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The Wise Thing

Chapter Text

Do the wise thing and the kind thing too, and make the best of us and not the worst.”

- Charles Dickens

  


 

“We thank you, sir, for this considerable honor,” the gentleman reiterated, “but I’m afraid we really must decline.” There was a heavy pause while he mulled over his next words, before his countenance hardened. “I understand that you may be… unaccustomed to refusals, and we truly mean no disrespect. But it is our firm belief that our little girl is her own person, and should be able to choose her own path someday. Is that not her right? Is it not our right as her parents to want that for her?”

A low hum of rain accompanied the father's adamant words. The baby girl yawned and cooed, little fists making experimental motions in the air, her tiny body squirming in her father’s protective arms. For a moment, her head tilted slightly down toward the diminutive visitor in the doorway.

“And if us, she has chosen? If through the Force, know this I do?”

“Then you and I understand choice quite differently,” the man responded, his tone now steely, “don’t we, Master Jedi?”

A tense silence hovered between them for a while. Finally the visitor gave a resigned nod and stiffly picked up his cane before turning to leave. A fresh scent of grass wafted about in the air as riverfuls of water came down on the lush ground of the garden. Far in the horizon, a flash of lightning broke across the sky, just meeting the outlines of the Jedi's mystical form.

“So it is then. Diminish with time, her potential will.”

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

Obi-Wan Kenobi was quite noted for his diplomatic prowess, but this time, he did not envy Master Yoda’s position. Peace negotiations were never a simple matter, but at least a week ago they’d still stood on less volatile ground. Entering negotiations with the Separatists now, with the shadow of Senator Amidala’s assassination attempt hanging over the divided Galaxy, wild speculations and hostile accusations flying about both ways, could prove either a necessary decision or a futile campaign. The situation had rapidly snowballed into quite troubling proportions, and the public opinion was already dangerously shifting towards a desire for an open conflict.

A vague sense of uncertainty about the future was one thing, but it wasn't the only thing that was secretly giving the Jedi Knight pause. As far as he knew (or rather, assumed), Master Yoda had long ago made his peace with his former student's departure from the Order. But he was also reasonably sure that the Grand Master had not expected to one day reunite with him under these particular circumstances. Of course, their shared history could absolutely end up working to both sides' mutual benefit, if not prove a decisive factor between war and peace. And naturally, the Jedi Order maintained that their esteemed former comrade had nothing to do with the more radicalized faction of the Separatists, who were suspected of ordering the hit on the Senator.

The problem did not necessarily lie with Count Dooku at all, but with the Grand Master. It was an open secret within the Order that Master Yoda's health had taken a turn for the worse, though even most Masters were loath to voice their concerns. The Master's diminutive frame no longer carried the same sprightliness, he was often seen clutching his chest in passing – there were even (cautious) whispers of incipient mental deterioration. The Grand Master mostly spent his days wandering about the labyrinthine hallways of the temple, seemingly sunken into meditation, but his words had grown sparser and his gaze hazy and distant. At nearly 900 years of age, Master Yoda obviously was no longer in his springtime, but the decline had been quite sudden and surprising – if not yet drastic enough to necessitate an intervention.

Obi-Wan took a deep, self-reassuring breath. It was not his place, and even if it were, his opinion was unneeded in this instance. The Force used its servants as it willed, and if the Force deemed Master Yoda strong enough – physically and spiritually – to take on this journey, then in the Force they ought to trust, once again. Besides, they had good reason to remain optimistic about the negotiations – sometimes it was better to strike while the iron was hot, to avoid having to strike at all. Such was the Jedi way.

“And did you have any other questions about the assignment?” Master Windu queried from Obi-Wan, bringing him back to the present, into the revered company of corporeal as well as holographic Jedi Masters in their seats. Obi-Wan straightened his shoulders, releasing his worries into the Force. They all had a part to play in maintaining the peace, and it was time he focused on his.

“No, Master,” he replied, then frowned – suddenly feeling as though he were not the most distracted person in the room. He threw a prodding nod to the lanky young man beside him, who seemed to have floated up into another plane of existence since hearing about their next mission. “Anakin, did you have questions?”

-

From the very first moment he'd laid his eyes upon her, all those years ago, Anakin Skywalker had known. Padmé Naberrie was the woman he would one day marry. He'd known it as surely as he knew yesterday, he'd seen it as clearly as he'd once seen the morrow rising from the horizon with two suns heralding its arrival.

And he'd seen it more clearly than he'd even seen her beauty, on the abundance of which he'd complimented her back then. He'd known it with a certainty that defied all laws of logic, resisted all rules of the real world, for he'd been nothing but a grubby slave boy and she possibly an ethereal being descended from the moons of Iego.

Then he'd become a Jedi, and she'd turned out to be a Queen. Forced apart by their respective duties – their dreams, too – for so, so much longer than he'd ever known to anticipate or to brace his heart for. But ever since they'd parted, ten agonizing years ago, not a day had passed that he had not dreamed of this coming reunion.

What might have sounded like an obsession to the outsider was to him an exercise by the Force of tormenting his soul.

For he simply knew, and he could not escape this torturous knowledge – and yet, he knew just as well, if not better, that he would do anything she asked of him.

Even turn the other way and never look back.

Standing next to his Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in a turbolift overlooking the vast capital city, Anakin found himself alternately shifting his weight, shuffling his feet, scratching his neck – and sweating? Swallowing silently, he glanced behind his shoulder and through the tube-like transparisteel window sweeping by as the elevator continued its ascent. Why not just turn back and run now? If he timed the jump right, he might even hit a traffic lane, hitch a ride in somebody's speeder, if he asked nicely…

His Master turned to him with a grin on his face.

“Relax,” he urged. “I haven’t felt you this tense since we were forced to take shelter in that Force-forsaken cave on Kalarba and you couldn't stop fidgeting.”

“The one with the big monster? With the hypersensitive motion sensors?”

“That's the one, my restless young Padawan.”

“Well, you kept needing to sneeze, and it was distracting,” Anakin protested, mock-offended. He then proceeded to bury his nose and mouth in his hands and imitate the rather graceless sight.

The two disputed their discarded escape plans and Obi-Wan's possible allergies (of which hyperactive teenagers was one) for a while, before the friendly squabble dissolved into relaxed laughter. By the time their chuckles waned, though, Anakin was right back to the tenseness; pursing his lips, inhaling and exhaling loudly, and adjusting his shoulders up and down, back and forth.

“It’ll be good to see Her Former Majesty after all these years,” Obi-Wan said.

“Yeah,” Anakin agreed, his voice cracking halfway through the one-syllable word.

Obi-Wan narrowed his eyes at him, one lip-corner curling with an amused sort of curiosity.

“It’s just,” Anakin began, motioning with his hands before finding the words. “I haven’t seen her in so long, and I… I have such, well… vivid memories of her.”

Obi-Wan's furrowed brows sunk deeper.

“Memories – memories of that time, I mean,” Anakin hurried to correct. “I mean, why wouldn’t I, what with everything that happened back then, all at once – ” His voice trailed off, and Obi-Wan shook his head.

“Relax,” the Jedi Knight reiterated his advice, waving a nonchalant hand.

But as usual, his Master's orders had the very opposite effect, as Anakin's whole body stiffened worse than ever, until he was no more flexible than one of those grandiose statues adorning the Jedi Temple's entrance.

Reaching Padmé's floor, the two Jedi nodded and smiled their way through a surprise reunion with Jar Jar Binks, who leaped at them with hugs and pats and sentiments and what not. All perfectly endearing things, but the two of them were on a tight schedule, and Anakin positively shaking with simultaneous wild anticipation and absolute dread. Before he could move in for further embraces or marvel at Anakin's height for the fifteenth time, Obi-Wan patiently asked the Gungan to show them to the Senator's apartment.

Anakin stalked a few steps ahead as the trio made their way along the minimalist hallway – Jar Jar still gushing over their reunion and somehow throwing in two or three other topics – to finally arrive at a large and stylish residence. Ushered in by Captain Typho, the Senator’s head of security, Anakin whipped his head wildly about in hopes of catching a first glimpse of the lady herself. His throat had grown dry, his heart was thumping away in his chest, and he'd fallen completely deaf to whatever social niceties were being traded around him.

His eyes raced across the elegant, blue-themed apartment. An ominous feeling lurched up in his chest. She wasn't here, he could sense it.

Only after they were sat down on a curved couch in the center of the main room, opposite Typho and Jar Jar, did Anakin's hearing mysteriously return as the two Nabooians, sure enough, expressed their regret over the Senator's absence.

“We would have contacted you,” the dark-skinned Captain was saying, “but even a simple call poses a security threat, and we're expecting her back –“

“What?” Anakin blurted out without thinking. Everyone turned to stare at the young Padawan. “Where is she?” he demanded.

It took a while until Typho’s judging scowl cleared from his face (while Obi-Wan’s remained frozen), and he answered patiently, “The Senator had some urgent – classified – business to finish up at the Senate. As I said – “

“You're her bodyguard,” Anakin argued back, a little too emotionally. “Why are you just lounging about here while she's out there? You don’t think that’s a threat to security?”

“Anakin – “ Obi-Wan tried, gripping at his forearm as though that was the body part in need of covering.

“Padawan Skywalker,” Typho spoke, sounding almost amused, “thank you for your kind concern. I assure you, I respectfully proposed her Ladyship wait for a proper entourage, but at the end of the day, we are her employees and therefore bound by her orders and wishes. As are you, if I might be so bold as to remind you. While we appreciate the Jedi Council’s initiative, please be aware that Senator Amidala has yet to officially accept your services and indeed might choose to decline them if she should see fit.“

“Shesa just zoom off with hersa speeder, not listen to us, no no,” Jar Jar explained graciously, motioning towards a doorway leading into, if Anakin correctly recalled the apartment layout from the briefing, an open veranda.

“She’s alone?” Anakin queried, appalled, jolting up to stand from the sofa.

“Anakin – “ Obi-Wan hissed between his teeth. Typho chuckled in disbelief, and even Jar Jar was making uneasy motions around his duckbill mouth.

“The Senator is presently accompanied by Dormé, her handmaiden and my esteemed colleague,” Typho clarified, emphasizing every word while regarding the Padawan from under his dark brows. “Now if you may be so kind as to sit down, Padawan Skywalker, so we might get down to business.”

I thought you were in the business of protecting her, Anakin almost blurted before thinking better of it, and slumping into his seat at Obi-Wan's insistence. His Master’s eyes were wide with incredulity, promising at least fifteen lectures and twenty reprimands as soon as they were in private and at least one public humiliation if he didn't watch himself.

Typho cleared his throat diplomatically. “So… while we wait, I was hoping we could discuss the Senator's schedule for the week, as well as the duration of your –“

“I’m sorry,” Anakin cut him short, jerking to his feet again as the others flinched with discomfort, “this is ridiculous. What’s the point of having additional security if we’re all just gonna sit here securing each other?”

“Anakin, I order you to sit down – “ Obi-Wan started. But the boy had already darted across the room and was making his way through the doorway to the veranda. Obi-Wan was fast on his tail, dropping apologies and inaudible curses in his wake.

“Someone tried to kill her yesterday,” Anakin boomed, throwing his arms up, halfway across the veranda. “Am I the only one who remembers that?”

“Anakin, get back here,” Obi-Wan demanded. “Where do you think you're going?”

“To do my job!”

With that, Anakin leaped off the edge of the balcony seemingly into nothingness – to Obi-Wan's momentary shock – before landing comfortably in his trusted yellow airspeeder and shooting off into the traffic. He'd come prepared for any scenario.

Anakin couldn't help it. At times he just felt held back by Obi-Wan. As a result, the Padawan often couldn't seem to exercise that same control on himself. He knew perfectly well that what he'd just pulled was beyond disrespectful to his Master, not to mention against general mission protocol – but as he felt a gust of wind sweep across his face, engine roaring under him, bringing him closer by the minute to the actual point of the mission – he knew that he wouldn't have turned back for anything. The Force might possess a will, but he had a mind of his own. And really, for every billion of 'Yes Master' that came out of his mouth every single day, was he not allowed one moment of spontaneity when it really mattered, when it could make the difference between life and death?

Ever since he'd heard the news of the attempted hit on Padmé, he'd been nauseous with worry. 'Worry' didn't even really cover it, in fact it sounded exactly like the kind of passivity that he so deeply loathed. It wasn't that he didn't understand Typho's professionalism, or the Senator's need for some space; no, he liked to think that he understood better than most. And of course he knew that the former Queen was no dainty flower, but possessed iron core and a will of steel, unafraid of danger, and perhaps rightly so. Rather, it was because he understood her reckless character that he needed to do this. How many times had he landed himself in trouble in a rush of overconfidence?

A righteous fury flared up in Anakin’s veins. Whoever wished harm upon her would have to go through him first.

He heard his wrist bleeping – Obi-Wan was comming him. Still feeling that slightest sting of conscience, Anakin shut off the device – he’d report back as soon as the Senator was demonstrably safe and under his vigilant guard.

Arriving at the Senate courtyard, Anakin sloppily parked his speeder and jumped right off, long, hyper-energized legs falling into a sprint – then jerking to a halt.

The unique design of the domed structure that stood ahead might have been more impressive on any other day, any other moment even, in the one that he was living, Anakin has just forgotten its very existence.

At the other end of the courtyard, freshly emerged from the main entrance, two figures in dark blue were making their way towards him. Anakin’s heart leaped. He could barely discern their outlines, and for ten years he had only dreamed of her beautiful features – but he just knew. She was here.

Robe trailing behind him in the wind, Anakin broke into a run once again, his earlier agitation forgotten, unwilling to waste one more second.

“Padmé!” he called, picking up the pace, arms sweeping up and down at his sides. The figures froze in place. Unable to slow down, Anakin momentarily lamented the possibility that she had forgotten about him entirely. “Padmé!”

His attention utterly absorbed by the woman on the left, Anakin could only catch a brief flash of her face – cautious and guarded – before the one on the right had already acted. In his peripheral vision, the Padawan could just make out a velvet sleeve sweeping across the air and a glint of metal flickering in the sun, then his legs gave way under him and his head fell thudding against the ground.

“No, wait – “ he began to plead – still conscious by some miracle, but struggling to get up – but a second stun blast was already on its way.

And Padmé Amidala never missed.

Chapter Text

Anakin stirred awake to a hazy blueness and an indistinct flow of chatter humming about. Feeling a vague throbbing around his head, he clutched at his forehead and groaned.

Then he remembered.

”Padm– ” He jolted to a sitting position, only to find Padmé Amidala hovering over him with a concerned look on her face. Anakin flinched back. Whatever he'd just remembered, he'd already forgotten.

The Padawan just stared, eyes wide. He had to take a moment to process the absolute spectacle before him – the large, ambery brown eyes, the plush lips, the thick brown hair done up in an elaborate braid crown, the dark blue, luxurious fabrics veiling a petite frame… Just as he remembered her, just as miraculously beautiful – only, somehow, even more so. 

”Anakin, I'm so sorry,” the miracle lamented while the Padawan continued to stare, dizzied. He was only distantly aware of the entourage behind her, shifting about uneasily and casting him dirty looks. As though sensing the tension, Padmé gave a charming, bell-like chuckle, then extended both her hands to help Anakin to his feet. Overjoyed, if still disoriented, he took them, his breath hitching at the touch of her soft, perfect fingers. She was here, and she was real.

”Do you remember what happened?” she asked.

”Let me jog your memory,” Obi-Wan cut in with a stern tone, stalking up to Anakin, very purposefully moving in between him and Padmé, holding up an accusing finger. Anakin gulped, averting his eyes. ”You disobeyed your Master's direct orders,” Obi-Wan began listing, somehow furious and icily calm at the same time, ”embarrassed me in front of a client, insulted said client, broke mission protocol, behaved in a completely unprofessional manner…”

Before Obi-Wan could continue, or Anakin defend himself, a dark-haired young woman stepped forward – her steely eyes distantly familiar – and claimed her turn, ”Then you came galloping at my mistress with frightful speed, shouting her name in a markedly aggressive manner, leading me to the reasonable conclusion that you meant to assault her –”

She tilted her head in an 'and the rest is history' sort of gesture. Obi-Wan was now 'discreetly' snickering into his hand, Typho trying to school his twitching lips into a solemn straight line.

It was at this point that Anakin truly remembered – and was struck with the full extent of his thoughtlessness. Of course they'd mistaken him for an attacker. How could they not? Surely this wasn't the first time that some dark-cloaked figure had jumped out of nowhere at the former Queen and present public figure, yelling out her name like a crazy person. It would have looked bad enough even if she had not already survived one murder attempt within the last 24 hours – one that had instead claimed the life of another one of her handmaidens. He'd read the report, he'd known that. Of course Dormé would exercise extreme caution – even to the point of paranoia.

Anakin's cheeks flushed with embarrassment as he bowed his head, mortified. He'd wanted to be her knight in shining armor, but instead he'd looked like a common crook to her eyes. Which also meant –

”I'm really sorry, Anakin,” Padmé restated, shaking her head. ”I just didn't recognize you at all.”

Well, there it was. Anakin felt his heart sinking. Not at all?

Obi-Wan and Typho opened their mouths at the same time, understandably anxious to move on to more important matters. Padmé, however, hurried to clarify, ”I mean, just look at you, someone's gotten tall." She spread her arms admiringly, looking him up and down. Whatever relief or consolation Anakin might have drawn from that was quickly snatched away, though, when she added, smiling winsomely, ”Little Ani from Tatooine.”

Anakin gave a huff of laughter, masking his disheartened feelings. Typho and Dormé exchanged glances. Obi-Wan had already sat back down on the couch, encouraging the rest to join him 'before my Padawan steals the whole show.'

The initial awkwardness thankfully passed quickly enough as the five of them sat down to discuss the security arrangements for the night. Anakin, though, mostly kept quiet, all-too aware that he was lucky to get to stay on the team. He suspected that he had Padmé to thank for that – she had yet to express any displeasure at all at his behavior, and he couldn't help but love her all the more for it.

Still, he felt a tinge of – misplaced – jealousy when Obi-Wan casually inquired if she had any clues as to the assassin's identity, or who might have hired them – reminding her within the same breath that it was not their job to investigate. Anakin scowled privately. He'd wanted to be the one to ask her that. No one wanted to bring her attackers to justice more than he did. And why should they not be allowed to investigate? How else were they to ensure her long-term safety, if not by finding the ones responsible? Sometimes he just could not see the logic behind the Council's 'measured' decisions.

His petty internal grumblings soon dissolved into the heavy silence, as the Senator took a moment before she answered. 

”I… made many enemies during my term as Queen,” she stated, eyes roaming the wall. ”Many of them powerful.” She smiled sweetly at Anakin, and the Padawan reflexively returned the gesture, but did not miss her evasive reply. He saw a similar reaction pass over Obi-Wan's face, before Typho proceeded to elaborate in her stead; naming the Trade Federation, some corrupt politicians, and from more recent times, a mob of disgruntled Nabooian miners. Obi-Wan nodded, remarking that they'd discussed those possibilities in the briefing, as well – before pointing out one more time, eyes trained on Anakin, that they were not here to start an investigation.

Anakin sighed. He was still in trouble – and he needed to work on his mind shielding techniques. 

-

Dormé was as familiar as anyone with the famed heroics of the Jedi, she'd even had the chance to witness them in action on a couple of occasions, but she had to admit, so far she was less than impressed with the Master-Padawan pair assigned to her mistress' case. One was far too obsessed with the boundaries of their mandate, to the point of appearing indifferent, while the other… well…

”I suppose he is quite tall,” the handmaiden observed while unraveling her mistress' long hair from the intricate braids. She smirked as their eyes met in the mirror. ”When he's not lying face down at your feet.”

Padmé gave a small chuckle, twisting a finger around a ringlet of her hair. ”I hope you're not teasing me, Dormé.” 

”Well, I hope you weren't flirting, milady,” the handmaiden shot back.

”Flirting?” Padmé exclaimed at the accusation, whisking her hair away from Dormé's skilled fingers as she twisted in her seat. ”Oh, please. He's, what, nineteen years old?”

”And an old friend of yours, from what I understand?” Dormé probed, regarding her with genuine curiosity. She didn't know any details of their past acquaintance, but she thought it okay to ask, seeing as her Ladyship had made no attempt to hide it, either. (To say nothing of the Padawan learner, who obviously wanted to scream the fact from a mountaintop.) 

Padmé was silent for a while, turning toward the mirror again, as Dormé produced a smaller comb from her apron. ”I don't know that 'friend' is the word I would use.”

”Oh,” Dormé uttered, almost apologetically, before Padmé shook her head.

”He's like an… echo from the past,” she described in an absent voice. ”Like a ghost – if ghosts were innocent and wide-eyed little boys.” They locked gazes in the mirror again. ”If that sounds like I'm romanticizing him, it's because I am. But not in the way you think.”

”I think I understand, milady,” Dormé said sincerely, then paused for a moment. ”I was just teasing, by the way. I didn't really think –”

”Don't apologize!” Padmé laughed. ”Come on, you've ribbed me much worse than that. I'll live.” 

Dormé grinned in agreement, then laid a gentle hand on her mistress' shoulder, indicating that she was finished. Padmé thanked her fondly, then dismissed her for the night – or rather, in these special circumstances, from one duty to another.

-

Anakin was none too fond of Obi-Wan's old joke that his Padawan would yet send him to an early grave, but he did have to suppose that he had deserved it today. It was a relatively mild punishment compared to the fifteen lectures and twenty reprimands that he'd expected - in the end, he'd only received one of each. Afterward, though, the old man had found himself so exhausted that he'd insisted on patrolling downstairs for the first few hours, just to get Anakin out of his sight for a while. Anakin, meanwhile, was tasked with monitoring the security feed from the Senator’s bedroom – an arrangement that she was apparently perfectly accustomed to and comfortable with. Typho and Dormé were both stationed downstairs at the command center, managing the soldiers posted at each floor. 

Anakin sighed. He supposed that he only got to be the closest to Padmé because they trusted him the least. Whatever menaces might threaten the Senator tonight, they would dispose of downstairs before he would even sense the danger. 

No, Anakin decided with a new resolve. He still needed to give this job a hundred-and-twenty percent. Emphasizing this mental note, Anakin moved in closer to the screen. The feed was a little grainy, but Padmé’s exquisite beauty and grace still shone through. She was sat on her bed, holding a holopad in her lap, her symmetrical face illuminated by the glow from the screen. Anakin had heard she was a hard worker – he knew she was – even if she had mostly kept a low profile in politics during the past few years.

It suddenly occurred to Anakin that she had retired into her chambers six whole hours ago – he was almost at the end of his first watch, even if sleep was the last thing he desired right now. Evidently he had that in common with the Senator – after six hours, she had still not lain down, not even nodded off, nor generally tried to get any rest at all. He began wondering if she was maybe suffering from anxiety, or stress – after all, she had lived through great trauma just yesterday, to say nothing of his own stunt at the Senate.

Anakin bit his lip. Technically, he would be disobeying his orders again, but… 

Determined not to repeat today’s mistakes, Anakin announced himself to Padmé via comlink well before even dreaming of knocking on her door. A lovely voice on the other end promptly agreed. Anakin purposely tried to take light and patient steps as he made his way across the living room - but before he knew it, his legs had turned to complete jelly as he met her in the doorway of her private chambers. Once again, his vision was positively overwhelmed by her otherworldly appearance. She was wearing a light blue nightgown that exposed her shoulders, and Anakin had to carefully arrange his face into a self-possessed, professional look. 

“Is something the matter?” the Senator inquired, frowning. 

“I-I was,” the young man stuttered. “I was about to – ask you – ask you that same question… Senator.”

“Oh?”

Struggling to string a proper sentence together, Anakin motioned vaguely with his hands. He had not been prepared for a follow-up question. “I mean, I can’t help but noise – notice that you’re still awake, milady,” he finally managed. “At this arrr – hour.” 

“Right,” Padmé conceded, a small smile playing on her lips. “Very thoughtful of you to come check on me. I’m just finishing up some work.”

Anakin rubbed the back of his neck. She was either a saint, or must really enjoy pretending not to notice his crippling awkwardness. Without much thought, he blurted, “I thought that’s what you went back to the Senate to do.”

“I suppose that’s politics for you,” she responded airily.

Anakin glanced over his shoulder. She probably just wanted to get rid of him, if her terse replies were anything to go by. Obi-Wan would soon be back from downstairs and notice him missing, too… The Padawan was already turning to leave when he shook his head and said, “I'm really sorry about today. Making myself look like an attacker like that –“

To his surprise, Padmé sprung from the doorway to stop him in his tracks. 

”Hey!” she protested. “As one half of the party who actually did the attacking –”

”No, no,” he waved her off, avoiding her gaze. ”I just – I wish I could have made a better first impression.”

”Technically, it wasn’t a first impression,” she pointed out, her tone – playful? ”So you're fine. You'll always be that little boy I met on Tatooine.”

Anakin pursed his lips. Did she have to keep saying that? Couldn’t she just compliment his height again?

”You see,” he began, suddenly desperate for her approval, rather than just forgiveness, “The reason I ran off after you like that – I just wanted – I just thought, you'd be safer with me there… Two - three - is better than one -” Anakin swallowed. He just had to keep digging, every time. ”Which, in hindsight –” he hurried to add, before his voice trailed off.

Padmé just chuckled warmly in response. ”Well, I appreciate the sentiment, truly.”

”Well, I should –”

”If you want –”

Anakin had already turned on his heel, when he realized they’d opened their mouths at the same time. He twisted back to face her, uncertainly.

”You could come in, just for a while,” Padmé offered, gesturing toward her room, her countenance unreadable. “You know… to catch up. Or reminisce about the old times. Whichever you prefer. It might help me catch some sleep later.”

Anakin stared at her. Little boy or not, he was not born yesterday, and he knew exactly what sort of implications an invitation like this would normally carry. He had to remind himself, for the tenth time during this conversation alone, that he was here as a Jedi, a commissioned professional; and no matter how much he would have loved to believe otherwise, those implications did not apply in this context, and the sooner he could hammer that into his head, the better.

For a brief moment, he considered bluntly stating that it wouldn't be appropriate – before stopping himself short. Since they were both aware that this was a strictly professional context, he failed to see the problem. After all, what better way to ensure her safety? And even Typho would agree that during this mission, she was essentially his boss – he was bound by her orders and wishes.

”Well, if you –“ He tried to put up a show of reluctance, before giving an oh-so-casual nod. “Well, milady, I would love to help you sleep –” Padmé was already turning to show the way, smiling. Anakin swatted a hand to his forehead. ”Please forget I said that.”

”You want a third shot at making a first impression?”

”Yes, please.”

Chapter Text

In his boundless admiration of Padmé Amidala's beauty, Anakin had briefly feared that he had only fallen for her looks – that in the end, he was no greater romantic than the average shallow person. In learning about the mystical nature of the Force over the years, he'd also entertained the possibility that it was just because of what he'd seen, his vision of the future of marrying her.

How utterly and completely wrong he'd been, on both counts. Tonight had proved it. He truly, deeply, loved her for her.

At first it had seemed like he would never get past the stammering. Somehow, he'd managed to compliment her choice in wallpaper (it was paint), the size of her bed (why?), and, in growing desperation, the way she was dressed (the shoulder-exposing nightgown), all within the same strangled breath. Once again, she'd simply laughed the awkwardness away, and Anakin had firmly sealed his mouth shut for a while, and let her lead the conversation. That had proved to be the greatest decision he had made all day – or perhaps, ever.

They'd sat down, and they'd talked about everything. Everything. Their first meeting on Tatooine, all the extraordinary things that had happened back then. How Anakin could scarcely wrap his head around the fact that the pretty girl he'd encountered in his workshop was really the ruler of a faraway planet. How Padmé had feared that little Ani would get himself killed in the podrace. The japor snippet, which, yes, she still had, and yes, she still wore from time to time.

The first few days, weeks, years of Anakin's Jedi training. The first, second, fifth time the young Padawan had saved his Master from trouble. The gundarks, the monster with the sensors, the misunderstanding on Corellia, the muja fruit incident… The more strained aspects of his and Obi-Wan's relationship. How different they were. How quick the older man was to misunderstand. How he'd rinse and repeat the same five lessons, over and over; something about inner peace, controlling one's impulses, and so forth. How Anakin still respected him unlike any other man, how he was like a father and a brother to him. The wisest mentor that he could have hoped for.

”Mm,” Padmé commented, lowering her gaze, smiling mysteriously. ”Mentor-mentee relationships can be complicated, for sure.”

It occurred to Anakin that he'd mostly been rambling about himself for some time. She was just so easy to talk to, she made the funniest observations, and she didn't take Obi-Wan's side too often… But of course he wanted to know more about her. He wanted to know everything.

”I'm guessing you speak from experience –” he ventured, only to lose his nerve mid-sentence when he saw her stifling a yawn.

”Oh,” he uttered, shrinking back in embarrassment. ”I've been boring you, haven't I?”

”No, not at all,” Padmé reassured him, although her drowsy voice did not do her argument any favors. Seemingly realizing this, she smiled sheepishly. ”Well, I invited you in to 'help me sleep', right?” She tilted her head and smirked at the last few words, echoing Anakin's awkward phrasing. ”Well… mission accomplished, I think.”

Anakin blinked at her uncertainly. 

”I wasn't bored, I promise,” she reiterated emphatically. ”I just feel properly relaxed now, is all.”

”Okay,” Anakin nodded, sensing her sincerity. His bashful smile melted into a grin. He felt a gentle warmth wash over him in the Force, leaving a tingling sensation in its wake. His eyes locked with hers for a long moment.

This was real. This was right.

Smiling, he pressed his hands into the bedding to push himself up from the bed. As he did, his hand accidentally – perhaps subconsciously – brushed her fingers, the lightest, most delicate contact.

The impact was instant. Anakin jumped back. He was embracing the universe itself. He saw the stars, he saw distant suns and galaxies. He was falling freely, screaming with rapture and with horror. He was shivering with cold, yet ablaze with fire; lost in the void, yet suffocated by crowds. The world around him lit aflame and burned away to ashes, before a great wave hit and the ashes dispersed, sprouting new life from beneath the surface.

The vision was gone as soon as it had come, barely lasting a jolt and a gasp. Padmé started at his reaction, and reached to grab Anakin's shoulder.

”Ani? Are you okay?”

Anakin slowly turned to face her, panting.

”I – you – ”

He stared into her soothing amber eyes. 

”You and me both,” he spluttered, shaking his daze away as he stood up. ”I mean – I'm getting sleepy myself.”

”Ah,” Padmé uttered. 

Anakin ruffled the top of his head, full of supposedly closely cropped hair, growing rampant at a rapid rate. He managed a final smile as he made his way to the door.

”Good night, milady.”

”Good night…” 

-

Obi-Wan had quickly tired of questioning Anakin about his nocturnal meeting with the Senator, but he did not approve of it. Even if it did technically constitute as guarding her, even if she had issued the invitation herself, the Senator was acting very irresponsibly to encourage the boy's obvious infatuation with her. He'd seen (and lived through) teenage hormones before, and Anakin was suffering from a markedly bad case. In the past, he'd paid little attention to the Padawan's passing, absent-minded mentions of the former Queen, but clearly he'd missed something here. Vivid memories, indeed.

Early in the morning, a couple of hours after sunrise, Obi-Wan received a call from the Jedi Council, requesting a status report. He ordered Anakin to stay on monitoring duty (the boy obviously had no objections to ogling at the progress of Senator Amidala's far-fetched hairdo of the day), while he would take the call in a private guest room.

”The night passed without incident,” he informed the Jedi Masters. ”No signs of disturbance whatsoever. However –” Obi-Wan rubbed the bridge of his nose. He had a duty to report Anakin's misbehavior.

”That's excellent news,” Windu stated before the Jedi Knight had the chance. ”The full report can wait, for now. The fact of the matter is… we have a new assignment for you, Obi-Wan.”

”I see."

”The problem is…” The stern Jedi Master gave a rare chuckle and exchanged glances with Master Mundi and Master Koth, standing behind him. ”We also need you to stay with Amidala.” 

”Are our forces stretched so thin these days?” 

”I'm afraid they are.” Windu paused for a while. ”But that is not the reason. Allow me to explain. Your new mission would be to Mandalore, to oversee the peace negotiations that commence tomorrow.”

”Join Master Yoda on Mandalore?”

”Yes…” Windu hesitated again, only to shake it off in the interest of effective communication. ”You know we have to exercise some discretion in regards to the Grand Master's current health status… but I think it would give us all some peace of mind if there were two Jedi present instead of one. Of course, the assignment would also entail ensuring the safety of the Senate representatives, Chancellor Organa and Senator Mothma.”

Obi-Wan stroked his beard thoughtfully. ”I understand, Master Windu. However, I just have to ask… why me? I'm but a humble Knight. Wouldn't you rather entrust a Jedi Master with a duty of such heavy importance?”

”Well…” Windu weighed his next words again. ”Obviously, for the peace negotiations, we would want to promote a cordial and cooperative atmosphere.”

”Which is why it made sense to send Master Yoda, Dooku's former Master,” Obi-Wan caught on. ”Whereas I am his last remaining link to Master Qui-Gon, his former Padawan. Master Windu…” Obi-Wan kneaded his bristly chin harder. ”Putting aside the fact that I've never met the man… you don't think it's a little obvious? What if Dooku doesn't appreciate our emotional manipulation?”

”Dooku is a former Jedi,” Windu reminded the Knight. ”He is above falling prey to such a thing. What we are trying to do is unite the opposing sides of the conflict before said conflict becomes a reality, and join forces to bring down the Separatist terrorists. And it just so happens that you and Master Yoda are our best bets at bringing about such a scenario.”

Obi-Wan nodded in understanding. ”Thank you, Master. But I believe you also said I'm needed at my current post? You believe Amidala to still be in danger?”

”Possibly,” Windu replied pensively. 

”I have a feeling her security team would agree,” Obi-Wan conceded, ”However, we also speculated about the possibility that the bomb wasn't meant for her, but for Chancellor Organa, who happened to be riding a similar shuttle on that fateful day. Or that it was a general pro-war statement, and Amidala a randomly picked target.”

”We would still see a Jedi at her side at all times at least until a peace treaty is formed. And in this particular case… we are somewhat loath to re-assign.”

”May I ask why?”

”Again – familiarity,” Windu replied, but again there was a certain note of secrecy in his voice. ”You have a past connection to her, and she would be much more comfortable with someone she knows.”

”With all due respect, Master, I can't be in two places at once,” Obi-Wan reminded him. ”Is Amidala's personal comfort really a priority here?”

”Well…” Windu began warily. ”We are presently considering the alternative – of giving your Padawan his first solo assignment.”

Obi-Wan drew back his head. ”What?”

At this point Obi-Wan had no choice but report on Anakin once and for all; his strange and borderline obsessive behavior around the Senator, his past attachment to her, the Senate incident… He didn't even know which was worse, his Padawan's immature conduct or the fact that he'd been bested by a lousy blaster.

”My Padawan is making great progress, indeed, Master, and holds greater potential for the future, and I ask that you have mercy on him in regards to these matters. However, he is simply not ready for a solo assignment, especially not one that takes place in the close proximity of Senator Padmé Amidala.”

Windu mused on the words silently, while the other Jedi Masters nodded their agreement.

”We were all nineteen once, Master Windu. I have Master Qui-Gon to thank for not staying that way.” He threw his hand up and rolled his eyes. ”And frankly, the Senator herself could stand to maintain some boundaries. She and Anakin spent the whole night chatting away in her room, like this was all some… sleepover party.”

”Indeed?” Windu's ears perked up, and he traded meaningful glances with the other Masters. Obi-Wan found the reaction odd, but waited patiently until Windu spoke again. ”Obi-Wan… you still have the files on Senator Amidala? The ones we provided at the briefing?”

”Of course.”

”There's a hidden section at the bottom of the first file,” Windu explained. ”I'll transmit a passcode for you. That information is normally reserved for Council members only… but I think, in these circumstances… we need you to share it with your Padawan.”

-

The atmosphere was still tense as the security team, full-time and temporary, assembled to the living room for a strategy meeting at noon. Anakin could sense it in the air – they all knew about his nightly stay at the Senator's room, and none of them were happy about it. Dormé, though, was sporting a smug look that seemed to indicate that she'd already made her sentiments known to her dear mistress, and knew she valued her opinion. Anakin offered a peace-making smile in return, then focused all his attentions on Padmé, and how utterly gorgeous she looked in her deep purple gown this morning.

At least, he tried.

Just looking at her made his mind wander. 

Last night had changed everything.

Anakin couldn't quite decide whether he had recovered from his frightening experience in Padmé's room, or simply blocked it away. Of one thing he was certain, though.

His fingers had not just awkwardly brushed the skin of a pretty girl he liked. They'd stumbled upon an extraordinary concentration of the universe's greatest might and most fascinating mystery.

Padmé Amidala was like him.

Padmé Amidala had the Force. 

Unable to tear his eyes away from her, truly a being of infinite enigma and surprise, Anakin forced himself to concentrate as she brought her hands to her lap in a formal gesture and prepared to address them.

”Good morning, everyone,” the Senator greeted. ”Thank you all for your phenomenal work last night. I've never felt so safe.” She gave a little soundless applause with her hands, before her expression turned solemn, and she looked at the two Jedi. ”Gentlemen. I believe you're assigned to me until the peace negotiations are over? Or the guilty party found… However, seeing as last night passed without incident, and I'm already taking up so much Republic resources…” She gestured towards the door, behind which the soldiers still stood guard at every floor. ”I feel it is my duty to let you go for now, as I don't wish to keep you from more pressing matters. I will keep you updated until such time as a peace treaty is finalized. I want to thank you for everything –”

Anakin's face fell, but he had no time to process the crushing rejection, or voice his sentiments on the matter, before Obi-Wan had already laid a hand on his shoulder and interrupted the Senator.

”Senator, before we make any final decisions, might my Padawan and I have a word, alone?”

”Of course,” Padmé responded, surprised. 

Obi-Wan nodded politely, then swiftly proceeded to lead his student into an adjacent guest room, closing the door behind them.

”Master,” Anakin began testily, ”if this is another lecture –”

”For once in your life, just listen,” Obi-Wan cut him short. ”I'll get straight to the point. I'm being sent on another assignment, one of great importance indeed.”

”So we are leaving. If you ask me –”

”I'm not,” Obi-Wan retorted, and something about his tone made Anakin clamp his mouth shut once and for all. ”Like I said… let's get the point out of the way, shall we? The Council has nominated you for a solo assignment with Senator Amidala, to act as her bodyguard until the negotiations are over. I'm afraid they don't quite share her optimism as far as her safety is concerned. You would be going into hiding, staying out of sight… no conspicuous ships or entourages.”

Had Anakin not made a vow of silence a minute ago, he would have been making high-pitched noises now. How in the- He'd thought he'd be punished, or kicked off this job at the very least. Obi-Wan regarded him closely as the Padawan laboriously suppressed his reaction. 

”However, should she agree to this… and hopefully we'll be able to persuade her…” Obi-Wan paused for an uncomfortably long moment. ”There are a few things you should know about the good Senator.”

Anakin shifted. The words caught him off guard, but not by surprise. 

”The Council keeps a record of Force-sensitive children who were denied their destiny as Jedi by their parents. It's a reality that happens once in a while – and, we have to believe, the will of the Force. In very rare cases, though… those children grow up to become public figures… or we cross paths with them through other circumstances. By such time their Force potential has normally waned considerably.” He shot Anakin a significant look. ”You might have already guessed where I'm going with this.”

Anakin simply nodded. Obi-Wan narrowed his eyes at his non-reaction, but then went on, ”I was not privy to this information during our brief acquaintance ten years ago. What I do know is that after the Trade Federation crisis, things have been a lot quieter for her. But now… through no fault of her own, or so we may assume –”

”That's no longer the case,” Anakin finished his train of thought. ”Master, I…” Anakin hesitated. He couldn't believe that he was actually going to protest to this assignment, however half-heartedly. ”I understand, but I… don't understand. Does the Council believe it takes a Force-sensitive to guard another Force-sensitive? Even an untrained one? Or is she…” He tilted his head, stiffly. 

”She is not being suspected of anything,” Obi-Wan assured him. ”On the contrary, she is remembered as a compassionate and wise ruler, one of the best Naboo has had, who went on to become a Senator at the special request of her immediate successor. Since then, she has dutifully served her planet and the Republic as an advocate for peace, diplomacy, and humane ideals. You know I don't trust politicians, but objectively speaking –” 

”Objectively speaking, you need me to spy on her,” Anakin spat out. It all made sense now, why the Council had been so quick to forgive his poor behavior. They'd figured out a way to use it to their advantage.

Obi-Wan brought a shushing finger to his lips. ”For the last time, that's not what this is about. It's about a certain pattern. Untrained Force-sensitives in the public eye are magnets for trouble. You're the one who wanted to investigate her case, right? Don't try to deny it, your thoughts betray you.”

Anakin had no wish to deny it. He scratched his head, sighing. He didn't really know what to think, or how to feel.

But that had no bearing on his answer, which had been carved into stone and preserved in laminate before the start of this conversation.

Chapter Text

Convincing Padmé Amidala to agree to the Council's proposal proved something of a challenge. Convincing her security team proved darn near impossible. While Dormé and Typho were both fully supportive of the Senator taking leave until the dust had settled on the Republic-Confederacy conflict, they made no secret of their dislike of Anakin, and their doubts about his capability. Obi-Wan, not entirely convinced himself, had no choice but to come to his protégé's defense, even sing his praises: impertinence aside, the boy was a remarkably skilled student and actually had lots of experience with bodyguarding missions. And yes, his Padawan knew how to deflect a stun bolt. Yes, he actually had amazing reflexes ninety-nine percent of the time.

Next to him, Anakin kept shifting and avoiding eye-contact. Obi-Wan could sense his student’s discomfort and embarrassment, and mixed with those feelings, his own reservations about the assignment. In fact, it seemed like the only thing that everyone could agree on was that the arrangement was ill-advised, if all for very different reasons. But the Council's wish was a Jedi's command. 

”Let me get this straight,” Typho scoffed. ”You submitted a performance review on your Padawan to the Jedi Council, and immediately they insisted on him taking over this job?”

”They must want him to prove himself,” Obi-Wan offered.

”Oh, so this is all about him,” Typho shot back, casting a glance at Anakin, who turned his head further away. “Not what’s best for the Senator. Pardon my mistake.”

”What is best for the Senator at this moment in time is to remove her from the planet and from the public eye. Invisibility will be her primary safeguard, Anakin a secondary measure.”

In his peripheral vision, he saw the secondary measure twitch. Obi-Wan smirked to himself - surely the boy's ego had taken worse dents than that, and could stand to take a few more.  

The argument went on for another while – largely between Obi-Wan and Typho, about Anakin personally – until Senator Amidala finally requested silence and cleared her throat.

”I accept,” she declared, in a matter-of-fact sort of voice. Obi-Wan glanced at Anakin as the boy raised his head, hesitant.    

”Senator –“ Dormé protested, laying a persuasive hand on Amidala's shoulder. Typho just shook his head in resignation.

Obi-Wan eyed the former Queen with curiosity, but her countenance offered as little answers as ever, even stripped of the protective layer of red and white. Still, the young woman's voice rang clear and forceful, without a hint of surrender – Her Former Majesty had come to the decision on her own terms, and needed not explain herself further.

Obi-Wan studied her undeniably beautiful features for another while - and a wary calmness settled on his shoulders. Typho may be right that none of this was really about Anakin, but Obi-Wan was certain that through this coming trial, the boy’s loyalty to the Jedi and to his very destiny would be tested unlike ever before.

He must have faith in him now. Anakin Skywalker might be born to be great, but only through trials and tribulations – temptations, too – was true greatness forged.

“On one condition,” Amidala announced. “I get to decide the itinerary.” 

-

Naboo.

Despite the shaky start, Anakin felt a giddy excitement surging through him. He’d always known that the day would come when he would return to the breathtakingly beautiful homeworld of Queen Amidala. Truthfully, he and Obi-Wan had stopped by a few times, mostly on quick errands that somehow never left any time for seeing old friends. And every time, Anakin’s heart had grown a little fonder, missed her a little bit more. Perhaps, a lot more.

And every time, he’d decided that the visit didn’t count. Every time, he’d grown surer that what was meant to be had not yet come to pass.

Naturally, he wished that she had chosen to go with him, and not been talked into it. He wished that he could have banished away the looming shadow of the Council, asking him to betray her trust. He wished that he could have done away with her enemies, the elusive cowards, by the power of righteous anger alone.

He wished that life were simpler. But he knew that it never had been, not for them. And he knew that he would take a single complicated moment with Padmé Amidala before a simple lifetime with someone else. 

Magnets for trouble, Obi-Wan had claimed. Initially, Anakin had failed to recognize the warning behind the words, which must have sounded harmless enough to another such magnet. Trouble, as in thrills. Trouble, as in adventure. But later on, Anakin had found himself deliberating on the words, over and over – and finally, at the spaceport, minutes before Obi-Wan's departure for Mandalore, he'd brought it up with his Master. Obi-Wan had favored him with a smile – he’d been pleased that Anakin had asked.

“I meant to explain it to you anyway,” he’d said. “Thank you for reminding me.”

Anakin had nodded, returned the smile. He always did enjoy these small moments of acknowledgement from his Master, who tended to be on the critical side.

“First, let me clarify,” Obi-Wan had began. “The Council does not keep tabs on these individuals, or anything like that. Their parents wanted them to have a choice, and we respect that, absolutely. However… there are many challenges to be faced in raising a Force-sensitive child, which they themselves inherit when growing into adulthood… It’s an arduous journey, and one where we Jedi can no longer offer a helping hand.”

Well, my Mom did just fine, Anakin had almost wanted to protest, but did not. A lot of complicated feelings lay buried beneath that lid, and he was not ready to go there, not yet.

“Sometimes, they will barely tap into their potential at all,” the Jedi Knight had continued. “But if they do… they might inadvertently cause harm to themselves, or others. They will have a hard time exercising control over an ability they don’t understand.” Obi-Wan made a heavy pause as his eyes shifted away from Anakin, then back to him. “For a long time, they might not recognize their powers… but the Force recognizes them. Recognizes their –”

“Use?”

“Talent. Destiny, even. They might find themselves drawn to a path they are ill-equipped to tread. They… attract danger. Attract powerful enemies.”

Anakin had studied his Master from under his brow. Apparently he wasn’t the only one with a ‘destiny.’ But… hadn’t Obi-Wan claimed earlier that the Jedi ultimately accepted the refusals as ‘the will of the Force’? How could the Force have a will that was at odds with this predetermined ‘destiny’?

How did any of that even make sense? 

But the Padawan had nodded silently, swallowing back his objections, and his questions. In the end, he had no reason to dispute his Master’s words – not right now – even if these ominous descriptions sit ill with Anakin’s own beliefs. He would be wise to hold his tongue now, focus on the task given to him, and decide for himself. Qui-Gon would have wanted him to use his own head. Obi-Wan might be fond of theory and patterns and consistency, but there were a great deal of things of which the older man knew nothing. He knew nothing about Anakin’s life before his Jedi days. He knew nothing about his relationship with the Force.

He knew nothing about Padmé. Obi-Wan had admitted it himself, that he’d only known of her dormant powers for a day and a half. And immediately he’d insinuated that she was somehow dangerous… attracted danger. Something about the suggestion sounded eerily familiar to Anakin’s ear.

Anakin shifted in the passenger seat, turning a dreamy gaze to the seasoned pilot beside him, preparing her Nubian star skiff for the coming hyperspace transition. If the Council wanted him to dig deeper into the curious case of Padmé Naberrie Amidala, then dig deeper he would. But he would do so on his own terms. The best way to earn someone’s trust was to trust them first.

“I know you have the Force.”

Padmé turned her head, long elaborate braids swinging with the movement. “What?”

“I just – I just wanted to get that out there,” Anakin offered, a hint of stutter stumbling back into his voice. Just a flash of those amber eyes, and already he was coming undone.

Padmé regarded him curiously as understanding registered on her face. She swung her legs over the edge of her seat so that her knees were now pointed toward him. Anakin found himself mirroring the action.

“What makes you say that?” she inquired casually, crossing her fingers on her lap.

Anakin had to look away for a moment, overwhelmed once again by her radiant beauty. “You… you remember when I touched your hand the other night?” he managed. “Before I left your room?”

“Yes…” she responded softly. “You… you seemed a little freaked out.”

“I was just surprised,” he explained with a slight chuckle. A spark of enthusiasm lit up in his chest, and he leaned in toward her. “Because I didn't know. Padmé, I… I felt it.” He spread out his arms, in a near reverential gesture. “I felt the Force. In you.”

Padmé stared at him in silence, a hesitant sort of smile ghosting about her lips. The engine beneath them gave a spirited roar just as the first warning blared about the impending hyperspace exit. Anakin waited, gaze lingering on her, continuing to mirror her movements as she glanced to the side, tilted her head, and grinned.

“Oh…” She untangled her fingers and reached out toward him. Then she casually lifted his faltering hand with both of hers, wrapping it in a gentle clasp. “Like this?”

Anakin felt a violent flush flood into his cheeks. His heart rate jumped to lightspeed and beyond.  

“Well, now you’re –“ he spluttered. “Now you're holding my hand… It was really just a –“

“Mistake,” Padmé proposed. “You made a mistake, Anakin.”

Anakin drew back. For a moment, he was sure that he’d misheard her. “What?”

“It's okay,” she went on soothingly, golden brown eyes looking up at him. “You were tired. But you see… I don’t have the Force, Anakin.”

Anakin blinked, struggling to comprehend the words. His head suddenly felt like lead on his shoulders. “…You don’t?” he whispered.

She shook her head, smiling. “No.”

Anakin tried to nod in cautious agreement – whatever her Ladyship says – but his head was spinning, and he didn’t want to risk losing balance. He felt his eyelids growing heavy, drooping lower, snapping open again. Padmé squeezed his hand tighter, and he grinned like an idiot.

“And even if I did,” she continued in that soft voice; a strange, hollow echo following in its wake. “I wouldn’t want to discuss the subject with you.”

“That's a –“ Anakin slurred. He had to lean his whole weight against her firm grasp on his hand. “Thassa… lil’ harsh.”

“But it’s not,” she sang, golden eyes shining wildly. “Because, you see, you never want to discuss the Force with me, either. And when you touched my hand that night… you felt nothing.

“Bu’ I…” Anakin tried to object, but he was sinking deeper and deeper, into a blissful, mellow nothingness. The world around him blurred together into a hazy fog, through which only those gleaming eyes could pierce. “Bu’ I feel…”

“And because you never want to discuss the Force with me… naturally, we never had this conversation.”

“…O-oh,” Anakin whispered. That’s a shame, he lamented, before his body slumped forward like a ragdoll and darkness wrapped him in a lukewarm embrace.

Anakin jerked awake to a familiar jolt that tore through the ship, the back of his head thumping against the seat.

They’d come out of hyperspace.

The Padawan turned a dreamy gaze to the seasoned pilot beside him, steering her Nubian star skiff toward the green and blue orb that could now be seen from the window. He shook his head with some embarrassment. “I'm sorry, Padmé – I must have dozed off for a moment.”

“I noticed, sleepyhead,” she replied teasingly.

“That's really weird…” Anakin muttered, scratching his neck. “I'm sorry… what were we talking about?”

“You were just saying how much you miss Naboo,” Padmé answered, gesturing to the greenish sphere awaiting their arrival, shining like a marble against the inky backdrop of space.

“Right…” Anakin chuckled, remembering. “Of course.”

Naboo.

Anakin felt a giddy excitement surging through him. He’d always known that the day would come when he would return to the breathtakingly beautiful homeworld of Queen Amidala. Truthfully, he and Obi-Wan had stopped by a few times, mostly on quick errands that somehow never left any time for seeing old friends. And every time, Anakin’s heart had grown a little fonder, missed her a little bit more. Perhaps, a lot more.

And every time, he’d decided that the visit didn’t count. Every time, he’d grown surer that what was meant to be had not yet come to pass.

Now they were here. 

Chapter Text

How many times had Obi-Wan heard any variation of 'you could never understand, Master'? Probably thousands. Had he always understood? No. What happened when he did understand? Mostly, nothing. 

Zooming into the atmosphere of the capital planet of the Mandalore system, Obi-Wan felt an itch to thoughtfully stroke his beard, but required both hands for steering the ship. Diving into the thick overlay of clouds was like a slide down the memory lane. If only Anakin knew how deeply his old, dull, wet blanket of a Master could actually sympathize with him this time. He, too had once been young, impetuous, and in a rush to prove himself. He, too had had an incomprehensible old-timer breathing down his neck, with lessons and lectures to spare that he wouldn't appreciate until much later in life, when half of them had taken on a cruelly ironic note.

And he, too had known infatuation and yearning and desire, mistaken tingles in funny places for love. He, too had once fancied himself the hero of a noble young lady.

And much like his Master before him, namely today; Anakin, too, would one day once again cross paths with that special first love, now a fine grown woman, smirk to himself with a fond sense of nostalgia, burdened no more with the need to impress. Drink a toast to the old times, perhaps, trade a friendly barb or two. If only Anakin knew what great times awaited him fifteen, twenty years down the line. How enviable the life of a wet blanket with a dry wit, drier cider, and a lifetime of memories.

Receiving landing permit, Obi-Wan peered out the window for a first glimpse of the spaceport. No sign of Master Yoda, Chancellor Organa, or Senator Mothma, all of whom he knew had arrived three days ahead of him. No former Jedi nor present Separatist leaders in sight. Then his gaze came to a dramatic halt, and he immediately forgot he'd even been looking. Even swathed in several layers of elaborate attire, he'd know that slender, statuesque frame anywhere. The Duchess was here.

Still, it wasn't until Obi-Wan had landed and disembarked that he saw it really was just her, accompanied by a small entourage, coming to meet him. A faint sense of wistfulness ran through the Jedi as he took in her minorly changed appearance: still just as stunning as he remembered her, with a thinner face, tenser shoulders, and more headdress visible than hair. But he had no time to dwell on that, before Satine Kryze of Mandalore had already thrown her arms around Obi-Wan's neck, craned over and whispered sharply into his ear, ”Something is wrong. We need your help.”

Scarcely had the words registered when she'd already pulled back and her fair face melted into smiles and welcomes and niceties. Obi-Wan brought his arms awkwardly to his sides. He'd hugged her back out of sheer muscle memory.

”We cannot thank you enough for agreeing to host the peace negotiations,” Obi-Wan offered back, summoning an appropriately formal tone to greet the dedicated leader of the steadfastly neutral system. Satine smiled appreciatively, but continued to act stiffly all the way to the transport as the two engaged in an almost amusingly wooden exercise of small talk. Sundari is looking grand as ever, you look well; well, you look beautiful, the economy is what it is…

It wasn't until they were on the transport shuttle that the Duchess cast him a pointed look again, and with a simple nod, Obi-Wan indicated that he'd heard her loud and clear.

-

They'd had to skip the capital city of Theed entirely – which Padmé had made many apologies about, knowing how excited Anakin was about the visit – as the Senate had deemed it too much of a risk, given the central location, as well as the recent miner crisis. And they'd had to skip Padmé's childhood home, too, but only because no one was home at present. The Naberrie family, as it turned out, had spent the last week at their villa in the Lake Country of Naboo, with plans to return to town in a day or two.

That was where the Jedi and the Senator were heading now – and so far Anakin was having the time of his life. He was so impressed with the scenery alone, he'd totally forgotten to be nervous about meeting Padmé's family. The Lake Country was the complete antithesis of the dry and dreary Tatooine: vibrant greens and blues dominated the terrain, with occasional splotches of more exotic yellows, pinks and purples, and accompanying scents hovering across the air. The air smelled hypnotizingly fresh to the nostril and filled the lungs with an almost cleansing sensation, pure and crisp, like it had just rained. But according to Padmé, it most likely had not: this time of year, the island of Varykino would bask in balmy sunlight for weeks on end, and the showery season would only hit next month or so.

