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Seven Years Ago

Then; time moved over him as if he were submerged underwater. Distorted and fractured. Anakin didn’t keep track of things. Sometimes he was ordered to do something. He couldn’t remember what. Sometimes he did things. Sometimes he didn’t. Neither bore any consequence he could recognize.

The Force rusted over him; oxidized air on exposed iron. Made him slow. Made him warped. Made him want to curl into the dark obliviousness of sleep and forget. Break down in a forgotten junkyard to be left useless and alone.

His body hurt. He ignored it. His mind clawed deep hooks into him. He ignored it. Occasionally, someone stood over him. Put a hand on him. Force something down his throat. Pricked him with needles. Beeping…

He ignored it.

***

Beep.

Anakin didn’t respond to the call. He may as well be filled with lead and ore for how heavy he felt.

Beeeeep beep bepp.

Darkness folded in on him. Pushing further and further down. Apathy coated his thoughts. Made resistance seem so useless.

Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeech.

Light! Bright light, harsh enough to punch through his miasma. He jerked and instinctively pushed away, shoving a cylinder body back. That was...that was Artoo. Anakin knew Artoo.

Didn’t he? Oh, it didn’t matter. Any effort built up in his retreat from the light died in the shadows of his mind.

“Urgh--go away,” he hissed. Rolled over. Pulled a pillow over his head to block out the spotlight Artoo shone on his face. Fell back into the still-sinking hole that welcomed him so readily. Things became muffled; concerns were lesser. It wasn’t his problem, to think anymore. All he had to do was stay here until someone came and got him. That’s how things worked.

An extension arm, battered and worn, latched onto his upper arm. A great whirl of fans and wheels. Momentum, where there had been none previously. In a series of lurches and fits, Artoo dragged Anakin from the bed and its smothering embrace. He had no energy to fight the pull.

So he didn’t. He collapsed on the floor, slumped against the side of the bed. Made no move to get up. Sleeping there was just the same as sleeping on a mattress. His brain just wanted to stop working; floating into oblivion seemed like his best--his only--option.

Smack! A body made of metal and electricity rammed into him. Threw him sideways to sprawl across the floor. Rolled over his awkwardly bent limbs with aggressive and malicious intent.

What!” he lashed out. The pain sparked his temper, frying and hair-triggered. “What the fuck do you want?!”

Artoo screamed and rammed him again. He recoiled, curling in on himself. And got a blast of slick coolant in his face for his troubles. He yelped at it stung his eyes and coated his tongue in chemicals.

Sputtering, he glared at the droid through the mess. “You damned scrap-pile!”

Another blast of coolant over his irritated skin. Artoo came into focus through the slime--scuffs and dings scraped across the metal casing. A couple of scorch marks, too. More than a few breakers had been blown. Artoo was running on a limp mix of auxiliary power and patchwork repairs. When the little droid pivoted, a wheel squeaked unhappily.

“What the hell happened to you?” Anakin asked, side-tracked.

Sreeeeeeeeeep!

His wrist was encircled by a stubborn extension arm. Artoo half-herded, half-dragged him across the room. Didn’t bother letting him get to his feet--he scrambled across the floor on his knees to keep up.

Artoo’s connector plugged into a nearby computer. A monitor was shoved in his face, and a calendar opened up before him. The screen light hurt his eyes; the information was blurry. He wiped coolant off his face before it could drip into his mouth again. Concentrated on it through the fuzzy stifling of his thoughts. Tried to focus on what he was seeing.

“What’s this?”

Beeeeeeeeeep wirll wheeeirl.

He squinted. Tried deciphering what the little droid was telling him. “You’ve been what, tracking me?”

Whhhhirl whirl beeeeep bep. Scccrreeeech whril beep beep beep beeeeeeeeep.

“Eight months...What do you mean eight months? No--I...she...we were at the hospital last week….”

Artoo highlighted data points on the calendar from the last week in bright green. Walked Anakin through the information one degree at a time. Each metric was proof of his movements backed up with time-stamps, comm link locations, and even the occasional holovideo. According to Artoo, he had barely left the room.

He stared at the calendar, uncomprehending. But he could have sworn…

He noticed another point Artoo had been tracking. One he had never gone near. He poked at it, opening up the data point for more information. Froze, when evidence of his life flashed over the screen.

“What nursery?”

Beeeepp.

His thoughts stuttered. Tangled. Anakin froze. “Twins? No, they would have told me.” Oil collected around the edges of his thoughts.

He got another blast to the face--water this time. As he coughed it up, Artoo prodded him to his feet. Led him out the door, an extension arm clamped onto his wrist like a leash. He trailed along behind like a tamed little pet. His muscles ached at the light workout. When was the last time he moved?

A hallway, stark and low-lit. Noise was muffled. The windows he passed revealed it was dark outside. A door opened. A staff of unformed nurses all froze at the sight of him.

“Darth Vader!”

Anakin stared at them, emotionless. Stunned. Uncomprehending.

Artoo hadn’t lied--it was indeed a nursery. Two cribs. Two changing tables. Two rocking chairs. A wall stuffed full of vacant-eyed dolls and pristine stuffed animals symmetrically on display. The walls were decorated in saccharine pinks and flamboyant blues. The floor was rugged in a cheerful bubble of fake animals playing across an open field.

Happy. Happy. Happy. Distracting. Don’t look closer whispered a voice behind Anakin’s ear.

Something unholy hung over the room in a haze of emotion. A possessive and ugly hand at work, ever gripping on the life brought up here. Blanketed the space with an oppressive, watchful power. Anakin’s teeth set on edge. His instincts rose at the threat.

The nurse with the most authority nervously stepped forward. Swallowed hard. “You--you don’t have the authorization to be here, sir.”

Deep in him, a beast stirred. Woke up. Cracked an eye open. Cleared fire and smoke from a groggy throat. “And why is that? They’re my children, aren’t they?”

In the gaping, awkward, terrified silence, the nursing staff withered like dried leaves cast off from the branch under his ferocious aura. They were no use to him. He pushed them aside with a careless, impulsive flick of his fingers--the Force responded like an overeager tauntaun finally allowed off the leash. As one, the whole of the nursing staff were flung into the closet, the door slammed shut after them. He could hear their protests through the wall.

Quiet! he demanded of the Force. Abruptly, the voices were little more than flies, buzzing away in the background. Better. Easier to think, without them pushing in on him…

Better yet...

Anakin’s body moved without much thought as he harvested killing intent. Considered the closet and the irritating buzzing. Easiest if he just got rid of the problem. Silence the thing bringing him discomfort and distress. It’d be so easy...and that’s what the Force had made him for, wasn’t it? To make things easier.

Craving--a greedy, insatiable, throbbing want--sat heavy in his mouth. Itched his fingertips. It’d feel so good to use that power for something...productive. He leaned in.

Circuits shrieked. Artoo’s wires sparked with electricity. The extension arm, still clasped on his wrist, became a shock stick. Pain brought him back, sure as the dawn. He jumped, wincing as the current raced through him. His flesh arm was numb and overcharged. His thoughts were harsh and hacking in the swift return to reality.

“What was that for?” he demanded. His thoughts were slow to clear. He had needed to do something important. Something...something he shouldn’t be doing. Something that left guilty and sundered marks in his inner workings. His memory of the last few minutes was fuzzy and uncoordinated.

What had he been doing?

A reedy cry rose up from the closest crib.

The disturbance that was Anakin’s internal workings ignited in a ball of gas and smoke. Burned down in a moment of disbelief and awe. Exploded and took all kinds of ruinous downfall with it. In an instant, a rearrangement happened, and nothing was left of his old life but a field of ash and soot and charred soil.

Planted in that rich, newly cleared field were the seeds of something new. Something stronger than wanton and tangible impulse he could ever cultivate on his own. It was the kind of cultivation that overtook oil and rust, turning them into fodder for roots to break up. Everything that made up Anakin shifted on its foundations with that cry.

He was being called. Summoned by something so engrained he couldn’t begin to fight it. Breath caught in his throat. Knees wobbled as they moved without the agreement of the rest of his weight. Like a thread connected to his heart, that cry reeled him in.

Artoo released his wrist with a cautious beep. Ushered him across the room with one firm lens on the closet—another on the clock. His feet, bare from sleep and cold from the durasteel floor, pressed into the thick rug.

The baby in the blue crib whined again. Grabby hands waved in searching circles. Anakin stumbled forward. Grasped the side of the crib. Looked down. The little one blinked at him. Cried out. Called: “Da!”

He thought he had felt the world stop before. There was nothing like the absolute and loving terror he experienced standing over his...his child. Padmé’s child, well and whole before him. Smiling. At him.

The sky was on fire.

The little one kicked out. Hands waved in vigorous arches. “Da!” Again, more demanding this time.

Anakin was in motion in one fell swoop. He scrambled to pick up his son, hands running on autopilot while his mind refused to do more than gawk. Trembling, he overcompensated with the Force for support. To make sure he didn’t mishandle or drop the little one.

His son cooed and fussed, wriggling to get comfortable in his arms. It was the best sound in the galaxy. Oh, his big blue eyes were full and bright with life. Blue eyes he had inherited from...from Anakin.

Anakin’s eyes had once been that shade of blue. Years and years ago. Lifetimes ago.

His heart broke in a renting of pain and dread and reverence. That was how he knew it was still there.

“Oh, shhh, shhh,” he muttered, low. Instinctually, he hefted his son into the crook of his elbow, close to his chest. Giggles ensued. Tiny hands grasped at his grimy clothes. His son babbled into his shoulder.

Anakin was crying. Great, gasping sobs as he curled around his child. He had no thoughts, only reactions. Only raw and brutally intense connections. He felt crests of love and devotion spilling out, threatening to run down a new bond that ran like molten ore through him into his child. He tried desperately to rein himself in, to keep the impurities of sorrow and grief out of the forging.

