A/N #1: I do not own Star Wars. Then again neither does George. Bless Disney for acquiring Lucasfilm and committing to continue to expand and enhance this wonderful galaxy.

A/N #2: Believe it or not, I did not cease to exist. And even better, this story has returned from the netherworld. Thank you to all the many readers out there who have chosen to follow, favorite, or review this fic. Your ongoing support, observations, and encouragement has kept me plugging away on this story (despite the more than four-year hiatus.) I hope you will continue to enjoy it.

A/N #3: It was my New Year's resolution to upload a new chapter. That being said, I am doing so without the invaluable critical eye, suggestions, and infinite patience of my very competent beta reader. All errors you may find are solely my own. I hope that this situation will not be detrimental to your continued enjoyment of this story.

A/N #4: One final note: Along with working on future chapters of this story, I have made some revisions to the chapters that I have already penned (although I have not reposted some of them due to an inconsistency in chapter numbering.) Due to that, you may find some inconsistencies in this and future chapters. Please bear with me. I will continue to work on new and revised chapters until this mega-project is complete and posted!


Chapter 28 – Indelible Cracks

Stretching up from his awkward position, Luke employed a slight touch of the Force to aid in tightening the last stubborn bolt. Managing to avoid any further mishaps with unshielded electrical current since his brief conversation with his father, he was feeling quite satisfied with both the completion of the job and his growing reconnection to the Force. Absolutely unwilling to foil his success with a hasty or careless retreat, he cautiously retracted his hands from the dangerously cramped engine compartment, grabbed the strategically wedged glow sticks off of the speeder's frame, and rolled out from under the old SoroSuub XA-34 speeder.

Heaving a weary sigh, Luke wiped the perspiration from around his eyes with a sweaty forearm while shifting around to rest his sore back against the side of the speeder. He hadn't felt this physically exhausted since… Well, he couldn't remember when. The lack of sleep and his earlier escapades had seemed to have finally caught with him. At least, the chaos that had run rampant through his mind had settled down to a dull, repetitive thrum. Repairing the speeder had seemed to be just the distraction he needed to allow his mind to sort through his conflicted thoughts regarding his father and his mission.

Luke raised his eyes skyward and noted that the sun had dipped below the buildings lining the narrow alley. The azure sky was a clear indicator that it wouldn't be long before nightfall. Luke felt a twinge of anxiety creep along the ache in his shoulders as he wondered why he had yet to hear back from his father. Then he silently admonished himself, knowing that there was no basis for his concern—at least not until Anakin chose to make contact.

Refusing to dwell on his errant concern, Lure focused his attention on his surroundings. The warm glow filtering out of the opened back door of Dex's diner afforded just enough light to survey the sizable array of tools that was spread out on the duracrete. Extinguishing the glow sticks he still held in his hand and tucked them away in the weathered canvas tool bag that had lain next to him. He then began gathering the rest of the tools, carefully wiping off any remaining grime before replacing them back to their proper place.

"I guess that's it, old girl," Luke muttered under his breath once he finished his task. He patted the door panel of the little speeder as if Old Gert could understand his words. "You're good as new." The light in the alley dimmed noticeably as the bulky frame of the hefty Besalisk filled the diner's doorway. Dex's timing was impeccable.

"Well now," Dex called out. "Looks to me like you're finally finished."

"Finally is right," Luke sighed with fatigue as he leaned his head back against the speeder and closed his eyes. "She put up a pretty good fight, but in the end, I was a bit more stubborn than she was." Without needing to look, Luke sensed Dex walking up to stand next to him.

"So, you planning on taking her out for a test drive?" Dex offered.

"No need," Luke answered while raking sweat soaked bangs out of his eyes with greasy fingers. "She won't be giving you any more trouble. I'm sure of it." And he was. Luke knew the problem was corrected by the familiar sense of accomplishment that had washed over him while snapping in the last converter. It was the same enigmatic tingle he would get after working on his X-Wing or fixing one of the many ancient vaporators back on the farm. In fact, the only time that the feeling eluded him was when he had helped Han and Chewie with repairs on the Falcon. Although that was probably because no matter what they had managed to fix on that old Corellian freighter, there were always half a dozen other problems that still needed attending to.

Pulling out of his wistful reverie, Luke proffered a sidelong glance at the jovial Besalisk. "Why don't you take her out for a spin, Dex?" Luke suggested. "She is your baby, after all."

"Hmm," Dex mulled over the thought as he rubbed a meaty hand over his bristly chin. "So what kind of death-defying stunts am I going need to perform to check out your work?"

"I'm not sure you really want to know," Luke grinned as he pulled himself up while wiping his hands on a greasy rag. "You may just want to fly her like you normally would and take my word that you won't feel anything—odd."

"Well, that's good enough for me," Dex affirmed as he pulled his avian features into a broad smile. "Besides, if you can't trust a Jedi, who can you trust?" Dex focused intently on the blond. "Now, my friend. I'm sure you must be hungry. You've been working non-stop all afternoon."

Before Luke could vocalize a response, the growling of his empty stomach answered for him. He shook his head in slight embarrassment. "I guess there is no denying that."

