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Artoo beeped a warning.

Anakin stopped and crouched low in the corner. So close, they were so close. Only another level to maneuver and another layer of security to trick before they were at the hanger and his ship.

Luke, tired and confused at the break in their routine, fussed in Anakin’s arms. It was the middle of the night—well past time they should all be in bed, not ducking around the Sith compound they had called their home like it was a game of hide-and-seek. Terrified at being overhead (discovered, apprehended, imprisoned; each thought hitting a deep and newly-minted part of his soul) Anakin frantically hushed him, tapping a gloved finger against his son's mouth in a way he hoped Luke found calming. Against his back, Leia sighed and shifted in her sleep. Her ear was pressed against his back—he worked to keep his heartbeat even, steady. If they thought he was calm, they would stay calm.

He couldn’t hum to them, not now. So he wedged a crack into his shields and let a few drops of affection dribble into the Force. Those drops ran down the bond he shared with them both, keeping things simple to not overwhelm their little minds. Each bond was a slim, weak thread that he maintained only the most surface of emotions around—anything more blatant would have drawn the attention (and violent disapproval) of his Master.

Well, former Master. No matter if he escaped or was caught, succeeded or failed, Darth Sidious’s favor was as good as gone. Anakin was well and truly on his own, alone in the world without protection or guidance. Terror, the kind he hadn’t felt since his Master had found him on Tatooine a decade and a half ago, was becoming an intimately familiar feeling with each passing cycle. It rooted into his stomach, weakening his resolve. He slapped up feeble shields into place before his emotions infected the twins.

Luke’s little teeth latched onto his glove; he had a fascination with Anakin’s mechanical hand. He gnawed the soft leather, content for the moment. A new sort of anxiety shuddered through Anakin, wholly unfamiliar and striking closer to his heart than anything he had ever experienced. Focus on them—get them out. That was the goal. He repeated it over and over, locking in on his desire and demanding it of the Force. This will happen. His Master would not have Padmé’s children. He wouldn’t get even this part of Anakin.

Voices, low and menacing, echoed down the hall. They bounced off the high cavernous walls, making it impossible to locate their owners. Growing louder, moving closer. Anakin drew further into the shadows, hiding behind Artoo. The droid dropped into low-power mode, sensory lights dimming and shutting off all nonessential functions. When Luke’s little foot kicked his arm, Anakin caught the limb and swaddled his son, urging him to sleep. Leia kicked at his kidney in a sympathetic response.

Just a little longer, he silently begged them both. Just stay quiet a little longer. His energy turned towards shielding himself and their presence, hiding them from the Sith powers that lurked waiting in the compound. It was rough work; he constantly had to restart when a distracting shadow or noise ripped through his concentration. He had no skill in meditation or methodical construction. His instructors, intimidated by his power, rank, and age, had never gone in for in-depth instruction. Instead, his connection to the Force worked on an instinctual level. This for that; power for passion, ingenuity for intimacy.

This time, the Force bargained for all his concentration to deflect attention from them—the twins were so strong, even now. Not even three standard years yet and the Force sang around them like symphonies. To mask their presences, to keep the Sith—his Master—from noticing them, Anakin had to pull from wells of previously untapped power. To keep anyone from thinking things were amiss, he had to find a peace that didn’t come easily.

In his duffle, the Sith artifacts he had stolen from his Master’s vault hummed, tempting him to the simple solution of violence and wrath.

The voices grew closer. He thought he recognized Count Dooku and the captain of the guard. Anakin held his breath, pulled them all in—the twins, loyal little Artoo, his own scattered self. Tightly packing them together as if he could shrink them into obscurity if only he wrapped them up in enough layers.

With all his thoughts bent towards the single purpose of remaining invisible, the edges of his vision when gray. Cracks appeared in the foundations of his shields, and he had no thought to spare for his bonds with Luke and Leia. They were exposed, unfiltered, to his fear, anxiety, and knotted heartache. Immediately, their restlessness kicked up; they didn’t know what was wrong, only that they felt not-good. Desperately, he pushed down on them both, bringing them to a place of—well, not of calm, but inertia. Apathetic non-movement that made all thoughts distant and seemingly unreachable.

It was a trick Anakin had picked up young—when he couldn’t beat whatever Sith aligned initiate Darth Sidious had turned on him for his next level of training, he had pushed and pushed with the Force, instinct and a desire not to die feeding his emotions into a loop of sheer power. Once, he had pressed hard enough, long enough to turn another potential apprentice into nothing but a driveling zombie, devoid of any autonomous thought. The man had never recovered.

It hurt something deep in Anakin to push even a fraction that onto his children—something aching and painful that he thought had died with Padmé. He hoped his warmth and his heartbeat, the physical nearness to him, kept them calm and sane long enough to go one more level, one more layer of security. He reached back and laid a hand on Leia’s head, resting against his shoulder blade, as he cradled Luke close.

It wasn’t just the weight of the twins holding him down. Padmé’s dense collection of datapads and journals hung heavy from the duffle strapped across his chest and resting on his hip. He hadn’t had time to transfer them to a small mobile data chip. Leaving them behind wasn’t an option, so with him, they came. They were the last part he had of his wife, the twin’s mother. The physical evidence of her he could pass along to Luke and Leia when they inevitably asked of her. It hadn’t been an easy decision—he had to be ruthless about what he took with them. Only what he could carry; a small bag for which a lifetime of memories needed to fit.

He needed the artifacts. He wanted Padmé’s journals. With that, he had been forced to leave other things behind—the photos of Shmi, his large collection of complex tools and gadgets, and many of the twin’s favorite toys. All to bring Padmé’s journals. One more loss that rolled into the children.

He carried the weight of his world in his arms. One more level, he pleaded with the Force as deadly voices rumbled around them. Get me one more, and I’ll be yours to do with what you want. Just let me get them out.

Four Years Later

Two speeders kicked across the wide, flat field, spewing dirt and flora in its wake. Seas of wild grass stretched out, mingling with the sky on the horizon line. Gray clouds rolled in off the westward mountains--storms were on the way. Their energy was just starting to build. The temperature dropped with each mile, and the heady buzz of electricity danced over Anakin’s skin, igniting his senses. They would need to be fast to outrun the rain that was never far off on Nevos.

Anakin tilted the steering left towards town. Ahsoka followed him a beat later on the second speeder.

Seated in front of him, Leia cried out in excitement as she tried to catch a bright blue flower that flew past her visor. The bright green riding helmet she wore slowed her reactions. When the flower slipped through her fingers, she reached out with the Force to drag it back. Luke, seated behind Ahsoka with his thin arms wrapped around her waist, bumped against his bond with Anakin as he felt the Force move. His burnt-orange helmet wobbled as he instinctively reached out to his sister.

Anakin, headache brewing and feeling ill, stretched his power out. In an instant, he grabbed their bonds and gently stifled their exploration; like crimping a hose to cut off the flow of water. They were so powerful, so attuned it was almost unreal how innately it came to them. But they had inherited their connection to the Force from him, and that made him familiar with their tricks. It was the work of a moment to smother their combined attempt to drag the flowers along with them.

Stop he scolded them both. You know better than to play around like that out here.

Chasted, they backpedaled away from the Force, their bonds sinking to thin thread again. They radiated guilt and sullen grumpiness. Anakin mercilessly crushed his regret. It was for the best that the twins didn’t use the Force outside of their farm and surrounding lands--slip-ups like this would sink them all into the kind of trouble that they couldn’t afford to indulge. People asking questions was the quickest way to be discovered.

Ahsoka tilted her helmeted head towards him; she had noticed his muffling of the twins’ fun. He felt a flick like a fingernail popped against the shell of his ear. They’re just having fun.

He didn’t answer. The more the children explored the Force, the stronger they got. He could barely keep them all shielded and unremarked upon now--what would happen if someone saw them utilize the Force? What rumors would start? Who would those rumors bring?

No. Better that he kept their abilities in check.

When they parked near the town market, Leia ripped her helmet off. Her dark hair swept the same way Padmé’s would when she tossed it over her shoulder. Anakin’s heart ached at the sudden reminder.

She turned to him, her little face trying for innocence and contrition. “I’m sorry,” she said, voice small.

Anakin hugged her to his chest and kissed her hair to ease both of their frazzled nerves. Moments like this always left them jarred and on edge. “I know, kiddo. You just gotta be careful. Can you do that for me?”

“I’m just so bored.” Her expression turned sly. “Can we go to the junkyard? I promise we’ll behave. And it’ll keep us out of trouble!”

Ahsoka and Luke were close enough to hear her request (perfectly timed, supremely manipulative, Padmé would be so proud, Anakin was so proud and so annoyed). Three sets of eyes alight with excitement turned on him like primed predators.

The hot spice of frustration seared through him chased after by exhaustion and not a little chagrin. He hadn’t slept well for the past week, an ominous tension overtaking him whenever he closed his eyes. Paranoia came close on its heels, a well-acquainted state of being for him since he had left the Sith. Last night, he had walked the perimeter of their little homestead a dozen times over, checking and rechecking their security systems and outposts. It had made for long nights and a weakened resolve.

“We could look for that replacement wiring you keep saying we need for the eastern quadrant's security system,” Ahsoka tempted, adding a dash of reasonability to Leia’s charming gambit. She had found him on the porch earlier that morning, trying to stare down the horizon. Then, she had simply shoved a cup of kaf into his hands and sat beside him to watch the sunrise. Now, she cheerfully piled on.

In the distance, thunder rolled. The temperature was low enough to raise chills over his neck and the pressure irritated his growing headache. The market behind him bustled as vendors and shoppers both rushed to finish their transactions--he wasn’t the only one dreading being caught in the rain.

Urgh. When had he become so easy to ply? He shouldn’t reward this behavior. Leia already knew how to handle him like a primed podracer. He was sure Luke was taking notes, and Ahsoka had long ago learned that a wide-eyed, wobbly-lipped glance would get her through even the highest peaks of his anger and annoyance.

“Go on,” he broke. “Don’t grab anything that won’t fit on the speeder. Wait, come here.”

He hugged each of them, one at a time. Held them close and memorized them. Their physical warmth seeped into him, strengthening his bonds with each of them in turn until he could confidently find them anywhere in town.

Their enthusiasm flowed into him, squeezing through his soft shielding around their bonds; the prospect of spending the afternoon exploring the scrap piles rather than tailing after him while he haggled with the market vendors. New toys to play with...new things to fix…new things to learn….

His head pulsed, pain stabbing behind his eyes and through his skull. Anakin winced as the kids scampered off. Knuckles pressed into his temple, he breathed deep through the pain, swallowing it. Using it. Turned it into his shields and added his agony to the altar of the Force. From pain comes power, as his Master liked to say.

Stop. Stop exposing your children to your Master in the same thought. Just. Stop.

His vision cleared as the over-enthusiastic bond emotions receded far enough to clear his thoughts. They’d be fine, he assured himself. His hands were shaky. He fought his instinct to follow them, watch them, be sure they stayed safe, and away from the danger his anxiety swore was just around the corner.

There was nothing there. They weren’t going far. Anakin himself went further from home for longer periods when he was their age, and he’d been fine.

Ashoka stopped at the street corner. Turned back to him. Her sharp face smiled as her shoulders fell back in a confident tilt. Calm down. Anyone who comes for them--for you--will have to go through me. In their bond, she pushed her heartbeat against his. As one, they breathed. In, out. Again. Again.

You better find that wiring Anakin told her when he could think straight again. She smiled across the way and disappeared after the twins.

He was oddly weightless as he moved through the marketplace. His impulses kept urging him to turn around. To get out of the crowd. Find his family and drag them back to the relative safety of their farm.

He made himself find his preferred food stall instead.

The vendor’s eyes had alighted when she saw him coming down the aisle. She had a harried, rattled expression as her hands tried to wrangle life out of her dead credit reader. “Looking for work, Skywalker?”

“Always.”

“I’ll discount your bill if you can get this stupid thing working before I lose another sale.”

Anakin took the job and fixed the reader. It was a two-minute repair he stretched into a solid twelve. Being good at something was helpful--being shockingly good at something drew attention.

He chatted as he worked, angling for as much give as her goodwill and desperation would allow. If he played it right, he hoped to cut his grocery budget in half for the next week. When he handed the reader back, he tried a light push with it. It wasn’t his best skill by a long shot-- like a hammer trying to thread a needle--so he gave it only the slightest of touches.

The trick didn’t come naturally to him. Darth Vader had needed all the subtlety of a pack of raging bantha. It hadn’t been until Padmé and her spiraling conversations that he thought there was any worth in the slippery slick of a few choice words. Now he banked on her impromptu lessons like it was his most versatile tool.

“How’s about fifty percent?” he suggested when he released the reader and the push.

The vender scrunched her nose. “Thirty,” she offered, a wrinkle appearing in her forehead.

Anakin’s headache was back. “Let’s just settle at forty and call it a day, yeah?”

The vender looked like she was about to argue; above them, thunder rolled. The sky was blackening quicker than expected. She hastily tucked herself under her tent. “Forty, sure. Usual order?”

“Yeah.”

He didn’t utilize the credit reader, preferring to count out hard currency. Money (and money tracking) was something Anakin thought about a lot nowadays. It was new to him as everything else about his situation. When he had been a slave, money had been something outside his sphere of comprehension. It wasn’t like he had commanded any control on the income his work generated. It wasn’t like he’d ever collected enough to buy his freedom. It wasn’t like he’d ever had enough to free his mother.

Then Darth Sidious had found him. While under his Master's thumb, Anakin had wanted for nothing. He had been told (many times) that Sidious would have paid the galaxy itself to free him and his mother from the sands of Tatooine. His young ego had been thoroughly catered to with that bit.

He later suspected that Count Dooku had simply killed Watto when he brought up the price and payment options for two slaves.

Water plopped onto the back of Anakin’s neck, running down inside his collar. Automatic lights kicked on as sunlight disappeared. Throughout the marketplace, vendors surrendered their fights, folding up their stands and wares. The storm had rolled in.

***

A dense, resonating bang came from overhead.

“What was that?” Anakin called from the kitchen sink, elbows deep in water as he cleaned root vegetables. Silence followed. Ahsoka, mending a tear in one of Luke’s tunics at the kitchen table (and sticking herself with the needle every other stitch), cocked her ear to the ceiling. Tiny feet pattered around and muffled guilt seeped through their bonds.

“Should I go check on them?” she asked.

“Neh. I wanna see if they can fix whatever they just broke.” Luke was beginning to show more technical aptitude, but Leia had the cognitive skill to stay on task and not get distracted by things that often sidelined her brother, the tinkerer. Between the two of them, Anakin figured they had a shot.

“We should go out tonight,” Ahsoka suggested. “They’re antsy. I’m antsy. Even Artoo-ie’s antsy, aren’t you buddy?”

Artoo, acting as Ahsoka’s spindle, called an agreement, jostling as much as the thread would allow.

Anakin glanced out the window over the sink, the fragile glass panel propped open with a stray rock from the yard. The sun had well and truly set, dousing everything in murky darkness. The ground was nothing but mud, loose foliage, and rainwater runoff. The chill of the passing storm gave the air a crisp, alluring fragrance.

On the opposite edge of the sill sat Padmé’s official senatorial photograph, framed in a simple plastisteel case. Her serene face half-smiled back at him as he worked.

“Sure,” he agreed. “After dinner.”

Ahsoka grinned and tied off her thread with a triumphant hum.

The kitchen table was not for eating. Rather, it was a shared workbench boasting various projects: spare tools Anakin liked to have on hand and in easy reach; datapads stickered with Ahsoka’s haphazard notes; Luke’s painting supplies, left over from when he decorated his and his sister’s speeder helmets; bottles half-full of condensate from Leia’s rain catcher experiments. The Skywalker family ate standing up, shuffling their meager collection of plates between one another across the kitchen counter as they shared the latemeal.

“Go get your shoes, gremlins. We’re going out,” he ordered around his last mouthful. Artoo caught the plate that Leia nearly sent crashing to the ground with a disapproving whirl. Anakin muttered a soft ‘thank you’ as the droid set around the kitchen.

“Watch the house while we’re gone, yeah?” he asked. Artoo buzzed an affirmative, moving plates, toys, and assorted items from one hazardous place to another, less hazardous place.

Luke ended up wearing Leia’s hat. Leia got her shoes on backward in her haste. They all spent too much time searching for Ahsoka’s bad weather jacket before Anakin unearthed it from under the couch, stashed there during the construction of a massive blanket fort the week before.

Ahsoka waited until everyone--Anakin included--was properly clothed and shod before she opened the front door in a grand gesture. The tiny ones were gone in a flash, racing each other to the forest at the edge of their property line.

More than once during his tour of duty through parenthood he spared a thankful, longing thought for his mother. Shmi had raised him, alone and loving, in horrendous conditions. For all they had no control over their fates, Anakin never doubted her love for him and returned it tenfold. When his Master and Count Dooku had found him and told him of his freedom, Anakin had simply assumed Shmi was part of the deal. No-one stopped him from grabbing his mother’s hand and leading her out of the slave ghetto without a backward glance.

It wasn’t until he had left his Master that Anakin considered a grim possibility--the Sith had brought his mother along to relieve themselves of the burden of raising a seven-year-old. With two of his own to look after, he saw how unappealing a man like Count Dooku would have found the prospect. How does one go around telling the Chosen One, most powerful Force user in the galaxy, that vegetables were an important part of his meal?

He found himself pulling on the way Shmi once did things, repurposing them for the twins. The meals she cooked; the way she explained chores to him; most importantly, the games she created to occupy him during long nights.

“All right!” he called, lighting up his torch. The reedy beam of light hit the forest canopy in a thin ray, mist curling through it. “Find me something...blue!”

Luke and Leia dashed off in different directions. Ahsoka smirked and pointed to her montrals under her hood. “Done, Skyguy,” she said. Anakin tilted his torch up, illuminating his face so she could see him roll his eyes.

“Negative points,” he docked. “No imagination.”

“Give me something interesting to look for and I’ll try harder.” Her amusement was thick in their bond, enjoyment in their night raid making her loose and relaxed.

Luke turned up first with a feather that, upon inspection under the torch, was indeed a dark navy blue. Leia emerged through the darkness with a piece of blue plastisteel covered in dark, damp earth. They were both covered to their knees in rainwater mixed mud and breathlessly awaiting their next target.

“Find me something…” he ran his flesh fingers over the plastisteel, almost cutting himself on a sharp edge, “smooth.” And off they ran.

The game was easier on Tatooine, Anakin thought as he watched them run off. There the night sky was always clear and starlight offered gentle guidance. On Nevos, there were always clouds and damp.

Ahsoka stole the torch from him and aimed it high. The light struck a nest in the branches above them. The flashing eyes of the occupants reflected as they chittered, agitated. “Eggs are smooth.”

“Not always.” Anakin taunted. “Why don’t you climb up there and see?”

She huffed and returned the torch. “You just want to see me get bitten.” She reached down and dug through the dirt for a moment. Eventually, she produced a large, soft leaf that felt like silk in his palm.

“Think it’s poisonous?” she muttered with half a smile. Anakin blanched and transferred it to his mechanical hand, just to be sure.

Leia came back first this time: she eagerly dropped a smooth-shelled beetle into his hand. Luke, a few minutes later, grudgingly produced a worn down riverstone. “It was all I could find,” he grumbled.

“You don’t like it?”

“It’s too easy,” his son complained. “I wanted to find something cool—like a...like a...like a razor talon.”

Anakin was suddenly very glad he hadn’t asked for something sharp. Luke had a habit of finding exactly what he wanted, most of the time. He gave the leaf to the beetle and left them both for the nest’s inhabitants. The rock went into his pocket. Time to up the ante, now that they were warmed up. “Find me something...that’s known hardship.”

Ahsoka grinned and finally disappeared into the darkness along with the twins. Away from their immediate line of sight, Anakin lowered the torch and closed his eyes. Braced himself.

And was still nearly knocked off his feet. A wave of everything hit him from three separate bonds. They vibrated with life and emotions, shooting from intriguing to pleasurable to ferocious to staggering within the space of two heartbeats. Anakin curled into himself and desperately tried to catch his breath.

It was like wading through an overflooding house that happened to be on fire as a tornado screamed down on the roof. No matter where he turned, there was a hub of radical energy bearing down on him. It was all he could do to keep the walls up and the roof intact; there was no saving the window dressing, so he chucked out finesse and fancy techniques for pure strength.

Steadying himself with his hands on his knees, he dragged the pain and intensity inward. Used it as fuel to construct himself. Let it heat him from the inside out as he built a foundation on quicksand.

He forced his chest to expand and contract, expand and contract until he felt sure enough to hold off gravity. Combatted their intensity with his own and rebalanced the scales between them all. Hammered a path through the mess back to his body, until his feet were steady back under him, his eyes tilted towards the dark and dripping forest canopy.

“Sound off!” he bellowed into the nothingness.

“One!” Ahsoka shouted back. She was to his left, somewhere in the dark.

“Two!” Luke yelled. Not far from Ahsoka. Higher--was he climbing a tree?

“Three!” Leia; the furthest away. Almost directly in front of him in the distance.

Through the haze avalanching through bonds, small, distinct nuances emerged. Ahsoka’s simmered. She tried to rein herself in. Showing the self-awareness to understand what was too much--she just didn’t have the control down yet. Four years of training with him wasn’t enough to counterbalance twenty-one years of confusing and muddled existence.

She circled back to him, questing out with her senses. Mapping the terrain around her in quick, dramatic sketches. Submerging herself in the Force and letting it guide her steps. Oh, but she was learning so quickly. Anakin was sure she’d put any Sith apprentice she ever came up against to shame.

The Force eventually led her back to him with a long, splintered bone, picked clean and bearing deep bite marks that had ripped chunks from the surface. With an approving nod, it went into his pocket.

Next came Luke with an uprooted stem of a spiky flower--Anakin didn’t need to touch it to feel its bitter fight for survival on the forest floor.

“No razor talons?” he asked when Luke showed off the thumb-sized thorns. And the scratches he earned from it.

“Nah--maybe I’ll find them later.”

Please don’t, Anakin silently pleaded.

Leia stumbled out of the darkness, her hair a mess and dirt over her nose. She handed him the same spiky plant with a proud flourish and cuts to prove her conquest.

“You copied me!” Luke accused, pointing to his plucked plant.

“I did not! I didn’t even see you!” Leia shot back, her little chin firming up in a stubborn tilt.

His budding headache was a familiar companion at this point. Anakin whistled sharply to cut the argument off at the head. This wasn’t going to become a repeat of last month’s seedcone debacle on his watch. “Come here,” he ordered as he took both plants. “Why’d you bring me this?”

He held his breath as three bonds dialed themselves into the Force, probing the plant’s being. It was almost like tuning a radio--now that they had the frequency, they needed to calculate for the bandwidth. It became easier to think straight as they aligned themselves with him, their minds becoming linear and flowing.

“Fighting,” Luke said immediately. “For..sun? Yeah, warmth. And water. It wants to live, but it’s hard to do it out here.”

Leia glared at him, annoyed that her answer got taken. Anakin redirected her, tugged her attention deeper, and she wrinkled her nose as she probed at the plant.

“Rocks,” she finally said, stretching the syllables out as she put the words together into a thought. “It only grows around rocks. Not dirt, like everything else out here.”

Anakin looked at Ahsoka with a raised eyebrow. I’m waiting. Exasperated, she reached out and stroked the thorns with a careful finger. He waited as she pushed deeper, learning the internal being of the greenery. Finally, she concluded: “It’s not indigenous. Someone abandoned it out here, decades ago. It’s just trying to survive.” But I’ll stick with my bone shard she told him.

Anakin nodded, pushing them all along the path that didn’t lead to an argument in the middle of the forest. “So it drew everyone. That’s because it was calling for you. And you listened. Good job.” He put the plants down and smacked the dirt off his hands. “If the two of you found it, it must have wanted attention. There’s no copying when it comes to the game--it’s all about listening and finding. Yeah?”

Luke grumbled. Leia’s mouth swished across her face.

“Yeah?” Anakin asked louder.

“Yeah,” they said in reluctant tandem.

“Good!” He’d take it. “Now, next round. Find me something...that’s older than you but younger than me.”

Argument already forgotten, they scampered away--and he was hit with another wave of everything. The twins had no foundational concept of ‘too much’. They were simply too young, and too used to Anakin’s overwhelming presence. To them, this was normal.

He crouched in the dirt to save his balance. Breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth until his vision stopped spinning. Refocused the hurt to something productive.

A soft hand landed on his shoulder. Ahsoka hadn’t left the clearing yet. When he turned upwards, her eyes were far too perceptive, and a foreign concern pinged deep in him. “You gonna be alright?”

“I’m right as rain, Snips,” he assured her through the rattled scrambles that was his center. Oh, but if he ever needed a reason why the twins weren’t allowed to access their sensitivity out of his supervision, this was it. If not for the Sith artifact hiding them, their signatures would draw attention from the other side of the galaxy.

The Force roiled within Luke; a volcano of constant activity. Billowing, belching, smoking, consuming everything around him, transforming it into his own with nothing but sheer strength. Anakin didn't control Luke’s growth so much as he hemmed it in, acting as the fathomless seawater that cooled and condensed his son’s dripping inferno. When he got older, Luke would be a damn force of nature. Not one to be stopped or contained, but simply endured.

His daughter had been a source of concern for Anakin at first. Her connection to the Force was unlike anything he had ever encountered. But then he had realized--Leia was a starship. Complex and compact. Speedy and silent. Intricate, delicate wires configured in barely comprehensible patterns. Disturb one node and the whole system would be thrown into chaos. Anakin had a handle on her wiring now; it was just a matter of teaching her the right programming.

No one would ever doubt what Luke was, but they’d never see Leia coming.

“Aren’t you supposed to be looking for something?” Anakin griped when Ahsoka moved to support him.

“If I thought I could leave you alone long enough to look, I would. But I’d hate for the tinies to find you passed out in the dirt when they come back.”

Anakin gave up trying to stay on his feet and found a half-dry seat on a large knotted root. “I’m fine, ‘soka. Really. Just need a night’s uninterrupted sleep.”

She didn’t believe him. That was fair--he barely believed himself.

A dull thud. The Force combusted with frenzied energy, like fire on the tongue. A pained wail rose over the noise of the forest--Dad! Luke screamed out.

Anakin was on his feet and running before he knew what had happened. He didn’t have the torch anymore. Must have lost it somewhere. Didn’t matter. He kept running. Ducked and darted through the forest. Followed Luke’s bond back to him.

There! Anakin skidded to a halt and fell to his knees beside his son. Luke sat curled up on the ground, his face in his knees as he cried. The side of his trousers was ripped--he was bleeding.

“What happened?! Luke, tell me what happened?”

Through his sobs, Anakin gathered that Luke had fallen out of the tree. He had been three or four branches up, searching for who knew what. Had misjudged a branch and lost his footing. Fallen, and called out in fear and ugly surprise before the pain hit. Anakin slowly checked the wound--

--it was already healing. Amazed, Anakin touched at the edges of the scratch. As he watched in the too faint moonlight reflected on the shiny leaves of the forest, it went from fresh, to clotted, to scabbed, to scarred over.

“Oh,” he whispered. That was new.

“What? What?!” Luke’s big eyes welled over with fresh tears. His hands flexed as his breath came short and frantic. Anakin did his best to soothe him, bowled over by what he had seen.

“It’s okay, kiddo,” he repeated over and over. “It’s okay. You’re alright.”

“No, I’m not!” Luke howled.

“Luke--”

“No!”

There was no consoling him; his fear and shock overrode any attempt at calm. Anakin gathered him in his arms and rocked him, together in the clinging wet earth, surrounded by darkness.

The Force rang in his ears, discordant and anxious. Deafening him to anything else. He couldn’t tell if it started with him or Luke, but they passed it back and forth at blinding speed, each racketing the other up higher and higher into the bubbling Force. Suffocating and all-encompassing. There was no escaping or eluding--they could only endure the building pressure. Anakin pulled his son close and braced him, trying desperately to ground him into the here and now.

It hurt to breathe. His head was full of rusted nails and spiky barbed wire. Embedded so deep there was no hope of untangling it. It wrung pain from him at every movement.

Luke sobbed into his shoulder, overwhelmed by the sheer flood of the Force running roughshod over him. Fear and uncertainty, the scary confusion, and the feeling of being too full, too open, soak into their bond. His little fists beat into Anakin’s shoulder in a fruitless attempt to make him understand.

And he did.

There were some times Anakin saw nothing but Padmé in their children; in their curiosity, their intelligence, and their kindness. Their want to know not only ‘why’ but also ‘how’ and ‘what’ and ‘when’. Other times, when their manic energy and their radical swings between emotional highs and lows came to the foreground, he knew he was to blame.

He fought through his pain to wrap his mind around his son’s, dense seawater finding every crack and crevasse until it doused the fire. He was frantic for Luke to feel something, anything, other than the big thundering emotions rampaging through him.

“I know, I know,” he muttered, over and over. Because he did. “It’s so much. I’m sorry. I know.”

This was his legacy to his children—all the emotions and none of the control.

***

The rain came down hard on their roof; wind lashed the trees into flat green lines. Anakin, drawn to the tumultuous energy of the storm, sat on the porch as he worked their neighbor’s drilling sensor. It had begun to pick up odd frequencies that kicked it out of its programming and disrupted the larger machines it ran. His headache was set at a low simmering against his temples.

Artoo beeped and rattled beside him, tucked between two wooden supports.

“What? Oh,” Anakin reached over and wiped the water off Artoo’s lens. The little droid chirped thanks.

“Yeah, it’s not the best weather for you, is it?”

Beep.

“Better than sand, though. You wouldn’t have liked that, either. It gets everywhere. Tatooine deserts have swallowed up more than a few droids.”

A series of screeching bleeps and whirls.

“Sorry, buddy. Didn’t mean to scare you.” He watched the storm clouds gallop through the sky, looming low enough to threaten the treetops.

“I’ve put you through a lot, haven’t I?”

Beeeeeeeeep.

“Yeah. I’ll admit I wasn’t in my right mind, after Padmé.”

Whiirl beep beep.

“Look it’s...I’m glad you were on her ship and...and came with her when she married me. I’m glad you stayed after she...”

Burrrrringg beep beep wwwwwwhirrl.

“I miss her, too.”

A great shattering echoed inside the house. Surprised screaming and the heavy running of the guilty away from the scene of the crime. A spike of pain that didn’t belong to him echoed in his mechanical hand. Anakin stilled, turned.

“Everything’s fine!” Ahsoka called.

Anakin glanced at Artoo, hopeful. The droid beeped once, low and flat, and didn’t budge. He sighed and got to his feet. “Fine, I guess it’s my turn.”

***

It wasn’t just the twins who needed care and feeding.

“Let’s go, Skyguy!”

They left the twins asleep in their beds under Artoo’s watchful lens and (after the required two cups of kaf Anakin needed to function) took the speeders into the dawn. The morning was gloomy, with a constant drizzle soaking everything. Just a typical day on Nevos.

“Race you!” Ahsoka yelled from just ahead of him. Her grin was lightening--all energy and awe.

Anakin kicked open the throttle with some satisfaction. Since it was just the two of them, they moved in dangerous style. Shot through the forest, banking, and swerving around trees and greenery with reckless abandon. Climbed the foothills into the mountains, out-stretching one another as they rushed towards the sky. Daring disaster with hairpin turns and unsteady maneuvers created entirely on instinct.

Through the soft shields he kept between their bond during the day-to-day, he could just pick up her thrill at the freedom the speed incited in her. No one could catch them out here, on ground they intimately knew, where their energies ruled supreme.

It felt good. Like stretching after an afternoon crouched over his workbench. The release from a build-up of pressure that made everything work just a little easier after. He kicked his engine into high gear and tilted the speeder slightly to balance better, letting it tell him what it wanted.

In front of him, barely visible through the rain, Ahsoka screamed with delight as she took a hill at top speed, slinging herself into weightless suspension on the downturn. Her montrals caught up in the wind around her head. It had been a temper tantrum for the ages when the twins realized that the no speeder riding without a helmet rule didn’t extend to Ahsoka and Anakin.

They reached the small cave after the sun had well and truly risen. Ahsoka shook the wet dirt and rainwater off her shoulders and clothes. It was a losing battle; they were both covered in leaves, mud, and wind-chilled skin. He’s only attempt to correct things was a quick shake of his head to whip out the worst of the water from his loose, ropey curls.

Ahsoka unloaded their gear while Anakin made sure the speeders wouldn’t slide down the side of the mountain in a skate of sludge and loose gravel. They’d been through that adventure before, as well. No need for a repeat.

“You good to run a maintenance check?” he called over the echoing fall of rain. She called an affirmative from inside the cave. Once he had everything strapped down and solidly stationary, he followed her in.

The cave was a warm cloud of humidity--almost unbearably so. Steam rose from his clothes, water evaporating off them in the heat. A byproduct of the constant energy the Sith artifact poured out. The frame Anakin had built around it kept the little cube suspended in a case of wires, nodes, and ports. The sides cast a red light over the walls of the cave and Ahsoka, kneeling to reach the control panel at the base. She hummed a tuneless pattern as she worked, checking and rechecking each component. By now, she knew its inner workings as well as he did.

The Sith artifact emitted a steady pulse above her. Don’t look at me, it whispered into the Force. I’m not here. Go somewhere else.

The cube pulled at him, calling to him like an old, familiar nursery rhyme. It knew him as Sith and wanted him to utilize and dominate it, power it like it was meant to be. This constant state of defense was unnatural to it.

But Sith he was--he forced his will onto it, demanding compliance. Hold. Continue. Redirect. He had relied on the artifact to keep them hidden from his Master and the rest of his apprentices for four years. It had yet to fail him.

“Everything looks good,” Ahsoka reported as she stepped away. “We’re going to want to replace the power coil in another few months, though. It's starting to corrode.”

“We’ll put it on the list,” Anakin agreed. He knelt to perform his own double-check. (He trusted Ahsoka. He did. It was just...he was already having trouble sleeping as it was. He just had to make sure. His sanity rather depended on it.)

She must have felt his paranoia through their bond; she ceded her spot to him without a fight.

“Now that we’re well away from little ears, are we going to talk about what happened in the forest?” she asked when he was done. He concurred with her findings--that power coil was going bad quick.

“With Luke? Yeah, I’ve got no idea where that came from.” And that unsettled Anakin to an absurd degree. Were his kids just creating powers now?

“With you.”

Anakin sat back. “You worried about me, Snips?”

“I think you’d be too if your sorta-kinda mentor looked like he was one stiff shove away from collapsing.”

Anakin’s mouth swished across his face. Ahsoka wasn’t his apprentice. It was a bit of a sticking point for him. Yes, he had taken on her education and well being as his responsibility. Yes, he cared for her like she was his own. Yes, they had a bond. It could almost be called a training bond. One forged from necessity and affinity and shared trauma.

But he had never taken her through the rituals that would confirm and formalize that relationship. He had never called her his apprentice in the old traditions of his Order. Had never asked for her to bend her knees and recognize him as her Master.

“You don’t want a Sith in your head,” he had told her, time and time again.

“Skyguy, you’re already there,” was always her answer.

He made excuses: he wasn’t sure he remembered the rituals well enough to replicate them without error. Consequences for any mistake could--would--be disastrous for them both. He didn’t want to bring that kind of darkness and insecurity into their relationship. There would be no controlling it, once forged. It would be chaos in a fragile bottle.

He wasn’t ready for someone to call him Master. He didn’t think she was ready to call him that, either.

A warm hand rested on his knee, drawing him back. She had waited while his thoughts circled back, sitting cross-legged before him.

“You know I won’t let anything happen to you,” he said.

“You know what Padmé says about deflection,” she replied, emotion rooted deep in her eyes. “It’s only ever temporary. And it won’t solve anything.”

He winced. In Ahsoka, he found all his flaws highlighted to an unmissable degree. He knew how to teach her the physical: how to protect herself in a galaxy that wanted her dead or enslaved. How to be distrustful and watchful, alert to dangers that stalked in the shadows. How to fight and move and keep herself safe.

He could teach her that her emotions were her greatest weapons. That her fury and her joy and her desires were stronger than any flaccid, temporary peace.

How could he teach her the subtleties of the world? How to combat the double-speak and passive-aggressive not-agreements that oozed slick like oil around those in power? To think not just in the linear, but in the circular as well? To lead not just with her instincts but also with her heart?

In this, Padmé once again saved him. He didn’t know where he’d be without her writings. Her journals and thoughts, recorded in volumes upon volumes. More and more, he turned to her opinions to aid his teachings and his thoughts. Like tenets in their family’s religion, she guided them all.

And Padmé told them: tell the truth when you can. Don’t lie when you can’t.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” he finally admitted, pained to show such weakness in front of her. He used that pain to force out the words that tangled somewhere between his brain and his mouth. “I won’t give our bonds up. The twins need them. You need them. I think I...well, a little discomfort is worth that.”

She looked unconvinced. Concern, worry, and not a little fear hung between them, heavier than any rain-soaked piece of clothing.

No--Anakin wouldn’t allow them to sit here in misery. This wasn’t what he wanted for the day. This was supposed to be their time to play, unrestricted by the dynamic of the twins. Time to move along.

He reached into his pack and pulled out a quartz crystal ball about the size of his palm. Heavy and polished, the whirls and divots across its surface were well-worn and familiar. It was a recurring tool in Ahsoka’s training, linked to both of them since the beginning of their relationship. He stood up and tossed it down to Ahsoka. “Stop moping and show me what you’ve got.”

She smirked. It alighted her face. She stood and curled around the crystal, touch, and Force bending into one. When she let go, it hovered before her, suspended.

Anakin grinned and held out a hand. She threw it towards him with a flick of her fingers. He caught it, took a step back, and returned it to her over the widened distance with a flick of the Force. Back and forth the crystal moved, further and further Anakin moved away until he was out of the cave and into the weather.

The overcast sky brewed up a storm. Anakin could feel it calling to him. He hid in its energy, forcing Ahsoka to pay close attention to the small giveaways of his location now that she could no longer see him.

He moved upward, towards the storm. The path up the mountain became a ledge. The thin air dipped colder. The ball hovered, wavering in place as Ahsoka worked to track him. He held out a hand, waiting, until she worked out what was the storm and what was him, and sent it flying at him with more speed than was strictly necessary. His flesh hand working through the Force as his mechanical one clung to the rock.

He counted to five and sent the ball back to the cave at a meandering pace.

The ledge tapered into a series of narrow ridges. To keep going, he had to think carefully about where he put his hands, where he shifted his weight, how he breathed. His fingers strained against the sharp points of the rock face. The summit of the mountain loomed above him.

Summoned him. He climbed to reach it.

These trips weren’t all about Ahsoka. In moments like this, Anakin reached for a place of total focus. With all his physicality needed to stay on the mountain, with all his focus needed to pass the ball back and forth with Ahsoka, for all his concentration needed to plot his course, his world went quiet.

The rain came down harder in the higher altitude, the wind screamed stronger. He had to concentrate on his handholds, where he placed his feet. The thrill of the complicated situation, the delicate balance of what his body could do woven into his sense of the Force, awaking him, exciting him. Urging him onward, another stretch, another deep, comforting ache.

In this one place of complete and unbridled risk, alone in the elements, the Force finally, finally quelled to nothing. His connection, always open and broadcasting, sank into a muted whisper. Peace at last. If he had to dangle over a precipice to get that little moment of calm, well...that’s what he’d do.

Feeling suicidal, Skyguy?

The quartz ball sailed towards him, near-invisible in the rain. The parting of the atmosphere was easier to track, moving against the downpour. He shifted his weight against the sheer rock, closed his eyes against the rain, and caught it. Counted to five as it hovered in front of his face. Sent it back with a hard fling.

He held still, at the mercy of the unmovable mountain. Waited. Spread his senses wide. His body was a mess of tense muscles and freezing skin. He shook his head back, letting the rainfall into his face. In this place of certain death, his headache was gone.

He’d cry with relief if he could spare the thought to do so.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

Anakin leaned back into the rock and opened his eyes. “And down we go,” he told the drenched mountain. Tell me which way he instructed Ahsoka.

There was a pause. Put your foot on the rock on your left, just above the ridge she ordered. He closed his eyes and trusted his safety to her. Easy as that. Down he climbed on nothing but her instructions.

Ahsoka was sweating by the time he made it back to her and the overheated cave. “I don’t like that part,” she panted, catching her breath as she braced herself against the cave wall.

“Which part?”

“The part where you just trust that I’ll get you down without killing you.”

Ah. Oddly, that part never bothered Anakin. “You’re getting much better,” he praised.

Her eyes found him, a quick dart of mischievousness. “Good enough for a lightsaber?”

An old argument circled back on. His reaction was knee-jerk. “A lightsaber isn’t a weapon--it’s a signal for the idiotic and the dangerous to pick a fight with you. Are you that eager to put a target on your back?”

“Better I know it’s there and can fight them off.” She defended. He couldn’t think she was entirely wrong. But only two types of people wielded lightsabers, and the only thing worse than the Sith finding them would be the arrival of the dreaded, puritanical, rigid Jedi.

***

The weather was awful, even by Nevos standards. The sun had not been seen since the beginning of the week before. The rain belched down in gushing rushes, flooding out the roads and fields, and leaving a mildew smell everywhere. The deluge had brought the water bugs out, buzzing and biting with unpleasant consistency.

He wouldn’t have come out in the whole mess, but the local magistrate had offered him double his usual fee if he could get the man’s run-down and out of date protocol droid up and running within a cycle. He had stayed up through the night to get it done.

Luke had kicked a screaming fit when he realized Anakin hadn’t meant to bring them to town with him. Leia hadn’t been far behind. Anakin had broken down and agreed to let them come along in the hope that, once they relieved their cabin fever, the household could survive until the rains eased to moderate levels.

When they arrived, Anakin kicked the speeder off, not letting go of Leia until the motor stilled and the frame stopped rumbling.

“Daaad, lemme go!” she insisted, kicking her feet out. She had been fidgety, anxious, and uncooperative all morning, breaking her toys, fighting with Luke, refusing to do even simple chores. Her mood was a blistering mess of anger, anxiety, and a dash of fear--it had been all morning, dragging her father and brother into her bad mood without restraint. Anakin frankly was at the end of his patience.

“Leia!” he scolded when she kicked him, his tone dropping into a register the twins rarely heard. She stilled, sullen, and refused to meet his eyes when he nudged her. The rain streamed down, harsh and cold. His old headache was near agonizing levels, helped along by the weather and his infernal children.

“Here--give her to me. I’ll take them around town,” Ahsoka called over the weather from the other speeder. Luke was behind her, his helmeted face pressed into her back. He too had been uncommunicative and quiet after his earlier temper tantrum. His bond was as chaotic as his sister’s.

Grateful for a reprieve from both of their moods, Anakin passed Leia over. It wouldn’t be for long, he told his guilty feelings. Just over to the magistrate and back, then he’d drag them all home and lock them in their rooms for a little peace and quiet.

The magistrate lived in the center of town. The roads were no better than in the country, collecting rainwater by the meter. When he dismounted, the water lapped as high as his knees in some places.

The magistrate was thrilled to see him. Until Anakin reminded him of their agreed-upon fee. The man hemmed and hawed as Anakin’s headache grew, fueled by irritation--the kind he hadn’t felt since he commanded star cruisers. “Ohh, but it...it wasn't a really difficult job, was it? You got it done so quickly.”

Anakin pressed his hand to eyes, pressing down to numb the stabbing ache behind them. “Double--we agreed,” he all but snarled.

“I just can’t see it. I mean look, what if the whole thing rusts over from that trip in the rain!”

Anakin opened his mouth to rip into the man, ire building up to an epic boil. There was something anticipatory and anxious in the air that set his teeth on edge. It felt like the Force had draped itself over his shoulders, bearing down on him. Like it wanted to push him into the water and leave him there to drown.

His spine snapped straight, pulled tight by intuition.

His mouth was sandpaper dry as danger came.

Electricity sparked on his tongue.

The Force screeched, discordant and jumbled.

Dad!--Anakin!--Dad!

Three calls came in at once, screaming across the town. Fear, bone-deep and gut-wrenching, through three bonds woven into his psych, nearly drove him to his knees. Anakin staggered back, limbs flailing as his body caught up with his mind’s imperative need to move move move!

Words weren’t available to spare. His thoughts stopped short of coherency. His power pulled into his body, taking hold of his limbs, his eyes, his hands, his malice. He had one desire, one demand. Get to his family.

He ran, heedless of the sputtering magistrate, the speeder, and the flood. None of that mattered.

He ripped through town like a storm previously unknown. Pooling rainwater turned to rivers before him, running out of his way. Thunder came from his footfalls. Lightning from his fingertips. He slammed through an alley like hell-come-forth and burst into a rundown courtyard that butted against the junk scraps on the edge of town. Reed woven awnings, splintered and split with age, diverted water into the yard in relentless drums. The locals who would normally be there had fled with the weather, finding shelter elsewhere.

They were alone. Any restraint Anakin had retained snapped free.

Ahsoka was backed into the relative safety of a covered corner with two wet lumps that had better be the twins wedged under her weather jacket. Her face was wain and set. There was blood on her nose and over her cheeks. She had a weapon of some kind in her hand, something long and blunt. The rain made it hard to distinguish details.

Or perhaps that was his fury cutting out unnecessary information.

In the center of the courtyard, a body sprawled across the ground, chard flesh mingling with the messy slop. Anakin’s heart stopped in his throat until his eyes confirmed three times over that no, that wasn’t one of his. None of his family was dead on the ground. The body wasn’t his problem.

However, the man still standing was most definitely his problem. Fair-haired and bearded, wearing light-colored robes soiled under layers of mud and blood. He was unsteady on his feet, caught in the act of checking the body when Anakin appeared. He looked up.

Clear blue eyes pierced the muck, the rain, and the rage to pin Anakin down, steady and true. His expression aligned with his surety in the Force, which coalesced around him in intricate patterns. Anakin’s awareness drew him like iron to a magnetic field.

Confident. Intelligent. Captivating. Dangerous.

Anakin didn’t think; he stalked forward, violent intent rolling off him like his cape of old. He didn't have a weapon, so he would have to do this the old-fashioned way. The wary look the man wore broke into something sharp and focused as he realized he had an enemy bearing down on him.

“Stop--I don’t want to hurt you,” he urged. His words came with a nudge from the Force. Anakin laughed with hysterical vigor and charged.

A familiar hiss. A vision of blue light. A lightsaber flashed between them as the man ducked away.

A Jedi.

Anakin barely dodged in time to avoid losing a limb. (Not again, his vicious mind growled, pushing him further into his anger). He dropped low and struck out, aiming for the man’s knees, herding him back from Ahsoka and the twins.

Why had he never considered the Jedi coming for them? Stupid, sloppy--too focused on one enemy, he missed the other, creeping up behind him. Anakin’s will solidified in the Force. He was sure of his desire. He’d kill this man who came near his family.

It shouldn’t be hard--the man was already injured. There was blood seeping through his filthy robes. He favored his right side; Anakin recognized the opening salvos of Soresu as he built a defensive circle. Really?

Anakin took the next strike head-on. Caught the lightsaber’s arc in the Force as it came down on him. Absorbed the pain that ricocheted down his arm. Turned the momentum and pushed it back. Jolting the Jed onto the backfoot. Thrust his free hand into the man’s face. Set his intention screaming into his enemy’s mind: Lay down and die!

He pressed the message in with all his rage and terror, harder than he had ever done with the twins or any random vendor. Harder even than he had with that young Sith apprentice years ago. He demanded compliance from the man, and come hell and high water, he’d get it.

Cold rainfall lashed at their ankles. The lightsaber was hot in his hand.

The Jedi gasped and shuttered. Anakin felt his consciousness bend. Just a little more. He drew on power that left him breathless and dizzy, his head screaming as he drove it to give him more and more, flashing open old wounds to bleed anew.

Anakin nearly had it. The Jedi hadn’t been expecting an attack through the Force. He floundered, startled by the sheer intensity of the attack, and at a loss at where it was coming from. Anakin dug deep, sacrificed any advantage in subtlety or subterfuge. Like a blowtorch against a stubborn weld, he sought any weakness in the Jedi’s mind he could exploit for a quick, brutal end.

The balance between them shifted; the Jedi jerked the lightsaber out of the equation, throwing off Anakin’s equilibrium; without a force to press against, he stumbled forward into the man’s chest and shoulders, who took his weight with only a grunt of protest.

It was nothing compared to what his mind ran up against. His probing attacks slammed against something solid and unmovable. Something patiently unyielding. Startled, he looked up, through the Force, into reality.

Piercing blue eyes hardened, pinned him dead to rights, and a stubborn chin set in a determined tilt. Anakin’s will ran smack into shields that didn’t so much shatter as flex and expand, encompassing him. Light and warmth flooded his extremities, rattling his concentration. It softened everything in his head, muffling sound and fury alike, smothering him into submission. Cutting off his connections, sealing him in with the Jedi and nothing else. Sending him staggering backward into the arms of gravity. The sheer intensity of the Jedi’s towering defense shocked him to a stop, left him open and isolated.

Quiet. Like the mountain in the center of the storm, his mind went quiet.

Anakin’s steps faltered. His mind boggled.

“How…”

The unsettling Jedi’s answer was the swing of his lightsaber. Anakin pushed off the man and fell back to avoid losing his head, opening up the space between them.

Panic set in, sharp and real. He couldn’t remember the last time that attack hadn’t worked. Somewhere, he was sure Dooku was laughing. His ears rang from the sudden silence. He was dizzy, his vision gray at the edges with delirious adoration. The pain was gone; no headache pounding down his temples, no buzzing sensation across his skin. The loss left him giddy and light-headed, grasping for reason as he circled the Jedi.

Blue eyes bore into him, pushing him further off-center with their intensity. With each step, the Jedi mirrored him. Migrated in tandem across the courtyard. His steps were light, tentative—his wounds slowing him down. His face reeked of curiosity as he watched Anakin. Observed him, like an undiscovered, unconquered land.

“Who are you?” the Jedi asked. Anakin snarled and spat, clearing surprise from his mouth. He circled, placing himself between his enemy and his family--he wasn’t sure how they’d been found, but he’d be damned if he didn’t put this man into the ground.

“I truly mean no harm. Have you considered that you might be overreacting?”

“Jedi always lie,” he hissed, scrambling for familiar footing. His connection to the Force was slow and sluggish to respond; muffled like he was calling from deep within a well, holding his breath while it echoed.

The Jedi didn’t turn away or wince in guilt or embarrassment. If anything, his water-logged face looked sad. “I think you know that’s not true. Or you wouldn’t be so fearful of me.”

Enough of this, Anakin impulsively decided as his temper flared up, outraged at the accusation. There was no point in talking with a Jedi. It just gave the man time to try prying into Anakin’s mind. He surged forward, salvaging for a fault in the solid wall of the Jedi's defense.

He half-planned for the lightsaber, thinking to keep it at bay with sheer power and the all-too weak Force he currently commanded. As if to mock him, the Jedi deactivated it and slipped inside his reach. Quick hands grabbed the front of his tunic. A strong shoulder stalled his momentum. Their combined weight slammed them both sideways. Anakin was swept off his feet as he locked into the offending wrist. The Jedi controlled their fall.

Anakin landed flat on his back in rainwater. Along the way, the Jedi had put a hand on the back of his head to keep him from slamming it into the duracrete. A solid knee planted in Anakin’s chest, leaning in to keep him pinned.

“Stop fighting me, if you please,” the Jedi said. He spoke softly--Anakin felt a light touch at his mind, like fingers cupping the side of his face to urge his eyes up. The giddy feeling was back, his traitorous mind all aflutter and loopy at the sudden loss of pain.

Anakin struggled against the Jedi’s hold and got exactly nowhere. He wasn’t strong enough to break away, his body much more interested in staying close to this new source of relief and quiet. So much easier than dangling off the side of a mountain.

“How are you doing that?” he sputtered, hands scrambling over the Jedi’s shoulders, greedy impulses wanting to pull him closer. His mind wavered in eight directions, all too intrigued by this new power. Something in him surrendered to that feeling, staring at the calm, hurt eyes above him. He wanted to explore, to inhabit. To discover something he hadn’t experienced since Padmé.

“Doing what?”

Anakin opened his mouth. And lost his words to a new surge of power.

As abruptly as it had left him, the Force returned, shocking him down to his fingertips. Feelings that didn’t belong to him rose through the splintered remains of his shields. His breath caught and his back violently arched, surprising the Jedi, as tears pricked his eyes, overwhelmed by the sudden onslaught. Anakin had forgotten he wasn’t alone in his mind.

The twins! They had felt his shields collapse. And they had reacted, instinctually, reaching for that deep well in the Force, just like he had taught them. A pair of suns blossomed in the back of his mind, overtaking everything else. Luke and Leia, rising with a vengeance born of a violent need to protect him. Anakin scrambled to clamp down on the bonds, crimping them off like he always had. To reassure them that no, everything will be alright.

It was no use. They didn’t understand what was happening. All they knew was that he wasn’t getting up. He wasn’t fighting anymore. That he was hurt and pinned and couldn’t get to them. He felt their young fear and panic flooding through their bonds, seizing control. And with Anakin’s shields shattered and his connections cut off, nothing was stopping them. Like the inevitable dawn, they rose.

No! Stop!

The atmosphere released in a noiseless explosion around them.

Suddenly, Anakin wasn’t in control of his body anymore. He became a conduit, a connection from one point in the Force to another. On one end, Luke and Leia, joined by bonds of blood and love, climbed to heights previously unknown. Together, they brought forth an avalanche of power; fire and electricity recreating the world in their image.

On the other side of the bond was an unsuspecting Jedi. Unbridled power slammed into the man, burning away his strong defenses like paper. The tenuous bond he had formed with Anakin became a conducting rod as the twins instinctively lashed out at the man hurting their father. He gasped and shuddered above Anakin, losing himself in the stunning assault. Blue eyes closed as he grimaced, cracking under the strain. His mind rolled in agony.

Anakin froze, unsure of what to do stuck between two points.

The rain fell cold on his face. Steamed the breath he shared with the Jedi hovering over him.

Fingers tightened their grip in his hair, small points of comfortable pain he used to find some grounding through the paralyzing Force.

In the distance, thunder rolled.

Anakin let his instincts answer for his conscience. Reaching up, he took the Jedi’s face in his hands. Stepped into the small space in between the suns. Without thinking, Anakin kissed him, deep and intense. Connected to him, body and mind. Opened himself up to absorb the power the twins ricocheted through the man. Pulled him in, urged him into the protection of Anakin’s chaotic inner thoughts, offered him shelter from the storm with intense warmth and soft lips.

This deep in the Force, there was no peace, only passion.

The Jedi gripped his shoulders and breathed into the kiss, bringing life and energy with him. Anakin’s toes curled with the hot, heavy pressure of the Force bearing down on them. This, this connection, this high, was what his pain had paid for; what sacrifices had been slaughtered for; what the Force had made them for. How could attachment be wrong when it gave like this?

Anakin felt his connection to the Force restored, running hot through his blood. Dragging the Jedi closer, he chased that feeling, throwing them both into the abyss. They fell together, each herding the other on.

The twins, young and inexperienced, quickly lost pace with them. The blazing suns dropped away, leaving the two of them alone. Falling, suspended in weightless flight, uncontrolled and beautiful in its uncertainty.

A laugh bubbled in Anakin’s throat, caught by his lips and pressed into the man’s mouth.

The Jedi broke away, gently, reluctantly, easing out of Anakin’s mind with the greatest of care. One of his hands had come to rest on Anakin’s shoulder, his thumb pressed against his neck to keep him in place. Then, he passed out on top of Anakin with all the elegance of a grand duchess.

Released, Anakin’s world slammed back into focus; pain, fury, and sound. He was flat on his back in filthy rainwater. He ached in raw, intimate places. His headache was back in full swing, radiating agony from the twins’ uncontrolled rampage.

It was too much. He felt too much, it was like rocket fuel lit on fire in his veins. He took five gasping breaths, his muscles spasming. It was too much, too intense to hide away. Throwing his head back, he screamed into the clouds. Around him, metal structures shook to their foundations. Reed awning split and unraveled. Raindrops bent around him as he sloughed off energy into them.

“Anakin,” Ahsoka gasped, quiet. He stopped, as suddenly as he started. Tilted his head to the side. Stared. The rain was cold on his face and at his back. The Jedi was heavy on top of him.

Leia was dry-heaving--he could faintly hear it over his gasping rage and confusion. Luke’s shaking fear bled into him, driving him, turning him frantic and desperate and ruthless.

Ahsoka’s face broke when she realized she had his attention. “Anakin, he didn’t hurt us...he protected us.”

Anakin paused. Looked at his family.

Fear. His family was afraid. Of him.

A new kind of terror pierced through his temper. Anakin gasped and struggled back to coherent thought. He couldn’t lose it here. They were waiting for him; needed him. He pushed himself to his elbows and the Jedi tumbled off him into the puddles. Climbing out from under him, Anakin rose unsteadily to his feet and honed in on his family.

Ahsoka accepted his fumbling hug with sheer relief, falling into his arms with the last of her energy. She was whole and real against him. Shaking, he pulled her back to look at her battered face.

“Go get the speeders and bring them back here,” he told her. “Let’s go home, yeah?”

She wavered, looking up at him with wide, watery eyes. Whatever she saw made her nod and hurry off, leaving him with a pair of crying twins to comfort. He gathered them into his unsteady embrace, one in each arm.

“He was hurting you!” Leia screamed.

“It’s alright, now, it’s alright. I’m fine, see? Right here. I’m right here. Let me look at you, are you hurt anywhere? Either of you?”

“No,” Luke insisted. “It was the bad man who tried to grab us!”

Anakin remembered the corpse. “How do you know he was bad?”

“He felt--he felt wrong. Like, in the other way.”

“...why did the bad man try to grab you?”

Guilt flashed across their bond, as easily as Anakin could read it on their faces. Dread bubbled up in Anakin’s throat.

“He…” Leia started. Luke hid his face in Anakin’s shoulder.

“Tell me,” Anakin urged, fright bleeding into his voice. They heard it and cringed.

“We were moving rocks around. The other way. The bad man saw us.”

His heart, already fragile and perilous, broke into pieces. Ached deep and ripped apart.

“No,” he rejected. “No, no, no.” He couldn’t tell who’s panic he tasted on his tongue. They were both crying. So was Anakin. They threw themselves into his arms, sobbing apologies. The three of them fell under the wreck of emotions that enveloped them, caught in a quagmire of conflicting feelings together. The rain came down on them relentlessly, sapping anyway any warmth or comfort.

Ahsoka, when she returned with the speeders, broke them up with gentle hands. She took the twins. Her generous mouth was set in a thin line; silently, she went about strapping helmets on Luke and Leia. Pointedly, she loaded them both on her speeder.

Anakin paused, dithering under her expectant stare. The twins may have misunderstood the kiss and ensuing conflict. She wasn’t so naive.

“Need a hand getting him on the speeder?” she asked.

“We’re not taking him,” Anakin immediately rejected.

“Yes, we are.” Her tone wasn’t mocking--more resigned. Like this wasn’t an argument so much as a route program she had to run through to get the engine started.

“But he hurt Dad,” Leia protested.

“He didn’t,” Ahsoka said, staring down Anakin. “Not really. Your dad overreacted. And he stopped the bad man from taking you, didn’t he?”

“That’s right!” Luke cried, his eyes going wide as he remembered. “We gotta help him!” Leia, swayed by Luke’s arguments, nodded firmly, her chin set through her tears and shaking. Anakin’s internal voice revolted, the thought of helping a Jedi antithetical to every bone in his body.

“But he’s,” he tried to explain.

Two pairs of dreadfully innocent and terribly righteous eyes turned on him. The twins were angry--at the man who threatened them. At each other, for being scared. At Ahsoka, for taking them around the corner that led them here. At him for scaring them. Ankin’s resolve broke under their disapproval.

The Jedi was still unconscious, sprawled unmoving in the rainwater and the muck when Anakin reached him. His wound wasn’t looking any better, blood slowly ruining his light robes. Anakin leaned down to inspect the damage. He’d need more than a batcha patch for the oozing wounds over his torso and back. Anakin was also sure a few bones were shifting in unpleasant ways. He wasn’t going anywhere for a while yet.

And he had still managed to lay Anakin out. He cursed in bitter awe under his breath.

Buying time on a decision he didn’t want to make, Anakin checked to the dead body. Sith affiliated, though he couldn’t find a lightsaber when he ransacked the corpse’s pockets, taking anything he found from spare change to an innocuous datachip. Question was, what had he been after?

When he looked up, his family was still waiting for him, expectation in their eyes. They formed a wall of disapproval, making it clear what they wanted. Grumbling, he grabbed the front of the Jedi’s robes and hauled him up. “All right, all right, we’ll take him with us.”

Instant approval and excitement scattered into him. He pushed it back gently. “Go on, yeah? I’ll be right behind you.”

When Ahsoka had the twins out of the alley, Anakin turned back to the corpse. He had taken everything of value. That left organic matter and clothes. Concentrating, he slowly dispersed the organic matter into the universe, converting solid mass to powdered dust that drifted away in the rain cycle. It took longer than he’d liked--there was a lot of mass to work through. By the time he was done, all that was left was a ragged pile of cloth.

In a household like theirs, nothing went to waste. Anakin scooped up the cloth.

Then he contended with his new charge. The Force was quick to help him out, all but throwing the man onto the speeder with only the slightest prompting. It rang with contentment and excitement in Anakin’s ears. He grumbled irritably and climbed onto the speeder, wrapping a firm arm around the damn Jedi’s waist to keep him from falling off at the first sharp turn. Then, he followed his family home.

Chapter Text

Obi-Wan tossed back his drink in one smooth motion. Savored the smokey taste. Deliberately did not look at a gawking Quinlan. The smattering of folks in the quiet, professionally-minded bar around them didn’t pay them much notice. Through the establishment’s high windows, he had a spectacular view of Coruscant’s brilliantly colorful sunset.

The stunning display made him think of his favorite spot in the Jedi Temple--a small alcove that gave him a similarly spectacular view of the cityscape, with light and shapes bouncing off the endless transparisteel structures. The hideaway was built into an airy, quiet corner off the beaten path. A lush pad of greenery and the calming sound of water running off the gardens below dulled the music of others to nothing. Natural fragrances drifted through the air; orange blossom and fennel, chamomile and sage. Occasionally, he would catch the slight hints of juniper, lavender, and even coriander.

Obi-Wan could sketch the alcove from memory. He often had, when slung into the darkest depths of the war with no hope of reprieve. He would spend all his free time there, reading and meditating and simply resting if he could.

In a tragedy of circumstances, he had not been able to sit long at that little alcove. People knew to find him there. And he couldn’t ignore his friend forever.

“Your consternation is quite unbecoming,” he chided when Quinlan continued to gape.

“None of them?” his friend demanded.

Obi-Wan didn’t do something as undignified as shrug. He simply thought about it rather acutely. “Not a one, I’m afraid.” He signaled for another drink.

“If you keep this up, the Council’s just going to assign you a Padawan.”

Obi-Wan was privately amazed it hadn’t come to that yet. He knew the Council was growing more concerned by the year when he failed to select an apprentice who blended with his teachings and habits. After all this time, he would almost welcome the outside intervention. Almost. “What a shame we can’t all find a gem like Aalya in the middle of nowhere.”

Quinlan smiled at the soft complement of his former apprentice. It did nothing to deter his tenacity. “Seriously, Kenobi. If you get assigned someone you didn’t pick, you’ll be a miserable old man about it. Which’ll make them a miserable apprentice. Then, you’ll just be miserable together. Don’t do that to yourself.”

Obi-Wan had to admit the prospect lacked appeal. “Luminara suggested I return tomorrow. Talk with the Younglings again, now that they’ve gotten over the worst of their intimidation.”

“You’re not that intimidating,” said Quinlan, who stared down pirates and plunderers alike without fear or nerves.

“That’s what I said. The Younglings disagree, it seems.”

“Are you gonna go?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” Obi-Wan lied. He was sure he’d find something more urgent to attend to in the morning. Something unnerving came with being stared at was like he ate the hearts of children for firstmeal. He had been through lean times, but they had never gotten that lean.

His replacement drink arrived; he took a minute to admire the low light filtering through the glass and amber whiskey. It shone golden and tempting, backlit by the sunset. Then he downed the thing in one go. Quinlan whistled and toasted his empty glass.

“So what’s so wrong with them?” his friend asked.

“Nothing’s wrong with them. It’s simply that they’re all so young.” Obi-Wan said in a borderline complaint.

It didn’t help that they got younger by the year. He couldn’t shake the unpleasant truth that he struggled to connect with the newest batch of Younglings the Order fostered. The ones who had known nothing but total war, collective trauma, and looming uncertainty since their conception. The ones who saw no way out of the trudging, brutal galactic conflict that dominated their lives. The ones who believed it would last well into their lifetimes, if not longer.

Morbid acceptance and a miasma of dread hung around them. New Padawans needed guidance in addressing it, in dissecting the state of the galaxy and their place in it. Instruction on how to release it into the Force before it corrupted them. Obi-Wan didn’t trust that he could give them that guidance when he spent his time on the front lines of the fighting, waist-deep and up close in the horrors and losses of war.

When he drifted into silence, lost in his thoughts, Quinlan reached out and touched his shoulder in solidarity. Brought him back to the land of the living. “Maybe it’s for the best—if you take a Padawan, that means the rest of us have to stop throwing ours at you for advanced training.”

“Is that what you all have been doing?” Obi-Wan asked with false surprise. As if he hadn’t known his fellow Jedi Knights and Masters regularly utilized his skills and knowledge to develop their apprentices.

“Don’t act like you’re shocked; experienced Padawans are more useful to you in the field than any legion.” Quinlan was on his third drink. Holding the glass by its rim, he swirled the bright blue cocktail in idle thought. “It does make you wonder--should that be an official position in the Order? Jedi Master Trainer? Advanced Master Consultant? Force only knows some of us could use a resource like that, instead of bumbling around on a prayer that we don’t ruin our Padawans.”

Obi-Wan saw some sense in that; the Master and Padawan relationship was a profoundly personal one riddled with perilous emotions and pitfalls. That could muddle some decisions. Sometimes a little perspective, free of judgment or well-meaning condescension, could be useful for a Master looking to differentiate between what their Padawan wanted and what they needed.

Perhaps in peacetime, it would be an idea worth pursuing. When the Masters of the Order weren’t stretched thin and growing thinner by the cycle.

The whiskey parted his veil of tranquility, letting his curiosity through. He regarded his friend through a side-glance. Quinlan was calmer than he had been in months, his shoulders relaxed, and his face unlined with the agonized vigilance brought about by life in a warzone. Obi-Wan sensed an opportunity to ask a question he had pondered silently for years. “How did you know Aayla would be your Padawan?”

Quinlan didn’t answer immediately. He ate up the fried bits at the bottom of the plate of food between them. Hedging while he considered Obi-Wan’s question. “Why do you ask?”

“Call it a curiosity of the unknown.”

“This isn’t one of your sly ‘let’s talk to Quinlan about attachments and risk’ conversation starters, is it?”

“No.” Though Obi-Wan suspected Quinlan was due for another one of those soon. Not from him--they were becoming route after all this time--but perhaps Master Yoda would like a shot at it.

His honesty, such as it was, eased his friend’s suspicions. Quinlan downed the rest of his drink and called for another round for them both. Buying time while he pulled his thoughts together. Obi-Wan enjoyed the stall for what it was and watched the sun dip further behind the skyrises.

Finally, Quinlan discovered his words. “I found Aayla when she was almost three--old, for the Order. Almost too old. I plucked her out of a slavers’ den on Ryloth with my own two hands. That...connected us, I guess. It’s hard for a Youngling, at that age. You don’t know if the lessons will take root or not. If the Jedi is the path they’re destined for.”

Obi-Wan decided not to remind Quinlan that he, Obi-Wan, had been three and some change before the Order had found him.

Quinlan continued: “I was worried about any emotional investment in her progress, so I didn’t check in on her much during her Youngling years. It came anyway--I was terrified. What if she didn’t make it? What if she failed out or wasn’t strong enough? What if...what if I didn’t get to see what she’d become? I must have released that fear into the Force a thousand times, but it always came back.

“One day, I came back from a mission and found her sitting on a bench beside my door. She said she was ready, so I’d better be. And...and the Force felt right to me, then. It wasn’t fear I had been feeling; it was anticipation. That’s why the Force kept sending it back to me. I had been ready since I’d found her in Ryloth. I had just been on hold for her.”

Their drinks arrived. Obi-Wan ran a fingernail over the rim of his refilled whiskey, keeping his hand busy and his mouth shut. Giving Quinlan a chance to fill the silence between them.

And he did. “It’s a two-way street, Kenobi. Yeah, you have to be ready. But so do they--and they’re the Padawan. That’s their decision, to know when they’re ready and who they want to train with. And that’s the damn agony of it all. Waiting on them. That’s part of your problem, you know.”

Obi-Wan made a mental note to have Yoda check-in with Quinlan sooner rather than later. “You think you know my problem?”

“I do--you keep expecting this to happen in the conventional fashion. Where your Padawan comes to you ready, straight out of their Initiate Trials, without any negotiation or complication. All controlled and orderly, and all that mastery coming from you.”

“I like to think of myself as quite conventional.”

“Conventional implies average. You’re one of the best in the Order; you are decidedly not average.”

“How kind of you to say.”

“Don’t be insufferable. You need a Padawan who started fighting young, who’s as unconventional as you are. One who makes you wait. Who knows that...that otherness. There’s a difference between training a Padawan who has only known the Temple and one who remembers the cruelties of life. They look at you differently, demand different things from you. Their preparedness is something you can’t control.”

“That sounds thoroughly exhausting.”

“It is! How do you pull something like that out of a Padawan’s head?” Quinlan waved a careless, high-flung hand to emphasize his point. “The trick is, you don’t. You leave it right where it is. You utilize it, and show them how to turn it into a strength.”

“I’m sure the Code has some things to say about that.”

“Ha!” Quinlan jabbed a finger at Obi-Wan’s shoulder. “That. That’s the other part of your problem. You need an apprentice who’s seen the darkness. But you’re not sure if you want one.”

“And why don’t I want one, do you think?”

“That I don’t know. Does the idea scare you?”

Obi-Wan didn’t have an answer for that. Quinlan snorted and stole his untouched drink. “You want my advice? Too bad, you’re getting it anyway. Stop terrifying the Younglings, get off your ass, and go find your damn Padawan.”

The conversation moved on after that. They spoke about nothing of consequence, simply enjoying one another’s company. An indulgence they rarely had in the last few years. They didn’t know when they’d next see one another. When the night stretched out into the early hours, and Obi-Wan’s exhaustion caught up with him, Quinlan paid their tab over his objections.

“Go sleep, Kenobi. If you’re still here tomorrow, we’ll do this again.”

Obi-Wan returned to the Jedi Temple with all the grace of the inebriated clinging to stone-cold sobriety. It wouldn’t do to make a fool out of himself in the heart of his Order.

His room was a shrine to austerity. Not an item or figure out of place. Clean surface-tops free of dust and clutter. Furniture designed for tidy neatness. The datapad on loan from the Temple library was the only outlier, set at a precarious tilt on his nightstand. Obi-Wan straightened it with a small nudge of his finger as he passed.

He was scattered, not an uncommon state after a night with Quinlan. His friend has the unerring ability to rack at Obi-Wan’s calm, finding the weak points like cavities. There was only one cure for it: he arranged his space for a deep meditation session. Set the light to a comfortable setting; lit incense that encouraged his mind to peace. Washed his hands, taking care to clean under his nails. Stripped down to the barest layer of clothing.

The preparation was half the ritual. A steady set of maneuvers and indications to his mind that it was time to root deep and examine himself without the distortion of vanity or explanation.

He sat. His mind slipped into a place of calm. It was more than he had managed in months aboard the Negotiator. The Temple helped with the heavy lifting, granting him peace and safety without fear. His origin, his place of serenity, the sun-filled halls of the ancient house would always nurture his broken spirits. The dense pillows welcomed him; the wall braced him straight; the windows poured warmth around him. His breathing fell into a standard five seconds out, five seconds in routine while he sorted through recent events.

