“Are you sure about this?” Rex's hologram flickered uncertainly against the dim light of the Phantom's interior. “You don't have to go to Malachor alone. I could be there in two rotations.”
“Rex,” Ahsoka said fondly, eyes meeting Anakin's over the top of Rex's head. She beckoned him closer with a subtle flick of her head, watched his face twist with something that might have been chagrin, might have been nostalgia. Might have been regret. He shuffled over, hands shoved predictably into his sleeves, a tall shadow beside her. The blue light of the hologram carved his face out of the darkness. Unmistakeable. “I'm not alone.”
She watched Rex's hologram stiffen in shock.
“Captain,” Anakin acknowledged, voice rough.
For a moment Ahsoka wondered what his reaction might be. Rex was practical to his last breath, believed in the Force only so much as he could see it, only so much as he believed in his Jedi, and this – this would push that belief to its limit. But the shock passed – they were too old, all of them, to waste time denying what was right in front of them – and he pressed his lips together and straightened.
“Sir,” he said, clipped, familiar. His voice softened. “I heard the rumours. You all left the base in a terrible rush.”
“Nothing gets past you,” she said, smiling. “I'm sorry we couldn't tell you, Rex. We're running out of time.”
He smiled back at her, eyes crinkling with fondness. And a kind of resigned understanding. “I could always order you to let me come,” he said, half-joking.
“You don't exactly outrank me anymore.”
“In my book,” he said, the words old, the past pressing down on her, “experience outranks everything.”
Something was caught in her throat. She swallowed, the hologram flickering, the light casting odd shapes and shadows on the wall, on Anakin's battered cloak. She met Rex's eyes.
“Then I definitely outrank you.”
A smile caught the edge of his lips again, grizzled face warm with belief, badly hidden worry shining out from his eyes, gripping the edge of his words.
“May the Force be with you,” he said. She nodded, once, refusing to admit to the alarming finality of the whole affair and ended the call. The plunge into darkness was sudden. Beside her, Anakin suppressed a flinch, and she might have done the same if she wasn't so exhausted.
“Uh,” Ezra called from the cockpit, still uncertain, still unsure, though she'd filled him and Kanan in as best as she could. She stood abruptly, Anakin glued to her side, as they approached the controls. “Why was Rex so worried? What does he know about Malachor that I don't?”
“Malachor's always been off-limits to Jedi,” Anakin said before she could answer, settling in to glower worriedly out at the viewscreen.
“Old legends,” Ahsoka offered, trepidation that she was trying to ignore curdling her gut. “Stories told to us as younglings in the Temple. There's always a bit of truth, to legends.”
“Or a lot of truth,” her old master muttered, half under his breath.
Ezra shook his head. “If this place is so off limits, then why would Master Yoda send us here?”
“Wait,” Anakin said, the Force tightening with shock. Right. She'd left that part out. With good reason, something whispered, though it was too late now. “Yoda sent you here? He's still alive?” His eyes met hers, an unspoken question passing between them, but she shifted her gaze away.
“That part seemed, uh,” Kanan hedged, hyperspace dissipating before them, Malachor crystallizing before them. It hung in the empty space around it, dark and heavy. “A little bit debatable, actually. But I trust Master Yoda. There's something here for us.”
“Knowledge. To help us stop the Inquisitors.” Ezra was firmer on this point, face set grimly, but he edged closer to Kanan despite himself. Ahsoka frowned. She wasn't as convinced that Malachor held anything good in store for any of them. Ezra was too young to know it, too young to understand it, but the rest of them knew better. Knowledge never came without a price.
Only time would tell how high that price would be.
“Yes,” she said, smothering her concern, smoothing the frown from her face. Ezra deserved better than a bunch of grown ups who couldn't even hide their trepidation. Besides, they weren't about to turn back now – there was too much at stake. That fact saved her from having to make too many hard decisions, at least. She turned slightly to Anakin. “And to send you home.”
If this worked – if they pulled it off, sent him back, prevented everything from even happening in the first place –
– no price would be too high.
She was too tired, too heartsick to be disgusted with herself. The list of things she could live with in pursuit of their goals had been steadily growing for years, had grown the most in the past twenty-four hours. The hope she clung to was a battered, shrivelled thing, buffered by a pragmatism that would have made a younger Ahsoka Tano furious. But it fuelled her every move, her every thought, and in that, she hadn't really changed at all. She would see this through. She would give everything she had to see it through. Any price, to keep hope alive.