"No, there isn't," the Basilisk chuckled and slapped the older man lightly on his back. Of course, what Dex considered a light tap was relative to his size. If Luke had not received the mild warning through the Force and braced himself accordingly, he would have probably ended up sprawled across the top of the speeder.

"Okay, then," Dex continued. "There's a fresher just inside the door to the right. You go get cleaned up, and I'll make sure you get a proper meal." He gave Luke a conspiratorial wink. "It's the least I can do."

"Thanks, Dex," Luke said, "but are you sure you don't want to test the old girl out?"

"Well," the Basilisk reconsidered the offer. "Maybe I will take her for just a spin around the block—or two."

Luke stood slack-jawed in awe as he watched Dex cram his mighty bulk into the little speeder. He has seen many strange and astonishing feats though his many years, and he was sure that the memorable episode he had just observed would remain one of the unique.

Once the restaurateur had peeled out of the alley, the haggard Jedi pulled his grease-stained poncho up over his head and grimaced reflexively as he caught a whiff of the sweat-soaked material. Stang, he smelled worse than a wet tauntan. He quickly rolled the odorous poncho inside out and tucked it under his arm. Grabbing the tool bag, he moved over to the alley wall and picked up the borrowed haversack with the same hand. Tossing both bags over his shoulder, he made his way to the diner to get cleaned up.

'~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~'

The grating screech of protesting metal filled the dingy alleyway until the dilapidated sliding door banged to a halt. Although loud enough to be heard from quite a distance, it was unlikely that the noisy racket would attract much attention to this abandoned cluster of buildings. In fact, the only effect the irritating clatter seemed to generate was to irksomely scrape along Obi-Wan's already frayed nerves.

When he had first thought to come here, he had hoped to discover Anakin working on that monstrosity of cobbled together junk pile he insisted on calling a swoop bike. His young Padawan had seemed nearly obsessed with the thing at times—although Obi-Wan was sure that Anakin had never realized how often he had been followed out of the Temple and observed on those many late-night escapades.

In fact, Anakin's routine had become so predictable during his later teens that Obi-Wan had simply stopped following the boy during his secretively evening excursions. Not for the first time, he lamented the foolishness of that decision. Continued surveillance would have dramatically narrowed the possibilities of what trouble Anakin had chosen to venture into. It might have even kept him from feeling utterly befuddled as he gazed at a set of empty mounting brackets straddling a large age-blackened puddle of unidentifiable engine fluids.

Aging older by the minute, Obi-Wan briskly brushed off the excess grime from his hands. The wispy cloud of dust created by his actions seemed to aptly represent the Jedi's dwindling hope for a quick resolution to his ever growing dilemma. Although he knew that time and maturity had tempered much of his ex-Padawan's foolishness, apparently the stress of the intensifying war had enticed Anakin to regress to some of his old habits. At least, the surrounding scramble of rather familiar footprints that disturbed the layers of accumulated dust was a good indication that his wayward quarry had recently been here. Unfortunately, where the boy had gotten himself off to still remained a mystery.

"Blast it, Anakin!" Obi-Wan addressed his frustration to the empty warehouse. "Must you always manage to make my life so difficult?" As if in answer to his rhetorical question, a loud commotion from above the buildings caught his attention. Obi-Wan looked up to watch a pair of security patrol droids, their sirens ablaze, streak overhead. It was an uncomfortable reminder that the implementation of the city-wide curfew would soon commence. And although those legal restrictions would go relatively unheeded in the lower levels where his ex-Padawan had no doubt headed, it would make the search for him all the more problematic.

The older Jedi shook his head in futility. It was useless to think that anything involving Anakin would be easy. Despite all of Obi Wan's painstaking efforts, it seemed that allowing his emotions override logic was simply Anakin's way. And trying to pick-up the pieces and circumventing whatever chaos he created in his wake had apparently become Obi Wan's life's work.

Well, fine. The Swoop was not there. He doubted that Anakin had found a new home for it. That meant that he was probably off preparing to race the blasted thing. Being away at war, Obi-Wan had no idea where the current illegal racing circuit had taken up residence. But there was one source of information that was always solid. Besides, hunting for his wayward ex-Padawan had cost him both time and regular meals. So, a detour to CoCo Town seemed to be in order. He would be quite happy to see Dex again, and if fate smiled upon him, he might even find what he was looking for.

'~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~'

Clinging to a bundle of clean clothes under one arm, Luke maneuvered awkwardly through the narrow fresher door while raking the fingers of his free hand through his hair. He had been pleasantly surprised to find not only a sonic shower tucked into the cramped little fresher at the back of the storage room but a clothes sanitizer as well and had made good use of both. Although sonic waves were never as refreshing as steam or water, they did manage to do a decent job of cleansing. His arms and back were no longer covered with sweaty grime, and his hair had softened and lightened in color now that it no longer contained the obscene quantity of grease and hydraulic fluid that it had a short while ago.

Apparently, Dex had returned from his outing. Luke could hear the gregarious Basilisk gushing from behind the grill to everyone who would listen how Old Gert hadn't run like so well in years. Luke grinned appreciatively as he leaned down next to borrowed haversack to place his excess clean clothes into it.

