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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 13: Musings of a Nubian Senator.

A canopy of voices, their dulcet tones the chorus of a symphony, rising to a crescendo. Responses flew back and forth, ascending in decibel, then descending, as if waves travelling through a canyon. Current varied within dialect and dialogue, point and counterpoint, argument and negotiation. Under the supervision of their hosts these beings continued to debate, striving to iron out their differences until nothing impaired their desire for peace. Resistance was futile, humiliating even, for they had gone beyond the point of honourable withdrawal. Pride demanded peace from them now, their egos would settle for nothing less, nor would their people.

Padmé Amidala felt optimistic about the peace treaty as she listened to the opening words from the Pais ambassador, who refreshed everyone's memories about what had taken place during the previous meeting, before proposing the first topic to be discussed during today's. At last they were making real progress on what most of her colleagues in the Senate and she imagined a fair number of those in the Confederacy as well believed would never come to pass. If the fair minded dealing and the willingness not only to listen but to compromise continued, a peace treaty would be established soon.

Which meant she could return home. Technically to her apartment on Coruscant as opposed to her parents house on Naboo or the villa in Varykino, but home all the same. Anakin would have his duties as a Jedi while she would still have work to do within the Senate, such as making sure the treaty held within the Republic, so the Core would remain her home for some time to come. For a moment she resisted dwelling on her husband, but the conversation which had taken place between them the night before continued to haunt her mind.

Despite her initial concerns, it had begun well. She had been worried that there would still be some lingering resentment from the argument during their last discussion, but as usual, that only emerged towards the end. From the moment she received an answer to the opening hail she sent to her apartment at the agreed time, Anakin seemed genuinely pleased to talk with her.

After they had exchanged the usual pleasantries about each other's well-being, she had explained her theory about this carefully arranged conversation; it gave them a chance to talk, but allowed those who might be suspicious believe she was talking to her handmaidens about Senatorial business - for they as opposed to Jar Jar were representing her in the Senate this time - as well as matters from her homeworld. It also showed that she trusted her husband to be able to get away from the Temple without arousing suspicion; something she took care not to mention to him; knowing that it would make him defensive.

Conversation then focused on what he had been doing; as he revealed that Master Windu was giving him lessons in Vaapad. She was surprised and impressed, as he had told her before that the Korun Master's lightsaber combat style was something which Master Windu had created himself, and was very particular about who he trained in the form.

Anakin spoke excitedly about the honour and the challenging nature of the form, as well as using the Force in such a different manner. As usual he was confident that he would soon master the technique, and Padmé refrained from tempering his mood by advising him to be cautious, to take his time and not to doubt himself. The political wrangling within the conference, while frustrating, was helping her in handling her husband's fluctuating moods.

He then asked after her activities, although he refused to be convinced by her belief that they would leave Pais with a workable peace treaty. She understood his scepticism, after all the last time he met Count Dooku, he lost his arm, not to mention the injuries to Obi-Wan. But that didn't mean that the response failed to rankle her, as she inwardly noted his failure to treat her with same courtesy with which she had treated him.

Despite that, she felt that they were talking as normal married couples did, experiencing the type of marriage she had always dreamed of. Any problems they did have, would ultimately be smoothed out by the time she returned to Coruscant, she felt sure.

So imbued by the cordial relations between them was she, that Padmé decided to casually ask about his dinner with the Chancellor. Immediately, her husband tensed, his response a curt inquiry as to how she had learned of the evening. Ignoring his reaction for the moment, she mentioned that Obi-Wan had told her, having learned of the request which the Chancellor had put to the Council during his own com call home. A lie she felt uncomfortable using, but some instinct prevented her from telling him the truth; that she had heard about it from Dormé. At the end, she repeated her initial question.

His reply returned them to the resentful atmosphere of there first conversation; as he asked scathingly how her dinners were with Obi-Wan and Garen. Stung, she accused him of implying that she was jealous of his relationship with the Chancellor. He in turn yelled at her for accusing him of being jealous about her friendship with his master. Bluntly she countered with a question regarding that emotion, knowing full well he was, whether he chose to admit it or not. Angrily he stated that that was different, to which she had countered that he had as much right to dictate who her friends were as he did.

Things went downhill from there. Over and over the fight covered the same ground, until she couldn't stand talking to him any longer, causing her to end the call. Barely had the com system shut down when the device beeped, signalling that she had another hail. Furiously she hit the switch, only to begin to calm down when a holo of Dormé's figure materialised. Her handmaiden explained that Anakin had stormed out of the apartment.

Inwardly Padmé breathed a sigh of relief, grateful that her husband hadn't taken his anger out on any of her staff. But such a move was only a partial comfort, for she feared what else he might do damage to.
Or who.

Not for the first time, she recalled his actions on Tatooine, how he had dealt with his anger over the death of his mother by wiping out an entire tribe of Tuskens who were responsible for her death. At first when he told her about it, her concern had been for him, causing her reaction to be perhaps less than it should have been.

How the knowledge that the man who claimed to love her could so callously wipe out a tribe of beings did not terrify her then as it did now, seemed incredible. Almost as if a part of her condoned the violence, accepted his justification. Of course, it had been forgotten in the wake of Geonosis, and the argument she had with Obi-Wan, causing her to do exactly what he had hoped to persuade her not to do.

Something, which yet again, she was doubting the wisdom of. Not in her reasoning, for the Order was beginning to come round to accepting most of what she privately believed; that there was strength in attachment, not the threat of the dark side. But she was wondering if Anakin was mature enough to realise that. Their backgrounds were as disparate as one could get; but both had aged them beyond their years, so his youth when measured against her own had rarely bothered her. Now she wondered if it was a factor which she should have considered before accepting his proposal.

Another consideration which seemed to have escaped her too, was the implications behind his violence on Tatooine with respect to his Jedi training. He had recognised the danger in the Lars' homestead, realised that he should be above taking such revenge. But neither had he, as far as she knew, had sought counselling on the matter from the Order. She because it had annoyed her that Obi-Wan hadn't bothered to ask Anakin what happened, while Anakin's hesitation she imagined originated from his fear that the Jedi would expel him from the Order if they knew.

What concerned her though, was how they didn't know. Jedi senses were legendary, and Anakin's skill in the Force was powerful. They should have been able to sense that something was wrong with him.

Unless they had, and they were waiting for him to admit it, to realise that he needed help. She knew that until Anakin admitted that there was a problem, no one would be able to resolve it, least of all himself. But that left her with limited options. She could not feed his ego all the time, in a vain effort to keep him calm, it would only make things worse. But she was running out on the number of times she could call him on it.

Padmé was contemplating trying to speak to Obi-Wan, seeing if she could perhaps seek his advice as to how to deal with the matter when she heard him speaking, causing her to come out of her introspection and listen to the conference. From the sound of things, she had tuned out when one of the confederacy speakers was talking, and the point he had been trying to make was not in the least complimentary. Several of her colleagues had waded into the affair, only causing the debating point to turn even more ugly, whereupon Obi-Wan had decided to step in.

And with a skill would make his master proud, he was slowly but surely soothing the ruffled feathers. In admiration she listened to his carefully crafted eloquence, observing what effect it had on the injured parties. The member from the confederacy delegation glanced at Count Dooku before conceding, while her senatorial colleague continued to view the words of compromise with scepticism. For a while she let Obi-Wan continue to try and persuade him, while she searched through her knowledge to find a reason behind the being's stubbornness.

Within a few moments she had it; the Senator was from a system who had dealings with Jedi in the past; in a case which had stirred up a lot of unrest in that part of the galaxy for a time. Needless to say, the system gained a certain dislike for the Order's methods. So she waited for Obi-Wan to reach a pause in his words and then spoke up, hoping the voice of a colleague would encounter more success.

It turned out to vain one; the Senator refused to accept her words as well. Taking a measure of his face, she noted the cause for his resistance; her youth and limited years spent as a member of the Senate. A common misconception which she was used to encountering, where the strength of her convictions and her eloquence achieved mixed results. Discreetly she glanced at Bail who was sitting next to her, using a pause in her reasoning to silently convey that she needed assistance. She hoped he would be able to descry her wordless plea.

He did, leaning forward in his chair so he could see the being he was addressing, his words an echo of what she had been saying, but with the added appearance of age and experience through his longer period as a member of the Republican Senate. Padmé fell silent, watching as their colleague's valid concerns were met. When that was achieved Bail fell silent too, letting the Pais ambassador choose the next topic of conversation.

She was grateful she had a friend like Bail with her here on Pais. Grateful that he had chosen to look past her youth when she entered the Senate by welcoming her on to the Loyalist Committee, introducing her to like minded colleagues with whom she could talk freely, giving her the opportunity to make a difference in the arena she had worked so hard to become a member of. He was a true friend as well, introducing her to the delights of Alderaan during one recess, and his wife Breha, in whom Padmé another she could trust almost as deeply as she trusted her attendants. The two of them had a lot in common, both being sovereigns of their systems, married to husbands with demanding careers.

Like her sister's, the Organa marriage was one she admired, although she soon discovered that it had been marred by personal tragedies and heartache. She was not sure she could cope as ably as they seemed to with miscarriages. As for Anakin, she doubted he would either.

There was also another aspect of life on Coruscant which Bail had introduced her to, she remembered with an inward blush. Sponsor was the more accurate description; he had given her the comlink and relayed to her the rules behind the secret club known as the List. At first she had been shocked that such a club existed, and that many of the Core's elite citizens were anonymous members. Curiosity eventually won over her astonishment, causing her to have a brief dalliance with it, before more serious matters took up her time.

Idly she wondered if there were any members in the conference room, and if there were was such fraternisation taking place on Pais. Not that she had any desire to rejoin the group. For all her doubts about her husband, she was still a woman of principles, who held adultery in contempt. With some members of the club she knew that didn't matter, though the anonymous policy held true, there were times when you discovered their identity after the fact, in a chance meeting or a HoloNet campaign. If there were members on Pais, because there were only three delegations who met everyday in the same room, the chances of recognising and knowing each other's name were almost certain.

Padmé remembered one question she had asked Bail when she joined; if any members were Jedi. He had replied that while he hadn't entertained a Jedi himself, there were rumours that some beings who belonged to the Order also belonged to the List.

Having heard from Anakin that the Code forbade attachment, she knew that the club provided a loophole, as it allowed the intimacy of sex, without the intricacy of feelings, so it wasn't unlikely that some members were. However, she wondered now why she had asked the question. A part of her knew the answer, she was just reluctant to accept it completely, for it meant when she returned home, she and Anakin would have to talk, and his reaction would not be pretty.

Surreptitiously she glanced at the Jedi across from her, half imagining his reply to her current thoughts. As much as she resented being proved wrong, she knew now that her reasoning with regards to attachment and Anakin had been flawed, whereas his was not, even if he had gone the wrong way about telling her. But she still believed she was right about members of the Order being allowed to love.

Admitting that her marriage wasn't perfect was one thing, deciding if she should end it was premature. Nubian courts granted divorce, but only after a series of negotiations and counselling to see if there was a way for the marriage to be salvaged before terminating the union completely.

If she had publicly married Anakin, they would have been required to have talks with the Nubian counsellors to make sure they were ready for such a commitment. She felt hypocritical for ignoring a part of her home world's legal system, but there was little she could do about it now, save perhaps getting Anakin to agree to go to counselling and she knew that would be as much of a battle as if she told him she wanted to end their marriage.