Quinlan’s observations rose, oil on water. Obi-Wan had to grapple with his insights, understand them before he could release them. His friend’s outlook stuck home, unsettling Obi-Wan. It was like an ache that refused to be stretched out with exercise. Instead, it had to be coaxed to release with penetrating pressure, massaged in with merciless hands.

Could he not conceive of a Padawan from an untraditional path?

Does the idea scare you?

Obi-Wan suspected it wasn’t so much fear as it was old avoidance and inequity returning to him. The Force gave them back, telling him he hadn’t yet clarified his emotions enough to fully release them. He dug into old insecurities like a gardener took to weeding, ruthless and unsentimental.

Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

Qui-Gon had wanted the kind of Padawan Quinlan spoke of. One who knew the darkness. Experienced the struggle and the harshness that life meted out like candy. His Master believed in the intense brutality of deep healing. Of dragging forgiveness (for one’s self and for the galaxy) out into the sunlight kicking and screaming. Nurturing it until it learned to thrive. It took a determined and unflinching faith to do that work, and Qui-Gon had desired a Padawan, a partner, who believed as devoutly as he had.

“It’s not just about knowledge, my young Padawan,” he had often said. “You’ll never want for that. It’s about how you use it.”

It had been his honor and his pleasure to grow under Qui-Gon’s tutelage. To find that inner well of strength and use it. To hone his abilities. To learn from his side and show Qui-Gon all that he could do. To bring his Master from a place of distant uncertainty to utter conviction in him and his abilities. He considered that shift in Qui-Gon’s perspective to be one of his most significant accomplishments. His negotiation skills that so often serviced him against hostile combatants were built on the foundation of that feat.

By the time of his Trials of Knighthood, Obi-Wan didn’t doubt that he was a source of great pride and awe for Qui-Gon.

The man had been a terror and a delight to learn from, occupying a complicated place in Obi-Wan’s mind. It made Qui-Gon’s death at the Battle of Geonosis hurt all the more. His Master fell fighting, as he had always lived.

That pain you’re feeling? Give it to the Force.

Obi-Wan released his old resentments. With it went the pain of his Master’s loss. There was no death, there was only the Force. They would see each other again. He would again see pride and joy in his Master’s eyes and not just the placid disinterest his memory sometimes emphasized.

He tried to imagine himself with a Padawan at his side. Someone he had taken and raised to be a unique source of light and strength.

Something you can’t control.

Control implied distrust. Distrust rotted into bad faith. Obi-Wan dug deep for the roots.

Quinlan hadn’t been entirely right. Obi-Wan was intimately acquainted with the agony of uncertainty and hope. Qui-Gon had made him wait to formalize their relationship; Obi-Wan had been ready since their first meeting. It had been Qui-Gon who had to bring peace to himself. To recognize and celebrate their connection.

Hope hurt like a knife to the heart. Obi-Wan unconsciously shied away from submitting himself to that wrenching emotional haul again.

His control was more natural to track down with that lens guiding him. It didn’t come from a desire to impose his will. It came from a need to shield his core. Control was defensive. Born of an urge to protect. Both oneself and others.

Obi-Wan had spent his life protecting so many. The clones, who lacked agency over their lives. The Padawans whose care their Masters entrusted him with. At times the very Republic that he fought to save. Would Qui-Gon’s fate be his as well? His end on a battlefield, protecting as many as he could.

Does the idea scare you?

Twelve years of constant warfare scared him. When was the last time he dreamed of peace? When was the last time he meditated with the pure intent to find peace, instead of repairing the damage of war? When had he last thought about his texts and tomes, rather than strategies and intelligence briefs?

What a depressing reality he occupied. What the Force had created him for. Obi-Wan worked to release his bitterness into the Force.

The Younglings were a terribly eager lot; excited, obedient, and curious. Nothing wrong with any of them. Each of them carried their own specific potential, ready to be guided. He couldn’t in good conscience take any of them into a battlefield. And that was all he thought about, these days. What next fight, what next brutality must he oversee?

He released his confusion and desperation. Let The Force nurture and warm him; reach inside him and still the ripping, torrid waters that threatened to drown him.

Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

Obi-Wan returned to his skin. His meditation brought peace. But no answers.

That night, he dreamed of storms. Thunder and lightning, and outraged golden light.

***

Beep. Beep.

Obi-Wan awoke with a start. The clock told him he had only been asleep for three hours. His comm rattled, alerting him to an incoming call. Rising, he wrung the sleep from his voice and answered the hail from Cody. “You’re supposed to be busy refitting my ship, Commander.”

“Vercingetorix escaped,” Cody replied, blunt and undecorated. “He killed his guards and made a break for it during the midnight watch. We’re scrambling a team now, but he has a six-hour headstart on us.”

Obi-Wan froze in grotesque astonishment. “What happened?” he said. Demanded.

Vercingetorix. A bounty hunter. He had become a priority for the Republic--and the Jedi Council--ever since begun absconding with Force-sensitive children. He had taken to intercepting the messages containing their location and racing to beat the Order’s representatives. He had made off with three children in the last year, destined to be lost in slave markets on the Outer Rim.

Obi-Wan and ten clone troopers had thrown the man into a holding cell a week ago with no small amount of satisfaction. The news of his escape bit severely within him. He stopped, took a breath, released his anger and anxiety into the Force.

Focus on what he can fix. Do not ruminate on what cannot be undone.

“Never mind. Do we think he’s headed for Separatist space?” he asked as he pulled on his boots.

Cody read off the coordinates of his last sighting. Not yet at Sepratest space. Barely out of Coruscant. There was still a chance to catch him.

“I’m going after him.”

“Hold for the team at least, General,” Cody proposed, emphasizing his title to remind him of his broader responsibilities. “You shouldn’t try and take him alone.”

Obi-Wan thought sadly of his little alcove even as he hurriedly packed. “You have until I get to the hanger. We have to keep on him; he can’t be allowed to return to his hunting. Comm me once the Negotiator is up and running, and we’ll rendezvous with the rest of the 501st.”

Obi-Wan left a note of apology to Quinlan and departed Coruscant with the ten Clone troopers.

They caught up to Vercingetorix on Kuat; the cruel bounty hunter had learned from his previous mistakes. He managed to kill three of Obi-Wan’s men in a bloody rush to escape.

They picked up his trail on Onderon. A surprise run-in with a group of rouge Separatists cost him five troopers as Vercingetorix slipped out the back door.

Kijimi claimed the last of his men and brought no success against Vercingetorix; Obi-Wan mourned each of his lost men with bitter resignation as he set a course for the next planet in the bounty hunter’s path: Nevos.

***

“Need a hand getting him on the speeder?”

“We’re not taking him.”

“Yes, we are.”

“But he hurt Dad.”

“He didn’t. Not really. Your dad overreacted. And he stopped the bad man from taking you, didn’t he?”

“That’s right! We gotta help him!”

Obi-Wan drifted in the Force, caught in a place between sleep and delirium. In his dreams, the visions came.

***

Anakin and his children sat on the porch steps, watching lightning illuminate the faraway clouds. The mood around them hung with raw emotion. Reaching out, Anakin hugged Luke to his side. Leia, stubborn to the end, stayed curled up on the other side of the porch steps, radiating injured hurt.

“I’m sorry I yelled. You both scared me. A lot. You were in trouble, and I almost wasn’t there in time. Do you understand?” Anakin asked them both.

Luke nodded into his side, silent and sad. Leia harrumphed. “You shouldn’t have yelled. And...and moved everything, the other way. It was worse than the bad man.”

“You’re right. I shouldn’t’ve. I’m sorry I scared you.”

“And...we shouldn’t’ve been playing around when we weren’t supposed to.”

“You’re right. You shouldn’t’ve.”

“Sorry, Dad.”

“Sorry, Dad,” Luke echoed. Anakin hauled Leia to his free side and cradled them both.

***

Leia had found a small, yellow-green crystal in the yard. She brought it into the kitchen and showed it off to Anakin. “For the windchime! Can you make it fit?”

“Here, let me see.” Anakin unearthed a small drill bit from the mess on the kitchen table. He used it (and a quick twist from the Force) to bore a hole through the crystal. Blowing off the dust and dirt, he held it up for Leia’s approval.

“Perfect,” she approved.

Anakin kept a hand on her waist as she climbed the porch railing to where a wind chime hung. It boasted a motley, colorful collection of glass, rocks, reeds, and twine. Together, they threaded the small crystal next to a dark navy feather and tied it off.

***

Anakin sat his son on the kitchen counter and tilted his face up towards the light. “Show me?”

Luke prodded his front tooth with the tip of his tongue. It gave a defined wiggle against his gums.

“Yeah, that’s definitely coming loose, kiddo. Want me to pull it?”

“Yeah,” Luke sighed.

A brief pop of the Force. A yelp. Sky blue eyes welled up with tears. Anakin smattered kisses across Luke’s nose and cheeks and smothered him with sweet, distracting words. After a glass of water and a cotton ball against his gum, he rewarded Luke’s bravery with a cookie, broken into pieces so it could be gobbled up around a missing tooth.

***

Anakin and Ahsoka circled one another, training swords in hand.

The tall grass of the yard made tracking body language a challenge, adding difficulty to the match. Anakin dealt a double-handed high strike. Ahsoka braced, her weapon horizontal above her head. Her arms strained as she withstood his brute strength.

Anakin followed up with a middle strike. Flowed into a low stroke. Ahsoka blocked them all in the traditional maneuvers. Kept her footwork tight and agile as they gave and took ground between them.

He broke away and circled her.

“Watch your back knee,” he instructed. “Too much weight, and you can’t change direction. Too little, and you’ve got no grounding at all.”

Ahsoka readjusted her stance, finding a happy medium between the two. Her face was a picture of concentration and determination.

“Good. Now—attack.”

They commenced, Ahsoka on the advance this time. From the porch, Luke, Leia, and Artoo cheered Ahsoka on when she landed a blow to his knee.

“Traitors!” Anakin accused with a smile as he walked off the sting. “Keep that up, and it’ll be nothing but sprouts and black-pitted peas for the latemeal.”

***

“It’s a fundamental flaw of our governmental structure. We can only expect the corruption of the oligarchy to grow when left unchecked by a balancing mechanism. The onus of responsibility should not be placed on the relative compliance or disobedience of the citizenry. Rather we should demand a higher brand of scrutiny and judiciousness in the selection of appointees, as well as encouraging a broader pool of candidates,” Anakin read off the datapad in a low, comfortable voice.

Luke was already asleep, curled up in his bed with a stuffed bull-tortoise tucked under his chin. Leia’s head rested on her pillow, her hair tied back for the night. She listened to Anakin read with half-laden eyes.

“What’s an oligarchy?” she asked quietly.

“It’s when a few families rule everything and don’t share.”

“And that’s a bad thing?”

“According to your mom, it is.”

***

The rain was cold on the back of Obi-Wan’s neck, sending rivets into his eyes and ears. Below him sprawled a body of a man who opened himself, mind and soul, to the Force like it was nothing.

Obi-Wan couldn’t tear himself away from golden eyes and a gobsmacked smile. Hands gripped his face, one warm and tender flesh, one rigidly metal. Anakin kissed him, a deeply-rooted passion turning the touch intense. Offered himself as shelter from the all-consuming power battering down the walls of Obi-Wan’s defenses.

Anakin laughed into his mouth, joyous and free. Obi-Wan swallowed it down and wanted more.

***

Obi-Wan woke up.

He was a mess. The tangles of sheets cocooning him were sweat-stained and suffocating. His skin had the gritty, slightly rank feel of the unwashed. His stomach turned and cramped from lack of food. A ‘fresher was needed. His body ached from the slow slog of healing. The clothes he wore were not his own.

A flick of his wrist confirmed his comm was missing.

So; alone, wounded, and unable to call for help. A depressingly familiar set of circumstances. Obi-Wan had dealt with worse, though he often hoped for better.

Yet...he wasn’t in a prison cell. Far from it, details emerged that spoke of a bedroom, not a cage.

Everything smelled strongly of citrus-scented cleaning products. Just under it was the lingering odor of mildew and damp. Lacing it all was the tang of crisp lightning and machine oil. Weak, overcast light filtered through faded shades tacked over the windows, darkening the room to a splatter of greens and blues. The unmistakable tempo of rain pittered overhead along a metal roof. The weather cast a chill in the air, enough to bring goosebumps to his exposed arms once free of the bedcovers.

Obi-Wan fumbled with a nearby lamp, bringing light to his surroundings.

A photograph of a woman dominated the bedside table. It had been taken from a news broadcast, a candid shot of her while she moved. Dark hair pulled back into an intricate braid around an elaborate headdress. A colorful, almost ostentatious outfit. A stubborn tilt of her chin as she looked off-frame.

Obi-Wan considered the woman while he searched his memory. She looked tantalizingly familiar.

He eased himself upright. It took effort and left him shaking. His wounds protested. But nothing bled, and nothing unraveled. His body parts stayed where they should. He had persevered against worse odds.

There; a ‘fresher connected to the side of the room. He utilized it. After, he inspected himself in the mirror. Vercingetorix had fought for his life, and it showed. Obi-Wan’s torso and arms were bruised and bloodied, a motley mess amid healing; situation normal, all fucked up, as Cody liked to say.

He had not been unattended in his convalescence. His wounds were dressed with the kind of slapdash he expected to find in a rookie medic. Stitched and patched without regard to artistry, simply functional.

He dropped the undertunic back on; the thin fabric, threadbare and frying and sinfully soft, billowed around him, meant for a taller frame. It showed its age: while clean, past dark stains and splatters were evident. Stitched and patched; a perfect match for Obi-Wan.

He set his hands on either side of the sink and considered his situation. Where was he?

Nevos. Vercingetorix. Children playing in the Force. The storm. Righteous, spitting fury clocked in gold and red.

His reflection stared at him. “Was it all a dream?” he asked.

A knock, something accidental and unintended, and childish shushing. Had he picked up some spontaneous minders? He peered around, eyes and Force alike. There; two pairs of eyes tracking him from around the crack in the bedroom door; one pair blue, the other brown. Little hands gripped the frame, ready to dash away if he proved menacing.

Obi-Wan hesitated. Remembered his dreams. Took a gamble. “Luke? Leia?” he called.

Twin gasps. “You know our names,” Luke whispered, amazed. Not just dreams, then. Obi-Wan returned to the edge of the bed, a point halfway between the ‘fresher and the door. Closer, but not too close. He strove to be non-threatening and calm under their scrutiny. His healing body thanked him for the rest.

Taking his prescience as an invitation, they invaded. It was like being rolled over by an avalanche while trying to breath underwater. Obi-Wan winced at their combined overwhelming presence pressed against his mind. Unrestrained by propriety or bashfulness, their curiosity and excitement washed over him.

“We thought you’d never wake up,” Luke explained. When he smiled, he showed off the gap of a missing tooth.

“How long have I been asleep?” Obi-Wan asked.

“Almost three days,” Leia replied. Next to Luke’s exuberance, she was quiet, almost stand-offish. Not as impressed with him as her brother. “Dad said you were more beat up than a podracer engine on its last lap.”

Their father. Anakin. Obi-Wan’s memory helpfully supplied supplementals; impulsive-driven, lean muscle, full of rage. As exuberant in his kisses as his children were in their curiosity.

He tensed when Luke prodded at his mind with a far too-accurate touch. He tapped blatantly over Obi-Wan’s shields, heedless of any decorum or restraint that even the youngest of the Younglings in the Temple practiced. With a firm, albeit affable touch, Obi-Wan redirected the nudge.

“It’s rude to do that without permission, Luke,” he explained, speaking as he would with the Younglings. The boy blinked, caught off-guard. Not afraid or intimated, simply surprised. Leia gripped her brother’s hand and eyed Obi-Wan with new tentative suspicion. Her father had sent him the same look through the rain in the courtyard, over Vercingetorix’s body.

“It is?” Luke asked, shocked.

Obi-Wan kept a steady hand on his disbelief of the boy’s bewilderment. His innocent touch fluttered rapidly against Obi-Wan, processing and adapting to this new information. Did they have any shields? It felt like they simply absorbed everything--all the time.

“Yes. I may not want you in my mind.”

“Sorry; I didn’t mean to,” Luke instantly apologized, looking bashful. “That’s mom’s first rule.”

“What is?”

“Don’t be rude,” Leia recited. “Mom says it’s a rule. Dad says it isn’t, but that we should try and follow it anyway until someone else breaks it first.”

Children often made for the best sources of information. They rarely thought to lie. The twins were no different, giving up information like it was nothing. “Where is your father?”

“Downstairs—want us to go get him?”

“No, let’s go see him together.” Obi-Wan wanted to move. To explore this place and find out what resources he had available to him. To see what he was up against.

He was on the second story of a house--the stairs leading down were a trial for his healing wounds. They creaked as he descended them. Conversely, Luke and Leia made no noise as they followed up behind him, stepping with care born of familiarity. They didn’t rush him, likely sensing his cautious testing of his limbs. He locked his hand on the banister and concentrated on keeping his feet under him until he reached the last step.

And nearly walked into a strung-out bed sheet.

Obi-Wan followed the seam of the sheet upward. Wire cords ran throughout the first floor. Pinned onto them were freshly-washed clothes, beddings, and assorted rags, set wherever they could fit. The laundry overtook all corners of the house, turning the floor plan into a gently wafting maze that warped light and stretched shadows.

“Oh my,” he said.

“This way,” Leia explained, slipping sideways around the bedsheet. Luke politely held the fabric back for Obi-Wan. Once through, the little one shook out the wrinkles they caused.

Into the maze they went. Leia ducked and wove with practiced skill. Obi-Wan did his best to follow her example, keeping his steps mindful. What an interesting obstacle course.

A small heater occupied the center of what he considered the living room, rigged up with spare parts slapped together on a basic frame. His Jedi robes, washed and pinned upon the cord above the heat, fluttered when he brushed a hand over them. Their condition was better than he expected. The mud had been scrubbed away without issue. The blood had soaked in enough to set, staining the inner lining ruddy brown. The rents left by Vercingetorix were sown closed with stark white thread.

“Dad?” Leia called from behind a blanket. When silence answered, she dashed through the hangings. Obi-Wan tracked her Force signature, slipping through the laundry after her and Luke. The children were agile, able to move without brushing against the cleaning. His healing body couldn’t quite keep up, bumping into the occasional piece.

In the kitchen, there was...an astromech droid?

“What are you doing here?” Obi-Wan muttered, surprised. The droid’s sensory lights came alive long enough to beep at him in a distinctly aggravated tone. Message delivered, the unit fell back into charging mode. Luke giggled around a line of towels.

“Artoo said a bad word,” he reported.

“You speak binary?”

“Yep—Dad and Artoo taught us. Dad! The man in your bed is up!”

Obi-Wan’s eyebrows climbed high. Really now?

Leia boosted herself onto the counter to see out the window over the sink. “They’re outside--I think they’re trying to get Nili’s old tracker working.”

Out a transparent side door and around a spacious, wrap-around porch. The property stretched out through tall, reedy grass that bled into a dense forest. Obi-Wan could just make out a range of mountains in the distance.

There was indeed a tracker broken into gigantic pieces in the yard. The main body had been jacked up onto a stand so a long, slender body could get under it.

“Daaaad!” Leia chased across the yard, hell-bent for leather.

Ahsoka rooted around elbows deep in an axillary component in the grass. She saw them a split second before Leia struck and returned to her work without a word of warning.

Anakin slipped out from under the tracker, his back sliding against the grass. Stripped down to a dark undertunic that turned clinging in the rain, he was streaked with black grease and loose grass. His hair curled and frizzed with the light drizzle. A rag wiped ineffectually at the worst of the mess as Leia hit him square in the chest to break her speed, waving her arm in arching gestures.

Anakin saw him. Stood up. Said something to Ahsoka. Picked up Leia and propped her on his hip. Came to Obi-Wan covered in earth and atmosphere.

Anticipation bubbled through the Force, expanding and blending with his curiosity to become a tangy type of desire. The sheer confidence with which Anakin moved captivated the eye and encouraged the imagination to wander. He was made entirely of long legs and sharp lines, the kind of wildness that ached to be softened.

Luke glanced up at Obi-Wan, open curiosity on his face. Obi-Wan hastily constructed dense, heavy shields around his thoughts. Honestly, the lack of decorum in this house was intolerable.

“I told you he was awake,” Leia explained as they climbed the porch steps. In her father’s arms, she was tall enough to knock her knuckles against the roof support beam. Anakin kissed the top of her head and set her down next to her brother.

Once upon a time, Obi-Wan had seen the ocean tide recede. The tsunami wave had hit minutes later, laying waste. Around Anakin, the Force rapidly receded. Distrust, weighed down by worry and hesitancy, hung off him like bell charms, sweetly chiming as the slightest provocation. A warning system disguised as a siren’s call.

Soon he’d be underwater. How long could he hold his breath? “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Surprise and wariness passed unfiltered over a handsome face. He turned to his children.

“Gremlins, time to play. Find me something...that doesn’t like what it is.”

The children’s eyes widened with glee. Their interest in Obi-Wan was all but abandoned as they dashed down the porch steps and into the rain. They shouted excitedly to Ahsoka as they passed, who extracted one of her hands long enough to flutter her fingers at them.

Their father snorted and shook his head. The bells around him sang, sending a beautiful, cautious harmony through the Force. “That’ll keep them busy for a while. Come get something to eat before I change my mind and let you starve.”

The offer came skittish, both hostile and tentative; like an ally who hadn’t quite decided to trust him yet. Promising; Obi-Wan had negotiated stronger allegiances with less.

Back through the entryway and the laundry maze. When he lost sight of Anakin amongst the fabric, he followed the sound of bells back to the kitchen.

“You’re Obi-Wan Kenobi, Jedi Master and General of the GAR,” Anakin called as he patted the astromech droid’s rounded dome in greeting. Another beep, much friendlier. A layer of tension melted away; Anakin trusted that little droid like a herd trusted a guide.

“You know me?” Should Obi-Wan be flattered?

Anakin picked something out of the catastrophic mess on the kitchen table: Obi-Wan’s comm. Or it had been his comm before the casing had been pried off and the innards wholly scrambled. A data stripper connected to the internal processor cheerfully worked away at his encryption.

“I wanted to make sure you weren’t being followed,” Anakin said, his golden eyes glued to a spot just over Obi-Wan’s shoulder.

Which brought them to a point Obi-Wan was finding more and more interesting with each passing second. (There’s a tidal wave coming; how well could he swim?)

“I’m in awe of the gracious hospitality found in the house of a Sith Lord.” He made sure to keep honesty at the forefront of his voice. He wasn’t looking for hostility, he was looking for an opening.

Anakin tossed the comm back onto the table with a firm roll of his eyes. “Oh, could you be any more insufferable? You’re safe, Jedi. I abandoned my title when I abandoned my Order.”

Confirmation, if ever there was such a thing. Here stood an eternal enemy to his way of life. His instincts should be hair-raising.

Bells rang in gentle tones in his ears. There was no fear in the bones of this place. Hard-won security emanated from this soft-clothed jungle. He wasn’t comfortable, not with the state of his wounds and ravaged body, but he was unquestionably protected. There was no malice radiating from Anakin; only that same chiming hesitancy and nervousness. Defensive. Vigilant.

Obi-Wan released his first instinct--to react without thought, to decide without understanding-- into the Force and considered Anakin with perspective. Saw his hands, one gloved, one bare. Traced the fine, tense line of his shoulders, and the grace with which he moved. Ballparked his age. Took a guess that wasn’t so much a guess as logic.

“The death of Darth Vader was one of the best things to happen to the Republic.”

Anakin paused. Arched an eyebrow. Despair turned to disbelief. “Really now?”

“Yes. It gave us a fighting chance.”

Anakin picked at a stray thread on a nearby set of trousers, darting away from Obi-Wan’s scrutiny. “Best he stays dead, then. You gonna sit down? I think we’ve still got some leftovers from last night.”

Obi-Wan took a seat in a chair held together with a set of T-hinges repurposed as brackets. His host pushed a careless hand over the tabletop, clearing a spot by shoving the debris into a slightly different configuration. When a tool fell to the floor, Anakin tossed it onto the kitchen counter without thought for organization.

Obi-Wan let that commentary go without voice. It felt good to rest his body, who’s aching reminded him that constant movement was not advisable. Without the aid of military-grade healing facilities, the short stint on his feet was the best he could manage.

How inconvenient.

Rustling; Anakin moved around the kitchen like it was natural ground for him. He delivered a plate of food and a mostly clean glass of water to the table. It was basic fare, nothing fancy. Starved and lacking pretense, Obi-Wan ate as quickly as his manners would allow.

While he did so, he looked around, gathering more information. Absorbed the details of the room he could see around the hanging clothes. The marks on the wall, the scraps on the floor, all spoke to a household filled with activity. Unsurprising, with a pair like Luke and Leia. Culinary herbs in tin pots lined the southern wall, grabbing at what light they could through the overcast clouds. The pantry was decently stocked; a small icebox was affixed in the top row of cabinets.

The droid, still charging in the corner, was in great shape. Regularly cleaned and maintained. No missing parts, no stripped wires. Cleansed and collected in a room of chaos.

Anakin didn’t share the table with him. He sat on the counter instead, puttering to avoid looking his way.

“Thank you for the meal,” Obi-Wan said when he finished. The lull had given him time to think. Since he wasn’t yet dead, he resolved to learn as much as he could. It was an extraordinary situation he found himself in. He didn’t want to squander it through over-haste or assumptions.

“You’re done? Good. You can give me a hand with the laundry.” Anakin hopped off the counter and disappeared into the labyrinth of clothes. Retreating in the face of complications. Obi-Wan’s senses tracked him to the living room.

He exhaled on a five-count. Inhaled. Centered himself. With food in his stomach, his patience expounded tenfold. He kept it up until Anakin dropped a pile of clothes beside him with an unapologetic look. Obi-Wan could have sworn he heard the poor table groan. Gamely, he plucked out a pair of socks he thought matched and bent them in on themselves.

A game of patience unfolded between them. In this, Obi-Wan was confident of victory.

Sure enough, Anakin broke long before Obi-Wan even thought to be uncomfortable with the silence. “You being here causes problems for me,” he said. He rushed through the words like he was trying to get them out before Obi-Wan could cut him off.

“How troublesome for you.” The more frantic Anakin became the calmer Obi-Wan felt. He had bargained for his life more times then he could count. He knew this dance.

“It’s just...of all the things I imagined happening, all the things I planned for, a Jedi dropping in my lap wasn’t something I thought would happen.”

“Why not?”

Exasperation was a good look on Anakin. “Well, you all thought I was dead, for one.”

“Do the Sith think that as well?” Obi-Wan asked, testing the waters. He wanted to know what he could get away with.

Anakin dodged the question with all the elegance of a raging mudhorn. “It’s just, this isn’t going to go on indefinitely. You being here. I know that. But you’re here now, and you’ve got some healing to do--I’m pretty sure if I tossed you out, you’d keel over before you made it a league. And if you’re here, then maybe you can be useful, is all I’m saying.”

“What are you saying?” Obi-Wan couldn’t be sure. But there was something there. Anakin was proposing a trade, in so many words. What did Obi-Wan have that he wanted?

Discretion, was his first thought. But if that were the case, there would be no need for this... well, this plying to reason. Like Anakin was trying to lay out a one-sided argument for a course of action. Obi-Wan would have told him those rarely worked, if he thought to ask.

Anakin met his eyes, frustration on every line of his face. He growled, irritated. More with himself than with Obi-Wan, he thought. The bells were louder now, agitated by Anakin’s inability to force his thoughts into words. “Look--what do you think the purpose of a society is?” he asked.

What an esoteric non sequitur. Obi-Wan was intrigued. “To come together for a common good.”

“Eh--that’s a safe answer if ever I heard one. Also, you’re wrong. It’s to be sure children are raised safely. That’s it—the whole of civilization can be boiled down to that. The only real fight is what that safety looks like. Everything we argue about: food, money, land, power--it all comes down to making sure we keep it going for the next round.”

Interesting idea. Obi-Wan entertained it. There was a logic there worth exploring for a turn or two. “Spoken like a parent.”

Anakin spread his arms to encompass the house; laundry, leftovers, and lawlessness. His eyes leaned into Obi-Wan. The rest of his long, lean body followed with unconscious grace. “Guilty. But I believe it, knowing what I’d do to keep them safe. Can’t that be enough?”

“Enough for what?”

“For them not to be taken from me.”

At once, Obi-Wan found the piece he had been missing. Deep within the Force, belief came to him. “That’s why you left. The Sith wanted your children.”

Anakin’s silence screamed through the room. He rounded on Obi-Wan. Golden eyes lit up with everything he had been trying to suppress; his shields, such as they were, raced with veins of white-hot roaring.

“The Sith will never have my children--Never! I’ll bring the galaxy to ruin before I let that happen,” Anakin hissed. In him, Obi-Wan heard panic, fear, and a fierce rejection of the thought. Also, a desperate, gasping, visceral, painful hope. The bells were clanging now. Soon, they would be klaxons.

Obi-Wan knew hope. Hope spoke to a desire for accommodation. Accommodation came around through discussion. He was on familiar ground. He sat back. Reevaluated his situation and the tools available to him.

“Luckily, I’m not a Sith.”

“No,” he replied, cold. Power drew in around Anakin as his rage receded. The flood is coming, the bells warned. Tread carefully! “No, you’re worse.”

Worse? Maybe, in your eyes. But you still want something from me. “If it’s my silence you’re after, what are you willing to offer in return?”

“Isn’t your life enough?” Anakin demanded.

His host had no intention of killing him. Of that, he was sure. You didn’t dress the wounds of a man you planned to kill. You didn’t leave the children you adored alone with him. You didn’t feed and clothe him.

In that knowledge, Obi-Wan had the upper hand at the bargaining table. He knew how far Anakin was willing to go. “My life isn’t yours to give.”

“You want me to offer you mine?” Gold eyes glittered, laying a landmine in a question.

“That’s not yours to give either, is it? Your life belongs to your family. Don’t throw it away so carelessly.” He’d put a stop to that particular strain of martyrdom fast. Anakin’s death would serve no purpose but bloody, useless revenge.

The young man glared like he was a baffling set of circuitry. Incomprehensible and foreign. “Then what the hell do you want?”

Obi-Wan could think of one massive thing he wanted from this former Sith Lord, who probably knew more about the Separatists than any intelligence assist could ever scrap together. But it was too early in the conversation to give away his hand. “I need to know what else you’re after in this arrangement.”

“For you to keep quiet! To leave, and forget you ever came here.”

“And?” If he squinted, he thought he could see the crest of the wave in the distance. Five in. Time to hold his breath. “What else, Anakin?”

For whatever reason, the sound of his name did it. The young man snarled, low and rumbling and full of unbridled emotion. His hands, gripping the counter’s edge, turned white. Atmosphere, charged and torrid, ripped around the kitchen. The freshly folded laundry spewed, thrown by will alone to tangle amongst the wire cords. Others splattered in a colorful mess across the floor. Tin pots shook. Cabinet doors around them threw themselves open. A windowpane shattered into the sink.

Through it, Obi-Wan saw Ahsoka straighten. Step away from her work. Watch the house intently, like a guard droid running protocols.

Anakin ripped a rattling plate from an uncovered shelf. Spitting emotional curses and inarticulate fury, he stormed out the side door with it.

A moment later, the plate shattered as it smashed against the house.

Obi-Wan stayed in his seat and waited. Considered cleaning and stowing his own used dishware. Would his body be up to the short trip across the kitchen and back?

Two low voices drifted in; Anakin and Ahsoka reassured one another. He made a note of their trust. Leaning down, slowly stretching out his body around his wounds, he picked up a pair of trousers next to his feet. Deliberately folded them and set them aside.

There was a photograph on the window sill. The same dark-haired woman, in a formal setting; professional lighting, conservative dress, and a polite half-smile. The clear case of her photograph was an undamaged point in a field of chaos.

Electrical static danced in the air over his shoulder.

Obi-Wan turned, slow. The droid had reactivated. Pulled an extension arm. Waved it at him in an entirely ridiculous manner. He blinked down at the tazed appendage.

“What are you going to do? Fry me for upsetting him?”

Beeeeeep whiiiiiirrrrllllllll, the droid threatened. Should he be concerned?

Anakin came back into the house, alone and less frazzled. Saw his droid threatening his guest. “It’s okay, Artoo. Just a temper tantrum.”

The droid rattled. The extension disappeared. The sensory lights targeted on Obi-Wan did not. He decided not to dignify that with any sign of distrust.

“You must go through dishes at a ferocious rate,” he offered into the embarrassed quiet.

Anakin snorted. “You have no idea.” He moved around the kitchen, recollecting clothes and straightening his mess. The shards of glass floated out of the sink and into a stray rag he dropped onto the counter.

“Feel better?” Obi-Wan pressed.

“Mildly.”

“That’s good. Any chance at a cup of tea?”

“No. Stop talking. I’m trying to get to something.” Anakin took a breath. Obi-Wan mentally counted down from five in an old habit, fascinated when his beats matched Anakin’s rhythm.

“I...need your advice.” said the (former) Sith Lord to the Master Jedi.

There it was. “Oh?” he encouraged.

“It’s just...the twins. Sometimes they do things.” The bells were back, delicate little notes of timidity, concern, and worry. He listened to them carefully for clues.

“Like what?”

Anakin didn’t answer, apparently still combatting his instincts to push the Jedi away. Nursing an unshielded web of rage, confusion, anxiety, and humiliation, he retreated behind the sheets that still hung in the entryway. Obi-Wan let him, listening to the symphony through the Force. “When we fought,” he muttered around the laundry.

“When you attacked me without provocation,” Obi-Wan asserted to Anakin’s shadow.

“I had all the provocation I needed, and don’t you dare try to tell me otherwise.”

He let that one go in the name of progress. “Yes, when we fought?”

“Your shields. I couldn’t get through them--they were rock solid. I’ve never felt anything like that. You didn’t even flinch, not really. You withstood everything I threw at you. And you managed to...muzzle me. Completely cut me off.”

That wasn’t what he had done. That Anakin interpreted it that way was curious. He said nothing and let the silence do its work.

Sure enough: “I’ve never seen someone do that before.”

Truly? “Truly?”

“Yeah. You know what you’re doing. And the twins, they’re so powerful. I’m not sure I can keep them contained. When they lashed out at you, I couldn’t stop them.”

And you believe in coming together to protect them, don’t you, Obi-Wan thought.

“I know how to teach them most things.” The shadow backlit by the bedsheet wasn’t moving. “How to trust their instincts and how to use their emotions. I know how to deal with their pain. But I can’t teach them…”

“Discipline,” Obi-Wan finished for him. “You don’t know how to teach them to control themselves.”

Golden eyes found him over the clothesline, suddenly hard. “I didn’t mean domination or force.”

“Is that what you think control is?” If so, it explained a great deal. And that ripped at Obi-Wan’s heart.

No answer again. Weak light came through the sheet as the young man withdrew from him.

This hiding simply wouldn’t do. It was harder to understand what was happening when he couldn’t see Anakin’s face.

Obi-Wan breathed: five out, five in. Rising to his feet, he reached out and unpinned the sheet. It fell away in a flurry of white cotton, bringing Anakin unobscured before his eyes. His expression was unveiled, a mix of childish annoyance and absolute adult terror. His shoulders locked up around his ears, and his eyes stuck in middle distance.

“You’re worried you’re going to lose them,” Obi-Wan said, compassion reaching between them. The sight of this young man cowing from him hurt, causing more injury than any shred of hope or despair ever managed to sow.

“I’m worried someone will take them from me,” Anakin whispered. His eyes were over-bright, his face wain. ‘Worried’ wasn’t what he was pumping out into the Force; it was more akin to constant, unrelenting horror. It draped around him like an old clock, refusing to release him.

Obi-Wan put his cards down. Showed his hands. Threats had never worked on him. But a need to help and protect was written into the marrow of his bones.

“I will never take your children from you. I won’t let anyone else do it, either.” Through the Force, he quested over Anakin. Delicate touches, the gentlest of reassurances. Felt for the latch on the dread clock. Eased it down and off Anakin’s shoulders. Shucked it away to let the man breathe free and clear. Comfort came easy when it was sincerely meant.

Relief was sweet on the young man’s face. Gold eyes shuttered; his hands shook around the sheet. Obi-Wan uncurled his fingers and took the fabric from him, one more burden removed. Tentatively, unsure of his welcome but unwilling to let Anakin suffer alone, he gave into the physical world, and let that drive his intentions. Placed a hand on the side of Anakin’s neck, allowing a sliver of warmth between them. Five out; five in.

Anakin unconsciously matched him. Obi-Wan took them through three rounds before he found his words again. “...thank you.”

“None of that. You love them, that much is obvious. The Jedi aren’t child-snatchers. You made a point earlier: societies exist to protect their children. My Order raises those we find because they won’t be safe alone in the world. You know that.”

Slowly, he opened up to Anakin. Parted his shields and let that inquisitive mind see a glimpse behind them. Guided him to find the memories of Vercingetorix. The man’s capricious cruelty and ruthlessness. The children he stole. The lives he ruined. This man is what you fear. This is what you need to protect them from.

Wide eyes; a new level of terror and rage. Under the truth, his eyes teared up. His face went white. Tension was back in his body, stiff under Obi-Wan’s palm. Dark, hot, curling desire born of anger and vengeance seeped into their connection. Oh, stop Anakin begged. If you don’t, I’m going to reassemble him and kill him again.

Obi-Wan did, immediately and without question, withdrawing all connections between them, mind and body. Took a step back to reestablished space between them. “My apologies. My intent was to show you the real root of your fear, not exacerbate it. The man is gone--he’s no risk to you now.”

“Except the paranoia of others like him lurking in the shadows,” Anakin shot back. He had regained his equilibrium. Stood straighter. Once again looked Obi-Wan in the eye. The emotions roiling through him seemed to strengthen him, bringing him into sharp focus within the Force.

“Best then, to give your children every tool you can.”

“That’s the plan with you. I’m not in the habit of throwing away things I need.” Hesitation and a little admiration colored his tone. “You saved my family from him, didn’t you?”

“I stopped him before he could hurt more people.”

“Ascetic monk! If you won’t take my thanks, what will you take?”

Obi-Wan regarded his host, considering the thin tendrils of trust so tentatively run between them. When Anakin had asked that earlier, he had meant it as a threat. An accusation flung down like a gauntlet. Now, he asked in honesty, offering good intentions with a slightly amused looked.

He knew what he wanted then and now. He thought about twelve years of total war with an enemy he’d never laid eyes on. Twelve years of death and pain that he couldn’t stop. The lot of the rising Younglings to life in bloodshed if he didn’t find a way to end the war. He thought about what he wanted and what he needed. “Information. Without going through eight rounds of denials and deflections, if you please.”

“Information about what?”

“The Separatists. The Sith.”

“I haven’t been involved with them for over four years.”

“What did I just say, Anakin?” Hooded golden eyes ducked out of his expectant stare. “I have no intention of pulling answers out of you like some crass interrogator. It is my duty and my honor to help Luke and Leia. In return, I’d like you to answer my questions without complaint.”

This was the moment he both dreaded and savored. The arrangement was on the table. His claims laid bare, and his cards played, he waited for Anakin to meet him halfway. Anticipation was a sharp-edged sensation against the back of his teeth.

“All right,” Anakin conceded with grudging churlishness. Obi-Wan went light-headed in success. The Force hummed in giddy contentment under his fingernails, brushing against them like a happy loth cat.

“And my lightsaber?” They had come a long way in their negotiations. He didn’t think it would be untoward to ask for a little trust.

Anakin flushed. Circled the kitchen. Opened the icebox in the high cabinet. He pulled Obi-Wan’s lightsaber out from behind a stack of frozen vegetables. It had been wrapped in a light film to preserve it from the condensate.

“It’s not that I was hiding it on purpose,” he muttered, a little shamefaced as he returned it. “It’s just--well, it’s the only place I can put things that the twins won’t immediately find. They’d either disassemble it or use it. Even odds on which would be worse.”

“Quite right,” Obi-Wan agreed. He tucked the chilled lightsaber away in a pocket, twinging his wounds as he retook his seat. “We’ll begin tomorrow.”

***

The living room was neater than he expected with the laundry out of the way, and the wire cords taken down. Space was dominated by two large couches, broken in and well-padded. Obi-Wan gratefully collapsed onto one, determined not to move for the next few hours. His energy was around his ankles, his body eating up everything he had to heal his battered bones.

The twins stormed the house with all the skill of a well-honed strike team.

“We found a tree that doesn’t want to be a tree!” Leia yelled, excitement shaking her little body. “It wants to be a bird!”

“Does it?” All the impatience and exasperation vanished when Anakin talked with his children. Obi-Wan watched the outpouring of energy with a frank eye. Hook the two of them up to a generator, and they could power Coruscant for a standard year, he was sure. What have you gotten yourself into, Kenobi?

“Yes--and we can help!”

“How’s that?”

“Dad! You have to come see--We gotta help it! It’s so sad,” Luke enthused. Together, they tried to push their father out the door, shoving to move him at his knees and shins. Their muddy hands left prints on his trousers.

“Now, hold on a second, would you?” Anakin tried, grabbing at the door to halt the proceedings.

“I’ll watch the Jedi,” Ahsoka offered. She leaned against the door jam to the kitchen, rubbing a cloth over her greasy hands. Obi-Wan suspected she had lingered on the porch after the plate-breaking incident, one ear open to any more disturbances. Watching Anakin’s vulnerable points.

“Thanks, Snips,” Anakin shouted as his kids herded him down the porch and into the rain.

“Obi-Wan, right?” she confirmed as she went about piling up the leaves the twins had tracked into the house.

“That’s right.”

“I’m Ahsoka. Call me Snips, and you’ll never know a quiet night’s sleep again.”

Obi-Wan didn’t protest; he wasn’t about to explain that his visions had been his introduction to her and the family. She moved around his space without comment, tiding some things, messing others up, seemingly at random. Obi-Wan took the opportunity of calm to achieve a brief meditative state. Nothing complicated or demanding. Just the stilling of the circular, violent energy that Anakin had ignited him.

Ahsoka lingered near him; he could sense her vacillation through the Force. Another one who needed some help finding a place of peace and shielding. Her Force-sensitivity was subtle in a house full of explosions, but she carried many of the habits he saw in Anakin and the children; unbridled and emotional.

“That man, the one who tried to take the tinies. Who was he?” she asked suddenly.

“Vercingetorix. A bounty hunter who targeted Force-sensitive children.”

“He stole children?” Her voice was a raw scrap.

Obi-Wan paused. Shifted gears from idly contemplative to candid. “Yes. Force-sensitive children are prized in his line of work.”

To his complete shock, Ahsoka came to him. Trapped his face in her hands, consciously gentle. He didn’t fight as she leaned down and planted a dry kiss on his forehead.

“Thank you,” she said and released him.

The Force told Obi-Wan that something monumental had just happened. He only wished he knew what it was.

“Would you like to talk about it?”

“That’s what we’re doing.”

Ahsoka kicked a cushion onto the floor. Sitting on it, she unearthed a bottle of wine from under a floorboard. How many hiding places were in this place? She popped the top off and poured herself a healthy dose from a mug left on the nearby table. After a moment, she raised the bottle and arched an eyebrow in silent a question. Commitment and determination (and not a little dread) shone on her face.

“No, thank you,” he declined. She shrugged and recapped the wine. For declaring this a discussion, she seemed in no hurry to speak.

That just meant Obi-Wan would have to start. Quinlan once told him his curiosity was a fundamental character flaw. “Are you Anakin’s apprentice?”

Ahsoka’s gaze slid side-ways. “Not...officially.”

“May I ask why not?”

Ahsoka smiled with sad eyes. “You like asking questions folks don’t like answering, don’t you?”

“It’s a gift.”

Ahsoka took a sip of her wine and watched him over the mug’s rim. “How’s about this? We’ll skip that question, and I’ll answer the one you haven’t asked yet.”

“Which is?”

“Why I’m thrilled Vercingetorix is a rotting husk.”

“Why are you thrilled Vercingetorix is a rotting husk?”

“Because I started showing signs of Force sensitivity when I was three. A very nice woman named Latrans showed up not long after and told my parents she was escorting me to the Jedi Temple for training.”

There was no one named Latrans in the Order. Obi-Wan’s heart ached for her, pulsing and sore.

“She sold you,” he said. He didn’t have to guess.

“For quite a lot of money, if I remember right.” Ahsoka paused. Her face was pale; her fingers picked at the rim of the mug in deliberate, flicking motions. Her distress was a vibrating warning in the Force. Obi-Wan was ready to call off the conversation and give her space to regroup when she rose to her feet. Disappeared into the kitchen without a word. Clattering noises collected in the air as her shadow moved across the wall.

She returned with a cracked and dirty pot of bushy, overgrown herbs, and a pair of shears. Set the container on the ground between them. Folded herself up behind it on her cushion. Used the organic matter as a barrier against Obi-Wan.

With methodical snips, she pruned the herbs, collecting a small pile of leaves at her knee. As each one fell, the Force’s vibrations eased, returning to order around her.

With her focus diverted, she spoke again.

“That one sold me again after they realized they knew as much about the Force as I did. Which is to say, nothing. I was with that last one the longest, a crystal scavenger who moved along the Outer Rim. She was old and had ruined her eyes; she couldn’t harvest her wares from the land anymore. So she made me do it. The searching, the excavating, the polishing. She made a fortune off me.”

Meticulously, Ahsoka clipped away at the stubborn tangle of stems. Reached out and picked her mug of wine off the floor. Tilted her head and took a swing. Around her, the Force folded in on itself, a shell of protection around her shoulders. Her gaze was far off as she remembered.

Obi-Wan sat in the silence and watched her work.

“Anakin was two weeks on the run from his Master when he found me,” she said. “Leia saw a Tatooine emerald I had shaped into a heart on display. It made her happy, and he was desperate for anything to keep her entertained. He stepped inside to talk to my ow--the old lady about it.”

The mug was empty. Ahsoka collected her herb clippings and dropped them into the remnants of the wine. She offered him one of the sprigs between two fingers. He accepted it and rubbed the leaves between his fingertips. The strong smell of mint permeated.

“Anakin killed her,” she whispered. “The moment he saw me, he killed her. Took him all of a second to realize what I was; what had happened to me. I never had to explain.”

There was no horror in her voice. Only awe and admiration. Obi-Wan knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she would never abandon Anakin. Even if what she said was true, and they had never formalized their bond, there was no mistaking the reverence any apprentice used when speaking of a Master who guided them to a place of greater safety.

Around her, the Force bent and fluttered. Rose to incredible heights on her emotions; her past misery, her new happiness. Her dedication to making sure he wouldn’t ruin this place was as solid and brilliant as anything her not-Master threw out. Over-bright eyes bore her intention into him--her loyalty to her family was without question.

He tapped the mint stem against his lips. Let her confession, her fervor, her strength, sit between them as a palpable thing. Subtle as her Force signature was, she fit into the rhythm and rhyme of the house. They held on for one another, she and Anakin. The twins clearly thought she hung the moon.

She had offered the mint branch to Obi-Wan, knowing who he was and what trouble he could bring.

“Thank you for telling me,” he said, meaning every word.

“You needed to know,” she replied with a rough voice.

Quiet come around them, comfortable instead of smarting. When their composure had returned, and the Force settled into a gentle humming, he cast another salvo. Ushered the conversation away from delicate topics. “Why mint?”

Ahsoka snorted. Returned her wine to its hiding space. Picked at a mint leaf and tore it into shreds in her palm. “It makes the tea drinkable.”

Obi-Wan’s attention honed in. “There’s tea in this house?”

“Ask Anakin nicely and he may make you some.” Ahsoka rose and stretched with a grin. Picked up her herb-filled mug. “They’re gonna be a while. I was going to go wrangle that tracker into submission before the latemeal. I hope you like leftovers.”

Obi-Wan looked around the messy living room, looking for a distraction. He spied a few datapads collected in the corners of the room. “Could I trouble you for a reading recommendation, if I’m to be left to myself?”

Ahsoka smirked, said “hold on,” and disappeared into the kitchen. More clattering. “Aha! Thanks, Artoo.” She returned with a datapad that showed all the classic signs of being well-read: scuffed corners, with the buttons rubbed to a shine and fingerprint smudges covering the surface.

“Enjoy,” she said as she went outside. Then, as if remembering he was technically in her care: “shout if you need anything!”

“Thank you, my dear.” Obi-Wan activated the datapad. It was a personal volume, not a mass publication. There was no title, only a date, about nine years ago. He checked the author tag: Padmé Amidala.

He paused, tracking the name back through his memory. The late Senator from Naboo? He scrolled to the first page.

The purpose of any society is to ensure that the children of that society are raised in safety and stability. Without that fundamental mark of humanity, we are simply a collection of individuals, with no future. In our children, we lay the seeds of the future, and try our best to mend the scars of the past.

Obi-Wan’s eyes went wide as he remembered the pictures of the dark-haired woman. Leia’s brown eyes and dark hair. Luke’s insistence on their mother’s rules. Anakin’s arguments, spoken with devotion. He did some back-of-the-napkin math. “Oh.”

***

Leia stared closely at him; it was his beard that unsettled her, he thought. She leaned into his space next to him on the couch. Watching him with hard, considering eyes.

“Leia,” Anakin called in a warning tone from the other couch, stretched out from end-to-end. Luke was curled into his side, idly toying with a gadget from the tracker’s innards. The remnants of the twins’ latemeal were collected in a pile on the floor. Obi-Wan had learned that, contrary to expectations, the kitchen table was not for eating.

Upon returning from their escapade, Anakin had claimed the free couch and refused to move. Ahsoka had reconstituted a version of Obi-Wan’s middlemeal for them all and passed around plates as they shared. The wine bottle did not make an appearance.

There was something quietly nurturing in the communal act of sharing food and company in such an informal atmosphere. Obi-Wan felt something comforting unfolding in his chest. He let it soak into his bones, a healing balm for his aching body.

The night descended. Outside, nocturnal birds and insects harmonized. A few windows were propped open with rocks to take advantage of the gap in the rain.

“Obi-Wan is a funny name,” Leia decided.

“Oi gremlin! Pretend I taught you manners.”

“Is it?” Obi-Wan indulged her. Leia nodded, confident in her authority. From his father’s arms, Luke made a wishy-washy movement with his hand in agreement.

“Then I guess you’ll have to call me Ben.”

“Beeeeen,” Leia tested. “Better,” Luke allowed with a nod.

“And with that, it’s bedtime,” Anakin decided, levering himself up with a wince. The typical protests to such a proclamation ensued. Their father was unmoved by the twins’ plight. Slow and lackadaisical, he gathered his progeny up. Obi-Wan hadn’t seen him eat during the meal.

He kept his questions to himself when Anakin returned to the couch, childless and bone-weary. The soft bubbling of tired little bodies dribbled through the Force above them. Eventually, they tapered off into the steady drum of sleep.

Anakin all but collapsed against the couch, heedless of its groan of complaint. He tossed an arm over his face, hiding. Occasionally, he would flex his flesh hand, as if pushing away pain. Was this a new experience?

Ahsoka crept around the kitchen, deliberately careful with the clattering of dishes. She came back with a small plate of food and a glass of water.

“Try to eat something,” she muttered as she set the plate and the glass down. The pain killer tablets were red dots on the plate’s rim.

She shot Obi-Wan a look that was full of expectation and desperation. Please, she mouthed to him.

Not a new thing, then.

He nodded. Relief broke out on her face, trusting his assurance. She went upstairs, and they were alone.

“That hardly looks comfortable. That poor couch is far too short,” he said. Anakin snorted and grimaced in one complicated move.

“Where do you think I’ve been sleeping since we brought you home? It’s fine.”

“Is it a headache? How long have you had it?”

“Count as high as you can, then add a day,” Anakin said, waspish, with a vicious bite through the Force around him.

That was unacceptable. Obi-Wan opened his hand to the young man and smoothed down the ruffled ridges brought about by his turbulence in the Force. Anakin didn’t fight him. “Come here.”

“It’s fine,” he dismissed instantly behind his elbow.

Stubborn. Obi-Wan straightened his spine and brought his body under control. Tucked his discomfort away and tapped a well of authority, the kind that even the most mischievous of Padawans buckled against. Planted both his feet on the ground and rested his elbows on his knees. Released his resolve across the Force and over Anakin like a blanket, enveloping him.

The aperture of the Force was not a solid, immutable thing. Handled correctly, it could be realigned, coming into the world in different forms. In subtle increments, like a prism shifting light through its facets, he reangled Anakin in the Force. Scattered white (hot, unrelenting, constantly hammering) into a thousand different hues (soft greens, serene blues, joyful reds, lively yellows that danced together on feathery feet). The realignment released pressure and stagnation into different wavelengths, expelling them wide and long.

A soft sigh from across the room. Anakin’s arm fell away from his face. His half-lidded eyes turned to Obi-Wan with a half-open gasp. His bare toes curled against the couch as he readjusted to the sensation of weightlessness that came with the Force's scattering. His body relaxed, cut from bonds of tension.

“You did this earlier. During our fight. Made things quiet,” he muttered.

“Anakin. Come here,” Obi-Wan ordered in a calm, low voice that brokered no argument. He kept his face steady and his eyes expectant when Anakin raised his head to glare at him. When Obi-Wan gave him no ground, he visibly dithered, instincts urging him to follow instructions warring with his want to be obstinate.

Obi-Wan anticipated acquiescence. For Anakin to take a seat on the couch beside him. For them to have a rational conversation about the source of his pain.

He wasn’t altogether prepared for Anakin to roll off the couch to his knees. To slide across the floor with that elegantly unnatural grace. He pooled into the space between Obi-Wan’s feet. Looked up at him through too thick eyelashes with a mutinous expression and red patches on his cheeks.

Obi-Wan bit the inside of his cheek and took a five-count breath. Released his surprise to the Force and received back reassurance. And he waited.

“Well? I’m here.” Anakin said, mulish.

“How long?”

Anakin’s mouth swished across his face. “This one? Since you woke up. In general? On and off for the past four years.”

“Think of the sky,” he ordered. It was an old lesson, one of the first taught to Jedi Initiates. The expanse pulled thoughts into a sort of order. With care, he set his hands to either side of Anakin’s face, thumbs against his temples. Urged his eyes closed. Physical connections helped establish weak bonds, and while Obi-Wan had some thoughts about what anyone in this house considered ‘weak’, now wasn’t the time to explore them. He threaded himself in, easing into Anakin’s mind between one heartbeat and the next.

A tangle of wretched durasteel and spiked, flesh-chunking wire knotted around one another. No reason or methodology that he could make out, simply Anakin planted defenses where he needed them, coiling them together in a labyrinthine mess. Obi-Wan touched a spike that felt as large as him.

The sky shuddered. Anakin’s eyes slit open. “Careful,” he muttered, a low warning mixing with cracked softness. Any organization slipped away, at the mercy of Anakin’s instinctive connections with the Force. Obi-Wan was forced from his mind in an abrupt expulsion. Shoved back and locked out.

Obi-Wan tapped one thumbpad against Anakin’s cheekbone, a gentle reminder to refocus. Five out; five in. If that trick wasn’t going to work, he’d have to get creative. “Tell me how to replace a podracer engine’s primary carburetor.”

“Make sure the engine’s off,” Anakin immediately said. “Drain all fuel and clear the injector lines.”

He listened to the instructions with half an ear. The methodical steps gave Anakin something to concentrate on. The diversion of his attention. Obi-Wan resituated and slipped back between the barbed wire comprising the outer shields. Using the young man’s attention and focus as a guide, he followed it into the inner sanctums of Anakin’s mind.

Obi-Wan stilled. Gave Anakin time to adapt to the presence of another in his mind. Eased his weight onto the young man’s shoulders in a reassuring pressure.

Anakin shuttered in his touch, pliable and revealed.

He found what he was looking for, but not what he expected. Anakin’s internal center, the core of his being, was a book, old-fashioned and fragile. No datapad passcodes or privacy settings protected his secrets. And here he was, fallen open before Obi-Wan, to be thumbed through and read; all leather worn soft and curled edges to be urged flat. Obi-Wan studied the vellum pages, amazed.

In those pages were the whole of his life and the contents of his bonds. Obi-Wan set aside the former, knowing what wasn’t his to explore, to focus on the latter.

One bond was written in molten fire on churning rock. Luke’s curiosity and polite insistence tasted sharp. Anakin held a mirror with his son, seeing himself in Luke’s technical advantages and easy connection with the Force. His big emotions and his bigger heart. The heated mix of fire and water radiated from the page, which smelled of new, raw life.

The next bond sparked and sizzled when Obi-Wan ran his fingers down the page. The edges were sharp; he tempted worse than a papercut if he handled it wrong. Electricity ate up the page, before descending into spacy silence. Leia, intelligent, quick, clear-eyed, Leia, saw all the things Anakin saw and would chew them up and spit them out without fear. Ambition and cleverness, a little bit of ruthlessness that Anakin was both proud and worried about.

There were no physical sensations or flights of nature in the third bond. The page was written in near-invisible ink that smelled like lemons and mint. When Obi-Wan touched it, he retained a vicious empathy and the taste of crystal quartz on his tongue. Ahsoka’s pages stretched for the longest, sometimes burning, sometimes frozen. Always roving.

They’re beautiful Obi-Wan whispered.

They’re mine Anakin replied.

Then Obi-Wan reached the back of the book. The pages there had been ripped out, violent, and without care to preservation. He touched the raw, ruined binding. It wept trauma and pain across his mind. Anakin hissed and jerked in his grip, physically pulling back.

He curled his fingers in a soothing motion, drawing Anakin back into his hands. What is that? he asked.

Anakin’s expression was free, uncomplicated by pain or fear. Obi-Wan’s hands held him so that he wouldn’t fall. My...my training bond with my Master. My old Master. I ripped out when I left.

And had never let it heal. No wonder he was a mess. How had he done it? Cut off training bonds withered, like a flower stem cut off from the source. They didn’t rot, fester, and weep. They didn’t rent like this.

Obi-Wan rubbed his thumb into the joint of Anakin’s jaw as he thought. Slowly, gently uncoupled them. Let them both slip back into the physical world.

“You’re supporting three training bonds at once,” he explained, soft into the air between them. “They’re filling all the space you’d normally occupy yourself. Eventually, they may overtake you. Not that you’ll care, but the Jedi Code limits Masters to one Padawan at a time for exactly this reason.”

“Well, if it’s against the Code,” Anakin smirked, lazy. Obi wondered what he had been taught about the Jedi way of things.

“The easy way to resolve this would be to let the bonds go and heal over.”

Anakin’s temper snapped forward in an instant--he’s shields went up like white-hot lightning, chasing the calming colors to the wilderness. Obi-Wan could almost track it in the rage that clouded his eyes. His hands flexed on either side of Obi-Wan’s knees, and his breath shortened. The upholstery fabric strained and popped.

“I won’t give them up--if that’s what you’re after, you’d best stop now. I’ll break you if you try,” he hissed, sounding like a metal grinder.

Obi-Wan didn’t back down, idly combing Anakin's hair back with a steady hand. Outlasted him through his bad temper. Breathed on a five-count and encouraged Anakin to match him. They’d get nowhere fast if he let reactionary emotions get the better of them both.

“Do you remember what I promised you?” he asked.

Anakin held out for a heartbeat, stubborn to the last. Then, like a half-build glider put in flight too soon, his righteous fury collapsed in on itself. He paired his breathing with Obi-Wan as he pulled his temper in like a tangible thing, dragging it inward a handful at a time. He was hot to the touch--nearly scalding. He shook under Obi-Wan’s hands.

They hung in this immutable space, suspended over the precipice. Obi-Wan took pleasure in the anticipation, the edge they balanced on.

When he was sure Anakin had mellowed, he set his fingers under the young man’s chin and urged his eyes up. He did not say calm down. He did not say you’re imagining things. Anakin has survived to this point by constantly imagining things around every corner. “No one could take the twins from you if they tried. I just said that’s the easy way.”

Anakin blinked. “And the hard way?”

He gently untangled his fingers from Anakin’s ropy curls and sat back. Put a hand on his shoulder and drew him up. Set him on the couch beside Obi-Wan. Reached out and picked up the neglected latemeal plate.

“Finish this while I think, if you please,” he said. Anakin ate under Obi-wan’s firm eye. Took the pain killers and finished the water.

Once he had eaten. Once he had calmed his panic. Once he was again listening, Obi-Wan continued. “Since we cannot fix the cause, we must adapt your shields. You’ve done exceedingly well for someone who’s training was never finished. But the gaps in your knowledge aren’t just cumbersome--they’re hurting you.”

“I went through a lot of pain and hassle to get rid of one Master. What makes you think I want another?”

“It’s not about what you want; it’s about what you need.”

Anakin’s humor was a dark smudge across his face. “And what do I need?”

“To know what peace looks like.”

Chapter Text

In the Force, Obi-Wan found much-needed peace. Measured breathing and focused thought washed out the pain of his wounds. His mental burdens found a place of rest. The confusing mix of energies quilled around him, muffled in a quiet, sleepy house. Five out; five in. A well-practiced rite that brought him to the placid doldrums.

He opened his eyes. The porch was cold and wet with morning dew. Over his borrowed clothes, he donned his Jedi robes, unbelted and loose around his waist to keep from upsetting his injuries. The dense fabric pooled around his knees and kept him warm when blood settled in his veins.

Anakin, who had rolled off the couch with a groan when Obi-Wan had awoken him an hour ago, had simply dragged his bedding with him onto the porch. He had warped himself in the woolen and linen mess against the pre-dawn frost. The blankets were a patterned mash of geometric shapes, their gray and yellow colors muted in the weak light.

He hadn’t kept his posture or his attention on point. Huddled up against the side of the house, he rested his curled hand against his mouth and chin. Bleary eyes squinted at Obi-Wan.

Such had become their routine in the past week.

“Honestly, did you even try?” Obi-Wan asked.

“For a few minutes. It wasn’t working.” When Anakin shrugged, he lost half of his sheltered warmth as the blankets slipped into his lap. Grasping their corners, he hiked them back up around his neck.

“Because you didn’t give it a chance.” He was beginning to see how these training sessions would go. The twins came by their willfulness honestly.

Petulant, and little irritated, Anakin drew the blankets half up his face, leaving only his narrowed golden eyes visible. “I gave it enough of a chance.”

Obi-Wan had faced down more obstinate Padawans. Though he was having trouble recalling who they had been at the moment. “We won’t get anywhere if you insist on these kinds of childish antics. If we don’t address the disarray of your mind, and if you don’t mend your shields and bonds, your pain will only worsen.”

The reprimand brought Anakin into the morning air with an indigent look. “My mind is full of broken glass and metal shards. No amount of counting and breathing is going to fix that. This isn’t what the Force wants me to be doing.”

“You think you know the Force?” Not an accusation, but perhaps a taunt. Obi-Wan’s post-meditative state was always a little mischievous. The clarity he felt, the resolution his mission instilled in him, drove an impulse to incite some pique. And Anakin was so very entertaining when piqued.

Sure enough. The poise that dictated Anakin’s being took hold as he slipped out of his shelter and leaned in towards Obi-Wan. His metal hand braced him against the peeling porch floorboards. His hair was a sleep-tangled mess. The water droplets dusting his curls crystalizing in the false dawn, giving him an ethereal glow.

“In this? Yes,” he whispered as if it was a secret the sun wasn’t allowed to have. “I know why the Force made me--and it wasn’t for this kind of thing. If it wanted me to be a great meditator, it wouldn’t have put so much noise in my head.”

Obi-Wan leaned in to meet him. His hands went into his sleeves. “By that logic, do you believe you have no control over your life?”

Anakin hummed, tuneless. Huffed out a curl of warm air. Traced his eyes down Obi-Wan’s face. “Foreordaining? No, I don’t think it’s that bad. But what the Force wants, the Force gets.”

“You speak like the Force is an entity with cravings and desires.” And it wasn’t the first time Anakin had done so. Was this a Sith latent tenant?

His charge’s expression mixed disbelief and delight like Obi-Wan had finally spoken in a language he understood. “It is. And the Force wants everything. That’s why it works through us.”

“Oh?” Tell me more, Obi-Wan silently appealed. Help me figure out what’s going on with your head.

Sometimes, Anakin indulged him; at other times, he pulled away. This morning, it was the latter. The tension between them broke as the young man rolled his eyes and settled back into his mass of blankets. “That tone? That condescending one right there? Kinda makes me want to punch you in the face.”

“I’m just trying to understand how you think the Force works.” The planks of the porch creaked as the wind came down the mountains and through the forest. In the corner, Leia’s windchime rang, wood and metal pendants alike dancing loud in the quiet dawn.

“And I’m just trying not to punch you. See how that works?” Anakin stretched his arms above his head. Cracked his neck. Rubbed at his face. “I’m calling it--the twins’ll be up soon.”

Sure enough, sunlight fought through the clouds into the sky in pale blue beams. The layer of dew burned away.

He waited until Anakin stood, his blankets a loose ball in his arms. “I hear you make a decent cup of tea,” he baited. Well, mostly baited. He wouldn’t turn his nose up at even the most mediocre cup of tea after a week of this.

Anakin’s look was flat and sleep-deprived. “That’s not happening.”

***

The meal dishes were in the sink. Obi-Wan washed, the sleeves of his borrowed tunic tucked around his elbows. Anakin dried and put them away. The task went smoothly, a back and forth along the countertops. The window stayed closed, but chilled, wet air slipped through the missing pane in the window.

“Why weren’t you at the Battle of Geonosis?” Obi-Wan asked into the tentative quiet.

“That’s where you want to start?” Anakin’s eyes were narrow, his tone bordering on accusatory. “Not--I don’t know, the tactical weaknesses of the star cruisers Dooku favors?”

They’d get to that, too—this first.

“Best to start at the beginning,” he replied. Darth Vader’s conspicuous absence during the battle was a mystery that consistently baffled GAR Intelligence. Had he been present, it wouldn’t have been a battle so much as a massacre. It had been troubling that their enemy had left such a possibility untapped without explanation.

“Geonosis wasn’t the beginning. I honestly don’t know what was. The Sith had been active far before I came along,” Anakin told him, busied himself by rearranging the drinking glasses.

That...was a terrifying revelation. How long had the Sith been lurking in the shadows, just out of the Jedi’s line of sight? Obi-Wan suspected he would be grappling with the answer for a while. What could he even do about it?

Rather than try to tackle a mountain, he resolved to work on a single rock and move up. Released his fear and refocused on his goals. “Then let’s you and I start with Geonosis.”

Anakin gnawed on his lower lip. Obi-Wan scrubbed at a stubborn spot on the plate to voicelessly alleviate his stress. He had to trust Anakin to hold to their agreement. He wouldn’t demand or push; he would be met half-way. He kept his voice unshaken and his Force signature alert--reminding Anakin to come to him with waves of reassurance.

His charge responded, unconsciously turning towards him. “I was supposed to be there. But Grievous had said something to me in that growly, idiotic way of his. I don’t remember what it was, but it pissed me off. I was eighteen? Nineteen? Whichever, I wasn’t concerned about keeping plans or orders back then.”

Obi-Wan didn’t think that trait had dissipated with age. He handed over the next plate, chipped and scratched and thoroughly clean.

Anakin didn’t put it away immediately. He sat on the counter’s edge, tapping his heels into the cabinet door. Ran a finger over the the plate’s scratches: “I was ordered there to help with Dooku’s plan, but I decided to fuck off to the other side of the galaxy for a while, instead. Bummed around the Mid-Rim for a few months. Ended up on Naboo.”

He didn’t say anything else. The Force bore a tempting edge around them, a knife positioned slice through tangles of denial and tranquility alike without thought. He glanced at Senator Amidala’s photo, sitting on the window sill.

Obi-Wan shut the water off. Used his stability to press the knife’s edge down. Let the Force take on the quality of the soapy water, diluted and cleansing. Thought about his next step. “Did you know I was the bait for Dooku’s attack?”

The Force snapped. Anakin’s malicious, angry edge disappeared in an instant. The knife slipped back into its sheath.

“...I didn’t,” he admitted, his expression open with shock and not a little...shame? “I just knew Dooku had captured a Jedi and had some sort of trap laid. I didn’t bother to learn much past that.”

Obi-Wan’s mouth thinned. Old guilt, long ago meditated into acceptance and released to the Force. It occasionally came back to him, reminding him of his duty to the memories of those who came to save him.

Qui-Gon among them. Cut down by his own disgraced Master. Obi-Wan observed the suds gently popping over the water’s surface. With each tiny explosion, he let go of his guilt and pain. The Force draped itself over his shoulders in a warm, comforting embrace. Protected the tender part of his soul while he pieced them back together.

Over a hundred Jedi were lost on the grounds of the arena. And it could have been so much worse, if not for Anakin’s well-timed tantrum. Had Darth Vader been at Geonosis, the death toll would have risen from horrifying to catastrophic. “Trap, indeed.”

Anakin said nothing and turned away.

***

Morning was a bright spot of sunlight through the dissipating clouds. Everyone in the house enjoyed the break in the weather with propped open windows and doors. Humidity built quickly, bringing the smell of earth, sweat, and growth to full force.

“What about this?” Obi-Wan asked, holding up a broken mug. Timid gray and everyday practical, it was an inexpensive little trinket found in any marketplace. The handle had broken off, and a thick fracture ran from the rim to the base in a cragged line.

Luke squinted at the mug as he thought. His mouth swished across his face in a mirror of his father’s habit. “‘soka dropped it on the floor. Leia and I wanted to make something out of it. Instead of just throwing it away, you know?”

“And how long ago was that?”

“Last year?”

Obi-Wan put the broken mug in the trash pile. There was a timeline on these kinds of projects that should be measured in days, not years. From the mess on the kitchen table, he drew a set of paints, half-empty and mixed together to make a colorless sludge. “What about this?”

“We painted our speeder helmets--do you wanna see?”

“Maybe later.” Into the trash pile, the paints went. Obi-Wan figured the brushes could be saved with a good soak.

The household came alive in increments. Leia camped out in the living room and half-asleep over her breakfast and cuddled up with Artoo. They whistled to one another in binary. Outside, Anakin and Ahsoka lapped the yard. During the mornings, they stretched and ran. Moved in time with one another as they worked their bodies awake. Their blurred figures flashed by the window when they passed in repetitive cycles.

Luke would sometimes lean over in his seat, throwing comments into Leia and Artoo’s discussion. Obi-Wan pulled his attention back with studious determination. He wanted to observe the twins separately, to better understand how they considered their Force use and their priorities. Together they blurred, their auras mixing like the half-empty paint until the edges delineated them became the mere hint of an outline. When separated, their distinctions clarified.

When Luke called over a rag across the kitchen with the Force, rather than retrieving it by hand, Obi-Wan found a place to start. “Do you do that often?”

“Use the other thing? Sometimes. When we’re home. Why?”

“It’s not the other thing. What you’re feeling is the Force.”

Luke blinked and tilted his head, expressing his perplexity. “The force of what?”

“The universe. The energy that connects all things. You have a strong connection to it--it’s what helps you do things like that.”

“Oh. Yeah, I use it to make things happen quicker. My chores and stuff. Sometimes things get really boring without it.”

“It seems like such a small thing to use such power for.” ‘Blatant misuse of the Force’ might be a little too harsh for Luke’s kind face and trusting aura. But that’s what it was--Luke tapped the Force for any little whim he had. It wouldn’t help him in the long run, making him overly dependent on it.

“But it wants to be used,” Luke replied, surprised. “I can feel like. It’s like...like when I want a cookie. Or when Dad asks us to find something. Or when Leia’s extra annoying about things.”

While Obi-Wan tried not to smile at that, he made a note of Luke’s phrasing. Wouldn’t Leia want cookies too? She was a child with a child’s tastes. What was she using the Force for, then, if not to fulfill immediate impulses?

