Sometimes everything falls away when you realise that you love. – Obi-Wan Kenobi, 'Secrets of the Jedi'

Attack of the Clones—AU, Jedi Padmé

A shining jewel in the blackness of space, Coruscant, the capital of the Galactic Republic, grew larger as the sleek chromium Naboo cruiser approached the planet flanked by two yellow starfighters.

From the main cabin Senator Rhadé Sarasvati Nalanda observed the fighters, frowning slightly but making no comment. It was a necessary measure dictated by the way things were changing, as well as a reminder of what ruled the galaxy these days: not justice, not peace but fear.

Formerly a Queen, and now a Senator, Nalanda once again found herself at the edge of an on-coming war. Yet the edge was not as clearly defined like that of the invading armies of the Trade Federation she had encountered ten years before. Now the threat came from the very worlds that had once called themselves among the Republic. Named the Confederacy of Independent systems, they were led by the former Jedi, Count Dooku of Serenno.

While the reality of war seemed incredulous, Nalanda knew that it was not only possible but probable given the impending vote on the Military Creation Act. If passed it would see the formation of an army of the Republic, something that Nalanda and several other prominent senators in the Loyalist Committee had been avidly campaigning against.

Despite a few setbacks, they had managed to secure a meeting with the Separatists to begin at the end of the week. It was to be held on Imbroglio, a planet known for its wild weather that was neither part of the Confederacy or the Republic.

This war needs to begin and end with diplomacy, Nalanda surmised as she watched the air traffic pass her ship, and quickly. Still, the possibility of war remained in the back of her mind and refused to go away.

"Senator," Nalanda turned to see the ship's first officer nodding formally to her. "We're making our final approach, Representative Pela is meeting you."

"Thank you, captain," Nalanda said with a returning nod, unconsciously touching the silver and white diadem she wore. After she arrived there would be time for a quick change before the Senate met for the afternoon.

"M'lady?"

One of her handmaidens, approached her. She wore a hooded grey cloak, hiding behind the folds of fabric as if she had something to conceal.

"I'll be quite safe, thank you," the senator said tightly, lately there had been so much concern over her security that it had made her nervous.

"I must insist, Senator," the young woman persisted, but Nalanda silenced her with a raised hand.

There were other things on her mind, more important and more pressing than her personal safety. Yet the girl standing next to her didn't think so.

Danta Pela, former goff bird flyer pilot on Naboo, now Nalanda's Senior Representative, stood on the landing platform with Riané Antiene, a young intern serving a time with Senator Nalanda. He was somewhat changed from his days before the Naboo blockade. He wore the flowing robes of a diplomat and the only sign of his former life was an elaborate dagger slung in a scabbard to one side, yet it had purposes beyond the aesthetic.

Nalanda's chromium-plated cruiser set down, the hatch opened and the ramp rolled out. Following Captain Typho down the ramp was Nalanda herself, in a brilliant creation of white and silver. Flanking her were two handmaidens, their heads lowered as if shying away from the senator's splendour.

Danta stepped forward to receive her, readying the necessary words of welcome, but he was immediately thrown back by the force of an explosion. His reflexes responded as he hit the ground, grabbing Riané and rolling her away from the blast and shielding her from the heat with his cloak.

He looked up, terrified to what he might find. He saw Senator Nalanda lying beside one her handmaidens, a little dishevelled from the tumble but otherwise alive.

"Senator Nalanda," the Gungan said, sprinting forward to help her.

"I am unhurt," Nalanda said, getting to her feet and shaking out her creased gown. "Thank you," she said to the handmaiden.

"My help will be for nothing if we don't get you to safety," said a distinctly familiar voice.

With a start Danta recognised her, this wasn't a handmaiden but one of the Jedi he had been with ten years ago during the blockade. What was her name? Padmé…Padmé Naberrie.

Nalanda started. "No!" Evading Padmé's grasps, Nalanda ran over to where her other handmaiden—or her real handmaiden—was lying.

"I'm sorry, m'lady," the young woman gasped, blood pouring out a corner of her mouth.

"No, no!" Nalanda screamed as Typho and Padmé rushed forward.

"Senator, you are still in danger here," Padmé urged, "there could be snipers about."

That did not deter her. "I should not have come back," Nalanda murmured.

"This vote is very important," Typho said frantically, then added urgently. "Senator Nalanda, please!"

Without a word Nalanda consented to their pleas, straightening her diadem and walking inside with a set face. Following Danta and Riané was the little astromech droid, R2-D2.

In the vast Senate chamber, the deliberations had been somewhat subdued, but this was probably due to the fact that many of the pods were empty due to the systems they had represented had seceded from the Republic. Including, Bail Organa thought with a grimace, the Mamphra system. Though they, unlike most of the others, had not joined the fast growing Confederacy of Independent Systems wish was the official named of what were known as the Separatists.

Bail had missed Chiron Dunai of late with the on-going crisis that had led to an extension of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine's term. The Republic stood on the brink of war, and with the number of senators focused on the common good dwindling, their chances of it not happening were very slim indeed.

But sometimes, he lamented as Ask Aak of Malastare finished his speech to the thunder of applause, there is nothing you can do, and even the closest ideals must be sacrificed.

"Senators, I have disturbing news to report." The clear precise tones of Chancellor Palpatine echoed throughout the chamber. "Senator Rhadé Nalanda of Naboo has been assassinated!"

No! Bail wanted to shout, but he didn't need to as many others did it for him. He had warned her, and he knew that Nalanda had Jedi protection. But what that even—

"Her death is a deplorable loss," Palpatine continued, his dulcet tones cutting into Organa's thoughts, "her courage, determination and forthrightness not only as the representative of Naboo but also as Queen of her people will ensure her name will be remembered."

At this auspicious moment, Ask Aak moved his pod back into the arena.

"We cannot depend on the Jedi for protection!" he protested, his words translated to Basic so Bail could understand him. "We need the settle the question for this army now! For the Separatists will not compromise!"

Cheers and shouts of agreement filled the chamber ands Bail moved to rebut Ask Aak's remarks, when he saw something that made him smile. There was no need for him to say anything, the Naboo pod was slowly moving forward with something—or rather someone—that would silence everyone.

"Might I remind the senator from Malastare that it is premature to state the views of the Separatists," Senator Rhadé Nalanda said cuttingly.

There was a silence, followed by a smattering of applause and Bail noticed Nalanda smile.

"It is with great pleasure that the chair recognises the senator from Naboo," Palpatine said, with the air of a father praising his favourite child.

Nalanda's garb of violet and indigo coupled with her close, tight coiffure seemed to add to the seriousness of her words.