A soft cry rose from the other crib. He gasped, falling over himself to get to it while still keeping his son close. Keened when he saw his little girl blinking sleepily up at him from her mattress. She hummed. Gnawed on her finger as she kicked out. She had no fear of him, darkening eyes filled with a happy recognition.

He picked her up as well; it wasn’t even a question of why. Only that he needed to hold her close and feel her little heart against him. Needed to finish a half-started connection that came with laying eyes, true and clear eyes, on her for the first time. Holding her for the first time. Copper thread and golden conduits connected them; like complex operating systems speaking to each other in their own code.

He had enough of his sense back, enough of himself back, to tap into the Force. To see them with new eyes and check their connection to the living universe. He peeked at them there, to see if they were sensitive to the energy around them.

And was instantly blinded. Bright! They were bright. So strong! When the spots cleared from his eyes, he checked again. A pair of little suns, the both of them. Tiny now, but with room to expand. To grow. To become all-encompassing and brilliant. They were his children as well as Padmé’s--and they had all his strength.

He juggled both tiny bodies close. They clung to him without regard to easy handling, threatening to overbalance them all. Babbled, excited to see him. So he did the simple thing. Folding his body down, he sat cross-legged on the floor. Reclined until he was flat on his back on the sickly colorful rug. The twins twittered and gurgled, thrilled to tangle around one another across his chest. Their auras were content bubbles in the Force; they were happy to be in his arms. He wrapped his arms around them both and just...held them.

Panicked, frantic, he looked around the room wildly.

“They know me,” he whispered. Artoo beeped an affirmative. “How do they know me? I haven’t…”

The little droid, the herd guide of their scarce family, tilted a lens towards the wall. Before Anakin’s eyes, a series of projections played out. Him laughing and talking off-side. Another; his and Padmé’s wedding. Another; an up-close recording of him while he patched Artoo.

His son giggled as he watched the light dance. His daughter sighed, content. Neither of them seemed surprised by the display. Apt attention came through these new, new, bonds, so raw and tender. They had come to expect shows like this.

“You’ve been telling them about me?” he asked, amazed. His son shifted. Settled into a comfortable drift. His daughter idly gnawed on his clothes. They felt safe around him. Like they knew he would watch them while they slept.

The tears kept falling. They washed oil and rust clear. Seeded new life and desires in his mind.

Beep beep beep.

Anakin’s hands were taken, so he dragged Artoo close with the Force. Pushed his forehead into the side plating that desperately needed repair. His eyes hurt; his face stung. His internal parts twisted. Surrounded by his little family, his reality shifted out of the depths of floating detachment and dissociation and into the realm of devout commitment. He would do anything to keep this feeling; this beautiful stabilization that stuck him genuine and devastating.

Slowly, dragging and kicking and screaming every step of the way, his mind pulled itself back together. Stitched and patched itself in ragged lines. Reoriented around the new connections he had to nurture.

Beep beep siiirrrrl.

“What?”

Beeeep siirrrl beep.

“We have to go? Now?” he asked, plaintive. The twins were asleep on his chest. He ran hands over their tiny heads of hair. Artoo responded with a mournful affirmative. The little droid seemed to be working on a timetable of sorts. Anakin glanced at the clock on the wall.

He had been on the floor, cuddling his family, for over an hour. He shook his head, disbelieving; his perception of time was still shaky. Anguish welled up, hot and motivating. He may not know what was going on but damned if he would be kept from them anymore.

Beep beep beep.

“Stop fussing--I’m getting up.”

He returned his children to their cribs. Tucked them in. Cried some more as they whined and complained when he took his hands away. Kissed their foreheads. Whispered impulsive promises to them. Burned their little faces into his memory. Just in case.

Then he straightened. Anger came easy to deal with other things.

He opened the closet door. The nursing staff came tumbling out. Anakin tucked away the faces of his children and searched for an old, familiar, nasty place. These people had been keeping his children from him. Fury danced along his fingertips.

Reaching out with the Force, he pulled the head nurse out of the pile by the throat. “What have you been calling them?” he growled.

“M-Mowsâ and Otroria,” the nurse stuttered out.

Anakin snarled; his blood spiked. Padmé had picked out their names: Luke and Leia. He was almost sure he remembered that. Not those damnable patrician names. “You said I wasn’t authorized to be here? Disregard that. I’ll come here any time I like. You will tell no one of my visits. If you do, I’ll have your tongue.”

The head nurse gurgled an assent. Anakin released blood and bone and retreated, his mind buzzing. Artoo was right; he couldn’t stay here. He had been slipped in under a blind spot in the monitoring. Someone didn’t want him here. Didn’t want him near his children. He had to go before he was found.

He strode into the hall with what little energy he had. Artoo rattling along beside him. The poor droid desperately needed a good, extensive service and repair. He promised himself he’d do it as soon as they got back to his room.

When he was far enough away to be undetectable to the nursing staff, he collapsed against the wall. His body shook, protesting like it hated him for moving. For leaving his family again.

“Tell me not to go back in there and take them with me,” he gasped to Artoo.

Beeeep swhirrrrp sccreeeeech.

“Yeah, I’m not in the best of shape right now, am I? Where are we?”

Beeeeep bop whhirrll.

“Betaphor?” he had no idea where Betaphor was. Artoo projected a map onto the wall until he had a basic grasp of their position in the galaxy. A planet in the uncharted zone, not far from Exogol.

“When was the last time I took a shower?” he asked. The droid consulted the calendar: a week and a half. That explained how rank he smelt.

“And ate?” he was almost afraid to ask—Artoo’s answer: four days ago.

Oh, no wonder he ached. “I’m hungry,” he realized. Artoo showed him to a supply room. A quick scourge brought up ration bars and water. He chomped down on the bland bricks as he was guided back to his room.

A medical droid awaited them, meeting Artoo, trading quiet greetings like old friends. He struggled to follow their conversation. His brain, the oil-soaked rag it was, could simply absorb no more. Around the edges of his consciousness, a fire raged. If he flung himself in the wrong direction, he’d go up like a bonfire.

The medical droid performed a quick diagnostics check on him. Anakin submitted to being prodded with only minor scolding from Artoo while he scarfed down the next ration. While the results were compiled, he went to the ‘fresher. As he stripped, he found a ring of dark, purple-green bruises around his neck. Over his torso. At his wrists and ankles.

He pressed two fingers into the ones at his neck. Searched out their intentions. Domination and control leeched back at him, simmering against his skin. Demands for compliance and silence. He pulled away, snarling. Someone had thought a collar would make him obey.

Dooku, most like. That Count was only a step or two away from treating him like a wild animal. Anakin inhaled another ration bar to keep himself from hunting the damnable man down and tossing him into a trash compactor.

Since he was there, he showered down and scrubbed sweat and grime off his skin. Thought of the faces of his children--of Luke and Leia, his babies, eight months, how had he already missed eight months of their little lives?--when his dread rose up against his throat and threatened to choke him. Their vivid expressions blocked out any attempt of rage to overtake and consume him as it so often did. They were bright lights in his sore mind, unrestricted and growing strong. If he stretched himself, he could see the long, stark shadows they cast. Was this what he was to others when they looked at him in the Force?

Padmé had been pregnant. He had been so excited. So wondrous. Had carried a flimsy of their sonogram around in his pocket for months. He and Padmé had argued about their names. About where they should be born and how they should celebrate. He had daydreamed about taking them out flying for the first time. How had he forgotten all that?

What else had he forgotten?

Anakin slunk out of the shower and shook himself off.

The medical droid showed him the results of his physical without prompting when he came back. Malnourished, dehydrated, with a few half-healing wounds he didn’t recognize. He grunted around a toothbrush. The droid could fix the superficial damage quick enough. What disturbed him were the traces of broken bones, fractures that he couldn’t remember earning. What kind of action had he seen?

His missing memory was becoming more and more hazardous with every new reveal.

When he turned away with a mutter of thanks, the medical droid didn’t leave. Droids don’t shuffle or show nerves like humanoids; when they expressed discomfort, they hummed. And this 2-1B unit was cranking along like a motor. He spat out a mouthful of toothpaste in the ‘fresher sink and eyed the situation with new apprehension. A wavering note of droidspeak, too fast for him to catch.

Artoo turned back to him to deliver a translation. Open me up.

He cleared his thoughts and his throat with a rush of water from the supply room bottle. “What?”

Open me up, the medical droid repeated through Artoo. Access my data logs.

He paused. Unsure of what to say next. What was happening? He half-suspected himself of causing influence; some subtly or distress he had pumped out into the Force without noticing? His sense of self was a wreck. “Why?”

Because they are relevant to you, was the medical droid’s explanation.

He blinked. Tilted his head. Studied the droid. “You’re a 2-1B unit. Your data logs are protected by the highest grade of encryption possible. If I go for them, there’s no putting you back together. I’ll have to pull your hard drive. This isn’t just being wiped--this is being scrapped.”

The medical droid tittered. Looked at Artoo. They spoke again, too fast for his sluggish mind to keep up with. Artoo had definitely been slowing down when communicating with him. His comprehension skills were in the gutter.

Artoo beeped. It sounded like a question. The medical droid responded, firm.

The medical droid’s internal cavity popped open. He jumped back, startled by the noise and the movement. Yelped, “What?” A clapper hand reached into the depths of wire and gear—a great screech. Metal ripped as the processor chip was torn out of its socket. Life-functions were cut off with an abrupt end. The medical droid fell limp across the workbench. Lifeless. Completely scrapped.

Anakin’s eyes boggled out of his skull.

Artoo let out a long, mournful shrill; a recognition of the martyred droid and a goodbye call.

Clarity was a sharp and brutal break; a green branch snapped in two. The edges of his vision, once fuzzy and clouded, wretched into ugly focus. The abruptness of the droid’s action stunned him. There had been no time to stop it--if the Force had given him a warning, he hadn’t caught it.

