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And I Will Never Grow So Old Again

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In the ten years since the collapse of the Old Republic, the Jedi Order has been reborn. Not quite the same as the old Order, but the old members - those having survived Order 66 and Operation Knightfall - still hold Council in the highest spire of the Temple building in the very heart of the Republic.

Obi-Wan Kenobi is among them when the news is relayed, a frantic transmission from the very edge of Wild Space. A new threat to the new Republic, this time not from within, but from without. "And you're saying the Vong have intentions on waging war?" he asks, stroking a beard gone gray too early.

"That's what we intercepted," states Quinlan Vos. "And attempts to negotiate have been met with... Heavy resistance."

Obi-Wan frowns deeply. "Well, we still have some Clones fighting fit, the remnants of the droid army," he says, though the implications weigh heavy. "For defensive purposes." He doesn't want to start another war, he doesn't want to see the galaxy torn asunder twice in his lifetime.

Beside him, the sound of a clearing throat. "We need Skywalker," proclaims Mace Windu, prosthetic hand gleaming in the waning sunlight, scarred visage pulled into a perpetual scowl.

Obi-Wan blanches, feels like his heart will drop out of his chest. "Anakin?" he asks, voice rising an octave in his shock. "Master Windu, you know Anakin is..."

"A brilliant strategist," Windu cuts him off. "A peerless warrior, the most powerful among us. You know as well as I do, Obi-Wan, that he is the best chance we have of gaining the upper hand."

 

And that's how Obi-Wan Kenobi finds himself heading to Naboo, to Varykino, and memories he'd hoped would stay buried.

 

-----

 

He hasn't been to Varykino in over ten years, and only ever visited for a very brief time. He doesn't remember it being so... overgrown. Still, given the circumstances he supposes he understands. With growing apprehension, he approaches the manor, reaching out in the Force to a bond that hasn't existed in ten years, strengthening his resolve not to turn back. The Council had been adamant and if eleven of the Twelve were in agreement, even after everything that had happened, everything that had been done... Obi-Wan has stopped trying to understand the mysteries of the Force, the why of things. It has brought him some modicum of peace, but being here, pushing open the creaking main door, stepping into a darkened receiving room, fills him with emotions he can't possibly begin to name.

With his hand hovering near his lightsaber, Obi-Wan takes in the room. Dark, though it's daylight out - the windows have been covered. It's clean, free of dust or grime, but there's a distinctive smell of decay, and Obi-Wan is struck with a sudden inclination that he's not here to find a man, he's here to find a body. Still, he calls out, "Anakin?" His voice echoes; the house seems empty.

 As he's about to venture further, the sound of whirring servo drivers makes him whirl around. To his surprise (or perhaps not, perhaps he should he expected it), C-3PO is shuffling towards him. At least, Obi-Wan thinks it's Padmé's fussy protocol 'droid; his normally gleaming gold coverings are worn and rusty, his joints tight, one photoreceptor gone dim. Obi-Wan again feels a pang of fear of what he might find - the Anakin he knew would never let a 'droid get into such a state of disrepair. Then again, the Anakin he knew has been gone for a very, very long time. "Is that... Oh! Oh dear, oh, Master Kenobi, you simply can't be here!" Threepio sputters, still somehow able to look flustered even without delineated facial expressions.

Obi-Wan tucks his arms into the sleeves of his robe, self-comforting, familiar. "I'm here to see Anakin," he says, and it's not a request. He'll get confirmation of what he's coming to suspect, or he will convince Anakin to come with him; there is no other option. "Would you tell him I'm here, please? And that I mean no harm." That's an important addition, meaning no harm. It wasn't the case the last time they saw each other.

Threepio mutters to himself for a moment, but after some deliberation seems to decide that Obi-Wan is not a threat, motioning with one stiff, worn arm for Obi-Wan to follow. The darkness permeates the inner depths of the house as well, and Obi-Wan now sees that the window shades have been bolted shut, keeping out any natural light. There's no artificial light either, not yet, not that he can see. Like the entrance hall, the house is spotlessly clean but with an under layer of rot, a neglected estate succumbing back to nature.