"When I arrived there was an attempt on my life," Nalanda continued, her pod circling the arena, "yet I am not letting it rule my fears so to make rash decisions that will in the end devastate us all. The issue of an army of the Republic cannot be decided quickly or lightly. But you must wake up, Senators!" her hands were held firm at her sides, her voice rising in emotion. "If we offer the Separatists violence, they can only offer us violence back. I have personally witness the heartbreak and destruction of war and do not wish it on anyone. If we can end this bloodlessly, we must!"

There was applause and calls of support, but a fair amount of dissention as well. Nalanda had her supporters in the Senate, but many still dismissed her as young and naïve.

"Order!" bellowed Mas Amedda. "We shall have order!"

"Any motion to pass the vote forward must be deferred," Nalanda finished, her eyes resting on Ask Aak. "Only when we know where we stand with the Separatists can then the notion of an army be considered."

At this, Bail moved his pod forward.

"Alderaan seconds the motion to be deferred until the conclusion of the negotiations with the Separatists," he said, meeting Nalanda's eye as his pod passed hers.

"Senator Ask Aak," Palpatine said after a silence, "will you defer your motion for an immediate vote on the Military Creation Act?"

At first, the Malastarian looked as if to disagree, but instead he answered in the affirmative.

"The motion is withdrawn," he said in a monotone, then retreated back to his place.

Bail and Nalanda exchanged significant glances; they had won the first round. Shortly thereafter, the Senate was adjourned for the evening.

"I fear this vote, my friends," Palpatine said with grave trepidation.

The Chancellor surveyed his guests from where he sat behind his desk. Mace Windu, the dark-skinned Jedi Master who appeared genuinely concerned. Renust Nju who sat next to Mace, his face resignedly set. Beside him was Ki-Adi-Mundi and following that Kuan Yin Nevu, she wore an expression of profound tranquility so Palpatine had no idea what she thought. Last of all came Yoda, his green brow furrowed as he studied the wall behind Palpatine's chair.

"A thousand more systems are poised to break away," the Chancellor continued with a heavy shake of his head. "This cannot happen."

"Yet if they do secede—" Mace began but was cut off by Palpatine.

"I will not let this Republic which has stood for a thousand generations be split in two!" Palpatine declared, slamming his fist on his desk and jostling the document reader and holoprojector.

"But if they do break away there will not be enough Jedi to protect the Republic," Mace said carefully, gesturing with his hands so as to reassure the Chancellor. "We are keepers of peace," he reminded the Chancellor, "not soldiers."

"That all depends on how you define 'keepers of peace'," Renust Nju interjected dryly.

Mace glanced at him for a moment, all that was necessary to remind that such comments were best suited to the Jedi Council chamber. Fortunately or perhaps deliberately, Palpatine ignored this remark.

"Master Yoda," Palpatine's voice was cool and methodical, "what do you see?"

Yoda, who had been studying the wall behind Palpatine until then, had heard everything that had been said, closed his eyes in concentration.

"Clouded, the future is," the Jedi Master said after a silence, "impossible to see clear. But…" he paused and then opened his eyes, "do their duty the Jedi will."

At this moment, a hologram of Dar Wac, Palpatine's aide, appeared on the desk.

"The Loyalist Committee is here," he said in Huttese.

"Good, send them in," Palpatine replied and the hologram dispersed, he turned to the Jedi, "we will deal with this later."

They all stood as the doors opened, in the lead was Nalanda followed closely by Typho. Next was Bail Organa and Senator Orn Free Taa of Ryloth. Several other senators and their retinues made up the group but coming last of all was Padmé Naberrie in her Jedi robes. After nodding to the Jedi Masters she stood behind Nalanda at the back of the room as if the affair had nothing to do with her.

"Senator Nalanda," Yoda walked to her slowly, leaning heavily on his gimer stick, "terrible tragedy on the landing platform. Relieved I am to see you alive."

"Thank you Master Yoda," Nalanda said gratefully, yet her next words were addressed to the room in general. "Do you have any idea who is behind this attack?"

"Our intelligence points to some disgruntled spice miners on the moons of Naboo," Mace Windu replied.

Nalanda glanced at Typho, her head of security shook his head slightly. This was clearly more serious than spice miners.

"I think Count Dooku is behind it," she said quietly.

The remark reverberated through the room like a struck chord, affecting everyone. Mace Windu regarded her dryly.

"Dooku was once a Jedi, m'lady," he reminded her patiently. "Assassination is just not his type."

"He is a political idealist," Ki-Adi-Mundi remarked, "not a murderer."

"Perhaps this threat is more personal, senator," Renust Nju suggested, "your Loyalist Committee has ruffled a few feathers lately."

"Master Windu, perhaps with the increased threat some extra protection could be obtained?" Palpatine had been mildly observing the conversation until this point, but his suggestions were not met by all.

Bail Organa stared at the Chancellor. "Don't you think that with the few Jedi there are you're over-emphasising a situation that isn't—"

"—that serious?" finished Palpatine. "But I do think it is, Senator."

"Chancellor, with all do respect," Nalanda said very patiently, "Master Naberrie is accompanying me at my request and she has already saved my life. Are you doubting what has already been proven?"

"Well, perhaps an old friend should settle things," the Chancellor said as if he had not heard Nalanda's last remark. "Such as…" he caught Mace's eye, "Master Kenobi."

"That's possible," Mace agreed, "they have just returned from a border dispute on Ansion."

"Chancellor—" Nalanda protested but her words died in her throat.

"Please don't make me turn this into an order, senator," he said, once again adopting the fatherly tone of voice, this time with gentle chastisement. "The thought of losing you would be…unbearable."

"Until caught this assassin is, young senator, in grave danger you are," Yoda urged her. "Pride you must forgo, accept our help."

"Very well then, thank you for your concern," Nalanda assented resignedly.

"It's settled then," Palpatine said with obvious satisfaction.

"I'll have him report to you immediately, m'lady," Mace said.

With nothing more than a cursory glance at Nalanda in conversation with Danta, Padmé walked towards the window of the spacious apartment. It was very different from that of Palpatine when he was representing Naboo. Where he had chosen to state his power and influence in terms of aesthetics, Nalanda simply chose to reflect the environment of her homeworld. There were vast windows shaded by sky-blue drapes, the carpet was a muted green and the arched ceiling supported with carved wooden beams.

Would Nalanda's tastes change as her time in the Senate lengthened? Padmé had heard a few reports, some from politicians and some from the Holonet, about Nalanda's relative youth and inexperience. Yet she personally had believed none of these as so often a being's actions could easily discount this, despite any preconceptions.

It was the will of the Force that she was with Nalanda at all; Padmé had finished a small mission in the Outer Rim and had managed to get transport to Naboo. Nalanda had somehow found out she was there and had asked her to come along.

So simple, so harmless, just like ten years ago…

She had been but a Padawan learner then, going with her first Master Shakya Devi to mediate between the Naboo and the Trade Federation. From that she had been one of the first wittinesses of the emergence of the Sith, and consequently had met Anakin Skywalker.

