Kibu2u – Wow! Thank you so much. I'm thrilled to bits that you've enjoyed it so much, and hugely relieved that the end has been a satisfying one for you—something is a big fear for me, lol. I hate thinking that I've been able to catch someone's imagination with a story and then botched it. I'm so, so glad that isn't the case. Hugs!
mlhkvh5 – I was delighted to share Purgatory with whoever was interested, hun, but I have to give out a special thank you to you and my other reviewers. So THANK YOU! I'm chuffed and delighted and tickled pink beyond I can say that you've enjoyed my story! I hope you enjoy the epilogue equally. Helen X
NOTES: (1) Grr! – This thing with ffnet not translating what's on my screen properly is driving me nuts! Sorry, but my mini scene breaks haven't been showing properly: (o~o~o is for a full scene break and ~o~ is for a mini/POV break). It is fixed now! If anyone decides to reread and spots anything that seems odd, i.e. a change of scene or POV without these symbols to prepare you, please, please let me know!
*More notes are at the end of the epilogue.
Anakin wished that he didn't remember the journey to the Transvision Tower. It would have been so much easier if it had passed on swift wings and in a blur of bliss. Instead, the air taxi seemed to take forever. Whereas before both air and ground traffic had been light, now it seemed to have trebled in volume. It was all he could do not to wrest the controls from the garrulous Gungan driver and proceed to break all traffic codes to get where they were going faster.
They were sat together as closely as possible on the rear passenger seat of the taxi with their hands clasped. Anakin would have liked to be able to talk to her as a rational person with a degree of civilisation and aplomb, except he couldn't. He knew his face was probably granite hard as he stared off in the distance and exerted every drop of self-control. He didn't dare turn his head and look into her eyes, though, for fear of risking a public sensation that would embarrass her. He knew this absurd reaction embarrassed him. Unbelievably, he felt as if he truly was an impetuous twenty-three year old again with all of the (lack of) patience and finesse of youth.
Her heat and softness pressed to his side wasn't helping, nor was inhaling her perfume with every breath. Luckily for him, Padmé didn't seed to mind that he wasn't being the attentive and charming lover that she deserved. At last, the prime residential tower where she lived came into view. She turned her head as the driver slowed to approach the correct landing pad and brushed a kiss to his shoulder. It was the same casual affection he'd once taken for granted, but right now he felt anything but casual. Anakin slid his eyes closed. He was so tense that coloured lights danced along his eyelids.
He would not pounce the moment they were alone, he vowed. Such behaviour might have been acceptable back when he'd been a Jedi and she'd been a senator and all they'd had was stolen hours between month-long missions, but not now. Now was different. Okay, so he'd gone from utterly alone and grieving for her for decades to yearning from a distance over the last six months, but that was no excuse.
She paid the taxi. He unlocked the entrance with the generic code and called for the turbo lift. Inside, she keyed in the security code that would get the lift moving the two floors left to her apartment. A humming silence reigned. His borrowed cloak was enveloping enough that his hands were hidden in the folds, so he could fist them without giving himself away. The lift began to ascend with a subtle jerk. Anakin had no idea if the vibration running through his body was from the upward velocity of the lift or his own rampaging tension.
The lift doors slid back to reveal the sleekly modern foyer of her apartment. Guts churning, Anakin let Padmé precede him out of the lift and stiffly followed. They didn't make it out of the foyer. There was no conscious decision, he simply used his longer stride to catch her up and reached out to snag her elbow. Swinging her back to face him, he curved his other hand around her nape and pulled her in for a kiss. "I'm sorry, I can't wait," he said against her opening mouth, then urgently swept inside.
Afterwards, they slept for an hour and then showered together. When hunger kicked in, Anakin watched, leaning against the doorway, while Padmé rummaged in the kitchen for something to eat. He couldn't remember the last time that he'd felt so completely and utterly at peace. His body felt weighted, but in a good way with muscles that felt fluid and as smooth as silk. He could sleep for a week, but contrarily felt as if he had the energy to hike the range of mountains encircling Junga Roth. Most important of all, his heart was full to bursting.
"I love you so much," he said, unable to keep it inside. Their eyes met over the bowl of fruit she laid on the counter between them. The peach robe she'd slipped on was gathered high at her waist and then flowed to her bare toes. Dark eyes melted and lit from the inside with her smile. Picking up a bunch of Rothian red grapes, she picked one and held it up in invitation. Walking over, he accepted and let her pop the sweet fruit into his mouth, taking care to nip her fingers before she could retreat. In the Force, he felt her pulse leap and her laugh was breathless, making his own smile stretch.
"I meant to ask," he said. "Where's Freyrr and that chirpy droid of yours? Don't they live with you?"
"I sent Dee for a tune-up and a bath, the luxury version, which should take at least twenty four hours. We won't be seeing her, or Ceetee who went with her, until morning. As for Freyrr, she has a new job now," replied Padmé, walking to the food synthesizer when it pinged to advise that the programme was finished. "She's Obonè's new bodyguard with her own rooms in the palace and a private garden."
The platter of fish and steamed vegetables was hot and billowing with steam. Anakin walked around to retrieve it for her and placed it on the counter. He frowned, startled by the news. "You surprise me. I would have thought nothing would have induced her to leave you."
Padmè's smile was impish. "I cajoled her into it by persuading her that I no longer needed guarding around the clock. She's a Wookiee," she reminded him, taking down glasses and a decanter of ruby-coloured wine, "and Wookiees prefer open spaces. The apartment never did suit her, but she coped with being confined for me."
"I see." He waited until she sat down and then started to dish out the delicious smelling food for both for both of them. Another smile was tugging at his lips when he asked, "So, was Milady planning for me to take up the slack bodyguard-wise with Freyrr otherwise occupied?"