The first sign of life he sees is a dim light coming from a half-open doorway, then a strange rasping hiss, like a respirator or rebreather. "Anakin?" He steps through the door, trying to prepare himself for the worst. Instead he sees Anakin, slipping a breathing mask off his face, standing to face him. The room is obviously where Anakin is spending the bulk of his time; unlike the rest of the house, this room is lived-in; a Holonet receiver, clothing, light, some food remains. The breathing apparatus. And, scattered across a table, dozens of vials of bright cilona extract. "Oh, Anakin." He's not sure what's worse: what he was expecting, or what he sees before him.

"Out," Anakin growls, unsteady, voice hoarse from disuse. "Get out." He doesn't look much different than that horrible day; thinner, hair long and tangled, unwashed, track marks on his flesh arm and hand, what's exposed of his neck. Obi-Wan stays where he is, taking it in, making his plan. Even just a quick glance at this room has given him a wealth of knowledge about what the past ten years have been like for Anakin, locked away from the rest of the galaxy with no company but a rusty droid and his own guilt. "Are you kriffing DEAF?" Anakin snaps.

Obi-Wan sighs, tucking his arms back into his sleeves, a gesture he hopes Anakin recognizes as one of peace. "We need your help," he says. He's wary, unspeakably uncomfortable, standing here, seeing what has become of the man who was once his friend. Even if the evidence of suffering and pain wasn't all around him, his last enduring memory of this man is of staring him down on the fiery shores of Mustafar, looking into eyes that had lost all traces of humanity. Those eyes are back to Anakin, now, but Obi-Wan still has to restrain himself from putting his hand on his weapon.  

Anakin stares at him, then frowns. "Help with what?" he asks, "because if it's murdering innocent people, you've come to the right place." He plucks a vial of the cilona extract from the table and twirls it around in his fingers. "If it's for anything else, I think you'll find I'm fairly useless."

Of course, the bond has gone dim for a reason, and the reason is all around them. "Why?" he asks. The thought of the most powerful Force user in living memory reduced to a shaking shell, regardless of what he'd done, makes Obi-Wan feel sick. Worse, the thought of his FRIEND like this... It's almost too much. Still, Anakin was dangerous, last time they'd seen one another. A well-practiced sleeper hold had been all that stood between him and certain death at the hands of the man he'd once called brother.

"Why do you think?" Anakin retorts, preparing the injection. "I'm not coming back with you," he adds, glancing up from behind a curtain of hair. "This is a trick, you're just going to execute me." He chuckles, humorlessly. "Took you long enough." He straightens his arm, pressing the syringe into the pale flesh, and then Obi-Wan sees the scar, wrist to elbow, crudely healed.

Obi-Wan rubs a hand over his beard, dull, heavy pain settling in his chest. Whoever Anakin may have once been, whoever he may have become, the person standing in front of him is someone else entirely. "If you were going to be tried for your crimes, we would have done so years ago," he points out. There had been talk of it, of course, and heated debate, but when Darth Vader did not reappear after the death of Sidious, it was decided to leave well enough alone. Obi-Wan is deeply regretting that now.

Shrugging, Anakin pulls the syringe from his arm, letting a trickle of blood sluice down the scar. Obi-Wan swallows bile. "Like I said," he murmurs, eyes dulling, starting to shake, "I'm not much help to anybody anymore." He smirks. "This stuff causes hallucinations, you know." Obi-Wan knows. "How do I know you're even really here?"

"I'm assuming if you ever did hallucinate me, it wouldn't be me asking for your help, would it?" Obi-Wan counters. He knows enough about how Anakin's mind works - how it used to work, anyway - to know that anything he does now is tainted by guilt and shame, resentment and the madness that comes from extended isolation.

A peculiar expression crosses Anakin's face. "You'd be surprised," he replies, leaning heavily against the table, blinking rapidly as the death sticks take hold. "You usually don't show up. She does. The children." Anakin's dead (murdered) wife, the twins lost with her. Obi-Wan isn't sure why he's surprised by that. "I'm not happy there, but at least I'm with her, and at least I'm getting..." He takes a deep breath and lets it out in a rush. "Once they're all gone, they won't protect me anymore and I can go. And for now it's... better like this. It's quiet."

He's losing coherence and Obi-Wan's heart aches. "Anakin, let me help YOU first," he suggests. There isn't much time; the Vong are fast-approaching but Anakin is right - he won't be able to do anything like this. Besides, despite the betrayal, despite the hard truth that Anakin made his own terrible choices and people died because of it, Obi-Wan still loves him. Has never stopped, even in his anger at him, so hard to work through over the years.

