A/N: As always, thanks to those helping me write and plan out this story and checking it for continuality and logic errors.
This chapter was released at least 2 weeks ago to my Pat-re-ons (with them seeing a draft version around 2 months ago) and on the story's Discord server (in GDoc form) about a week ago.
Links for both are at the end of the chapter.

Hopefully, all the little mistakes have been found and removed.


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The Phantom Menace 1

… …

I couldn't suppress a smile as I deftly manoeuvred the sleek Raven, plunging her at an almost vertical angle into the tumultuous depths of Coruscant's bustling atmosphere. On any ordinary day, breaching the airspace of the illustrious Republic capital would have invited a swarm of Republic cruisers, their intentions veiled behind a veneer of authority. However, I couldn't help but harbour quiet confidence in the face of such potential interception, for I doubted their feeble vessels possessed even a fraction of Raven's unparalleled speed and agile prowess. Alas, this day was unlike any other, as Palpatine himself had honoured his promise, securing for me a prized priority corridor leading directly to the hallowed Senate chambers.

Admittedly, I might have been pushing the limits of Senate security's tolerance, hurtling towards my destination with an urgency that would undoubtedly set their nerves on edge. Yet, armed with Palpatine's blessing and the undeniable affiliation of my vessel with the Jedi, they chose to remain silent observers. Well, if one were to overlook the brief thirty seconds of half-hearted hails that fizzled out in futility as I triumphantly shattered through the manufactured veil of clouds, my eyes met with the awe-inspiring sight of the colossal Senate edifice, dominating the horizon with its commanding presence.

A gentle pull on her controls, along with sending thoughts of slowing, had Raven pull out of her dive. She wasn't happy about it as she loved entering atmospheres like this, but she understood my desire and listened. Mainly as under the enjoyment she was radiating, I could feel the desire to return to the Temple and then leave the planet as soon as we could. While she enjoyed the attention at the Temple, she disliked the planet itself - something I felt came from the artificial nature of the atmosphere and surface.

We circled around the Senate as the computers plotted a landing vector and as various sensors in the building locked onto me as a reminder the building wasn't defenceless, I was glad Raven had yet to be outfitted with weaponry. The Mandalorian engineers – arranged by Duke Adonai and Alor Dred Yomaget – that had been working on doing so hadn't discovered a method to add even simple point defence laser cannons to her frame without the need to cut into her skin, something they and I agreed shouldn't be done. Apart from her lack of firepower, no other ship could match Raven's grace, speed, and beauty.

As we angled for the assigned landing pad, my thoughts turned to Padmé. I'd wanted to show her Raven, to let her and her handmaidens take a short flight in her. Yet after Padmé's kiss, and the glances and comments from Sabé, I'd left Naboo as soon as decorum allowed. Every time I'd flown Raven to her limits with a female who was interested in or involved with me onboard, it always ended the same way. While I did hope to eventually see where things with Padmé may lead, she was only fourteen and while that might be legal for the Naboo and Mandalorians, it wasn't above the Republic's Age of Responsibility. Nor my personal standard. Still, while my time on Naboo had been shorter than planned, I'd scanned Theed and the surrounding countryside thoroughly in advance of the invasion and battles that were about to take place.

Bringing Raven into a hover over the landing pad, I saw several figures step out from the cover of the Senate. The lead one wore deep blue robes marking them out as Palpatine, thus I assumed those behind him were several of his aides, if not those he wished for me to speak with about the blockade of Naboo.

Raven touched down with such gentle grace that if I'd not been at the controls, I wouldn't have felt the contact. A small smile came to my face as I marvelled once more at her grace, with the smile growing when I sensed Raven's pride in my respect for her. "Keep the engines warm," I said as I stood and looked over at Simvyl who was sitting in the co-pilot's chair. Not that he ever had to do anything as Raven knew how to fly herself if the course wasn't complicated. Plus, the bond we shared only allowed me to actually fly her. "I sense we'll not be here long. Though if I do disappear inside, set them to standby until I contact you."

"Got it," Simvyl replied with a nod as he focused on Raven's displays.

With that, I walked out of the cockpit, made my way through a deserted main area – though not before using the Force to tidy up the main sofa after another of Fenrir's snoozes – and moved toward the exit ramp. As I entered the airlock, I found Fenrir waiting for me. "Behave," I said sternly as the ramp descended. He looked up and tilted his head to the side. "I mean it. This isn't someone I want knowing I dislike them." He snorted and then shook which was the best response I could hope for.

I'd avoided having Fenrir meet Palpatine before, but given this talk was, in theory, about a combat mission, I wanted Palpatine to know that I'd have Fenrir with me. I hoped the idea I fought beside a Sith war beast would keep his focus on me as it wouldn't be too long until I had to make a call regarding Anakin. Whatever I decided on, and I was leaning toward teaching him myself, having Palpatine interested in me as his potential apprentice would, I hope, distract his gaze from lingering too long on Anakin. However, I knew that if I took the boy as my Padawan, then that would be harder to achieve, so I'd have to determine a change in tack if I made that move.

Stepping outside, I saw a Duros and a trio of droids approach, though I stopped them with a gesture and indicated for them to wait. If I entered the building with Palpatine, I'd let them approach, but if, as I sensed, I wouldn't be here long, then there was no point in them connecting Raven to the Senate's fuel and power lines.

"Senator," I said with a slight lowering of my head once we'd reached each other. At his sides were Sate Prestige and Janus Greejatus. While I felt the latter was nothing more than an arse-kisser with some degree of competence, there was more to Sate than met the eye. Though I'd not determined what it was he did for Palpatine, my guard was up whenever I was near him.

"Cameron, thank you for coming," Palpatine replied, offering a weak smile while his shoulders remained tense. "However, I fear my summons might have been in vain." I frowned, wondering what had happened in the day and a bit it had taken me to reach Coruscant. "I've recently spoken with the Chancellor, and he informed me he reached out several days ago to the Jedi Council. It seems he called in a personal favour with them to ensure the Jedi sent a team to investigate and end the blockade."

"I don't think it shall be that easy," I commented, earning a nod of agreement from Janus. "Did the Chancellor tell you which Jedi were sent?"

"Sadly, no. Though I think that was because he wasn't aware." Palpatine's gaze drifted to Fenrir for a second before he continued, "I'm led to believe the Jedi Council decides on such matters without speaking with the Chancellor or Senate. Nor could Chancellor Valorum push on the matter as he has very little personal power left after Eriadu."

I nodded in agreement, even if I knew he'd arranged for the trade summit to fail. "And he is, if I understand, approaching the end of his term." Palpatine gave a solemn nod, playing the idea that he felt he was losing a friend in the highest office. "Still, at least he was able to convince the Council to send some Jedi. I just fear that they'll be going in expecting the Federation to talk to resolve the blockade when I sense that is far from their intention. It could easily drag out, or worse, undermine the Chancellor entirely and plunge the Senate, and the Republic, into chaos, which would only make it harder to rally official support for Naboo."

"Then what can we do?" Once more Palpatine showed how skilled he was at hiding his true feelings as even in the Force, I could sense concern from him for Naboo.

I frowned and looked out onto the skyline of Coruscant. "I don't know." I turned back. "Have you managed to gather any support in the Senate?"

Palpatine's shoulders slumped, the very image of a man on the edge of defeat. "Not much, unfortunately. While many Senators come from sectors that have issues with the Trade Federation, few are willing to support us. If the Federation is made to leave Naboo without an escalation, they fear their systems will be in line for retaliation. The few who might be willing to stand against the Federation have, I suspect, vested interests in rivals to the Federation."

"Yes, that's about what I expected," I said with a shake of my head. "Most people talk a good game, but few are able to back it up when the chips are down." Fenrir grunted, picking up on my annoyance. My gaze returned to the cityscape, locking onto the Temple, where I knew I needed to go to determine if Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were the pair that had been sent to Naboo. "I'll head to the Temple," I continued as I returned my focus to Palpatine. "While it's likely too late to join the mission, I should be able to determine who was sent. From there, if there's still time, I might race to Naboo. Raven can outrun anything the Republic would use for the Order."

Palpatine's frown deepened. "You fear the Federation might try something even with a Jedi present?"

I shrugged. "I cannot be sure, but if they've committed enough ships to blockade a planet, the financial hit to their business is going to be decent. The longer the blockade goes on without reparations to them, the more committed they'll likely become. And that's not even considering how long it took them to consider and gather the ships in the first place."

A very weak smile came to Palpatine's face. "That's a remarkably observant opinion. Especially from one who has expressed clear disinterest in political matters."

"While I have no interest in politics, my mission to Zygerria helped show me that even if I disdain what takes place in this building, I can't ignore how it, and credits, affect the behaviours of many in the galaxy." I offered him a small smile. "Plus, while it was some time ago, it's possible the time spent pretending to be your nephew rubbed off on me more than I realised." I turned and looked at the Duros and droids who, while having retreated from the midday sun, were watching us. "Regardless, I'll depart for the Temple. Once I know who the Jedi assigned are, and if they've departed, I'll contact you and we can consider our next move."

Palpatine smiled, though it didn't reach his eyes. "I will return to my office and continue seeing what diplomatic avenues can be exploited. However, I fear that the only remaining hope for Queen Amidala and our people now rests on your shoulders, my young friend."

"Then I'll try my best to not disappoint uncle."

… …

… …

About thirty minutes later I stepped off Raven, setting foot in the Temple for the first time in some time. I'd not entered the massive building since returning from my meeting with Palpatine and Hego Damask in the Senator's office several months prior. The fact that somehow, I'd entered an alliance of convenience with two Sith Lords to prepare for an invasion from beyond the galaxy still made me chuckle morbidly. That though, was something for another time. For now, my focus was on finding someone who'd confirm if Qui-Gon had been given the Naboo mission.

"Knight Shan, welcome back." The statement came from a civilian who worked in the Jedi Temple as my armoured boots contacted the Temple's hangar. "Does your ship require any maintenance?"

I smiled at the Togruta male. "Just a refuelling for now. I expect to leave before the end of the day unless the Council or the Force have something for me to handle here." The Togruta nodded, accepting the vague reply easily. Even as he turned to his team of sentients and droids, I made a beeline for the hangar's internal exit.

Each step I took echoed slightly as my boots clipped against the metal floor. While I wasn't wearing my full beskar armour, mainly to avoid any issues with other members of the Order, I still wore some of it. The boots and gauntlets showed as I moved, my robes doing little to hide them. What they did hide was the chest plate I wore. From those sections alone, I shouldn't get into any trouble as the armour was on-par with what Jedi had worn back when I'd been 'born'. Before I'd been dragged forward by the Force and TPTB to this era.

I stepped alone into the lift just outside the hangar as Simvyl, Fenrir and HK remained on Raven. While the first two could've accompanied me, Simvyl understood I wasn't staying long, and Fenrir disliked the Temple now. Ever since Zonama Sekot and the war with the Vong, he'd found it hard to relax in every place in the Temple. As for HK… Yeah, I wasn't letting the rebuilt and rearmed droid designed by Revan to kill Jedi wander the Temple. It'd take him less than a minute to do something that would result in me being dragged before the High Council, which would put my plans for Naboo in danger.

As the elevator descended, I accessed the Temple mainframe, smirking at the massive increase in access I had now that I was a Knight, though a part of me always wondered what else was still restricted to me. A quick search of the mainframe confirmed Fay wasn't present. I'd received a Holonet message from her when I'd arrived in the Coruscant system saying she was leaving on her mission to find Tython – though she didn't say that part over the Holonet – and while I'd hoped I'd get to see her before she'd left, I already knew neither she nor Dooku would be with me on Naboo. It was one of those rare moments where, when the world seemed to stop, I understood what the Force wished for me. In this case I was certain that the Force wished me to face this trial – and by extension, Maul – without them.

With that confirmation she was gone, I'd shifted to locating Sifo-Dyas. My brow rose as I learnt he was no longer on the Council. He was due to stand down at the end of this year, but from the records I saw, he'd stepped down around a year early. As the mainframe confirmed his last access was in the Jedi Archives, I wondered if his death had been changed with Dooku no longer becoming Darth Tyrannus. Now, Dooku's quest wasn't over, but I felt certain he'd not join Sidious and rise as a Dark Lord. That said, I couldn't be entirely sure I could prevent Sifo-Dyas' fate, nor whether Darihd would be the one to pay for my accepting the quest to save his Master. I hoped that wouldn't be the case, but I'd have to wait until after Naboo to see what else, if anything, I could do to prevent their deaths.

I exited the elevator on the floor with the Archives and made a beeline for them. I stepped inside, planning to ask where Sifo-Dyas was only to run into a familiar and attractive purple-skinned Twi'lek.

"Knight Shan," Rachi Sitra began before lowering her head slightly. When she came back up, a playful smile danced on her face. "It's been some time. I hadn't realised you'd returned to the Temple."

"I only arrived back today," I replied as I considered the Padawan of Jocasta Nu. I'd not had much, if any, interaction with her over the last few years, and had no intention of mentioning why I was in the Temple. Still, it was nice to see her again, for several reasons. Not least because, as my eyes examined her, I remembered Serra mentioning Rachi when she spoke of others she found attractive. "On a personal matter linked to the Senate. How have you been?"

Rachi's smile grew. "I'm good, though I do wish Master Nu would allow me to leave the temple as I wish to return to the Pius Dea ship you discovered. What was its name again?"

"Mtael's Gift," I replied, no longer bothered by the Lokella naming the place after me. "Though since the engines are beyond repair, it's better to refer to it as a station. Why aren't you allowed to return?"

