Dooku dared not enter the Temple for three months. Not since the duel on Mustafar, since the deaths of Sidious and Skywalker and since he was given the role of Emperor. It was part of Palpatine's official will, to secure a successor in the event of his untimely passing. A tenuous basis for one of Dooku's reputation over the past decade to ascend to such a position with but one respected enough so far. Begrudgingly as it was.
He played the part as well as could be done given his circumstances of late. He held speeches meant to incite a fire in the hearts and minds of the people Dooku himself felt extinguish in him months ago. He dutifully met and coordinated with the newly re-organized Imperial Senate only because concentration on such matters allowed him to escape his issues for a few hours.
When he was alone, inside the Senatorial Dome, Dooku's eyes and thoughts constantly wandered over to the Temple. The ruins perpetually on the horizon, calling to him with the same frequency as their very presence seemed to mock him. In the scattered mess of his troubled dreams, his former home loomed even larger, filled with the voices of the dead and the living. All of them calling out to him, waiting for him to enter and join them in their miserable madness.
Traitor. Murderer. Failure.
These were but a few things the voices called him, curiously, none of them came from Sidious. Dooku wasn't sure if that made him feel better or worse. Adding to his troubled mind was a burnt-out flesh. The Dark Side was not with him anymore, the rejuvenating power of it had left him entirely. Drawing on the Force at all left a bitter taste in his mouth. And so, Dooku was no more a great Jedi Master or a Lord of the Sith, he was merely an old man who required a cane to move about and perpetually, vividly, sensed the wear and tear of decades with every movement.
And so passed the last three months of his life, until one day he couldn't take it anymore. He gave Pestage and Amedda instructions to cancel whatever appointments he had one morning, ignoring all the pleas for reconsideration. Then, with a detachment of clone troops, Dooku made his way via a personal and well-guarded transport over the Jedi Temple. The clones were thankfully less willing to ignore his commands, even accepting the order to not follow him inside with a droid-like confirmation and nod of their heads.
With a rhythmic striking of his cane against the ground so eerily similar to Master Yoda's, Dooku spent the next several hours inside his former home, simply walking and observing as much of the place as he could. A great deal of it was inaccessible, too damaged by the fighting inside and with only minimal work done to remove debris, ruins, and other obstacles. The barest of minimums for search parties and security forces to do their work. Yet even with holes in the walls, ceiling, smashed or overturned pillars, rows of empty data libraries, and vacant apartments, the Temple was still eerily familiar to him.
The Temple Museum, once a place of countless artifacts and sources of knowledge where Dooku spent many, many hours of his youth, listening to lectures and preparing himself to be the finest Jedi he was certain he was, was almost completely empty. The various pieces of data, relics, and other assorted items meant to enrich the minds of the young and help the newer generations learn from the past looked as though a cabal of thieves had broken in and taken everything of value.
Much the same could be said of the Archives. The place where Master Nu made her presence known. A kind, approachable one but also a firebrand who made it perfectly clear that if a Jedi wished to seek knowledge, they must do it for themselves, it was not a service to be done for them. Standing amidst the empty data stacks, blasted chairs, and overturned tables, Dooku could also hear her telling one Padawan or another off.
The busts of the Lost Twenty were gone as well, all but one. Dooku found his in short order and stared at it. Even after abandoning the Jedi and publicly calling them inept, worthless, and a failed institution alongside the Republic before even joining Sidious, they'd commemorated him there. A sign of how a Jedi could lose his way and an example for future generations to take note of. The fact they'd left it there did not surprise him in the least. Future generations of Jedi would know of him well enough without a mere bust to remind them.
Eventually, around midday he ventured to guess given the color and position of the rays of sun penetrating through the blasted holes and cracks across the entire Temple, Dooku's aimless wandering brought him to the Room of a Thousand Fountains. Somehow, against all odds, the seven-story tall greenhouse emerged from the siege unscathed. There was nary a hint of battle inside of it, no matter how closely Dooku looked. Not a single trampled plant, burnt piece of grass. The place was, as ever, a haven of the Force in its purest form. Even Sidious' fog could not penetrate it at the height of his power.
Dooku walked slowly, taking the natural oxygen in, letting the invigorating calm of the place ease his burdens. There was a pleasant silence there as well, the soft ground muting even the taping of his cane into barely audible thumps. After half an hour of slow but steady walking, Dooku found himself on the third floor, at a crossroads where the stone pathways split up into six directions.
