(1) Thanks once again to YellowDart and NikeJ for the wonderful job they're doing of beta.

(2) Just to remind again that I've drafted in an old friend from another fandom to act as an extra—you'll probably know who I mean when you come across him—there is no infringement intended. Lorne belongs to Joss Whedon and co…it's just fanfic etc etc *g*.

(3) Last, but not least, I've used a fight move from one of my favourite movies—Serenity. If you've seen it, you may recognise it.

CHAPTER THREE

Midway to reaching for his lightsaber, Anakin froze. Did he really want it general knowledge that he had it?

Everyone else froze too, then Sal gave a shout, the Geonosian elite and the droid dived for cover, and the would-be ambushers tried to recover the situation by coming out blasting. On the right of the hanger a troop of Geonosian warriors scuttled closer, raising their sonic weapons and aiming straight for Anakin. Instinct took over and spinning to meet them, he used a Force-push to swat them away. Another twist of the Force brought him one of the sonic blasters from the nearest fallen warrior. Deadly red blaster bolts were coming in thick and fast. Diving and coming up in a roll, Anakin let loose with the blaster, returning fire at the humanoids, and heard Sal yell to him, "Get inside and fire her up! I'll cover you and follow."

Firing another couple of rapid-fire shots at their ambusher to get them scrambling out of the way, Anakin sprinted for the ramp, dodging return fire as he pounded up and inside. Cursing and lunging for the pilot seat, he started flipping switches and activated the control stick. The sub-light engine started with a roar. Around and over him, the ship shuddered as the hull was repeatedly hit. A moment later, he heard a thud from the rear of the cockpit as Sal fell inside, only just keeping his balance. Ashen-faced, grim and with a fresh, fiery weal above his right eye, the older man lurched into the co-pilot's seat just as Anakin lifted the Limidian off the hanger-bay floor.

"Hold on to something," Anakin yelled.

Blaster fire thickened as their attackers realised they were about to lose their quarry. A sonic blast rocked them hard enough to set off the inertial balance alarms.

There was no time for finesse. A side-swipe manoeuvre aimed at the remaining ambushers took care of a few more, and then they were roaring towards the hanger-bay exit. Too late. Blast shields were sliding inexorably across, ready to cut off their only escape.

"Break off. We're not gonna make it," yelled Sal, bracing himself as best as he could.

Anakin didn't so much as blink and pushed for more speed. "Oh, yes, we are."

Out of nowhere, one of the loader droids went rocketing past the cockpit viewport as if shot from a catapult. It smashed into the blast door controls. The heavy alloy doors came to a juddering halt just far apart enough for the Limidian to scrape through.

Weak and in pain or not, Sal managed to slide him an incredulous look, "Screw coincidence. I don't suppose you want to explain to me how you do that?"

"Not really, no," said Anakin. Rising steeply until they were above the crater, he banked left and accelerated with an urgency that strained the engine and earned him an automatic warning from the ships computer, 'warning, engine at one hundred and twenty percent. Reduce velocity now'. Anakin ignored it, saying, "Besides, I don't think we're out of the woods yet." He tossed Sal a grim smile. "Our unofficial welcoming committee didn't look Geonosian, and I don't imagine they walked."

As if to prove his words, the Limidian shuddered violently. "And there's our pursuit."

There was no tactical display on the ship, but there was a holo designed to pinpoint damage or technical problems. Right now, it was flashing a bright orange in the area designed for the right side engine block, indicating that fire suppression systems were in operation. In tandem a low, distinctly irritating alarm started frantically buzzing from the overhead panels.

Trouble wasn't limited to the hull. Buckled into his seat, Sal was grey now. "I hate to do this to you, kid, but I think I'm going to conk out on you. Sorry."

Anakin didn't have time to reply as the controls danced alarmingly in his hands, threatening to send them all crashing to the surface should he let his focus stray. Cursing louder, he decided he couldn't worry about the man now. If they crashed or got shot to pieces a few blaster wounds would be the least of their combined problems.

Worst of all, he was blind to the enemy unless they moved right in front of him, and they had no cannons or armament of any kind. They were weak, helpless and an easy target. Not good.

Reaching out with the Force, he searched for and found their pursuers with an ease that sent a thrill buzzing through his system. He wasn't blind after all: he could actually picture it—a mid-range, light-armoured interceptor fighter. He saw twin cannons mounted under the wings spit deadly streaks of light.

