A/N: I.

Need.

More.

SURGERY!

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!

Writing this while in a lot of pain, so my apologies. Which reminds me! To that anonymous troll/impersonator who keeps spamming hate reviews at me, hoping I'll die in these surgeries:

Have a nice day~!

Now then, back to the matter at hand and why I'm going under the knife again.

I thought it would be a simple in and out, I was all set to go, didn't eat ANYTHING or take any medication, but nooooooo there had to be complications and now, surprise surprise, I have to go under the knife again sometime soon. Following a battery of tests and a surgery which I'm still recovering from, I'm in a right and foul mood-considering I feel like absolute shite- and not only can I NOT work, but I feel like a husk of my self! No energy, no motivation, no nadda! The only reason I'm able to write this at all is because I'm in a bad mood, which correlates with the planned theme of this chapter anyway, so there.

On another note, I apologize if this chapter seems shorter than the others.

I can barely bring myself to write properly-considering I'm exhausted-because all I do is sleep and recover. I'd go more into my medical history, but I don't want to bore you guys; you didn't come here to listen to me whine now, did you?

You came for a story!

Now then, since its been awhile-no thanks to my persistent and pervasive health issues, lets get on with it, shall we?

Anywho, Back again with an update, and its time to answer your questions!

Sorry if I seem a bit deadpan...

Q: You'd better do Obi-Wan justice! Could care less about Ahsoka, seeing as she's still young at this point.

A: Worry not, the Master of the High Ground will have a happy ending...but I promise nothing for Ahsoka. We have plans for her. Anakin has a destiny of his own as well, and it might surprise you.

Q: Have you seen the Star Wars Resistance trailer?

A: Ohhhhhhhh now you've gone and done it. That...trailer is a hideous abomination and I cannot stand it. Massive dislikes and wacky art style aside it seems vapid, pointless, not to mention devoid of anything meaningful. To top it off, Disney claims this show is "for kids" and whatnot. Then what is it doing on that late time-slot, hmm?! Bullshit I say! At least Rebels had some redeeming features towards the end! This...no, I'd sooner lop off my good hand than write anything meaningful about that slop. I grew up on Star Wars and this...this is not Star Wars for me.

Q: Can we expect to see Celeste Morne in the Empire's Blade?

A: Alas, Morne won't be in the Empire's Blade as a pairing. She's already in this story and Dark Side of the Moon; she can't be everywhere and if I tried to squeeze her in for a third time it would feel too contrived. Conversely, Talon has a role to play in Empire's Blade and likely won't appear in this story. Maybe. Eh, semantics. By this point we're getting into Episode Two territory, albeit with the Separatist side severely weakened and Dook firmly on the side of good. But if you think this is over...

...you'd be wrong.

Q: Why do I get the feeling Ventress is going to put up one hell of a fight?

A: She will. Its heavily implied that someone or something is aiding her in this duel. Alone, she would be little more than fodder for Dooku and Naruto. Hell, Dooku is more than her match when she fights him unaided. Without significant help, she wouldn't stand a ghost of a chance.

Now, I will say no more on the matter, for thar be spoilers matey!

Q: Any chance of Naruto going Dark in this? He seems to teeter at the edge at times.

A: As long as he has Shmi and company, that likely won't happen. That's what Aayla and the others are to him. Family. He loves them all equally-because lets face it, this is NARUTO we're talking about-and while he can be dense as a brick at times, he's nowhere near as obtuse as his teenage self. Unless you literally stab him in the back or go after his family, he'll welcome you with open arms. His snark and constant need for humor is merely a means of coping with the unexpected responsibilities he's found himself saddled with.

Now, if someone were to hurt them...

Q: Why is Shimi so tolerant of Naruto...well...you know?

A: No need to dance around it. She's long since accepted that he's something of a free spirit, and hard to tie down at that. Recall that she's first and foremost in his life

Q: Why didn't Naruto just SHOOT Watto and free his family early on?

A: I've gotten quite a bit of flak about that, so I think I'll address it here. One, he couldn't be certain that would be the end of it. Remember, without the transmitter-which only Watto possessed and has hidden away-he couldn't be certain Anakin or Shmi wouldn't DIE the moment he took them off Tatooine. At that point in the story, he was trying to live something of a normal life. Furthermore, I already SAID he tried to take it by force. That didn't work. Remember, Naruto is very much a family man in this story. He doesn't like using violence unless he has to. He's said it himself, power is seductive and addicting, moreso if one gives into it.

There, now that I've made my point, I would appreciate if people stopped bringing that issue up.

As ever, all quotes/references belong to their respective owners! I don't own them!

