AUTHOR RESPONSES:

I have (hopefully) replied by pm to each of the signed reviews. This is for the unsigned reviews:

Caryn - Lorne? Angel fan are we? Nice story, hope to see an update soon.

Hi Caryn, I am a Lorne fan, yes. He is what drew me to Angel the series years ago, and I couldn't resist bringing him over to add some humour and snark! I'm so glad you're enjoying the story.

mlhkvh5 - These last 2 chapters are wonderful! This is such a great story of what Anakin and Padme would be like meeting in the after life. You write so well Anakin's emotions, and how the characters interact with one another. Lorne is great, and the feeling of despair when Anakin wanted to save the old man, but could not, was so real. This is like watching a movie, the action is so well done, it is like being there. You are very talented. I am looking forward to how Padme and Anakin get along. I hope she remembers the last thing she said to Obi Wan about him at some point-"I know there is still good in him". Looking forward to your next update!

Hi mlhkvh5! Thank you for your lovely comments. You made my day and then some! I'm so delighted that the story is hooking you this way, and I hope it continues. As for Anakin and Padmé, they have a way to go yet before things start to smooth out between them. I hope that doesn't turn you off the story.

NOTES:

(1)HUGE thank you to everyone who posted a comment!

(2)Thank you to NikeJ and YellowDart for the beta of this chapter.

Chapter Four

The silence dragged. The rain drenched. Movement at the top of the gulley behind them signalled the arrival of more people. A crowd was gathering; darker silhouettes against the inky night sky, watching, perched on mountains of discarded droid and speeder parts.

Hearing Anakin murmuring Padmé's name, the Wookiee gave a rumbling growl that sounded half wondering and half concerned.

"It's alright, Freyrr," she reassured the Wookiee. The sound of her voice sent a shiver through Anakin.

The shuttle's lights wove a halo around Padmé. She looked the same, he thought, wonderingly. He felt dizzy. It was stunning to realise he'd been waiting for this—almost as if a part of him had been holding his breath until he saw her. His wife. His beautiful Padmé. The long, hooded cloak hid her body, but not her face. It might have been only yesterday that she ran into his arms on Mustafar. Staring, mesmerised, he didn't know how he managed to rise to his feet with every muscle locked tight. His heart was racing. He wanted to go to her and touch—just touch—cup her face in his hands and feel again the warmth of her skin under his fingers.

He let out a shuddering breath as memory intruded. Let her go, Anakin Obi-Wan's demand echoed in his ear, bringing with it the images from that same fateful day. Against his will, the scene rushed forward a few moments to Padmé lying crumpled on the floor of the lava moon's landing bay.

His last sight of her…until now. The thought brought with it a savage spasm of pain and crushing regret. He'd used the Force against her, hurting her. Shame writhed in his chest. With a sinking feeling, he wondered if she was remembering their last meeting too.

"Anakin," she greeted him in turn, composedly, "or, should I say, Lord Vader?"

Hearing her use that name was a slap to the face. He felt the blow right to his core.

"I'm not Vader." It came out harsher than he'd intended. He had to swallow before he could continue, more calmly. "Not anymore. I'm Anakin again."

"Very wise," she said stiffly. "I doubt that using the name Vader would gain you any friends here."

She wasn't really looking at him—not at him—but at a spot over his left shoulder. He couldn't look away from her face. If it wasn't for the fact that Anakin could feel her agitation through the Force, he might believe she felt nothing. Pain clawed deeper.

The insinuation that he was merely protecting himself was another nerve-strike. "I'm aware of that, but that's not why—."

She cut him off. "I'm sure you have your reasons, but that's not why I'm here."

He wasn't sure he wanted to know why she was there, just that she was there.

"It's good to see you," he said softly, thinking of how often over the last few days he'd tormented himself with dreams of somehow going back in time and changing everything. He hadn't dared imagine this meeting, though, fearing it.

Were there any words, in any of the millions of languages of the galaxy, that would serve as an apology for what he'd done?

"Padmé…" he took a thoughtless step towards her, pleading.

As easily as that her composure cracked. She took a jerky, instinctive step back, snapping, "Don't say my name like that."

