Chapter VII: Codes

It had been five years since she had last seen Palo Gvanish. Only a few days after that meeting, she had received word that he'd been captured, and she had quite honestly never expected to see him alive again. The Empire did not often show mercy to the leaders of Rebel cells.

She recalled the painting now hanging on her sitting room wall, and wondered suddenly if Anakin might be the reason Palo was still alive.

Gvanish had always been his favorite artist.

She invited Palo in, and only when he stepped through the door did she notice that he was not alone. Two men followed behind him: the first large, burly, heavily bearded, but with a gentle, almost child-like face, and the second sun-darkened, with dark hair and dark eyes and the roguish smile of a pirate. Uncertain, she led the three men to her sitting room, and Dormé set a kettle for tea while introductions were made.

Palo indicated the first of the two men with him, introducing him as Riveth Giro, the poet who had earned himself the nickname "The Mad Scribbler" during his seven years in an Imperial prison camp. He had been arrested for writing seditionist lyrics, and it was rumored that, during his internment, he had carved the word "freedom" into his own chest with a rusty prison knife.

The second man was—

"Kitster Banai," Sabé breathed, her tone perilously close to awe, and Padmé watched, almost shocked, as her ever-practical handmaiden began to gush, "Oh, I saw you five times in The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise! You were absolutely brilliant!"

"Uh, thank you," said Kitster with a hint of a chuckle, and noticing that he had a rather attentive audience, he began warmly expounding on the performance in question. Padmé stifled a giggle as she watched Sabé's face light up with an almost ridiculous awe that resembled nothing so much as a little girl with her first crush. Kitster, however, seemed completely oblivious, engrossed in his subject, and she could see that he truly loved his art. "That was probably one of my favorite roles, actually," he was saying. "I found the contrast between the outward heroism and the inner darkness of the character quite interesting to play. Of course, he was really the villain of the story, wasn't he? Or perhaps the villainous hero. Any actor's dream role, really. The only thing more tragic is the heroic villain."

"Which is exactly why we've come to see you, Padmé," Palo cut in smoothly. His voice was almost gentle. She followed his gaze to the image of The Treaty at Aldera, his own work, beautiful in its symbolic simplicity. Queen Telania of Naboo, wise and compassionate, stood together with the sorrowing Fiura of Alderaan before the pyre of the great Whiphid Jedi Master, their dark eyes gently accusing all who beheld the injustice of his death. Palo had always considered it his greatest work, and it had been Vader's prize possession, even as it spoke without words against everything he stood for. Padmé had often thought that, just perhaps, that was the very reason he loved it so.

She watched Palo's eyes soften with understanding as he looked upon his own work and knew that it belonged not to her but to her husband. A kind of understanding passed between the artist and the man now locked within the Jedi temple, an understanding that ran deeper than the weight of the past—a knowledge of shared humanity that transcended all else. Padmé saw it in her friend's eyes, and she smiled.

A moment later, Palo shook his head as though clearing it, took a long sip of his tea, and continued. "You see, Padmé, a few months ago Riveth, Kitster, and myself founded an organization called Artists United for Freedom. Most of our members have spent some time in Imperial prisons for sedition and other trumped up charges, mostly related to the perceived threat in our works." He managed a small smile and added, "Kitster here is, of course, the great exception."

Kitster smirked. "I always was good at subtlety," he said with wink.

Sabé snorted, and even Padmé couldn't help but laugh a bit. He was right, though. Anakin had taken her to see Darth Plagueis the Wise at the Galaxies Opera House almost two years ago now, and she had loved it—not least because she had stood a mere few feet from the Emperor, who had been completely oblivious to the discretely seditious intent of the play.

"Our aim," Palo continued when the laughter had died away, "is to be a voice for the political prisoner, and to advocate for an end to all such imprisonment. We came to see you tonight, Padmé, because we would like to meet with Va—with your husband, if we might."

Padmé sighed audibly and muttered somewhat bitterly, "You'll have to take that up with the Jedi Council, I'm afraid."

"And we will," Kitster said. "But we wanted to first ask your—permission, if you will. We just want to speak with him, to understand, and maybe…" He glanced between his two companions and seemed to think better of whatever he had been about to say, finishing instead with, "Well, he is a political prisoner of sorts, and your advocacy, Padmé, has made him rather high-profile. Artists United for Freedom is concerned with the rights and freedom of all political prisoners. We'd like to meet him if we could."

Padmé was silent for a time, biting her lip and looking at each of the three in turn. They were hiding something, she was certain of that. Palo's face was grave, almost fierce in his determination, but there was uncertainty behind his eyes, and some old pain she could not guess. Riveth Giro, who had not spoken a word since entering her apartment, was so solemn as to appear almost humorous, if not for the wild sense of the past that shone in his eyes. And Kitster…she found him most suspicious of all. His eyes were questioning, but there was none of the uncertainty or thinly veiled pain and anger that darkened the eyes of the other two. Instead, there was a hint of sadness, and a hidden something she could not quite identify.