How long since she had seen him? Eight years was it? He would have been about eleven at the time and since then she hadn't seen him, though she had heard a lot about him from other Jedi. Somehow she suspected Obi-Wan had a lot to do with this, and didn't really blame him.

The question was: what would Anakin be like now? Padmé still remembered the way he looked at her from the moment he had seen her on Tatooine, something that had not changed even the last time they had spoken.

But Anakin was older now so perhaps he had put aside such feelings as she had done when she had faced the trials a few months ago. Now she was a fully fledged Jedi Knight and would have to acknowledge him as one Jedi to another at the very least.

Perhaps the formalities could keep such distractions at bay, formalities or better judgement.

A low chime sounded from the turbolift. Danta excused himself and went to answer it, leaving Nalanda with Typho and Riané. Padmé stepped behind the low couch where they were sitting so she could have a full view of the entryway.

How tall is Anakin? was Padmé's first thought as the two stepped through, exchanging small-talk with Danta. From where she stood it was easy to see that Anakin would now tower over her, something she hadn't considered.

He carried himself with a characteristic swagger, an easy confidence that was emphasised by the lop-sided grin he gave everyone. He had branched out, extended his abilities, and as far as Padmé could tell, he knew it as well.

Obi-Wan, on the other hand, was somewhat subdued from the brash extrovert she had once known. He greeted Senator Nalanda cordially as if they had merely stopped by for after-dinner drinks, a more centred and reserved manner.

Is this due to the loss of Qui-Gon? Padmé wondered, or is it more to do with being Anakin's master?

"Our paths cross again, Padmé," Obi-Wan said with a wry smile, he nodded to Nalanda, "and once more it surrounds you, m'lady."

"Well the Force does work in mysterious ways," Padmé laughed, glancing Anakin up and down with surprise. "Annie? My goodness you've grown."

"So have you," Anakin replied with a faint flush, "more be—shorter." He finished with an embarrassed shrug.

"You'll still be the little boy I knew on Tatooine," she finished as they took their seats on the couch opposite Nalanda.

Padmé wore a sleeveless tan tunic with matching gauntlets that covered most of her arms. Instead of the regular utility belt her belt was narrow with straps that encircled her shoulders. But other than this she looked as much of a Jedi as Obi-Wan did.

She doesn't remember, Anakin thought rather bitterly as Obi-Wan and Nalanda discussed the mission, I've thought about her everyday and she doesn't remember. From the way she carried herself, the barely-perceptible confidence, the visible amount of restraint and detachment he could see that even if she did remember what she had meant to him over these years she chose not to.

Just like any other Jedi, he concluded in thought, then realised that all eyes were on him.

"Uh…yeah?" Anakin could feel his colour rising as Obi-Wan gave him a hard look. He was supposed to follow what was going on, even if he wasn't contributing to the conversation.

"Never mind," Nalanda said pleasantly, moving to the more prosaic matters of the upcoming meeting with the Separatist leaders. "Ideally I need to attend, but the Chancellor has hinted as much that he would send someone else if there was any chance of a threat."

"The Chancellor is only concerned for your wellbeing, m'lady," Obi-Wan reassured her. "That is why we are here in the first place."

"Of course," Nalanda replied, "yet it would be so much simpler if I knew who was trying to kill me."

"We are here to protect you, Senator," Obi-Wan reminded her, "not to start an investigation."

"Though it would make more sense in the interests of protecting you if we knew what we were up against," Padmé said in a quiet voice.

"Master, Padmé has a point," Anakin said quickly. "Protection is for local security, not Jedi. Investigation is intended, if not implied in our mandate."

Obi-Wan looked between them with an amused expression, it was unbelievable. They had met a few minutes ago for the first time in eight years and already they were united against him. Padmé's views were one thing, yet Anakin's were something else.

"Anakin, we are not going to go through this exercise again," he curtly reminded his Padawan, "you will pay attention to my lead."

"Perhaps your mere presence will uncover the threat," Nalanda said diplomatically, looking between the Master and Padawan. She got to her feet and the others rose with her. "Now, if you will excuse me, I will retire for the evening."

When Nalanda had left and Padmé had followed to check a few things with Danta, Typho approached Obi-Wan and Anakin with obvious gratitude.

"Well I for one am glad you are here," he said. "The threat is more serious than the senator will admit. Her impressions are that the Separatist leaders are behind it."

"Yet if they were, why wouldn't they just refuse to negotiate?" Anakin asked, then noticing his Master's expression. "It's a fair question, Master. It just doesn't make sense."

"I agree," Typho said, "we are left with no clue. If we only had something to go on to lead us to this attacker…"

"Which would mean encouraging them to act again," Obi-Wan concluded dryly, he turned to Anakin as he noticed Padmé walking towards them. "Go with Typho to check the lower levels and report back here."

"Yes, my Master," Anakin said, yet he could not hide the disappointment from his voice as he followed Nalanda's head of security.

Coruscant never really sleeps, at all hours air traffic continues its course, sentient beings conducted their business which included some that could be only conducted at night.

Such was the case with the Clawdite assassin Zam Wessel, though this time it needn't have been if it had not been for the meddling Jedi. Zam had been hired to dispose of Senator Nalanda of Naboo, any reasons why the young woman had incurred the wrath of Zam's employers was immaterial. The fact was that Nalanda was still alive, a slight problem that needed to be instantly remedied.

She turned, raising her hand to the holster on her hip, fingers tightening on the barrel of the blaster pistol. A speeder approached the platform she stood on, but she moved her hand back to her side. It was him, not her employer but he had approached her to do the job. A tall humanoid figure with a distinctive helmet.

"I hit the ship, but there was a Jedi on board," Zam said without preamble.

He surveyed her, his helmet blocking out any expression. He pulled a long, transparent tube from his speeder.

"Our employer is getting impatient," he said, his voice filtered through his helmet. He handed her the cylinder. Inside, sealed in red liquid, was a blue-scaled Torian fire-snake. "Careful," he cautioned, "it's very poisonous."

Zam smiled as she examined the tube.

"Zam," she looked up at him, "there can be no mistakes this time."

And with that he got into his speeder and left her.

Anakin knew—or thought he knew—why Obi-Wan had sent him to check the lower levels of the senatorial apartment building and he could not dismiss the thought from his mind as Typho briefed him.

He still doesn't trust me, Anakin thought bitterly, all he needed to do was talk to Padmé but there was little chance of that with Obi-Wan around. Yet perhaps something would happen to change things, then he could really talk with Padmé without Obi-Wan hovering about like a sentry droid. He was too old to be chaperoned about.

"Seems fine down here," Anakin said when Typho had finished, then left at the next available opportunity.

"Don't you think I've noticed it, Obi-Wan?"

