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The Great Galactic Politics Mess-Up

Chapter Text

“It’s a pity our paths have never crossed before, Obi-Wan. Qui-Gon always spoke very highly of you.” Dooku paused for a moment, taking on a more downcast air. “I wish he were still alive. I could use his help, right now.”

Obi-Wan turned slowly in the beam of his prison. “Qui-Gon Jinn would never join you.”

“Don’t be so sure, my young Jedi.” Dooku began pacing around the prison. “You forget that he was once my apprentice, just as you were once his. He knew all about the corruption in the Senate, but he would never have gone along with it if he had learned the truth as I have.”

“The truth?”

“The truth.” Dooku paused again, looking up to meet Obi-Wan’s eyes, before resuming his circuit. “What if I told you that the Republic was now under the control of a Dark Lord of the Sith?”

“No, that’s not possible. The Jedi would be aware of it.”

“The dark side of the Force has clouded their vision, my friend. Hundreds of Senators are now under the influence of a Sith Lord called Darth Sidious.”

I don’t believe you, Obi-Wan almost said. Did say, in a thousand other universes—but not in this one. Instead, he asked, in his most dubious tone, “Do you actually have any evidence?”

“The Viceroy of the Trade Federation was once in league with this Darth Sidious. But he was betrayed, ten years ago, by the Dark Lord. He came to me for help, told me everything.” He looked up, giving Obi-Wan a look of solemn sincerity that would have made any Senator jealous. “I have recordings. Computer logs. Battle plans. As overwhelming evidence as in any court of law.”

“I can’t exactly examine it from here,” Obi-Wan pointed out.

“No, no, of course not. The Viceroy will soon come to his senses, I’m sure.” Dooku stopped in the doorway, glancing over his shoulder at the captive Jedi. “Qui-Gon taught you well, Obi-Wan.”

“You’re not making me feel any more sanguine about this, Dooku.”

“Then I will let the evidence do the talking.” With that, he stepped through the shadowed archway and was gone.

***

Padmé and Anakin stood back-to-back, surrounded by hulking combat droids; Geonosians; and a single bounty hunter, pointing his slim pistol at their heads.

“I don’t think negotiations are going to work here, aggressive or not,” said Padmé, raising her hands in surrender.

“Fortunately for the both of you, that is incorrect,” said a voice, and two of the droids stepped aside to reveal an older human man, silver-haired and bearded, wearing black clothing and a red cape.

“Count Dooku!” Anakin’s first impulse was to go for his lightsaber, which fizzled once, and, as he glowered at it, subsequently flew out of his grip.

Dooku reached up and snatched it from the air, then examined it for a moment. “Broken. What a pity.”

“What are you doing here?” Anakin demanded, clenching his fists for lack of a weapon to brandish.

“Merely smoothing out some confusion,” Dooku replied, sliding Anakin’s now-useless saber into a pocket on the underside of his cape. “It seems there has been a great miscommunication.”

Anakin took a step forward. “Miscommunication? What have you done with Obi-Wan?”

“Anakin!” That was Padmé, one hand now firmly clasped onto his shoulder. “We should at least hear what he has to say.”

“Why? The situation seems quite clear to me.”

“Because, if I know you, you can’t ‘negotiate’ without your lightsaber.” Padmé glanced at the section of cape that now housed the weapon, then back up at Dooku. “He’s a bit reckless,” she explained, perhaps slightly more fondly than the situation warranted.

“As I said, there has been a miscommunication,” Dooku said. “Do follow me.” He half-turned and gestured towards the walkway he’d come from. “We have much to discuss.”

“And Obi-Wan?” Anakin insisted, lengthening his strides to catch up to Dooku, who was now striding towards the door.

“Unharmed. The rest, you will want to hear from him.”

Anakin shot a glance behind him, at the droids and the bounty hunter. The thin silver pistol gleamed under the factory lights. “Right.” Even he could sometimes tell when playing along was the better part of valor.

Padmé came up behind him and gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Better diplomacy than a firing squad.”

“I can’t help but think they’ve got the firing squad on standby,” Anakin muttered.

“That’s diplomacy for you.”

***

Flanked by droids, the three proceeded down the corridor. Dooku was in the lead, of course, his cape fluttering behind him. They turned, turned again, and then there was little hope of keeping track. The Separatist base might as well have been a maze, but for the fact that Dooku seemed to know where he was going. The bounty hunter vanished, somewhere in there, replaced by another droid that loomed as easily as a more organic entity would have breathed.

Anakin was nervous, which he showed by glancing furtively around and twitching at every unfamiliar sound. Padmé hid her fear better; she kept her back straight and her gaze forward. She’d been in enemy hands before.

Another red-lit hallway, shorter and narrower. Quiet, except for the footsteps of droids. Anakin fidgeted. Padmé pressed her lips together. Dooku reached the door at the end of the hall, and it slid open.

“The conference room,” Dooku said, motioning toward the doorway. The droids behind them took up positions to the left and right, lining the hall.

Anakin stepped through. It wasn’t, after all, like he had a choice.

The conference room had the same soft orange-red lighting as the rest of the base. The main feature was a hexagonal table in the center of the room, surrounded by metallic chairs. In one of those chairs sat Obi-Wan, leaning forwards and frowning at the datapad that rested in front of him.

“Master!” Anakin’s step quickened, and he was at Obi-Wan’s side in moments. “We came to rescue you, but—” His gaze drifted back to the entrance, and the dull gleam of the droids standing guard outside. “—we ran into some complications,” he finished.

“As did I,” Obi-Wan said, tapping the datapad. “Complications the Council should hear about.”

“What kind of…” Anakin peered over Obi-Wan’s shoulder. Stopped. “Are those financial records?”

“They are,” said Dooku, suddenly behind the pair. “From ten years ago.”

“I don’t understand,” said Anakin. “This doesn’t prove anything! You could have put anything in there!”

