefing from Pais after the explosion, along with that implication the Chancellor had made concerning them. Her many years of service in Senate, punctuated by a few breaks away from Coruscant. Just where had she been spending each recess, he wondered.

Another ale was deposited before him by the waitress droid and Anakin sipped it moodily, realising abruptly that he had been unconsciously using the Force to siphon off the effects of the alcohol he had already consumed. He was still entirely too sober for his liking. Grimly, he set the impulse aside and swallowed the rest of the drink before signalling to the barkeep for another.

Placing the special comlink upon the table, he stared at the small viewscreen, his blue eyes keenly observing the scrolling list of hailing codes. None were familiar to him, but then again there was no reason why they should be, for each was entirely unique and assigned randomly to each member upon their invitation to the List. Even he had one now, embedded within the comlink, his access to it blocked, due the anonymity of the group. Since no one knew their number, each meeting was truly secret, only repeated as if by luck. If he really wanted to, Anakin supposed he could try splicing for the number, but at the moment, a part of him was still incredulous as to the motion of him tapping on a code and then the receiver deciding if they were willing to spend the night with him.

He realised of course that there were limitations within the devices. For one thing it required for the receiver to be on the same planet if they were to meet up. A long distance location finder was built into the device, but for him to meet anyone of them right away, they would have to be on the same planet as he. Which, if he hadn't been within hours travelling distance of the Core, would have narrowed the parameters considerably. As he was, all they would have to do is agree which planet to meet on, then catch the next transport. Which would require funds for said transport, as well as funds for the room, not to mention a room being available, though it was impossible to render the Coruscant hotelier district fully booked for any length of time.

Pondering this thought, Anakin realised he was still much sober for his liking, and continuing to think about the details of the List, would keep him in that sobriety for quite some time. Really, he had only one decision to make. Whether or not to try the comlink during this mission, or wait until he was back on Coruscant, and additionally, whether he preferred to do so in a drunken state. If he decided not to remain sober, he would have to wait for someone to call him, as etiquette required whoever arrange the meeting paid for the room, as well any additional expenses, such as drinks and or a meal, none of which he could afford at this moment.

So there was no point in further exploring device tonight. Unless it rang, he had to ignore the possibilities behind it, and focus on getting drunk.

A task which he had yet to do.

Clasping at the fresh drink placed before him, Anakin pushed aside his remaining mistrust and curiosity, then set about accomplishing that desire.

Padmé returned to her room with the music of the dance which she waltzed with Obi-Wan foremost in her mind. When the door closed she leaned against it, as her thoughts returned to that moment, reflecting on all she had felt. The sensations which the dance created seemed just as powerful now as they were then, causing her to lose the strength to stand, leaving her no choice but to sink to the floor. Gently, cautious of ruining the Nubian silk, she gathered her knees to her chest, before resting her head upon them. D

Dancing with Obi-Wan had felt so natural. That safe feeling which she always savoured whenever she was within his arms had been present, but this time with an additional thrill of untapped desire. With every step she was aware of the touch of his hand upon the small of her back, just above the silk, his callused palm against her transparent skin shift. His other hand had clasped one of hers, pressed below her shoulder, above the strands of silk, sheer linen, flesh and bone which sheltered her heart. As they crossed the room, encircling their way through the other dancers, she could feel the ends of his recently trimmed hair caress her other hand, as it clasped the back of his neck.

She had felt an almost irresistible desire to stroke him there, to finger the ends of his new hair style, which leant an added air of sophistication to his cultured Coruscanti accent. Before her had been the accomplished Master, not the rugged Knight or tempered Padawan. A man confident in almost everything, except what she felt for him, as she realised during their waltz, for she could read the uncertainty in his eyes, their sea shaded gaze never leaving hers. Nor could she make a move to withdraw her own from them, as lost in the moment as he.

Everything within the ballroom faded from her notice, except for the music which seemed forever embedded upon her mind, and an atmosphere which she had been unable to shake. It was something she had never encountered before, nor ever likely to do so again, for the sensations were being bestowed upon her. Conducted to a grand design, influenced by neither herself nor Obi-Wan, but by another who flowed through them.

Untutored she was in the ways of the Force, but not entirely ignorant of its methods, she had been unable to deny its existence within the waltz, for those sensations which called to her throughout the dance belonged to it, urging her to look, listen and learn. To prepare herself for future which the divine energy could not only foresee, but was offering up to her. A future not with Anakin, but with Obi-Wan, presented in such a way as to erase any argument which might have come to mind. And not just her mind, she realised, for the energy had shown that hereafter to Obi-Wan too.

What startled her the most was how receptive they had both been to the notion, how much they desired and welcomed such a union. For the first time she realised the extent to which Obi-Wan admired her beauty, her intelligence, her very soul.

The revelation caught her completely by surprise. She had not expected him to ever feel something beyond the mutual respect and friendship built upon the many years they had known each other. Despite those encounters with him in the palace gardens on Naboo, she regarded his opinion of her to resemble that which he felt for Ani, an almost parental, fraternal indulgence. He was a Jedi after all, who must have encountered more fascinating women than she in his lifetime. Nothing could have singled her out from the rest.

But there was no mistaking the look his sea shaded eyes bestowed upon her tonight, the warm admiration in his expression. There was a fire in his eyes, a depth of desire she realised had always been there, concealed by layers of Jedi serenity, now laid bare by the will of the Force. She knew if they had been alone, she would have erased the distance between them, letting his hands caress her, while her lips tasted his. Fantasies previously only explored in her imagination, born from a somewhat youthful fascination of the brooding Padawan he had once been, to the Knight and then Master who danced with her now.