Padmé gave him the ghost of a smile, after talking about what had happened since they had seen each other the conversation had somehow found its way to Anakin. Obi-Wan had mentioned—in an indirect way—about what Anakin had said to him before they entered Nalanda's apartment.

"I'm not surprised if Senator Nalanda noticed it as well," Padmé continued, she stopped in her pacing. "But I would have thought he would have forgotten by now, moved on."

"Anakin? No, that would be against his nature," Obi-Wan replied methodically. "What about you?"

"I never thought it was anything serious in the first place," Padmé told him, walking towards the window and turning her back on him. "It's not allowed, and it's for good reasons as well." She turned to look at him. "There really wasn't any choice for me to make."

"Try telling Anakin that," Obi-Wan said bluntly, then he stopped and considered something. "I am being too hard on him, I can see that, but sometimes I feel that I have to."

"I once had the impression that you though Qui-Gon was rather hard on you," Padmé replied coolly.

"That was different," he protested.

"Is it?" She raised an eyebrow, then smiled when he didn't answer. "Now who do you sound like?"

Obi-Wan had to smile at this, turning the proposition over in his mind.

In the silence that followed, Anakin entered the room trying to look nonchalant but he could not hide the confident look in his eyes.

"Typho has more than enough men on every floor," he explained with a smile. "No intruder will try that way, Master."

"It's not an intruder that we should worry about," Obi-Wan said severely, taking a small viewscreen from the pouch on his belt to check the security cameras, "there are many ways to kill a senator."

"So they will try again tonight?" Padmé asked, saying what they were all thinking.

"Most definitely," Obi-Wan replied with conviction. "The first attack was with purpose and it failed." He smiled and nodded to Padmé. "This time it will be even more so."

"That way we can catch them in the act," Anakin said with a grin, but before he had finished speaking he knew he had said the wrong thing. Again.

"We will do exactly as the Council has requested," Obi-Wan replied curtly. "You still need to learn your place, young one." There was a considerable amount of emphasis on the word 'young' that made Anakin flush with indignation. Why did Obi-Wan always have to dress him down like this? And in front of Padmé, too!

Yet as he looked at her he saw the flicker of a reassuring smile. But only a flicker before her face became composed again.

From her vantage point Zam could monitor any chance of being discovered by the Jedi watching the Naboo senator. Jedi might have strange powers, she thought as she inserted the tube into her assassin droid, but even they are not going to find me over here unless they can fly.

She smiled to herself as she watched the assassin droid disappear into the throng of air traffic. She much preferred the personal touch of her profession, instead of relying on the actions of a mere droid. But she had no choice now, not if she intended to collect her fee.

"You look tired," Obi-Wan said.

The observation had been spoken in a lull in the conversation which for some reason of another Anakin had difficulty following.

Yet in response to this question Anakin didn't dispute it, he needn't as if was obvious.

"I don't sleep well anymore," he confessed. Staring at the ground to avoid Padmé's curious gaze.

"Is it because of your mother?" Obi-Wan pressed, Anakin wished he wouldn't. "More dreams?"

"They're not dreams," Anakin said indignantly, wishing his Master would shut up. "But I wish I didn't have them."

"I had bad dreams for a long time after my Master died," Padmé told him reassuringly. "You can talk about it, Anakin, it helps."

"Yeah, but yours were about what had already happened," Anakin countered darkly.

"Not always," she admitted.

Anakin frowned in frustration, he was running out of ideas. "But, I haven't seen my mother in years," he whined. "And what I've dreamed about her, it's nothing like that ever happened. Maybe they aren't dreams."

"Possibly," Obi-Wan conceded reluctantly. "Though you shouldn't let them overwhelm you, Anakin. We have a job to do."

Need you remind me that? Anakin thought angrily.

The conversation turned to the upcoming summit between the Separatists and the Loyalists. Obi-Wan was sceptical there would be any positive outcome at all, having witnesses the fiasco that had been Eriadu ten years before. But Padmé wasn't so sure even though she had been there with Shakya Devi.

"Doing something is better than doing nothing, Obi-Wan," she pointed out and he couldn't help but agree with her. "Perhaps all our hopes will be realised and there will be a success."

"But we still haven't got all the information we need to assess both sides independently," Obi-Wan reminded her. "Perhaps only during or even after can we have some measure about what we are up against."

"But isn't it obvious, Master?" Anakin said. "All the Separatists want is domination over others. They want to destroy the Republic and talking with them won't do anything."

"Nothing is ever that simple, Anakin," Obi-Wan gently reprimanded.

"Even when it is?" Anakin objected.

"Now you are starting to confuse me," Obi-Wan replied dryly and Anakin knew he had lost.

Light and shadow played across Nalanda face in the distant air traffic, yet this was shortly disrupted by a slowly moving, almost stationary shadow, just outside the window. It was Zam's assassin droid.

There was an electronic whir and crackle as the outside security system was shut down. Then the droid noiselessly cut a small hole in the window, enough to place the opening of the cylinder up to.

Not even the loyal Artoo was aware of this intrusion, he was sitting in the far corner deactivated but for the soft blinking of green light. Around him were the green rays designed to alert intruders. Unfortunately no one had gambled for intruders of this kind.

The opening of the cylinder was removed and the blue scaled snake fell with a soft plop onto the carpet. It lay there motionless for a moment, then raised its head to taste the air.

This particular breed of snake was native to the jungle-world of Toria. Known for its particular aggressiveness and the toxicity of its venom, these qualities were made even greater by genetic manipulation.

Ordinarily the snake would only strike if cornered, yet this one specifically made for the sleeping senator. Ordinarily the bite was not always lethal, provided the antivenin was administered promptly, yet once the fangs scratched Nalanda's skin there would be no help for her.

The snake tasted the air again, its purple forked tongue flicking out of its mouth. Then it proceeded towards Nalanda's exposed neck.

"I think he's a good man," Anakin argued, the topic had turned to Chancellor Palpatine. "The only reason he's still in office is the succession crisis. He told me himself he would rather step down but he felt it was his duty not to."

I bet he did, Obi-Wan said to himself. Privately, he thought Anakin was spending far too much time with the Supreme Chancellor than was necessary. Obi-Wan had yet to find an excuse to cease these constant 'visits'. He shook his head in frustration.

"How many times do I have to tell you, Anakin, not to trust appearances," the Jedi said. "They normally hide a great number of things."

"Sometimes things need to be hidden," Anakin retaliated.

Before Obi-Wan could give that remark the reproach that it was due, they all started and stared in the direction of Senator Nalanda's bedroom. Anakin looked at him in shock, his mouth gaping.

"I sense it too," Obi-Wan said and there was a mad rush for the door.

Whether it was the serpent near her pillow, or the thumping footsteps of the Jedi, Nalanda was awake and instantly aware of the danger. She recoiled as the snake advanced towards her, rearing up and hissing loudly.

