The next morning Anakin awoke alone. He rose, wondering if last night had been a dream. After pulling on his clothes, he went outside to start breakfast. He found Amidala already up and talking to... a Gungan! He couldn't help grinning as he went over to her. Memories of Jar Jar and Qui-Gon flitted through his mind. Still, other memories of them fighting the Neimoidians dispelled that image of childlike creatures.
"Ani! Look who's here!" Amidala held her hands out to him, her face bright with laughter.
"Meesa remember you, Ani! But yousa growed sooo big ,dis Gungan no hafta look down any more," the cheerful words rang through the morning.
"Jar Jar?" Obi-Wan's disbelieving voice came from behind Ani.
"Dat's meesa all right, Jedi Kenobi."
Anakin almost heard Obi-Wan's mental groan and suppressed his grin at his mentor's distress. He vividly recalled Obi-Wan's grudging acceptance of Qui-Gon's tagalongsíµ‚í¸©s 'pathetic lifeforms' as he'd called them so many years ago. He turned to Jar Jar, the thoughts of the Gungan's clumsiness uppermost. Still, time had treated Jar Jar well. His bright skin tone had faded to pale orange and his mouth sported the 'whiskers' of an adult male Gungan. He couldn't help wondering how many of the others had made it through the war. Images of the carnage he'd found slammed into him. With an effort, he shook them off.
"So, Jar Jaríµ‚í±˛e there any others who survived?"
"Yes, indeedy, Ani. Boss Nass got a few of da Otoh Gunga folks out before dose bombad Mandalorians did their stuff... So sad... Most of usen deadíµ€í˝Żsta Naboo gone..." The creature's drooping features suddenly perked up. "Meesa got some news for da Queen. Found some Naboo, we did. Have a whole bunch in one of our hiding places. You come? Meesa show you, Majesty."
Amidala looked over at Anakin, beseeching him to let her go. Alone.
"Am... I'd rather go with you. Jar Jar, do you think the Boss would mind if the Queen's husband comes with her?"
"Oooh... Married to da Queen, eh?" The Gungan thought for a moment, tapping the fingers of one hand on his mouth. "No problems, meesa tink. Obi-Wan gonna come too?"
"Certainly. I'd be honored, Jar Jar. But first, would you join us for breakfast?"
After eating, Ani, Amidala, and Obi-Wan followed Jar Jar deeper into the still relatively wooded area. Then they sped toward one of the few mountainous areas of Naboo. Amidala had never visited the region before as no one lived in the inhospitable place. Larger land predators, reputed to roam freely in the protected valley ringed with sharp cliffs precluded settlement or use for anything more than a sort of living zoo. Somehow it had escaped detection during the war.
"You sought refuge here?" Amidala asked in horror. "How in the world did you manage?"
"Weesa no living in the valley, Majesty. Dere's a cave in one of da mountains where weesa living since da war," the Gungan explained. He pointed to a dark hole in the side of largest mountain.
"Isn't that an active volcano?"
"Yes'm. Dat's how we keepin' warm in da winter and getting hot water for bathin'. Come on! Meesa showin' you all." With a nod, he indicated to Obi-Wan a broad ledge just before the cave's mouth.
Both speeders fit neatly onto the widened rock, though Amidala's stomach did a turn at the steep cliff that yawned but a few yards away. She climbed off the vehicle and peered down for a moment, took a deep breath and turned back to the others.
"Let's go. I want to meet your survivors, Jar Jar," she told him with a tiny smile.
A short distance into the cave, Jar Jar picked a lit torch from a holder in the wall and continued to descend down a winding path, deeper into the mountain. The air began to take on a slightly sulfurous smell and grew warmer the longer they walked. Ani took her hand, giving a reassuring squeeze.
They emerged into a huge chamber, filled with the sounds of Gungan and Naboo alike. To her delight, children of both races ran through the place, playing with each other as they never had in old Naboo society. As one of the adults noticed their arrival, a sudden hush fell over the inhabitants. Only the drip and bubble of water continued for a breath, then a cacophony arose as the people rushed toward the visitors.
