Note: Sorry for the long delay, and thanks for your patience. Also, if you're following this story, please check out my fic "Katabasis," which is a series of shorts that act as prequels to this fic. There's some important backstory in them, such as why Riveth doesn't talk and some background on Anakin and his mother. Thanks, and enjoy this chapter!
Chapter IX: Dea Ex Machina
"Why didn't you?"
Anakin shook himself, brought back to the present by a voice that was not Padmé's. He was mildly surprised to see that it was Barriss Offee who had spoken. She was crouched down opposite him, her arms folded about her knees, regarding him with an unreadable expression that might have been anything from revulsion to pity. He couldn't remember what she might have been asking about.
"Why didn't I what?" he asked, blinking at her.
"You said that you were supposed to kill Senator Amidala," Barriss reminded him, her tone somehow both hard and gentle at once. "Why didn't you?"
He stared at her for a moment, then looked quickly away, turning his gaze on the opposite wall but not really seeing anything. His fingers fidgeted with the edges of his sleeves.
"I suppose," he said quietly, "it was because she'd seen me cry."
He could feel the eyes of both Jedi on him, but he continued to stare straight ahead. There was a long, pregnant silence, and it was clear the Jedi expected him to say something more. He did not.
"Not because you loved her, then?" Obi-Wan Kenobi asked finally.
Anakin released a breath and turned back to face the Jedi. "I could say that," he said, "but it wouldn't be exactly true."
The last time Kitster Banai had seen his best friend, they had both been seven years old. He remembered the day clearly—it had been bright and hot, as all days were on Tatooine, but with a peculiar texture to the air, a certain roughness to the light, that said a sandstorm was coming soon, probably by evening. The danger was not immediate, however, and so when Kitster's master let him off work a bit early, he and his friend dashed off to Lorna's stand together. They had only enough money for one ruby bliel, so they split it, perched together on a pair of mismatched stools beside a flimsy table, taking turns sipping from a single straw.
Kitster remembered a strange hollowness to the moment, as though it were somehow outside of time. They'd been uneasy, the faint rattling of the sand against the metal legs of their stools sounding too loud in their ears. Neither knew exactly what was coming, except that Kitster was being sent to Mos Eisley for a week, and the thought of that week was cold and brittle in their stomachs.
The storm came and raged and died out, and in the morning it was gone, and Kitster went to Mos Eisley. The cold and fragile feeling in his gut should have dissolved when he returned a week later, but instead it grew ragged around the edges, like an old frayed leg wrapping passed down through too many hands.
Kitster returned to find Anakin gone, and nearly half of his other friends, as well. Shmi said that an old Jedi had come and freed them all, and was taking them back to Coruscant to find a better life. She said that Anakin was going to be a Jedi. Kitster knew that meant he would never see his friend again, and he cursed whatever luck had made him miss his greatest chance for freedom.
Nevertheless, Kitster could truly say that his friendship with Anakin Skywalker had defined his life. It was on Anakin's fourteenth birthday that Kitster first heard that the Jedi had been declared enemies of the state. There were darker whispers, too, whispers about "assassinations" and "purges" and "empire." And Kitster had lived long enough on Tatooine to know what these things meant.
He vowed that he would live for both of them.
Something was off about her patient.
Physically, the Sith was healthy and almost fully recovered. His lungs had healed beautifully, better than Barriss had hoped considering the extent of the damage. He'd regained most of the weight he had lost in those first uncertain months, and his heart rate, while unusually high, was within the parameter of health. The high heart rate worried Barriss, but she could find no physical cause for it.
Anakin was sitting rather stiffly on the bed, his shirt laid out neatly beside him, and ignoring her intensely. He appeared to be focused on his datapad, on the lines of code streaming across the small screen, and she noticed that he had actually managed to decrypt about five lines during the course of her examination. But his focus was almost too complete, the kind of forced concentration she might have expected to see in a youngling who very much wanted his master to believe he was studying.
If he'd been anyone else, she might have laughed at him. As it was, she simply returned the bioscanner to its place on her belt.
The blythol patch didn't seem to have had any effect on his scar, but she hadn't really expected it to. It had been a last resort, something to do so she could at least say she'd tried. Not that Anakin would likely have cared either way. It was the principle of the thing, and if she didn't cling to her principles, what else would she have? (There was Master Luminara lying stretched out on the ground, face slackened and graceless, and that didn't bear thinking on.)
She shook her head and told Anakin that there wasn't anything more she could do about the scar. He didn't bother looking at her; he simply grunted in disinterest and kept his eyes fixed steadily on the datapad.