When the music reached its coda, the two of them coming to a gentle halt before parting to opposite corners of the floor, she had realised something else too. That her marriage to Anakin was over, before it had even properly begun. What she felt for Obi-Wan was deeper than anything she had ever felt for Anakin, and it was unfair on all of them to stay in what would soon prove to be a loveless marriage. She was already cautious concerning his temper, his reactions as to who she spent time with, not to mention her revulsion for the atrocity he committed on Tatooine. Coupled with the secrecy demanded due to his commitment to the Order and her desire for a family, there was nothing keeping her married to him.

Realising this brought another set of problems however; all centring how best to break such a decision to Anakin. His temper would most likely erupt, along with his persistence and impatience, for they had married on Naboo, and Nubian divorces, while highly regarded for their discretion and care, also held the reputation of being the longest proceedings within the Republic. Her motive offered by way of explanation to Anakin could not be the whole truth, as it would only worsen the contradictory mess of feelings he held for his master. She could not foresee how to avoid denying Obi-Wan's influence however, coming to such as decision as she had fresh from Pais.

Sighing, Padmé summoned the strength to rise up from the floor and take off the Nubian silk gown. Carefully she hung the garment up, so the creases acquired from her previous position would be gone before she packed in the morning. Quietly she continued with her current line of thought as she changed into her nightgown. There was an overwhelming temptation to delay mentioning the matter to Anakin, but in view of the lengthy Naboo divorce proceedings, she could not really afford to do so.

While the divorce and the reforms to the Jedi would allow her to reveal her feelings to Obi-Wan, Padmé knew she must keep them silent. Anakin would never take well to the news and there would be no way to keep the relationship a secret from him, unless they kept it secret from everyone else. And she could not, would not do this again, the pressures and the experience too painful to attempt a second time. Nor did she believe that Obi-Wan would willingly enter into such a relationship. He was an honourable man, who served the Order to best of his abilities. His sense of duty, his very conscience, would not allow him to lie for their love.

Once more her decisions had laid herself open to an impossible position, though this time it was of her own making, uninfluenced by all but Anakin. She could not stay married to him, but nor could she marry anyone else while he still claimed possession of her, even when his legal right was annulled. Obi-Wan had warned her, and though his method was hardly befitting his title of the Negotiator, he had been right to do so.

Padmé fished out her jumpsuit and pocket comlink, knowing that in her current state of mind she would find little sleep tonight. Once attired in the former, she put her hair in a simple ponytail and headed for the hotel's gym in the hope that physical exertion would conquer her present mental equilibrium.

The comlink began to beep.

Anakin blinked wearily as he looked up from where his head was resting upon the tavern table, surrounded by empty ale glasses. For a moment he failed to recognise the difference between the small gold coloured device and the one issued to him by the Order, causing a somewhat panicked fumbling through pockets as he tried to recollect where both devices were kept.

Finally he fished the device out of a pocket of his robes, having achieved his objective upon entering the tavern several hours ago. He was presently on his way to total alcohol induced oblivion, but the sound of the hail coming from this particular device caused him reluctantly to use the Force to initiate the usual detoxification methods.

Wordlessly he held the device in his hands before him, as his mind tried to work past the sudden incomprehension at the sound it was emitting and why. His first impulse was to ignore the hail, for it was unlikely that the person hailing was close enough to meet him, and did he really want to try this tonight anyway, or even at all?

But his usual fearless curiosity won over and almost before he was even aware of it, his fingers were tapping the acceptance button and putting the device to his ear.

"Are you free tonight?" a sexless mechanised voice asked with an almost seductive air.

"Yes," Anakin replied.

"Where are you?" the voice inquired.

Anakin gave the name of the tavern and planet.

"There is a small house round the corner, I will meet you there," the voice replied, signing off without giving him a chance to refuse.
Slipping the device into his pocket, Anakin beckoned a droid over and paid up his rather expensive liquor bill. Detoxifying the last remnants of his drunkenness away, he headed out of the tavern to find the house and the woman - at least he presumed it was a woman - waiting for him there.

Her description was accurate, the small, ground level house was indeed just round the corner. Dark except for one small light shining through an equally small window, casting a glow around the figure waiting outside. Using the Force to aid his perception, Anakin was soon able to distinguish her lithe form from the surrounding darkness. Her hair was jet black, a surprising contrast to her pale blue eyes, one of which seemed more artificial than the other. As he came closer he could see that she was a Dathomirian, causing him to wonder if she had any talent with the Force.

As he came to a halt before her, she gave him a thorough appraisal, her stare almost cold and somewhat calculating. "You're younger than I thought you would be," she murmured. Taking a pace forward, she encircled him, continuing her evaluation until Anakin felt he was an exhibit on display. When she came full circle, her pale blue eyes never leaving his form, her opinion was left unaired as she swept into the dwelling, expecting him to follow her rather then requesting him to do so.

With ever increasing trepidation, Anakin took one last glance at their surroundings, and then stepped inside.

One room was encompassed within the four walls, a simple bed in a corner, and a large hearth with a roaring blaze, the only light in an otherwise primitive dwelling. If it were not for the absence of sand, Anakin would have felt he was back in the slave community on Tatooine. However, he barely had time to take in his surroundings, for as soon as he closed the door she leapt upon him, tearing off his Jedi robes.

Her mouth foisted itself upon his, as she set the pace and the course of the rest of the night. Anakin could do naught but follow her lead. Like the dwelling, there was something very primitive in her lovemaking, an animalistic desire to conquer his body with her own. She scratched his skin, gripping, groping with a fierce tenacity that matched the strength of his cybernetic arm. Her passion caused him to respond with equal intensity, a stark contrast to the gentle, almost kid glove way he made love with Padmé. He forced any thought of her away, except to remind himself of the anger he felt when he saw her during the briefing from Pais, the closeness with his master. That dark emotion was seized upon by his lover, as she lay siege to his body.