In a risky move considering its size, Anakin sent the Limidian into a cumbersome double-roll that wasn't pretty, but did the job of avoiding another laser strike. The fighter closed in. He could feel the other pilot's frustration at not having brought them down yet. Frustration was good, because it caused mistakes. Unfortunately, he didn't have time to let the enemy's emotion flare hotter. Slamming open the flaps, he reversed all thrusters in an attempt to rapidly decelerate and disorient the fighter. The Limidian shuddered harder, protesting the move while he wracked his brains on how to fight back. The manoeuvrability of the ship he was flying was a joke, and he was already risking an over-heated engine. More blips of orange, and some red, joined the first on the Limidian's Ops holo. The warning buzzers were reaching a cacophony.

One thing was certain: if this chase went on much longer they were toast. Just to his right, the fighter overshot them with only a meter or two to spare.

The pitiless landscape of dense forest thinned as the ground rose, flashing past and underneath the labouring freighter. An unconscious Sal was suddenly a good thing as a plan formed in Anakin's mind. It was both stupid and reckless, but he couldn't see another alternative. Puffing out a breath, he muttered, "Okay, let's find somewhere to land."

It took precious seconds to find a clearing big enough, and the landing was bumpy to say the least. Thrown forward against the flight deck controls hard enough to crack some ribs, Anakin pushed back, shot out of the seat and punched the hatch release.

He was outside before the other fighter could complete its sharp, banking turn for another sweep at the freighter. Even so, it was soon streaking towards them, firing its lasers and going in for the kill. Their thoughts came at him as clear as words, betraying them. They thought they had him now and if possible, they wanted the ship and its cargo intact. The crew were to be killed, as in Anakin himself and Sal.

He could have told them there was no way he was dying twice within three days.

Obi-Wan's stark warning echoed in his head. …to die again, before you are ready, would mean going straight down with no chance of an up.

Pushing that voice out again, he closed his eyes and focused every atom of his being on the on the screaming outline of the fighter in his mind—supplanting eye-sight with the Force.

The fighter spat red light.

Igniting his lightsaber at the last possible second, Anakin spun and whirled. The long, blue energy beam flashed and hummed, unerringly sending both powerful laserbolts back to their source. It had been a risky move because he hadn't been sure if the lightsaber could handle the sheer destructive energy of the cannon bolts. Other than being numb up both arms though, the risk paid off.

Confident of their superiority and the freighters vulnerability, the fighter pilot had made a tactical error in getting too close. Despite veering off, he was unable to avoid the returning fire. Both hit with barely a micro-second between them. The explosion rocketed the clearing, scattering tail-end of debris rained down on Anakin and the Limidian.

Just as the last of the molten, twisted metal and plasto were settling in the forest, Sal appeared at the hatch, holding a blaster pistol and clutching on to the frame for support. "You Okay? What'd'I miss?"

Those black eyes were sickly rolling even before he'd finished asking the question. Anakin caught the man before he fell on his face.

o~o~o

On the approach to Junga Roth, Anakin had reported ahead so that medics, armed with a hover-stretcher were already waiting back at the city's towering, cylindrical series of landing platforms. The Limidian had literally limped back to Roth and Anakin was relieved to finally land, get off the ship and leave it and the cargo to be someone else's problem. Unfortunately, it wasn't that straight-forward.

Following behind the stretcher, Anakin found his way barred by a trio of uniformed human guards. "Hold it," said one of the guards, raising a hand to halt him. "With Trent unconscious you'll need to make a report to the station chief." He waved up at the control room overseeing all air traffic. "He's already waiting."

Aching and exhausted, Anakin just wanted a shower and maybe the chance to find some bacta to immerse himself in. "He can wait a bit longer. I was just co-pilot."

When he went to brush past, the guard stepped in the way again, saying bullishly, "Maybe you didn't hear me right. I said you have to make a report to the station chief."

Anger boiled past the tiredness. Anakin latched icy eyes on the man's face and received a jolt of recognition. In yet another disorienting flashback, he recalled a dark, wet night on Coruscant.

Vader had called down for his shuttle to be readied and when he'd got down to the landing bay the preparations hadn't been complete. Coldly, deliberately, he'd executed those he held responsible as an example, cutting them down even as they'd begged for mercy. The memory of babbling, terror-filled pleas played back now, freezing him in place.