Rachi looked around and then stepped closer. Her smile fell as she placed a hand on my arm, and I let her guide me to one side of the section of the Archives we were in. "Haven't you heard? Master Bondara is dead."

"What?" I blinked in shock, trying to process that one of the Order's most skilled lightsaber duellists, and a former Battlemaster, had died. "How?"

"He and his Padawan, Darsha Assant, were given a mission somewhere on Coruscant. From what I heard; the mission was to be Darsha's last before she sat her Trials. Anyway, when they didn't return to the Temple, rumours started up until the Council informed Master Nu that the pair had become one with the Force."

"Damn!" I cursed. Given his skill, if I recruited any Jedi to help with Naboo, Bondara would be one I'd have hoped to ask. Yet it seemed his fate was already set, and he'd died to something on the planet. While my mind instantly shifted to the Sith, there was nothing I could do to prove that. And I remembered my run-in with the taozin when I'd had to find Tedra in the lower levels. Still, I doubted even a taozin could take out Bondara, not unless he'd been distracted because of his Padawan. "Any leads?"

Rachi shook her head. "Not that I've heard, though Serra would know more than me as Master Drallig was close friends with Master Bondara." Rachi shifted closer, the smile returning as her lekku shifted. "Have you spoken to her yet?"

"Not yet. Though if time allows, I hope to do so." I kept my thoughts calm, not wanting them to wander when Serra was mentioned. Which was hard as it was so easy to bring forth the memories of her writhing in delight because of my machinations. While I doubted Rachi could sense those feelings even if they came forth, others in the Archive – including Masters Nu and Sifo-Dyas – likely would, which was a can of worms I didn't want to open. "As much as I'd love to stay and catch up further," I began, placing a hand on her forearm to suggest an interest, "I need to speak with Master Sifo-Dyas." Her cheeks darkened with my touch and her lekku wriggled. "If time allows, I might have time to speak before I depart, however, I can't promise anything." The odds weren't good as I was more likely to find Serra and speak with her, but there was no need to dismiss Rachi so coldly. And given the way her smile grew and took on a more predatory look, she was happy to hear me say what I had.

"Of course, and I hope you can. I know others wouldn't mind speaking to you or arranging a flight on your new ship." Rachi stepped forward as her voice dropped to whisper. "Serra speaks highly of how incredible her time spent there has been." She pulled back and lowered her head before I could ask what she meant by that. "Until later, Knight Shan."

I nodded in reply, choosing not to speak on the chance I incriminated myself and Serra, and then watched her walk away for a few moments – making sure to not watch the way her hips swayed – before resuming my search for Sifo-Dyas.

After asking one of the various Jedi who helped Master Nu maintain the Archives, I found him and Darihd at the far end of a thankfully empty room. "Master," I said as I neared the table, drawing the attention of both.

"Ah, Cameron. I wasn't aware you'd returned," Sifo-Dyas said as Darihd subtly pushed the datapad he was using away. That suggested he wasn't enjoying the topic or just wanted to speak with me more than study. "I sense some urgency in your presence."

I nodded. "There is, Master," I began as I moved closer, making sure the room was as empty as it appeared. "I was approached by Senator Palpatine regarding the blockade of his homeworld." Sifo-Dyas nodded to let me know to continue. "He requested my return to Coruscant to help him with the situation, yet when I returned I learnt the Council had assigned a team of Jedi to handle the matter. I was hoping you might know which Jedi were assigned."

Sifo-Dyas was silent for a moment as if considering the matter, or possibly my connection to it. Eventually, he sighed. "While I no longer sit on the Council, I'm aware which Jedi have been assigned. However, before I reveal that, might I ask what your connection is to this situation? At least if it extends beyond the Senator."

"The newly elected Queen of Naboo is a friend. Both of you have met her if you recall the evacuation of the Shadda-Bi-Borans and the Naberrie family?" Sifo-Dyas nodded quickly, making me wonder if he'd followed the galactic news to discover Padmé's election.

"She was the girl who liked your story?" Darihd asked in a confused tone.

"Yes, she was," Sifo-Dyas answered, "and from what I know, those works have been remarkably successful. Masters Fay and Dooku have mentioned how you've used the proceeds of those to help various charities and organisations like the Refugee Relief Movement. A noble and worthwhile gesture."

I smiled at Sifo-Dyas even if I wondered if that was the entire truth that he'd been told or if he was saying that so anyone who might overhear wouldn't look too deeply into the funds I had at my disposal. "Thank you, Master." I turned to Darihd. "Padmé is the new Queen of Naboo." I chuckled at the shock that spread over Darihd's face. "At the invitation of Senator Palpatine, who I've maintained a connection with ever since spending time with him on a Council-sanctioned mission," I added, simply to cover my arse if Sifo-Dyas grew concerned at me remaining in contact with the Senator, "I attended Padmé's coronation and reconnected with the new queen."

Sifo-Dyas nodded. "And with the Senate locked in debate due to the actions of the Trade Federation, and Chancellor Valorum's power waning, Senator Palpatine reached out to you for help." I nodded in confirmation, which oddly made Sifo-Dyas frown. "Hmm. It is unusual that he chose to reach out to you when there are others in the Order he has known longer, but perhaps he was playing on your friendship with the young Queen as well to expedite any help the Order could offer." He rubbed his beard in thought. "A logical move, though I feel there's more to why you seem intent on learning the identity of the Jedi assigned to the crisis."

"It has to do with matters my Masters have discussed with you and Master Nilas," I replied, still mindful of where we were. "I've been having visions… images of Jedi – ones wielding blades of blue and green – in combat against someone wielding a red double-bladed lightsaber."

"A dark sider!?" Darihd blurted out loudly. Both Sifo-Dyas and I looked at him, and he shrunk into his seat. "Sorry."

"For the longest time, I wasn't sure of what I was seeing," I explained slowly to Sifo-Dyas. "However, the visions have grown stronger and clearer, and when meditating before my knighting, I think I glimpsed the faces of the Dark Sider and one Jedi. Master Qui-Gon Jinn." Sifo-Dyas tensed fractionally. If I'd not been waiting to see that, I'd have missed it. "He's one assigned to Naboo, isn't he?"

Sifo-Dyas nodded. "Along with his Padawan, yes. It was Master Jinn that the Council assigned to investigate and, if possible, resolve the blockade." Sifo-Dyas looked away as if taking a moment to collect his thoughts. "How sure are you of these visions?" He asked when his gaze returned to me.

"I'm not a seer, so I can't be certain, but I'm as convinced by them as I can be." My reply was vague because even a Jedi Seer couldn't say for certain that a vision was one hundred per cent certain to happen. "And I fear if I brought this matter to the Council, they'd either keep me present to confirm my visions were accurate, in which case, it may well be too late to prevent them from coming to pass or dismiss my concerns entirely. Possibly even working to ensure I don't attempt to interfere with the Jedi assigned to the matter."

"Yet if you rush off, uncertain of events, then what you fear might still come to pass," Sifo-Dyas countered to which I nodded, confirming I understood that. "Still, since you failed to see your blade engaged with the red one, it lends credence to your belief that acting now may prevent the vision." He sighed and shook his head. "Sadly, for all that the Force grants us, clarity of what might be isn't one most ever have. Assuming they travelled on a Republic cruiser, then Master Jinn and his Padawan will arrive at Naboo sometime today."

I gave a nod, having expected this, yet inside I was a whirlwind of thoughts. Even with Raven, I couldn't reach them before they were attacked and then snuck down to Naboo. From there, time wasn't clear in the movie, but it seemed they left the planet the day of the invasion, or at most, the day after. Pushing Raven to her limits, I could reach Naboo before the end of tomorrow, but the odds were high that I'd miss their escape.

From there, things became more complicated. While Tatooine would be the logical place to intercept them, I felt that the reason Obi-Wan had suggested it first was due to the Force guiding him and Qui-Gon there to collect Anakin. An event I'd ensured wouldn't happen – along with others – by taking the boy and his mother to the Lokella.

That left me with three options. First was to head to Tatooine and hope they'd still go there even without Anakin and the Force to guide them. I'd be able to get there before Maul arrived; otherwise, both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan would die, and Padmé would be forced to sign the Federation's treaty. However, if they went somewhere else, it might be hard to reach them before Maul as while Tatooine wasn't too far off a major hyperspace lane, it was still an isolated system.

The second option was to remain on Coruscant and wait for a message from someone on the ship or a hint from the Force about where to go. That option left it up to chance, and frankly, that just didn't sit well with me. As much as I could stand around and do nothing, I preferred to be doing something instead of simply waiting for the Force to guide me.

The third option, and the one that held the most appeal, was to head to somewhere between Naboo and Tatooine and wait. While I'd still be waiting for a holocall or hint from the Force, I'd be closer to the Naboo cruiser's likely flightpath, thus removing a fair chunk of the time needed to reach them.

"This news troubles you?"

I looked at Sifo-Dyas as he spoke, having been drawn from considering my course of action. "Only that it might already be too late to prevent my vision, Master." I sighed and shook my head, the three options still dominating my thoughts. "Perhaps I'll take some time to meditate on the matter."

Sifo-Dyas smiled. "That is what I was about to advise. While, like yourself, Master Dooku prefers to act instead of waiting for a glimpse of what to do, he understands the benefits of taking a step back and reconsidering a situation." He placed a hand on my shoulder even as he continued. "It's comforting to see that arrogance hasn't clouded your thoughts. Many new Knights struggle with understanding that there is much they cannot control, so seeing you understand this at your youthful age is encouraging." He chuckled. "Of course, from a former Padawan of Master Dooku, I'd expect nothing but excellence."

"Thank you, Master," I replied with a smile and a slight bow. "Darihd," I added, offering a nod to my friend. "My apologies for interrupting your work and my thanks for your advice."

"It's quite all right. Master Dooku is one of my closest friends, as you are with Darihd. Though I feel my Padawan has enjoyed the break from researching Grandmaster Fae perhaps a touch too much."

I chuckled as Darihd's face drained of a little colour. Before he could attempt to cover his arse, I gave the pair a last nod before turning and walking away. As I crossed into the central crossway of the Archives I saw Tedra moving with her clan but made no move to intercept them. I did need to think some more about my course of action, and I felt doing that on the Raven was a better choice than using a private meditation room in the Temple as the longer I was here, the greater the chance I'd run into a senior member of the Order and be delayed.

The only thing that did stick out as I exited the Archives was that the dates felt off. Padmé had only become queen at the very end of the last year. While no exact timeline was given in the movies, I felt the invasion took place in the middle of the year, though that might be simply because the climate around Theed appeared warm. Of course, after visiting the planet, I'd discovered that while it had rainy and cold seasons, for most of the year, Theed and the surrounding countryside enjoyed pleasant weather.

I moved quickly, slipping around the busier areas of the Temple to further minimise the chance I'd be distracted, yet as I neared the elevator to return to the hangar and Raven I felt a familiar and comforting presence close by.


Turning, I saw Serra, Sia-Lan, Lorana Jinzler, and others. Serra said something to the group before moving toward me. As she did, Sia-Lan smiled widely while Lorana frowned. That reaction was odd, but I put it aside as Serra neared.

She paused a few steps from me, though I could tell she wanted to come closer. "What's wrong?" She asked as she gripped the side of her robes.

"What makes you think something's wrong?" I replied, smiling slightly at her need to grip her robes to avoid reaching out for me. I could sense some desire from her, but she was doing a decent job of hiding the truth behind something most Jedi might expect from a Padawan.

"Apart from you ignoring me calling to you?" She matched my smirk with her own. "Twice. And that I can sense concern and confusion from you ever since you entered the Temple?" She took a step closer, her hands slipping from her robes. "Even if we weren't that close," her lips threatened to erupt into a smile, "the fact you ignored everyone as you walked made it clear something's troubling you."

"Yeah, sorry," I ran a hand through my long hair. "Just got something on my mind."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

I looked past her and offered the group she'd left a smile. Sia-Lan matched it, though I felt there was amusement and jealousy mixed into it, while Lorana seemed unsure how to react. "Not in public."

Serra smiled before turning and looking at her friends. The Force shifted slightly before Sia-Lan's smile grew, and she nodded. She turned to the others with her, and after a few words, they moved off. "The Gardens?" Serra suggested when she turned back to me.

I accepted the suggestion with a lowering of my head and turned. Serra slipped into step at my side, though she stayed slightly behind which I assumed was because she was a Padawan while I was a Knight. [So, what's bothering you?]

I waited until we reached the nearest flight of stairs that led to the Temple's rooftop gardens before responding. [Naboo has been blockaded by the Trade Federation.] As we emerged into the Gardens, I saw Master Sinube leading a group of Initiates through a series of Jedi callisthenics while elsewhere, a Nikto and Miralukan were sitting discussing something. I couldn't make out their faces to be sure who they were, but I knew the Miralukan wasn't Master Unduli as the robes didn't match what she normally wore. [The Council has sent two Jedi to investigate the matter. However, I fear that if I don't intervene at least one of them will die.]

Serra kept her face calm as we moved away from the stairs. [The Dark Side?] she asked as she guided me toward a familiar and friendly corner.

[Yes,] I replied as we sat. "How have you been?" I asked verbally once we were seated. Even if the seats we were on were partially hidden, if we only talked mentally, it would draw more suspicion upon us. While it was unlikely any would walk past while we sat, I felt better hiding our true talk. Along with any hint of how close we were and how much Serra meant to me. [Yes, though I'm unsure how to intervene, or even if I should as it might make the situation worse.]

