Mace Windu sat stiffly in his council chair, his fingertips pressed together as he stared at the center of the floor where the order's most reckless knight stood in his dark tunics and robes, a smudge of grease on his cheek that hinted that the young man had been fooling around on a speeder, ship, or even a droid when he was called before the partial council.
Anakin Skywalker was not the right Jedi for the mission they had to assign. Mace had made this opinion clear and had voiced the suggestion that it be discussed by a full council and have a council member themselves handle the mission. Keep it secret from the rest of the order. But he'd been outvoted by the few other counselors that knew about the mission.
Pursing his lips together he took a deep breath before finally breaking the silence and demanding the full attention of the smug looking Jedi with dark blond curls framing his face. How this man had been trained by Obi-Wan Kenobi and had turned into such a headache, he would never know.
"Knight Skywalker, a matter of dire importance has come to the Council’s attention recently, and it requires immediate action to be taken. We are appointing you to this task."
Anakin, for his part, stood there and waited for further information, giving a respectful nod to the council. Mace took a moment to savor the deference, given the rest of the meeting was likely to be a disaster.
“This mission, however, demands absolute discretion from everyone involved. None of this may be discussed outside of the council chambers, and nothing can be divulged to those not already involved. Do you understand?”
Anakin wasn’t in the habit of enjoying anything that Mace Windu said—the man wriggled his way under Anakin’s skin in a way even Obi-Wan’s upright tendencies rarely did—but the insinuation in his voice was clear, and Anakin had to suppress the urge to laugh in front of the entire Council. Secrets? Yeah, he could do secrets.
The amusement passed quickly though, as the full brunt of the statement finally hit him. Missions these days, this far into the war, weren’t usually done alone, and didn’t have a lot of subtlety to them, especially where he was involved. The Republic and their troops were deep enough into the thick of the fighting that most missions were more of the 'aim Skywalker at the enemy and let loose' variety; and the idea of something different, something important enough that it couldn’t be shared was both tantalizingly new and concerning enough that he felt unease trickle over him, and he wondered why he was here.
He shoved away the automatic instinct to snark at Mace, composed himself into the image of a proper Jedi Knight, and as it was clear they were expecting a response, he asked: “What about this mission makes it so confidential?”
"First you must agree to it. You mustn't tell anyone. Not even Master Kenobi or Padawan Tano." Mace stated bluntly. "Only those in this room now are to know. We were not all in agreement of assigning this mission to you, understand, but your fame as the 'poster boy' of the republic gives assigning you an edge no one else could match. I expect you to not disappoint those who have so much faith in you." His tone made it clear that he was not one of those holding faith that Anakin was the best choice.
The cold disquiet he’d felt only intensified, and he looked around at the Masters seated around him—Obi-Wan’s absence, which had seemed merely strange earlier now felt a bit more foreboding—and saw the expressions on their faces range from displeasure to stoic resolve. “You want me to accept a mission without knowing what it is?” Anakin asked slowly, knowing he was pushing his luck, but something about it all didn’t sit right with him.
“More faith in us, you should have, young Skywalker,” Yoda said reproachfully. “Take this matter lightly, we do not.”
Anakin desperately wanted to push more, to find out what it was that was making a quiet warning ring in the back of his mind, but if it were a battle of persistence and patience, Anakin knew he would lose in spades to the Grandmaster, and his curiosity was quickly getting the better of him.
“Alright, then,” He said, “I accept the assignment. Are you allowed to tell me what it is I’m going to have to do?”
"Very well, if you accept that you'll not be able to share anything about this mission with anyone outside this room, then the briefing will begin." Mace repeated himself in order to firmly cement the urgency to secrecy in the young man's stubborn head.
"Understand, we would not ask this of you if it were not necessary." Shaak Ti tried to soothe the tension leaking into the Force.