She pushed him on to the bedding, her hands clawing him as she impaled herself. Tightly she gripped him, until he felt as if he was being drained of all his strength, physically and forcefully. Powerfully she rode him, pressing him into the cloths beneath his body, her mouth emitting loud guttural growls. With a keening cry she reached her climax, driving him to completion simultaneously.

Anakin barely had time to draw breath before she deftly swapped positions, managing to keep him inside her. Her nails ran slowly down his back, delving themselves between his buttocks until he groaned with arousal. Though he was on top of her, she was still very much in control, urging him to ride her harder and harder. With every stroke he hammered her into the mattress, as her keening cries urged him onwards, her muscles growing ever tighter around him. At times he felt like he was killing her, the air around them thick with the Force, pounding in time with their hearts, chanting with their breath, as though he were on her homeworld, attending the legendary Dathormirian witch incantations.

The union was intense, deeper than what he had ever experienced, even with Padmé, whom he claimed to love more than life itself. Not only was the air thick with the Force, but he felt the power of that ancient energy in a way he never had before. Eddies swirled over and through him, plunging him down, into the very depths, until he believed he could almost drown within the currents. A crackling sound penetrated their world, reminding him of the lightning he endured from Dooku, but which he knew to be from the large fire, the only source of light within the dwelling.

Again and again she conquered him, until he collapsed from exhaustion. Uncaring as to the risk to himself, or to her in this somewhat dubious neighbourhood, he let himself fall amongst the bedding, seeking another oblivion through unconsciousness.

His companion spared him a glance, then with a soft growl checked him over to make sure he was uninjured. Her master would be displeased if his prize were mortally harmed. He had been most angry with Dooku when he learned of the dismemberment on Geonosis. Gathering her clothing, she dressed herself, leaving him the digits of her code within the List, scrawled on to a piece of flimsi, wrapped around the golden comlink, secured in a pocket of his robes.

Leaving the dwelling, she waited until she was a suitable distance from the place before shedding the wig from her head. Only when she was inside the cockpit of her ship did she discarded the thing completely, desirous of no one discovering the item and tracing it to her.

Dropping to one knee before the holo projector, she hailed her master.

"Ahh, Asajj," Darth Sidious greeted her. "Report, my Hand."

"He has been plucked, my master," Ventress answered.

"Excellent," Sidious murmured. "Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen."

Part 23: Homecoming.

The Senate and Jedi delegations docked at the Senate entrance hanger, returning in triumph to Coruscant. A welcoming committee was there to greet them, which included members of the Jedi Council, the Chancellor, and noted Senators who did not attend the Pais negotiations, as well as the esteemed members of the HoloNet press. The political body disembarked first, allowing the members of the Order to discreetly transfer their guest into a transport for the Temple.

When the knights and masters descended from their ship, the fuss was still focused upon the Senate delegation, allowing Obi-Wan to greet Masters Yoda and Windu in relative privacy. A single look passed between the three of them was all it took to determine that his decision regarding the guest had been the right one.

With all the skill of a Grand Master, Yoda led them away from the cluster of Senators and press, down the colonnade towards the southern exits for transports. Leaving from where they had just arrived would render attention in an Order which craved solitude and discretion. Idly Obi-Wan wondered how long such preferences would remain so when the new reforms were ushered in.

"The Council is awaiting your report of the sabotage and the rest of the negotiations," Mace remarked.

Obi-Wan nodded, but added a demur all the same. "I'm not sure I can contribute anything more beyond what those of the Council who attended already have."

"Vital everyone's viewpoint is," Yoda murmured. "Caught something others perhaps missed, you might."

"Very well," Obi-Wan conceded. "I take it Anakin is still undertaking his trials?"

"Lengthy negotiations we gave him," Yoda explained. "Unsure when your return for the knighting ceremony would be."

"Ah," Obi-Wan murmured. "He could do with mastering his patience before he becomes a knight."

"Impulsive he has always been," Yoda agreed. "All too common a trait among Padawans."

"So, with Anakin soon to be a knight, what will you do with yourself now?" Mace inquired. "Attend the initiates displays for another apprentice?"

"Not immediately," Obi-Wan replied. "I do not wish to give Anakin the impression that I was waiting to be rid of him."

Windu nodded, knowing behind that decision was a reflection of Qui-Gon's faults, who had been quick to dismiss his shining Padawan upon finding and freeing a slave boy from a desert planet.

"Consider perhaps another role, you might," Yoda remarked.

Thinking that they were still talking of teaching, Obi-Wan replied, "With all due respect, masters, I don't think I could handle a classroom full of initiates or Padawans."

"Another role in mind we have," Yoda revealed. "Your wisdom the Council would welcome."

Obi-Wan came to a halt in surprise. "Masters, I am honoured," he paused, at a loss for words, utterly taken aback. Not since Mace set the record as the youngest in the Order to be admitted to the Council had a Jedi been promoted so rapidly. He never knew his abilities were valued so highly. For others, this promotion was predicted for quite some time, almost from the moment word reached of his actions on Naboo, if not before, whenever they saw him in company with the two Grand Masters of the Order. But to Obi-Wan they were simply friends he acquired, Yoda through his youngling years, Windu through his friendship with Qui-Gon. He did not realise that they valued him for himself rather than who his master was.

