"How much longer we got?" Panche asked, watching space race by in a blur.
"Four hours." His sister glanced at him and scowled. "Get your boots off the dash." Panche had not only his legs but half of his backside propped up on the ship's dashboard, bony appendages sprawled around the controls like freeloading ivy. Kare waited for him to obey her orders. When he did not, she kicked the closest leg and he fell fully out of his chair.
"Ow! What the hell, Kare?"
"The Ambassador will be there – do you really want him to think we tramp mud all over our entire ship?" Kare wiped muddy boot prints from the otherwise spotless dash.
"What, you think he's going to come in here to have a look?" Panche re-emerged with an incredulous expression and fell back into his seat - both butt cheeks set fully in the chair this time. He adjusted his hat and pulled a mocking impression of a posh core-worlder: "Oh, Kare, this is the most wonderful ship I've ever seen, wot! You simply must do all of my courier jobs in place of all of the many hundreds of thousands of couriers already available in the Core, you're just that good."
"Oh, shut up," Kare grouched. "Gods forbid I try to look out for this damn family."
Panche shrugged and, slowly, so Kare might not notice, toed one boot back up toward the dash. Kare didn't notice. She was frowning at the nav computer.
"Hmm?" Panche raised an eyebrow.
"There's a hydrogen cloud up ahead, we're going to have to go sublight and reroute to the Shwuy."
"Shwuy Exchange? Ugh!" Panche sank halfway off his chair. "That's going to take hours," he whined.
"There's no other lanes nearby – would you stop? Gods, mom should've smacked you more." She kicked his boots again, which were inching back up to the dash. "Make yourself useful and check the cargo's not destabilized."
"They're just rocks," Panche complained. Kare glared at him for a steady ten seconds.
"Fine," Panche groaned, hauling himself up off his chair.
As he shuffled through the door, Kare began priming the sublight engines.
"Leaving lightspeed!" she announced.
"I hear ya, I hear ya," Panche said to himself, holding onto the bulwark just long enough to let the hull jolt under him before continuing on his path toward the cargo bay.
Encased in the starry black desert of the northwestern galaxy, Kare gently steered their ship toward the beginning of the Shwuy Exchange hyperspace lanes.
"Hyperdrive needs a minute to warm up," she said aloud for Panche's benefit. "I'm going to make caf. How's the cargo?"
"Rock-like," came the answer. She rolled her eyes.
As Kare filled the caf brewer with water, her whole ship gave a sudden lurch, sending pots and cups flattering to the kitchenette floor. The hull creaked and groaned, sounds that no ship should make in abandoned space. Kare caught herself on a counter, eyes wide.
"Panche," she accused, eyes darting around in alarm. "You said the cargo was fine!"
"It's not the cargo," her brother shouted back from the bay. "Sounds like it's coming from port - did the nav show any debris alerts?"
"No - what do you mean it sounds like it's coming from port? You mean outside the ship?"
"Yeah, it-" another noise erupted from port side, metal crunching and shrieking under some weight. "What the kriff – woah, hey hey hey woah!"
Panche was interrupted by the patently clear sound of a blastershot. A thump, then silence.
"Panche?" Kare called, terror creeping into her voice. She heard footsteps. She did not hear her brother. She reached into her boot for the pistol hidden there, turned off the safety and crept around the corner.
There was a man standing over her brother's body, fiddling with the lock on the cargo bay door.
"Hey!" she shouted. The man turned and raised a blaster toward her, but she shot first. It hit the man's hand and he yelped. She shot again, and put a hole straight through the ammo chamber of his pistol.
"Bitch," he hissed, holding his injured hand. He glared up at Kare, who stood across the deck with her blaster leveled at his head.
"You know, I really wanted to let you both live," the man complained, looking tired. "Hence the, uh-" he shook the blaster he held, still smoking and useless. He tossed it away. On the floor, Panche groaned and tried to roll over. The stranger put a heavy boot on his shoulder, and the pilot moaned in pain.
"But you just had to be stupid," said the man, unaffected by the boy's agony. "Alright then," he unclipped something from his belt. "This is your own damn fault."
A sound like lightning erupted across the ship, and Kare could feel every hair on her body stand on end. She wanted to shoot, but she was frozen in place, the whites of her eyes cast pink by the garish red light.
"I say, was that a lightsaber?"
The Prince Consort's comment made Ben Kenobi turn his head to look to the door, and twelve royal heads turned to look with him. The Jedi swallowed his bite of roast enyak and politely dabbed his mouth with a napkin.
"I should think not, your highness," he told the aging prince, but even as he spoke, he could hear the unmistakable hum of a lightsaber moving through the air outside. Some of the younger diners had heard it, too, and were beginning to frown and crane their necks to peer out doors and windows. "If you'll excuse me a moment, your highnesses, your majesty," Ben bowed, his entire presence exuding a suggestion of calm and good humor. He smiled all the way to the door.
The expression dissolved as he marched down the long palace veranda. It was well past dark in Constancia's capital city. The night was overcast, clouds diffusing the light of the planet's single moon into a sleepy blue, decorated by the sconces dotted along the shape of the royal family's isolated villa. In the vast gardens and vineyard, insects sang and trees rustled. The first taste of summer rain hung in the air and with it the dormant promise of a good harvest.
Against this backdrop of serenity, the discordant hum and glow of a lightsaber were unmistakable - as was the tall, lanky silhouette that carried it.
"Anakin, I can hear that thing from across the palace," Ben approached the figure. "You're scaring people. What's wrong?"
Anakin did not look back at his master, and was staring out at the darkened valley. The wind picked up, and waves of moonlit grass shimmered beyond the garden groves.
"Something's out there," the apprentice said.
Anakin was not a skittish person. Ben glanced up at him – he'd only recently had to relearn the task of looking up at the boy – and followed his gaze. He stretched out his senses, using the Force to see his surroundings despite the dark.
After a while, he said, "I don't sense anything."
Anakin looked uncertain, not willing to trust the Force or his Master over the other. He frowned and bit his lip, a expression he'd held over from boyhood. "I swear, Master, there was something," he said.
Ben had never let his apprentice know it, but much as Anakin doubted his senses for Ben's sake, Ben, knowing Anakin's true power, often doubted his own abilities against the padawan's convictions.
The master continued scanning the distance for several more moments before he turned his attention back to Anakin's lightsaber.
"I don't know what it could be, but put that away. We don't need any more skittish royals on our hands. Keeping them civil through marriage negotiations is like herding lothcat kittens; it'll be worse if they think there's danger."
Anakin disengaged his 'saber. In the quiet darkness, his teeth showed a cheshire grin. "I thought you liked political missions, Master," he teased. Ben did not miss a beat.
"I am good at politics, padawan, but there is no law of the Force that compels a person to like the things they're good at."
"Like flying?" Anakin offered.
"Exactly," Ben said, and then frowned in consideration. "Perhaps I'm doomed to despise my own talents."
"You don't despise teaching, do you?" Anakin asked coyly. Ben's expression did not change as he said:
"You're my apprentice, I couldn't possibly answer that question."
"Anyway," Ben waved dismissively, "you shouldn't have asked; flattery doesn't become you."
"Hold on," the padawan shook his head, entire worldview shifting, "what am I supposed to make of-"
"Shh!" Ben interrupted, putting out a hand to press on Anakin's chest. Operating on years of ingrained training, Anakin shut up, but still looked offended as he looked from Ben's hand to Ben's face. He glared at his master, trying to divine the problem while simultaneously talking back with his eyebrows.
Ben paid no attention. He tilted his head to listen. Suddenly, he turned around to face the far corner of the veranda, and ignited his lightsaber.
Following his master's gaze, Anakin sensed it, too. His green saber joined Ben's blue.
"I told you there was something out there," the padawan said. There was no malice in the words, only validation.
"So you did," Ben agreed, attuning his senses. The Force darkened with a new presence that slunk toward the palace with evil intent.
"Find the guards, secure a perimeter," Ben ordered. "I'll gather up the royal families."
"Like herding kittens?" Anakin joked, even as he moved his saber into ready position. Ben's glance was made past stern eyebrows, but Anakin had known him long enough to know he was smiling beneath the shadows.
"Something like it," the master said. "Be careful, padawan."
Ben retraced his steps back into the palace, and Anakin fell into a half crouch and jogged down the edge of the veranda. He could not tell exactly how many hostiles waited for him at the garden's edge, but the Force grew darker and darker with unseen threat. He found a guard and explained the situation.
"But how many of them are there?" the man asked the Jedi, comming his superiors for backup.
"I don't know exactly," Anakin confessed. Ben would have known, but Anakin's' connection to the Force was not yet as refined as his master's. "But no matter if there's one or ten, we need a solid perimeter around the palace. I'm going to search the gardens, but they may already be there. Keep them away from the house."
"And what about you?" The guard looked at Anakin's braid, his prominent adam's apple, and his emaciated five o'clock shadow. His expression grew more concerned. "If they're in the garden…"
"I can take care of myself," Anakin assured. "You just need to keep the royal family safe."
At this mandate, the guard seemed to take courage. "Yes, sir," he saluted. Anakin wasn't sure what to make of it. He nodded awkwardly and gave a half-salute back.
"Good," he said, and set out into the moonlit grounds. Though the countryside had not lost its serene airs, the Force was taut with anxiety. Anakin's anxiety, the guard's anxiety, and, much to Anakin's benefit, the anxiety of a faceless enemy, whose malicious intent left a wake in the Force itself that Anakin now followed.
He rounded a tree, and the figure was there. It turned toward him, saw him, and froze.
"Stop right there!" Anakin shouted. It turned and bolted away. Anakin cursed and ran after it. The figure was barreling toward the house, and for a fleeting moment Anakin imagined that it would continue on into the waiting entourage of guards for an easy capture. Then, out of nowhere, three more figures appeared and started shooting at him.
"Force-damn chssk-" the apprentice flattened himself to the ground and rolled under a hedge. After a ear-ringing moment of shock, he could sense the beings start to move away. Did they think they'd shot him? Were they retreating? Were they attacking someone else? Were they going to attack the guards?
Ben would know, Anakin thought, as he often did in these situations. But he was not Ben and Ben was not here, so he listened to the Force, took its gamble and stood to his feet. He could see the figures fleeing around the corner of the house. But to where?
Anakin followed their path past the top of the main vineyard and around toward the back of the house. Once past the northwestern corner, the Jedi could see paths in the Force and the grass - they were giving the palace a wide berth. They must have seen the guards patrolling the veranda. Anakin began to hear voices. He put away his saber and fell into a crouch.
"-were only half of these guards. This entrance isn't going to work. They know we're here!"
"It has to work, and it has to be today. We'll charge it head on. We have enough firepower."
"Are you insane?"
"Are you giving up? That bitch is about to hand our country over to the enemy so she can put a pretty boy in her bed. One of them has to die."
Anakin raised his eyebrows.
"If we do this," said a third man, "it's a good chance we're not all making it back."
The second speaker - their leader, Anakin guessed - was undeterred. "It's worth the risk."
The grass rustled as the would-be assasins moved away from their hideaway to prepare for a head-on assault.
Even without Ben there to remind him, Anakin knew that there wasn't anything quite as dangerous as a violent person with nothing to lose.
And multiple allies and heavy weaponry, Anakin added mentally. Once he felt the assassins were far enough away, he stood. They were retracing their steps back to the north side of the house, the most secluded side. Anakin plowed a wide path around them, using the same shadows they were using to hide until he overtook them and watched their approach from ahead. As he paused to breathe and watch, the Force spiked an urgent gold in Anakin's mind, and he looked closer.
"Oh, no." There was a person - a little girl - walking around the house in the opposite direction. She couldn't have seen around the corner, but she was going to run straight into the armed men.
"Come on, come on, they're not that quiet." Anakin willed her to realize the danger she was in. "Move, move, move."
As the men continued sneaking closer and closer to the veranda, the girl let her hand trail along the wall as she walked, fingers tracing the grout in carefree patterns.
"Oh, come on." Anakin despaired. He didn't want to give away his position, but… he surged forward. It was something Jedi learned in the crèche and internalized as teenagers: we take care of our own. Jedi, sentients, and especially, always, children.
The men spotted him as he darted toward the house and began shooting. Anakin continued to run, steps punctuated by the whiz of blasterfire and the beat of his own personal mantra:
"Kriff, kriff, kriff, kriff, kriff,"
He reached the girl just as she stepped directly into the path of one of the attackers. The first assassin tripped on her. She screamed, and he raised his blaster and pointed toward the sound.
"Move!" Anakin grabbed her and pulled her away just in time, but it pulled him closer, too. The blaster went off, and the bolt seared through Anakin's shoulder. He couldn't help it when he screamed. The girl looked horrified, and more horrified still when the man raised his weapon for a second shot. She grabbed Anakin's hand and dragged him away.
They ran, and it took a moment of pain before Anakin came to his senses and ignited his lightsaber. He deflected the shots of their pursuers as best he could, but his shoulder was still seizing in pain.
"We have to get the guard!" he told the girl, eyes on the assassins as he maintained their defense. "They're here to kill the princess and her fiancé. If even one of them gets away, it'll be too many. What?" Anakin turned, irritated, to see why the girl was yanking on his sleeve. She said nothing, but took his hand and pulled him down a sudden flight of stairs.
They fell against a set of old cellar doors. Half underground, a massive ivy plant hung over the entrance of the steps, concealing them from outside onlookers, including the assassins.
The girl smacked Anakin's hand that held the lightsaber, unaware that every beat was painful on his shoulder.
"Ow, ow, ow, okay," he turned off his saber and winced.
Up the stairs, the assassins came closer, and closer, and then ran right past them. Their small alcove was quiet, save for their frightened breathing.
"Thank you," Anakin said eventually, looking at the girl for the first time. She had dark hair and eyes and smooth olive skin. He realized now that she was older than he'd expected - likely eleven or so - but very small. He extended his hand. "I'm Anakin. What's your name?
The girl stared at him in the filtered moonlight and said nothing. Anakin faltered, withdrawing his hand.
"Um, alright, that's okay. We need to get out of here, and warn the guard. They're going to kill a lot of people to get inside." She didn't look concerned in the slightest. "Kill people," the Jedi repeated, fishing for a reaction. "Including us."
The girl stared, and then began shaking her head. She pointed to herself, and then drew a line over her ear, and then shook her head again. She mimed it again while Anakin watched. Realization dawned.
Oh. "You're deaf," the Jedi said, and then mentally kicked himself. "Okay, okay okay…" he fiddled with his hands. He'd taken a course in Galactic Sign Language four years ago, but he'd slept through a lot of it. Well, most of it. "Okay, uhhhh…"
"My name is Amakim," he signed with difficulty. Her face lit up, and she signed her own name excitedly back, too fast for him to see. She saw his confusion and slowed down.
"Hecate," he repeated aloud for himself. "It's good to meet you," is what he attempted to sign. What he actually signed was "thank to meet this". Then, far too slowly, he tried explain the situation of the assassins, but it was to complex, his language skills not up to the task. He gave up. He pointed up the stairs and mimed a rifle blaster like the ones the assassins carried, and acted like he was shooting. Then he put his hands crown-like onto his head, and drew a quick line across his throat. Then, he picked up his lightsaber, pointed to it, waved it around, and pointed back up the stairs with a snarl.
Hecate frowned at his antics, but he was pretty sure she got the gist.
"I need leave," he signed clumsily. "Now," he pointed up the stairs.
Hecate shook her head and pulled on his arm. She threw open the cellar doors, and dragged him in after her.
Inside the palace, the alarms had been blaring for ten long minutes. The royal families of the crown princess and that of her beloved had been locked away under guard until the threat passed. As the moments ticked by, however, the threat only seemed to grow. They'd identified one hostile, then two, then four. Some of the guards reported there were six or more, but not all of them agreed.
Ben thought privately that there weren't nearly enough guards on the premises to look after two royal families at once and deal with incoming attackers. Maybe that was why they'd requested a Jedi presence in the first place. The sprawling palace villa looked small on the outside, but inside, it was a labyrinthian estate built over the centuries. Ben wasn't even completely confident that all of the entrances were secure.
"We've got reports of movements around the northwestern corner," said the captain of the guard, catching Ben's attention. "Multiple shots fired. They say they saw a lightsaber."
"Good," Ben stroked his beard. "If there's a lightsaber, no one's died yet."
"A lightsaber that disappears in the middle of a fight?" The captain replied. Ben's hand paused.
"There was a pursuit," the captain waved him over and replayed the surveillance footage. "Here, he disappears." He pointed as the holographic soldiers chased a Jedi apprentice who, very suddenly, disappeared into the darkness with his lightsaber.
"He's hurt," Ben said, watching his apprentices stilted movements as he deflected shots and ran. When the bright light of Anakin's lightsaber disappeared, the camera struggled to refocus. By the time it readjusted to the light, the soldiers were already far down their path, disappeared once more into the shadows. Anakin was nowhere to be seen.
"We need to move on them now," Ben said. "If we give them time to split up, they'll be harder to catch."
"What about your apprentice?" the captain asked.
"He's alright," Ben said. Anakin was not gifted in the art of telepathy, and their bond was not as intricate as the one Ben had shared with Qui-Gon. However, the general impression that leaked across their bond bore no sense of impending peril, only intense annoyance. And as long as Anakin was annoyed, he was not dead.
"I should probably go and get him, all the same," Ben added nonchalantly, much to the confusion of the captain. He unclipped his lightsaber and strolled out of the door. "If anyone else walks into this house, shoot them."
"Well this is just wizard," Anakin complained. He was being dragged through a pitch black cellar by a girl who could not speak or hear, while he himself had no idea where he was and could not see. The Force helped him understand that he was in a basement, and that they were underneath the central structure of the palace. He hoped more than he sensed that Hecate had a plan.
He heard voices up ahead and tensed, but Hecate pulled harder on his hand. His head told him to resist, but the Force told him to follow. He let her lead him up a slight incline into a wide, airy room. Or… not a room, exactly. There was dirt beneath his feet, and fresh air filtering in through long hallways. They stood in a round room with tunnels going out from it like spokes on a wheel, all of them slanting upwards and giving the moonlit promise of the outdoors. The voices returned, and Anakin turned to face the tunnel where they were coming from.
"You go that way. I'll go around the other side. Pick 'em off one at a time, go!" The voices split up, and while the first stayed put, Anakin could hear the jogging footsteps approach the second tunnel, pass it, and approach the third.
"Oh," Anakin breathed, eyes going wide in realization and excitement. He turned to Hecate, who he could see now in the secondhand moonlight. "Oh," he said again, and did not need to sign anything for her to understand the elation on his face. She smiled at him.
Belatedly, Anakin remembered the sign for thank you. Then, he gripped his saber, picked the hallway nearest to the voices, and charged. Hecate watched him go with a massive smile, privately hoping he'd come back so she could teach him to sign more.
"Chief! Chief! The kid's back!"
"The Jedi kid, there's a lightsaber showing up on the south wall!"
The captain of the guard peered over the surveillance tech's shoulder. The holocams struggled to capture the scene of flashing saber and blasterfire against a backdrop of black, but amid the gloom, the efficiency of Anakin's attacks was plain. He deflected a stream of shots as if they were nothing, and then turned, twirled his blade, and sliced the blaster in half.
"Damn, kid," the captain said, and looked around the room for the boy's master, but Ben Kenobi was long gone. He turned back toward the screen.
"Woah, hey, hey, where'd he go?" The tech fiddled with the controls to zoom in.
"Is it a cam malfunction?"
"Chief!" yelled another tech. "He's on the northwest side! Taking on two at once!"
"What?" The captain ran over to the other monitor. "How the hell did he get there? You sure it's not Kenobi?"
"Kenobi's on the west side, stalking this guy." He switched cameras to show Ben following after an unsuspecting gunman. He switched back to Anakin just as the apprentice pulled an acrobatic flip - it elicited several cheers and claps from the techs - before slicing both blasters into pieces. He disappeared again, and reappeared on the east side.
"How is he doing that?" asked the captain baffled. One of the older techs laughed. He'd worked in the palace since he was a boy.
"That slippery little punk - he found the breezeway!" The old-timer shook his head. "Damn, why didn't we think of that?"
Anakin was on a roll. Cutting blasters to bits was easy enough, and jabbing a lightsaber here and slashing it there certainly wouldn't kill a man, but it'd make him think twice before getting up and running away. There was only one assassin left, and Anakin had him dialed in his sights.
"You!" shouted the man, and Anakin recognized it. The leader of the pack, the one who wanted the princess dead. The Jedi said nothing, and charged. The soldier proved to be quicker and lighter on his feet than the rest, and rolled under Anakin's attacks with ease.
"You should've stayed in your temple, shoulda kept your nose out of things that don't concern you!"
"You're trying to kill me," Anakin quipped, twirling his saber in a rebound. "You think I shouldn't be concerned?"
Dauntless, the soldier drew back for a punch. Anakin ducked just in time, but there was a left hook waiting for him when he stood back up, and it hit him right in his injured soldier. He screamed.
"Oh, so Jedi do bleed," the man laughed.
"I'm not bleeding, you idiot," Anakin snarled back, and used his uninjured arm to punch the man directly in his laughing face. The assassin fell instantly to the ground. Anakin took the opportunity to divest him of his blaster and cut it in two. He kicked the trigger half away to be on the safe side. He glanced at the assassin, who was holding his face and crying. "But looks like you are," he said.
The man continued to weep. From the pain in his knuckles, Anakin assumed his jaw was fractured. The jedi shook out his hand and put away his saber. Suddenly surrounded by the quiet of the stars and crickets, he looked up. His master was mere meters away, watching with a miffed expression.
"I had that one," Ben accused magnanimously. Anakin blinked at him.
"Doesn't look like it."
"Hmm," Ben harrumphed, and Anakin wondered if he'd get a punishment for impertinence later. The master looked at the fallen soldier, who was making a half hearted attempt to crawl away, and then at Anakin.
The teenager shrugged his good shoulder. "Only a bit."
"I'll be the judge of that. Help me round these fellows up, and we'll take a look at that wound."
While the royal families poured glasses of wine to ease their frayed nerves, Ben and Anakin coalesced in medbay alongside wounded palace guards.
"A girl, you say?" Ben dabbed at the cauterized flesh with a damp cloth.
"Yeah, she took me to these passages underneath the house, that's how I was able to find all the men."
"That's very clever of her. Good job of you to take a blaster shot for her," Ben wiped a bit too hard at the wound, and Anakin stiffened in pain.
"Yeah," the apprentice winced, "that wasn't really part of the plan."
Ben shook his head, because he knew Anakin hadn't had a plan. He'd seen someone in need, and he'd helped them. Ben put down the cloth and uncapped a tub of bacta. "Having a plan is generally the place to start," he admonished. "You acted rashly. You could've gotten her or yourself killed."
Anakin ducked his head. "Yes, Master. I'm sorry. I wasn't… I didn't think."
"No," Ben agreed, and it stung. The master applied cold bacta gel to Anakin's wounds. The apprentice tried not to tense. "You may have managed to salvage a bad situation today, but you cannot always rely on your blind luck. It'll get someone killed, one day."
Anakin shrank. "Yes, master."
They sat in silence while Ben administered to his pupil's injuries. Eventually, the master said, "To answer your question, yes, I do despise teaching."
"What?" Anakin looked up at him, confused. Ben remained focused on his work.
"You teased me about disliking things I'm good at. I don't like teaching at all."
Anakin's heart sank, and he felt guilty. Ben continued.
"Teaching is hard. I myself am still a learner. It's hard to teach other people the lessons that you yourself are still learning. You end up teaching yourself, and, no matter how much you need it, it's not always pleasant. In that respect, I despise teaching." He glanced up at at Anakin's distraight expression and allowed a small smile as he returned to his work.
"Not to mention the fact that the student I've been assigned to teach is a hellion. Still, I've disregarded the lessons of my betters and grown a peculiar fondness for him." Ben wound a bandage around Anakin's shoulder, ignoring the sudden and surprised look the apprentice gave him. "And for him, I could never truly hate teaching."
Anakin tried not to smile too wide. He looked down at his hands, his left knuckles already scabbing. Of course Ben would give such a riddled answer for such a simple joke. It was one of the many reasons why Anakin admired him. "Thank you, Master."
Ben tied off the bandage and stood. "All else aside, you did well today, padawan." He brushed the boy's face in passing affection. "Rest easy."
That evening, the Jedi dined with the Queen, who gifted them a particularly fine bottle of wine – which Ben passed on to the guards, much to Anakin's chagrin. Once her role in the victory was revealed, Hecate was also invited to join the Queen's table with her father the Groundskeeper, who also acted as her translator throughout the evening. When he was given a seat beside the Jedi, he smiled upon seeing the younger of the pair.
"Ah, you must be Amakim," the man smiled and offered his hand without a shred of humor. Anakin was stunned.
"I think," Ben interrupted with a smile, eyeing the girlish admiration in Hecate's eyes as she gazed across her father at the tall, dashing apprentice, "that Anakin is regretting his poor marks in GSL class."
Amakim turned bright red and said nothing.
The five men who'd been trying to kill the Crown Princess and her beloved – now fiance – had been incarcerated overnight in the ancient dungeons beneath the palace.
Sitting with Ben in the idyllic haze of morning, Anakin gazed out at the countryside and shook his head.
"To think, all this because some people want to get married," he glanced at his bandaged hand and shoulder.
"Two royal people," Ben reminded. "Not even love is simple for royalty."
"Huh," Anakin scoffed, and shook his head again. "Another reason not to be royalty."
Ben raised an eyebrow at him. "What, were you planning on marrying a queen, Anakin?"
"Master," Anakin blushed, scanalized. Ben laughed at a joke that Anakin did not understand.
That evening, the Jedi met with the representative from Constancian Orbit Control sent to fetch the prisoners. He was a tall, stern-browed man with a heavily chewed toothpick that quivered beneath his mustache as he spoke.
"Sorry I'm late," the man said, producing a datapad and a stylus, which he handed to Ben, "It's been a hectic day."
"No rush at all," Ben smiled at the man, filling out the forms. "We've enjoyed the afternoon."
When Ben left his thumbprint and his identification came up on the screen, the OrbitSec officer gave a strange chuckle.
"Kenobi?" he observed, "Jedi Master Kenobi. You wouldn't, eh-" He glanced at Ben's face as if about to deliver an inside joke. "You wouldn't happen to be of any relation to Obi-Wan Kenobi, would you?"
Ben was nonplussed, and glanced at Anakin, who shrugged.
"I would, actually," the master said. "He's my nephew."
"Oh," said the officer. His face fell slack, toothpick drooping. "Oh, chssk."
Ben stared. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh chssk," the man said again, putting a hand to his head, eyes staring wide at the ground. "He really was a Jedi."
"Obi-Wan Kenobi," the officer implored, "He's a Jedi?"
"Yes, he is," Ben confirmed, utterly baffled. "How do you know him?"
"Oh, man… I don't… I don't know him," the man explained, now appearing sheepish. "I ran into him. This morning."
"This morning?" Anakin interjected, a smile overtaking his face. He hadn't seen Obi-Wan in over a year. "Where is he?"
"Well," the man replied uncertainly, "That's uh… that is, I didn't so much run into him as… arrest him."
"What?" Ben asked in surprise. Anakin's smile disappeared.
"Arrest him for what?" the padawan asked.
"A whole lot of things," he officer admitted. "Stealing property, immigration fraud, lying to a Republic officer, resisting arrest," he paused, "And, eh, impersonating a Jedi," he grimaced. "His ID was expired."
"Oh, Force…" Ben said, feeling a headache coming on. Anakin was dumbstruck. "And where is he now?" Ben asked.
"I don't know exactly," the officer shrugged. "Somewhere along the Byss Run, I imagine. He's en route to Coruscant."
"To the Temple?" Anakin said, hopeful. The officer winced.
"Well… no, not exactly, no."
Credit where credit is due, I borrowed the concept of Galactic Sign Language from my SW fanfic bud Eirian Erisdar (find her on FanFiction.Net and Tumblr!). Thanks for letting me borrow a great idea, friend!
The door was made sluggish by its own weight as it slid open, buzzer muffled by a cacophony of irritation and misery. The head warden and her guest stepped into the hall.
"-be a relief, really. He's been a bit of a headache," the short, stout Trandoshan was saying. As they crossed the secure area into the theater of holding cells, a guard was escorting a handcuffed man to the processing center. The criminal spat in their direction. The tall Jedi sidestepped, and the projectile missed his boot by centimeters.
"Sorry about that," was the warden's gruff apology, "the new ones can be pretty moody."
"I'm sure," Mace Windu said, grimacing slightly as he looked up and down the long hall of suspects and newly-convicted felons waiting for their tagged jumpsuits and long-term cells. "Has this John Doe been giving you similar trouble?"
The warden hesitated. "No, and quite frankly, it's spooking my men more than if he'd been making shivs."
They arrived at the last holding cell on the main level. The warden came to a stop first, waved a hand, and crossed her arms.
"Well?" she asked. "That him?"
Mace Windu held his tongue and studied the scene. On one side of the cell was a group of a dozen or so criminals, all voluntarily crowded together with little personal space between them. A few cast nervous looks toward the other side of the cell, where, with enough legroom for five men, a single detainee slouched on the bench. He had close-cropped hair and an unkempt beard. He was also shirtless, revealing a toned physique and a library of scars, including the long, jagged line that ran across his face, right eye, chest, and arm. He turned a blue-eyed glare onto Mace.
"What happened to his clothes?" the Jedi asked, eyes never leaving the scarred face on the other side of the bars.
"He was wearing a lot of 'em," explained the warden, "like the ones you have. Security was afraid he could be hiding weapons, or that he could use them to… well, to strangle someone."
"Hmm," Mace raised his eyebrows and nodded. "I wouldn't have thought of that."
"We've learned from past experience," the warden replied darkly. She looked from the motionless prisoner to her Jedi companion. "Well?" she prodded, "this him?"
Mace ignored her. "It's been a while, Kenobi."
The scarred man continued to glare. Then, he spoke in a prim core accent:
"Can I leave now, or do I have to invoke my Ashtakaal Rights and bring the courts into this?"
The other prisoners reacted with shock; if Mace had to guess, they'd never heard their cellmate speak at all.
"I could just leave you here," the master said. "They'll have to release you or charge you in two days. Want to see what they'll come up with?"
"Mace," amid the anger, there was the slightest strain in the scarred man's voice, "please."
Mace pursed his lips in stern consideration. Then, "That's him," he told the warden, "you can let him go. I'll take it from here."
"Gladly." The Trandoshan huffed and reached for her keys. She hadn't even found the right one before the prisoner had stood to his feet, walked to the door, and opened the lock with a touch. He stepped out of the cell and locked the door behind him. Inside, the prisoners were in an uproar.
"He could've done that this whole time?"
"The kriff is wrong with you?"
"Kriff you, you arsehole!"
"Hey, hey, settle down!" The warden stepped up to the door to double down the lock. She hit the bars with her baton. "Get back, all of you!"
"You haven't been officially released yet," Mace spoke calmly amid the uproar. "That's very rude."
"Two and a half weeks," snapped the shirtless man. "Thirteen days. Shall we discuss what qualifies as rude, master?"
"And you've made friends in the meantime," Mace smiled at the riotous prisoners in the cell, who were spitting through the bars and slamming their fists, cursing and screaming.
"Acquaintances," the jailbird corrected.
Guards arrived to prevent the escalating outcry in the cell. Relieved of the situation, the warden turned to her guests.
"Alright, so what's your real name, John Doe?"
Shirtless and unwashed for weeks, the man still managed an air of dignity. "Obi-Wan Kenobi, Jedi Knight," he said.
A look at Mace's face confirmed this for the warden. "Oh chssk, I was wrong," she chuckled. "Looks like I owe Berrik ten credits. Sorry for the misunderstanding, masters."
With restraint, Obi-Wan shook his head and said only, "It happens from time to time."
"I'll let you nullify the charges," Mace told the warden. "I'll look into the ID documents myself."
"Consider it done."
"And if it's not too much to ask," the Master of the Order leaned away from the bedraggled knight, who smelled as bad as anyone would after two weeks in a prison cell, "do you still have his shirt?"
They did have his shirt, and tabards, and belt, and lightsaber. Obi-Wan gripped even as he climbed into the quiet, clean safety of the Jedi-issue skycar.
"So what the hell happened?" Obi-Wan felt compelled to ask once they were out of the sector.
"I should be asking you the same question," Mace countered.
"Thirteen days?" Obi-Wan shot back.
"That was a true misunderstanding." The elder Jedi managed an apologetic tone. "Your fingerprints brought up Ben's records, which of course don't match your ID, which triggered a scan of the entire database of known identity thieves in the Republic."
"Oh, Force." Obi-Wan rolled his eyes.
"It's still running, I imagine," Mace told him. "We actually heard of your arrest nearly the same day as it happened. Apparently Ben himself ran into the Constancian agent who busted you."
"What?" That bastard.
"But since your file didn't have the right name on it, it took us nearly two weeks to figure out where they'd put you." Mace turned a baleful look on the younger man. "Do you know exactly how many prisons there on on Coruscant?" Obi-Wan did not. "I had half a mind to grab the nearest pale-skinned pain in the ass and pass him off as you."