"The thought did occur to me. Not that I really need a bodyguard anymore."
Maybe not, but she'd always have one. "In that case, I accept the position." Anakin inclined his head, adding tongue-in-cheek, "Is it a live-in role?"
"Oh, yes, living in is absolutely essential. There might even be added benefits, if you impress me."
The challenge gleaming in her eyes made his pulse leap. He lifted a brow. "In that case I'll have to give it my best shot. I'd hate to leave you disappointed."
With that Padmé's gaze dropped demurely to her plate. She changed the subject to other things and he enjoyed the ease with which she calmed the simmering tension that rose so easily between them. That skill would be necessary over the coming months, he realised a trifle ruefully. Maybe even years. He couldn't imagine a time when he would ever take their being together for granted.
With hunger satisfied, she took him into the snug. Informal seating and relaxation was the dominant theme of the room. She waited until he took a seat next to her on the couch to scoot over and curl into him, tucking her feet under her hips. Her head came to rest on his shoulder. Wrapping an arm around her to keep her anchored, Anakin laid his chin on her hair, closing his eyes to breathe her in. Peace settled over them like a comforting cloak. "Tell me about Sal and Lorne and the others," he asked. "Did Jester make it too?"
"I have a confession to make on that topic," so saying, she tipped back her head to look at him with mischief gleaming in her eyes. "They wanted to be there when you woke up, but I persuaded them to wait until tomorrow. I wanted you all to myself for today."
He dropped a kiss on her nose for that admission, and then she continued. "Sal is busier than ever with flying the Limidian—he's missing his co-pilot, he insists I tell you. Lorne is back at Caritas and revelling in being the hottest ticket in town. As for Jester, he's fine, if a little perturbed to find himself considering a legitimate career." Her lips twitched, "Obonè has plans to reform him and his bounty hunters. There's also talk about reviewing the security situation in Roth." She paused and peeked a glance at him. "A topic she wants to talk to you about."
That gave him pause. His brows snapped together in a bemused frown. "Me? Why me?"
"You'll have to ask her. I was more interested in the role I wanted you to fill."
She was prevaricating, but he didn't pursue it. He didn't want to think of a future beyond this day for as long as possible. "Tell me what happened after I fell."
Hesitantly at first, she did, but she was soon caught up enough that the details flowed. Most of what she had to relate was second-hand as she had been with him in the atrium. Freyrr, Sal and Lorne had apparently separated in an attempt to locate Padmé; with Sal and Lorne being ultimately more successful—only to be diverted by Obi-Wan. Having convinced them to follow him, Anakin's old Jedi master had then chivvied them into creating a braking system for a predicted fall, for which Lorne had been responsible; which would then be followed up by a speeder flown by Obi-Wan himself with Sal next to him. The tricky bit, she told him, had apparently been the timing. Sidious, charred, dead and barely recognisable, had fallen first. The braking system had been no more complex than a hastily erected barrier made up of compound that could be sprayed into an instant-hardening sheet of thin, flexible plastiflex. The height of Anakin's fall and the amount of area to be covered had made it impossible for it to break his fall completely, but it did slow his descent enough that Obi-Wan had been able to get underneath him so that Sal could catch him.
Anakin winced at how easily it could have all gone wrong, then smiled down at Padmé when he spotted the shadows in her dark eyes, suggesting that she was thinking along the same lines. It had worked, and that was all that mattered.
He distracted her with others questions. Obonè had not remained inactive while all of this was happening. As soon as the barrier was back to normal and the Narzgh either dead or trapped in sheltered areas, she began arranging sorties into the Core with the aim of driving them out before night fell. She'd also got the communications organised so that she could speak directly to the survivors in the Core, getting the message through that now was the time to fight back. Those that could had rallied to her call. Still, it had taken quite a few days before they were certain that only a few pockets of Narzgh remained hidden. Even now, hunting parties were still in operation and armed with UV.
Meanwhile most of the refugees that had fled into the forest had returned—or the survivors had—apparently it hadn't been a picnic there either. Rebuilding in the Core was begun and the blast doors separating the Core and Outer Rim were already removed. The best news of all—and Padmé was glowing when she told him—was that Zarc Wess had been able to extend the barrier to cover the whole city. For the first time in three quarters of a century, Roth was protected equally no matter where you lived and worked.
The bad news was the harrowing tally of dead and missing and the numbers were still growing. One million were confirmed as dead, another three hundred thousand were missing and the numbers of wounded and maimed came in at just under a hundred thousand. A little under a half of the Core had been decimated in less than a full day. It turned out that Petris Lyonides' final legacy was only a little less catastrophic than his fathers had been.
Tears shimmered, then began to flow down Padmé's cheeks as she told Anakin about the horrors they'd found in the aftermath. He could easily imagine what kind of nightmares they'd walked into while searching the city, and would be forever grateful that she hadn't been able to feel their utter despair, agony and torment as he had. He knew she would have been strong; no tears would have fallen while in public. Lifting her into his lap, he stroked her hair as she purged herself now. When she was finished, he gave her the only comfort he could and took the same for himself. For the second time in a few hours, Anakin carried her to bed. Darkness had settled over Roth before Padmé's hands slipped off his shoulders for the final time and she fell into an exhausted slumber. As soon as she had, Anakin curved himself protectively around her and followed.