Even with his Force abilities diminished to nearly nothing, the signature left behind by Master Yoda was unmistakable. His former teacher had been there, one last time. The thought was equal parts comforting and saddening for Dooku who merely stood there, watching the place in silent resignation. Soon enough, his thoughts wandered to a particular point they hadn't in a long time. Back to his youth and a particular incident with his former friend, Lorian Nod.
How they played in this place, practicing with one another, talking about which Master would make them their apprentice. Then, Lorian stole the Sith Holocron and said the words Dooku would never forget. Not as a Jedi or a Sith.
"I've seen your heart, and I know how empty it is."
A quick remark of embittered spite that profoundly shook Dooku's very idea of loyalty and friendship, poisoning them both forevermore. Lorian was expelled from the Order, not for theft but for trying to pass the blame onto one he called a friend. Dooku never felt any pity for him. Whenever he thought back to the event, he believed himself right. Lorian made his own fate, let himself be guided by jealousy instead of bettering himself or coming to terms with his inferiority. Oh how many tales Dooku spun, all sounding more true than the last.
Now he knew just how much blame was at his own feet. When the time came to reason with his friend, to try and help him, all Dooku could do was cite regulations and espouse Jedi platitudes with no thought or care to how useful they even were. Perhaps, if he was not an empty, heartless creature, he would've been able to help his friend. If not that, he could have, should have learned better lessons from the matter, instead of thinking himself too superior to listen to a freshly expelled Padawan who ultimately knew him better than anyone else.
Ultimately, Lorian was right, Dooku's heart was empty. One only needed to look at the Temple to see that.
"An empty heart does not question itself or its actions, Master."
Dooku's eyes snapped open, when did he fall asleep or sit down? He could not say, finding himself seated on a bench, hands rested on his cane and a penetrating shock coursing through his whole body. That voice, it could only be...
"Yes, it's been a long time, hasn't it, Master?"
Dooku looked around, frantically searching for the source of the voice to no avail, wondering if he'd finally gone mad. "How... How can this be...?"
"An opportunity from the Force, life after the death of the body. The skill to become one with the Force, yet remain conscious of thyself."
"... Eternal life..."
"That which the Sith covet most, yet they can never have it. It is a skill for those who can release themselves into the Force, not place themselves above it."
There was no scorn or judgment in Qui-Gon's voice yet Dooku felt it anyway, at himself. His hands shook, his throat was as dry as a desert planet yet his eyes watered. Obi-Wan showing him mercy in-spite of everything from the past three years, even in the throes of a bloodthirsty rage already shook Dooku's belief in the Sith supremacy. But, this finally broke it. What more proof did someone need? On one side, Qui-Gon was a man at peace, together with the most wonderful thing in all of existence, one with existence himself with time, knowledge, and peace of mind at his disposal.
On the other? A battered and broken old man who betrayed what truly mattered, a man alone and had only himself to blame for it.
"... You've become such a great Jedi, Qui- Gon..." Dooku said, sniffing and bowing his head, resting it against his hands and cane. "No, no,... You were always a great Jedi, wiser, and kinder than I... I wish... I wish I could have seen it sooner..."
Dooku sobbed then, openly and loudly, unable to stop himself anymore. He cried for the friends and family he'd directly or indirectly destroyed, and for the student he failed even worse by using his death as the final excuse to execute said betrayals. Then, he even cried for Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker, men who Qui-Gon helped shape and suffered terribly at the hands of his master.
"It is all right, Master."
"No, no it is not... It will never be all right, Qui-Gon. I've done too much... Destroyed so many lives... All the good I could have done with my wasted life... I chose to squander it..."
Casting his cane aside, Dooku knelt on tired, aching knees and then bowed his head so deeply his face touched the grass. "... I am sorry, Qui-Gon... I am so very, very sorry..."
"There is still time, Master. Time to repair what has been broken and set things right. A chance for you to find redemption."
"I do not deserve it, Qui-Gon," Dooku said so with a burning certainty. "Peace, satisfaction, happiness... I am wholly undeserving of enjoying them ever again..."
