NOTES:

(1) Starwars epithets etc from blog..
(2) Thanks to Yellowdart for the beta
(3) Signed reviews will have had a reply and anon is below:

lal08 - Absolutely beautiful... I am out of words...

Thank you! Blush I am so glad that you're enjoying the story.

mlhkvh5 - This was a wonderful continuation of this adventure! I like the way the rescue went, and Sidious is absolutly grotesque, as ususual. Anakin and Lyonides confrontation was good, so Anakin like. Poor Padme, she is so torn by her emotions-you describe them very well. I look forward to what happens next!

Thank you once again for the wonderful support and encouragement :) I enjoy writing action and I think this comes across (and will be borne out by the next few chapters, lol.)

cwbasset - I am truly enjoying your story. It is very well written, and riviting. There is only one problem. It has been two and a half weeks without an update, and I am going through withdrawls... Please update soon!

Hi, cwbasset. I aim to please g See note below for the reason for the delay and I hope you continue to enjoy the story.

(4) I'm sorry this is late. I've been away on holiday. I hope you enjoy reading!

Chapter Ten

A ball of nerves was swelling larger in his gut. It galled Lyonides to admit it, but the anxiety was undeniably there. The same questions kept drumming through his brain. Why was Skywalker here now? Could he suspect something? The mere possibility of the answer being in the affirmative made the ball swell larger, rising up to constrict his chest. There was another reason for the unease. What would Sidious do if his instructions and training on the shielding of thoughts failed? His gut clutched. Fear of putting this new 'skill' to the test had almost caused Lyonides to refuse the meeting—his chosen courtesan for the night had obviously been expecting him to—but he had to know what Skywalker wanted.

Sweat trickled down from his hair. He swiped it away. In addition to the strictures on shielding his thoughts imposed by Sidious, Lyonides' own instincts demanded he appear unruffled. Mere months ago such an effect would have been effortless, but Lyonides was finding himself more and more rattled these days. The distance between his private apartments and the library used by his personal staff took only a few minutes to cross. He needed every moment to compose himself. Chaos take these Force fanatics! He preferred it when he knew next to nothing about the Jedi and their starforsaken magic tricks. It was infuriating to know that there were beings in existence who could read his emotions—and possibly divine his thoughts—as easily as scrolling a datapad. The library doors loomed ahead.

You didn't see this one coming, did you, Lord Sidious?

The doors opened. He strode coolly through them. Guards were standing to attention at either side of the interior of the doorway. Skywalker was standing by the window, apparently gazing out at the view. "Leave us," he snapped to the guards. They did so at once.

Skywalker turned to face him. The illuminators were on low, casting long shadows on the 

ceiling-high shelves stacked with thousands of dataslides. Sharply, Lyonides scanned that youthful face, seeing confidence, but no hint of a reason for his being there. "You have me intrigued, Skywalker," he admitted, walking around the U-shaped research stations grouped in the middle of the room. Stopping behind the carved, mellow-coloured desk at the very rear of the room, he raised his hands as if nonplussed. "What can possibly be so urgent that it necessitates a visit at this hour?"

Skywalker strolled to stand opposite him, leaving the desk between them. "A matter of extreme urgency, Premier, of course." The short bow he gave was belied by the merest hint of a sarcastic smile. "I wouldn't dare disturb your rest for anything less. If it helps, I believe our meeting will only be brief."

Because his hands were shaking, Lyonides sat on the moulded and plushly cushioned seat and folded them over his middle. Deliberately, he didn't invite his guest to sit in the identical chair opposite. He wasn't in a cordial mood. "Enlighten me then."

"Councillor Amidala has faced two assassination attempts in the last few days. A disturbing development, I'm sure you'll agree. I'm here to make sure that no … misunderstandings arise from my efforts to thwart her attackers."

This was about Amidala. Relaxing, Lyonides kept his expression and tone neutral. "I am aware of the councillor's troubles, and that they're being fully investigated. However, I'm not sure I understand you. What possible misunderstandings could you be referring to?"

"Oh, I don't know, false imprisonment, summary executions, unwise counter attacks. Things like that. Such errors in judgement can lead to unexpected rumours, and dangerous backlashes."

There was an incredulous pause.