Anakin woke to a quiver in the Force that brought him to full alert. Reaching out with the Force, he realised that it wasn't so much a disturbance as a…call. Lifting his head from beside Padmé's, Anakin attempted to pinpoint the source. What he found was a nagging sense of familiarity and rightness. The call tugged at him again, impossible to ignore. With infinite care, he pulled away from his still sleeping wife, stopping only to pull on his pants before padding out of the bedroom and across the apartment. The Force guided his feet to the foyer. Moonlight gleamed on the floors and furniture, sliding briefly over his chest as he moved quickly and silently. Following his instincts, he stopped at the turbo lift controls and released it, an action that caused the foyer lights to illuminate automatically. Moments later, he heard the lift stop and watched as the doors slid apart. A figure from his past stepped out.
"Obi-Wan," he said dumbly. It didn't matter that a part of him had known who he was inviting into his home, it was still a shock.
This was no old man. Dark blonde hair that was perhaps a mere shade lighter than Anakin's own fell in short waves around a familiar bearded, unlined face. The earth-tones of his Jedi robes were the same as twenty years ago and as pristine as ever.
"Hello, Anakin," said Obi-Wan. A gentle smile lifted his features. "I had a yen to see the dawn over the city, and then thought I'd see if you were awake. I hope I'm not interrupting?"
"No. No, it's fine. I'm awake." Anakin had to swallow a lump in his throat. "It's good to see you." And it was, it really, really was.
In response, Obi-Wan stepped closer, reaching out to clasp his arms with genuine affection. "And it's good to see you too, old friend. More than I can say."
Anakin's head swam, assailed by memories that choked him with a tumult of emotions, none of which he had a clue how to express. Obi-Wan was here! He was utterly unprepared for this meeting having half convinced himself that his one-time master would continue to avoid him. However, there was at least one sentiment Anakin could express with confidence and he grasped it with relief. "Thank you for saving me," he said with utter sincerity.
"You're very welcome." Obi-Wan dropped his hands and folded them while amusement glimmered in his eyes. "So, what's the score now, thirty eight to nine or some such rubbish, I suppose?"
Anakin blinked and then it hit him. Obi-Wan was referring to their old game of 'who'd saved who'. More memories washed over him. "No, master," he said slowly and very carefully. "I believe you've just surged ahead."
"I have the utmost faith that you'll catch up," was the reply, still ripe with amusement. "May I come in?" Without waiting for a reply, Obi-Wan took the initiative and led the way into the apartment itself. Anakin turned to dumbly follow. He hadn't yet taken his eyes off him—the man who had been father and brother to him before Vader had ever contorted that love and respect into irrational hatred.
"It's a nice apartment," noted Obi-Wan looking about him with interest. "It's not quite 500 Republica, but still specious and pleasant enough all the same."
"Thanks." Awkwardly Anakin wondered if he should go and get a shirt. "It's Padmé's apartment, I've been staying elsewhere…until now. Er, would you like some caf?" Mindful of Padmé sleeping, he led the way to the kitchen.
"I wouldn't say no if you're offering."Obi-Wan sat down at the table while Anakin busied himself with the drinks dispenser. "You look in considerably better health than the last time I saw you," he commented. "And, if I may say so, a great deal happier than I've seen you in a long time."
"I am happy. Happier than I've ever been before." Anakin glanced over while the caf poured. "And, something tells me that I have you to thank for that too."
Obi-Wan adopted his innocent look. "I have no idea what you mean."
Despite his awkwardness, Anakin's lips twitched. "Don't try and deny it. You intervened for me, didn't you? Back when I died on the Death Star."
"I might have spoken a few words in the right ears," Obi-Wan finally admitted, accepting the cup passed to him. "But, it was only possible because of the sacrifice you made." A spasm of discomfort passed over his face, "And…one or two other considerations."
Anakin took the seat opposite him, cradling his own caf in one hand. Frowning, he asked, "And, what were those considerations?"
"Well, mostly it was the fact that this world needed you almost as much as you needed it." Obi-Wan raised the cup in a salute. "A point amply confirmed by your recent victory."
"So, it was planned," mused Anakin. He wasn't at all sure how he felt about that idea.
"Not so much planned, as a conscious move to take an opportunity for a dual purpose to be served in the event of certain circumstances arising," corrected Obi-Wan.
"Right," nodded, Anakin, darkly amused. "Whatever that means."
"It means that the point was for you to have a second chance. A chance to redeem. A chance for a life not blighted by a destiny that seemed resolved on forcing decisions on you, and those around you, that could lead only to darkness and evil."
And a chance to be with Padmé, Anakin silently added. He lifted his own cup to hide his smile. "Ahh, the Negotiator returns. You always did have a way with words while I stumbled around like a wild gundark." He inclined his head. "Either way you have my sincere thanks once again—and I think that you've just increased your lead."
"You don't have to thank me. It was my fondest wish to see you as you are now, at peace and content. You were my brother and my friend, Anakin," he explained gently when Anakin slid him a questioning look. "You have no idea how much I grieved after you fell to the dark side."
You were the Chosen One! It was said that you would, destroy the Sith, not join them. It was you who would bring balance to the Force, not leave it in Darkness. You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you.
It was a punch to the gut to hear Obi-Wan's voice from that day, made worse by the fact that he was sitting across a table from him at the same time. It somehow hurt more to remember that, given the chance, he would have destroyed Obi-Wan, instead of the other way around.
He sucked in a deep breath and forced himself to return that steady gaze. "There are no words that can convey my remorse to you. I made many mistakes and allowed myself to be blinded to the truth. I was utterly and completely wrong."
"I know how much you regret it all, Anakin. Have no fear." There was a pause. Not so much awkward as thoughtful. Then Obi-Wan leaned back in his seat, and did what he'd once been wont to do just to drive Anakin crazy—changed the subject entirely. "Sidious is gone by the way, permanently this time. In case you were wondering if he might be popping back up at some point."
