NOTES:

(1)Huge thanks to NikeJ for the beta on this chapter.
(2)A LOT of the Vader information I've used in this chapter is taken from

Wookieepedia. All required credit to that wonderful site.
(3)Once again, thanks to everyone for all of the wonderful comments. Author replies will have been sent to signed reviews. Anon is below.

PPP - WOW, my favorite type of story - Anakin struggling with redemption. And the background is a combo of my fave movie and my fave tv show- It cannot get any better!

Thank you, PPP! I'm so glad that you're enjoying it! I'm having a great time writing it too *g*

Cymru na Alethaira - You know, you have this way of making the reader *hate* Lyonides and Sidious. Like...oh, you wanna feed them to Ani :P One thing I forgot to ask- so um, Sidious is one of those demon thingies now?

Hey hun, I know exactly what you mean *g* More on Sidious very soon, promise. Thanks for the comment. XX

Chapter Seven

He breathed deep, then let the air out slow, slower, and slower yet.

Anakin was meditating, or trying to. He could hear the rhythmic thump and wail of the music from the club four floors below. It seemed to float in through the tattered shutters he'd left open. The faint noises didn't intrude. How could they with the cacophony inside his mind holding all of his attention? Sitting cross-legged with his hands laid gently on his knees, he strained for that place that would allow him to set his thoughts free, quieting them. But there were so many. They were entwined, snarled in one another, interconnecting until they were little more than a knotty tangle of confusion.

It had begun weeks ago when he'd confronted Lyonides. He'd hid it well, he hoped, but it had been jarring to have his Jedi past thrown in his face. It was everywhere—The Hero With No Fear—they didn't have a clue—had no idea just how wrong…

He took another juddering breath.

… He was no hero and he knew plenty about fear. For one thing, he'd specialised in causing it.

The acclaim and adulation was unbearable. There were times when he wanted to scream at them, shatter their horrendous illusions with the truth. Weeks had passed and instead of getting better, it was getting worse. He kept to himself, but still the rumours filtered through, along with the pressure of hope. Every whisper seemed to crack open the mental door, revealing the darkness within that little bit more. Details of his Clone Wars missions were being dredged up as if they'd happened yesterday. What they didn't realise was that while they worshipped what had gone before, he was mired ever deeper in what came after. It was as if a dam had been inexplicably opened, breaching his defences. Every night now, Anakin dreamed, reliving atrocities that threatened to drive him mad, scorching his soul black. He awoke at dawn to the cries of murdered younglings, after which, he would put on a mask, patching over the ravages. At times, he selfishly longed for the crystal clarity of a mind unfettered by remorse.

Breathe. Slow, slower. His chest rose and fell. Beads of sweat lined his brow. A breeze feathered over the naked skin of his torso, roughing it with goose-bumps.

A harsh voice tore across the wallowing self-pity. It was his own. Stop thinking about yourself and think about others and their fears. Isn't that why you're here?

That should be easy enough. There was plenty of fear in Roth. And, no matter what he did, he was making precious little difference.

You don't grow in the second world. Not hair, not fingernails, nothing. Ergo you don't age. If you die, and come through as a stunted teen who was due a growth spurt, it never comes. Tough luck. The only things that grow here are plants, fear and the suicide rate.

This was the second world according to Sal Trent. The short and pithy summation was accurate. In Roth, fear was constant, like an airborne pollution that crept in, under, and around everything. Anakin felt it too, frantic wings beating inside his chest. His fears weren't caused by the Narzgh though, but himself.

Against his will, Anakin's thoughts circled back around.

Shamefully, a part of him understood Lyonides' frank acceptance that some of his people would fall prey to the Narzgh. The belief that only the strongest deserve to survive lies at the core of Sith concepts. Anakin's own past was proof of that callousness. There had been no mercy or compassion in him then.

True, a different voice argued, but, even as immersed in the dark side as he'd been, he'd doubted—lamenting and mourning what he'd become in rare, weak moments. Vader had made sure those moments were private and well away from the Emperor, but he'd had them.

Sith power does not reside in the body, but in the will. When you fully accept who and what you are, Lord Vader, you will reawaken the incredible powers within you.

The intrusion of Palpatine's voice made him tense. Anakin didn't shove the memory away, but confronted it, forcibly relaxing his muscles one by one. Of one thing, he was now not in the least sorry—Vader had never been able to fully accept. That peace had always eluded him, limiting his Sith powers and causing his master to test him again and again.

