As Anakin raced into the Chancellor's office, he still wasn't sure what he wanted to do when he got there. On the one hand, if the Chancellor was the Sith Lord they had been searching for, he was therefore the one who'd been responsible for this long and bloody war in the first place… but on the other hand, if he'd been telling the truth about the powers of Darth Plagueis, he may be the only one who could save Padme…
As he finally reached the Chancellor's office, he was shocked at the sight that greeted him; Mace Windu, lightsaber drawn, standing over the fallen, trembling form of Chancellor Palpatine, with the vast window at the back of the office completely shattered apart from a few shards around the edges.
"You are under arrest, my Lord," Windu said, his tone heaving with sarcasm as he glared at the fallen Chancellor.
"Anakin!" Palpatine said, looking urgently at him. "I told you it would come to this. I was right. The Jedi are taking over!"
"You old fool," Windu countered, glaring at the man at the tip of his lightsaber. "The oppression of the Sith will never return. Your plot to regain control of the Republic is over; you have lost."
"No!" Palpatine yelled, raising his hands towards the Jedi master. "No! You will die!"
As Anakin watched, Palpatine hurled lightning-bolts from his fingers towards Mace, the Jedi Master only just managing to intercept the attack with his lightsaber. For a moment there was nothing but the two masters struggling in front of him, lighting blaring between them as Palpatine fought to defend himself and Mace forced the lightning back with his purple blade, each of them denouncing the other as the traitor…
Anakin was suddenly struck by the sensation that everything around him had vanished, but it only took a moment to realise that what had taken place was almost more shocking than that; he'd suddenly completely lost all awareness of the Force around him.
"What…?" Mace said, stepping back from Palpatine even as he kept his lightsaber raised, the lightning that had previously been unleashed against him having suddenly vanished at the same time as Anakin's awareness of the Force ceased.
"What?" Palpatine said, the two former adversaries suddenly united in their confusion as the older man stared at his hands as though they'd failed him in some way.
"That would be me," another, unfamiliar voice said.
Looking up, the three men were surprised to see an old man standing in the door of the room, dressed in a battered brown leather jacket and dark trousers, with a bombardier's belt slung over his shoulder. He had a sloppily-trimmed goatee beard and thick greying hair, as well as a very weathered face that gave the impression he'd been through a great deal in his life. The most unusual thing about him, however, was that he was wearing a strange harness which held a yellow lizard strapped to his back, the lizard's claws digging into a long pole directly up against the man's back.
"Now then," the old man said, looking between the three men with a grim smile as he pointed a small silver tube at the main door of the office, causing it to close behind him, "with that initial unpleasantness out of the way, shall we talk?"
"What are you-?" Anakin began, reaching out one hand to yank the device out of the old man's hand, only to find himself staring at his hand in shock when nothing happened. "What the…?"
"Ah," the old man said, looking at Anakin with a slight grin. "You've realised why the Chancellor here suddenly lost his lightning, I presume?"
"You did that?" Palpatine spat, glaring in anger at the old man. "How?"
"This is a ysalamir," the man explained, indicating the lizard on his back with a smile. "It's a simple creature in most ways, but it has one distinct ability; since there's a predator on its planet of origin that hunts by sensing the Force, the ysalamir evade it because they've evolved the ability to negate the Force."
"Negate it?" Anakin repeated, staring at the lizard in shock. "You mean… that thing shuts down the Force?"
"To be exact, each individual ysalamir projects a ten-metre bubble around itself that prevents anyone within it from using the Force; multiple ysalamiri can create far wider bubbles, but I felt that this would be sufficient for my current purposes," the old man explained. "I don't normally do this kind of thing, but I thought it was appropriate for this little chat to make sure nobody tried anything before I'd said my piece. Right now, for the moment, all of us are nothing more than the men we appear to be… and I think it would be very interesting to hear what the 'Chancellor' has to say for himself now that he can't rely on the Force."
"Nothing has changed-!" Palpatine began, voice slightly hoarse from his injuries even as his glare remained intense.
"Except that you suddenly can't feign weakness and use your abilities to subtly cloud Anakin's judgement," the old man interjected, glaring at Palpatine before he turned his attention to Anakin. "He said that he would help you save your wife from the fate you've seen in your dreams if you gave yourself over to the Dark Side, correct?"
"Wife?" Windu said, looking between the other three men incredulously.
"How do you-?" Anakin began, deciding to table the other issue until later and hope that Mace would do the same.
"The question you should be asking yourself is how did he know that?" the old man asked, indicating the Chancellor lying before them. "You can assume that I've been spying on things if you like, but even if Palpatine here is meant to be your friend, if you never told him about those dreams, how could he know of them unless he's been spying on you?"
"I… I sensed them-" Palpatine began, suddenly looking less certain than he had earlier.
