What now?

Anakin's eyes fell upon the bandage on Padmé's cheek, and for the first time he thought to wonder how it got there. His skin went cold when he understood it. There had been a weapon of some kind. They threatened her—hurt her—someone hurt my, my Padmé.

These were the dangerous thoughts, the ones that made his vision go red. With a great effort Anakin wrenched himself away from them, sating himself with the promise that there would be a time for anger, and the precious vengeance that Jedi were forbidden. But not now. Now Padmé was all that mattered.

He gazed around the room, seeking a distraction, but she seemed to fill it all. If he looked toward the door he could see her lying there—if he looked down her tears, not yet dry, remained on his tunic. Anakin's choice fell to either the blank wall beside him or the vid-screen. He chose the VS.

The remote control was missing, but to flip channels mentally took less effort than blinking. He went past a popular sitcom about two bumbling krayt dragon hunters, a commercial for life insurance—sometimes there were athletic channels he enjoyed watching, but he couldn't seem to find any right now. He heard a noise outside the door, and his head shot up, but no one entered, and when he returned his attention to the VS he found it on a soap opera called Burning Destinies.

Oh, what the kriff? Anakin thought savagely, and left it there.

He spent a large chunk of time staring at the screen, breathing heavily through his nose. One of the characters was a Jedi. His name was Jaiden Kilmar; he was ridiculously handsome, with a green lightsaber (computerized, of course, as civilians were only rarely permitted to handle actual lightsabers). His fiancée had been recently kidnapped by Mandalorian slavers, and Jaiden was on an urgent and dangerous quest to save her, complete with flashbacks of the two of them kissing in a corner and a romantic ballad in the background.

It looked like the writers had completely ignored the fact that Jedi were forbidden to love—or perhaps that had been dealt with already in a previous episode.

Insipid as it was, Anakin watched it determinedly. To do otherwise was to let his attention waver and fall onto other things. But after a while—as Jaiden held his lightsaber to his arch-rival's neck—he heard a faint beeping noise, and realized with a start that it was his commlink.

"This is Anakin Skywalker."

"Master Skywalker, I've finally found you." The faintly accented voice, Anakin realized after a second's confusion, belonged to the Nubian Queen, Apailana.

"Is there something I can help you with, Your Majesty?" Anakin asked her.

"I hope so. I've been trying to contact Senator Amidala for the past hour. There's been an incident at our embassy on Coruscant, from what I understand. A break-in. The thieves have been caught, and they don't seem to have been after anything important, but I thought it would be best if she could make certain tonight that no papers of hers are missing. I was under the impression that she was at a fundraiser tonight—I had hoped she would be there as I requested."

What now?

The question pounded in his ears in time with his pulse. It was only just beginning to dawn on him that this could not be kept secret. This was not one more exciting difficulty that could be shared on two pairs of shoulders. Some people had to know—Apailana had to know.

"Your Highness, the Senator wanted to be there. There was...I don't know how...she was overtaken by..." Anakin shook himself mentally. It was most important now, of all times, that he speak in terms of detachment. How would a simple bodyguard say this out loud? "The Senator was accosted by a man in her apartment this evening before the fundraiser. She was—violated, and suffered several injuries, most of them minor. She's at the med center now."

There was silence on the other end. Anakin wouldn't have expected anything else. "I...I cannot believe this," Apailana breathed, sounding almost human for the first time since Anakin had met her. While he was trying to think up a reply, he heard her again, stronger this time. "Let me see her."

"Your Highness, Pa—the Senator is under sedation. She's asleep at the moment."

"Let me see her."

Anakin had learned a long time ago that it was a bad idea to argue with Nubian adolescents, especially ones that ruled planets. He transferred the comm call to the holoprojector that sat unobtrusively on a corner table, and soon Apailana's flickering image, only a few feet high, was visible beside the bed. The Queen looked at Padmé with an expression impossible to gauge through the makeup and the hologram.

"How could this have happened?" Apailana asked softly. Anakin could hear the tears that sprang to her eyes in her voice. "Did you feel no warning in the Force?"