Anakin froze. It was as if a lever had pulled and the floodgate was lifted. Through the flow of the Force the maelstrom of her emotions battered at him. There were so many of them he could barely tell them apart, except for one—fear.

Between them, and rising off her haunches, the Wookiee growled, warningly. Ranged meters behind him, the crowd swelled further, silent, watchful, curious. He was oblivious to anyone but her.

"Padmé," he said again, ignoring the two-and-a-half-meter-tall wall of walking, furry female. He needed Padmé to understand. "I'm not here to frighten you—"

"Don't. Just don't."

Warding him off with an upheld hand, her chest gave one guttering jerk as she too sucked in a breath, struggling to stay in control. Now that she was finally looking at him properly, he saw what he'd just sensed. The icy composure had been a mere façade. There was a storm of emotion swirling in her eyes with bright fear shining the strongest—the same liquid brown eyes that had once looked at him with a devotion to match his own.

She truly feared him! That knowledge silenced him utterly. The pain tripled, turning into a devastating avalanche. He couldn't move, locked in place while his emotions got the better of his control. Neither noticed the quake-like disturbance affecting a nearby mound of broken mechno-gear parts, sending components slipping and sliding.

The Wookiee, obviously uneasy, took up a position much closer to Padmé, laying a thickly furred hand on one cloaked shoulder.

The offer of support and strength worked. Anakin saw Padmé's spine stiffen. "I only came to find out why you're here. Nothing else." she told him, bluntly, lifting her chin, defying her own fear.

They both knew she was asking why he hadn't gone straight down to the third world.

Did she wish he had?

Anakin closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The images of his last few moments played clearly in his mind. He tried to hold back any emotion, but he knew he wasn't succeeding. "Luke," he told her. "He . . . he saved me."

Her eyes grew wide with horror. "Luke?" she breathed. "You found Luke?" Even in the darkness, he could see that she'd paled to stark white.

How he longed to comfort her, but she couldn't have made it clearer that he no longer had that right. "He found me – he knew that there was still good in me." Pausing for a moment, he tried to collect his thoughts. "And when Palpatine tried to kill Luke, I couldn't let him do it." His voice was stilted, shattered, "I killed Palpatine . . . and myself in the process. Obi-Wan was waiting for me on the other side. He sent me here."

It seemed like she didn't hear a word he said. "Luke," she whispered, "oh, Luke, I tried to protect you from your father."

"He knows," Anakin whispered, agonised. "They both know. Obi-Wan hid them well. For years I believed they'd died with you."

"The deception was necessary to keep them safe from you!" she reminded him bitterly.

Anakin found it was getting harder to breathe. He wanted to turn away, pace and protect himself, but he made himself look into her face. He understood her fear and loathed himself more than ever before. "Luke found me, Padmé. They both did. They grew up to be wonderful people—"

"—You got to see them," she said in a shattered voice. She whirled away and paced, in pain. "I didn't. I didn't even get to hold them, or watch my children grow up." When she turned back, he saw that her face had lost all semblance of calm. She was hugging herself, holding herself in.

"Padmé . . . I'm so sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am." He didn't have words to express his torrent of regret. He settled for the only comfort he could offer. "They're fine. They're both fine. I wouldn't lie to you about that."

After a moment, Padmé nodded again. He watched her pull herself together and clenched his fists to still yet another impulse to go to her. She was strong. She'd always been strong. It'd been one of the things he'd loved about her.

As if to prove it, she pinned him with a hard, glittering gaze. "Fine. You've told me how you came to be here, but you still haven't explained your intentions now that you are here."

"You still consider me such a monster?" Anakin asked softly.

There was no softening. "Just answer the question."

"Obi-Wan believes that I can redeem myself. I want to try." To hide his own wet eyes, he turned away, looking at the growing gaggle of ragtag humans and non-human sentients rather than Padmé. Despite the distance, he could sense the acrid fear still coming off them in suffocating waves. "I want to help," he finished.

Behind him, her eyes flashed hot. "Like you wanted to help at the peak of the Clone Wars?" she hissed. "Like you want to take over, wrest control, bringing supposed peace by meting out punishment and withdrawing freedom? Tell me," she asked, her voice hard, "is killing at will still your idea of helping?"