He pointed to the table. “Well, if it wants to be used, let’s put it to good use. Can you show me how many things you can pick up?” He didn’t specify further, interested to see how Luke would interpret his request.

“Oh--uhhmm.” The little one stretched out his hand, tapped his fingertips into the air like he was testing the waters of the Force. One object rose--than another. Another followed. As if being pulled up by invisible strings, Luke levitated the tangled cluster of objects, showing none of the strain many Padawans his age would suffer from when asked to concentrate on multiple, disparate targets.

He cleared the tabletop without trouble or hesitation—everything from broken mugs to paint cans to mechanical tools hung in the air. Obi-Wan silently counted out a full minute. “Thank you, Luke. Return them, please. Again, one at a time.”

That instruction was harder for Luke to follow. More than a few items dropped onto the table without warning or discretion. Some tumbled down at the same instant, cut from their invisible strings as the boy struggled to keep track of it all. Obi-Wan had to catch a jar half-full of water before it crashed to the floor.

The last few items--a stray stuffed animal, a stripped data chip, a vial full of cooking spice--came down slower, with more confidence, as Luke’s focus narrowed to fewer items.

“That was well done,” Obi-Wan congratulated as he returned the water jar to the table. It was also unnerving. A seven-year-old had just performed a feat most Padawans in the middle of their training struggled with. What would he be like in a year? In ten years?

“Was it? That’s good--It was harder to put them all back. It felt like dragging. It’s not fun to think about.”

“What do you usually think about when you use the Force?”

“Flying,” Luke said instantly. His answer tumbled out of his mouth before Obi-Wan could finish his question. “The other--the Force,” he corrected himself before Obi-Wan could, “wants to know what speed feels like. Drag slows down speed. You need lift and, and--uh. Airflow! Lift and airflow or the wing won’t rise. When I use it--the Force--it’s like I’m getting all the lift.”

Obi-Wan didn’t respond for a long moment. When he was sure his surprise was well-hidden, he said: “Without the drag, all the lift is at the mercy of the air currents, isn’t it? The wing needs both the lift and the drag working on it to steer and direct.”

Luke didn’t like that--his face showed his annoyance without concealment, and the Force grumbled in a low, rolling rumble around him. Then again, what child liked to be told they had to slow down?

But it highlighted the issues he had to work with Luke on. The boy was an open node of connections, with no discretion or modulation installed. Aligned like his father, his relationship to the Force was entirely instinctual. And at the whim of his immediate goals. But he wasn’t obstinate. Instead, he paid close attention to his behavior. He hadn’t probed at Obi-Wan’s mind since their first meeting. He made a point of connecting with his family throughout the day, attuned to them and their state of mind. He was conscious of others. Obi-Wan had an idea of how to harness that.

“What stories do you like?” he asked. He suspected Luke’s empathetic nature would play to his advantage.

“Uuuuhhhh...do you know any stories about queens?” Luke asked with inexperienced nonchalance. He sent cravingly curious waves into the Force.

Senator Amidala had been elected Queen of Naboo when she was fourteen, Obi-Wan remembered. He didn’t know much about queens as a whole, but...

His memories presented him with an idea. It wasn’t one his heart liked. He did it anyway because Luke needed guidance, and Obi-Wan’s responsibility was to provide it, no matter the cost.

“I know stories about a duchess,” he offered. He was proud his voice didn’t break.

“Is that like a queen?”

“They are often asked to make similar decisions. And they both wield a great deal of power over the people they've sworn to protect. They must make difficult decisions because of it. This duchess ruled Mandalore. Do you know where that is?”

“No,” Luke said, drawing the syllables out. He had taken the stuffed animal--some sort of crystalized fox creature--out from the mess and hugged it to his chest. He was curiosity incarnate, hanging off Obi-Wan’s words like they were a lifeline.

Obi-Wan pulled up a basic map on a nearby datapad and showed him the speck in the galaxy that was Mandalore. When his hand wanted to shake, he curled it into a loose fist. Released old pain, longing, and regret into the Force. Remembered his love and his duty in equal measure. “Right here. It’s the home of the Mandalorians, a proud and noble people, who fight for what they believe in. They are passion and devotion made flesh. But they have disagreements, too-strong ones. Some interpret their way of life differently.”

“Mom says that differences are what make us strong. That we shouldn’t be afraid of them,” Luke contributed.

Oh, Satine, Obi-Wan prayed. What kindred souls you and the Senator would have made. He swallowed down the lump in his throat.

“The duchess believed that too. She believed in peace and giving her people a chance at a new, harmonious way of life. One defined by courage, not strength. But some of her people only believed in strength. They fought with her a great deal. They hurt people to make their point. The duchess had a choice. She could lock up her enemies, suppress their disagreements. Or she could offer her hand and ask that they take it.”

“What did she do?” Luke asked, invested.

“She believed in her people’s ability to change. She knew it would hurt them all if she took away their voice. Even if she thought she was doing it for their own good.”

“But if she has the power to fix it, shouldn’t she?”

“The most important thing to learn about power is when to not use it. Even when it wants to be used--especially when it wants to be used. Power without restraint can become abuse. That’s why the duchess didn’t use her power lightly. Her restraint benefited her people.”

Luke thought about that, the muscles of his face working in quiet quirks. Obi-Wan let him without pushing further. Quietly acknowledged his mourning of Satine and the loss of her in his life. Nearly ten years and she still moved him to a deep well of emotions.

Thuds vibrated the floor, alerting him to the unofficial end of their session. Anakin and Ahsoka trounced up the porch, sweating and panting and dripping rain onto the floor. Their boisterous entrance broke the contemplative quiet. Luke dropped his stuffed animal and raced to see them.

Obi-Wan leaned down and picked the toy up. It wasn’t just warm in his hands; it was hot. Near scalding. The Force reverberated through the little stuffed creature, generating energy that doubled itself with every passing second. An endless cycle of amplification, ready to explode at the wrong touch.

He drew deep from the Force, wrapping the toy in an aura of calm and disengagement. Eased it back into the reality of things. By the time he was done, his hands were numb and over-sensitized from holding an entity of pure Force. Rubbing them to encourage some soothing energy back into them, he considered what he was going to do.

***

Nevos ran on an eight-day rotation. For half the week, the twins attended classes in town. Practiced their languages and their mathematics; socialized and developed with children their own age. During those days, Anakin and Ahsoka took work in the trade market that acted as the region’s hub.

Obi-Wan, still healing and slow to move, was told to rest. “Don’t ruin all the effort I put into fixing you,” Anakin had growled at him. “Ask any droid around--I hate having to redo my work.”

The advice, while gruff, was well-intended. It didn’t dismiss Obi-Wan’s concern about the tight, calculating edge of his host’s thoughts. The run of numbers repeating over and over, willing them to add up to a different figure. The lean and hungry look that overtook his face when he stood in front of the kitchen pantry.

“There has to be something I can help with,” Obi-Wan insisted. He was taking up space in their household, eating their food, and utilizing their resources. Putting aside his desire to ease the burden he imposed on a home running on a threadbare budget, Anakin’s anxiety affected the rest of his family. Those emotions threw a wrench in the atmosphere Obi-Wan was trying to instill. It had to be addressed.

“It’s fine,” Anakin rebuffed with false confidence. “It’s not our first lean month. My mom always said times like these yielded creative thinking.”

And that was the end of it. Anakin wouldn’t hear another word about the topic from Obi-Wan. He had run out of the house with his horde, and that was the end of that.

So Obi-Wan took the opportunity of quiet to consider the issue and settled onto what he tentatively referred to as ‘his couch.’ Let his thoughts inspect increasingly outlandish ideas for funds as his hands activated his chosen datapad with a quick, habitual swipe; he had unearthed this one from the drawers of Anakin’s nightstand.

He glanced at the first page:

The individual act allows for freedom and discretion. The collective offers safety and structural support. But the individual can often falter and fail alone; the collective risks becoming overbearing and forcing conformity. There isn’t a right way, one or the other--success at life comes from understanding that the two must work together. One side will never be enough to sustain a fulfilling life.

Each of the Senator’s journals was a little different. Sometimes, she seemed to be writing for a professional setting, laying out points and counterpoints with oratorical skill and advanced debate. Some were polished speeches, and the date they were delivered on the Senate floor was noted in the margins. Other times, she seemed to be jotting down thoughts for herself, odd little ideas that she free-wrote into complex arguments.

Sometimes, she seemed to be writing to the twins. In a handful, she addressed Anakin directly. Obi-Wan was captivated by the clarity of her voice. The twin’s determination and righteousness hadn’t come entirely from Anakin, it seemed.

As far as he could tell, this one refined themes the Senator often returned to; the confidence and introspection required to walk alone. Of blending education and instinct to know when to favor one side over the other. Padmé Amidala had been a great believer in developing strength of character.

Artoo hailed from across the house. Obi-Wan paused. Looked up. Waited to see if the little droid was going to act on those threats now that they were alone and unmonitored.

“Can I help you with something?” he asked, blunt.

Artoo called again. An extension arm popped out, pointing outside. He leaned over far enough to see an unfamiliar craft bumping down the road through a front window.

“I take it we weren’t expecting anyone today?”

Beeep beeep.

Obi-Wan groaned. Exhaled on five; inhaled. Used the boost of air in his lungs to climb to his feet. Stepped onto the porch as a middle-aged humanoid clamored out of the craft, muttering angry obscenities. He eyed his surroundings with disdain. Unchecked authority scampered off him in waves. In the passenger seat was a deactivated protocol droid.

The man stopped when he saw Obi-Wan. “You’re not Skywalker,” he accused. What a charming way to start a conversation.

“No, I’m not,” Obi-Wan agreed, sunny in the face of the man’s unpleasantness. “But I am a friend of the family. Can I help you with something?”

“Look at this!” the man demanded, waving a hand at the inert droid. “Shoddy work--I can’t say I’m impressed. The damn thing is responding a half-second slower than it used to--I tested it myself! Skywalker’s full of crap if he thinks this is gonna fly. Double my ass.”

Deception, the kind that came from dominating a conversation and refusing to concede, pumped out of the man like fumes. He stank of braggadocio and subterfuge.

Obi-Wan set his elbows on the banister. Waited out the man’s blustering with a dispassionate eye. In between one ragged breath and the next, he struck. “So you haven’t paid for the work Anakin performed?”

“I shouldn’t have to!”

Oh no, this wouldn’t do at all. Obi-Wan cast an eye over the droid. A slight flick of the Force rolled down his arm and into the air. The droid popped to life. “Is that so?”

“Hey--what,” the man halted. Pretension became confusion.

Obi-Wan turned on him with eager intention and a cheery smile. “Let’s chat, shall we?”

Anakin came home later that afternoon, covered in grease and dirt, stuck in place by a healthy coating of rainwater. Radiating exhaustion--the type that came from a day of active labor--he took to scrubbing off the worst of it in the kitchen. Obi-Wan figured it wouldn’t take him long to find the small pile of currency on the window sill beside the Senator’s photo.

Sure enough, the tap turned off, and footsteps creaked across the floor. Anakin leaned against the frame of the living room. A pile of hard currency collected in his palm. “Where’d that come from?”

Obi-Wan didn’t glance up from his reading in the living room. “A man came by. He said he owed you for your work.”

“The magistrate? Huh,” Anakin’s fingers sorted through the money, quickly counting. Relief echoed off him like calls in a canyon. “Well, look at that. Double, and then some. Did he say anything else?”

“Nothing of consequence.” Obi-Wan looked out the window; escaped a pair of knowing golden eyes that honed in on him with the precision of a hunter. The ground was a wet bog, but the clouds looked tolerable. “What time do the children come home? I thought I’d take them into the yard before the latemeal again.”

Anakin didn’t call him on his demur. The line of his shoulders was a grateful slope, fallen open and suddenly relaxed. His face opened with a slight smile of amazement. A bubble of contentment rose in Obi-Wan’s chest. He reined in the smudge of satisfaction he felt at taking one more burden off the young man’s shoulders.

“...thank you,” Anakin said from the foyer.

“What was that?” Obi-Wan asked.

“You heard me!” he yelled as he fled outside.

***

There was dirt under Ahsoka’s fingernails. Sweat on her face. Her arms and shoulders strained as she pulled up weeds from the garden bed.

The rain was misty, slow and rolling. The fog it towed obscured the grass, the forest, the mountain. Obi-Wan passed a hand through it. Felt the condensate build on his fingertips. The rough blanket he sat on slowly soaked in the scent and sensation of damp earth under his thighs.

Ahsoka had brought home a tray of seedlings, the large box hitched on her hip. “I got them in trade from Nili for finally getting that damn tracker working,” she explained as she dropped them onto the porch. “I figure I’ll get these planted today before the weather drops again.”

He had spent another frustrating morning browbeating Anakin through a grueling meditation session. It had made Obi-Wan a little sharp. “Does no one in this house know how to sit still?”

“When has sitting still ever gotten things done?” Ahsoka had asked, showing off her dimples. That smile had gotten Obi-Wan outside and sitting in the dirt next to an empty garden bed. He was going to have to be careful of that smile.

He watched her work and thought about circumstances. “Honestly--are there ever moments of peace in this house?”

She sat back on her heels and wiped the sweat from her face. The bed had needed weeding before she could plant her seeds. “You mean a calm day? I’ve found that sitting still only makes the thoughts you’re left alone with worse, you know?”

“If you find a place of centering, your thoughts become kinder. I could show you if you like,” Obi-Wan offered.

She wrapped her hand around a particularly stubborn bramble. “I know Anakin wants you to help with the tinies. And I’m grateful you’re helping with his headaches. But I don’t really think I need like, lessons, or anything. I know what I can do. Anakin’s guidance is enough.”

She studiously deflected his attention. Dug out tiny pockets of earth with her fingers. Picked the first seedlings out of their pots and planted them deep.

Part of him wasn’t surprised.

In many ways, Ahsoka was just like the Padawans he had worked with for years. Apprenticed to another Master, but working with him to develop a particular technique or skill. Expanding her education now that the fundamentals had been property seen to. Advanced training, as Quinlan had called it.

She also wasn’t the first apprentice to believe that sort of training to be a betrayal and an indictment of her own Master. Devotion ran deep, and it was a challenging emotion to reconcile. It was a stepping stone many Padawans stumbled over in their own time. Addressed correctly, the struggle was another lesson, another opportunity for growth. It was vital Padawans learned to see their Masters as a resource to be utilized, rather than the end goal to be idolized.

“There is no skill so perfect it cannot be improved upon,” he suggested.

Ahsoka planted her next seed with quick fingers. “What do you think you can teach me?”

“That depends on what you’re after.”

Her grin turned sharp. She dared a glance at him through her eyelashes. “What about how to make a lightsaber?”

Obi-Wan paused. Blinked. That was surprising. “Do you not have one?”

“Anakin thinks it would make me a target. I don’t even know where his is or if he still has it.”

Darth Vader had wielded a monster of a weapon. Intense and imposing, even from a distance. The bloody red blade had been the terror of many battlefields. Perhaps that weapon was best left in a lost pit.

“But you train in lightsaber forms, don’t you?” he asked. He had seen them in his dreams. His visions. Whatever he thought to call them.

“Yeah, but that’s not the same thing. That’s physio-training. Moving and learning what my muscles can do. Anakin’s shown me how to take someone out if I need to. But...well, that didn’t really help against Vercingetorix, did it?”

Obi-Wan hoped she would never again encounter anyone like Vercingetorix. However, that hope wasn’t practical in the face of her circumstances. Her phrasing led to a larger question. One he thought she was avoiding on purpose.

And he’d only indulge evasion for so long. “If you want a lightsaber, it’s because you think you’ll be in a position to use one. But this place doesn’t offer much threat on a normal day. What is it you think you’ll be doing to need that kind of protection?”

Ahsoka didn’t answer right away. She finished with the seedlings. Hauled herself upright. Packed the earth down with her feet. Then, she held her hand out, palm forward. Obi-Wan felt the Force twinge around her, pulling something in.

A soft whoosh warned him just as a white veined ball of rock slipped around the crack in the door. It flew into Ashoka’s hand, fitting into her grasp like it belonged there. The little orb seemed to calm her, easing the tension she pumped out into the Force.

“I don’t know what I’ll be doing,” she admitted as she inspected the ball. The veins caught the weak sun, scattering dappled light onto her hand.

“What is it you want to do?” The moment he asked it, the question became inescapable. She was healing here, in this house, with her family. But eventually, healing would turn to untapped energy, which would, in turn, transform into wanderlust. The activeness that drove her wouldn’t let her stay put.

“I...I don’t know,” she said again in a soft, uncertain voice.

“I don’t quite believe that.”

Ahsoka tossed the crystal ball to him. Her signature was heavily tied into the crystal, protective and opaque. Mudding her aura in the Force, and making it more difficult to understand what she was thinking. A fascinating defense.

He caught it on reflex. She waited with a quirked eyebrow. After a moment, he got what she wanted from him and pitched it back—her quick fingers the ball from the air. Stepping out of the garden bed, she repeated the process. He played her game, and let his acceptance bleed into the Force.

Eventually, she put words to her thoughts. “I think...I want to explore. Not hide every day of my life.”

“What does Anakin say about that?”

“We don’t talk a lot about...about that.”

Obi-Wan had a feeling they both contributed to that. Intense and impassioned fuel without the introspection to guide it. They were a complementary pair on that front.

She stopped the game. Sat with her admission. Took the crystal ball into her hands and rolled it. When she released it, the quartz hung in suspension before her. Sliding a fingertip down a curve, she spun it in place.

So effortless. She probably thought nothing of it. Anakin had given his family a distorted understanding of what was considered normal when it came to the Force.

“There’s a lot we don’t talk about,” she admitted. “What’s going to happen. Things like that. This isn’t sustainable--I know that as well as you do. The twins will grow up. Get stronger. It’s amazing we haven't been found. This place is protected. But it won’t last.”

“You have more options than you think,” he replied. “Not the least of which is my recommendation.”

Ahsoka stilled, shocked. “Are you offering to make me a Jedi?”

“Would that be something you’re interested in?” It would be a difficult route, which made it an attractive one to Obi-Wan. She may not be able to join the Order in a traditional capacity, but that didn’t mean there couldn’t be space found for her.

Her hands stilled. Indecision warred across her body language. His offer appealed to her--that he could pick up. But it wasn’t enough for whatever she came up against. She eeked out her dilemma: “That’s not an option for Anakin, is it?”

“Nothing’s impossible.”

“That’s a nonanswer.”

He put his hands in his sleeves to keep from rubbing them across his beard. One of his worst tells. “Whatever the future holds for him, you have my word; he won’t face it alone.”

Ahsoka’s response came in her physicality. Her shoulders slumped with relief, her face relaxed. Trust in his promise, faith that he meant them, took away her worry. She tapped the side of the crystal and sent it on a lazy orbit around her.

“I don’t know if I want to be a Jedi,” she said. “But I want to see the galaxy. Find out what I can do. Go where I want, when I want. But...”

“That could mean leaving them,” Obi-Wan finished. He didn’t need the Force to read the deep distaste of the idea rolling off her face.

The crystal passed over her face as it started another rotation. It cast an oblong shadow across her in its wake. “Exactly. And that’s not happening. So, it’s not really a question of what I want, is it?”

“Perhaps. But, perhaps there are still ways to prepare. You’re right--this place isn’t sustainable forever. Would it be so bad to learn what you can now?” He was never one for passing up the opportunity for more knowledge. He didn’t think she was, either.

“Including how to make a lightsaber?” Her smile snuck out like a switchblade.

“Theoretically,” he offered. He wasn’t keen on seeing her in danger, either.

“I’ll think about it,” she decided.

***

Replacing the shattered kitchen window panel was a simple matter of bartering for the glass. Obi-Wan found the entire process fascinating. Pacing the kitchen, Anakin called through a list of neighbors, playing on old favors and offering labor in trade.

By midday, he had bartered a service check on a harvest droid for a sheet of glass. Help on a supply run in return for a binding laser to cut it—some mechanical oil for the sealant.

Then he got to work.

Obi-Wan sat in the doorway, wedged into the right angle created by the jam and the floor. One shoulder inside the house, the other in the open air. Heat flared as Anakin cut the panel to size, spending sparking across his welding helmet. Artoo, projecting a laser stencil onto the glass panel to keep Anakin even, chirped in success when the edges broke free.

Anakin pulled off the helmet and tousled the sweat out of his hair. His grin was triumphant. His eyes, though, were drawn tight. He pressed his knuckles against his temple as he considered the cut pane. “Not bad for a patch job, yeah?”

“And here I thought the goal was to get you past patch jobs,” Obi-Wan replied. He rolled a canteen of water over the porch between them in a silent suggestion to hydrate.

Anakin took the canteen. Drank back half in one go. Gracefully stretched out his limbs. Tossed his head to the side like he could roll his headache out of his ear like a bead of unwanted water.

“You know that’s not going to work,” Obi-Wan told him, blunt. “Will you come and sit down?”

Anakin did no such thing. He set the glass panel. Sealed it in. Kept his attention on his work and away from Obi-Wan.

Ahsoka picked up her evasiveness from somewhere close to home, it seemed.

“As riveting as the wall must be, I doubt it’s as good a conversationalist as I am,” Obi-Wan prodded.

Anakin’s eye roll was a full-body experience as he test-tapped the glass pane. In a surprising show of support, Artoo collected the project’s mess before they could be used as a delay tactic. The little droid zipped off, peppering the air with idle beeps as the tools dragged along behind.

Obi-Wan waited. His stance, and his Force signature, made it clear he wasn’t moving. Anakin had nowhere to go for distraction. Once he accepted that, Obi-Wan sensed victory.

Defeated, his charge trudged over. Slid down the house wall into a loose crouch. Angled himself perpendicular to Obi-Wan.

“Didn’t you have enough of a go at me this morning?” the young man complained. Their early dawn meditation session had gone about as well as it always did. Still, Obi-Wan was nothing if not persistent.

“I think there’s more than enough of you to go around, wouldn’t you say?” he replied with just the slightest amount of innuendo. He made no secret of his eyes skating up long legs and a well-defined chest.

Anakin’s cheeks went red, and he choked on his breath. Obi-Wan got an endearing show of the young man stuttered out unstrung syllables that refused to become sentences. His awkward fumbling served a purpose--the wall of tension he had steadily been building collapsed asunder under sudden and keen physical awareness and embarrassed befuddled pleasure.

And well, the easy flirtation made Obi-Wan grin. It felt nice to remember how to fluster a beautiful young thing.

Anakin shot him a hot, abashed glare. “Jedi aren’t supposed to crack jokes.”

“I’ll endeavor to be the soul of solemnity if it means you actually listen to me,” Obi-Wan offered. “Will you let me help?”

Anakin tilted his chin down. As much of an acknowledgment as Obi-Wan was going to get.

He reached out. Pressed his knuckles against Anakin’s cheek. Ascended into his mind. Breathed together; Anakin in, Obi-Wan out in five counts.

The landscape was caught in a state of flux as he encountered Anakin’s defenses. The twisted wrecks of metal and barbed wire were still there. Somewhere. Obi-Wan could feel them in the distance. Rigid structures that outlined the sky. Around him, Anakin was busy shifting things, reorienting the passages of his mind into something that could be considered accommodating.

Tentatively, a path opened to him. The Force, that bright, white-hot light, called him up. It burned when it brushed against him. To ease the heat, Obi-Wan thought of snow. Recalled the sensation of a quiet hush after a fierce blizzard. Knelt into it. Felt for stark, frozen water under his bare fingers and feet. Let the cold numbing spread into the depths of pain. The blaze and the frost mixed into a thick layer of murky fog, obscuring Anakin’s defenses. Pressing on, he eased through Anakin’s mind, following the nebulous cloud through the ravaged minefield.

Light became so bright it descended into spotted, dizzying darkness, warm and inviting. Anakin gasped. Shuttered against his fingers. There; he opened up, unfurling at Obi-Wan’s request.

He found the book that comprised Anakin waiting for him. It fit his hands like an old favorite, familiar to the touch. Heavy pages parted for him, unfastened, unresisting. He took care with their contents as he checked on their condition.

The twins’ pages were as strong as ever. A steady, unrelenting presence rooted deep in Anakin. A pair of unstoppable forces meeting an immovable object. Ahsoka’s chapter was the same empathetic and emotional connection. Same roots, same vines. They didn’t bleed across the pages like they once did. Their borders were more defined, their pages less sharp. The threat was still there, but the progress was beginning to show.

Those pages didn’t matter when the binding was in such a state of devastation.

No matter the work he did with Anakin’s horde, no matter how he reined in the bonds and tamed the fiery energy they reaped, the damage from the ruined training bond was still there. Inescapable. Throbbing with unhealthy, smoldering rot. The warped and tarnished rents in the back of the book disturbed the entire structure.

It needed to be repaired. To do that, Obi-Wan had to know how it had come about.

He withdrew, easing out slowly. Erasing his footprints in the delicate drifts of snow he left behind. Left the landscape serene and still and untouched.

Obi-Wan pulled his hand away. For a moment, Anakin followed, his eyes half-lidded and face slack with the sudden loss of pain. Desire hummed under his skin, sparks jumping onto a pile of kindling.

He stilled, caught off guard. Captivated by Anakin’s moment of unfiltered, vulnerable, unvoiced confession.

Not yet; something told him. The belief resonated deep in his soul.

The fuzzed haze between them made him ask: “When Dooku held me prisoner, he insinuated that there was another above him. A Lord of the Sith. Was that your Master?”

The tranquility disappeared as Anakin returned to himself. The bells around him rang out, forlorn and grief-stricken. The Force was a distressed rag wrung too tight. Anxiety built to the point of breaking like a dry root.

The heat would eventually burn through the snow. Any relief Obi-Wan could give him was temporary and fleeting.

“Yeah,” Anakin whispered.

“Who is he?” Obi-Wan pushed.

Golden eyes regained their typical defensiveness. “Oh, please can we not do this now?”

General Kenobi demanded answers. Jedi Master Kenobi another matter entirely, calling for patience and trust. Obi-Wan strove to find a balance between his two personalities. “For now,” his fingers urged Anakin’s eyes towards him. “And only for now. This isn’t something you can run from, Anakin.”

“I can--for a little longer yet.”

***

The afternoon was stormy enough to kick on the automatic lights. Obi-Wan couldn’t say he was enthusiastic about the loss of the sun. He felt water-logged, his limbs stubborn and stiff.

Leia didn’t share his temperament. Standing on her chair, she shifted through the contents on the kitchen table. Her self-sorted piles of debris stacked high around her.

“You can throw this away,” she said, handing him a vial of cooking spice. “It’s expired.”

“Are you sure?” he asked. The vial’s seal was unbroken. There was no label to list an expiration date.

“Yeah,” she replied, careless. Her little face was intent, focused. When she got to the stuffed crystallized fox--the one Luke had been drawn to and the one Obi-Wan conspicuously left out in the open--she curled her free arm around it. Cuddled it to her chest as she worked.

“How do you know?” he prodded. Leia wasn’t as free with her thoughts as Luke, and it took some assistance to get her to open up.

“The Force told me,” she said, waving her free hand into the air. “Luke says that’s what you call it.”

“What does that sound like?”

Leia pulled the stuffed animal closer, smoothing down an errant piece of fluff. “It’s not words or anything. It’s like...just feelings. Ideas that won’t go away.”

“Do you ask about things as well?”

Leia made a face that spoke volumes of her exasperation. Like she couldn’t understand why he didn’t understand. “All the time. Where I left my hairbrush. What new thing to add to my windchime. What Ahsoka’s doing--what Dad’s doing. What Luke’s thinking about.”

Anakin had warned him that Leia’s Force-connection was an odd one. She didn’t wield the sheer strength that ran in her father and brother. Instead, she seemed to act like the Force was a database from which she could pull...well, anything.

Obi-Wan could admit he was a little envious. “How do you ask?”

Leia abandoned her sorting and sat back in her chair with a huff. Gave him her full attention since he wasn’t going to let her organize in peace. “I imagine I’m writing it on a slate board—one of the old fashioned ones you use chalk or marker on. I think about the smudges and the mess they leave. What used to be there. What could be there. Did you know that you can wake up the iron in a slate board to make it magnetic? It’s like shooting it through with lightning.”

Obi-Wan thought about the book in Anakin’s mind. Tactile and interactive. Just as much about the sensation as it was the contents. An unconscious habit passing from one generation to the next?

“And how do you shoot lightning through iron?”

“You poke at it until everything does what you tell it to,” Leia explained with a blase sort of tone. Like it was nothing to force her will onto unsuspecting molecules.

And there was where Obi-Wan saw the potential for problems. Leia’s Force usage was in stark contrast to her brother’s. Luke had an innate sense of innocence that came with his interactions, a desire for simplification. Leia was already finding ways to circumvent the problems she faced. To twist and push until she got her way.

Unchecked, she could easily wander into abuse of the Force. How long before she decided someone who argued with her was wrong? Someone outside her family, who wasn’t strong enough to resist her. How long before she unilaterally resolved to fix something herself, and damn what anyone else thought?

It’s not just about knowledge, my young Padawan,” Qui-Gon whispered across generations. “You’ll never want for that. It’s about how you use it.”

Control wasn’t Leia’s issue; questions of morality were.

“I can’t imagine the iron likes being shocked,” he pondered aloud. “How do you think it feels about it?”

Leia shrugged and buried her chin in the stuffed animal. “I dunno. Luke said you told him a story. About a duchess. You should tell me those.”

Obi-Wan regained control of his emotions on sheer instinct alone. Oh. She had caught him off-guard with that one. Of course, they would trade proverbial notes on his talks with them. It was a time-honored Padawan tradition as old as the Order. “Do you like stories?”

“Luke does,” Leia shrugged, forcing an apathetic air. Obi-Wan hid a smile behind his hand as he thought.

“Ah. But of course, you don’t. Well, let’s see...Once upon a time, there was a duchess who lived on Mandalore. One day, her ministers came to her. They told her they had uncovered a plot against her. But they had no proof because the villains had destroyed it before it could be collected.”

Leia’s eyes were wide with unmasked want around the crystalized fox.

“They told her she could impose order on her capitol--bring down her will on her people while she searched for those who wanted to hurt her and those she cared about. But the duchess was conflicted. She had no proof that her people were involved in the threat. Not even the certainty there was a threat.”

“So, what did she do?” Leia demanded.

“I thought you said you didn’t like stories,” Obi-Wan teased.

“I--I don’t,” Leia bluffed, her face going red in the corners.

“Then I guess we don’t have to finish the tale if you don’t like stories.”

Leia stumbled, caught between her bluff and his. “But...but what happened next?”

“I think your father is calling,” Obi-Wan fainted, tilting his ear as if he heard Anakin in the distance.

“Uncle Ben!” she scolded, shocking him into silence. Her little face took on an exaggerated pout in the light of his surprise. “What happened next?”

It took a few tries to find his voice. “The duchess wouldn’t bring down the power of her position on her people. Not for anything would she abuse those she was sworn to protect. ‘Bring on the threats and the curses,' she told her ministers. ‘I am strong enough to hold against them.’ And her people thrived.”

“Huh…” she trailed off, her face thoughtful.

Through the house, Anakin called to his children for their chores. Leia gave him a miffed look, but set aside the crystalized fox, and jumped down from her seat. “Sorry, Uncle Ben. Gotta go.”

He picked up the stuffed animal after Leia left. Where her brother’s Force-backed touch was near burning, under Leia’s attention, the toy was a block of ice. Merely holding it left his fingers chilled and cramping from the cold. Just like her twin, she had infused the item with energy from the Force. It multiplied when left alone. Expounded on itself, over and over. When he handled it, he felt the silent loneliness of the stars.

They do things, Anakin had said. Obi-Wan was beginning to see what he meant.

***

When occupied, the ‘fresher was tiny. When over-occupied, it was a downright closet. Anakin pressed close with thoughtless preoccupation as he reapplied bacta patches down Obi-Wan’s spine. His battered skin was bared to all and sundry under the unforgiving auto-lights.
Exposed and injured--a detestable position.

Medical procedures were a trial at the best of times. The clinical, dispassionate touch. The need to cause pain to ease pain. The uncertainty of a half-held together physique.

He found the entire recovery process distasteful. Unclothed and vulnerable, he’d go so far as to say he despised them. His healing wounds were tender to the touch, and his weakness left him unsettled. Disquieted. In a valiant effort, he collected his ill-temper and discomfort and pushed them out into the Force.

Tentative hands skated over his ribs; he hissed in protest.

“Oh, stop whining,” Anakin grumbled. “The twins inoculated me against false tears years ago.”

“Your compassion is a credit to your nature,” he snapped.

“Are you always like this, or am I special?”

Bracing his hands on either side of the sink, Obi-Wan kept his sanity by the slightest of margins.

“Really now,” he complained when Anakin prodded a bruise on his shoulder with uncalled for pressure. His make-due medic simply rolled his gold eyes skyward.

“Relax. Everything’s healing the way it should. You’ve got another week, maybe two, and you’ll hardly notice most of this.”

“That doesn’t console me,” Obi-Wan bit out. Anakin shrugged, undeterred, and applied another bacta patch. His medical kit, (a battered tin covered with unidentifiable smears that Obi-Wan didn’t inspect too closely) lay open like a shucked crustacean. Guts of bandages, patches, and burn ointment littered the counter.

“It should. Honestly, you’re in great shape. I wonder if the twins…” Anakin trailed off, his features clamping down. He ducked Obi-Wan’s gaze in the mirror with inelegant obviousness.

Only Obi-Wan’s mind wanted something else to concentrate on. And if Anakin didn’t want to talk about the twins, he knew something else that could occupy his sizzling want for a distraction. “Did you know Ahsoka wants a lightsaber?”

Anakin’s face came alive with exasperation. “Oh. I know.”

“It’s her legacy to carry one,” Obi-Wan said. Anakin’s touch became a probe as he inspected a spot by Obi-Wan’s kidneys. They glared at each other in the mirror.

“Even if I don’t want her to have one?”

“It’s the next logical step in her training. Denying her that ceremony could be considered cruel.”

Anakin slapped on a patch and smoothed down the wrinkles. “Not cruel--just cautious. I want her to understand the conflict that comes with it. She doesn’t yet. She’d rather avoid it if she can. But strapping one onto her hip will be an open invitation for a fight with the galaxy.”

“A lightsaber isn’t an invitation to violence.” Obi-Wan fought back.

Golden eyes flashed, just for a moment. “We’re not talking about violence, we’re talking about conflict. Don’t put words in my mouth.”

Oh, how interesting. Obi-Wan couldn’t help but stir all that lovely irritation up into the air. “You think there’s a difference?”

A scoff, this time as another patch was plastered onto his skin. “You think there isn’t? Violence is--it’s an assumption of power. Conflict is the,” Anakin’s face turned up as he pulled words from his thoughts. “Oh, it’s everything. It’s the core of living. We don’t know who we are without conflict. That’s what I want her to understand.” Anakin’s face took on new animation as he spoke.

Was this the Sith? Or was this Anakin? Obi-Wan thought there may be a difference. “I’d argue we don’t know who we are without self-reflection,” he countered.

“That tells you who you want to be. Conflict--defending and asserting yourself against someone else--shows you who you are.” Bells rang around Anakin, thrilling and confident.

Obi-Wan thought: If conflict reveals your wants, what reveals your needs? Do you even know what those are? He turned, breaking away from the sink and Anakin’s hands.

“Would you have her fight you for one?”

Hesitancy washed out the bluster in a deluge. Anakin sputtered. All his fire and irritation were doused in a layer of overriding doubt. “I...no. No, I wouldn’t.”

Obi-Wan’s guilt came swift on the heels of his success. He hadn’t meant to let the argument get that far. Honestly, how improper of him. All for the sake of a distraction. Chastising himself, he released his irritation into the Force.

Clamer, he reached out to counter Anakin’s suspicions with reassurance. Concentrated on that instead of the dratted seals across his skin. His aim was to provide Anakin with a different perspective, not shake his confidence to the core.

“As her main pillar of support,”--Master seemed to be a touchy word around them both, stilted in a quagmire of emotions--“you’re the final judge of her training. All I offer is my observations: this is something you should consider. Don’t fret. You’re doing well with her.”

He had told many Masters something similar when they secretly worried his ear about the challenges they set before their Padawans. Some of them were relieved he offered validation. Some were nervous that validation was all he offered.

Anakin glanced at him, surprised. Almost shy. His emotions filtered into the Force, astonished, and a little flattered. His nonverbal language took on a more confident air. Twin red patches rose on his face as a small smile fought its way up.

His flesh hand reached out. Brushed against Obi-Wan’s beard, knuckles first. Nudged his face away from Anakin back towards the sink. “Eyes forward. I’m almost done.”

***

Anakin came to him the following evening. “There’s something I need to show you.”

The twins were asleep, which meant the house was as quiet as it would ever be. Ahsoka sat curled up on a couch, reading with Artoo. She glanced up long enough to see them out the door, a small smile ushering them out as she went back to her datapad.

Obi-Wan slipped on his Jedi robes over his borrowed farm clothes for extra warmth and followed his charge outside. He was led into the yard. A slick little speeder awaited them. Anakin swung onto it, carelessly agile and confident in his balance. He offered a hand.

“Come on,” he said. His face was honest, keen, and a little nervous. Giddy, around the edges. Golden eyes shone in the weak dust light as they waited for him, steady and authentic. He looked every inch the kind of temptation that called to Obi-Wan. The bells of the Force that hung off him trilled. Beckoned. Beguiled his ears with sweet notes.

For a moment, he wondered if he should consider the risks of falling. Was this the face of his demise?

Anakin felt his hesitation. His brows furrowed. Confusion echoed around the clappers of the bells. His hand twitched as he drew back.

Obi-Wan took his hand. Didn’t let him slip away.

He let Anakin pull him onto the speeder. Settled into the seat behind him. Gripped his waist with gentle hands as they took off. The farmhouse disappeared behind the horizon. They barreled through the forest towards the mountains, running headlong into the storm clouds.

Anakin maneuvered with a deft hand. The path was familiar to him. Obi-Wan kept his questions to himself and pressed close between his shoulder blades to avoid the wind’s whiplash.

Up the mountain. Into the storm. Lightning painted the sky with electric blue and white-gold. He was glad for his robes, which helped slosh off the first spitters of water trickling down in preparation for a coming deluge.

They came to an outcropped edge; warm red light curled onto it, giving their shadows a blurred and distorted outline. The light emitted from a wide-mouthed, jagged cave. When he considered it through the Force, the glow took on a particularly sinister edge. Anakin parked the speeder and depressed the brakes to keep them in place.

“We’re here.”

The little cave was claustrophobically warm. The red light intensified, illuminated the walls, doused everything in an ominous glow. At the center of the heat and the discomfort was a sharp-edged cube. Around it was a construction of wood and steel.

He had to squint against the compulsion to look away. To forget about it. To flee from this place and leave his thoughts behind like a sacrifice upon an ancient altar.

Anakin flicked a negligent finger against the cube’s surface. Abruptly, as if a dam had suddenly given way, the overpowering deterrent vanished. Tamed and contained within itself at the order of its Master.

It was easier to breathe again. With life came the return of his curiosity. Anakin’s nonchalance brought him a measure of comfort. His charge controlled the device with ease. He was safe from this cube’s clutches--Anakin would not have brought him here otherwise. He may as well learn what he could.

“What is it?” he asked.

“A Sith artifact. I use it to keep us hidden here. It acts like a massive blanket--keeps folks from looking at us too hard. This is why no one’s found us yet.”

With its power stripped away, a new temptation formed over Obi-Wan. He wanted to touch it. Examine it. Understand its inner workings. He couldn’t help that he was a curious soul. Don’t be stupid! Quinlan’s phantom voice yelled in his ear.

“Where did you find it?”

“My old Master. He had a vault full of things like this. I stole it when I left.”

Obi-Wan hadn’t pushed at the identity of Anakin’s Master since their last conversation on the subject. Anakin’s deliberate mention made him pause. Step thoughtfully, he told himself, and you’ll reap more than you’ll challenge.

“He won’t miss it?”

“Maybe. I didn’t care at the time. Still don’t, if I’m honest. But that’s not what I wanted to show you.”

“Oh?” Obi-Wan encouraged, half his mind still distracted by the artifact. How did it power itself?

“Yeah--the cube’s not the only artifact I took with me,” Anakin admitted. He rummaged around the back of the cave. Obi-Wan hardly heard him, engrossed as he was. There was writing etched into the edges of the thing he couldn’t quite make out...

The chest dropped to the ground by his feet with a heavy thud. Thick straps held it closed. A high-end security lock kept it sealed. None of that did anything to contain its malevolence.

A wave of dark horror vibrated within the Force, shaking him to his bones. The feeling took root in his chest, gripping his heart. Dismay tasted rough and hard in the back of his throat. His instincts yelled for him to get away and stay away. What even?

Before Obi-Wan could stop him, Anakin reached down. Unlocked the lock. Threw the latch back. Peeled the lid up.

The air roared in his ears--his eyes watered with unbridled sensations. A wave of sheer evil hit him like a blaster to the chest. The malicious energy wasn’t after his life--it wanted his suffering. His pain and fear. It wanted him broken and passive, without thought to what condition that would leave him in. He stumbled back, coughing to ease the cloying tightness in his lungs.

A mask sat at the bottom of the open chest. Bland, an off-gray color, with rough ovals for eyes and a slitted little rectangle for a mouth. Beyond that, the thing was featureless; rough-shod and simply made. Its unblinking stare was inescapable. Chills crawled down his flesh; this, he did not want to investigate further. This, he wanted as far away from him and Anakin as possible.

“Please--close the chest,” he choked. The tears were overflowing now, running hot tracks down his face. They drowned out his calm. Threw him into a torrent of uncontrollable emotions that overrode any practical sense he tried to muster. His defenses broke down under the mask’s empty gaze; it seemed to dissolve anything he threw at it with greedy glee. It wanted to consume him, render him mangled from the inside out.

Anakin toed the lid shut. Threw the latch down. Padlocked it.

Even then, Obi-Wan did not feel better. Just knowing what was in the box tainted the very air around it. His lungs hurt from lack of air, his hands and knees shook. Dry-heaving, he stumbled back. Out of the cave. Into the open air.

Thunder; was that the sky above him or his heart raging in his ears? He couldn’t tell. Blood pounded in his veins. Air rushed into his chest over and over. Frantic and undisciplined. The ground shifted under him, scrambling against gravity.

A hand on his back. He was guided down until he sat. He put his head between his knees and fought to reorient himself.

Breathe. Find your center. This will pass. You are stronger than this. This will not defeat you. Orders--in Mace Windu’s voice, in Quinlan's, in Qui-Gon’s--pulled old lessons to the forefront of his mind. His mind rebelled against the tragedy of the mask and clung to the hope of his life. He pulled himself in until he recognized himself again.

Once he had regained his bearings, he saw Anakin. Sitting on the ground across from him on the cave’s outcropped ledge. Watching him in concern. When he realized Obi-Wan was once again coherent, he handed over a canteen of water.

“Sorry--I would have warned you if I knew you were going to react like that.” His face was the picture of chagrin.

“What is that thing?” Obi-Wan gasped around the water he guzzled.

“Something old and powerful. I think it’s from the time of the Sith’s inception. It’s...well, it’s a torture device, best I can tell. The Sith used it on any Jedi they captured. It’s designed to cut off bonds. Break things down. Wear it for long enough, and the damage is permanent.”

Obi-Wan’s eyes widened. He strangled himself on the water half-way down his throat. The pain and trauma that had seeped out of the pages of Anakin’s book. Oh. Oh, no.

“That’s how you did it,” he realized with growing dread. “How you ruined your training bond.”

“That’s right,” Anakin confirmed. There was no humor in his words, only brutal truth. “I put it on right after I escaped. The thing is...is absolute isolation. Once it’s on, you’re so alone, nothing makes sense anymore. I thought I knew, but when I put it on, I couldn’t understand anything other than the silence. Artoo had to pull it off me.”

“That thing is an abomination!” he condemned with righteous anger.

“Yeah. But it works. Things are quiet under it, at least. To be honest, that part wasn’t so bad. Peaceful, yeah?”

Horror and absolute intolerance for those words drew him up faster than any threat of violence. He pinned Anakin with a steady, unrelenting gaze. “That is not peace. That is deprivation and starvation! How could…” he strangled off his words before he said something he would regret.

Obi-Wan pulled on all his patience. Any shred of rational thought he could scavenge. Screaming wouldn’t do--he reached for a place of stone and rigidity.

He drew himself up, summoned the Force around him like a crowning halo. “You will promise me, here and now, that you will never put that thing on again.”

Anakin stilled. Long arms folded defensively across his chest. “There’s not something to swear to--even you don’t know what could happen in the future. I told you, I don’t throw things away.”

No. Whatever the future held, it wouldn’t come from an artifact designed to drive a mind into wreck and ruin. The thought of Anakin’s expressive golden eyes pleading at him through the ovals of the mask sent nauseous waves through Obi-Wan. “Swear it, Anakin. Right now.”

“Aren’t you all about pea--,”

“Now,” Obi-Wan pressed, his voice booming off the stone around them louder than the thunder overhead. He gave no room for exception or artifice.

Anakin shrugged, throwing his arms out to embrace baffling annoyance. “All right! I won’t.”

Not good enough. Not by a long shot. Obi-Wan shifted. Closed the space between them. Crouched beside Anakin so that he had no room to move away. Pinned him in place with the full intensity of his expectations. The Force solidified into an unshakeable resolve around him. “Full sentences, if you please. Nice and formal. I want it to make an impression.”

His charge blinked, startled. Glanced over Obi-Wan’s shoulder. He hadn’t expected his bluff to be called by demand for further concessions. Obi-Wan didn’t move an inch, didn’t lessen his claim. Anakin would give him this. Would cede to his wishes on this without omission or deflection. That damn mask would rot untouched for the rest of eternity.

Held firm, Anakin gave in. He held out his hands to Obi-Wan, palms up in supplication. The gesture was part of an oath-swearing ritual that predated even the Republic. Old and venerated. Not lightly taken, even in uncertain and irreverent times.

Obi-Wan took Anakin’s hands in between his own. Held and steadied him. Accepted the beneficence placed before him.

“On my life, my love, and my loyalty, I will never again don the mask of the Sith. Do you accept?” Anakin swore, releasing the oath into the storm.

Obi-Wan squeezed his fingers, flesh and metal alike, with solemn attention. “I bear witness to your pledge and accept your words.”

He raised their hands. Kissed his open palms with reverential care. Sealed promise and purpose into Anakin’s soul with breath and devotion. In his touch, Anakin would always remember his promise.

He didn’t let go immediately. He hadn’t been lying about making an impression. Anakin shifted in the silence, his ambivalence and flippancy wafting into a cautious, quiet contemplation as Obi-Wan stretched the moment out. Let the tableau build on itself.

Their breath lined up in a familiar rhythm. As Anakin exhaled, Obi-Wan joined him. Five out, five in. The Force hung from a frying thread around them, ready to snap and fall at the slightest disturbance. To rush. A tantalizing threat of being overwhelmed. The bells were silent.

Obi-Wan held them through the moment. Through the uncertainty and the fear. Through the impertinence into adherence. Fervor combined with passion, creating fidelity.

Anakin withdrew his hands. He trembled; he tried to hide it by flexing his hands and shaking out his shoulders. His eyes locked into a middle distance, and he shook the stupor off.

Obi-Wan withdrew his own hands slower, tucking away the intimacy and aching exposure of their oath. Wrapped it into a safe, protected place in the back of his mind.

It hung in the air between them, substantial and undeniable.

Anakin broke it. Took another step. Brought them around.

“His name is Darth Sidious,” he told the open air. “My old Master. I can’t tell what he looks like--he always went to great pains to cloak his face. Even from Dooku and I. Old. Deep voice--high Mid-Rim accent. Powerful. Not powerful like you--but like...like a predator.”

He finally met Obi-Wan’s gaze. Raw emotions flooded around him. “I know you want more. I’m... I’m trying.”

“That’s all I can ask for.”

***

The rain came steady as always. Obi-Wan stood under it, letting it wash over him. For all its ferocity, there were wide gaps between the raindrops; the water splattered, rather than drenched.

He held his hands out. Scrubbed them in the rainwater. Took care to clean under his fingernails.

His Jedi robes were left behind. He wore his borrowed tunic tucked into his elbows and trousers rolled up around his ankles. The grass was cold and wet under his bare feet. His light was the sun, filtered through the brilliant scattering of dark clouds rolling in from the mountain.

The rain was his incense. Humanoids smelt rain stronger than predators smelt blood. Sensitivity to the ozone was built into their being. A link to the earth and their surroundings. He took it into his lungs and let himself connect with the Force.

The preparation was part of the ritual. He concentrated on the expansion of his chest. Five out. Five in.

He had a tangle of emotions to work through. He took the moment of solitude, away from the Skywalker household and the chaos they brought, to tackle them. A large part of the knot was tied up in shame. He had wrung a promise from Anakin without negotiation or acumen. Instead, he had pulled it from him with intensity and emotion. He had demanded Anakin’s assent. Had not waited for it to be offered freely. Had not guided Anakin to a place of insight.

It wasn’t his right to enforce such a bond, nor was it in his purview as a guest and an aide to chastise his decisions.

But oh...the thought of his charge putting that mask back on...that evil, vile thing covering his face. Smothering him. Pushing him under with no reprieve--only the help of a little droid had saved him. The miserable, terrifying fury that brought into Obi-Wan was nearly overwhelming.

Anakin hadn’t understood that. He had only understood that Obi-Wan had reacted. Strongly.

Part of the tangle, harder to examine and root out, was a thick strand of satisfaction that backed his insistence. Anakin had gravely injured himself in the name of freedom and relief. Obi-Wan bore a responsibility to make sure he never did something so foolish and idiotic ever again. Did he not understand how devastatingly irresponsible he had been?

Just like his children, just like Ahsoka--Anakin risked everything for the moment. Scrambled from short-term patch to short-term patch without thought to the longer ideals. If the mask solved the present problem, there was no need to consider any further, more far-reaching damage.

Urgh.

At the core of the knot was a layer of exhaustion; Obi-Wan was tired. Four Padawans would do that to a man. Healing would do that to a man. Constant stimulation and new information would do that to a man. He granted himself respite. Opened up the room to calm himself and release his embarrassment and shame. Forgiveness was necessary--it was also the hardest step.

The Force took all his turbulent thoughts. Rocked him in the steady rhythm of the rain. Blessed him and anointed him. From release came clarity.

Anakin hadn’t put the mask on for masochistic reasons or a wanton attempt at depravity. Pain hadn’t been his argument. All he had said was that it made things quiet. He was after a sliver of peace, no matter how temporary or traumatizing. Could he honestly be faulted for that?

Obi-Wan wanted peace for him. But the traditional methods weren’t working. His charge found no comfort or understanding in the quiet meditative state. For Anakin, sitting still with his thoughts wasn’t a release--it was a trial.

Obi-Wan released his anxiety and fatigue into the Force. Strove to look for the truth beyond them. The rain covered him, dosing his aches in soothing renewal. The Force would never ask from him more than what he could give.

He drifted in that comfort. Waited for his thoughts to recollect in new formations. Granted himself a measure of peace and rest.

In his mind’s eye, he saw Anakin. The young man moved through sunlight and the beautiful colors of life. His body was lissome, his face serene. His dramatic shadow mirrored him across the ground.

Oh. Now there was an idea...

***

Obi-Wan tapped on Anakin’s chest, goading him awake. The young man groaned and tried to roll over, only to be thwarted by the too cramped couch. “Wha,” he grumbled into the crock of his arm.

Obi-Wan shook him again. “Come along.”

“Oh, what could you possibly want?”

“It’s time to meditate.”

Anakin groaned in an outright pitiable whine. “Why don’t you start without me? It doesn’t really matter if I’m asleep in here or out on the porch, does it?”

He tucked a hand under Anakin’s elbow. “Up,” he simplified.

The young man groaned and climbed to his feet. When he stood, slightly unsteady, Obi-Wan dropped a folded stack of clothes into his arms. He, Obi-Wan, had dawned the first layers of his Jedi robes, clothes that wouldn’t get in his way with what he had planned. He had dug out suitable counterparts from Anakin’s small chest of garments, tucked in the corner of his room. Under his arm were the practice swords Anakin and Ahsoka used during their pseudo-training.

“Get changed, and meet me outside,” he instructed. Anakin blinked the sleep out of his eyes and groaned. But he did as he was told, pulling his sleep shirt over his head. Obi-Wan left before his eyes could wander without his permission.

The tall grass awaited them. The morning was dark and cold, the wet of the grass seeping into his feet as they walked into the field. Overhead, the setting moon snuck a few beams through the wispy clouds.

“Is this about the oath? ‘Cause, you already apologized about that, and it’s not like I’m gonna break it or anything anyway. So if you’re out to prove a point, it’s a weird one.”

“This is part of it.” He had apologized for his behavior to Anakin. Who, he suspected, had no idea what Obi-Wan had done wrong. He had accepted Obi-Wan’s contrition with a bemused look and said nothing more about the matter.

They’d come back to that. Temples weren’t built in a day.

He tossed Anakin one of the practice swords, who caught it with a dubious, cross look. “Can’t I get a cup of kaf first?”

“No,” Obi-Wan replied. He tested the practice blade; it was well-balanced and worn smooth with use. Made from sturdy, springy wood. It wouldn’t break easily. The edge was dull--probably for the best. He was sure they’d have some missteps.

Anakin hesitated, idly balancing the sword on the back of his hand. “What are we doing?”

“You can’t find peace in traditional meditation,” Obi-Wan acknowledged.

“Oh, have you just realized that?”

“Quiet. Today, we try a different method. There’s a Mandalorian technique I think will better suit you: Redalur. Are you familiar?”

“Can’t say I am.”

Good; no preconceived notions to battle against. This may yet work. “It has many forms, depending on the region and the clan. But the core is the same. Redalur emphasizes movement and cadence. It requires two to be performed properly: the Dral and the Werda.”

Anakin stilled the weapon’s precarious wobbling by steadying himself. It rested on its place across the back of his hand for a long moment. Then, he tipped his palm enough to unseat it, catching it properly in the downturn. His face said he was listening.

Obi-Wan took heart and continued: “The Dral is the bright. The power and the draw. Most of the embellishments in Redalur come from the Dral. The Werda is the shadow. What traces and braces the Dral. Both move together; they build off one another rather than strike out independently. Attend.”

He walked Anakin through the Dral’s first form. It wasn’t a complicated set to learn; ten moves back, ten moves forward. A beginner’s style designed for a new pairing to get used to one another. To find an appropriate rhythm. To ease them in one another’s space.

Redalur didn’t work without comfort and trust. If the pair was at odds, it wasn’t a meditative accord, it was a fight. And the last thing Anakin needed was a fight.

Trust, if tentatively given, was evident from the start. Anakin followed Obi-Wan’s instruction with the soft edge of curiosity ringing the Force. His body, full of effortless grace, picked up the subtleties in Dral’s flourishes and swings with the enthusiasm of a practitioner well-matched to a form. In Redalur, the Dral was considered the show. Those who performed it well knew that every gesture, every stretch, every position mattered down to the inch.

The Werda, conversely, grounded those flourishes. Practitioners of the shadow side of Redalur kept their partners framed in and contained within the space. Halted strokes before they became overreaching. Enhanced movements that needed assistance. Supported every grandiose strike and bellicose flip of the Dral.

Obi-Wan didn’t explain the purpose of the form. He wanted Anakin to discover it on his own; to grow into the knowledge in his own way. The longer they went on, the more confident he became; this was where Anakin’s soul would find peace.

When he was satisfied Anakin had the form’s movements mastered, he took up the Werda position. Obi-Wan felt a connection with the Werda--much like Soresu, it was a form that relied on structure and protection. Supportive safety was built into the fundamentals of the form.

He leveled his weapon. Nodded to Anakin to signal his readiness.

“You are sure you’re healed enough for this?” his charge asked, a little wary.

“This isn’t a sparring match. Hold the form like I showed you, and you’ll see. Follow my pace--we’ll start at half speed.”

Slowly, they cycled through the first ten steps. Obi-Wan paused after every strike, giving Anakin time to adjust his stance now that he had Obi-Wan’s presence to balance himself against. Intuitive understanding came as they worked through the mistakes; Anakin committed more of his weight onto Obi-Wan. Came to trust he could be there--would be there--to support the high-flung moves Dral encouraged. Shifted his center of gravity in minute degrees to better position himself. Memorized where his limbs ended and Obi-Wan’s began.

Obi-Wan felt the Force click into place when Anakin got the idea: the form wasn’t designed to defeat or subdue an opponent. To practice Redalur was to dance.

When they completed the first ten steps without mistake, Obi-Wan halted their position. Smiled at Anakin’s alighted expression. “Very good. Now, back.”

Across the grass they flew, Anakin reclaiming space while Obi-Wan ceded it. The wooden practice swords cracked together through the series of strikes and blocks.

When the form ended, Anakin broke away. Circled around the edge of their make-shift training space. Rolled his wrist and swung the practice sword in a wide arc. Sloughed off an excess of energy into the air as he stared across the field. Anticipation sparked in the air; Obi-Wan savored the spicy taste on his tongue.

“All right,” Anakin whispered, wide-eyed and intent. “Again.”

The form flowed at a natural speed. When Anakin swayed, he was braced. When he circled, he was mirrored. Obi-Wan made sure they moved as one, building a habit of warmth and relaxation in their pairing.

When they completed the form, Anakin broke away again, barking out a harsh breath. Around him, the Force ripped, twisted, blossomed into something new and unfamiliar. There was an unraveling sensation in its edges. Uncertain, but intrigued. He took to the end of their unofficial perimeter and crouched low, his weapon resting over his knees. The fingers of his flesh hand rubbed over his mouth and chin as he took Obi-Wan in.

“What is this?” he demanded through his fingers, quiet in the false dawn.

Obi-Wan smirked. Raised his weapon. Beckoned him forth. “Come now. Giving up already?”

The young man straightened when summoned. Came forward. The tension that typically underlined his face was gone; unshakable focus replaced it.

Again, they danced. This time, Obi-Wan set his breathing in time. The set could be aligned in two breathes. Bring together mind and body. Still the waters and tame the fires. Trap the lightning in the precious glass bottle. The Werda shadowed the Dral. Pause. The Dral filled in the Werda.

Anakin broke away and circled once more, a soft laugh on his lips as his mind contracted around the stunning sensations the Force pushed onto them. He stretched his body. Shook his arms out. Returned without Obi-Wan’s urging. Took up his place again. He was quiet--his attention strictly on the form.

“Half speed again,” Obi-Wan dictated in a quiet voice. Anakin let out a gust of impatient breath. But he didn’t argue.

The first strike met, sure and true. Obi-Wan took up the next part of the lesson. “Peace and calm are not the same thing.”

Another step, another strike. Anakin’s entire world had narrowed down to Obi-Wan; the Force pressed in heady and fierce. “Peace is the freedom from disturbance. Calm is the absence of a storm. One is a state of mind; the other, a force of nature.”

Anakin flowed with Obi-Wan. He absorbed the words with worship in his eyes. Ardor guided his arm, grace alighted his steps.

“You’ll never be without a storm. You are the storm. That doesn’t mean peace is unobtainable.”

Anakin went high when he should have gone low. Obi-Wan blocked. Reined the Dral in as the Werda was meant to. Restablilized the form, and the balance between them. The purpose wasn’t the fight. They corrected the step and continued on. When he spoke again, he kept his voice low and steady. Gave them the rhythm and rhyme to which they danced.

“The storm within you is not a disturbance. It does not break your peace. It’s the natural way of things; low pressure conflicting with high. Wind builds and clouds form. Like your emotions, they will come, and they will go. The Force has granted you power in that contention. It’s not to be fought. It is to be embraced and celebrated.”

They reached the end of the form. The Force was hurricane around them, swirling intensity and high-flung emotion compounding in a dizzying, all-consuming collision. Obi-Wan started again; Anakin took the queue without thought.

At full speed, built on confidence, trust, and peace, Redalur flowed.

He didn’t speak this time. He didn’t have to. He felt Anakin’s connection with the Force tremble, pulling up shards of that dreaded metal and barbed wire in a push to realign. Golden eyes were wide and vacant; his face slack as the Force flowed into new, intimate spaces.

The tidal waters that made up his foundation receded and released in proper flow, becoming the waves that rocked in time with the natural flow of energy. The tsunami was nowhere to be found.

When they reached the end of the form, Obi-Wan guided them back to the beginning without a break. Made sure they didn’t break stride. Supported their dance while they reached for something altogether unknown and thrilling.

Anakin matched him unthinkingly. His body responded while his mind allayed old pain. This time, Obi-Wan could feel the difference. This was Anakin untroubled, abandoned by his doubts and his fears and his build-up of energy. The tension and uncertainty drifted away with the waves. The eye of the storm arrived. Everything was quiet. Within Anakin, peace unfurled over the fractures of his mind.

Excellent.

When the form ended, Obi-wan stilled them. He brought Anakin to rest with a firm hand on his shoulder. Eased him down until they both came to their knees. He set their weapons aside. Let the Force encompass them, cradle them, take them as they were.

“How do you feel?” he risked after a few minutes.

“Oh,” Anakin breathed, awe making his voice small. “Oh, what is this?”

“This is what peace feels like,” he whispered, delighted. Anakin had gotten there; he had reached a place where the Force no longer taunted and strained but nurtured him as it should. He had not found silence from another--not the mountain, not the mask, not Obi-Wan--but from himself. While this was fragile, it was not temporary or fleeting.

Obi-Wan couldn’t help the swell of pride that came with success.

It’s wonderful Anakin cried.

It’s yours Obi-Wan reassured.

Anakin’s golden eyes closed. The bells around him were a delicate melody of devotion and faith. His conflicts were little more than cascading harmonies in the Force.

But harmonies sometimes build into booming symphonies.

Obi-Wan felt the exact moment Anakin swung too far the other way. Joy in the peace became a frantic excitement, the freedom became a high. Lacking agony, he instinctively overindulged in ecstasy. He inhaled, sharp, as his eyes flew open and his mouth fell into a startled circle with a hysterical laugh.

The gold in his eyes was suppressed by the full dilation of his pupils, blowing them dark and desirous. They drank Obi-Wan in.

It was the only warning he got. But it was a loud one.

Anakin kissed him, clumsy and intense. Hands fumbled at his clothes--there was no sense, no thought, none of that elegant agility in his touch. None of the control he had fought so hard for a moment ago. Instead, he burned—raw desire buzzing in the Force, raking down their skin, egging them on with rapturous glee.

For a moment, Obi-Wan wavered, caught up in the volley of longed-for, hungered-after sensations. His hand went into ropy curls, gripping them tight. It would be so easy. So indulgent. He could take Anakin, here and now, amongst the grass and the dew and the rising sun. Have what he wanted. This was a place made for Anakin--for his wild heart and his passionate soul. He could honor him for that. Strip him bare and listen to him scream Obi-Wan’s name. Learn his body in intimate detail. They both wanted it--he could feel their compounded lust screaming down around them, more euphoric than any storm.

Anakin had done this before; Obi-Wan remembered the courtyard and the pounding rain. Their first meeting. The twins annihilating his defenses, and the safe haven that Anakin had shaped himself into. Impulsive and instinctual. He never thought these things through, what they would mean and what they could do. Greedy emotions tangled, souring everything they touched—attachment, with none of the conviction or faith that turned it into adoration.

This was not what Anakin needed. Nor what Obi-Wan needed. Slowly, as gently as he could bring himself to be, he let go. Broke away. Gathered the stray pieces of Anakin’s mind and pulled him back together under his skin.

Anakin gasped at him, shocked at the surceasement. He was absolutely gorgeous in his disheveled surprise, mouth lush, eyes soft and hazy. His mind was still gone, lost in the thrilling experience of sheer emotional intoxication. His clothes were rumpled and half-stripped off him already. Had Obi-wan done that? His desire screamed at his better sense, furious at the self-denial.

He beat his base cravings down with ruthless precision. He was stronger than this. More experienced than this. It was his responsibility to know when his charge had taken in too much. Slowly, he set Anakin back on his knees. Held him still as the high inevitably passed, as these things do.

“Go wash up, wildheart,” he softly ordered. “The sun is rising. The children will be up soon.”

Anakin opened his mouth. Closed it. Waffled under conflicting impulses. His senses returned slowly--Obi-Wan rightened his clothes with tender fingers and smoothed down the tangles in his hair. He kept his shields soothing and collected--neither angry nor frustrated--until the young man finally acquiesced. Got to his shaky feet. Headed back for the house. Twice, he glanced over his shoulder at Obi-Wan with open puzzlement.

Then; he was alone. Unobserved, Obi-Wan’s stoic nature cracked. He braced his hands on his hips. Took slow, methodical breaths. Fought to regain himself and his senses.

Oh!

Weeks ago, Anakin had demanded to know what Obi-Wan wanted. Had tossed it out with barbs and rage and fear lining the question like a hunting trap. It had taken time, he reminded himself—time and patience to bring this angry, defensive wildheart to a place where sincerity overrode reaction. Where impulsive sensuality gave way to genuine emotion. Thoughtful guidance was needed until Anakin offered himself rather than insisting on accommodation from Obi-Wan.

He didn’t want thoughtless physicality and wanton indulgence from Anakin. Not tumble in the grass and mud while trying to make sense of an overwhelming reaction to a meditative high, brought on by a release from pain and fear. Nothing so tawdry or muddled or misunderstood. Obi-Wan wanted whole-hearted belief, rooted in the mind as well as the heart. He wanted strength of character, as well as limb. He wanted a partner, not a plaything.

He had to hope that Anakin would be ready for that when the time came.

Chapter Text

Then; “I think the Viceroy just insinuated that I was a cradle-robber,” Padmé said, sotto voco.

“I always knew you were only after me for my devilishly youthful looks,” Anakin replied, grinning. She skated her fingers up his arm to flick his ear. In revenge, he slipped his arm around her and entertained himself by tracing the circular cut-outs that ran down the back of her dress.

At least, he did until she pinched the inside of his elbow. “Keep that up, and I won’t get any work done.”

“I thought this was a party. Who works at a party?”

“It’s not a party, it’s a charity gala.”

“Charity?” He eyed the ornate decor and ostentatious food around him. “One day, you’ll have to explain to me how spending money on all this gets said money to the poor and needy.”

Her expression did that thing where she thought he had a point and was composing a rebuttal. To her, the debate was everything; dodged points held at bay by rambunctious counterpoints. The moment simmered under his skin, just ready to be indulged in when they were alone.

Padmé’s style of debate encouraged hot blood and an exciting shed of clothes on a sliding point system. Under tutelage, Anakin anticipated that he’d be a fantastic orator in no time.

But first: business. She was in her element and honing in on her targets.

She guided him through the room with a hand tucked into his elbow, nodding and smiling at some, delicately snubbing others. The light shone off her, hypnotizing his eyes. He let himself be pulled without complaint, happy to see her happy. Or, if not happy, then gleefully intent on her mission.

She had dressed them with an eye for compliment. This was their first official outing as an engaged couple, after all. She stunned in a tight fitted deep blue dress with a teasing neckline and a dramatic train. Her curves were accented by the fabric’s tight cling, with those alluring cut-outs bubbling up from the hem to the bust in random, scintillating placement. Sunstones dripped off her ears and throat, held in chocolate gold settings fashioned to resemble ribbons twining around her. A long, thin veil of bronze silk trimmed in off-white lace framed her intricate updo, held in place with sunstone and bronze pins.

For him, a sea-blue undershirt that fell open at his shoulders, revealing his bare upper arms. The seams collected at his elbows and narrowed down his forearms, allowing his glove to be worn unhindered. A burnt orange tabard with bronze patterns inlaid throughout brought attention to his revealed collarbones. A wide belt of bronze silk and off-white lace to match her veil kept him held together. Brown leather boots that rose to his knees were polished to a shine and soft enough to get lost in. She had even worked a sunstone pin or two into his loose curls.

Eyes followed them through the hall. The Force flashed heavy doses of longing and lust, sweeping over them in blatant fantasy. Foreign desire caressed the edges of his mind. A spike of satisfied mirth made him playful instead of irritated. Padmé was warm and attentive beside him, her hand an anchor latching them together. They wouldn’t be taking anyone but each other home, but the voyeuristic appreciation left him flushed and excited.

He pulled her close and admitted to their admirers in a low voice. Her grin was sharp. “You’ll have to tell me who, later. It never hurts to know who you can sidetrack with a good sartorial choice.”

“Is this a go-to strategy of yours? Should I be on the lookout?”

“Bail! So good to see you,” she called, rather than confirm his suspicion. “I don’t think you’ve met my fiancé--Anakin, this is Senator Organa.”

Obediently, he offered his hand to the Senator, his eyes skating into middle distance. The Senator was a sharp mind and a quick note--Anakin had overheard Dooku raging about him more than once. It really wouldn’t do to be identified as a Separatist agent and Sith Lord by a high-ranking Senator.

Erstwhile Separatist agent? Ex-Sith Lord? He didn’t know what would apply to him when all was to be said and done. Padmé had plans and schemes aplenty for his impending defection--he trusted her instincts and followed her lead.

A strong hand gripped his; the Senator didn’t flinch when he encountered metal instead of flesh. Anakin’s opinion of him rose. “Pleasure to meet you. Padmé tells me you’ve seen some action on the front lines. Army officer?”

“Private security,” Anakin lied easily. He and Padmé had worked out that story with their engagement.

His fiancée (joy--so much joy--rang in the Force) had turned into a knot of discussions on her other side. Her hand stayed hooked into his elbow, balancing her as she leaned. That left him alone in Bail’s direct line of sight. He shifted his stance to handle her increased weight.

“Exciting--is that how you two met?” the Senator asked. Prodded, really. Anakin hid the clench of his teeth--and his impulse to sharply send the man on his way. Padmé had warned him about this; folks would want to know who he was, and if they could use him against her. ‘Politics,’ she called it. The goal was to play them back, not chase them off.

He picked out the less-than-couth details and left them on the cutting room floor.

“I ended up stranded on Naboo for a spell. I needed a job, so I hooked up with the Royal Security Forces for a temporary pilot's post. Padmé and I became friends during my tour. A few months later, she reached out to me for help investigating a stack of biotoxins in her backyard.”

“Nuvo Vindi’s production lab--the Blue Shadow Virus,” Senator Bail realized, eyes widening. “You were on that investigation team? I heard that whole op was…” he paused, searching for the right words.

“A shit-show?” Anakin supplied, frank. “It was, beginning to end. Biotoxins ready to be remotely detonated at every major planet and port this side of the Core. The med staff told me the virus had a ninety-six percent fatality rate, with no known antidote. Why the GAR didn’t deign to get involved, I’ll never know. I barely got her out in time.”

In truth, he had been glad for the GAR’s apathy; when the Blue Shadow Virus had breached containment, the Jedi and their slave clones would have followed Padmé’s initial order to lock her and her exposed team into the lab and left them to slowly die of exposure.

Anakin had disregarded that like he had every other order he had ever been given. Had pried through the heavy durasteel doors and pulled himself to her side. Had, for the first time, used the Force to save a life. It had flowed in layered, intricate energy under his palm like it was happy with him.

Senator Organa hid his reaction behind a placid smile. “Then I can’t thank you enough for being there. We’d be far less without Senator Amidala.”

Anakin whole-heartedly agreed. Sneaking a glance to the woman who had captured him, body and soul. He didn’t complain as the Senator drifted away, caught up in his memories.

“I didn’t expect you to call,” Anakin had said to her holovid back then. He had taken the RSF position for a lark--a Separatist right under their noses and them none the wiser--while he cooled his hatred over Grevious and his idiotic notions of greatness. The friendship he struck up with Padmé had been eye-opening. Quickly addicting. Dangerous and intoxicating in its own right. Someone who spoke to him without fear of his powers or in oily double-speak. Who argued with him for the fun of it. Who smiled whenever she saw him.

He had mourned the loss of her company after he had finally been ordered on pain of intense punishment off Naboo by Dooku.

“Friends call one another, Ani,” she had told him with a smile that consistently managed to stop him cold.