"This mission has a critical set-up that must be done flawlessly and leave no doubt in anyone's mind that it was staged." Mace stated leaning back in his chair, "We will bait a known Bounty Hunter who too often uses illegal means to get his catch, into pursuing you, Kenobi, and Tano. You will wait for the perfect moment and fake your death. No doubt the Bounty Hunter will escape and brag about having killed you, which is fine. We will then apprehend this man and you will take his place—his appearance, his mannerisms—and complete the rest of your objective by infiltrating a group of criminals currently in republic detention. While you are undercover, there must be not doubt in the minds of the rest of the galaxy that you are dead.”
It took a moment for Anakin to process all of the information he was being given, but when it finally sunk in, all his muscles froze. If this was just the beginning of the mission, he didn’t want to hear what the rest would entail.
“No.” He told them, hating how stilted his voice sounded, but knowing it was still better than shouting. His response garnered many furrowed brows, and one very ‘I told you so’ look from Master Windu. He didn’t really care about their reactions at the moment, though, because he wouldn’t be a part of this, and he wasn’t going to apologize for his bluntness. “I refuse.”
“Skywalker,” Mace pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling the headache already forming behind his eyes, “You have already agreed to it.”
"You'll have the chance at finding out very critical intel of plans the Separatists are possibly putting into action. That information could help us save many lives and bring a quicker end to the war.” Shaak Ti stated, “We would not ask this of you if it wasn't so critical, young Skywalker."
“Allow you many liberties during wartime, we have.” Yoda added, staring at him over his gimmer stick, deceptively calm. “Wise to challenge us on this, it would not be.”
“You want me to fake my death,” Anakin repeated, not really sure why, but maybe they’d start to see how messed up it is if he just said it again. Maybe if he said it again, he himself would actually understand what was going on. “In front of my old Master; in front of my Padawan.”
He tried not to think of what her reaction would be. Ahsoka, while the best Padawan he could have hoped for, took after him in a few too many ways. Anakin wanted to be a good Jedi, wanted to be what the council wanted him to be, but too often some feeling or other would bubble up in him, fester in his chest until it couldn’t be contained any longer. Ahsoka, too, was not quiet with hers, when they were strong enough. His mind flashed to what his own reaction might’ve been, if it were Obi-Wan dead in front of him. The image was too terrible to even consider, and he knew himself well enough to admit that it wouldn’t end well for anyone.
"Their reactions would be critical in selling the story of your death. Focus would be on them at your funeral, and if anyone suspects that anyone is acting, then the mission could crumble around you." Mace stated.
“Ahsoka is still young,” Anakin said, the picture of her leaning over him as he died still burning at his eyelids. “The death of her master would affect her greatly.”
“We understand your concern for your Padawan, Skywalker,” Ki-Adi-Mundi said kindly, like trying to soothe a wild animal. “We acknowledge that the situation would be trying on her, but Padawan Tano will be fine. Death is a natural part of life. As Jedi, we all learn and know this.”
Anakin tried not to seethe too visibly, but his teeth ground together and he felt his nails dig painful crescents into his palms. Anakin could remember being a new Padawan, nine years old, and waking up in the middle of the night during missions because Obi-Wan would gasp awake, Qui-Gon’s name on his lips, before he huddled in on himself in a very un-Jedi like manner. Obi-Wan had grown past it, obviously, but he’d been older then than Ahsoka was now, and Anakin still saw a flicker of old grief in Obi-Wan’s eyes whenever his old Master was brought up. Anakin didn’t want that for Ahsoka, would go to the very edges of the galaxy to make sure she never felt that.
“I am not in favor of this plan of action, either, Skywalker,” Plo Koon said flatly, “But I recognize the necessity for it, all the same. I have already assured the council that I will take responsibility for Ahsoka in the meantime.”
“Should she react to the events in a manner befitting a Jedi,” Shaak Ti spoke again, “We’re prepared to count it as her Trial of the Spirit, and she will be that much closer to being knighted. She will be a better Jedi for it.”
And that- well, that wasn’t nothing. Just the other day, Snips had been babbling excitedly to him about one of the older padawans’ trials and being knighted. He’d told her to be patient, that she was far too young, but he remembered being in her place, wanting nothing more than to prove himself.It was still too much, though. Anakin couldn’t do that to her, to Obi-Wan.