And yet, she felt drawn to trust them. In spite of all she knew they were not telling her, she sensed that what they had said was genuine. And there was an almost pleading look on Kitster's face that spoke of a kind of hope she had not seen in far too long.

"Very well," she said softly, and out of the corner of her eye she caught the approving smiles of both Sabé and Dormé. "If you wish to meet with my husband, I have no objections. I think, perhaps, it would be good for him. He doesn't get many visitors, as you might imagine…" She considered for a moment, then added, "In fact, I can probably get you an audience with Chancellor Organa, which might help you convince the Jedi Council."

Palo nodded graciously. "We would appreciate that. And—thank you, Padmé. Thank you for speaking with us tonight."

"Of course," she replied almost automatically, even as she tried to puzzle out the meaning behind his last words. "Thank you for coming to me with this. I hope… I hope you will be able to speak with him…"

"So do I," she heard Kitster Banai murmur under his breath as the three men rose, bowing slightly to her. Palo gave her a friendly hug, then she walked them to the door, and they were gone.

But Padmé sat for a long time after they had gone, her knees drawn up beneath her like a suppliant, her eyes pleading with Queen Telania for the answers to questions she did not even know how to ask.

Obi-Wan Kenobi was afraid.

No one would have known this by looking at him. He was very good at hiding it, even from himself. After all, Jedi did not feel fear. And he had trained himself long ago to hide the fear he could not admit that he felt.

Truth be told, he could not remember ever having truly feared anything before his master died. But that day had changed everything. As he watched his master's life bleed out before his eyes, the first stirrings of a deep-rooted fear had begun to grow within him, and they had been his constant, well-concealed companions ever since.

Only a few years after the crisis on Naboo and the ensuing galactic war which had quickly followed, Palpatine had declared himself Emperor, the Jedi had been named enemies of the state, and Obi-Wan's fear had become the only means of his survival.

He had run. They all had, of course. In those first, chaotic days, months, years, if you didn't run, you were dead. Some of them had been lucky. They had found hiding places and identities under which they could wait indefinitely. Some, like Yoda and Ki-Adi-Mundi, had disappeared without a trace and not resurfaced until news of Palpatine's death was confirmed. Others, like Dooku and Windu, had turned vigilante, helping the Alliance where they could and then vanishing again. Windu had had a few near run-ins with Vader himself, but Dooku had never once been found.

Obi-Wan had not been nearly so lucky. He had spent the last ten years of his life running, and he had become very good at it. Unfortunately for him, he had not become so good at actually escaping detection. It seemed that, in the four or five years prior to the Emperor's demise, he had spent himself completely in running from Vader. They had never met, had never crossed blades, had only glimpsed one another across the crowd as Kenobi once more made his escape. And yet, for the past five years, Vader had been the single defining feature of his life. The Sith was implacable, inescapable, the embodiment of his worst fear.

Because, somehow, Vader knew Obi-Wan Kenobi's deepest secret. He knew that he was afraid.

Obi-Wan groaned under his breath and ran a distracted hand through his hair, his eyes returning invariably to the door before him. The door to Vader's cell. He had guarded that cell in shift for nearly nine months now, but he had never actually entered it. Something about it seemed terribly forbidding.

"No use in putting off the inevitable, I suppose," he muttered to himself, glaring at the offending door and wondering, perhaps for the millionth time that day, just what in blazes Dooku was up to. There was, unfortunately, only one way to find out. He took a deep breath, entered the door code, and palmed the access. The door slid aside.

The Sith regarded him with momentary startlement, quickly replaced by a cold, dispassionate gaze that revealed nothing. "So," he said, "they sent you to supervise me. That's ironic." And he smiled.

Obi-Wan Kenobi was most definitely afraid.

He could sense the Jedi's fear.

It was well hidden, of course. Kenobi was possibly the best person for hiding fear he had ever encountered. Encountered, of course, being a relative term.

The truth was, there was something about Kenobi that disturbed him. It was the man's unfailing ability to escape from any situation, in spite of his demonstrated incompetence as a Jedi. Anakin chuckled softly to himself at that—Padmé would certainly be angry if she heard him say such things. She seemed to think that Kenobi was a great Jedi, and, stranger still, the other Jedi seemed to share her opinion.

It was this that disturbed him. He knew that Kenobi was no match for him. He was quite certain that, had they ever truly met, Kenobi would now be dead. (He supposed he should really be grateful that they hadn't met, if only for Padmé's sake…) And yet, the simple fact was that they had not met, because Kenobi had always managed improbably, impossibly, to escape. It was uncanny.

But still the Jedi feared him. Once, less than a year ago even, he would have gloried in that fear, would have fed on it, allowed it to give him strength. Now, though, the thought of it was almost wearisome. He was tired of the fear, tired of being the monster. He wanted to be a person again. But it was so hard, so very hard in this cage.

