A/N: Alas, tis the last chapter. All good things must come to an end...if it makes you feel any better, though, this chapter is a bit longer. And I also have ideas for an epilogue or something like that floating around in my mind, so there may yet be a little more if the right inspiration strikes. No specific credits to make this time, except to once again credit Monty Python and the Holy Grail for inspiring the lyrics of The Sith Wars, and one more shoutout to my beta, Mathematica. :)
Thank you all for the reading and reviewing, and I'm delighted I gave you a bit of fun. :)
Quite a few months later, after a rather spectacular space battle over Coruscant…
Anakin sat back in the smoking, bashed-up bridge of one-half of the Invisible Hand, surrounded by the wreckage of miscellaneous droids and one quaking old politician, and reflected blackly on how incredibly pathetic it was that the first thing he thought was not that they were all still alive, or that he'd just killed an unarmed prisoner of war, or whether he'd vaporized anybody in the process of crashing a warship onto the galaxy's most populated planet, or even that he would hopefully be able to see Padmé soon.
No, the first thing Anakin Skywalker thought was: Hmm, it's probably sabacc night at the detention center.
And the second thing he thought was: Wonder if I'll have time to drop by RHIA before we have to report.
And the third thing he thought was: This RHIA thing has really screwed up my psyche.
"Anakin!" Obi-Wan's voice burst in on his grotesque thoughts before he could get to the fourth thought, which would undoubtedly have been full of inventive ways to dismember health insurance agents using only a pair of Padmé's nail clippers. "Have you not noticed the ship is still on fire?"
"Oh?" Anakin asked distantly. Then, as the Tatooine-esque heat of the air around him finally registered, "Oh. Oh." He leapt out of the navigation console and rushed behind the Chancellor's flapping robes through corridors that were, fortunately, now free of gravity shears, until they were able to pop a maintenance hatch and clamber out onto a fire-retardant-foamed section of cooling ship hull. Anxious-faced rescue workers hustled them off the tarmac, the center of which had been plowed up spectacularly by their latest happy landing. With many gushing expressions of relief and gratitude, the three of them were packed into a shuttle bound for the Senate.
Anakin paced the whole way. "Think they'd drop me off at RHIA?" he said, once the Chancellor's bodyguards had stopped fussing and the Chancellor himself had stopped heaping praises on his two Jedi rescuers.
Obi-Wan raised his eyebrows. "I don't think so. One of us has to pose for the holocams."
Anakin turned away moodily. Dooku's stricken face appeared briefly before his eyes. "Let them find a real hero," he muttered.
Obi-Wan and Palpatine both looked at him as though desperate to comment on such an uncharacteristic statement. Anakin ignored them and stalked resolutely up and down the aisle until the awkward silence was broken by the chime of Obi-Wan's comlink.
"The Council has requested an immediate briefing," Obi-Wan announced.
Anakin felt his heart sink. The last thing he wanted right now was to be faced with the hostile stares of the Masters, shrinking on the middle of the chamber floor like some particularly ugly specimen under a microscope. The Council wouldn't know a moral dilemma, he reflected vindictively, if it shoved itself up their constipated—
"I suppose you'll have just have to absorb the adoration of the press on your own," Obi-Wan added mischievously.
Anakin brightened with relief and summoned up his sense of mischief. "Well, that's very generous of you, but I just couldn't bring myself to make you do all the hard work, Master."
Palpatine watched with evident interest as Obi-Wan returned, "Oh, no, I insist. I owe it to you."
"For saving your skin for the tenth time?"
"Ninth," Obi-Wan said severely. "That business on Cato Neimoidia doesn't count. Besides, I've gotten you out of jail several times now."
"Master Yoda's gotten me out of jail several times," Anakin corrected, traipsing airily down the aisle. "You were just his errand boy. And you're the one who made me go to jail in the first place, remember?"
Obi-Wan leaned back huffily. "It's no more than you deserve for losing your lightsaber—how many times now? Six?"
