Padawan, your attention belongs here! Those aren't appropriate thoughts!
His master's voice rang in his head, heavy with disapproval.
"The young one's not paying much heed to our talks, Jedi Kenobi. Perhaps he has no interest in freeing the slaves," Jabba observed in Huttese.
Anakin felt himself flush and ground his teeth, anger rising like a super nova as he thought of others like his mother and himself being bought and sold like animals... no, worse. Even animals got some freedom.
"My attention is where it should be, Jabba. Slavery is wrong. Supreme Chancellor Palpatine wishes the Hutts to put an end to it here and elsewhere. Master Kenobi and I are here to ensure the talks proceed as they should."
Obi-Wan gave Anakin a strange look, then continued where his Padawan left off.
"My apprentice is correct. He has cut to the heart of the matter. The Republic cannot condone the continuance of slavery. Chancellor Palpatine has extended an offer to join the Republic if you end the practice with concurrent representation in the Senate."
Jabba's laughter rumbled through his palace, his minions echoing the sentiment.
"What would the Republic offer that I don't have here, Jedi?" He narrowed his slit-pupil eyes for a moment. "Tell Palpatine I will consider his proposals...both of them. He will hear from me within the week. As for my people..." He grinned hideously, and then popped a tiny wriggling creature into his maw. "I cannot speak for them, but I will tell them of the deal."
Obi-Wan gave a curt bow, then motioned to Anakin to follow as they departed Jabba's palace. He said nothing as they walked to their speeder. In the half-hour it took to return to Mos Espa, Anakin considered the 'negotiations,' such as they were.
Once inside their humble accommodations, he tried to approach Obi-Wan about what had happened.
"Master, I apologize for my distraction..."
Obi-Wan held up his hand. "Don't. Perhaps it wasn't the wisest thing to send us here. There's too much history between you and Jabba."
Anakin stiffened, hurt that his master thought he couldn't perform properly on this mission. Then he slumped; aware his behavior had been anything but stellar.
I am sorry, Master. This is important. I shouldn't have let my anger control my words."
His master sighed and shook his head. "That wasn't the only problem, Anakin. Though I could have wished for a little less heat in what you said, what you said perhaps actually helped our cause rather than hurt it." At Anakin's puzzled look, he continued. "Your distraction was my concern. I needed you there... all of you. Instead, I sensed you far away."
Anakin's head came up. He wasn't ashamed of how he felt about Amidala and he would defend those feelings to anyone.
"I love her, Master. I asked her to marry me."
"Hmmm... I feared this might happen."
"What? Feared? What do you mean?"
"A Jedi should be the servant of the Light. Affairs of the heart only distract one from the path of truth," Obi-Wan told him.
A frown creased Anakin's brow. He knew better...Amidala belonged with him. He could see no wrong in his love for her and no difficulty in working for justice and right while married to her.
"I *will* marry her, Master. If she'll have me," he said, his hands clenched at his sides as he struggled with his frustration.
Obi-Wan returned his look with one of his own frustration. Anakin could almost hear his master's unspoken 'I wish Qui-Gon had lived.'
Anakin flung away and out of the room, blindly seeking his mother in Mos Espa's warrens. Even if she weren't home, he'd rather stay there than with Obi-Wan's disapproval.
Despite the years since his last visit, his feet took him straight to his old home. The darkening sky drove him indoors, the wind promising one of Tattooine's violent sandstorms. Inside, the place smelled of Shmi's cooking and her presence pervaded the tiny rooms.
No answer. She must still be in Mos Eisley. But something didn't seem right... in fact, something seemed terribly wrong.
"Mom!" he called again, frantically searching each room.
"Oh, my! Master Anakin, is that you?" The familiar voice of C3PO came from Anakin's old room.
"3PO, where's my mother?"
"I believe Watto sent her on an errand to Mos Eisley," the droid responded. "She told me to stay here and watch our home."
"When did she leave?"
"According to my calculations, she has been gone forty-eight point three hours. She should have returned this evening."
Anakin closed his eyes, opening himself to the Force and searching for his mother's presence. It glimmered faintly, not far away. He stretched his feelings out.