“Patience, Anakin,” said Obi-Wan. He looked up at Dooku. “But he’s partly right. I need to bring these back for analysis.”

“No, you don’t.” That was Padmé, leaning over Obi-Wan’s other shoulder. “Let me look at them.”

“You know what these are?” Anakin asked.

“I’m a politician, Anakin.” Padmé smiled. “I know how money works, and what it can hide.”

“We can’t trust Dooku,” he protested. “You know that.”

“You’re not the one he tried to have assassinated!” Padmé shot back. “But I’ll negotiate with whoever I have to if it will end this pointless war!”

“Spoken like a true diplomat,” said Dooku. “Please, everyone—do be seated.”

***

A few minutes later, everyone was seated, Padmé had the datapad, and Obi-Wan was quite a bit less crowded. Dooku was at one end of the table, with Padmé and the two Jedi at the other.

The air was still decidedly uneasy.

“While Senator Amidala is going over the data,” said Dooku, “we must discuss terms.”

“This isn’t a surrender,” Anakin said, “and I’m not agreeing to anything until someone tells me what’s going on.”

Patience,” said Obi-Wan, with the tired air of someone who has said it many times and will have to do so many more. “Do not be so hasty, Anakin. I was just about to explain.”

Anakin muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, “Hasty? You’re the one who jumped out a window.”

“Anakin…” That was a warning tone: they would talk about this later.

He sighed in exasperation. “Then explain, Master.”

Obi-Wan crossed his arms. “Count Dooku believes that a Sith Lord has infiltrated the Republic government.”

“What?” Anakin slammed his palms on the table. “That’s impossible! You can’t possibly believe—”

“Control yourself, Anakin!” Obi-Wan cut him off. “I’m willing to consider the possibility, implausible as it may sound.”

Anakin opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by Padmé. “Shell corporations,” she said, tapping her fingernail on the datapad. “Look.” She turned the device so Obi-Wan could see. “Diados Medical is shipping to hospitals that don’t exist. I’m certain it’s being used to funnel funds. And now that I know that, it’s clear that at least half these logs are partially or wholly illegitimate. Someone was sending money and equipment to the Separatists under false pretenses. The only thing I haven't figured out is who. There’s only a very few people in the Republic who could pull off a deception of this scale, and this level of coordination points to a single actor. Maybe two at most.”

Obi-Wan gestured towards Dooku. “I think it’s time you told us exactly who you’re accusing.”

“Regrettably, this corruption goes all the way to the top.” Dooku paused just long enough for this to begin sinking in. “Darth Sidious is none other than the Chancellor of the Republic.”

Silence.

Anakin broke it. “This is ridiculous,” he spat.

Almost at the same time, Padmé said, “The Chancellor? Are you sure?” She snatched the datapad back from Obi-Wan, who had reached for it, and began poring over the data once more.

Sounding ever so slightly dazed, Obi-Wan said, “I think I’m going to need to see more than financial records.” He recovered the quickest, his expression going from shocked to stern. “There’s no charge more serious than this, Count Dooku. Why didn’t you tell the Council? Why us?

“Before I lent my assistance to the Viceroy, I had only my own suspicions. Now, I suspect their vision is so clouded as to dismiss out of hand any accusation I might make. Do you see my dilemma, Master Kenobi?”

Anakin interrupted, “This can’t be right. The Chancellor is a good man! If there’s a Sith, it’s—”

“Do excuse us, Count Dooku,” Padmé very politely bit out. “Padawan Skywalker and I need to confer.” She stood, one hand locked around Anakin’s wrist, datapad tucked under her other arm. She strode out of the room, Anakin in tow.

“Wait! Senator?” Obi-Wan made a futile grab for the datapad, then sighed as it vanished through the doorway with Padmé.

Chapter Text

“Hey!” protested one of the hulking battle droids. “You can’t come out here!”

Padmé frowned at it. “We’re not escaping. We just want to talk.”

The droid looked at its colleagues. “Are they allowed to do that?”

“Of course we are,” Padmé said. “You're supposed to protect this base and keep us from getting away, right? And we're staying here, not causing any trouble.”

“Right,” Anakin said, forcing a grin. “No trouble, no getting away.”

“I don’t think they’re allowed to do that,” one of the other droids said.

“We’ll be quick,” Padmé promised. She clipped the datapad to her belt and put a hand on Anakin’s arm. “I don’t like this either, Ani, but we need to at least play along until we can check Dooku’s records against the Republic’s. Which means getting through this and leaving peacefully.”

“Maybe, but accusing the Chancellor? Does he really think we’ll buy that?”

That was when the alarm went off.

Anakin reacted first, giving Padmé a Force-aided shove out of the way of the droids’ shots. He dropped to the ground and rolled, then sprung back to his feet as he reached Padmé. “Run!”

“Already running!” Padmé said, ducking and weaving across the hallway.

There was a fork up ahead. “Right or left?” Anakin yelled.

“Left!”

They went left. Then right. Then left again. If the base had been a maze before, it was a labyrinth now. They turned a corner and nearly ran into a very surprised battle droid. Anakin kicked it in the head.

“At least it’s not Gungan assassins this time!” Anakin said, glancing over at Padmé and flashing a grin.

A blaster bolt sizzled past her shoulder, marking the arrival of more. “At least then we weren’t unarmed!”

“Is that the problem?” Anakin skidded to a halt, ducked a shot, and extended a hand. A blaster rifle ripped itself from the grip of one of the pursuing droids and flew to his waiting palm. He sprinted to catch up with her, and offered it to her as they ran. “For you, Senator.”

She grabbed it. “I'm grateful,” she said in between breaths, “but that was risky.”

“Anything for—whoop!” They turned a corner and immediately came face-to-face with another squad of droids. Anakin looked back and forth between the pursuers and the new group, then swallowed.