One of them had been this man.

Punishment without mercy. The memory was nothing out of the ordinary, merely one of a thousand moments of insane, unnecessary cruelty—the way of the Sith.

His way.

Guilt savaged him, writhing in his guts like a host of serpents. Coming face-to-face with one of his victims was so much worse than reliving his past life in dreams and memories.

The guard's brows snapped together, irate at the silent scrutiny and utterly oblivious of its cause. "I asked you if you heard me, pilot?"

Anakin jerked his eyes away and swallowed, holding up his hands in acquiescence. "I heard you. Where do I have to go?"

o~o~o

"He went up against an unknown fighter after escaping an ambush, and beat it?" Lyonides stopped pacing and smiled for the first time since being told of the Geonosian's treachery, and just how close he'd come to losing his newly acquired battle droids. "I think I would like to meet this miraculous pilot. He's a new arrival?"

"Exactly, my lord. Anakin Skywalker registered himself the day before yesterday at the Gate processing centre. When later applying for work at one of the resources' trusts, he put himself down as a pilot and claimed forty-years experience of a great variety of spacecraft. Given such credentials, he was flagged up and assigned as co-pilot for the trading mission. However—" Tall and thin enough to be a Muun, Security Minister Natar bore an unfortunate resemblance to a vulture, not helped by a penchant for wearing a thick black cowl. Still reading from the datapad, he coughed delicately, his usual prelude to spreading poison; as if he had to clear his throat first to make it believable. "—there is a note on his record about his appearance belying his age by some considerable degree."

Unfortunately for Natar, today Lyonides wasn't interested. He waved it off. "I don't care how old he is. Get him here."

"It will mean sending a troop out to the outer rim. He's taken up residence in the Shelter. It's been a trifle volatile there over the last few weeks," Natar warned. "It might incite trouble."

"Get him here."

Natar bowed, "Yes, my lord."

o~o~o

Anakin threaded through the gang of hulking security guards at the door. The club was busy and dominated by a semi-circular stage on which a green-skinned, horned sentient was singing with unabashed fervour. The singer had a deep, resonant tenor and unusual taste in clothing. Dragging his gaze away, Anakin scanned the long black bar. The message he'd received from Trent was that the other pilot would be here. Broad and stout, with thick black hair threaded with silver, he was easy to spot.

Anakin slid onto the empty stool next to him, saying, "I'm surprised the medical centre released you so quickly."

Sal grinned, saluting him with his plasto cup. "I didn't give them a choice. I hate those places. You want one of these?"

Purple, cloudy and lightly smoking, the drink looked lethal. Guilt was still doing a tap-dance in his brain so he made a rash decision. "Why not."

Sal got the attention of the barman and placed the order. Anakin turned his back to the bar and leaned against it to survey the club. It was a nice, clean place. The lightly textured, flexible tile floor had been manufactured to look like wood. He noted that the club's other patrons included a variety of sentients and all were heavily armed. A shapely pair of Twi'lek females dispensed drinks and meal orders from round trays balanced on one hand.

"I haven't seen this many non-humans in the city anywhere else," Anakin remarked, turning his head to look at Sal. "I was beginning to think you didn't have any."

"This is pretty much it. Speciesism is as rife on this side as the other. Lorne over there—the one singing—is our host and, for obvious reasons, he doesn't discriminate."

Anakin's drink arrived, and one sip was all it took to convince him that he was risking his stomach lining if he actually drank it. Grimacing, he put it back down. "I take it most other species have their own settlements, like the Geonosians?"

"Yup. It's a big a world and it just keeps getting bigger as the need arises. Trust me, its hell on estimating journey times." Sal took a swig of his drink that had Anakin's taste-buds wincing in sympathy.

On the stage, their colourful host ended his set to applause and started to talk into the mic. "Oh, yeah. I'm feelin' the love and sendin' it right back. We have ourselves a hot'n'rockin' atmosphere here tonight, all thanks to you folks, and we're only just starting. Right now I'm gonna handover to Jnut, who's feeling a little down, a little maudlin, and needs some jive to feel the vibe, baby. Let's give him a warm welcome…"

Unhooking a pouch off his own utility belt, Sal slid it across the bar. "On the topic of journeys, here's your pay. Sorry it's not much considering you got us out of a major jam, but business is slow."