They'd parked the skiff in the outskirts of the island just so that they could take a bit of a detour and Anakin could admire the landscape. About halfway to the villa, he decided to make this into more of an interactive experience, trying to mimic the melodious tweeting of the birds perched high above in the trees. The tentative whistling and humming soon dissolved into a full set of lyrics, some of it improvised, some verses from his childhood, and still other bits from folk songs that he'd heard on his adventures with Obi-Wan.

Padmé watched him with curiosity, but Anakin did not realize he was making any sound until she flashed a smile and commented, ”That's pretty good. Hidden talent?”

Anakin blushed, suddenly self-conscious. ”Nah,” he denied. ”It's just… something I do from time to time. Obi-Wan says I just need to be making noise even when I have nothing to say.”

Padmé smirked sympathetically. ”That's not noise.” 

Anakin grinned, feeling his cheeks heat up from the compliment. But as they walked onward – the villa had just come into view from between the trees – he was struck with a funny sensation. An empty, nameless feeling wouldn't stop gnawing at him – it was something about the conversation they'd just had – and he turned to Padmé, fixing her with a piercing gaze. 

”You have any hidden talents, milady?” he asked, without any thought process behind the question.

Padmé met his eyes without blinking. ”That assumes I'm humble enough to keep my talents hidden,” she retorted, not missing a beat, almost as though she were answering a common interview question.

”Everyone's got to have one,” Anakin prodded on, not entirely sure why he was pressing the subject.

Padmé stopped in her tracks, the hem of her travel gown swinging lightly in the wind. ”You know what?” she intoned. ”I'm an adequate arm-wrestler.”

”Arm-wrestling?” Anakin echoed in amazement. ”Really?”

”Uh-huh,” she nodded, lifting up a slender arm with a flourish, ”Well, come on then.” 

”Right now?” Anakin demurred, already finding his hand firmly lodged in hers. ”We don't have a table, or anything for support –” He kept glancing toward the lake house, barely a stone's throw from them.

”You scared, Jedi?” Padmé taunted, and Anakin's attention was instinctively drawn back to her, locked into the depths of her golden eyes.

Next thing he knew, they'd arrived at the villa, Padmé's family had gathered around the pair in the garden, and her nieces were being prodded into saying hello to their 'new Jedi uncle.' Temporary Jedi uncle. Permanent Jedi uncle? It was only after the initial bustle had quieted down and the party were sitting down for lunch, that Anakin realized that he couldn't remember how they'd gotten there, or who had won the arm wrestling match.

-

The peace negotiations were to take place at a relatively unassuming conference hall at a fair distance from the city center. The official starting time was in a half-hour, but both sides' representatives, save Obi-Wan, were already well settled in. The Jedi Knight was led into an unadorned assembly room with a long table, at the opposite sides of which the opposite sides of the conflict were seated. A few respectable news outlets were also present – and one that shoved a microphone straight into Obi-Wan's mouth, demanding juicy details about the history between him and the Duchess. Satine herself had retreated into an adjacent room to perform her largely passive duty as the official hostess and a neutral party to the conflict.

The nosy reporter was promptly shown the door, and the seven persons at the table all looked up at newcomer. And it was only then that Obi-Wan could sense it - the heavy tension in the room. Which would have been normal, given the strained, high-pressure state of affairs – yet there was something else bleeding in, a slight 'offness' in the Force, a fissure in the solid rock upon which they relied.

Obi-Wan exchanged quick handshakes and uneasy smiles with Chancellor Organa and Senator Mothma, then turned to Master Yoda, whose gaze, once reflecting a wisdom beyond the first glint of mischief, had grown glassy and clouded. A new ripple of apprehension passed through the Jedi Knight. More and more he got the feeling that Windu had been right – and that Satine had been, too.

Obi-Wan's first meeting with Qui-Gon's old Master flashed by without ceremony – too distracted by the overall tenseness, the Jedi gave mechanical responses to the pleasure this, heard great things, that. His first impression of the man was that he struck a very tall and imposing figure, and carried a certain air of self-importance, of superiority, almost. As the room dissolved into yet another uncomfortable session of small talk – in which Master Yoda took no part – Obi-Wan corrected his conduct a little. He might not be too keen on politics, but he could already tell that in these entirely bizarre circumstances, he might just have a key part to play.

The reason for the tenseness soon became evident as the negotiations started proper and the opposite side presented their first draft of the peace treaty, which had apparently already been shown (off the record) to the more punctual Republic representatives. Obi-Wan scrolled down the holopad with growing alarm, requiring several re-reads before he could wrap his head around the implications of it all.

”In other words,” Obi-Wan coughed into the heavy silence. ”In exchange for ensuring the peaceful reattachment of the seceded systems, and essentially killing your whole cause, you would have us completely reform our constitution and just…” He waved a hand over the holopad, struggling to maintain a neutral tone. ”…hand you all this power?” 

”Quite right, Master Kenobi,” Count Dooku confirmed. ”Except I would hardly be killing our cause, but rather… organically incorporating it into the Republic agenda. A worthy cause follows its father, you see. And now more than ever, you need the father. It is no accident that our movement has seen such rapid growth in such a short time frame. At the risk of sounding banal, the times have changed.”

”For obvious reasons we cannot agree to these terms,” Chancellor Organa stated curtly, shaking his head.

Dooku's lip curled up. ”Well, that's what these negotiations are for. Reaching an… agreement.”

-

The Naberries were all perfectly nice, hospitable… normal people. Anakin wasn't sure why he was so hung up on the 'normal' part – what else could he have expected? Ruwee and Jobal Naberrie were an amiable couple, at that jolly, not-yet-elderly age where their primary pursuits consisted of spoiling their grandchildren and bombarding reserved young men with dad jokes and existential questions. Padmé's elder sister Sola was a devoted mother and a sharp-witted conversationalist, her husband Darred a more introverted presence who seemed to have largely graduated from being on the receiving end of the bombardment to a fully-fledged family member. 

Padmé's nieces, Ryoo and Pooja, overcame their initial shyness in record time and proceeded to take a special interest in Anakin's Padawan braid. Deciding that their new Jedi uncle must be a hairstyle expert – a title more deserved by any of the Naberrie women – they'd started demanding such blatant impossibilities as 'the nuna tails' (the what now?) and 'the Alderaan buns' (like those he had once seen on Queen Breha?) Forcibly dragged outside by both hands, then sat down in the grass in front of an enormous heap of hair trinkets, Anakin quickly found he had very little say in the matter. Darred graciously provided him with some reference pictures from the Holonet, while the Naberrie sisters just laughed at the Padawan's plight, liberated for once from their own hair duties. Anakin flashed a rueful grin as he grabbed a tuft of Pooja's curly hair and started working 'the magic.' 

In truth, Anakin would have liked nothing more than to let the magic carry him away. To kick back and enjoy these frivolities, to lounge away in the sun on this paradise island, and get to know the family of the woman he loved. But something was tugging at him in the recesses of his mind, keeping him from relaxing. Was it the constant threat to Padmé's life? Maybe. Was it because he was so madly, all-consumingly in love with her, and feared rejection? Could be. But as the afternoon carried on, more and more Anakin suspected that neither of those was, in fact, the reason.

There was a factual inconsistency that Anakin had become aware of that he couldn't explain for the life of him. He clearly recalled how Obi-Wan had explained to him, with quite some detail, too, that Padmé Naberrie was born Force-sensitive, but kept by her parents as a baby. He could recollect the wordings his Master had used, his expressions as he'd said them. Denied their destiny as Jedi. Will of the Force. Magnets for trouble. He even remembered getting halfway offended on Padmé's behalf, feeling a need to defend his lady's honor. He remembered being enthusiastic about the idea.

At the same time, he was utterly, one hundred percent certain that Padmé Amidala did not, in fact, have the Force. She just simply did not. Not only that, he was certain that he shouldn't even bother bringing up the subject, that she'd be bored by such talk, or upset. Even as he remembered his duty to the Jedi, the investigation, he just couldn't convince himself that it was a good idea, or that he should even consider the possibility. 

No, Anakin decided. They were wrong, and she was right. He was right.

Padmé Amidala did not need the Force to be magnificent.

And as for the investigation…

Anakin intuitively lifted his eyes from Ryoo's dark locks from a moment, as his Force-enhanced hearing picked up a conversation between Padmé and her father just outside the villa's front door. They were examining a large, pitch black blotch on the wall directly beside the door – which, Anakin quickly concluded, he must have missed earlier, seeing as the door had been wide open and covering the area when they'd arrived.

It looked to be some kind of burn mark.

”Probably just a nasty bolt of lightning,” Ruwee was saying.

”Lightning…” Padmé mused quietly, moving her hand over the inky splotch.

”Bit of a funny angle, though,” Ruwee observed. ”And thunderstorms, this time of year… I don't know. For a vandalism attempt it's very half-hearted, don't you think?”

”Dad…”

”Yes, sweetheart?”

”You still have a few days of vacation left, right? All of you?”

”I told you, we all – except Little Miss Workaholic – specifically coordinated our schedules just so we could –”

”Have the girls ever been to Alderaan? I know they like Alderaanian hairstyles.”

”We're not going to Alderaan, sweetie, can you imagine what a hassle that would –” 

”Have I ever mentioned I actually have a secondary senatorial apartment right in the outskirts of the capital? That is, it's not mine, specifically, but I can book it for my personal use when I'm in town. Two floors, four bedrooms, and it's just a couple of klicks from the National Park –” 

”Padmé, that's very sweet of you, but you know how my back gets these days –” 

”They have nerfs, Dad. Pooja would love the nerfs. Mom would love the nerfs.” 

”Sweetie, where's all this coming from? Why the sudden hurry to ship us away? If you wanted to brag about your senatorial perks, you should have just said so.” 

”Dad…” She melted into that bell-like laughter again. 

Chapter Text

”I'm doing… well, thank you, Master. Naboo is… beautiful.”

The flickering hologram of Anakin bit his lip and shrugged. 

”Right…" Obi-Wan mused on the other end. "Any new developments? Of course, no development is a good development.”

”Uh…” the blue miniature Anakin did another uncomfortable dance with his shoulders.

”Well, spit it out, for Force's sake,” Obi-Wan ordered.

Anakin hesitated some, then frowned, as though in labored concentration. ”You know how you said that untrained Force-sensitives… that their potential will dwindle with time? I think… maybe that's the case with Padmé, as well.” The Padawan paused for a while, his eyes wandering, like he was trying to catch a lost train of thought. ”At least… nothing else makes sense to me.”

Obi-Wan frowned. ”Nothing else makes sense… how?”

Anakin shook his head. “Forget about it.”

Obi-Wan adjusted the holoprojector into a better position on the guest room floor, trying to decode his ever-enigmatic apprentice. This time, though, he believed he'd already solved the mystery.

”Anakin,” he addressed the boy softly, ”I think I know what this is about –”

”No, it's –” Anakin immediately cut him off, his smooth teenaged face crinkling in frustration. ”It's not that. And that is not even a thing.”

”And what would 'that' be?”

”Like I said – not a thing. I mean – I just don't think she's dangerous, or anything like that, okay?”

Obi-Wan sighed. Sometimes he wondered how the two of them even managed to make lunch plans or ask to go to the 'fresher without miscommunicating and winding up lost in the woods for days.

Now that he thought about it, there was that time on Kashyyyk –

”I never said she was, Anakin,” Obi-Wan stated calmly, and Anakin fell silent, scowling. Obi-Wan studied him closely. Something about the Padawan's defensiveness struck his Master as odd, too deliberate, and he followed with, ”Is there anything else?”

Anakin nodded, straightening his posture. Suddenly all hostility cleared from his features. “I think… I think someone might be threatening Padmé’s family. And her, by extension. Probably the same people who are responsible for that assassination attempt on Coruscant. Or at least… she seems to believe so.”

“What?” Obi-Wan uttered, taken aback.

Anakin’s chin almost vibrated in confirmation. He proceeded to explain how Amidala’s father (whom he had questioned in private) had found a large black burn mark just beside the lake house’s front door when they'd arrived there a week back, and deduced the wall had been hit by lightning. But Amidala seemed to believe otherwise, and had spent the last day trying to coax her family into taking refuge on Alderaan. So far her persuasion attempts had been unsuccessful, though – she refused to communicate her true reasons; the father had a bad back, the sister was feeling tired and homesick, and the brother-in-law hated space travel.

Obi-Wan couldn’t quite connect the dots here. Assuming the dark patch was indeed some kind of intimidation tactic… as far as threats went, was it not fairly underwhelming, a little too dubious, especially when it could be easily mistaken for weather damage? Even with the recent trauma possibly clouding her judgment, he didn't see why Amidala would immediately jump to such a dramatic conclusion.

“Most likely she is just overreacting,” the Jedi Knight mused, “but do keep an eye open, and try to find out why she thinks it could be a purposeful threat. I assume the Naberries are aware of Amidala's precarious situation, in any case, so I would trust them to draw their own conclusions and make their decision accordingly.”

Anakin offered back a grave nod. “So… how are things on Mandalore?”

Obi-Wan had to stifle a groan, instead rubbing two fingers across his forehead. “I’m afraid we might be here for while.”

“I’m sorry, Master." 

“Don’t bother being sorry for my sake, young one. If you have to lament, lament the state of the Galaxy.”

“I take it you’re enjoying yourself, then?” Anakin grinned.

“I have some… trusted allies in the neighborhood, yes.”

“You say that about every neighborhood.”

“Well, this… this is a particularly hospitable one.”

Anakin grimaced suspiciously. “O-kay?”

-

A good majority of the Naberries were missing from the breakfast table, and the two that weren't hardly commented on their absence. Theirs seemed to be a fairly relaxed family dynamic where everyone came and went as it suited them, but at the end of the day something always brought them together: a spontaneous swim in the lake, holomovie night, some exhibition that the girls had put together.

Anakin had to admit, in spite of everything – the uncanny holes in his memory, the burn mark – he’d been having a good time. Perhaps graduating to a family member wasn’t such a long and laborious trial as he’d imagined it to be. Within the first half-day, everyone had just kind of accepted his presence there, at the family’s private lake resort, fully and almost unceremoniously embraced the young Padawan learner. No one had thought to question his age nor his professional competence. He almost… blended into the scenery at this point.

Anakin wasn’t sure he had never known such instantaneous acceptance, such easy, natural trust. Not from complete strangers, anyway. He didn’t know if he deserved it, but he felt grateful. He felt… happy.

At least, he thought he could be happy.

He thought he could be happy here.

He could dream.

“Uncle Anakin…” Pooja rounded the table and scuttled over to Anakin, presently munching on the freshest, most delicious fruit he’d ever tasted, which he didn’t even know the name of. She was sheepishly pulling on her sleep-tangled curls. “Can you make me that kaadu egg bun again?" 

“Yesterday you said it was ugly,” Anakin sighed warmly.

“Yeah, but it…” An impish glint sparked in the girl’s eyes. “It grew on me!”

Anakin quirked his eyebrows and pointed an acknowledging finger at her. “A-ha! A pun. You’re very clever, Pooja.”

At that, the little girl blushed, whirled about, and went round the table again, now settling next to Padmé. She waved her tiny hand significantly until her aunt craned over and she could (loudly) whisper into her ear, “Auntie Padmé, what do you think of Uncle Anakin?”

Now it was Anakin’s turn to blush, though he tried to cover it up with a smile and a playful tilt of his head. Padmé narrowed her eyes at him in mock-inspection.

“Are you sure you want to know?” she inquired ominously from Pooja.

“…N-no,” her little niece spluttered after some consideration.

“I could tell you,” Padmé teased on, leaning in closer. “I think Anakin is –“

“No, I don’t want to know,” was Pooja’s final verdict, before she scampered right back to Anakin again, bluntly pushing away his fully-loaded plate and slamming a hairbrush into his lap. “Do the ugly bun.”

Anakin shrugged, locking eyes with Padmé again as he grabbed the brush. “I should just quit being a Jedi and apply for that whole handmaiden gig.”

“Then who will Obi-Wan have to make him pretty?” Padmé worried, and Anakin burst into exuberant laughter.

He never wanted to leave here.

The styling session came to an abrupt and tragic stop however – at this stage, the bizarre bird nest on top of Pooja's head barely fulfilled the minimum requirement of 'ugly' – when Sola and Ryoo came clomping down the stairs from their bedchambers, trying to balance three heavy-looking suitcases.

“Oh, let me help you with those,” Anakin volunteered, wasting no time in scurrying up the steps and, dismissing their protests, grabbing all of the luggage.

“Why, thank you, Anakin,” Sola praised, sing-song, shooting what Anakin could have sworn was a sly glance at her little sister. “Quite the gentleman.”

“Couldn't you use the Force to float those?” Ryoo asked skeptically. Anakin, already halfway down the stairs, grinned at her lopsidedly, then shook his head in resignation. How did Darred ever unwrap himself from his daughters' manipulative fingers?

By the time Anakin had finished floating the last of the leaden suitcases downstairs, to a thunderous round of applause, Ruwee and Darred had joined them, themselves with lots of luggage that Anakin thankfully didn't have to levitate.

“I didn't realize you were leaving so early,” Anakin said, really a little sad to see them go. “Thanks for everything, this has been really great.”

“Lovely meeting you, Anakin,” Sola smiled, leaning in for a casual hug. This was followed by several more hugs, or rather, huggers – in honesty, Anakin could not remember the last time he'd received so many hugs within the timespan of twenty seconds.

“Have a safe journey home,” Anakin wished.

“Oh, I guess we failed to mention it,” Jobal said, reaching to adjust the front of Anakin's wrinkled Jedi robes. “We decided to take that trip to Alderaan, after all. Why not, right?”

“Oh… really?” 

“Yeah, it's funny,” Sola commented, stretching her arms theatrically. “I was feeling so exhausted yesterday, I couldn't wait to get home… just slump in my favorite chair and watch cheesy holodramas. Drink some wine,” she added under her breath, trying to be discreet around her children, before smiling absent-mindedly. “But now I'm so excited about going. Changed my mind like that,” she chuckled with a playful snap of her fingers. “So funny.”

For some reason, this made Anakin frown, though out loud he expressed nothing but his utter and complete approval. He cast a quick glance at Ruwee and Darred, who were both laughing at something Padmé had said.

Indeed, the only one who expressed any sort of reluctance to the spontaneous change of plans was a teary-eyed Pooja, who, before embarking on the Naberries' private transport, scurried over to Anakin and gifted her new stylist no fewer than five velvet hair bows, for 'practice'.

“Shall we practice, then?” Padmé intoned as soon as they'd finished waving their goodbyes, and the ship vanished high into the clouds; grabbing a golden yellow ribbon from Anakin's hand. For some reason, her touch made him flinch a little, but he put this down to his nerves. 

“Padmé…” he uttered as she began to tie the trinket around his tiny ponytail at the back of his head. “Do they… do they know why you sent them away?”

Behind his back was only silence. “Do they know?” Anakin pressed on, until Padmé stopped what she was doing and whispered, “There's nothing to know. They know about the assassination attempt, if that's what you mean. Except the girls. Which is why –“

“You're all acting so happy-go-lucky?” Anakin craned his head back. 

“Mm-hm.”

“So…” Anakin tried to whirl around, but she resumed fiddling with his hair. “About that burn mark…”

“It's most likely nothing,” she hurried to assure him.

“Okay,” Anakin conceded, ”but in case it isn't… why would you assume it's a threat? I mean… it really looks like it could just be lightning damage. At first glance, anyway.”

“I… I'm not sure,” she hesitated. “As I said… it's probably nothing. I suppose I just… I needed an excuse. To put my mind at ease.”

“Padmé,” Anakin heard his voice rising ever so slightly, “they didn't even want to go, but you insisted on it. You insisted. Please, if you think there's anything –“

“You know,” she cut him short, rounding to his front and opening his fist anew. Again, Anakin recoiled at first, inexplicably; but let her examine the four unused ribbons as she held his hand, then looked him in the eye. “I'm not sure such a bright yellow really matches your eyes. Let's try a nice baby blue.”

Her touch was intoxicating.

-

Peace negotiations were never the simplest or smoothest of affairs, but nobody could have anticipated such an unmitigated disaster, either. Perhaps 'disaster' was the wrong word – if not a bad omen – for anything that had not yet broken into an open conflict, but at this stage it was hard to see how that undesirable outcome could possibly still be avoided.

Chancellor Organa and Senator Mothma had both approached these negotiations with the mindset that the Republic would not be the one to declare war, under any circumstances – whereas Dooku had apparently taken it upon himself to leave them without a choice. Every day, he and his aides would strut into that assembly room with a minorly modified version of the utterly insulting peace treaty that they had first presented. The current draft would grant the current Separatist leader the title and office of 'Chief Adviser', a position that currently did not exist in the Republic Senate, vesting in him a range of powers only second to those of the Supreme Chancellor. Perhaps most egregiously, it would give him control over the seceded systems' legislation, allowing him to craft a completely new constitution for each system, supposedly in dialogue with their respective leadership – which very much sounded like code for taking advantage of the systems' anti-Republic stance and legalizing the unlimited exploitation of their resources.

It was such an obvious, flagrant coup attempt, Dooku should have been laughed off the planet by now, but this was easier said than done. Every day, it seemed, in addition to the increasingly offensive peace treaty, Dooku would walk into the negotiations with some new, unforeseen trump card. For the most part, his deck boasted powerful Mid Rim and Core Worlds that had recently and unexpectedly joined the Separatist movement, but yesterday's shocking turn of events had caused an outright PR disaster for the Republic. 

Several sources were now reporting from Kamino that the Republic had actually been preparing for war for more than a decade now, in secret, and were developing - of all things - an army of human clones for this purpose. While such claims had initially been dismissed as utterly absurd, the Republic had had little choice but to consent to a full investigation. This alarming development had postponed the next stage of the negotiations by at least two weeks, unless the Chancellor should agree to the peace treaty as it stood now – or declare war, with a secret clone army or without. 

“For the first time since I was Knighted – or perhaps, the second – I don't really know what they expect of me,” Obi-Wan confessed to Satine one night, over a treacherously quiet and harmonious view from one of the many balconies at the Sundari palace. “Did they think that seeing his old Master and his Grand-Padawan would remind this man of his Jedi honor? Such a blatant thirst for power has never been a Jedi trait. It's like negotiating with a bottomless pit.”

“You always had a way of finding your way out of those,” Satine reminded him, a smirk playing on her lips as she leaned her forearms against the balcony railing. “Often ruining my dress in the process.”

Obi-Wan couldn't help a huff of laughter. “I feel as if this analogy is beginning to gain some troubling implications.”

"Oh, they'll take Mandalore over my dead body," the Duchess declared fearlessly, before her countenance softened and she added with a smile, "But now that you're here, Obi, I doubt it'll come to that."

"I just get the feeling," Obi-Wan muttered, staring into the dimmed sunset of the dome-protected capital, "that there's something we're missing. It's almost as though Dooku's trying to drag out the negotiations. What is he waiting for, I wonder?"    

-

The next few days at Varykino flew by in a strange, wonderful blur, like the morning mist that settled over Naboo's plentiful meadows. If Anakin had been happy before, now he was finally… at peace. He couldn't quite explain the feeling, couldn't explain what had changed. He supposed he ought to have been concerned about the burn mark, still, or his continual memory loss, or… something. And he had a duty observe, too, a duty to his client as well as to the Jedi. But as the days fluttered by, each more beautiful than the last, with a warmer sun, fresher air and clearer waters – he could feel his worries tranquilly drifting away with the wind.

At the end of each day, he would still report to his Master and the Council – if he remembered – if only to assure them that all was well. On one night, Obi-Wan had asked if Anakin was tired, because his eyelids were sagging, his voice sort of slurry.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Anakin wasn't tired. On the contrary, finally free of the exhausting anxiety looming over his every thought, he was suddenly left with a positive overabundance of energy.

And buried beneath it… that aching, painful yearning in his chest, now constant, uninterrupted.

And he knew, for both of those ailments, the island of Varykino had every remedy. 

Chapter Text

Long before their fated reunion had finally become reality, Anakin had been wanting to confess his feelings to Padmé. Every night since that once-distant pipe dream had come true, he’d resolved to do it. He’d gone over different wordings and memories and metaphors in his head. He’d tried to predict how she might react, what she might say, brace himself for every eventuality. He’d thought about just risking it all and planting a soft one on her lips. 

There were moments when he thought he saw something pass over her features, a different glint in her eyes, a lingering gaze, or a smile, a special sort of smile. Everything, he now found, had been so much simpler back when he could but dream about that smile, picture its shape in the clouds and constellations above. The mere idea that she might actually return – that she might actually feel – no, the mere idea that she was here at all, that every day he was so greatly blessed as to wake up to her presence – and at the same time, that he was thus obligated to do, or say… something, was suddenly so overwhelming to him, he’d already forgotten more of his mental poetry than he would probably ever be able to spit out.

He knew that any day now (unlikely as it might seem at present), a peace treaty could be finalized, or Padmé’s enemies arrested, and as much as he wanted both to happen, he also knew it would mean the end of their little getaway on Naboo, their own private, fleeting paradise. And he knew he would never get another chance like this.

He could be watching his vision – of her, in a floaty white dress, gazing into his eyes as tranquil waters sang their soothing hymn – come true before his very eyes, if he so chose. Or he could let it wash away with the tides of time, onto the shore of missed opportunities, be buried in the sands of should haves and could have beens.

The future was always in motion. But Anakin remained petrified.

“How’s the water?” Padmé called him from the shore. The Naberries’ private beach was just as beautiful and grand as every other place in the picturesque Lake Country, with heaps of silky soft white sand, not the coarse, gravelly kind of which Tatooine had no shortage. The water felt like a gentle hand’s caress on his skin and the sunlight glimmered off the surface like tiny diamonds.

“You try it,” Anakin suggested, splashing some her way while wading in the shallow water. The droplets fell on the folds of her flowy turquoise sundress as she giggled and scrunched up her nose. Anakin grinned, his eyes sparkling with adoration. Once again, in such a small, passing moment, she just lit up his entire existence. “You know, I didn’t use to be such a strong swimmer,” he admitted, walking back to the shore. “Not a whole lot of puddles to practice in in the desert.”

“I didn’t even think of that,” confessed Padmé, who had earlier shared some stories about the beach and the first few summers she’d spent here at Varykino. Envy was perhaps the wrong word, but they did paint a picture of about as different a childhood from his as could be, almost a parallel universe. 

“But I figured it out pretty fast,” the Padawan hurried to add. “I guess you pick up most things fast when you have – “ Anakin stopped, falling dead silent. He lowered his gaze to the ripples forming around his ankles across the water. The Force, he’d wanted to say. But once again, he was struck with the irrepressible feeling that –

What was he doing anyway, boasting about such mundane stuff?

“…When you have a good teacher,” he finally spluttered, smiling and sitting down in the sand beside her.

“You know, I still haven’t really worked it out,” Padmé laughed. “Do you actually like Obi-Wan or not?”

“Well, it’s not really about liking, I guess,” Anakin explained, his mind still half-absent over whatever had just happened. He ruffled his hair. “I know that probably sounds bad, but… I mean, you don’t get choose your family, right? I mean, I guess most Masters would normally pick their own Padawans…” Anakin stopped to catch his breath mid-ramble, chuckling nervously. “I’m doing a really bad job of explaining this, aren’t I?”

“Not at all,” Padmé reassured him, her gorgeous features framed by the chestnut locks glimmering in the sun, falling on her shoulders and down her bare back. “You think of him as family. That’s right, I think you told me that before.”

“You – you just have the best family,” Anakin beamed, feeling his pulse speeding up in his chest, first drops of sweat running down his brow. “I can’t believe how nice they all are. I mean, hypothetically – if you could just pick families off the shelf –“ The Padawan groaned internally. Now he had no choice but to go along with this dumb thought experiment. “They… wouldn’t be in the 50% off basket, that’s for sure.”

Mercifully, Padmé was grinning from ear to ear, which Anakin took as encouragement to continue – just as soon as he got his breathing under control. “And they really have – “ He motioned awkwardly toward her. Raised such a wonderful daughter. No, he didn’t want to say that. It sounded like something a friend of her parents might say, or an overly familiar dancing instructor who wore too much hair gel.

“They have…?” Padmé wanted to know nevertheless.

“They have… a really big house,” Anakin panicked, peering over the lake in avoidance of her gaze. And now he sounded like a gold-digger, at best. "I mean… a beautiful house. Is it like… traditional Naboo architecture?”

Padmé just gave a warm laughter. "I believe so, seeing as it's several centuries old. Darred is an architect, actually, I believe he was able to trace it back to a specific time period, when domed ceilings were coming back into fashion.”

Anakin nodded in eager agreement and boundless fascination. He’d not caught a word of what she had just said.

-

Two times now, Dooku had requested that Senator Amidala replace Senator Mothma as one of the negotiators for the Republic. Both times, he'd naturally been refused, and the message never conveyed to the Senator herself. At first, they'd dismissed the request as some sort of dark humor, seeing as the Separatists were still being investigated for Amidala's attempted murder just as the Republic was being investigated for their secret war preparations. But then, Obi-Wan had begun to wonder.

Was Dooku insinuating something here? There had once been a time when Obi-Wan would have never believed something like that of a former Jedi, but after the last week, spending hours upon hours in the same room with the man, as cold-blooded as he was enigmatic, he wasn't so sure anymore. And Dooku had to know that the mere speculation that would ensue from Amidala's inclusion in the negotiations might just start the war by itself, and Obi-Wan still didn't know whether that was indeed Dooku's endgame or not.

He'd even had Anakin try to discreetly inquire from Amidala whether she and Dooku shared some kind of connection, and the Jedi Knight had personally looked into the matter himself, but both sources seemed to indicate a firm 'no.'

And he knew he wasn't going to get any answers from Dooku. He could but pray to the Force that this awful business would be all over soon, and that peace could ultimately prevail over their differences.

-

Anakin had now accepted that ‘the right moment’ might never manifest itself – or alternately, that it might pass him by every other second. He’d acknowledged that ‘the right words’ might get stuck in his throat, or that he might start rambling about how the paint had smelled when he’d first moved into his quarters at the Jedi Temple, or what specific spare parts he was looking for his next tinkering project, and why their series was numbered the way it was. He didn’t know why, but all of this he had accepted as reality, and he no longer cared about sounding like a poet, he just needed to get the words out, toss the ball into her court.

And yet something was still holding him back, and for the life of him he couldn’t fathom what. He could barely contain himself anymore, there was never a moment when he was not looking at her, thinking about her, staring into the golden glimmer of her eyes or at the soft fair skin left bare by her sheer summer dresses. He didn't even worry about rejection anymore, he just wanted her to know. His heart was writhing in agony, as though wanting to bleed dry but obstructed by a great dam. And he alone could open the gates.

“Oh, I'm sorry,” Anakin apologized as he bumped into a female servant in the corridor one evening. Sometimes it was easy to forget that he and Padmé weren't actually the only two people at the villa, as the servants of the house were downright ghostlike in their movements and called very little attention to themselves. Still, he was fairly sure there were only two, maybe three of them, all female, at least as far as Anakin could tell from their hooded gowns.

“I'm so sorry, Master Jedi,” the young woman lamented in reply, scurrying on her way before Anakin could ask her name or engage in any other pleasantries. Anakin shrugged. He didn't bite.

He found Padmé in an elegant lounging room with a fireplace, wearing an inky black number with a low cut and glittering details. He swallowed. Maybe he should have prepared an eloquent, ready-made speech after all, because if he just opened his mouth now, something stupid might come out. 

She had a holopad propped on her lap, and smiled at Anakin a little distractedly as he entered. But it wasn't only distraction that he saw on her face. Sometimes, her smiles would have a strange, broken quality to them, almost a sadness, but one that seemed to discourage further inquiry. Of course, he had inquired, a few times even, but every time she would just skirt around the question and assure him that everything was fine. And he had no reason to doubt her words, really.

“Catching up with the news?” he asked instead. Anakin was just about aware of what was going on on Mandalore with the extremely troubled peace negotiations, but he knew that Padmé, as per demands of her profession, had been following them more closely.

“Y-yes,” she replied absent-mindedly, putting down the holopad.

Anakin took a deep breath. He wasn't about to pass up an opportunity to impress Senator Amidala, but frankly he wasn't sure that he could even pull off a conversation about politics. The intricacies and nuances of that world were often completely lost on him, although he did have some strong opinions about the efficiency of the current administrative system.

“They still haven't come to an agreement?”

“The negotiations remain on hold, yes.”

Anakin moved to sit down next to her, trying to avert his eyes from her exposed collarbones. “You know, I don't necessarily believe this Dooku is the answer…”

“But?” Padmé prompted. 

“I do believe we need someone with his level of confidence to lead the Republic. Chancellor Organa is… alright, I suppose, but he's just too much of a diplomat. Nothing ever gets done that way. There's no real change unless someone just up and takes action.”

“And usually that someone is a common warmonger,” Padmé remarked dryly. 

“Exactly!” Anakin agreed, maybe with too much passion, judging by her widened eyes. He tried to gather himself before continuing, “But it doesn't have to be that way. It could be someone who has the people's best interest in mind. Or, I don't know, a small council of people, the wisest people in the Galaxy. And then they'd just sit down, determine the right thing to do, then do it. Just… do it.

"The right thing to do?”

“The right thing to do.”

“And how are these very wise people supposed to determine 'the right thing to do'?”

“Well…” Anakin hesitated. “Helping people is right. Most politicians these days are just helping their own wallets.”

Padmé raised her eyebrows, and Anakin hurried to clarify, “Not you, obviously. It's just…” The Padawan pursed his lips. “I wish someone would spare an eye to the suffering that's going on beyond their immediate field of vision. Lend an ear to those who have been… silenced. The voices they know are there, even if they cannot be heard.”

Anakin caught himself staring at the crackling fire, eyes glazed, fists clenched. Next to him, Padmé shifted in her seat. “We are,” she countered quietly. “But you know it's not so simple as 'just doing it.'”

“Maybe it should be!” Anakin spat, with a sudden aggression that startled them both. He looked away from Padmé's baffled gaze - or perhaps a frown - his body twisting with the movement until he could feel those amber eyes on his back.

As far as confessing went, no, it certainly wasn't as simple as 'just doing it.' 

Later that night (after a supremely uncomfortable evening), Anakin found himself twisting and turning in his bed, wide awake and ashamed. He knew he didn't exactly have a way with words or anything, but he'd never imagined actually lashing out at Padmé, the person least responsible for and least deserving of whatever pent-up anger he carried within himself. Before long he had to get up, rubbing his temples while he groggily wandered downstairs. Even in the dead of night, some natural light flowed inside from the large windows.

“Padmé!” Anakin exclaimed as he raised his drowsy eyes and saw a white-clad figure, illuminated by the window behind her. Her eyes were wide and her mouth had dropped open in surprise.

Anakin rushed over to her in relief. He couldn't stand to wait a moment longer. “Padmé, I'm so glad you're awake,” he sighed, just stopping himself short of embracing her. His mind half-registered her odd choice of clothing – a pristine white action attire and combat boots – but he surmised that she had probably been up and doing something active all along. “I'm sorry about today, I feel terrible,” he went on as she just stood before him, expressionless. “None of what I said was directed at you, I just want you to know that. I just have some – Whenever I start thinking about certain things too hard –“  

“Anakin –“ Padmé tried to interrupt.

“Just let me explain,” Anakin protested, motioning about with his hands. “It's just – as a Jedi I'm expected to… well, work toward the common good, focus on the bigger picture, do my part and – but I guess there are some things about my childhood that I still…” He filled the silence with grunts as he searched for the words, for his long-repressed feelings. “…all the injustices I faced, that I was able to escape, but that know are still there… Sometimes it just comes… pouring out, you know?”

“I understand –“

“I know,” Anakin cut her off. “But I still – I should be better than this, and I apologize. Milady,” he added with a panicked chuckle.

“Anakin…” Padmé didn't look up from her folded arms for a while. Her white form almost shone in the blue-tinted brightness. Silence settled between them once more, and Anakin waited.

Until he couldn't anymore.

"Padmé, I need to tell you som-" 

“I'm dismissing you from my service, effective immediately.”

Anakin gaped at her, dumbstruck.  

But he had no time to process the words before the Force warned him.

"Look out!" Anakin cried as he threw up an arm and whisked it wildly across the air - tossing Padmé aside in a white flurry of movement - a nanosecond before the window shattered with an ear-tearing shriek, and a bright flash of red tackled the Padawan to the floor. 

Chapter Text

Anakin was inches away from losing a head to a scarlet blade of death – of which the attacker had two, while the Padawan's azure one was awkwardly lodged between him and the glass-spattered floor in a hidden pocket – but in the nick of time he was able to Force-push the masked assailant off of him, slamming them against the wall. Before the attacker had time to sort themselves out, Anakin scrambled to his feet and delved into his pajamas. By the time his trusted blue blade was ignited and poised for action, Padmé had recovered and her eyes met with Anakin's.  

”Padmé, take cover!” the Padawan ordered, just before the masked figure came alive again and leaped at him. Anakin dodged, blocked, parried, in quick succession, trying to make out the dark-clad form in the red and blue light. He could just barely discern the outlines of a humanoid, female-looking body.

Anakin's surmise was confirmed when, to his complete surprise, the assailant spoke while their blades were locked together. ”Hello, little boy,” a mock seductive voice addressed him. ”Any last words?” 

”Nah,” Anakin shot back, ”You?” To match this threat, the Padawan took a risky swing at her, then another, both of which she dodged with relative ease, but could not take advantage of the momentary opening. 

”Padmé!” Anakin begged as the two combatants continued to sweep at each other, their blades hissing with lethal energy. ”Take cover, now!”

Padmé was watching the scene wide-eyed, red and blue light reflecting off her irises in the dark. Hand at her utility belt, she seemed torn between fight and flight. 

”Padmé!” Anakin rushed across the room, jumping over the dining table, to plant himself between Padmé and the assassin. What could a measly blaster do against – what strongly appeared to be – a servant of the dark side of the Force? ”Padmé, go!” he continued to plead while fending off the trespasser's aggressive swings coming in at either side of him. He was only vaguely aware of the protests being made behind his back, demanding him to leave the room instead.  

The assassin, noticing Padmé's dallying, doubled her efforts, missing Anakin on purpose, trying to sneak a saber-tip past his shoulder or his head. ”Aren't you a chivalrous one?” she cooed. ”And first-name basis, too? You're making me jealous.” 

”Alright,” Anakin grunted, blocking yet another strike and almost toppling Padmé over with his body as he backpedaled. ”I'm Anakin. And you, lady?”

The assassin continued to prod at Padmé with one blade, distracting Anakin for another moment as she brought the other over her head, preparing Anakin for a heavy strike from above. Anakin had to physically push Padmé out of the way before he could ready his saber for parrying, landing the counterstrike just barely on time – and right through the oval-shaped mask that the assassin had tossed at him.

His vision blocked for one critical moment, still distracted and panicked over Padmé's presence, Anakin failed to predict the assassin's next move, a simple hand slamming his lightsaber to the floor. Hearing his weapon clattering away, Anakin immediately jumped aside and reached to summon it back to his hand – only to realize his feet were no longer touching the floor, and his airway had suddenly shriveled up and was trying to strangle him from the inside.

”Asajj Ventress, at your service,” the assassin announced – indeed a humanoid woman with a bald head, pale skin, and icy blue eyes – stalking toward Anakin's dangling form with her bony hand extended. ”Pleasure.” As the Padawan continued to trash and claw at his neck, the attacker turned to Padmé, who was now pointing a blaster at her.

”Let him go,” she ordered.

”Now that I think about it,” Ventress scoffed. Anakin had almost sunken into oblivion when he dropped to the floor in a heap, vomiting violent coughs and wheezes. The relief was short-lived when he tried to get up and was met with two deadly red blades crossed at his neck, tips jabbed into the wall. Ventress smirked at Padmé. ”That was a poor strategy. By all means, shoot me now.” 

Anakin tried to twist his gaze toward Padmé, only steps away from them, blaster still raised, but Ventress brought the twin blades closer to his throat, until one of them was just barely grazing his skin. Anakin yelped at the sudden, searing agony tearing his flesh apart. 

”I know why you're here,” Padmé continued to address the assassin as she withdrew the blade, leaving Anakin panting and in pain. ”He sent you to deliver a message, didn't he?”

”He did?” the assassin retorted, now ghosting the other blade over Anakin's exposed neck. He bit back a whimper that threatened to escape. ”Oh yes, I think I remember now. I wonder, how strong of a message do you require, milady?” With that, she softly slid both blades across Anakin's neck, and he willed himself not to scream. 

”None at all,” Padmé snarled in reply. ”We are in perfect understanding. There's no need to kill any more unwitting hostages. Not my handmaidens, not my family. Not even the Jedi.” 

Unable to meet Padmé's gaze, Anakin continued to twist around in the little space afforded to him, smelling the burnt flesh on his neck, and grimacing with… whatever he was feeling right now. His throat hurt inside and out, he'd failed at his job, and there wasn't a single syllable in this conversation that made sense to him. He wasn't entirely sure why there was a conversation.

”To be fair, the girl was an unfortunate accident,” Ventress clarified. ”Let bygones be bygones, no?” She turned to Anakin, who met her derisive smirk with a glare. ”Why don't we let him bygone, too? There's no need to drag some Jedi whelp into this.”

Padmé's hands tightened around her blaster. ”Back away from him slowly, and I'll let you bygone from my house.”

”Hmph,” the assassin sneered. ”My Master did mention that you were soft of heart… Darth Eeris.”   

”Call me that again and we'll see about that.”

Padmé began to lower her blaster, slowly and expectantly, as Ventress took a a few steps back, stretching her arms so that the double blades still remained at Anakin's neck. Sensing the danger slowly subsiding, Anakin's gaze flicked to Padmé, who made a couple of false starts with her mouth without speaking. 

The twin blades had barely withdrawn to a safe distance, when Anakin had already acted. Suddenly jumping into motion, the Padawan baited Ventress into reacting, and Anakin was able to duck out of the harm's way just before the red energy blades plunged into the wall above his head.

”Anakin!”

Just as Anakin realized that his plan suffered from a glaring lack of a next step, throwing up a hand to try… something – a booming crackle roared through the room, and there was a sudden blaze of blinding light. His captor was flung across the table in one sweeping motion.

Trying to gather himself from the floor, Anakin's eyes were instinctively drawn to his side – to the source of the inexplicable light phenomenon – and if he had been confused up until now, the sight before him sent his jaw to the floor.

Blaster back on her belt, Padmé Amidala's blinding white form stood over him, her arm extended, outstretched fingers still fizzling with sparks of electric blue. And her eyes – shining with anger and determination – it was as though Anakin was seeing them, really seeing them, for the first time. The golden, ambery brown had turned a rich, gleaming yellow; familiar and foreign at the same time, like the disquieting tint had been there all along, but he'd been colorblind.

And in that one, simple glance, a flood of flashes and images, words and feelings and memories invaded his head. All of a sudden, it wasn't just the eyes that Anakin was finally seeing.

On the other side of the table, a dizzied Ventress stood up, but before Anakin could react, it was Padmé's turn to place herself between the opponents. ”What else did Dooku tell you? That I'm rusty?” 

Ventress scoffed, reaching to summon back her sabers. ”He'll be ever so glad to learn that is not the case,” the assassin commented dryly, jumping back toward the window whence she'd come. Anakin tried to get up, but Padmé pushed him down by the shoulder. He flinched at the contact.

Ventress tilted her head. ”And really, my fellow Dark Lady of the Sith – you've made this far too easy. Heed my sisterly advice now, and eliminate your weaknesses.” Her piercing eyes shot to Anakin. ”One by one, if you have to.”

Then, in a blur of dark fabric and deathly pale skin, the assassin vanished, and the room had once again fallen silent as a midnight's sigh.

Yet it was not the same room, not anymore, just as its occupants were no longer the same people that had come down the stairs – not anymore, not ever again.

”Y-you,” Anakin stuttered. ”Padmé, you –” His throat still hurt from Ventress' rough treatment – but not as much, not nearly as much, as did his brain, from running on overdrive trying to comprehend what he had just seen, heard – remembered. He tried to stand again, but Padmé grabbed both his shoulders and knelt down before him. Her expression was calm and collected, her eyes back to their normal amber hue. 

”Anakin, let me explain,” she proposed.  

”N-no!” Anakin cried, swatting away both her arms and shooting to his full height from the floor. His raspy throat broke into shouting, ”You – you did something to me, to my head! I remember everything now! You -” 

”Shh,” she shushed, standing. ”Let's talk about this.” 

Anakin recoiled, half-taking, half-falling a few steps back. ”Who was that?!” he demanded, pointing at the broken window, continuing to backpedal. ”Why did she – you can conjure lightning?!

”Anakin, listen –”

”Y-you're not Padmé,” Anakin declared as his stomach lurched with the horrible notion. ”Padmé would never – Padmé is not a – what have you done with her?!

”For someone who wants answers you sure seem reluctant to hear me out,” Padmé snapped with frustration. 

Anakin had now hit a wall, the same wall that Ventress had entered through. Feeling a nasty pricking sensation under his bare feet, for the first time he realized that his soles were bleeding from dancing all over the glass-covered floor. ”Alright,” he agreed warily, studying the stranger before him. ”Answers, then. Who are you?”

Padmé gave a deep sigh, letting her arms rest at her sides. 

Then she flipped up her blaster and Anakin felt his consciousness slipping away like a carpet from under his feet.

-

Padmé let her eyes glide over Anakin's prone form for quite some time, trying to draw even breaths, before crouching over him and inspecting the damage. The Padawan's features were locked into a restless frown, unable to accept their ignorant state. Shards from the shattered window had caught in his cheeks and in his feet and all over his nightclothes. Padmé bit her lip as she started to remove the tiny thorns of glass, one by one.

Somewhere in her whirlwind of emotions, she felt the slightest tinge of gratification, of pride, even. After all these years, she wasn't rusty, she was dusty at worst, and underneath that dust shone a hard, polished diamond. She held up her hand and stretched her fingers. She could still do the lightning, and without breaking a sweat, like she'd never stopped practicing!

But from beneath that pride a new wave of distress reared its head.

She'd done everything wrong. She'd tried to do everything right, but then it had already been too late. The wannabe Sith was right. She should have left Anakin out of this.

She could have turned him away at her door that night on Coruscant. Nobody had forced her to sit and blabber away with him all night, demanded her to gaze deep into his baby blue eyes, smile gently as he fumbled over his words. And when they had tried to force his company, she still could have said no. She had said no, so what's to stop her from saying it twice?

She should have sent him away when she'd first learned about that burn mark. It had taken her one look to recognize the handiwork of a Sith Lord, their own, powerful brand of lightning. Now she could put all the pieces together. Now she understood what all those transmissions had been about, why Dooku had pestered for a meeting at the start of the conflict. (Surely her repeated refusals had come as no surprise.) Dooku had never given up the practice of the dark side, he'd never reformed himself into some idealistic hero figure. All these years, he'd been accumulating power, political and spiritual; harnessing the Separatist cause for his own use, maneuvering himself into an advantageous position.  

And now, it seemed, that greedy worm finally hit a wall, and required her help. And when diplomacy had failed, as it so often did, he'd resorted to threats. 

Absently, Padmé tossed away the last shard of glass, and reached to wipe some blood off Anakin's face. 

She'd done everything wrong. She should have at least left Anakin's head alone, she should have never touched his thoughts, his feelings, his memory. She'd suspected from the beginning that he'd been given a new mandate, of which protecting her was only one half, but she could have just lied. Now he'd seen her true form with his own two eyes, looked into her gleaming yellow orbs with his sky blues. And he'd remembered, remembered everything in a single fateful glance. She might have finally met her match, and in no other than the mythical Chosen One, who, it was prophesied, would one day destroy her, too.

Why, then, had she done it? Why had she dragged him into this mess, or rather let things drag themselves along until they'd converged into this moment, to a point of no return?

For the same reason that she should have turned him away, from her door, from her home, from her life.

She brought a wrist-comm to her mouth. ”Dormé, Hollé? Is my ship ready?” 

”It is, milady,” came the reply.

”Slight change of plans,” the Senator informed. ”Cancel the morning shuttle for the Jedi. He won't be needing it anymore.”

”You're not dismissing him?”

”There's been an attack. Padawan Skywalker was… taken.” 

”…Pardon, milady?”

”I've already contacted the Jedi, and they're looking into it. I - I still have to go to Mandalore."  

”Senator, are you – are you alright? What happened? We've failed you –”

”Please, do not blame yourselves. There's nothing you could have done.”

”But, Senator –”

”Make some room in the trunk. I'm bringing one last suitcase.”

Chapter Text

”Senator, we really must protest,” Hollé piped. The fair-haired handmaiden had only been in Amidala's service for a couple of months now, young and eager to please, and this must be the first time that she was openly questioning her mistress' judgment. ”First there's an attack, then your Jedi bodyguard gets abducted, and now you insist on going to Mandalore still, into enemy territory? Alone?

”Neutral territory, technically,” Padmé corrected, walking up the ramp toward the opened hatch, before Dormé's voice stopped her in her tracks.

”Hollé, you ought to do as the Senator says, and return to the house.” The veteran handmaiden cast a sisterly glance at her younger colleague. ”I'll just be a moment.”

”Dormé –” Hollé and Padmé objected in unison. But after a moment, Hollé took a bow and scurried on her way.

Dormé waited until she'd vanished from sight before speaking again. ”Just one question, milady.”

”Yes?”

Dormé cleared her throat and looked her mistress straight in the eye. ”I couldn't help but notice, milady – an uncharacteristic lack of care on your part just now, when you packed that last suitcase. The fastener wasn't pulled all the way down.”

Padmé shifted. ”That is not a question.”

Dormé glanced at the back of the ship. ”An observation and a question, then. For 'one last suitcase', it is also remarkably large. Did you find our packing inadequate, Senator? Did we… miss something?” Her eyes shone with a sudden anxiety, intense and pleading.

Padmé sighed. She'd always admired Dormé's keen eye, her cleverness. And in truth, she'd always hated tampering with people's heads. Addiction and pleasure didn't always go together. ”Dormé –”

She took a charged step toward her, but Dormé shook her head. ”Senator, you know I am loyal to you and you alone,” she burst out, hand over her heart. ”Truthfully, you do not need to tell me the reason. I trust you have your reasons, as you have your reasons to go to Mandalore. But please, I ask that you take me with you. I could not stay behind on Coruscant, and I cannot stay back now. Let me be useful. I can fly, or guard the prisoner. And I will suffer the consequences with you, if need be. Milady, please.”

Padmé considered the proposal. She knew that Dormé was a very old-fashioned observer of the Naboo handmaiden code. Gregar Typho would have needed to know why there was a tied-up Jedi in her trunk. A handmaiden needed not. First and foremost, a handmaiden's allegiance lay with her mistress, for as long as she remained in her service, and often, for life; Amidala could order a blaster to her head and she would press the trigger believing in justice, she could ask her to bury a mangled corpse and she would take a bow and go fetch a shovel. A handmaiden would protect her mistress' secrets with her life and carry them to her grave, a grave she would dig for herself with that same shovel, beside the mangled corpse.

If her mistress so required. But Padmé had never much burdened her aides with her secrets. Not even during her first term as Queen, but back then she'd scarcely had any, unless they were the political sort.

And then, when secrets of the Sith had crept into her life… she'd shut them out completely. Her best friends, her confidantes. Sabé, Rabé, Saché, Miré, Yané and Eirtaé. None of them had been blind, they'd known their Queen was keeping secrets. But she didn't think they were the kind of secrets they would have understood. They would have accepted them, they would have kept them. But they would not have understood

Her lack of trust had hurt Sabé the most, she suspected. Dormé, in many ways, was a lot like her. Stubbornly loyal, yet all-too perceptive, both to her own detriment. 

”He would tell you the reason,” Padmé finally said, still fully intent on leaving Dormé behind without secrets to keep, burdens to carry. ”And that might be the end of your loyalty.” She did not necessarily believe that – perhaps, she was testing her.

”Milady,” Dormé whispered, quite obviously offended. Then her lips curled up again, slyly, ”That's what gags are for.”

Padmé chuckled ruefully.

But the truth was, she was a little touched by her friend's offer. A part of her had always regretted forsaking her long-trusted comrades, not letting them in when she needed them, not even for a moment that they would later forget. She hadn't had a real friend in so long; so, so long. 

She'd thought Anakin could be that friend, at least for a while. Seeing little Ani again, the plucky, innocent boy she'd met just before she'd gradually began to lose her own innocence, had revived something in her. She'd remembered the brave, idealistic Queen Amidala. She'd remembered Padmé, who'd worn that queenly mask, hiding beneath just another naive young girl.

After all these years of self-sufficiency, of emotional isolation, she'd finally wanted something for herself. Just a little something, just a little, casual getaway at the beautiful Varykino. A long-awaited reunion with her family, a little bubble of blissful normalcy. Even after discovering the black patch on the wall, she'd still stubbornly wanted it. She'd thought she could still steal a day or two, or five. She'd convinced herself that maybe she was just imagining things, maybe her past's skeletons hadn't come back to haunt her just yet.

She'd convinced herself that Anakin wanted the same thing, and only that. And when he'd wanted answers instead, she'd tried to fix it, make the problem disappear. The way she always had.

Dormé, she knew, she could just make disappear, too. 

-

Alarm took hold of Anakin before consciousness did. He was surrounded by a Force-void, cut off from the one thing more nurturing, more crucial to his core than even air. For one terrible moment, he was sure he'd been deprived of air, as well, unable to draw a panicked breath upon jolting awake. But that turned out to be just a tightly fastened piece of cloth in his mouth. And the pressure around his body was nothing more than a swathe of metal chains and a pair of Force binders in there somewhere. One of these situations, then.

It wasn't until he saw a cloaked figure whirl toward him – for a split second he mistook them for Padmé – that it all came back to Anakin, and he jumped. ”Mf!” he managed through the gag.

”Good morning, Master Jedi,” Dormé greeted him, wearing a calm, impassive expression. ”Or Padawan Skywalker, I should say.”

Anakin wriggled to a sitting position. ”Gfm.”

”I fear any small talk between us might become very awkward very quickly,” Dormé observed, making toward a blast door. ”I'll go get my mistress.”

Anakin made some more noises, but the handmaiden was already gone, and he found himself alone in… some kind of luggage compartment, by the looks of it. Based on the shape of the compartment, and the near-inaudible engine sounds, he was on Padmé's star skiff.

Padmé.

Anakin swallowed a bitter lump in his throat, which still hurt from being strangled and scorched. He wasn't entirely sure he hadn't just made up the dual-wielding Sith assassin. Surely the person who had betrayed him in this way had throttled and tortured him, too.

Soon enough, that person came through the blast door. Her pure white attire had gained a thick-woven, asymmetrical cape. She still looked like Padmé, but she could have looked like a new-born baby and still been the devil.

”Hello, Anakin,” the demon spoke, in perfect imitation of that soft, compassionate voice. She stalked over, crouched over him as Anakin shifted back and scowled at her. That didn't detract her from reaching to the back of his head and working the gag off. Anakin wanted to spit at the removed cloth. It smelled squeaky clean and pretentious.

”How are you feeling?” his kidnapper asked. Anakin refused to look at her, finding a spot on the wall to stare at.

”Or I can just put it back,” she stated, holding up the gag.

Anakin snapped his head back at the threat and muttered, ”I'm fine.”

His captor sighed. ”Alright, silly question. If you don't want to talk about it, that's fine by me. Do you know why I've brought you along?”

Anakin shook his head, only mildly apprehensive. It was as though he'd suddenly been drained of feeling completely, positive or negative, and all that remained was a lukewarm sense of… wrongness. Like none of this was real, and if he ignored it, maybe it would all go away.

”I think if I…” the demon hesitated. ”If I really concentrate – not here, not right now, we're almost at our destination – but if I really put forth effort, I can erase all of this from your head. So you can – so you can go free.”