She wasn't ready to end her marriage yet. Not only had it barely begun, she felt that if she and Anakin could just sit down and talk without fighting, they could work something out. For all her doubts, she still loved him, though it was not the love of her parent's marriage, or her sister's or Bail's. None of them had given up at the first hurdle and she would be disappointed in herself if she did.

With that resolution in mind she returned to the conference, focusing on what a member of the Confederacy was saying. As she did so, she risked another glance at Obi-Wan, to find his gaze directed not towards the speaker but to another part of the room, where there were chairs for those members of the delegation who had brought attendants. Paisians were generous in providing seats for everyone, but they never left spares.

Yet this one, the one which Obi-Wan was looking at with a frown, was vacant. She watched him as his expression turned distant, inward as though he was using the Force, which she suspected he was. Then he looked towards the other members of the delegation which the Order had sent, as though perhaps to see if they had sensed what he had and if not to warn them of what was to come.

Then he turned to her, as everything erupted into chaos.

The canopy of voices, their dulcet tones the chorus of a symphony, rising to crescendo, had no idea what was to come. Their responses, flying back and forth, ascending in decibel, then descending, as if waves travelling through a canyon, would never anticipate such an event, believing it to be impossible.

Current varied within dialect and dialogue, point and counterpoint, argument and negotiation, but never in the least suspicion of what was to come their way. Under the supervision of their hosts these beings continued to debate, striving to iron out their differences until nothing impaired their desire for peace, believing that they would remain protected as they had always been, by Pais' enduring ability to guard the lives of the beings who sought their neutral planet and hospitality.

Resistance was futile, humiliating even, for they had gone beyond the point of honourable withdrawal, only deliberate sabotage could threaten their continued participation. Pride demanded peace from them now, their egos would settle for nothing less, nor would their people, but in view of what was to come, perhaps pride would be mollified by a dignified retreat, in the face of insurmountable odds.

Explosions rocked the conference room.

Light came first, a cascade of red, orange, yellow, punctuated by harsh streaks of black, followed by the shock waves which served to shatter the transparisteel viewscreens, the glasses beside each being's position. Last to arrive was the sound, echoing throughout the cavernous room, rebounding off walls, doors, tables, chairs.

And suddenly the idyllic world of Pais was covered in debris, metal, wood, glass, and most terrible of all, bodies of unconscious beings, who had risked so much to come here in the aim of forming a treaty, and now had risked their lives as well.

Part 14: A Noticeable Exit.

A canopy of voices, their dulcet tones the chorus of a symphony, rising to a crescendo. Responses flew back and forth, ascending in decibel, then descending, as if waves travelling through a canyon. Current varied within dialect and dialogue, point and counterpoint, argument and negotiation. Under the supervision of their hosts these beings continued to debate, striving to iron out their differences until nothing impaired their desire for peace. Resistance was futile, humiliating even, for they had gone beyond the point of honourable withdrawal. Pride demanded peace from them now, their egos would settle for nothing less, nor would their people.

Obi-Wan Kenobi delved into the embrace of the Force, splitting his conscious concentration between the conversation and his ability to sense the minds of the beings in the room. As a rule all Jedi tried to refrain from reading the thoughts of those not gifted with the Force, or the privilege of being trained at the Temple if they did possess the right amount of midi-chlorians, albeit untapped. But there were times when such an technique was called for, when there was a greater risk of lives being lost if the ability was ignored.

Such as the possibility of an attack threatening to sabotage this peace conference. Pais, while a peaceful planet in every sense, was not immune from the troubles which plagued the universe. On the contrary it thrived on them, providing itself as a sanctuary on which those troubles could be resolved. From that perspective it could be argued that a native of the world might have a motive for sabotaging a conference, in the need to keep the delegations coming. But if that were true, ultimately it would backfire on the planet, robbing Pais of its invulnerable reputation.

The guilty party had to originate from either the Republic, the Separatists or, Force forbid, the Order. Normally Obi-Wan would have instantly dismissed the latter, but with the presence of Count Dooku in the room, he could not avoid suspecting his colleagues. For a moment he focused on the former Jedi Master, a member of the Lost Twenty, those who left the Order of their own accord, without any explanation. He had more reason than most of his colleagues to distrust the man, having been personally detained by him on Geonosis, and betrayed through the Count being the master of his late master.

Yet, oddly, those were the very reasons which made him open to the possibility that Dooku was serious about desiring peace. When he spoke to him last in his room, the Count had sounded weary of war, of being mired in the dark dealings of the Sith who seemed to be manipulating everything. Including the former Jedi who was his apprentice. His temporary apprentice, that is. Few beings liked to be considered dispensable, even Jedi, though such a care was somewhat in tune with their beliefs. It must have been a harsh blow to Dooku, who after so many years as a notable Jedi, abandoned his life to the dark, only to learn that he would be discarded once his new master gained control of the Chosen One.

Anakin. The revelation that the Sith coveted his apprentice was not as much of a surprise as perhaps it should have been. He was only too aware of the value that Anakin held for both sides, and of the volatile bundle of emotions inside the young man susceptible to manipulation. What the world expected of him, what the Order excepted of him.

Lately, Obi-Wan had found himself questioning those expectations, comparing them to what he expected of the young man who he had trained for over ten years. At the core, what he desired Anakin to become was the same any master desired of their Padawan, a well respected knight, then master.

However, he also wanted his apprentice to be content with the life Qui-Gon introduced him into, to understand the high standard that a Jedi held themselves to, the sacrifices sometimes demanded of them. What his late master never had the chance to teach the boy before getting to agree to leave behind the only kind of life he had ever known.

In a way his own master had manipulated Anakin into leaving Tatooine, exposing him to the world and the Sith before he was ready, perhaps against the will of the Force. While Qui-Gon had argued that it was the will of the Force that asked him to free the boy from slavery, to train him as a Jedi, Obi-Wan had wondered lately whether it was really what the Force intended. He couldn't help but pose the following; if the Force intended Anakin to be trained, why have him born so far from the reach of the Temple? Why have him discovered later than usual age of initiates? Along with these questions were others more worrying; was Anakin really the Chosen One? If so what kind of balance was he to bring to the Force?

Qui-Gon had called the impressive amount of midi-chlorians inside Anakin a vergence of the Force. The Council had leapt on to what he was not saying; that he believed Anakin to be the Chosen One. From that moment a set of high expectations had been placed on his apprentice, which had only risen the more Anakin excelled in his training. For he had excelled; his skills were beyond the level of other Padawans. But his weakness remained; the inability to discipline his emotions, a requirement demanded of every knight and every master. The very thing which a Sith would feed and thrive upon.

Obi-Wan knew that the discipline was not something which could be taught, only learned through experience, through instinct. Emotions were unique to every being, only they knew how to master to them. He believed Anakin capable of doing so, but he knew that his belief alone was not enough. His Padawan had to believe he was as well. Padmé had once accused him of doubting Anakin, something he knew, despite all his denials, he had not yet convinced her of otherwise. Whether she knew that Anakin doubted himself was another matter.

The truth was, he had never doubted Anakin, only what was claimed about him. For him the prophecy of the Chosen One was troubling. So much of it was incomplete, yet to be understood or discovered by the Order. But what they had discovered so far, led him to doubt that it was something the Jedi should believe in. There was an implication behind the words, that equated chosen with power.
And gaining power had always been the aim of the Sith.

Calling Anakin the Chosen One, exposing not just him, but the entire Order to the prophesy, was a mistake, he believed, as it placed the boy under a high amount of pressure and expectation, one that few could rise above to carve out their destiny. In a sense it was another kind of slavery, one from which he was even less likely to escape. But the alternative was also troubling. Keeping the nature of the prophesy secret, or never training the boy at all, never taking him from Tatooine.

He knew what slaves dreamed of, the chance to live a life free of the demands of their master. The Order was a servitude, but all those raised into it were asked if it was an Order that they wanted to serve. Admittedly few had known little of life outside the Temple, no matter how much they exposed to it, so often there was only one answer to that question. Yet it was asked of every Jedi when they finished the trials, before they swore their vows which would make them knights.

Given what Anakin had to sacrifice recently, Obi-Wan often wondered if his apprentice would choose what few others had. But then again, if he and Padmé had done what he suspected them of doing during her brief return to Naboo, then his apprentice was just as likely to answer yes, determined to prove that the Order was wrong in denying him attachment.

Presented with such a discovery, he knew that the Council would not take the matter lightly. While they had agreed to implement a wave of reforms which would ultimately grant all Jedi the same chance, they were more likely to refuse to allow one which had been taken in secrecy, as it would be viewed as a symbol of disrespect to their authority.

For Anakin, this refusal would be seen as yet another unjust sentence which the Order had placed on him. His resentment of the Council would continue to grow, whether he decided to leave in view of their refusal or not. All his life he had been exposed to the harsh injustice of the universe, those who wished to corrupt it for their own benefit rather than for the good of others. It had given him grand ambitions, the desire to fix the very injustices he had been exposed to. But he was impatient, eager for the quick result, easily frustrated when it appeared yet again that it would take time before such problems were resolved. It was a feeling Obi-Wan admired, though the temper which was the result of the frustration always disappointed him.

If Anakin was indeed the son of suns, the child of the Chosen One prophesy, perhaps instead of it being the task of him to bring balance to the Force, it was the task of the Force to bring balance inside him, Obi-Wan considered. And through the process, come to a better understanding of the mystical boundless energy which surrounded and penetrated the universe, binding them together. It would be a hard task, much harder than the one currently presumed to be true, but no more than what was required of every servant of the Force.

Abruptly the atmosphere within the conference room altered, the recent geniality giving way to tension, as a debate upon a certain point became vigorous. Switching his focus to the matter under contention, Obi-Wan listened carefully to the words of the delegates, delving into the embrace of the Force to sense their feelings concerning the debate, then spoke, entering his own voice and views into the fray. With the skill learned under his late master's teachings, he smoothed the ruffled feathers of both sides, then put forth a suitable compromise which both delegates could not fail to find acceptable.

He was reaching the end of his suggestion, with the Senator from the Republic delegation continuing to remain stubborn in his refusal to concede to the point he was making, when Padmé spoke, her intelligent mind evidently knowing the reasoning behind her colleague's continued resistance. Smoothly he withdrew from the conversation, listening to her eloquent plea for the Senator to listen to reason.

But the Senator was old and unused to accepting information from such a young woman as she. Distrusting her wisdom on the count of her youth he continued to underline his point of contention, until Bail Organa leaned forward, adding his voice to the debate. Unlike Padmé, he had served a number of years in the Senate, as well as the post of Viceroy on his home world of Alderaan and as an aide to his predecessor, Senator Antilles, who had been one of Palpatine's rivals for the position of Supreme Chancellor. Finally the Senator began to give way, slowly and gradually, though Obi-Wan could sense through the Force that it had only taken one sentence from Bail for him to accept the compromise given.

Politics. It was such a superficial world, focused so much on perception rather than truth, spin rather than democracy. He accepted that there were some Senators who took their responsibilities seriously, who truly attempted to represent their people and fight for their needs, but most of those in the Senate were little short of hypocrites, enslaved to their own or their family's ambitions before those of the beings who elected them. Opposite him were the only two exceptions he was aware of, but his natural disdain for the breed hadn't provided him with the opportunity to become well acquainted with others.