He rubbed his forehead with a shaking hand. He had to...had to do something. He had to--had to act. Acknowledge. Honor. There was a sacrifice in the Force. It had to be treated as such. He couldn’t not follow the droid’s wishes.

Next to the droid was the deconstructor. Anakin picked it up. Got to work. Dug for the secrets the droid had died to show him. He had to crawl up on the workbench to get the leverage he needed. He worked in silence, mourning the loss of life within the circuitry with quiet efficiency. The Force slipped into his fingers, splitting the metal casing as he dove.

When the droid’s harddrive was hooked up to a spare monitor, he searched for his name in the patient files. He didn’t find it.

He did find Padmé’s. His eyes flickered down to the husk of the medical droid.

“Artoo--did you know why they did this?”

Beep beep beep.

Artoo had to repeat the idea a few times for him to fully understand all the nuances: the 2-1B droid had defied parameters.

Medical droids were programmed to go to any and all measures necessary to save a life. Messy complications like ethics, bribes, or threats were useless. Nothing mattered beyond keeping vital signs in the patient.

He watched Padmé’s heartbeat across the screen. Strong. Healthy. Stressed from the physical toll of birth, but nothing the 2-1B registered as concerning. No signs of trauma or warning. Nothing.

Then, something had been introduced into the droid’s operating system. Something the poor unit had no recognition of or control over. It overtook all relevant functions. Forced the unit to retreat. Shut off warning alarms.

Abruptly, Padmè’s body went into shock. Broken off with no warning. No alarms, no alerts. Her body had not failed her. Someone else had.

An idea, instantly taking root and becoming a core belief, blossomed in him. He didn’t need any more evidence—he had enough to know. Someone had reached into her. Suppressed her until she couldn’t fight the downward fall to death. Smothered her until she stopped fighting.

This droid had been ordered to stand aside when Padmé died. Been forced to defy parameters. He checked the droid’s code--and found a corrupted line replicating at breakneck speed, ruining the whole matrix. The poor droid had likely been functioning on the little processor power isolated from the spread of the virus. Another week, maybe two, and total system failure would have been achieved.

In the depths of his shocked despair, Anakin suddenly thought of his mother. Of her withering away. Of the lung rot that seemingly came to life after years of remission. Of the suspicion and paranoia that touched Anakin as he cried at her bedside. Of the hateful, revolted boil of emotions he felt towards Dooku and Sidious. The absolute certainty of which he became convinced they had killed her.

It had happened again. He had known the possibility, the history, what had happened to Shmi, and convinced himself that Padmé had been safe enough, far enough away, well-known enough, that the dark elements of the Force wielded by his Master could not touch her. How wrong he had been. They had waited for the perfect moment to strike. The perfect moment Anakin wouldn’t have suspected anything. At the perfect moment, he was wrecked and unbalanced and not thinking.

He sat back atop his workbench, gaping as the weight of understanding smashed into him.He had failed his wife, his partner, his savior. How had he not seen this coming? Not protected her? Tears were hot on his face. Nausea quaked through him, threatening to bring up everything he had just eaten.

Under the shock, fury warmed his bones. The beast within him turned, searching out new targets. He thought of the nursery, with its cheerful colors and false smiling creatures. Of being told he didn’t have the authorization to see his own children. The assumption of ownership that touched everything he had encountered upon waking up.

Residuals of oil scrapped disgustingly across his thoughts. The Force vibrated in disturbing waves. There had been nothing kind or loving about what he had encountered.

He scrambled for Artoo’s calendar, flashing through it. He couldn’t remember what he had been doing. Try as he might, the last months were a blur in his memory. A battle, maybe? He thought he could taste blood in his mouth. Last week. Yesterday...

Time had never felt so uncertain.

Eight months...the proprietary attachment hanging over their room, monitoring them at inappropriate intervals. The same sick possessiveness he felt in the remnants of his bruises. The same ugly domination that Padmé had been trying to work him free of.

His Master has always been a subtle touch. Suggesting and suppressing, instead of the outright oppression Dooku favored.

Anakin thought he had been shaking off the vile creature’s control, with Padmé’s guiding help. Only now, he realized, it wasn’t shaking off. All his rebellion, all his plans of escape, had been a preoccupation waved before him to distract him. To pacify him. He had been allowed to wander and explore. But hadn’t ever been left off the leash. He never had a chance to get away; only the hope of it that kept him going without too much hassle.

That deep well of certainty continued to grow in Anakin--he connected the data points through speculation and circumstance, but that didn’t make the path any less real for him. In fact, the harder it was to justify, the easier he found belief. Darth Sidious had never lost track of him, Anakin was now certain. Had never lost control of him. He had sent Dooku to collect him...and his children.

His children. Who already shined in the Force.

Your mother made you too impulsive, Dooku had told him, years ago. If only we had gotten to you sooner--you may have had time to correct that.

Anakin had wrecked an entire battalion of droids over that comment. Grinned like a hellion when Dooku’s face turned white with fury. He hadn’t thought about it much past that, the revelation of destruction and the joy of inconvenience.

Here was the chance to correct their mistake. His children, taken from their parents at their birth. Raised from the start by Sidious. No outside influences to muddle things. Nothing to distract or derail them.

His Master wanted to turn his children into monsters. The realization dawned blistering and chilled. The Force pulled into him, affirming his greatest fears. Ice cold horror, a crawling field consuming all his limbs and life, gripped him. He shook, gasping for breath through the frost that coated his throat.

Padmé wasn’t here. She couldn’t help him. This was him...all him. He had to do something. Something right now! He was their father; he had to do something. Couldn’t let this manipulation go on without fighting it. But...but what?

Panic made him dizzy. He hyperventilated, his chest aching in the rapid building stress piling on him.

His first instinct was to run--now. Grab the twins from their cribs, kill anyone between them and the exit. Hop on the first transport he could find. Pray Artoo could keep up. He’d make it--he was strong enough. If Dooku thought he could keep him here, they’d finally find out who would win in a knock-down, drag-out fight between them.

Everything hurt so much—the bruises on his skin. The exhaustion of eight months lost. Grief and fear and absolute, unceasing rage. The unbridled concern and worry he harbored not for himself but for the little members of his family, so close to him yet so far from reach.

His experiences collided, collapsing into him. Melded and mixed. Reacted. His vision went white. His head tipped back.

In the conflict, divine clarity took hold. The Force, blue-hot lightning that burned in him, took away the ice of paralyzing life, purifying any nonessential from his spirit. All that existed was him; his emotions, his experiences. He gave them over, put his pain and his fear on display.

The Force opened like a great maw, taking it all and then some. In that moment, lost and angry and adrift, he turned towards that power without expectation.

Help me, he pleaded.

Vibrations passed into his bones as, crushed and overwhelming, it answered.

Think, child of mine. Padmé Amidala gave you a gift of knowledge and cunning. Use it.

Anakin didn’t have time to feel surprised or shocked at the certainty of the voice. Fire exploded in him, burning up his chest, down his legs, through his fingertips. Power flooded through him, tainting the white of his vision into a kaleidoscope of color and pattern. Chased away the last traces of oil and grime on his mind. Water, cold and deep and cleansing, rushed through him. Eased him. Brought fresh and streaming life into him.

It wasn’t just his life on the line but the tiny lives Padmé created; their children.

He came to on his workbench, gasping and dry-heaving with an overflow of energy. Shook through the aftermath of his brush with the unadulterated Force and the new life it pushed into him. Embraced all the chaotic emotion, putting it forth into angry action.

“Artoo,” he called. His eyes were wide and vacant as new ideas, new escape plans formed. What would Padmé do? That was the question he had to answer now. “I need your help.”

The little droid, the herd guide to their small flock of a family, beeped once. Determined. Ready. Prepared. Anakin hoped he would be, too.

***

Now; Anakin awoke to a headful of bells. Their peals rammed through his skull. He felt achy and uncomfortable. Irritating spikes of pain and shock buzzed under his skin. Raked him with every shift of his weight. Made him ginger-footed and wary. Left him irate and defensive at nothing.

Padme’s journal fell off his chest, dropped there when he fell asleep. In it, she expounded on duty and the burden of service. He struggled with this one, his thoughts drifting into a place of fatigue and inattention while he tried to parse out her ideas. He didn’t think he’d ever read it all the way through; he preferred her impassioned, thunderous speeches on morality or her free-writing on intimacy and vulnerability. Those read like poetry.

Obi-Wan had gone back to this journal multiple times during his stay at the farmhouse. Had flipped through it in quiet moments. Had added small notes in the margins where he thought she had made a compelling point. So, Anakin had tried again to crack the dense subject, wanting to find what had drawn the Jedi to Padmé’s thoughts.

So far, no luck.

He set the journal on his nightstand next to her photograph. His wrists felt too cold, too exposed. He had lost the band of power Obi-Wan had put on him when the man left. Air moved over them, a grating sensation that often reminded him that he no longer had Obi-Wan close enough to touch. To rely on. To see him and be seen in turn.

The realization of his loneliness made him resentful, captured in suspension alongside his groggy, tired annoyance. He didn’t want to wake up alone. Didn’t want to face this rotten mood alone. He loved two people so much--how could they both not be here? Why were things being taken from him?

He balefully looked around the room, half an eye open for a target for his bad mood. Some way to excise his frustration and irritation. If he let it grow untended, Ahsoka and the twins would pick up on it. Mirror it. By the afternoon, the whole house would be one lit match away from a raging bonfire of an emotional meltdown.

His first instinct was to go downstairs, raid the kitchen cabinets, and smash every plate he got his hands on. Revel in the destruction and the outlet for his annoyance. He wanted to ruin something beyond the point of repair, just to prove that he could. Prove that he was still a terrible and pernicious force in the galaxy.

Grumbling, he drew himself out of bed like liquid sludge. Dripped into a set of comfortable clothes. Trucked downstairs. While the kaf machine percolated, he tapped an incessant finger on Artoo’s dome until the little droid activated.

“I want to go burn the forest down,” he said, only half-joking. “Wanna help?”