Oh, as a side note, thanks to "Five Finger Death Punch - Mama Said Knock You Out!" for giving me the boost to finish this before surgery. Full credit to a certain Clone Wars moment for the scene near the end, its a fitting homage I think, given the situation. Hope you all enjoy this as I get cut open again. *shudders*

Suppose I can't delay any longer, huh?

Hospital, here I come!

Sorry if its short!

Away we go~!

"Enough is enough! I've had it with all these nerf-herding Sith, in this NERF-HERDING GALAXY! Every time we cut down one, two more appear!"

~?

Relapse/Collapse

"Found him~!"

With that simple declaration, everything descended into chaos; sheer pandemonium in its most primal of forms. A cacophony of shouts answered Aayla's decree almost immediately, nearly drowning out her response. In the madness that followed Celeste found she had to physically take a step back merely to make sense of it all. Even then she struggled to reign her senses in against the tide of emotion that followed. With nearly the entire crew present aboard the Konoha-in addition to a certain senator alongside her resident Jedi protector and his padawan besides-the resultant flood threatened to floor the former shadow where she stood.

It was, in a word, exasperating.

And yet she was oh-so-fond of it all the same.

She wouldn't trade any of this beautiful chaos for the galaxy.

Joy, shock, surprise, confusion, but also relief and something else, something she daren't give voice to.

As through driven by a great cleansing wave the tension of the last few hours all but evaporated, washed away by the sea of bodies that surged towards the cockpit. Blasted wookie would've flattened her if she hadn't flung herself against the wall at the last moment. For her part Shmi didn't rush after the rest of the crew, sparing her an indulgent smile, she stoically shepherded her girls after an exuberant HK-47. That would've been all well and good if the latter had decided to start singing their praises.

"Rejoice, meatbags!" the droid's tinny voice echoed on ahead, momentarily grating against her nerves. She had the sneaking suspicion the old unit might well be prancing with every step. "The master has been found! Oh, happy day! Once more I can maim and murder to my heart's content!"

Sparky trilled something that sounded dangerously like an invective.

"Hush you bucket of bolts, lest you be my next victim!"

An electronic raspberry told her what their resident astromech thought of that remark and the pair dissolved back into bickering. For a fleeting instant, Celeste honestly considered "tripping" the assassin up, if only to see what would happen. Perhaps even subjecting the mouthy mechanical to a healthy jolt and blaming it on said droid.

What awaited her round the bend made her think better of it.

Always attentive to every facet of the ship and those inhabiting its many nooks and crannies, the ancient Jedi easily detected-or rather, caught!-Anakin and Padme drifting out of a nearby alcove as she turned the next corner. Indeed, the pair suspiciously slunk several steps behind the others, almost conspicuously so. There was a spark in the elder Skywalker's eyes that hadn't been there before, a spring to his step she'd failed notice. Slightly less noticeable in young Admidala, but the signs were there if one knew what to look for. And while she might still be a novice in such matters herself, Celeste Morne was no fool.

'Well, now...

Had it been anyone else Celeste would've simply dismissed what she saw and put the scene from her mind altogether; outright ignored their close proximity to one another. But not these two. She saw it there, the way in which their shoulders brushed, heard it in their hushed voices, felt it in the strange, almost familiar euphoria radiating from-

A dark brow rose in realization.

When had they found the time for that?

Something of her surprise must've shown in her expression-or leaked through the Force-for Anakin's gaze found hers. Comprehension dawned and a rare muscle jumped in the teen's jaw. Despite her best efforts, Celeste felt a sly smile crept across her face. Really, she couldn't help but tease them. Annie was like a kid brother to her after all these years; the idea of letting such a prize opportunity slip by uncontested went again the very core of her beliefs...and if she had a little fun while she was at it, more the better.

"Just where were you hiding, hmm?"

A slew of sputtering followed.

"That's...!"

"What? Speak up." the ex-jedi's grin grew another inch as she raised a hand to frame her right ear. "I can't seem to hear you."

Given her close proximity to the unlikely pair Celeste beheld the exact moment when Anakin's tan visage flushed with equal parts relief and pride. Surprisingly he held his ground in the face of her taunt. Not so Admidala. Before her expectant gaze Padme's face turned a delightful shade of pink and a tiny squeak fled from her lips. She was going to bluff, of course. Her response proved almost painfully predictable.

"You've been tasked with protecting me, nothing more." she huffed, a rare blush rising to her cheeks. "What I do with my time is no business of yours-

"Well that's just precious!" the laugh leaped from Celeste's lips before she could think to hold it back. "So? When's the wedding? Are we invited?"

Bingo.