"I'm not sure I like your insinuations." Lyonides mask of calm almost slipped. "Are you actually threatening me, Skywalker?" So much for relief. He kept his seat, but rage threatened to melt the layers he'd used to shroud his thoughts.

"I'm not insinuating, and you won't have to ask if I'm threatening you should the occasion arise—you'll know. A wise man would take it as a warning." Skywalker's cold smile got colder. "And heed it."

Lyonides' eyes bugged out. "I could have you arrested—"

"You could try, but your advisors would tell you not to attempt it. Even autocrats need support."

"Idols fall," he spat.

"As do dictatorships," returned Skywalker, silkily.

Something flared inside the blue eyes staring at him, bringing Lyonides back to himself with a jolt. Was that satisfaction at his rising emotions? He scurried to damp the rage, breathing deeply. He had to remind himself that, no matter the provocation, he couldn't afford a slip in control—the repercussions could be horrendous. It was also a timely reminder that, despite appearances, he wasn't facing an inexperienced boy. Vader had perpetuated horrors throughout the galaxy before his death.

"This is ridiculous, and so are your accusations—"

"Don't try my patience, Premier." Skywalker started to prowl, slowly pacing the length of the desk, never taking his eyes off Lyonides' face. "I think we can stop wasting each others time pretending that we don't know what the other has been doing recently. I'm fully aware that you know about my activities tonight—and that it isn't in your best interests to make it public."

It was only the latest in a series of recklessly bold moves. Made impotent by Sidious' demand, Lyonides could only seethe over the fact that he couldn't repudiate it. Remaining still was impossible. Lyonides rose, rounding the desk. Under the sleeves of his robe, he clenched fists hard enough that the knuckles were bloodless.

His nod was stiff. "I see: and what exactly are you hoping to achieve with this meeting?"

The gloves were off—if they'd ever been on.

Skywalker halted, crossing his arms. He made a commanding presence even to one used to command. "I don't live in your rarefied world. I don't need your support or your approval. You've seen to that with the isolation of the Outer Rim." The blue gaze continued to probe, searching. "However, I do want one thing. There are to be no more attacks on Councillor Amidala or her supporters."

"And what do I get in return?"

"I see no reason for our paths to cross again—unless you're putting people at risk—something I'm sure you would never do. I'm not interested in power or influence. You have nothing to fear from me … on that score."

There was more to this Lyonides was sure of it. The subtle sarcasm in that last statement was chilling, and aggravating. Chilling, because Lyonides didn't know if he'd given anything away. Had Skywalker used his anger to somehow glimpse the truth of the past, and suspect a new deal? He didn't know. Sheer, unadulterated loathing for fear and uncertainty added to the still simmering temper.

Skywalker seemed to take his silence as compliance. Inclining his head, he said, "I'm satisfied that we've covered all of the highpoints. Enjoy the rest of your night, Premier."

With that, he turned to go. Lyonides literally saw red at the insult. All other concerns vanished. A vein throbbed in his temple. Did this piece of core-slime dare think that the Premier of Junga Roth could be so easily dismissed—like a minion? Like someone who was a nobody—nothing more than smuggler scum born of a cantina rat? Perhaps in life, but not in death. Not for a long, long time; and the price had been paid for with blood and soul.

The heat of fury seared his mind. It was intolerable.

Skywalker was almost at the door when Lyonides snapped out. "The way I hear it, you weren't always so disinterested, shall we say, in power."

The second he said it, he knew it had been a terrible mistake. Skywalker whirled back to face him, stormy eyes laser-sharp under lowered brows. Pain streaked across Lyonides' forehead for a fraction of a second. Anger evaporated like mist. He tried to recover by saying, "The members of the Jedi Order were powerful once, were they not?"

The momentary tightness and the flicker of disquiet he saw in Skywalker's face did little to mollify Lyonides, especially when it was followed up with a terse, "You hear correctly. Consider yourself lucky that I'm a reformed man. I'll leave you to get back to your 

companion now that we fully understand one another."

ooo

Back in his apartment, Lyonides curtly dismissed the woman lounging in his bed. Gods knew how Skywalker had known there was one. Probably another Jedi trick. He took some small measure of comfort from her hurried, stumbling retreat from his presence. No sooner had she gone and the security locks engaged at his command, when a blue image appeared above his personal holoprojector. Sidious. Again he had to fight the urge to go down on bended knee when he stepped on the accompanying transmission grid.