The musicians picked up again, flooding the club with the discordant sound of Baka Rock. The vocal accompaniment when it started was even worse.

Anakin took the bag of credits, weighing it in his hand. "Thanks—"

"—Sal, you old curmudgeon, who've you dragged into my place this time?"

A green hand whisked between them to snatch up the drink the bartender slid into the waiting palm. It was a practised exchange that suggested frequency. Over the rim of the cup, twinkling red eyes in a green, bi-horned face surveyed Anakin with frank curiosity.

"Well, well. Welcome to Caritas II, and my, aren't you just the wholesome face in this crowd of degenerates." Lorne wagged a finger at him, brow furrowed in thought. "Except…you know, for some reason I'm getting a picture of you in black. Have we met before?"

Thankfully, Anakin didn't have to reply. After a particularly ear-splitting screech from the stage, Lorne winced, looking pained. "Would you listen to that? He's butchering something I thought couldn't actually be butchered. Worse, I don't even have good news to make it worth the pain—his or mine." Draping an electric-blue clad arm over Sal's shoulder, Lorne leaned in, "Do you think he'll take it badly when I tell him his beloved back in the living is doing the mattress-rumba with an insurance salesman?"

"Probably." Sal, lips twitching, cocked his chin in Lorne's direction. "Lorne here is a Pylean," he explained to Anakin. "You sing and he reads your soul—"

"That's aura, honey pie."

"—whatever. Allow me to introduce Anakin Skywalker. He's another pilot and he saved my life today."

"Sounds like my kind of guy." Lorne's smile was open and engaging. "Tell you what. Since I'm one of the few who consider Sal here a friend I'll read you for free. What's your favourite tune, handsome?"

"I don't sing." Deliberately, Anakin's tone left no room for doubt.

The Pylean gusted out a sigh. "Now, where have I heard that before?" He paused, then his expression darkened, "Oh, yeah. I remember now." Draining his drink, Lorne gave a deep all-over-body shudder that had nothing to do with the alcohol. "Forget I asked, cuteness. I have a policy of never doing repeat performances when the opening night flopped, and you've got tall, dark and brooding written all over you. Toodles!"

Not sorry to see him go, Anakin watched the Pylean glide away to mingle, subtly flirting with every species and sex. "That was strange."

Sal shrugged, draining his cup and signalling for a refill. "That's Lorne for you."

Out of nowhere, the long and urgently rising wail of a siren pierced the air, freezing everyone. The lights in the club turned a nightmarish red. Anakin lifted his head as an icy shiver of warning rippled through him, bringing him to full alert. Reaching out with the Force, his mind touched on something utterly repellent and recoiled. He didn't recognise the threat, but he didn't doubt it was bad. Before he could ask what the sirens meant, a man came bursting in through the door, frantically signalling to a worried-looking Lorne.

The music had already died off. Even without the microphone, Lorne's voice carried. "Okay, folks, it looks like we have to cut the fun short. Get yourselves home and lock your doors. Don't stop for nothin'."

Pandemonium was instantaneous. The sharp scrape of chairs punctuated rising voices as panic exploded. Terror mushroomed to lie heavy on the air and there was a stampede for the exit.

Caught in the middle of the melee, Sal heaved himself off his stool and grabbed up the crutch he'd propped against the bar. "Crap! This day just keeps getting better and better."

Following, Anakin took up a position just behind Sal as they let themselves be swept up by the crowd, protecting him from the worst of the pushing and shoving. "Remind me again why rain is such a bad thing."

Sal snorted, "You haven't heard?"

A white-haired Arkanian used the few inches of space between Anakin and Sal to slide through, liberally using his elbows. Sal teetered and Anakin grabbed his left forearm to steady him, saying, "I've heard some garbled nonsense about the Narzgh using rain to bridge this world and theirs, which makes no sense."

They shuffled forward as the different sentient species lunged, clawed and squeezed through the besieged doorway. "It's not the rain itself, but the reflection it causes when it gathers." Sal shouted over the babble. "This isn't the living world—the rules here are different. A reflection is like a window, a weakness the Narzgh have learned to exploit. A word of advice, you don't want to get caught alive. Better to risk going down anyway and kill yourself—it can't be worse than what they'll do to you if they drag you down. Most of us keep a blaster handy just in case."