Out of the many 'tests' only one came to him now: Kalakar VI and the clone of Maul. The duel had been vicious and Vader almost met his end. Their last exchange had led to the desperate strike that had won Vader victory.

What can you possibly hate enough to destroy me?

Myself!

Vader had never let himself analyse the truth in that last, grim statement. Not that regrets, or doubts, had stopped him from pursuing success with a single-minded ferocity that made the value of life meaningless for hundreds of worlds.

Eyes still closed, Anakin frowned. The harsh voice returned, this time desperate rather than judgemental, "It doesn't matter. That's not who I am anymore."

That same part of him that could understand Lyonides, replied, maybe you need to be, if you want to halt the endless tide of Narzgh.

Blue eyes flew wide open.

o~o~o

"The holovid is full of news about the upcoming elections, madam. Oh, and that human again. Anakin Skywalker is it? He seems to be a hot-topic these days."

Stepping out of the shower tube, Padmé accepted the towel offered by the cream-plated server droid. "Thank you, Dee, and no, I haven't watched the news today."

"Oh, well, you've been busy haven't you?" Built along the lines of the old WR7's, the droid was programmed to mimic a sociable female and scooted around on a gryo-balanced unipod. "You should rest more," it scolded. "You're always on the move and you do have organic legs, you know. You'll wear them out and then where will you be?"

Padmé only smiled and padded over to the vanity table. Seating herself on the stool and catching the droid's reflection in the mirror, she told it, "You can go ahead and shut-down for the night, Dee. I won't be needing you again."

"Okay, I will, but only if you do too. You're looking tired these days." With those final sing-song warning words, Dee sailed through the sliding doors, leaving Padmé to her thoughts.

She was looking tired. Dispassionately, she scrutinised herself in the mirror. There were dark circles under her eyes and her skin looked pale and drawn. Luckily, rich brown eyes, pale smooth cheeks and full lips made up for a lot. Her looks had always been a happy accident, and one that she'd hardly ever considered, until she'd fallen in love with Anakin. Then she'd begun to appreciate his obvious captivation with her face, hair, skin, fingers, the backs of her knees, the curve of her hips. Everything about her had fascinated him. She'd returned the compliment equally.

Each parting and reunion had only seemed to make him more compelling. The bitter fury of fighting a war had appeared to hone him down, not so much dimming his youth, as darkening it.

Had that same darkness been a part of what eventually consumed him?

"Stop it! Don't go there." Picking up the wide bristle brush, she started to sweep it through long thick, brown hair. She stared stonily into the mirror. "Freyrr will be back soon and you have a full day tomorrow too. Think about that instead. Be productive for stars sake!"

She needed to figure out what to say to him, for a start. It could all go disastrously wrong. Gods! It had been weeks since she'd last seen him and Anakin had hardly been out of her thoughts. Every time he fought the Narzgh, she felt as if she were dying until it was over and she knew he'd survived again. The brush stopped and she didn't notice. She knew she shouldn't be thinking of him like that, but she just couldn't help it. It was driving her crazy. Every thought led back to him.

"Is that so surprising? He's everywhere. People talk of nothing else." Throwing down the brush, Padmé rose and stalked over to the bed. Snatching up the nightgown already laid out, she pulled it over her head and yanked the silky, sky-blue material down, oblivious of the delicate silk.

In fact, she was so preoccupied that she almost missed the subdued hiss of the door opening. "Dee, I told you I won't—" The rest was swallowed on a gasp.

Unless she locked it, the doors opened automatically when sensing an approaching presence. The Terraviper swaying in the doorway was acid yellow with blood-red dorsal splotches. It was also thicker than her waist and at least two meters in length; certainly big enough for the sensors to have picked it up.

Padmé was frozen, staring at it while the enormous snake stared back. A forked tongue flicked out, tasting the air and feeding off her sudden fear. In that second, everything she'd ever heard about the Terra skittered over her mind: vicious, venomous, moves like lightening, will strike at anything. The last thought had barely formed when it hissed, revealing twin rows of curved fangs. Rearing back, the snake shot towards her.

It moved so fast it was little more than a blur.