That garnered a chuckle from the passenger seat. Mace let him enjoy the joke for a few more moments before his voice took on a more serious, annoyed tone.
"That explains the thirteen days. It doesn't explain everything else. Constancia's OrbitSec sent us a report on the charges a few days after the fact. Immigration fraud? Impersonating a Jedi? Resisting arrest? Stealing property?" He paused to let Obi-Wan wilt under the weight of his incredulity, and then came back: "Immigration fraud, because your visa expired on the exact date and time I told you it would-"
"I was stuck on Sullust," Obi-Wan tried to explain, "I was caught up on the wrong side of a sting, it wasn't as though I could've just taken a few days to-"
Mace ignored him and continued: "-Impersonating a Jedi, because your identification chip expired on the same date and time of your visa, an event which I also recall warning you about months in advance-"
"-again, I was on Sullust, I had planned to renew them both when I got to Tshindral-"
"-and resisting arrest?" Mace interrupted. Obi-Wan huffed.
"They didn't believe that I was a Jedi."
"Because your ID was expired-"
"-which they wouldn't let me go to the Capitol to renew-" Obi-Wan accused.
"-because your visa was expired."
"They wouldn't even contact the Council to verify who I was!" The knight said, indignant. Mace remained unmoved.
"A decision I'm sure was made in an overabundance of caution, considering your other apparent crimes. What about the stealing property charges?"
"That was not my fault," Obi-Wan insisted. Mace gave him a look. "I mean, yes, I did take a ship, but I took it from a swindler, and I only took it because he shot mine to pieces. As I've been saying, I was in my way to Tshindral to renew my visa so I could renew my ID, so I could get back into the Republic to continue my investigation."
"And have instead set me up with a mountain of paperwork despite the fact that I haven't received so much as a memo from you for eight months," Mace concluded. Obi-Wan bit his lip in contrite silence. "I'll let you fill out the restitution forms," Mace told Obi-Wan, who sunk further into his sulk.
"He stole that ship before I did," Obi-Wan felt compelled to say. "An absolutely horrible man."
"A horrible man he may be, but chances are he has a lawyer," Mace reminded. "I'll leave the forms to you, and if you don't like it, take it up with the Council."
"You're in charge of the Council."
"I'm a Council member."
"Yes, and you hold the most powerful vote."
Mace gave Obi-Wan a disappointed glance. "Despite what you've heard from Qui-Gon or anyone else prone to conspiracies, neither I nor Yoda hold any more stake in the Council's ballots than anyone else."
"Your title holds sway," Obi-Wan reminded him.
Mace scoffed. "To a councilor? Why don't I put you on the Council, and you can learn firsthand how wrong you are?"
Obi-Wan scoffed. "First you punish me with paperwork and now you want me on the High Council."
"The High Council is paperwork."
"And I haven't written so much as memo in eight months," Obi-Wan reminded, touting his negligence like a badge of honor.
Mace shook his head, but said nothing.
"You don't want me on the Council," Obi-Wan said, "paperwork aside. You know Coruscant isn't really my forte."
"It is, actually, though you don't want to admit it." Mace countered immediately. The silence between them was suddenly deeper, an unspoken truth rendering the air more uncomfortable than any arrests, jailtime, or paperwork. Obi-Wan sat utterly motionless, as if holding his breath would fend off bad memories. Mace wanted to smack him. "Coruscant is exactly your forte. Valorum was buried six years ago, Obi-Wan, and one day, you're going to accept that."
Obi-Wan kept his gaze emotionless and trained out of the window. "I am sorry for all the miscommunication around this… debacle," he said, voice transformed from petulance into polished jade. "I'll get the paperwork sorted out as quickly as I can. After that, I would appreciate the opportunity to continue my investigation into the Pykes. We've made significant progress, but there's much to be done."
Mace gave Obi-Wan a long, silent look. Eventually, he returned his gaze to the skyline, where the looming ziggurat of the Jedi Temple rose from the steel nest of Coruscant. "First thing's first, you need a shower and a shave."
Obi-Wan had to admit, that sounded nice.
"I'm sure Master Che will oblige you after she's finished her examinations."
That sounded considerably less nice.
Mace dumped him like a flea-bitten dog at the Halls of Healing, where a gaggle of medical apprentices he didn't recognize ushered him to a room to await Master Che's judgement. Obi-Wan hadn't seen the domineering physician in well over a year, but when she opened the door and looked up from his charts, she seemed annoyed by their reunion.
"You're going to use up half my supply of Wild Space vaccinations, and you don't even care."
"It's good to see you again, Vokara," he gave her a weary smile.
"That's Master Che to you. " She shut the door and put on a pair of gloves.
"As you say, Master." She never seems annoyed when Ben calls her that, Obi-Wan griped to himself. Vokara came over to his bed and pulled at his neckline, wincing at his stench and the grime hiding beneath his collar.
"A lengthy misunderstanding," he offered.
"Hmm." With cold hands, she guided his head into a tilt and thoroughly cleaned his neck with alcohol. She loaded her hyposhot gun and fired. He tried to stop the involuntary yelp in his throat, but it came out as a squeek. Vokara laughed and ejected the needle into the trash.
"It's good to have you back, Obi-Wan." She reloaded her weapon. "Hold still."
Once he'd been screened for parasites and injected with a half dozen more neutralizers for any diseases he'd carried in from Hutt Space, they finally let him out of quarantine. He showered in scalding water, washed his hair, trimmed his beard, and washed his hair again. While he was bathing, they'd even found him clean robes - dark brown, not really his color.
"Are those grey hairs I see?" teased Vokara Che as he combed his freshly trimmed hair. He looked in the mirror with some surprise and yes, they were grey hairs, hiding in the auburn forest at his temples. He thought suddenly of Ben, and was alarmed to see his older self looking back at him, one-eyed in the mirror. He must've looked as stunned as he felt, because Vokara's smile faltered and she added, far more gently than she usually spoke with him,
"There's no harm in it, Kenobi. It's a good look for you." He wasn't sure about that, but he let it go.
Clean, vaccinated, and in clean clothes, Obi-Wan emerged from the Halls nearly two hours later and was surprised to find Mace Windu waiting for him, sitting on a bench with legs crossed, thumbing through a lengthy mission report.
"You came back," the knight said.
"I never left," the master responded, not looking up.
Obi-Wan realized he was being babysat. "Oh, no," he said. Not looking away from his datapad, Mace stood to his feet.
"Since you've yet to submit any full reports on your whereabouts and movements in the last eight months, the Council wants to hear it from the fathier's mouth, so to speak." He shut off the 'pad and looked balefully at his subordinate. "Today." It was not often that Obi-Wan Kenobi was struck speechless, and it made Mace smile. "Let's see if the Outer Rim has ruined that silver tongue of yours." He gave the knight a slap on the back and marched down the hall. Belatedly, Obi-Wan jogged to catch up.
It was a long walk to the Council Spire, and despite Mace's haranguing, the Master chose to lead their trek at a leisurely pace. Only now, surrounded by the amber lights and warm halls of home, did Obi-Wan realize how inordinately tired he was. He hadn't slept well in jail, or in a stolen ship, or in Hutt Space, pursued by the Pykes. It would be nice to take a breather here at the Temple – he only wished it hadn't taken him an arrest to get him there.
"Anakin will want to hear your version of how you got arrested," Mace broke into his thoughts. "He let the story from Constancia slip to some classmates, who've turned it into vile rumors. He's gone blue in the face trying to defend you."
Obi-Wan frowned at him. "Anakin Skywalker?"
"Yes," Mace gave him a smile. "Force knows why, but he admires you a great deal. Oh, there he is now," Mace looked up as a classroom of padawans let out into the hall. "You can use him to practice your explanation for the Council."
"Where?" Obi-Wan scanned the crowd of teenagers but saw no one resembling Ben's pupil. "I don't see him."
"There," Mace jutted his chin, arms crossed. "Between the Pantoran and the Zygerrian."
Obi-Wan spotted the tall young man and was overcome by a foreign feeling of antiquity. "I haven't been gone that long, surely," he said. "He's huge."
"One year, nine months, and seventeen days," Mace corrected him. "He's nearly eighteen, you know."
"You don't live in a vacuum, Obi-Wan," Mace reminded. He watched the man's astonished face a moment before stepping away. "I'll be waiting at the end of the hall."
Obi-Wan turned his attention back to Anakin, who hadn't seen him yet. Eighteen, the number echoed in his head. Had he looked so young when he was eighteen, Obi-Wan wondered? Had he been quite so lanky, his shoulders jutting out like wings on a ship? Had his face been as spotty with acne and day-old stubble as this? Eighteen was the end of junior padawan days, the end of classes, the beginning of the end of an apprenticeship.
But Anakin was only almost eighteen, Mace had said, and ought to reminded of his place. Obi-Wan marched up behind Anakin before he or his friends could spot him, grabbed the offending teen by the scruff, and pulled him into a headlock.
"Ahh!" The confused padawan yelped, dropping his datapad and homework. He grasped at the arm around his neck and tried to smack the face that owned them. His friends, who could now see the attacker, smiled in astonishment and amusement.
"Force damnit, Sepensi, is that you? Get the hell off me!" Anakin twisted his head this way and that, but couldn't wriggle free. Obi-Wan stayed silent, winking conspiratorially at Anakin's friends.
"Not Sepensi," said Nira, gold marks on her cheeks scrunching up with her smile.
"Oh Sithspit, it's Tog, isn't it?"
Obi-Wan dug his knuckles into Anakin's scalp, and the padawan tried to give a retaliatory kick, but missed. "Son of a vetch."
Obi-Wan laughed. "Such language, I'm sure your master didn't teach you that."
"What the-" Anakin burst to free himself again, and this time Obi-Wan let him. Anakin straightened up, saw him, and stood agog. Obi-Wan was still smiling, scar setting his dimpled smile on a familiar angle.
"I nearly didn't recognize you, Skywalker."
"Obi-Wan!" Anakin's smile erupted like a ship from its moorings and he surged forward for a hug. Though temporarily blindsided by having his face land in Anakin's shoulder and not above it, Obi-Wan returned the gesture in kind. The ferocity with which Anakin held onto him warmed his heart, but also made him feel inordinately guilty.
"You're back!" Anakin pulled away. "I thought you were- I mean, I heard you had been-"
"Arrested?" Obi-Wan raised his brows.
"I mean, uh…" Anakin trailed off. His classmates tuned their ears in interest.
"I was, unfortunately. A case of mistaken identity, I'm afraid, but it's been cleared up now."
"Oh, good," Anakin smiled, genuinely relieved. "When you didn't beat us back to the Temple, Master Ben got a little worried."
Obi-Wan chuckled. "There's no need. All's well now."
It was an anticlimactic resolution, and disappointment radiated from the assembled teenagers. Obi-Wan whipped a look of rebuke on the throng of apprentices, who scurried away under the collective decision that they had other, more important things to do. Anakin and his two closest friends remained.
"Welcome back, Master Kenobi," the Pantoran girl smiled. Obi-Wan gave a small bow.
"Thank you, Amira."
"How long are you going to stay?" Anakin wanted to know. Obi-Wan shrugged.
"It's not my decision, at this point," the knight said.
"Are you in trouble with the Council?" asked the short Zygerrian next to Mira.
"Sarsan!" she hissed, and hit him in the stomach. Despite the rebuke, Obi-Wan raised his eyebrows and sighed.
"I don't know," he admitted earnestly. He looked up. At the end of the hall, Mace Windu waited with arms crossed, unmoving. "But I get the feeling I'm about to find out. Excuse me."
Anakin turned to see Master Windu lurking by the exit. "Force be with you, Obi-Wan," the padawan bid, a burr of teasing in his voice. "You might need it."
"Talk like that, you might need it too," Obi-Wan reached out and gave the boy a shove. "I'll see you later." The knight continued down the hall and fell into step with Mace Windu. The three padawans watched him go.
"So he did get recalled," Sarsan concluded.
"Oh, come on," Anakin glared at him. "Don't tell me that you've been listening to all those rumors."
"That'll be one lucky kid, too," Mira added wistfully. Both boys turned to look at her in non-comprension.
"What are you talking about?" Sarsan asked. Mira blinked at them.
"He got recalled because they want him to take an apprentice," she told them. "I thought everyone knew that."
"I heard he got recalled because he has a huge bounty on his head," Sarsan countered.
"I haven't heard any of this," Anakin insisted, looking between the two of them with deepening betrayal. "For all we know, he hasn't been recalled at all."
"He said it wasn't his decision to stay," Sarsan shrugged.
"So that's what happens when you're recalled," Sarsan insisted.
"But he didn't say he'd been recalled-"
"Well duh," Sarsan rolled his eyes, "I wouldn't own up to that either, it's not exactly-"
"Would you stop it? Force," Mira, who was taller than Sarsan and nearly as tall as Anakin, grabbed either boy by their ear and pulled them apart. The boys complained, and she rolled her eyes. "Anakin can ask him later. Come on, we'll be late for class."
"Master Kenobi." Despite her youthful beauty, Adi Gallia was several decades older than most of the Council and eons older than Obi-Wan. A wicked, maternal humor danced in her eyes as she said, "if I'd known it would take an arrest to get you to file your paperwork, I would've petitioned for a warrant months ago."
A subdued ripple of laughter went around the circle of Councilors, sticking most fervently to Yoda and, much to Obi-Wan's chagrin, the friendly face of Kit Fisto. Obi-Wan had been surprised to see Bant's former master on the Council and had hoped the Nautolan might lend a sympathetic ear - but instead, there was that toothy smile of his, shoulders wobbling in mirth. Traitor.
"You're too kind," Obi-Wan bowed to the room. "Another two and a half weeks locked up with criminals would be sure to give me time to finish my reports," he deadpanned.
Yoda harrumphed. "Time enough now, you have," he said unsympathetically. "Busy you have been, too busy, it seems, to tell us what business you keep. Tell the Council you will." Yoda huddled back in his seat, ready for a long story. Obi-Wan drew in a breath and gave him just that.
As he grew older, time became increasingly difficult for Obi-Wan to keep track of. Had he really been away from the temple for a year, almost two? As he recounted the pertinent details of his mission – missions plural, he rediscovered as he spoke – he realized that it hadn't even been his most recent absence that had propelled him to this point of grey hair and seeing Anakin grown. It had been the one before, and the one before that, and the one before that, all the way back to Valorum's assassination six years ago, when he and Mace had begun this crusade.
Yoda and Mace were the only Councilors who understood the true motives behind Obi-Wan's solitary missions. He'd engaged against the Hutts, the Neimoidians, the Dugs, the Pykes, and every breed of criminal from Coruscant to Wild Space. All of them dealt with the Sith – but that was not public knowledge.
"And have you forwarded this information onto the Chancellor?" Ki Adi Mundi looked up from where he'd been taking notes.
Obi-Wan wasn't sure how to answer.
"I'm preparing the report personally," Mace answered for him, voice authoritative and calm. He shared a weighted look with the knight. "He's well aware of Knight Kenobi's work."
"Very well," Ki Adi replied cheerily, and picked up his stylus once more. "Carry on."
When the Council dismissed, Obi-Wan approached Mace Windu for a word.
"Is that it?" he asked, confused. "Am I not to receive a new mission?"
"You should be exhausted from talking alone, to say nothing of everything else," Mace laughed at him, but his smile faded when saw that Obi-Wan was being completely serious. He shook his head.
"It'll keep until tomorrow, Obi-Wan. Go rest – I don't think Qui-Gon's completely filled your room with plants yet."
Qui-Gon. Despite his desire to keep moving, Obi-Wan's heart felt lighter at the thought of his old master. "He was bound to replace me eventually," Obi-Wan said.
"He would never," Mace assured him in an uncharacteristically earnest voice. "He's missed you."
Obi-Wan fixed the master with a peculiar look. "Sentimentality isn't your style, Master," he said.
"It's a prerogative of old age – Qui-Gon can tell you that better than anyone. Now go reclaim your bed before it's covered in dorva vines and try to get some sleep."
The apartment was exactly as Obi-Wan remembered it. His first step inside immersed him in the aromas of childhood and comfort: the smell of library books due eons ago, freshly-watered potting soil, and charred bits of whatever food Qui-Gon had burned the night before. He closed his eyes and felt as a boy again, but opened them to see his master smiling at him, changed from the last time he'd seen him.
"Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon's voice was quiet. He was more grey than brown, these days.
"Hello, Master," Obi-Wan beamed at him.
The older man unfolded himself from the couch and came over to embrace his former apprentice. Obi-Wan returned the gesture with equal affection.
"I didn't know you were back – you should have called me."
"I'm sorry, I was… indisposed," the knight grouched into Qui-Gon's shoulder. The master's laugh reverberated through Obi-Wan's body. Qui-Gon pulled away, wrinkled face drawn up in an infuriating humor.
"Prison, was it? Mace told me. I'm sorry I couldn't have been there to give you a hard time about it."
Banter was as second-nature as the air of home, but Obi-Wan's attention was diverted by something else. "You've lost weight," he frowned, patting the bicep still under his own hand. Then he saw Qui-Gon's robes. "Are you wearing cassocks? You once said you'd rather die than wear cassocks."
"Ah, yes," the master chuckled, sheepishly pulling at the ankle-length robes. "I confess, I spoke too soon - they're incredibly comfortable. A holdover from my stint in the Halls - as is the weight loss, I'm afraid."
"What?" Obi-Wan asked, alarmed. Qui-Gon squinted, trying to retrace the months.
"I thought I told you? Perhaps you were still undercover. I came down with a particularly nasty case of pneumonia after a mission to Jagomir. Master Che kept me cooped up in the Halls for a few weeks to be on the safe side."
"A few weeks?"
"Yes," Qui-Gon moved toward the kitchen to fill the kettle. He caught a glimpse of Obi-Wan's horrified expression and scoffed. "I lost a few pounds, Obi-Wan, I'm not dead."
"I know," the pupil insisted, and moved around his old master in a well-practiced dance. He set the old, stained tea bowls on the tray and carefully shook sapir leaves into the teapot. "I just… I didn't know, is all."
He had to move not one, but three plants out of the way to set the tea tray down on the coffee table in front of their well-worn couch. Qui-Gon took a seat on his designated side, and Obi-Wan on his. Despite the years away, there was still a distinct indentation where he'd sat in this exact spot hundreds and thousands of times before. He found himself shrugging his shoulder, trying to feel a braid now ten years gone. Qui-Gon poured the tea and handed him his glass.
"I've missed you," the old man said - and Qui-Gon was old, Obi-Wan had to admit to himself. He smiled.
"It's good to be back."
They drank their tea and spoke as old friends do, and like rain over dry land Qui-Gon's company soothed the prickling itch that urged Obi-Wan to move, to leave, to go. He knew it was only a temporary relief, but Qui-Gon had raised him to live in the moment, so Obi-Wan laughed at Qui-Gon's stories and sank further into the couch.
The following morning, after he'd set Anakin off to his earliest morning classes, Ben Kenobi came by the Jinn/Kenobi apartments to say hello to his recently-released nephew. He was quickly disappointed.
"Left already?" Ben repeated. Qui-Gon stood, alone and apologetic, in the doorway. "Force, it's hardly past dawn. I would've thought he'd want to recover after the last few weeks alone."
Qui-Gon chuckled. "He's still young, he doesn't know how to slow down."
"He's not so young. He's thirty-two now, isn't he?" Ben countered.
"And what were you doing at thirty-two?"
A faint memory hoved into Ben's mind, something about leaping from a window high above the Coruscanti highline, of fighting days on end without sleeping, of traipsing about with Anakin underfoot without a moment to himself. It was all very different now with a body in its fifties. "Point taken," he allowed.
"He left too early for tea, too," Qui-Gon waved Ben inside. "You can have his share."
Ben joined Qui-Gon in the kitchen and helped himself to a slice of toast while Qui-Gon picked through a mostly-empty bowl of fruit.
"Where's he gone, anyway?" Ben asked while the kettle rumbled. "I can't imagine the Council's giving him a new assignment just yet."
"I couldn't either," Qui-Gon admitted, "but they've called him anyway. Mace seems to have something set up for him already."
"What?" Ben was shocked. Even if Obi-Wan's arrest had been a gross misunderstanding, procedure would dictate a few weeks of leave while the paperwork travelled through official channels. "They can't send him out again, not so soon."
"He seems to expect it." Qui-Gon had begun carefully slicing a jogan fruit, eyes trained on the edge of the knife as purple juice ran down his thumb. "Sometimes I wonder about that boy. He is strong with the Unifying Force, you'd think he would sense what is coming."
"And what's that?" Ben asked with trepidation. Qui-Gon snorted.
"I have no idea. I do not understand the Unifying Force, but I understand Mace Windu well enough. Whatever he's got planned next, Obi-Wan's not going to like it." He popped a slice of jogan into his mouth and licked the juice off his thumb. As he chewed, he complained, "He'll probably expect me to pity him, too. There's still much for him to learn."
The council's pronouncement seemed to hang in the air. It was such a diversion from what Obi-Wan had expected, it took his hearing a moment to catch up with the rest of him and pull him back into cold reality.
"Probation?" He repeated the word. "Am I… am I not to be reassigned to the Pyke disputes, masters?"
"You have just been released from prison, Master Kenobi," said Master Rancisis charitably, surprised by the knight's agitation.
"I understand that, master, I meant no offense, I just…" Obi-Wan was truly bewildered. He looked around at the assembly of kind faces, unsure how to interpret their dismissal. "It was a misunderstanding. I had hoped to finish my work against the spice cartels, there's much work to be done."
"Understanding or not, these things do take time, Obi-Wan," Master Fisto offered with kind familiarity. "It will keep."
"Yes, of course," Obi-Wan replied in a level voice, though his eyebrows were sinking lower and lower over his eyes, "but it cannot keep forever. Does this… probation have an expiration date? I should like to take the time to research and prepare for the next phase of our investigation. If I knew how long-"
"The Pyke investigation will be postponed indefinitely until further notice," Mace Windu spoke for the first time that session. "I'm afraid it will not, as Master Fisto says, keep."
"What?" Obi-Wan looked to the Korun master in shock. Several of the council members seemed surprised as well. "Why?"
Mace drew a breath and for a moment, it appeared as though he would launch into a lengthy explanation. Then, he caught sight of the chrono, and sighed. "I'm sorry, Master Kenobi, we have half a dozen other appointments on our docket today. Come by my office later and we can discuss the particulars of your next assignment."
That gave Obi-Wan hope. He should have known better.
Hours later, sequestered in Mace's office away from prying eyes and ears, Obi-Wan stared at his new assignment with an unreadable expression. "So that I understand, Master," he tapped the laughably thin dossier with distaste, "You're grounding me on Coruscant so that I can investigate a burglary?"
Mace Windu's expression did not change as they locked eyes. "Yes."
Obi-Wan could not find words. In the gaping silence that ensued, Mace blinked at him.
"Have I done something wrong?" Obi-Wan burst desperately. Sensing the words forming on Mace's tongue, he quickly added, "Besides getting arrested. Did I make some error? The investigation has gone inordinately better than I had hoped, am I mistaken? Did I miss something?"
Mace leaned back in his chair, looking tired. "It has gone well, inordinately so, as you say."
"As you may remember, I am duty-bound to report on all of your movements to the Chancellor," Mace reminded. "I report on all Jedi movements in the Outer Rim, and have done so since I took this position. Usually, this information is synthesized by the intelligence community and presented to the Chancellor as consolidated reports. But lately, he's been growing increasingly vocal about you and your missions in particular." Mace let that sink in. "Over the last six years, I've very carefully crafted a web wherein your missions appear a small part of a unlikely whole. But Palpatine is beginning to sniff us out."
That name, even after all these years, sent an angry chill down Obi-Wan's spine. The knight's countenance darkened.
"So he knows what we're doing?"
"As far as I can tell, no, but he's getting closer, and he's annoyed. We've been making trouble for his allies, and it's done wonders to keep him tame. But if we continue making such… efficient trouble, we're going to get caught. It's time we back off." Mace allowed himself a small smile. "In truth, it was convenient of you to get arrested, it makes my report writing easier." Mace picked up a datapad and waved it triumphantly - it was, Obi-Wan assumed, replete with details of his negligence. "Far easier to explain a knight's stupidity than to justify halting an investigation in its tracks."
"You're welcome," Obi-Wan said sarcastically.
"As for this," Mace pushed the two-page dossier back toward Obi-Wan. "This will keep you useful while you're grounded."
Obi-Wan opened it again, lips set to one side of his mouth in annoyance. On one side of the folder was a photograph of an intricately assembled metal cylinder, propped up by transparisteel at an artful angle and displayed behind glass. On the other side of the folder was a one-page police report. "It's a theft," Obi-Wan complained. "The police deal with thefts."
"Not when it's a four hundred year old lightsaber being stolen," Mace replied. "That weapon has been on loan to the Coruscanti Galactic History Museum for more than eighty years, but it's still Jedi property. We handle our own investigations."
"And you think a washed-up operative from the Outer Rim is the one for the job?" Obi-Wan deadpanned. Mace frowned. His gaze was as brutal as a vapaad strike.
"Is that what you think you are?"
Obi-Wan did not reply. Mace arranged piles of datapads and paperwork and sighed. "You're not from the Outer Rim, Obi-Wan, you're from the Core. You are not an operative, you are a knight. And no matter what you want to say on the matter, Coruscant is and always will be your bread and butter. Now wipe that self-pity off your face and get to work. I have a strange feeling about this one." The Master of the Order waved a hand, and the door to his office slid open, a pointed dismissal. "Oh, and by the way, I took the liberty of renewing your ID for you, but you'll need to go by the permits office for your pilot's license," he smiled. "Not even I can work miracles."
Obi-Wan stood in stoic frustration. The file in his hand was so pathetically thin it nearly slipped from his fingers. "Yes, master," he said it like a curse. "Thank you."
As Obi-Wan stomped out of the office, Master Yoda appeared in the doorway. In his frustration, Obi-Wan did not even glance down at the grandmaster. "Hmm," Yoda chuckled. "Always brooding he is." He looked up to his old pupil as the door slid shut behind him. "Remind me of you, he does." Mace frowned, and Yoda laughed again to see his point personified. He hopped up into the chair across from his old padawan and watched him sort through the forms regarding Obi-Wan's recent brush with the law.
"Perceive what you are doing young Obi-Wan does not," Yoda said sagely, "but approve I do."
Mace looked at his old teacher in utter bewilderment. "I'm sorry, master?" his eyes begged clarification.
"Perceive what you are doing, you do not," Yoda seemed to find this immensely amusing, "but perceive all the Force does. Do not concern yourself, padawan."
Mace had learned long ago not to pursue the meaning of Yoda's riddles. "Very well," he muttered, and went back to his work.
Before you nag me for it, look it up on Wookiepedia: weeks in the Star Wars universe are five days each, not seven.
Chapter 3: Clearance
The next day, Obi-Wan went into the refectory to catch up with friends, only to find that most of them were either out in the field or busy teaching classes - Reeft teaching actual children was a concept he'd have to see to believe - but after exchanging hellos with Master Drallig and a few old classmates, Obi-Wan bumped into Anakin Skywalker and joined him for lunch. With Anakin's mouth occupied by a tray of dumplings, Obi-Wanded ended up doing most of the talking. Everything about the past two years and the past two days came tumbling out. Anakin ate and listened in rapt silence, daring to speak only when it was clear that Obi-Wan had finished.
"So… what are you going to do now?" The teen's concern was spoiled by the fleck of unidentified vegetable clinging to his chin. Anakin was now on his third round of lunch, surrounded by desecrated plates and bowls on all sides. Under normal circumstances, Obi-Wan would've gladly found the energy to gawk and tease the boy for it, but he was not quite ready to release his gloom into the Force.
"Play civil detective, I suppose," Obi-Wan replied, leaning back from his half-eaten sandwich. "Master Windu seems to think I'll be good at it."
"Of course you will," Anakin said around a new mouthful. "You're good at everything."
Obi-Wan frowned deeply. "You don't believe that, do you?"
Anakin shrugged with that unique compound of maturity and simplicity endemic to teenagers. "Why shouldn't I? Name something you're bad at."
"Flying," Obi-Wan said immediately.
"Well I certainly don't like flying."
"Doesn't mean you're bad at it. Force," Anakin shook his head, "you sound like my master."
Obi-Wan allowed himself a microscopic smile. He watched as Anakin scarfed down another massive spoonful of mashed tubers and felt his mood lighten.
"I'd ask where you plan on putting all that food, but as tall as you've grown since last I saw you, I think I have my answer. You'll be taller than Dooku, soon,"
Mouth still full, Anakin looked up, eyes glittering with competitive spirit. "That's the idea."
Anakin was already taller than Obi-Wan, and the knight realized very suddenly that he didn't appreciate the padawan's satisfaction. He ticked an eyebrow. "Or maybe you'll start growing fatter instead."
"Hey!" Anakin yelled. As he did, a glob of tuber mash fell out of his mouth and splattered onto his plate. He slapped a hand over his mouth, eyes wide in surprise. Obi-Wan howled with laughter, and knights three tables over turned to look. Anakin glared at them, face glowing scarlet.
"For what it's worth," Anakin said, after he'd overcome his embarrassment and finally finished eating, "it'll be nice to have you around again."
Obi-Wan's spite prevented him from agreeing out loud, but he smiled. "Thanks."
"Maybe you could come spar with me sometime?" Anakin proposed hopefully. "I've gotten a lot better, you know."
"I'm sure you have. I'll talk with Ben and see if we can find a time when all of us are free."
Anakin's smile leaked into the Force itself as a tangible entity, and it compelled Obi-Wan to smile, too. He wondered if the apprentice did it on purpose – if he knew he was doing it at all. Ben had told him before that Anakin had yet to fully comprehend the extent of his own abilities, but could already tap deeper into the Force than most knights would manage in lifetimes of study. And he's using it to smile.
"Wizard," the boy said. Obi-Wan made a mental note to explain to him later that it was an exceptionally outdated phrase.
Obi-Wan was grateful for the darkness of the security suite. The hazy blue light of the holoscreens allowed him a modicum of dignity as he stared, utterly baffled, at the security feed as it looped over and over again. "Hmm," he grunted.
"As we said in the police report, we have no idea how they even got in here," the head of security was saying, growing more annoyed the more he talked about it. "The camera moves to the right, as it should, sticks for a few ticks, as it should, and then moves back - Boom! No lightsaber. But that's what, twenty seconds? Twenty seconds to get into the room, across the hall, get into the case - somehow - take the saber, put the case back, and get out of the room again? In twenty seconds? Who does that?"
It was a quandary, for sure. Obi-Wan scratched his chin, stubble rattling against his fingernails. "Is it possible the footage is fake?" he asked.
The security chief crossed his arms tight across his chest. "We've looked into it. There's no sign of hacking or changes to the coding. No one was even online in the system, not even our droids. It's an isolated system, too, top of the line. If someone got in there, there would be a blip for us to find, even if they tried to cover their tracks, but…" The man gave an exasperated shrug.
The museum curator, who'd been watching quietly to one side, spoke up.
"Is it possible, Master Kenobi?" she asked. "To do all that in twenty seconds?"
"And not leave a trace?" Obi-Wan turned to her with brows raised high. She was unfazed. Without any believable explanations open for consideration, she was willing to entertain the absurd.
"Yes," she said.
It was a ridiculous question. Or it would have been, if Obi-Wan hadn't had so many memories of his initiate days, running obstacle courses for sport and timing himself against his classmates. He'd been a competitive boy, and had at one point been able to run through the entire course in thirteen seconds. Sure, there hadn't been any security cameras or state of the art sensors, but he was older now, and the force was a powerful ally. Twenty seconds. Obi-Wan played it out in his mind. Waiting for the camera to start moving, use the Force to open the lock, slide into the camera's blind spot, slip across the hall, Force the sensors off, Force open the case, take the saber, replace everything, slip back out the same way, jumping over sensors here and there.
Twenty seconds was tight, but he figured he could do it. A Jedi could do it.
"No," he answered the curator at length. "Not for a normal person, anyway." He sighed, and stepped to the door. "Thank you for your help. I need to look into this further. I'll let you know if I come up with any new information.
Annoyed to be left without a solution, the curator nodded. "Of course, Master Jedi. Please keep us informed."
For all his distaste of Coruscant, Obi-Wan had missed the Jedi Temple terribly, and among the many great halls, he'd missed the Archives with a special ferocity. The tall shelves, the secluded corners, the history. Some of his most formative epiphanies and most restful naps had happened in this place. Little had changed since those distant Padawan days - including his clearance codes.
"Oh, come on," he entered in his passcode for the fourth time.
"Access denied." The words echoed along the quiet lines of research consoles, and several initiates were sending him serene glances of do you mind. Obi-Wan scowled and punched in a new code, this one as familiar as his own. He held his breath.
"Seriously?" He hissed at the machine, and smacked it. A knight with a young padawan gave him a scathing frown. He glared back and pulled out his comm.
"Jinn," came the answer.
"You've changed your clearance codes," Obi-Wan accused. It took a moment, and then Qui-Gon chuckled.
"Are you still using those? Surely you have your own by now."