Serra smiled and brushed back a lock of hair that had fallen over her eye. "Good, though everyone here's on edge." She leaned closer. "Did you hear? Master Bondara is gone." [Cam, if you feel you should intervene, then you will. You're not the sort to sit around and wait for someone to suggest a path to take.]

I bit back a chuckle at how well she knew me. [You know me that well, do you?] "Yeah. I ran into Padawan Sitra in the Archives earlier and she mentioned the details to me." Having two vastly different conversations at the same time was odd, but it was something we'd agreed upon to help hide how close our bond now was. "What happened?"

Serra's lips twitched, though I couldn't tell if it was because of the dig or the mention of Rachi. "I don't really know. My Master was close to Master Bondara, but he hasn't spoken about it much to me." [I'd say I do, though I might need some private tutoring to be sure.] "I do know that he and his Padawan went into the lower levels on a council mission, but they never returned."

"Yeah, that's all Rachi could tell me." I used Rachi's given name to draw a response from Serra. One she gave with the tensing of her jaw. [Does it bother you that I spoke to her first?] I turned and gazed out, taking in the view. As much as I didn't always feel comfortable in the Temple, the view was something I enjoyed, especially with the right company. The sight of the ships buzzing over the gleaming metal surface of Coruscant was always dazzling. At least so long as one didn't look at what lay under the shiny surface of the planet.

[No. Well, not really.] I turned back to Serra, letting my eyes take in every slight change in her face that had occurred in our time apart. [I mean, she's not that bad but…]

[But you'd prefer you were the one on top?] She blinked, and I sensed her embarrassment, curiosity and desire spike before she regained control of her emotions. "I assume the Council is investigating the matter. However, given how secretive they can appear, I doubt any below the rank of Master is allowed to discuss the findings. Though with the dangers that lurk down there," I glanced toward the nearest gap in the metal surface. Those seemed to swallow the light, almost hinting at the darkness and decay that lay hidden beneath the surface of the Republic capital. "I'm not sure anyone will ever learn the truth."

We sat silently. The public and private conversations needed a response, and while I enjoyed teasing Serra, I knew I had to be careful with how much teasing I did. Otherwise, her Master or others might sense her longing for me.

"You don't think it's odd that Master Bondara died not long after the summit on Eriadu and the attack on the Temple?" I turned back to her as she spoke. [Or that the Federation are blockading Naboo?]

"I mean. The timing isn't great," I replied slowly, "but without any proof of a connection between events, all we can do is speculate." Behind me, a cloud moved, and the sun's light shone down on us. For a moment, concerns about Naboo, the Sith and the galaxy faded away as I looked at Serra under natural light and marvelled at how much more alive and beautiful she looked when free of the artificial surroundings of the Temple. Almost as if I was seeing the real her that was hidden by this planet and the Jedi's teaching.

As the moment passed, I hardened my heart. The moment Serra knew I was going to Naboo, she'd want to come with me, and I couldn't allow that. Willingly placing her anywhere near Maul was a risk I couldn't take. I'd never forgive myself if my mistakes cost me her life. Or Bo's or Naz's, though I might not be as able to stop them coming along as I could with Serra. "You know I saw Bo before I returned to the Temple?"

Serra blinked, caught out by the sudden change in topic. Before she regained control, I sensed a faint hint of jealousy, but that was pushed away by a need for something the Order would frown upon. "Oh, how is she?" Serra did an admirable job of hiding her interest in both what I'd been up to with Bo, and the redhead herself. Of course, she wasn't perfect in hiding her physical interest, and I smirked letting her know I knew what she really wanted to know.

"She's good. So is Naz as well." Again, there was a mixed spike of jealousy and need. "We spent time sparring while I waited for my armour to be readied." I pulled back my robes, showing off the gauntlets and boots and then shifted again to show a hint of the chest piece.

Serra leaned forward, her fingers tracing the lines in the beskar of my gauntlets. I watched as those fingers crept over the various attachments I'd had added to the gauntlets, and when our eyes next met, there was a dangerous amusement in her eyes meaning she understood the gauntlets were now outfitted with ordinance. As they were always meant to have been.

"How have Bo and Naz been?" Serra asked as she pulled her fingers back before they touched my skin. "I assume they're just as… outgoing as before."

"Aye, that's one way to describe them." I laughed even as I fought the temptation to kiss Serra and give in to my urges. As much as I'd love to make things physical in the Temple, we couldn't. Not unless we wanted to be dragged in front of the High Council. While I was leaning toward eventually leaving the Order, for now being a member, and having access to their resources and knowledge, still had an appeal. As did the idea Dooku had placed in my head before I'd left the ShaDo system with Anakin.

He'd not directly addressed his idea, but I felt I had a good grasp of what he was planning. It was dangerous, almost foolhardy, and would need years of planning. But if we could pull it off… the rewards would be immense. Of course, no one, not even Serra, Fay, or Sifo-Dyas could know what he was thinking about.

"They asked how you are, and when they can next spar with you," I said, returning my thoughts to more pertinent matters. [In a circle and under the sheets.]

Serra's cheeks reddened for a moment as she failed to maintain control of her emotions. She then turned and looked away. "I… I miss my time there and would like to spar with them too. But I can't just up and leave the Temple. Unlike you, I'm just a Padawan."

I shook my head and reached out, placing a hand on hers in a way none passing by would see. Her head snapped back to me as our flesh touched. "You'll be a Knight soon enough," I said slowly. She smiled and I let thoughts of Naboo and the Sith drift away again.

I'd have to leave soon and choose my path. Until then, I'd remain here and enjoy what time I could spend with Serra.

… …

… …

The stars slowed and returned to their expected places as Raven slipped from hyperspace. A quick check of the navigation computer confirmed that we'd arrived in the Denon system, and a few hours sooner than I'd expected.

"Good girl," I said as I patted part of Raven's organic form, which set off a pattern of lights that I understood she was pleased and proud of herself. While she had a 0.7-rated hyperdrive, doing the mental calculations, it seemed we'd arrived as if she had a 0.6-rated hyperdrive. It was a minor improvement, but given most ships had 1.5-rated or higher hyperdrives, it was most impressive.

I was here as, after spending about an hour with Serra talking and enjoying the view – our location and my need to not become too distracted prevented us from trying to sneak away and do more – I'd settled on the option of going to a location that allowed quick access to Naboo and Tatooine and then making a call from there. Which was why I was in the Denon System as it was a busy interchange between the Hydian Way and the Corellian Run. The business of the system was clear as I had over a hundred vessels within a thousand kilometres of our location, which I'd only seen bested by hyperspace jump locations in key Core World systems.

The Corellian Run ran all the way to Ryloth, taking it past Tatooine while the Hydian Way was the closest major hyperspace lane from the Core to Naboo. Now I just had to determine what my next move would be. With that in mind, I turned and looked at HK who was sitting in the third seat of the cockpit. "Have you determined anything further about where they might go?" I asked as I left Simvyl to monitor the sensors as Raven piloted herself further into the system. While I didn't plan to be here long, unless the force felt like telling me where to go quickly, we'd have time to reach a starport and refuel.

"Answer: I have not, Master. Based on the information you imparted, while the list of possible systems they might travel to is not extensive, there is not enough information to go on regarding which choice they will make. Without further data, Tatooine remains the most logical course of action by a margin of zero-point-four-five per cent over any other option. Query: If you believe they will head there, and the Force also suggests this, why are you not heading there directly?"

"Because if I get this wrong, important people will die," I replied before sighing. "These people, ignoring my connection to some of them, have roles to play in events that are to come."

"Observation: If you believe your data is accurate, then there is little value or worth in not expecting events to occur as you expect. Request: I do wish you could provide me with a complete set of empirical data, Master. Or at least as much as your beliefs provide you."

"As do I, HK. As do I," I replied with another sigh. "However, the Force doesn't allow me to let you see what I do." My knowledge came from something outside the purview of the Force, but TPTB had ensured I couldn't reveal that information to anyone, not even a droid that wouldn't reveal that information to anyone else. All I could do was hint and suggest what I knew or expected to be true and when I'd tried to directly reveal that Palpatine was Darth Sidious, according to HK I'd suggested the Senator was an inbred Mon Cala from Endor. While that image made me laugh, it annoyed me that stating everything to a droid was covered by the TPTB's rules.

Droids may not be sentient in the same way as a creature of flesh and blood, but they have the capacity for independent thought.
Thus, they are also covered by the rules regarding Future Knowledge.
That said, nice thinking to check if your droid was covered by the rules.

I ignored the message from TPTB, as they'd sent something similar after my first attempt, and watched HK as his optical receptors flickered. "Conclusion: Then you must rely on your gut, Master. The Creator often spoke of doing so, and while I still cannot determine the logic in it, he was alarmingly accurate when he trusted his gut. More so than other Jedi apparently were and are."

A sigh slipped from my lips as I turned my attention back to Raven's controls. "Perhaps you're right. Set cour…" I paused mid-word as the Holonet communicator beeped. Sensing a gentle shift in the force, I accepted the call and then grinned when I saw the face that appeared. "Padmé."

Padmé smiled in return. "Cam, I… I hate to ask for your help but…"

"Senator Palpatine's already brought me up to speed about the Federation," I cut in, making her blink in surprise. "Are you with Master Jinn?"

She blinked again and I felt my smile grow at her loss for words. "How?"

"The Force," I replied, keeping a long story short. "Are you still on Naboo?" She shook her head as she seemed unable to find words at the minute. "Very well. Where are you heading?"

Padmé scowled. "Tatooine." I felt a great weight shift from my shoulders upon hearing that. I gave Simvyl a nod as my fingers flew over Raven's controls. "Our hyperdrive was damaged during our escape and Master Jinn wants to head there for repairs as it's outside Federation influence."

I nodded even as I felt Raven turn, heading for the hyperspace jump point for the Corellian run toward Ryloth. "That makes sense. Though while it's outside Federation control, it's home to two immensely powerful Hutts." I looked at the flight computer and quickly calculated how long it would take. "I can be there in a few hours."

"So soon?" Padmé blurted out, once again caught off guard at how I seemed to be a few steps ahead of her.

"I was already on my way to Naboo," I explained, drawing a small smile from the queen. "It won't take too long to alter course and head to Tatooine."

"Thank you," Padmé said as she seemed to relax. "I…" she paused as if struggling for words.

"We can talk when I arrive, though if you could refrain from kissing me in front of Master Jinn, I'd be grateful. I'd rather not have to explain how I'm being courted by royalty." I couldn't see if Padmé blushed at my teasing, but the way she glanced away suggested she was. She suddenly coughed and lifted her hand to her mouth as the cough devolved into a chuckle. "I'll see you soon," I said with a smile, glad I could bring her some relief and joy at this moment in time.

I kept the channel open as she kept chuckling, waiting for her to regain some composure.

"Ok. And Cam, thank you," she said once the laughter had died away. "I… You… you were my only hope."

… …

… …

As Raven slipped back into normal space, I grumbled at seeing the twin suns of this system. I'd already been here enough to last a lifetime, yet the Force seemed to enjoy making me return. Hopefully, this would be the last time I had to come here. Well, unless I would for some reason be making a move against Jabba and Gardulla as I'd have no issue with returning and taking out two major crime lords and their operations.

Approaching Tatooine, I was once again greeted by the baked yellow surface and the lack of anything even approaching orbital control. Yet, as Raven dropped into the planet's atmosphere, I had the sensors running at full power. Every ship I could scan might have some link to piracy and slavery and having a list of every starship that might be tangentially connected to the Hutts – and others – held the potential for future use.

I could sense Raven's dislike for this world, though that may well have come from the hot, dry air of the planet. Given where she'd been born, a planet as seemingly dry and lifeless as this was the antithesis of what she desired. Even as we dropped lower, I reached out through the Force to assure her we'd not be here long.

To help with that, as we'd raced through hyperspace, I'd left the cockpit to don my full armour. The only part not currently on was my helmet, which was resting near the cockpit door. While I could've walked around the planet as a Jedi, having three in the same settlement at the same time would quickly reach the ears of the Hutts. While they'd likely not stick their slimy necks into my business, I'd rather ensure they didn't have the chance. A Mandalorian here wouldn't stand out, at least not to the degree a Jedi might if their lightsaber was seen, and there was far less chance anyone would be dumb enough to get in my way.

As we flew lower, I reached out with Detection only to blink in confusion. Instead of the three familiar force presences I expected to sense in Mos Espa, I sensed five. That the two unexpected ones appeared to be strong in the Force – as their markers in my minimap pulsed – only added to my confusion. As we got closer and flew over the settlement, I blinked. "What the hell is she doing here?" I asked myself as I determined one of the new presences was Aayla Secura.

The one with her was likely her Master, Quinlan Vos, though what the pair were doing on the planet wasn't something I knew. I'd wager a few credits they were undercover as Aayla didn't react when I used Detection. Well, other than the general recognition of who I was within the Force. Because of that, I made no move to reach out to her mind and speak with her. Doing so might place her and Master Vos in danger, though if things turned sour in Mos Espa at least I knew there was potential backup close by.

A final approach to the settlement had me spotting the Royal cruiser. It stood out like a mithril beacon against the ravages of the planet. Since I only sensed Obi-Wan present, I dismissed the idea of landing there, instead choosing one within the city limits.

It only took a few minutes to find an empty landing area, and after bringing Raven down inside the walls of the pad, saving Raven from the dry and probably painful winds of the planet, I stood. "Stay with the ship," I said to Simvyl. "While I doubt any local will try anything, Raven's such a unique vessel some di'kut might do something foolish." Simvyl nodded even as Fenrir growled at the idea of someone touching Raven. I smiled as I moved toward him – he was lying around the third chair in the cockpit which was currently empty – and scratched him behind the ear. "Yes, if any of them do, you have my permission to kill them. Though I'd suggest not eating them as you never know where some of the locals have been." Fenrir grunted and licked my armoured hand as I pulled it back.