(Any price except him.)
That, at least, was something she'd always understood.
Kanan, face set grimly, shoulders tense against the sudden onslaught of cold that they were collectively refusing to acknowledge, took them in, guiding the Phantom through Malachor's atmosphere, dense and clouded, thick with pollutants and dust. The landscape – what little she could even see of it – was desolate, devoid of vegetation, cragged with colourless rocks. Lifeless. It didn't bode well, but she kept that to herself.
Her master, who apparently after all the years they'd been apart still lacked in that practiced subtlety, had no such inclination.
“I've got a bad feeling about this,” he said quietly. It would have been endearing, another much-needed reminder that some things about him hadn't changed at all, but the blood was leeching from Ezra's cheeks, Kanan hunched, too tense, at the pilot's seat, cold settled in her gut, and any optimism they'd felt at all before was fighting a losing battle to remain.
But it didn't make him wrong.
Chopper blatted out a warning, garbled and rude as they sailed through the inner atmosphere, the ground obscured by grim, dense clouds.
Ezra inched closer, frowning. “A ship? What type?” Shook his head as Chopper replied. “He can't tell.”
“Track it,” Kanan ordered. “Let's see who else is interested in this place.”
They fell silent as Kanan guided the ship closer to the surface, clouds only breaking as they came within sight of the ground. A jagged crater rose before them, dotted with monoliths that jutted out towards the sky unnaturally. The Force sang with something that twisted Ahsoka's gut. Beside her, Anakin shuddered. This planet – whatever it was, whatever had happened here – it wasn't – right.
“What is that?” Ezra asked, hushed, horrified.
Kanan's lips pressed together, but the Phantom's course didn't falter. “I don't know,” he said, not without some reluctance. “But the ship we're tracking went there. I'm gonna set her down.”
Anakin kept his mouth shut as they landed, though he clearly itched to be the one at the controls.
“Don't be like that,” she muttered quietly, nudging him with the Force. She let the hint of a grin slide across her mouth. “He got us and the ship here in one piece. Things never quite work out like that when you're the one in the pilot's seat.”
“That's –” He faltered at the look she shot back at him, against the creak of the Phantom's landing ramp extending. “Alright, alright. Maybe you have a point.”
She rolled her eyes fondly, though the momentary lightness of the air was no match for the foreboding that waited for them outside of the ship. The structure they'd landed in front of towered over them, sleek and dark and very, very wrong. But it was the only thing within eyesight.
“I don't see any ship,” Ezra remarked, keeping close to Kanan, who shrugged. It was a more relaxed gesture than his presence in the Force suggested.
“It's gotta be around here somewhere. Chopper – ”
Ahsoka stepped forward, Anakin at her side, like a shadow. Their voices quieted as she focused, footsteps echoing oddly against the cragged ground. The monolith sang. She kept Anakin back from it with an outstretched hand and a look, like a wayward youngling. He scowled in response – also not unlike a wayward youngling – but kept back, presence in the Force uncomfortably outstretched, transfixed on the power emanating all around them.
Don't reach for it, she didn't say. He knew better. So did she, for that matter. They knew, far better than their companions, exactly what they were looking at. But there was something –
“What are these things, anyway?” Ezra's footsteps echoed behind her, catching up. His presence in the Force was unfettered, bright, against the dullness around them, terrifyingly incautious. He didn't know better – and that was incalculably dangerous. Far more so than any extra visitors they might encounter. She caught his shoulder with her hand, gently, before he could reach out and touch.
“This writing is in the Old Tongue,” she said softly, scrutinizing the ancient inscription ground into the tower. The letters swam before her. It had been such a long time, since she had last had to put her mind to the task of deciphering them. There was no instructor looking over her shoulder, inspecting her work – but the stakes were that much higher, too. “I can – try to read it. But it's been a while, and this is an old form.” Anakin would be of little help. He'd been a fantastic resource when she'd been failing astronavigation, and he spoke numbers better than he spoke Basic, but he'd been useless to her when it came to any subject that hadn't involved math. He knew it, too. Beside her, he stayed quiet, speculative.
Her teeth caught the edge of her lip. “I can only make out a few words.” She'd never been all that great at tongues, either – this was taking up all of her concentration, and the malignant ache of the Force all around them wasn't helping, made the words swim in front of her, the edges of them blurred. What she could understand brought her little comfort. Her lips moved around the words as she translated, forming sounds that hadn't been spoken aloud for thousands of years. With good reason.