In the end, they lasted a combined ten seconds before Padme broke ranks and bolted, dragging Anakin by the hand with her. Good. Seemed Aayla had done right by taking young Skywalker aside to speak with him after all. At the very least, she'd spurred him to act and in doing so turned his attentions...elsewhere. All things considered, it was a welcome change from the stress they'd all been subjected to as of late, an aspect she took a moment to bask in. But only a moment, then she reluctantly spurred herself on after the happy couple to ascertain the situation.

"How did you manage to track him?" Obi-Wan was inquiring as she slid into the cockpit behind the rest.

"Homing beacon, probably." Shmi offered a small, sardonic smile. "He's surprisingly paranoid."

"Speaking of paranoid...does anyone else sense that?"

Qui-gon adopted a grimace.

"I'm afraid so."

Aayla's head popped up over the seat, her lekku all but vibrating with tension. It was an emotion Celeste recognized all too well; leaning over the twi'lek, she stole a glance at the console. The information there sent a chill of nameless dread shooting down her spine, trailing icy fingers as it went. Not one of memory-for she certainly didn't recognize the planet in question-but rather, one of fear. Moments ago the shinobi had been all but gone from the Force; now that once dense presence lay exposed by a riot of emotion. Sadness. Sorrow. Confusion. And there, looming above it all:

Hate.

Something had gone terribly, horribly wrong and she knew not what.

Her eyes narrowed to dangerous golden slits.

...what is he doing on Geonosis?"

Aayla stifled a small sigh.

"Dead man walking...

Whatever retort she might've flung back at her died on her tongue as the Konoha lurched violently around them. The floor heaved, casting some to the floor, others clinging to the walls and chairs for dear life. As one, every light dimmed. Moments later the vessel's engine died a harsh, rattling death as it strained against whatever had caught them. Celeste inhaled sharply, suddenly aware of the telltale scent of smoke. Too late, the Force shrilled a warning and the world shook again, eliciting several sharp shouts from those present. Distantly, she heard their voices as the vessel rattled anew:

"Shields are down!"

"Did you check the sensors?!"

"What in the blue hell was that?" Anakin barked. "Did we hit something?!"

"I don't know!" Aayla snapped back. "Something's caught us! Controls are unresponsive!"

"There's nothing on the damned sensor!" someone retorted. "We've got no power! Everything's locked out!"

Something shrieked across the viewport in the form of an ugly mottled blur, gone before Celeste could properly register it.

The harsh scream of an vessel's engine above served as their only warning. Not a heartbeat later their world erupted into the blue fire of an ion cannon.


(...Geonosis...)


They couldn't kill her.

Naruto sensed the battle turning long before it became apparent to Dooku. Bounding over an upturned piece of machinery ripped fee from its moorings, he struck down at where he knew Ventress to be, only to find himself tumbling back in a smoking heap as a fresh volley of dark lightning caught him headlong in the chest. Every fiber of his being body howled in untold agony as flesh cauterized and healed in the same instant; in the time that it took for his synapses to register the pain he'd caught himself on a nearby vat hanging over the abyss.

For a wild, fleeting instant the world pivoted beneath him and he nearly lost his gorge.

'Urk, heights.' he swallowed. 'I forgot how much I hated these damn heights.'

It was the ninth time the enemy had predicted him thus.

Coincidence or not, this bordered on the absurd.

Just what the hell was happening here?

"Beats me. On your left!"

The telltale beating of insectile wings coupled with Kurama's harsh warning drew him back to the present and he hauled himself upright just as the Geonosian fell upon him. With a supreme effort the ninja reached out and forced the fingers of his left hand into a claw, crushing the spindly creature into an unrecognizable mass before it could bring its weapon to bear. Its twin found itself bisected by the blazing blue blade of his lightsaber before it too found itself compacted to a dense mass by the blond's will. A fresh thought slammed the ruined corpse forward like a cannonball against a new wave of spindly droidekas, sending the curved creations shrieking away to shatter harmlessly against one another.

And for one, blessed moment, he caught his breath.

Sparing the ruined droids little more than a passing glance as they plummeted to the assembly line below, Naruto gathered his legs beneath him and searched for the signs of his enemy. Around him the world thrummed with the sounds of industry, fresh droids being assembled and disassembled as he looked on. Under any other circumstance he might've admired the sight...if not for the ramifications. There were hundreds...thousands...if not more. This went well beyond his expectations. It could only mean the Separatists were well and truly preparing for war despite his best efforts. As if someone were spurring them on, manipulating them...

They had to destroy this place.

But not here.

Not now.