Mother, where are you?
Here, son. Here...
At her faint reply, he left his old home at a dead run, ignoring C3PO's protestations as he hurried toward his mother's location. Black clouds poured from Watto's shop, one wall smashed and crumbled into the road as if a giant hand had pushed into it. Anakin ducked into it, eyes watering at the acrid smoke. Of Watto, he found no sign, but near the back counter he found his mother, laying on the ground, a gash on her forehead. He swept her up in his arms, then made his way out of the ruined shop into the market place. Wind-whipped sand scoured them as he struggled back to Shmi's dwelling, but somehow he managed to make it back to shelter.
"Thank the Maker, you're back, Master Anakin," C3PO began before he took in Shmi's unconscious form. "Oh, my! Should I get the healer?"
"Impossible, 3PO. The storm's full force right now. I'll have to do what I can. Get me some clean water and some rags." He turned back to his mother and found her watching him.
"Ani, you've grown so. I'm so proud of you. A Jedi..." She smiled weakly.
"Shh, mother. Rest. I'll try to heal you," he promised, reaching out to pull the Force to him as he laid his hands on her wounds.
"No, Ani... I'm dying. Don't try to stop it. It's too late."
"Tell me who did this, Mom," he begged her, tears streaking down his face unstopped.
"I never saw them. I only heard their voices. They spoke Huttese poorly, but they told Watto to leave. Then blasters... I... they seemed intent on destroying the shop. I tried to hide, but they found me." She coughed, a trickle of blood leaking from her mouth.
"Don't let vengeance rule you, Ani. Find your angel. Let me live on in your love..." Shmi reached up to touch his face, then took a shuddering breath and closed her eyes.
"Mom... mom... Mom!" Anakin pulled her into his arms, rocking her limp body as he wept. "No! This can't happen to you. I won't let it!"
Amidala awoke from her nightmare, pain streaking through her. But she knew it wasn't her own. Anakin... Something awful had happened to him. She rose and began to pace, unaware tears spilled from her eyes.
Gods, she must find him! Dare she go to Tattooine? Or should she go to Coruscant and await his return? What to do, what to do?
"Sabe'!" she yelled. "Sabe', get in here now!" A guard opened the door. "Get my handmaidens at once. And prepare my ship. We're going to Coruscant."
Queen Amidala paced back and forth in the lush quarters Chancellor Palpatine had given her. On her way from Naboo she had debated the wisdom of appearing as herself and finally decided she must present herself as the Queen. All had gone smoothly... too smoothly, she thought, but no one else seemed disturbed at the Chancellor's continued rise to power.
She looked around at very different accommodations she had been given as Queen in comparison to those she had as Padme'. And she remembered how Palpatine had greeted her.
"Ah, Queen Amidala...to what do we owe the pleasure of your company?"
*We? Are we talking the royal 'we' here?* she couldn't help wondering.
"My handmaiden, Padme', told me of your efforts in behalf of the slaves living in the Outer Rim. I wished to see for myself the fruits of your endeavors."
"Of course," he murmured, offering his arm as he escorted her toward her assigned quarters. "Perhaps there will be word from the ambassadors I sent earlier. So far there has been nothing, but I am confident they will be successful."
Amidala gave a slight nod, her heart in her throat. Ani... Where was he?
Now she could do nothing but wait... wait for Ani and Obi-Wan to return from Tattooine. And pray she could give him comfort for whatever had happened on his home planet.
Obi-Wan found Anakin cradling his mother's body, C3PO standing guard over them. He bit back an oath. Though he deeply regretted Shmi's death, he feared this might drive Anakin further away.
"Anakin...I'm sorry," he began.
"Don't, Master," Anakin warned. "I don't know who did this, but I intend to find out. And when I do, I'll find a way to make them pay."
"Vengeance is a path to the Dark Side, Anakin. Don't take that step."
"How would you know, Obi-Wan? You've never had anything like this happen to you." Then he stopped, an even more stricken look crossing his face. "I... I'm sorry, Master."