I have a bad feeling about this.
Behind her, she heard the shift of footsteps in the dirt, felt the air move beside her. The Force nudged – no – but not in enough time –
“Ezra, don't touch that – ”
Anakin, more in touch with the Force than all of them put together, winced as the monolith glowed red, as it cracked and split with the Force around it, twisting in a way that made her breath catch in her throat. He knew what was coming. Their eyes met as the ground cracked underneath them.
“It wasn't my fault this time,” he insisted. The words were swallowed up by the ground as they fell through the earth.
Her montrals rang with the echo of their panicked shouting, ancient dirt filling her overly sensitive nose. She hauled herself upright with an aborted groan, knees creaking suspiciously. She was too young for this, she thought tiredly. But too old to fall fifty metres through the ground and just bounce right back up.
The Force felt even worse, down here. Wherever they'd fallen. She dusted herself off as her companions roused themselves, cold climbing up her spine. Turned to Ezra, a reprimand on the tip of her tongue – you know better than to just touch things – and paused. The ambiguous cold turned to outright horror.
Ezra stared up at the looming structure in front of them, transfixed. “What is that?” he breathed.
Anakin had gone as still and cold as she had.
“A Sith temple,” she said, unsurprised but not pleased about it. Not good, not good, not good –
Kanan was the first to move, waving the comm around his wrist in the direction of the temple, mouth set grimly.
“Well, Chopper says the ship we're tracking is in that direction.” His hand brushed Ezra's shoulder as he passed, a reassurance or a reprimand. She couldn't tell. Maybe it was meant to be both. “Shall we?”
“I bet whatever it is we're looking for is inside it,” Ezra said. Ahsoka tried to ignore the curiosity in his voice, the edge of hunger. She couldn't have any regrets about taking them here, no matter what it wrought. It was the will of the Force. And she wasn't Ezra's master.
“Maybe. Just remember,” Kanan said, worry smothered badly under the stern tone of voice. He heard it too. “That ship means we probably aren't alone down here.” He paused, footsteps echoing in the darkness that surrounded them, the never-ending expanse of smooth, dark stone. “Ahsoka. We're looking for knowledge. I almost hate to ask, but – what kind of knowledge?”
Anakin burned at her back, though he remained quiet. She didn't look at him, but it was a near thing, pointed. She could feel it, that awful want inside of him, how he tried to recoil from it even as it begged to be embraced. Don't let me regret this, she thought fiercely in his direction. Don't let this all be for nothing.
“The forbidden kind,” she said. “To defeat your enemy, you have to understand them.”
Kanan sighed, his gaze also pointed away from her former master's. Away from Ezra's. “Well,” he said. “No better place to learn about the Sith. I guess.”
They headed – against every instinct she had, against the Force, against any shred of common sense – towards the temple, footsteps echoing, the stillness surrounding them dark and viscous. Like something you could reach out and touch. And all around them – she kept her eyes focused firmly ahead. She couldn't shake the feeling of someone's gaze on the back of her neck. They were being watched.
But she wouldn't play their hand yet. Better to let them think she didn't know they were there. Anakin tapped her twice on the back of her hand as he snuck ahead, an old code of theirs from the war that hadn't been used since and brought a prickle to the back of her eyes. He sensed it too. But they pressed forward, and she didn't look back, even when the Force brushed up against her, even when the back of her neck prickled. Pressed forward, onward, through the viscous air and heavy darkness, terrifyingly still, devoid of all life except them, through the dust that hung in the air, until her foot caught on the edge of a half-buried lightsaber.
“Woah,” Ezra said, bending down to inspect.
“A battlefield,” Anakin said, voice hoarse.
“For an ancient battle.” The Force had settled – as much as it ever did, with Anakin stirring it up, Ezra a bright, feverish spark, the temple oppressive and heavy to even it all out – behind them, gone still. But the battlefield echoed, memories embedded in the dirt they were kicking up with their boots. Familiar and not. “Between the Jedi and the Sith.”
The closer they got to the temple, the more they were bathed in its awful, reddish glare. Ahsoka looked down at the ground, at the discarded weapons, the echoes in the dirt. Running out of time, the Force whispered.
“From what I can tell? Nobody,” she said. Some things never changed.
Kanan shifted visibly, though his face was predictably stoic.