"Skywalker just paid me a visit," he said without preamble.

"I sensed as much. To what purpose?"

"On the surface, to ensure that there are no more attempts on Councillor Amidala's life. Obviously, he suspects me and wanted to make it clear that he would tolerate no more. He also admitted to freeing the Wookiee."

"Bold of him."

"I thought so." Lyonides couldn't keep the sarcasm out of his reply.

"But you don't think that was the sole reason for his visit?"

"He got me out of bed at three am. I doubt it was merely to ensure that we wouldn't be overheard."

"He was baiting you. Attacking when an enemy least expected it was a forte of his. Clever." Sidious actually chuckled. "For all of his faults, Vader did become accomplished at manipulating minds with emotion. He could goad an opponent into unwittingly revealing their deepest secrets if they weren't sufficiently shielded. I admit, it came in useful more than once."

There was a pause.

"I trust that you didn't let yourself become goaded?"

Lyonides prayed that his flush didn't show on the holotransmission. "No."

"Good. Good. I doubt he would have probed too deeply. One, you would have felt it, such invasions are detectable, and, secondly, if he is truly renouncing the dark side, he would be loathe to dip too deeply into that particular well of knowledge." Sidious gave another dry cackle. "Fool. Such delicacies will only assist in his undoing—again."

"Do you still insist that I do nothing?" It was a rhetorical question, born of frustration.

"You won't need to, my friend. I think it's about time that Skywalker faced a different type of Narzgh, a skilled foe rather than the mindless drones he's fought so far."

"I don't understand."

"You will. Meet another, worthier, apprentice of mine." A second, taller, cloaked figure joined Sidious' image. "Darth Maul."

ooo


The forkful of spiceloaf didn't go down any easier than its predecessors. Anakin needed a sip of water to help it down. He heartily wished he'd gone for the nutrifruit porridge or even the protein shake. Unfortunately, he hadn't been paying much attention when May Tal was taking the order and picked the first offering.

Put out by his lack of attention, the comely Twi'lek waitress had dumped the bowl in front of him and flounced off to other, more appreciative customers. She had a lot of choice. Breakfast at Caritas was available for both residents and non-residents. As the food was cheap and edible, business was booming. It also helped that there were no licensing laws in the Outer Rim. Some were already getting started on topping up their twenty-four hour drunk. The only difference that Anakin could see between day and night was the lack of torturous singing.

With a grunt as greeting, Sal took a spare seat at the same table. Without being asked, May Tal came over with his personal hang-over cure—a schloopy, oatmeal-coloured mess in a tall cup.

"Alright, I did what you asked—getting out of bed at an unnatural hour to do so—and now it's my turn." Half the contents disappeared in one long draught. Bleary-eyed, Sal asked, "How did it go with Lyonides last night?"

"It went. What did you find out?"

"Nuh uh." Shaking his head, Sal waved a hand in a roll. "You owe me so you have to expand on that. Something got you all fired up. Spill."

Frustrated, Anakin stared at the man he was bizarrely coming to think of as a friend, and realised he wasn't going to get out of giving an explanation. "We talked. He didn't explicitly admit to arranging a bounty on Padmé's head, but we reached an agreement, whereby he would stop gunning for her so that I wouldn't start gunning for him."

Sal's lips twitched. "I wish I'd been there. It sounds like it went okay." The smile turned into a scowl. "So, what in all Chaos was the rush for this morning? You looked like you'd gotten your ass whupped by a baby Ewok or something."

"Or something." Anakin picked up his water, took a sip, then gazed into the cup as if it held all the answers. "I shouldn't have gone there. It was stupid, impulsive and selfish." He wracked his brains for a way to explain the self-recriminations that had been haunting him since. "I went for the wrong reasons. I was angry and I gave into it." He took another sip, feeling it drip past a closed throat. "That was wrong."

Understatement, a voice in his head jeered. Worse, you enjoyed it—until Lyonides turned around and stung you back.

Pulling a face, Sal was dismissive. "Is that all? You got ticked off, acted on it and now you're all guilt-ridden? Get real." He wagged a finger in Anakin's direction. "Y'know, if you're not careful, you're gonna come off sounding like one of those temple morons. Anger is a negative emotion, yadda yadda yadda. Who cares? You got the job done."

