(1)Thanks to my betas NIKEJ and YELLOWDART.
(2)I'm sorry for the delay in getting this up. Online time has been restricted for the last week.
(3)Thanks to those that posted a review. I'm so so glad you're enjoying it and really appreciate you letting me know. The signed reviews will have all had a response. Anon's are below:
Author response to: mlhkvh5
This is another fantastic chapter! I really like Anakin/Vader/Padme stories, and this is one of the best I have ever read! You capture the way a meeting between the two of them would possible happen so well. Also, I really like the plot you have with the power hungry guy, and Anakin attracting his and others' attentions. He is a hero again. I am looking forward to how the story progresses, and also, how Anakin and Padme's relationship progresses. It needs time, with all that is going on, add the fact they are both very stubborn, and you have something volatile, with a lot of potential. I look forward to what happens in your next update!
Aw! Thank you once again for making my day with your comments. I'm relieved as heck that the meeting between them struck you as realistic. It was a tough scene to write and Yellowdart (one of my betas) was invaluable at helping me with it. Anakin is indeed attracting a lot of attention and that won't always be a good thing, unfortunately. Thank you once again for the review and I hope that I don't disappoint either plotwise or with Anakin and Padmé's relationship (although I'm relieved that you're not expecting a quick resolution for that, lol).
That night, Anakin's dreams made a mockery of his resolutions. Sometime during his sleep, the sheets had become tangled under his thrashing body. His heart pounded. Sweat drenched him. His throat was raw from moans of denial and pain. On his face tears intermingled with the sweat. In his mind, he relived the day he'd chosen a lie over goodness, decency and honour. Save Padmé or stay a Jedi: that was the choice Palpatine had given him. His all consuming love, his need for her had made it no choice at all. He couldn't live without her. He couldn't breathe without her.
But it had been a lie.
Anakin, help me! Help, Anakin! Anakin, I love you. I love you. Her face, her beautiful face, wreathed with pain, pale with despair. Dying. He could smell the vile stink of a medcentre. In the background, Luke and Leia cried. The sight of Padmé broken by him, made him feel as if he were bleeding inside. He writhed in agony.
He really couldn't breathe. A weight was dragging at his chest. The night air was filled with the sounds of his ragged, wheezing lungs.
"Padmé, Padmé, Padmé. No! I didn't mean it."
On the thin, single-person cot, Anakin thrashed harder as the pain reached a crescendo. In the midst of his struggle a harsh sob tore from his throat. The dream had him fully in its grip and he was trapped in the past. Anakin knew that he would do anything to save her, help her. Anything! He couldn't let her die. It was impossible. Unthinkable. Every particle of his being had been united with that one single purpose.
The dream morphed without warning.
You do know, don't you, if the Jedi destroy me, any chance of saving her will be lost.
Palpatine. They were in the Chancellor's office, alone. He was wearing his kindly mask: the fond, indulgent, supportive uncle.
Fury exploded. Unbridled rage swamped him, cording veins in Anakin's throat and arms. His back bowed, sending his body arching off the cot with a silent, wrathful howl: it was all a LIE! In his head, he was screaming, hurling accusations. You wanted me to believe Padmé was going to die. You wanted me to think it was true. You wanted it to be true. You couldn't afford to let Padmé live. Why couldn't I see that? I should have seen that.
Even trapped in the dream a part of him knew he was railing uselessly at the past.
To confirm it, the dream morphed again. Palpatine's kindly mask was replaced by the hideous, pleading visage of the Sith Lord Sidious. His master. The master of lies. Anakin's rage grew hotter, molten. He'd been used. You knew I wouldn't let you die. I hate you. I hate you for what you did to me.
Mace Windu was there too. Tall, powerful, resolved. You can't kill him, Master. He must stand trial.
No, don't listen to me. Kill him. You were right. End it now before I can stop you. Kick me aside. Don't let me go on to become what I became. I'm begging you. Kill ME!
Impervious to his pleading—both real memory and dream—the deep, gravelly voice of the Jedi Master echoed in his ears. He has too much control of the Senate and the Courts. He is too dangerous to be kept alive.
You were so right. If only I'd listened. If only I'd stayed away. If only it had been me sent to face Grievous instead of Obi-Wan. The longing in his heart for any of them to have been true was almost as painful as reality. If only. If only.
It is not the Jedi way . . . He must live . . . I need him . . . NO!
"NO!" Anakin awoke with the bellow ringing in his ears.