It was just one more scar, after all. She supposed he must be used to them by now.
Since Anakin didn't seem to be particularly communicative today, Barriss turned to Obi-Wan, who sat motionless against the opposite wall, looking vaguely uncomfortable. His eyes were trained on the Sith with almost the same focus of intensity that Anakin spared for his datapad. Barriss felt as though she were missing something.
She followed Obi-Wan's eyes to the livid red scar blossoming across the Sith's abdomen. It was about the size of a large Mirial melon, discolored and ridged over with too-smooth skin. A burn scar, obviously, and she knew that Obi-Wan knew as well as she did how the Sith had gotten it. Kenobi had never seemed like the squeamish type. It must be the knowledge that had him looking so uncomfortable.
She stepped across the room, stopped in Obi-Wan's line of sight, and waited. His eyes met hers almost instantly (glad, perhaps, of something else to look at), and she read the question in them.
"His heart rate is unusually high," Barriss said quietly. "He hasn't been pushing himself too hard? Exercising?"
"No," Obi-Wan replied just as quietly, eyeing Anakin with thinly veiled suspicion. "He's done nothing but decryptions for the past five days, so far as I know. You might ask Master Windu or Master Mundi, though."
Barriss nodded, her mind once again listing off all the possibilities. There was one that made the most sense, but it was not something her medical expertise could offer any help with.
As though he'd read her mind (but he couldn't, could he?), Anakin looked up from his datapad at last and offered her a smirk. "Don't look so worried, Doc. You already know exactly what's wrong with me."
"I wonder if he even remembers."
The words were quiet, almost curious, but more resigned than anything. Kitster didn't look up as he spoke them, and the fingers of his left hand continued absently drawing patterns in the spilled tzai on the counter in front of him.
Beside him, Riveth shifted, but his hands said nothing. Kitster's mother shifted her mug between her hands, white-knuckled and silent. At last Palo let out a slow breath and said, almost gently, "I don't think we can count on that, Kit. Padmé didn't seem to know."
Kitster sighed. "So he doesn't remember."
"Or he chooses not to tell anyone," Palo said darkly.
Riveth's hands moved in the air. Yes, he said. Perhaps he does not even tell himself.
"Then we'll have to be the ones to tell him," Kitster's mother said. "If we begin the story, maybe he'll be able to complete it." She didn't look at any of them as she spoke, but her hands twisted back and forth on her nearly full mug of tzai.
Kitster took her work-lined hands and pressed them between his own. "He'll remember, Mom," he said in a tone that allowed for no possibility of failure. "We'll make him remember."
There were few things that annoyed Jocasta more than the discovery that her Archives were incomplete.
Of course, that had been a common enough discovery in the recent months. Much of the material once housed in the Archives had been destroyed during the years of Palpatine's reign, and some of it was irreplaceable. But she'd learned to accept that. Though she knew some might disagree with her, she supposed that the loss of those materials was really one of the least terrible. Images of the children lying haphazardly strewn across the halls of the Temple hovered at the back of her consciousness, and she pushed them roughly away.
It would not do to think of them when she was looking for information on their murderer.
Unfortunately, her Archives contained very little information on the Sith. She knew this was partly due to Palpatine's efforts. But what was worse was her certainty that the Jedi had never possessed much information on the Sith even before the Purges. Her Archives had lost very little on this topic, and that rankled.
Perhaps Yan had been right when he said that he had long ago read everything of interest to him in her Archives. But she would never tell him so.
Unfortunately, it now seemed that Yan was her only recourse if she wanted to find the information she needed. As she raised her hand to press the entry chime on his door, she was still trying to think of the least humiliating way to ask. She wasn't certain there was one.
She heaved a sigh of distaste as the door swept aside, revealing Yan's already smug face. The sacrifices she was willing to make for knowledge.
"You're asking the wrong person, you know."
It wasn't what she hade expected Yan to say. She didn't know what she had expected, exactly, but the fact that Yan was not gloating was, in her view, extremely suspicious.
"Oh? And who should I be asking, then?"
Yan favored her with one of his sardonic smiles, the sort that made nearly everyone feel instantly inferior. But that smile had stopped working on her years ago. She simply raised an eyebrow at him in silent challenge.
"Why, the Sith, of course," he said at last.
Jocasta laughed. "So that's why you've been so interested in him," she said. Her tone was light, but there was truth behind her words. "I thought there had to be a reason."