The three Jedi reached the end of the colonnade, then boarded the waiting taxi. Little was said during the journey, as the Council Masters allowed him to come to terms with his new role, and the sobering implications which it bestowed. He had never been ambitious, it was not in his nature, seeking the role of Councillor for his master, never for himself. Qui-Gon never sought such a promotion, but always predicted that his Padawan would find himself offered a seat amongst that body before he, something which Obi-Wan had frequently protested. Still, he could not deny the honour of what they were offering him, nor the fact that he would accept. Not because he had to, or because he wanted to, but because the Force was prodding him to do so, and it was that energy which a Jedi always served first before any desires of others, or indeed their own.

Arriving at the Temple, they headed for the Council chamber, where Count Dooku was waiting on a seat outside the grand double door entrance. Upon catching sight of them, he rose from his chair and went down on bended knee before the Grand Master.
"Penitent, are you, my old Padawan?" Master Yoda murmured, his clawed hand reaching out to rest upon the magnate of Serenno's head, almost in benediction.

"For many things, master," Dooku replied.

"Much to atone for, you have," Yoda agreed, before removing his hand. "Into chambers, come. Listen to your defence, the Council will."

Mace waved his hand, using the Force to part the doors, then entered the room, Dooku following. Obi-Wan hung back, intending to go to his quarters, until Yoda turned and gestured for him to enter the room as well.

Dooku waited for all to assemble and seat themselves before he began. "When I left the Order after Qui-Gon's death, I was disillusioned with many of our traditions and customs, as I made clear to you all. Hearing of my nephew's unexpected passing, I returned to Serenno to reclaim my family's estates and title. I intended to lead a simple life, explore the wisdom of the Jedi lore, manage my inheritance. But that was not to be."

The Count paused here, taking a breath, as he entered the shameful part of his tale. "I received a visitor at my home, he offered to teach me some of the learning he had acquired from an old master in the ways of the Force. I was astonished that he knew so much about it, and in my ignorance I eagerly absorbed all I could. He was a highly subtle, devious creature, by the time I realised the full nature of what I was learning, I was too deeply submerged.

"I could not see a way out, so I submitted myself to carrying out his plans. He convinced me that the Republic needed to be reformed and prepared for a race of beings from the Unknown Regions, who would invade our territory. He claimed to have foreseen such events occurring in a vision, and I was too naive to question him. He sent me to Kamino, to oversee the engineering of the clones. While there, I learned of Master C'baoth's Outbound Flight scheme. It was not until after I returned from Kamino, that I discovered he had destroyed the ship."

A startled gasp came from several Council members then, causing a general pause to the proceedings. Mace leaned forward in his chair, seeking to confirm the dreadful discovery they had just learned. "He destroyed Outbound Flight?"

Dooku nodded. "I have no definitive proof, but I do know that such was his intention all along. He considered C'boath a threat, and hoped the scheme would rid the Republic of many Jedi. However, the planning caused him considerable concern. Not only was the scheme limited in the selection of who from the Order went, but at one point he had to make sure that two members were taken off the ship before it disappeared from the Republic."

"Who were those two members?" Obi-Wan asked, although he had a feeling that he already knew the answer.

The Count's eyes found his. "You and your Padawan, Master Kenobi. Sidious considers Padawan Skywalker to be a special project of his. He was extremely displeased to learn I had dismembered him on Geonosis."

"He wasn't the only one," Obi-Wan murmured quietly.

Dooku inclined his head. "I can imagine. I endured his punishment, but by then I was disheartened and ashamed of myself and the destruction which I had wrought under his orders. I also acquired plans of a new weapon which he planned to develop, one he claimed would destroy the alien's homeworld, but one which I knew would also be used as a method of control over planets within the Republic who resisted his rule. At last I could see a way out of the hole I had dug for myself. He wanted a civil war in which he could reform the structure of the government. As the leader of the Separatists, I could easily sabotage that scheme. So I contacted the Senate and asked for peace negotiations."

"In what way is Padawan Skywalker a project for Sidious?" Master Ki-Adi-Mundi inquired.

Obi-Wan stilled. He hoped that question would not be aired, for he feared he already knew the response, and the implications it would carry. He had hoped to ask Dooku in private consultation with Yoda and Mace, but sadly that was not to be.

"Sidious hopes to turn him to the dark side," Dooku replied simply. "He believes that if the Chosen One is by his side, nothing can stop him."

"And who is Sidious?" Obi-Wan asked before anyone could consider the response which they had just received.

Dooku hesitated, bowing his head. "I'm not sure I should tell you," he said at last. His gaze was not directed at them, his eyes staring into the view behind the chairs, distant and thoughtful. Obi-Wan heard a whisper in the Force, and he knew the magnate was using that form of communication to beg for privacy on that subject. "Such knowledge is dangerous, difficult to prove, and he would most likely learn of such a betrayal and seek to change his plans, preventing you from sabotaging his." He paused, before adding, almost as if in afterthought, or perhaps compelled by the Force. "Sidious has the means to manipulate the government. Our hands are somewhat tied."

"If we could gain assistance from the Senate, would that help?" Mace asked.

"It depends on whose support you receive," Dooku replied.

"So," Yoda murmured, his clawed hands coming to rest upon the gimer stick, placed between his chin, "achieved a peace you have."

"Not without the help of others far more learned in those methods used to acquire such a state than I," Dooku replied, with a slight bow directed to Obi-Wan and the Council Members who had been with them on Pais at the negotiations.

"Other plans do you have?" Yoda continued.

"I am uncertain and ignorant of such a future, masters," the Count answered. "I leave such matters to the will of the Force."

"Charge you, with crimes of war, we could," Yoda mused, allowing his old pupil to react to that prospect before he continued. "Submitted to our judgement and our graces you have."

"And abide by the Council's ruling I will," Dooku vowed.