"When even Anakin's master and teacher couldn't?" the old man said pointedly. "And come to that, how is she meant to die in childbirth when there are currently no circumstances under which she'd face life-threatening danger while doing so? She's a perfectly healthy young woman living on the most advanced planet in the Republic with a very good health service on her home world; there is no reason for her to be in danger doing something as simple as giving birth unless something changes… such as, for example, the horror of learning that her husband betrayed everything she believes in?"
Anakin wasn't sure how to react to the scenario that the old man had presented… but, as much as he wanted to say that he trusted Palpatine, he suddenly had to acknowledge that the old man made a valid point. When he started thinking about it in depth, Palpatine had never explained how he could know anything about Anakin's dreams, and there really was no reason for Padme's life to be in danger as the situation stood… unless something changed because he was trying to stop it…
"Let me ask you a question, Anakin," the old man continued, his gaze fixed on Anakin as Windu and Palpatine simply watched in silence, their usual authority somehow overwhelmed by the strength of character being demonstrated by the man before them. "Disregarding Palpatine's comments to you and the Council's concerns about him, have the Jedi ever expressed any interest in power beyond that which they have already?"
"No…" Anakin said, slowly nodding in thought as he considered what the old man had said.
Putting aside Palpatine's attempts to convince him that there was a conspiracy, Anakin couldn't recall the Jedi ever expressing any interest in power.
Actually, Obi-Wan had mentioned more than once that he actually regretted being promoted to the Jedi Council, as he preferred going out on missions to dealing with the minutiae of daily Jedi activity. His master had said himself that he wasn't 'brave enough for politics' just a few weeks ago, and Obi-Wan Kenobi was practically the textbook Jedi in Anakin's view; he knew enough to know that Obi-Wan would never even want to be in charge of anything larger than a military campaign, and he had only adopted that role out of necessity rather than a genuine desire to be a leader.
"And it's not just your perception of events he's been influencing," the old man continued, looking at Anakin with a thoughtful manner. "He's always encouraged you to take the more… violent option, hasn't he?"
"What?" Mace said, looking at Anakin uncertainly. "Skywalker, what is he-?"
"I had disarmed Dooki during our duel," Anakin said, suddenly feeling obligated to bring up that particular issue before anyone else did. "I knew that I should take him prisoner… but the Chancellor told me to kill him."
"It was your natural desire-!" Palpatine began.
"We all want to do things sometimes; what matters is whether or not we actually do them on our own," Windu interjected, glaring at Palpatine before he looked at Anakin, his expression more understanding than anything Anakin had seen from the Jedi Master in as long as he could remember. "We have all wanted to take certain actions at some points, even if we know that doing them would be wrong once we take a moment to think, and the Dark Side has been shown to help its users influence others; what matters is whether you would have done it on your own or not."
Anakin was surprised when he said those words, but as soon as they were out of his mouth, he realised that he meant them.
He had been angry at Dooku for everything he'd done in the war, to say nothing of him cutting off Anakin's hand during the first duel on Geonosis… but once he had the former Jedi Master disarmed and defeated, he had been willing to spare his opponent's life until Palpatine suggested otherwise.
"You wanted revenge-!" Palpatine tried to protest.
"Everyone wants revenge now and again; the difference is that most people don't act on it," the old man said grimly as he stared at Palpatine. "You provoked this entire conflict to satisfy your own insane lust for power, and then, when provoking him into killing a defenceless man wasn't enough, you were going to provoke Master Skywalker into destroying the Jedi so that he could gain power for someone who would never approve of what he would become."
As he looked at the old man, Anakin wasn't sure what disturbed him more; the fact that this old man knew so much about Anakin when he'd never seen the man before, or the fact that he was making so much sense.
Every time he'd resorted to a more brutal method of resolving a situation… every time he'd resented the Jedi for holding him back… every time he felt as though he deserved more respect… every time he'd done something he'd felt ashamed of…
Palpatine had been the person he'd spoken to first, and Palpatine had been the one to encourage the ideas that he'd done the right thing and that the Jedi wouldn't understand him or what he'd done.
Even after everything he and Obi-Wan had been through together, Palpatine had manipulated him into thinking that Obi-Wan wouldn't understand his actions, even though Anakin should have been able to trust his master with so much…
"As I have told you, Anakin," Palpatine said, looking urgently, at the young man, "the Dark Side is all a matter of perspective-!"
"Perspective?" Windu spat incredulously, unable to remain in silence. "Your Separatist forces provoked this whole war when they attempted to execute Senator Amidala and her protectors while they were simply tracking the creation of the Separatist droid army! We hadn't even declared open hostilities and your Separatists were already preparing for an all-out assault; the fact that you commanded both sides of that conflict just makes it more twisted!"
"My sentiments exactly," the old man nodded before he looked over at Anakin. "Consider that, Anakin; would someone with your best interests at heart provoke a war for the sole purpose of whittling down the Jedi's numbers and boosting his own power?"
"That was not-!" Palpatine began.
