CHAPTER ONE

Padmé stepped out of the turbolift and pointed to the right.  "My apartment's over here."  She led her companion the short walk down the hallway and stopped in front of the door. 

"This is a nice location.  I bet you have a great view," he commented, looking out the hallway viewport over the Senate complex below. 

"For Coruscant, yes, it's pretty good.  Nothing like Theed Palace, though."  She smiled at the memory. 

He chuckled as he unconsciously reached up with his left hand and scratched an itch on the back of his head.  "No question there." 

They turned to face each other.  He was a few inches taller than her, with a slightly darker complexion, short black hair, and piercing green eyes.  Since she had last seen him for dinner the week before, he had shaved his moustache and goatee. 

"I like your new look, by the way," she told him.  "It suits you.  Makes you look less devilish.  More engaging, friendly." 

"Blast!  That's the last thing I wanted," he joked.  "Now I'll have to grow it back!"  He reached out and took her right hand in his, raised it up, and kissed the back of it lightly once.  "Thank you for the pleasant evening, Padmé.  I'll call you again in a few days?" 

As he released her hand, she responded.  "I'd like that very much, Jacen.  Good night."  She swung her security badge over the control panel and the door slid open. 

"Good night," he replied over his shoulder, already headed back toward the turbolift. 

When the apartment door closed behind her, Padmé found Dormé standing only a foot in front of her.  In her nightgown and robe, she had an expectant look on her face.  "So, how'd it go?"  Her old friend and handmaiden was famous for her directness. 

"He's nice, and charming.  We've had a lot to talk about so far," Padmé answered as she headed to her bedroom to change out of her formal gown. 

"So you're going to see him again, then?"  Dormé was grinning broadly. 

"Yes.  We're both very busy, so we couldn't schedule anything.  He'll call me when his time opens up."  Padmé reached her room and began rummaging through her selection of nightgowns.   

"Wow.  That'll be six dates, right?"  Dormé laughed.  "A new record for you, Padmé.  I guess I finally found you a good one." 

From the inside the closet, Padmé filled her voice with fake hostility.  "It's still early.  Don't get cocky yet."  He does seem like a good guy.  And I trust her judgment.  Jacen Organa was a distant cousin of Padmé's close colleague, Senator Bail Organa of Alderaan.  He had grown up there and then attended university on Naboo, where he and Dormé had the same circle of friends.  I think maybe they went out once or twice, but I'm not going to ask.  If they did, it certainly didn't interfere with their friendship.  Now he worked as an economist for the Chancellor's Budget Office, preparing revenue reports and fiscal analyses for the Senate.  I spent more time with Palpatine at lunch today than Jacen has in his whole career.  And he's the one who works for him. 

"Yes, Senator, of course," Dormé rejoined with equally false humility. 

Padmé emerged from the closet in her light blue nightgown and stopped at the open door to the refresher.  "And when are you going to find one for yourself?" 

"I'm looking; I keep my eyes open and my ear to the ground.  I have high standards, you know."  Dormé smiled as she walked out into the sitting room.  "Tell me everything at breakfast?" 

"Yes, yes.  Not because you have any right to know, but only so I don't have you hassling me all day.  Understood?"  This time Padmé was serious. 

"Sure.  I'll try to be less intrusive about it," Dormé apologized.  "I'll be in my room if you need me."

"Thanks.  Sleep well." 

"Good night.  I'm glad you had fun." 

Me too, Padmé thought as she stepped inside and waved closed the refresher door.

---

On his back in bed, Anakin awoke in a haze.  He sensed that it was still late at night, yet in recent weeks, finally, he had been sleeping soundly until morning in his room in the Jedi Temple.  So why am I awake?  He stretched out his feelings in the Force, searching the room and finding nothing.  He pressed his subconscious for any noises he might have heard and came up empty.  This is weird.  Puzzled, his mind was now sharp. 

Then his answer presented itself.  He felt the light touch of damp hair against his face, then an instant later the soft brush of lips against his.  Ellina.  Of course.  He kissed her back.  After a few seconds, he focused on the sensation and blasted at it through the Force.  It worked.  Her presence burst into his perception, brimming with an unusually high amount of self-satisfaction. 

Anakin pushed the back of his head down into the pillow, breaking the kiss, and whispered to her.  "Wow.  You're getting quite good at those techniques." 

She spoke softly into his ear, taunting him suggestively.  "Which ones?" 

"Let's see.  I'm guessing you just took a shower to get rid of your perfume.  Next you sliced the passcode on my door.  You silenced the sound of it opening and your footsteps in here.  And you suppressed your presence in the Force so I wouldn't sense you."  He snickered.  "That's some pretty tough stuff to do.  You're right to be pleased." 

"I've been practicing a lot.  Finally it's working."  Ellina touched her cheek against his as she leaned down over him, still standing. 

"I'll figure out a workable way to tell Obi-Wan.  He'll be able to get you into the Counterintelligence training program, I'm sure.  And with these skills already, they'll let you.  Actually, you should take his Undercover Investigations seminar; it's quite good."  In the utterly black darkness of the room, he couldn't see her.  He considered waving on the nightlight, but decided not to.  Instead, he pictured her in his mind: her broad smile, her bright blue eyes, the blonde hair hanging loose down to the nape of her neck. 

She chuckled.  "You'd better start thinking then, Ani.  You can't exactly tell him the truth." 

"No kidding!"  As he slid his body up against the wall to make room, he grabbed up swiftly with his arms and pulled her down on the bed next to him.  "We could get in a lot of trouble, huh?" 

"Yeah."  She adjusted herself on top of the sheets, propping her head up with her left hand and wrapping her right hand around the back of his head. 

"You know, you really should be more careful about hiding yourself in the Force.  One of these days you're going to sneak up on me like that and I'm not going to realize it's you," he kidded.  "I'd hate to cut you in half with my lightsaber or something." 

"I'll keep that in mind."  She shrugged and stretched her neck out to each side. 

"You feel tense.  Is something wrong?"  He ran his hands through her hair, then slowly began rubbing the tightness out of her shoulders and upper back through her plush nighttime robe.  

"Nope.  I did extra regimens today; I'm a little stiff is all."  She kissed him again gently.  "Tell me more about Tatooine."

He leaned up to kiss her another time.  It's really not that interesting.  But to someone who's never known any home other than the Jedi Temple, it's fascinating.  At least it's easy for me to provide entertainment.  "Sure." 

For about an hour, Anakin gave a stirring rendition of a particularly tough barter with some Jawas over a pair of used droids; Watto had been pleased.  Ellina seemed to like the tale.  With one last kiss, she pushed herself up.  "We both need some more sleep.  And I can't be here in the morning."

"Yeah," he answered, suddenly aware of how tired he was. 

"See you around tomorrow, Ani." 

He felt a twinge of disappointment flow out from her as he heard her footsteps toward the door.  "Yep." 

Her presence dropped out of the Force before the door swished open and closed quietly.  That really is amazing.  No wonder the Masters discourage the skill; it could easily be used for mischief.  He laughed out loud at himself for not having seen the irony in that statement coming before he thought it. 

That was a nice surprise.  I'm content, happy when she's around.  And it's completely driven away that sinking loneliness I had for a while.  I bet that's why I've been sleeping better.  As he pondered that possibility, Anakin rolled over into the middle of his bed, closed his eyes, and went back to sleep. 

CHAPTER TWO

Back in his room after lunch in the cafeteria, Anakin decided to check the day's headlines on the Holonet.  He adjusted his Jedi robes as he sat down at the small desk.  DEBATE ON MILITARY CREATION ACT BEGINS read the banner on his datapad.  Politics.  Ugh.  If that's the top story, I haven't missed anything important about this Separatist problem, whatever it is.  Nevertheless, because the Jedi would be called upon to lead an army, he decided to skim the report.  About halfway through, when he scrolled to the next page, the picture of a leading opponent of the legislation and prominent member of the Loyalist Committee caught his attention. 

Padmé.  She looked the same as he remembered.  Well, older, wiser, and more mature.  But just as beautiful.  Maybe even more beautiful.  He smiled at the still image looking back at him.  He'd seen her for a total of about five minutes in ten years.  Four years ago, at an official function with the Senate and the Jedi, was the last time he'd been able to say hello.  He remembered the entire conversation clearly:  "Anakin!  It's so good to see you.  How are you?"  "I'm fine, Padmé.  It's good to see you too.  Congratulations on getting your bill enacted."  "Thank you, Ani.  So, how is your training?"  "It's fine.  I'm learning a lot, making really good progress."  "That's great!  I'm happy for you."  "Sorry, I have to go.  Bye."  "Bye."  And then Obi-Wan had dragged him away to meet some other politician.  Man, I sure did sound like an idiot, didn't I?

Just then came two short knocks on his door.  Gina.  "Come in," he shouted.  To announce themselves to each other, Anakin and his three long-time friends at the Temple had decided on old-fashioned knocking.  One for Anakin; two for Gina; three for Ellina; four for Frekk, their Zabrak friend, away the last month on a diplomatic mission somewhere in the Outer Rim.  The door slid open and closed.  Anakin left the image of Padmé up on his datapad as he spun his chair around. 

Gina stood just inside the door, her arms crossed over her Jedi robes.  Today her red-orange hair was tied back in a tight braid, the natural streaks of blonde and brilliant, true red looking almost like stripes along the top of her head.  "Are you busy?  I need to talk to you about something."  She's projecting frustration with me.  I wonder what this is about? 

"I always have time for you, Gina," he laughed.  "What's up?" 

"I want to ask you about you and Ellina," she told him as she walked inside and sat down across from him on the edge of his bed.  

Oh boy.  "Okay.  Fire away." 

"What's going on, Ani?  You disappear together sometimes.  And I know she sneaks out to see you at night."  She was glowering at him, and in the Force he sensed her genuine concern for both Ellina and him. 

"We have an understanding.  It started a few weeks ago.  We were both lonely and down.  She took the initiative with me.  We make each other feel happy, less sad.  It's nice."  He knew he was smiling, and that Gina didn't like it. 

"How far are you taking this?"  Her tone was becoming increasingly antagonistic. 

"We haven't flown the Kessel Run, if that's what you're asking." 

"Would you, if she wanted to?"  She leaned toward him, staring into his eyes. 

Anakin blushed a deep magenta.  "I'm not going to answer that." 

"Fine.  You're a guy; that tells me all I need to know anyway.  But you still haven't answered my other question fully."  Her demeanor relaxed a bit, but not much. 

He tried to gain control of the conversation.  "I don't see why the details are any of your business." 

Although she was now grinning broadly at his discomfort, her voice was still troubled.  "Because I'm your friend, and hers.  Because I don't want to see either of you get hurt.  And because I think she's falling a lot harder for you than you are for her.  That worries me." 

"She and I discussed this already," he chuckled.  "We're just having fun.  It's nothing serious.  She knows that."  Gina won't let me get away with just saying this much.  "You want to know more?  Here it is.  We hold each other and talk, mostly.  Sometimes we kiss.  That's it.  I swear on Master Windu's bald head, that's all that's happening between us." 

"Thank you for being honest.  That's the same thing Ellina said."  Gina winked at him. 

She fooled me!  I can't believe I fell for that.  Anakin blasted a spike of anger at her through the Force.  "Then why'd you need to hear it from me?"

"I did mean what I said.  I think she's really taken with you, Ani.  She'd never say it, but it's in the way she looks when she talks about you, the feelings emanating from her in the Force.  I'm afraid she's losing her grip on your … arrangement."  Gina tipped herself back and slumped her shoulders against the wall. 

