Dooku shook his silver head sadly. "I can't let you boys out of my sight, can I?"
Anakin grinned. "You know me, Master. A real trouble magnet."
Dooku's dark eyes met Qui-Gon's blue in a look of affectionate amusement. "Not just you, Anakin."
Qui-Gon's half smile deepened but he said nothing.
Obi-Wan characteristically remained focused. "The question, Masters, is were we an opportune target or a planned one?"
Dooku nodded, amusement falling away. "Precisely, young Kenobi."
Anakin shrugged. "What difference does it make?"
"A planned ambush would indicate a centralized controlling body of some sort," Dooku explained patiently. "Not a stray warship turned pirate and slaver."
"Oh." Ani looked worried.
The four of them paced slowly down the long, long corridor overlooking the flight deck of Dooku's destroyer, Anakin and Obi-Wan flanked by the two Masters in their long robes. The younger men had unconsciously fallen back into the slow, light footed, meditative gait characteristic of Jedi, with shoulders squared against the drag of the robes they no longer wore and arms folded before them despite the lack of flowing sleeves.
"What do the prisoners say?" Qui-Gon asked quietly.
Dooku's face hardened into grim lines. "The ones we've been able to question know nothing, but the entire command crew suicided before we boarded."
"Force.." Anakin breathed.
"Yes," Obi-Wan agreed, expression uncannily like that of the old Master. "Suggestive isn't it?"
"I fear the Chancellor may have been too sanguine in his expectations," Dooku said in his rich, darkling voice. "It could be that the war is not quite over - yet."
"I cannot apologize enough, Amidala," Palpatine's holographic image was saying to Padme in the Grand Marshal's austere quarters at exactly that moment. "What a frightful ordeal for you."
She smiled faintly. "I've been through worse, Chancellor."
"Which is precisely why I am so distressed," he replied. "You've born quite enough, my dear lady, and more than earned some peace and happiness."
Padme laughed. "I am happy, Chancellor, but somehow I can't see a life spent with Anakin Skywalker as being very peaceful!"
Finally he smiled, worry lines smoothing out. "I know what you mean!"
The door opened and Anakin and Obi-Wan came in. "Speak of the devil!" Padme said lightly.
Anakin grinned back at her. "So that's why my ears were tingling." He half bowed to Palpatine's image. "Chancellor."
"Hello, my boy. I was just apologizing to your good lady here -"
Anakin broke in, shaking his head. "Sir, you have got to stop taking personal responsibility for everything that goes wrong in the universe!"
"One of the burdens of office I'm afraid," Palpatine replied, trying to keep it light but betrayed by the concern in the look he gave Obi-Wan. "General?"
Obi-Wan folded his arms into non-existent sleeves. "The entire command crew suicided before they could be questioned," he reported crisply. Padme flinched and Anakin put an arm around her. "That could mean they had something to hide. However identification scans tell us they were all wanted for war crimes so it may have been merely fear of Republic justice."
"If they were part of some kind of organized resistance why would they be carrying holds full of slaves for sale to the outer worlds?" The Chancellor asked.
Obi-Wan inclined his head. "A good point, your excellency. But even if the missing enemy ships have merely turned their hands to piracy and slaving -"
"Yes. Something must be done about it," Palpatine agreed. "Increased patrols over the space lanes, especially those linking the core to the outer rim."
"That would be my suggestion, sir," Obi-Wan bowed. "Grand Marshal Dooku is already working on a plan."
"Excellent," Palpatine frowned. "Oh dear, this will delay demobilization won't it?"
"I'm afraid it will, your excellency," Obi-Wan concurred. "But then no suitable peacetime function for the Clone army has been settled on, has it?"
"No," Palpatine looked even more worried. "So difficult. They deserve our gratitude but peacetime life simply does not suit their temperment."
"I still say long range exploration, perhaps to the neighboring galaxies, is the answer," Anakin said firmly. "The ones I've talked to quite like the idea."
Palpatine forced a smile. "A solution that brings its own problems. Ah well, it seems the matter remains academic for the moment - unfortunately."
"Very unfortunately," Obi-Wan agreed, blank faced.
Sabe finally found Obi-Wan at a port on the bridge level gazing pensively out into the whiteness of hyperspace. "Uh, General, don't we have some things to talk about?"
He turned to her with a smile that took her breath away. "I thought I had a lot to say to you but it all comes down to one simple sentence: I love you, Sabe, I have for years and I always will."
She had to blink hard to keep the tears rising in her eyes from rolling down her cheeks. "Oh my, you do know how to take a girl's breath away, don't you, General?"