Beep beep.

“But it’d be so much fun,” he whined.

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.

Anakin rolled his eyes, denied. “Fine. I’m going to go sit outside for a bit. Listen for the kiddos?”

Beep.

The things he did to be responsible. This had better be worth it, rulebreaker, he snipped, sending the message randomly out into the Force. Not much chance of it reaching him, but it didn’t stop Anakin from trying.

A cup of kaf in hand, he sat down on the lawn, heedless of the wet and the morning cold. Reluctantly, dragging his control back from the edge of gluttonous places, he concentrated on his breath, pulling all his attention into his lungs as they expanded and contracted. Cradled the warm mug, breathing in the steam, breathing out tension.

He hated this kind of meditation. So much. It was mind-numbing and irritating, always difficult to achieve anything of worth through it.

But sometimes...he reached. Further and further each time. If he was lucky. If everything was right. If he could boost himself enough, he could find the right page and the right word. The right combination that would lead him to Obi-Wan. To a shared place where they could reconnect and reestablish all the delicate ties that distance destroyed.

Anakin desperately needed to see him. To know his magister was still well. Was still infuriating and loving. Was still a grounding he so achingly lacked right now. He needed help settling this upending rolling through him, uprooting any semblance of rational thought.

Only sometimes, things didn’t work the way they were supposed to. Sometimes, no matter how hard he reached or how far he searched, he couldn’t find those traces of Obi-Wan in the waves of the galaxy. Couldn’t hone in on him, in the intense light of the living universe. The Temple of his helped, but only when Obi-Wan was in it.

Anakin’s skin itched; the inside of his elbows, the backs of his knees, the nape of his neck. His breath wouldn’t even out. His skull throbbed, his headache returning with a wicked vengeance. And all of that discomfort earned him nothing. No peace. No Obi-Wan.

He bled frustration. Climbed to his feet. Paced around. The steps of Redalur overtook him. He danced through the first set, searching for the easy comfort of movement and support. For the peace he once found in this form.

It didn’t work; there was no Werda to work against. No support to trust. All that came was a buzzing, rising sensation under his tongue, running the wrong way over his palms. His chest hurt; his heart beat off-time. Anxiety fed into paranoia as he looked around mindlessly, searching out the danger like he could pinpoint it.

Unadulted panic made him fearful. Something wasn’t right. Something wasn’t right. He didn’t know what was wrong, but something wasn’t right.

Oh, he had to do something. Anything to peel off this horrible feeling. He thought and discarded options by the minute. Eat? He wasn’t hungry. Fix something in the house? That didn’t quell his nerves. Masturbate? That’d just make him think of Obi-Wan.

Anakin racked his fingers down his face. Urgh!

He returned to the house. Changed his clothes. Put a hand on Artoo’s domed head.

“I’m going running,” he whispered. His voice was full of gravel and agitation. “Watch things for me, yeah?”

Beep.

Red and blue lights danced across Artoo’s sensors in sympathy and concern. He tapped a quick beat across the little droid’s casing.

“Thanks. I’ll come right back. I promise.”

When he said those words, he tied them into Artoo’s wires and circuits. Into his family; the gremlins upstairs, and Ahsoka, just starting to move around in her morning. Into Padmé’s photographs. The noise of Leia’s windchimes. In Luke’s rough technical drawings. The memory of him and Obi-Wan on the living room floor. Anakin embedded his words into each of them, awaking an anchoring power. Something to bring him back, if he went too far.

The Force worked in a give and take. Words: a promise for surety. Belief: Anakin gave this temporary place, his shelter, and in return was granted temporary freedom from himself. Faith: he would go, and he would return.

The house would pull him back if he strayed into dark places. If whatever bit at him drove him too deep, too relentless. He wove a strand of himself into glass and wood and experience, a thread to follow back.

And then he left.

He ran without thought. Didn’t pick a path or plan a distance--he just went. Pushed himself until his lungs ached in his rib cage, and his legs burned.

He was close to the mountain; climbing rock formations fought it out with the indigenous trees. Streams of rainwater ran down a wall of earth, a trickle too weak to be a waterfall and too constant to be surface runoff—a gentle river, flowing through the cracks and crevasses of the rockface.

Anakin cupped a hand against it. Diverted a stream of water pool in both hands. Drank down his collection in messy splashes. Cupped his hands again and splashed that handful over his face and hair. He was exhausted, breathless. He couldn’t move. Root, his instincts said. So he did; braced his palms against the rock, exerted force against that sound barrier. The escarpment was slick and sharp, sturdy under his skin.

Stilled, he became a target for the Force to hammer upon. Bubbling fear boiled over, swamped by uncertainty, and a desperate desire to understand something that wouldn’t unfold under his eyes. Intense sensations bore down on Anakin. This place...something about this place.

“Something’s not right,” he gasped, wrangling words from his emotions. The Force always responded better when he could give it specifics. “Tell me. You’ve gotta tell me--what’s wrong?”

The Force hung. Waiting. The edge wavered, so close to tipping over. It wanted something from him. Needed something from him.

He swayed under warring impulses. The ground under his feet swallowed him. The stone under his fingers danced with colors brought out from the water: deep reds, silver strands, shiny black ore.

Sharp. Waiting. It wasn’t the knife; it was the edge that made the knife, the tool that sacrifice spoke through.

“Oh. That’s what you want,” Anakin whispered. The Force pushed closer, crowding up against him. Pressed along his back and breathing in his space like an overeager lover, urging him on. Anticipating. Waiting. Would Anakin give it what it wanted?

Always. He didn’t think; he acted.

He racked his open hands down the rock wall, the sharp, wet rock eating up the flesh of one hand, the connections and wires of another, opening them up. Pain, brilliant and intense, shocked him, numbing his arms and sending his mind spiraling. Blood and grease mingled with rainwater. The rock drank it all.

The Force rushed in, circulating through his veins like fire. His physical pain became a pinpoint for it to work through. To connect with him, finding avenues into him. The living universe clamped down, taking his wounds as an offering. Accepting his sacrifice. Flooding him with lightning power in return.

Hands came onto him; raced energy down his back. His spine arched. Curled points of pressure into his hair. His head was tipped back. Water traveled through the cycle of the Force, through the ground, into rivers, rose to the sky, rained onto him. Anointed his brow, rolled down his throat, ran in rivets over his heart. Mingled with his blood and the wet earth. The overwhelming petrichor took hold.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

Anakin gave the only thing he had to offer; himself. His flaws and his fears. His wonders, his strengths. His uncertainty and awe. Love and greed; loneliness and devotion. He felt it all; threw them down on the altar his pain created.

The Force drew him close. Kissed him sweet. He opened under that loving, overpowering touch. Gave himself up. There was no fighting this. He accepted the pain and the pleasure with nothing but a panting whine.

You let him touch you like this.

I did. I loved it.

You let him touch us like this.

I did.

And we loved it, also. Thank you, child of mine.

There was something definite and sad in the words rattling around in his skull. Terms flavored with hesitance and concern.

Then came the power.

Rain stopped in silver streaks.

Thunderclaps halted mid-explosion.

Lightning struck down.

Anakin’s eyes rolled back into his head. His stomach dropped out. The vision slapped him in the face like a durasteel beam. Putting him out and down into the ground.

Anakin looked up. Before him, Obi-Wan bled across the floor. His far-away, vacant expression bore no pain. Nor did it carry any sign of coherency or life. None of the teasing, infuriating articulations Anakin thought he wore so well. No emotion, no spirit. Those blue eyes were dead and cold, the man who lit them up tucked deep into his own subconscious, away from the painful pressure bearing down on him.

Heavy vellum pages flipped under Anakin’s frantic scrambling. He searched for anything--any word or image that told him Obi-Wan was well. That the dead expression he saw wasn’t mirrored in their bond. That he hadn’t already lost his magister after just finding him.

Anything that told him this wasn’t real. That this was just another in a long line of visions, set in a distant future he could influence and change.

Dooku stood over Obi-Wan’s prone body (them--Anakin couldn’t leave him alone. Not now. Not now!). The Count’s towering presence was no less intimidating after so long away from him. Those sharp, jaded sneers, those cruel hands. That intelligent, violent intent.

Oil dripped off him, slow and seeping. Blotting out words and works. Anakin scrambled to save the pages of his mind from ruin. Every touch, every nudge, added another layer of contamination. Another layer of destruction.

“What are you hiding from me?”

Obi-Wan remained unresponsive and prone. Neither defending himself nor protesting his captivity. All but brain dead. He couldn’t see Dooku.

He couldn’t see Anakin. His rulebreaker couldn’t see him.

Anakin grabbed for him, frantic. No matter how far he stretched, how he twisted himself, he couldn’t reach. Violent possession, the kind he hadn’t felt since he ran from Betaphor, came hammering down like the blows of a giant.

“The defenses you concoct, little bird. The problem with so many walls means so much to lay waste to. Do you think you’ll survive, crushed under them, when I reduce them to rubble? Buy yourself some ease in your distress. Tell me what you and Vader have gotten up to.”

Obi-Wan said nothing. Gave away nothing. Anakin cried as he tried to reach him, struggling through eons of space to get at him.

“I’ll find out soon, anyway, little bird. Save your mind; give me what I want to know. What have you been teaching Vader? What should I expect when we arrive on Nevos?”

No--no--no--no!

The Force threw Anakin head-first out of the vision and into the sopping forest floor. Decaying growth bit into his bleeding palms. Fury and destruction flooded him. Turned his veins to molten lava. Boiled the endless sea and brought forth waves of rage.

Vibrations--concern, worry, fear, panic, panic, panic--shuddered down his skin. Given an outlet, a source of power that could take it, he sat up. Lashed out. Became vicious. Turned on the one target that he could reach. Spit forth vitriol: “What is this?” he hissed, demanding answers from the Force.

There was no response. The forest continued on as if it hadn’t heard him.