"So eager to accept our wisdom now, are you?" Yoda queried.

The magnate of Serenno bowed his head. "I have learned the price of my arrogance in ignoring your advice, masters."

With that a silence settled upon the Council chamber, as the masters within contemplated all which they had learned. Obi-Wan knew that they were communing with the Force, giving their judgement to one another, awaiting guidance from the divine energy. He too sank into the waves, seeking the same, and was met there by Master Yoda, who granted him admittance into that higher plane of consideration, as one who had witnessed the Count's actions on Pais, and soon to take his place amongst these learned masters. It was a heady sensation, powerful and humbling.

"Stay with us, you shall," Yoda eventually declared, announcing the judgement of all concerned. "Further conversations we shall have."

Dooku bowed, going down on bended knee once more as the Council members rose from their seats, the session at an end. He did not rise until the Grand Master came to stand before him, when only four were left in the room.

"Come," the Grand Master commanded, gesturing to the door which led to the turbolift that accessed the corridor leading to his private meditation chamber. "Further council with you we seek."

Anakin returned from his trials with no such fanfare or mass reception. His ship docked in the Temple hangar, his master was his only waiting attendant. Silently he thumbed open the roof of the cockpit, then climbed out, descending from the craft with a jump. Affecting his usual enthusiasm, he approached Obi-Wan.

"Welcome home, Anakin," his master greeted him, and it was all the Padawan could do not to flinch at the word. The first of the lies began, for the only place he considered home was a certain penthouse apartment belonging to the Senator from Naboo. "Did you have a successful mission?"

"I think so, Master," Anakin replied as he stepped back from the embrace and fell into step beside Obi-Wan. Not the correct position for a dutiful Padawan, but since when had he been dutiful, Anakin mused. He snuck a glance at his master as they walked out of the hangar bay into the corridors of the Temple, heading for the grand lobby where the turbolift for the Council chamber was stationed. His appearance had not altered much from their last parting; the hair still clipped to that shorter style he had adopted after Geonosis, the beard still neatly trimmed. Anakin wasn't sure what he had expected; a certain difference, an sudden glow, a glint to the eye, the colour of his skin. Perhaps a lilt to the Coruscanti accent which his voice favoured. Something that would betray his actions on Pais, lend credence to the closeness to Padmé that he saw in the briefing.

He wondered how long it would be before he saw his wife. Briefings from Padawan Trials were rumoured to be lengthy, followed by the ceremony, if you were lucky. Certainly not before nightfall, he wagered, especially if he visited the Chancellor as well. Palpatine requested that he do so when he left the quarters that night, the little gold comlink which he had been given by him sitting in a pocket of his robes.

That device had acquired a new treachery now, one he considered justified in light of her actions on Pais, but now, after the event had been committed, he was uncertain if instead he should have sought the moral high ground. He could still assume such a position if he choose, but then so could she, and was it really something he should do in an evening where he desired honesty from her. And did he really want to do it this evening, when hopefully he would be basking in the glory of his knighthood, looking to receive her congratulations, enjoy the pleasures of her body, glory in their reunion, in their marriage. No, he resolved to confront her tomorrow, when he was more likely to garnish an earlier absence from the Temple.

Obi-Wan came to a halt, causing Anakin to blink in surprise, as he realised they had reached the entrance to the Council Chamber. Their passage from the hangar bay to the grand lobby then inside the turbolift had completely passed him by. His master waved his hand at the doors, his motion causing them to slide aside, much to Anakin's astonishment. Abruptly he realised that his master was about to be promoted too, if he had not been through the ceremony already, for only Council Members had the power to prize apart this entrance by their own gestures within the Force. Resentment stole through him, the old pain of always being in his master's shadow, his achievements once more falling short, compared as always to the one Master Yoda favoured.

But then Obi-Wan stepped aside, allowing him to enter the chamber first, and for the first time he felt the power of being independent, a soon to be knight, a master of his own achievements, a representative of the Order. Above all a Jedi. He was the Chosen One now, the Council must and would recognise him as such. He stepped into the room, managing to refrain from swaggering, coming to a halt in the centre of the titled floor, whereupon he bowed before that august body.

His master did not take a seat, allowing Anakin the quiet satisfaction that this promotion would be before Obi-Wan's. Instead he stood behind his apprentice, upon the edge of the wider circle, silently listening as Anakin delivered his report on the mission. Careful to keep his voice devoid of emotion, to make sure that the briefing was clear and precise, everything a dutiful Padawan should convey.

If he had expected praise for a job well done, he was to be disappointed, for nothing was said after the end of his briefing was reached. Instead a short, seemingly long pause followed, before he felt a hand come to land on his shoulder; Obi-Wan's he realised, as his master uttered in solemn Coruscanti tones, "I humbly submit my Padawan learner for the ceremony of knighthood, masters."

Another moment of silence, then some pressure was applied from that hand to his shoulder, a wordless command to kneel before the assembled body. Quietly he obeyed, sinking down on bended knee as the lights were darkened with a wave of Master Windu's hand, and the Council Masters closed themselves around him.

Sudden fear rushed through him, as the Krayt dragon inside him roared in agony. He felt as if the masters were surrounding him, judging him and finding him unworthy, about to drown him in this darkness forever.

"Jedi we all are," Master Yoda remarked. "Speaks through us, the Force does. Through our actions, and what is real, proclaims itself it does. Here to acknowledge what the Force has proclaimed, today we are. By the right of the Council, by the will of the Force, Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Knight of the Republic, I dub thee."

At this moment his master removed his hand from Anakin's shoulder and unsheathed his lightsaber. The blade ignited and with one stroke severed the Padawan braid from his head. Anakin caught the smell of burned hair wafting through the Council Chambers, seeking passage amongst the humming blades of light.