The spiceloaf was suddenly making him nauseous. Anakin pushed the plate away so he wouldn't have to smell it. "I care. I can't afford anger."

He couldn't say the rest, but he thought it. I care that I let Vader out. I have no excuse. Padmé would be the first to condemn such a thing. Is that why I didn't tell her what I was planning?

"If you say so, but if you start hauling around one of those stinking incense things, I may have to shoot you."

"I'll bear that in mind."

"You do that. Oh, and by the way, I'm not buying it. Guilt didn't have you hauling my ass out of bed this morning just so I could wake up every other lush in this skyforsaken town. What aren't you telling me?"

"Lyonides is hiding something." Anakin forestalled the next question. "I don't know what it is, but it's scaring him. That's another reason why I know I went about it all wrong. I keep thinking that if I'd approached him in a less confrontational manner, I might have been able to get him to confide in me."

"How can you know he's hiding something—never mind, is this Jedi mumbo-jumbo?"

Anakin didn't bother taking exception to the Force being described in such a way. "Force-sensitives can read emotions and catch stray thoughts, even sense atmospheres in a way that a normal person can't. It helps a Jedi decide on the most appropriate tactic to take to diffuse a situation."

The Sith use it too, and don't try to kid yourself, you didn't use the power like a Jedi. You goaded him, drawing on Lyonides anger so that you could sift through what he couldn't hide. Except, at the end, he scored a big point He knows you're Vader.

That last suspicion, among other things, had made sleep impossible.

"Yeah, whatever." Irritably, Sal waved away Jedi power as if it were a pesky bug. "I still say you did the right thing. Anyway, I can't tell you what dirty laundry Lyonides is hiding, but here's something to turn that frown upside down. I've found a guy who might be able to get you in to see the rain barrier."

That welcome titbit of information stopped Anakin from dwelling on his most recent mistakes, and the ice in his gut. "When?"

Sal gave a satisfied smirk. "Today." Abruptly, the smirk morphed into a grimace. "At the damned temple of all places. Zarc's so paranoid, he hardly goes anywhere else these days—you ask me, a guy's gotta be sick in the head to hang around there. Not that that should be a problem for you. You and crazy seem to go hand-in-hand."

It was too good an opportunity to miss. "I don't care where I have to meet him. I'm used to temples."

"Not this temple you're not." Sal finished his 'tonic' and jerked his head at the entrance. "Brace yourself, kid. Here's your lady friend."

Anakin turned his head. Blue eyes met brown and locked. There was a blush staining Padmé's cheeks and the cut from her battle with the Terraviper was fading. She'd managed to coil up her hair again. Without conscious thought, he got to his feet, waiting for her to come to him. Just seeing her blanked his mind. She stopped a few steps away with Freyrr behind her.

The words slipped out. "You look beautiful."

Her flush deepened. Slim fingers plucked at the navy cloak she'd worn the day before, but she didn't look away. "Thank you, but I doubt it. I've give anything for a change of clothes. I must look like something a bantha dragged in."

"You're wrong. Looking at you, nobody would believe that you've been through the ordeals that you have over the last day."

It might as well have just been the two of them.

Her smile bloomed. "Now you're just being gallant." One hand rose as if she might reach out and touch him, and then stopped short. A frown tugged at her brows. "You look tired, though. Didn't you sleep well?"

Anakin felt an ache in his chest, wishing that she hadn't stopped herself. He craved her touch. "I'm fine."

Sal chose that moment to chime in, "Don't you believe it, Councillor. I woke up at dawn to see him sitting on the floor, zoned out with his legs crossed. He scared the crap out outta me until I got the gunk out of my eyes and saw who it was." Tipping back his chair, Sal shook his head, sliding Anakin a meaningful look. "Meditating—personally, I'd rather be catching some zee's myself."

"I slept," Anakin countered, scowling.

"Yeah. How much?" Sal shot back. "Even your bags have got bags."

With a glare that promised repercussions, Anakin asked, pointedly, "What time are we meeting this Zarc?"

Sal's grin was all teeth. "This morning, the earlier the better."

"You're going somewhere?" asked Padmé, glancing between them, obviously picking up the vibes.