"And yet I live," Anakin said loftily. "Whereas you, if memory serves me, had to be carried off that ship hanging unconscious over my shoulder."
"You weren't doing so much better when I came to," Obi-Wan pointed out.
"It was all part of the plan."
"The Chancellor hanging from your ankle over an endless turbolift shaft was part of the plan?"
Anakin glanced sheepishly at his other mentor. "It, um, was a very flexible plan."
"Oh," Palpatine brushed it off, "all's well that ends well."
"See?" Anakin said. "I agree with him."
When don't you? Obi-Wan sent to him with a disapproving look. "If you keep pulling stunts like that, you'll find yourself in another mess with RHIA," he said aloud.
Anakin snorted. "I just won't report it."
Obi-Wan's look got even more disapproving.
Some hours later…
Anakin walked into Padmé's bedroom and tugged off his shirt with a profound sigh.
"Intense day, huh?" she asked, rolling over onto her elbow on her side of the bed.
"Tell me about it," Anakin groaned. "Hours this afternoon talking to RHIA's Coruscant regional director, not to mention all his sub-directors, filling out the paperwork so I could meet with the directors, and I still didn't get this mess sorted out."
"I was actually referring to the part where you found out you were going to be a father," Padmé snapped.
"Oh…right…" Anakin said vaguely.
" 'Oh, right'? You said this was the happiest day of your life!"
"Well," Anakin reasoned, "that was before I spent the whole afternoon talking to health insurance providers."
Her eyebrows jerked up at least forty degrees, and she sat up indignantly. "Anakin! This is our baby we're talking about! Are you seriously telling me that your health insurance problems are more important to you than our baby?"
"Padmé, sugar," Anakin said reasonably, "the health insurance thing is more important. I mean, you're not even having the baby for two more months."
Padmé bolted out of bed, grabbed him by the arm, and marched him into the main room. "Anakin," she announced, "meet your new best friend—the couch."
The couch was definitely not Anakin's new best friend. It didn't feel one tenth as good as it looked, which resulted in Anakin trying to sleep on the floor just as he usually did on the front lines. But without the lullaby of blaster bolts and blazing cannons and screeching attack craft, it just wasn't the same. He didn't even doze off until five in the morning, so busy was he grousing about Padmé and the growing crick in his neck, and as a result he slept in so long he missed the Council briefing he was supposed to help Obi-Wan give on the Outer Rim sieges.
As if the Council didn't hate him enough as it was. Frustrated, Anakin slashed an ozone path through the innards of the latest RHIA messenger droid to harass him. "Hormones are of the Dark Side," he growled.
Naturally, Obi-Wan picked that precise moment to walk into the training room. "What is of the Dark Side?" he asked.
"Ah…trombones. I said trombones are of the Dark Side." Great, Skywalker, how stupid can you get? "There…um…there's this trombone solo in The Sith Wars, you see, Aria Number Twelve…it's been stuck in my head…"
Obi-Wan had raised his eyebrows, in the sort of look that said he suspected Anakin had been garbage-pit racing recently.
"You know," Anakin muttered lamely. "Dum-dum-dum, dum-da-dum…dum-da-dum…" He swung his lightsaber vaguely like a conductor's baton.
"Anakin," Obi-Wan asked carefully, "have you meditated recently?"
"I've been too busy wrangling with RHIA, Master. I finally talked to the Coruscant regional director yesterday."
"I take it you were less than successful."
Anakin scowled. "He wouldn't budge on a single thing. Told me to fill out a petition form or talk to the Order about getting them to pay the bill."
"I suggest you request an audience with the Council," said Obi-Wan. "They'll take care of it. I happen to know we have an opening this afternoon."
Anakin looked up in surprise. "Really? I thought they were booked up three months in advance."
"Well, they would be, but Master Windu's hair care appointment was cancelled. It seems you ran over his barber's shop with Grievous' ship yesterday."
Anakin winced. "Great, this audience will be off to a wonderful—wait! Master Windu has barber appointments?"
