“My experience?” Ahsoka offered, a hint of amusement colouring her voice, though it was dry with unfortunate experience. “Just when you think you finally understand the Force, you find out how little you actually know.”
Ezra huffed a laugh, the barren coral plateau of Atollon stretching out before them. “I don't think I ever understood the Force to begin with.”
The owl, some avian creature native to the planet, Ahsoka presumed, hooted again. She smiled.
“We should prepare to leave,” she said, steering Ezra away from the base's perimeter. Paused. “Do you – ”
“ – feel that?” Ezra finished, face paling. The Force shook. Ahsoka's knuckles whitened around his shoulder unthinkingly, neck prickling.
The air crackled.
“Something's coming,” she whispered, though she wasn't sure why. This wasn't – right. “Ezra, get Kanan.”
“But – ”
His jaw clenched, and for a moment she thought he might refuse, but he nodded at her tightly and bolted off back towards the base. She turned to face the barrier, watched the air a few metres away ripple and shake, the same owl circling above unconcerned, felt the Force twist –
She drew her lightsabers, stepping back, heart in her throat. Incongruously, impossibly, what looked like a painfully familiar airspeeder crackled into being mere metres from the barrier, nose pointed downwards, a presence in the Force blaring into existence that she hadn't felt in –
The airspeeder, despite the pilot's belated but skillful attempt to right it, crashed into the cracked and barren ground with great impact, the ground shaking, the Force now hopelessly twisted. The wreck of it glinted in the watery sunlight. Behind her, she could hear the base's rudimentary alarms shrieking.
Well. At least now they knew the proximity alarms were working.
“Impossible,” she breathed. It was a trick, some Imperial trap, some kind of Sith magic. Vader had found them after all –
She stepped closer despite herself, past the barrier that kept the spiders out, lightsabers drawn and activated, not daring to hope. Because while the airspeeder was a ruin, the nose smashed beyond repair, smoke rising from it and trailing desolately into the still desert air, the man inside, blue eyes blinking up at her blearily, was both intact and unmistakeable.
She couldn't breathe. This wasn't possible, it wasn't right.
It wasn't fair.
“Wait,” she told him shakily, holding up a saber defensively. Reached out tentatively with the Force. It felt – wrong. Well, it had felt wrong for decades now, choked in darkness, mired in cold, but this was something different, something new. She felt with an unsettling certainty that what was happening was not supposed to. “I have to make sure you're not a trap.”
“I don't – feel like a trap,” Anakin Skywalker said, sounding dazed, blinking again, and maybe he wasn't quite as intact as she'd thought. He clambered unsteadily out of the speeder, dark robes a stain against the mild tones of the plateau, looking to her in confusion. “Why do you – wait,” he said, hand darting to his side, where his lightsaber hung at his belt, finally taking in the desolate tundra surrounding them. The blare of the base's alarms in the distance. The Force grew sharp and panicked as he reached out, searching. “This isn't Coruscant. I was – what's – ”
The blood drained from his face. His gloved hand reached behind him, steading himself.
“What's – what's wrong with the Force? Where am I? And why are you –”
He looked to her, eyes desperate, narrowed in suspicion. He didn't look great, Ahsoka thought to herself. Cheeks too sharp, the bags underneath his eyes cavernous. The Force was drawn oddly around him, confusion draped like a blanket, something sharp and cold and hopeless lurking at the edges. But it was unmistakeably him. Not a trick, or a trap, or some kind of twisted mind game. Her heart sank.
“You're supposed to be on Mandalore,” he breathed, the words bringing a chill to the back of her neck, confirming the nagging suspicion at the back of her mind. He hadn't looked nearly this ragged the last time she'd seen him, the last (but not final, something whispered, no matter what you'd still like to believe, what you can no longer deny) time they'd met. He was – different. Wherever the Force had dragged him to her from, it was clearly perilously close to the fall of the Republic. To the fall of – “Ahsoka, what's –”
She closed her eyes, deactivating her saber even as he drew his own.
“The Siege of Mandalore,” she told him, voice tight, making a decision and hoping against hope that it was the right one, “happened sixteen years ago.”
There was a long, terrible pause. She heard him draw a shaky breath, felt the Force darken with something beyond panic. A shiver rolled up her spine.
She opened her eyes to find him digging something out of the wreck of the speeder, saber drawn but not activated. He emerged, jabbing fruitlessly at his commlink.
“This isn't possible,” he told her, fiddling with it uselessly, the frequencies he was likely trying decades out of use, jaw clenched. “This is some kind of – some kind of Separatist trap, a – a trick.” Belligerent denial was the reaction of choice, then. Fine. That, at least, she knew how to deal with. He looked up, indignant. “I don't know what's going on here, Snips, but I have to get back to Coruscant. They've located Grievous on Utapau, it could turn the tide of the war – ”
“It won't,” she told him sharply, becoming aware of Ezra and Kanan headed towards them, the base's alarms still blaring. “Look, I'm not sure how this has happened, but at the moment, frankly, I don't care.” She didn't have the time or the will to sugarcoat anything. “Coruscant doesn't exist anymore. I'm not sure how you got here, or why, but this isn't your time, Master. Search your feelings. You know I'm not lying.”
A long, tense moment. The hand at his side flexed uncertainly. She felt the Force ripple as he prodded carefully, gently, like one might explore the contours of a loved one's face, seeking familiarity. Subtle was good, she found herself thinking. Her master's presence within the Force was unmistakeable, like a bright sun, loud and cold and irrepressible. If she could feel it, others would be able to as well. That, combined with the disruption in the Force from where he had landed, like a tear in the fabric of the universe, a seeping wound –
If it caught the attention of the wrong people, they'd be – what had her master sometimes said? Knee-deep in bantha shit, she thought darkly, remembering.
“Okay. This is crazy. But – okay. I trust you, Ahsoka.”
Her heart twisted, warmth bubbling up traitorously in her chest at the admission.
“I know you do,” she said, throat tight. Even though at one point you must have stopped. “Give me your saber and we'll figure all of this out inside the base.”
He looked at her, disbelief colouring the Force.
“Snips,” he said, slightly hurt. “It's me.”
I know, she didn't say, chest aching. “Saber,” she said again, hand out. “I'll explain everything, but you have to cooperate.”
“And what do you mean, Coruscant's gone – ”
He stopped. Looked at her, eyes dark. A muscle in his jaw jumped as he looked at her and finally saw her and all her years and she could practically feel the conflict, the muddied confusion –
But he hadn't lied. He did still trust her.
“Alright,” he said after a moment, handing over his saber warily, dropping the issue. For now, she thought with a hint of bitter amusement. A pause, as she clipped the lightsaber to her belt. He gazed at her, almost eye to eye. “You're – you're so tall.”
“That's what happens when you get older,” she told him, smiling despite herself, though it was bittersweet. She was older than him – this him, at least – by more than a decade. “It's – it's been a long time, Skyguy.”
He grinned, weakly, at the old nickname, some of the tension sliding from his shoulders. Some part of her, the part that was still his padawan, that hadn't done all she'd done and didn't know all she knew, wanted nothing more than to tackle him in a hug and never let him out of her sight.
The rest of her could barely stand to look at him.
“Come on,” she said, turning her back on him with a reluctance she couldn't bring herself to address yet. “Before the giant spiders get too interested in us.”
“Why do you live in a place inhabited by giant spiders? Where are we? Or am I allowed to ask that?”
“I don't – live here,” she replied, glancing over her shoulder at him as they cleared the barrier. “I mean, I suppose I do, but it's not a home. It's a base.”
The steps behind her stopped.
“A military base,” he said. “You said the Siege of Mandalore was sixteen years ago. Snips.” His voice cracked with something like horror. “Are – are we still fighting the war?”
“The Clone War is long over,” she dodged, keeping her head forward, throat tightening. “I don't think you should ask any more questions until we've figured all of this out.”
The rest of the trek back to Chopper Base was quiet, and fraught with tension. His fear buzzed between her montrails like it hadn't since the days of her apprenticeship.
He'd been better at hiding it, back then.
Kanan and Ezra emerged from the mouth of the base as they approached, Ezra bounding in front of his teacher, only Kanan's hand reaching to pull him back, coaching patience.
“Ahsoka!” he said, falling back in line with Kanan only reluctantly. “I found him. What's – ”
“Kanan. Ezra,” she said, hesitating. “I'd like you to meet my master. Anakin Skywalker. Master, this is Kanan Jarrus and Ezra Bridger.”
Anakin came to a halt beside her, a looming shadow, offering a polite bow. She felt, more than saw, him glance at her out of the corner of her eye, puzzled as Kanan bowed back reflexively, stiffly, startled, more than a decade out of practice. Ezra's jaw went almost comically slack, slamming shut as Kanan's arm came up to force his head down alongside his own. His neck bobbed back up too quickly, evading Kanan's grasp.
“Wait – you mean – the Anakin Skywalker? From the holorecordings? But – but you said – ”
“The Force works in mysterious ways,” she interrupted, parroting a platitude that had been the unsatisfactory reply to a countless number of her questions as a padawan and a youngling. “He's from out of time. The Force has – brought him to us.” To help, or to hurt, she wondered grimly, burying the thought before it could fully form.
“Brought him to –” Kanan stared, disbelieving. “Impossible,” he breathed. “It's – it's an honour to meet you, Master Skywalker.”
Anakin nodded uncomfortably, awkward in a way that was almost painfully familiar, comforting in a way that no one else would understand. In a way that no one else might have even noticed. They saw him larger than life, a great warrior, a hero. And to her he was all of those things, but he was also teacher, traitor, friend. A wonderful mentor, an inelegant conversationalist, a terrible cook.
She resisted the urge to close her eyes, swallowing. She was being thrown off centre, out of balance. They couldn't know why – none of them.
“Are you two...Jedi?” he asked, confused but not offended by the lack of proper protocol, the hesitant manners. By the powerful but incomplete sense of Kanan and Ezra in the Force. They felt like something new, Ahsoka remembered from encountering them the first time. Familiar, but not. Something a little bit strange.
“Kind...of?” Ezra offered, still starstruck.
“It's a long story,” Ahsoka answered for them, not yet sure how much to reveal. “Come on,” she said, heading towards the entrance of the base. To Anakin, she said, “I promised you some answers. You'll get them.”
“Wait,” Kanan stepped to her side, voice lowered, face pulling into a concerned frown, “answers? But – if he's from out of time, then won't knowledge of the future – change the past?”
Ahsoka paused, one eyebrow raised.
“We can only hope,” she said cryptically.
The cargo hold of the Ghost wasn't the most ambient of places to reveal the apparent existence of time travel to the rest of the crew, but Ahsoka had long ago learned to take what she could get, when she could get it. She'd managed to hold off the rest of the rebellion's high command for now, gotten them to turn off the proximity alarms (and they were going to have to run some more drills, if that lack of immediate response was the norm right now), but had come to the quick conclusion that the best way to hold off inquiries into the appearance of her master, for now, was simply to limit exposure.
“Not a word of this leaves the Ghost,” she'd told them, even before she'd bothered making introductions. “Situations like this require a bit of – discretion, or people might panic. Come to the wrong conclusions.”
She would have to tell Rex, of course. A few others, maybe. But she could already see the hopeful glint in Kanan's eye, the hero worship Ezra was happily engaging in. Even Hera seemed cautiously optimistic about the situation. They didn't understand, she thought, that his presence here was only worth something if they could find a way to send him back. Send him back and prevent everything from happening in the first place.
He wouldn't help them win this war. Some terrible nights she laid awake wondering hollowly if he was partly the cause of it.
But he could help them prevent it. Even with all the gaps in her knowledge, she was certain of that much. She just – wasn't sure how to tell him. If she even should attempt to tell him. Maybe even a vague understanding of the future in store for the galaxy would be enough to push him onto a different path. A cryptic warning, right before they sent him back? It would be in the grand tradition of the Jedi, she thought bitterly, though not without a hint of grim amusement. Telling him outright was out of the question, not least because she didn't have the whole story.
“Welcome to the rebellion,” Hera was saying warmly, drawing Ahsoka from her thoughts. Painfully, cautiously hopeful, Ahsoka noted with an internal grimace. But her words had the opposite effect on her former master.
“Rebellion,” he said. Her neck prickled. He turned to her, hesitantly. Wondering how much he was allowed to ask. How much she would be willing to answer. She wasn't sure of that herself. “Ahsoka. Do – do the Separatists win?”
The Force grew shadowed and heavy in the silence that followed.
“No,” she said hoarsely, averting her eyes, the words scraping her throat. “Not – exactly.”
“Then – ”
She shifted slightly to find him looking at her, lost. Her stomach flipped.
“Then where is everyone?”
“Near the end of the war,” she began, hands held loosely at her sides through force of will, “the public was turned against the Jedi. They were branded traitors to the Republic and hunted down.”
“Hunted down? But – ”
“The Republic fell not long after that,” Kanan continued, eyes shadowed. “Those of us who survived the purge were forced into hiding.”
“I don't understand,” her master was saying, hands clenched into fists at his side. “The Republic fell – to the Separatists? How could this have happened? We were – we were winning. And the Jedi – public approval ratings – ”
“Were already in the garbage compactor,” Ahsoka interrupted. “It was easy enough to turn the galaxy against them. I'm not sure exactly what happened that night, but according to official records there was an attempted coup against Chancellor Palpatine by the Jedi. He used it as reasoning for the purge, and for his assuming of emergency powers.” She swallowed. “The Republic didn't fall to the Separatists. It fell to the Chancellor. He declared himself Emperor that night.”
“Emperor?” Anakin stared at her, skeptical. “But, wait. You're telling me that the Jedi betrayed the Republic?”
Ahsoka's stomach twisted, frustration coiling in the pit of it. Black and white, that was the only way he had ever been able to look at things. No room for grey, no room for anything that wasn't absolute.
They didn't betray the Republic, she wanted to say. You did.
“No,” she snapped instead, watched his face twist with confusion. “It's – it's more complicated than all that.” And I don't know how much I can tell you without revealing what you –
“I need time to think,” she told him, more softly. “I'll tell you as much as I know, I'll answer your questions, but I just need – time. To figure out the best way to do it.”
He shook his head. “I don't believe this,” he muttered. “I can't – I was on my way to the Senate – ”
“It's the truth,” Hera offered, quietly. “For what it's worth, we sometimes have a hard time wrapping our heads around it too.”
“If you have other questions, I'll do my best to answer them,” Ahsoka said. There was a pause as he gathered his thoughts, the Force dimming. His jaw clenched as something seemed to finally occur to him.
“You said the Jedi are gone.” His voice was barely a rasp. Her neck prickled.
“Am I – dead?”
Her breath caught. Lips twisted. Hold it together, Tano.
“No records to say for sure. I always – I've thought so, for many years.” It wasn't a lie. The truth, after all – something twisted in her stomach, this line of thought always reminding her, unaccountably, of Obi-Wan – was a matter of perspective. Of opinion. Her voice didn't shake at all. He didn't notice, accepted this fact with a worried frown, a shake of the head, more concerned with –
She shook her head, gut churning. Felt her heart sink. The fate of the galaxy would always come second to the people Anakin Skywalker cared about.
“I don't know. He left a message, at the Temple. When everything – happened.” Kanan tensed behind her, a cautious whisper in the Force. Her eyes flicked sideways, and she inclined her head in subtle agreement. She was certain that her master had come to them to learn the truth, was set against outright hiding what had happened from him, for more than one reason – but she wasn't sure how much to reveal, how much to let slip yet. If it was fair to speculate when she herself didn't know the whole story.
When this Anakin Skywalker was still, for all intents and purposes, living it.
She swore, internally. They were going about this clumsily. She was letting her emotions get the better of her.
But she'd promised to explain.
“I haven't caught a whisper of him since,” she said, not sure what else to say. “I – I think he must be dead. V – the Empire – wouldn't have allowed him to survive.”
His knuckles were white at his side. He looked to her reluctantly, already heartbroken, though she couldn't quite bring herself to meet his gaze.
“And – ” His voice cracked. “And – Padmé?”
“Dead,” she said, quickly, sharply, to get it over with. Watched his face contort with grief, the Force rippling.
The fist at his side unclenched and clenched again. The words were dredged up from the very depths of his throat, the air growing heavy and thick. He clearly didn't want the answer but he couldn't bring himself not to ask the question.
“Was she – ” His lips twisted and pressed together. She avoided his eyes, the portentous torment of his gaze. “Was she pregnant?”
She'd caught a glimpse of the funeral on the holonet, the flowers carefully arranged in Padmé's hair, the warm lights surrounding her that did nothing to dispel the chill of her death, the cause unknown and undisclosed. Her small hands placed delicately, deliberately around the undisguised swell of her stomach. She'd wondered then, just briefly, grimly, if her master had been alive to see it. If he'd been there when she'd died. If they'd died together, somehow. It had seemed – right. Romantic, though as a former Jedi she hadn't considered herself eminently qualified to judge what exactly that meant.
(Some awful suspicion, one she'd considered all those years ago only briefly and painfully before discarding it, buried itself once more in the pit of her stomach.)
Ahsoka knew better now, of course. But still – she wondered, watching the painful-looking clench of his jaw, feeling the twist in the Force, the unbearable anguish. Wondered if Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala had died together after all, and if Darth Vader had risen from their ashes.
Watching him, the shadows under his eyes, the flickering chill of the Force around him, it seemed like a terrifyingly likely possibility. The truth would be cruel, but lying to him would be – would be dangerous, she found herself realizing starkly. Even as he was at this moment, not yet the monster he would become, she was sure of it. He'd changed.
She thought she was beginning to understand how.
“Yes,” she whispered, bracing herself, eyes stinging in sympathy as the Force tore itself open, pressing down on them from all sides, grief so thick and heavy in the air that she could taste it. The walls shook at the onslaught, the shipping containers rattling in protest. She turned to face Kanan and the rest of the Ghost's crew, lips pulled tight, lekku drifting slightly in the uproar of impossible wind. They looked to her, pale faced and uncertain, braced against the disturbance. Ezra shook, Kanan's hand white-knuckled where it had been placed on his shoulder. Hera's hands ghosted to the holster of her blaster.
“Out,” she ordered, sharply but not unkindly. They were right to be afraid. “I'll be there in a moment.”
She turned her back to them, trusting them to file out accordingly, and stepped forward, arms outstretched tentatively. She wasn't much of a hugger (or at least – not anymore), but their shipping crates were rattling so hard it seemed like they might fly apart at any moment, the air thick and staticky and awful, and she'd only seen him like this once or twice in her lifetime, so completely without control, and she wanted – needed it to stop. If only for the sake of her own heart, its cracks long boarded up and sealed over. He would break them open again, if she let him, and so she drew him in so she wouldn't have to see his face.
It wasn't – right, maybe. It wasn't what he deserved. It wasn't what she deserved. Against the bracketing Force, a distant part of her, a part the rest of her was quietly disgusted by, took careful note of the importance of Padmé Amidala, of the potential usefulness of her death, her clear existence as a catalyst. But as he dissolved in her arms, great heaving sobs muffled in the crook of her neck, she couldn't bring herself to pull away. She was almost taller than him, now. More than a decade older than him.