"I'll keep an eye out for that," Anakin said calmly.  "I'll talk to her about it and make sure she's okay." 

Gina's eyes drifted to his datapad.  "So, are you going to tell her you were daydreaming about Senator Amidala again?"  She tried to keep a straight face but couldn't. 

"Hey, I'm just reading the news.  And it wouldn't matter regardless."  He laughed too.  "She's unattainable.  No different than Ellina's crush on that holodrama star.  The guy who plays Flashbuck, or Buckflash, or whatever that character is." 

"Right.  Gordon Rogers.  Yeah, she's always had a thing for him."  But Gina frowned.  "This isn't quite the same, though, Ani.  You've actually met Padmé.  You basically saved her and Qui-Gon on Tatooine and helped liberate Naboo.  In fact, you told her you were going to marry her someday." 

"True.  But I doubt Padmé even remembers that.  It was a long time ago.  I'm lucky she even remembers me at all."  Anakin stood up to walk Gina to the door.  "I'll talk to Ellina, okay?" 

"Thank you."  She patted him on the shoulder as she turned into the hallway. 

Anakin sat down back at his desk and finished the news article.  After that, he picked up his lightsaber and headed off for the sparring rooms. 

---

After dinner at the Sleeping Bantha, Jacen flew Padmé home in his speeder.  Her security detail refused to tail them any further away than twenty meters, however, so the trip ended up a fairly lackluster pass through traffic at a mind-numbingly restrained speed.  When they arrived at the interior garage at the Senate apartment complex, the guards flagged them into an enclosed landing port with its own turbolift to the upper lobby. 

Jacen hopped over the edge of the open-roofed vehicle and crossed to the other side, hoping to offer Padmé his hand in exiting.  By time he arrived, she had already successfully spun herself out, despite the relatively constricting floor-length dress she wore.  Her hair, by contrast, was now a frizzy, wild tangle.  Seeing the disappointment on his face, she took his hand anyway. 

"That was fun," she smiled.  "I never get to fly like that anymore." 

He grinned back at her.  "I'm glad you enjoyed it.  Next time I'll pick a place farther away, so we'll have more time in the air." 

"I'd like that."  She took a step closer, still holding his hand. 

"I know you have a long day in the Senate tomorrow.  Get some rest, okay?"  He turned to go, but found he had not yet been released from her grasp. 

"I will.  Have a safe flight home."  She looked into his eyes.  "Call me tomorrow." 

He returned her gaze.  "Absolutely." 

They stood there for another awkward moment before Jacen finally leaned down and kissed her tenderly.  After a few seconds, Padmé pulled back and relinquished his hand. 

"Good night," she said softly. 

"Good night."  Jacen jumped into the passenger side and scooted over to the pilot's seat.  He waited for Padmé to close the turbolift door before he fired up the engines to leave. 

Time to find out the strength of Dormé's willpower tonight, Padmé thought as she reached the apartment door.  She was pleasantly surprised to find the sitting room empty when she entered.  The dimmer lights were on there and in her bedroom.  Good.  I can go to bed in peace.

Padmé quickly changed out of the dress.  It didn't used to be that tight.  Maybe I've had a few too many Chocolate Gooberfish with Jar Jar lately.  I've got to get these nerves under control, or I'll end up fatter than Orn Free Taa.  At that thought, she chuckled to herself. 

After pulling on her nightgown, she began brushing her hair back under control in front of the mirror at her vanity.  Looking at herself, she realized she'd left her earrings on.  Digging through her jewelry box to put them away, a silver glimmer in its back corner caught her eye.  She reached in and pulled out a neatly carved japoor snippet pendant.  Anakin.  He had given it to her a decade ago on the flight from Tatooine to Coruscant.  He was right.  I've certainly had good fortune

She smiled as she carefully placed the pendant back.  I wonder how he's doing?  He must be close to taking the Trials by now.  I'll have to remember to ask Master Yoda next time I see him.  She continued to brush her hair.  Something in her mind triggered a memory of Anakin's three dreams a decade ago.  I did lead an army into battle, and he did become a Jedi.  Doesn't look like I'll be marrying him any time soon, though.  But I suppose two out of three isn't bad

She winced as she inadvertently yanked a knot.  The brushing was taking longer than she expected.  When was the last time I even saw him?  At that event four years ago, I guess.  I was so nervous about seeing him, I'm not sure I said anything coherent.  If I embarrassed myself, hopefully he's forgotten.  She tried to remember more, but couldn't.  He'd sure grown tall, although he was too thin.  I don't think those Jedi eat enough.  I bet he's filled out by now

After she'd washed up and crawled into bed, Padmé stared at the ceiling for a while, thinking about Jacen.  I can see why Dormé values his friendship.  He's sweet.  It's too bad we don't have more time to spend together.  I'd really like to get to know him better.  When her sleepiness finally overpowered her, she felt calmer than she had in days. 

CHAPTER THREE

Padmé sat in her Senate pod, bored out of her mind.  Docked against the wall, she and Dormé had been there six hours already.  For the morning session, Jar Jar had joined them, and the three had entertained themselves with various games using Dormé's ever-present deck of playing cards.  The Gungan had volunteered to leave and pick up lunch; the two women were each disappointed not to have been the first to think of the idea and thereby claim the privilege of performing the task.  After they had finished eating, Padmé sent Jar Jar back to the office, so at least only two of them would have to waste the entire day. 

She turned to Dormé.  "I totally zoned out.  Are we still debating the subsidies to those ore miners on whatever planet it is that we're talking about?" 

Dormé laughed at the absurdity of it all.  "Yes." 

"How tired are you?"  Padmé was reluctant to shift the burden to her friend, but she asked anyway. 

"Not very.  Why?" 

"I'm going to doze off for a while.  Can you wake me if anything happens?"  I hope I don't look as tired as I feel.

Dormé laughed again.  "Of course." 

Padmé curled up along one of the curving side benches to the pod.  Various Senators droned on and on, a dull murmur too quiet to keep her awake.  As she tried to relax and fall asleep, she thought back to her previous relationships before Jacen. 

After the doomed, never-reciprocated crush on Palo twelve years earlier in the Apprentice Legislature program, her life became incredibly busy.  Within two years, she was Queen.  I hardly had any time to see Mom and Dad and Sola, much less meet any interesting boys.  And at that age, in that office, I really couldn't have seen someone even if I had wanted to.  She tried to return to an ordinary life the countryside with her family after those eight years. 

But just a few months after Jamillia's coronation, Senator Schmidt, Palpatine's successor to the seat, passed away in his sleep on Coruscant.  I declined to be on the ballot.  I was ready to retire from public service.  And yet she was elected without a runoff.  On write-in votes.  And I still don't know who organized or paid for the campaigning that made it happen.  With that mandate from the voters and pressure from Jamillia, and even against the urging of her family, she couldn't bring herself to refuse to serve.  To this day, she couldn't shake a weird sense of discomfort about her ascension to the Senate, although she couldn't identify anything in particular that bothered her.  I just have a bad feeling about how it happened.

As a Senator on Coruscant, meeting young men her age that she could tolerate was truly a challenge.  So Dormé had appointed herself matchmaker.  Humorous now in retrospect, each in the series of suitors had gone down in flames.  The Senate aide was unbelievably narcissistic.  The security officer was painfully dull.  The holodrama actor was the most arrogant person I've ever met, and I'm a politician.  The starship pilot was just a jerk, plain and simple.  The doctor was too creepy.  And, most recently, the engineer made Jar Jar look calm and collected

Finally, then, almost completely out of options and contacts, Dormé had gone to the choice of last resort.  She knew Jacen was getting lonely on Coruscant, and missed Alderaan and Naboo.  She knows his character.  She trusts him.  And she knew that even if it didn't work out with me, he would never let that affect his friendship with her.  So why not give it a shot? 

Padmé at last felt tired enough to sleep.  As she drifted off, she made a mental note to thank Dormé again for introducing her to Jacen. 

---

Anakin sat cross-legged on a round chair in a meditation room in the Temple.  He was supposed to be meditating on the living Force and the unifying Force and how he related to them.  Who does that?  Anakin groaned as he tried to focus his concentration.  Obi-Wan does.  He swapped his legs around, hoping that would help.  I'll try anything at this point.  I just can't clear my mind.  This is frustrating.  I'm one of the best with a lightsaber, I'm a better pilot than anyone here, and I'm the Chosen One.  Why do I need to be a philosopher too?

He finally gave up about an hour later.  Instead of meditating, he kept his eyes closed and remembered back a few weeks to his first real romantic kiss.  He'd had his share of crushes on girls in the Temple, but never told anyone about them.  Even Gina, Ellina, and Frekk, and especially not Obi-Wan.  And he suspected that over the years some girls had their own crushes on him, although no one had ever actually said so. 

Then one day he was shuffling slowly back to his room after dinner, ruminating on why he had been feeling so much lonelier than usual lately.  Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a utility closet opened and he was yanked inside into complete darkness. 

A second later, the kiss hit him.  I knew it was Ellina right away.  The perfume gave her away, and plus she'd just started teaching herself to shield her identity in the Force.  It worked enough that I didn't sense her presence from the hallway, although I probably would have if I hadn't been preoccupied.  In that tiny space, it was obvious

"What was that?"  His voiced cracked from surprise.

"I'm sorry.  You didn't like it," she said dejectedly. 

"No.  It's not that.  I just had no idea you felt this way." 

A wave of anticipation emanated from her.  "Well, I think I do.  How do you feel about me?" 

"I think I feel the same way, I guess."  I lied.  I'd always thought of her as a little sister.  She started hanging around with us when Frekk and I were thirteen and Gina was twelve, and she was ten.  But she always held her own with us; she's mature for her age, I suppose.  Now she was almost seventeen and I was almost twenty.  And no one had ever kissed me that way before.

"Um, okay.  I was really afraid you'd be angry."  Her voice was quivering. 

"I'm not."  He knew that neither of them had any idea what to say next, so he leaned down and kissed her again. 

After a few minutes, they scanned the hallway with the Force to make sure no one was out there.  Then they snuck quickly out of the closet and ran to their respective rooms, big smiles on their faces.   

CHAPTER FOUR

Padmé sat in a high-backed chair at the end of the small oval conference table in her Senate office.  Across from her at the other end was Bail Organa, running numbers on his datapad.  Over by the window behind her desk, Orn Free Taa was carrying on an animated conversation on his handheld viewscreen comlink. 

She looked again at the graphic pie chart projected in the air above the middle of the table.  The circle was divided into three segments representing the Loyalist Committee's assessments: blue for 429 votes against the Military Creation Act, red for 388 Senators in favor, and gray for the 207 undecided.  We still have a lot of work to do.

The intercom from Dormé's desk in the outer office beeped softly.  Padmé tapped the button.  "Yes?" 

"Senator Cork for you," Dormé's voice informed her. 

"Very good.  Put him through."  Padmé turned on the holoprojector. 

The image of the gray-haired older man appeared before her.  "Good afternoon, Senator Amidala."  

"Greetings, Senator Cork.  Thank you for returning my call."  Padmé leaned forward in her chair. 

"My pleasure.  I'm prepared to discuss the Military Creation Act.  Would you like to begin?" 