A wave of guilt slammed into Anakin's chest, so suddenly that he almost cried out. He had felt something, hadn't he? And then ignored it until it was too late…

"The Senator is not attuned to the Force," he murmured numbly. "That makes it extremely difficult to sense her emotions when she is away." If he had not loved her, perhaps he would not have sensed anything at all.

"I see." A pause. Despite the situation, Anakin found it hard to shake the awkwardness that came with being interrogated by a 15-year-old. "I was under the impression that Senator Amidala was recently put under a round-the-clock guard. Were her guards away?"

Oddly enough, that was the first time the thought had occurred to Anakin. Where had they been? He hoped, for their sakes, that their throats had been cut by the intruder. But the time for vengeance had not come—not yet, he told the murderous thoughts that buzzed in his ear like flies—and Apailana was still there, gazing down at Padmé with such obvious sadness in her face now that Anakin could no longer bear it.

"Your Majesty, please forgive me," he cried suddenly. "I've failed you—I failed her. Forgive me, please—I can't—" I can't forgive myself, he thought.

Apailana turned to look at him. Under her gaze, Anakin felt more wretched than he could remember feeling in his life.

"I do not wish to blame you, Master Skywalker," she said, very slowly. "I know you; you are not incompetent. I believe—would like to believe," she corrected herself, "that you are not to blame. But an investigation must take place all the same."

Anakin nodded, licking his lips. "Your Highness, I realize that it's not my place to speak for the Senator, but surely a public investigation..."

Understanding him, Apailana interrupted. "My love for Senator Amidala is great," she told him. "The investigation will be as private and discreet as possible."

"Thank you, Your Majesty."

With a sigh, Apailana put a hand to her forehead in sadness. "I must go," she said at last. "There are ambassadors from Sullust waiting for me, and I have promised to meet with them. But I will call back as soon as I am able." She paused, then her gaze went up to meet Anakin's once more. "Master Skywalker, please take care of her."

The hologram disappeared, leaving Anakin to sink once more into his chair. The sitcom was still humming in the background, a mess of dramatic pauses and blurted confessions, but he had even less desire—if that were possible—to watch it than before. So he merely sat there, attempting to clear his mind as a Jedi ought to do. He succeeded, at least, in dimming down the tear-inducing, passionate frustration that he felt, until it was lessened and numbed, lending him a lethargic mindset.

Time passed slowly, in odd jerks and movements, while Anakin stared steadfastly at the bedstead. At length he heard a door open, and the nurse came back in.

It wasn't the same one as before. This woman was older, with lines in the corners of her eyes and gray hairs at her temples. Her uniform was a simply-cut white tunic, and her face wore a motherly expression.

"I brought a tray for you," she said, her voice soft. It was a moment before Anakin realized she was talking to him. "You should eat."

"M'not hungry," he mumbled without looking at her. It didn't occur to him to wonder why they had changed nurses until he felt a hand on his arm, and looked up to see her standing over him.

"I'm so sorry," she said sincerely. "I've seen this all before, but there's nothing I can say that will make it hurt any less."

It seemed such a strange thing to say that Anakin found himself, for a moment, utterly speechless. That was all right, though, because she continued to talk, looking into his eyes.

"You can't blame yourself. You know that, don't you? Sometimes evil things just happen."

"Who are you?" he asked bluntly. She gave him a small smile.

"My name is Lina. I'm in charge of crisis counseling for this center. I'd like to talk to you, if you'll let me."

He drew back instinctively. "You want to talk to her, not to me."

"No, I think I'd like to talk to you," said Lina, kneeling down beside his chair. "I know how you're feeling right now. It hurts the husband just as much as—"

Anakin stared at her. "I am not her husband," he said through clenched teeth. Lina touched his arm.

"Renouncing her isn't—"

But Anakin had already stood up, shoved his way past her, and left the room—left the med center and found his way to his speeder. He sat down behind the wheel, shaking before he realized it.

It was only natural, of course, for her to assume that the pale and anxious man who hovered near Padmé's bedside was her husband. It only made sense. And now that Lina had stumbled accidentally upon the truth that was hidden by deception, she instantly became a threat.