They'd been so young.
What happened to you? she didn't ask, heart clenching as they sank to the floor. A calloused hand rose to cradle his head, the touch of human hair, so oddly soft and shiny, sparking memories of her adolescence that she hadn't entertained in years. Sorrow and anger warred for dominance, twisted traitorously in her chest. A Jedi should have felt neither, should have dealt with them and moved on, should have prevented them from fuelling her thoughts – but she was no Jedi.
You would have had a child. You had people who loved you. How could you do the things you've done?
But she trapped the thoughts in her head, kept them safe from the effortless grasp of his own mind. He'd taken this revelation as badly as she might have expected.
The rest –
Her breath caught sharply in her throat. The walls had stopped their shaking, the Force now soaked in grief, like a sopping blanket instead of the howling storm it had been. His face was buried in her neck. He was shaking.
She wasn't sure what he'd do, if he knew.
And if she told him – if she said the words out loud –
Well. They'd be true, then.
She wasn't sure she was ready for that.
“I'm sorry,” she said, the words feeling thin and trite. “I'm so sorry. You never – you never told me.”
A strangled laugh, his breath hot against her neck.
“Secret,” he said wetly. “No one knows – knew. No one knew. I thought – after the war, but –” He drew away, face streaked with tears, breath coming in gasps. She kept a hand on his arm, was aware of the frantic pumping of his blood under her fingers. “It must not work – or – or maybe –”
“What?” she asked, fingertips whitening around his arm. “What must not work?”
He looked at her, eyes red-rimmed, still breathing too fast. Panicking.
“I've been – having dreams. About her dying, about our –” He swallowed, harshly, painfully, looking at her uncertainly. Waiting for judgement, she thought fleetingly. “ – our baby dying. It's all I see when I close my eyes, it's all I can think about –”
She pressed her lips together, steeled herself against the unrestrained wash of terror that rippled over them, sharp and cold and bright, like the inside of a dead star. His eyes grew distant, pulse racing underneath her hand.
“He said he knew a way to stop people from dying. To – to save them from death, but I –”
Her hand was wrapped so tightly around his forearm it had to have been bruising, but he either didn't notice or didn't care. “Who?” she demanded, ice gathering in the pit of her stomach. The sharpness of her tone startled him, made his pulse jump.
No, she thought. No. You wouldn't. Tell me you wouldn't, tell me this isn't how he got to you –
“The – the Chancellor,” he said, surprised. “But –”
Ahsoka closed her eyes in grief, swallowed back the hopelessness clawing at the back of her throat, the sharp tug of guilt she'd been unable to rid herself of, ever since the temple on Lothal.
You idiot. You stupid, stupid –
She wasn't sure which one of them the sentiment was directed at.
“I'm sorry,” she breathed again, pulling him in once more, feeling the Force in tumult around them, the too-fast beat of his heart against her chest, quick and terrible. “I'm sorry I wasn't there, I'm sorry I left you –”
“Snips,” he said into her neck, voice a comforting rumble when it should have terrified her, angered her. “Whatever – whatever happened isn't your fault. I don't have to know the whole story to know that.” He pulled away slightly, eyes, blue like crystals, not the hateful, sickening yellow of her dreams, gazing at her gently. “You had to go. I didn't always – maybe I don't always understand why.” He glanced down. “I won't say I wish things hadn't gone differently. That I was never – never angry that you left, but Snips – ” His eyes met hers once more. “Ahsoka. I was never angry with you. I never blamed you. And now – look at what you've become, despite everything. I'm so proud of you.”
He would kill thousands. Right now, he was actively trying to kill her and the only people left in the galaxy that she cared about.
He was proud of her.
He was also, she noted almost absently, eyes stinging, still breathing way too fast, heart slamming against her own chest at a speed that was frankly alarming.
“Breathe,” she said.
“I have to get back, though,” he was saying, still trembling. “Snips, I'm so proud of you, but I can't let all of this happen, I have to save her –”
“Breathe,” she said again. “I need to speak with the others.”
“How many days has it been since you slept?” How long have you been dreaming?
He blinked at her, not understanding, chest heaving. “Days?”
“Please don't say it's been weeks.”
“Well – I mean, maybe not – weeks, exactly – or at least, not many –”
What good was Obi-Wan Kenobi, she found herself thinking bitterly, if he couldn't even be bothered to use his tendency to nag incessantly to its full effect? How had they all missed this? She'd seen glitter-stim addicts with steadier hands and healthier complexions.
“I need to talk with the rest of the crew,” she told him again, pressing a hand to the side of his face. “With the rest of the rebellion. I want you to stay here.”
“You don't trust me,” he said, face darkening. But he didn't pull away.
“I do,” she said, lying through her teeth. “But this world isn't your own any longer. If you're really from the past, then who knows how this all might work. Who knows if we've already revealed too much.” Though she hadn't seen a way around it. Lying to him would likely have ended just as badly. And if he was really here from the past – why would he be, if not because there was hope to change it? If she'd been younger, less experienced, less tired, perhaps she'd have been more cautious. More tentative. But war and what had followed had twisted her, molded her, and she was no longer the kind of person who thought to look a gift tauntaun in the eye, to dance around the solution to a problem, to focus on her insecurities and uncertainties. The Force had provided – and she would take. “I'm not a padawan any longer,” she reminded him, firmly but gently. “And I'm the one who calls the shots around here.”
His lips pressed together. For a moment she thought he might protest, but he was still breathing too fast, still reeling, face almost grey, and he backed down a moment later, nodding at her shakily.
“Rest,” she said, the tips of her fingers whitening against the side of his head, pressing gently, a whisper of the Force driving the word. “Here the future is the past. You won't dream.” His eyes, as dark and frightening as they were blue, familiar and not in the same breath, like a punch to the gut, bored into hers for a moment that felt impossibly long before they drifted shut reluctantly. Only because he'd allowed them to, she found herself thinking as he settled stiffly against the wall, the Force quieting as he drifted off, heaviness she hadn't even noticed pressing down on them lifting from the air. Anakin Skywalker had never been one to fall for simple mind tricks.
Psychological manipulation, on the other hand –
She left the loading bay in silence, chilled, to meet the crew she had ordered out, lurking unashamedly around the entrance.
“That's the Hero With No Fear?” Ezra asked, voice a quiet hiss, white as a sheet, pressed (likely unconsciously, Ahsoka thought) against Kanan's side. “But he's – ”
“A disaster?” Ahsoka finished for him, smiling, though she could tell it didn't reach her eyes. She felt stretched thin. Stretched thin like the lie she was still living. “That's the thing about legends, Ezra. They leave out the whole story. The good parts and the bad.”
“He's not like how I pictured him,” Hera said quietly, voice a soft, low comfort that did more to ground than Ahsoka thought Hera herself could appreciate. “But I suppose the holo-net can only convey so much.”
“The Jedi were never as immune to the effects of the war as the media liked to make it seem,” Ahsoka said. “We weren't invulnerable. Even the best of us.”
Especially the best of us.
“What I don't understand,” Sabine interjected, “is how this happened in the first place. Time travel isn't possible.”
“The Force allows for many things to happen that we might not believe possible otherwise,” Kanan answered, though he too seemed troubled. His gaze rose to meet Ahsoka's, frowning.
Sabine sighed, one eyebrow raising exasperatedly. “This is the part where you kick the rest of us out so you can talk Jedi business, isn't it.”
“Your keen insight is one of the many reasons we value you on this crew,” he said wryly, the brief amusement that flitted across his face sliding away as Sabine sighed and turned to leave, an indignant Ezra in tow, her hand snagged in the sleeve of his jumpsuit (“I'm a Jedi, why shouldn't I get to stay?” – ). Ahsoka had a feeling that something was about to be colourfully spray-painted that probably shouldn't have been. Hera followed behind them with a last, measured glance in Kanan's direction, pointed, though Ahsoka wasn't certain of its meaning. She wasn't sure Kanan was either, for that matter.
“You know this isn't right,” Kanan said as the soft clang of their footsteps dissipated. “Sabine's not wrong. Even with the Force, I can't believe that something like this is the natural order of things.”
“It's not up to us to decide what that order is,” she replied, more calmly than she felt. “We can only deal with what we're given.”
The stale air grew silent, thick.
“And how do you propose we do that?” His voice quieted, heavy with the weight of crushed expectations, some unspoken plea for her to set right the world that had been tipped on its side. “That man in there is not the hero I grew up hearing about. That's a man on the edge. Don't tell me you can't feel it.”
“I feel it,” she said quietly. “More than you can understand, I feel it.”
“What happened, Ahsoka?” he asked, not quite pleading. A fist clenched and unclenched at his side. “Before Order 66. He's involved somehow. You know it. I know you do.”
“I don't know the whole story,” she said. She'd told him this before, she'd told them all before, over meals, hunkered around a table in the Ghost's dim light. It had been true then. It rang now with hollow falsehood. “I only know what I lived.”
He stared at her, no longer believing. His face had darkened as she spoke, but the look was not the telltale precursor to violence, to accusation, that it would have been on her master.
“That's a lie.” His words were measured, but not calm, though he had more control than he cared to credit himself with. She could feel the memories beating at him, caught a peripheral glimpse of upthrown dirt, the sound of clone trooper boots and blaster fire, but he didn't let them overpower him. “What aren't you telling us?”
“We'll take him with us to Malachor,” she said frostily, ignoring the accusation, not wanting to answer it with another lie, watching his jaw clench in frustration. He released it. She could feel it trickle out into the Force, dissipating even as his face smoothed out. Like a good Jedi, she thought bitterly, holding on to her own frustration like a jealous lover might, weaving it around herself like a suit of armour. She would need it. “Hopefully, the Force will provide the answer to returning him home. And to our own problems.”
His arms crossed. “Have you considered the thought that he might be the Force's solution to our own problems? Why else would he have been sent here? Maybe – maybe this is the way it's supposed to be. Even if he's not what we expected, he's still Anakin Skywalker. Maybe this is how it's always been. The records have never been clear. Maybe instead of dying during the Purge, he was sent here to help us. ”
She felt the blood drain from her cheeks, stomach churning at the naked hope on his face, so rarely seen.
“Trust me,” she said, less gently than she would have liked, tone precluding disagreement, any possible line of further questioning.
“He's not the solution to anyone's problem.”
The water in the cup sloshed as she bent to sit, folding herself into a crosslegged position against the wall of the Ghost's cargo hold. Anakin's warmth beside her, a flash of dark robes in her peripheral, the metal cold against her back, and she remembered for a sharp, painful instant all the times they'd played out similar situations in her youth, pressed together, side by side in some corner of the Resolute, unspeaking. When things went wrong, usually, but sometimes just for the sake of companionship. She'd missed that. Other things, too, of course, other things more, but that feeling of knowing someone so well you didn't even have to speak to them to fill the silence was one that she had been hard pressed to replace in the decades since. She'd cared for people since (she'd cared for people then), but with him – it was different. It always had been. They were connected, even still.
“Are you gonna drink that water, or just stare into it sadly?” His voice cut through her thoughts with the subtlety of a lightsaber, the tone teasing, marred with the slightest edge. She turned her head as his lips found the rim of his own cup, trying to smooth out the lines on her face. She'd returned from her discussion with the crew to find him awake and pacing, though he'd done as she'd asked and stayed in the cargo hold. She'd thought refreshment might put the both of them in a better mood. It had worked – marginally. It wouldn't last. There were things she had to ask, things she had to say, but she wasn't sure she had the strength to say them.
“Some of us prefer to savour things,” she told him, more primly than she intended, falling back into old patterns with an ease that terrified her.
Don't get used to this, she reminded herself. He's already gone, and he's going to leave.She had to send him back. She had to tell him the truth, tell him and send him back so he could save them, so he could stop himself –
“Water,” he said, “shouldn't be savoured. It also shouldn't be wasted.” His eyes crinkled slightly with what had the potential to be a smile. There was light, flickering behind the dullness of his eyes. Something different, older and softer than the feverish intensity she'd found earlier. “Wait too long to drink it and it might evaporate.”
She whacked him on the arm. “This is a spaceship, not a desert.” But she let a smile cross her face, even as his own faded.
“Well. Old habits die hard.”
“They do,” she conceded, resisting the urge to worry at her lower lip. She leaned her head back against the wall, relishing the coolness. Felt the absence of a running engine, the thrum of hyperspace, ears ringing with the lack of ambient sound, trooper boots and the strident voices of clones (her brothers) that would have brought her back to a better time.
It was funny. Funny and a bit horrible, really, that she should feel such longing for what had been, for all intents and purposes, a war zone. She longed for the Temple too, sometimes, of course (of course, of course, how could she not, when all of it that remained now was –), but it was a different kind of longing. A longing that was threaded through the Force, less tangible, more abstractly painful. Different than the kind of longing that hurt because it was personal. The Temple might have been, objectively, her home – but it had always been out on the front that she'd felt the most among family. That she'd felt connected to something larger, that she had felt allowed to be – to be herself. Just Ahsoka.
She'd liked the action too, of course. Needed it, though she hadn't always been so self aware that she could realize it.
You and me, Skyguy, she thought wryly, water from the cup sliding cooly down her throat. We always had to break things. Break them and then try to put them back together again.
“You said you were on Coruscant,” she said finally, cup nestled in both her hands, the comfortable silence broken. She'd returned for a reason. “Before you found yourself here. Not out on the front. Can you give me the details?”
He considered her for a moment. His face was as placid as it ever got, but she could sense the tumult of worry concealed (badly, she thought with a smile that hurt) beneath it, the sharp tug of cold terror that hadn't been completely suppressed. That hadn't been released into the Force like it should have been. He was pleased to see her, had accepted with as much grace she'd expected the reality of his predicament, but his thoughts were still trapped very much in the past he'd been torn from.
She had yet to make a call on exactly how much trouble that fact was sure to eventually cause her.
“It's a bit of a blur,” he mustered up, setting his emptied cup on the ground beside him. His voice was flatter, duller than she remembered. He'd always spoken in a way that had struck her as incongruously formal (at least, when he wasn't swearing into an engine in Huttese or good-naturedly berating her saber technique) – what she'd assumed, later in her years, to be a young, uneducated former slave's attempt at mimicking the cultured tone of voice so favoured by Obi-Wan Kenobi and many of Coruscant's upper-class citizens, out of his depth and embarrassed by the distinct Outer Rim accent he'd never been able to shake. Now it sounded almost stilted, with a soft neutrality to it that felt painfully forced. Contrived gentleness, she thought, skin prickling. Fear and anger were smothered underneath it.
Don't forget who you're talking to.
“To be honest, the past couple of weeks have – ” He broke off. “I haven't been at my best,” he admitted, with what she assumed was the patented Skywalker brand of understatement. “I've been grounded ever since we rescued the Chancellor. I may have – ” the slight grimace jarred against the touch of pride in his voice “ – killed Count Dooku and then – crashed his ship. Into Coruscant. Obi-Wan helped.”
“Why am I not surprised,” she said dryly, though her heart pounded against her ribcage. It all matched up with accounts she'd heard of the last days of the Republic. On Mandalore, where she'd been during the initial attack on Coruscant, news had been scarce. What she knew, she'd learned second hand, long after the fact.
“There were no major casualties!” he protested. “But we've been waiting to hear about Grievous' whereabouts ever since,” he continued. “They finally located him on Utapau this morning – or, that morning, I guess. I was – I was on my way to inform the Chancellor, when – ”
“When you got sucked into the future,” she finished, settling back against the wall with a sigh. “What a mess. Accounts of the Republic's fall are so spotty, it's going to be hard to fill in the blanks. Was the Council going to send you to Utapau?” It would have made sense, to send him and Obi-Wan. If she could at least figure out where he'd been during all of it, then maybe –
But the Force grew chilled, the air twisting with tension that hadn't been there a moment ago.
“They should,” he said, alarmingly vehement. He swallowed. “But I'm not sure they will. The Council has been making a lot of questionable decisions lately.”
Wouldn't be the first time, she wanted to say, something old and slightly bitter coiling in the pit of her stomach agreeing with him, but there was something slightly – off about it all. She didn't want to contradict him – but she wasn't sure encouraging him would be a good idea either. She pressed her lips together instead, one eyebrow raised at him subtly. He took the eyebrow for the unspoken question that it was and continued, jaw clenching.
“Even Obi-Wan admits their view has been clouded by the dark side. The Chancellor agrees with me. He thinks the war has changed them. He asked me personally if I would represent him on the Council, to make sure – well, to make sure they don't do anything he doesn't approve of.” His face grew tight. Ahsoka's blood ran cold. “And he's right to suspect. Ahsoka, they – they asked me to spy on him.”
How had they not noticed all of the cracks in him, thought to follow them back to their source? Ahsoka kept her face neutral through a force of will she didn't know she'd had, feeling ill. She was reminded, sickeningly, of a glazed bowl she'd seen once, in the hall of some senator. It had been repaired improperly, too delicately. Beautiful but marred by fault lines. The slightest impact and it had shattered all over the ground, splintering in the same places it had before.
“I told you before,” she said, quietly, willing her voice to steady, “that the Chancellor – that the Chancellor took control over the Republic undemocratically.”
“He must have had a good reason,” her master insisted, looking to her desperately, even as her hackles rose in grief-fuelled frustration. “He's a good man, Ahsoka. He just wants to end the war. He's looked out for me all my life, and they – they wanted to use that. Use me against him.” The temperature dropped further, the Force thick like a cloud, heavy. “But it's not only that. They put me on the Council, but they refused to grant me the rank of master. They don't trust me, even after everything I've –”
He stopped, a muscle in his jaw jumping with swallowed tension. The Force broiled for a brief, sickening moment. “And I'm sure they'll send someone else after Grievous,” he continued, tone flattened again. “They're holding me back.”
Bile rose in her throat, the Force feeling viscous and cold. The feverish glint in his eyes had returned. “You never told me you wanted to be on the Council,” she ventured, treading cautiously and hating every second of it, hating that she felt she had to.
That paused him in his tracks.
“I –” I don't, she thought he almost said. “It's not that. It's just – becoming clear to me that nothing I do will ever be good enough for them,” he said, tone dripping with scorn, and something that was more desperate, more dangerous. “And I know that there's – that there's things they're not telling me. If I was granted the rank of master, I'd have access to the forbidden section of the Archives. There's knowledge in there, things I could learn, things I could save her with –”
He broke off, lips pressing together, anguished. The missing piece, Ahsoka thought with a dull kind of ache. Somehow, all of it came back to Padmé. Something in her gut told her it always would.
“I told her once that I would become more powerful than any Jedi. That I would learn to keep people from death.” That voice wasn't his – or it was, but that was worse. It was like listening to an entirely different person. For a moment, before, she'd almost forgotten his fate. It was so easy – he hadn't been tipped over the edge yet, hadn't lost whatever kindness still remained in him. But he looked half-mad, pale and gaunt and utterly consumed. Like a man being eaten alive. “I promised.”
Ahsoka closed her eyes.
“You've changed,” she whispered. She hoped. Wondered for a fleeting, awful moment if the man she'd come to know and love had ever really existed. Or if he had been slowly being eaten alive all these years, the real, kind pieces of him shredded and consumed bit by bit by something she couldn't understand, had never thought to look for.