Distressed that she'd think that—know enough about him to say such things—Anakin bowed his head, closing his burning eyes and keeping his face averted so she wouldn't see his suffering. "No." He didn't know what else to say. "No—nothing like that."

"Good, because we already have someone like that, and one is more than enough." Exhaustion suddenly seemed to drag at her, turning her even paler. "I don't know why I bothered to come here." She gave a helpless gesture. "I can only hope that you mean what you say. Words from you are just that, they're no guarantee."

He heard the crunch of her steps on the gravel. She was just going to walk away, he realised dully. Unable to stop himself, Anakin swung back to face her and the words were torn from him, "I still love you, Padmé. That will never change."

She froze with her back to him. When she did turn to face him again her expression was so stark that Anakin braced himself for a body-blow. "And, I did and still do love the man you once were before Palpatine twisted you." she said softly, meaning no comfort and he took none. She wasn't finished. "As a child, I was taught that absolute power corrupts absolutely." She gave a jerky wave of her hand. "Stupidly, I dismissed it as a platitude. I wouldn't have done if I'd realised in time just how much that saying applied to you—" her voice thickened, "—to the young padawan who'd been sent to protect me on my home world."

Thunder rolled overhead. The rain got heavier, running in rivulets down his face. "I didn't have absolute power."

Padmé shook her head impatiently. "It was within your grasp and we all knew it. You would have been a brave, heroic man without being Force-sensitive, but with it you went on to become a murdering tyrant." Her face turned granite hard. "I've had plenty of time to think about that, what it did to you, to us—and learn to hate it."

The water to his right rippled under an unseen force as Anakin fought himself and won, reigning in his despair enough to speak. Still, his voice was raw. "And do you hate me, Padmé? Do you wish that love for our son hadn't saved me?"

From back near the crowd, Anakin heard his name being called and ignored it. Here in the wet, the dark and the mud, he was waiting, poised on a chasm of agony.

For the first time Padmé's face softened under the hood of her cloak. "No. I'm glad that you and Luke saved each other. I'm proud of him, and I wish you well." Their gazes locked and he felt a frisson pass down his spine. A sad smile trembled on her lips. "Good luck with your redemption, Anakin." The brief, barely-there smile vanished and then she was abruptly solemn again. "For all of our sakes."

With that Anakin had to be content, because this time she didn't hesitate to walk away. The doors of the shuttle swallowed her along with Freyrr the Wookiee. Moments later, he watched through a blur of intermingled tears and rain as the pristine white shuttle rose up with a whine of repulsorlift engines. It occurred to him that he was seeing the best part of his existence drift inexorably away from him, not wanting to be near him.

The howl inside his mind worked up to fever-pitch, blanking out every other thought and letting blessed numbness lead from the top of his head down.

o~o~o

Padmé deliberately hadn't brought a pilot. She'd wanted no witnesses to hear what might be said, except for Freyrr. Meaning, no matter what, she had to hold it together enough to fly them back. She did it by sheer dint of will. South East Central wasn't the closest transport hub to where she lived, but it was only a sky-track distant. When she got home, then she could fall apart.

He looked the same! How could he look the same?

No! She mustn't think about him, she told herself, fiercely, blinking back the blur of tears. Not yet.

Thankfully the landing bay and terminal were deserted except for essential staff; most of whom were droids undertaking cleaning or maintenance tasks. The transparisteel-encased sky-track was similarly quiet. The efficiently humming, effortless glide of the floor bearing her along was soothing. Outside the clear bubble, the night-time cityscape unfolded above and below. Using the track was like riding along a silvery ribbon between huge spires and towers winking with star-bright lights. The contrast between the core and the outer rim of the city had never been greater—tranquillity in one and suffering in the other.

There would have been more suffering if Anakin hadn't intervened.

The shimmer of tears in his eyes had arrowed straight to her heart. Gods! She couldn't go through this again. How could one man cause such a conflict between good and evil? He'd been one and then turned to the other. What was he now?

She'd loved him so much. Just the memory of how much hurt.

Her hand shook on the cool hand-rail. The sky-lock ahead slid apart. A pair of palace guards appeared on the opposite track, laughing and joking with a female med-tech. The trio looked pleased to have finished their duty shift. Recognising her, the guards inclined their heads respectfully and eyed Freyrr apprehensively as they passed. It was all she could do to return the gesture.