But that was before Anakin bounded onto the bed and cleaved the snake neatly in two with a single swipe of his lightsaber.

"Droid!" shouted Obi-Wan who leapt at the window, using the blinds to smash the glass and clutched the retreating assassin droid.

"Come on!" Padmé pulled Anakin off the bed and out of the room, passing a startled Typho and Riané.

Jett Rink, an employee of one of the politicians in Nalanda's building, was returning from his night-time exploits shamefully later than he would have liked to admit.

He was just parking his celebrated yellow, open-topped airspeeder when two Jedi burst out of the building.

"Hi, we need to borrow your speeder," the first one said, a human male with a blond rat-tail behind his right ear. He opened the door and pulled Jett out without much ceremony.

"Thanks," said the second Jedi, she smiled as she sat down in the speeder next to the first and they were off. The whole proceedings taking only a few seconds.

Jett shook his head as he watched them go. Say what you will about Jedi, he thought, but they think they own everything.

The assassin droid was clearly not designed to carry his weight, but it held Obi-Wan aloft if reluctantly, stinging his hands with hot sparks.

Gritting his teeth, Obi-Wan prised one of the wires loose to try and make the uncomfortable ride more bearable. He managed to stop the sparks, but the wire also powered the motor and he plummeted in a matter of seconds.

"Not good, not good," he muttered, frantically re-connected the wire. The droid started up again, once more cooking his hands every few minutes.

As much as he sought for Jedi serenity, he wished wherever the droid was going it would get there soon.

Zam waited impatiently waited beside her speeder for the droid, she would have preferred to be on her way but the only way she could be sure the operation was carried out was if the droid returned empty. And even then there were doubts, but it would be relatively easy to find out if the senator had been killed, given the false reports on her assassination only that afternoon.

The sound of a disturbance in air traffic made her look up, but what she saw made her smile. One of the Jedi—it was unmistakeable even at this distance—was hanging onto the droid as it made its way towards her. It meant that the droid had in fact made it to the senator's, the Jedi would know what had happened but business was business.

She removed her blaster rifle from her speeder and raised it to her shoulder, cocking it as she glanced down the scope. She aimed the first shot right at the Jedi but the bolt went wide. She fired again but it didn't go anywhere near him.

Was her aim off? Or, perhaps the Jedi had somehow evaded the bolts with his powers.

Whatever the reason, Zam had no time to consider it, she aimed the blaster at the droid.

"Block this," she snarled, then pulled the trigger.

Obi-Wan had surmised that whoever had shot at him was the assassin they were looking for. But the freefall following the droids destruction was not something he had counted on.

Where is Anakin? he thought as he looked around, frantically looking for a hand hold, a plat form, anything! But there was nothing but another five hundred stories between himself and the ground!

"There he is!" Anakin threw the throttle all the way forward and forced the speeder into a deep dive.

Padmé smiled secretly as she gripped the top of the windshield. She felt like screaming with the excitement of the moment. She caught a glimpse of Anakin's face, he was enjoying it as much as if not more than she was.

Anakin slowed then levelled the speeder out, after hovering for a few seconds a soft thump confirmed they had Obi-Wan they set off in the direction he told them.

"Hitchhiker's normally stand on platforms," Anakin remarked dryly, "but your approach is much more direct, Master."

"If your worked on your lightsaber skills as much as you did your wit, Anakin, you would rival Master Yoda," Obi-Wan reproached.

"I thought I already did," his apprentice lightly challenged.

"Only in your mind, my very young Padawan." Obi-Wan quickly spotted the green speeder that belonged to the assassin. "There!"

Anakin increased their speed and they were after it.

It didn't take Zam long to realise that she was being followed, fortunately this had happened before so she knew what to do.

So it was nothing to increase her speed and made several haphazard turns. She smiled to herself, not even the Jedi could find her now.

The speeder was in sigh again, but it wasn't long before it disappeared again. It simply had a bigger start on them even at this speed and Anakin's manoeuvring style that made Obi-Wan remember with detail what he had for breakfast that morning. He had never liked flying and since he had become Anakin's Master he liked it even less.

"We're not going to catch them this way," Padmé murmured.

Finally! thought Obi-Wan with relief, Someone with sense!

But Padmé turned around and started to climb into the back seat.

"What are you doing?" Obi-Wan asked, but before she could answer a violent swerve sent them crashing together. "Anakin!"

"Sorry, Master," Anakin replied wryly, "I forgot that you don't like flying."

"I don't mind flying," his Master said as he and Padmé were thrown around again, "but what you're doing is suicide!" he turned to Padmé who was looking for something compartment behind them. "What's all this?"

"Something different," she replied, taking out a lurid green repulsor-board. "Anakin!" She had to raise her voice to be heard. "I need you to get as close as you can get!"

"Don't worry, I know a short-cut," Anakin told her, turning suddenly and sending Obi-Wan sliding across the seat again.

"Stars end," Obi-Wan swore as he hit his head.

The yellow speeder had not moved from its pursuit, but Zam knew that the Jedi would have realised that they weren't going to catch her like this. And by the time they had figured out a way to get to her she would be gone.

Zam smiled as she cooled her engines, she was far enough ahead. This was going to be easy.

"That's near enough!" Padmé shouted after Anakin made several near-suicidal moves to get them closer.

"But what are you—" Obi-Wan couldn't do anything but watch Padmé secure her left foot to the repulsor-board and jump off the end of the speeder. Quickly, she fired her cable-launcher into the speeder's hull and secured the other end to her belt.

Anakin watched this all from the rear-vision viewscreen, when Padmé was secure he swerved wildly causing Padmé to spin like a toy on the end of a string.

"Slow down, Anakin!" Obi-Wan told him as he slid into the seat next to him.

"She's only going to have one chance, Master," Anakin replied, keeping half his attention on Padmé.

"To do what?" his Master asked incredulously.

"We still want to catch this assassin, don't we, Master?"

Obi-Wan raised his eyebrows but didn't disagree.

It certainly wasn't the best idea, being towed on a repulsor board behind a speeder driven by one of the Order's best pilots, but Padmé really hadn't thought about all this when she strapped the board to her foot and jumped off. She didn't even think about it now, all that mattered was she didn't let this dizzying ordeal overcome her.

More than once she had to twist in different directions so as not to collide with oncoming air-traffic. Fortunately, they were doing their best to stay out of her way which wasn't always a good thing.

Somehow, Anakin managed to get them closer again, so close she could see some of the detail on the green speeder. It wasn't the best but it would have to do.

"Turn around!" she shouted, hoping Anakin heard her.

Whether he heard her shout or somehow knew what she wanted there was not difference, he put the speeder through a three-point turn whipping her around in an arc. She moved with it, angling her body so she wouldn't spin as had happened the first time.