And risk becoming one of them? Anakin didn't see that as a viable choice. One of the Twi'lek waitresses was being crushed between an enormous, armoured Gen'Dai and a scaled Marachaun. Reaching out a hand, he grabbed her arm and yanked her out of the press, at the same saying to Sal, "Why not blast them instead and live? That would be my first choice."

The crush of bodies on the stairs carried them upwards by its own momentum. The street was visible at the top of the stairs and the remaining crowd strained towards it.

"Mine too," Sal replied, "but blasters don't have that much effect, except maybe to slow them down a little, if you're lucky. Knives and machetes are better. You have to chop them to pieces to cause any serious damage."

That explained the high numbers of vibro-bladed weaponry Anakin had been seeing around Junga Roth. The lightsaber hidden underneath his clothing was warm and reassuring against his abdomen. "I'll keep that in mind."

The siren was still wailing when they reached the street. The moment they cleared the doorway, figures scurried away, slinking shadows escaping the pounding deluge. The rain was so heavy that visibility was poor past half a standard metre. They were some of the last out. Lorne was hurriedly locking up behind them and muttering under his breath.

Weaving a little unsteadily, Sal slapped a hand on Anakin's shoulder, jerking his other thumb towards another door set immediately on the left of the club entrance. "My place is up there. I rent a room off Lorne. If I were you I wouldn't even try and make it to the shelter. I've got a bad feeling…"

Sal didn't get to finish. Lorne gave a strangled, warning shout and pointed a shaking finger behind Anakin. He hadn't needed the warning. Already spinning on his heel, Anakin saw that a trench of water had already formed in the middle of the saturated street. Skeletally long fingers stabbed up out of the accumulated water, swiftly followed by grime-covered arms and warped, malformed bodies that crawled, scrabbled and lunged onto the harder ground. They were tall, elongated and hideous. In a single heartbeat there were dozens of them and many more were forming, agitating the water to boiling froth.

In the time it had taken him to turn, the air was already filling with inhuman howls and snarls, a truly horrific noise that rose to painful levels. Instead of mouths, they had bloody, gaping maws and lifted fleshless noses to the air, scenting for prey. The hideously tortured craving to torture others in turn.

"There's no way in hell I can outrun them and they'll just bust in any door. There'll be hundreds in a moment." Sal's heavy hand fell on Anakin's shoulder. "Get the hell out of here, kid. Run, I'll—"

"No," Anakin shook the hand off, his face set and grim. "I'll deal with this. Both of you get inside and bar the door."

"Are you crazy—?"

Sensing them, the Narzgh raiders swung jerkily towards Anakin. Many held vicious-looking grappling hooks, long enough to drag on the ground. They had no eyes in their dark, pitiless sockets, and yet they seemed to lock onto him without any trouble. Red plasma bolts coming from behind him—likely Sal's sidearm—flurried into the raiders. Many were hit, but it didn't even slow them down. They came right for him.

This time, he didn't hesitate. Anakin had the lightsaber in his hand and ignited before they'd completed their first, loping step. Leading with a swinging, powerful arc of deadly blue, he met their charge and sliced right into the middle of them. In moments, the lightsaber was akin to a living, compelling entity in his hands. Force-fuelled strength roared through him, humming through muscle and sinew, and making his breath come faster. He slashed effortlessly through the Narzgh; rivening flesh, wood and metal. Some had blasters, and he deflected the bolts back at them before slicing off the claws that held the weapons. Spinning with the lightsaber held high in a two-handed grip, he took out another four who tried to rush him. Slashing on the downward arc, he took off an arm. Around and up, he took off a screeching head.

Infuriated, they swarmed thicker, blood-thirsty and raging.

Battle had commenced.

Anakin had to keep constantly moving, utilising Ataru acrobatics to keep from being overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Ataru had never been his favoured form, but it was necessary to use some elements as the Narzgh were also inhumanely fast. It was a deadly and draining tactic, but at least he achieved his objective of driving the raiders away from Sal and Lorne, and any others who hadn't yet had time to escape.

He fought dirty. Anything he could pry loose—aircon units, recyclers, or even small lone speeder bike, he threw at them. All the while the blade of the saber was little more than a blur of blue light. If he was about to be cornered, he would vault over their heads and attack from a clearer position. Despite the desperation of the circumstances, he was exhilarated; he hadn't been so agile for what felt like a millennia.

