UNSIGNED REVIEW: mlhkvk5 – We're are so nearly there! Certainly for the answers to Sidious and A/P see below. I really hope you like it and see the note at the end for more info on what is left to come. Thank you so much for all of your reviews and encouragement! Hugs!

NOTE: (This will be repeated a the end in case folks miss it)

I know I said that the next post would be the last, but this one is already just shy of 30 pages and I decided that I couldn't add more without risking giving folks eye strain. However, all that is left is the epilogue, which I'm hoping to have up for you by next weekend.

Also, there is another note at the end—don't read it until you've finished the post though or you'll spoil yourself good and proper *g*

Grr! – This thing with not translating what's on my screen properly is driving me nuts! Sorry, but my mini line scene breaks haven't been showing properly: (o~o~o is for a scene break and ~o~ is for a POV break). It is fixed now!

Chapter Twenty Two

FIFTY MINUTES EARLIER …

Beads of sweat formed at Padmé's hairline and then, when they'd reached critical mass, dive-bombed for her eyes. She swiped at her damp forehead for the about the billionth time. It felt as if the sun was broiling them alive, but, it was still better than the alternative. A trio of Narzgh were crouched a few feet away. A few times they'd slid out of sight, but they always slunk back when she and Lorne didn't fall for their generous 'invitation' to try and escape. Right now, those sightless, hideous faces were locked on them with a sick hunger that made her stomach roil. They were essentially trapped in the ground floor office of some nameless and probably dead palace clerk, squatting with their backs to the wall in a patch of sunlight that was getting smaller by the minute. She estimated that in roughly twenty minutes, thirty maximum, the sun would have changed position enough for them to be sitting ducks. Unfortunately her rifle was out of UV charge. Even so she kept her blaster aimed dead centre of the first Narzgh's ugly face. They were at a very temporary stand-off.

Now seemed the appropriate time to say, "I'm sorry, Lorne. I wish I'd insisted that you stay in the speeder."

The Pylean had discarded his suit jacket and was sitting in electric blue pants and a ruby red shimmersilk shirt; not exactly camouflage gear. "You and me both, princess." He gave her a wan smile. "That'll teach me to have a hero moment, huh."

Padmé opened her mouth to make a soothing reply, only to snap it shut again. She'd just caught a sound that she would swear could only be an engine—more significantly, a sublight engine and not a repulsorlift. As far as she was aware, the only craft that had been flying around the Core since the invasion was their speeders—and the Limidian. Her heart kicked up a beat. "Did you hear that?" she whispered to Lorne.

"Hear what?"

"Wait." She gripped his arm. "Do you feel that…is that vibration?"

"Possibly." Lorne quirked a brow. "Is that somehow significant, because if so, it's going right over my head?"

Padmé didn't hear him. She was suffering a sweep of hope and trepidation in equal and conflicting parts. "That is an engine! And it's not a speeder or a normal transport." Her fingers clenched on his arm. "Lorne, I think I recognise it." Anakin was here, she thought, and the bottom dropped out of her stomach.

"Good for you." Lorne patted her hand, humouring her and ostensibly prising her dug-in fingers out of the abused flesh of his upper arm.

"Lorne," she hissed, "It's the Lim—"

She didn't get to finish. First came the blaster fire, probably from the droids they'd seen around the palace, then the sonic boom of something much bigger and more powerful. Without warning, the office around them, including the window behind their backs, imploded. Thrown forward with incredible force, Padmé saw the opposite wall rushing to meet her and could do nothing to avoid it. The impact had pain exploding out from her left hip and radiating up the length of her body. She didn't remember falling to a sprawl on the floor. When she could focus again the office seemed brighter and clouds of dust rode the sunbeams that slanted across her body. Somewhere close by something was burning. Dazed and close to passing out, Padmé likened the stench to rancid rancor meat sizzling on a hot plate.

o~o~o

PRESENT TIME…

Of all of the outcomes she'd expected of her decision to confront Sidious, the inability to find him hadn't featured. They'd escaped being cornered by Narzgh only to wander around and find nothing—not even a hint. Frustration was clawing up her chest. A single thought kept spinning through her head, where was the snake?

Thanks to the Narzgh, coupled with their fateful rescue by the Limidian's cannons, Padmé was just about out of time, leaving her no choice but to take drastic action. It meant risking a meeting with Anakin, but she couldn't see any other way to get the information she needed.

She limped towards the end of the corridor running perpendicular to the main thoroughfare of the palace. Lorne was trailing behind her and pressing a colourful bit of cloth to the gash over his right eye. The sound of blaster fire was harsh now that they were so close. Hugging the wall, she did a quick, cautious check around the corner and then motioned for Lorne to her follow her. Six men were crouched strategically along the corridor leading to the audience chamber. At the far end was a pile of super battle droids. Most were scrap but two were still fighting on, albeit not very accurately with their heads no longer attached to their armoured shoulders. Laser bolts still flew, but doing little more than adding to the scorch holes already peppering the palace walls. There was no sign of Anakin. Scuttling along those walls, Padmé and Lorne made their way to the battered and bedraggled figure of Sal Trent, blasting away with a pistol.

When she touched his arm, he yelped and whirled. Seeing the pair of them his dark eyes bugged out. "For stars sake! Don't you know better than to creep up on a guy! And, where the hell have you been?"

His dark, wiry hair was defying gravity and dried blood was smeared over his craggy, scarred face. Smiling, and genuinely delighted to see him, Padmé asked tongue-in-cheek, "Which question do you want me to answer?"

Before he could reply, they had to duck when a stray blaster bolt hit too close and showered them with plastercrete.

"Neither. Never mind. For stars sake! You look like hell." Scowling, he tugged her down lower to make sure she was out of the line of fire and surprised her with a brief one-armed hug. Lorne simply got a glare. "Have you seen Anakin, or, more accurately, has he seen you?"

Sal's gruff tone suggested that a meeting with Anakin might not be the highlight of her day. He must be angry with her. Padmé's heart didn't seem to care, leaping with a combination of anticipation, need and dread. Contrary to what her head was telling her, she wanted nothing more than to see him, perhaps hold him for the last time—very likely exposing her plan. He could read her too easily. Thankfully it wasn't a problem as he wasn't here. A little breathlessly, she replied, "No to either. I was about to ask you the same thing."

Sal had turned his attention back to the winding down fight, but managed to shout between shots. "He reported in a few minutes ago. He was breaking up, but I'm pretty sure he said something about an observation tower. He asked me to send Ceetee along to rendezvous with him. He also asked me to look for you." He gave a baffled shake of his head. "Don't ask me how, but he seemed to know that you were here too."

Ahead of them, the droids were finally taken down for the last time. Padmé hardly noticed even though she was staring right at the action. Her mind was elsewhere. She could have kicked herself for not thinking of it before. The observation tower! Of course. Palpatine always did like to lord it over everybody.

"Well, it looks like you found me," she said lightly and tried another smile, then wished she hadn't because it felt forced. "How long ago did Anakin tell you about the tower?"

Unluckily for her, Sal had turned his head in time to catch the smile. It must have seemed false to him too because his eyes narrowed with sudden suspicion. "A few minutes. Why?"

Padmé blinked at being seen through so easily. "No particular reason."

She quickly averted her gaze before those sharp eyes could pick up on anything else and rose to her feet, wincing at the pain from her stiff, bruised hip and the jagged cut that was still oozing blood. "There's something I have to do. I'll be back as soon as I can. Lorne, you should stay with Sal, and this time I mean it."

She should have known it wouldn't be so easy. Sal rose too, following right on her heels and snagging her elbow. "Hey, hey, hey! Not so fast, Councillor."

The frustration she'd been battling threatened to boil over. Padmé spun to face him, ditching prevarication in her urgency. "Sal, I don't have time for this! I can't explain, but I have to go. You'll just have to trust me."

His face was set and uncompromising. "Tough! If you think I'm going to let you go wandering off on your own, you've got another think coming. We're making some headway, sure, but this place still has pockets of droids and Narzgh. Where you go," he stabbed a finger at her and then reversed it back to his own chest, "I go."

o~o~o

The dark side was receding. Day had come to Junga Roth and while there was still immense suffering, the tables had turned. Bereft of the incredible, consuming dark surge that he'd been channelling, Sidious resorted to using the one unparalleled strength that he had left …thinking.