"Then how do you excuse what you've done?" Anakin asked, taking over the confrontation as he glared at Palpatine, asking the questions that he hadn't dared to ask earlier in case he needed Palpatine's help. "You've destroyed countless lives over the course of this war, and this whole conflict only started because you manipulated both sides into a position where the only question was who would fire first while acting as the leader of each, and for what? To increase your own power? To weaken the Jedi? What could justify all this?"
"Peace-" Palpatine began.
"We had peace before this happened!" Mace practically spat at the Chancellor. "Some planets had their problems, but there is a great difference between the minor conflicts we had before and an all-out war that was responsible for trillions of deaths!"
The more Mace spoke, the more Anakin couldn't believe that he hadn't considered all this earlier; whatever power Palpatine could offer him, Padme wouldn't want to accept her life it meant that the man responsible for this war was permitted to escape justice…
"Let me ask you one last thing, Anakin," the old man said, looking solemnly at Anakin. "What would Padme want you to do?"
As soon as the old man spoke those words, Anakin couldn't believe he hadn't thought of that himself.
If he had turned on the Jedi to save Palpatine as he had been thinking of doing…
She would have been devastated at best, and disgusted with him at worst, and he couldn't blame her.
"All I wanted-" Palpatine tried to plead.
"No," Anakin said, glaring at the Dark Lord, the sympathetic grandfather tone he was attempting to put on useless in the face of his twisted visage. "All you wanted was for me to serve you. Maybe the Jedi are as evil as you claim, and maybe they're better… but I've seen enough of the Sith to know that I will not become one to save her."
"Thank you," the old man said, nodding at Anakin before he turned to Palpatine. "And as for you?"
Before Palpatine could say anything, the old man had pulled a small blaster out of his inner jacket pocket and fired it at Palpatine's head, the blast neatly penetrating the Chancellor's forehead before he could react. Even with the Force active, deflecting such a shot at such close range would have been a challenge, but with the ysalamri still active, it was immediately fatal.
"It's more than you deserved," the old man said firmly, as he put the blaster back into his jacket.
For a moment, the two Jedi just looked silently at the dead Sith Lord and his mysterious assassin, before they each came to a decision to study the man in silence; with the Force still inaccessible, it would be safer to talk to this man rather than provoke a conflict they might not win.
"You could have done that at any time you wanted since you arrived here," Windu said, looking curiously at the old man. "Why didn't you?"
"Because I wasn't just here to kill Palpatine, Master Windu," the old man said, before he glanced back at Anakin. "I was here to save him."
"Me?" Anakin repeated, looking at the old man in surprise. "Why?"
"Because I know what it's like to become something you aren't in an attempt to save lives," the old man said grimly. "I at least know I did this for the right reasons; you wouldn't have that luxury when this is all over."
Anakin would have asked for more information, but something about the old man's manner suggested that he wouldn't want to know the answer, even without the Force to improve his instincts. As he watched in silence, Mace following his cue as he looked at the old man in silence, their strange visitor walked over to the Chancellor's desk and tapped a few key controls.
"What are you doing?" Mace asked uncertainly.
"Just wiped the security footage for this room," the old man explained with a smile as he looked at Mace. "As you may recall from your first confrontation with Palpatine, he was very careful to 'edit' his responses to your accusations to give the impression that you were just attacking him out of religious prejudice; with those lost, you don't have to worry about anyone using that argument against you."
"And… how do we explain all this?" Anakin asked, indicating the office around them. "Three dead Jedi masters killed with a lightsaber and a Chancellor who's been shot in the head; that's not something we can just brush over."
"If it helps, feel free to blame it all on me," the old man smiled. "Just say that an old man came in here and shot or stabbed everyone while you were in a meeting with the Chancellor, but I vanished before you could identify me or how I worked for."
"That… could work," Anakin said, nodding in a slightly dazed manner as he looked over at Mace Windu, before he looked back at the old man. "But… who are you?"
"Just think of me as a soldier who wants to prevent greater loss," the old man said, smiling reassuringly at the two Jedi before his gaze focused on Mace. "And give Anakin Skywalker a break, Mace; he made some emotional mistakes, but I think you can tolerate mistakes made out of love rather than the… darker possibilities."
With those words, the old man turned around and literally walked out of the window, falling out of view before Anakin or Mace could say anything. As soon as they felt the Force return, the two Jedi hurried to the window to look for the man, but all they could see was something blue a short distance down the side of the building, and it vanished before they could get a clear sensation of it even through the Force.
"Well," Anakin said, exchanging an awkward glance with Mace after a moment's thought. "That was… unusual."
"To say the least," Mace said grimly, before he stared appraisingly at Anakin. "Now then, what is all this that old man said about you being married?"
As he looked at Mace, Anakin suddenly realised that he wasn't afraid of what he was about to do.
He might be about to reveal that he'd virtually shattered the Jedi code, but for the first time in as long as he could remember, he wasn't afraid of how the Council would react to it. After everything he'd done during the war, he'd almost welcome the chance to have a peaceful life if he had to deal with the worst-case-scenario of getting kicked out of the Order…