Anakin shakes his head, making his way back to the chair that seems to be where he spends the bulk of his time. "It'll be soon," he says, gesturing to the breathing mask. "Getting harder to heal. Getting harder to..." He trails off and stares into the middle distance, reliving a lifetime that never happened.

 

-----

 

Obi-Wan waits it out, and spends the next few hours of Anakin's isolating high meditating on what he's learned. The Force gives him no answers; it's as though the void around Anakin had seeped into the Force itself, leeching from the very universe. When Anakin comes back to himself, the Force is still muted - a decade of hard cilona usage means the Force-dampening quality won't diminish immediately after an individual dose wears off. Obi-Wan wonders how many years Anakin has purposely taken off his life; they're called death sticks for a reason. It occurs to him that the answer doesn't matter to Anakin the same way it matters to Obi-Wan; that Anakin has no concern for how long he might live yet beyond an obvious desire to not do so any longer than strictly necessary.

Anakin looks confused when he sees Obi-Wan still there, still watching him. "I thought I told you to get out," he says, but the vitriol is gone. In its place is a dull acceptance, a terrible apathy, and Obi-Wan wonders if there really is anything to be gained by him being here. Still, in his meditations he had resolved to help Anakin, even if it means Anakin doesn't come back with him, even if it means they must find a new champion.

"You did," Obi-Wan replies, rising from his position on the floor and making his way to Anakin's chair. He very slowly reaches out and brushes Anakin's hair back. The younger man flinches violently and Obi-Wan realizes that this must be the first human contact Anakin has had in ten years. "I'm not going to hurt you," he assures him. "I'm going to help you." He's afraid Anakin is beyond help, but he gave up on him once - he won't do it again.

Anakin snorts in wry amusement. "What makes you think I'm going to let you?" he challenges, but there is no strength behind the words. "But I suppose you aren't going to leave on your own."

Obi-Wan shakes his head. "No," he agrees, moving so that he's sitting across from Anakin, hands braced against his knees. Anakin scowls half-heartedly, but makes no move to kick him out yet. "Let me tell you why, at least," he suggests. "And then you can decide." He's not really going to give Anakin the choice, but he needs Anakin to understand, so that maybe he can make the choice on his own instead.

As Obi-Wan speaks, telling him about the threat of the Vong, the brutality of the attacks, the timeline for invasion, Anakin seats the oxygen mask over his face again, sucking in deep, rasping breaths.  When Obi-Wan is finally finished, Anakin remains silent but for the hiss of the respirator. After what seems like an eternity, he pushes the mask off and runs a hand through his tangled hair. "Fine," he says, softly. "But on one condition."

Obi-Wan nods; he had expected a bigger fight on it, hadn't expected to have agreement so quickly. "Whatever you request," he replies, holding out his hands in supplication.

"When it's all over," Anakin says, "you'll help me die."

Breath leaves him, and Obi-Wan very nearly gets up and walks away without another word. The impulse is there, trembling along his nerves, urging him to leave this place, this stranger, and never come back. "Why?" he rasps, but he doesn't need to ask. He doesn't need Anakin to explain himself because he has seen what Anakin has done, and what he has let himself become in the wake of it. Self-protection, misery, guilt.

"I don't want to hurt anyone else," Anakin replies, very softly. "I'm assuming your grand plan involves me having access to the Force again." He glances around, cagily, at the vials, effectively changing the subject - but also confirming his reasoning. "It's been a long time." Almost a lifetime. Almost half as long as he'd been able to bend it to his will. Obi-Wan has no illusions about how difficult it will be, but they don't have much time, and Anakin - according to the Council - is their last hope. He can only try and get Anakin to change his mind by the time it's all over.

He bows his head. "We start today."

 

-----

 

The first thing Obi-Wan does is clear the house of the cilona extract. He knows it will be putting Anakin into hard withdrawal almost immediately, but they don't have time to taper dosages and wait for the Force to come back in spurts. "When it happens, it will happen fast," he cautions. They're in the 'fresher - Padmé's, which Anakin has admitted he hasn't set foot in since arriving. Venturing into what he deems 'her' parts of the house has resulted in an emotional and physical response Obi-Wan hadn't quite prepared for, but is willing to work through. Anakin is leaning over the toilet, vomiting into the basin, sweat soaking through his ragged clothing while Obi-Wan rubs his back. It's familiar, that back, that fall of hair, the feeling of Anakin's body beneath his fingers.