"I hope we won't be here long, sand does not agree with my fur," Simvyl commented as I reached the cockpit door. While I could've left Raven in orbit with Simvyl at the controls, Raven disliked almost anyone else flying her. The only ones she accepted piloting her without any complaint were Fay and Anakin. Fay made sense due to her being a part of Raven's core personality, even if it had been minimised when I'd bonded with Raven to save her. Anakin had been a surprise, but Raven had adored when the boy had taken control while we'd been in the ShaDo system and started pushing Raven into ever-increasingly insane manoeuvres. If Zonama Sekot ever reappeared, I'd pay whatever it cost to get Anakin a ship like Raven as while I was a good pilot, he was born to fly and deserved a ship worthy of his skill.

"We shouldn't be," I replied to Simvyl. "Ideally, it won't take too long to get their hyperdrive fixed." I patted a satchel on my belt. That contained a small collection of gems from the two slightly larger bags I had stored in my Inventory. I'd used Observe on most of the gems and working from that and the rough size and weight of the various gems inside, the satchel contained a little north of a million credits. That still left me with what was in the Inventory, which based on weight difference alone, should be at least four times that amount. To say nothing of the billion credits shared between the Interface and my accounts. "If it's going to take too long, I'll see about convincing the Queen to travel with us. Either way, I hope to be gone from this cesspool before the suns rise again."


I slipped from the cockpit while saying a mental prayer that we could leave before the Bonta Eve podrace. Sometime around then Maul would arrive on-planet, and while Jinn engaging him briefly would help convince the Council of possible Sith involvement in the Naboo crisis, I'd rather avoid Maul until Naboo. The less that Maul saw of me, or realised I was aware of him, the less prepared he'd be for me. Or at least that was my hope.

I tapped my lightsaber, making sure it was still attached. With me wearing my Mandalorian armour under a dragon-skin cloak, I'd pushed it back further to avoid anyone seeing it attached to my armour. The cloak was one of three new ones I'd made from the impressive amount of preserved skin that remained. All three were, like my armour, black, though this one didn't bear my clan sigil. I only planned to wear the one that did when in or around the Mandalore sector, and the one I wore now, and its spare were for other times. They were large enough to obscure my personal and clan sigils that were on either pauldron, meaning it would be hard for any to recognize who I was beyond being a Mandalorian.

Stepping into the airlock that doubled as the loading ramp, I saw HK standing. His rusty red colour clashed with Raven's softer, natural green. The droid was giving what looked like a final check to the EE-3 carbine he'd chosen. At one hip was a heavy DL-44 XT while other further weapons were hidden within his frame. "Query: Will there be any need for extermination, Master?" HK asked without looking up from his rifle.

I chuckled at what sounded suspiciously like hope in his tone even as I pressed the control to lower the ramp. "I'm not planning for any, but given this is a hive of scum and villainy, I'd say the odds are high that someone will test their luck."

HK looked up. "Musing: That is encouraging, Master. Statement: I wish to test my latest calibrations against live targets."

As the airlock hissed I shook my head in amusement. "If anyone is dumb enough to challenge a Mandalorian in full armour with an armed combat droid at their side, then feel free to re-educate them."

"Observation: Don't all meatbags lack intelligence, Master?"

I laughed at that but chose to not reply. Instead, after ensuring my helmet was secure, I walked down the ramp, HK's metal feet clicking along behind me. As the sun touched my amour and the sand of this accursed world crunched under my heel, I resisted an urge to snarl. Memories of events that had occurred here flashed through my thoughts and the urge to turn the nearest Trandoshan into a nice set of leather bags and boots reappeared. It wasn't the Jedi way to think such thoughts, but Trandoshans were a species that didn't deserve much care. Not when they took pleasure in hunting, hurting and killing others to feed their deranged beliefs and please their twisted sense of amusement.

Scuffling on the sand had my head snap around. A Weequay slid to a stop as I glared at him from inside my armour. The HUD noted an increase in his heart rate, which only rose further when I turned fully toward him. Beside him, a group of droids were moving, though they'd stopped when the Weequay had. "HK, if this degenerate, or others like him, attempt to coerce a fee for landing, or in any way consider approaching more than five metres toward Raven, you have my permission to test out your interrogation techniques."

I honestly hadn't known a Weequay could look faint until I finished speaking and I heard HK moving. "Exclamation: Yes, Master. Mockery: Come here little meatbag. I wish to hear your reason for bothering my Master."

The Weequay backpedalled as HK took a step forward, and when I held out an arm to stop HK, fell to their arse. "I suggest you remain a safe distance from my vessel," I growled out, enjoying the voice modulation that my helmet used to give me a deeper tone. "If not, I'm sure my droid will enjoy stretching out your interrogation for several days before you expire."

"Objection: I believe I could make it take a month, Master. Addendum: If he was in better physical and mental condition, I would expect a minimum of two, however, this meatbag is clearly a failed example of his species."

I laughed at HK's reaction, and the way the Weequay scampered back, almost hiding behind a gonk droid. As we reached the exit to the landing area, I heard a loud, threatening growl. Turning back, I saw Fenrir had moved to the ramp and had his gaze locked on the Weequay. "Fenrir! If he touches Raven he's your new toy. Try to make him last longer than the last one." I turned and stepped toward the exit, yet when the gears in the door strained to open I turned back. "And make sure to not bring him onboard. It took me a week to get the blood stains off the dinner table." While it served no purpose to torment the Weequay, it fit into the persona I was projecting in full armour. Plus, it amused me as did HK and Fenrir's accompanying behaviour.

Turning back, I saw the door had opened leaving me looking out onto a street in Mos Espa. I grimaced at seeing the squalor hidden under layers of sand and dust that covered everything. After taking a single step through the exit, I paused and reached out with Detection. Aayla and Vos were somewhere to the southwest, while Qui-Gon, Padmé and another sentient were more westward. They were close enough that I'd be surprised if the Jedi couldn't sense one another. Since there was no sense of Vos moving toward Qui-Gon, I felt I'd been right to assume he and Aayla were on a mission of their own. Obi-Wan was somewhere to the south, beyond the city limits.

I smirked when I used my mental map of the city and saw Qui-Gon was at Watto's. Or at least close enough that he'd either already been inside, or would do so soon. With a destination set, I turned and walked westward. HK fell into step just behind me and I knew his optical receptors were scanning everyone we saw for potential threats. My helmet was doing the same, making records of every face regardless of gender or species. Like the list that I'd generated when landing, every face here would be tracked for future reference. Well, except the Jawas as I couldn't – and from rumours I'd heard didn't want to – see their faces.

Most sentients had the common sense to scurry to avoid the Mandalorian and combat droid that were moving through the streets when they saw us coming. Yet as we moved down a side alley, two Trandoshans stepped into our path.

"The Scorekeeper will reward me well for your death, Mandalorian." The one that spoke was carrying a heavy repeater while his companion had a large vibroblade in each hand. Behind us, the HUD reported two more of the walking lizards move into the alley.

I kept walking, not bothered by the threat. The blade carrying Trandoshan moved to meet me only to stop when, faster than he'd expected, my beskad slipped from behind my cloak and embedded itself in his gut. Even as the thing's eyes processed my action, I pulled my arm upward. The Force boosted my strength as my blade sliced through its guts, exiting through its neck.

Before the body had dropped, I'd drawn the T-6 "Thunderer" from its place on my hip and let fire, placing a trio of pin-point accurate shots that pretty much disintegrated the Trandoshan's skull. At the same time, I heard HK's blaster spark to life, followed by the two thumps. Thanks to the HUD of my helmet, I knew the pair behind us were as dead as those in front.

"Shame we can't delay," I muttered as I stepped over the convulsing carcass of the blade wielding Trandoshan. "I have a sudden urge for grilled lizard."

"Analysis: I have access to five-hundred and sixty-seven recipes for grilling reptilian creatures, Master. While none are specifically designed for this species, I believe I could adapt them suitably."

I chuckled at the suggestion even as my HUD saw others running to the alley to rummage through the bodies while we walked away. "I'd ask why you know how to cook, but I don't think such a conversation is meant for polite company."

"Observation: We are not in such company, Master."

I laughed as we turned the corner from the alley and the bodies that would be devoid of anything of value long before we reached Qui-Gon and Padmé. "True. Go on then, tell me a story when your culinary skills were required on a mission."

"Musing: There are many that I remember, Master. However, there was one that once took me to Alderaan, and into the employ of the sector's Senator."

… …

Ten minutes, and one amusing yet morbid story later, I stepped into a wide street with several bantha and similar large beasts of burden moving through it. As I looked over the street, I saw Qui-Gon standing in an alcove holding something close to his face. Since I'd tracked his movements on my minimap, I knew he'd just come from Watto's shop, so this helped me place exactly where I was in the timeline of events.

As Qui-Gon lowered his communicator, I walked forward. My mood was soured somewhat as an expected, but entirely unwanted, large figure appeared in front of him. Wanting to settle an internal debate, I used Observe on the Gungan.

Jar Jar Binks
Race: Gungan
Level: 21
Health: 97% (mild dehydration)
Age: 20
Force Potential: Intermediate
Threat Potential: Low
Reputation: Neutral
Affiliation Loyalty: Gungan people (84%)
Emotional State: Hungry/Irritated/Concerned
Jar Jar dislikes the heat of this planet and it makes him hungry.
He is irritated that it appears they won't be leaving soon and is concerned about how long they will remain.

I'd always wondered if Jar-Jar had some Force sensitivity as he'd had an inordinate amount of luck. Yet seeing his potential was in the same range as Obi-Wans, though I doubted it was higher, was unexpected and unwanted. That said, I was glad the insane fan theory I remembered of him being a hidden Sith wasn't true.

I felt better when I saw Padmé. Her outfit was even more unflattering in person, but it helped her blend in with others. Yet, I could enjoy the fact she wasn't wearing a ton of makeup like she normally would. My mood lifted further when behind her I saw R2-D2 rolling along. Ever since getting the quest to rebuild HK, I'd been wanting to introduce the droids to each other. Something told me that the pair were going to bring so much chaos – for others, I hoped – that I'd been looking forward to their first meeting.

As I neared, Qui-Gon looked my way and tensed. No doubt he was confused as to why the Force suggested he knew me when all he saw was an unfamiliar Mandalorian. Padmé saw Qui-Gon tensing and looked my way while R2 gave out a long beep. The only one who didn't realise something was off was Jar Jar, who was looking longingly at a food stall and the roasted critters hanging there.

I moved closer, pulled back my robes, pulled out my lightsaber, and turned off the voice modulation of my helmet. "I'm here to help, Master Qui-Gon."

I watched in amusement as his eyes widened as he recognized my voice and my lightsaber. While it wasn't the same as Dooku's, it was obviously inspired by it. As he relaxed, I reached up and unsealed then removed my helmet, only to grimace as I smelt the unfiltered air of the planet. "Force, I've not missed that smell."

"Cam?" Padmé blurted out before a wide smile spread over her lips and she raced forward. I returned her hug, sensing the relief rolling off her within the Force. "You came!" She said with a wide smile as she pulled back.

"When the Queen calls, should the Knight not respond?" I replied softly, a smirk on my face. As she blushed, I turned my gaze to Qui-Gon. "It's been some time, Master."

"That it has," Qui-Gon said as he stepped closer. "I'd sensed you earlier, but I hadn't expected you to meet us, and certainly not dressed like this." His eyes wandered over my armour as one eyebrow rose.

I shrugged. "I decided to go incognito, though unlike you, I prefer to not look like a local," I replied as I took in the cheap-looking shawl he wore. "And avoid the local stench," I added as my nose wrinkled as the smell of whatever passed for meat drifted toward me.

I turned toward the smell and saw Jar Jar moving closer to the food, his tongue hanging comically out of his mouth. Before he could create a scene with Sebulba, I lifted one arm. A cable shot from my gauntlet, wrapped around the waist of a very startled Gungan, and then pulled him off his feet. "Though if this one doesn't behave, then trying to remain unnoticed will be a rather pointless gesture," I remarked as the servos in the gauntlet dragged the confused Gungan toward me.

"How wude," Jar Jar remarked as he came to a stop about a metre from me and began untangling himself from the cord. The urge to shoot him and remove him from events passed through my mind, but I repressed it. Not only would Qui-Gon have an issue with it, but if the Gungans were to fight for Naboo, Jar Jar was still needed. That said, I already knew I'd have to limit my time around him if I didn't want the urge to resurface.

"While I'm grateful to see you," Qui-Gon said as I did my best to ignore Jar Jar, "it does little to help our current situation."

I smiled at Qui-Gon. "The Queen has already spoken to me of the issue, and I came prepared." I tapped the satchel at my side before looking beyond the Jedi Master in the direction he'd come. "Does Watto still own the shop that way?"

Qui-Gon frowned. "He does, though I wasn't aware you knew him."

"I've been on this planet several times before," I explained with a shrug. "While I'd rather never return after today, my last visit brought me into contact with the Toydarian." A beep from R2 drew my attention and I smiled at the way the astromech was all but facing up to HK. "I didn't think you were the kind to travel with a droid."

Qui-Gon smiled. "I don't. However, that astromech was a large part of how we managed to escape Naboo." He glanced at Padmé who was standing close to me, almost afraid I'd leave her behind. "The Queen was insistent that it and her handmaiden accompany me into the city." He returned his gaze to the droids. "Though it seems I'm not the only one with new company."