***

“I apologize for my padawan’s… impulsivity,” Obi-Wan said, idly stroking his beard as he stared at the door that Anakin and Padmé had just gone through.

“It's quite alright, Master Kenobi,” Dooku assured him. “I know how they can be. When Qui-Gon was young—”

“I wasn't done,” Obi-Wan interrupted him. “I was going to say that at least now I could ask questions in peace.” He leaned over the table, chin in hand. “And, believe me, I have a lot of questions.”

“I assure you,” Dooku said, “I have no shortage of answers. Do ask away.”

“Oh, I will. First of all: how are you so sure it's the Chancellor, and not—I don't know, someone on his staff? Or that he's the Sith himself, and not merely being duped by them?”

Internally, Dooku bristled at the idea of a Sith taking on the guise of another's servant. Externally, all he showed was faint surprise at the idea he hadn't already thought of such questions. “He revealed himself to Gunray, of course. They've been plotting to arrange the war to their own satisfaction, nevermind the lives and livelihoods the rest of us have staked on this conflict.”

“He told Gunray? That seems—”

And then the alarm went off.

Obi-Wan was out of his chair in a heartbeat, one hand going for a lightsaber he didn't currently have.

Dooku reacted more cautiously, rising and making his way over to flatten himself beside the door. He regarded it for a few moments, listening to the rapidly retreating sound of blaster fire. “Would this happen to be your padawan’s doing, Master Kenobi?”

Obi-Wan crossed his arms. “I don't know. How hair-trigger are your alerts?”

“You ask the wrong person.” Dooku pressed the button to open the door and peered out at the newly empty hallway. “This is, after all, Gunray’s base.”

Obi-Wan peeked out from the other side of the door. “Of course it is. And I take it that it's Gunray’s droids that have run off after Anakin and Senator Amidala?”

“If I were inclined to kill any of you, I could have done it already.” Dooku satisfied himself that there was no threat to him lurking in the hall and started down it, with the very purposeful walk of someone who was intending to make someone else answer for their stupidity. Likely Gunray, he had already decided; the droids were extremely stupid, but they were equally lacking in initiative. Two unarmed, apparently non-hostile people would not have seemed a threat in their programming.

Obi-Wan followed, for the lack of a better option. “So why is Gunray inclined to kill us?” he asked. “Besides the obvious, that is.”

“Perhaps he suspects the purpose for which I’ve brought you here,” Dooku said. “But I have not been so careless that it should be more than suspicion. Do stay outside while I speak to him, lest he have the proof he undoubtedly desires.”

“And I'm sure it’s not at all that you don't want me eavesdropping,” Obi-Wan muttered dryly.

“It is true enough that I cannot yet give you my full trust.” Dooku made a conciliatory gesture. “I am certain you understand.”

“I understand… oh, maybe a fourth of what’s going on here. At best.” Obi-Wan frowned. “Lead the way, I suppose. It's not like I have any idea where Gunray might be hiding.”

***

Anakin put a hand on Padmé’s shoulder, unsure which of them he was trying to reassure with the gesture. “Padmé, if this goes wrong, I want you to know I—”

There was the hiss of a lightsaber igniting, and suddenly a purple blade was protruding from the torso of the droid closest behind them.

Blaster fire erupted. Anakin did the first thing that came to mind: tackled Padmé out of the line of fire. She yelped quietly, crawled behind the fallen droid, and started shooting back.

The second another droid went down, Anakin hauled it up with the Force and advanced, using its chassis as a shield.

Mace Windu swept his saber in an arc, clipping the edge of Anakin’s makeshift shield, and shifted to allow him room. “Good of you to join the fray, Skywalker.”

“Hey, I was unarmed.” Anakin slammed the deactivated droid into another, more ambulatory one, got his arm around the second one’s neck, and popped off its head. “Thankfully,” he said, flinging the head into a third, “I’m good at improvising.”

“Better than at keeping hold of your saber, I hope.” Windu’s blade swung in staccato rhythms, seeming to jump around but always in the right place. Padmé’s covering fire blasted past him, downing another droid.

Anakin grabbed one of the machines’ severed arms and laid into another, giving its blaster just enough of a telekinetic shove to send the retaliatory shot wide. A few good whacks, and it hit the ground. Anakin stepped on its head, just to make sure, and slammed his arm-club into what was—after a lunge from Windu—the last attacker.

Windu deactivated his saber, quieting the telltale hum, and gestured for the other two to hurry back the way he’d come. They turned another corner and ducked out of sight of a responding patrol, pressing themselves into an alcove.

“Where’s Kenobi?” Windu hissed when the patrol had passed out of earshot.

“Last I saw him, in a conference room with Count Dooku,” Anakin said, pulling Padmé in a little closer. At a lifted eyebrow from Windu, he gave a tiny shrug. “The mission went a little off the rails.”

“Right.” Windu pushed the button on his ear-comm. “I’ve got Skywalker and the senator,” he informed the others. “Kenobi’s still AWOL. Have our way out ready.” He darted out of the alcove and continued down the hall.

***

The door into the command center shut behind Dooku with the quiet click of magnetic locking. He regarded the room with an unamused stare, gaze sliding between its occupants before settling on Nute Gunray.

“There you are!” Gunray said, hurrying towards him. “The base is being overrun by multiple routes, and—”

“Quiet,” Dooku snapped, and took a step towards the Nemoidian. “I convinced the captives to be of service. Ensure their ‘escape.’”

Chapter Text

Two days earlier…

Coruscant was a halfway point for the resettlement of refugees all over the galaxy. Today, those refugees were the nobility of a world whose citizens had overthrown them over their refusal to join the Separatists. Naboo had volunteered to take them—Padmé had contacted Queen Jamillia to ask that favor only the day before.