"Sal knows someone who may be able to smuggle me in to see the rain barrier. I think it's worth my while to check it out—"

"Speaking of checking stuff out," said Lorne airily, materialising behind them and waving a flimsiplast sheet enthusiastically. "I've got a handle on some bargain-basement fixer-uppers. You said it was important, so I didn't quibble. Actually, I didn't have to—they're cheap as dirt—probably for a good reason." He slapped a hand on Anakin's shoulder. "But, I reckon a certain mechanical genius might be able to get them fly-worthy."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence." Anakin took the proffered sheet. On it an address was written in a tellingly flamboyant style.

"You've been busy," reflected Padmé, a question in her eyes.

"I want to make some progress."

"I'm getting that. Is there a reason for the sudden rush?"

He debated what to tell her—and decided he had to tell her all of it. "I saw Lyonides last night. Something is coming, Padmé. I can feel it."

ooo

Sal hadn't been wrong about the Temple of Atonement being like no other Anakin had ever visited. A few minutes inside it was all it took for him to conclude that it was more like a tomb than a place of spiritual enhancement. From what he'd seen of the entrance, 

main hall and narrow, low-ceilinged corridors, there was no colour or adornment of any kind. Most strange of all, he could discern no evidence of any deity or mythology being involved. Walking though it was like being herded down a series of grey, ferracrete animal pens. Chanting devotees shuffled from place to place with their cloak hoods up, looking determinedly at the floor. Natural light was limited to that provided by windows that were nothing more than slits near the ceilings. Incense lay cloyingly thick, dragging at the back of the throat with every breath.

Padmé, her cloak hood duly up to cover her face, must have guessed some of his thoughts, explaining, "The people here believe that the only way to redemption is through committing yourself completely to achieving it by constant contemplation. Your focus is meant to be absolute, and distractions of any kind are eliminated—which is why it's so dire and grim in here. It's a form of self-sacrifice."

"It's completely wacked, is what it is," hissed Sal from Anakin's other side. "This place gives me the creeps. I'm just glad were gonna miss the post-lunch-whipping-gala."

Padmé stayed silent, although she did stiffen.

Anakin shot Sal a look. "Explain?"

"Self flagellation," was the grim reply. "The so-called purging of mid-deeds through ripping the skin off your back—it's a big draw for the masochistic crowd."

Anakin's disgust was flavoured by pity, and a desire not to linger. "Let's not do lunch."

"I hear that."

"Where will we find this Zarc?" asked Padmé.

"He got promoted to having his own private room a few months ago. He should be there. Although, I hear he may be losing it if he gets caught slipping out for k'lym rum one more time."

They were in luck. Zarc was exactly where he was supposed to be. He was also lying naked on his front, fast asleep and snoring. The room contained nothing else except for the man and the cot. Freyrr's cell the night before had been considerably plusher. As for Zarc, he was without doubt, the skinniest human Anakin had ever seen. The single plus point was that there was no sickly stench of incense to assault the nose here, only stale sweat and even staler alcohol.

In deference to the man's state of undress, Padmé whirled to face the wall with a muffled exclamation. Exasperated, Sal rolled his eyes and dropped his own cloak over the exposed buttocks and thighs—avoiding chafing the raw marks visible on the pale, bony back.

The snores didn't even change rhythm.

This was their source on the ultimate piece of protective technology in Junga Roth? Anakin felt his heart sink with the suspicion that they were wasting their time. Arms folded, he raised a brow at Sal. Shrugging, the older man clapped his hands once by the loudly snoring head. "Wake up! Zarc, you ass. You've got visitors."

Zarc Wess woke up with a snort and rolled off the cot in a tangle of limbs and cloak. An ignoble heap on the floor, he raised a trembling, not-so-clean hand and scrubbed his face. A steam of cuss words filtered through the splayed fingers before bloodshot brown eyes squinted at the trio. "Who the kriff are you?"

Hunkering down, Sal snapped his fingers in front of the man's scowling face. "Get it together, Zarc, We're here to talk about your day job, remember?"

What followed was another round of inventively choice language that, in essence, told them to go away.

Before Anakin could do more than stiffen, Padmé hunkered down next to a scowling Sal. "Master Wess, we truly need your help or we wouldn't be here. Please don't send us away."

ooo

Padmé's earnest plea worked.

Half an hour later found them in a diner tucked away in a side-street within a kilometre of the temple. Anakin and Padmé were on one side of the booth, leaving Sal next to his malodorous friend. Zarc, cleaner and dressed, was tucking into a heaped plate of potato rice and an unidentifiable meat stew.