Anakin gaped at her. When she didn't elaborate, he managed a, ”What?”

”It's… it's just an ability I have,” she explained, almost nonchalantly. ”I believe you two have met.”

”You're,” Anakin huffed, pulling against his chains. ”You're just going to erase all of this, too? You're going to do it all over again, make me believe we were just… hanging out on Naboo, without a care in the world?”

”Until you were abducted by a bounty hunter. Yes.”

”You're handing me to a bounty hunter?” Anakin cried, incredulous.

”Just for temporary custody,” she rushed to reassure him. ”I will pay him not to hurt you.”

”That's what… that's what everyone will think happened,” Anakin deduced. ”Obi-Wan, the Council…”

”I'm trying to help you –”

”You can't do this!” the captive Jedi roared. ”When the Council hears that I failed my first solo assignment in such a spectacular fashion, they'll kick me out of the Order! That whole Senate misunderstanding was embarrassing enough, and now you're – and that's not even the point! I won't let you touch my head, ever again, I won't!” His chains clinked together as he shook his head and twisted wildly about.

”I'm very close to mastering the technique,” his captor assured him. ”And unlike the Jedi mind trick, or the standard mind probe, it leaves no lasting damage to the brain. I can specifically target the things I want to erase or modify, and leave the rest untouched. You might experience a slight, passing daze, but apart from that, there's usually no side effects.”

”Still not the point!” Anakin barked.”What even are you?! Are you a Sith? Or something else?”

”Only,” she went on, ignoring his yelling. ”Images and strong emotional responses are harder to manipulate than verbal knowledge. And while I can bypass most shields, yours are exceedingly strong even while they are down.” She chuckled wryly. ”I had to find excuses to hold your hands, just to find some purchase.”

”I hate you,” Anakin snapped, his voice lowering to a snarl. He squirmed in his bonds as silence filled the compartment. Perhaps Naboo had been the dream, and this was reality. How should he know, she'd filled his head with bantha crap. Still, he found himself missing the dream so hopelessly, so torturously, he could hear his tone soften when he whispered, ”Tell me what you did to Padmé.”

His abductor didn't answer, simply turned her eyes away. Anakin heaved a deep breath. He could feel a sore, stinging pressure building behind his eyes, but he swallowed it back and went on quietly, ”Padmé, I – I know you. I…” He shook his head, squeezed his eyes shut. Not here, he tried to convince himself. Not now. Not like this. ”I love you,” he spluttered anyway, eyes mopping the floor. ”I know… I know you wouldn't do this.”

”Do what?” she asked after a while. ”What do you –” She stood up. ”What do you even suppose I'm doing?

Anakin was silent. Padmé slipped a strand of her hair behind her ear. ”Who is this – who is this Padmé that you know, I wonder? Better than she knows herself?”

Anakin shifted, surprised by her words. Padmé crouched down again, to his eye-level. Anakin met her gaze. ”And love? Is it a memory you love, or a fantasy? Or both?”

”Padmé –” Anakin uttered, crestfallen.

”Yes, Padmé,” she echoed, reaching to caress his face with the back of her hand. Anakin didn't flinch this time, leaning into the touch ever so slightly. ”Who is she? What is she like?”

A single tear escaped down his cheek before Padmé withdrew her hand and stuffed the gag back into his mouth, tied it around his skull. Their eyes never parted. Her cape swept across the air as she got up. Anakin glowered after her, hating her every movement.

But as soon as the blast door closed between them, he already missed her, ever so hopelessly, so torturously.

Chapter Text

For Obi-Wan Kenobi, the last few days on Mandalore had been a happier time than of which he felt deserving. Prohibited by protocol from leaving the planet even while the negotiations remained on hold, he’d found himself with a sudden profusion of spare time, a true rarity indeed in the ever-demanding life of a Jedi. And while he’d dedicated hours upon hours to popular Jedi pastimes such as meditation and sparring (he’d found a couple of on-planet Jedi for partners), that had only taken care of about fifty percent of the problem. The other half, more often than not, he’d spent strolling about the Sundari palace plaza, arm in arm with another true rarity: Duchess Satine of Mandalore. 

Perhaps ‘happy’ was too simple a word, but he greatly enjoyed the Duchess’ company and, in his characteristically private manner, delighted in their borrowed time together. And without the immediate, looming threat to Satine’s life hanging over them this time around, he’d found it a lot easier to compartmentalize; pray for a peaceful solution to the conflict every morning, and wine and dine with his old… friend every night.

His prayers, though, had so far gone unheard. The Republic was coming apart at the seams in the absence of Chancellor Organa, forced to remain on planet along with the other negotiators. Wild conspiracy theories were being spread about the connection between Senator Amidala’s assassination attempt, the discovery of the clone army, and the delay in the peace talks. Senator Mothma was devoting her every waking hour to giving eloquent statements to the media, doing her best to allay the public's fears and moderate the growing pro-war, pro-army sentiment. 

Master Yoda’s health had finally seen a significant improvement, but even this little bit of good news had given Obi-Wan some pause. The two Jedi had shared a couple of meditation sessions together, during which he’d heard the Grand Master mumbling something about ‘a great wave of change coming’. He’d made that prediction with an enigmatic smile on his face, but when Obi-Wan had attempted to connect to him through the Force, he’d only felt an icy gust of wind, a terrible shiver in his bones. And no matter how optimistic he tried to remain, he just couldn’t convince himself that such an omen boded well for the near future.

“Why is it that whenever I try to seek reassurance from the Force, I am only ever rewarded with bad feelings?” the Jedi Knight mused, stirring his cooled tea. Sat opposite the Duchess in a private lounge at a charming little cafhouse, he was enjoying yet another deceptively peaceful afternoon. 

“Well, perhaps you’re seeking reassurance in all the wrong places,” Satine scoffed playfully, a vision as always in her lovely, light blue gown. 

“Could be,” Obi-Wan admitted. “I suppose the Force would only be honest with us.”

“I assume you’re referring to the negotiations?”

“It must be a great strain on Mandalore’s resources as well.”

“We are more than happy to do our part in bringing about the peace, as you know,” Satine reminded him, then threw up a prompting hand. “Come now, Obi, what’s really bothering you? Is it your student again?”

Obi-Wan raised his gaze, surprised. “How did you know?”

“By the way you describe the young man, I’m surprised you even sleep at night.” Her eyes widened for a moment as she realized her lapse – private lounge or not; officially, she wasn’t supposed to know whether Obi-Wan was getting any sleep at night or not. Such was their agreement. 

But Obi-Wan brushed this off with a little smile, before leaning back in his chair and sighing. “I suppose I have come full circle. First I was strongly against him taking on this assignment, then I managed to convince myself it is a welcome and necessary trial… and now…”

“Have you been in contact with him?”

“A few hours ago,” Obi-Wan replied. “He gets annoyed with me if I call too frequently. Complains that I'm 'smothering' him… 'micromanaging' him.”

“Well, at least you're communicating that you care,” Satine remarked, her tone turning a little cooler. “Which, let's face it, has been something of a weak point of yours in the past, wouldn't you say?”

“Satine –“ Obi-Wan groaned, tilting his head apologetically.

“I'm sorry,” Satine hurried to say. “That was tactless of me. Please, continue.”

Obi-Wan shook his head. “No, you go ahead.”

Satine weighed her words for some time. “Obi, I am not denying that we've been having a nice time,” she finally spoke, pressing her palms together. “However… our paths already parted once, and now…” She motioned around the quaintly decorated room. “Here we are, taking strolls and… going to cafés as though we never went our separate ways. I –“ She stood up from the table, nodding at her bodyguards standing guard in the doorway. “I should be getting back to my office, anyway. I have work to do.”

“Satine –“ Obi-Wan tried again, just as his holoprojector alerted him.

“As do you, it seems,” the Duchess observed, and with that, she disappeared through the door with her entourage, long hem rustling in her wake. Obi-Wan sighed as he pressed on the little metal disc to answer the call. Anakin, he thought, relieved. 

“Master Kenobi,” a blue, diminutive Padmé Amidala greeted him in his student’s stead.

“Senator Amidala.”

“I’m afraid I have some news about your Padawan.” 

-

Time had largely lost its meaning in this new reality that Anakin was living, but he was fairly sure it had been about an hour since the ship had landed. He and Dormé had quickly grown tired of their staring contest, and presently the handmaiden was leaning stiffly against the wall, eyes absent, arms folded. Anakin had whiled away the time by drooling on his gag and trying not to think about much – and utterly failing in that regard.

At some point along the meaningless flow of time, Padmé returned, and immediately sent Dormé on her way. Then she bent down in front of the chained Padawan and removed the damp cloth from his mouth.

”She doesn't know, does she?” Anakin blurted out upon the release, gesturing toward the blast door.

Padmé sighed. ”You know this conversation is pointless.”

”And none of your family knows, either,” Anakin pressed on. ”Or have you just erased it from their heads?”

The young man's tears had dried now, his heart remained broken, but he'd buried it away somewhere deep within. Even his anger had subsided somewhat, and instead he'd been going through his recollections over and over again, trying to figure out Padmé Amidala, work out the meaning behind her actions.

He didn't want to admit it, but she was right. He truly didn't know the first thing about her. At least… he didn't know her side of the story.

He'd been in love with this woman for ten years. He wanted to know her side of the story.

”There's no point in me adding to your knowledge now,” Padmé said curtly, crushing these ambitions.

”Knowledge that I'm just going to forget,” Anakin concluded, and Padmé offered a grim nod. ”I guess that's what you came here to do,” he ventured, turning his head away, and in his peripheral vision, he saw her nodding again.

”I am not expected for another five hours.”

”Expected?” Anakin echoed, then shook his head when he was only met with a blank look. ”Right… no point.”

Padmé slid closer to him, then reached up behind his back – to unlock his cuffs so she could start the… operation, Anakin quickly deduced – and the Padawan twisted his restrained body to stop her. ”This isn’t fair,” he objected. ”Next time I open my eyes, it'll be in the clutches of some bounty hunter, and I'll still be… I'll still be in love with you. Because none of this will have never happened, you never lied to me or kidnapped me or messed with my head… because you did mess with my head.” He swallowed, fixed her with a fiery gaze. He felt a new flare of anger rising up in his chest. ”Do you even know how I've agonized over you? What torment you've caused me? For ten years! I just… I can't go through that again, I can't!

Padmé blinked. ”I'm sorry,” she said thinly. ”I can manipulate knowledge, beliefs, thought processes… but feelings…”

”You think that's what I want?” Anakin snapped. ”Just make my feelings… disappear?”

Padmé held his gaze. A strange look passed over her face, something akin to… disgust, almost. ”I will not pull you into this a second time,” she declared.

”Does that mean you will reject me? Again?” He gave a hollow huff of laughter. “Well, lucky me!”

”We should get this over with.”

”Just tell me one thing,” Anakin pleaded, yanking his bound arms away from her again. Padmé waited patiently as he tried to calm down, find the words, or maybe just the courage. He wanted to know, but he didn't want to know. ”Why did you go with me to Naboo?” he finally whispered. ”If you didn't need me for protection… if you were willing to risk being exposed… why? Was any of it even… real?”

”…All of it,” came her quiet answer. ”You might not believe me, and I wouldn't blame you, but… that truly was the real me. And the one I'm erasing… the one who hurt you… is the sham.”

Anakin regarded her suspiciously. ”You didn't answer my first question,” he muttered.

”I went because I wanted to spend time with you,” Padmé replied softly, before falling silent for a moment. Her eyes drifted far into the distance. ”And I stayed, because I… I was running away. Running away from the very thing I've now come to face.”

Her voice trailed off, vague and absent, before she snapped back to face him. Anakin stared at her, eyes narrowing. Alarm flashed over her features, the realization that she'd said too much, answered a question he'd not even asked.

Running away from what? Anakin racked his brain to try and put small snippets of memory together, bits and pieces from the night that everything had changed. The assassin had come to her with a 'message', a message from – ”…Dooku?”

Without answering, Padmé grabbed Anakin's shoulder, held him in place as he made a half-hearted show of struggling, and unlocked the binders behind his back. Pulling against the resistance from the chains around his torso, she brought his hands to his front, and clicked the cuffs back on.

”I could keep your secret,” Anakin pleaded, now blurting words out as they came to him, desperate. ”If that was the real you, Padmé, the girl I came to know on Naboo…” he went on, eyes blazing. ”Then I don't think you're a bad person. I could – I could help you, if you'd let me.”

Padmé's face hardened. ”I don't want your help, Ani. And I've never needed it. I believe you said so yourself.”

Then she grabbed his hands and her voice melted into those soft, melodic tones once more.

-

Dormé bowed her head as she returned to the ship, hatch closing behind her.

”The bounty hunter is here,” she informed, eyes moving from her mistress on the pilot's seat to the unconscious Jedi on the passenger seat. ”I believe you'll be needing your large suitcase again.”

”Yes, why don't you go and fetch that for me, Dormé,” Padmé requested. ”And please… do take your time.”

The handmaiden gave a bow again, then vanished into the back of the ship. 

Padmé spun in her seat and leaned closer to her comatose captive. His soft cheek rubbed against the seat as his chest fell up and down under the chains. People often tended to look younger and more innocent while they slept, but Anakin's delicately handsome features, long eyelashes and tousled hair, gave him a truly angelic appearance. 

“I’m sorry it had to be this way, Anakin,” she said quietly. “I thought about telling you the truth, a couple of times. I really think… you might have understood. At least… you would have wanted to understand. I didn’t give you that chance. I really am sorry. I hope you can forgive me… and forgive me once more when you get back home and seek me out again, and I'll have to…” She sighed. “If I… if I should live through this, that is.” Padmé twisted toward the back of the ship, lowering her voice. “I’ve wanted to tell someone for such a long time. In a way, I don’t even know where to start, except… I do know where to start. You were there, too, that day.”  

-

The capital city of Theed greeted a sunnier, more hopeful morning than in weeks, months even; a clear blue sky scattered with fuzzy white clouds. But the victory had come at a steep price, and if one looked into the horizon long enough, a distant, bittersweet red tint seemed to emerge. They had all seen the blood spilled, all known great loss in the days past. But while Obi-Wan Kenobi mourned the loss of his teacher, Queen Amidala grieved for every individual, every single life sacrificed for their ultimate triumph, devoured by this brutal, meaningless conflict. She carried her grief like the Queen she was, poised and proud and dignified, but underneath that facade, the elaborate make-up and finery, she was angry. 

She’d had to appoint three additional festival committees this morning, and commission her personal tailor for a new celebratory gown, but in truth, she wasn’t in a festive mood at all. To be sure, her courageous subjects deserved some fun and frivolities after all the suffering they’d endured at the hands of the invaders. The valiant warriors of Naboo, their new allies from Otoh Gunga in particular, deserved the recognition, deserved to have their heroic deeds honored. Even the lives lost wouldn’t go forgotten, not ever, not by her.

But while the Queen rejoiced in the hard-earned peace, within herself, she could find none - only questions. If she could have done more, protected her people better. If, somehow, she could have seen the invasion coming, seen the signs before it was too late, bring the crisis to an earlier end. Over and over, she'd told herself that senseless violence was impossible to predict. That she had given everything for her people, and would continue to make that sacrifice until her dying breath.

Everything. 

Amidala’s striking make-up and natural authority did a great deal to conceal her regrets, her deepest fears. But all her life, she’d had a terrible, eerie feeling that she was missing something… neglecting something. For the entirety of her political career, she’d always pursued supremely high standards, and the mere notion was extremely troubling to her. It was a formless, intangible feeling, like a snowflake that melted on her hand before she could study its shape. The answer was within her grasp, but it kept slipping through her fingers. 

But while a part of her remained hidden in this way, she'd wondered so many times - could she ever truly give her everything?

An approaching entourage pulled Padmé out of her thoughts, and she swiftly applied her royal mask again. The freshly elected Supreme Chancellor emerged from his transport with long, self-assured strides, first stopping to speak with the Master-Padawan pair sauntering nearby. Obi-Wan Kenobi took a deep, deferential bow, which little Anakin Skywalker hurried to duplicate.

“We are indebted to you for your bravery, Obi-Wan Kenobi,” Chancellor Palpatine thanked the young man, then turning to his student, “And you, young Skywalker, we will watch your career with great interest.”

Palpatine gave the boy a gentle nudge on the shoulder before excusing himself and making his way to her. Poor little Anakin was now overcompensating for his delayed bow, dropping his head at every approaching Jedi Master, before his teacher gently wrapped an arm around him, and the two walked over to join the politicians. 

“Congratulations on your election, Chancellor,” Queen Amidala wished, in her deeper, queenly voice.

“Your boldness has saved our people, Your Majesty,” Palpatine praised. “It is you who should be congratulated. Together we shall bring peace and prosperity to the Republic.”

“Yes… let us build a brighter future for the Galaxy.”

Palpatine favored her with a broad smile. Then sudden remembrance seemed to pass over his features, and he asked, “I trust I'll be seeing you tonight at the parade rehearsal, my Queen?”

“I was not aware my presence was required there, Chancellor.”

“Of course, we wouldn't want to take up too much of your Majesty's precious time,” Palpatine hurried to fuss. “Actually, I was hoping we could discuss – in private, if it's no bother – the contents of my celebration speech. I have gone through a few versions now, but I'm afraid it still rings rather hollow to my ear. Yes, we have abundant cause for celebration today, but we have also witnessed a great catastrophe here, and I would hate for this speech to be just another string of pretty, hopeful words. I've always admired your eloquence, your Majesty, and your wisdom is indeed well beyond your years, and I think in these dangerous times, we need something rather more… impactful, more inspiring, a call to action to prevent a tragedy of this magnitude from ever happening again.”

“You seek my counsel on the matter, Chancellor?” 

“Indeed I do, my Queen.”

Padmé gave a small, muted smile, befitting the weight of her office. But in truth, she was really quite reassured by the Chancellor's concerns, so similar to her own. A little off-the-record consultation would provide a great opportunity to discuss Naboo's intra- and interplanetary politics in the future, as well as their shortcomings in the past.

“I shall be more than happy to oblige.”

“Excellent, you have my thanks.”

“And you're coming to the celebration, too, right Pa– um, Your Majesty?” little Ani cut in, jumping up and down, much to the embarrassment of his Master, who he was now pointing at. “We're coming too, you see, Master Obi-Wan promised!”

“Anakin –“ Kenobi tried to temper his student's mouth-foaming eagerness.

Padmé turned to smile at the boy. “But of course, little Knight.” 

Chapter Text

”The boy, Anakin Skywalker… quite an interesting find.”

Padmé quirked her painted eyebrow a little at the Chancellor's choice of words – 'find', like the boy was a bargain from the flea market – but gave a mild nod of agreement. Her spirits were on the rise, she was quite happy with the outcome of their impromptu meeting – it really seemed as though the new Chancellor was fully intent on fulfilling his promises of a more proactive leadership style, and was interested in working in close cooperation with her in the future, as well. No point in starting petty disputes about semantics.

”Yes, he seems to be quite an extraordinary young man,” Padmé smiled, keeping her tone formal and queenly, as befit her current appearance. The two politicians were sat across from each other in one of the smaller assembly rooms at the palace, while the parade rehearsal was still ongoing downstairs. She didn't mind a bit of small talk to finish up their meeting.

”The Chosen One, they believe him to be,” Palpatine mused airily, eyes drawn to the details on the ceiling before turning back to her. ”Are you familiar with the prophecy, my Queen?”

”None too well, I'm afraid,” Padmé answered honestly. She was a little surprised by his choice of topic, this sudden discussion of a small boy thrown into the midst of war and just getting used to a completely new life felt… intrusive, almost.

”Well, to summarize it, it is believed that a Chosen One of great power will rise and, one day, bring balance to the Force.”

”Yes… I seem to remember the Jedi discussing it between themselves.” She paused for a moment to consider the idea, then echoed thoughtfully, ”'Bring balance to the Force.' It sounds like a great deal of pressure from such a young age.”

Palpatine knowingly bobbed his chin to indicate her, and she graced him with a thin smile. That's different, she thought privately. She wondered when she had last thought of herself as 'young.' It was something she was always hearing from other people; a criticism, or an expression of doubt, and the meaning of the word rarely registered with her anymore.

”How familiar are you with the Force, Your Majesty?” the Chancellor asked.

Padmé just tilted her head slightly, string-like details on her headdress swinging to one side and clinking together. ”Well, beyond common knowledge… not much at all, I fear. I've heard it described as the fabric that binds the universe together… the power that breathes life into every living thing. The trusted ally of the Jedi, who are able to connect to it… and even wield its power.”

”Ah,” Palpatine chuckled. ”Yet here we have a young prodigy like Anakin Skywalker… allied with the Force since his very birth.” He adjusted his posture on the velvet-cushioned chair. ”Have you ever wondered, Your Highness… if there exist others like him? Extraordinary talents undiscovered by the Jedi?” He fixed her with a piercing gaze. ”Destined to… change the Galaxy?”

-

”Nute Gunray's trial is in two weeks,” Palpatine mentioned, seemingly casually, at the end of another planning session for the coming Festival of Light. It was something of a shadow hanging over the celebration, where the remembrance of Naboo's recent tragedy was to play at least some part. ”I understand you're testifying, Your Highness?”

”That is correct, Chancellor,” the Queen replied curtly. Conscientious and punctual, she'd already prepared her testimony a few weeks prior. She only had a distant, lingering anger left in her, now focusing her energies on the recovery effort than any meaningless pursuit of vengeance. She would make the Viceroy's crimes known to the court, and the judges would make their verdict accordingly. And that would be the end of the matter. 

”The disaster that the Trade Federation brought here, inflicted upon our innocents, is truly unprecedented in Naboo's history,” Palpatine lamented, gazing out the window at the bustling streets of the capital. ”I pray that we shall finally have justice.”

”Justice?”

”To be sure, there is always a certain wisdom is mercy, my Queen,” the Chancellor elaborated, turning to face her. ”And for your merciful heart, I do admire you. But every so often, it is the merciful, the all-too kind of heart, of whom this harsh world seeks to take advantage.” He moved to gently press a finger into the thick fabric of her gown. ”You hold a great power within you, my Queen. Exercise that power.”

Padmé shifted. The way that Palpatine had described his relationship with the Force made it all sound so natural. How he often meditated on important decisions, how he believed the Force would grant him wisdom as a leader, lead him on the right path. Give him foresight into things to come.

One of the youngest rulers ever elected, she'd never had any room for self-doubt before.

Now… she could feel a certain insecurity gnawing at her from within.

As though to physically repel this alarming notion, she shook her head and declared with conviction, ”It has never been my desire to inflict punishment upon the wicked, Chancellor. I only wish I could make them see reason. I only wish I could… change their minds. Change their hearts.”

The Chancellor gave a huff of sympathy. ”Not all people, Your Highness, are capable of change,” he stated dryly, before his lip-corners shot up into a sly smile. ”Only the worthy ones are.”

-

Putting down her practice saber, Padmé caught herself once again staring at her hands, gasping for breath with an indefinable emotion churning her lungs. A droplet of sweat rolled down her brow. She missed sparring with her handmaidens, but only for their company; the good-natured barbs and laughs in between the fights. But what she had now – something stronger than endorphin and more insatiable than adrenaline – she wouldn't have traded for the world.

”It's as though… a veil has been lifted off my eyes,” she panted. ”I can move things with my mind. I can predict my opponent's attacks before they happen. I have found a new… focus, a clarity of vision. I feel…” She spun to face the man observing the practice in the doorway. ”I feel… more myself than ever.”

”A power such as yours cannot be held back, my Queen,” Palpatine hummed proudly as she approached.

The words drew her eyes to the floor. ”Yet, for so long… it was,” she reminded him, her voice darkening. Yesterday, she'd had a heated confrontation with her father, which had ended in her smashing the holoprojector against the palace's hard marble. Never before in her life had she shown such blatant disrespect toward Ruwee, and not once had she been reduced to breaking things during an argument, either. And yet, she couldn't be too embarrassed for an anger that even two hours of strenuous training couldn't seem to vaporize away. ”My parents kept it from me. And I cannot understand why.”

”There are many of those who fear the unknown,” Palpatine proposed. ”Fear the mighty.” 

”Were they… afraid of me?”

”My Queen, I also come from an… ordinary family,” the Chancellor continued, settling into a calm saunter, hands clasped behind his back. ”And the ordinary has its place, of course. But you… a ruler of a planet at such a young age, a visionary leader… you have never been ordinary, have you?”

Padmé regarded him quietly, hardly lending an ear to the implied praise. She'd always had the praise, as she'd always had her doubters and detractors. She'd always known her worth. Now she was uncovering a deeper mystery, untangling the depths of her very soul. ”I used to think of the Force as… belonging to the Jedi.”

”I have always made it my mission to study all the aspects of the Force, rather than just the narrow, dogmatic view of the Jedi,” Palpatine explained. ”That you never became one is their endurable loss and Naboo's invaluable gain.” He indicated her saber instructor with a nod, sat down on the side bench cleaning the equipment. ”I wonder if you are beginning to find these exercises… a little rudimentary, Your Majesty?” 

 

 

 


 

 

Anakin woke up inside a dark, restricted space. He'd not completely embraced either consciousness or recollection when his body already screamed discomfort; the immediate need to escape. A moment's inspection seemed to suggest that he'd been stuffed inside a suitcase. Anakin squinted his eyes at the narrow inflow of light just above his head, a small opening for him to breathe through. Making full use of limited room he'd been afforded, the Padawan moved into a kneeling position, head bowed, then spun about, knees pushing against the taut fabric. Finally he pressed his forehead against the bottom of the suitcase and lifted his bound hands into the air, straining and groping until they could reach the sliding pull on the fastener utilized for closing the bag. After a moment of twisting and tinkering about, the pull came loose, and Anakin felt its shape with his fingers, gauging it hopefully thin enough.  

Bringing his hands back down on his back, Anakin slid the makeshift lockpick into the strategic part of his cuffs. The first dive into its mechanics informed him that his lockpick of choice wasn't the most ideally shaped, but it was workable, if one knew what they were doing. After a couple of promising clinks and scratches, Anakin became aware of the approaching clop of footsteps outside his textile prison, and picked up the pace, forcing the lockpick deeper inside until he heard a satisfying click. He felt the Force flowing back into him like oxygen into a dying man's lungs. 

Cursing the chains still wrapped around his torso, Anakin called upon his cosmic ally to slide the fastener open, twisting and turning his body until he could throw himself through the parted fabric and into relative freedom.

Relative freedom, in this case, seemed to mean a nanosecond-long staring contest between himself and a humanoid male armed to his teeth, whose exact identity or species Anakin didn't have time to analyze. Instead, summoning the Force's aid once more, he pulled against the pressure holding his arms down and, gritting his teeth, practically willed the solid durasteel to snap apart at the chest. The broken coil of chain went flying at Anakin's would-be warden, knocking him into the floor of… what seemed to be yet another spaceship.

”Hey asshole!” Anakin jeered. ”You ever fight a Jedi before?” His captor was still scrambling to his feet, reaching for his blaster when Anakin acted out of pure instinct and shot up his arm. A sudden, intoxicating power seemed to flow into his veins. ”I'd give you a demonstration… but it appears I've lost my lightsaber.”

Before Anakin knew what he was doing, the heavily armed man had been hung on an invisible hook high above in the air, scratching at his throat and struggling for breath.

Chapter Text

Three years. Three trials. Three times that the Trade Federation had escaped justice.

It was unfathomable. The evidence against Nute Gunray and Rune Haako, the key engineers behind the invasion on Naboo, was overwhelming. And while the lush Mid Rim planet had since made a remarkable recovery into peace and prosperity, the crisis was not forgotten and the people of Naboo were crying out for some semblance of justice that the Supreme Court of the Republic could not bestow. The once unanimously beloved Queen's popularity had taken a bitter dent for her inability to get Naboo's enemies convicted, all the while Padmé Amidala's own faith in the Republic continued to be tested. The Republic could still detain the former Trade Federation leaders for another three months, before the war criminals' final trials, after which they would have no grounds to hold them unless a conviction was made.

”Dis –” 

A single syllable was Padmé's only warning before her overly sharp dodge of the enemy saber sent her sideways to the floor, her own flinging away from her flimsy grip.

”–tracted again, Your Majesty?”

Head throbbing from the impact, Padmé screwed her eyes open to find herself staring into a red beam of energy inches away from her forehead. Ever the gentleman, her saber instructor did not press the point further, but swiftly retracted the blade and moved to help her to her feet. Padmé was still pondering her answer as she took the hand, meeting the gaze of the silver-haired master duelist. She had no desire to spill her heart to Count Dooku. The former Jedi was an expert swordsman and a properly demanding teacher, but her friend or her confidante he was not.

”So it would seem,” she mumbled absently. ”One more round?”

Dooku raised his eyebrows at the suggestion, before turning away and stretching his shoulders. ”If I may be so bold, my good Queen, I would recommend some rest. Take a moment to meditate, perhaps.”

It was more of a statement than a suggestion, and Dooku had already taken the initiative in seating himself down and closing his eyes before Padmé could decide whether she wanted to join him. On one hand, she had been spending far too much time at the gymnasium lately, trying to swing and slash her troubles away, and she did feel a certain need to reconnect to the spiritual side of the Force. On the other… she already knew, all-too well, where this meditation session would lead her thoughts, and she would have preferred to be distracted for still another while. Sighing, she finally sat down, legs crossed, praying the Force would grant her insight rather than merely deepen her obsession. 

For the past few months, the young monarch had been tormented by vivid nightmares – nightmares of another war. A horrifying, galaxy-wide conflict that would tear the Republic apart and forever alter its very foundation. Battle droids marching on villages, flagships hovering above cities. Entire star systems brought to their knees, masses upon masses of innocents murdered. Naboo would not be spared. No one would be spared. 

And watching from above, crouching behind their armies like the cowards they were, two serpents snickered with self-satisfaction. Nute Gunray and Rune Haako.

They were just dreams, she'd dismissed them at first. It was only when the pair of crooks had evaded conviction for a third time that Padmé had truly begun to wonder. And now she was certain. The future was manifesting before her eyes, nauseatingly clear. The architects of Naboo's tragedy would not only go free, but go on to orchestrate yet another war, to cause yet more suffering and destruction. 

Padmé only vaguely remembered a time when she wouldn't have spared a thought to something as arbitrary and seemingly inconsequential as dreams. Now she knew better. Now she knew the Force. She knew that what she had seen would yet come to pass.

But the future was always in motion. 

-

Chancellor Palpatine's Forceless bodyguards thumped to the floor as Padmé Amidala's stricken form stumbled into the Republic leader's office. She heaved broken breaths as her confidante dashed to meet her in the doorway, reaching to lift up her chin to reveal a distressed, tear-stained face.

”Your Majesty!” Palpatine gasped at the sight. ”Whatever happened to you?”

Padmé sobbed under her breath, falling to her knees as the Chancellor whipped the doors shut with a flick of his hand. The prospect of speaking seemed insurmountable, but she forced herself to splutter out some semblance to words.

”I – I – I didn't know who else to turn to – it was me, I know it was me –”

”Slow down, my child,” Palpatine soothed. ”Please, come in and tell me what happened.”

A sympathetic arm snaked around her shoulders, and she let her mentor guide her into the open room and seat her down into the comforts of a plush red armchair, sink into its inescapable depths. He fussed around her for a while, offering water and caf and blankets, but Padmé waved a hand of refusal at each kindness, before slumping down and burying her face in her palms. The guards still lay forgotten at the doorway in a frozen display of her terrible, spectacular power.

”Nute Gunray is dead,” she finally whispered, voice quivering as the last, persistent remnants of her queenly poise seemed to shatter away.

”I know – ”

”No, you don't.”

Technically, he did know. It was all over the news. Primarily the local news, but some major media outlets on Coruscant had also taken notice of the shocking development. Padmé tried to gather herself while Palpatine seated himself next to her, craning his head in search of her elusive gaze.

”I went to see him,” Padmé continued in a small voice. ”In prison. Yesterday.”

”On Coruscant?” Palpatine questioned. ”But… Your Majesty… were you not on Scipio then? Renewing the loan agreement?" 

”I was,” she answered quietly, eyes flicking up and settling into an absent stare. ”My gown. My face. My voice. My words. My servants.” She held his gaze until realization passed over the Chancellor's face and tore through her own muddled mindscape. Only now did she see, only now did she understand. What had happened on Coruscant had not just happened. She had foreseen it, she had planned it. She had desired it.

”I see,” Palpatine murmured. ”My Queen… what happened?”

Padmé swallowed. ”I knew… I knew he was going to get away. They'd already released Rune Haako. I knew that Gunray would evade punishment, as well. Everybody knew. The judges were corrupt, their lawyers were crooks. The system is… broken.”

”What happened, Padmé?” 

”I…” She hid her face in her hands again. ”I told myself I just wanted to… confront him. Look him in the eye and tell him that… that this wouldn't be the end. That I would be watching his every move.”

”You went to confront him… in secret?

Padmé's chin shook up and down in confirmation. ”Exactly.” She bit back her sobs, gritting her teeth, distress gradually giving way to anger as she recalled the encounter. ”And there he was. Smug… smirking. He seemed to know why I was there. He knew he would soon be a free man. Someone had made him promises. Someone out there… still had use for him.”

”Did he… tell you this?”

Padmé shook her head, a few strands of her hair falling from place atop her rapidly loosening updo. ”I could see it in his eyes. For one arrogant moment, I thought I could figure it all out just by staring into those cold, unfeeling eyes. But then…” She heaved a charged breath. ”He started mocking me. Mocking the people of Naboo. Making light of our tragedy, belittling everything we'd accomplished since then. Before I knew it, he'd turned the tables on me and started threatening me. With… revenge, I suppose he called it. 'When the time comes', he said. And I…” Her lips remained apart, but no sound came out.

”…Yes, My Queen?” Palpatine pressed her.

Padmé scrunched her eyes shut. She had never spoken of her visions to her mentor, but that seemed of little significance. Somehow, she never doubted for a moment that they both knew what 'the time' meant. The young Queen flicked her eyes up defiantly. ”He never had any respect for human life. Nothing would have given him greater pleasure than to see this Galaxy in ruins. Enemies and innocents alike squashed like insects.”

”My Queen…” Palpatine's voice was a mere whisper now, sharp and piercing. ”What did you do?”

Padmé drew a harsh breath. ”I…”

”What did you do, Padmé?”

”I wished he would die.” Their eyes met again, cutting through the room like lasers. Padmé pursed her lips. ”I pictured it happening. In any number of ways. I remember his bulging eyes, hands clawing at his throat. I think I was… choking him. Or maybe it was still my imagination. It doesn't matter.” 

”But you stopped.”

”I stopped. I threw on my cloak, and… then I told him to do it. I told him to die. I… I commanded him to die.”

”And this morning, he was discovered.” Padmé turned away her head, as though that could distance her from what had happened, or wipe away the image from her head. Gunray had hung himself from a hook in the ceiling with the sleeve of his prison uniform.

”I… I can't explain it, I can't explain what I –” Padmé spluttered, voice shaking. ”But I know… I know it was me! He was… he was going to get out! He could have… he could have pressed charges against me, he could have ruined me!” She swallowed back a last sob that threatened to escape, distantly aware of the Chancellor's hand still resting on her back. Glassy and absent, her eyes glided across the luxurious red room. In the poverty of the Outer Rim, little girls would dream of one day waking up in a palace. She would have given anything to wake up poor, powerless, and still dreaming.

”Magnificent.”

A moment passed before the Chancellor's low voice reached Padmé's ears. ”What did you say?”

”I said… you are… magnificent.

Padmé's eyes snapped up from the floor, still misted with tears. Reflexively, she stood, staring at him. The Chancellor smirked. ”From the very beginning… I suspected there was something special about you. And now… I know I made the right choice.”

”What…” She fell back a few steps, sudden shivers running down her back. ”What are you talking about?”

The Chancellor's smile dove deeper into his wrinkly cheeks. Almost airily, he pushed himself up from the chair and took a few deliberate steps towards her. ”Fear not, my child,” he spoke in calm, hypnotic tones as Padmé continued to backpedal. ”Together you and I will accomplish great things. Together we shall rid the Galaxy of the likes of Nute Gunray. You have an extraordinary gift, truly.” A strange, curved smile spread on his face as he extended his bony hand – an offer, a proposal. His eyes gleamed hungrily. ”A powerful Sith you will become… Darth Eeris.”

He stopped in his tracks as Padmé still stumbled back, only barely keeping her balance, before coming to a halt as her back met the wall. ”Sith…?” she echoed. She felt her breath quickening, heart thumping against her chest. The Sith. The ancient enemy of the Jedi. The secret order responsible for the death of Qui-Gon Jinn. Always two there are. Master and apprentice.

The Queen toppled against the wall as balance finally failed her wobbly legs. 

”You…” she breathed out, hand trembling as an accusatory finger struggled to lift its weight. ”You wanted this to happen. You wanted me to kill him. You… this whole time, you've…” One horrible realization followed another as she attempted to regain her footing. ”You were behind the invasion, too. That's how you… that's how you were able to seize power from Valorum.” Shock finally overcame her, and she slumped down along the wall and crumpled to the floor. ”What have you done to Naboo?!” she demanded. ”And to me?!

”Shh,” came the Chancellor's soothing reply as he continued his steady advance on her. ”There is nothing to fear… and everything to still discover. You are only beginning to test your powers. The next time doesn't have to be a half-accident. You can bend the human mind to your will, My Queen. Let me help you learn control… learn discipline. Once you do… we shall be unstoppable. We can rebuild the Galaxy in our design, piece by piece. Do away with the filth. Preserve… what is worth preserving.”

Padmé blearily lifted her gaze, scowling at him in silence. The Chancellor's countenance remained calm and collected while he spoke, but as Padmé's tears dried away and her vision cleared, she saw a fleeting flash of something else shoot across his features. A silent curse. A tinge of doubt. A wariness.

Even as the disturbance passed, replaced by smiles and sympathies once more, Padmé furrowed her brow, clambering to her feet. How many times had she fallen prey to those soothing tones and speeches? To be sure, the Chancellor had come prepared. He had foreseen the young Queen's murder of Nute Gunray, and he had foreseen the messy aftermath. But he had not anticipated her figuring out the truth about the Chancellor's involvement in the invasion of Naboo – which for a moment had seemed, even to her, unthinkable – something she'd just blurted out in the heat of emotion. Luck or intuition, she could not say, but the accusation seemed to have thrown the Chancellor off balance just for one critical second – a second that he could have utilized to deny her absurd claims. But he had not.

Padmé straightened her posture, rising to her full height. The elderly man still towered over her, but that didn't stop her from spitting at his face, ”The answer is no.”

”It appears you still need some time to think, Your Majesty.” 

”The answer is no,” Padmé restated firmly. Warily, she started towards him; a couple of experimental steps, then frowned. ”…Are you not going to kill me?" she asked. "I've refused you… and now I can ruin you.” 

”But you won't,” Palpatine argued. ”You would have to ruin yourself first. And while I appreciate this show of tears and self-loathing…” He cocked his head, smirking in amusement. ”Pardon me for not believing it. You don't hate yourself for what you did, Padmé. How could you… when you're already fantasizing about your next victim?” His terrible grin widened as he brought a crinkled hand to his collar, indicating himself.

”Get out of my head!" Padmé screamed. 

”And such is the way of the Sith, my child,” Palpatine went on, now closing the distance between them and settling a hand on her trembling shoulder. ”If that is what you desire… I invite you to try.

Chapter Text

”She has become a liability and a very great threat indeed, My Lord. I see no way we can afford not to eliminate her.”

Turning away from the window for a moment, Sidious regarded his apprentice with his usual unbothered, almost amused sort of calmness. ”Now Tyranus, are you so jealous of your rival apprentice that you would let her talents go to waste?”

”If you'll forgive my frankness, My Lord…” Tyranus gazed down at the capital city of Theed, above which their transport shuttle was currently soaring. ”I do believe you miscalculated this time. She was not ready… and she will not forgive you for what you did to Naboo.”

”Perhaps,” the Sith Lord conceded, before baring his teeth in a mirthful grin. "The greater the tragedy." 

Tyranus continued to shift and twitch in an uncharacteristic manner as the shuttle landed on a private spaceport a couple of klicks from the Royal Palace. Sidious was already shuffling towards the opened hatch when he whirled around once more and sighed. ”Something you wish to say, Tyranus?”

Tyranus waited a beat before speaking. ”There is a significant chance she will attempt to use her powers on you." 

Sidious smirked. ”Your concern is touching, my friend.”

Sidious' smile never left his lips as he climbed aboard another shuttle, sent by the Queen herself, that was to convey him to the palace. The official guise for their meeting was just another round of tedious state affairs. Which, in an ideal scenario, they might still make some time to discuss. Sidious sneered to himself. What Tyranus suspected to be miscalculation, he simply called separating the wheat from the chaff. He was but a simple farmer, who expected to reap what he had sowed, trimming out the fruitless branches and burning away the weed as he went.

If Her Royal Majesty should prove a bad seed, he had plenty more crops to cultivate.

A strange stillness seemed to have settled over the palace as the Chancellor was escorted inside by a small entourage. A majority of the palace staff appeared to be away. Though odd, Sidious ultimately thought little of this abnormality, as he had little to fear from the teenaged puppet monarch who had no doubt brought about these circumstances.

The Sith Lord found his former mentee in one of the larger assembly rooms, standing at a window in a solemn fashion before turning to the newcomers. She immediately sent the entourage away. Even from the opposite end of the room, Sidious could see the profound tiredness weighing down her painted features and narrow shoulders. At length, the little Sithling whirled away from the window, the hem of her heavy gown swinging with the motion.

”Come, say what you need to say, Chancellor,” she addressed him in her false queenly voice. ”Then I shall do the same." 

Sidious licked his lips, folding his hands behind his back and taking a few steps in her direction. ”I must say… as far as smear campaigns go…" 

”I should have feared for the safety of anyone I might have confided in,” Queen Amidala confessed, the slight tremors in her voice betraying the depth of her sincerity.

Sidious smiled. ”Wise.” His steps gave a hollow echo against the walls of the grand hall as he continued to approach. ”And did you happen to hear the news of Rune Haako's passing?” Sidious could see her face hardening, fists clenching at her sides. ”Mining accident. Ah, life is short.”

”Are you mocking me or praising me?”

There was a rustle of fabric as Sidious delved into his dark crimson robes. ”Oh, I am…” He slowly withdrew his hand from the velvet, fingers closed around cold, fine metal. He felt the corrupted kyber crystal throbbing inside the weapon, connecting with the very nerves of his hand, his whole body. ”…mourning you.”

Padmé only frowned. She never tore her eyes from her would-be opponent as he advanced on her, taunting her with his leisurely pace. A smirk rose on his lips again. ”I have but a single question,” he announced. ”Would you rather the blade enter through the chest – or perhaps, the head?” Her frown deepened, but no reply came. Sidious gave a little shrug before igniting the scarlet blade, and bringing the business end within inches of his chin, ghosting it over his neck as though considering her wordless suggestion. Then he swung it to his side again and gave a dry laughter. ”Oh, I am only teasing you, my child. But really, you made such an admirable effort. For your sake, I hope that your skill with the saber proves far inferior. It would be a shame to drag out this wasteful, wasteful death.” 

-

Padmé heaved a deep breath, in resignation and readiness all at once. It had been worth a try. Served her right – first she'd underestimated her capabilities, and now she'd overestimated them.

Her handmaidens would thoroughly investigate her death, she mused, shedding her royal trappings on the floor to reveal the dark, practical combat attire underneath. Sabé would not just give up on her. None of them would. She might have failed them in every regard, but they had yet to fail their Queen. They would find the coded message, and then they would know. If she couldn't defeat her greatest demon with the Force, they would avenge her without it. Avenge her, and avenge Naboo.

Padmé cast a final look at her saber before moving into her opening stance, newly constructed and still ever so slightly awkward in her grip. It held a rare type of kyberite inside that projected a blindingly white beam of energy, instead of the traditional red. It was certainly a statement, even if her chosen color was no longer her soul's mirror.

Her first few parries were just that – statements, accomplished out of principle and stubbornness rather than any formidable level of skill. Still, resigned to her fate though she was, the elderly man's speed and finesse astonished her. Dooku had rarely broken a sweat against her, but Palpatine's unfathomably quick movements and elaborate, yet lethally simple technique left her gasping and and struggling to remain on her feet (or keep her feet). Barely managing a decent defense, let alone launch the beginnings of an offense, she questioned the sense in making a 'statement' more than once. Palpatine had been lying. He was fully intent on dragging this ordeal out. 

”Queen Amidala is dead,” Sidious hissed as their sabers locked. ”Padmé Naberrie is dead. Embrace the name I gave you, and save yourself, my child. Quell your impatience for vengeance, now… and one day you might just stand a chance.”

Padmé grunted, gripping the hilt tighter against her palms.

But then - in spite of herself, Padmé felt a cold ripple run through her. For just a moment, she thought about – fantasized about – surrendering. Not to the deadly red beam sizzling before her eyes, but to Palpatine's offer. Pledging herself to his service, learning the true extent of her powers. Crushing her enemies one by one. Reclaiming her friends and her family, protecting them with a fierce devotion. Rebuilding the Galaxy in her design. And one day… strangling the life out of the writhing form of Sheev Palpatine, stepping over his still-warm body to claim her rightful throne. 

It was the dark side of the Force, calling to her, filling her – residing in her. And there was a certain, undeniable allure in simply yielding to its chilling embrace.

And then the moment passed, and Padmé decided she rather preferred the red blade. 

As her opponent flew into another succession of strikes, keeping a remarkable balance between toying with Padmé and asserting his utter superiority over her, the young Force wielder was beginning to knock on the doors of desperation. Any moment now, the monster would tire of playing with its food and swallow her whole – or in pieces. One last statement, she decided. Anything, to show him that she didn't belong to him, that she had broken free from his grasp, was the master of her own fate, however tragic.

She dove into the warmth of the Force, beseeching help. At first, she could only hear faint whispers; dodges and parries and her very survival taking up her focus. But as Palpatine's attacks grew more and more unforgiving, the duel's objective clearer and clearer, her desperation greater – something emerged out of the blue; a gentle mental tug, a bodiless tap on her shoulder.

The window.

It was less of an idea and more a sudden, irresistible pull toward the casements covering most of the eastern wall. They were on the fourth floor, and even if she did somehow manage to throw herself through the glass before Palpatine got to her, the fall would no doubt prove fatal.

The perfect way out, and forever out of his reach. 

Trying to keep her movements as natural as possible, Padmé started to fall back. This was very much the pattern the uneven duel had been going so far anyway, so at first Palpatine took no notice. Steps away from the middle window, Padmé made the cardinal mistake of glancing over her shoulder, half a movement lasting a split second, and immediately understanding rose on Palpatine's repulsive features. He was not about to let his wayward pupil die on her own terms.

With an almost mind-boggling ease, the master duelist manipulated his twirls and turns so that Padmé was forced to whirl around and change course from the window, bringing his own back toward the wall and blocking her final shot at freedom.

Padmé let out a breath of exhaustion. She'd failed. Her weapon felt more a burden and less a shield now. 

Then the world became a storm of shattered glass, and Padmé only briefly registered the dark figure hurtling through the window before her reflexes kicked in and forced her eyes shut.

A thrust.

A gasp.

Then… only that deadly, sizzling hum.

Padmé opened her eyes to find herself staring at the frozen image of Sheev Palpatine; mouth open, eyes wide and glazed over. A crackling red blade protruded from his chest. Before she could process what had happened, the weapon retracted, and her reflexes next told her to take a step to the side.

The body thudded against the marble floor to reveal the towering form of Count Dooku.

”For Qui-Gon,” the silver-haired man murmured.

-

”I must thank you, Your Majesty. Killing a Sith Lord is no simple undertaking.” Dooku cast an offhand glance to the lifeless remains of Sheev Palpatine as his droids hauled him aboard the shuttle hovering just below the broken window. It was to take him on a final journey through hyperspace, before meeting with a tragic accident just above the Coruscant atmosphere. ”Too distracted by the anticipation of your betrayal…” His gaze wandered from the window back to her. ”He neglected to give any consideration to mine.”

Padmé's eyes still stood trained upon the shuttle, even as the hatch closed and the engine burst into life. Her voice had a raspy edge as she absently moved her lips to form the question, ”You meant to avenge your student from the beginning?”

”Ever since I learned the true extent of Palpatine's involvement in the Naboo crisis… that it was under his direct orders that my Padawan met his end at the hands of that… disgusting little pawn. And my grand-Padawan too… if he'd had his way.” A small smile played about his lip-corners for a while. The pair of them then gazed after the roaring high-speed hearse as it took flight to Naboo's azure skies. ”Of course, Sidious wanted the boy, Anakin Skywalker,” Dooku added after a pause. ”Not exactly a model observer of the Rule of Two… which, indeed, ultimately proved his undoing.”

Padmé lowered her gaze. It all made sense now. For years she had been manipulated and molded at the hands of this monster, and could only berate herself for her naivete – but she was positively nauseated by the notion of the innocent, kind-hearted boy that she'd met on Tatooine falling into Palpatine's clutches. A rush of anger flared through her veins, passing as quickly as it had come as Dooku's words properly registered.

”Sidious,” she echoed.

”Darth Sidious – his Sith name,” Dooku explained. ”I understand he gave you one, as well.” 

”Eeris,” Padmé confessed. She was surprised she remembered it through her rather foggy recollection of that fateful day. ”I don't know what it means… and I never want to.”

”Ah…” Dooku uttered. ”You mean to distance yourself from his teachings? From… the Force itself?”

Padmé nodded, eyes trailing the ornate patterns on the floor. ”All I've ever wanted is to serve my planet. But my pursuit of the Force was always entirely self-serving. I – I lost sight of my duty to Naboo, duty to my people. I need to make amends.”

Silence hovered between them for a few moments while Dooku studied her. Padmé lifted her gaze. Somehow, her former saber instructor seemed to have a lot more to say than he eventually did say, ”I might have been a decent Jedi… but I chose to leave the Order. I might have made a fine Sith… but I chose revenge instead. And I don't believe I will regret either choice.”

Padmé gave a nod of acknowledgment, of approval even, her lips just falling short of a smile. Something about the words – or his manner – gave her pause, but the observation was fleeting and her thoughts still scrambled. And soon enough another notion struck her, and she caught up to Dooku, who'd already turned to leave.

”I…” She weighed her words. ”While I am grateful for the rescue… I truly - I truly do mean to start afresh… leave this chapter in my life behind. Naboo thanks you for your service, and you will always be welcome here. Queen Amidala will receive you with open arms. But Padmé –” She held her breath for a while. ”I think it would be best if we cut all ties with each other.” 

In his characteristic manner, Dooku took a moment before answering. ”I understand,” he then sighed. ”Well then… I wish you all the best, Your Majesty.”

”Of course, I should be more than happy to recompense –”

”Nonsense,” Dooku waved a dismissive hand. ”I will not hear of it.”

”In that case… I wish you all the best, as well.”

Chapter Text

”Your Former Majesty. I would gladly call this an honor – but, to be honest, I am a little hurt.”

Dooku, evidently, was still a man of expensive tastes. Padmé didn't know how he'd gained access to their current coordinates, a grand, almost palatial mansion on the far edges of Sundari, but the imposing, white and golden themed hall that opened before her eerily reminded her of the scene of their last meeting. Perhaps that was the idea – she didn't think Dooku above psychological games, she held no expectations of a man whom, she now realized, she'd never truly known at all.

”Perhaps it was naive of me to expect you to honor our agreement, Dooku,” Padmé's voice echoed across the hall as she stepped off the colossal turbolift. ”The years have turned you into something else, just as they have done me.”

”And what is that, dear Senator?” Dooku's voice boomed back to her. ”What have the years made you?” Padmé bit her lip, willing herself to focus on the steady clopping of her boots. ”Oh, spare me, my young friend,” Dooku intoned, in mock exasperation. ”Would you so insult me as to assume I don't know? It is no accident that your home planet has remained peaceful all these years. They have their little guardian angel. The Champion of Naboo.”

Padmé averted her eyes as she reached the center of the room, not wanting to take another step any more than she was willing to turn back. Flashes of faces, names, addresses and agendas flitted through her head. Foes and false friends, lies and schemes and machinations that their would-be victims would never know. A second invasion that had never happened. Assassination threats that had stopped before they began. Corrupt politicians that had disappeared without a trace.

Glassy eyes looking back at her, shadows staggering away from her, never to be seen again. Hands scratching at throats, limp bodies falling at her feet.

”I'm not giving you the Republic,” Padmé stated coldly. 

Dooku sniffed. ”You know what your problem is, Senator? You're not ambitious enough. You no longer see beyond the walls you've built around home sweet home. You could wrap the Galaxy around your finger… yet you busy both hands with your back-yard garden. You could be great… yet you choose to be trivial.”

”Is that why you're here?” Padmé inquired. ”To offer me greatness?” The suggestion sounded awfully familiar. Were all Sith destined to drift down this path? Blind themselves on their quest for the suns, grope in the dark for their next unsuspecting prey to drag down with them?

”I think we can help each other, Amidala,” Dooku offered. ”You never had a chance to finish your lightsaber training.” He rested his hand on the curved hilt dangling from his belt. ”I believe it is due to that trifling detail that I hold the upper hand in this discussion. I would rid you of that awkward deficiency.”

Only steps away from the Sith Lord, Padmé came to a halt. Pinching her eyes shut, she grappled for her focus through the murky depths of her mind. 

”Do not bother,” Dooku advised rather wearily. He lifted the weapon from his belt, tossing it flippantly from palm to palm. ”Try any tricks at all, and we might as well move on to the… next stage in these negotiations. A rather uncivilized stage that I'd much rather we dispense with.”

Padmé clenched her jaw in frustration, the shaky beginnings of a focus dissolving into silent screams in her head. ”Say I give you what you want,” she sighed, opening her eyes. ”What then? You may condemn my means, or scoff at my ends, but everything I've done, I've done in the service of my people. I have a mission… a purpose. What entitles you to the Republic? Why should you deserve my help?” 

”I take it you're ready to discuss the Republic's future with me… partner to partner?”

Padmé pursed her lips. Dooku was delusional in thinking that there was anything she wanted that he could offer. Still, she needed to be smart about this, bide her time, rather than once again throw herself into a literal battle of ideologies that could only end in her martyrdom.

”I suppose there's no harm in hearing you out,” she replied, schooling her voice into a composed monotone.

”Splendid.” Dooku brought his wrist to his lips, comlink scratching. ”Ventress, the lady is ready to be escorted to her quarters.” He didn't bother to wait for a response. 

”You mean… to her holding cell,” Padmé ventured. Second thoughts were catching up to her fast.

”Prisoner, partner, do take your pick, Amidala. Let me know when you make up your mind." 

Padmé lowered her gaze, feeling her nails digging into her palms. Patience was a virtue, there was no denying that. But –

In a moment of unthinking desperation, almost of their own will, her fingers closed around the metal hilt at her belt and swung it to her side, the hot-white blade erupting into life.

”Oh, you young fool,” Dooku sighed, pityingly. He inclined his head, casting her a look from under his brows; a gesture of warning. Then he dutifully went through the motions of the Makashi opening flourish and – gentlemanly as ever – signaled for his opponent to make the first move.

Padmé remained rooted to the spot, one smart idea away from putting down her weapon. But she might as well have been turned into stone, existing in a frozen limbo state. 

Within split seconds, almost quicker than eyes could follow, Dooku lunged forward. Padmé, snapping out of her daze, readied her crystal blade – but it was too little, too late. In one calculated, graceful motion, the crimson saber came sweeping at her, slashing at her forearm and instantaneously stripping the young Force wielder of her last resort. The saber was flung over her shoulder and far across the room, clanking to the floor and rolling away. Padmé groaned, hand clamped down on the searing cut on her wrist.