Jack-knifing upright, he fell off the bed with the sheets trailing after him. His chest was heaving. Raising a trembling hand, he felt the wetness of tears still on his face. A ragged sob choked in his throat. The memory of the moment that had defined the horror that was rest of his life was acid to his soul.
But it was nothing to the swelling, undiminished love he still felt for Padmé. Fear, the one emotion that had haunted him as Anakin, and been vanquished by Vader, awoke again—fully. In the darkness, still partially gripped by the dream, he felt twenty three again; embittered, uncertain, volatile. How could he possibly learn to live within sight of Padmé and not have her love? It was an impossible task. In a very real sense she'd been his reason for living. His attachment to her had been everything the Jedi Order had feared, and one he hadn't been able to consider losing. He would never have given her up willingly—not as Skywalker and not as Vader.
His epiphany of the day before was as cold as ash, ice in his stomach. Worse, his resolve to learn to live without Padmé's love seemed a foolish fantasy borne of desperation. He was no longer surrounded by the pain of others to distract him from his own. It was as if the numbness their meeting had left him with had finally dispersed, leaving him open to the wounds he'd glossed over before. Sitting, trembling on the hard floor, it felt to Anakin as if he was being set up to fail again.
It also occurred to him that Vader had become a hundred times more monstrous after Padmé had died. The Sith abhor love, fearing it will sweep aside the dark side: which is why Vader had locked it away. Luke had saved him once, but his son was in the living world and unreachable. Without love, was Anakin doomed to fall back into the dark, cold void he'd only just wrenched himself free from?
Another, newer memory played across his mind.
"Love turned me to the dark side, how can you now say that it also saved me from it? It's contradictory."
"You'll have plenty of time to meditate on the more complex elements on the second world. Understanding where we went wrong is an essential step to redemption."
"What if you're wrong, Obi-Wan?" Anakin asked the darkness. "I can't afford for you to be wrong."
In his heart, fear unfurled its wings, feeding off the darkness within as well as without. Undone by the dreams and too overwrought to smother it, Anakin dropped his head in his hands.
"District DK98765 is through that entryway over there," said the droid, pointing with one of its three grey digits. "I'm not authorised to go any nearer than here."
"Here is fine," said Anakin. He got out off the speederbike's battered and torturously uncomfortable sidecar and paid the fare. After a nervous, swivelling glance around, the droid taxi shot off again.
He'd lied, Anakin saw, turning a slow circle to get his bearings: here was anything but fine. The buildings lining both sides of the street were stained and decayed. Instead of the opaque windows he'd seen in other areas, there were boards covered in colourful graffiti. Around his feet litter swirled. It also stank. The sweet sickly stench of over-ripe, never-emptied recyclers was almost overpowering. It was an olfactory assault not helped by the trapped, moist heat. The bright morning sun might not reach street-level, but nothing stopped the heat from gathering.
He wasn't even sure what he was doing here. Perhaps he was distracting himself? It was certainly true that he needed something, anything to do. Telling himself that the dreams and misery had merely been a moment of weakness—a reaction to seeing Padmé—had not been helping. He knew the bad night he'd spent was written all over him; pale, tight skin, dark circles under his eyes, tension in his shoulders tight enough to sunder bone. He'd needed to get out, though. The eyes of strangers might see the signs on his face, but no-one would ask questions.
Not that the strangers here seemed interested in approaching him, he noted.
The sound of the taxi had caused what denizens lived, or worked here to disappear into boltholes. Unfortunately for them, Anakin didn't need to see them to know they were there. A glance to the left caught out a red-faced Sarrish male who hadn't backed out of sight into a darkened doorway fast enough.
The Sarrish growled sullenly at being spotted and retreated faster.
Anakin dismissed him. The currents here were fraught with tremors of danger and an ever-present threat, but nothing that was focused enough to concern him. If that changed, he would know in advance. Keeping his cloak covering his lightsaber, Anakin ignored the other lurking lifesigns and headed for the alley the droid had pointed out. As he walked through, he wondered what could be so bad about District DK98765 that the hell-hole he was leaving behind was considered better.
Of course the local name of 'Whores Hole' probably gave him a clue, Anakin mused, darkly.
He soon found out. The alley was narrow and the walls on either side were damp and dank to the touch. Unidentifiable things slithered underfoot that could only have come from the encircling forest. To the unwary, or the inebriated, this alley could be their downfall. The Sith aren't the only beings in the galaxy who prey on the weaker, or inattentive. The barely perceptible sound of fibercord rope being slyly lowered overhead would have gone unnoticed and unheard by most people. However, Anakin tracked the would-be attacker's slow descent through the Force as easily as if it had been announced.