“You called just for my conversation?”

“Yes. And also for your help.”

“Anything for a friend,” he had immediately offered. He didn’t care that he had orders. That he had battles Darth Sidious and Dooku expected him to win. What was any of that in the face of her kind smile and confident eyes?

He had abandoned his entire droid army to be doomed in a bloody battle on Felucia to answer her summons.

Padmé caught his eye and tilted her chin to the side, directing him to an older humanoid man. The people around him considered him powerful--they fluttered around him, stealing moments of his time. He wore expected respect around his shoulders like a fine silk cloak.

“Chancellor Palpatine,” she told him. “I didn’t expect him here tonight. But this is good--I had been looking for an opportunity to introduce you anyway.”

“He looks like someone’s grandfather,” he muttered.

She knocked her knuckles against his chest. That she felt comfortable with so casually touching him sent shivers down his skin. No one casually touched Darth Vader. Anakin Skywalker, he was learning, was a different matter entirely. “Be nice. He helped me make my case to the Queen and her councilors for our marriage. He’s also advising with the other thing.”

The other thing. Anakin’s escape from the Separatists. From the Sith. Padmé’s exit strategy for his freedom.

“Oh,” he muttered as Padmé steered them over.

“Chancellor! How wonderful to see you,” she greeted with that tone Anakin knew well--it was the one she used when she wanted something and was going to chase it down and drag it back to her. It was the tone she used when she first told him she loved him.

“And you, my dear! But tell me, who’s this new face,” the Chancellor asked, turning his paternal smile on them.

“Anakin Skywalker--Padmé’s fiancé,” he introduced himself, offering his hand. He was still giddy that he got to say that.

“Ah! My boy, it’s so good to finally meet you,” the Chancellor exclaimed. Deflecting his hand, the Chancellor reached for him and grasped on his bare upper arms in delight. His touch was dry and frail on Anakin’s skin.

“You--you as well. Sir,” Anakin said, trying for some of that smoothness that emanated so gracefully from Padmé.

Distantly, like a faint ache that just wouldn’t go away, the Force pulled at him. He huffed under his breath. Cracked his neck. Shoved it aside. Fuck, but it decided to bother him at the worst moments.

“I just wanted to say thank you. For everything. Padmé told me your help has really improved our odds,” he continued.

Chancellor Palpatine’s eyes were bright. “No trouble at all, my boy. She explained everything--how could I not help? I can’t imagine what you’ve been through. But never fear; I’m sure you two lovebirds will be very happy together.”

He drifted away in the current of the party. Beside him, Padmé’s excitement was near palpable. She vibrated with it under his arm. “Are you a happy lovebird?” he asked with a quick grin.

“Oh, yes--I was hoping the Chancellor would take a liking to you. His support will really help me cinch things with the pro-war party. And the Jedi Council. I’ll get them to accept who you are and what you mean for us even if I have to shove it down their throats one vote at a time.”

Anakin kissed the side of her head, mindful of the pins. “Whatever you say, my terror.”

The night passed in a blur after that. He enjoyed being seen, being appreciatively leered at, knowing he was Padmé’s. It didn’t matter what was said around him. About him. The experience of her presence, being at her side, brought him to a place of radiant stillness.

When they returned to the apartment, Padmé dismissed her handmaidens and set the lights low. Her face was idly warm and distracted.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked in the dark.

“I heard Bail ask how we met. It got me reminiscing.”

He drew her close. For a moment, he remembered Padmé’s face, veined blue and racked with agony. The fear that had gripped his heart at her suffering. He remembered reaching into her, running the Force through her being. Straining her essence through the fine mesh of his own self, detangling the virus from her molecules.

“Ani, what did you do?” she had gasped around the phlegm she coughed up. He had gaped at her, unsure how to answer. The Force buzzed under his skin like a hive, distracting him to the point of tears. He had never asked it to help him before. His connection was blown open, unobstructed, absorbing new sensations at breakneck speed.

“No, nevermind,” she had replied before he had time to think of a lie. “Can you do that for the rest of my people?”

“I can try.”

He had gone from person to person. Pulled the Force through them like a dragnet. Instinct alone drove him. He asked; the Force responded. Drop by drop, he pulled the virus from cellular spirals and flung the corruption aside like a discarded rag.

Padmé’s hands stayed locked on his shoulders. She braced him when he wobbled. Refocused him when he wavered. Pet his hair back and whispered encouragements when the Force rubbed abrasions into him, making him feel over-sensitive and scraped thin.

When he finished--when he could finally stop--when everyone was safe and breathing and no one was dead--when every noise and flash of light felt like razors on his inflamed and tender skin--he curled up in her lap and cried like a child.

“I remember the night we got back,” she said. She leaned in, let him take her weight. Her perfume reminded him of oranges and pepper and atmosphere. “How far gone you were--like you weren’t in control of your thoughts anymore. I was so scared to leave you alone. I knew you’d wander off to someplace dangerous with no one to look after you.”

Anakin remembered being high off the power of the Force, running through him like fire. Remembered delirium and everything being too much. Too bright, too loud. Too sensitized. Directions and orientation had been meaningless that deep in the Force.

He nipped at her ear. “So, your perfectly reasonable response was to tie me to the bed.”

“I have no regrets,” Padmé replied without shame. “It made you feel safe, didn’t it?”

Anakin hummed in agreement. She had strapped him down wrist and ankle. Smothered him in soft blankets and kind words. Guided him through the thralls of something neither of them understood. And yes--she had made him feel safe.

That safety, that desperate push to give what the Force demanded of him in return for the lives he saved, he talked. Told her all of it. Tatooine. The Sith. His master and Count Dooku. Darth Vader. The Separatists.

His mother. He told Padmé about Shmi.

“I’m still amazed you didn’t kill me on the spot,” he admitted.

She gripped his hair. Guided his eyes to hers. Bore her truth into him, making it his own.

“Ani, you had just saved my life and the life of my people. Who were only in danger because of a mistake I led them into. That kind of action matters. I spend my days listening to empty promises and worthless gestures from people who have the power to ignite such momentous change if they didn’t fear it so. It’s our actions that reveal us all. And when I asked, you acted. I wasn’t raised to seek revenge--I was taught to utilize the gifts I was given.”

Her free hand pushed at his sternum, tripping him into the long couch with a graceless huff. Her grip in his hair didn’t lessen as he tumbled, her touch grounding him in security. “All of them,” she added.

He parted his knees when she stepped between them. She pillaged his space like she belonged there. Like it was her right to touch him, whisper to him, and make his air her own.

And it was her right. Anakin would never--could never--dispute her claim on him.

When she kissed him, his world, so barren and waste-filled since Shmi’s death, realigned to include her. He offered her everything he had, from his heart to his devotion, going so far as to scrape the corners of his soul for loose change and stray thoughts.

With her fire, Padmé rewrote his truth. “I offered you my hand then. And I’ll do it every night you need it. You and I have the power to save so many, Ani. And I’ll do everything I can, politick every Senator from Coreilla to Cantonica, shake every hand, twist every deal, to make sure we get that chance,” she said, conviction washed in affection.

He had learned that it wasn’t kindness that drove her; it was a crusader’s unshakable faith. Devotion and belief fire-blasted into an iron-will. To her, risks weren’t to be feared, they were to be conquered. She would change the galaxy because she believed it was her right and her duty to do so.

He said the only thing he could: “I believe you.”

“Good.” She released her grip on his hair and pet back the errant strands. When she turned and presented her back to him, Anakin undid the fastenings of her dress without prompting. She pushed it down and over her hips. The structured fabric transformed into a blue-hued puddle on the floor. “I was thinking of a trip to Naboo this weekend.”

“Check in with the Queen?” He asked absentmindedly as he undid his belt. Padmé’s fingers snuck into the loosening folds of his clothes. Shucked them off his shoulders and down his arms.

“No--more for a personal errand.” Her eyes sparkled with mischievous joy. Burnt orange mixed with deep blue on the floor as she discarded his layers.

She pushed him down onto the couch. Her veil, still pinned in her hair, swept around them. With gentle fingers, he undid the pins that held it in place. The dark cascade untwisted itself as her tight curls bounced free.

“Gonna tell me what?”

“You’ll see.” She whispered as she moved down his chest.

It became hard to think after that. She did something with her mouth that made his toes curl. He shuddered and let the world drop away from his concern.

They were married at sunset. The villa at Varykino set a beautiful backdrop, open-aired and mystical. Padmé’s outfit was drenched in lace. Her face glowed. Her little droid, Artoo, celebrated with lights and sirens when they kissed their oaths into one another in the waning sun.

***

Padme and Senator Lexi Dio had been arguing about allocated resources for the past two hours. Anakin had tuned out most of their words as he tinkered with Artoo’s plating. Most of what they were saying went over his head--statistics and accounts and other things he had no interest in--but their tones rose and fell with their emotions. Sometimes low and methodical, sometimes high-flung and emotional.

Their passion, weighty and centrifugal in the Force, rubbed up against him like an eager little thing. Nipped at his fingertips and the rims of his ears, begging for attention.

The little droid beeped appreciative noises as he buffed out the dings of everyday wear and tear. He rubbed a hand over the domed metal, comfortable in this secure place.

Padmé and Lexi said goodbye with affection. Smiles and hugs all around. Anakin watched her go with a suspicious eye.

“What is it, Ani?”

“You’re both pretty congenial for spending the afternoon screaming at each other.”

“Of course. Lexi’s nearly as good a debater as I am,” Padmé smiled, fond. “Just because I’m passionate about my stance, doesn’t mean I think Lexi’s wrong. Just that she shouldn’t disregard what I’m saying on her way to her point.”

Anakin’s mouth twitched. “The conflict inherent in life?”

Padmé stretched out beside him on the couch. Dropped her feet on his lap in a clear expectation. He rubbed a greasy thumb down her bare sole. Did it again when she shuddered in delight. “Exactly. If we were all the same, it’d be a boring world--wouldn’t it?” she directed the last part to her growing belly, stroking down the wide curve.

“I was raised to believe fighting is the only way you know something’s honest.”

Padmé thought about that for a moment, her face focused. “I think there’s something to that logic, at its core. Conflict is healthy, Ani. Expressions of disagreement and a strong defense of your ideals are the backbone of civilized debate.”

“It wasn’t so much a debate as it was a fist-first free-for-all, as I remember it.”

She looked at him, speculation rimming introspection. Her face hadn’t lost the flush of her debate with Lexi Dio. “Conviction is the foundation upon which conflict thrives. Without conviction, you either abandon the fight and embrace complacency, mistaking it for harmony. Or you throw yourself into the conflict without thought. And mindless conflict is violence. So when you fought, was it for your ideals, or for what someone else told you your ideals were?”

Anakin swished his mouth over his face. “I don’t know how to answer that,” he decided.

She ran a finger down his arm. Speculation turned into consideration. “I’m not looking for an answer—just something for you to think about. I look forward to the day you’re comfortable enough with me to yell about your ideals. It’s a liberating experience.”

Anakin believed her. Especially when she smiled at him like that.

“Now,” she said, stroking her belly. “What does your poor wife have to do to convince you to make her some of that marvelous mint tea?”

He groaned and hauled himself to his feet.

***

Medical droids beeped in frantic alarms around him. Anakin couldn’t understand what they were saying. Dread, heavy and stomach-turning, rotted through him, leaving him blind and deaf to even simple stimuli. He couldn’t comprehend the shapes waved in front of his eyes, the sounds that clashed in his ears. He couldn’t see Padmé anymore. Hadn't been able to see her since things started going wrong.

The beeps echoed in the hall. Until they flatlined.

Anakin gagged on the scream that caught in his throat. “No! No! No!” Over and over.

He felt Padmé leave him. Like an anchor broken free of its chain, she left their ship adrift. Snapped away from him between one moment to the next. Gone without warning. His body spasmed, lost without her connection.

He cried, flailing for something--anything--to explain. Someone to tell him what to do. What happened next. He couldn’t do it on his own--couldn’t do it without her! The downpour of grief and fear drowned him. There was no way out, no escape from the overwhelming torrent.

The durasteel floor was cold and unforgiving under his hands and knees. He hadn’t made it to a chair. He dry-heaved, his body protesting the only way it knew how, unheeding of the fury and pain he bled off in waves through the Force.

“Give her back!” he roared. Give her back to me now! Hurled the orders into the Force. Demanded, with everything within him. He turned his very soul to the order, pulling on deep wells of power and rage. Heartbreak. Denial and rejection of what he felt.

He would fix this. He had to fix this! She couldn’t leave him. Not now. Not when they were so close to freedom. To being happy.

He reached out, scrambling through the darkness and the pain and the delusion. Searched for the spark that was the Force within him. Like seeking the bottom of a dried-up well for even a drop of moisture to work with.

His fumbling came to nothing. The spark was cold. No power awaited him. Horrific silence amplified the sorrow and grief ricocheting through him, increasing with each bounce until it was all he could do to keep his body going. The pressure held him underwater, muddling everything else. For the first time, the Force didn’t give him what he wanted.

In that moment, he broke. Lost all care and control. It drained out of him like dye from cheap cloth. Taking his energy, his conviction, and his future with it. He couldn’t climb up from his knees. All strength pull left his body; gravity was relentless pressure on his shoulders.

No. No, that was something else. Anakin sobbed in a full-body convulsion. Any resolve he had built around Padmé crumbled like over-baked clay. He collapsed down with nothing, prostrate on the floor, in a desperate attempt to protect himself. There was no energy for any other option.

It was a doomed escape. They found him anyway. Darkness closed in around the edges of his vision. Something deep and mawing.

A steel-tipped boot-toe wedged itself under his chin. Sharp, unrelenting pressure forced his face up. He didn’t have the will to pull away. Cold eyes bore into him with the casual disdain of a lord upon a serf. Count Dooku’s smirk could freeze empires.

“Your mess is ruining my boots. I should make you clean them while you’re down there. Punishment for all the headaches you’ve caused me in the past year,” the lord threatened.

Anakin didn’t reply. Higher brain function had ceased. Emotions--anger, shame, embarrassment, denial--were faint echoes on the other side of a canyon he couldn’t contemplate crossing. If Dooku ordered him to spit-shine his dust-and-mud stained boots on his hands and knees, Anakin would do it without a fight.

And they both knew it. Dooku reveled in it--control over Anakin finally achieved. Something he had been after for over a decade, finally delivered to him with submission from tragedy, covered in a mess of tears and spit. Gasping for breath and sanity, and failing at both. The lord’s smug satisfaction belched through the Force, dropping down on Anakin in fat, splattering drops of oil.

Anakin felt nothing. Did nothing as that oil soaked into his mind. Blacked everything it touched.

“Get up, Vader--you’re embarrassing yourself,” Dooku sneered. A long, cold hand reached down and gripped his hair. Jerked him like an unruly beast.

Padmé loved sinking her fingers into his hair...oil seeped through his memories. Tainted everything; her. Them. Plots of escape. None of it would come to pass. He couldn't work up the energy to scrub them free of taint.

A carrier dangled in the Count's free hand. In it, one of the babies cried. A tiny fist waved in the air. The other one was silent. “We’re done here,” Dooku said over his shoulder, where Ventress stood aloof. When she saw Anakin’s gaze, she smirked. Just enough to goad him into a fit of anger and annoyance.

He stared back, dead and still. His response to her couldn’t be transmitted across the chasmed nothingness swallowing him. Ventress’ eyes skidded off into middle distance.

Dooku dragged him up by the grip in his hair. The lords’s orders were a collar around his neck. His authoritarian presence was the leash pulled taunt. He didn’t fight when he was hauled to his feet by that grip. The baby carrier was handed off to some faceless hench.

“We’ve been here long enough. It’s time you returned to your Master.” Anakin trudged along without resistance. Jerked along by control wrestled from his unresisting grip while drops of oil blacked out the light. He didn’t look at the carriers or their cargo, even when the other started to cry.

***

Now; Anakin sat on the counter beside the kitchen sink. His morning cup of kaf sat half-drunk beside his thigh. Orange sunlight wafted through the kitchen window, stretched the shadows into fuzzed lines.

He could see a certain Jedi Master sitting in the wet grass of the yard if he glanced over his shoulder and tilted back just a bit. His horde of a family sat in a loose semi-circle around him, hanging off his every word. The Force cradled them all, nurturing and quiet.

Anakin interlocked his fingers and stretched bones felt like new green branches off a tree- wobbly and ready to bend and snap.

His headache was gone. Courtesy of a Jedi obsessed with installing a gram of peace into him. Who moved like something out of a dream. Who kissed like he was laying a claim. Who made Anakin’s toes curl with pleasure and want. He felt heat rising up his face at the memory.

He was going to be thinking of that kiss for a long time.

“I don’t know what happened,” he told the photo of his wife that sat on the sill. “One moment, his hand was half-way up my shirt, the next, he’s sending me on my way. You told me Jedi were mysterious, but this is insane. How the hell does he manage to be this outrageous?”

Padmé’s half-smile shone in him.

“You’d like him for that,” Anakin continued aloud. He did this sometimes. When he was sure he was alone. “He’s good with the twins. With Snips. Who knew how big an attraction that would be?”

He tapped his fingers on the counter, pinkie to thumb and back again in a wave. Dredged up his next admission with heated embarrassment. “And he’s hot--you always said to be honest with myself about that sort of thing. But oh, could he be anymore insufferable?”

Mist rolled down the mountain and into the yard. When Luke reacted to the temperature shift, Obi-Wan leaned in, talking with the little one until he settled back into stillness. A magister holding court, knowledgeable in all things, and an authority unparalleled.

Anakin tapped at his son’s bond, looking for any signs of fear or shame. Any warning that he needed to be on the lookout for. The volcano that was Luke’s tiny mind wasn’t roiling. Instead, the lava cooled, solidifying into young ground. Tamed to bring new life.

“I think I’d want him if he didn’t piss me off so much,” Anakin finished, circumspect.

***

Anakin needed to move. Tax his muscles and sweat out his complications. Indulge himself in the numbing relief a few hours of intense physical training could bring. He’d always favored movement; nothing felt quite so comfortable as when his body was engaged and active.

It also gave him some time to breathe. His head felt...weird. Both tangled and smooth. Riotous and harmonious. Fractured and patched. Like he had found the eye of the hurricane, only to realize he had to go back out into the storm.

His hands still burned, a physical reminder of the high, floating feeling the intense session of Redalur had brought into him. If he concentrated, he could feel the smooth wooden practice sword in his palms. The crack as he met with Obi-Wan. The rush of pure, unadulterated silence, and the euphoria it brought.

He could still feel the rough scrap of a beard against his lips. Sinewy fingers skating over his shoulders and neck. Hands that grasped his curls in a gentle constraint. The safe, warm, buzzing that curled his toes and begged his breath from his chest.

He exhaled, rough and annoyed. Anticipation was a sharp-edged rack down his spine. His want was near suffocating. And the rejection of that want stung harsh.

No...not quite a rejection. More like a delay. Obi-Wan wanted him. The man was all confident hands and an overwhelmingly loving presence in his mind. A kiss that commanded all his attention and focus. His magister had thought about him with desire and delight. He had intended, for a heartbeat, to keep going.

But Obi-Wan had still sent him on his way. For a moment, Anakin wanted to rip into the kitchen and smash every plate and glass he could get his hands on. Revel in the break and the mess and the cathartic destruction. Wreck havoc to extol the build-up of emotions.

Urgh!

“Oi, Snips. Let’s go for a run,” he said, pinching lightly at her shoulder. Ahsoka stilled over her morning meal, giving him an unclouded stink-eye.

“What kind of a run?” Over the years, she had learned to ask that before they started. When she didn’t, they ended up five leagues into the forest with no clear understanding of time.

“Let’s go find out.”

Her expression was heartbroken. Anakin ignored it with purposeful obliviousness. His insistent cheer got her up and changed. Leaving behind the house in Artoo’s care, they ran in the first direction Anakin picked--towards the sun.

Running with Ahsoka was a habit he would give up on his dying day. They didn’t talk. They really didn’t need to. The point was the physical--the repetitive movement that broke the mind free of messy reality to wander. To puzzle through the stress or anxiety that bubbled up in the natural course of a day.

His thoughts immediately turned back to Obi-Wan.

Things were a little hazy. The pain that he had grown so used to accommodating was a mere shimmer, gossamer and ethereal over his mind. His foundations were suspiciously steady. For the first time in years, they didn’t seem ready to sink into the quicksand. The support held firm.

Once, that support had been born in pain and risk. The complexity of intense experiences pulled him far enough out of his skin that he could find that spinning, temporary stillness at the center of the storm. Dangle himself off a cliff to get a spare moment to think. Defy his old Master to find a modicum of clarity. Put on the mask for a second of silence. He chased that edge of pain to feed a driving, unspoken need.

His taste for that bolt of pain was still there; the Force still needed a sacrifice and a point of reference to work through him. But the impulse was contained. Like Obi-Wan had drawn a frame around it and locked it into place. By defining it, the Jedi had found the edges of Anakin’s motivations and reined them in. Balanced it against the pleasure of faith and affection. Of trust.

He had found trust in Obi-Wan, knowing he would be an anchor of support. It was with excitement (and no small chagrin) that Anakin started to expect comfort from the serene presence that could slip through his mind like vapor through the air. Believed in its power.

And he wanted to answer it.

And that was when things turned into a right mess. What was he supposed to do with a magister who wasn’t answerable to his emotions?

Anakin would scream in frustration if he had the breath to spare. Instead, he used his longer legs to increase their pace and put some pressure on Ahsoka to keep up.

“I hate you,” she huffed with what little air she could capture.

He grinned, unrepentant. For him, the repetitive rhythm and breathing pattern was a way to untether his mind from his body, giving both a break and a workout as needed. For her, it was strict endurance—a test on keeping herself occupied and on point for a distance slog. She had to focus on one single thing for as long as he wanted her to. Give him a little peace of mind that she hadn’t entirely slacked off her physical training for meditative lessons.

Peace and calm are not the same thing.

Could he not escape this man’s lessons for a moment?

Something was happening between them. Obi-Wan’s desire had been a high-wired tension running through them since he arrived. One Anakin had thought he had been clear to reciprocate. Had taken the opportunity and the impulse the moment it came to a head, wanting them both to indulge in their growing connection.

He had trusted his instincts. And he hadn’t thought he had been wrong. Yet here he was, banished from his magister’s presence like a child unfit for lessons. Something didn’t fit. It was like Obi-Wan had to complete an arcane, secret set of rituals before he acknowledged what Anakin had known would happen from their first conversation.

He had jumped through all the man’s hoops, only to find that there were even more to be navigated. Padmé had been upfront and in control when she had started sending signals about moving them past friendship and into something new. As in all things, he had followed her lead. Left to maneuver the waters himself, he was hesitant of a misstep.

“This sucks!” Ahsoka proclaimed when they came to a rest break.

Anakin privately agreed. He linked his hands over his head and circulated deep intakes of air through his body, letting the invigorating humming override his thoughts and concerns. His muscles were warm and energized; the weight on his shoulders was negligible. It felt good to sweat and stretch and shirk his responsibilities for a little while longer.

“Just think about how good you’re going to feel once we get back,” he teased.

She glanced over her shoulder. The house was over two leagues behind them, over rough and unsteady terrain. “You’re sadistic.”

Anakin didn’t deny it. “It’s good endurance training.”

“It’s miserable endurance training. Seriously, Skyguy, what do you think I’m gonna be doing with my life that requires this kind of endurance? Running from a herd of bantha?” he grumbled, bracing her hands on her knees. She was the picture of a put-upon apprentice, grumbling and discontent even as her Force aura sang with the pure joy of movement.

Would you have her fight you? Obi-Wan had asked him. Anakin paused. He had interpreted that as slander against Sith practices--an apprentice only advanced when they achieved success against their Master. He had been thrown by the barb, and unable to explain the real root of the idea.

The form that success took was often misinterpreted. Most Jedi thought the Sith violent and brutal. But that wasn’t wholly the end of it. Like Padmé has said: conflict without conviction was just violence. It was devotion that transcended conflict to something worth living for. Ahsoka didn’t need to hurt him--just prove her point against his.

Until she got that down to her bones, Anakin wasn’t inclined to give her what she wanted.

“We’ll head back in a bit,” he said. She took the reprieve for what it was and collapsed onto the ground. Fell onto her back and folded her knees up. Threw her arms out wide on either side of her as she puffed.

And unleashed on what she had been ruminating on during their run.

“I see what you meant about having the Jedi here,” she said to the passing clouds. “Obi-Wan. He’s...they’re very much about closure. Forgiveness.”

He knew Obi-Wan had been talking to Ahsoka about more than lightsabers. He hadn’t known it was about something as silly as forgiveness. He’d need to pull the man back from that--the part of him that bled for Ahsoka reared up, alert. “Weird, isn’t it?”

She tapped her feet in an uncertain rhythm. Shot her eyes over to him. Like she was sure he would be unhappy with the thoughts in her head. Like she needed to monitor her words to him.

Anakin never wanted her to think she had to censor herself around him. “You think he has a point?”

“In a way,” she muttered skyward. “I don’t think I can forgive, not in the way he talks about it. You know what I mean--the old lady. How do I forgive someone who feels no shame in what they did to me? Who isn’t even alive? Why should her memory get that kind of closure, when I bore all the pain? But does that mean I have to carry it around with me for the rest of my life?” She turned on her stomach so that she wasn’t looking upside-down at him. Expectancy bled off her--those hadn’t been rhetorical questions.

She wanted his advice. Because this wasn’t something Obi-Wan understood--not really.

Anakin did. He had asked himself something similar many times and always ended back at an explanation Shmi had given him when he had asked something similar about their condition of slavery. Six years old and already angry at the world, he hadn’t gotten what she meant at the time.

Over two decades later, it was the best advice anyone had ever managed to instill in him. It had become the core of his mind, the object of which he structured himself.

“It’s like a piece of paper, Snips. The delicate, old-fashioned stuff. Think that all the scars and pains of your life. All the horrible things you’ve been through. Each of them becomes a rip in that paper.”

She listened in silence, absorbing. Oh, but that was an unnerving expression. What if he said this wrong? The last thing he wanted was for her to misunderstand. But her aura in the Force screamed out for guidance, wobbly. He couldn’t disappoint. He harnessed her expectation and his uncertainty, prodding it all until he came up with something coherent. Continued:

“You can tape over those rips. Or you can leave them as they are--sometimes they’ll get worse, sometimes they won’t. But you always have to take those tears into account, whether you write on it or fold it into a papercraft or cut it into confetti. Those rips are always going to be there.”

He paused. Tapped that weird mix of peaceful ferocity that rang through him. Thought about what he wanted her to take away from all this. “The Jedi...they believe in filling the page with as much as they can. Writing over the tears. Patch them up, smooth out the surface, and continue writing. But you and I know...sometimes the tears are just too big. Yes, the tape goes on them, and the surface remains as whole as it can, but it’s not paper anymore. It’s not for writing. Instead, it’s,” he thought about the twins, “it’s gonna be something unpredictable.”

“You don’t think I have to forgive?” she asked.

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.” If she learned nothing else from him, let that at least be clear to her. “You don’t want to forgive the people who hurt you? Don’t. If that forgiveness doesn’t give you anything, it’s not theirs to demand. But some people are going to tell you that you should. That it’s easier on everyone if you simply grant it and let the world go on like normal. I want you to tell them to fuck off before you ever think you owe them anything.”

“Some people or the Jedi?” Her question came loaded down with unspoken considerations. Most of them revolving around their guest.

He shrugged. “Either. Both. You’re still angry? Great. Don’t give them something you’re not ready to give up.”

Ahsoka looked him dead in the eye. “That goes for you too, you know.”

He thought about denying it. But she had eyes. And it wasn’t like they were subtle. “That’s not my problem with him, Snips.”

“Isn’t it? Look at it from my perspective, Skyguy. I’ve never seen you look twice at anyone. Suddenly, this guy shows up, and you’re throwing yourself at him within minutes of meeting.”

“Oi! Not how that went.” He felt his face turn red.

“Close enough,” her razor smile snapped out as she teased him. “So--are you ready to give up your grief? Your anger? For him?”

He groaned and rolled his shoulders. Of course, she had turned this back on him. “Not for him. For the twins--for you. If it was just me I had to think about…” he didn’t know what he would have done, had it just been him against Obi-Wan. Probably fought him all the way down to the bitter end, bloody and messy as it would have been. “Connections lead to conflict. Conflict leads to clarity. Remember that--you’ll only ever know yourself when you’re in a position to act. My anger is still there. I meant what I said: those rips in the paper don’t go away. It just…” he remembered Obi-Wan’s hands on him, stilling him, bringing him back to peace, “it matters less when he’s there to lend me the tape.”

“So what’s with all this?” she said, waving her hand to encompass Anakin from head to heel, his anxiety and his fidgeting. His running.

He pushed air out of his lungs in a great burst, expelling all the troublesome introspection. This wasn’t what he expected when he suggested the run. He should know by now that Ahsoka always changed his plans on him. “I’ll tell you when I figure it out.”

***

The dark hour of false dawn belonged to Anakin and Obi-Wan and the continuation of their dance. Two forces moved in tandem, trading space through Redalur’s flow.

Anakin had never bought into meditation. What good was thinking about what had to be done? Quit stalling and go do it. The rewards and consequences would fall where they may.

Obi-Wan’s instruction was...something else. Something he didn’t altogether understand. That didn’t stop it from taking root. He had never come across a presence that didn’t just hold their own against him but met him hit for hit. He had fallen, again and again, only to find Obi-Wan ready to reorient him. A tide slamming against a storm wall, breaking against the barrier with each wave. His energy was met with a smooth voice offering little corrections as confident hands reorienting him in body and in the Force.

It was fast becoming the support he needed. And with it, that pecky hope that Anakin wouldn’t lose it.

“Do you teach this to all your little Jedi babies?” he asked, only slightly possessive. The thought of his magister performing Redalur with someone who wasn’t Anakin left an unsettled, irate disturbance in its wake.

Obi-Wan shot him a look that was both indulgent and irritated. “No. There’s a flaw in it--have you found it yet?”

Anakin spun the practice sword. Inspected the blade’s edge. He thought about sharpening it to a fine point, just to see how that would progress things. It’d keep them on their toes, at least. “Redalur needs two. Performing it on my own wouldn’t work as well, would it?”

“Just right. And a Jedi is required to successfully meditate in solitude. This type of reliance on another’s presence to find peace borders on attachment. One Jedi can ill-afford.”

That wasn’t new; Anakin’s whole life was attachments. “Good for me; not so much for you, I think.”

“I know my limits.”

Something about Obi-Wan’s crisp delivery, his dispassionate aura, bubbled up in Anakin. A sensation at once wholly familiar and long missed. He fell silent as he called, urging it closer. Like a cautious thing, the Force crept onto him.

What are you asking me for?

In answer, the Force grew into him. He nurtured it, gave it light and water and attention as Obi-Wan moved them through the next form. Took the surety of his body as fact so his mind could slip away. That sparkling place came around him, an oasis of still water amongst the intense heat of his Force connection, offered that bubbling sensation room to grow. He stepped off the hazy edge he had balanced on all morning. His mind went soft and blank.

He moved with the pattern he was guided into, trading space and strikes with Obi-Wan. But he was lightyears away.

The Force welled up in him, clearer and stronger than it had been in years. Slipped into his consciousness, taking advantage of his lowered aggression. When once it caught on the barbs and failed to move through the warped iron sheets of his defenses, now it slipped over the heat and metal and twisted pain, following the snowy path Obi-Wan had paved with his explorations of Anakin’s mind.

He had let himself be overrun under his magister’s touch when asked. It had been good practice, since he could sit back without a fight as the Force peeked into his soul. Submitted himself to a power that burned through him like wildfire. It was intimacy personified; no part of him left untouched. He was eager to offer himself—he always had been. Debauchment and exhaustion were only the aftereffects of real passion in the Force.

There had been nothing he could hide. No shame or embarrassment or disapproval came with the phantom power. Only intense empathy and a desire to experience Anakin’s emotions with him. To understand what he felt and why he felt it.

The Force wanted everything—every thought, every sensation. And in this moment of peace, with Obi-Wan navigating him and his body happily occupied, it returned to him after years of absence to live this with him.

To experience Obi-Wan with him. Anakin could feel heat behind his eyes as the Force coalesced, curious to peer into the physical world.

A gripping impulse, one that hadn’t possessed him for years, took hold. Sunk itself deep into him. Pressure snapped. Sensations raged: rigid glass shattering; a relief valve screaming out coolant; an atmosphere dropping pressurized air. A voice that was at once so unknown and so desperately familiar rolled through his thoughts; The Force whispered in his ear, planting ideas of things not earthly possible. In power burned a message.

You do not understand the meaning of the word ‘limit,’ Obi-Wan Kenobi. Deprivation: that is one you are intimately familiar with, child of mine. Why do you break my heart like this?

Anakin broke the form mid-swing. Dove away from Obi-Wan. Hit the ground on his hands and knees. Surprise and shock had him spitting and coughing into the grass.

He wasn’t Leia: the Force rarely spoke to him that openly. It resonated deep within him and inscribed words with clear intent into his soul. He chased it--flung himself wide open, calling for a return. Let himself be used to further understand what was wanted from him. Stretching himself unthinkingly over the altar of the universe and offering himself for whatever it deemed.

He wasn’t scared; he wanted more. The Force had spoken. He had no choice but to listen. It had asked to share all of him, the good and the bad. If it wanted this as well, he had no qualms about giving it.

But nothing else came. The Force receded with the tide.

A pair of hands came to rest on his shoulders. He let himself be rightened, sitting back on his knees. His hands braced themselves on his thighs while his lungs remembered how to work. He kept one ear tuned, just in case.

A warm body stood behind him, giving him something to steady himself against. Fingers ran soothingly through his hair over and over. Obi-Wan breathed with him, out as Anakin took in.

“Want to tell me what that was?” came the soft question.

“Not really.” The Jedi in Obi-Wan seemed to struggle with the idea of relying so instinctively on the Force. If Anakin showed him, he might not understand that it wasn’t something to fear.

Not that Anakin would be able to show him.

The problem with Obi-Wan was that he was a damn fortress. An impenetrable citadel with a shadow that loomed large in the Force. He had built his shields into the very bedrock. Anakin could see it in his mind’s eye: sandstone and red brick walls cut and mortared together in precise lockstep. High and impenetrable. Anakin traced the stains of a lifetime of strife upon their surface.

Blood. Soot and ash. Felled siege engines and countless legions. War had come to these walls, and they had withstood it all. He ran his fingers along the too-straight, unnatural edges, searching for an opening—a foothold. Any crack or crevice he could climb.

His magister had learned the secret, intimate pages of his mind within hours of meeting him. Anakin had not gained any such reciprocal access.

Was that because Obi-Wan didn’t trust him inside his walls? Or because Anakin hadn’t figured out the right combination of attack?

The fingers in his hair stroked harder, carding through his curls. “I can’t read your mind, wildheart. Not on this. You need to tell me when you’re ready to continue.”

“I’m ready for whatever you want to throw at me.”

“And I don’t believe you are.”

Distantly, Anakin entertained daydreams of pummeling Obi-Wan. This stubbornness was beginning to grate. “You want me to prove it? How?”

“That’s up to you.”

“And what if I just want you to fuck me?”

“You haven’t convinced me of that either.”

Anakin cracked an eye open. Really? Blue eyes stared down at him, unflinching.

Oh, why was the man so difficult about all this? All he had to do was admit what he wanted, and then Anakin could go wild with all the emotions slowly building up against those walls. He looked at Obi-Wan through narrowed, fuzzy eyes. “You know I’m going to make you regret that, right?”

“Passion isn’t peace. And you haven’t convinced me you’re ready for anything more.” The hand gripped Anakin’s curls tight. He shuddered down to his knees, instantly derailed. The gesture was a complex one for him. An intimate mix of pain and pleasure; a complicated association from those who performed it on him; the blurred border between submission and control running through him like a faultline.

He gave it all up, laying it out as an offering, and thanks, for guidance. This was what the Force made them for. Tossed it into the airwaves and listened for a response.

The Force hummed in his ears with gratitude. From Obi-Wan--nothing.

“Control freak,” Anakin growled, his voice rough as intensity passed through him, moved along by the thread of life. He would get through those damn stone walls. Nothing set in stone ever lasted. If pleading and reasoning and bargaining wouldn’t bring them down, so be it—time to change the battlefield.

“I like to think of myself as optimistically hopeful. Don’t get my hopes up only to fail, Anakin,” Obi-Wan warned. “Hope hurts like nothing else in this galaxy. And I’m hoping you won’t hurt me.”

Anakin pulled away from the hand in his hair. “Same to you,” he said.

***

The yard was full of brittle, unweeded reeds. Ahsoka plucked one up and broke it unevenly. Tucking the strands into her fist, she offered them to the twins. Leia drew the short straw.

“You’re It!” Luke laughed. He tossed his reed aside and tore off through the tall grass. Ahsoka urged Leia to cover her eyes and spun her around by the shoulders. While the little girl counted, she slipped off around the house.

“Four, five!” Leia called, coming to a stop. She looked around, trying to decide what direction she should start with.

“This is where you try and remember what the point of the game is. Just like I showed you,” Obi-Wan called out. He stood at the bottom of the porch steps, hands tucked into the sleeves of his long Jedi robe. In the dark color, the dusk light slowly reclaimed him.

After a moment, Ahsoka’s Force signature noticeably dimmed. After a few misfires, so did Luke’s. The part of Anakin that wasn’t crawling up the wall in anxiety over not knowing exactly where his children were was amazed at the sudden quiet. From his place on the porch steps behind Obi-Wan, he sent out probing thoughts.

He could feel emotions (playfulness, thrill, anticipation) leaking out of his bonds with Luke and Ahsoka. Their excitement and their focus. But he couldn’t pinpoint their location like usual.

It’s fine, it’s fine, he reassured himself on loop, resisting the urge to funnel power into their bonds until he could once again find them. Artoo waited on the edge of the yard, tracking everything. The little droid often saw trouble coming long before Anakin did. He’d have lost his mind years ago if not for the safety need Artoo provided, catching the things he often forgot about.

It’ll be fine. Just keep telling yourself that.

Leia openly glared at Obi-Wan; “You’re not supposed to make this harder when I’m It, Uncle Ben,” she told him with a squeaky growl.

Anakin cocked his head. When had that started? From the carefully neutral expression on the Jedi’s face, it wasn’t the first time.

“Are you saying I should go easy on you?” Obi-Wan asked her.

“Well, yeah,” his daughter replied like it was obvious. “I am your favorite, after all.”

Across the yard, Luke’s golden head popped above the long grass. “Hey! That’s not true!”

Leia was off like a shot, her target flushed out and in her sights. Luke yelped and fled around the house.

“My little manipulator,” Anakin cheered, not even a little embarrassed. One of his longest-running nightmares involved someone dark and ominous playing on the twin’s open and curious natures. Leia’s more devious impulses alleviated some of his worries.

“She certainly has a gift,” his magister replied, less impressed.

Leia circled back to the porch, panting and empty-handed. She had already managed to become absolutely filthy from head to heel. “He’s too fast--I lost him,” she scowled, put-out.

“He didn’t come this way,” Obi-Wan told her with a small smirk. He drew his finger in a circle, reorienting her attention. “Best look somewhere else.”

A crafty expression overtook his daughter’s face under the mud and the rain. Anakin really didn’t have time to warn the man--not that he particularly wanted to. She reached out and smacked her little fingers against Obi-Wan’s leg. “You’re It!” she yelled and hauled out like a bantha out of hell.

“Well, I say,” Obi-Wan muttered, offended down to his bones.

Anakin broke, laughing. Popped his hand over his mouth to keep his expression at least semi-polite. Watched his magister’s face contort. “What are you going to do now?”

“Avenge my honor. What other choice is there?” Obi-Wan shrugged off the long, billowing Jedi robe he wore in the cooling dark. It slipped off leisurely, a reveal and a challenge.

“Watch out. Those little gremlins are fast,” Anakin warned around his hand.

“Thank you ever so much.” He stretched, hands linked together over his head, testing the limits his body. Bent in half and let his limbs loosen up. Slipped into the growing dark like a finely-honed hunter stepping onto the plains.

Anakin let his eyes be entertained by his magister’s sanguine aura. The man really was in great shape...he still had suspicions about that. He hadn’t caught the twins speeding Obi-Wan’s healing along, but that didn’t mean anything. Combine Leia’s underhanded instincts with Luke’s unbridled need to help to produce a pair of powerful little gremlins who thought they could fix any problem they ever came across, just because they always had.

Add into that an ascetic monk who had ideas about the use of power and limiting oneself to achieve peace. Anakin didn’t think his kiddos were too eager to make noise about what they may or may not be doing.

Deprivation--that was what the Force told him Obi-Wan clung to. He had obsessed over each word dropped into his mind, coming back to that one each time. Was it really Obi-Wan withholding himself from what he wanted?

If Anakin thought he’d get away with it, he’d just toss the man into the bedroom and keep him there until he figured out all the fun they could be having.

But that probably wouldn’t work. Obi-Wan seemed determined to keep him chaste and contained until Anakin figured out the weird locking mechanism that made up his moral code.

Irritating, to say the least.

Obi-Wan caught Leia first; she hadn’t strayed far, lurking near the edge of the house. He reemerged into the yellow circle of light cast off by the porch, his prize propped on his hip. She laughed as Obi-Wan deposited her on Anakin’s lap.

“One down,” he said as he kept on the move. On the hunt for the rest of his charges. Anakin suspected he’d see the rest of his children momentarily. He shuffled Leia around until she leaned against his chest. Her energy spent, she slumped against him and held out a grubby hand.

“I got you something.”

“Did you now?” He held out his mechanical hand with caution--it could be anything from a neat rock to a live animal. She’d handed him all sorts of things without much warning.

She dropped a pile of leaves into his palm. Rubbed her hands to get rid of the dirt she picked up. Nuzzled up to his chest with a content sigh. When he crushed the leaves between his fingers, mint permeated the air. “You go digging in the garden?”

“It’s coming up fast,” she reported around a yawn. “So’s the yarrow and the red clover. The bee balm’s not growing yet, though. And the witch hazel still won’t bloom, no matter how much I poke at it.”

“It’ll get there,” Anakin reassured her as he tore the leaves apart. Rubbed the essence into his fingertips.

Deprivation also meant clarity. Obi-Wan couldn’t divest himself of something he didn’t know he wanted. He’d probably mediated all his thoughts and emotions down into a placid sludge, dismissing or denying himself out of things his soul begged for.

And he had done all of this without any outward input. Without Anakin. Who, he would argue, had just as much stake in what was going on in Obi-Wan’s head. It wasn’t peace his magister had achieved--it was control. The internal rot had found roots in the very place Anakin feared--repression of one emotion to highlight another. Subjection and strict limits.

Not a freedom from his disturbances. Instead, a unilateral decision to dismiss their connection without any input from Anakin. Without conflict.

How every Jedi.

Anakin wasn’t a Jedi. The limits imposed by high stone walls and monastic orders brought him friction, not harmony. That friction meant his decisions became a tangle of flaws and conflict and contradictions. Maybe it was time he showed Obi-Wan just what that looked like.

***

“Go sit on the porch,” Anakin ordered from the kitchen. Obi-Wan, comfortable on the couch, looked over the edge of his datapad. Cocked an eyebrow. Exuded disbelief.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me. Porch. Go sit.”

Obi-Wan went, bemused but willing to indulge him. Anakin figured that was becoming the core of their relationship.

He ran through the tray once last time before he left the kitchen. Made sure he had everything in place. His flesh palm was clammy; he was nervous. He hadn’t done this in quite a while.

Oh, he hoped this was a good idea.

Consternation disappeared from Obi-Wan’s face when he saw the tray. The kettle. The teapot. His face lit up. Anakin juggled everything awkwardly in his arms so he could hold up a hand and stem any questions. “Just so we’re clear on things: I am an inveterate kaf drinker. Don’t come to expect this.”

He lowered the tea tray to the porch’s floorboards. Let Obi-Wan explore the components upon it: A sealed container of green tea pearls. A bowl full of sugar blocks. Mint leaves, harvested off out of the budding garden and from the kitchen herbs. A hotplate kettle. An ornate silver teapot and a set of narrow glasses, colored blue and etched in platinum.

Shmi had cherished a clashing, much-loved tea set with glasses in different sizes and colors in contrasting patterns. Each as unique as a star. Her teapot had been broken and resealed with a Tatooian technique that used sand and fire to plaster the cracks with glass. He had left that set behind with everything else when they had abandoned the Sith.

He hadn’t thought he’d miss it--there were other things that he had spent more time mourning. Until he saw this set of blue and platinum boxed up on the hip of a mining merchant on the Outer Rim. The desperate need kicked him into action. Anakin had ended up throwing precious money and time at the merchant until he wrangled it free. The silver pot bore intricate engravings around the wide belly, fanciful handle, and long-necked spout. Four small legs braced the pot off the floor. The pointed lid hinged when Obi-Wan opened it to peer inside.

The teapot was empty. Anakin smacked Obi-Wan’s hand away from it when his fingers wandered where they shouldn’t be. “First rule: you drink this the way I make it. No trying to doctor it on the sly. Got it?”

Obi-Wan arched an eyebrow again. He had the kind of face that pulled off unspoken loftiness well. How absolutely unfair. But he pulled his hands back, open and up in a gesture of concession. Anakin took the win and set the hotplate kettle to boil.

“Any rules against asking questions?” Obi-Wan persisted.

“I should set that rule just to watch you squirm,” he replied. “But I know better than to give orders I know won’t be followed. Ask away.”

“What are you up to?”

“Proving a point. Ever had tea on Tatooine?”

“Can’t say that I have.”

Good; he wouldn’t know if Anakin messed up. This may yet work. “Gunpowder green is the only thing that can make it through the backwater trade routes before it spoils. Drinking it straight is a great way to gag up your tongue.”

He popped open the container. The tea leaves--rolled tightly and dried to a tough little pellet--tumbled into his palm, collecting there like old-fashioned gunpowder, the kind used in slugthrowers. Anakin flicked one pearl at Obi-Wan before he could ask. The rest went into the teapot.

“Odd place to find yourself,” Obi-Wan said as he picked at the tea-pearl, working the tight roll loose.

Anakin paused, just for a moment. Tried out different renditions in his mind: Slave. Destined to a lifetime of servitude. Chipped and tracked. No peace--no control.

The words wouldn’t arrange themselves into a configuration he could speak without ruining himself. He took that pain and anger and turned it inward, sparking him to action. It was an old Sith technique: if you don’t like the game, change the rules. Speaking these things would only get him wound up and fierce--they always did.

So he didn’t speak them. He unpacked the words as memories. Set them up like a holovideo. Projected them onto the sandstone wall of Obi-Wan’s mind. In blown-up images, he played out the first few years of his life as he remembered them in double-speed. Obi-Wan would pick up the essential details. The heat. The sand. The merciless reality of ownership.

When Obi-Wan blinked and looked away into middle distance, Anakin stopped his projections. The hotplate kettle whistled as it hit boiling. He took it off the heat. Added a splash into the teapot with the pearls. The two ingredients mixed together.

This moved them on from one landmine to another.

“My mom taught me how to do this when I was eleven. She was...was trying to counter what Dooku was teaching me. She didn’t have many options--my old Master allowed her to stay in my life because she had no power to change their plans. Because they didn’t want to raise a child day-to-day. Because I...I wanted her there and safe with me. They didn’t tell me ‘no’ that often when I was younger.”

Obi-Wan set his chin against his knuckles. Occasionally, they brushed up against his beard. All that intense focus aimed directly at Anakin. The forest behind them could be going up in flames, and the Jedi wouldn’t have torn his attention away.

It was quite a thing, to be the magnetic north for a compass. To trust that Obi-Wan’s attention would always circle back to him. Nervous struck at his restraint. He looked down to keep himself from tossing out the whole venture. From shucking the tray aside and throwing himself into the man’s space. From discovering how much destruction he could cause burning up against those sandstone walls.

He drained out the first pour. The soul of the tea, the first flush of life. The tea’s initial infusion, the details of its flavor. It was bitter and incomplete when drunk alone.

He set it well out of Obi-Wan’s reach. The man’s curiosity could rival Luke’s. Continued, when his voice was steady: “She couldn’t...couldn’t take me away from the Sith. Where would we go? They’d already found us once. So she tried other ways to save me. Not that I noticed at the time. It wasn’t until the twins started asking about my past that I realized what she had been doing. Giving me other memories that didn’t revolve around pain or tragedy.”

“Subtle work,” Obi-Wan replied. “May I ask,” he let the sentence trail off, giving Anakin the space to answer or ignore as he needed.

Anakin washed the tea with two more rounds of boiled water. Swirled energy and activity into the leaves. Those resulting cups went over the side of the porch. Not quite right yet.

On the next boil, he added two handfuls of mint leaves to the teapot. Six cubes of sugar, with Obi-Wan’s eyes widening with each splash. Mixed the soul cup in after them, to bring the tea to life. Closed the lid and left them all to steep together. Then, he was ready to answer Obi-Wan’s question.

“Illness. Something she picked up on Tatooine that she could never shake. I was almost sixteen.” He hesitated. “I don’t--I can’t say for sure that my Master--that Sidious had anything to do it with. No power I’ve ever encountered in the Force plants a rotting lung sickness in a person. But…”

“The suspicion was enough,” Obi-Wan finished for him. The man had a habit of that. Anakin took comfort in it here. There were some realities he couldn't face on his own, even now.

The loss of her influence over him in turn gave his Master a greater hand with him. Just as Dooku’s Separatist war kicked off, the odd timing of her death was a hunch that Anakin had never quite shaken free. “That was about the time I stopped caring about what orders they gave me. And started doing exactly what I wanted to do; no more, no less. Dooku often called me an insolent, hid-bound terror.”

He saw Obi-Wan’s eyes glazing over as he tracked the timeline. “The coup that took out the Pyke Syndicate. The massacre of the Crimson Dawn. Darth Vader spent two years wreaking havoc on every slaver’s outpost in Hutt space.”

Anakin never quite regretted his killing spree though slaver territory. His orders had been to counteract and hijack Maul’s little Shadow Collective syndicate. Teach the rogue Sith apprentice the pain that came with trying to usurp Darth Sidious’ influence. And he had done his job well with chaos and insanity biting at his heels. Power vacuums left by powerful (dead) clans and tyrannical (dead) warlords were the tricky spaces Dooku worked best in.

“And now you know why. I thought setting the galaxy on fire was the only way to do her memory justice. To make everyone understand how devastating her death was to me. I wanted to kill every pirate and flesh-trader who enslaved her to a lifetime of misery.”

He had to be careful of his voice again. Shmi was...she would always be a big, red button surrounded by flashing neon in his mind. Push it; see him go into meltdown mode. Self-destruction and implosion to follow. She was his deepest root, and his sincerest belief: life wasn’t about fairness, it was about survival. Survival could be brutal, but it could also be beautiful—the orchid thriving in the rocky and barren desert.

Phantom fingers dragged down his spine; the book of his mind fell open, the pages smoothed over. His skin prickled with alluring sensations. Blue eyes held him steady.

Anakin swallowed the pain and let the riot of emotions warm his blood. Forgiveness brought comfort, but anger brought action. One of the most significant rips in the pages of his life--he’d probably never mend it back together.

“But something tells me that bloodletting didn’t help,” Obi-Wan guessed. There was that tone again--smug assurance barely hidden behind prodding encouragement. The one that alternately irritated and fascinated him. The Jedi’s voice was a marvelous tool that conveyed all sorts of things in a simple shift.

“If you’re angling for me to say ‘you’re right,’ rest assured I won’t. The only good slaver is a dead slaver. Here...my memories of her found new life. This is how I honor her now.” Shmi’s memory smiled in his mind’s eye. He projected it onto Obi-Wan’s stone walls. “She planted seeds deep; they took a long time to find light and water.”

“Skywalker--her name?”

Anakin hummed. “Yes. The slave that started a dynasty. Luke and Leia will carry her on. Perhaps their children as well. I’ll teach them how to do this when they’re old enough. Like I taught Ahsoka.”

The raw intimacy of conversation made him misty-eyed. He reached for the teapot. Selected two glasses. Stuffed them both with fresh mint leaves. Poured, starting the spout at the rim of the glass and pulling it up high until the tea fell a foot before collecting in the cup. The tea frothed as air punctured and bubbled in. “My mother could pour from nearly a meter high. I never managed to get that skill down.”

He let Obi-wan pick his glass. Took the one the Jedi didn’t.

“You don’t drink alone. Tradition,” he said.

“I have always been one for tradition.” Obi-Wan mirrored him. Breathed in the fragrant mix of mint, sugar, and tea. Drank deeply. Bliss dropped over his face. Even better than smug loftiness.

Anakin sipped at his and enjoyed the familiar taste. Sugar grains sat on his tongue; mint flakes stuck to the roof of his mouth and against his teeth. The tea was a bitter wash, countering the sweet and the herb. All three flavors collided, binding together into something new.

“Intense,” Obi-Wan decided. His moment of deep introspection overtaking him as he parceled through the layers.

“The first pour is as bitter as life,” he recited Shmi's old instruction. “The second, as strong as love. The third, as gentle as death. So they say.”

“Beautiful.” Obi-Wan’s expression made clear his double-meaning. Anakin felt his face getting hotter. Honestly, how was the man so good at innuendos? This did not help the whole ‘tackle Obi-Wan to the ground and sort out the consequences later’ argument half his mind was lobbying for.

He tapped the hotplate, setting a new batch to boil. He added more water. More mint. More sugar. The tea was fully awake by the second brew, transforming into something new.

Obi-Wan returned his cup and once again oriented himself unsparingly on Anakin.

Whole mint leaves stuck to the side of the pot, twining around one another—the sharp balm wrapped around them, soothing his burning impatience into something tantalizing and confident.

“Have you figured out my point?” he asked as he poured the second cup. Excess tea splashed across the deck as the spout climbed.

“Enlighten me,” Obi-Wan muttered around his hand. He lingered over his second cup--this one was sweeter, stronger. The tea was in full bloom now, and the two rounds of mint and sugar had been developed into complex flavors.

“Sometimes it’s not just about what’s needed. It has to be about what you want, as well.” Anakin tapped each ingredient in turn. “Tea, mint, sugar; they’re all luxuries. We didn’t need luxuries to feed ourselves and survive. But they make survival a little easier. A little happier. You can’t tell me that’s not important; that having wants makes the life you’re living worth it.”

The blue glass had nothing on the pair of eyes that looked at him over the rim. They were full of intrigue and chagrin in equal measure. Deprivation, the Force had called it. Knowing you want something, but unable to commit. “You’re not nearly as subtle as your mother.”

He shrugged. “I don’t need to be. Not in this. Why won’t you take what you want, Obi-Wan?”

“There’s nothing I want that needs to be taken.”

“Is it the violence in the metaphor that’s tripping you up? Because sweet and gentle can be an option.” Not one Anakin was particularly thrilled about, but he was willing to compromise. He was goal-oriented like that.

Obi-Wan set his glass down and rubbed a palm over his beard. Set his face into an argument. Anakin took the opportunity to reset the kettle and start the next round. “We’re weeks into knowing one another. You still have so much to learn. And three other souls to watch over as well. I don’t think you’re ready for all of what I want.”

“I know you’ve spent a lot of time in my head, but you can’t know something like that.”

“I can until you prove me otherwise.”

Anakin felt his temper spark. He breathed out a growl, glaring at the Jedi. “I can’t prove something you’ve already decided against. Without me, by the way. Are you telling me I don’t get a say in this?”

“Of course you do--but so do I. I do want you, Anakin. But people don’t always get the things they want.”

“So you shouldn’t even try? I shouldn’t? Look--I get that you’re trying to teach me peace and detachment, or whatever. But desires matter, too. Duty without passion isn’t honorable, it’s just complacency.”

The kettle popped. Anakin’s hands made the third cup on autopilot, wrapped up in his words and his emotions. The tea was near spent now after so many steeps, giving over to the gentle afterglow of flavors. A respite after the smoky, heady intensity of the first two cups.

Obi-Wan didn’t back down. “We’re talking about more than sex, you and I. Think about what happens after. What happens when I’ve healed enough to leave this place. Do I simply abandon you and yours here? Take you with me? Then what? And you want to complicate all of that with intimacy as well?”

“All progression is complicated,” Anakin rebutted, his blood rearing up. “That’s just--that’s just living! Intimacy isn’t the complication--it’s the natural flow of us. You’re arguing a matter of degrees! Throwing up delays that neither of us wants to fulfill some obscure hidden inner need of yours.”

“Important degrees.” Obi-Wan wasn’t radiating annoyance. It was high-spirited, but not malicious. Anakin would almost call it greedy. “And I’d argue that those obscure hidden inner needs require satisfaction to keep us at peace. Wouldn’t you say that’s the goal of all this?”

“I’d say it’s your goal, for damn sure,” he growled around his cup. That got him to stop. Blink. Turn back to Obi-Wan and that animated air around him. “Or maybe...this isn’t a need for you. This is a want.”

Obi-Wan didn’t reply with words. Amusement hid deep in his eyes.

Oh! Incensed, Anakin slammed down his cup. It was platinum, it could take it. Here he thought they had been getting farther to the point, not closer. Turns out, he had just been playing a game without knowing all the rules.

Time to change that.

“Rule two,” he snapped. “No touching.” He collected the tea set onto the tray. Pushed it aside. Impulsiveness and a desire to return the volley made him act. Consequences were for later.

Obi-Wan blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“Rule three: no more questions.”

Anakin invaded his space, pushing their bodies together. Gave into the impulse; he should have done this in the first place. Flagrantly touching as he pleased. Planted his hands on either side of Obi-Wan’s hip, right over his thighs. Pushed their faces together until only a thread’s space between them.

Obi-Wan folded his arms over his chest, keeping to Anakin’s wishes. Raised a challenging eyebrow. “Really, wildheart; I thought you said no touching.”

“My rules only apply to you,” he muttered. If he was this man’s magnetic north, then oh, was he going to make him remember who controlled their direction.

Their first kiss had been a rushed, cataclysmic affair, as messy as the muck and blood that covered them. Their second, a storm born of impulse and rushed desire. The confluence of pressures and gales and emotions.

In the bright light of day, their third was a tease with mint and sugar and bitter tea. If Obi-Wan wanted obstinate, Anakin could be obstinate.

It was a light kiss--one that promised more than it delivered. Anakin broke away. Sighed into the air between them. Did nothing to hide how pleasure wrecked his body and made him reckless.

“Let’s be honest,” he whispered. “Wanting is so much more powerful than needing, isn't it?”

Obi-Wan sat wide-eyed and paralyzed. Blown away, either by Anakin’s audacity or his passion. He wasn’t trying to hide it. Let lust and fervor crowd into their auras. Obi-Wan could only accept what he decided to offer. A little more pressure put on the unshakable Jedi Master. His hands were pinned by his own stubbornness. Unable to touch. Unable to take control.

Anakin did the only thing he could: he upped the pressure. “Rule four; don’t move.”

He kissed Obi-Wan again, rougher, a little slicker, a little hotter. Teased at the seam of his mouth in light, encouraging nips. A broken whine, breathy and thoughtless, slipped out of him.

In the massive foundations of Obi-Wan’s walls, a small crack appeared in the foundation, a slender line running between two bricks. Hot wanting seeped through it, just enough for Anakin to taste over the tea on his tongue—a grasping want, a connection.

Pressure skated down his cheek; a thumb came to rest against the joint of his jaw as fingers curled around his ear and neck. Obi-Wan pulled him closer.

Anakin pulled back in an instant. The triumphant smirk across his face felt good. “What did I tell you, rulebreaker?”

Obi-Wan’s face was red with absolute and embarrassed irritation. He growled when Anakin slipped out of his grasp. “Come back here,” he ordered, impulsivity overriding his usual steely persona. Deprivation, when left too long, became starvation. And starvation could break a man quicker than anything.

“No,” he rejected gleefully. He kept himself ready to dodge any attempt to haul him back in. Would Obi-Wan’s patience snap? Would he chase Anakin down and take what he hungered for? How far could he push at that legendary Jedi control?

If he did snap, did take the bait and tried to run him to ground, Anakin would make him work for it. He was mostly sure he was the faster of the two of them.

Only Obi-Wan didn’t move. His muscles were bunched, his frame ready to jump up and chase after him. But the Jedi didn’t budge. Anakin laughed, shocked and delighted.

“You absolute brat,” Obi-Wan’s face was a tapestry of put-upon indignation. His frustration colored the air dark and thunderous. So many raw, intense emotions, all spilling out of that tiny fracture. But he stayed where he had been placed.

Energized, Anakin scrambled to his feet. Withdrew over the porch. Left Obi-Wan with the cooling tea and a throbbing, unsated desire.

“Didn’t I tell you I was gonna make you regret this?” he said, laughing as he ran off. It wasn’t that Obi-Wan couldn’t catch him--it was that he didn’t.

***

Anakin kept himself to the edges of Obi-Wan’s mind. Stroked that little break with encouraging fingers. The stone was rough and sunbleached under his touch. So close. You’re so close--just give me a little more.

He spent the afternoon tuning up the speeder. Luke, standing on the tops of his boots for a boost in height, watched his hands with a close eye.

“See?” he asked, shifting his arm so that Luke could track what he was doing.

“Uh uh,” Luke said.

“I’m bored!” Leia whined. Mechanical lessons weren’t in her interests. She sat on the speeder seat, her winter fox toy hugged to her chest. Tried valiantly for two minutes to occupy herself. “I wanna play.”

“All right,” he conceded--if she didn't want to learn, he wasn't going to force it on her. Leia perked up as he thought. “Find me something...harmonious.”

Leia was off the speeder and out into the world without a pause. Luke stayed where he was, curious as to the repairs. Anakin kissed the top of his head and kept working.

Fixing things like this gave Anakin’s emotional mind a break. He was still amazed he had told Obi-Wan so much about Shmi. That...hadn’t been the plan, originally. But the man’s calm aura made it so easy to trust him.

Everything about the man was so easy to Anakin. To trust. To want. To believe.

How easy would it be to give him control as well? He had already collected so many pieces of Anakin, would that last little bit matter? With that leash in his hand, Obi-Wan could orient him in any direction he desired with the lightest touch. Turn him loose and expect him to do anything he was bid to do. To follow orders, and return on grateful knees to be latched and bound up once again.

“Is that what you think control is?” Obi-Wan had asked him, weeks ago.

Before this magister--this well of gentle guidance and soft orders in the form of a man, hale and real--Anakin had thought so. Control was what Dooku craved. What he thought would make him powerful.

Blue eyes looked up at him. “You okay, Dad? You’re wobbly.”

Anakin, long used to Luke having a beatline on his fluctuating moods and emotions, ruffled his son’s hair. Pushed away thoughts of the Sith, and the wobbly feelings that came with it. “Yeah. Your Uncle Ben gave me a gift. I’m trying to figure out what to do it with.”

“Oh. Was it a gift you liked?”

“Yeah, kiddo. I did. More than I expected.”

“Good. I like Uncle Ben. He has good games--his stories are a little sad, though.”

“They are, aren't they? We’ll have to fix that. Do you see how the carburetor hooks up with the fuel lines?”

Walking Luke through a speeder rebuild was second-nature. He didn’t need a lot of thought for it. It let other, more complicated thoughts bounce around and take shape.

And left room for reevaluation. Because Anakin was beginning to think Obi-Wan didn’t want control over him. Not that way, at least.

The Jedi had been taking all of his cues from Anakin. When he started, so did Obi-Wan. When he stopped, Obi-Wan stopped. He shadowed Anakin, their Redalur forms playing in real life. He didn’t sneak outside the boundaries Anakin laid down. Traced where Anakin went. Offered guidance and support and a frame for his high-flung outrages, but didn’t restrict him into confinements.

Even when he pushed that deep source of patience to the brink, his magister had stayed exactly in his seat. He hadn't been happy about it, but he had done as Anakin had told him. Hadn’t chased him down, even though everything in him was screaming to snap.

Control wasn’t what Obi-Wan was after--that would always be Anakin’s. Obi-Wan’s gift to him was understanding that.

He took his hands off the engine. Set them on the hood while Luke took over, humming while he worked. Let the enormity of revelation wash over him without interruption.

This was why he didn’t like meditation: he didn’t need reflection, he needed action. What the hell was he supposed to do with a gift that surprised him?

Use it, obviously. But how?

Once upon a time, he wouldn’t have waited. It would be so simple to hammer at that little fracture in Obi-Wan’s walls. Slammed raw, unrefined power at it until it gave way. Shaped it into something more accommodating for Anakin to slip through. What good was the kind of power he wielded if he couldn’t use it?

That’s what he thought control was; force what you can, to get what you want.

But that idea no longer appealed. He didn’t want to demolish those walls, didn’t crave to see them in rubble before him. Not now. Something deeper took root---he wanted to understand them. Their architecture and their foundations. Their supports, their construction. How Obi-Wan had built something so substantial and intimidating.

He had to make sure Obi-Wan didn’t regret giving him that control. And that made Anakin nervous.

It wasn’t like he had a great track record with control, after all. He rubbed a thumb over that little fracture in the sandstone and brick and thought about what to do with it.

***

It had rained last night, hard and hammering. The whole yard smelled of damp. Their clothes were wet within minutes of being outdoors. Anakin rubbed the water into his skin and let the early light dance over his face.

He didn’t know who needed meditation more that morning; he or Obi-Wan. For the first time since their start, the Jedi seemed distracted. He missed steps in their form. Trailed off mid-thought in their conversation. Had trouble linking up his points.

Like he hadn’t slept well. Anakin wondered if he had spent the night worrying that little faultline, like Luke and his loose tooth. Once you knew it was there, it was impossible not to fuss with it. He probably couldn’t help but worry at it, because the implications could be devastating.

Anakin, conversely, felt comfortable. Giddy with new energy. He always had an impulse to play with fire. He rubbed at that little sliver in Obi-Wan’s shields, urging it to give him something else.

His magister halted their form, breaking away from him. Snapped: “Stop that!”

“Stop what?”

“Prodding at me like that! I told your son, and I’ll tell you; It’s rude to poke at someone else’s mind.”

“'Don’t be rude’ is Padmé’s rule, not mine. Besides, I don’t want to stop.” In fact, Anakin wanted a lot of things: to see Obi-Wan’s composure crack. To excite the air around them. To push and see what happened next. And that want was fast becoming an all-consuming drive within him.

Obi-Wan’s eyes rolled skyward. “Anakin.”

He wouldn't go further. Control over their last step lay firmly in Anakin’s hands. And he was nothing but action-bound. “Will you let me show you?”

The Jedi stilled. Questioning waves echoed off him. “Show me what?”

Anakin called the sword out of Obi-Wan’s hand. They were done with them for the morning. He was done. The anticipation was fun, but only if it found its natural end. Here, in this place that belonged to both of them, they had come to an end.

The swords were tossed aside with a careless flick. Obi-Wan’s disapproval spurred him on. He took his magister’s face in his hands, meeting that disapproval with obstinance. “Let me show you what the Force made us for.”

Anakin pressed their foreheads together before Obi-Wan could stop him. Threw open his mind. Doused everything in that hot, heady wave of demand. Parted the cagey wall of ravaged steel, and let the pages of his mind fell open.

And tumbled straight into Obi-Wan’s shields. Those tall sandstone and brick walls were as impenetrable as always. Well-guarded. Unbreakable.

He put his hands, rain-soaked and sun-warmed, on cool pale tiles. Pushed himself against them. Felt for that minuscule little fault line. Will you let me in?

Obi-Wan shuttered against him. Steadied himself in that five-beat breathing pattern Anakin lined up with so well. Started on the downbeat as Anakin rose to the tempo. A matched counter.

A warm, invisible hand slid down Anakin’s chin, a caress taken from the wind. The blue sky called, everything clear in the warm sunlight. It would be so simple, such an easy life, to curl up against this wall and absorb the constant support it offered. Stop here, the wind whispered. This is enough. More than enough.

But life wasn’t easy. Life was untamable, relentless, and driven to survive.

Anakin ran his hands down Obi-Wan’s shoulders. Pushed him down into the dirt and the damp and the intense smell of petrichor. The tension in Obi-Wan’s body wasn’t a fight--it was a stall. Waiting to see what Anakin would do. How far he would take them.

Anakin fell with him into the grass. Straddled his hips and sat in his lap to keep him in place. Linked his arms around Obi-Wan’s shoulders. Those all too confident hands circled his thighs to keep him from tumbling forward and pushing them both flat into the mess of wet, buzzing life under them.

The little fault widened to a crack. The shock of Anakin shaking it free just a little bit more.

He dug into that given fault, calling up thoughts of water and earth. Rain coming off the mountain echoed in his ears, reminding him, grounding him. The morning was already warm, humidity climbing with the sun.

He brought forth the messy green growth, planting it deep into the sliver of Obi-Wan’s mind he had worked open. He picked carefully: helix ivy and jasmine sprouted in woody, spindly branches that spread too rapidly to be pruned back. Blackberries, thorny and clingy and stubborn, lashing deep into the stone. Honeysuckle vines climbing in pungent ropes up the walls. Anakin poured everything he had into their conquest for growth, pushing them up and up.

Anakin Obi-Wan cautioned when their tenacity caught up to him. Anakin held on, pressed deep, didn’t let him set Anakin aside like he had before. If he had to cross this last step for them both, he would do it his way. He’d never pretend to be anything he wasn’t, not even for his magister.

Plants were vicious survivors. They fought for every scrap of sunlight and water they could wrangle free. They rooted, they spread, and they strove. They lived, come hell or high water. They knew what the Force wanted.

Anakin threw himself into the leaf and branch and root. Scaled the walls of Obi-Wan’s mind. Emotion, messy, intense, and inescapable, seeped in with him.

If you fall, I won’t be able to save you, Obi-Wan warned. If you fall, you could break. My shields will ruin you.

Trust me! he urged. I know you can do this with me. Passion is a risk--and it’s one the Force wants you to take. Don’t you get it? The Force wants all parts of us; our decisions and our mistakes. Our desires as well as our duty!

Obi-Wan didn’t reply. Anakin kept climbing.

Atop the first wall, he got the first good look at what he was up against. The sandstone and brick walls were only the outer layer.

A killing field awaited him. A wide swath of barren wasteland. Littered with broken bodies, covered in blood and mud. The bodies of those who tried to do what Anakin was trying to do. Those who laid siege to Obi-Wan’s mind, and had shattered themselves against his battlements. Beyond them loomed another set of walls, fashioned in marble and granite. Higher than the first. Guard towers every few meters.

How many enemies had wasted their energy and their tricks getting through the outer walls, only to come upon this proving ground? Found themselves staring down towers that boosted the higher ground and a clear line of sight. Found no place to hide, no place to run. Invaders, downgraded to simple, brutally easy targets.

Anakin looked down. Saw the bodies of the dead. Quite a few enemies, as it turned out.

You’ll hurt yourself. Obi-Wan begged. He sounded scared. Like he thought Anakin wouldn’t make it. That he’d be turned back and killed on this bloody field.

That little want for a pain-edged experience bolstered Anakin. He knew something none of these crumpled husks of vanquished enemies knew. He knew what the Force wanted. Fear and temptation. The perseverance and the deconstruction. The rebirth. He didn’t see a deadly killing field--he saw soil, fertilized and ready for planting.

That’s the point--give it your pain as well as your pleasure! The Force wants you to rip your heart out and swallow it back down with a smile if it asks you to. To tell it what life and experience look like! Survival is the only way to honor what the Force gave us! he yelled back, emotion giving power to his words.

Obi-Wan’s walls, so high and ominous, couldn’t keep out the sun and the rain. In the elements, even the most sturdy structure returned to the earth from where it came.

Anakin reached for that reclaiming earth. He brought forth tangled wisteria, weighty and far-reaching. Orange bittersweet, crawling onward in an alluring flush. Porcelain berry, ripe to be plucked. Beautiful plants all--and invasive as an army. Riots of deep blue kernels and red-orange leaves threw themselves off the outer wall and into the field. Blossomed over the rich ground in an unstoppable explosion. They wrapped themselves around every body and bone they came across, bearing them away to a place of rest. Persistent and pernicious vines ran the killing field's length, too numerous to halt, too beautiful to uproot.

