As much as I would like to say I own Disney I don't so I don't own Star Wars, either.


Several months later:

As C-3PO left her office on his way to the The Ghost of Tom Joad with the hovercart carrying the last of the boxes of her personal belongings, Padme Skywalker-Naberrie looked around to make certain nothing had been missed and tried not to cry ... again. Sixteen years of public service, and it had all come to this—an empty office, a ruined reputation, and everything she had struggled to achieve in her long years as Senator destroyed as the Republic tore itself apart.

Literally tore itself apart, great empty swathes across the Grand Convocation Chamber growing wider daily as more systems seceded from the Republic and called their delegations home. Some were systems whose leaders were trying to escape the consequences of the revelations of their personal corruption in the massive infodump of Palpatine's files; just as many if not more were systems whose citizens were appalled at the breadth, depth, and depravity of the corruption contained in those documents, and no longer wanted any part in the government that had allowed that corruption to not just fester but to spread its tentacles throughout the Republic and beyond. And that didn't include the new trend, those systems that had gone off like thermal detonators, their governments shaken when they weren't annihilated by bloody revolutions. (Something a few farsighted and quick-thinking government leaders had tried to prevent by ordering the destruction of their own systems' hyperwave transceivers when they'd realized the nature of the information suddenly pouring in. Padme suspected all they'd done was buy themselves some time, and in many cases probably made the final bloodbath even worse.)

The only saving grace in the catastrophe was that the Separatists were even worse off; the revelation that their entire upper leadership had known Darth Sidious for what he was and had allied with him anyway combined with their own even broader, deeper, and more depraved corruption had shattered that coalition like dropped crystal.

No, there was one more saving grace—Palpatine's records on the personalities and activities of Black Sun, the Hutts, and other organized crime syndicates were almost as extensive as those on the Republic's government. Between those revelations and the sheer chaos those records had unleashed, organized crime was in the process of being annihilated both by law enforcement and its own fratricidal war; what fragments survived would have to rebuild their networks from the ground up.

"It's not fair."

Padme turned, surprised to find Areta Rhade—a longtime friend and her replacement—standing in the office doorway; she'd thought they'd already said their goodbyes at the farewell party with her staff the previous evening, and hadn't expected cleaning out her office to take this long ... and it wouldn't have, if she hadn't broken down a few times. She knew Areta could see the aftermath of those tear-soaked episodes, but she just shrugged. "I was one of Palpatine's closest allies for most of his time as Chancellor, and the fact that that support was weakening toward the end and that his records show that I was a dupe rather than a collaborator or blackmail victim doesn't change that. Salvaging something from this catastrophe will be hard enough without having a politician heavily involved that no one trusts anymore." (Though they'd been lucky in one way ... that massive infodump hadn't included a word about Anni, apparently Palpatine hadn't needed to keep notes on whatever he'd had planned for her husband.)

"And so instead you're ... what, joining a group marriage with those responsible for destroying your reputation? Heading off into the backwaters of the galaxy? Raising your children on a freighter? Are you insane!? At least return to Naboo, your family misses you!"

Padme giggled. "You've been saving that up for awhile, haven't you? We'll be swinging by Naboo before we head for the 'backwaters of the galaxy', let Mother and Father meet their grandchildren. But can you imagine Anakin settling down on a planet as peaceful as Naboo? I'd give it one year, tops, before he started blowing things up, intentional or otherwise. And The Ghost of Tom Joad might officially be a freighter, but she has to be the toughest, fastest, most lethal 'freighter' in the galaxy—Jamillia saw to that; Luke and Aja will love growing up onboard."

"Well, yes, our Queen did you proud. I think her exact words were, 'If Padme is going to completely lose her mind, the least we can do is try to keep her alive long enough to recover'. And I will admit to spending much of my childhood daydreaming of growing up on a free freighter, landing on a new planet every month with the space between the stars as my home, going wherever the cargoes took me. But I doubt the reality will live up to my fantasies."

Padme's giggles turned into laughter, and she pulled her friend into a hug. "We'll be fine, you'll see," she murmured in her friend's ear. "And with the ship's hyperwave transceiver, if you ever need advice I'll always be a call away. But now I have to go."