In consideration of the warm and humid weather, he had only donned an undershirt, pants, and boots rather than the layers of tunics and tabard that made up a proper Jedi uniform. However, he did exchange Tyson's poncho for the cloak that Anakin had procured for him. Although it would be uncomfortably warmer, it would also offer more protection from any unwanted notice due to its deep cowl.

As he pulled the cloak out of his haversack, his father's comlink popped out as well and rolled across the tile floor. He grabbed it and quickly thumbed through the growing queue of messages to see if his father had called. Luke noted two additional entries from Obi-Wan, but still no message originating from the transmitter code that matched the one his father had earlier used.

Luke took a deep breath and tried to release the growing dread that he had begun to manifest while in the shower. He wasn't quite sure if his unease concerned his uncommunicative father, but he could not dismiss the niggling insistence that he should leave the diner as soon as possible.

Closing his eyes, Luke attempted to settle his thoughts. Since Anakin had yet to contact him, then maybe it was time for Luke to take the intuitive to find him—on purpose this time. He didn't look forward to the inevitable conversation that would ensue once then they met again, but just about anything was better than this ambiguous stalemate.

Although he knew very little about his father habits, the time that they had spent together had given Luke a strong indication of the two places that Anakin might to after he left the Chancellor. Taking into account his father's description of the unfinished argument with Obi-Wan, Luke doubted that Anakin would willingly return to the Temple any time soon. That left his mother's apartment—the one that was located three districts away. Luke wearily rubbed his hand over his tired features. It appeared that he had another long walk in his imminent future.

'~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~'

Padmé shifted against the uncomfortable rear bench of her government-issued transport in an attempt to alleviate the ache growing in the small of her back. The resulting pinch to her side caused her to tug annoyingly at the restrictive bodice of the heavy senatorial gown that Moteé had chosen for her to wear this morning. Their shuttle had been stuck hovering in the same snarl of commuter traffic for what felt like hours. It was becoming quite clear that not even the best efforts of Coruscanti traffic control would be getting them out of this mess anytime soon.

Determined to find a suitable distraction for her discomfort, she closed her eyes and allowed her mind to wander. She soon envisioned a certain brave Jedi Knight swooping down from the heavens to rescue her—a lightsaber blazing in one hand and a blaster in the other. Opening her eyes with a start, Padmé immediately dismissed the thought and exhaled her exasperation noisily. She had obviously been spending far too many hours over the past several months watching late-night serial-holocasts if she was capable of harboring such melodramatic fantasies. Redirecting her thoughts, she focused instead on her mounting desire to just get home pry off her stifling dress along with their equally ridiculous matching shoes and restore the circulation to her poor swollen feet…

"Are you all right, My Lady?"

"Oh, I'm fine, Moteé," The restless Senator assured her trusted handmaiden. She glanced aside to view the young woman whom Padmé was slowly becoming convinced harbored a perverse propensity for wardrobe torture. "I'm just tired. It's been a long, frustrating day."

"Yes, it has," Moteé agreed with a sigh, "and not a particularly productive one at that."

Padmé hummed noncommittally and turned away to look absently out the speeder window. Although there was nothing about the scenery to hold her attention, the distraction would, at least, keep her from commenting on her handmaiden's statement.

Although it was true that most of the day had been rather dismal, her impromptu meeting this afternoon had proven more important than any of her staff could possibly conceive. Padmé dropped her gaze to her lap and smoothed her hands over her voluminous skirt. She bit her bottom lip as she thought back on the details of that earlier encounter.

The intense discussion between her colleagues had the potential to eventually lead to unprecedented democratic reform. However, she could not dismiss the unsettling impression that they had been tempting their own doom. Some of what Padmé had heard could easily have been misconstrued as the seeds of sedition, or worse—treason.

She had certainly not expected to discover that Bail and a few of their colleagues had quietly formed a dissident delegation. Nor that they had been fervently working from the shadows to enlist additional support for their cause. The rude dismissal of the Loyalist Committee by the Supreme Chancellor this morning had apparently been the catalyst that that prompted the core members of their group into action. She idly wondered how much longer the group's effort would have remained clandestine if not for that discourteous incident.

The main focus of their group was to reunify the Republic and restore democratic rule. They had already begun authoring a petition to limit or revoke some of the Supreme Chancellor's special powers. Of course, Padmé had fully supported their efforts, although she was quite concerned by their ongoing desire to keep their activities strictly confidential. Despite her fervent recommendation that they consider fostering a coalition with the Jedi to promote cooperation and broader support of their colleagues, none of the others would hear of it. The meeting had finally dispersed with a consensus that before they could proceed, each Senator in attendance would need to take some time to truly contemplate the ramifications of their continued involvement.

By the time she had walked back to her office, Padmé had convinced herself that she would inform Bail and the others that she was wholeheartedly supportive of their movement. She had even intended to offer herself as the official spokesperson for the group. Her reputation of promoting democracy could certainly sway some of the indecisive legislators to take a stand and add their support for this cause. Besides, she had to admit that it would give her a great sense personal satisfaction to be the one to present their circumscribing partition to the Supreme Chancellor.

However, her conviction began to waiver after entering her office to expectantly find her husband. Despite his casual explanation that he had simply come by to check on her, she knew that there was something much more significant that prompted her husband to make his impromptu visit.