The observation tower had been built by Lyonides during his tenure as Premier. Ironically, the official reason was that it was to be a memorial to the father he'd had assassinated. Sidious had enjoyed that irony when he'd chosen the tower as the site to build his bridge back to life. Now, he cared only for the fact that he'd known and understood Lyonides the son—a proud and paranoid man who had alienated more than a third of his people. Sidious was certain that Petris Lyonides wouldn't have built the tower for his personal use without including an escape route.

Using the Force, he probed the tower's circular and domed pinnacle. Echoes of the past were brushed aside like so much flotsam. Layer by layer, the Dark Lord of the Sith sifted and scanned. If nothing else, he was confident of this…the most obvious element of any secret escape route was that they tended not to be out in the open, and so pray to sunlight.

By the time he found it, Sidious could feel the sheer power of the approaching storm—a storm that strode through the corridors of the palace, seeking him. Dooku's word filtered into his brain, reckoning. Despite the urgency, he paused. Ah yes, he thought, that word resonated. The presence he could feel drawing closer and closer was filled with a determination, a need for a reckoning—and it wasn't Dooku.

Anakin.

Vader.

The jewel that a waiting, calculating Palpatine had polished to a shine for over two decades, patiently biding his time while a nine year old boy grew to become a man—before finally unveiling the future in a flourish of blood, death and darkness. The greatest of the Jedi to have fallen to the dark side. The Chosen One, whose destiny should have been well and truly hi-jacked and never come to pass.

The most powerful and promising of apprentices, and the most bitterly disappointing.

The panels hiding the discreet launch module disintegrated with one sweep of Sidious' hand. Behind it was an untouched and unused single-person pod, complete with an automated guidance system. Amber eyes glinted. He was free of this supposed prison.

"I'm afraid that you're once again too late, Anakin Skywalker," he mocked. "As always, you are fateful steps behind me."

o~o~o

Anakin was striding over the plaza, skirting the ornamental gardens and waterfall that stood between him and the observation tower in its centre, when he was hit by the sudden notion that he was once again dancing to somebody else's tune—and that he was desperately out of step. The premonition, riding on a wave of the Force had him lifting his head, just in time to see a long silvery thread dart out of the circular apex of the tower.

He didn't want to believe the evidence of his eyes, but he broke into a Force-enhanced sprint for the base of the tower, regardless. Finding himself suddenly alone, Ceetee let out a plaintive razz at being left behind, but Anakin didn't slow down. Sidious was trying to escape. Determination turned his face to granite. He refused to let Sidious get away. The mere idea enraged him. No matter what, this nightmare was going to end today.

Gaining access to the tower was childs play. Inside, he found a pile of super battle droids parts, a deactivated turbolift, and a sabotaged communications system. Dooku's work he surmised as he raced up the sunlit stairs. When he reached the top, he was breathing no harder than if he'd meandered his way up the twenty four storeys. There was no sign of Sidious. His old master had already flown—literally.

Controlling his fury, Anakin raised his com-link to his mouth. "Ceetee get up here. I need you."

Down below, the little astromech droid toodled away to himself as he got to work on the turbolift. Once power had been returned, Ceetee rolled inside and used the dataport to instruct the lift to take him up to the top. There, he found the bottom half of his master sticking out from a large hole in some walls panels; the head and shoulders were hidden from view.

The droid let out a long whistle to announce his presence.

Anakin shimmied back out, rose lithely to his feet and activated his lightsaber. A moment later the hole was considerably bigger. Nodding in satisfaction he said, "There, now we can work." He gestured for Ceetee to take his place, saying, "I need you to bypass the damage done to the primary launch control and instruct the secondary systems to call up the alternate pod for launch, then trace the exact trajectory of the first one. Don't fail me, Ceetee."

A few minutes later, Anakin was strapping himself into the cramped little pod that acted as a backup if the first one failed. The canopy was open and, as he was still waiting for the co-ordinates for the pod Sidious had escaped in, he answered his com-link when it beeped, "Skywalker."

"Hey pal'o'mine," said Sal. "I've got your wife and we're on our way. What's your status?"

He hadn't realised just how tense he'd been until Anakin felt himself relax. His belly flip-flopped with relief. Padmé was safe. It was difficult but he managed to get his thoughts back on track. "Sidious found a way out of the tower, I'm about to pursue. I'll have him shortly." Pausing, he closed his eyes, calling her face to mind. Tellingly his voice went deeper when he asked, "Keep her safe for me."

"I'll try. She wants me to pass on a message."

A message? Hope bloomed in his chest. "What is it?"

"Don't confront Sidious."

Whatever he'd been expecting it wasn't that. Anakin's eyes snapped open. Was she serious?. "I have to. If I don't, he'll get away and Roth will never be safe. He'll just keep trying."

Surely she understood that?

"That's what I told her, but she's adamant that now isn't the time."

It hit him then and Anakin's free hand clenched into a bloodless fist. "She's been talking to Lorne hasn't she?"

There was a pause.

"Lorne says, 'guilty as charged'."

Hope died and bitter fury spat up like molten lava to scorch his insides. After everything, she still didn't trust him. Tersely, he said, "Tell her I'm sorry, but I have to deny her request. I'll see you later." Blindly, Anakin shoved the com-link back in his belt and turned his head to glare at Ceetee and snap, "I need those co-ordinates now!"

By the time the co-ordinates appeared on his screen and the canopy snapped shut and sealed, Anakin's hot flare of anger had cooled to sick ice. His past would always colour the way Padmé saw and thought of him, and he had no one to blame for that but himself. As the truth of that was undeniable, his anger drained away as if it had never been.

I love you so much, Padmé. Maybe one day…

His throat closed on the thought. He couldn't finish it. Hope and despair were two faces on the same idol. Both hurt so much that he wanted to peel back his ribs and rip out his heart.

His head fell back to the moulded seat and his eyes were bleak when Anakin depressed the launch trigger. The retractable silver launch track shot out. A microsecond later, the pod launched and rocketed away from the tower at blinding speed.

Strapped inside, Anakin used the journey to prepare himself for his third duel of the day, and the most important of his life. In war, if not love, he knew what he needed to do—destroy his enemy beyond any possible resurrection.

o~o~o

The pod was an inferior technology with only limited flight potential and landing options. Sidious would have preferred to be able to make it into the forest, but as that was out of the question, he'd chosen the destination least likely to interest a pursuer, especially one who thought he knew his quarry.

Unexpectedly the topmost hanger bay of the city's central transport terminal was already in use. Herds of human survivors were being loaded on a pair of battered transport, guarded by a hodge-podge of pathetically equipped sentients. A feeble rescue attempt organised by yet another wretched, pitiable rebellion he realised, seething. Sidious was in no mood for pity though

Screams of utter terror greeted him when he appeared. Their blaster bolts did no more than sting, but those Force forsaken UV attachments seared his exposed face. Roaring his wrath, Sidious raised a hand, fisted it, and picked them up in a Force Grip strong enough to crush their flimsy bodies. Leaving them dangling, he indulged himself with their helplessness and pain for a few beats before hurling them out of the hanger bay doors.

Of course, after witnessing his easy disposal of their protectors, the rest of the humans started to squeal and squeak like porcine, Gamorrean scum. He let them scuttle aboard the shuttles and close the ramps because it suited him. As if hiding in shuttles would save them. Chuckling, Sidious set both alight with Force Fire. It would be a slow death while the unnatural flames consumed alloy and flesh alike. To his mind it was an excellent precursor to the distraction he planned to employ to throw Skywalker off his scent. He was going to summon a Force Storm the likes of which this pathetic world had never seen. Who needed a barrier? Sidious could blot out the sun himself and perhaps watch this city being plundered by a ravening power that was far more horrifying than claws and teeth.

They'd dared to defy him and now they were all going to pay the price, and Skywalker would be helpless to do anything except watch: his feeble Jedi heart and spirit crumbling because he couldn't save everyone. Now there was an enervating idea, mused Sidious. It appealed on so many levels.

It had to be accomplished quickly though.

Approaching the hanger bay doors with his arms imperiously raised, Sidious stopped inches from the encroaching golden wash of sunlight. Instantly, roiling black clouds started to whip and froth in the blue sky outside. Within moments, the Sith Lord was able to walk to the edge of the hanger as the clouds extinguished the sun and lightening began to fork over the city. Cackling, the he intensified his efforts, only to have his enjoyment rudely curtailed.

Another presence intruded, and sooner than expected.

Sidious whipped around to face the same doors that he had appeared through, and locked eyes with Anakin Skywalker.