Doing so now would bring everything down around their ears, likely killing him and Dooku both. Speaking of which, where...ah. Ventress's low cackle captured his attention as he caught the signature flicker of a silver blur arcing against red. The count fought well, but even from here one could see that he was tiring; for all his skill he fought against one far younger and more able of body.

"There you are!"

A single leap carried him back to the battle just as Dooku renewed his assault against the Sith.

Wide eyes glittered back at him with ruthless glee, brimming with madness. Two fingers flicked forward over the hilt of her leftmost saber but this time he was prepared, shouldering through. He'd already lost one blade to that very trick, and in the chaos, he hadn't been able to find it again. She knew where to strike, how to harm him, find the weak points in his armor, to attack the vulnerable seams. Sometimes it seemed as though she could-impossibly!-cut through them, to strike at the vulnerable flesh beneath. The thought brought with it a fresh pang of anger and lent his limbs a burst of strength. Still, she laughed at him.

"Getting tired, old man?" the taunt rose, jarring his concentration. "Perhaps you'd fight better if I went after your doting wife...

A muscle jumped in his jaw.

For every strike that they gained on her, their enemy fought back with renewed ferocity; burgeoned by seemingly limitless vitality, fresh as a daisy. Her sabers were a whirlwind of red light, intercepting every stroke of his blade, every shot, every assault. Within moments they fell back into a familiar rhythm, a pattern from which neither could break free.

Yet again-again!-the duo found themselves at a stalemate.

Whenever he or the aging count struck at the pale woman, be it through blade or Force, they found themselves unable to strike her down. Not through lack of effort by any means; whenever their blows came close to home, something-or someone-would turn their blades away at the last moment. Whenever they combined their efforts and cornered her, she managed to slither away with her spiteful laughter. Time and time again the Nightsister eluded them, leading them deeper into the complex. By now she'd drawn them into the very heart of the droid factory itself, an environment replete with hazards of its own. Though they fought on, the tide of droids and geonosians seemed endless. And still, no sign of Jango.

That had been...hours ago.

Or perhaps it was days?

He no longer knew.

Time had long since blurred from the beginning of their battle to this moment; and as with all things, fatigue had begun to set in. Now the mere act of blocking threatened to render his arms numb; when he resorted to his more destructive techniques the nimble Sith easily evaded. Others were negated altogether. As if she knew his every thought, could predict every move before he made it. It infuriated him. That anger only fueled his blows, held firmly in check by leash of his sanity. The latter was beginning to fray with each passing moment as exasperation chipped at the wall of his resolve.

He.

Just.

Didn't.

Have it.

Had it been the two of them alone, with no risk of collateral damage, with no one to protect, with no distractions he was sure it would've been easy.

But this...this...!

Snarling a curse, he thrust his saber between her and Dooku, parrying what would have otherwise been a fatal stroke at the older man's chest. For his part, the aging count riposted and drove Ventress back with a torrent of his own; to his initial surprise, the ensuing onslaught of bolts staggered her and forced the younger warrior back half a step. Naruto saw the opening and lunged, striking forward with a brutal crosscut intended to finally take her laughing head from her shoulders. When he struck high she went low, feinting at his knees before sweeping past, hard and fast.

Too late he realized her intent.

In a flash of crimson, she pounced and found Dooku's back. In a whirl of silver the Count spun, evading the fatal blow, but only just. One of her blades still pierced his side, emerging with a hiss of cauterized flesh. Grunting in surprise, the aging count sank to a knee, raising his blade in a desperate attempt to fend off what would no-doubt be the killing stroke-screaming down at his head.

And Naruto moved.

Just as she'd expected him to.

Be it by speed or luck-or perhaps she'd intended it all along-he flung himself between her and that fatal blow even as he struck out with one of his own. Rather than resist the nimble Nightsister bent with the force of his strike Crossing her sabers, she used his own weight against him, sending the his saber-Aayla's saber!-skittering out of his grasp. Even as he reached out with it through the Force he knew he wouldn't be fast enough. A triumphant shout tore out of her. Confident in her victory, she threw one last jibe at him.

"Oh, don't fret." Ventress cooed. "Your family will join you soon enough."

When she struck down at him, the shinobi didn't dodge.

Wild eyes blazed up at her.

"No."

Gloved hands shot up, caging her wrists in an unassailable grasp. The crimson light of her sabers masked his face, casting his whiskered visage in vicious crimson relief. Something hardened in those azure eyes of his, a great and terrible hate coalescing into existence before her very eyes. As she looked on he rose from his knees like a puppet severed from its strings, woodenly and without care. Pain flared in her limbs as palms sheathed in steel clamped down upon pliable flesh. Try as she might, for all her power, she found herself helpless to resist the sheer physical strength of her captor.