"Thanks. You don't get grub like this at the temple," he confessed with a grin between mouthfuls.

Anakin believed him. The man ate the diner's dubious fare with the gusto of a starving, rabid wamp rat.

The lack of table manners wasn't the only disconcerting element to Zarc. His manic grin was so wide it seemed to take up the whole of his gaunt face. Somewhere between thirty five and forty five years old, his hair was cut so short it was little more than stubble on his small, round head. He was also of a jittery disposition with a tendency for dizzying mood-swings. Every move of the fork to his mouth appeared jerky and uncoordinated. Merely sitting at a table, the pint-sized human seemed to vibrate with nervous energy.

Putting it mildly, Anakin found him uncomfortable character to be around. There was something wrong about him. "The rain barrier?" he prompted.

"What about it?"

"What can you tell me about it?"

"Are you kidding?" Zarc looked at Sal. "He's joking, right?" He didn't give Sal a chance to answer and leaned forward to ensure he had Anakin's full attention. "Look, pal, I've worked on that barrier ever since the Narzgh gave it a right going over last time." A grimy thumb stabbed his chest. "In point of fact, I was one of the techs that fixed it."

Next to the agitated man, Sal spread his hands. "So, what's the problem; just tell us about it."

Sunken brown eyes widened. "You got a couple'a days to spare or something? 'Cause I don't."

"Just give me a general summary to start off with," conceded Anakin, practising patience. "How does it work?"

"Energy," said Zarc around another mouthful of stew. "The barrier is pure energy. It works like your typical deflector shield but on a much, much more intricate scale. Whoever built it was a bona-fide, certified-in-stone genius." He winked at Padmé. "I'd give my left nut for those kinds of brains."

"I thought that deflector shields deflected laser cannons and things like that," said Sal, as cynical as ever. "There's a big difference between a cannon bolt and blasted raindrop—nothing's that sensitive."

Zarc waggled the fork in front of Sal's nose, clearly affronted. "That's were you're wrong—and what the hell do you know about it, eh? That barrier is a kriffing work of art is what it is. When that beauty isn't needed, it shuts down—then, when the sensors pick up rain again—ping! Its back up and doing what it does best, protecting us from the Narzgh." Dramatically, he snatched up his cup of caf and saluted the distant object of his admiration.

"It sounds like you enjoyed your work," commented Padmé, softly.

Finished eating, Zarc belched, then shrugged. "If you can't be a genius, the next best thing is to work on a piece of genius."

Padmé nodded agreeably. "That makes sense except for one thing, why does a man who is so content with his work feel the need to whip himself daily and then drink himself into a stupor on a nightly basis? I accessed your file before we came to see you," she admitted, sliding Anakin an unrepentant glance for withholding the information. "You didn't start feeling the need for serious redemption until about twenty years ago and you've been going downhill ever since. What happened, Master Wess?"

Zarc went sheet-white. The jitters that had disappeared while he talked about his life's work returned ten-fold. All bravado was gone. He couldn't meet any of their eyes. "We all need to redeem. That's why we're all stuck here in this dung-hole and not up there la-dee-da'ing with angels." His chin jerk was towards the ceiling, the common gesture to indicate the first world. "Maybe, after ninety years I realised time was ticking on?"

The reasoning sounded defensive, rehearsed and rang false.

Anakin held his breath. Padmé, as astute as ever, was on to something, he could feel it. He held his tongue and warned Sal with a sharp look to do likewise.

"You were one of the survivors from the cataclysm?" she asked, gentle again.

Zarc nodded, his mood deflating even further. His Adam's apple bobbed and his gaze seemed to turn inwards, sinking bruised eyes further into the flesh. "I still have dreams about it, y'know. The kind of dreams that have you screaming yourself hoarse until your throat feels like its bleeding … choking you. It doesn't drown out the other screams, though—nothing does. It got worse when I found out the truth. That's when I started to drink—I started to hear 'em in my head even when I wasn't sleeping." His hands came up to cover his ears, as if he could still hear them. "Bastards won't stop haunting me—not then and not now."

The tension at the table turned palpable. Anakin kept himself completely still, willing that nothing happen to muzzle this new, confessional mood.