"Thank you."  Padmé pulled the chair closer to the table as she began to discuss her arguments against the bill.  Chancellor Palpatine's negotiations were proceeding with the Separatists and seemed to be making progress.  Political theory and galactic history suggested that arms races usually made war more likely.  The Separatists would perceive militarization by the Republic as a threat to solve their complaints with force instead of compromise.  And simply the horrors of war.  She had experienced them first hand on Naboo a decade ago, and found inconceivable the possibility of a galaxy-wide conflict. 

Senator Cork responded calmly and patiently to each of her points.  After some further interchange, he sternly told her his ultimate position.  "I understand everything you have said, Senator Amidala, and I share your concerns about war.  Nevertheless, I fear that if the Republic does not prepare to defend itself, the Separatists will secretly raise an army of their own.  We could be conquered by a surprise attack because we are unable to defend ourselves." 

"You know full well, Senator, that there is absolutely no evidence the Separatists have organized any substantial military forces."  Padmé was angry.  "Your planet has always been peaceful, and your people surely want to avoid a galactic civil war.  How can you possibly betray them by supporting this legislation?" 

He maintained his composure.  "I will let my constituents make that judgment, Senator Amidala, not you." 

Padmé slammed her fist on the table.  "You will regret this, Senator Cork.  I suggest you reconsider your position before you force me to destroy you." 

Senator Cork cut the transmission without responding. 

Padmé pounded the table in frustration again.  Bail looked up and shook his head sadly.  As she updated their graph to move an undecided vote to the red side, she rammed her finger on the intercom button.  "Dormé, come in here please." 

"Of course."  It took only a few seconds for Dormé to come through the door.  "Yes, Senator?" 

Padmé's anger had not subsided.  "We still have the investigators on the payroll, don't we?" 

"Yes."  Dormé looked concerned. 

Padmé rose to her feet and walked to stand next to Bail.  "Call them immediately.  I have no doubt Senator Cork has been bribed.  By Dooku, the Trade Federation, the Commerce Guild, I don't know.  But I want to know.  And I want indisputable proof to force his resignation."

"Yes, Senator."  Dormé turned toward the door to make the call.

"Dormé."  When her handmaiden looked back, Padmé continued.  "Nothing fabricated.  I will not stoop to their level to win this vote.  But I will fight them with the truth.  Make sure that is understood by our contractors." 

"Yes, of course."  The door closed behind Dormé. 

Bail looked up from his datapad.  "You have the funds for this?  Our Committee's allocation is limited, remember." 

Padmé's face finally brightened a bit and she laughed.  "My dear friend, have faith.  There's a substantial black budget in my appropriations from Naboo.  For the Senator's discretion, no questions asked.  One of the most helpful things Palpatine did for this office when he held it."

"I see," Senator Organa grinned.  "Alderaan is not so generous." 

"And, don't forget, the Chancellor is fully supporting us.  I'm sure he might help us out too, if we become desperate." 

"That's true." 

Just then, Senator Taa finished his comlink conversation.  He ambled over to the table.  "Three more blue, one red," his deep voice rumbled in Huttese.   

Padmé and Bail slapped hands in the air triumphantly as the corpulent Twi'lek updated the chart.

---

He was in his room reading the field report about recently identified Force-sensitive infants when the intercom at his desk buzzed.  Anakin tapped the button.  "Skywalker." 

"I wanted to be the first to tell you," said Obi-Wan's voice.  At this point, the two men were so familiar that they never bothered to identify themselves to each other any more.  "We're ready downstairs."  He didn't need to say anything further. 

"Thank you, Master.  I'll be there momentarily."  Anakin leaped from the chair, clipped on his lightsaber, and ran toward the turbolift. 

The field for the annual Lightsaber Competition had been announced.  This was significant in two ways to Anakin. 

First, he had resolved to himself that he would win the Padawan tournament this year.  I should have won several more times than I have.  When I was fourteen and fifteen I really kept my focus and won.  But every other year I've always gotten sloppy or distracted and lost to some chump I should have beaten.  That won't happen this time.  I'm taking them out

Second, the winner's pot in the under-the-table betting pool that Obi-Wan organized would be larger than ever, and Anakin had no intention of letting anyone else win it.  Credits may not buy you much here, but they're still more useful to have around than not.  Despite my best efforts, a bit of Watto rubbed off on me after all.  Over the last few months, he had subtly and quietly sparred against almost every Jedi who would be entered in either half of the competition.  There's only one or two Padawans who even have a chance against me.  And I can beat most of the Knights too.  Most.  But two of them are really, really good.  Ten for twenty against Kenobi.  Three for fifteen against Windu.  His practice had honed his skills to near superiority, but also had a different purpose: in his head, Anakin used their performances against him to rank them against each other.  That's how I win this pool.  No other Jedi knows what I know

Anakin found Obi-Wan surrounded by Padawans and Knights eager to join in the gambling.  He took his place at the end of the line and did his best to remain patient.  After a few minutes, Mace strode into the room.  Many of the younger Padawans gasped, afraid they had been caught and would be punished. 

"Anakin," nodded Mace as he passed by. 

"Master Windu," Anakin nodded back. 

Mace stopped at the head of the line.  "May I cut in?" 

"Of course, Master," replied the frightened young Twi'lek teenager. 

Anakin laughed out loud.  The Jedi nearby looked askance at him, but he didn't care.  Master Windu is far less serious than they all think.  That's why he and Ki-Adi-Mundi are the only two Council members who compete

After a few more minutes, Anakin had signed in on Obi-Wan's roster and picked up his two brackets.  He avoided the groups of Jedi commenting to each other and giving advice.  Instead, he went back to his room. 

Unlike most, he worked backwards on the Knights bracket.  Final:  M.Windu defeats O.Kenobi.  Semifinals:  M.Windu defeats K.Mundi, O.Kenobi defeats A.Secura.  And so on until he had finished all nine rounds.  When he turned to the Padawan bracket, he first filled in A.Skywalker to the championship victory.  This time he worked forward, comparing each pairing in his head, looking at each match separately, never the big picture until he finished. 

His eyebrows rose when he looked over his final product.  G.Bruniton out in the third round.  A tough seed.  Too bad.  Gina will be disappointed.  In the sixth round, E.Antilles defeats F.Kanth.  Frekk could have gone one round further, but he can't beat Ellina.  She's got his number.  Plus he'll be out of practice, just back from that mission.  Then he looked at the final match.  A.Skywalker defeats E.Antilles.  That will make things interesting.  Hmm.  Is that really right?  He looked over the draw again, and reconsidered each of her matches.  Yeah, she's that good.  I just hope she doesn't get too mad at me when I win the championship.  And the pool

Without another thought about his selections, Anakin rose from his desk and headed back downstairs to turn them in to Obi-Wan.  Time to buckle down and spar as much as I can.  I'm winning this thing

CHAPTER FIVE

Late in the evening, Anakin finally went back to his room.  He had spent the entire day in the lightsaber sparring area, dueling as many times as he could.  Only two quick breaks for lunch and dinner had interrupted the combat practice.  He won most of the matches.  At one point a game of "King of the Mountain" was started, although the other Jedi soon regretted it: Anakin defended his position for two and a half hours against thirty-four challengers, until a small mistake against Aayla Secura lost it for him.  I can live with that.  And now I won't make that error again, either

His entire body ached from the exercise.  His arms and back were stiff, and his leg muscles felt like rubber.  Anakin peeled off his combat robes.  Yuck.  As he tossed them to the side, he noticed the size of the pile in his hamper.  Time to do the wash.  He cleaned up in the refresher and changed into his nightshirt and shorts.  As he was about to start sorting his dirty clothes, he heard three knocks on the door.  A small wave of his hand opened the lock. 

Ellina wore her pink plush nighttime robe over a long turquoise nightgown.  "Hi, Ani.  Am I interrupting anything?" 

"Nope.  Unless you count organizing laundry."  He looked up to see her smiling. 

She laughed lightly as she sat down in the chair at his desk.  "Feel free to continue with that."  She sensed a glimmer of apprehension from him.  "Don't worry, no one saw me." 

"Hmm."  Anakin was gradually unloading the hamper into four piles on the floor of his closet.  "This will just take a minute." 

"Sure." 

When he bent down to move a garment he had dropped in the wrong place, he groaned. 

"Too much sparring today, it sounds like," she kidded him.  "I can give you a massage.  It'll help a lot." 

"Well, I guess you are training as a Jedi healer."  He leaned his shoulders backwards and pushed his hands into his hips as he finished his project.  "I'd like that." 

"Come over here," she motioned as she sat down on the edge of his bed. 

Anakin crawled up over the end of the bed, flopping facedown onto the sheets.  "I could go to sleep right now," he said, his voice filled with exhaustion.  "But I won't." 

Ellina began to gently knead his shoulders, pressing the tension out of them.  Occasionally she used the Force to soothe a particularly tough knot in a muscle.  After a few minutes, she spoke up again.  "Is this better?" 

"Oh, much.  It's wonderful."  Anakin sensed a wide range of happy feelings coming from her, and also just a hint of desire.  He turned his face more to look back at her.  "You remember what we talked about a few weeks ago when we started, right?  About helping each other with our problems, but as friends." 

"Yes, I remember," she whispered gently.  "You make me happy, and I make you less lonely.  We're having fun, nothing more.  We're both still playing by those rules, Ani."  She stretched up and kissed him softly on the lips. 

"Okay.  Thank you.  I just wanted to be sure."  He grunted as she ground into one of the muscles in his left arm. 

She brushed her hand on his cheek, then tugged at the bottom of his nightshirt.  "It's time to do your back.  Lean up for me?" 

He tipped himself up and let her pull the shirt off over his head. 

"Thanks," she said quietly as she went to work on his lower back. 

"No, thank you," he answered as he drifted even closer to sleep. 

By the time she finished his back he had already nodded off.  Ellina carefully rolled him onto his side and pulled the sheets over him.  She tucked them under his chin and planted a gentle kiss on his forehead.  "Sweet dreams, Ani," she murmured more to herself than to him as she headed out the door.  

---

Padmé sat patiently in the enclosed private booth.  She picked at the last remnants of her salad.  I hope that waiter gets here soon.  I want that roasted shaak, and I want it now!  She glanced out the window into the dim evening sky, thousands of tiny shining orbs of red and white the only visible part of the airspeeder traffic zooming through the city. 

Jacen swung the heavy curtain out of the way and sat down across from her again.  "Sorry about that.  I thought there were supposed to be lines only in women's rooms." 

"No problem," she laughed.  "Okay, hotshot, where's my steak?" 

"I'm sure it's on its way right now," he replied with an affected seriousness. 

She stretched her left hand over the table and pulled his right hand back to the middle.  She squeezed his fingers as she looked into his eyes.  "I'm so hungry.  We worked through lunch today caucusing on the bill to expand tariff-free zones.  That's the price of being important: you have to attend ridiculous meetings like that, on things you don't care one iota about." 

"I'm sorry, sweetheart," he sympathized.  Then he chuckled to himself.  "I could take three lunches a day and no one would notice I was missing.  That's the beauty of being an economist: no one understands what you do enough to question it, and they're even too intimidated to come by the office.  It's fantastic." 

"Wow.  That would be nice.  I'm jealous."  She turned her head as one waiter held the curtain back for his partner to deliver their entrees.  "It's about time!" 

Jacen still had a significant portion of his fish remaining when Padmé finished the last morsel off her plate.  He almost choked on his mouthful of food when he looked up and realized it. 

Padmé looked down.  "I'm sorry.  It was rude of me to eat so quickly." 

"Oh, shut up!"  He drank a swig of water to clear his throat.  "You were famished.  I don't mind at all."  He reached his right hand across the table again, and she took it. 