Then, at the right moment she pulled free of the cable and the board, using the momentum of Anakin's turn to dive through the air towards the assassin's speeder.

"Clear that cable," Anakin said quietly. "Clear it," he repeated when Obi-Wan didn't respond. "It's dragging us."

While Obi-Wan clambered over the back seat, Anakin could fully appreciate Padmé's astonishing leap from the repulsor-board to the assassin's speeder. And without any hesitation or admonishment from his Master.

The Jedi were still after her. Zam cursed as she put the speeder into a higher gear, wishing she could do away with all of them with that one motion. Her speeder then shuddered violently as if something large had his it, this was followed by the sounds of sliding and scraping.

She swore again when she saw what slid past the viewport. One of the Jedi! Te female who had stopped her first attempt on the senator, and far too close for comfort.

Zam threw the throttle into reverse, smiling as she heard the Jedi slid back over the speeder and to the edge. But not over the edge. She threw the throttle forward again, hearing the Jedi slide back.

She laughed, Jedi or no Jedi, she had the upper hand.

If it was a crazy idea to jump onto the speeder the way she did, it was crazier still to hang onto it while it was moving like this. As she hung from the back the speeder lurched again, she pressed her hands hard into the frame and flipped onto the roof. With her free hand she got out her lightsaber.

The green blade cut into the green durasteel, removing several circuits with the crackle of sparks. She didn't want to cripple the vehicle but she did need to slow it down.

As she lay on her stomach to sever something more critical the speeder reeled again and Padmé dropped her lightsaber. She was able to catch her weapon in her mouth so she could hold on to one of the holes she had made with both hands.

"I'm going to help her," Anakin said.

They were right above her now, Padmé had managed to slow the assassin down but that was about it.

"Anakin, she has things under control," Obi-Wan told him.

"Not now she doesn't," Anakin replied.

Obi-Wan looked down to see Padmé hanging on with both hands to the now out of control speeder with her lightsaber in her mouth. What has she done? he wondered.

But there was no time to consider the question as the next moment Anakin stepped over the side of their vehicle and landed next to Padmé below.

"I hate it when he does that," Obi-Wan muttered, taking the controls.

By the time Anakin had joined her, Padmé had managed to regain some control. She was just about to cut off something else when Anakin landed beside her.

"Anakin, what are you doing here?" she demanded.

"Helping you," he replied as if the answer was obvious, he stiffened his arm so he could move with the speeder.

"I don't need—"the speeder collided with an air-throwing her back until Anakin caught her wrist. "Thanks," she murmured, then climbed up to lie beside him. "Do you think you can disable this thing?" Anakin nodded. "Good, I'll give you a few minutes."

She loosened her grip so she could slid past the cockpit.

Zam had just about had enough of the Jedi, more so given the fact that another had joined the first. Who were they to hang onto her speeder like suicidal maniacs?

A sharp tap on the viewport made her look up. It was the female Jedi, she brandished her lightsaber in her free hand then ignited it. The green blade swang dangerously close to the window, making Zam blink and forget her concentration. Her Clawdite features flashed across her face for a moment.

With the tip of the blade the Jedi then cut a hole in the viewport filling the cockpit with air. Cursing, Zam reached for her blaster pistol, but it was ripped out of her hand and falling out of the hole in the window before she had a proper grip on it. She snarled and swerved the speeder, satisfied when the Jedi slid out of sight.

Suddenly her engines were no longer responding, her reads said they were losing power for some unknown reason. The other Jedi! she realised as her Clawdite features showed again. She inclined the speeder into a steep dive, pushing the steering al the way down.

If she couldn't escape alive, neither would the Jedi.

"What did you do?" Padmé shouted.

They were hanging on to the back of the speeder as it took a nosedive through the lines of air traffic. Anakin had his free arm around her and for once she didn't mind.

"I disconnected the engines,'" Anakin replied, though it was almost impossible to hear him.

"You WHAT?" She looked at him incredulously as the ground started to come into view.

"Don't worry," Anakin said with a shrug, "this isn't the first crash landing I've caused."

Somehow Padmé did not find that very reassuring.

Close behind, Obi-Wan followed the speeder at the same break-neck pace, shaking his head as he watched their antics. He wondered which one was worse.

For some reason either due to Zam or aerodynamics, the speeder levelled out as it made its final descent into Coruscant's entertainment district.

As the ground neared Padmé rolled off and landed on her feet. Anakin followed somewhat less gracefully, skidding to a stop just ahead of her in the middle of a crowd of startled pedestrians.

The startled pedestrians advanced on the speeder after it fell, exchanging questioning glances as the vehicle ignited. Zam somehow staggered out as the crowds gathered around it and tried to disappear down the street.

But Anakin and Padmé were watching her and Zam broke into a sprint. Running into people, dodging droids and low vehicles, they chased her through the crowd and to the doors of a nightclub.

"Should we tell them to lock the doors and not let anyone out?" Anakin asked.

"No, that makes it worse," Padmé replied. "And it'll take time."

"Anakin!"

They turned to see Obi-Wan landing the speeder behind them.

"She went into that club, Master," Anakin said, pointing.

"Patience," he cautioned as he approached them. "Use the Force. Think. She went in there to hide, not to run." At this he caught Padmé's eye. "And the next time you two plan to pull a stunt like that again, let me know in advance so I won't be there."

"Oh, come on, Master," Anakin gently reproached as they walked through the door of the club. "Where's your sense of adventure?"

"Probably in several pieces out side Senator Nalanda's bedroom window," Padmé interjected.

Even Obi-Wan had to laugh at this as they surveyed the crowd. The assassin was nowhere to be found but that was to be expected.

"Well, where is he?" Obi-Wan asked casually.

"A she," Padmé corrected. "And I think she's a changeling."

"Then be extra careful," he replied, he made a motion that Padmé and Anakin should search either side of the room then he walked towards the bar.

"But where are you going?" Anakin asked.

"For a drink," his Master replied, walking off.

Anakin blinked and glanced at Padmé. She shrugged and walked away, but it wasn't long before she found herself the target of unwanted attention. Unwanted male attention.

"Nice threads," said a leery voice reeking of Janx Spirit, a mottled-green Twi'lek stepped towards her. "Shame it hides your curves. What's your poison? I'm buying."

Normally Padmé would resolve this sort of situation with a few choice words that veiled a threat, but there was not time for that.

"You don't want to buy me a drink," she said, putting the right amount of Force-suggestion into her voice.

"I don't want to buy you a drink," the Twi'lek repeated, his eyes wide and his voice neutral.

"You want to go home and rethink your life," Padmé said, gesturing very slightly with her hand.

"I want to go home and rethink my life," the Twi'lek said, staggering away from her.