"I know." Areta returned the embrace for a long moment, then reluctantly let go and stepped back. "And don't think I didn't notice that you didn't say anything about your group marriage, with that hyperwave transceiver you just mentioned I will expect to hear how that works out."

Padme felt her cheeks heat with a furious blush and opened her mouth to protest that it wasn't really a group marriage, that it was some kind of Force thing (not a Jedi thing, more like the exact opposite), but couldn't find the words to say—she didn't really understand it all that well herself. And besides, while Jenni had described the Bond as best she could to someone that hadn't experienced the Force for herself, she had mentioned that on her homeworld a Bond was considered the legal equivalent of a marriage.

Padme really wasn't sure what she was getting herself into; all she knew was that not once in the Youxia Bonds' thousand years of history had one of their members fallen to the Dark Side ... and twice her husband had surrendered to the Dark Side's seductive call, once when he'd annihilated an entire tribe of Sand People and again when he'd killed the mercenaries hired to assassinate her ... but not before torturing one of them first. With her approval, for a moment at least. Anakin needed the support Jenni and Ahsoka could provide, that perhaps she couldn't, and where he went she would follow. (Or more like, where she went he would follow, maybe, sometimes they seemed to bleed into each other.)

So in the end Padme just shrugged again and said, "I'll tell you all about it." Another quick hug and exchanged farewells, and as her waiting bodyguards fell into place around her (former members of Torrent Company that had decided they'd had enough of military life, and claimed that the Outer Rim sounded like a nice place to visit this time of year) she followed C-3PO toward her new shipboard home, and new life.

/oOo\

Jenni just could not keep a grin off her face. That should have been easy, she actually shouldn't have felt like smiling at all—the first food riot had broken out the previous evening, and the morning's initial reports had been horrendous. And it was only going to get worse.

But the sheer joy radiating from Barriss as she finished packing what little she owned before heading for The Ghost of Tom Joad made it impossible for any empath around her to do anything but share in her happiness, even if it felt a little odd to feel that joy 'secondhand' instead of through a bond like she shared with Ahsoka. Right now, though, Ahsoka was the only one Barriss trusted enough to bond with, so the rest would have to wait until later—a thought that made Jenni giggle, and Ahsoka to look at her suspiciously when she felt her Bonded's amusement.

Jenni waved that off, and asked, "Are you two good? It's about time for my farewell meeting with the Council."

Ahsoka's suspicion faded, and she grinned. "I think we'll wait until you're done and go back to Tom Joad with you. I don't want to miss this."

Jenni's giggle turned into a laugh, in spite of a slight pang at the mention of the ship—the Bond and allies (not subordinates, much less minions) were grown too large for Life's Gift, so she couldn't object when Cort had asked to assume ownership when the Bounty Hunter's Guild cancelled all of Darth Sidious's bounties and he was free to leave. But she was going to miss her first ship-home even more than she did Cort (even if he left contact information).

But it was today that they were living, and she pushed what-might-have-beens aside. "Yeah, it should be quite a show. All right, then, I'll meet you at the main entrance after it's over." She paused as a thought struck her. "Barriss, why don't you see if you can use your bond with Ahsoka to join in? It probably won't work, but it's worth a try." The other two exchanged surprised glances as she turned to leave, and she grinned again as Barriss snuggled up against Ahsoka. The Mirialan probably didn't even realize what she was doing—the newly Bonded tended to do that, and even if the new Bond hadn't been consummated yet that still held true. (The thought of sex made Barriss a little queasy so Ahsoka wasn't pushing it, a reversal that Jenni also found amusing. So did Ahsoka, for that matter.)

It was a good fifteen minute brisk walk to the Council Chamber at the Temple's peak, and Jenni was saddened by all the signs of battle still visible as she passed by. The Order was understandably leery of letting in outsiders at such a perilous time, and was much too busy to see to any but the most necessary of repairs itself—it had been decimated by the Chancellor's Order 67 and most of the survivors were scattered throughout what was left of the Republic and beyond, overseeing the removal of the chips from all the clone troopers they could reach (from a safe distance and out of sight), trying to cement the fragile peace, destroying the abominations created by a mix of technology and Sith alchemy that built up and maintained the Shroud (she'd seen more than one grown Jedi cry when the installation on Coruscant was blown up and they'd felt an immediate lessening of the Void's influence), and looking for Jedi survivors that might still be in hiding or recovering without the benefit of modern medicine.