"HK, play nice," I said as HK took a step toward R2, his grip tightening around his blaster. "I think you and he will get along great." R2 beeped and shook in clear disagreement. "Yes, I think you will, little one," I replied, having interpreted his sounds to mean he didn't agree. "HK enjoys getting into trouble, and then finding novel ways to escape."

"Indignation: I never get into trouble. I'm always exactly where I intend to be to cause maximum carnage." R2 let out a long whistle followed by a series of quick, high-pitched beeps. "Observation: So far my new Master hasn't required an astromech, but if he is anything like my Creator, he may soon need one. Addendum: I do hope you are more amenable to my methods than the last astromech I worked with."

I chuckled at the obscure mention of T3.

"Is it wise to arm the droid?"

HK turned and seemed to glare at Qui-Gon. "Indignation: There is more knowledge about combat in my memory banks than known to your entire Order, Jedi meatbag." I sighed at HK's behaviour even as R2 gave a series of amused beeps. "Explanation: They have all these squishy parts. And all that water! Every step they take has the water sloshing around, hence the term meatbag."

R2 rocked from side to side and gave off another series of beeps and whistles that I thought meant he found the reference amusing. Leaving the two to get acquainted – and prevent myself from cackling maniacally at what I'd unleashed on the galaxy – I turned back to Qui-Gon. "You'll have to forgive HK. He's a capable droid, but his creator programmed a distinct lack of manners into him. At least when not speaking about his current owner."

"I see." It was clear Qui-Gon didn't.

"Anyway," I said even as Qui-Gon continued to watch HK. "How much does Watto want for the parts you need?"

Qui-Gon looked at me, a sour expression passing over his face for a second. "Unless you have something other than Republic Credits, there's little we have of value." Qui-Gon paused, looked at Padmé and gently stroked his beard. "Though perhaps we could sell the Queen's cruiser and use the sale to purchase transport to Coruscant."

"The Queen would never allow that," Padmé countered, earning a smirk from Qui-Gon.

"What the Queen doesn't know won't concern her." From the way he smirked and the amusement I sensed from through the Force, I felt he knew Padmé was the queen, but wasn't bringing it up. "However, I feel with our friend here, that solution won't be needed."

"Aye, I think I can convince Watto to make a deal," I said, making Padmé look up at me. That drove the scowl she'd been giving Qui-Gon from her features. "Though perhaps it would be better if I did so alone as I haven't revealed to him that I'm a Jedi." Not entirely true, but I didn't want Qui-Gon present when I spoke with Watto, so he didn't ask where I'd gotten the gems. I turned to HK. "Come on HK. While I doubt Watto has anything of interest, I feel it'd be safer for the locals if you stayed near me."

"Observation: I do hope you're not suggesting they might be a threat to me, Master."

"Force no," I laughed out loud. "But I don't want to return and find you've decided the best course of action is to burn the city to the ground."

"Indignation: I would never do such a thing, Master. It would be a waste of tibanna gas. Addendum: Though, if they attacked me first, I would be forced to defend myself."

"And I'm sure you could ensure that happened with a few truthful and cutting barbs." I stepped forward, sliding from Padmé's side and waved to HK. "Come on. R2, you can come along as well if you want."

R2 let out a long whistle before shifting and letting his front leg drop. With the two droids just behind, and a confused Jedi Master and Queen watching, I moved toward Watto's shop. Once my helmet was back on, I let out the laughter I'd been holding in at arranging the meeting between these two droids. As for Watto, I didn't expect any issues, but if he gave me trouble, I'd heard enough hints from Shmi and Anakin to suggest that while a generally decent owner, he had struck them both on multiple occasions. If the Toydarian pushed me and confirmed this, HK would get another notch on his blaster.

… …

… …

I stood to one side of the private suite in 500 Republica that Palpatine had arranged for Padmé and her entourage to stay while they were on Coruscant. He'd offered me a room as well, but I'd replied that I'd rather spend my time on Raven. Though I did hint that if I needed to rest properly, I'd head elsewhere as a nod to the apartment Damask had gifted me. I'd visited it once so far, simply to give it a look over and locate the more obvious recording devices. None were out in the open, but using the force to sense unusual power sources, I'd discovered over three dozen throughout the apartment, including – rather worryingly – in the bathroom. I'd not removed any as I didn't want to hint I was concerned about such things and if I removed those, then he'd no doubt ensure new ones were located within before I returned. All I had to do was use the Force to create a bubble of silence around myself and ensure I wasn't facing any sensor with visual recording capabilities.

What I'd also done before entering this apartment, after dropping Padmé off with the Chancellor and Palpatine, was take time to go over the quest for Naboo again.

The Phantom Menace [ƍ] [ ]
The Sith are making their first obvious move. How will you counter it?
Rating: S
:a: Free Naboo from Trade Federation control before any treaty recognizing the occupation can be signed.
:b: Ensure that Padme Naberrie survives the invasion.
:c: Defeat Maul.
:a: A massive increase in Reputation with any sentient living on Naboo.
Variable Reputation gains with any who oppose the Trade Federation.
Variable changes in Reputation with members of the Jedi Order, Galactic Senate and Republic.
:b: 2 Tests of Friendship with Padme Naberrie are passed.
A massive increase in Reputation with Padme Naberrie.
A large increase in Reputation with Padme's family and closest friends.
:c: Variable rewards based on whether you drive him off, capture, or kill him.
Possible decrease in Reputation with Maul, Darth Sidious, and Darth Plagueis.
Possible increase in Reputation with Maul, Darth Sidious, and Darth Plagueis.
:a: Significant loss of Reputation with any sentient living on Naboo.
Variable losses of Reputation with many sentients across the galaxy.
:b: The Possible Death of Padmé Amidala, resulting in the loss of a friend and ally.
:c: The possible death of someone important and close to you.
A high possibility that you will die.

That had first appeared after speaking with Palpatine in the Senate building. Everything there was expected, even down to the variable rewards for defeating Maul. I had several plans in place for how to manage that, though the more dangerous options depended on Bo and Adonai finding something I could use against Maul. I knew the technology I wanted existed as I'd encountered a minor version of it with the bracers during my time on Mandalore and on the Pius Dea ship, Mtael's Gift, but I wasn't sure if what I needed for my preferred plan for Maul existed.

Even if I just forced Maul to retreat – an unlikely outcome given his personality and which I knew would be no easy feat – and completed the other objectives, I'd clear the XP needed to reach level 30, thanks to the Boosted Growth Mk2 perk which granted a 20% bonus to XP gained. Among other benefits.

While my personal style was developing well – something Dooku had commented on when we'd sparred one last time before I'd headed to Mandalore to get HK built and collect my armour, I knew there was still a block between making my actions flow with the Force and the skill I had with each lightsaber form. After hours of meditating on the matter – in the hopes that guidance would come from the Force or a clear and centred mind – with no success, my only hope that remained for removing this block was the system upgrade at level 30. I just wished it had arrived before Naboo. Still, I'd taken all my known lightsaber forms into the lower range of the Master tier with Shii-Cho – for all its flaws – the highest non-Makashi skill at Prodigy:40.

"What options do we have, Senator?" Padmé's question to Palpatine drew my focus back to the room I was in. As Palpatine considered his answer, I replayed what he'd said while I'd been considering the Naboo quest. He'd just gone over how the Senate works – at least in terms someone who didn't have months to learn it would understand – and the current power players in it. Which was why I'd let my mind wander as I already knew this, thanks both to Palpatine's help and confirming most of what he told me via Holonet. While it had been a tedious endeavour, and one I'd not enjoyed, I felt I had to do so. Not just for ways to possibly help Padmé and Naboo, but to spot ways that might indirectly undermine Palpatine's rise to power.

Padmé was standing in her regal gowns as Queen, and frankly, they looked as absurd as I'd expected, though not as bad as the one she'd worn for her coronation. That said, I found myself preferring the unflattering clothing she'd worn on Naboo when posing as a handmaiden as the makeup she wore here made her look like a life-sized puppet. Which, I supposed, was what Palpatine hoped for when he appointed her. It was such a shame that he'd misread her so badly, but that moment was still to come.

"Our best choice would be to push for the election of a stronger supreme chancellor—one who could take control of the bureaucrats, enforce the laws, and give us justice," Palpatine replied after seeming to consider his words. "You could call for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum," he added cautiously.

As much as I knew he was one of the Sith that I had to defeat, I couldn't help but respect how well he played his role of humble, unassuming Senator. Every moment like this was watching a true master in action and always helped me learn more about how to not only act diplomatically but project a different persona than my true one. Oh, I'd never ever be on his level, but the better I got now, when able to watch from his side, the easier I felt it would be for me to rise as a counter to him when things began to snowball toward galactic war.

Barring the tensing of her face – which was hard to spot under the makeup – and a similar emotional response that I could just sense through the Force, Padmé remained calm. "Valorum has been our strongest supporter. Is there no other way?"

Palpatine sighed, let his shoulders slump and shook his head. "Our only other choice would be to submit the matter to the courts…"

"The courts take even longer to decide things than the Senate," Padmé cut in. Her tone made clear her distaste for that idea, and frankly, I had to agree. The only way the courts might be of use is if we had leverage over a judge. But even if we did, the Federation could easily bribe others to ensure our case was either delayed indefinitely or dismissed. "Our people are dying—more and more each day. We must do something quickly. We must stop the Federation." While she was trying to remain serene, she was struggling, which was entirely understandable.

Palpatine sighed again and resumed his pacing. "To be realistic about the matter, Your Majesty, I believe we are going to have to accept Federation control for the time being, at least."

Even though I knew how this talk played out, I still struggled to hold back a snort at how that was going to work.

"That is something I cannot do," Padmé shot back, some venom creeping into her voice.

As the pair stood in silence, I considered how, or if, I should intervene. I had a plan in place that might help Naboo, but it was still in the planning stages. Even if the Lokella and Adonai had promised support, I couldn't be sure how much that would be, or if it would be anything more than a token gesture in the grand scheme of things. Hence why I'd not yet brought it up.

"Do you have any suggestions, Master Jedi?"

I blinked when Padmé asked that as she, Palpatine, Panaka, and her handmaidens – who were standing behind the Queen – turned to face me. While my eyes focused on Padmé, I could sense Palpatine's gaze. Based on our meeting with Hego Damask, he might hope I'd support his side to replace Valorum. A stronger Chancellor would certainly help us prepare for the Vong. Yet, knowing his true plan, and as a Jedi who was meant to remain impartial in the matter – not that I was anyway since I was present for this private meeting – I was hesitant to openly support his plan.

"First, as a Jedi, I cannot recommend an action that affects the politics of the Republic, Your Majesty," I said slowly, covering my arse if the High Council ever learnt I was at this meeting. "On a personal level, I find I must reluctantly agree with the Senator. The Chancellor is mired in problems, the most recent of which I was on hand to witness on Eriadu." As I spoke, I stepped forward, letting my robes fall down my arms and cover my gauntlets. Those and the boots were the only parts of my armour I wore here, as I'd settled on them as the 'public armour' I'd wear. The High Council might not be comfortable with it, but there was precedent for Jedi wearing some armour and I was going to exploit that until they challenged me about it. Which, given where I was, would no doubt be right after the battle for Naboo. "Replacing Valorum with a stronger, more purposeful Chancellor would, in theory, be beneficial. However, even if a new Chancellor promises in his campaign to support Naboo, there's no certainty they could make the Senate bend to that will. Or that the Federation won't still find ways to counter their power." I turned to face Palpatine. "With respect, Senator, many of your colleagues are nothing more than greedy, squabbling individuals whose only focus is their own self-interest. Not that of their constituents or the Republic at large." Palpatine gave a tired nod to say he agreed. "And that's not even counting those who you know are directly under the thumb of the Federation."

"Then we should expect no support from the Senate?"

I turned back to Padmé. While she wasn't showing any concern on her face, I could sense it through the Force. What amused me though, was the spark of defiance I could sense growing in her. That suggested the plan she would soon enact wasn't a spur-of-the-moment thing, but something she'd been considering for some time.

"While there's still a small chance Valorum might stake what little remaining power he has in an effort to free Naboo, I fear that won't happen. It's entirely possible he expended what resources he had to have Master Qui-Gon sent to resolve the crisis." I glance at Palpatine for a moment, regretting what I was about to do. "If Valorum can't provide aid, or even a promise to look into the matter before the various interests in the Senate move to stop him, then I feel the Senator's suggestion of no-confidence might be your only play. The act would garner attention to Naboo's plight, which may influence some to help in some way. However, even if, for example, Senator Palpatine was elected Chancellor, it would take weeks if not months for the Senate to get off their collective arses and do anything of importance."

A small smile crept onto Palpatine's face. "While I'm flattered in the faith you have in me, Master Jedi, I doubt I would be considered for Chancellor. I represent, with respect to you, Your Highness, a minor sector of little galactic consequence from the Mid Rim."

I smiled, impressed with the self-depreciation he showed without even hinting that he already had the votes to become Chancellor. "It was merely an example, Senator," I replied. "That said, from what I've seen of your quarrelling cohorts, you would be a better choice than most." Palpatine dipped his head, accepting the praise, before I turned back to Padmé. "For now, I would advise patience. When you speak to the Senate, see how the Chancellor and others behave. While you and the Senator do that, I'll speak with a few contacts of mine. They don't have the political clout of anyone in the Senate, but they might be willing to offer a third option. One that doesn't rely on the fickle nature of career politicians, or the wait-and-see mentality of the Jedi Council."