Yelping, Padmé grabbed up the bed-sheet and flung it over the huge snake, pelting for the door as she did so. The slap of a heavy, scaled body on the floor behind her warned that the snake had freed itself from the linen. Bursting through the archway into the reception area, she vaulted over one couch, staggering on landing because of the length of her nightgown. Almost at the same moment, the snake slammed into the couch, just missing her ankle. It hissed furiously. Terrified, Padmé risked a glance back and saw the thing was now perched on the stiff top cushion, coiling itself for another spring.

Lifting her skirts, Padmé raced, heart pounding, back the way she'd come. This time though, she was going at a diagonal angle, heading for the snug. Options raced through her mind along with adrenaline. The turbolift would never get up to her in time, so escape was out. She needed a weapon, she realised, or she was dead.

The armoire, made of heavy, dark mangan wood, stood as tall as her and decorated with polished bronziam discs for latches. Inside was a small arsenal of blasters and melee weapons: Freyrr's personal collection. It was kept in the snug, a cosy non-formal living space that guests were rarely invited into.

Terror beat at her heels. I'll never make it. I'll never make it—you will, keep running!

Instinct saved her. The snake struck, but Padmé lunged to the side of the corridor. Unfortunately, she lost her balance and tumbled to her knees. Her head jerked up, locking eyes again with the snake. It was too close. Her blood turned to ice. She was dead. The snake hissed, opening fanged jaws and lashing out with its tail. She didn't even have time to move. The spiked tip of the Terra's tail whipped along Padmé's face and thudded into the painted plasticrete wall behind her left ear. Fiery pain slashed her cheekbone. The pain unlocked her muscles and sheer panic gave her a burst of speed. The massive, fanged head lunged for her, but she scrabbled on her hands out of the way just in time. The snake struck again and again, just missing her. Padmé lashed out with one foot, slamming into the scales of its upper body. The blow did nothing. Her back hit something hard and unyielding. Something toppled, aiming for her head. She caught it and swung it at the striking snake.

The vase was heavy and ancient. It didn't survive colliding with the snake's head, but at least it did knock the reptile aside. Taking advantage of the moments reprieve, Padmé scrabbled back further, past the obstruction, and lashed out again—with both feet—this time kicking the pedestal that had showcased the vase. The marble-like foamplas was heavy, but terror gave her strength. A second full-body kick sent the veined column crashing down onto the snake, pinning it.

At the same time, the turbolift opened and Freyrr stepped out. The antechamber had a view that crossed the main reception area and down the corridor. The Wookiee gave a rumbling roar and charged, drawing her machete as she did so. A single high-swung stroke was all it took to still the thrashing snake—at last.

Panting, wide-eyed and shaking in the aftermath of near-death adrenaline overload, Padmé let herself slump to the floor. It was over. She was alive. She was shaking so hard that she didn't want to even attempt to stand. Bruises she hadn't been aware of earning started to ache.

Blood trickled down her cheek and she swiped at it. If the Viper's tail had been millimetres up and to the left, it would have stabbed into her eye. It was now obvious that someone wanted her dead. The knowledge caused new ice to form in her veins. They almost won. I almost died. If I'd stayed frozen for just one second longer. No! Don't think about it. It's over.

Stepping over the body of the snake, Freyyr came over and ran huge, furred hands over her head and shoulders—soothing and assessing—making sounds of concerned enquiry as she did. The Wookiee's touch was incredibly reassuring, pushing away the chill.

Snagging one of those hands, Padmé gave a thankful squeeze. "Thank you, Freyrr. I'm fine, really."

Sitting on her haunches with her long, golden brown fur gleaming in the light, Freyrr tilted her head and made more sympathetic noises, then added a few grunting growls.

"Yes, I'm getting a feeling of déjà vu too."

Helped to her feet by one who was family, confidante, friend and protector, Padmé forced her mind past the post-terror haze and onto something other than the snake. Anakin. She needed to see him. "Did you arrange for the final confirmation to go to the pilot?"

o~o~o

In the weeks since their near-disastrous trip to Lona Noxivio, Sal Trent had made some major modifications to his ship. The shields had been beefed up and additional duralloy plating had been attached to a good portion of the hull to protect it against laser-fire. Most importantly, twin pairs of laser cannons had been retro-fitted to the Limidian, port and starboard. Being a pilot with only limited technical ability, he'd had to draft in help for the actual fitting. Namely, Anakin.