And anyone who knew the customs of Naboo would be expecting Padmé to take the guise of someone’s maidservant, she hoped—while no one who knew her would be expecting her to run home at the first sign of danger. Especially when the vote had just drawn her out again after the last incident.

She shifted slightly, letting the hood of her headdress fall a little bit more concealing. Perhaps her hopes were unfounded; there was something off in the way people were moving now. She gave Anakin a quick nudge under the table with her foot, startling him out of his aimless staring.

“Huh?” he said, glancing around. He noticed it almost immediately, eyes narrowing as he felt tenseness creeping into the air. Whether it was a warning from the Force or just his instincts—well, was there really a difference?

Padmé slanted a wary look towards the room’s exit, mentally retracing the way to the escape pods, just in case. Left, right, right, straight, left…

Anakin leapt over the table and tackled her to the ground right before the shooting started. Their dishes crashed to the ground and splattered food across the floor.

“Ngh!” Padmé protested, and twisted to get a better look at what was going on.

At the other side of the room, the remaining ship’s security was advancing on the group of “refugees” that had suddenly started firing. Another stray shot splashed against the upended table, leaving a dark scorch on its surface.

Padmé slid a hand into a fold of her clothing and withdrew a tiny holdout blaster. “Come on,” she hissed, pulling Anakin behind the table with her before he could stand up. At his questioning look, she shook her head. “Stay down. If they realize I have a Jedi with me—”

He grinned and snatched up one of the overturned bowls. “I wasn’t going to use my lightsaber.”

“Oh!” She gave him a tiny grin of her own. “Then go ahead. Distract them; I’ll stun the ones you occupy.”

“By your leave, Senator.” Anakin spun the bowl in his fingers once, getting the feel of it, and then hurled it with Force-aided accuracy at one of the aggressors. It landed with a hard thunk over the man’s eyes. He shouted something profane-sounding and fell back, shoving at the bowl with his free hand.

Right as the man finally got his vision back, blinking noodle soup out of his eyes, a tiny stun-ring burst from Padme’s blaster and hit him in the chest. “Keep going!” she said as he dropped, firing another ring at a woman who’d been about to hit a security guard over the head.

“Right,” Anakin said, straightening as much as he could behind the table. “Will do.” He put a hand on its edge, then vaulted over it with a leap that carried him forwards onto another. He grabbed a half-eaten plate of grilled nerf with one hand and a serrated knife with the other. A blaster bolt left a scorch in the table next to him as he slid forwards, carrying the rest of the food and cutlery surrounding him onto the floor.

He hit the ground and rolled, hurling the plate at one of the attackers’ heads, then sprang up next to her while she was reeling. She stared at him, ducked a punch, and pulled a vibroknife from her sleeve.

Anakin sidestepped a stab, tried to knee her in the stomach, and then hastily pulled his leg back to avoid a cut to the thigh. “Look,” he said, “I really don’t want to stab you with this—”

She cut him off with a bark of laughter. “Are you actually trying to threaten me with a steak knife?” She shook her head and tried to bury the vibroknife in his ribs.

Anakin twisted and grabbed her weapon arm by the wrist. “Suit yourself,” he said, and stuck his own knife in her shoulder. He shuddered at the resistance as it went in, prompting a yelp of pain, and felt his stomach turn as he pulled it out again. He’d never realized how grateful he was for the comparative cleanliness of lightsabers before.

The woman stumbled backwards, bleeding, and went down to another stun ring. Anakin gave his knife an uneasy look, glanced around, and tossed it aside.

The rest of the attackers were occupied with security, each group crouched behind upturned tables as the remaining actual refugees fled the room. Anakin spotted Padmé creeping otherwise unnoticed along the wall. She made a few quick gestures, her fingers laying out the plan: you take the two closer to you, I’ll shoot the third.

Anakin nodded and gave her a thumbs-up, then took a running leap into the nearest of his pair. He tackled her into the second, bringing all three of them down in a tangled heap. One tried to press her blaster against Anakin’s side. He slammed his elbow into her gut and wrenched the blaster away right as she pulled the trigger, sending a bolt into the ceiling.

He brought the blaster down on the other one’s head, sending him back down to the floor, then flung himself away from a sudden flash of danger, hitting the ground himself right before a blaster bolt from the third attacker sailed through where he’d been standing.

Padmé snapped off three shots in quick succession, walked over, and offered Anakin a hand up. “Are you alright?”

He took it. “Never better,” he said, with a lopsided grin. “How about you, Pa—uh, Pemmie?”

Padmé arched an eyebrow, amused. “Just fine, ‘Nikki.’” She smiled sweetly back and started over towards the doors, intending to check on the crew sections of the ship.

Anakin stared mutely for a moment, mouthed ’Nikki?’ at her back, and then followed.

He caught up to her just outside the doors, jogging the last few steps. His mouth was already open to protest when she cut him off, holding up a hand. “Shh,” Padmé whispered. “Listen.”

He did. Drifting around the corner, a faint mumbled voice was audible, and the even quieter hiss of a comm. He focused harder, dragging the sound into clarity.

“—down the team in the cafeteria,” they were saying. “I’m concerned about her bodyguard. The way he moved… I think the target might have scrounged up a Jedi.” There was a brief pause. “Well, either that, or Naboo is investing in cyborg supersoldiers.”

Anakin glanced over at Padmé, slightly sheepish. “Sounds like they figured me out,” he said, voice low.

“Drat.” Padmé considered this news for a moment. “Well, you did jump a few tables. Alright, if they know already, then let’s see if we can take them by surprise.”

“Sounds good,” Anakin said.

She reached into her clothing and tossed him his lightsaber, and he flattened himself against one wall. Padmé waited against the other. In the dim light, a faint glinting was the only sign of the blaster she was holding at her hip.

Around the corner came an orange-skinned twi’lek man, a blaster in one hand and a comlink in the other. Anakin stepped out into the middle of the hall, igniting his saber as he did. “Hello there,” he said. He made a short, smooth gesture with one hand. “I think you want to drop your weapon and put your hands up.”

