“Every time I have to patch you up, it takes years off of my life,” Fay says, close enough to scolding that Agen huffs.
“You're a Sephi, you have years to spare,” he says, but winces as another long slash pulls closed. Vibroblades he expected, but plain, ancient knives weren’t something he was prepared for.
Fay sighs, resigned, and skims her fingers down his arm. “You're lucky the Force drew me here, little Knight,” she says. “Again. I haven’t had this much consistent contact with Temple Jedi in centuries.”
“Master, now,” Agen says quietly, but he watches the faint ripples of the Force as Fay works, the deft way she moves, wounds sealing under the lightest brush of her hands. “And I'm grateful, Master Fay.”
The curl of Fay’s smile is wry, but sweet. “Master? You? They actually managed to pry you out of the Outer Rim long enough to give you a padawan?”
“Yes. Xe made Knighthood already,” Agen allows, and grimaces as a bone shifts. “I'm on the High Council now.”
Fay’s snort is indelicate but deeply amused. “T’ra must be very proud,” she says, smiling. “You were her most troublesome padawan.”
Agen takes the accusation, because it’s likely true. Even for an ancient, practically legendary Jedi Master like T’ra Saa, he was a strange choice of student. “I expected you to leave, once you knew,” he says bluntly.
Fay doesn’t look at him, keeping her eyes on his wounds. “You would have died without my help,” she says simply. “And you're not quite ready to go crashing any more ships just yet, Agen.”
Agen grunts. “It worked,” he says in self-defense, and hisses when Fay pushes his head down to get at the long scrape on his back. She clicks her tongue, but a moment later the deep ache in his spine dies away, and Agen breathes more easily.
“You crashed a ship into a fortress,” Fay says, the closest to exasperated Agen has ever heard her. She sounds just like Master T’ra. “How were you expecting to survive that?”
“It worked,” Agen repeats bullishly, because it did. They definitely won't be trafficking any more slaves through this moon, and disrupting their routes is about as much as he can do out here, on the edge of Republic space. Hutt space is so close that most slavers just slip across the edges to get away from Republic laws, and Agen only has the authority to deal with the ones who flaunt that.
With a sigh, Fay grips one of his horns and shakes him gently, her expression caught between amusement and annoyance. “You're a grown Zabrak, you shouldn’t still be giving your master heart attacks.”
“She’s a plant, she can't have heart attacks.” Agen bats her hand away, only to have Fay catch his fingers and pointedly pull them down.
“She’s a Neti, not a plant,” Fay reproves. “And if anyone could find a way to give her a heart attack, it would be you.” Turning his hand over, she eyes his bruised, split knuckles, then says, “You lost your lightsaber?”
“In the crash. I found it afterwards.” Agen is entirely unbothered by the memory; sometimes, punching people in the face makes more of an impact than threatening them with a lightsaber. Some people deserve it more, too. And he did manage to find his lightsaber before he dragged himself towards the nearest town, so it was fine in the end.
“T’ra has been a Jedi for six hundred years,” Fay says, mournful. “How did she pass on so little of her wisdom to you?”
“She passed on plenty of wisdom,” Agen says, miffed. “They elected me to the Council.”
Fay’s smile is crooked as she carefully straightens out his fingers. “I haven’t been back to the Temple in a very long time, but if that’s your sole argument for wisdom, Agen, you may want to rethink it.”
Agen huffs, but subsides. He’s loyal to the council, respects their wisdom and knows they’ll always try to do right, but he’s equally aware that Fay and several other Jedi disagree. Knows them, and understands their differences from those on the High Council, even if he wouldn’t make the same choice himself.
“I'm glad you were nearby,” he says instead of pushing, and Fay hums, brushing a strand of hair back behind one pointed ear.
“I wasn’t until this morning,” she says. “The Force called me here. Quite urgently.”
Agen frowns, brows furrowing. “For me?” he asks, wary. A handful of slavers who haven’t even caught Jon Antilles’s attention shouldn’t register with much of anyone, and particularly not Fay. She’s a Healer, and she’s never even carried a lightsaber, let alone used one in combat.
Fay glances up, raising a brow at him in amusement. “I am quite fond of you and your master both, Agen, but I doubt it. No, my path lies north of here.”
With a nod, Agen accepts that, willing to take it as the will of the Force that he happened to be in the same place as Fay right when he needed her. If she hadn’t found him, he would have made do.
“Master T’ra misses you,” he says, because he sees it on T’ra’s face every time he mentions crossing paths with Fay. She spends most of her time in the Core now, and rarely ventures as far as the Outer Rim. Agen has tried to convince her to take more missions out here, but—she’s stubborn. As stubborn as an old tree.
Not that she takes kindly him to him saying that.
With a grimace at the memory of the last time he did, Agen turns at Fay’s prompting and reaches up, gathering his hair between his hands and pulling it over his shoulder so Fay can get at his back. She makes a soft sound of sympathy as she does, skimming her fingers over deep bruises, and sighs.
“So few Jedi come to the Outer Rim,” she says quietly. “And I can count how many members of the Council have bothered on both hands. If the people out here lose you, Agen, it will be a blow. Be more careful.”
“I did what I had to,” Agen says stubbornly. It was the only way to take out the whole base, given they were ready for him. The ship was a lost cause, anyway.
“You picked the most reckless path,” Fay corrects, but her hands are careful as she lays them over his ribs. The prickling wash of Force-healing follows, tucked beneath his skin, and Agen winces. “And you’ll need to rest after this. For at least five days. Hold off on reporting back to the Council for that long at least, all right?”
Agen casts her a look, confused. Fay has more power than any other Jedi alive; when she heals someone, they’re healed. He’s never had her tell him to rest before. “Five days?” he echoes, frowning.
“Mm.” Fay doesn’t meet his eyes, just pulls him back, and says, “I assume you knew you had broken ribs?”
Agen grunts, uncaring. He got away from the fortress, so it wasn’t a problem. “Master T’ra—” he starts.
“If T’ra misses me, she can uproot herself from her gardens and come looking for me,” Fay says, perfectly level. “I’m not hard to find.”
“Only for the High Council,” Agen observes.
“All nomadic Jedi have their quirks,” Fay says serenely. “This is mine.” She pauses, then sighs, and Agen winces as a shard of durasteel works its way out of a gouge in his hip. “Agen.”
“Ow,” Agen mutters, and he can feel the look Fay aims at the back of his head.
“You could have called Antilles for help,” Fay says reprovingly. “Or Knol.”
“There weren’t that many of them.” Agen straightens carefully. “Antilles is nearby?”
“He was harassing Cad Bane last I heard,” Fay confirms, though she sounds mildly disapproving. “Other hand.”
Agen offers it up, and she takes it, inspecting his wrist for a careful moment. The low-grade ache that’s been with him since his last mission fades, and Agen lets out a slow breath.
“You’re okay?” he asks, because the amount of healing he needed would have required three Healers in the temple.
Fay looks just as perfectly composed as she did when she found him, though, and she raises a brow at him, relinquishing his hand and sitting back. “Helping a whole city would be hard-pressed to tire me out,” she says, amused. “The Force provides.”
With a grunt, Agen accepts that. He rises to his feet, aware of the lack of aches remaining, and then pulls his robes over his shoulders. “Thank you,” he says.
Fay rises, graceful, and her pale robes are only faintly mussed by the moon’s red earth. “There was an inn in the town,” she says, only a little pointed. “Five days.”
“Leaving?” Agen asks, more curious than offended. Fay follows the voice of the Force, pulled wherever it directs in whatever frame of time it wants her to move, so she’s forever leaving suddenly and arriving unexpectedly. One of the reasons, he personally thinks, that T’ra finally retreated to Coruscant and the temple. She has a tree’s patience, and a complementary dislike of sudden changes.
Fay pauses to consider, tilting her head. “Not immediately,” she allows after a moment. “The day after tomorrow, perhaps.” Smiling, she starts back towards the town, and Agen falls into step with her without hesitation. “I hope you don’t mind company until then.”
“No,” Agen says, and means it. He doesn’t see many Jedi, this far from the Core and Mid-Rim. It’s gotten to the point that he’s almost considered taking another padawan, but—it hasn’t felt right. Not yet. There’s no one in the creche that calls to him. But company is nice, and Fay’s company is especially welcome, because he sees her so rarely.
More frequently than anyone else in the Temple, though. He heard padawans calling her a tall tale last time he was in Coruscant, and even Master Yoda hasn’t spoken with her in a hundred years.
Fay chuckles, putting up a hand to keep her hair out of her face as the wind swirls around them. “Are there any other new members on the High Council?” she asks. “I assume Yoda still sits as Master of the Order.”
“Not anymore,” Agen says. “Mace Windu took his place.”
Fay looks surprised for a moment, though it slants into something wry a second later. “T’ra’s other troublesome student. I think I'm sensing a pattern.”
“He’s strong,” Agen says in explanation. “And wise.” Frowning, he tries to think of any other changes, and then offers, “Adi Gallia was elected before me. And—” Pausing, he considers. Fay hears more about the Outer Rim than the Council, rumors that rarely reach the Temple. But she’s been cut off from the news they do have, and some of that is important.
“Agen?” Fay asks, concerned, and Agen shakes himself, then meets her eyes.
“You knew Master Qui-Gon Jinn?” he asks.
Fay hears the past tense, knows what’s coming. Agen can see it on her face, feel it in her presence. “Yes,” she says, soft. “One of the Old Guard, yes? He passed?”
“He was killed,” Agen says, and the anger is a thin thread, kept in check. Acknowledged, released, but—Agen still can't stop its appearance. Not for something like this. “By a Sith.”
Fay doesn’t respond for a long, long moment. She keeps walking, boots steady on the dry earth, expression distant.
“I felt something,” she says at length. “Three years ago now. A disturbance. A Sith appeared?”
“The apprentice,” Agen acknowledges quietly. “Qui-Gon’s padawan defeated him.” Not a padawan anymore, but a Knight, and immediately a Master to the boy Qui-Gon found. Agen doesn’t approve. Whether or not Obi-Wan was ready for his Trials, he shouldn’t have been made a master right away. He’s too inexperienced. Too young, even with three years to try and adjust.
“Dark times are coming,” Fay says after a long moment, and she sounds sad. “This galaxy turns towards night, and it takes us with it.”
Agen tips his head, because he’s felt the coming darkness as well. “Master T’ra has a saying,” he says. “Every season has its own sweetness. Even the sad ones.”
“And we take what comes, as Jedi should,” Fay finishes for him, smiling a little. “She is fond of that one, isn't she?” Folding her hands into her sleeves, she lifts her face towards the nebula that spans the sky above them, then sighs. “A thousand years since the Sith were last defeated. I thought they were finally gone.”
“We all did.” It’s troubling. No Jedi alive except Obi-Wan Kenobi has faced a Sith, not even Master Yoda, and that doesn’t give Agen confidence in the coming fight. And there will be one; he’s felt it since he attended Qui-Gon’s pyre, saw Obi-Wan and his new padawan there, grieving.
Agen grieves, too. But he grieves for the lost peace and the coming struggles more than for one Jedi lost, no matter how great.
“No evil stays gone forever,” Fay says softly. “Plagues resurface. Droughts return. People desire power who mustn’t have it. We should have known.”
“The Jedi are strong,” Agen says, and this at least he has confidence in. “We won't fall in battle. Not now.”