"Queen Amidala! We feared you'd been killed," Lufta Shif exclaimed as she pressed closer.
"Lufta! My friend... my mentor," Amidala managed before tears clogged her voice. She returned the older woman's embrace, unable to continue for a moment. "The others? Hela, Graf, Hugo?"
Lufta shook her head. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty. I saw them perish as I fled. They insisted I go first. I tried..."
"Poor Lufta," Amidala murmured, empathizing with the grief. A rush of guilt threatened to overwhelm her. "I never realized anyone had survived or I never would have left. We thought... I thought, no one had managed to escape."
"Weesa tinkin' you be gone, too, Amidala, Queen of da Naboo," the deep voice of Boss Nass interrupted.
The crowd parted for the Gungan leader and Amidala bit back a gasp at how he had aged. The once portly creature had shrunk into a mere skeleton of his former self, the skin slack around his face, his eyes haunted with the horrors he'd seen and the travails of living as the hunted.
He held up one hand, the other firmly grasped in a younger Gungans for support. "No sayin' nothin', Amidala. Meesa tinkin' dat you bein' here means dere's no threat up dere." He pointed up at the ceiling, though the Queen knew exactly what he meant.
"The war's over, Boss Nass. Naboo has suffered greatly, but it makes my heart glad to see some of its people live on." She moved toward him, extending her hands. For a terrible moment, she thought he might refuse to take them. Then, he put one paw into hers. Her voice carried through the stone chamber.
"I hereby extend a welcome to all to return to Theed and rebuild our cultures... together."
A great cheer rose and Amidala grinned at them in return.
"I'm staying, Obi-Wan. Amidala needs help to rebuild Naboo," Anakin insisted the next morning.
"The Order needs you as well. The Emperor just told Yoda to have the remaining Jedi escort the Senate members back to their homeworlds. We need every Jedi we have," Obi-Wan told him.
Anakin gave him a cold look. "I thought you said the Emperor had ulterior motives. Make up your mind, Obi-Wan."
"Anakin... Don't fight me on this. Until Yoda tells me otherwise, we still work to keep what's left of the Republic alive."
"The Republic is dead... if you haven't heard. The Emperor runs the galaxy now." He narrowed his eyes. "You told me I shouldn't take his offer of employment, yet you object to me helping my own wife. What? Is it better to work for the Empire than for Naboo?"
Obi-Wan sighed and threw up his hands. "You're an adult, Anakin. I have no control over what you do."
*I certainly can't call you my Padawan anymore... But I'm sorry, Ani.... So sorry.*
Shields as water tight as old Otoh Gunga's met his thoughts and Obi-Wan gave Anakin a sad look. How could he ever reach his young friend if he refused to listen?
"Please reconsider, Anakin. For now, I must contact Yoda and let him know of our discovery here." He moved back toward his tent to place his call to Coruscant.
"Unexpected, this is not, Obi-Wan. Warned you, I did, that Anakin would prove difficult. Press him not. The Emperor's latest orders the Jedi will obey, but soon no one will remain to do so." Yoda looked harried and Obi-Wan worried about the old master.
"Master? Are you certain we should do this? Have you heard from Mace?"
"No. From Master Windu no word I have, but from another..." Yoda's years seemed to weigh heavily on him. "Young Padawan Utthak he took with him... From him I learned Mace has joined the Force on Corellia... An ambush while assisting a Jedi family to leave. All lost but the Padawan and for him I fear the worst as well."
Obi-Wan said nothing, the implications of Yoda's words bringing a chill to him in the warm Naboo afternoon. He thought a moment. "Master, perhaps it would be best if I found a way to... persuade Anakin to return with me to Coruscant."
"No! Here he faces the Emperor. Here the Dark Side will threaten him even more. Wisest it is for him to remain on Naboo."
Obi-Wan bowed to Yoda's vision of the future, but it didn't mean he had to like it. Determined not to give up on the young man, he decided he must speak to him again. The right time just had to present itself. He could only hope he would know the right words to find when it came.