For the first time since Vader had broken his sworn oath as a Sith and turned on his master—for love—they were in each others presence. The very air seemed to tremble and crackle with an awareness, and protest, of the enormity of this meeting.

"So, we meet up at last, my treacherous apprentice. This is a reunion that I've been looking forward to with considerable…pleasure."

Skywalker cocked a brow. "So I gathered by the speed of your failed attempt to elude me, my master."

Skywalker's chin was raised and shoulders proudly thrown back. His blue eyes were alight with confidence and arrogance as he stared back at Sidious. That confidence was further evidenced by the fact that his lightsaber was still attached to his utility belt. Without looking, raising a hand or moving a muscle, Skywalker sent a sweep of Force Purge over the two shuttles, extinguishing the flames consuming them.

The screams of those trapped inside subsided to whimpers now that a saviour was at hand.

Such foolish trust in heroism, thought Sidious, amused. Strolling away from the edge of the hanger bay, the Sith Lord smiled his delight. "You're still so anxious to save the weakest, most pitiful life forms of the universe I see, Jedi! You realise of course that this is a useable weakness?" he shook his head sadly, the disappointed father chastising his wayward son. "Tsk! I thought I'd taught you better long ago."

When a mere four meters separated them, both came to a halt. The invisible charge in the air multiplied a thousand times with a terrible sense of taut expectancy.

"I saw such things your way once, but I know differently now."

Ah, the old Anakin arrogance, thought Sidious, amused afresh. How refreshing to know he hadn't changed that much. "Do you. Do you, indeed."

Without warning he lashed out, but not at his opponent. The nearest shuttle lifted off the floor and sped for the hanger doors with blurring speed. This time Skywalker did lift his hand, halting the shuttle's headlong flight towards death and not a moment too soon. That was when Sidious struck. As swift as a striking viper, he hurled twin bolts of lightening at Skywalker. It was a fitting end, he decided gleefully.

Except the unbelievable happened. Skywalker caught both as easily as if they were mere energy bolts from a blaster, and, face set and expressionless, funnelled the destructive power right back to its source.

Snarling with rage over the failed tactic, Sidious released the connection before it could reach him. Inside he was reeling. What was this! An ancient such as Yoda was one thing, but Anakin Skywalker! Even the admittedly formidable Mace Windu had not been able to counter the raw elemental power of Force Lightening with such ease.

A new strategy was required, he realised. Sidious folded his hands and began walking very slowly and cautiously in a wide circle.

"Very good, Anakin. You've learned much since we last worked together. " He voiced the concession ruefully, attempting to momentarily suspend hostilities. He needed time to weigh and consider his options. He'd expected an improvement now that Skywalker was whole again, but this display exceeded his expectations considerably.

"I walk and breathe under my own power. I am a man, not a machine. It makes a difference," confirmed Skywalker. "And we never worked together, master." He didn't move except to swivel only as much as necessary to keep Sidious in sight.

Searching the Force, Sidious could find only cold resolution in his ex-apprentice and had to admire his restraint. This patience went beyond that instilled in Vader and was unheard of in his youth. He probed further, seeking a weakness.

"Is that why you betrayed me, Anakin? Did you feel unappreciated? That I was holding you back?" Sidious spread his hands, stalling. "If so, I can only apologise; that was never my intention. You were my apprentice—the heir to my power. We were so close to total victory. You would have been Emperor after me with your children at your side."

For a brief moment, Skywalker's eyes flashed fire and his lip curled. "Luke saw through you in a way I didn't until it was too late for me. Neither you, nor I, would have ever been able to turn him to the dark side. He is a true Jedi."

It was a distinct pleasure to interject, "In the way you never were."

Sidious saw the rejection, the struggle, then the acceptance. Skywalker nodded once. "Yes."

"Yet, Obi-Wan Kenobi mentored you both. Perhaps he simply tried harder with Luke?"

Finally, Skywalker's hand went to his belt, unclipping his lightsaber. "I do not blame Obi-Wan for my own shortcomings." Those blue eyes turned colder, and calmer. "However, I do blame you for sabotaging my training as a Jedi, for working your insidious poison into every part of my life until I no longer recognised right from wrong. As you are still attempting to do now." A snap-hiss accompanied the emergence of the bright blue blade as it was ignited.

With a twitch of power, Sidious called his own lightsaber to his hand. "You delude yourself, Skywalker. I needed only to spread the poison that was already there." Carefully, drawing it out and revelling in every word, Sidious made his first real stab. "Ask your wife, does she not recognise it in you still…fear it still?"

He saw and felt the pain that spasmed across that smooth face. Savage ebullience filled him. Now! Gathering every atom of his dark Force energy, Sidious literally flew at his soon-to-be-destroyed-apprentice.

o~o~o

His breath had frozen in his lungs. The sudden blaze of pain distracted Anakin. It roared out from his heart and wrapped around his mind. By the time he'd freed himself from it and rooted out the poison of Sidious' words, the Sith Lord himself was upon him.

It was like trying to contain a whirlwind. In that instant of distraction he'd let himself be pushed into a position of pure defence. The raining blows seemed random but there was a design underlying the hissing savagery. Anakin found himself retreating as he sought to block and parry, sliding away thrusts that stabbed and snapped at his head and body like the coiled, powerful strikes of a serpent. Unlike Dooku, Anakin had known that his opponent was a master of multiple lightsaber forms, but he hadn't expected this barrage. Sidious didn't make smooth transitions from one form to another, but used them in conjunction, morphing and mingling seamlessly from Ataro to Makashi, to Vaapad, to Shien and back to Vaapad in the blink of an eye. Only by submersing himself fully in the Force was Anakin able to prevent being cut to pieces.

It was impossible not to be shaken.

Remember, the best offence is a good defence. It was as if Obi-Wan had whispered the words at his shoulder. The comfort of that voice was immeasurable. Anakin's nerves smoothed out as if they'd never been. Dropping to a squat, he lashed out with ankle sweep that knocked Sidious off balance and then vaulted over his head. The move gained him the time needed to marshal his thoughts for Soresu, centering his concentration and rebutting all distraction. It was the perfect form to counter Sidious, and not described as 'being within the eye of the storm' for nothing.

His breathing lengthened as Anakin became that eye, calmly allowing Sidious to whirl around the edges and expending precious energy. To an onlooker the blue of his blade would be a blur, but he could see every weaving stroke. Speed was an almost abstract concept because Anakin didn't feel as if he was stretching himself. The effort was minimal. He'd found his balance again, and he could feel fear rise in Sidious. Now it was the Sith Lord who found his breathing turn ragged.

It also gave Anakin time to think.

I have failed you, Anakin. I was never able to teach you to think.

Not this time.

His greatest weakness was also his greatest strength—his ability to love. Right now it was only him and Sidious, but if he wasted too much time then those that he loved would come. He knew it. And then he would be weak.

There was no decision to make. Anakin parried a thrust aimed at his pelvis with such ferocity that Sidious stumbled, then whirled into Jung Ma. The full spin seemed to draw in kinetic energy from the hanger itself, sucking in air and expelling it explosively when Anakin launched a counter offensive that beat even Soresu for sheer velocity. The switch to Djem So was seamless, even pleasurable, and entirely necessary.

Having already lavishly tapped into his Force energy reserves for too prolonged a period, Sidious was forced to give ground as the lunges, slashes, power strikes and overhand chops battered him with brutal, raw power. Like Dooku on the Invisible Hand he could find no purchase to enable him counter effectively, there was no break to exploit. Anakin just kept coming and coming in a flashing flurry of deadly blue. A remorseless, indefatigable force intent on destruction…on a reckoning.

On finishing.

Fuelled with a final burst of rage, Sidious Force-hurled a support strut from under a passenger skiff that had been left for repairs before the Narzgh attack. The skiff collapsed on its side just as Anakin batted the missile aside with a wave of his hand. Snarling, Sidious focused on the unwieldy skiff, bringing it scraping and careening towards a nearby Anakin, who flipped into the air and backrolled onto its juddering top. He landed with perfect, precise balance. Now it was his turn. Anakin gripped his fist, yanking a meter-wide, ceiling-mounted view screen from its moorings before sending it spinning and sparking straight at Sidious. Abruptly, the hangar bay became a storm of wreckage with the two combatants deflecting, sideslipping or leaping away before sending more flying on its way. Smoke rose as sparks spat and ricochets left craters indescriminantly. Overhead alarms began to blare and lights flicker as emergency systems kicked in.