"I do, but they don't seem to always work," Obi-Wan grumbled, looking at the error screen which seemed to be ingrained in the very surface of the display. "Apparently I need a master's clearance to see this file, which is ridiculous. Knights and masters aren't so different. "
"And yet they come with fairly different privileges. I've been telling you for years you need to take on an apprentice."
"Yes, and I'll train them and graduate them in time to get access codes for this damn mission, shall I?"
Qui-Gon was laughing again. "Why do you think I took on Feemor?"
"Ask Master Nu for help."
Obi-Wan glanced around, checking to see if anybody was listening. He peeked out over the console to Madame Nu's desk, and could see her bustling busily around her work. Her silver hair was drawn up into a bun, as it always was, crossed with the long, sharp hairpins he'd seen her wield as weapons on more than one occasion. He whispered:
"I lost her only copy of Master Tardashaani's Hutt Space in Hutt Space."
Qui-Gon snorted in suppressed laughter, and Obi-Wan wanted to reach through the comm and hit him.
"Address your fears head on, padawan," Qui-Gon advised with a smile in his voice, "it is the only way to move forward."
The line went dead, and Obi-Wan scoffed. He glanced again at Master Nu, and sensed in the Force itself that approaching her was out of the question. Moving forward was untenable. Therefore, he would move sideways. He opened a new comm call.
"Ben, I'm back on Coruscant and could use your help."
"Force, Obi-Wan. It's nice to hear from you, too, welcome back," came Ben's chagrined reply.
"Sorry. I meant to come by and say hello, but Mace has got me running around playing detective-"
"Yes, Anakin told me; he thinks your mission is fascinating. Maybe you should let him have a crack at it, if you despise it so much."
"I don't despite it, I just…" he closed his eyes. He didn't have time for this right now, and certainly not in the archives, where he had an eavesdropping audience. "My access codes aren't working, and I was wondering if I could borrow yours."
"If you need my access codes, you must be investigating something touchy," Ben's voice had a strange quality to it, a sort of echo. Footsteps sounded behind him, and Obi-Wan turned to see Ben Kenobi, still holding his comm. "What has Mace got you into?"
Obi-Wan hadn't seen his older self in ages. Ben's hair had now only the faded suggestion of ginger amid dusty grey, but behind new sets of wrinkles, the man's smile remained one that Obi-Wan recognized from the mirror. The peculiarity of their relationship was constant, but Obi-Wan felt himself relaxing to see the older man again. He closed his comm and gestured to his console.
"Come and see for yourself."
Ben bent over the screen. His eyebrows shot to the sky.
"Force, I should've thought you'd need a Councilor's code to see this."
"I hope not," Obi-Wan replied, not willing to entertain the possibility of asking Mace Windu for help.
"No, that is the code for a master's approval. Interesting." Ben pulled up the dialog box and typed in his personal codes. The database finally opened, and Obi-Wan breathed a sigh of relief. Ben stood back and watched the knight scroll through the thousands and thousands of entries. "So," the master wanted to know, "What do you hope to learn from a list of every single lightsaber in the galaxy?"
"Well," Obi-Wan was already setting up a search, "lightsabers aren't exactly your everyday thief's fodder, and this thief is not an amateaur. I have to think that if someone got it into their head to steal such a traceable weapon, this can't be their first time. So," within the filters, he selected a box labeled "Stolen", and waited for the results to load. It took a few seconds. Then:
-Showing 50 of 7,286 results-
"Kriffing hell," Obi-Wan burst. Across from him, the knight with their padawan actually stood up and glared at him. Obi-Wan ducked. "Sorry," he said, and avoided eye contact. The knight scoffed and ushered his apprentice away. Ben suppressed a laugh.
"I'll leave you to it," he gave his counterpart a pat on the shoulder. "You should come by for dinner, I'm making stew tonight." Ben glanced at the screen, where Obi-Wan was slowly scrolling through the results. "If you're not too swamped. Force be with you, Obi-Wan."
"You as well, Ben," Obi-Wan waved, and continued scrolling.
That there were 7,286 stolen lightsabers out there somewhere in the galaxy was alarming in the least, but Obi-Wan's fears were belayed when he realized he was looking at a list of all lightsabers that had ever been stolen at any time, including those which had been returned or destroyed. He refined his search until he was looking at a list of decommissioned lightsabers that had been stolen in the last ten years. There were only two, one of which was the target of his investigation.
The records on the second saber were no help. It had been stolen eight years ago, the thief had never been caught, and there had been no reported sightings of the saber since its disappearance. It had been stolen from a poorly-protected cultural heritage center in the mid-rim, and Coruscanti authorities assumed it had been cut up and sold for parts - particularly for its kyber crystal, which was a rare and valuable resource. The prospect comforted Obi-Wan - better the saber be destroyed for parts than pose a danger to others.
He received no such comfort from the recently-stolen saber. The paperwork on its theft was already familiar to him, but he was surprised to see that the database was exceptionally up-to-date, and even reflected his own mission movements since the previous day. He wondered who was in charge of updating the database, and if they would be any help. He pulled up the access and administration log.
"Professor Huyang, I should've known," Obi-Wan found himself smirking at the thought of the ancient professor. Why hadn't he thought of asking the droid in the first place? Huyang wouldn't just tell him what lightsabers had been stolen, but who'd made them, what color they were, and how much the kyber would be worth on the black market. Or at least, he'd know how old and how big the kyber was, and Obi-Wan would be able to make his own guess at the price.
As he scrolled, another familiar name caught Obi-Wan's eye. The database was seldom accessed, but this Jedi had been into the database three days in a row, just two weeks ago - before the saber had been stolen. Obi-Wan frowned.
"What the hell were you doing here?"
"Lola! It's Lola!" the Zygerrian girl's huge, fluffy ears were the first to pick up on the footsteps down the hall, but on her word, excitement spread to the whole creche.
"Lola?" one boy dropped his blocks, which interrupted a game of push-feather on their way down.
"Lola!" those pushing feathers clambered to their feet, and others joined them, and they all began jumping their way to the half-door to look outside and see.
"What, what, what is this, then, eh?" Their creche master emerged from his quarters, where he'd been trying to steal a private moment to file his paperwork. "What's this about Lola?" he asked. One of the older children, a Chiss boy of eleven, explained:
"Tanassi says she heard Master Aola down the hall."
"Did she?" Feemor replied, surprise drawing out his brogue.
As if on cue, a blue, freckled Twi'lek knight came bustling up to the door, and the crechelings shrieked in glee. Aola Tarkona lifted her hands out as if to hug them all at once.
"Younglings!" She beamed at them, and they beamed back in a fog of joy that boiled and bubbled across the Force for yards.
"You're here! You're back! Lola!"
"Master Lola! Look at my feather!"
"Lola! I got a new tooth!"
"Master Lola, tell us a story!"
Aola let herself into the room and was immediately mobbed. The younger children started climbing on her, and she lowered herself to the ground to accommodate as many as she could manage, laughing the entire time. The older children hung to the sides, but were all smiles as they waited their turn to accost their favorite knight for her affections.
Feemor came to stand over the mountaineer younglings and their Twi'lek summit, fists propped on his hips. "And no love for your old master? What on earth did I teach you?"
"To live in the moment," Aola grinned, face half-hidden by a human girl who was hugging Aola's head to her chest. "And in this moment, I'm having a grand time." She grabbed one boy by his sides and tickled; he shrieked with laughter.
Feemor couldn't've have kept a straight face if he'd tried, and laughed along with them all as Aola kissed and tickled her way free of the mass of younglings.
"Clawmice!" Feemor raised his voice, and with reluctance, the remaining younglings melted off of the the Twi'lek knight and retreated to simmering rows of smiles. Feemor waited until Aola stood and straightened her robes. He smiled.
"It's good to see you, lass," he opened his arms for a hug, and Aola happily stepped into them.
"You too, master." Over his shoulder, Aola caught sight of the datawork and filmsi sheets piled on Feemor's desk. She laughed. "Have you filed any of that since I left?"
"Oh hush," he gave her tap on the back of the head and let her go. "Keep the little ones entertained and maybe I'll manage."
"Leave it to me," she turned to her adoring fans and let her master sneak away.
"Have any of you ever heard," she spoke, and had immediate command of the room, "of the Great Tarentatek?"
One youngling raised her hand. "Master Yoda said he fought one a long time ago," she said, hoping to impress. Aola raised one brow.
"I see. But did Master Yoda fight two at once?"
Oohs and ahs echoed around the group, reaching even to the older children who liked to pretend they were too old for stories. Aola grew a wicked smile, and took a cross-legged seat to begin her tale.
She'd just finished her first story and started warming up into a second when another knight appeared at the door.
"I thought I might find you here," said Obi-Wan Kenobi. Unlike Aola, who was a familiar face in the Clawmouse clan, Obi-Wan Kenobi was a legend incarnate, and inspired the silent stares of hero-worship rather than the excited shrieks of family.
"Och, is that Obi-Wan?" Feemor said from his office, and emerged in a cloud of incredulity.
"It surely is," Aola smiled up at the ginger. "Long time no see, Obi!"
"Good to see you, Lola," he used the pet name popularized by the Clawmouse clan, "You as well, Feemor."
"I thought it was all lies when Qui-Gon said you'd come back," the master accused, going to the door to shake the man's hand. "What on earth are you doing here? Come to take one of these hellions of my hands at last?"
"I am, actually," Obi-Wan deadpanned. Feemor, Aola, and the entire creche went wide-eyed, all holding their collective breath. Obi-Wan did not notice or understand their excitement. "I'll take the giant blue one with the freckles and the bad attitude," he said.
Aola scoffed, because she couldn't curse in front of the children. She picked the child off her lap and stood. "Impertinent," she said, and went to the door. She handed her burden to Feemor, who cradled the baby against his chest and ushered him away from the adults. "What can I do for the prodigal son?"
"Very funny," Obi-Wan said, chagrinned. "Mace has saddled me with a local investigation, and your name came up, I was hoping you could help me out."
"My name came up?" Aola's smile was fading in confusion. "How?"
"There was a lightsaber theft a few weeks ago, and it looks like you might've come across the same files I've been looking at."
"A few weeks ago?" Aola's frown was growing deeper. "I've been off-planet for two months, Obi." The knights frowned at each other.
"Master," Aola called over her shoulder, eyes not leaving Obi-Wan's face, "I'll be back in a bit."
In the archives, Obi-Wan and Aola bent over the console together.
"I don't even know how you got access to these files, they require a master's clearance."
"Or a consular's clearance, which I have," she said.
"You're a consular?" Obi-Wan stood back and looked at her in surprise. "Since when?"
Aola didn't even look up. "You've been gone a long time, Obi, a lot can happen. I got the certifications seven months ago."
"Seven months…" Obi-Wan reeled. While he was occupied, Aola scrolled through the database, nursing the same frown as before.
"This doesn't make any sense," she shook her head. "I've never seen this database before."
"Well clearly you have," Obi-Wan countered, pointing her to the access log. "Three times in a row, two and a half weeks ago.
"Two and a half… I was halfway across the galaxy. Why…" She saw the dates, and saw the search entries.
"Oh," she said, whole demeanor shifting.
"This wasn't me," Aola said carefully, "but I know who it was."
"If it wasn't you," Obi-Wan looked down at her, "who the hell did you give your clearance codes to?"
Aola turned in her seat to look up at him, and he knew on sight it was going to be complicated.
"First of all," she pointed a threatening finger up in his face, "you're not allowed to tell the Council."
Obi-Wan pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "I have a bad feeling about this."
Time and space notwithstanding, across the galaxy all conference rooms were identical. They had identically patterned carpeting, identical off-white paint, large, unwieldy tables and chairs that never seemed to be in the right place. The especially nice conference rooms had top-of-the-line holo disks that never worked properly and caf machines that no one knew how to operate. This particular conference room was a nice conference room, but its caf machine and holo disks had been pushed aside to accommodate trays of baked confections, plastiform stemware, and moderately-priced champagne.
"If it were not for our own Torin Karr," the uniformed man was saying, "we'd still be searching for leads, and some of us would even be dead. Here's to you, Torin!" The rest of the room echoed the sentiment. "I know I speak for the entire Bureau when I convey my deepest appreciation for your tireless efforts - and those of your entire team. And now, we can all go to bed!" At that, the crowded room bustled with laughter. The speaker smiled, and his champagne fizzed and sloshed as he raised it high. "To Ling Bolocant: May he give us names, dates, and some damn peace and quiet!"
"Here, here!" The gathered agents raised their glasses.
"And rot in prison!" added a low-ranking deputy.
"Ah," said the brass, shrugging his shoulders and taking a generous swing of bubbly, "that too."
The agents dug into the treats and drinks, and it didn't take long for the alcohol to turn the room into a lively, celebratory romp.
A latecomer snuck into the room and poured himself a glass. He hung to the edge of the room and sipped, meandering his way around the table to survey the buffet offerings. He picked out a small cream pastry and tested an edge with a wary expression.
"Good of you to show your mug here!" Torin Karr was all blond hair, blue eyes, and grins as he sidled up to the newcomer. "I was afraid you didn't see my invite." Karr slapped him on the back.
The dark-haired man dusted icing off his chin and shrugged. "This is your division, Karr, not mine." He discarded the remainder of his pastry and sipped at his champagne.
"And that means kriff-all. We wouldn't have gotten anywhere without your help. Deskwork really doesn't suit you, mate." Karr elbowed his colleague. The man only shrugged.
"Yeah, well." He lifted his right arm, which had a crutch secured around the forearm. "You know how it is." Karr scoffed.
"If you took better care of it, they'd let you out on the field again, you know."
"Maybe I like deskwork."
"You're not meant for deskwork."
"And why should I bother, when you're out there kicking enough ass to bring in the drinks for all of us?" The shorter man gestured to the jovial room. Karr rolled his eyes, and his friend smiled.
"Cody? What are you doing here?" The worried question came from a boy-faced agent who was even shorter than Cody himself.
Cody frowned at him. "Nice to see you too, Falter."
"Sorry," Falter apologized, rearranging his carefully-balanced tower of snacks so he could walk over to the pair. "I didn't mean it like that. I just thought you were still in your office - I sent someone up to see you just before I got here. If I had known..."
"I wasn't expecting anyone," Cody said, bewildered. "Who was it?"
"He was a Jedi," Falter explained.
"He?" Karr interrupted, face scrunched up in confusion. "I thought the only Jedi you knew was-"
"Did he have a name?" Cody cut him off.
"Yeah, he said you knew him - Kenobi?"
Cody closed his eyes. "Oh, chssk," he breathed.
"What?" asked the handsome field agent and tubby desk agent in perfect harmony.
Cody rubbed at his eyes. "Which Kenobi was it?"
"Which Kenobi?" parroted Falter.
"There are two Jedi with the name Kenobi," Cody explained impatiently, "an older one and a younger one. Which one was it?" When Falter's face remained a blank slate of confusion, Cody clarified, "Did he have a giant scar across his face?"
"Uh, yeah, actually," said Falter with some surprise.
"Course he did." Cody didn't sound enthused.
"How'd you know that?"
Karr was grinning again. Cody was fun when he was annoyed. "Old flame of yours?" he teased.
"Can it, Karr," Cody knocked back the rest of his champagne and set it aside. Karr took offense at this and spread his arms wide in protest as Cody stormed off.
"What, you can't let your boyfriend wait five minutes? I had a whole toast prepared!" the agent yelled at Cody's retreating back.
"You can give it to me later," Cody said without looking. Karr mocked surprise and laughed.
"Woah there, Cody, at least let me buy you dinner first!"
Cody raised his left hand, middle finger standing tall. Karr laughed harder and poured a second round for Falter and himself.
When Cody returned to his office, he was surprised to find the entire hallway abandoned. It wasn't like Kenobi to give up, and he couldn't imagine any Jedi leaving after only fifteen minutes. The Order itself was founded on the Jedis' collective sense of patience. Casting looks up and down the hall, the agent keyed open his door.
Obi-Wan Kenobi was sitting behind his desk, boots propped up beside his inbox, casually thumbing through classified mission reports. He looked up.
"Ah, Cody, good to see you – I was beginning to wonder where you were."
For a moment, Cody was frozen. Then,
"What the hell are you doing?" He marched over and moved to snatch the datapad from Obi-Wan's fingers, but the Jedi was too fast. He held the 'pad out of reach.
"I'm reading," the knight complained.
"That is for my eyes only," the SBI agent protested.
"I think I can handle it. Besides, I have a higher clearance than you," Obi-Wan waved him away. Cody glared while Obi-Wan continued to read. After a few moments, the Jedi handed the pad back to the SBI agent. "It's an interesting case. If you're looking for evidence of racketeering, I'd look into the wife's bank accounts. She wears extremely expensive clothing for the unemployed spouse of a disgraced, bankrupt senator."
Cody scrolled through the pictures and wondered how he'd missed it. Then he remembered how annoyed he was. He snapped the pad off and tossed it aside.
"What do you want, Kenobi?"
"What do I…" Obi-Wan looked thoroughly offended. "Yes, it's nice to see you too, Cody, it's only been two entire years. Is it so impossible that I just came by to say hello?"
Cody was unaffected. "Yes," he said. Obi-Wan scoffed. Cody crossed his arms.
"Last time you showed up at my office, you wanted me to falsify a report. The time before that, you needed me to get you into the Senate after hours. The time before that, you wanted me to spy for you. The time before that, it was because you needed someone to cover for you while you-"
"Alright, alright," Obi-Wan stopped him before he got too wound up. "Fair enough." He gave the clone a rotten look, but soon it faded and he said, "I don't need you to do anything this time."
"Oh really?" Cody's eyebrows floated on a wave of incredulity.
"I just want to ask you a few questions."
"There it is." The incredulity passed, and the clone's expression sank back down to its standard staidness. He shifted irritably on his crutch, aching leg causing him to wobble. "Can I have my chair back?" he grouched.
Obi-Wan stood and waited while the clone hobbled over to his desk. "You should have that fixed, you know," he watched the stiff movements of the prosthetic as Cody sat. "I know a great mechanic who could make that move a hell of a lot better."
Cody settled into his chair and set his crutch aside. "For the last time, I'm not letting a child operate on my leg, no matter how good a mechanic he is."
"He's nearly eighteen, now."
"Stars above, is he really?" Cody was genuinely taken off guard, and his wide brown eyes showed it.
"Apparently," Obi-Wan sympathized.
"Kriff me. We're getting old." He pulled himself up to his desk. Obi-Wan scoffed.
"I'm getting old - you're what, fourteen? Fifteen? And here you are giving Anakin a hard time." Obi-Wan teased. Cody sighed and grit his teeth, patience wearing thin.
"Was there something you wanted, Obi-Wan?" he asked, flipping through his paperwork.
Obi-Wan fiddled with a dusty brass plaque that hung off-kilter above a filing cabinet. For bravery and sacrifice in the line of duty.
"I'm in the middle of an investigation, and your name's come up, I was hoping you could help me out."
"My name?" Cody seemed surprised. "How so?"
"Two weeks ago, you accessed a particular database in the Jedi Archives I've been looking into." Obi-Wan carefully straightened the plaque and turned to face Cody. "It was actually Aola Tarkona's name that came up on the database," Obi-Wan clarified, "but she was halfway across the galaxy at the time, and the database can only be accessed here on Coruscant. She tells me she lent you her clearance codes, which explains the odd timeline, but doesn't explain why you spent three days scouring our archives. So," Obi-Wan spread his arms, "here I am to ask you: what's an SBI agent doing digging his nose into the Jedi Order's lightsaber registry?"
"Oh." Cody seemed only mildly surprised. "I thought I put it all in my report. Are they finally looking into that?"
Given a week to prepare, this would never have crossed Obi-Wan's mind as a possible response. A moment passed in nonplussed silence. "Looking into what?" the Jedi asked.
"Into the black market sales," Cody replied, guileless. "I submitted my initial report months ago. When I didn't hear anything, I submitted a supplemental, a few weeks ago. It should've had my name on it."
"I'm- I'm sorry," Obi-Wan put out a hand, eyes shut as he tried to comprehend. "Black market sales. Of lightsabers?"
"Yes," Cody insisted. "I've been working on it for years."
For years? "What?" Obi-Wan didn't know what else to say. The Jedi and the clone stared at each other.
"That's… that's not what you're looking into, is it?" Cody seemed almost as confused as Obi-Wan.
"Perhaps we'd ought to start over," Obi-Wan said. "I'm investigating a museum heist from last week. What the hell are you talking about?"
"Museum heist…?" The man semed taken off guard. "I'm talking about Illegal lightsaber sales." He dug around his desk for a datachip, which he hurriedly fit into his datapad. "I've been chasing after this lead for nearly six years – I can't believe they didn't tell you about it."
Obi-Wan's eyebrows shot skyward. "Six years?" Cody was focused on his datapad.
"Yes. I saw this image for the first time on Geonosis. Some drunk at a bar was trying to impress his buddies about having sold real lightsabers." Cody was scrolling, tapping, searching. "I started searching for more information on the day I got this job, followed by five years of bugger all. I'd begun to think I'd gone mad, that it was some stress hallucination or maybe just… well, just Geonosis." For Cody, that was reason enough. "But then I finally found it again, buried in the half-deleted caches of the holonet." He flipped his datapad around to show Obi-Wan.
Against a plain white background, plastiform stands displayed three ignited lightsabers. Each of them was white-hot and limned in livid red.
"Those are real." Cody's voice was low and serious.
Obi-Wan said nothing, but took the datapad so he could look closer. He couldn't help it when his breath caught. He hadn't seen a red lightsaber in over a decade. His scar, long healed, stung like a frayed nerve. The right side of his face winced.
"Are you sure this color is real, though?"
"Not entirely, but that, color and all, is the exact image I saw that day. I'd stake my life on it. Did you see that symbol, in the back?"
"Behind the sabers. In the corner, there." Cody reached over and tapped the image, and Obi-Wan realized that there was a dark background peeking out from where the white studio sheet had fallen away. "There's a symbol here. Hard to see on the image, I had it retouched," Cody flipped through some more images until he came to a brightened, magnified view of the symbol. "Do you recognize that?"
It was still blurry, but there was a definite symbol there: a circle within a larger circle, their edges set against right each other to create a large crescent shape. Within the hollow center was a teardrop shape flanked by two pairs of twisted spikes. Was it a seal? A coat of arms, maybe? It scratched some memory in Obi-Wan's brain, but he couldn't place it.
"No," he said.
"Damn," Cody was disappointed. "I've been trying to hunt it down for ages." He took his datapad back and stared at the image for a while, gnawing at the inside of his lip. Obi-Wan knew Cody had been placed on administrative duty ever since the injury that took his leg, and that he still walked with a crutch or cane rather than service his prosthetic to keep it in field-ready condition. Is this what he'd been working on the whole time?
"Are they stolen?" the Jedi asked eventually, drawing the agent from his reverie. "Is that what you needed into the database for?"
Cody gave an expressive shrug. "I have no idea. As soon as I knew there was something to know, that I wasn't crazy and hadn't imagined the whole thing, I wrote up a report and sent it on to your council. I didn't think of looking into it myself until I got no response. I thought maybe they didn't believe me, that if I kept digging…" Cody shrugged. "Aola cought wind as to what I was working on and gave me her codes, told me to look into it. I did. I found a match on one of the sabers. Same hilt, same size and everything."
"Really?" Obi-Wan was shocked. "Was it stolen?"
"No," Cody replied, eyebrows high and calmly framing a six-year panic. "No, your registry claims it was destroyed ten years ago."
"Ten years…" Obi-Wan's mind was reeling. It felt as though he'd tripped on a pebble and fallen headfirst into a wormhole. He felt in himself the same alarm and confusion Cody had been nursing for years.
"Exactly," the clone said, as if reading his mind.
"If… if it says it was destroyed," Obi-Wan began struggling to wrap his mind around the information dancing around inside of his skull, "but it's being… being sold, then the ones that we know have been stolen…" he looked at Cody, and Cody's expression encouraged him to reach the inevitable conclusion of his logic. "But that's ridiculous," Obi-Wan interrupted himself. "Stolen sabers are cut up for kyber. Lightsabers as weapons are all but useless to non-Jedi. They're next to impossible to handle if you don't have Force-sensitivi–" He trailed off suddenly, and his face went slack. The answer was written on Cody's face before it reached his own comprehension. He felt nauseous.
"Oh, Force," Obi-Wan said, and was unable to say more. The silence was deafening.
"Look," Cody said, as someone who'd had weeks and months to ponder the implications. "I don't know how this all works. I don't know sabers, I certainly don't know Sith. But if this is… them-"
"There should only be two, they would never deign to steal weapons they can make themselves." Obi-Wan insisted, unwilling to consider what Cody was proposing. "What do they need these sabers for? These can't be Sith."
"Well they may be something like it," the clone warned.
"You said you forwarded this information to the Council," Obi-Wan diverted suddenly. "They should have responded - hell, at the mere implication of darksiders, they should be crawling all over this, interrogating you. When did you send it? To whom? Master Windu should know by now."
Cody shrugged helplessly. "I'm part of the SBI, Kenobi. I don't have access to Mace Windu or the High Council. Senate hierarchy dictates I go through the proper channels, which in this case is the Council of Reconciliation. Below senior Senators and the Chancellor himself, they're our only intermediary to the Order."
Obi-Wan had little direct experience with the Council of Reconciliation, but his skin was crawling with memories of Finis Valorum's distrust of them. Even Mace Windu made no secret of how he avoided their political entanglements.
"Who?" Obi-Wan asked again.
"Master Uldor Sarat," Cody told him. "He's the de facto liason for the Bureau."
"Send me a copy of your report," Obi-Wan demanded, heading toward the door. "I'm going to deliver it to Mace myself."
When Obi-Wan requested a meeting, Mace Windu braced himself for an hour of complaints and petitions to return to the field in Hutt Space. But then Obi-Wan came into his office and carefully shut the door behind him, and an entirely new feeling took its place. Obi-Wan didn't complain. He said as little as possible to preface what he'd found, handed the Master of the Order a datapad, and waited while he read.
It was a short and simple report. Mace stared at it for a full five minutes in silence before he said, "When did you get this?"
"Today," Obi-Wan replied immediately. He'd been staring at Mace in silence the entire time, waiting for the master to speak first. "He says he submitted it to Master Sarat almost a month ago."
Mace's dark eyes looked up at Obi-Wan. "Uldor Sarat?" he asked.
Mace grunted, and looked back down at the datapad, expression unreadable. He scrolled up the report and looked Cody's name. "He got all this through Aola Tarkona, did he?"
Obi-Wan gave a shrug. "She's the one who directed me to him." Then, with veiled chagrin, added, "He didn't seem to find anything remiss about a Jedi lending codes to an SBI agent."
"Hmm," Mace mused quietly, as if to himself. "I'll have to have a chat with her about that." There was a rueful burr in his voice that made Obi-Wan wonder how many such chats they'd had before. Mace continued scrolling through the report. Pictures. Places. That strange, crest-like symbol.
"You think this is tied to your museum case," the master said at length, not looking up at Obi-Wan.
"It could be," the knight admitted. "It's certainly worth investigating. Even if it wasn't a darksider who stole the saber, if there is some darksider or… or Sith," the word came out like vinegar, "waiting on the other side of a sale, it's something to look into. It's something we haveto look into."
Eventually, Mace looked up. Filtered through the heavy blinds in his office, the midday light caught on the determined lines in his brow and cast them in shadow. "Look into it," he ordered. "Ask master Sarat about it – quietly."
Obi-Wan's somber expression matched that of his superior. "Quietly how?"
"You are to tell no one about this report, including Master Sarat. Play dumb, tie it to your case, but look into it all the same."
Obi-Wan's frown deepened. "You… don't want to look into it yourself?" the younger man asked, baffled. Mace set the report aside and crossed his legs, hands wrapped around the arms of his chair as if he was presiding over Council.
"Uldor Sarat is a grey Jedi sitting on a grey Council, and if he received this report and didn't tell me about it, I can assume he has ulterior motives that I won't appreciate. If he gets wind that I found out about it, he'll hide whatever he's doing and we won't be able to move forward. Therefore, I can't be involved. So," Mace concluded, now drawing his hands up to steeple his fingers in front of his nose, "you're going to play dumb and keep poking around."
Obi-Wan was having vivid, horrible flashbacks to his days working on the Committee for Galactic Commerce, and his even more disastrous stint on the War Council. Had he really ended up here again, acting as Mace Windu's dog? "But…in the Senate?" he pressed.
Mace doubted Obi-Wan could hear the panic in his own voice, but he was sick of hearing it every time the word "senate" passed either of their lips.
"Yes, Obi-Wan," he said, as if to a child. "That is where Master Sarat works, after all."
"But… I'm… I can't," Obi-Wan insisted. "I can't go back there. You've told me that yourself."
"Six years ago I did, yes, when things were still fresh," Mace said, unmoved. "But times change. People change. This city has an incredibly short memory."
"Assassinations aren't easily forgotten," Obi-Wan insisted.
"Committees are," Mace countered. He waited for Obi-Wan's retort. When none came, he added, "You're good at working with politicians, though I know you hate it." Stare unblinking, he added, "Jedi aren't meant to know hatred. It's time you got over yours."
Obi-Wan set his jaw and looked away. He wished vehemently to say something clever and snippish, but the words never came.
Mace absorbed his triumph stoically, as he did all things. "Continue your investigation," he instructed. "Keep Cody in the loop and see if he can help you. Find out what Sarat knows - but keep this report between us. As far as anyone knows, you're just a washed up knight working a third-rate investigation. Let Sarat keep thinking that."
Working desperately to swallow his pride along with his fear, Obi-Wan nodded. "Of course, Master." Silence overtook the room, and Obi-Wan translated it as his dismissal. He stood, making no effort to straighten his messy robes or his hair, and turned to the door.
Just as Obi-Wan was at the door, Mace took pity.
"You're not a washed up knight, Kenobi," the master said, softer than he'd planned to. "I'm not asking you to do any of this because you are, I'm asking you to do this because you are one of the very few people I know I can trust." The Jedi met each others' eyes, guards abandoned for an instant. In that fleeting fractal, Obi-Wan was unsettled to find that he understood the weight in Mace's eyes as well as he understood his own reflection. The moment passed, and the Korun's expression returned to its familiar adamantine cast. "Now get back to work."
Returning to the Senate was like returning to his childhood home in all the wrong ways. Just as Qui-Gon's old apartments made him feel protected and welcome, sheltered like a child, the Senate brought back memories of Obi-Wan's younger soul. Memories of mistakes, of vulnerability, of fear and sweat and anger. He was a Jedi, and should have been able to let it go. But the feeling choked him like noxious fumes. He breathed deeply and sighed hard in an attempt to rid his chest of the feeling, but there remained a darkness, the living memory of the man who still lurked these halls.
"Greetings, master Jedi." The sweet voice of a protocol droid greeted him as soon as the lift doors opened. It stood straight-backed at broad receptionists' counter, its polished chrome skin shimmering in the calm light. "How can I assist you?"
Obi-Wan didn't respond immediately, distracted by his surroundings. The receiving lobby for the executive offices was a small and plush oval, serviced by a single lift, which opened opposite the receptionists' desk and a hidden set of hallways. The entire thing was cushioned by lush carpets and wall tapestries. Obi-Wan had seen the carpets many times during Finis' long terms, as a boy nipping at Qui-Gon's heels and as a man serving in the Senate. They had always appeared in his memory as tones of steel and grey. The new administration had reupholstered everything in stifling russet.
"If you wish to meet with his Excellency the Supreme Chancellor, I'm afraid he is out of his office at the moment, though I would be pleased to schedule a meeting-"
"I'm not here to see Chancellor Palpatine," Obi-Wan interrupted. "I'm actually here to see Master Uldor Sarat of the Council of Reconciliation."
The droids circuits whirred as it processed this new information. It paused a moment to access its databanks and looked up at him. "Master Sarat is in a meeting at the moment, but should be available shortly. Please, have a seat, and I will let him know that you are waiting."
"Of course, thank you."
Obi-Wan sat in one of uncomfortably plush chairs and waited in silence. Normally, he would use such an opportunity to meditate, relax and clear his mind, but it was difficult in his place. Even beyond his own bad memories, there was an oppressive quality to the air that could not be attributed to the dark upholstery alone. Obi-Wan closed his eyes, fighting against his own heartbeat which he could feel beating faster the longer he sat still. His blood pressure was mounting, veins rising from his wrists and hands as if the blood were trying to find a place to go, a way to escape, to get out.
"Obi-Wan?" said a voice, and he looked up. "Obi-Wan Kenobi, it is you!"
Obi-Wan blinked at the woman, and blinked again before her smile and glowing beauty clicked in his memory. "Padme?" he said, too astonished to realize how she'd made the oppression flee. His face split into a wide grin and he stood to greet her. "Your Majesty," he dipped his head, but she laughed.
"I haven't been that in several years," she let him take her hand in greeting. She was a little taller than he remembered, but still petite. She'd replaced the practical uniform of a handmaiden for more opulent gowns, but he had no doubt she was hiding a trick or two up the voluptuous velvet sleeves. Her shoulders carried the same determined mold as he remembered, but her face was older now, her smile more ready, her stance more sure. "It's Senator now," she told him.
"Really? That's wonderful, I had no idea."