She did, however, manage to get a grip on her emotions by pushing Anakin out again.

Nearly there.

Getting off the sky-track at Temple Arbor, they found the pedestrian walkways busier. The core never really slept. In certain sections, the bars and restaurants didn't close until dawn. That wasn't the case here though. The nearby Temple of Atonement occupied a whole city block, dominating the neighbourhood. The smell of incense coupled with low chanting heralded the arrival of a group of temple devotees. As usual they were holding placards and swinging their hand-held burners. Their white cowls were pristine, and the eight humans walked in a tight, exclusive circle to avoid contamination.

Padmé and Freyrr let them pass before proceeding to their own destination; the Transvision Tower. City administrators and elected officials, such as Padmé, were quartered in spacious units at the top of the one-hundred and forty level building. The sky-track took them directly to level ninety nine. A short turbolift ride later they were home.

The reception room was alive with plants and shrubs in deep pots as a concession to Freyrr's preferred habitat. Padmé was trembling before the turbolift finished opening its doors. Excusing herself from a vocally concerned Freyrr, she by-passed the courteous enquiries of her in-service droid and all but ran for her bedroom. The doors opened and then shut behind her automatically. She didn't make it to the bed, but sank to her knees on the lush rug before the bed. Her head bowed under the weight of her anguish.

He looked the same.

He sounded the same.

He'd called her name in that husky voice with his heart in his eyes.

She'd hurt him. She'd seen his tears. She'd left him there, alone.

"I still love you, Padmé. That will never change."

Oh, how she'd loved him. Despite knowing they mustn't, couldn't, shouldn't. In the end, she just couldn't live without him—literally.

She'd dedicated her mind and ambition to serving other people, but after a brief fight alive with denial, her heart and soul had belonged to him. He'd been her fearless, fierce warrior. The touch of his skin on hers had brought a song to her heart, his strength, his love, a balm against the night. She'd lived only a half-life when he was away, as he often was during the endless battles of the Clone Wars, the Senator coming to the fore and the woman retreating until his return.

She'd thought their love made them stronger. How wrong she'd been. Anakin's love for her had destroyed him. His fear for her had cost millions their lives.

Hugging herself, Padmé rocked back and forth on her knees, keening her sobs to muffle them.

She couldn't muffle her thoughts, though.

Today had proven something to her. It was both unnatural and dreadful to fear someone you love. She thought she'd been prepared by seeing him on the security holo, but she'd been shockingly wrong. A projected image was nothing to seeing Anakin, alive and in the flesh. The shock of it had stolen her breath. He'd been trying to save an old man, she remembered now. That fact in itself had momentarily blanked her mind.

Witnessing that last, furious struggle had wiped her prepared speech right out of her head. They'd landed in time to hear his bellow of fury at failing. Dumbstruck, she'd sat frozen in the pilot seat watching him drag the rest of the body out of the water. Tears had burned her eyes when he'd flopped to the side, exhausted, defeated, and so very much the man she'd loved that it had hurt to look. She couldn't remember getting out of the seat, or walking to the hatch. All she could recall was standing at the top of the shuttle's ramp, staring at his limp, sodden figure through the dark, driving rain. It had been like standing in a wind tunnel of memories—they'd hurtled through her as clear as if they'd happened only days ago—all the more painful because of that.

Their first meeting after ten years, obliterating her image of him as a sweet little boy and replacing it with the powerful man he'd become. The thrilling power of a head-strong padawan with love in his blue eyes. A nineteen-year-old's gentle wooing of her on Naboo. Almost losing him, marrying him, loving him—then loss, then fear, then death.

All the things she'd fought so hard to forget after he'd let himself become a monster. Yet, despite the terrible things he'd done, in that moment all she'd wanted to do was run to him.

But she hadn't. Her legs had been shaking so hard she hadn't been able to move so much as a step once he'd seen her. She'd been completely frozen—until he'd reached for her, calling her name with a pained crack in his voice.

It had been a lance to the heart. One single thought only had crystallised; she couldn't go through what she'd gone through before ever again. She had to keep her distance. Anger had come to her rescue too.