Yet even that seemed anti-climatic compared to when the pair came at each other again. The battle had ripped away every veneer. Sidious was monstrous. Anakin was pure, unadulterated aggression. A black shadow and seething fire. Demon Sith against fallen Jedi.

Finally leaving the hanger bay, they fought viciously down the length of the skyglide that connected with the main terminal. More alarms were set off, this time releasing tiny spider droids no bigger than a man's palm to repair the damage. They came scuttling out of the walls as sheets of lightening flashed on either side of transparent tube, briefly lifting the darkness of the Force Storm that Sidious had summoned. Gales carrying the destructive force of a hurricane guttered at the transparisteel sides, howling its frustration at being unable to shatter the slim, cylindrical structure that hovered thousands of meters above ground. However, even the elemental fury of nature could not eclipse the battle within. The clash and exchange of their lightsabers was equally savage and destructive.

The spider droids became part of the arsenal each used against the other. Anakin pivoted to bat aside one zooming towards his back, then reversing his grip, swept his lightsaber one-handed back behind his head in a tight swing to deflect a brutal cut to his nape. Still moving, as balanced as a dancer, he smoothly shifted his grip to his other hand, at the same time swivelling under his own arm in a blurring twist. Sidious' eyes widened at abruptly finding the blue point of Anakin's blade aiming dead centre between them. The Sith Lord managed to block the kill blow, deflecting it enough that it merely singed the top of his right shoulder.

Anakin gave him a tight grin. "The first cut is mine."

Withered lips curled back. "The last will be mine," Sidous retorted in a hiss, enraged enough to step up his offensive with a sudden, powerful snap-kick that caught Anakin full on the face and sent him staggering back.

Snarling, Anakin recovered and countered with a flurry of merciless power blows unrivalled for deadly velocity. The flow of the Force around them became a swfitly running current as each called on it to aid in the destruction of the other.

The skyglide led to a passenger departure lounge and beyond that was the main body of the terminal. At forty two storeys high, the towering structure featured a central atrium for light and ventilation, tightly encircled by a corkscrew of pedestrian walkways lined with more glides, restaurants and shopping areas. It was a quirk of the architecture that the domed top of the atrium was three storeys below the top of the building.

Feinting with a stabbing lunge to Anakin's face, Sidious slipped into Ataru and shot straight over his head. The speed and momentum of the move transformed into a spin, allowing the Sith Lord to cut and slash at Skywalker's upper torso as he passed. Sidestepping the flashing red blade, Anakin countered with the same deceptively simple, circular slash that had cost him his limbs on Mustafar.

It might have worked if a deactivated delivery droid hadn't slammed into the back of his knees and brought him toppling down. Sidious used the time he'd gained to whip up a hand and pinion Anakin with a body bind, but not before Anakin lashed out with a saber throw that arced through the air and aimed straight at the Sith Lord's neck. Having to deflect it cost him the ability to complete the bind. Calling his lightsaber back to his hand, Anakin used the Force to flip nimbly back to his feet.

He was too late. Seeking an advantage that he hadn't yet found, Sidious leapt over the railing and dropped. Sprinting for the same railing, Anakin followed. He didn't plummet though; he dived and used his outspread arms to glide wide before bringing his feet back under him.

Ten meters.

Four meters.

Two meters.

Anakin used his knees, cushioned by the Force, to lever off the side of an ascending walkway and used that extra momentum to flip himself over and finally land directly behind Sidious on the transparisteel dome—the only thing stopping them plunging thousands of meters. Fissures, like fault lines, appeared beneath their feet. There was an open sky above them and a thirty nine story drop below. Overhead, lightening flashed as the Sith Lord whirled and their lightsabers crossed yet again. This time neither drew back. Both bore down, chest-to-chest. Sidious snarled, gnashing his fangs, every bit as bestial as Maul. Anakin gritted his teeth and let out a strangled roar as he channelled his own formidable strength.

He also began to speak. "Dooku is dead. He walked into the sun, but it was you who destroyed him, just like you destroyed me."

"Dooku was a tool," Sidious hissed from mere inches away, "Just like you were a tool. I was going to rule forever. I still intend to! !"

Anakin bore down harder even though the tendons and muscles of his arms screamed a protest as the pressure mounted. "I'll stop you. I'll always stop you. I was born to stop you."

"You can't stop me. You don't have enough hate left in you. Deep down inside you're still nothing more than a scared, egotistical slave boy from a desert moon."

With a combined bellow they finally disengaged to conserve the strength needed to continue the fight. A crest of fury rose up in Anakin, and controlling it, he whirled his lightsaber in a deep flex, forcefully relaxing the muscles in his shoulders. Waiting for Sidious to make his next move, he warned, "Don't fall into the same trap that so many have tumbled into since I came here—judging me by my face. You forget, my master, that I know you. I've walked by your side and knelt at your feet for over twenty years."

"A position most suitable for a slave."

Anakin let the insult slide right by. "You're nothing. You're lies—a fragile lattice of hatred, ego and deception eaten up from the inside by your own venom. Look in the mirror and see what I see."

"Tsk. Tsk. Sticks and stones, Anakin. Is that all you can muster, childish taunts?"

A new voice intruded. "That would depend on what you consider a childish taunt."

o~o~o

Lorne had a bad—no make that dreadful—feeling about how this was going to end. They'd lost Padmé when they'd gotten bogged down by more of those hulking metal brutes. It wasn't just that Anakin was going to be seriously pissed that bothered him; he too had a weakness for women with spines of steel, big hearts and sad brown eyes, particularly this one. If anything happened to the princess it would be his fault. Forget the big guy with the shiny sword, he'd never forgive himself!

He really needed to learn when to keep his mouth shut!

Maybe staples…or duct tape, or both.

Sal kept telling him the same thing. Over and over and over.

The repetition didn't help either his guilt or his headache. For the first time in like, ever, Lorne lost his temper. "Okay. Okay. I get it already. I screwed up. It happens occasionally. Did I ask to get dragged into this crap? No! Trust me I've had it up to my very green neck with this type of crazy apocalypse shtick. In fact, I swore never again. Only to cave the moment some brooding, tragic hero with redemption issues bats his baby blues at me. More fool me." Holding a hand to his abused head, Lorne winced when it throbbed a protest. He was having to shout to be heard over the howling wind. "Oh, and I'd like to see you handle a world-ending vision without spilling your guts at the first opportunity."

Shooting him a filthy glare, Sal subsided into a humming silence.

They'd caught a report of a real doozy of a fight going on at the city's central transport terminal and, on the assumption that Padmé would head for wherever Anakin was, they too were headed there in a speeder that Sal had shanghaied from a side street. He hadn't even stolen a canopied model. Thankfully, the barrier kept the rain from drenching them. The crazy-assed storm had appeared out of nowhere and the wild wind had some pretty sharp teeth, but it was nothing to the constant crash of thunder and vicious spikes of lightening. Parts of the city were already on fire and the destructive fury of the storm was getting worse by the second. All in all, thought Lorne with a shudder, it felt as if the second world was going to hell in a hand basket despite everything being done to save it.

Finally reaching their destination, Sal all but threw the speeder into a parking space, ignoring the droning voice from the automatic parking meter advising him how many credits were required for the privilege. "Ah, shut up!" He snarled at the speaker mesh.

They passed through the main doors at a spring, only to skid to avoid colliding with a figure that seemed to materialise out of nowhere right in front of them. Sal didn't take kindly to the delay and held his blaster at the ready, eyeing the oddly robed man with suspicion. "Who the hell are you?"

"Obi-Wan Kenobi." He made the brief reply to Sal to be polite, but then those familiar blue grey eyes swung to Lorne, crinkling at the corners with a slight smile. "We've met before, you may recall."

Whoa! "You've dropped a few decades since," pointed out Lorne. He was all but goggling.

"A nice trick don't you think?" Kenobi didn't wait for a reply. "I'm afraid that I am once again in a hurry. I need you to trust me and follow me now!"

"Kenobi?" echoed Sal, frowning. "You're that other Jedi, right? The one who—"

"I am," interrupted this much younger and cuter Kenobi. "Pardon me, but we really don't have much time. I need your help." Pausing, he added a significant amendment. "Padmé and Anakin need your help."

That got Sal's attention. "Do you know where they are?"

In answer, Kenobi tipped back his head, drawing their gaze to the domed top of the atrium and the flashing blue and red light just visible a long, long way over their heads. "I'm afraid locating them is the easy part, but you can't help them up there. However, you can help me down here and, with a bit of luck, it will all lead to the same thing."