But Fay doesn’t answer for a long moment. She’s a pale shadow in the red prairie, and the sense around her is all tired grace, a sadness that hooks beneath Agen's skin. “Unless something changes,” she says, “it’s not battle I fear, but treachery. The Sith were always a devious enemy, far more than a forthright one.”
Agen wrinkles his nose, displeased. He would much rather have a stupid enemy than a clever one, but with the Sith, there’s little chance of that. “Hm.”
Thankfully, Fay chuckles, and the sadness retreats. “Perhaps there will be a change,” she offers. “The Force moves in ways no one can predict, and all we can do is accept what it brings us.”
That, at least, Agen already knows. But— “It’s clouded,” he says abruptly. “In the Core. Spreading out.”
The words surprise Fay, which is hardly reassuring. “The Force?” she asks, and when Agen nods, she frowns. “That is…most troubling.”
“The future is nothing but shadows,” Agen says darkly. “And the air feels heavy.”
Fay looks troubled. “The Sith,” she says, all quiet certainty. “This is their doing.”
“The first move in a war we didn’t know to fight,” Agen agrees, because he’s had similar thoughts. As the edges of the dusty stone town come into view, he sweeps a look over the buildings, checking for any slavers that might have escaped and made it here, and disappointingly sees none.
“Agen,” Fay says, weighty with intent in a way that once meant I will tell T’ra so help me child.
Agen slants her a look and says nothing.
Fay frowns at him like only an ancient Jedi Master can, and rather than let him turn towards the cantina where any surviving slavers will likely have holed up, she very firmly steers him towards the inn. Agen knows better than to protest, but he casts one last assessing look at the bar before he’s pulled indoors, and marks its location for later. He won't pick a fight, but he’s hardly about to stop someone else from picking one with him.
“Why did the Force want you here?” he asks, partially to distract Fay, but also largely because he wants to know. The moon is tiny, the planet below nothing but oceans, and only a handful of prospectors and criminals even bother to come out this far.
The glance Fay slants him says she knows perfectly well what he’s doing but chooses to allow it anyway. “I’m not sure,” she says, and turns a smile on the proprietor as the Kiffar woman approaches. “Healing, I assume.”
Someone in need of a lot of healing, if the Force called Fay here, Agen thinks. He wouldn’t want to be whatever sorry bastard needed so much help that the greatest Healer in all of Jedi history had to attend to them herself.
Vader—Anakin, Anakin, because he has his name back, because his son forgave him and gave him back something he hadn’t even thought was lost—tries to take a rattling breath, but the suit is failing. Has failed already, maybe; his lungs ache, and the sun above burns his eyes. He stares up at it, trying to see, but—
Only one sun. He’s had nightmares about dying on Tatooine. Even if he’s suffocating slowly, it’s a far better death than that would have been.
More deserved, too.
Anakin closes his eyes, breath rattling, able to feel the slow creep of a death that’s long overdue washing over him. He doesn’t know how he came to be here—Luke seemed too kind to strand him on a planet to die under the elements.
Leia would have, maybe. She has his temper.
Too little and far too late, Anakin smiles. Feels his lips crack, but doesn’t care.
Palpatine is dead, and Anakin made the right choice for once in his life.
The laugh that rises cracks, breaks, shatters as it escapes him, but he can't help it. So many years spent in denial, so sure that there was no meaning left to anything, that the only cause left to him was to bring all of known space under his control, and in those last few moments, Luke gave him everything back. A reason, a cause, something to break through the darkness. Luke made a choice, the same one Anakin should have made decades ago, and there was nothing left for Anakin to do but honor that by making the same choice.
And he did. He made the right choice. Turned his back on the Darkness that had been his life, embraced the Light as he died. Saved his son, his daughter. Broke the hold of the Empire on the galaxy.
It’s a good way to die, knowing that, no matter the circumstances.
Then, light, soft on the rocky ground, there comes a step.
“Well now,” a woman says, and Anakin has nothing left in him, but he manages the faintest turn of his head. Just enough to catch sight of white robes in an impossibly familiar style. A Sephi woman stands over him, looking like a Jedi. Looking like a Jedi he would have hunted down and murdered even a handful of days ago. She’s small and lovely, with pale grey eyes and fair brown hair, and she isn't carrying a weapon.
Easy kill, something in Vader—in Anakin whispers, and he chokes it down with a fury he’d thought he could only turn on other people.
“Go,” he rasps, barely a word at all. “Go.” It’s right that he dies here, after what he did. He destroyed the Republic, brought it down in his grief and anger, and—
There’s no forgiving that. Luke would have, but he can't.
“As it happens,” the woman says, and comes closer, until she’s standing right over him, “I take my orders from a greater source than one man. No matter what that man has done.” Kneeling down, she looks him over, and then says, “I've been waiting three days for you to appear.”
Most certainly a Jedi. Anakin wants to laugh, but only manages a dry croak. “Kill…” he rasps.
“No,” she says, soft. “Not to kill you. You have already destroyed yourself more thoroughly than anyone else would be able to.”
Anakin doesn’t flinch, but only because he can't.
The woman inclines her head, like she’s accepting his response. “You know it as well as I do,” she says. “The Force is granting you a second chance, calling me to you.”
The Force? After everything, after so many years and lives and all the terror? The Force would give him a second chance? It's almost enough to make Anakin laugh.
Grey eyes soften faintly, and the woman leans over him, her hair just brushing the plastoid of his shattered suit. “It is,” she repeats. “I can't make you take it, but I hope you will.” Delicately, she reaches down, finds the catches on his suit like she’s the one who built it, and before Anakin can even think to protest, she pulls the chestplate loose.
Anakin gasps, jolts. Feels, in his chest, his damaged heart shudder into convulsions.
The woman’s expression doesn’t waver. With deft hands, she twists her hair up into a knot, then presses her fingers to his chest and breathes out.
“This will take some doing,” she says, as brisk as any Healer in a temple ward once, so long ago. “And very little of it will be comfortable for you. Please bear with it.”
Anakin wants to protest, wants to demand to know who she is. Wants to know why she’s helping and what she wants, and where he is, but—
Darkness swims before his eyes, wavers. His heart is racing, too fast, and he can't breathe—
And then, like a miracle, he can.
The shock of it drives his eyes open, makes him stare up at the woman. All around her, curled in her veins and woven into her skin, is a power unlike any he’s felt before. She burns, in the Force, like a thing of pure sunlight.
There’s no way Vader would have missed her presence. No possible way he could have, even if she’d secreted herself away in the center of a Force nexus.
He can feel it. His heartbeat is slowing, and for the first time since Mustafar he takes a full breath, lungs expanding. The constant pain of the cybernetics fades, slow and steady, under a wash of Force-healing that should be entirely impossible.
“What?” Anakin whispers, and the cracks in his lips close. The strain in his throat eases until he actually sounds human again.
The woman hasn’t moved. Her eyes are narrowed, focused, but she flicks a glance up to catch his gaze. Says, plain, “I’m going to save your life, because it’s what the Force tells me to do. And I trust the Force.”
Jedi, Anakin thinks. Wants to laugh, or maybe his eyes are burning from something besides the brightness of the sun above.
He stares up at it, bewildered, as the Jedi Healer stitches him back together in the red dust. The Force in her is a star, a supernova, so tightly wound into her being that Anakin can't tell where one ends and the other begins. And—
All the damage. All the implants, all the injuries. All the things that no Sith power could ever heal entirely, she reverses. One by one, she undoes each piece of his armor, lays her hands against bared skin, and erases the marks of time and experimentation and his betrayal of his best friend. Takes them away, careful, precise, like a scalpel carving out past sins, like time is rewinding itself.
“The Force told you?” he whispers, scared of his own voice, as she carefully pulls off his gauntlet. The mechanical limb comes off next, and she gently sets it aside, one hand always resting against his skin.
“Yes,” she says after a long moment, and her mouth is a straight line, stubborn, set. Steady as a mountain, and she feels much the same as she spreads her fingers over once-melted skin. Anakin sucks in a sharp breath as the flesh reforms, but there’s no satisfaction in her face, just…
Duty. This is a duty for her. Because she knows.
She must see his expression twist, because her next breath is quiet, almost reproving. “The Force works in ways we can't know,” she says. “I was led here, to you. I've never taken a life, and there's only one thing that you could require from me. And I choose.” She leans over him, and the edge of that vast power is bleeding out of her, right into his body. “I choose to believe that you feel as much regret as it seems that you do, Sith.”
“Jedi,” he whispers, and she smiles.
“Yes,” she agrees, and leans in, cupping her hands around his face. “As you were, once.”
I am a Jedi, like my father before me.
Anakin closes his eyes, and there are tears slipping hot and wet down his face, even as she heals him. Hears the echo of it, his son’s voice so calm and brave, standing before the Emperor.
I am a Jedi, like my father before me.
As you were, once.
It’s been so long, but—
Once upon a time, very far away, that was true, wasn’t it? And maybe it will never be again, after everything Anakin has done, but it’s the foundation that he built himself upon.
I was a Jedi once, he thinks, and for the first time since everything fell apart, it doesn’t taste of rage and pain.
Light, instead, and hope, as bright as sunlight.
Anakin breathes in, breathes out.
He’s always made the wrong choice. Always done the wrong thing. But he killed Palpatine. He saved his children. And maybe, if he tries, this can be another chance to make the right decision, even after everything.
When he wakes, the pain is gone.
Not just the pain that was killing him, the feeling of a body shutting down. All of the pain, the injuries and augmentations that have been with him for decades now, that have required the constant use of a bacta tank since he first put on the suit. The absence is bewildering; he’d entirely forgotten what a lack of pain was like.
Slowly, Anakin opens his eyes, staring up at the darkened sky. The edge of a planet is visible, glowing aquamarine on the horizon, and beyond it a nebula cascades color across the sky. He can breathe, deep and easy, and there’s nothing covering his face. No mask, no helmet, nothing mechanical, and the relief of it is a weight all its own.
Carefully, gingerly, he shifts, and when that doesn’t bring any new pain with it, he rolls over on his side, gets a hand underneath himself. The limb is still mechanical, but the port doesn’t ache, responds to stimulus with a speed it never has before, and he pauses, staring down at it. It feels…real, almost. Like the nerve connections have finally corrected themselves, even when Palpatine’s best doctors and all of Anakin's own tinkering couldn’t make them.
“The Force is a mighty thing, but even I can't regrow limbs in species that don’t have the skill naturally,” a voice says, making him twitch in surprise. Quickly, he pushes up, rolling onto one knee—
And he can. His limbs answer just like they would have when they were flesh, and there’s no answering shock of pain. For a moment, Anakin is too surprised by that to react, and it takes him a second to lift his head and look up.
The Sephi Jedi is sitting on a rock a short distance away, her legs crossed under her and her hands resting on her knees. A meditation pose, Anakin thinks, and looks her over more carefully. She’s still just as vividly present as she was before, still so clearly and obviously a Jedi that it’s almost shocking. Surely anyone who sees her realizes that, and the fact that no one has ever tried to report her to the empire is bewildering. Even if she’s some sort of Healer, surely there are enough self-serving people in the galaxy that someone would have told the Inquisitors.
“You got the nerves to connect,” Anakin says after a moment, because how have I not killed you yet seems like a bad thing to start a conversation with.