Until now.

Tomorrow she would be strong again. Tonight, she had to let it out. Just tonight.

o~o~o

Out of nowhere a cloak had been thrown over him as Anakin walked through the staring crowd. Whispers hissed all around, only to sputter and die as humans and non-humans alike parted for him to pass through.

Curiosity and wariness pressed in on Anakin from all sides. There was fear here too. More fear of him. He was glad of the concealing cloak and the continuing numbness. He was just clearing the edge of the crowd when Sal limped up to him, grinning. "Well! If it isn't the one-man army himself. I've been looking for you. Hey, I saw you down there with the pretty councillor—"

Stopping dead, Anakin shook his head. "I need to be alone now," he said bluntly, not caring if he caused offense.

Peering closely at his face, Sal must have seen something raw, because he winced. "Sure. You've got a look on your face I've seen a time or two before in the mirror."

Anakin went to walk past him. Sal grabbed his arm. "Listen, I'll be going back to Caritas. If you decide you want drown your sorrows instead of brood, come find me there."

Anakin pulled free. "I'll bear that in mind."

By the time he'd worked his way out from underneath the maze of pipes dropping down from the overhead recycling plant, his strides were getting longer.

At the same junction where Anakin had saved the Twi'lek, he took a right. He didn't care where he ended up. He was walking with no destination in mind.

At first he simply kept his mind blank, retreating. Eventually though, thought trickled back. Anger came to his rescue. Even self-directed fury was better than despair. His time as Vader had taught him that.

Under the cloak's hood, his face became hard and set, in tandem with his thoughts. What had he expected, he asked himself viciously. Sweet smiles and a loving reunion with the wife he'd all but killed while their children still slept in her womb? He should have been better prepared, he berated himself. Where was the vaunted strategist he'd once been? He'd run campaigns in every inch of space, across thousands of worlds, but come apart when faced with Padmé. Anakin had always been better with actions than words, but still he'd done a pathetic job of convincing her that he meant to honour this offer of redemption—that he would do everything in his power to make up for the past.

The lightsaber clipped to his belt seemed to burn his thigh, a reminder of what he had been, and still was, capable of.

She might not know in detail all that Darth Vader had done since her death, but she knew enough to know that he'd been a being consumed by the need to crush all opposition, subdue and control—killing at will. Just as she'd accused him.

If he still needed some convincing that part of his life was over, why was it so surprising that Padmé was doubtful?

He hadn't been prepared for the meeting. On the positive side, at least it was over, Anakin thought, and let go of the anger, feeling it drain. In the void, pain welled up again, but it was softer and more manageable. He would always love her, he hadn't lied about that. Even becoming Vader hadn't changed that simple fact—but if he had to accept that she could no longer love him, then he'd somehow, someway find a way to live with it. She'd suffered enough at his hands. He refused to inflict more.

No-one knew better than he that he didn't deserve love.

It was time to stop dreaming and start doing.

It was all he'd ever been consistently good at; as a Jedi or a Sith.

As if to reinforce this simple truth, Anakin became aware of his surroundings now that his emotions were banked.

Up and down the street the carnage, a good deal of which he'd wrought, was being dragged onto grisly piles and set on fire. Smoke plumed and billowed. The stench was atrocious. Here and there, lost looking figures were wandering around aimlessly, calling plaintively for loved ones. Over it all, the sounds of weeping soared over the crackle of the flames.

He didn't need to be told that more of the same was spread all over the hundred of kilometres of outer rim city. He could feel it. Anger, despair, grief and misery were all funnelled through the Force for him to receive as he stood in the midst of the aftermath. His battle had covered only a fraction of it. Distance meant nothing, Anakin could hear the wails of the bereaved and feel the quaking of the hopelessly terrorised.

On Coruscant, the areas of the city affected would be crawling with disaster containment agents, counsellors and security droids. Here there were just survivors.

Seeing it, feeling it, the compassion he'd looked for on the first day in the processing centre rose up inside him. That emotion, one which he'd believed dead in him, added to his new resolve. If redemption was possible for him, he knew he wasn't going to find it on his knees in some temple. Obi-Wan had been right, he had to earn it. And, perhaps in doing so, he'd earn Padmé's forgiveness too. He couldn't hope for more.