Walking on as if he knew nothing, Anakin felt the waft of displaced air as the creature following him leapt from window ledge to window ledge, waiting for the right moment to launch the assault. He was feeling contrary enough to welcome the attack. Any distraction was a welcome one. Smiling grimly, he was forced to admire the dexterity and the resolve such manoeuvrings would require, if not the intent.
The end of the alley was only a dozen strides away when it came.
With the rasp of rope suddenly released from tension, a dark figure plummeted, arrowing straight towards where Anakin would have been standing if he hadn't come to an abrupt halt at just the right moment. A small, slight creature landed nimbly with a foul curse for not having achieved its aim of knocking him to the ground. Recovering and whirling to face him, it brought up a small, blaster-shaped weapon. Anakin blocked the move with ease and wrenched the pistol away. At the same time, he yanked hard on the super-fine lines of fibercord, bringing the system of pulleys and rope down; preventing escape.
With a hiss of fury, the figure went to dart away. Only to come up fast as Anakin grabbed a fistful of hair at the back of the creature's neck. It went wild, cursing with ever increasing volubility and inventiveness when it couldn't break his grip.
It was like trying to hold onto a writhing infant gundark.
Raising his arm so that the creature dangled off the floor, he gave it a hard shake. "Stop it. That's enough. Learn to recognise when you're caught."
A gob of spit flew at his face, which Anakin avoided, snarling, "You have no idea how lucky you are that didn't land."
Pocketing the weapon for later inspection, he reached out and pulled off the crude hood that covered his attacker's face. Given the general shape; including two arms and two legs, he wasn't surprised to find a human face under the hood. He was, however, surprised to find a young and female one. Scanning filthy features that might be a dusky tan when clean, he roughly estimated her age as around fifteen standard years.
Despite his painful hold on the hair at her nape, she was glowering at him. He dropped her and grabbed her upper arm before she could recover enough to make a run for it.
"What's your name?" he asked her.
Hazel eyes shot sparks. "Go do yourself … "
Irritated, he muffled the rest of the foulness with a hand over her mouth, avoiding sharp teeth.
The girl didn't like being muzzled. She started to struggle again. Unfortunately for her, she was so slight it was an easy matter for Anakin to haul her around, cross her arms in front of her and simply walk them both out of the alley into the street. There, he dumped her with her wrists still cautiously shackled by his hands.
Her shrieks and cussing were deafening, but didn't garner any attention from the dense foot-traffic skirting them. They were standing at a busy intersection with numerous streets shooting off in all directions. The place was as crowded as a busy market—which, he supposed, it was in a way.
"Be silent!" he told her, his voice hard. He shook her again. "I haven't hurt you, though you deserve it for trying to steal from me, or kill me," he tacked on, "if that's what you were trying to do."
Letting go of one hand, he pulled out her pistol, examined and then held it up in front of her furiously red face. "This doesn't look like a blaster. What is it?"
Realising she couldn't break his hold, the girl puffed out an aggravated breath, and sulked. "It's a dart gun, stupid. I wasn't trying to kill you, just tranq you."
She looked and sounded so young that Anakin wondered at her being here in Roth at all. How could a person who was little more than a child need to atone? He didn't ask. It was too personal a question.
He kept his scowl in place. "So, your plan was robbery then?"
"What made you think I have anything worth stealing?" he asked, curious.
"Everyone has something." She shrugged bony shoulders. "Whatever it is, maybe it's something I need."
"I thought stealing was punishable by banishment?" He worked hard to hide it, but a part of Anakin reluctantly admired such a simple philosophy.
She had to tilt back her head to look up into his face; then scoffed, "It is. You gonna report me, big guy?"
He thought about it for perhaps two seconds. "No, but you're not getting away it either. I have a job for you, little one."
Her face turned mulish and she tried to twist free. "I don't do pro work."
"I didn't mean that." He fought off a wave of revulsion at the thought. She was a child! "I'm looking for an old woman called Tenku," he told her stiffly. "You can pay your debt to me by helping me find her." He decided an incentive might make her co-operate better. "If you do a good job, I may actually pay you. Try earning a living instead of pilfering it."
"You have credits on you?"
He could literally see the cunning wheels turning in her mind. He tightened his fingers a fraction: making sure he had her attention. "If you try anything, I'll know and you'll be the one to pay—youngling or not."
She must have recognised the conviction on his face because her eyes widened and her lips formed an 'O'. Satisfied she'd got the message, Anakin let her go. She rubbed her wrists. Much more subdued, she asked, "What do you want her for?"