“I want to…” the man mumbled. The gun clattered to the floor, and he raised his hands to his chest. “I don’t want trouble,” he said. “The contract didn’t say there’d be a Jedi aboard. We’re not getting paid to fight Jedi, as I was telling that droid.” He waggled the comlink demonstratively. “I think we can solve this without any more cutlery, yeah?”

“How many of you are there?” Anakin demanded, stepping closer.

The man visibly drew back, his lekku taking on a frantic twitch. “You got us all! I’m the last one. I was supposed to be coordinating, but I couldn’t get away from those damn cleaning droids!” He frowned darkly. “I swear, they were spying on me.”

“Yeah, I’m sure.” Anakin rolled his eyes, then shot a glance at Padmé. “Anything else you want to know, Senator?”

She stepped out into the center of the hallway. After a moment of thought, she bent down and pocketed the man’s gun. “Who hired you?” she asked, straightening up.

“I can’t tell you that!” he protested.

Anakin waved his hand, eyes narrowing. “Answer her.”

The man’s stare turned glassier. “I really can’t tell her,” he explained, his voice suddenly placid. “I don’t know myself. We were hired through an intermediary. A wretched protocol droid that hadn’t the faintest clue who it belonged to. The only thing in its droid brain was the core programming and the knowledge it was supposed to pay us to kidnap or kill Senator Amidala.” He blinked down at the comlink like he’d never seen it before, then slipped it into a pocket and turned his attention back to Anakin. “Preferably kidnap, but the money would be good either way.”

“I’ve heard enough,” Anakin said. He jerked a thumb towards the doors behind him. “You’re captured. Walk into that room and turn yourself in.”

“That does seem to be the best option I’ve got,” the man agreed. Anakin stepped out of his way, and he continued down the hall and into the cafeteria, the doors sliding open and then shutting behind him.

Padmé frowned thoughtfully. “You know, I never realized how disturbing that is to watch.”

Anakin turned off his lightsaber and started trying to figure out how to hide it again. In his clothes somewhere, but where? “He’d have caved anyway,” he explained absently, rooting around in the back of his jacket. “Mind tricks only work on the weak-minded. I just saved time.”

She looked unconvinced. “You were practically piloting him around, Anakin.”

“And in return,” Anakin said, with a one-shoulder shrug, “he gets to feel a little fuzzy instead of ending up stunned or maimed or dead.” He finally gave up on getting the hilt into his vest and handed it back to Padmé. “Here. Sorry I didn’t wear more pockets.”

“It’s alright. You can borrow one of my shawls next time.”

He laughed. “If it wouldn’t be any trouble…”

“Of course it wouldn’t.” She smiled. “Now come on. Security will want to talk to us, too.”

***

The debriefing ended right as the ship dropped out of hyperspace above Naboo. Anakin stepped out of the security head’s office to find Padmé waiting on a nearby bench, holocommunicator in hand. “Tell the Chancellor that his offer, while kind, is unnecessary,” she was saying. “I will handle the funeral arrangements personally, and that includes the cost.”

The secretary in the holo bent her head, and it flickered out. Padmé glanced up at Anakin. “I apologize. I thought I’d be finished making calls by the time you got out, but I ran long speaking with Bail, and my Coruscant office called…”

“No need to apologize.” Anakin walked over and put a hand on the back of the bench. “For that, anyway.”

She looked mock-skeptical. “And what should I be apologizing for?”

“Well, now that all that’s over, I do have to ask.” He crossed his arms. “Nikki?”

“You called me Pemmie!” Padmé raised a hand to her mouth, hiding a smirk behind her splayed fingers. “I had to pick something equally embarrassing, at least.”

“I’m always embarrassed around you, Senator,” Anakin said, and immediately winced. “No, wait, I meant—that came out wrong.”

“I know what you meant,” she said, shaking her head in faintly fond exasperation. “It’s alright, Ani. Go ahead and sit down, by the way—I still need to call Jamillia’s assistant.”

“Ani.” He grinned despite himself. “Now there’s a nickname I could… tolerate.”

She laughed as she tapped the next code into her comm. “I’m glad.”

Chapter Text

Just outside the command center, Obi-Wan watched as the doors swished open and Dooku came striding back out.

“The Viceroy has no concrete suspicions,” Dooku informed him, “but the appearance of your compatriots shall jeopardize that if we linger. Follow me.” He started off down the hallway.

Obi-Wan frowned to himself, then followed. “Compatriots?” he asked. “I gather it wasn’t Anakin that set off the alarm, then.”

“Indeed,” Dooku said, “he did not. The Jedi Council has arrived.”

“All of them?” Obi-Wan said. “I appreciate the thought, I suppose.” He snorted. “I take it this means there isn’t time for me to ask any more questions.”

“Perhaps.” Dooku turned a corner, a step in front of Obi-Wan. “The interior cameras have no sound, as you have undoubtedly guessed, but I must not be here when your ‘rescue’ comes. Be swift.”

“Right.” Obi-Wan glanced around, lips pressed together. “Well, at the risk of being shot for asking too many questions—if Nute Gunray was betrayed, why would he work with Sidious again?”

“Because the Viceroy is a greedy, cowardly, and above all foolish man.” Dooku’s lips curled into a faint sneer. “He was all too willing to forgive prior events as mere business when the ‘good Chancellor’ explained what he now stood to gain.” He folded his hands behind his back as he walked. “I am not so easily bought—though I have, of course, allowed Gunray to believe otherwise.”

Obi-Wan snorted. “Of course,” he muttered, somewhat dryly. “I see you have an excellent explanation for everything.”

“If you doubt me, then so be it.” They reached a three-way junction, and Dooku stopped before it. “Your Senator has the records. She will find them accurate, and the culprit clear enough.” He half-turned, looking back at Obi-Wan. “Now, if you will see fit to trust me a few minutes longer, do wait here.”