Though this peace conference had only begun a few days ago, he had come to know most of the delegation from the Senate, not deeply, but perhaps enough for a initial impression. So far he judged them to be hard working, committed beings, who cared about the systems they represented, or at least provided a convincing display of doing so. Well educated, seemingly open-minded politicians, who were desirous of forming a peaceful alliance, one that was fair, at least for the Republic. How much they cared about the view of the Confederacy, or even the Jedi was another matter.

He wondered if any of them had given a thought to sabotaging the peace talks. Given their past history, his most likely suspect was someone from the Confederacy delegation, but Obi-Wan felt unable to rule out the possibility that a member of the Republic could be capable of such treachery. Politicians were not known for their honesty or clean dealings. Most were given a trained, though not necessarily practised background in law too, which provided them with the ability to argue their way through many a scrape. Many had secrets too, past deeds which they would rather not be brought to light.

And the woman across from him was not invulnerable to such a weakness. If his suspicions were right, she had the most damaging secret of all, one which could entwine both the Senate and the Order into a scandal if it was found out before the reforms went through. Even when the reforms were passed, he doubted the news of the union would pass by without a fuss from the HoloNet. Aside from Anakin's reputation, the Senator had her own claim to fame as the young sovereign who had called for a vote of no confidence in the former Supreme Chancellor.

Obi-Wan inwardly sighed. He was aware that he was being hypocritical, frowning on Anakin's and Padmé's relationship, stating his disapproval and the Order's current opinion of such attachments. There was also a degree of jealousy in his objections, as he often contemplated what he would do if his dreams were granted. Leaving the Order for love was not a new thing to him, he had done such twenty-three years ago when he committed himself to the cause of the Young on Melida/Daan.

With Siri too, there had been the temptation, open discussion of a joint departure, resolved into a close friendship in the end. And if Satine Kyrse, the Duchess of Mandalore had asked him, he would have done. But the latter would have been a consolation, rather than a true commitment. Such a departure would have thrust him into the spotlight just as Anakin's secret relationship threatened to do so, but it would not be without regret, as he gave up the Order and any hope of Padmé returning his love.

Did she suspect his feelings? It was something he often wondered, when he caught her looking at him unguardedly, lost in thoughts he could only begin to imagine. They were so often on his mind that he worried his features betrayed his heart. Garen took only an evening in their company to descry the emotion, and he suspected that if his other friends witnessed them together they would realise just as quickly too. If he was truly so transparent, it was only a matter of time before she became aware of them as well, if she was not aware already.

He knew what her response was most likely to be, doubtless it would resemble the arguments within his mind at present, about his hypocritical disapproval of her relationship with Anakin, the double handed treatment of them. Their friendship, which had only just been restored from that argument at her residence before Anakin escorted her back to Naboo, would be broken forever.

Resolving once more not to think about the matter further, as well as never revealing to her how he felt, Obi-Wan pushed his wandering thoughts away from his conscious and focused himself on the events within the conference room. And in doing so his timing could not have been more flawless.

In the part of the space belonging to the members from the Separatist delegation, a woman rose slowly from her chair, quietly heading for the double door entrance. She had long, gently curled red hair, in a more vibrant shade than the tint to his blond strands, and green eyes. Dressed in a black, fitting jump-suit, her slim figure strangely made little impact on a room full of the opposite sex. Even during deeply committed peace talks, no one would be hard pressed not to notice her beauty.

Yet here she was, quietly exiting the room with as little fuss as possible. Almost as if she was doing all that she could to ensure that her departure remained unnoticed by everyone. Obi-Wan called to the Force, trying to get a read on her, meeting a solid, almost duracrete shield in response.

She did not even turn round to glance at him, yet she had to have sensed his suspicion, given the impenetrable reception he received. Her ability within the Force was impressive, and unusually well disciplined, for someone who had not been trained by the Order. Which immediately put him on alert. His mind recalled the speculation he had shared with Dooku, Bail and Padmé recently, concerning the possible sabotage of the conference. He frowned, turning from the door to the woman sitting across from him.

The last thing he remembered, before everything turned into utter chaos, was leaping from his chair, over the conference table, his arms outstretched to protect the woman he loved.

The canopy of voices, their dulcet tones the chorus of a symphony, rising to crescendo, had no idea what was to come. Their responses, flying back and forth, ascending in decibel, then descending, as if waves travelling through a canyon, would never anticipate such an event, believing it to be impossible. Current varied within dialect and dialogue, point and counterpoint, argument and negotiation, but never in the least suspicion of what was to come their way.

Under the supervision of their hosts these beings continued to debate, striving to iron out their differences until nothing impaired their desire for peace, believing that they would remain protected as they had always been, by Pais' enduring ability to guard the lives of the beings who sought their neutral planet and hospitality.

Resistance was futile, humiliating even, for they had gone beyond the point of honourable withdrawal, only deliberate sabotage could threaten their continued participation. Pride demanded peace from them now, their egos would settle for nothing less, nor would their people, but in view of what was to come, perhaps pride would be mollified by a dignified retreat, in the face of insurmountable odds.

Explosions rocked the conference room.

Light came first, a cascade of red, orange, yellow, punctuated by harsh streaks of black, followed by the shock waves which served to shatter the transparisteel viewscreens, the glasses beside each being's position. Last to arrive was the sound, echoing throughout the cavernous room, rebounding off walls, doors, tables, chairs.

And suddenly the idyllic world of Pais was covered in debris, metal, wood, glass, and most terrible of all, bodies of unconscious beings, who had risked so much to come here in the aim of forming a treaty, and now had risked their lives as well.

Part 15: To Follow, If They Chose To Do So.

Nineve Jade had carried out her orders well. No one was hurt within the explosion. The conference room was an absolute mess, full of shards from broken transparisteel, Paisian mahogany, and linen, soaked in liquid from the pitchers provided for hydration, that nourishment slightly heated by the explosion, but everyone had survived the blast. All were thrown to the floor from the force of the impact, so while it was highly possible that everyone possessed a few bumps and bruises, but no injuries, life threatening or otherwise. Exactly what the dark lord of the Sith had ordered.

Padmé blinked away the dust from the debris as she opened her eyes. Unconsciously she nuzzled the soft, yet firm piece of furnishing she was resting on, somehow having landed upon it, thrown there by the force of the explosion. Except she soon realised that it wasn't a piece of soft furnishing. Below her ear there sounded the steady beat of a heart. Hesitantly she shifted herself until she caught sight of the face of the being to whom the organ belonged. His features were instantly recognisable. Grey blue eyes silently returned her gaze.

Obi-Wan Kenobi.

She remembered him frowning at something right before the blast. An empty chair, recently vacated, in the area of the room assigned to the confederacy delegation. He must have leapt over the desk to protect her as the explosion struck. And now she lay upon his chest, his arm wrapped round her waist. It felt like the safest place in the universe. Her mind recalled the last time she was in her husband's arms, just before they parted in her cruiser on the docking platform beside the Senate. Anakin had been a bundle of conflicting emotions, despair at their parting, their honeymoon cut short, anger at the outside forces interfering with them, frustration at having to hide their relationship from the universe. Her calm determination to put up with it only seemed to irritate him all the more.

When they separated, she to go to the Senate, he to the Temple, her relief was palpable. Along with her guilt for feeling like that. Searching her memories, she cast her mind further back, desperately trying to recall a time when she felt as safe in her husband's arms as felt in Obi-Wan's right now. The result was both disappointing and disturbing. Even in the blissful days spent at Varykino after their wedding she hadn't felt this kind of untouchable peacefulness. With Anakin it was always a nervous anticipation as to what was going to swing his mood next. Here, in Obi-Wan's arms, she knew nothing could disturb them, not even the Order's conflicting views on attachment. She was filled with the comforting temptation of wanting to lie here forever.

And upon that realisation came another more disturbing revelation concerning the future stability of her marriage, causing her to hurriedly rise from her position. She stilled as his hand came up to assist her, cautiously checking her over. He had done that once before she recalled, when they were surrounded by droidekas on Geonosis. Afterwards the wounds on her back hadn't hurt quite so much. Turning, she paused, her mind silently contemplating the infinitesimal distance from his mouth to hers. It would be so easy to just slip and kiss him. Already her overactive imagination was speculating on what would happen if she did, and how wonderful it would feel.

Startled, she rose to her feet, rapidly putting some distance between them, glancing around the remains of the room to survey the damage. Around them the rest of the delegates were also rising to their feet, members of the Order assisting those who were experiencing some difficulty. Dust fell from their once immaculate expensive tailoring, covering the parts of the floor which weren't already cluttered with debris from the explosion. They were lucky that the ceiling still held, otherwise the entire structure of the hotel could have caved in on top of them.

Turning, she peered through the motes of dust to the large frame which once held the transparisteel, staring at the contrasting sunny countryside which surrounded the hotel complex, full of lush green grass, blooming flowers, ripening plants, buzzing insects and fluttering avians. As far as the rest of Pais was concerned, nothing had occurred to disrupt its ordinary afternoon. Stretching her senses, Padmé caught the faint sound of an engine gunning; the familiar telltale whine of a star ship taking off. Raising a hand to protect her eyes from the glare of the sun, she squinted until her pupils located the small craft, steadily climbing into the atmosphere and from there to space.

Presumably whoever was flying the little silver craft was responsible for the chaos of the conference room. Pais rarely attracted tourists, taking care to put peace talks above all other catering to the usual hotel kind of clientele. Located as it was on the border between Republic and Separatist controlled space hardly gave it a suitable refuelling status either, as most travellers preferred to chose the more business minded systems of either side which were only a parsec or so away that the extra particle of fuel required didn't matter so much.

She wondered if Obi-Wan or anyone else had managed to get a good look at whoever it was who had caused the explosion and just exited the atmosphere. Not that it mattered, for it was highly unlikely that they would be able to identify them. A saboteur who had taken this much care to cause an explosion which only damaged the room as opposed to the occupants themselves would doubtless be just as careful when it came to protecting their identity and affiliation. Assuming they worked for anyone that is. For all they knew who it was could be an independent operator.

A conclusion quickly rejected almost as soon as she thought of it. No independent had anything to gain by making sure the peace process failed, unless one counted the dark lord of the Sith whom the Jedi were searching for, and Padmé doubted that he worked alone, not when one considered how many conflicts the Order believed he was responsible for causing. He'd managed to get his apprentice inside one of the most secure parts of Theed palace to kill a Jedi master after all. Not to mention organising the blockade which had caused the Jedi and his apprentice to be sent there in the first place. That could not have been done by one being alone, it would have taken time, planning and a measure of trust that the Trade Federation would carry out their blockade.

Who now played a major component in the Separatist Confederacy. Not for the first time did she contemplate the possibility that the Sith lord might be behind the Separatists as well. Count Dooku, according Anakin and Obi-Wan was a Sith, the new apprentice, who had replaced the one Obi-Wan killed on Naboo. Or former Sith, if his desire for peace was still to be believed. For all they knew this explosion could have been his scheme all along, to show the Republic, the Order and the Confederacy that peace was out of the question.