He'd also drafted in Anakin's assistance for that day's mystery charter. With Sal having already filed their flight plans with central control, they were in the middle of their pre-flight checks. From the cop-pilot's seat, Anakin glanced over, frowning. "I can't believe you accepted a charter without knowing who the passenger is—or what business they plan on carrying out."

"Leane-Terre is only a short hop and they're paying triple my usual rate." Sal shrugged. "Sometimes it pays not to be too picky, or ask too many questions." He grinned, creasing his pitted face. "Why, you nervous?"

"I didn't say I was nervous."

"'Cause, y'know, according to your press, you don't have nerves. If that's not true, then I'll have to 'fess up on your behalf."

"I didn't say I was nervous," Anakin shot back. It was more of a snarl. Modifying his tone, he tried to cover his lack of control. "You're the one who asked me to come along, remember? In my book, that makes you the nervous one."

"You musta bought the wrong book, kid, that just makes me cautious. Besides, I seem to recall that you're handy to have around." Instead of getting back to checking the vertical thrusters, Sal lounged back in his seat, eyeing him. "It really bothers you doesn't it?"

All of a sudden the console in front of Anakin seemed fascinating; he stared at it rather than look over at Sal. "A lot of things bother me. You'll have to be more specific."

"The amount of attention you're getting. I've never seen anyone recoil from the spot-light so darned fast and hard. You look rough as hell too."

There was a pause. "You seem like a decent enough person," said Anakin, finally, coldly, looking over. "Yet, I've never asked you how you came to end up here instead of the first world."

Sal's gaze turned shuttered. "I don't play the 'how-you-died-and-ended-up-here' game. That's my business."

"Exactly. But, I bet you've wondered what a one-time Jedi with that kind of history is doing here?"

"I might have wondered a time or two," conceded, Sal. Tipping his seat back even further, he waved a hand. "So, what you're saying is that you don't think you deserve the hero-worship and that's why it grates?"

"I don't deserve it," said Anakin, significantly, "and it grates a lot." More than anyone can possibly imagine. Frustration and hopelessness bubbled. The inertial dampeners took the brunt of his spurt of anger as he flipped them on manually. "It's not even as if I'm achieving anything. The Narzgh still come, people are still snatched."

"You're trying. No-one else has the guts. That kinda crap makes people sit up and take notice."

The stiff conversation was interrupted by a message from Control advising them that their passenger had arrived and was waiting to board. There was no mention of a name, yet. Sal glanced at Anakin and wriggled his brows. "Do you wanna go play greet'n'nice and I'll finish the pre-flight?"

As easily as that, they were back on level ground.

Anakin blinked and then relaxed enough to smile, appreciating the gruff unpredictability of the man. "You need the charm practice, and he or she is your client. You go. I'll finish here."

His smile turned fully-formed at the other pilot's grumbling as Sal got out of his seat and stomped across the cockpit, heading for the hatch that would lead him to the boarding ramp via the engineering section.

The last of the checks took only a few minutes. Thinking that Sal would install their passenger in the main hold with its built-in entertainment suite, Anakin got up to take a closer look, and feel, for what they were dealing with. He'd only taken two steps when he went utterly still, staring at the hatchway. Awareness clutched at his heart. The Force surrounding him seemed to ripple, a reaction to his sudden surge of emotion. All he could think was that it couldn't be her. He didn't want it to be. He wasn't in any state to see her. The hatch released with a hiss and framed inside the circular opening was an uncomfortable looking Sal and a cloaked figure. He didn't need to see her face.

Padmé.

Casting an oddly apologetic glance at Anakin, Sal walked passed him to retake his seat, saying, "I seem to recall that you two have met, so I won't waste time on introductions. Let's get this show on the road and this bucket in the air, huh?"

Anakin didn't move. He was waiting for Padmé to remove the cloak's hood, which she did. The first thing he noticed was the painful cut marring her left cheek, then her pallor. Both were highlighted by dark hair severely styled into coiled buns at either side of her head. He could feel her palpable discomfort at being in his presence too. That he caused such a conflict in her still stung, but he found he was getting used to it. Despite the tension, she met his gaze unflinchingly. "Your friend is right. This ship is no place for a discussion." Brown eyes asked for understanding and acceptance. "The sooner we get to Leane-Terre the sooner I can explain."