Only now was he beginning to realize how dangerous it was for him to be near Padmé now. He detested the thought, but it was true. A bodyguard would not treat his employer with as much love and reverence as he did Padmé—would never be so severely affected by an attack like this on a mere client—and at the same time Anakin knew he would never be able to restrain himself and continue to play a part.

He swore loudly and slammed his palm down on the edge of the steering wheel. In his rage he had inadvertently lent Force-strength to his already powerful blow; when he raised his hand, there was a dent in the metal.

Now, of all times, he could not be with her. Now, when she needed him most, he could do nothing more than go home.

Anakin drove back to the Temple, feeling that everything in the world was wrong. He knew that Padmé would not wake up at least until morning, if then. He knew that her attacker, whoever he was, would not be able to touch her while she was there. But nothing helped. His only comfort, small though it was, remained that once he reached the Temple, he passed no one that knew him well enough to ask about the awful expression on his face.

He wanted to sleep that night; instead, he lay in bed for three and a half-hours, eyes wide open, until the sun rose. When it was light enough to him to make out colors, Anakin got up, changed clothes, and went back to the center.

Her guards were still there, sitting patiently in a waiting room until they had further orders; if they hadn't been, they would have done well to consider themselves dead. Even as it was, however, they had good reason to fear when Anakin found them.

"Tell me what happened," said Anakin, in a voice so low it was almost a growl. The two guards looked at each other. Though they were both at least ten years his senior, right now they were genuinely frightened of him. Anakin could do that to people.

"We were standing guard, Master Skywalker," one finally said, "on your orders. No one had gone in or out since you left, but then a man with a package came by. He said he had something to deliver to the Senator—"

"And you let him in without question."

"He had credentials, sir! A badge that you yourself inspected. Everything seemed in order, we had no reason to believe that anything was wrong."

"No, not even when you heard screaming from the inside and the sounds of a struggle," said Anakin, bitter acid dripping from his words. He knew their story already—Threepio had filled him in—but right now he despised the both of them, and making them suffer seemed only right.

"Master Skywalker, please," said the other guard. "We never heard anything from inside. Less than two minutes after we let the man in, we heard the sound of an explosion from outside the building. The, uh, the bomb squadron leader told us that a device had been embedded into the outside wall of an apartment building across the street, on a time-release system. Several people on the walkway were injured when it went off, and a few were trapped underneath debris. I—that is, we, sir—we felt it was our duty to help the wounded. When we returned to the Senator's apartment, we did hear some noises from inside, and thought we'd better make sure the deliveryman had left. Then, ah…"

He trailed off, not daring to finish the story. Anakin did not look at either of them for a moment.

"Master Skywalker—"

"Do not," Anakin said, his voice very low, "speak."

The silence in the room was almost tangible, hanging over them like the promise of death. At last, Anakin deigned to look at them.

"Your miserable incompetence nearly cost the Senator her life. Both of you are dismissed from her service. Get out before I do something I might regret."

They hadn't expected anything else. Subdued, the guards left the room, and Anakin watched them go with shoulders heaving.

"Master Jedi," said a voice from behind him. Anakin turned to see the straw-haired nurse from the day before. The sight of her made him remember everything that she knew, and a portion of his anger trickled down into anxiety. But she gave him no sign that she recalled anything unusual. "Senator Amidala is awake, if you wish to speak with her."

The breath flew from Anakin's lungs as he nodded. The distance of a few yards between him and his wife suddenly seemed like a gauntlet, wrought as it was by nerves and fear of the unknown. Just before he opened the door he heard his mind composing a frantic prayer: Please let me say the right things to her, please let her be all right—help me. I don't know what to do.

She was still in bed, one hand running thoughtfully over the bandage on her cheek. She looked up when he came in, and her shoulders seemed to lift. Her mouth opened, as if to speak, but she didn't seem to know what to say. Anakin broke the silence, crossing the room to her side.

"How do you feel?" he asked her. It seemed a childish question, and awkward. Padmé considered before answering.