The pressure in the air lessened, perhaps as he gained some modicum of self-realization. With the lessening of pressure came a gust of heated shame, scathing self-loathing, somehow managing to carry with it a tinge of indignation.
“I made that promise long before I ever met you, Snips,” he said, more gently. Her eyes stung.
'Then that's worse,” she said quietly, almost to herself. She opened her eyes and unfurled herself from the ground. “Whatever you do,” she said to him, voice dull. “Whatever you try to save her with, it doesn't work.”
“Then I'll – I'll try something different. I'll find another way. Maybe that's why I was sent here.” He paused, swallowing. “Although – although if the visions of her dying are from the Force, then why would the Force try to – maybe – maybe – I feel like I'm missing something here, Snips. I need to – do you think – ?”
Tell him, something in her whispered. Tell him, you coward.
I'm not a coward, she insisted (to herself, and maybe her master wasn't in such bad company after all, slowly driven mad, strangled by the flaw of attachment). But the words dried up in the back of her throat.
“Do you think –” He continued. Paused, grimacing. “Not that I've ever been one to obey the rules or anything, but – do you think we're breaking something here, by telling each other about the future and the past? By trying to change things? Should you be telling me everything?”
“All is as the Force wills it,” she replied, looking down at him, heart twisting. “I have to believe that everything happens for a reason.”
He shook his head, scowling briefly in disagreement.
“Come on, Skyguy,” she said, offering a hand, dread gathering in the pit of her stomach, heavy like stone. “We're going on a trip. On the way, I'll tell you what I know about the fall of the Republic.”
“A VCX-series auxiliary star fighter,” her old master said admiringly as he hauled himself up and into the Phantom. “She's beautiful.” He bent to give Ahsoka a hand up, ignoring her dry look of amusement at the unnecessary gesture.
“I'll tell Hera you said so,” Kanan called up, as he and Ezra joined them in the cockpit. They'd said their goodbyes already. “She takes good care of her.”
“This is just a star fighter though,” Anakin said, fingers running over the controls. “How are we supposed to get to – where did you say we were going?”
“Malachor,” Ahsoka said, sliding into the pilot's seat with a pointed look of deterrence as she batted his hands away from the controls. “It's strong in the dark side, but we think it might hold the answers to a number of our questions. It might provide an answer to getting you home as well.” She ignored Kanan's gaze, boring into the back of her head. He didn't understand her need to send her old master home so quickly, wouldn't, couldn't understand why she was so insistent that his arrival in their time wasn't simply the Force providing them with a seasoned military genius. She'd bypassed the rebellion's high command entirely, hadn't even told them of her master's arrival. She was a founding member, high enough in the ranks and a Jedi to boot – they might not have believed her claim that the proximity alarm going off was the work of some random disturbance in the Force, but they wouldn't question her overtly. And if the truth ever did get out –
Well. She could always claim it was a personal matter. Lies that weren't technically lies had become her specialty, as of late.
“And as for the ship –”
Kanan raised his eyebrows innocently, dropping the matter, for now.
“Well,” he said, settling himself against the corner wall of the cockpit. “We might have had some off the market...alterations done.”
The disapproval he might have expected never came.
“An aftermarket hyperdrive?” Anakin asked, grinning. He looked to Ahsoka. “You have good taste in friends, Snips.”
“That remains to be seen,” she muttered softly. “Is Chopper where he needs to be? He can pilot us once I've calculated the jump to Malachor, but I think we should jump closer to the Mid-Rim first, in case we're being tracked. The more jumps we make, the harder it'll be for them to track us back to the base.”
Chopper blatted something that sounded rude, but settled himself into the astromech socket with less complaining than usual.
“Good taste in droids, too,” her master said, laughing. “He's got a mouth on him that would rival R-2.”
“You think he's funny now, try living with him,” Ezra muttered, settling himself against the wall beside Kanan. “Were the droids you had back in the Temple this sociopathic?”
She felt, rather than saw, Anakin's puzzled frown. She busied herself with the preflight adjustments.
“Your – master grew up in the Temple too, right?” They hadn't mentioned it ('it's a long story,' she had said and that barely began to cover it), but he'd come to the conclusion on his own, apparently.
The air stilled with a quiet tension, though it wasn't dangerous, just – uncomfortable.
“These two don't talk about it much,” Ezra said after a moment, tone vaguely apologetic, though he hadn't backpedalled quite fast enough to remove the foot from his mouth. She got the distinct sense that her master found that particular tendency of his endearing – or relatable. “I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking – ”
“I was Depa Billaba's padawan,” Kanan said, shortly, though his tone was soft. Ezra was right. Kanan, especially, was hard-pressed to speak lengthily about his past, though his delivery now was calmer than she might have expected. The temple on Lothal had changed them, she thought. She wondered what he'd seen. “She was killed in the initial purge of Jedi.”
“I'm sorry,” Anakin said, sounding genuinely apologetic. “I didn't know her personally, but she was a fine warrior.”
“I always thought so,” came the reply, tone tinged with gratitude. Ahsoka felt her heart twist. They might not have known Anakin like she did, but that, in a way, was almost worse. They believed in him, admired him. His approval meant something (to all three of them, she admitted grimly). More than that, they believed that he might be able to save them.
Her brief discussion with Kanan on the subject clearly hadn't changed his opinion in that respect at all.
Gritting her teeth and trying not to dwell on the inevitable fallout, she took them into the atmosphere, sinking into the action of piloting, somewhat soothed as Atollon's craggy plateau, red and dusty in the late evening sun, grew smaller underneath them.
“To answer your question,” Anakin said, speaking to Ezra but drawn, inevitably, to the viewscreen, a hand coming to rest on the back of the pilot's seat, “most droids in the Temple were programmed very efficiently. They don't – didn't – tend to have much personality. My own astromech was a gift from my – from the Naboo.” The briefest twist of the Force. Ahsoka kept her gaze forward. “He's much more of a,” her master paused as Chopper bleeped obscenely, crackling through the comm connecting him to the cockpit, “kindred spirit.”
“Making the jump,” Ahsoka said as they cleared the planet's atmosphere, hoping Chopper had decided to actually follow the course she'd set today. It was never an entirely sure thing. “The first one should just be a few seconds. We're not going far.”
Empty space gave way to blue, streaking past them in the viewscreen.
“She handles well,” Anakin said. “Are you sure I can't – ”
“No,” Ahsoka said, a grin tugging at her lips despite herself. “I've flown with you before, remember? If we don't return the Phantom in one piece, Hera will tear us apart.”
“I don't crash every ship I've ever flown,” he insisted.
“You literally just told me the story of how you recently crashed Count Dooku's entire flagship into Coruscant.”
(“I remember hearing about that,” Kanan interjected. “I was off-planet when it happened. That was you?”)
“I would have classified it as more of a difficult landing.”
“Crashed a flagship. Into a planet.”
“I didn't make it crash, it was on fire when I got there! If anything, I made it crash less.”
Ahsoka shook her head, smiling, tuning out the spirited conversation as it continued behind her. If she ignored the discrepancies just enough, sunk into the chair so that the controls sat at an angle closer to that like she might have seen as a teenager, imagined the distant hum of clone voices, it was almost like –
Stay focused, Tano. Stay in the now.
“Hold on,” she said, quieter. “Realspace in three, two, one – ”
Chopper dropped them out of hyperspace with a soft jolt, the violet blur of a planet filling the viewscreen. Ahsoka scrambled to reverse them, the tug of the planet's gravity already pulling them in.
“Too close, Chopper!” she snapped, yanking them backwards, hearing Ezra stumble into the wall with a muffled clang and an equally muffled yelp of alarm. She bit back a slew of unflattering Huttese curses she'd picked up from Anakin, all those years ago. Now, more than ever, she needed to keep in control. Of herself, and of their situation.
At least, as best she could.
“This planet's a gas giant, Snips, its gravity – ”
“Is greater than most standard habitable planets, I know,” she said, knuckles whitening around the controls. “I'll get us out of its reach, hold on – ”
But as she laboriously turned the ship around, the scope of their immediate surroundings becoming clearer, the glint of two small moons in the distance, a squadron of TIE fighters dropped out of hyperspace, filling the viewscreen. Her heart dropped into her stomach, fingers flying over the controls out of unfortunate habit, trying to steer them into a defensible position while drifting ever further out of the reach of the gas giant's gravity. If they had to make a quick exit –
“TIE fighters,” Ezra said, panic edging into his voice. “How did they – ?”
“Were they following us?” Anakin asked, leaning forward, more interested in the unfamiliar ship design, she knew from experience, than worried about the unfamiliar threat. The Force warped around them, cold breath on the back of her neck. Inquisitors. It had to be. But, at the top of their formation –
“No,” she said, blood running cold. “The location of the base is well-guarded, we'd know if they knew. I think they're following you.”
“That's impossible,” he snapped. “If that kind of tracking through the Force was the norm, then the entire Jedi Order would have lasted two entire seconds into the Clone War.”
No, no, no, this isn't how I wanted to do this, the back of her mind gibbered, ice forming in the pit of her stomach. She reached for calm.
“Things are different now,” she said urgently. “The Empire has – has powerful dark side users at its side. They're called Inquisitors.” And they weren't alone this time.
“We think they've been tracking us like this for a while now too,” Ezra chimed in, knuckles white against the back of the pilot's seat, which he'd grabbed onto for balance. “It's partly why we're trying to get to Malachor. They haven't ever found us this quickly before. But your presence in the Force, it's – ”
“Unmistakeable,” Ahsoka ground out, lips pressing together, ignoring the puzzled looks she was getting from behind. There wasn't going to be time to soften the blow, she could feel him, the real him, the oppressive sense of him in the Force, he was reaching –
“Who's taking the lead?” Anakin asked, leaning forward, knuckles clenched, still clearly itching to be the one in the pilot seat. Well, tough, Ahsoka thought, almost giddily, jerking them out of the line of fire, pressing forward. If they could get far enough away from the planet –
“That pilot,” he continued, “in the main – what did you call them? TIE fighters? They're –”
“Laser cannons would be a great idea right about now!” she interrupted, moving them into a firing position. Chopper blatted in alarm, staticky through the comm unit. Kanan complied, twin lines of fire shooting out in front of them. The TIEs dispersed to avoid it, but the one in the lead –
Vader, Ahsoka thought. She was almost certain now, dread pooling in her gut, and her suspicions were confirmed utterly as his TIE twisted instead into an unmistakeably skilled roll instead of a panicked dart, unnaturally precise, firing back at them even before his ship had fully righted.
She felt Anakin tense beside her, the Force roiling as she pushed forward and away, the spread of TIE fighters reforming behind them in rapid pursuit through the viewscreen. Chopper wailed through the comm, the display beeping reassuringly as they finally neared a safe distance from the planet's gravity.
“Ahsoka, I think that's Vader leading the charge,” Kanan said through gritted teeth, hands clenched around the controls of the laser cannon. “We have to get out of here, we can't –”
“We've been pushed off course. There's no time to recalculate the jump to Malachor,” she said shortly. “I'm taking us into a hyperspace lane, we can lose them there.”
“Ahsoka,” Anakin said. “Ahsoka, that pilot –”
She felt him reach out with the Force, prodding the darkness.
“Don't!” she snapped. “You won't like what you find, don't – Ezra, I need that dorsal cannon!”
His smaller footsteps clanged against the metal floor as he rushed to the back controls, the cockpit clearing marginally, confusion filtering through the Force, his and Kanan's, but she couldn't address it, couldn't stop it, could only tighten her knuckles around the controls of the Phantom as answering laser fire missed them by a human hair's breadth.
“I invented that manoeuvre,” Anakin breathed, almost to himself, the Force still reaching out in horrified curiosity.
“Sith hell, Master, don't look!” she cried, jerking them out of the way a final time. “We're almost clear, just a few thousand kilometres – ”
Not enough time. Her master's vaguely horrified investigation had been noticed. The Force around them grew cold and heavy, the connection between them sparking to life, slow and sluggish, almost painful, as Vader –
– as Vader prodded back.
Stabbing pain spiked through her forehead, ice dripping down her spine, and she saw Kanan wince in her periphery, heard Ezra's muffled cry behind her, but she ground her teeth and punched them into hyperspace, the black emptiness of their surroundings melting into an iridescent glow, pulling them from the punishment of Vader's full attention.
She wasn't even sure what direction they were headed in, but they had no destination. In hyperspace, at least, they wouldn't be followed.
The coldness in the Force hadn't vanished completely. She felt Anakin's gaze on her, a wild, unrestrained panic – fury? – winding its way around them all, seeping into the air. She kept her head forward, mouth dry, heart pounding against her chest. Unmistakeable, she had said.
“But,” he said, voice cracking. Too late, the Force sang. “But that was – me.”
can i just shoutout to wookiepedia real quick because holy crap star wars canon is hard to keep track of (especially when you're breaking it) and where else on the internet could a girl find herself a wonderfully detailed map of the Ghost and of the galaxy's major hyperspace lanes? so blessed, truly.
moving along here a little fast, but I don't want this to turn into a spiralling monster of a fic and I'm trying to keep the pacing in line with the editing style of the episodes - shorter, impactful scenes without much exposition. let me know how that's working for you guys!
as always, thank you for reading (and for your lovely comments!), and please let me know what you thought! this week is a bit cray, but the next update shouldn't be too far along.
Hello again! Most of this chapter has been written in chunks for a while, but I haven't had time to throw it all together, so I'm happy to see it in one piece! Thank you so much to everyone who's been reading and commenting - I'm ridiculously behind on my replies (this month has been cray) but rest assured I read and enjoy every single one (often more than once, on really bad days).
More on the way soon! Also, on a side note, this chapter does come with a (slightly spoilery so if you're chill about everything just skip ahead right now friend) trigger warning re. a poorly thought out and hastily averted suicide attempt.
As always, thank you for reading, and please let me know what you thought!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“You said I was dead.”
The sound of groaning, twisting metal filled the air, the Force heavy and thick and horrified, almost pressing her into her seat. The cockpit controls sparked ominously. The lights flickered. Ahsoka shifted in her seat, slowly, with a reluctance she finally acknowledged.
The past had caught up to them, sooner and worse than she had imagined.
“That's not dead,” her master continued, face tight, lips pulled back into what had the potential to become a snarl, “that's worse than dead!” His hands were shaking.
“Ahsoka,” Kanan interjected, looking lost, face pale in the flickering light, cast in a cool haze by the glow of hyperspace. “Ahsoka, what is he talking about?”
“The Galactic Republic fell sixteen years ago,” she said, her throat too dry, her words too quiet. “But it wasn't the only thing. I didn't say anything before because I don't have all the information, because for the longest time I wasn't sure, because I – ”
Anakin turned away from her, from all of them, shoulders shaking. The heaviness grew and grew.
“Because I didn't want to believe it,” she said. She watched from the corner of her eye as Ezra, a small silhouette in the cockpit entrance, shrank into the shadows. Kanan stepped back, horror reeling through the Force, cutting through the freezing thickness like a lightsaber.
“No,” Ezra whispered. “No way.”
Anakin's knuckles were white at his side, clenched so tightly she could see veins and bone through the tightly stretched skin. “That thing,” he said, voice a horrific monotone. “What was it? It wasn't – ”
He broke off. She wasn't sure what he'd been about to say.
A person. A Jedi. Whole .
“Darth Vader is the Emperor's – is Palpatine's apprentice,” Ahsoka said, so chilled her teeth were nearly clattering together. A twist of shoulders, not quite a turn, that left his face still shadowed and hidden from her sight.
“Apprentice? I don't – ”
“Palpatine was – is the Sith Lord, Anakin. He played both sides of the Clone War against each other, destabilized the galaxy and then took control of it at its weakest moment. He orchestrated nearly everything we went through.”
Now he did turn to face her, face white as bone, stricken. “You're only mentioning this now?” he demanded, lips pulling back, instinctual denial warring with the incontrovertible facts she knew he must be facing. “Why? Why did you lie, Ahsoka?”
“Because of this,” she snapped back, flinching away from the controls as they sparked again, guilt curdling in her stomach. “Because I knew exactly how you'd react. Because I don't know the whole story. I don't have all the details. Because I didn't want to hurt you until I had to.”
“Tell me everything,” he ordered, jaw clenching, eyes dark. Somewhere in the back of the ship she heard the unmistakeable sound of a fuse blowing. “Now.”
“I will,” she countered, the words, meant to soothe, said with a sharper edge than she had intended. “As much as I can.” Their masks had been ripped off. No more pretending, she thought grimly, the nostalgia and warmth she'd managed to conjure up earlier torn from her grasp. “But you have to calm down before you tear us out of hyperspace.”
The Phantom shook and rattled. The Force roiled.
“Now, Anakin!” she snapped, the barked order, the name, tasting strange on her tongue. He still had her respect, even when she wasn't sure he still deserved it.
He backed off, slowly, painstakingly, not releasing his emotions but drawing them back in and locking them away. A short term solution, she thought, but one he'd been employing his entire life. The Phantom steadied, though the chill in the air remained.
In her peripheral vision she saw Kanan and Ezra step closer together, saw Ezra's face, white as a sheet. She could smell the cold sweat gathered on his brow and felt her heart twist. She hadn't wanted them to know. They deserved at least one hero that hadn't been corrupted, one Jedi that was still a Jedi, one war hero who was only that – a hero. If her master had only stayed a legend she could have given them that. She could have taken her knowledge to her inevitable grave and left them with hope. This should have been her burden alone.
“I don't know how,” she began, gazing into her old master's eyes, the rest of the ship and its occupants melting away. “I don't even know exactly when. But at some point during the fall of the Republic, my master fell to the dark side and became the Sith apprentice to Emperor Palpatine.” Her eyes stung, threatened to overflow at the empty look of horror slowly filling his face. “No one knows why he's in the suit. A great portion of the galaxy is under the impression that he's a droid, a machine, but we know better.” She stood, slowly. “I don't know why he fell. It's something I've been losing sleep over for a long time. But I think I'm finally starting to understand.”
“Ahsoka, I would never – ”he tried to say, voice catching, the Force a desperate, hopeless roil, but she knew better. So did he, though it would break him to admit it.
“Wouldn't you?” she asked, heart pounding, sharp, furious sorrow tunnelling through her chest. “If you thought it would save her.”
The explosion of denial she expected never came, replaced by a long, still pause. The back of her neck prickled.
“You're right,” he said finally, face smoothing out instead of crumpling, the Force suddenly blanketed by a cool reasonability, a stubborn single-mindedness, rational within its bounds. She recognized that feeling, that look – he was planning. His eyes cleared of their feverish intensity.
I have a bad feeling about this, she had only the briefest of moments to think, skin crawling, before his lightsaber was torn unnaturally from its place on her belt, bathing the small space in blue, throwing its occupants into garish shadow.
She hadn't wanted this.