That was what most of the opposition in the Senate had put forward when they debated over this proposal in the first place. Their arguments had been convincing, unrelenting even. But they numbered only a small minority, compared to the majority of Senators who still firmly believed that there could be a way to form an alliance with the Confederacy, one which operated on peace rather than war. Too many for all to attend this peace conference, which was a good thing, because if news of this got back to the Core, they would need their supporters arguing that this explosion only deepened their commitment to peace, rather than weakening it.

Was there still to be a peace, she wondered, her gaze instinctively travelling towards the area of the room assigned to the Confederacy, realising the full horror that the saboteur had caused once more. The distrust which days of talks and the kind assistance from their hosts had slowly erased would now return, if indeed it had ever completely disappeared in the first place. After days of establishing the foundation for a peaceful, working alliance, they were now back to square one.

Obi-Wan was making his way over to Count Dooku, lending the former Jedi Master a hand in order to help him rise from the floor. The magnate of Serenno looked aged by the explosion, possessing an old world weariness about his appearance, grateful for the support of his Padawan's Padawan. Gracefully making the motion look apparently so much less than it was, Obi-Wan helped the Count to his feet and casually checked him over, as the rest of the Jedi were doing with the other delegates.

After making sure everyone was okay, as whole they went to work on shifting what they could of debris from the explosion. Paisians were ill-equipped to deal with this type of clearing, having never experienced terrorist threats before. Their host, after he was helped to his feet by a Jedi, stood staring at the cleanup operation, obviously at a loss as to what to do, before realising that with this room destroyed another would be needed for the rest of the talks. Knowing that the people around him would not appreciate a reminder as to what they came here to create, he quietly exited the room and went about organising another.

Assuming there would be any more peace talks, that is. Cooperation was all very well when there was something before them that no one could find something to disagree about, unless someone happened to ask who caused the explosion that is, but when the debris was cleared there was no way of knowing how any of the delegates would talk to each other. Whether they would too busy searching for someone amongst them who looked guilty or gleeful and blaming them for the explosion. Or that it wouldn't matter who was to blame for the destruction, the mere fact of it occurring would be enough to put all three parties at odds with each other once more.

It was obvious who the fingers of blame would be pointed at first, even before the none too discreet glances were aimed at them after a path across the entire remains of the room had been cleared. Suddenly it was as if that path created a division where previously there was none. Using the cleared narrow space as an excuse to separate, to revert to their delegations as they continued the cleanup. Occasional glances shot across the line, as if some unguarded expression would give away the guilty party. Although most of the delegates from the Senate and the Jedi had been chosen because of their reputable reputations, all of them were vulnerable to prejudice, and it was only to be expected that the preconceived notions about the Confederacy would soon expose those prejudices.

The division wasn't broken until the Paisian host returned. He made his entrance quietly enough, his arrival unheard even by the Jedi, who were no doubt preoccupied by the mental speculation on who could be responsible for the explosion, and the tension in the room since its occurrence. Before speaking he momentarily surveyed the clean up operation happening before him with a kind of envy, knowing that his species' inability to cope with such situations would have never achieved this much during his absence, nor appear so composed whilst doing so either.

"If I may interrupt," he began, causing the delegates to come to a halt, stretch to their full heights, and turned to look at him as he spoke. He waited until he had their sole focus, before adding, "the new conference room is ready for the rest of the peace talks, if you would care to join me there, I shall show you the way."

"I notice you didn't ask if any of us still wanted to continue with the peace talks," one of the delegates uttered.

"In all honesty I confess that such a thought had not occurred to me," their host replied. "Should I be asking the question?"

For all their natural deference to their clientele, the Paisians were not afraid of using psychological warfare when it came to reconciling two warring sides, as was shown by the host's technique of flipping the question back to the delegates, giving them the responsibility of answering, making it appear that the whole fate of a treaty rested solely on them.

"Did you miss what happened here?" The delegate asked, gesturing at the remnants of the debris which had yet to allocated a temporary pile in some area of the room until more suitable cleanup equipment could arrive. "Do you really think any of us would want to continue talking with them after what they just did?"

"So you're accusing us of arranging this explosion?" A delegate from the Republic Senate asked, outraged.

"Oh, don't look so surprised," the first delegate remarked. "Politicians are not above arranging circumstances such as these to come out on top. Nor are the Jedi, for that matter."

There was a momentary pause as everyone was shocked into silence by the accusation just thrust at an Order who prided itself on integrity and honesty. However it was only momentary. Thanks to the recent propaganda campaign against them, such accusations were fast becoming normal, and while the disgust at being the recipient of them had not disappeared, the inability to respond had long ago.

"You dare to accuse the Jedi Order of causing such an atrocity?" one of its less tactful delegate masters queried in incredulous tone.

"Hardly an atrocity when no one dies, is it?" the first delegate pointed out somewhat smugly as if the fact that there had been no loss of life proved that the Jedi were responsible.

If anyone did think of a pithy comeback to that last question it was beyond the hearing range of the Paisian, and not through any disability to his health, for the voice of whoever it was became lost in the melee of the full-scale argument which erupted at that moment. Helplessly he watched as the previously peaceful conference disintegrated right before his eyes, with the delegates shouting at each other, warily thankful that only the Jedi were allowed to carry weapons upon his world, though he would not have put the other delegates above the practice of smuggling devices in if they could.

Just when he was about to despair of the parties ever reaching a pause, let alone a peaceful conclusion, the elder being who was head of the Confederacy delegation called out for silence, his ability in the Force put to good use as he applied it to his voice so the words were audible to all concerned. For a moment the Paisian wondered if the Order would be willing to train his species to convey such a technique, for it could prove useful in future conferences. But then he realised that it might not be as half as effective without the power of the Force behind it.

"Gentle beings, I believe that finding or proving whoever is responsible for this atrocity is a moot point," Count Dooku continued. "The fact is that the explosion occurred. And if we allow it to destroy the delicate trust which I dare to hope we have been building between us these past few days, then we are giving those responsible exactly the victory that they desired by arranging the explosion in the first place. May I suggest that we deprive them of the achievement of such a goal and continue working towards establishing a peace treaty."

The magnate of Serenno didn't wait for an answer to his eloquently worded statement. Instead with an elegant grace which belied his age and contrasted strongly with the current state of the room, he turned about and headed for the exit, disappearing from view seconds later, leaving the rest of his delegation, and everyone else behind.

To follow, if they chose to do so.

Part 16: Thoughts & Revelations, Disturbing & Elusive.

Nineve Jade knew something was wrong from the moment the response to her request for a meeting arrived. And it was nothing to do with the encrypted words or the beeping of her ship's communication system. However, it had everything to do with her ability in the Force, trained for over twenty years, honed to a razor-sharp ability by her master. The anything but benign being who called her his Hand.

How many years she had been operating under this title she was uncertain. For as long as she could remember, her master had been her guardian, her teacher, her superior. He had found her as a crechling, she believed, not that he had ever enlightened her as to her origins, or parentage, nor had she ever cared enough to ask. Over the years, he had steadily trained any such desire out of her, nurturing her, - though the techniques he used belied the meaning of that word, - into his Hand.

The term encompassed many occupations, amalgamated into one. Assassin, bodyguard, spy, subordinate, she was all these and more. On occasion she was required to give out orders to others, entrusted with his authority, as a quasi-second in command. Dooku, while being his apprentice, had little authority when compared to hers, not even the faintest grasp of the empire which her master held.

Which perhaps was why he had decided to betray them by offering the Republic a peace treaty. Her Master had to realise that was the Count's motive, despite his anger concerning the former Jedi every time his name was discussed. Or maybe the emotion was directed more toward himself, for failing to contemplate this possibility in his so meticulously planned scheme for galaxy wide domination.

A scheme which had suffered yet another setback by her actions on Pais only hours ago. Nineve sighed, and slumped back against the confines of her cockpit flight chair in frustration. The thing that annoyed her the most concerning what she had done was the consequences from the explosion. The device had worked perfectly, doing exactly what her master had ordered, destroying the conference room without harming anyone inside. What it had failed to do was convince everyone within that room about the futility of peace between the Republic and the Confederacy, which was the end result that her master had intended to occur.

Something else his supposedly meticulously planned scheme had failed to anticipate. Not that he would appreciate her pointing this out to him when she reported in. He was already aware of her failure, unless he had somehow missed the HoloNet wide briefing on the sabotage to the peace conference and how despite the danger in continuing the delegates were still prepared to do so. She had been monitoring the broadcasts ever since her ship dropped out of hyperspace on the approach to Coruscant after leaving Pais, waiting for a reaction from those delegates to see if the explosion had worked. Sure enough, the evidence appeared as soon as she entered orbit of the Core.

The briefing was short, and not open to any questions from the press, who were never allowed on Pais as rule anyway, but the message could not have been clearer. A member from each delegation had been present, seated behind a table, the backdrop the remains of the conference room. The choice of surroundings had been deliberate, her training taught her that; a useful symbolic point to underlying that each member was well aware of the danger they were in, but their determination to continue to work towards a peace treaty was not about to be scuppered by an explosion, and neither should that of the beings who they served.

Equally deliberate was the choice of delegates, she had realised too. Count Dooku, as head of the Separatists, a clear message to the Republic that he was still committed to the treaty he had proposed in the Senate, as well as a less than subtle dig concerning his presence and the Chancellor's decision not to go. It also served to act as a continued show of defiance to Palpatine, for while Dooku was unaware of her existence, he was not stupid enough to believe that his master would not attempt to sabotage the peace process.

From the Republic was Padmé Amidala, again another appropriate choice. As leader of the opposition in the Senate and a member of the Loyalist and Security committees, her words carried weight within the galaxy. Her presence underlined her previous commitment to voting against the Military Creation Act, reminding the beings she represented that despite what her actions on Geonosis might have portrayed, she had was still a pacifist at heart.

And finally there had been Obi-Wan Kenobi from the Jedi Order. Aside from the obvious need for a Jedi to be present at the briefing, the Master's being there was a silent argument against the negative propaganda that had been spreading about the universe lately regarding the Jedi - another one of her master's tactics in his allegedly meticulously planned scheme. Master Kenobi had been at Geonosis too, his capture leading to that incident in the first place. His name had risen to some prominence because of this, one of the few members of the Order whose actions were publicised, not because he was a member of the Council, although there were rumours flying around that he was soon to assume such a position.

What was also apparent from his presence was another attack at her master, though Kenobi had no way of knowing such. It had been he who killed Palpatine's last apprentice, with the help of his master, who was Dooku's apprentice when the Count still belonged to the Order. His presence at the briefing was supposed to convey to her master another mistake in choosing Dooku as his apprentice, for it laid her master open to possibility of betrayal, through the Count choosing to trust the apprentice of his former pupil than his new master. Not to mention reminding Palpatine that Kenobi was capable of taking down a Sith, and could easily do so again.

All this she realised long after the briefing ended. During the broadcast she was still too angry at her failure to focus on the symbolism behind the words. Each of the three delegates had spoken, their words succinct, their meaning unmistakable. They were outraged by the attempt by perpetrators unknown to sabotage the peace process. Yet they had no desire to let them succeed in their aims. Despite the danger, they were all still committed to working towards a peaceful treaty between the Confederacy and the Republic. The briefing was merely an aid to alert the beings they served of the danger, and their continued commitment to keeping the peace.