"And I had no idea you still lived on Coruscant. When I started my term last year, I thought I might run into you, but no such luck." Her smile never faltered, but his did. How many things had he missed in his years away? Anakin grown, Qui-Gon in cassocks, Aola a consular, Cody slaving away on some years-long project, and Padme, a senator? He was brought out of the abstraction when she unexpectedly reached out and touched the short-cropped edge of hair at his temple.
"No more hiding your scar, I see," she grinned. "I like it. And a beard, too. You really do look your uncle."
Obi-Wan laughed, and let her again draw him out of his dark musings. "Yes, so I've been told," he said. "It's good to see you again, Padme."
"You as well," she said through a smile. Then, for the first time that day, she frowned. "What on earth are you doing here? Back for more service?"
"No," the Jedi answered a little too fast. "No, unrelated business, actually. The man, or rather, the master I'm after happens to sit on the Council of Reconciliation."
"Ah," Padme nodded knowingly. "A hard bunch to get a hold of."
Obi-Wan snorted softly. "Unfortunately. And what about you?"
"The same, actually, though I'm after a Master who's a woman, so I doubt it's just the same. She's helping me request Jedi assistance for a matter on Naboo. Or, she was supposed to," Padme said diplomatically, eyelids fluttering in cheery irritation. "That was two months ago."
"Why didn't you contact the High Council directly?" Obi-Wan asked her. "They know you, you've been an invaluable ally, surely they would understand."
"For better or worse, I am a senator and cannot leverage any of the powers I relinquished as Queen," she told him. "I'm bound by protocol to go through this council," she accompanied the word with a look of distaste toward the hidden hall that led to the floor full of executive offices. "Though I've found their sense of timeliness severely lacking in the past."
"Spoken like a career politician," Obi-Wan said, without a shred of mockery. She looked at him expecting to find a joke, but found only a fond smile. "You've grown into an accomplished diplomat, I see."
"Are you saying I wasn't when we first met?" she asked, feigning offense.
"When we met, you were chucking bombs into bunkers, it's a fairly different thing," he defended.
"I seem to remember a bit of diplomacy," she countered.
"And deception," Obi-Wan reminded.
"The two go hand in hand," Padme said immediately.
"Negotiations often require a measure of deception, you know that."
"And if your opponent finds you out?"
"Well," Padme smoothed her luscious aegean robes and looked up, tilting her chin so she looked like a queen again. "That, I find, is when the aggressive negotiations start." She paused. "Though I try, when I can, to avoid chucking bombs."
Obi-Wan broke character and laughed. "You'll do well here," he praised. She beamed.
"I wonder where that droid has gone," Padme craned her neck to peer at the receptionist desk, which was empty.
"To notify our good Council members, I hope," Obi-Wan looked with her. "She said they were in a meeting."
"Hmm," Padme hummed, and took a seat. "They always seem to be in meetings."
"Not unlike senators, or so I hear." Obi-Wan took the chair next to her and relaxed into it.
"You have no idea."
The two fell into conversation as if they'd never parted, years drifting away like smoke as they talked of families and teachers, travels and elections, projects, missions, mutual friends. Before long, the sun had crested its daytime peak and was now blaring hot through the transparisteel tube of the lift. Obi-Wan squinted into it, and then looked back at the receptionists desk.
"Force, is it that late? What on earth is taking so long?"
"Oh, it's always something," Padme lamented. Obi-Wan stood.
"No Jedi would take this long without a good reason - no Jedi that I know." He approached the desk and peered left and right into the darkened hallways behind its decorated backdrop. "Excuse me? Anyone?" he called. No response.
"I can't stay here all day. Besides," he glanced back at Padme, "you may want to avoid chucking bombs, but I have no reason to play nice with these people. They're my people, or at least they ought to be." He stepped around the receptionist desk and marched down the hall, looking at door plaques to find the offices he was looking for.
"Now hold on," Padme held her skirts up to jog after him. "If you're going to make a nuisance of yourself, you might as well help me while you're at it."
"Good, you can look indignant for me." He waved her over and continued on. She followed him down the hallway past empty rooms after empty rooms. They encountered a few service droids, an intern who didn't know better, and two senators too wrapped up in their conversation to notice them.
"There," Padme pointed, and Obi-Wan saw the chrome protocol droid from before waiting patiently outside of a conference room. Though the door was opaque, one side of the room had windows to it, and Obi-Wan peered inside. He hissed in a breath and darted around a corner so he wouldn't be seen. Padme looked at him, and then at the room, and back at him.
"What are you doing?"
"Get down before they see you," he muttered.
"Just get down."
She joined him around to the darkened corner and peered with him around the edge. "Who is that?" she asked him.
"Master Sarat," Obi-Wan said, "And Master Kzaansk, and Master Teera."
"Master Teera's who I'm here to see,"
Obi-Wan didn't react. "They're with Mas Amedda. And a Pyke," he said.
"A Pyke?" Even Padme knew to be surprised. She looked between Obi-Wan and the other Jedi. "A Pyke as in the Syndicate Pykes?"
"Yes, this one is named Rodsu Ter'rek, the youngest son of the head of the Pyke Syndicate. I spent a year and a half investigating his movements."
"What?" Padme tried to sneak her head back around the corner so she could gawk. "Well, then, what the hell is he doing here?"
"I don't know," Obi-Wan said. "Nothing good." Padme glanced back at him.
"The syndicate deals in spice, don't they?"
"The syndicate does. Rodsu dabbles." She didn't like his tone.
"In informing Republic agents, I hope you're about to say," Padme watched the Jedi's expression.
"In weapons dealing and black market sales," Obi-Wan corrected. Padme said nothing. "Three separate agencies have captured him and tried to flip him, but somehow, he always walks free, which is why my investigations never got anywhere." Obi-Wan was beginning to get worked up, seeing the writing on the wall. "But if he has friends in high places," he squinted at the assembled masters and politicians, "high, high places, it would certainly explain a lot."
"Obi-Wan," Padme reminded, trying to maintain reason, "you're suggesting that three Jedi Masters and the speaker of the Senate are trading favors with a known-"
"Down," Obi-Wan hissed, and pulled her around the corner. He waited, feeling rather than seeing how Master Sarat had begun to look out the window, no doubt searching for the unseen audience he'd sensed. "We'd best talk about this elsewhere," he said. "Do you have an office here on Coruscant?"
Padme's apartments were as clean and inviting as she was. Their dark conversation was incongruous with their surroundings. The thick transparisteel windows muffled the sound of the skycars outside and insulated their frantic discussion.
"We have to tell someone about this," Padme said, sitting on a long couch as Obi-Wan stalked around the edge of the sitting room, scanning the corners of the ceiling and edges of the carpet for bumps or tears, looking for shadows of recording devices hidden in the sconces. He'd already checked her comm, her holo, her lights, her sink, for Force's sake. He'd found nothing, but here he was, still pacing, one hand worrying the hem of his tabard, the other scrubbing his beard.
"No, we can't," the Jedi insisted. "No one can know. No one. I'll look into this personally."
Padme seemed disturbed by the suggestion. "Shouldn't you at least tell your Order? The High Council?"
"No," Obi-Wan repeated, "and neither should you. This is more complicated than you realize. I knew I couldn't trust Sarat, but the others are a surprise."
"You… you knew you couldn't trust another Jedi?" Padme was unsettled. "Why?"
Obi-Wan looked at her. Do as Padme says, Ben had told him years and years ago. His elder self expressed complete trust in the woman who sat before him. Obi-Wan knew, more certainly than he knew anything, that it would be the same for him.
"Perhaps I'd better start at the beginning. Could you lock your door?"
Explaining took less time than he'd expected. He reviewed what he knew of the Pykes and what he'd gone through since returning to Coruscant, his mission, its twists and turns. He skimmed over Mace Windu's thoughts on Uldor Sarat, but only because he knew Mace liked keeping his cards close to his chest. It was only when Obi-Wan tried explaining the lightsaber thefts and Cody's discovery of a black trade that Padme finally spoke.
"Wait, what's that?" Obi-Wan had been scrolling through his datapad to show her the highlights of his reports.
She reached over him to scroll back through his files. She paused on the image from Cody's report, the crest-like emblem taken from the photo of black-trade lightsabers.
"That," she said. "I've seen that before."
Obi-Wan turned bodily to look at her, whole being needing to know. "Where?" he demanded.
"That's why I'm here," Padme explained. "That's why I needed to request Jedi assistance on Naboo. The Gungans have been sending us reports of new criminal activity in our planet's core, and that's the emblem they've found. And that's not all," she said. Obi-Wan stayed silent. There was more? "Naboo's not the only one. I know of at least one other planet that's identified this symbol before."
"And who is that? I need to speak to them."
"Well of course," Padme shrugged, "I'm surprised you haven't already."
"No," Mace Windu told him, and shoved the application for travel authorization back across to the knight. "I can't approve this." Obi-Wan, standing across from the Master of the Order's desk, blinked.
"I wish I could, and you're right, you need to follow up on this. Unfortunately," Mace spread his hands, "I can't. You're under probation, you're not allowed to leave Coruscant for any official business."
Something about Mace's tone caught in Obi-Wan's ear. He hesitated before he said, "Official business."
"You know," Mace said, as if he hadn't heard the man, "I keep hearing these rumors that Ben Kenobi and his apprentice are taking personal leave to Alderaan. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
"I could certainly find out," Obi-Wan said congenially.
"You've accrued quite a bit of personal leave yourself, after all these years. Maybe you should follow your uncle's example and rest once in a while."
"You know me, master," Obi-Wan grinned, solid determination hiding behind his boyish dimples. "I'm always working."
So uh, hey guys. Listen. I said earlier this year that I was planning on finishing Reprise IV (and by extension, the Reprise AU as a whole) by the end of 2018, but… I don't think that's going to happen. Quite frankly, I don't know when I'm going to have time to write the next chapter. I'm in my final semester of grad school and I am absolutely drowning in deadlines and huge projects and job applications that I am scrambling to finish on time. So. I'm going to keep writing, and I'll finish this thing eventually, but… it may take a while. Sorry about that. I'll try to write when I can.
Chapter 5: Personal Leave
I come to you with a chapter, a new job, fancy new letters to put after my name, and many apologies for the long wait. Happy January, everyone!
Ben watched the steam billow up from his small tea bowl and let the patterns mesmerize him as they eddied up through the evening light toward the ceiling. He breathed in deeply and held the rich, bittersweet notes of sapir in his lungs before he exhaled. Anxiety curled in the back of his skull, writhing and wriggling like a snake. It was intensely uncomfortable. It was also not his problem to bear.
"Anakin, if you are not able to let go of your anxieties here, perhaps a few laps around the Temple's perimeter will do the job for you," the master said with an unusual measure of irritation.
Anakin sighed, a sound Ben had endured too many times that day. "I'm sorry, Master, I'm trying." The apology was heartfelt, but was, as it had been for hours, an empty phrase. Ben took in a deep breath and released his irritation with a lifetime's worth of discipline. He held his robe's voluminous sleeve to pour a second bowl of sapir.
"Stop your fidgeting and come sit down. This tea won't be fresh by the time we return; it's best to enjoy it now."
The clanging and clattering of Anakin putting away his mechanic's tools lasted longer than Ben had expected. He leaned back in his seat to spy the contained chaos of his apprentice's workstation - which was, allegedly, also a bedroom. Anakin was disentangling himself from a mess of wires and hydraulic pistons. Ben couldn't help but be impressed; Anakin's current work-in-progress had been nothing but a skeleton only just that morning.
Well, Ben thought, turning his attention back to his tea, if he can't let go of his anxiety, at least he channels it into something useful. He considered RB-1 as the aging droid hovered across the room to its charging station and bumped into a bookshelf on its way. Well, mostly useful.
Anakin plopped onto his meditation cushion beside his master and let out a sigh. He was indeed trying to release his anxiety, Ben could tell, but he was doing a horrible job of it.
"You know you don't need to be worried, padawan." Ben handed Anakin a bowl of tea.
"I know," the apprentice replied, frustrated at himself.
There was a dark smudge of hydraulic fluid on Anakin's left cheek. Ben used the edge of his sleeve to wipe it away. Anakin endured this with visible annoyance.
"I'm not a child, master," he grumbled.
"No you're not, and yet I've met crechelings who don't hold onto their worries so tightly." Ben retracted his hand and sipped at his tea. "What has you in such a state? Tell me."
"I don't know," the apprentice waffled.
"Yes you do," Ben retorted, "you just don't want to tell me."
"That's not true."
"Then tell me what you're worried about." Ben fixed his apprentice with an unwavering stare. Anakin looked down at his tea, picking at the worn, stained bowls that Ben had been using since before Anakin had been born. The master waited in silence.
"What if she doesn't want anything to do with me?" Anakin blurted. Ben continued to watch him, listening. "I mean, I haven't seen her since I was a baby, what if she doesn't… what if she doesn't like me?" He was nearly eighteen, but looked like a worried pre-teen. "Or what if she likes me too much? What if she expects me to leave the Jedi, and stay on Alderaan? She's not expecting me to stay, is she?" Ben could sense Anakin's anxiety twisting and turning, knotting and unknotting itself into new forms of worry. "Or what about her fiance? Does he know about me? Does he resent me? I don't want to be a problem between them. And who is he, anyway? What if he's wrong for her? Am I supposed to say something? Can I say anything? If I'm a Jedi, do I even count as her son?"
"Anakin," Ben said gently, when a break in the teen's anxious tirade gave him a breath to speak. "Of course you 'count'. You do not give your mother enough credit. She'll be thrilled to see you again, and will let you go back to your duties here with her best wishes."
"Are you sure?" Anakin frowned into his reflection in the sapir. Ben watched the boy with a soft smile, remembering.
"Your mother had the foresight to send you to the Jedi, but she also waited until you were older because she did not want to part with you. You're nearly grown, and she knows this. Your path is yours to decide, not hers. She knows this too. You need not worry, padawan." Ben smiled and sipped at his tea. "As for Tam, I think he's equally nervous about meeting you."
"What?" Anakin was taken aback.
"You're his fiance's nearly-grown son, and are bound to have your own opinions on the match. He's nervous you won't approve."
"That's…" Anakin blinked rapidly. He hadn't thought of it like that. "That's… that's just stupid, he's not marrying me."
"So Tam's anxiety is stupid, but yours is not?" Ben asked serenely.
Anakin stared at his tea. The snake of anxiety stilled and shrank. Embarrassment filled the void.
"Drink your tea before it's cold," Ben instructed. Anakin did.
"I didn't realize it was so late," Anakin said after a while. The setting sun shone blinding white off of the glittering skyline of the business district, and Anakin waved a hand to lower the window shades. Amid the quiet, his stomach growled loudly. "I'm starving," he said.
Ben snorted softly. "Are you ever not? Come on." The older man rose with creaking joints. "Force knows I don't have enough food to keep pace with your stomach. We'll cast ourselves at the mercy of the refectory droids."
"I wonder if they still have that nuna gumbo," Anakin wondered hungrily.
"Well I guess we'll just have to see-" Ben opened their door, and Obi-Wan's knock passed through the air between them. Both Kenobis took a moment to look surprised at each other.
"Obi-Wan," Anakin said, foregoing surprise to smile at the knight.
"Obi-Wan," Ben echoed, bewildered. "What are you doing here?"
"I hear you're going to Alderaan on a social visit," Obi-Wan said without preamble.
"We are," Ben wasn't sure how Obi-Wan had heard about it. "Anakin's mother is getting married."
"Is she?" Obi-Wan raised both brows pleasantly. "That's wonderful. I'm going with you."
"What?" Ben said.
"What?" Anakin said at the same time.
"I have some personal leave to use up, and I need to have a chat with the Prince. So," he grinned, looking from Ben to Anakin and back, "when do we leave?"
"And you have no idea what this?" Qui-Gon held the holograph close to his face, and then far away, trying to get his aging eyes to focus on the strange image of the red lightsabers and, more importantly, the crest on the wall behind them.
"No," Obi-Wan replied, belt laid out on the table so he could restock its contents. "But Padme recognized it, and claims that Bail will, too."
Qui-Gon turned the holo off and fixed his former apprentice with a frown accentuated by sixty-eight years' worth of wrinkles. "How exactly do two senators know about a crime organization that the Jedi have never heard about?"
"I'm not sure the Jedi haven't heard of them," Obi-Wan said ruefully, snapping his belt pockets shut and replacing it at his waist. "But who in the Jedi do you suppose senators are supposed to report to if something like this crops up? Master Windu hadn't heard of it. I can only assume Master Yoda hasn't, either."
"The Council of Reconciliation," Qui-Gon said. Obi-Wan's annoyed expression was more vocal than words. "You think our own members are keeping this from us?"
"Master Windu was surprised about the sabers. He wasn't at all surprised when I told him Uldor Saraat was the one who received Cody's initial report. Master Saraat is grey at best. But it was Master Teera who Padme had been in contact with. Neither of them ever forwarded their reports to the High Council."
With the difficulty of age, Qui-Gon stood, still frowning, to join Obi-Wan at the kitchen table. "If they've been sitting on these reports all this time, surely someone would've filed a complaint. If the Council of Reconciliation remains ineffective, surely the senators have recourse to go over their heads."
"From what Cody tells me, they've done a decent enough job of pretending like they're doing something. Pending this, pending that. They've given it the appearance of bureaucracy, not inaction." Obi-Wan chewed on his lip. "But I've seen them sharing afternoon caf with one of the slipperiest crime lords in the Outer Rim." He was staring at nothing, preoccupied with all the suspicions he'd grown during his tenure in Hutt space. "I have to wonder if Rodsu's chronic exonerations come from the same place as inaction on Force-damn darksiders." Obi-Wan shook his head. "One day," he said, "Master Windu needs to clean up this Order. People like Saraat and Teera are why we've landed in this Sith conspiracy mess in the first place."
"You sound like Dooku," Qui-Gon accused. "Mace has a demanding job. Maybe wait until this 'Sith conspiracy' has blown over, and then you can lecture him on reform."
Obi-Wan sighed the sigh of an idealist stuck in the body of a pragmatist. He looked at the chrono. "I'd better get going." He stood from the table and pulled on his long brown cloak.
"Here, take an extra," Qui-Gon bid, holding out one of Obi-Wan's spare cloaks. The former apprentice looked at it, and then at his master.
"Because it's been sitting on the back of my couch exactly where you forgot it two years ago, and I'm tired of looking at it," Qui-Gon griped, extending the cloak further. "Leave it on Bail's couch if you like, just not mine."
Obi-Wan quietly took the garment and folded it in his arms. After so long sitting out in the apartment, it carried a livelier scent than that of his closet; it smelled like Qui-Gon's shampoo, and sapir, and home.
"It wasn't two years," Obi-Wan insisted.
"It felt like it."
"Well then, I'll come back and forget this again sooner than last time," Obi-Wan said, leaning forward to embrace his old master.
"Fine," the old Jedi replied, hugging his padawan fiercely and speaking in a grumpy tone. "A short respite is better than none." They parted. "Send my best wishes to Ms. Skywalker and her fiance."
"I will," Obi-Wan was at the door.
"And help Ben look after that padawan of his," Qui-Gon called out after him even as Obi-Wan was halfway down the hall, "If he's half as bad as you were at his age, he's going to need all the help he can get."
Obi-Wan rolled his eyes to the ceiling. He was thirty-three and going grey, but still felt compelled to say, "yes, Master."
Obi-Wan was not all that fond of RB-1, not least of all because when he and the droid were in the same space with each other, both of them ended up responding to each other's names. This was fairly easy to avoid in large buildings where the two would not cross paths, but in the cramped quarters of a small Republic ship, it was inevitable that at some point, Obi-Wan would end up answering to the name of a cantankerous, refurbished remote droid.
"Arbee, put that down, that's not meant for you," Anakin snapped. From his seat by the bulkhead, Obi-Wan lowered his datapad.
"I can only assume that was not directed at me," the knight griped.
"No, sorry, not you Obi," Anakin put out a placating hand toward the knight, and turned toward Arbee who floated not far away, his cable-like arm hugging a glowing holo-plate to his hull. "Put it down," Anakin demanded. Arbee turned himself further away from the Jedi, grumbling something in his indecipherable binary. Anakin scowled.
"Just cause you took the photo doesn't mean you get to keep it. You're going to break it, give it here," he reached out a hand.
If Arbee were a sentient, he would've had the voice of someone who smoked a dozen deathsticks every day. His aged voicebox garbled out another complaint, and Anakin scoffed.
"Oh, shut up, yes you will. Give it here, you stupid- put it down!" the teenager lunged at the droid, who shrieked in indignation but was ultimately powerless as the padawan wrestled him to the ground and yanked the holoplate free. When Anakin released him, Arbee flew out the door, screaming complaints as he went. Anakin huffed.
"If he gives you so much trouble, why don't you just reprogram him?" Obi-Wan asked.
"He's corrupted his own code so I can't," Anakin grumbled as he polished the picture with his sleeve, "Besides,I was like ten when I wrote it. I didn't know what I was doing. I'd probably end up deactivating him for good." Anakin huffed and went over to sit by Obi-Wan, holding the picture in his hands.
"What's that?" Obi-Wan asked. Anakin tilted it so he could see. It was a still-holo of Anakin and Ben, both smiling, standing in the Temple gardens. It was a lovely picture.
"It's for my mom. Master Ben gave her one like this a long time ago. Jedi don't really give gifts, but he said an updated version would be a nice wedding present for her." Anakin stared at the picture, worrying his thumbnail along the pastiform's smooth edge.
"I'm sure she'll love it," Obi-Wan told him.
A long moment passed while Anakin examined the holo and Obi-Wan tapped through his datapad, listening to the hum of the hyperdrive. At length, Anakin asked,
"Have you ever met your parents?"
Obi-Wan stopped what he was doing.
"...No, I haven't," he replied. He put his 'pad on his lap, folded his hands over the edge, and thought. "I don't know much about them. I know they're from Stewjon. I know I inherited my migraines from my father, and that my force sensitivity likely comes from my mother's side, but other than that…" Obi-Wan shrugged dispassionately. "My records were sealed by their request when they gave me to the Order. I only know what the healers can tell me about my genetics."
"Do you even know their names?" Asked Anakin.
"No," Obi-Wan said, turning back to his reports. "They're my parents, not my family. The Jedi are my family."
"But Master Ben's your family – your biological family." Anakin looked up at the knight "He's your mother's brother, right?"
Obi-Wan hesitated. It'd been a while since their cover story had become relevant. "So I'm told," he said. "I only found out about that when I was a little younger than you."
"Oh." Anakin looked back down at his photo, thinking of his mother, and of Ben, and of the two worlds they represented.
"Can Jedi have more than one family?"
"I suppose," Obi-Wan said. He'd grown up fairly apathetic towards his biological origins, and wasn't sure what to say. "You know…" he began, trying to be helpful, "Having a mother, knowing her, spending time with her, those aren't bad things. You'll still be a Jedi."
"I know," Anakin was familiar with the Kenobi doctrine of attachment. "But it just feels… odd. Like I'll have to choose."
Obi-Wan shrugged. "We have to make a lot of choices in life, sacrificing one thing for another. But I don't think this is one of those times." This did little to reassure the apprentice, so Obi-Wan reached out and out a hand on the teen's shoulder. "It'll be alright. Just relax, and let it pass."
"Anakin, Obi-Wan," Ben's voice came over the PA system. "We're coming in for landing. And Anakin," the master's voice ached with exasperation, "do come collect your droid. His co-piloting skills leave something to be desired."
"Yes, Master," Anakin stood. "Thanks, Obi-Wan," he left to retrieve RB-1.
Obi-Wan watched the teen go before he turned back to his datapad. He just needed a few more finishing touches on the report he'd assembled for Bail Organa. The wedding was in three days. That gave him three and a half days to find Bail, present his report, and get the prince to help him investigate what crime syndicate was behind the strange symbol - and the lightsaber sales – all without interrupting Shmi Skywalker's big day.
He had a lot of work to do.
It was evening on Alderaan when they landed. They'd been invited to dine with the Royal family and the soon-to-be bride and groom, and were running late by the time the landing ramp hit the dock.
"Are you sure I won't be imposing?" asked Obi-Wan politely as he strode side-by-side with Ben down the ramp. "I'm more than happy to wait."
"Don't be absurd, as soon as I told him you'd be coming, Bail insisted that you join us for dinner," Ben reassured. He took in an appreciative lungful of cool, piney air, which tickled his lungs and memories. It invigorated Ben, but it seemed to have the opposite effect on his apprentice.
"I'm not sure I'm ready for this," Anakin said quietly, letting Obi-Wan walk ahead while he hung back with his master.
Ben put his hand on his padawan's back, warm and firm between Anakin's shoulder blades as he pushed the boy forward. "You are," Ben said, smiling. "Now come on."
Anakin would not remember crossing the bridge from the landing pad, or going through the labyrinthian palace, or even following the serving droid to the banquet hall. But the doors opened and his mother was standing there, and the world became crystal clear.
Shmi was very young mother, and Alderaan had been kind to her. She was a far cry from the emaciated, exhausted teenager Ben had met on Tatooine. She was relaxed into her freedom and blossoming there. She was dressed in winter-toned brocade as lush as a courtier's, cut in the simple, elegant shapes that matched the smile lines that had begun to frame her mouth. She saw her son and her face exploded into a smile.
"Ani," she pushed back from the table and went over to him, "And Ben, it's so good to see you both." She reached out to her son, but hesitated when he looked uncomfortable.
Seeing her so close was surreal, and Anakin felt unprepared. Nonetheless, something overcame him and he smiled.
"Hi mom," he said.
"You've grown so big," she couldn't restrain herself any more, and hugged him tight. "Thank you for coming."
Anakin hugged her back. "Of course I came."
"And Ben Kenobi, look at you," Shmi pulled away and turned to her son's master. "You've gone and grown completely grey." She laughed, and reached up to brush Ben's thick head of silver.
"At least I still have hair to turn grey," the Jedi smiled, crowsfeet crinkling in good humor. "It's good to see you, Shmi."
Shmi gave him a warm smile before turning to his younger companion.
"You look like Ben did when I first met him," her eyes sparkled in good humor, "you must be Obi-Wan," Shmi reached out to shake Obi-Wan's hand, and he smiled politely.
"An honor, Ms. Skywalker,"
"Please, call me Shmi."
Obi-Wan smiled. "Of course."
"You know Lord Bail and Lady Breha, of course," Shmi gestured, and the royal couple greeted them from the head of the room. "And their daughter, Princess Cora," a small brunette with big brown eyes peered from around her mother's dress, and then hid again when she saw that everyone was looking at her. Ben chuckled. "And Ben, I believe you've met Tam once before?"
Ben's eyes caught on those of Mr. Corveé, but Tam was not looking at him, and was instead looking very nervously at Ben's apprentice. "Yes, I've had the pleasure. It's good to see you again, Mr. Corteé."
Anakin's attention was suddenly zeroed in on the man in question. Next to the Organas, Tam was unassuming at best. He was shorter than Anakin, almost shorter than Shmi. He had dusty blonde hair and tan skin, and eyes that nearly disappeared when he smiled, which he was doing now in a nervous tilt. He looked uncomfortable in the tailored, fancy suit he was wearing, and when he reached out to shake Anakin's hand, the teen spotted motor oil stains on the sleeve.
"You must be Anakin," the man said, shaking his hand. "You mother loves to brag about you, it's great to finally meet you."
Anakin was nervous, and in such a state he had a tendency to forget his manners. "Is that… is that a Foxnocht model 9?" Anakin asked. Tam froze.
"Um… oh, oh, this?" he pointed to the pin stuck to his lapel. It was the small, barely-defined silhouette of a fighter jet. "Um. Yeah, it is. You got a good eye, kid," he laughed, and looked almost sheepish. "You know the Foxnocht?"
"Yeah, of course," Anakin replied, crossing his arms in slight offense. Did Tam think he wouldn't know it? "It's the best fighter jet to come out of anywhere in the last ten years."
Tam laughed again, and rubbed the back of his neck. "Sheesh, kid, Shmi told me you liked ships, but,"
"Tam designed the Foxnocht," Shmi cut in, glowing with pride. She thread her arm through Tam's.
Anakin was nonplussed. "Wait, what?"
Tam's face was red. Shmi only nodded. Anakin's eyes grew wide.
"You designed the Foxnocht 9?" Anakin asked..
"I mean, well, I kind of, yeah, I guess I was the one who-" Shmi elbowed him.
"You designed all of them, dear."
This was too much for Anakin.
That was the rest of the evening for Tam and Anakin. Shmi, the Kenobis, and the Organas had to occupy themselves with other conversation. Ben and Bail spoke politics, and Obi-Wan created new stories about his scar to satisfy Cora's questioning.
After the main course, Breha excused herself to see Cora to bed. In her absence, Shmi took up conversation with Ben, and was more than happy to hear about Anakin's studies. They even managed to pull in Tam and Anakin himself to discuss the things Anakin had been learning in his mechanics courses. For the most part, it went far above Obi-Wan's understanding.
"And what about you?" Bail's question caught Obi-Wan's attention. The senator had been nursing a glass of wine for the past half hour and was lounging comfortably into his seat. "I heard you got arrested."
"A gross misunderstanding, I assure you," Obi-Wan chuckled. "It can happen sometimes, I was operating in the Outer Rim." Obi-Wan cast a glance at the rest of the dinner party, who were engrossed in conversation and storytelling. "Actually, Senator," Obi-Wan's tone shifted, and through the comfortable haze of wine, Bail caught on immediately. He leaned in to listen. "If you have a moment, I'd like to speak with you about an assignment – I could use your opinion on something."
"Oh?" the prince said, raising a brow. Obi-Wan produced a small datapad from his pocket and handed it to Bail. Bail looked at it, and immediately set his wine glass down with a thunk.
Ben immediately looked up, sensing a disturbance. Anakin didn't seem to notice. The master watched as Bail and Obi-Wan huddled over the small image.
"You recognize it?" Obi-Wan asked.
Bail stared at the image for some time before handing the 'pad back to the Jedi. "Not tonight," He said, glancing at the gathered group. Breha had returned, and was laughing at a story Anakin was re-enacting for the group.
"Find me tomorrow," Bail told Obi-Wan in a low voice. "I don't want to disturb Shmi and Tam. They have enough to worry about."
"Of course," Obi-Wan said. As he took the datapad and put it away, Ben caught his eye. As ever, the older man looked as though he knew more than Obi-Wan ever would, and he looked worried. Obi-Wan was happy when the serving droid offered him wine.
Early the following morning, Obi-Wan awoke to a message from Bail Organa requesting a private meeting at twenty hours that evening, until which time he would be unfortunately occupied.
Waiting was an integral and irritating part of a Jedi's life. Obi-Wan meditated to occupy himself, and opened his eyes onto the sunrise. He sighed. When you only had three days to complete an investigation, twelve hours was a long time.
In the meantime, Ben and Anakin were swept up in the reception of wedding guests. Most of Shmi's friends had at least heard of Anakin's existence, though there were one or two who had not believed Shmi when she told them that she, a thirty-four year old courtier, had a nearly-grown son training to be a Jedi Knight. But beyond their doubts, here he was in the flesh, and he was tall and handsome and polite, and he still had the barest remnants of baby fat left on his face ripe for pinching.
His cheeks were red from pinching and blushing when he plopped down to a seat at lunch. "I don't envy you," Obi-Wan said, not looking up from the news bulletin he read. He handed Anakin a glass of sweet muja juice. Anakin drank, choked, and stopped.
"There's alcohol in this," the teen said, coughing.
"Yes, as a matter of fact there is," Obi-Wan said, and drank deeply from his own glass.
Anakin was frowning pensively. "Drinking age on Alderaan is…" he drew blank.
"Sixteen," Obi-Wan reminded.
"Oh,good." Anakin drank the rest. Obi-Wan laughed.
"Stop poisoning my apprentice," Ben materialized, presumably to ruin their fun.
"How do you expect him to learn Force-detox if you don't poison him?" Obi-Wan rebutaled. Anakin abruptly stopped drinking. "It's what Qui-Gon did for me."
"Master Jinn is not exactly an exemplar," Ben said.
"And somehow, I've turned out alright," Obi-Wan replied, taking a sip.
Anakin was coughing. "You poisoned me?"
Obi-Wan looked at him nonchalant. "Alderaanian rum is 140 proof, it's practically poison. Didn't you know?"
"No," Anakin's eyes were wide.
"Oh, well," Obi-Wan shrugged, swirled his glass and drank. "Now you do."
"Really, Obi?" Anakin hissed, beginning to feel… something.
"That's master Kenobi to you." For show, Obi-Wan took Anakin's discarded glass and knocked it back in one gulp.
"Enough," Master Kenobi interrupted them both. "Anakin, you need to focus your senses on neutralizing that rum. Get something to eat, if it helps. More guests have arrived."
"Oh come on, not more," Anakin said, flippancy fueled by annoyance and perhaps rum. "I cant keep playing meet-and-greet all day. I don't know any of those people, and they act like they know me."
"Playing meet and greet, as you call it, is a very large part of any Jedi's life, you know better. However, as much as I would like to turn this into a lesson for you, they're not here to see you," Ben said dryly. "She's here to see Knight Kenobi," Ben put emphasis on the rank, but it was not the emphasis that Obi-Wan heard.