Even for a Sephi, the woman seems ageless, and the faint curl of a smile just makes her look more so. “It’s a clever bit of engineering. All it needed was a little bit of healing to align things.”
Of course, Anakin thinks, and wants to close his eyes. Decades of Sith magics, of trying to use the power of the Dark Side to heal, and the fix was the Force as the Jedi know it. So simple. So ironic he could cry, knowing why he fell for Palpatine’s manipulations to begin with.
Padmé would hate him. Would hate what he did so much, and in all the years of chasing her ghost Anakin never paused to consider that. Couldn't, or it all would have fallen apart around him.
“You saved me,” he says, rough, and doesn’t add why because it should likely be implied.
The woman inclines her head, the light of the nebula casting strange shadows across her face and pulling the tattoos above her eye and on her cheek in odd ways. “I told you. The Force led me here for a reason, and I was hardly about to deny it what it wanted.”
“Who are you?” Anakin asks, bewildered. For a Jedi to be so open, to still follow the will of the Force so readily even in the days of the Empire—
“Master Fay,” the woman says. “And you, Sith?”
The name sounds vaguely familiar, but Anakin can't recall where he heard it, or when. Maybe the Empire does have some record of her, or maybe it’s something Palpatine was keeping from him. With a frown, he tries to remember where he heard of her, but—
She wants a name. Anakin doesn’t know which one to give her.
Darth Vader is easy, something she’s sure to know without pause. It’s not entirely true anymore, though. Vader was a mask and a suit and the Emperor’s right hand, his fist. Luke killed Vader, even though he never so much as raised a weapon to him in the end. Anakin Skywalker is another possibility, but—everything Anakin once was died when he followed Palpatine down into the darkness and didn’t even try to look back.
“Vader,” he finally settles on, because it’s true enough. There's no erasing what happened, and the name Palpatine gave him once has become his in a bitter, warped way. Anakin Skywalker is Darth Vader, but Darth Vader is not Anakin Skywalker, and Anakin now isn't who he was before. He’s older, hopefully wiser with the knowledge of his mistakes so close and heavy in his chest, and he can't go back.
Fay inclines her head, allowing the hesitation without comment. She doesn’t react to the name at all. “No lingering aches?” she asks, sweeping a look over him.
“None,” Anakin says, and curls his hand again, just to be able to feel it. Sensation is a muted thing, but—it’s been so long since he felt anything in his limbs that it’s almost overwhelming. “You—how did you do that?”
That makes her smile, quick and maybe a little sly. “I’ve had five hundred years to practice,” she says, amusement a warm thing in her voice. “Some skills simply need time to hone them.”
Even for a Sephi, that’s long-lived, and she still looks young. Anakin frowns, studying her, and asks, “You…use the Force to keep yourself alive?” That’s far closer to immortality than Sidious ever got, certainly, and the irony has teeth. Sidious turned to the Dark to grow his power and live forever, and here in the Light Anakin's found the most powerful Force-user, impossibly long-lived and still youthful.
Sidious would turn in his grave, if he had one. The thought makes Anakin want to smile.
“I ask for nothing from the Force,” Fay says, perfectly calm. “It sustains me regardless.” Uncurling from her pose, she slides off the rock and straightens, shaking the sleeves of her robe down. For a long moment, she just watches Anakin, and then she says, “You have long roads left to travel, Vader.”
Anakin breathes out, slow, resigned. “I know,” he says, because it’s one thing to turn on the Emperor he served, but—at the very least, it’s a start.
“Good.” Fay steps closer, leaning down to cup his face between her hands again. Her pale eyes are the only thing about her that matches her age, ancient and steady like the mountain Anakin compared her to before. “The first step of a journey is acknowledging that it’s needed.”
She’s still a sun. Anakin closes his eyes, and—Sidious was gleeful over Anakin's power for destruction, forever and always. But this—this is something different. Creation, maybe. It’s warm, and it doesn’t burn against Anakin's skin.
“How have you been able to hide for so long?” he asks before he can help himself, because the urge to know outweighs any sort of sense. Her power makes Yoda’s seem like a candleflame held up against a star.
Fay laughs, soft and throaty. “No one comes to the Outer Rim. Temple Jedi hardly know where to start looking, even if I make myself obvious.” Letting go of him, she straightens, as though her answer made any sense at all, and steps away. “The nearest town is just over the horizon, to the south,” she says, and then a thoughtful expression crosses her face. “You might find something interesting there, if you go looking.”
Anakin frowns, watching her retreat a pace. “You’re leaving?” he asks. “Not going to turn me in?” The Rebellion would likely reward her handsomely, after all, and he’s sure Leia in particular would take advantage of it to have him tried, at the very least. It would be justified, too.
“I haven’t spoken to the Council, with one notable exception, in over a hundred years,” Fay says, too amused for those words. Anakin and Sidious killed the Council. There are none of them left. “The Force guides me, Vader. It brought me here, and now it leads me away.” She glances up, towards the nebula, and smiles a little. “Towards Kirdo, I think.”
“Council,” Anakin repeats, careful, trying to work out her meaning. Was he missing something all these years? But he can't have; if there was still a Jedi Council, he would have heard rumors. They would have trained Luke, not left him half-taught.
Not that Obi-Wan failed. If anything, Obi-Wan did better by Luke than Anakin would have thought was even remotely possible.
Fay just hums, though, and pulls her cloak off, draping it over Anakin's shoulders. Stepping back, she stands there for a long moment, surveying him, and then folds her hands into her wide sleeves and inclines her head, an almost holy image in the brilliance of her power, backset against the nebula. She looks so entirely like a Jedi from the tales Anakin heard as a child, whispered between slaves, that it almost takes his breath away. Jedi just like her were the heroes, always, and—
Anakin killed them. Hated them, hunted them, did such terrible things—
“May the Force be with you, Vader,” Fay says. She doesn’t bow, doesn’t pause; turns away, in the opposite direction of the town, and starts walking. Anakin doesn’t try to call her back; he doesn’t know what words he would use, or what questions he would ask if he managed it. Doesn’t know what Fay would answer, either, or whether she would make sense if she did. That almost sounded—
But it couldn’t be. Anakin swallows. He destroyed the Jedi. The only one left is Luke, and that’s solely Anakin's doing.
Drawing Fay's cloak around his shoulders, he carefully rises to his feet, testing the motion before he commits, but his limbs hold him without trouble, react even better than they should. There’s no pain in the connection points, and Anakin rubs at them, a little bewildered by it. He expects—
But Fay repaired every other part of his failing body, and didn’t even seem tired by the effort. This probably shouldn’t be a surprise.
Walking around in nothing but her robe is going to be interesting, Anakin thinks, resigned to it. She’s a good bit shorter than him, and very slim, and the fit is…awkward. But the only other option is his suit, and there’s no way he’s putting any piece of it back on his body. Nothing could force him to, at this point; it’s been his prison for decades, only tolerated because it kept him alive, and he hates it.
He leaves it where it lies, taking only his lightsaber, and turns his feet south instead. The red plain is rocky, dotted with scrubby grass and stunted, twisted trees, and the wind moans across the surface, but at least it’s warm. At least it’s not a desert.
Anakin is alive when the only thing he expected was death, so he’ll take it.
Fay's words itch at him, though. They sit off-center, wrong, like she doesn’t know about the Empire and the Purge and all the remaining Jedi being hunted down and slaughtered. But even in the depths of the Outer Rim, there’s no way to have missed something like the Empire’s rise. There’s no way she’s just out of touch. And yet she spoke as if she could turn around and comm the Council, and they would answer immediately. As though she’d met one of their number, when Anakin knows that they're all most definitely dead. Obi-Wan was the only survivor, and—
If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
The grief is a sharp thing, but it rises in tandem with a worn-edged, reluctant amusement. Only Obi-Wan could have made his own death so dramatic with one line.
Anakin had had the thought, privately, as he stood there, that it was fitting Obi-Wan had gone out as he lived—dramatically, with a sharp retort, leaving a discarded cloak for someone else to pick up for him.
Still. If there was any sort of Council in existence, Anakin would have heard. The Empire had enough spies to fill several systems’ worth of planets, and they never reported any such thing. Ruthlessly, viciously, grimly, Anakin crushes down the seed of hope and forces himself to think logically.
There’s no mitigating what he’s done. He simply has to accept that.
Maybe it’s because the thought of Obi-Wan is so close, and that always brings back the thought of Obi-Wan in the last days of the Clone Wars. Or maybe it’s because this trek, naked except for a borrowed robe, tired and off-balance, is so reminiscent of some of the more disastrous missions during the Wars. Either way, the image of Cody rises in Anakin’s head, too vivid, almost gutting. It makes him stumble, stomach turning, and he has to close his eyes against the sudden nausea. With the thought of Cody comes the thought of all the rest of the clones, the Purge, the chips—
He could never look Cody in the face, afterwards. Not that he had to often. The clones stopped taking their helmets off unless they had to, stopped using names, went by their numbers instead. It was so much easier, then, to forget what they had been, and simply accept what Order 66 made them into.
With the rapid aging, there are only a handful left now, and they’re all old men. But Anakin thinks, for one mad moment, about going to Kamino, finding the transmitter that controls the chips, deactivating all of them—
It’s useless, though. Palpatine already used them, discarded them. Twisted them into something like slaves, and Anakin feels fury sink its claws into his lungs, as hot as Mustafar and sharp enough to rip him to shreds.
I’m sorry, he thinks, though there’s no one left to say it to. Cody is dead. Rex is doubtless dead. And all the rest are, too.
He killed some of them himself. Remembers, too sharp, too clear, the snap of Fox’s neck under his power, the way his body fell limp. Remembers stepping over him, viciously pleased that he had suffered, and has to fight down the urge to gag.
He did that. Luke forgave him, but—who can forgive that?
The sight of the town rising from the red dust is an unspeakable relief.
Anakin doesn’t bother trying to hide. All anyone knows of Darth Vader is his suit, his helmet, and those are discarded on the prairie, where with any luck the dust will cover them forever. An ignoble end, and fitting.
Wherever he is in the Outer Rim, this is clearly a prospector’s town; Anakin recognizes some of the old, patched equipment, the particular slant of suspicion on people’s faces as he passes. No one stops him, though, and the handful of people out in the night seem perfectly content to mind their own business. He moves like he has a purpose, doesn’t meet any gazes, and skims the handful of thoughts he can reach as he passes. Gets only basic thoughts about the day’s work, or personal issues, and—
That’s surprising. Surely news of the Emperor’s fall would have reached the moon already—it happened here in the Outer Rim, and even if not much time has passed, the loss of both Palpatine and Darth Vader, not to mention the Death Star, would have crippled the leadership. The Rebellion was perfectly poised to capitalize on their victory, too. They would have spread the news as fast as comm transmissions could travel.
Regardless of the logic, though, no one is thinking about Sidious’s death, or the Rebellion's victory. It rouses a thread of suspicion, an unsettled weight that sits in Anakin’s stomach like a stone. Something is wrong, he’s sure of it, but he can’t tell what that thing is.
It’s a peaceful, quiet town. Nothing is stirring. And yet Anakin feels like the whole galaxy has twisted five centimeters to the side, leaving him ever so slightly off balance.