If the barman found there was something rather unusual about Obi-Wan's attire and choice of weapon, he didn't choose to show it. Obi-Wan tossed back the blue liquid he ordered, deliberately keeping his back turned.

Qui-Gon had once said to him that sometimes all you needed to do what wait and what you were searching for would find you. Even though his former Master had been speaking in the realm of the rhetorical at the time, it did apply here.

She didn't need his eyes to see Padmé and Anakin combing the room in different directions. He didn't need to turn around to know that the assassin was edging towards him, blaster rifle out.

Which was why it was such a surprise to Zam when he spun suddenly around with his lightsaber out, slicing off the barrel of her weapon and her right arm in one motion.

At the disturbance, curious eyes turned their way. Hands made their way towards concealed weapons.

"Easy!" Anakin stretched out with the Force, putting strong emphasis on his words. "Jedi business, go back to your drinks."

Shakily, Zam was helped to her feet and dragged her outside with Padmé trailing.

"Who hired you?" Anakin forced her against a wall, trying to probe her mind with his own. "Tell us!"

Obi-Wan shook his head, his Padawan still had much to learn. "Do you know who it was you were trying to kill?"

"The senator from Naboo," she murmured.

"Why?" Obi-Wan pressed.

"It…was just a job," she said.

"Who hired you?" Padmé asked. "You can tell us."

Zam smiled which for some reason frustrated Anakin profusely.

"Tell us now!" he demanded.

Her eyes went wide. "It was a bounty hunter called—" But that was all she managed to say. There was a short hiss behind them as a small metal barb landed in her neck. She started to choke, her face contorting in pain as it resumed its neutral Clawdite features. Then, murmuring incomprehensibly she fell to the ground.

Behind them an armoured figure with a distinctive helmet ignited a jet pack, they could only watch him take off.

Padmé and Anakin looked at each other; this had all taken only a few seconds. Obi-Wan bent over the corpse, removing what had caused her death.

"Toxic dart." Obi-Wan examined it in his hand; it was still wet with blood.

"It gets stranger," Padmé murmured, staring at the empty space where the bounty hunter had been.

The next morning the Jedi Council passed around the small dart as Obi-Wan finished the report. If any of the details caused alarm, none of the Jedi Masters seemed to show it.

When Obi-Wan had finished, Mace handed back the dart.

"Track this bounty hunter you must, Obi-Wan," Yoda instructed.

"Most importantly," Mace added, "find out who he is working for."

Finally, some sense! Padmé thought with relief. Now we can do this the way it should have been done for, the very beginning, with me protecting the senator so Obi-Wan and Annie can—

"With respect, Master," Obi-Wan objected gently, "there still is the threat against Senator Nalanda."

"Which is why young Skywalker can assist Padmé while you track this attacker," said the cool voice of Kuan Yin Nevu. "She will be much safer on her home planet Naboo."

Padmé noticed Anakin brighten ever so slightly at this. This can't happen, she told herself, I don't need distractions like this.

"Master," Padmé said, "I don't think –"

"Enough!" Renust Nju dismissed her objections with a gesture. "The matter is closed."

"I think what Padmé was trying to say," Anakin interjected tentatively, "is that it will be difficult to convince Senator Nalanda to leave the capital with the impending vote and the summit.

Curious glances were exchanged amongst the Council.

"Until gone this threat is, our judgement she must accept," Yoda murmured.

"Speak to Chancellor Palpatine," Windu instructed, "he understands even if she does not. And don't use registered transport," he added, "travel as refugees."

"May the Force be with you," Nju said, the session was at an end but Padmé could not help but exchange a significant glance with Kuan Yin before she left with the others.

When they had gone, Kuan Yin quickly excused herself.

Padmé was waiting for her on the balcony outside, when she heard Kuan Yin approach she confronted the Jedi Master.

"I know what this is about." Kuan Yin held up a hand to stop Padmé from speaking. "And my answer is and will remain the same: no."

"How do you know?" Padmé asked furiously.

"I wasn't the only one who noticed the two very different reactions in there," her former Master said lightly, circling Padmé as she spoke. "You think you lack control? That surprises me."

"It's Anakin I'm worried about," Padmé confessed. "With Obi-Wan around the boundaries are in place. But then…"

"Who says you can't set them?" Kuan Yin challenged.

"And if they fall?" Padmé asked.

"Are they going to?" Nevu pressed. "Or are you going to let him in?"

Padmé didn't answer, as always Kuan Yin had gone right to the heart of the issue. Anakin had been in her mind in a different light after last night, and that made what she thought of him difficult to consider.

She was afraid that Anakin would easily slip through the weaknesses in herself she had done her best to men. To put it simply: she was afraid.

"This isn't like last time, Padmé," Kuan Yin reminded her. "The Council isn't a gate you can swing any way you choose. I intervened last time because I saw the need, if I had not things probably would have turned out different for you."

"But you won't now?" Padmé asked.

"I don't need to." She placed a hand on the young woman's shoulder. "There are some tests that need to be faced."

"You're late."

The accusation was casually made by Anakin as he lounged against a wall in the executive building.

"How long have you been waiting?" Padmé asked in the same casual tone.

He shrugged. "Not long," he walked with her towards Palpatine's office. Outside was his aide Dar Wac. "Well?"

"Come on," Padmé said impatiently, she had no idea what Anakin was trying to so.

Padmé had expected that the Chancellor might make them wait, but as soon as Dar Wac noticed Anakin they were waved through.

The Chancellor's office more or less reflected the apartment he had had when he was Senator of Naboo, the red curved walls and crimson carpet, the delicate black and transparasteel furniture. Yet there were noticeable differences, probably to further augment his success Padmé surmised. Such as the large neuranium statues they passed as she and Anakin walked towards the Chancellor's desk. And of course, there was the vast curved window which Palpatine stood by watching the traffic.

Yet when he saw them he approached with a smile.

"Ah, Anakin," Palpatine greeted the young Jedi warmly then turned to Padmé. "A pleasure to see you again, Padmé. I only wish it was under better circumstances.

"Don't we all, Chancellor?" Padmé replied coolly as they followed him to the far end of the room.

It did not take long for Anakin and Padmé to explain the situation with Nalanda and the subsequent decision of the Jedi Council. When this was done Palpatine agreed to help them.

"Yes, I'll talk to her," he said, somewhat reluctantly. "She won't like it, but she cannot refuse an executive order. Representative Pela will have to take her place at the summit."

"I don't think she'll like that either," Anakin remarked.

"Politics is all about making compromises, Anakin," Palpatine said. "Senator Nalanda will understand. So," Palpatine turned to regard them with a critical smile. "They have finally given you an assignment."

"It's not like that, your Excellency," Anakin said, reddening slightly. "Padmé will be going with me."

"But it's not like you're being chaperoned, is it?" the Chancellor enquired.