"If you're sure." 

"I am."  With his left hand, he speared another bite with his fork.  "So, I haven't seen any reporters following us, or any gossip on the news.  I guess these private rooms and shielded luxury boxes really work.  How much are they costing you?" 

"A premium.  But well worth it.  My politics, not my private life, is the only legitimate news." 

He smirked before he took a drink.  "There are plenty of tabloids that disagree with you, Padmé.  And many citizens as well.  Even some on Naboo, I would suspect.  They all want to know who's after the Most Eligible Senator."

She frowned as she nodded her head in agreement.  "Yes, well, as long as I can do anything about it, they'll just have to be disappointed." 

"If you want me to chip in on the costs, I'm happy to," he offered.

She shook her head.  "It's not necessary.  We're taking these steps because of me, not you.  So I pay.  I may not make a huge salary in this job, but don't forget, I get free room, board, transportation, and security.  I certainly can afford these luxuries for my own time." 

"Alright, if you insist.  At least let me pick up the dinner?"  He tilted his head and winked. 

She stared sternly at him.  "It's the least you can do."  She couldn't hold the face and the two of them burst out in laughter.  When they regained their composure, Padmé pulled on her long cloak and raised the hood.  "You're going to fly me home, right?" 

"Unless you don't trust me anymore," he joked.  He concealed his face beneath his hood too and offered her his hand as they rose from the table.  "After you, m'lady." 

CHAPTER SIX

On the landing platform extending from the side of the Senate office complex, the group from the Naboo delegation moved quickly toward the armored twelve-person transport at the far end.  The boarding ramp extended to the ground, but the speeder already had retracted its landing gear and hovered using its repulsors.  The engines roared loudly, ready to whisk Senator Amidala away.  The side door slid open as the guards inside saw them approach. 

The two Senate guards stood apart and waved them forward.  Four Naboo guards led the way, followed by Padmé, Dormé, Jar Jar, and Captain Typho.  Six more Naboo guards kept pace behind them. 

An instant before they hit, everyone heard the deafening screech of two rockets sailing around the corner of a nearby skyscraper.  The four in the middle dropped to the ground as the twelve guards leaped to shield them with their bodies. 

The armored vehicle exploded in a massive fireball, shards of metal and transparisteel flying in all directions.  The end of the landing platform cracked and fell away, plummeting into the depths of the city below.  The rest of it creaked and groaned, swaying from the blast and the loss of stabilizing beams.  For a moment, Padmé thought the entire platform would collapse, but it held. 

"Go! Go! Go!"  One of the surviving guards urgently pulled on Padmé's arm.  She found her footing as several of the guards stood up or dragged their dead or wounded comrades off the pile.  A Senate guard grabbed her around the shoulders and almost carried her toward the building. 

She tried to make a demand.  "Not without my…" 

The guard cut her off sharply.  "No, Senator.  I don't take orders in situations like this.  Your security is top priority, regardless of what you say."  By the time he finished, they were almost back inside the building.  When she attempted to stop and look back out, the guard roughly pulled her the rest of the way to a secure room further down the hall.  As she sat down in a chair, he apologized.  "I'm sorry, Senator.  I do my duty, even if you don't like it." 

"No offense taken, Sergeant.  I respect your actions.  It's your responsibility to make me act with judgment even against my intuitions or requests." 

"Yes, Senator.  Thank you." 

Other guards arrived with Dormé, Jar Jar, and Typho.  Padmé rushed over and hugged each of them.  "What is the status, Captain?" 

"It will take a few minutes to confirm, Senator," Typho answered, "but it appears that five guards were killed and three seriously injured.  The other four did a superb job with the evacuation of us and the wounded." 

"Thank you, Captain."  Padmé looked off into the air.  "Would a commendation for them be appropriate?" 

"Yes, Senator.  Most deserved." 

Padmé felt a strong nausea rising in her stomach.  "Captain, I need another way home.  And quickly, please?"

"Of course.  Right away." 

Back at her apartment, Padmé lay on one of the sofas in the sitting room, a hot towel on her forehead.  After her initial composed demeanor, the shock of the attack was finally dawning on her.  I was just a few paces away from being killed.  Is this really even worth it anymore? 

Dormé appeared at her feet.  "I'm sorry to disturb you, Padmé, but Jacen called a few minutes ago on his way home from work.  He heard about the attack, but wanted to talk only if you're ready to." 

"Thank you, Dormé," Padmé sighed.  "Can you open a line to him on my handheld viewscreen?  I'd rather not move from here, if I don't have to." 

"Certainly.  Just give me a minute." 

Padmé smiled when she saw Jacen's face on the comlink Dormé passed to her.  "Hi." 

"I'm so glad you're safe," he said, looking very worried and very relieved at the same time. 

"Me too.  This is the fourth assassination attempt in three months.  I don't know how much longer I can take this." 

"I'm sorry," he responded sadly.  "I don't think there's anything I can say.  Do you want me to come over?" 

"Thank you, Jacen, but no.  I'd feel like I'm putting you in danger, and I can't deal with that thought right now.  Just talk to me, okay?" 

---

Anakin stood in the shower an extra minute, letting the warm water pound against his face.  Today was a long day.  Too many meetings and classes, no time to do the exercise regimens or more lightsaber practice.  I can't wait to get to sleep.  Hopefully tomorrow will be better.  He took a deep breath.  I'm an idiot!  Tomorrow's my birthday.  That should improve the day considerably.  After the previous year's dismal failure at a surprise party, this year Obi-Wan had told Anakin the plans well in advance. 

Anakin turned off the water and cracked the translucent door just enough to grab his towel.  When he was mostly dry, he wrapped the towel around his waist and stepped out into the relatively cooler air in the rest of the refresher.  He had left the door to the bedroom open, and for some reason the chill made him close his eyes.  He splashed some aftershave on his face and ran his hands through his hair.  Eyes still closed, he straightened up and let out another deep breath. 

Then he felt two hands on his shoulders.  Sensing nothing in the Force and completely startled, he panicked and instinctively swung a right-handed haymaker as he spun around. 

Instantly there was a problem: he had forgotten to lay the bathmat on the tile floor.  His wet feet flew out from under him on the slick surface.  Blast!  The back of his head took a crisp, geometrically perfect bounce off the edge of the sink a moment before his tailbone smashed full bore into the ground.  Anakin yelled out incomprehensibly in pain. 

His head felt like it was impaled on lightsaber.  Jagged claws of pain ran up his back.  The agony was so severe he could hardly think, much less reach out to the Force.  I've never felt anything this terrible in my life

"Oh, Ani.  I'm sorry."  Ellina was desperate. 

"You're insane!  Get out!"  He hollered not so much from anger but to hear himself over the crashing noises in his brain. 

"Stay still.  Let me look at it."  She was trying to be calm, but her voice was shaking. 

Anakin curled himself into a fetal position.  "No!  Get away from me!  You've done enough!"  Through the pain, he realized he was pleased that at least his towel had stayed on. 

"Ani, please."  She bent down to him.  Ellina touched her right hand gently to the growing bump on his head and put the tips of her left fingers on the skin of his lower back just above the towel. 

Anakin felt the pain abate as the soft tingle of the Force moved against the injuries.  He wanted to push her away, to punish her for scaring him like that, but he couldn't do it.  After a minute, the pain was completely gone.  His head clear, he sensed her in the Force as she stood up. 

"I'm so sorry, Ani.  I'll never sneak up on you again, I promise," she whispered. 

"Thank you."  He sat up, clasping his hands over his knees.  He finally opened his eyes and looked at her.  Her long red nightgown was wet from the knees down from leaning on the floor to heal him. 

Her face was sullen.  "I know you're angry.  I'll go." 

Just before she turned to leave, he stopped her.  "No.  You can stay.  As long as you keep your promise, that's enough." 

She managed a weak smile.  "Okay." 

Anakin rose from the floor and stood in front of her.  "What time is it?"

"Just after midnight.  Happy birthday."  She put her hands on his face, leaned up, and kissed him. 

"Thanks."  He pointed a finger at her.  "I'm still mad about your little stunt here, you know." 

She took his hands in hers.  "Let me make it up to you." 

CHAPTER SEVEN

When Anakin awakened in the morning, Ellina was gone.  No pain in my head or back.  Good.  Her healing skills really are getting excellent

He rolled onto his back and looked at the ceiling.  As he twisted, he experienced strange muscle aches he'd never felt before.  Then the night came rushing back to him. 

I really messed up this time.  We agreed to our line, to our limits.  And now we're way past them.  What am I going to do?  He rubbed his eyes and tried to clear his mind.  There's a lot going on today.  I'll just have to make time to talk to her.  We can't let this happen again.  He let out a sigh.  She probably feels the same way I do.  We're both responsible for this.  We'll work something out

He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood up.  He walked into the refresher and looked at himself in the mirror.  Stupid!  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  What were you thinking?  You weren't.  That's the problem.  He glared at himself.  Then he quickly inspected his neck and shoulders and was relieved. 

I need a shower.  He pulled out the bathmat and deliberately placed it carefully over the tiles.  He found a clean towel and turned on the water.  I hope this makes me feel better

It didn't.  Anakin was still upset with himself as he finished dressing in his combat robes for the opening rounds of the Lightsaber Competition.  Get focused.  His lightsaber ready, he brushed his hair for the sixth time. 

He glanced in the mirror again.  Nice work.  Everything was supposed to be relaxing and fun.  This is no fun at all.  He couldn't even stand to look at himself, so he spun away and left. 

Despite his emotions, Anakin easily defeated his first three competitors in nearly record time. 

He returned to his room after watching other matches all day and he checked the news before dinner.  When he saw the headline this time, he had to concentrate hard to control the wrenching in his gut as he almost vomited.  Above the picture of Padmé were the huge letters SENATOR ATTACKED.  When he read the first sentence, reporting she had escaped uninjured, he felt relieved.  Remember, the Holonet chooses words carefully.  Senator Attacked.  It would have said Senator Assassinated…  And I would feel it through the Force if she died.  There was no reason to panic

Anakin leaned back in his chair and breathed deeply for several minutes.  Pull yourself together.  You have to be pleasant at the party tonight.  And you still need to work this out with Ellina.  Anakin stared into the mirror.  Some Chosen One you are.

---

Dormé was frantic in the pale glow of the nighttime dimmer lights.  She couldn't find Padmé anywhere.  She knew the Senator had been in the apartment an hour earlier, preparing for the next day's plenary session on the Military Creation Act.  Now she had simply vanished.  The security system confirmed that no windows or exterior doors had been breached and the main door had remained closed.  Dormé was about to hit the alarm button to summon Captain Typho when she heard a faint call from Padmé's closet. 

"Dormé, is that you?  Are you looking for me?"  It was Padmé's voice. 

Dormé ran full speed into the walk-in closet.  She found Padmé huddled in the far right corner, draped by long gowns hanging from the racks.  Padmé had wedged herself in, shoulders tight to the walls, only her face visible above a small blanket she had pulled around the arms hugging her knees to her chest. 

"Padmé!  Oh, thank goodness you're safe!" 

"I'm sorry.  I didn't mean to frighten you."  Padmé was genuinely remorseful. 

Dormé reached down her hand.  "It's alright.  But please, will you come out now?" 

"Okay."  Padmé let Dormé pull her up.  Padmé wiped her cheeks on her nightgown as she walked straight to her bed and crawled under the sheets.  Her eyes were swollen and red from crying. 

