The doors shut behind him with a definitive click, and Anakin realises, perhaps slightly belatedly, that he just got himself into serious trouble.
His eyes dart across the vast, dimly lit space of the cargo hold, taking in the half-collapsed ceiling and the loose wires hanging off the walls, firing sparks in erratic bursts. Go capture a Sith Lord, the Council said. Be prepared for anything, the Council said. Which happened to be, incidentally, just about the worst advice he ever got from the Council, and that’s saying something. All of their advice is always either cryptic or completely useless; Anakin imagines that whenever they manage to make it cryptic and useless at the same time, Yoda and Mace Windu high-five each other as soon as he leaves the room.
They could’ve at least given him a clue, anything, so he wouldn’t end up stepping into a trap so obvious he wants to go back in time and smack his past self on the head with the hilt of his lightsaber. He chased the elusive Sith Lord through the crumbling Star Destroyer completely alone, separated from his men after, well, parts of the Star Destroyer sort of crumbled in their way, and now he got himself locked in an empty cargo hold, just waiting for the Sith Lord to attack him.
What a great way to finish the day.
Don’t be so rash, Skywalker, consider your options, he hears Mace Windu’s voice in his head, an echo of words he’d heard so many times they’ve etched themselves into his brain. If somebody woke him up in the middle of the night he’d struggle to remember the Jedi Code, but he’d do an impression of Mace Windu’s disappointed tone without missing a beat or opening his eyes.
Still, of all the advice currently available to him it seems the most reasonable, so he does exactly that; stops and thinks. He knows there’s a trap waiting for him. Considering how the Dark Side is trying to cloud his senses, the Sith Lord must be somewhere nearby, probably crouched in a corner, waiting for—
There’s a hooded figure standing motionless in the middle of the cargo hold, illuminated by one of the few lamps that still work. Anakin’s hand moves to rest on the lightsaber hooked on his belt as he takes several careful steps forward, still at a safe distance. It’s a trap. He knows it’s a trap.
The stranger lifts his hands to his hood and gently pulls it back, revealing his face. So the Council was right: there is yet another Sith, a human. His robes, black and crimson, are somewhat reminiscent of Jedi clothing, but they’re more ostentatious, asymmetrical, the tails of his tunic almost touching the floor. He has a lightsaber, there’s a blaster holster strapped to his leg, too. A high open collar frames his bearded face, the black in stark contrast with his piercing gold eyes and sleek hair the colour of sand.
Anakin hates sand.
“Hello, young one,” the Sith Lord says, tilting his head to the side, and Anakin didn’t expect evil incarnate to have such a smooth, pleasantly low voice, but he does, and Anakin’s brow furrows. “So they sent you to kill me, did they? I expected someone more… experienced. I imagine I’m not important enough for the great Master Yoda himself, but… Well, evidently I’m not important enough for any of them. How very disappointing.” He places a hand over his heart, as if pretending to be hurt.
Anakin is not at all fond of how this entire situation has caught him off-guard. He’d feel much more confident if the man just attacked, as they always do, but no. He’s just standing there. Talking. Staring at Anakin like he expects something from him.
“Capture,” Anakin manages, searching his mind for some semblance of bravery and self-confidence. He’s not a Padawan any more. He’s got this. He clears his throat and tries again. “The Council sent me to capture you. Which I’m going to do, one way or another. So you can either go willingly, or—“
The Sith Lord laughs, a light, almost charming sound, then gives Anakin a condescending smile. “Last time I checked, threatening was… not quite what you’d call the Jedi way.”
“You think you can lecture me on the Jedi way?”
“Seems like I’m doing it right now, young one, so yes, I suppose so.” There’s a hint of almost friendly amusement in his voice, and Anakin takes a step back, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. “Anything in particular you’d like to know about the Jedi Order? I’d love to share some of my knowledge. I bet I could tell you… oh, such interesting things.”
Anakin’s grip on his lightsaber is so tight it’s starting to hurt, which, he decides, is a sign that perhaps he’s spent enough time making small talk with a Sith Lord on board of a ship that might start exploding any second. He pulls the weapon out as he holds the man’s gaze and thrusts his chin forward; a challenge.
“That’s a no, then. Shame,” the Sith Lord sighs.