”Ventress?” Dooku called into his comlink once again. ”Do make haste, now, don't let us have all the fun,” he added with a grin. This time, he left the frequency on, waiting for confirmation. When none was forthcoming, the grin vanished from the Count's face. Frustrated, he tried to adjust the device.

Then they heard a low clanging from the other end of the hall as the turbolift stopped at their floor, and Dooku's patronizing smirk reinstated itself. This lasted until the blast doors parted – to reveal not the pale-skinned assassin, but –

”Don't worry - I don't intend to." 

Padmé struggled to believe her eyes. It… it couldn't be. It couldn't be – she'd personally made sure –

Unless –

”A… Anakin!”

It couldn't be, and yet it was. Those short sandy curls, delicate features contorted in a scowl. That tall, gangling frame, still robed in that same set of pajamas from that night on Naboo – and thankfully, a pair of boots that his captor had graciously provided to her then unconscious, bare-footed prisoner.

Only – he didn't look like a prisoner now. And it was not just the absence of chains around his torso and his wrists. It was in his eyes – something dark, fierce, almost predatory. A freshly cauterized wound bisected his right eye. Trails of sweat trickled down his brow. Padmé gaped as he stalked across the space towards the pair, a bizarre wildness accompanying his every step. 

Dooku's surprise was rather less extreme, but he frowned with some apprehension as the newcomer approached, calling the lost lightsaber to his hand as though he'd expected to find it abandoned on the floor.

”Padawan Skywalker, I presume,” Dooku nodded his head stiffly. ”Pleased to make your acquaintance. Pardon me – I was given to understand that you'd been… dealt with.” He shot Padmé a bemused glance.

”I –” the Senator stuttered.

”Padmé, go,” Anakin snarled, calling the white blade into life and twirling it dangerously. ”Go, now!

”A-Anakin –”

”There's no danger to you anymore,” he yelled, motioning toward the turbolift, ”Just go!

At that, Dooku's frown deepened. ”There is… no danger to her?”

”Anakin, give me my weapon back,” Padmé commanded as the Jedi finally reached her side, only to keep going until he'd positioned himself between her and Dooku. ”You – you shouldn't be here.”

”No, you shouldn't be here,” he growled, eyes averted from her and firmly trained on the Sith Lord.

”I am not going anywhere –”

”Well, this is not a democracy, Senator!

With that, he rounded on her, and with a sudden, violent blast, the world went black. 

-

Tucking the stolen blaster into his pajama pocket (How stupid he must look! And in front of a Sith Lord!) Anakin rushed to break Padmé's fall before her head could hit the floor.

”Gets old, doesn't it?” he muttered, gathering up her slender form into his arms - then practically exploding into a run toward the turbolift. If he could just get her into safety, or at least halfway there –

He got about quarter-way there before all his limbs suddenly failed him at the same time and broke into horrible, painful convulsions. Anakin screamed out in agony, dropping to his knees, then to his elbows, his precious cargo slipping away from him and crumpling into a lifeless heap. It took him a long, torturous moment to realize what was happening. By that point, the lightning had already retracted, and from his pitiful groaning, Anakin could just hear its conjurer approaching, ”Quite the entrance, I must say, Skywalker. But I'm afraid you're intruding on a private meeting.”

Anakin struggled to regain his bearings, still heaving fitful breaths from the sheer shock of the unimaginable pain he'd just experienced. Stretching out a shaky arm, he tried to reach the turbolift controls with the Force. If he could just –

But there was not enough time, and Anakin figured this out nanoseconds before Dooku fired another round – and the Padawan, still scrambling on all fours, whirled around to deflect the bolts with his borrowed saber, shielding Padmé from the onslaught. The impact pushed him back like a violent gale of wind. Anakin gritted his teeth as he desperately tried to get up, bolt after bolt leaking through his defenses and racking his already fatigued body.

”There is no escape,” Dooku taunted, stretching his fingers taut until the electric outburst grew near-unbearable, ”I don't know how you managed to sneak in, little vermin, but I have guards posted at every floor –”

Through his straining, Anakin managed to scoff, which didn't escape Dooku's notice. ”Yeah – sneak in. That's – that's what I did,” the boy rasped. Hands pressing down on the saber hilt, he tried to divert his thoughts from what had transpired downstairs, for fear of remembering how exhausted he was.

And - how he'd – how he'd just – without a second thought –

Finally, understanding appeared to dawn on Dooku's face, and the bolts from his fingers dwindled into sparks as he withdrew his hand, dumbfounded. ”That's… impossible,” he declared. ”Each one of my Magnaguards is more than a match for a Jedi, and Ventress –”

Anakin gave another attempt at a scoff – or perhaps even a huff of laughter – but it came across as something between a cough and a sob as he clambered to his feet. Dooku trailed the movement in silence, disbelieving of his own eyes and ears. But his incredulity only reached its peak when the injured youth straightened his back, cocking his head in challenge, and ignited the white saber anew.

”Perhaps Sidious was right about you,” he mumbled, shaking his head as he raised his own trusted crimson.

Chapter Text

Less than two weeks ago, Anakin could have been forgiven for forgetting the Sith existed. During the last few days, he'd already fought one Sith acolyte, fought her again and killed her, acted as a bodyguard to another, who also happened to be the love of his life, been kidnapped by said love of his life, who'd also tried to lobotomize him, and now was about to duel a third kriffing freak, who also happened to be the leader of the Separatists and Qui-Gon's old Master… and that was oversimplifying things.

Count Dooku exuded utter and complete confidence as he circled and sized up his much younger (and less experienced) adversary. Anakin stretched back his shoulders, muscles still twitching from the effects of the Force lightning. He didn't need to have actually fought the man to know that there would be no room for sloppy mistakes.

And yet, in his heart, Anakin felt no fear. Fear was pointless. Fear was for the uncertain, for the wavering. 

And when Anakin had woken up with his memories intact, his own free will still his own – he'd never wavered for a moment.

The crimson-wielding Sith Lord made no secret of his preferred lightsaber form, greeting his opponent with the traditional Makashi salute. Having seen Master Yoda in action, Anakin knew better than to judge an opponent based on either age or size, or manner, but whatever he'd expected from a towering elderly citizen with a haughty aura, he supposed it should have been exactly this kind of… he didn't 't even know how to describe it, or why he was taken off guard from the moment their hissing blades clashed, for Dooku's movements were neither overly aggressive or very swift at all. There was a patient, fine-tuned elegance to his swings and parries, anticipating and adapting to his adversary's motions and often waiting for him to strike first, only to then take immediate advantage of the younger man's rush.

Even half-aware of all this, Anakin couldn't help his usual style, bold and audacious even among Djem So practitioners; settling into its familiar comfort, embracing the aggression that he carried within. If Dooku was waiting for him to make a mistake, then he might as well make a thousand, until they all cancelled each other out and became his strength and the Sith Lord's undoing.

So far, though, his mistakes primarily manifested themselves as cuts and tears and bruises on his arms and legs, some of them holdovers from the previous encounter.

”Interesting fighting style for a Jedi,” Dooku commented as their blades met in a lock. ”Most fascinating.”

”Funny,” Anakin snapped in retort, ”'cause you know what I find fascinating about you? Absolutely nothing!

”For shame, young Skywalker,” Dooku mocked with a jovial tone, ”you'll make an old man cry.”

”That's the plan,” Anakin informed, before throwing a kick at Dooku's knees, and breaking the combatants apart. He then launched into another daring offensive, directing his sweeps and slashes so that he could whirl about and steal just a quick glimpse of Padmé, still lying motionless on the floor. What if she should wake up while they were still fighting, he wondered. Who would she side with? Truthfully, Anakin wasn't a hundred percent certain that she wouldn't just shrug at Dooku, and aim her lightning at their common Jedi enemy. He wouldn't have just walked into a trap – he would have volunteered into it.

Dooku soon countered with heavy offensive of his own, taking maximum advantage of Anakin's increasingly fatigued state. Forced to give ground, Anakin did his best to steer them away from Padmé. So far, Dooku had fought 'fairly' in that he'd not tried to distract Anakin by threatening Padmé's safety – which probably only meant that he wanted her alive, and didn't see the point of idle bluffing.

The steering was successful, but within seconds Dooku was back to dominating the duel and virtually dictating Anakin's defensive maneuvers one by one. Anakin danced up and down, back and forth, just barely keeping up with Dooku's effortlessly fluid movements, some of which the Padawan didn't think he'd ever encountered in sparring or in the field. Out of his element, the young Jedi had no choice but to entrust his defense to the Force's guidance - which was all fine and perfectly in line with Obi-Wan's annoying, repetitive sermons about… whatever they were about, the ways of the Jedi, and so on, he couldn't afford to lose focus – but by this point his body was struggling to keep up. Between his escape from the bounty hunter (that was certainly one way to put it), tracking Padmé down, taking down a horde of elite battle droids and a trained assassin, and being fried like cheap street food, he was quite simply starting to reach his physical limit.

Anakin stifled a cry as Dooku, almost nonchalantly, slashed at the younger man's arm once again, tearing through the soft fabric of his embarrassing attire deep into the skin. The Padawan had yet to leave a mark on his opponent, and for the first time it was starting to sink in that he was truly and well out of his depth. If Obi-Wan were here (Kriffing hell! He was already playing the 'if Obi-Wan' game?) …well, he would have probably just told Anakin to stay behind, while… plan, or the Jedi Council, or something. Had Anakin disobeyed that order… no, Anakin privately decided, this game was pointless. From the moment the Padawan had escaped from the bounty hunter's custody, the notion of contacting Obi-Wan had never once crossed his mind, and for good reason. 

The next stab went across Anakin's knee, sending him stumbling back and getting entangled in his own clumsy footwork. This time, though, he did not recover fast enough. Suddenly far too concerned with his feet, with keeping his balance, he was too late to follow the Force's lead as it tried to guide the saber in his hand, whisper a warning, yell a warning –

By the time he heard it, the crimson had already struck, a rough hand shoved him back, his feet given way, and his hand – nay, his arm

It was no longer there, and neither was his saber, both replaced only by a burning, excruciating agony.

Anakin found himself writhing on the floor, clutching what remained of his limb and whimpering under his breath. For a moment, Dooku just stood there looming over him, casting a long shadow over his helpless form. Then he stooped down, picked up the severed forearm, made quick work of his curled fingers and extracted the colorless saber. ”This doesn't belong to you,” he stated matter-of-factly, before attaching the weapon to his belt, then unceremoniously tossing the detached limb over his shoulder, smiling down at Anakin as it thumped against the floor.

Anakin only hissed in response. Impassively, Dooku ignited his scarlet saber anew, gave a twirl, then gingerly lowered the crackling tip to Anakin's throat. The Padawan stilled, feeling the agonizing heat breathing into his burn scars from Naboo. Dooku inched the tip toward his chin, until Anakin was forced to look up and meet the Sith Lord's eyes.

”I suppose killing you now is an option,” he mused. ”A rather tempting one, for that matter.” Anakin glowered. Without any real deliberation behind them, his thoughts wandered to his mother. ”However…” Dooku ran a hand over his beard, peering over Anakin to Padmé's similarly prone form. ”It would seem that you and the good Senator share some manner of… feelings for one another.” Anakin flinched, the saber-tip brushing against his throat as a result of the minimal movement. Dooku grinned. ”And seeing as my future partner did not greet my proposition with quite as much enthusiasm as I'd hoped… perhaps you could help me twist her arm.”

”No –” 

”Fret not, my young friend,” Dooku drawled, withdrawing the red blade in favor of lifting up a hand of out-spread fingers, ”for there is no pressure. Should you fail to inspire a cooperative spirit in your darling Senator, then you will at least have your answer. You will die knowing you meant nothing to her – and then we shall see if she's still fond of her family.”

”No!” Anakin cried, before the unnatural thunder overwhelmed his broken body once again, leaving him thrashing and tossing on the floor. Through the haze of pain and spasms and smoking flesh, the Padawan desperately tried to rack his brain, come up with something, anything, before unconsciousness took him – he only had seconds –

And then, he remembered. Or perhaps, it occurred to him for the first time, he couldn't quite tell. It was as though his brain, on the brink of shutdown, went into emergency overdrive, as if his remaining arm began to hyper-compensate for its newly missing twin. Summoning the very last of his strength, and of his wits, Anakin reached into his pajamas – disguising the movement as just another spasm – and grabbed one of the crimson sabers previously owned by one Asajj Ventress.

He clutched tightly on the hilt until he was sure his grip would hold, and then, with a familiar snap-hiss, he took a swing at his assailant's ankles.

Anakin continued to convulse even as his torture came to an abrupt end, and he felt the tall, heavy form of the Sith Lord tumble over him, and fall hard against the floor, like timber in the vast woods of Alderaan.

For a fleeting moment, the Padawan allowed himself the luxury of oblivion, before snapping up, kicking away Dooku's mutilated legs, and pushing himself up to his elbows (or more accurately, elbow). Then he lifted a trembling arm and planted its crimson extension into the Sith Lord's back. He vaguely saw his silver head head go limp, and then the boy fainted away.

When Anakin came to, his hand was still gripped around the saber. He awkwardly worked his way up to what still should have been two elbows, wincing as he realized he'd not dreamt up the loss of one. Head spinning, he peered over Dooku's dead body. On the other side, a pair of exquisite brown eyes stared back at him.

”Padmé!”

They seemed to startle each other to their feet. Padmé scrambled up from the floor, dizzied and confused – then her eyes lowered from Anakin, and it took a moment before the shock registered on her face. She gasped, covering her mouth with her hands. Anakin stumbled clumsily over Dooku's lifeless form and rushed across the room to her. ”Padmé, are you okay?” he asked anxiously. 

Padmé gave a perfunctory nod that didn't seem to signify anything. She was still gazing over Anakin's shoulder, hand clamped over her mouth. After a while, she pulled back, and then gasped again. ”Anakin, your arm…” She instinctively reached to touch the stub, ever so gently, barely even brushing the torn sleeve.

Anakin shrugged. ”It's okay.”

”No, it's not –”

”Okay, maybe it isn't, but it will be. I promise.”

She surveyed him with her amber-brown miracles. For a moment, Anakin smiled in sheer admiration. He was so tired, he just wanted to disappear into those depths, leave this room, this entire world behind.

”How did you find me?” Padmé asked, weary lids falling over the glimmering amber.

”I…” He hesitated. ”It was easy, actually. I suppose I've just… always known how to find you.” His lips twitched into a queasy smile. ”Now that I say it out loud, I guess it sounds kind of creepy.”

There was a hint of a frown on her face, but not the unsettled kind – wary, hesitant, studying. She made a couple of false starts, before giving up on a response altogether. 

But Anakin was done hesitating.

”Padmé – ” he tried to reach out with both hands, only to find the right side unresponsive – then proceeded to collect both of her petite hands into his solitary one, giving them a gentle tug. Her eyes opened wide, but she didn't resist. ”Padmé, I meant what I said. I'm in love with you. I – it's always been you, it always will be you. I – I worship the ground you walk on.” 

”Anakin –”

”I don't care what you did, or what you are, I –” He shook his head, as though trying to jostle his words, his fervent emotions into some semblance of coherence. ”I was listening – I mean, when you told me about your past – I heard you. On your ship, when you thought I was unconscious – that is, I was, I think, but… somehow, I still heard you.” He smiled down at her, squeezing her tiny hands. ”You're not a villain. You've never been a villain. This… Palpatine, he – he used you, manipulated you, and – all you wanted was to protect your people –”

”Anakin –”

”That doesn't mean I – that I – when I woke up, on the bounty hunter's ship, I was still angry – so, so, angry. And I still can't believe you did what you did – even if you failed –” He pressed down on her fingers a little too tight, and she winced. He didn't relent for a while, either, as his phantom pains insisted that he was only clenching his right fist. Then he realized what he was doing, and grimaced – not only at the minor discomfort that he had caused Padmé, but at the memory that had triggered the reaction. The anger that had waned now, set into the horizon like the twin suns of Tatooine – but not until satisfying its bloodlust, claiming its due victims, the poor souls that dared challenge the merciless desert. Anakin whipped his head again, shook those unwelcome, nauseating feelings away. ”But I… all I really wanted was to find you, Padmé. All I wanted – all I still want – is to be with you.”

He stopped himself short right there, before more feverish, disjointed splutters could tumble out. Padmé stood there in silence, her lips parting slightly, before closing again. With every passing second, Anakin prayed to the Force anew, begged the universe to end his torment, give him an answer, crush his stitched-together heart all over again, anything, anything.

At length, Padmé pulled back slightly, shifting her hands in his grasp and sighing softly. She smiled – a brittle, shaky attempt – before a new distress spread over her features. ”Anakin,” she whispered, ”you – you killed the leader of the Separatists. You killed him, during peace negotiations. Don't you realize what you've done? You – you just declared war, Anakin.”

With that, she untangled her fingers, spun on her heel, and walked away. 

Chapter Text

Anakin did not give chase. Each of her words like a punch to the gut, a blow across the face, his legs suddenly refused to move, as though afraid that one more syllable would spontaneously lop them off. She was long gone when Anakin, laboredly, could even process what she had said. He stared ahead blankly, overwhelmed, almost missing such plain, uncomplicated feelings as heartbreak.

At length, he mechanically put one foot in front of the other, and trudged his way through the mansion, across the bodies and the scrap metal he'd left in his wake, and made his way to the ship awaiting outside, the simple, streamlined freighter he'd hijacked from the bounty hunter. He did not agree with stealing, but ideals could not bring the poor bastard back from the dead, or change how his heart had ached, ached, to find Padmé at the time.

In fact, he'd been in such a hurry that he'd never taken the time to look for his lightsaber, which he assumed was stashed away somewhere on board. Drawing a steadying breath, he now stopped to listen for the soothing hums of the kyberite thrumming inside his constant companion. Floating across the warmth of the Force, he was drawn to a hidden compartment underneath the dashboard, unearthing his saber, his holoprojector, as well as the very few other items that he'd packed for Naboo and later had confiscated from him. They even included a change of clothes.

Sore, shaken and disoriented, Anakin now found himself torn between two courses of action. Or rather, between the sensible, responsible, Council-pre-approved thing to do, and blatant disobedience and appalling violation of the Jedi Code.

Finally, he decided that the two were not mutually exclusive.

”Anakin! Thank the Force!” a blue, flickering Jedi Knight sighed on the boy's palm, with a little more relief than was strictly Code-appropriate, Anakin would have thought, if he had not known better, or been so thoroughly preoccupied with anything but that. 

He could not even quite put together a greeting. 

On the other end, Obi-Wan frowned. ”I got a call from Senator Amidala,” he explained, making Anakin half-flinch at the mention of her name. ”She told me you were… abducted?”

Technically, that was entirely true. Anakin just nodded, words still eluding him. 

”What happened?” his Master questioned. ”You escaped from this… bounty hunter?”

Technically, that was also accurate. ”I did, Master.” Anakin did his best to hide the severed arm under the ample folds of his robes, though he thought he saw Obi-Wan cringe at the scar that ran over his eye.

”I'm afraid I don't quite understand – hmm? I seem to sense your presence not too far away.”

Anakin exhaled deeply, pinching his eyes shut. After he'd broken free from the Force binders, the Padawan had meticulously shielded his presence from his Master, to prevent any premature pursuit and subsequently, his potential discovery of Padmé's secret identity. Now, he could finally breathe – though not in relief, not exactly. ”Not for long, I'm sorry, Master. I have to –" He hung his head, trying not to wince at the pain that radiated from his nape. "I have to go to Tatooine.” 

Obi-Wan's brow tightened. ”What?”

”Before you say anything, Master, Senator Amidala dismissed me from her service. We – we found the person responsible for her attempted assassination.”

The Jedi Knight blinked. ”…I'm sorry, you found them? Wait, Anakin – is that why you're going to Tatooine?”

”No… I - I'll transmit you the coordinates, my current coordinates. And I will explain everything, I promise, I'll take full responsibility for my actions. But Master –” He heard his voice break. ”I have to go now. I have to - I have to see my mother.

Averting his eyes, he saw from his periphery as Obi-Wan shifted in the wobbly holographic image. And even if current technology rather fell short of accurately conveying how the older Jedi's face hardened, how sharply his entire presence changed, Anakin knew. He didn't even have to look.  

”Anakin,” Obi-Wan lowered his tone in warning. ”Wherever you are right now, I order you to stay put –” 

But Anakin had already slammed a defiant hand on the communicator disk, banishing away his miniature Master as though he were a mildly annoying holodrama that he'd left playing in the background for a little too long. 

-

Whenever Anakin let his heart wander back to the sun-parched dunes of Tatooine, his thoughts and dreams, as treasured as they were painful, were almost solely dedicated to his mother. Kitster and Wald were occasional tugs on his lip-corners or involuntary scowls at Obi-Wan.

But once in a blue moon, unable to help his presence in the picture that formed in the former slave's head of Mos Espa, Anakin would reflect on Watto, his old owner, entertaining far-fetched hypothetical scenarios in his head. What should happen if he ever returned his former home, how that scene would play out. Sometimes, these were revenge fantasies, but only when Anakin was having a particularly un-Jedi-like day, or when Obi-Wan had told him to release some petty frustration into the Force, and Anakin wanted to wallow in it instead.

More than once – though he'd done his best to forget – the boy had dreamt of going back to Tatooine undercover as a slave. The Jedi Council had even talked him into getting the slave chip re-implanted, for maximum authenticity. Somehow he'd then wound up in Watto's clutches again, when the frightened Padawan reached for his lightsaber, Obi-Wan had appeared and seized the weapon from his belt. He'd announced that Anakin had failed the Trials, that he had no place in the Jedi Order, and then he'd disappeared into the skies and left Anakin behind.

Never once had he pictured the encounter that passed between them after he'd unceremoniously landed at the Mos Espa spaceport, finding the surrounding settlement unchanged to an almost surreal degree. Infernal heat, check, narrow druggets of sand that somehow passed for streets, check. Hostile faces, jostling elbows, loud voices bellowing curses and hurling insults and yapping orders at each other. Check, check, check. He was pretty sure he'd seen that exact overfed bantha falling asleep over that same dirty well on the day that he'd left, only the poor animal now seemed to have a new frustrated owner wresting at its tether.

He'd found Watto at his shop, up to his neck in his element, squabbling with a supplier (from the looks of things, an outworldler) over some dated engine and its apparent lack of cooperation. He'd been motioning wildly at some sloppily put-together (wouldn't you know it) podracer and cursing in Huttese when Basic failed him. The supplier had spoken some very broken Basic himself, thoroughly confused by the hostile turn that the conversation had taken. Anakin had sighed, marched over, and given the ancient motor a good thwack, rolling his eyes as it had rumbled into life. No introductions were needed after that - and about a dozen unsolicited comments about 'little Ani's' height, Jedi status, and dearth of arm later, the junk dealer had deigned to inform him that he'd sold Shmi years ago to some moisture farmer named Lars. From what he'd understood, the 'funny little man' had pursued the deal with the noble intentions of making her a free citizen, and the two had actually married not long after.  

Before Watto could rope Anakin into doing him more favors 'for old times' sake', the Jedi had extracted the coordinates of the Lars farm from the slimy businessman and taken his swift leave of him.

Now he found himself over on the other side of Mos Eisley, more or less in the middle of nowhere, where a lone moisture farm stood in the scorching desert. On her way back inside, a sack of laundry slung over one shoulder, a bag of what seemed like some sort of flour over the other, was a young, friendly-looking woman, wiping sweat off her brow.

”Hello,” she nodded in greeting as she saw Anakin approaching, his steps a little too anxious, ”Can I help you?”

”I hope so," he confessed, "I'm looking for Shmi Skywalker. Does she live here?”

”May I know who's asking?” the girl inquired politely.

”Anakin Skywalker,” the Jedi announced, stopping in front of her. He pointed at the heavy-looking bag of flour, and was met with protesting hand-waves. He reached to grab it anyway, flinging the cargo over his shoulder like a freshly-caught gooberfish. The girl stared at him, eyes widening as the name properly sunk in. 

”Anakin –” she echoed. ”You're Shmi's son, the Jedi. Yes. Of course. Right this way.” Before they got far, she whirled back around, and extended her hand. ”Beru Whitesun.” It was at this point that she noticed the arm, letting out a small, embarrassed noise, but not retracting her hand. Anakin could only offer an awkward nod in reply, his sole shaking instrument busy with the bag, and finally, they shared a moment of nervous laughter.

”Anakin,” he repeated stupidly. 

”Right,” Beru smiled. ”Uh, happy belated birthday.” 

”What?”

”You turned nineteen a few days ago, right?” Beru queried, motioning toward the awaiting hovel as they fell into step again. Anakin nodded in confirmation. He was, of course, aware of his age, yet he couldn't remember the last time he'd been congratulated on his yearly progress in that regard. Encouraged, Beru went on, ”I know this because every year, your mother – ”

”I think this year is getting to me, Beru. Just now, I thought I felt –”

At the third voice, they both turned, Beru with a smooth familiarity, Anakin with a sharp jolt. In the doorway of the hovel stood a lovely dark-haired woman, wrapped in a simple linen dress, staring at the pair in stunned silence.

More times than he could count, Anakin had dreamt of this moment; far, infinitely more times than he'd dreamt of his Masters or the torments and hardships that he'd left behind on this sand hell; the one thing that infinitely made up for everything that he'd endured. He would summon up her face, try to imagine the deepening lines on her face, the graying streaks in her hair, the radiance of her smile, the wisdom behind her eyes. What she might say, what might be going through her head. On some days, these ephemeral images; warm welcomes and soothing whispers that never were, would be his sole pillar of strength, his lone reason to smile, even if it was only at a dream.

Now, he could see those images crumbling away into oblivion, the words vanishing into less than silence, like chills of the night dissipating with the rising sun, for perhaps for the first time in his life, he found reality ever so superior; supremely, impossibly better than any glossy picture he might have once clung to, yesterday's empty husks of comfort could not hope to compare. If anything, he was ashamed that he had ever settled for less, for the consolation of a ghost when flesh and blood and a beating heart now stood before him. Before she's spoken half a word, stuttered the first syllable of his name, or reached out a hand, Shmi Skywalker had already given him the world.

With a knowing smirk, Beru snatched the bag of flour back from Anakin, and the young man didn't protest to her discreetly scuttling inside while the mother and son found their feet again and met in a bone-crushing embrace.

-

Meeting the rest of the Lars farm residents flew by in a blur of friendly faces, awkward pleasantries, and the mandatory queries about Anakin's post-Tatooine life, the Jedi, the prodigal son's return, and of course, the bantha in the room, the missing arm (all of which the Padawan tactfully deflected). Cliegg Lars was an earnest, uncomplicated sort of man, an open book in all his reserve and warm of heart underneath the aloof exterior. His son Owen had not fallen far from the vaporator tower, steady and serious-minded, and it was only when his fiancée Beru teased him about those very qualities that a more playful sort of spark seem to light up in his eyes.

After what he'd gone through with Padmé, Anakin almost wanted to doubt the ostensibly perfect family picture, question whether people like this, simple and sincere and exactly what they appeared, even existed in this world. Yet, everything he saw during their brief introduction, every small gesture, a hard-earned smile or a small gruffness, spoke favorably of them. If indeed all else in the universe was but lie and illusion, the Lars farm was perhaps the last fortress of the true, the genuine; of hard work and the simple life.

For a few blessed moments, Anakin ceased to be the prodigal son, and became a man grown, his own wants and needs forgotten, finding in his mother's happiness everything that he'd come looking for.

The Lars family soon quietly dispersed to their own chores and errands, allowing the long-separated mother and son some privacy to catch up. Before Anakin could say anything, Shmi, suddenly looking purposeful, reached to take her son by the hand and guide him to her private room in the far back of the hovel – about as modest and sand-infested as could be expected, but nevertheless her own. Anakin immediately noticed the tinkering table, not unlike his own at the Jedi Temple, if a little less of an organized chaos and more… organized. Sat at the table, presently arranging different types of wrenches into symmetrical rows, was a golden-plated protocol droid. Anakin snorted with delight. Such a handsome fellow, exactly as he'd envisioned a finished…

”Threepio?” he uttered as he realized, looking from the droid to his mother and back. The droid turned, all amazement and 'Master Ani!' and arm-related hysteria. ”You finished Threepio?”

”M-hm,” Shmi uttered, a note of pride tingling at her lips, before they straightened into a tight line. A warm hand settled on his arm-stub. ”Now. How about we finish you next, hm?”

Anakin smiled. ”Let's.”

”And then you'll tell me –”

”Everything. I know.” 

Everything,” Shmi stressed on the word.

Everything," he promised, and meant it. 

-

Smiling gently, Shmi laid a thwarting hand on her son's flesh arm and plucked the mini-laser from his fingers. "Here, let me do that circuit. It's at an awkward angle for you." 

"Thanks, Mom." Anakin looked the unfinished mechno over, pleased with the progress so far. The interface module at the wrist had already all but killed his phantom pains. 

"So…" His mother's tone was stern. Anakin could feel his facial muscles regressing into a childish grimace. "You had to pick this girl?"

Anakin gave a hollow laughter, wincing slightly as the laser hit a particularly receptive sensor. "I never felt I had a choice in the matter."

Looking up from her work for a moment, Shmi shot him an odd, lingering look - almost as though she wanted to make a mirthless joke about their shared past and the lack of choice involved, but thought better of it. "Anakin, I'm going to be honest with you. I may not be your guardian any longer, but I am and will always be your mother. And you came to me.” 

Anakin nodded vaguely, muttering instructions from the corner of his mouth. "You want to avoid that wire over there. No, the - yeah, that one." 

"Anakin." She put down the laser, trapping it underneath her palm against the table, and waiting patiently until Anakin looked away from the tools and into her eyes. "This is not healthy," she stated with a cool firmness that left no room for argument. "I've seen my share of strange things, Ani. Her powers, these… Sith, as they call themselves – those do not frighten me. What frightens me is… how she makes you act. And I'm not talking about the - the -"

"Force hypnosis?" Anakin ventured. He didn't think it had an official name.  

Shmi nodded, holding his gaze. "Well, it seems you already know what I'm talking about."

Anakin chewed his lip. "Love is not rational, I guess." 

"Ani…" She let out a long-suffering sigh. "Oh, my darling boy. You always had such a big heart, such a fierce, fierce love in you. But this is… this is bigger than just your feelings, or her feelings."

You just declared war.

"Y-yeah." He twisted and turned the mechno over the table, testing the sensors, finding them mostly satisfactory for a first attempt. "I can see it in your eyes, Mom," he then said, his own drawn to the ceiling, following the trail of a rock beetle with a twisted leg. "You find it difficult to reconcile the person that stands before you with the bright-eyed little boy who left.”

Shmi shook his head, without a hint of hesitation. ”Oh, no. I always knew you were destined for greatness. And I always knew your burdens would be great, as well.” She reached to touch his cheek, and Anakin nestled into the palm. "But if you came to ask for my blessing, I cannot in good conscience give it to you. Did you come to ask for my blessing, or my advice?”

”I came to see you,” Anakin insisted, but she gave him a look. ”Your advice, Mom.”

”Then here's my advice: you need to tell the Jedi the truth about what happened, and nothing but the truth. I cannot have you suffering any more for her sake. If you suffer, I suffer. For all our sakes, you need to tell the truth." 

Chapter Text

The Force was a maelstrom of chaos. It was everything at once. A raging hurricane. A desolate wasteland. The quiet pour of rain. A flare that scorched the stars, a veil that obscured the suns.

It was mourning, despairing. And, little by little… letting go.

Obi-Wan gave a doleful laughter. ”I wanted to say something meaningful, Master Yoda… something brave. But standing here now… I'm not sure we're ready.”

Hearing himself, he wanted to chortle again. Here he was, a grown man and respected Jedi Knight, fishing for reassurance like a wee youngling woken from a nightmare. His hand strayed to the bedside, sliding it gently along the side rail, orbiting around the once-spry form of the Grand Master that now looked so fragile to the touch.

Buried in the sterile white cotton, Master Yoda hunched his shoulders forward, straightening his form against the oversized pillow. Then he shook his wrinkled green head.

”Master?” Obi-Wan leaned forward.

”Lost…” the Grand Master croaked.

”Lost? Is there something I can get you, Master Yoda?”

Crinkly green fingers found his hand on the rail. ”Lost… are we.”

-

Anakin had watched his mother bustle at the stove for two hours, cleaning the kitchen and making adjustments to his new arm while he waited – and yet, nothing could have prepared him for that first spoonful of her patented hubba gourd soup, dissolving on his tongue like an exploding, spiced supernova.

”Hm!” he mumble-yelped into his spoon, attracting the attention of the entire Lars family.

”Too hot?” Shmi worried from across the table.

”Nm-hmn,” Anakin objected, struggling to remember the last time the daily necessity of eating had filled him with such a sense of… wonder. ”I think I just unlocked a suppressed taste memory is all.”

”Why would you suppress my delicious soup?” Shmi wondered, bringing a hand over her heart in a mock-offended gesture.

”Survival mechanism,” Anakin smirked through his seventh spoonful. ”To tolerate the stuff they serve at the temple.”

A spatter of orange speckles flew to Beru's cheeks as she burst into entertained laughter. A resigned Owen reached to wipe the corner of his bethrothed's lips as she coughed into her fist. ”Thanks, honey.”

”Oh, you little rascal,” Shmi rolled her eyes at her son, rubbing the back of Cliegg's shoulder as though for moral reassurance.

”No, really,” Anakin insisted, ”the breakfast porridge alone is legendary. There's this popular conspiracy theory that it's actually starched glue, the same stuff that holds Master Yoda's toupee together.”

Cliegg snorted. Beru was now positively roaring, slapping Owen lovingly across the shoulder, earning a smitten grin from the young man. 

”I see,” Shmi mock-huffed, bobbing her chin at her husband. ”Who knew I was spoiling my son all along? Can you believe that, Cliegg?”

A visible flush rose on the farmer's cheeks. ”I can,” he admitted, leaning over to kiss her on the cheek.

”Aw,” Beru cooed, while the new brothers traded little glances, before turning their attentions back to the servings. But as he raised another spoonful to his lips, a relaxed laughter still ringing over the table – Anakin looked up again, taking in the warmth between the husband and wife, the fiancé and fiancée; the easy, artless affection.

It was a simple, fleeting moment that halted his gaze for just a while, sent him drifting deep into his thoughts.

-

Obi-Wan's brows knitted together. He knew that Master Yoda had not been himself lately, and he didn't really seem himself now – weary, dejected, disconsolate. But then… was he not a Jedi, did he not see with more than eyes, hear with more than ears? Was he not the sole witness to the great Jedi Master's final moments, charged with preserving the last of his legacy? And as far as he could tell – through the muddled, chaotic state of the Force – the Grand Master had not spoken in delirium.

”Lost?” Obi-Wan repeated, shifting in his seat. ”How… how do you mean, Master Yoda?”

The Jedi Master coughed, clasping Obi-Wan's hand against the bed rail. ”Wrong, this is,” he rasped. ”Never meant to happen… this was.”

"Never…" Obi-Wan stared at the Grand Master's feeble form, shrinking from premature Knight back to helpless youngling. ”But, Master… is it not taught, 'there is no death, there is the –'”

”Of my death, I speak not,” Yoda croaked. ”To the prophecy… I refer.”

”To the prophecy? The prophecy of the Chosen One?” Now the Jedi Knight was utterly lost. Distant images of Anakin sailed across his head. He'd gotten the call from the medcenter mere minutes after his mutinous Padawan had slammed his comm shut and slipped through his fingers once again.

Obi-Wan still didn't know what had happened to him. He did not care for his behavior, but that was nothing new; in fact, that was the comfortingly familiar part. Truthfully, he did not so much condemn his running off to Tatooine as he worried what could have possibly driven him back there, back to his mother, in such a… hurry, such an anguished urgency.

”Master Yoda?” Obi-Wan whispered as the elderly Jedi's lids grew heavy again.

”An enemy there is,” the Grand Master hissed from the bundles of cotton, coughing against the pillow. ”An enemy he cannot defeat. Come to pass… the prophecy can no longer.”

-

His mother was right, Anakin decided. Of course she was right. Her advice might not be what he'd wanted to hear, but was it not what he'd come all this way to hear?

How could he have been so blind? He was a Jedi. A servant of justice, a guardian of peace. He had a duty to the Republic, a duty to the light. Padmé Amidala was a dangerous rogue operative. 

He was in love with a Sith. He'd already let himself get dragged in too deep. He'd been lucky that she didn't love him back.

Lucky.

-

”An… enemy he cannot defeat?” Obi-Wan echoed. ”You speak of Anakin, Master? You do not… believe he's the Chosen One?”

”Only One, there is.”

”Then…” Obi-Wan took a moment to arrange his thoughts, planting two fingers on each temple. Then a rare optimism took over, and his face lit up. ”I understand. In order to defeat this enemy… he needs help.”

Yoda shook his head, wisps of white hair whipping back and forth. ”No. Not help.”

”Not… help?” Obi-Wan cried, unable to keep the frustration from his voice. ”With all due respect, Master, is he not the most singularly gifted student the Order has ever seen? Am I not his imperfect, but devoted teacher? I know he can be willful… and I was too young to take a Padawan… but we're a… we're a team. Indulge a young man's idealism, Master Yoda. I truly believe there is no threat too great for us to overcome… together.”

”No,” came the stark answer.

”Master… I don't understand,” Obi-Wan sighed. ”What makes you say something like this? Have you had a vision? Have you… seen the future? If you have… isn't there anything else you can tell me? Anything at all?”

”This enemy, I know not,” Yoda replied. ”The future, I know not. Only a word of advice, give you, I can.” He coughed into the cotton, before inclining his body forward, with a final, determined effort. ”Close, keep your friends. Closer… keep your enemies.”

-

A part of Anakin wanted to stay. Return to his roots, work long days under the blazing suns, fall asleep on a sand-speckled blanket every night, wake up with a woolen cardigan on his shoulders. Watch his mother grow old, keep her from harm, take care of her family as they had taken care of her. Stage a revolution, overthrow the Hutts, free the slaves.

But as soon as he caught sight of Obi-Wan Kenobi's solemn form taking shape against the lopsided sunset, his ship looming in the distance like a large bird in repose – he knew it was but a flight of fancy. He'd spread his wings, walked the skies, and landed back on his feet against the steady, solid earth. And that steadiness was already fissuring under his soles, unhappy duties fast catching up to his heels.

A deep weariness lined his Master's face, adding at least a decade to his normally youthful appearance. Anakin gestured toward the hovel – an invitation; sincerely meant, to come sit for a while, get refreshed, meet his family – but Obi-Wan shook his head.

”Padawan, it's time to go home.”

Anakin nodded dutifully. ”…Yes, Master.”

”We have a lot to talk about.”

”I know, Master.”

Obi-Wan shifted, averted his eyes. ”I trust there is an explanation?”

”There is, Master.”

A rueful smile passed over his lips. ”Well… come on, then.” 

 


 

Leaning over his tinkering table, Anakin rubbed the corner of his eye, tingling with a pleasant drowsiness. He no longer started at the cold sensation emitting from his mechanical fingers. The motorfunctions were smoother now, the interface still needed some work – but it wouldn't do to get carried away, now. A good night's sleep and a fresh outlook on things would yield better results.

Metal and flesh crossed across the table, he rested his chin on his forearms and spent another while gazing dreamily out the window of his temple quarters, at the ever-busy traffic lanes streaking the Coruscant skyscape.

Tomorrow, Anakin told himself as he snuggled under the covers, just as he'd told himself every night since Obi-Wan's figure had emerged from the last rays of daylight on Tatooine that evening. Tomorrow.

He felt his lids tugging down, refusing to stay open, even though he knew sleep would not come for some time.

Tomorrow, he whispered into the stuffy air.

No sooner had the silent words left his lips than a scream was nearly ripped out of his throat – over his bed stood a dark, small figure. But apart from the softest of gasps, the rustle of covers as he sprung into a seated position – no sound came out of the Jedi, not even as the figure quietly sat down at the foot of the bed, adjusting her long hem as she did.

”Hello, Ani,” an angelic voice spoke.

”Padmé,” Anakin uttered, thunderstruck. He was dreaming. He'd already fallen asleep. That did not deter him from humoring this figment of imagination, and demanding fervently, ”How – how are you –” Through the darkness, he saw the figment smile, and shook his head at the silly question. Even among the Jedi, he was the exception, not the rule. ”Why are you here?”

”I've been wondering about the same thing,” she replied after a beat. ”I rather expected someone would have tried to… arrest me by now.” She tilted her head, cascades of rich brown curls falling over her velvet-clad shoulder.

”I – I rather expected you'd have run away by now,” Anakin stuttered.

”Hm,” she mused, gaze wandering to the window. ”Where would I go?”

”I don't know,” he confessed, lowering his eyes. In the pitch black, rested against the dark bedcovers, her pale hands almost seemed to shine. An invisible force jerked his own forward – but he resisted it, halting half-way. ”I suppose… we were both wrong, then.” 

”Seems like it.” 

Her features were gaining shape now, her entrancing beauty pushing through the dark, filling the room, inescapable. Anakin almost did not want to look. ”I…” his voice quivered. ”I tried to tell Obi-Wan. I did. I've been meaning to tell him, every day since…” He shook his head. ”I can't do it. When I imagine what might happen to you… ” An anguished sound rose from his throat as he rested his head against his knuckles, head whipping back and forth. ”The Jedi talk a big game about compassion… forgiveness… showing mercy to the enemy. And yet, it seems… that mercy rarely extends to the Sith.”

Not that this was really about the 'Sith'. Darth Maul had been a Sith. Dooku had been a Sith. Padmé was Padmé. The 'Sith', the 'dark side'… those were like stamps on her forehead, death sentences signed across her chest, marking the spots where the saber should go in.

Anakin could not bear the thought. He'd lost sight of the whys and the shoulds long ago. His love for Padmé Amidala was a puzzle, for which he had no answers.

”Mm,” she hummed softly. A furtive smile graced her features once again, before she gathered up her hem from the floor and stood. ”I should probably go.”

Filling his lungs with a final fire, his words with a last, wavering boldness, Anakin whispered, ”Where would you go?”

Padmé stopped in her tracks, spinning around in a sweep of velvet. She observed with a strange look – almost a curiosity – as Anakin climbed off the bed and to his feet. ”Do you… want to go?”

”…No.”

”Then why did you?” Anakin demanded. Already his fire was dwindling into a smolder, voice cracking like old coal under her golden gaze. ”Why did you say all those hurtful things?”

Her eyes found the window again, passing headlights dancing along the curve of her cheek. Far beneath the endless skies, the dazzling city lights; thousands upon thousands of identical white helmets patrolled the streets. ”Because they were true.”

”Was there also…” Anakin swallowed, hopeful against hope. ”… something you didn't say that was true?”

”…Yes.”

He reached for her hand, felt her tiny fingers curling around his knuckles. ”We could keep it a secret.”

Heavy velvet brushed across the air as she turned away once again, without letting go of his hand. ”I'm not sure that's wise. The wise thing…” She whirled, caught his eyes. ”The wise thing would be to stay away from me.”

”Then I don't want to be wise,” Anakin sighed. ”Not now, not ever. Not for as long as I live.”

In the morning, neither of them would not remember who leaned over first, pulled their prey into the first tastes of passion, fierce and forbidden. Memory could not summon who rested their hand on the other's nape, who buried theirs in bountiful curls, who first slipped the fabric off the other's shoulder. Who then broke away, who pushed, who landed on their back against the rough linen; by sunrise, it all would have gone beyond recall or relevance.

Because just for one night, all was well; just for one night, the universe knew peace and the Force perfect balance.

Just for one night, the Sith and the Jedi stood as equals, lay as lovers, united as one.

Chapter Text

The afternoon might have been uneventful so far, but Felucia was still a nice destination for a hiking trip, with some of the most unique scenery Rex had ever seen; gargantuan pungent flowers, trees shaped like salamander tails and endlessly varying fungal plants interweaving around the trunks, exotic birds soaring above their helmeted heads and fluorescent night beetles scurrying at their armored feet, each scene teeming with life in all the colors of the rainbow. And while some of the troopers did seem a bit unsettled by the outlandish landscape, Rex would have gladly returned here another time for an excursion; untamed neon jungles certainly beat Kamino's perpetual rainstorms and sterile white labs.

Alas, they were not on a pleasure cruise now, but on yet another scouting mission, each more unmemorable than the last. For the past nine weeks, a good chunk of the Republic troops had been scouring the Outer Rim for… well, they weren't exactly sure what anymore. Following an unforeseen defeat on Rodia, the Republic had been growing increasingly paranoid about the true scope of Separatist influence outside the Expansion Region. First there had been whispers of impending sieges on several systems at once, which had later lessened into a blockade on one of the major export systems. When these speculations had proved false, the dispatched battalions had been charged with finding and taking control of any enemy ships, bases and outposts situated along the strategically located roads and trade routes. Meanwhile, smaller task teams had been dispersed on covert operations and espionage missions to try and learn the root cause of the enemy's growing power.

So far, these intrepid endeavors had resulted in a few minor skirmishes – just alarming enough to warrant concern – about two dozen captured outposts, and little to no new leads. Had the situation only been equal parts of embarrassing and frustrating, that would have still been fine. The problem was that the ongoing pattern of seemingly unprovoked invasions by the Republic was starting to make them look like the aggressors, using their wildly inaccurate intel as an excuse to seize control of helpless minor worlds. Several of these worlds were, in fact, suspected to have already joined (or been pressured into joining) the Separatist cause in secret, and were now helping the enemy to quietly gather resources for a major surprise attack. With the attachment of the blood-thirsty General Grievous as the Supreme Commander of the droid armies, the Republic was downright dreading the Confederacy's next move.

Armed conflict was never a happy thing, but the mere existence of the Clone Wars was a point of contention in and of itself, and, in many ways – a mystery. It seemed that peace had been just within their grasp before all hell had broken loose across the Galaxy. Days before the start of the war, the benevolent Chancellor Organa had been drafting another peace treaty, one that would allow all so-willing systems to secede in peace, on a few conditions (such as meeting a certain standard of self-sufficiency). Following the controversial negotiation tactics of Count Dooku, the Separatist Senate had been well on its way to splitting in two, those against and those in favor of keeping him as their leader and ideological spearhead.

Of what had happened next, the two sides had wildly different accounts. Rex hardly knew what to make of it himself, though the masses rarely clamored for a clone's opinion. What he did know was that Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi General of the 501st battalion, was among the greatest of men he'd ever had the privilege of knowing, someone he trusted with his life, and who trusted him with his. For Rex, that was enough. Even if no one really knew the whole truth of what had happened (which he doubted even the very thespians of that truth did), his was a vantage point better than most. Where others might only see propaganda and speculation, he saw character and honor. He saw General Skywalker.

According to the Republic's official account, the then-Padawan Skywalker had been assigned as security detail to Senator Padmé Amidala, following her recent assassination attempt by the Separatists. The Confederacy had caught wind of their whereabouts, however, sending bounty hunters after the pair to take them both prisoner. Amidala's brilliant negotiation efforts had saved her from execution and won her an audience with Count Dooku himself, but the ruthless politician had attempted to coerce her into signing the peace treaty in its current absurd form, threatening the lives of her family and the Jedi Skywalker. Before the Separatist leader could force her hand, Skywalker had managed to escape, only to be forced to engage Dooku and an entire company of droids all at the same time. That was when he had learned a shocking truth about the nobleman: Count Dooku was a Sith, an ancient enemy of the Jedi and peace and harmony itself. Ultimately, the Hero with No Fear had prevailed over the villains and saved the Republic from ruin, even valiantly sacrificing his saber arm in the process. Along with Amidala, he had become a symbol of hope, bravery and perseverance for the war effort.

(That, and delicious tabloid fodder.) 

If one were to ask the Confederacy, the Jedi had conspired with Amidala to fake her attempted assassination and frame Count Dooku for the crime. The Jedi Skywalker, a rising powerhouse in the Order's ranks, had then been sent to eliminate the disputed figure. In slaughtering the face of the Separatist movement, these radicalists had hoped to shatter the enemy's morale and effectively kill their cause once and for all. They had miscalculated.

(Oh, and the Jedi dog and that royal slut were probably sleeping together, too.) 

Still, here in the heart of the wilderness, the manifold mysteries and political entanglements behind the war seemed so far away. In the daily comings and goings of a clone, only the immediate mattered, and the immediate right now was finding the outpost. These were the last set of coordinates assigned to their battalion for the present, so if their target should prove another false alarm (and not a hidden droid factory or a major covert operation), they would be free to go home. 'Home', in their case, meant a couple of weeks of fitness tests, gear maintenance, and maybe training some shinies, but Rex was getting the distinct feeling that his less jungle-crazy brothers would probably be thrilled.

For someone else, the word evidently evoked promises of a far more exciting time, such was General Skywalker's hurry when his murky robes suddenly swooped into view from the nearby bushes. He bore a look of a barely contained intensity, lightsaber swishing like a common machete, as about a dozen standard battle droids toppled over on either side of him, sparks flying off their strategic parts.

”Oh, hi, Rex,” the General greeted, mock-surprised, mock-saluting the group. ”Boys.” Scattered, sizzling droid parts clattered to the ground, as another, smaller form appeared to the Jedi's side, shaking her montraled head.

”Show-off,” Commander Tano snorted at her caveman of a mentor.

”You could have left some glory for us mere mortals, General,” Fives opined as their commanding officer moved to their side, beckoning the group to follow him the way they had come.

”Not much glory to be found on this neon hodgepodge of a planet,” Skywalker assured them, leading the way. The air filled with sounds of clanking armor and frustrated but hardly surprised sighs.

”No luck then, Sir?” Rex inquired.

”We found just the barest bones of an abandoned outpost,” Tano explained, gesturing to the receding bushes. ”You saw most of it just now. Just enough to throw us off the scent, not even worth taking over.”

”I'm not saying this is wholly bad, or anything,” Skywalker pointed out. ”It means the locals are safe… for the time being. But some other system might not be so lucky, and I, for one, would rather not be chasing wild banthas when we find out which.”

”We all share your frustration, Sir,” Kix offered his reassurance.

The General whipped his head around and grinned. ”Thanks, Kix. Well, you all deserve a breather all the same. Any plans for the weekend, gentlemen?”

There was a vague murmur among the troopers, of which Rex quickly gathered the gist and took the liberty of speaking for the group, ”We'll see what the weekend brings, Sir.”

Skywalker offered a vague smile, and opted for silence.

-

Being perfectly honest, Anakin Skywalker was happy.

No, he was not happy about the war that was tearing the Galaxy apart, nor was he happy about his role in bringing it about.

He was not happy about the lies he told every day, how the deceit had become a second nature to him. He certainly was not happy about lying to his mother.

In an aching, brittle place in his heart that he rarely dared to visit, he was not happy about the Republic's treatment of the clones. So private and well-guarded was that particular unhappiness that he couldn't even whisper the word, that word, lest his whole world unravel.

He was not always happy with his Padawan's attention span, her snippy attitude, her recklessness. Obi-Wan's nagging rarely made him happy, his patronizing platitudes about Jedi-ideal-of-the-week seldom put a smile on his face.

Indeed, if there was one Jedi ideal that Anakin seemed to have finally absorbed, it was compartmentalization. Speeding along the bustling lanes of the Senate District, wind catching in his tousled mess of curls, far was he from the horrors of the battlefield. Long forgotten were the lies and the excuses, the politics and the power struggles. Today, he would shed all shams, strip naked of all masks and fronts and facades. (And, fingers crossed, his tunics.)

Today, he would be with his wife.

Wife. The word still tasted delirious on his tongue, spurted a giddiness in his gut. His love for Padmé Amidala was pure and perfect and overflowing.

Anakin had proposed on the morning after, when the sunlight had cracked through the blinds of his temple quarters and danced in her chestnut locks. He had already made the speeches and the vows and the grand gestures. He had confessed his love in shackles, in tears, and on his knees. He had fought and he had killed for her. He had let go, and he had waited. After promising her his now, his ever, and his whole life, what was there left to say?

Yes. She had said yes. Sometimes, he still wondered why. Why she had not hesitated, not even for a moment. Why she had not asked some time to consider, some space to breathe. Perhaps she didn't want to think in that moment, and risk thinking twice or thrice.

They had wedded on Theed, in the private garden of Sola and Darred Naberrie. Queen's hearts had been in full bloom that day. The mythical creatures of Iego had paled before the new bride in her angelic white dress, walking barefoot across the lush green, beaming brighter than midsummer sun. She had lifted her long hem, guarding the elaborate lacework from the treacherous grass – up until tackling the groom into the flowerbeds and driving their witnesses away.

Anakin was brought out of his reverie by the familiar, yet all-too rare sight of 500 Republica opening out before him. Sun was hanging low and dim already – Padmé must be home by now, he estimated, seeing as she would know to expect him home today. Anakin liked to enter the apartment through the balcony, as a sort of a dashing, romantic surprise, but Padmé had keenly encouraged the use of the hallway and the doorbell, and Anakin found he was in no mood to play games with her today. He could just sweep her off her feet later.

”Oh…” 

Anakin took a step back from the doorway. Met with a face that was strangely reminiscent of, yet decidedly not his wife, the young man was thrown off for a moment. An unbidden string of images flooded his senses. He recognized those uncanny features.

Dormé countered his naked surprise with a smile.  

”Master Skywalker. Please, come in,” she beckoned.

”Thank you,” Anakin murmured, composing himself into some semblance of a Jedi again. Or an off-duty Jedi trysting with his secret Sith wife, something normal like that. Truthfully, he had been expecting Motée or Hollé. Dormé, he had not run into since… well, at some point he had quietly assumed that the handmaiden must have moved on from his wife's service. But then, he supposed she wouldn't have – there must be something about kidnapping a Jedi and holding him helpless amidst a cargo of high heels and silk frocks that really brought women together. He had to wonder if Padmé's former partner-in-crime (up until he had taken up that mantle, thank you very much) had ever put half the pieces together of what had transpired on Varykino. Perhaps she found amusement in not knowing.

”I'm afraid the mistress is running a bit late,” the handmaiden informed him when they reached the living room. ”Do make yourself at home, General. Shall I draw you a bath?”

In an attempt to break the ice, or painstakingly thaw it with a dampened match, Anakin tried for sheepish humor, ”What, do I smell?”

”Blood, sweat and tears, right?” Dormé grinned. Anakin wasn't sure if she was referencing some army slogan that he was unfamiliar with, or just the nature of war itself.

Determined to keep the atmosphere casual – borderline goofy – Anakin took a sniff at his armpits. ”I should be very grateful,” he conceded, smelling nothing but nifty needlework.

The handmaiden gave a shallow bow and disappeared around the corner.

Dormé's aspirations fell through, however, when the sound of soft footfalls from the balcony whipped Anakin's head around. The Force sang with a long-yearned euphoria. The vision that greeted him was the most beautiful that Anakin had witnessed in this lifetime, only to be outshone the next time he blinked, and then the next, and the next, and the next.

”Anakin,” Padmé Amidala beamed, emerging from the fading sunlight, the embroidered details on her gown glittering in the stray rays.

The husband and wife melted into each other's arms. Anakin drank in the scent of her hair, the warmth of her breath, the feel of her arms around him. Each, individual detail he cherished and he memorized, silently fulfilling his vow to never again leave her side. Clear as her gaze and as real as the present, he could see the showers of fire, hear the sizzle of sabers, feel the cold comfort of cots and smell his own rusty blood. He could already picture himself returning to this moment, recalling her palms pressing into his back, drawing gentle circles over his scars. He loved her, and he lived for her.

”I've missed you so much,” Anakin sighed, hands clenching around her silky bundles of curls.

”And I you, my handsome hero,” Padmé chuckled softly.

Anakin pulled out abruptly, giving her a wry look. ”I apologize for the smell, seeing as that is apparently a thing. You didn't tell me –”

”Anakin.”

”Yes, my darling? The light of my life?”