He’d already told them he would.
"We need you for this mission, Skywalker." Mace said, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees as he stared Anakin down, "You are our only hope."
“Hey, Master?” Ahsoka whispered, carefully watching Anakin’s back as he strode ahead of them purposefully. His muscles were tense under his dark clothing, shoulders stiff as they had been for the past several days. It wasn’t too odd for Anakin to get in a mood, but even then, this was a bit unusual, and she couldn’t help but worry. “Is it me, or has Skyguy been acting weird this week?”
Obi-Wan sighed and placed a hand on her shoulder, considering how much to share with her. She was young, it wasn’t her job to be Anakin’s keep and she shouldn’t be worried with his moods, but she did have to be around him more than most. "It's not just you. Just this morning he snapped at me for asking him if he wanted one lump or two in his breakfast tea. Something's weighing heavily on his mind, but he won't talk to me about it."
“Maybe he’s just anxious. We’ve been on Coruscant longer than usual,” She suggested, trying to quell the swirl of unease in her stomach. “It’s different this time, though. Nothing… bad? Just different.”
Anakin was a good Master, if not frustrating at times, and that hadn’t changed. If they were out of the fight for too long, he did get waspish, and there’d been plenty of that during their off-time, but a few days ago, something had changed, like a switch had been thrown. If anything, he’d been more patient with her, quicker with a smile or to throw a joke back at her, ready to tease her or to make her laugh. The thing that had bothered her were the small moments in between these, when he thought she wasn’t looking, when something dark passed over his face, that made the rest feel like a brittle cover.
She thought back to two days ago, when she’d found him staring out a window, eyebrows furrowed and lips pressed together. The Force had been bucking wildly around him in distress. She’d startled him when she’d asked what was wrong, and she could almost see him trying to find some way to brush it off before he’d sighed.
‘You know I’m proud of you, Snips, right? You’re going to be a great Jedi.’
The warmth and affection for her Master had flooded before quickly being joined by apprehension. Even now, something about it rang false.
She shook her head, clearing the thoughts. “Sorry, it’s probably nothing.”
"He'll come to one of us when he's ready to talk about it.” Obi-Wan tried to assure her. “Or even Senator Amidala or the Chancellor. He used to do this all the time as a padawan. Close himself off for a few days until he can't anymore, then he finally goes to someone he's close to, and he comes back fine.” Most of the time, at least. Ahsoka was right about one thing, the war did weigh heavily on all of them. “We'll see him return to the Anakin we know and love soon. Now—Watch out!"
He’d only seen it out of the corner of his eye, but the last few years of battle had wired vigilance into his system and his body sprang into action before he could even process the situation, igniting his lightsaber to deflect a hail of blaster shots from above, shielding Ahsoka.
“Get down!” Anakin shouted, running over to them, lightsaber out as well. His heart raced and his pulse pounded. This was it, this was it. Obi-Wan directed a bolt back towards the direction they came from, and the barrage cut off for a moment. “Obi-Wan, roofs. You take the left, I’ll take the right. Ahsoka, follow below, stay safe.”
Anakin turned and leapt to the roof before either of them could argue and squeezed his eyes against the adrenalin flooding his system. This was it. He began to run in the direction he knew would bring him in good view of the sniper.
Obi-Wan stared after him for only a moment, before leaving Ahsoka with a “Be careful!” and following his partner.
Thinking about death was pretty commonplace by this point in the war, especially for those serving on the front lines. The Jedi and their troops were constantly aware that any mission could be last, and that rather black cloud hanging over their heads leant itself well to bouts of dark humor to cope. This was why, three weeks previous, the 501st Legion had found themselves in the clone barracks, trying to figure out what their last words might be, trying to show each other up with how witty or suave they could be.
Dogma, predictably, said his would be “Pleasure serving with you, Sir,” and hadn’t appreciated the varying responses that were more disrespectful. Rex preferred the timeless “See you in hell,” tacking on afterwards that, if his death were the fault of the Commander or General’s antics in battle, the you in the statement would be singular, and very pointed. Laughter had erupted from the rest of the troopers, and several bets being placed on what ridiculous thing the two Jedi would inevitably do in upcoming missions. Ahsoka and Anakin had doubled over, cackling most of the night, especially because mosts of the bets were outlandish, but not too improbable given their track record.