His first impulse was to refuse her request to wait. He didn't have her control and never had—the maelstrom of emotions she effortlessly caused in him were not so easily dismissed. A part of him didn't care that she obviously believed that someone could be listening in. The muscles in his jaw bunched as he clenched his teeth. The last time he'd seen her it had been an accidental meeting—this wasn't. He'd been avoiding her every bit as much as she'd probably been avoiding him. He couldn't bear for her to see how far he'd tumbled in a few short weeks. Yet, now he had no choice. He wanted to know why she'd arranged this charter, why she appeared to have sought him out, and how she'd got hurt—now.

Wrestling with, and finally mastering the turbulent impatience, he inclined his head instead. "Alright. Take a seat, milady."

o~o~o

"We're off the ship," pointed out Sal tersely, as the three of them descended the ramp onto one of the many subterranean landing platforms. Leane-Terre was a much smaller settlement than Roth and built entirely underground. "How about that explanation?"

With her hands folded in front of her as they walked, Padmé was the picture of composure. Underneath the cloak, she wore another practical bodysuit, this time in navy. "I needed to speak to Anakin without Lyonides being able to record what we say."

"And you couldn't just walk up to him and say, 'hey, let's talk'?"

"I'm truly sorry for the subterfuge," she said carefully, "but, there is a good reason for it. I'm watched constantly and so is Anakin. This was the only conceivable way I could think of for arranging a meeting with a limited risk of being overheard."

Stepping onto a segmented glide that would take them over a steep drop in the rock, Anakin slid her a sharp glance. The flight had been long enough for the surprise to wear off and questions to rise to the fore. "You arranged the charter through a third party—with Sal as pilot. How did you know that I'd come along?"

"I researched you, Mr Trent," admitted Padmé, addressing Sal rather than Anakin. "You come across as an intelligent man. I assumed that you would find the circumstances suspicious and ask for backup."

The glide came to an end and they stepped off. Sal's brows rose and he said sardonically, "Nice to be so predictable."

Meanwhile, anger mushroomed in Anakin, straining and then breaking his slippery control. He'd just spent two hours inhaling her scent, driving himself crazy with memories. He wasn't even aware of the intention to grasp her elbow and bring them both to an abrupt stop, before he'd already done it. "If you wanted to talk to me, then talk to me, not Sal. Unless you've changed your mind?"

Rich brown eyes went wide at his hard tone. "I haven't changed my mind. I do want to talk to you."

It was an effort to unlock his fingers. Aware of Sal watching, Anakin sucked in a breath, forcing his voice to smooth out. "Fine, then we'll find somewhere to talk. Did you have anywhere particular in mind?"

"The north of Leane-Terre is a warren of cantinas. We'll have our pick."

Anakin glanced over at Sal to see what he thought and found him backing away. "Okay, well, I'll just go and find something to do for the next whatever…you let me know when you're done."

"That's not necessary, Mr Trent," interjected Padmé, quickly. "You're quite welcome to join us."

Anakin saw the sense in a buffer and nodded. "Yes, stay."

Canting his head, Sal considered them. After a few seconds, he made a decision. "Alright, I'll stick on one condition: I get the first drinks in, giving you two time to clear the air. I've spent the last few hours feeling like some dumb shmuck who'd wandered between two electrical disrupters. Enough already."

o~o~o

They chose a large booth with a circular table with moulded circular bench seats. As promised, Sal went directly to the curved bar of the cantina to order from the near human bartender. Being miles underground, all light came from artificial means. On the opposite side of the table, Padmé cleared her throat, playing with one of the woven mats placed strategically around the resin-coated table-top. "You seem … tenser than the last time I saw you?"

He didn't need force-sensitive perception to recognise her careful understatement. Sal was right, he was looking rough. The mask was slipping.

I miss you. I'm afraid. I can't forget. I feel like I'm slipping back into the abyss and don't have anything to grab onto and hold on. I hate what they're making me out to be, and it's making me angry. Staring blankly at her, Anakin said none of it.

"I'm not sleeping very well. What happened to your face?"

Padmé frowned. "Are you having nightmares?"

The flash of fear she couldn't hide aggravated him. "I'm seeing my life through my own eyes and not Vader's. I would have thought you'd see that as a natural consequence of being a monster."

"I—"

He cut across her, ashamed of his bitterness, "It doesn't matter. What happened to your face, Padmé?"

Padmé dropped her eyes from his, tracing the raw, deep cut as if only just realising it was there. "An unfortunate confrontation with a Terraviper last night."

Disbelief made Anakin go stiff. "You went out into the forest?"