The earth, reclaiming what was theirs to own. Anakin dropped onto his bed of plants and followed their work. Passed through the next layer of Obi-Wan’s mind. Came to the high marble and granite walls with the intensity of the Force carried in his heart.

What if you don’t make it? It came as a plea from above. Obi-Wan’s presence--his core being--was just behind the wall. Anakin could just make out his glowing center, protected with everything he had.

I’m coming. Wait for me, yeah? he said.

For the last wall--five-fingered ivy, with its red, red leaves as big as his hand. Bright and beautiful bougainvillea flowers. They stretched long and thick, gorgeous against the swirled blue marble. Anakin rose with them.

These walls were higher. The air thinned. The temperature dropped. The sun turned from warm yellow to blistering white. The sky lost all definition. Water was scarce in a flimsy atmosphere.

You’re so sure of that? Obi-Wan asked. Tentative. Anticipatory. Nervous. He feared Anakin would fail. And Anakin’s failure would shatter that little glow of hope that beckoned.

Yes! He pushed back. He wasn’t going to give up so close to the finish line. He changed tactics to clematis and autumn olive and kudzu and mile-a-minute. Plants that could resist the temperature change. Could adapt to the altitude.

Oh, wildheart. How deeply you believe.

It's what I’ve been trying to tell you. Believe the Force is after it all. If it wanted us perfect, it would have made us perfect. We live in conflict and blood and resistance and desire as well as harmony. It wants our fight! Duty and passion create conviction! Conviction brings us in conflict, and conflict shows us who we are! That’s what the Force wants to see!

Obi-Wan gasped under the overwhelming flood Anakin ushered in. He breathed air into their lungs and pushed on. Come on, come on, we’re so close. So close!

At the top of the wall, at the top of Obi-Wan’s world, Anakin paused. Caught his breath. Knelt. Planted batches of mint with broad leaves and fast sprouts. Broke up the marble with his bare hands to create space. Left his darlings behind with deep satisfaction. Aggressive and determined, the unassuming little herb was impossible to eradicate completely. Anakin made sure to leave his mark deep--Obi-Wan would never be without him.

He tumbled over the last of Obi-Wan’s defenses, dragging all his tangled knot of vines and flowers down with him. Rooted them deep in any space he found. They grew fast, blossoming over the brick, turning harsh, uniform lines into gorgeous reminders of survival.

These inner walls would forever remind Obi-Wan; he would never be rid of Anakin. In this inner sanctum, protected by the utmost defenses, Anakin’s touch would reign supreme. Obi-Wan would remember tea and rain. The care that came from Anakin’s hands. The oath that he had kissed into Anakin’s palms, and their dancing in the center of the storm. The sacrifice it took to bring that love to life.

Wildheart Obi-Wan said. Pleaded. He shook under Anakin’s touch.

He didn’t answer with words; instead, he pushed his roots deeper. Broke into Obi-Wan’s foundation. Found every sliver of water and light he could grasp at.

If you thought you can keep me at arm’s length, on the other side of these walls...that I wouldn’t fight for you tooth and nail, you’re wrong.

Anakin sat back. In the Force. In their skin. Obi-Wan’s beard was rough under his palms. Hands locked around his waist. Kept him firmly seated in Obi-Wan’s lap. The smell of mint was so strong he couldn’t tell where it came from. Rainwater mixed with the phantom sensation of dirt and rock over his skin.

Between them, life grew. The Force bound them together, ecstatic and greedy.

He took in their work. Growth was nothing without support. Obi-Wan’s walls bore his riot of colors, offering up his structure to give Anakin room to move. They would carry their new adornments for eternity if asked.

Blue eyes; blue skies. Anakin anointed Obi-Wan’s forehead in water and life as his fingertips traced their stunning captivation.

How could you think I wasn’t ready for you? he asked.

Obi-Wan’s hands flew over his body, frantic and unleashed. Gripped his hair. Pulled his face close. But he needed Anakin to take the last step. Needed confirmation that he hadn’t pushed Anakin into this. That he was allowed to finally have this intimacy and safety.

Anakin offered himself in kisses and touches; flexed his thighs, and skated his hands down an arched back. Reveled in the pull of his hair as Obi-Wan’s grip tightened. Slowly, oh so slowly, he drew Anakin close, fit him flush and sure in Obi-Wan’s lap. Pressed their mouths together, tentative and sweet, a dry brush of lips.

Air and sunlight caught between them, tangled.

“Wildheart--tell me,” Obi-Wan whispered between them. “You have to tell me.”

I’m ready when you are.

Obi-Wan’s kiss delved into him, slow and deep. All-consuming. Welcomed and wanted, he chased what he had deprived himself of for weeks. Anakin’s toes curled as he shuttered, held tight and safe by powerful arms.

Slowly, he untangled them. Pulled away just enough to brush their noses together. Gave himself up to the pleasurable ripples of sensations that made his vision go hazy and his breathing short. “What are you gonna do now, rulebreaker?”

He yelped when Obi-Wan pushed him down into the grass with an abrupt shove. He sprawled flat on his back as the Jedi leaned over him. Blue eyes were dark with burning want. Overwhelmed and stunned with Anakin’s success. Pride and awe exploded off his magister as he reveled in their new connection. “Let’s find out, shall we?”

Chapter Text

The mask was quiet, smothering suppression until he succumbed to complete isolation. The mountain was quiet, a fierce concentration born from violent risk and tempting death. Obi-Wan’s mind was quiet, his exquisite control offering shelter from the storm.

Anakin marveled at the sheer amount of stillness that overtook the inner sanctum. Beautifully ornate, with classic architecture setting up an airy, peaceful temple. Well, once peaceful. His roots grew deep. Moss clung to the soles of his bare feet, cushioning his steps. No voices were brought on the wind; all he could make out was running water as it tumbled down a stony river. Distantly, he thought he heard the peal of a tower bell.

He breathed in. Counted to five and waited to see what would happen.

Obi-Wan’s hand took his metal one. Even in this place, he could not imagine it to be flesh and bone. A tempo rose around them. Gentle touches urged him into position. Back straight, chin up. He wouldn’t be allowed to fall blind. Would be required to participate in every step he took deeper into this place.

The position was familiar. He couldn’t help a quick grin.

We don’t have any weapons, he said; the Dral’s form came naturally to him, in the set of his shoulders and spine. Came like grace around a Werda ready to support him. He was aware of every part of himself, concerning his counter. Knew their first steps without hesitating over propriety.

We don’t need them. Not here, Obi-Wan replied. A hand settled on his waist, brushing the delicate skin around his ribs. It wasn’t that his clothes weren’t there--it’s that they offered no barrier. His hips were drawn in, flush against his partner.

Obi-Wan slid a leg forward. Anakin responded instinctively, mirroring him in reverse. He knew how to do this, with or without a sword. Light pressure from a strong hand told him where to go. No demands, only suggestions and guidance. Being watched always made him confident. He went where he was bid with ease.

The Dral always started on the backstep--he had to grant their direction to the Werda. That didn’t matter. He trusted Obi-Wan’s hands. In their bond’s gardened walls, where silly things like physics and law held no influence, they came together. Anakin’s grace and Obi-Wan’s guidance saw them through tentative exploration.

Obi-Wan’s knee nudged between his own. Never for long; a quick break to turn Anakin or ease him back into another step. A gentle pressure, the line of their bodies meeting, separating, then meeting again. He let his body fall open and be guided. Two forces melding in the forging heat of connectivity. Almost too much to endure at their deliberate pace.

He longed to speed them up. But he wasn’t leading the form. When he tried, Obi-Wan waited him out, slowed down to spit his speed, pulled him back, and reined him in. Realigned them in the Force.

Anakin dropped his head onto Obi-Wan’s shoulder and whined. New tension awoke his body, causing him to flick, roll, and shiver in their self-styled rhythm. He stepped back and let Obi-Wan press into his space. Let his body respond to Obi-Wan’s subtle instruction without fight or argument. He had proven his point, and now he was past words. He wanted care, and he wanted elevation.

They spun together in an intricate step that tangled them close together. Obi-Wan’s lips brushed against his cheek. There’s nothing more beautiful than a dancer paired perfectly with a form

You’re just happy you get to be right.

He was long-limbed; his arm could effortlessly wrap around Obi-Wan. Drop his head onto the man’s shoulder. With the Werda leading, he only had to worry about making sure his body responded correctly to the cues he was given.

Those talented fingers took the opportunity to open him up. Untangled the knotted mix of roots and barbed wire that was the net holding him together. Smoothed down and caressed the sensitive, secret parts of his soul. Rubbed gently at his connection to the Force, like he was encouraging a slow kiss from that holy depth. Barriers were a thing of the past. Obi-Wan could rearrange the very inner workings of his mind and Anakin would thank him for it.

Focus, Obi-Wan chided softly. I won’t keep going unless you’re here with me.

I don’t feel like focusing, he responded, simply to have his difficulty sated. Then he stopped them, mid-step. Hung in the unfulfilled movement. Relished when Obi-Wan stopped with him as if stunned. But don’t think for a moment I’m not here. He wanted to exist in this place, in these hands, and set his worries aside for another time.

He was indeed indulged--his attention drifted away again under soft laughter and a gentle kiss. As you say, wildheart.

He let their steps start up again. There was nothing quite so addicting like moving in tandem. Relying on one another to find balance and the beauty of compatibility. All he saw were blue eyes and red-blonde hair. A smile just this side of wicked. All he smelled was sage and juniper, lavender and coriander.

A steady hand on his back kept him close. Set him into a new frame of mind. Obi-Wan was learning every inch of him, one beat at a time. Anakin rejoiced in his release. The freedom from responsibility. He placed himself in the care of one who deserved to have him like this.

Things became harder to track with his concerns abandoned. Anakin honestly couldn’t tell if he were clothed or naked. Upward or on his back. If they were dancing or moved on to something more intimate.

They moved, regardless. It didn’t matter that he felt a marble wall at his back, padded with dense, lush moss beds. He danced with his partner. It didn’t matter that he was stretched wide and near obscene when Obi-Wan eased into him. Rhythmic movement, from legs and hips and shared breath, all came around to the same place. Built and built, leaving him gasping and breathless.

He let go. Enjoyed being taken apart. Colors hazed. He lost track of everything else except Obi-Wan. He racked his fingers down a powerful back, made sure to leave marks. His vision darkened and narrowed down to nothing. He screamed, pleasure became overwhelming. Colors became black swirls. Warmth became unbridled heat.

When Anakin came to, his physical body ached. He was prone on the ground. Curled into Obi-Wan’s side. The man sat braced against a tree trunk. Around them, the long grass bent and swayed in a damp, misty breeze. His fingers dragged slowly through Anakin’s hair. Under them was that thick Jedi robe, spread in a layer of protection against the sticky grass.

He still had all his clothes on. They both did. How disappointing.

“How do you feel?” A hand pet back his hair. Tugged an errant curl. Redirected his eyes. Looking down on him, Obi-Wan’s expression was soft and catering.

He stretched, warm and lazy. “Can we just skip Redalur next time and go straight to that?”

“That was Redalur. I told you, there were many ways to interpret it. But that doesn’t answer my question.”

He didn’t want to talk about himself. The floating feeling he reveled in made him reluctant to examine himself too carefully. That could chase it away. “Why don’t you share first? It’s your mind we played around in.”

Hands tugged that curl. Anakin shuttered and grinned. Pushed himself up. Brought the cloak with him and wrapped it around himself.

“I feel quiet.” The constant white-hot heat of the Force felt shaded. He still knew where it was, but it wasn’t radiating down on him. Relief made him giddy. Free from disturbance. “Was that sex or meditation? I thought...” he thought it had been sex. But this place of centering had him second-guessing that. This, he hadn’t quite been expecting.

“Sex is just another layer of Redalur, according to the Mandalorians,” Obi-Wan told him. “And since the whole point of Redalur was to get you to understand peace, I can’t say I’m upset about that. Anything else?”

Anakin rolled his eyes. “I also feel like you just stole the fun right out from under me.”

“Was that not fun for you?”

“Well, yeah, but…” Anakin felt his face go red. He pressed it into Obi-Wan’s shoulder to hide his embarrassment. Everything in him was still. Peaceful. The sun was coming in, warm and welcoming.

The sun...Oh no. Anakin snapped up. Froze up. Sobered up. Reality hit faster than an electrical bolt that sent him scrambling. “Shit. The kiddos. They’re probably already up.” He cursed again. Give them a few minutes around him as he currently was, and they’d ping on the new riot of Anakin’s emotions like a weapon’s lock.

After Padmé, he hadn’t expected to feel lust and desirous want for another person, so he hadn’t really gotten around to explaining that element of humanity to them. Oh, he could just imagine the questions he was going to have to field.

“Yes,” Obi-Wan agreed, flat. Anakin’s revelation didn’t seem to disturb him much. “Whatever to do about the kiddos? It’s almost as if intimacy is a complication.”

Anakin glared at him. Scrambled for his balance. Double-checked his person for any apparent signs of disruption. “So not the point.”

“The point instead being that our desires rarely help us solve our dilemmas?” For all Obi-Wan had been enthusiastically kissing him so shortly ago, he certainly seemed smug to have his concerns so accurately brought up.

“The minute you fall asleep, I’m gonna get a marker and write ‘insufferable’ across your forehead,” he threatened. “Just you wait.”

The idle threat helped him hurdle the sudden drop in his stomach. It wasn’t just the twins--it was the rest of the day as well. He had things to do.

Yet, the sheer anxiety that came with the idea of not being around Obi-Wan. He felt raw and undefined—he needed his magister’s hands to remind him where the boundaries that comprised him lay. An ache, different from his headaches or his torments, struck deep at his core.

He didn’t want to let Obi-Wan out of his sight. Didn’t want to be unseen in turn. Didn’t want to be left alone with the overwhelming feelings rattling around inside his brain.

He knew what loneliness felt like. He didn’t want to go back to that.

A hand ran down his spine, palm first. Pulling his attention and his fear back into focus. “Take a breath.”

Obi-Wan took his wrists, metal and flesh. An accumulation of the Force coalesced under his palms, heavy and sure. Vibrated against Anakin’s skin. Sent exhilarating sparks up to his fingertips. It felt like the oath made on the mountain, all intent purpose and strict order.

When Obi-Wan released him, the traces of his presence remained on Anakin’s skin. Invisible bands circled his wrists like seamless, close-fitting bracelets. Like warmed steel, they were a distinct layer against his skin. They flexed with him when he clenched and rolled his bones. They didn’t restrain him; there was no movement they hindered, no stretch they restricted. Yet they were undoubtedly there, locked around him.

They were a firm and gentle reminder of Obi-Wan’s hands on him.

Anakin opened his mouth. Closed it when all he did was gape and sputter. His brain short-circuited, unable to come up with anything by way of protest or glee. He ran two fingers down his metal hand and forearm, tracing the radial vein’s revenant path. Like he could feel the band in the physical world, if only he pressed hard enough. But all he felt was the cybernetic prosthetic.

Fingers hooked under his chin, tilting his face up. Obi-Wan kissed him, light and comfortable. With an assurance born from the knowledge that this would not be their last kiss. A pause rather than an end.

Then he returned to the house while Anakin fought to catch his breath.

***

“Hey Skywalker,” Aelia Eudoxia called over the comm. “Remember that favor you owe me? I need a second pair of hands.”

That’s how Anakin and Ahsoka ended up in the back of an empty speeder truck that smelled of grain oils and engine grease.

When he had first landed on Nevos, the twins squalling in one hand and a silent Ahsoka in the other, overwhelmed and scared and constantly on edge, Eudoxia had taken him under her wing. Helped him get the house and the land in order. Introduced him around, so that people learned his face. Lent him food and the occasional eye to watch the younglings. Told him what vendors skimmed too much and who liked to take advantage.

When she called, he answered.

The sun had barely risen, and they were both half-asleep. Anakin let Ahsoka ride in peace and thought about the song stuck in his head. It was an old tune. He hummed it through the morning, using its pace to still his agitation. It was a slow song--he couldn’t speed it up if he tried.

He occupied two places at once: keenly aware and absentmindedly forgetful of the space around him. As a result, he felt stuck in time, pulled and pushed upon with equal force to not move. The contradiction gave him some comfort--this occupation of the uncertain and undefinable, he understood.

Across the truck, Ahsoka had a look of pure concentration on her sleepy face. She stared at him like she could produce the secrets of the galaxy from his being. The noise from the engine and the howling wind made conventional conversation impossible. So Anakin reached out. What are you thinking about?

You, she replied, frank. You seem...different. Like you’re half-complete.

Surprise was an interesting way to stay awake. Anakin pushed on. Oh?

She spread her hand out and tilted it back and forth in uncertainty. That’s not exactly what I mean. I’m trying to figure it out.

Her gaze didn’t ease up. If that was the case, he might as well help her in what she was trying to say. If he didn’t, he’d be under her scrutiny for the rest of the day.

Do you want a closer look? he offered.

She gnawed on her lip. Yeah? I mean, if you’re all right with it. I just...don’t understand what I’m seeing.

Anakin didn’t either, really. And he wouldn’t until she found the words to explain it to him. He didn’t feel any different. But it was often difficult to distinguish between the was and the will be with only his eyes to judge.

Under the fingertips of his flesh hand, pages turned. He thought of sage and mint, lemon and quartz. Circular patterns. Clean water and the satisfaction of wiping away streaks of grease and oil. Slowly, he funneled out everything else until only his link with her remained.

She stilled herself against him, waiting for his go-ahead. Under them, the speeder truck jostled. Their physical bodies moved together in the turbulence. In that shared experience, he lined them up. Placed them in a new plane.

There, physical forms were more flexible. He opened himself up to her, his energies a canvas for her to study closer—a tapestry of threads woven together, each one a new part to examine and understand.

She followed those filaments that made him up with a tentative, feather-light. It sent shivers through him, making him twitch and itch in places he couldn’t reach to soothe. He expected her to fumble through him, clumsy, if well-meaning. To prod and poke with the obliviousness of inexperience. Ahsoka had never shown an inclination towards patience on the metaphysical plane.

That wasn’t what he felt now. Her touch was considerate, thoughtful. He couldn’t deny she was there, but he didn’t feel the uncomfortable stretch of accommodating her.

She followed his surprise. What?

Your control. It’s gotten a lot better.

Jedi are good for somethings, I guess, she winked at him across the real space.

Anakin harrumphed. He may agree, but that didn’t mean he had to be graceful about it. So, what do you think? he asked when she pulled back.

I don’t really see you in detail right now. Like...when you throw a sheet over an engine, and you know it’s an engine underneath it; you know the size and the shape. But that’s about it--everything else is a mystery until the sheet comes off. That’s what you’re like right now.

Anakin didn’t quite know how to take that. He didn’t feel half-complete or troubled, only more comfortable. He had a surer clarity to himself. Headache-free for the most prolonged period in years, his energy came to him easier. Hours weren’t so much slogs as they were weeks ago. His emotions were more intense, hewed from his soul without the distraction of loss and desperation.

For a split second, all he could feel was rough sandstone and brick under his hands, cool marble at his back, hot sunbeams on his face—Mint tea and sugar in his mouth. The speeder truck rattled, shaking around him as it picked up momentum. His body phased, occupying two places at once.

Hands, kind and confident and illuminating, skated down his waist. Held him steady. Waited him out. Lips bristled by a well-trimmed beard pressed against his shoulder.

Anakin held his breath until the feeling passed, returning him to the physical world. Tapped his hands on the durasteel deck to remind himself where he was. Listened for the wind rushing by, the smell of grain oils that Eudoxia traded in.

Yeah, Ahsoka said. Like that. I saw something move under the sheet. But I couldn’t tell you what it was.

Neither could Anakin, not really. That lit him up, an urge to decode and rebuild coming upon him.

He tested his new duality throughout the day, as they lent their limbs and labor to Eudoxia. Sometimes, he could trigger the sensation; he simultaneously occupied an open wheat field while surrounded by high marble walls. Sometimes, he couldn’t. He hummed a slow, old song about three sisters and tried not to think about it all too much.

His wrists were never far from his thoughts. Obi-Wan’s touch stayed on him no matter what he did. Technically-inclined in his problem-solving, Anakin tried to deconstruct what had been done. He worked to slip a finger under the invisible band to test for any slack. But no matter how he twisted, there was no give to wriggle them off. He dragged a fingernail down them, giving it a razor-edge in the Force. The grip didn’t give to the cutting pressure.

He clenched his wrists and summoned a well of power, hot and fast. Tried to push them off from below, seeping the Force up through his skin and thrusting out. The bands expanded with him and turned malleable, letting the power pass through them and into the world without pause. Once the wave of the Force passed, they resettled as they had been, snug on Anakin. Locked in place.

Revelation left him dizzy and light-headed. His heartbeat echoed in a drumming beat through his body. His mouth was dry. Was Obi-Wan’s permission the only key to removing them? It shocked him how desperately he wanted that idea to be right.

He didn’t see the bands as a type of control. There was no domination behind the Force-touch. No demand or authority. They didn’t restrain Anakin or try to limit him. They didn’t hem him in from some actions while encouraging him to others.

They were just there and present, cinched on him. A reminder. A presence that helped remind him that he wasn’t alone in the pile of responsibilities he faced. In case Anakin thought himself forgotten, all he had to do was tap that thin layer of Force-presence.

Through it all, Obi-Wan stayed quiet.

On the trip back, Eudoxia turned control of the speeder truck over to Ahsoka, her obvious favorite. Claiming old bones, she grabbed a comfortable patch in the back and, with an affable nod to Anakin, rolled herself up in her jacket. She was asleep within minutes.

Ahsoka whistled as she set up the controls and started the engine. Anakin had gotten his old song stuck in her head, and she let the tune flow through her. She knew the words because he had taught it to her during sleepless nights and treks up the mountain. She knew to sing it slow.

That left Anakin to his own devices. For a moment, he entertained the idea of usurping Ahsoka from the pilot’s chair. Taking control and steering them home. Taking that responsibility upon himself so that he could be sure it’d be done right.

Ahsoka’s enjoyment and freedom at the helm bled into him. She was having fun. He couldn’t take that from her.

So he took a cue from Eudoxia and settled into the cargo, the full grain sacks a comfortable enough padding. The jostling of the back of the speeder truck rocked him. The humming, constant and monotonous, filled his ears. The speeder truck’s windows were heavily tinted, keeping out the weather and leaving him in low darkness.

Anakin didn’t fight as his mind wandered elsewhere. His body was sore and content with work, wonderfully aching. That ache brought him out of his physical self. Brought him a level of distance and relaxation. Brought him an impulse of raw mischief.

The bands were body-warmed. A token of the hands that had put them there. That thought alone sent him higher into his own mind.

He drew his knees up. Braced himself against them. Closed his eyes. Reached out over those sandstone and brick walls and vines walls that lay in the back of his awareness. The bells were closer this time.

Obi-Wan was leagues away and distracted by the simple task of laundry. He had taken over the chore to free up some time for their upcoming rest days. The couch was stacked high with sheets and clothes around him. Smooth, symmetrical folds occupied his hands.

He paused when Anakin came closer, hovering at his side in the Force. Through ivy leaves and sunlight and clouds, blue eyes looked up to gaze upon him with some quiet delight. He asked, how far away are you?

A few towns over. About a couple hundred leagues away, Anakin replied.

And still it’s as if you’re in the next room. How far do you think you could reach?

As far as I’ll ever need to.

Anakin moved, pushing his bubble of space wider to encompass them both. He knelt down and straddled Obi-Wan’s lap, settling comfortably onto his hips. There was a fuzzy static over his skin that made him think the Force was happy with where he had placed himself.

Real was a matter of perception. Of belief in the face of whatever tales eyes and ears wove. He could feel Obi-Wan’s body under him, his touch on him, his presence in him. Did it really matter that his physical self was leagues away?

Those hands worshiped him from his heart, down the rungs of his ribs, his waist, his hips. Appreciation was a powerful drug.

Ashoka says I’m half-finished, he reported.

Not half-finished. Changing. As we all must do. How do you feel?

You keep asking me that, he half-accused. The concern was distracting.

Because I want to know.

Anakin resisted the urge to roll his eyes, his exasperation tinting the atmosphere around them pale pink. He complied only when prodded by soft command.

I feel like things are building. The air is rising, warm and moist. Pressing into low clouds. The air that pushed up keeps getting replaced, only to join the accumulating moisture. More and more, building. If this keeps up you’re gonna have a storm on your hands.

Obi-Wan snorted. Hands tightened on him. I already have a storm on my hands. But good habits should be encouraged: thank you for the warning.

The speeder truck jumped under him, hitting a rough patch of baffled wind. “Sorry!” Ahsoka hollered back. Neither he nor Eudoxia responded. The bump rocked him into Obi-Wan’s lap, the physical taking its due from the spiritual.

He pressed their foreheads together, closing down the bubble around them. Dragged them both deeper into one another. Compressing the distance, so that only the two of them occupied any space. He was met point for point, Obi-Wan seeming to arrive at places in the Force mere seconds before he did. Knew his plan, and balanced him in it.

Anakin assumed he understood the Jedi. He thought them cold and distant and destructive to the natural flow of the Force. But this...it made him wonder just how well Obi-Wan really got what he was after. What does your Order say about sex?

Amusement warred with indulgence in a dense cloud around him. It’s complicated.

Of course, it was. Anakin didn’t know why he was surprised. He flexed his thighs, rose and fell, planted the idea of movement in Obi-Wan. A suggestion of where they could go from here. He thought about what it would feel like to ride Obi-Wan until the storm broke, scattering pressure and chaos. Everything about sex is complicated--remember what I said about progress? It’s always complicated. Sex makes us greedy, and it makes us selfless. One of those messy contradictions of living. What do they say?

Obi-Wan’s hands stayed locked on his hips, following his movement. Turned enough to press a kiss to the side of Anakin’s mouth. Sparks of affection made it real to him. It’s not banned. It’s also not encouraged.

Live and let live? I expected something more puritanical. Or at least, more chaste-enforcing. Anyone actually hold to it?

Obi-Wan didn’t reply to the taunt. Too bad, Anakin kinda wanted to know what young Jedi got up to on their own. The act itself isn’t the problem. It’s the attachments and prioritization that come with it that we’re asked to consider with great care.

Urgh. Of course. Because they couldn’t just let their instincts guide them. Everything had to be examined. Anakin was less than impressed.

Is that what you’re doing now? He asked as he dug a fingernail into that well of tentativeness. Sought out the root of what was holding them up. Considering your attachments?

Yes, Obi-Wan replied without guile. His presence came around Anakin, pulled him in. Reining him in. Keeping him contained while Obi-Wan settled them down. Regained their pace. Retook the lead between them. An invisible thumb ran down his jawline, bringing chilled bumps to his skin. You’re very easy to fall for. You have me triple-checking myself to make sure I know how I got here. How we got here.

You know what you’re doing, he said with all confidence.

There was that bemusement again. I could say the same about you.

Padmé had me well-trained. He kept note of the Force around them, curious how Obi-Wan would react to talk of Padme. He was prepared for jealousy, possessiveness, or discomfort. The handy emotions he often associated with discussions of past intimacy.

Obi-Wan surprised him—pressing up into him, shining back affection, intrigue, and not a little lust. Catching Anakin off-guard with strong arms that wound around him. She sounds amazing.

She was. You would have liked her, I think. The grief was there, but there was relief as well. It felt good to share her; recollections that Darth Sidious hadn’t managed to corrupt or twist. And Obi-Wan’s appreciative gaze made him feel like her memory was safe within their walled-off bubble.

I like what she left in you.

The best of me. And I don’t think you need to worry about attachments. I think you’re doing exactly what the Force wants you to do.

Do you now? There was that condescending tone again, equal parts curious and fussy.

Anakin pinched him for that, a pressure through the Force that left a red mark on Obi-Wan’s skin hundreds of leagues away. Yeah. You said that what we did this morning was a form of Redalur. And that Jedi aren’t usually practitioners of Redalur, because it can’t be performed alone. That’s why I asked about sex.

Keep going, Obi-Wan encouraged. His interest in Anakin’s thoughts colored the aura around them a gentle gold.

Well, Anakin parceled out his thoughts, distracted as he was by the enormity of Obi-Wan’s sheer presence around him. Sex is a form of meditation. It brings people closer to the Force. You wanna know why?

Hands slipped down to his knees where they were pressed into the couch. His feet ground into the durasteel bottom of the speeder truck. Those fingers moved inward. Made easy work of his common sense and better judgment. Why?

Because--oh, I’m not gonna keep a straight thought if you keep doing that! Anakin squirmed as delicate parts of him were teased open.

Obi-Wan smirked. It looked far too good on his face. Tell me why Anakin.

Like he was gonna turn down a challenge like that. Because--it’s an inherent conflict. Two people--or more, let’s not be limiting--exerting their wills on one another. And what you want might not line up with what you need. Though, what you don’t want is never what you need. It’s friction and--and, oh!--and conflict. And that’s how you find yourself in the Force. And that’s meditation, he shoved out his thoughts between them, desperate to ride the fingers pressing into him. They moved slow, never pushing for more than a distraction. Not preparation for anything larger.

You think sex is a Sith plot? Obi-Wan’s amusement was green and glowing. When Anakin bore down, he eased back, never rising above that gentle touch.

Anakin was losing his mind. But damn if he would lose the argument. He pushed for his words even as he broke down under that gentle touch.

I think sex is proof that the Force talks to us in a lot of different ways. Because what good does it do to be spoken to on the same template, over and over? Sure as hell don’t work on the kiddos, so why would it work on the Force?

Obi-Wan’s fingers slipped in. Teased at raw and eager spots inside him. Eased out again in a mocking of what Anakin really wanted him to do.

I’ve found a flaw in your logic, his rulebreaker whispered.

Did you? he gasped, half an accusation. He was messy and scattered and quickly losing focus for this damn Jedi to be sounding so put together. But the further Anakin tipped into chaos, the more in control Obi-Wan seemed to become.

That just made everything even more intense. He stroked something profound and burning in Anakin to know he didn’t have to think about what was happening. All he was being asked to do was react and yearn.

Yes. You say sex is two--or more--people exerting their wills on one another. Like they have disparate goals that create conflict. But I would disagree with that. My only goal in this is you--your pleasure, your enjoyment. That’s not a disparate goal; in achieving yours, I render mine successful.

Anakin’s brain shorted out. His point was gone from his grasp. What if I want it to hurt? he scrambled for, pulling back the conversation’s tide by stubborn tenacity, unwilling to give up entirely.

You don’t, Obi-Wan replied, as sure as the sun.

He rolled his eyes skyward. Whether through exasperation or delight was up for debate. Not--ah!--not even going to entertain me for the sake of argument?

The hypothetical? All right; any version of you that wanted this to hurt--wanted it to be vicious and dominating and brutal--would have to find a version of me that wants to hurt you. You’d have to come to me, just like you did now. But, if you ever found that version, you’d never go near him.

You sure? A darker version of you would be pretty hot.

Speculation turned his eyes a crystal shade of blue. Anakin made a pleading noise when those fingers disappeared from him. Don’t move.

Anakin stilled. Tensed when the ghost of movement passed over his neck. Obi-Wan’s presence became a band around his throat, sitting much like the ones on his wrist. Warm and undeniable. Inescapable, resting heavy on the delicate notch between his collarbones. Pressing just enough to make him aware of every breath and swallow. Unlike the ones at his wrists, this one was not meant as a passive reminder. This was an active demand for attention.

His blood screamed at the vulnerable predicament--that power could do such damage so swiftly if they choose. Ruin Anakin with a word and a twist of power. Bring him low and force control from him. No!

Contradictory, his body throbbed, hot and begging. His bones locked up in thrilling desire. The very thought of being so held by someone like Obi-Wan made him weak in the knees and breathless with unholy delight. Oh, yes.

He hung between those two warring impulses, letting them override him from the inside out. Reveled in the uncertainty of what he wanted. Passion was a multicolored confluence of emotions around them.

The band hummed against his skin, driving him into oversensitive fits. His intuition demanded he move, fight, struggle. That he defend himself from the rise of nervous sensations and adrenaline-laced reactions. From the peril of control lost. Countering that, exerting to keep him still and well, was his confidence in Obi-Wan’s kindness and judgment. His magister didn’t threaten. He didn’t coerce. And that belief nailed him to stillness until he was ordered otherwise.

The conflict built in him, sending him higher into the Force. Tossed him around in the currents like rushing water. It wasn’t fear that flooded him; it was sweet, gut-wrenching, overwhelming anticipation. The kind that could overwrite everything else, dominating all his focus. His resistance was useless in his own hands. He wanted to see what would happen next.

Obi-Wan wouldn’t abuse this, of that he was sure. He wouldn’t hurt Anakin like that. It seemed antithetical to everything that he regarded himself as, to mistreat someone in his safekeeping. With that firm in his mind, he let go of any concern and embraced that riotous chaos of his emotions.

Are you all right with this? Obi-Wan didn’t ask--asking implied an option to stay silent. His tone was absolute and brooked no argument. Anakin would answer him in truth.

For now. Whatever he was, he wasn’t unhappy or scared. He was on edge, though. More aware. The storm built in him.

The humming continued to travel the band and rattle him, unabated. Why? I sense how tense you are. You know how vulnerable this makes you. Anakin swallowed--Obi-Wan’s grip tapped at the cartilage in his throat when it bobbed. He was right that Anakin felt intensely exposed. Unable to stop whatever Obi-Wan wanted to do. Hot desire welled up, slamming against him like a wave. He couldn’t hold it off.

So he embraced it.

Because I trust you, he laid out against the hot pressure on his skin.

Obi-Wan’s eyes went wide--adoration and care blossomed around them. The band around his throat vanished. With it went Anakin’s control. He cried, reckless for satisfaction, for a want to be taken apart.

That smooth, beautiful voice rang in his ears, the only thing he could hear: Any version of me that’s so dark--that’s so corrupted--as to want to hurt you would be smart. Strong. Powerful. But that version of me would no longer understand trust. Without trust, you would never come to me.

Anakin gasped, riding out the shaking in his bones. Obi-Wan held him through it. You believe the Force made us to survive life. That it demands a fight from you on everything from pleasure to meditation. So you see sex as a battlefield, where you have to look out for yourself because no one else will.

Soft warmth touched every part of him. As inescapable as the bands on him, as welcome as anything he’d ever known. I believe it made us to discover the deepest, most essential parts of life: trust is one of them. But I don’t think you’re entirely wrong--built on trust, sex can indeed be a form of meditation. And rest assured, Anakin. I will never leave you to look after yourself like this.

Physical bodies didn’t matter anymore. Anakin let Obi-Wan shred him like sunlight through thin clouds, penetrating at will. Warp him and change him, happy to be cared for so. He derailed. He didn’t even regret it. He couldn’t remember his point anymore--he just wanted to have more of this without consequence or fear.

Imploding stars didn’t carry as much energy as Anakin did when he came. Obi-Wan’s hands raked up and down his back. Held him through it. His presence bordered Anakin’s, letting him feel the scattering of his very self while ensuring it wouldn’t fling him unguarded to the far corner of the Force.

Anakin didn’t know where he was. That didn’t matter. He knew who he was with; someone he trusted—someone who wouldn’t take advantage when he was lethargic and sluggish with lovely feelings of release.

How do you feel?

Urgh. Not this again.

What are the others? he asked instead. You said you’re searching--what other meaningful parts of life have you found?

I’m still learning them all; I only know a few. Compassion, for one. Peace, another.

Love?

Obi-Wan hesitated. Love is complicated.

As complicated as sex? Contentment hung comfortable off his bones. He didn’t feel like moving.

That didn’t mean he was gonna let Obi-Wan have this, uncontested. Fucking was one thing, if that was what they had done. Concession was another concept entirely, and not one Anakin cared to experience. Sated, his appetites, for conflict, for heat, for attention, wanted more.

In all things, Obi-Wan indulged him.

Even more. Love can make us greedy and narrow-sighted. It’s impossible to choose the greater good when you prioritize the one. But love for a singular being can move us to wonders--wasn’t your love for your family that drove you away from the Sith?

It drove me away from my old Master. Anakin pushed himself up. Regained himself enough to see Obi-Wan through the blur of his eyelashes. He knew their golden hue well. Look at me and tell me I’ve given up the Sith.

Obi-Wan’s expression was full of consideration. Anakin became the focal point of all his speculation, like seeing another dimension for the first time. Do you want to? Give the Sith up, I mean? I’m not entirely sure you do. Sometimes, when you speak of the Force and what you know of it, I wonder if these are the things you’ve been taught to think or genuinely believe what you say. Is it the Sith you think about when you tell me of the Force?

The speeder truck slowed under him. Ahsoka called back to him. Eudoxia jumped awake. The real world called Anakin back. He kissed Obi-Wan on the nose and took the out without answering.

His limbs, physical and complex, shook with the aftermath of pleasure.

***

“I’m gonna stay in town tonight,” Ahsoka said when they returned. Anakin turned worried, slightly guilty eyes on her.

“You don’t hav--,” he started. Her sharp smile cut him off at the pass.

“I want a night out, Skyguy. And I think you and ol’ Ben could use a night in. Do yourself a favor and send the tinies to bed early.”

Anakin blushed down to his roots. Her laughter rang in his ears as she disappeared into the budding nightlife of the small hub town.

He blocked her advice out as best he could because going straight home wasn’t an option; first, the local schoolhouse. His pair of supernovas were tuckered out when he came to pick them up after a day of lessons and play. They were all yawns and slumped shoulders when he pulled the speeder up to the gates, their intense energies were worn down.

“Hey kiddos,” he muttered as he picked them up, one in each arm. A slight boost with the Force helped him keep his balance. He still only pulled it off because the two of them were so small--he suspected they had inherited Padmé’s height. Shortstacks, the lot of them.

Soon--too soon--they’ll have grown out of this, out of easy hugs and cuddles and unadulterated, affectionate love. Anakin had to enjoy it while he could.

Luke laid his head on Anakin’s shoulder and promptly drifted into silence. Leia was little better, drowsily fiddling with the fastenings on his tunic. He kissed the crowns of their tangled hair and nodded to their instructor.

To the boat, I was led,” he sang under his breath as he loaded them onto the speeder, both of them in front of him so he could keep them steady. “As we approached I turned and said--,”

“You gotta start from the beginning, Dad,” Leia told him while checking the chin strap on Luke’s helmet. They had heard him sing this song before.

“So demanding,” he grumbled. Ever the sucker, he began again at the top. He sang to them in the Force on the way home so that the wind couldn’t steal his words. Three sisters came to me last night.

They were both ready to be done for the day by the time he got them home. Obi-Wan was there to help him unload, taking Leia in his arms as Anakin wrangled Luke. The sight of his child in this man’s arms, peacefully content and sleepy, did something to the welter of emotions in his chest. Obi-Wan combed Leia’s wild hair, muttering to her about nothing as she flopped in dramatic fashion in his grip.

“Ahsoka decided to make a night of it in town. I was thinking of making it an early night for them,” he said, a tentative offer to explore childless opportunities.

“The prerogative of the young,” Obi-Wan replied like it was nothing that they were alone in the house. Like Anakin’s nerves weren’t strung as taut as a harp’s.

Well, sort of alone. Artoo was a constant around them. Buzzing in and out of the room just as Anakin got comfortable in his skin. The little droid tutted around the twins, whirling between nanny and shepherd and chef with the happy buzzing of one comfortable being in charge. Anakin left the marshaling of his family in those capable circuits.

They ate on the living room floor. Through the meal, Leia had picked up the tune again, humming the words under her breath. “One of Love, said the first, the most noble aim on earth.

“What is that song?” Obi-Wan asked. “I don’t think I’ve heard it before.”

Leia, energized by food and sensing an opportunity to explain something their wise and all-knowing guest didn’t know, launched into an explanation before Anakin could think better of it. “It’s an old song! From way back when--Dad taught it to us.”

Blue eyes pinned him down. “Really now. Can you sing it for me?”

“Gremlins,” Anakin tried to warn, but there was no stopping them when they wanted to show off. Leia hummed the tune until she found the beginning of the melody, such as it was. His daughter opened her mouth and sang a song Anakin thought of as hallowed.

“Three sisters
Came to me last night
Last night.
They said there’s a boat on the shore
A gas lantern and one oar for your trip.”

He wasn’t sure how Obi-Wan was going to handle this...

“Go home
and tell your mother don’t
Don’t weep for me.”

Luke kept the beat for her, clapping the baseline of the song--but was too fast. Anakin didn’t blame them for that. They were children; they were all youth and optimism and endless sunlight. To them, the lyrics were the most crucial part, the melody a byproduct, and the beat an afterthought. They didn’t understand what a dirge was.

Well, if they were going to sing it, they may as well sing it right.

He snapped his mechanical fingers, bringing Luke’s beat and Leia’s singing down to a more paced tempo. Sang the next verse himself, so they could remember that their enthusiasm shouldn’t overtake the purpose.

“Leave everything you have there
For beasts of the field and birds of the air
To trample and steal.”

“Three sisters!
Tell me what you’re called
your name by men.”

The energy on his wrists was still and quiet while he snapped.

Luke readjusted, bringing his claps in with Anakin’s time. Leia picked up the next lines, more confident now that she knew she had her father to fall back on if she mixed up the words.

“Want of Love, said the first,
the most noble aim on earth.
And I’m known by all.”

“Want of Wealth, said the next,
so your work’s not meaning less.
And I’m loved by most.”

His favorite two verses: they spoke deeply to him. Love was the noblest aim he could ever aspire to. It had moved him to unprecedented heights; he had taken on the most terrifying forces in the galaxy for love. And how could he not cherish a want of wealth for his work, after the years of slavery that ripped his labor from him without redress?

Those verses sounded like all kinds of movement and grace from his daughter’s voice. Just as he always thought of them. He gave the song back to them, confident they could finish it out now that they had mellowed.

“Want of None, said the third,
as her sisters’ faces turned.
And they seem to forget me.”

“With one of us you must sail.
It’s always been and always will.
Though no one’s ever told you.”

In the pauses, a melody built in place of the storm. It didn’t occupy the air around them. It sat in the Force, a single string of harmony working in time to Luke’s clapping. One that mourned and treasured and hovered around them all.

Obi-Wan heard it. Looked around, like he could follow the music. Then he traced it back to its source. His gaze fell on Anakin with something resembling enlightenment.

“My mother lived alone.
So I have no need of love.
And I have no wish to conquer man
I see no need for needy friends.”

“The sisters laughed.
There’s truly nothing that you need
You won’t miss us when we leave.
And I cast them out.”

Anakin didn’t move. Didn’t speak. Didn’t breathe. This song always gave him sorrow, ever since he had learned it. Only in the last four years did it also give him hope. Like holy words, like Padmé’s speeches, like Obi-Wan’s instruction, it froze him up. Stilled that familiar rage in him. Gave him something otherwise unobtainable on his own.

He hoped Padmé could hear them.

“To the boat, I was led.
As we approached I turned and said.
Wait. I need some oil.”

“I said to light the lamp I need some oil.
To steer the boat I need two oars.”

Luke stopped clapping, releasing the noise into the Force. Leia sang the last words unwavering, sending them after her brother’s rhythm. His two suns, his everything. They touched power like it was a plaything and walked away unscathed. He was so proud of them.

He took up the last line. Finished what his kids started.

“The sisters said: Money can buy you oil, and a friend can man an oar.” The lesson hung in the air. “Good job, gremlins,” he told them, soft. Came over and kissed both their tangled crowns of hair. “It’s bedtime now.”

For once, they didn’t argue. The song had slowed their energy, brought them tired bones and sleepy minds. Luke was already half-asleep when Anakin tucked them in. He kissed them again in good night and wished them sweet dreams.

Downstairs, his loving interrogator waited. There was no avoiding it, so like any good Sith, Anakin embraced it. He took the couch opposite him and picked at the leftover food. He wanted nothing more than to take Obi-Wan’s hand and led the man upstairs. Finish what they had started the first time they saw each other across the water-logged courtyard. To rise and tumble and fall between the space they opened together.

But Obi-Wan wasn’t him. He needed answers, needed understanding. He ate knowledge like fire. And he couldn’t--wouldn’t--give Anakin what he wanted until he understood exactly what was being asked of him.

The only problem was that Anakin didn’t quite know how to explain. The best he could do was shovel all he thought into a pile and shove it at Obi-Wan. Let all that towering intellect piece it together into something reasonable.

“They seem to think that’s a happy song,” Obi-Wan observed.

“It can be, sometimes,” Anakin replied. “I make them sing it slow. I mean for it to be lingered over.” He shrugged. They would understand eventually--once they saw more of life. Gained more experience and saw how sometimes, it felt good to be sad about things. He couldn’t say he was in too great a hurry for that to happen.

Obi-Wan was still looking at him, his expression overcome with the puzzle of it all. Compassion and consideration blended to devastating effect, bringing his entire being into beautiful composition, like an engine primed and worked to a perfect purpose. “It’s an old song--and one with a great deal of power. I could feel that while they sang. The Force...the Force was listening to them perform it. Anakin--the Force came to a standstill when you picked up the song.”

“It’s the conflict inherent in life. Travel with a Want of Love, or a Want of Wealth, but never with a Want of None,” Anakin recited like it was chapter and verse. “In that way lies failure. It was sung in what were once divine Sith Temples all around the galaxy.”

Obi-Wan’s opinions shifted across his face, held at bay by politeness alone. The word Sith always brought him up, those magnificent walls rising to meet an enemy. Anakin hoped they were ready for this conversation.

“I notice a Want of Power isn’t among your Three Sisters. And yet seems very prevalent amongst the Sith Lords I’ve met.”

“You haven’t met a Sith Lord. Not really,” he grumbled around a derisive snort. When he was sure of something, he saw no reason to mask it.

“You don’t think so? No--no, you don’t think so...no fourth sister,” Obi-Wan descended on the puzzle, his face eerily reminiscent of Leia when she solved things. “That’s not a mistake of the song, that’s a mistake of my assumptions, it’s it? You’ve never wanted power. Because that’s not what it’s about for you. Not really. Something tells me you would travel with a Want of Love.”

Anakin set aside the plate. Ahsoka had a bottle of wine hidden around here, he knew. He wondered how many floorboards he’d have to pry up to find it. “I’ve traveled with both. Wealth is as complicated a notion as love and sex.”

“Where did that song come from, Anakin?”

He thought about his answer, considering the Jedi across from him. He trusted this man. With his children, with his sort-of apprentice, with his hearth and home. With his body. With his sanity. That made him want to try at an explanation, even if he were to fail as he had so many times before. Obi-Wan brought him peace and security. He wanted to offer something in return, and all he had was information.

But he couldn’t do it this far away. He couldn’t do it on his own--it was too big. Hesitation tasted something awful on his tongue, stall and sour.

So he rejected it. Before he could second-guess, he slipped off the couch. Slid across the floor. Curled up in the space between Obi-Wan’s knees. His wrists sparked with fluttering sensations as he ran his fingers down Obi-Wan’s calves to rest on his ankles.

He looked up, hoping against all hope that Obi-Wan understood his wretched devotion, tattered as it was. Pressed it into the confident hands that cradled his face. Fingers ran through his hair. It was easier to talk this way. Easier to set the burden of responsibility and worry off and not fear his thoughts.

“I tell the twins a story sometimes,” he whispered, eyes half-closed. “About a group of people who had no name. We’d call this group a society because it fulfilled the one purpose of society--it looked after the children who found their way there. Children who knew suffering and pain and confusion in the Force. This unnamed society taught them strength in the conflict, in the fight. How to find peace in the storm.

“One day, a different group of people showed up. These people were not children--they were Jedi. Only these Jedi weren’t in search of the greater meanings in the Force. They were after cold knowledge. They were after brutal power. And they brought corruption in them.”

Obi-Wan squinted in middle distance, just over Anakin’s head. A gentle tap at the joint of his jaw urged Anakin’s mouth to part. “Do you mean the Dark Jedi? They were banished from our Order long ago for rejecting the teachings of their Masters.”

“Dark or no, they were still Jedi. They introduced...structure. Rules and discipline. Masters and apprentices. Very Jedi practices. I guess they couldn’t separate themselves from their old ties. They enforced systems in place of intuition. Our unnamed society didn’t stand a chance in the face of such order. Which eventually became an Order. And thus were born the Sith.”

Obi-Wan said nothing. So Anakin kept going.

“That place in the Force still calls to those who need it. It still calls to me. I carry a legacy. Not to Sidious and Dooku, but to that unnamed society that never got a chance to become what it should. The song that’s in my head is a part of that legacy. I found it in the old ways, when I was on the Outer Rim hunting down Maul. Certain places would call to me. Overgrown meadows and rivers and trees. I’d sleep around them, and hear their voices in my dreams.”

“What do they sound like?”

“Like bells.” Obi-Wan’s hands were heavy and still on him. He absorbed that support like a parched desert absorbed floodwaters. “The Jedi ruined the Sith before they were ever really the Sith. And yet here I am, body and soul trusted to you. I wonder if they’re ashamed of me.”

Another tap, this time on his cheekbone. “If what you say is true--”

“You doubt me?” Dark humor curled around him. He didn’t accuse, he challenged. An offer for the fight. For nothing else but the sheer, fucking delight of the argument.

“If what you say is true,” Obi-Wan continued around his interruption, “it wasn’t the Jedi who ruined this society of the Sith, it was the degradation they brought by those who rejected the Jedi’s principles. And your unnamed people suffered from that risk as well--love and wealth are two of the most corrupting ideas in existence. They move people to great heights, but can drag them lower than any vice. It’s…” Obi-Wan trailed off.

Looked at Anakin. Those blue eyes were bright and vibrant. They pulled him, dragging him along a path of curiosity. “It was...it was corruption that destroyed your unnamed society. Just as distrust corrupts the Jedi, power corrupts the Sith. Love tainted by power is possession. Wealth tainted by power is greed. Just as those Dark Jedi corrupted my Order’s ideals, so too, they did yours.”

The bands on his wrists sang. The Force flexed and flowed around them, excited. Clung to a razor-thin edge, waiting to see which way they would fall.

He didn’t know if Obi-Wan felt the change. His attention was taken up with the implications Anakin had presented him with. “The Jedi can wield power because they can be trusted to give it up when necessary. We are benevolence and charity. We are order in the Force. We are beings of service, to ourselves, and to the living galaxy. But the Sith,” he looked around the house as if seeing the natural chaos for the first time. “The Sith must not be an Order, they must be a society. Applied to an institution, the Sith become...what they are now. That’s what you’re trying to tell me.”

Freedom broke like joy in Anakin. Relief was sweet on his tongue. Obi-Wan understood. The Force was content. And he was cherished. That was all he could ask for. “Well, you said it much prettier than I’ve ever managed. But...yeah. Something like that.”

Compassion flooded through the Force around Obi-Wan. Clear like water and sunlight. His aura vibrated silver and cyan with the excitement of his realization.

“This is your core, isn’t it, wildheart? What you’re fighting for, here in this place. Friction and conflict to keep power--corruption--at bay. Because peace and inner tranquility do little against the abuses of institutional power. How do you reconcile internal unity with an external foe?” He breathed out. Anakin took it in on the five-count.

“Yes,” he said. It was the answer to a dozen questions between them. “You have your answer, Jedi. Yes, I fight to keep the dead alive--the old Sith, my mother, Padmé, I forget none of them. Yes, I want you. Yes, you have me, in every way. Yes, the secrets of the galaxy are yours to explore at your leisure. Now,” One. Two. Three. Four. Five. “Will you take me to bed, rulebreaker?”

Obi-Wan leaned down and kissed him, the tide breaking over the floodgates.

There, on the living room floor, on a night full of rainwater, mist, and moonlight, two opposing forces finally came together. Their world collapsed down to the common room, the couch, the floor. Clothes disappeared under eager fingers--they were no barrier now, just padding.

Obi-Wan was a blanket of warmth up his body as he explored in his own time. Anakin emboldened each touch with soft cries and groans, freely voicing his enjoyment. Letting him hear what his actions brought. The bliss they wrought together in finally having this.

Hands held him down. Lips explored his chest, his hips, nipped at the back of his knees. Left him wet and greedy for more. He could chase that greed, running it down like a pack animal. Wrestle it free and horde it to him.

But he had to be careful. Anakin knew that like it was written in fire across his eyelids. If he did break, if he did chase his own release without consequence, Obi-Wan would let him. Would abandon himself and his desires in a heartbeat to see Anakin though. He’d probably even smile when he did it.

He writhed in Obi-Wan’s hands, fighting with himself. There was power to be taken in the divide running through him. In the pull of impulses, tearing him apart like molten rocks, ran golden fire through his blood. He plunged into it, taking comfort in the uncertainty. What he wanted wasn’t what he needed.

Since he could not let himself be dragged down, he had to rise higher. Into the Force he went, pulling with him all his tangled expressions of love. Let himself be explored in that deliberate pace, at the mercy of Obi-Wan’s authority.

“Keep going, keep going,” he begged when lips and hands and body paused. He lay on his back, on the floor amongst the disarray of his home. Cradled Obi-Wan between his long bare legs. Safe in Anakin’s space. “Whatever you want--it’s yours, please keep going.”

Oh, that smirk belonged on Obi-Wan’s face for how naturally he seemed to wear it. “You think I’d leave you like this?”

“No—no, you’d never,” and he believed it to his soul.

That earned him a fierce kiss that left him hard and gasping. His body screamed for release, uncaring of any profound connection. His mind, pushed so far from his lust, descended onto a place of high euphoria. But it was too soon. He didn’t want to end this yet--couldn’t ask Obi-Wan to put off his own satisfaction for the sake of petty and impatient completions. Addicted as he was to the divine building of his magister’s rapture, he pushed off his release. Held himself in suspension, pulled his conflicting pursuits into him to fuel his communion.

A voiceless presence kissed the back of his skull.

What do you want?

Him!

And what do you need?

...him.

Then allow yourself him. And never again be alone, child of mine.

The Force imploded in Anakin, detonating in great, sweeping waves. Welled up around him like an overflowing glass. Seeped into the cracks and crevasses of his soul. Bubbled hot and encompassing, wiping away all other concerns and fears. Opened up something within him that rooted deep and grew tall. Grew strong. Took up space in him with worship where once there had been nothing but pain and humiliation.

“How much longer can I keep you like this?” Obi-Wan asked, awed.

Anakin knew he could take as much as was asked of him. However much would make Obi-Wan happy and joyous in this moment. If it pleased him to take Anakin higher and push him even further, he would gladly accept it and plead for more.

His own pleasure was an afterthought, now. His pressing need to chase it dulled down into something warm and simmering. Something he wanted to revel in. Not something to be brought to a quick end. He moved his hips in small circles, asking for more. He could take so much more before he broke.

“As long as you’ll ever need to,” he replied, breathless. “Please, oh! Rulebreaker, please, more--that feels amazing--”

“I’ve got you,” Obi-Wan assured. “Come with me, just a bit more.”

Anakin responded without hesitation. He trusted Obi-Wan to lead him through the thralls of the building storm to release. In his trust, there was assurance. He would not be left behind. He would not be exiled to look after himself. Obi-Wan would not abandon him once he got what he wanted.

To prove his belief, Anakin gave himself over to Obi-Wan’s wishes. Gave himself to the rhythm and flow of the slow-burning fuck he laid into them. Offered himself up for use without thought to his own wants. Bowed his head and set aside his own greedy demands. Abandoned the conflict that his soul called for to give Obi-Wan the all and the every.

Those strong arms were iron bands around him. Keeping him in place. His will turned pliant, his body shaking. It felt so good, put all his daydreams and imaginations to pale shame. Anakin let his magister, his rulebreaker, his guide, his heart, find the secrets the Force laid hidden inside him. Opened his thighs and let himself be taken in coveted adoration.

“Come on, I want you, please, let me give you this,” he begged when Obi-Wan entered him. “You’re close, you’re so close. Take what you want-—anything you want, it’s yours.”

He urged him on with body and voice. With every trick of allure he knew to bring someone low in beautiful surrender. Obi-Wan was so close to understanding. Yes, he knew shielding and guidance and peace of mind. He knew endless duty and wondrous control. He knew peace in the singular, in the lonely walk of life.

But in this, Anakin had the right of it. When the Force communed like this, in breath and heat and sweat, it fogged everything else in a pleasure so intense that he heard and obeyed without question. It wanted him to open himself up to Obi-Wan. To show him how physical passion combined with devotion to create new voices and sensations. It wanted his acceptance channeled through Anakin and dispersed into the Force.

If it was only the negative--the fear, the pain, the doubt, the convoluted, twisted falls of emotion that came from uncertainty--that were released into the Force, it would be a sad galaxy indeed. It had created them to live, and it wanted to know what that felt like. To live was to need, but it was also to want. That, Anakin understood.

He sobbed with something near delight when Obi-Wan took him again and again. Slow and deep. Inescapable. His toes curled as he locked his ankles around Obi-Wan’s waist. “That’s it, that’s it, just like that,” he whispered. “It’s yours, it’s all yours.”

Hands, real and physical and undeniable, slipped up his arms. Encircled his wrists over his head with shaking fingers. “Mine,” he whispered. “You’re all mine, do you say?”

“Always.” It wasn’t impulsive when Anakin meant it with all his heart. His body raged with want and revelry; his mind was caught up in the stormy sky of the Force. Floating between the two, he gave all away and waited to be granted salvation.

Obi-Wan pushed his wrists down into the floor. Brushed his bristled lips against the shell of his ear. Whispered in that beautiful voice: “Then give me what I want. Give me you.”

Anakin came with a scream. He didn’t try to muffle it. Quaked on Obi-Wan’s length and shook down to his roots. His body reacted without his input, primed to follow this man’s orders. There was nothing but the storm in front of his eyes. Nothing but marble and granite and beautiful designs under his fingers. Nothing but mint leaves and sugar in his throat. Nothing but Obi-Wan’s name on his tongue.

He wouldn’t have it any other way.

***

Anakin cracked an eye open. Like it or not, Obi-Wan had gotten him into the habit of early morning wake-up calls. The sun had not yet risen; false dawn was nearly upon them. The hour was serene and withdrawn, only early birds called out.

His body was sore and exhausted and well-used. It felt wonderful. All the bedding he had been hoarding on the couch for the past weeks had been pulled around him. Cushions and clothes made for just as comfortable a place as his bed. The crux of his thighs was tacky from a mix of things; he smelled of aloe cream and dried sweat.

Obi-Wan sat just out of reach, cross-legged with closed eyes. Wearing little and saying nothing. His eyes were closed, his breath even. Anakin appreciated the view.

“What are you doing?” he asked, quiet. Respectful, almost. Or at least as respectful as Anakin was ever going to get.

Obi-Wan opened an eye to him. “Meditating. You left quite a mess in your wake.”

“I’ll leave you to it,” he replied, defiantly returning to rest before anything as tedious as isolated meditation could be dropped upon him.

That earned him a small smile. A prod to arise. He grumbled as he was forced back into awareness. “Wake up, Anakin. There is something I need you to see. You haven’t looked to your own shields recently, have you?”

“What about them?”

“Look at them. Tell me what you see.” Defeated, he sat up, in the Force and in the world. Ran a sleepy, callous eye over the mental barriers of his mind as he was instructed.

They had always been haphazard. Put down as needed, rather than organized into any strict defense. As in all things, instinct and a desire to survive drove him. He had picked what he thought would keep oil and rust out and left them to the task without much oversight—a barren and unforgiving battlefield, ready to tear an enemy apart.

That was no longer the case.

The barbed wire was gone. So were the ragged sheets of slapped together durasteel. No more trenches, no more landmines. None of what he once thought would be dense enough to protect him.

In their place was a wall of sandstone and blue-veined marble arched into an entryway. Not the double walls of Obi-Wan’s intimidating defenses. Instead, the stone and marble bent into an elegant curve, leading anyone who came into them.

Then they twisted. Then they split. Circled back on one another. Baffled the mind and tempted one to get lost in their depths with no way out. Where once Anakin’s inner defenses had been a chaotic and slapdash affair, now they were...they were perilous. They were effective. Elusive and incomprehensible to a foreign presence.

How could these possibly be his? He was never this organized.

What is this? he asked, amazed. A presence, welcoming in every way, came up behind him. These new walls did nothing to keep his magister out.

A maze, Obi-Wan deduced. There were no straight lines; things twined and deviated at random. Helix ivy and jasmine (personal favorites of Anakin’s), slowly grew along the arched roof lattices. Fields of mint and red clover and moss made for soft beds under his bare feet.

Did you or I do this? he wondered. This didn’t feel like something he could do.

I honestly don’t know, wildheart.

Well...Anakin couldn’t fully explain what happened last night. Dizzy and heady in the Force, maybe this was something he could do. Because, he realized as he moved through the walls, he instinctively knew the path inward. Obi-Wan followed at a respectful distance, only coming in when Anakin all but dragged him there.

He bobbed and ducked through the maze. Obi-Wan followed, content to be led by his hand.

For all his defenses had been mended, his inner sanctum was the same: the massive, vellum and leather-bound book awaited them. He didn’t pick it up. Didn’t protest when Obi-Wan did.

His damn rulebreaker turned the book over in his hands. Fingered the recently installed lock upon its cover that popped open when he asked it to. Opened it--the new spine cracked in pleasant ways as it was stretched for the first time. Once held together by sheer stubbornness and strained thread, the pages passed undisrupted and in natural order under his fingertips.

Anakin shivered as the most delicate parts of him were handled with care and love. He felt no pain. No throbbing headache.

There are still broken pages here, Obi-Wan muttered when he reached the book’s back.

Those are never going away, Anakin replied with all confidence. How could they? They were a part of him. But not all of him anymore.

Obi-Wan returned the book to him. Stepped back with a look of careful consideration on his face. Do you know what this means?

It’s nothing I didn’t already know.

You really do believe so easily...Come. There’s something else I want to show you. Obi-Wan seemed displaced by something. Not uneasy, but occupied.

Anakin let himself be pulled. Following along through a link that was much easier to transcend than climbing over and across high stone walls himself. His vines and roots and flowers were still there, draped across the walls of Obi-Wan’s defenses. But things had been reshuffled. Replanted in a more orderly fashion. Aligned with lattices and given light and water. There was even a greenhouse, a beautiful octagonal thing with wooden struts and delicate details inlaid in the glass.

In Anakin’s mind, Obi-Wan was dressed in his pale robes, clean and orderly. In his own place, he wore work clothes. Stood knee-deep in water with earth on his hands and his sleeves rolled up. Sunlight reflected off his red-gold hair. Anakin grinned--the sight of the man so covered in dirt and life pulled him in and amused him to no end.

You’ve cleaned up.

I surely wasn’t going to leave the chaos you brought in to expound upon itself. And I found something interesting while I went about my cleaning. Here.

Anakin followed him through the inner sanctum. While it didn’t quite look the same, it surely felt the same. The same warmth and comfort, the same perceptions of security and safety and care. Nothing he did not want could touch him here.

Obi-Wan brought him to a tree. A live oak stretching far and wide, the branches stumbling into the ground to become roots. The leaves were in full bloom. It did not matter that the tree defied the boundaries of the space. It rooted there all the same. Beautiful and imposing. Anakin put a hand on its trunk.

And felt a hand on him—a spectral presence.

Anakin pressed. And felt the pressure pushing against him. Like someone was trying to shove him over.

This is me, he whispered in surprise. This is me, planted in your mind.

A direct link to you, yes. A line to everything you are, hidden here behind my walls. But that’s not all.

He touched the tree over Anakin’s hand, brushing gentle fingers across knuckles and knots. Anakin felt the touch within him--Obi-Wan’s grip on him, inside of him. And there...he seized up, in the Force and in life, as Obi-Wan stroked down an intimate and unimagined part of him. Lingered right on his connection with the Force. On that cord of power that could so instantly burn someone to dust.

Obi-Wan tapped into that well of potential. All that energy and ability, funneled through him, suddenly at Obi-Wan’s beck and call. The promise of control over everything that made Anakin who he was.

“You could create whole empires with that,” he whispered. Real words, spoken with tongue and breath. He took air in; Obi-Wan released it. Count to five, understand what this was. “Rule by right of conquest--no one could stop you.”

Obi-Wan’s image, enthroned atop the pinnacle of Anakin’s orientation, mercilessly kind and lovingly dominant, sparked something desirous in him. Nothing else really mattered--he wanted to give that to Obi-Wan. Watch him break every rule of power Anakin had ever been taught. Watch him conquer the world.

I don’t want it, Obi-Wan immediately replied. His fingers continued to stroke leaves and branches. Anakin would soon be a shaky, sweat-soaked mess, useless to do anything but accept that kind touch and ask for more.

And that’s why it’s there, Jedi. Where else would it be safe?

Anakin...

I told you, I trust you. You won’t abuse this.

Soft and stunning awe filled the air around him. It was incredible, buzzing over Anakin like petals and mist, dosing everything with hazy gratitude. Tenderly, Obi-Wan tapped at the tree, exploring the well he was suddenly sourced into. Anakin didn’t bother to help or hinder, comfortable to let Obi-Wan discover as he would.

Then, a hand sank into his hair. Tugged at his curls, just enough to give him little sparks of pain to ground himself in. Anakin froze, liquid desire racing up his spine. He let Obi-Wan pull him in. Push him up against the tree. The echo effect of having his chest pushed into the bark, feeling that pressure at his back, combined with Obi-Wan’s own weight against him, left him pinned. Sharp kisses and toothy nips peppered his neck and shoulders, down his back. His lungs ached from the idea of lack of air.

When he tried to move, he was held firm. Oh, fuck, he swore.

If you’d like, I wouldn’t say no Obi-Wan replied. Unlike Anakin, who already sounded like he had swallowed gravel, his thoughtful voice was smooth and confident. His legs were kicked apart. Grabbed his hips and arranged him to fit better against Obi-Wan’s hardness.

Gasping, Anakin flirted around, searching out what he could in this green space. Obi-Wan’s want painted the fortress walls, turning everything to beaten gold and silver strands. They descended like a net, wrapping around them and binding them together.

The tree swallowed them. They were phased back into the real world with a gust of the Force.

Their physical bodies had moved with them. Anakin came into himself, pushed down on his knees and elbows. He didn’t remember when he had moved. Only that he was ecstatic to be so laid out. Behind him, Obi-Wan’s fingers smoothed up the backs of his legs. Cool and slick. Anakin thought he smelled aloe.

He pressed his face into his forearms to stifle his whine. Above them, his wrists burned and locked into place, keeping him affixed by an invisible grip. His body throbbed, lust racing through his better senses. Demanding he fall into his own pleasure without thought.

He growled Obi-Wan’s fingers thrust into him, impatiently pushing back against them. They weren’t what he wanted, not this stupid preparation--he was still sore and stretched from the night before. It’d be more than enough, damnit. “Fucking--urgh! I swear I’ll just pin you down and ride you if you don’t speed up!”

His protest earned him a sharp bite on his shoulder and a smack on the delicate, raw skin of his inner thigh. There was no mercy in his magister when he got out of hand. Anakin thrashed anyway, shoving at that authority. Headstrong and stubborn and always greedy in what he wanted. All it earned him was another disciplining smack.

“Settle,” Obi-Wan muttered in his ear. “I won’t have you hurting yourself.” Those fingers, still inside of him, rubbed and stretched him wide. Their touch became overly gentle, slowed further with each of his complaints. Forced cool, relentless time on the fire he had made of himself.

The growls in his throat turned to wails under those talented urgings. He barely caught himself from howling down the house around them. “Ohhhh, please faster--please faster. I can take it, I promise, I want you now,” he whimpered, his voice modulating like a shredder. He was sure he left fingernail grooves in the wood floor under him.

“What was it you said about sex earlier? About what you want not necessarily being what you need?” Obi-Wan’s voice, gently mocking and lovingly ruining him, became Anakin’s whole world as his control was peeled down to the root.

“Don’t throw my words back at me when you’ve got me like this,” he gasped. “That’s just rude.”

“Ahh--and we all know how you feel about being rude.” Those fingers twisted, and Anakin descended passed demanding words.

Caught up, he didn’t immediately notice the vine of power, heavy with rushing sensations, sliding over his leg. Loop around his ankle. Then the other. Locked his knees apart. Held him open and ready. More vines around his torso, that net of craving dropping down on him and keeping him in place. Brustled leaves brushed pinpricks into his nipples, driving him wild. Caressed at the sensitive points of his neck and jaw.

He moaned, lost in the flood. Bounced his hips and pleaded for the attention to turn into something firmer, something more exacting. There was something eerily familiar about the touch. “Ohhhh, what are you up to?” he groaned.

“Should I stop? It’s your power--you can cut me off if you’d like.”

Anakin’s laugh became a choked-off gasp. “Don’t you fucking dare stop!” He tested the grip running over his limbs to see if he had any wiggle room.

And came up against a hold on power that was so hot, so intense, he nearly turned away. For a moment, he was gone from his body. He occupied the eyes above him, the ones looking down on him.

He saw a lithe body with a mechanical hand and a headful of ropy curls being freely offered amongst a knotted mess of blankets and cushions in an echo of another’s eyes. His skin was pink and flushed. His eyes were glassy and golden. He was temptation and sensuality incarnate, offered up with the bold assumption of a prize well-earned.

Oh, is that what I look like? he cried, embarrassed down to his bones. He squirmed away from the vision, too flustered to marvel at the mirror being held up to him.

“That’s you,” Obi-Wan whispered, as loving as the brilliant sun. Anakin cried to hear that adoration shining down on him. “Absolutely perfect--everything I could ask for, here just for me. Because you trust me to take care of you.”

Anakin caught the reverence laced under those words through their bond. How grateful and astounded Obi-Wan found his unquestioned faith. His belief that Obi-Wan was what he needed. That, more than anything else they had done, seemed to send his magister into new highs of abandon. Anakin mewled when that fervor bounced back into him.

He tried to thrash, overwhelmed, but he was bound in place and made to take it. His own aura in the Force, filtered through Obi-Wan, held him in place.

He could slip it if he really needed--it was his power after all. He was still in control of it. He had just lent that control to another. Except for the bands on his wrists. Those he had no say over. They stayed locked on him, keeping his hands over his head.

He didn’t want to take it back. He wanted Obi-Wan to have it all.

When Obi-Wan pushed into him, Anakin’s world fell into place. All his scars, all his fighting, nothing brought him comfort and security like this. Stretched out and slick, Anakin could only keen and twitch as he was given hot, hard pleasure. He choked, breathless at being so possessed.

The blankets under him smelled like musk and wood and smoke; like Obi-Wan. Surrounded on all fronts, all he could do was fall. Anakin curled his fingers into the fibers and only just resisted sinking his whole face into the scent.

The first thrust was intense and slow, both of them exploring the riot of sensations they sparked in one another. The second was harder, firmer, more confident that they had found joy in their joining. In the third, Anakin threw away his control without looking back. Stopped counting. Stopped thinking. His toes curled against the hardwood floor as he came, muffling his scream in his elbows.

The Force screamed with him, overflowing with love. Pride and awe vibrated down into him. Turned him nebulous. Turned him to starlight and fire and electricity, broadcast across thousands of molecules.

He floated dazed. Obi-Wan, with a beat-line on his emotions to check his comfort, took his time. Alternated between hard thrusts and sweet rolls, depending on how they made Anakin’s body jump and tremble with over-sensitive aftershocks. Leisurely learned his reactions. Pushed, and pushed, and pushed.

Anakin huffed and puffed and writhed until he realized he was being set up for another go of things. He would have broken every plate in the house if his body could move. He was aching and over-tender, yet he wanted more and more.

“Oh, I’m gonna--you’re gonna set me off again,” he groaned. Obi-Wan’s smirk was a tangible thing against the back of his neck.

“What do you think I’ve been after all this time?”

“Fucking! Rulebreaker!” he snarled as another climax was twisted out of his body. Resistance bled out of him as his bones turned soft, his voice faint and panting. The shapes in front of him were fuzzy; he thought only in passion.