I watched the pair as they looked at me. Padmé had a faint spark of hope in her eyes at my words, though Palpatine's were cooler. Externally, I hoped he was simply taking my words as a sign I didn't expect the Senate or Jedi Order to be of any help. Internally though, I knew he was playing what I'd said over, trying to spot how honest my opinions on the Jedi were, and how he might exploit them.

What both missed, or so I hoped, is that I had moves in play that if they worked even half as well as I hoped, would not only help Naboo but once the crisis was over, cause an uproar in the Senate and Republic. So long as I was able to free Naboo though, the blowback would be minimised by the PR victory I'd gain, and the fact the new Chancellor would owe me a massive favour for saving his homeworld.

… …

… …

I stepped from Raven and nodded at the security in 500 Republica even as a group of droids approached. While I wasn't a resident of the building, with everything going on, Palpatine had ensured I had clearance to land whenever I wanted here. A normal Senator shouldn't have that sort of pull, but I suspected that either he or Damask had some sway over the building's owners - if the Sith didn't outright own it through a myriad of shell corporations.

I'd come here from the Senate building. While I had considered standing with Padmé when she spoke to the Senate, Master Koon had been in the building at the time. After a short discussion about my connection to the Queen, he'd advised that I not stand with her. Apart from some possibly seeing it as the Jedi interfering in politics, many weren't as considerate toward the Order as most Jedi believed.

Once I'd thanked him for the advice, and promised to pass along his condolences for what had happened and that the Jedi Council was using what political capital it had to resolve the civilian crisis, I'd headed further into the Senate building. I'd moved off to find my primary target in the building. The office of the Senator from Mandalore. Oh, the person with the office didn't consider themselves a Senator, preferring to call themselves a Representative, but they were considered a Senator by the Republic.

As expected, Representative Wren hadn't been present as the Chancellor had called a full session at Padmé's request, but I was helped by their senior adjunct – and I suspected, their future replacement – Satine Kryze. Ignoring the situation, Satine had been genuinely pleased to see me and even thanked me for helping her reconnect with her sister. I'd taken her thanks and commented on her wearing beskar vambraces. From the short talk that we'd had while she connected me to Mandalore and her father, I discovered that while she still believed that peace had a purpose to play, it wasn't the path her people needed to take. That didn't mean she supported a full return to the old ways, just that now she understood the folly in the New Mandalorian ideals. I'd struggled to process the change the last few years had brought on in her, but I could tell she was genuine in her shifting beliefs.

With Satine's help, I'd held a secure call with Duke Adonai. While he couldn't directly call on the forces under his command, as what I wanted was warriors to work outside of Mandalorian space, he did promise to ensure a large enough number of warriors answered my call. That shouldn't be an issue though as I'd promised to reward everyone who came handsomely, finally having a clear and present use for the credits I'd built up over the years.

After that, I'd returned to Raven, and learning the Senate meeting was over, flew back to 500 Republica. Though not before reaching out to the Lokella. I'd spoken with Ferox, Validus and Maan and they'd promised that they'd have ships ready and moving before the day was through. When I'd offered the terms that I'd given Adonai and the Mandalorians to them, they'd flat-out rejected it. However, once Naboo was free, I'd match whatever I paid the Mandalorians with a donation to the Lokella.

A faint, musical chime let me know the elevator I'd been riding in had arrived at my floor and I stepped out. The corridor leading to Padmé's quarters was lined with her guards. After an initial flinch showing they were well trained, none reacted once they confirmed I was who I said I was, and I walked directly to the main chamber of Padmé's quarters.

"…of Alderaan and Ainlee Teem of Malastare," Panaka finished as the doors slid open for me. He was standing with Palpatine facing Padmé. She saw my arrival but didn't react as Palpatine took a step forward.

"I feel confident that our situation will generate strong support for us when the voting takes place tomorrow." As he spoke, Padmé moved off, coming to a stop near one of the floor-to-ceiling windows. "I will be Chancellor."

Instead of replying to her senator, Padmé looked at me and offered a faint smile. That had the two men turn as my eyes caught Jar Jar lurking in the corner. The Gungan was trying to stay out of the way, but from the various vases around him, I knew any sudden movement from him would result in something expensive – probably belonging to Palpatine – being broken. While the idea of having that happen appealed, I had other matters beyond irritating a Sith Lord to handle.

"It seems my example was, in fact, foresight," I remarked with a chuckle. "Congratulations on the nomination, Senator. Though as I said before the session, I'm unsure of how much this will help your people in the near term."

"On that we are agreed, Master Jedi," Padmé remarked, drawing Palpatine's attention back to her. "I fear that by the time you've taken control of the Senate, there will be nothing left of our planet or people to salvage."

"I might have a possible solution," I said, stepping fully into the room.

"And what might that be?"

I smirked at Palpatine after he asked his question. "If the Senate, the Jedi, the very heart of the Republic won't lift a finger to help Naboo in its hour of need, then perhaps an option exists to ask the people for help," I spoke slowly, drawing everyone in as I moved around. "For example, I've reached out to friends I have on Mandalore and beyond, and asked for volunteers." I wasn't going to mention how much I was paying for said volunteers, but neither of them had to know that now. "Now, I can't say how many will answer my call, but Mandalorians love a good fight, especially when it's, no offence intended to you, Your Majesty, backing an underdog pushed into a corner. What I do know is that I, and at least a dozen I know and trust, will fight at your side. The Senate and Order be damned." Bo had already spoken with Naz, the rest of my team at the Institute and others like Gar, Rook and Osto. She assured me that all of them would come. The rest… that was on how well Adonai could get the word out, and how many would be willing to listen and follow a Jedi, even one who was also Mando'ade.

Both Padmé and Palpatine smiled, though I felt certain there were different motivations for that. "I'm grateful for your help, Cam," Padmé said, breaking decorum by using my name. "However, I wonder what a handful of Mandalorians can do against an army of millions of battle droids."

"With respect, Your Majesty," Palpatine began slowly. "In the days of the old Republic, there were times the Mandalorians brought the Republic and Jedi to their knees. Indeed, it was Cameron's ancestor who broke their forces in one of those last major conflicts. While the Mandalorians of today are more fractured than in previous eras, if the Jedi Order will not come to our aid, I would happily accept the support of any Mandalorian willing to fight for us. Other than the Mandalorians, few others could gather a force capable of matching a group of Jedi in battle in short order."

"Depending on the Jedi and Mandalorian in question, I'd take the Mandalorian," I remarked with a chuckle. "Thankfully, at least in my case, you get the best of both worlds at your command, Your Majesty."

"Won't the Jedi Council attempt to stop you?" Panaka asked. I smirked even as I knew Palpatine was already considering how to use this to drive a wedge between me and the Council, and possibly, with the right subtle pressures, bring the Mandalorians into play in the grand plan he and Plagueis had in motion.

"As my grandfather was fond of saying, it's better to ask forgiveness than beg for permission." Palpatine chuckled at that even as I turned my focus to Padmé. "I know what I can offer isn't much, nor can I be sure of the size of the forces I can gather, but whatever I can gather, is yours to command."

Padmé moved toward me, Palpatine and Panaka stepping aside to let her approach. Once in front of me, she smiled and reached out for my hand. "Words cannot express how much this means to me and my people, Cam." I smiled and lowered my head as I squeezed her hand, reassuring her I was with her. "Senator," she said as she turned, "I see now there is nothing more I can do here. The Senate is your arena and battleground, I must now return to mine."

"I would argue against that, Your Majesty, if it were not for the support of Master Shan," I smiled, enjoying how good that felt to hear even if I wasn't a Jedi Master. Oh, I knew he was doing that to appeal to my ego, but that didn't mean I was going to reject the flattery. "However, I must warn you that if you fail, the Federation will force you to sign the treaty."

The glare Padmé gave Palpatine could've frozen a lake. "I will sign no treaty, Senator." She turned back to me, only just realising she was still holding my hand. "How soon can your allies gather?" she asked after pulling her hand back.

"I sent word to them as soon as the session ended," I replied, making her small smile of hope grow. "Those that can gather quickly enough will meet me in four days in the Pax system." I'd chosen the system as it lay far enough away from Naboo so as to not arouse suspicion from the Federation, and not because the name of the system was an old Earth world for 'peace'.

"Then we will meet them there." Padmé turned and stepped away from me. "Captain?"

"Yes, Your Highness?"

"Ready my ship." Panaka bowed and turned, heading to carry out her order. As he walked past me, he gave a slight nod and offered me a smile, pleased at my help.

"I realise I cannot dissuade you from this course, Your Majesty, I only ask that you stay safe. Losing you would shatter what little hope our people have."

I stepped to Padmé's side before replying to Palpatine. "Senator… uncle, as long as I draw breath, no harm will come to her."

Palpatine's eyes wandered my face as if searching for something. Having found it, he moved closer and took my hand. "Then I place her life, and the fate of my people, in your hands, my friend. May the Force be with you."

"It will, or I will make it," I replied, knowing the phrase would amuse him.

He turned to Padmé as he let go of my hand. "My thoughts will be with you, Your Majesty."

"Thank you, Senator. If you win the election, I pray you will find a way to restore sanity and compassion to the Republic."

After giving me one last look, Padmé moved off to another part of the apartment. Her handmaidens followed along as did two guards. After looking around, Jar Jar decided to follow, knocking a vase as he turned.

"Try to be more careful," I suggested as I caught the vase with the Force and moved it away from the annoying Gungan.

"Mesa sorry," he mumbled before leaving the room in a hurry. I slowly lifted the vase back onto its pedestal and then turned to Palpatine.

"I'm uncertain why the Queen keeps him around, but I'll trust her judgement for now." Mainly because I knew that even if a thousand Mandalorians and an equal number of Lokella turned up, we'd still need the Gungan army. After that, if the chance occurred, I'd decide on Jar Jar's future.

Palpatine smirked. "The Gungans are the native species to Naboo. There have been wars fought with them in the past, though there's been little interaction between them and the Naboo over the last hundred years or so." Palpatine glanced at the vase. "My thanks for the vase as it once belonged to my father." I nodded. "And for your help in supporting the Queen. I fear she is making a rash move in returning, but it warms my old heart to know she will have you protecting her."

"If all goes well, then when we next meet, Naboo will be free and you will be Chancellor," I extended my hand and gripped him by the forearm. He smiled warmly and clapped me on the shoulder with his free hand. "The Force will be with you, uncle."

He chuckled, seemingly finding amusement in the reference to my time posing as his family. "And with you, nephew."

I nodded, broke the arm clasp, turned, and moved toward the door. As it opened, I caught Palpatine's reflection. On it was the faintest hint of a smile, though not one of an old man who'd found some unexpected hope, but that of a mastermind watching new pieces slide into place for his plan.

As the doors closed behind me, and I moved to the elevator, I knew with certainty Maul would be seeking me out on Naboo, which was fine. He and I had a date with Destiny, and however it played out, only one of us would walk away from it.

And, as I rolled my fingers, finding certainty in the gauntlets I wore, I knew I'd do whatever it took to ensure that it would be me who walked away.

… …

… …

I hated waiting, especially the wait before deploying on a mission. You knew the battleplan, and various contingencies – many of which would either not be needed or would be Fubar'd before needed – the general composition of the forces in play and the like, but there was little to do but sit around and wait. And after a day and a half of waiting in the Pax system for anyone to arrive, I was reaching the end of my rope.

I'd spent time checking and cleaning every weapon built-in to my gauntlets, made sure spare gas packs, explosives, medical supplies, and rations were stored in my Inventory and given Raven a thorough check. Yet now I was bored shitless. I mean, I hadn't pushed Raven at all to reach the system, yet I'd arrived far ahead of the Naboo royal cruiser.

Now, I could've landed on Plagen, the only habitable planet in the system, but there was little reason to do so. I had stopped in at the starport and Raven refuelled, though not only was the place basic – since most ships only came there for a quick refuel and check before heading off to another system – but Raven had reacted badly to the local fuel. It was the first time she'd done that, and it made me wonder if she disliked whatever they added to the fuel locally, and would explain why she enjoyed stopping at the Jedi Temple and Senate building on Coruscant, as those places would certainly use the highest graded fuel.

The rough plan for Naboo was set. Most forces would race to the planet and try to slide past the Lucrehulk that was in orbit and its assigned vulture droids. Any gunships or corvettes would run screening fire before jumping away. They, and any heavier ships that might come, would wait a short jump away for a signal before returning when the battles on the planet and against the control ship took place. I still wasn't sure how we'd relay that signal, but the plan would change once the forces had gathered and I'd spoken with senior Mandalorians, Lokella and Padmé and her staff. While Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were coming with her, their only role was to protect Padmé.

Learning they were still coming had altered the quest slightly, adding an objective to keep Obi-Wan alive. Nothing was added for Qui-Gon but that made sense as he had a dedicated quest. Still, I'd already considered how the pair would stick close to Padmé while I made sure that whatever role I took on was easy enough that I'd be free to react as soon as I felt Maul's presence in Theed.

While there was a small chance the Zabrak Sith would be deployed somewhere else, I didn't think that likely. Sidious knew I'd be with Padmé for the most part, and the key had to be taking Theed and destroying the droid control ship. Thus, I was going to be in Theed instead of on the battlefields elsewhere.

Knowing Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were coming along was a relief, as I could trust them to guard Padmé. Still, they were the only Jedi that'd be present. After the second meeting with Padmé and Palpatine in 500 Republica, I had considered heading to the Temple to speak with others. However, I'd decided against it. If the Council learnt of my plans, they'd prevent me from leaving, and if Serra and others became aware, they'd want to come.