"Take up your lightsaber, Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Knight," Master Windu instructed. "And may the Force be with you."

He rose from the floor smoothly and unsheathed his blade, igniting the saber and raising it up to the heavens of the chamber as he had seen Obi-Wan do many years ago. In sharp contrast to that ceremony there was no congratulation from other Council members, no whispered words to him before Master Yoda opened proceedings. Resentment and arrogance stole through him as he both considered the disdain in which he seemed to be held, and the assurance that there was nothing this body could teach him which he did not already know. One gesture of praise he received, a smile from his Master, as the Council members raised their own blades to the heavens, declaring the ceremony to be at an end.

He returned to the Master Padawan quarters he shared with Obi-Wan, to find two messages awaiting him. The first a general one from the Temple housekeeping services, congratulating on his knighthood, and informing him that his own private quarters were now available, his right due to his new rank, and where in the Temple that they were located. It held his interest only long enough for the location to be memorised.

The second was from the Chancellor, who it turned out had also heard the news. Palpatine's message was overflowing with praise, along with an invite to dinner this evening, though he understood if Anakin couldn't make it, as he knew there were other people who would want to celebrate his promotion with him. It may not have been spelt out, but the implication was clear enough, a reminder that the Chancellor still knew of his marriage, and was handling his knowledge discreetly. If his master had seen this message by chance, there was nothing in it to suggest that Anakin had broken the code and married.

As he acknowledged receipt of the messages, replying to the Chancellor that he did have plans but would stop by briefly, then closed down the com, Anakin considered for a moment his union with Padmé, the opportunity he had now to come clean with the Council and ask permission to marry, when the reforms were up and running. Though he had yet to hear of those reforms from anyone besides the Chancellor. Naturally he anticipated the possible fuss the Council would undoubtedly make if he told them the whole truth; a part of him had already decided not to do so, but he had yet to consider what the state of his marriage would be after he had his planned conversation with Padmé about the briefing from Pais.

He realised now that he had assumed that after informing her of his suspicions, they would talk and that would be that. Nothing from the conversation could have the power to upset his marriage. The possibility had never occurred to him until now, and almost immediately he found his mind dismissing the notion. Nor could his little indiscretion cause damage either, for both were the same in his mind, and if Padmé claimed nothing happened, and he would know if she were telling the truth via the Force, in which case his own indiscretion would never be aired.

Glancing at his chrono, Anakin decided that he might as well start packing. He didn't have to move out of his shared quarters with Obi-Wan, but Knights often took on new Padawans, especially Councillors, who were sometimes given new quarters too, as befitted their promotion. He also briefly entertained the idea of having Padmé over, smuggling her in and out secretly after sundown. Not to mention the possibility of taking on his own Padawan, which he had no intention of doing just yet. It would be nice, he decided to have his own quarters and not have to worry about the tense silences between him and Obi-Wan whenever they were on planet and he didn't spend the night in their quarters. Not that Obi-Wan ever asked where he had spent the night - he stopped asking a long time ago - but there was always the air of that question being asked, whether unspoken or no.

When Anakin finished packing, his master had still not returned from the Council chambers. Checking the com, Anakin discovered no messages, indicating that something serious was occupying his master's mind, for Obi-Wan usually remembered to leave a message if he was going to be late.

For a moment he debated leaving one of his own, a general farewell and thanks for all their years of training and friendship. But he reasoned that there was no need, he would see his master soon, either as a Councillor when he was given a new mission, or Obi-Wan would seek him out.

With one last look at his now empty room, bare walls, furniture devoid of personal belongings, Anakin picked up the stuff he had acquired during his Padawan years and those he had from Tatooine, then left the quarters.

He did not look back.

Author's Note: This chapter features a scene which involves domestic violence. If you would prefer not to read it, please stop after Anakin clasps Padmé's wrist.


Part 24: The Breath Was Stolen From Her Throat.

Padmé returned to her penthouse residence with her arms full of work, fresh from a lengthy Senate meeting which had lasted two hours, and would have taken a great deal more if not for the Chancellor's timely intervention; and several committee meetings that dealt with the same business which had occupied the floor of the Senate, though it must be said with smaller numbers and less petty-minded objections.

Before her return from Pais she had hoped that the peace treaty would pass without too much of a ruckus from those in the Senate who had not been invited to put in an appearance at the negotiations. This hope had been tempered by her intelligence and experience of dealing with her political colleagues; knowing they would doubtless want to examine the treaty before agreeing to let it through.

As usual, her intelligence proved to be correct, though it vastly underestimated how long her colleagues wished to plough through the minutiae of the document. Half a dozen times had an Aide or Representative or Senator, miffed at not being granted an invite, decided to query the meaning of a word before the Chancellor called a halt to the inquisition, subtly implying to them that any more questions raised regarding definitions would cause those Senators who were part of the Pais delegation to doubt their ability to do their work, or to be trusted to do said work by their colleagues.

And if this indeed turned out to be the case, he was more than happy to oblige them. Faced with the implication of new elections that would halt any Senate business being carried out for months, the Aides, Representatives and Senators complied, allowing the subject of the treaty to be granted preliminary acceptance status, so those who had real concerns were at liberty to air them in committee.

The Chancellor then changed the subject of the floor, giving those from the Pais delegation a chance to catch up with what business had been occupying the Senate which due to security was not trusted to be aired across the Republic's communications network. Some of her least esteemed colleagues who had been part of the inquisition passed the rest of the meeting in a funk at being told off, but the rest allowed the matter to go to committee and returned to the usual politics.