Obi-Wan crossed his arms. “I don’t recall trusting you at all, actually.”

“Trust that this is in our mutual interest, then,” Dooku said. He adjusted the clasp on his cape. “I cannot guarantee your safety if you wander, though neither can I stop you. I have my own part to play, after all.” He inclined his head, and some small, wry semblance of a smile appeared on his face. “May the Force be with you, Obi-Wan. We shall all need it.”

And then he started walking down one of the corridors, the sound of his boots on the floor lost in the howling of the alarm.

***

Shard—known on paper as CC-4823—paused and lifted a hand as his squad approached the enormous industrial door. “Stop. I hear machinery.”

Eggshell—the squad’s second-in-command, named for a shaved head and an unfortunate incident during explosives training—stopped just behind him and hefted his blaster rifle. “Should we go around, sir?”

Shard looked back at their new general, who was tapping his cane thoughtfully on the ground. “That’s his decision. General?”

“Mmm. Look inside first, we shall.” Yoda gave the floor another tap and walked up to the door. He stared at it, beady-eyed, for a few seconds, then nodded. “Sense immediate danger, I do not.”

“Got it.” Shard hit the button to open the door, then stepped back with his blaster ready as it slowly slid open.

Beyond was a massive factory, assembling droids on a tangled network of conveyors. Shard just gaped out at it for a moment, before recalling that he was supposed to be commanding the other clones. He turned around. “Well. Any ideas on how we’re going to get through this, men?”

Anchor—who had chosen that name himself—looked the scene up and down. “We could… stay away from the belts?” He rubbed the back of his head. “I think I’ve got some grapnel launchers in my kit.”

Shard grinned. “I hope you brought enough to share, soldier.”

Anchor beamed back. “That I did, sir.” The expression immediately faded as a realization struck him. “Or—did, minus one. I’ll, uh, have to carry the general. Unless he can fly?” He looked down at Yoda. “Can Jedi fly, sir?”

“Ha! Try, many do. Last…” Yoda waggled a hand. “Few seconds, maybe. No, no flying.” He walked over to Anchor. “Make myself light—that can be done, yes.”

“Guess that settles it.” Anchor looked uneasily at Shard. “When you write up the mission report, sir, can we not put in the part where I carried a commanding officer on my back?”

Shard attempted to give him a stern stare, but a smile broke through anyway. “Stop stalling, soldier.”

Anchor drooped a bit. “Yessir.” He knelt down, and Yoda clambered on.

***

Obi-Wan took a step back, lifting his hands, as the squadron of battle droids approached. “Easy there,” he muttered.

“The compound is under attack,” the lead droid explained in a tinny voice. “We have been instructed to lead you to a safe exit point.”

“Convenient.” Obi-Wan crossed his arms. “I suppose I’ll just have to hope you’re not actually planning to dump me into the garbage disposal.”

The droids looked at each other. “I’m not programmed for janitorial work,” one offered.

The lead droid somehow managed, despite its complete lack of expression, to glare at it. “Shut up, you.” It swiveled its head back towards Obi-Wan. “Follow me. We’ll get you out safely.”

“I suppose it’s better than trying to find my own way out,” Obi-Wan said, falling in behind the droid. “I don’t particularly want to get lost in here.”

The others took up positions around him—protective ones, yes, but also ones that would make it very inconvenient to escape. He grimaced. Stupid as they seemed, these were obviously still combat droids, and he would still have to be careful. “We weren’t done negotiating, you know,” he said, mostly just to cut the silence between the alert-screeches. “It was going quite well. Hardly any death threats at all.”

“Are those normal?” one of the droids asked, turning its head curiously.

Obi-Wan waited until the metallic shrieking the hall speakers interrupted with died down, then sighed. “I’m given to understand not, no.”

“But you said—”

“The less said about my track record with negotiations,” Obi-Wan said, grimacing, “the better.”

The droid went quiet, and so did Obi-Wan. He spent the next few hallways imagining increasingly improbable reasons for this to go wrong, as a resigned, cynical sort of way of passing the time. He had managed to go from from the relatively tame concern that he was fatally inessential now that Padmé had the datapad to the fairly outlandish idea that this whole plot was all an attempt to recruit Anakin to the Separatists, when they rounded a corner and came face-to-face with a squad of clone troopers.

Obi-Wan noted, somewhat numbly, that one of the troopers was carrying Yoda like a backpack. “Grandmaster?”

“Mm! Obi-Wan, it is!”

“Intruders!” one of the droids shouted. “Get them!”

“A rescue, he is needing!” Yoda hopped down, drawing his lightsaber as he did so.

Shard put a blaster bolt through one of the droids’ chests. “Let’s take them out, men!”

Obi-Wan glanced back and forth, and decided that the best course of action was to duck.

Several droids went flying over his head, producing a chorus of tinny shouting followed by a loud clatter. When a grenade followed, Obi-Wan hit the ground and rolled, springing up beside the clones right before it exploded. He extended a hand and ripped the rifle away from one of the surviving droids, raised it to fire at another, then stepped back instead as Yoda went somersaulting past.

“Betrayal! Betrayal!” the last droid screeched.

“Oh, yes, like I’m the one who started shooting,” Obi-Wan muttered, his voice lost in the alarm. The droid went down a moment later, Yoda’s saber deftly separating its head from its body.

Droids dispatched, Yoda came to a stop, pulled his discarded cane to his hands, and—after shifting his weight almost sheepishly—started hobbling back. “Interrupted, we were. Now, Master Kenobi… hmm.” His ears flattened slightly, in a manner Obi-Wan had learned to interpret as serious, and he narrowed his eyes. “A betrayal, the droid mentioned. Who is betrayed?”