"She?" The knight frowned.
"Yes," Ben said, making eye contact. "She."
Obi-Wan stared at pensive oblivion for a moment. He stood suddenly. "What is she doing here?" He asked the universe before he strode away, gait falling somewhere between surprise and panic.
Anakin enjoyed seeing the unflappable, smart-ass Obi-Wan Kenobi actually flustered. "What," he asked sarcastically, "does he have a secret girlfriend or something?"
To the padawan's immense surprise, Ben laughed loudly. "No," the master coached his smile into submission, but the lines around his mouth and eyes crinkled with mirth, "no, I don't believe it's quite like that."
"Then who's got him all worked up?"
Ben did not respond, but glanced nervously at his apprentice. "An old acquaintance I think. Come on. You need to practice using the Force to purge toxins. I can't have you acting the drunkard when your mother's about, I'll never hear the end of it."
It was clear and cold out on the landing dock as Obi-Wan made his way over to the newly arrived shuttle. Its chrome hull hissed and snapped as the engines cooled in the winter mountain air of Alderaan, and steam drifted in clouds from the hydraulic pistons that held the landing ramp to the ground.
"I certainly didn't expect to see you here, Senator," Obi-Wan announced.
Padme Amidala turned, saw him, and froze in a moment of genuine surprise. "I could say the same about you, Master Kenobi," her surprise faded into a smile and she grasped his arm as a friend when he came over to kiss her cheek. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm on personal leave, actually," Obi-Wan pulled away and crossed his arms, fixing her with a calculating expression. "But what are you doing here?"
It was difficult to tell where Padme's real face ended and her diplomat's mask begun. "Official business," she said.
At that moment, a service droid rolled up to the senator with a datapad in hand. "We are so happy to have you here on Alderaan, Senator, I know Ms. Skywalker is excited to see you again. If you would please follow me, the wedding party is still gathered for brunch. I'm sure they'll all be delighted for you to join them."
The droid rolled away, and Padme stayed put. Obi-Wan watched it go, and swivelled to look back at his friend.
"I didn't realize Shmi Skywalker was official business."
Padme's brows raised. "You know her?"
"And so do you, apparently, though I can't imagine why," the Jedi countered. Padme shrugged.
"She used to be Breha's handmaid until she agreed to be their surrogate. Now, Breha's made her into something of a politician - as much as she cares to be, anyway," Padme explained. "She's a close friend of Bail's, and a friend of Bail is a friend of mine."
"Official business, though?" Obi-Wan wasn't buying it.
"A woman can have more than one reason for a social call, Master Kenobi," Padme scolded him. "As can a Jedi, I presume."
"I really am on leave," he said, guileless. Padme mirrored his own skepticism.
"Not just on leave, I assume."
"What else could I possibly be doing?"
Padme was utterly unimpressed. "You showed me the dossier yourself, Master Kenobi. I was the one who suggested you speak with Bail in the first place. I just didn't think you'd bother going all the way to Alderaan to do it."
Obi-Wan met her iron stare mettle for mettle. "And yet you knew I would be here."
"I didn't, I thought I made that obvious."
"Too obvious. Who told you?"
Padme didn't like being called out. She hesitated a moment, and said, "My plus one told me." She said it louder than she needed to. "Or in this case, plus two. I think they're more cross at you than I am for gallivanting off on your own." As if on cue, two sets of footsteps sounded down the ramp. Obi-Wan recognized them immediately, but it took a few sluggish seconds for his brain to accept it.
"Aola?" he was aghast. "Cody? What the hell are you two doing here?"
"Wipe that look off your face," Aola scolded. "You should be happy we're here, we've come to help you."
Obi-Wan did not know if he should be happy, because he was too busy being confused. "Who sent you here?"
"No one. We're on leave."
Obi-Wan blinked, looking between Cody and Aola. "What, both of you?"
"Of course, sir," Cody said easily. "We've not seen you in years, and you turn up and decide to immediately go on vacation. Is it not so odd that old friends travel together to catch up on lost time?" Obi-Wan wondered if Aola had been the one to teach Cody sarcasm.
Aola picked up the Agent's line of logic as if it were her own. "And if we just happen upon evidence of an underground criminal undertaking while we're here, then it's a very lucky thing that we were here at all."
"That's… very kind of you," Obi-Wan said, still not sure that he was pleased with this sudden arrangement, "but I'm here to gather information, nothing more. I hardly need backup."
"Have you spoken with Bail?" Padme asked.
"Not yet. We have a meeting set tonight."
"Then we've arrived just in time," Cody cut in. "We have reason to believe that there's far more to gather on Alderaan than information, sir."
Obi-Wan's eyes drifted over to Padme. "What do you mean?" She was frowning at him.
"If we'd had more time to talk - if I had known you'd go shooting off on your own after you left my apartment that day, I would've taken more time to tell you: this criminal organization you're hunting, whoever they are, has been lurking on Alderaan for a while. I don't know the details, but it's been keeping Bail preoccupied for months. They were on Naboo, and now they're on Alderaan. That's why I told you to talk to Bail. This isn't about information. It's about a real threat. If you ask Bail about it, he'll point you to a hornet's nest."
Obi-Wan suddenly remembered the haunted look on Bail's face when Obi-Wan had shown him the still holo of the lightsabers, the crest. Bail hadn't said a word at dinner, but had set aside a whole evening for them to meet and talk about it. Obi-Wan really should have known better.
"When Master Windu heard all that, he suggested sending Cody in to help you," Aola grinned.
"And you tagged along for the hell of it?" Obi-Wan surmised. Aola only smiled.
Cody remained businesslike. "If you're planning on going after the Council of Reconciliation, sir, you're going to need all the corroboration you can get. It will be best if multiple agencies are involved."
Obi-Wan had never said he was 'going after' anyone. But deep down, he knew that he was. Palpatine was attempting to spread his roots into the Jedi Order itself and build an empire. Obi-Wan would not let him. He was grateful to see similar sentiments in the faces around him.
"I don't know how much help a senator will be in all of this," Padme inserted herself back into the conversation, "but whatever you turn up, I will do all that I can to support you. If this comes down to a fight with the Council or the Senate, I'll be with you all the way."
"Thank you, Padme," Obi-Wan bowed his head to her. "But let's not get ahead of ourselves. We need to find out what we're dealing with, first."
"If they've been stealing and using lightsabers," Cody said darkly, "I think we could all take a guess."
No one else said anything. They stood in a rough circle, the Jedi's robes whipping loudly at their ankles. The wind tossed short tufts of Obi-Wan's hair into disgruntled peaks. "My meeting with Bail is at twenty-hundred tonight. I'll explain the situation to him." He paused, looking at the faces of his companions. He hadn't worked with a partner in nearly four years. He hadn't worked with a team since the debacle on Eriadu, now nearly ten years ago. Despite himself, Obi-Wan sighed and said, "You should all come with me."
"Lead the way sir," Cody said, with a soldier's conviction and trust. "We'll see it through."
The afternoon passed in a blur. Obi-Wan happened into Ben at dinner. While the elder man had been aware that Padme had arrived, he was surprised to hear about Aola and Cody.
"Is it bad as all that?" he asked.
"None of us know, but Mace encouraged it after speaking with Senator Amidala. Make of that what you will."
Ben nibbled at his food. "We'll have to be vigilant."
"I'd hate to have any of this interrupt Shmi and Tam's festivities."
"Don't worry about that," Ben placated. "Anakin and I will keep an eye on things. You should focus on your mission."
"Speaking of," Obi-Wan glanced around the dining hall, "Where is your apprentice?"
Ben sipped at a cup of tea. "With his future stepfather in the Royal Navy hangers, I believe," He spoke with a rueful burr uncharacteristic of his wizened hermit persona. "I've had to put up with his ridiculous fretting for months, and here he is in a mechanic's wonderland stricken with a sudden amnesia that's prevented him from remembering how insufferable he's been."
Obi-Wan laughed. "I'm glad to hear he's recovering." Ben waved his hand.
"From his anxiety, anyway. He's still mad at you about the rum."
Obi-Wan laughed. "But did it help him practice detoxing?"
"Admittedly, yes, and he got the knack of it quite quickly." Ben was smirking beneath his mustache. "Qui-Gon's methods are questionable, but they do work."
"As I said," Obi-Wan smiled. They ate in silence. Eventually, Ben settled back into his chair and waved a hand.
"Let him wander, I'm grateful for the time alone."
"Well," Obi-Wan's voice darkened the mood of conversation. "Depending on what I'm able to turn up, you might not want him to wander too much. I'll keep you updated."
At twenty-hundred hours, Obi-Wan, Padme, Aola, and Cody assembled to meet Bail in a small courtyard some ways behind the royal palace. It was just past sunset, but a light snow had begun to fall that cast the world in a hazy blue. Aola and Obi-Wan sensed Bail's approach first, and turned.
"I'm grateful to have your support," The prince told the group as he approached. "Though I admit, I was hoping that a meeting with a single Jedi would be more inconspicuous than this. I hope we don't startle my pilot."
"Pilot?" Aola asked.
"This way," Bail gestured toward a long building that ran out along the slope beneath the courtyard. "That crest you showed me, Master Kenobi, it belongs to a criminal organization that we've recently become aware of here on Alderaan. We've kept their existence largely under wraps to prevent panic, but our intelligence has linked them to a string of dangerous burglaries and break-ins. They've stolen ancient weapons from museums and new ones from our own stores. You can understand why we don't broadcast the fact.
"Similar things have happened on Naboo," Padme said as they walked, her hands folded into sleeves to keep warm. The moonlight cast blue shadows on the anxious furrows in her brow. "They raid old stores, but they raid new shipments before they reach the planet surface. They've been raiding abandoned mines, as well. It's caused at least one earthquake. They're pirates."
Obi-Wan's expression darkened. This had started with a museum heist. And now...
"It is unnerving how little we know about them. They do not leave traces. They do not leave survivors, if they can help it. Many of our trading partners have said they've encountered their ships as far out as the north end of the Hydian way and Cantonica. But somehow, we don't even know the name of their organization. We only know that crest."
"How has the Order not heard about this?" Aola interjected.
"We believe the Council of Reconciliation could be hiding the fact from the High Council," Cody said, staying close by her side.
"They're keeping information from all of us," Padme said. "If they're not supporting this organization, they're at very least turning a blind eye, and they can't be the only ones."
Bail's jaw muscles bunched in anxious knots. "My men have taken to calling the organization Thorn Moon, after their crest, but we have no idea who they really are."
He led the group into a long, tall building. The place was largely abandoned, but a set of automatic lights flickered to life to guide their way. The pungent smell of jet fuel hit them like a wall; Obi-Wan realized this must be a fighter jet hanger.
"Two weeks ago, a pilot in my navy was overseeing a routine training exercise when he spotted an unmarked ship flying into the mountains. He followed it and tried to hail it, but the transmission was blocked. His ship hit a wall of interference and his engines failed. He crashed, but survived. We're not sure if his attackers know that he's alive, but he came back describing a fort, a hidden base high up in the mountains that's been cloaked, somehow, likely by the same interference that crashed his ship. Thus far, we've been unable to investigate."
They came to a door flanked by two guards, who stood at attention and saluted their prince. "This way," Bail opened the door for his guests.
"I figured you'd want to hear the story firsthand. I've made sure he's on duty tonight, though for secrecy's sake, he doesn't know we're coming." Bail cast a look at his four followers and chuckled. "I hope we don't startle him."
It was in fact their entourage who was startled when they arrived on the main hangar floor.
"Anakin?" Obi-Wan blurted.
Anakin attempted to sit upright and hit his head with a resounding bong on the hull of the starfighter above him.
Padme stifled a laugh.
"Obi-Wan - and… Aola? Cody?" The whites of Anakin's eyes were bright against the mud of motor oil and grime that colored his face. He shimmied his way out from under the ship and stood, hair jutting up at all angles from being crimped by the mechanic's creeper. "What in the galaxy are you doing - Senator Organa, hello," he fidgeted awkwardly, unsure of what to make to the scene. Obi-Wan was willing to bet that he hadn't spoken to another person four hours, at least.
"And, um," Anakin was looking at Padme's face, desperately trying to recall a name that he didn't know.
"Anakin, this is Senator Padme Amidala of Naboo. Padme, this is Anakin Skywalker, Ben's apprentice.
"Pad- I mean, uh, Senator, it's an honor to meet you." He extended a hand, saw that it was covered in grease, and quickly withdrew it again. Padme betrayed no reaction to the gaffe.
"Skywalker, you said?" she grinned, and Anakin braced for commentary on his mother, on his age, on Tam, on everything about himself over which he had no control. Instead, Padme said, "You seem to be quite the mechanic, Padawan Skywalker."
Beneath the grime, Anakin blushed. "Uhhh," he began, and did not finish until a new voice interrupted him.
"Alright, I've got the nitrus cells," Tam Corteé, covered in as much grime as his stepson to be, emerged through a door behind the group, rifling through a box of parts as he went. "They should fit into the drive, so let's try it on the 'naut 9 and see if it can handle-" stopped in his tracks upon seeing the entourage. "You highness," He said, wide eyes swivelling around to the different members of the group. "Senator. Master Kenobi." He looked at Aola, at Cody. "And… uh…. Is.. is there something amiss, sir?" He asked Bail.
Bail was trying not to smile at the two startled gearheads. "You're working late today, Tam." He glanced at Anakin, and back at his engineer. "Lieutenant Kaminoa is on duty right now, I believe?"
"Uh, yes, he is, sir."
"Kaminoa?" Cody mused quietly. Aola looked up at him.
"Call him in, would you?"
"Of course sir," Tam replied. "I'll just, uh," He cast a look at Anakin before setting down his box of parts, "I'll just be right back." He retreated back into the corridor from which he'd come. The group waited.
"Rex isn't in any trouble is he?" Anakin asked apprehensively. Bail gave him a smile.
"None at all, Padawan Skywalker, we just wish to speak with him."
"Sorry," Cody cut in, stepping past his companions so he could point at the apprentice, "did you say Rex?"
Bail was the first to turn and see when Tam reemerged with the newcomer. "Ah, there you are. Please, Lieutenant, come in."
The group turned, none faster than Cody.
Obi-Wan lagged, feeling strange. Memories that did not belong to him stirred something in his gut, a kinetic movement of the cosmos that lifted his mood and made him turn with excited expectation. At the top of the hanger, looking confused but composed was a Kaminoan clone in crew-cut blond hair and crisp navy fatigues.
"Sir," the clone approached the group and gave a brief salute.
"Masters, Senator," Bail gestured, "I'd like you to meet First Lieutenant Rex Kaminoa, one of the finest pilots in the Alderaanian Navy. He has a story that I think you'd all like to hear."
Chapter 6: Attachments
I am so, so sorry for such a long hiatus! It was not my intention to leave you all waiting this long - life has changed since I left school, and I'm just trying to find a new balance. Thanks for hanging in there.
There was a moment of silence as the air itself seemed to tilt its head in half-recognition. Then, Rex's military composure evaporated in a moment of pure surprise.
"Cody?" he blurted.
"Hey, Rex." Cody's face was buoyant on a rare smile.
Upon hearing the other clone's voice, Rex's eyes widened. His smile was a mirror image of Cody's. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Bail Organa seemed unfazed by the reunion, and had begun to smile. Obi-Wan knew the prince had many clones in his employ; he wondered how many of these moments he'd witnessed.
"I'm on holiday, believe it or not," Cody told him.
"Holiday!" Rex scoffed. "Moving up in the world – stars, man, I thought you'd disappeared forever." Rex stepped forward to seize Cody in a fierce hug. "Where'd you end up?" Their surprise upon seeing each other had made them forget that they had spectators, who, as the conversation continued, could scarcely tell their voices apart.
A low, impressed whistle. "Far up in the world."
"I'm only an agent."
A scoff. "Only. I'm just a pilot."
"For the best navy in the Core." Cody looked to Bail. "With all due respect, your highness," he pointed at Rex, "I can't believe you hired this idiot. He failed his first piloting course."
Rex began to protest, but Bail came to his defense: "And went back to pass with flying colors, I can only assume. It's that sort of stubbornness you can't teach. He's been invaluable to us these past few years." Bail smiled at the clone, and Rex looked unsure of how to take the compliment. Bail turned his attention to Cody. "From what I've heard from your Jedi companions, it's a shared disposition, Agent."
"Ah," Cody tried to demur. "Blame the genes." He was anxious to be free of the limelight. Aola caught his eye and smiled. "Rex," he turned, sweeping his hand politely, "I'd like you to meet my friends, Jedi Knights Aola Tarkona and Obi-Wan Kenobi."
Rex gave Aola a polite nod, but met Obi-Wan's gaze with a face full of shock. He squinted at him, and especially at his scar. "That Kenobi?" He said, to Cody. Cody nodded. The look that Rex gave him next, Obi-Wan knew well.
"It's an honor to meet you sir." He'd heard that before, too. He smiled and tried not to feel embarrassed, a routine he'd mastered.
"The honor's all mine." He shook the clone's hand. "Were you in Cody's platoon on Kamino?"
"Ha," Cody interrupted. "No, this runt was still in diapers when I had my first command. 2224," he pointed to himself, and then pointed to Rex. "7567. We're a generation apart."
This part of the conversation was new to Obi-Wan, but the sense of deja vu was crippling.
"7567," Obi-Wan repeated. "Why do I…" he squinted at Rex not unlike the way Rex had done to him moments ago. His memory of Kamino was almost entirely dependent on Qui-Gon's account, but once in a while, his brain drudged up snippets and scenes long buried by trauma. Rex had a buzz of platinum blond hair, and Obi-Wan found himself thinking – not for the first time, he realized – that it was an unusual color for a clone. "You," he blurted. "I saw you."
Rex was taken aback. "What?"
"On Kamino, I saw you," Obi-Wan insisted, sounding as astonished as anyone. "I think I did. I can't remember. But… I saw you, I remember that number, 7567," he looked down at the ground, eyes darting around in an effort to remember. "You were a kid and you looked up at me, and I saw your number on your jacket."
"I don't remember this at all," Rex admitted.
"I hardly do either," Obi-Wan agreed. "My head took a beating that day."
Rex only laughed. "I'll say it did – we all thought you were dead!"
"You seem to have quite the rapport with Kamino's sons, Master Kenobi," Bail teased. "I don't think I've ever met a clone who doesn't know your name. I'm glad to have found one you know as well – it could make this whole mess slightly easier to explain." The Prince gestured. "Lieutenant, if we may,"
"Of course, sir," Rex nodded, and fell into step as Bail led the group toward the corridor. Aola and Cody fell into step behind Bail and Rex, followed by Padme, and last of all, Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan had taken the rear spot in their procession, so when he heard a set of footsteps following him, he stopped to look.
"Anakin." He'd entirely forgotten the apprentice was even there. "What are you doing?"
"Can't I come?" said the boy, with the entitlement Obi-Wan was embarrassed to recall from his own senior padawan days.
"No," he said plainly, and turned back to his work.
"Why not?" Anakin asked. Obi-Wan stopped again. Turned again.
"Anakin, this isn't your mission, it doesn't concern you."
"I'm a Jedi, aren't I?" The teen was offended.
"Very astute of you, yes," Obi-Wan snipped. "However, this is our mission, and there's no reason for you to get wrapped up in it. Go enjoy your tinkering, I'll tell you about it later."
"But-" Anakin craned his neck to see the figured in retreat - Padme was the only one he could see down the hall.
"Anakin," Obi-Wan drew his attention back, "later."
When the apprentice failed to rebuttal in the next few seconds, Obi-Wan turned and left, robe swishing authoritatively in his retreat.
Told to play with his toys and not ask questions – by Obi-Wan, no less. Anakin watched in miffed silence as the knight caught up with his companions. Padme had paused to wait up on him, and the two exchanged unheard explanations down the hall. Padme glanced back at Anakin before continuing onward, and the apprentice fought the need to hide.
"Anakin," Tam did not need to raise his voice for it to echo down the hangar. "You alright? We don't have to try it on the 'naucht if you don't want to." The engineer sounded like a child who'd been told to put his toys away.
"It's alright," Anakin said, watching the hallway even as Padme and Obi-Wan turned the corner, "Get started without me, I just need to go get something real quick."
Quietly, quickly, Anakin followed Obi-Wan down the hall.
They'd taken their meeting to the hangar's control room, a poorly insulated space with a whole gallery of windows, which Anakin ducked under so he could reach the door undetected. If he pressed his ear up against the door, he could hear their conversation.
"...unable to get any closer. They have some kind of perimeter fence, set off alarms all over my dash," Rex was saying. At least, Anakin assumed it was Rex.
"What alarms?" that was Aola.
"All sorts. My ship was acting like… like a giant, armed tanker was coming at me, or something. I've never had that happen with another ship, let alone some mountain fort."
"Sounds like some sort of defensive system," Anakin was pretty sure that was Cody, though it was hard to tell him apart from Rex.
"If there's been a fort in the mountains large enough to have that kind of defense," that was Padme, Anakin was sure. "How is there no intelligence on it? Is there no one else who has seen it?"
Anakin thought it was a good question. He huddled himself closer to the door.
"I only saw it because I followed that ship. I saw a port, the ship landed, and then it was all gone. Nothing but mountain. I'm not sure if it's a cloaking device or a trick of the landscape or what, but I've never seen anything like it before in my life, and neither has my commander."
"Neither have I," Senator Organa spoke up. "And neither have any of the ten teams I've sent following Rex's report. That's why we've kept this on the down-low. We have no idea what it is or whose ship Rex saw. Until we do, we won't know how to deal with them."
"But you think this Thorn Moon could be behind it," Obi-Wan surmised.
There was a long pause. Anakin pressed his ear harder against the door.
"I do. I contacted the Council of Reconciliation about the possibility several months ago, but was told without a positive ID on this fort, there was little they could do."
Anakin frowned at that - even in his limited experience, he'd never known any of the Jedi councils to take things like mysterious mountain forts so flippantly.
"I've encountered similar stonewalling from Master Treela, - and we confirmed Thorn Moon's presence on Naboo six months ago." Padme sounded annoyed, and Anakin couldn't help but feel for her. Jedi weren't supposed to sit around and let things like this happen.
"And does the contingent on Naboo have cloaking devices or defence systems like this?" asked Obi-Wan.
"No. No, this is different."
Their conversation seemed to fade as Anakin's mind drew in on itself. A cloaking mechanism, or a defense system? Like a giant, armed tanker was coming at me. Or both? If he were going to make a cloaked, defended fortress in the mountains of someone else's planet, how would he do it? Absently, Anakin began to chew on his thumbnail. A giant, armed tanker.
The sound of a chair scraping against the floor brought Anakin out of his thoughts. "-someone knows something, they always do," Cody – or Rex – was saying. "Before we go tripping whatever defenses they have again, we ought to get some intel."
Anakin did not stay to hear the rest of their plan. His brain had begun to turn, to churn, like gears and servos turning to the time of a new program. A giant, armed tanker. It was a fascinating idea. Some sort of defense system.
Quietly, he left the business that didn't concern him and turned his attention to the business that did.
"Someone knows something, they always do," Cody stood and began pacing the room, arms crossed. Fists clenching and unclenching in thought. "Before we go tripping whatever defenses they have again, we ought to get some intel. If there's a criminal organization hiding in the mountains, someone in town is making deals with them."
"And we've tried to find out who is, several times," Rex told him. "Not many people are read into this problem, and those who are are all well known authorities. Unfortunately, it's pretty hard to find someone the lowlifes don't recognize. Aldera is big, but not that big."
"Let us deal with it, then." Aola spoke up, glancing up at her friend. "Cody and I have run recon together plenty of times."
"You, maybe," Rex told her. "But anyone who knows anything won't talk to Cody. They see a clone and they'll assume he works for the Prince. Nearly all clones on Alderaan do."
"Alright then, Obi-Wan can help. No one will know him, and besides," Aola glanced at her one-eyed friend. "If he's grumpy enough he looks like he could be a criminal, too." Obi-Wan scowled at her, and she smiled. "See?"
"Aola's right." The knight ignored her humor. "As is Cody. We need to know what we're going up against before we go any further." He looked to Bail. "I don't suppose you could set us up with some disguises, could you?"
"My stylist has brought some things along," Padme announced. "Though the menswear was designed with Cody in mind, I hope it fits alright."
Obi-Wan turned to her and stared, not sure if he should be surprised. "Do you always pack a wardrobe of disguises when you go on holiday?"
Padme gave him a small smile. "I find it helps to be prepared, Master Kenobi."
"Speaking of," Bail stood, "I'm hosting a rehearsal dinner tomorrow night, and if I don't answer my comm soon, my Chief of Staff is going to send his own recon team out to find me. I'm afraid I may have to take my leave." The Prince waved his comm unit and moved to the door. "Thank you all for your assistance. Lieutenant,"
"Sir," Rex stood.
"I'll let you orchestrate this excursion. If you need anything, just let me know."
"The same to all of you," Bail gave them all a gentle smile as he stepped out the door. "Thank you."
They dispersed into the hangar. Rex and Cody excused themselves to Rex's office, where the pilot had promised Cody a bottle of Mandalorian whiskey. Aola and Padme were exchanging ideas about disguises.
"Do you want to come along, Obi?" Aola asked enthusiastically. "Senator Amidala has plenty of options to go through."
"No, that's alright."
"Suit yourself," the younger knight smiled. "No complaining if you don't like yours!"
The girls walked out together, leaving Obi-Wan alone in the hangar. He retraced the path they'd taken inside, passing through the gallery of ships where Tam Corteé was still tinkering away.
"Ah, Anakin, there you are," Tam rolled out from beneath the ship. There was grease and soot all over his uniform, his face, the tinged ends of his hair. "It turns out that it doesn't really work on the 'naught nine, that's my bad. Next time, we'll – oh, Master Kenobi," The engineer looked up at the Jedi, surprised. "I'm sorry, I thought you were Anakin."
Obi-Wan frowned. "Is he not here?"
"No, he said he went to fetch something a while ago, I haven't seen him."
"Oh, he… he must've gotten caught up. Perhaps his master was looking for him." Obi-Wan glanced to the hallway. Anakin wouldn't just leave Tam without an explanation; he was a better man than that. Obi-Wan looked back down to Tam's sooty, singed face, and frowned.
"Bail tells me your rehearsal dinner is tomorrow. Is the soot and fire a fashion statement for the occasion?"
Tam's smile was bright white behind the grime. "It'll wash out." He heaved himself upright and patted his jumper. "Besides, I'm getting a haircut before then. Will you be there?"
"I wish I could," Obi-Wan told him. "But I'm afraid I have a prior engagement."
"Ah, there you are," Ben's voice was startling in the quiet, and Anakin nearly fell to his death. He put a leg down to the ground for stability. "I was beginning to think I'd imagined ever having an apprentice." The master shuffled to a stop on the balcony and took a moment to breathe in the mountain air and admire the low-set sun, which even in late afternoon was casting pink shadows over the mountains, promising a colorful sunset later. Then, he looked to his padawan.
"Are you warm enough?" he teased. Anakin didn't look up. He was wearing two cloaks of his own, and had stolen a third from Ben's pack to use as a blanket. He was perched in his cocoon on the balcony's ledge, a sheer drop of some one hundred storeys apparently not enough of a distraction to draw him from his reading. He chewed on the end of a stylus, the light of his datapad illuminating the concentrated furrow between his eyebrows. "Anakin," Ben said again.
"Hmm?" The teen did not look up.
"What are you working on?" Ben stepped closer.
"Oh, nothing." Under threat of his master's prying eyes, Anakin wrestled a hand free of his many layers and shut off his 'pad. "Just some new programming for Arbee."
Ben raised an eyebrow, quite sure it wasn't the whole truth but unwilling to press the issue. "The rehearsal dinner starts in half an hour. Put away your cloaks - and mine - and let's go."
"Yes, Master." Anakin followed his mentor inside and folded away his extra cloaks - except for the one he wore, with the datapad and a tinkering project stashed away in an inside pocket.
Obi-Wan scowled at his reflection. If he complained, Aola would just tell him he should've come along and chosen a different outfit. Aola did, after all, have a unique sense of what civilian clothes were supposed to look like. She'd set him up with an ungodly combination of synth-leather breeches and an oversized red shirt, the neck and sleeves of which had been sawed off into gaping holes, obscuring part of the print on the front, the name of a Vandorian band that Obi-Wan had never heard of.
He fidgeted. The full extent of his scar, usually hidden by his robes, was visible from his neck to his collarbone, where it briefly disappeared under the shirt before reappearing at the crease of his arm and following a jagged line down his bicep to his elbow. He turned in front of the mirror. At the right angle, someone was liable to catch a glimpse of the the only hidden portion of the scar on his chest.
"Might as well not be wearing a damn shirt." He shoved his feet into a pair of uncomfortable sneakers. "Ridiculous." He could not complain to her, but he would complain to the Force. He stepped out of the ship and went to find Aola.
"She really needs to revisit what 'fashion' means," Obi-Wan grumbled to the air as he jogged down the gangway. He rounded the ship to find Aola standing with Cody next to a small aircar, where the clone would be waiting in case things turned sour. The two were standing very close to one another. Something about it stopped Obi-Wan in his tracks.
"Oh come on," Aola was smiling. She struck a pose to show off her outfit; loud, multi-colored pants with a shimmering, tight purple crop-top. "I look great, and you know it."
Cody had always been stiff and prudish, and Aola's pastime of embarrassing him was nothing new. So when Cody laughed, easy and unashamed, it took Obi-Wan off guard. He suddenly felt like he was intruding. But intruding on what?
"You get your fashion advice from Neersha, don't you?"
Aola scoffed, offended. "I put this together myself – Neersha doesn't wear anything like this."
"Neersha hardly wears anything at all," Cody rebutted, still scarred from his last encounter with Aola's longtime contact in the Coruscanti red-light district.
"Hmm," Aola leaned in closer, poking his ribs. "You only wished I dressed like her, then."
Obi-Wan's eyebrows shot up into his hairline, but Cody just laughed again.
"Now that's a threatening thought." Cody's right hand, which had been casually tucked into his coat pocket, went to rest on her bare waist. "Just be careful, alright?" he bid.
"Am I ever not?"
"All the time."
Aola chuckled. "You worry too much." she leaned forward and, to Obi-Wan's complete shock, kissed Cody on the lips. Cody pulled her closer.
Obi-Wan practically ran back to the ship, mind reeling. What the hell had he just seen? What the hell were they thinking? Unbidden, memories of Mandalore flooded his his mind; Mandalore and the year of misery that had followed. And now, Cody and Aola?
There'd been such easy affection in their movements, the kind of comfort wrought by time. It must've been going on for a while.
"Aola, you kriffing idiot," he hissed aloud.
"Oh, it's not that bad," Aola said, making him jump. He looked up. She was hiding a smile, appraising his costume. "You look good, so stop whining." She must've assumed he was cursing about the synth leather. "Come on. We've got five hours before the bars start to close."
As they started off down the road, Obi-Wan cast a look over his shoulder to Cody. The clone sat in the shadow of the pilot's seat. He caught Obi-Wan's eye and gave a small salute, as he often did. Obi-Wan returned it, and continued on toward the thrumming, neon-lit alley of Aldera's seediest district. He watched their path with a fierce intensity, trying not to look at Aola with the same confusion and judgement that he felt.
"We shouldn't go in together," Aola said. "I'll go in first, you follow. We'll regroup in an hour."
"Right," Obi-Wan wrestled his thoughts into the here and now. "Right, of course."
"You alright, Obi?" Aola looked at him, unsure of the tone in his voice.
"Yeah." He glanced at her, and forced a smile. "First one to catch a fish buys dinner."
The whole concept of a rehearsal dinner was foreign to Anakin. Weddings in general seemed a strange affair. As a Jedi, he had never contemplated what a wedding should be, but he supposed that, given any time to think about it, he'd expect a simple party with good food and friends over an extravagant affair with need for a rehearsal beforehand.
"But it is quite small, all things considered," Ben told him when he shared his thoughts. "Your mother is a courtier, and Tam, though low-ranking, is an important figure in the military. Only one-hundred guests is quite modest for such a wedding, thirty-two for a rehearsal even more so."
Only. Even thirty-two people was a nearly a full platoon's worth, and going into the throng certainly felt like going into battle. Anakin was not naturally gifted in the art of small talk, and it seemed that the only way people knew how to help him was to ask about his mother and his training, two things which he didn't much like talking about without Shmi or Ben there. Ben was off schmoozing Bail's friends, and his mother was practicing her wedding vows, so Anakin found the buffet table with the most choco-lime twists and stationed himself in a corner where he could wait for the whole thing to be over.
"Oh, Padawan Skywalker, I was wondering if you were even here." Anakin's eyes widened upon hearing Padmé Amidala's voice. His cheeks were bulging with pastry. He glanced at her, and felt his face glow red as he struggled to swallow his overstuffed mouthful without spitting crumbs all over himself. Padmé chuckled.
"You seem to have found the best seat in the house," she said, eyeing the buffet. "What flavor are these?" She picked at the select pastries that Anakin had left behind.
"Um," Anakin wrestled down the food, leaving his mouth tacky from melted chocolate. "Carde-tangerine, I think," he managed.