"No, it paid me a visit in my apartment. As you can imagine, I wasn't expecting guests."

He didn't even try and return her wry smile. "How did a native predator manage to get inside the city, reach the core undetected and scale a hundred-forty storey building to reach you?"

"That's the mystery."

She was prevaricating, he knew it. "Are we talking about an assassination attempt?"

"I want to get off this topic, Anakin." Stark memories played emotions across her expressive face. Tellingly, the mat started to fray in her hands.

In any other circumstance, he would have backed off. "As soon as you answer my question."

For a moment she looked set to refuse. Full lips pursed. "Possibly, but it's not relevant."

"Someone is trying to kill you and you don't think it's relevant?" Anakin reared back on the bench, propelled by sheer disbelief. Everything else was forgotten. "Have they tried before now?"

"A few times, which is why I have Freyrr." With a wave, she dismissed the attempts on her life. "I'm perfectly well protected, Anakin, and you did say we could move on when I answered you—I have."

Across the table they regarded each other, neither willing to give way. She had that stubborn look on her face that he recognised all too well. The topic was closed.

Frustrated, Anakin didn't point out that Freyrr wasn't with her now, or go everywhere she did. Not like he had when she'd been under threat all those years ago. He hadn't let her out of his sight, no matter how hard she'd tried to shake him off. Arguments had peppered that time on Naboo, wracking up the tension even during their playful moments. She was too independent by half, he thought. He wanted to reach over the table and shake her.

Sal picked that moment to return with a small tray bearing three smoking cups. Lowering the tray to the middle of the table, the other pilot sat down and gestured for them to help themselves. Anakin picked up the nearest cup blindly while Sal muttered sotto-voice, "So much for clearing the air, huh?"

They all sipped. The brew had a vague salty taste to match the air in the catacombs. The silence stretched. The cantina was all but empty, meaning there was no hum of conversation to fill in the lull. "So, what's all this about, councillor?" asked Sal, stretching an arm negligently across the free space of the bench.

This time Padmé was careful to keep her gaze on Anakin. "I've been trying to get you some funding for those defence systems you mentioned. I have a few contacts in the engineering sector—not the big ones, they're in Lyonides pockets—but a few smaller outfits. Luckily this isn't the living world and it's not just about money. It can't be. Redemption is a strong hook—" she pulled a face "—not to mention that good deeds help them live in their safe towers with less guilt. The problem is that they don't know what it is you have in mind."

Whatever he'd been expecting it wasn't this.

Padmé wanting to talk about weapons to fight what was essentially a war was such a bizarre idea that Anakin drew a blank for a moment. He recovered when she called his name again, prompting a response. "Nothing too advanced. Modified speeders and bikes with plasma beams that can be used to skim over raiders could be useful. Aerial bombardment is out—".

"Fighters would make a hellova mess of the surrounding buildings," chipped in Sal. "But we could use their shield technology for the speeders."

"Okay, what else?"

Anakin cleared his throat, trying to concentrate. "Fortified mid-range repeating blaster cannons with built-in repelling shields would make a considerably bigger dent than normal pistols, or even rifles. I have a number of design ideas on both, as well as some auto-aiming functions to make the cannons independent of an operator. I was also thinking that we could try UV. The Narzgh only come out at night. Perhaps sunlight is a problem for them."

"UV?" queried Padmé. "You mean ultra-violet light?"

"Lamps to start off with, but I was also thinking about some kind of easily deployable bomb. Remember the Gungan's boomas?"

Padmé's smile stretched wide, dazzling him. "How could I forget? They saved my home planet."

"Look, I know we've talked about this, kid," interrupted Sal with a frown. "But, I'm sure I heard about UV being used before. It crashed and burned—didn't do anything to the slimy sons'a'banthas. Personally, I don't think we should rely too heavily on UV."

Anakin didn't get a chance to reply.

"Yes, but consider the probable source of that information, Mr Trent," said Padmé, leaning forward, engrossed.

"Just call me Sal, and what do you mean? What source?" The older man shrugged. "I just heard it is all."

"Seventy years ago Roth was protected by a complete rain barrier and run by a democracy of elders. Then suddenly out of nowhere comes a cataclysmic event. The Narzgh get in and wipe out over ninety five percent of the population. Not only that, they severely damaged the rain barrier and destroyed all databanks. Everything was lost—and I mean everything." Padmé ticked off on her fingers. "Medical records, financial and criminal records, historical data, scientific research, basically the accumulated knowledge of thousands upon thousands of years."