And helping the Green Jedi, what few were left—the Order as a whole might have been decimated but the Corellian branch had been all but annihilated, only most of the younglings and a few adults escaping into the catacombs beneath that system's Temple while the rest of the adults on site held off their attackers. The Chancellor had been especially nervous of that standoffish semi-splinter branch and had planned accordingly, and his plans had worked almost to perfection. Though he probably hadn't anticipated some of those adult Jedi, with no preparation, no crystals of their own like she and Ahsoka had, reaching almost into near orbit to pull down a Navy cruiser on top of them to cover the younglings' escape.

Jenni pushed aside her momentary bleak thoughts—and scary thoughts as well, the Dancers of this era could operate on a scale no Bond had ever dreamed of—when she arrived at the entrance to the Council Chamber and was promptly waved through by the Jedi standing watch (to prevent disturbances more than protection, considering the lethality of some of those in the room beyond).

She'd give the Council that much, they didn't play petty power games by making supplicants wait just to prove they could.

When she walked in she instantly reassessed the odds on the lethality of those in the room, because it was almost empty—the tiny green man that looked something like a humanoid toad with big pointy ears; a blond, bearded Human male; a dark, bald Human male; the rest were holograms. "Masters Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Windu are the ones actually here," Ahsoka reminded her through the Bond. Not that Jenni had needed more than the name of Windu, having seen and heard the other two when Ahsoka had been hurriedly debriefed by the Council as soon after Order 67 as they'd been able to make contact with Coruscant. Master Windu had still been in a bacta tank at the time.

"Was Barriss able to piggyback—ah, to join us?"

"Yes, it worked." Jenni kept her surprise off her face at the sound of Barriss's cheerful 'voice', though she was sure the Jedi in the room had picked up on it—they had to be as intently focused on her as if they were in combat. Fair enough, she was just as intently focused on them.

But that moment of surprise vanished as quickly as it came, and she squared her shoulders and stepped into the middle of the half-circle of chairs mostly seating holographic images. She glanced around, realized that there was no chair for her, and hid a smirk as she took a seat anyway, on empty air, tucking herself into the closest approximation of the lotus position her booted feet allowed. That smirk became harder to hide when she sensed Windu's disapproval ... and Kenobi's carefully hidden amusement. Perhaps he wasn't as much a stickler for procedure as she had been led to believe.

Yoda also was amused, and if the soft chuff he let out was his species' equivalent of a chuckle he didn't bother to hide it. But as a Grand Master of the Order its current trials must have fallen on him more than anyone, and the moment of levity was brief as well.

Windu leaned forward in his seat, forearms braced on his knees, hands clasped. "Jenni,"—she had rejected all attempts to refer to her as 'Master', she might be the only survivor of the Youxia Bonds but that didn't change her age and lack of experience—"thank you for coming to see us before you left. We owe you a debt that can never be repaid, and we have no wish to try to dictate to you. But we ... have concerns about Skywalker's decision to leave with you." He paused, but Jenni didn't respond and he finally continued. "Ahsoka told us of how he gave in to the Dark Side during his fight with Darth Sidious. When we asked her, Senator ... ah, his wife admitted that he had done the same when he killed her attackers. We understand that your ultimate destination is the Outer Rim, and do not believe that it is ... wise ... for him to be so isolated from ... those that know him when he is in such a fragile state."

"And you have concerns about how the Youxia Bond view the 'Dark Side', as a tool rather than an abomination. Yes, I know Ahsoka told you. I was listening in during her debriefing, after the way you treated her there was no way in hell I was going to let her face you alone."