"You know her, don't you?" Anakin was abruptly certain of it. Her thoughts betrayed her. He could feel it, and the war going on inside the girl; a battle between selfish self-preservation and concern for a ... friend, perhaps?
"Maybe," she offered guardedly.
"Your fears are groundless," he told her, relaxing enough to offer a small smile. "I mean her no harm. You have my word."
Whether she believed him or not, the girl set off with Anakin in her wake. She took him on a zig-zag route, sometimes dodging down side-streets no bigger than alleys and just as filthy. It soon became clear that Whores Hole was like many other seedy red-light districts he'd had occasion to wander through. He'd been propositioned twice before he'd taken a dozen steps. Scantily dressed males and females loitered on corners, or gyrated suggestively from what would have been enormous windows if they'd been glazed. In-between, beggars rattled plasto buckets fastened with a secure lid to prevent stealing. Pick-pocketing, he imagined, was rife.
Everywhere the pungent aroma of intoxicating fumes wreathed between bodies, or plumed out as smoke from within yet more dark, recessed doorways. Anakin couldn't be certain, but he guessed this was the second-world's version of the death-sticks. At least half the people who passed them were smoking from tiny metallic pipes.
Overall it was a pitiless, pitiful sight.
Everyone he laid eyes on had the air of someone with somewhere to go, but with no real reason to go there. It seemed to him that the people here were merely existing between transactions. The lucky ones, Anakin thought, were the ones who got to leave again as soon as they'd got what they'd come for.
Despite the early hour, garish lights flashed from every doorway, colouring the scene with a sickly wash of yellow, green and red. Back on a main throughfare, he noticed that the road had once been paved with something like cermacrete, but now it was little more than rubble underfoot. There were no droids here to spread qatar sand, or clear away the litter. He didn't need to be told that there was also no security or community forces to run to if you got mugged, stabbed or shot—a distinct possibility judging by the roughness of some of the locals.
It was a squalid, hopeless no-go area except to those willing to take the risk, or those with no choice.
Which one was he, he wondered wryly? Neither, he could imagine Obi-Wan saying, you're just pig-headed. The thought made him smile, pleased that the errant voice didn't bring with it a side-order of painful guilt. He didn't think he could handle it.
"How much further to go?" he asked her as they passed a store advertising personal holovid cams with the slogan 'Wallow in every fetish and relive it again and again', emblazoned across its front.
"Not far. Just around the—" she began, glancing back at him. Something over his shoulder caused her to come to a sudden halt and go pale. "Oh, crap! Greesh!"
Anakin was already swivelling on his heel to face the threat. "Stay close to me," he told her.
"Are you kidding—?"
Three burly human men were bearing down on them. "Jude!" The lead one thundered. "I've been looking for you, you little swarf rat. You owe me money!"
Reaching them, the man tried to by-pass Anakin and swipe the girl out from behind him. Anakin simply moved so that he was squarely in the way again. They were of an equal height, but the other man had a good fifty pounds of extra weight.
"Look, friend," Anakin said, aiming for conciliatory while passing a hand between them. "Now isn't a good time. You have better things to do with your time. Go and do them."
For a second, it seemed the Jedi mind trick had worked, until …
A flushed, sweaty face was thrust too close to his. The whites surrounding mud-brown pupils were nearly as red as the cheeks. "I'm not your friend, friend. I'm Greesh, and I've waited on this whelp long enough. I want my credits." The man's breath made the stench of burning death-sticks smell like a summer garden. "Take a hint and get out of my way before I mess up that pretty face of yours."
Maybe it was tiredness, but, against his will, a red mist rose up in Anakin. Anger.
His fingers curled into his palms, clenching. Despite knowing he mustn't let it, the anger took hold. It wasn't the crack about his face that he found so insulting, it was being blatantly dismissed. Jude's insolence had been merely irritating. The careless indifference he'd met since coming here had been easy to flick off: naked aggression wasn't. Two decades of commanding attention and instilling fear made such a thing from such a man impossible to swallow. Anakin would be the first to admit that pride had always been a weakness of his—as a child, a Jedi, a Sith, and now.
Pride and anger had helped with his downfall before, so he fought to shackle both now. He was going to swallow his pride, Anakin vowed. Vader was dead and he didn't want others to fear him. Not even this worm. He wanted to believe it.
Remember, your focus determines your reality.
The fool's two friends circled around them. Blue eyes icy but level, Anakin hauled the girl closer to him without taking his gaze from the leader. She was stiff with terror and her pulse hammered under his fingers. "I'll worry about my face," he said softly. "Now, here's a warning for you. Take the chance I'm offering you and leave before I have to hurt you."