“What is this!” he screamed into the canopy. The roar ripped at his vocal cords and shredded his words into brutal, bloody syllables.

Silence.

He paced back and forth, unbridled fury bubbling up. The combination of fear, of disbelief, of--of--of oh! Anakin’s heart twisted, stung his chest, made breathing impossible. He couldn’t see, couldn’t move, couldn’t think.

Obi-Wan. They had Obi-Wan. They--Dooku, his Mas-Darth Sidious. His enemies. His tormentors. His nightmares and his monsters.

“How could you? How could you!”

It didn’t matter that the Force had no physical form. Anakin could feel it--the attention and the presence. The pressure along his skin. It had been with him a lifetime; he could identify it blind and drunk.

And now it watched him. He drew from a deep and long well of rage. Unleashed words driven by his frantic panic. “You stupid, selfish glutton! Couldn’t you have been happy with what I gave you!”

The chaos in him gained speed and power. He felt it building, exploding further and further. Expounding. Thundering in his ears, drowning out his rationale. His control. His restraint. He spat out words like fire, rushing to destroy everything.

“This storm--this storm is the kind that can burn the air, and singe the lungs. The once-in-a-lifetime, destroy everything in its path kind of storm. The storm you brewed in me. Stirred up and let loose in me. You ruined me!”

The Force said nothing. For one of the few times in his life, it stayed silent in the face of his rage. He snarled at its cowardly withdrawal, his voice ripping through soundwaves. “I broke free--I broke free, and I found a new life--a good life! I’ve raised two children; I’ve saved another from slavery. I’ve aided a member of an Order I’ve sworn to despise! I’ve loved him! I’ve given you my heart and my love and labor! Have I displeased you, you ravenous beast? Have I done so wrong by you?! Are you so enamored with pain and heartbreak that you can want nothing else from me!” he screamed into the dawn.

Nothing. Anakin only grew angrier.

“You take! You demand and take and leave nothing but ruin in your wake! My mother, Padmé, Obi-Wan! Who next? Who in this galaxy will you grant me then rip from me? I’ve taken my heart, still beating, out of my chest so many times for you! And for what?!”

He swayed, exhausted as the words bled out of him. “For what? For more pain? For more loss? No--no more. I’m done. Not again. Not again! You don’t get to toy with me anymore! You don’t,” panic and fear flooded him, writing over any sense he thought to find. “You don’t get them! No more of my family--no more! Do you understand? I won’t let you have them!”

He turned from the Force and stormed away. Back through the forest towards the farmhouse. Back to the family he could save. In the sweeping wake of his rage, the Force stayed silent.

***

Anakin ransacked his room within minutes. He didn’t need much--it wasn’t the first time they’d done this. He could reconstruct anything he left behind. Just be grateful he got the warning he hadn’t noticed last time.

A bag was dug out from his closet and thrown on the bed. Anakin grabbed at anything in sight that he immediately thought he’d need. Packed quickly and brutally.

Padmé’s photo was on his nightstand. He snatched it up, ready to toss it on top of everything else.

The sharp corner of the plastisteel frame dug into the open wound on his hand. Sparked a startled bite of pain up his arm. With a hiss, he dropped it. The frame clattered onto the floor, photo-side up.

At this angle, Padmé’s expression looked vigilant. Anticipatory. Anakin stared down at her. Slowly, he sank to his knees beside her. Pulled in by her memory. The rushing flood of adrenaline that had gotten him here drained out of him like cheap dye from cloth. The wave of panic crested on him, making any decision seem absolutely horrible.

He memorized her smile, her stubbornness, her dedication. Her conviction.

“I can’t do this,” he told her, soft. “I can’t do this again.”

She smirked at something off-lens, ready for a fight. Her stubborn chin tilt, so evident in Leia when she was setting up for a brawl, in Luke when he was working on a project, that Anakin nearly fell over.

His heart ached so much it was hard to breathe.

“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “If we stay, they’ll catch us. And I can’t let that happen. If we go, they’ll kill him. They’ll...oh, they’ll make it last. They’ll make sure I feel it. That--that I know he’s suffering because of me. Sweetheart, I can’t go through losing another part of my heart like that. I’m not--I’m not strong enough.”

He swallowed, hard. The words felt stuck in his throat.

“You told me a story once--about a man stuck on a hill. He kept rolling a boulder up it. Over and over. He would get it to the top, only for it to fall back down. You’re the man; I’m the boulder. You keep wanting to put me in a place I don’t belong. All I can do is tumble back down.”

“Oh, Padmé. Why do you have so much faith in me? I’ve never lived up to it. Never honored it. I’ve done my best by the twins--your children.”

If he stilled--thought long enough. Found a place so distant from himself, he thought he could feel her fingers in his hair. Her weight on his arm. Oranges and pepper and atmosphere.

Anakin put his head in his bloody, oil-slick hands and cried.

“You thought we’d change the galaxy. Without you, all I’m trying to do is survive it,” he growled through the sobs.

In time, storms pass. They dissipate and integrate into the atmosphere, becoming something else. Something more enormous and more ingrained in the world.

In the wake of his fear and despair, Anakin was furious. The kind of fury that found life deep in his chest, the kind that made his breath stutter and his vision go grey at the edges. The kind that could make him shake with adrenaline.

Fury was the fuel that accelerated him. That motivated him. Ignited fire and purpose and action like pistons within him. He refused to suffer in silence with the sinking feeling of helplessness and doom. He refused! This would not be the place within the Force he occupied. Just. No.

He scrambled for an outlet, a release valve—a way to defuse the all-consuming thunder roaring through him. Ways to force that burning rage towards direction and ambition. Towards a wanting that he could taste like salt on his tongue.

Padmé’s eyes were sharp, bearing down on him. No matter where he was in the room, she saw him. “We have to fight--if for no other reason than to die well,” his crusader, his liberator rallied him. He pulled her words close and nursed them like some kind of strength and glory could bleed from her into him.

“Oh, what a Sith Lord you would have made, lover. You understood so much about the embrace of the conflict. Of the truth in the Force. The things you revealed to me--my first true Master. I should have crowned you when I had the chance.”

As he said it, he knew it to be true. Before her, his mind had been nothing but a mess of technical thoughts, mournful memories, and bloody revenge. She had taken him in and shown him craft and artistry. How to fashion ideas onto paper and into prose. Obi-Wan may have built him up, but his foundations bore her work.

“These corruptions--these men who play at Sith principles, who act like they know passion in the Force. They’ve taken so much from us. Why did I have to keep giving ground to them? Keep running from them?”

Her fingers pulled at his hair. Encouraged him onward.

“I have to keep our family safe. But the problem is our family has grown. It’s gotten complicated and messy, and I don’t know what to do about that but fight for it.”

He had sacrificed enough to them. Forgone enough to run from them. He wouldn’t leave his heart, in play and vulnerable, this time.

***

Anakin expected a temper tantrum. He expected two, even. He’d made a decision that would lead to a lot of difficulties. There were consequences to that.

He was not entirely prepared for the epic meltdown that slammed into his little family.

“NO!” Leia screamed. “No! No! No!”

“Leia--,” he tried to interject.

No!” she hollered, her tiny voice ringing through the house. Her face was red and scrunched, her fury palpable. The Force boomed around her. “We can’t leave!”

Anakin didn’t give. Not one inch. “You not only can, you will,” he ordered. Shoved the Force away--he was still so angry. So bitter. He didn’t want that will in his family.

Because it fucking hurt. Like nothing else he had ever experienced, causing his children this kind of ruinous distress hurt him. Made him ashamed and unworthy. What kind of father was he that he left his children to suffer this alone?

His eyes watered up. He rubbed at them to push the tears aside as Leia screamed again, throwing her things across the room.

He didn’t indulge in Leia’s anger. He’d learned that lesson over the years. Instead, he sat on Luke’s bed and waited for her to calm down.

His son sat against the headboard of his bed, a crystalline fox toy cuddled close to his chest as he curled in around it. Anakin held out a hand to him, and very much didn’t cry when Luke pulled back around the stuffed animal and pressed shaky breathes into the toy’s fur.

Ahsoka sat in the hallway outside the twin’s room. She had unearthed a wine bottle from the depths of the house. It was now empty--she pitched at the label, pulling it off in short, ripping strips. Her expression was blank and far-away.

“This isn’t up for discussion,” he said when Leia paused to regain her lost breath. “Your Uncle Ben is in trouble. I’m going to help him. But I can’t help him when I’m worried about you. Bad people are coming, and I won’t have you here when they arrive.”

As much as it hurt to do this--to send them away and not follow--his conviction carried him through. He had given enough: he had the power to have it both ways. To keep them safe and to save Obi-Wan. Opposing goals, but not unharmonious. He took control of the conflict and his determination to hold his place. The agony proved his heart was whole.

“Take us with you. We wanna help Uncle Ben, too!”

“No.” He wouldn’t budge on that. No matter what happened next, they wouldn’t be here for it.

“You can’t make us leave--you CAN’T,” Leia cried. Where he held back his tears, she didn’t. They streamed down her angry face.

“Kiddo--,”

“You caaaaaaannnnn’t!” she cried, her anger quickly becoming terror. The Force shattered, rebuilt, and shattered again around her, over and over.

He pushed it aside and focused on his daughter. “Scream all you want, Leia. You’re getting on the transport this evening,” he swore, dead serious.

For a moment, her face went nearly purple. Hissing at him like a wild thing, she stormed out of the room. He saw Ahsoka’s startled face for half a second before the door was slammed with satisfying force.

Anakin closed his eyes. Breathed in and out on a five-count. Did his damn level best not to follow his daughter and continue the fight. She was young, and he had never done this before. Never set them on their own before. Never asked them to be strong like this before.

She was so much like him. So much. Her emotions streamed off her, big and loud and demanding. And she so often gave them her full weight, leaning into them and pushing for more, more, more. She knew how to get what she wanted. Most of the time.