Then, and only then, with Anakin exhausted and spent and absolutely ruined, did Obi-Wan feel satisfied enough to unleash himself. All Anakin could do was keep his knees, sore and chafing in all the best ways, spread open and braced. Every sharp thrust pushed a weak ‘ah, ah, ah!’ from his aching throat. His body was no longer his own--it belonged to this man, to do with as he pleased.

Anakin wouldn't have it any other way. Only he got this--only he could bring this to Obi-Wan. He’d kill anyone else who thought to take his magister from him. Who thought they could interfere with this. Soft possession, equal on both sides, simmered in their bond.

Obi-Wan’s seed--warm, hot, burning, he wanted all of it--planted deep in him. Fed his roots as they twinged around their bond and dug in. Brought chaotic life to sturdy blue-veined marble walls. He giggled in senseless glee until Obi-Wan rolled him over and kissed him quiet.

And there was his paradise. Trading kisses with a man he would give himself to a thousand times over without question. A man who had all the essential parts of him in safekeeping. A man who he trusted beyond all sense.

Obi-Wan brushed a question across his cheek. “How do you feel?”

“This counts as meditation for the morning, right?” he replied. Grinned at Obi-Wan’s exasperated glare. That felt good.

***

It was a slow day after that. Anakin couldn’t be heart-broken about it. He was soft and a little hazy and comfortable. Obi-Wan sent the twins, blinking sleep out of their eyes and sluggish from a night of deep sleep, out onto the patio with Artoo without any particular instruction or intention.

“No lessons for today?”

“I suspect everyone has earned a day off. They’ve all done remarkably well. Especially considering they didn’t even know the name of the Force when I first arrived.”

Anakin grunted, still not quite in the game. They were both chatterboxes who loved to overshare. He believed the less information they had to idly talk about, the better. Coming from him, the instruction to keep these things behind their teeth would have been met with eye-rolls and lax restraints. He was their father, they didn’t listen to every little thing he said.

Coming from Obi-Wan, wise and venerated, instruction took on a new meaning to them. What Anakin said was considered boring rules. What Obi-Wan said was law.

He was only a little grumpy about that.

Obi-Wan stretched. Bent and touched his toes with little difficulty. Rolled the muscles in his shoulders and neck. “I haven’t felt this well in years. Probably since before the war.”

Oh, did that make him smug. “I hear mind-melting sex can do that to a person.” He grinned over his shoulder with thoughtless ease.

Obi-Wan met him, look for look. Just like he always did. There was humor in his face, but there was also something else. Something intent. Anakin felt the Force snap the trap shut around him. “Yes. The Force-healing didn’t hurt things, either.”

Anakin cursed a dozen ways in a dozen seconds. He was suddenly wide awake.

“...what Force-healing?” he tried. It was too early for this conversation. He hadn’t even had a cup of kaf yet. He didn’t have underwear on under his hastily-donned sleeping clothes yet. There should be a rule against serious discussions when he wasn’t dressed.

Who was he kidding? Even if there were one, his rulebreaker would just ignore it.

Obi-Wan sat at the kitchen table. Contrary to Anakin’s sudden tension, he was relaxed. Confident. Authoritative, even in his sleep clothes, with ruffled hair and hooded eyes. “The Force-healing that made near-fatal injuries disappear in a matter of weeks.”

“That’s a neat trick. Learn that from your precious Jedi Masters?” Anakin snipped, looking for a diversion to derail the conversation. A pot-shot at Obi-Wan’s Order just might do it.

“I did not. I think a pair of over-enthusiastic children with the power of the living universe at their fingertips decided to help ease my burdens.” Obi-Wan’s expression was affectionate. That only mildly softened the blow.

Anakin fell back on silence. Maybe if he didn’t encourage this, Obi-Wan would drop it.

“They’re subtler than I expected them to be--not even the Masters at the Temple can heal without awareness. Or meditation. But the two of them,” Obi-Wan shook his head. “You told me, they do things. You weren’t wrong.” A pause. Those intense eyes found him. “Did you truly think I wouldn’t notice?”

Old instincts flared to fast life and threw Anakin into radical turbulence. Someone knew. Knew not only what the twins could do but how well they did it. Would try to take them. Would try to hurt them.

Kill the threat. Save his children. Run. Hide. Leave nothing behind but ruin and warnings for the next soul foolish enough to try and track him. He had to go now, now, now! Don’t stop and overthink it. React first, because surprise was the only advantage he had.

The plates rattled in the cabinets. His grip turned white on the counter’s edge. He could taste iron blood in his mouth. Details deemed unnecessary faded away as his vision funneled into essentials. He had to fight--he was their father, their protector. He had to safeguard them, by any means.

A phantom hand ran down his spine. Book and body snapped to attention. A set of lungs breathed out, taking his fear and panic with it. Asked him to follow along. He breathed in.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

This feeling will pass, as all things do, a voice in his head said, low and proper. Anakin made himself believe Obi-Wan. Clung with everything that was in him to rely on. Listened to his heartbeat and the calm voice whispering in his ear.

Obi-Wan was peaceful. Lacked any disturbance in the face of such instinctual fury. Not because he was in control. He wasn’t. He could do nothing to ease this.

But he trusted Anakin to stay in control. To think through the fog of vengeance and fear. Believed this was a conversation they could have now. Storms came naturally to the Force, but they also passed on in their time. Anakin clung to that logic through the tempest. Ordered himself to wait it out.

In belief came truth. His initial flood of terror and reactionary rage receded bit by bit, encouraged back by the unbroken presence waiting for him. Steady as the lighthouse, as the radio signal, as the beacon to all who were lost in the storm. He beat his murderous inclination back, a step at a time.

The torrent battled into submission unearthed prostration, asking Anakin to his knees. Yes, someone knew. But not a threat. It was someone he had faith in. Someone he trusted.

Someone he was coming to love.

He breathed out. Stilled the plates and the cutlery and the screaming, killing thoughts within him. Turned the steam and the fire inward, and let dissipate within him. “I had hoped you’d take the goodwill for what it was and let it lie,” he muttered. Adrenaline washed out his veins, leaving him slow and sleepy.

“Yes, that sounds exactly like something I would do.” That ghostly hand stroked the spine that held him together, in the Force and in the flesh. Keeping him united until he wrestled his control back.

He uncurled his fingers, shaking out the ache in them. Daylight was coming, peeking in through the window. “First time for everything,” he grumbled. Straightened and shrugged off the tension that had so quickly overtaken him. It fell off him like a water-logged clock.

“Dad?” Luke called from the patio. His little minders--they had felt him lose it, just as Obi-Wan.

“It’s fine,” he called. “Go back to playing.”

There was silence while they decided whether or not to believe him. Sure enough, Leia’s dark head of hair, fuzzy in her sleep braid, poked into the kitchen. Saw them both. Saw no bloodshed or broken dishware.

“‘Kay,” she muttered. Pat Obi-Wan on the knee with a nod. Went back to the patio.

In the Force, he sensed his daughter’s intentions wrapping out Obi-Wan, clear as a bell. She thought of echinacea and lavender and turmeric when she touched him: healing herbs, all. There was really no explaining that away.

“Have they done this before?” Obi-Wan asked.

Anakin hesitated. He was scared to admit it, even now. Healing was an advanced technique—he wasn’t sure he could perform it. He certainly hadn’t taught it to the twins. He took that fear and turned it inwards. Used it to force the words out. “Not...on another person. But themselves? Yeah.”

Unspoken was his base fear: if they had figured out something as sophisticated as healing by instinct and experimentation, what else would they eventually discover?

He flexed his hands. Around his wrists sat that reassuring pressure. It had stayed through the worst of his roiling without budging, letting his power flow without restriction. Resettling once he was quiet.

“You could have forced me to stop,” Anakin muttered, awed to nervousness with the realization. “You could have put me down right then, when my temper got the better of me. Saved yourself a headache. And I wouldn’t have been able to stop you. “

“Do you think I would do something like that?”

Anakin closed his eyes. “No.”

“Do you think I’m a threat to your family?”

“No.”

“I’m glad. Come sit down, Anakin,” Obi-Wan ordered, soft. The kitchen table had room for them. For the first time, its surface was uncluttered and clean. They still didn’t eat meals there. But they could have this conversation there.

Anakin sat, setting himself adjacent to Obi-Wan. Rubbed at his face. Thought longingly for the cup of kaf to hide behind.

“It’s time for me to go home.”

Everything in Anakin rejected the idea. Hissing, he pulled away, intent on escaping. Obi-Wan’s hand grasped his own before he could climb right back out of his seat. “You’ve trusted me with your mind and your body. You’ve trusted me with your apprentice and your children. In your home and in your bed. Trust me now. Don’t run from this.”

“Can’t I? Just for a little bit? Haven’t I earned that?” he whined. It was a weak defense--not even a defense, it was a stall. Dragging his feet around a decision he didn’t want to make.

“I’m afraid that’s not an option.”

“Oh, why not?”

In his kindness, Obi-Wan was merciless. “Because you know it’s time. Because I can’t forget we’re at war, and that I have a role to uphold. Because your children are powerful and need more support than this if they are to control that power rather than be ruled by it. Because Ahsoka is wilting here without purpose or cause. Because you don’t belong here anymore, Anakin.”

And there it was. He barely resisted keening in fear and denial. Because he knew what Obi-Wan was asking. “You want us to go with you when you leave.”

“I do want that.”

Oh, why did Obi-Wan have to pick now of all times to learn to want things? Anakin wanted to immediately veto the thought. The whole conversation. Toss it out with the rubbish, and never let it back in. “There is no way I’m going to land on Coruscant as a free man. None. I’ll be arrested the moment we clear their atmosphere, and they identify me.”

“That is one possibility. I’d like you to consider another: what if you weren’t arrested on sight?”

“I will be.”

“But what if you weren’t?”

“Who’d stop them?”

“I would.”

Anakin stared at Obi-Wan, agog at the man’s sheer confidence. “You’re asking me to hang a lot on a hypothetical.”

“Not on a hypothetical. On me.” Obi-Wan spread his hands, encompassing them both. Around him, the Force took on concentrated light. Brought up budding energy. “In a perfect galaxy, I’d take you all from this place with me today. But I know better. The galaxy is not perfect. And you’re right--you cannot simply rise from the dead without warning. You cannot simply be accepted. So, instead, I ask for trust.”

Obi-Wan was careful not to touch him. Even the bands on his wrists were the thinnest layer Anakin had ever felt. Control was still in his hands.

“Keep going,” he said.

“I’ll go first. I’ll make your case for you and make sure you’re allowed to safely land. If I can guarantee you’ll be accorded a fair and reasonable space to speak--”

“A trial, you mean.”

“A hearing. A chance to explain your side of it.”

“The minute you say the name ‘Darth Vader’ in front of the Jedi Council--or on the Senate floor for that matter--they won’t hear anything else that’s not ‘imprisonment’ or ‘execution.’ They’ll take the twins from me. They’ll shove Ahsoka out into the cold without support or care.”

Obi-Wan didn’t wave away Anakin’s concerns. But neither did he entertain Anakin’s worries. “You said it yourself--actions matter. You questioned the Sith Lords who commanded you. You walked away. You’re a valuable source of information, and you’re willing to cooperate. That’s not nothing; in fact, it’s more than I usually start with.”

That gave Anakin pause. “A negotiation? That’s what you’re expecting this to become?”

Who knew blue eyes could burn like that? “No--but that’s what I can turn this into. There’s a path here, Anakin. I know there is. So, this comes down to you: do you trust me?”

“You’ve made your point on that,” he snapped. “How many more times do I have to say it?”

“As many times as it takes for you to believe it down to your soul without a moment’s hesitation. Trust that I want you free and by my side. That I am your advocate and have your best interests in mind. That I will uphold my promise to you. Do you remember?”

“You,” Anakin thought back to their first bargain. The words they exchanged in this very space. “You won’t let my children be taken from me.”

“Yes. And that means keeping you safe. This place is a refuge for you--and no refuge is ever safe for long. It’s time to come home.”

Anakin wavered, terrified. Because hope was a terrifying thing. “They’ll be out for my blood, Obi-Wan. You know they will--it won’t just be my sins; they’ll make me answer for every injury Dooku and Ventress and the Separatists have inflicted, because it may be their only chance. I’ll be strung up like a sacrifice to stand in for the grief of a galaxy. It’ll be open season. Nothing but retribution.”

Obi-Wan leaned forward. “I will not allow the twins to be taken from you. I will not allow you to be hurt. You will not answer for the sins of another,” he repeated. “I swear that to you, Anakin. If I cannot guarantee those things, I will not tell them where you are. To hurt you is to hurt myself.”

Anakin pulled away. Stood up. Paced out his nervous response in a small circle around the room. Energy built up under his skin--the storm was never far away. Walked passed Padmé’s framed photograph on the window sill.

Obi-Wan stayed in his seat. “While you consider trust, let me give you righteousness,” he dug in, relentless. “You believe in the conflict. That love and action are the purest way to learn yourself in the Force. All right, I understand what you mean now. But you’re doing neither of those things here.”

He laughed, harsh. “Really now?”

“This is no longer action--this is stagnation. This is no longer love--this is suffocation. No matter how safe you tell yourself it will keep them, you will smoother the twins in limiting their learning. It’s already smothering Ahsoka. You all need stability, not this place of uncertainty. You need resources when you find yourself floundering. For love and for labor, you fought your way out from a corrupting power. But your journey is not done yet.”

“Are you trying to speak to me like a Sith Lord right now?” The juxtaposition gave him morbid amusement. Which was better than rage.

“I’m trying to speak to you as one who knows you. The Sith Order, as it is now, is antithetical to both of us. It was born from a place of domination and horror. I think we can agree neither of us wants that for another. Not between us. Not for your family. You say that corruption ruined your society--it’s time to reclaim it. Not just for yourself, but for your children and your legacy. For Shmi’s name and Padmé’s ideals. It’s your duty to your society to confront your past.”

At his back, between his shoulder blades, he could feel Padmé’s gaze on him. He desperately wanted her here, wanted her guidance.

He didn’t want to do this. He so didn’t want to do this. Put himself at the mercy of a venal and vain people, who felt they could judge him without restraint. Who were they to pass sentence on him, anyway? Nothing but parasites, the lot of them.

Padmé hadn’t been.

This wasn’t a battle he knew how to fight. How could he be expected to win when the stakes were so high, and he was so ill-equipped?

But not without allies.

The Force sparked around them. Anakin stood rigid as electricity and fire raced down his spine, shocked by the surety bleeding around them. The Force agreed with Obi-Wan and wasn’t being shy about letting him know. He needed to answer this.

He had no more arguments. Only excuses. And fear, which was quickly becoming less acceptable in every passing moment.

“You’ll speak my case?” he whispered.

“I will, with all the power and persuasion I’ve learned in a lifetime of study. And in return, I must trust you as well. Will you come to me when I call for you?”

Obi-Wan Kenobi. The High General of the Grand Army of the Republic. The Great Negotiator. The man who could convince the galaxy of peace in nothing but war. There was no one stronger to argue his case.

Anakin listened for any hint or want from the Force. It was still around him. Like it was holding its breath. Waiting.

He breathed out. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. “If you call me, I’ll come,” he swore.

Chapter Text

Obi-Wan arrived at the Jedi Temple at an atrociously late hour.

He had been traveling for nearly ten days, hopping freighters and carriers from planet to planet, heading in vaguely the correct direction of home. He was hungry, dirty, and aching. He wanted nothing more than to sleep for a good week.

He didn’t sleep. His stomach, firmly in control of his feet, turned him towards the communal mess hall. He was starving after nearly ten days traveling back to Coruscant. It was late when he had landed--there weren’t many souls awake to see him.

The kitchens of the Jedi Temple were well-stocked. Obi-Wan pulled foodstuffs on autopilot, comfortable in his knowledge of where things were. There was no curious, tentative exploration here, no uncertainty in what was edible and what had spoiled. No disputes over food and portion. No arguments about who ate what without talking to whom.

Such arguments had been a common problem in the Skywalker household. Obi-Wan had suggested names or colored labels, so fights over what food belonged to who wouldn’t break out. Anakin had looked downright offended at the thought of a little less chaos under his roof.

That made a particular sort of sense--the farmhouse seemed to need entropy like a starship needed fuel.

Obi-Wan made a cup of tea with near giddy delight. Anakin hadn’t deigned to make him another pot of his mint tea since their conversation on the porch. Obi-Wan was sorely in need of the familiar comfort now. Red, smokey, and intense, with only a little honey to make it drinkable.

Laden down with food and a fresh, bracing cup of tea, he went to his little alcove of greenery and starlight. Sat down and remembered why he loved this place.

Halfway through his meal, he realized he was daydreaming: of watching Luke and Leia play tag through the Temple’s gardens. Of Ahsoka meditating with the rest of the young Knights and older Padawans, come the morning. Of Anakin, sitting beside him and sharing the meal while they talked about wherever their thoughts led them.

He had half a hope that, strong as Anakin was, their bond would hold through the distance. It had proved a false hope; once he passed far enough, the plants that made up Anakin’s connection to him went dormant, as if tucking in for the winter months. The beautiful leaves had turned brown and dank. Roots and stems returned to the earth, patient for spring to eventually come.

The live oak tree, evergreen and constant, great and looming, had simmered down. Curled in. Waiting out the distance and the cold.

He had to push deeper each time to find the beating core of their bond--he had felt Anakin’s startled flash of pain when he dug too deep. He had whispered an apology and pulled back. He wasn’t sure if Anakin heard him; he received no answer. Now his mind was still and quiet. The way it had always been, until a few weeks ago.

So, to restrain himself from causing the man further pain, he set the tree in the greenhouse he had created. Space like this, warm and humid and loving, urging new growth in a protective atmosphere, was new to Obi-Wan. A welcome retreat from the warlike structures his mind couldn’t help but construct. A beautiful room of glass and wood, humidity and endurance. There, he left the tree alone.

Obi-Wan snorted around his teacup as that thought came full circle. “Having you with me isn’t something I need; I can survive without it just as before. But it’s something I want. Happy, wildheart?”

There was no answer. Not yet. All the more reason to be successful. He had to get the Skywalkers here.

There were currently nine members of the Council, including himself. Their usual number of twelve had been whittled down by years of war. They hadn’t been able to replace fallen members fast enough. It was exhausting to have that discussion over and over again in such quick succession. After they had lost Saesee Tiin, Agen Kolar, and Stass Allie within weeks of one another, the High Council had simply sat with grief and declined to immediately fill their empty chairs. They remained empty still as Master Yoda and Master Windu thought about their next steps.

Nine voices to decide the fate of Anakin and his family. The odd number worked to his advantage--with his own vote secure, he only needed four to push through a simple majority agreement.

But Jedi Council votes were rarely that straightforward. Older members--Master Windu and Master Yoda, carried a great deal of weight. Even if they both ended up on the minority side, their opinions shaped the Council’s temperament and attitudes. If either of them (or worryingly, both of them) decided against him, Obi-Wan would be in for an uphill fight.

I found a former Sith Lord and his family--what can be done about this? was an open-ended question that invited all sorts of answers Obi-Wan couldn’t control. It left many members to draw their own conclusions and bring their own concerns to the forefront before they even began. He needed to make the prospect simpler. An up-or-down question: should sanctuary be offered?

And it had to be sanctuary. The Senate would never dare send troops into the Jedi Temple, even to collect a fugitive. Even in irreverent times, they would never desecrate a sacred space like that. The Senate could not force them to hand over one of their own. Not without concessions. And no enemy could reach the Skywalkers behind the war-tested and heavily-protected walls of his home.

Anakin may not be happy to be consigned to the Temple grounds, but with his horde safe in these walls, Obi-Wan could work on the uglier aspects of their situation in the political atmosphere.

Obi-Wan had little respect or patience for the majority of the Senate. That didn’t mean there weren’t politicians who wanted to see the war finished. Ones who tried to buck the Chancellor’s heavy-handed tactics. Ones who owed Senator Amidala’s memory her due.

But first, the Jedi High Council. Given enough time, he thought he could bring the other members around to his side. He was known and trusted--it wasn’t like he asked them to suspend all sense of belief to follow him. He just had to make sure they didn’t decide to bring the matter to a vote when he first broached it.

It was there that he foresaw trouble. He needed them to look past their first, and perhaps even their second instinct, to strike at the Sith and ignore the man.

A hand fell onto his shoulder. Obi-Wan looked up, half-startled. Master Mace Windu stood over him, his expression a mixture of relief, concern, and consternation. “Welcome home, Obi-Wan.”

It struck true in Obi-Wan--he was home. That hadn’t quite sunk in until this moment. He rose without hesitation. Whatever his distractions, it was good to be greeted by the face of a friend. To know he had been missed and mourned. He hugged the man close. Around him, the Force welcomed and cherished him.

He was not unaware of the worry and concern his sudden absence would have caused. He had a feeling he would be combatting shock and surprise at his return for a few days coming.

“It’s good to see you whole and hale. You had us deeply worried.” Mace said as he settled into the alcove beside Obi-Wan.

“It’s good to be seen. I’d have come to you first, but it’s been a long journey,” Obi-Wan replied. He hadn’t wanted to take anything but the bare essentials from Anakin’s pantry. He had traveled lean before, and the Skywalker household still had four mouths to feed on a threadbare budget.

The face of his friend, a man Obi-Wan looked up to with deep respect, turned troubled as he took him in. “And a strange one. Your signature in the Force has changed. Did you...what happened?” he asked.

He paused. Swallowed his tea. Took a moment to compose himself. So soon; too soon, even. He’d have preferred a day to rest, to evaluate the general moods and dispositions of the Council. To work up a plan of attack.

“I’m afraid Vercengetorix got the better of me for a bit. I ended up injured and isolated and in desperate need of time to recuperate,” he began.

Mace listened attentively and said nothing. Obi-Wan, oddly ill-at-ease with that studious gaze, looked out into the garden. It was easier to speak of his time on Nevos to the wildlife.

“I was taken in by a family; a young widower and his children. And Mace--the Force is strong in each and every one of them. The things I’ve seen these children do. They healed life-threatening wounds like it was nothing. They’re seven standard years. Seven. With no previous training, they were able to knit me back together so subtly that I barely noticed it. His ward has it as well--what she lacks in intensity, she makes up for in creativity. They got it all from their father. A man named Anakin Skywalker.” He breathed out and counted down. The tide was rising again. “In another life, he was known as Darth Vader.”

The premier Master of the Jedi Order sat stock still, brutally quiet, and unrelentingly focused. He said nothing. His face may as well have been made from marble.

Obi-Wan offered him food from his plate; a mix of bread and honey and cheese clustered together in a single bite. It was impossible to look indigent with a mouthful of food. He was coming in at a disadvantage; he was working against a lifetime of ingrained backlash. He had to use all the unspoken rules of society to soften up the ground. Including the ones that said you didn’t refuse food when offered.

Driven by that instinct, Mace took the offered food and ate. That break in his stupor prompted him into words, as sparse as they were. “Your aura has changed...Obi-Wan, what did you do?”

Something heavy settled onto Obi-Wan’s chest. Something hot and difficult to handle. He thought of water, of a swift-moving current. He eased that burning sensation into the river, releasing it into the Force.

“I think I found a solution to our war. And I want him and his here, with us. In our protection and our guidance. Think about it, Mace--the opportunities this affords us. We could finally put an end to all this suffering.”

“Or allow ourselves to be tainted by it! Have you been to the mind-healers yet? They need to evaluate any damage you sustained.”

“Anakin didn’t damage me.”

“He’s a Sith Lord, Obi-Wan. He is--he is power and destruction personified. How can you be sure of what he did and didn’t do? What damage he left behind in you?”

“Again, I bear no damage.”

“How sure of that are you?” Mace didn’t budge. Concern was evident around him. “You said it yourself: you were injured and isolated. In his house and around his people. It would have been easy for him to present any number of lies to you, without any way to prove them.”

“You think me so manipulatable?” Obi-Wan replied, pressed into darker emotions. Outrage and defensiveness. Offense that Mace thought so little of him and his abilities.

He breathed out, releasing the urge to snap harsher—five out, five in.

He released his frustration and emotional havoc into the Force. Mace’s concern was valid, he reminded himself. The more he fought acknowledging that, the more intense Mace would become. And the harder Obi-Wan would need to work to root it out.

They could easily fall in an ouroboros of discord, circling and rising with each cycle. A negotiator’s nightmare--he had to break that cycle before he could accomplish anything of note.

He had spent the past weeks indulging that conflict--in arguing about nothing but for the sheer fun of the debate--in clashing and contacting and finding new truth in the friction. He ached for the loss. The trust he had in Anakin; in knowing that they could argue about anything and everything, and it would be alright because they were always on the same page, even when they couldn’t agree on the line, had become a core of stability within Obi-Wan.

He ruthlessly shoved that part of him away. It had no place on this battlefield.

“I think you’re as vulnerable as anyone would be in that situation. Have you stopped to consider that a Sith Lord can lie?” Mace asked.

“Have you stopped to consider that he may not?”

Mace closed his eyes. Took a deep breath. Leaned back while he put his thoughts together. All the classic signs of an opponent changing tactics. “Do this for me, Obi-Wan: swap our positions. I disappear without warning, pursuing a known Separatist-affiliated bounty hunter—a vicious piece of work, who had killed members of our Order before. I’m unfindable for weeks. You’re starting the hard, bitter work of confronting your grief and your anger at losing yet another skilled Jedi Master to this bloodbath of a war. Another friend and a confidante. Someone you’ll miss deeply and mourn for a lifetime.”

Obi-Wan felt a pang of guilt and considered the garden before him. The lights of Coruscant reflected off the garden leaves, distorting the colors into muted shades of entanglement. He hadn’t considered how grief-stricken his disappearance would have left the Order, stranded in uncertainty without word of his location or health for weeks on end. Anakin had been slow to trust him with an untampered comm, and then, well…Obi-Wan had been thinking of other things once he had gained that trust.

And in that, he saw Mace’s point. He, too, would have been suspicious and concerned if Mace had disappeared and returned as he had. He stayed quiet and let Mace fill the space between them.

“Then, wonderful news! I came back. I’m safe and in one piece. Only my aura has changed. I’m quieter if that’s even possible. I’m not maintaining eye-contact,” Obi-Wan pulled his eyes back to Mace with a flash of exasperation. “I speak of our enemy as if he were no longer our enemy. As if he were some wounded lamb to be nurtured. And I want to bring him back to our doorstep.”

Annoyance, frustration, disbelief, distrust; first-instinct reaction. None of that would help him here. Obi-Wan combatted every impulse to mount a defense of himself in order to release them. The struggle left him quiet. He didn’t look away.

“I’m well and whole, Mace,” he finally managed under that concerned gaze. “What you sense are the marks stress and war fatigue leave in their wake; there is no coercion or corruption in me.”

“I’d like the Temple healers to confirm that,” the other Master replied, his conviction rooted in his voice and face.

Urgh. Obi-Wan shriveled at the thought of medical scrutiny. “I’d be glad to submit to any tests the healers deem necessary,” he deigned with all the dignity he could muster, sitting on the floor with crumbs in his lap. He had to get Mace through this first reaction; had to break open room to make his point.

“Tests, yes. But also observation. You’ve been through an ordeal, Obi-Wan. We want to make sure you’re fully recovered. Don’t you agree?”

It was a compromise—an offer, as tentative as it was. Medical lockdown would be miserable; he’d be closely examined in ways he couldn’t say he was thrilled to endure. But it wasn’t a flat rejection and a demand for Obi-Wan to hand over his information.

So he agreed. That was how negotiations worked. To get what he wanted, he had to give things. How many times had he performed this dance over the decades?

***

The knock on the door came cautious.

Obi-Wan, grumpy after two days in the grasp of the Temple healers and unsettled by their constant medical and mental prodding, was slow to answer. The tension in his shoulders was back, brought on by the sharp antibacterial smell and gleaming cleanness of medical facilities. His core, sore from being so formally held for so long, resisted relaxation efforts.

He stood amongst his room, tidy and ordered as he had left it, trying to identify his unease. For all he was surrounded by people, his things, his understood place in the galaxy, he felt silent and alone. Unnerved almost, to be away from where he should be.

Who would have thought he’d miss the chaos of the farmhouse?

He scattered a stack of datapads, to see if he could replicate the sensation of disorder that seemed to come so innately to Anakin. The sparse mess broke up the reinforced neatness around him. Better, but still missing something.

He considered tossing some clothes around the floor when the knock came. Grateful for the distraction, he resettled himself and answered his door.

A Youngling bowed low in his doorway. “Good evening, Master Kenobi. Master Yoda requests the pleasure of your company for his nightly meditations,” the child said. The words came with the cadence of one who practiced the words repeatedly on the way to his room.

Obi-Wan’s mouth thinned. He suspected an ambush. Or at the very least, a flanking maneuver. “Far be it for me to deny such a thoughtful summons.”

Master Yoda sat alone in an antechamber just off the Temple gardens. Night-blooming flowers let their fragrance to the room; primrose and moonflowers opening up in the cool air. Obi-Wan broke off a delicate white jasmine blossom and rolled it over in his palm.

The Grand Master of the Order was already seated. He nodded to Obi-Wan with a quiet hum and closed his eyes. Apparently, there would be no discussion. Obi-Wan tried to keep the spike of tension stabbing through him from being apparent.

He took up a place on a vacant floor mat. Master Yoda was typically an excellent meditation partner. His aura bled calm and soothing vibrations.

Yet, there was a level of expectation as well—a distinct flavor of acidic tang around the edges. Obi-Wan abruptly recognized one of his favorite techniques utilized against him: hold your tongue, and let the other party fill the silence. See what they will give before you ask about what you can get.

He wasn’t going to bite. Instead, he took the opportunity to inspect himself. It was the first night he had without the ache of travel or the stress of medical supervision to tint his thoughts.

The walls and structures of his mental landscape were familiar with his constant movement. With the relentless demands of a General and Jedi Master on the war front. The garden that he now tended was more delicate. More prone to react to shifts in his moods and emotions. Temperamental and as likely to wilt as to thrive, dependent on his attention.

They were Anakin personified, in all his intricate contradictions.

Dormant as the plants and vines were, Obi-Wan took the opportunity to construct better supports. Planned out rows and latticeworks and irrigation lines. Thought of what best paired together, and how he could arrange things to better thrive once the spring thaws came.

Throughout his work, Master Yoda watched him. Their mutual silence could not be called companionable. Through a full night of meditation, the Grand Master spoke one, and only once.

“Followed your lineage, you have. Inquisitive to the point of foolishness, is Qui-Gon’s Padawan. Found, what have you?”

Obi-Wan swallowed down the weight in his chest that burned like the sun. “I found someone who needs our help, and who can help us in turn.”

“Trouble, you have found.” Yoda followed it up with a snort just this side of derisive.

Even a decade gone, Obi-Wan could conjure the memory of Qui-Gon’s exaggerated eye-roll in his minds’ eye. His Master never had much respect for the incurious. “Master Jinn often told me trouble is simply a solution that hadn’t been put to good use yet.”

No more words passed between them that night.

***

The knock on the door came gentle.

Obi-Wan opened it to find Kit Fisto, dressed for a mission and smiling that benevolent, loving smile. He embraced Obi-Wan with genuine warmth. “It’s good to see you, my friend. I’m on my way off-world, but Mace asked me to retrieve you before I left. He told me of your adventure.”

Adventure. That seemed to be the code word for Master Kenobi found a sort-of former Sith Lord in the wilderness and wants to bring him back to the Temple. Or, more likely Obi-Wan Kenobi has lost his mind, and we must be gentle with him until he finds it again.

He stepped into the hall and closed his door. “And have you any thoughts on my...adventure?” he asked as they walked.

Kit made a soft noise. “If you’re asking if I believe you to be compromised by Sith forces? No, I don’t. I’ve seen the corruption of the Sith; what the dark side of the Force looks like when it leaves its mark on us,” his expression went distance--Obi-Wan wondered if he was thinking of Nahdar Vebb, the Padawan he had raised to knighthood only to see fall in the course of the bleak war. He held his tongue and gave his friend time to set that grief aside.

“You’re changed; I can sense the difference in you. But you’re not changed like that.” Kit continued as they passed through the main hall. Obi-Wan politely nodded to a passing group of librarians.

It helped him swallow the boiling pressure settling into his chest, dragging his attention in from whatever it was the Force kept returning to him. He set it aside for later, determined to address it in a deep meditative state that night. This was getting ridiculous.

“Do you think me foolish?” he asked.

“Do I think your heart has gotten in the way of your brain? Yes. This gambit of yours is dangerous, Obi-Wan. You risk not only yourself but the Order with your wild heart.”

Obi-Wan worked hard to suppress any reaction to Kit’s choice of words. There was no way for Kit to have known. Yet the reminder struck at the loneliness he felt. The live oak was still tucked away in the ornate greenhouse, left to wait out this isolated winter. He hadn’t prodded it for fear of hurting Anakin.

“I’d like to think the Order I believe in, defend, and devote myself to can find its way in this. Darth Vader is dead; Anakin Skywalker and his family needs our help.”

Kit tilted his head to the side. “It’s not a kindness you’re offering him. It’s a delay. A prolongment of his suffering. If you care about this young man and his family as you claim, do not hurt him like this.”

“I struggle to see your point,” Obi-Wan combatted. He wasn’t entirely honest; it never hurt to make his opponent work for their condemnation.

“We have to face the consequences of our decisions—all of us. Your young man included. He’s perpetrated crimes he must answer for. The longer he outruns that, the greater his guilt and regret will grow. Pass your information to the Senate’s forces--let him face the justice of the Republic. This is not our fight. We are not law enforcers or judges of the societal order. To keep him in such suspension, in a place not accepted or answered for, is cruel and unwise.”

“You don’t believe the Order has anything worth learning from this situation?”

“Once debts have been paid and justice has been served, we’ll all be free to explore where the Force takes us. Perhaps we do have things to learn--we won’t know until the Republic has spoken.”

Three against, so far. Obi-Wan tried not to feel disparaged. Kit left him at the Council room. Alone with Mace.

“The healers tell me you don’t appear to be suffering from outside influence.”

“That’s good to hear.”

“It’s not. It means you grew this belief yourself.”

Mace sat down in his Council chair. Obi-Wan very pointedly didn’t. He recognized a power play when he saw one.

“I believe a lot of things, Master Windu. I believe in my Order and my teachings. In the living Force and our place in it. And I believe, in those teachings and my understanding of my place, I can help end a violent state of warfare that plagues us. And it can be done not in more violence or outrage, but in forgiveness and trust.”

“What you ask for is too much. I understand your idealism. I do--and I applaud it. But this is a Sith Lord and a Separatist; a man who desecrated our principles and proclaimed our way of life profane. A man who will never see the Force like you see it.”

“You should hear him speak of the Force the way he sees it,” Obi-Wan said, diverting. “It’s fascinating. And my ideals are not so fragile that they cannot withstand a little profanation.”

Mace Windu’s expression bore into him. “Tell me, Master Kenobi. How much of this is your fascination at solving a puzzle?”

Obi-Wan blinked, thrown. He ran a hand over his bread before he caught himself and put his hand in his sleeve. “I don’t understand your question,” he finally admitted, working through his sudden discomfort by sheer force of will and training. He thought of water, the rush of a swollen stream—the current taking the weight of his peril from him.

Mace wasn’t so merciful. “You have a keen mind--one of the brightest in the Order. And keen minds crave stimulation. Knowledge. How much of this crusade of yours do you believe is rooted in your curiosity? To see if you can achieve what many would call the unachievable?”

“This isn’t about me,” Obi-Wan replied, knee-jerk in reaction before he could think better of it. The burning sensation kept distracting him, pulling him inward when his focus was needed elsewhere. Demanding he address the knotted sensation in his chest before he spoke.

He breathed on the five-count, expelling the heat and the intense flame, bringing on thoughts of snow and icy rivers. Stilled his distractions to focus on the task at hand.

“On the contrary, I’d say it’s very much about you.” Mace rose again, giving in to a need to move. Obi-Wan, conversely, stood to attention, his hands folded into his sleeves. “Do you think any other Jedi Master would find themselves in this predicament?”

“What Jedi Master wouldn’t? Who would call themselves such, and yet raise their hand against someone who only offered help? What cause for violence do I have against a man who healed and fed me? Who offered me shelter from the storm?” Obi-Wan retorted, offended by the very idea of inaction.

Mace sighed. “Qui-Gon Jinn left his mark in you. Curiosity instead of caution, even in the face of supreme danger.”

“Master Yoda suggested something similar. I don’t deny my lineage; I keep all of my Master’s lessons close,” Obi-Wan replied. “My curiosity is tempered by compassion. And it’s compassion that drives me.”

“I considered whether it could drive you to ruin.”

He swallowed the swell of displeasure from the subtle accusation that his emotions compromised his duty. That was not Mace’s point, he reminded himself. He wasn’t accusing Obi-Wan; he was questioning. That was what he had wanted--to get the Masters through their first reactions.

“I know my limits,” he said, firm. He remembered saying those same words to Anakin, in the false dawn as they worked through Redaluar’s dancing patterns.

Anakin had gone somewhere after that. Somewhere far and distant, where Obi-Wan could not follow. The Force had bent and flowed and wrapped around him, a massive collection of life and energy under his skin, composing itself to him. How it had coalesced and detonated in him. Sent him spiraling out of their pattern and into the deep swills of the Force.

He had resurfaced, coughing and shivering and tight-lipped. Obi-Wan hadn’t pushed, delicate as their tentative understanding had been, then. But that didn’t stop him from theorizing.

He considered mentioning the episode to Mace. He would welcome the man’s opinion, experienced as he was in the oddities of the Force. He had raised his own Padawan to knighthood and beyond, and knew how to maneuver the fragile bonds of vulnerability that came with learning.

But...but that dense heat curled in Obi-Wan’s chest, weighing him down and making him hesitate. He had already been accused of being too close to Anakin, too embedded in the situation to see clearly. And he hadn’t yet revealed just how far he had gone with his instruction. With their bond.

Obi-Wan worried that he would sink their whole cause in revealing the extent of his connection with Anakin to Mace. That it would merely solidify Mace’s fears of Obi-Wan’s perspective and harden his resolve. So he quieted his tongue, stilled his words, fogged his memories, and let Mace fill the silence.

The man’s flat, unamused expression spoke louder than any comment. The Coruscant sun beat down through the windows, turning him into silhouette. The Council room was lit from all corners.

Too empty. Too oppositional. Too orderly. Too heavy.

Obi-Wan sighed out, releasing his resignation and despair, working himself free of them. Well, he hadn’t thought this would be easy.

***

Mace had occupied his morning. Shaak Ti and Plo Koon took over his afternoon.

If Obi-Wan had his druthers, he would have spent the afternoon meditating, to ease the tense, rigid lines of his body, wound tight in the back and forth with Mace. His muscles ached, his skin felt tacky with dried sweat and worked up as his body held him straight.

He felt scattered and displaced. Off-kilter in the Force. Like he was half-footed and distracted. Another consequence of his medical lockdown--he had to get comfortable in his own skin again.

Tonight, he told himself. Tonight, he’d sort himself out. Until then, he had other things to work on.

Just like Kit, Plo and Shaak had been briefed by Mace about his adventure. He vaguely resented that, and it likely wasn’t helping his state of mind. He didn’t want to be in contention with Mace. It hurt to be so pulled against someone he cared for. A part of him, a large part, wanted to stop, to cease causing his Order--his family--such distress. He fell quiet as he breathed out on the five-count, searching for a little calm amidst his charge into the breach.

Thoughts of Anakin flashed through him--the storm, quick and sudden and overcoming in the moment. Yet destined to move along in the natural flow of the Force. This would pass, and they would be well for it.

Shaak talked about everyday things while they ate. It was a good meal of fresh bread, honey, soft cheese, fruit, and nuts. As Plo didn’t partake, and Shaak kept her hands folded around her teacup, the meal was strictly for Obi-Wan’s benefit. He showed his thanks by eating his fill, mindful of his hands, his posture, his face, determined to be calm and natural. Habit had him masking his agitation, built up through the day into a thick coat of sulfuric across the stone of his shields.

They traded greetings and updates about nothing in particular. Anticipation welled as Obi-Wan waited out their side-stepping.

Eventually, their small talk reached a natural lull. In it, Plo cleared his throat. Straightened. Took command of their conversation. Obi-Wan felt the Force sharpen around them, coming to a head.

“This young man,” Plo said. “You have said he has another young Force-user with him. A young Togruta.”

Obi-Wan hid a pause of surprise behind a bite of food. While he had mentioned Ahsoka and the twins in his preliminary reports, he and Mace had not gotten around to speaking of them in detail, yet. Somewhere along his journey, he had picked up Anakin’s reluctance to discuss them with outsiders.

Out. In. Obi-Wan pulled on depths of control he usually only needed on battlefields to push on. “Yes. An apprentice, for all intents and purposes. They connected four years ago.”

Ahsoka and Anakin both would make disgruntled faces at him so neatly summing up their relationship. Their insistence on keeping the labels of their relationship vague was their business. Ensuring they had the space to do so was his.

Plo’s body language gave away small signs of agitation; a fidget of his fingers, a shift of his body weight at quick intervals. His shoulders rolled as if to work off the tension building in them. Shaak fell silent and touched his arm. Lending him her strength when he moved to speak.

“Four years ago...she would be twenty-five now, by the standard calendar. Ahsoka Tano--it’s her, isn’t it? You met her?” His voice quivered. “Is she...is she all right?”

Obi-Wan tilted his head, latching onto new information. Curious, indeed. “I sense a deeper investment in this conversation,” he said, opening up room for the moment to grow. Tell me more, he silently urged.

Given leeway, Plo stepped into the gap. The Jedi Master’s aura was a tangle of concern, guilt, and worry. “She--we lost her to a bounty hunter. We think they intercepted the initial broadcast and burned through enough fuel to light the galaxy on fire to beat us to Shili.”

So the Jedi had gone for Ahsoka. A particular Jedi, by Obi-Wan’s reckoning. “She told me of her abduction. And the slavery she was sold into. You were the one sent to retrieve her?”

Plo looked devastated by Obi-Wan’s confirmation, soft as he tried to make it. Shaak kept her hand on his arm, grounding him as he addressed his sorrow. Her face was solemn and stoney. “I was hours too late. By the time I realized what had happened, the bounty hunter was off-world and gone. I chased them for months, to no avail. Miss Tano’s disappearance is...was one of my great difficulties with the Force. It took many years to reconcile her loss.”

Obi-Wan did not restrain his aura, his grief for their pain reading plain on him. “I didn’t know you bore this grief.”

Plo’s entire body exuded his anguish. “Hours. Mere hours separated Miss Tano from a divergence in her life, Master Kenobi. Of course, I worry for her, even now. Please tell me--is she alright? Is she well? In distress?”

The Master’s devastation and intense connection was a tangible thing. For a moment, Obi-Wan saw a different outcome, where Plo was Ahsoka’s Master. Where she had been raised into knighthood by this hand, calm and steady. Surrounded by her peers and countless mentors, safe and well-cared for.

Obi-Wan thought of Ahsoka. Of her curiosity and drive, and her recovery. The things she stashed around the house so that she’d always know where to find them. How she had watched Obi-Wan like a herd droid his first week on the farm before she was sure she could trust him with her family. The quiet, yet unshakable, solidarity she and Anakin shared in their similar experiences. Her determination not to leave them exposed.

He thought of her bond in the pages of Anakin’s mind, which hummed with empathy and intimacy, and all the understanding in the galaxy forged between them. The roving, wandering power they shared, harbored in the tang of lemon, mint, and quartz crystals—their own little society, rampageous as it was.

There was no use delving into the realm of the what if with Plo. Hours, it may have been, but there was more to Ahsoka than hours. In her impulse and her energy. Her desire for more and her determination to keep what she has. In her protective shelter of her family.

Obi-Wan couldn’t obfuscate on this. He answered truthfully. “She is well, Master Koon. Ahsoka Tano survived her ordeal, and she has found a place of love to recover from it. She is strong, and she is nurtured.”

Plo made a muted sound. “Yes--in the house of a Sith Lord.”

Obi-Wan carefully set his plate aside. Took a moment to make sure his face was still. Held firm against his first reflex to blindly defend that same Sith Lord without finding the buried objection. “Does that upset you?” he prodded once he was sure he was back in control of himself.

A myriad of answers to any objections Plo could raise built on his tongue. A detailed explanation of Anakin’s mentorship of Ahsoka, and in turn, his children. The progress they had made in only a few weeks under his own tutelage. Ahsoka’s push back to regain control of her life. Her advances in her meditation and her devotion to her found family.

The scolding weight on his chest pulled at him, demanding something he couldn’t articulate.

Shaak hummed and tapped the fingernail of her free hand against her teacup. The noise rang like a meditation gong. Obi-Wan blinked. Found himself stagnant. He gave the weight over to thoughts of water and let it be taken away.

She spoke, temperate: “It reminds us of our connections within the Force. The young woman we were unable to save, united with the young man you’re advocating for. It also reminds us of our responsibilities: to reject one would be to reject both, wouldn’t it?”

“I believe it would.”

“Hence our conversation. You request a great and dangerous thing, Master Kenobi. And I don’t believe you have yet explained all the ramifications of that request. It feels like…” Her face took on a veil of concentration. She considered him with shaded eyes, seeing him both in the flesh and in the Force. “It feels like you’re hoarding something close. I cannot tell what.”

“If you find out what it is, please do let me know,” Obi-Wan replied.

***

Obi-Wan sat up.

He was in a familiar yard, crowded and overgrown with foliage. The false dawn light outlined the mountains in the distance; bird-calls rang out through the forest, eager for the sun to rise. The farmhouse stood quiet in the morning, just as he had left it. The tall grass bent under his palms. Wet, clingy, and pungent, he couldn’t escape its grasp.

Anakin sat cross-legged before him, warm and real and just as clingy as the grass. He grinned like a maniac, his golden eyes danced.

“Found you,” he cawed, triumph radiating off him like heat from a furnace.

Obi-Wan gawked. “You did this? I thought I lost you when I passed through the Mid Rim.”

“I did lose you--at least until you walked into your fancy Jedi Temple,” Anakin replied. “Well, I think it was your Temple. Can’t imagine what else would boost you like a broadcast signal. The whole place acts like a massive radio tower. So, I figured I’d amp up as well and see if I could reach you. It turned out to be harder than I thought, so,” he waved a hand around them. “I came out here during our hour. I guess some of your meditation techniques do work. Who’d’ve thought?”

“You meditated,” he repeated in near disbelief.

“Yep. And hated every minute of it.” Smug satisfaction coated every inch of Anakin. “What are you doing right now?”

Obi-Wan shook his head, astonished. The day he understood all of what Anakin could do within the Force would be the day the universe revealed all its secrets to him. In a weird blend of belief and ritual, his charge could bend overwhelming power to his will as long as he met certain arbitrary, opaque circumstances. It was maddeningly instinctual.

“I was sleeping. I can’t tell--is this a dream?”

Anakin leaned over: “Does it feel like a dream?” and dropped a short kiss on Obi-Wan’s mouth, as easy as air.

There was temptation in his touch, but also joy and relief. He hadn’t been sure of his reach, Obi-Wan realized. He hadn’t been sure this would work. He had chipped away, exercising and twisting and retooling, until the Force did what he wanted it to do.

Obi-Wan reached up and took hold of Anakin’s curls. Gripped them tight. Tilted his head. Studied every line and movement of that lovely face. Half-lid molten eyes cackled as Anakin followed the pressure without a fight. Let Obi-Wan move him as he will.

You awe me, Obi-Wan didn’t say. He was captivated by the unpredictable, surprising ways Anakin could turn his assumptions upside-down and inside-out in all his order and structure. This deity of verve and bedlam, who thought Obi-Wan was worth descending for.

Under his hand, his charge’s smug and spiky hull cracked open, revealing a stunning docile character. He let Obi-Wan set him to rights, content to be looked after now that he had what he wanted.

He pulled Anakin in and kissed him gently, slow and sweet. It was his pleasure to do so, granted by Anakin’s comfortable acquiescence. Then he released his charge because that was all Obi-Wan could do to show that he understood what Anakin offered.

“How are things?” he asked into the quiet.

“The gremlins miss you like mad,” Anakin replied, slightly breathless. “So does Ahsoka. I think even Artoo misses you, and that poor droid still hates you. And since you’re not here, they’ve all decided to blame me. Do you know how many snarky comments about us I’ve had to field in the last two weeks? Too many. There is far too much sass in my house nowadays, and I blame you.”

“I’ll bear that responsibility with humility and dignity.”

“See? Right there. Stop teaching my kiddos how to backtalk me.” Anakin stretched out his arms over his head. Rolled his shoulders back. Dropped his hands behind him as a brace as he reclined. Obi-Wan’s heart cried to see his wonderfully unconscious grace on display once again. “Your turn. How’s it going?”

“Do you miss me?” he stalled.

“And here I thought you didn’t ask stupid questions. How’s it going?” Anakin repeated, tenacious.

“As well as I expected, to start,” he confessed as he brought his hands back to himself.

“That bad, huh?”

“If it was easy or simple, it wouldn’t be worthy of either of us.” That, Obi-Wan believed down to his bones.

Anakin snorted. “Well, you can always come back here if you want. I’m sure we’ll have a few good weeks before the rest of the galaxy crashes down on us. I think I can make them worth your while.” He winked.

The attempt at levity lightened Obi-Wan’s heart. “As tempting as that is, wildheart, I’m afraid we’re committed now.”

Anakin hummed and swished his mouth across his face. His eyes rolled up while he thought. Obi-Wan tried not to laugh--Anakin and Leia shared this expression down to the tune of the hums they used to occupy the air around them. He was absolutely charmed.

“In that case, you’d better tell me the worst of it,” Anakin said.

Five out, five in. He took strength from the quiet comfort around him. “I’ve been accused of...an excess of compassion and a certain blindness to the danger of this situation. In so many words.”

“I’d agree with that.”

Obi-Wan glared at his companion. Who looked distinctly unimpressed, reclined and relaxed as he was. “What? I would. You can talk all you want about compassion being a tenant of the Jedi, but you have to admit you take it to extremes.”

“Even when my alleged excess benefits you?”

“Especially then. You’re trying the unobtainable for me,” Anakin tilted his head. Gold eyes narrowed. “And I still don’t quite know why.”

“Anakin.”

“No, let’s play this out,” he ran down. “I get that we’re tied to one another now. You’re mine, I’m yours. That’s not negotiable. It’s complicated and messy. I love every second of our anarchy. But why are you so determined to get them to accept me? They never will, and they’ll only ever think I took advantage of you.”

His tone was a welcome challenge, his energy a call of allurement—the welcome oasis at the end of the barren journey. Obi-Wan felt words riding on excitement rushing up through him. The refreshing air around Anakin--not upset, but questioning, always questioning--drew the fighter out in him. The desire to push back and forth, safe in the knowledge that this wouldn’t break them.

He had taken this for granted at the farmhouse. Had gotten used to the to and fro of a passionate exchange. Anakin’s willingness to engage in the argument. They hadn’t been easy conversations, but they had been exhilarating. Sparring in the verbal, in the idea and the nebulous concept of thought.

Obi-Wan trusted Anakin in an argument. Thanks to Padme’s instruction, the rules of the debate were sacrosanct to him. Space for each side to be heard without judgment; all manner of evidence brought to bear. The point of the fight wasn’t to win. It was to defend and support. It was to find the conviction in the conflict, and the truth in their nature.

Obi-Wan missed that subtle distinction. “Your low opinion of the Jedi aside, recognition is the goal. It banishes the fear and gives you room to grow. No one will be able to dislodge you from my side. You deserve that. What’s more, I deserve that. Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?”

“How long?” Anakin asked with a charmed smile.

“Decades,” Obi-Wan admitted. “And I would have waited decades more.”

Anakin leaned in. He smelled of jasmine and water and damp earth, the garden after the storm. “Then tell them that, rulebreaker. You’re emotionally tangled--you can’t deny it, you may as well embrace it,” he grinned. “Maybe take a few lessons from the Sith, yeah?”

“I’d rather not--

The knock on the door was more a bang.

Obi-Wan thrashed, his battle-worn reactions clawing their way to the forefront, searching out the danger before he was truly awake. His mind ached at being so abruptly ripped from Anakin’s. The phantom pain hung deep in him, dragging him down and tying him to that lead weight in his chest. He flung open his door, ready for battle.

Depa Billaba had just returned from a mission--that much was clear. Her clothes were dirty and torn. Her face showed the lingering signs of warfare fatigue. She still carried her pack over her shoulder. Caleb Dume, her Padawan, swayed on his feet behind her. Stubbornly clinging to his place at her side even as his body threatened to give out with exhaustion.

“...good evening,” Obi-Wan decided on. “Something for you?”

“Master Kenobi,” Depa said. Her voice was rough, the slight breathlessness that came with rushing up flights of stairs. She had run to Obi-Wan’s door. “Apologies for the late hour. I hope you’ll forgive us. May we come in?”

They fell back on the ritual of a proper meeting. He stepped back and let them in. Offered them tea and a seat at his table. After a moment, he gently urged Caleb to take his bed. The poor boy collapsed onto with a grateful grunt. He was asleep within moments.

Depa did not sit. Nor did she immediately speak. She paced the room, her hands on her hips. Energy cast off her, vibrating the air.

“Depa,” Obi-Wan began, thinking to suggest she take some time with whatever was driving her before they spoke.

“Mace told me,” she interrupted, quiet and intense. “About your, your adventure, or whatever we’re all calling it. Is it true?”

“Which part?” He was justified in asking; he couldn’t know all of what Mace had told her.

She stopped mid-step. Her dark eyes bore into him. “That you found Darth Vader.”

“Darth Vader is dead. I found a young man and his family in need of help. So I helped. And I’d like to continue to do so.”

Her aura bubbled through the Force. He was awake enough to recognize worry and concern. And anticipation. “I want him here, Obi-Wan,” she said, “now--tonight, if we can. How do we make that happen?”

Obi-Wan stilled himself as to not overreact with thoughtlessness. “Your eagerness is surprising.”

“Obi-Wan!” she scolded, then winced when Caleb jerked awake. Slumping, her energy stalled out in the face of her young apprentice’s determined, exhausted rally. She went to him and put her hand on his shoulder. Compassion poured off her in waves. “Go find your bed, Caleb,” she urged, her manic energy turning soft. “You’re beat.”

“I can make it,” he yawned. Depa waited. So did Obi-Wan. Unsurprising, Caleb’s eyelids fluttered. His head drooped. He was back asleep within moments.

“Obi-Wan,” she said, her voice deeper than a fathom. “I want him here--this, this Anakin Skywalker. I want him here now.”

He didn’t move, either towards or away from her. “I won’t bring him here to become an outlet for your frustrations. Or anyone else’s,” he said, firm.

“That’s not,” she let out a breath. Pulled herself in. The Force rippled as she released her anxiety and frantic focus out for it to absorb. “I don’t aim to punish. That’s not what I’m... I’m amazed,” she turned, and now Obi-Wan could see the astonishment under her exhaustion.

“He walked away,” she whispered. “He managed to cut himself loose...Obi-Wan, you have to get him here. Before he changes his mind. Before he...before he second guesses and goes back to his old Master. Don’t leave him in the cold; being alone is the worst thing he could be right now.”

She swayed on her feet. She was in no better condition than her Padawan.

“Why don’t you have a seat, Depa?” Obi-Wan suggested. Nonplus, he fell back on his instincts for care and comfort. He wanted to see her burden eased. “We seem to have a lot to talk about.”

She sat. He scavenged water and a ration bar out of his cabinets. Put them in front of her. Encouraged her to take a moment and recenter herself.

Instead, she reached across the table between them and took his hands. Studied his palms like she could divine his intentions from them. She pressed her thumbs into the center of his hands. “Your aura’s changed.”

“I’ve heard that a lot.”

“You know why?”

“I do not.”

Depa stared at him. Her thumbs tapped against his palms in thought. “I can’t tell when you’re lying anymore. I used to be able to; I remember you when you were young and still learning all your tricks. But now... you’ve gotten too good at it.”

“I don’t mean to be good at it. And I’m not lying.”

She snorted. “The war’s marking us up in ways I never would have expected...you really don’t know?”

Obi-Wan shrugged. He didn’t feel different. More optimistic, perhaps. But still burdened with the same single-mindedness that drove his fellow Jedi to distraction.

“He’s already your apprentice, isn’t he?” she asked in the space between them.

“He’s leery of training bonds. He had to all but ruin his mind to get his last Master out.”

“Ah, that lie I saw: he is. Your aura has changed because your Mastery has changed. Your bonds have found new paths, and your connection to the Force has been altered. I recognize it because I saw it in myself when I took Caleb on.”

“He’s not,” Obi-Wan remembered his dream and Anakin’s words. “While I don’t deny that I want him by my side, we haven’t said the words. Haven’t promised the oaths and the responsibilities. Nothing’s been formalized.” He has to be honest about that. By the standards of his Order, he and Anakin were nothing but close. They hadn’t gone through the rituals to have their bond officially recognized.

Depa’s expression was a thundercloud. She rolled her eyes, deep and long. “That doesn’t matter,” she asserted in the face of his obstinance. “Have you accepted the responsibility of his education--and the education of his pack? Have you taken on the duty of his safety and security? Has he acknowledged that? Yes? Then everything else is ceremony.”

In the face of her certainty, he wobbled. The hot, heavy weight hung over him. “Important ceremony, nevertheless. It took years for Qui-Gon and I to bond, and it wasn’t until after the words were spoken that everything evolved as it should have,” he replied, weirdly feeble. She suddenly had him second-guessing what he thought was solid ground.

“And so every bond will mirror that process? You know that’s not true.” Depa toasted him. “Congratulations on your first Padawan. May you never again know peace. Does he know?”

Obi-Wan held his breath. But the weight in his chest didn’t grow. It didn’t batter down his walls or threaten to smash him to bits. Instead, the fiery sensation collapsed like a doused ember, the dam uncorking the river. The Force flowed through him, content. In the flood, his tension and anxieties were washed away.

He thought Anakin. Of his expressions. Of the way he spoke, and what he explained his understanding of the Force to Obi-Wan. Anakin always seemed to know they’d end up together, after their first conversation. Like he had just been waiting for Obi-Wan to put the pieces together in a way that satisfied him. “Maybe. He’s more instinctual than I am. More accepting of impulse and disorder.”

“Good--you need it. I’d say you’ve already surmounted the greatest hurdle, but it’s you: you couldn’t help but find the most difficult Padawan you could. I predict you’ll have plenty of traps to untangle. It’s up to you to tell me if he’s worth it.”

Depa finally released him. While he regathered himself, she looked to her apprentice. The young man was dead asleep, had likely been running on the last dregs of energy he possessed just to get to Obi-Wan’s door. This war was running them all ragged. Caleb was one of the Younglings who remembered a time before the war--he fought to return to that time.

“I’ve found what I’ve been looking for,” Obi-Wan confessed, soft. A little scared; now that he admitted it, he risked losing it.

“And yet...you said he ripped his old training bond out? How?” she asked.

Obi-Wan shuttered to think of the mask. He etched out the basic picture for her. The isolation and the severance. The horrible, horrible sacrifice. Even the memory made chills crawl down his skin.

Her unsettlement hung in the Force like a swinging chain. “I wouldn’t wish that on my enemy. Yet he’s still sane?”

“In every way that will ever matter.”

“And he ran from the Sith. From his Master.” Her energy moved in odd patterns around her. That astonished energy was back, though more flowing, more rolling. Eventually, they formed into words. “All these years, you’ve fought against Dooku. I never wanted to be in your place. To have to raise yourself against a member of your lineage. I never knew how you did it,” she admitted. “If it were Mace…”

“You would do what’s needed.”

“You’ve always had faith in all of us. More, I think, than we deserve, sometimes. I doubt,” she cut herself off and looked at her apprentice again, passed out and secure in his safety under her care. “It’s quite an experience to serve on the Council with Mace. There are times, even now, where my instincts are to defer to him. I’ve served my entire life under him; it’s a hard habit to break, even after all these years.”

The Force vibrated as she took a moment within it. Then, she downed her water as if it were hard liquor. “If Mace were to fall to the dark side, I don’t know what I’d do. I like to think I would fight him. But...I can understand...what a powerful Master can do to your mind. What you can be convinced to do if that one special person only asked. The damnation you’ll happily walk into if they know how to alternately support and hurt you.”

“If any of us could, it would be you.”

She gave him a long look through her eyelashes. “You’re kind. But I can’t help but think that you may be wrong. If Mace fell, I don’t know if I could reject him; it’s entirely possible that I would follow him. That I would abandon my Order, to the ruin of myself and Caleb. That’s how powerful the bond between Master and Padawan is; you’ll find that out soon enough. How easily it can be weaponized and twisted into something domineering and brutal.”

She fell silent, melancholy. Obi-Wan had no words, still in shock at his loss of perception.

“You’ll find this out as you walk this path,” she said, quiet into their shared place of exhaustion. “But being a Master, someone’s primary Master, their guide and their guardian, is about so much more than imparting lessons. It’s about understanding the kind of power you wield over another person. Someone who will do almost anything you ask of them. Mace warned me of the pitfalls when I took Caleb on. I sometimes have nightmares about abusing that power. About twisting Caleb into someone who can’t go on without me. The control at your fingertips, accessible only to you. The adoration of being at the center of someone’s world. You... you’ve already found some of these warnings, haven’t you?”

Obi-Wan thought of the live oak tree, growing larger by the day, in the inner sanctum of his mind, and nodded with glum recognition. She hummed in sympathy.

“You have it harder than most--your Padawan already knows that possibility, possibly even better than you do. He knows what kind of horror can come from a Master abusing that power. And he did what was needed. He walked away from a force strong enough, compelling enough, to consume him. How many Padawans do you know of that could cut themselves off from a Master who has fallen?”

“My Master did,” Obi-Wan couldn’t help but point out. “Qui-Gon cut himself from Dooku when he fell.”

Depa smiled for the first time since arriving at his door. “Yes, and he raised you. Your lineage carries that trauma. You know it well. The Force loves harmony, doesn’t it? Your Master sundered one most profound bonds a person could nurture. Because he had to. Then he raised you in prosperity and joy after all that. Now, you’ve been given a Padawan who’s had to cut himself loose of that same bond, because there was no one else there to help him.”

Obi-Wan sat with that, uncertain how to continue. Around them, the Force hugged them close in the raw place they found themselves.

Eventually, she spoke again. “For that, I want to see his strength. I want to meet a person who was strong enough to cut that bond out his mind. You want to bring him here? Good, I want you to, as well. You have my vote.”

Obi-Wan opened his mouth. He didn’t know what to say to her allegiance. A thousand different thoughts crossed his mind. When he exhaled, words came without thought: “What do you think the purpose of a society is?”

Her eyes went back to Caleb. That stone expression relaxed into something calmer. She thought for a long moment. “Salvation. Society is our deliverance from ruin. Without it, we’re nothing but collections of atoms awaiting our next transformation.”

“And you accuse me of garnishing my language.”

“It’s a question worthy of it.” She returned Obi-Wan’s hands to him and devoured the ration bar. “So--tell me more about your adventure.”

***

After Depa and Caleb left in search of their bed and much-needed rest, Obi-Wan tried to reach Anakin again, going as far as to achieve a deep meditative state within his own space. He was met with no avail. The waking world was just too far a stretch for them to traverse at this distance. If what Anakin said was true, Obi-Wan would need to wait for him to boost himself before they could communicate again. It seemed their conversations would be limited to dreamscapes. He resigned himself to another stint of silence and continued his own battle.

He had arranged to meet Luminara Unduli during her morning routine. When he arrived, Barriss Offee answered the door. She nodded with serene regality to Obi-Wan as she ushered him into the room.

Barriss shuffled around the room as they settled, organizing and straightening. She had been raised to knighthood a few years ago, Obi-Wan remembered. Even after completing their training bond, she and Luminara still opted to function together rather than apart. Their battle styles and sense of selves fed off one another. She was a constant fixture around Luminara, supporting and aiding her Master through the grueling dregs of the war.

Obi-Wan bowed to her in respect. Depa’s words, and his own realization, were still fresh in his mind. He found himself more attuned to the delicate, multifaceted relationship he was now tied to.

Luminara greeted him with a small smile and a soft voice. She had returned to the Temple not long before him--like Depa, war fatigue left lines on her face and aura.

He hunkered down and prepared for his next round. “I take it Master Windu has spoken with you?” he asked.

Luminara nodded with slow concern. “He has, Master Kenobi. You’ve brought us quite a conundrum.”

Well, he thought, conundrum was better than trouble. Barriss had brewed a strong black tea for them. The small cups that she served were earthenware and muted. He handled his with care.

“I’d like to bring him here, where the conundrum can create a solution.”

Luminara didn’t fidget. She was a woman of profound control. Yet, in her cautious looks and delicate hand gestures, Obi-Wan saw hesitance.

“The Senate would call this man a war criminal,” she replied, picking at her words like she was commanding troops.

“The Senate very well might. I would hope the Jedi are more understanding than a group of politicians,” he replied.

“We answer to the Senate, do we not, Master Kenobi?”

“Nominally.”

Luminara’s solemnity did not fade. “When I joined the Council...I did not fully understand the pressure the Council has been facing from the Senate. The subterfuge they indulge in.”

“All the more reason to keep them out of our affairs.”

“Is this our affair?”

“Yes—in this, they can hold their peace. They would label him the greatest war criminal of his day, try him by arbitrary fiat, and call the war done. They have no reverence or understanding of the Force or those who function in it,” he replied. “In this, it’s our society whose voice should be heard.”

Luminara did not sigh or shift. She did not exhibit her discomfort. It was in the Force where her agony showed. She bobbed and swayed in it, like a piece of driftwood at the mercy of the sea’s current. She took no more enjoyment in this conversation than he did.

“I believe all wars are crimes, Master Kenobi. We are all equally liable for perpetuating them. We must all be equally liable for expunging them.” Her voice did not waver. Her peace was unshakable. “If Anakin Skywalker is guilty of the crime of war, I must acknowledge that I am, as well. I have done things against my conscience and against my teachings to pursue peace for others. Rarely have my intentions and my actions brought about the results I was after.”

“I understand the sentiment,” he replied. Because he did. Warfare was rarely about black and white decisions. They could only ever pick the path they thought would do the most good while causing the least damage.

“You have brought the enemy to our doorstep, Master Obi-Wan. Only he no longer wishes to be our enemy. It’s become a matter of forgiveness. If there cannot be forgiveness for my enemy, what hope do I have of finding forgiveness for myself?”

“None, as far as I can tell.”

“I thought as much,” she said with a faint smile. She took the opportunity of their conciliation to stir a lump of sugar into her black tea. “When you bring this before the Council, I will speak in your favor, Master Kenobi. The Senate lacks the virtues of forgiveness and empathy. We must not allow them to dictate this war any more than they already have. Or else, none of us will come out of it with our souls intact.”

Obi-Wan couldn’t agree more.

***

Ki-Adi-Mundi was a firm believer in physical fitness to help with mental wellness. Remembering Anakin’s insistence on running and moving, and his success with Redalur, Obi-Wan thought they’d line up nicely on that front.

(He had suspected it was a matter of time before he was sucked into a marathon run with Anakin. Ahsoka would pounce on a substitute for her place. He entertained a half-formed plan to throw Ki-Adi under the bus on that, instead.)

The deep, complicated stretch the other Master had put himself into was far too advanced for Obi-Wan’s old bones. He set himself instead on a mat in a gentle fold of his legs. Ki-Adi scratched at his chin with the nail of his smallest finger.

“You’re trying to find the crux between forgiveness, penance, and retribution,” he commented. His words were muffled due to the bend and stretch of his chest. “I don’t envy you, Master Obi-Wan. That’s a difficult place to find. I’m not even sure it exists.”

Obi-Wan tried to understand how the physical shape Ki-Adi formed was even possible. “I believe it exists. If it were easy to find, it wouldn’t be authentic. I believe the challenge is its own reward.”

A huff came from the tangle of limbs. “It’s rare to find someone so enamored with the difficulty of living. Or perhaps you are simply a gambler at heart.”

“If I gamble, it’s only ever with myself.”

“That’s a bald-faced lie, Master Kenobi.” Slowly, Ki-Adi extracted himself from his deep stretch, one limb at a time. When he resettled, he folded himself down to face Obi-Wan head-on. “Do I get to answer your question now? About society?”

Obi-Wan blinked. “I don’t--”

“Master Billaba posed it to her Padawan. Who posed it to his other instructors. It’s making the rounds through the Temple. And I have an answer if you’re so inclined.”

“Please.”

“Societies offer us a place of safe learning and shared experience. And I want you to learn from my experience.” Ki-Adi’s manner turned from cheerful to intent in a heartbeat. “Since I have lost three Padawans to the dark side.”

There was no shame in his voice: acceptance and sorrow, but no shame.

“You don’t need--” Obi-Wan tried to assuage, only to be stopped by a hand held up, stemming his words.

“I do need to tell you this. Because you need to know. If any one of my Padawans had given the slightest whisper, the faintest sign, that they wanted help to step away from their path, I would have fought to the end of eternity for them. Any action I could have performed, any words they wished me to swear to, to bring them back, I would have committed to gladly. Any price, any task. They never looked back.”

Ki-Adi’s expression didn’t burn; it swallowed. Surety welled off him in the Force. “Your young man isn’t whispering: he’s screaming. To me, there is nothing more to discuss. Our aid has been asked for--refusal is unthinkable. Our Order was meant to bring peace and stability to the Force. That means extending our hand, no matter the risk. Do you understand?”

“I do,” he said.

“Good. Now, on your feet, Master Obi-Wan. It’s been a while since we’ve sparred, no?”

***

Obi-Wan sat with Yoda deep into the night. As the moon reached its zenith over them, they dismissed the Younglings who took turns waiting up with the ancient Master.

All the Younglings looked forward to their time at Yoda’s side with equal parts anticipation and dread. They would often whisper to themselves at night, telling stories of their time at the great Master’s side. Whether they would be able to stay up through the night. Whether they would be able to stay focused and attentive in their first mission as potential Jedi. Whether they would accidentally make fools of themselves.

Obi-Wan remembered his own tours of duty with that honor when he was young and eager to impress. He had relished the nights in quiet solitude that this wise Master. He remembered the impatience and the nerves. The fear and admiration. The reverence and boredom all battling inside him.

The conflict inherent in life. Obi-Wan thought of Anakin with a smile. His charge, and his pleasure. How had he thought he’d go through life alone when this had been waiting for him?

Again, Yoda did not speak. The most Obi-Wan got that night was a long, soft sigh and an enigmatic look.

***

Master Yoda went with the sun. He had assemblies to address and Younglings to confuse. Touching Obi-Wan’s shoulder, he nodded and tottered off.

Obi-Wan stayed cross-legged in the garden. Finally, given a chance to think, settle, and explore the new aspects in his mind, he was reluctant to leave his newfound place of peace. His connection to the Force felt unique and intriguing. Since he could put names to his link, recognize the warm, burning, scolding feeling, he wanted to explore it. Nurture and protect his charge, as was his privilege and duty.

Anakin had been right; they were tied together since the beginning, non-negotiable. Anakin was his Padwan in every way that mattered. Everything else was just words.

But they were important words. Obi-Wan was right; they deserved recognition. And in that, he had conviction for the fight.

In contradiction, he found a new kind of peace.

He opened his eyes when Mace found him. “Good morning,” he greeted.

“May I join you?”

“Of course.”

Air shifted as Mace took a seat in the grass beside him. There was a daisy patch nearby. The other Master plucked a handful out. Bent the stem of one around another. Kept his hands occupied. “Depa spoke with me,” he said.

“I’m sure she had a lot to say.”

“Ki-Adi and Luminara also let me know their feelings on the matter.”

Four voices in favor. Obi-Wan was so close to his simple majority. The taste of success made him want to go further. To convince his detractors, rather than fight against them. To have them all on his side, working with him. Negotiations were about compromise--they were also about walking away with everything you could get.