"What's this about, Padmé?  Talk to me," Dormé said patiently, sitting down carefully at the edge of the bed, brushing Padmé's hair with her left hand and offering a handkerchief with her right. 

"I just don't think I can handle it," Padmé answered through her sniffles.

Dormé tried to soothe her friend.  "Handle what?  The Senate?  You're fantastic at it." 

"No.  Jacen.  The next time they try to kill me, he might be there.  I could never live with myself if he got killed instead of me." 

Dormé nodded.  "Have you talked with him about this?" 

Padmé shook her head.  "Not yet.  I will, maybe tomorrow." 

"I think that's a good idea." 

Padmé frowned.  "I'm beginning to believe my family is right." 

"About what?" 

"That I've given enough of myself to public service.  It's been half of my life.  I believe in my principles with all my heart, and I'd give my life for them without regret.  But I can't ask Jacen to give his."  Padmé rolled and looked out the window into the night sky.  "I think I've finally realized what my mother told me all along.  If I ever want to be happy with someone, I'll have to leave politics behind." 

"I'm not sure that's true.  But you've clearly thought a lot more about this than I have."  Dormé passed another handkerchief.  "I think for tonight you should just go to sleep.  When you're rested, things may not seem as bad.  Don't make any decisions until you're in the right frame of mind." 

"You're right.  Thank you." 

Dormé rose and headed out toward her room.  "Good night." 

CHAPTER EIGHT

Jacen helped Padmé clear the glasses and dishes from their simple dinner in her apartment.  When they returned to the sitting room, she sat down next to him on a sofa and took his hands. 

"Jacen, sweetie, I have something really difficult to tell you." 

His eyes looked sad, like he already knew what was coming next.  "Yes, Padmé?" 

She took a deep breath.  "I can't see you anymore." 

"Okay."  He looked away for a moment, then back.  "Is it something I did?" 

"No, not at all.  You're wonderful.  It's the security situation." 

He nodded.  "I'm willing to tolerate it." 

She shook her head.  "I'm not.  I can't be with you if it means putting you in this kind of danger.  If you were killed, when they were trying to get me…"  She trailed off, unable to finish the thought. 

"I'm sorry you feel this way, Padmé.  I really am." 

She smiled at him.  "I like you.  I like you a lot."  She brushed her hand on his cheek.  "But Jacen, I'm not in love with you.  At least not yet.  So I just can't put you through this risk." 

He smiled back.  "I like you too, very much.  You're right, though.  I'm not in love with you right now either.  If things were different, and we had more time together, and you didn't have to worry like this, then, yeah, maybe we could fall in love.  Right here, right now, we're not in that place.  So I understand your decision, even though it makes me sad." 

"I'm so glad you're not angry," she said softly. 

"No, I'm not." 

"I'd still like to be your friend, if you'll let me.  Check in when you call Dormé, things like that." 

"Of course."  He sighed, then laughed.  "You know, you're the first good woman she's ever set me up with?  It would figure it wasn't meant to be." 

Padmé laughed too.  "I agree completely.  She really can't pick them." 

Jacen stood, holding Padmé's hand as he walked to the main door.  She held him in a close embrace, then leaned up and gave him a short, gentle kiss on the lips. 

"I'm sorry, Jacen."  She wiped tears from her eyes as he drew away. 

"I'm sorry too, Padmé.  But I'm not leaving your life completely.  I'll see you around?" 

"Yeah.  You will."  Knowing me, probably not

Jacen flashed a weak smile, then turned and walked out the door.  When it closed behind him, Padmé slumped to the floor and cried.  Just because this was the right decision doesn't make it any easier.

---

Although he often arrived late for Temple events, Anakin made sure he was a few minutes early for the party.  He knew Obi-Wan had put in a lot of work, and he didn't want his Master to be disappointed with him.  I'm angry enough with myself right now.  I don't need him on my case too

As the evening progressed, Anakin was having a better time than he had expected.  Several of his friends from training classes years ago stopped by, and he enjoyed catching up with them.  The members of the Jedi Council each made an appearance at some point, wishing him a happy birthday, congratulating him on his tenth year at the Temple, and offering encouragement for the Lightsaber Competition.  Obi-Wan had a bit too much punch too quickly, and had to be gently encouraged not to sing.  And Anakin was able to spend almost an hour with Frekk, hearing the details of his excursion to the Outer Rim. 

After dark, Obi-Wan and Mace were gesturing broadly while quietly discussing something in the corner.  Frekk was patiently repeating the mission to Gina, who had missed the earlier telling.  A handful of other Jedi remained at the party too, finishing off the food and drinks.  When Anakin was done talking to Aayla Secura, he noticed Ellina waiting for him.  Now's as good a time as any

He tipped his head to Ellina and they walked together to a small balcony off the larger room.  Anakin closed the clear door behind them.  "Hi." 

"I hope you had a good birthday," she said quietly. 

"It's been alright," he replied evasively. 

She looked into his eyes as mixed emotions radiated from her.  "Ani, I need to tell you something." 

Good.  I was hoping we'd be able to talk about this today.  "Yes?" 

"I love you," she smiled. 

What?  No!  How is this possible?  I thought she understood!  Anakin knew the look on his face could not be good.   "No, you don't." 

Her face dropped.  "Why would you say that?  Yes, I do." 

"Ellina, we just talked about this.  We can help each other through our rough spots, but there's nothing more.  We're Jedi.  We can't fall in love.  It's forbidden."

"I didn't mean to," she offered sadly.  "But it's how I feel." 

"Then we have to stop everything entirely, and go back to just being regular friends."  Gina was right.  I should have listened to her.  He reached out and calmly put his right hand on her shoulder.  "You need to get back in control.  We made a mistake." 

"A mistake?  What?"  She started to cry and shoved his hand away.  Then, suddenly, he sensed the surge in the Force just before she swung at him.  He knew it was coming, but didn't block it.  She punched him, hard, twice in the stomach.  Through her tears, she screamed at him.  "How can you say that?  Why are you doing this to me?" 

He tried to console her.  "Ellina, honey, you need to be reasonable…" 

"Shut up!"  She paused only long enough to catch her breath.  "I can't believe you!  I thought you cared for me.  I sleep with you, and you break it off?  I hate you!

Anakin felt a powerful pulse of the dark side flow out from her as she slapped his face, spun away, and stormed back into the room.  Ellina ran past the others and into the hallway.  Gina, looking very concerned, went after her.  As Anakin walked in, he did not respond to the stares.  He headed straight to the punchbowl and downed six glasses as fast as he could.  This is the worst birthday ever

CHAPTER NINE

Six weeks after his birthday, Anakin had advanced easily through three more rounds of the Padawan bracket of the Lightsaber Competition.  In fact, his eight-second victory in round five tied the all-time best (set by Yoda) and put him well ahead of record pace for the fastest total time.  And to Obi-Wan's great surprise, Anakin had correctly predicted the outcome of every single match to date in both brackets, something no one had ever coming close to doing. 

Despite his success in the tournament and his almost insurmountable points lead in the pool, Anakin felt miserable.  He only wanted to sleep.  He had no energy.  Training, exercise, and classes were all a bore.  He was utterly distracted.  He knew full well it was because of how things had ended with Ellina, but understanding the cause didn't make him feel any better.  She's avoiding me.  If I walk in, she'll even get up and leave the cafeteria with half her food still left.  It's just awful.  Every time he saw Gina, he faced an intense I-told-you-so-you-idiot glare, although at least she was willing to be in the same room with him.  So Anakin spent most of his free time with Frekk, who was disturbingly oblivious.  They must not have told him.  I certainly won't.

The one time he could put his troubled feelings aside was in the competition hall.  He would burn his sadness into anger and release it with a devastating barrage of strikes against his opponent.  I'm flirting with the dark side when I do this.  But I don't care.  It makes the pain go away.  And it's only for a minute or two.  I don't think anyone else even picks up on it

Anakin walked glumly into one of the many small waiting rooms off the wide rectangular sparring floor.  The four quarterfinals were about to begin.  His match was second; Ellina's the last.  He scanned the room quickly and was relieved to see it was empty.   He plopped down in the chair closest to the viewing window. 

The first duel started.  Anakin watched with satisfaction as the Cerean boy and human girl fought hard.  Hmm.  It doesn't even matter who wins.  I'll crush them.  He rooted for the girl solely on the basis that he'd picked her to win.  He was concentrating on the match, so he didn't hear the footsteps approaching.

"Anakin?"  Ellina's voice quietly intruded from just inside the open doorway behind him. 

He immediately rose from the chair and turned to face her.  "Hi."  It was the first time they had spoken since the fiasco at the party. 

"Do you have a minute?"  Her voice was gentle and sad, her eyes looking down at the floor. 

He paused a second before he answered.  Is she trying to get into my head so I'll lose?  He stretched out his feelings the Force, aware she would sense him doing it, and found her emotions calm and content.  "Sure." 

She looked up at him.  "Good luck out there." 

"Thank you.  Good luck to you too." 

"Thanks."  She swallowed hard.  "Anakin, I'm sorry.  I haven't been mature about the way I handled this.  You were right.  I really wasn't in control of my feelings at all." 

He nodded.  "I'm sorry too.  I also should have handled it better." 

She acknowledged his nod with a smile, although he felt a small burst of nervousness in the Force.  "Um, yeah.  Anakin, I think I might…"  Her voice trailed off and she looked away. 

"Yes?" 

"Never mind.  It's nothing," she said as she faced him again.  "We're okay, right?  We can be friends again?"

He grinned.  "Of course.  I never meant to hurt you." 

"Okay.  Good.  So I'll meet you in the final?"  She laughed at the end, and it sounded wonderful to him. 

He laughed too.  "No question.  Just don't expect to defeat me." 

She saluted him with her lightsaber handle and walked down the hall toward another waiting room.  Out the window, Anakin saw the girl finally deliver the swipe that disarmed the Cerean and ended the match.  Six minutes, nineteen seconds.  Ouch.  As the two tired competitors paced slowly away, Anakin opened the door to his room and strode deliberately out to the middle of the floor, ignoring the applause being given to the departing pair. 

About twenty feet above him, a large grandstand filled three sides of the room.  For most of the competition, attendance had been scattered, with only a few dozen Jedi watching at any one time.  Today, for the final three rounds of the Padawan contest, it was filled to capacity.  On the fourth wall were three separate rooms reserved for the Jedi Council and retired Jedi Masters.  From the corner of his eye, it looked like five Council members were present.  In older times, the other two viewing rooms sometimes held non-Jedi guests of the Council, but for the last few decades none had been invited. 

After a minute, his competitor arrived.  An eighteen-year-old young man from Corellia, whose name Anakin could never remember.  Oh, come on.  What is it?  Think.  Think.  Ewan.  Blast!  Ewan what?  Ewan Neeson?  Right?  Ah, close enough.  As he was about to draw on his anger for the fight, he realized it wasn't there.  He'd made peace with Ellina.  Instead, he simply reached out into the Force and filled himself with its energy. 

The two men ignited their lightsabers and swung them forward and around in the customary dueling salute.  Anakin glared directly into his competitor's eyes.  Ewan flinched.  Anakin drew his blue blade up over his head and rapidly spun it in circles.  Ewan took a step back.  Anakin blinked at him, just once, and charged forward.  The blows rained down on Ewan's green lightsaber with unthinkable power and speed.  Ewan retreated, each step faster than the previous. 