"Leave … what? You … hurt me?" Greesh threw back his head and roared with laughter.
They were finally attracting attention. Sensing trouble, heads craned to see what was going on and bodies shuffled closer for a better view. The crowd somehow made it more intolerable. There were a good few snickers coming from other quarters too. Anakin fought to bank it, but the anger only blazed higher. For one terrible moment, the temptation to simply raise his hand and Force-choke Greesh was incredibly, overwhelmingly strong. Vader would have already done it, or worse. It took so little effort to choke, cripple or even crush a man; and, as a demonstration, it was unequalled. That knowledge—that reminder—made him dizzy. It was an old friend leering at him, cajoling. If he let himself, Anakin could sweep all of them before him. Even now, the power of the Force was coursing through his living body, humming in his blood, racing along every nerve—doubling the enticement.
Nothing could be easier. He's been warned and chosen to disregard it. He's scum. Do it! You don't even have to give him time to suffer.
The effort it took to resist the temptation made him feel weak and lightheaded. A fist of fear squeezed his heart. The muscles in his legs shook and his gut churned. Coupled with the despair of the night before, he had to wonder … was the darkness in him really so close to the surface?
I mustn't. It would only take one moment of weakness. The urge retreated, battled back. He didn't have time to recover from his touch-and-go victory.
Abruptly, Greesh stopped laughing and whipped out a vibroblade. The hum of the blade was deadly as it flashed towards his throat. Ready for it, Anakin lashed out with a body-kick, pushing the man back a few staggering steps. The much more powerful hum of his ignited lightsaber caused the crowd to rear back in shock. Greesh was still off balance when Anakin slashed down with the saber in a two-handed grip. The first third of the vibro-blade was cut off with the first swipe; the second upward slice took it off to the hilt, leaving it smoking.
Anakin could have finished the man then and there. He hesitated, fearing his own instincts.
There was a shocked silence; then Greesh gave an enraged roar, reaching for the blaster holstered at his hip. Behind Anakin, Jude gave a yelp of warning. The crack-hiss of an energy whip made it unnecessary. The crowd scattered like lava beetles under threat of water, heading for shelter. Anakin shoved Jude away, sending her sprawling, but in the clear. Snapping out another kick at the henchman wielding the whip, he deflected Greesh's bolts up at the sky rather than risk hitting a bystander. The third henchman also had a blaster. Whirling and crooking his right arm, he sent the bolts back into the man's knees. The man toppled, groaning.
On his left, the energy-whip curled through the air, ready to snap around his head, decapitating him. Jaw tight, Anakin deflected more of Greesh's bolts, waiting for the whip to unfurl and lash, then side-stepped, lunged, and struck out with the 'saber, severing the acid yellow strip. Whirling the blue blade, he spun in a 360º turn and flipped to confuse Greesh's aim. Assuming a sorescu stance, he then picked up speed so that he was racing towards the man. All hesitation was gone. He was going to end this—the honourable way.
Panicking, Greesh kept firing as he hurriedly retreated, yelling for back-up.
Blank-faced and resolved, Anakin deflected every bolt—and kept going.
He didn't make it. At just the wrong moment, Greesh's back-up came streaming from around the nearest corner, bowling over an unwary male Vultan as they did. This time, they were a mixture of human and near-human. Unkempt hired thugs, Anakin judged. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, a blaster didn't require much skill. He counted twenty before the blaster fire was thick enough that he had to retreat, or accept the need to maim and kill.
He hadn't come here today to kill, or to fight for that matter. Frustration simmered, but didn't boil. The rage of before had been too thoroughly doused by his inner battle of earlier to reignite. Pride had been similarly banished. Anakin's mind was once again clear. He hadn't picked this fight. The outcome was insignificant in the bigger picture, he told himself. All he had to do was get away.
Easier said than done.
A quick glance behind proved that Jude had been wise enough to have already disappeared. Good, he only had to worry about himself. Using the Force, he leapt up onto the canopy of a tavern then raced along the length with his boots ringing on the metal. Blaster-fire kept coming thick and fast. The lightsaber flashed and hummed in a ceaseless blur of defensive movement as Anakin headed for the balcony he'd spotted two meters up. Skidding to a stop just underneath it, he braced himself, bent his knees and used the Force, once again, to fuel his jump.