"Help you with what?" asked Lorne. All he could see was the enormous central marbleite statue with its vaguely humanoid form holding up a flaming torch. The rest of the cavernous space contained only empty ticket aisles, bars, cafés and shops hawking every conceivable frivolous object a traveller may feel the urge to waste their credits on.

o~o~o

For Anakin the horror of that moment was indefinable. Padmé! In that instant the dynamics of the fight changed utterly for him, seeming to speed up to a frantic, numbing blur over which he had no control.

A beam of UV light hit Sidious full in the face. Anakin lunged to take advantage but met only empty air. The Sith Lord had used the Force to launch himself out of harms way. Filled with dread, Anakin's gaze shot up to the adjacent walkway where Padmé's voice had come from, and found her holding her throat and gasping, fighting for her life with the blaster dangling uselessly at her side. Sidious was Force-choking her—just as newborn Vader had once done. A haze of red dropped over his vision. With a roar of primal rage, Anakin lashed out with a blast of power that slammed Sidious into the wall, releasing Padmé to fall, gagging and wheezing, to the floor.

Anakin couldn't go to her, not yet, but his thoughts were full of her. Sidious had hurt her. This filthy, monstrous demon had hurt Padmé!

The suffocating rage was turned into a weapon that ground the Sith Lord into the wall hard enough to dent the permacrete. "Leave her alone!"

"I think not."

Cackling, and invigorated Sidious released the Force shield he'd used to save himself and obliterated the push that pinned him. He then went for Anakin's true weakness again. Before he could do anything to stop it, Padmé was lifted over the safety barrier and into the air and then hurled to the other side of the atrium with enough force to kill her.

Anakin's Force-pull saved her and between the two opposing forces, she was kept hovering, trapped and several feet up in mid-air. It was then that he realised that he'd fallen into a trap. A warning shot into his mind, but not in time to stop the agony that suddenly ripped into every atom of Anakin's body.

Forks of searing blue pain rippled over his vision. He was on fire again. Instead of burning black sand under his wrecked body though, the sand was scorching his body from the inside out. Every nerve shrieked and quivered. His muscles were locked and the spasms wracking his spine threatened to snap him two. It was unbearable. His own and Luke's screams echoed in his head. He knew this agony—had felt it before—and died. With his attention on Padmé, this time Sidious had caught him with his devastating streaks of dark, deadly energy.

This was no slow death designed to draw out every last drop of torment. The intensity was at kill-level, and there was nothing he could do.

He had seconds to live. Despite the unbelievable agony, Anakin kept his greying vision locked on his wife. He wished he'd had a chance to hold her one last time. Still held immobile, Padmé couldn't move her head, but her gaze met his and he saw her pain and grief—and felt it mirrored inside his own chest. His utter despair easily out-ravaged the Force-lightening. Inside his mind, the scream that his pain-locked mouth couldn't release turned into a howl.

I'm sorry. I'm so sorry! Forgive me.

He hadn't saved her, or anyone. It was over. Sidious would win and there would be nothing or no one to stop him. He'd failed.

Then he saw her fight to lift a hand—the one holding the blaster. Despite everything she hadn't dropped it. With tears sliding down her cheeks, Padmé managed to bring it up a few inches and three bolts of energy spat from the muzzle. The synapses in his brain managed one last task. In his minds eye, Anakin saw the bolts strike at the transparent alloy under Sidious' feet. Combined with the damage it had already sustained, that section of the transparisteel dome gave way. Sidious, intent only on ending Anakin, did not realise his danger until too late. The Sith Lord stumbled backward in an effort to save himself and slipped. He landed on his back with the violent spiralling forks of energy no longer striking Anakin, but aiming straight up towards the already super-charged sky.

With no strength left in his legs, Anakin could only heave himself up to his knees. He had to dig deep into the dregs of his crumbling reserves of power to cushion Padmé with the Force as she finally fell. At the same moment, a streak of lightening slashed down and struck the dome between them, leaving a smoking hole and taking the blaster she'd dropped with it. More splinter-cracks shot out from the crater in a shockwave. There was no time to crawl for the edge. Another warning streaked over Anakin's consciousness. Still horribly weak and shuddering all over, he managed to crawl so that he was between Padmé and the danger that had risen back to its feet, intent on coming at them again. Sidious' hideous visage was made worse still by the hate and sadistic satisfaction contorting his deformed features further. Certain of his victory, the Sith Lord raised hands that crackled with blue power.

This time Anakin knew that he didn't stand a chance of absorbing and redirecting the deadly energy back at Sidious. Instead, he used his lightsaber and the last of his Force reserves to deflect it once again into the roiling sky above.

Advancing, Sidious intensified the power of his attack.

"If you're not careful, Skywalker, you'll kill your wife for a second time. This tactic of yours will only make my Force Storm more powerful, more deadly, and bring it down on her head. In attempting to kill me, you'll kill us all."

It was then that Anakin had another epiphany. It unfurled in his mind like a Naboo river blossom.

The words seemed to flow out of him, taking his deepest fear with it. "There is nothing either of us can do that can hurt her. She's already saved. Padmé has a place waiting for her in a world where she can't be harmed her and she'll be surrounded by friends. That's not true for the rest of the people in this world. It's for them that I'm going to do what I have to do to destroy you. You've caused enough pain."

We both have, thought Anakin. It all had to end—finally and irrevocably.

o~o~o

Padmé had never felt so helpless, or so horribly and utterly wrong. She had underestimated both Palpatine and Anakin. She had known that the Sith Lord was powerful and evil, but hadn't conceived of the strength of that power and evil. She had known that she was risking her own life—had been fully prepared for that—but, she had at least expected to be able to take Sidious with her. Yet, he'd swatted her aside like a bug.

If it hadn't been for Anakin, she would have died for nothing.

Caught, trapped in mid-air, Padmé had had an epiphany too. Her weakness was not so different from Anakin's. She hadn't been able to stand the thought of standing idly by while someone she loved was in danger. So she'd blinded herself to the wrongness and impossibility of her plan and steamed on ahead regardless—just as she had so many times in the past. Admitting defeat just hadn't been an option.

And now Anakin was paying the price. Seeing him in so much pain and torment had ripped her heart asunder and shredded her soul. But that was nothing to torrent of grief she felt at the sight of the love in his eyes as he curled on the floor, writhing—dying. He didn't look away, not once. She couldn't even go to him and hold him, or wipe the tears from his beautiful face and kiss his brow for the last time. The pain of it all was so enormous, so overwhelming that it would surely kill her too. Surely no one could survive heartbreak like this for a second time.

Gods! And this time it was all her fault. This was her mistake and she was prepared to beg—do anything—for it not to be a tragic one.

Tears slipped unheeded down her cheeks. When her gaze moved to Sidious, her hand jerked without volition and the blaster almost slipped free from her fingers. Then she noticed the fine cracks on the floor under Palpatine's feet. The idea was barely formed before she began to act on it. Determination rose up to swamp her. The blaster trembled as she exerted every ounce of willpower to defeat the invisible force that pinned her. Sweat dripped down her back as she used every bit of strength. Exhaustion threatened and was battled back. She almost passed out but managed to hold on just long enough. Slowly, tortuously slowly, the blaster muzzle rose, and then she fired.

She saw Palpatine fall and then she was falling herself. Blackness swallowed her whole until Anakin's voice brought back the light.

"Nothing either of us can do can hurt her. She's already saved. Padmé has a place waiting for her in a world where nothing can harm her and she'll be surrounded by friends. That's not true for the rest of the people in this world. It's for them that I'm going to do what I have to do to destroy you. You've caused enough pain."

Her eyes snapped open and she lay there stunned. Nothing in life or death had prepared her for the strength of the emotions that suffused her at hearing him utter those words.

He was willing to let her die.

Until now she hadn't known that she needed to hear exactly that before she could trust him implicitly. It changed everything.

o~o~o

Claws extended and pouring out sparking blue energy, Sidious sneered, "Come now, Anakin. What will you do without Padmé? How will you live with yourself?"

"It won't matter. You said it yourself, we'll all die. Padmé will be safe and you'll be gone. That's enough for me."

"You fool! You delude yourself again. Already your strength is waning and will soon be gone entirely. You alone will die and then I will deal with your beloved wife, personally!"

"You won't get a chance to touch her."