The sudden silence was ringing, and she unfolded from her kinda-lotus position and lowered her feet. Turning away from the Council, she walked over and stared out the huge windows that circled the chamber at the city below ... or rather at that city's surface. The surface that looked so peaceful. Even if she'd been looking in the right direction, even if it was far enough away to be over the horizon, by now the smoke from the fires started during the planet's first food riot would have dissipated. After a long moment she turned to again face the Council. "Have any of you studied primitive medical practices? If you have, you'll have encountered the first halfway practical treatment for cancer, over and over, race after race. My people called it chemotherapy—a treatment where the patient is periodically injected with poison, and prayers offered that the poison will kill the cancer faster than it kills the patient. The Youxia Bonds saw the Void like that, a sometimes useful but extremely dangerous and highly addictive tool, one that always corrupts those that wield it, and destroys those that turn to it too frequently even if they don't lose themselves within the Void's embrace.

"The Bonds had an advantage that others don't though, the Bonds themselves. Privacy is nonexistent in a Bond—every member of a Bond knows where the others are, what every other member is feeling; members can look out through the others' eyes, hear what they hear, feel what they feel. We can look into other members' memories whenever we choose and not only can we not be stopped, if we're careful we won't even be noticed. The ... mindset, the corruption from reaching out into the Void, is distinct and unmistakeable once you know what you're seeing. And every new member of a Bond is shown what the signs look like, when we need to intervene."

Walking back to the center of the room, she resumed her 'seat' on empty air. "No, Skywalker is better off a member of my Bond in the Outer Rim than here on Coruscant with just his family. Ahsoka and Padme won't let him fall."

One of the holographic Masters straightened, another Togrutan ... Shaak Ti. "Padme won't let him fall? She's going with you?"

Jenni grinned. "Of course she is, the Bond travels together."

"But she isn't Force sensitive! How can she join your Bond?"

Jenni's grin widened. "She isn't a Dancer yet, but she will be; spend enough time with a Dancer, and you learn to dance yourself ... and thanks to the Bond she will be spending all her time with three Dancers, four once Barriss decides to fully join."

Now it was Yoda's turn to straighten. "Barriss, you speak of? Leave with you she will as well?"

"Yes," Jenni agreed with a nod. "She's already bonded with Ahsoka, I expect she'll bond with the rest of us once we've earned her trust." Or the sex drives her crazy. She was very careful to keep that thought buried deep, where her two 'listeners' couldn't 'hear' it without real effort ... though she felt their curiosity at her spike of amusement.

Another Master burst out in protest, one Jenni didn't recognize, or even his species. She sent an questioning burst through the Bond and got back a 'shrug' from Ahsoka, he must have been newly-promoted to the Council to fill empty seats after the massacre.

"But that will be two trained Force users that have lost themselves to the Dark Side!"

"It'll be three. While Ahsoka went to deal with Skywalker and the Chancellor"—some of the Masters twitched, and Jenni wasn't surprised; she hadn't heard anyone in the Temple or what was left of the Senate call him Sheev, Palpatine, and definitely not the Chancellor ... as if refusing to use the names and title of the man they'd thought was their friend, ally, and mentor could separate them from the monster he actually was—"I dueled the pawn he sent to stop her, and lured her into a trap I'd set up powered by what you call Force lightning. But I lost myself to the Void, until Ahsoka pulled me out."

She sighed and again unfolded herself to stand straight before the Council, unbending. "You needn't worry, I won't be training anyone in how reach out to the Void. Remember how I said that with chemotherapy the treatment was to inject the patient with the poison and pray? That was because of individual variability, each patient with a different level of resistance. It is the same with the Void, and what the Void Slaves did first to my world and now to yours has made hate a companion that is always with me; when I stare into the Void I see my own face, and it is the face of a monster. So I will not be reaching out to it again ... ever. Nor will I teach or even encourage anyone else to do so."

"That's not true! You're angry, sure, but—"

"Hush, 'Soka, it's true enough. And what they need to hear."

And it was—tension eased out of the three Masters present, the ones that could sense her sincerity, Windu leaning back in his chair, Yoda seeming shrink with his ears lowering slightly, Kenobi's shoulders slumping. Jenni couldn't read the body language of the rest of the Council, but she watched them all glance at the three present and their own postures shifted as well.