Landing nimbly on the balcony, he switched off the lightsaber. Down below, Greesh's men piled into the tavern after him. Putting on a fresh burst of speed, Anakin flew inside and past an entwined, naked couple. Their startled faces were gaping at him. As he passed, he left a terse apology behind him. The room held little more than a bed and a comms-console. The stink of stale musk was gaggingly strong. Luckily the room was also small. Rather than have to slow down, he used a Force-push to activate the door control while he was still some distance away, streaking through before it had opened fully.
The outside corridor included a flight of stairs. Greesh's men were already rushing up them. Stopping at the top, Anakin reengaged his 'saber to efficiently deflect another volley of bolts, sending some back to their originator's lower bodies. He was wasting time, he realised. The longer he stayed here, the more chance there was of a pitch-battle: something he wanted to avoid. Whipping up a hand, he sent the rest toppling back down the unforgiving durasteel stairs. Another hand-movement later, the metal rail—complete with built in viewscreens showing questionable amorous liaisons—was wrenched from its moorings to crash down on top of them, just to make sure.
Of course that meant with the stairs blocked, he had to find another way out, he realised, frustrated anew.
The shower of sparks the last tactic had caused set off the fire alarms. A muted klaxon started. As a result of the alarm, the door opposite slid open and a cautious head popped out. Blatantly taking advantage, Anakin pushed past the sheet-draped woman, ignoring her squawking protests and jogged to the glassless window. A glance down at the side-street below revealed more of Greesh's men. An instant later the spot where his head had been was being peppered with red bolts.
"Don't go near the window," Anakin warned the woman as he strode back towards the door.
"Oh, ya'think?!" she hollered sarcastically after him.
Back in the corridor, Anakin noticed a grille halfway up the wall. Moving towards it, he felt the waft of cool air. It was an air conditioning system. After yanking out the grille, he stuck his head inside and found it was more than big enough for him. There were even rungs for easy maintenance access. Climbing in, Anakin reattached the grille behind him.
Five torturously slow minutes later, he was standing on the sloping roof. The drop to the ground was significant. The jump to the next roof was considerably less so. He sailed over the oblivious heads waiting on the street below. Two more roof jumps later, Anakin slid to the edge of the shortest and then let himself fall with his cloak billowing out behind him.
He landed with a crunch of boots on uneven ground. And to the sound of clapping.
Not everyone had scattered to minimum safe distance. The four-armed clapper was a bulky male Besalisk standing on the wooden boardwalk surrounding yet another tavern. Anakin was reminded of Obi-Wan's diner-owning friend on Coruscant. Yellow eyes in a heavy brown, avian face gleamed with dark amusement. "Not bad … for a human."
Next to the Besalisk stood a human female wearing a concealing helmet, skin-tight revealing clothes and enough armament to start a war in her own right. There was something about her that made Anakin think bounty hunter. The same could be said for the blue-skinned Chiss male lounging nearby. They weren't the only ones.
"Are we about to have a problem now?" asked Anakin, tiredly.
The Besalisk spread two of his four arms. "Not today, Jedi."
Padmé had long become used to her conflicted feelings about visiting the temple in Whores Hole. Duty compelled her to go, but she always dreaded the moment when she would have step into the speeder that would wing her here. She hated being put into a position of judging people, but what else could you do when you were forced to stare into the unhidden face of depravity? Even seeing it second-hand was desperately demoralising. For days afterwards, any work she did as Councillor was done by rote until she could regain her equilibrium and faith in people. That wasn't how she liked to work.
She shouldn't have come today, she realised, not when she was hopelessly off-balance already.
As usual, the visit had begun with a tour. For once, Padmé let Oboné take the lead and make the approving noises. Built in the style of the Old Republic it reminded her of the Jedi Temple on Coruscant: only on a much smaller scale. Thirty meters high with an open front and colonnaded columns, the one-time temple had gone to ruin centuries ago. Even so, hemmed in and dwarfed on three sides by dull grey, anonymous rectangle-shaped buildings, it was by far the most aesthetically pleasing to look upon. The sunny courtyard allowed by the gap in buildings was also a huge plus.
Workshops had been created in the main, central chamber. Dormitories fanned out from it with the utility and medical areas at the rear. It was designed to be a bolt-hole for anyone desperate enough to need it. If they wanted to, residents could learn skills here that might aid them in getting out of the district altogether. Any credits earned from the production of goods and services were funnelled back into the maintenance of the temple and the people. Its caretaker and guardian was an irascible old woman called Tenku. From what Padmé knew of her, the temple's guardian had a history every bit as spotty as the building itself.
"You seem a little distracted today," commented Oboné as they walked back towards the main exit.