As drawn to the savagery of the combatants, lightening crackled and fizzled, striking the sides of the atrium as the skies overhead unleashed its unnatural fury, deflecting back the darkness that was being pumped into it. With each successive strike, plastercrete showered the remains of the dome and the three people on it.

Sidious was right, his strength had not had a chance to recover, but Anakin had already considered that. He had one last sacrifice to make.

Closing his eyes, Anakin called on every moment of pain and grief that he'd ever suffered. He gave himself permission to unlock the fountain of fiery rage that he'd battled for so long to keep covered and hidden. After being dormant for so long, it burned so hotly that it would soon gut itself out utterly. Every horror of the third world was an injection of fuel to that rage. Hatred alone was missing, but it was enough.

When Anakin opened his eyes again they were no longer blue, but amber and ringed with bitter red.

"You forget the dark side, my master."

At the sight, Sidious faltered and for the first time real fear crossed his face. His lips formed a name, but didn't speak it aloud. Lord Vader.

o~o~o

In the end it was all so simple. Anakin let the darkness swelling inside himself call to the dark energies that Sidious had already summoned into being, and they answered his call. The howling wind came from all quarters of the city and the black sky above seemed to gather itself to unleash every particle of destruction on this one spot. The pitiful sparks that an increasingly desperate Sidious was still throwing at him in an attempt to save his skin were feeble in comparison. A moment ago simply holding back those streams of energy had been all Anakin could manage, but no longer. He was a conduit for the dark side.

Sidious, however, remained the source, and the fuel.

The amusing irony of it was that he need do no harm. Anakin didn't have to lift a finger. Sidious had done all that was necessary already. With a thunderous crash the world exploded in a searing, blinding flash of white. The skies above Junga Roth—above the terminal's central atrium—unleashed and a jagged flash of lightening that streaked unerringly down to its creator.

Looking up, Sidious had time for a last scream of denial.

Anakin and Padmé were thrown backwards with tremendous force and velocity. For one searing instant, the Sith Lord was lit up from the inside out as the lightening struck him, then he began to char, blacken and burn.

Under the three of them, the remaining dome shattered.

o~o~o

The flash of white light was so intensely powerful that Padmé flung up an arm to shield her eyes. Searing heat mushroomed, but before she could register any burns, she felt her balance shift and went abruptly airborne with dizzying speed. The weightlessness lasted only a moment. Blindly, she sought and found something to cling onto. Her seeking hands found smooth, solid metal and latched on with desperate strength. Her body was left dangling though and instinctively she scrabbled with her feet to find the purchase she needed to haul her body weight up. By the time she'd heaved herself back over the walkway safety barrier, she was at least able to see again.

What she could see was both disorienting and terrifying.

The sun now streaming down the atrium seemed utterly alien and wrong, and for some reason, scared her. How could everything have changed so quickly?

Where was Anakin? And why did it seem as if hours had passed when it could only have been seconds?

She didn't even realise she was sobbing, not until she dragged herself back to her feet and looked back down only to see scream his name, "Anakin!"

Her heart leapt straight up into her throat. He was dangling by one hand from the last jagged shards of the dome edge. There were scorch marks on his clothes and face. The other arm hung uselessly at his side and at an odd angle. The hand he was holding on with was bleeding and he was making no attempt to lift himself up. She could see why, the piece he was clinging onto was already working loose.

"Anakin," she sobbed. No matter how hard she tried her own desperately seeking arm couldn't even get close to him. The distance was far too great.

Amber and red eyes stared up into her face. They made her flinch with horror.

"Don't turn away from me, please!" The plea was husky and slurred.

Even though it was a knife to the heart, Padmé forced herself to meet those terrifying eyes again. Her own voice was raw. "Anakin, I don't understand."

And she didn't. After finally realising, far too late, that this was a battle she couldn't partake in, she'd scrambled out of the way and put her trust in her husband.

Around that burning gaze his skin was damp and almost grey in colour. She could see the agony on his face. "I…had to do it—sorry. Only way."

That sounded so final. Too final. Her heart didn't just break it shattered. "Anakin! Please! No. You can save yourself. I know you can."

This couldn't' be the end. She'd seen Sidious die, seen his flesh flash-burn to charred black in a micro-second. Anakin had won—only to die too? NO! She couldn't live without him again. Not after finding him again, loving him again. Not when she'd only just realised that there was no longer any need to be afraid.

"Please," she sobbed, "Don't give in. I need you."

"Can't…out of strength. Used it all—won't use other."

He'd used the last of his powers to save her after all, she knew he had. Tears chased one another down her face. There was no other explanation for the fact that there wasn't a mark on her. She couldn't believe it. After all they'd gone through it couldn't possible end this way. This had to be a mistake. It had to be. More of those hot, bitter tears clogged Padmé's throat. Every breath was a rasp. Didn't he know that he was killing her anyway? "I love you. Don't leave me."

As she watched the amber corrupting his irises subsided and they turned back to blue. Their gazes locked and he gave her his tip-tilted smile. "I love you too."

And then he was falling away from her. Padmé's scream of denial ripped free from her throat, but she didn't look away—he'd asked her not to.

Chapter twenty three

Anakin was floating. If he had eyes, he couldn't open them, so he tried not to worry about it. The same went for a body that he couldn't feel, never mind move. It was similar to when he'd died as Vader on the Death Star, and yet oddly different too. He wasn't sure that he liked that this time was different. When he'd died before he hadn't known what to expect. He hadn't had a clue about what he'd so nearly become. Not so this time. Was different a good thing or a bad thing? Because fear wanted to rise up, he stopped dwelling on questions that he couldn't answer and let his mind drift. It helped that his love for Padmé was flowing so strong that he wondered at his ability to contain it—a silken thread that linked every thought, tinted ever so slightly by sorrow.

I love you. Don't leave me.

The raw pain of heartbreak in her voice hurt him too. He'd never meant to cause her a moment of pain ever again. It was the last thing he'd wanted.

In his mind, he cradled her face in his hand and kissed away her tears. I'm so sorry, Angel. Given a choice I would have stayed at your side forever. Nothing would have ever drawn me away.

He hadn't had a choice though. The fate of too many had rested on defeating Sidious, including Padmé's. He couldn't let that monster get his sick, sadistic hands on her—even for a short time. Who knew better than Vader what Palpatine had been capable of? Sometimes even the monster he'd been had been sickened.

Without willing himself to do so, Anakin began to drift upwards. He knew he was ascending because he could feel himself rising. This awareness was so odd that he gave it his full attention. It was then that he realised that he had a body after all. Wherever he was it was a little chilly. Goosebumps broke out over his skin and still he was blind. The higher Anakin rose the more his memory awakened. Little nuances that he'd missed in the confusion of dying were suddenly clear. He could clearly recall falling. Weakened by the debilitating effects of Force lightening there had been nothing he could do to save himself, and he'd known it. It was all he'd been able to do to lift Padmé up to safety and then hold on long enough to say goodbye.

With her safe, it had been enough. He'd been content with that.

He remembered what came after too; looking up into her beloved, beautiful face he'd felt the last dregs of the dark side leave him, fleeing the love and light filling his heart, mind and soul. He'd clung to that light as he'd fallen, bracing himself for the end.

Strangely, that was the last thing he could clearly remember. Anakin frowned. It was odd but he couldn't remember the end of that thirty-nine storey plunge. He searched, but could find no memory of the impact that must have killed him. His search for details was not entirely unsuccessful though. Dimly, as if in a dream, he recalled a sensation of being caught, as if snatched out of the very air, then voices that spoke to him out of the darkness.

"I've got you, son. I've got you." He recognised Sal's gruff and oddly choked voice.

There had been another, calmer and measured.

"It's alright, Anakin. Just hold on a little longer. We're nearly there."

The owner of that voice had once been the second most important and beloved person in the galaxy to him. Anakin's fingers twitched and he formed the name to go with that familiar and comforting voice, whispering it. "Obi-Wan?"

A new voice intruded now, clearer, stronger. Not a memory. "He's coming around alright. Do me a favour and don't get him too excited."

In his minds eye, he drew the face to go with that gravelly and bad tempered voice. A face set into lines of permanent disgruntlement and framed a thick mane of white hair. Doc?

Bewildered, Anakin sought to make sense of the impressions suddenly bombarding him. Fingers were tenderly brushing back his hair, trailing down his cheeks and then tracing his lips in a whisper-soft caress. Then warmth and sweetness replaced the finger, brushing his lips and lingering. When he inhaled, Anakin could smell the unique, mouth-watering scent of her skin.