He drops his cloak onto the floor in a hypnotising, graceful if dramatic manner, rolling his shoulders with the movement and staring at Anakin all the while. Anakin realises he can’t quite look away from the man, barely regains his resolve and concentration when the Sith calls his lightsaber to his hand and ignites it. He quickly swings the crimson blade in front of himself and behind his back, then shifts into a battle stance, saber raised over his shoulder and angled forward, two fingers of his other hand pointing at Anakin, lopsided smile playing on his lips.
Soresu. An odd choice for a Sith Lord.
The man’s golden eyes slowly sweep up and down Anakin’s body, sizing him up as the Jedi gets rid of his own cloak. Anakin has no idea why he’s feeling so absurdly exposed and self-conscious all of a sudden. Surely it has nothing to do with how the Sith Lord’s eyes are boring into him.
The Sith Lord speaks again, his tone even lower, almost purring. “Shame, indeed. I think I rather like you.”
Anakin swallows nervously. All right, so maybe it has a lot to do with the Sith Lord.
It’s Anakin who attacks first, not because it’s the most rational thing to do, but because he needs to focus on something other than the blush he’s pretty sure is creeping up his neck.
Which is, of all the decisions he could’ve made in those circumstances, quite possibly the worst one. His moves are too reckless, his mind too distracted; the Council members would probably have a collective stroke if they saw him.
The Sith Lord meets and blocks his power attack overhead, before it even gains enough momentum to be considered an attack. For a split second they’re very close; Anakin manages to catch a glimpse of the man’s smug expression before his own lightsaber is knocked aside and the Sith Lord swiftly moves behind him, slashing a shallow wound across the back of his thigh and sending him stumbling.
Anakin hisses as he calls the weapon back into his hand; shallow or not, the cut hurts like hell and doesn’t bode well for him at all. He moves away, trying to regain his balance and find in himself the strength to ignore the stinging pain. The crimson blade must’ve cut into the muscle; this fight is going to be significantly harder than he’d thought.
(Well, here’s another thing he ended up being somewhat unprepared for, he thinks and winces. Why didn’t the Council warn him not to underestimate the Sith because they’ll lull him into a false sense of security and then try to cut off his legs when he least expects it? Be prepared for anything, the Council said. Yeah, that’s working out just great so far.
If he survives this, he’s going to punch Yoda straight in his tiny green nose.)
“I can sense your anger, young one,” the Sith Lord calls to him in a singsong tone. “How it gathers around you, hums into your ear.”
“I’m not angry,” Anakin says angrily.
The Sith Lord circles him with a feral smile, watches but doesn’t attack as he swings his lightsaber idly and waits, a wild animal hunting its prey.
Anakin immediately realises the problem this poses for him. The only way he’s going to win this fight, the Sith Lord clearly having an advantage over him, is if he manages to surprise his opponent, counterattacking and turning his own blows against him. If the Sith Lord refuses to attack, though, Anakin doesn’t have a lot of options left.
He moves to strike at the man again and again, hoping for an opportunity to reveal itself, but no matter how much strength he puts into his blows, the Sith Lord seems to dodge and parry them almost effortlessly, nonchalant in his defence but vicious in the few attacks that he does initiate. Anakin’s barely holding his own against the man’s boldness and grace, the sheer speed of his movements enough to thwart any of Anakin’s attempts at counterattacks or his usual wide, powerful blows.
He could just as well be fighting a mountain. A very quick, breathtakingly skilled mountain with defence so intensely focused that there seems to be no way to overcome it.
Despite his wounded leg, Anakin decides to try and risk using Ataru, since Djem So evidently isn’t getting him anywhere. He twirls to the side and backflips away, curses under his breath when he lands on his injured leg. He immediately jumps again, to the side and forward to try and flank the Sith Lord, get an attack from an angle that would surprise the man, but his hurting leg is making this increasingly difficult. His attempt is parried and he has to immediately move away to avoid the jab aiming right for his heart.
There’s a pattern, he realises, to his opponent’s parries, and he immediately focuses on shielding that epiphany from the Sith Lord. The man always moves to the side after deflecting his attacks, almost dances around him, so close and yet impossible to reach.
Well, Anakin thinks, allowing himself a small smirk, let’s see just how impossible to reach he truly is.