Yan merely shrugged. "Perhaps," he said. "But neither my studies nor your Archives can offer any example of a Sith turning from the Dark in the past. He is the best source we have."
"There's one thing you don't seem to be considering, Yan," she said, gazing at him sharply. He tilted his head in silent question. "Lack of evidence can often be a form of evidence itself. What if the Council is right? Perhaps there are no other instances of a Sith turning because it really is impossible."
He turned away from her in an uncharacteristic show of vulnerability that told her more than his words ever could.
"Yes," he said softly. "That is a possibility, of course." But when he looked back at her, there was a knowing smile on his face. "But tell me, Jocasta, do you really believe that? You were quick enough to take his case before."
And now she had to look away. Images of children bled against the backs of her eyelids. But somehow, those images became entangled with the figure of the Sith as he had appeared when she first saw him—asleep, curled against the wall like a cornered animal. Or a child. And she returned to her earlier thought, that he really couldn't be much more than twenty.
There was no honest way to answer Yan's question.
"I don't know," she said at last. "I suppose I'm like you. I need to know more."
Over the course of the past five days, in the back of his mind, Obi-Wan had been growing progressively more nervous. It was something in the way the Sith held himself, in the way he did things and, maybe more importantly, in the way he didn't do them. Everything was too…quiet. For the past five days there had been nothing but the sound of keys tapping, furtive suspicious glances, and the uncertain sense of something else in the room, hidden, locked away and screaming behind carefully constructed walls. He didn't know what it was, but he'd spent long enough running to know that it was dangerous.
And now the Sith claimed that Barriss knew exactly what was wrong with him, but Knight Offee wasn't saying anything. Obi-Wan sensed that he was missing something, and he didn't like the feeling.
He reflected woefully that in some ways life had been much easier when the Sith was trying to kill him.
Or perhaps it was just Vader's talk of ghosts that was getting to him.
"How do you do it, Doc?" the Sith asked suddenly. He was looking intently and rather oddly at Barriss, but Obi-Wan couldn't be certain what his expression held. Barriss looked equally confused by the question.
"You're a healer," Vader added, head tilted slightly to the left in an almost comical pose of curiosity. His words were directed at Barriss, but his eyes shifted back and forth between the two of them. "But you're also a Jedi, and that means you've killed. How do you do it?"
To Obi-Wan's surprise, Barriss bit her lip and looked away. She seemed disturbed by the question, and he considered answering it himself—we only kill when necessary, we only kill those who deserve it, we only kill in defense—but he didn't know quite how to phrase it, and before he could think of anything, Barriss surprised him by answering herself.
"I try not to think about it," she mumbled, still not looking at anyone.
Obi-Wan watched the Sith worry at the edges of his sleeves again. It was a habit he had almost grown used to by now, but somehow the idea of a Sith indulging in nervous habits still unsettled him.
"How old were you, the first time?" Vader asked.
"I was twelve," Barriss said softly. Obi-Wan thought that she looked young and lost, and that her visit should have ended several minutes ago.
"And do the ghosts ever bother you?" Vader asked, still playing with his sleeves and studiously ignoring Obi-Wan.
Barriss glanced at Obi-Wan, though, and he saw the uncertainty in her face. "Sometimes," she whispered in answer to the Sith's question. But she didn't look away from Obi-Wan. He thought of Kel Dor pirates and sudden ends, and wondered why the ghosts had never troubled him.
"What are you doing, Vader?" he demanded, and it was just enough to make them both finally look at him.
But the Sith just shrugged at him. "She wanted to know what was wrong with me," he said. He seemed to reflect for a moment, then added, mostly to himself, "They never used to bother me before. I don't know why they've started now."
Barriss remained silent, her eyes once more trained on the floor, but Obi-Wan sensed an unusual dread and certainty about her. He didn't know what the Sith was about with his talk of ghosts and age, but it was time to put a stop to it.
"How much do you have of that file?"
Vader leveled an almost lazy glare at him. "Nearly all." His mouth turned up in a mocking expression of non-concern. "And how old were you, Kenobi?"
Obi-Wan still wasn't certain what the Sith was up to, and unlike Barriss, he wasn't willing to play his game. He said nothing.
But he was afraid that might be answer enough.
Kenobi didn't answer, but Anakin hadn't expected him to. They were not really on answering terms. He favored the Jedi with a quiet snort and turned back to his datapad. He barely noticed as Barriss made a last few notes on her datapad and left his cell without a word to either of them. The data streaming across his screen cast the world in an eerie shade of blue that reminded him distantly of something he'd seen many, many years ago, so long ago now that he could not even remember what it was.