"So I've been told," he said dryly, adding as her brows rose, "by Jacen and Anakin that is."
"Hmmm..." she moved closer to take his arm. "Why do I feel you were not thinking of me just now?"
"Probably because I wasn't," he answered ruefully. "I don't like loose ends and this 'victory' of ours has all to many." He shook his head. "I have a very bad feeling about it."
Sabe laughed, trying to push away her own feeling of unease. "You're a Jedi through and through aren't you, Obi-Wan?"
He smiled wryly and a little sadly. "No, Sabe, I am not. If I was I'd have never have fallen in love with you so I can't be sorry for it. But I find I don't regret all those years of trying to force my way up the wrong path either." He nodded to himself. "I met Anakin anyway, and that's the key thing."
Sabe made a moue of disappointment. "Not me?"
He gave her another of those bone melting smiles. "Being with you, my darling, is a gift from the Force. Being with Anakin is part of my duty to It."
"I thought you said you weren't a Jedi?"
He shrugged. "You don't have to be a Jedi to serve the Force. Obviously, otherwise Anakin and I wouldn't have been guided to leave the Order." He shook his head. "Right now only It knows what It wants from us but when the time is right we'll know too."
"You still sound like a Jedi to me," Sabe said wryly. "Mysterious and enigmatic as all hell!" He laughed. She perched herself on the rim of the port so she could look him in the eye. "What are you going to do on Naboo?"
"Aside from marrying you? No idea. No doubt something will present itself."
"Am I marrying you?" she challenged.
His smile didn't alter a hair. "You know you are, my dear."
She puffed out a sigh. "I see it's no use trying to be coy with a Jedi - or ex-Jedi."
"None at all."
"How terribly annoying," she said, then sobered. "You've made a real leap into the dark haven't you, General? You've walked away from everything you've ever had or wanted and you don't even know why or for what."
He shrugged a little, unperturbed. "Eventually I will."
"How very Jedi."
Anakin spotted a knot of familiar figures wearing the broken circle of his former command far down the long flight deck and broke into a half-run. "Red Two!"
Heads turned then smiles flashed in dark faces as his pilots hurried towards him. He and Red Two met in a back pounding embrace. "Am I ever glad to see you boys, I've been worrying about you."
Red Two rolled an eye back at his wing man. "Hear that, Four? He's been worried about us!"
"We weren't the ones left surrounded by fighters in an unarmed ship!" Red Four pointed out.
"Okay, but being pursued by two or three times your number isn't what I'd call a tenable position either," Anakin pointed out. "All present and accounted for I see," he continued relieved. "Well done, Number Two."
His second shrugged off the compliment, face suddenly deadly serious. "You shouldn't have sent us away, Anakin. You know we don't like leaving you and the General in a hole."
And they had to obey orders, it was encoded into their genes. Anakin sighed. "I know, guys, but I don't like to see my men blown to smithereens either. And you did get help."
Red Two smiled crookedly, as did the other clones. "No we didn't, Commander. The Grand Marshal was already on his way. He fell out of hyperspace practically on top of us, blasted what was left of the opposition, picked us up then headed off after you."
Anakin shook his head. "I should have known. How does he do that?"
Red Two shrugged. "You're asking me? The Force is with him, as you Jedi say."
"I'm not a Jedi anymore," Anakin answered absently, mind on other things.
"The hell you're not," said Red Two.
Dooku and Qui-Gon stood in the darkened chartroom, facing each other across a holo full of stars veined with blue, yellow and green lines indicating space lanes and punctuated with bright red dots marking pirate attacks and slaving raids.
"Do you see a pattern?" Qui-Gon asked quietly.
Dooku shook his head. "No, it seems totally random."
"But you don't believe that it is." It was not a question.
"I do not." Dooku's thin lips folded in a grim line. "Palpatine is fooling himself. This war will never be over as long as the Sith Master lives."
"And we cannot find him." Qui-Gon said softly, folding his arms into his sleeves.
"'Hard to see is the Dark Side'," Dooku quoted, then frowned. "But we are not equally invisible to him - he knows our plans and anticipates them. How?"
"He is close," Qui-Gon's blue eyes went out of focus and his voice was little above a whisper. "I feel his presence. He is among us, but I cannot locate him."
"Nor I." Dooku sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "We still play his game, Qui-Gon, all of us. Perhaps it is best that Anakin and Obi-Wan leave the Order. They may be safer away from us."
Qui-Gon shook his head. "Anakin is the Chosen One, the Sith's prophecied bane. He will never be safe as long as they are in the universe."
"But safer, especially with Obi-Wan to watch his back."
"Yes." Qui-Gon agreed.