For a long moment, Obi-wan couldn't force anything at all past his lips. Finally, he said, "Lord Vader."
"Mm?" said Anakin, still looking out the window. "What?"
"Lord Vader," he repeated, more sure now. "That's you. Isn't it?"
Anakin turned his head to look him in the face, and placed his fork down with a soft click. "I was wondering when you were going to figure it out," said the Sith Lord, Darth Vader.
He made an instinctive grab for his lightsaber, where is hung safely clipped to his belt. Vader noticed the motion and said, "Really, Obi-wan. We're in a public restaurant, and I'm unarmed."
"A Sith is never unarmed," he said, leaving his hand where it was. Vader was right, though: he didn't want to fight in Dex's diner.
Vader didn't seem offended. He smirked a little, the sly grin tugging at one corner of his mouth. "I suppose that's true, but - wait. Do you think I'm a Sith?"
He looked so indignant like that, like the first time they'd met, Force, a decade ago now. I'm not that young, he said. Years later, in a private moment of friendship, That's how old I was when I was born. Now, his eyes much too old for his nineteen-year-old face.
"Are you saying you're not?" he asked.
"Not in this life," said Vader dryly.
"But you kept trying to turn me against the Council!"
"I kept trying to turn you against dogma," said Vader. "You can be a Jedi if you want. It's just that people should decide for themselves who and what to be, not - be brainwashed into a cult while they're too young to know any better!"
It was the same argument he'd had before with Anakin. Who was Vader. Cautiously, he said, "You use the Dark."
"Guilty as charged," said Vader cheerfully, holding out his empty hands. His tone was so light and airy, as though nothing had changed. Perhaps, for him, nothing had.
"You keep starting wars."
"Wars?" said Vader. He didn't think the curiosity in the tone was faked.
"Like on Ryloth and Felucia and - "
"Oh. The revolutions," said Vader. "Those aren't wars."
"Not - how are they not wars?" he demanded.
Vader winced, and other people in the diner turned to look at them. Well, he was a little loud. He settled back down. Vader said, "I'm just going to, er, make them notice us less," and pulled on the Dark. He automatically pulled on the Light in retaliation, but it wasn't an attack. Vader had sort of wrapped the Dark around them, but at faint remove, and without affecting his ability to touch the Light. Slowly, he let it go.
"Is that a Sith trick?" he asked.
"Some Sith know how to do it," said Vader, "but I wouldn't call it exclusively theirs. We're just a little further away than normal space says we should be."
He looked, and then stared. He'd fought Maul and fought for his soul. He knew that real Sith had glowing yellow eyes, like an overheated power coupling. Vader had cool oases instead, and even now he was fighting a smile.
"And those revolutions aren't wars. Not by any reasonable definition. Fewer people die in any one of them than died, on those planets, each month, due to the systemic abuses inherent in slavery. I've been careful."
He knew this. Vader was insanely paranoid. The revolutions had slow build-ups, but when they happened they happened quickly, over the course of only a few hours. By the time the Jedi learned about them and got anyone on the ground, there was already a functional interim government in place, and a functional resource-management system. There generally wasn't anything left for them to do, in fact, but help with the paperwork petitioning for inclusion in the Republic.
"But - people die! You kill people."
"I do," said Vader. "Are you telling me you don't?"
"I'm a Jedi!"
"So you have legal sanction," agreed Vader. "But other than that, what's the difference? We both go to planets where injustice is occurring, and change things so that it's not. Sometimes that involves killing, though we both try to keep casualties to a minimum."
"I follow the law," he said.
"Sometimes. Sometimes, when you find that local law is at odds with galactic law . . . gundarks, Kenobi."
He remembered. He also remembered Anakin's inexplicable prowess with a lightsaber. "What were you even doing there?"
"Saving your fool ass," said Vader.
There was long pause while he considered. "I don't understand," he said, finally.
"I know," said Vader. "You're a Jedi, a group which seems congenitally incapable of believing it's possible to be more than one thing at a time. An engineer and a lover. A revolutionary and a father. An outlaw . . . and a friend. The Force told me you were going to be in danger, so," he shrugged, "I went."
He blinked. Anakin never liked talking about the Force. He'd thought it was because he had some kind of grudge against Jedi and their silly superstitions. Well, it was at least partly true that he did. The silly superstitions, though were a different matter. "How strong are you, really? You never got formal training."
"Wrong," said Vader. "Twenty-two thousand."