"I am a little off," admitted Padmé with a grimacing half smile, yanking her thoughts away from wondering if Lyonides had found Anakin yet. "Please tell me it wasn't that obvious?"
"I noticed because I know you well, but I doubt many others would have seen it."
It all seemed to boil out. "I hate coming here. I hate seeing how young some of them are—and knowing that one night they'll slip back out to earn the credits they need for a fix. It's a despicable, self-defeating cycle that just seems to feed on itself and get fatter. Sometimes I wonder if I'm wrong to keep blocking Natar's requests for hard-line tactics. Am I so fixated on preserving freedom that I can't see when it's harmful rather than good?"
Oboné pursed her lips for a moment. "I don't believe you're wrong. Addiction, fantasy and dependency are just some of the ways people use to escape fear for a time. Waving a blaster in front of their faces won't change that."
"Alright, I agree, but what will?"
"Remove the fear and the problem will certainly reduce, if not disappear."
It was a discussion they'd had countless times in the past. Padmé felt the tension headache gripping the base of her skull loosen its vicious vice. "Thank you, old friend," she said, grasping a large callused hand to give an appreciative squeeze. "I do know all this, but I needed to hear it again for some reason."
The hand-squeeze was returned with a smile. "Don't mention it. Even the hardiest campaigner gets discouraged from time to time. I guess you're due."
There was no time for more as wizened old Tenku was standing on the top step, waiting to bid them goodbye. The old woman was wearing her usual multiple layers of rags draped over a tiny, bony frame. Hoping to allay some of her guilt for being so quiet and remote, Padmé opened her mouth to speak, only to snap it shut again when the sound of yells reached them. In tandem, the three of them turned to the courtyard below.
A slight figure in fitted, dark clothing was pelting across the stone flags. Tenku shuffled down the steps to meet the newcomer. Confused and mildly alarmed, Padmé and Oboné followed.
The figure was a girl. They reached the bottom step in time to hear only part of what she was saying between gasps for breath. " … He wanted me to help find you. He said it was okay and not to worry. I guess I thought he looked alright. Then Greesh turned up. He wanted me. It turned into a big fight. I just left—"
"Greesh?" Padmé queried quietly to Oboné.
"Men-sol Greesh," Oboné supplied, curling her lip in disgust. "An unlovely human: originally from the Malastare system. He's suffering with delusions of grandeur—fancies himself as the local Hutt. He started out as a credit-shark about fifteen years ago and then moved up into harder criminal activity. He has a reputation for having a vicious temper and holding grudges. He's mostly just a bully though. There are, unfortunately, beings a lot worse than him slithering around here."
Padmé quirked a brow, surprised and displeased. "And he's never been brought to justice?"
"He never leaves The Hole to be arrested."
That answer was all that was needed. It was common knowledge that the police and security teams wouldn't come into The Hole for any reason. They even stopped sending in security droids due to the expense of replacing them. Based on reports coming out of Natar's office, security cams lasted about ten standard minutes before being ripped off and destroyed.
All musings stopped when another raised voice rang out across the courtyard. A man came into view, limping fast. Tall and heavily built, he held a blaster in his hand. The voice was rough, hoarse and nearly incoherent with rage. "Jude! Where are you, you little …" His eyes settled on the girl. He hobbled faster with a manic expression on his thickly fleshed face. "There you are. Thought you'd cause some trouble, did you? Well, I've got you now. I knew you'd slink off here."
Two more men appeared, coming from the left side of the opposite building. Without taking his feral gaze off the four women, Greesh yelled for them to stand guard. "Don't let anyone past, got it?"
Tenku sent the girl away with a push, hissing for her to hide herself. Sobbing, Jude rushed up the stone steps and into the shade of the entrance. Padmé, with Oboné next to her, moved to stand beside the old woman. Thankful not to be wearing some ornate dress, but a more serviceable bodysuit and cloak, Padmé flicked superfast through potential scenarios for defusing this situation. Whatever the situation might be. Unfortunately none seemed likely to succeed. The man looked wildly out of control: frenzied.
As he approached, his lips curled back to show yellow-stained teeth. "Get out of my way."
Tenku stood her ground despite being half his height. "You leave that girl alone, Men-Sol Greesh. She owes you nothing—"
A brutal back-handed blow knocked the old woman aside. A meaty hand shot out and grasped Padmé's right shoulder, ready to shove her aside too. Disgusted, Padme was too quick for him. Reaching up, she grabbed his fingers, wrenching hard as she twisted her body away. As she'd intended his arm came with her. A snap-kick to the back of one knee sent him crashing to his knees with a roar of pain. If he'd been alone her defensive attack might have worked. As it was, Oboné gave a yelping shout and lunged in front of Padmé. The sound of a blaster seemed to come afterwards, but then she saw Oboné slump.