Ewan missed two parries and almost lost his left arm.  I'd better end this now, before he gets hurt,  Anakin thought.  Anakin quickly struck twice to Ewan's right side, drawing Ewan's blade over.  Anakin pulled his lightsaber away, spun around clockwise, and brought all his weight down in a smashing two-handed overhead blow on his off-balance opponent.  Ewan flew backwards a few feet in the air and made a rough landing on his rear end, bumping the back of his head lightly on the floor. 

Ewan deactivated his blade and opened his palms in surrender.  Anakin bowed graciously, switched off his lightsaber, and turned back to the waiting room as the applause and shouts of approval for him began.  He looked up at the timer.  Twenty-six seconds.  Perfect

He watched the other two matches and was pleased to see he had predicted them correctly too.  Two hours later, Anakin disarmed the still-exhausted human girl in fourteen seconds.  There would be an afternoon break and dinner.  That evening, around dusk, the championship match would be held.  If Ellina fights her best, I'll win in three minutes, twenty-seven seconds, he predicted to himself.  I'll have the pool, the title, and the new speed record by almost nine minutes.  Awesome

---

In the six weeks since the last assassination attempt, Padmé's nerves had frayed completely.  She lived constantly on the edge.  Every loud noise, every unexpected movement in her peripheral vision, every emergency siren or backfiring engine sent charges of panic through her.  Only rarely could she sleep more than a few hours without awakening in a cold sweat.  She had no appetite, although Dormé always forced her to eat something.  The one bit of happiness in her life she had pushed away to silence her own fear.  She lived in agony. 

And today did not look to be an improvement.  A routine maintenance rotation in the Naboo official fleet was scheduled for the afternoon.  A large V-shaped silver cruiser would arrive to replace its complement, which was destined back to Naboo.  The three yellow Naboo starfighters carried in the incoming cruiser's bays would provide cover on the approach to Coruscant.  Complete secrecy of the arrival time, location, and landing pattern would ensure much better additional protection.  The Senate security office assured her repeatedly that the transfer would take place without a hitch.  Nevertheless, Padmé was unconvinced.  Something dreadful is going to happen.  Why won't they admit it? 

Hooded in their cloaks, Padmé and Dormé stood gazing out the window of the small room in the command center.  Padmé looked down sadly on the large ferrocrete plaza below, filled with fountains and tall statues and hundreds of pedestrians.  She let out a deep sigh.  Dormé reached over her left hand and held Padmé's right tightly. 

Behind them, three officers from the security service huddled over the viewscreens and communications line for the arriving cruiser.  The major general and brigadier general stood, leaning in toward the colonel, who operated the equipment.  From their silence, Padmé and Dormé inferred that the mission was proceeding smoothly.

Padmé's heart sank and her stomach lurched as the call came in over the comlink. 

"Mayday!  Mayday!  We are under attack!"  The alarms on the panels wailed as the colonel frantically pressed buttons and the generals slammed the console in frustration.  

The colonel's voice was shaking.  "Sir, there are twelve attacking fighters.  They concealed themselves among the traffic and engaged simultaneously."

"Scramble protection.  Immediately!"  The major general was equally distressed. 

"Already done, sir," replied the colonel. 

"Too late," interrupted the brigadier general somberly.  His colleagues looked down in shock at the moving images to see only three remaining Naboo ships, then two, then one. 

The pilot of the cruiser managed one final "Mayday!" before the comlink cut away to static and the larger Naboo icon blinked out of existence.  The twelve enemy craft scattered instantly into the multitudes of ships in orbit. 

Padmé pulled her right hand away.  Dormé looked over to see the Senator's eyes dripping tears, but also full of anger.  Dormé watched Padmé reach her hand around her side under the cloak, where a concealed pouch at the small of her back held a palm-sized blaster pistol.  Afraid Padmé actually intended to gun down the officers on the spot, Dormé took Padmé by both shoulders and stared hard into her eyes. 

Padmé blinked twice and looked down at the floor.  After a second, she lifted her face again and turned toward the exit.  "The arrival pattern was classified at the highest level, wasn't it, General?" 

The major general, his promise broken, could not look at her.  "Yes, Senator Amidala, it was." 

Her voice was icy.  "Begin your investigation immediately.  I want answers by tonight.  Is that understood?"  Dormé was now waiting for her in the hallway. 

"Yes, Senator," he responded meekly. 

"For your sake, I hope you have them for me," she threatened.  She pointed her right index finger into his face.  "Chancellor Palpatine is not as forgiving as I am."  She spun and stalked away, her cloak billowing out behind her. 

The three officers let out huge sighs after the door closed behind the two women.  They looked at each other. 

"Let's get started," proposed the brigadier general. 

"Yeah," chuckled the colonel.  "If looks could kill, we'd be dead." 

The major general's face was grim.  "Then I guess we're lucky she's not a Jedi, aren't we?" 

CHAPTER TEN

As the meeting in the Chancellor's conference room concluded and the participants dispersed, Padmé stayed in her chair at the long table, frustrated and dejected.  Palpatine outmaneuvered me.  I'm so angry! 

The discussion between the Loyalist Committee and the Jedi had gone well, and Palpatine's update on the negotiations with the Separatists had been encouraging.  The last order of business had been the Chancellor's proposal that the Jedi provide additional protection for her.  "I strenuously object," she had insisted, but he had played a trump card.  "Perhaps someone you're familiar with, like Master Kenobi.  You must remember him, he watched over you during the blockade crisis."  Before she had found a way around the suggestion, Master Windu had announced that Obi-Wan was indeed available.  She had been beaten and she knew it. 

I haven't really seen Anakin in ten years.  That will be nice.  But even that consolation was not enough.

Palpatine had Senator Organa's ear as the two men departed.  That left only Master Windu conferring quietly in the corner with Dormé and Typho.  Padmé stared sadly out the window until a tapping on her leg startled her.  She looked down to see Master Yoda smiling up at her as he rested his cane back on the floor. 

"The correct decision it was, to accept our help," he told her calmly. 

She nodded.  "Thank you, Master Yoda." 

"Hmm.  Too much about politics, you worry, young Senator.  Too little about yourself."  The little green face and the backwards grammar never failed to brighten her spirits.  She nodded again. 

"The Force will be with you, always," he whispered to her as he slowly hobbled away. 

She saw Mace grinning broadly as he took the seat next to her. 

"I have a surprise for you, Senator Amidala," he said.  "Before you return to your apartment tonight, you may accompany me to the Jedi Temple.  Obi-Wan will meet us there, and we can watch your old friend Skywalker compete in the championship match of the Lightsaber Competition.  Would you like that?" 

For a second, her mood really did lift.  "Yes, Master Windu.  I would like it very much."  Then it fell again.  Maybe this situation is more serious than I thought.  They haven't allowed an outsider into the Temple in years. 

Mace rose to his feet and offered her his arm.  "Shall we?" 

She stood and linked her arm through his.  I'll have to remember to watch my emotions and thoughts tonight.  There will be a lot of Jedi around to sense what I'm feeling.  She squinted her eyes as she wondered.  I don't think they can actually read your thoughts without concentrating, and I'd be able to see that.  Otherwise they only pick up the exterior emotions you radiate.  Hmm.  I hope that's right.  Not like I can ask…

--

In his waiting room, Anakin was jubilant and anxious at the same time.  Fifteen minutes earlier, Obi-Wan had notified him of the destruction of the Naboo cruiser and their new assignment: personal protection bodyguard detail for Senator Amidala, effective immediately.  This is fantastic.  I'll finally be able to see her again.  Talk to her, find out how she's been, just hang around her.  I can't wait.  Except for the other side of this.  Obi-Wan and I are the most powerful master-apprentice pair in the Temple.  If they've assigned us to her, then the danger must be very grave indeed.  Anakin's orders from Obi-Wan were to win the match, attend the Competition celebration afterward, and be at Padmé's apartment just after midnight to take the second guard shift.  Even if I don't see her until the morning, that's fine.

It was time for the championship duel.  Anakin walked slowly out to the middle of the floor, keeping his eyes forward.  He heard Mace's voice over the public address system ask the overflowing grandstand to welcome Senator Amidala to the Temple.  A hearty round of applause greeted her. 

He couldn't help it any longer.  He looked up to the viewing rooms and saw Padmé in the right-hand one with Mace and Obi-Wan.  Anakin cracked a big smile and waved to her.  She smiled too and waved back.  Obi-Wan frowned, apparently causing Mace to laugh at Obi-Wan's expense.  In the middle room, ten other members of the Council were seated.  All but Yoda.  He doesn't approve of the Competition anymore.  In his younger days, he won two hundred years in a row.  But now, in his older, wiser, and more serious years, he believes it puts too much emphasis on glory and reward, not attunement to the Force.  What a grump.

He stopped in the center and saw Ellina approaching from the other side.  Concentrate.  Concentrate.  You'll see Padmé soon enough, he reminded himself.  You've won the pool already.  You correctly predicted every single match in both brackets, with this one match to go.  Win this.  Win this for yourself.  Win this for Padmé.  Win this for Mom

He and Ellina stood across from each other.  Her stare was intense, focused, calm.  Not angry.  Good.  Her long blonde hair was tied up in a combat braid.  He met her eyes as they both ignited their lightsabers and executed the salute crisply.  The arena was eerily quiet.  The humming of the weapons was the only sound either of them could hear. 

Anakin extended his right arm straight out, pointing his blue blade at her chest.  She raised her green blade out in identical fashion.  Just as the tips were about to meet, she slapped his to the side and charged. 

Anakin spun away and blocked high.  Each fighting with their right hand, left arms out to the side for balance, the two Padawans circled each other, spinning and leaping, striking low and high, left and right, testing for weaknesses.  From their hundreds of prior sparring matches, there was nothing new to discover.  Yet there was still the matter of style and technique for this fight, and Anakin didn't make it easy for her.  He constantly shifted: aggressive and passive, offensive and defensive, fluid and abrupt, powerful and graceful. 

When the first minute of the duel passed, the screeching and clashing of the blades intensified.  Anakin picked up his pace, but Ellina stayed with him swing for swing.  Then he saw it in her eyes, the realization that she would never beat him fighting this way. 

She spun further away than usual, collecting her feet, controlling her momentum, and grasping her handle with both hands.  As he moved toward her, she crouched and lunged at him, swinging fiercely from the two-handed grip.  Fully in control, she struck powerfully over and over. 

Good.  Very good.  Much better than usual.  Anakin had to give ground, stepping backwards slowly, then spinning away.  He parried every strike calmly, but her blows came so swiftly he could not take the offensive.  Yet unlike her, he was still fighting one-handed.  As the second minute ticked away, he decided the best way to proceed was to mimic her strategy. 

Anakin spun three times as he swept himself free from her onslaught.  He regrouped and took his lightsaber in both hands.  He let her come at him swinging away, feinting that he would let her drive him back again.  She didn't perceive his intention, and fell into his trap. 

As her first swings clashed into his lightsaber, he ducked to the side and pushed back hard, sending her sailing past him, off-balance.  Ellina spun and responded in time to parry his first swing, but now the momentum of the duel was entirely Anakin's.  With his personally developed two-handed technique, he sent strike after strike at her, faster and faster and faster.  She met his pace initially, but after a few more seconds could not keep up.  She had to duck, step out, spin away to keep the swings she could not parry from hitting her.  She retreated rapidly, giving ground, inches away from being cut in two. 

Anakin sensed desperation overpower her as his assault continued to escalate.  In the background, he could hear a dull murmur from the crowd as the Jedi in the grandstand watched the shimmering blur of his blade in admiration.  With a few more powerful swings, he got her lightsaber completely out of position.  The last spinning swipe across her body knocked the weapon from her hands.  It deactivated automatically as it flew through the air and smacked into the wall. 