That afternoon they began moving the refugees back into Theed. Obi-Wan and Anakin went with a contingent of Gungans to investigate the damage done to Otoh Gunga. The shields remained intact, though several levels had suffered from flooding. They managed to get the pumps back on line and Jar Jar estimated that the place would become habitable in about two days. At least, they could begin the clean up process.
In the palace, Amidala provided the survivors a place to stay in the relatively untouched areas. When Anakin returned from Otoh Gunga, he repaired the heating system and then began to formulate a way to cover the damaged handmaidens' quarters. The gaping hole still gave him the willies as he remembered the Mandalorian assault. He made the plans, then gave them to the Naboo to carry out. They all appreciated something to do... something productive besides keeping food in their mouths and clothes on their backs. For too long they'd been in survival mode. Having a creative task gave them a reason to live besides keeping body and soul together.
Obi-Wan hadn't pressed the issue of leaving Naboo again, for which Anakin remained grateful. However, on their last trip back to the cave, he sensed his old Master's dissatisfaction with his decision.
He clamped down on his frustration. It seemed no matter what he wanted to do Obi-Wan objected to it. At twenty-one, he felt he shouldn't have to seek approval from others. Indeed, over the years he thought he had proved himself repeatedly to both Obi-Wan and the Council. Yet, without fail, they continued to refuse him respect. Oh, they made all the right sounds, but they never considered him for promotion. He scowled, remembering Yoda's dark prophecy of his clouded future. How much more did he have to do to get what he felt he deserved?
"You seem troubled, Anakin," Obi-Wan began as they finished loading the last of the equipment onto the freight carrier.
"Just thinking, Obi-Wan," he said, trying to stave off more questions.
"We're finished here. Let's climb up to the peak and sit for awhile," Obi-Wan suggested.
Anakin sighed, realizing the other man wouldn't let it go. Sometimes it seemed he was a bone Obi-Wan couldn't stop worrying. "Very well. There's plenty of time to get back. A little meditation won't hurt."
He followed Obi-Wan out and up the narrow, winding trail that led to the caldera's lip. A cool breeze kept the worst of the fumes from them, but he could still smell the sulfur and feel the heat on his face and hands as they sat on a large rock.
Silence. Only the sounds of popping and hissing lava below them and the roar of heated air through vents greeted them. Anakin looked out, away from the hellish sight and toward the palace. She waited there for him. His beacon. He wouldn't leave her again. If she wanted to stay here and rebuild Naboo, he'd leave the Jedi and Palpatine and remain at her side.
"You want to stay here badly, Anakin. And I understand."
"How could you, Obi-Wan? Have you ever loved anyone?"
Obi-Wan gave him a pained look. "Yes, I have. More than once, but the Order has always come first."
"Then you haven't loved! Love is needing to be with that person no matter what. Having that person beside you, safe and secure in the knowledge you'll be there for them when they need you." He choked on his words. "I've already failed her... Like I failed my mother. Worse, because I wasn't there for her during the war or when she lost our child."
Obi-Wan reached out to touch him, but Anakin pulled back. "Anakin..."
"Don't. I don't want to hear your platitudes. Jedi aren't supposed to feel strong emotions, even love... Calm, peace, objectivity." He gave a harsh laugh. "I've tried those and they don't work."
"Anakin, I assure, I have loved. And I do understand how you feel. Still, there are always greater concerns than one person's."
"You and the Council have always told me to put aside what I want for the greater good. I have... Repeatedly. And look where it led... Never have the Jedi acknowledged what I've given. Now they refuse to even consider me for Knighthood and want to me go off on another wild goose chase, leaving my wife and her people to struggle alone."
Obi-Wan made a disgusted sound and flung away, pacing along the narrow ledge. Anakin could almost see his thoughts racing. *Trying to convince me he's right and I'm wrong again.*
"You want everything immediately, Anakin. You've been able to do things too easily. Techniques it takes others years to master, you've done in months. Just be satisfied with perfecting your center and what you've learned." Obi-Wan repeated almost word for word his previous angry words in the Senate chambers after the encounter with the Sith. He whirled, stern disapproval at what he considered Anakin's obstinate behavior written plainly on his face.