Now, running, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, Anakin’s mind strayed back to that night, the warmth and camaraderie of it, and ached with everything he was about to do. He wondered offhandedly if anyone had bet on something like this. He considered what their reactions to his death might be, what would happen to them in his absence. He wished he had asked the council about this, wished he had asked them to integrate the 501st and the 212th for the duration. They wouldn’t want to be split up, Anakin knew, and Obi-Wan could be trusted with his men. It was too late for that now, and he could request them all back once he was done.
Anakin thought about that night, wondered what he should say, what his first round of last words should be, if either Obi-Wan or Ahsoka would get to him in time for him to still be aware enough to talk.
His stomach twisted at the thought. Since receiving the mission, Anakin had been keenly aware of everything he said to Obi-Wan and Ahsoka, was sure they’d noticed something off about him, but he hadn’t been able to help the feeling that every word out of his mouth dripped with some sort of finality, like he’d been expecting to be picked off in the temple at any moment and wanted to make every sentence perfect, just in case. He thought about that morning, about Obi-Wan and tea, about how he always thought that a warm drink and meditation could make things better, and Anakin had snapped because they couldn’t.
Anakin blew out a breath, cursed himself internally, because sure, he could pretend to be a violent criminal, a bounty hunter, but acting normal around the two of the people who knew him best had been another thing. That was his last morning with Obi-Wan for a while, and he’d been an ass.
A blaster bolt hit the roof next to him. No more time. He breathed sharply. He plunged the needle into his leg, the vital-suppressant flooding his system as he tossed it away. Anakin, for just a moment, thought about deflecting the next shot, about taking the sniper in and finding another way around this problem. Only a moment, though. He knew his orders. He stepped out, watched as a red blaze approached, struck him in a hard, burning shot to the chest. Then, all he felt was falling.
"Skyguy!" Ahsoka cried out, watching her master fall, hitting the ground without the Force shifting to lesson the blow. That worried her even more than watching him go down, and she abandoned her pursuit and veered off towards her master. She reached him and fell to her knees, pulling his lifeless body up into her arms as her wide eyes surveyed the scorch marks on his tunics. "Skyguy!" she cried out again to him, shaking him, looking for a sign that he was okay. "Master! Open your eyes! Please! Master!"
"I lost the shooter." Obi-Wan said, dropping down behind Ahsoka, scouring the rooftops for any more signs of danger. "Flash grenade; I'm still seeing spots. Didn't see Anak—"
The world stopped around Obi-Wan. Anakin was on the ground, not moving, Ahsoka cradling him and looking up at Obi-Wan with wide, wet eyes. It was the kind of sight Obi-Wan always feared most he’d have to see, and now it was here, right before him. No, was the only thought his mind could conjure, nononono, but his body moved for him, rushing forward and dropping to his knees, reaching out to cup Anakin's face, "Anakin! What—what happened?" He moved a hand down to his neck to check for a pulse. Weak and stuttering, erratic and fading, but there.
Anakin gave a desperate cough, edges of his vision dark and fuzzy, but consciousness still clinging by a thread. He could feel his heart slowing, feel the air in his lungs thinning and his muscles scream for oxygen. Panic seized him as his body became a chorus of you’re going to die, you’re dying, but all he could pay attention to was the horror in the eyes of the figures above him, shadowed and indistinct.
“I’m sorry,” He gasped out, hearing someone cry his name again. He didn’t know who it was, the weight of every cell in his body dragging him down, unable to lift his head to look. They needed to know, though. He needed to tell them. “I’m sorry.”
“Anakin!” Ahsoka shook him, hand flitting from his face to the spot of the blaster hit, trying frantically to find something she could do. She cried out wordlessly as the Force spasmed around him, flickering and shuddering like a flame about to go out.