Visibly wrung with pity, Padmé reached out, resting her hand over one of Zarc's shaking ones. "Tell us about it. You'll feel better."

Tears reddened Zarc's eyes even further: bloody windows to the soul. "I can't," he whispered hoarsely, narrow shoulders hunching. If possible, he appeared smaller and more defenceless. "They'll kill me, and you—all of you. I'm tired of bloody death."

"And yet you must have guessed what we would want to talk about when you agreed to see us," Padmé argued. "I think that deep down a part of you needs to tell someone and that's why you agreed. Maybe if you help us the screams will stop. Hasn't it eaten at you long enough?"

In another of his shockingly swift mood changes, Zarc's tears dried. His hand turned to grip Padmé's in turn. "You understand, don't you? I can see it." That notion seemed to energise him. There was a fervent, unstable blaze in his eyes now. Anakin and Sal might as well have not been there. His attention was solely on Padmé. He gave a bark of excitable laughter. "Oh yeah. Oh yeah. This is making sense now. I've been waiting for someone like you—and I didn't even kriffin' know it."

ooo

Back in a now closed Caritas, there was a tense silence as Anakin slotted the datachip Zarc had given them into Ceetee's datadrive. The droid stayed docile until his holoprojector flickered into life, then gave an excited series of beeps.

The first image was of a reactor generator circled by numerous, floating sensors. It looked like a weird-shaped planet circled by satellites. The next was a jumble of components, wiring and complex circuitry. The next was a dizzying array of symbols. The next a series of nightmarish mathematical calculations. More followed.

"Ceetee, slow it down," instructed Anakin. "Don't go through them so fast."

"O-kay," said Lorne, "Technophobe here. What am I looking at?"

"It looks like detailed technical specifications for the rain barrier," answered Padmé, hesitantly though.

Staring intently at more formulas an obedient Ceetee had left up, Anakin raked a hand through his hair, admitting, "This is going to take me a while to get my head around."

"Rather you than me." Giving a delicate shudder, Lorne pushed away from the table he'd been leaning against. "I'll leave you to it and get ready to open in—" he looked at his watch, "—six hours time."

Just then, there was a clatter of footsteps on the stairs. The doors swung open to admit Freyrr with Sal following behind her. The Wookiee looked agitated and her roars and growls didn't sound any happier.

Padmé translated. "It's started to rain." Adding, "Thank the stars it's still daytime."

"Don't pin your hopes on that, Councillor," advised Sal, grimly. Raindrops peppered his shoulders and short, wiry hair. "It looks set to stay. Sand or no sand, the utility droids don't stand a chance of keeping on top of it. If I was a gambling man, I'd bet that by nightfall the whole of the Outer Rim is going to be water-logged. I figure we're in for an interesting night."

Everyone turned to Anakin. Hiding his own anxiety, he shrugged. "It looks like it might be time to catch ourselves a Narzgh."

ooo

Anakin had taken sanctuary in Lorne's apartment to do a more through study of the specifications while they waited for nightfall. The sheer visual noise of colour, texture and shapes that the Pylean called décor was distracting, but at least he could ignore it. Sal's apartment, and his, was too small, even if Ceetee could have climbed four flights of stairs, considering there was no elevator. There was another reason though. He was hiding from Padmé. The attempt failed.

In the middle of taking handwritten notes at Lorne's impressive wooden desk, the door he'd code-locked swished open and Padmé strode inside. In the few hours since he'd last seen her, she'd changed into a bodysuit that bore an uncanny resemblance to the Naboo military uniform.

She didn't waste time with a greeting, snapping out, "I don't like it."

Oblivious of the tension, Ceetee whistled a welcome, his dome swivelling to take in the new arrival, distorting the image the little droid had been transmitting.

Anakin's brief, resigned glance took in a flushed, determined face and glittering brown eyes. Whether he wanted to or not, he had no choice but to ask, "Don't like what?"

The desk butted up to the wall, giving him no barrier. Stopping close enough to touch, she planted one hand on her hip and waved the other jerkily towards the ceiling. "This idea of the rest of us flying up to safety in a ship while you're down here fighting and risking your life. It's not right. You shouldn't be alone."

Anakin mentally cursed. This was exactly the conversation he'd been hoping to avoid. After sucking in a slow breath, he tried reason. "Have you considered that I'll be able to concentrate better knowing that you're safe?"