Padmé had come to accept that both she and her husband walked a tenuous line between perilous complications and necessary secrecy. It was the life they chose to lead when making their vows on the lake house terrace. Still, Anakin had seemed such more stressed and conflicted since he returned from the Outer Rim this time. She had not realized how uncharacteristically strange her husband's action had become until she had walked into the front room of her apartment this morning to find a the stranger that Anakin had brought into their home.

Padmé was judicious enough to realize that she shared some of the blame for his additional emotional turmoil due to her unanticipated condition. Even though he had reacted so well when she told him—and had seemed nearly as giddy and excited about their unborn child as she was—it had still dealt him quite a shock. However, there was something more affecting his morose mood swings that she has yet to figure out.

Over the span of their marriage, she had learned that with meticulous patience and imaginative persuasion, she could generally wheedle Ani into revealing what most dominated his brooding thoughts. After managing to get him to tell her about his morning meeting with the Jedi Council, she thought she better understood the motivation for his visit. Although she had tried to dissuade some of Anakin's worries with her suggestion to invite Master Jade to dinner, she doubted that she had been completely successful.

Once Ani had left for his overdue meeting with the Chancellor, she had begun to reevaluate her possible commitment to her colleagues. She may have spent most of her life as an outspoken proponent democracy and freedom, but she could not dismiss the responsibilities she had accepted when she became a wife. Now, those responsibilities had seemed to intensify as she was soon to be a mother as well. Despite her concerted effort to hide her condition and work as hard as ever to promote her ideals, Anakin's unsubstantiated worries for her health were a valid concern. She realized that there was much more to contemplate than just her single-minded objectives. That was why she asked Bail for more time before making a decision when he had stopped by her office. She thought she had never seen the Alderaanian Senator appear so visibly disappointed.

"We're moving," Moteé stated the obvious as a shift of the speeder made its passengers aware that they were no longer at a standstill.

"Thank the stars," Padmé replied with a sigh.

"Will you need my attendance tonight, My Lady?" Moteé broke the awkward silence that had settled in the shuttle.

Padmé smiled mischievously. Her secretary's innocent question was actually a code phrase that had been devised a few years ago. Its implementation had tremendously reduced any inadvertent interruptions during the infrequent visits of a particular houseguest. Through necessity, her handmaidens were aware of her clandestine involvement with certain Jedi Knight, but her security staff was not. With Captain Typho piloting their shuttle, the need for discretion remained paramount. Although she knew that she could count on the confidentiality of her loyal staff, she had never told any of them that she and Anakin were actually married. Then again, she had not yet to tell her family, either.

"No, Moteé. I'll be fine without your assistance this evening," the Senator answered. She glanced out the side window and to watch the darkening landscape begin to blur as their shuttle accelerated. Raising her eyes to the horizon, she took note of the distinctive outline of the Jedi Temple against the ebbing panoramic sunset.

"Actually," Padmé began hesitantly, "why don't you and Captain Typho take the night off. Go to dinner—my treat."

"Thank you, My Lady," Moteé answered and blushed abashedly. "That is very kind of you. If you sure there is nothing I can do to aid your comfort."

"Believe me, Moteé," she assured. "All I want to do once I arrive home is get out of these ridiculous clothes, relax with a nice long bath, and then go to bed."

"Hmm, that sounds rather boring evening, My Lady." The young handmaiden contemplatively evaluated of her employer's agenda. "Maybe you should look for an old move on the Holonet to entertain you." She raised her hand to obscure a girlish giggle. "Something with a handsome hero to—"

"Moteé!"

'~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~'

"Are you sure I can't persuade you to stay a bit little longer, Luke?" Dex asked. "I've got a batch of Aldraanian scones near ready to come out of the oven. I'll guarantee you'll like um."

It was a tempting offer. Leia had introduced him to the specialty pastry soon after they had met. Although she was hard pressed to boil water herself, she had been determined to continue to enjoy the delights of her destroyed homeworld. That had meant searching out the best Aldraanian-style bakeries and restaurants that remained in the Galaxy. Of every decadent meal or exotic delicacy that she had ever subjected him to while fulfilling her quest, nothing had quite compared to the taste of a warm, flaky scone just out of the oven. Reluctantly, Luke dared no delay his departure to try Dex's offering. The urge to leave before something unforeseen could happen was intensifying.

"Sorry Dex, Luke replied. "I better just get going. Besides, I doubt that I could carry anything else." He shifted the stack of take-out boxes and bags that were precariously balanced between his hands to emphasize the point. Dex was adamant that he paid Luke for working on Old Gert. When Luke had refused the offer of credits, Dex wouldn't let him out the door before he had laden him with at least a week's worth of food.

"Well, you're probably right about that," Dex agreed with a chuckle. "Make sure you share some of this with your young friend. I owe him too for bringing you here in the first place, and it looked to me like that young man needs to put a little more meat back on his bones."

"I will, Dex," Luke answered as he began backing up towards the front door of the Diner. "Thanks again, for everything."

Bracing his elbow against the transparisteel door panel to keep it open, Luke took another backward step and started to turn. His momentum was stopped abruptly as he ran into a solid brown object that "umphed" in surprise. The collision jostled a few of the packages out of his hands that subsequently bounced lightly on the ground.

"Excuse me," Luke apologized immediately as he leaned down and began reaching out for one of the containers.