“No,” she all but howled, launching herself at him, hands scrabbling for the lightsaber as they hit the floor, discordant hum echoing in her ears, its glow searing her eyes, and the smell of cauterized flesh filled her nose as the edge of the blade caught his forearm but even that was better than where it had been headed before her timely intervention. He clearly didn't want to hurt her (ironic, something harsh and bitter whispered), their struggle brief but desperate, the Force instilling her with strength she didn't know she had and he stilled as she wrenched the saber from his hands. She deactivated it with the Force and flung it from them, where it rolled to a stop against the metal wall. The noise of it echoed tinnily.
“You don't get to die,” she snarled in the ensuing quiet, straddling his chest, one hand pressing down on his shoulder. He gazed up at her, eyes wet, the Force wrapping around them like a tattered cloak, furious, desperate, worn.
“And I can't let her. I won't let her. So this is your best hope of stopping everything,” he said forcefully, unmoving underneath her but strung tightly with tension; the moment she allowed a moment of weakness he would try again. “This is how we make this right. It's already too late for me. You know it, Snips.”
“No, I don't,” she hissed back, unrelenting.
Don't call me that.
“We don't know enough about the situation. If you're really from our past, then maybe. Maybe. But if you die here, then how does here ever exist for you to die at? And if you've jumped over from another universe, then your death here is just as pointless.” Her voice shook, but her hands remained steady where they held him to the ground. She'd had time to think about their options, about all his possible points of origin. The Force had provided. She would take, but she wouldn't throw their chance away in haste. Besides, she thought. You don't want to die to make this right. You want to die because you think it'll hurt less. Because you don't think you can stop yourself. It was uncharitable, maybe. But she wasn't sure it was completely untrue. “You haven't thought this through. I won't let you do this.”
“Let?” he said, and the sound was the kind of dangerous that had never been directed at her before. Once he decided to move, she would fall short, she knew. Once he committed to the fact that he had nothing left to lose.
Except her. Even if he hadn't realized that yet.
“Yes, let,” she said, tensing. “Just – just wait. Skyguy. We'll figure this out.”
“You can't hold me.” His jaw was clenched, face unbearably tense. Eyes dark and wrong and desperate. He looked deranged. So close to that edge, she caught herself thinking. So close that maybe it would be better for him to die, before he finally dropped off it.
It was selfish of her, maybe, not to let him. She couldn't know with any certainty that it wasn't their best course of action. But she'd already borne the loss of her master once before and she wasn't about to do it again and again –
“You're right,” she said. “I can't.” Before she could think to much about it, before enough of the idea formed in her head that he could sense it, she punched him solidly in the face.
“But in the meantime,” she said, standing on legs that she refused to admit were shaking. His head lolled, curls stark against the grungy sheen of the floor. The pained wrinkle of his brow remained even in unconsciousness. “You can sleep on it.”
“Don't look at me like that,” she said quietly, feeling Kanan's eyes on her as she settled Anakin awkwardly into one of the swing seats in the back of the shuttle. She'd reclaimed his lightsaber and fastened it again to her belt, cuffed his hands in front of him, though it was more for show than anything else. They wouldn't hold him for long if he woke up and decided that they shouldn't.
“I don't understand,” Kanan said, voice low, edged with hurt. “You've been lying to us this whole time. How long have you known who he was?”
“Just since Lothal,” she said, turning to face him, expression carefully neutral against the pounding of her heart she couldn't seem to quell, the twist of her stomach. She'd done what she had to. She'd made the best decision she could, for all of them, but it had cost her their trust.
It would cost her the trust of the rebellion too, if – when they found out. She was running out of time.
“And even then, I wasn't sure,” she admitted. “I wasn't lying about that. I didn't want to believe it. But when I saw him again, when I felt the conflict within him – ”
“So Vader's hunting you.”
“Vader is hunting all the Jedi who escaped the Purge,” she reminded him, trying not to sound so defensive, pushing down the guilt climbing up her throat. “I'm just the bonus prize.” At least that was what she told herself so she could sleep at night. It could have been true. She didn't know her master well enough anymore to speculate on his motivations.
But most nights she laid awake and thought about all the ways the past could be erased and rewritten, even without the benefit of the Force. She'd done it herself, before. Forgotten Ahsoka Tano, buried the girl, the Jedi, under layers and layers of something new, something safe. For a while, she'd just been Ashla, mechanic, smuggler, stranger, friend to no one.
But she hadn't done it well, hadn't buried Ahsoka Tano deeply enough. The past had been unearthed and her layers had been stripped from her. At the time, she hadn't minded. It had felt right. But she wasn't so sure that Anakin Skywalker was ready to return to himself yet, if he was ready to unearth the past.
If he wasn't trying to burn it all away before it could remind him of himself.
“You've put us in danger,” Kanan was saying, the protective tone smothering her indignation. The Ghost's crew was that odd sort of found family that she only belonged to peripherally. She'd never begrudged them for it. “Not only because of Vader, but because of him.” His eyes fell beyond her to Anakin, still slumped painfully in the swing seat, dead to the world, a bruise now darkening slowly along the top of his cheek where her fist had impacted. “You've known all along who he was, and you brought him into our base, you brought him here with us – ”
“He hasn't fallen yet,” she snapped. “If we do this right, maybe now he never will. This doesn't change anything. He's still the key to saving the Republic.”
“Don't try to pretend that's your only reason for wanting to change things,” he shot back. “I was a padawan once too. Your judgement is clouded.”
“My judgement,” she said firmly, “is final.”
“Darth Vader,” Kanan said, the Force aching with the remembered stomp of clone trooper boots against uneven ground, the whine of blaster fire aimed in the wrong direction, Master, no – “is handcuffed to a shuttle seat behind you and you want to let him live on the off-chance he has a change of heart and doesn't decide to slaughter millions of Jedi. That's not sound judgement, that's insanity.” He paused. Swallowed. “Attachment.”
“I left him once,” she said sharply, hackles rising, now utterly certain. He wasn't meant to die here, in this place. “I won't do it again. My judgement is final. No one touches him but me.” She paused. “No matter what he tries, he lives. Is that understood?”
“So you admit that he's a danger?”
“I admit,” she ground out, heart pounding, the lights above them flickering, “that he's not at his most stable right now. But that doesn't matter. He's our only hope. There's still good in him.”
Kanan scowled in disagreement, Ezra melting from the cockpit's entrance to hover nervously at his side. Fear soured the Force. She wasn't sure if it was theirs or her own. If they were afraid of her, or the man slumped behind her.
Found that she didn't care much at all. Cold air tickled the back of her neck. Her fingers caught in the bottom hem of her shirt, in a piece of synth-thread that had separated during her scuffle on the ground. It was unravelling. She tugged at it absently.
“All is as the Force wills it,” she said, smothering the tinge of desperation trying to creep into her voice. A fuse blew behind her. She ignored it, heading back toward the cockpit as Chopper moaned a query over the comm. “Ezra, stay with my master.”
“You can't be serious,” Ezra said, hand going to his lightsaber. Kanan looked like he agreed, face darkening, but Ahsoka ignored them both, disappearing into the cockpit. Kanan's jaw clenched.
“The cockpit door's open,” he said reluctantly, hand briefly warming the back of Ezra's neck. “Just – just do as she says for now. Stay here while I finish our discussion.”
“You can't be serious,” Ezra said again as Kanan too was swallowed by the cockpit, the sound of hissed disagreement filling the air again. The Force was tenser than he'd ever felt it. Cold like he'd only ever felt on Fort Anaxes. The kind of cold that wouldn't leave, that crept under the skin and made a home there.
And they'd left him alone with its source.
“Great,” he said, settling himself warily on the ground across from the swing seats. Master Skywalker – no, Darth Vader, and wasn't that something he'd never seen coming, shifted slightly, exhaling. Ezra's knuckles whitened around his lightsaber. “Just great.”
The hissed voices rose for a brief second, the closest to a shout he'd ever heard either of them reach, and his head turned, briefly, in the direction of the disturbance. When he looked back towards the swing seats, Master Skywalker was awake and staring at him, blue eyes both calculating and a little incredulous.
“She can't be serious,” he muttered, a bit groggily. His forehead pinched, not even bothering to test the give of the handcuffs. Ezra figured Ahsoka had been telling the truth when she'd said they wouldn't be able to hold him if he didn't want them to. “How old are you, kid?”
“I'm fifteen,” Ezra shot back, affronted, before he could stop himself, mouth always running a few standard metres in front of his brain. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-three,” came the reply, and who knew that behind the terrifying mask Darth Vader had a face capable of an indignant pout? “Or – maybe twenty-two.”
That gave Ezra pause, let him push aside the unease that came with the realization that he had fallen at such a young age, that Darth Vader was younger even now than Ezra's own parents would have been. “You don't know?”
“I was born on a slave ship,” he admitted after a moment, somewhat reluctantly. “There weren't exactly any calendars around.”
Ezra swallowed. “I never knew that.”
“It wasn't exactly public knowledge.” The bitter dryness was unexpected, too. “But it's not like I have a reputation worth protecting anymore.”
There was the reminder he'd been looking for. That the man deceptively contained before him was a would-be murderer, a Sith Lord, a symbol of everything he hated, everything he feared. Ezra pressed himself back into the wall. The floor had fallen out from underneath all three of them. Only Ahsoka had known the truth.
He couldn't quite blame her for lying to them, though. If it was his own master that had fallen, if it was Kanan he had been given the chance to save –
Well. He couldn't blame her. That was all. Even though he knew that Kanan was only angry they'd all been put in danger.
“You don't have to be afraid.” The words were said flatly, and the Force was too cold for Ezra to be able to feel out if they were a lie or not. But Master Skywalker wasn't moving. He didn't look like he was about to try to escape and murder them all, like Kanan seemed so worried he might.
He didn't look like he was about to try and skewer himself again either, but Ezra didn't think any of them had seen that coming, so he stayed on his guard. He'd seen it before, a few times. On Lothal. People so desperate to escape the tyranny of the Empire, the misery of their lives, that they felt they had no other choice. Nausea curdled his gut. The circumstances might have been different, but he wasn't anxious to see it again, especially in such close quarters as this.
Besides. If even the potential of falling to the dark side meant a death sentence, one way or another – what did that mean for someone like him? If even heroes like Anakin Skywalker could fall, then what hope did the rest of them have?
“I'm not afraid. You taught me Form IV,” he blurted out. “Well. Your hologram did, anyway. My master was trained mostly in Form III, but – well, we're in combat situations a lot, so – ”
“Form IV allows for more versatility during defensive combat,” Master Skywalker agreed, resembling his holographic counterpart for the first time since Ezra had met him, even cuffed to a seat and slumped against a bulkhead. The cold receded when he was distracted. When he wasn't ripping the ship apart with his emotions, Ezra found himself thinking, he wasn't such a bad teacher. Ahsoka had turned out alright, he supposed, so he must have been a pretty good one. “How did you come across those holograms? I made them for Ahsoka, so she could practice while I was away on missions.”
“She must have kept them,” Ezra said. “Or the data chip at least. My master has a holocron that can play them. She showed me them the other day.” In retrospect, Ezra could see that she'd been consumed by questions about her master's fate for a very long time. The wistfulness, the quiet acceptance in her voice were cast in a new and more horrific light now.
“But she didn't tell you what happened to me.”
“No,” Ezra said. “She told me you were kind.” He paused. “And then she told me about the time she asked you for romantic advice and you asked if she'd tried floating a pear.”
Skywalker sputtered, eyes pained, though his mouth twisted into a rueful smile.
“The Jedi Order's specialty has never been romance,” he offered, colour rising briefly in his frighteningly pale cheeks. The cold had returned.
“Because Jedi weren't allowed to fall in love,” Ezra ventured, watched as the colour (and the humour) drained from Skywalker's face. “But you did.”
Skywalker looked away.
“Yes,” he said.
Ezra paused. “Is that why you fell?”
The air grew bleak. Ezra shivered.
Skywalker shifted. “I don't know,” he said, as Ahsoka walked out of the cockpit, catching his eye, face bloodless and irritated.
“I'll take over from here,” she told him, stilled as he leveraged himself off the ground. “Thank you, Ezra.”
“I'll talk Kanan off the ledge,” Ezra offered, unsettled and grateful to be leaving, wincing internally at the slightly inappropriate turn of phrase. Ahsoka's forehead smoothed out, dry amusement replacing the lines that had appeared there.
“Thank you, Ezra,” she said again. He saluted ironically and darted through the entryway. She exhaled slowly.
“He's young,” her master said, slumped far too casually against the bulkhead, darkening bruise stark against the bloodlessness of his face. “What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking,” she said, quietly, sharply, “that his master and I were three metres to his left and that you haven't yet sunk so low that you'd harm a child to achieve your goal.” She paused. “Thank you for proving me right.”
“You're playing a dangerous game, Snips,” he said, though she didn't think the statement was necessarily a threat. If she looked past the hollowness of his eyes, the coil of fear nesting in the back of her head that belonged to him, she could almost detect a hint of concern. “I'm not worth all of this. You've got allies here, friends. Don't throw that all away for me. Let me do what needs to be done.”
“I will never,” she said. “I left you once and that was my mistake. You're stuck with me, Skyguy, and we're going to figure this out together. I'm sending you home and you're going to fix all of this.”
“I'm not sure I can,” he said, voice hoarse, the air thickening. His lips twisted. “I meant what I said, Ahsoka. I don't want to fall. I don't want to hurt you, or anyone, but I – I'm confused. Nothing I thought I knew makes sense anymore.”
“I know,” Ahsoka said. “I know this must feel awful, and I know you must be so confused, but you have to pull yourself together. You have to be the Jedi I know you can be.”
“The Jedi won't help me save her,” he said, sharp. The Force broiled. And I'm not the Jedi I should be. Ahsoka pressed her lips together.
“I want Padmé to live too,” she said. “But you have to take a step back here, you have to look at the bigger picture. Let go, even if it's just for a second and see.”
“I can't,” he spat, standing abruptly and unsteadily. She resisted the urge to grab for one of his arms as he stumbled, face going momentarily grey. “Not for a second, Ahsoka, not for a breath. Every waking moment, every instant of every day, it's all I can think about, and the moment I close my eyes – ”
“I'm talking about more than the fate of one person,” she said, heart pounding. “I'm talking about the fate of the entire galaxy. I love her too, Anakin, and if there's some other way to save her, we'll do our best to find it, but you have to promise me you won't try anything desperate. It doesn't work.” She closed her eyes for a moment, gathering herself. Opened them to his hopeless gaze, his trembling hands. “If she's meant to die – if she dies, it will be because she was meant to.”
His lips curled. “You sound like Master Yoda.”
“You can't control life or death, Anakin.”
“Then what,” he snarled, cuffs shattering as he freed his hands, the Force shimmering, warping with something bright and cold and heavy, “is the point?”
Ahsoka felt the ghost of something not-a-hand whisper near her throat, ground her nails into the palm of her hand to keep from flinching when the storage cupboard above her crumpled in on itself instead, metal bent and twisted by horrific, unnatural means.
“Stop it,” she spat, sour victory curdling in her gut as he paled, as she felt the heaviness of the Force retreat in a horrified spurt, the cold brightness dimming. “You don't – “ She unfurled her fists, throat tight, words ripped from her lips. “You have everything to gain, but we have nothing to lose that hasn't already been taken from us.” She paused. Her voice didn't shake. “I want us to fix this together, I want to send you back in one piece because I believe that you can save us, but if you so much as touch me or my crew or anyone else that isn't an Imperial I will toss you into hyperspace myself. You've been dead to me for years. Don't think I won't do it.”
A complete and total lie, but she wasn't sure he'd be able to tell, even when she'd only just practically thrown herself on top of him to keep him from doing the job himself. She still wasn't convinced he wouldn't try again.
It wasn't Jedi-like, all her anger, her deception.
She'd made her peace with that. She'd found her own balance, somehow. Found it for herself, after everything, after all that she had witnessed, and she had been – not content, exactly, not complacent, but at peace in a way that she felt she had been searching for her entire life. She had found her place within herself and with the rebels, she had found other Jedi, found a purpose, she had found the truth and she had been about to deal with it and he had come along and broken everything –
“You have been given,” she enunciated clearly, “a chance to fix everything. Do you have any idea how many people in the galaxy would kill or die for that same chance?”
“I don't deserve that chance,” he snapped. “I caused all of this, who's to say I wouldn't just make it worse?”
“You deserve exactly this chance,” she said, lips curled back. “You haven't done anything yet. Own up to the path you're sliding down and divert from it. It's our only hope.”
He looked at her, breathing hard, pale and awful, sickened with anger and shame. The Force had retreated and now it clung to him like a cold and sullen shadow.
“You taught me how to love people,” she told him, more gently. “You never taught me how to let them go. Because you can't.” She moved closer, eschewing caution, snatching his fist and coaxing the white-knuckled fingers of his hand open so she could take it in her own. “But now you have to.”
“Ahsoka,” he began, but she shook her head, cutting him off.
“You don't have a choice,” she said. “Don't you see?”
“I can't,” his voice broke, “just let her die, let our baby die. Even with everything I know, I will do anything to stop that from happening, Ahsoka, I can't – ”
“Would Padmé want this?” she demanded. “Would she want you to destroy yourself for her, destroy the galaxy for her?”
“At least she'd be alive to see it!” he spat.
“But she won't be!” Ahsoka's fingers tightened around his own. “I don't know how. I don't know why. But the path you follow leads to her death. Your fall doesn't save her.”
“Then what does?” he all but begged. “We've tried everything. Med-droids, doctors, folk healers, they all say she's perfectly healthy, but the dreams won't stop. I even went to Master Yoda and he all but told me to let her die.”
“If it meant the galaxy was saved, you know what she'd want,” Ahsoka said softly. “She loved you entirely, but she loved democracy too.”
He shook his head. “I have to know more, Ahsoka.”
“I've told you everything I know,” she said, frustrated. “I wasn't there.”
She paused, his hand in hers, both a comfort and an unimaginable weight. She sighed.
He wasn't going to like this at all.
“But I might know someone who was.”
P.S don't try to tell me baby 'soka never once asked for advice on how to flirt with people from her 'oh so suave' disaster of a Jedi Dad and received the infamous Floating Space Pear Advice that she never once let him or Padme forget for the rest of their entire lives (i'm talking a legacy that goes beyond the grave here ok like 'Soka finally passes into the living Force after RotJ, sees her Trash Dad and Shining Beacon of Democracy and Fashion Mom reunited and immediately drops a 'oh, did u try floating a peAR AT HER SKYGUY')
what a bunch of dorks
“Alderaanian.” The word slipped from Anakin's mouth as they approached the ship, more of a muttered observation than anything else. Ahsoka wondered if he'd meant to say it out loud. He loomed beside her, even hunched in on himself, arms shoved into the sleeves of his saber-singed robe with a familiar sullenness that tugged at her heart, tightened the twist in her stomach.
“Yes,” she confirmed softly, transmitting the clearance codes that would permit them to dock with the Tantive IV with a hint of trepidation, a cold knot of reluctant suspicion lodging at the base of her spine. She was taking a risk, coming here. The command structure of the rebellion, still barely out of its infancy, was a closely guarded secret for a reason. Kanan and Ezra shouldn't have been here, she herself shouldn't have come within a hair's breadth of the Tantive without any prior notice, even though she kept careful track of its whereabouts. She was breaking at least fifteen different sets of protocol just by showing up unannounced.