There’s an inn on the small main street that runs down towards the spaceport, but there’s a cantina as well, and Anakin makes for that rather than trying to find lodgings. He has no credits, and while a mind trick would be enough to get him a room, the urge to dig at the unsettled feeling is too great to ignore. The Force is itching at him, more strongly than it has in years, and while some of that might be a reaction to Fay’s healing, he’s not sure it all is. Luke’s influence, maybe—the Force has been clouded by the Dark Side since well before the Republic fell, and Anakin has grown used to it, but it doesn’t make it any easier to see through, even for one using the Dark Side.
This, though—this feels like it used to, when he was first learning at the Temple. Steady, ever-present, bright. It’s easier to breathe than even his repaired lungs can account for, and Anakin puts that down to the new lightness with certainty.
There’s a spill of light from the cantina, but only a low murmur of voices, not many beings present. When Anakin steps through the door, hood carefully pulled up over his face as a precaution, he can count the patrons on two hands with fingers left over. A pair of prospectors are seated by the back wall, with more at the bar and another three scattered through the central tables. And—
In the far back of the cantina, alone at a table, there’s a figure Anakin recognizes.
Anakin freezes, confusion scattering across sheer disbelief. He stares, not entirely able to believe his eyes, but—
Those are Jedi robes. The man is a Zabrak, dark-skinned with a fall of long black hair that reaches the middle of his back, with a scattering of small, dotted tattoos stretching across his cheek, over the bridge of his nose, and up the horn Anakin can see. He’s focused on his meal, single-minded, and Anakin knows him.
The last time he saw Agen Kolar, though, his body was being carried out of the Chancellor’s office, a lightsaber wound gaping in his chest. There’s no possible way he survived that. There’s no possible way Palpatine would have missed him still being alive.
Even more than that, this Agen Kolar is still dressed like a Jedi. He’s wearing a lightsaber on his belt, obvious to anyone who looks at him, and the robes are unmistakable. The very way he holds himself is unmistakable; this isn’t a man in hiding, this is a Jedi in the aftermath of a mission.
Suddenly, Anakin thinks, dazed, Fay’s words make slightly more sense.
Carefully, deliberately, Anakin steps back out of the cantina, slips around the side of the building. Stops there, breathing carefully, and tries to tell himself that it’s not possible. Whatever he thinks, it can’t be real.
There’s a Twi’lek passing, dressed in dusty leathers with a child tucked in the crook of her arm. Unable to resist, Anakin takes three long steps to intercept her, and says, “Excuse me, can I ask you something?”
Wary, she pauses, cocking her head as she looks him over. “Quickly,” she says. “I’m expected elsewhere.”
Anakin nods, accepting that. “How long has the Jedi been here?” he asks.
The woman snorts, shifting her child slightly. The curl of her lekku is amused. “That one? About three cycles. Took out the slaver camp out in the desert a day before that, then wandered in and took care of the stragglers.”
Not hiding, then. Not hiding at all. Anakin nods, and says, “Do you know how long he’s going to be here?”
The Twi’lek hums. “Zuri was saying he’s paid for another two nights at the inn,” she says. “Looking to make an impression?” The flick of her eyes takes in Fay’s too-short robe, which falls just below Anakin’s knees.
Anakin feels his face get hot, a reaction he hasn’t had to deal with in decades, and can’t even regret it. “I escaped the slavers,” he says, because it’s a good enough excuse. “The other Jedi, she told me to come here.”
Immediately, the Twi’lek’s posture eases. “Oh,” she says, frowning. “You’re lucky she found you. There’s a storm coming. You’re going to need more clothes than that, when it hits.” Pausing, she considers her daughter for a moment, then says, “This way, then. My partner’s Togruta, he probably has something that will fit you.”
Anakin swallows. He’d…forgotten. Kindness, the willingness to help other beings. He hasn’t personally seen such a thing in so long that it almost didn’t occur to him that it could happen, that it wasn’t outright weakness beneath a thin veneer. “Thank you,” he says, and realizes suddenly, starkly, that he didn’t thank Fay for saving his life.
He didn’t even think to.
“We all have to help each other out here,” the woman says, and turns, leading Anakin down a row of small, square houses made out of reddish-brown stone. “Those slavers never did anything good for anyone, besides. I’m Ari.”
“Bly,” he says after a moment, because all he can think of when he looks at her is Aayla, steady and lighthearted and warm. She died at the hands of her clone troopers, right at the start of the Purge, and—
Anakin never asked Commander Bly anything about it, but. But he’d heard him, a time or two, saying that she got what she deserved, and it had always left him viciously, darkly pleased, because he’d heard the rumors. They’d been in love, or headed that way, and after Padmé, Anakin had been so furious at the idea that love could even exist if it ended like his had that he’d been all too glad to know someone else’s had ended in tragedy too.
Aayla, who had been a slave, who had been rescued by Quinlan, who was bright and happy and brave and dead at her lover’s hands. Bly, steadfast and stalwart, clever and reliable, who was the one who killed her and believed he’d done a good thing. A fitting tragedy for two people who dared to try and be happy, he’d thought.
Now, remembering his own reaction makes him sick.
Luke reminded him. Brought to light all the things Anakin once was, and all the things he should have been, and all the things he wasn’t. He looked like Padmé, standing there in the halls of the Emperor’s ship, chin raised, shoulders squared. Not Padmé after everything, fighting Anakin's grip on her throat, but—Padmé as Queen Amidala, taking back her planet. Padmé at her best, when Anakin fell in love with her. And that—
That was everything, just for a moment. Everything Anakin needed to see the paths before him, the paths behind him, and finally understand.
“Well, it’s good to meet you, Bly,” Ari says, and when her daughter fusses faintly, she quiets her. “And this little one is Jeza.” At the plain door of one of the houses, she punches in a code, then ducks in, waving for Anakin to follow her. “Oram?”
A man calls an answer from the upper portion of the house, and Ari snorts. “Can you bring down some spare clothes?” she calls back, and offers Anakin a smile. “Just a moment, sorry, Bly.”
“I appreciate it,” Anakin says awkwardly. “Uh. Is there any chance you can tell me the date?”
A touch of ruefulness crosses Ari’s face. “Not a lot of reason for slavers to keep you apprised of the galactic calendar,” she says. “Of course.”
And then she tells him. At this point, Anakin's almost expecting her answer, but—
That doesn’t make finding out he’s almost thirty years in the past any easier, honestly. The date rings in Anakin's head for a long, long moment, and he feels like he’s been frozen to the floor.
Nearly thirty years. Somewhere out in the world, a twelve-year-old Anakin Skywalker is studying lightsaber techniques. A twenty-eight-year-old Obi-Wan is teaching him. The Clone Wars are years away, and Sheev Palpatine only just took overt control of the Galactic Senate.
"Bly?" Ari asks, concerned, and steps closer, like she's worried she's going to have to catch him when he faints.
“I think,” Anakin says, bewildered, reeling, “that I need to sit down.”
The moon’s regular dust storms are infamous to anyone who's spent time here, howling across the surface in waves. Agen has been eyeing the approach of the next one, because he’ll need to book passage off the moon before it hits, and it falls a little too close to the end of Fay's imposed rest period for comfort. If he can't leave before the storm covers the hemisphere, he’ll be stuck in this town for a solid week, or he’ll have to find a rebreather somewhere and walk outside of the storm’s range, and neither option is appealing.
There is, of course, the option of leaving early, but—Agen gave Fay his word, and she usually has a reason for whatever she asks of him. If she really cared so much about him staying on the moon for five more cycles, he’ll wait it out, and deal with things as they come. Walking to the next spaceport won't be pleasant, but it’s certainly possible.
There are doubtless more missions waiting for him at the Temple, once he reports in, too, but Agen has another goal in mind. As a member of the council, he has slightly more leeway to pursue it, which is a pleasant change. Normally, his contact with Jon Antilles is scattered, taken in his own personal time between missions or during his recoveries, but—now, technically, it’s a Council member making contact with a nomadic Jedi, and that’s a wholly reasonable thing to do. Antilles usually has good information about the state of things in the Outer Rim, and he has the most interesting targets, as well.
Last time nearly ended in disaster, but it’s possible that Agen shouldn’t have tried to help him take out a small fleet of pirates known for attacking settler ships while both of them were injured and massively outnumbered. Antilles thought it was a good time, though, and Agen certainly didn’t disagree.
Checking the time, Agen considers taking another walk around the outskirts of the town once he finishes his caf, or maybe heading back towards the slavers’ base and seeing if any more of them have wound up there, but that’s probably too close to breaking Fay's orders. Waiting for them to attack him is one thing, but going looking for them is bending his word, and Agen refuses to do that. He does consider comming Master T’ra, since she’s not on the Council, but—
Hearing about his meeting with Fay will make her sad. And beyond that, she won't be overly happy with the tactics he used to take out the slavers. Which is pointless, because it was successful, and Agen would have survived even if Fay hadn’t turned up. Zabraks are hard to kill. It just…would have been more unpleasant.
Moodily, Agen stirs a little more sweetener into his caf, hoping to make it palatable, and leans back in his chair, stretching his legs out and crossing his boots at the ankle. Being stuck in one place is irritating. If Antilles is nearby, playing cat and mouse with Cad Bane, Agen wants to find him. No bounty hunter is a match for Jon Antilles, so it’s not as if he needs help, but two Jedi will have even less of a problem. And then Agen can see what else has brought Antilles to this sector. It’s always something interesting.
If he comms the Temple for information on Bane’s location, he’ll be obligated to report in, and he promised Fay he’d wait. Instead, Agen taps out a message to one of his more reliable sources on Nar Shaddaa, asking her to look into Bane’s recent jobs, and then finishes his caf and sets his cup aside. The Rodian behind the bar, who hadn’t looked impressed when Agen asked for caf instead of something harder, eyes him suspiciously, but Agen ignores them. Considers meditating, or finding a quiet place to run through his katas, but he has two more days to waste here and he’s in no hurry.
Sudden, unexpected, a shadow falls over his table.
Interest flickers for just a moment. This is how his last three fights started, and if another slaver wants to take offense at his presence, Agen's more than happy to indulge him. Agen lifts his head, glancing up to find a tall Human man standing over him, dressed in worn clothes. He’s probably in his thirties, with a faint stubble of hair growing in across his shaved skull, and—
In the Force, all Agen can feel is shadow.
Dark, Agen thinks, even as the yellow eyes register. He’s moving on instinct before he can even think to react, lightsaber leaping to his hand with a thought, and he spins up out of his chair as the green blade ignites.
A red one catches it in the air between them, and Agen says furiously, “Sith.”
“I'm not here to fight,” the Sith says, loud, but his blade shoves back hard, with more strength than Agen expects. Taking the retreat, Agen leaps back, then shoves out a hand, and yellow eyes go wide half an instant before he’s thrown back, right through the open doorway of the cantina. Agen follows, twisting his blade in his hand, and emerges into the sunlight just as the Sith rises to his feet.
“A new apprentice?” Agen asks coolly, because as much as he wants to press, to attack, he has a duty to the Council to learn what he can. Maul gave them little, but this time—this time Agen won't let a chance slip between his fingers. “Where is your Master, Sith?”
The Sith scowls at him, grip tightening on the hilt of his lightsaber. “You’re worried about my Master when I'm right in front of you?” he asks, and there's a trace of offense in his voice.
Agen tips his head, studying the Sith's stance, his posture, the way he holds his sword. Judging the strength of the blow that stopped his first sword-stroke, and weighing the combination. “I'm the better swordsman,” he says, plain truth rather than boasting. “You will fall just as Maul did.”