But that didn't mean that they were now happy about the Bond's plans, and after a moment Kenobi straightened. "But why the Outer Rim? I understand that a freighter as heavily crewed as your own—even one of the quality of the one the Queen of Naboo has given you—will have difficulties finding cargo in the Core well-paying enough to earn a living. But I can't imagine you'll do any better in the Outer Rim, and Anakin ... Knight Skywalker ... has enemies. If the pickings are still too slim in even the Colonies, why not the Expansion Rim or even the Mid Rim?"

"Because the new colonies in the Outer Rim will need all the help they can get ... the ones you'll be creating by dumping Coruscant natives with a pile of equipment and supplies and a few advisors, I mean. Three former Jedi veterans of the war and one of the Republic's finest diplomats will go a long way."

Silence again slammed down, as the entire Council straightened, jaws dropping (those that had jaws). After a moment a wrinkled orange alien with some kind of breather mask over eyes and mouth—"Plo Koon," Ahsoka 'murmured'—demanded, "How did you know learn about that!? We're still in confidential negotiations—"

He broke off when Jenni began to giggle. After a few moments she brought herself under control. "Sorry, but your faces ... !" But the situation didn't allow for much levity, and she quickly sobered. "I didn't learn about it, I figured it out. Coruscant comes nowhere close to feeding itself, not by several orders of magnitude, and with the disruption of interstellar trade and the wave of secessions cutting into the Republic's revenues food shipments have plummeted and won't be rebounding any time soon. I'm sure what's left of the Senate is trying to move Heaven and Earth to bring in as much food as it can, and grow enough here to make up the slack, vat-grown products, whatever." She waved dismissively. "But it isn't going to be enough, not even close—Coruscant's a death trap. Yesterday was the first food riot; I give it less than a year before widespread cannibalism sets in ... beyond that typical of the Deeps, anyway." A number of the Council joined her in grimacing—the lowest levels of the city-planet had a strong resemblance to deep ocean trenches with its life, sentient and otherwise, away from a few equivalents of hydrothermal vents living off the upper level's garbage and each other. "What choice do you have but to get as many as you can off-planet? And that many refugees ... the seceding systems aren't going to want them, those that stay can only take so many without destabilizing, so ... new colonies. And any empty worlds gardenlike enough for colonizing by urban refugees will be in the Outer Rim. I know you will do the best you can to look out for those forced to colonize, but you're stretched thin as it is and have problems bigger, more important, and closer to home than widely scattered, dirt poor start-up colonies. So we will do what little we can to help."

She fell silent, and that silence stretched until Yoda finally broke it with a deep sigh. "Told anyone have you of your insight?"

"Only my Bond, now and future—there are no secrets in the Bond, and those joining needed to know what they would be getting themselves into. But if I can figure it out, others will if they haven't already ... our first job is to transport Dex Jettster, all of his employees and their families, and as much of his equipment as he can tear out of his diner to Naboo. And it was Dex's idea, when Anakin told him about our new ship, I was there and heard the whole thing."

Kenobi hadn't so much as twitched at Dex's name, but Jenni sensed his approval—and lack of surprise—at the news, and so did the two bonded 'listening' in. "So that's how he learned about it," Ahsoka 'murmured', and Jenni 'sent' back her agreement.

But it seemed Windu and Yoda were too focused on her to pick up on Kenobi's lack of surprise, so they simply exchanged glances with each other, then Kenobi. Windu and Kenobi nodded, and Yoda sighed again. "Very well. Stop you we cannot, so help you we will, as much as we can."

"Though as you said, we are stretched thin," Kenobi cautioned. "Most of the time you will be on your own." He grinned, suddenly amused. "And now it'll be your jobs to keep Anakin from charging off in all directions. I'm almost relieved."

Jenni laughed and bowed then turned to go, only to pause, shoulders tightening, when she heard one of the other Council members mutter, "Some 'Chosen One'." She paused for a moment, considering just letting that go, then turned back around.