That was in addition to the protocols she'd already broken before they'd even left Atollon. Bail Organa wasn't going to be very happy with her, even before she reintroduced him to her guest. And the risk – it always came back to risk, how much was worth it to achieve their goal, how much they could sacrifice, how much they could get away with. How much was acceptable in pursuit of their goal. In pursuit of their personal agenda. Ahsoka swallowed harshly as the codes were accepted, as she guided the Phantom towards the ship's forward airlocks.
She'd bristled at Kanan's accusation before, but only because it held a measure of the truth. She wasn't – she wasn't doing anything wrong. Saving her master would save the galaxy, or at least twist it back into some recognizable shape. She held no illusions that the fate of the galaxy hinged absolutely on Anakin Skywalker, but it certainly seemed to pivot somehow. He was the Chosen One, after all. If he made a better choice, a different choice, then who could say that Palpatine's machinations wouldn't fail somehow, that the galaxy wouldn't be saved?
He didn't have to die.
She was certain of that much, even as every ounce of common sense she had was screaming at her in disagreement, even as her trusted friends told her the same. Bail might too, for that matter, but he wasn't a Jedi. He didn't understand the Sith the way the rest of them did, understand the dark side's undertow, the way its claws sank in and never let go. That was why she hadn't taken them to the temple on Lothal, why she'd kept them from Yoda's grasp, though she ached for his wisdom, for some authority to tell her what to do. She already knew what he'd have to say. Through the eyes of a Jedi, her master was already a lost cause. Something to pity and fear and then put down out of mercy.
But to Bail Organa, he would just be a man. A bit lost, too close to the edge of monster, monster, but still someone that could be saved. He would be able to fill in the gaps that she couldn't without insisting that her only recourse was to murder what was, for all intents and purposes, her family.
The Jedi might have understood family, in the way that all masters and padawans did, in the way that all groups of younglings raised together did, but never like Anakin Skywalker did. Not like she did.
Not like a man like Bail Organa did.
“Ahsoka,” Kanan said, face still darkened in disagreement, stumbling slightly as the Phantom docked with the larger ship. He paused, mouth open as if about to speak. She braced herself grimly for another round of repressed, tense discussion, the likes of which she hadn't seen or participated in since the days she'd used to wander the Temple halls with Obi-Wan Kenobi. The taut, polite disagreements she'd occasionally been witness too, an increasing number as the war dragged on, had always disturbed her far more than the ridiculous, one-sided shouting matches her master and Obi-Wan had so frequently engaged in.
But his shoulders fell, breath escaping him in a resigned huff instead. She relaxed. Marginally.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked quietly.
“Yes,” she said, more certainly than she felt. What other option did they have? Her master wasn't the only one who wanted answers. She stood from the pilot's console, grasping his shoulder briefly. “Stay here with Ezra. I'm sorry I can't bring you aboard, but I'm already breaking more rules than I can count. The less you know about the rebellion's complete structure, the safer it will be.”
He nodded, lips thinning.
“Don't go digging,” she said, pinning Ezra with a dry look. “Stay in the Phantom and don't talk to anyone.”
She turned to leave, Anakin a shadow at her heel, ignoring the sullen 'yes, Mom' that Ezra muttered under his breath, and the ensuing muffled snort from the soon-to-be Sith Lord at her back. She had her work cut out for her, clearly.
“Ahsoka,” Anakin said, as they exited the Phantom, distanced themselves from the earshot of their companions. “I don't blame them for being confused. Why have you brought me to an Alderaanian consular ship?”
“I told you I knew someone who might be able to fill in the blanks,” she said, settling outside the airlock doors with her hands behind her back, waiting. The white walls of the Tantive were soothing, the architectural lines crisp and smooth. She didn't mind grunge, but it was nice, sometimes, to be reminded that some parts of the galaxy weren't singed with blaster fire and soot and weeks' worth of dust. “Bail Organa was there when the Republic fell. He tried to go to the Temple, but was turned away.” She paused. “He's instrumental to the rebellion. He – he recruited me, I suppose. We've worked together for years now.” Footsteps echoed down the corridor. “But he's never told me the whole story.”
“You didn't insist?” She could feel his incredulity. Her lips twisted dryly, though the lump of suspicion at her back made it difficult.
“I owe him a lot. It's hard to talk about. Besides, some of us actually respect other people's boundaries.”
He sputtered briefly, interrupted as the owner of the echoing footsteps finally approached, a lithe figure, small, clothed in white. Dark hair that shone in the harsh glare of the light panels. Anakin started, breath catching in his throat. She understood. The resemblance was uncanny, even though –
Well. She'd long ago discarded the possibility herself.
“Aunt Ahsoka!” Leia Organa threw herself into Ahsoka's arms, no longer a spitfire of a child, but a graceful young adult. So Bail was taking her along with him, now. That was news to her. “Commander Antilles told me you were here.”
“And you thought you'd beat your father to us?” Ahsoka asked, teasing, a smile curving her lips. She held the younger girl out at arms length, examining her, the shine of her intricately braided hair, the newfound maturity in her youthful face. “You've grown.”
“So have you,” Leia said, gazing up at Ahsoka's montrails, marvelling. “I've thought for all these years that I was imagining how much taller you were than me.”
“Believe it or not, there was a time when I was exactly the same height as you,” she replied, laughing internally at the ensuing scowl of skepticism, so oddly familiar. “Isn't that right, Skyguy?”
She had to elbow him in the ribs to get him to reply, expected a bubble of laughter to escape from her niece in all but name as he stuttered out a belated response, but an odd silence had fallen over them. For a moment, Ahsoka felt almost out of place, as their eyes met and the world stilled. Like she was somehow intruding.
“Leia, this is my master, Anakin Skywalker,” she said, interrupting the odd moment. “Anakin, this is Princess Leia Organa. Bail's daughter.”
“How do you do,” Leia said politely, curtsying without thought, ever the daughter of a diplomat. But her eyes, all of a sudden dark and somehow fathomless, didn't leave her old master's face. He nodded in reply, pained. Ahsoka had the sense that it was the only response he could manage. Frustrated but not surprised in the least by his behaviour, she bit her tongue and resisted the urge to elbow him once more in the ribs. At least he wasn't the only one being strange this time, though for Leia's reaction there was no obvious explanation. It was possible she was only picking up on the twisted sense of him in the Force.
“Does your father know we're here?”
Blinking, whatever connection they'd had snapped, Leia turned her gaze once more on Ahsoka. The heaviness was gone from it. She looked barely shaken.
“He's in a conference,” she said. “I'll send someone to fetch him, but I thought I'd better take my chance to see you where I could. Everything's always such a secret around here.”
“That's just the way it has to be,” Ahsoka said quietly, embracing the girl one last time. “Will you tell him we're here? Myself and an old friend.”
“Of course,” she said, smiling, though her eyes were drawn again to Anakin's, flitting away before they could truly meet again. “It might be a few minutes. I'll leave you in good company.”
“Good company?” That grin didn't belong on the face of any respectable diplomat.
“He'll be along shortly. It was good to see you, Aunt Ahsoka.”
“You too,” she said, wistfulness curdling on her tongue. The past was always too far away. “Take care, Princess. Remember what I taught you.” She'd need it, in the years ahead. The Force was telling her that much.
“Of course.” The smile faded, the line of her mouth turning serious. There wasn't much room for gentleness, on that young, unblemished face. It made Ahsoka's heart ache, but it gave her reassurance. The daughter of the Organas had a good head on her shoulders. The Force wove around her, though Ahsoka had long ago taught her not to touch it if she could help it, at Bail's own request. To reject the Force and not to love it, though she hadn't used those terms, forbidden and dangerous in the aftermath of the Purge. For her own safety, though it had felt like a violation, a sour rejection of everything she'd ever been taught. Leia was stubborn, determined. She would survive. “May the Force be with you.”
The phrase almost carried more weight to it now than it had in the days of the Jedi. More pain, more meaning. More hope.
“And with you,” Ahsoka answered quietly as the princess turned and left.
“Padmé told me the Organas were never able to conceive,” Anakin said hoarsely in the stillness left behind.
“They adopted,” Ahsoka said. “Not long after the Republic fell. Lots of children lost their parents. I always thought it was kind of them.”
“She's strong in the Force. But she doesn't know it.”
“That's a dangerous thing to be, in this galaxy.” Ahsoka hung her head, ashamed though she knew everything she'd done – been asked to do – had been out of concern for the princess' safety. “I taught her to hide it when she was a child. Just – just vaguely. We spoke of it like it was about mindfulness, about meditation. She was an angry child.”
“Angry? Her?” Anakin stepped closer to her, robes rustling against the floor, pale face quietly amused. He peered down the corridor as a small, trundling shape rounded the corner.
Ahsoka smiled, a bit grimly. “She always had very big ideas about right and wrong. About what people deserved. Not unlike someone I know, in fact.” Her eyes narrowed. Good company. “Is that – ?”
“Artoo!” Anakin said delightedly, happier than she'd heard him in, well – decades. “Artoo, buddy, you're still alive – ”
Never mind that droids weren't really alive in the first place. Though her master had always treated droids (even the ones with less sentience than Artoo and Threepio) with the same respect he'd treat a person. The small droid increased the speed at which he was trundling over towards them at the sound, beeping at first confusedly, and then with a determined shrillness that almost sounded like – reproach? She watched Anakin's face fall – he'd always understood binary better than most people she knew, too.
“Oh, not you too,” he muttered quietly, eyes squeezing shut in resignation as Artoo put on a final, deliberate burst of speed and rammed straight into him with an electronic shriek of rebuke, causing his knees to buckle. The droid backed up, still quaking and shaking and beeping harshly, and ran over his feet before he could attempt to get away.
“Okay, okay!” Her master forced out, hunched over, hands up, eyes watering in pain. “I know, buddy. I know. I'm sorry.”
The shrieking wail petered off into a series of quieter, sadder-sounding moans.
Her master placed a hand gingerly on the small droid's domed head.
“I missed you too,” he said. “I'm glad you're here.”
The answering beeps (less reproachful than the droid's initial stream of binary) were drowned out by the sound of approaching footsteps. Ahsoka glanced up to meet the ever more solemn face of Bail Organa. He looked more tired, more grizzled, every time she saw him.
“Fulcrum,” he greeted, smile warming even as his eyes remained tight with stress. “This is somewhat unexpected. And – Leia said you'd brought an old friend?”
“Senator,” she said, as warmly as she could manage. It was true that friendly faces were hard to come by in the galaxy at large, even if the prickling suspicion crawling up the back of her neck that this particular face hadn't been entirely truthful with her had returned in full force. “And, uh. Something like that. My apologies for the breach of protocol, however – ” Anakin stepped forward slightly, hesitantly, cloaked in wariness. Artoo chirruped happily, at odds with the sudden shift in the air as Bail's face darkened, eyes widening in shock. “I can explain,” she told him. “I know this seems impossible, but – ”
His face wasn't in her field of vision, but she still felt the wash of resigned indignation through the Force, heard the grunt that escaped his lips as her old master was slammed against the ship's wall, head clanging into the outer part of the airlock, the metal ringing with the impact.
“ – we need your help,” she finished dryly, turning to see the senator's fists, a politician's hands, smooth and uncalloused, knuckles white, wound in Anakin's robe, expression furious. Helpless.
“You,” he choked out, eyes glistening, the rest of the words trapped in the back of his mouth. “You – ”
“I know,” Anakin said, resigned, guilt broiling briefly across their bond. His eyes met Ahsoka's over the senator's shoulder. Help, he mouthed surreptitiously, though he wasn't fighting back, fists clenched at his sides, staying as limp as possible as Bail kept him pinned to the wall, despite the fact that he could have overpowered the slighter man without blinking. He was listening to her after all.
Ahsoka shrugged back at him, unwilling to intervene. The senator was shaking with anger. She'd never seen him like this. The hurt in his eyes was personal, and it confirmed the cool suspicion she had formed on their way here. A dull, resigned anger burned tiredly in her gut. They'd known each other for years, now, and he'd kept Darth Vader's face from her the entire time.
She was sympathetic, of course – Bail had been close to Padmé, close to a lot of the senators that had resisted the rise of the Empire and paid the price for it. He'd paid the price for it as well. He was paying it now, and would continue to pay for it in the future. She held no illusions that she was privy to even a fraction of the secrets he was hiding, likely for her own good. For the good of the people he loved. The good of what was left of the Republic. But this was different. It was personal, it was important, and she had been working with him for years and he wasn't the only one who had lost everything and it was Jedi business and her master and hadn't she deserved to know – ?
The light panel above them shattered, synth-glass raining down on their heads, bouncing sharply off her montrails. Bail's fists loosened their grip on Anakin's robe and he turned to face her, jaw tight, the past seething behind his eyes.
“You've been keeping things from me, Bail,” she said, placidly. Her heart pounded at the base of her skull.
“Ahsoka,” Anakin said warily, sounding almost – worried, as he peeled himself off the wall, jammed his hands back into the sleeves of his robe, shaking the glass from his hair. She glanced at him sharply, the 'shut up' implicit in the turn of her mouth.
Bail swallowed. His eyes flicked briefly to Anakin, a looming shadow once more.
“Come have tea,” he said, meeting her eyes, tone as deceptively calm as hers had been. It wasn't a request. “It seems we have a few issues that could use discussing.”
Coruscant's – no. Imperial Centre's star burned at her mockingly through the giant observation window before her, the firm synth-leather of her seat cool at her back. Anakin's hands trembled around a steaming cup of tea in her peripheral vision. Bail sat on the sofa across from them, his own tea untouched on a side table.
“You understand that this is – hard for me to believe,” he told her, pointedly refusing to look at Anakin. “I've never heard of anything like this happening, there's no scientific precedence – ”
“The Force doesn't need scientific precedence,” she said, swallowing down her frustration with difficulty. “The how and why of this situation isn't relevant. I'm telling you we have a way to stop the last sixteen years from happening. I need you to tell us how.”
“This is highly irregular,” he said firmly. “Commander Tano, I trust you and I've trusted you for many years, but this – ” He waved his hand vaguely, mouth pressing into a firm line. “It's too much. Not to mention all the protocol you've flagrantly ignored.” Now his eyes did flick once, briefly, to Anakin, likely remembering where exactly she'd picked up that particular tendency. “This isn't like you. We have those rules in place for a reason. High Command back on Atollon says you left without informing them of the situation. You show up here, unannounced, in the Phantom, with two Jedi aboard, you get my daughter involved – ”
His eyes went once more to Anakin, face darkening, grief spilling out in the clench of his fists, the corners of his mouth.
“She's not involved,” Ahsoka reassured him, the protective tone of voice doing much to explain his reticence. She wondered how he handled him and Leia encountering Darth Vader in the halls of the Senate. Couldn't imagine how it might feel, to have your child walk in the shadow of that great a menace. “We only said hello.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose, thinking. Looked up, finally, reluctantly, to meet Anakin's tired gaze. She wondered what he found there. If he saw what she did.
“A long time ago, I promised Padmé I'd take care of her family, if anything every happened,” he said after a moment. “I told her I'd take care of you. She was – a very dear friend of mine.” He breathed out, slowly. “I can't tell you what really happened, because I don't know. The only person who does wasn't all that inclined to talk about it, the last I saw him.”
Ahsoka's skin prickled. “The only person who does?”
Bail looked away from her, resigned. He sighed. “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” he said finally. “He didn't die on Utapau, or at the Temple. I – I helped him and Master Yoda escape the Purge, with – well. It doesn't matter. He'd confronted Vader. He was there when he fell.”
Ahsoka's blood ran cold, betrayal like ice in her veins, sorrow tunnelling through her gut. All these years. Beside her, she could feel Anakin stiffen, painful joy stabbing through her head. It wasn't hers.
“Where is he now?” she choked out through bloodless lips, struggling to keep her tone mild and failing. Why didn't you tell me? “Is he – is he still alive?”
A pause. She could almost feel him thinking, weighing his options, the potential risks, the potential gains. She closed her eyes briefly, swallowing back inappropriate and terrifying thoughts about what she might do if he tried to hide the truth from her again. That wasn't her, that wasn't who she –
“Yes,” he replied, reluctantly. “He's on Tatooine.”
Anakin choked on his own spit.
“He's where?” he demanded, ignoring the way Bail drew back, wary of him as he reacted for the first time since they'd entered his receiving room. “Why would he – who in their right mind would – ?”
“He has his reasons,” Bail said cryptically. “It's not for me to say. I'm not sure it's for him, either. But if you're looking for answers, for someone to tell you the whole story, I can think of no one better.”
Ahsoka stood, massaged her forehead with the palm of her hand, head spinning. She wanted to be grateful, could feel the current of the Force flowing with them for once instead of against them, knew that this was the way things had to have been, but –
“Are there any other planet-shattering facts you'd like to share before we leave?” she asked, too sharply. “Is there anything else like this that you've been keeping from me?”
The slightest pause. Her other fist clenched.
“No,” he said, and the lights flickered, cold seeping up her spine, because he was lying –
But that wasn't her. It wouldn't be her. She felt Anakin's eyes on her, wondered frustratedly if he knew how awful that gaze was, if he understood how he was both a deterrent and a terrible influence in the same breath. How badly his presence was upsetting everything she'd thought she'd ever known, about her life and about herself.
“Alright.” Her voice was brittle.
“Ahsoka,” Bail said. “You're a good friend. Someone I respect. I didn't want to hurt you.”
“There's a lot of that going around lately,” she said tiredly.
“I'm sorry,” he said, truly sounding it. “About Obi-Wan, too, though he has his reasons for concealing himself. Force knows we're awfully short of friends these days.”
Anakin stood too, a warm presence at her back. She was almost used to him again.
“Thank you, Senator,” he said, the Force rippling with guilt. He didn't try to apologize and she was glad. It would only have been horrifyingly insufficient, even if he hadn't technically done anything yet. That was the problem with the future, she thought bitterly. There was no absolution in it. Only in the past.
Bail inclined his head in reserved acknowledgement. He'd had time to think, had finally seen what she'd hoped he would. Someone worth saving. A chance to change their fate.
“Take the Maria,” he offered, a diplomat's rapprochement. “An Imperial shuttle will give you less trouble with planetary security.”
“On Tatooine, it might give us more,” Anakin muttered, but she elbowed him and accepted. “We'll leave Kanan and Ezra with you,” she said. “Don't let them give you any trouble.”
“I have met them,” he said wryly. “So has Leia, for that matter. Between you and me, she wasn't very impressed.”
“That's my boys,” Ahsoka said, the ghost of a smile crossing her face. She turned to Anakin. “Well? Ready to come home?”
“Every time I think this day can't get any worse, it does,” he scowled. She waited expectantly. The scowl deepened.
“Alright,” he muttered finally. “Home it is.”
“Have I mentioned,” Anakin spat, knuckles clenched white at his side as they trudged through hot sand, “how much I hate this Force-forsaken planet?”