"Padmé."

~o~

Stunned, Anakin's eyes shot open and met hers.

"Welcome back." Tears trembled on her lashes as Padmé smiled down at him.

Was she really and angel and he hadn't know it? She certainly looked the part with her hair left loose in dark, silken waves and a deceptively simple dress that shimmered down from bare shoulders.

With her arms propped on either side of his head, she made a beautiful cage, and was leaning close enough to kiss. She had been kissing him, he realised, stunned anew. Unless he'd been imagining those caresses and that warm wash of breath on his own lips?

Anakin could only stare, struck dumb. Then an idea occurred to him that was almost too fantastical to be believed. He had to swallow to speak it aloud. "I didn't die."

She shook her head. "No. You didn't die." The tears remained, but the joy on her face was luminous enough to make them sparkle and only added to her lustre. Force! She looked so utterly, mind-numblingly beautiful that he ached just from looking at her.

He hadn't died. Anakin couldn't take it in. "Are you sure?"

"See for yourself."

Padmé leaned back enough so that he could see that he lay on a medical bed with a crisp white sheet cover. She was perched next to his left hip. He lifted his arms and found them pain free and unmarked. The rest of his body seemed to be in perfect working order too. Okay, he thought, that cinched it. This had to be a dream? "I don't get it," he admitted, not even trying to hide his confusion.

Laughing lightly, she snagged the hand nearest to her and brushed it tenderly against her cheek. Then put him out of his misery of confusion. "Obi-Wan saved you, with a little bit of help from Sal and Lorne. You've been in bacta for over ten days but you're fine now." With her free hand, she reached out to tuck away another stray curl from his brow. "In fact, if I didn't know better, I wouldn't believe that you'd just put yourself through an ordeal that would have killed anyone else. You're very lucky." After a taut beat, she added softly, "We both are."

Obi-Wan had saved him? The wonder he felt at hearing that news rode alongside other emotions that he just wasn't up to dealing with right now, so Anakin concentrated on Padmé. Hardly an effort when she seemed resolved to touch him as much as possible. That and the look in her eyes made his breath catch in his chest.

The urge to sit up and gather her in his arms was so powerful that only the fear of finding out that this really was nothing more than an illusion kept him unmoving. A part of Anakin still wasn't convinced that this was real and not a dream. It all seemed too good to be true.

"We're you hurt?" he asked huskily. "I tried to get you far enough away—"

"I was fine, although I wished I was dead when I watched you fall." The memory dulled her glow to the point of pure and utter bleakness. Her fingers tightened around the hand she was still holding against her cheek. Liquid dark eyes held his with mesmerising intensity. "I never want to feel like that again, Anakin."

Something indefinable, glorious and terrifyingly delicate hovered in the air between them. Anakin's heartbeat turned heavy, thick and slow. Testing, and because he had to know, he levered up, caught the back of her neck with his other hand and pulled her in for a kiss. When their lips met he didn't need to coax her mouth open. She matched his heat and when her tongue tentatively touched his he shuddered as need escalated to unbearable. Softness, drugging sweetness and warmth waited for him when he hungrily slanted his mouth and took the kiss deeper.

When the door to his medical room swept open behind her, Anakin wanted to howl with frustration, and then murder whoever had interrupted them.

When the door to his medical room swept open behind her, Anakin wanted to howl with frustration, and then murder whoever had interrupted them.

"I thought I told you not to get him excited," grouched Doc to Padmé. When she got up and took the seat nearest the bed, his stony gaze settled on Anakin. "As for you, if you're feeling that frisky you can discharge yourself. I need the damned bed. This isn't a hotel."

Walking over to the bed in question, he pulled a light pen from his pocket and began shining it Anakin's eyes.

"I'd be happy to give it up for someone else—if I had some clothes. I'm not big on walking around naked."

"You could walk around covered in nothing but pink goo and wearing a fricken' Kowakian monkey-lizard as a hat and nobody would give a poodoo," retorted Doc. "Hell, it'd probably boost the holonet ratings and add to your legion of adoring fans." Brusquely, he gestured over his shoulder. "Find something to look at in the top right corner of the room and follow the light."

First, Anakin looked to Padmé for an explanation of what Doc had been talking about, only to see her shake her head and mouth 'later'.

"I'm surprised you're still here," said Anakin, doing what he'd been ordered. "What happened to playing hermit? I thought you'd be buried in a cave somewhere by now."

"This place is even nuttier than I remember it being, but even I can't turn my back on thousands of sick and wounded. They needed all the help they could get, which means I'm staying put for now. The cave'll wait." Flipping the pen over, Doc jammed it under Anakin's chin to take a reading of his pulse.

"And we're very grateful for the help," interjected Padmé, soothingly.

Doc just grunted. "You're bioscans have all come up perfectly healthy—which beats the hell out of me considering the state you arrived in. I'm going to check your reflexes and them I'm releasing you," he told Anakin. "I'm sure a resourceful hero like you can scrounge yourself some coverings till you get where you're going." He shrugged, "If not, I guess I'll be dealing with some cardiac arrests in the older generation. It'll make a change from bite wounds."

"It's fine. I already have some clothes for you," Padmé assured Anakin, seeing his scowl and heading him off.

~o~

The clothes Padmé had brought for him fit as if they'd been made for him. Anakin showered and dressed in the simple outfit of pants, tunic-shirt, boots and cloak faster than he'd ever dressed himself before. She'd left the room to allow him to dress in privacy and he couldn't shake that fear that when he stepped out to find her she would have disappeared on him.

As far as he was concerned their 'talk' had only been delayed. His instincts had been right, she had changed towards him and he had no intention of letting enough time pass that she changed back to being distant and reserved. If she did, he would probably—no, make that definitely—go insane. Not going to happen. She'd responded to his kiss, he told himself. Kidnapping wasn't out of the question.

Then there was the fact that he'd been so dazed and disoriented that he hadn't asked about the others. Feeling every bit as jittery and nervous as he had at nineteen and about to see her for the first time in ten years, Anakin walked out of the hospital room.

Outside was chaos.

People were milling everywhere. The corridor was crammed with them. Ordinarily, Anakin would have found that a distinct nuisance, but it was oddly reassuring to see for himself that enough of the city's citizens had survived the Narzgh invasion to actually cause a crush. A nearby Clawdite male—Anakin assumed he was male but you could never be sure with a changeling—halted to stare at him, then turned to whisper to the Twi'lek standing at his side. From there it mushroomed. Whispers hissed from one ear to another and soon everyone had stopped moving and turned to stare at him, those that couldn't do so easily craned their necks or jabbed elbows, if they had them, into their neighbours to make room.

Abruptly, Anakin felt like an exhibit in a space zoo. As he couldn't think of a single thing to say, he started looking for escape routes. Hearing Padmé call his name decided him on which one to take. Sliding through a miniscule gap between a rake-thin human female and an equally slender Munn, Anakin dodged and weaved and left what apologies were necessary in his wake. Huffing out a relieved breathe to be free of the worst section of gaping sentients, he grabbed the hand of an amused Padmé on-route and took her with him to complete his escape.

He avoided the turbo lifts when he saw the length of the queue waiting for them and headed for the stairs, still tugging Padmé behind him. He waited for the main exit of the medical centre to come into view before he spoke. "Well, that was interesting," he said dryly. "I don't suppose you'd care to explain why they were staring? Do I have something stuck between my teeth?"

"Consider the last few weeks," she returned, equally dry. "I'm sure it'll come to you."

He frowned. "Vader or the third world?"

"Excuse me?"

"What is it they're obsessing over, my being Vader or returning from the third world?"

"Both and more," she told him. "Anakin, thanks to Natar the Core is covered in security cameras. The media hounds unearthed the whole battle, and your numerous duels, within days of them happening. Trust me, people would rather watch repeats being run of those than the horrors that were also recorded. You're a hero and it makes them feel better to—" she stumbled over the word but then had to agree "—obsess. It's only natural."

He stopped in his tracks, appalled. "Tell me you're joking," he pleaded.

Her lips twitched. "They're making bronzium figurines of you even as we speak."

Kriff! "What about you," he accused, "And Freyrr, Sal and Lorne? Hell, what about Jester and his gang of bounty hunters? Don't they get to share some of this too?"

"We're just the support cast. You're the star," she told him, trying to look sombre but foiled by the twinkle in her dark eyes. "If we're lucky, we might end up as the background for a mood theme in a public park."