"My midichlorian count when I was nine," said Vader. "It's closer to fifty thousand now."
"And I do have formal training. Coruscanti Jedi, Corellian Jedi, Banite Sith, and Dathomiri witchcraft." He took another bite of his ewem. "It's not like the Jedi have a monopoly on the Force."
"I don't like lightsabers," said Vader.
"But you're good at them," he persisted.
"When I have to be," he said. "I've been practicing again lately. I think I'm going to have to be. The war."
"You don't think the negotiations are going to be able to avert it?"
"With a Sith behind it?"
"That's just conjecture," he said. Jedi conjecture. Which Vader, or even Anakin, shouldn't have access to at all.
"No, Obi-wan. It's not."
"You have proof?"
"Nothing the Council will accept, I'm sure," said Vader. "I wanted to make sure you know, though. I am planning to stop the war, if I can." His expression softened. "I'm glad you finally figured it out. I won't have to keep lying to you now." He smiled while around them, the Dark pulsed. It wasn't angry, dangerous, like the Dark around Maul. It was warm, friendly, the pulse more like a hug without physicality than anything else. Then it dissipated. "I hope you won't be my adversary in the next few weeks. I have an oath to fulfil, and I'd like to not have to fight you."
"To Amidala. You know."
"You think the situation is that dire?"
"Last night, someone posted a hit on her," said Vader. "This morning, the posting was gone."
"That can't be true. Nu monitors those parts of the 'Net."
"Nu monitors a stage," said Vader. "All the players figured out she was watching ages ago, and moved to a different theatre." He pushed his plate away and stood up to leave.
"I - Vader. Anakin. Why me?"
Anakin didn't say anything for a while, but didn't walk away either, so he waited patiently. "I can count on the fingers of one hand the people I've ever been able to properly love." He turned, and left.
He agonized over telling someone. He should, he knew, but who? Who would believe him that the cheerful, helpful, always-smiling Anakin Skywalker, his friend Anakin Skywalker, was Dark? Much less Darth Vader. Besides, he maybe wasn't even a Sith, in which case it would just bring trouble to a - well, not innocent, the revolutions and all, but - a good man.
He was still undecided when the assassination attempt came, two days later. It was an explosion that collapsed part of the Dome garage, destroyed millions of credits of senatorial aircars, injured twenty-two people, and killed no one. It would have, he knew, but he felt the Dark blooming right before the attack, saw the enormous pourstone slabs moving just enough that they'd come to rest against each other and shield the people beneath. It was both a fantastic show of raw power, and of subtlety; it looked random, but the chances of everything coming together in structurally-sound, load-bearing ways were so miniscule as to be functionally nonexistant. It had to have been in the moment, too. Anakin wouldn't have been able to plan, so he'd done all those calculations in his head, on the fly, and made the trajectory changes necessary to save those lives.
The Jedi Council wanted to assign him to protect Amidala. They cited their past positive working relationship, and suggested it might be nice if he wasn't trying to get himself killed in new in interesting places for once. Also, there was something very odd about the number of dead in that attack, and they wanted him to keep an eye out. He agreed.
In fact, it was Amidala who objected. "I don't see the need," she said. "It wasn't the Jedi who saved my people."
"No, it wasn't," said Master Windu. "And that's our fault; one we wish to remedy."
"Captain Tanaka and Anakin - "
"I think it's a good idea, actually," said Anakin. He'd been observing unobtrusively, leaning against the wall with Tanaka. "The two of us can't be awake all the time."
He shot Anakin a look. What was Vader trying to pull, exactly? Anakin smiled back, apparently carefree.
"Then it's settled," said Tanaka, and despite Amidala's protestations, it was.
The assassin tried again that evening. Anakin stole his lightsaber, took out the two insectoids in about twenty seconds, and then jumped out a window. He sighed - they'd been in enough dangerous situations together for him to know that Anakin was always going to go straight for the most chaos, and then jumped after him. The resulting high speed chase through the skylanes was one of his more terrifying attempts to get them both killed, but they did manage to catch the assassin.
Anakin powered up a personal shield, the kind that was useless against blaster but stopped most physical attacks. An instant later, the shield flicked to life and then flickered, the telltale sign of it catching incoming projectiles.
"What," he said.
Anakin plucked something out of the shield and held it up so Wessel could see. "Saberdart. I'm willing to put good money on it being teggen venom. Wessel, I advise you come quietly. The Jedi are really big believers in protective custody."