It was the only bolster he had.

Anakin stopped a beefy male with clumps of matted black hair trailing down to his waist. "How many did the Narzgh get?" he asked.

The man looked him up and down, squinting suspiciously. "You new?"

"Yes. Why?"

"It's a dumb question."

Anakin kept his patience. "Answer it anyway."

The man shrugged. "We don't know—a couple'a thousand maybe. It's a big place full of a labyrinth of streets and alleys, with more of them underground. They never count us out here on the rim. It's not good politics to let the number-crunchers spill the beans on just how bad it is here."

Anakin digested that, and realised that he needed to know a lot more about the set up in Junga Roth. Making an off-the-cuff decision, he thanked the man and turned his steps back the way he'd come. Unerringly, he found his way back to the dingy back street housing the club. A neon, blinking green sign advertising Caritas II was hung over the closed door. It looked closed, but Anakin could sense the activity hidden within.

Lifting his hand, he rapped his knuckles on the door, hard.

He had to knock twice more before he caught the approach of someone coming up the interior stairs. Clamping locks disengaged and then a face appeared. Despite the green skin, it wasn't Lorne. He noted large, round eyes and a long snout. It was a Rodian. Anakin couldn't tell the gender because it wore a baggy grey smock.

"What do you want," asked the Rodian in Basic. "We're closed."

"I need to see Lorne," Anakin said. "I think you'll find he's expecting me."

"Wait here." Grumbling in its own language, the Rodian disappeared.

When the Rodian returned a moment later, it jerked its snout down the stairs in mute invitation.

The locks were reengaged behind Anakin as he went down the stairs and pushed through the bottom doors leading to the bar. The first thing he noticed was that it was all but empty. The second was that the club hadn't fared too well from the panicked mass exodus of earlier on in the night. The lights were on low. Still, the bar looked forlorn in the semi gloom. Almost everywhere tables had been overthrown and chairs broken in the mad dash. Plasto cups littered every surface. The discarded microphone was the only thing on the stage.

Some things were the same though. Sal was sat slumped at the bar. Lorne stood behind it. Sal saluted him with his cup and used his boot to scrape back the stool next to him. "Glad you could make it."

Anakin lowered the hood and took the proffered stool, noticing as he did that Lorne's smile was strangely resigned.

Seeing that Anakin had caught the expression, the Pylean's smile turned into a grimace. "So, what's your poison?" He gestured with his own tall plasto cup, topped with a bizarre, brightly coloured paper decoration. "Sorry, I'm all out of O2. Oh wait, wait, I forgot. You're a different type of hunk of hero sandwich. Not so much of the liquid lunch, huh. Good for you."

"I'm not a hero."

"Pfft! Like I haven't heard that before." Red eyes rolled, comically. "Do you guys get a script, because if you do get another one—this one's old hat, scarf and gloves. Next you'll be telling me all the wrongs you've been doing in the world …" Lorne paused, seeing Anakin's face freeze, "… And, oookay, I can see by your face not to go there."

There was an awkward pause. To break it and change the subject Anakin asked for something that wasn't potentially lethal.

"Coming up in two ticks."

"So," said Sal, eyeing him, "did you get a chance to find a medic? You look a little rough."

"I'm fine," Anakin lied.

"You don't look fine to me, kid."

At that, Anakin quirked an ironic brow. "Look who's talking."

"Good point." Downing his drink, Sal signalled for another one and asked, "Alright. Now we've got the 'you're okay and I'm okay' crap out of the way. Tell me what's with the blue flashing blade?"

Leaning his elbows on the bar, Anakin sighed and scrubbed his face, feeling like he'd had a bucket load of Qatar sand thrown in his eyes. "It's called a lightsaber. I've been trained to use one and I prefer them over a blaster."

"I knew that, actually." Sal turned in his seat to look at him fully. "The last I heard though only the Jedi used them—before they got wiped out."

Accepting the tall, cool cup handed him by Lorne, Anakin thought of Luke, his son. "You shouldn't believe everything you hear. The Jedi are making a comeback."