"No, no," came a very familiar voice next to him. "This was entirely my fault. I'm afraid my mind was otherwise occupied."

Luke froze and instantly tightened the shields to dampen his presence in the Force. He cautiously tipped his head and peered up from under his heavy cowl to see the recognizable form of Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi bending down beside him and collecting the rest of his dislodged packages.

Kriff!

"N—No harm done," Luke shakily replied. He accepted the containers from the other man and moved to stand up. He was determinately trying to keep his head down so that the cowl shadowed most of his features; however, he was not able to totally resist temptation. Luke risked a glance towards the man who had so wholeheartedly changed his life. He immediately uttered another silent curse as their eyes locked and rendering them both immobilized.

"Um, I really should be going," the peculiar older man in the heavy brown cloak said. "I—uh," he seemed to be a bit tongue-tied as well. "I guess I'll be seeing you around."

'~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~'

Obi-Wan simply nodded—slightly confused by the man's unconventional parting words—and watched the stranger rush away down the street. That was odd, the Jedi thought to himself. He felt as if he should have recognized the man, but he couldn't place where they might have met before. It was something about his eyes... They almost reminded him of—

He shook his head and brought up a hand to rub over his face and smooth down his beard. He was truly on the verge of losing his sanity if he was starting to see bits of Anakin in the faces of perfect strangers. Turning around and entering the diner, he inhaled deeply catching a whiff of an incredible aroma. He glanced over to see the diner's lone human waitress carrying a tray of dirty dishes up the aisle.

"Good evening, Hermione," Obi-Wan acknowledged her with a polite bow, "What is that delightful aroma?"

"My goodness, Obi-Wan, you certainly know how to flatter the ladies." She seemed to preen at his shocked expression. "That salesgirl promised that this new fragrance would catch me a man, but I never expected to attract the attention of a Jedi."

"Oh, I—ah…" Obi-Wan stuttered with an open mouth as a crimson blush began to rise over his features.

"Oh, don't fret, Sweetie," The buxomly blond giggled and gave him a wink. "Actually, what you smell is Dex."

"W—what?" Obi-Wan hoarsely gasped. He was more confused than ever.

"He's baking up a batch of Aldraanian scones, Hermione explained. "Why don't you take a seat and I'll send him out with some when they're ready."

"That would be wonderful, Madam," Obi-Wan replied with relief and gave her another polite bow. "That is definitely the best offer I have received all day," He walked back to the farthest booth against the windows with a hastened step and sat down to wait. He had barely settled himself into the booth before the gregarious Besalisk lumbered through the opening in the counter and walked toward him carrying a plate with two steaming scones.

"Obi-Wan," Dex greeted loudly. "Well, well, isn't this a surprise. It must be my day for Jedi patrons." The Besalisk placed the plate in the center of the table as he squeezed his bulky mass into the opposite side of the booth.

"Oh?" Obi-Wan quarried as he reached out to pick up one of the warm, flaky pastries. "Was one of my brethren here earlier?"

"Two actually," Dex replied with a widening smile. He placed two hands on the tabletop and leaned forward while narrowing his eyes. If Obi-Wan had not known the Besalisk for years, he might have actually been intimidated. "How's the scone?"

"Delicious," Obi-Wan complimented. Furrowing his brow, he asked the next inevitable question: "Was one of those other Jedi Anakin, per chance?"

"Certainly was," Dex said as he leaned back, apparently satisfied by Obi-Wan's critique. "He came by just before noon—brought along his friend."

"Friend?" Obi-Wan's eyebrows nearly reached his hairline. He had to work diligently not to choke on the scalding gob of scone filling that he had inadvertently swallowed.

"Luke—something-or-other," Dex replied, waving a meaty hand absently in the air. "The funny thing is, he reminded me a bit of you—must have been the beard. You know him, right?"

"Yes, of course," Obi-Wan muttered in response to his own internal revelation rather than Dex's unheard question. It made sense to him, now. Anakin's companion must have been the same mysterious person that young Doa Tang had seen leaving the Temple earlier today. But where would his Anakin have found him? And why would he be traipsing around with someone impersonating a Jedi? "Where they here long?"

"Stayed for hours, actually," Dex answered nonchalantly. He seemed obvious to the intense concern racing through the Jedi Master. "In fact, I think those two was so caught up in their conversation that Anakin nearly ended up missing an appointment. I had to lend him Old Gert just to get to where he needed to be—since the transit system around here is still down and all."

"I take it this friend went with him," Obi-Wan assumed.

"Sure did, but he came back soon enough," Dex elaborated. "Didn't seem to quite know what to do with himself, though. I put him to work fixing Old Gert to keep him occupied, and damn—" Dex shook his head. "I sure didn't expect that he could get the old girl back to running as well as Anakin ever could."

A Jedi impostor and a master mechanic? Now, that was an interesting combination. Obi-Wan shook his head dismissively to bring himself back to the conversation at hand. "Do you perhaps know where this Luke fellow is now? Did he say where he was going once he finished working on your speeder?"

"Oh, he just left a few minutes ago," Dex answered. "Said he was hoping to meet up with Skywalker. I sent along enough food for them both of them as well as half the—OBI-WAN?!"