The decryptions were becoming easier as he progressed: although there was no discernable pattern to Palpatine's encryptions, there was something about them that made sense at a gut level, something that became almost automatic if you just spent enough time with them. And so in the space of five days, Anakin had managed to decrypt the first two files and much of the third. The results were disappointing, but he had not really expected otherwise.
The first file was a record of expenses. Had Palpatine been alive, this document alone would have been enough for several convictions, but as things were, it served little immediate good.
The second and third files were essentially lists of names—catalogues of prisoners and the facilities in which they had been interned. They, too, were of no immediate value. All of the Imperial prisons had been emptied months ago, even those which had been kept most secret. And if they had not been…well, it would be far too late now.
The files Anakin had been set to decrypt would ultimately have value only as historical records. Some day, perhaps soon, they would appear in a museum commemorating the worst horrors of the Empire, the sort of museum that purports to remember so that the future will not be like the past.
It wasn't enough. But he was trying not to think about that now.
Time passed. He didn't know how much, and that bothered him. He'd once had an almost prescient sense of time, its lengths and distances and speeds, but now it seemed that too had been lost in the blue fire.
He glanced briefly at Kenobi, perched somewhat awkwardly in the room's single chair and perusing his own datapad. Although the Jedi had spent the first two days watching Anakin continuously, they'd fallen into a routine fairly quickly, and now Kenobi spent most of his time at his own work, only sparing Anakin the occasional glance every few minutes. There was not, after all, much to see.
As the last of the decrypted data floated across his screen, Anakin released a breath and stood, drawing the Jedi's attention. He stepped forward and offered Kenobi the datapad with an exaggerated flourish. The Jedi accepted it and scanned over its contents quickly, not quite able to hide his disappointment. Then without a word to Anakin he reached for his comlink to contact the Jedi Council.
Anakin was not really surprised. Neither of them had spoken to the other in nearly four days, but for Barriss' brief visit.
It was almost a relief when the members of the Jedi Council arrived to collect the newly decrypted datacard. Kenobi handed it to a Bith whose name Anakin couldn't place, and the Bith disappeared once more, as soundless as he had come. But the rest of the Jedi Council remained where they were.
Anakin eyed them warily. It hadn't yet been a week since the Chancellor's visit, and he wasn't expecting another visitor so soon.
"Get dressed," Mace Windu ordered, tossing his Sith blacks onto the chair. So it was a political visit, then. And that meant he'd have to wait another week before seeing Padmé.
"As you say, Master Windu," he drawled, and waited for Windu to look away first.
His eyes followed the Jedi with distaste as they filed out of his small cell. The moment the door swished closed behind them, he stripped out of the rough brown clothing they'd given him to wear in his cell and redressed quickly in his old customary black clothing. He noticed it had been patched in a few places, and this time someone had sewn all of the pockets closed. The thought made him laugh.
The Jedi gave him very little time to dress, and then they were crowding into his cell again, surrounding him and prodding him out into the hallway. He allowed himself to be led docilely enough. He'd long ago decided there wasn't much point in fighting (and there were those words whispering in Padmé's voice in the back of his mind that said he deserved this), and besides, he was curious. It was possible that they were taking him to see Padmé—they'd had their visits in the great meeting chambers before—but after the much more informal style of her last visit he didn't think it likely.
He was directed to a smaller meditation room off one of the main halls. The room was empty of furniture and dimly lit, its walls dancing with strange shadows. The Jedi ushered him into its center, filling in behind him in a rough crescent.
Four humans were waiting for him at the far side of the room, but he did not know any of them. Two of them, a dark-skinned man with a thin scar faint across his left cheek and a very pale bearded man, appeared to be the leaders, or at least the most eager to speak. The dark-skinned man appeared somewhat nervous but resolute, while his pale friend's dark eyes rested on Anakin with a strange mixed emotion he had seen before only from Padmé.
He shifted lightly on the balls of his feet, getting a feel for the room and his place in it. The two men who seemed to be the leaders tensed at his movement and glanced nervously between themselves. They were harmless, clearly.
It was the other two who most interested Anakin.
A young man with shadowed eyes and warm brown skinstood beside an older woman, half supporting her with his arm and half holding her back. When Anakin entered the room the woman drew a sharp, ragged breath, her hand flying to her mouth. It was a tan, work-worn hand, and Anakin could not recall ever having seen it before. He watched as the young man beside her wrapped his arm more securely around her, and wondered if he had killed someone this woman loved.