"Ooh," Padmé took a bite, and nodded appreciatively. She covered her mouth to say,
"I see why you're staying over here," her voice muffled by the food. It made Anakin smile.
Beyond that smile, the Jedi had no idea what to say, so he stood in awkward silence while the senator finished her snack. Small talk was difficult with anyone, but for some reason, it was even more difficult with the Nubian senator.
"Padawan Skywalker, you're an engineer, aren't you?" she asked him.
"I uh, I know a thing or two," he demurred. "And really, you can just call me Anakin."
"Alright, Anakin, so as an engineer," she spoke casually, eyes sifting over the rest of the buffet, "what are your thoughts on this hidden base Lieutenant Rex told us about?"
"W-What?" Anakin was very bad at bluffing. "Hidden base?"
"Yes, the hidden base in the mountains - you were there, weren't you?" Her eyes were on the food, and yet Anakin could feel them boring into his soul,
"Uhh, no, no I wasn't. It's Obi-Wan's mission, not mine, I was with Tam."
Padmé dropped her pretense of browsing pastries and looked up at him, devastatingly unimpressed. "Really?" she asked.
Anakin was cornered. "Well, I mean…" he frowned at her, annoyed. "How did you know?"
To his surprise, Padmé smiled, looking smug. "I didn't, until you gave it away just now. You should work on your story next time."
Feeling duped, Anakin fumed. Padmé's smile softened.
"Don't worry, I won't tell master Kenobi. But really, what do you think? I've been thinking about it all day, but can't make heads or tails of it. But you're an engineer." She came around the table to talk with him.
"A mechanic, really," Anakin scratched his neck. He was not often consulted for his know-how, except by Ben, and wasn't sure how to explain things to other people, especially beautiful women. "I mean… well… it's interesting that it set off the sensors of Rex's ship. That's pretty strange."
"Well… yes and no. The weapons sensors in most ships are tuned to pick up changes in nearby ion frequencies, the kind you get if you fire a blaster."
"Or prime an ion cannon," Padmé said. Anakin was pleased that she could follow along.
"Yes, exactly," he was warming to his theme. "So we know there weren't any shots fired, so the only real explanation would be if they had large ion weapons primed to fire. But for guns that big… you can't just hide those."
"They seem to have hidden an entire base," Padmé reminded him. "Can't they hide a few cannons?"
"Well, theoretically, yeah." Anakin had forgotten his awkwardness as he worked through the problem. "But most cloaking devices that large rely on some kind of ion or plasma field. You can't keep an ion gun behind one of those things and still be able to use it defensively, it'd backfire and you'd probably blow yourself up. The guns would have to be out in the open, but Rex didn't see any, did he?"
"No, not that I'm aware of," Padmé said, frowning in concentration.
"So that got me thinking, maybe it's part of the cloaking device, not a defense system," Anakin told her.
"And how would that work?" Padme wondered if Anakin knew how his face lit up when he talked about technology.
"Well, like I said, a lot of cloaks rely on ion fields, so they need a lot of ion generators. It's the same energy used in ion blasters, but instead of creating a bolt of destructive energy, it's organized into a thin particle field, to create a kind of skeleton for whatever image you want to project. But," Anakin's smile grew, "if you use a lot of generators, for something as big as a mountain, you might get some leftover ion energy, which you could, if you planned well, offgas into containment chambers to mimic the energy levels of an ion cannon, to trick an attacker into thinking that you had an entire tanker gunned on them, which of course you can't actually have without giving away your location."
Padme was staring at him. "So you're saying that the weapons aren't weapons, that it's part of the cloaking device?"
"I'm saying it's possible. They're pretty easy to rig." He dug a hand into his pocket. "See?" He produced a small device, no bigger than his palm. He pressed a button and the device whirred to life, emitting a quiet, high pitched hum. After a moment, an invisible field flickered to life around the generator and disguised it as a modest muja fruit.
"That's incredible," Padme breathed. "So you think they have bigger ones disguising the mountain?"
Anakin shrugged, throwing the faux muja from hand to hand. "Maybe. Or just a bunch of little ones - that's how I'd do it. They'd be cheaper and easier to replace, and they can still produce plenty of off-gassing for the decoy guns." He stopped tossing his trinket and frowned at it. "At least, I think so. I didn't get that far with this one. Let's see…" wanting to impress, Anakin flipped a hidden latch and allowed a hot stream of ion energy to spew from inside the holographic fruit.
As if by magic, half a dozen guards jerked to attention and turned as a collective force toward the Jedi apprentice, hands going for their guns. Ben's head whipped around to look as well.
"Aw, kriff," Anakin dropped his accidental cannon-impersonating generator and fumbled to catch it as it spun, propelled in tiny circles by the jet of the open valve. "Hell kriffing Force," he caught it and hurriedly shut off the valve. The hissing stopped, to be replaced by Padme's laughter. Anakin's face was bright red.
"Well, it works," she giggled. Anakin wanted to hide.
"Yeah…" he peered around. The guards were walking toward him. Ben was frowning as only Ben could.
The gathering by the main table had started to applaud. Padme looked over to see Tam and Shmi walking hand in hand to the dance floor. "Perfect timing for an escape," she said, and grabbed Anakin's sleeve. "You can tell me more about these generators while we dance."
It was not Anakin's idea of an escape. "While we what?"
Before he realized what was happening, Padme had dragged him onto the dance floor, where other couples were engaged in a waltz. As a Jedi, Anakin was well-educated in all kinds of different dances, and had no problem picking up the pace to a song he'd never heard. However, he'd never danced with someone as beautiful as Padme, much less with anyone who wanted to have an in-depth conversation about ion generators in the middle of a waltz.
"So," she said, ignoring her partner's flusteredness or how Ben Kenobi was watching them like a hawk, "these ion generators. Would they be wireless, like yours?"
"Well-" It took him longer to think while he was dancing. You have to be quick on your toes as well as your thoughts, Ben had told him more than once before. "Probably not. If they're part of a cloaking device, they'd probably have to be hardwired together, to make sure they're synchronized."
"Damn," she hissed. He frowned down at her.
"If they were wireless, we might have a way to disrupt them, to infiltrate that base," she explained. "If they're hardwired, it'll be much harder to crack."
"Well," Anakin's mind whirred. "I mean, hard, yes, but not impossible." He steered them away from another couple, who was dancing a bit out of their bounds. "If you could dial into the computer's infrastructure, you could hack into it that way."
"And how would you do that?"
"With a droid who knew how." They sidestepped another couple.
"But wouldn't you have to get inside first, to do that?" Padme asked, not missing a single step. It was a good point.
"I mean, yeah. You'd have to interrupt the ion field somehow, to get inside… but," Anakin grimaced, "they probably also have motion sensors." He sighed, and shook his head. "You'd need a full-on clearance code to get inside first."
"But if you got a clearance code, and you got inside, would you be able to disable the cloaking field?" She looked him dead in the eyes. Anakin had a hard time holding her gaze, but had a harder time looking away.
"Maybe?" he shrugged. "If you could install the right programming into the computer that manages the field.
"Can you do that?" She asked. He blinked at her. She was not asking about a hypothetical 'you', anymore. She wanted to know: can Anakin Skywalker do that? His mouth went dry, but he didn't look away.
"Give me a day," he said. It was probably too little time, but her smile was worth it.
"You have a deal," she said, and squeezed the hand she was holding. His stomach flipped. They continued to dance until Bail Organa stepped in for the next song.
Anakin immediately went back to his table of choco-lime twists and pulled out his datapad.
"A good thing I taught you how to waltz," his master appeared after some time. "What were you talking about?"
Anakin glanced up at him. There was no point in lying. "Ion generators," he said.
Ben blinked at him. "Alright," he said after a while. He looked at the datapad. "And what are you doing now?"
"Writing a program to break a whole bunch of them," he said. "I told her I'd have it done in a day."
Ben could not find an appropriate response. "I see," he said, and cast a look back at Padme. "And she needed a dance, just for that?"
Anakin blushed, and hoped that Ben didn't see. He'd feel the imprint of her hand on his for the rest of the evening.
Ben did see, and it aged him ten years.
In the outskirts of Aldara, the night carried on much like any wide-net bar-hopping intelligence pull that Obi-Wan had ever been on. Aola went in first and stationed herself at the bar, where she flirted with anyone that looked like they might have something interesting to say, indiscriminate of species, age, or gender, sipping on fruity drinks and looking just stupid enough to invite loose and boastful tongues.
Obi-Wan went in a few minutes later and sought out the gangs and drunken felons that looked talkative. He'd find one to chat with, and win himself into the wider circle by downing half a dozen shots of fire malt and making lewd jokes. Then, he'd talk. And listen. And listen some more.
After six bars, it'd come to nothing.
"Any bites yet?" Obi-Wan leaned up against the bar next to Aola. The Twi'lek watched the bartender until he was out of earshot. She brushed one lekku over her shoulder.
"Only from a Zeltron who thought I was into that sort of thing," she sneered. "You?
"Nothing." Obi-Wan looked over the slumbering gang members in the corner. He'd wasted nearly fifty credits on drinks trying to pry information out of them. "Might be time to move on."
"Only one more bar on the block. It closes in half an hour." Aola fought back a yawn. "We might need to call it for tonight."
"Well," Obi-Wan stretched. His stomach growled. "At least we'll grab a bite to eat."
The last bar on the block was mostly dead already, except for a few straggling partiers too drunk or too tired to make the trek home. The bartending droid was unaffected by the hour, and sounded chipper as it asked the human-Twi'lek pair for their order.
The Jedi split an order of fried tubers and nuna fritters, both too tired of booze to bother with drinks. They munched in silence. Obi-Wan wiped his hands on his shirt, not really caring if it survived the night. He looked up at Aola, who was licking garlic from her lips.
"So," Obi-Wan said, letting the enduring club music muffle their conversation. "How long have you and Cody been… a thing?"
Aola stopped chewing. "I'm sorry?" she asked, around half-chewed tubers.
"You and Cody, you're…" Obi-Wan gestured with a half-eaten fry. He was not embarrassed – it wasn't like he didn't understand. But Aola was his sister. "Aola, I wasn't born yesterday. You and Cody are clearly-"
"Obi-Wan, it's not like that," Aola interrupted him. "Cody's a friend, but-"
"So you kiss all your friends like that?" Obi-Wan countered. Aola's eyes widened.
"You… you saw..." She remembered what he'd said by the ship. Aola, you kriffing idiot. Her defenses flew up. "Obi-Wan..."
"I don't need you to explain." Obi-Wan looked resolutely at their food. "But you're a Jedi, Aola, you can't-"
"Can't what?" Aola snapped. "Can't have attachments? Is that what you were going to say?" When Obi-Wan didn't respond immediately, she continued. "We all have attachments, you of all people should know that." It was a bit harsh, and they both knew it. It was silent for a while. Aola stared at the worn plastiform bar, wondering how many arguments it'd witnessed; none like this. She sighed. "So I'm a Jedi, and Cody's a clone so brainwashed he still calls his landlord "sir" and salutes people when he's startled. Neither of us is a good candidate for any sort of relationship." She fished around in the soggy remnants of the fries and popped one in her mouth. It tasted of pure vinegar. She swallowed it quickly. "I know the Code as well as you, Obi. But you break it every day. We all do."
"That doesn't mean that we should toss it to the wind," he told her. "It's there for a reason. The Code is imperfect, but the principles are sound."
"The only thing a Jedi has to fear is the inability to let go," she recited. "You told me that. Master Ben told me that. I believe that. Cody also believes that." She gave Obi-Wan an earnest look, and then shrugged. "So I'm attached to him. You're attached to me, and to Qui-Gon – and to Cody for that matter."
"That's very different," he said.
"It is… but it's not." Aola looked him in the eyes. "All attachments are dangerous because all attachments mean that one day, one of you is going to die before the other, and the one who's left behind is going to have to move on. We all know that. I make my peace with that every day for you, for Feemor, for Cody. Neither Cody nor I are under any delusions. But for now…" She looked away again, not used to having this discussion out loud. "We're both still here. We're good friends, and we're… fond of each other. It's not a crime."
Obi-Wan looked down at the remains of their dinner. He was still hungry, but unwilling to order more food.
"It's not a crime, no, but it's also not wise," he reprimanded. She shot him a stern look.
"You're the single biggest proponent of the Old Code that I know, Obi-Wan. The Old Code is the Code that I follow."
Passion, yet serenity. He still had the holocron Ben gave him, before Mandalore. He hadn't thought about it in a while. He reached up to massage the bridge of his nose.
"How long?" He asked.
"A few years." Her voice had lost its bite and become almost shy, unlike Obi-Wan had ever heard it. "After Geonosis, with his leg… I felt responsible. I visited him in the hospital while he was recovering. Made sure he didn't lose his spot in the Bureau. We became good friends. Geonosis taught us that worked well together, so once he was healed, we asked for joint assignments. It went well." She wasn't looking at him. Her gaze was off in the middle distance, retracing some memory he knew she'd never share with him. "Things just sort of… happened." She shrugged. "I didn't really see it coming, if I'm honest."
He huffed a laugh; knew the feeling. Aola was biting her lip, thinking he was mocking her. He sighed and spoke more kindly than before to ask, "Who all knows?"
Aola shrugged. "You. A few of Cody's friends know about me, but don't know I'm a Jedi." She paused, and frowned. "I'm pretty sure Feemor knows, but he makes it a point not to ask."
"Smart of him."
Aola looked up at him. "And what about you? Are you going to tell the Council?"
"Tell the Council? Why on earth would I do that?"
"Why wouldn't you?" she scoffed. "I could be censured if anyone found out, and you're vying for your own spot amongst the twelve."
"I what?" Obi-Wan turned bodily toward her. "I am not."
"You're not?" Aola seemed genuinely surprised. "People have been saying you're trying to get on the Council for years."
"They have?" Obi-Wan looked around himself, as if he'd find the gossipers hiding in the bar's dated linoleum tile. "I go off planet for more than five minutes, people start manufacturing rumors," he griped, and then, almost spitefully, "I'm not going to tell the damn Council."
Above them, the speakers played an song that hadn't been popular in over a decade. Obi-Wan wondered if it belonged to the band from his hideous shirt.
"You don't approve, do you?" Aola asked after a while. He side-eyed her. She was curled in on herself. Embarrassed? Ashamed? Angry? He had no way of knowing; her shields were airtight.
"No of course I don't," he told her. "I wish I could, but we're Jedi. You're setting yourself up for nothing but hurt." He thought of Tahl and Quo-Gon. "Take it from someone who knows."
Aola did not respond right away. She knew very little of Obi-Wan's romantic hang ups, but Feemor had made a few passing comments over the years it wasn't a topic she'd ever had to breach with the man. She looked on him
"Obi, I know Jedi don't have families like other people do. But we're family, Qui-Gon and Feemor, even Dooku is family. It's all a matter of balancing that family within yourself, with the the Force. This is like that."
Obi-Wan could not shake the memories of Mandalore. "I'm not sure it is," he warned. She sighed.
"Alright." So it would be agree to disagree. The song ended and moved on to another mediocre rock anthem. "Thanks."
"For not telling the Council."
Obi-Wan scoffed. "I don't know what I'd say to them. Still, you two ought to be more careful, you know," he complained. "Snogging out in the open like that, anyone could have seen you."
"Please don't call it that," Aola closed her eyes. "And I had no idea you were there." He snorted.
"Obviously. You know," Obi-Wan's stomach rumbled. He picked at the fries, even knowing they were a lost cause. "If you haven't already," he did not look at her, "you should really see a physician to make sure you're taking the right precau-"
"Force,Obi," her barstool scraped loudly against the floor. She hopped down and stomped toward the exit. "I'm not an infant."
"Now," he said, dumping some credits on the counter and following her like a mother, "that's exactly the sort of thing that you should be trying to avoid-"
"Speak again," she whirled around and pointed a finger at him as they stepped out into the night, "and I'll break your arm." He put up his hands in surrender.
"Alright, alright, I'm just saying."
"Well you can just say to someone else. Let's go. That food was awful. I'm still hungry."
They began trudging back up the alley toward the ship, loudly-colored club clothes blending in with the dark as one by one, the neon lights flickered off until nearly the entire block was asleep. It was a different world. Only one sign remailed illuminated on the street, the purple and blue sign of Mezzer's, which buzzed loudly and attracted small bugs around its light. It seemed to have attracted more than bugs, too.
"I said," a man's gruff voice cut through the night, "we're closed, now get lost!"
The Jedi both slowed in stride. Obi-Wan began reaching for his saber.
"I'm going, I'm going," slurred a second man. "Just lemme-hey!" there was a scuffle, and out of Mezzer's doorway, a gangly mass of limbs tumbled out with a rucksack and too-big sneakers. He landed with a thump and a splash, his foot landing in a puddle of spilt beer. Mezzer himself, an Alderaanian huge in every direction, leaned out of the doorway and scowled. "You'd better come back here to pay the rest of your tab tomorrow, boy, or I'll's come looking for you. Don't think I won't!"
"Alright, alright," the man tossed his hand dismissively, rubbing at his eyes, leaning up against the steps to the bar. "Jus' lemme sleep."
Mezzer cursed at him and slammed the door, leaving the drunk alone with the alley and, unbeknownst to him, two Jedi. After a moment, the purple-blue sign flickered off, and the alley was silent, except for the man's drunken grumbling.
"Obi," Aola whispered to her companion, "look at his wrist."
It was difficult to see in the darkness, but Obi-Wan could feel it in his bones. The man had a bracelet on his left wrist, with a rock knitted into the band. He did not have to see it to sense what it was.
"Where did he get that?" Obi-Wan hissed.
Aola, now hungry for information as well as food, stepped forward. "Let's ask him." When she stepped toward him, the man seemed to notice them for the first time. He looked like an animal caught in headlights, scrambling to get upright. He fell into a heap of old beer cans.
"Excuse me, sir," Aola began.
"Kriffin- getsaway from me!" The man fumbled in his jacket and drew a blaster, pointing it with both hands at Aola.
"Woah, hey now," Aola put out her hands, "I just want to talk. My friend and I-" the drunk shot at her. The bolt missed her completely, barrelling instead toward Obi-Wan's face. The Jedi's lightsaber screamed to life just in time to deflect the bolt. At the sound of the saber, the man screamed, dropped his gun, and began to cower.
"Ahh- no, no!" he shielded himself in a hazy terror. "No, light sword, get it away, please, please, please don't kill me," he shouted, "Please don't kill me too, please, I got 'em for you, please don't kill me, I got more of em, please, please, I got more…" he shivered, arms holding his head. "Please don't kill me…"
Obi-Wan exchanged glances with Aola in the blue light. They looked as one to their terrified new informant.
"More of what?" Obi-Wan demanded. Shaking with terror, the man peeked up at them past the huge kyber crystal that sparkled on his wrist.
Chapter 7: The Team
Alright, there are a few things here that might be ringing some bells with anyone who as finished Master and Apprentice, but I swear, I had this idea way before I read the book.
Ben dreamed of the twins that night. He awoke early and went to meditate on the balcony, not bothering to dress. The world was dark and Alderaan's air was frigid, but the Force kept him wrapped in a warmth he remembered from Tatooine.
Tatooine. It'd been so long since he'd thought of that place. Longer still since he'd thought of the life he'd had there; since he'd thought of his death, of Vader, Luke, Leia.
The emotions conjured by those memories were impossible to classify, and Ben wondered if he were the only person in the galaxy to know the experience. Regret, relief, dread, and hope all swirled together, but underscoring them all was an overwhelming sense of homesickness. It choked him, pricked at his eyes, made him draw inward. How could he be homesick for such a dystopian past? It was nearly eighteen years since the galaxy of his birth had died.
Eighteen years. He was not homesick for Tatooine. It wasn't natural for a soul to live twice, and his was homesick for rest – true rest.
"Just a little while longer," he spoke aloud to himself, words snatched away by the mountain winds. The sun was beginning to rise. "I've work to do yet."
He only realized how cold he was when he went back inside. Anakin had dressed himself in his nicest, freshly pressed robes, and had already managed to crumple them by sprawling out on the couch to study his datapad. The apprentice did a double take when he saw Ben, his pajamas, and his bare feet.
"You're never ready after me," he teased.
Ben did not feel up to banter. "Is that the programming for Senator Amidala?" he asked. Anakin glanced at his 'pad.
"Oh, yeah." He sounded uncharacteristically reserved about his work. "I think I've almost got it."
"And what is it that she needs this for?" asked the master, going to their room's small kitchenette to make tea. "I thought you were the only person who goes about carrying ion generators in spare pockets."
"Not pockets," Anakin told him, tapping away. "In the mountains."
"The mountains?" This was new information. "Why on earth are they there?"
Anakin was engrossed in his work, and when he answered, he sounded distracted.
"Hiding a big base, apparently. That's what Padme and Obi-Wan think, anyway. Lieutenant Rex said he came across a giant base in the mountains that disappeared - Padme thinks they're using a cloaking device."
Ben paused ponderously while pouring water into the teapot. "I wasn't aware that Obi-Wan had invited you to collaborate on his mission," he said. He glanced over his shoulder at his apprentice.
Anakin's eyes were glued aggressively to his work. The sound of his silence was deafening. Ben sighed.
"He doesn't know you've onboarded yourself, does he?" Ben asked him. "Last he spoke to me, he told me you ought not get involved."
"Why not?" Anakin burst. "I know more about this stuff than he ever will, he just doesn't want me poking around because he thinks I'm-" Anakin realized Ben was watching him, not unlike a man watching a youngling throwing a fit. He blushed. "I just want to help," he moped.
It was easy for Ben to forget what it was like to be seventeen. The very same admiration that made Anakin look up to Obi-Wan as a brother also motivated him to prove that he, too, could be as capable and heroic as his friend. But Anakin was still young, and Ben doubted he fully grasped the steep price Obi-Wan had paid for his maturity. He wasn't ready for Anakin to pay that same price.
"Under better circumstances, I have I have no doubt Obi-Wan would have asked you to help from the start," the master said, and saw Anakin's shoulders relax somewhat. "But he's already said that he thinks this could be very dangerous. He didn't invite me to help, either. Come have some tea."
Anakin went to the table, still miffed but not saying anything about it. He didn't invite you, but you don't know anything about dismantling armies of ion generators. The image of Padme's face surfaced in his mind. Her smile was eternally confident, even more so when they'd concocted a plan of attack. "Senator Amidala sought out my help, though," he said. "Shouldn't I at least mention that to Obi-Wan?" Surely Padme's good opinion would mean something to Obi-Wan.
Ben sipped at his tea. "What the senator does is her own prerogative. Leave it to her to tell him."
"Padawan," Ben forestalled with a look, "you're allowing your pride to cloud your judgement. Drop it."
Anakin snapped his mouth shut. He began to drink his tea so that his mouth couldn't spit out any of the snide remarks that boiled on the back of his tongue.
He's learned that much, at least. Ben admired the boy's restraint. Anakin wouldn't have had the sense even a few months ago. He is growing. He also, unfortunately, had a point. Obi-Wan didn't have the expertise that Anakin did with mechanics. Hopefully, the knight would have the sense to know when he needed help. Valorum ought to have taught him that.
He shared none of these thoughts with his apprentice. Instead, he said, "You must keep your focus in the present. I know your mother is looking forward to having you at the ceremony."
It had taken all night to get the man sober. By the time the sun's first light had warmed the horizon, they had yet to get any useful information out of him. He'd been stewing and fidgeting in their makeshift interrogation room at the navy hangers for nearly seven hours, but had only seemed to grasp the severity of his situation in the last few minutes.
In the harsh light of the halo-lamps, the man was thin, weaselish, and grungy. His black hair was poorly cut and sticking up at all angles, giving him the look of someone who'd just rolled out of bed, but his red eyes were the eyes of an insomniac. He had an eternally worried crease between his eyebrows, below which dark eyes stared big and scared, fixated on the huge rock that his interrogator held between forefinger and thumb.
"This," Obi-Wan said, holding up the large crystal. The bands of the bracelet danced wildly as he shook the crystal for emphasis. "Where did you get this?" he demanded.
"Give - give it back!" The man grabbed at the bracelet, but Obi-Wan had already snatched it away.
"Not until you tell me where you got it," Obi-Wan told him. "You said you had more, a lot more. Where did you get it?"
The man's eyes hadn't strayed from the huge, clouded gem. He began to chew on a fingernail.
A few rooms away, Aola Tarkona and two clones watched the security holo of the interrogation with half interest. They too had been at this work for hours.
"Stars, this man doesn't give up, I'll give him that," Cody said. He rubbed at his right leg. Aola saw it and sighed.
"When are you going to see a mechanic?" she asked, exasperated.
"My leg is fine."
"It's not." They'd had this argument countless times. "You know, Anakin Skywalker is a pretty decent mechanic-"
"Kenobi's told me before," Cody cut her off, and shook his head. "Wish our man talked as easily as you two talk about my damn leg."
"You have a prosthetic?" Rex turned to his brother, aghast. "What the hell'd you do to get that?"
"Fought a dragon and lost quite badly, but that's hardly relevant to-"
"He never takes care of it, it's always shorted out," Aola confided in Rex, as if Cody weren't sitting between them.
"Why not?" Rex asked Cody indignantly.
"He hasn't been allowed out onto the field in years because of it," Aola ranted.
"He has to use a cane."
"I wish our man talked as much as you two idiots," Cody said loudly, staring at the security holos. "Maybe then we'd learn something useful."
Aola dropped the topic of his prosthetic and glowered at the grainy holofeed. "Wish he talked about anything at all besides that bracelet. What's he want with it anyway?" If he's a force-sensitive, I'll eat my belt. He wouldn't be able to tell the difference between that and a kohlen crystal if he had them side-by-side."
"He could be a black market trader," Rex suggested. Cody thought of the still-holo he'd seen on Geonosis, eons ago. It wasn't impossible.
"This guy? Look at him," Aola guestured piteously. "He's a mess."
"I don't know, I don't know," the man whined in the other room, fingernail snapping against his teeth. He reached out a mousy hand toward the gem again. "Just please, please give it back-"
"I'll give it back when you tell me where you got it," Obi-Wan said, perpetually calm. "You will tell me where you got this." Still in his bar-hopping costume, Obi-Wan cut an intimidating figure as he loomed over the table. His scar was plain across his entire body, inviting anyone to imagine what he'd been through before and what he'd be willing to go through again to get what he wanted.
"Come on, man," their mark sounded like an addict trying to reclaim his stash of spice. "I didn't do anything wrong, I'm just a scavenger, trying to make a living. Can you please just-"
"A scavenger who finds and sells kyber crystal," Obi-Wan corrected. The man only stared at his bracelet. Obi-Wan saw that he was getting nowhere. He sat back, pocketed the bracelet and crossed his arms.
"Do you realize who I am?" Obi-Wan asked.
"Oh, here we go," Aola wished she had a snack to eat while she watched (she still hadn't eaten since their pub fare and was still karking hungry).
The man hadn't reacted, so Obi-Wan elaborated: "I'm a Jedi. You know who regulates the sale of kyber crystal?"
"J-Jedi?" he was a bit slow on the uptake, wasn't he? Maybe he really was a spice addict.
"That's right," Obi-Wan's calm, prim Core accent made his jagged appearance bizarrely terrifying. "Now, I'll ask you again. Where did you get this kyber crystal, and where do you plan to get more of it?" Barely visible to anyone who didn't know what to look for, the Jedi waved his first two fingers persuasively in the air. "Tell me."
Something invisible seemed to crack, and the truth came tumbling out. "We weren't even looking for kyber," the man said, sounding close to tears as he began to rock back and forth in his seat. Cody sat up straighter to watch. "All we wanted was the dirt, I swear, I swear that's all we wanted, we were gonna sell it to Trassidan."
"Who is 'we'?"
"My sister and I."
"They wanted dirt?" Aola whispered aloud. Rex didn't seem surprised.
"Good dirt is expensive," he said. "Trassidan is pretty desolate, it needs imported topsoil to grow anything edible."
Cody rubbed his chin. "Yeah, I've heard about these guys. The SBI has a shiny new outpost on Trassidan, but the place is crawling with dumb, hungry settlers. They probably didn't even realize these guys weren't legit." He shook his head. "I'll have to let HQ know about it later."
In the other room, Obi-Wan did not care about dirt. "And the kyber?" he asked.
"We found it by accident, I swear. We were digging and we found these… these rocks, so we run 'em through the masspec, and it turns out they're valuable, so we thought…" he shrugged, shoulders shivering violently - whether from the cold air of the hanger, fear, or withdrawal, Aola couldn't tell. "I didn't know kyber was regulated, I really didn't."
It was a bald-faced lie, but Obi-Wan let it slide.
"Where did you find it?"
"The second moon of Jakku."
"Force, they get around," Aola scoffed. "That's practically Wild Space - there's nothing out there."
"Except kyber, apparently," Cody reminded. Aola wondered what else they didn't know about the galaxy.
"Who did you sell it to?"
"We didn't – it was stolen."
Aola and Cody raised their eyebrows and looked at each other in unison. Rex leaned forward to watch.
The man's chin wavered. He ran both hands over his face, creating new spikes in his unwashed hair. When he spoke, he sounded close to tears. "I don't know his name, I don't know any of their names, they just… they got on my ship and shot me and my sister and took all our cargo, and... and they had lightswords and they were gonna kill me, they said they would, but..."
The mention of lightsabers made Aola's heart race. Obi-Wan pressed on: "Where's your sister, then?"
Now, the man did start crying. He bowed his back and held his head, looking as though he were trying to melt through the table and the floor itself.
"I don't know," he confessed. "They hurt her… they said they would give her back, if I could bring them enough kyber. Said if I didn't get them more, they report me to the Jedi. Said if I didn't get enough, I'd never see her again."
"Oh, Force," Cody sighed. He rubbed his face, equal parts pitying and exhausted. "That's what they always say, mate. She's probably already dead, you know."
"I don't doubt it," Rex agreed.
Aola stared at the broken man on the holo. "Try telling him that."
In the other room, Obi-Wan waited in silence while the man cried. Only slightly kinder than before, he asked, "and did you get them more?"
The man nodded.
"How much more?"
Amid the shaking, the man shook a shaggy head no. "Not enough," he managed.
"Do you have more now?"
The man froze.
"You said you did."
The man stayed silent. Obi-Wan sighed and took a seat. He waited for the man to calm somewhat. "What's your sister's name?" He asked gently.
"Kare," he said. It was the first time he'd said the name in months. "Kare Mooringer."
"Kare," Obi-Wan nodded. He wanted to promise they'd find her, but he knew better. "And your name, mister Mooringer?"
He sniffed loudly and wiped his nose on his sleeve. He had the look of a man who'd given up all hope - and all self-interest. Maybe he had, in his desperate quest to pay an impossible ransom. "I'm called Panche," he said.
"And where did they tell you to deliver all that kyber, Panche?"
"Here. On Alderaan." He had a moment of panic, bloodshot eyes going wide as he looked around the windowless room in sudden fear. "We are on Alderaan, aren't we?"
Obi-Wan wondered if he'd picked up his substance habits because of all this. "Yes, we're on Alderaan," he assured. "And I think I might know the place you're headed." That made Panche look Obi-Wan dead in the eyes. "And if you can get me inside, I'd like to come with you."
It was perfect weather for a wedding, if a bit windy. It didn't deter Shmi Skywalker – soon to be Corteé – and could not have unmoored her smile if it she were getting married in a cyclone.
Backdropped by the ever-present snow capped mountains, the palace of Aldera shimmered like a silver monolith behind the wedding dias, reflecting sunlight in morphing dapples as the clouds raced in front of the sun. The massive courtyard dwarfed the one-hundred person party and couched the ceremony in the intimacy afforded by beautiful, wide space.
Tam Corteé waited at the dias in crisp navy whites, cap and all, the bronze and orange insignia of senior engineer shining on his sleeve. He was flanked by a row of fellow navymen, some of them clones, all dressed in matching white. The groomsmen looked far more composed than Tam, who fidgeted and tried not to smile too goofily before the ceremony was begun.
Their Jedi guests sat together in their nicest robes, which in Anakin's case merely meant he hadn't gotten motor oil on his yet. He glanced across the aisle at Padme, who was done up in typically impeccable fashion. Her hair was held in a gravity-defying halo, the style accentuated by a high metal collar that suspended a pastel dress made of fabric so light and fluid it could have been water. Her beauty gave no indication that she was currently masterminding a plot to infiltrate a criminal organization hidden in the mountains, but Anakin knew better. He'd given her the program that morning, and it'd all seemed settled and done. He still felt uneasy, wondering if he should volunteer to go along, ask if Obi-Wan knew of their plan. He glanced at her again.
Padme knows what she's doing, he tried to tell himself. Do as Ben says and leave it. It was easier said than done. He tapped the datapad in his pocket to quiet his thoughts. Breathe in, breath out. He felt his worries dim. He glanced once more at Padme, this time just because.
The band in the back began to play a tune, and Ben tapped Anakin's arm.
"It's traditional to stand when the bride arrives, stand up," the master stood.
How does he even know so much about weddings, anyway? Anakin wondered. He glanced around and eventually spotted his mother, glittering sky-blue dress distinctive from a distance.