With that, the briefing ended, leaving her fuming, as well as the worrying realisation that her frustration with herself would be nothing compared to what her master would be experiencing. Or what he would express, she had mused when she received his encrypted message, detailing where her debriefing would take place. Due to the risk of discovery their meetings on Coruscant were arranged to take place in different locations every time, ones which were swept for surveillance thoroughly before hand.

The location for this one only added to her concern about how he would express his anger. As soon as she had decrypted the message and entered the coordinates into her ship's navigational system, her mind had contemplated the most likely possibilities based on how angry she believed he would be. When her ship's navigational system revealed the location to be an empty warehouse in the Works district, her worse concern was solidified. It was the ideal place for him to do anything he wanted, hurt, main, even kill her if his anger was sufficient. She wasn't indispensable after all, no matter her position she was merely another servant of his rule, subject to his justice.

She did have another option open to her, she knew, one which she had contemplated before she entered Coruscant's atmosphere to land. It would be an easy matter to turn her ship around, return to hyperspace and leave his employ. Her salary was generous and her training easily adaptable to surviving away from her master. But she had dismissed the notion almost immediately. For while it was an attractive prospect, she knew that her resources were by no means unlimited, whereas his were. If she ran, she would be running for the rest of her days, for as long as he was alive, because he would track her down, and then he would most certainly kill her.

While at the moment, such a fate was a mere possibility.

Nineve shrugged. Such a conclusion was hardly a comfort, but the alternative was worse. She had no choice but to go and see him. Rising from her chair, she shut down her ship, secured it from intruders, then left for the Works.

Padmé returned to her room that night rather than heading for the bar to spend another evening in the company of Obi-Wan and Garen. Not because spending those few hours before seeking some sleep alone was what she wanted to do. She needed time to think about what she had learned during those first minutes after the explosion.

And what she planned to do about it.

Until now she had failed to find a spare moment to form her resolves. After Count Dooku's proposal, everyone had followed the magnate of Serenno into the new conference room for the continuation of the peace conference, much to her, and judging by the shocked features, the Count's also, not to mention every other delegate's matched expressions of similar emotions, all of which could be combined into one, that of surprise.

What followed then surprised them even further; they all sat down and resumed the talks, almost as if the explosion had never taken place. When their host brought the conference to an end for the day, she, Obi-Wan and Count Dooku set up the live Holo feed for their broadcast about the explosion and their continued commitment to peace, a briefing which had been discussed, organised and agreed to by every delegate involved.

By the time the briefing had been recorded, it was late, providing with an excuse to seek her room, even if she didn't feel like sleeping yet. Entering that luxurious location, for Pais accepted no less than the best, whatever the wealth of their clientele, she began to take off the elaborate costume of her official garb in favour of something more comfortable. The process took a little longer than usual, as she was undressing without the aid of her attendants, choosing, unlike most of her colleagues, to come alone to Pais for the conference and leave her staff on Coruscant to maintain a voice in the Senate.

When she was attired in a nightgown and robe, she sank down on to the bed and turned her mind back towards that moment when she almost kissed Obi-Wan. Or rather, thought about kissing him. Now that the second their lips were so close for the impulse to breach her emotions was nothing more than memory, she felt that she could reflect on the temptation objectively. For it had to be a temptation, nothing more. Something felt only by her, noticed by no one else. She couldn't discuss the impulse with Obi-Wan, for that would only make matters worse. All she could do was put it down to hormones and forget about the incident.

But that was easier said than done. Every sensation from that impulse lingered in her mind. Her imagination was even daring to complete the move, fantasising about how the kiss might have felt, how his lips would taste, whether it would be different to Anakin's. Guilt rose to the forefront of her mind as her thoughts brought up her husband. It would be unfair to draw a comparison between Anakin and Obi-Wan, especially based on something which still existed in her imagination. Yet she was aware of one thing concerning Ani. During their brief honeymoon, first in Varykino then enroute to Coruscant, he hadn't satisfied her sexually. He had come close, but never close enough. She put it down to his inexperience, half assured that if they were given some time, she could help him give her satisfaction.

However, there was some part of her which doubted that. It was the same part of her who queried his confession during their wedding night when compared with what happened afterwards that seemed to belie such words. The part of her who argued whether she wanted to live in a secret marriage the rest of her life, what it meant about children, and everything else she had wanted from such a union. Insistently it protested against her dismissal concerning Anakin arguing that there was more significance in the lack of satisfaction than she gave credit for. Not to mention the objection concerning her same determination to deny that the need to kiss Obi-Wan had been nothing more than a momentary impulse.

Padmé sighed and rose from the bed. Reflecting on the impulse was obviously a bad idea. Perhaps she should call her residence on Coruscant instead; Dormé might have some business from the Senate or Naboo that she could occupy herself with. For a minute she debated on speaking to Anakin, but decided against it. She was hardly in the right frame of mind to speak her husband just now. She might let something slip, and cause another misunderstanding.

Ignoring the part of her who was asking herself why she seemed so reluctant to rouse her husband's anger, Padmé sat down in front of the communications panel. Keying in the usual code for her residence, she waited for her attendant to pick up.

In the end, Obi-Wan didn't go to the bar. Garen proposed such a plan to him and Padmé, and he refused soon after she, though his excuse was not the same as hers. Instead he returned to the remains of the first conference room, to see if he could use the Force to gain a more clearer view on the young woman he believed responsible.

There was a memory enhancing technique used in the Force to aid recollection of the past. A skill taught to Padawans when they were told about their heritage, given a chance to explore their past before they made a commitment to the Order. One of the secrets of the Jedi, never made public to those outside the Temple, even who chose to view them with contempt for taking crechlings from their parents. Something his Padawan had been taught, but not with his heritage in mind, for he knew that already.

Quietly he stood in the space between the debris waiting to be cleared as soon as trained crews arrived to do so, his blue grey eyes closed, his mind deep in the embrace of the Force. He felt the guidance taking him into the recent events of the day, before the explosion. Cautiously he focused his mind, careful not to direct it in case he missed something or the connection was broken. The most important thing was - no pun intended - not to force the Force, but to let it flow through you, let yourself go along for the ride, for you would learn what you wanted to know, even if it did not seem so clear when you did so.

He saw the conference table, the delegates gathered round, some taking notes others listening to the speaker. Behind them aides were present, most belonging to those Senators who had come or the delegates sent by the Separatists. A few were paying no attention to the talks, catching up with each other, having been parted by their bosses leaving the Republic. Others were listening, or giving the appearance of doing so, their inner thoughts elsewhere.

In the midst of these was the woman with red hair and green eyes, her features composed in the image of perfect attentiveness. Yet Obi-Wan knew from the minute he set his gaze on her that a peaceful future for the galaxy was the last thing on her mind. He could read her intentions through the Force, her calculating brain, focused on her master's agenda. Not only that, he realised with a gasp, but her own ability to harness the ancient energy.

He realised now who she worked for, the Sith lord they had been looking for ever since he first overcame the apprentice who killed his master on Naboo. For a moment he wondered if she answered to Dooku, but dismissed such a conclusion immediately, for the impressions he sensed from her contradicted such a chain of command. No, she answered to the Sith lord, who, angered by his apprentice's desire for peace, had decided to sabotage the conference and put the galaxy back at war.

Opening his eyes, he emerged from his memories to discover that he was no longer alone within the conference room. Standing some distance from him was one of the very beings he had been recalling.

Count Dooku.

The magnate of Serenno met his even handed gaze with a small nod of wordless acknowledgement. Before the silence between them could step into awkwardness, he spoke in a tone designed not to travel further than was necessary. "I see you've come to the same conclusion I reached."

Obi-Wan didn't bother countering the statement, Dooku probably used the same methods as he to recall the events of this day, no matter whether he was fully a Sith or some thing in between that and a Jedi. To deny would imply that he still believed Dooku was working for the Sith lord, when he no longer did.

"Do you recognise her?" He asked.

Obi-Wan expected Dooku to shake his head, but instead the Count nodded. "Not enough to put a name to, but I've seen her before." He paused, and Obi-Wan could sense that he was thinking about when he had seen her, and where. "I can tell you one thing. My old master has a habit of using beings who can easily be disposed of if things go wrong."

Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow at that. "Your old master?"

Dooku matched his expression. "I think I lost the title of apprentice from the moment I declared my intentions to hold these peace talks."

There was something about the way he replied, almost a little too calmly, the words oddly composed, deliberate even. Obi-Wan tried to sense the meaning behind them, but it was elusive, so he pushed his suspicion aside to deal with later, when he more to go on. For now he nodded slightly before adding, "you'll have to reveal his identity some time, you know."

Dooku inclined his head in acknowledgement. "I know. But not today."

Part 17: Questions & Doubts.

When Obi-Wan returned to his hotel later that night, the short droid like sounds of the communications panel beeping greeted him. Closing the door, he took off his cloak, hanging the garment on the hook that was fastened on the reverse, then wandered over to the desk. Sitting down he keyed in the code which would silence the sound and turn the red flashing light into permanent, signalling that the line was in use, before tapping the sequence of keys that allowed him to answer the call.

Anakin greeted him with a half worried half relieved expression. "Master, I just saw the press briefing, how are you?"

"I'm fine, Anakin, thankyou," Obi-Wan replied, inwardly relieved to hear from his Padawan. Observing the young man before him, he noticed that the tortured anxiety and frustration regarding his passions was no longer so apparent on his face. He looked more like a Senior Padawan should appear on the cusp of knighthood. Evidently the extra training under Master Windu had done him a world of good. "Fortunately the bomb only caused damage to the conference room, everyone within remained unharmed."

"Have you found out who is responsible?" Anakin asked.

Obi-Wan hesitated in replying, unsure if his response would rouse his apprentice's anger. However answering him was unavoidable. "I believe the person involved may be an agent of the Sith lord we've been looking for."

Anakin nodded, his expression unchanged. "And they managed to leave the planet before they could be captured?"

"Yes, though I imagine their master won't be too happy with them after seeing the press briefing and hearing our desire to continue with the conference. I don't think we'll be troubled by such sabotage again." Obi-Wan took a breath then changed the subject. "Enough about the conference. How is your training with Master Windu coming along?"

The composure dropped to be replaced by a child like enthusiasm Obi-Wan had not seen since Anakin turned thirteen. "Hard, but exciting, Master. I'm learning a lot. Master Windu thinks I'm making good progress."

Obi-Wan nodded, unable to keep a grin from his face as well. It was rare that he saw his Padawan like this, as the boy that he lost sight of when Anakin entered his teenage years. Now coupled with the resolved expression he had seen earlier, his worries about the young man before him began to ease. "I'm glad to hear that. Coming from Master Windu, good progress is the equivalent of the highest praise."

Anakin frowned. "You haven't spoken to him then?"

"No," Obi-Wan replied. "Why would I need to?"

"I thought he might contact you," Anakin replied.

"He'll probably talk to me when I return from Pais," Obi-Wan added, seeing the frown disappear from his apprentice's face as he accepted that explanation. "Besides, I wanted to make sure you had no problems with Vaapad first; its a hard fighting style that few Jedi can truly master. Mace only selects pupils whom he believes have the potential to do so, because the technique can be dangerous."