The battle had taken him two blocks down from Caritas. Narzgh who hadn't engaged him had instead chosen to scale a wall and were using an overhead grated alloy bridge that spanned two buildings to attack other dwellings. Unfortunately, there wasn't anything he could do about it yet as he already had his hands full. A long, clawed grapple whistled towards him and he cleaved it in two, doing the same to the owner a moment later. Then, bending back almost in half and holding his lightsaber in a two handed grip, Anakin decapitated five heads encircling him with one sweep. At the same time, the snarling beasts slathering behind them were driven back. Using the reprieve, he straightened, dropped to a low squat and used the Force to fuel a jump that landed him on the bridge three metres up.

There were two Narzgh battering at a door on the right. They were literally peeling the protective alloy off with their bare hands to gain entry. Before they could sense his presence, Anakin impaled one and thrust harder to do the same to the other standing directly in front. The rank stench of sizzling flesh engulfed him. Ruthlessly twisting the hilt, he yanked it back out through their sides. A scream behind Anakin had him whirling around to see that another two had gained entrance to the building opposite. Through the shattered door frame, he saw a human man—white faced with terror—trying to beat off the claws that reached for him. Sprinting the distance, Anakin leaped through the doorway, already bringing the lightsaber down. Three times the blinding blue light slashed down, cutting off the arms before he finished the raisers off with a diagonal slash across the shoulders. He left the man sobbing, but safe.

By the time he reached the street again, Anakin was fully in the zone. He felt oiled, smooth and completely emotionless. Every breath was a beat that followed the rhythm of the Force flowing through him. He didn't fight it, or repress it or try and control it—he simply was.

They came in waves and he left a trail of bodies. Even so more kept coming. He was surrounded by a darkness blacker than even he had ever known. All he could do was keep fighting harder and faster. His own sweat stung his eyes and he ignored it just as he did the relentless rain. From all around him their mindless, murderous savagery howled and hammered at his mind. It was slaughter but he didn't care. From somewhere further up the street, Anakin could hear more screaming. The sound was chilling with every rising note redolent with horror.

Fast still wasn't fast enough.

He couldn't save them all.

But he wanted to.

That desire alone was a revelation—an epiphany.

Most of these people didn't have the means to fight back and would be doomed to a fate that was literally worse than death. He was supposed to help. That was what Obi-wan wanted, he knew it now. The furious combat had cleared his mind of fear and uncertainty, and the sense of purpose gave him additional strength. Finally the battering flow began to slow to a trickle. Slicing the last raider in two at the waist, Anakin pounded down the dark, wet street towards the screaming.

He was going to find the protector in himself again or die trying. Sheer necessity would mean it had to be the former.

o~o~o

Ignoring the hairy beast lurking in the ante-chamber, Security Minister Natar's brow furrowed with anxiety as he activated the security panel next to a heavily armoured door. The enforced protection was due to the fact that this door led to the Premier's spacious and well-appointed apartments. Approved to enter, the doors slid silently apart for him and he rushed inside, spluttering, "My lord, there is an attack on the outer rim."

Lyonides didn't turn from the security holo he was watching intently. "Yes, I'm aware of that."

Natar decided to give all the bad news at once, blurting out, "I'm afraid we couldn't locate the pilot before we were forced to retreat."

"Possibly, I've found him for you." Lyonides turned to the only other person in the room besides Natar. "What do you think, Councillor? Rather a magnificent display, wouldn't you say?"

Dumb with shock, Padmé could only stare, mesmerised, appalled and breathless. She'd come here to argue with the Premier. When the alert had come, she'd been darkly satisfied when he activated the holo, thinking it would show him the results of his negligence. Oh, how she wished he hadn't. Every thought felt sluggish. Her heart was thudding sickly over a hollow stomach.

The images were crystal clear and there was no mistaking the man battling tens of dozens of Narzgh and showing unparalleled and deadly skill with a lightsaber—the weapon of a Jedi. Anakin.

He was here. The mental walls she'd built so painstakingly over decades came tumbling down. Pain boiled out, coiling through her mind, raking her heart, paralysing her muscles. Her husband, the father of her children, and the man who'd broken her heart so thoroughly she'd slipped from life rather than face it, was here.