He watched her intently, shifting his stance and tilting his head just slightly, but her eyes remained fixed on him. There was horror in them, as he might have expected, but also something else, something warm and organic that might have been guilt. The young man at her side—her son, Anakin guessed—wore much the same expression, and he too met Anakin's eyes unabashed. He was the only one of the four who looked somewhat familiar, but Anakin couldn't remember where he might have seen him before. He glanced between the woman and her son and their shared postures of grief and wondered if it was her other child that he had killed.
The dark skinned man cleared his throat and raised his chin, drawing Anakin's attention again. The scar on his cheek shone faintly in the dim light, and he still seemed nervous, but his voice was strong. "My name is Palo Gvanish," he began, but before he could say anything further, Anakin cut him off in surprise.
"Gvanish? The artist?"
The man looked momentarily startled, but he recovered quickly. "Yes, that's right." He didn't smile, but his stance became less rigid. "I'm here as a representative of the Artists United for Freedom. We'd like to discuss your case."
Behind him, Anakin heard several of the Jedi Masters murmuring amongst themselves and noted with some interest that they were more surprised than he was. He snorted. "Padmé sent you, didn't she?"
"No," the familiar looking young man said with quiet vehemence. "She didn't." Something in his tone kept Anakin from making any response.
"Our organization advocates for political prisoners throughout the galaxy," Palo continued as though there had been no interruption. "We've teamed with the law firm Fropp and Quig to represent those imprisoned for political reasons. Senator Amidala feels that your imprisonment here may be of an unjust nature, and we felt it was our duty to investigate her claims."
Anakin eyed the four of them—stance, expression, the way they stood in relation to one another. Palo with his attempt at calm but with the movement of his throat and the small beads of sweat on his hands that betrayed him, and the way he stayed close to the pale man, as though drawing some sort of strength from his nearness. The pale man himself, with his air of utter silence and his unblinking eyes that had moved beyond terror long ago. The woman, supported by her son but with eyes only for Anakin. She unnerved him—he wasn't sure whether her look was one of longing or hatred. And then there was her son. He held himself like one who knows he is ultimately in control of the situation, and all the cards rest with him.
Anakin smiled to himself. All this talk about Padmé and political prisoners and freedom was a reason, perhaps, but it was not the most important one. The woman and her son had some other purpose, but he would need to deal with the other two first.
"There's a warehouse in the lower districts," he said, for the first time looking at Palo as he spoke. "I can give you the codes. I wasn't sure who to tell at first, but you'll know what to do with it."
He watched Palo's brows draw together in confusion and the pale man's hands begin to move in the air before stilling again, as though he'd thought better of whatever motion he'd been about to make.
"I don't know if Padmé told you," he said, giving Palo a tight-lipped smile, "but I've always appreciated your art."
Palo's eyes widened in sudden understanding, and Anakin added mildly, "If you have a datapad, I'll give you the coordinates and the codes."
The silent pale man retrieved a datapad from his pocket, and Anakin entered the necessary information and passed it back to him just as silently. The artist and his friend exchanged a significant glance, then turned to the strangely familiar young man.
"Go on," he told them. "We'll be all right. It might even… We'll give you a com call when we're done here."
The two men nodded, and as they passed by Palo placed a hand on the woman's shoulder and whispered "Good luck" to both of them. It was just loud enough for Anakin hear and to consider with a grim smile that he'd been right.
The Jedi gathered behind Anakin parted just enough to let Palo and his pale nameless friend out of the small room, and then Anakin was alone with the woman and her son, and the ever-present Jedi at his back like ghosts.
The young man whose face Anakin still couldn't place stepped forward slightly. His eyes were on a level with Anakin's chin, and he seemed surprisingly collected.
"My name is Kitster Banai," he said with a smile that was astonishingly genuine. Before Anakin could ask, he added, "Yes, the actor. I'm your—that is, we knew each other when we were kids. On Tatooine. You may not remember, though."
Anakin eyed him without expression, and some of Kitster's confidence seemed to evaporate. But he did not step back. He reached for the woman's hand and drew her forward to stand beside him. Anakin could sense the woman's fear, but she held her gaze steady on his, and there was something unbreakable behind the sadness in her eyes. For a moment, she reminded him sharply of Padmé.
"And who is she?" he asked, inclining his head toward the woman. He watched in surprise as the hand at her side reached out, almost of its own accord, to touch his face, but drew back just before he could feel its warmth. He watched her face and wondered why he felt so suddenly cold.
"This is Shmi Skywalker," Kitster said softly. "Your mother."