Anakin nodded. "I know, he told me that it channels the dark side of the Force from your opponent through you." He paused, as though he were about to say something more, but then the com panel on his end emitted a sharp beep, indicating that another was waiting to talk to him. "I have to go, Master. May the Force be with you."

"And with you, Padawan," Obi-Wan returned before turning the communications system off. Reclining back in the chair, he smiled as he recalled Anakin's resolved features, how well his apprentice seemed to be coping in comparison to his previous state in the run up to the fight on Geonosis. He had been worried when he left for Pais that the time apart from Anakin would worsen relations between them, as it had with him and Qui-Gon, when he left the Order for a time. Anakin was older than he had been, but the circumstances were relatively the same, the need to accept the sacrifice of a lost love identical.

He had never told Anakin about Cerasi, and the question Qui-Gon put to him when he returned. Obi-Wan wondered for a moment if he needed to ask his pupil what his master had asked him. It was something which preyed on his mind ever since he tried to persuade Anakin to give up his love for Padmé. His reasoning was simple, albeit rather selfish; if his Padawan answered as he had done when Qui-Gon asked him all those years ago, he would have failed to honour another promise he had made to his master.

When Qui-Gon asked him, Cerasi was dead and he was back with Order, having no reason to stay on Melida/Daan. His master had nothing to lose in asking that question, whereas if Anakin answered how he feared, he would lose not just his Padawan, but the woman he loved, and possibly the respect of the Order for failing to finish training a Padawan such as the Chosen One.

Obi-Wan sighed, knowing he was being selfish and yet unable to find the strength through that knowledge to ask Anakin what Qui-Gon had asked him. By keeping silent on the subject he was being a coward as well, something else which should have spurred him into asking the question, but knowledge of that flaw had also failed to do so.

It was what had led him to talk to Padmé instead, to convince her to be reasonable and accept that Anakin had a commitment he could not give up. But this motion also caused another doubt in his mind, as to whether he truly loved her. He could not help but think that if he truly loved her, he would have let her be with the man she loved. That he would find the strength within himself to ignore the doubts about her and Anakin having a relationship, in favour of granting her happiness. It was a dilemma of his own making, and one he knew that he had to resolve and soon.

But first there was the matter of a peace treaty between the Republic and the Separatists. Pushing his troubling thoughts aside, Obi-Wan rose from the chair and headed for the balcony to meditate before he went to bed. He would need a good night's rest in order to focus on the next round of talks.

The being waiting on the line turned out to be the Supreme Chancellor's private secretary, with a message from Palpatine, requesting that Anakin join him for a meal. Anakin answered the communiqué with trepidation, unsure if he wanted to go, yet knowing he could not refuse, for the Chancellor would only go through the Council and cause a fuss, destroying their approval of him, an approval which Anakin felt he had only just won.

There was another reason he did not want to have dinner with the Chancellor; the troubling discovery that Palpatine knew he and Padmé were married. No one was supposed to know about the secret ceremony which had taken place in the villa at Varykino, save for himself, Padmé and the holy man who had performed the ceremony. Since he had never breathed a word about the wedding and he knew Padmé held her peace too, it must have been the priest who dropped word to the Chancellor, as Palpatine had said, assuring him that he would keep his knowledge secret from the Order.

Who, according to the Chancellor, would soon grant permission for Jedi to marry anyway, knights and masters, that is. He was rather surprised by that piece of news, as well as the fact that there was a married master on the Council, and the Corellian Jedi ignored that part of code also. How this gave his master the right to insist that he give up Padmé he did not know.

For a moment his fingers hovered over the sequence of buttons which would call back to his master on Pais, while his mind contemplated confronting his master about that very issue. However he soon realised the futility of the motion, and the consequences it would doubtless wrought. Obi-Wan and he had just recovered their relationship after it fractured during Geonosis and the argument over his desire for Padmé.

He had been so angry at him for forcing them apart, for ignoring the pain he was feeling over his mother, refusing to believe that the dreams he was having might be some kind of Force vision and that his mother was in real danger. A part of him still blamed Obi-Wan for his mother's death, he still partially believed that if he had been able to go to Tatooine after the first dream he could have saved her from dying in his arms in a Tusken camp.

And through that, he could have saved himself the subsequent pain of his revenge. He would not have massacred the tribe who had her, because she would still be alive. This earlier rescue would also have given him more time with Padmé on Naboo, in that idyll of the villa at Varykino, where untroubled by dreams, he could have started their relationship.

He knew that this was a petty regret, after all they were married, but their courtship felt a little tainted to him, soured by the conflict their duties dragged them into. Not to mention the uncomfortable scene in the Lars homestead where he had confessed to her what he did to avenge his mother. There had been something in Padmé's expression that bothered him, a slight flicker of fear and possibly revulsion at the act. Sometimes he convinced himself that he'd imagined the emotion, for by the time he all but collapsed into her arms nothing except compassion and concern were splayed across her face.

Whether it was his imagination or no, those emotions haunted him, just as the conversation with Palpatine had haunted him. He almost wondered if the Chancellor intended to unsettle him that evening. Every inquiry he had made related to the usual tension he was suffering in his life, from his secret relationship with his wife to the Order, the Council, and Obi-Wan.

Yet there had been nothing in the tone of his voice or his expression to suggest that the Chancellor had such a motive. Palpatine greeted him like an kindly old uncle, catering to his tastes and taking an interest in his day to day past times. In all his past encounters with the Chancellor there had been nothing to suggest that an ulterior motive of the kind Anakin now suspected him of. So why had the discovery that Palpatine knew about his and Padmé's marriage bothered him so much?

It was a question which haunted him from the moment he came to his senses in the midst of the chaos that was previously an arena for lightsaber training. Pushed aside briefly during his conversation with Master Windu, temporarily forgotten in the light of learning a new lightsaber technique, but always hovering in the back of his consciousness, like a remote laser sphere, similar to the one he happened to be repairing when Master Windu entered the arena that time. He had yet to think of an answer which would nullify the trigger so to speak, save perhaps that he felt a certain propriety over what was rightfully a secret between him and Padmé. As far as he was concerned, no one else had any business knowing about the ceremony which declared them man and wife.

Something which he would have to make clear to the Chancellor when he had dinner with him tonight.

Chancellor Palpatine allowed a sithly smile to grace his features as he watched the briefing from Pais once more. It must be noted that such satisfaction was not his original emotion when upon first witnessing this holo feed. Anger clouded his mind during the live broadcast, the emotion within him so pungent and powerful that he almost betrayed himself in front of the Senate.

He was astounded that the explosion had only made the delegates more determined to commit themselves to forming a peace treaty, and annoyed at himself for failing to realise the possibility of such an outcome. Containing those thoughts and feelings had never felt more important during the political session, and never so much of a struggle.

Which was why his Hand had taken the brunt blunt force of his vented rage. Jade was recovering in the Manarai Medicentre, under the treatment of highly trained specialists and protected by highly trained security. His cleaning staff had worked around the clock to remove the scorch marks from the walls of his private residence. Such an explosion of rage had cost him, but it also conveyed a valuable lesson. Control and Patience. These two words had been his mantra from the very beginning of his teaching. They were difficult skills for a Sith to master, but their rewards were infinite.

Reminding himself of their power forced him to realise not just the price for giving into his rage, but insignificance of what caused such emotion in the first place. The Pais briefing was merely a setback, nothing more. Sequestering himself away in his private residence, he replayed the recording, and the more he watched the feed, the more he realised that it betrayed the delegates just as much as it assisted them. The feed was show of strength, a response to whoever was behind the bombing. It was designed to convey that the delegates on Pais would not be swayed by sabotage. That they were determined to have peace, even at the cost of their lives.

And within in that determination lay their weakness. By recording this statement, they were challenging those saboteurs to reveal themselves, to make a mistake. They were putting up a show of strength, to hide their concerns behind. Defence, not offence, the typical reaction of the Jedi. Their choice of representatives equally deliberate too; Amidala, Kenobi, Dooku. The unofficial leaders of each delegation; two Jedi and the head of the opposition in the Senate.

Dooku's presence was a petulant act of rebellion against his apprenticeship. Palpatine had given him power, position and wealth, and in return, this was how the Count of Serenno chose to repay him. True the man was only a temporary student, his holding placement for the Chosen One, but that did not make the betrayal hurt any less. However, the magnate was not a stupid being. He must be cognisant of the fact that his presence on the briefing cast his lot with the peace process irrevocably. Dooku would not cajole the Separatists into war, what Palpatine had ordered him to do. But nor could he persuade those less peaceably minded cohorts to listen to him either. In the long term this could cost him more than his alliance with the Sith had ever done.

Amidala had also laid herself open to attack as well. Her life had been threatened many times; both as Queen when she opposed the Trade Federation blockade on her home planet and as Senator during the passage of the Military Creation Act. Of course, he had been behind those attacks, but such a truth made no difference to the rumours that circulated concerning them.

When she had been a Queen opposing the blockade, many accused her of abusing her power by interfering with Senate affairs. Her opposition to the MCA was seen by some to be a smoke-screen to smooth its passage through, especially when her decision to go to Geonosis and rescue Kenobi was taken into consideration. Rumours argued that by joining the Jedi in the fight upon that planet she revealed her true allegiance to the creation of a clone army with which to defend the Republic. She became a symbol also to those who were listening to the negative propaganda campaign against the Jedi by rushing to the rescue of one of their most decorated knights.

Kenobi helped to augment these rumours, but by sitting next to Amidala, he also lay himself open to another scheme Palpatine was quietly bringing to boil. Their position was the reason for his continued replaying of the holo feed. He spent hours watching their every move, be it gesture, word, or look, until he had enough to use as a tool in his seduction of the Chosen One.

Anakin would be incredulous at first to the suggestion that his wife and his master were having an affair. But in time, he would come to believe the truth Palpatine taught him, just as he had concerning his revenge on Tatooine. It would deepen his mistrust of the Order, of his master. Enforce his determination to use what they had taught him against them, to cause their undoing.

Palpatine allowed himself a sithly smile as he reminded himself that the best deceptions were built upon a foundation of a truth whose innocence could be twisted into guilt.

"Thank you for inviting me, Chancellor."

"You're welcome, my boy," Palpatine returned as he ushered the young man into his dining room.

Anakin tried to get a grip of his emotions, reminding himself not to be overawed by the opulence of the room, the red and black shades of the decor, the shiny metallic smooth cutlery, or white ceramic plates resting quietly on the dinner table. It took every ounce of focus and concentration that his life and his training at the Temple taught him, and even then the effort was paltry at best.

He wanted to rail at the Chancellor, for the atmosphere seemed almost designed to discompose him, but letting his anger get the better of him would only cause him to lose sight of his intention to press upon the Chancellor the importance of keeping his marriage secret, even to those who already knew. Padmé would be disappointed and shocked if she learned that the Chancellor knew of their union, for the secrecy was just as important and necessary for her position as it was for him.

"Chancellor," he began as Palpatine led him to the table, and saw him seated before seating himself. "About my marriage to Padmé. I apologise for reacting to your awareness of the matter with terror. I should have realised the possibility of your knowledge, as the ceremony took place on Naboo. However, I must ask for you to keep your knowledge of this matter secret, even from Padmé, as well as the Order. I cannot foresee the union becoming good news to the Jedi, even if what you say about the reforms is true."