A vision of Qui-Gon rose before them and Anakin suddenly realized who the other person Obi-Wan had loved had been. Bitterness welled up in him.
"Why do you keep tormenting me, Master? Why can't you accept me for what I am? You know it wasn't my fault Master Qui-Gon died." He took a deep breath, his hurt and feeling of injured pride struggling to take over. "I've tried it your way and now... The Emperor still wants me to be his personal bodyguard and aide. It doesn't matter if you feel I'm not ready. I am, and I'm taking the position once I finish helping Amidala here."
Obi-Wan scowled at him, disapproval in every line of his body. "Master Yoda warned me against taking you as a Padawan all those years ago. But I promised Qui-Gon. I hope you understand this reckless abandonment of your training and the Order will prove dangerous and appears extremely selfish... Perhaps the Council was right all those years ago."
A resigned sorrow throbbed through Anakin as he came to understand he could never prove himself to this man who wanted him to remain his apprentice until he deemed him finished with his training. That could take forever. For he believed Obi-Wan still thought him too young and impulsive to take his trials. He had lost count of how many times he kept repeating to himself that Obi-Wan merely missed Qui-Gon and felt guilty at being unable to save him.
When Anakin had first told Obi-Wan of then Chancellor Palpatine's offer of employment, he sensed his former master's disappointment and tightly held anger. Now that he needed to stay with his wife, Obi-Wan's chastisement gave Anakin a strange rush of relief. This attitude would allow him to take up what Palpatine had offered him... the latitude to work within what he felt right, not just the narrow restrictions of the Order. Still, the years he'd spent working beside Obi-Wan made him feel torn between wanting more than he felt the Jedi offered and guilt at leaving the Order. He glanced at Obi-Wan again, seeing only a contemptuous and disdainful manner at what he considered a reasonable request. His former Jedi Master had no right to treat him in such a way. Though what remained of the Council and Obi-Wan continued to deny him knighthood, Anakin felt more than ready for the trials.
*The Emperor was right. They will never recognize me. Only at his side will I find my rightful place.*
Obi-Wan continued to study Anakin as if he were some alien creature he'd never seen before. The young man straightened and put his cards on the table.
"I will go to the Emperor once my business here is done. I will not return to the Jedi. Only under Palpatine will what I have to offer be utilized to its fullest."
Obi-Wan looked stunned, as if Anakin had dealt him a murderous cut. Then his face took on a hard set and Anakin sensed his former master's carefully controlled exterior crumble. He picked up memories from Obi-Wan's mind of the fateful duel between Darth Maul and Master Qui-Gon. The image of Qui-Gon's demise at the hands of the Sith ignited Obi-Wan's pain and anger. His ferocious attack found even Anakin's remarkable strength, his power in the Force, and Jedi training ill-prepared. His taunt had pushed the Jedi Knight past his ability to control his emotions, for the onslaught pushed them closer to the edge of the volcano. Adrenaline rushed through Anakin, who at first felt wounded surprise at Obi-Wan's reaction, then anger. At this, Palpatine's voice pushed into his mind.
*Yes, yes... let the anger feed your strength. He does not value you as I do. Come to me, my young apprentice, once you have finished him.*
*Ah, yes. But you may call me Lord Sidious, last of the Sith... until you join me. Now focus.* The Emperor's voice seemed nearby, as though he watched the fight.
Blue lightsaber clashed with blue lightsaber in a furious manner and then... Caught off guard for a second, Anakin paused to raise his hand for a downward swing, only to feel the burn of Obi-Wan's own blade against his wrist. The lightsaber, hand attached flew over the edge. Anakin clutched his arm close, panting and watching Obi-Wan for the killing blow. It never came.
"Come back to us, Ani. This isn't necessary. Don't let the Dark Side take you."
"Never! How can you think I'd return to you after this. I hate you! I hate you all!"