It was the wrong thing to say. Her eyes shot sparks. "I can look after myself. I've been doing it for twenty three years."

Twenty three years. The same length of time since he'd killed her. Pain bloomed and radiated at the reminder. He got to his feet and had to swallow to speak. "I know that I don't have the right to protect you anymore. But that doesn't stop the instinct to try—I can't change that anymore than I can stop breathing." Staring down into her upturned face, he willed her to understand and accept. "I need to know that you're safe on the Limidian, Padmé."

She didn't seem to hear him, or didn't want to listen. "Freyrr and I have a small arsenal of weapons. I could use a rifle from one of the midlevel roofs. I'd be safe enough. Surely the more who fight the bet—"

The idea terrified him. He actually grabbed her upper arms as if to shake her. "No."

"Don't tell me no, Anakin. I don't take orders from you. I'm not one of your stormtroopers."

There was a stunned, painful pause. The atmosphere was thick enough to slide a blade through. Silently, slowly, Anakin dropped his hands.

When he went to turn away, she snagged his hand, tugging him back to face her. Remorse had replaced the wrath on her face. "I'm sorry, that was a low blow. I didn't mean it."

"I can't fight if I'm worrying about you. If you really want to help me then do as I ask. Please! Don't fight me on this. If you want me to beg, then I'll beg." He meant it.

"Of course, I don't want you to beg." Exhaustion seemed to drop over her, smothering the agitation. Padmé wrapped her arms around her middle, admitting hoarsely, "I hate this. It was bad enough before, but it's so much harder when you're right in the thick of it. I don't want to run and hide. It's not like I can take the fight to the council anymore and delude myself that I'm helping that way. I despise being useless, and that's what you're asking me to be." Now it was her turn to silently beg for understanding. "Anakin, you're asking a lot—maybe too much."

"Perhaps, but I'm asking it anyway." She was close enough that he could smell the perfume of her skin with every inhalation. The scent made his head spin. Nothing could have induced him to step away from the torment, though. Somehow his hands ended up smoothing up and down her arms, offering comfort. "And, you're not useless—far from it. We wouldn't have the plans for the rain barrier if it wasn't for you. You're an incredible asset."

And so very, very precious. That she wanted to fight at his side touched him every bit as much as it terrified him. Despite their fight, his heart swelled with love for her, straining his control. The effort it took not to blurt out his feelings left him shaking like a callow boy. You're my wife. Nothing else matters to me like you do.

Oblivious to the storm of emotion she was wreaking in him, Padmé shook her head, smiling weakly. "Not that much of an asset. I can't decipher the plans like you can." The tiny smile disappeared. "We need you. What if—"

When she stopped dead, he probed, feeling strangely breathless. "What if, what?"

"What if tonight is the night that they overwhelm you?" she said, starkly, shakily. "You're only one man, no matter how strong in the Force and skilled with a lightsaber. How am I—we supposed to carry on?"

Things left unsaid and unacknowledged, shivered between them. A part of Anakin was aware that something had changed between them, but he was incapable of figuring it out right then.

The tears glazing her eyes were a knife to his gut. He couldn't bear to see her cry. Thoughtlessly, he cupped one smooth cheek in a palm, cradling her face. "I won't let them overwhelm me. When it's over, I'll still be standing. I promise."

He made the promise because she seemed to need it, and he'd keep it for the same reason. If she needed him, he would be there. It was as simple as that.

A single tear slipped free, sliding down to wet his thumb. "I want to believe that—"

It wasn't planned. There was no conscious thought involved in the move at all.

Instinct and pure need overrode everything else. His fingers slipped to her jaw and tightened, then he was pulling her in and closing the gap too.

When their lips met, hers opened under his like petals to the sun. Whatever self-control he may have had left vanished. Need twisted viciously and he swept roughly inside. The taste of her went straight to his head, enflaming him. Gasping breaths mingled while tongues melded and mated. The rake of her fingers through his hair, clutching him closer, made him quake, and burn. Like a flame to starship fuel the kiss turned torrid.

TBC

Note (5) The kiss was so much fun to write and I hope you got a kick out of it too. However, I don't want anyone getting the wrong idea and then getting disappointed. This is just a crack in the wall so to speak--rather than the wall tumbling down (if that makes any sense whatsoever :))