Apologies had never been his strong suit, so for once he was more than happy to change the topic. "I'm relieved to hear it considering I've killed him twice now," he said dryly.
"I assure you that there won't be a third. He's a spirit-shade now, completely without physical form and left to drift in torment in the third world. Neither Sidious nor Maul will be making any reappearances."
"And Dooku, what of him?"
"Let's just say that his case is being reviewed—but don't hold your breath."
It was the perfect opening. Rising to dump his barely touched caf into the disposal unit, Anakin kept his back turned to broach the issue that had jumped to the forefront of his mind the moment he'd seen Obi-Wan walk out of that lift. Tensely he asked, "And me, what about my case? Is that still up for review?"
"Not at all." Anakin risked a glance back and found that Obi-Wan's smile was unashamedly proud. "You're redeemed, Anakin. It seems that you've dropped your penchant for recklessness in favour of one for self-sacrifice." Obi-Wan straightened to lean on the table with his hands clasped. "The first time aboard the Death Star earned you your second chance, the one that ended Sidious again was enough to redeem you. Whatever happens now, you need no longer fear becoming a Narzgh."
"Even though I used the dark side to do it?"
"Is that what you did?" asked Obi-Wan quietly. "Is that really what you did? Or, did you merely reflect back the evil that he'd already wrought? Were you not surprised at how easily you sloughed it off, as if it were merely a borrowed cloak that disguised you for a few moments? Force storm is not purely a dark side power, Anakin. Jedi might use it only rarely, but we have used it."
Anakin was taken aback. "I don't know. I didn't think of it like that, or at all if I could help it. I just did it." He shrugged at the admittance. "You know I've never been one for philosophical debates."
That earned him a laugh. "All too true, a foible I recall finding endlessly frustrating when you were my padawan, and beyond now I think on it."
This time they shared the smile brought on by that oddly fond reminisce. Anakin felt his muscles relax one by one. Leaning back against the counter, he crossed his arms over his chest. "I was a sore trial to you, master."
"Occasionally, but I would say that the good times outweighed the bad." Obi-Wan's voice turned a shade wistful. "We made a good team back in the old days."
"We did, but—is this a craving for adventure, Master Kenobi? I thought that you preferred the quiet life."
"Life in the first world can get a little too quiet," Obi-Wan wagged a finger, "although, if you ever repeat that to the likes of Master Yoda, I will deny it, vehemently."
"Don't worry my lips are sealed. Although if all that peace does get to be too much. I'm sure I can find you some…excitement to get embroiled in here. There's this club I know—" Anakin stopped himself and left the sentence hanging, surprised at how easy it had been to slip back into old bantering habits.
"As delightful as that sounds," said Obi-Wan slowly. "I have to wonder of the second world is prepared for two Jedi strolling around its streets and sampling the local beverages? I recall a few smallish cities that we had to fight our way out of after a small misunderstanding, shall we say."
The stab of pain was surprising in its intensity. Anakin shook his head, trying to shrug it off. "I haven't been a Jedi for many years, Obi-Wan, so I doubt the problem will arise."
Only to be the recipient of a familiar blank stare. "Don't be too hasty, Knight Skywalker."
Obi-Wan's hand rested on what looked like a pile of clothing. A glance confirmed the presence of a cloak, robes and what looked suspiciously like a leather tabard. They hadn't been on the table only a moment ago.
Suspicious and confused, Anakin pushed away from the counter to approach the table again, waving a hand at the pile. "What's this?"
"Your Jedi robes. I thought you might like to be wearing something familiar while you keep the peace around here. Of course, if you prefer different apparel I can assure you that no one will complain. As I understand it, the new Jedi order is really quite relaxed about such things. Myself, I'm a traditionalist," Obi-Wan canted his head, "on this topic at least."
"What happened to 'master'?"
Anakin was beginning to recall with crystal clarity that the frustration in their relationship had gone both ways. He scowled and dropped back into his seat. "I remembered that I'm not a Jedi anymore."
Abruptly, Obi-Wan's gaze turned sombre, all humour and teasing vanishing. "The choice is yours, Anakin. Myself and the others would like you to be the knight that you were meant to be. Luke said it himself, remember. I am a Jedi like my father. You were meant to be a Jedi and you've proven beyond a doubt that you can be."
He was being serious.
Anakin could only stare, frozen in place and almost numb with shock. Could he really be a Jedi again, was such a thing even wise, or desirable? Confusion reigned when he realised just how much he did want to be a Jedi again. He hadn't let himself consider it, so it came as a complete surprise. He'd once defined his life by only two things: being a Jedi and Padmé's husband—and then thrown away both. Obi-Wan was offering him the last important part of his old life, the final piece of the fragmented whole. Against all reason, joy began to bubble in his blood, ready to burst forth and spread its wings, and then reality reasserted itself. It was completely and utterly impossible. The decision was so easy that he didn't even feel disappointment. Raking a shaking hand through his hair, he shook his head. "I'm honoured beyond anything I can express, master, but I can't be a Jedi—I won't give up Padmé—not for anything. Never again."
Unbelievably, Obi-Wan dismissed that objection with a wave of one hand. "Nobody is asking you to, Anakin. Things have changed. For one, you will be the only Jedi based here in the second world, and for another—Luke's new Jedi order is very different from the one that we knew. If he can get married, I don't see why you can't stay married."
"Excuse me! Luke is married?"
Obi-Wan smiled at his shocked exclamation. "Alright, I'll admit he isn't yet, but it's definitely in the wind. Still, you get my point." Inexplicably, he rose to his feet, clearly preparing to depart. "You can be both a Jedi and a husband, Anakin—it really is up to you."