Her right wrist gave with a terrible crunch then, sending the saber there tumbling from her grasp.

Rather than clatter to the floor the blade's fall found itself arrested at the last moment by the Force itself.

Too late she realized her peril, but trapped as she was, the Nightsister found herself powerless to do anything about it. A crushing force push flung her off the high ground and down to one of the lower levels back, her heels digging great furrows against the metal. Aghast, she raised her gaze toward the ramp, reaching, straining for her saber...only to find the blade unresponsive. It hung there-rooted-for a long, tenuous moment, awaiting its new master. A snake of dread coiled in her chest as an armored arm rose, reaching for the still-active weapon. Silence stretched between them, broken only by the sounds of relentless machinery. And like a machine, he moved.

Firm fingers wrapped around its sinister curved hilt.

Raised it up and aloft, the crimson hotly intent.

Vicious golden eyes leered down at her.

With a roar he flew at her.

The first strike slammed down against Ventress's guard with such force that the witch nearly found herself driven to her knees; now came the second, barreling through her defenses, forcing her to clutch at the hilt with both hands lest she be overwhelmed entirely. As the third hammered home into her weapon, splintering the floor beneath her feet. Still he struck down, hammering blow after blow against her defenses, snarling, shouting at her, cursing her very existence until something-inevitably as all things must-finally gave and the last brick in the wall of her defenses crumbled, taking the ground with it.

Still he didn't relent, cutting down at her head.

Red flooded her vision.

A/N: See, this is what happens when you push the "Family" button.

You don't want to push that button.

We'll see if Ventress survives.

I...wouldn't bet on it.

WHAT JUST HAPPENED?! I hope you enjoyed it! As I've made clear in this chapter, I intend to stick with the harem pairing. I'm sorry if this gets any flak from those of you who wanted a pure Naruto and Shmi pairing, but the poll has spoken and that is my decision. Yes, this may cause friction between him and Anakin. Yes, it can cause chaos. That's the idea. Conflict. No family is perfect, and with Aayla, as well as the potentiality of other girls being added, Naruto's going to have to walk a very fine line to keep order.

So...in the immortal words of Darth Vader...

...Review...IT IS YOUR DESTINY!

And enjoy the previews!

Potential ones!

(Previews)

Shadow and flame.

As he looked on the world shifted in his dream; a dream in which Coruscant burned.

An army of masked men advanced on the Jedi Temple in lockstep, none resembling the other. And at their head, a figure shrouded in shadow. Mace Windu saw it all as though through a great fog; an image ever-changing, constantly in flux the vision. Their face, hidden in darkness.

They saw him, then.

Loomed over him in the mist, eyes like fire, blazing coals in their skull.

And they smiled.


"I'll admit, you got the drop on me last time." Naruto replied, idly turning the blaster end over end. "I'm not perfect by any measure; I let my guard down and you took full advantage." Abruptly, those azure orbs narrowed to icy blue slits. "Not this time, old friend. Either you come with me willingly, or I beat your smug ass into the ground and drag you back to Mandalore in chains. Your choice."

For a moment, Jango almost seemed to consider his offer.

Then something hardened in that stoic visage.

"Wouldn't have it any other way."


"Monster! Craven! You're not fit to rule Mandalore!"

"Monster, am I?" A golden brow rose in mild consternation. "That's rich, coming from you! Perhaps you should speak more softly to me then; because I frankly don't give a fig what you, this world, or even the galaxy at large thinks of me. So long as my fiends and family are safe I couldn't care less. Makes you a bit of a hypocrite, no? Still, I'm going to give you a choice."

"Choice? What choice?!" He didn't flinch when they spat in his face, didn't even deign to turn his face aside. "I'd sooner die than-ack?!"

With an explosive snap-hiss, his lightsaber ignited against the captive's neck, bathing them in ethereal azure glow. The flinch that followed was barely telegraphed, scarcely noticeable at all unless one knew what to look for in their victim. Nevertheless, the warrior did notice and locked onto it with with frightful intensity. His saber rose a fraction of an inch in response, searing their neck. A pained hiss greeted him.

Blank eyes the color of poisoned honey gazed back at them, wholly devoid of any semblance of emotion.

Defiance blazed high in prisoner's eyes, but the words that followed soon doused those flames.

"Stubborn to the end, eh? Fine. I'm no fan of torture, but I have my ways. Now, then

Indeed, they proved themselves almost chilling by comparison.

"You can tell me where you've stashed my family...

Naruto leaned forward, humming softly.

...or die screaming with them."

R&R! =D