Wessel came quietly, but Anakin didn't relax until all of them, Amidala included, were safely in the Temple. Then he relaxed a little, but only a little, while the Council took charge of questioning Wessel.
She didn't know much, actually. Jango Fett, a Mandalorian bounty hunter, had subcontracted the hit to her because of her Clawdite ability to get into almost anyplace. She didn't know who'd hired Jango. She said Jango was living on a planet called Kamino, but she hadn't bothered to check where that was. She'd really like it if they didn't let him kill her.
"Well?" said Yoda, turning to the two of them.
"Someone needs to go investigate Kamino," said Anakin. "And I - forgive me if I'm wrong, but if Fett is Mandalorian, it might be best to send someone who's at least familiar with the customs."
"A good point," said Yoda. "Amidala?"
"I really only came to vote against the army. Once that happens, I'll return to Naboo until the next official senate is called. Hopefully, we can be on our way by tomorrow afternoon."
"I'm just going to stick to Amidala like gundark glue," said Anakin. "Er. If that's okay, senator."
"I'd like that, actually."
"Then another Jedi we will assign, while Knight Obi-wan Fett investigates. Qui-gon on a mission is. Do you any others know?"
"No," said Amidala.
"Hmm. Well. While you on Corscant remain, protect you I will."
Anakin looked ambivalent about this, but said, "Thank you, grand master. It is an honor."
He next saw Anakin while being chained to a pillar in the middle of a Geonosian arena, waiting for execution. It had not been a good couple of weeks, at least on his end. Anakin was smiling constantly, and stupidly. Amidala was there too, looking up at the black-clad form of Dooku.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Saving your fool ass," said Anakin.
He looked up at the chains. "Good job."
"You'll see," said Anakin, just as the animals were released.
He wasn't sure what he was supposed to see. Amidala was astonishingly good at gladiating, for an ex-queen. Anakin took about four seconds, total, to make friends with the rancor that was supposed to kill and/or eat him. Of course he did. So really it was just him against an altogether too big insect, until the cavalry unexpectedly arrived.
Then Dooku's cavalry arrived, lining up in neat ranks and surrounding the Jedi and Senator Amidala and Anakin. "Kill them," said Dooku.
Nothing happened. The droids were still there frozen. This wasn't supposed to happen, apparently, because Dooku repeated his order, "Kill them!"
Still nothing. Mundi's padawan took an experimental swipe at one of the droids, which did nothing aside from sever the arm, which fell. "Stop that," commanded - Vader. That was no one but Vader. He felt the Force shift, tugged out of alignment by the truly massive pull of fifty thousand midichlorians. He did something to his voice, too, because his next words were deafening. "Count Dooku. You are not starting a war today."
Dooku looked at him. "Oh, I'm not, am I?"
"Nope," said Vader, flashing one of Anakin's brilliant, dangerous grins. "Reason being that the person in charge of both armies is not Sith, and is definitely not you."
Somewhat quicker on the uptake, Master Windu said, "Lord Vader."
Anakin gave him a jaunty salute, then turned his attention back to Dooku. "So what's it going to be, Tyrannus? Surrender to the Jedi, who will at least leave you alive; or go running back to your master, who will, if I know the old man, rather enjoy torturing you to death for this failure."
"You dare - !" began Dooku, and attempted to do something with the Dark. It failed comprehensively, crushed by the whirling maelstrom that was Vader.
"Yes. I dare. You're nothing more than a pawn, Dooku. You never were."
In the background, he heard a whining noise and turned to see a fleet of stupidest-looking troop transports, crewed by - the clones. They came down for a landing, and the droids shuffled aside to make room.
Dooku looked at this, and then began making a hoarse dry sound that he recognized after a moment as laughter. "I - surrender," he managed to gasp out, and kept laughing.
Vader remained quiet all the way through being arrested. It took sometime to get to him. No one was quite sure how he was controlling the droids, or for that matter, the clones, but he'd allowed the Separatist leadership to board their nice shiny ship, and then just turned if off. As a result, they had almost two hundred planets' worth of representatives to arrest, and Vader told them in no uncertain terms that he wasn't leaving Geonosis until every single one of them was securely on a Jedi ship heading back to Coruscant.
He talked with Senator Amidala in the meantime, and every ten or fifteen minutes leaned over to kiss her.
"How much of that did you know?" asked Windu.