Now, I had spoken to Serra via the Holonet just before leaving the Coruscant system, and as expected she'd begged me to come. I'd rejected that though as the thought of losing her wasn't one I was willing to entertain. Serra was advanced for her age, but she was no match for Maul, especially if– as I expected – he was told to engage me by Sidious. Serra hadn't been happy about me leaving her behind, and I could feel she was as scared to lose me as I was to lose her, but she'd hidden it well when we finished speaking. Still, she made me promise to tell her what happened once the battles were over. That was if the Council didn't just throw me in confinement for months or years for involving myself in a matter that wasn't a concern of the Jedi. I didn't think they'd do that, but there was a chance, even when after defeating Maul I brought them proof from recordings taken by my armour.

The only break from the boredom of sitting here alone – Simvyl and Fenrir were sleeping while HK was busy going over his ordinance – was when a ship dropped out of hyperspace. Every time that happened, Raven scanned them to see if they might be the royal cruiser or one of the possible Mandalorian or Lokella ships that might turn up. I'd started ignoring those, so I didn't react until I felt amusement from Raven.

Turning my attention to the sensors, I saw that the new ship was the royal cruiser and smiled at someone finally arriving. Before I could even move my fingers, I felt Raven turning as she anticipated my actions. That made my smile grow as it showed she was learning to think for herself.

Just as Raven turned nose to nose with the sleek, polished lines of the Naboo cruiser, the comm-link beeped. "Took you long enough," I remarked as the channel opened.

"Unlike some, we've not got a ship built for speed." The reply came from Ric Olié, the captain of the royal cruiser, whose smile at seeing me slipped slightly a moment later. "Though it seems your allies aren't here."

The fact he was still smiling, and that there was no hint of hostility or doubt within the Force, meant I knew he wasn't angry about that. "Give them time. Even if they all left Mandalore as soon as I called, they have further to travel than we did. I doubt many of their ships have hyperdrives rated higher than yours, to say nothing of Raven. And trust me, even a dozen Mandalorians is something worth waiting for before going to war."

"Yeah, I've heard enough stories about their prowess. Never seen them in action though. However, they'd better get here soon. I'm not aware of her plans, but the Queen is insistent we don't delay too long. Every second we wait, another of our people could die at the hands of the Federation."

"Aye, I'd better come over and speak to her." After Olié nodded, I closed the channel and gently moved closer to the cruiser. Padmé would be intent on returning to Naboo, but we had to wait. I knew some would arrive soon, but I couldn't be sure who or how many would come.

… …

… …

I blinked as I awoke, the sound of a gentle, calming, almost musical sound echoing around my quarters as a familiar presence brushed up against my mind. As the sleep cleared from my eyes, I knew that was Raven's way of telling me to wake. A shake of my head cleared the last cobwebs before I dismissed the annoying message about how long I'd slept and how much of my FP and STAMINA had been restored. Looking around my quarters, focusing on the clock in the wall near the door, I saw it'd been about four hours since I'd laid down, and six since the Naboo cruiser had arrived in-system.

After speaking with Padmé and Qui-Gon – who while not saying anything was clearly unimpressed that I wore armour – I'd returned to the Raven and decided to get a few hours of shut-eye. While I could go over a month without sleep, I couldn't say how mentally and physically draining the coming battles were going to be, so I'd chosen to get some sleep, though something had forced Raven – and Simvyl as he was watching the sensors – to wake me.

"Yes?" I asked as I opened the intercom to the cockpit.

"Several dozen ships have entered the system," Simvyl replied. I grunted, having not expected that many Mandalorian vessels. "They're from the Lokella."

"How many exactly," I asked with a frown. While the Lokella had nearly a hundred ships, only a little over half that number were of any use in combat. While I was glad they'd responded, I was concerned they'd brought too many.

"Forty-seven, led by the Liberator."

"Fuck!" I spat with a grunt. Turning around, I summoned my robes to me, forgoing my armour for the moment. "I'll be there in a moment."

I closed the link and then slipped from my room. The ship was empty save for Fenrir who was snoozing on one of the sofas in the main area, having once again knocked half the cushions onto the floor as he struggled to get comfy. He lifted his head as I marched toward the cockpit, but remained resting after I told him to stay.

As I stepped into the cockpit, the dominating presence of the Dreadnought-class heavy cruiser Liberator filled my view. Around it were dozens of other vessels, with at least half the fleet being comprised of DP20s, CR70s and CR90s. "Kriff!" As I moved to my seat, I spotted a handful of freighters there as well, though given the size and room inside the Liberator, I wasn't sure what purpose they served flying around when most could've been carried inside the heavy cruiser. "Damnit Baalta. Why is most of the fleet here?" I asked the Togruta as she appeared as a small hologram in front of me.

Baalta blinked, shocked at my sharp tone. "The Mtael called, and we answered," she said after taking a moment to recover. "To do otherwise would be dishonourable."

I lowered my head and grumbled in annoyance. "I only wanted and expected a handful of ships, not almost the entire combat fleet."

Baalta smiled. "This is not everything, Mtael. A dozen dedicated defence vessels remain, along with an equal number of patrol craft and most of our non-combat dedicated fleet."

I looked down at the sensor readings, taking a full count of the Lokella fleet. I was impressed for sure, especially considering how much of it was liberated from slavers and retrofitted with credits I'd donated to them or that they'd taken from slavers, sales of phrik and other sources of revenue that I might not be aware of. Still, while capable of taking on a Lucrehulk – at least the current ones and not whatever refit they'd go through for the Clone Wars – the casualty rate would be immense. To say nothing of how vulnerable it left their home. "Baalta, while I'm honoured that you brought so many ships, I want half to return. I won't risk what you've built there for why I asked for the help."

Baalta's montrals fluctuated. "Do you think our people are unable or unwilling to fight against anything other than the Hutts?" She spoke with a snarl, exposing the sharp teeth of her species. While it was impressive, I knew Baalta all but worshipped me, and I had no reason to be concerned by her behaviour.

"No. I'm grateful that so many of your people would answer my call for help. However, the needs of the Lokella take precedence over the needs of anyone. Even the one they hold responsible for their freedom. I want at least sixty per cent of the fleet, including the Liberator to head home. And that split goes for whatever ground forces you brought as well."


"Baalta, this isn't up for debate," I cut in before she could argue. "I've never once used the veto the Council gave me, but I'm doing so now." I paused and released a breath to calm myself. "I'm grateful beyond words that so many of you came, but the needs of your… of our people matter far more than mine."

There was a short gap, as Baalta stared back at me, where I feared she'd keep arguing. Instead, she sighed and relaxed her posture with a short bow. "I will speak with the rest of the Council." I gave a nod and smile of thanks before the line closed. The fact she'd dropped my title was an indication of how much she disliked me putting my foot down and using the executive power the Lokella granted me. I'd never done so before, and if they were smart, they'd change the rules so I couldn't again, but I was going to use it while I could.

However, I was more concerned about the fact that with most of their military fleet here, their system was vulnerable. While I was concerned for them as a group, my main worry was Anakin. I'd placed him and his mother there to keep them safe, now though, the actions of the Lokella might've brought danger to their doorstep. The only upside was, if one could call it that, was that Anakin was on Mandalore.

"I knew they respected you, but this verges on devotion."

All Simvyl got was a grunt in reply as I didn't want to comment on my issues with how the Lokella saw me. I mean, I could understand it from Baalta, Maan and the other first-generation Lokella, but seeing it from others – though I was glad Ferox, Validus and others didn't show me such blind devotion – was a concern and made me wonder if the Interface or TPTB had something to do with the behaviour or if it was a cultural thing now among the Lokella.

"Assessment: While I understand your logic for wanting the heavy cruiser gone, Master, I feel it would serve us better to ensure all the freighters left. Their combat potential is highly limited. "Addendum: Unless you are considering using them to draw fire from more valuable vessels."

"I'm not goi…" I was cut off mid-sentence by Raven alerting me to a new group of vessels emerging from hyperspace. The first ship was smaller than Raven while the next few were on par with a YT1300, however, the last three were larger. I easily recognized the largest as an old Tal'kar-class light cruiser and the two next biggest as Crusader-class corvettes. While less than a third the size of the Liberator – and certainly used far less crew – the Tal'kar class had half the firepower and was far more manoeuvrable. The fact it and the Crusaders had managed to slip all the way here without some sort of alert on Republic channels was an impressive feat and explained why the Mandalorians were the last to arrive when the hyperspace routes to the ShaDo system – where the Lokella were based – were far less travelled.

The smile that had appeared on my face at seeing the Mandalorian appear slipped when the Liberator and its escorts turned toward the oncoming Mandalorian ships. "Seriously?" My hands flew over the controls. Even as Raven surged forward, heading for the space between the two fleets, I was opening a channel to the Liberator and the Tal'kar.

"Baalta," I called out as soon as her channel opened, "stand down! Those ships are with me." Even as she nodded and turned to address someone away from the camera a second channel opened. "Osto?" I said, surprised to see him in command of the cruiser.

"Alor Cameron. It is good to see you again," Osto replied with a smile and a slight nod. "We were worried we'd arrive late because of avoiding the more populated systems."

"Ven'alor Osto," I replied slowly. "While I'm glad to see you again, I must say the cruiser is an unexpected bonus."

Osto chuckled. "While not the largest ship in my father's fleet it was the most readily available for carrying our warriors into battle." As he spoke someone came into sight and I struggled to hide my shock at seeing his mother, Lady Asta, was with him. "Our ancestor stood with yours millennia ago. How could we, now that our clans are allies, not bring something worthy of that alliance."

"Then you and Lady Asta have my thanks for the support."

"My husband would have travelled with us; however, he and Alor Adonai have a pressing issue to deal with first," Asta said with a smile that hinted at something amusing her. Of course, I had no idea what that might be. "If not for that, both would be here to greet you."

"Regardless of why they cannot be present, you and your house have my thanks, my Lady." I lowered my head as I spoke, though inside my mind was wondering why the two dukes were willing to answer my call. I mean, our clans were allied, and I'd promised a financial reward to any who chose to fight, but having the two most powerful Mandalorian leaders step forward, while impressive, would've raised a lot of eyebrows on Coruscant and beyond. "Still, I must say I'm surprised that your husband, Alor Adonai and you would be willing to answer my call."

Asta chuckled with her son. "How so?" She asked. "You are Mando'ade. Not just that, but you are the Revan'ade, the slayer of the a'oryc bes'ede of Tatooine and an allied Alor. To not answer your call to battle would insult all that we are and hold dear."

I frowned at her referring to a krayt dragon as something akin to a Mythosaur, but there was some logic in that as the beasts were supposedly of similar size. Yet, the fact she – and likely others – referred to it as that, was something I'd have to look into after Naboo was free. "Then I hope I prove worthy of your support."

Osto threw his head back and laughed. "You hear that, mother? The man who destroyed an entire base for daring to capture him fears he might be unworthy of our support?" Osto laughed loudly and again and shook his head. "On that day, and after hearing of your war beside Bo-Katan Kryze, I swore by the resol'nare that when you next called for warriors I would answer the call no matter the challenge. I do so now, forgoing any promise of reward for the honour of standing at your side."

"It is a feeling some share," Asta commented as I processed the impact I'd made on Osto. I mean, I knew he'd enjoyed my unleashing of chaos against the Bando Gora, but I didn't realise it went that far. "Though most will not turn down the reward you have promised. I do hope you can afford it."

"I can't ask you to forgo the payment, Ven'alor Osto. Others may question why I showed you and your clan such dishonour." Osto looked ready to argue even as I continued. "However, you could donate the payment to helping survivors of the Federation's invasion. It would further enhance the reputation of our people with at least the Naboo, and possibly others across the Republic."

Osto considered my words for a moment before nodding. "That is an acceptable compromise."

"Forgive me, Revan'ade?" I groaned as I remembered Baalta was sharing the call with us. I'd thought she'd closed the channel to speak with the other members of the Lokella council, but it seemed she'd not done that, instead hearing everything I'd said to the Mandalorians. "You speak of the Mtael this way?"

"The who?" Asta asked even as I watched Osto cough.

"Baalta," I cut in before the groups could compare titles they'd bestowed upon me. "Have the Lokella made a decision?" As I asked, I saw Asta frown. I couldn't be sure why, but at a guess, it might be for the size of the fleet the Lokella had brought as the last any Mandalorian bar Bo would know, they'd only had a dozen or so smaller combat craft and an equal number of freighters.

"We have, Mtael. However, our leaders first wish to speak with you and the Mandalorians. The plan for battle will determine the exacts of which ships and warriors will remain."

"An acceptable decision," Asta replied. "We welcome any allies of Clan Shan to the Getala'kara. Though this is a warship, and lacks many of the amenities most races would expect for travelling between the stars."

Baalta smirked. "While the Lokella are composed of many species, almost all of us were once slaves. I assure you; we can survive the lack of luxuries that others have spent their whole lives taking for granted."

"Oh, I like you," Asta remarked with a chuckle. "Arrive as soon as you're ready."

With that, Asta closed the channel. Baalta gave me a look, one I couldn't interpret, before closing her channel. I leaned back in my seat and sighed. "Well, at least they didn't shoot each other," I muttered, glad to avoid that trope.

"Did you think that likely?"