Her countenance had gone from elated to playful, and then settled on… apprehensive? Eyes avoidant, she opened and closed her mouth a couple of times before drawing a calming breath.

”I was thinking…” she began warily. ”Now that it is fresh on my mind. Not that there is much danger of me forgetting… but I thought that I'd break the news right away, before we, um…” A teasing grin split her face. ”Get started with the good things in life.”

”I do love the good things in life, but go on,” Anakin urged, struggling to interpret these wildly mixed signals.

”Yes, um…” she hesitated. ”I may have made the mistake of announcing it publicly already, so I thought it best to tell you before you heard it from somewhere else.”

”Okay… you're scaring me now. Can you please, just –”

”I'm… I'm running for Chancellor, Anakin.”

Chapter Text

Anakin's first reaction was one of relief. Tension fleeing his shoulders, he chuckled, ”That's it? For a second there, you had me panicking about secret lovers and deadly illnesses!”

Padmé did not return his laughter nor light heart. Solemn as rock, her face was twisted with a… confusion, like she was searching his eyes for something that wasn't there.

”Dormé?” she called into the refresher, without dropping her husband's gaze. The handmaiden materialized into the room with such a mind-boggling instanteneity, she might as well not have been gone at all.

”Yes, milady?”

”I can manage the bath,” Padmé said briskly, ripping her dubious eyes from Anakin. ”Take the rest of the day off.”

”As you wish, milady.”

In a swirl of blue cloak and light feet, Dormé vanished out the door with a stealthiness that would have made a Jedi weep.

Anakin jerked his thumb toward the door that closed behind the young woman. ”Haven't seen her in a while. I'm a little curious, does she… does she kno–?”

”One thing at a time.” Before Anakin could protest this philosophy, his wife had grabbed his hand and was towing him through the apartment with a purposeful stride that rendered objections futile. Hauling him into the bedroom, she momentarily got Anakin's hopes up. But rather than keep up this dominant act and shove him onto the covers, she came to an abrupt stop, curls bouncing. Then she quietly sat down at the foot of the bed, pulling her husband along to take a seat beside her.

”Am I in trouble?” he questioned. The bemusement was plain on his face as he made a show of sitting down and shooting her a quizzical look. She cradled his hand in both of hers.

”How does it make you feel?”

A smile was now hovering over her lips – though it looked like something of an adornment, rather than a true reflection of her feelings. He squinted, eyes adjusting to the sneaky murkiness that had overtaken the room. When had the sun gone down?

”How does what –” he blinked. ”The news you told me just now?”

”The idea of me as Chancellor.”

Without stopping to think, Anakin made a vague hand gesture, nonplussed at the question. ”Great! I think it's great. Is it too early to say congratulations?” A warm burst of affection surged up in his chest. He was the luckiest man in the whole wide Galaxy, married to an extraordinary Senator and a phenomenal future Chancellor.

”It really doesn't bother you, then?” a small voice asked, a far cry from the steely, assertive tones that rang over the rows of repulsorpods at the Senate.

”Why would it bother me?” Anakin wanted to know, brow sobering into a frown. He squeezed the fingers that held his hand on her lap.

”Anakin,” Padmé muttered gravely. ”You're a Jedi. I'm a –” She pulled away from his touch in favor of wringing her hands uncomfortably. 

Anakin froze as understanding hit him.

Sure, they laughed about it together. How could they not? Laughter was a natural part of any successful relationship, and come on. A Jedi and a Sith, married and making love! Who could deny the irony, the audacity, the hilarity even? The whole sleeping with the enemy scenario was such a common theme in their bedroom that (despite how little time they had together) it was getting a bit old.

But they were just having some fun. How could it be anything other than fun, when Padmé had not been a Sith for years? She had renounced the Sith way when she had still been Queen, upon learning of her mentor's wicked nature. The night before their wedding, of her own initiative, she had vowed to give up the practice of the dark side and her moonlighting as a vigilante and political gatekeeper. She'd told him that she had been looking for an excuse to quit, that regardless of any good she may have done, or meant, she acknowledged that there was a special kind of immorality to taking away the volition of another being.

Anakin had simply nodded, in idle agreement, a faint memory of his own ordeal at the hands Darth Eeris brushing at the edge of his consciousness. Truthfully… he still harbored just a shadow of a grudge for what she'd put him through.

But then, he didn't particularly care about those corrupt politicians she'd sent packing, or… packed. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he even wondered whether Padmé's unique talents, put to the right use, the right way, could even help to bring about a swifter end to the war.

But this was her choice, and the point was –

”Well, you're not. Not anymore.”

Padmé tilted her head, a nondescript expression locked onto her features. Anakin was left guessing again.

”Wait, are you asking…” he blinked. ”Are you asking if I'm worried… if you were to be elected. That you'd start using your powers again?”

She glanced down for a moment, drawing a stiff breath. When she raised her gaze, the ornamental smile was back on her face. ”I suppose… that is what I'm asking, yes.”

”Are… are you worried about that?”

Padmé shook her head. ”…No. I wouldn't say that I am.”

”Well, there you go.”

”You wouldn't… try to stop me?”

Stop you! Padmé!” His mouth fell agape. A fierce rush of devotion rose up in him. ”I'm your husband! That you would even think for a second that I wouldn't support you –”

”I wasn't asking your permission, of course,” she clarified, eyes refusing to meet the fire in his. ”I just wanted to know where you stood… as to…”

”Your… history?”

”Yes.”

”Padmé, I –” He ran a hand through his thick mop of hair, drawing a deep breath, then letting it all spill out at once. ”I can't believe we're having this conversation. Do you really trust me so little? Don't you think if I wanted to out you to the Jedi, I would have done so a hundred times over already?” He reached for her hands again, so tiny and delicate in his calloused grasp. ”You're – you're not like the other Sith, you never were. You want what's best for the Galaxy – best for the people. I… I believe in you, I believe in what you stand for. I don't see how you campaigning for Chancellor – becoming Chancellor – changes anything. Except… for the better.”

At first, the muscles around her mouth just twitched, coy and teasing. Then the long-set sun rose anew and illuminated the room as a lovely smile spread over her face, ever widening. This time, it was for more than decoration. ”Thank you. Thank you, Anakin.”

In a graceful movement, Padmé slipped up from the bed, both hands still clasping his. Taking a step back, she lifted his arms across the air and swayed them to and fro, beaming down at him. He moved to get up and follow her, but she softly pushed him back. The amber in her eyes twinkled as she let his arms drop, closing the distance between them and then some, easing her husband atop the covers and underneath her. She sought his arms again, pinning them by the wrists on either side of his head, as she climbed up his thighs and leaned down for a searing kiss. Anakin was loath to part from her mouth, moaning in protest as she then pulled back and whispered, ”I'm so glad you're mine.”

”Of course I'm yours,” he whined, starved lips nipping at air. A long moment passed before he resigned himself to the denial, breathing softly as he studied her flawless features. ”Don't you ever forget that, Padmé Naberrie Amidala.”

Slowly, agonizingly slowly, she brought her lips to his again. ”I will not,” she promised, before claiming what had been rightly proclaimed as hers.

-

Morning came too early, as did the summons from the Jedi temple. Anakin tried to fight it, tried to fight for his right to stay in bed with his wife – while avoiding those exact words – arguing that he could just give the report via hologram and it would take all of twenty seconds. But the Grand Master had insisted on seeing his top General in person, and one did not defy the Grand Master.

Jedi robes sloppily thrown on at an hour where only socks should have been allowed, Anakin leaned over Padmé's bedside to kiss her goodbye.

”Duty calls,” he whispered to his barely aware wife, planting a smooch on her forehead. Stray hairs tickled at his lips as she stirred, grimacing.

”Duty, he says,” she moaned sleepily from between the covers. ”Then what does that make me? Pleasure?”

”I believe the words 'business' and 'pleasure' are usually paired together,” Anakin wisecracked. Brown locks shifted along the pillow as her grimace deepened.

”So which one am I?” she demanded, scrunching her eyes from shut to a more profound state of privacy.

He reached for her hand and squeezed tight. ”You're my everything.”

And that she was – everything. Everything consumed his thoughts, his dreams, his very being. Everything was everywhere, ever-present, every day and every night. She was his everything, and so he wanted for nothing.

Duty was a necessity, a reality of life. In a way, it was always there too, waiting in ambush, ready to tackle him down and smack him across the face. But there was an honor to duty, too, a honor he did not want to trivialize. A Jedi's duty could mean someone else's very survival, his honor could save entire civilizations from ruin. These things were not to be mocked, nor even weighed against the matters of the heart.

Today, though – today was about going through the motions, about humoring bureaucracy and indulging the whims of the great Masters. It was just one of those days that held no particular excitement nor promise of valor. 'A Jedi craves not those things,' the late Grand Master would have said. Anakin scoffed. Cravings, wants, desires – those were one's private business, not sins to be confessed to a panel of professional judgers. A Jedi could crave his own moon and the Council would never know.

Anakin smiled at the memory of Master Yoda. He could not help but wonder about his successor, sometimes. Did he miss the field, miss the excitement? Miss his freedom?

What a life to be condemned to, stuck fulfilling the dying wishes of not one, but two great men, two men that he could never presume to replace – or refuse. Never knowing another path, never given a chance at a choice. Pressure was a mild word, 'big shoes to fill' was funny the first fifteen times. If Obi-Wan's insistence on training Anakin had been controversial, his appointment as Grand Master had caused an uproar unlike any in the history of the Order. His promotion to knighthood had been historic enough in its own right, but it had since become a mere footnote in the preposterous narrative of making a young Knight – a whelp of thirty-five, a non-Master and a non-Councilor – the head of the Jedi Order and heir to Master Yoda's legacy. But the late Jedi patriarch had made his wishes abundantly clear, in all twelve copies of the holo that held his will. Obi-Wan Kenobi was to inherit his mantle and usher his brothers and sisters to a brave new era of jedihood.

Further than that, Master Yoda had not elaborated on his choice. Of course, it was common knowledge that Obi-Wan had been present at his deathbed, heard his predecessor's last words and stayed with him until the end. Those (in)famous last words, Obi-Wan had told them, had been for his ears only. Obviously, that had not helped the controversy.

Kenobi's first act as Grand Master had been to promote Anakin. This – everyone had the good grace to admit, at least – was less a display of nepotism, or even a matter of convenience or necessity, than it was a recognition of his valiant protection of Senator Amidala, as well as his vanquishment of not one, but two Sith Lords (or one and a half, at least). Between Amidala's account and the trio of scarlet sabers discovered at the scene, even Anakin's harshest detractors had found no reason to disbelieve his story of Count Dooku, the fallen Jedi.

(Padmé had returned to reclaim her own colorless blade before the Jedi so much as glimpsed it. No, the symbolism was not lost on Anakin, and neither was the irony.)

Obi-Wan and Anakin, tied up with their respective duties as Grand Master and General extraordinaire, had gradually drifted apart. The former Master and apprentice would still enjoy the odd moment of banter, of relaxed camaraderie, but those had become few and far between, almost a bizarre mirror of another life where… well, they would never know. Truthfully, there was enough mystery in one lifetime. Whenever the two Jedi were in the same room, Anakin couldn't stifle the overwhelming feeling that the older man was hiding something… and that he suspected the same of his former Padawan. 

Assuming he was right, at least they were even.

By the time the doors opened to the Council Chambers, and Anakin took his expected spot at the center, under the collective eye of the great twelve, his brain had brushed off these ruminations and activated full-on autopilot: vomit the report and go. He schooled his voice into an unhurried, businesslike tone, describing with as many words as he could how the Outer Rim was seemingly empty of Separatists and why that filled him with unease. The Councilors murmured their agreement, and the Jedi spent another while speculating where Grievous' troops could be hiding, who they might have made allies with, and who really ran the Separatist Senate these days.

Unable to come up with satisfactory answers, most Masters soon slid into a pensive silence. Anakin let his gaze wander. There was Master Windu, overly analytical of each and every word that came out of Obi-Wan's mouth, his undertunics still in a knot about being passed up for promotion. There sat Master Plo, inscrutable as ever. Master Ti was making earnest eye contact with Anakin, as though baiting him to ask what her problem was. Anakin did not.

What seemed like hours later, Grand Master Kenobi dismissed the meeting, and the circular room emptied of beige tunics and wavering holograms. Anakin was not surprised to be requested to stay behind and have a quick word with his former Master. There must be a reason the leader of the Jedi had wanted to see him in person, after all.

Obi-Wan sprang from his seat and met Anakin in the middle of the room, greeting him with a perfunctory smile that accented the ever-deepening lines on his face. Where Anakin had traded his ponytail and Padawan braid for a messy mane of curls, Obi-Wan had cut his longish locks into a nondescript short haircut that hid most of his gray strands. The poor man seemed to have a knack for premature aging.

”It is good to see you, my former Padawan… old friend.”

Be that as it may, Anakin decided to skip on the 'old' joke this time. ”And you, Master.”

Then something happened that yanked Anakin right out of autopilot mode, and into an almost dreamlike state of being. Obi-Wan pulled him close and captured him in a tight embrace. The surreal moment lasted just long enough that Anakin couldn't deny it happened, yet flashed by so quickly that the sheer surprise was still plastered on his face by the time Obi-Wan drew back. The older Jedi patted the side of his arm.

”Forgive me,” he mumbled. ”Sometimes, I still can't believe my very own Padawan grew up to follow in my footsteps and kill a Dark Lord of the Sith.” 

Anakin stared at him, managing a slow nod. ”Yeah,” he chuckled. ”I learned from the best.”

Obi-Wan huffed a laughter. ”But I suppose it's all there in the prophecy, right?”

”R-right. The prophecy…” Padmé is not a Sith, the Chosen One had to remind himself, behind the sturdy protection of a dozen mind shields.

”Anakin…” Obi-Wan's gaze was turned, and he was rubbing at his forehead with the back of his hand. Whatever he was doing, it was not attempting to bulldoze through his student's defenses and learn his secrets.

”Master?”

After a while of silence, the elder man shook his head, putting on the same artificial smile as earlier. ”Remind me to tell you later,” he proposed.

Anakin raised an eyebrow. ”Like, an hour later, or…?”

”Just… later.

”Later in life?”

That yielded a genuine, if subdued grin from the Grand Master. ”Earlier than that.”

Chapter Text

”Master, do we have to?”

Curls fluttering in the wind, Anakin twisted around at the sound of a mistuned string instrument being ripped apart – either that, or his very own Padawan learner whining.

”'Do we haaaave to?'” he mimicked her resentful drawl, turning the yoke of his speeder and steering them full-speed toward the Senate district. ”What are you, five?”

”It's just…” the backseat muttered in reply. ”Barriss and Zina started this sparring club, specifically for practicing defense, which I'm not amazing at, even if I wouldn't call it a weakness, exactly, and Master Drallig lets us use one of the salles, but only on –”

”Weekends?” Anakin guessed. ”When you could be spending quality time with your poor, lonely Master? Don't you get enough sparring done out there in the field?”

Ahsoka snorted. Even as he kept his eyes on the traffic, for once, Anakin could practically hear her pouting. ”Not remotely what the term means.”

”Young lady,” Anakin huffed mock-formally, ”I am simply looking to diversify your learning experience as a Padawan. Flashy laser swords are cool and distracting, yes, but how's that Interplanetary Relations class coming along, huh? I hear you have to resit the exam.”

”Because I was on a mission with you!

”Playing with laser swords, my point exactly. Look,” he pulled up to the parking area, or more accurately, the single empty space that could just barely accommodate one measly speeder, ”I can guarantee that exam is gonna be all about this upcoming election. I'm talking essay questions.”

”Oooh,” Ahsoka intoned, waggling her hands, ”spooky!”

”Politics? You have no idea.”

The Master and Padawan bumped and nudged their way through the masses that had gathered to fill the courtyard. There were loudspeakers stationed throughout the venue, but if they actually wanted to see something other than the sweaty backs of those Trandoshans (and Anakin most definitely did), they needed to get all the way to the front. A constant chatter buzzed through the crowd, and holocameras whirred everywhere taking somewhat pointless footage of the still-empty platforms up ahead. Everything you told her is true, Anakin rationalized to himself. Getting to see your smart and gloriously beautiful wife in her element is just an added bonus.

”So… I'm guessing Senator Amidala has your vote?”

Anakin nearly tripped over his feet. He had to check the status of his mind shields – which were just fine – before he so much as acknowledged hearing the question. His Padawan's tone had been just a little too deliberately neutral.

”You know,” he replied calmly as they settled into the front row, idly watching some aides and interns bustle about on the platforms, setting the stage for today's stars, ”in most Core World cultures it is considered rude to ask. Lesson number one, my very young apprentice.”

Ahsoka let out a sigh as deep as a draught blowing through an Utapaun basement. ”Can you drop this 'sage politics professor' act, my extremely young Master? You've vented at length about your distaste for this sort of thing, it's fine if you're mainly here to support your friend.”

Anakin shifted. Friend. Such a charged word, and not because it was so wildly inaccurate. It was the very 'friendship' between himself and Padmé that had started a Galaxy-wide war; theirs was one of the most famous friendships throughout the known universe. Already her involvement in triggering the conflict had become the main point of controversy in her barely-a-week-old campaign. She had her fierce supporters who had elevated her to a near-goddess status for having ended Dooku's reign before it began. There were the mild doubters who thought it in poor taste to run while the war was still raging on, regardless of her level of complicity. The harshest voices barked that Amidala was shady and untrustworthy, that peace could never be attained under the rule of Count Dooku's murderer and a common warmonger, that the former child monarch must have been cut from the same power-thirsty cloth all along.

To them, the other half of that 'friendship' was either a war hero, a problematic war hero, or anything from Amidala's boy toy to her personal hitman. Respectively. Or sometimes not.

”Ahsoka,” Anakin injected a brittle patience into his voice, ”You might not have noticed, but I have put my hood up and am currently avoiding eye-contact with anyone that so much as glances my way. I'm not saying it's the greatest disguise, and I don't like hiding to begin with, but it could make the difference between things getting out of hand and… staying in the hand at my friend's very important press conference. And in case you hadn't figured it out already, yes, you're part of said disguise. Would you mind playing the part?”

”Master, I'm sorry,” Ahsoka hurried to say, genuine shame dripping through her voice. ”I was really out of line, and not thinking things through at all. It won't happen again.”

Anakin turned his head, adjusting his hood to meet her eyes in his limited range of vision. He smirked. ”Yeah it will, snippy one.”

Padmé, it seemed, was running a little late today. The other candidate had already taken a seat at the panel table atop the other platform, and was glancing around and whispering with his aides and assistants, looking very much ready for action. Anakin didn't really know much about the guy, other than that he had announced his run just this morning, and apparently had some controversy of his own going on. What about, Anakin had failed to catch. To the Jedi's untrained eye, he looked like one's average thirty-something Senator (Anakin was fairly sure he was a Senator), a human with greasy, neatly combed brown hair, haughty features, and an air of… inapproachability? Equal parts of youthful enthusiasm and stuffy self-importance? Was there ever anything deeper to these guys? Anakin doubted it.

Just as it seemed the other candidate's team (Anakin had forgotten the hack's name the second he'd turned off the morning news) was about to take a head-start, Padmé emerged from the Senate building. Even in her slightly hurried state, she looked every bit the mythical deity of the propaganda flyers, dressed in a deep green gown, stately yet modest by her standards. Moteé and Hollé came scurrying at either side of her. As soon as she reached her provided microphone, she apologized for her tardiness, nodding a quick greeting to her opponent on the other platform. At that moment, Anakin felt an odd tension shoot across the Force, but there was no time to make anything of it – they were political rivals, after all – as the conference commenced in earnest.

Giving the fashionably late Amidala a moment to prepare, the press addressed the first of their questions to Senator… Clovis, if Anakin had caught it correctly? (Rag Clovis? Rash Clovis? Really, what was the sleemo's name?)

The Chancellor-hopeful had barely danced his way around the opening question when it suddenly came back to Anakin. Rush Clovis.

Wait… the defector? The young Jedi did not follow politics religiously by any means (what a depressing religion that would be), but even he had heard of that whole business.

”Yes, alright,” the brown-haired man addressed the somewhat irritable audience, ”get your boos out of the way. Now, I know what you're thinking. What's that Separatist sympathizer doing here? Only running for the office of the Republic's head-of-state? Absurd… right? How's he any different from Dooku, who tried to run the Separatist Senate and take over our own governing body at the same time? He's got some guts showing his face here.”

Ahsoka rolled her eyes. ”We get it. Third person, self-deprecation, disarming the critics…”

Anakin couldn't help but crack a smile, impressed by the fifteen-year-old's vocabulary. ”Wow, you really have done your homework.”

”I told you.”

”Well, I'll tell you the difference between Dooku and I. Let us begin with the facts. Dooku founded the Separatists, only to later… seemingly desert his own cause. I joined the Separatists –” There came those boos. ” – for a time, in order to gain perspective outside the biased view of the Republic and determine the strengths and weaknesses of both governing models. From the very beginning, I was transparent about my intentions, to both sides, while the media – and I mean no offense – tried to spin it into everything from defection to treason to playing both sides for my own gain… and I understand it might be hard to believe that my suspension from the Senate was a mere formality at the time.”

”I don't know about treason,”Ahsoka commented uncertainly, ”but I didn't know you could… uh, do that.

”So far, his rhetoric sounds an awful lot like Dooku's,” Anakin snorted.

”You think he's also a Sith Lord?” Ahsoka giggled, oblivious to the flinch that jolted her Master's shoulders.

”And yet… tadah. I have been reinstated to my former position while keeping my friendly relations –” Boos, boos, boos. ” – to what you might characterize as the reasonable half of the Separatist Senate… I'm talking about those who have openly opposed the atrocities committed by General Grievous, for instance.” Silence. Sharp murmurs.

”Okay, I might buy that there's a reasonable half,” Anakin partook in the murmurs, ”but let's be real, no one dares oppose Grievous openly. Except, I don't know. Us.

”Maybe he meant openly… over their private brunch?” Ahsoka suggested. ”Or a game of sabacc?”

”Way more likely.” 

”You have to understand,” the not-defector continued, ”The Republic is my home, my… haven. It is to this place and these people that I've chosen to return to, and this system that I wish to serve as its leader. However… I would not want to lead just a single system. I want to once again unite and bring peace to all the systems.” It was at this point that a few of Clovis' supporters showed signs of life in the back rows… or maybe, just maybe, he had just won those people over. ”And I whole-heartedly believe my excellent relations with the opposing side – whom, we must remember are flesh and blood, with hearts and feelings and regrets, just like us – will put me in an invaluable position to set us on the path to peace and mend our beloved, broken Galaxy once more.”

There was a cautious, yet surprisingly wide-spread round of applause. The pre-middle-aged politician basked in his moment of glory, dipping his head in shallow bows.

”I don't know,” Ahsoka rubbed her chin. ”He has that… what's that word? Smarmy quality.”

”I was just about to say that!” Anakin exclaimed, jerking his index fingers at her. ”He's too smarmy.

”Smarmy,” Ahsoka repeated thoughtfully. ”It's such a funny word. Smarmy.

”If you say 'smarmy' one more time, that puts me in serious danger of forgetting that guy's name.”

”Smaaarrr~myyy.”

”And now I'm gonna call him Smarsh Smarmis for the rest of my life.”

”Snappy. You should pitch that to him.”

”I really should… but, you missed an opportunity to call it 'smappy'.”

”I'm gonna smap you.”

Their idle banter effectively drowned out the next few questions addressed to Senator Smarmis, which were mostly queries for clarification on his history with the Confederacy and the main themes of his campaign. Anakin felt his attention slipping away as he waited for Padmé's turn to speak, which, at the rate the man was going, might present itself sometime next year.

At present, Padmé's only audience consisted of Moteé, who was nodding along as the Senator whispered in her ear. It occurred to Anakin that his wife had been looking ill at ease throughout Clovis' monologue. At first, he'd interpreted her restless frown as an expression of earnest concentration, but now that he really studied her – her fidgety body language, the tremors of discomfort leaking into the Force – he saw that it wasn't the case. Sudden alarm overwhelmed him. He'd never seen her in such an unsettled state.

An assistant was half-way through announcing that Senator Amidala would be taking questions now, when Moteé grabbed the microphone and cut him short, ”Our deepest apologies. We regret to inform you that Senator Amidala is not feeling well today. We ask for your kind understanding and hope to reschedule as soon as the Senator gets better. We want to thank Senator Clovis for kicking off this race on such a high note and look forward to debating with him in the coming weeks. Thank you.”

A hesitant confusion ran through the crowd as Padmé was escorted off the stage by her handmaidens. Holocameras tracked the receding forms as they disappeared through the Senate doors. Clovis wore an unreadable expression, but his head remained turned toward the way his competitor had gone, even as someone announced that the press conference was over and extended his best wishes for Senator Amidala's swift recovery.

”Say,” Anakin murmured to Ahsoka without looking at her. ”That sparring club of yours still going? Take my speeder. I gotta go talk to my… my friend.”

-

Anakin found his wife in her office, sitting silently at her desk as Hollé proffered her a glass of water. Moteé was on her way to turning away the visitor when she saw who it was.

”Milady, your –” she was about to announce his arrival, but Anakin had already strode through the room, coming to an uncertain stop in front of the desk.

”Hey…” he whispered as she lifted her gaze. ”Are you… are you okay?”

Padmé pursed her lips. ”Moteé, Hollé… leave us.”

The handmaidens dipped their heads before promptly excusing themselves. Anakin found himself offering a nod back, out of something akin to… gratitude. Then he rushed to his wife's side, laying a concerned hand on her shoulder.

”Padmé, what's wrong? What happened? This isn't like you at all.”

The young Senator greeted the accusation with a rueful smile. ”No, it is not.”

A silence fell over them that could have lasted anything from a few minutes to a frozen eternity. When Padmé finally did speak, it was with a hollow, businesslike tone, the kind she used when having to respond to a particularly infuriating or ignorant comment at the Senate, ”What's wrong is that I spent an entire hour hyperventilating before my very first press conference, which, incidentally, is also the amount of time I was given to get used to the idea of having Rush Clovis of all people as my opponent –”

”W-what?” Anakin gasped. ”Slow down. Hyperventilating?”

”At least I didn't vomit,” Padmé sniffed, smoothing the front of her gown. ”I know it's silly, but this is a new dress, and Sola recommended the tailor because he was going out of business, but so, so skilled –”

Anakin pulled his hand from her shoulder to give her some space. ”Rush Clovis caused this… reaction in you?”

Padmé shook her head, frustrated. ”I… there wasn't supposed to be any 'reaction'. He's a Senator. I've seen him… around.” Her tone was slipping from mechanical to insistent, like she was trying to convince herself as well as her husband. When Anakin didn't say anything, she amended, ”Though… not all that much. He was suspended from the Senate only weeks after his appointment, and I'd had… maybe two conversations with him. But now…” She stared glassily into the distance. ”It's all coming back to me.”

”What is?” Anakin wanted to know. ”Those… conversations?”

”No.”

The ever-lasting silence reigned once more. Anakin threw up his hand and Force-seized a chair from the corner, taking a seat across from her. He waited patiently until Padmé drew a steadying breath and time started ticking once again.

”I first met Clovis years ago, when I was… when I was still Queen. I was going through a… rather difficult period in my life. Palpatine was dead, the Republic was in disarray, I had yet to reconcile with my family… whom I had just… pushed aside after I'd had that fight with my father… I had given up the practice of the dark side, or whatever the hell Palpatine had been brainwashing me into,” Anakin flinched at her language, but otherwise did not interrupt, ”and I… I felt very alone, and somehow… adrift. I was seventeen, trying to rule a planet… something I knew how to do at fourteen, and then all of a sudden… I was just going through the motions.

”Sabé had recently gone as Queen Amidala to Scipio to renew our loan contract. She did her job… superbly well, of course… but it's something I… it's something I really ought to have done myself. There's a… there's a very specific reason that I didn't, but…” Her voice trailed off, but she shook her head and went on, ”The point is, we were still up to our necks in debt because of that wretched war, and for me to not even deign to do my own damn groveling…

”Of course, when she returned with a new contract that… exceeded my wildest hopes, I thought we had once again gotten away with our little masquerade. Sabé and I…” A deep, distant sadness contorted her features. ”We were still a team. However… it turns out I was wrong. N-not about us being a team… but about no one recognizing her. Someone had… and that someone was Rush Clovis, at the time a high-ranking executive at the Intergalactic Banking Clan. One day… he just turned up unannounced at the palace doorstep, requesting an audience with me. Something about the way he phrased it… or the way it was paraphrased to me… revealed that he knew I was never Scipio.

”I was… mortified, I was certain he'd come to tear our precious contract to shreds and press charges for… attempted deception, or something… which would have led to my exposure as Nute Gunray's murderer, and –” She stopped to catch her breath. ”Needless to say, I was extremely relieved when he did nothing of the sort. Oh, no. He revealed that he'd always had a 'fascination' with Naboo's monarchs and particularly the striking regal attire, and had seen so many holos of myself and my handmaidens specifically that he could tell Sabé and I apart. He told me he'd been very excited to see the decoy switch in action, and had booked a trip to Naboo on the spot in hopes that he could meet the actual Queen as well. He was older… well-mannered, confident… and for some reason, I had the bright idea to be… flattered that he'd come all this way just to meet with me. It was as though… at the time, there was no Queen of Naboo. Just… a broken mess of a girl, growing lonelier every day under that perfect, protective layer of make-up.”

Anakin was squirming in his seat, but willed himself to tamp down… whatever he was already feeling in such profuse amounts, and let her continue.

”Officially… he was on a diplomatic visit. I was playing the gracious hostess. I invited him to stay at the palace… we had fancy dinners together… with candles… took strolls together in the gardens… My infatuation with him was only skin-deep, but I think I was trying to… fill some gaping hole inside me. Or distract myself, from Palpatine and… or maybe I just really, really wanted to keep that loan. When his visit extended from days to weeks to… over a month, I told myself he was just… impressed with Naboo. Some part of me knew better, but…

”Then, one evening… we were alone in the dining hall, I had dismissed the girls for the night… I think Marleeni, the kitchen maid, was still nearby, cleaning up after some accident…

”I… suddenly became very aware of how close he was. I was venting about some… frustrating domestic trade dispute, but he wasn't listening. His eyes… they were shining with rapt attention, only it was directed towards… my lips. I… Marleeni was there, there were guards posted at every floor… and yet, I still felt unsafe. I told him I was feeling tired, that I might retire for the night. He asked if he could escort me to my bedchambers. I don't know why I said yes.”

Anakin felt his fists clenching of their own accord. He physically had to blink away the red gathering at the edge of his vision.

”No sooner had I pushed my bedroom door ajar and wished him good night… than he shoved me inside, hands on my shoulders. He was kissing me so hard I couldn't breathe. I hit my head against this… stupid, tacky floor lamp, it was a gift from some… lord… He kept going… I resisted… I think I did… it's all a blur now. But I didn't verbally tell him to stop. Not until… he was steering me toward the bed and… I think I said… 'No. Stop.'

”He seemed… surprised, baffled even… and he said, 'but you were kissing me back.' Then he kissed me again, as if to prove his point. I told him to stop… again. He was still gripping my shoulders… but rather than release me, he huffed something about mixed signals… I asked him to please let me go. He launched into this… rant… about… how he was a busy man, an important man, how he'd wasted all this time on me… I asked him to please let me go before I call the guards.

”That's when he… made his ultimatum. He threatened that if I didn't have sex with him… he would make some… alterations… to the loan agreement. That he would gladly ruin my people, ruin the planet he'd so claimed to love. Ruin me. Suddenly I wasn't scared anymore. I was… furious. I felt the dark side swelling inside me, possessing me. Yet, at the same time… I was in control, inviting it in, harnessing it. I remember… how my heart pumped fire, yet my voice was as cold as ice when I told him… to let me go. To never show his face on Naboo again. And to… keep the loan agreement exactly the way it is, with the same terms and same amount of interest… and to renew it every ten years, with those same conditions, unaltered.

”He let go of my shoulders. He stared at me for a while… then he wandered out of the room in this… daze… I didn't pursue him, but I think he left the planet on that same night… and… Naboo continued to pay very low interest and I never heard another word of him or the loan agreement ever again.

”Until…” She lifted her gaze. Behind the walls of his gritted teeth, Anakin was just barely holding back the fury that consumed every fiber of his being.

”Is that when…” he managed to grind out. ”Is that when… you decided to…”

Padmé nodded. ”Yes. That's how it started. When I realized that what happened with the Trade Federation leaders was no accident… that I could control the minds of the wicked… the greedy…or simply those that were in my way…” She trailed off into a brief silence. Her eyes had that far-off look when she spoke again, ”Back there… at the press conference… I don't know what happened. In the end… I triumphed over him, didn't I? I… won. There's no reason…” She took a moment to arrange her thoughts. ”And when he turned up at the Senate… Is it possible that I somehow… tampered with my own memories? I remembered him, of course… I remembered our time together… but what happened in the end… somehow, I'd just… repressed it away. Until…” Her elaborate updo loosened at the top, she shook her head so hard. ”It doesn't make any sense. All of a sudden, when I heard he was running… when I listened to him speak… it was like I regressed back to that stupid, little, vulnerable seventeen-year-old. Back to a time when –”

Anakin could no longer contain himself. He shot up from the chair, fists shaking at his sides. ”I'm gonna kill him.”

Padmé jolted up as well, to her much shorter stature, her eyes barely grazing his chin – yet the fire in them was such that she towered over him nonetheless.

”Let me be very clear,” she hissed, each word like a sharp icicle. ”You are not to go within a ten-meter radius of Clovis at any time. You will pretend we never had this conversation and go on living as though Clovis didn't even exist. If I hear about any threats you have made, any sabotage you have tried to cause, anything at all you have done to hurt Clovis or his campaign… I won't be responsible for my actions.”

Anakin stared at her, dumbstruck. ”'I won't be res–' Padmé… are you threatening me?”

”I am not playing around, if that's what you're asking.”

”Padmé…” he repeated in astonishment. 

She drew a deep breath. ”How I deal with this situation, with my campaign, and with Clovis is my business and my business only. I'm sorry, but the last time you defended my honor in a duel to the death, a war broke out. Clovis may have tried to ruin me once, and he may have ruined today, but I will sooner resign than have you ruin my entire career with your thoughtless, violent actions. I'll only tell you this once. Stay away from Clovis. Stay. Away from him.

Chapter Text

Her first words to him after fifteen long years had been a plea for help. Since long before those fifteen years, Satine Kryze had worked tirelessly to rebuild her homeworld as a pacifist society, to unite the warring clans, thwart foreign invaders, and bury Mandalore's bloody past. She'd survived countless assassination attempts, foiled numerous coups, and made it her personal crusade to stop the senseless violence that had long plagued the planet.

Finally, after decades upon decades of relentless effort, the Duchess had believed Mandalore strong enough to give back and lead by example. To invite two opposing sides to their precarious safe haven and provide them a time and place to sort out their stupid war before it started. If she truly believed in her cause, Obi-Wan could imagine her telling herself, surely she believed in it for the entire Galaxy.

It must have been a terrible blow when the peace talks had proved a thinly-veiled sham. Regardless, the Duchess had made a last desperate plea to her former protector, present peacekeeper, on that landing dock, whispered it in his ear like a delicate secret to an undeserving teenage boy.

And how had the so-called peacekeeper answered the call? By bringing war and chaos on her beloved planet all over again.

Well, more like he'd sat idly by while his former Padawan took care of that, but the Jedi Master knew better than to open that can of worms. Anakin was the bravest person he knew. The boy had prevailed over a Sith Lord and risked his life to protect Senator Amidala and the Republic, and Obi-Wan could not be more proud of him.

Shame he'd done all that on Mandalorian ground, where his accidental declaration of war had since had a domino effect. The war-minded traditionalists had viewed it as an attack on Mandalore itself, waking the belligerent clans from their resentful hibernation. Unable to agree whether they should be waging war against the Republic or the Confederacy, the clans had quickly ripped open the old wounds and broken into a major conflict between themselves. A conflict that still raged on today, much to the horror and distress of the pacifist Duchess. Now her every waking hour was spent trying to keep her fallen house of cards from catching fire and destroying everything in its path.

The Republic would have been forced to turn a blind eye – Mandalore was a neutral world, after all – if not for the constant suspicion of this-clan-or-that having formed a secret alliance with the Separatists. It seemed like every other week they were sending an investigative team right into the eye of the storm, and not once did they come back either unscathed or any the wiser.

At least Obi-Wan knew to stay away. Things had never been the same for him and Satine since the start of the war.

The headstrong Duchess had been furious when a Galaxy-wide war had erupted right under her nose, at the very heart of Sundari, and not at all interested in hearing whether the 'Jedi' or the 'Sith' had started it, either. Since that day, she'd not wanted to hear another word of Obi-Wan, or his brand of peacekeeping – or his Padawan, or Senator Amidala, for that matter.

Obi-Wan hoped to keep it that way, at least for a little while longer. According to the latest intel, there was a very strong possibility that a Mandalorian splinter group called the Death Watch was indeed working in collaboration with the Separatists. The group, chiefly composed of exiled Old Mandalorians, was seeking to overthrow the current pacifist government while (allegedly) selling weapons and lending resources to the Confederacy. Most likely, the two had made mutual promises to each other of future conquests or other shared interests.

A task team comprised of General Skywalker, Commander Tano, and a select few troopers from the 501st were being sent to investigate.

Under normal circumstances, Obi-Wan knew, shipping Anakin to Mandalore would have been asking for trouble. But 'normal circumstances' rarely applied to the young man, and if anyone could get to the bottom of whatever conspiracy simmered at the heart of Sundari, he could. Was it not Anakin, a fresh-faced Padawan, who'd been able to expose a secret Sith Lord and live to tell the tale? General Skywalker whose battalion had scored the most victories against Separatists since the start of the war?

Obi-Wan had every faith in the boy.

Or that was the mantra he would chant into his pillow every night, to catch just a few winks of sleep. For if he was entirely truthful, it was not Satine that he worried about on most days. Or even Mandalore, on the worst of them.

It was the prophecy.

The new prophecy.

-

Padmé's campaign was doing better now. She'd ended up scheduling a redo of her ill-fated first press conference for the very next day, and without the slimy presence of one Rush Clovis hanging over her, had unsurprisingly impressed her audience and won the hearts of many a new supporter. Tomorrow, she and the other candidates would be leaving for Alderaan, the homeworld of the current Chancellor, to do publicity and participate in debates.

Her campaign themes were regrettably similar to those first introduced by Clovis: peace, unity and strong leadership. However, it seemed that her opponent's Separatist sympathies were a double-edged sword, which left Padmé with the advantage of a more consistent public image. 

That, and actually being leader material, unlike a certain greasy, disgusting would-be rapist. 

Naturally, Anakin had complied with his wife's… strongly expressed wishes to keep his distance from Clovis and the campaigning. Nothing much could be achieved by punching the prick in the face, however much he'd like to test that theory. And he knew that the once-vulnerable seventeen-year-old had since truly come into her own as a woman and a politician. Padmé Amidala would show her past demons who was boss, Anakin had no doubt about that.

And yet, he could feel a strange premonition gripping at the pit of his stomach. Unofficial restraining order or not, he found himself wishing desperately that he could accompany her to Alderaan, to just… watch her back. Padmé was always throwing the repercussions of Dooku's death in his face, but it didn't change the fact that even then, she had needed him. The last time he'd had such a feeling, such an overwhelming desire to be at her side… she had needed him.

Then, he wasn't so vain as to presume his feelings were always right. And it wasn't as though he could just take a rain-check on Mandalore, either.

(His wife didn't know he was going to Mandalore. Really, the less reminisced about Mandalore, the better.) 

Anakin sighed as he watched the petite politician commute between her enormous suitcase and a clothes closet that made the former look like a shrunken handbag. He should just be glad that for once, their schedules were in perfect synchrony, and they could at least have this last evening together before Force knows how many months of separation.

”Nervous?” he inquired casually, loitering about as Padmé beelined from luggage to closet and back.

She shot him a testy look whilst folding a silky black number beside a delicate blue one. ”I hope this isn't about Clovis.”

Anakin frowned at the sudden bristling in the Force. ”No… unless you want it to be. Which I'm guessing, you don't.”

Padmé shook her head, rich brown curls bouncing, reaching to grab a red pantsuit from the racks. ”I'm sorry. I am a little on edge, actually. The latest polls indicate –” She sighed, stopped in her tracks, hugged the garment to her chest.

”The polls indicate what?” 

”They indicate that…” she ground out slowly. ”While anything can still happen, mind you – the final race will most likely come down to me and Clovis.”

In a rare occurrence, Anakin chose his words carefully. ”And that upsets you, because –”

”Because,” Padmé whirled around to face him, throwing the pantsuit haphazardly on the bed, ”Well, if I don't win –”

”You will, I know you will!” 

Padmé held up her hands in resignation. ”Well, in that case. I guess I'm just being silly.” Resuming her packing, she hissed out another apology.

”You think…” Anakin mused. ”You think he's still up to his old tricks?”

Padmé nodded, almost nonchalantly. ”Or worse. I know he's up to something.

A grimace crossed Anakin's face as he braced himself. So much for caution. ”Kind of like how Dooku was up to something?”

This froze Padmé to the spot. She pointedly lifted her gaze and shot him a sarcastic smile. ”No… not like that, because this time I've expressly asked you to stay out of this, and because I know you will respect my wishes without…” Hypnosis and handcuffs? Anakin privately guessed while she took a moment to select her words. ”…my having to ask again.”

”I just…” Anakin muttered. He was not used to playing the diplomat in a conversation. ”I just don't want you to get in over your head, is all.”

At that, Padmé's mien softened. She gingerly laid the dress she was holding atop the bedcovers, before walking over to her husband, and gracing him with a genuine smile. ”I can take care of myself,” she assured him, reaching to stroke his cheek. ”You know that.”

Anakin sighed. ”Of course I know that.”

”Well, then…” she said coyly. ”Should we agree to worry about each other only a reasonable amount?”

”Sounds… reasonable.”

Padmé's eyes lit up, her nose scrunching, as it always did when she was about to burst into that bell-like giggle.

But it was not that wonderful sound that greeted Anakin next.

”Milady…”

Anakin nearly jumped out of his skin, whirling to the voice's direction with a sharp – and poorly disguised – intake of breath. In the doorway stood none other than Dormé, offering a small bow.

”I'm sorry to disturb you,” the handmaiden lamented. ”It's about tomorrow. I had some notes about the revised itinerary.”

”Of course,” Padmé replied cheerily. ”We'll take a look at them later this evening.”

With a bow, curtsy, and smile, the young woman was gone again. 

Padmé turned back to her husband, an amused frown creasing her brow. ”I'm sorry, does my dainty handmaiden scare the big bad Jedi?”

”Nothing scares the big bad Jedi,” Anakin huffed in a sharp whisper. Indicating the doorway with a nod, he clarified, ”She has this… sneakiness about her, is all.”

Padmé lifted a dubious eyebrow. ”Sneakiness?”

”Never mind,” Anakin hissed. Where was he? That's right, the sound of Padmé's giggle and the way her nose scrunched up when she laughed…

-

Halfway through the hyperspace journey to Mandalore, each and every member of the task team could have recited the mission strategy in their sleep, only sleep still eluded some of them.

Fast running out of conversation topics that weren't their mission strategy, who-has-the-craziest-story-from-the-field (Anakin, every time), or the election, Ahsoka saw that her time had come. Anakin and Rex watched with a drowsy curiosity as she spread a deck of colorful cards on the cabin table.

”It's called Rocks,” she announced.

”Rocks?” her Master repeated with some skepticism.

”Yeah. You know Zina,” Ahsoka explained as she took a clump or cards and shuffled them, ”another Togruta Padawan, I don't think you guys have met –”

”Snips, I know who Zina is,” Anakin yawned. ”I popped in to teach your class a few weeks ago, remember?” 

”Oh!” Ahsoka laughed, grabbing another bunch of cards. ”Right.”

”Was I really that boring?” 

”It kinda seemed like someone had just handed you a lesson plan, yeah,” the Padawan admitted. When Anakin shot her a look, she added, ”Which, I guess, is good? Because you're usually such a rebel? Which is also good, but I mean, a rebel in that giving-the-Council-gray-hairs sort of way –”

”Good save, Snips,” Anakin scoffed, rolling his eyes.

Rex was grinning gleefully. ”You were saying, Commander?”

”Yeah, so anyway,” Ahsoka continued, arranging the cards into four groups across the table. ”Zina told me that everybody knows this game where we're from, but since I came to the temple so young, I never had a chance to learn it.”

Both men offered sympathetic smiles.

”So how do you play it?” Rex asked, taking a sip of his caf.

”The basic idea is to collect any variation of these three symbols,” Ahsoka explained, flipping three cards around as her companions observed. ”Easy, right? Except, when you deal the cards at the beginning, you put the – ”

The demonstration came to an abrupt end, and Ahsoka's bloodflow to a standstill, when a hoarse scream tore through the air, nearly startling her out of her wits. Instinctively reaching for her weapon, her hand halted when she saw Anakin, hunched over the table and sucking in clipped breaths.

”General?” Rex whispered, alarmed. He set a hand on his superior's shoulder, but the Jedi swatted it away.

”Master?”

”I-I'm fine,” Anakin stuttered, eyes absent, hands clutching either temple. ”I just – suddenly – felt like I was –” He mumbled something under his breath.

For one dubious second, Ahsoka could have sworn he said 'burning.' 

But when Rex suggested that the General had probably felt a jolt in the Force – most likely warning them of the danger ahead – the Padawan quickly forgot what she may or may not have misheard. When Anakin Skywalker set something on fire, you damn well knew it.

”So,” Anakin straightened his shoulders and pointed at the cards Ahsoka had indicated. ”Any variation of these three cards. There's a diamond, I wanna say a ruby, and… uh, a rock?”

”Um… yeah,” Ahsoka nodded. ”So you put all of the strategic cards in this so-called 'neutral zone', and you have to smuggle them through enemy territory – for me, that's here and here – in order to claim them. To access the neutral zone, you have to –”

-

”An enemy there is. An enemy he cannot defeat. Come to pass… the prophecy can no longer.”

If there was one individual whose word could overrule that of an ancient prophecy, it was Master Yoda.

For months and months Obi-Wan had meditated on the matter, and yet, for his predecessor's dying words, there was but one interpretation.

”I understand. In order to defeat this enemy… he needs help.”

”No. Not help.”

Anakin would perish at the hands of an invincible foe, and Obi-Wan would be powerless to stop it.

Chapter Text

The Mandalore team's journey continued from Sundari on to Concordia, the moon where the war-mongering Old Mandalorians had famously been exiled (well, not all of them, if the mother planet's current crisis was anything to judge by). The moon had since been made into a province of Mandalore, and re-established itself as an unassuming agricultural settlement loyal to the Duchess Satine's pacifist government.

This would have all been perfectly fine, desirable even, if not for the fact that things had simply been too quiet on the forest moon since the outbreak of the new civil conflict. Hundreds of supposedly peaceable clans on the mainland fly into a rampage, but Concordia was content listening to wood crickets chirping?

Hardly, if the newly obtained intel was to be believed; pointing to the involvement of Pre Vizsla, the Governor of Concordia himself, in the suspected collaboration between the Death Watch and the Confederacy.

The internal logic in the narrative was a source of comfort to Anakin, who was fed up to his back teeth with inaccurate leads and information that would have been relevant two weeks ago. It seemed clear to him now that someone had been feeding them false intel for some time – but that particular observation he'd have to file away for later consideration, for now. From the moment they plunged into the moon's stratosphere, he could almost taste the bitter drops of duplicity trickling into the Force. For once, they were in the right place at the right time.

The plan was simple, but not risk-free. Fives and Kix would stay with the ship and prepare for at least a dozen worst case scenarios (at least one always became reality). Rex – who could easily pass for a non-clone with his atypical blonde hair and minimal disguise – would meet with Vizsla at the town hall, posing as a military supplier with vaguely Separatist-leaning sympathies. He would try to strike up some conversation about the hostilities on Mandalore, expressing concern over Concordia's seeming lack of defensive measures, with all the genuine compassion of a cut-throat businessman.

Meanwhile, the Snips-Skyguy team would conduct a thorough search on Vizsla's office, the whole premises if needed, for further evidence of any treasonous intent lurking within. They only needed enough proof to convince the Duchess of her trusted delegate's true colors, and hopefully persuade her to join the Republic in the war effort.

('That's likely,' Obi-Wan had scoffed at the mission briefing, flashing a sardonic smile intended for no one in particular… in that room, anyway. Anakin was aware that the Duchess and the Jedi had parted on bad terms when the peace talks had come to their notorious end – but every so often he got the strangest feeling – )

The impressive ride alone granted them easy entry to the moon and even an immediate audience with the Governor. The YT-series light freighter was not a ship typically associated with the Republic, or even the war effort in general, but favored by smugglers and other clandestine operators. A sleeker, special model, the Corellian beauty was more than suited for space combat as well; boasting two laser canon turrets, hidden torpedo launchers, first-class shielding and speed – exactly the type of craft that would attract the interest of a wealthy office-bearer moonlighting as the leader of a terrorist group.

The freighter was also equipped with thermosignature-masking technology, which allowed the rest of the team to stay on the ship and observe as Rex shook hands with the lean, middle-aged man outside. The town hall was an age-worn Mandalorian-style mansion with a large yard, surrounded by a thick pine forest that separated it from the rest of the capital.

The remaining four spied through the dimmed window as Vizsla gestured for Rex to follow him inside, tailed by a pair of aides who had just finished the thermal scan. Anakin grinned as he watched his second-in-command immerse himself in the role and motion theatrically at the supposed merchandise. The General knew that all troopers received some training for undercover missions, but as a rule, obedience and conformity were prioritized in a clone's qualifications over improvisation and creativity. But then, what chance did the 501st stand of normalcy when their leader was the biggest rulebreaker of them all? 

”He's just having the time of his life,” Fives laughed at his captain's antics, shaking his head. ”Man is wasted as a soldier.”

”He's copying that 'whoosh' gesture from you, Fives,” Kix remarked, sweeping his arm across the air in a grandiose manner. ”You know, when you do those weird pantomimes sometimes.”

”When do I ever –?”

The friendly jabs were cut short when Ahsoka turned to her Master with sudden worry. ”Isn't it kinda fishy for this 'Romi Labror' guy to show up alone with this huge ship? Vizsla really doesn't suspect anything?”

”Nah, the good Governor requested it this way,” Anakin answered. ”An elected official of a pacifist government meeting with a military supplier? Best to keep things low-key. 'Cept when it comes to the merchandise.”

Ahsoka nodded, encouraged. Anakin offered a small smile to his brave, smart, capable, so very young Padawan. ”You ready to roll?”

-

Everything on Alderaan would have been picture perfect, if not for the tiny detail of Rush Clovis, who was like that lone piece of litter in powdery pure snow she'd come across on their scheduled mountain hike the other day.

Padmé's popularity was at an all-time high. For many years, she had kept a low profile in politics because of her… illicit activities, and for the first time she saw how that approach had held her back. It turned out she could be just as eloquent and persuasive even without the aid of Force suggestion. She had garnered a reputation as a voice of peace in the past, but even that notability had been limited to exclusively political circles. Now she had emerged as a new woman, one who no longer cloaked herself in shadows, but held her head high and fought for what she stood for.

The debates had been going well. The other runners – Senators Paulness, Aang and Robb – were sorely being overshadowed by herself and Clovis, who held the distinction as the two most 'interesting' candidates. After all, nothing invited attention like notoriety, and in the world of competitive politics, it was always better to stand out like a spatter of paint than to fit in like wallpaper. And during the first month of their campaign, both runners had deftly worked their way from objects of mistrust and cynicism to respected potential leaders and voices of the future.

And more and more, they were growing into two distinct voices. Clovis advocated for Separatist-adjacent ideas such as more independence to systems, more freedom in domestic legislation, and the option to secede peacefully. His idea of 'unity' was a perfect marriage of the two governing models, and he believed that a peaceful resolution to the war could be attained, but only after the defeat of General Grievous and the radicalists that supported him.

Had Padmé not found Clovis suspicious and detestable, she would have thought him naive and misguided. The 'radical' Separatist cause would still live on after the war, and allowing systems an easy exit from the Republic would leave them vulnerable to pressure and coercion tactics by groups who would want to abuse and exploit their newly unprotected status. The Republic absolutely needed to stay whole, the laws needed to be the same for everyone, and the enforcement of those laws needed to become more efficient. The Separatists could not be trusted while they continued to hide their leaders, and peace could hardly be achieved until they knew whom to approach with these delicate matters. 

But she knew that it wasn't Clovis' politics that really got under her skin. This was always personal, and he was lucky she'd sworn a sacred oath not to make it more so. She could handle the conferences and debates and dinners now, by mentally removing herself from the situation and focusing on the topics at hand. Still, the lack of direct interaction between herself and Clovis had already garnered some raised eyebrows from the media. For several weeks now, the man had been hard on her heels like someone else's disoriented shadow, and she had made an art form of evading him.

The cat and mouse game finally came to an end one afternoon at the National Park, where the wide, open areas rendered hiding a pointless exercise. Part of their scheduled program, the candidates had participated in a discussion on environmental issues with the park owners, and received free admittance for the rest of the day. Padmé was absorbed in her thoughts, watching an idyllic scene of a pair of nerfs grazing in the field, when she felt a tap on her shoulder – and barely had the touch registered when she'd already been turned around by the sides and found herself staring into the expectant eyes of Rush Clovis.

”You've been avoiding me,” the Senator stated bluntly, cheeks puffy and pink from the nippy air.

Dormé made a move to intervene, but Padmé stopped her with a gentle hand and gestured at a small kiosk nearby. ”Why don't you take a caf break, Dormé. You've been working non-stop, you must be exhausted.” The handmaiden obeyed with some reluctance, staring daggers at Clovis as she went.

Padmé turned back to her opponent, plastering on a perfunctory smile. It was time. ”Yes,” she admitted without ceremony.

”I understand,” Clovis granted, dusting off his overcoat in an apparent attempt at nonchalance. ”I know we didn't part on the best of terms all those years ago.”

It occurred to Padmé that she had never meddled with Clovis' memory – only his volition. He still remembered what had happened between them – and if by any chance he did not, perhaps a reminder was in order. 

”You mean, after you tried to rape me and threatened to bankrupt my planet if I didn't let you?” his fellow candidate countered, huffing out a laughter.

Clovis did not flinch – he did not so much as blink. ”Is that what you think happened, Padmé?” he asked, with something that sounded dangerously like genuine disbelief.

Padmé frowned. Was she remembering this wrong? Had she tampered with his memories after all? ”Did you have a different version of the events?”

Clovis scoffed. His nose wrinkled slightly as it seemed to pick up the naturally pungent odor of the nerfs wafting from the other side of the fence. ”I just wish you'd given me a chance. And I think you do, too, sometimes.”

Crossing her arms protectively over her chest, Padmé sighed and faced away. There were so many things she could have said, wanted to say, wanted to scream from the depths of her soul and the bottom of her lungs – but did not. Nothing she might say could change his nature, strip a predator of his rotten fangs. He was just not worth the effort.

And yet, such was her incredulity that a low hiss pushed through her teeth anyway, ”Why in the world would you think that?”

”Well, for one, you're still single.” 

Padmé stared blankly ahead. It was not the falsity of the statement that upset her – she would have had greater cause for alarm had Clovis suggested that this wasn't the case. Really, there was no reason for any of this to be getting to her – it irked her to think that this piece of fresh slime should have any measure of power over her.

She was momentarily distracted by the sound of a soft bellow just above her head – a giant, aging nerf had lumbered all the way up to the fence. Padmé reached up a hand to stroke the massive head of the gentle herbivore. Clovis flinched back, disgusted. 

”I certainly hope that your election campaign isn't an elaborate plan to get into my pants,” she muttered in belated reply, beaming at the fuzzy animal as it leaned into her touches.