"I know," Anakin gasps out, spitting bile. "Hope you're ready for that." He almost sounds like himself again in that moment, more playful than Obi-Wan expected, but the undercurrent of self-loathing is impossible to set aside.

Obi-Wan nods, using his own connection to the Force to start a bath running. He has no idea how long it's been since Anakin last took care of himself in this way - his hair is filthy, nearly parting into dreadlocks now that Obi-Wan has had time to really look at him. He smells of stale body odor and illness, and getting him clean will be a massive improvement all on its own. "I can wait outside if you'd prefer," he offers. The Anakin he'd once known hadn't held onto any illusions of modesty, but this Anakin has been alone for a long time. Obi-Wan is already forcing him outside of his normal comfort zones, he won't push on this one if he doesn't have to.

Anakin shakes his head, flushing the toilet as he stands from his crouched position on the floor, reaching up to slide his torn, stained tunic over his head. Obi-Wan realizes too, sadly, that Anakin's right arm is in about the same condition as Threepio - that will need to be rectified once they're back on Coruscant - and his left is covered in abscesses from the poorly-sanitized injections. "Stay," he implores.

Obi-Wan feels a flood of unexpected relief at the request. "Of course," he says, watching Anakin strip out of the rest of his clothing. The physical changes are obvious now, the weight loss drastic, muscle tone eaten away. He knows they plan to primarily use Anakin as a strategist against the Vong, and now he realizes they'll need to keep it that way - he won't have time to get Anakin back into the same fighting condition he'd been in during the war.

Letting out a slight gasp as he touches the water for the first time, Anakin eventually slips under the surface of the water, a light floral fragrance from the healing salts Obi-Wan had poured into the tub filling the air. "How long has it been?" Obi-Wan asks.

Anakin frowns slightly, dragging his hands back and forth through the water. "I don't remember," he admits. He shivers, tugging at a long strand of tangled hair. "How long am I supposed to feel like this?" he asks, plaintive. 

"I don't know," Obi-Wan admits. He has no idea how long standard withdrawal from cilona lasts, has no idea when the midichlorians he has been poisoning for ten years will regain their ability to channel the Force, but he hopes it's soon. Besides getting Anakin clean, getting him sober, getting him able to face reality for long stretches of time, he's going to need to help him re-acclimate to the awesome power he used to wield as easily as breathing. Though given the respirator, breathing doesn't seem to come very easily anymore either. 

Obi-Wan takes a bottle of shampoo from the side of the tub - it's old, but it will have to do - and gently squeezes a handful onto Anakin's filthy hair, working it through the strands, rubbing softly against his temples and nape of his neck. Anakin stiffens at first, the unexpected contact putting him on edge, but he soon relaxes against the side of the tub, letting Obi-Wan work at the tangles and snarls, the matted mess of hair. The suds turn nearly black, and Obi-Wan uses the hand-held shower nozzles to rinse it out, only to lather it up once more. By the time he's done, most of the tangles have been worked out - the rest can be tackled with a comb and some patience - and Anakin has tears running down his cheeks. "I'm sorry," Obi-Wan says. "I didn't mean to hurt you." Not now, not ever.

Anakin shakes his head. "It's not that," he says. "I just... never thought I'd see you again." He shivers, wraps his arms around himself. "But you're here and you're real and you aren't angry." He sucks in a rattling breath. "You deserve to be angry, you should be, but you're not." He sounds like a child, like he needs to break the universe down into simple terms for himself.

Because Obi-Wan's feelings are so much more complex. Truthfully, he is angry. Not just at what Anakin did, those years ago, in the pursuit of power and in the name of a man who turned out to be the embodiment of pure evil. No, not just for that, but for what he has allowed himself to become in the meanwhile. He's glad that Anakin seems to have given up the Dark, but he has given up everything else as well. That bothers him more than he'd expected it to, seeing his once vibrant friend nothing but a hollow shell of his own design. "I'm not angry," he says, because he's not sure what else to say.