Palpatine, whose kindly old uncle smile had slipped from his face, replaced by a grave seriousness, nodded even before Anakin finished making his point. "Of course, my boy. I'm sorry I gave you any uneasiness by revealing that I knew in the first place."

"It was just a shock," Anakin reiterated. "The ceremony was meant to be a private celebration of our commitment to each other, nothing more."

"I understand, my boy," Palpatine replied. "And I will never mention it again, I promise."

Anakin's relief was evident, and he returned to glancing at the servants access, waiting for the first course of the meal. Inwardly, the Chancellor smiled at how easy it was to placate the boy, how evident the chaos of his emotions appeared in the Force. He knew however that it would not do to make the boy aware of what else he knew, so he swiftly changed the subject to something which they could talk about.

"How goes your training? Have you learnt anything new since we last saw each other?"

The Chosen One beamed at the opportunity to boast of his new achievements. "Master Windu has been teaching me his personal lightsaber fighting style; the Vaapad."

When this information was revealed, the Chancellor had difficulty in keeping his sithly grin from view. If there had been some way for him to excuse himself from the dining room so he could take the full measure of the pleasure he experienced from such a reply then he would have done so.

As it was he could only store the emotion in him, as he had stored the rage caused by briefing from Pais inside him, to be released later. How naive the Order were! How trusting, how unsuspecting. When Anakin took his revenge on the beings who murdered his mother, he had felt the rage inside the boy, so potent it was, he had been sure that the Order could not escape from sensing it either.

Master Yoda, for all his whimsical eccentricities, was not an old fool, his knowledge of the Force could not have kept him ignorant of the grave mistake that the Chosen One had committed. Windu, his fast track lieutenant, was his confidant, and surely would have been informed of the Chosen One's transgression. Yet here was evidence of the Korun teaching him Vaapad; the one lightsaber technique which asked a Jedi to use the dark side!

True, it was only supposed to channel the dark energy of one's opponent, but that distinction was often unrecognised by those who used such a technique, particularly in the heat of a vicious duel. Vaapad was a dangerous technique, of which Master Windu was well aware, yet that fact did not seem to prevent him from continuing to teach those whom he thought could master the style.

"Vaapad?" Palpatine now echoed in a curious tone as he roused himself from his thoughts. "I think I have heard of the style, but I am not immediately familiar with it. It sounds most unusual, my boy, what does it entail?"

Exactly as the Chancellor had intended, Anakin launched into a detailed description of the technique, as the servant brought in the dishes for the first course, and the topic continued to occupy the room throughout the rest of the meal. The boy's curiosity knew no bounds, and when combined with his tendency for recklessness, a taste for adventure and an ego never truly satisfied, the rewards were bountiful. His pride had been touched in being singled out by Master Windu for training, his ego soothed and massaged as he found the style challenging but easy to learn. It was something which caused him once more to stand out from those Padawans, knights and masters in the Temple, a difference that both rankled and pleased him in equal measure.

And in time, as the power of using such a style grew within Anakin, his susceptibility to the dark side would equally increase, giving Palpatine the luxury of just choosing the right moment to make the seduction complete.

Everything that Anakin knew about Vaapad was exhausted by the time desert was served. Once more the Chancellor smoothly changed the subject, asking the boy how he was getting on with his fellow senior Padawans, whom he was obliged to interact with whenever his training had him temple bound.

The inquiry caused Anakin to blush a little with embarrassment. It was a sore subject, and the Chancellor was well aware of that, else he would not have brought it up. Anakin's agemates had at first welcomed him when he came into the temple, only to turn away as the boy sought his pleasures elsewhere, in dangerous pursuits, and allowed himself to be influenced by those who indulged in these past times, as well as politically dubious figures such as himself. While the boys had distanced themselves first, the girls had lingered a little longer, for Anakin was not unattractive, and his passion for adventures only increased the temptation.

One in particular caused Palpatine to let his lips form once that sithly inward smile. She had been installed within the Temple by him as an informant upon the Chosen One's activities when he was temple bound. A test designed to challenge the boy's commitment not only to the Order, but to the young Queen whom he declared he would marry one day. She bore a resemblance to Amidala, although she was more willing to follow his guidelines than the young Queen now Senator ever had been.

Sure enough, Anakin mentioned her name, commenting on how she had stayed his friend when most of the other Padawans had inexplicably turned away from him. Palpatine made a soothing statement on the fickle nature of young people, allowing his privately held satisfaction to increase when Anakin agreed with him before continuing to chat about his informant who friendship was valued. All too soon did the boy let slip that he had crept out of the Temple on several nights with her, in order to show off to her the delights of Coruscant usually barred to Padawans.

Palpatine knew about these nights, long before Anakin mentioned them, or was even made aware of their eventuality. He instructed his informant to tempt the Chosen One out of the temple, and he was pleased with the success of his plan. However, his surprise was touched, as Anakin continued to talk about the nights, until abruptly cutting off his description, causing a violent reddening of his cheeks.

"What is it, my boy?" He asked casually, while his mind harnessed the Force and stretched out his senses to the Chosen One.

Anakin denied that there was anything of significance in his sudden pause and continued, changing the subject without any degree of subtlety. The events of the night which he had withheld from Palpatine however continued to linger in his mind, and the dark lord of the Sith seized upon those memories eagerly.

Only to drop the matter with a strong disgust. He had not instructed his informant to seduce in so intimate a fashion. She had been ordered to lay him open to such a seduction, not to gleeful lead him into committing it. Yet another of his agents to have failed him in short succession. Reluctantly he delved back into the fabric of the Chosen One's mind, forgetting in his first foray to seek out if the seduction had any additional consequences that his calculating mind had not foreseen.

Fortunately for him Anakin was dwelling not upon the night itself, but what the act had cost him, and what further acts it led him into committing. As Palpatine's disgust for his youngest and previously promising informant grew, so did his admiration, as he realised that her actions had led the boy into being unfaithful to the woman he intended to marry before he was reunited with her when he ordered for Jedi to protect her against his cleverly crafted attempts on her life. Not only that, but he had also concealed the matter from Amidala, allowing her to believe that he was an inexperienced boy before entering the marriage bed.

Deception was never a good foundation for marriage and the couple had compounded layer upon layer of such deceit by choosing to keep the ceremony secret, to pretend to those who knew them that they were unattached, and now one was pretending to the other. His plan to use the union as another tool to seduce the Chosen One to the dark side of the Force would rendered easy by this discovery.

"I was surprised by the briefing from Pais," Palpatine mused when Anakin mentioned the broadcast in order to distract the Chancellor from his abrupt pause and flushing cheeks. "I'd have thought that beings were much more discreet about their relationships, but evidently I have been judging others by my own standards and not theirs."

"Relationships?" Anakin echoed the word with a frown, exactly what the Chancellor intended him to do.

"Ah, then you saw it too, did you? I am sorry for that. I had such hopes that all would be well, but then such is the fickleness of women and the frailty of love." Palpatine paused then rose from his chair rather suddenly. "Forgive me, my boy, I must cut this evening short. A glance at the chrono has just reminded me of an important conference call I am scheduled to make in a minute or so with the governor of Caamas." He helped Anakin from his seat and bade him his usual kindly old uncle farewell, then showed the boy out, confident that his abrupt comment would do far more damage than a blunt description ever could hope to achieve.

Part 18: Peaceful Visitations.

Another day, another peace conference. The Paisian sun had well and truly set by the time the delegates left the talks for the bar and their rooms. Padmé was astonished by how much progress they were suddenly making, as if the explosion awakened everyone's pacifists desires.

Either that or the delegates were anxious to get the talks over with so they could go home to safer pastures. The cynical part of her had a feeling that was the real reason behind the sudden enthusiasm all of her colleagues and fellow delegates abruptly acquired for lengthy conference sessions, objecting to their host's often timely calls for a recess until a particular point had been sorted out.

Whatever the truth behind the progress, she was glad of it. A treaty between the Separatists and the Republic was now looking possible, instead of an idealistic fantasy. Soon, there would be something on flimsi and datapads to take back to the Senate, and she could return to Coruscant. Maybe have some time with Anakin, if his duties were still temple bound, that is. A chance to sort out their relationship, to make it work.

If she still wanted to make it work. The doubts as to whether they had made a big mistake by marrying each other continued to prey on her mind. She remembered all too well that conversation they had at her villa in Varykino, before they took off to Tatooine and from there to Geonosis. She had been so rational then, so firm on the idea that having a relationship was impossible. That the duties they had, she to the Senate, he to the Jedi were more important than what they felt for each other. Now, she wasn't even sure what it was that they felt for each other.

Sighing, she tried to shake the doubts from her mind, focus on the work her handmaiden had sent over the com last night, but to no avail. Her thoughts continued to search for answers as to why she believed that the feelings she felt from brief time she spent with Anakin before their marriage were suddenly so intangible. As if she had been imagining them. Even during the explosion, she hadn't wondered about how he would feel if the saboteurs had actually killed her.

But then the answer was obvious. Devastated. He would have been devastated. Angry too, frantic with desire to avenge her just as he had avenged his mother by massacring the tribe of Tusken Raiders who had captured her before beating her and starving her to death. Padmé shivered, the guilt at possibly being responsible for the death of millions troubling her deeply. She found his degree of dependency on the people he loved frightening.

Back on Tatooine, after she discovered him in the garage of the Lars Homestead, when he had finished yelling at her, blaming Obi-Wan, throwing tools to ricochet off walls, before breaking down and finally confessing what he had done, she had felt terrified. The cool deadly tone of voice he used, coupled with the simple words, no prevaricating, no justification. Even his avowal that he was a Jedi and knew that he should be better than this seemed more unnatural rather than natural.

Or truthful.

Her responses had been automatic, what she thought he would expect her to say. Almost what she felt compelled to say. By the time her eloquence and feeling returned, Owen had called them to the memorial outside, whereupon Anakin seemed to have recovered his equilibrium. Certainly he seemed more himself as he knelt before the grave, letting the handful of sand he had gathered slip through his fingers.

Then there was no time to dwell on the matter or on what she felt. Threepio and Artoo abruptly intruded upon the memorial service to bring news of Obi-Wan's capture. The briefing with the Council as they played back that recording, her fears and worries for his safety, as opposed to his Padawan's, foremost in her mind. Even the quarrel between herself and Anakin was trivialised, perfunctory almost, as he reminded her of Master Windu's mandate and she pointed out the loophole within the Korun's words, as she fired up the ship for the journey to Geonosis.

In the end, it made the Jedi's mission more difficult, turning the whole affair into a political mess of galactic proportions. Her avowal before they entered the arena was unwise in hindsight, given what happened next. She had survived explosions on landing platforms, Kouhuns crawling across her bed, a droid construction plant. Escaping the clutches of a Reek, Nexu and Acklay were nothing next to that. Her claim that she was not afraid to die was false, for why else would she have confessed her love, if love it was, then fought so hard to live?

I thought we had decided not to fall in love. His reply was petulant, smug almost, as he sulkily pointed out the flaw in her confession. She recalled the grief in her voice as she whispered the words, sealing the vow with a kiss. Without a care for the guards escorting the tumbrel, or the arena full of beings they were about to enter. Now her concerning care over their secret bordered on paranoia.

Perhaps that was the problem; their marriage was a secret. As though it were something they were ashamed of. When the Jedi made their reforms public, perhaps she and Anakin could admit their vows, live their relationship publicly, with only the concerns typical of other couples. No longer would there be any need for concern over holo conversations, who they spent time with, that being or beings unaware of their non-single status. After all, the troubles and difficulties of keeping their union a secret was the foundation of most of their quarrels. When that caution was rendered unnecessary, perhaps then she would remember their love and why they agreed to marry each other in the first place.

Despite reaching this conclusion, her doubts did not disappear. But she was able to bury them, to finish the work her handmaiden had sent via the HoloNet, then leave her room and venture into the bar on the ground floor of the hotel.

After ordering her drink, she surveyed the room, managing to ignore the rise of emotions within herself as she descried the two Jedi she had unconsciously been searching for. Catching Garen's eloquent gaze she retrieved her drink from the bartender and joined him and his friend in their booth. Again she ignored the feelings within her heart as Obi-Wan looked up from his drink to meet her greeting gaze with a grin.

For once their conversation was not of politics or the progress of the peace conference, but of home questions; exchanging anecdotes of their youngling days. Even Anakin was talked about with ease, though Padmé could not prevent her smile slipping as his name was mentioned, or a part of a story recounted of which she had already heard his side of the tale. Nonetheless, the time passed agreeably, and when she left to seek her bed for the night, it was with the feeling that she been nothing less than her usual self.

"What?" Obi-Wan queried as Garen looked from him to their departing companion. After an unrevealing, yet entirely eloquent silence, he shook his head at his friend in a vain appeal. "Don't start."

"I'm not," Garen replied. "I'm just wondering if you think she's happy."

"And yet you are," Obi-Wan murmured with a sigh. "I think so, why?"

"I don't think she is," Garen mused, only for his friend to raise a sceptical eyebrow. "I know I don't know her as well as you do, but you're looking with the eyes of someone too involved to see clearly, my friend."

"Suppose you're right," Obi-Wan allowed. "What am I do about it?" Another eloquent silence, causing him to shake his head. "No, Garen. Telling her would be a big mistake."

"So certain are you?" Garen remarked in a passable imitation of a certain Grand Master, safely away in the Temple, and thus unable to rap his companion with his gimer stick in retribution at the impression. "Seriously, I'm beginning to wonder if you fear her affirmation more than her rejection. What was it you said to me some months after you rejoined the Order? That you would honour Qui-Gon's requests. Doing so regarding Anakin was hard, it is still, but you did. Now you should do the same regarding the other one."

He paused to retrieve and then glance at the message on his vibrating comlink, before smiling as he rose from his seat, clasping his friend's shoulder in farewell. "Think on it, Obi-Wan. Ask the Force. The answer might surprise you."

Garen's words haunted Obi-Wan that night more than he would have liked to admit, causing him to dream of the occasion when he had promised to do such a thing; in the early months of his return to the Order, still mourning the death of Cerasi. He had come back, begging Qui-Gon to take him on, and he remembered rousing his Master into a temper, causing him to feel terrified at the slightest word or look. It had led to some uncomfortable times, the awkwardness between them finally broken by Qui-Gon.

His dream took him immediately into the past, thrusting him into the quiet, serious boy he had been back then, far too serious for his age and far too anxious to remain in the Order. He had been trying to mediate without success, and reproaching himself for the failure when he was still a young Padawan, with much to learn. Qui-Gon approached him then, offering his hand. For the first time, he saw the memory through his master's perspective, something which if he wasn't so tired, he would have questioned.

An Event during the aftermath of Melida/Daan...

Qui-Gon hesitated as he stood upon the threshold of his Padawan's room. Since his return Obi-Wan had been so dedicated; absorbing every piece of training like he had spent his exile in the desert, as opposed to the war torn world of Melida/Daan. Not once had he asked for help, working alone at each piece he was handed until it was perfected. Qui-Gon sighed, knowing he had to steal moments like this just to see his Padawan, who seemed to have crafted the ability to avoid him to that same level of perfection.

He knew the reason why, and it broke his heart; Obi-Wan was scared of him. Qui-Gon didn't deny the accusation, in fact he agreed with it all too readily, for he had certainly done enough to make the boy scared of him since he had returned to the Order. Yoda had called him on it more than once. But he had been so terrified of losing the boy like he had lost Xanatos, that the harshness which clouded their initial meetings became a protective shield over his heart once again.

Now that had to change. He was determined to restore their relationship; he missed the carefree, lighthearted, curiously innocent boy that Obi-Wan had been when he first became his Padawan; the one who had cajoled a grumpy old master into caring for him like a son.

"Padawan, come with me," he began, causing the boy to look up. He flinched as he caught sight of the vulnerability in his expression. There was something far too serious about his Padawan at times; he feared that the Force was preparing him for the hardships he would endure in the future.

"I want to teach you something," he elaborated, knowing it would rouse Obi-Wan's curiosity, if nothing else. Hesitantly he held out his hand, unable to avoid flinching again as he saw the boy's equal hesitancy in taking the proffered limb. Carefully he led him out of the room, and into the corridor, steeling himself against the nervousness he met from his Padawan, knowing that this was the first time he had led him out of their quarters to learn something since he returned. Obi-Wan still feared they were going before the Council for another reprimand.

He was pleased then to see a smile on the young man's face when they reached their destination. The room of a Thousand Fountains was a favourite of Obi-Wan's he knew, remembering fondly the many times he had encountered the boy there with his friends, before he was even aware of general green troll led conspiracy for him to become that boy's master. Qui-Gon was struck by the realisation that they were back to the relationship they had before Bandomeer, something he had swore never to let return. This made him more determined than ever to restore the bonds with his Padawan.

Gently, he led Obi-Wan to one of the large fountains; away from the other Jedi who had chosen to visit the room that morning. Waving his hand before the waterfall, the motion causing the liquid to still, the sequence of movements not as fast as Yoda usually showed the younglings when they were receiving his teachings; he drew out the transition, gradually slowing the water to a standstill. He smiled as Obi-Wan turned to him in amazement at what he had just done. "That is what you are here to learn, Padawan."

Qui-Gon watched as his Padawan reached out to touch the unnaturally still water, amazed by the flourish on a well loved technique, and eager to learn. He took the boy's hand again and led him through the water, parting the stillness as if it were a curtain of shimmersilk. Gently he guided the young man into a meditative pose directly under the still liquid, assuming one himself before he began.

"Visualise a drop of water, Obi-Wan," he said, addressing his Padawan by his first name, a term he had not used for what seemed like too long a time. "Now imagine that water is falling into your hand. Reach out with the Force, and slow the descent."

To his delight, the young man caught on quickly, but then Obi-Wan was gifted in the Force, extraordinarily so. "Good, Obi-Wan, good. I'm going to give you control of the waterfall. Let me know when you are ready to split your concentration."

Another pause followed, slightly longer than the last, as he carefully shifted his control of the fountain on to his apprentice. To Obi-Wan's credit, the transfer occurred without spilling a drop. Patiently, Qui-Gon waited for him to declare he was ready for the next step.

"I'm ready, Master," Obi-Wan replied.

He felt nervous about breaching this, but it had to be done. "When was the last time you were happy, Obi-Wan?"

A drop of water escaped, splashing upon his head, causing Qui-Gon to smile ruefully at the unconscious reproach. "Forgive me, Padawan, but we have to overcome this distance between us. I have missed you so much. I know I have no right to ask, and I know I have treated you harshly. There is no excuse for my actions. All I can do is promise you that I will endeavour to make amends. Please, let me in."

What followed was an agonising silence, before his Padawan confessed. "On Melida/Daan, in Cerasi's arms."

Qui-Gon allowed that revelation to settle inside him. He was not surprised, but all the same, the knowledge saddened him. "You really loved her, didn't you?" he murmured, causing another drop to slip from the water. Not on his head this time, but instead the space between them, back into the pool which their meditative poses floated upon. "Obi-Wan, answer me this; what did the Force tell you when you left to be with her?"

Another droplet broke from the waterfall, landing between them before his Padawan answered.

"It told me to let Cerasi have my heart," he whispered.

"Then you were right to do so," Qui-Gon replied, causing Obi-Wan to raise his gaze to him in astonishment. "Love is not against the code, Obi-Wan, especially when the Force speaks to us, blessing the affection. If you ever encounter such a call again, promise me you will have the courage to honour such a request."

Obi-Wan's voice when he replied held none of the grief which he had spoken with since his return. Instead it was laced with gratitude and affection, a feeling which Qui-Gon realised that his apprentice had never lost for him, despite all that he had done.

"I promise, Master."

Present Time...

Obi-Wan blinked as the memory came to an end. It was unusual seeing it from his master's perspective, yet with it he had gained a useful insight. He realised too the lesson behind such an event; to respect his own Padawan's feelings when it came to the woman they both loved.

"I'm sorry I broke my promise, Master," he murmured, feeling the need to say it aloud, in the privacy of his hotel room.

"There's no need for apologies, Padawan," another voice said, one all too familiar and too well loved, startling him. "I broke mine as well."

Obi-Wan turned to find an extraordinary sight; a shimmering blue figure hovering before him, bearing the shape and Force signature of his former master. "Qui-Gon?" he murmured in shock, unable to believe what he was seeing.

His former master was smiling softly at him. "Hello, Obi-Wan. Don't worry, you're not hallucinating. The Force has generously granted me this." Qui-Gon paused, struggling it seemed, to find his composure. "It is good to see you, my Padawan. I'm so sorry."

"For what?" Obi-Wan asked.

"I should not have ignored your need for comfort during my final moments," Qui-Gon replied. "I should have told you how proud I am of you. And I should not have burdened you with the training of a Padawan, so soon after you became a knight."

Obi-Wan shook his head. "Master, I understand why you did, I came to terms with your reasons a long time ago. But I thank you for praise."

"I never gave it enough, Obi-Wan. You are a fine Jedi." Qui-Gon hovered forward. "There is so much I wish I could say, so much I desire to make right between us. But now is not the time. The Force granted this to remind you of your promise that you made all those years ago, Obi-Wan. Why have you not honoured it?"

His former Padawan sighed at the spirit of his old master. "You know why, Qui-Gon. Anakin loves her and she him."

"But you have felt the prompting from the Force, have you not?" Qui-Gon queried.

"What prompting?" Obi-Wan shook his head in befuddlement.

The spirit copied the motion, causing the Jedi to smile at the odd sight. "You are so concerned over proprieties, my Padawan, to listen to what the Force wants you to realise. What you should have taken the courage to do before they married."

"I know I should have," Obi-Wan replied with a sigh. "But I respect what they feel for each other too much to speak of my own selfish desires. I don't need the Force to keep reminding me of what I can never have."

"The Force is reminding you, because one day you might," Qui-Gon revealed. "And don't mention Yoda's epithet about the future being in motion, for I've seen some of what is come, Obi-Wan, and I know you and she will need each other."

Obi-Wan nodded, accepting his Master's view, even if he didn't believe such was possible yet. "Anything else, Master?"

Qui-Gon smiled. "Whatever doubts you may have about teaching Anakin, Obi-Wan, you haven't failed him. He has failed you, and that failure will cost us all."

Parts Nineteen-Twenty-four.

© Danielle Harwood-Atkinson 2021. All rights reserved.