"Some. Not enough. He'd been dropping hints for a while, and I put Anakin and Vader together about two days before Amidala arrived on Coruscant, but I didn't think - he said he wanted to protect Amidala."
"Hmm," said Windu, looking over at the two of them. He understood; that was a man who was deeply in love. "Dooku didn't know anything about him."
"He told me he knows there is a Sith behind the - attempted war, I guess, but it isn't evidence you'd accept. I thought it just meant he'd done some slicing so it wouldn't be admissible in court, but now . . . "
"Yeah," said Windu. "The Dark."
He sighed. "I don't think he's nineteen. We were talking, this one time, about how some people are just born in their forties? And he said that he was forty-six when he was born. I thought it was a joke. Now I have to wonder if there was a different Anakin Skywalker, that he killed in order to be born."
"Can you ask?"
"He's done planetary revolutions, but the Sith built their society on slavery, and he keeps tearing that down. Sith want to rule; he keeps turning power over to duly-elected governing bodies. There are no records of someone who has already been alive being born, but it's the kind of thing Sith would do, I think. I don't know what to make of him, but he likes you."
"I really doubt that will work. Not under false pretenses. Come on."
So they walked over to where Anakin seemed to be having a tickling match with Amidala. Well, he dragged Windu. Amidala noticed them first, and through her laughter said, "Stop, stop! We have observers. I think they want to talk."
Anakin looked up. "Yeah. 'Lo, Windu."
Anakin shrugged. "At the moment, very much Vader."
"I have so many questions," said Windu.
"Yeah?" he tilted his head, looking at the old master. Then he winked; at the same moment, and for the same amount of time, he dropped his shields. All of them. It forced him to his knees and even staggered Master Windu before it was gone as though it'd never been.
Windu paled. "What are you?"
"A very good friend to have. Or a very bad enemy. It's up to you."
"Although personally, I'd go for friend," said Amidala. "Master Windu, my husband, Anakin Skywalker. Although I believe you've met."
"You - married?"
"Yeah," said Vader.
"Of course," said Amidala. "I want to keep him, and love is the only thing that can ever hold someone like him. I made him promise to stop causing violent planetary revolutions."
"But not to stop causing them at all," said Windu.
"You pick your battles," said Amidala. "So, darling, we stopped the war you wanted to stop. What now?"
"Now," said Vader, "someone beings impeachment proceedings against Supreme Chancellor Palpatine."
"Impeach him? For what?"
"Trying to deny planets their legal right to initiate Article 52 proceedings," said Vader, innocently. "Also ignoring the part of the Constitution that limits him to two five-year terms. It's been longer than that, but he's made no move to trigger election proceedings."
"Uh-huh. And this gets you?"
"Hopefully? One dead Sith Master."
"Right," said Windu. "Why?"
"The long answer is going to take a very long time," said Anakin. "The short answer is: I have no idea, but with a midichlorian count of over fifty thousand I can't ever not hear the Force. It's been screaming at me nonstop for decades about the Sith master, so," he shrugged, "I did something about it."
"And exactly how old are you?" asked Windu.
"It's not complicated math," said Vader, but he wasn't looking at Windu; he was looking at Obi-wan.
"Am I supposed to believe that this is the only time you've stolen some poor bastard's body?" asked Windu.
"I honestly do not care what you believe," said Vader. "But if truth counts for anything, this wasn't what I would have chosen. It was merely the least terrible option available at the time."
"Killing some innocent child!"
"I know," said Vader, and his eyes, usually clear blue, went far-away and cloudy grey. "I didn't want to. But what is one life, after all, measured against the millions that would have died if this war had been allowed to start today? It was the best I could do."
Windu looked at him for a long, hard moment, and said, "You're no Jedi - "
"You're no Jedi," repeated Windu. "But a Jedi trained you. You're using Jedi techniques."
"Are you asking for a name?" asked Vader.
"Would you tell me?"
"Then that would be pointless. I just want a bit more explanation. On the basis of Maul, you're also using Sith techniques."
"I use whichever techniques are most useful at any given time," said Vader.
"So . . . not Sith?" queried Windu.
"What do you think?" said Vader, squarely meeting his eyes.
They stared at each other again, and then Windu said, "No. No Sith could possibly be as in love as you are." Maul had been only rage and anger and his Force-burned mission. Even now, he was still dubious about Savage and only ever nice to Feral. He blinked as he realized where the tip-off about Maul's family had come from.