“Hate to break up the history lesson,” he said, lying through his teeth, though Ahsoka would never begrudge him it. She'd seen her fair share of battlefields, too. “But we should keep moving.”
“Well, if you ask me,” Ezra said conversationally, picking his way carefully over a pile of smooth, dark rocks. His voice echoed. “This whole planet is a riddle.”
Kanan stopped and turned to face him, reluctantly amused. “And what's the question, then?”
Right into the trap. Ahsoka swallowed back a smile, even as the Force –
“Why is Kanan such a – ”
“Down,” Anakin snarled, reaching in vain for the lightsaber that hadn't been attached to his hip since he'd tried to plunge it through himself. “Ahsoka!” he called, voice tight, demanding. She knew what he wanted. For the first time in a long time, she wasn't afraid to give it to him.
“Catch!” she hollered in reply, unhooked his lightsaber from her belt and flung it to him in one fluid motion, watched it ignite in his hand and bathe them all in blue. She drew her own, twirling the left one in her hand as the shadows around them flickered. “That's an inquisitor!”
She watched Ezra rush forward to block a hit, sending their assailant faltering back into the shadows.
“Four Jedi?” The Eighth Brother paused before them, his abomination of a saber glowing red to meet the blue sheen of their own weapons. The Force, warped, flickered with unease, but she couldn't tell whose it was. She wanted to believe that they'd found whoever they were tracking, but something about it wasn't sitting quite right.
“That's an inquisitor?” Her master sounded skeptical. “That lightsaber is a mess. Who trained these guys?”
“You,” Ahsoka ground out, exasperated. She adjusted her grip.
But even an inquisitor trained by her master knew when they were outmatched – apparently four to one weren't the odds this particular inquisitor found especially favourable. Distracted by the nauseating twirl of their opponent's lightsaber, she noticed the explosives in the Eighth Brother's hand far too late.
“Ezra!” Kanan called out, reaching, but none of them were fast enough, and the ground fell away once more in a cacophony of sound and shattered stone, Ezra slipping with it.
“He's getting away,” Ahsoka said, eyes glued to the flicker of red spinning off in the distance. Ezra was still alive. She could feel him, pulsing like a beacon, deeply alarmed, but unhurt. “Let's go!”
Anakin was already in pursuit, lightsaber a flash of blue in his right hand, cloak flapping behind him. She ached to follow. For a moment, the past rose to meet her, and she felt Rex at her side, Ventress or Dooku in the distance, always a breath away from being caught. She leapt after him, Kanan's reassurances echoing behind her. Ezra would catch up. They would all make it out okay.
It was the will of the Force.
“Never had an inquisitor run from me before,” Kanan remarked, catching up. He kept his eyes trained on the inquisitor, on Anakin, just ahead, impossibly fast.
There was something – something about all of it that still wasn't sitting right. “He was outnumbered.”
“He did seem surprised. I don't think he was looking for us.” Kanan ground to a halt, expression flattening. Ahsoka bit back a groan. The Force flickered again.
“Then who is he tracking?”
Worry had forced its way across Kanan's face, but he kept a tight lid on it. None of this was good. She called out to Anakin across their bond, reaching for him, as Kanan answered his wrist comm. A string of crude binary filled the empty stillness and Kanan's frown deepened.
“You've found the ship? Where? No, no, there's no time, you get over there! Whatever you do, do not let him take off! We'll follow your signal.” Anakin landed beside her as Chopper let loose a string of disapproval. “No,” Kanan snarled, in a display that again brought the past roaring to the front of her mind. “Disobeying me is gonna be dangerous! Get going!”
“I almost had him,” Anakin said critically, lightsaber still ignited at his side. His fingers were clenched around it, white-knuckled. The Force ducked and swam around him, vibrant in a way she hadn't felt in a very long time. “What's going on, Snips?” There's something else here, he didn't say, though he shifted, worriedly.
“We'll keep after him,” she said. “But Chopper's tracked his ship. We're better off meeting him there, before he can escape.”
Anakin seemed unconvinced. “Your apprentice. You're just going to leave him behind?”
“Ezra will be fine.” Kanan's jaw clenched. “He's – he's got a good head on his shoulders. He'll catch up.”
Ahsoka shot her former master a look over Kanan's shoulder. He averted his eyes.
“Come on,” she said, tone broking no dispute. “The sooner we take care of the inquisitor, the sooner we can find Ezra and get what we came for.”