Obi-Wan shrugged. "I think it's mainly out of habit."
Later that afternoon…
"A briefing you missed this morning," Yoda pointed out severely.
"My apologies, Master. I overslept." What with rescuing the Chancellor and killing Sith Lords and fighting with my wife and all, Anakin added sourly in his mind. Not that that would be a good enough excuse for any of you…
"See that it doesn't happen again," Mace ordered, scowling. "Now—what do you wish to speak with the Council about? Your encounter with Dooku yesterday?"
"Actually, Master, it's about this health insurance problem with RHIA," Anakin said. "I've attempted to get them to cover the bill for my prosthetic replacement after Geonosis, and they claim that the Order doesn't pay for Sith Lord coverage."
"That's right," Mace said testily. "It's an expensive premium service. You know how difficult it is to work with the Senate budget committee."
"Well," Anakin said, clamping down on his temper, "be that as it may, I don't have any possessions, so obviously I can't pay a twenty-thousand-credit bill. Shouldn't the Order cover the cost for me?"
"Hmmm…" murmured Yoda.
"It is indeed a difficult question," mused Ki-Adi-Mundi. Kit Fisto rapped his fingers thoughtfully on his chair. Nervous glances flitted around the room.
"Twenty thousand credits, you say," Windu said, glowering. "I'm afraid that's out of the question."
"Money doesn't grow on juja trees, Jedi Skywalker," the bald Master told him. "We're in the middle of fighting a war. We can't afford these luxuries."
"Luxuries?" Anakin stammered. He flung his prosthetic hand forward. "I sort of need this thing, Master! I got it cut off fighting the damned war, in case you didn't notice! Isn't it more trouble for the Order to keep posting bail for me instead of just paying the bill and getting it out of the way?"
"Understand your frustration we do, but sufficient funds, we have not," Yoda explained. "Overdrawn for this quarter we are. Too much your bill is."
"I thought size mattered not," Anakin growled.
"An exception there is to every rule. By the way, bail you out again, I cannot. No more favors does the warden owe me. Exhausted them, I have."
Anakin groaned. "I don't believe it."
"That is why you fail. But sympathize, I do," said Yoda. "Still haggling with RHIA over my last orthopedic surgery bill, I am. Five hundred years ago, that was."
Anakin buried his face in his hands with a whimper.
A few days and an arrest later…
"Thanks for bailing me out, Your Excellency," Anakin sighed, settling back against the leather cushions of the luxury speeder.
"You know you can count on my help in any situation, Anakin," Palpatine told him graciously. "I simply hate to think of you languishing in that awful detention cell for days on end."
"Sometimes," Anakin told him fervently, "I think you're the only person who truly cares about me."
"It is very shocking to me that the Council doesn't recognize the greatness in you," said Palpatine sadly. "It's becoming clear that they don't appreciate you the way that you deserve."
"I know," Anakin agreed, his anger spiking. "I kill Sith Lords for them and they can't be bothered to pay one measly insurance bill. I'll never get it taken care of if the Council isn't even on my side."
"You know, of course, that I'd be delighted to pay the bill on your behalf," Palpatine suggested.
"That's very kind of you," Anakin said sincerely, a little taken aback, "but I'm a Jedi. I can't take money from anybody."
"Really, it wouldn't be going to you," the Chancellor pointed out. "It would be paid directly to a government agency. Consider it my way of helping protect a public servant injured in the dutiful exercise of his steadfast commitment to the welfare of the citizens of the Republic."
"Well," Anakin said, wavering, "when you put it that way…"
"You don't have to decide right now," the Chancellor said with a beatific smile as the speeder pulled up to the Temple precincts. "Just...consider the offer. After all, I wouldn't want to confuse your high moral instincts."
"You're very considerate," Anakin said adoringly. "I'll get back to you on that."
"Excellent," said Palpatine, displaying all his teeth happily. "Do take your time, Anakin."