The Jedi Master barely heard Dex's startled cry. He was out the door in three strides and racing down to the nearest intersection. He scanned the empty walkways looking for any sign of the odd stranger who he had literally bumped into earlier. From Dex's description, it had to be the same man who they were talking about. For stars' sake, he should have recognized the cloak.

Seeing no sign of the mysterious Jedi impostor who had apparently absconded with his ex-Padawan, Obi-Wan closed his eyes and dropped his chin to his chest. One might be prone to believe that the difficulty in unraveling this conundrum was simply an extremely wretched streak of bad luck. However, after nearly fourteen years spent in close association with one exceptionally difficult young man, experience had taught Obi-Wan that there was no such thing as luck. Now, if he could just persuade himself to abandon his wretched propensity to liken his fate to that unpredictable phenomenon.

"Blast!"

'~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~'

The waning afternoon light was all that illuminated the small meditation chamber. Master Yoda watched through thick blind slats as the brilliant colors of the sunset dimmed toward night. Alone he was since Mace left to finalize his plans for departure. Heavy his heart had grown as peaceful meditation continued to elude him.

A mystery this was; hidden within the veils of darkness that suffocated the Force. Sensed something familiar he had. A feeling that he had not felt for centuries clung tightly around young Skywalker. A key to this mystery the young Knight could be, but doubted that answers would be willingly forthcoming at this time.

Yoda closed his eyes and concentrated on the other source of his concern. Easy it was for him to find as the signature had remained static since he had first discovered it. A missive it could be, but dangerous it was to not deliver it to his hand at once. More likely—a portal—but who had it brought? And why had this emissary not chosen to carry it with them? Foolish it would be to discard something as invaluable as this.

Answers he would not find while sitting in this room. Opening his eyes, he gazed out into the gathering darkness. Little time remained. Yoda shook his head dismissively. Too old he was to be sneaking around in shadows, but dawdle in this task he must not. Travel to Kashyyyk at dawn he must, to oversee the battle for the Wookiee planet, but to the streets of Coruscant, he would venture later this night. Retrieve the artifact he must. Great harm could it cause if it fell into the wrong hands.

'~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~'

Miserably hot and sweaty under the heavy cloak and cowl he wore, Luke determinately slowed his pace as he traversed the broad walkway. The rows of nondescript buildings were starting to look vaguely familiar. It was a promising sign that he was regaining his senses, but not so encouraging that his panic had sent him fleeing instinctively toward the Jedi Temple. He was completely going the wrong way if he intended to hunt for Anakin.

He was still somewhat perplexed his unpredicted reaction to running into Obi-Wan. In fact, there was a point a few blocks back where he seriously considered turning back. A day or two ago—Stang, even this morning—he would have given just about anything for a face-to-face meeting with Master Kenobi. However, no matter how many times he reevaluated his reaction, he could not fault his reflexive response to avoid the man.

Ultimately, Luke realized that his decision to leave had been made when he had caught the other man's eyes. In that instant, he had envisioned two distinct paths unfurling before him. If he chose to reveal his identity and where he was from to the Jedi Master, it would have provided the opportunity to expose the hidden threats and dangers aimed at Jedi and the Republic. It would the quickest way to prevent the Empire from forming, but it could also prove to be the most disastrous. From what his father had told him, along with the obstinate tone he had earlier overheard in Obi-Wan's voice in Anakin's cell, Luke wasn't too sure that the Jedi Master would be willing to listen to him. Worse, he might listen—he might actually even believe him-and then he might feel duty-bound to arrest him! Luke needed to keep in mind that the kindly old hermit and mentor whom he had briefly known in his own past was yet to exist, and if he were successful in his mission, he never would.

His other choice was to follow his instincts and concentrate his efforts on his father. Although their relationship to this point had been tumultuous at best, he could ill afford to jeopardize it any further by confiding in Obi-Wan behind Anakin's back. Of course, that didn't mean that Luke wouldn't make it a priority to strongly urge Anakin to start speaking with his Master again himself.

"Hey there, stranger; so where's the party?"

Luke's cowl slipped off his head as he whirled around in mid-step to see the familiar irascible cabby leaning against his air taxi. He had apparently just passed the man unnoticed. Luke really needed to stop becoming so preoccupied with his own thoughts. It was dangerous to be this ignorant of his surroundings.

"Ty?" he queried. "How did you recognize me?"

"It's a gift." The grizzled man tapped the side of his balding head with two fingers and smiled. "Helps to find me the best fairs—and it keeps me out of trouble—at least, most of the time. So, where are you headed? Someplace special?"

Luke narrowed his eyes as he scrutinized his unexpected benefactor. There had to be a reason for the man's continued inexplicable appearances. Luke had been promising himself that he would pay more attention to his instincts. In fact, the more that he thought about this encounter, the more he had to wonder if it wasn't the Force's subtle guidance.

"Actually, I think I just changed my mind." Luke cocked his head and gave Tysen a meaningful look. "How would you like to join me for dinner?"

"That grub from Dex's place?"

"It certainly is," Luke affirmed and shifted the containers in his overburdened arms. "And there's more here than I could ever eat alone."

"Well then, I sure ain't fool enough to turn down an offer like that." He gave a toss of his head back toward his taxi." Climb on in."