 

-----

 

Anakin hasn't been outside in ten years. Obi-Wan is able to find a pair of blast goggles, the lenses dark to prevent retinal damage, and hands them over as he guides Anakin out onto the veranda, into fresh air that couldn't be more foreign to the young man. "You see?" he says, putting a supporting hand on Anakin's back, "there's life out here." Birds are singing, the sun is shining, reflecting off the lake beyond the house. A gentle breeze sends the scent of windflowers over them.

Anakin starts coughing, leaning over, one hand over his mouth and the other pressed against his chest, until Obi-Wan hands him the breathing mask. It takes less time to get his spasming lungs back under control this time, and he eventually straightens. "We got married here," he says. "Right here." His voice is trembling, but he doesn't immediately turn to head back inside. Progress.

Obi-Wan nods, rubbing Anakin's shoulder gently. "It's all right to miss her," he says, and doesn't mention that the reason she's gone is because of his actions. There's no point in rehashing it, forcing Anakin to relive it. "But you can't let your grief rule your life." He already has, and that's the root of the problem, but there is progress day by day. They don't have much more time before they need to return to Coruscant, but Obi-Wan is determined to strip away as much of this new Anakin as possible, get as close to the man he once was as he can.

Anakin seems to consider this, bracing himself against the railing, frowning out at the lake. The change, as Obi-Wan had warned, comes suddenly. A burst of light within the Force, an explosion of energy, a familiar burning presence, and Anakin is suddenly on his knees, retching onto the carved stone of the veranda's floor. Obi-Wan nearly does the same, the intensity overwhelming. Instead, he keeps a hand on Anakin's back, centering him and grounding him so he has something to cling to as the Force makes itself known in waves and unending waves. Anakin screams in agony.

Instinctively, it seems, Anakin reaches out to Obi-Wan within the swirling maelstrom of the Force, clinging tightly as though he will otherwise be swept away. Obi-Wan grabs hold and keeps him anchored, sinking down and wrapping physical arms around him as well. "It's okay," he says in Anakin's ear. "Just hold onto me. It will pass. It will pass."

Anakin sobs, clutching at Obi-Wan's arms. "It HURTS!" he cries, moaning, tears flowing freely now. Obi-Wan does his best to channel the pain, to lessen the heat, but this is something Anakin needs to get through. And eventually the initial horror passes, and eventually Anakin is able to move from his curled position on the ground, and eventually he can test out his restored power by floating a handful of small pebbles above the surface of the water, letting them splash down as his control falters. "I don't remember how," he murmurs.

Obi-Wan grasps his hand. "I'll teach you."

 

-----

 

Anakin rejects his offer of flying the ship back to Coruscant. Obi-Wan supposes he's not surprised, but he still can't help but feel a sting of disappointment. They've made progress; Anakin's control has improved, his ability to see ahead several seconds into the future restored. That will give them the edge they need over the Vong - though at several junctures Obi-Wan had very nearly forgotten the whole reason for this ordeal. The worst of the cilona withdrawal is over, he's able to be out in sunlight without the blast goggles for longer and longer periods of time.

He still wants to die, still reminds Obi-Wan of the bargain Obi-Wan never tacitly agreed to. "I'll help you, and you'll help me," he says, every day, as they train. Still, each day feels closer to how things used to be and Obi-Wan needs to keep the hope that Anakin will realize his true place is - has been, always will be - at Obi-Wan's side, not on a funeral pyre. 

"I'm still not entirely convinced this isn't a trap," Anakin comments as he settles into the co-pilot's seat. It's a model of shuttle he should be familiar with, one they'd taken on countless missions during the war. He looks at it as though seeing it for the first time. "But," he adds, looking up with an expression that nearly erases the past ten years, "you know we have a policy on traps."

He remembers. Obi-Wan tries not to make his relief obvious, but he's getting closer to who Anakin used to be and every off-handed, cheeky comment is just one more step in the right direction. "That we do, my friend. That we do."

 

-----

 

Obi-Wan had expected their return to the Temple would be painful. He hadn't been prepared for the intensity of it, hadn't been prepared to watch Anakin relive the horrors that he had wrought upon this sacred place, the echoes of betrayal and devastation still reverberating in the walls. "Please," Anakin gasps, clutching at Obi-Wan's tunic in the Great Hall, in the shadow of one of the statues that has only recently been repaired from the damage wrought on it during the siege on the Temple, the lightsaber marks on it filled in, stood back up from where it had been toppled by a furious former Jedi. "My... The cilona... Just a little, I can't do this, it's too much, too much, take me back Obi-Wan, please!"