He jumps in for the attack, but instead of clashing their lightsabers against one another, Anakin powers down his, ducks under the Sith Lord’s attempted block, throwing him off balance, and ignites the blue blade again. He doesn’t give himself time to think as he swings it, aiming straight for where the man’s neck will be.
The Council is going to have to forgive him for not bringing the Sith Lord to them alive.
Except the man lunges forward, impossibly quick, manages to block the attack and trips Anakin, catching his wrist while he’s stumbling. He wrestles the lightsaber form Anakin’s hand and throws it aside.
Before Anakin has a chance to reassess the situation, he’s lying disarmed with his back flat on the floor, the crackling blade of the Sith Lord’s lightsaber at his neck, and a heavy knee on his chest, pinning him in place.
So, that’s bad.
“Impressive,” the Sith says, his soft voice slightly breathless, “but not quite enough.”
Some of his hair is falling over his forehead now, and Anakin is painfully aware that this really isn’t the best of times to realise that the Sith Lord probably about to kill him is a very handsome man, but Anakin seems to have little control over his own thoughts. Or the blush. He’s definitely blushing now. Oh, hell.
“Try to move, and I’ll have no choice but to kill you,” the man continues, “and I’d rather not do it.”
Anakin laughs at him, bitter and resentful.
“What kind of Sith are you if you don’t want to kill a Jedi?”
Something resembling amusement flashes though the man’s expression. “One you’ll spend a lot of time thinking about, young one,” he murmurs, leaning closer to Anakin’s face, sparkling golden eyes meeting angry blue.
His knee and weapon are still rather successfully discouraging Anakin from moving as he calls Anakin’s lightsaber into his other hand. He activates it and inspects the blue blade with genuine curiosity. Every single thought in Anakin’s brain is screaming for a fight, but he is pinned, the man’s weight heavy on his chest, and the blade of the red lightsaber is really close; one move, and he won’t have a neck to connect his reckless head to the rest of his body.
The Sith Lord steps back in one smooth, graceful motion, leaving Anakin on the floor. He powers down the blue saber, keeping the crimson one pointed at Anakin’s neck, then takes a blaster out of the holster on his belt. “Uncivilised,” he mutters as he throws the weapon to the ground, placing Anakin’s lightsaber in the holster instead.
Anakin just watches him. He can’t remember the last time he’s been this confused about anything.
“So since you’re not… killing me,” Anakin says slowly, and he can’t believe the words are leaving his mouth but apparently that’s what’s happening right now, he might as well just run with it, “can I have my lightsaber back?”
The Sith Lord’s mouth curls into a mischievous smile.
“This weapon is your life,” he drawls in a mocking tone, and Anakin freezes again. “Well, why don’t you ask me again the next time we see each other. If you ask nicely, I might just consider it.”
The tip of his lightsaber is still mere inches from Anakin’s neck as the Jedi slowly climbs to his feet, trying not to think about how the Sith Lord is absolutely certain that they will be meeting again.
“I don’t need to tell you that if you try to follow me now, I will kill you.”
He powers down the lightsaber and walks a few steps backwards, holding Anakin’s gaze. Anakin doesn’t dare move, which wins him another satisfied smirk from the Sith Lord.
“Good boy,” the man says before turning around and heading for the door.
Anakin doesn’t like a single thing about this.
His eyes are drawn to the blaster the man so casually threw away. It’s lying right there on the floor, so close to him. His thoughts are racing. So what if shooting people in the back is not the Jedi way? He can’t just let a powerful Sith Lord go like that; surely even the Council would forgive him such a minor disobedience.
Anakin kneels, grabs the blaster, and fires.
Which, as he realises seconds later, watching the Sith Lord turn on his heel and furiously deflect the shot into a wall, was perhaps not the best idea he’s had today. The Sith reaches out with his fingers splayed as if they were holding—
Anakin’s hands rush to his throat as a phantom force closes around it. He tries to shake free but there’s nothing to grab at; the Force raises him into the air as he’s desperately trying to balance himself on the tips of his toes and fighting for air. The Sith Lord walks to him in long graceful steps until his hand replaces the phantom grip on Anakin’s neck.
His golden eyes are fiery, angry, but disappointed, too.
“Don’t make me do this, young one,” he says, and it’s a threat, yet somehow it sounds just like the Jedi Masters back at the Temple scolding him for trying to use the Force to do his chores. “You’ve much potential within you. Would be a real shame to waste that.”