“Anakin, I need you to stay with us,” Obi-Wan tried to pull the calm of the Force around him, tried to trust in it, trust that everything would be alright. “Please, just stay with us.”
“I’m-I’m sorry.” Anakin wasn’t sure he even got the words out. His chest panged, his heart giving a few, last leaps in hopes of keeping him there. It wasn’t enough. Anakin’s world faded to a soft, welcoming black, like he’d known it would.
"Anakin!" Obi-Wan cried out, even as he felt him go. He couldn’t believe it, wouldn’t believe it. He felt so—empty. So weak, and all he could do was sit there, his body heavy but relaxed as his mind and heart tried to make sense of what was happening.
Every muscle in Anakin’s body was limp, Ahsoka’s small form struggling to keep him off the ground. Anakin’s neck had gone still beneath his fingers and that knowledge threatened to scrape his chest hollow, leave him vacant of any thought or feeling. He wasn’t- He couldn’t- There was still time, this wasn’t the end, they could still help. And yet, all he could do was sit there, numb and unbelieving that anything around him was real.
He swallowed, and not knowing how long they sat there in the dirty streets of Coruscant, he finally did move to take Anakin's body into his arms. Vaguely wondering how his shaking arms had the strength—how his legs could hold his and Anakin's dead weight. All he knew was he needed to get Anakin back to safety, to the temple—the healing halls…surely it wasn't too late…surely…
Without a word he simply began walking back towards the Temple.
“We have to call a med-transport,” Ahsoka said, in step beside him, entire body trembling. “We can still- He could- He can’t-”
"He's not, and he's going to be okay." Obi-Wan choked out in the calmest tone he could manage; needing it to be as true for him as much as her. “We just need to get back—the healers—they'll…he's fine.".
“I’m going to go ahead,” Ahsoka latched onto his calm, his surety. Anakin had survived worse things than this. This wouldn’t be the end for him, couldn’t be, Obi-Wan just said so, and he had to be right. “Make sure the medbay is ready when you get there.”
"Yes…yes, that would be smart." Obi-Wan gave a short jerked nod that had Ahsoka sprinting on ahead. Left with his former Padawan in his arms and keeping his steady pace Obi-Wan kept dragging his feet forward. If he slowed, he'd collapse to his emotions, but if he sped up, he might panic. He couldn't do that. A Jedi was master of his emotions.
He held Anakin a little tighter.
Both Obi-Wan and Ahsoka letting every thought fall away against the backdrop of their footsteps pounding beneath them. Anakin would be alright.
When they finally made it, Ahsoka watched, fists clenched by her sides, as Obi-Wan lowered Anakin on to the bed, gentle and reluctant to leave even as the med droids shooed them away. It could have been moments, it could have been years, Ahsoka wasn’t sure, but she felt Obi-Wan beside her as they watched through a window, droids bustling around Anakin with equipment—oxygen masks and needles and defibrillators—until someone decided that the flat line on the monitor by the bed wasn’t going to change.
She should be distraught, she thought, should be crying and screaming like she been close to when he fell. But that urge was gone now. She felt nothing but a sick, cold, pervasive numbness. She felt the absence of feeling, as stark as the white lighting of the room through the window, like she were suddenly detached from her body, from the world it inhabited. The fingers the splayed on the transparisteel didn’t feel like hers, even as she registered the cool surface beneath her palm. The rise and fall of her chest, the beating of her heart didn’t feel like hers, like it were the echo of someone else, and the flutter of it was a shadow of the original in someone else’s body.
Maybe Anakin was the same, right now, existing somewhere outside of what he was, feeling and unfeeling at the same time. The dark figure on the bed didn’t feel like Anakin just as much as she didn’t feel like her. His force presence was gone, where it normally blazed, blinding as a sun. Now only the slightest glow clung to his edges, like fading embers. That couldn’t be him, because he couldn’t be gone.
One of the med droids pulled a white sheet gently over the thing on the bed that wasn’t Anakin, and Ahsoka couldn’t stay there another minute. She couldn’t stand beside Obi-Wan at the window, she couldn’t watch them take him away, couldn’t- Couldn’t stay there. Before she’d even thought about doing it, her legs took off at a run down the corridor, not sure where she was going, but knowing anywhere would be better than where she’d been. Anywhere was better than wherever her feet touched and so she didn’t stop, kept trying to get away from where she was.