Anakin finished his spin to end up facing her, his lightsaber already off by the time he stopped.  She had her palms out, bowing her head in concession.  He bowed to her.  When they both stood up straight again, the applause from the crowd thundered down on them.  He glanced at the timer.  Three minutes, thirty-four seconds.  Good enough.  I still got all three.  Title.  Pool.  Fastest Ever.

He looked at Ellina again.  She was dripping with sweat and her shoulders sagged from exhaustion.  He reached up to wipe his brow and discovered it was completely dry.  And then he noticed he was not even out of breath. 

In Anakin's waiting room, Frekk stood beaming at him.  After Ellina turned away toward her waiting room, where Gina was waiting for her, Anakin craned up to the viewing box.  Mace was slapping Obi-Wan on the shoulder, congratulating him on his apprentice's victory.  Padmé was smiling down at him, clapping proudly.  He raised his right hand and pointed a finger to her.  She blew him a kiss.  As he turned toward Frekk, it took every last bit of control in his brain to keep himself from skipping across the floor. 

CHAPTER ELEVEN 

In her nightgown on the bed, Padmé lay on her stomach, propped up by her elbows, reviewing yet again the datapad text of her address to the Senate tomorrow.  Finally, after so many weeks of debate, the time allotted to her had arrived.  The speech had been drafted for almost ten days, but she was a perfectionist, changing words here and there, adjusting the tone, fine-tuning the language to avoid antagonizing any group any more than necessary. 

Out in the sitting room, beyond her closed bedroom door, Obi-Wan Kenobi stood guard.  Meditating, I assume.  Absolutely nothing has happened, of course, but a Jedi's presence undoubtedly improves the security.  She glanced over at the clock.  It's time for the shift change

At that very moment, she heard the main door slide open and closed.  Obi-Wan began to speak with the man who had entered.  Anakin.  The voice was familiar, yet different.  Deeper, stronger than the last time she'd heard it.  Powerful.  She couldn't hear their conversation, muffled by the door, but caught bits and pieces as she got ready.  Dreams about his mother.  Excitement for this assignment.  Politicians cannot be trusted.  Commitment to the Jedi Order. 

Padmé rose from the bed and looked at herself in the mirror.  She blushed deeply.  This nightgown is far too revealing, especially for someone I haven't really seen in ten years.   She pulled on a long plush robe and tied it around her waist.  Then she walked to the vanity, picked up her brush, and began to smooth out her disheveled hair. 

She heard Anakin say good night to Obi-Wan in the outer room and the main door open and close again.  She was just about to wave open the bedroom door when she stepped back to the vanity.  On top of the pile in her jewelry box was the japoor snippet pendant.  Padmé lifted it by the chain and cradled it in her palm.  Even though he had given it to her a few days later, it always reminded her of the first time they met. 

She remembered it clearly, like it had happened yesterday.  He looked at me.  "Are you an angel?"  What could I do but laugh?  It was such an odd thing for him to say, the first words to a stranger.  "You're a funny little boy," I mumbled.  I hope he knew it wasn't an insult.  But I was just so surprised.  And then I was so naïve, I hadn't even figured out he was a slave.  How stupid.  But he didn't seem offended, and we kept talking.  Then, from nowhere, "I'm going to marry you."  And what could I do but laugh again?  I hadn't even remembered his name from when he'd told me a few minutes earlier.  "Well, I'm afraid I can't marry you…" "Anakin," he helped.  "Anakin.  You're just a little boy."  I thought for sure he'd understand.  He had no idea who I was, where I was from, or anything about me.  His reply took my breath away and made my heart skip a beat, then and there.  "I won't always be." 

Padmé placed the pendant back in the box and closed the lid.  She inspected herself one last time in the mirror and stepped to the door.  She paused and thought about the young man standing in the next room and the incredible display of power and skill she had witnessed a few hours ago.  Well, little Ani, you're certainly not a boy anymore

In the sitting room, facing the main door, eyes closed, Anakin was struggling to control his emotions.  He knew at some point he would get to talk to her, and he didn't know how to feel about it.  They had spoken nothing substantive to each other in a decade.  I have no idea whether she remembers about the three dreams.  The army, the Jedi, and marrying her.  And if she does remember, she might see them as the cute statements of a strange little boy.  Or maybe, now that I really am a Jedi, she sees them as the visions from the Force that they were.  He sensed in the Force her movement in the bedroom toward the door.  She knows Jedi are forbidden to marry.  So even if she does think…  Forget it.  Forget it.  You've messed yourself up enough lately as it is.  You're her bodyguard and an old friend.  Nothing else.  He sighed.  Ever

The door to the bedroom slid open.  As Padmé stepped out slowly, Anakin opened his eyes and turned to look at her.  They both smiled.  Anakin sensed warmth, friendship, and also some apprehension from her. 

She stayed in the doorway, her left hand against the wall.  "Hello, Ani."  He has grown tall and handsome, hasn't he?

"Hello, Padmé."  He didn't even notice when the restrained thoughts he had just been considering flew out of his mind completely.  Wow.  She's even more beautiful than I remembered.  Even in all of those royal costumes and Senate gowns, in this simple robe with her hair down she's the most amazing woman I've ever seen.

"I need a break from this speech.  Am I interrupting anything?"  

He chuckled.  "I'd be standing still and meditating.  That's hardly anything to interrupt." 

She grinned and walked out into the sitting room.  "Well, I thought since we have some time, it might be nice to catch up."  As he walked over to her, she unceremoniously dumped herself into one of the big padded chairs and flopped her arms out over the sides. 

"That would be great."  He sat down opposite her in an identical chair, leaning back and stretching out his legs. 

"So," she began, "I'll go first."  She told him about her years as Queen after the defeat of the Trade Federation.  Her brief time off from politics, followed by her election to the Senate.  Two years on Coruscant, rising quickly to a leadership position on the Loyalist Committee. 

"Someday when we have more time," he commented, "you'll have to explain this whole Separatist movement to me.  I know a little about it from the Holonet, and I know about Dooku from the Temple, but I don't really get the big picture." 

She smiled.  "Yeah, we'll need a lot more time than we have now to cover that.  Your turn."  She dragged over the matching ottoman and propped up her legs.   

Anakin talked about his years of training in the Temple, his progress as a Jedi, and some of his more interesting missions with Obi-Wan.  He complained a bit about the pace of his training, and she let him vent without criticizing him for it.  A few funny inside stories about members of the Jedi Council she knew. 

He was now draped sideways on the chair, legs hanging over one armrest, head against the other.  When he was just about finished, after they'd been talking for several hours, he felt truly comfortable with her.  So for the first time in years he told someone about how deeply he missed his mother. 

He felt the spike of shock and anger in the Force when she interrupted.  "What do you mean," she asked incredulously, "that they haven't let you see her since you left?  That's outrageous!" 

Anakin thought maybe she was overreacting a bit.  Much to his own surprise, he actually found himself defending the Council.  "They want me to wait until I've been promoted to Jedi Knight.  A Jedi has to control his emotional attachments, and I came into the Order with more than most, because of my age.  Letting me see her before I'm ready might actually set back my progress, and disrupt all the hard work I've put in." 

Padmé was not at all convinced.  "That's nonsense!  She's your mother.  If loving your mother is a problem, they should have refused to train you in the first place.  This is just torturing you." 

"It's not so bad.  When I meditate, I can reach out in the Force and find her presence.  It was just the two of us for so long.  Our bond is very, very strong."  He stopped himself from saying out loud his next thought.  Only a little bit stronger than the bond in the Force I have with you.  "Right after I left, she always felt sad.  Then, the last few years, she's seemed happier.  My guess is that she was freed, or maybe found someone special who makes her happy.  I don't think she had another child; it never felt like that.  Anyway, I know her life is better now.  So I can wait to see her." 

She shifted in the chair.  "I'm glad you feel that way, Ani.  I still think the Council should have let you visit her, though.  At least you won't have to wait much longer." 

"What?"  His voice revealed his bewilderment. 

"You only need to change one more vote on the Council to be approved to take the Trials."  She winked at him. 

Anakin's jaw dropped.  "How do you know that?" 

She laughed contentedly.  "Oh, Ani, you have no idea the connections and influence I have." 

"I guess not."  Her emotions remained calm and warm, so he said what he was thinking.  "Would you mind not calling me that?" 

"Hmm?" 

"Would you mind calling me Anakin?  I'm not a little boy anymore." 

She smiled again.  "That's true.  I'm sorry, Anakin," she replied, saying his name carefully and deliberately.  "I'll try my best to remember."  In her head, she marveled at the echoes of the decade-old conversation.  "You're just a little boy."  "I won't always be."  Did he read my mind before, or is this just how the Force works sometimes? 

"Thank you, Padmé," he grinned.  "You know, I do feel lucky.  I've only been at the Temple ten years, and I'm already by far the strongest Padawan.  I'm more skilled than many of the Knights too, at least the newer ones.  And if you're right, I'll get to take the Trials almost five years younger than Obi-Wan was when he was promoted."  

"With any luck," she joked, "you won't have to do what he did."

Anakin laughed.  "You mean fly halfway across the galaxy and back guarding you, followed by a duel to the death with a Sith Lord?  Yeah, let's avoid that if we can."  As the words left his mouth, a chill of foreboding rushed through his body.  It's nothing.  Nothing.  Just a coincidence.

Padmé joined his laughter.  As she turned her head back and forth to stretch her neck, she caught a glimpse of the small clock on the far wall.  "Oh my.  It's later than I thought."

"I'm sorry," he apologized.  "I should have paid attention to the time." 

"No, no, it's fine.  I'll still be able to get several good hours of sleep." 

"I hope so.  I'd hate to have interfered with your important speech."  Anakin stood up and leaned to both sides to relax his back.  There's no anxiety coming from her.  I guess she really isn't upset.

Padmé got to her feet as well.  "Don't give it another thought.  I insist." 

They walked together to the bedroom door.  She turned back to face him. 

"It was really great to see you tonight, Anakin.  If this assignment continues, I hope we can do this again."  Several more times, she thought.  I want this threat over so badly.  But I don't want his assignment to end either

"I hope so too."  I don't know how to feel, he realized.  I want her safe, but that means I won't be assigned here anymore.

Padmé decided to follow her feelings.  She stepped forward and embraced him.  Anakin returned the hug, pulling her close.  She felt content and safe in his arms; her presence in the Force, and the warmth and friendship in her feelings, soothed him.  They stood together for a long moment, then separated.  When they looked into each other's eyes, they felt peaceful. 

"Good night, Anakin."  

"Good night, Padmé." 

The bedroom door closed.  Inside, Padmé climbed into bed and fell asleep in less than a minute.  For the first time in almost two months, she slept soundly until morning.  In the sitting room, Anakin took up a position near the main door.  He closed his eyes and started the meditation.  He actually was able to focus his mind for most of it, until Obi-Wan relieved him just before dawn. 

CHAPTER TWELVE

It was nearly dusk when Padmé finally returned from the Senate to her one-room secondary office in the main building.  She felt tremendously relieved now that the address had been given and she could let herself relax a bit for the remainder of the debate on the Military Creation Act.  As she entered, Dormé and Jar Jar in tow, Anakin was exactly as she had left him: sitting in a chair in the corner in his Jedi robes, facing out into the room, eyes closed, meditating.  It doesn't look like he's even moved his hands or adjusted his feet.  It's been seven hours.  Wow

His eyes popped open and he stood up.  "Did it go well?"  Relief and exhaustion.  Nothing bad in her feelings.  That's good.