"Well enough…for now," she told him. It seemed to be the truth. Anakin would have known if she were lying, and she looked all right apart from her injuries. Maybe—the naïve thought flashed across his mind—maybe this would all right itself. Maybe she would be released from the med center in a few days and they could go back to playing their roles.

Then he broke from the fantasy, and cursed himself for his foolishness.

"What time is it?" she asked him. "I must have missed the fundraiser."

At that, Anakin allowed himself a small smile and a half-hearted chuckle. "You did, by a few hours. It was last night."

"Oh." Padmé frowned, tragedies forgotten for a moment. "I should have been there. Apailana asked me to go specifically."

Anakin said, "I already talked with her. She's quite understanding, given the…given the circumstances."

And just like that, it was impossible for either of them to ignore the situation they were in. They had no choice but to speak of more serious things. This time, Padmé was the brave one.

"Anakin, what are we going to do now?" she asked him. Her dark eyes looked into his with a curious pleading in them for answers, like a child might look to her father when not understanding. Anakin took a deep breath.

"In a few days, you'll be well enough to be released. Then…it's up to you." He looked at her, uncertain. "Do you want to go back to work?"

"No," Padmé said emphatically. There was a pause. "Yes." Then she shook her head. Distress clouded her eyes and furrowed her brow, and her shoulders hunched as though she were shying away from something. "I don't know…I'm sorry, I just don't."

"Never mind," Anakin said softly, leaning forward to put a hand on her cheek. "You don't have to think about anything right now, Padmé. I'll take care of this."

For the smallest fraction of a second, so briefly that another man might have dismissed it as delusional imagination, he saw that same cold, hateful look in Padmé's eyes—almost as if to say, "Can you?" It unnerved him so much that Anakin drew his hand back; but he consoled himself with the fact that she was in pain, and grieving, and so would be naturally antagonistic to almost anyone at this point.

It was gone in an instant, and her face was sad and sweet once again. "Later," she agreed, nodding. "I can manage later. I just need some time now…"

"I understand," Anakin told her. "And in a few days, things'll start going back to normal." He felt safe again in rubbing her shoulder. "Once you're out of the center, no one will question that I'm around you more since—since that happened," he finished lamely. "And when we're back at your apartment—"

"No!" The word exploded from her as though from a cannon, and its force surprised Anakin so that he forgot what he was saying for a moment. Padmé grabbed onto his wrist. "Anakin, I don't want to go back there. Don't make me go back into that room. I'll remember everything, I won't be able to sleep—"

"It's okay, it's okay," Anakin managed. "You don't have to go back there if you don't want to. We can find another place. It can be anywhere you want. Don't worry about it, Padmé. I promise you, I'll handle it."

She actually smiled at him this time. For a few short moments the silence between them was reminiscent of days past, when they, like every other couple in love since the beginning of time, were happy to do nothing but look into each other's eyes. But it wasn't long before Padmé had to break the silence.

"What time is it?"

Anakin checked the chronometer on the wall behind her. "Almost 0900 hours. Why?"

"The resident counselor wants to talk to me. She said she'd come around this time."

"Does she have brownish hair?"

"Yes, but there's some white in it. She said her name was…" Padmé paused, thinking. "L-Liyra. No, Lina."

Under his breath, Anakin spat a curse. "Love, I have to go. I can't be around that woman. But I'll come back when I can, I promise."

He stood and bent down to kiss his wife on the lips.

And Padmé, drawing back, said in a strange, high-pitched voice, "Please don't."

Anakin froze, staring at her as though he had just seen her for the first time. He felt as though he were suddenly face-to-face with a different person. He nodded, slowly, and swallowed. Feeling suddenly awkward, he drew back.

"I'll come back later," he repeated. Then he ran, from Lina and from Padmé.

Anakin spent the next few days in a nightmare. His time was divided between sitting beside Padmé at the med center and anxiously killing time at the Temple while trying to pretend that nothing was wrong. He slept only when he was so exhausted that his body refused to go on without rest, and that wasn't often.

It was getting more difficult to see his wife without running into Lina. The woman was hovering constantly around Padmé as though she were the bait for a trap Lina was setting. Anakin knew that she meant well, but her determination to speak with him was a direct course for disaster, and so he had no choice but to avoid both of them.