Anakin doesn’t know what to make of that.
Mostly, because he can’t kriffing breathe.
The Sith lets go of him and he collapses onto the floor, a graceless heap of limbs, gasping for air. It’s a really good thing the Council can’t see him now, he thinks, a poor excuse of a Jedi cowering at the feet of a powerful Sith Lord.
The Sith flicks his wrist, pushing him against the nearest wall with what Anakin thinks is a lot less force than he could, then turns towards the door again.
“You didn’t tell me your name,” Anakin calls after him, his voice coarse.
The man stops, looks over his shoulder, and laughs. “You don’t need to know my name, young one. You haven’t earned the right to know it yet.”
“I thought the Sith weren’t supposed to be cowards.”
“And I thought the Jedi were supposed to have patience.”
Anakin sighs, exasperated. So this is his life now. A Sith Lord is scolding him for not being a good enough Jedi. He just can’t wait to not mention any of this to the Council, ever.
“Now, if I were you, I’d probably consider escaping this place. No way this ship is going to last long,” the Sith Lord says, just as a massive explosion rolls through the entire Star Destroyer. “Ah, exactly. Good luck.”
“So how did he beat you, Skywalker?” Mace Windu asks, and Anakin is really starting to regret not making up a comprehensive and easy-to-remember list of lies he’s going to use while telling the Council what happened.
Then again, he’s very good at improvising.
“He, uh… surprised me,” Anakin says, painfully aware that the entire Council is listening to his story intently. In his mind, at least, he’s calling it a story instead of a report. Seems more accurate that way. “Separated me from my men, then injured me in a surprise attack, and I just… couldn’t break his defence after that.” Some truths, some half-truths, some pained winces as he pretends to be significantly more hurt than he is; it seems to be working as members of the Council nod at him. “The Force is strong with him, his lightsaber skills are… remarkable, as well.”
“Impressed, you sound.”
Anakin shrugs, trying to stuff all of his nervousness deep into himself, where the Council won’t see it. “I can… appreciate a skilled opponent when I meet one.”
“So how did you escape? He didn’t just let you go, did he?”
Anakin really hopes what he’s feeling isn’t showing on his face. “Uhh, no, of course not. The ship we were on started… falling apart, exploding, I guess he decided that saving himself was more important than killing me. I found my way back into the hangar bay, me and the clones got into a shuttle… that’s pretty much it.”
“Anything else, then?” Mace asks, and Anakin can tell that his story is trying the Jedi Master’s patience, but it’s still a far better option than admitting the truth. “Did you get his name, was there something in particular that stood out?”
“It’s not like we had time for introductions,” Anakin says, wondering how come the lies do not burn his tongue as he speaks them. “That being said… I think he might’ve been a Jedi once.”
He’s not even sure where the idea comes from. It’s just a thought that he finds in his head all of a sudden. Somehow, it makes sense to him.
“I have no proof, it’s just… a feeling.”
“Mysterious, the ways of the Force are,” Yoda says, and the members of the Council nod sagely.
Anakin wants to congratulate himself on not rolling his eyes.
“Anything more you’d like to tell us, Skywalker?”
Anakin swallows nervously. Sure; that the Sith Lord kicked his ass, took his lightsaber, and let him go. Except there’s no way he’s going to admit that. Throughout his lifetime he’s heard more than enough lectures about this weapon being his life. He doesn’t need another one from the entire Council.
“I would like to request that… you don’t send me on any off-planet missions for a few days,” he manages. “I… underestimated the Sith Lord, and got badly hurt. I’m recovering, but the injuries are slowing my reflexes and I fear in this state I wouldn’t be of much use in the field.”
He can see the growing frustration in Mace Windu’s eyes, but the Jedi Master doesn’t say anything.
“As of now, we’re regrouping, anyway,” the holoprojection of Ki-Adi-Mundi breaks the silence. “Thanks to you, we’ve beaten the Separatist forces in the Rishi system, so they should be… less active for a few days at least, and your clone battalion was going to be joining Plo Koon’s 104th for a mission anyway. Take your time, Skywalker; just not too much.”
Anakin bites the inside of his cheek lightly; he really doesn’t like the fact that the decision to send the 501st away was made without him, but he doesn’t have much of a choice, and he is grateful that the Council is allowing him some rest. He nods and leaves the Council meeting as quickly as he can without actually running.