He wouldn’t bring discord into his Order. Not when he could do with words what should never be done by force.

Mace’s face was a stone wall as he spoke, selecting more daises as he did. “Is he... have you finally taken an apprentice?”

Obi-Wan wouldn’t have phrased it like that on his arrival home. He had been convinced that there was still so much work to do to get him and Anakin to a place where they could formulate and complete this type of bond. So much more coaxing and conversation needed to happen between them until Anakin felt comfortable with the concept, and Obi-Wan felt sure enough to take on such intense responsibility.

After all, years had been needed for him and Qui-Gon to get to that point. Putting formal designations on their relationship had been a matter of deep introspection and intense debate. His Master, brilliant as he had been, had carried many wounds after severing his bond with Dooku. That slow healing, the delicate nurturing that had colored their first few years together as they tentatively learned one another, had filled his expectations for any Padawan he’d taken.

Anakin, who reacted with impulse and passion and determination the moment he decided what he wanted, was nothing like that. He may claim to have no idea what was going on, but...well, when Obi-Wan next saw him, he suspected his surprise would be met with an eye-roll and a flippant hand gesture. His charge had seemed to have known from the beginning where they were headed.

Now...well, the Temple always did bring Obi-Wan clarity. “Yes,” he said. “I have.”

The Force clicked into place around him. Another puzzle, another piece. Obi-Wan felt lighter than he had in years.

“I wish you had told me that sooner,” Mace said with a look full of ruth.

“It took Depa walking me through it a few times before I got there myself.”

A huff, both in irritation and admiration. “Yes, she’s learned that skill well. It should have been Qui-Gon to walk you through this change in yourself. It’s the right and the privilege of a Master to see their Padawan through moments like this, even after the formal end of their training. It’s not a relationship that simply ends with Knighthood. The war has taken so much of us…”

Mace fell silent. In his hands, the daisies were woven together at the stem, creating a chain.

They shared a moment of silence over all the loss that had come from the years of violence. The devastation in the Order. How many would be like Obi-Wan, left to navigate the waters of subtle, nuanced relationships without the guidance of someone they trusted? They had lost so much. Obi-Wan wanted it to end. Over and done and buried so they could finally, finally, find themselves again in this tumultuous time.

“What is this, Obi-Wan? What do you see in him that none here could offer you?” Mace’s dark eyes were soulful.

The Force sparked under his fingernails like lightning. The static of the storm brewed under his tongue. He thought he saw golden eyes and a quick mouth smirking at him over Mace’s shoulder.

Then tell them that, rulebreaker.

Words fell out of him faster than he could catch them and soak them back into the ether. “He believes, Mace. Like wildfire and hurricanes, he believes like it’s fuel on a fire in the Force. And he’s devoted; to his children, to his own responsibilities, to the memories he carries. He argues with me. He listens, and he pushes. And he trusts me, with everything he’s devoted to. He knows the Force, and he knows himself--I don’t have to show him how to be, only how to grow. I haven’t been challenged like this in...in decades. Since Qui-Gon. And I didn’t realize how much I missed it.”

Obi-Wan was on a roll now, “He’s obstinate--getting him to see things my way is like pulling teeth, but when I get there, I know he decided for himself rather than just bowing to my wishes. He makes me think about what I’m doing, how I’m living. He makes me excited to see where he’ll go next because I’m never able to predict it. He’s me. And he’s not.”

He clamped down on himself, embarrassed by his outpouring. Hardly professional. His well-honed experience scolding him; it was dangerous to show just how much Anakin affected him. It revealed his impartiality. It showed his weakness without his approval, and worse, he showed what he wanted.

Which was never smart negotiating. The only way to get what you wanted in negotiations was to never reveal what you were truly after. There were rules to follow, and unspoken precedences to keep in mind in diplomacy.

But Anakin had named him rulebreaker. And he hadn’t gotten results until he started breaking all his rules.

Mace’s face was a mask of stone; the daisy-chain grew in loops and switchbacks over his lap as his hands worked. “You’ve had me considering the nature of our philosophy, Master Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

“As we always should,” Obi-Wan said, more to give Mace a moment to put his thoughts together than any real need to speak. The chain had grown even longer, taking on violets and yarrow and eucalyptus as Mace worked. He tossed the long end onto Obi-Wan’s lap to keep his own clear as he went.

“Our philosophies cannot answer what we are scared to ask. They will never have all the answers--our morals are in place to guide us through the unguidable.” There was exhaustion in his face. There was also a spark of humor. “Only you would ask me to extend my philosophies and principles to cover a reformed Sith Lord.”

Obi-Wan thought he heard the strand of the Three Sisters running through his head. How the Force had sat up and locked onto Anakin like a well-trained hunter when he sang. In that moment, he believed the Force would have warped the galaxy around Anakin’s desires if he asked.

Semi-reformed, he thought. But he kept that to himself. They could handle Anakin’s unique views on the Sith once they got him and his family to the Temple.

“The one lesson I have learned from this war is that people can occupy multiple, often contradictory positions at once. He’s a former Sith Lord, and he’s a father. A war criminal and a widower. Our enemy and my Padwan.”

The more he said it, the surer he felt in his new addition. He wondered how he would have that conversation with Anakin. Would the young man balk at the word Master, as Obi-Wan deeply suspected he would? Would he scoff and tell Obi-Wan he was a day late on the uptake? Would he simply smile and kiss him and accept the title as his right and his honor?

Obi-Wan personally hoped for that last option.

Mace made a noise but didn’t elaborate further. The daisy chain had come to an end. He laid it out in a maze-like configuration. Tomorrow, Obi-Wan fully expected to find many Younglings boasting flower crowns out of his efforts.

Curiosity bit him. In this quiet space between them, he asked: “Mace?”

“Humm?”

“What do you think of society’s purpose?”

That blank expression fell away into something more exasperated. “If I told you now, what would we talk about next time?”

Mace wasn’t entirely convinced--not yet. Obi-Wan sensed a few hiccups along their path yet to surface. But he was moving the dial. Obi-Wan had to believe that. He just needed hope. And he had plenty of that dangerous elixir.

***

Obi-Wan thought he could feel the worn floorboards of Anakin’s living room under his fingertips. The smell of aloe cream was a heady reminder of pleasant times. The rainforest’s noise was just outside the window, the fragile pane of glass propped open with a stray rock from the yard.

He could almost feel a warm body against him. Clever fingers skated down his leg. A laugh in his ear as lips teased at the joint of his jaw. “Where are you, rulebreaker?”

The knock on the door came fast and loud, demanding Obi-Wan’s attention. He jerked awake. Cursed under his breath in deep frustration. Stalked to his door and ripped it open.

Quinlan’s face was thunderous. That was alright, so was Obi-Wan’s. Uninvited, and frankly intensely unwelcome in this moment, he almost slammed the door shut. The only thing stopping him was Quinlan’s hand in the door frame. (He was disgruntled, not cruel.) Frazzled and aching with unsatisfied anticipation, he scrambled for his patience. It took longer than he’d like.

“It’s the middle of the night,” he snapped.

“Fucking Darth Vader?” Quinlan replied with fierce heat. The rage bleeding off him was indescribable. Outrage and hurt and disbelief coalescing into something wicked and vengeful.

His flare of emotions set Obi-Wan’s teeth on edge. Made him sharp. “This is why you beat my door down at this unholy hour?”

“Darth! Vader!”

“Come in here, you fool. If you’re going to yell at me, I at least deserve a drink.” He was sure he had something in his cabinets from one of their more wild nights. He dug it out as Quinlan paced up and down his room sauntering like an agitated viper.

“What have you done, you great fucking idiot?” he hissed. His glower could have turned lesser Jedi into trembling messes.

Tired and out of polite words (and still trying to shake out the feeling of Anakin’s hand on his thigh), Obi-Wan found his most infuriating, lofty expression. “I followed your advice--I got off my ass and found my Padawan.”

That brought his friend up short. He froze. Stared, until he realized Obi-Wan wasn’t joking. Vented a rush of air out of his mouth like a blown steam pipe. “You--you--you insufferable jackass!

“Be more creative, at least,” Obi-Wan couldn’t help but poke as he found the whiskey. He popped the lid. Poured himself two fingers. Thought about the last ten minutes of his life. Poured another finger on top of that.

Quinlan collapsed onto his bed. A dramatic hand waved for his own glass. Obi-Wan declined to help him with that and sat at his table, nursing his own.

“I expected you to scavenge some terrified young thing out of the wilderness! Someone you could--I don’t know, learn to tolerate by the time they were ready to enter the Padawan trials. Not to go out and wrangle, oh, the most terrifying Force-user to ever grace the galaxy!”

Third most potent Force-user, really. Obi-Wan kept his opinion about Luke and Leia Skywalker under his tongue and behind his teeth. They’d be an exciting pair of surprises all around. “I’d pay good money to see you call Anakin a ‘terrified young thing’ to his face.”

“Anakin?”

“That’s his name.”

Quinlan shook his head in disbelief. “What in all the small and miserable hells on a pin needle were you thinking?”

A fickle idea struck Obi-Wan. If Quinlan wanted to be dramatic... Obi-Wan’s storytelling skills did need a bit of polishing.

Obi-Wan told Anakin’s story. All of it, from Tatooine to Nevos. The whiskey helped him get through the rougher parts. When he detailed Padmé’s death, Quinlan hauled himself to his feet. Grabbed the whiskey bottle. Poured himself a drink. Downed it in one go, and poured another.

Obi-Wan continued. He didn’t pull punches. He may have emphasized a bit more than he had with any of the Council members, though. Emotional appeals wouldn’t have worked with the Masters. Quinlan was another matter. In this, Obi-Wan could explore the potential of the Skywalkers’ saga on the heartstrings.

It definitely wouldn’t hurt to test-run the idea now for when he went toe-to-toe with the Senate.

Quinlan was considering his third drink when Obi-Wan finished. He rubbed his face with a short swipe of his palm.

“Oh, that poor man,” his friend muttered, his eyes hazy with empathy. All anger he had carried in with him had dissipated like mist in the morning. In its place was heartfelt, sorrowful grief, nursed just as carefully as the glass of whiskey.

“Only you,” he marveled. “Only you would find that the most fearsome wolf in the Force, and reveal him to be defending his young. Only you would spend weeks getting him to trust you with his pups. And only you would try to convince the rest of us he was tame.”

Obi-Wan thought about his first conversation with Anakin--the defensiveness and weary suspicion he had poured into the Force. With the state of his shields then, it had been impossible to miss.

“Mace said something similar. I don’t agree--it’s not like I’m that different from other Masters. They wouldn’t have reacted without thought. It was...” He pettered off, not sure how to end that sentence.

Because suddenly, he wasn’t sure others in his Order would have taken his path. The stark reality of that hit him about the head, freezing his tongue.

Quinlan filled in his abrupt silence. “I most certainly could agree. You’re a tender-heart, Kenobi. And as curious as a crowbird. Only. You. No one else would have taken one look at an enemy and seen a challenge instead of a threat. Oh, you’re getting another drink? Bring the bottle over here.”

Their conversation quickly derailed after that. Obi-Wan impulsively asked Quinlan as they entered their fourth round, and the world lost clarity at galloping speeds.

“Society? It’s for adventure and trauma. That’s it; nothing in between,” Quinlan asserted, waving his drink in a hazardous arc over his head.

Obi-Wan toasted him, leaning hard to the left as his sobriety slipped further and further away.

***

There was a knock at his door.

It rang in Obi-Wan ears, dredging him up into consciousness. How disappointing. He should know better--Quinlan and late nights always led to hang-overs. The unpleasant drag of dehydration made him slow. The insomniac-hefted exhaustion. He could almost hear Anakin laughing at him.

He opened his door with slow care. Squinted. Swallowed his surprise. “Barriss Offee,” he recognized after a long, blinking moment. “What can I do for you?”

Barriss bowed low. Her clothes were neat and tidy—her expression grave. “Master Kenobi,” she greeted. “Master Luminara was hoping to speak with you again.”

Obi-Wan’s mouth twitched. Thinking through the fire in his brain, he scrambled for coherency. Luminara had supported him when last they spoke. Had something with her changed?

Negotiations were delicate things—many decisions hinged on the desires of a moment. Luminara had seemed sure when he spoke to her earlier, but perhaps an idea had taken root she couldn’t shake.

Cursing Quinlan, who had slunk back to his room mere hours ago, Obi-Wan took a moment to still himself in the Force. It echoed back his uncertainty, like a large boulder towing the edge of the cliff. Not sure if it would tip over by wind, by hand, or by its own weight.

“Where is she?”

“We’ve been deployed for another mission. She was hoping to speak to you while her ship is prepared,” Barriss explained. “I will take you to her.”

Obi-Wan scrubbed his face in the sink and shrugged on the first clean set of robes he could uncover.

The Temple hanger was quiet--it was still early in the morning. A single cruiser sat idle. Luminara and Barriss must be about to embark on a stealth mission, he told his frazzled nerves.

They weren’t settled. If anything, he felt like someone had racked rusted iron nails down his soul.

Luminara was not seated in the craft.

Chancellor Palpatine was. The grandfatherly prime authority sat in the pilot’s chair, hands folded in his lap, and that smugly vacant expression Obi-Wan despised on his face. A pair of Senate bodyguards stood off to one side, standing at uneasy attention. A third sat in the co-pilot seat, studiously looking at nothing and no one as she prepped the ship.

Obi-Wan turned to Barriss, his disapproval and outrage unmasked on his face. Her betrayal stung deep. Behind her, two more blue-bodied Senate bodyguards took up posts. Cutting off his exits. Offering strategic support for any intervention the Chancellor called for.

As if a group of Senate guards could handle a Master Jedi. Although...

Obi-Wan scanned himself, hoping to prove that what he knew wasn’t true. Fate disappointed him: he wasn’t armed. His lightsaber was back in his room. He hadn’t thought he’d need its protection in his home, amongst his family.

“General Kenobi! So good to see you. These cloak and dagger, behind-the-back tricks are exciting, are they not?”

Obi-Wan continued to address Barriss. She stared into middle distance and didn’t meet his gaze. The Force rattled around her, metal ball bearings tossed in a cylinder. “It seems a great many things have been happening behind my back.”

A tutting sound, like a chomping of bone on bone. “Don’t be angry at the young lady, Master Kenobi. She came to me out of concern. After all, what was she to do when the Jedi Council, our great generals of the war, talk of granting leniency to one of the most wanted war criminals in the galaxy? Whatever was she to do, but go to the one power who could put a stop to that?”

Obi-Wan kept his gaze on Barriss. Matched her stubborn rejection with relentless awareness. There would be no hiding from this, for either of them. He stood alone amongst enemies with no support. His best move was to put pressure on the dissenter. The one with the most personal faults to press against. The one who would break and react without thinking. The one who felt the most intense guilt about their actions. “Is that what this is about? Why you did this?”

He almost managed to make his tone kind. Almost.

Barriss’ vicious energy came up around her like a roaring wave. “You all speak of forgiveness!” she yelled, her face animated in anger. “He doesn’t deserve it! He’s killed hundreds--thousands, for all we know! That you all are thinking of granting him sanctuary--how could you?! He’s a war criminal--he should face punishment for his actions--he should die for what he’s done!” Her anger and hurt radiated off her like a furnace.

“As you should, for yours?” Obi-Wan asked, cold.

She glared at him, insulted to the point of wordlessness. Stew in her fury. Used it to stiffen her spine and met his righteous indignation with her own. The Force thundered around her, filled with all her unrestrained emotions. Filtering nothing.

Obi-Wan reigned up his shields, letting her throw her undisciplined self at nothing but sandstone and brick. He was unmoving in the face of her maelstrom.

“Let’s not speak of death,” the Chancellor interjected with that grating tone. “Not on such a joyous occasion.”

“Joyous, Chancellor?” Obi-Wan asked without breaking off his battle of wills with Barriss.

“Reunions are causes for joy.”

“I wouldn’t call this a reunion.”

The Chancellor smiled. It didn’t meet his eyes. “Have a seat, Master Kenobi. Please. I’m eager to learn of your…” he glanced at Barriss, “adventure.”

Obi-Wan’s teeth sharpened to a point. It took the control of a lifetime not to grimace in disgust and frustration. Being prodded so by his people--his family--was obnoxious but done out of love. Their concern for him made them gentle with him. Made him soft in turn, knowing their intentions. This was nothing of the sort. This was an exploiter, pushing at buttons to see what would provoke a response.

He curled his fingers, tightened the muscles in his wrist, vainly hoping to feel a pressure he knew wasn’t there. Much like his lightsaber, his comm had not made it onto his person before he left—one more lax decision made in a place of supposed safety.

So well-thought-out. The cunning plan of Barriss’ betrayal. She was a volcano of injured fury and rage before him. She was also armed. It hadn’t alarmed him minutes ago. It did now. The Senate guards were nothing more than a nuisance, overcome with a little concentration. The Chancellor wouldn’t be stopping him. Barriss was another matter. If she tried to stop him from leaving, it’d quickly get out of hand. Collateral damage would ensue.

Explaining to the Council how the Chancellor came to harm under his watch would be a trial. It would be murder in the Senate. Well, there would always be consequences for foolish action. Maybe a close call with a Force-battle will teach the Chancellor to stay out of things that don’t concern him.

Chancellor Palpatine looked sickly anticipatory as if he honestly Obi-Wan would tell him anything. “Does the young one speak true? Have you, indeed, found Darth Vader? After all these years?”

His patience, typically so boundless, reached a breaking point. He’d sooner cut his tongue out than tell this man anything about Anakin. “As pleasant as this has been, Chancellor, I really must be going.”

Barriss moved to stop him. Obi-Wan let his control slip. Just for a moment. Just for a heartbeat. Incensed beyond restraint, he held his rage and hurt like a knife to her throat. Held it steady. Let her know just how close she was to meeting the Force in a new form. “Think that through, young one.”

Barriss froze. Her eyes widened. Slowly, suddenly unsure, she backed up.

The Senate guard tried to stop him, coming up the ramp to wrangle him back into the shuttle. Obi-Wan brought the Force up to him, entirely ready to move them by any method necessary.

When a blow was great enough, the pain registered as an afterthought. The shock overtook everything. Obi-Wan’s mental walls heralded the attack a mere second after impact.

Gunstone crashed into sandstone and brick. Boomed. Dust kicked up, beaten into the air, mortar chips became projectiles sent every which way. His shields rocked in their foundations, assaulted by a power previously unknown.

Agony washed down his spine, arching and paralyzing. Like a stunned prey animal, he hung suspended in danger.

Reverberating sickness pounded through his skull, taking his senses into oblivion. Brick and stone gave way under repeated aggression. Explosive charges thundered into him, riddling him with weak points. Rot and dust overtook his senses. Clogged his mouth and nose. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think.

The cannon sent him to his knees—the brutal force against his shields, against the walls of his mind that had withstood countless battles. Endless warfare, reloaded with quick efficiency. Lined up. Set loose on him again.

He had never known a siege like this. His walls were battered relentlessly—monstrous explosion. Reload. Hit again. Too fast, the belligerence was coming too fast. A single point of him hit again and again until pieces chipped away. Let the air fill with sulfur and dust, violence and greed and malice.

Obi-Wan’s body rejected him. He choked dry-heaving. His vision faded into a blurred white mess. He couldn’t command his limbs. The rotting smell invested his every awareness. Overtook his mind until his thoughts were thick and unmaneuverable.

Pressure kicked out his balance under him. Gravity did the rest. His hands and knees ached, colliding gracelessly with unforgiving durasteel.

His body’s pains were dull against the agony within him. There was a vast, gaping hole. Right through his shields. Right through his outer walls. The sandstone and brick wall that made up his imposing primary defense. The one that had withstood offenses from Dooku and Ventress and any number of turmoil throughout the war.

Malevolence hit him after the cannonball. Hard. Blistering. Unforgiving. Ugly war machines had blasted a hole through it within moments. They had left nothing but crumbling stonework behind.

He came to himself on his hands and knees, gasping for breath and reason. For any kind of lifeline. His fingers pried into durasteel as if he could burrow through it, away from the pressure on his neck.

Barriss lay beside him, limp and unresponsive. Her face was stunned and beaten into compliance. Her eyes were vacant. The attack had left her down and done—any potential assistance, gone under a flurry of the onslaught.

A great and terrible power filled the room, from corner to corner. The Senate guard stood silent. Terrified into obedience by an unholy authority. Unwilling--and unable--to help him.

He was alone, injured, and defenseless amongst enemies.

Comprehension slipped away in the dust and debris left scattered across his mind. He couldn’t understand what was happening. He only felt. And that feeling hurt. His nerves were on fire, his bones were green branches bent the wrong way. Rot touched his heart, his soul, his Force connection. Every way he turned, he came under a new drive, in the real world, and through the living universe.

It was as if someone had seized his connection and twisted, warping him down to his core. Pulling him through razors and gravel and glass, cutting him up for easier consumption. Mashing any resistance to a pulpy mess under the heel of complete domination.

He was freezing. Chilled down to his fingers and toes. Ice blocked his lungs. Numbed the screaming pain as his mind was hammered down into something resembling subservience.

A great and terrible hand landed on the back of Obi-Wan’s neck. Pulled him up. Demanded every shred of his attention and concentration. Palpatine’s molten golden eyes stared down at him, ripping into him like wildfire. “Now, why don’t you tell me where my apprentice is, Jedi.”

***

Obi-Wan screamed.

No one heard him. There was silence in the shuttle as it took off.

Obi-Wan fought.

It didn’t matter. His fingers barely reacted to his orders. He had lost control of himself. Blood and bone and his collective physical self responded to someone other than himself. That someone, with his dry frail hands and his sinister intentions, walked him from one point to another with condescending paternalism.

“There now, Master Kenobi. Isn’t it so much better when you stop fighting me? That’s it, watch your step. Calm down now, I won’t let you go anywhere.”

From deep in his inner sanctum, still coherent and fighting the invading gunstone, Obi-Wan called upon the Force. The flashing sound of cannon drowned out its delicate response—one more ally taken from him.

The hole in his shields, the collapsing crater of brick and stone, broken and crumbling further with each assault, left him exposed. Left him vulnerable. Left him scrambling for anything he could do to stem the rising violent tide.

He retreated behind his secondary wall, higher and thicker, more imposing. Locked in his own mind with no escape, Obi-Wan gathered what dormant plants he could, dug up from the rubble and ruin. Prepared for enemies at his gate. Behind his next wall, a garden full of defenseless plants and delicate connections lay.

He couldn’t let them be destroyed.

In the distance, bells rang the alarm.

***

Spend enough time on space travel, and you learn how to read a craft. How it moves and quakes in the drift. Which pulled at gravitational whirls, and which pushed against it. And Obi-Wan had traveled the length and breadth of the galaxy by now.

He was on a starcruiser. The heft of the ship through space told him so. The shift and the run of the bow. The sound of the engines.

He pulled his hands close to himself, curling up to conserve warmth. The chain locking him to the floor rattled and slithered around him. Another was heavy around his neck. He couldn’t be sure what they were constructed with. Whatever it was kept him pinned down. Tied down. His body refused to heal from the unseen wounds weeping from his mind.

Barriss was his captive companion. An unmoving lump in the back of the makeshift cell. Still and quiet. Nearly dead. He would have warned her, had he known. They had as much use for her as engine exhaust.

“She has potential,” a droll voice complimented from the doorway. Obi-Wan stared at Count Dooku came into their cell. He was alone. The pair of guards stationed outside with the same nervous obliviousness that characterized the ones on the Chancellor’s ship. “Emotional and strong. Laced with just the right amount of impulsive righteousness. A compelling combination for the young. Perhaps she’ll be interested in a conversation, once my Master has his way.”

Obi-Wan said nothing. Carefully did not acknowledge the live oak in the back of his mind. Did not draw attention to it. With the hole in his defenses, who knew what was slipping out into the Force?

“Your manners are better than that, Master Kenobi. Let’s not make this uncivilized.”

“Count Dooku,” he muttered. His voice was hoarse. He’d screamed it raw under the Chancellor’s strikes. Cracked throat, chapped lips. Dehydration drained him fast and cloying. “I’d rise to greet you, but you don’t make it easy on your guests, do you?” He leaned forward, letting the clatter of chains make his point.

“Little Jedi,” Dooku’s dark eyes traced him up and down with something resembling pride. “I’m surprised to find you so eloquent. Many are lost after my Master rains the full force of his power down upon them. But then, your defenses have always been something, haven’t they?” He spoke affectionately. Like Obi-Wan was a beloved pet who performed well before company.

In his hand was a collapsible camp stool. He shook it open and took a seat. It put him above Obi-Wan, chained to the floor and pinned low as he was. Sat with a straight back and his legs folded in casual elegance. Radiated dominance that expected to remain unchallenged.

“What do you want?”

“To speak with you, of course. Did you think I came down here for the view?”

“Where am I?”

“A ship.”

“The Chancellor’s ship? Or is it Darth Sidious?”

“Lord Darth Sidious. Master Eternal. Truth-speaker. Cleanser. He’ll wear many names before he’s done. He once spoke with me,” Dooku offered.

All the confirmation Obi-Wan needed. Twelve years of war, driven by the same hand. No wonder they were stuck in an endless quagmire. No wonder they were hitting useless milestone after useless milestone. Played like puppets before a painted background already detailing their fates. He didn’t think he could be any more disgusted with himself and everyone around him who missed it.

“I can’t imagine any topic we’d have to discuss,” he grunted. He was sore everywhere.

But he wasn’t done. He needed to not be done. Pulling on reserves of strength previously unknown, he looked into Dooku’s dark eyes and patrician face.

“Really? An uncharacteristic lack of imagination on your part. I can think of all sorts of things to discuss.”

The Count stretched out a hand; a deliberate, confident motion of control. He moved like Qui-Gon, with quiet, confined grace. And, Obi-Wan realized with a sick feeling, he moved like Obi-Wan himself. Lineage revealed not in similar faces or body types, but in expressions and physicality and Force-connection.

Obi-Wan braced for another attack. He was battered; his outer wall still boasted a gaping hole through the wall. His inner walls were scared by soot and stain and collapsed iron shrapnel. This wouldn’t crush him, he told himself. He clung to that as he mounted his defenses.

And froze when that hand touched his cheek. Cradled his jaw. A soft tutting sound as he was turned this way and that, inspected with keen appraisal. “What a little bird you are--all bravado and determination. And yet so delicate in hand, fluttering like that will protect you. Be at ease, little bird. I said I wish to speak. That’s all.”

“That’s a funny way to say torture.”

“Oh, little bird, why would I hurt you? You’re the jewel of my lineage.”

“You killed your lineage,” Obi-Wan accused, sudden outrage jolting through him like ten-thousand volts of electricity. He remembered cradling Qui-Gon’s dying body, struck down by this man. Remembered hot blood and hotter tears. Remembered the blood and the grief and the sorrow of losing the most crucial star in his galaxy. Of the terrifying quiet and gloom without his complicating, mystifying, loving, infuriating Master to argue with and rely upon.

He remembered saying good-bye to Qui-Gon. Releasing his memory into the Force. Missing him every day. And his killer spoke to Obi-Wan of lineage?

Dooku’s face split into a brutal smile. “No--I made my line stronger. Look at you. Twelve years of war, over half the Order dead. And you’re still fighting. I couldn’t be prouder.”

“I have no need for your pride or approval. I don’t recognize you in my lineage.”

“You will.” He said it not with smug gloating, but with the confidence of an ancient Master speaking to his disciple. Already playing their relationship as such. Like he had some proprietary claim on Obi-Wan.

Obi-Wan shook his head, rejecting the notion, the offer, the suggestion. The hand of a murderer stayed on him. He wouldn’t indulge this destroyer.

Dooku clicked his teeth and tapped at Obi-Wan’s cheek. Looked at him with deep speculation. He could feel the man’s probing touches. His tentative volleys against Obi-Wan’s shields.

Just talking, he had claimed even as he searched for weaknesses. Nothing with the Sith was ever just talking.

“You’ve never met a Sith Lord. Not really,” Anakin told him with a derisive look.

“So well-defended. I can’t tell you how surprised my Master was when he realized he’d put all his power into shattering your walls, only to find another set, even stronger, right behind them. Still protecting you. Where is Darth Vader?”

“Who?”

Dooku continued to tap his cheek. “There’s a way out of this for you, little bird. If you play it right, you’ll get everything you want. Isn’t that worth a conversation? This doesn’t need to be the end of it for you. We can still do so much. Where is Vader?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Tap. Tap. Tap. “The things I could teach you. Consider it, Kenobi. You could be the best of the Sith Lords to ever stalk the galaxy.”

“That’s an honor I’d rather not boast.”

Dooku didn’t look offended. If anything, thrilling anticipation imposed the lines of his face. “Consider it--the power to take whatever you desire. You don’t trust the politicians--good, you shouldn’t. Darth Sidious is a politician. You want the Senate gone? Easy, most of them are rotting from the inside already. You want the Jedi preserved--well, many could be saved that would die without you there to still my Master’s hand when the time comes.”

Obi-Wan pulled back at the threat of violence. He didn’t have far to go before he came up against the hull. He hit it hard, a dull thud that broke the cadence of Dooku’s voice. That overly-familiar hand dropped away from his face.

It didn’t make Obi-Wan feel better. Dooku was still too close to him. Too satisfied and self-assured in Obi-Wan’s space. Like it was only a matter of time before Obi-Wan was kneeling at his feet and naming him Master.

“Because you plan to kill them?” he demanded, pushing against the insinuation and the threat. Pushing against the assumption of supremacy. “And you speak of lineage like it’s sacred. It’s our purpose to look after the next generation, not murder them! Not destroy the system that protects them.”

“And we will protect them--in our own way. Orders must be rebuilt on something, after all. The galaxy is about to change, little bird. You can have a hand in it, and shape it as you will. Where is Vader?”

“Why do you care so much about him? It’s not like you need him to win the war. The last four years have shown that.”

“I don’t need him. To be honest, I’d prefer if that hellion stayed dead and forgotten in whatever hole he crawled into. But my Master,” Dooku shrugged, casual. “He has ambitions. And it includes those brats. It’s not my place to question his goals. Nor is it yours. I know you were taught to respect your elders. Where is Vader?”

The brats--the children? A new sort of terror built in Obi-Wan. If it was Luke and Leia, the Sith were after... “You can’t honestly believe I’m going to tell you.”

Dooku tilted his head. Inspected Obi-Wan with a fresh, inquisitive expression as he realized his temptations weren’t landing. “No...no, you’re right. You’re too protective. Little bird…are you protecting the nest? Or protecting the mate? Is that why you’re so invested in this?” He grinned, slow and sharp and lascivious. “Is it because you found someone you want to keep for yourself? That’s what this is. You’ve already had him, haven’t you? And you want him still.”

Obi-Wan flinched. Dooku chuckled. “Yes,” he repeated. “That’s what this is. Proud, stoic Obi-Wan Kenobi, brought low by lust. Who would have thought?”

Up against his outer wall, the fires started. They raced across the dry earth, consuming ground at a rapid pace. Their smoke wafted in, rising steadily over Obi-Wan’s shattered outer defenses. Rose higher and higher with each syllable from Dooku’s tongue.

“Keep yourself away from me,” Obi-Wan hissed, frantically trying to pull away. Dooku did no such thing.

“You want Vader? He’ll be yours. You can have him by your side every day, and in your bed every night, if you want. Make him into whatever you want him to be. Mold him to you; I bet you could make him the sweet and pliant apprentice he never was with Sidious and I. We’d thank you for it--he’s far too wild, as he is now. You’ve met him. You know that to be true. That boy needs someone to control him, for his own good. I tried, really I did, but he’s in need of...special attention, don’t you agree?”

“I don’t want your poison,” Obi-Wan gasped, fighting for breath through the thickening smoke. It irritated his eyes, his nose, his chest. He tried to think of the wind. Tried to blow the drifting smoke away from him.

Dooku waved it back into him. “You’ll love that challenge, I think. From me into you, you into him. A fine lineage. In time, you can even find him his own apprentice. Strengthen our line even further. Wouldn’t that be grand, little bird? To be remembered with such awe and devastation?”

Dooku’s words painted visions in the smoke. A galaxy no longer at war. Peace, finally brought to those he loved: safety and security. The Younglings protected, and the universe once again calm. Predictable.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Obi-Wan wouldn’t have to worry himself to sleep anymore. He wouldn’t be looked to by lesser politicians to solve every problem and tragedy anymore. He could finally see to himself. See to his charges. Ahsoka, growing powerful and confident. Given the respect and the support to thrive. A fine addition to their lineage...the twins, looked after and instructed by a disciplined Master who had their education firmly in hand.

Anakin, wild and unrestrained and heartbreakingly beautiful by his side. Dancing in sunlight and through waves. Free on his troubles, free of his burdens. Thriving under Obi-Wan’s hand. Eager and supplicant to the point of groveling. Never quarrelsome or troubled.

He saw it all so clearly. The smoke hazed his senses, offered him something new. All he had to do was come out from behind his walls. When was the last time he had done that?

Away from the war, they could finally discover one another as they were meant to, without the rest of civilization trying to impede their growth. The temptation was sweet on Obi-Wan’s tongue.

Like mint and sugar.

A thick, knotted root wrapped around his ankle, tripping him up. Bringing him down below the smoke. Upgrown from the soil, it caught and snagged him. Dragged him down into the dirt. Into the greenhouse. Beside an unmovable tree. The rest of the plants around them were sleeping in the winter weather.

The live oak did not. It never would, evergreen and enduring. Unchanging and unchangeable. Those roots pushed out the influence and the temptation, bound too deep to be moved without a fight. It had found a place of good soil and sunlight and clean, clear water. There would be no secession of those valuable resources. It whispered to him on the wind that ran through the leaves, a running counter to Dooku’s seeping fog.

Memory overrode illusions; he recalled the warm pleasure of Anakin straddling his hips. His scalding touch and his worshipful mouth. Remembered his fluid frame; his rapid heartbeat.

Any version of me that’s so dark--that’s so corrupted--as to want to hurt you would be smart. Strong. Powerful. But that version of me would no longer understand trust. And without trust, you never would have come to me.

He saw the visions in the smoke clearer. Anakin, looking at him with blank golden eyes and not a thought in his head. Not a word of conflict or challenge in his mouth. A little hint of fear coating the edges of his expression. Weighted down not by choice, but by the collar around his neck. Ostentatious and gaudy, fashioned in black iron and bloodstones. It clamped around Anakin, no latch to unclasp and no way to remove it. The collar overwhelmed and muffled him, restraining a wildheart with ugly binds and thick chains.

Obi-Wan jerked away from dark and tempting thoughts of control. Glared at Dooku with newfound righteousness. “You talk of violence like you’re sorry you indulge it. Like it’s an uncivilized tool forced into your hand by the ignorant. But that’s not true, is it?”

As he spoke, he saw the connections writing themselves before him. No wonder we haven’t been able to win the war--how do you fight your own corruption?

Across the Force, Obi-Wan heard Qui-Gon. His Master called to him down their connection. It’s not just about knowledge, my young Padawan. You’ll never want for that. It’s about how you use it.

Obi-Wan fought without analyzing or considering every angle, every option. Spat out his passion and his anger and his belief without second-guessing. He pushed back, taking strength in the conflict. In his convictions. “Intelligence, curiosity, ambition--everything to become the perfect Jedi, if only you hadn’t tainted it with disbelief and skepticism. You couldn’t bring yourself to trust the Force and your fellows. All the knowledge in the galaxy at your potential, you’ve warped them all for power!” he damned.

Dooku’s dark eyes narrowed; his glare was a fierce and fiery cauldron. For a moment, his hands spasmed, like he was just trying to restrain himself from striking Obi-Wan. Precious lineage, indeed.

Dark eyes. Not golden. You’ve never met a real Sith Lord. Not really.

And suddenly, Obi-Wan understood.

“You’re no Sith,” he whispered as the idea rolled into a core belief of discovery and enlightenment, alight on the trail of revelation in the face of Dooku’s incomprehension. “You’re still a Jedi--just a corrupted one. You don’t understand the Sith’s ways. You don’t believe in the conflict. You still build yourself on Order’s tenants: you still reject the emotion and the ignorance, the passion, and the chaos. You’ve just rotted your own teachings. To a Sith, mindless conflict is violence. To a Jedi, violence is intelligence without trust. Without compassion. Tell me, which are you, really?”

Dooku reared back, shocked by Obi-Wan’s volcanic outburst. His surprise was an ugly twist across his face. Obi-Wan laughed, half-hysterical as he saw this man for what he was. For the wisdom and the belief rushing through him faster than the wildfires burning just beyond his walls.

“You don’t know, do you? Not really. And if you’re not really a Sith, what are you offering me? Some shadow version of myself now? I already have a lineage--in every Jedi I aid, in every Padawan I help train, in every Youngling I protect. I don’t need them to be thankful to me on groveling knees to know I’ll be remembered.”

Dooku stood up, calling an end to their conversation. But Obi-Wan wasn’t done. It needed to be spoken. This corruption needed to hear the rest of his words, or he wouldn’t truly understand.

And Obi-Wan devoutly practiced teachable moments.

“So, Count Dooku, if all you have to offer me is an apprentice who’d need to be collared and controlled in order to obey me, and the blood of my society on my hands, I’d rather throw myself off the Coruscant Spire, if it’s all the same to you.”

Dooku jerked as if Obi-Wan had struck him. Hissed at him like some wild thing. Paced on lightly balanced feet—a predator gnawing at an uncooperative prey. Seizing up the threat. There would be no shelter here. No capitulation.

Obi-Wan wouldn’t fall. Not to this man. He wouldn’t become a corrupted, dispassionate, undeserving version of himself. Wouldn’t dishonor himself and his lineage like that. He wouldn’t lose the bond and responsibilities and joys he had just found for the easy path.

The fires rose against his walls, consuming all the greenery it could reach. In the hole of his mental shields, smoke bellowed through in a new attack. The last wave had been subversive; this was pervasive. Dense gas that obscured the sun and tainted the water. That covered the planets in ash and made Obi-Wan cough in harsh irritation as it stung his eyes and nose.

He pulled back as Dooku blew that smoke towards him. Drawn deeper and deeper into himself. Stone and marble couldn’t stop smoke. Plant and root and sunlight couldn’t stop the smoke. All that could be done was retreat. Hold his breath. Wait it out. He withdrew into his inner sanctum. But the smoke rose. And the smoke followed.

It would continue to follow. Where enemies aplenty had fallen in the killing field between his walls, there was no stopping the fire.

He still held the live oak in him. A link to Anakin, just waiting to be found. Abused. Used. Obi-Wan made a decision; himself or Anakin. He couldn’t defend both. Not really a decision.

He retreated as deep into himself as he could. Into the greenhouse, with the live oak that defied any space and structure. Closed the door and kept the smoke out.

In doing so, he left the inner citadel abandoned, ready to be ravished. Dooku, without restraint, compassion, or trust, ripped into his mind. Rifled through his memories. Rummaged for the answers to his questions.

Obi-Wan kept his hands pressed against the greenhouse door. Kept it closed. Kept the smoke out. The glass was fogged over, obscuring the light. He couldn’t see out. He didn’t want to. Dooku would be ruining everything he touched in search of clues to Anakin’s whereabouts. He held his breath and protected the bond.

He felt it when Dooku found what he was looking for. His cultured voice bounced off the corners of Obi-Wan’s mind. Vercingetorix...who knew he would have been the lucky winner. And not even live to claim his prize.

Behind him, the tree pulsed. Leaves shook. He could hear the wood groan as it shifted. He pressed his hand against the glass to keep the smoke out. To keep himself balanced. To keep focus.

No!

He had to do something. Anything. Locked into the smallest corner of his mind, he was not powerless. The live oak called to him. Beckoned. He grabbed at the tree branches, the leaves, the trunk. Buried himself in that living, steady comfort. Pushed into that power to project himself.

Grabbing up everything he could--his conscious, pain, fear, fury, worry, he thought of a slate board. Scrolled out his warning in fire and electricity and lemon juice. In the remnants of mints leaves in a silver teapot. Chucked the whole thing out into the Force through the power in the tree.

Please he begged the Force as Dooku’s power clamped down on him. Filled him and infiltrated every unprotected part of him. The glass picked up soot and ash under his hand. If ever you were kind and loving, please warn them.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Obi-Wan awoke to a headful of rubble and ruin. It was paralyzing. There wasn’t room to think past the destruction, let alone move. He was surrounded by annihilated mental shields and his core in rebellion against him. Of the settled smoke and rust and loss. The leftover vestiges of a once-promising Jedi Master, brought to pieces at his feet. Pieces of himself, strewn and disregarded.

Oh, how could everything hurt this much?

In the center of the wreck, protected by Obi-Wan’s stubborn determination and a focus built by decades of practice, stood the besieged greenhouse. Behind fragile panes of glass and wood, rooted the live oak. The poor thing hummed with anticipation and worry. It was a secret tree, he knew. If the encroaching bane found it, the tree would be ripped out and hacked to pieces. Dismembered, one limb at a time. Tossed into the furnace to feed the next round of destruction.

If he let in any further damage, the malicious search would take the tree from him. The one thing he wanted, torn asunder. He couldn’t allow that, so he clung. Dug deep into himself and resisted any push into his psyche. Carry on; he still had part of himself to give, rather than surrender.

“Come on, Master Kenobi,” a voice instructed with wavering determination. It wasn’t confident that called him. Rather a blistering frenetic intensity. The kind motivated from fear instead of belief.

A hand pressed onto his chest. Forced some semblance of a pattern into his gulping gasps. Reminded him how to breathe. “You always told me to take strength from the Force.” Five points of pressure pushed order and a harsh, chilly rationality into him, one drop at a time.

Obi-Wan blinked into reality. Tried to focus. Let his body fall into familiar patterns while his thoughts tried to find a path in the fallen chaos. Five out when he was forced to exhale, five in when they encouraged him to inhale. Through it all, a voice urged him on.

There were slivers of light in the distance. He tracked them, methodical. Like a hinted, hidden bath, gossamer strands that were so delicate, so easy to lose track, if he didn’t concentrate. Didn’t scrape together all the shred of himself towards the one goal of following. He’d have to push off if he was to go where he was guided.

The greenhouse that he guarded with such tenacity still stood. Still protected. It was a thin layer of defense, so delicate. If Obi-Wan pushed against it too hard, the glass would shatter. It was an intricate balance of trust and faith--the greenhouse held the line against his enemy with barriers so fragile it would break the moment he turned his attention away.

“Return to yourself, Master Kenobi,” the unsteady voice ordered.

No, he couldn’t. If he turned away, if he broke concentration for just one moment, Dooku would smash through his last barrier. Take away his final form of protection. Strip him into nothing and remake him.

“Master Kenobi, please. I can’t...I can’t help if you don’t come back. I can’t amend. We can’t get out of here,” the voice pleaded. Concern tainted the hands that forced him back to himself.

It was the plea in the voice that caught him. Not the demand, not the pervasive ugliness Dooku poured into him. Not an attack. It was an appeal for aid.

A Padawan and a member of his Order. A part of his family. They asked for help. He was being called. That responsibility pulled at him where interrogation and dominance hadn’t. He rose into the physical world. Took in details one strand at a time.

Thread by thread, Barriss Offee took form before him. Her aura bled exhaustion in agonizing pulses. Her face was a war of intention and fear, pushing them both through the terror to find some semblance of calm. The calm that she shared with him.

He ached, pulling himself back together for her. Shouldered the responsibility and the duty that came with his position. His dedication.

Then he remembered what she had done.

“Oh, stop,” Obi-Wan growled, pulling away from her before he could regain control of himself and his emotions. She responded by pushing harder.

“You know I can’t do that, Master Kenobi. You have to come back.”

What do the Jedi say about following the orders of a traitor? asked a voice from behind the tree, deep and full of grit. It was so easy to imagine the challenge and the fight in molten and golden eyes.

That voice belonged to someone who wasn’t Obi-Wan. That voice belonged to someone who looked at others with suspicion, not curiosity.

He didn’t want to talk to her. But he needed to.

“Again,” he instructed around a coughing fit.

She responded without saying anything. Bit by bit, the two of them fused him back into working order. Battered, wretched, but working. Her face was wain; her aura snuffed low. She was still recovering from the attack on her mental shields by the Chancellor.

She was also out of her chains. He saw them in a small heap against the far wall.

“How are you free?” he asked. His chains still bound him to the wall, tight and unforgiving.

Barriss hesitated. Glanced at the pile of iron and steel. Then, she turned her wrist over. With precise care, she extracted a fine-point needle from the lining of her sleeve cuff. “Master Luminara and I were once held prisoner during the invasion of the Heliosphere. It’s not a mistake I care to make twice.”

She shimmied the little needle into his cuffs. In a few quick twists, she had him free. Things were improving.

“Where’s Dooku?” His immediate memories were fuzzed and difficult to parse. He did remember the smoke: the dense fires and the choking ash. Everything else was lost to surreal distance. He rolled his wrists to check his circulation and give his worn body some small task to focus on.

“I don’t know. When I awoke, we were alone. There’s a set of guards outside the door. I can hear them moving, every once in a while.”

“How many?” Judgment for their actions would have to wait--he had other, more pressing concerns.

“Four. And then there’s that,” she thrust her chin out, directing him to the cell’s only door. On it stood a symbol, complex and twisting. Circular and morbidly interlocking. A seal. The design radiated a locked-in, containing energy that rewound on itself. When he investigated it through the Force, seal devoured his feeble proddings and chomped for more.

A way to keep them in the cell unsupervised, then.

Obi-Wan groaned. Tested his stiff legs to make sure they’d hold him. Stood up and tried to take stock. He had no energy, no reserves to pull upon--what Barriss had managed to push into him was fast being burned through to keep him upright and stable. Any shred of familiar resources was in ruins. Dooku had left him in ruins. When his thoughts tried to form, spikes of pain shot through his skull, pushing him back down into numb compliance. The lingering stains of torture, not letting him shore up any sort of self-defense.

The live oak, the bond he had spent so long and so much protecting, creaked and groaned. Covered in speaks of ash, with leaves brown and curled from the unforgiving heat, it bore battle signs. Even it could not escape unscathed. Its roots, though, were still healthy; they still struck wide. Still growing.

Anakin had to be closer. The bond surged with their close proximity. The thought alternately thrilled and horrified him. Obi-Wan had led the enemy right to Anakin’s doorstep. He had to do something. Had to be able to get free, to move, to think without a struggle.

Sending his young charge a silent apology, Obi-Wan tapped into the live oak’s power. Sourced a thread between that endless generator and his own ravaged self. Absorbed a slow trickle into his being. He had to be able to function without pain paralyzing him. Had to be about to think for a clear moment.

Leaves from the live oak fell into his palms. Dried and curled, cut off from their source. He closed them into a fist, absorbing the essence they released as they were crushed. It left his blood singing with newfound fire. Like an overflowing well, new energy poured into him.

Revitalized, sorrow came upon him. Taking this came easy to him; far too easy. How simple would it be to pluck leaves from this tree for a bountiful wreath of power? How easy to turn that temporary trickle into something more permanent? It left him unsettled--just how much could he take from Anakin? It was such a simple thing; would either of them notice? Could it become so instinctual he’d stop feeling guilt and horror at the prospect?

There was a burden in this transfer. This exchange couldn’t be done without consequences. But he had no time to discover what it was. He tried to draw just enough to keep his vision clear and his vertigo to a minimum.

For all his care, it was like swallowing lightning. Even that tiny dose flooded him, a circuit board sent into overload. He jumped, shocked at the intensity that came into focus. Bracing his hands on his knees, he concentrated on his breathing. Held onto his control by his teeth and nails. Resisted lashing out at the first target he saw.

“I didn’t know,” Barriss said into the quiet, unaware of his struggle. “About...about the Chancellor. This wasn’t what I wanted.”

Obi-Wan glanced sideways as he rightened himself. The pain was still there--he no longer cared about it. It was a distant thing to be worried about later. This power was a drug that dismissed typical concerns into nothing. “That makes any of this better?”

“No. But my intentions should count for something.”

“What do you want them to count for? My forgiveness? It’s granted. You said yourself, you didn’t know. None of us did. There’s no point holding you to something I couldn’t reach.”

She hesitated. Then forged on. “And your trust?”

“That, I’m afraid, is well outside your reach,” he said without pity.

“You won’t be able to get out of here alone.”

“I don’t see a way of getting out of here with you, either.”

With borrowed strength propelling him, Obi-Wan stretched unused, locked-up muscles. Paced around the cell, working the stiffness out of his limbs and gait. Barriss had been correct--he could hear the guards outside their door. Their muffled conversation was too dense to follow.

They didn’t matter if he couldn’t remove the seal. He placed two fingers on the edge of the design, searching out its make and intent. He had expected it to be laid on the door with chalk or grease. Instead, a jolt of pure energy sizzled through his fingertips. He jerked them back; rubbed at irritated nerves. Dooku had painted them into this room with sheer power mixed with something to make it physical. Malleable. Temporal.

Barriss came up beside him. “It’s keeping us in better than any guard or weapon. I’ve tried removing it without avail. I think it’s a Sith mark. Something ancient.”

“I agree with your premise. Your conclusion could use some work, though,” Obi-Wan replied.

The intention behind the seal came from a disturbingly familiar place. One he had often wielded himself, in service to those he protected. The source came from the strict order of the living universe, the laws that governed life. The writ and rite of every Jedi--the ritual of acceptance and peace with oneself. Only the power that crested this seal was not that of service and protection. Not of acceptance. It was discolored by suspicion and fear. By a lack of faith. Dooku had twisted his core and his connection into something perverse and confining. Order bent and rented into a warped mirror of itself, emphasizing domineering control rather than loving protection.

Stay where I put you, and stay silent, the seal seemed to say. I know what’s best for you. It was every tenant of his Order, corrupted into self-service.

“There’s nothing of the Sith in this,” he replied as he explored their containment. “There’s no conflict, no embrace of the storm. Nothing like--,” like Anakin, his thought finished. Dooku’s mark bore none of the ravenous, explosive energy that his wildheart communed with like breathing. None of the acceptance of chaos and intimacy and argument that rested in the core of a Sith’s beliefs.

Obi-Wan put his hand back on the seal.

“Barriss Offee,” he said. “How would you fight yourself?”

She blinked at him, startled. “I...I would need to think about that.”

“Think quickly. I suspect we’ve been left to ourselves because we’ve reached our destination.” Tension made him agitated. If they were anywhere close to Nevos, to the Skywalkers, to his charges, he had to take action. They were his responsibility to protect. His borrowed strength lit motivation in him, rushing over the fatigue, the ruined shields, the absolute destruction that was his internal state.

He attempted a meditative state, searching for any way to bring himself to calm usefulness. Thought on his body, and of grounding himself. His hand ached against the seal.

Creaking, the joint-popping, bone grinding creaking of old movement, traced around the edges of his hearing. The live oak that he had spent so much time sheltering--the massive, vulnerable, point of himself that could so skillfully be wielded against him--shivered. Shook out the enforced sleep. Grew. And grew. And grew. Its rush of life had Obi-Wan choking on his own hard-fought breath.

The tree nurtured a storm in its branches. Cradled it like Anakin cradled his children. Love and discord, compressing onto one another to the resulting collision. Conflicting, riotous collision of friction in the Force. A boiling current that swiftly compounded into a tempest.

No, no Obi-Wan tried to tame, to ease, to mellow. Not now. Don’t lose control now. Not after everything we’ve been through. He worked to release the power that brewed, trying to bleed off the building strain. Relieve the pressure and ease the calamity. He couldn’t fall to pieces now; not now of all times.

It was no use. He didn’t have the strength to rein the storm in--not after days of relentless battering along his shields. It exploded out from his fingertips.

He saw Anakin in his mind’s eye. A wild smile and dancing golden eyes. A light blush, even as his fingers ran down the line of Obi-Wan’s beard. If you can’t embrace control, embrace its loss. He couldn’t be sure the advice came to him in the Force or in his memories.

There was nothing of himself flooding the seal. Nothing he recognized in the colliding intentions under his touch. He didn’t know much about this place in the Force. He didn’t know how to harness this.

He leaned into his faith. Embraced it since he could not understand it.

Leaves, dried into fine kindling, crumpled under his fingertips. Turned to fragments, and were taken up by the current of the storm. Power, the devastating kind he had only ever wielded through Anakin, jumped to his command. Raced up the seal. Burned it away in a blaze of light.

The door fell open, unprompted. Two sets of startled eyes met four dumbfounded ones on the other side of the threshold.

“Hello,” Obi-Wan greeted, flummoxed.

Movement shot past him. Barriss was in motion before anyone--Obi-Wan or the stunned guards--had time to realize what had happened. While she didn’t have her lightsaber, she did have a decade of war-trained reflexes. Four guards, fully-armed as they were, were no match for a Jedi Knight who had the element of surprise.

She wasted none of her time, nor did she second-guess her decisions. In a quick economy of energy, she struck out. Hit her marks with brutal efficiency. Brought down her opponents before they realized the danger.

They fell around her feet. He had enough time, enough energy to blink and lean against the cell door. His reactions were atrocious--a byproduct of Dooku’s interrogations, he suspected. He resisted the petty urge to draw more power from Anakin’s bond. The crunch of dried leaves was an unsettling sensation across his palms.

“Let us leave, Master Kenobi,” Barriss said, lightly panting from her burst of excursion. Her own torture had not left her in the best of shape. But she was moving and coherent. They could do worse.

They weren’t ten meters before Obi-Wan reevaluated--Barriss wasn’t well-off at all. She was simply ignoring the warning signs. And setting herself up for devastation.

He drew them to a stop, all-to aware of the pressing need to keep moving. Of wasting any precious seconds. “Take a moment,” he advised her. “See to yourself.”

“I,” her eyes shifted. “We don’t have time.”

Obi-Wan reached out a hand. Let it stay open between them. An offer to be rejected or accepted. She dithered between her choices. Uncertain of his sincerity, of the foundational support he extended. Hesitate of what she would find when she closely inspected herself.

He waited.

Then, she nodded, once. He placed his fingertips to her forehead. Established a weak connection with her, surface only. That connection became a beacon for her. It was all she needed; a lighthouse with which to find her way. Together, they stilled the waters that swirled in her. Guilt, anger, fear, rage; she had so many emotions to work through.

They had no time. Even now, he could feel dark intentions folding down on them. Tracking them. They couldn’t stay on the ship, loose from their confine and free, for much longer.

“Accept that not everything can be done immediately,” he instructed. “You’ve given yourself a great burden. You must live with it until you have the chance to make peace with it. Denying it will only cause you greater harm.”

She shuttered. Her jaw clenched as she saw herself. Confronted herself. He stilled the outside forces from pushing in on her long enough to let her do this messy work unhindered. Breathed out on a five-count and encouraged her to follow him.

She opened her eyes. They were not less sorrowful, but they were finally clear. “Would it be better for me to stay or to go?” she asked. Giving him back some measure of control.

“Stay with me, Knight Offree,” he said. He gave her a wiry smile. “You will not escape your debt to me that easily.”

She slumped. Sighed. Straightened. Nodded, assured now rather than reluctant. With that, she found peace enough to stand on her own without Obi-Wan fearing for her. When they began moving again, she did as he instructed, sticking close to him with new intent.

No one had been alerted to their escape yet. The ship was too busy, buzzing with activity. With preparation. They weren’t concerned about two beaten-down Jedi in a dank cell with Darth Vader’s imminent return to the fold.

The war had taught them so much. So many skills that should be unnecessary instead proving vital. It was the work of a moment to sneak into their holding dock. To commandeer a light vessel. To nullify any attention their clothes and mannerisms may have drawn. He took the pilot seat and punched in directions to the planet’s surface.

Seeing their destination, Barriss pushed back, her eyes wide with disbelief and indignation. “You’re not serious. We have the identity of the supreme Sith Lord, and we know his whereabouts. This is a massive intelligence coup. We have to get back to Coruscant--we have to tell the Council!”

Obi-Wan’s glare was something fierce. “We only have that information because you sold a family into slavery for it. A family I’ve sworn to protect. I will not allow that kind of sacrifice to be made on our behalf. We’re going planetside. Now.”

Barriss protested. Cajoled and reasoned. Offered alternatives. But she didn’t stop him when they broke Nevos’ atmosphere.

***

Obi-Wan was of the firm belief that Jedi weren’t meant to be pilots. Entry into Nevos’ atmosphere was rough. Their landing, in the overgrown fields outside the farmhouse, was even more turbulent. His bones protested as the shuttle slammed into hard earth.

“That could have gone better,” he commented, unpeeling his fingers from the controls.

“Indeed,” Barriss agreed, looking ill around the edges. The dash before them lit up with warning alerts.

Flying was for droids. Obi-Wan knew his limitations.

The sun was rising on Nevos. Early morning light stretched over the farmland. When he stepped out of the shuttle, the overwhelming smell of rain, damp earth, and thunderstorms overtook him. Welcomed him. The growing day turned the forest’s shadows dank shades of blue and indigo.

Which made the flash of light all the easier to see.

Sudden then gone, the bright spot startled across the tall trees. Obi-wan crouched low in the long grass, waiting for an attack. For an indication of action. Nothing; for a moment that felt like an age, nothing.

A glowing shadow burst through the tree line.

Barriss drew herself in and up, ready to engage, unknown combatants be damned. “Wait,” he ordered as he stood. The aggressive shadow was a familiar one—all the more identifiable as it flew at them, blindly ready for a fight.

Obi-Wan threw his hands out, his aura out, as Ahsoka raised her weapons overhead. The blinding white light of her sabers cast her face in harsh, dramatic shadows. Recognition saved him just in time; she cursed as she threw herself sideways, her momentum too great to stop. She tumbled into the grass at his feet as she rediverted herself rather than try. The white light abruptly died, leaving them all in shadow again.

“Ben!” she cried in relief as he helped her back up. On her feet, she threw her arms around him. “You’re alive!”

“For the moment,” he replied, hugging her back. Her lightsaber hilts were still in her hand. They dug into his shoulder blades, points of unrelenting pressure. They surprised him. When had she gotten one lightsaber, let alone two? How much had he missed?

She pulled away long enough to grin at him. Wild excitement and terror drenched her. Her face was a muddy, wet mess—her energy, manic. “Anakin’s on the main road. That’s there the worst of it is. I’ve got the flanks chasing me through the forest right now. They can’t catch me there. Pick them off, one at a time, just like he told me. I just gotta keep moving.”

“Those flanks?” Barriss asked, pointing. At the treeline, a battalion of droids crashed into view. Lock onto them. Advanced, weapons drawn. Ahsoka half-growled, half-laughed as she released him.

“Yeah, those flanks. I got this,” she assured. Her lightsabers reactivated. Those harsh shadows were back. White light--what crystals was she using? “Get to Anakin--I’ll handle this lot.”

As quickly as she appeared, she was off, again running through the grass. Calling and taunting, pulling the droids’ attention. She was into the trees and out of sight within moments. Headed towards the mountains.

Obi-Wan’s heart choked him, resting in his throat as it was. He wanted so desperately to follow her--to make sure she stayed safe. She wasn’t the battle-tested Padawans he took into the front lines. This was her first confrontation. Her first battle. She shouldn’t be alone.

He was needed elsewhere.

“Barriss Offee,” he called up. He turned to her. Dropped his hand on her shoulder to pull her close. Let her feel his intensity and responsibility in his aura as well as his voice. “You owe me a debt. Here’s how you will repay me.” He pointed to the disappearing figure into the forest. “Make sure Ahsoka Tano survives this day.”

Her eyes widened. She opened her mouth. Closed it. Waived like a banner caught stunned in the wind.

Then, she firmed under his hand. Nodded, once. Her face solidified. The Force codified and set around her with a new purpose. Satisfied, he released her, and she was gone, running for the tree line. It wasn’t perfect--far from it, in fact. But it was what he had.

Please, make them fast and accurate, he begged the Force.

He came to the main road with mounting dread. Obi-Wan had been on a battlefield before. Many, in fact. So he knew when he stepped onto one.

This one, at least, lacked blood and the nauseous rot that came with organic decomposition. Instead, droid parts were strewn across the road. Oil, shreds of metal and wiring, and burned circuitry lined the gravel and dirt path. Piles of battle-droids, disarmed and smoking in unusable wrecks, combined to form monuments of violence and rage.

Up the road, just at the bend, lay an assault tank split in half, smoldering. It looked to have been sent flying.

In the center of the road stood Anakin, tall and proud. Panting lightly, exhilaration vibrating around him in high-intensity waves. He wielded a lightsaber--as white as Ahsoka’s, though nowhere near as steady. The blade sputtered and lurched, unsatisfied in its condition. The Force sang through him, at one with his wants and desires. He laughed as a lumbering battle-droid descended upon him, lurching down the road.

Anakin’s lightsaber died with a sparking sound. Shorted out. Left him vulnerable.

The ground shook with each step the large droid took. Obi-Wan’s knees wobbled, threatening to give out. Look out he tried to call.

Anakin cursed, sounding like an angry god. Outstretched his hand. Clenched and pulled. Shocked to a stop, the hefty battle-droid flailed. Stilled. Around them, the atmosphere detonated. Imploded into pieces under the strain Anakin brought to bear.

The droid fell, crushed by that massive entity of power. The Force, vicious like a well-trained soldier set to work, peeled apart metal and wire. Quick as anything, Anakin reached into the scraps of the droid, pulling pieces out at seeming random.

As Obi-Wan stepped onto the road with unsteady feet, Anakin pulled the hilt of his lightsaber apart. Swapped out bits inside with what he had scavenged from the battle-droid. Rewired and reconstructed as if it was nothing to build a weapon from scratch as the battle thundered. As if it was nothing to build from the ruins of his enemies. As if it was nothing to build on instinct and need in the moment.

With a caw of triumph, Anakin put the hilt back together. When he activated it, the white light was steady. No wobbling or faulting. He spun it in a broad, graceful arc with a satisfied smirk. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

The Force cheered in a symphony of noise and celebration. This was not destruction--this was new power finding roots. Growing fast and determined. Action put into a unique form. Oh, how was Obi-Wan ever expected to teach someone so other-worldly? “They’re just trying to tire you out, I think.”

Anakin jerked around in surprise. He had descended so far into battle-focus he hadn’t even noticed Obi-Wan’s approach. Tunnel-vision was a problem for his charge. Something to work on. Or perhaps that was a sign of just how weak he was. All that kept his feet under him was the borrowed power from the live oak. His signature in the Force must be very faint indeed.

“Are you really here?” Anakin asked, agog. Obi-Wan looked himself up and down.

“I believe I am.”

Anything else he thought to say was thrown into the wild when Anakin grabbed him by the front of his tunic. Hauled him close. Kissed him deep and messy and beautiful. Offered himself as shelter—a harbor, safe and welcoming to a ship battered by the storm.

Obi-Wan gladly accepted. Physical connection helped establish bonds. In the collapse of his ruined mind, life groaned to a sluggish start. Heat flooded him. He hadn’t realized how cold his confinement had left him. How isolated. How alone.

Anakin’s kiss was a reconnection as well as a greeting. A retrenching of themselves. Reminding one another how they acted. How it felt to have them in one another’s mind and space. Obi-Wan reached up. Ran his fingers through ropey, tangled curls. Pulled Anakin in. Proved to himself that his charge was in one piece.

In Anakin’s touch, he found sunlight and water. Riotous and uncontrollable growth. The live oak, subsiding off stores of love and power locked deep in its trunk, flourished with the return of spring. Rejuvenation brought like an inevitable wave. The plants crushed under ravished walls peaked through the crevasses. Roots shifted, searching for new space to overtake. Battered leaves shed and regrew.

Anakin pulled back, rage and relief mixing into righteousness on his face. “I’m never going to believe you know what you’re doing ever again. Got it?”

“Really, now,” Obi-Wan protested half-heartedly as he searched Anakin for injury or ailment. Anakin did the same to him. Took in his bruises and his blood. His exhaustion. His ruined state.

“How are you even walking right now?” he demanded, poking at a bruise on Obi-Wan’s cheek.

Not bothering with words, Obi-Wan showed him through their newly reestablished connection. Took his hand in the Force and pushed it against the rough bark of the live oak. The small harvest of energy he siphoned a little shred off the maelstrom that was Anakin’s core.

Anakin huffed without a sound.

The sound of blasters activating pulled them apart. A new battalion of droids had come down the road. Anakin, inches away from his face, grinned. Wide and manic. He exhaled with unsteady, thinly contained emotion. His body shook with anticipation.

“You want a shot at them?” he asked, low and excited. The Force was an urging, rolling tide around them. Egging him on. Darth Vader had never run from any fight he entered, Obi-Wan remembered.

“You will come with us,” the lead droid ordered.

“That’s not happening,” Anakin replied with that unbridled glee bubbling off him. He shoved Obi-Wan backward. He tumbled into the grass in a graceless mess as Anakin reignited his lightsaber. “But I will take that titanium core you’ve got next to your processor.”

The droids tried to attack first. Even then, there was no contest between the two. Anakin crossed the road too quickly, too viciously. He ripped the line of droids apart, pulling out bits and pieces as he went. As Obi-Wan watched, he broke down parts to reconstruct anew.

“You know they’re trying to tire you out,” he said again as he climbed to his feet with a grumbled aching. “There are likely enough forces further back.”

“Great, send them on,” Anakin challenged. The Force bellowed off him, untold power his to command. He reached down and took the titanium core off the fallen droid’s broken open chasse. The precious ore was repurposed as a conductor within the hilt. “More parts for me.”

Obi-Wan glanced at the lightsaber. While it lacked the dignity of a Jedi’s weapon, there was something about its design that evoked an untamed elegance. Like a hurricane, building in the distance, graceful and terrifying. “It’s rather wicked to build a weapon out of the bodies of your enemies.”

Golden eyes nearly glowed in the rising sun’s light. “I never claimed to be anything other than what I am, rulebreaker.”

“And what are you?”

Anakin paused in his work. Glanced up. Gave Obi-Wan that sweet, distracting smile. “I’m complicated. But I’ve got nothing on you.”

Obi-Wan wouldn’t be denied, no matter how lovely that smile was. “We need to leave. Where are the twins? There’s a shuttle nearby--it’ll be a tight fit with us all, but it’s better than this.”

“The gremlins aren’t here,” Anakin said around the bit of wire in his mouth. He twisted something, then swapped that wire with a fried one he yanked out. “Ahsoka is though--she’s enjoying herself, the weirdo. Is there someone with her?”

“Someone who can help,” Obi-Wan didn’t bother to explain Barriss further. It would only distract Anakin, and they couldn’t afford any more distractions at present. “Where are the twins, if not here?” He dreaded the idea of running around Nevos collecting people. It would give them less time to put distance between them and this army.

“No idea,” Anakin finished his work and reignited the lightsaber. The light was even brighter if that was possible. Steadier, now. Ready.

“What,” Obi-Wan cut himself--they had other concerns. He wanted all the details of what the Skywalkers had been up to since he left--he didn’t need them. “Anakin--you must listen to me.”

“Hmm?” Anakin asked with half attention, stalking out shadows of the next battalion coming down the main road.

“Anakin,” Obi-Wan pulled him back again, by words and hands. Made sure those ravishing eyes were focused on him. “Darth Sidious is here--he’s the Chancellor Palpatine. And he’s here. I don’t know where, but he’s nearby. We have to leave.”

Anakin stilled under his words and the revelation. His riotous aura sharpened into something murderous. The Force cracked, like bones thrown onto a fire, splintered and charred by the heat. “The Chancellor. Palpatine--I remember him. He helped us. Padmé trusted him.”

“A great many people did.”

This close, Obi-Wan witnessed an intimate understanding of Anakin’s fury. It was a living thing, clawing and roiling up his chest. Bringing intense heat and primed purpose with it. Where he had been confident, even joyful, moments ago, now there was nothing but battle-rage.

“I’m going to kill him,” he hissed. Fierce and violent intent rolled off him in great heaving gasps. “They won’t even be able to find shreds of him by the time I’m through.”

Urgh! Stubborn and single-minded; it made Anakin beautifully instinctive, but it also gave rise to knee-jerk reactions. Was Obi-Wan going to have to strike him unconscious to get his way?

They were working against one another: disparate goals causing friction. Obi-Wan took a moment to scrape together something resembling control. “We can’t stay here, and you know it. Eventually, they’ll overwhelm you.”

Anakin didn’t answer him. The lightsaber abruptly ignited. “Obi-Wan,” he said. His tone was not a plea; it was a demand for silence. He stared down the road, caught on something in the distance. Obi-Wan followed his gaze.

There was no battalion forming on the cusp of the road, only two figures. Both pillars of power and corruption, bearing down on them. Obi-Wan abruptly realized what he had been--a distraction. Something to side-track Anakin long enough to approach unhindered. A tool of pacification.

“No,” he whispered. Reject, like he had any power to stop this

Attack had come as a devastating, destructive power. It struck through the Force, sharp destruction overwhelming them both. It was pervasive, cutting off any points of escape—the creep and crawl of the inevitable. The mounting dread and the horrifying certainty of failure pushed in from all sides.

He tried to tell Anakin to run. The words wouldn’t form. Couldn’t come to him. One more thing was stolen from him.

One figure, hooded and imperial, raised an idle hand.

In the distance, the shuttle exploded in a burst of fire and light.

Anakin’s eyes widened. His hands reached out for Obi-Wan. Too late. They were both too late.

A blow came upon them without any chance of escape. Gunstone, vicious and plundering, ripped through new life, ripping up roots and vines alike. Smoke trailed after it, dosing everything in thick, hazy smog that stuck in the lungs and burned the throat. Obi-Wan’s vision went black as his knees gave out.

***

It took five guards to push Anakin into a kitchen chair. They were humanoid underlings, clad in red armor and featureless faceplates. They obeyed orders without question. Anakin snarled and spat his defiance, fighting even as they applied brutal shock weapons to gain compliance. He struggled as they bound him to the chair, struggling, slipping their holds with ferocious determination.

Palpatine, robed in black and paternal exasperation exuding from his too-patient expression, reached out. Casually, cruelly, he wrapped a hand around Anakin’s throat. His grip did what five guards could not. He forced Anakin down. Held him in place. The Force buckled and flexed, two powerful currents rushing for supremacy. When Palpatine took his fingers away, his touch left behind bruises. Golden eyes were full of fury, but Anakin didn’t rise, couldn’t rise, bound tight as he was by brutal power. The guards finished the job with thick metal cuffs as Palpatine took a seat beside him.

Obi-Wan, battered and worn as he was, shattered as he was, was shamefully easier to subdue. Dooku’s hand was part keeper, part support when he was pushed into his own chair. The same metal cuffs kept him in place. An odd sort of structure, he supposed. The restrains made his skin crawl; bitter dread tainted his awareness. The Count did not take a seat.

Only Palpatine was comfortable, looking around the house with a benevolently malicious eye. Took in the trappings of a family pinned up on the walls, scattered across the counters.

Obi-Wan couldn’t help himself--he glanced to the sink. Padmé’s photograph was gone from the windowsill. Her absence left him nauseous and unmoored.

Palpatine spoke with all the absurdity of a patriarch sitting before his brood. “My boy, if you wanted to play at poverty, all you had to do was say something—all this running and fighting. An absolutely ridiculous waste of time. Now,” he craned his neck as if to peer around a corner. “Where are the children?”

“Go fuck yourself,” Anakin raged. His limbs may be locked into place in the chair, but his tongue was free and vicious. He didn’t look at Obi-Wan. Kept all his attention on the Chancellor. Locked onto his target and his enemy. Tunnel vision again.

Anakin couldn’t look at him, Obi-Wan realized with bemused dismay. If he did, Palpatine would have one more weapon. One more weak spot. Feeble as it was, Anakin’s denial of him and his presence was a form of protest.

Palpatine tisked, a dry, unimpressed sound. His aura folded down again, putting even more pressure on the points that pinned Anakin down. Fury had no hold on him. Why would it? He’d beaten a Skywalker fit down before. “You have picked up bad habits; ungratefulness being one of them. You do not know the things I have done for you.”