Padmé's heart stuttered. The distraction was enough that the much much bulkier Greesh was able to yank his arm free and stagger back to his feet. Off-balance, Padme landed hard on her own hands and knees. When she looked up, the maniac's blaster was levelled at Padmé's face.
"Think about what you're doing," she demanded, rising slowly with her hands out to her sides. "I'm a councillor, and so is the woman who has already been shot by your friends. Do you really want to do something else that you'll regret?"
Mud brown eyes blazed. "Do you think you can bear witness if you're dead, Councillor?" he asked, harshly. There was spittle on his lips and sweat dripped down his cheeks.
He rank didn't faze him. He would kill her as easily as he would squash a bug. Padmé stiffened, but didn't back down. Inside, she was sincerely regretting leaving her own side-arm at home. Stupid, she thought, berating herself. Ice shot up her spine and her heart began to pound. She desperately wanted to go to Oboné and see how badly the woman was hurt. "You're out of control. You need to calm down."
"I'm perfectly in control here and I don't need to think about what I'm doing. I know exactly what I'm doing," Greesh spat. "Nobody runs out on me, owing me money and then sics some crazy on me."
"I'm sure she didn't mean to cause you so much trouble," said Padmé, slipping into peacemaker mode. The blaster was still aimed at her head. She refused to think about the likelihood of failing. "She's a child. Please, why can't you just leave?"
To the left, eyes wide and face slack with shock, Oboné was being helped by Tenku. There was blood on the old woman's lips and a bruise already forming on one fragile cheek. Padmé tried to see where Oboné had been hit, but didn't dare break her eye-lock with Greesh for too long. They were all suffering from fear and shock: both natural reactions to finding themselves confronted with a blaster-wielding maniac. What she hadn't expected was for Greesh to suddenly jerk around, sweat soaking through his tunic like water and screaming like a woman.
Then she heard the unmistakable sound of a lightsaber.
Before her shocked gaze had lengthened to take in Greesh's two henchmen, the heart-stoppingly familiar figure of Anakin had already dealt with them. Burly and heavily armed or not, they seemed to just fall to the side as if bowled over by a tremendous force.
The speed of what happened next was shocking. Yet, Padmé seemed to view it in slow motion. Greesh backed away, firing wildly at Anakin. The man's yells were full of denial and fury. She heard the raging words as if her head was underwater. Across the incongruously sunlit courtyard, she focussed on Anakin's intense, set expression. His lips were peeled back to show clenched teeth. Then he seemed to just leap into the air, arcing high and long, covering meters in a second. The moment he landed, Greesh's pistol leapt out of the man's sweaty grasp and into Anakin's own hand.
One, humming swirl of the lightsaber later, the long blade rested singeingly close to Greesh's neck. "Get down on your knees," Anakin ground out. "Now!" His savage tone sent a shiver down her spine. If Greesh had looked wild, Anakin looked like a honed weapon; the lightsaber was merely an extension of him.
Eyes wheeling and Adam's apple bobbing, Greesh fell heavily to his knees. "Don't kill me. Mercy, I ask for mercy."
Padmé saw Anakin's fingers tighten around the hilt of the lightsaber. As she watched the knuckles went white. Gods! He was going to kill him. Jerking into motion with a hand outstretched, she opened her mouth, intent only on saving the man's life and innocents from the sight of an execution. Then Anakin relaxed visibly and the pulsing blue blade moved away a few inches.
Halting again after only one step, Padmé snapped her mouth shut, waiting. Uncomprehending. She could breathe though. The terrible, tense vibrations of imminent death receded. She stared at both men, one helpless and on his knees before the other.
"Consider yourself fortunate that I'm in no position to judge anyone. I'll leave that to those that are." To her ears, Anakin sounded sincere—and tired. "Your fate is in their hands."
Padmé watched as Anakin stepped back and the blue blade disappeared. Unable not to, her gaze travelled up the length of a dark brown cloak to his face. Their eyes locked and held. She was rocked by the intensity of his gaze.
"Are you alright?" he asked. All savagery was gone, his tone was soft.
It made her blink, and tossed her back in time: before the pain.
He would say exactly that, in exactly that tone, while still hanging over her in the heated aftermath of making love, his lips nuzzling the line of her jaw, trailing kisses to the shell of her ear. Stirring them both up again.