Meanwhile, Apailana's investigation was taking place. Discreetly, as the Queen had promised, Anakin was questioned, and told that Padmé's guards—former guards—were being questioned as well. Anakin was able to get the details of their search for the culprit from Apailana's men, but they knew barely more than he.

The apartment window to which the time bomb had been closest was rented to a man by the name of Cam Ryd, but further investigation had proved that no such person had ever lived on Coruscant. Ryd, or whatever his real name was, hadn't been seen since that night, and there was no news of his whereabouts, but they did get a physical description from his landlord. Short, heavily built, with thin lips and a wide nose. No one had dared to ask Padmé yet for a more detailed report.

Before, the threat of discovery had been an annoyance, a nuisance that they both gladly bore until an unspecified future time when, for reasons unknown, they would no longer have to hide their marriage. Now it was a curse, a wicked burden that seemed at times to literally smother him until Anakin could not breathe for worry and to beat him down until he could not stand under its weight. At the time when he wanted nothing more in the world to be with her, when everything in him was screaming to comfort her, it was the most dangerous thing he could do.

But Anakin still came to see Padmé as faithfully as he could without arousing suspicion. For a few days she would smile and talk, brave as she had always been, refusing to let a monster's actions destroy her life. But then the day after that she would be despondent, speaking little and worrying at the sleeves of her gown with disproportionate care. When she was like that, Anakin felt acutely that sense of helplessness—he hated those days.

Once, six days after she had been admitted, Anakin came in to find her face and arms raw and red and bleeding in places so that it stung when he touched her. She was sobbing. In a fit, he was told, she had grabbed a rough sponge usually used for cleaning floors and brutally, mercilessly scrubbed at herself until the nurses had come and wrested her tool away from her. They upped her dosage of pain medication for that day, and she cried until he was gone.

That was the day that Anakin wept, alone in his room, seething with hatred for Padmé's attacker and with his own self-loathing. One solitary thread of comfort kept him sane: It will all be over soon. It will all be over soon. It had to be. No grief could last forever. He didn't need to see the end; he just wanted to know that it existed.

And then, eight days after Padmé had been admitted—she would be released the day after tomorrow—Anakin went to see her again. There was some trepidation in his mind, though he hated to admit it, but when he entered the room she seemed quite rational, if somewhat downcast, for which no one could blame her.

"I spoke with the Queen again today," she said, looking up as Anakin came to her bedside. "She says they've finished with the investigation."

"And?" said Anakin, sitting down and scooting the chair closer. Padmé's fingers closed around his hand that rested on the mattress and held them.

"She doesn't blame you. How could she?"

"What about the…the, uh…"

Padmé shook her dark head. "Nothing."

Anakin hesitated, then plunged forward. "Have you told them yet what he looks like? Maybe, if they had a better description…"

"No, I haven't."

"Why?" Anakin demanded before he could stop himself.

"Because I'm afraid—!" Padmé stopped, checked herself. Her eyes were full of something Anakin did not recognize, but he could see that she desperately wanted him to understand.

"Afraid of him?" Anakin asked, trying to be helpful.

Padmé shook her head again. Slowly, she muttered, "You don't know how I hate him. I dream about hurting him. I've never—" She took a breath, glanced up. "It frightens me. I didn't think I could hate like this. And I'm afraid—of myself. Of what I want to do. And what I want you to do."

It took a moment of long breaths through his nose for Anakin to reconcile himself to this. It was too late to undo anything—vengeance was his only consolation. He couldn't wait forever, but he could wait for her. "That's all right," he said. "That's all right."

Padmé squeezed his hand again. "I asked her, and she said that we could stay in the lake house at Naboo for a while. You remember?"

"Of course, love," said Anakin.

"No other guards, no nurses—just us. Like it was last time."

At that, a smile broke across Anakin's face. It felt strange and alien to him. "Darling, that's wonderful! You can wait for a few weeks before you go back to work."

"I think it'll be longer than that."

"However long you want."