In the absence of Ezra's spiky Force presence nearby, the urgency of the inquisitor's attack, the stillness felt stickier, heavier. Their footsteps left great echoes. Filing into an easily defensible formation behind Kanan and his wrist comm, she and Anakin followed with their lightsabers ignited. She'd thought with the inquisitor out in the open, the feeling of something lurking behind them would dissipate, but if anything, it had grown even stronger. Anakin was right. There was something else here.
She had the nagging feeling that the past wasn't quite finished with them yet.
As usual, she was right.
“Well, isn't this interesting.” The Eighth Brother lay dead at their feet, the Seventh Sister and Fifth Brother red flashes of light in the distance, far outmatched, in retreat.
You've gotta be kidding me, but she wasn't sure who the thought belonged to. Kanan, frozen just behind her, started forward towards Ezra, bathed in red, clustered close (far too close) to one of their greatest enemies, and this was just perfect, really. Typical. She held him back with a glance.
“Maul?” Anakin demanded, furious, confused. Also fairly typical. “How are you not dead? Again?”
“I guess you haven't gotten that frantic comm message yet,” Ahsoka muttered, Mandalore flashing behind her eyes like it hadn't in years, more tired than she cared to admit, less surprised than she had any right to be. This was the last thing they needed. More of the past, thrown at their feet. “Why are you here, Maul? What game are you playing?”
He slunk forward, hunger glinting behind yellow irises.
“I am the enemy of your enemy, and I have my own reasons for wanting to see the Empire fall.” His eyes flickered to Anakin. “But we have little time. The one they call Vader will be here soon.”
Anakin's lips curled. “How do you know this?”
“His dogs will tell him where we are. Three Jedi and a part timer.” He paused. His eyes hadn't left her master once, even to see if his pointed barb had landed. Part timer. She swallowed bitterly. “Especially one thought long dead. Oh, he will come. He will not be able to resist us.”
“There is no 'us',” Kanan interjected, stepping forward. “The inquisitors were one thing. Vader is another.” He pointedly avoided looking to Anakin. Focused his belligerent gaze on Maul instead, the Force sparking with protective anger. “And I'm not convinced we're all on the same side anyway.”
“Kanan,” Ezra said, stepping closer, out of the shadows. Ahsoka watched Kanan's shoulders relax more with every step he took away from Maul. “We should trust him. Look,” he fumbled for a moment, a hand emerging from his pocket, bathed in unearthly light. A Sith holocron. Of course. Ahsoka bit her tongue to keep from swearing. “He and I took this from the temple together. This is why we came here, right? To learn about the Sith. To find a way to beat them, to send your Master home!” He looked up at her, pleading. “We're here for knowledge, right?”
“Ezra,” she said gently, an old sorrow heavy on her heart, Anakin shifting uncomfortably at her side. She didn't envy Kanan one bit. “There's no way a Jedi can unlock that holocron.” Even at a distance, it roiled with the dark side.
“Ah,” Maul interrupted, smug. In another life, she wanted to punch the expression right off his face. If they succeeded, maybe she'd get the chance. “But you may unlock the temple itself. Or,” he smiled, horribly. “Unlock other things. Sith holocrons are keys. They can open many doors.”
Ahsoka had a sinking feeling that Ezra may have let slip more than he should have, but it was nearly too late to worry.
“To the past?” She asked, unafraid. Maul was a part of this now, apparently. If he interfered, she'd finish what she should have a long time ago.
“Maybe,” he answered, irritatingly cryptic. “I suppose there's only one way to find out. At the top of the temple is a chamber. Connect the holocron to the obelisk within and you can unlock the ancient knowledge of the Sith.”
The Force hummed with worry. This was far more cooperation than experience had taught her to expect.
“Why are you keeping us here?” she asked, lowly. Beside her, Anakin tensed. But his answer was frustratingly practical.
“I cannot defeat Vader alone.”
If they succeeded, he would never have to. None of them would.
“I say we stay with him,” Ezra insisted. The holocron gleamed in his small fist, deepened the shadows hollowing his cheekbones.
“Yeah?” Kanan challenged, hackles raised. “Well, I say we go, so that settles it.”
Maul scoffed. “Are you such cowards that you would run from this chance to defeat your enemies? Who slaughter your friends?” He turned his gaze, finally, on Ahsoka. “From this chance to turn back time?”