In the committee meetings which followed, she, along with the rest of delegation faced a few questions, but, thanks to the Chancellor's threat, none that left any of them questioning their skill in crafting the treaty. By the end of the sessions, she was relieved to learn that the document was in all likelihood to be ratified by the Senate during the course of the next day.

Returning home, armed with briefings from the work she had left in the care of her aides and representatives, Padmé had little idea of what events had passed in the Temple, or that her husband would be dropping by shortly. Rarely did business relating to the Order penetrate the Senate floor, let alone HoloNet news, as the Jedi valued their privacy regarding its members lives. Seating herself at the desk where she dealt with all her work, located in a room off the living area, she was soon immersed once more in the business she had left behind when she departed for Pais, under the care of Dormé, whom from past experience she knew to be just as able, if not more than competent in managing the cares of their native system in her absence.

Thus when her husband walked through the open doors leading from the living area into the room, she was completely caught by surprise.

"Welcome home, my love," he uttered as though it had been she who had just entered the apartment, not him.

Startled, Padmé had turned from the work on her desk to face the visitor, then rose from her chair to greet him properly. "Anakin," she began distantly, aware of her tone, but being unable to affect anything else, considering what she had resolved to do with regards to her husband upon their reunion.

Silence met her reply, causing her to wonder if he had noticed her unaffectionate tone. Upon judging his facial expression, she concluded that all was well, on the contrary, he was waiting for her to notice something about him. All this passed within the space of a moment, giving her time to observe what was different about him, but not enough for him to begin to suspect that there was something troubling her.

"Congratulations, Knight Skywalker," she remarked, though privately her own opinion on his promotion was questionable at best. Since her initial reaction to his confession of what he had done to avenge his mother's death, Padmé had begun to doubt not only his right to continue to be a Jedi, but her own convictions in keeping such a matter from his master or a member of the Council.

From her many meetings with Obi-Wan on Pais it was clear that he did not know about the atrocity; perhaps he entertained certain suspicions, though she suspected these pertained to the relationship between herself and his Padawan, rather than what they were doing on Tatooine when he called them from Geonosis. Anakin had not asked her to keep the confession he made confidential, his turmoil at admitting what he had done to her alone had been enough to assure her silence. But she knew that he had not told his master or anyone else, for fear of what they might do, rather than accept the possibility that he needed help coming to terms with the full horror of his actions.

Fortunately Anakin took her congratulations at face value. "Thanks. I've just come from the ceremony. I get my own quarters now, so we don't always have to meet here. And of course, plenty of solo assignments, not to mention the possibility of training my own Padawan, though I doubt I'll do that for several years. And what with the reforms coming to the Order, we can let them know about us."

Much of this reply shocked her out of her own response. She froze after the second sentence had passed his lips, and the nature of the third almost entirely escaped her notice. When the fourth came however, so too did the memory of what she had resolved to do regarding their reunion, and the unhappy notion that she had to air her decision to him before he was run away by his enthusiasm on the subject.

But first she had to deal with what had distressed her most in what he said. "Anakin, I do not think it would be right for you smuggle me in and out of the Temple. Nor do I agree that with the reforms to the code which the Jedi live by gives you a right to just inform them of our marriage. The mere fact that we had the union before these reforms would be a cause of concern to Council."

He frowned at her, unhappy no doubt with her negative response to his schemes, and her insistence upon keeping their union secret. Despite the need for secrecy being his idea in the first place, not to mention that there was more of a need on his side rather than hers for it to remain so, Padmé knew Anakin still wished to boast of their marriage to any who might or might not care to listen.

"I wasn't thinking of telling them that we are actually already married," he replied somewhat petulantly. "I was going to ask for permission and then I thought we could have our vows renewed here, on Coruscant."

Padmé inwardly sighed at yet another display of her husband's immaturity, not to mention his decision to deceive the Order once more concerning himself. Revealing to the Council their attachment should be an end to the lies, not a move to compound them by making them believe he had waited for the reforms before binding his life to her. As to the idea of renewing their vows here, it would only prolong what she knew would be a lengthy separation.

"Ani," she began, knowing she had to air this subject now, however much she desired not to do so upon the first night of their reunion. "We need to talk. I have been thinking about our hasty marriage and I realise now that we should have waited, allowed ourselves to properly judge our feelings outside of distressing shared experiences. I cannot speak for yours, but my own feelings have given me to understand that I can no longer continue living like this and I should ask you if we can separate."

He froze, a confused frown making its way across his face. "What do you mean?"

Padmé took a deep breath, realising that she had been so concerned in putting her feelings across that she had failed to make sure her meaning was comprehensible. "Anakin, I want a divorce."

Silence followed her declaration; a lengthy pause which showed little sign of breaking. Padmé watched him a little fearfully as he took to the nearest sofa, changing his mind almost immediately, rising from the furnishings to pace the confines of the room. She did not know which was more preferable, this silence or an outburst. The latter she had expected, even prepared herself to deal with a little, but as usual he seemed to have confounded her once more by reacting contrary to her expectations. Another lesson in how little they knew each other, another a sign as to how necessary their divorce was.

Finally he turned to her and asked, "What's brought this on?"

"I'm tired, Ani," she replied honestly. "I'm tired of the secrecy, the constant fights we have been having lately about things we shouldn't even be fighting about. I realise now that as much we might care for each other, neither of us were ready for this, nor will we be able to deal with it, even if it is made public. This marriage isn't working, and we should put an end to it now, before we come to hate each other."

He was frowning at her, clearly still puzzled, yet she could see in his eyes some glimmer of realisation. "Is this because of Obi-Wan?"

Now it was her turn to become confused, a part of her wondering if he knew of the conversation she and his master had before their marriage, the one which had convinced her to marry him in the first place. "Obi-Wan? What does he have to do with this?"