Realizing the Ty's acceptance had eased his unexplained anxiety considerably put his mind at ease. Luke complied with a willing smile and made his way to the taxi. Subtle guidance from the Force, Luke thought. Yeah, like a good swift kick the ass.

'~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~'

Padme flicked off the holo transmitter just as the credits began to roll. She silently admonished herself watching the entire old melodrama. It had not even a particularly good one. The dialogue had been so poorly written that it had rendered the actor's performances stiff and unemotional.

Inexpert criticisms aside, she remained just awake as she had been when the broadcast had started. Despite her best efforts, she had not been able to sleep a wink. Her long soak had at least alleviated most of her aches, but her mind remained preoccupied with the concerns of the day.

The cup of warm, spiced milk had not even worked to relax her. Even the silly old movie with its dashing young hero had managed to only amplify her increasing worries about her husband. She doubted that she would receive any solace for her concerns tonight, although she still hoped that Ani's encounter with the Chancellor had been successful—for his sake if for nothing else.

The dry tickle in her throat had her reaching out to the bedside table for the cup her spiced milk. She frowned when she found it cold and empty. She momentarily contemplated calling for Threepio to bring her another before remembering that she previously switched him off. Realizing she had no other choice, she pushed aside the bedclothes with a huff and inelegantly hefted herself up onto sore feet.

Disinclined to raise the light levels in the apartment, she nearly made it halfway to the kitchen before her steps suddenly faltered. Covering her swollen abdomen with her a protective arm, she cautiously glanced around at the deep shadows in the room. Ever since she had become pregnant, she seemed to be able to sense things that she had been ignorant of before. Right now, she was experiencing the unnerving feeling that she was not alone.

She stood frozen as she considered whether to make her way to the turbolift and call for help or turn back to the bedroom and grab her hidden blaster.

"Ani?" Padme cautiously inquired. A slight movement in the room caught her attention. Despite the lack of light, she recognized the outline of her husband sitting on the couch facing the balcony. Stirred her to action, she moved forward until she could clearly make out his pale face. He was sitting cross-legged on the couch and twisting a deactivated comlink between the gloved fingers of his right hand.

"How long have you been sitting out here?"

"I, um—I'm not sure," he answered hesitantly. "Not long, I think. I came here directly after leaving the Chancellor."

Concern etched her features as she lowered herself to sit next to him. "Ani, you went to see him hours ago. What could possibly have discussed that would take so much time?"

"I cannot tell you," he shrugged. Then, as if realizing the dismissive tone of his words, he surged forward and turned to her with intense blue eyes. "It's not that I'm excluding you, Padmé. I just—" He slumped back on the couch. "I just don't remember most of it."

"I don't understand," she said.

"The Chancellor's comments," Anakin explained with stiffness in his words. "He was repeating many of the same things that he has said dozens of times over the years. Asking me for my help, telling me how important I would soon become to his plans for the future, even consoling me over the Jedi Council's apparent lack of trust in me and my abilities. I lost focus for most of it. After a while, his words just seemed to fade away. I barely even remember leaving his chamber."

Seeing her husband's distress clearly displayed on his features, Padme leaned forward and placed her empty cup on the low table in front of them. She then leaned into Ani's side and wrapped her arm around his waist. She brought her other hand up to rub over the thick knot of tense muscles at the base of his neck. Instead of using words, she let her calming presence try to soothe him.

Exhaling in response to her ministrations, Anakin closed his eyes and dropped his chin to his chest. "It was cold, Padme."

"Cold?" she repeated, showing her confusion.

"In the Chancellor's office," he explained. "Not in a physical sense. It was—something else. Something—elusive. I'm sure I never sensed anything like that before, but I continue to have the feeling that I should recognize it." He shook his head dismissively. "I don't know. It's probably nothing."

"Or maybe you are just overtired," she offered. "You have barely had more than minutes to rest since you returned to Coruscant, Ani. I know you are worried about the baby and me, and about—so many other things. Your mind is probably just playing tricks on you." She frowned at her assertion. "Can that even happen to a Jedi?" she asked, and then felt the vibrating rumble of Anakin's chuckle deep in his chest.

"I'm not sure, Love," Anakin responded softly. "The only Jedi mind tricks that I'm aware of only affect the weak minded."

"Well, whatever the cause, you're exhausted," she stated. "Come to bed, Ani. Your concerns will still be there in the morning. Who knows, with a clear and rested mind, you may be able to resolve them."

"I can't," Anakin countered. "I need to contact Luke. He was expecting me to contact him as soon as my meeting with the Chancellor was over—"

"Ani," she interrupted and placed her hand over his that held the comlink. "It is far too late to contact him now. I'm sure that he, along with most of the Jedi in the Temple, are asleep by now. Come to bed. You need your rest. You can contact him in the morning."

After a long hesitation, Anakin's slight nod of assent was his only response. Although Padmé was relieved with his passive acceptance of her suggestion, his lack of protest proved just how thoroughly exhausted he must be. As they both stood and made their way to the bedroom, Padme tightened her arm around her husband and she was struck by her own private epiphany.

Anakin needed her. Now, more than ever. Soon, their child would need her as well.