"Wait. Where are you going?" Apart from being utterly thrown by the curveballs Obi-Wan had tossed at him so casually, Anakin hadn't even begun to ask all of the questions that he wanted to have answered. He shot to his feet too.
Obi-Wan turned back, gesturing at the figure standing patiently in the archway and waiting to be noticed. "Padmé is awake, and waiting for me to greet an old friend who hasn't seen her for far too long." Anakin had been so stunned and distracted that he hadn't sensed her approach. There were tears on her cheeks again, but this time of happiness. "If you don't mind," continued Obi-Wan, "I'll say my hello's and then leave you two to talk. If nothing else, I'm hoping that she'll bring you round to my way of thinking."
"Will you be back?"
"Oh, assuredly, I'm rather looking forward to visiting this bar you mentioned."
Padmé paced nervously while she waited for Anakin to appear. It was now full morning and her day of grace to have her husband to herself was over, but that wasn't what was making her uneasy. For the first time that she could ever remember, she was waiting to see how he dressed himself. She hadn't been able to stay in their bedroom, not without applying a pressure that she had no intention of applying. This was Anakin's decision and his alone. Oh, but she could hope. One question dominated her thoughts. Would he wear the robes that Obi-Wan had given him?
Finally, and after what seemed hours the door whooshed aside and he was standing before her. Her throat went tight as her gaze tracked down the tall length of him. "Oh, Ani! You look wonderful."
And he did. The undertunic was oatmeal and overlain by a light brown overtunic which in turn was covered by a dark brown leather tabard. His pants were a darker brown still and tucked into knee-high boots. The long flowing cloak, utility belt and ever present lightsaber completed the ensemble.
He lifted a chastising brow, then ruined the image by fidgeting where he stood. "A Jedi doesn't dress to look wonderful, Padmé. Just…" he shrugged, "…utilitarian."
Padmé wasn't deceived. He wasn't feeling at all casual. This was a very big deal to both of them. "In that case," she teased, "I'll settle for saying that you look very utilitarian and it's a style that suits you. How's that?"
"Better." His smile was crooked. "Are you ready to go?"
Going to him, she threaded her arm through his waiting one. "I am indeed, Jedi Skywalker. You may escort me to my transport."
On the landing pad, another air taxi awaited them. "Don't you have your own speeder?" he asked her as he handed her inside.
"There are shortages of most things right now, including transport. Emergency services have confiscated most of the privately owned transport. As it's for a good cause, I don't mind and I get priority on the taxi services that are available."
As today's driver was far too in awe of his passengers to chatter, they arrived at the palace without the sense of irritation that accompanied their last journey.
In a shrewd move, Obonè had insisted that the palace be the last to receive repairs for the damage it had sustained during the occupation. To the viewers at home, the decision sent a clear message that the new Premier considered the rest of the city and its citizens to be the higher priority. In an even shrewder move, Obonè was ensuring that message was repeated by having the media almost permanently encamped at the palace. The downside was that anyone entering would invariably find themselves ambushed with questions hurled from all quarters. Having learned her lesson after the med centre scene, Padmé had warned Anakin of this likelihood when the message had come through requesting their presence. Sat next to him in the air taxi as it approached the designated landing pad at the palace, Padmé stole a look at his profile, reassured to find him looking composed and unruffled—and so like a Jedi that her heart swelled. Unable to help it, she let her gaze linger. Little bubbles of joy kept rising up from her belly to swell up into her chest, and considering the emotional wasteland of the last two decades, she was finding these new sensations to be heady and addictive.
Once they'd landed, Anakin assisted her from the taxi and then kept her hand to once again tuck it through his arm. The stiff burgundy skirt of her formal dress brushed against his sweeping cloak as they walked towards the gaggle of reporters encircling the entrance into the palace. At the sight of Padmé and Anakin coming towards them, the colourful variety of sentients went into a frenzy that was only kept under control by the dampening presence of twin lines of security guards. In mute accord they refused to answer the questions thrown at them as they passed through, however, their obvious intimacy in such a public setting told its own tale. Messages abounded, mused Padmé. Anakin was taking care to reinforce the statement that she had made the previous day—that whatever the reason for their silence prior to this, they were husband and wife, and staying that way. Speculation would soon be rife.
Inside the palace, they were met by an elaborately robed Twi'lek male who greeted them with a deep bow. "Anakin Skywalker and Councillor Amidala, you are most welcome. My name is Pre'laknek. If you will follow me please, I will escort you to the council antechamber where refreshments await your pleasure."
Padmé met Anakin's sideways questioning glance with wide-eyes and a barely perceptible shrug. She didn't have a clue what was going on. She'd attended council meetings regularly since the council had been reformed and had not been treated this way—more like an honoured guest than a working civil servant.
"Council antechamber?" questioned Anakin in a low voice as they followed behind the officious bustle of Pre'laknek.
"The audience chamber has been renamed to that of council chamber," Padmé whispered back, "and the antechamber is a small room just off it that was previously used by Lyonides for spying on the rest of us."
"Ah," smiled Anakin. "Changes are already afoot."
"Many and varied," agreed Padmé, returning his smile, "And, thankfully, all for the better."
Pre'laknek bowed again as he waved them through a doorway just preceding that of the main council chamber. Inside, they both came to a surprised halt. The room was already close to full. Sal, Lorne, Freyrr, Jester, Jazz and Vlad to name a few were standing around in various stages of eating and drinking. Sal looked distinctly odd in an unrumpled set of clothes with his hair brushed neatly back and scarred cheeks clean-shaven, and he wasn't the only one wearing his best clothes. Lorne was as dapper as ever in eye-popping purple.