Red glistened in the whites of Ezra's eyes. The Force trembled. “Kanan?” he asked. Anakin shifted again, and she could sense trepidation on the tip of his tongue, a warning. She prevented it with a nudge. This was between Kanan and Ezra. It had to be. Even if it hurt.
Kanan relented, but not happily. He sighed. “Chopper,” he said, opening his wrist comm. “We're staying for a while. Scan for incoming ships, and keep the Phantom out of sight.”
Maul's teeth gleamed in the sinister light. “Oh, how exciting. We're all on the same side.”
The air broiled with tension. Somehow, it was still better than the thick silence that they'd arrived in.
“Just show us how to get to the top,” Kanan snapped.
“Wait.” Anakin took a step forward into the light, lightsaber trapped between white-knuckled fingers. “Those – inquisitors.” His eyes glinted. She knew that look – she'd seen it before, thousands of times, on the bridge of the Resolute, hanging on the back of a speeder, crouched before holographic maps of Separatist bases. “They'll be back. And if they're smart, they won't have gone far.” He grimaced. “I think we should split up, scale the pyramid from both sides. They'll have to divide their forces, too.”
Ahsoka sighed, but it was a fond thing. “Fine,” she said. He wasn't wrong. And she had a warm, fuzzy feeling that it would throw whatever Maul was planning into disarray, and that alone probably made it worth it. “Ezra. Give me the holocron, please.”
Maul tensed and she smiled.
“Unless that's going to be a problem,” she said through her teeth, hand outstretched. But Ezra, though not without an uncertain glance up at Maul, placed the small triangle in her hand.
“You should take it,” he said, glancing up at her and Anakin. “I bet they think it'll stay with us, so maybe we can buy you some time. We'll meet you up there. I hope you make it back,” he said to Anakin.
Anakin offered a hesitant smile. “Me too.”
“May the Force be with you.”
“And with you.”
Ahsoka ruffled his hair.
“We'll see you at the top. And, Ezra.” He met her gaze and she winked. “Listen to your master.”
He nodded. “Yes, ma'am.”
Kanan gave her a two-fingered salute, rather than a bow, and somehow it was more fitting.
“May the Force be with you, Ahsoka. Master Skywalker.”
Maul's dissatisfaction was a tangible, transparent thing, leaking into the air like gas. “Well, then,” he said, with less enthusiasm than he'd possessed previously. “Shall we?”
“Maul.” He paused at her address, letting Kanan and Ezra continue ahead of him. His eyes caught the light. “If you hurt them. If for any reason they don't make it to the top in one piece.” She smiled with her teeth, felt Anakin's scouring approval burning at her back like a sun. “I will kill you.”
The smile he gave to her in return was all teeth and no fear. “You'll certainly try. Good luck, Lady Tano.” He turned to follow Kanan and Ezra. “Do try not to run away this time.”
Once it would have hurt, that reminder of her past. Of her past mistakes. And it burned at her still, ate away at the calm she was trying to inhabit, the walls she had built up, between the person she was now and the person she had been, but –
But she'd learned. Learned that there was no way to burn the past away. No way to escape what it had made of you, no way to wall it off, no way forward but to embrace it.
No way to change it, except, well. Literally.
“Skyguy,” she said, faintly, once they were out of sight. “Hold out your hand.”
“Snips,” he breathed. “That's a Sith holocron.”
“I don't –” He paused, fingers twitching at his sides. He'd finally returned his lightsaber to his belt, where it belonged. It made him look more like himself. “I'm not sure I should touch it.”
Old frustration and newfound pride met at the centre of her chest.
“You have to,” she said. “It's your only way home.” She placed it carefully in his hands. He took it gingerly, the sharp points of his face bathed in red. “Come on. They've bought us some time, but not much.” Vader was still coming. She didn't trust Maul as far as she could throw him, but in that, at least, he hadn't been wrong.
They couldn't meet.
“Come on,” she said again, turning towards the lift. The Force pressed in around them, oppressive, heavy. Running out of time.
But Anakin didn't move.
She turned back to him reluctantly. He had the worst timing in the galaxy, but the retort stalled on her tongue, stayed stuck in her throat.
“Why didn't we go to Master Yoda?” he asked her, face hidden by shadow, still half-bathed in the red of the holocron clenched in his fist. “I would've thought – ”
She swallowed, jaw tightening.