"Yeah, so?"

"Pilas and Petris Lyonides were two of the few survivors. Their rise to power was based on that cataclysm. They also controlled how the event was recorded and took all credit for keeping the city intact and partially restoring the rain barrier. Everything we know about the Narzgh comes from them, or is rigidly controlled by the regime they started. Petris Lyonides was the first to dub himself Junga Roth's 'Father'."

Sal snorted. "The fact that both Lyonides' were as corrupt and self-seeking as a Muun is hardly breaking news, councillor."

"No," said Anakin, "but it does mean that it's probably worth our while to capture a Narzgh alive and see how it copes with dawn."

o~o~o

Back in Junga Roth, Anakin fell into step beside Padmé as she headed for one of the turbolifts ringing the central terminal. A nearby vendor was doing a brisk business in food wraps. The smell of reconstituted meat was almost overpowering. "I'll see you to your apartment," he told her and his tone brooked no argument.

They made it inside the crammed lift just before the doors slid shut. Being barely evening, it was full. "Thank you, but it's not necessary. I can look after myself, and Freyrr will be waiting close by."

He refused to be brushed off. "In that case, I'll escort you to your friend and then leave."

Flicking him a glance, Padme lowered her voice, visibly conscious of the crush of people behind them. "That's not a good idea."

"Explain to me why not?" They stood so close her shoulder was pressing into his chest. His heart-rate picked up even at that meagre contact.

"Look, Anakin, being seen in public with me will not do you, or your cause, any good—quite the opposite. This is not about you and me, but the fact that …" trailing off, she sighed, then admitted, low, "I have a lot of enemies, and you have enough to deal with as it is."

She was trying to protect him. That knowledge gave him a rush of warmth so strong he had to clench his fists to contain it. The hovering cloud of darkness thinned. Your enemies are my enemies. The thought popped out of nowhere, resounding with truth. Anakin knew that he wouldn't rest until he found out who was trying to kill her, as well as any other who might wish her harm. The lift stopped, the doors opened and they exited before he'd composed himself enough to say, "You said 'your cause'. Does that mean that you believe me about why I'm here?"

The atrium was every bit as busy. They had to slow to a crawl to navigate their way through the other commuters. She took so long in answering that he began to think she wouldn't. "I've seen you go out there every time there's a raid. You put yourself in incredible danger and push yourself further than anyone I've ever seen. Nobody could do that and not genuinely want to help." Finally, she looked up at him and their eyes locked. "Yes, I believe you."

Oblivious to where they were, the moment trembled with something delicate and ethereal. The sensation caressed his skin, twining around him to lift the fine hairs all along his body. A sunburst of joyful heat lit in his belly. It was so simple and yet it meant more than he could possibly express. She believed him. For the first time in weeks hope suffused him. He embraced it tentatively.

Oddly, the back of his throat ached. "Thank you."

They'd come to an unknowing standstill. The crowds parted for them, flowing on all sides. Padmé gave an equally simple response, "You're welcome."

The stilted formality in no way hid the emotions that burgeoned, shimmering unspoken between them.

Softly, he continued, "I'm still going to see you to safety though." When Padmé opened her mouth to argue again, Anakin held up a hand to silence her, saying, "I won't leave you unprotected. Let me worry about what hurts my cause."

The moment dispersed. She must have seen the resolve in his face. "Fine, but I think you're wasting your time, and risking much for the privilege." So saying, she quickly got moving again, picking up the pace.

Anakin kept up with her easily. His footsteps—everything—seemed lighter. "Where did you arrange to meet her?"

"Councillors and a few other civil servants have their own designated landing-platforms reserved at major transport hubs. It's a privilege of my position that I would have refused long ago, but I do so much travelling that it ends up being a necessity. She should be waiting for me there—it's just along that glide."

Free of the main crowd, they made good time. The landing bays were attached to the main terminal via a dedicated skyglide. The glide was accessible only by a sealed set of doors. To open them, you were required to undergo a handprint scan, and insert a valid identirod. Palm-sized, slender and cylindrical, Padmé pushed her identirod into the slot and waited. A few seconds later, the doors slid silently apart and the rod popped back out.