And in spite of all that, the desire to gloat over Kenobi's fear was almost irresistible.

He snorted to himself. They kept him locked away like an animal, and still they were terrified of him. The thought tasted like ashes in his mouth, and yet there was a part of him that enjoyed it.

Dimly, the idea reached him that Padmé might not appreciate his current train of thought.

And then with a start he shook himself, forgetting Kenobi's fear entirely, for he was faced with his own. He was slipping.

He took a few short, calming breaths, his face carefully schooled and shields held tightly in place, as always. Then, as though nothing at all had passed between them, he said to Kenobi in a calm, even pleasant tone, "What do you have for me, Master Kenobi? I'd like to start, if I may."

Wordlessly, Kenobi handed him several datacards and a reader, his narrowed eyes never leaving the Sith's face. Anakin's hands shook only slightly as he took the documents, but he hated how they betrayed him.

With a grunt he slid to the ground, his back to the wall, and slid the first card into the reader. He seemed completely oblivious, eyes riveted to the screen, as Kenobi sank down beside him, and for several hours they remained there, unspeaking, the only sound the furious tapping of Anakin's fingers as he worked at the decryption codes.

Had his shields not been so good, the Jedi might have heard him screaming.

So many, aren't there? the voice whispered, somewhere between a hiss and a laugh. And you think to make up for it with a few codes? Anakin gritted his teeth and pushed the sound of his own dark conscience to the back of his mind, almost violently. So what if it was true? He could not afford to break now. Not when he was finally doing something.

There were children, the laugh-hiss murmured gleefully.

No, it would not do to break now. And Padmé would be most distressed.

He felt a sudden chill at the callousness of that last thought. Yes, he was most definitely slipping.

The Jedi and the Sith had been almost five hours in the cell, nearly unmoving, and Anakin had managed to decrypt only the first line of code on the first datacard. Kenobi was becoming restless, and seemed more and more nervous the longer he spent alone with the Sith. Neither had spoken in all five hours.

And so it was that when a knock sounded on the hard metal door of his cell, Anakin laughed aloud, though quietly, for Kenobi had started like a hunted ter cat. Shooting the Sith a glare, he called out (rather grumpily, Anakin thought), "Yes, what is it?"

"Master Kenobi," a voice replied, and Anakin groaned audibly. He recognized that voice. "It's Healer Offee," she continued. "I've come for the patient's check-up."

"Right, right," Kenobi muttered, moving quickly to usher the other Jedi into the small cell.

Jedi Healer Barriss Offee entered quietly, all cool compassion and professional concern. She was perhaps the only Jedi Anakin could not seem to make up his mind about. Unlike most, she was not afraid to speak to him, and he got the distinct impression that she treated him no differently than any of her other patients—that is to say, with the utmost care and concern for life. He had no doubt that she was the reason he was still alive now, and sometimes he honestly wondered why she had bothered. She had spent nearly two months teaching a former Sith how to breathe with his own lungs again, and Padmé had told him that she used every waking moment in tending to him those first few, terribly uncertain days.

And yet, he had seen the deep rooted pain in her eyes when she looked at him. It was something that, in almost anyone else, could easily have blossomed into hatred.

He had, after all, killed her master.

"So, doc, what do you have for me today?" he quipped, more to take the edge off his thoughts than for any other reason. He had to remember that he was not breaking yet.

She gave him a quick once over, appraising, and then said without preamble, "Anakin, you look terrible."

"Yes, well, you would too, if you'd spent all day in a room full of ghosts," he spat bitterly, one flailing arm indicating the datacards, but all three sensed that the bitterness was directed only at himself.

"He at least is not a ghost," Barriss whispered almost gently, nodding towards Obi-Wan.

"No," said Anakin, and she noted with some alarm that his breathing sounded a bit ragged. "But he should have been. And in some ways, that's almost worse."

"You would have made us all ghosts," Obi-Wan hissed. "Even her."

Barriss stared at him in shock. Never before had she seen Obi-Wan Kenobi angry. It was strange, almost surreal, and a bit frightening. She felt a distinct impression of wrongness clench in the pit of her stomach, and she bit back a wordless reply. She was a healer, but this—she did not know what to do with this.

"No," the Sith said again, ignoring Kenobi completely and turning to regard her with a pained smile. "I couldn't, you see." Before she could speak, he added brokenly, "But she never wanted any ghosts."

"What are you talking about?" she asked him gently. She could almost forget that he was a Sith—he looked small, vulnerable, with his back pressed tight against the wall, and so terribly young.

"Padmé," he said simply. "Did she— What did she tell you, about…the end?"

"That Palpatine tried to kill her," Barriss replied, "and that you saved her."

He winced at that, but what he said shocked even Obi-Wan.

"Actually, I was supposed to kill her."

Next chapter: Flashback! Just what causes a Sith apprentice to turn on his master? And how did Anakin become a prisoner of the Jedi?