Unspoken between them, the memory of Qui-Gon drifted, the way he had died at the Sith apprentice's hands...the way that same apprentice met his end at Obi-Wan's. How close Obi-Wan had come to falling to the Dark Side in his anger and grief at his own master's death.
Anakin rose, his mother still in his arms. "I have to bury her. She at least deserves that."
"Of course...may I help?"
"She would want that, Master."
Together, they carried Shmi to Beggar's Canyon and dug a deep grave not far from where Sebulba had nearly killed Ani all those years ago in the Boonta Eve Podrace. Heavy stones, hefted by the power of the Force, made a monument for her that even a *bantha* would have difficulty moving.
They stood quietly, contemplating Shmi Skywalker's final resting-place. Anakin made her a promise. He would return to carve her a proper marker... and he would take care of the scum who'd killed her.
Vengeance isn't the way, son. Let me live on in your love.
Anakin's head came up, searching the cloudless dawn sky. He'd never known his mother to have any Force power, yet clearly she felt strongly enough about this that she reached out from death to repeat her caution. Obi-Wan gave him a strange look, then suggested they return to Coruscant to give both the Council and the Chancellor their report.
Anakin agreed, feeling numb and lost. Though he hadn't seen his mother in years, just knowing she was alive on Tattooine had kept him going when things seemed toughest. Now he no longer had that comfort zone...that knowledge there would always be someone who loved him unconditionally. The world suddenly seemed a much bleaker place.
Obi-Wan gave his report, as Anakin stood by, unable to say anything. He barely noticed when the Chancellor gave his condolences on his loss. Somehow, he must have managed to say something at least minimally appropriate. Then he found himself outside with his Master, staring at the Coruscant skyline without truly seeing it.
"Anakin, Queen Amidala is here. Why don't you go visit her? I'm certain she'd be glad to see you." Obi-Wan's voice came to him as if from a great distance.
"Am... I need to see her," he repeated as if in a dream, then let Obi-Wan turn him toward the Queen's quarters.
"Go on, Padawan. You're excused for the next two days. Take some time off," his master told him. *And get yourself together,* remained unsaid.
Sabe' opened the door. "Padawan Skywalker... Are you all right?" she asked at his glazed look.
"Is the Queen in?"
"Of course. Come in." She looked around. "Is Master Kenobi with you?"
"No, he just left for the Temple." Anakin shook his head as if waking from an unpleasant daydream. Then he smiled at the handmaiden. "If you hurry, you might catch him."
She grinned back at him, glanced at Amidala, who gave her the sign to go, and quickly left. Amidala closed the door after her, turning to take Anakin's hand.
"Oh, Ani...tell me what happened? I felt something dreadful!"
"Am... Am, she's dead. Someone killed her," he began and then broke into sobs, great wrenching things that threatened to tear him apart.
"Love, love, I'm here. I can't replace her, but I'll try to help soothe the pain," she murmured as he let her take him in her arms.
Somehow they ended up on the couch, this one much more comfortable than the last they'd occupied. She lay back, holding him close without a word as he wept.
Yes, love, let it out. Let the grief out.
Somewhere deep inside, Amidala knew it wasn't wise to let things progress from comforting to more, but Anakin's pain was so raw she pushed aside the concern. She held him until the wracking sobs quieted, looking down at his face, nestled on her chest. With one hand she gently wiped away the tears from his lashes, then rested her chin on top of his head.
"Thanks, Am," he said in a tear laden voice, burrowing closer to her.
"I just wish I could change things, Ani," she murmured, pressing a soft kiss to his moist forehead.
He didn't reply in words, just scooted himself up so he lay face to face with her. For a few moments he just studied her, as if trying to memorize each feature. Then he began to touch her...everywhere.
His hands moved from her face to trace the delicate line of her shoulders, the swells of her breasts, the indentation of her waist, then came to rest on her hips, pulling her tightly against his own. This time he wouldn't allow interruptions or worries of what might happen. Hungrily, he devoured her lips with his own, moving his body against hers, inflaming her with his own need.