It had been a bad few days on Coruscant, during which Palpatine's offer to pay the insurance bill barely even touched Anakin's mind. For one, the Chancellor had pretty much trumped it with his appointment of Anakin to the High Council—he'd said it was his way of compensating for the Council's refusal to pay the insurance bill, which Anakin felt was only fair. Then the Council had retaliated by refusing to make him a Master and ordering him to spy on the Chancellor. Obi-Wan had left for Utapau on the trail of General Grievous, tortuous dreams of Padmé's impending death had begun disturbing him so much that he forgot about their argument entirely, and just to cap it all off, he'd gotten toe fungus from his cellmate at the detention center.
When he tried to have it treated at the medbay in the Temple, the Padawan on duty had informed him that he wasn't permitted to receive any additional non-essential care until he settled accounts with RHIA. Despite all his promises to Padmé, Anakin threw her file cabinet down the trash chute too and stole a tube of foot cream from the Healers' supply closet.
It had turned out to be made for Trandoshans only.
Now—now he'd just discovered that Palpatine, his beloved mentor, the great galactic leader who'd bailed him out of jail when no one else would, the man who was like a father to him (okay, maybe more like grandfather, or even possibly great-grandfather) was a Sith Lord.
Absurdly, as he sat in the Council room waiting for Mace and his cohort of Jedi to get back from arresting the leader of the Republic, humming lyrics from The Sith Wars to himself, the question that occurred to Anakin most was not whether Palpatine really could save Padmé, or whether he really was a Sith Lord. No, the question Anakin found most pressing was—how the nine hells did he get insurance coverage from RHIA all this time?
And as he sat and pondered, it occurred to him that if Palpatine had fooled RHIA into covering an actual Sith Lord's health insurance costs for several decades, then the man must know how to out-manipulate the agency. Perhaps, even, he knew the secret to getting Anakin out of this paperwork swamp.
I can't let Master Windu kill him! Anakin realized in a flash of insight. The next instant he bolted out of his seat and flew the first available vehicle to the Senate. Screw earning Master Windu's trust, he told himself, dodging an oncoming tour hoverbus. Like I ever wanted it in the first place!
The scene of devastation that met him in the Chancellor's office defied description. The corpses of three slain Jedi Masters decorated the carpet, the great glass window was gone, and the beautiful sculptures were in ruins—and what was worse, Mace had the Chancellor cowering at the point of his abominable purple lightsaber.
"You have lost!" Windu was shouting.
"Anakin!" Palpatine shouted desperately. "I told you it would come to this! The Jedi are plotting to take over!"
"The oppression of the Sith will never return!" Windu roared.
Palpatine snarled a retort and let loose a burst of blue lightning from his fingers. Anakin watched in horror as Windu slowly turned the lightning back against him, melting the Chancellor's face. It looked like a scene from the Third Act of The Sith Wars.
The Chancellor was faltering. "I'm too weak…help me, Anakin…"
"You can't kill him, Master!" Anakin yelled desperately. "He—uh—he must stand trial!"
"He controls the courts and the Senate!" Mace objected. "I'm going to end this!"
Anakin panicked. "It's—uh, it's not the Jedi Way!" he tried, hardly believing his own audacity in saying such a thing to Mace Windu.
Mace swung his blade up.
"No!" Anakin screeched. "I need him to pay my insurance bill!"
"What?" Mace asked, but Anakin had already sliced off his lightsaber hand, and then suddenly the Chancellor struck back. His burst of lightning blew the maimed Jedi Master straight through the broken window, and Anakin distinctly saw his form plunge through several layers of traffic and smash through the windshield of an unfortunate tour hoverbus.
"What have I done?" he moaned.
"You are fulfilling your destiny, Anakin," soothed the Chancellor. "Become my apprentice! Learn the ways of the Dark Side, and together we will destroy RHIA and reform the galactic government and health insurance system! And, of course," he added as an afterthought, "we'll save your dear Padmé too. I'm sure I can rediscover the secret of cheating death and creating life in no time at all."