Twinkling red eyes surveyed Anakin's Jedi robes. "Well, hello, handsome, and don't you two look fetching and the picture of a cosy twosome today." The last was said with a glance at their linked arms. "Congratulations, princess," he said to Padmé. "I knew you could do it. Never bet against a woman in love! Now, how about sharing some of the love and giving out some hugs." He held out an arm to Padmé and she gladly moved in to give him an affectionate squeeze and a fond peck on one green cheek. The oddly dressed and bizarrely outspoken Pylean had turned out to be a true and real friend.
"Hey! What about me?" Sal was next and then it was greetings all round.
Padmé's heart gave another leap at seeing Sal and Anakin embrace, grinning and then slap each other on the back with the comfortable camaraderie of two close friends. Loud in her welcome, Freyrr all but lifted Padmé in the air in her enthusiasm and nearly did the same to a grimacing Anakin, who patted her awkwardly on one massive and furred shoulder. Everyone else then surged toward the new arrivals. The back-slapping and hand-shakes finally died down as conversations resumed. She drifted back to stand beside Anakin and asked Lorne, "Do you know what all of this is about?"
"They didn't tell you," guessed Lorne, amused. "Our revered and reassuringly smart leader must have been worried that the hero here would get stage-fright if he was pre-warned."
Anakin, the hero in question, folded his arms and tried not to look smug with his rebuttal. "Let me guess. We're about to walk into an impromptu awards ceremony? Probably arranged to give the people something else to think about and, if possible, feel a little good about." Then quirking a brow he added, "and I don't get stage fright."
"I'll remind you of that the next time I ask you to sing for me in Caritas; which, by the way, is seriously rockin' at the moment. I'm sold out, booked solid for weeks—although I'll always have a table free for you, sugarplum," Lorne assured Padmé.
"He ain't kidding," griped Sal. "You can barely squeeze ass room at the bar these days, and I'm a freakin' paying tenant."
Lorne was utterly unrepentant. "It's strictly a first come first served basis, Kimosabe. A man of my fame and generosity can't be seen to have favourite clients. Speaking of which, what the hell happened to my order of sweetmeats? They were supposed to have been delivered yesterday. I had to beat back a ravenous mob of Bothans this morning at breakfast."
"Tough. I've got a stack of orders up to my damned eyeballs and more coming in. I'll get to you when I get to you." Sal offered him a nasty smile. "I can't have favourite clients either, Kimosabe!" He then turned a long-suffering look on Anakin. "I need ya back, pal, seriously. Everyone and his damned brother is after stuff, or trying to get somewhere else to fetch it themselves." He looked disgusted at the rampant consumerism. "I've clocked more flight time in the last seven days than the previous seven months. How about it?"
Padmé waited for his answer with an interest equal to Sal, wondering how Anakin planned to manage the transition of one life to another. "Let me know where and when and we'll work something out. But, in the long-term there'll be times that I can't make it, so you need to train someone else as an alternative. It shouldn't be a problem. There's plenty of pilots in the city to choose from."
"Yeah, but damned few as handy in a tight spot as you." Sal shrugged philosophically. "But I'll settle for what I can get and find an alternative for when there's a problem."
Jester must have overheard. Ambling over, the besalisk gave Sal his trademark wide, jovial grin. "Jazz can fly the pants off most of you skyjockies and she's hell on wheels in a tight spot." He clapped Sal on the shoulder so hard that he choked on his Junga juice. "Give her a whirl sometime."
Giving the caramel-skinned Amazon a jaundiced look, Sal caught her challenging toothy grin and gave back one that was equally as feral, muttering. "When hell freezes over, Jester, maybe, just maybe, I'll give one of your boar-wolves a chance to fly my ship."
"You baby that rust-bucket more'n an anxious mama, boy." Jester's shout of laughter was interrupted by the adjoining doors to the council chamber swooshing open, revealing the same Twi'lek that had greeted Padmé and Anakin. This time his bow was deep enough that the tips of his head-tails brushed the mosaic floor. "We are ready for you now, honoured guests. If you would all follow me."
The council chamber where Lyonides had tried Anakin for his actions as Darth Vader was echoingly empty. However, the twin doors at the bottom right were flung open and sunlight burst through from the outside. Pre'laknek led the group to the open doors and out into the sunshine. The council members, complete with a smiling Premier Obonè in the middle, were assembled on the wide and deep landing at the top of stone steps. At the bottom of the steps, and as far as the eye could see, thousands of people were gathered in a sea of heads. Stepping out with Padmé at his side and then flanked by Sal and Lorne, Anakin was irresistibly reminded of the celebrations following the battle of Naboo. There was no dancing or music, but the swiftly flowing river of gratitude that he could feel flowing in the Force was disorientingly similar.
The council and Obonè stepped back so that the long line of heroes to be honoured could form and look at the people, and be looked at in return-to see who and what it was that they'd risked their lives to save.
In turn, the people of Junga Roth didn't wait for any introductions, speeches or the handing out of medals. It started somewhere near the front and then swelled from every direction. They began to clap and the noise of that grateful applause rose and rose until it reached an emotional and deafening crescendo.
It was impossible not to be moved. The sound of that applause was a song in Anakin's heart. He had no more secrets. His past as Vader wasn't hidden or swept aside. He had nothing left to hide. These people knew the worst of him, and yet they accepted him-accepted that he was a different man now. Despite Obi-Wan's assurances he hadn't felt truly redeemed, until now. He was forgiven. He would always feel shame and guilt but those emotions would come from inside him and not from the people he wanted to serve. And serve them he would. Swallowing a swell of gratitude and compassion, Anakin vowed that he would do everything in his power to allow them to live their lives in peace, and redeem.
Padmé must have sensed something of what he was feeling, because she clasped his hand and squeezed.