“In the half-a-day we've been here, or in all the time I've known you?” Ahsoka asked, the air hot and dry with dust. It already felt like it was coating the inside of her mouth, her clothes, her montrails. Tatooine's two suns burned at her back, even through the thin robe she'd acquired to stave off the radiation. The cragged peaks of what her master had called the Jundland Wastes rose in front of them. They'd landed the shuttle as close to them as possible, hidden it behind a cliff face, but Obi-Wan lived deeper within them, at least according to Bail.
“Of all the places to end up, he chose Tatooine. And not even Mos Espa, or Mos Eisley! This is worse than isolated, this is insane. There's nothing out here but banthas and Tuskens.” Anakin shook his head, face darkening, slogging ahead of her through force of will, ever vigilant. Tatooine had made him cagier, if that was even possible. He still looked half-dead. She'd had half a mind to punch him again on their way there, if only because she'd thought the rest might do him some good.
And because then he'd stop trying to talk to her. She'd avoided conversation as best she could on the shuttle, feigning the need for a nap (which hadn't really been feigned, if she was being honest with herself) and then later meditation. Unfortunately, he had yet to take the hint.
“Hey, Snips,” he started, slowing his pace so she could catch up. She did, begrudgingly. His stride was still longer than hers, though not by much. The sand, slipping and sliding underneath their feet, equalized them to an extent. “About what happened on Senator Organa's ship.”
“You're gonna have to be more specific,” she told him, lips tightening. She picked up the pace, stomping ahead of him so he couldn't see her face. So she couldn't see his. “And don't – call me that.” It had been reassuring at first. A reminder that the man she was talking to was from a time and place where that name had still held some meaning to her, to him. A time before it had all been lost. Now it just felt wrong. She hadn't been that Ahsoka for a very long time.
And everything she'd lost had been dealt with and compartmentalized, before he'd come along and dug it all back up. Now it was only a reminder that she didn't want.
“You know what I'm talking about. That wasn't me that shattered that light.” For once. She heard him pause to catch his breath. “This isn't like you.”
“What isn't like me?” she snapped.
“That,” he said. “The – the,” he paused. “The snippiness. I mean. That's not what I mean.” He caught up to her, scowling as sand flew up into his face. “You just seem – angry. About all this. That's all.”
“Wouldn't you be?” she asked, feeling sour victory as he flinched slightly. “I'm not a Jedi, Anakin. I'm allowed to be whatever I want to be.”
“I know, I know,” he said, “it's just it can be dangerous – ”
“I will not,” she seethed, “be lectured about this by you of all people.”
“It's not a – it's not a lecture,” he insisted, wind whipping his hair from his face. “You're sixteen years too old for that, for one thing. But you're still – ”
His throat bobbed.
“You're still my padawan,” he said. “You can talk to me. And I don't – want – ” He paused, something flickering in his eyes that she didn't recognize. Is this what you needed? she wondered fleetingly, grief and guilt a brick in her chest. Is this what would have helped you? “I always wanted you to be better than me.”
They rounded the corner, a miserable, sand-worn hut coming into view before them. Her breath caught in her throat, heart pounding, twisting in her chest. She pushed down the part of herself that was still ridiculously, incongruously, desperate for his approval. He had no right, he was the last person she wanted to be hearing anything from, he'd been lied to and betrayed and his solution had been to become a Sith Lord and murder them all, he had no leg to stand on, no right –
“I know,” she said quietly, spotting movement in the hut's tiny window. He wasn't wrong. He was only worried. “I know.” They ground to a halt, in tandem. The suns left quiet shadows on the desolate ground. The Force trembled.
A bent, huddled figure, barely the shape of a man, swathed in a robe that was sun-beaten and worn, shuffled out of the miserable hut. Ahsoka watched, anger building in the back of her throat, sharp, painful, from where it stemmed in the hollow places of her heart. Anakin stilled beside her, trembling. With exhaustion or emotion, she couldn't tell. Both, probably. The hood was flipped back, Obi-Wan Kenobi's weathered face revealed from underneath it. The blood drained from his cheeks.
“You're still alive, you bastard,” she said, the sharp edge of the words scraping her throat, unable to stop herself. “All this time – ”
But he barely had eyes for her, though she couldn't blame him. His mouth moved, but no words came from it as he stepped ever closer, a dry and calloused hand outstretched. Like he was looking at a ghost. The Force buffered and shook with the sand-strewn wind.
“Are you going to hit me as well?” Anakin asked, the attempt at levity undermined by the shake in his voice. “Not that I would blame you, Master, it's just it's been happening a lot lately and – ”
The outstretched hand finally reached his face, traced the bruising on the high point of his thinly-carved cheek with trembling fingers.
“Master?” Anakin asked, voice swallowed up by the howl of the desert wind, sounding lost. Obi-Wan drew him in slowly, wrapped a still-shaking hand around the back of his head and swallowed him in an embrace, eyes damp and a little desperate.
“I've gone mad,” he said finally, voice a thin, hoarse rasp, gruff with disuse. Closed his eyes in disbelief when her former master's arms closed tentatively around him in return, the Force twisting with something that felt like despair, unearthed from where it had been determinedly buried. “This cannot be.”
“Through the Force all things are possible,” Ahsoka quoted at him dryly, voice still too sharp. “Even time travel, apparently. Or – whatever this is.”
“Time travel?” Obi-Wan opened his eyes. He didn't seem nearly surprised enough. Rex would have rolled his eyes. Jedi.
“Yes,” she said, mouth tightening as the two men parted, Obi-Wan's hands white knuckled around her former master's elbows. “Our working theory is that the Force flung Skyguy forward into the future, right before the fall of the Republic.” The words weren't quite spat; she was still too much of a Jedi for that. Too filled with sorrow, though she couldn't seem to keep it from spilling over, leaking out as spite.
She'd learned that trick from the best. She loved him even still, but he was a hypocrite. Even after all of this, his jaw was still clenching in what she knew was internal denial, eyes pained, the Force flecked with grief and hate.
“You knew,” she ground out in Obi-Wan's direction, ignoring him for now. “All this time, you knew. He's out there right now, wreaking havoc, hunting me, and you know who he is – ”
And you never told me.
“I thought you were both dead,” she said, swallowing back her tears. She'd spared enough for them, though now that she'd opened her mouth she couldn't seem to stop, every thought she'd had since that moment in Bail's office, since that first inkling of suspicion, since she'd heard Anakin's voice in the temple on Lothal spilling out, coated in vitriol. “You let me believe that you were dead. I thought you'd both died defending – defending what we loved. I've lived with that for years. And instead – ”
“Ahsoka,” Obi-Wan said, and his voice was a tired, rasping shadow, only shades of its former authority creeping in, dredged up from the past. Tatooine, in all of its ragged, dusty, heat-scoured glory, was not the Jedi Temple. And Obi-Wan Kenobi, this robed, weathered hermit, hiding from the galaxy, was no Jedi Master.
And she was no Jedi.
He looked to Anakin, grief shuttering his eyes. “Things are – are more complicated than you've been led to believe,” he said. “I'll tell you what I can. But it's not – ”
He dragged a hand down his face. He looked impossibly old. Impossibly sad.
“It's not a very happy story,” he said.
y'all I am so tired I'm gonna be surprised if this A/N is even halfway coherent, so please excuse me (and let me know!) if you find any typos in this chapter because I have no beta and my brain is mush rn haha
the next few weeks are gonna be a bit nuts, so I thought I'd better get this chapter up - it might be a while before the next update, though I'm happy to say that this story is technically finished!! just in bits and pieces that need to be stitched together by yours truly
as always, thank you so much for reading and commenting and please let me know what you thought! my inbox is full of unanswered things atm bc I am an easily intimidated gremlin with very little spare time and I'm terrible at getting back to people, but I read and appreciate absolutely everything. your words mean a lot <3
Bitter, earthy tea seemed to be a staple when it came to unlikely survivors of the Republic's fall. Ahsoka had never developed a taste for it, herself, but both Bail and Obi-Wan –
– no, Ben, he was called Ben now, he hadn't been Obi-Wan Kenobi for nearly two decades, he had died like Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala had, been shattered and rebuilt somewhere in between Coruscant and Tatooine, in the shadow of the Empire's rise, and she hadn't been there to see it, to know about it, and why was that somehow the most frustrating thing? –
– seemed to swear by it. She took a sip from a careworn cup that burned her tongue, to be polite.
There was sand in her boots, gritting between her toes. The evening wind was sifting more of it in quietly through the cracks in the door of Ben's weathered, cluttered hut, though he didn't seem to care. The inside was as weather-beaten as the outside, covered in a fine layer of sand and dust. The only light to fight against the encroach of Tatooine's dusk was an ancient-looking oil lamp, haphazardly flickering in the corner of the main living space.
Unconcerned with the dim lighting, Ben poured himself and Anakin cups of tea with shaking, careworn hands, but his face was alarmingly placid. Obi-Wan Kenobi hadn't been completely washed away, then. Calm and solemn on the outside, even when his world was being rendered to pieces in front of him. Some things didn't change.
Some things did, of course.
She wasn't sure what Anakin thought of it all. He sat beside her, hands shoved defensively into his sleeves, posture hunched, bowed. Vibrating with tension. He was glad to see Obi-Wan, but the reality of the situation would only continue to unravel him as it became more impossible to deny. This Obi-Wan Kenobi was not the one he'd left behind in Coruscant. They fit together imperfectly – he was the wrong half of a whole. And she had a feeling the right half would only willingly meet his other with a lightsaber to the gut. Or worse. Ben had taken the revelation of where exactly in time her Anakin had travelled from with the greying of his face, already far too pale for someone who lived in the desert, and an unreadable expression. But Ahsoka understood. He was looking at what he thought was a lost cause and he didn't know what to do about it. She took another bitter sip of tea, concealing the twist of her lips behind the cup.
“You've grown, Ahsoka,” Ben said, voice still raspy with what she thought must be disuse, handing a cup of tea to Anakin, who accepted it without thought, leg jostling her own with its restless tapping, not bothering to hide his grimace at the taste. He drank it anyway. He always did.
“That's what tends to happen,” she answered, trying to soften the edge that hadn't been completely appeased by the lonely, inhospitable life he appeared to be leading. “It's been a long time since we've seen each other.”
“Yes,” he said, speculatively. His gaze drifted once more from her face to Anakin, looming and anguished beside her. “Yes, I suppose it has.”
“Obi-Wan,” Anakin started, the name sounding somehow right from his lips, though that name no longer truly matched its owner. His lips pressed together, eyes glinting with something wanting and desperate that she couldn't place and didn't want to. The older man looked away, placing his own cup quietly on the table. His fingers tapped once, twice against his side. A nervous tick he'd never had before.
“You've come for answers,” he said finally, reluctantly, settling down on the seat across from them with surprising agility, given his appearance. She supposed he looked older than he was. Had it been the desert that had carved out those lines on his face, weathered his brow and greyed his hair? The sorrowful twist in her gut told her otherwise. A hand scrubbed down his beard. “But I have – very few to give.”
“We have come,” Ahsoka said quietly, firmly, “a very long way.”
His eyes met hers. Her throat tightened.
“Yes,” he said again. “Yes, I suppose you have.” He was silent for a long moment, sand hissing in under the door, Anakin growing more and more tense as the quiet dragged on. “It was a long time ago,” he said finally, grief splitting his face into something she barely recognized, though he smoothed over it quickly. “And I don't – I've never – I've had many years to wonder, but I – ” He broke off, swallowing. She nudged Anakin with her knee, watched the fists in his lap uncurl hesitantly. Pity rose, sharp and stabbing, at the back of her throat. In her experience, Obi-Wan Kenobi had only very rarely been at a loss for words. “Forgive me,” Ben said, voice breaking imperceptibly. “I remember it all very well, from the last days of the war to the Republic's fall, but I – after all these years I still don't understand – why.”
Guilt had slid into the back of her head while he spoke, something oily that clung, but it wasn't hers, though it could have been. It could have been any one of theirs, but Anakin's hands were clenched into fists in his lap again, the knuckles of his real hand white, the air once again heavy and oppressive. Dry and hopeless. The Force pressed against all of them, the remnants of heat from the suns slinking away.
“You – betrayed all who loved you,” he told Anakin, whose face crumpled in her peripheral vision, the sand on the floor shifting and hissing tormentedly. “But I don't know why. Near the end of it all, I followed you to the planet Mustafar. You had – you had done horrible things.” He bowed his head, expression lost to shadow. The back of Ahsoka's neck prickled, stomach churning. “I barely recognized you. We fought.” A terrible pause. “You lost.”
There was more to it than that, Ahsoka thought sharply, spite momentarily rising like bile in her throat, but she'd forgotten, for a moment, that not all of them were so removed from the recounting of events.
“The suit – ” Anakin choked out, realizing, biting off the end of the question with a twist of his lips, shoulders shaking as Ben nodded, painfully. The Force twisted. Ahsoka felt it as the climb of ice up her shoulders, some kind of freezing grief stabbing at her gut. Some of it was her own. A hand rose to swipe at her mouth, swallow back the horrified prickling behind her eyes.
“The Emperor rescued you.” Ben rose, a hand reaching out hesitantly. “That was – that was the last I saw of you. Until now.” Anakin's own flesh hand snatched out to grab it, knuckles white. Drew Ben closer until his head collided with the older man's chest, nose buried in the worn fabrics of his tunic, eyes squeezed shut. A silent apology and a plea for forgiveness in the same breath. Ben's other hand moved to cradle the back of his head. Granted, always. Ahsoka had to resist the urge to glance away, feeling briefly, unfairly, like an intruder.
“How can I stop this?” Anakin whispered desperately, silhouette hunched and hopeless against the bare flickering light. One hand twisted in the front of Ben's robe. “How can I keep this from happening? Master, please. I have to know more.”
Ben grimaced, almost imperceptibly, grief and a terrible kind of love fleeting across his face. His eyes met hers briefly over the hunched form of her master. She inclined her head in acknowledgement.
“I will tell you,” he promised quietly. “What little answers I have, I will give to you. But only in daylight.”
“But – ”
“I know it feels as though you are running out of time, but please do take a moment to consider the nature of your undertaking.” The barest hint of a scolding tone of voice she hadn't heard for more than a decade. Ahsoka smiled, too briefly. “The past will always be there. The time that passes here is therefore irrelevant.” A kinder tone. “You have time to rest.”
“But – ”
He relented, letting go of Ben's robe, pulling away in defeat. Turned to look at her, eyes glassy with exhaustion.
“I slept on the way here,” she reminded him. She was tired still, but she knew that sleep wouldn't come. Not for her. Not right now. “Please. Unless you'd like a matching bruise.”
“Let's not have to do that again,” he said, wincing slightly. “You pack one hell of a right hook.”
“My teacher had an arm made out of metal,” she told him with a straight face. “I had to keep up somehow.”
He smiled weakly. Ben shook his head, looking more like Obi-Wan Kenobi out of the corner of her eye, if she kept her gaze ahead and ignored the sand at her feet.
“I don't want to know,” he muttered, fondly, though the brief smile slid from his face. “Please,” he offered, moving to pull the spartan blanket away from the barren sleeping alcove carved into the wall beside them. Uncomfortably close to the hut's living space, though practical in a way. If you didn't have guests very often, she supposed it wouldn't matter. “It's not much, but it's functional. I have spare sleeping rolls for the rest of us.”
Anakin glared at him half-heartedly, clearly catching on to the fact that neither of the rest of them intended to sleep, that they had things to discuss that he wasn't going to be privy to, but he was too tired to argue. A rare occurrence, in Ahsoka's experience.
“Fine,” he muttered, hunching deeper into his robe, settling stiffly into the alcove without removing his boots or glove. A soldier's way of resting. “Just this once.”
Ben moved away to clear the tea from the sparse table, dishes clattering quietly in the adjacent sink. There were no sonic appliances, apparently, in the depths of the Tatooinian desert. Ahsoka sat for a moment in the sudden stillness, listened to Anakin's breaths evening out into reluctant sleep, watched the shadows grow across the hut's rounded walls. Outside, something howled.
Ben returned, head ducking under the sanded arch leading into the living space, robes whispering against the dusty floor. He sat across from her once more, perched on the edge of the alcove. He glanced down at the now sleeping form of her master. Anakin didn't stir.
“He sleeps better here,” he noted quietly. “He didn't, near the end. He never told me, but I knew.”
“Here the future is the past,” she replied, hunching forward, elbows resting on her aching knees. A hand reached up to massage the bridge of her nose, eyes squeezing shut tiredly for all too brief a moment.
“You're speaking of visions.”
“Yes. Of Padmé.” The lamp threw shadows over his face, almost obscured the miniscule tightening of his eyes. The Force, more settled now that its most beloved disruptor was fast asleep, shifted quietly with muffled grief. “You didn't know.”
“He never said anything.”
Of course not, Ahsoka found herself thinking. How could he have without all of his secrets unravelling? Without then being subject to the Council's judgement? To Obi-Wan's judgement? Ben knew it, too. She could see it in the twist of his face. The quiet stretched on for a moment longer.
“You know his mother died here,” he said finally. “She was killed by Tusken Raiders.” Ahsoka nodded, hesitantly. Remembered, out of the quiet howl of wind and the fragrant dusty air, that long, impossible trek through the desert, all those years ago. He'd never told her, not really. But she'd put the pieces together eventually.
“When she died,” Ben went on, a bit brokenly, “he slaughtered the entire tribe responsible. Every last one of them.” He looked up at her, gaze softening in horrible sympathy. Ahsoka's stomach churned. But she wasn't surprised. Somehow that was worse. “I never knew. I only know now because of an encounter I had a few years ago, with a Tusken from another tribe. He's a legend to them, you see. A boogeyman. A monster in the night.” His eyes grew distant. “He was only a padawan.”
Ahsoka watched, quietly, carefully. Lips pressed together, the air heavy on her shoulders.
Ben's voice was rough and hoarse, but it hadn't lost that familiar edge of Coruscant crispness. Brusque and bleak and worn and sad in the way that only a Jedi could sound, even still. “He had dreamt about her,” he said, barely even looking at her, though she shuddered, eyes stinging against her will at the way destiny had repeated itself, sickeningly. “Dreamt about her dying. They were visions, too, but I didn't – I didn't realize. I often wonder if I had only – ” He fumbled, trailing off. “If I had only done something different.”
“All is as the Force wills it,” she almost whispered, still not quite believing it. For a horrifying moment she thought he might laugh. “Master.” Ben felt wrong on her lips, the same way that Ashla had. Something that was functional but something that would never be right, never be true, no matter how much you wished for it. The past was inescapable. You couldn't just burn it all away. Darth Vader would learn that soon enough. “On Mustafar. Will you tell me what really happened?”
She didn't want the answer, but she needed it.
“The Council sent me to kill him,” Ben said, confirming her suspicions. His voice shook and it was horrible. Ahsoka averted her gaze and focused on the tiny flickering oil light in the corner. Pretended that she couldn't still see the way his eyes shone so terribly in its dim lamplight. His voice cracked. “I failed.”
“You couldn't let go,” she said quietly, settling back against the wall. Like master, like student, she thought briefly, horribly. Wondered if she would be strangled by the same flaw, if she had inherited it like a curse, like a disease. “You couldn't let him go.”