As a distraction from his nerves about Padmé it was unrivalled. They needed to get out of here. Anakin gauged the distance between where they stood and the exit—a dozen meters at least. Hundreds more people were standing between him and open space. Suddenly it seemed like it would be a major feat just to get there. "Come on," he said grimly, and got them moving again.

The pace was slow considering the massive foyer was also full to bursting. To distract himself and draw less attention Anakin decided some conversation was in order, and asked, "About Lorne and the others. How are they doing? Did they all make it?"

"Everyone is fine," she assured him. "In fact, we were all in a lot better than shape than you once the fight was over."

That pricked his pride. "I had a lot to contend with." Then, "What about Obi-Wan, where is he?"

"He's been back a few times since that day, helping out and checking on you. He said to tell you to expect him with a day or so of you coming around."

"Right." Anakin would believe it when he saw it. He'd given up hoping for an actual honest to Force talk with Obi-Wan Kenobi. One day he might even convince himself that it didn't matter. Until then, he put it out of his mind.

At last, they'd reached the main exit doors. Anakin went through first, still firmly grasping Padmé's hand. And walked into what seemed like a wall of flashing white lights and hurled questions.

"Jedi Skywalker. How did it feel to face the Emperor in a duel to the death?"

"Anakin look over here. Here. This way. Great. That's a great shot."

"…did you know going in that you might die? What were you thinking when you fell?"

"Premier…elections. Will you stand as a nominee?"

"Councillor Amidala, will you officially change your name to Skywalker?"

A thicket of microphones bristled in front of both of them. Anakin stopped on the top step, because he had no choice unless he wanted to use a Force wave to clear a path. It was horribly tempting.

"Councillor Amidala," called one of the hordes. "Does your husband know that you turned down the position of temporary Premier in favour of your colleague Obonè."

That news hit Anakin let a bombshell. He tensed, electrified, and slowly swung so that he was staring at Padmé. He hadn't known. She hadn't said a word. Rather than look at him, she dropped his hand and stepped closer to the microphones. An expectant hush fell over the jostling crowd of reporters.

"I believe that Premier Obonè will make an exceptional leader for many reasons. First and foremost, her attention will be fully focused on the rebuilding of Junga Roth as a city that all of its citizens can be proud of and feel secure in. For myself, I'm more than content to remain on the council and offer what assistance I can. My duties in that role are enough to keep me busy. But, most important of all, I want to concentrate on my marriage. My husband almost died and now I want to spend time with him. Thank you."

~o~

Anakin was shaking and didn't seem able to stop himself, or calm down. That double-damned media ambush had thrown him for a loop and he was still no nearer to finding solid ground. He knew it was wrong to be all but dragging Padmé along behind him, but he desperately needed to find somewhere private. He'd happily grovel for forgiveness later, but right now he needed the answers to some questions and it just couldn't wait. If he waited, he might just go crazy after all. So, he ignored her protests and continued to search for somewhere to talk without being overheard.

They were on the street. He didn't recognise it and didn't care. Unlike the medical centre it wasn't busy. Obviously the Core wasn't yet up to full speed yet; something else he didn't have time to care about. At last, he spotted an alley and darted across the sparsely used traffic lanes to reach it. With Padmé in tow, he skirted the vendor selling unidentifiable fried meat in a wedge of flat bread and headed down it. The tart smell of Arcanian puree followed them down the alley for several meters. Padmé had fallen into a simmering silence not long after they'd escaped the clutches of the reporters, mainly because he'd refused to answer her queries about what was wrong. Anakin didn't need the Force to sense that she was both hurt and furious; the tension in her arm told him that anyway. He didn't blame her, but it didn't stop him.

Once they'd gone far enough that he judged they wouldn't be interrupted, he halted, let go of the hand he'd imprisoned and stepped away for two paces before swinging to face her. In the pell-mell of his headlong rush, the hood of her cloak had fallen to reveal the dark mass of her hair. Her cheeks were flushed and sparks of temper were shooting out from her eyes as Padmé glared at him. "What in chaos has got into you?" she stormed at him.

She had, as always.

Anakin sucked in a breath that his too-tight chest struggled to accept. "I apologise, but I need to talk to you and it can't wait."

"About what?"

Where to start? "You know I love you more than life itself. You also know that you've just offered me heaven on a plate. And I want to grab that plate with both hands and hold tight, but—"

She threw up her hand when he faltered. "But what, Anakin?"

Her furious prompt made him explode, it came out in a hot gush of edgy words, "When I woke up in that hospital bed to find you kissing me, I didn't care why. All that mattered was that, for whatever reason, you'd changed towards me. Then I hear you talking about our marriage…and being a wife to me, and I know it sounds insane, but—" Stopping, Anakin raked a hand through his hair. Force! How to explain it?

"But what?" Padmé repeated, calmer and yet hoarse too.

He could feel the tension in her and recognised it as being identical to his own. He felt as if his whole future was at stake. The trembling got so bad that Anakin folded his arms tight across his chest simply to try and hide the tremors. He desperately wanted to pace but forced himself to remain still.

His mouth was so dry that he had to swallow. "Now I need to know why. I need to know if all of this is just some knee-jerk reaction to you thinking that I was dead. Am I going to wake up one morning to find you looking at me with fear and mistrust in your eyes? I can't—that would—I wouldn't be able to handle that." Anakin felt himself quake just from thinking about it. "Padmé, I need to know what's brought on this change. I need to know if you've turned down the premiership because you're worried that I'm going to get power mad by proxy or something."

For a long moment, she didn't say a word and just stared up at him. The simmering silence made him want to beat his head against the nearest hard surface and put himself out of his misery. Instead, all he could do was wait and it was agony.

Then tears filled her eyes and sagging a little, she lifted a trembling hand to her mouth. Finally, she spoke, "Oh, Anakin. No. Gods. I thought—never mind, it doesn't matter. You've got it wrong. You've got it all wrong."

"Then explain it to me." He couldn't manage more than a whisper through the tightness of his throat.

Anakin must have blinked, because the next moment she was right there, standing on tip-toe so that she could reach up and frame his face with her hands. As usual, Padmé had seen right through his defences to his misery. "Its okay, I'll explain. I'm happy to explain. I was going to when we got home anyway. I guess I didn't realise it would be so important to you or I wouldn't have waited."

It was a relief, but it wasn't enough. He needed it all. Anakin slid his hands around her waist to support her and keep her pressed against him. She paused to marshal her thoughts, but didn't drop her gaze even for a moment. "You were willing to let me die. I know it sounds stupid, but it makes all the difference to me." When he went to speak, Padmé laid a hand over his lips to shush him. "I love you so much, I always have, but I was afraid of what might happen if I let myself be with you. No matter how I looked at it, I couldn't get over your fear of loss—and our past—not until I heard you tell Sidious what you did."

Anakin jerked, he couldn't help it. All of this was the last thing he'd expected to hear. Understanding him as no one else ever could, Padmé smiled and strained up that extra little bit needed to kiss him with exquisite softness before pulling back to continue. "I heard you, Ani, and I felt so much joy in my heart that I can't possibly describe it to you. This world, even without Sidious, is a dangerous place and while I knew that you'd changed, I didn't know if it was enough—not for certain—until then." Her smile turned wry. "In those few minutes you gave me both the best and the worst moments of the last twenty three years of my life—just because you were willing to let me go."

If she'd been luminous before, she was radiant now. "I love you Anakin and I want to be with you. I don't care about being Premier. I meant what I said back there. I want to be your wife in all the ways that I couldn't be before, in public and with no secrets."

She stepped away and he released her reluctantly, only to find that she was holding out her hands in invitation. "Come home with me, Ani?"

FINIS

NOTE (2) This isn't really the end. There's a fair sized epilogue coming, including some steamy lovin', an Anakin and Obi-Wan meeting with some more explanations and questions answered, as well as some tidbits on the others and what's going on with them. Plus some snap shots of the future.

I know I said that the next post would be the last, but this one is already just shy of 30 pages and I decided that I couldn't add more without risking giving folks eye strain. I'm hoping to have the rest up for you by next weekend.

On the topic of steamy lovin', obviously I have to be careful of ratings. When it is posted next week, I plan on having a younger readers version, which will be posted at both and Jedi Council Forums. The full adult version will be available for those that request it (NOT via pm, pretty please!) and I'll send along a link to where it is when it's ready.