Bail Organa himself walked Shmi to the dias. The prince had agonized for a long time if he should give Anakin the honor, and had prepared a whole speech to breach to topic. But when it came time to deliver the speech, he quickly discovered that Anakin had no idea that a bride ought to be escorted down the aisle. After all, Shmi was a grown person, wasn't she? And Anakin was her kid, anyway. She decided to marry the guy, so what the hell would she need his help for?
In Bail's experience, most Jedi were sensitive to the nuances of tradition and culture across the galaxy. He got the feeling that Anakin was not most Jedi. It was unexpectedly refreshing. When he passed by their Jedi guests, he gave Anakin a wink. The apprentice smiled in return.
They remained standing for some time. When they turned toward the dias to watch, Anakin thought for sure that they would sit down, but Ben gave him a reprimanding glance. He remained standing, as did everyone else, and watched.
Vows were spoken, though the wind snatched them away before he could hear them. They were quite long. The clouds parted and the sun shone directly down on Anakin, making him squint his eyes. The back of his neck began to sweat. He really wanted to sit down, so he could at least wipe sweat out of his eyes without anyone seeing him.
It's like those meditation exercises Master Yoda made us do in crèche, he told himself. Just ignore it. It was difficult, no matter what Master Ben said.
Out of nowhere, something slammed into his senses like a starship into the ocean, pushing him back so he almost fell into his chair. Anakin swayed and steady himself on the chair in front of him. Winded, he looked up toward the source. The sounds of the ceremony faded until he could hardly hear them. The sweat seemed to evaporate from his eyes, the sun seemed to dim. As clear as day, he could see - no, sense - a mountaintop, far in the distance, peel open to reveal a fully stocked and fully armed ship yard, disguised by… not by ion generators. Not by ray shields. Not by anything like that.
"Oh, Force," he breathed. Around him, the audience was clapping. His mother was kissing her new husband.
Ben's clap slowed when he saw his apprentice's face. "Anakin?" He frowned.
"It's not ion generators," the apprentice said.
Anakin wasn't looked at Ben, or anyone else. "It's not - if they try to get in there using code against ion generators, they'll…" he looked around wildly, trying to find Padme's face in the applauding crowd. "I need to talk to Padme."
Tam and Shmi walked down the aisle, hand in hand, beaming. Ben smiled at them as they passed, but when he turned to his apprentice, his face wore a deep frown.
"Anakin, what are you talking about?"
"Did you not feel that?" Anakin felt breathless from the sheer power of the feeling - how was Ben so calm? "That… that thing just now?"
Ben Kenobi looked lost. It was the look that Ben always had when Anakin felt something that he had not. Most times it made Anakin feel that he'd misjudged something, that he'd been wrong. But not this time. He knew his senses. He knew what he'd felt. Ben's bewilderment did not make him doubt, but it did make him feel very… singular. Alone.
"No," Ben said. "What did you sense?"
Anakin's adrenaline jumbled his words, but he knew exactly what he'd sensed. "That- that fort in the mountains, it's not ion generators. I told you about it earlier –I think someone just landed there. I could sense the energy of their cloak going down for just a moment. It's not guarded by ion generators," he told his master in a worried whisper, "they're powering that place with kyber."
Ben's face was taut with incredulity, but not because he didn't believe Anakin. But who in the worlds would use kyber as an energy source?
He had a few guesses.
"I have to warn Padme," Anakin said. "The code I gave her won't work; it could get them all killed."
Ben nodded. The happy couple had retreated to the dance floor, none the wiser, followed by a train of guests who joined in the lively waltz with enthusiasm. Padme was among them.
"Patience," Ben told him. "They're not going anywhere just yet."
It didn't keep Anakin from panicking in carefully-tailored silence. He watched Padme like a hawk, waiting for her to step out of a conversation or a dance, just long enough that he could intercept her, but she was a master diplomat, and floated from one exchange to the next, obviously enjoying herself. It wasn't like he was going to tell her not toenjoy herself, but he really wished she could stop enjoying herself for five minutes so he could tell her how if she listened to him she'd end up dead.
Come to think of it, he didn't really want to tell her that, either. But what choice did he have?
"Ani, there you are," he turned to see his mother approaching him with a broad smile.
"Mom," He smiled back, feeling inexplicably old. Only as as a nearly-grown man did Anakin realize how young she really was, how young she must've been when she'd had him. Radiant in her wedding gown, she didn't look like a woman who should have a grown son. But she had a look in her eyes that told him she wouldn't have it any other way. "You look amazing, mom," Anakin told her earnestly. She smiled in thanks, and looped her arm through his.
"What are you doing hiding over here?" she asked. Anakin bit his lip. She saw through him like no one else did - not even Ben.
"It's hard to explain," he admitted.
"I find that's true with many things, until you start to talk about them." She looked up at him, gentle and mercilessly patient. Shmi and Ben really were cut from the same cloth, weren't they? Maybe that's why she entrusted her son to the man years ago.
He heaved a huge sigh. He knew he wouldn't win the battle of holding out, so he jumped in. "Obi-Wan's only here because he's investigating something, you know."
"Something bad, I think," his mother agreed. Anakin gave her a look, so she explained: "Bail's been working too hard not to tell me, so I've been assuming it's something nasty."
"Well, it is," Anakin said, relieved that he didn't have to explain. "Padme- I mean, Senator Amidala has been helping him, and I was helping her, but I've made a mistake, and-" he looked up to the dance floor, but Padme had disappeared. He swivelled around, searching desperately for a glimpse of her. She'd disappeared entirely, not on the dance floor, not by the drinks table, not in any of the groups of conversation, not by the bridesmaids and certainly not by the bride, or Bail, or-
"It's important, isn't it?" Shmi asked calmly. Anakin looked down at her.
"Someone's life depends on it," she said. It wasn't a question. Anakin was unused to his mother's uncanny perception. Before that exact moment, he'd never wondered where he'd actually inherited his Force sensitivity from. She had the look of someone who saw surprises coming miles before they appeared.
"A few lives, actually," Anakin confirmed.
"Go on, then," Shmi said, looking toward the distantly visible navy base. How did she know that's where Obi-Wan was? "You ought to help make it right."
"But I-" Anakin glanced at Ben, who was speaking jovially with Tam and some of the groomsmen. "My master told me that-"
"I'll look after Ben," she assured, putting a gentle hand on her son's arm. "Go on," she said.
Anakin almost bolted off then and there, but was held in place by an inexorable feeling that he wouldn't see his mother for a while. Not forever, but a long enough that it rooted him to the spot so he could re-memorize her face. He wondered if she sensed it, too.
"Go," She repeated, more firmly. She kissed him on the cheek. "They need your help."
He snuck away while Ben wasn't looking and ran all the way to the hanger.
"On Alderaan?" Mace Windu's disembodied voice spoke with the same incredulity that Obi-Wan felt. "I'm not sure anything like that ever happened, before."
Obi-Wan paced up and down Rex's empty office, bare arms fidgeting over his chest, an open comm in one hand. "It didn't happen before. Alderaan was always a haven before… well, before." It was difficult sometimes, living with the memories Ben had given him, knowing how bad things could be. "But it's not just Alderaan. This Panche person tells me he's made deliveries to locations all around the galaxy - mid-rim, outer-rim - they even made a shipment to Naboo, a while back, which would explain how Padme came to learn about Thorn Moon."
"Does the prince know all of this?"
"The reception is still winding down. We haven't had the chance to speak."
On the comm, Mace was quiet. Eventually, he asked, "Exactly how much kyber are we talking about?"
"This shipment is around two thousand kilos' worth, apparently. There have been others."
"Kriffing hell," Mace burst. Despite the gravity of the situation, Obi-Wan wished he could have seen the look on the master's face. "Where the hell did he find all that?"
"I think he's found an untapped mine, on the second moon of Jakku."
"Jakku? That's what, outer rim?"
"Wild space, galactic west. About a day's travel from Ilum, in fact, though I have it that their climates are rather different."
"I'll send a team."
"I don't know what you'll find. It sounds like this man has stripped the place in an attempt to make ransom for his sister."
"How'd he even find it, if we didn't know it was there? Is he force sensitive?"
Obi-Wan sighed. "I don't think so. He has to keep a kyber on his wrist just to remember what they look like up close. Maybe his sister was."
"Well whatever the case, I want it accounted for. Any kyber that isn't in a cave is dangerous – especially if this operation is tied to Pal... to the Sith."
It was the omnipresent threat that had been looming in Obi-Wan's mind for days.
"I may need backup," Obi-Wan advised.
"Take Aola with you,"
"I was planning on it, but you may need to send in-."
"And Ben and Anakin as well."
Obi-Wan clenched his jaw. "Master, with respect, Anakin is still an apprentice. I don't think-"
"He's nearly grown, and very powerful. Don't underestimate him." The Master of the Order did not offer praise lightly. "And even if he weren't, we don't have the time. If I had a team anywhere near you, I'd send them right now, but I don't. If your mark is expected to ship his cargo today, and he's your only way in, neither of us has the luxury of waiting. Rely on the Force, and the allies it's given you in the moment."
It sounded like something Qui-Gon would say. "Yes, master."
"Document everything. I'll let you know if I can send anyone your way, but don't count on it. We need to intercept that kyber, now."
"I'll do my best."
Mace did not bother with his master's sayings on "try". "Good," he sufficed. Obi-Wan ended the call and replaced the comm on his belt. He stared at the wall, reluctantly aware of a bad feeling that'd begun to creep up his spine.
When Obi-Wan emerged from the office, a group was waiting for him.
"Master Kenobi," Padme smiled at him, eyes young and dangerous like they'd been on Naboo years ago. "Master Tarkona tells me you've found a ticket inside. I think I've found a ticket back out again."
"If the Council lets us go, anyway," Aola said. "What's it to be?"
"We're going," Obi-Wan announced. "Although, it might be a bit crowded."
"Crowded?" Cody echoed.
Down the hall, a door banged shut with a resounding clank. Footsteps ran rapidly toward them.
"Who the hell…" Rex stood and craned his neck. "No one on duty has clearance down here," he grumbled. He drew a blaster and stepped out into the hallway.
"Senator," the voice sounded winded, and also rather young. "Senator Amidala, wait up,"
"Is that Anakin?" Padme said.
"Who, the kid?" Rex asked.
Anakin burst onto the scene and very nearly knocked Rex clear over. The lieutenant grabbed the boy by the robe to slow him down and heave him to a stop.
"Slow down, kid, no need to run."
"Senator, I have to tell you-" the apprentice continued, and spotted Padme. Rex glanced at her and let the boy go. All eyes turned to the apprentice.
Heaving for breath, Anakin looked around the group, surprised to see so many people where he expected only one.
"Anakin," Padme wondered why on earth he'd been running, "is something wrong?" She glanced at the others. "I was just telling everyone about your code, the plan to break the cloaking shield."
"You can't use it," Anakin exploded, still breathing heavily, "That's what I came to tell you, I got it all wrong, it won't work, it won't work at all."
"What?" Padme deflated.
"What won't work?" Obi-Wan echoed.
"It's not ion generators," he panted. As a Jedi, he should've been able to run miles without being so winded, but in his panic, he'd forgotten to check his breathing. "Their cloaking device, the defense systems, none of it will be on ion generators," he said, panicked. "It's all powered by kyber."
"What cloaking device and defense systems?" Obi-Wan asked, louder this time.
"The mountains, Blood Moon," Anakin said, face sweaty and pleading.
The group heard him in silence, and look around at each other. Obi-Wan wanted to know how the hell Anakin knew about Blood Moon, the mountain, the cloaking device and the defense systems, and wanted to know how Padme had roped him into it, but he didn't ask. Instead, he asked:
"Kyber. How sure are you?"
Anakin knew what doubt felt like, but not today. "Positive," he said.
Obi-Wan set his jaw. It would make sense, knowing what he knew. If they even had a fraction of the kyber that Obi-Wan knew they had, it would make sense. The knowledge did not make their job easier. He he turned and gave Anakin a look he liked to think he would've given him as a warning, in another life. He hoped Anakin was as ready as Mace believed he was.
"How many times have you been to Ilum, Anakin?" he asked.
Anakin was taken off guard. "Twice," he answered. Once as a youngling and once as a padawan. Both times had been harrowing. "Why?"
Obi-Wan crossed his arms, frowning deeply. Not hidden by any sleeves or robes, Anakin could see Obi-Wan's biceps clenching and unclenching as he spoke; tense and worried. He'd never really seen Obi-Wan stressed. It gave him a very bad feeling.
"Because there's a mountain fortress on this planet, and whether it is or isn't powered by kyber crystals, it's filled to the brim with them, and people who have the power to take them and use them. We have one chance, today, to get inside and figure out who the hell they are."
"And... you think it's going to be like Ilum?" Anakin asked, befuddled.
"Nothing like it," Obi-Wan replied, still staring him down. "But kyber answers to the Force alone, and there are only four Jedi on this planet today." Anakin wondered if Obi-Wan knew how scary he could look. The knight looked up and around at their team: two clones, a senator, and four – no, three – Jedi. He looked again at Anakin.
"Find your master."
Chapter 8: The Plan
I just wanted to leave a slightly longer author's note than normal to say thank you to you, the reader.
I think I've said in the past, I'm terrible at replying to your comments and questions, but I want you to know that I read each and every comment, review, ask, and question you post, and they absolutely make my day. Your comments and interest keep me coming back to my computer to write more chapters, even as the story turns into a slog. This monster has been running for nearly four years, and while I'd like to say that I'd finish it even if I was the only one reading it, I don't think I can lie about that. This story would've ceased to exist a long time ago if not for your continued support and engagement, so thank you.
I know updates haven't been coming as often as you – or I – would like as of late, and I am very sorry for that. I've been struggling with some pretty bad stress an anxiety lately and I haven't been able to find the wherewithal to work on this story, but I am trying. I'm so grateful that you always come back to say hello each chapter. It really does keep this saga going. We'll make it to the end eventually, I'm not giving up on this story.
Thanks guys. You're the best.
Shmi watched the swirling clouds of Alderaan as they fell into a backdrop of stars. Something in her gut told her to go back, to stay, to make sure that he was safe. Anakin. He would always be on her mind, but this felt different.
No, she told herself. He's nearly a man. He has his own mind – and he's a Jedi, surrounded by other Jedi. He'll be fine.
"Hey," Tam turned to his new wife, brows furrowed in gentle concern. "You alright?"
"Yes," assured Shmi, reaching out to lay a loving hand on his arm. "I've just not been off planet in a long time."
"Truth be told," said the engineer, grinning, who built ships to traverse the sky but rarely found himself their pilot, "it's been awhile for me too." He flicked a few switches and their cruiser slowed, waiting for commands. He looked to her. "Where to?"
Shmi smiled, trying to let go of the maternal worry wormed into her heart.
Within the hour, Ben Kenobi was standing amidst their slapdash team, arms crossed within the sleeves of his robes.
To Obi-Wan's enduring chagrin, Ben remained stoic as they explained the situation. He didn't even look surprised when Obi-Wan told him about the kyber, and Panche. Anakin didn't betray a shred of anxiety as Obi-Wan tattled on his interloping.
So he's been relaying this all to Ben already. That's... good. Obi-Wan tried to take a philosophic view of it. His pride was an obstacle, but a more significant hurdle was the sudden and severe turn his mission had taken in the last few hours. How, exactly, had a stolen lightsaber in Coruscant's cultural district become this?
I'm on leave, his inner voice of self-preservation exclaimed, if this goes wrong, there's not an evacuation team waiting by. Damn, they were going to loop more of Bail's men into this, weren't they? One wrong turn and this could turn into a real kriffing mess. Like Kamino. Like Eriadu. Like Valorum. His stomach turned.
Was this how Ben felt, back in the early years, when he'd killed the Sith apprentice? But Ben had at least known the territory, as much as he could. But this was new, brand new, all of it, not a shred of familiarity in sight. Ben wouldn't be able to help him, would he? He probably wouldn't know how. Just like last time. Mace had thought Anakin was ready for this – surely he'd think that Obi-Wan was ready, too?
"-put a few jets to standby, they'll can be in reserve should things take a turn," Rex was saying, in the businesslike clip of a man trained for action.
"We'll need a pilot." Ben was in his element as well. Obi-Wan often forgot that Ben was a veteran. Ben hadn't shared too many memories of the war, but Obi-Wan knew what he looked like in armor.
"We'll have to take Panche's ship, with the kyber," Obi-Wan pointed out.
"He shouldn't have to be dragged into this," Anakin began.
"No, not him," Obi-Wan really wished Anakin were just a bit older, a bit more experienced. Anakin was, however much he liked the boy, still a boy. "Mr. Mooringer will give us his codes and his ship, and his kyber, and we'll take care of the rest. It's too risky to bring a civilian into this, we'll have to come up with a story. Rex." He looked toward the lieutenant, who stood up straighter.
"You're likely the most experienced pilot among us," Obi-Wan ignored how Anakin bristled. "If you're still interested in helping us, perhaps you could familiarize yourself with the controls of Mr. Mooringer's freighter."
"I'd be happy to, sir."
"Good. Alert the Prince."
"Of course, sir."
Cody stepped up, not to be outdone. "I can fly too," he offered. "I may not be Rex, but I know my way around a ship. I can land a ship nearby, for evac."
"You'll be on standby here on the ground," Obi-Wan told him. "You've been limping all day, I'm not going to fly you into a potential fire fight in your condition."
The clone purse his lips. "My leg is–"
"Cody," Aola broke in quietly. He looked at her. Something in her expression told him to leave it, so he did, looking none to happy about it. Obi-Wan looked between them for a moment, and said:
"We need someone who's read into the mission here on coms for us. You'll also be our first line of contact to fire and medical."
A sobering reminder of what they were getting into. Cody glanced again at Aola. "Of course," he accepted the order as a soldier.
"Aola, Ben, Anakin, and myself will be going in. The more Jedi we have up there with that kyber, the better. Master Windu tells me he'll send any backup he can find nearby, but it's… unlikely," Obi-Wan kept his voice detached and calm, but saw Anakin's sudden uncertainty. The kid hadn't even considered that they'd need more Jedi, had he? He doesn't even know what we're getting into. Obi-Wan tried not to feel guilty - again - that Anakin had to come with them.
"Good. And Padme," Obi-Wan turned to the senator, bracing himself.
"I'm coming with you," she said immediately.
"I don't think that's a good idea-"
"You need a negotiator."
"I am a negotiator, as is Ben, and–"
"You need a negotiator who isn't a Jedi," she countered. "Or do you think these mysterious people, who can harness the power of kyber crystals and hide their base using the Force, won't be able to sense that you're more than an unbathed bum in a trashy band t-shirt?"
Obi-Wan stood in contrite and irritated silence. behind him, Anakin was fighting against a sudden laugh. Padme caught his eye and they shared a moment of silent humor. If Obi-Wan noticed, he did not let it show.
"Very well," he said. "Rex."
"Outfit the senator with appropriate weapons."
"I have a blaster," Padme offered.
"Yes, and you might need more," Obi-Wan said. He glanced her up and down. "Do you have armor, too?"
"As a matter of fact," she began. Of course she does. Obi-Wan should not have been surprised.
"You ought to change, then. Anakin,"
"Hmm?" The padawan was happy to be included.
"Fake up some documents for the Senator. Make her look like someone nasty - a bounty hunter, maybe. Perhaps she's turned in Mr. Mooringer for a bounty and taken over his business."
"Oh, um, okay."
It was not a response that inspired Obi-Wan with confidence; they didn't have long to pull this off. He often wondered how anyone suffered having an apprentice in high-stakes situations like this. Ben did not seem bothered at all. He rarely did – even when he should have, especially where Anakin was concerned.
"Good. We have until this evening to get up there," he spoke to the assembly. "You know your tasks - go."
They dispersed. Rex and Cody to the hanger, Aola grouping up with Padme and Anakin – she'd always been fond of concocting cover stories.
"Ben," Obi-Wan said, darting his eye to glare at his older self. "A word?"
Anakin looked back at them, eyes shifting between the two with poorly masked curiosity. Ben glanced at his student and then angled his head to indicate a hallway.
They found a quiet room. Ben waited while Obi-Wan wrestled with his anxiety and the dreadful familiarity of going to Ben for advice during a crisis.
"How does he know it's kyber?" he asked.
"He sensed it."
Obi-Wan stared. "Sensed it." It was unheard of. "Across a mountain range."
Ben gave a small shrug. "He's very powerful, Obi-Wan."
Anakin's 'power' was well documented, but in Obi-Wan's opinion the word was tossed around far too flippantly. "Well, yes I'm aware of that-" the knight began,
"No, I'm not sure you are." Ben's voice was unusually firm. "I don't think he realizes how powerful he is, or could be. I trust Anakin's senses more than I trust my own."
The Kenobis stared at each other, Ben resolute, Obi-Wan trying to understand his older self through his memories of memories. It had been a full decade or more since Obi-Wan thought of Ben as himself. Deep down, there was that familiarity, but it was so shrouded by their divergent paths that some days Obi-Wan doubted Ben's origins altogether.
The knight crossed his arms. "You really think he's the chosen one, don't you?" He spoke softly, as if the walls would overhear.
By Ben's look, he'd given the idea decades of thought. "I think he could be. I think he needs to learn that for himself, and in the meantime, I think I need to trust him."
Obi-Wan only sighed. What else could he do? Qui-Gon was the one who really believed in the prophecies. Obi-Wan had studied them at Qui-Gon's side years ago, especially after Ben had appeared. But then people started dying, and the Sith returned, and he had too much else to think about.
"Alright," he whispered.
"He admires you more than you know," Ben said. "He'll follow your lead."
It was exactly what Obi-Wan was afraid of. "I'm going to go change," he announced, turning toward the door. "If I die today, they're not shipping me back to Coruscant looking like this."
Their plan fell together with a speed and precision that Obi-Wan found unnerving. They would travel to the mountain in two groups. In Mr. Mooringer's freighter would be Padme herself, or rather Hyla Ka'ak the bounty hunter, along with her trusted bodyguard, Rex. They would use Panche's clearance codes and land in the base. Ben and Aola would hide on board and wait for Padme and Rex to be taken away for price negotiations, at which point they would sneak out and seek out the kyber.
Meanwhile, Obi-Wan and Anakin would man a smaller vessel to the other side of the mountain peak and seek a back entrance where they could infiltrate the mountain's defense systems and dismantle them. Obi-Wan had not appointed the teams, and wasn't sure he agreed with Ben's decisions.
"It's logic," his older self had explained. "You can see hidden things that most Jedi can't, and Anakin could dismantle the security of the whole Senate, if he wanted to. You're a good team for this."
It wasn't that Obi-Wan disagreed. He and Anakin got on well together, and their skills were indeed complimentary on this mission. However, Obi-Wan had only ever worked with the boy in the context of training, in the simple world of the temple dojo and swapping stories over fried tubers at Dex's. This was different. This was life or death. This was like the SBI, and Garen, and Valorum all over again. Except this time, it was the apparent Chosen One who'd followed him on his fool's errand.
Obi-Wan couldn't stop glancing at Ben, looking for some shred of regret, some chink in his resolve that would give Obi-Wan recourse to back out, to insist Ben be the one to accompany his apprentice. It never came. He tried to occupy his thoughts with the mission, but that led to entirely different anxieties.
If it was in fact the Sith they were up against, what were they thinking, setting up base here, in a core world capital? If it was Palpatine behind this Thorn Moon organization, Obi-Wan had a feeling that they were hiding on Alderaan for a purpose, biding their time, waiting for the right time to reveal themselves and attack. It's what they'd attempted to do on Alaris Prime, Naboo, Eriadu, Geonosis. And just like last time, we'll stop them here too.
But it's not flimsy droids this time, reminded his inner voice of caution, which had in recent years begun to sound like his memories of Garen Muln. You're going up against a mountain of crystal. If you don't think there will be some kind of fallout, you're kidding yourself.
Obi-Wan clenched his jaw and kept walking.
"-as anyone seen Kenobi?"
"I'm right here," he announced, footsteps beginning to echo as he emerged into the large hangar. The space had transformed overnight from a quiet stable of ships and tinkering pilots into a bustling emporium of activity. The hangar doors were drawn wide open to the Alderaanian air, a sheer drop into the valley below and sky beyond. Droids buzzed to and fro around the giant kyber freighter, which dominated the space, flanked on all sides by sleek Foxnocht fighters, emblazoned with Alderaanian blue and gold.
"Oh good." Dressed as a rough-and-tumble bodyguard with military posture, Rex stood amidst the hubbub like a fish in water. "Your ship's nearly ready – took us a hot second to fit cannons to our recon shuttle, but they've worked fast, so it's ready to fly."
"Cannons?" Obi-Wan gave him a look. "Do you really think that will be necessary?"
Rex was unfazed. "I'd rather you have them and not use them than die for lacking." His deadpan eyes met Obi-Wan's, and something in them made the Jedi feel exposed. "Cody's told me enough stories about you to prepare accordingly, sir."
"Oh," Obi-Wan said, looking away. "Thanks."
Rex's military training allowed him to hide his smirk. "Who is it that's going with you, sir?" he asked. Obi-Wan opened his mouth, but it was Anakin himself who said,
"I am." The apprentice materialized from behind a passing flight technician, and power-walked toward the pair as though they'd run away. "Are we ready to go then?" He was practically bouncing in his boots.
"Not quite." Obi-Wan looked him up and down, wondering if he'd ever been so eager to leap into a firefight when he was a teen. "You're going to be our pilot. Best familiarize yourself with the ship and make sure everything is in working order."
"What, that one?" Anakin gestured to the shuttle. Obi-Wan, having expected the apprentice to hop to pilot duty with immediate gusto, did a double take when Anakin remained standing in front of him.
"Yes that one," he said.
"I've already checked it," Anakin told him. "I helped install the cannon."
Obi-Wan had not known that, but it hardly mattered. "Well, best check everything else is working, too."
"I already did," Anakin assured him.
The strictest of protocols dictated that Obi-Wan himself give the ship a second once-over as its co-pilot, but he trusted Anakin's instincts about ships over his own; best have an expert look twice than an expert and a fool once each. "Then do me a favor and check it again," the knight instructed. "Especially the cloaking systems and shields."
Anakin's perception of Obi-Wan Kenobi was, for better or worse, colored by the fact that he'd known the man since infancy and regarded him as more a brother than an authority. So, lacking all Jedi sense of respect or deference, he gave a cavalier shrug and asked:
Obi-Wan blinked at him a few times, knowing damn well that Ben had raised Anakin better than this. He spoke calmly. "Well, among the twelve or thirteen reasons that present themselves," he made eye contact with the boy, "because I told you to."
Anakin seemed taken aback by such an order. He glanced briefly at Rex, sheepish. "You're not my master, Obi," he said quietly, more embarrassed than angry.
"No, I'm not," Obi-Wan replied with firm annoyance, "But if faulty equipment gets us shot down today, and I miraculously survive and you do not, I will be the one who has to tell your master, and that's not a conversation I want to have, so please, go and check the systems again."
Painted such a picture, Anakin now saw the sense in it. The teen gave a chastised nod and wordlessly jogged over to the shuttle. He's so excited for action he doesn't think of what can go wrong. Obi-Wan shook his head as he watched the teen duck under the bulkhead of the ship. He's going to have to learn quickly.
"You know," Rex interrupted his thoughts. "When you first came here, I thought Anakin was your apprentice," the clone confessed.
"Me?" Obi-Wan turned to him, aghast. "His master? Force, no. I'm far too young for that."
"You could've been his master if you weren't out roaming the armpits of the galaxy all the time," Cody seemed to have overheard them, and limped over in good humor. "You're not so young."
Rex chuckled at this, but Obi-Wan did not share in the joke. He blinked and, after a moment, turned to his longtime friend. "Cody," he fixed the clone with a dangerously innocent stare. "How old do you think I am?"
Cody's smile evaporated. He glanced at Rex, who gave him a facial shrug. Cody looked back at Obi-Wan. Slowly, nervously, he began to say, "Ff-"
Obi-Wan's eyebrows shot upward.
"Th-" Cody corrected too late, "-irty…." he paused, expression wrestling with itself. "...nine?"
"Kriffing Force," Obi-Wan huffed. Rex laughed. Cody tried to apologise.
"I'm a clone!" He disclaimed. "I'm bad with ages - Rex is too."
"I'm not that bad," his brother smacked him. "You really thought this guy was over forty?"
"I… I don't know, he could be," Cody floundered.
"You're daft, Cody, I always knew your batch was a trial run."
"Hey, watch your mouth, you runt."
"You should watch your own - I'm sure you're very popular with the above-thirty crowd."
"Oh, shut up."
"Pick up many girls like that?"
Obi-Wan shook his head. He let them bicker a bit longer before he said, "Since you're here, Cody, I can only assume we're all set to go."
The agent abandoned his banter and nodded. The movement was like turning the safety off a blaster: a swift, practiced switch that gave the air a heavier weight. "We're all set down here. The Prince wants this done as quick and clean as possible. We've got medical and an evac squad on standby. I don't want to use either, though, so you'd better be careful up there," the agent said.
"Wouldn't want them to scratch their paint," Rex snarked, patting his belt and holster. He took a breath. "Well, then, time to go." All humor dropped from his voice. "You stay on comms, Kenobi. We'll see you up there."
"See you then," Obi-Wan echoed back, raising a hand in goodbye as the clone jogged over to the freighter.
"Wing power check?" said a female voice from the bridge of the cargo ship; Padme, hair braided and tucked into a grungy helmet. On the ground, Aola rounded the hull in her full Jedi browns, blue midriff showing in flashes behind her tabards. She ran her hands down the ship's blocky wings as the flaps raised and lowered experimentally.
"Check and check."
Their verbal inspection faded into the cacophony of the hangar. Obi-Wan turned to bid Cody farewell, but found the agent looking with acute fondness and anxiety at the Twi'lek knight preparing to leave. Obi-Wan's goodbye died on his lips. We're all fools, he thought. These two especially.
"Don't worry," Obi-Wan startled Cody out of his reverie. "Ben'll bring her back in one piece for you."
"For..." Cody was even more startled. "What are you talking about?"
"Cody." Despite his convictions, seeing the clone's expression made something deep in Obi-Wan's gut ache for the man. His expression softened. "I am only half blind, you know."
Cody looked at the ground. It took him a moment to collect himself. "I'll be standing by the whole time, sir." He looked up at his friend, an entire conversation passing between them in silence. "May the Force be with you."
"And with you." Obi-Wan turned to see Ben standing near the shuttle, his hand on Anakin's shoulder. The knight could only guess at what they were saying to each other. If he were a gambling man, he'd wager it was something along the lines of what Qui-Gon still told him whenever he left on solo missions: don't be stupid, trust the Force, stay alive.
After a moment the master and padawan parted, and Ben joined Aola at their ship. Obi-Wan strode toward the shuttle. "Anakin," he called, and the apprentice's head snapped up to attention. Padme had started her take-off sequence, and the hangar filled with the low rumble of engines. "Set shields to half power and turn on the cloak. It's time to go."
Aola left the bridge and made her way back to the cargo bay where she and Ben would be hiding amongst towers of crates. Ben was already there, standing in the bay, datapad illuminating his serene expression.
"Padme- sorry, Miss Hyla has the helm. We're about to take off," she announced. "Better strap in." While Aola folded out one of the crew seats and tugged on the safety belts, Ben only shifted his feet and wrapped a hand around the cargo netting. Aola looked at him and then at the row of a half dozen cargo seats open beside her. The engines whirred beneath them. After taking a pause to pointedly not comment about his disregard for safety regulations, she asked:
"Do you think this will work? Hiding here, I mean. If they're really Force sensitive, won't they sense that we're here?"
Ben glanced up at the crates all around them. "The kyber will help," he said. "If nothing else, it will distract them long enough for us to get away undetected. They don't know to expect us, and our Force signatures will blend in around so much kyber. They'll believe what they want to believe."
Aola ran a hand down the side of one box. Even through the netting and the cases and packaging, she could feel the distinctive hum of Kyber, low and powerful.
"It is distracting," she conceded.
"Even more so if you plan to build an empire out of it," Ben agreed. Neither of attempted to speak over the roar of the engines as they brought them up and out of the echoing hangar. It wouldn't take long to reach the mountains.
"Did you have to bring this thing along?"
"What, you've got a better droid in your back pocket?" Anakin looked back over his shoulder to see Obi-Wan batting away RB-1's flopping, flailing appendages as the tiny machine panicked amid the g-forces of their turn. The droid hurtled sideways, and Obi-Wan grabbed it before it could crash into a window. It responded by wrapping its arms around his face.
"He's going to be our ticket into their mainframe and, therefore, Ben and Aola's ticket inside," Anakin explained, looking back to the sky. "You can't hack systems that big without a droid to do the talking. Arbee's helped me hack whole orbit systems to the Outer Rim and back, haven't you, Arbee?"
The droid, pausing in its singular mission to drive Obi-Wan to madness, gave a beep and a noodle-armed salute. Obi-Wan grabbed the arm while he could and peeled the droid off himself. It squealed indignantly.
"And has he always been this temperamental on flights?"
"It's the g-forces," Anakin said. "He's a floating sphere, he has a pretty specific definition of up and down. Small ships mess with him sometimes."