"Councillor, you are as white as bleached bone. Are you ill?" From the other side of the holo, Lyonides cocked his head, coolly assessing her. "Or, perhaps you know this individual?"

"No." The word had come out more like a pained whisper than a firm denial. She reached for control and found it slipped right through her fingers. As self-control was impossible, escape was the only solution. Self-preservation made her turn away, breaking her frozen posture. Swallowing to moisten her mouth, she said over her shoulder, "I'm sorry, Premier, but I must leave you. I have pressing business elsewhere."

Walking out without a backward glance, she missed the calculating look that entered Lyonides' cold eyes.

Outside in the antechamber, she waved a concerned Freyrr to keep silent and kept going, oblivious to where she was headed or the streaks of tears now coursing down her face. With one shaking hand pressed to her stomach and the other her trembling mouth, she fought for control. It was a hard won battle, but finally she was able to slow her mad dash.

Her mind was still in turmoil, but her wits were returning—too late. She'd betrayed her agitation to Lyonides and that couldn't be helped, but now she had to pull it together and think!

She still had people to worry about. She had to brush personal feelings aside. But it was so hard. She'd never thought—never believed that she would ever see him again, and that knowledge alone had crushed her. For years she'd woken up sobbing, broken-hearted all over again at the sound of her babies voicing their first cries. It had been her own despair that dragged her down her down and away from them. She'd never got to hold them, or stay with them. Her final silent plea, desperately calling for his strength played in her head and ripped through her heart. "Anakin, help me! PLEASE!"

Darth Vader had cost her husband, her children and her life. Now he was here.

Freyrr gave a low rumbling roar that held unmistakable concern. Padmé wiped the wetness off her cheeks and turned to her friend. "Find us a shuttle and pick me up at the south-east Central landing bay. Do it quickly."

Freyrr cocked her head, her low rumble distinctly curious and still concerned.

Padmé shook her head. "I've just given Lyonides every reason to watch my comings and goings. I can't afford to use my own transport. I don't want to be followed or surveilled. Freyrr, I need your help, not your questions. Please!"

o~o~o

There were more of them. Anakin continued up the alley that split off from the main thoroughfare, keeping his momentum going and the lightsaber deadly efficient. Ahead of him the same Twi'lek female he'd helped before was being dragged by her hair. The terror in her screams raised the fine hairs on his arms. Lashing out with a high-kick to the face of a raider closing in, he slashed at the support struts of a canopy overhead, leaping aside just in time as it crashed down on top of three more Narzgh. Six metres away, another raider dragged its victim to the edge of a deep puddle of water, where Anakin had already seen other victims disappear while he'd been too distant to do anything. No matter how hard he tried he couldn't get to her in time either, he realised.

Frustration flared and he snuffed it out.

Whirling, he used the Force to throw his lightsaber. It hummed through the air in deceptively lazy circles and slashed through the creatures neck, nearly severing the head. Back-flipping away from another Narzgh hoping to take advantage of his lack of weapon, Anakin landed lightly a few feet away and raised his hand to call the lightsaber back. Swiftly dispatching the last Narzgh, he used his other hand to force-push the Twi'lek away from the water. He didn't want to lose her to another raider if more arrived and he was busy elsewhere.

They didn't.

After an hour of frenetic fighting, the Narzgh numbers were finally dwindling. Snarling and spitting their fury, the remaining raiders backed away and retreated out of the alley, heading for the nearest accumulation of water. Soon the dark, dank alley was empty except for the carnage of strewn bodies. With apparently no-one left to fight, exhaustion rose up to claim Anakin. Now he no longer needed the Force to sustain his fighting ability, it drained back to a simmer. He was shaking, filthy, bloody and aching all over.

Then another scream rent the air.

Adrenaline crashed back into his system and he raced towards the dying sound, trying to trace the source. The rain was still pounding, drumming on the tops and sides of buildings, dripping into his eyes. He hadn't gone far when he had to slow down to duck under and around the struts of a decaying mobile manufacturing tower. The going got even tougher as a complicated network of pipes blocked his way. Worst of all, he was no longer sure if he was even going in the right direction. Steam from poorly sealed pipes hissed and sputtered, adding to the confusion. Amongst the muck and debris, Anakin came across a pile of foraged clothing, food and meagre bedding. There was a prayer book tucked lovingly under the ratty blanket. Finally another piercing scream—followed, by jabbering, moaning and pleas for mercy—put him back on the scent.