He was quiet for a moment.
“No,” he said. “I couldn't. He was lost to me. He'd killed – hundreds of Jedi, of – of younglings. Hurt the people he loved, betrayed everything he'd ever stood for. But I couldn't kill him. I left him to burn. And then Padmé died, and the Republic fell, and the Jedi died and I came – here.”
She shuddered, despite herself. Didn't ask why because she wasn't sure she wanted to know. Sensed that part of the answer was something she would never be privy to, no matter how she asked, how she threatened.
“Did Padmé know?” she found herself asking instead, voice lowered, as if even the mention of her name would bring her former master from his incongruously peaceful sleep. “Did she know what he – became?”
“She was there.”
“Yes.” Obi-Wan – Ben twisted his shaking hands together for a moment, the movement odd and unlike him, before shoving them into the sleeves of his robe. She settled. He looked more like himself that way. “In fact, it was – it was Padmé that went after him. I snuck aboard her ship. She thought – ”
“She thought she could confront him. Save him,” he said, his rasp of a voice going thinner still.
“Did he kill her?” She had to know. Red filled her vision, phantom heat that she'd never felt, grief hot and thick like a blanket. She didn't think it was possible, didn't think he was capable, but –
The silence went on for too long. She bowed her head, heart sinking.
“He broke her heart,” was all Ben said, finally. An old and calloused hand freed itself from the confines of his sleeve and adjusted one of Anakin's curls, brushed it gently from his forehead. His eyelids flickered, but he didn't wake, breaths deep and even. Sleeping peacefully, even as the past and future met and burned overtop of him. His voice wavered. “But she loved him until the very end.”
Ahsoka closed her eyes.
“You can't tell him,” she said softly. “He has to know what he becomes, but you can't tell him that.”
“He ought to know all that we can tell him,” Ben countered calmly. “He has to understand the stakes.”
“He won't be able to handle it.”
She could feel Ben's eyes on her. “He's strong enough to– ”
“He's already tried to kill himself once,” she snapped, voice still barely a hiss, eyes opening sharply. “Why do you think I had to punch him in the face? And he's obsessed with keeping her alive. They were married. Did you even know?” Something sharp and vindictive sparked in her gut for an awful, fleeting second at the expression on his face. For a moment he looked like he'd been punched in the stomach. Then his eyes closed, forehead crinkling. Resigned.
“I had my suspicions,” he said, voice hoarse, quiet.
“Then you understand,” she said. “If you tell him, I think he'll try again and succeed.”
The oil lamp flickered forlornly.
“You're wondering if I should have let him,” she said tiredly, feeling her vitriol melt away. She'd wondered the same and hated herself for it. The Force – or maybe it was just the chill of the desert air, working its way in under the door – slid its way around her shoulders, cooled the back of her neck. “You're wondering if one of us should do it right now.”
“It's a terrible thing,” he said, voice soft, hand still lingering gently near his former apprentice's face, shadowed and soft in the lamplight. She couldn't see Ben's eyes, but something wet glistened down the weathered side of his face. “But perhaps the Force has provided again the chance to do what I once could not.”
“You couldn't do it now.” Her throat tightened. “I couldn't, either. I don't want to.”
“If you want to save him,” Ben said, silhouette hunched and broken, crumpled in the corner, like something that lurked in the shadows, something barely a man. “If you truly want to save him, that might be the only way. I don't – understand what went wrong, I don't know how I could have helped him, I failed him – ”
His voice quieted, smothered itself.
“I failed him when he fell, and I failed him when I left him to burn. He's more machine now than man, a – a servant to the Emperor, a creature of death, that's no life, that's no mercy – ”
Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ahsoka thought, had been alone with only his thoughts for a very long time. Too long.
“His death is not the answer to this,” she said, gently but firmly. “I don't know why I believe that, but I do. I have to. I think – ” her voice caught. “I think it has to be his choice. I think it's always been that way.”
“It will be.”
Their eyes met. Ahsoka straightened, and didn't back down, even though his gaze was terrible to meet. The fall of the Republic had hurt all of them, she thought distantly, but it had broken him utterly.
But he must have seen some of what the Force was shouting in her ear in the glint of her eyes. He swallowed, once, the near-constant expression of mild and persistent sadness clearing away from his face. His jaw set.
“You truly believe that things can be changed,” he said.
“Why else would all of this be happening?” she asked in return. “I told you. All is as the Force wills it.”
If you say it enough, it will become the truth.
He stood, a bit abruptly, silhouette growing on the wall, wavering with the light. He looked down at her master. Adjusted the blanket around his shoulders carefully, expression unreadable. Ahsoka's skin prickled.
“Then perhaps you're right,” he said quietly, firmly. “I have – I have been here, alone, for a very long time. And I'm so terribly sorry, Ahsoka, that I never sought you out. I know of the rebellion. I know – I know quite a bit about the state of the galaxy, I know that perhaps you've had need of me, but I – ”
His gaze caught on her master's face once more.
“There's someone here who needs me more.”
He threw his hood up over his head and strode towards the door. Ahsoka started, moving to stand –
“Wait, where are you going?”
“I'll be back by morning,” he said, the least feeble she'd heard him in all their time on Tatooine. He met her gaze a final time, eyes twinkling. Something stirred in her chest, familiar and old. For a moment she was a padawan again, out of her depth, missing something, but safe in the knowledge that it would all be taken care of. That was always what Obi-Wan Kenobi had felt like to her, as a child; a warm kind of gentle competence. Reassurance in the form of a human adult. He smiled.
“There's someone I'd like for you to meet.”
hello again! sorry for the long gap - it's that time of year lol, the past couple weeks have been pretty crazy
a bit of a shorter chapter this time, just because I was doing my planning and realized that this thing clocked in at what I thought was going to be 7 chapters and I literally can't even deal with stuff that ends on a prime number (which is?? weird probably? but whatever, we all gotta do what we gotta do to cope with the world lol), so a shorter chapter here, and then two longer ones and that should conclude this nicely (assuming everything all goes to plan which it very easily might not haha)
I'm honestly a bit hesitant to post this, just because I have literally no idea what rebels is going to do with obi-wan this saturday (even though I'm sO HYPE FOR IT HOLY SHIT) and I have a feeling this characterization might not really gel with it all, but I'm just gonna do it anyway and hope for the best. in the old canon material we have of poor obs during this time period he always struck me as just barely hanging on in a lot of ways (his herd of bantha bffs aside), really isolated and kind of a mess, so that's what I went with here
Thank you so much for reading, and for all of your wonderful comments. Please let me know what you think (and any typos you happen to catch - I wasn't kidding when I said the past couple weeks have been a bit crazy, and my brain is definitely still at least 75% mush haha)
have a great weekend everybody!
Tatooine's twins suns brought the dawn with them. Under Ahsoka's determinedly placid gaze they rose, bright and hot, light spilling gradually over the craggy cliffs of the Jundland Wastes, sunlight filtering in through the windows of Ben's hut. Beside her, where she'd eventually taken up a spot on Ben's depressingly uncomfortable bunk, Anakin stirred.
“Do you – do you feel that?” He rubbed his eyes, yawning, barely coherent. “It's like a – a tiny sun.” He used her cross-legged knee as leverage to haul himself into a sitting position, ignoring her muted squawk of protest. Rubbed at his eyes again.
She could feel it, though likely not as strongly as he could. She'd thought it was just the warmth of the dawn at first, but he was right – he usually was, if only ever about this sort of thing.
“I do,” she said. “It might be – Ben said he was bringing over a guest.”
“He left?” Anakin said, disbelieving. “I didn't even notice.”
“You were out cold. Sleep well?”
“Better than I have in years,” he said, as if that statement wasn't legitimately alarming, though his face was set with a grimness that belied the lightness of his words. He hadn't forgotten why they were here. He hadn't forgotten Ben's promise to tell him what had really happened, though for a moment Ahsoka almost wished he had. She needed him to know –
– but she also needed him to be him. He became someone else under the weight of the future. Under the weight of the past and present too, at least when he let it get to him. Someone cold and dark and helpless. The cocky brashness disappeared, replaced with a strained and neutral numbness or a sickening terror. There was no in-between, no middle ground, and she hated it, she hated it, hated the reminder that the man she thought she'd known had likely never existed. Especially when, even after everything, even so close to the edge of what she thought must have been his sanity, his reason, he could still look at her like –
– like that. With such gentleness, with such pride and understanding. With such painfully newfound self-awareness.
“Ahsoka,” he said, frowning with concern at the twist of her lips, the twist in the Force. He followed her as she stood, scrambling delicately off the bunk, his boots hitting the floor after hers in a cloud of sand and dust that caught the early morning light.
“Don't,” she said quietly, turning from him just slightly. “It's okay. It's just – ”
She didn't get to finish. She was almost glad. The door to Ben's hut was swinging open, letting in sand and sunlight, the presence in the Force so bright it almost hurt –
“ – really, Ben, you just had a piece out of alignment, it wasn't any trouble – ”
“You sell yourself short, my young friend,” Ben was saying, eyes crinkled kindly at the much smaller teenager being ushered through the door, hair catching gold in the sun. Ahsoka stepped back, wary, though probably unnecessarily so. “You've travelled quite a ways for such a minor problem. Breakfast is the least I can repay you.”
“Well, I don't know. I need to refuel the land-speeder and Uncle Owen'll want me back before mid – ” The boy stepped into the hut regardless of his verbal reservations, Ben's hand at his back. Stopped and stared at the sight of Ben's two strange, tall visitors. Ahsoka's breath caught in her throat, the background radiation of Anakin's presence, the hum of his thoughts in the back of her mind skidding to an almost comical halt.
“Luke,” Ben said, smiling in that way of his. It was an expression she hadn't seen for a very long time. “These are some old friends of mine, Ahsoka Tano and Ani Naberrie.”
The boy's – Luke's – expression opened, a delighted smile (familiar, something whispered, stabbed her in the gut, she'd seen that grin – or a slightly more wicked version of it, anyway – lit by the glare of passing suns more times than she could count, in her memories, in her dreams) lighting up his face. Anakin loomed beside her, uncertain.
“My friends,” Ben said, weathered hand clasped gently around Luke's shoulder. Ahsoka wondered if the boy had ever caught sight of the tired, hopeful reverence in the older man's gaze. If he would even understand what it meant, if he did. Her breath caught –
Ahsoka had seen it coming from the moment the two of them had walked in the door and she still almost inhaled her own spit.
“A pleasure,” she managed to choke out, throat tight, the knuckles of her right hand whitening around the back of her master's robe, a hand going to the front of his chest as he finally put two and two together. She felt his fingers clamp desperately around her elbow. They must have looked a bit ridiculous, practically clinging to each other for no apparent reason, but she could feel that his knees had given out, his presence in the Force a dizzying flood of white, cold disbelief.
Someone here who needs me more.
Her eyes met Obi-Wan's over Luke's head. How? They twinkled with an amused kind of smugness she hadn't seen in years. Delighted self-satisfaction. She shook her head, minutely, in disbelief. Only Luke – Sith hell, how had Anakin Skywalker managed to produce someone so perceptive and thoughtful? – seemed to notice – or at least care about – her old master's sudden difficulty in keeping his legs underneath him.
“Are – are you alright?” he asked, stepping forward hesitantly. Guileless, Ahsoka thought, amazed, hand still twisted in the back of Anakin's robe. She adjusted her grip. Someone that strong in the Force – as strong and bright as little Leia had been, she thought with a hint of chagrin, before she had taught her to hide it all away – would have been able to pick up the terrifying conflictual roil of Anakin Skywalker's presence from miles away, whether he understood what it was or not, but he either didn't notice or didn't care.
What she could see of Anakin's face in her peripheral vision was bloodless, but after a moment he nodded jerkily, grief like a wound torn open and spilling out into the air, and something lighter, too. Something bigger and brighter. For a second she heard Padmé's voice, soft and echoing, unintelligible, warmth wrapping around her shoulders. Caught the briefest, hazy glimpse of her face, split wide into a delighted grin, eyes glittering. Luke startled, stiffening. Stopped. Stared.
But the moment passed and he shook his head, smiling a bit sheepishly, hair glinting in the hint of morning sun.
“Well, it's nice to meet you,” he said, still sheepish, a little uncertain. Not afraid in the slightest, and not wary the way Anakin so often was, but guarded in a way that felt distinctly Tatooinian, despite the clear fascination in his eyes. “It's not so often we get visitors all the way out here.” The longing in his voice was painfully obvious as well. The desert would never be enough for a Skywalker, she thought, feeling Anakin's heart pound against the palm of her hand, the Force bend and twist with what shouldn't have been.
But Luke's sense of duty outmatched his wanderlust. Trapped, she found herself thinking, not entirely consciously. Just like they were. But maybe not forever.
“I really should go,” he said, voice dripping with reluctance, nodding to them politely before turning towards Ben once more, whose bearded face had returned to an expression of mild, gentle inscrutability. “I'm glad you're not always alone out here, Ben.”
“Not as alone as I thought,” came the reply, typically, frustratingly cryptic, though Luke took it with an ease that suggested he was used to it. “Thank you again for your help. Please, give my regards to your aunt and uncle.”
“I'm not sure they'll want it,” Luke said, smiling. “But it's no trouble, Ben.”
He ducked his head once more in acknowledgement and left the hut with a slightly awkward wave of farewell. The sound of an old land-speeder starting up followed shortly, dust blowing past the window. In the silence that followed Ahsoka's arms finally began to strain with the effort of holding up her and Anakin, and she exhaled sharply as she gave up and let them sink to the ground, legs shaking.
“So you see,” Ben said, quietly. “Even now, all our hope is not lost”.
“Aunt and uncle,” Anakin said, voice tight, fingers still digging uncomfortably into her elbow. He looked to Ben, lost. “Owen Lars? And – and –”
“And Beru,” Ben said, shuffling over to them quietly and settling down beside them. His robes, the hems frayed and dust-covered, spread out around him.
“I barely remember them,” Anakin said faintly.
“They're good people. Hard people, but kind.” Ben paused, meeting Anakin's gaze. “He grew up loved. He knows nothing of greed.” His eyes were shadowed, the line of his lips sharp and pained. Loved by more than just his aunt and uncle, Ahsoka thought, painful and unwanted sympathy crawling up her throat. Protected from afar. “Only dreams.”
Anakin closed his eyes, face twisting in what she thought might be relief, leaning into her unconsciously.
“How?” he breathed finally.
Ben met her eyes, lips thinning almost imperceptibly. Ahsoka tried not to shudder. Inclined her head in reluctant acknowledgement and hoped she wasn't making a mistake.
“When I went to confront you, on Mustafar,” Ben began, slowly. “I didn't – I didn't know where you were.” Anakin opened his eyes, frowning. Ben continued, resigned. Ahsoka felt the Force tense in some kind of grim preparation and resisted the urge to look away. “Padmé did. I stowed away on her ship.”
“Padmé was – Padmé was there?” If there had been any blood left in Anakin's face, there certainly wasn't now. Ahsoka braced herself against the roiling tide of the Force in uproar, the sickening cold mix of terror and indignation that accompanied every new horrific twist of fate that was revealed to them. Took a moment to wish it was still an alarming novelty instead of a frequent and uncomfortable recurrence. At least they weren't in the middle of a hyperspace lane this time. “You – you let her –”
“Anakin.” And wasn't that sharp tone of voice a familiar stab to the gut, to accompany the sick twist of irony that was her master blaming Ben for leading his wife to death at what was arguably his own hands. Bile and fruitless, angry grief rose at the back of her throat, for all of them. “You and I both know that nothing would have stopped her.”
Anakin stilled at that, jaw snapping closed, eyes furious. For once, she thought the fury might be directed more towards himself. She swallowed, thinking. Maybe not only this once.
“But she died,” he whispered. “You said she – you all said that she – how –”
“She did,” Ben confirmed, head bowing. “The – stress of our confrontation caused her to go into early labour. I did my best to find a medical centre, but the galaxy was in uproar. I fear we arrived too late.” His lips drew into a grim line. “She did die. But your children did not die with her.”
Ahsoka wasn't sure how much more of this either of them could take.
“Children?” she demanded, wincing as Anakin's grip on her elbow tightened once more.
Ben looked more tired now, weighed down by the truth. Resigned and a little older than he'd looked the night before. But he was committed now.
“Perhaps it's not for me to say,” he said. “But I think it's long past time for the truth to out. You've already met her.”
Ahsoka ground the palm of her free hand into her forehead, montrals aching. “Leia Organa,” she breathed, ignoring the by now predictable flood of shock in the Force. “Of course.”
“You've lied to them,” Anakin said, breathlessly, fingers digging into her arm, hanging on to coherence by what felt like a tenuous thread.
“From a certain point of view.”
The grip on her elbow disappeared, though Ahsoka kept a firm grasp on the back of Anakin's robes, tensing.
“You separated them.”
“To keep them safe.”
“They grew up alone.”
Ben gazed at the two of them, inscrutable. There was no judgement on his face, or in the Force, though Ahsoka wouldn't have blamed him, could taste the bitter yellow of 'and whose fault is that?' ready on the tip of her tongue. She fought it back, waiting.
“Not forever,” Ben said eventually. “Not for long. Events are converging. I can feel it in the Force.”
Silence, for a beat. The Force twisted.
“They grew up alone because of me,” Anakin said finally, unexpectedly. Against her, he shook. She tensed, ready to intervene, to throw another punch, to do whatever was necessary, but the Force wasn't strung as tightly this time, felt less desperate, less wild. His children had lived, Ahsoka thought, briefly, suddenly. Somehow that had made all the difference. “That wasn't – that shouldn't have happened. It can't happen. We were supposed to be together, be a family. They were supposed to be safe –”
He deflated, head shaking ever so slightly.
“I just wanted her to be safe,” he said. “How could I have – how can I save them? How can I keep this from happening?”
The fate of the galaxy would always come second to the people that Anakin Skywalker cared about. It was a part of him that she was starting to think couldn't be changed. Larger stakes would never compel him to action the way his own family would. She'd been foolish to think otherwise, even for a second. Luke and Leia would be the catalyst for their father's redemption, this time before he'd even done anything. The gratefulness she felt was almost dizzying.
It made her insides feel sticky, turned her stomach, to have thoughts like that. She wasn't the first person who had attempted to use Anakin Skywalker as a tool, who had staked the fate of the galaxy on his manipulation. His choices were and had been his own, but even she couldn't deny that he hadn't carved the path to them all by himself.
But he would understand this, she thought. He was horrified by this galaxy, this history, even though that fact alone hadn't been enough to spark in him what she had needed. He wasn't a bad person. His world was just smaller than hers.
His choices had to be smaller, too, even when their repercussions were almost too large to comprehend.
“I can't tell you how to change things,” Ben said, eyes shadowed, voice strung with what felt like a tenuous, painful hope. “I still don't know exactly what led you to do the things you did. I'm not sure you do, either. But, Anakin. Sometimes,” and his voice became rough, weathered already though it was, tight with some emotion Ahsoka couldn't quite recognize, “in order to hold onto things you have to let them go.”
Anakin's face twisted in her peripheral, though not with anger, though the advice was nothing new, and not, in Ahsoka's opinion, particularly helpful.