As they continued to take Padmé noticed that she was becoming more and more of a spectator, in fact at one point they seemed to forget she was there but she didn't minds. She had observed earlier Obi-Wan's aversion to Chancellor Palpatine and the influence he had over Anakin.

I can see why, Padmé thought, with Palpatine he's hearing what he wants to hear rather than what he needs. It reminded her of a legend she had once heard on some Outer-Rim world. Of how a desert cat had befriended a grazing plain dweller. The trust between the two was complete—or so it seemed to the grazer—until one night when the cat murdered the grazer while he was sleeping.

Besides, they couldn't stay long, and once she hinted to the Chancellor that they ought to be going he sent them on their way.

"I'm concerned for my Padawan," Obi-Wan said to Mace Windu and Yoda as they left the Temple refectory that afternoon. "He's not ready to be out on his own yet."

"He's not on his own, Obi-Wan," Mace Windu reminded him. "And if it helps reassure you, Padmé expressed some concerns of her own to Kuan Yin."

"Did she?" This was somewhat of a surprise. "And what was the result of that?"

"The same thing I am telling you," Mace said. "The Council is confident in its decision and it will not change."

"I wasn't asking you to change it," Obi-Wan replied. "And it's not that I don't trust Anakin, I would trust him with my life but he can't be trusted to do as he's told."

"Reminds me of someone else, that does," Yoda commented mildly.

Obi-Wan had to smile at this.

"Obi-Wan, you must believe that Anakin will choose the right path," Mace Windu said. "And remember, if the prophecy is true he is the one who will bring balance to the Force."

Need they remind him that? Qui-Gon's belief that Anakin was the Chosen One had hung over him ever since the start of Anakin's training. If he failed it would not just reflect on Anakin but he himself as Anakin's Master. If he failed…No, Obi-Wan thought as Yoda and Mace went up to the Council chamber, I won't fail either of them.

Fresh from her meeting with the Chancellor, Nalanda received Bail Organa in the lower part of her apartment. Her elaborate coiffure and dress might have suited the seriousness of the Chancellor's office, but in the relative quiet of her apartment with the couches, fountain and flowers it seemed a little overdone.

"Your safety is first priority, Rhadé," Bail said empathetically. "I must say I agree with the Jedi on this issue. But look," he opened his hands in submission. "I don't think you asked me here to argue with you. If you want your voice heard at the summit as much as I know you do, you'll need to brief me as well as Danta."

"Eavesdropping?"

Anakin smiled as Padmé passed him in the corridor. He was not eavesdropping, merely standing in the doorway so he could watch Nalanda and for the most part he ignored their conversation. It didn't really interest him, and he had heard it all before anyway.

"What's wrong?" Anakin had noticed that ever since they left the Temple that morning Padmé had been kind of tense. Was it because of him?

"It's…nothing," Padmé said.

"Oh, come on," Anakin teased. "I can tell it's at least something to get you all riled up like this."

"You wouldn't understand," Padmé replied dismissively, walking past him.

Anakin caught her arm. "Try me," he whispered.

"Fine…it's…" she sighed and collapsed against the doorway opposite Anakin. "It's only the fact that this is my first real assignment and I wanted to prove that I could handle it on my own."

"Prove to who?"

"Anybody, nobody." Padmé shrugged. "Myself mostly. I'm sorry," she said, giving him a half smile. "I am grateful for your help, Annie."

"Please don't call me that," he said with a frown.

"Why not?" she asked. "It is your name, isn't it?"

"My name is Anakin," he said tersely, "and when you call me 'Annie' like that it seems as if you still think I'm still a little boy."

"How can I, when it's impossible to deny that you've grown up?" Padmé laughed.

Anakin smiled. "Somehow Master Obi-Wan manages to see it," he said. "He says that I still have much to learn, at least three times a day."

"That must be frustrating," Padmé said empathetically.

"It's worse," continued Anakin. "He's overly critical, especially in front of others, and sometimes I just don't know how to please him at all."

"Anakin," Padmé stepped closer to him when he had finished his tirade. "Have you ever wondered why Obi-Wan is so critical with you?"

"No." The question had never even occurred to him.

Padmé assumed as much. "It's because he cares," she grabbed his arm to get his attention. "He wants to see you grow, and he's doing this in the only way he knows how which might explain the slip ups from time to time. Anakin," she turned so she could see into his eyes, "try not to grow up too fast."

"But you said I was grown up," Anakin reminded her.

There was a long awkward silence.

"Please don't look at me like that," Padmé said, furious to find she was blushing.

"Why not?" His breath felt hot on her cheek.

"Because I can see what you are thinking," Padmé replied.

"So?"

"It makes me feel uncomfortable." She stepped away from him and went down the corridor to where Riané and another of the handmaidens was packing for the senator.

As much as he wanted to, Anakin didn't follow.

Not much later they found themselves on a speeder bus bound for the spaceport. True to form they were travelling in disguise as refugees and were due to board a freighter that was stopping at Naboo, among other things.

The bus landed and they all gathered around the doors.

"Be safe, m'lady," Tycho said to the veiled Nalanda.

"I will be, you be careful," Nalanda replied. "The threat's on you two now."

"I'm not worried about me, m'lady," Riané said, "I'm worried about you. What if they've realised you've left the capital?"

"Well, I'm sure my Jedi protectors will be more than able to handle it," Nalanda said lightly.

"Anakin, you do nothing without consulting either myself or the Council," Obi-Wan aid in a low voice.

"Yes, Master," Anakin assented.

"And you follow Padmé's lead if there's trouble," he continued.

"Yes, Master," Anakin said.

He better, Obi-Wan added in thought, he had more than enough times had to explain his Padawan's actions to the Council. He turned to Senator Nalanda.

"I'll have this plot cleared up quickly, m'lady," he said in a reassuring voice. "You'll be back here in no time."

"I am most grateful for your speed, Master Kenobi," Nalanda replied.

A low moan from the docked freighter echoed through the bus.

"Time to go," Anakin murmured, adjusting the clasp of his blue cloak.

"I know," Nalanda said and they made their way outside.

"May the Force be with you," Obi-Wan called from the door of the speeder.

"May the Force be with you, Obi-Wan," Padmé returned.

Anakin, Padmé and Senator Nalanda made their way towards the freighter with the faithful R2-D2 trailing them.

"Suddenly I'm afraid," Nalanda murmured. "I'm afraid I am abandoning my duty."

"Don't be, Senator," Padmé replied.

"Anyway," Anakin added in a lighter tone, "we have Artoo with us."

They were still laughing as they walked into the docking bay.

Back at the speeder Obi-Wan wasn't so confident.

"I do hope he doesn't try anything foolish," he murmured as the disappeared from view.

"I would be more worried about the senator doing something than him," Tycho replied as the doors to the speeder closed and they were off.