After the presentation and with smiling permission from Padmé, Obonè singled Anakin out to walk alone with her. Typical of her no-nonsense approach she took no retinue, and as the weather was so beautiful, she opted to follow the decorative walkways that meandered around the sprawling palace. As they strolled along the sunlit paths, Anakin noticed for the first time that that the birds were singing as they fluttered from tree to tree and bush to bush. There had been a similar change to the encircling forest—oddly, it no longer seemed so dark and threatening. The poison of the dark side was gone, defeated along with Sidious.
Seeing that Obonè was in no rush to open a conversation, Anakin chose to do so for her. "I want you to know that, like Padmé, I believe that you'll make an exceptional Premier for Roth. The city needs a fair and compassionate leader now, and I can't think of anyone better suited to the job."
"Thank you, Anakin. It means a great deal to me to have your support as well as your wife's," she smiled knowingly as she said this and the gleam in her dark eyes was of genuine delight for them both. Then she turned serious. "However, full democratic elections must be arranged and held as soon as possible and there's no guarantee that I'll win. Others may be nominated and then win more votes." She shrugged. "It is the way of politics."
"I've known many a political system that is far less democratic," Anakin disputed gently. "And if it helps, you'll have my vote, regardless."
"Thank you," she said, and then continued. "However, there are rumours in the media of you yourself being nominated, rumours made stronger by the fact that Padmé has stated clearly that she won't be running."
"If that happens, I will politely decline. I am not meant for a life of politics. I'll leave that to you, Padmé and the council." Anakin's flat, definite tone deliberately left no room for doubt.
"I believe you, and I'm relieved," admitted Obonè with a smile, "although probably not for the reasons you may assume. I think it would be a waste of your talents to be mired in the subtleties of politics, opinion polls, petty squabbles and worse, the endless administrative quagmires. In fact, if you're agreeable. I would ask for your assistance, and the use of your talents for other things."
Ahead of them, rubble caused by the Limidian's cannons was in the process of being carted up and swept away. They took a wide loop to avoid getting in the way of the clean-up work. "My talents, such as they are, are at your disposal, Premier."
"A little bird tells me that you are once again a Jedi Knight. Is this true?"
Ruefully Anakin wondered if the little bird was Padmé or Obi-Wan, the latter he now knew visited Obonè whenever he was in the city. "I have been reinstated, yes." He didn't elaborate.
"That's excellent news. In fact, I hope you don't mind, but I'm having an announcement drafted to that effect. Lyonides wasn't wrong when he said that it would be an immense relief to the people to know that they have a Jedi in their midst, protecting them. Particularly as that Jedi is you."
"I'm honoured to hold their trust so securely, but tell me, do I have a choice about the announcement?" he asked, amused and already suspecting the answer.
Obonè gave a shout of laughter that rivalled Jester's for volume. "Not really, no. I'm asking only to be polite."
Her honestly was so refreshing that even if he'd been given a choice, he would have acquiesced to the request. As such, Anakin inclined his head and said lightly, "In that case, you may go ahead with my blessing."
"Seriously though, Anakin—" she paused and slid him a quizzical glance, "—by the way, should I be calling you by some title? I'm afraid that I know little about the Jedi Order."
"Anakin is fine. But if you feel the need to be formal it's, Jedi Knight Skywalker." He hoped that it didn't show that he still felt a distinct sense of unreality about saying such a thing, or that the fine hairs on his body stood up on end when he did—much as they had when he'd donned the Jedi robes this morning. His new life, he mused, was going to take some getting used to.
"Anakin," continued Obonè. "I would like you to consider a position on my council. With so many dead or missing there are several positions available, or if you would feel that might be too structured and restricting, I could do with an advisor."
"Offering you advice when it's needed is certainly possible, but a formal position on the council is probably unwise." Avoiding Obonè's too astute gaze, Anakin watched a bat-hawk swoop and catch a much smaller and defenceless spider sparrow. "Peacekeeping and politics are uneasy bedfellows, Premier, and become easily entangled to the point that truth is obscured. Send for me when you need me and I'll come. Other than that I can't promise, except to swear to you that I will protect this city and its people—within the boundaries granted to a Jedi." Now he focused on her. "I hope that reassures you."
Obonè came to a halt as if to consider his words, then nodded once in satisfaction. "Now that you mention it, it does." She sighed, "And we do need you." A wave of her hand drew his attention to a Gius Natar's one-time pride and joy, the distant security centre with its snaking line of draftees. "We are far from recovered. The security forces of the city have been severely depleted and looting has already begun, as has a rise in the crime rate, and that's only the internal threats. Our neighbours both near and far are also circling."
"Like anything in nature, and the Force, every civilisation has its ruthless and darker elements, as well as its predators," commented Anakin. "I know enough about those. I can help you."
Sombrely, she reached out to lay a hand on his arm. "Thank you, Anakin, from myself and a people lucky enough to have you as their guardian."
(Two weeks later…)
It was a vastly different Outer Rim than he remembered noted Obi-Wan with satisfaction. Cushioned by a new sense of security and aided by well thought out public spending, the residences now no longer resembled the despairing slums of some backwater and discarded world. Business had also opened up and succumbing to a sense of pride, people were spending money to do up their homes or their persons. Jobs had been created, increasing spending power so that café's and restaurants had been created to sit along side the numerous stores. Boosted by this surge in confidence, advertisers had moved into the Outer Rim, adding colour with their blinking arrays of neon screens selling dreams and fantasies in the form of the perfect body, the perfect mate, or the perfect place to eat. All in all, he thought, it was a massively improved picture and a pleasure to stroll through with a friend at your side and the promise of an alcoholic beverage at journey's end.