"Hard to tell."  Padmé walked around her desk and tapped briefly on the open datapad.  

"Well, at least no one booed during the speech," Dormé kidded. 

When he stopped laughing, Anakin looked to Padmé.  "Are you ready?" 

"Yes, please.  Let's get out of here.  To home, not the office." 

Anakin pulled the comlink from his belt and tapped in a code.  "Obi-Wan will meet us with the speeder outside in five minutes." 

Right on schedule, Padmé and Anakin emerged from the huge ornamental front doors of the Senate building onto the sprawling ferrocrete plaza.  They both wore long cloaks, the hoods drawn fully up to conceal their faces.  They walked quickly, stepping around the other pedestrians.  In and out of the long shadows of the towering statues, they were nearly to the appointed spot when Anakin reacted. 

In a split second he stepped in front of her, took her left hand in his, and his blue lightsaber popped and hissed to life.  "Stay right behind me and don't move away," he instructed her calmly.  A heartbeat later, she heard the sharp crack of a blaster and watched him deflect the incoming bolt down into the ground.  She reached her right hand around her back for her pistol.  Not again.

Then the barrage of blaster fire fell on them.  The sounds and movements were overwhelming to Padmé.  Shots came in from at least three directions, maybe more, and she couldn't see the shooters.  I can't see enough to return fire! 

Anakin, however, had the situation perfectly under control.  Instantly drawn into the Force, he perceived three shooters: two in hovering speeders to the front, one firing from behind a statue to the rear.  Although the assassins didn't actually intend one, he felt the pattern in the incoming bolts and easily blocked away each shot.  He projected the scene to Obi-Wan through the Force, knowing his Master would adjust his approach accordingly and will it to Anakin.  While he waited for the answer about the best way to proceed, he concentrated on defending Padmé.  He considered saying something reassuring to her, but doubted it would help.  Actions speak louder than words.

Padmé stood one step behind Anakin, clutching his hand tightly.  She put her pistol away.  It's no use.  She watched in awe as the blue blur picked off every single bolt.  He's unbelievable.  Sparks and shards of ferrocrete erupted from the ground in front of them as more and more lasers dug into the newly scarred pavement. 

As he deflected away more blaster fire, he felt a short lull in the shooting from behind.  Without glancing back, in that tiny pause he adjusted his blade and ricocheted a bolt from the front straight back at the rear assassin.  In the Force, he felt the assassin stumble and fall, dying.  The situation now much improved, Anakin sent another image through the Force to Obi-Wan and adjusted his defensive technique.  He pulled his hand away from Padmé's grasp and, still facing forward, instead wrapped his entire left arm around her lower back. 

"Hold on," Padmé heard Anakin say as his arm encircled her.  He hunched just a bit, grabbed her firmly on her right hip with his left hand, and stood up, lifting her onto his back.  Catching on immediately, she carefully threaded her arms over his shoulders and clasped her hands tightly to his chest.  He began to run forward with enormous strides, carrying her along with seemingly no extra effort.  That's got to be the Force.  In any other context, his hand's grip on her would have been completely inappropriate, but right now neither of them noticed. 

Anakin surged forward toward the assassins, spreading wider his relative angle between the shooters.  His arcs to block the shots were more fluid and faster as his position improved.  A few seconds later, he felt a pressure in his mind, something like a loud whistle.  The image of Obi-Wan's plan flashed through his brain.  Ooh, I like it!  Anakin began to run straight ahead at full speed.  The countdown in his head ticked away until it reached zero. 

Padmé was absolutely astounded at the maneuver the two Jedi performed next, in a matter of only one or two heartbeats.  An open-top speeder swooped in front of them.  With an ease of motion like he had done it a hundred times before, Obi-Wan stopped the speeder, hopped from the pilot's seat to stand on the front passenger seat, drew and ignited his blue lightsaber, and began to deflect away the incoming blaster bolts.  Simultaneously, Anakin shut off his blade and clipped it to his belt, started to spin around, halfway through released her and let her fall into the back seat of the speeder, and finished by jumping into the pilot's seat.  As Anakin's hands touched the steering controls, Obi-Wan let his feet slide off as he dropped into the seat and deactivated his blade.  Instantly, Anakin took the speeder into high gear and raced away from the pockmarked plaza. 

Anakin glanced back at her.  "Strap in!"  She heard the clicks of the two Jedi pulling on their restraints.  Padmé swung herself upright and tightened the harness as much as she could. 

Anakin flew the speeder into heavy traffic in the wrong direction.  The two assassins followed right behind.  Obi-Wan looked back to see hidden blasters extend from the fronts of the two speeders chasing them.  Anakin had no trouble dodging the new laser fire.  Obi-Wan pulled his comlink from his belt.  "This is Kenobi.  We'll hit mark eleven thirty-eight.  Repeat.  Eleven thirty-eight." 

Anakin weaved in and out of the flow.  This is just another Podrace to him,  Padmé thought.  That's worked out well for me in the past.  Their speeder took a sharp turn to the left around a building, then a terrific rising loop to the right.  Padmé felt queasy, although even over the roar of the engines and the wind in her ears it sounded to her like she fared better than Obi-Wan. 

As Anakin had anticipated from perceiving the pursuit in the Force, one of the trailing assassins failed to execute the loop properly.  That speeder slammed head-on into an enormous support beam to the adjacent office tower, exploding with an incandescent bang. 

After that, it seemed to Padmé that Anakin dialed down the aggressiveness of his flying.  They still swooped in and out of traffic and made several more gut-wrenching swerves, but it nevertheless was more sedate.  When they came around the corner of another building, she saw why.  Anakin took them away in a quick loop as the final assassin unwittingly flew into a trap set by ten Jedi speeders and twenty judicial department vehicles.  They swarmed on the assassin as Anakin without hesitation headed their speeder in the direction of Padmé's apartment. 

In the back seat, Padmé took a deep breath.  Then it dawned on her.  I'm not afraid.  I haven't been afraid this whole time.  I was almost killed again, and he made it so I wasn't scared.  She smiled to herself and sunk down into the seat, anxious to be home. 

Piloting the speeder, Anakin sensed Padmé's calm demeanor in the Force.  She's not frightened.  Wow.  She's such a strong person.  Well, at least I know I've earned her trust.

---

Just as the sun was setting, after a hot drink and a chance to ease their adrenaline, they stood near the main door of the apartment.  Although he did not raise his voice and his tone was calm, Obi-Wan was stringently berating Anakin for his recklessness.  He shouldn't have tried to attack the third shooter.  He shouldn't have charged the two assassins.  He had flown far too dangerously, especially with the Senator on board.  As always, his judgment had given way to his bravado. 

Listening to the tirade, Padmé was incensed at Obi-Wan.  How dare he say these things?  Anakin saved my life!  It was remarkable what he did.  How many Jedi could have done that?  Very few, I bet.  Probably not you, you self-righteous…  She couldn't select from among several choice Huttese curses, so she thought them all.  When Obi-Wan did not let up, Padmé finally interjected.  "Master Kenobi, I'm sure you have many things to do at the Temple.  Anakin is on duty now.  Perhaps the two of you can finish this later, so I can get back to work?" 

Anakin looked at the floor.  No one talks to Obi-Wan that way and gets away with it.  No one.  Yet Obi-Wan calmly turned to face her and conceded.  "Certainly, Senator Amidala," he apologized.  "I did not mean to disturb you."  He bowed respectfully and left.  Before Anakin could say anything, Padmé flashed him a big smile and walked away. 

Anakin was called back to the Temple long before his shift ended. 

---

Sitting in her bed well after dark reviewing a committee report on her datapad, Padmé heard Dormé approaching.  "The Chancellor would like to speak with you," her handmaiden reported.  "He called on his personal line." 

"Be right there."  Padmé got to her feet and walked quickly to the viewscreen.  "Good evening, Chancellor." 

"I'm sorry to disturb you so late, Senator Amidala.  There has been a decision on your security situation, however, and we need to review it immediately."  Palpatine's voice was calm and soothing, almost fatherly. 

A decision!  I was never consulted.  Padmé preserved her composure.  "Yes.  Go ahead."  The Chancellor explained the Jedi Council's recommendation and his approval of it.  Obi-Wan would begin immediately with a full investigation of today's assassination attempt and follow through personally on all major leads.  Anakin would escort her to a secret location, where the two of them would remain in hiding until her safety on Coruscant could be assured. 

"Skywalker will be arriving shortly to discuss the details with you," Palpatine told her.  "Even I do not know the location the Jedi have chosen." 

He has the look on his face he always does when he is marshalling his arguments.  He's expecting resistance from me.  Sorry, old friend.  I'm tired of being attacked.  I'm ready to get away from here.  "Thank you, Chancellor.  The proposal is wise.  I assent to it."  Palpatine grinned broadly, thanked her profusely, and ended the call. 

About half an hour later, Padmé looked up from the sofa when she heard Dormé let Anakin in.  Padmé almost failed to conceal her surprise.  It was the first time she had ever seen any Jedi wearing something other than Jedi robes.  Instead, he wore an all-black flight suit: shoes instead of boots, skin-tight long-sleeved shirt and pants, no cloak or extraneous garments, only a pair of black gloves and his glimmering silver lightsaber handle hanging from his belt.  She could see the muscles in his arms and legs rippling beneath the fabric as he walked over to her. 

He was calm.  "You've agreed to the plan?" 

She tried to hide the nervousness in her voice.  "Yes, I have.  Where will we be going?" 

"First, you must be aware that the Jedi Council, Obi-Wan, and I are the only ones who know where.  And I will tell you and Dormé.  No one else must know."  He waited for Padmé and Dormé to nod in acknowledgement.  "We're going to Naboo.  You'll help me select an appropriate isolated place in the countryside where we won't be noticed."

Home!  She was shocked and happy.  Then she realized the significance.  Hiding in plain sight.  It's either incredibly brilliant or incomprehensibly idiotic.  Like hiding Anakin on Tatooine, or an Organa on Alderaan.  Well, if Anakin agrees with Jedi Council on something, that's good enough for me.  He was still looking at her, waiting for a response.  "Great," she laughed.  "When do we leave?" 

"At dawn.  The Jedi have a good starfighter we'll use.  I've flown it before.  It's a good ship.  They offered us an astromech, but I told them we'd use Artoo."  He stared warmly into her eyes.  "Actually, I need to go to the spaceport now to get it ready.  Obi-Wan's occupied too, obviously, so two other Jedi are on their way for the rest of tonight.  I told them to stand guard outside the door, since you don't know them." 

"Thank you, Anakin," she said quietly, returning the gaze.  "That's very considerate." 

"Well, I'd better be going.  See you soon."  He turned around and headed toward the door.  He decided not to tell her that, just after the capture, the third assassin had been slain by a toxic dart fired from long range.  That will just worry her more.

"Good night," she called after him as he left.  She must have had a wistful look on her face, because as the door closed, Dormé's giggling caught her attention. 

"What?" 

"He's a fine sight for sore eyes, isn't he?"  Dormé was quite amused. 

"Shut up," Padmé glared at her. 

"I know Jedi don't marry," Dormé teased her, "but do you think they…"

"Stop it this instant!"  Padmé cut her off and pointed her finger.  "I mean it!"  

"Sorry, sorry," Dormé said insincerely.  "Would you like me to help you pack?"