"There you go, then," said Vader, and waited.
"What happens," asked Windu, "if I deputize you and have you in the group which goes to arrest the Chancellor?"
"Then I imagine you'll get to see something interesting."
The group that appeared in the Senate, a week later, included Windu and Billaba and Bulq, but not Fisto or Yoda or Vii. In short, every Jedi who knew vapaad and Vader himself. He didn't think Vader's vetos were coincidence. If Windu thought anything, he kept it to himself.
The session began easily enough. The main Separatist ship-turned-prison was not fast, and wouldn't arrive at Coruscant for another week. They were welcomed to the Dome almost jubilantly, as though they had fixed the underlying problem by taking care of the meeting on Geonosis. There were a few speeches, including one very congratulatory one from the Chancellor, before the floor was handed over to Windu.
"We Jedi don't need thanks for doing our job; a job well done is thanks enough. Which is why," he added, "we chose to come here today. Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, under the laws of the Galactic Republic, and the power vested in me as a Jedi Knight, I am placing you under arrest."
"Arrest?" Palpatine gaped. "What for?"
"Well, for one," said Vader, leaning insouciantly against the 'pod's engine, "declining or indefinitely suspending any planetary requests in the last decade to carry out Article 52 proceedings, thus almost precipitating a war. We have proof," he added, speaking more to the Senate than to the Chancellor. "We've remote-delivered it to all major news networks. The story should be breaking by now. Look for yourselves."
They were, he could see, the hush as thousands of them began observing the news feeds.
"And for another . . . well, you've served your two terms, Chancellor. We're four months overdue for an election."
"The Emergency Powers Act - "
"Is illegal, according to Article Three of the Galactic Constitution. Besides which, the war isn't going to happen now."
"I'm sorry, who are you?" asked Palpatine.
"Vader," said Anakin, and suddenly every eye in the room, all the attention, every holo, was on him.
"No you're not," said Palpatine into the silence. "You work for them, maybe, but you're much too young - "
Vader shrugged. "Believe what you want. My only stake in this entire thing is to see to it that the Sith Lord Darth Sidious never makes it to a throne. As of right now, it probably won't; and I'll be sticking around to make sure that is definitive."
"You'll be in prison," said Palpatine.
"In the Bastille, with all of the other nonviolent political prisoners, I should imagine."
"Nonviolent! Vader starts wars!"
"Revolutions. They fall into a legal grey area. If slavery actually didn't exist, I wouldn't be starting them. The Constitution guarantees that all Republic worlds must be free societies, on pain of immediate expulsion from the Republic. Also, slave revolts on planets that aren't Republic worlds are officially not the Republic's problem, and unofficially are supposed to be something the Republic supports. So what happens when someone goes around starting slave revolts on worlds that are theoretically Republic, but in reality can't possibly be, because they are slave worlds?" He shrugged again. "I haven't done anything illegal on any actually Republic worlds. Therefore: nonviolent political prisoner."
Then he winked, like he had on Geonosis. Just like he had on Geonosis, from the way the three Jedi staggered. Palpatine blanched.
Palpatine came to a decision.
What followed wasn't even a fight. For a start, Vader had been allowed to borrow a lightsaber, so instead of neatly shearing his head off Palpatine found himself locked blade-to-blade. For another, Vader had had a lightsaber to start with, although he was fairly certain that everyone else thought it was a laser pointer and not a dually-functional laser pointer/lightsaber. It wouldn't have worked if he hadn't been up close and fucking personal with his target, but Palpatine had rushed at him. Vader just stabbed him, tiny four-centimeter blade going in straight through cloth and skin with equal ease before Vader pulled across.
It was almost like watching someone unzip a carry-bag, except that it was Palpatine's abdomen. His intestines fell out in a slick pink rush. He dropped his 'saber, and it was only due to the fact that Vader was in a position to swat it aside and at the same time turn it off that no one was injured that way. Then he directed the chancellor into a controlled fall.
"That," he said, "was remarkably stupid. Medic!"
"No point," said Palpatine, voice dry and pained and audible because his mic was still on. "Why didn't you kill me, instead of just wiping my memory of you?"
"You've never met me before," said Vader.
"True; but you've met me." Vader didn't respond, at least not in any way he could see over the holo, but Palpatine seemed to catch something he didn't. "Ah. Well, my congratulations on earning your mastery, whoever the fuck you are."