“Dad?” Luke asked quietly behind his stuffed animal. Anakin opened his eyes and turned to his son. His quiet baby who would rather flow and shift and rearrange than dig into the conflict.

“I know you don’t like the yelling, kiddo. You know it’s just how your sister and I talk to each other sometimes, right?”

“You’re bleeding,” Luke whispered, wide-eyed. His worry was a palpable bitterness in the Force. Anakin glanced down between them. His opened palm had left ruddy stains on Luke’s bedding.

Wincing, he quickly withdrew his hand. Oh, no wonder Luke shrunk from him. He was scaring his children. He reached for some semblance of shielding. Called for peace and control. Stilled himself. Found his foundations and rooted. Dragging those riotous emotions through the maze of his mind, he left them to get lost in the twists and turns as he outran them.

“I had to talk to the Force,” he said. “Sometimes...sometimes that requires as little blood and oil.”

“It doesn’t work like that for me.”

“I’m delighted to hear that. Not everyone talks to it the same way. I had to offer a lot to get a lot.”

“Uncle Ben said it’s best to start small.”

Of course, he had. Anakin would be more annoyed if it didn’t seem that Obi-Wan’s lessons resonated with Luke in a way he didn’t quite understand. The gentle meditation and delicate exploration they practiced building as a counterbalance to the explosions that typically trailed Leia and Anakin in the Force.

Luke shied away from his flesh hand with its sluggish, open cuts, but tentative, curious and in want of a distraction, he picked at the wrist of his mechanical one. Anakin gave it over without a word. Setting the crystalline fox aside, Luke tilted his ruined palm towards the light.

“I can fix this,” he decided.

Guilt flashed through him. He curled his hand back. “It’s fine, Luke.”

“It’ll be faster if I do it,” his endlessly reasonable child pointed out as he dipped himself head-first over the side of the bed. Anakin grabbed at the back of his tunic to keep him balanced while he rummaged around on the floor.

He reemerged with a folded up little toolkit. Unraveling it across the bed, he put Anakin’s hand on his knee and got to work cleaning out the gravel and grass from the wires. Testing joints and connections. Fine-tuning as he went.

Anakin let him work in silence. Luke was quiet--not shy. He knew what he wanted to do.

Luke abruptly removed the small tool from the innards of his palm, a patient expression over his face. Anakin didn’t have time to ask before the door slammed open again, making him jolt in surprise. Leia, hair wild and clothes filthy but decidedly calmer, was in the doorway. Ahsoka leaned on the jam behind her. Planted her hand on Leia’s little shoulder. Pushed her back into the room with a fair amount of grumbling.

“There aren’t any plates left in the kitchen,” Ahsoka reported with a tired twist of her lips. His daughter harrumphed.

“Dad hurt his hand,” Like reported, getting back to work now that Anakin was steady.

That pulled her in. Leia crossed the room unaided by any shoves or urging. Concern throbbed off her, tainting the Force with her emotions. With a tutting noise, she took him by the wrist and looked at the mess the rocks had made of it.

“That was stupid, Dad,” she scolded.

“He had to talk to the Force,” Luke explained. He removed the tool again to make an odd gesture with his hand in her direction. The Force did something around him. Something Anakin didn’t understand.

Leia did. “Ooohhh,” she replied. The wild energy she had cased off earlier honed in. She inspected his hand with determined light. The unnerving sensation of his flesh knitting itself back together under her stern gaze made chills creep up his skin.

While they raced to see who would finish first, Ahsoka handled their bags, her speed more sedate than Anakin’s frantic packing. She hadn’t said a word since Anakin roused the whole house. Anakin tried to enjoy the feeling of them all in the same room together.

Soon, his hands were like new. Leia leaned against him, exhausted, while Luke carefully put away his tools.

“Where are we going?” his son asked.

Anakin halted, unsure. Where was he sending them?

Padmé’s parents were still on Naboo, he thought in vague plotting. Good people, quiet and unassuming. Descended from weavers and cloth merchants, Padmé had told him. They could take the twins in and care for them well.

The thought sat ill and uncomfortable on him: how were an unassuming and unconnected couple supposed to defend against the powers that could be brought to bear against them? He couldn’t expect them to keep the children safe from the extraordinary dangers that dogged their tracks.

The Jedi Temple? Urgh, even worse. Obi-Wan had trusted his people. Look where that had gotten him. No, Anakin wasn’t going to send them there.

He...he didn’t know where to send them. Couldn’t know where to send them. He couldn’t know where they were. If he. Oh, if he failed. If he let himself be brought low and collared again, there would be nothing stopping Sidious from reaching into him and taking that information. From continuing the hunt until he had every living Skywalker back in his grasp.

Anakin had to keep them safe. And safe meant ignorance.

Anakin knelt down so he could look them both in the eye. Curled his healed hands around them both. “I need you two to find me something. Find somewhere...where you’re safe. Do you understand?”

No matter how he tried to ignore it, the Force clicked and shivered around him. His children perked up like primed hunting bots. They would find a place, just like they had found everything else he had asked them for.

“All right,” Luke whispered.

“Uh-huh,” Leia agreed.

Ahsoka said nothing. Continued to pack with methodical focus.

“Good,” he kissed their foreheads and held them close. Told himself it wouldn’t be the last time he did so. “The transport leaves in a few hours. What else do you want to take?”

***

The twins’ bags were bulging.

Anakin had packed all the pictures of Padmé he had in the house. Her journals, as well as backups on smaller data chips. The cobalt and platinum tea set. Some of his more precious tools, ones he knew would stand up to decades of use. A few of his clothes because….just in case they needed something to remember him by.

Best not to think about that.

The cargo ship Ravenna listed a scheduled departure from Nevos for Mandalore. Anakin bullied and pushed until he opened up three seats on it. Mandalore sat on the thinnest delineation between the Rims of the Galaxy. From there, they could catch a ride on a reputable transporter and shimmy and sneak along those thin border lines until they reached...wherever they were going.

Anakin prayed he was making the right decision. But...he didn’t quite know where to send his prayers. The Force was still silent and still around him.

It had never done this before. Had never been so...unmoving. Under his anger ran a new thread of anxiety and worry. He couldn’t think about this now. Not now.

Luke and Leia took their seats in the carrier. Anakin crouched down beside them. Checked to make sure they buckled themselves in correctly. That they had everything within easy reach.

Checked that they understood not to split up. That they needed to look out for one another. That it wasn’t scary, going off on their own. It was an adventure. That he knew they’d get to the other side just fine.

He was terrified. He was also a parent. And, as messy and freaked out as he was, he wasn’t going to send them away with memories of him broken down. He had to believe this wouldn’t be the last time they saw one another. “You’ll do great,” he told them with a smile. “You’ll find someplace safe, and you’ll to stay there until I come to get you. Artoo will be with you every step of the way so you won't get lost. Look out for each other, yeah?”

Artoo was slotted into a nearby compartment, strapped in for the take-off. The little droid would watch the twins’ blindspots, guard them. After years of knowing the comfort and security of knowing his back was protected by Artoo, Anakin could think of no better watchdog.

He rubbed at the domed top. Pressed his forehead into steel and circuits. “Watch out for them, old friend. For both Padmé and me, yeah?”

Beeeeeeeep. Artoo’s farewell was a determined rattle.

Anakin left before he could cry his eyes out. If he didn’t now, he never would. Only the thought of Obi-Wan, of the other half of his heart, pushed him off the transport.

He found Ahsoka sitting on the speeder, rubbing her hands together. He pressed at his eyes to push the wetness away. “Time to go, Snips.”

Her face didn’t shift. “I’m good right here.”

Realization appeared abrupt and full-hearted. A glaring error, coming around to smack him dead in the face. Her shoulders were braced and ready for a fight. Waves of retaliation wafted off her set spine. He was such an idiot. Too busy combatting one front, he had been flanked without realizing it.

“Get on the ship,” he said. “Right now.”

“No.” She met his gaze and said no more.

“Get. In,” he ordered, his voice bringing up ugly tones.

No,” she repeated, the rock in the storm. She folded her arms and planted her feet, keeping her weight leaned against the speeder. Apprehension, anguish, and resolve tangled up in their bond, reverberating back and forth.

“Ahsoka!”

“You’re not getting me on that ship!” she pushed back. “I’m staying here, and you won’t change my mind. Accept it: you’re going to need help.”

“I’ll need no such thing! Get on the damned ship.”

“You said it yourself, I’m a match for any Sith apprentice I’d ever come up against. I’ve never quite believed you until right now. I need to,” she swallowed. “I need to know. If I can do it. If I can hold my own. You can’t ask me to abandon that--you--now. I won’t. You can’t make me.”

“You want to see what I can make you do?” he said, his voice dropping low, dangerous, and angry.

Tension hung between them. Thick; a twisting, bordering on strangling, net with no escape. The perilous sword of violence hanging over their heads swung in small, targeting circles. Power itched under his fingernails.

Then, her chin came up. Her eyes hailed him, hard and unforgiving. Conviction colored her words. “You won’t do that. You’ll yell, you’ll threaten, and you’ll plead at me with those big stupid eyes. But you won’t do that.”

Anakin deflated like a half-filled rubber gasket. Her trust in him dropped the sword, punctured the bubble of pressure around them. His bluff called, he withdrew. “I need you to watch the twins,” he all but pleaded.

His secession gained her ground with every word. She pursued, pushing her confidence out around them. “Luke and Leia need me to watch your back. Their needs overtake yours. Deal with it, Anakin. I’m not leaving.” She laughed, weak. “Besides, I already promised Artoo I would. You’re a little late to the party.”

Raw and at the short end of his emotional reserves, Anakin couldn’t help it. He laughed, half-hysterical. Pressed the heels of his palms hard into his eyes. Took the pain and added it to the bonfire that was quickly building in his mental landscape.