Obi-Wan’s shoulders slumped slightly. “Everyone,” he said, “if my extremely untrustworthy source is to be believed.” He spared a glance back the way he’d come. “Unfortunately, Anakin and Senator Amidala ran off with the evidence. If evidence it is.”

That garnered a quizzical ear-twitch and more peering. “Mmmm? Speaking to the Count, you have been?”

“Yes. I’d ask how you knew, but…”

“Sense him I do, wandering these halls. An exit, he seeks.” Yoda drooped, and for a moment Obi-Wan could believe every bit of the age he claimed. “Avoiding me, he is.”

“Grandmaster—” Obi-Wan began, and then fell short, unsure what to say.

“But!” Yoda cut back in, and the moment was over as quickly as it had come. “Making a report, you must be, and all of us seeking an exit. Come!”

“I’ll do my best, though I really need to get that datapad back.” Obi-Wan shook his head and followed. “I really don’t know why you give me diplomatic missions anymore.”

“Your assigned mission, this was not,” Yoda pointed out. “Yet, happen this mission did nonetheless. A negotiator the Force seeks to make of you, and so a negotiator you have been.” His hobbling took on a bit more spring, and he gestured for Obi-Wan to follow more quickly. “Now, time it is to be explaining these negotiations, hmm?”

“I suppose it is,” Obi-Wan said. “It started with Count Dooku deciding he needed to stop by and chat about Qui-Gon…”

Chapter Text

One day earlier…

The arrangements for Cordé’s funeral had been made, and there had been a long and somber holocall to her family. Then had come the discussion with Jalyra, the current security head at the Naberrie estate—as the people attempting to assassinate Padmé had obviously figured out that she was returning. Anakin had exiled himself from the discussion quite quickly, forced to admit that his ‘security expertise’ was more suited to protecting someone in combat than actually securing an estate.

Padmé left her office, pausing next to the door as Jalyra walked out. “I’ll find Anakin and explain the plan. He’d probably rather listen to me.”

Jalyra was too stocky and scarred now to be a handmaiden and double, but her smile was still nearly identical to Padmé’s. “Trust me, my lady, I know the sort.” The smile twisted into something more wry. “Am intimately familiar with the sort, even.”

Padmé attempted a tiny laugh. “I wasn’t ever that bad, was I?”

“You wrestled a gungan five days after our first exam. My lady.”

“I was eight! Nobody has good judgement when they’re eight.” Padmé frowned. The dark mood of the past few days was still pressing down. “I wish I’d been more careful on Coruscant. I was never as good at security work as you were.” She folded her hands behind her back, looking away wryly. “And I’m out of practice.”

“No one could blame you, Padmé.” Jalyra’s voice was carefully soothing, as even as the lake outside. It was the voice of the Queen of Naboo, trained into all of them, and like the lake outside, the shadows underneath the water had teeth. “It was Typho’s job. He should have had his people checking over the landing pad.” She narrowed her eyes, her expression turning icy. “He should count himself lucky he didn’t come back with you. I’d have had him up before the Queen for his negligence.”

Padmé raised an eyebrow. “You look nothing like Jamillia.”

“Really now, I can still do quite a lot with face paint and clothing.” A teasing note crept into her voice. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten.”

“I haven’t gone Coruscanti, Jalyra.”

“Good,” she said. “It’s not like it doesn’t happen. The Chancellor—”

“The Chancellor,” Padmé said firmly, “is undoubtedly glad to be rid of our internal politics. You know what happened to his family.”

“Yes. Yes, I do.” Jalyra inclined her head. “I guess it’s hard to blame him. Still. It’s a shame.”

Padmé closed her eyes. “It’s a shame our skills are still relevant on Coruscant.”

“Oh, Padmé…” Jalyra shook her head. “Come here.” She stepped forwards and wrapped an arm around Padmé, pulling her in firmly. “There’s nothing more we can do for her. You know that. I know that. All that’s left is to make sure she didn’t die in vain.”

“I know,” Padmé whispered. She squeezed Jalyra’s shoulder, then pulled back, smiling tightly. “There will be time to cry when it’s over. I know.”

“That’s our Senator.” Jalyra patted her arm. “I’m going to check the cameras. Good luck with your Jedi.”

My Jedi?” Padmé snorted quietly at that. “Thank you.”

Jalyra saluted. “Always,” she said, and walked away.

Padmé reached up and ran a hand through her hair, sighing quietly. Then she straightened up, wiped her eyes, and went to look for Anakin.

***

Padmé finally found Anakin on the second floor balcony, jacket draped over the railing. He was staring out at the lake, frowning. As she approached, he turned around. “Senator,” he said. “I wanted to apologize.” He looked away, rubbing his neck awkwardly. “What I said during the security meeting—I was out of line.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Padmé said. “I know this is your first mission without Master Kenobi.” She stepped closer, smiling reassuringly. “But I’m not going to blame you for showing inexperience. I’m not expecting you to be a full-fledged Jedi Master right out of the gate.”

“Ouch,” Anakin said, wincing. “Was it really that obvious?”

Padmé put a hand on his shoulder. “We’ve all been new at something before.”

He made a face. “That’s a yes.”

“I’m afraid so.” She walked to the edge of the balcony and extended a hand over the railing, pointing at a patch of green land a ways out into the lake. “Do you see that island over there?”

He followed her. “What about it?”

“House Naberrie used to lend this estate out to the Legislative Youth Program, all summer. We’d swim out to that island every afternoon.” She slanted an impish grin at him. “Would you like to hear how my first day went?”

“I’m guessing the answer isn’t ‘swimmingly.’”

Padmé laughed. “No,” she said. “No, definitely not swimmingly.” She gave the water a wry look. “Rather the opposite, actually.”

“Oh, no,” Anakin said, eyes widening.

“Oh, yes.” Padmé shook her head. “I almost made it all the way, but one of the other girls and I started talking, and I lost my focus and got a big gulp of water.”