"Yes, the 'Chosen One', the one supposed to 'bring balance to the Force'. And just what aspect of the 'Force' did you think he was supposed to bring into balance? Your 'Light Side' and 'Dark Side' of the Force? Sure, Darth Sidious and all the Darths before him stretching back a millennium played you all like a fiddle, but there was only two of them at a time, at most! If that was what was out of balance the Jedi Order would be gone, not just decimated. No, the imbalance lay between Order and Chaos. The Republic had gone from maintaining peace to maintaining stasis, and so had you—how much new technology has come out that actually threatened any of the Republic's interstellar corporations? For centuries! Of course, you got all the corruption and injustice that stasis requires to be maintained, and a Sith Empire would have been no better. Well, that stasis is well and truly gone now, and the Youxia Bond—including your 'Chosen one'—will do all we can to minimize the fallout of the coming Time of Chaos that your failure made inevitable until a new equilibrium is reached."

Turning back around, she stalked toward the door, only to be brought up short by Ahsoka murmuring in her mind, "Uh, Jenni ... Terra?"

Sighing, she turned back around. "Ahsoka just interrupted my Grand Exit to remind me that I was going to tell you about what she called a 'vergence in the Force'. The planet where she found me—formerly Trey, now Terra—is settled by as oddball a group of archaeologists as you'll find anywhere, but they've agreed to allow you to set up a Temple there if you wish. I'd advise training your younglings there ... after all, the plans for those perversions of Sith alchemy that the Sith used to feed the Void and interfere with with currents of the Tao—plans that are now scattered throughout the galaxy—won't function around a 'Light Side' vergence."

She turned away, but paused at Windu's soft cough. He asked, "You will let us know where on Terra the vergence can be found?"

Suddenly she found herself grinning again. "I'll give you the coordinates for the mountain complex where Ahsoka found me, you can build your new settlement there though it'll take some cleaning up ... it was buried by an ice age for most of the past ninety thousand years, but it would be nice to know there are children there again. But the vergence isn't on the planet, it is the planet. And the bounty hunters hunting Ahsoka chased her straight to it." And she strolled out of the Council Chamber, leaving behind a Council stunned silent once again.


Author's Note: I know, that was a really long talk-fest. And I know I've skipped a lot of relationship development and drama, but if I included all that the epilogue would be as long as that of The Return of the King, with less justification. The next (and last) chapter will have more action, but mostly of the lemony kind. So for those that might want to skip the lemony goodness (hopefully) here's a few notes on my inspirations for how things turned out. I got the massive infodump of Darth Sidious' files and the resultant collapse of the Republic from Frangit Et Finit by Darthkvzn (not complete and apparently dead, unfortunately), though the following prediction of mass starvation on Coruscant I came up with myself (though for me that seems like simple common sense). The method of colonization they're adopting out of desperation (dumping a bunch of urban dwellers with a pile of supplies and a few people that know what they're doing) I got from the standard practice in one of the stories in Robert A. Heinlein's Time Enough for Love (though there the new colonies' tech level was essentially what a small group could maintain itself, or wouldn't break down before the colony grew enough to replace it—call it pre-steam US). And the fate of the Green Jedi, including the escape of most of their younglings, I got from Vathara's excellent SAO/Star Wars cross, Change of Fate. (Vathara's other stories are also excellent, though the latest few have seemed more like outlines and snippets—I've read the Valdemar and Star Wars crosses with Rurouni Kenshin and the Avengers/Artemis Fowl cross multiple times. And I've only read the first two Artemis Fowl books, and haven't read Rurouni Kenshin at all, so that's saying something.)

Like the ship, of course, the title of the chapter comes from the song by Bruce Springsteen and covered by Solas (and others, I'm sure), and is particularly appropriate for where the Republic and Separatists find themselves:

Men walkin' 'long the railroad tracks
Goin' someplace there's no goin' back
Highway patrol choppers comin' up over the bridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin' 'round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin' in their cars in the Southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Searchin' for the ghost of Tom Joad

He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waitin' for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box 'neath the underpass
Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand
Sleepin' on a pillow of solid rock
Bathin' in the city aqueduct

The highway is alive tonight
Where it's headed everybody knows
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
Waitin' on the ghost of Tom Joad

Now Tom said "Mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there's a fight against the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me mom I'll be there
Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand
Or a decent job or a helpin' hand
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you'll see me. "

Well the highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad