"Watch your back!"

Anakin Skywalker whirled, firing at his attacker before ducking behind a partition. A blast hit just millimeters from his left ear, indicating it was time to find better cover.

Dropping into a crouch, he moved stealthily across the thirty yards separating him from a wrecked speeder bike. Ten degrees to his right, he could see Padme, biding her time until she could get a clean shot at their enemy.

Even in a skirmish, she was nothing if precise.

He saw her eyes narrow and she sighted in, pegging a foeman in the abdomen. Another one took a shot in the leg.

He was crossing the short distance at a half-crouched sprint when the remaining opponent got her in his sights.

Lunging forward, Anakin tackled her to the ground. The shot spattered off the wall harmlessly.

"Sith, Skywalker," the young woman called, clearly irked, "it's just paintball."

Anakin heard Obi-wan snort. "It's life. He thinks even that's competitive."

"I'd hate to see him relaxed."

Anakin looked down to see Padme's eyes full of amusement. "I had to save the damsel in distress," he countered.

The smile spread to her lips in a wry grin. "As always, my Knight."

"Not yet."

"In time," she promised.

She reached up to brush a strand of sandy blond hair from his eyes, then moved her hand to cup his cheek.

"Anakin," she said softly.

He sucked in his breath at the familiar glow that her utterance caused. It was pubescent, and wretchedly sentimental, but still magic.

"Yes?"

"Are you going to get off of me or were you getting comfortable?"

He felt the heat rise in his cheeks, so he pulled a straight face and got to his knees. "My apologies, my lady."

She pushed into a sitting position and patted him affectionately on the shoulder. "I don't mind the position as much as the lack of oxygen."

He sent her a fliratious wink and was pleased to see her blush. "I'll have to keep that in mind for the future."

"Should we, ah, leave you two alone?"

They both looked up to see Tizar Nan, one of Anakin's fellow apprentices, Obi-wan, and Sabe grinning at them.

"They need chaperones," Sabe informed Ti. "You'll remember what happened at the Sarkan reception. They were doing so much of nothing that they fell off a balcony."

"It was his fault," Padme protested, laughing. "He made me laugh so hard that I fell over."

"It's your fault that you pulled me over with you," Anakin countered indignantly. "It's lucky we were over the reservoir."

Obi-wan shook his head in feigned disgust. "Look at the two of them. It's tragic, really. Hopelessly in love."

"Am not," Padme called.

Her immediate rebuke stung Anakin more than he would have expected. It was true that they had been friends for ten years and there was little chance of that changing.

Over the past year, however, as Padme spent all of her time on Coruscant as the Naboo senator, he hoped they had grown closer. Their friendship had certainly deepened and matured, but it didn't seem to be going any further.

Anakin stood and offered a hand to Padme. She clasped his in a firm grip and he pulled her to her feet.

"Your choice next month," he reminded her.

Once a month, they convened to take a break from reality for a few hours, to forget that they were supposed to be heroes. The activities had ranged from concerts to hang-gliding.

"No," Ti groaned. "If I see JEDI: THE MUSICAL one more time, I'll have to exterminate the order."

Padme grinned. "I have something a lot better."

"Not SENATORS: THE MUSICAL," Sabe pleaded.

"Don't give her any ideas," Obi-wan ordered. "So, what is it?"

She folded her arms, indignant. "I'm not telling you after that. Just be at the Senate Arboretum one month from now at the usual time."

Obi-wan shook his head with a sigh. "I have a bad feeling about this."

Anakin linked one arm through hers and offered the other one to Ti. "We'll meet you back at the Temple."

"Agreed."

Padme reached up to pull a gob of paint from his hair. "This is quite a flattering style on you."

He smudged a streak of red on her cheek. "You're not so bad yourself."

"Enough flirting," Ti interjected.

Anakin turned and, disengaging his arm from Padme's grip, left a streak of green on her nose.

"You're just jealous," he teased.

"So, why did you want to take seperate speeders back to the Temple," Padme demanded.

"Well," he said, "apart from my need to sneak around with two beautiful women, I wanted Ben and Sabe to have some time to themselves."

Padme rolled her eyes. "You're worse than Sabe," she grumbled. "When will you leave matters to themselves?"

"I am," Anakin countered.

Ti sighed. "He doesn't know the meaning of non-involvement."

"Tell me about it," Padme agreed. "Even from the siege at Naboo, he thought 'stay right there' meant to save the universe."

Anakin feigned good-natured incredulity. "It doesn't?"

Ti squeezed his forearm and grinned. "A lot of things will change over the years, but I hope he always stays this lovably stupid."

"Agreed," Padme said solemnly. "Anakin Skywalker, we forbid you to grow up."

His smile shrank. "We'll all grow up and change," he countered. "Even now, things have changed much in the last few years. Padme's not so dour, Ti's not so lovable..."

"Hey!"

"And Anakin's definitely lost that unhesitating over-inflated sense of heroism."

"Never," Anakin murmured, horrified.

"But, like I said, "Padme continued, many things will change, but this, our caring, our friendship will always remain, come what may."

Anakin nodded. "Come what may," he repeated, unsure he quite believed it himself.