“It's not that simple,” she said finally. “I'm not sure he would have given us the answers we needed.”
“The answers you wanted, you mean.”
She'd forgotten, how he could still so easily step into the role of teacher, whether he meant to or not. For a moment, she was fourteen years old again, flushing angrily under his thoughtful gaze, under words that always seemed to cut right to the heart of the things she was trying to avoid. He'd always known, somehow.
He still knew.
“It's not that simple,” she said again, something warm and desperate hollowing out her chest. She didn't want to look at this, didn't want to examine it, acknowledge it, wanted to leave it in the dark where it belonged.
“I think it is.” He looked at her steadily, eyes clear as day, sharp, cutting. But they were eye to eye, nose to nose, and she wasn't a little girl anymore. Wasn't a Jedi, wasn't his padawan – even though a part of her would have given anything – “You think he would have told you to kill me. Or to let me die. You weren't willing to let that happen.”
“No,” she whispered. Leave it in the dark. “That's not why.”
“It's not.” She kept her arms at her sides, even though she ached to cross them against her chest. Something that wasn't quite panic pressed against her lungs. “I'm not like you. The world is bigger than what I want. It's bigger than what I can stand to lose.” She swallowed miserably. Leave it in the dark. They were already steeped in shadows, so maybe it didn't matter. “But I already lost you once. I –” She met his gaze. Fought against a flinch at the naked understanding she found. “I am – old and tired, and I have been fighting for a very long time, but I haven't given up yet. Not like they have. They're waiting in the dark, all of them, Master Yoda, Ben, for something to save us all. They've given up on the past, and maybe I can't blame them.” She took a shuddering breath. “But I still believe in you. And I won't leave you. Not this time.”
He closed the gap between them faster than she could take a breath, wrapped his arms around her carefully, and wool scratched under her nose, the smell of sweat and oil, but it was a familiar group of sensations, even though before she'd never reached much higher than his chest. She tucked her head into the crook of his neck.
“Thank you,” he whispered, the Force warming against the chill of the dark side surrounding them, and her breath caught in her throat, chest tightening. It wasn't something any of them had understood, before. But in that moment, she thought she might. There was something inside of Anakin Skywalker, some voice that promised no one would ever love him the way he loved everyone else. It wasn't true, of course it wasn't, that was what made it all a tragedy, that he had been so loved but so blind to it, but it had strangled him nonetheless.
But it wasn't only him, who would risk everything to save one person. It wasn't only him, who loved like it hurt and couldn't let go. And Ahsoka was better at living with it, better at steeling herself against the things that hurt, against the things and people she had lost in the name of something greater, but that didn't mean she couldn't understand. It didn't mean they weren't the same.
It didn't mean that they wouldn't still drown in it.
“I might be wrong,” she said into his neck. “What if I'm wrong?”
“I won't let you be,” he promised. “I won't let you down, Ahsoka.”
That's what it meant to believe in something, she thought. In someone. Against your better judgement, against your common sense.
Even against the will of the Force.
“You'd better not,” she said. “I'd never live it down.” She pulled away, not without some reluctance. There was something – pressing up against her mind, something that was dark and bright and familiar all at once. Cold, like the heart of a dead star. It hadn't been there a moment ago.
Vader was here.
She wasn't the only one who felt it. Anakin looked to her, eyes glassy with panic. Fear. It was hard to tell their two presences apart, when he got like that. She dragged him by the sleeve of his robe into the lift, pressing down panic of her own. This was her burden to bear. Not his, even though it probably should have been.
“Come on,” she breathed, pressing the button with a whisper of the Force. They rose. She untangled her fingers from his sleeve. “It'll be okay.” The will of the Force. Or – maybe not. Either way, events were converging. Just like Obi-Wan had said. The Force sang red and cold and bright. The two of them scrambled out of the lift, onto the ancient platform, the stillness broken by the howl of unnatural wind.
The holocron was still clenched in Anakin's unwilling fingers.
“What do I do with this?” he asked, voice raised over the howl of wind. Vader's presence pressed ever closer. “Ahsoka – ”
“We have to put it in the obelisk.” It loomed over them, sharp and menacing. Calling out.
Something tugged at her heart, stronger than the pull of Vader behind her.