Anakin collapsed to his knees, profound hope surging through every vein. "I'll do whatever you ask," he pledged. "Just get rid of RHIA!"
"Good, good," purred Palpatine. "The Dark Side is strong with you. Your fear for Padmé and anger with the health insurance system makes you strong… Henceforth you shall be known as Darth—Vader."
That has a nice ominous ring to it, Darth Vader thought. "Thank you, my Master," he said. "Um—what does it mean, exactly?"
"It's Ancient Huttese," explained Palpatine. "It means, He Who Has Outmaneuvered Many HMOs."
"Very fitting, my Master," Darth Vader exclaimed proudly. "It will strike fear into the hearts of all who oppose us. Especially RHIA agents."
"I spent two years researching names," Palpatine told him cheerfully. "Now—we must deal with the plot by the traitorous Jedi…"
The destruction of all the RHIA-supporting Jedi at the Temple went off pretty smoothly, and the newly christened Darth Vader began to feel hopeful about the future for the first time in three years. What was even better than getting rid of the Council, though, was Palpatine's promise that once Vader finished off the Separatist leaders on Mustafar, he could personally decapitate each and every RHIA agent he could find, from the irritating Falleen woman at the Jedi Temple to the Coruscant regional director himself.
Unfortunately, things on Mustafar didn't go quite as smoothly. First of all, Padmé had figured out just what her husband was up to and chased him down. If he'd thought the argument about the baby a few days ago was bad, it was nothing compared to this. And then…
…Obi-Wan had showed up.
She really is going to run away with him and abandon me on a planet full of hot lava and corpses, Darth Vader realized.
And remembering their conversation about that very possibility several months ago, and how she'd promised she wouldn't ever do such a thing and now here she was doing it, he'd simply lost his temper. One tantrum led to another, and now here he was lying in a scorched, dismembered huddle on an operating table while a team of sadistic droids poked, prodded, peeled away bits of charred clothes, and generally tortured the hell out of him. Somewhere in the background, he was sure that he could hear Aria Number 66 from The Sith Wars.
"...Behold thy backbone shattered, and thy body burned away...and thy limbs all hacked and mangled...and thy skin grotesquely flayed..."
The one consolation he had was the knowledge that if all had gone according to plan, his new Master had dissolved RHIA by now and he would never, ever be billed for the new prosthetics that the droids were attaching.
Finally, the droids finished sealing him inside a life-support helmet and the table he was on titled up. He glimpsed the hooded form of Palpatine through the red-tinted vision screen of his mask.
"Lord Vader," asked the newly crowned Emperor, "can you hear me?"
"Yes, my master," Vader replied. His voice was alarmingly deep—it felt weird talking through the vocabulator instead of his own vocal cords. "Where is Padmé?" he asked. "Is she safe?"
"It seems," said the Emperor reluctantly, "in your anger…you killed her."
"What?" Vader asked numbly. No…no, she was alive! I felt her!
"And I'm afraid the bad news only gets worse," the Emperor added. "As I promised, my friend, RHIA is no more. Your former prosthetic bill has been erased from the records, as has all mention of the lawsuits against you. However, I simply had to create a new health care system—you can't very well hire employees for a new Galactic Empire without providing medical benefits, after all. I decided to call it the Imperial Ministry of Medical Insurance. And…well, I'm afraid that they don't cover reckless endangerment either."
"What are you saying, Master?" Vader asked in dread.
"Their investigation department has already viewed the images of your battle with Kenobi," said the Emperor. "And they've concluded that a Force user of your experience should have realized Kenobi had the upper ground and you would only be seriously injured by pursuing the fight. Plus, that fancy new life support system is way over your maximum deductible. The upshot is…you owe the Galactic Empire 1.3 million credits."
Absolute, impotent horror broiled through every remaining square inch of Vader's body. His newly acquired circuits surged and shorted. Around him machinery began to implode. The opera music in the background swelled to a dramatic pitch. Despairing, he ripped free of the table restraints, staggered forward, flung his arms wide, and howled…