The response catches the Sith off guard; he pauses, eyes narrowing, and then says like he’s testing Agen, “You think you could have beaten Maul if you were on Naboo?”
Agen frowns at him. “There’s no use hoping to change the past,” he says, and glances sideways, to where bricks are stacked near a building that’s being repaired. With a lift of his hand, they rise, and the Sith's eyes flicker to them, then back to Agen.
The Sith mutters something that Agen can't quite catch, but he thinks he hears at least one idiot Jedi in there. “Look,” he says. “I’ll spend the next hour grinding your face into the dust if you want, Kolar, but I'm not here to fight.”
The words strike him as odd, and Agen pauses, frowning. Looks the Sith over once more, then lets his sense of the minds around them spread, and catches only the familiar presence of those living here. The Sith is alone, and he could have attacked while Agen was unaware of his presence. It might not have been enough to kill Agen outright, but—it would have put him off balance.
“Are you here to surrender?” Agen asks suspiciously, narrowing his eyes at the Sith.
The expression of offense that crosses the man’s face is almost comical. “No!” he snaps, then pauses. Looks from Agen to his red lightsaber, then back to Agen, and there’s something warring on his face, something that Agen can’t read. Finally, his expression pulls into a deep grimace, and he says grudgingly, “Not…surrender. But I'm here to talk about terms.”
Agen scowls. “The Jedi will never bargain with the Sith,” he says, disgusted at the very idea. “You seek power in the Dark Side, through suffering and fear. There is nothing in that the Jedi will accept.”
Just for a moment, the Sith's expression twists. “I know that,” he says, and his voice is raw. The weight of it gives Agen pause, almost makes him hesitate, but before he can say anything, the Sith says, “Look, I'm just—I know what the Sith are, and I think it’s wrong. I don’t want what my Master wants.”
That’s not what Agen was expecting to hear. Startled, he lowers his lightsaber slightly, still on guard, but—trying to work things out. It’s mildly aggravating; fighting is so much easier. “You're not a Sith?” he asks sharply.
The man hesitates, looking like he’s turning the question over. “I don’t know,” he says finally. “I'm still Dark, but—I was a Jedi, once.”
“A Jedi wouldn’t become a Sith,” Agen says, sharp. “No Jedi would let themselves fall so far.”
The man’s mouth twists, rueful, angry. “Maybe most of them wouldn’t,” he says, “but I did.”
Agen feels the echoes, even through the Darkness. Shame, pain, a net of fear and anger weighted with grief, ready to drag anyone down. He stares, startled, for a long second, and—
A fall to the Dark Side. That’s what he’s sensing. The aftermath of it, and a lack of control and discipline that no Jedi would show, but—a fall, nevertheless. The Sith's shields are slipping. He’s angry right now, but beneath that, tangled up with grief, Agen can feel something else. Something brighter.
Desperation, Agen thinks. Desperation and the beating, burning light of hope, half-stifled but still alive in the midst of shadows.
Agen has never been a patient man. He would rather order enemies to stand down and then fight them until they do than engage in any sort of talks, and he has no time for niceties. But he’s a Jedi, and for all Master T’ra’s despair over his personality, there has never been anything that Agen has believed in so fervently as he does the Order's mission. Peace, and empathy, and an end to suffering wherever they can find a way, with help for those seeking it and a hand extended to those in need. Those are the tenants of being a Jedi, and Agen has never been anything else.
Deliberately, deftly, he lets the bricks settle back where they were, then turns his lightsaber off, clipping it to his belt, and straightens.
“You left,” he says, meeting unnerving yellow eyes, and knows it’s true. This Sith deserted his master, and managed to survive doing so. “Why?”
The Sith scowls at him. “I told you—I don’t want to rule the galaxy,” he says. “And that’s all Lord Sidious wants. But…” He hesitates, then swallows. “I don’t—want to be what he is. And if I use what he taught me to destroy him—”
He doesn’t finish, but he doesn’t need to. “The Dark Side is addictive,” Agen says, because he knows. Every Jedi has their encounter with the Dark, has to make the choice whether to give in or spend every day of their life resisting the temptation. Most choose to fight, or leave the Order entirely. But—it is a fight. Constant resistance, every time it would be easier just to give in and use the darker emotions for power. “If you were an apprentice in it, you spent years steeped in it. It is not so simple to rid yourself of those feelings.”
For a long moment, the Sith stares at him, like the words caught him off guard. Then, slowly, he turns off his red lightsaber, steps back. Rubs a hand over his face, like he’s trying to hide his expression, and says, “How would you know?”
Agen snorts, unimpressed. “Sith are not the only ones who have emotions,” he says. “Jedi feel just as deeply.” Considering the man, he turns over a thought for a beat, then asks abruptly, “Sidious is your master?”
“Was,” the Sith says sharply, but that’s agreement enough.
Agen grunts, frowning, and then asks, “Where is he?”
There's a pause that feels like incredulity. “Just like that?” the Sith asks, suspicious. “You're just—you believe me?”
“You're telling the truth,” Agen says, baffled, because he would have thought that was self-evident.
“Of course I am! But why do you believe that?” the Sith protests.
That makes no sense, and Agen huffs. “Well?” he asks.
The Sith groans, raising a gloved hand like he’s going to tangle his fingers in his hair and then stopping short. “I can't—you're a Jedi, you can't just—”
He doesn’t finish, and Agen frowns at him. “You know the Sith Lord,” he says severely, not sure where the problem is. “Tell me, and the Council will deal with him.”
“He has plans for that!” the Sith protests. “If you go to arrest him right now, he’ll spring one of his thousands of traps and burn the whole Jedi Order down. You can't.”
Miffed, Agen folds his arms across his chest. “Nothing can destroy the Jedi Order,” he says.
For a long, long beat, the Sith is silent. Then, swallowing, he raises his head, and meets Agen's eyes across the dusty street. “Sidious can,” he says. “I've seen it. In the future. The Jedi try to arrest him, and he wipes them out. Right down to the younglings. He’s been planning this for decades, Kolar. Whatever you do, he’s ready for it.”
Down to the younglings. Agen breathes through the fury that surges, an animal thing full of claws and fangs, and then inclines his head, quick, sharp. “All right,” he says. “You came here looking for me. What is your plan?”
The Sith grins, all teeth. “He thinks I'm dead,” he says. “I would be, but a Healer saved me.”
It can only be Fay. No wonder she wanted him to stay in the town. Agen blows out an aggrieved breath, because she could have commed and warned him, but accepts it grudgingly. Fay always does what she wants, and never lingers over things for long. “Fay is skilled,” he agrees, and considers the Sith. “You know his plans and can undercut them.”
“Yeah.” It’s a grimly satisfied exhale more than a word, but the Sith smiles thinly. “But I want him to face the Council. I want him to know that all his plans are gone, and he’s failed completely. So I'm going to break every last one of his plots and turn them against him.”
Revenge isn't the Jedi way. Then again, this is a Sith, so Agen keeps that to himself and just accepts the statement. Checks the time, and then says, “A ship leaves the spaceport in two hours. Let’s go.”
“What?” The Sith blinks at him. In no mood to wait, Agen turns on his heel and heads for the inn, and from behind him there's a curse. “Wait! Just like that? You're not going to turn me in? You're going to help?”
“You were a Jedi once,” Agen points out. “That puts you under my authority, as a Council member. If I go with you, it will be a mission overseen by the Council.” It’s the reasonable thing to do, especially if the Sith Lord has as much reach as the man implied he does. This is safer than comming the rest of the Council, and when they have sufficient proof, Agen can just bring them the evidence directly.
“That’s the worst logic I've ever heard,” the Sith says, somewhere between awed and horrified. “And this is me. How are you a Master? How are you on the Council?”
“My logic is fine,” Agen says, unimpressed, and pushes into the inn, heading up the stairs without pause. His cloak is the only thing he needs, and potentially unnecessary, but he tries his best not to lose it. Master T’ra used to make him work with the quartermaster whenever he did something reckless, and Agen saw just how many cloaks they went through. Which, potentially, wasn’t quite the lesson T’ra wanted him to take away from the work, but it means the quartermaster likes him more than most, so Agen is unbothered.
“Backup?” the Sith asks pointedly, following him up. “Maybe tell the Council where you’re going?”
Agen grunts, unlocking his room and collecting his cloak. He pulls it on, then pauses, eyeing the man’s yellow eyes, and asks, “You have a cloak?”
“Only Master Fay's, and I left it with the people who helped me.” The Sith frowns at him, looking exasperated. “Well?”
“Jedi don’t come to the Outer Rim often. Backup will take days to get here, and by then the dust storm will have hit,” Agen says. Besides, Fay isn't the only Jedi nearby, after all. “I know someone.”
“Okay,” the Sith says, doubtful. Agen ignores the tone, leaving the room, and the Sith follows him back outside. “You're just—going along with this? You don’t even know what I'm planning to do next.”
Agen frowns at him. “You told me. Upend the Sith Lord’s plans.”
The Sith stares at him, expression scrunched up. “You’re worse than Ahsoka,” he says, bewildered. “How?”
Agen has no idea what that means. “I'm a Jedi,” he says. “The Force hasn’t warned me that you're a danger. I listen to the Force.”
The Sith groans. “Kolar—”
That makes Agen pause. “Your name,” he says.
Hesitating, the Sith looks away, towards the spaceport ahead of them. “I—Vader,” he says. “It was—Darth Vader. But just Vader, now.”
Agen accepts that, inclining his head. “Trust in the Force, Vader,” he says, glancing up at the bright blue curve of the planet above them. “You were a Jedi once. You know how it touches us.”
Vader doesn’t have an answer to that, and Agen lets him have his silence. He simply leads the way to the spaceport, weighing what to say to the Council. In the end, he sends a quick transmission that says little more than that he’s found something requiring his immediate attention and leaves it at that. The rest of the Council knows his habits by now. They won't try to object.
More fortunately, his contact on Nar Shaddaa replies while they’re waiting for the freighter captain, providing a full accounting of Cad Bane’s last known location. Pleased, Agen sends her his normal thanks of a hefty fee and a bonus for her speed, then tells Vader, “We’re going to Dantooine.”
Vader frowns. “What’s on Dantooine?” he asks warily.
“Help,” Agen says. Antilles trusts Agen about as much as he trusts anyone, so there’s a good chance he’ll let Agen explain before he tries to take Vader's head off. And he’s one of the most powerful Jedi Agen knows. In a fight he’ll be invaluable, no matter what Vader needs to do.
A message from Master T’ra arrives right on the heels of his contact’s, and Agen studies it for a moment, frowning. She always has an instinct for when he’s about to do something dangerous. It’s almost unsettling.
“Problem?” Vader asks warily. “Is the Council ordering you back?”
“No,” Agen says, and deliberately switches off his comm. T’ra won't outright yell at him, but she’ll be very disapproving, and Agen would rather not upset her. This is a logical course of action, after all.
Vader is staring at him. Agen ignores it, because he doesn’t have the patience to figure out why, and goes to book them passage off the moon. The mission is more important.
Anakin doesn’t exactly have a lot of memories of Agen Kolar from before—he wasn’t on the High Council when Anakin first arrived at the temple, and he had already joined it when Obi-Wan was elected to an open seat. There were a handful of meetings in passing, a few missions near each other during the Clone Wars, but just about the only concrete recollection Anakin has of Agen is him somehow managing to produce four thermal detonators, a flash-bang grenade, and two incendiary charges from his robes in one single assault on a Separatist base.