”And here I was hoping we could set aside our politics for a while,” Clovis said stiffly, shifting his head around in search of her eyes.

”Clovis –”

But her protests fell on deaf ears and pushy hands, as her opponent once again grabbed her sides and forcibly turned her around. Further objections were drowned out by an angry growl from the nerf and an adamant plea from the offending party, ”And maybe I could buy you dinner tonight.”

”No,” Padmé persisted, taking two full steps back. ”Besides, tonight is the gala,” she added mechanically. 

”No, that's tomorrow.”

Padmé sighed, half-relieved at the change of subject, half-regretful that she was informing him of this at all. ”Did you look at the revised itinerary? They changed it.”

”Really,” her opponent muttered. ”Well then, I hope you'll save me a dance, Your Majesty.”

His would-be gallant gesture was interrupted by Dormé's return, involving no fewer than three cups of scorching hot caf. And while Padmé knew intimately that there were very few beings in the Galaxy more graceful or more skilled at walking in heels than Dormé, she never questioned it when the handmaiden came up to Clovis and just happened to misstep on the hem of her dress.

Clovis' shriek scared off the nerf.

Something about a 5,000-credit coat.

-

The evidence of Vizsla's involvement with the Death Watch was overwhelming. Artoo had broken into the intranet within a matter of seconds, uncovering previous weapons purchases, communications with known members, and direct plans for deposing the Duchess. Several coded messages also seemed to suggest Separatist connections, but conclusions would have to wait until the transmissions could be decrypted.

Still, they were quite literally not out of the woods yet, as the connection signal was frustratingly weak, most likely owing to the town hall's remote location. As a result, downloading the incriminating files was taking longer than expected – and Anakin could tell his usually-so-cocky Padawan was still acting a little jittery. She had stationed herself by the door, listening for any suspicious activity when she wasn't checking the chrono or shuffling her feet.

”Relax,” Anakin urged from the swivel chair, juggling his holoprojector from palm to palm. ”It's gonna be fine. Right, Artoo?” 

Behind the computer, the dome-headed astromech made an affirmative 'o' with the claw of its metal appendage.

”I'm sorry,” Ahsoka lamented, sighing. ”I guess I still haven't mastered the whole 'bad feeling' thing.”

”I would say it gets better,” her Master joked, kicking the chair into a twirl, ”but we are talking about bad feelings here, so that might be a little counter-intuitive. You worried about Rex? We could listen in for a while.” He held up the holoprojector. 

Ahsoka motioned wildly with her hands, ”Okay, okay, but low volume!”

”Sure thing.” He turned on the listen-in function that connected to Rex's comm and allowed them to eavesdrop on the conversation taking place downstairs. After some scratching and hissing, the frequency activated.

”I don't know,” Vizsla was saying. ”It's a tempting offer, but we Mandalorians are famed for our pride. Our engines are the stuff of legends, and these Corellian toys…”

”I see,” Rex murmured uncertainly. ”Pardon me… I thought, perhaps under the present circumstances… you would not necessarily want to advertise your citizenship, and could very well benefit from a degree of – ah, well.”

”And what circumstances are those, Mr. Labror?”

”No, no, I think I may have just misunderstood. I'm a businessman, a neutral party… I'm not here to judge anyone's political leanings.”

”Well, this is interesting. Which way did you think I lean?”

”You must have some sort of opinion on what's going down in the capital.”

”Maybe.”

”At least… my good friend Zerias Selli hinted as much.”

”Of Clan Selli?”

”Who else?” 

”See?” Anakin slammed down a button and the voices cut off. ”Name-dropping like a pro, our Rex.”

”I wasn't necessarily –” Ahsoka began, before spreading her arms in defeat. ”You made your point, we rule. What's the status, Artoo?”

The astromech replied with what would have sounded like a bleep to her ears, and Anakin hurried to translate, holding up a pair of fingers, ”Two minutes.”

”Sorry I'm being so fidgety, Artoo,” Ahsoka smiled. ”I know we can always count on you.”

Another bleep sounded out, causing Anakin to scoff with mock-offense and wonder, ”When was the last time you complimented me?

”What did he say?” Ahsoka wanted to know.

”I'll tell you once we're done.”

”Oh, come on.”

A smile crawled up on Anakin's lips as he considered the blue-and-white droid, hard at work behind Vizsla's desk. Feisty, clever and independent, the little fellow had been a wedding present from Padmé, who'd known that the newly minted General would be requiring an astromech companion in the coming war.

He remembered, she'd even made a joke about their similar personalities – what had she said, again? Something about a fiery –

Fire. The fire had spread everywhere, devouring all in its path, slithering up his legs and licking at his fingertips; blazing flames dancing in the water's mirror, there was no escape, no shelter, and soon there would be nothing at all, nothing but ashes left –

”Master! Master!”

Spirals of smoke rose to the starry skies as the merciless infernos raged –

”Master, we gotta run, now!”

Anakin screamed as the fire swallowed him up, burned him to cinders, and he screamed and he screamed and he screamed –

When Anakin opened his eyes, he was curled in a fetal position on the floor, panting into his palms.

Ahsoka was there, one hand clasped on his arm and the other gripped around her lightsaber – which Pre Vizsla gently suggested she put down before he blew her friend's brains out.

Chapter Text

On any other day, they could have taken Vizsla and his men. They had faced much worse odds than four against seven, and really, a bunch of forceless chumps against the dream team of the century? An overachieving astromech, the single greatest soldier ever to grace the ranks of GAR, the apprentice of Anakin Skywalker, and Anakin Skywalker?

But today was not like any other day, because on any other day Artoo would have had some trick up a metaphorical sleeve. Rex would have not been pre-emptively disarmed and restrained, and Ahsoka would not have gawked helplessly as Vizsla's goons surged into the room and grabbed her. And most importantly, Anakin Skywalker would have not been writhing on the floor in what looked to be a state of feverish, confused agony.

Vizsla's eyes darted from Anakin to Ahsoka as they were both hoisted to their feet and fitted with Force binders. Her Master's shrieks had dwindled into throaty whimpers, and his eyes had flung open to reveal their absent, glazed-over state. Whatever they were seeing, Ahsoka doubted it was their undercover mission going south faster than a flock of migrating birds.

The armored Mandalorian seemed to have arrived at a similar conclusion, forgoing gloats and jeers in favor of pointing at the Jedi General and demanding, ”What's wrong with him? Why was he screaming?”

Ahsoka scowled at the terrorist leader, wanting to scoff or spit or say something bold, but instead she only managed a fearful, ”I don't know.”

-

There was a beauty to Alderaan that even Rush Clovis could not tarnish. The Isle of Light was, aside from the Lake Country of Naboo, the most mesmerizing place Padmé had ever set her eyes upon. Located some twenty klicks from the edges of the capital and surrounded by almost as many square klicks of water, the island was scarcely the expanse of three Senate buildings, but what it lacked in acreage, it most certainly made up for in allure.

Two thirds of the island were covered rich, lush greenery that, for many decades, had been left to grow and flourish into a beautiful, natural bloom. Rather than an untamed jungle, nature's fine handiwork had fashioned what looked more like a palace garden, with bouquets of chinar trees sprinkled over the verdant soil and bountiful bushes of roses lining the shore, all arranged in a circular patterns similar to the shape of the island.

In the center of the island, surrounded by a great yard, stood the Hall of Light, one of the capital area's most popular venues for weddings, festivals and other celebrations. The massive wooden construction had been built into the imposing shape of a mansion, or even a castle, but bore more resemblance to a grand pavilion, with the ornately carved pillars and large glassless windows through which the spicy scent of the chinar trees could waft inside. Basking in sunlight by day and lit up with hundreds of oil lanterns at night, the Hall of Light was an architectural masterpiece, and an all-around enchanting vision to behold.

Tonight, at the traditional Grand Gala of the election season, the hall had never looked more impressive or teemed with more life and excitement. The gala had brought together the majority of the Republic's most important public servants as well as other prominent figures and esteemed guests, all dressed to the nines in a colorful variety of galactic fashion. The evening had commenced with a speech from the current Chancellor, followed by a fabulous open buffet and some time to mingle. Before everyone could get started on dancing and dessert, though, the guests had been gathered to the Ground Auditorium to watch a short and to-the-point debate between the candidates. The only part of the evening to be holovised from beginning to end, the brief and supposedly more casual-toned discussion was considered one of the key events of the election season and a big opportunity for swaying undecided voters.

Padmé couldn't help but feel sorry for Senator Robb, who'd somehow managed to pick today of all days to get food poisoning (which had also resulted in some unfortunate publicity for the National Park). At first, she'd sorely wished it had been Clovis to be left behind on the mainland instead of Robb, whom she at least respected as an opponent. 

That had been before the debate had started, and she had went on to utterly destroy her greatest rival. In her wildest fantasies, she could have not conjured such a historic night, such an unmitigated victory. Clovis had stumbled and stuttered his way through the questions, while Padmé had calmly alternated between articulate and measured responses, passionate monologues about her vision, and coldly logical breakdowns of her opponents' flawed policies. (The other candidates, save Robb, had also been present.)

”… and in addition to the Mandalore fiasco and the appallingly dismissive way it's been handled, I might also cite Senator Amidala's frighteningly young age and lack of experience as reasons why my – let's be honest – toughest opponent should not be elected Chancellor.”

”Thank you, Senator Clovis. Senator Amidala?”

Now two minutes remained on the chrono, and Padmé was about to launch into her final thoughts in a near-cathartic state. She could feel the energy from the audience, an audience of hundreds, hanging onto her every word.

”The governing model that Senator Clovis is proposing is not only fundamentally defective, it is actively dangerous, and if he were to be elected Chancellor, I assure you, I would do everything in my po– I would spend my every waking minute ensuring that such an ill-conceived plan never comes to fruition. I believe it is the duty of the Supreme Chancellor to protect the citizens of the Republic, from all systems and backgrounds and walks of life, rather than cast them away and leave them to their own devices. That is a lazy and irresponsible leadership style, and I will not stand for it. Despite my young age, I am the most experienced and qualified candidate in this room, as the only one who has been responsible for an entire system in the past, during some of the most trying times in our history. Since my two terms as Queen, I have continued to quietly serve the Republic, learning my trade as a humble apprentice. I believe it is this very duality in my experience that has best prepared me for the position of Supreme Chancellor, to govern the Republic as both its leader and indeed, as its humble servant.”

”Thank you, Senator Amidala,” the moderator nodded. ”That concludes the debate for tonight. We wish everyone a wonderful evening.”

There was a brief, general round of applause as the candidates all shook hands – Clovis' was clammy and seemed to be seeking permanent residence inside Padmé's – before the bulk of the audience dispersed to the dance floor and dessert tables. A few people stayed behind still to exchange a few words with their favorite candidates. According to the debate etiquette, any visible display of opinion was not allowed during the discussion, but for the rest of the evening the guests were free to either express or refrain from expressing their thoughts and sentiments. Padmé had scarcely extracted herself from the podium when she was already swarmed by supporters, and proceeded to take a good thirty minutes to chat and accept congratulations on her excellent performance in the debate.

Chancellor Organa himself, in his deep blue ceremonial regalia, came down from the stands to shake each candidate's hand in turn. The sitting Chancellor could not show partiality toward any one candidate without it being frowned upon, but Padmé thought she saw an especially warm smile cross the native Alderaanian's face when he came up to her. She and Organa had never been close, but she respected the Chancellor's policies and generally agreed with him on key topics and issues. One of the negotiators to have been present at the infamous peace talks, Organa, like Padmé, had suffered a blow to his reputation at the beginning of the war. He also had a much better understanding than the average citizen of all the factors that had conspired to bring about the conflict, and had never faulted the young Senator for what had happened.

”A fine debate tonight, Senator,” Organa complimented as he took Padmé's hand and shook it with both of his. ”I hope you've enjoyed your stay on Alderaan.”

”Very much, Chancellor,” Padmé sighed happily. ”Thank you for having us. And I know I'm just parroting everyone else, but the Isle of Light may just be the most beautiful place I've ever had the privilege to visit.” She traded nods and smiles with Dormé, standing dutifully at her mistress' side.

”It's our pride and joy, this little island,” Organa confessed. A wistful smile hovered over his lips. ”You know my wife and I actually wanted to have our wedding here. Well, wedding as in, a small informal gathering for just a couple of close friends and relatives. Not the other wedding. At any rate, that never came to be. The Isle was booked for the whole summer. And the summer after that, too.”

”You didn't play the VIP card, then.”

”Wasn't our style,” Organa smiled. ”Anyway, ever since then, I've been meaning to bring her here. Just to have a… casual evening together. Drink some wine… dance in the moonlight.”

”Dance?” Padmé echoed, gesturing toward the Ground Hall, where the first song of the evening was already playing. ”Then why isn't her Royal Majesty here tonight?”

The Chancellor tilted his head, handsome features scrunching into a sheepish grimace. ”She was booked for the night.”

Padmé burst into sympathetic laughter. ”I'm sorry,” she said mournfully. ”I would volunteer as a wholly inferior substitute partner, but I fear in this context, it might be taken for open endorsement.”

”You can never be too careful, I suppose,” the Chancellor granted with a chuckle, before turning his head in Dormé's direction. Both the Senator and the handmaiden were wearing code-appropriate evening gowns, both dyed a fiery, shaded color, with tastefully strewn patches of crystal-like embroidery. The Chancellor-hopeful's dress of choice was a little more formal and modest, while her handmaiden's gown had a more understated design, but the difference in style aside, this was one of those times when the rose sorely failed to outshine the orchid. 

Organa extended his hand in a chivalrous gesture, which Dormé accepted with some hesitation. ”May I have this dance, milady?” 

”You may,” Padmé supplied before Dormé had a chance to answer. To her handmaiden she said, ”I'll go find Hollé. As for you, my dear friend, my orders are to take the night off, drink some punch and upstage everyone on the dancefloor. Including the Chancellor.” Organa laughed, offering Dormé his arm. Padmé cocked her head, fixing her aide with a mock-stern look. ”Is that understood?”

”Yes, milady,” Dormé assured her, with such a fervid earnestness that Padmé feared that the joke might gone lost on her.

The Senator shook her head in affectionate exasperation as the elegant pair traded the room's buzzing chatter for the exquisite melodies of the Aldera Philharmonic Orchestra.

-

There was a new glint in Vizsla's eyes when he returned to the dining room, where his trio of captives sat bound to a neat row of chairs. Ahsoka glared as he came to a stop in front of Anakin – who still had that vacant, unseeing look in his eyes even as he wriggled and flailed about, as though trying to escape something other than his restraints. Beads of sweat shone on his brow, and his breath came in hoarse, ragged gasps. 

”I almost didn't recognize you for all the hysterics,” the Governor drawled in self-satisfaction, leaning down toward his prisoner, who did not so much as lift his gaze. ”You're Anakin Skywalker, hero general of the Republic and instigator of this war.” He put a mocking hand over his heart, ”Huge admirer of your work. I personally cannot wait to put you through the wringer.

”No!” Ahsoka cried in protest, lurching upward in her chair as far as her restraints allowed. ”No –”

Seated on the other side of his superior, Rex was slightly more articulate in his objections, ”The General is sick. He's having some kind of fit. He's in no condition to be interrogated.”

”That's the idea,” Vizsla scoffed, motioning for his henchmen to unbind the pale and confused Jedi from the chair.

”Take me instead,” Ahsoka volunteered, Rex hastening to make the same offer. ”I know we're on the opposite sides of an intergalactic war and all, but if you have a shred of decency in you, you will call a doctor.”

Her plea sounded lame to her own ears, and judging by the look she received from Rex, they were both questioning whether 'a doctor' would be of any help to Anakin at all. Or Kix – not that they could afford to alert their captors to the medic's presence on the premises. Rex had just managed to clue them in to their capture before being stripped of his communication devices, and according to mission protocol, the troopers were to lie low and call for back-up from the surrounding systems. A plan which, right now, seemed but a lesser evil than 'stage a doomed rescue attempt.'

”Wha –” All heads were turned as one of the henchmen kneeling behind Anakin suddenly pulled back with a yelp. ”Sir, the handcuffs – they're hot. Blazing hot.”

”Hot?” Vizsla repeated with bemused frustration. But before he could examine the situation for himself, another shrill cry tore through the room and they all jumped. The man behind Anakin had fallen back and was flailing his hands about in frantic motions. 

”No one touch him!” the man yelled. ”This is some Jedi trick – that is not a human temperature.”

Vizsla seemed to make the same observation when tried to crane Anakin's lolling head back to feel his forehead and immediately recoiled, spewing profanities and flapping his hands wildly across the air. 

”What – what's wrong with him?!” Ahsoka demanded.

Vizsla turned to glower at her. ”Tell you what, Jedi brat, tell me everything I want to know and I will not immediately put the General out of his misery.”

-

Endorsement and true popularity are two very different things, Padmé mused ruefully as she perused the dessert buffet's offerings, and both still a far cry from fondness. The politicians had deserted her as soon as she'd stepped out of the Ground Auditorium, doubtless eager to take a break from the election craze, let their hair down and enjoy a good party. Even so, in her new-found solitude, the young candidate couldn't help but wonder, not for the first time, if there was anything real to the world she inhabited and thrived in. Anything that wasn't a lie or a ploy, a mask or an illusion.  

”You look beautiful tonight, Your Majesty.”

Padmé nearly dropped her plate as she spun around to face a very real Rush Clovis. A mask would have been an improvement over the smug grin strung across his face as he dipped his head in a would-be gentlemanly bow.

”And you look like the candidate who lost tonight's debate,” Padmé quipped, casting a derisive glance to his tacky wine-red ensemble before redirecting her attentions to starfruit tarts and meiloorun cakes. Still, her head was turned once more when Clovis moved to her side, picking up a glass next to a large bowl of fruit punch.

”No, thank you,” Padmé said tersely before Clovis had a chance to ask.

Unfazed, her opponent grabbed another glass before reaching for the ladle and scooping up two generous servings of the rich magenta liquid. ”Oh, come now, Padmé, let us bury the hatchet.” He raised one glass with a theatrical flourish while proffering her the other. ”Or would you rather I make a show of offering you a drink in front of all these people?” He waved a hand across the ample space of the Sky Hall, swarming with people from wall to wall.

Padmé sighed, licking her lips. Then, in one abrupt motion, she reached up and snatched Clovis' glass from his hand, switching their drinks and earning a hearty laugh from her fellow Senator.

”Really, Padmé?” he snickered.

”Really,” she said frostily, clinking her glass against his. ”May the best woman win." She made a point of watching Clovis take a sip from his drink before bringing her own to her lips and swigging it down in one gulp. 

Chapter Text

If to wake from sleep, one needed but open their eyes, then surely Padmé Amidala had died and was being roused from the grave. 

Her head felt dull and leaden on her shoulders, as though it had been filled with crystallized honey and left to marinate in the bottom of the ocean. Her lids seemed to have nailed themselves shut. She was stumbling through a labyrinth blindfolded, swimming against the current to an unseen surface. A swirling mass of gray washed over her in dry waves. 

Gradually, the shapes of her surroundings grew sharper, more angular, latching together in the vague outline of a room. Through the overwhelming darkness, she could just make out a patch of the starry sky – a window – and above her, a dimmed figure. For a while, her eyes were locked in an unseeing stare, before lucidity and understanding reached her gaze. 

Clovis.

An instant panic struck the young woman, sending her bolt upright and into frenzied motion – an escape attempt that was nipped in the bud when her wrists caught against hard durasteel, and she fell back with a strangled gasp.  

Furiously, she pulled against the restraints securing her hands to the a length of railing behind her, but it was no use. Thick, sluggish honey seemed to be coursing through her brain where blood should have flowed, and the connection she usually felt to the Force had gone mute, muffled. In the back of her mind, she suspected they were in a sleeping cabin on Clovis' private XS-freighter. So there was a reason he'd not boarded the ferry along with everybody else. 

She turned to glare at her captor. 

”So, it really is that simple?” she snarled through her teeth, voice dripping with disgust. ”Are you so obsessed with me that you would throw away a perfectly promising campaign just to –”

”I'm not obsessed with you, Padmé,” snapped Clovis, who apparently had the nerve to be offended. His vain features twisted into a glower, rendered all the more chilling by the shadows hanging on the lines of his face. ”This is… a power play,” he whispered into the dark. ”A calculated move.” 

”A power play,” Padmé repeated with a scoff, fury pumping into her veins and filling her with false bravado. Shifting on the bunk, she could feel the linen covers itching against her leg, left largely bare by the slit on her hem. In the corner of her eye, the embroidery on her shoulder twinkled in the moonlight. ”So. You'll have your way with me and then… what? Expect me to give up the race out of a broken spirit? Dump me in the lake in small pieces? What in all the hells makes you think you'll get away with this? Someone must have seen you –”

”Me, a man in his prime, having a good, slightly tipsy evening with my very attractive opponent?” 

”What?”

Clovis smirked. ”What, you think I slung you over my shoulder and carried you to my lair like some barbarian? Give me some credit, Padmé. Shakeof –  the stuff I put in your glass, and mine, having swallowed the antidote myself – is a bit more sophisticated than that. It is a hyper-concentrated, tasteless and untraceable mixture of several intoxicating substances especially designed to take away the subject's inhibitions and render them only barely aware and implicitly trusting of whomsoever they happen to be keeping company with. To the outside observer, the effects would have looked like no more than two… passionate rival candidates looking to… let off some steam.” 

Padmé's eyes widened. ”You're – you're lying.” 

Clovis licked his lips, ”I assure you, I am not. The stuff is rather potent though, and will knock the subject out in due course, so it's a small wonder you seem to have forgotten all about our… unforgettable evening.” 

Padmé stared at him, petrified, feeling a burning stab of irony piercing through her horror. Intoxicating, untraceable, and capable of altering the mind and wiping the memory. In other words, she'd quite literally had a taste of her own medicine. The fact that her assailant couldn't appreciate the universe's mockery was rather a cold comfort.

Though not as cold as the sweaty hand that now reached across the darkness to land on her thigh and massage the exposed flesh. Padmé jerked away from the touch, revulsion and fear vying for dominance. If only she could reach the Force… a cold, black fire burned in her soul as she imagined the things she would do to him, or rather make him do to himself. Slow and painful and humiliating –

Sacred oaths be damned.  

She needed to stall and figure out a way out of these restraints. Luckily, she knew just the trick: if there was anything Clovis loved more than… her? – it was the sound of his own voice. 

-

”And there's a major base of operations on – on Dantooine –” Ahsoka offered, unable to keep the stutter from her voice. She liked to think herself brave, but there wasn't a whole lot of room for heroics between a blaster barrel and her Master's forehead, as shaky and feverish as the rest of him. And of what little room there was, well, she apparently wasn't making a very good use. 

”No, there isn't, brat,” Vizsla hissed, brandishing his blaster carelessly at the bound, dazed Jedi General. ”You're just listing off Outer Rim worlds without a strong Separatist presence, knowing I won't be able to immediately check the truthfulness of your claims.” Ahsoka's heart skipped a beat when the terrorist leader deactivated his blaster with a loud click and turned away from Anakin. Twirling the weapon about his finger, he strutted toward his youngest captive. ”Nice try, but you know what? This was a long shot. You're just a child –”

”Excuse you, I am a Commander –”

”And I'm starting to think you don't know nayc'osik –”  

”Wait, Separatist presence?” Ahsoka repeated, and Vizsla stopped in his tracks, frowning. ”So you are with the Separatists.” 

The Mandalorian sneered. ”Kandosii, you've really turned the tables on me now, kid.” He whirled back in Anakin's direction, the Jedi's head drooping, mouth sputtering gibberish. Rex leaned forward in his chair, opening his mouth like he was about to insist that come to think of it, the base had actually been moved to Christophsis, when the door swung open and a goon strode in with a bow. 

”Sir, the usurper Satine Kryze has just entered the atmosphere.”

Vizsla's gaze immediately flicked to Ahsoka, as though she'd suddenly transcended from a paltry insect to a key building block of the universe. ”Well… I am awfully popular today.” 

"But - we never even -" Ahsoka spluttered, bemused. The Duchess was here? Either Kix and Fives had friends in high places - or this was about to be the worst, most frustrating day of her military career. 

The henchman shrugged. ”What's she gonna do, peace-talk us into submission, rescue some Jedi while she's at it?” 

Vizsla appeared to humor the idea that this really was just coincidence – which, as far as Ahsoka knew, it… was? He then leveled a significant finger at the Padawan, nodding to the henchman while he did. ”If any of them try anything – shoot the lippy one first.”  

With that, he disappeared through the door, leaving his captives alone with the henchman, who clicked his blaster into readiness and stationed himself against the wall.  

”Master?” Ahsoka whispered, leaning against her bonds toward the middle-seated prisoner. She threw a dirty look to the guard –  hushed conversation within his earshot hardly counted as 'trying anything.' ”Anakin?” 

She exchanged worried glances with Rex, when out of the blue the delirious Jedi Knight groaned out, ”Padmé.”  

”Pa – come again?” 

”No,” came a curt answer. 

-

”Well, if you paraded me around the party, I'm guessing you don't plan on doing me in,” Padmé speculated. ”Let me ask again: what makes you think you'll get away with this? The police will believe a respected Senator over a shifty Separatist sympathizer.”

”No, they won't,” Clovis sneered in response. ”Let's face it, Padmé, you've already played the victim card. You and I both know there is more to what happened on Mandalore than you've let on; more than a big, bad man with a big, bad treaty, terrorizing the poor, dainty Senator. Come on, isn't that just a rehash of your other sob story? Always the damsel in distress – ever victorious against the dragon. And now your plan for winning the election is to accuse your devilishly handsome opponent of assaulting you? But of course it is.”

Even as Padmé racked, racked her brain for things to say, to keep the conversation going; questions, insults, anything – she couldn't help her mouth falling open to gape at him in stupefied silence. While Clovis' insinuations were hardly likely more than idle speculation without substance – if he did have substance, her face would have been rubbed filthy with it by now – stars, did he ever have a point. The truth was, she had built an entire political career on the image of his description. A doll's face masking a predator's fangs. Pretty dress and high heels, leaving in their wake a trail of bodies – and ever since Mandalore, people were starting to notice. 

Her lone solace of fantasizing of all the endlessly satisfying ways to either kill or ruin Clovis suddenly hit a cold, dead end. She… couldn't. Not this time, because this time… they would know. She'd been living on borrowed time, on a borrowed identity. And now the closet had creaked ajar and already the skeletons were toppling out with a clatter.  

”And besides…” Clovis' hand settled on her thigh again. ”Who says I wanna 'get away' with anything? That I won't be the first to leak this to the tabloids? Can you imagine the headlines?” He snickered, shaking his head in amusement. ”You'll never be taken seriously again. Whereas I… I will be the alpha male who nailed his opponent - who stole her heart and her victory.” 

And if they ever found out about their past relation… it would only add fuel to the fire… Squirming away from his boldening advances, Padmé felt her anger growing, flaring into a roaring inferno – 

”Now, I can tell you're stalling, so what say we get to the pleasurable part of all this –” 

And before she knew it, her legs had moved, spike-like heels kicking full force into her assailant's face, and leaving him yelping and reeling back from the blow. But not far enough back to avoid her next move; her knees wrapping themselves around Clovis' throat and pushing his face down onto the covers and squeezing – 

”Padmé –” Clovis croaked in clipped gasps and coughs, as the captive-turned-captor tightened her grip around his windpipe. ”If you – you – can't – t-they'll know –” 

”They'll know exactly what I want them to know,” she hissed, shifting her position so as to add pressure. Clovis coughed and choked and gagged. ”Now, don't be such a wimp, Clovis. You're a prominent public figure, you'll have a blaster on your person. I'll give you five seconds to find it before I squeeze the life out of you. As for the target, well, choose wisely.”

”Padm…mé…” Clovis wheezed, struggling wildly against the merciless hold, but finding no give. 

”No blaster?” Padmé seethed, shaking with adrenaline and pure rage. 

”Padm–hh–” 

”You sure?”

”Pl…eas…” 

”If you want to live you'll blast these binders off!” 

”P… pmh…” 

Three… two… one. 

Wring… screw… scrunch.  

It was all over before it remotely felt it had begun, or before Padmé had remotely processed what 'it' was. Before she had even really committed herself to the deed, let alone the consequences – the thought of which had still held her back a minute ago –  she had already, in a final ruthless twisting motion, crushed the rasping, reddening neck of Rush Clovis, and plunged in a pointy heel for good measure. 

For – she thought, for one thoughtless moment, as warm blood sprayed on her lap – victory.  

Then the moment was over – and the consequences reached her before thought did. In fact, they came crashing their way through the blast door that Padmé had not registered stood on her left, illuminating the motionless body that fell limply at her knees. 

Padmé squinted her eyes against the sudden assault of bright light. There was a sharp gasp, a rush of agitated footfalls, followed by a flash of Dormé skidding to a halt at the foot of the bunk. Then the handmaiden had already drawn her blaster and fired a well-aimed shot at the shackles holding her mistress' wrists, freeing her in an angry blaze of red. 

”Milady…” she breathed, voice thin as vapor. Hollé scurried to her comrade's side, hands flying up to cover her mouth. Padmé's attentions, however, had already shifted to the stricken head-of-state standing in the doorway, two bodyguards occupying either side of his stunned figure. 

-

It was hard to determine exactly how much time passed while Ahsoka and Rex traded looks of growing trepidation over Anakin's slumped shoulders, before sudden sounds of commotion – or… combat? – boomed out from what they assumed was the vestibule's direction. The guard standing at the door started into awareness, blaster poised. 

”Technically, we're not doing anything,” Ahsoka pointed out, earning a glare from the man, who darted toward the door – 

– which then slammed open, clearing the way for Governor Vizsla to tumble headlong over the threshold, and throwing off the guard for just one critical moment – 

– before both men were blasted in quick succession with the dull blue of stun. Into the room then sailed a beautiful, fair-haired woman, the distinct look of exasperation on her face as she tucked her blaster into its holster and carefully stepped over Vizsla's unmoving torso. As soon as her eyes fell on the prisoners, she whirled back around and called into the vestibule, ”Obi, I found them.” Getting only combat noises in response, she pinched her eyes shut and added, ”Okay, that's quite enough of… that.” 

Ahsoka's already considerable relief reached a new, incredulous level when none other than Grand Master Kenobi stepped into the dining hall. ”Quite so, my dear,” the Jedi legend scoffed in reply. ”Enough, as in requisite amount. No more… and no less.” 

The woman shook her head in what appeared to be annoyance, not tearing her glare away from the Jedi until the entrance of Kix and Fives called for them both to step aside. While the clone troopers went about rounding up and restraining the hostiles, the remaining two ran over to the prisoners, the woman introducing herself as 'Satine' in passing.

There was, Ahsoka observed, a sudden urgency to the Grand Master's normally-so-stoic manner as he moved behind Anakin to untie him. Her own Master had, by this point, fallen into a sort of vacant, unheeding silence, though his eyes appeared to have regained some of their usual clarity. 

”Grand Master Kenobi,” Ahsoka greeted politely, but the man didn't so much as lift his gaze until she went on, ”Before, you uh – proceed with that –”  

”Yes?” 

”Uh, I guess… watch your fingers.” 

Master Kenobi raised an eyebrow at that, though he appeared to forget about the ominous warning as soon as Anakin was free and the process passed without incident. Anakin rasped out, ”Don't you have younglings to lecture, or something?” 

The Jedi Master chuckled. ”That depends. Have you been misbehaving?” 

”Oh my – oh, my dear –” All heads turned in Satine's direction. Having freed Rex, she'd pulled a small holo device from her pocket and was now staring at the screen, wide-eyed. 

”What is it?” Master Kenobi asked with a frown. 

”A-a news notification,” the Duchess stuttered, a shaky hand hovering over her mouth. ”But that's not – oh dear. I mean – it can wait. Is everybody alright?” 

-

Seeing the corpse – and it very much looked like a corpse, as opposed to anything else – the bodyguards seemed to make a lightning-quick assessment of the situation, before raising their blasters and training them toward the newly freed Senator. 

”Chancellor Organa,” one of them was saying, ”it isn't safe. Run, we'll alert the security.” The Chancellor stood frozen to the spot, mouth agape and eyes transfixed by the scene – no doubt mirroring the expression on Padmé's own face. A numbing coldness settled into her chest. This was it. This was really happening.  

Time seemed to slow down, yet zoom past, compressing into a single moment all at once. The Chancellor took a wary step in Padmé's direction, only to be halted by one of his protectors, who seemed to give some sort of signal to his companion. On this cue, the other guard grabbed Organa tightly by the arm, making as if to escort him away. By this point, however, Dormé seemed to have drawn her own conclusions on the situation, among them the suspicion that to let the pair leave would inexorably result in dire consequences for her mistress, and the same reflexes that had once gotten the better of the Chosen One himself now kicked into action.  

Whether or not Dormé was operating under the false belief that her blaster was set to stun – as it thankfully had been that time – Padmé would never know for certain. But as soon as the lethal bolt of energy left the barrel, to dart across the air and straight through the forehead of the guard protecting Organa, while his assassin barely flinched – the answer became pretty clear. Organa seemed to lose balance from sheer shock and toppled over to his hands and knees. 

In retaliation, a nanosecond too slow to be simultaneous, the other guard shifted his target from Padmé to Dormé and fired – only, a handmaiden's reflexes once again proved superior when Hollé now launched into motion, taking the blaster bolt meant for Dormé square in the chest. Padmé screamed out, but Dormé once again was both less than fazed and quick to react, and no sooner had Hollé's lifeless form hit the floor than still another bolt had found its way through her killer's brain. 

It was at this point that Organa, with a final, horrified look at the four bodies and the two still-alive women, clambered to his feet and sprinted from the doorway, blue cape sweeping, into what Padmé could only assume was a corridor leading to an eventual exit. Dormé made as if to give chase, all flowing fire and glimmer, only to be halted by a sudden command to, ”Stop! Dormé, stop!” 

Padmé had gotten to her feet, heart pounding, head spinning. She made sure to inject a Force-suggestion into her voice when she ordered her handmaiden to, ”Stay here. Stay. Here. Trust me. I'll take care of everything.”  

”Yes, milady,” Dormé nodded along with a glassy look in her eyes. 

-

Fire. The fire had spread everywhere, devouring all in its path, slithering up their legs and licking at their fingertips; blazing flames dancing in the water's mirror, there was no escape, no shelter, and soon there would be nothing at all, nothing but ashes left,

Spirals of smoke rose to the starry skies as the merciless infernos raged,

The crowds screamed as the fire swallowed them up, burned them to cinders, and they screamed and they screamed and they screamed –

-

Ripped, fiery hems billowed behind Padmé as she raced into the corridor in pursuit of the Supreme Chancellor of the Republic. The freighter was a standardized model that was easy to navigate through, and she caught up with Organa just outside the ship, on what appeared to be a fairly deserted patch of the rose-lined shore. From the center of the island, the faint sounds of music and merrymaking could be heard. 

The Chancellor was shouting distraught words into his wrist-comm, quickly trading the device for a blaster of his own when he caught sight of his pursuer. From his transmission to presumably the island security, Padmé caught her own name and the declaration 'Senator Clovis is dead… murdered.'  

”Don't move!” Organa ordered, both hands extended and clasped around his blaster. Suddenly his voice was calm and regal and icy like the majestic mountaintops of his homeworld. Even so, the eerie glow of moonlight betrayed the utter horror etched upon the man's features. 

Padmé's hands flied up toward the star-sprinkled sky. Her Force skills might be patchy, but – 

- freezing a shot mid-air was entirely too easy when she saw it coming from lightyears away. With one flick of her hand, she then swept the hapless bolt aside, saw it flash on the water's reflective surface before vanishing into the night. Organa took a startled step back, without putting down his weapon. 

”A stun bolt,” Padmé observed belatedly. ”How very Alderaanian.” A part of her wished she might say the same of their respective protectors. But there was no looking back now. 

”Senator,” Organa uttered, shaky but stern. ”I – I don't understand…” 

Padmé's gaze dropped to the grass. Her arms now hung passively at her sides, but the cosmic power gathering around her fingertips was as mighty and fearsome as ever. They'll know exactly what I want them to know. They, as in Organa, and whomever he'd contacted – all she'd have to do was wait for them to arrive, and then – 

No. Too messy. Too many bodies. Too many witnesses to whatever had gone down between her and Clovis at the party. The bastard had been right. This time – they would know. The universe would know. She could not hypnotize the universe. She could not kill the – 

”I don't particularly need you to understand,” she replied. Her hands balled into fists, shivering with… what could only be anger. She'd been so close. So close to burying her past, so close to conquering her demons. So close to… making things right. For her, and for the Galaxy. 

But even in death, Clovis was mocking her, dragging her through the very dirt of his grave. Even in death… Clovis had won. 

”Your campaign is over, Amidala.” 

Padmé tilted up her gaze, glaring at Organa from under her brow. Distantly, her Force senses could pick up the sound of approaching footfalls; two, three… four anxious presences coming to their Chancellor's rescue and a homicidal Senator's arrest. 

You could wrap the Galaxy around your finger… yet you busy both hands with your backyard garden. 

Organa maintained his combat-ready stance, if only for the illusion of protection. Padmé privately scoffed. He'd seen a neat party trick, but he could not remotely suspect  – he could not even begin to imagine just what she could do. At this very moment, she held power over his life and death. She specialized in politicians. Organa was one of the good ones, but it wouldn't be the first time she killed for… convenience.  

You could be great… yet you choose to be trivial. 

The frantic sound of rustling reached her ears. Shadows moved in the periphery of her vision. The cavalry was here. It really was over – it was all over for her. 

You're not ambitious enough. 

The dark fire in her soul lit anew, its previous, contained chill growing steadily warmer… wilder. No. She had not come this far only to fall from grace. She could feel the flames rushing into her veins, rippling through her body to her fingertips. She closed her eyes – and saw it. The Isle of Light, illuminating the Alderaanian night one last time.  

”Perhaps. But my reign has only begun.” 

-

He was embracing the universe itself. He saw the stars, he saw distant suns and galaxies. He was falling freely, screaming with rapture and with horror. He was shivering with cold, yet ablaze with fire; lost in the void, yet suffocated by crowds. The world around him lit aflame and burned away to ashes, before a great wave hit and the ashes dispersed, sprouting new life from beneath the surface.

Chapter Text

”Medically, the General is completely healthy. No fever, no bodily symptoms to speak of. He does seem… shaken, but you hardly need me to tell you that.” Kix shrugged, lips quirking in a resigned grimace. ”He doesn't appear to retain much memory of the incident, but my guess would be, either he had some kind of a prolonged seizure… or this is a Force thing. And the latter, well, I'm not the expert on.” 

Two self-proclaimed experts immediately shifted where they stood. 

”I would like to speak to him –”

”Let me go talk to him –”

The pair turned to face each other in surprise. 

”Oh, you go first, Master Kenobi – I mean, obviously,” Ahsoka offered graciously. 

Master Kenobi frowned at her. ”Something on your mind, Padawan Tano?”

Ahsoka bit her lip. Of course the living legend would see right through her, sense that there was more to the story than a Padawan's natural concern for her Master. 

Unconsciously, her gaze wandered to Duchess Kryze, currently in the middle of an intense-sounding holoconference at the other end of the vast dining hall. She had broken the devastating news from Alderaan directly after Kix had taken (forcibly dragged) Anakin back to the ship to be examined. As a rather jarring result, the doctor and patient remained blissfully ignorant of the events, while the rest of them were still processing the dumbfounding shock of it all, sort of surreally aware of the fact, but not really comprehending it. 

Or maybe that was just her, not that it really mattered – if she couldn't fathom that the entirety of the Galactic Senate had just gone up in flames on Alderaan, how could she possibly hope to explain the actual crazy part of all this? 

”Ah… no… it's just…” 

It's just that, you know that thing we were just talking about? With the island and the fire and hundreds of dead politicians? And you know how Chancellor candidate Padmé Amidala was among the survivors, and also a very good friend of General Skywalker? So, funny coincidence… while the fire was happening on the other side of the Galaxy, and we were busy getting captured over here, right? Well, at one point, General Skywalker's body temperature shot up to literally scalding, and in his feverish delirium he also mumbled out Senator Amidala's first name. Weird, right? But I mean, you know. Padawans and their conspiracy theories…

What ultimately stayed her tongue, Ahsoka was not entirely sure. Sure, it all sounded utterly ridiculous even to herself, but she was not afraid to look ridiculous at times.  

Though… there was one thing that kept popping into her head, in distant flashes and echoes: the press conference at the beginning of the election season, where her Master had dragged her as part of his 'disguise.' She recalled with clarity the uncharacteristically stern tone he'd used when warning her not to make a scene, reminding her that both he and Amidala were controversial figures because of their involvement in the inception of the war. She remembered the genuine concern on his face when Amidala seemed to have some sort of panic attack, his chasing after her when she'd bolted off the stage. 

Ahsoka had always just quietly assumed that much like the rest of the Galaxy, she did not know the whole truth behind the world-shattering events on Mandalore, nor did she care to. The Anakin she knew was enough. The affection, trust and respect the Master and Padawan shared; it was enough for her. 

And now, when there was somehow another cataclysmic disaster involving the Senator… for her to suggest that Anakin was in any way connected to it when he wasn't even there? It just didn't sit well with her. Something was amiss, that much was clear… but she just didn't feel right about going behind her Master's back and poking a blind finger into one of the most sensitive areas in his life. 

But then, she didn't really feel right about keeping silent, either. 

”I just wanted to add… since you weren't there, Kix,” she finally said, looking away from Master Kenobi. ”I mean… I don't know what Master Skywalker told you, but from where I was standing it looked like – like he was maybe suffering from some kind of hallucinations. You know. If that helps to narrow down the diagnosis.”

Kix gave an appreciative nod, only to proceed to shake his head uncertainly. ”As I said, this might be outside my area of expertise.” 

Master Kenobi stepped up and placed a sympathetic hand on Ahsoka's shoulder. ”I am sorry to override you like this, young one, but I'd better make sure your Master is doing alright before I give him back to you.” 

Ahsoka was was quick to reiterate her deference, ”No really, it's okay, Master Kenobi. Tell him I said hi.” 

The more she thought about it, the more ludicrous the whole thing sounded in her head, anyway.

-

Obi-Wan all but stumbled back from the utter chaos that hit him in the Force when he stepped into the medbay of the mission transport. It wasn't even the usual, expected chaos that seemed to follow his former student everywhere he went, like his own personal stormcloud – no, there was a method to this madness and layers to the disarray. It was almost as though he had undergone several separate bouts of distress interspersed with moments of relief – only to land in a vague, numbed place in between. 

At least, that was the story that seemed to be floating around the room in residual bits and pieces, while the truth remained locked behind the shields that slammed into place around Anakin's head when Obi-Wan entered. Though, the Jedi Master did glimpse the datapad that Anakin quickly put away as he came over to his bunk. 

”Your Padawan says… uh, 'hi', I believe it was,” he greeted wryly, taking in the ostensibly vacant expression that seemed to have been glued over his Padawan's features in haphazard strips and slivers. 

”Master,” Anakin rose up from the bunk, only to be gently pushed back down by Obi-Wan. Words poured out of his mouth in a rapid, but at the same time mechanical manner, like he was reciting a pre-rehearsed speech, ”I want you to know that I take full responsibility for what happened. This was my fault, our capture was my fault, and if you hadn't come to our rescue…  I can't even bear to think what could have happened to Ahsoka, or Rex for that matter. I – there's just no excuse. I'm sorry.”  

Obi-Wan drew a breath to respond, before Anakin hastened to add, ”Kix suspects some kind of seizure. He said it could have been triggered by stress, or lack of sleep, or – or – he said electric shocks can make you vulnerable –”

Obi-Wan pinched the bridge of his nose, holding up a hand for silence, ”Anakin, please. One thing at a time,” he urged, though he felt a headache coming on just thinking about how many things there were, each of them almost equal in urgency. He gestured at the datapad. ”I take it… you know? About Alderaan?” 

Anakin visibly blanched at the mention of the disaster-stricken Core World, taking a moment to gather himself before speaking. This struck the Jedi Master as odd – they were all shaken by the inconceivable tragedy, but judging by Anakin's reaction, one would think Obi-Wan had just accused him of lighting the fire himself.  

”I – I – yes,” he finally managed, eyes roaming over the sheets. ”Sorry – I'm just a tad –” He trailed off, ruffling his curly mane and shaking his head. 

”Understandable,” Obi-Wan said calmly. Still, for whatever reason he felt the need to push him a little, ”Have they updated the list of survivors?”

”…They have,” Anakin ground out. ”Went up from three… to a whopping six.” Each individual word seemed to take him great pains to get through.      

Obi-Wan nodded in somber acknowledgment, studying the side of Anakin's neck for inability to reach his gaze. ”And have they confirmed whether Chancellor Organa –”

Messy curls whipped back and forth. 

Sighing, Obi-Wan clasped his hands behind his back and set to pace around the cabin. ”The King is dead, like his predecessor before him. Only this time… he took his court with him.” When Anakin opted for silence, he added ruefully, ”Long live the Queen.”

Anakin's gaze snapped up a little too quickly. ”The Queen?”

”Seeing as both female candidates survived,” Obi-Wan explained, ”assuming they still wish to run… we might be looking at a historically short election season.”   

Some of the tension dropped from Anakin's shoulders. He nodded. ”…Yeah.” 

The frown deepened on Obi-Wan's brow as he switched gears for a moment, moving away from this fruitless avenue back to the beginning of their conversation. He opened and closed his mouth a couple of times before speaking. 

”Anakin…” came the wary start, which prompted a slight lift of the head from the boy. ”You know how much I respect you as a student, and – unfortunate as this war may be – as a military leader, as well. Time and again… you have proved yourself as a true Jedi, a fierce defender of peace and an invaluable asset for the Republic… and I could not be more proud of you.” 

The young Knight gave a small, skeptical sort of smile. ”Thank you…?”

”And though you have always been somewhat… danger-prone, I would not, by any means, characterize you as irresponsible, or careless, or neglectful. Quite the opposite. I respect that you have your own, special… flair – your own, unique way of doing things.” 

”But…?”

And in the entirety of your Jedi career, of all the innumerable missions you've been dispatched on… there are only two that I would describe as –” He held up a hand for protest when Anakin opened his mouth. ”No, failure is not the word I'm looking for. There are only two cases that strike me as… abnormal. Bizarre. Entirely baffling.” 

”Uh-huh.”

”One is your first solo assignment as Senator Amidala's security detail.” 

Anakin's eyes wandered away once more. ”…Obviously.”

”The other… is the one we're still on.” 

Immediately Anakin jumped from distracted right back to defensive. ”But –” he spluttered. ”Kix said it was a – Master, I can take a couple of days off if that would put your mind at –”

Obi-Wan held up both hands, ”It was not my intention to reprimand you, nor pass hasty judgments on your health.”

Anakin frowned at him, leaning forward confrontationally and straightening his shoulders. ”…If you have something to say, just say it.”  

It was Obi-Wan's turn to avert his eyes. If only he himself knew what he was trying to say. It was hovering on the tip of his tongue, floating at the edges of his awareness, slippery and elusive. 

And he couldn't help the uncanny feeling that Anakin knew exactly what 'it' was. 

”I hope…” he started slowly, already turning on his heel to leave through the blast door. ”I hope one of these days, we might start being honest with each other.” 
 
The doors whirred open. Behind his turned back, Obi-Wan sensed Anakin shifting uncomfortably. 

”…Me too.”

-

The emergence of a new Republic crisis did not suddenly erase or postpone Mandalore's existing one. There were still terrorist leaders to be interrogated and mysteries to be solved. 

Vizsla, for all his previous bravado, was left with little choice but to talk. And once he did, all the missing pieces of the puzzle suddenly came together to form a crystalline picture. 

The Death Watch was not just working with the Separatists – they were, in actual fact, the Separatists. It seemed that the terrorist group had hijacked the movement not long after Dooku's abrupt death, exploiting the disarrayed state of the Separatist Senate to deftly work their way in and to the top. Vizsla himself had been the first to discern how the Separatist agenda could be harnessed for their own nefarious purposes: cut star systems from the Republic, leave them vulnerable to eventual Mandalorian occupation. 

A good half of the Separatist Senate remained unaware of the infiltration, believing their leader to be none other than General Grievous – a wildly contested figure in his own right, to the point of being never officially recognized by the misled delegates. In reality, Grievous had been but a big, flashy red herring to divert attention from the stealth takeover. 

”We're conquerors, my Duchess,” Vizsla spat across the table, glaring at Satine. ”We've always been conquerors.”

”Some conquerors, indeed,” Satine scoffed darkly. ”Perhaps we might try and conquer our own differences first.”

”Once the true Mand'alor takes the throne, the people will unite,” Vizsla rumbled. ”I will unite them.” 

The Duchess nodded wearily at the restraints around his wrists, ”The only thing you've managed to unite so far is your hands to that table.” 

Vizsla smirked. ”And I suppose you think one stun bolt is enough to collapse our cause? Collapse what we stand for?”

”For now, let us focus on what we're sitting here for, hm?”

-

”I know why he's being so smug,” Satine declared as she slammed behind her the door of the conference-hall-turned-interrogation-room. She looked up at Obi-Wan, who was regarding her quizzically. ”I believe… he's operating under the false belief that when I left my planet, I would have left it in the hands of traitors and turncoats.” A small smile adorned her lips, the kind of smile that was almost dutifully muted by the surrounding circumstances, yet no less lovely. ”And technically,” her smirk turned a little sly, ”he would be correct.”  

Obi-Wan drew back his head, frowning skeptically. ”Wait… isn't this your sister to whom we are referring? The one you left in charge?”

Satine nodded, sighing. ”Yes… and sometimes sisters fight.” She brought a warm hand to Obi-Wan's shoulder and squeezed, as the silent privacy of the hallway echoed around them. ”There's… a lot you have missed, my dearest Obi-Wan. And even more that I couldn't really begin to explain to you, if I tried. Us Mandalorians and our zany Mandalorian ways…”

”Are you sure 'zany' is the word for it?” Obi-Wan wanted to know, in a half-hearted attempt at humor. 

”Well,” Satine amended, ”I think 'Mandalorian' about covers it, anyway.” 

”Yes… that sounds about right.”

Pursing her lips ruefully, Satine slid her hand down Obi-Wan's sleeve before meeting his eyes once again. ”I… I'll be honest, when you turned up at my doorstep, asking me to take this… leap of faith… I wanted nothing more than to smack you across the face and send you flying to orbit.”  

”Spoken like a –”

”True pacifist, yes, I know,” Satine cut in, impatient. Still, her tone was softened by the lopsided smile on her face, ”For once, can you turn down the smart alec and let me finish when I'm trying to make a point?” 

Obi-Wan nodded in wry deference. ”Yes, ma'am.”

”Thank you.” She cleared her throat, squared her shoulders, smoothed her features. ”As I was saying… even after my own sister's betrayal - short-lived as it was - after I'd watched my people tear each other apart for over a year… to even have to consider that my trusted governor could be behind all of this… and to have to hear it from you…” She shook her head, blonde locks swishing at her reddened cheeks. ”I was just… so embarrassed. I spent all this time blaming the Republic – blaming you – when all along, the real threat was coming from within. The real enemy was right in front of my face, snuck into my own family, my own government…”  

”You couldn't have –”

”I know, I know,” she swatted her hands about, ”if Bo didn't know, I couldn't have known.” She shot him a sharp look. ”My point remains unmade.” 

”My apologies.”

”Accepted. I…” Satine brought an unsure finger to her chin, then remained quiet for some time, to the point that Obi-Wan started to wonder whether she'd given up on a point altogether. Finally, she flung her arms to her sides again, straightened her posture, exhaled deeply and spoke, ”As of this moment… Mandalore officially joins the Republic and the war effort against the Conferedacy of Independent Systems. And I, the Duchess Satine, hereby renounce that title for an indefinite period of time and appoint myself as the Senator from Mandalore… effective immediately.” 

Obi-Wan stood stunned, mouth slightly agape. ”S-Satine,” he then stuttered out, ”there is no need to be hasty –”

”No need to be hasty?” Satine echoed, blue eyes burning with resolve. ”Well, there is, however, a rather glaring supply-and-demand problem with Senators at the moment, wouldn't you say?”   

The Jedi Master's mouth remained stuck in that stupefied 'o' shape for a moment longer, before shrinking into a stiff line and murmuring the admission, ”Yes.” He paused for a moment before whispering into the distance, ”It still seems like a nightmare.” 

Satine silently agreed, joining Obi-Wan in absently staring off into the end of the ornate hallway. After a time, she said, ”You know I cannot consult the Force on these matters… but I… I have a strange feeling.” She twisted to catch the Jedi Master's eyes. ”What happened on Alderaan seems too… thorough to be an accident.” A heavy sigh blew past her lips. ”I… I learned a lesson here today, and I learned it at a terrible cost. I would rather the Republic not make the same mistakes as I did.”

”You mean… in regards to the 'real enemy'?” 

”Yes… that is precisely what I mean.”

-

Surely, Her Royal Majesty, Queen Breha Organa of Alderaan was a woman worthy of admiration. Mere hours after her husband's untimely death and the Republic's nosedive into a crisis, here she was, sailing gracefully across the marbled halls of her palace, head held high, without a wrinkle on her pristine white gown or a trace of sorrow on her perfect round face. Rather than hide behind her army or servants and retire into solitude to grieve in peace, she was personally seeing to the needs of the survivors, hosting them at her own home, having blankets brought out and hot drinks served, medical examinations and even trauma counseling provided for those who should need it. 

Even more than Her Highness herself, Dormé's eye was drawn to her handmaidens, scurrying in and out of the room taking orders from their mistress. The blaze of devotion in their eyes, tempered with the professional set of their jaws, the deferential bow of their heads. Surely, this was a woman who inspired loyalty. In another life, Dormé was certain, she would have been happy to serve Queen Organa of Alderaan. Maybe even die for her. 

But in this life, the Naboo native's loyalty belonged to her home, and would remain so forevermore. 

But even before it belonged to her home, it belonged to an individual.

Since the beginning of her service, never once had Dormé questioned the fact. 

Now, she was more certain than ever before. 

”Milady…” Dormé leaned toward the individual in question, sitting beside her on the velvet settee. There was a barely perceptible flinch that shot through her shoulders as the Senator turned her head. ”Please…” the handmaiden began cautiously. ”I do not mean to speak out of line, but…” 

A subtle widening of the eyes. A slight tensing of the body. Dormé glanced around the creamy white hall, making sure of their privacy, before lowering her voice to a whisper. ”I'm not – I'm not blind,” she piped up. Roaring, magnificent fires still danced across her mind's eye. She could still feel it, the warmth radiating from the burning island, she could still hear the screams from far beneath as the engines rumbled to life and they soared to the skies, to safety – ”I know… I know. Though I may not understand how, I know –” 

Her Former Majesty was hardly likely familiar with panic, but there was an urgency to her voice when she cut in, ”Dormé –”

”Please, milady,” Dormé begged, suddenly emboldened enough to lean closer and take her mistress' hand. The Senator glanced down at the unexpected contact, but otherwise did not react. ”I promise this is the first and final time I will ever interrupt you,” Dormé vowed, her voice near-shaking with purpose. ”I fear you may be misunderstanding.”

Senator Amidala stared at her skeptically, but nodded at her to go on. 

Dormé drew a deep breath, ”You know why we're having this election at all. You know why that filthy defector wasn't laughed out of the race long ago.” She saw her mistress recoil slightly at the mention of the late Rush Clovis – who was plenty of other things besides a defector – but nevertheless pressed on, ”You may have had their sympathy, but he always had their vote. Those… burghers, Shiraya have mercy on their souls – they don't vote with their sympathies. They vote with their wallets.”  

The initial wariness on the Senator's face now gave way to realization. ”The banks…”

”Exactly,” Dormé exclaimed. ”The Senate would have seen that plutocrat in office regardless of his policies, or past missteps, all so they could seize control of the true asset here. Clovis was just a stepping stone to mountains of credits and fatter loans and skimpier interest rates. I can't quite decide whether the rich bastard was too stupid to realize it, or actively buying his way in – but I do know one thing.”