Obi-Wan sighed while the droid cried in his lap – why had Anakin made a droid that could cry? "And you just… let him suffer?"
Anakin snorted. "I usually put him in a storage bin," the padawan confessed.
"I'm sure we have one of those around here somewhere," Obi-Wan groused.
"No need." Anakin flipped a switch which would activate the ship's invisibility shield. "We're nearly there."
"Alright," Padme took a deep breath to steady herself. She hadn't undertaken a mission – a real mission, disguises and all – since her days as Queen. The moves of this high-stakes dance were something she'd memorized as a child, and they came back easily, bringing along with them the usual pre-arrival jitters. "I'm going to check in with our Jedi friends and make sure our weapons are primed and ready. Tell me once we're in range."
"Yes, ma'am." Rex didn't divert his eyes from the windscreen as Padme left him alone in the bridge. He opened a comm.
"Alpha nineteen, this is Mooringer one, please come in."
"Mooringer one, this is Alpha nineteen, what's up?" Rex couldn't help but smile at the kid's unusual address.
"Your cloak's working perfectly," Rex reported, glancing at his sensor panel which told him he was the only ship for miles. "What's your current position and destination?"
"Currently five ticks south of the summit. There's a covered alcove two ticks further around. We'll land, find that door, and await your signal."
He made it sound so effortless. Rex checked his coordinates. "Good. According to Mr. Mooringer's instructions, that'll be just about opposite from our landing point. They'll be guarding the front, I doubt they'll neglect the back. Be careful."
"Always am." Anakin knew he was lying, and it came through in his voice. It should have made Rex nervous, but the Lieutenant found himself smiling again. If they all lived through this, Rex thought he'd like to grab a drink with the kid some time.
Anakin had to give them credit; it was nearly impossible to tell the mountain was anything other than a mountain. Nearly.
"Looks like there's heavier cannon over here." Anakin pointed to a snowy slope a short ways up from where they planned to land. "That must be our way in."
"Looks like?" Obi-Wan peered over Anakin's shoulder, squinting hard. With the aid of the Force, his blindness rarely became an issue, but he still struggled with long distances. It took him a moment to admit defeat. "I don't see anything," he said.
"Well, I mean, I don't see it," Anakin shrugged, "I sense it. Can't you?"
Obi-Wan peered again, and was quiet for a long moment. "No," he said at length.
Anakin was not sure how to respond. "Well, it's there," he replied, already doubting himself. "I'm sure of it." He actually wasn't, notnow that Obi-Wan "can sense the bits moving along a circuit board" Kenobi couldn't verify his hunch. "Once we're on the ground it'll be easier to sense the details." It had better be, especially for Obi-Wan, because if Obi-Wan didn't start seeing what Anakin could see really fast, they'd be kriffed.
"Of course," was all the knight said. Anakin nudged them in to land, panicking in silence.
Panche's clearance codes worked exactly as he'd said they would, but Padme hadn't been prepared to watch as the mountainside split apart like a curtain. The snow melted away as if it had never been there—and perhaps it hadn't—as an invisible shield rippled and flickered like an iridescent pond until it pulled away entirely to reveal a frigid landing base.
"Holy chssk," she found herself saying.
"No kidding," said Rex, leaning forward to watch, wide-eyed.
"That bad?" asked Aola in her ear.
"Bad? I don't know." She eased the freighter in for landing. "I've just… I've never seen anything like it." She'd seen cloaking shields, sure, not unlike the one they'd outfitted on Anakin's shuttle. But this was not a simple invisibility shield; this had mass, and weight, an atmosphere. "Are you sure someone could make something like this using the Force alone?"
There was a pause on the other end of the line.
"Ben thinks so," Aola answered.
"I don't suppose the Jedi temple has anything like this?" she asked.
Aola laughed. "When we go to Ilum, we make it a point to not being the entire planet back with us. These people don't seem to share our reservations."
"And we're bringing them more," Padme said quietly, to herself. She watched as the landing pad below filled with attendant droids, blinking lights guiding her into position. They were close enough now that she could see into the sheltered helm of the base.
"Time to hunker down," she told her friends, "it's time for me to go. Rex?"
"Yes ma'am." The clone didn't need another word. He stood, flipped the lock on the cargo bay, turned off his blaster's safety, and pulled on an armored chest plate. Aside from the click and clatter of Rex getting into gear, the cockpit was silent. Fully armed and armored now, the clone stepped up to survey the landing pad below. They were close enough now that he could see an entourage waiting for them, led by a tall woman clad in white.
"Looks like they're expecting us," Rex's voice had transformed into that of someone else, someone gruffer, stiffer, who'd be more than happy to shoot someone in the face as soon as look at them. It made Padme feel safe. "Orders, Miss Hyla?"
Padme slipped into the role as easily as a handmaid's gown. "Get me my gun."
Waiting in the cargo bay was a unique torture, not least of all because at any given moment, Aola had no idea if they'd been caught or not. Ben did not seem to share her anxiety.
"They don't know we're here," he told her. "Settle down."
"How can you tell?" She'd never gone up against other Force-sensitives before, not in such numbers.
"Because if they did, we'd be hearing a great deal more blasterfire."
Of course. Aola sniffed, and the sound seemed to echo against every facet of every kyber crystal that kept them company. The power in the hold was quietly overwhelming, and she fought the need to escape.
"If they don't know we're here, should we escape now, before they figure it out?"
"No," Ben said. "We need Obi-Wan and Anakin to make a path for us, unlock some doors."
"Right." They'd gone over this before, but the crystal was baffling Aola's memory. She shook herself. "Last time he had to unlock a door, on Eriadu, Obi did it in less than five minutes," she said optimistically.
It was maddeningly quiet. They listened for shots. None came.
"Good," Ben said, and fiddled with the comm at his belt. "Hopefully he's not too rusty."
Padawan Skywalker trudged through the snow, feeling ridiculous, leading an experienced, war-hardened Jedi Knight to a door that was, at least to Anakin's mind, as obvious on the mountainside as a zit on someone's face.
"It's here, can't you see it?" Anakin called back. RB-1 shook in the wind beside him, bleeping irritatedly at Obi-Wan as the older man followed meters behind.
"For the last time, Anakin," Obi-Wan was even more annoyed than his companion that he couldn't see or sense the door, "no. Just get me there and show me where the wires lead."
If you can't see it, Anakin thought privately, then how the hell will the wires help? "Just a bit further," he said, and waved Obi-Wan on. "Come on, it's right here." He waved the knight over to a flush wall of stone. It looked like the same dark basalt that was peppered beneath the snow of the whole mountain range, but Anakin knew better. It hid a door, a door whose outline shone up through the Force like a beacon, backlit by the kyber that powered it.
"Where, exactly?" Obi-Wan was standing right by it. The man had been one-eyed since Anakin's childhood, but the padawan had never once thought of him as blind until that moment.
"Here," Anakin took the man's hand and pressed it against the cliff.
Obi-Wan reacted as if burned. "Holy chssk," he yanked back his hand and held it. He looked, wide-eyed, to Anakin. "You weren't joking - where the kriff did they get that kind of power?"
"So you can see it," Anakin was relieved.
"I can't see it, but-" Obi-Wan put his hand back, hesitantly, as if the wall would bite it off, "kriff," he said. Anakin was privately impressed; he'd never heard Obi-Wan curse so much in so short a span of time. The knight missed his amusement, too enthralled by the wall of raw power behind the mountain.
He'd found something of a talent for manipulating electrical circuits sometime after he'd lost his right eye. Qui-Gon had always said that it was his senses making up for the loss; Obi-Wan wasn't so sure, but it did come in handy. But electricity was a fair bit different than this. This was kyber, this was the Force itself. But this Force had been bound and bent around a framework held up by dark intentions. Unlocking this door was not a matter of rerouting bits and blips; this would be about willpower, and light, and undoing the power over the door without making everyone in the base aware of it. He could sense the kyber crystal inside his saber humming at his belt; it seemed very small in comparison.
"So," Anakin said after a bit, "can you open it?"
"Well," Obi-Wan said, "If I don't, this entire operation is doomed, so I suppose I must." Still, it had been Anakin who'd seen the door, who'd sensed the kyber. He has more power as a child than I'll have in a thousand lifetimes, Obi-Wan realized. He didn't want Anakin to ever know how much that impressed him—and scared him.
I trust Anakin's senses more than I trust my own, Ben had said. Obi-Wan heaved a sigh.
"But I'm going to need your help."
Anakin did not know how to unlock doors with his mind, but he did know that if it meant keeping his friends safe, he could be a quick study. "Alright," he said, and let Obi-Wan tell him what to do.
Chapter 9: Kyber
Happy December, everybody, sorry for such a long wait.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Padme had never understood how snow could make the world feel so small. Her home in Naboo's capital didn't receive snow but once every few dozen years, and every time she saw it she marveled at how frozen specs of water could carry some sounds over miles and muffle others completely. She only hoped that this snow would choose to muffle the sound of her pounding heart. Once she and Rex were outside the ship, the air felt quiet and close despite howling outside.
Their welcoming party was small, that was good; they didn't suspect foul play. The face of their leader, however, was less good: a glare firm enough to sharpen knives, framed by chalk white hair and underscored by a chapped-lip frown. She stood still and solid as a stone pillar, waiting for the new arrivals to approach.
The threat flipped a switch deep in Padme's subconscious, an instinct her training had superimposed over her fight-or-flight response as a teenager. She relaxed into her swagger, and came to a stop about two meters in front of the welcome wagon. She crossed her arms.
"Two thousand, eighty-six kilos of kyber, as promised." She spoke as Hyla, a jagged and straightforward personality. "Now, about my pay. Ransoming some girl who may or may not still be alive is not going to cut it for me. I'd like something more… real."
The stone woman didn't move. She stared, unblinking, as Padme silently counted. One, two, three, four, five, six-
"Where is Panche?" the woman asked. Her accent was a surprise; a prim core accent, more refined even than Obi-Wan's.
Padme allowed a few seconds' pause in pointed mimicry. "Mister Mooringer ran into some difficulties," she stated, delicate. "I was forced to repossess his ship and its cargo for reparations. However…" She sauntered just a little closer, leaving Rex to hang behind. "I know a good business opportunity when I see one. I've moved a bit of kyber in my time, but imagine my surprise when I opened that hold." She glanced back at Panche's ship without moving her head. "An emperor's ransom. The price he relayed to me—you swindled an idiot, you know."
The bodyguards and associates around the stone woman frowned, but their leader held her ground.
"Nevertheless." Padme spread her hands in an agreeable way. "Swindle or no, I'm here to honor your agreement with Panche, in the understanding that that agreement is now with me, and that unlike our mutual friend, I deal in money, not promises."
The stone woman waited again while the air grew quiet and tense. "What is your name?" she demanded.
"Hyla," Padme replied.
"Hyla what?" the woman rebounded.
"Best just leave it at that." Padme smiled a quick, plastic smile. "I don't think we're on a first name basis quite yet."
For the first time, the woman flicked her eyes off of Padme, and onto Hyla's ship—Panche's ship—and to Rex, and back to Padme.
"Step inside and we'll talk." She waited for Padme to move first, before turning on her heel and leading her retinue at a quick pace. Padme walked with Rex a step behind, armed men flanking them on either side. She resisted the urge to look back at the ship, and instead prayed quietly that the Jedi would be able to sneak away safely while Padme rattled off everything they'd taught her about kyber and it's value on the black market.
"They're gone," Aola announced to the quiet of the hold. She grasped the hilt of one of her sabers and stood. "Let's go."
"No," Ben cut in. "They're not through yet. When they are, Anakin will let me know."
Aola stopped what she was doing, but seemed torn. "Well I highly doubt Padme can talk kyber sales for too long," she pointed out. "Skilled negotiator as she is, these things move quickly. If we don't leave soon, we're not going to be able to get far."
"We certainly won't get far without someone opening doors and cutting cameras for us," Ben reminded. "We must be patient."
Aola huffed and fell back into her seat. She wondered if back at headquarters, Cody was panicking like she was. "Well tell them to hurry up." Aola assumed, like many people did, that Ben and Anakin shared the quasi-telepathic connection that many masters and padawans fostered over their time together. She could not have known that Anakin was a miserable telepath, or than Ben could often read the boy's emotions better than Anakin could himself. Truth was, Anakin wouldn't be able to tell Ben when they broke through the door. But, if things went as things tended to go for Anakin, he wouldn't have to. Skywalkers were not subtle; the feeling would be clear through the Force. Ben closed his eyes and attempted to meditate.
"They're working as fast as they can," he lied. He had no idea how fast they were working; he only knew that Anakin was concentrating harder than Ben had known him to focus in his entire life. Ben tried to have faith in the boy. "Be patient," he repeated. If Aola thought he was talking to her, then so be it.
"No, not there," Obi-Wan said, voice shaking with concentration and cold. "Behind it."
"Force damnit," Anakin breathed, also shivering. His eyes were closed, as were Obi-Wan's. They were both sitting cross-legged by the door, facing each other, Anakin's right hand and Obi-Wan's left pressed against the door hidden in the mountain's face, minds stretched to their limits. Ignoring the snow drift that had accumulated by his left thigh and the searing numbness that had overtaken his hand against the frozen mountain, Anakin tried again to follow the web of electronic blips that Obi-Wan had shown him through the Force. It was overwhelming, the sheer Force of this place. It was like trying to untie a knot while staring into the sun. The power that sustained these circuits was not electricity or plasma or anything Anakin had used in his droids. It was kyber, the Force itself. It was suffocating.
Beneath Anakin's robe, RB-1 was jabbing at his ribs to complain of the cold, but Anakin could not have paid the droid attention even if he'd had the time. His senses were utterly overwhelmed by the raw power hiding in the mountain. It was intoxicating, it was maddening. It made his eyes water and his throat dry, but he thought that maybe, maybe, he was beginning to get used to it, like irises adjusting to the light. Once he wrapped his mind around what he was looking at, the power was… to Anakin's utter surprise, not entirely uncomfortable. His fingers felt warmer than before, his nose less like an icicle.
"This seems to be the master relay," Obi-Wan sniffled, sounding tired. Anakin did not doubt that the knight was affected by the overwhelming presence of kyber as well, to say nothing of the cold. "But it has auxiliaries - probably fail safes that will fire an emergency alarm if the main signal dies suddenly. We'll have to shut them all off simultaneously."
"I'll take the relay, you take the auxiliaries," Obi-Wan decided.
It didn't feel right. "No," Anakin told him. "No, that'll set it off for sure. We'd have to have perfect timing."
"And we will."
"Will we? In this?" Obi-Wan had to know what he was talking about, the mental deluge. It'd be like the two of them swimming up a waterfall and reaching out for the same handhold at the exact same time. It wasn't just improbable, it was destined failure. "It has to be just one of us, all of it, or it won't be simultaneous."
"I can't do all of that," Obi-Wan told him incredulously. "This is one of the most complicated locks I've seen in years, and it's powered by kyber— it's not as though I can just… pinch off all of these circuits at once." Manipulating circuits with the Force was difficult enough as it was. But this many at once? Perish the thought.
"Why not?" Anakin asked, petulant and feeling more confident the longer he thought about it. His hand felt warm against the stone.
"Why not…? Anakin, there have to be near a hundred here-"
"Well however we many there are, we have to do it." Anakin was tired of sitting here and thinking. They needed to get through that door. Ben and Aola needed them through that door. Rex and Padme needed them through that damn door. "I'll do it," he decided. His hand was hot.
"Anakin, no, you can't,"
There were too many circuits to consider individually. I don't have time for this. He ignored the tangled mess and instead directed his attention to the power source itself: the kyber. Kyber wasn't like electricity. It was a vessel of the Force, and that meant that, much like his lightsaber, Anakin could just... tell it what to do. Right? It was too cold out to second guess such logic. Just continue doing whatever you were doing before, Anakin told it, except for all of this, he mentally gestured to the entire door.
Without any noise or hullabaloo, the door creaked, the cloaking device fell and Obi-Wan found his hand touching not rock, but solid, familiar durasteel. He opened shocked eyes upon the door, and then looked to Anakin. Anakin opened his eyes and looked back.
"What did you do?" Obi-Wan demanded, looking between the boy and the door, waiting for an emergency alarm that never came.
"I told it to stop," Anakin said, shaking out his right hand, which felt as though it'd been burned. He smacked it against his robe a few times, and wondered if the cloud rising from it was steam or smoke.
"Told it to…" Obi-Wan was nonplussed. Even the puckered skin around his blind eye was pulled wide in bemusement. "Is it open?" He looked to the door as he stood, shaking snow off of his cloak and boots.
Anakin touched the control pad, and the door slid sluggishly open, not a single beep or signal to accompany it.
"I guess so," the padawan said.
Obi-Wan waited to go in, staring at Anakin with a look the teenager didn't appreciate.
"Don't everybody thank me at once," he grumbled, stepping ahead of his friend to hide the florid blush on his cheeks. "Come on. We need to find a plug-in so Arbie can figure out how on earth this place works."
"Or you could just hack it yourself," Obi-Wan commented under his breath, looking back at the door as though it would at any moment spring back to life and lock itself. It stood silent and dead, the only sound the howling of the mountain gales outside. Obi-Wan watched it with a feeling in his gut that he couldn't classify. "Apparently."
They walked into the mountain together, wary of everything, smothered by the inaudible hum of kyber.
They'd been brought into a conference room, if you could call it that, where the women could talk business. It had stone walls and boring furniture, and echoed something awful. There were a few holodiscs on the table, and while they were older models, they were perhaps the only valuable items in the room. It was also freezing.
Rex stood at ease by the door, an armed guard on either side. For his part, his eyes never strayed from their chosen spot on the wall, but his ears were wide open. For the last several long moments, there had been nothing to hear but growing tension in the silence.
Padme had her head tilted at a casual angle as she stared disinterestedly back across the table, trying to blink as little as she could. She had made her case, stated her price, and was waiting for a response. But this statue of a woman—they still hadn't gotten her name—seemed completely unbothered by long silences.
"You understand," she finally spoke. Her voice was naturally low in pitch and cut an authoritative tone in the echoing room. "I'm not used to paying for what I want."
"Is that so?" Padme knew she was trying to intimidate her.
"I find that once you talk to them, most people are susceptible to... alternative motivation." Perhaps it was Padme's imagination, but she thought that was the hint of a smile. She chose to smile back.
"My favorite kind of people," Hyla said. "I know Panche at least had a, uh… what you might call a soft spot for that stuff. Unfortunately, I don't really care about much but cash." She stared.
"So," Hyla stretched back from the table, wincing to emphasize the discomfort of their accommodations, "if you're looking for someone to manipulate, I'll just be going. I'm sure someone else around here is in the market for a few thousand kilos of kyber." She moved as though to stand. "If I see another Panche crawling around somewhere, I'll send him to you."
The armed guards by the door readied their weapons.
"Does anyone else know you're here?" the woman asked, as her guards blocked the doors.
Padme, still mid-stand, looked theatrically to her left, to her right, and jammed a thumb back at Rex. "He does," she joked. "But you might've noticed, he doesn't really talk much."
The women looked as one to Rex, who made a show of not noticing. The stone woman looked back to Padme, eyes like ice. Padme slowly, self-assuredly, sat back down.
"No one else?"
"Panche is past blabbing," Hyla assured, crossing her arms and giving a shrug. "So... no."
The woman stared for a long, frozen moment. Even Padme's conditioning for this kind of torture was wearing thin. Just when she felt as though her resolve might crack, the woman stood. "I will discuss this with my superiors," she announced. Her shoes clacked loudly against the duracrete floor. The door hissed open. "Don't go anywhere," she commanded leaving her new business partners behind with the two guards. As the door slid shut, Padme caught Rex's eye. She could tell that he was thinking the same thing:
If she's not in charge, who is?
They'd been sitting in dead silence for over half an hour when Ben stood wordlessly and made for the door.
"Now?" Aola asked.
"They're inside, at least," he said. "We'll run out of time to clear the landing bay if we don't go soon. We'll just have to move quickly and pray we can hide long enough for them to unlock some doors."
"Brilliant," Aola grumbled to the air. "Down to the wire, as per karking usual."
"Now Aola, my young friend." Ben smiled back at her as he prepared to open the landing gear access port. "Whatever happened to your sense of adventure?" The knight was unaffected by his charm.
"This is why Anakin is the way that he is," she accused. Ben laughed in reply, wrinkles showing around his smile. He undid the hatch. Smile still in place, his eyes sobered to a battle-hardened steel. He motioned her through, and they forsook their banter for silence as they slunk from the ship at a crouched run.
The bay was full of crates, carts, and bales to hide behind. Aola would have loved to know if they were allfull of kyber, or if some of them held mundane things like food, but it was impossible to tell amid the omnipresent hum of the crystals that powered everything around them. How did they manage to harness such power? It didn't bear thinking about.
Unfortunately, despite the ample cover, both Jedi found it slow going from the ship to the bay's exit. Without assurances that security cameras weren't watching them, Aola and Ben split up, staggering their sprints between cover, the stationary party watching for cameras and signaling when the other was clear to move or hide.
When a door hissed open, both of them dropped to the ground where they were, frantically tucking their robes behind crates and shielding themselves with the Force and every ounce of adrenaline their bodies could spare.
"-line directly to my office," a deep, sharp feminine voice said, shoes and words echoing loudly off the hangar floor. "Do not let them leave, and answer no questions until I've received the Master's final word on the matter." The footsteps came to an abrupt halt less than a meter away from Ben's hiding place, and he closed his eyes and swallowed, willing with every fiber of his being that she would not see him.
"And scan her ship," the woman said, causing Ben's heart to jump, "I don't trust her as far as I can throw her." After a heart-stopping moment. she resumed her warpath, and allowed Ben to breathe again.
A door hissed open, and a door hissed shut. The two Jedi waited in silence for several heart-pounding moments until they both deduced they were alone. They resumed their trek to the nearest door in silence, and reunited meters away from their target to hide together behind a stack of fuel crates.
"Clear," Aola whispered, darting back around the crates to huddle against them alongside her older companion. "Now what?"
Carefully, Ben pulled out his comm. "Anakin, come in," he whispered into it. "We're in position. Is this door open, or would you like me to trip some alarms?"
"Anakin, come in." Anakin fumbled for the device at his belt, but it was difficult to do with one hand. "We're in position. Is this door open, or would you like me to trip some alarms?"
RB-1's tarnished hull was growing warmer by the second as it strained every last one of its circuits to communicate with the computer that ran the mountain base, which was alarmingly larger and more complicated than they'd anticipated. Arbee beeped a series of complaints to its creator, who was doing his best to hold the droid and its port arm steady with his left hand while holding the comm with his right.
"Don't try to open anything," he said, "we're working on it." Arbee beeped indignantly, and Anakin sighed. "Arbee is, anyway. Are you compromised?"
"Not yet," Ben said, and Anakin knew his master's tones well enough to know it was probably higher stakes than Ben wanted to admit. "But the chances of that will drop significantly if you could get this door open."
"We're trying, we're trying," Anakin repeated. It was a desperate situation. RB-1 had helped him hack dozens of ships and entire bases in the past, but this place was unreal. Kyber or not, when they'd approached this place Anakin's worst fear was that they'd find a military outpost, a moderately-sized battery or bunker of some kind, but this… whatever it was, was infinitely worse than what he'd expected. If what the droid was telling them was to be believed, the mountain base was a labyrinth of doors, hallways, and indecipherable chasms hat escaped definition by electronic records. Once he'd finally accessed the computer's maps, RB-1 had counted levels travelling down into the mountain, reaching well into double digits.
"Ben, do you know what level you're on?" Obi-Wan spoke over Anakin's shoulder.
There was a pause on the other end. It was Aola who answered: "There's a lift across the way, I think it says two. Or maybe five, it's hard to see."
"Well which is it?" Anakin asked, desperate for an object of focus. RB-1 had begun smoking lightly.
"Two would make more sense, if the numbers rise as they go deeper into the mountain," Obi-Wan pointed out sensibly. "Start there."
"If I unlock all the doors on that level, and someone else is on that level, someone is bound to notice," Anakin warned.
"Just the exterior doors, the ones leading into the hangar," Ben said, "is that possible?"
Anakin sighed. He'd never seen a droid struggle so much. "I guess we'll find out."
"Can I help?" Obi-Wan asked Anakin quietly. The padawan looked up at him, grateful but helpless.
"I don't see how." He watched with growing fear as Arbee struggled. "He's doing his best." The seconds ticked by. After a moment, without preamble, Obi-Wan took Arbee from Anakin's cradling grasp and held the droid steady in the padawan's place. Hands occupied, the knight gestured at the computer's interface with a nod of his head.
"What?" Anakin was nonplussed.
"You seem to know how to trick this computer into doing what you want," the knight explained, not sure if they were dealing with a computer, or kyber, or something higher than both. Whatever it was, it was beyond Obi-Wan's skill. "Help him," he repeated.
The padawan floundered. "But- I can't- how do- why don't you help him, you're the expert with Force-controlling circuits and stuff–"
"This isn't about circuits, Anakin, and we don't have time for this," Obi-Wan met Anakin's gaze and held it, and for a split second it had the effect of Ben staring him down. Blue eyes to blue, Obi-Wan said, "I didn't help you open that door." Anakin felt horrifically unequipped. "Now, help him."
Anakin realized what Obi-Wan was really trying to say, but didn't let himself dwell on it long enough to get scared. After a moment's hesitation, he put his hand to the panel of the computer's console where Arbee's port arm was docked, closed his eyes, and thought of how he'd accessed the door outside. It'd been a matter of finding the electric circuits and following them to their source, finding that outlet where electricity stopped and mixed like a freshwater river into the salty ocean of raw, unadulterated energy that surged from an unthinkable amount of kyber.
Anakin tried to suck in a breath to steady himself when the mental wave washed over him, but it was like a tsunami. Force damn, Force damn it was overwhelming. At the door, yes, and here, kriffing Force even more so, he felt fit to drown. He scrambled to find mental purchase against the onslaught, reminding his body to breathe so he could adjust his mind. He found the mental gymnastics more intuitive this time around, but the sheer power revolving all around them was dazzling in the worst way, a thousand times what they'd experienced at the door. This place was huge, and unmapped in the common kyber was like a city of interconnected specks, a living, sentient architecture that did not speak in terms of levels, floors, hangars, or bunkers. It mapped itself in terms of life, and lack thereof, and what it held secret in each room, each hall. Anakin did not speak whatever strange language the crystal had invented for itself, so he willed it to translate for him, and willed harder when it resisted. When it finally complied, he was too stressed to feel surprised.
"You're on the fifth level," he told Ben and Aola.
"Are you sure?" Ben asked. Anakin didn't seem to hear it.
"He's sure," Obi-Wan answered for him, unblinking and still as he watched Anakin's face.
Eyes closed, Anakin's mind was entrenched deep in some other world. "Door's open," he announced curtly. "Least, should be. You're both just to the left of the door, right?"
"How did you…?" Aola began.
"That's the one," Ben cut in. "We'll try it now."
Anakin did not have the mental real estate for worry while they waited for the others to report back. Obi-Wan continued watching Anakin's face, not sure if he was witnessing something young or ancient.
"We're through," Ben announced. "Now you need to lead us through to their power source. Where is the rest of the kyber?" It was why they were there, after all.
Silence. Obi-Wan watched his young companion with mounting concern as blood began to run from one of Anakin's nostrils.
"Anakin?" he asked quietly.
"It's..." Anakin had to swallow around a lump in his throat. His voice cracked when he said, "Force, it's everywhere. It's not just... There is no central source. It's like a web. But… there is a gap down there. A sort of… chunk of this place where there doesn't seem to be any kyber at all." Anakin was frowning deeply, struggling to make sense of it.
"So, stay clear of that, then?" Aola was trying to be optimistic. "That's one way to start, I guess."
"No, that's the most important place," Anakin snapped. "That's the heart of this place. You have to go there. It's important." Anakin was almost nauseous from the certainty he felt, the urgency. "You have to go there first."
"If they've managed to cloak themselves so completely, they may have found a way to cloak the presence of kyber as well," Ben hypothesized on the other end of the line. Obi-Wan thought it was a decent explanation, but privately thought that neither his older self nor Aola understood Anakin as he did in that moment. Watching the boy connect with this place—not the computer, not the kyber, the whole place—was unlike anything Obi-Wan had ever seen. He wasn't sure what exactly Anakin was doing or how, but he sensed more than he understood that it was a delicate, thunderously powerful task.
"How do you know it's important?" Obi-Wan asked the apprentice, not mentioning to him that the blood from his nose was running across his lips and onto his chin.
Anakin shook his head, fixated and confused. "There doesn't seem to be anything there," he admitted, "but it's all the kyber cares about."
"The kyber cares about?" Obi-Wan raised his eyebrows.
"Lead us there." Ben was beginning to pick up on Anakin's overwhelmed emotions. He tried to speak with an authority that would give his apprentice's confused senses outside resolution. "If there's something there to be found, we'll find it."
As Ben and Aola trekked deeper and deeper into the mountain, they'd only spotted two guards along the way. Two. It was an absurd number. If this was indeed a Sith stronghold, the place should have absolutely been crawling with guards or droids or something. But just two guards, who hadn't even seemed to be patrolling when Ben and Aola slipped past their watch.
"Are there any cameras along this passage?" Ben whispered into his comm.
"No," was Anakin's quick reply. It'd been much the same for their journey thus far. Ben couldn't help it when the answer made him feel more paranoid rather than less. In a place this secret and secure, the absence of any obstacles or threats could only mean one of three things. One: the Sith already knew they were here, and where waiting to see where'd they go—but that wasn't really Palpatine's style, not after all the setbacks he'd faced. Two: Anakin's advice about cameras and guards was incorrect—and Ben knew the boy and his abilities well enough to know that it wasn't. Finally, three: the caretakers of this place didn't think they'd ever be found, and hadn't bothered with security in the first place, allowing intruders to slip by under their noses. This last possibility sounded to Ben like wishful thinking—but in light of the other options, he hoped it was their reality.
"You're almost there," Anakin told them. Ben could feel the boy's excitement, but it felt more like fear. "Go to the end of that hall, turn left, it's through the door dead ahead."
"Got it." Aola was leading the way. Ben cast a look over each shoulder, but as before, there was no one to see them, follow them, find them.
As they neared the door, a cold feeling washed over Ben, causing the master to slow, now gazing at the door with apprehension. Aola seemed to feel it too, and stopped several feet ahead.
"What is that?" she asked, eyeing Ben with the kind of questioning look that adults give their parents in times of doubt. For a moment, Ben said nothing, and stepped around Aola to go to the door. The closer he got, the colder he felt. It wasn't a physical cold. It wasn't an evil cold. It wasn't darkness or hate or ice or anything; it was the fringes of absence, a particular kind of abyss that Ben had only ever experienced once before, long ago in a former life, in a dark part of the Jedi Temple that most liked to forget existed.
"Master Ben?" Aola asked, still at a loss. Ben only stared at the door, wondering what in the galaxy they would find on the other side.
"You said there was no kyber through this door?" he asked.
"None that I can sense."
"I think there might be something else," Ben said. "Not kyber; the opposite of kyber. I haven't the slightest idea why they have it all the way out here, or what they're using it for.
"The opposite of kyber?" Aola repeated. She'd never heard of such a thing.
"Sort of." Ben hovered his hand over the door's control panel. "It goes by a variety of names and comes in many forms. I was taught to call it thanatosine." His fingers twitched above the controls. "Keep your sabers close. This will be less than pleasant."
In a darkened room not far from where Ben and Aola were sneaking down hallways under Anakin's uncanny guidance, the white-haired woman sat ramrod straight in front of a holodisc. Her guards had been banished from the room, and she had no company except for the holographic figure that loomed over her. She hoped he could not read her face, just as she couldn't not read his.
"A new courier?" he said.
"Yes, my lord. A bounty hunter; she seems to have pursued Panche for unpaid debts, and thought that his unfinished business with us may be… lucrative."
"Who is she?"
"She calls herself Hyla. She refuses to give me more information than that. She seems competent. If we pay her for this first shipment, I'm confident I can find a way to persuade her to start working for far less."
The figure did not immediately reply. She had not expected such hesitation. In place of acquiesce, there was only a hooded frown.
"No," he said. "Show her to me."
In a moment of weakness, the woman's stony eyebrows flickered toward a frown, but she corrected them sternly.
"Of course, my lord." With a few flicks of her wrist, she redirected the holofeed from herself to the holding room where her hopeful purveyor stewed under careful watch.
She could not see what her master saw, and she could not read the expression on his cowled face. But she could feel the silence in the room stretch and mold into tentacles of rage, a viscous tendril that infected the kyber cells in the walls and made their meeting space suffocating and furious.
"That is no bounty hunter," he broke the quiet and the lights seemed to flicker. "Search her. Search her ship. Find out how she came to know of our presence here." The audio feed itself was growing distorted with the wall of anger, the blue feed fizzing with static. "Padme Amidala does not act alone—take all that she knows, and destroy her."
A halo lamp behind her head burst into a shower of sparks, and the woman could not control her jump any more than she could stop the fear in the eyes she hid behind a stoic mask. She bowed from her seat.
Eagle-eyed readers may recognize "Thanatosine" as a callback and homage to Ruth Baulding's masterful world.