Padmé spent the next few seconds visibly gathering courage. The hand that was on Anakin's held it tighter, and the other came up to worry at the braid on her shoulder. Then she blurted out, "How about nine months?"

Any woman would have understood the significance of this immediately. It took Anakin only a second longer. Disbelief displayed openly on his face for a moment. "You're not—Padmé, that's—love, that's amazing!"

He bent to kiss her again, but stopped, remembering just in time; and he noticed the look in her eyes. It was pained, as frayed and stressed as the hem of her gown. It was a look that told him he was missing something.

An evil thought entered his mind.

That couldn't be.

When was the last time you slept at her apartment? Two weeks ago? Three? Too long, too long.

No, it couldn't be—couldn't be—couldn't be

"Padmé…" he said thickly, "Tell me…"

Another tear—how many had there been now?—fell down her cheek.

And Anakin knew.

He could feel himself beginning to shake. Padmé's small form blurred before him as he cast his eyes around the room. It was too small to contain him now, but where could he go that was large enough? From a great distance he could hear her saying, "They only told me today, I didn't know what to do…"

He wanted to punch someone, break something, see something shatter, but there was nothing readily at hand, and anything he did now would only make him angrier because it was so inadequate. Red was falling over his vision again, and below him he could see her there, his love and his hate, the cause of everything—

not her. Not her, not her, not her.

He didn't remember standing, but he sat now, his hands clutching at his bowed head as though for dear life. Padmé was very, very quiet. She was afraid of him.

Say something. Comfort her. Tell her it's all right; tell her everything will be—

"Get rid of it."

A pause.


"Get—rid—of—it," said Anakin, through gritted teeth. He looked up at her through his fingers and saw the horrified expression on her face when she understood.

"No, Anakin, no! You want me to k—" She couldn't say the word, but he said it for her.

"Kill—yes, kill it then!" His voice climbed swiftly from a growl to a shout. "Shavvit, Padmé, it's a clump of cells. Do you want to remember this forever? Do you want to give birth to a monster?"

"A child!" she protested. Those ever-present tears were back in her eyes. For an instant he hated them, hated both the tears and the eyes. But her voice was as strong as his. "You're a hypocrite. You told me that every life was precious. This is a life!"

"It's an abomination, that came from an abomination!" He was raging at her, didn't want to, couldn't stop himself. They had never fought like this before.

"It's a life," Padmé repeated. "And I won't take it. Good can come from an evil thing. Anakin—" Her voice broke, and she let out a stifled sob. "Do you really want to kill my child?"

Anakin's instinctive, resounding answer was YES. But something in him gave the strength of will to take a moment's pause, to think, to breathe.

No, not to kill it for the sake of killing. Only to let things be the way they were, and if a life was the price they had to pay, then so be it.

Falling to his knees beside her bed, he took her hand in both of his, covered it, kissed it. "If I say yes," he murmured, "can you still love me?"

Padmé, trembling, whispered, "My Anakin would never kill a baby."

He didn't want to kill it. Could he do anything else?

He waited a long time before he spoke. "Maybe," he said slowly, "maybe I'm not as strong as I thought I was. I can fight and fly and everything the Jedi need me to do—but I don't know if I can do this." He had already decided, but to say the words was the hardest thing he'd ever done. "I love you, Padmé. And I'll go with you to the lake house. And I—I won't ask you again, about that." He licked his lips. "But don't ask me to love the—that thing. I can't do it. Is that…is that enough?"

For Anakin, who had offered up his life more times than he could count to save complete strangers, it was the greatest sacrifice he knew how to make, and Padmé understood that.

"Yes," she told him. "It's enough. It's more than enough. Thank you."

He tried to smile but couldn't manage it. The beast inside of him was still roaring, dying for some release after over a week of torture, and now this…

Anakin stood up. "I have to go," he said shortly. "I'll come back later…but I need to go now." Without waiting for her to speak he detached himself from her hand and walked out the door.

He stopped for a few seconds, looked around.

That was funny. Everything in this alien world, in which Padmé was pregnant with another man's child, looked exactly the same as it did in the old one.