She could no longer push her personal responsibilities aside in deference to her altruistic service to the Galaxy. The possibility of putting her child or herself into harm's way, along with adding additional stress to her beleaguered husband was just too great. Her family needed to be her focus for the future. Her decision was made.

She would contact Bail Organa in the morning. Once she informed him of her decision and offered her regrets, she would pledge her full support, if only passively from the sidelines. Her only regrets would be if she never heard about the inner workings of the Delegation of 2000 again.

'~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~ * ~~ *~~'

Palpatine looked up from the data reader that he held in his hand to evaluate the slow progress of his transport through the snarled traffic lanes. He was not overly concerned, the heavy congestion was a common occurrence these days, even at this late hour.

His day had lasted much longer than anticipated. Truth be told, he remained in his office longer than necessary to take advantage of an extended opportunity to contemplate the day's events. At least, he had no pressing matters on his agenda for the next day—only a stockpile of mundane reports like the one that was proving insufficient in keeping his attention.

His quite musings had managed to alleviate the dregs of the raw anger that had evolved through the day. What remained had simmered down into a delectable stew of smoldering petulance. He would need to put it to good use at a later time—something involving the boy, he was sure.

After already dissecting every detail of their overdue encounter meticulously, he was coming to the uncomfortable conclusion that he may have made a slight miscalculation where his future apprentice was concerned. As inconceivable as it seemed, it now appeared that he had possibly been a bit too hasty in his assessment that the boy was nearly ready.

Palpatine absently tapped a gnarled finger against the forgotten data reader. Yes, something yet indefinable was unquestionably different about the young Jedi who had finally shown up in his office. The fundamental change within the boy could be detected the moment the door panel had retracted. As volatile and conflicted ever, there was an elusive quality that he had not observed before. A new intensity—a sharper focus.

It had to have been something recently acquired—he couldn't image that he had simply overlooked it before this. It was far too profound. In fact, for one apprehensive moment, he had worried that whatever this new mindset was had given the boy enough clarity to break through the array finely crafted shields that had protected his true self for decades. Thankfully, he had managed to divert the boy's attention before any disastrous consequences arose.

Whatever had happened to the boy, must have taken place over his truant afternoon. The reports he had gathered from his network of spies and informants could not have all been wrong. There was a unilateral consensus that the Jedi Council's reaction to his edict had been just as patronizing has he had predicted. The boy should have been incensed by their denial of his Mastery title. It should have been easy to manipulate those feeling of frustration into the ripening antipathy that he had fostered through the years. But instead of a familiar pattern of petulant outbursts and childish posturing, the boy had been suspiciously reserve. It was clear that he was preoccupied with something that he refused to reveal. Even more disturbing, he had seemed defensively evasive when pressed to relay the details of his afternoon activities. It was—disturbing.

Palpatine frowned deeply in dismay as he reconsidered the information gained from the mercenary he had retained. Despite the bounty hunter's ineptitude in tracking his assigned target, he had obviously been too quick to dismiss the idea that the boy's companion for much of the afternoon must have been his old Master. There was simply no one else, other than him of course, that could influence the boy as profoundly.

As hard as it was to believe, Kenobi must have finally managed to accomplish some form of a miracle to have gotten the boy to actually listen to his advice. Well, this certainly would not do. This incident had finally surpassed his tolerance for Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi's infernal interference. His plans had come too far to be derailed now. He would need to correct the situation immediately.

The slight jostling of the transport pulled the Supreme Chancellor out of his reverie. The driver activated the release mechanism of his compartment door the moment they landed. Palpatine stepped out onto the balcony of his apartment and pointedly ignored the detachment of honorary red guards that stood at attention on each side of his path. He was still entrenched in his dark thoughts when he entered his extravagant apartment suite and came face to face with his Major-Domo. Palpatine halted and then spared the man withered glance.

Palpatine had never much cared for the use of serving droids in his own home, and throughout his political career had refused to make use of them. He much preferred the subservient attentions of living beings—preferably humans. There was something deeply rewarding about having a sentient being grovel at one's feet. It was a practice that he would definitely need to implement once he took control of his Empire. The fleeting thought brought the hint of a cultured smile to his aged lips.

"I have kept your dinner warm, your grace," his Major-Domo greeted cordially. "If you would like to—"

"No," Palpatine snapped and waved his hand dismissively. "I do not have the time or the desire for a full meal tonight. Prepare a tray and have it delivered to my private chamber. Make sure that I am not disturbed."

"Of course, your grace," The sallow-faced man replied with a deep bow.

Dismissing the man from his thoughts, Palpatine exited the main room to his personal chambers. He patted the side pocket of his robe to confirm the presence of the shards of focus crystal that he had carried home from his office. Once his tray was delivered, he would access his private turbolift, hidden behind the secured wall panel, and retreat to the secret room hidden deep within the bowels of the 500 Republica. From there, he would make the final preparations for his evening activities.

He may have had a multitude of insidious schemes that were well on their way to fruition, but it would still be several days before he would be able to implement the first of his decisive measures. The rest of his designs would then fall into place like a descending winter storm. For now, however, he would concentrate on reprimanding his errant future apprentice for his unpredicted vacillation. The boy's fears were key—they always had been. He would just need to concentrate on enhancing them. There would be much work and little rest in store for him tonight—for both of them, actually.