Obi-Wan embraces him, sends soothing pulses through their tentatively re-established bond. "Shh, no Anakin, you can get through this," he comforts. "You're so much stronger than you give yourself credit for." It used to be that Anakin gave himself far too much credit. Obi-Wan would give anything to have those days back, that cocky confidence, that charismatic drive. He sees glimpses of it still, but it has mostly been buried so deep there's no chance of recovering it fully, just rebuilding it atop the ruins.

They wait for Anakin to calm down, for the memories to shuffle back under the rock where he'd shoved them so many years ago, for his breathing to even out (the portable respirator helps in that regard), before they head up to the Council chambers.

Anakin is trembling by the time they arrive, and Obi-Wan can hear him mentally begging to turn back, to pretend none of this ever happened. But then the doors slide open and Anakin is once again face to face with the very beings he once proclaimed to be enemies. Obi-Wan feels a flash of anger - they're all staring at Anakin as though he's a wild animal, as though he's going to lash out any moment. There's a certain truth to it - Anakin has allowed himself to become almost feral in his years away, but he's wounded, scared, would rather run than fight, now. They don't know that - not yet - but they get a glimpse of it when Anakin makes unintentional eye contact with Mace Windu and vomits.

 

------

 

They have another two days before battle, spent running drills, organizing the clones, the droids, the ships. Anakin finally seems like he's comfortable, even giving orders - tentatively at first and then with increasing confidence and verve. He pours over the battle plans and star charts, makes suggestions, demands more aggression in their defense. Through it all Obi-Wan remains a hair's breadth away from him, making sure he's as well as can be expected, that he's not burning himself out.

Then, it comes. The warning sirens wail, and everyone starts to run to their battle stations. Obi-Wan grabs Anakin by the arm before they head up the ramp to the Resolute. "Will you be okay?" he asks.

Anakin grins at him, and it's very nearly like old times. "This is what I was born for," he proclaims. Obi-Wan almost believes him.

 

-----

 

The battle is long, arduous, the losses catastrophic. Still, the Republic scores a victory, the Vong unable to counter Anakin's tactics, his brutal efficiency. It's terrifying, the glimmer of Vader, the inexhaustible energy that comes from being fueled by the Force. It's over now; all that's left is the cleanup.

Obi-Wan knocks on the door of Anakin's room - the one that had once been his, the one in the apartment they'd shared for half of Anakin's life. The room beyond the door is quiet, and Obi-Wan supposes it's too much to ask for Anakin to be sleeping. He lets himself in and sits beside Anakin on the bed. "When did you take it?" he asks softly.

Anakin blinks bleary eyes at him. "Just a couple minutes ago," he replies. "I didn't want to leave without saying goodbye." The serum from the Healers will counter the midichlorian response to heal his body, and will allow him to slip painlessly into death.

Obi-Wan entwines his fingers through Anakin's. "I honestly thought you'd change your mind," he says, and pulls Anakin into his lap, stroking his hair back, squeezing his hand. "I thought you'd decide to stay."

Anakin shakes his head, reaches up a hand to rub Obi-Wan's cheek. "You know I couldn't," he says. "I'm too much of a danger. You saw me out there - what's the difference between that, and anything else I've done? It would be too easy to lose control again." He sighs, breath rattling in his chest. "Besides, this is the least I deserve." For all the Jedi he's slaughtered, for his wife and unborn children, for the brief, horrible days of pure destruction and rage.

Despite himself, Obi-Wan feels his eyes fill with tears. "You never deserved any of it," he replies, though he'd come to terms years ago with Anakin's choices and the repercussions of them. "I will miss you greatly, my friend."

Anakin's eyes drift closed, his free hand fisted in Obi-Wan's robes. "I love you," he sighs out, then sags, then goes limp in Obi-Wan's arms.

Obi-Wan sits there for a long, long time, mourning a man he's lost too many times already. "I love you too, Anakin," he says, then activates his comm to let the Council know that it's all over. The galaxy is safe, from the Vong, and from Anakin Skywalker.

 

-the end-