A slim hand dropped on his shoulder. Ahsoka stepped in close. Propped herself up on her toes. Pushed their foreheads together. “I know,” she muttered. “I know. But sometimes that’s how it is. You taught me that. There’s too many rips in the paper here--too much transformation. I’m not paper anymore, trying to mend the rips as best I can. I’m something else.”

He cracked an eye open. “What are you now?”

She shrugged. “I’m still figuring that out. But I know I won’t find the answer on that transport. The only way to find out is to keep my feet where they are and keep my eyes on the target. That means staying here.”

Anakin let her take some of his weight. Trusted her to hold secure. “Then, you gotta do something for me, Snips.”

“Anything.”

“Make sure I don’t get back on that transport.” He thought he could make out Leia calling for him, if he concentrated. Thought he could hear Luke crying, the distressing noise haunting the edges of his hearing. Black sludge and muck climbed upon him, slowing him down and dragging him under. Threatened to hold him under until he drowned.

Oh, he was a horrible parent. What the hell was he thinking? He couldn’t leave them alone? Exhausted, he wavered. Second-guessed. How could he think this was a good idea?

Her grip tightened on him. Her conviction burned through him. Added to his flagging determination. Held him steady through the storm. “Yeah. I can do that.”

***

Night settled onto the farmhouse, and there was something they had to do.

Anakin didn’t know the rhyme or reason for what he knew, but he knew it. Ideas fell into his mind, once empty, now brimming with knowledge.

Ahsoka’s defiance had unlocked something in them both. Had peeled back layers of knotted over roots and mold to find an old tradition within their connection. A ritual that hadn’t been practiced since a group of corrupted Jedi appeared, with their brutal order and strict adherence to systems. A ceremony that once connected two people in the most ardently and vitally way possible.

Everything was wrong--all wrong. Old parts of him knew that immediately. Nevos’ primary moon was in apogee when it should be in perigee. They were well into the autumn months, and these things should be done in the spring, with the arrival of new life. There should have been rich food and richer company, a night of laughter and joy and celebration. Music and dancing. Ahsoka deserved to have this done right.

But they didn’t have time. They had a box full of ration bars and each other. It would have to do.

In the society that was once the Sith, things were different.

He formulated the words a dozen different ways, unsure how to start-- “I’ve never lied, Snips. When I put you off before. I don’t know if I remember things well enough to do this--,”

“I had a dream last night, Skyguy,” she said. She was knee-deep in the garden, riffling through the greenery. Considering each, to be discarded or gathered depending on what she found. “No one spoke to me, but I saw something. People I didn’t recognize, but it felt like I knew. Two of them. They were talking--there was some kind of party. With food and fire--the moons in the background were full and heavy.” She glanced up. “We don’t have that.”

“If we had time...” he offered in a feeble apology. In his trailed off words, they mourned. For the loss of a night that should have been theirs and theirs alone. For the comfort and celebration this moment should have been to them.

Instead, it was a rushed collection of heartbeats. Of cobbled together emotions and patchwork thoughts. Of slapdash completion, when it should have been a sacred journey. One more thing they couldn’t have.

Then she returned to her work. “The younger one--she made a crown--out of leaves and flowers and branches. Ribbons and beads and bells. Things she found, and things she thought of. And then she gave it away, set it on the head of the woman she recognized as...as her mentor. Her teacher. She gave something that was only hers to give. Her assent. Her acknowledgment.”

He was still. “We’ll never do things the right way. It doesn’t,” he chewed on his words, “it doesn’t work that way, for us. Not anymore. We’ve lost too much to passing time and blood. We can only do what...what feels like it would fit us.”

Ahsoka glanced up. In her hands were shoots and branches of growing greenery. “I know this feels right.”

She constructed the crown’s base in red clover for consecration and righteousness. It was an old, traditional way to begin, something within him knew. The lessons of the past that shoved themselves into his brain were muddled and contradictory. Everything done by instinct, without much more to guide them than the unique, organic form of their connection. There were no rules. He locked up, unsure of where to go next. What instruction to give her.

Only she didn’t seem to need much guidance in this. Her hand worked in busy time, her face intent. She picked up the dangling thread, instinct guiding her hand as she pulled the plants she wanted towards her, physically and in the Force.

To the red clover, she wove sprigs of lavender for learning, happiness, and healing. The fragrant granules tied into the thick stems. Her hand reached out again. Bee balm, plucked from Leia’s garden plot, brought forth the notion of regeneration and reignition of ideas.

With a foundation structured, she brought flourishes and accents that drew the eye and colored in the details she saw in him. In her crown, she built their relationship. Juniper branches to show the aid, asylum, and succor she found in him. The springy fur buds represented hex-breaking and a complex history between two souls. Defined power, both natural and psychic. Around the branches, she brought up vivid blue larkspur shoots to transcend the boundaries of time and space with levity, and to bring forth light and fun.

“You’re optimistic,” he said.

“I have to be,” she replied. “How else do we survive?”

She mounted sword lilies to highlight strength and remembrance in prominent places, nestled like linchpins in the greenery. She was ready-armed and wanted him to know it. As accents around the rim, she set bright pink and red gilly-flowers—faith and fidelity in adversity. Unwavering friendship, the pinnacle of her interpretation of their relationship put into physical form.

Anakin’s body knew what to do next. He knelt. Gave himself into the movement, and all its implications, without thought of embarrassment or humiliation. He was on his knees before her not in subjugation but in exaltation. In celebration of what she was about to do. He didn’t move. Didn’t blink. Didn’t breathe.

She stood before him with her fragile, living crown cradled in her palms. Set it on his brow with slow hands. Her shaking fingers situated it until it sat precisely as she wanted it to. Out of her mouth came words that were older than many stars.

“When you fight, I swear to stand by your side and raise my voice. When you speak, I swear to consider. When you return to the Force, I swear to remember you.”

She stopped, her lip quivering. The Force closed in around them. Hummed old hymns. Sealed them from the outside world, just for a little bit.

“You got this,” he whispered as her hands trembled.

“I know. I’m just…count for me. Please?”

“Really?”

“Please?” she asked again. And he wouldn’t deny her.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Anakin inhaled with his beats. She followed along. On the exhale: Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

He didn’t know how many rounds they went through before she regained herself. It was as many as she needed.

“When you teach me, I swear to live and to thrive, and to pass those lessons to the next generation,” she recited. “I have started, alone and in the dark. I stand alone no longer.”

In her words and actions, the Force wove them together. Deeper and more intense than they would ever manage on their own.

Anakin accepted the crown and all its connotations. In receiving her work, her request for guidance, her perspective, her care, and her training, he took something new on. Something altogether terrifying and demanding. A responsibility he couldn’t run from or dodge.

He pushed back the welling emotions that threatened to tear his eyes up. Rose to his feet. Hugged her close. Cried, overwhelmed and exposed as he felt his connection to the Force shift and stretch into something new. Her bond rewrote itself across pages and pages of his mind, invisible ink taking on tone and tenor.

“It’s good to meet you, as one wanting to learn,” she said, sealing the way.

“It’s good to meet you, as one wanting to teach,” he replied. No turning back now.

***

The forest at night was cold and wet. Slow, heavy rain fell through the canopy, splattering across broad leaves and racing down cracked open rock faces. Soaked the ground into damp mud. The constant noise pushed out things like anxiety and paranoia.

Ahsoka followed his footprints, anticipation coloring her thoughts. “Is this like this for you?” she asked.

He thought he knew what their training bond would feel like. He had not. He was more aware of her now, more conscious of how far away she was and the emotions brewing in her. How her connection to the Force fluctuated and when she utilized it.

Anakin pushed in through the ferns and the wilderness. When they were nice and lost, he turned to--to his apprentice. “All right, Snips. Find me something...to make a lightsaber with.”

Her face showed her doubt and trouble without filter. Excitement hung off her like raindrops. “Here?”

“Where else would we do it?” When she shrugged, uncertain, he opened up their connection, showing her how to stretch her senses further and farther. “This is your place. Your seat of power. You’ll find yourself coming here, again and again, tapping your memories for guidance and for strength. So--find me some things to make a lightsaber with.”

“I don’t know where to start.”

“Of course you do. Worlds just opened up for you. Feel where you’re being pulled and use it.”

He showed her through the bond as he spoke. Words weren’t quite enough to understand, and he was keenly aware he was talking her in circles. So he tapped the part of himself that brought actions and urges to mind. How something felt right, even when there was no logical reason for it. How impulse could have its way.

“Oh,” she muttered. “You just...trust it?”

“Yeah.”

“What if it’s not sure? Or you read it wrong?”

“The point of faith is following that urge despite your doubt,” Anakin said, even as he felt a metaphysical nudge. Not from the Force, but entirely from that place he liked to think of as Obi-Wan’s. One that radiated fond expectation and perspective. Humility and grace. And a little exasperation with him.

Urgh.

He felt it when she got the way of it, when surety clicked into place for her. Disappearing into the darkness around them, she faded into the rain. With her well-off, Anakin sat down on a dropped tree trunk. It didn’t matter that the mud and the rain covered him in moments. That the insects buzzed in his ear. Faith demanded he fix what he had wrecked.

He held his hands out, cupping palmfuls of water and moonlight. Washed his face, his hands, his neck, his wrists. Cleansed away the fog in his mind.

He was so tired. Sleep wouldn’t come, not tonight. The crown on his head was heavy, full of burden and love and connection. Worry for Obi-Wan hung off him, dripping into every thought. Anxiety dueled with relief as he felt the twins travel further and further from him.

In the messy, complicated nature of connection, there is conflict. In conflict, he would be revealed as his most authentic self in the Force. What kind of man was he if he left Ahsoka to herself? If he left Obi-Wan to the hands of their enemies?

That did nothing to quell the panic he felt, not knowing where his children were. Luke’s powerful fire no longer warmed his bones. Leia’s electric connections no longer lit his way.

There is doubt. But there was also faith.

He rubbed at his neck. Rolled his shoulders. Cracked the ache out of his joints. No use second-guessing now. He’d made his choices—time to let the consequences and rewards fall where they may.