Here Dormé paused for emphasis, eyes shining with conviction. Some time passed in anticipatory silence, until Senator Amidala was compelled to prompt her, ”Which is?”  

You – my lady, my Queen – you are different. You care about this Galaxy. You want to do right by the Galaxy. Sometimes… we need to wipe the slate clean in order to –”  

”Dormé…” Senator Amidala tilted her head, retracting her hand from her aide's clasp. They'd been speaking in muted tones for the whole conversation, but now the Senator's voice dropped to a barely audible hiss, ”I didn't kill them to 'wipe the slate clean.' I killed them for me. I killed them to save my own skin.” 

”And if you were going to kill them for anyone, I'm glad it was you.” The handmaiden smiled, meeting her mistress' still-uncertain gaze. ”I've always known you were extraordinary. But you are… you are even more magnificent than I could have possibly imagined.” She narrowed her eyes. ”You do not regret it… do you? You do not regret… doing what you had to do… for you?

Padmé Amidala shook her head. ”No.”  

Chapter Text

Ahsoka knew her Master to possess incredible speed among so many other renowned assets, but she had never seen him move with such hurry as he did now. 

They had only just exited hyperspace to greet a familiar glimmering planet when Anakin emerged from the medbay where he'd been 'resting'. Deaf to the protests of both his doctor and former Master, he proceeded to plant himself like a tree in front of the hatchway, waiting in morose silence as the transport swept through the cityscape of Coruscant to eventually glide into the Jedi Temple hangars. Then, with a wave of his hand, he took the initiative in activating the opening mechanism, rushing out of the vehicle before the ramp had even lowered all the way down. 

”Where do you think you're going?” Master Kenobi shouted after his old apprentice from the hatchway.

At the bottom of the ramp, Anakin whirled around to assume a defensive stance. ”You gave me three days off.” 

”I gave you three days of sick leave,” the Grand Master corrected. ”To spend in the Halls of Healing.”

”I'm an adult,” Anakin objected, ”and a fully fledged Jedi Knight, you can't tell me what to –”

”And since you seem to be feeling better, I'm going to need your formal mission report presented to the Jedi Council without delay.” Anakin opened his mouth to argue, but Master Kenobi motioned at a distinctly uncomfortable Ahsoka, ”If you and your Padawan would both do me the courtesy of following me to the Council Chambers now, we could get this tiresome business out of the way and move on to more pressing matters.” 

Ahsoka had to bite back a wince, brought on by that very special awkwardness at seeing your senior talked down to. From Anakin's stories, she'd just about pieced together a rather interesting relationship between the former Master and Padawan, but this was her first time of witnessing it in action. 

She expected to hear another fiery protest from the younger Jedi, but none came. Instead, Anakin withdrew into silence, eyes lowering to admire an oily footprint on the dirt floor. Then, before long, he raised his head and sighed,  ”Master… I – I just – I need some fresh air. I'll do the report tomorrow. I promise.” 

Ahsoka was about to play the mediator and back Master Skywalker on postponing the report and Master Kenobi on the former's need for bedrest, when to her surprise, the latter yielded, ”…Very well, then. Tomorrow.”   

Anakin nodded in what appeared to be a genuinely thankful gesture, and buzzed right off. Ahsoka turned her head to chance a frown at Master Kenobi, only to find him already distracted by some urgent holo call he needed to take. She saw her opportunity and stole down the ramp in pursuit of her mentor. 

She caught up to him just outside the hangar where he was loitering aimlessly, apparently trying to remember where he'd parked his speeder. Unable to locate the vehicle, he spun to face his student with a surprisingly gentle expression on his face. 

”Maybe we could get some fresh air together,” Ahsoka suggested, plastering on the most charming of grins. ”Combine our efforts and just really hog it up from these suckers.” 

Anakin didn't take her up on her invitation for banter. ”Ahsoka… I'm so sorry I put you in danger,” he offered instead, all softness and heartfelt regret. ”What happened on Concordia was unacceptable on my part.” 

Ahsoka cocked her montraled head. Well, since he was saving her the trouble of broaching the subject…  ”Unacceptable… or just really, really weird?”

Her Master frowned. He twisted halfway around, one foot pointed in the other direction. ”Look… I need some time alone. I'll explain everything tomorrow, okay? Tomorrow.”  

”Yeah, to the Council, I know,” Ahsoka put in before he could run off. ”But, I mean –” She searched for the words, motioning vehemently. ”Shouldn't we talk about it first? You and I, Master to Padawan? Sorry to say, but you put me in danger every day, Master. But you've never… you've never scared me like that.”

The softness on his face stiffened. ”Then I'm sorry I scared you. But Kix said –” 

”I don't care what Kix said!” Ahsoka burst out in frustration, stamping her foot like a youngling. ”I care about you, and I know –” Then the words slipped from her lips, rash and unplanned, ”I know you're hiding something.” 

At that, her Master flinched. He took back a step, straightened his spine. A foreign darkness flashed over his features – a warning. ”You're out of line, Ahsoka,” he informed her icily.” I suggest you go to your quarters.”

”And I suggest you tell me what's really going on!” Ahsoka shot back in spite of herself.  

”Alright,” Anakin barked in response, the coolness in his voice heating up by the second, ”then I order you to go to your quarters and suggest you think twice before ordering your Master to do a damn thing!” 

Ahsoka fell silent, to find herself doing exactly that. Anakin sighed out yet another apology, his anger seeming to dissolve to the wind as quickly as it had erupted from the volcanic cores of Mustafar. ”I didn't mean to yell at you. I'm sorry.” 

”Okay…” Ahsoka muttered, fidgeting with her fingers. ”Then, I guess… see you tomorrow.”

”Yeah.” Her Master spun on his heel, only to take a few paces before whirling around again. ”Oh, and… back on Concordia? Artoo said – he said you were doing a great job.” 

With that, he turned his back once more and vanished. 

-

”I'm afraid we're going to have to ask you to leave. This is not at all –”

”Senator Amidala, has the interim Senate been formed? Who's leading it?” 

Dormé clicked her tongue in frustration as another microphone stuck out from the gaggle of reporters, swatting it away from the Senator's nose. She and Moteé and Ellé had their hands and elbows full trying to cut a path through the band of vultures and keep their mistress from getting crushed before reaching the street entrance to 500 Republica. The handmaiden couldn't help but glance skyward and wonder if they'd had an easier time bulldozing through the swarm of ships that had gathered around the veranda, instead. 

”We're at war without a governing body,” a particularly observant journalist enlightened them. ”Are we kriffed, Senator? I mean, we're toast, right?” 

”Senator, how did you escape the fire? Couldn't you have saved more people?” 

”Senator Amidala, you seem to have a knack for narrowly escaping –”

”Narrowly escaping your extremely mistimed and redundant questions, good sirs and madams,” Dormé snapped at the clamoring reporters, spreading her arms in a repellent gesture. ”The Senator just got back from three separate press conferences and her answers are being broadcast on every single holoscreen in the city as we speak –” 

”Yes, however –”

”– Which you would know if any of you had a shred of credibility as a media outlet. Good day and goodbye.” She reached for the keypad beside the door while Moteé shielded the Senator from a holorecorder.

”What do you make of the rumors that –”

”I don't think you could hear her answer either way if you're as deaf as you seem,” Dormé retorted, guiding her mistress through the doorway. ”Senator Amidala is understandably exhausted and now hopes for some time to reflect on these devastating events in the privacy of her home. Which all of you are trespassing on. Vacate the premises or we'll call the authorities.” 

”Senator Amidala –”

-

”What have you done?”

In the center of Padmé's living room stood a Jedi Knight with a grim bearing, which might have been more alarming had it not also been her husband. Which might have been more of a relief had he greeted her arrival with an embrace and not what very much sounded like an accusation. 

”Moteé, Ellé, forget about the bath and take the rest of the day off.”  

The two handmaidens gave quick bows before excusing themselves, leaving their mistress and their senior colleague alone with the unexpected visitor. Padmé narrowed her eyes for a better look of the apple of her eye. Anakin Skywalker did so often carry that ruggedly handsome look and he carried it very well – but there was a difference between rugged and some unholy combination of sleep-deprived, agitated and vaguely menacing. She could sense Dormé tensing beside her as he advanced on them with slow, intimidating steps. 

Anakin merely scoffed at the handmaiden's presence. The light streaming through the blinds fell in streaks over his dark robes. ”So that's how it's going to be?” he sneered. ”'Whatever you have to say to me, you can say to both of us?'”  

Padmé drew a breath to reply, but Dormé was quicker, ”Yes, I'm afraid that's the deal… Mr. Amidala.” 

”Dormé,” Padmé admonished her aide, even as her eyes remained on her husband. Drained from travel and debriefing, her brain was working sluggishly - she had a hard time processing that he was even there, never mind that this was hardly turning out to be the reunion she had been looking forward to. 

”You're back from Mandalore,” she observed neutrally.  

Staring right past her, her husband's eyes were still fixed on Dormé. His jawline stiffened as he tilted his head at her. ”Does she know?” he demanded. ”She knows… doesn't she? Doesn't she?" 

”Ani, what's going on? Are you alright?” Padmé deflected his questions, despite the fact that she wasn't stupid – and was starting to suspect that Anakin wasn't, either.  

”I don't want to play any games,” he growled.   

”Then don't!” 

Her husband's features hardened, from stone to steel. The very air in the room seemed to grow chilly as he now stopped in his tracks, lowering his gaze. And then, when he did look up again, the steel on his face seemed to have cracked and splintered into pieces, like mosaic. And the other thing that now cracked was his voice, ”You killed them. You… you killed them. Everyone on that island… you… you killed them all. ”

Padmé's heart skipped a beat. Her mouth missed a breath. He was not dumb, alright. But then… her brow curled in a frown as she studied the deeply shaken man before her. Maybe he was being just a little bit too smart?

”Why would you say something like that?” she asked him. She felt Dormé shift into readiness beside her, arm flying up to hold back her zealous friend. 

”Because I was there!” came Anakin's explosive response, tearing forth from the bottom of his lungs. Padmé drew back instinctively. Behind her outstretched hand, Dormé seemed to do almost the exact opposite. ”I lived it!” her husband roared on, fists shaking. ”You set me on fire, you – you killed me, like you did everyone else!”

Padmé's mind drew a blank. She opened her mouth to respond, but nothing came out. Until, ”Well, for a burn victim and a dead man, you do look remarkably handsome.”

”You think this is funny?” he demanded, his towering figure already throwing a large shadow over the two women. 

”Well I think it's a – Dormé, no!” 

Even a direct order from her mistress could not stop the weapon that the handmaiden had already drawn and leveled at the perceived threat. But the threat himself was more than up to the challenge. In an eye-eluding second, the blaster was wrenched from Dormé's grip and went whizzing across the air to land in Anakin's palm with a neat thwack. The Jedi did not so much as flinch as he held eye contact with his would-be attacker while crushing the weapon with his bare hand. The two women could only stare as small pieces of metal and machinery sprinkled from his closed fist to the floor. 

”Five minutes,” he observed sardonically, bobbing his head at the stunned handmaiden. ”Must be a personal record of yours.”

Sudden fury erupted in Padmé's chest, and she whipped around to fix her aide with a death glare worth a thousand sentences. ”Get the hell away from my husband,” she hissed through her teeth. 

”But, milady –”

”Do not 'milady' me!” she yelled in the young woman's face, pointing to the door. ”You need to leave, right now. Right now.”

Dormé dallied for a moment, taken aback by the supposed unfairness of the situation. Then, without much more ado, she submitted to her mistress' wishes and took her leave with a bow. The door whacked shut behind the light-footed aide, leaving the husband and wife well and truly alone now.  

Padmé had no time to ruminate on the dilemma of Dormé, the most loyal and the most wilful of her handmaidens, before Anakin offered his own sentiments, ”Timeout now, business as usual tomorrow?” 

”What?” 

Anakin took a step over the pile of broken metal, still speaking in those strange, darkly amused tones that didn't suit him at all, ”Oh, I've seen the way she worships you, like you're some – some deity – like she's your follower or something, or - or a disciple.” He shook his head back and forth - only to freeze abruptly when a look of sudden realization came over his face. ”Did she make you do it?”

Padmé looked up at him in confusion. 

”It was her, wasn't it?” Anakin rambled on, eyes gleaming with what looked like the beginnings of some kind of mania. ”She pushed you over the edge. She made you do it.”

For a while, Padmé just stared up at her husband, at his gorgeous features contorted in a look of feverish conviction. Then, unable to form a response, she closed the distance between them and reached up to take both his hands. ”Anakin, please. Please, stop.

He made no resistance when she tugged him along and led him across the living room to one of her ample couches. She gently sat him down, like a trainer would a half-domesticated beast. Then she looked into his eyes and whispered, ”She did no such thing. It was me. I killed Rush Clovis, and Bail Organa, and everyone on that island. I burned them all to ashes… with my own two hands.” 

He did flinch back now, just a little. But his expression had softened – into one of curiosity, almost. Padmé narrowed her eyes at the creature she had so easily tamed. Then a horrible thought struck her and her stomach lurched. 

”Are you recording this?!” she demanded, remembering with a sudden jolt the vultures gathered outside. She jabbed her arms forward, patting her palms all over Anakin's sweaty robes in search of the offending device. 

No, of course not!” he gasped, pushing her hands away. ”How can you even say that?!”

Padmé tilted her head, flashing a joyless smirk. ”Can you really blame me?”

Her supremely poor choice of words only registered as Anakin scowled at her, the beast within rearing its head once again. But Padmé never saw the teeth before the elusive animal once again slipped into hiding and a far more docile life form came out in its stead. ”It was no hallucination,” he murmured under his breath. ”It really happened.”

”Anakin… why are you so shocked?” His eyes snapped up to gape at her, incredulous. She took a deep breath and squeezed his flesh hand with her own, feeling it stiffen under her touch. Then she pushed on, ”Why are you putting yourself through this again?” 

He still did not understand. A small, cynical smile flirted with her lips when Padmé, then, answered her own question, ”You're still hung up on her.”   

Anakin scowled. ”'Her?'” 

Padmé nodded several times before responding, as the truth of the matter only now began to dawn on herself as well. ”Her. Padmé.” She could not help but draw some amusement from the look that spread on his face before she deigned to clarify, ”Your perfect, pure fairytale princess who can do no wrong. Your beautiful angel. Padmé. Your Padmé.”

”I – I'm not –” Anakin stuttered, shaking his tousled head. ”What are you even saying?”

”You never really…" Padmé took some time to mold the words on her tongue. "You never really made peace with it, did you?” She captured his eyes, those baby blue beauties, and did not let go. ”You could never wrap your head around any of it. You couldn't bear the truth of what I was… so you clung to a fantasy. You could not digest that you fell in love with an extortionist and a serial killer… so you married a memory. A perfect, rose-colored memory of that girl you met in the junkshop –”

”That's not even –” 

”Yes, it is.” The words were pouring out of her now like a long-awaited rain season after a dry spell, a thunderstorm breaking out after a lukewarm calm. ”But you don't… you don't even see it, do you? You don't see… me. You never had to. You could always turn a blind eye to everything I'd done… because you were never there. Everything that I told you about my past… all those people I killed, or whose minds I violated… to you, it was… all so distant. Abstract. Because you were never there.” Clipped sounds sputtered out of her husband's mouth as he tried to cut in again, to no avail. ”Because you were there when that would-be Sith attacked me, you were there when Dooku threatened me. You were there when I fled the stage at that first press conference.” She leaned in closer to him, lowering her voice to a whisper, soft and thin as an after-storm mist. ”To you… I was always the damsel. Vulnerable… helpless… yours to save and to protect. Protect from Dooku, and Rush Clovis, and even the Jedi –”

”Padmé –”

She felt her grip tightening on his hands, the blaze in her eyes growing ever more intense as she bored into his. ”Except… on some level, you did know the truth. Only, you couldn't attribute it to me. So you projected it all on my handmaiden, of all people. You could not stand that I was a Sith, so you had to make Dormé the root cause of all evil.”

”Padmé –” He pulled back his hands ever so slightly without extracting them from her hold.

”And even now – you still refuse to look me in the eye and see me for who I really am.” She held his gaze – offering him an opportunity. ”A criminal. A murderer. Everything you've devoted your life to destroying –” 

”Padmé, stop!” 

Anakin snatched his hands away. The echoes of his plea rang through the room, shaky and anguished. Padmé caught the turmoil in his eyes. And stop, she did.  

Looking pointedly away from each other, the husband and wife fell into a long, pensive silence. A pang of self-reproach sprang up in Padmé's gut. She'd pushed him too hard. 

But even then, she stood behind her words. They'd needed to be said. 

At length, her thoughts drifted back to the start of their confrontation, to the apparent cause of it. Growing tired of the silent treatment, she used this as a pick to poke at the ice that had formed between them, ”What did you mean… by saying that you were there?” She heard layers of fabric rub together as he shifted. ”When I –”

”The Force,” came his curt answer. 

She twisted around to stare at the back of his neck. ”Well, that is… really quite extraordinary.”

His shoulders moved. ”So is pyrokinesis.”

Another long bout of silence threatened to swallow them whole. But then, quite abruptly, Anakin surged to his feet, fists balled at his sides. His eyes seemed to spark with conviction as he looked down at her.   

”You think my love has blinded me,” he stated in a strong, unwavering voice. ”But you're wrong. I do… I do see you.”

Padmé blinked up at him as he continued to loom over her, digging his heels into the floor, as though for moral as well as physical support. She let out a small sound, one of dubious acknowledgment, before asking rather wearily, ”So what do you intend to do?” 

He stood silent, taking a sudden interest in the patterns of light and shadow adorning the floor. 

”Turn me over to the Jedi Council? Kill me, like the prophecy dictates?” She stood up from the sofa and came up close to him. Gingerly, she lifted a conciliatory hand, brushed away a tuft of curly hair from his face before pressing it flush against his cheek. He neither recoiled from nor leaned into the touch. 

She whispered, ”Anakin… we've been through this. You can't do it.” Their gazes once again locked, the passions hidden within sizzled across the air in an electric reaction. Her fingertips ran up and down his cheekbone in soft motions. ”In the end… it doesn't matter if you married a fantasy. It doesn't even matter if you love her and not me. Maybe… that's just it. You love her so much, you can't get enough. You can't get enough, because she is not real. So you make do with me.” 

She put her free hand on the nape of his neck, gently pulling him closer, while standing on her tiptoes to further close the distance between them. The closer she got to his face, the harder a time he seemed to have arguing her points. Their lips finally met in a kiss, a kiss that started uncertain and tentative and probing, before slowly deepening into one of comforting familiarity.

And before long, the illusion of the safe and the familiar too melted away, and the Sith and the Jedi waded hand in hand into murky waters, as the most passionate of lovers and the most perfect of strangers. 

Chapter Text

”Pardon me. This is… a little difficult for me. She is my former Queen as well as my former employer.”

”We understand. Please, take your time.”

”… I always felt that something… was a little off with her. Or not with her, necessarily – but in our professional relationship, as employee and employer – protector and protectee.  

”Senator Amidala does have a reputation of being fiercely independent, as well as courageous, to the point of recklessness. From my uncle, I – long story short, I knew what I was getting into. And I'm of course well aware that in her line of work, the Senator would handle highly sensitive and classified information on a daily basis, information that I have no business so much as overhearing and forgetting, much less knowing. So, at first, when she only seemed to require my services in certain contexts – public events, for the most part – I didn't think much of it. She did seem to prefer the company of her handmaidens, which I thought might be a holdover from her regal days. And I got full pay, of course… but I… well, let us simply say that I often wasn't as familiar with her daily schedule as I would have liked. But I tried to rationalize it - not to be too overbearing or egotistical. Who was I to question her wishes? 

”However… in hindsight, it really shouldn't have surprised me as much as it did when she let me go after the… uh, culmination of the then-Padawan Skywalker's protection mandate. I – it's none of my business, but I understand the two have remained close friends. So, I… I'm afraid I cannot be of much further help to you, gentlemen. I cannot testify against her as I really don't know anything, I'm ashamed to say. But I now realize… I cannot vouch for her character, either. It pains me to say… my own words sound treasonous to my ears… but I can only give my support and endorsement to this investigation, as I agree that one might well be needed.”

”Thank you, Captain.”

”…There's one last thing.”

”Yes, Captain?”

”While I was employed by Amidala… I… well, at the time, I thought I was just being paranoid, imagining things. But… at times, I could have sworn… I had these… holes in my memory. I thought I was getting old, getting sloppy… But ever since I left her service, my memory has been… fine. This – this could be wholly irrelevant, it was probably just the stress of the job… but I thought I'd mention it.”

”…Yes… thank you, Captain.” 

-

She was still the most beautiful woman in the world. And so innocent and angelic in her sleep. Rich brown curls cascaded upon her bare shoulder, falling up and down with her soft breaths. Long, dark lashes sealed her eyes shut; full, rosy lips tempted Anakin to inch closer, wake his wife up with a kiss.  

Such was the magic of those lips, even now as he quietly wondered whether he'd ever been less excited about the prospect of either kissing or waking her. Less desperate to hear the sound of her voice. Her lips would still be soft and fierce and perfect. Her voice would still be a delicate caress to his ears. But the words she would say in that exquisite voice, the things that would steal from those luscious lips, and the things she would do once all the words were spoken… of those he remained both ignorant and apprehensive. 

”Good morning, gorgeous.” 

And there it was, the most heavenly of tortures and the most hellish of delights. 

It was in silence that Anakin eventually turned away from her, from her hypnotizing amber gaze, and rolled off the bed. He reached listlessly across the floor for his Jedi robes, haphazardly shoving an arm into what he hoped was a sleeve. From behind his turned back, he heard a sleepy scoff. 

”The silent treatment still? Well… I guess the in-between was pretty loud.” 

A faint flush rose on Anakin's cheeks, but he turned his head sideways and pulled a pantleg on. She played as dirty as she made love. And certainly just as audibly. 

He snapped up from the bed and took a few determined steps across the room, before coming to an awkward halt at the doorway.

”I am going to go give my report to the Jedi Council now.”

”About the mission?” 

”Yes… about the mission.” 

He took a couple more paces. Behind him, the sheets rustled. 

”Well, then… see you later, my love.”

Anakin bit his lip, fighting the urge – but in the end, he couldn't stop himself from spinning around and stealing a final look at her. 

And she was perfect. 

-

Of all the people to run into on the majestic steps of the Jedi Temple, Anakin had certainly not expected the seemingly odd pair of Jar Jar Binks and Gregar Typho. 

The two Nabooians spotted him moments after he did them, the spirited Gungan shrieking in delight at the sight of him and running over in raptures, while the dark-skinned Captain was content to approach at a polite speed.

”Ani! Itsa Ani!” Jar Jar rejoiced, flappy ears bouncing as he hugged the Jedi, then pulled back, then hugged him again. ”Muy muy long time, itsa been!” 

”Really has,” Anakin mumbled absently, maintaining a half-hearted smile while he caught Typho's eye. ”Uh… what's going on?” he blurted. ”It's not often that we… get visitors here.” 

Typho cleared his throat with a formal air. ”Master Skywalker. Pleasure seeing you again. Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to discuss the reason for my visit here today.”

”Meesa not know, either,” Jar Jar interjected.

Typho grimaced ruefully, before his gaze grew unexpectedly earnest and he fixed Anakin with a very strange look indeed. ”Although, I would imagine…” he cut himself short with a light shake of the head, the bizarre look gone as quickly as it had come. He gestured to his companion. ”Ah… we should be getting ready for the committee, Representative.” 

”Meesa already ready,” Jar Jar objected, pointing at Anakin. ”Meesa wanna catchy-up with Ani now.”  

Anakin was returning Typho's odd look now, poor Jar Jar getting caught in the middle of a conversation he didn't seem to realize was happening. Some wordless understanding seemed to pass between the two men, before the Jedi snapped back to reality and plastered on an apologetic smile for his old friend. 

”Maybe some other time, Jar Jar,” he lamented. ”I'm actually expected as well. But it was nice seeing you.” 

”Aw,” the Gungan whined, long ears drooping. ”Nice seein' yousa too.”   

”Shall we, Representative?” Typho called from the bottom of the steps. They parted ways with smiles ranging from sincere to strained.

-

Anakin's confusion was soon reinstated when he stepped into the Council Chamber, only to find it empty of all Councilors but one. And of course, it was none other than Grand Master Kenobi. 

”Master…” Anakin called uncertainly, his voice echoing lightly off the walls as he took in the deserted circle of chairs. ”I thought… the report…”

”Ah, there you are,” Obi-Wan said briskly, rising from his seat and coming to meet him in the center of the round room. ”Your Padawan already provided a comprehensive mission report this morning. I was hoping you were –”

He cut himself short just as he reached Anakin. The younger man frowned. Something about his Master's demeanor seemed… odd. That seemed to be going around today.

”Hoping I was what?” he asked. 

Obi-Wan cocked his head, flashing a perfunctory smile. ”I was going to say, 'hoping you were finding some time to rest'. But then I remembered – I was actually going to apologize to you. For speaking so condescendingly to you yesterday.” He put a hand on Anakin's shoulder. ”You are an adult, and perfectly capable of assessing your own state of health.”

The frown deepened on Anakin's face. His Master was hardly the arrogant type, but he wasn't really known to agonize over such trivial matters, either. And had the man not made a whole previous career of speaking to him condescendingly? 

”Uh… that's alright. Really.”

”Just to be clear, you still have your three days of sick leave,” Obi-Wan informed him. ”And, well… if you need space, I understand. With the capture of our secret Separatist leader, the war has finally taken a turn in our favor, and if you need a short breather – well, now's the time to take it.” 

Anakin forced a small smile. He wanted to be grateful, but the whole conversation was striking him as oddly… unnatural, like scene from a poorly acted holodrama. But the moment that he completely lost the plot was when Obi-Wan stepped closer and pulled his Padawan into a hug, in an unexpected repeat of another of their recent encounters in this room. His hand went pat pat pat on Anakin's back.

The Jedi Master pulled away quickly, but not before throwing Anakin for a loop and filling him with a distinct sense of confusion and déjà vu. It wasn't just the sudden openness that he seemed to have adopted in his displays of affection – it was that, in the Force, affection was not the only thing Anakin felt. Compared to the unadulterated, pure fondness that Anakin had sensed in Jar Jar when they had hugged outside, this was a jumbled mixture of feelings. Among them – the Grand Master was shielding well, but not well enough – a sense of guilt?

Are you recording this?

Gasping, Anakin reached behind his back with both hands. He swatted his palms over the layers of fabric – finding nothing, at first, besides a sudden look of concern on his Master's face. And then his fingers stumbled upon it. Thin as a breath of air, but there nonetheless. 

”Did you just bug me?” 

Obi-Wan had no time to respond before Anakin had already yanked the nasty thing off. Open-mouthed with shock, he held the minuscule device in front of his Master. Obi-Wan stood there stupidly, the color of his cheeks matching his linen. 

”Anakin…”

”I don't –” Anakin stuttered, stopping to draw incredulous breaths as he felt his fist tightening around the piece of synth-metal of its own accord. ”What is this? Why would you –”

”Anakin, let me explain,” Obi-Wan hurried to plead. ”We just had a Council meeting – I was outvoted –”

”No, you weren't!” Anakin shrieked, scaring even himself with his sudden rise in volume. ”You – you don't trust me. You –”

”Let me turn the tables on you for just a moment,” Obi-Wan shot back, mustering a sudden composure. He surveyed his student from under a sharp brow. ”You know what this is about, don't you?”

Anakin opened his mouth for a retort, a denial, but none came out. Because he did know.

”Well, in case you do not…” Obi-Wan continued slowly, holding up a placating hand. He hesitated for a while – cleared his throat, let his eyes wander. But the truth had a funny way of remaining one and the same. ”From yesterday afternoon to this morning, Master Windu and I conducted a… somewhat extensive preliminary investigation on one Padmé Amidala.” 

He paused here, holding Anakin's gaze, gauging his reaction. The relative lack of which didn't really seem to surprise him, either. 

”We…” the Jedi Master went on. ”Well, you have investigated her case before… albeit from a - a different perspective. And I still applaud your success. The guilty party was found and… stopped. However… at the time, as you might recall, I introduced you to the idea of Amidala's sensitivity to the Force – such as is indicated in our records – being a potential risk factor in her very public career and… life. I even seem to recall us discussing the idea of her being… dangerous. Which, I believe we concluded at the time, she was not.
 
”That said… there are a few things have caught our attention of late. Her Chancellor campaign, for one thing. And, most glaringly… the extremely shocking and tragic way in which… most of her opponents' campaigns recently came to an end. 

”We… did some digging. Looked into her career, her background… interviewed some people who have known her and worked with her in the past. At first… well, her history seemed fairly immaculate. Her reputation… without blemish. But then… as we looked deeper, and widened our scope… a pattern began to emerge. 

”We found… politicians going missing, dying under mysterious circumstances, stepping down from their positions without explanation. As for the people we interviewed, people who have worked with Amidala for extended periods of time… There were quite a few… recurring details in their testimonies – quite bizarre details, at that. Memory loss was most commonly mentioned. 

”And while we were unable to uncover any hard evidence of any… of anything… well, given the extreme gravity of the recent events and Senator Amidala's close involvement in not one, but two of such world-shattering events within the last year and a half… our preliminary investigation has led us to conclude that our previous records of her have been… inadequate, if not altogether inaccurate. It is… quite possible, if not probable, that she – ”

”Obi-Wan.”

”Let me finish," the Jedi Master huffed impatiently. "I know it was wrong of me to bug you – but you just so happened to be on the extremely short list of Amidala's closest acquaintances at our disposal - and not to mention, you have been acting in a distinctly secretive manner of late, and we needed answers.” The older man's gaze grew stern. ”To paraphrase your own words on Concordia – if you have something to say, now is the time to say it.”

A heavy silence followed the ultimatum. Anakin shifted under his Master's scrutiny, gaze dropping to the floor, for one impossibly long, yet brief moment. But when he did lift his eyes, the scowl with which he met his mentor was not one of hostility.

”I intend to. The reason I came here was to tell you the truth. And the truth is… Padmé Amidala is a Dark Lady of the Sith.” 

-

Obi-Wan Kenobi was not so keen on flying, but for once, he did not seem to mind the absolute hurricane that was hurtling them across the city in the form of Anakin's yellow skyspeeder. He barely seemed aware of the extreme velocity, too engrossed with the barrage of questions that seemed to be tumbling from his mouth on their own. 

”I still don't understand –” he stammered from the passenger seat, hair whisking in the wind. ”Anakin… how long have you known?” 

”Irrelevant,” Anakin snarled, digging his nails into the yoke. ”What's relevant here is that she's extremely dangerous. She is able to conjure lightning and fire with her mind, and…” His words died when a strangled noise, almost a sob, erupted from his throat. Skyscrapers whizzed past as he composed himself, pressing his lips together. ”I'm sorry,” he then whispered, shaking his head. ”I thought – I thought she was my friend. I thought the Jedi were wrong about her. About - about the Sith. But I – the things I saw –”

Steering to a near-empty lane, Anakin whipped around to fix Obi-Wan with a pleading look. ”I don't want her hurt. Please. I only agreed to an arrest. We apprehend her, and that's it. She's - she's not a strong duelist. If we keep her busy, keep her distracted, she won't be able to – we will not have to -”

”Anakin,” Obi-Wan interrupted. ”Are you sure about this?"

The younger man didn't answer, gazing ahead and pretending to be focused on the traffic. 

Obi-Wan sighed, turning to look ahead himself as the familiar landmark of 500 Republica popped into view. ”I think I understand," he murmured. "I promise you, we will only take her into custody. That said, perhaps it would be better if – rather than use you as bait, we -” 

”No,” Anakin growled as he steered toward the building. ”You need me for this to work. You have no idea what you're up against.”

”…Very well then.”

There were still a few reporters gathered around the veranda, but Obi-Wan was able to mindtrick the lot of them away with barely more than a wave of the hand. He stayed behind in the vehicle, head down and hidden, while Anakin leaped onto the ledge and tapped in the code to deactivate the invisible barrier separating him from the apartment proper. 

Barrier gone, he took a few jogging steps across the veranda – then stopped dead in his tracks. Then, he broke into a run again, darting through the apartment's rooms one by one, as he inevitably had to see for himself what the Force had already whispered in his ear. 

”Anakin?” Obi-Wan called from the living room just as Anakin came to a stop in front of his and Padmé's marital bed, covered in a haphazard array of clothes. 

”She's not here.” 

Chapter Text

”I don't trust him,” Mace Windu declared bluntly. Obi-Wan met his stern gaze from the other side the Council Chamber, where the eponymous Council had gathered in both flesh and hologram form. ”I only ever barely trusted him, and in light of these recent… developments…” 

The other Councilors sat silent as Windu's eyes bored into the youthful chief of the Order. Failing to elicit a reaction, the Korun Master let out a hollow huff of laughter. ”Come now, Obi-Wan. Skywalker knew the code to her apartment. It is evident that the two of them are more than just casual acquaintances. Until we come up with a plan to determine Amidala's whereabouts, we need to contain him, and question him –”

”First of all, that's Master Kenobi to you,” Obi-Wan corrected, with such an icy edge to his voice as to make Windu snap back an inch or two. ”And this is the Grand Master's Padawan you're talking about. My Padawan, whom I've trained – whom I've known – since he was nine years old. I beg your pardon – 'contain' him? Anakin sided with us. He –”

”He sided with her first,” Windu pointed out. ”He has known of her identity and kept it from us for Force knows how long. You know what she's done. Skywalker is an accomplice.”

At that, Obi-Wan shot up from his chair. ”That is enough, Master Windu. I have already chosen Anakin as my companion for the coming search mission. Which – naturally – takes top priority over any time-consuming interrogation sessions. There will be time for particulars later.” Displeasure out of his system, the Jedi Master's gaze glazed over in thought. In a lower voice, he continued, ”Anakin may have been blinded by his… well, his attachment," his voice faltered ever so slightly at the forbidden word, ”for a time, but he did his duty as a Jedi and I shall reward that loyalty. There will not be any 'containing' today – apart from any further terrible ideas. This meeting is dismissed.” 

Obi-Wan watched coolly as the Councilors streamed out of the chamber in a beige line, Windu lagging a few steps behind. All the while, his eyes stayed fixed on Obi-Wan, burning with disapproval. Obi-Wan refused to get into a staring contest, lowering his gaze and waiting until the door had closed behind the Korun Master, and then longer still. Then he let out a weary sigh and stretched his neck, aching from all the accumulated as well as freshly emerged stress. 

Deep down he knew, even as he inevitably would pile on the years, that he would never command the same respect as Master Yoda had. And deeper down still he knew he would never deserve it, either. Was he also not letting attachment cloud his judgment, in his fierce protection of Anakin? 

And it wasn't just today, either. As much as the Jedi Master wanted to pretend he'd taken off to Mandalore in order to fix relations with the planet (or heck, even its leader), some part of him knew he'd really been worried about Anakin. Afraid of him being lost to the invincible enemy from Master Yoda's prophecy. The prophecy he still couldn't pretend to understand, and had as much reason to believe as to dismiss as a dying old gaffer's ramblings. 

”I understand. In order to defeat this enemy… he needs help.” 

”No. Not help.”

”Not… help?”

”Close, keep your friends. Closer… keep your enemies.”

But what if Windu was right and Anakin was… compromised? Then, did Master Yoda's words actually mean – that he should not – 

”Master Kenobi?” came a call from behind the door, along with a light knock. 

”Uh, come in,” Obi-Wan urged, straightening out his back. He'd vaguely recognized Ahsoka Tano's voice and Force presence before her montraled head peeked into the room, the rest of the Padawan following close behind.

”Is my Master in trouble?” she asked without ceremony as she came up to him. Her eyes were swimming with concern. ”Please, I did not mean to get him in trouble.” 

She was, of course, referring to the mission report she'd provided from Concordia. It wasn't as though there was any way to make their misadventure sound less strange, but Obi-Wan could tell she had held back at first – and then she had just spilled everything out. Everything from Anakin deliriously uttering the Senator's first name to her having noted before the obviously very close relationship between the Jedi and the politician. 

And indeed, to the rest of the Council, it was her testimony that had tipped the scale in favor of sticking Anakin with a bug, rather than asking him to spy on their newly emerged suspect. And just for a while, the Grand Master had been swayed, as well. 

”I just thought… he might in a pickle… and might need… help, or something.”

”No. Not help.”

Ignoring Master Yoda's intrusive voice, Obi-Wan gave Ahsoka a rueful smile. ”I will not lie, young one. We are in the middle of a most distressing affair, and…” He hesitated for a moment, scratching at his bearded jaw. But then, she had done her duty and he had already promised her the truth. ”Senator Amidala is currently being suspected of some very serious crimes, indeed.”

Ahsoka's hand flew up to her mouth, muffling her gasp. 

”I am telling you this in confidence,” Obi-Wan informed her with a strict tone. He did force a small smile when he proceeded to add, ”However, as far as your Master is concerned, rest assured that he himself is not under any suspicion and his contribution has in fact been of key importance in the ongoing investigation.”

At that, her face cleared. ”Ah… phew,” she sighed in relief, pressing her palms together in a thankful gesture. ”I just – I didn't know –” 

”Would you be so kind as to summon him? I must stress the urgency of the situation, and I'm afraid this Council session stretched on rather longer than I expected.” 

”Yes… yes! Right away, Master Kenobi.”

-

”Well, it does seem that… you are our only hope now, Anakin.” Obi-Wan turned to his former Padawan, surveying him from under his brow. Together, they had been scouring Padmé's apartment for clues of her whereabouts for almost an hour and a half, to no avail. But then, she was something of an expert of covering her tracks. 

”I need you to think, now,” Obi-Wan urged, his own gaze also thoughtful as he gently tossed an old holoprojector onto a nearby sofa. ”If you have the faintest inkling where she might have gone…”

Without such an inkling, Anakin shook his head. ”Her family is out of the question. It's too obvious, and they don't even know about her.”

”You're absolutely sure?”

Anakin nodded vigorously. ”They have no idea. She –” He trailed off when a strange ache gripped at him – a pang of longing, nostalgia. ”And I think, she,” he murmured in a quieter voice. ”She loves them all too much to risk getting them caught up in this.” 

”I see,” said Obi-Wan tonelessly. ”Well, in that case, I think –”

”There is something,” Anakin then blurted out. When Obi-Wan gave him an inquisitive look, he hesitated. He'd spoken without having really brought his own thoughts to conclusion. Silence reigned for a while as he attempted to do just that, staring at a specific fold on the curtains. ”We have – she and I – we have some kind of… connection. I don't know how – I can't really explain it, but it's like… I can feel her. E-even now. I was able to track her on Mandalore a year ago, after I escaped from that bounty hunter she handed me to. And yes, that was her. And not only that…” He bit his lip. ”I – I saw her set that island on fire. I saw her. I was there.

Folding his arms across his chest, Obi-Wan seemed to absorb this information with his usual, analytical tranquility. ”Do you think – if you concentrated, you could –” 

”Maybe,” Anakin mumbled. ”I don't know. Mandalore was instinct and the island… involuntary. I don't know if I can… control it. But I could try.” 

”Yes, please do.”

-

”Well my dear friend, if you've been dying to tell me 'I told you so', I give you permission.” 

Dormé turned her head in the passenger seat, watching as her mistress slumped down on her own, sighing. The gentle engine of her Nubian star skiff rumbled underneath as hyperspace wrapped them in its flashing blues. 

”Do we… know so?” Dormé asked cautiously. The Senator had been all business and urgency when she had summoned the handmaiden for an unexpected extra shift that morning and proceeded to pack her along for an impromptu space voyage, but most of the blanks, Dormé had been able to fill in for herself. 

Still, she had half-expected to find a tied-up Skywalker in the cargo hold this time around too, and only when she had been disappointed in this regard, had she really understood.

”We do know so,” the Senator answered, staring glassily at the ceiling. Her smile turned wistful. ”Anakin and I… we share some kind of connection. I can't really explain it, but…  this morning, when he was leaving… I knew. I knew he what he was going to do.” She bit at her lip, damming behind whatever she was feeling. 

”Milady, I'm so sorry.”

The Senator turned her head. ”Are you?” she questioned wryly. ”I thought you two didn't get along.”

Dormé chuckled. ”But the two of you did.”

Her mistress turned away again, dipping her head in hesitant acknowledgment. Then, she remained quiet for a while, hugging her sides with her arms while continuing to study the pearly texture of the ceiling. After a while, she sighed, ”He didn't even know me.”

”He is going to come after you, though."  

A a small smirk touched the Senator's lips. Dropping her gaze from above, she glanced at the data screen on the dashboard. ”Then… I hope I'll have made him proud by then.”

No sooner had Amidala made this wish than her eyes rolled back in her head and she fainted away.  

-

Padmé Amidala had witnessed many an unsettling sight in her yet short life – and even so, the image of herself, flopped unconscious against the back of her seat while a panicked Dormé shook her shoulders, had to rank very high on that list. It wasn't the scene itself that was causing the unease – it was that she appeared to be observing it from outside of her own body. 

”What…” she gasped, bringing a seemingly corporeal hand to cover a mouth she also still appeared to have. She looked down below, and saw her white combat boots. And then she looked up, and saw Anakin. 

There he stood, flesh and blood – every bit as much as she was, anyway. Catching her eye, the flesh-ghost seemed to react with almost as much shock and surprise as she did.  

”A-a…” Padmé stuttered, taking an instinctive pace back. While the scene transpiring in the front of the cockpit was mute to her ears, her own voice came out as a strange, reverberating echo. But it was only when Anakin took an uncertain step toward her that she felt it – the ripples and tremors traveling across the Force. 

Because, at that moment, he was moving across the Force. He only existed in the Force. And so did she. 

”Padmé…” Anakin finally seemed to find his own, wavering voice, which then dissipated as his gaze drifted to the scene unfolding to their left. Dormé had pulled out a first-aid kit and was frantically rummaging through its contents, while the other Padmé remained comatose in her seat. 

Confusion giving way to resentment, Padmé scowled at the surprise visitor, and before she knew it, resentment had turned into anger and anger into action. Next thing she knew, she had launched at her husband in one flying movement and slapped him hard across the cheek. The apparition turned out to be indeed made of flesh, or at least the Force's idea of flesh, when Anakin's head snapped back, and her own palm was left with a dull sting in the wake of the impact. 

”Backstabber!” she screamed as he cradled his cheek, eyes wide. They stayed like that for a while, Padmé's chest falling up and down in fervent breaths. Staring up into those blue pools of innocence, she could feel her heart melting in her chest. Melting in the way that an overheated furnace would eventually turn on its own inner workings.   

And then she was kissing him roughly and pushing him up against the hatch and pinning his wrists on either side of his head, as he either seemed to put up a struggle or respond with great enthusiasm, or possibly both at the same time. For a heated moment, and for what seemed like much longer, they were a mess of lips and tongues and gasps, as real and solid as the fingers on her hands that had brutally ended so many a worthless life, and were now trapping her traitorous husband's hands against the hard durasteel structure.

When she did inch away, what she saw on her husband's visage was most definitely struggle. ”Why…” he panted out, face screwed with strain. ”Why can't I free myself? I'm stronger… than you!”

”Yes, but this is the Force, where the dark side reigns supreme.” 

”That's not true,” he snarled. Smirking, she tightened her clasp on his wrists, feeling their mismatched shapes tug against her palms. True, it was far more likely that all his Force energies were already being drained by conjuring and maintaining… whatever this was, but her point still stood. 

”Oh, Anakin…” She flashed a spiteful smile, shaking her head, which remained inches away from his own. ”I really did trust you.” 

”You mocked me for not being strong enough…” he panted as he continued twist against her hold, oblivious to the irony. ”… to resist your allure.”  

”So you threw away our marriage just to prove me wrong!”  

”Let me go!” he roared, writhing and wriggling.  

”But you came to me,” she hissed, breath coasting over his lips. ”So live with that decision.”

His struggle ceased at that moment, in ostensible compliance. With a frustrated noise, he ripped his gaze away from hers. It was only when Padmé's own attention was drawn to the front of the cockpit, to the concerned Dormé still hovering over her own unconscious form, that she realized just what he had turned to look at. The data screen on the dashboard. 

”Raxus?” Anakin rasped as he spun back to her, brow creasing. ”You're going to Raxus? The Separatist headquarters?” 

Thrown off for just long enough, Padmé stepped back, releasing her captive. Anakin rubbed his wrists, gathering his footing. His frown hardened. ”What, are you going to kill them, too?” He gave an incredulous chuckle. ”Level the playing field?”

Padmé squared her shoulders. ”I suppose you're just going to have to come and see for yourself.” And yet again, before Anakin could react, she had reached across their shared plane of existence and grabbed him by the collar. ”And do come in person,” she hissed at his face. ”You know – to level the playing field.”

The taste of his lips was the last thing that registered before the world around them grew warped and bent out of shape, as though being sucked into a black hole. And then that very blackness swallowed them both up and Padmé woke up gasping to the hum of hyperdrive and a very relieved Dormé.  

Chapter Text

”Milady, are you sure you're alright?”

Dormé regarded her mistress with worry as she shifted in her seat, holding a hand over her mouth and taking in slow, steadying breaths. Several hours had already passed since the Senator's sudden and inexplicable collapse, and she had eaten, slept and rested in the meantime. But now a new whiteness had spread across her cheeks that had renewed the handmaiden's concerns.

The Senator pressed her hand flush over her mouth, appearing to swallow hard, even as she shook her head in denial. ”I'm alright,” she assured her servant, smiling bravely. ”It's just…” She shook her long curls. ”I guess… what happened with Anakin… it's hitting me harder than I thought. How he thought he could just… profess his lifelong devotion to me one moment and… denounce me the next. It's making me…” Her whole body jerked back sharply as she swallowed again. ”…physically ill, it seems.” 

With a sympathetic smile, Dormé reached under her seat for the first-aid kit that she had already taken out earlier. She flinched back a little as her hands first happened upon a pack of thermal detonators – highly sensitive and deadly, if dormant in their current state. Stowed next to them was the first-aid kit, which she pulled up on her lap. From a large pocket on the inside, she then produced a flimsi bag and handed it to the mildly embarrassed Senator. ”Thank you,” she chuckled, proceeding to place the bag within a hand's reach, determined to power through the nausea. 

”Dormé…” she then began, slowly twisting about to look the handmaiden in the eye. ”We have busy days ahead of us, but make no mistake… Anakin is the one to worry about.” She pursed her lips, and her look grew stern. ”And I want you to promise to me right now that you let me worry about him. The Chosen One is mine. He promised to be mine forever… and mine he is. You are not to so much as touch a hair on his head.” 

There was a flash of gold in her ambery eyes as she held her companion's gaze. Dormé found herself unable to look away. ”You understand?”

”Yes, milady,” Dormé heard herself whispering. ”I understand.”

-    

”She's only got a few hours' head start,” Obi-Wan observed from the passenger seat, gripping its edges as the light freighter under them lurched into lightspeed. Beside him on the yoke, Anakin expertly guided its passage into hyperspace. ”And I know you, if anyone, can get the most out of that hyperdrive,” Obi-Wan added with a fond twinkle in his eye.

Anakin wasn't feeling up to banter. He nodded idly, fingers flicking over buttons and switches as he prepared to activate autopilot. When he did open his mouth, his voice was a low mutter, just barely audible over the engines whirring underneath, ”She knows to expect us now. And again… I warn you not to underestimate her. I have never seen another Force user exhibit abilities like hers.” 

”Lightning, fire…” Obi-Wan listed off with his fingers. ”And this…” He frowned, pausing to think of the proper words as he recalled what he'd gathered from his friend's fragmented accounts. ”…Force hypnosis,” he turned to Anakin for confirmation, which came in the form of an absentminded nod, ”that doesn't discriminate between the Jedi and the layman.”  

Anakin made a pensive hmph sound. He let go of the yoke, resting back on his seat, as his gaze seemed soar out of his body and travel to a place far beyond the flashing blue horizon. ”She used it on me, too, you know,” he recalled. ”And for a long time I thought I was… special, that I was some kind of exception to the rule… because I was able to resist it once.” He scoffed, lips curling up in a cynical smirk. ”But now that I think about it… it's actually far more likely that if you know about it, you become immune to it. Or at least – you're able to fight it.”

”Well… that is comforting to hear, ” Obi-Wan said tentatively. ”Still… let us be on our guard.”

Anakin said nothing. He was still facing away from his companion, staring off into the distance, the wild blues of hyperspace flickering over his features. Obi-Wan tilted his head, surveying him, as the young man silently reflected on thoughts and feelings and pains that his former teacher could only guess at. 

”Anakin…” he finally broke into the long silence. ”In exposing Amidala, you have done a great service to the Jedi and the Republic, and while you may have had your… scruples regarding that decision, we… we all have our growing pains, and I have no intention of punishing you for yours. That being said… I need to know the complete extent of your relationship with her.”

He saw Anakin pull in a deep breath – and just at that moment, Obi-Wan's holoprojector made a sound. 

”Saved by the beep,” Obi-Wan quipped as he reached for the disc-shaped device, ”for now.” 

When the flickering image of Satine Kryze winked into existence on Obi-Wan's palm, he considered retreating into the cabin to take the call. But then, he quickly reasoned, surely there was nothing that the newly minted Senator could have to say to him that she couldn't also say to Anakin. Anakin stole a furtive glance at the holo display, only to swiftly turn away when Satine started speaking. 

”I am told you have left the planet,” the miniature Duchess huffed, foregoing niceties and jumping straight to accusations. ”You certainly picked one hel – highly inconvenient time to abandon a lady.” 

Obi-Wan rubbed a finger across his forehead. ”Yes, you have been told correctly, Satine. My Padawan and I departed from Coruscant this afternoon on very urgent business, indeed.”

”More urgent than, I don't know, putting a Senate together?” she argued, arms folded over her chest. ”I was quite counting on your guidance and assistance. I'm a newcomer in these circles, Obi-Wan! Everyone's paranoid about a coup, I can't just take up the reins and expect everyone to follow my lead!” 

”Satine –”

”I am serious. The news coverage on the Death Watch-Separatist connection was almost drowned out by the tragic events on Alderaan, but the politicians? Oh, they know, and they don't trust me. They think I'm here to declare myself… Empress or something, they probably think I'm behind it all –” 

”Satine, Satine,” Obi-Wan hurried to calm her down. ”We are all understandably distressed by the situation, but now more than ever, somebody has to take charge. And if your fellow Senators are wasting time pointing fingers at imaginary enemies, that responsibility falls upon your extremely capable shoulders. No one has to put on a solo act, no one has to declare themselves Chancellor or Empress or anything of the sort. But someone has to sit those Senators down in their pods and get them back on track. The people need leaders, not scandalmongers.”  

”I'm out of my element,” Satine lamented. ”I feel like an intruder. And we're still at war –”

”Well, not for long… I hope,” Obi-Wan said cautiously. ”The Death Watch is finished, which leaves the remaining Separatist leadership in a position nearly as vulnerable as ours. That only leaves us with General Grievous as our most prominent existing threat. And once we launch a campaign for his capture –” 

He trailed off as he heard himself, exchanging awkward looks with Anakin. The droid general's shadow loomed large and murky over the Galaxy, but obviously he was not the 'urgent business' that had pulled them off planet in this situation. 

Anakin threw him a small nod, as though granting him permission. Obi-Wan gave an appreciative nod back before returning to the call. ”Satine… no doubt you have noticed a rather glaring absence among your ranks. Namely, that of Senaror Amidala, one of the most notable survivors from Alderaan.” 

”Yes…” the Duchess admitted warily. ”We have been unable to contact her.”

”Good… and I strongly advise you to stop trying. There is no time to explain, but Amidala is currently under investigation and is not expected to return to her Senator duties… at any point in the foreseeable future.” Satine drew her head back, quizzically. Obi-Wan chose his next words discreetly, ”You are a smart lady… I'm sure you can put two and two together.”

Even in miniature form, Obi-Wan could see the wheels turning in Satine's head, the shock palpable on her face when it all sank in. ”Yes… I think I can…” she stuttered. 

”The investigation is still ongoing,” Obi-Wan reminded her. ”But please… do keep your eyes open. And contact the Jedi Council at the first sign of trouble.” 

She nodded. ”We shall. And you be careful as well, Obi-Wan. You and your trouble-prone Padawan.” She flashed a good-humored smile before the image winked out. After it did, Obi-Wan found himself still gazing down at the inactive disc for a while, tilting it this way and that, before catching himself and pocketing it away.  

”Trouble-prone…” Obi-Wan heard Anakin muttering beside him, some of his usual humor seeping back into his tone. ”You two seem… close.” 

The Jedi Master shot him a long-suffering look. Anakin shrugged innocently. ”Are you?” 

”Must be having a déjà vu,” Obi-Wan snorted. ”I thought I just asked you that same question about a certain politically inclined lady.”

Anakin's gaze dropped – then snapped up again, an impish grin spreading over his features. ”Okay, make you a deal –”

”No –”

”Oh, I'm sorry,” Anakin snorted, ”did you have other plans for this long-ass hyperspace journey? Would hate to waste your precious Grand Master time with such frivolous pursuits as… talking.” 

Obi-Wan raised his brows, slightly taken aback. He didn't really appreciate the guilt-tripping, but it wasn't as though Anakin didn't have a point. It had been a small eternity since he and his Padawan had found time to just sit down and talk, and a longer eternity still since they had really… connected. Which might have been the most natural thing in the world; just another student outgrowing his training wheels and learning to stand on his own two feet. 

But clearly, their time apart had done nothing but damage to their relationship. By cutting Anakin's apprenticeship short, Obi-Wan had shut him out of his immediate vicinity of companionship and guidance. He'd driven him away and right into the arms of a Dark Lady of the Sith. He'd set himself up for that inevitable, creeping mistrust; mistrust of a naive youth abandoned to his own devices and mistakes and secrets. 

Maybe, he owed Anakin this much –  a tête-à-tête, man to man, a real effort to relate to the kid – to remind him that his Master, too, was young once. That he understood. 

”Alright. I'll play,” he smirked. He leaned back on his seat, taking an exaggeratedly long and deep breath. His eyes glazed over as they ceased to see the passage of hyperspace ahead and drifted away to a far-off past. ”The Duchess and I first met during the first Mandalorian civil war, fifteen… no, sixteen years ago. She had only recently assumed power and initiated her new pacifist reform of Mandalore. The war-minded traditionalists were opposed to her politics, and waged an armed uprising to topple her rule. Master Qui-Gon and I were sent on an extended assignment to serve as her bodyguards and protect her from these insurgents. They sent assassins and bounty hunters after us. For a year, we lived on the run, with no certainties of what the next day would bring.” 

He sank deeper into the modest comforts of the seat. ”During that time, Satine and I… grew close. I would stay up long hours on guard duty… fail to convince her to go to bed… and we'd stay up all night just… talking. Our friendship grew into attraction, then into something… more. A connection. Yes… I suppose that's an apt word for it. A connection.”  

The corners of his lips quirked up in a wistful smile. He twisted around to share this rare display with Anakin, only to find his companion staring at him with a mildly stunned expression on his face. ”You're struck by the similarities to yourself and the Senator,” Obi-Wan guessed. 

Anakin's head bobbed in admission. ”Yeah, maybe…” 

Obi-Wan mirrored his nod. ”Well… where was I? That's right, the war. The insurrection was quelled in due course… and eventually the time came for Satine and I to go our separate ways. She had a duty to her planet and I had mine, to the Jedi Order. Saying goodbye was hard – of course it was – but in our hearts we both knew we'd made the correct decision. It was –” 

A loud snort derailed his train of thought. He turned to frown at the twelve-year-old beside him. ”Something you wish to share with the rest of the class?”