His face betrayed no reaction while inside he felt a twist of regret in his gut. Not regret that he'd failed to exterminate every remnant of the Order, but that he'd come so very close to doing so. To give himself something to do, Anakin sipped his drink and found it refreshingly fruity.

"Nice," he said to Lorne with a nod of thanks.

Lorne accepted the compliment with a gracious inclination of his head. "So, you're a Jedi? How about doing a stranger a favour and telling me what that is. I'm not exactly from around this neck of the woods—" he gave another grimace, this time self-directed "—hell, even the big toe for that matter. I just took a wrong turn somewhere back by Pluto and ended up in this Garden of Eden—snakes included."

"I'm not a Jedi," said Anakin, shortly. He didn't deserve the title and he wasn't sure he'd want it anyway. To forestall any further questions, he said to Lorne, "But I do need a room, and some information."

"What about that unit above mine," suggested Sal to Lorne. "The one that freakin' noisy Nandark moved out of last week."

"That would be died, not moved," he was caustically corrected.

If possible, the Pylean looked even more resigned than when Anakin had walked in. "Alright. A room I can do. It ain't the Ritz—not that you'd know what that is—but if you want it, then consider it yours." The green face brightened as a thought occurred to him. "In fact, when words get around about tonight, having you around will probably be good for business." The grin dimmed; a warning finger wagged. "Just don't go getting involved with any lawyers, y'hear?"

"I don't like lawyers," Anakin assured him.

"No, neither do I," sighed Lorne. "And don't ask me why. It's too painful."

"What information were you after?" Sal interjected, dark eyes curious in the pitted face.

"Everything you can tell me about Roth, who's running things, and the Narzgh."

Lorne and Sal shared a glance. "Yeesh! You don't want much do you?"

o~o~o

Councillors Oboné and Throm were watching the relay of the security holorecording with open mouths. They were in Padmé's reception room with the projection playing out in the space between matching pairs of emerald green couches. The images were incredibly life-like, if in miniature. On the deeply cushioned seat opposite, Padmé sat with her hands in her lap and waited for them to finish the viewing. Mostly she didn't watch, but every now and then her eyes would stray to Anakin's fiercely fighting figure. Lyonides had been right, she thought, aiming for dispassionate. It really was a magnificent display.

The recordings cut out when Anakin left the main streets and headed for the recycling plant on the very edge of the city. Thankfully, Security Minister Natar had neglected to install security cams in that particular area.

Throm recovered first. He looked between the two women, asking, "Do we know who this man is?"

"I don't know him," said Oboné, shaking her turbaned head, still stunned. "Is he new?"

"He is new," confirmed Padmé. "His name is Anakin Skywalker."

"Do we know anything else about him?" asked Oboné. "Where he comes from? What he did before death?"

"Some, but only the basic details taken at processing. They don't tell us much." Padmé shrugged, hating the lie, but she'd made her decision the night before. She would not unmask Anakin as Darth Vader, or reveal that he was her husband. If she came to regret that decision at some later point, then so be it.

"Has the Premier seen this?" asked Throm, gesturing at the frozen image of Anakin with his lightsaber held high and over his right shoulder, ready to cut a fresh swathe.

"He has," said Padmé, "and he's despatched a troop of security guards into the outer rim to search him out. As I understand it, he plans to question this man today at the next ministerial session. I'm also told that Lyonides has called a press conference and requested live feed, including play-back of what you've just seen."

"Smart move," whistled Throm. "He'll have the 'Hero of the Outer Rim' standing by his side on holovid within a day of the man tackling the Narzgh single-handed. It'll be an excellent boost to his popularity—"

"And add credence to his claims that city-wide security is his top priority," added Padmé bitterly. Standing, she walked to the window offering a panoramic view of the city. Her arms were tightly crossed, shoulders tense. It wasn't the heavy burgundy brocade of her dress that was weighing her down, but the future.

"Is there no way we can locate this Skywalker first?" asked Throm.

"And do what?" asked Padmé, not turning around. "Ask him not to accept whatever position Lyonides plans to offer him? That could be construed as treason."

She'd considered it and then discarded the notion. She had no idea how Anakin would view Pilas Lyonides. Considering his past history with authority figures, particularly cunning ones offering him praise and position, it was too risky.