Clearly, that should have been a warning sign.
He’d had their encounter all planned out. It wouldn’t be easy, he’d thought, but he’d use a Jedi's instinct to de-escalate conflicts in public areas, get Agen talking, get him to call a Council meeting. Then there would be lots of waiting, lots of talking, lots of arguing. They’d probably drag Anakin back to Coruscant, where he’d spin a story about trying to leave Sidious and almost getting killed in the process, and then proceed to give them as much evidence of Sidious’s identity as he could while keeping them from going after him directly. A headache, but manageable.
Anakin has absolutely no idea what to do with this, though.
The freighter they're on is a piece of junk, rattling enough that Anakin is mildly surprised it didn’t just break apart on liftoff. The captain had been more than willing to take them on, though, and Agen had immediately settled down in the cargo hold, leaning against a wall, and seemed to go to sleep. Like this is normal. Like he usually takes strange Sith at their word less than three years after Maul first showed up and killed Qui-Gon. Like it’s perfectly standard for a member of the High Council to finish a mission and disappear without telling anyone where he’s going, and trust a stranger just because he says he used to be a Jedi, and—
Kriffing Jedi, Anakin thinks, but it curls sharp and bright in his chest like regret. Like humor, maybe, and potentially like hope. Things got so bad, at the end, and Anakin hated them all so much that he’d forced himself to forget parts of who the Jedi were. And maybe Agen isn't a normal Jedi, but—
He knew right from the start that there would be some kind of help if he went to them. It might not have turned out well for him, in the end, but they would have given it, and trusted him for at least long enough to face Sidious.
Luke reminded him of that. There was nothing easy or immediate about his son’s forgiveness, but it came, and that made it precious. Made Anakin look at him, so bright in the Force, so willing to stay true to what he believed, even in the worst of circumstances.
I am a Jedi, like my father before me.
Anakin closes his eyes, breathes. The words are a touchstone, something he keeps coming back to again and again. Truth, in a way that rang through Anakin's soul. And—
The Dark Side is addictive. Said simply, bluntly, but with an edge of sympathy Anakin wouldn’t have looked for in a thousand years. An edge of understanding, equally as surprising, and then nothing else. No demand for Anakin to explain why he Fell, or what turned him back towards the light, or why he had different goals than Sidious. Just—belief.
It’s bewildering, but even so, Anakin feels steadier than he has in years.
If the Dark Side is addictive, he just has to resist. Control himself, not fall back into the kneejerk reaction of rage and pain every time he faces a problem. Draw power from control, not chaos. There are Jedi who have touched the Dark Side and gone back to being Jedi, and all of them were strong. Anakin can manage the same. He just has to try.
It’s worth trying for, having this chance.
“Kolar,” he says, over the hum of the engines, the faint rattle that hasn’t gone away even here. Someone needs to look at that.
“Yes?” Agen asks, still unmoving. He has his hands folded in his lap, well away from his lightsaber, and Anakin still can't entirely believe that he’s taking all of this so calmly. Obi-Wan would have tried to take his head off at least twice by now. But Agen is meditating.
Anakin suddenly sympathizes far more with all of Rex and Wolffe's mutters about idiot Jedi.
“The padawan Maul tried to kill,” he says, because with his memory of Obi-Wan disappearing on the Death Star so close, it’s all he’s been able to think about. This Obi-Wan is a new Knight, is caught up in training probably the most terrible padawan in the whole Order, and—the first time around, Anakin had been too preoccupied with his own troubles to notice how his Master was faring. He wants to know now, though. With the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see that Anakin might not have always been the easiest teenager to deal with. Palpatine had a lot to do with that, and the ego he consistently fed that made Anakin feel so good about his own skills and so desperate to prove himself, all at once.
When he glances up, Agen is watching him, dark eyes thoughtful. “Knight Kenobi, now,” he says. Then, bluntly, “If you want revenge against him, I will have to stop you.”
“No,” Anakin snaps, and—it’s almost familiar. Two Jedi on a mission, and the flare of indignation he hasn’t had to feel in so long. Darth Vader was all dark control and simmering rage and intimidation. No one invoked this kind of response except Leia, that one brief moment they were face to face. Agen isn't Obi-Wan, but—this situation is one Anakin would know concussed, half-dead, after crashing a ship. “I just want to know if he’s all right.”
Agen seems to take that at face value, inclining his head. “I'm usually in the Mid- or Outer Rim,” he says, “but I believe he is. Jinn’s death hit him hard, but he’s a good Jedi.”
The best Jedi, Anakin thinks ruefully, thumping the back of his head lightly against the bulkhead. Out of all of them, Obi-Wan survived, trained Luke, faced Vader. And through it all, he stayed the same, steady and sad and devoted to the ideals of the Jedi.
Once, the thought would have been derisive, angry. Now, Anakin doesn’t know how to feel.
“I'm glad,” he says, and means it. Then, because it seems as good a time as any, “Maul’s still alive.”
Agen scoffs, like this is unsurprising. “Zabraks are hard to kill,” he says. Anakin would have expected it to be proud, but it’s flat, just a statement of fact. Like when he told Anakin he was the better swordsman. It kind of makes Anakin want to prove him wrong, but saying Sidious killed you pretty easily last time around opens up way more questions than Anakin wants to answer. The better swordsman thing he can deal with later, if Agen's willing to spar. Anakin kind of hopes he will be. He might not know much about Agen beyond the basics, but no one can judge an opponent just like that. It has to be arrogance.
Before Anakin can make any accusations, though, Agen sits up a little straighter, tilting his head. “You need to meditate,” he says, frowning faintly.
“What?” Anakin scowls at him. “I'm fine.”
“You're anxious,” Agen counters bluntly.
“It’s an anxiety-inducing situation,” Anakin snaps. “And you're not helping.”
Agen looks entirely unimpressed. “So meditate with me and let me help,” he says.
Anakin swallows. If he closes his eyes, if he stops thinking, he’s going to start remembering. And right now, he can't. “No,” he says sharply.
“Hm.” Agen studies him closely for a moment, mouth pulled sideways in an expression that isn't quite a frown, and then inclines his head. He closes his eyes, straightening his back, and breathes out, and Anakin can hear the rhythm of his breathing change. Can feel the threads of emotion that make him up curl towards peace, and—
He can't help himself. He reaches out, brushing the very edge of Agen's thoughts.
He’s picturing the gardens in an unfamiliar Jedi temple. Something lush, brightly green and golden, full of flowers. It’s not silent; in the distance, Anakin can hear younglings laughing, the murmur of voices half-muffled by ancient stone.
Jedi, he thinks, and pulls away quickly. His eyes feel hot again, and there's an ache in his ribs like a bantha’s kick, a memory of the Coruscant temple too close, standing ready to pull him under.
All of those younglings Agen is imagining—Anakin had a hand in their deaths. Was their deaths, in so many cases. Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
“Peace, Vader,” Agen says, sudden enough to startle Anakin. He opens his eyes to find Agen watching him again, nothing on his face but steady patience. “You regret.”
“It’s not enough,” Anakin says, and there's no way he can put everything he’s done into words. No way Agen would do anything but try to kill him if he could.
Agen grunts, closing his eyes again. “No,” he agrees. “But what you do when driven by that regret—that matters.”
Doesn’t make up for it. He’s not going that far. But somehow, even just hearing that loosens the fist around Anakin's lungs, and he nods, any potential response all tangled up in his throat.
Apparently content with that, Agen slips back into his meditation. Anakin stares at him for a long moment, and then, like a moth drawn to a fire he knows will burn him, he brushes the edges of Agen's thoughts once more.
There’s a peace to them, despite the pain. Anakin breathes through the latter, and closes his own eyes, turning his attention to the rattling of the ship. Then, deliberate, he rolls to his feet and goes to talk to the pilot.
He might not be able to fix much, but at least he can fix that.
“Oh no,” T’ra says with resigned dismay, and opens her eyes.
It helps nothing at all that Stass, across from her, is already laughing, not even bothering to pretend to meditate. Her tendrils are shaking, and her eyes are bright with mirth as she sinks back into the grass of the Gardens of Meditation, amusement rippling off of her in waves.
“The only person in existence who makes you take that tone is Agen,” she says, giggling. “What has he done now, then?”
T’ra reaches for her communicator, already very sure what she’ll see. And, indeed, the message she sent Agen remains stubbornly unread, even though he must be finished with his mission by now. “I don’t know,” she says, and shakes her head, a few leaves fluttering loose. If she were Human, she’d accuse Agen of trying to make her lose her hair. “But whatever it is, I have a very bad feeling about it.”
Stass hums, rising to her feet and brushing down her robes. “Bad as in bad for the stability of Hutt space, or bad for your composure?” she asks.
“Yes,” T’ra says mournfully. She’s long since ceased trying to stop Agen whenever he gets one of his bullheaded ideas, and switched to trying to contain him instead. Sadly, now that he’s a member of the Council in his own right, it works even less well than it once did, and it was never one of T’ra’s most successful missions.
Stass laughs. She offers T’ra a hand, and says, “I was planning to meet Adi for lunch, if you’d like to join us, T’ra. She may at least know what sector Agen is in.”
“That I already know. He’s in whatever sector provides the most things to hit,” T’ra says, amused despite herself. Agen is her pride and joy, one of the best swordsmen the Order has ever seen, a fierce defender of those who need him, devoted to the Order in a way most other Masters could only hope to be, a kind man who lets nothing stop him. But he’s also a terror, and nothing will ever change that.
Stass grins at her, and when T’ra takes her hand, she pulls her up. “Cursed with troublesome padawans, Master Saa. Your life is one of trial indeed.”
T’ra laughs a little, carefully detaching her roots from the earth and letting them slide back into a more Human shape. “Mace was only ever half my padawan,” she says, “and half the trouble, besides.”
“Master Tholme’s padawan seems like he was an equal amount of trouble to Agen,” Stass observes, and T’ra falls into step with her as they head back towards the main part of the Temple.
“Quinlan?” T’ra tips her head, considering. “I suppose, though in a different way. Agen’s heart is always in the right place, now, but I believe sometimes Quinlan is…overwhelmed.”
“Like Mace,” Stass murmurs, smile wry. “Quinlan’s new padawan should ground him, though. She seems the sensible type.”
T’ra chuckles. “Aayla is a light and a wonder,” she agrees, “and Quinlan deserves every moment of her.” The number of times he’s already come banging on T’ra’s door with desperate questions and frantic worries does T’ra’s heart good; Quinlan cares deeply, always, but sometimes it’s harder for him to show it. Aayla reminds him well enough.
It does remind her, though, that she’s been intending to introduce Aayla to Obi-Wan’s new padawan. Anakin is a rough-edged boy, desperate to please but furious at himself for wanting to, and it seems that a warm, kind presence like Aayla might smooth out some of his jagged edges. Aayla needs more outlets for mischief, too; Quinlan could do with a few more heart attacks on a regular basis.
If she remembers correctly, they’re all in the Temple right now, even. Something to see to as soon as she speaks to Adi, perhaps.
“Plotting, Master?” Stass asks, amused, and as they round the corner she waves to her cousin. Adi raises a hand in return, making for them.