Obi-Wan took a step toward him, his hand extended. Anakin retreated, his feet scrambling on the loose gravel. Then, to his horror, the ground gave way beneath him and he plummeted toward the inferno. His last conscious thought was of Amidala. Once again he failed her.
Horrified, Obi-Wan watched Anakin back away and fall into the caldera. He cried out and tried to grab onto anything, his robe, his other hand... but it was useless. He'd lost him, truly lost him. And all because he hadn't taken Yoda's advice and let things lie. Pushing, pushing until Anakin pushed back and he'd lost his temper. Remembering Qui-Gon, remembering all the times he'd felt so inadequate in teaching Anakin. Sobs broke through as he turned away from the fiery pit that had claimed his apprentice... his friend. What a loss... How could he tell Amidala? What words could he say that wouldn't break her heart?
His heart ached as he climbed aboard the loader and headed back to Theed. He barely felt competent to continue as a Jedi. Somehow, it made it harder to find her standing at the edge of the landing pad, distress plain on her face. She knew... she must have sensed it through the bond she and Ani shared. By the Force! It seemed so unfair. How could she ever forgive him?
"Obi-Wan?" she asked in a whisper.
"I... we... Give me a few moments, Amidala. I can't... " He nearly ran from her to his room. There he slumped into the chair, pounding his fists against his legs, then sinking his aching head into his hands. To the Queen's credit, she didn't pursue him.
Instead, Sabe' came to look in on him. He almost wanted to yell at her to leave him alone, but instead he ignored her. She said nothing, merely massaged his shoulders and neck, tight and stiff with the tension he couldn't express in words. At last, he gave a great sigh and relaxed.
"He's gone, isn't he, Obi-Wan?"
"Yes, Sabe'... And it's my fault."
"Obi-Wan, this has been coming for a very long time. Don't you know that? Ever since Amidala's miscarriage and illness, Ani hadn't seemed... the same. I don't know if was the war or what, but he'd changed. He was so angry, so cold sometimes, it frightened us."
"Do you want me to stay? Perhaps Yoda will give me permission since I'm the one responsible..." His voice trailed off.
"No, but thank you for offering. The remaining Gungans and Naboo are doing just fine. You must return to Coruscant and follow your heart." She took his face between her hands. "My own heart tells me you must return to the Jedi, Obi-Wan. They will need all the assistance you can give them. Both Amidala and I fear worse times will come. Painful as Ani's loss is, we can't afford to let it paralyze us."
Obi-Wan pulled her into his arms, savoring for what he feared the last time, her strength and warmth. Unlike Anakin, he knew where his responsibilities lie and he refused to put them aside for his own needs and desires.
"I need to talk to Amidala. She deserves to know what happened."
"She'll understand, Obi-Wan. Just let her have some time to grieve as well."
Agony... Fire scorched him, while torment from his shattered body wracked him. Noxious clouds of sulfurous air welled up around him as he lay on the narrow ledge just a few feet from the bubbling lava. His face felt on fire itself and with his good hand he felt around his skull. The fingers came away sticky with blood. He coughed and tried to sit up, only to collapse again. His watering eyes gazed up and up at the opening far above him. Despite his injuries, he tried to open himself to the Force. Perhaps he might be able to levitate himself out.
*Too bad, my apprentice. You will require a great deal of healing before you are able to join me. Lay back and relax. Allow me to bring you from your fiery bed.*
Anakin rolled onto his back, his aching eyes taking in the tiny dark robed figure at the edge of the caldera. The figure raised its arms and Anakin could feel himself rise smoothly toward the clean air. Once Sidious deposited him on the very spot Anakin and Obi-Wan had first sat in, the Sith Lord pushed back his hood and gave him a once-over.
"Hmmm... Quite extensive damage, I'm afraid. While I don't have the facilities here to care for them properly, I'll make certain your wife has whatever she needs to at least do the preliminaries."
Any questions Anakin might have had remained unsaid as the Sith Lord ordered him, "Sleep." No matter how hard he tried to keep his eyes open, he couldn't.