“I can't,” he ground out. “Obi-Wan, I can't.”
Ben stood, robes swaying, dust rising and settling. He offered a hand to the both of them.
“Letting go doesn't mean forever,” he said simply. Ahsoka finally let go of her master's robe as they both took hold of his hands and rose to stand beside him. “And accepting a loss doesn't mean not feeling it. It doesn't mean not fearing it. I never taught you that because I never learned it, but I'm sorry for it all the same.”
“I don't know if I can do it.”
“You have very little choice,” Ben said gravely, eyes catching Ahsoka's gaze. He paused, turning toward the door. “Or perhaps you have all the choice in the galaxy.”
“Master –” Anakin started, following Ben out the door of his hut, into the now-blinding sun. Ahsoka followed them, mouth grim, blinking away the glare of the light.
It was time to go.
“Goodbye, my old friend,” Ben said kindly, eyes weary and glad, turning towards them. Ahsoka watched him pull Anakin in for a final embrace and felt something in her throat tighten. “Change something,” he said, the rasp of his voice muffled into her master's neck. “Change anything. You know what lies at stake, now.”
“I will,” Anakin promised, pulling away only reluctantly. “I'll try.” His lips twisted, hair catching in the light. “Obi-Wan, I –”
Ahsoka felt the Force warm around them both, like an embrace, like a whisper. Reassuring.
“We'll see each other again,” Obi-Wan said, hands sliding into the sleeves of his weather-beaten robe. “Of that I have very little doubt. But, Anakin –”
A pause. Sand shifted quietly under her feet. Obi-Wan looked at them both ruefully.
“ – make me listen,” he said finally. “I wanted to help but I never knew how. Never wanted to create problems where they might not have been, never wanted to interfere. But whatever you might think of me – whatever you might have thought – I've only ever wanted the best for you. Make me listen, and I will always try to help you.”
Anakin nodded, eyes shining, face tense. His throat bobbed painfully. Ahsoka clamped a hand around his arm.
“Come on, Skyguy,” she said, not without some reluctance. It was never easy to walk towards your fate, especially when it was as uncertain and likely unpleasant as theirs. Never easy to leave behind what you'd only just found again. But their path lay far from Tatooine, even if their history was steeped in it. Even when the future lay buried in it.
Obi-Wan understood. A smile crinkled his eyes.
“May the Force be with you,” he said.
“And with you,” Ahsoka said, inclining her head. Anakin did the same.
Letting go to hold on, Ahsoka thought, feeling the sun beat at her back, Anakin warm and tall and uncertain at her side. They turned away from the hut.
Baby steps, she thought.
Long time no see! My apologies for the wait - I got the mother of all colds, and then it was exams, and then I was travelling home to work for the summer, and, and, and lol. Life is still pretty busy atm, so I can't make any promises, but the last few bits of this adventure are in the works, and I'm really excited to finish and post them. Thank you so much for waiting and for reading!
As always, please let me know what you thought.
Grains of sand had been rubbing up against the sweaty soles of her feet for what felt like an eternity, and Ahsoka had to suppress a slight shudder as she imagined what a nightmare it was going to be to clean out the ship once they were done with it. It had been a long time since she had bothered to be irritated by something as innocuous as sand, but spending too much time with Anakin tended to have that effect. She wondered, briefly, almost morosely, if Vader ever struggled with it, if it got trapped in his grates, got sucked into whatever it was that breathed for him, but the thought was almost too disturbing to be humorous.
“I have to say,” she said as they approached a bend in the canyon, wind whipping around their heads, already too hot to bear, “I'm not exactly sorry to leave.” They'd walked in companionable silence for a while, but it was starting to unsettle her nerves. It was never a good thing for either of them to be left to stew in their own thoughts for too long.
Anakin tilted his head toward her, scoffing, though his pace through the unforgiving sand didn't slow. “You're telling me.”
“Hey,” she said, a grin pulling at her mouth. “It could have been worse. No baby Hutt this time.”
“Believe me,” he said, good-humoured, though his eyes darkened. “There's been worse times than that.”
Ahsoka hmmed in reply, vaguely unsettled for no good reason, still in better spirits than she probably had any right to be. Their reunion with Obi-Wan had been nothing like she had expected. Leaving him behind was – difficult, there was no question of that, but something about the certainty with which he'd carved out an existence here, the way the Force wrapped around him and Luke told her that his place was on Tatooine. Inevitably. Unquestionably. And underneath that horrible layer of pain and heartbreak and isolation, he'd shown them – optimism. Hope.
He'd always been the sturdiest of all of them, for all it had cost him. And maybe that sturdiness had come across too detached, too cold, when they'd been younger, when they'd been less able to understand, but it was, in a twisted, horrible way, what had enabled him to survive. Ahsoka thought she understood, now. He'd always loved them – the both of them, and others. That he'd never been able to express it in a way that her master could have understood it said more about the position of the Jedi than it did his own personality. She couldn't – couldn't fault either of them, really. Obi-Wan, the Jedi. The past was the past, the truth was the truth, and the truth was that no singular event or error had doomed them all. The truth was that they had been loved. The truth was that it hadn't saved them. Hadn't saved the Jedi, hadn't saved the galaxy, hadn't saved her or her master. Hadn't saved Padmé.
But the feeling in her gut wouldn't leave. Something coiled and bright that insisted it still could.
She had no idea how. She had the sense (and it sparked in her both relief and trepidation in equal measure) that it would fall to Anakin to figure it out.
“Skyguy,” she said, pausing. The heat was so present, so oppressive, it was almost something she could reach out and touch. “Do you ever miss it?”
He stopped alongside her, swiped a hand across his brow. “What?” he asked, forehead furrowing. “Tatooine?”
His jaw jumped. “No,” he said, continuing forward, lying. Or maybe not. The answer was clearly more complicated than that, but she couldn't tell whether he was capable of acknowledging it or not.
“Okay,” she said mildly, content not to press too much further. It didn't – matter, exactly. Or it probably did but so did so many other things and who was she to decide which things exactly would be worth the pain of bringing up? It was just – there was something there, something important in the answer, something about the letting go, the holding on. Something about not living in the past. Something about staying angry but moving on anyway, reconciling the bad parts with the good parts, and –
She was projecting. It was disturbing, that she could so often find her own fears and dilemmas reflected in her master's. Not for years now, of course –
– but the past was continually catching up with them. A reminder, a warning. It shouldn't have been disturbing, really. She and Anakin were similar. They had always been similar, in a lot of ways. It was why they'd been thrown together, after all, perhaps with the misguided hope that they would somehow temper one another instead of encourage the tendencies in them that tended to give Jedi Masters, young and old alike, stress headaches.
They'd struggled with a lot of the same problems, over the years. Grappled with the same issues, been reprimanded for the same flaws, but somehow she'd come out the other end the better for it, though it hurt to admit. Though it didn't always feel that way. That was where their differences lay, she supposed. In their different pasts, in their different futures. She'd never had a Sith Lord for a father-figure, which had probably helped. And for all of their stubbornness, their righteousness, their furious compassion, Ahsoka just didn't love people the way her master did. With that all-encompassing fervour, that – that – possessiveness.
He hadn't learned that from the Jedi, but she didn't think he'd learned it from the Sith, either. Tatooine's suns beat at her back.
Maybe he truly didn't miss it.
The Force whispered at the back of her neck, as they approached a fork in the barely-discernible trail that wound through the canyon. They'd approached Obi-Wan's house from the lower path, though she could see now, with the aid of the Force, oddly cool, that the higher trail would lead them back to the ship faster.
He paused, three footsteps already down the lower path, and looked back at her, eyebrows raised in question.
“This other trail will get us there quicker. Don't you feel it?”
“No,” he said, lying to her again, face brokering no further discussion. “We should go back the way we came.”
“But why didn't we come from this way in the first place?” She crossed her arms in front of her, shifted her weight impatiently. Sweat dripped down the back of her head. “It's just as well-traveled, and there's no recent tracks.”
He gave her a look, one she hadn't seen in at least a decade. It was just as irritating now, though it pulled at her heart in a way that it never had before.
“Look deeper,” he advised. He was still, but his hands kept clenching half-heartedly into anxious fists before uncurling at his side. Nervous. Why? Ahsoka blew air out through her nose (another thing she hadn't done for what felt like years – she still wasn't sure if what he was bringing out in her was her worst, or just her youth) and stretched out, feeling her way along the path, the Force singing to her of the rocks and sand creatures along the way, the occasional precipice, the danger of the heat, but –
“It's cold,” she said, watching him. Obi-Wan's voice whispered at the back of her head, the ghost-like flicker of an oil lamp darting across her vision. Anakin wouldn't meet her eyes. She asked him anyway. “Why?”
He chewed on his bottom lip, considering. Clearly itched to shove his hands into the sleeves of his robe, but it was far, far too hot.
“There was a village of sand people, up along that ridge. A long time ago,” he hedged.
“But not anymore.”
“Where did they go?”
His face was twisting in interesting directions. Ahsoka kept her expression smooth, disgusted with herself, a little bit, but there was something at the back of her neck, some instinct –
“They – they died.”
She'd never been one to ignore her instincts, for better or for worse.
“I want to see it,” she said, bracing herself against the flood of vehement denial that was twisting around her ankles, moving with the shift of sand. There was no wind.
“No, you don't.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No you don't.”
“Yes I do.”
“Well, I don't!”
The sand twisting at her feet dropped back to the ground with a hiss. “Why?” she asked.
His chest heaved in the thickness of the air, knuckles suddenly white. He'd bitten the bottom of his lip so hard it was bleeding.
“Because I killed them,” he said, giving in and slamming his hands into his sleeves, shoulders caving in to a sulking, defensive silhouette that was as familiar as breath. The heat be damned, she thought, but it wasn't very funny.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because they deserved it,” but neither of them believed it because it wasn't enough.
“They were killers,” he told her through gritted teeth, “murderers –”
His voice broke. “I don't – I don't know.” He swallowed gingerly. “No one's ever gotten close enough to ask.”
She stepped closer. “Not them,” she said. Touched a finger to his chest. “You.”
“They took my mother.” She knew already, but he didn't know that. He reached a cautious hand out, to hold hers very gently, eyes dark. “I'm sorry, Snips. I never – never told anyone, except –”
Her face dropped into a scowl. “Him.”
There was that word, though. Took, like a belonging, took, like someone that was yours. Ahsoka understood vengeance, but to hear Obi-Wan speak of what had happened –
It had gone beyond that, in a way that she didn't understand. In a way that Palpatine clearly had.
She sighed, frustrated, and pressed her forehead into his shoulder, eyes squeezing shut. The more she learned about her former master, the less he resembled the person she thought she'd known. Teacher, traitor, friend.
And still, somehow, against all her better judgement, a comfort. His calloused hand reached up to pat the back of her head awkwardly and she bit back tears.
“Do you still want to see it?”
No. “Yes,” she said, sniffing, feeling resignation coil around him and settle around his shoulders, grey and heavy.
She smirked against his shoulder, the tables turned. She supposed she deserved it.
“I don't know,” she said, lifting her head reluctantly. “But if the past few days have taught me anything, it's that it's always better to confront the past than ignore it.”
He looked at her bleakly.
“Sometimes I think the Force takes things a little too literally.”
“I don't know,” she said, jostling him in the arm as they headed up the path, tears firmly swallowed. “If I'd only confronted my past in a vision or something I wouldn't have been able to punch you in the face.”
“Yeah,” he muttered good-naturedly, following behind her. “You and everyone else in the galaxy.”
Well. He wasn't wrong, exactly.
They trudged through the sand in silence, the suns still burning overhead in what was becoming midday. Air that was hot and dry but better than nothing whistled in between them and the rocks as they climbed higher and higher, the steep incline of the canyon increasing as its dark, jagged bottom drew further and further away. Despite this, the back of Ahsoka's neck prickled with cold, subtle at first, but at once biting and unmistakeable as they crested a hill. Stomach now a block of ice, she paused in front of a barren part of the ridge, a plateau of bleak, ruddy rock.
It would have been easy to simply walk past it. Something about it encouraged you to ignore it, the shadows too deep, the wind suddenly non-existent. It was too still. Too cold. There was no sign of any settlement, current or past, but something – lingered. Something cold and slimy.
Anakin's face had turned white as bone.
“Okay,” he said tightly. “Past confronted. Can we leave now? Do you – do you have what you came for?”
“I don't know what I came for,” she said, settling onto the ground with her legs crossed, peering out onto the ridge with a frown. She felt him struggle for a moment, a metaphysical kind of indignant muttering fluttering out into the Force. He settled down beside her with a huff, hands hidden in his sleeves, sand shifting fretfully, agitated.
“I know it isn't easy,” she said, measured against the anxious pounding of his heart. “I'm sorry.”
“Don't be sorry.” It wasn't quite a snap. “I – ”
I never stopped to look back at it.
He trailed off into silence and for a while they stared out at the cluster of rocks and wind-swept sand together, breathing, cold draped over them like a blanket. Almost like a meditation, if meditation was cold and slimy and whitened the knuckles of your hand. But Ahsoka stayed, sat, waiting. So he did too.
“Mom would have liked you,” he said, finally. He breathed out, slow. “And she would have – she would have hated what I did. What I'll – do. But I couldn't – ”
Their voices echoed oddly against the rock. The air hung still and hot, but not enough to banish the trickle of cold at the base of her spine.
“I understand,” she said, and wished she didn't.
She half-expected him to disagree, to insist that there was no way that she possibly could, that the cold-white-brightness that she knew lay coiled in his chest was his and his alone but she sensed nothing. His lowered his eyes, shoulders sinking.
“Then I'm the one who should be sorry,” he said.
“It wasn't your fault.” She shifted, old hurts rearing ugly heads in the back of her mind, in the hollows of her chest. Some were fresher than others. The looming ceiling of the Chamber of Judgement flashed before her, all too brief. Some were ancient. “I mean. Some of it was. But technically you haven't done anything yet.” Hopefully now he never would. The plateau stretched in front of them, barren. She breathed out through her nose, the Force nudging at her insistently. “You know, when I left the Order, I thought I was finished being lied to. I thought – I thought I'd escaped that – that indignity for the last time.” That was what the cold and creeping stillness was reminding her of. Something she'd felt before, from within the shape of her own heart.
“You were hard to find even before the Republic fell,” he reminded her, a surprisingly nuanced voice of reason. “They didn't leave you out to hurt you, Ahsoka.”
“I know,” she said, hands curling into fists, sand slipping in between her knuckles. “Of course I know. But I'm not a child. And I'm not a Jedi. I've been a part of the rebellion for years and years now. I would die for our cause. I trusted Senator Organa, and he – he kept the truth from me. Obi-Wan, I understand, now. He hasn't been in contact with anyone, let alone me, and the secret he's keeping – I understand. Bail and Leia too, of course, but – ”
She turned to him, jaw clenched.
“But the truth about you. About Vader. What if this had never happened? He's hunting me. And I've – I've suspected for a while, but there was no way of confirming anything. If I'd confronted him without confronting you – ” Her fists unclenched. “I could have helped. I would have – would have liked to have known. I've been alone for years. I thought all of you were dead and no one ever thought to tell me otherwise.” Her voice cracked. Stupid, stupid. She wasn't a child. But the sentiment wouldn't leave. It wouldn't have been better but at least it would have been the truth. “Didn't I deserve that much?”
Anakin stared back at her, unreadable.
“You deserve far more than that,” he said finally, brow creasing, scar crinkling with the slight squint of his eye. He turned his gaze back to the plateau. “You deserve far more than – than this.”
Maybe she did, or maybe she didn't. As a child she'd been taught that no being in the galaxy deserved anything. Especially not a Jedi. Entitlement was of the dark side, a harsh, intangible shadow of possession, of greed. Maybe that was why it felt so cold. Maybe that was why feeling it made her feel so – so –
“It's not a crime, Ahsoka. To – to want. To feel like you deserve. No matter what the Jedi say.”
“I'm not a Jedi,” she protested, but he knew. He always knew.
“I mean it,” he said, insistent. “You were wronged. Not for the first time. There's nothing shameful about feeling angry about it. About feeling like you deserved a better hand.”
She wondered if maybe now he was the one who was projecting. His face twisted slightly.
“You should be allowed to feel that,” he said, quietly, backing down a little bit. “You're a good person, Ahsoka. Just – just be careful. Don't lose yourself in it.”
With him sitting right there, the perfect example of exactly what not to do, she was fairly certain she was safe, even though her footing was a bit insecure, even though she could feel the sand slipping underneath her. It was hard to get a grip, on ground like that.
“I was alone,” she swallowed, stomach twisting in knots, “for a very long time. I thought – I thought I'd learned how to be. I thought the galaxy was finished springing horrible things on me, but lately it feels like it just hasn't stopped. I wish they'd told me.” She looked at him, found a grim kind of sympathy in his gaze, felt another piece in the puzzle of Anakin Skywalker slide into place. It was something they had in common, she supposed. She could see, better than he could, the need for nuance in a galaxy like this. The shades of grey. But just because she could understand betrayal like that, could sympathize with that withholding of truth – it didn't mean it didn't still hurt. “But I'll try.”
His smile was more of a grimace, but it was comforting nonetheless. He stood, shoulders relaxing to an almost comical extent as he turned his back to the abandoned village.
“C'mon, Snips,” he said, words almost drowned out by the distant howl of wind. He extended a hand. “Let's get out of here.”
hello again! and again, my sincere apologies for the delay in posting this - life, as always, will out. one more chapter to go!
[also, a side-note/tangent/clarification: do I think that the Order necessarily preached a doctrine of complete 'don't feel a goddamn thing u emotion-having heathens, Love is Bad and Wrong, don't Want things or Love things ever or you're Bad and Wrong too'? Obviously not (and in fact I think that the Jedi Order is often kind of purposefully – or not? – misunderstood or at least misinterpreted in a lot of fanworks) (not that this is a shining example either loll but my point stands), but do I think that a lot of anakin's (and ahsoka's by association) issues stem from a fundamental misinterpretation of Jedi doctrine (that, to be fair, was never properly explained in a way that a former slave with a different life experience than like 99.9% of other Baby Jedi could understand)?? abso-fucking-lutely, if that wasn't super obvious. I feel like in my works that sometimes comes across as deliberate bashing of the Jedi, when in fact it stems more from Anakin's interpretation of the Jedi than what I think they probably were like objectively (though, you know, there's still some things that they fucked up big time on haha), so, it's not?? intentional?? idk, I just thought I'd better throw that out there bc whenever anakin talks about the jedi i get WorriedTM]
Thank you so much for reading, and for sticking with this story - you're all hecka great and I love you. Please let me know what you thought!
thanks for waiting! I guess it's been a while, but I wanted this to be how I pictured. A note that some dialogue is lifted straight from Twilight of the Apprentice - but some is emphatically not ;)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“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.
And there we have it.
Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you enjoyed! Don't hesitate to let me know what you thought! (or alternatively just to flail with me about Ahsoka Tano). This was a bit of an experiment for me, and I really had a blast. And, who knows, maybe some day soon you'll find a sequel floating around here somewhere ...