"The fact that you feel this," Qui-Gon's voice became gentler. "This overwhelming sense of guilt, that you understand the depths of your failures and choose to humble yourself in a way I have never seen you do in all the years we've known each other is proof all is not lost for you, Master."
Then, he was gone. Dooku knew it to be true through the Force. A part of him wished to beg Qui-Gon to stay but he stopped himself. If his student was elsewhere, then that was where he was needed. Dooku eventually rose to full height, finding his step surer than it had been since Mustafar and leaned far less on his cane. He took one more look about the Room and then left, making sure not to leave anything in it disturbed in his wake.
It was during his return walk to the clones across the Temple that his mind moved away from matters of the past and to the future. The Empire would not last, he knew it to be so and desired it. But how it would come to an end, that was still something within his control. He would have to play the role of leader for some time, perhaps as many as ten more years. However, it was time enough. To gather all the evidence required, to ensure it reached the right people and made known through the right means.
Evidence of Sith corruption, of Sith manipulations spanning decades to the past. He could not hope to find it all, too much of it died with Sidious, but many of his lingering resources and knowledge were at Dooku's disposal. And there were more than a few individuals he could slowly but surely entrust the leadership of the temporary Empire and New Republic in-waiting to. Bail Organa, Mon Mothma, Padmé Amidala, and many others. People within positions of power who had true dignity and respect for the freedoms and rights of others.
Dooku knew that such a plan of subverting the supposed legacy of Palpatine would be met with outrage and well-deserved indignation. The revelation that the hallowed martyr of the Republic and Empire was the root cause of their pain and misery. With Sidious dead, he would take the brunt of the blame, the Sith's co-conspirator. They would hate him, loathe him, call him traitor, murderer, and failure as a Jedi and as a man.
And Dooku was absolutely fine with this. He would accept all of these names, insults, and whatever punishments followed them gracefully and peacefully. It was the absolute very least he could do not to fail Qui-Gon one last time.
"Feel the Force around you, children, let it guide your hands, let you see beyond sight. Trust in it, and you shall be rewarded."
"Yes, Battlemaster Kenobi!" The group of students said with varying tones of respect, concentration, frustration, and synchronicity within one of the many circles in the main courtyard divided specifically for them. In the months since their arrival to Gormo, the Jedi and militia quickly went about making their new temple as livable as possible. Though quite a few roofs remained with holes for raindrops and unwanted sunlight to enter through, the mad scramble after Order 66 was already greatly subsided.
It was one among many thoughts Obi-Wan took comfort in. The other was his new position within the Order. There had been a reshuffling of responsibilities among the remaining Masters and Council members. Master Yoda formally stepped down as Grandmaster, passing the title to Shaak Ti. The events on Coruscant had taken a great toll on the wise and aged elder. They seemed to age him prematurely, making him walk with greater difficulty than before, confining him to a simple but effective hoverchair in the meanwhile.
That was not to say his importance was diminished. Master Yoda kept himself busy by teaching students, aiding in the repairs of the Temple, and easing Master Ti's transition to her new leadership position within the Order. When asked by Obi-Wan on his decision of stepping down, Master Yoda gave an honest, insightful, and sad answer.
"My time nears its end. Played my part I have, the time it is to let the younger, wiser generations shape the Order into something better. Something for the challenges ahead."
"You did all you could, Master, for all of us."
"Yes, all I did when more I should have."
Obi-Wan accepted this. It was not his place or right to question the guilt Master Yoda plainly felt. He would find the means to make peace with himself on his own terms. And if he ever required their aid, they would gladly give it. The next, possibly most unsurprising reshuffle of responsibilities concerned Obi-Wan. Well, unsurprising for everyone but him, apparently. They asked him to take the responsibility of the deceased Cin Drallig, to serve as the premier combat instructor for the entire Order.
He considered the offer for close to a week, wondering if he could do it. If he could enter back into a mentorship role so soon after Anakin's death, if he was right for it. Then, in the middle of the night, during another lengthy round of musings, Obi-Wan asked himself a question for which he received a faint but definite answer from a source all too familiar to him.
"Why choose me?"
"Because you're just that good."
The following morning, he accepted and threw himself into the role with all the diligence such a responsibility deserved. The effect eased his grief, helped him feel useful again after how dangerously close he skirted to the Dark Side on Mustafar and bolstered his sense of hope. For himself, and the rest of the Order.