The club didn't stand out particularly, but the scents wafting up the stairs were appetising and the indeterminate noise of distant music certainly seemed lively. Standing below the blinking sign advertising 'Caritas' and fully prepared to enjoy himself, Obi-Wan turned to Anakin and said, "You know, I can't help but get the feeling that you're being deliberately vague about this place. You say that you know the owner?"
"Oh, yeah. I know him." Arms folded, Anakin couldn't have looked more suspiciously bland if he tried. "He's the…hospitable type."
People were skirting around them, Intent on their business and obviously unconcerned to see two Jedi just standing about in the street. Hospitable was one of those descriptors with a wide variety of connotations, as his ex-apprentice knew very well. Intrigued, Obi-Wan tried again. "Padmé mentioned that you once rented an apartment above it."
And that was all he'd been able to prise out of a visibly amused Padmé Skywalker.
"That's true." The picture of non-committal, Anakin gestured to the doorway. "Shall we go down, master?"
Obi-Wan nodded, almost looking forward to whatever spectacle Anakin had planned for him—almost. "After you."
The noise ramped up considerably at the bottom of the single flight of stairs and skyrocketed past deafening once they'd passed through the final door. The club was crammed with sentients of all shapes and sizes. On the right was a long, polished bar backlit by moodsceens. The left was dominated by a stage, and a familiar green and horned humanoid who was belting out a rather catchy tune enthusiastically into a microphone.
Obi-Wan had to raise his voice to be heard. "Isn't that your friend Lorne?" he asked Anakin, following behind him as they threaded through the crowd, dodging tables to get to the bar. They had to squeeze in a gap between a Rhodian and an overweight human male.
"Lorne is the owner I was telling you about," confessed Anakin with a grin, leaning one arm on the bar.
"What, the one who thinks I'm cute?"
"Lorne thinks everyone is cute. He doesn't discriminate—it's part of his charm."
"In that case I'll prepare to be charmed." Obi-Wan narrowed his eyes. "What else aren't you telling me?"
"You'll see." Blue eyes danced with humour. "What'll you have?"
Obi-Wan surveyed the colourful decanters with a jaundiced eye. "Something non-lethal and only about medium potent."
That was a definite challenge. Pursing his lips, Obi-Wan ran his fingers over his beard. "Alright, what would you recommend?"
"Leave it to me, master. I know just the thing."
"I was afraid of that," sighed Obi-Wan as Anakin turned, caught the attention of the barman and placed an order. On the stage, Lorne was wrapping up to thunderous applause. With only a small twinge of concern, he wondered what he'd let himself in for.
Obi-Wan took the drink that Anakin passed him just as something occurred to him. "You wouldn't be extracting some small-minded revenge for my avoidance of you during the Narzgh occupation would you?"
"Would I be so petty after you explained to me that you were under strict orders not to directly interfere, distract me or otherwise risk aggravating me in my already mildly agitated state?"
"Mildly agitated he says," snorted Obi-Wan, "And, knowing you as I do, I'd have to say yes to the revenge—hence my query." He took a cautious sniff of the beverage and could smell only fruit, so he followed up with a sip. "Hmm, very tasty." Smiling, he clapped Anakin on the shoulder. "Maybe, I've misjudged you after all."
Grinning himself now, Anakin suddenly focused over Obi-Wan's shoulder, raising his voice to say, "Lorne, I've brought you a guest. You two have met before, but did you know that Master Kenobi here has an astounding singing voice?"
Astounding singing voice! Obi-Wan choked on his second, much less cautious sip. "Hold on. What's my voice got to do with anything?"
Other than a beaming smile, Lorne ignored Obi-Wan to reply to Anakin. "I can't stop to chat now, handsome. I'm on the clock, but you've hooked me. This I gotta hear. The second to last slot before closing is still open. I'll book you in—which gives you roughly two hours to get a few more loopyfruits down him. Ciao."
Obi-Wan waited until Lorne had drifted off with a cheery wave to warn, "I'm not singing, Anakin."
"We'll see. Ready for a refill yet?"
"That depends if you are."
Two hours later…
The wall outside Caritas was propping them up. "I didn't know that you knew any Zeltron love songs?" said Anakin abruptly. "Isn't that a bit racy for you?"
"Well, I didn't know that you knew any Chalactan gypsy tunes," retorted Obi-Wan, bent over with his hands on his knees. With a supreme effort, he straightened back up and weaved only a little. "In fact, come to think of it. I wish I'd remained in ignorance of that particular piece of intelligence."
"That's your fault, master" accused Anakin, trying to scowl but unable to co-ordinate his eyebrows. "I wasn't the one who was supposed to be singing. You were."
Obi-Wan held up a hand for a time-out while he hiccoughed, then said, "Don't blame me. It was you who insisted on the duet."
"Now, now. No more bickering, kids." Lorne finished locking up and looked over at the pair, then rolled his eyes at the pitiful sight. "Look, I'll call you a cab. Go home and sleep it off, and if Padmé asks why I let you get yourselves in such a state, tell her I simply couldn't resist. I'm sure she'll understand, and if not, hell, tell her I recorded it for prosperity, and possibly for future blackmail purposes. I'm sure she'd get a kick out of a viewing."
It was the dash of icy water they needed. Both Anakin and Obi-Wan blasted him with identical, aghast stares. "You recorded that!"
NOTE (2): That's it folks! The very end. Wow! I'm knackered, lol. Anyway, THANK YOU SO MUCH to all of you who have helped me get this story written with your reviews. Everyone's comments have meant a great deal, and more than made up for the hours hunched over my laptop. I hope you've enjoyed the story half as much as I've enjoyed writing it.
I think that's it. Wow again! And thanks again! And last but not least (as Lorne would say), Take care and toodles! Helen.