As a Padawan and even as a Knight, Anakin could fall asleep anywhere, would fall asleep anywhere, anytime they could. It had gotten worse during the war, moments for sleep coming few and far between. Anakin was often reluctant to rest if he felt there was something more important to be done, but there was a breaking point. Obi-Wan had once found Anakin, fully unconscious underneath his starfighter, having drifted off in the middle of repairs. He’d always wake with aches, wince as muscles pulled, and Obi-Wan would tease him gently, fondly—concern smothered beneath layers of sarcasm—about how his bunk might suit him better.
All of this meant that, for just a moment, when Obi-Wan had first seen Anakin, his head having fallen, twisted to the side, the first thought that entered his mind was that he should wake him, shouldn’t let him sleep like that because he’d wake up sore and be irritable the rest of the day. He had the urge to take Anakin in his arms and, like he’d done when his Padawan was younger, smaller, carry him, asleep, and lay him in his bed to rest.
Anakin wasn’t sleeping. This wasn’t sleep, and Obi-Wan knew that.
He almost chased after Ahsoka when she took off down the corridor, but it felt like his legs were welded to the floor. He watched as she disappeared around the corner, her name on his tongue, too late. Always too late. When he turned back, the bed that Anakin had been on was gone, and the droids were efficiently packing away equipment. They had the luxury of not feeling the Force, not hearing it keen in distress around Ahsoka, around him. They had the luxury to go on, unaffected. Obi-Wan’s vision blurred at the blinding lights, unfocused, until he closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the cool transparisteel.
It felt too much like when Anakin had his walls firmly up, blocking even their bond. When he was in a mood and didn't want to be found. It didn't feel right. Obi-Wan was sure that the Force should feel more empty. A sharp black hole where a brilliant light had been. He was sure he should feel the bond snap just as he had when Qui-Gon had slipped away into the Force. But then again, he wasn't that young padawan anymore. He had been hardened by war and had grown into a Jedi Master. He was more in control of his attachments. That had to be the difference. But his arms still shook with the phantom weight of Anakin, of Qui-Gon. Apparently, he had not learned enough the first time around. Apparently, he was destined to repeat his failures. Repeat the heartache of loss. He still could not protect the people he loved the most.
Obi-Wan didn’t know what to do or where to go. He could go find Ahsoka, but the thought of tracking her down, feeling everything he felt in the Force amplified by her, seemed unbearable for them both. He could go to the council, one of the Masters, and inform them of what had happened. It was a good idea in theory, telling them so they could try to move forward, figure out which steps to take from there. Obi-Wan’s stomach churned at the thought, though. He pictured their impassive faces, their lack of reaction, and even imagining it made him want to scream.
'There is no emotion, there is peace,' they would tell him, 'there is no death, there is the Force'. He would stand before them and nod and accept it because he was a Jedi, and that was the Jedi way. But he couldn’t. If he went now, faced that now, he wouldn’t be able to keep calm.
There is nothing peaceful about this, he thought, feeling his pulse pound in his head, his fingertips, and his forehead against the transparisteel wall was the only thing that kept him upright. He closed his eyes as the cold burned into his skin, let the feeling sink in and spread through him. It was a comfort, if a slight one. It made the idea of moving from the spot even less appealing, but Obi-Wan knew he couldn’t stay there.
Padmé, the thought finally came to him. She wouldn’t know, and no one would think to tell her. She needed to know. She deserved to know, to find out from someone who cared about Anakin as well. And maybe, just for one night—one night before he gathered up his thoughts and emotions, and let them be replaced by the peace the code offered, demanded—he could let himself give in to it all, to be with someone who would let themselves feel everything freely, too.
There is no ignorance, he thought bitterly, there is knowledge. And there were people with whom the knowledge deserved to be shared, even if it hurt. Even if he had to be the one to hurt them.
To be continued…