She could barely breathe. Her heart pounded and liquid fire seemed to pulse through her veins. Cool air sighed against her skin as Anakin pushed aside her clothes to press kisses against her heated flesh. With a moan, Amidala arched toward his lips, her fingers holding his head nearer.
*Need...want... Must have you, Am...* he sent to her as he flexed hips against hers, his body insistently demanding entrance.
"Yes, oh yes, Ani. I am yours," she whispered, opening herself to him.
Pain brushed away the sensual veils he had built, reminding Amidala she now belonged to him in every way. Despite his arousal, Anakin stopped, his face beaded with perspiration and creased with effort.
"So sorry, Am. I...I didn't mean to hurt you," he panted.
"Shhh, it's natural the first time."
He groaned, tears leaking from his closed eyes. "I hurt everyone I love," he muttered brokenly, beginning to leave her.
She gripped him closer. "Don't you dare, Anakin Skywalker. You finish what you've begun. I want this as much as you."
The reassurance seemed to break what little strength of will he had and soon any pain she felt faded away in the onslaught of sensations. Caught up in their lovemaking, their cries rang out without thought of who might hear them. In the aftermath of their passion, Anakin held her close, reluctant to move from her... his home. He pulled a light coverlet over them and rested Amidala's head on his shoulder.
"I love you, Am. You have to marry me. We *do* belong together," he said softly, his breath puffing against her face.
She hugged him tightly, filled with her own love and determined to not allow the world to intrude.
"Of course, Ani. We'll take our vows in the morning."
I will always love you, Am.
And I you, Ani... No matter what happens.
In the Senate chambers a strange smile passed over the Chancellor's face for a brief moment. He had picked up the young couple's passionate interlude. Indeed, he had foreseen it... and the fact their offspring's potential would be greater than any other Force-user in history.
For now, he would content himself with seducing young Skywalker away from the Jedi. Oh, he would need to take care...subtlety was most important. But soon... soon, he would call Anakin his own. He could bide his time, for things were progressing nicely in his plans, despite the setback he had suffered with the loss of Maul and the actions of Amidala against the Trade Federation.
He had the Senate so snarled in procedure they would never untangle the knotted mess. With practiced smoothness, he continued to weave his web. He waited in the center, resembling some bloated spider, for the tender flies to land in its sticky threads.
Obi-Wan felt the passion through his bond with Anakin. Though he knew his Padawan must be with Amidala, it didn't stop the answering response in his own body. His face flushed and he was grateful he had been sitting when the waves of arousal washed over him. What he wasn't grateful for was the fact Sabe' sat beside him in the Jedi garden.
She'd come to find him and tell him what she knew of the situation. From the time he'd first met her on the Queen's Nubian all those years ago, he'd found her fascinating. She called to him, in a way he couldn't explain. To his embarrassment, he couldn't help stiffening as the tide of emotions poured through him.
"Obi-Wan, are you all right?" Sabe's soft voice asked. She laid her hand over his and he knew she must feel his trembling.
He closed his eyes, reciting meditation mantras in the hope the feelings would fade. It didn't help. Sabe' had moved closer, placing her cool hand over his fevered forehead. While he knew she only meant to help, her touch only made things worse.
"Sabe'... The Queen and Anakin... " He broke off, refusing to meet her eyes.
"Oh!" But she didn't move away. "Obi-Wan... They love each other. Is it so wrong?"
He managed to shake his head as he tried to steady his pulse and breathing.
"I'm sorry. Do you wish me to leave?" she asked in a tiny voice.
"No... Just give me a moment."
She took his hand, then touched his face. It was almost more than he could take.
"Kiss me, Obi-Wan," she murmured.
"I said...kiss me."
"But, you couldn't possibly feel them..."
"I don't care. I don't have to be Force sensitive to feel this way." She drew closer, leaning against him.
*I must remain calm. There is no passion...* he began to recite, until her lips pressed his. *Soft, so soft and warm.*
He shuddered, the sensory overload undoing all his discipline. With a muttered oath, Obi-Wan, Jedi Knight and proponent of the Jedi Way, threw away caution and returned her kisses. In the back of his mind, he thought he would have to have a long discussion with his Padawan on shielding.