I laughed as I leaned forward again and felt Raven turn as my fingers brushed against the controls. "No, but you can never be too sure," I said, answering Simvyl's question. Yet as Raven rolled to face the Mandalorian fleet, I felt a faint tremor in the Force. Curious, I activated Detection. "What the…" I mumbled as I felt a strong, but hidden Force presence on the Getala'kara. It only took a split second for me to realise it was Anakin. "What the fuck is he doing here?" I asked myself, wondering what fuckery the Force was up to by having him come here when I explicitly told him to remain on Mandalore.

… …

… …

"I know I need to go, but I want to help," Anakin pleaded one final time as I led him toward the airlock of the Getala'kara.

"I know that, but this isn't the place for a child. Even one as gifted as yourself," I replied as we moved. "And I can't focus entirely on the battles to come if I have to worry about keeping you safe. How would your mother feel if she learnt we both died because I lost focus worrying about you?" It wasn't nice to use that card, but I'd keep doing so until Anakin was on the Liberator and bound for the ShaDo system.

It seemed that when Anakin overheard Bo talking with others about gathering a force to help me fight a war, Anakin had taken it upon himself to sneak aboard the ship Bo had taken to meet up with the Getala'kara. From there, he'd supposedly managed to sneak aboard a warship full of over three hundred warriors – a number that included the crew, and amusingly enough, the big-game hunter Drayy'ven Jral who I'd met on Tatooine during my verd'goten – for long enough that by the time Asta was made aware of the stowaway, there was little she could do to remove him without being late for our rendezvous.

I'd spoken to Bo when I'd first learnt Anakin was on board, and while she claimed innocence, I knew she'd helped Anakin come along. She'd hinted that she felt he could remain on the Getala'kara and learn how the crew operated in battle. I'd challenged her authority on making that call publicly, making it clear to all that I'd left instructions with her and her father for Anakin to remain on Mandalore. While she'd not been happy about me publicly dressing her down – well, save the spike in her lust I'd sensed which I wasn't going to focus on – she'd accepted being in the wrong and given her reasons for her actions.

While I knew she knew I had a connection to Anakin – as did she, though if anyone dared say she mothered the boy, she'd likely try and gut them – and was only doing what she felt was right, I wasn't going to risk Anakin on Naboo. Not only did that add another variable I had to account for, but if he was there afterwards, then Palpatine would meet him when the soon-to-be Chancellor arrived to celebrate the freedom of his people.

"That's not fair!" Anakin snapped as I continued frog-marching him through the corridors. A few Mandalorians saw me doing this, and most chuckled at the image. A few even waved to Anakin, suggesting he'd managed to worm his way into the thoughts of several of the crew and passengers.

Once we entered a quiet corridor, I stopped and looked down at him. "I know, but – and we've already been over this – it's fairer than sneaking aboard a warship as it departs for battle."

We'd gone over this point several times in the last hour, and while he was contrite about coming along, he disliked me using his mother to argue against his presence. It had lasted long enough that Padmé, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had seen Anakin. With Padmé being in make-up and him focused on me, he'd not reacted to her as he had in canon which was a relief as I knew Padmé's attraction was toward me. Not that I'd be doing anything with it until she was at least seventeen.

Qui-Gon had spent the longest watching our interaction, and I wondered if he sensed the strength of Anakin's Force connection. However, before he could say anything, Padmé had moved off and he'd been forced to follow along. Thus, so long as everything went decently, and we both made it out of the invasion alive, I would talk with Qui-Gon about Anakin. He might be able to offer some suggestions for how to teach the boy that wouldn't fit with the expected Jedi doctrine. Not that I planned to try to teach Anakin as a typical Jedi. Even avoiding the fact that Anakin wasn't typical, I knew where that path led.

"Look," I said slowly as the boy glared up at me. "How about this? If you go back with the Liberator and Baalta, when Naboo is free, I'll come to find you and start officially training you."

Any anger in his posture disappeared as hope and expectation flooded off him in an almost overpowering cascade. "Y-you mean…"

I nodded. "Yes, I'll take you as my Padawan and you'll become a Jedi."

"Ya-Hoo!" He shouted loud enough that I was surprised no one came to check on us. A moment later I had an excited boy hugging me tight enough that until I recovered, I struggled to breathe. I laughed at his enthusiasm and hugged him back.

"You seem happy."

I turned to see Baalta had moved into the corridor, likely drawn by Anakin's shout. She, along with just over half the Lokella fleet, including the Liberator, were returning home. Ferox and Validus would remain to represent the Lokella Council as they'd made clear no force in the galaxy could stop them from fighting at my side. Which many Mandalorians had been pleased with, and when I'd left to escort Anakin to the docking area, I'd heard Osto talking with the pair about arranging a few short spars between the forces to help them see what each other could do.

"I'm going to be a Jedi!" Anakin shouted, making Baalta laugh.

"Don't let Bo hear that," I said as he let go of me. "She was insistent that you'd become Mando'ade."

Anakin shrugged while a wide smile dominated his face. "I can do both! Just like you!"

"Yeah, that's true." I chuckled and ruffled his hair. He was so excited that the action did nothing to spoil his mood. "Now off you go. I'm sure your mother is waiting for you to return."

His head bounced like some sort of broken doll. "Yes, Master."

"You don't have to call me that, Anakin," I said quickly, making his smile slip. "I know you've heard me use the term with Masters Dooku and Fay, but I understand how to you, your mother, and the Lokella the term 'Master' can have a negative connotation. While I doubt other Jedi would even realise this, I'm fine with you just using 'sir'."

"Ok." Anakin walked toward Baalta. I watched as she said something quietly and then guided him away.

Once he was out of sight, she turned back to me. "Thank you for understanding our concerns, Mtael."

"It's fine. However, if something does happen to me, I need you to take Anakin to Master Dooku. While I don't expect him to train Anakin, he knows who I'd hope could ensure he has the training he needs." I'd left word with Dooku that if my path ended on Naboo, I felt Qui-Gon was the best choice to teach Anakin. Dooku hadn't questioned why I felt that, choosing instead to simply say he was glad I wasn't expecting him to teach the boy. As amusing as the idea of that would be, I knew Dooku, while a great Jedi Master, wasn't the right choice for Anakin.

"It shall be done, Mtael. However, I know in my heart this is not where your future ends."

I nodded to Baalta before we turned and headed in opposite directions. I was glad that Anakin was leaving. However, while the first leadership meeting of the combined force had taken place, I'd sensed someone else arrive. Like Anakin, Serra had not listened to me and came to the fleet. I hadn't confirmed how she'd managed to arrange this, but that was what I was about to find out.

It took me about five minutes to reach one of the training rooms aboard the Getala'kara, and inside, I saw Bo and Serra sparring. Serra was using her lightsabers, but she also had most of a set of beskar armour on. My eyes rose when I saw the sigil that was on each shoulder. There, the one she'd earned from her verd'goten – which also served as the sigil for her young clan – rested.

I wondered for a moment where the armour had come from only to remember who Serra was sparring with. It seemed Bo had maintained more contact with Serra than I'd realised to the point she's managed to find enough beskar for Serra's armour. Something I had a hunch came from the vault on planet Ordo. I wasn't complaining, as Serra looked good in the armour, and it offered her protection that Jedi robes failed to provide. But it was just odd to see her embracing Mandalorian culture.

I let the spar continue for a while, watching the pair to gauge where Serra was. She'd certainly improved, and I felt having her spar against Obi-Wan would be interesting as while he'd begun using Soresu he wasn't a master of the Form yet. Serra favoured Jar'Kai obviously, yet while she centred her style around Niman, I could see the elements of Makashi I'd taught in action along with Shien. Oh, there were still flaws in it, something Bo exploited with a trio of blasts with the final one landing against Serra's chest armour, but it was a massive improvement from when I'd last sparred with her.

"Cam!" Serra called out after realising I was here. "I… um…"

I stepped closer as the pair stopped their spar. "I believe I asked you to remain at the Temple." My voice was relaxed, but I hoped there was an air about it to make clear I was speaking to her as a Jedi Knight and not her friend and lover.

I sensed some uncertainty in her for a moment before it slipped away, and she met my gaze. "You did but I… I can't stay away." She took a step toward me. "Every time I've meditated, I've been sensing a growing malevolent darkness and recently I've known it centred on you. It's why in the Temple…" She paused as her cheeks darkened.

"I know," I said softly. There'd been a moment where I thought she was going to say something that would get us into trouble with the Order. If she had, I wouldn't have denied it, nor not said the same back. However, I was glad she didn't. I still had a need for the Temple and the Order, though I did wonder how long that would remain the case.

Behind Serra, Bo smiled though she thankfully stayed silent. "I've never been good at seeing the future. Master Drallig says I don't have the patience for it," she chuckled, enjoying some private joke. When it ended, her smile slipped. "Yet ever since we… made love, glimpses have come to me. Of the darkness you've spoken of that threatens us all. The night you left the Temple, I had another one and," she paused, having moved close enough that she could place a hand on my arm. "I know that darkness, the Sith… They wait for you on Naboo."

"I'm aware." That caught Serra and Bo unaware as both looked surprised, though it was how Serra reacted that was my primary focus. "I've known something was waiting for me for a long time. Almost as if the Force was testing me. The moment I heard of the blockade of Naboo, I knew this would be where I faced my trial. However, it's because of that I didn't want you here." I lifted a hand and cupped her cheek, happy at the way she leaned into my touch. "If something were to happen to you… I couldn't live with that."

"I feel the same, but it's not our place to make that choice for the other."

"When did you get so wise?" I asked with a chuckle.

"I guess you and Bo managed to beat some into me." I laughed happily at that before leaning forward and kissing her forehead. "I need to ask though, why didn't you bring your concerns to the Council?"

I scoffed and shook my head. "As much as I'd love to believe they'd believe me, I knew they wouldn't. Ignoring that I'm a new Knight and a young one at that, there are many in the Order who dislike and distrust me simply because of my name."

"Then they're fools," Bo remarked. "What? They are," she added when Serra and I looked at her. She waved a hand as if dismissing us or telling us to return to our conversation.

"While I'd not phrase it how Bo did," Bo chuckled at Serra using the nickname, "I do agree that they'd not believe you. But others would. I do." She glanced back at Bo before continuing. "It's why I called Bo. I… I had to be at your side, and she helped arrange for a lift from Coruscant."

"I could still send you back, Padawan." Even as I said that I felt I wouldn't. She was here now, and I swore I felt the Force move in a way that meant this was where she was meant to be. Now, I wasn't stupid or love-drunk enough to not wonder if I wasn't misreading the signs to suit my feelings, but I was slowly accepting her being here.

"You could, but I'm not here as a Jedi." She rolled her shoulder, drawing my attention to her sigil. "While I've never spoken the formal declaration, Clan Keto stands with Clan Shan from this day until our final days." I chuckled even as she took a breath as if debating something, and then kept going. "You are neither my clan head nor my Mand'alor. Only they could keep me from being at your side, and even then I would fight it."

As I brushed a strand of hair from her face, I played over everything in my mind. She was right that, as Mando'ade, she had as much right to accept my offer to fight as any. And while we had never made it official, we were allies.

"You know if you send her away, it will undermine you in front of the other clans?"

"Yes, Bo, I'm aware of that," I shot back with a roll of my eyes.

Bo smiled, raised her hands, and took a step back, making clear she'd said her piece. However, I knew she was right. Sending Serra away, and using Jedi ranks to dismiss the leader of another clan, especially one close to mine, would make many of the Mandalorians question if I was truly one of them, or if I was simply using them as mercenaries. While some likely wouldn't care, I knew I'd need the support of their people again for conflicts that came along after Naboo.

I returned my gaze to Serra. "I need you to know that this is going to be dangerous and that as much as you'll protest, I'm going to do whatever I can to keep you away from the Sith." She opened her mouth to protest but I placed a finger against her lips. "No. Whoever is waiting for me is my trial, not yours. Whatever happens, I must face them alone."

Serra stared at me for a while, as if resolving an internal struggle. "OK, but if they strike you down, I'm going after them."

"Then I'd better not fail," I shot back, earning a chuckle from her before she leaned upward and kissed me gently. "What about Master Drallig?" I asked once the chaste kiss ended. "Or the Order as a whole? They're not going to be happy with you sneaking out to come to me."

The smile on Serra's face slipped. "I-if he comes… I'll talk with him, but I'm not going back until this is over." The conviction in her words was easy to hear. "And if he does come before we reach Naboo, that'll be another blade we can use."

I chuckled at that. "Aye, that's true," I said before kissing her forehead again. "Thank you."

She leaned her forehead against my chest as I held her close, finding comfort and strength in her.

"So," Bo began, ruining the moment, "now that we're all agreed Serra's fighting with us, I think we need to practice our teamwork."

I looked at Bo, thinking she meant sparring together. Yet, when I saw the look in her eyes, I knew she had another sort of practice in mind. "As much as I'd love to get closer to both of you," a faint gasp came from Serra, "I need to return to planning out the insertion and determining how we arrange the three-pronged battle to determine the fate of Naboo."

Bo shrugged and moved closer even as I let Serra slip from my arms. "Fine," Bo said once she was next to Serra. "You go and plan. We'll head to the Ravenand wait for our private briefing." Serra's cheeks reddened as she understood Bo's meaning, though she did nothing to stop the redhead as she was guided away. "Don't take too long as I'm not sure how long we can wait."

I watched the pair leave the room and then shook my head. I was being truthful in saying I had work to do, but if the pair were going to travel with me in Raven, then as soon as the planning was done, I knew exactly where I was going. Though I'd wait until we were in hyperspace as if I was going to enjoy those two, I wanted as much time as possible to do so.

… …

… …

A/N: And so it begins


As always, this story is crossposted on Questionable Questing, Archive of our Own, and Royal Road.

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