“Only for the good of the Order,” T’ra says benevolently, and smiles at Adi. “Master Gallia. Good afternoon.”
“Master T’ra.” Adi bows to her, perfectly polite. “How are you today?”
“Unsettled,” T’ra admits wryly. “Is there a chance the Council has heard from Agen of late?”
“Kolar?” Adi frowns faintly. “He commed us a few hours ago, saying he was looking into a matter in the Raioballo sector. Has something happened?”
Raioballo. The name makes T’ra frown, but—
Fay was in that sector, the last time T’ra heard anything about her. And while Agen would hardly shirk Council duties to meet with her, it’s a coincidence T’ra doesn’t much care for. Fay is usually in the midst of some kind of trouble, after all, even if it’s rarely of her own making.
Truly, it’s a shock that T’ra survived either of them, let alone traveling with Fay and raising Agen at the same time.
“No,” T’ra says deliberately. “Not yet, perhaps. But I think Agen is going to be in rather over his head soon.”
Adi raises a brow, but doesn’t try to argue. “Agen wouldn’t notice, even if he was,” she says, faintly amused. “Are you joining us for lunch, Master T’ra?”
“No, but thank you for the invitation,” T’ra murmurs, and bows to both Masters. “I think I had best meditate on this matter further.” And, potentially, plan her response to it; a whisper in the Force tells her that she might need to find him, and soon.
“It was a joy to see you again, Master T’ra,” Stass says merrily. “Good luck with your padawan.”
T’ra sighs, which makes Stass laugh and Adi crack a smile, and leaves them to their meal, heading back towards the training salle where Quinlan and Aayla usually are at this time of day.
Her worry isn’t because Agen is incapable. Far from it. T’ra trained him well, and he shows it, but—
He’s reckless, and blunt, and he has a tendency to take people at their word. If someone asks him for help, he’ll help, regardless of the difficulty or circumstances, and T’ra is just…concerned.
Fay would help him, if she knew he was nearby, but T’ra can’t reach her and has no way of knowing if Fay has even realized Agen is in the same sector. Once upon a time, that might have been an aggravation, but now T’ra just feels a trace of sadness. Fay is a wild thing, even for a Jedi, and T’ra—
Well. It’s been a very long time since she let herself grow wild. Trained to a trellis, Fay would call it once, teasing, but T’ra can't quite say she was ever wrong.
Firmly setting the old ache aside, T'ra keys open the door of the training salle and steps in, sweeping a look across the floor. There are a few pairs of Knights scattered across the wide space, Depa and her newly-Knighted padawan sparring near the center, Plo stretching by the far wall. The pair she’s looking for are closer to him, tucked back in a corner as they run through their own stretches, and T'ra has to smile at the sight of Quinlan carefully, gently pressing Aayla deeper into her stretch, looking like he’s concentrating intently.
No one would ever make the mistake of calling Quinlan gentle, but he’s kind. And, in T'ra’s book, that counts for just as much in the long run.
“Well now. Warming up or cooling down?” T'ra asks warmly as she approaches them, nodding to Plo in easy greeting. “Because if you're warming up I might have a little extra time on my hands for my favorite padawans.”
“There’s only one padawan here, and it’s not me,” Quinlan retorts. Under his hands, Aayla giggles, and he scowls at her. “Aayla, shut your mouth.”
“I wasn’t saying anything,” Aayla says cheerfully, and twists out of Quinlan's grip, up into a handstand, and then curls over to flop to the mats on her stomach, leaning on her elbows. “Master T'ra! We were just cooling down. Maybe you can come back and spar with us tomorrow, though. Master Quinlan gets boring.”
Quinlan hisses in immediate and soul-deep offense, and T'ra has to hide her smile. “I would enjoy that, Aayla,” she says, and sinks down to sit with them, crossing her legs under her. “Your mission went well? It looks like you're both in one piece.”
Aayla grins, the immediate and merry mischief of a girl who knows she can get away with anything eventually. “Master Quinlan fell off a building,” she says without hesitation.
“A small building,” Quinlan says pointedly, leaning back on his hands. He turns a scowl on Aayla, who beams in return, unbothered. “It was one small building and I was fine.”
“You landed on your back,” Aayla observes. “It wasn’t very graceful.”
With a growl, Quinlan grabs her discarded robe and tosses it over her head, then pins it there as she squawks and struggles. “Did you want something, Master T'ra?” he asks loudly, over the sound of her curses. They make T'ra raise a brow, because Aayla has a mouth like a deep-space trader and there's only one person she could have picked that up from.
Apparently realizing the direction of her thoughts, Quinlan flushes faintly and lets go, allowing Aayla to scramble out of the robe on her own. “Well?” he asks grumpily, crossing his arms over his chest, and is promptly hit by some thirty kilograms of padawan as Aayla launches herself at him with a cry. They go down to the sound of Quinlan's offended shout, and T'ra laughs as she leans back out of danger.
After a few moments of struggle, Quinlan emerges the victor, mostly by virtue of being able to pick Aayla up and toss her over his shoulder. She immediately twists around, flipping downward onto her feet and throwing herself against his back, arms around his neck, and Quinlan grumbles but reaches up to grip one thin blue arm, so clearly he’s not as put out by it as he pretends to be.
“Master T'ra?” he asks again, curious. “What brings you all the way here?”
“Boredom,” T'ra confesses, which is at least partially the truth. “And I wanted to see how you were, with Tholme elsewhere.”
Quinlan rolls his eyes. “Master Tholme is always doing something,” he says. “Who even knows how long he’ll be gone this time.”
That is very like Tholme. T'ra hums, smoothing her robes, and then asks, “Have you seen Obi-Wan recently?”
Raising a brow at her, Quinlan lets go of Aayla, then says, “Not recently. I think he and that new padawan of his were on a mission to the Raioballo sector last I heard.”
“Oh,” T'ra says, startled, and pauses. Something curls, uneasy, in her chest, and she folds her hands in her lap with a careful breath. The Force moves in unpredictable ways, strange and unassuming at first glance, and T'ra has made a Neti’s lifetime study of paying attention to the seasons of it. But this—
This is remarkably blunt, for the Force.
“Master?” Quinlan asks, and there's something sharper in his voice this time, more overtly concerned. He straightens, Aayla slipping down off his back to kneel beside him, and looks T'ra over with narrowed eyes. “What’s wrong?”
T'ra weighs what to say for a moment. “Agen is in the Raioballo sector,” she says. “And I have a bad feeling about how his mission there will go.”
Quinlan looks at Aayla, then asks, “You think Obi-Wan’s getting in over his head there, too?”
T'ra hums. “I think that there are quite a lot of things leading me there,” she says. “And I won't ignore the Force when it gives me such clear signs.”
Aayla looks back at Quinlan, cocking her head. When Quinlan raises a brow at her, she nods, and Quinlan huffs. “All right,” he says. “If you're headed there, we’ll go with you. I've bailed Obi-Wan out of plenty of tight spots before, so that shouldn’t be too far out of the ordinary.”
“Master Tholme says you pull his pigtails,” Aayla observes, and Quinlan huffs and shoves her head down lightly.
“Master Tholme is a jerk and needs to keep his nose out of other people’s business,” he says haughtily, as if he’s ever kept his own nose out of anything at all. “Anyway, Master Kolar’s on the Council, right? Shouldn’t they be the ones dispatching help?”
“It’s nothing but a bad feeling telling me he’s in trouble,” T'ra admits. “He was my padawan, though, and that isn't a bond that ever fades entirely. I would rather not ignore this premonition.”
Aayla sways towards Quinlan, like a lodestone drawn towards a magnetic pole, and Quinlan glances at her. His expression softens, just faintly, and he raises his head again, then nods to T'ra.
“We’re coming,” he says determinedly. “I’ll get us a ship. Aayla—”
“Supplies,” Aayla finishes cheerfully, clearly accustomed to this sort of thing, and scrambles to her feet. In a moment she’s across the salle and out the door.
In her wake, Quinlan lets out a slow breath and leans back on his hands. His qukuuf catches the light from above, a flash of gold that’s almost startling, but the expression on his face catches T'ra’s attention more.
“You look tired, Quin,” she says softly.
Quinlan groans, rubbing a hand over his face. “I'm sure I gave Master Tholme even more problems,” he says, “but Force, sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.” He grimaces, and says, “I just worry about her. Constantly. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I get mad at her? What if—”
T'ra chuckles. “The trial of every Master,” she says, and rises to her feet, offering Quinlan her hands. He takes them with a huff, and she pulls him upright. The way he immediately leans down to collect Aayla’s discarded cloak makes her smile. “The worry will never go away, Quinlan. But it will ease eventually.”
“Until my padawan goes haring off to the Raiobello sector and gets in over their head?” Quinlan asks dryly.
T'ra inclines her head. “The perils of becoming a teacher,” she acknowledges lightly. “Thankfully, however, it is not only Agen who is likely in trouble this time.”
“No,” Quinlan says a little sourly. “Obi-Wan’s good at trouble. At least this time it won't be another Sith or something. Kriff, I thought I was going to have a heart attack when I heard about that.”
Of course. Because Quinlan has few enough friends, and those he does have he considers all the more precious for it. Not quite a soft heart, T'ra would say, but—he’s a good Jedi.
“It was a particular shade of alarming,” T'ra agrees, and can't help but laugh a little. “Thankfully, the odds are infinitesimal. If there was another Sith there, we would likely have to find Agen and sit on him to keep him from doing something reckless, and that’s far too much trouble even for three Jedi.”
Dantooine is just as sparsely populated as Anakin remembers, quiet and sleepy and well-removed from practically every other part of the galaxy. The spaceport they set down in is almost empty, and the trader who brought them this far, a Mirialan woman with plenty of tattoos, gives Agen a look as she opens the ramp.
“Sure you know where you're going, Jedi?” she asks.
Agen inclines his head, frowning at the quiet spaceport. “The Force will guide me,” he says, and heads down the ramp, boots ringing on the metal.
Anakin smothers a groan, and the woman smirks. “Good luck with that one,” she tells him. “People have stories, out here.”
On Tatooine, all the stories of Jedi sounded like Qui-Gon, wise and kind and gentle and fearsome. Anakin never got this particular strain. “Thanks,” he mutters, heading down, and follows Agen out into the small port town that surrounds them.
“So who exactly are you looking for?” Anakin asks suspiciously, eyeing a pair of probable bounty hunters outside an inn. “Who comes to Dantooine? Another Jedi?”
Agen grunts, eyes flickering ahead of them. “We’re in the right town,” he says. “And yes. You said we needed backup.”
Anakin would have preferred if that backup came in the form of the whole High Council, and he huffs, drawing the hood of his jacket forward over his face a little further. They’re being watched, and while that’s not unusual in a place like this, it still puts the hair up on the back of his neck. “We do need backup, but somehow I think that whoever you find out here is going to be as likely to shoot us as help us.”
“You, perhaps,” Agen says, offhand, and Anakin stops, narrowing his eyes at him. Agen had seemed perfectly willing to fight him alone, but if this is a plot of some kind to get Anakin where he’s outnumbered—
Well. It’s a terrible plan. It’s worse than a lot of Anakin's plans, and that’s probably saying something.
And yet, when Agen turns to face him, he just looks confused, like Anakin's reaction is perplexing. His brow furrows, and he looks at Anakin with a frown. “Yes?”