Anakin took a step closer to her, a predatory look upon his face which almost caused her to back away in fear. "I saw you."

Her confusion increased, knowing that was impossible, for he had still been recovering from his injuries acquired on Geonosis at the time Obi-Wan confronted her with his and the Order's concerns regarding her relationship with Anakin, before they got married on Naboo. "Saw us? What do you mean, saw us?"

"On the briefing from Pais," he replied angrily.

"I don't understand," she uttered, thoroughly confused, wondering what the briefing from Pais could have to do with this, why it was making him so angry.

"Don't lie to me, you know what you were doing!" he growled back at her.

All this while he was walking towards her with the same predatory expression, his eyes now a mixed shade of colours, more yellow than the blue she was used to seeing. She could not understand why his anger was directed at a simple press briefing. Nor of what he was accusing her and his master of. Or rather, she had her suspicions, but if that was his motive behind his anger, she found it incredible that he would believe such of them. Padmé took another step back, glad of the desk behind her, the com device on there that allowed her voice to call for her security. She had a feeling that she might have need of them.

But her mind also hoped that there was still some way she could resolve this encounter without requesting for such assistance. She was a grown woman, not to mention a senator, and while he may be some years younger than her, he was still and man and a knight of the Jedi Order. They should be capable of sorting this out in a mature, reasonable fashion. "There was nothing in that briefing, but words to assure the Republic of our continued commitment to peace, in spite of the sabotage. How dare you accuse me and Obi-Wan of what you are implying. I have never been unfaithful to you Anakin, in word, conversation or look. I would never chose to betray you in such a fashion and niether would Obi-Wan. I simply wish to be free of your anger and constant suspicion."

"I wouldn't be so angry, if you would just stop lying to me!" he thundered back at her, and she took another step backwards, as if distance would subdue the strength of his wrath. "I know what I saw. Now tell me the truth."

"You saw nothing," she reiterated, taking another step away from him. Her mind was whirling, wondering at how she had lost control of this argument, why he was accusing her of unfaithfulness, and why he suddenly wished her to be scared of him. "It is clear to me that you don't trust my word. I wish for you to leave now. All further conversation between us shall be with our lawyers, unless you can promise to restrain your temper."

"How is this going to be kept secret if you involve lawyers?" he asked her, his attack changing tack at last.

"Naboo is used to dealing with secrets, Anakin. How else do you suppose I was able to find a holy man willing to wed us with only droids as witnesses?" She did not mean to be insulting as to Artoo and Threepio, but matrimony usually required witnesses whose memories could not be altered or erased.

"I don't want a divorce," he replied back, somewhat petulantly. "How will that help?"

"You don't have a choice," she returned. Before his arrival she had been willing to be reasonable, to talk about this, and if needs be, agree to a separation so he had time to adjust to the parting. But no more. His reaction had convinced her there was nothing to be gained in trying to reason with him. "Just more paperwork and delays."

"I'll delay as long as I possibly can, then!" he cried back. "If I can't have you, no one else will!"

"Are you threatening me, Anakin?" she asked, as her back came to rest against the edge of her desk, where the com panel lay. It was voice activated and words such as the one which she had just used would trigger an alarm, rousing the concern of her security.

Without warning he lunged forward and grabbed her arm with his artificial limb. "I shall do more than that," he uttered quietly, his tone so deadly that she quailed in fear. In a way this quiet anger of his was even worse that the thunder he had portrayed earlier. She tried to struggle, but he only tightened his grip, hurting her.

"Ani, you're hurting me," she whispered. "Let me go."

His grip remained, his eyes staring down at her. "Not until you tell me the truth, and stop declaring this ridiculous intention to divorce."

"I have been telling you the truth," she replied. "And if you continue to do this, you shall have more than a divorce from me with which to contend with."

"Such as?" He all but scoffed.

"I shall make known your conduct to the Jedi Council," she pointed out "What you're doing now, is not the proper behaviour of a Jedi."

Anakin's grip tightened even further, causing more pain to her arm. "I doubt the words of a Senator against the words of the Chosen One and the Chancellor will cause those in the Council to support your accusations."

Inwardly she frowned at his allusion to Palpatine, but focused on accomplishing her immediate freedom. "Perhaps, but if your grip tightens any further, I shall have evidence to support my claims over any you may wish to make."

To her horror Anakin drew her even closer to him. "Then I shall inflict injury where no such evidence can be given."

Suddenly she felt her breath stolen from her throat, her response dying before it even reached her lips. She could feel his grip still on her arm, but there was a new source of pain, centred around her neck, one that she was unable to voice a fight to, for his clasp was preventing her from doing so. Her free hand tried to pry away his invisible grip which surrounded her neck, but her fingers could not prevent her bones being crushed from the inside.

As her body struggled for air, she felt herself gradually lose all ability to remain aware of her actions and his. Vaguely she managed to comprehend that he had released his vice like grip of her wrist, allowing her to fall to the floor.

She felt herself losing consciousness, then suddenly her throat was released, only for a deep blow to land upon her waist. She tried to curl herself into a ball to protect her body from further blows, but they were coming too fast, and her reactions were too slow. Still she couldn't cry out, nor give a thought or a concern as when or if her security would come to her aid. Shame ripped through her, casting as deep a blow as the artificial fist rained blows down upon her waist. Once she believed herself capable of self defence. No more taking her security for granted.

Her last thoughts were for Obi-Wan, as she realised what he would suffer upon learning what depths of darkness she had driven his Padawan to.

Parts Twenty-Five-thirty.

© Danielle Harwood-Atkinson 2021. All rights reserved.