”'In our hearts we both knew,” Anakin's voice shook with hollow laughter as he echoed his Master's words. ”So… you consulted her heart on the matter?” He surveyed the older man through narrowed eyes. ”Did you even really consult your own?”

Obi-Wan shook his head, barking out a chuckle himself. ”Obviously, we both should have consulted you, O Enlightened One.”

”Okay, okay,” Anakin rushed him along. ”Continue. I know this isn't the end of the story.” 

”No, it is not,” Obi-Wan sighed. He smoothed back his hair. ”Well – as you know… a year ago, during the infamous peace negotiations on Mandalore, our paths crossed again. During the delay period, before things escalated to the breaking point, Satine and I wound up spending a lot of time together. And just for a short while… that connection we once had, that… spark we'd felt… was rekindled. We picked up where we left off. We went on dates together.” He made a soft noise through his nostrils. ”It was nice.”

”'Nice?'” Anakin repeated, dissatisfied. 

”More than nice,” Obi-Wan amended. He fell into a brief silence, a smile once again breaking through his self-command. ”Yes… more than nice,” he murmured. ”Just for a short while… I entertained this fantasy. Of the two of us, living a completely different life. Running away together, starting afresh, on some… remote forest moon. With lakes, and… away from all the wars and politics. I could picture it… so clearly. And I think she could picture it, too.” He paused again, just for a beat. ”But at the same time… things were different now. We may have been content to fantasize when we were young, but as you get older, you start to resent your dreams. Resent the way they can make you feel, as though…” He hesitated, finding no words of elaboration.  ”We knew that sooner or later… we'd have to make a decision. We'd been through this once already.”

Anakin was craned on the edge of his seat, all but shaking with anticipation. Eagerly awaiting conclusion to a story that, in Obi-Wan's mind, should have been foregone. 

”And then, I was made Grand Master… and that decision was made for me.” 

Met with silence, he whipped around to meet Anakin's eyes. In them, he found nothing but utter shock. His bottom lip wobbled as he struggled to express himself. ”M-made for you? B-but… she was made for you! You were made for each other!”

”Alright, let me rephrase. I did make my own choice. A difficult choice – more difficult than I can explain. But it was the right choice. The choice of duty over infatuation.” 

”Infatuation?”

”Infatuation, attraction… love. There is no point in getting caught up in semantics.” 

”There is, when you keep contradicting yourself!” 

”Alright,” Obi-Wan snapped, starting to lose patience. ”I kept my end of the bargain. Your turn.”

He expected to hear a protest, such was the disappointment on Anakin's face. He was pouting like a youngling who'd been denied ice cream for lunch. But Anakin was a man of his word. 

”Well, I chose her,” he muttered out. ”I married her.”

For a moment, Obi-Wan stared at him with complete incomprehension. Aware that Anakin's lips had just moved and sounds had come out, but without any idea what they meant. The younger Jedi might as well have been speaking Huttese. 

”You… married her?” he eventually managed to get out, repeating the words robotically. ” In a… purely symbolic ceremony, I'm sure?” 

”Symbolic, as in… symbolizing the paperwork that officially binds us together? Sure.”

”Oh, Anakin.” 

Obi-Wan pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling the first throbs of a migraine busting through his temples. He couldn't deal with this right now. He couldn't even find the energy to think about it. ”I am going to lose the last shreds of my credibility as Grand Master when I let you stay in the Order.” 

Next to him, he heard Anakin shift. ”Well, then… maybe you shouldn't.”

”Don't worry, I intend to. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take a nap.”

Chapter Text

The only welcome Padmé received on entering Raxus' atmosphere was that of a defensive squadron attempting to bar her entrance. Doubtless the two Jedi on her tail, in their boundless nobility, had contacted the enemy headquarters to warn them of her arrival and the potential danger involved. 

She had shot the fighters down and barely broken a sweat.  

It had only taken a few well-placed holo calls and some basic deduction skills to learn which members of the Separatist Senate were in on the Mandalorian takeover and still loyal to the Death Watch. While the leadership of the terrorist group had been arrested on Concordia, not every individual member had neatly fallen into the Republic's net. If they'd been controlling the opposing government this whole time, it stood to reason that they had a strong presence at its very heart. 

Of the six members still roaming free, the one that seemed like the most likely candidate to have taken over from Vizsla was one Reman Raw, of Clan Raw. His presence on the Holonet and the additional information Padmé was able to gather suggested a long-standing history with Vizsla and an active role in running the war effort. If there was any one individual most probably in possession of highly sensitive war intelligence, it was Raw. 

After tracking Raw to his private residence on Raxus, Padmé had wasted no time in subduing the man and proceeding to tie him to a chair for interrogation. And pitted against her powers of mind compulsion, not even the famed Mandalorian warrior spirit was nearly a match. 

”And that's all of the remaining bases?” Padmé queried, holding the man's head and twisting it backward, never breaking contact with his unfocused eyes. ”And droid factories?”

”Yes…” Raw mumbled out in a robotic voice. ”That's… all of them.”

Padmé's lips tugged up in satisfaction. ”Thank you for your cooperation, you've been most helpful. There's one last piece of information I require. The whereabouts of a certain individual.” 

-

Obi-Wan regarded Anakin with concern as the younger man twitched and twisted on his seat. He'd awoken from his snooze only to find his Padawan taking a nap of his own; only it didn't seem to be a nap at all. Sweat ran down his brow as he writhed there, face screwing with what seemed to be either pain or strain. Obi-Wan knew exactly what he was doing. He'd made those same jerky movements back on Coruscant when he'd first reached through the Force in an attempt to make contact with Amidala. 

Suddenly, Anakin snapped awake with a gasp. Almost in the same breath, he announced, ”She's leaving Raxus.” 

”What?” Obi-Wan questioned, one hand reaching towards him protectively. He withdrew the hand as soon as he became aware of the instinctive movement. ”Are you sure?”

Anakin nodded furiously. ”Positive.”

”Where is she going? Were you able to find out?” 

Anakin waited a moment before answering, though his hesitation did not seem to stem from lack of certainty. ”…Iego.” 

Obi-Wan bobbed his head in acknowledgment. He continued to survey Anakin with worry as the younger man straightened up from the back of his seat and logged on to the ship's computer, presumably to enter the new destination. His face shone with cold sweat and exhaustion weighed down on his features. Repeating his earlier stunt, while impressive, seemed to have completely drained him of his strength. 

”Anakin…” the Jedi Master said quietly. ”Perhaps we ought to rethink our plan. Call for reinforcements. If she is as powerful as you say she is –”

”What good are reinforcements against someone who was able to kill hundreds of people at once back on Alderaan?” Anakin snapped back. ”It's not about the numbers, Obi-Wan. It's about the strategy. You remember the strategy?”

Obi-Wan sighed. ”Keep her busy, keep her distracted, while you… take advantage of your shared intimacy and appeal to the better angels of her nature… I suppose.”  

”Basically.” He flopped back down on his seat, rubbing his forehead. ”I'm fine, Obi-Wan,” he muttered out. ”Really.” 

-

The Separatist base on Iego was situated atop a grand ridgeline at a height of some 2500 meters. Cradled between two criss-crossing mountain ranges that rose to thrice that height and shrouded in a thick layer of mist, it was hidden from most curious eyes, even those that approached from above. 

The base encompassed three main buildings with smaller stations sprinkled along the range, all commodious structures with domed ceilings and broad doors. Long, metallic walkways reached across the rock below and bridged the way between the buildings. The walls shone with an iridescent, golden sheen, dull enough not to pierce through the fog but certainly eye-catching once one crossed through to the other side. 

Had the premises not been teeming with what looked to be hundreds of battle droids and the odd sentient officer, their beauty would have almost given the impression of an ancient temple or a mythical castle. It was the last place where one would have expected a monster to be hiding.  

As Padmé tilted the ship forward for landing, a stern voice came through the radio and requested identification. The Senator readily identified herself and in turn requested an audience with the boss man himself. The voice laughed her off before vanishing with a crackle. 

”I need you to stay with the ship,” Padmé instructed her handmaiden as she steered her skiff into a smooth landing on the platform below, separated only by a walkway from the main building of the base. ”I have to do this alone,” she added as the engines died down. 

”Like Alderaan?” Dormé asked.

”Yes… like Alderaan.”

”I understand.”

No sooner had Padmé set foot outside than she was swarmed by battle droids, all firing at her in their identically programmed fashion. Unsheathing her lightsaber actually gave her a little bit of a thrill, after such a long time. While armed combat was by no means a forte of hers, her skills were more than sufficient to take care of the welcoming committee, which soon lay in a smoking pile along the length of the walkway. 

At that moment, the entrance to the main building swooshed open. Padmé peered toward the end of the walkway. There was no mistaking the identity of the newcomer. 

During her yet short life, Padmé Amidala had killed plenty of people. On the Isle of Light, she had ended hundreds of lives in one blazing night. And still her sin tally seemed tame in comparison to the acts of pure savagery committed by General Grievous. 

No one seemed to really know where the fearsome droid general had come from. He was a nightmare incarnate, an unstoppable tempest that swept over towns and villages and entire planets and left nothing but desolation in its wake. Where his droid armies marched, death and destruction followed. The Mandalorians might be warmongers, but Grievous was bloodthirsty. Regardless of whether or not the two opposing sides eventually reached a peace agreement, Grievous would single-handedly keep the conflict running for the next ten years. 

For someone capable of such flashy displays of brutality, the droid general was a surprisingly elusive creature. During the course of the war, several attempts had been made to locate his central base, but the bastard always seemed to slip through the Republic's metaphorical fingers.  

Padmé had to swallow back a pang of bitter regret. She could have ended all of this much sooner. And she was still the only one who could.

”Senator Amidala, I believe,” Grievous greeted the unexpected guest in his raspy, robotic voice. Metal clashed against metal as he advanced on her along the narrow walkway. ”To what do I owe the pleasure?” 

Padmé pulled back her shoulders, steeling herself. Amused by her silence, Grievous inquired, ”Are you here to… negotiate?” 

”No,” Padmé answered. They were only separated by a few steps now. ”You do not owe the pleasure of my company to any misguided belief that I can negotiate with you. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

”Please, do enlighten me,” Grievous drawled, before bursting into a hacking laughter. Padmé returned his mockery with a smirk of her own. The tips of her fingers shivered as a fiery heat came rushing through her veins. She had stood before many such an opponent. Dismissing her as a non-threat before giving her another glance. A pretty face that got lost in the wrong place. 

”If you insist.”

In one rough motion, Padmé swept her hand across the air. The Force followed her command and flared alive. One moment the droid general was towering over her, coughing with laughter; the next he was being devoured by a roaring inferno and falling apart into charred pieces of machinery. Flames flickered in Padmé's eyes alongside her natural gold as she watched him sizzle and crackle and slowly succumb to a torturous, scorching death. 

In the end, the nightmare incarnate was nothing more than a passing night terror. And now the Galaxy awoke to a new, blazing morrow. 

-

Golden evening sun glared from a distant horizon when Anakin and Obi-Wan came down through a layer of creamy clouds to hover above two intersecting mountain ranges. Above the center of the formation was a dense mass of mist. 

”There,” Anakin informed his companion as he steered the ship into a brisk dive toward the area. ”She's here. I can feel her.”

Obi-Wan nodded, analytical eyes tracking their steep descent. Those eyes widened in unanticipated shock when the fog gradually broke to reveal what lay below. Atop a ridgeline between the mountains stood an assemblage of buildings, engulfed in the blistering embrace of fire. Smoke mixed with mist as it rose in plumes into the air. The Master and Padawan exchanged alarmed looks. 

”And now I see her,” Anakin muttered, the absent look in his eyes indicating figurative meaning. 

Although they did not have to hold their breath for long before actually spotting the rogue politician. Just as Anakin guided their freighter to rest upon solid ground, a respectful distance from the other vehicle still standing, she emerged from the shadows. A long, white cape draped over her shoulders and billowing behind her, she was walking toward them along a narrow metallic walkway. Behind her, wavering flames ate at the golden walls of the main building. 

Anakin was ready to abandon ship then and there. Before he could get farther than the hatchway, Obi-Wan stopped him by grabbing his shoulder. 

”Anakin, wait,” he urged. ”Take a deep breath, count to ten. You cannot let emotion overcome your –”

”Eight, nine, ten; you happy?” Anakin snapped at him before he yanking himself free. In what seemed like a single leap, he then bounded down the ramp. Obi-Wan clicked his tongue in frustration. True, they'd gone over the strategy at least half a dozen times, but when fighting back to back – how many times had he tried to hammer this lesson in his Padawan's thick skull? – a solid strategy only came second to unity in spirit. 

By the time Obi-Wan caught up to his overhasty Padawan, who'd at least had the good sense to wait for him at the beginning of the walkway, Amidala had come to a halt in the very middle. At her feet lay a pile of what looked like warped and blackened pieces of metal. The Jedi Master frowned. 

”I'm here to end this,” Anakin called to her, his azure saber bursting alive in his grip.  

”Looks like I beat you to it,” Amidala sneered, gesturing to the smoking heap at her feet. ”The Clone War is over.” 

The two Jedi peered closer. ”…Grievous?” Anakin whispered in sudden understanding, just as the same realization hit Obi-Wan.

”I did what none of the Republic's top generals could do. All in a day's work.”

The Master and Padawan shared a wordless look while Amidala casually stepped over the droid general's remains. Swiftly recovering, Anakin clenched his teeth together and pointed his saber towards the approaching adversary. ”Clearly, you've exhausted yourself. You'd best give up. Surrender.”

”Exhausted myself?” Amidala laughed. ”I'm just getting warmed up.” Her head swiveled in Obi-Wan's direction. Even from a distance, he could just make out the caustic smile that spread over her features. ”Master Kenobi. This is really a private conversation. A lovers' spat.”

”Don't worry, Senator,” Obi-Wan shot back, ”I think you'll find me not so much of a third wheel as a… chaperone.” 

She gave a girlish giggle. ”Alright then. Don't say I didn't warn you.” 

Chapter Text

With a graceful flourish, Amidala brought forth her weapon and twirled it in the air. The blinding white color took Obi-Wan by surprise, and under more pleasant circumstances, he would have loved to hear the story behind it. The circumstances being what they were, he was fairly sure he'd never get the opportunity. 

In classic Sith fashion, Amidala was the first to lunge, clashing into the sizzling blue of Obi-Wan's awaiting blade. It did not take many further swings from her to betray the glaring absence of any kind of discipline in her fighting style. It appeared to be a version of Makashi interspersed with loans from Ataru and plenty of pure improvisation. Still, she was slim in frame and thus hard to hit, and rather light and slippery on her feet as well. She kept finding ways to dodge Obi-Wan's practiced blade and put her limited skills to effective use. 

But Obi-Wan could tell by the way she moved, Anakin had been correct in his earlier estimation. Amidala was tired. Exhaustion weighed on her features, even as she dodged and parried and rained strikes like there was no tomorrow. It didn't take long until her maneuvers started to get sloppier and prove increasingly poor matches for Obi-Wan's seasoned and well-rested muscles. Leaning into the oppressive defense of Soresu, the Jedi Master soon had her falling back along the length of the walkway. Below awaited a fall of fifty meters and a bed of hard, unforgiving rock. 

Unfortunately, Anakin was not the only one who had been right, and their adversary was not the only one who was exhausted. His Padawan's movements, while technically skillful, seemed to lack his trademark aggression and vigor, and he was lagging behind his usual speed as well. Blue and blue swept across the air in ostensible synchrony, and yet again and again, they were caught by the ironic white. 

”Anakin, focus!” Obi-Wan shouted through the wild crackle of plasma. Capitalizing on his momentarily divided attention, Amidala pulled suddenly back and swung her leg at some droid parts scattered at her feet, sending them hurtling at Obi-Wan. This gave her an opening to slip past her opponents and navigate her way off the narrow bridge and back on to the more open platform area. 

Obi-Wan didn't specifically turn his head with the intention of glaring daggers at Anakin, but his displeased scowl happened to fall on him anyway as he gathered his bearings. ”Focus,” he mouthed at the boy. Anakin's head shifted in a gesture that was maybe supposed to pass for some kind of affirmation. 

The younger Jedi somewhat picked up the pace after that, launching into a flurry of precise strikes that Amidala quite obviously struggled to block. They were now gliding along the length of the open space that existed between the two aircraft that stood on opposite sides of the platform. 

”Having trouble, Jedi clowns?” Amidala taunted, a little out of breath as she blocked another blow from Anakin. 

”Feeling faint, milady?” Obi-Wan drawled in retort. ”Would you like… to sit down?” With that, he took a swing at her legs, only barely falling short. 

”After you,” Amidala panted, mirroring the maneuver and failing by a considerably wider margin. 

”No, no, I insist, ladies first,” the Jedi Master maintained the banter as he tried once again. But here Amidala showed a flash of genuine skill, anticipating the move and leaping aside. 

”Just shut up,” Anakin growled.  

”Now now, let us be civilized,” Obi-Wan chided. 

The Master and Padawan had settled into a seemingly serviceable offensive when Obi-Wan next started wondering how their mediocre opponent could possibly still be holding her own. Again, his scrutiny immediately fell on Anakin. His form had gained vigor and precision, yes… only it was to the point where his movements seemed to have grown overly elaborate and complicated. His labyrinthine footwork seemed to belong in a dancing competition, and his arching swings certainly looked elegant and impressive, but did very little. And the little that they did do seemed to be to hamper Obi-Wan's movements, blocking openings that he otherwise would have had with the extra space and time that they took to perform.

”Anak…” Obi-Wan started to shout, but his voice died in his throat. He now saw with clarity that he had made a huge miscalculation. Anakin was not ready. His feelings for Amidala were holding him back and causing him to make altogether questionable decisions in what should have been fairly trouble-free engagement. But no – there was the small matter of their other engagement and everything that had resulted in. Obi-Wan had seen his share of attachment, in Jedi and laymen alike. 

This went beyond attachment. This was something else.  

-

He couldn't do it. He'd thought he could, and he'd been wrong. In the end, it didn't matter what Anakin had seen, what horrors he'd witnessed, what horrors he'd lived through at her hands. In the end, he just couldn't bring himself to harm the woman he loved. 

That didn't mean he wished harm upon Obi-Wan. He had not switched sides. He was not about to spin around and turn his saber on his old Master. His allegiance was to the Jedi and to the light side of the Force. He was a keeper of peace and a protector of harmony and all that was good and desirable. And he had a duty to those masters. It just so happened to be a duty to which he'd proven utterly and completely unequal.  

And judging by the way Obi-Wan was acting, his Master had come to the same realization. Blow by blow, miss by miss, Anakin could sense his companion's growing frustration. He knew he couldn't keep this up for long. One way or another, this fight was going to reach a culmination.

”Padmé,” a shuddering voice escaped his throat as he deflected yet another blow from the feral Sith Lady. He sensed Obi-Wan bristling at his side as he shifted his position so that he now openly stood between his divided loyalties. ”You need to stop this. You know you cannot win.”

Her shoulders bobbed as she blocked another perfunctory strike from her husband. ”I seem to be doing alright so far,” she observed lightly. 

”I don't want to hurt you,” Anakin gasped, agony palpable in his voice.

”Speak for yourself, hubby,” she sneered. 

”I'm serious! Let's just put down our sabers for one moment and talk about this like civilized adults.” Desperate, he turned to his Master, ”Obi-Wan agrees, right? You're all about talking things out and finding civilized solutions!”

”I'm open to her surrender,” the Jedi Master said, with a seemingly lighthearted tone that didn't at all match the growing impatience plain to see on his face. Padmé gave a bark of laughter, bright white crashing against twin blues. 

”I've had enough of this,” Obi-Wan announced, stepping back from the confused formation. He threw Anakin a sharp look. ”I trust you can hold her off for a while.”

”Master, what are you –” Anakin spluttered, but his Master had already spun on his heel and was running towards their ship, summoning the ramp down with the Force. 

”He's calling for reinforcements,” Padmé supplied as their blades met in a lock. ”He doesn't trust you to finish this. Or to stick by his side until he does.”

”Obi-Wan…” Anakin gasped, feeling his throat closing tight around his voice, looming dread dropping in a lump in his gut.  

”You're welcome to prove him wrong,” Padmé hissed, sizzling clear blade pressing harder against his blue as they circled each other like dancers. ”Strike me down. You know you have the skill. There's even a prophecy about it, I think.” 

”Please… please don't ask me to do that,” Anakin begged. 

Agonizing seconds ticked by as their contrasting blades sizzled, literal sparks flying about as they crackled against one another. Harder and harder, they pressed against each other like contenders in an arm-wrestling match. The air between burned like wildfire as they stared each other down. 

”Milady!”

Their eyes were only torn from each other when Dormé's shrill voice suddenly cut between them. And there she was, then, standing on top of the ramp slowly lowering from Padmé's star skiff. Her face was blanched with utter and complete shock, and there was a strange, residual glaze in her eyes, as though she'd just snapped out of a trance. 

”Dormé…” The surprise was evident on Padmé's face as she saw her companion, her eyes widening and voice trailing away.  

Dormé's eyes darted from the pair below to the ship that stood on the other side of the platform. Just at that moment, Obi-Wan emerged from the ship's bowels, coming to an uncertain stop on top of the ramp as he saw the halted duelists. He didn't appear to have noticed Dormé. 

The handmaiden, however, saw him. And the moment she did, Anakin could see the gears turning in her head as she appeared to make a split-second decision. Nanoseconds before that decision solidified into action, Anakin noticed that her fist was closed around a vaguely spherical object. Her face contorted with twisted determination as she raised her hand above her head and bent her arm backward. 

”We've come too far to fail now.” 

There was very little time to react as the thermal detonator soared over their heads. But Anakin let instinct take over, distantly aware of his saber slipping from his grip and rolling away as he darted forward and thrust up his arm. The power of the Force stopped the bomb's aerial advance as surely and abruptly as a wall of rock. But what Anakin failed to take into account was that the detonator was designed to go off upon hitting a hard surface. 

There was a flash of blinding light before Anakin was flung across the air like a stray projectile, plummeting through a cloud of blissful oblivion. 

-

Blurry shades of gold and orange danced across Padmé's vision as her eyes fluttered open. Clarity returned to her sluggishly as she worked herself up to her elbows. Her hand flew up to support her swaying head. She was on Iego… and she had been fighting Anakin… when… 

A hoarse gasp tore through her throat as reality pieced itself together in one blazing moment. The golds and oranges snapped into focus and revealed themselves as flames, eating through the blackened remains of her trusted Nubian yacht. A panicked glance to the left told her that the enemy ship had suffered the same fate. And as for the enemy… 

Sprawled out next to her lay Anakin. Seeing his still form, Padmé's heart skipped a beat. But as she reached out to touch his cheek, she quickly observed that his breathing was steady and his eyelids were already fluttering ajar. Breathing a sigh of relief, her attention returned to the ship wrecks, eyes darting feverishly across the devastating scene. Kenobi's boots stuck out from behind a large chunk of the ramp on which he'd stood. And just across from him, a mess of chestnut locks and dark hems…  

”Dormé!” 

Padmé sprinted up from the ground, her head spinning and feet swaying as she rushed to her friend's side. Crouching over her motionless form, she scrambled for her wrist from under the folds of clothing and wrapped her hand around it. Long seconds dragged on, and the only thing she could feel was her own blood rushing through her veins and throbbing feverishly in her fingertips. But then she saw the blood, pooling on the ground in a crimson puddle and caking into clots in the thick dangling locks of her ashen-faced friend. The vacancy of her gaze as she cupped Dormé's soot-smeared face and tilted up her limp neck. 

She could not precisely describe what she was feeling at that moment. There was sadness in there, but not in overwhelming quantities, and she suspected that it might have been the easiest emotion to identify because she knew to look for it. But vying for equal attention and recognition were other feelings – gratitude, acceptance. No matter how Padmé tried, she simply could not summon the same intensity of grief she had felt for Cordé's demise. Cordé, in many ways, had been an innocent. Caught in the crossfire between the last of the Sith, casualty of a power struggle of which she, until the end, had remained ignorant. 

But Dormé had chosen her path. She had chosen to discard willful ignorance and swear eternal loyalty to a mistress whose powers or history she could never truly understand. She had chosen to follow an outlaw who could offer no guarantees of ever escaping that position, of ever being crowned to the throne she so desperately believed she deserved. She had chosen to position herself as an enemy of the Jedi. And unlike Cordé… she had planted the bomb. 

And yet, she had served her faithfully until the end. And her sacrifice would not be in vain. Cradling Dormé's lifeless body to her chest, Padmé whispered a solemn vow under her breath. She would be worthy of the loyalty and admiration that Dormé had so willingly bestowed. She would be magnificent, or she would be nothing. And this time, she would allow for no distractions. No limitations. She would answer to no Master and heed no call of conscience. She would hold herself to no promises and nor would she ever swear another oath. From now on, she would depend on no one but herself. 

”Help…” A small, pitiful voice squawked from afar. Reflexively, Padmé's gaze was torn from the young woman in her arms, to witness an eerily similar scene unfolding on the other side of the platform. There, a young Jedi Knight had buried his curly head in the depths of Master's creamy robes, and was rocking him gently back and forth while sobbing uncontrollably. ”Help…” she heard him sniffling into the linen. 

Gently, Padmé lowered Dormé onto the ground, gathering up her long locks and arranging them into a pillow on which she laid her heavy head to rest. Then she scrabbled up to her feet and navigated her way across the smoldering debris to the Jedi.

”Is he…” she heard herself whispering as she met Anakin's eyes, sticking out from behind his Master's shoulder as he held the man to his chest. 

”He's alive,” Anakin croaked, ”but he's dying. I can feel it.” Tears dribbled down his young face, bitter salt mixing with soot on his reddened cheeks. "Please, Padmé. You have to help me.” 

Chapter Text

In her dark side-fueled mania, Padmé had burned down what appeared to be nothing less than every last one of the starships and communication devices to be found on the secluded base. 

If Obi-Wan had indeed summoned reinforcements to their location like Padmé had surmised, it was doubtful they were coming. The standard protocol in these situations was not to send out coordinates, but have the back-up forces track their location directly via the radio system. Which was now destroyed. The three of them were effectively stuck on Iego.

The majority of the facilities had sustained considerable fire damage, but after a frantic search, the husband and wife managed to find one that still stood tall. It was a little-used warehouse-like building whose backmost parts were lodged into the rock on which the base stood. It comprised of a modest living space whose most notable features included a conservator and a refresher, a small storage room, as well as – in a lucky twist of fate, or perhaps a twisted stroke of luck – an infirmary and a morgue. 

Anakin couldn't have cared less what his wife did with Dormé's body. He quietly assumed Padmé took her to the morgue, and perhaps even honored her memory with a moment of silence. The solid rock that sat under their feet wasn't exactly the best material for an actual burial. 

Anakin himself rushed straight into the infirmary, Obi-Wan lolling in his arms. A single coherent thought lanced through his hazed consciousness: if he just managed to save him, then that would make everything right again. Surely when his Master opened his eyes; he, too, would snap awake from this nightmare. 

He lay his Master down on a cot and started working the machinery around him, fitting him with a respirator and a heart monitor. In a sliding drawer under the bed, he found bandages and bacta vials. He'd just finished dressing the older man's wounds when a standardized Emdee droid whirred into the room. It stretched its metal appendages and gave a mechanical-sounding yawn, as though having just woken up from a long nap. 

”Please, I need to know that my friend is going to be okay,” Anakin demanded. ”Please.”

-

”Well?” 

Anakin had sensed Padmé coming through the door, but had not torn his eyes away from the unconscious form of his Master to acknowledge her. Even when she spoke, he waited a moment before answering. 

”Concussion. Internal bleeding. Critical but stable.” 

She came up to his side and laid a hand on his shoulder. Anakin felt himself tense under her touch. His eyes roamed glassily over Obi-Wan's ailing form. 

”He really means a lot to you, doesn't he?” 

Anakin couldn't even manage a nod in reply, but that only served to emphasize the clarity of his answer. Padmé squeezed her fingers around the weary muscles of his upper arm, kneading at the tense flesh a couple of times before retracting her hand. 

”I tried to keep her out of it. I –”

”Don't,” Anakin growled. He wasn't interested in the how and why and what could have been. What had happened, had happened. But then, hearing the harshness in his tone, he felt a pang in his chest and sighed softly. ”I'm sorry. You did nothing, technically. I'm the only one here who actually killed someone.” At least, within the last half-hour. 

He heard fabric and hair rustle behind him, indicating a shake of the head. ”You were just protecting your Master.”

”And what a stellar job I did,” Anakin snorted, chin bobbing at the bruised and bandaged form of the elder Jedi. 

Padmé made a sympathetic noise. A solemn silence reigned between them for a while before Anakin once again heard the swish of fabric as Padmé turned to leave. 

”Padmé,” he called after her, twisting around to face her for the first time during their conversation. ”The Emdee's in the storage room. You should… you should get yourself checked as well. Just in case.” She blinked at him. ”Please,” he added. 

A warm smirk played about her lips as she folded her arms and tilted her head in challenge. ”And did you get yourself checked?”

”I did,” Anakin assured her, earning a dubious frown from his wife. ”I did, I did, honest. The Emdee insisted.” 

”And?”

”I'm fine,” he assured her with a dry chuckle. ”Never better.”

Padmé rolled her eyes before putting her hands up in surrender. ”Alright, alright. I appreciate your concern.”

-

Long minutes turned into hours and hours into days as Anakin stayed at Obi-Wan's bedside, watching the Emdee roll back and forth across the room and sometimes apply a new layer of bacta on the patient and redress his wounds and provide hesitant reports on the progression of his recovery. The younger man refused to sleep, instead finding himself trapped in a vicious cycle of dozing off and snapping awake again and growing more tired and worried as the days and nights blended into one muddled continuum. Reality and delirium blurred together, time was no longer real and he had not seen Padmé since he'd told her to get herself cleared by the Emdee. He tried to pester the droid for just the mere confirmation that she was okay, but the tiny metal nurse insisted he was programmed to a strict patient-doctor confidentiality. Anakin knew he could have changed that in a matter of minutes, but did not bother. He could still sense Padmé's presence on the base. 

Sometimes, in his half-asleep haze, he would see her in her wedding dress, surrounded by roses and queen's hearts, white hems swirling and long chestnut locks dancing in the light wind. The corners of her mouth curling up charmingly, her warm ambery eyes narrowing to arches as her smile spread to a beaming fullness. 

He would see her with her family, gathered around a jovial dinner table, laughing and throwing playful barbs at one another. He would see her with her nieces, playing tag or braiding their hair or listening to them talk about their day.  

There were times he would see his mother, too. Farther away, a small dot in the distance or a blurry figure fading into the background. Knitting a shawl or making soup or receiving a kiss on the cheek from her husband. 

And then, every time, without fail, he would jerk awake to yet another day of a never-ending, solitary existence. 

Until, one day, he was not alone anymore. 

”Master!” Anakin gasped as he jolted awake in his seat, Obi-Wan's half-open lids being the first thing that reached his sore eyes and flooded his consciousness. 

”Anakin…” Jedi Master murmured softly as he rolled on the mattress to face his former student, fingers twitching as he gradually slid into awareness. ”Anakin.”

”Shh,” Anakin hushed him, reaching up to pat the back of his friend's hand. ”Save your strength. Don't speak.”

Obi-Wan flashed a groggy smile. ”When have you ever listened to that advice, my young Padawan?”

”Well, you're older and wiser.”

”I'm not that old,” Obi-Wan snorted. His eyes darted around the room. ”Where's…”

”She's…” Anakin swallowed. ”You know. Around.” 

Obi-Wan only seemed to accept this non-explanation because another question occurred to him in swift succession, ”Who… who was that other woman?”

Anakin shook his head. ”It doesn't matter. She's dead.” 

”I see.” Obi-Wan averted his gaze, in what seemed to be a gesture of respect, or perhaps simply a resignation to Anakin's unwillingness to discuss the topic. 

”Master, I'm sorry,” Anakin hurried to say instead. ”I let you down.”

Obi-Wan's chest shook with a darkly amused laugh-snort that turned into a wheezing cough. ”I suppose you did,” he admitted, though there was a rueful sort of warmth to his voice. Anakin reached for the respirator, but Obi-Wan held up a reassuring hand as he cleared his throat. 

”The reinforcements… I don't think they're coming,” Anakin then went on. A frown pushed down his brow. ”Did you… did you summon them to… arrest me, as well as Padmé?”

Obi-Wan shook his head against his pillow. Paraphrasing Anakin's non-committal answer to his question about Dormé, he simply said, ”There is no knowing how the situation might have developed. It doesn't matter now.”

This did not satisfy Anakin. ”Kinda matters to me if we don't trust each other.”

His accusation fell on deaf ears when Obi-Wan seemed to shake some more sleep off his eyes before fixing his former Padawan with an intent look. ”Did you let her go, Anakin?”

”There are no ships for her to escape in,” Anakin said tersely, defensively.

”So she's…” The Jedi Master's gaze hardened. ”Anakin.” His meaning was crystal clear. You have to choose, right now: me or her. Jedihood or her. Your entire life or her. 

”I know, Master,” Anakin said quietly, avoiding Obi-Wan's eyes as he stood from his seat. The Jedi Master's piercing gaze followed his rise. ”We'll get out of here, I promise," Anakin assured him. "I can… I can probably put together a ship in a day or two. You just hang in there.” 

-

Anakin found his wife sitting on a narrow ledge that projected from the rock, her feet dangling over the edge. A waterfall rushed down the side of the mountain, sunlight pouring down from above to play with the moist fog and paint it in translucent colors. 

Sensing his presence, she twisted around. She was wearing that sweet, innocent smile that seemed like it could make flowers grow in the desert, hiding behind the wildfire that would burn it all to ashes in the blink of an eye. Wearing his scowl like an armor, Anakin drew his saber and brought it to life. It would take a little more than a pretty face to disarm him, this time. 

”Enough is enough,” he declared, steeling himself. ”You need to answer for your crimes.”

She rose to her feet, the deceptive sweetness chipping away from her face and giving way to… something else. It was as though she was seeing him for the first time. 

”I'm not playing around,” he threatened, advancing on her. 

”Anakin…” Padmé whispered. Then, to his surprise, she proceeded to take several steps in his direction, further closing the distance between them until they were only separated by his lightsaber's length. The blue beam hovered shakily in the air, its wielder shifting warily where he stood. The Force seemed to whisper a disembodied warning: tread with caution. 

Padmé reached out with her arm, and Anakin allowed her to push the business end of his lightsaber down to the ground. Then she flicked her fingers, and the plasma fizzled away. 

”Anakin…" she then spoke, taking one last step forward now that nothing was blocking her path. "Something unexpected has happened." The Force wavered and trembled. Anakin's heart hammered in his ribcage. Padmé drew a charged breath. "I'm pregnant.”

Anakin stared at her. He felt the hilt of his saber rolling away from his grip and clanking against the rock. 

Then his knees buckled from under him and he fell down at her feet.

Chapter Text

Obi-Wan awoke to a distinct disturbance in the Force. To the inescapable feeling that something was not only wrong, but wrong in such a profoundly irrevocable way that the cosmos itself was crying tears of despair. A moment before reaching full awareness, Obi-Wan entertained the rather flattering idea that it must be because it was being deprived of yet another Grand Master of the Order. Then, in a flash, he became aware of two things at once. First was that he actually felt fine, and had been for a couple of days. The second was that there was only one being in the Galaxy who could have such an overwhelming impact on the Force. 

His relief was immense when he opened his eyes and found Anakin sitting at his bedside, alive and well. ”Anakin,” he breathed as the boy turned to give him a pensive gaze. ”Do you feel that? Something…”

His voice trailed off as he tried to sit up and found himself held down by something cold and heavy.  He swiveled his head to one side and then the other, and frowned in dismay as he saw the restraints on his wrists, fastening him to the bed underneath. He tried to lift his ankles and was met with similar resistance. 

”Careful,” Anakin warned him, his voice thin, distant. ”Your wounds haven't entirely healed yet.”

”Anakin…” Obi-Wan whispered in growing alarm. ”What is the meaning of this?” 

Anakin licked his lips and leaned in closer. Heavy shadows hung on the contours of his face. But behind his darkened eyes there was also an odd… glint. ”Padmé thinks I'm here to kill you,” he explained, if such a shocking announcement could even qualify as an explanation. ”But I… I can't. Wouldn't be right to kill an injured, defenseless man. And I suppose… the phrase 'for old times' sake' might also be appropriate here.” 

Obi-Wan's gaze flopped down as full understanding dawned on him, in all its glorious horror. ”You… chose her,” he choked out. His eyes were transfixed by Anakin's expressionless form, bearing very little resemblance to the young man who had taken care of his Master and frantically fussed over his injuries. It was as though he was looking at a twisted mirror image. ”But of course. You told me so yourself, and I didn't listen to you.” His features scrunched together in self-reproach as it all sank in at once. ”And not just you. Master Yoda tried to warn me. He… he…”

”Master Yoda?” Anakin echoed in confusion.

”It's true,” Obi-Wan murmured, still facing away. ”He used his last breath to warn me about you. He made me Grand Master so that I could stop you. And I didn't listen. I refused to listen.”

He lifted his gaze ever so slightly, and saw the shadows patterning Anakin's face deepen. ”I had no idea,” the boy settled for saying. 

Obi-Wan shook his head against the pillow. ”If I'd told you, I might have just driven you into her arms earlier.”

”So… what?” Anakin sneered. ”You should have just killed me in cold blood when you had the chance?”

”I should have at least listened to Master Windu.” He sighed. ”But I chose to assert my authority and protect you… my golden boy, who surely could do no wrong.” Anger and regret gathering in his chest, Obi-Wan pulled experimentally at his cuffs, knowing the effort to be futile. While the restraints were not of the Force-suppressing kind, in his current state, he simply could not summon the strength to break free of them. ”So… what's going to happen now?” he finally asked into the heavy silence.  

Anakin shifted in his seat. ”Well… you might recall that my lady is still in the middle of an election campaign.” 

Obi-Wan stared blankly for a beat. ”The Jedi Council know the truth. They'll never let…” Then fresh horror erupted in his consciousness. ”The Council… the Senate… Satine!

Anakin scoffed. ”Please. You've made your indifference to that woman perfectly clear.”

Obi-Wan struggled to believe his ears, the surreal nightmare that was unfolding before him. He thrashed against his bonds as his mind filled with images of dead Council members, intimidated politicians… and Satine, defiant to the last… ”I… I love her!” he suddenly burst out. ”Does she love you?” 

”Of course she loves me,” Anakin snapped back. With that, he got up from his seat and took a few paces towards the door. Then he whirled around and added softly, ”And by the way… we're going to be parents.”

Obi-Wan stared at him as the mystery piece he didn't know he'd been missing finally completed the puzzle. A puzzle that formed this twisted mirror image of Anakin, his precious Anakin… standing over lifeless bodies that littered the hallowed floors of the Jedi temple, bewitched by the charms of a wicked woman with whom his future would now forever be intertwined. ”Congratulations,” the Jedi Master spat. 

At the doorway, Anakin turned to give him a final look. Behind that gaze were many feelings, and yet he could not see a trace of regret. The boy had made his decision. ”By the time your wounds heal you'll have figured a way out,” he predicted. ”And then, my old Master… my mercy will have become obsolete.”

And with that, the boy Obi-Wan had trained was gone forever. 

-

Was Padmé Amidala in love with Anakin Skywalker? Yes, she liked to think she was. The idea was still romantic to her, or maybe just easy to romanticize. 

But for the first time in her life, she was realizing that love was not enough. That love alone was not what she wanted from her husband, the father of her unborn child. Anakin had loved her and still betrayed her. Had it not been for the unexpected pregnancy, he would have sent her to her death over that ledge and fulfilled the ancient prophecy of the Chosen One's victory over the Sith. 

And for the first time in her life, she felt like she truly understood Sithhood. Their relentless quest for power and dominance over others. Love was fragile. Power was power. Love had not saved her from Rush Clovis, and it certainly had not helped those self-important politicians escape her flames on that fateful night. There were only two things that could have saved them. Power – true power, not the feeble illusion of power that monarchs and ministers across the Galaxy presumed to wield – or loyalty to those who had it. Loyalty to her. The kind that Dormé had showed her. 

And that was what she wanted from Anakin. She did not just want a lover or a husband… or a consort for that matter, assuming her seizure of power was successful. She wanted him to submit to her, to bow to her, worship her. She wanted to possess him, tame the wild animal that resided within until he licked treats off her hand; until he belonged to her, body and soul. Until there wasn't one ounce left in him that doubted his devotion to her. From now on, Anakin Skywalker would be hers and hers alone. 

Seemingly overnight, her newly defected husband had built them a sleek new ship – the Eerie – from ship remains and spare parts that he'd managed to salvage from the burned ruins. Soon, the silver yacht was to convey them to Coruscant and to impending celebrations of her election victory. Any confusion among the public concerning an election that had not technically taken place yet would be cleared once she announced that due to the unexpected circumstances, she would not be taking on the title and office of Supreme Chancellor. Instead, with full approval from a very cooperative new Senate, she would henceforth be known as the first Sovereign Queen of the Galaxy. With the downfall of their leaders, the Confederacy had effectively lost the war, which cleared the way for her to dictate the conditions of the peace treaty and absorb the formerly Separatist-aligning planets into her new galactic kingdom. 

Then, finally, she could make things the way she wanted to them to be, bend the world to her will, the way she had done ever since she had discovered her powers. But no longer would she hide in the shadows, behind a mask of innocence and civility. From now on, she would wield her power out in the open, from an exalted position, worshipped and feared, unlimited and uncurbed.  

The credit for Grievous' demise, she intended to give to Anakin. He was going to need the good publicity when the esteemed leaders of the Jedi Order suddenly turned up dead. But she had agreed to spare his little Padawan, as she was an innocent in all this, and unlikely to be a threat to her coming reign. She was not without compassion for him. She knew that by choosing her, he would be giving up much. His Jedihood. His Padawan. And his…

”I know you didn't kill your Master,” she said calmly as she lifted one last load into the cargo hold of the ship, the bodily remains of the most loyal and the most willful of her handmaidens, encased in a metal box. Closing the hatch, she walked over to her husband's wary form and fixed him with an intent look. ”This is the last defiance I will allow you. You've made your choice. You chose me. I finally know what I want… and I hope you do too.” 

”… I do,” he said quietly.

”Are you…” She reached out to cup his chin in her palm. ”Are you unhappy, my love?”

”No,” he denied. ”Why would I be?”

She bit down on her lip. ”Let's go topple a Republic.” 

As they ascended the ramp, she saw him cast a final, wistful look towards the facility where he'd left his convalescent Master to lick his wounds. ”One day…” she began.

”I know,” he hurried to say. ”That was the last thing I told him.”

Inside, they proceeded to take their respective seats in the cockpit, Anakin as the pilot of his self-built vehicle and Padmé as his lone passenger. A charged silence was still reigning over the couple as the engines sputtered to life and launched them into the skies. Anakin's features were drawn in a tight line as he worked the hyperdrive and propelled them into hyperspace. 

”I was bowing to you,” he finally muttered out, his grip tightening around the yoke. ”Padmé, I love you. It's always been you. I just needed a… I wasn't thinking… in that moment, I…”

”You were not bowing to me,” Padmé interrupted his pitiful stutter. ”You were bowing to your unborn child. You were kneeling before the prospect of having a family and settling down to a quiet life, to some fantasy of taming your unstable, murderous wife…” 

”Is that really what you think of me?” Anakin challenged. 

Padmé lowered her gaze. ”Fine. I won't presume to know what's going on in your head if you stop insulting me with your lies. If it hadn't been for the baby, you would have run me through right then and there, on that ledge.” 

Beside her, Anakin gave his curls a soft shake. ”We will never know what would have happened.”

-

Was Anakin Skywalker in love with Padmé Amidala? Yes, deeply so. But even more deeply than that, he was obsessed with her. He at least had the good sense to admit that much to himself. He was hers, and he always had been, from the first moment he had set eyes on her in that grimy junk shop all those years ago. He'd never had a choice. He'd never stood a chance. And he would never, ever be able to escape her. Their lives were intertwined in ways that eluded understanding, their very souls tethered together by bonds that neither life or death could break. Even if he'd killed her, he would have spent a lifetime grieving her. And in letting her live, he was resigning himself to a different kind of grieving process – to mourning the person that had died within when he'd fallen down at her feet. 

He was under no illusions as to what she wanted from him. He wasn't stupid. From the very start of their fateful reunion, she had sought to subjugate him. And whenever he'd stepped out of line – resisting her mind compulsion, saving her from Dooku, betraying her to the Jedi – she had resented him. And Anakin understood. She was a woman shaped by her experiences. Resentful of those who had sought to control her. Finding freedom and purpose in what she could control. His wild card nature had only ever confused and distressed her. And if they were going to be together – if they were going to be a family – he needed to become what she needed him to be. 

Hers. 

The closer they drew to Coruscant, the more electrified the air between them seemed to become. The husband and wife had not exchanged many words since their departure from Iego, but as the heart of the Republic drew closer, they began to steal glances at each other. She'd given him space, she'd given him time to adjust. But they both knew that when they stormed the capital, they needed to be of one mind and heart. 

”Anakin…” 

At the first, melodic ring of her voice, Anakin found himself helpless but to twist in his seat and fall engrossed in the eyes of the woman looking back at him. For a long while, they stayed like that, staring into each other's eyes, listening to the quiet hum of the engines without really hearing it. Two separate heartbeats filling the silence before gradually seeming to merge into one. But only one of them could set the rhythm. 

A smile playing about her lips, then, Padmé stood and crossed the short distance to where Anakin sat, just stopping short of the edge of the seat. Transfixed, Anakin's gaze hungrily drank in every minute movement as she teased him with her dallying. Then, in one sudden swoop, she fell over him, pinning his wrists to the back of the seat and crushing her lips against his. And he responded avidly, releasing into his kisses all the accumulated tension from today and every fear about tomorrow and every regret from yesterday. He sought her warmth, her comfort, her counsel – dared her to tame him and make him hers to command. And she accepted challenge, her tongue lashing in his mouth like a scourge, teeth piercing into his lips like blades. Her clasp on his wrists tightened as she pressed him further and further into the seat. His lips grew pliant, malleable, his gaze hazy and intoxicated by her touch, her scent, every small motion of hers as she moved him about in the seat like a marionette on strings. And he forgot the world, forgot himself, forgot everything he'd left behind and everything that yet lay ahead… 

At least, until the navicom blared in warning of the approaching hyperspace exit, shocking him awake from the wonderful, sensual dream he was caught in. Still held in his wife's gentle grasp, his eyes fluttered up to hers and he sighed.

”It's true,” he confessed. ”Maybe I did want the fairytale. Maybe I did just want a simple life. But I fell in love with you.”

Padmé tilted her head down at him. ”And you're prepared to live with that decision?”

Anakin swallowed. ”Yes. This is what I want.” He glanced down hesitantly. ”But I… I've been a Jedi for so long,” and by that he meant, Padawan of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Master of Ahsoka Tano. Son of Shmi Skywalker. Someone else entirely from what he was about to become. ”It's… it's all I know.”

A soft hand landed atop his head, stroking back his tousled mane of curls. ”Don't worry. I'll corrupt you. All you have to do is let me.”

Her promise struck down on him like a fire on a barren clearing, lancing through the depths of his very soul. ”Yes,” he gasped, a strange new enthusiasm rising within him. But mixed with that dangerous curiosity, there was also a sense of… relief. The sweet release of submission. ”Please. Please corrupt me.” 

The warning blared again, but it didn't matter, because the next kiss she devoured him with made time stand still.

Chapter Text

It had looked grand on the outside, but on the inside – the former Galactic Senate, present Royal Palace was unlike anything Ahsoka had ever seen. Completely rebuilt and redecorated since the fall of the Republic, the hallways were draped in heavy, regal velvets and embellished with details of gold and black metal, reminiscent of what a younger, more innocent monarch had worn long ago. Ancient Nabooian symbols adorned the flags that fell over the balconies and spaces between windows, and in the air hung a sense of quiet danger, a looming menace hidden deep within. The impression may have been even stronger had the long carpets not been littered with uneven rows of unconscious guards, the two Jedi passing their motionless forms with wary steps. So far, the plan was coming along smoothly, and the coast was looking clear. 

”Anakin would be so proud of us,” Ahsoka whispered into the ominous quietude. ”Just barging in through the front door.”

At her side, she sensed her Master bristle. ”Ahsoka,” Obi-Wan chided sternly, and the young woman sighed. She knew her casually wistful words were hurting her Master more deeply than he let on, and yet, she could not stop the outburst that was rising from an aching place in her heart and flooding over her lips.

”I just,” she snapped, clenching her fists and throwing them to her sides like a youngling mid-tantrum. ”…can't help thinking… can't help hoping against hope that maybe my old Master is still in there somewhere! You know? I mean, you know she has these… mind compulsion powers… maybe she has him under a spell, or something?”

Obi-Wan sighed and rolled his eyes, and he sounded very jaded and tired indeed when he said, ”Oh, she has him under a spell alright. But it's not that kind of spell. Someday, my young Padawan, you will understand. Then again, let us hope you never will.”

Ahsoka pressed her lips together, suppressing a defiant sound. Just how naive and clueless did Master Obi-Wan take her for? She was almost eighteen, she knew about these things. But at the same time… she had never felt quite so young and out of her depth. 

”I trust you are committed to what we're here to do,” Obi-Wan said somberly, reading her thoughts. 

”I am, Master,” Ahsoka replied, and she meant it. One way or another, the tyranny of Queen Eeris had to come to an end. While she had managed to win favor with the people – improving living conditions on many planets, enabling a swift recovery from the war and even tackling slavery on the Outer Rim – she was also a ruthless despot who did not take kindly to opposition, shamelessly abusing her powers to get rid of her political adversaries and any obstacles that stood in her way. 

The Jedi were something of a special case. Not only were the Jedi and the Sith natural-born enemies, but the Queen had also openly declared war on them by having the members of the High Council murdered on the day of her coronation. She had later shown them 'mercy' by sparing the lives of those left behind, and 'only' disbanding the order and making the practice of Jedihood illegal under penalty of 'banishment'. But it was an open secret that she had slaughtered thousands of brave young Jedi who had risen up against her rule and was prepared to do so again at the first sign of trouble. 

And Anakin… Anakin had stood at her side from the very beginning. Ahsoka knew that Master Kenobi was more familiar with what exactly had happened, but he didn't like to talk about it, and she respected that boundary. People grieved in different ways. In her mind, at least, what she had been going through for the last three years felt like grieving – mourning someone she had known, taken away from her too soon – even if she could never quite smother that last bit of hope that her old Master still lived and could still be made to see sense. 

In her head, without even voicing these forbidden thoughts, she heard Master Kenobi's voice, It's too late for him, young one. She has trained him in the dark side, and they have two children together. He will not turn against his family.

It's too late for him.

It's too late.

Too soon, the broad, ornate doors to the throne room appeared before them. Obi-Wan drew out his lightsaber, presumably with the intention of cutting their way through, but no sooner had he ignited the weapon than the doors broke apart, welcoming them into the great hall that opened beyond. Cautiously, the Master and Padawan stepped in. 

If the hallway had been impressive, it didn't hold a candle to the grandeur of the throne room. With walls of diamond white and pale gold, the room basked in the light streaming in from the high transparisteel windows. A grand chandelier hung above their heads, glittering like the suns and stars of a miniature galaxy. A narrow black carpet led to a dais upon which the Queen's throne stood, upholstered in black velvet and decorated with ornate carvings and precious stones. And in her elevated seat, the supreme monarch herself sat, her head held high even under the weight of the elaborate headdress that stood atop her glossy, freely flowing curls. Robed in a heavy black gown with golden armor-like details at the shoulders and the chest, she looked every bit as majestic and intimidating as she did on a remote holoscreen, promising prosperity to her galactic kingdom and a swift end to those who dared oppose her rule. And she probably would have looked even more so, had Ahsoka been paying any attention to her at all. 

But instead her eyes were fastened to the figure sitting down at her feet, at the base of the throne. His head rested on the Queen's lap, tilted to the side and buried in the folds of her heavy hems. Slender, ring-adorned fingers ran through his tousled curls in soft motions. The young man was half-naked, only clad in a pair of sleek black trousers and matching black boots, with Eeris' long locks running down his bare chest. His half-lidded, idly content gaze betrayed recognition, but no surprise, not the faintest trace of shock or apprehension. Instead, a vaguely pleased smirk tugged up his lips as he took in the visitors, his cheeks and the corners of his mouth stained in faint smears of red lipstick. After a moment, he almost seemed to grow bored of the sight of them, lazily lifting his head to exchange smug looks with the Empress, who smiled favorably at him before turning to the uninvited guests. 

”Master Kenobi, what a pleasant surprise,” she spoke in her bell-like voice. Ahsoka's gaze was still transfixed by the hand massaging her old Master's scalp, by the subtle looks of approval she would give him, like he was a… like he was a well-trained pet. He looked so docile, so passive… so different from the fiery, rebellious mentor that Ahsoka remembered from her first apprenticeship. But at the same time… 

”And Padawan Tano,” the Queen interrupted her thoughts. ”You know, three years ago I let you live because I didn't think you represented a serious threat to my rule. Yet here you are, making me proud.”

Ahsoka wanted to clap back with a clever retort, but before she could come up with anything, Eeris clarified, looking down at her loyal servant, ”Or should I say… my husband let you live. With my due permission, of course.”

A wave of shock ran through Ahsoka, making her fall a step back. Unable to mask her dismay, she was sure it showed on her face - and yet, there wasn't a trace of remorse or guilt in the eyes that stared back at her, meek and tame and awaiting for orders from the woman looming above. ”Anakin…” she breathed. 

He was a shadow of his old self… or rather, a distant, glassy shimmer, like the haze that resided in his eyes. And yet, it was at this moment that Ahsoka saw that Master Obi-Wan had been right. It was too late. There was no bringing her old Master back from wherever he'd gone, wherever those vacant eyes of his were looking. The man who had trained her was gone, a mere extension of the woman he now served, the woman he called his wife, but treated like his ruler… nay, his owner. 

Gritting her teeth, she reached for her saber and held it up with a flourish. ”You're gonna pay for what you've done,” she declared, and by this, she wasn't solely referring to Eeris' crimes against the Galaxy. 

”Shh,” the Queen hushed, bringing a finger to her lips. ”You're waking up the baby.”

Ahsoka's brow markings shot up, but Master Obi-Wan only scoffed and said matter-of-factly, ”Your children are three years old, your Majesty, and I doubt they can hear us all the way to the tenth floor.” 

A sweet smile passed over the Queen's red lips before she gripped the ornate armrests with both her hands and pushed herself up from the throne. Ahsoka skipped a breath when the heavy folds of her gown re-arranged themselves over her torso, revealing not her usual petite, slim frame but an unmistakable bulge protruding from underneath the fabric. 

”Aaaand now he's kicking,” the Queen drawled casually, rubbing circles on her swollen belly. She gestured at the two Jedi invitingly. ”You're welcome to come feel.” Again, she traded knowing glances with her manservant, who had yet to speak a single word.

Obi-Wan was the first to recover from the surprise. He brandished his saber at his former student, still sitting obediently at his mistress' feet. ”Draw your blade, Anakin,” he ordered. 

The young man made no move to react. Eeris laughed. ”So… I presume you won't be taking an innocent life today… but you would still rob it of its father?”

”I see no father here,” Obi-Wan said harshly. ”Only a glorified pet.” 

She sneered. ”So be it, 'pet',” she cooed, her hand sliding down from atop Anakin's head and down his cheek. He all but purred at her touch, leaning into it and closing his eyes. ”Why don't you show them just how very… ornamental you are.” 

Her hand traced along the bare muscles of his arms and down his side as the fallen Jedi rose from the floor and stood to his full height. His eyes grew focused, his irises filling with gleaming, warm liquid gold. 

”Gladly, my Queen.”