Anakin ducked his head, chuckling into his fingers. “I’m almost afraid to ask what happened next.

“Well, I started coughing, of course,” Padmé explained, gesturing widely as she started getting into the story. “Which didn’t help me swim, so I ended up swallowing more water…”

He buried his head in his arms, doubled over the railing in strangled laughter. “Oh, no,” he repeated, barely managing to get the words out.

“So Dormé looks at me, and then she looks at the beach, and she panics and tries to tow me to land.” Padmé paused for effect. “By my hair.”

He looked up. “Your hair?”

“Well, my arms and legs were thrashing around! So she grabbed for me, and that’s what she got.” Padmé put a hand on the railing, giggling quietly despite herself. “Long story short, the supervisor had to rescue us both.”

“I’m glad you made it.”

“Kerelle was keeping a close eye on us. I wasn’t in that much danger.”

He moved closer. “I’ll have to thank her, then.”

“If you take the time to personally thank everyone who saved my life when I was younger—ha.” Padmé ran through a quick mental count. “We’d be here all week at least,” she said, ducking her head faux-apologetically. “Besides, I’d rather focus on…”

Anakin shifted his hand on the railing, his knuckles brushing against hers. “The present?” he suggested.

“Yes,” Padmé said, smiling up at him. “Among other things.”

His free hand found its way up to her hair, fingers threading through to cup her cheek. “That works for me,” he said, voice soft, and kissed her.

He was gentler than she would have expected, but far too tense, and—really, it wasn’t a good kiss by any measure, but…

Well, there was a ‘but,’ wasn’t there?

But he was sincere and uncomplicated, and if that came with a bit of inexperience, right now she’d take it.

Inexperience was easy to cure, after all.

***

The fields surrounding the Naberrie estate were a vivid shade of green that Anakin had to spend a few moments just marveling at. He twisted to watch a shaak amble along behind, grinning slightly at the creature’s unbalanced gait. “Funny-looking thing, isn’t it?” he asked Padmé, glancing over at her. “It’s like it’s supposed to have a tail, but instead its body just keeps going.”

Padmé smiled almost mischievously. “Is that your tactical assessment?”

“My tactical assessment is that it looks like it would be really hard to ride, and I kind of want to try it.” Anakin matched her expression with a tiny grin. “And that you need to stop using yourself as bait, Senator.”

Padmé let out a quiet sigh, and very deliberately did not look back towards the tower where Jalyra had stationed a guard. “If we want to find out if I’ve been pursued here, I have to stick my neck out at least a bit.”

“Why does it have to be you,” he asked, “and not one of the handmaidens?”

“Jalyra is the only one here, and we haven’t looked alike in years.” Padmé strolled along through the near-unnaturally verdant grass, practicing the fine art of looking everywhere while appearing to focus on nothing at all. “She’d need the full raiment, save possibly the headdress.”

Anakin frowned, considering it. “And if ‘you’ were walking around like that at your family’s own estate…”

“Then they’d know it wasn’t really me. Yes.” She frowned as well, spotting a faint ripple in the river from the corner of her eye, and kept walking. “Keep an eye on the water, but try to look like you’re just here for a picnic.”

“Sure,” Anakin said. She offered him the picnic basket—which actually contained a couple of flashbangs, rather than anyone’s lunch—and he took it. He started walking down closer to the river, disturbing one of the shaaks along the way. It snorted, gave him a dirty look, and trotted away. “Yeah,” he muttered, “you too.” He stopped several feet from the shore and crouched down, pretending to busy himself with the basket while Padmé watched a shaak wander closer.

A tense few moments passed, and then a sand-pale gungan woman wriggled out onto the shoreline and stood, reaching for one of the throwing daggers on her belt.

Anakin narrowed his eyes, and the throwing dagger pulled away and flew to his hand. He slipped it into the picnic basket, stood up, and drew his saber. “Don’t come any closer,” he called out. “I’m a Jedi. Put your hands up.”

“Me-sa know what the Force is,” the gungan said. The look in her eyes was somewhere between bored and predatory. “Me-sa not trembling.”

Anakin tried to imagine Jar-Jar making an expression like that, and suppressed a shudder. “I’m warning you,” he said, trying not to look back as Padmé came up behind him. “Whoever you are, I’m not going to let you hurt the Senator.”

“Me-sa Pel Qawn. Twice-born Blade of the Deep Waters.” She took a couple steps forwards, leveling a wicked-looking spear at them. “You are prey.”

Anakin couldn’t stop himself. “Twice-born?” he asked. “Is that some kind of rebirth ritual, or…?”

Pel’s long tongue lolled out of her mouth in a silent laugh. “It means me-sa cut my way out of one of the great fish.”

Padmé watched her warily. Custom dictated that one would treat a Blade of one of the assassin clans on par with a noble of the abovewater Royal Houses, and by protocol there should have been some gesture of respect, even to an enemy—but the unadorned you was a grave insult from a gungan, especially one from the more militant and traditionalist clans that typically took mercenary work. “Have we committed some crime, Blade?” Padmé asked.

“You are prey,” Pel repeated, louder and more slowly. “You swim with marked wounds. Your blood is destined to dissolve into the lightless places, and your bleached bones be covered by sediment.” She grinned, revealing filed teeth. “But do not be insulted, Naboo. Your souls were bought dearly.”

“Okay, I’m not even going to ask about the souls thing,” Anakin said. He walked down the rest of the way to the shoreline until he was standing only a couple feet from Pel. “Let me make sure I have this right—you’re here to kill us, you think we’re prey rather than fellow travelers, you’re under no circumstances going to negotiate, and you just insulted Padmé somehow?”

“All correct,” Pel said. “Be proud; thinking looks to strain you. Was there a point?”

Anakin ignited his lightsaber and smiled. It was not a nice smile. “Nope.”