“He’s going to shoot me?” Anakin demands, outraged.
Agen rolls his eyes. “You’re a Sith,” he says. “You should be used to people making attempts on your life.”
“That’s not the point,” Anakin snaps, but forces himself to take a breath. “Who are we looking for exactly?”
With a grunt, Agen turns away again. “Cad Bane,” he says.
Somehow, that’s not the most ridiculous thing Anakin's heard today. He takes it, digests it for a long moment, and then asks, “You're going to hire Cad Bane?”
Agen snorts. “Cad Bane is a monster,” he says coolly, “and the only thing I would give him is my blade. No, my contact is here hunting him.”
Someone hunting Bane, second-best bounty hunter in known space, is impressive, and Anakin pauses. That’s…potentially a good sign, right?
In the distance, something explodes in a ball of flame, practically shaking the buildings.
“Oh,” Agen says, pleased. “He’s nearby.”
Anakin frowns, judging the direction of the blast, and then turns down a narrow side-street and picks up his pace, even as Agen goes straight at a run. He worked with Bane enough times to be able to guess how he’ll react to being cornered, if that’s what that explosion was. Bane’s a proud man, but also practical; if he can get away from someone dangerous, he’ll default to that, especially if he’s not getting paid to kill them. And—
In the billowing smoke, movement.
Cursing, a shape plummets down out of the sky, jet boots spluttering and one practically nonfunctional. Bane lands hard, staggers, and straightens his hat, then takes a breath.
Deliberate, slow, Anakin shifts to block his path.
Instantly, Bane’s head snaps up, and he has a pistol out and trained on Anakin in a heartbeat. “Hey now,” he warns. “This isn't the kind of thing you're wanting to get involved in, stranger.”
Anakin thinks of Cad Bane trying to kidnap Palpatine, how everything would have been so much better if the bounty hunter had just shot him there and been done with it, and smiles thinly. He still hates Obi-Wan a little for that trick, but—well. It hasn’t happened yet. And beyond that, Bane is the enemy here, not Obi-Wan.
“I think it is,” he says coldly, and Bane scowls.
“Last warning,” he says, and when Anakin doesn’t immediately move, he takes the shot.
It’s impossibly, perfectly simple to call his lightsaber to his hand and block the bolt, and with it in his grip, Anakin almost feels like he can breathe better. Natural, he thinks, and hates it in equal parts to the relief he feels.
Bane pauses, red eyes narrowing as he stares at the red blade of the lightsaber. There’s a long, long moment of silence, and then he steps back and tilts his hat back just a little.
“Guess you're the new apprentice, then,” he says. “Look, stranger. I did some work with Maul—”
“Kidnapping padawans,” Anakin says flatly. “I know, Bane.” He’d heard about it, when Bane was talking about previous jobs. He’d been doing the same things, then, and there was no way to care, no chance of it. But—
“Among other things,” Bane drawls. “Yeah. So you see, I'm not your enemy here—”
A dark shape lunges out of the smoke, as fast as Anakin has ever seen a Force-user move. Instantly, Bane wrenches around, jet boots firing again, but a tree leaning over the street suddenly moves like it’s a living thing, boughs lashing out in mimicry of arms to knock Bane right out of the air. Startled, Anakin jerks back, because he’s only ever seen one Jedi use that trick, and she was—
Not this person. They're too broad, for one, where Dark Woman was whipcord lean. But the surge of intent in the Force is precisely the same, as sharp as glass and ready to cut, with a thousand dagger edges and a current of something Dark underneath.
With a cry, Bane crashes into the side of a building, hits the ground, rolls to his feet as the stranger lands. “Damn Jedi,” he says, and spits. “A soul’s trying to make an honest living out here and you just have to go sticking your noses in it.”
“You're hunting Force-sensitive children,” the stranger says darkly. Anakin can only see the bottom edge of his face under the deep drape of his hood, but he can feel the weight of a suspicious gaze flicker over to him. Feels the way the Force curls up through the tree’s roots—
“Antilles,” Agen says, stalking out of the smoke with his lightsaber ignited. “I see you caught him.”
There's a startled pause as Antilles looks from Agen to Anakin and back. “Kolar,” he says at length. “One of yours?”
“Yes,” Agen says shortly, and eyes Bane like he’s sizing him up. “Do you need assistance?”
Antilles huffs, low and amused. “You don’t trust me to survive against one bounty hunter?”
With a thin smile, Agen tips his head. “Any hunt is more enjoyable with friends. And besides, I have a mission I hope you’ll be interested in.”
“Well,” Bane says, and pulls a detonator from his belt in one blurred-quick movement. “Seems I should leave you gents to your own matters, since you're so busy and all.”
Jerking around, Antilles lunges, but it’s too late. The grenade detonates in a wash of blinding light and deafening sound, and without the helmet he’s worn for so long Anakin isn't prepared, even though he manages to jerk his head away just in time. He can feel the force of the blast hit him, nearly knocking him off his feet, and somewhere Antilles curses, muffled by the ringing in Anakin's ears.
This, Anakin thinks grimly, was a hell of a lot easier to filter out when he wore a mask.
Still, he can see well enough through the spots to find Agen, who was closest to the blast. He’s pulling himself to his feet, clearly blinded, and Anakin grabs his elbow, hauls him to his feet. There's one half-second jerk like Agen is going to fight back, but he eases a moment later, turning his head.
“Antilles?” he asks, with the carefully controlled volume of someone who can’t hear as well as normal.
“Fine,” the other Jedi says, shaking his head with a grimace. He presses a hand to his ear just briefly, and Anakin can feel the flicker of a quick and dirty Force healing flare and then fade away. “Bane?”
“Gone,” Anakin says, sweeping a look around the street. “Probably bolted.”
Antilles grimaces. “Like a swamp-rat in the light,” he mutters, and then gives Anakin another close look. “You're a Sith.”
Anakin hesitates, not entirely sure how to answer. “I was trained by the Sith,” he says finally. “And I was one. But I left.”
Antilles seems to accept that, though he doesn’t step closer. “It’s a philosophy,” he says, cool. “You stopped agreeing?”
Anakin swallows, and the only thing in his head is Luke on the Death Star, chin raised, looking so much like Padmé. Padmé who loved the Republic, who would have died for it a hundred times over.
At some point, even in the good days, that started mattering less than Anakin possessing her, and—he’s not sure when.
“I never should have started agreeing,” he says, raw.
Somehow, the tilt of Antilles’s head feels like understanding more than anything. “Master Jon Antilles,” he says.
The name sounds vaguely familiar, like Anakin should know it. He can't place it, though, just like with Fay, so he nods and returns, “Vader.”
“Vader knows of the Sith Lord’s plans,” Agen says, and carefully releases Anakin, straightening. “Do you need to go after Bane, or can you assist us in breaking them?”
Antilles pauses, but hardly for more than a heartbeat. “I already ended Bane’s operation here,” he says. “He won't be trafficking any more children for this particular buyer, and I have a feeling he’ll be leaving Dantooine as soon as possible.”
Anakin snorts. Faced with three Jedi? Or, well, two Jedi and a Sith? Yeah, he can imagine Bane would get the hell away as soon as possible. Bane’s not a coward, but he’s also definitely not dumb, either. “The buyer’s dead?” he asks.
Antilles’s mouth thins with satisfaction. “Thoroughly.”
With a grunt that sounds pleased, Agen calls his lightsaber back to his hand, then clips it to his belt. “You have a ship?” he asks Antilles.
“For a given value of have,” Antilles allows, darkly amused. “The old owners certainly have no use for it now.”
That’s…not precisely what Anakin would have expected a Jedi Master to say. He eyes Antilles for a moment, and—
“You know Dark Woman?” he asks.
Antilles twitches, like Anakin just took a swing at him. His hands curl into fists beneath the drape of his sleeves, and after a long, long pause, he says quietly, “Yes. She was my Master. How did you know?”
Agen's eyes are on Anakin; he can feel the weight of his stare, like a warning.
“The plants,” Anakin said in explanation. “I've only seen one Jedi do that.”
Antilles inclines his head. “She has many unconventional abilities.”
Because right now she’s still alive. She didn’t die at Vader's hands, only to reappear to him as a ghost and call him Anakin. Didn’t drag all of his darker memories out into the light, trying to prove a point. Anakin takes a breath, pushing the thoughts down, and says, “I’m going to get rid of my Master. He has plans for the galaxy that will destroy the Jedi, and I need to stop him.”
“The Sith have always wanted to destroy the Jedi.” Antilles sounds mostly unbothered by the scale of the idea, and tilts his head at Agen. “The Council approved this?”
“No,” Agen says without hesitation. “They only know I'm investigating something alone.”
Anakin grimaces and looks at Antilles, wanting backup for when he tells Agen again what a stupid plan this is—
“Good,” Antilles says, and the line of his shoulders eases. “I’ll help.”
“What,” Anakin says.
The curl of Antilles’s mouth is quiet amusement. “I don’t associate with the Council,” he says. “As long as this isn't one of their missions, I’ll do it.”
Anakin looks from Antilles to Agen, deliberately. “But—he’s on the Council!”
“He comes to the Outer Rim,” Antilles says, like that’s all that matters. “And the Force wants me to help you. So I will.”
“Kriffing Jedi,” Anakin says in mild dismay. Palpatine trusted the Force, but he saw it as a tool, not as—as some sort of guide and guardian. And—maybe once Anakin knew how to react to it like a Jedi, but it’s been decades. He’s been trusting Palpatine’s words for far longer than he ever trusted in the Force.
Agen snorts. “We are,” he agrees, and inclines his head to Antilles. “Let us go.”
“Where to?” Antilles asks, but he’s already turning, heading back past the scorched building and towards the spaceport.
Agen looks at Anakin, expectant, and doesn’t say anything.
Where to. Just like that. Anakin takes a breath, trying to marshal his thoughts, and is abruptly, entirely overwhelmed with choices. Sidious had so many plans, and breaking them will take a hell of a lot of doing, but—
Maybe it’s Antilles’s words about Bane trafficking children, but Anakin thinks of Sidious and all the people he used. All the manipulations, outright and more subtle, and there’s one group Anakin knows were hurt more for Palpatine’s plans than any others.
“A lost planet,” he says finally, the words scraping raw in his throat. He doesn’t want to face this, but—he’s going to have to at some point. He can't not. “It was erased from the Jedi Archives, but I know where it is. Twelve parsecs south past the Rishi Maze. Kamino.”
Agen looks at him for a long moment, frowning. “No one but the Jedi have access to the Archives,” he says, bullish. “No Jedi would have—”
“Agen,” Antilles says quietly. When Agen stops short, scowl deepening, Antilles nods to Anakin. “Who?”
“Sifo-Dyas,” Anakin says, relieved that they're not going to have to have this argument. “About four years ago now.”
Antilles frowns, too, but his is closer to thoughtful than anything. “I never met him. But the proof will be easy enough to find. Agen, do you know of Kamino?”
“No,” Agen says curtly, clearly not happy about it. “I investigated the Rishi Maze once. The system past it had no such planet.”
“Well, one of you is right.” Antilles sounds mildly amused. “Let’s see who. My ship is this way.”
This, Anakin thinks, resigned, is going to be karking awful. But—
Avoiding it will leave the clones in Sidious’s influence, chipped and ready to carry out his orders. And that, at least, isn't something Anakin is willing to risk.