“Master and apprentice,” she said. One last time. She held out her hand. He placed the holocron in it but didn't let go, fingers whispering against her own. Together, they lifted it with the Force, sent it floating towards the centre. The obelisk – pulled, like nothing she'd ever felt, ripped the holocron effortlessly from their grasp and tugged, until it settled into the obelisk's centre, like it had always belonged there. The Force shook with it, and the ground followed, the obelisk bursting with light and – and presence, as the holocron took its place. Anakin flinched, shoving her behind him in a move that would have once been instinctual.
“Who comes forth?” It hummed.
“Anakin Skywalker,” he said, fists clenching at his side. “And Ahsoka Tano. Jedi Knights.”
“Don't lie to it,” she muttered in a hiss, knees tensed, ready to – well. She wasn't sure exactly what use any of them was against this ancient power, but it was good to be ready all the same.
“It's not a lie,” he hissed back. “You're as good a Jedi as any of them. A better Jedi. And I – I'm trying to be.” He turned his face back to the obelisk. “I'm starting to think that maybe that's what counts.”
Whatever power resided in the obelisk didn't seem to care either way. Ahsoka braced herself against a shudder as its voice washed over them again, drenched in the dark. “And do you seek power, Skywalker?”
A pause, almost too long, and she felt that want again, caught the barest, impossible hint of Padme's favourite perfume under her nose, and she moved to elbow him in the ribs –
She didn't have to.
“No.” He took a breath and she could have cried. “I was told this holocron was a key. I – I want to go home. I want to be sent back.”
“I can serve as a key to many doors. You seek me twice over, Skywalker. I will grant you your request.”
They didn't have time to think over the implications of the being's words, question the truth that might come from whatever lived in the heart of a Sith holocron. The Force rang with truth, however terrible, however it was delivered. Reality – the fabric of the Force, the threads that held their world together – ripped open. A wound in the Force, a great tearing, like she'd felt on Atollon, all those days ago. But it was more than a wound. It was a door, bright and shimmering, wrong and right all at once, the past glistening just behind it.
It was time.
Anakin turned to her, eyes desperate, afraid. She stepped closer, heart pounding in her chest, as he placed her head in his hands, gently. For a moment, she was two decades and a world away. Looking up at him, instead of across, desperate for approval, anxious to prove herself.
“I'm so proud of you,” he said.
She smiled, memorizing the feeling of his hands, one flesh and blood, calloused, warm, the other cool leather against the curve of her cheek. The Force sparked between them, bright and warm and final, an embrace and a warning. There was never enough time.
“I'm proud of you too,” she said, tongue thick against the roof of her mouth, eyes stinging. But her heart was warm. “You can fix this, Skyguy.”
“Snips,” he said, and she heard the fear in his voice, that echo that was cold and bright. Fear that he might still lose everything, never see her again, never get to say her name again – “Ahsoka. I love you.”
“I know,” she said, though he'd never said it before. Her own hand reached to cover his where it rested on her cheek. Family, something whispered deep in her chest, a thread that pulled both in front of her and behind, where the shadow of Vader lurked, hunting. “Now let me go.”
His hands dropped reluctantly from her face.
“Let me go,” she said again, softly. “That's the price you pay. Can you do that? For me?” His lips tightened, eyes shining. He nodded.
She turned as he did, away from each other and towards their fate. Bright light flashed in her peripheral vision, lighting up the eerie red darkness of the temple, its cavernous ceilings, and she felt the attention of Vader pull towards her, that same heavy feeling in the Force, old and familiar. Two connections existed in her mind for a brief, blinding moment, their similarity, their difference, startling –
But the light faded away and there was only one. One Anakin Skywalker left in her mind, whether he still acknowledged the name or not. Whether she could still save him or not. The world did not suddenly fade away. The universe did not tilt on its side, shifting and churning. The cavern remained dark and red and cold, the Force still a heavy, weighted, horrible thing, twisted by the state of the galaxy. The sound of heavy, mechanical breathing filled the air. Vader was still waiting for her.
I won't leave you this time. I won't let you go.
No more running.
Like master, like student, after all. They'd had different lessons to learn. She wasn't done with the past yet.
The Force worked mysteriously. Things would change, or they would not.
Somewhere else, perhaps they had.
She thought of Luke, bright, blinding, kind. Of little Leia, small and dark and stronger than she knew. No matter what was about to happen to her, she had the sense that hope would find them all once again.
Ahsoka walked forward, towards Vader's looming, rasping shadow, as if pulled by a thread.
Until then, she thought, lightsabers igniting at her side –
– she could wait.