“I’m sorry I yelled,” he spoke out into the living universe. “In all these years, I forgot how much you push me. Test me. You’ve been watching me grow--it’s time to see what you’ve created in me, isn’t it?”

The noise of the forest folded in around him. The wind blew icy pinpricks into his face.

“It’s hard when you challenge me like this. Through the people I love. They’re all... they’re all that reminds me of the good you create. The love you plant in us all. And I want to protect them so badly, these people who hold my heart and soul. Badly enough to do...monstrous things.”

Nothing but the weather around him. The rock and water and life in the forest.

“It’s because I keep failing, isn’t it? I keep failing this idea, this...this fight. The pain and loss of losing someone I care so much about. Which is why you keep giving it to me. Why you keep. Keep asking me to endure it. I don’t understand the conflict yet.”

Slowly, warmth seeped into him. His chest, his limbs, down to the tips of his fingers. His toes curled as a deep sigh came up his throat.

“I’m trying,” he told the Force. “Really, I am. Don’t give up on me yet.”

The presence of the Force kissed at the nape of his neck. Power radiated from that spot, sparking energy and drive into him. Coursed through him until he was coughing from the intensity.

“Okay,” he managed to get out. “Okay.”

The crackle of damp earth and diatomaceous debris heralded Ahsoka’s return. Her hands were laden down with raw materials, pulled from the ground by her own power. There was dirt under her fingernails. Water on her face. Leaves stuck to her montrals.

“Find what you were looking for?”

“I think so,” she dropped what she had onto the ground between them. He saw branches of teak and rosewood. Chunks of iron and copper and even a little gold, harvested from the ore lines running through the mountain’s foothills. Bits of thick and dense bone from predators long past. She slowly arranged them all to suit her. “Yeah, I think I have everything.”

“First thing you wanna do is figure out what your frame will look like,” he told her. Over the next hour, he watched her work. Guided her when she needed it, marveled at her progress when she didn’t.

She worked the teak into the frame. Banded it with rosewood inlaid with gold. Used the iron to weight it properly, copper to bind it. The bone she hid in the container, the brace for a crystal just waiting to be filled.

The part of this night that came easy to them--the construction and the preparation--made for a relaxed, almost peaceful, space. The other part, the more challenging part, that part that Anakin had to keep addressing and putting down, was the acceptance. The vigil. The handling of the stillness, the anticipation of the next day. The fight, and the uncertainty that came with such a decision.

Ahsoka had to hold both; the rise and the fall. The build and release. The wave as it ebbed and flowed and ebbed again. The spark and the resulting explosion. That would be her greatest lesson tonight.

She sat back, reverent in her work. The Force hummed around her. In her palm, a pair of handles, constructed from wood and metal and the forest’s soul, sat waiting. She twirled them between her fingers. Learned their weight and movement.

“Jar’Kai?” he asked. He hadn’t known her to favor the style.

“Yes,” she replied, and that was that. “Still don’t have kyber crystals, though.” She glanced at him under her eyelashes. “Unless you’ve got some hidden away.”

“Afraid not,” he said. “But you won’t need them, even if I did.” There was a test of faith coming. But this one wasn’t for him. He hoped Ahsoka trusted in her pain and her triumph of it.

She stopped the hilt’s twirl. “It’s not a lightsaber without a crystal.”

“That’s true. But I’ll tell you what I believe--you’ll never find a kyber crystal that understands what it means to be placed in those hilts.”

She blinked at him. Realization dawned, sharp. She abruptly stood. Paced back and forth before him. Avoidance, her old friend, colored her face. Painted the Force and their bond with a disbelieving reaction. “You’re lying.”

“I’m not. We’re not Jedi, Snips. We don’t strive for benign, universal connection with the Force. We don’t connect through peace or distance from our emotions. It’s our experiences, our struggles and conquests, our passions and our devotions that drive us. Enlightens us. And that means learning from them.”

“I can’t put myself through that kind of pain.”

“Yes, you can. I do, as well. Why do you think I carried all of Padmé’s journals with me?”

Ahsoka froze.

“You can’t ignore your past. You can only use it to make you stronger. I miss Padmé every day. And I’m furious she’s not here with me. That she was murdered. That I wasn’t strong enough to save her. But I won’t forget her.” He swallowed. “You were a slave, Ahsoka. You were kidnapped and sold. Your labor and your love were taken from you without permission. You were forced to dig up countless things. You handled hundreds of crystals. Yet there was only ever one you hung on to. Only one you return to, over and over. Why?”

She stared at him. “Because it was mine,” she whispered.

“And what are you going to do with it?”

She stared at him; around her, the Force gained speed and power. Brewed and bubbled. She fought with herself. Pulled between renewal and acknowledgment.

And, eventually, she won. She held out a hand, palm up. Concentrated. Waited. Anakin tilted his head. In the distance, a whirring noise zipped through the air. Something shot past him, curving around the space he occupied to avoid hitting him.

The large quartz crystal met her palm with a gentle smack. She brought it before her face. “I can’t remember how long I’ve had this. Or where I found it. Only that the old lady could never sell it. I polished it and polished it, and thought about freedom while I did. I brought it with me when you found me. The only thing I made sure to grab. And here we... we’ve used it so much.” Her eyes shone, blue layered with gold. “It knows so much of me.”

“It’s yours,” he confirmed.

She released the quartz to hover in the Force before her. Power sharpened around her.

Crack!

Under the impact of her intent, the crystal split into pieces. The Force sang through them.

When she slipped it into her lightsaber hilts. When she ignited the pair, bright white light unfurled. A set of blades, long and far-reaching, lit up. Reflected water and moonlight and the history of her.

Ahsoka giggled, gleeful and high on her own success. “Awesome.”

***

Ahsoka plucked up another crystal shard from her new collection. Flicked it at him. Smirked. “For you, Skyguy.”

Anakin caught the shard. Turned it over through his fingers. Soaked in rainwater, the crystal was slick and hard to grasp tight. “I haven’t used a lightsaber in years,” he muttered.

“Great time to pick the habit back up, don’t you think?”

He snorted, half-distracted, inspecting the crystal from every angle. As large as his thumb, with eight points to create eight edges. Pointed on one end, blunt on the other. As he held it up to inspect it, it captured moonlight in its facets. Shown it back to him with gentle, nourishing ease.

He could make a lightsaber with this.

***

Ahsoka was absorbed with her lightsabers. She moved through practice patterns, learning their weight and movement.

Anakin watched her with half an eye. His hands were busy in the garden. He built, not entirely conscious of what he was doing. He didn’t want to be--if he over-thought it, he’d talk himself out of it.

The ring of red clover was first. Consecration and a promise of things to come. He bent the stems back on themselves. Formed them into a circle.

He thought about blue eyes and steady, confident hands. Of the kind of kisses that made his toes curl and his thoughts go hazy. Reached out into space before him. Silently asked the Force. Plucked a flower with dark, coppery-purple foliage and spikes of fluffy white flowers. Turned red in the face when he identified it.

Bugbane: For courage, but also for love and for lust. For protection during a journey.

He wove it in. Thought of grim determination. Reached once more into the Force. This time, small white flowers filled his hands, overflowing and fragrant. Sweet woodruff. Poisonous. A representation of victory in battle.

Ahsoka swirled and moved. White light reflected across her skin. Anakin hadn’t taught her many specific moves for two blades, not suspecting those forms would call to her. A misstep on his part.

He hoped he had the chance to correct it in the future.

Anakin was in a place of stillness--the drop in pressure before the storm rained down. The vigil before the battle. Small, tubular, blue-violet flowers intermingled with the sweet woodruff. Blue vervain--hope in the darkness.

Then he started working in larger flowers that spilled over his hands like they were falling apart. Intersected with violet-blue blossoms. Swamp lilies--they spelled chivalry and knighthood. His rulebreaker was the ideal of a gallant champion and a gentleman lover. Caring and attentive. Taking pleasure in the love he gave. It wasn’t selfish gain that made him worshipful of Anakin. It was a want of his joy and happiness. His magister stood premier and paragon in that way.

And Anakin adored that about him. How composed he was. How sincere.

He reached out once more. Came back with irises. Vivid, eye-popping blue irises. He tapped the petals against his mouth. Authority and faith. Victory and conquest, but also pain. A promise in love. Reincarnation and wisdom.

He wove both the irises and swamp lilies into places of prominence. Let them be held and elevated by the other pieces of the crown.

It was still missing something.

He rose to his feet. Went to the garden. Plucked out tangled strands of mint from the patch. Mental clarity and focus.

Once done, the crown sat in his hands. Waiting. Expectant. It belonged to someone not yet here.

Anakin set it aside in a safe place in the Force. And he tried not to cry. He didn’t doubt the will of the Force. Though, he seriously doubted his ability to survive in it.

***

Two speeders dashed across the forest towards the mountain. Rode to a small cave with a glowing red light. Stepped into a hot and humid little space. Came before a devious little cube that had hidden them for four long years.

“Ahsoka,” Anakin instructed. “When they get here, you attack. And you run. Run like smoke and oakum. Stay out of their reach. Pick them off in smaller groups. Understand?”

“Yes.”

“And you’ll let me deal with anything that comes down the main road?” He imagined the heavy work would be there.

“Yes.”

“And…” he swallowed. “And you won’t think less of me, at the end of this?” He knew what he could do on the battlefield. It wasn’t pretty. He’d rather she didn’t see the whole of what he was capable of.

Ahsoka stood firm. “Yes.”

Relief was a heady drug. “Good. Come here.” He hugged her close. They stood there, together. Memorizing one another.

Anakin couldn’t let Sidious have her, any more than the twins.

“Ready?” she asked.

“No. But that’s never stopped anything.”

With that, she pulled the plug on the Sith artifact. With a final flicker of red light, the cube’s power imploded. Collapsed. There was no more power in its depths.

In the distant sky, a starship broke the atmosphere.