As he makes his way through the Temple, he can’t help but curiously peek into some of the rooms, hoping he’ll stumble upon a friendly face or two. Perhaps one of the Padawans; Anakin’s really fond of their energy and endless disregard for any and all rules.
He whistles a friendly greeting at a passing droid and smiles to himself as he finally spots a group of Padawans hiding in one of the training rooms; one of them seems to be keeping another one floating several inches above the ground while the rest, standing in a circle around the two, are encouraging them in excited whispers.
“And what are you doing?” Anakin raises his voice as he tiptoes his way closer to them.
One of the younger Padawans almost yelps in surprise. They all turn with fear in their eyes, but instantly relax once they realise that it’s just him and not someone who would give them a three hour lecture on the misuse of the Force. He grins at the Padwans, recognises most of them; the ones who were apparently providing the main attraction for the others were Ahsoka, studying under Aayla Secura, and Barriss, Luminara Unduli’s apprentice. Ahsoka beams at him as Barriss nods her head in polite greeting, her expression slightly anxious.
“Skyguy!” Ahsoka interrupts Barriss, to the apparent horror of her friend. “Master Secura is on a mission in the Outer Rim and she told me to train my focus in the Force while she’s away. I figured out how to make living beings float! Look!”
“Ahsoka, please, don’t—“ Barriss tries, but Ahsoka is already closing her eyes and pointing a hand at her.
The Force buzzes around them, an almost amused note to its intensity, and Barriss sharply draws in a breath as she is raised several inches into the air again. Ahsoka opens her eyes to look at Anakin.
“Impressive, Snips,” Anakin laughs, idly wondering what to do with the stupid pride swelling in his chest.
Ahsoka isn’t even his Padawan, nor is her idea of training her focus anything the Jedi would normally approve of. Yet he can’t help but grin in delight at her self-confidence and the sheer excitement she’s radiating. He wonders if the Council would allow him to take her for a few missions with him. He knows Aayla wouldn’t mind.
He fondly shakes his head, assumes his best impression of Mace Windu’s voice, and asks, “But how is that relevant to your training?”
One of the other Padwans snorts, and Anakin winks at him.
“I am learning how to use the Force,” Ahsoka argues, notes of laughter in her voice. “That’s totally relevant!”
“All right, all right, now let Barriss down, I don’t think she’s enjoying this.”
“I’m not,” Barriss says instantly, sounding so much like Luminara Anakin wants to laugh.
“Master Skywalker? Is it true that you’ve fought a Sith Lord?” one of the other Padawans asks as Ahsoka carefully sets Barriss back on the floor. Anakin stiffens at the question.
“How in the hell would you know about that?”
“Everyone knows about that! About Geonosis. Was it hard?”
Oh, that’s what he means. Geonosis. Dooku. Anakin gives himself a mental kick for thinking that somehow the Padawans found out about his most recent scuffle. For a second he’d almost expected them to ask about his missing lightsaber.
Still. He’d very much like to forget what happened on Geonosis, too.
In the suddenly uncomfortable silence that falls between him and the Padawans he nervously flexes his cybernetic fingers and meets Ahsoka’s eyes for a split second. He sees a flash of understanding in her face before she turns on her heel and snaps at the Padawan.
“That’s none of your business, Whie! With the amount of time you spend on meditating, you’d think the Force would tell you when to shut up.”
The Padawan takes a step back, confused by her outburst. Anakin carefully puts a hand on Ahsoka’s shoulder, impressed by her reaction, how ready she was to fight just because she noticed his distress. Not exactly something a Jedi should do, but he’s not her Master; he doesn’t have to lecture her on the ways of the Jedi, thank the Force. He gives her a small, thankful smile instead, and really hopes that Aayla is as proud of her as he is.
“Snips, hey. As much as I appreciate your willingness to… defend my honour, it’s all right. Oh, and Whie?” Anakin smirks at the nosy Padawan. “Why don’t you ask Master Yoda about duelling Sith Lords. I’m sure he’d love to share his knowledge.”
As Anakin excuses himself and heads towards his rooms, he decides he’s definitely going to take Ahsoka somewhere. Were the circumstances a bit different, he thinks, he would’ve loved to have her as his Padawan.