She must have noticed his interest, explaining as they walked into the sunny tunnel and stepped onto the smooth iron-grey glide that would take them to their destination, "Not so long ago a handprint alone was enough, but Lyonides keeps putting up more and more barriers to freedom, blaming it on terrorists. He's become even worse in the last few weeks as you probably noticed. It galls me that most of the inner core just shrug and accept it."

Anakin tried not to draw too many comparisons to the birth of the empire, and the tyranny that accompanied it. "I had noticed. I've also seen the terrorists' handiwork—five wounded from the bridge collapse alone, wasn't it?"

"Terrorism and riots are a problem, but Lyonides is just using them as an excuse to impose more restrictions, gaining even more control. In fact, the attacks are escalating at exactly the same pace as the increased security measures. Yet, he doesn't see it and tackles the wrong issues—deliberately, I sometimes think." Padmé's voice took on a defensive edge. "People outside the core are unhappy as well as scared. It pushes them to do horrific things."

Fear again, he thought. "I can understand that. Fear is a terrible thing to live with—it makes you do the unimaginable."

He'd surprised her. He saw her make the connection with the past. Confusion softened her face. "Of course. I hadn't thought … I assumed you'd just condemn them."

At one time, he would have. Anakin gave her a lopsided smile. "I can't condemn anyone, remember?"

She gave him another tentative smile in return. He could see the questions lurking in her eyes, but instead of condemnation, he sensed … wonder. They were talking like normal people. She was sharing her thoughts. For the second time, quiet joy suffused him. The last weeks of torment-filled nights might never have happened. Feeling, breathless, Anakin looked away first, terrified of breaking this wonderful, intoxicating truce. Huskily, he said, "The city looks pretty up here."

Below and around them, Junga Roth's core was hazed in a red glow from the lowering sun. The silvery threads of thousands of glides, interspersed with brilliant lights from the busy skylanes, laced the cityscape in every direction.

"It does," Padmé agreed.

The end of the glide got nearer and nearer. Another set of doors separated them from the numerous, interconnected hanger platforms. Through them they walked. Built like a wheel with open-ended spokes, the hangers were completely empty save for them.

Anakin had a sudden bad feeling. "Which one holds your shuttle?" he asked abruptly.

"Omega 777-L." She gestured ahead of them. "It's just over there on the right."

He recognised the rear of the shuttle from the night that he'd first seen her. Reaching out with the Force, he scanned it, searching, probing. What he sensed had him whipping out a hand and latching onto Padmé's arm. Yanking her to him, he spun on his heel, wrapped his arms around her and lunged back the way they'd come, with her protected by his larger frame.

WHOOSH---BOOM

The explosion seemed to suck all of the air out of the entire structure. The force of it dragged at the fleeing pair. Then the tremendous, destructive power of the super-heated shockwave overcame them. Lifted up and sent flying by the horrific, raw energy of exploding gases, Anakin locked Padmé to him and used the Force to cushion them as they landed. He crashed onto his back and instantly rolled so that she was protected from the deadly rain of scorched, smoking debris. The very air was hot and choked with acrid smoke.

He didn't need to look behind him to know that Padmé's shuttle was obliterated. Alarms were blaring. Nearby a yellow light flashed. Under him, Padmé struggled, trying to throw him off. White-faced and wide-eyed, she was yelling hoarsely, but he could barely hear her over the ringing in his ears. He could feel sheer panic writhe like a wild-thing inside her. Her friend, he realised, she was worried about her friend. Not just worried, frantic.

To keep her from running towards the inferno, Anakin kept her tucked under him, cupping her uninjured cheek to make her focus on him. He had to shout to be heard over the roar of the fire and blare of the alarm, "Padmé, stop it. She wasn't in the shuttle."

Tears were already tracking down her cheeks. Going completely still, she stared at him—hoping, seeking, needing him to be speaking the truth. "I promise you, she wasn't there. Nobody was inside it. That was one of the things that made me suspicious."

Her breath hitched, fingers clutched at his shoulders. "You're sure?"

"I'm absolutely certain."

"Then where—?"

"I don't know, but I'll help you find out."

"She's my family, Anakin. I shouldn't have left her after last night. This is my fault. I—" words failed her and Padmé's face crumpled with misery and grief.

The sight of it tore his heart in two. He lifted them both to sit up and cradled her close, tucking her face into the crook of his neck and shoulder, rawly promising, "We will find her. I swear."

TBC