Thankfully, his path cleared enough for him to put on a burst of speed, avoiding the stinking piles of accumulated garbage. He was inside a badly organised recycling centre. Reaching a peak, he stared down into a gulley and saw a frail, raggedly clothed elderly man who was scrabbling and yelling, desperately trying to avoid being dragged into a wide, deep puddle the size of a miniature lake. The Narzgh holding the chain of the grappling hook sunk into the old man's ankle was already sinking below the surface of the water.

Pumping his arms and using ground-eating strides, Anakin got as close as he could and then made a tremendous leap, skidding to the edge of the water on his belly. Just in time, he caught the man's right hand in his own.

"Hold on," he commanded.

Wide, terrified brown eyes in a dirty, wrinkled face locked onto his. "Please, help me…please!"

Gritting his teeth, Anakin pulled, heaving back as hard as he could and managed to drag the old man back an inch. "Hold onto me. I'll get you out."

Squirming forward, he wrapped his arms around the man's torso to get a better hold. As he did, they were both dragged deeper into the water. Before they'd adjusted to the change, the old man slipped to the waist as if yanked by something enormously strong. The sheer power of the force pulling them down into the watery pit was incredible—and Anakin admitted, terrifying.

The old man started to gibber, "Don't let it get me…don't let it get me. Don't…don't…"

"I won't let go. I won't let it happen," Anakin promised.

Despite every drop of strength and monumental use of the Force though, they both felt the old man slip further to the point that Anakin's forearms were under water too. He felt the thin arms wrap tighter around his shoulders. The man's shrieks were deafening. "Don't let it get me, please! Don't let it get me. Kill me. Kill me!"

"I can't," Anakin panted, straining to pull him out—them both out. "Fight back, kick out. Help me."

Muscles popping under the strain, he dug in his knees still on the mud outside the water, trying to counteract the monstrous thing dragging the man down. The old man's screams got higher-pitched. Anakin could only imagine the strain on his body as two opposing forces fought over it.

If he wasn't careful, Anakin realised, he could kill the man just by trying to save him.

The water was up to the old man's shoulders now and the brown eyes were glazed orbs of pain staring out of in a sheet-white face. The man started to choke, his throat working spasmodically, gargling, "Kill me. Kill me. Kill me."

"I can't. I can't kill you." That's not who I am anymore, or can't be ever again. Anakin was pleading now while white-hot agony ripped through his shoulders and upper arms. He used all of his will, all of his power. The strain was threatening to rip him apart too, but he didn't release his grip.

"Please!" the man whispered as the water lapped up to his chin despite everything.

His deactivated lightsaber lay on the mud by his thigh. When Anakin thought about it, it vibrated, but he didn't call it to hand. He didn't need to because suddenly it was over. A series of ripples threaded over the surface of the water and without warning the old man went rigid and then, abruptly, all tension was gone.

At first Anakin couldn't take it in, then brown eyes locked onto his for the last time and with his final breath, the man, said, "Thank you." Numb, Anakin watched the light of life wink out in the slack, elderly face.

"NO!" The bellow echoed around the filthy gulley, ripe with anger and defeat. It did nothing. The old man was still dead.

Ignoring the protests of his own battered body, Anakin dragged the remains back to the side, gently closed the dead eyes and then slumped, rolling over onto his back on the saturated mud. Laying his right arm over his eyes, he let the horror wash over him while his breath shuddered in his chest and the rain continued to pelt him.

Minutes or possibly hours later, he heard unmistakeable thrumming throb of a speeder or small shuttle. Someone was approaching. He didn't bother moving. He was too exhausted and too numb to even lift his head and see who it was. There was a waft of displaced air and, in his mind's eye, he saw a brown cloak being draped over the old man's body—what was left of it anyway—just before the sad bundle was lifted and borne away.

Anakin was grateful, because it meant he wouldn't have to see how badly he'd failed when he did finally open his eyes. He didn't want to feel anything, so he didn't let himself feel anything. Someone squatted nearby and he got the impression of towering strength and a rangy body covered in fur: a Wookiee. That finally prompted him to jerk open his eyes and check for himself that he wasn't imagining things.

He wasn't. Neither was he imagining the cloaked woman standing two metres away and staring at him through the rain.

Her name was a ghost of a whisper passing his lips, "Padmé."