"As busy as ever, I see."
Turning around, Obi-Wan was not surprised to find Padmé approach him with a hover cradle procured by the ever stealthy Master Tholme during one of his first excursions after Sidious' death. As ever, Luke and Leia were radiant, smiling, happy children, watching everything around them with a pure, unspoiled sense of glee. Their tiny hands trying to grasp at anything within reach, Obi-Wan's beard being a favorite. Which is why he kept just a bit of a distance from them as he leaned over and smiled at the twins. They smiled back.
"Not as busy as you, I suspect."
"Well, I won't deny I have some sleepless nights," Padmé laughed with some genuine mirth. Obi-Wan pretended not to notice the marks under her eyes. Much like with Yoda, he offered comfort and a helping hand when it felt necessary but it was rarely so. They both found much comfort and respite in the form of children. That, and the fact she too was visited at least once already by a mutual friend. "But I'm getting used to it. Plus, it is fun listening to Threepio get overwhelmed most of the time. Luke especially likes making trouble for him."
"Careful, if he's anything like his father, he'll disassemble the poor droid before he's ready to walk."
Padmé let out a half-suffering sigh at the thought. Anakin no doubt regaled her of many tales of his droid assembling exploits on Tatooine and the previous temple. So far, Leia did not show quite as much of a proclivity to mechanical matters, opting to spend more time in nature or with her mother, pretending to read books about anything and everything provided for her.
"You're right, I'll have to keep an eye out for that."
"Ow!" A small, orange Torgruta girl yelped as the practice droid struck her in the left wrist, causing her to drop her practice saber. Some of the other children tried to dare a snicker until Obi-Wan gave them a very pointed look not to.
"I'll leave you to it, besides, we've already got a play date with little Korto."
"Say hello to Quinlan for me," Obi-Wan smiled, wondering just how much trouble the children of Anakin and Quinlan would get into when they grew older. It was terrifying and spectacular to think about in equal measure. But that was something to consider for another time, now, he had his duty to perform to the young who needed him in the moment at hand.
Anakin and Qui-Gon watched the scene from one of the empty balconies of the temple. Obi-Wan, their friend patiently and carefully grabbing hold of the practice saber and in slow, clear movements showing the Torgruta girl how to execute her Soresu movements. She picked it up after a single try. Padmé steered the hover cradle away, smiling at the giggles and laughs of the twins, pointing out what anything that seemed to capture their boundless attention was.
Not for the first time, Anakin wished he could be there in-person, to share in these events like a father should. Qui-Gon sensed this and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.
"You'll get the chance to meet."
"I know, I just wish I could be a more... Ordinary father for them."
"But," Anakin let the regret passing into the Force without effort. "I gave them something important already, a future. A much, much better one than what could've come to pass. They'll have their own challenges to face, enemies to fight. But they've got all the help they need to see it through to the end."
"And a great many things they inherited from you and Padmé," Qui-Gon smiled, steering him away from the balcony. "But come now, my friend. It is time for us to undertake a journey of our own."
"The true depths of the Force," Anakin said, eyes staring out into something beyond the ability of even the greatest Force users to perceive, all laid out and waiting for him to experience. "I never thought I'd have the privilege of seeing it."
"It can be overwhelming at points. Though, unlike me, you'll have the advantage of a partner at your side to ease things along. That is," A rueful smile graced Qui-Gon's face. "If there's a spot on the Team for me."
Smiling back, Anakin rubbed his chin with his restored right hand and began walking forward. "I dunno, guess I'll just have to get us into some trouble first and see how you do."
Together, laughing and at peace, the two men vanished from the Temple. Vanishing to a world formed by all life across the universe and yet so, so much very more as well. So far away and yet so close, comforting in its familiarity and dazzling in its stark differences. A world of experiences, sounds, and sensations beyond the capacity of any holonet vid to convey, of any concert to vocalize or any simple writer to put to prose.
A/N: With that, we've reached the ending. Gotta say, I didn't expect the story to ever blow up the way it did or for me to be so happy with it when this point finally came about but I am. It was one of the hardest but most satisfying fics to write maybe in all the years I've been doing it. Hopefully, you guys had as good of a time reading it as well. If you're feeling sad about the end, feel free to check out some of my other fics you can find in my signature and keep an eye out for whatever I cook up next. See ya there!