“Don’t even!” Anakin spat. It didn’t matter that he was tied down and held still. He fought against his bonds, twisting and searching for any slack to wiggle through. Raged against this untenable reality. “You’ve been killing my family, one member at a time, you perverted bane! You don’t get them!”

Pressure built, heavy and inextricable. Palpatine reached a frail hand out to grasp Anakin’s face. Pulling him in. Pulling him away. Narrowing his focus down to a single point--Palpatine and Palpatine alone. Blocking out any connection to the outside world. Isolating Anakin further. “Only those who would limit you. When you are again calm, and you will see that I have built you a family, too.”

Oh, spare me--,”

“I would never.” Palpatine didn’t care about rage or passion. He seemed to expect it, even. Stoked it, like embers in a furnace. Under his pressure, Anakin stopped his fighting, exhausted. His gold eyes turned doubtful. He doubted, a sliver of himself unsure in the face of such confidence.

And Palpatine felt it. He dragged that doubt out, fueling it with more influence and power. “I have my boy. While you have been here, slumming around in filth and failure, I have been hard at work to give you what you want--your own family. Even now, associates combed the galaxy, looking for others and more. All for you.”

Obi-Wan laughed, half-hysterical. He felt sickly pale, staring at Palpatine’s satisfied expression with open disgust. New horror climbed upon him. Of course. Of course, this was his plan.

His noise broke Palpatine’s hold, just enough. Anakin jerked. Remembered himself. Golden eyes found Obi-Wan.

“The children,” he repeated with dawning dread. “The children you’ve been kidnapping. Vercingetorix and the others, they’re all aligned with you. You’ve sent them out into the galaxy to steal Force-sensitive children.”

Palpatine’s great eyes came onto him. “I’m nothing if not well-minded. Rescuing--just like you, Jedi.” Irritation was there, deep down. Quickly muffled. The momentary distraction was a passing weakness. But Obi-Wan had seen it. As much as he was Anakin’s vulnerability, so too was he a source of disturbance. A way to break any hold Palpatine tried to exert.

He latched onto that truth. Revealed it for what it was. “You haven’t been looking for a family--you’ve been looking for two children in particular. The others you’ve stolen were simply opportunism and greed,” he damned. “You don’t care about them any more than you care about the Jedi. Or the Skywalkers. Or anyone else in this galaxy beyond yourself.”

Anakin hissed, his fight sparking anew under Obi-Wan’s words. His mental walls refortified, more robust this time. Palpatine’s face flashed vivid annoyance as his attack failed. Quick as anything, he lashed out. A hand like iron struck Obi-Wan across the face. Blood filled his mouth. His jaw rattled from the blow. Black spots danced across his vision.

Palpatine sat back in his chair. Flexed his hand. Obi-Wan gagged on his tongue as the Force locked around his throat. Kept him silent. “If my dear apprentice wants children, how could I deny him? I have nearly a dozen for you, my boy. All you have to do is come home and care for them. I will find you more, so you can build your family the way you want. As many children as you would ever want.”

But Anakin saw clearly now. He bared his teeth. “So what--you think if you surround me with stolen children, I won’t notice when you take Luke and Leia from me? That I won’t care? Like I’d believe one child’s as good as another?” he said.

“Oh come now--we both know you to be the last thing those two need. You never had a taste for discipline or control. If you cannot bother to follow the orders you are given, what hope do you have of handling such a deeply precious pair? Best if you leave Mowsâ and Otroria to me.”

“That’s not their names!” Anakin screamed, his protests ringing through the kitchen. The Force crashed around him, tying his words into him. He’s rejection was the death of Palpatine’s manipulative attack. Obi-Wan grinned through bloody teeth--in Anakin’s righteousness was conviction. He’d never again regard Palpatine as true. Would never again believe this corrupted Sith.

If he had nothing else, he had that.

In the wake of the Force, silence thundered. The guards titled on their feet. Dooku sighed, long and low. That irritation was back in Palpatine’s face. So, he turned. Looked once again upon Obi-Wan. “It is not just the children I offer you, Darth Vader. After all, you will need help.”

And there it was. The threat implicit in their connection. Undeniable, and as such, useful. Obi-Wan met Palpatine’s considering gaze with mounting dread.

“Stop, damnit haven’t you taken enough from me--,”

“Tell me where the twins are,” Palpatine said. “And I will leave your little Jedi in one piece for you. A reward for your return.”

Anakin looked at him across the table. Mournful. Devastated. Swallowed hard with apology and regret on his face. “I already told you my answer.”

Well done, Obi-Wan mouthed to him, proud even in ruin. Right before Dooku came up behind him. Reached around him. On the table before Obi-Wan, he laid down a familiar Sith mask, that ominous face turned up to them.

Obi-Wan’s heart seized. The oval, vacant eyes stared back at him. He saw a flash of his own blue filling them out.

“NO!” Anakin screamed. He threw himself violently against his bonds, sending panicked denials and outrage into the Force. The guards clamped down on him so that he wouldn’t overthrow the chair or the table with his fighting.

Obi-Wan said nothing. Held perfectly still. Fear crept into him. Waiting. Building.

He knew what was going to happen next.

Palpatine put his chin on his hand. “Where are the children, Vader?”

Anakin continued to fight and didn’t respond past a string of curses.

“Dooku.” It was an order.

The mask was picked up. Brought before him. The binds held him tight when he tried to escape. Obi-Wan’s composure broke enough to flinch when the mask slid over his face.

 

Nothing. There was nothing.

 

The mask came off. The pain was outrageous. Agony dancing up and down his body. Worse than Dooku’s tortuous attacks, this came from within him. Turned his own defenses against him. Found spots that he never knew to be exposed. Someone screamed--it could have been him.

“Where are the children?”

Anakin said nothing as he stared at Obi-Wan, aghast. Built himself up again. Opened and closed his mouth around wordless noise.

The mask went on.

 

Nothing! There was nothing

 

The mask came off.

“Where are the children?”

Anakin swayed. Took in Obi-Wan with large, terrified eyes and impotent fury. Begged for it all to stop. “No,” he whispered.

The mask went on.

 

Nothing! There was nothing.

 

The mask came off.

“Where are the children, my boy?” Palpatine asked again. Almost pleasantly. He could keep this up all day. Would keep this up all day for as long as he needed.

Great, heaving sobs wrecked Anakin’s chest. Pulled all himself in, struggling every step of the way. “No,” he cried.

The mask went on.

 

Nothing! There was nothing!

 

The mask came off.

“The children, Darth Vader.”

Tears streamed down Anakin’s face as he fought with warring impulses. Screamed, wrenched between two points. Two choices that he once again had to make. “No,” he choked out.

The mask went on.

 

Nothing! There was nothing!

 

The mask came off. Obi-Wan gasped out. “I accept!” He yelled before his thoughts could be derailed. Before he could be muffled. Silenced. Shut away and forgotten. All he could hear was his own hammering heartbeat, raging in time with Anakin’s cries.

Oh he ached. Hurt in ways unimaginable. What kind of hell was that place of nothing?

Deliberately, Dooku took a seat in a vacant chair. Hooked a foot around the leg of Obi-Wan’s chair. With a quick twist, he brought them face-to-face. He said nothing, his expectation hanging heavy in the Force. Waiting to see where Obi-Wan would take this.

“I accept,” Obi-Wan repeated, still fighting to catch his breath.

The kitchen stopped dead around him. Hummed with surprise and shock. Deliberately, Dooku gripped his chin. Dragged his face up. Brought them close enough to share breath. “What was that?”

“Back on the ship, you offered me something,” he said, fighting for the words to impart through the fog of his mind. It was so hard to think. “Do you remember? I do. I accept, Master.”

Anakin howled, giving voice to his heart, breaking like a delicate shattered plate across the floor. Obi-Wan didn’t look at him. Couldn’t look at him. Not now. Not now.

“Dooku,” Palpatine hissed, impatience bleeding out over him. He had been perfectly content to let events play out. To watch Anakin tear himself apart in an impossible situation. To force him to choose Obi-Wan’s pain, over and over.

It couldn’t be allowed to continue. Obi-Wan wouldn’t have it. If that meant sacrificing himself to powers he’d fought against for a lifetime, so be it.

“I beg a moment, my Lord,” Dooku replied. “This could be an interesting development. And likely a simpler means to an end.” The Count leaned in. “Repeat it, properly.”

“I accept the bond between two souls and,” Obi-Wan dug words out that he hadn’t spoken in decades. “And award myself to your knowledge and wisdom, Master.”

Dooku reached out. Put a hand on the side of his face. He was raw and overexposed, beaten into submission by the mask’s smothering aura. Weakened, and quickly overtaken. Physical touch to bring up a bond. Obi-Wan could feel their connection growing; torches in the waning light. That fire flickered across the ruins of his mind, arching shadows across the battered rock.

The bond was offered and accepted. Forged between them in the Force. Energy that left him revitalized and power-mad. Left him with a craving for more, more, more.

While Dooku reeled from the new connection flooding him. While Anakin fought and dragged at him, hatred and fear warping him into something unholy in the Force. While Palpatine watched with dispassionate eyes, Obi-Wan reached out.

The Force broke the cuff on his wrist. Let his hand free. Gave him just enough.

He grabbed the mask from Dooku’s hand. Sunk his grip into the newly-formed bond. Dragged Dooku close, both in body and spirit. Before the Count--before Palpatine--before Anakin--realized what he planned, Obi-Wan pushed the dreaded thing over his own face again. Used the bond to haul Dooku along with him. Into oblivion.

The world exploded in the kind of pain only complete and all-consuming silence could bring.

***

There was gravel under Obi-Wan’s fingers. It crunched when he closed his fists; dust kicked up into his lungs. It was sharp, gritty. Still coated in the ash left behind from fires and gunstone.

A booted foot collided with his ribcage. Kicked his breath out from his chest. He coughed and rolled, looking for an escape from the abuse. Dooku simply followed him. Another blow came down before he could get his bearings. One that made his chest ache and his stomach revolt. He scrambled back and coughed, accomplishing neither with much grace. With control came pain. Lots of pain. Obi-wan struggled to breathe through the blinding pain and raining debris.

He struggled to breathe.

Oh, he hadn’t thought he’d miss this, but it was wonderful to feel things. Experience them. Catalog and understand them. The mask hadn’t simply silenced his connection to the Force; it had silenced his ability to comprehend his thoughts. To absorb and understand his own mind.

But now--he could feel things again. There was rubble under his fingers, and he couldn’t breathe. Someone he knew to be his enemy stood over him, and he could recognize that. He could think again. There was no longer nothing.

Obi-Wan broke down with relief and something akin to gratitude. The loss of his mind...of control, had nearly broken him in ways he had never before imagined. Another few rounds and he would have done anything to make the torment stop.

Dooku kicked him again, bringing Obi-Wan out of his thoughts with a gasped curse and a swirl of pain.

“Come now, apprentice mine. That’s no way to speak to the Master you just swore yourself to. And we have so many lessons ahead.”

“You’ve taught me enough about warfare and trial to last lifetimes. I need no more lessons,” Obi-Wan pushed out. His bones were rubber; his head throbbed. All the sensations he had lost in the void of the mask came back to drown him. Dunk him again and again until his resistance was broken.

This wasn’t freedom; it was just another kind of torture. Obi-Wan couldn’t forget that.

Dooku struck out, the viper in the tall grass. Obi-Wan’s battle-tested reflexes finally remembered themselves. He caught the boot before it could connect with his torso again. “Could I convince you to knock that off for a moment? I have other things on my mind.”

He pushed, sending Dooku stumbling back. Picked himself upright one agonizing muscle at a time. Collected himself into a kneeling meditative stance with his hands braced against his thighs. Took a moment to truly see what he was up against.

The shattered remains of his mind were oddly beautiful. Where once there had been nothing, now there was definition. The brick and sandstone walls, demolished parapets of his mental shields, were collapsed piles of rock. The higher walls, marble and granite, still had some structure, though they were riddled with holes both great and small. Smokey beams of sunlight filtered through them, turning everything an orange-red hue. The ground was charred; when he put his hand to the ashy earth, he came away with soot and charcoal.

The greenhouse was behind him. Closed, sealed off. Standing untouched and unconquered. The glass had fogged over with the humidity it contained, so Obi-Wan couldn’t see into it. Couldn’t confirm the live oak still stood.

His walls were steadily crumbling one level at a time, over and on top of one another. Collapsed, they were dangerous things, pitfalls of memory and distress Obi-Wan had been building on for years. Scraps and pieces still lingered. Dooku’s attacks had been precise, aimed to bring down the main fortifications without sacrificing the structure’s whole. He had wanted Obi-Wan compliant, not brain-dead.

He hadn’t gotten either. Obi-Wan laughed in disbelief as he broke up a chunk of charcoal in his hand, letting the grains fall through his fingers. “Better than nothing,” he whispered.

“What are you going on about?” Dooku demanded.

Obi-Wan ignored him, too busy accepting the state of things. Accepting and releasing. Recognizing. He had made this decision--traded one obstacle he could not solve for another he may well have a chance at. This was his control. His faith and trust, in himself and the Force.

However, there was nowhere for his understanding to ascend. Concerningly, the Force still could not find him here. There was no harmony, no hum of life around him. No comfort in his connection with the universe. Obi-Wan exhaled, pushing through the disappointment and the grief. There were still things not possible here.

“All right,” he said, returning to the intruder in his mind. “I suppose we should decide what to do with you.”

Dooku’s laugh had no humor. “You accepted my Mastery under false pretenses.”

“I did not,” Obi-Wan argued. “You were right, back on the ship. You’re a part of me. Of my lineage. So much of you is in me. We’re already linked; we have been since I named Qui-Gon my Master. It’s time we confront that link.”

His apprentice’s name, his victim, his most tremendous success and his highest failure, made Dooku flinch and retreat. In this space, without distraction or justification, they were their authentic selves. And the Count had the blood of his Padawan on his hands. It was a ruin that would not wash away. Would not be eased.

Their connection had been forged in Geonosis. Since Qui-Gon’s death, since the grief of warfare and a fight against his own corruption that Obi-Wan hadn’t even known he was waging. Since his relentless push into the harsh, sharp world of responsibilities. Since his isolation and his detachment from his society. All of it came back to this man.

“Qui-Gon didn’t get his curiosity from you, did he?” Obi-Wan asked. “I had always wondered. He cultivated mine so deeply. Perhaps he was balancing against your lack of it.”

“You stuck us in this limbo to sate your damn curiosity?” Dooku was a predator, pacing and snarling. Trying to define his space. To gain control of it. His agitation made him unpredictable. Made him dangerous.

“I brought us here to further my own understanding. Any good Master knows they learn as much from their apprentice as they teach. And Anakin has taught me well. He told me the Sith created this mask to torture Jedi. That had me wondering: which Sith? Which Jedi?” Obi-Wan had his suspicions. Time to see what he could prove.

He nodded to the greenhouse behind him, the one point of clarity in a haze of chaos. “Do you know what that is?” he asked. Dooku’s expression twisted into something exasperated and impatient. “It’s my bond with Anakin,” he continued. “The shelter for it. Go on, go look.”

Dooku’s dark eyes inspected him from tip to toe. Looked for the lie. Obi-Wan, so, so tired, didn’t bother hiding. There was no point. The greenhouse was the one spot of stability in a field of devastation. The Count would come across it sooner rather than later.

Obi-Wan stayed kneeling while Dooku crossed to it. Grasped the handle. Opened the door.

The greenhouse was empty. Where a tree should stand, open air occupied. No bark, no leaves. No kindling. No trace of the bond that had kept him going since his capture. It was as if his connection to Anakin was simply never there, gone without a trace. Unacknowledged, in this place.

“There’s nothing here,” Dooku confirmed after a penetrating investigation. Obi-Wan shuttered against the probing invasion of his innermost soul. He could feel the vicious intent rupturing through delicate connections of peace.

“Because this place doesn’t know it,” he said. Looked over his shoulder, back at Dooku. “That’s why I accepted you as my Master. I need you here, a presence in my mind. A recognized bond for this mask to understand. This is your first lesson from me, Count; you need to accept just how far a Master will go to protect their Padawan.”

Obi-Wan climbed to his feet. They held him up, barely. Straightening, he took stock. His body bore no wounds, no signs of his ordeal. Those were carried on the structures around him. He breathed out on the five-count. Steadied himself.

“You found the perfect torture to lock Anakin into, you know. Choosing his children over me, he was always going to do that. It’s instinctual to him. At first. But exposure...making him build up that resolve again and again. Clever. Because emotions pass. His anger and righteousness would have passed, eventually. And been replaced by fear and horror. Knowing, every time he said no, I would be hurt.” Obi-Wan shook his head, half-impressed. And entirely disgusted.

“He wouldn’t have said yes every time--the first dozen times. The first hundred times, even. But you didn’t need him to stay yes every time. Just once. Just once, you needed his love for me to override his love for the twins.”

Obi-Wan’s anger was there. His rage and his impotence. But so too, was his clarity and his foundations, rocked as they were. He had done what he had needed to do. “I don’t know if he’d ever have broken. Or if he would have denied Palpatine until the end of time. But I know I couldn’t watch him struggle with that alone anymore. Which brings us here.”

He brought himself to silence. Contemplation. Acceptance. “I won’t be used as the weight that crushes him. I will not. If that means facing you in this place, so be it.”

“So sure you can take me on here, little bird?” Dooku growled. Outsmarted, but not outfoxed. Still ready for the fight.

“I may not need to.” Obi-Wan held up a hand, calling Dooku’s attention outward. “Can’t you feel it stalking us?”

The Count paused. Looked around. In the distance, there was the ominous humming. The pressure, building up. Becoming intent. Focused. Ravenous. It was quite a sensation, to realize you were being stalked. The sudden knowledge that a predator hunted. Lurked. Waited.

“This Sith mask ruins the bonds of Jedi--why didn’t it act on my bond with Anakin? Why am I not staring at a burning tree or a pile of splinters? Why does it overlook and ignore what should be a ripe target for devastation?"

Dooku hadn’t relaxed his authoritative stance. “Tell me you didn’t bring me just to let that thing do your dirty work.”

“I told you--I brought you here to learn. And I think I have. The mask was made by the ancient Sith. So ancient, they weren’t really the Sith. Merely an unnamed society trying to defend itself. Only, they didn’t know how to defend themselves against a band of trained warriors, so they fought back in other ways. Created their own horrible, horrible weapons.”

“Be silent,” Dooku commanded. He had been commanding legions for a long time--he thought he could dictate to Obi-Wan like he did one of his underlings.

Silence wasn’t an option. Belief unfolded for him too rapidly to be ignored. Curiosity and all the knowledge in the galaxy, bolstered by trust. “They created something to break Jedi. But their targets weren’t Jedi of the Order. They were the corrupted Dark Jedi who tore their society asunder. Jedi like you. This mask,” he waved a hand around their bleak surroundings, “is a tool, created for a purpose. And just like any other tool, there’s a method to how it works. It wouldn’t attack my bond with Anakin--that’s not a Jedi bond. Or at least, not a recognized one. I had to give it something to work off with. I had to give it you.”

Obi-Wan looked through the blood and grit over his face. Directly into the face of his Master’s murderer. “It seeks out corruption in bonds. That’s why it rented Anakin from Palpatine. And why it’s going to ruin you and me, now.”

In the shadowed corners of his mind, a stifling presence sifted through the maze the rubble left.

“Do you feel it?” Obi-Wan asked. “It’s hunting us.”

Dooku sighed. Rolled his eyes. In the doorway of the greenhouse, he cracked the bones in his neck and knuckles. He moved stately, with purpose, learning the ground under his feet. Getting an idea of the landscape. “I could feed you to it first,” he asked, soft. “Throw you into the trap you set for me. Leave you here, being eaten by your own mind.”

“That is one possibility.”

Dooku extended his hand. In it, a hilt materialized, brought forth from the nulling energy of the void. Obi-Wan took note. The Count really had been a great Jedi, once. His knowledge was unparalleled. The soft red hue around them turned sharp as the crimson lightsaber activated.

“We’ve done this dance before, little bird,” Dooku muttered. “And I’ve put you down, again and again. What makes you think this time will be any different?”

The Count was a premiere duelist. He would learn all he could of his surroundings, wring any advantage possible, before engaging. Dooku was patient. Patient fighters had no problem waiting for an opening.

Only there were no advantages. No vast environments or fundamental faults to take advantage of. No civilians to endanger. No larger mission to accomplish and distract. No other demands a Jedi needed to mind while they fought.

There was only Obi-Wan and his steadily collapsing mind.

Dooku had harnessed the void surrounding them to arm himself--had shaped what he needed from what he knew. Obi-Wan extended himself, one battle-weary thought at a time. Shaped ideas around his need.

The longer he stalled Dooku, the more time he bought for Anakin to escape. For Ahsoka and Barriss, in the thick and darkening forest. For the twins, running further and further from them with each second he carved out for them. Obi-Wan knew and embraced his duty: protect; shelter; defend.

When he closed his hand, his fingers wrapped around a familiar cool hilt. “We’re not Sith, Count. We don’t draw power from the conflict. We must confront it and resolve it.” He ignited his lightsaber. “En garde.”

Cyan energy collided with crimson. Obi-Wan felt the impact ring down his arm. Stabbing pain exploded in his skull, like being slapped down by a higher power. Like a bug against a windshield, he was bowled over.

He staggered away with a gasp. Something wasn’t right. He hadn’t expected this.

Their clashing in the core of himself was setting up nothing but conflict and discord in him. Bringing him excruciating pain. This place wasn’t designed to handle such fighting. Delicate connections, nursed over a lifetime, rested here. This was not a place for reckoning, and the longer the duel went on, he was sure, the worse it would become.

This wouldn’t be difficult--this would be impossible. How could he fight back against Dooku when every clash brought on a fresh wave of pain? He wouldn’t be fighting--he’d be slowly crumbling. Falling, one sliding step at a time.

Dooku struck out, testing his defenses. Obi-wan fell back on instinct to respond, protecting himself and deflecting.

Soresu would keep him safe for a little while, at least. That, he could have faith in. He was an ardent adherent to the form and didn’t break it even when Dooku deliberately offered him avenues to do so. Playing defensively would keep him on his feet, at least until his endurance gave out.

That was all he had time to realize--Dooku gave no quarter and offered no leniency.

Obi-Wan was never going to beat Dooku in a traditional lightsaber duel. The Count was simply too skilled, too experienced. He knew the lightsaber forms like gospel. It would be a matter of time alone until he backed Obi-Wan into a misstep or an inescapable rout.

The pain was building, becoming blinding. Obi-Wan couldn’t take much more of this. Unbidden, he thought of what would come next.

What would he remember when he died? What would the Force be like? Welcoming, accepting of his flaws? Disappointed in him? He hoped not; he had tried so hard.

Dooku crowded him up against a corner. Obi-Wan only escaped the end of the fight by an underhanded move he picked during the war. Another delay. He just needed as many as he could manage. If it gave his charges just that much longer.

Would he remember Anakin when he left? His arguments and his kisses? Their mornings together? Obi-Wan didn’t want to lose those. They were precious, for all they were brief.

Dooku parried into his defensive form, slicing at the tendons of his arm. Obi-Wan nearly lost it then and there--sheer instinct had him holding on for another round.

It would be good to see Qui-Gon. To share with him all that Obi-Wan had learned in their years apart. He wanted so desperately to see his Master again.

What about Satine? Another soul, long departed and dearly missed. The chance to speak with her again, to connect and clash with someone who had understood him so well.

Huh.

Obi-Wan deflected a killing blow by disengaging. Jumping away. Rapidly seceded ground to open up space between them. Breathing space. It gave Dooku a chance to restart his attacks. It also gave Obi-Wan a moment to finish a thought.

“Huh,” he muttered to himself. “Now there’s an idea.”

“Surrendering, little bird? I don’t blame you--we haven’t even gotten to advanced techniques yet.”

“Did you ever get a chance to meet the late Duchess of Mandalore?” Obi-Wan asked.

“Another one of your mates? I didn’t bother.”

“That’s a shame. She was a marvelous dancer.”

Obi-Wan retook his position. Not in Soresu, but in the Werda’s starting stance. He didn’t let himself think about it. If he thought about it, he’d be lost before he started.

Satine had been a devout practitioner of Redalur. And she had taught him, for all they clashed in the form. They were two people drawn by the stability of the Werda. The assumption of guidance and the confident authority behind it. Neither of them found comfort or joy in the outlandish Dral pattern, so characterized by galvanic flares of movement.

That conflict had strengthened their relationship. Obi-Wan saw that now.

In Redalur, a skilled Dral would always clash with a poor Werda; unsupported, the bright side of the form would end up acting as both the flare and the foundation. Lacking a strong hold they trusted to move against, and without the assurance of a Werda that matched their skills, Drals would suffer. The form would rapidly become lopsided.

However, a skilled practitioner of the shadow position had a few options when paired with an uncontrolled or inexperienced Dral. When the foundations were solid, the design could support some chaos. A strong Werda could rein in and subdue a partner, instead of brace and enhance them.

It was how Satine had taught him. And it was how he had taught Anakin.

Dooku took the opening salvo, striking high and fast. Obi-Wan ducked under the blow rather than meet it. Drew the Count close, into his circle of influence. Turned him onto the back foot. So they began Redalur’s first pattern.

Dooku was the perfect Jedi duelist. But Redalur wasn’t a Jedi form. Satine had shown him both aspects of the meditative practice: the dance and the fight. Both were important. And used for different things.

Obi-Wan took those steps, guiding Dooku’s form rather than clashing with it. Took control of them as a pair, rather than pushing himself against an opposing force. Moved them into a place he found more comfortable.

Forward, he went. Through gravel and boulders alike. Through the holes in his shields. The first pattern came to an end, and they broke apart.

“How distractible you are,” Dooku chided. “I hold your life in my hand, and you speak of dancing.”

There was no longer charcoal and soot under their feet. Instead, there was rough sand. Obi-Wan had guided, and Dooku had followed his prompting. Out of his inner sanctum and into the killing field between his two walls.

“There’s that lack of curiosity again. It really is a character flaw,” Obi-Wan asked. The pain lacing his skull rapidly receded--this part of his mind was well-used to disruption.

Dooku growled. Attacked again, low this time. Looking for a weakness. Their lightsabers clashed in a rush of energy. Obi-Wan turned them, putting Dooku on the backstep once again. Into the next pattern.

Their stagnant conflict into a circle that modulated their energy. Dooku took Obi-Wan’s secessions as a chance to change his angle of attack. To break Obi-Wan’s defenses piece by piece, just as he had with his mental shields.

So Obi-Wan kept them close, kept them in contact. Made sure Dooku didn’t have the opportunity to change his forms. It was risky--Obi-Wan’s endurance was a ragged thing that hung by the barest thread. If he over-thought or second-guessed--any faltering in his steps--Dooku would be able to break their pattern and find a new attack.

Obi-Wan kept his thoughts in the Werda. When the shadow form was in full swing, holes would naturally appear in the pattern.

When the Werda and the Dral danced, those holes weren’t exploitable--they were themes to be woven back on. Pauses to revel in the connection between two partners. To allow intimacy and adoration to build in their own way.

When Redalur was a fight, those pauses were avenues of manipulation. Were assertions of domination and a way to impose discipline. Of command and oversight. The battle was in those pauses, those fights for control.

It wasn’t a Jedi form, built on Jedi thought. His people viewed control as sacred. As something to be granted. The Sith aligned similarly, for Obi-Wan couldn’t deny where Anakin drew his power and his struggles with mastery over himself. To have it taken, by force or by trickery, was profanity of the highest degree.

The Mandalorians saw things differently. To a society of warriors, control was a tool, just like a sword, a blaster, or a quick tongue. Something that came in degrees of ability. You either wielded it or allowed it to be turned against you.

Satine was indeed a marvelous dancer, and she had taught him well. In those pauses, Obi-Wan took control of their form.

Obi-Wan spun. Got his free hand around Dooku’s sword arm. Pushed the Count off his balance. His cyan lightsaber finished its journey lined against Dooku’s throat.

They froze together, their combat reverberating throughout them; two hawks locked in warfare, spiraling to earth as they fought with sharp talons.

In the hair’s breadth of space between them, Obi-Wan searched out Dooku’s intent; looked for signs of compassion or regret. A sliver of empathy or trust. For any curiosity or purpose. Anything that could tell him that Dooku wanted to step away from the path he was swiftly descending.

He had seen them in Anakin, shining bright even in the whiplash rain in a washed-out courtyard. Had seen his dedication and his conviction. Had seen why he fought. That fierce and vibrate spirit had stilled his hand and lured his interest.

Obi-Wan saw none of that in Dooku’s hateful face.

“If you want it, I can help you,” he whispered his offer. He couldn’t help it—he had to be sure. Had to give another chance to step back. To come back. To return to a path that offered redemption. His was an Order built on compassion and trust. That meant extending his hand, no matter the risk.

Dooku’s answer was brutal. He threw everything he had against Obi-Wan--all his anger, his fear, his rage. It was a sonic wave, traveling too fast to contain. Obi-Wan grunted with the intensity, rooting deep into the earth to withstand the blow.

“I need no help from the likes of you,” Dooku condemned.

The sheer intensity of the power had smoke rising around them. Embers dropped from the sky. Worked to ignite anything they touched in a building bonfire.

Obi-Wan’s inner sanctum could not survive this kind of attack. The rich, fertile soil there was primed for growth, for nurturing connections. There was so much in those gardens that could be destroyed, burned down in a haze of cruelty.

His killing fields, on the other hand, were designed for just this offense. They had taken on so many enemies--what was one more? The sandy wasteland had nothing that could burn. Nothing that could suffer destruction. Just barren scrub and open air.

The embers fell like rain and extinguished in useless fizzles amongst the unforgiving dirt.

Obi-Wan locked the Count in place when he made to pull away. “Then here ends my apprenticeship, Master Dooku.”

Obi-Wan finished the stroke between them. Cut the bond that tethered them together—released Dooku to face the void alone.

A furious scream. A clawing attempt to remain unmoved that failed against the consuming power. And then, Count Dooku was gone. Banished from Obi-Wan’s mind. Their connection, so new and tender, disintegrated into crumbs.

The fires were gone. Burned out in the sandpit. The smoke that clogged his mind and sent his senses reeling gusted out of his thoughts. Left nothing but silence in its wake. He was alone.

Utterly alone.

Obi-Wan strained every nerve, searched and reached. Found nothing. Just as before. The only difference was that he was aware of his isolation.

He was so tired. Would it hurt to rest, just for a moment?

He sat back down on the rubble. There was a sunset, he thought. If he concentrated, he could just make it out over the edge of his walls. He thought it beautiful. Mesmerizing. Almost hypnotic.

A presence lurked in the back of his mind. Plants crunched under a dead, heavy foot. Deafening silence pulled in closer. Folded in on him.

It had been waiting. It was patient in a way that put Dooku and even Obi-Wan to shame. Disintegration was such a distressing feeling. He could feel it dripping down his spine. A rolling sensation he couldn’t shake. Enertia came, inextricable. He couldn’t...

Mind-numbing. Thought-stifling. All he wanted to do was close his eyes and sleep. Would he wake up again? He wasn’t sure, and he was rapidly losing the energy to care.

He was being watched. The predator stalked him. Knew he was weakened after his fight with Dooku. Knew he couldn’t keep it at bay for much longer. Knew that all it had to do was wait.

Fingers--too long, too cold, too heartless to be a living creature, grasped his chin. Tilted his head up.

He started into the vacant ovals of the mask’s eyes. For a moment, he recognized blue in them as his own. Malicious gleeful intent hung around him--it was hungry.

“Uncle Ben.”

The fingers gripped him tighter. The mask descended. Obi-Wan felt a brush of cold lips over his own.

“Uncle Ben!”

An osprey fell from the sky as a kingfisher landed on his shoulder.

Bright with eye-catching orange and teal feathers, the kingfisher was a born menace. A long beak and fast wings pecked at the mask until it reared back. His partner, the ocean bird of prey, careening down with claws outstretched, smashed into the dread thing, scattering its presence into the void. Screeched as she chased the vile thing away.

Obi-Wan gasped, new sensations burning through him. New power. New life.

Uncle Ben, can you hear us? The kingfisher twittered his concern into Obi-Wan’s ear. That long beak preened through his hair. You gotta get up. It’s not safe to stay standing still.

Under the kingfisher’s guidance, Obi-Wan climbed to his feet. Shook himself out. “Where did you come from?”

The osprey flew back to them. Unthinking, he held out his arm for the hunter to land on. Large claws closed around his forearm as she settled. A predator in white and brown, with black talons and circular golden eyes. She peered at him. Are you all right?

I think he’s still not here, the kingfisher replied, hopping up Obi-Wan’s arm to meet the osprey.

Walls were meant to keep enemies out. Plants searched out sunlight and water anywhere, determined survivors who found their way over them. Birds simply flew above them. They had no use for earthbound creatures’ limitations, gliding around obstacles and barriers with little mind.

“Uncle Ben,” the osprey called. She fluffed her wings out and resettled on his arm. “You have to keep moving. If you stop moving, it’s gonna catch you.”

The kingfisher whistled in agreement. His flight was more like a hummingbird, a little body moving at incredible speeds. “You’re strong--you can outlast this.”

“I--I don’t,” he stuttered. It felt like ages since he had spoken with someone. Had been asked to form words or thoughts. To communicate.

“It’s not working,” the kingfisher said. “He can’t get through.”

“I know,” the osprey replied. “Gimme a minute, I’m thinking...”

“He keeps slipping--Uncle Ben! You gotta stay with us!”

Obi-Wan shook his head. It was so much easier, so much simpler, to go back to the sunset. The array of colors slowly leeching any and all purpose from him.

The osprey’s head swiveled. Golden eyes searched out. Feathers ruffled. Obi-wan braced himself as she launched into flight. Took on height--so much, he almost lost sight of her.

Then, she dove. Bent her wings into a graceful arc. Grabbed something. When she rose, in her talons was a familiar mask.

She’ll get rid of it for a bit longer, the kingfisher explained with confidence. He took off from Obi-Wan’s shoulder and fluttered around his head. Follow me, all right?

Obi-Wan did so without question, tracking the kingfisher through the shambles of his defenses. It was a long walk, and he stumbled more than once. The kingfisher always returned to his shoulder to urge him back up. The osprey trailed above him in lazy circles, watchful.

Together, they circled the corners of his mind. They ended up back before the greenhouse, which the kingfisher searched with a flurry of intent. But whatever the pair were looking for remained undiscovered. The osprey landed on his forearm with a huff, weighing him down with her agitation.

“I don’t think we can get him out from the inside. Can we go from the outside in? Try to get it off him?”

“We’re too far away,” the kingfisher replied. ” Not even dad can reach that far to move something.”

“Well, we gotta think of something, fast! I don’t think we can hold onto him for much longer. That stupid thing keeps coming back no matter how many times I put it down.” The osprey looked downright offended that her prey would think to rise again.

“Oh-oh! I have an idea!” the kingfisher chirped, hopping over Obi-Wan’s shoulder.

“What are you doing?” The osprey tilted her head to the side. “Oh, that’s a stupid idea.”

“You got a better one?”

“What if we try to reach dad?”

” He made us promise not to. ’Cause the bad man.”

The osprey harrumphed. She had evident antagonism for any predator who thought they could hunt or outwit her.

“We’re gonna try my way first. Come on, you nerfherder, you gotta help. The kingfisher hopped back onto Obi-Wan’s shoulder. Uncle Ben, you gotta trust us, all right?”

Obi-Wan did trust his pair of minders. He offered them his limbs and his mind in support. Didn’t fight them as they went to work.

The birds fluttered around him, cuddling something warm and soft against him. Something that burned. Something full of icy space. His arms moved of their own accord--or at the whims of someone else.

“Is it working?” the osprey asked.

“I’m not sure. It’s Uncle Ben--he’s really strong, and I don’t want to push too hard.”

Obi-Wan shot upright as Force blazed through him. A ball of supreme, undiluted power sat on his chest. It pulled him, knocked him into action without any conscious effort on his part. The mask fell off him to the floor with a clattering roll.

Like the swing of the pendulum, Obi-Wan hung caught in weightless suspicion as he fluctuated between two points.

Then, his senses caught up with the realities around him. Noise, joyous, rapturous, intense noise slammed into him.

Obi-Wan choked on his breath. Seized. It forced his chest into spasms as his body fought its instincts. His throat spasmed; his eyes watered. The air was too sensitive over his skin, the rapid puncture of needles over and over.

He rolled onto his side, coughing and sputtering. Fighting for himself. With himself. The clashing, colliding clamor of reality, of sensation and understanding, rained down on him, relentless.

Through the bright light, shapes took on shade and nuance.

He was on the kitchen floor of the farmhouse. Alone and surrounded by chaos. Outside, just out of his sight, just out of his range, shouts rang with the unmistakable breaking of the world.

His body was heavy, floating, like he had just stepped off a fast-moving cruiser onto still ground. In his arms, the stuffed crystalline fox lay, fluffy, bright, and reassuring. The twins’ favorite toy, the one they steadily imbued with their Force-signature. Power, pulled from the universe and pulsing with life, burned through him. Set him anew.

Obi-Wan buried his face in the toy’s soft fabric to muffle the screaming clawing up his throat. The crest of returning to himself was overwhelming. A tsunami, waves hung in the pinnacle of the fall. How long could he hold his breath?

He sat up, slow. The fox on his chest fell away and made it easier to think. To reconcile the mighty power that coursed through him. Not from his own connection with the Force--no, this was power lent to him. Pumped into him. Just like his siphoning from the live oak, only that had been sips of water gently flowing into him at a steady, manageable pace. This was a shot of adrenaline straight to his heart. A balance to the silence by way of a cacophony.

He picked up the toy. Remembered the birds. “How…”

There was something in the depths of the toy. It had been in Leia’s hands. In Luke’s hands. They had transferred it to him, somehow. Oh, how had they done it?

The shouts were loud and growing louder. Obi-Wan needed to get up, find out what was going on. He needed information, needed to know what was happening.

He concentrated his attention, focused all his attention onto the path he was being shown. He had to calm down. Had to refocus. Obi-Wan reached out. Trusted the Force. Asked: Please.

Outside, the thunder rolled. Power rose up in him, gripping him tight. Granted him something he had never before touched. The tree in the center of his mind shifted, just enough to let the light in.

Obi-Wan couldn’t hear anything outside the hammering of his heartbeat. He was sure of that, even later. He hadn’t heard anything. Yet, words trickled into his head, finding space in ideas. That’s it and well done and child of mine. Delight radiated through him, fiercely proud.

He was sweating. Short of breath. How had he just done that…

The crystalline fox’s shiny dark eyes glittered at him.

Well. All right.

Obi-Wan got to his feet. It was a process that took longer than he’d like.

The kitchen had been smashed to bits, shattered glassware across the floor, and the cabinets demolished to kindling. The foundation had mostly made it through Anakin’s fury intact. The windows were done for, blown to shards and hanging ominously around him, suspended in midair. Many of them were covered in blood.

The red-clad guards had fallen around him. Bodies slumped and unmoving. The glass had torn many of them to shreds. Their blood was indistinguishable from their armor.

Obi-Wan limped outside. Looked to the side of the porch. His mind boggled. “...huh.”

Dooku hung tangled and limp in the grips of Leia’s windchime. The delicate strands of yarn twisted and twined around him. Unconscious, defanged and defeated. The man dangled limp and useless.

One less thing to be concerned about. Obi-Wan looked further on.

He saw Anakin and Palpatine in the tall grass. Dueling? Not quite, he realized. Something wasn’t right. In fact, something was very wrong. The Force buzzed, hot. Trying to tell him. But he couldn’t make it out. Not yet.

Obi-Wan stepped into the yard. This was ground he had spilled blood, sweat, and tears on. Earth that he knew. That knew him. This was his place. His and Anakin’s. Not Dooku’s. Not Palpatine’s.

Anakin stood in the field. Their field. His hands were clasped around Palpatine’s face as the Chancellor knelt before him. The killing intent was strong enough to be read as far as Obi-wan stood.

Obi-Wan was so tired. His mind was a painful mix of broken stone and shrapnel, scraping over his thoughts.

He needed to keep moving. He wasn’t done yet.

He came up beside Anakin. His charge had Palpatine’s face in a vice grip. The old man was on his knees before Anakin, smug and drenching power.

Golden eyes widened at the sight of him. Shock and disbelief radiated around them like heat waves off a hot patch of duracrete. Then came the tsunami wave: “You made me promise,” he growled at Obi-Wan. “You made me swear never to put that damn thing on again.”

“I did.”

“Hypocrite!” Anakin’s fury was a blistering wound in need of lancing. It bubbled around him, uncontrolled. Unfocused. So lost, he was one mere action away from falling. Violence, mindless energy boiled from him in great gushes.

And that was all Palpatine waited for.

“I thought we agreed love was complicated. You of all people can’t fault me for being contradictory in the face of a changing situation.” Obi-Wan strove for that tone he knew infuriated Anakin--the one that prodded and questioned. That demanded a response, a fight—a way for Anakin to find his way back.

As long as Anakin talked to him, as long as they could see one another through the riot of their enemies, Obi-Wan figured they had a chance. Hoped they had a chance.

Anakin bared his teeth. His grip on Palpatine’s face tightened, his bloody hand white-knuckled. Somewhere in all of that, he found words. Ideas. A fight. A well of strength to draw on. “Aren’t Jedi supposed to be above such things?”

“Above complications? No, I’m afraid not,” Obi-Wan replied. “Jedi aren’t above anything. We’re beings of service and aid. We’re at the disposal of greater events rather than ourselves.”

“Killing yourself does nothing for the Force! Nothing for me! And don’t call me selfish, I know that’s why you did it,” Anakin hissed. He looked devastated. His face was twisted up; tears washed out the gold into something pale and altogether unsettling. Killing intent washed the air, filtering down to his kneeling victim.

Palpatine’s expression wasn’t terrified--it was thrilled. Anticipatory. Like he couldn’t wait for Anakin to carry through with the threat they all knew was bearing down on them. The final nail in his downfall.

“Anakin,” Obi-Wan called. Urged him back.

“Don’t tell me not to do it. Just. Don’t.”

“Don’t do it.”

Anakin let out a mournful wail. “I have to! You know I do! Or he’ll keep coming after us!”

Obi-Wan was used to the storm that raged in Anakin. The conflict and the running tension from which he drew power. He knew what that looked like.

This wasn’t it. It was a pit, swallowing up all sense of peace or assurance like little morsels. Leaving only terrified bones on a barren field. It hurt him to see Anakin so pained. Torn between his beliefs and the tempting corruption of himself.

“Not from this place of fear, wildheart. Please--don’t do that to yourself. Don’t put yourself through this kind of pain for anyone.”

Anakin laughed, hysterical and breathless. “It has to be from this place! The Force needs something from me for this. It always does--pain, or fear, or something! It works through what I give it! It needs this if I want to keep them safe. Keep you safe.”

“You’re talking about a sacrifice, not a communion.”

“What’s the difference if it gets me what I want?” Anakin snapped without thought.

Obi-Wan refused to let him do this without thought. Without conviction. Refused to let them compromise himself for this vile man.

“You know there’s a difference. A sacrifice is a surrendering of yourself—an immolation. But communions invite a shared experience. It’s an intimate communication with the Force,” Obi-Wan argued. In his argument, he hoped to remind Anakin what this felt like. What he was supposed to find in the conflict. Peace, not more of this agony.

Golden eyes narrowed as they glared at him. The growl grew deep in Anakin’s throat. His temper was fraying and quickly unraveling.

“You know I’m right,” Obi-Wan pushed on. “But, Anakin, don’t you see? You sacrifice pieces of yourself into the Force for that connection. I’ve seen you do it. You do it because you trust in what comes. You believe in what you’ll find, even when it leaves you vulnerable. I know you do. But so does he.”

He waved a hand at Palpatine’s smirking face. “He wants you like this. Strung out and unbalanced by upset and anger. Manipulable. He wants you to surrender everything you have. Not out of reverence. Not out of trust. But out of desperation, so that you won’t be able to stop him from overtaking you.”

Oh you don’t even believe! How can you talk of such things when all you Jedi know is detachment and isolation!” Anakin roared, lashing out with fire and iron raging behind his words. Lashed out like they were blades he could sink into Obi-Wan.

Obi-Wan didn’t flinch. But, oh, it was a close thing. His voice died in his throat. Memories of Darth Vader came with that look. Of the terror and calamity he brought in his wake.

Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

In the moment he took to recenter himself, Obi-Wan’s words returned.

“You’re talking to me from that fearful place again. You know you are. If that’s what you choose, I can’t stop you: you kill him, and he’ll take you with him. You’ll be free in the Force. But know you’ll leave untold devastation in your wake. Your sacrifice won’t be complete, and others will be left to bear it. Luke and Leia--they’ll become martyrs for a galaxy they had no hand in breaking. Ahsoka will be consigned to a life of isolation and loneliness. And I...I will live out every day mourning you.”

Anaki’s face screwed up, salt-stained and raw with rage. Obi-Wan didn’t let up.

“What does the Force want from us?”

Anakin howled, long and loud. His fingers dug into Palpatine’s face. Rivulets of blood ran from the cuts he opened. Obi-Wan swore he saw the trees shudder down to their needles. Thunder rang out; the storm was coming down fast.

Obi-Wan waited. It was what he was good at. Cast an eye towards the setting sun. He thought he spotted an osprey circling.

“It wants our survival,” Anakin whispered. Engaged with him. Shared with him. Obi-Wan’s heart twisted up into all kinds of adoration and joy.

“Yes. And our compassion. Our trust. Our connections, with it and one another. It doesn’t want you to come to it like this. Alone and afraid, stripped of everything you’ve worked so hard for.”

“Obi-Wan, so help me--,”

“This is me helping you. It’s not my place to ease your thoughts and struggles; it’s to make sure you know yourself while you fight them. What is he? What is this man who would try and break you?”

It was a challenge. One Anakin couldn’t turn away from. All the lessons Padmé had shown him refused to let it pass without a fight.

“He--Oh,” Anakin ground his teeth, pressed his eyes shut. Battled through the storm to find himself. Obi-Wan held his breath and pulled at every shred of patience he ever thought to cultivate. It was all he could do, because he couldn’t make Anakin speak. He couldn’t take this away.

“He’s a corruption,” Anakin hissed out, every sound a trial in steadiness. “A rotten Sith. He twists...twists it all, all the things I know to be true. My belief. They’re... they’re nothing to him. All he believes in is power. And he ruins everything because of it.”

“What’s the worst thing a Sith could do?” Anakin had the conviction to see himself out of this. Had the faith and ability to weather the storm. Obi-Wan just had to show him how to find it, wind-blind as he was.

“Choose--,” Anakin fought with himself--the contortion of his Force connection was a wet rag wrung too tight. Obi-Wan tried not to hide his anticipation as he watched Anakin pull himself together, one screaming, rage-filled breath at a time. It was his instinct to mask his emotions, to muffle his expression so as not to unjustly influence another. Here, though—here he could not hide. Or Anakin would lose his way, lost in the storm of himself.

“Tell me,” he urged.

“Choose power over conviction. Choose rules and systems over people. He,” Anakin swallowed around the current of his emotions. “He wants--he wants control.” Golden eyes took on new sharpness. “He wants everything from me. He wants me to sacrifice my control.”

The ground solidified under them.

“He does--but it’s not his to take. It’s only ever been yours to give.” Because control was sacred. They both knew it. “Please, Anakin, don’t misread yourself or the conflict you’re feeling. The Force doesn’t want your determination to take this down to the bitter end. It wants you to take back your control.”

“I want him gone,” Anakin held on. It was such an old desire, one that was rooted deep. One he didn’t quite know how to unravel from yet. How to let go.

Palpatine just waited, a knowing smirk over his face. He watched, and he waited for Anakin to fall under the cascade of pressure and short-sighted impulse.

Obi-Wan could see that struggle. He had all the knowledge in the world. Compassion, and a want to help, drove him to utilize it. To put it to use. He reached out to his wildheart, who was a Sith to his core. Who believed in the conflict above all else. In the dedication of a society, and in the messy connection of intimacy.

Obi-Wan understood him now. And wouldn’t change him for anything. “You’re in a place of action. A place you will know your true self in. What do you need to understand yourself?”

“I need,” Anakin growled, rumbling anger. He clasped his flesh hand over Palpatine’s eyes. Blinding his tormentor so he could escape that damning gaze. The rain began to fall as if in sympathy for his storm. “...I need you to hold out your hand.”

Obi-Wan did so instantly, palm out and up. Offering without judgment or shame. “I’m right here.”

Anakin didn’t move. Though his gaze stared at Obi-Wan’s hand as if determined to memorize every line and wrinkle. “And I need you to not let go. No matter what. Understand?”

“I won’t let go.” Of that, Obi-Wan was sure. “Trust me in that, if nothing else.”

Trust was a tricky thing. Obi-Wan had trust in the Force, trust in his other Jedi.

But trust was not an internal trait to be cultivated in isolation. He could not implant it in those around him. He couldn’t demand Anakin’s harvest it. He could only act in ways that would instill the virtue in those he cared for. Growing trust needed such a delicate mix of faith, adoration, and a conquest of fear. Trust meant relying on another. Trust meant uncomfortable patience and bitter hope.

Obi-Wan couldn’t make Anakin trust him. Couldn’t summon the trait up like he could his lightsaber. That was a fight only Anakin could wage.

So he waited.

Slowly, like it took every ounce of willpower that Anakin ever possessed, he pulled a hand away from Palpatine’s face. Viper-fast, he clamped down on Obi-Wan’s offered grasp. Clung on, like Obi-Wan was the only line in the undertow.

“Oh--I’m not hallucinating you,” he whispered with some surprise.

The visions hit like a devastating blow upon Obi-Wan’s shattered shields. Vivid depictions of horror and death; of suffering, so much suffering. Of loss.

Palpatine hadn’t been silent. He just hadn’t been talking to Obi-Wan. Instead, he’d spent the time steadily flooding Anakin’s eyes with predictions of torment. Ominous scenes of dread and ruin opened before him. He saw death—so much pain. A galaxy slowly rotting in on itself, its leaders too apathetic or too stupid to save it.

Anakin could stop it. He could save everyone. He could make Padmé proud. All he had to do was corrupt himself.

Come now, my boy. You know how to make this stop. Let go. A continuous string. A litany of discouragements, meant to break Anakin down. To succumb. To push away the pain and accept that someone else could take control of him. Could break him away from his hardships and ease the long knives of sorrow.

Anakin was the storm, but Palpatine was the gaping cavern. The pit that swallowed light and hope. That distanced his victims from reality the further in they went. Cold and compressing. Too far down, and no one would ever find their way. Not alone.

Obi-Wan hung on. “He lies. He is the ruin of everything you hold dear, Anakin. Don’t let him ruin you too.”

“He could be telling the truth.” The truth was far more devastating than any gentle lie. Let go, and become what you were meant to be.

Palpatine kept dragging at Anakin, speaking to his darkest fears, his worst impulses. Obi-Wan hung on and refused to let go.

All three of them hung in the suspension of the Force, pulled to a stalemate. Unmoving, caught in an ongoing cycle of action and reaction.

Obi-Wan thought of the twins. Luke and Leia. But not the free-loving gremlins of the farmhouse. These two didn’t smile or laugh. They dressed in strict uniforms. They stared at the world with unfeeling golden eyes and wielded crimson weapons. On their shoulders were insignias of oppression and destruction. Behind them was the looming presence of an Emperor. One with frail hands and dripping paternal authority.

He threw the vision out like a wrench amongst the gears. Then he braced himself.

No! Anakin screamed, rejecting that reality. Backed out of the cave. Tilted his head back. Let the rain rinse the cloying darkness out of his eyes.

It wasn’t a stalemate: they hung in a choice. In choice, there was conflict. The push and pull of desires against responsibilities. Of what Obi-Wan felt Anakin draw strength from the tension. Draw clarity. Draw faith. This was his place, and he would have the final say.

The Force sparked in the sliver of space between their palms. Golden eyes turned to him. Sought something else to hold onto.

Keeping his grip fast and dependable, just as he had promised, Obi-Wan took a step back. Away from the pit. Away from the lies. Away from Palpatine.

“Come here,” he said.

Anakin released Palpatine. Stepped back. Towards Obi-Wan. Towards a sliver of peace that didn’t come from a mask or bloody revenge. Followed in the path Obi-Wan showed him.

Obi-Wan drew him close. Hugged him, one hand around Anakin’s back and the other still grasping his mechanical hand. Held him for dear life. Around them, the Force exploded with unbridled power.

“Well done,” he congratulated, a whispered praise between them. Anakin, shaking, face slack, and breath coming too fast through his lungs, crumpled against him. He was soaked with sweat. Energy swells like electric currents radiated off him.

Obi-Wan held fast. It hurt to hold them both up. He used that pain to push him on. That pain told him he had given everything. If he had anything left, it was quickly running out.

He didn’t care. All that mattered were the golden eyes locked on him and only him.

The sound of a lightsaber activating. Crimson light glowed as Palpatine rose to his full height. His bloody face was no longer placidly smug. Rage had twisted it into something demented.

“This is why you’ll never know true power,” he damned. Raised himself in the Force. Stretched the maw of the pit to swallow them whole.

Obi-Wan’s reflexes were shot. He couldn’t stop it. Anakin, worn from battle after battle, had nothing left. Yet still, he strained. Somehow, looking for a defense. A way out.

“Hey, old man,” Ahsoka called from behind the Chancellor.

The evidence of the forest was carried on her shoulders. Mud, blood, and rainwater covered every bit of her. A pair of lightsabers--her lightsabers--hung on her waist. At her side, wide-eyed, panting, and looking not a little stunned with herself and her situation, was Barriss.

Papatine’s lightsaber was already in motion as he turned. Ready to fall down, strike down, rain down, the rage of a crumbling, rotten husk hanging onto power with everything he had. A blazing monstrosity, lashing out rather than face failure.

Anakin screamed, wrenching himself forward, stumbling in Obi-Wan’s grip, fear for his apprentice echoing through him.

In a one-two movement, Barriss struck out just as Ahsoka did. The young Jedi’s arm wrapped around Ashoka’s waist, pulling her back away from the lightsaber’s strike. In the same moment, Ahsoka’s swipe rang true. In one smooth arc, she slapped the Sith mask onto Palpatine’s face.

The Force exploded around them in a silent detonation. Violent intent, corruption, and rot twisted into the worst kind of purpose were snuffed out in that gaping maw.

***

With the mask on, Palpatine was eerily pliant. Obi-Wan only needed to herd him, stumbling, from one place to another. Just as the man had done to Obi-Wan on his starship, he couldn’t help but remember.

His body worked up the energy to shiver at the memory—an involuntary revolt from the horrors hiding in his mind. Just waiting for him to stumble upon.

He shook it away. He’d worry about it later. There were other concerns for him to focus on.

By unspoken consensus, Anakin didn’t go near Palpatine, instead disappearing into the house. Ahsoka hadn’t moved from where she had fallen in the field. Arms spread, taking in the steadily lightening sky. Barriss, radiating hesitance and uncertainty in the Force, sat beside her. They both had the dropped shoulders and slack faces of a day hard-won.

At a loss as to what to do with the passive Chancellor, Obi-Wan left him by Dooku. The Count still hung in the strands of Leia’s windchime like a superfluous puppet. They were alive, as far as Obi-Wan could tell. But pacified. Neutralized. Contained. For now.

Obi-wan could sympathize. With the danger contained, and the threat to his charges and himself finished, it was as if his strings had been cut. At once, everything was too much. Too intense. He was covered in the remains of battle, heart-break, exhaustion, and broken glass.

He pushed himself forward. There was still so much to do.

“Stop that and sit down,” Anakin immediately ordered. He came out of the house. In one hand, he carried a mug with a broken handle. In the other, a jar of water. A familiar gray and yellow blanket was flung over his shoulder. A few scuffs of his boot cleared debris from the steps. He tapped his toes there until Obi-Wan got the point and sat.

He swirled the mug in front of Obi-Wan’s face. “Drink it all,” he said, soft and horse. All his screaming protests had ripped his throat to shreds.

The ceramic was warm. Its contents were an unappealing slosh of brown and floating herbs. “What’s in this?”

“Don’t ask me that.”

“I think I will.”

Anakin didn’t look at him, busying himself with inspecting the jar full of water. “Coriander and cumin, so the exhausted can be revived. Angelica root, chopped finer than thread, wards off evil. Calendula for luck, eucalyptus for healing. Lavender, juniper, and rosemary to make sure that healing sticks. Threw it all into a pot and boiled it down.”

Obi-wan swore he was green around the edges. “And you expect me to drink this?”

“Down to the dregs. Best not to taste it, though.”

“I think not.” Obi-Wan set the mug aside. Anakin rolled his eyes and crouched down, so they were level.

“You know what I tell Luke when he won’t take his cold medicine or cries about his vaccine shots? I remind him that big kids take care of themselves. Are you proud of yourself for having the coping skills and obstinance of a toddler?”

“Luke’s older than a toddler.”

“That’s not helping your case.”

“Anakin, this is simply disgusting.”

“What does that matter when it’ll help?” Those golden eyes turned besieging. They were still red-rimmed and damp around the edges. His mouth warbled, a slight reveal of his fear when he spoke. He really had thought he’d lost Obi-Wan. He almost lost his control along with it.

That thought struck deep. Obi-Wan thought he could hold out and out-stubborn his headstrong charge. He had no defense against an emotional appeal from a beautiful face, open and worried about him. Bracing himself, he downed the sludging contents of the mug. And promptly gagged on the bitter mixture.

Anakin patted his back while he coughed. “Good job,” he congratulated. “You have managed to display the self-care of a child.”

Obi-Wan didn’t answer, too busy trying to scrape the taste of earth off his tongue. Jar of water in hand, Anakin hooked a hand into his elbow and hauled him into the yard. The gray and yellow blanket was still over his shoulder.

“Going to make me drink that, too?” Obi-Wan needled, eying the rainwater.

“That’s not what Leia made these for,” Anakin replied. He tipped the contents back and forth in a lazy mixing motion, water slouching up the sides. “She collected sunlight and moonlight and every light in between in these things, though. Always good for a quick clean.”

His flesh hand cupped the back of Obi-Wan’s head. “Close your eyes.”

Despite himself, Obi-Wan trusted that firm grip. Let it tip his head back. Cold rainwater splashed over his forehead. Pooled and flowed over his eyes and down the bridge of his nose. Ran in rivulets through his hair.

Again. And again. Anakin anointed him with water mixed with light. Washed dust, blood, glass, and trauma from him in small splashes. Occasionally rubbed at his scalp, at the damp strands.

Through him, the Force flowed. Acting through the water, it soothed Obi-Wan’s broken mind. Washed away ash and smoke and all sorts of collected rubble. Water was the great rejuvenator. Light brought life. Together, working through Anakin’s hand, the pains of his mind began to heal clean. His aches diminished.

“Are you endeavoring to fix me?” Obi-Wan asked, soft. He felt oddly numb. Like Anakin was rinsing him out, wringing him dry. A piece of cloth repaired for new use.

A light snort that he barely made out over the water running into his ears. “I’m trying to. Don’t expect much--I’m aiming for functionality, not pretty. Be quiet and let me work, you idiot.”

“No need for name-calling.”

“There’s every need, you idiot. What was all your crap about never putting that damn mask back on, huh? Just words? Should’ve known Jedi never keep their promises, do they?” The accusation and panic were deeply embedded in Anakin’s voice. Fury and anxiety and all the things that tasted like salt in the air.

Obi-Wan smiled through the haze of pain soaking out of him. “My rules only apply to you.”

“Fuck. You,” was Anakin’s eloquent response. His touch remained gentle on Obi-Wan’s skull. The Force bubbled around them like carbonation. He could feel pressure, but no worry or fear. The gashes running through him were growing smaller with every douse and cleanse Anakin performed.

“You’re doing well.”

“You’re gonna have to think long and hard before you ever give me another piece of advice, rulebreaker. Tell me this wasn’t what you had planned.”

“Of course not.”

“Just making sure. I’m done--you can open your eyes now.”

Obi-Wan did. The morning light was clearer--like looking through a clean pane of glass. He blinked water out of his eyes. Anakin handed him the gray and yellow blanket to catch the water dripping into his clothes.

There was still water in the raincatcher jar. As Obi-Wan tousled his hair to dry it, Anakin leaned over. Upended the contents over his head. Scrubbed through his hair with far less care than he had shown Obi-Wan. He worked with the ease that came from familiarity. He had done this before.

“Old trick?” he asked.

“Very old,” Anakin replied. Hesitated. Peeked at Obi-Wan through his dripping curls. “Very Sith.”

“That was curiosity, not a complaint,” Obi-Wan replied as he folded the dry parts of the blanket around his shoulders. The fabric was body-warm and comfortable. “I have a feeling I’ll soon become the preeminent Jedi scholar on Sith practices.”

In place of a reply, Anakin shook his hair out, sending drops of water flying over Obi-Wan and the yard alike.

“Snips!” he yelled as Obi-Wan glared. Ahsoka’s head came up out of the grass. “Go drink what’s on the stove and rinse off. There’s one of Leia’s jars on the counter for you.”

She nodded and climbed to her feet. A twin set of wooden hilts swayed on her hips as she walked. Barriss (still following Obi-Wan’s instructions, no doubt) followed close on her heels.

“When did the lightsabers happen?” Obi-Wan asked.

“Am I gonna like whatever I find on the stove?” Ahsoka cut in as she passed them.

“Why do people keep asking me questions they shouldn’t?” Anakin responded, looking dead at Obi-Wan. Ahsoka snorted and led her shadow into the house.

Obi-Wan froze when he remembered the red armored guards. “The bodies--,”

“I took care of it,” Anakin replied. He didn’t elaborate. Obi-Wan didn’t ask. Trusted that it was addressed simply because Anakin told him so.

Obi-Wan sat down on the steps. Rubbed at his beard. So much--there was still so much. “Don’t think we’re not going to talk about what’s happened between you and Ahsoka,” he warned. This close, and without the distraction of a battle, he could see the changes in them both. Like new woven cotton laced with lightning, the texture of their bond felt different.

“We were never going to go about it like Jedi,” Anakin interrupted.

“We’ll get to that. But there’s something else you need to know, first. Luke and Leia,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

Anakin dropped beside him, still dripping water off his curls. Propped his chin on his knuckles. Those gold eyes, unfiltered as always, turned contemplative. But not fearful. It was an improvement.

“They appeared to me, behind the mask. They--I think they helped me get it off. But I couldn’t tell you how they did it.”

Anakin rubbed at his mouth. Around his fingers, he asked, “do you know what a gremlin is?”

“Some tiny, mischievous creature, I suppose.”

“It’s not just that. They’re a phantom that starfighter pilots created a long time ago to justify mechanical failures. Malfunctions that mechanics couldn’t explain. That logic really couldn’t predict. Surprise total system malfunction? Blame the gremlins. The same part keeps breaking down? Blame the gremlins. Hearing voices over the airwaves? Blame the gremlins. They’re what we use to understand that the universe can sometimes break without cause or reason.”

“The Force does something unexplainable, and you blame the gremlins?” Obi-Wan repeated.

Anakin’s lip quivered behind his hand. Solidified. Relaxed. “They’re the wrench in the works and the oddity in the Force. There’s no explaining them, and they have no method in their madness. So,” he shrugged, “gremlins.”

“And I bet you think that’s enough of a warning.”

“It is if people are paying attention.”

“I think you demand too much of people’s attention.”

Golden eyes warmed as they glanced sideways through too-long lashes. The hint of a dimple peeked through his fingers. “You’ve yet to let me down.”

Obi-Wan didn’t have a response to that, too stunned by the admission. They sat in silence, watching the sun crest the forest line. Eventually, Ahsoka, damp and a little green around the edges, took her place on Anakin’s open side. She shook rainwater off her forehead and the collar of her shirt.

“Who’s this?” she asked, pointing over her shoulder to Barriss, hovering awkwardly in the doorway. The front door hung onto its hinges by the barest of threads.

“A fellow traveler,” Obi-Wan replied. He didn’t feel like getting into the details just now. “I take it she kept you in one piece?”

Ahsoka’s eyes bore the tiniest ring of gold bleeding into her blue. Yet another thing Obi-Wan wanted to know about. “She was certainly something. Come sit down, traveler.”

Gingerly, still so unsure of herself, Barriss sat beside him. “We got the shuttle’s relay working--I was able to send a message to the Jedi Council,” she told him.

“What did they say?”

“It was a one-way communication.” She didn’t elaborate if that was through any limitations on the relay or by design. Like Ahsoka, her face and the edges of her headscarf were damp with rainwater.

Hmmm. He rolled his neck, reveling in his ability to do so without sparks of pain. “How long do we have?”

“Call it a week,” she ballparked.

A groan from his other side. Anakin flexed his hands and let his agitation speak through his body.

“What do we do with them?” Ahsoka said, chin thrust out to indicate their captured enemies. Neither of whom spoke a word in reply. “I mean, do we just leave them like that?”

“We can’t,” Obi-Wan rejected. “They’re alive, and they're prisoners. We have to keep them well-cared for. And fed.” His tone made it clear this was non-negotiable.

The noise Anakin made was nearly halfway between a disapproving growl and an acknowledging hum. He waited as someone willing to listen, though disparaging of his chances of persuasion.

“We do,” Obi-Wan insisted. “And not just because they’re under our care. They need to be brought to trial.”

“You really think they’ll make it to a trial?” Anakin asked. His voice was low, taking on that dangerous edge. The Force sharpened around him. The glass, broken pieces of window orbiting them like tiny moons, turned their points inward. The rolling waves of Anakin’s power crested, rising high and perilous.

Obi-Wan held ground before the danger. “I do. Even if I have to drag them onto the Senate floor myself.”

“You take too much onto yourself, Jedi,” Anakin said. Under his words, Obi-Wan swore he could hear bells.

“I take on what needs to be done,” he countered. “And I don’t regret it. They will face judgment, if not justice. My Order demands it of me, just as yours does you. You know it, just as I do. His crimes have to be spoken of and recognized, so you don’t inherit his cycle of violence onto yourself. None of us deserve to carry that burden.”

Ahsoka said nothing and picked at the wooden boards under her. Barriss sat straight and kept silent, unsure of her opinion, lost as she was. Anakin just glared. Obi-Wan waited as three souls worked their way towards the nebulous, delicate thing that was trust.

This had to happen. Obi-Wan would not be moved. He had come so far--they all had. They would not allow themselves to become executioners today. He exerted his determination into the Force.

Then, Anakin hummed. Glanced back and forth. Stood up. Stretched with all of that beautiful grace. “All right. You win.”

He stepped out into the yard. Pushed his arms out. Froze. Around him, the Force came like it had been summoned with kind words and sweet treats. The glass shards coalesced and danced around him. Light scattered, sending rainbows across his skin—the ground split, a yawning growth that he encouraged with word and deed.

The windchime rang out. Stretched to him. His children’s creation, returning to the source. Its shamblings brought the tangle of corruption it ensnared with it. Into the mix, they all went.

Power grew. And grew. Rooted. Found light and water.

When Anakin stepped away, a tree had grown in the spot he marked. The trunk expanded to encase Palpatine and Dooku. Wrapped them in bark and branch. Layer over layer, the truck growing wide. Sealed them in. Round, ridged leaves unfurled. The tree settled into place.

“That’ll keep them alive until we figure the rest out,” Anakin said.

Obi-Wan gaped. Groaned. Gave up. Pressed his face into his knees. Concentrated on his breathing. Anakin could chalk the twins’ up to gremlins all he wanted, but all their bad habits had evident roots back to him.

“What is it?” he heard Barriss ask.

“Black alder,” Ahsoka answered. “The evolving spirit. It brings the dead back to life. It’s also madly invasive.”

“Flexible and resistant to rot,” Anakin shot back with a grin. “Just what we need.”

What in all the bedeviled heavens had he gotten himself into with this damn family?

***

The four of them were reluctant to separate. To be alone or out of one another’s sight. They collected in the living room, with its worn couches and stacks of blankets. The blown open windows let in damp and chill, so Anakin pulled out a pair of heaters to keep the crisp air from settling into their bones.

Even without the mess of the twin’s toys or towers of datapads, the room was a comfort. For the first time in years, Obi-Wan relaxed.

He passed the day in meditation. He couldn’t put it off any longer. Anakin’s rainwater wash had helped repair the worst of the damage. That didn’t mean there wasn’t work to be done. His foundations had been broken. Healing them would take time.

Barriss teetered around the edges of his consciousness before she gave in and joined him. Settling across from him on the floor. Followed his breathing pattern and pace. It was good to have a partner to balance his work against.

Ahsoka tried to keep up with them. She managed a reasonable hour. But she didn’t have the endurance for a long meditation session. When she fell asleep, Anakin dropped a blanket on her and stretched out on the couch above her. He made no such attempt to join in, instead watching them with half-laden eyes until he, too, slept.

Barriss made it until the afternoon. When her chin hit her chest for the third time, Obi-Wan sent her to sleep.

“Rest now,” he said as he encouraged her toward the vacant couch. “You’ve done well.” With a grateful look, she curled up on the threadbare cushions and drifted away.

Alone, surrounded by his family and a room of memories, Obi-Wan went deep into himself.

The walls of his mind were just as tattered as he had left them. The rainwater had cleaned away the ash and dust.

As Obi-Wan unearthed pieces of himself, the greenery planted deep in him came to life. Poked sprouts out through the charred soil. Brought new life.

Obi-Wan rebuilt his walls one level at a time. In each stage, ivy and jasmine crawled up the rocks. Held the bricks in shape. Added structure as he rebuilt supports from the ground up. The barren, sandy plain of the killing fields disappeared as bits of blue-veined granite and marble, in white sandstone and bright red brick rose step over step. In place of mortar, a riot of plants blossomed to hold them in place. Foundation and chaos mixing together in harmony to create new and intricate structures.

Obi-Wan didn’t know them by sight and smell. He couldn’t recite their benefits and meanings, information that seemed to come to Anakin like a second thought. He couldn’t tell which were invasive, which poisonous. So help him if any were venomous.

And he didn’t have to know. Not yet. He still had plenty of time to learn from a partner he believed in.

When he opened his eyes, it was dark. A small lamp had been lit and set on the floor beside him. Beside it was a stack of ration bars and water. Barriss was still asleep where he had left her. Ahsoka had been moved from the floor to the couch, blanket and all. Anakin was nowhere to be found.

Obi-Wan climbed to his feet with a stiff groan. As clear as his mind felt, his body protested a day on the hardwood floor. He pulled the gray and yellow blanket around him and followed Anakin’s phantom trail outside.

It was a clear night--rare, for Nevos. Dark and thunderous clouds accumulated on distant mountain peaks. They would have a few hours of starlight before the storm arrived. Purple shadows crept into the encroaching forest, turning the treeline dense and foreboding.

In the yard of tall grass, the black alder tree stood tall. A slight breeze ruffled the broad leaves and set the glass shreds spinning in silent, razor-sharp whirls. They danced like a pack of starlings through the night air, locking the Force into moving patterns around their makeshift prison.

Far and away from the black alder, barefoot and soft-worn, stood Anakin. His face was tilted upward. The welcome moonlight drenched him in silver light, casting him into wondrous shadow. His body was relaxed; his face, peaceful.

Obi-Wan couldn’t look away. “Anakin,” he called, confident in his right to do so. “Come here.”

Gold eyes opened. The Force flourished high, arched through the air, and flowed into the ground like new life. Then he turned away from the moon.

Anakin came to him covered in earth and atmosphere. Once upon a time, he had hesitated to stay near a dreaded Jedi, defensive and angry. Now, he stepped into Obi-Wan’s arms like he belonged there. Rested his head on Obi-Wan’s shoulder. Breathed out on a five-count that Obi-Wan mirrored.

“I couldn’t sleep anymore,” he said into the gray and yellow blanket.

Obi-Wan pressed a kiss into Anakin’s temple. He could feel the anticipation buzzing through the live oak in the back of his mind: the dread and the excitement. Anakin had placed himself in the center of that push and pull, drawing on it like a well. “It will be sunrise in a few hours.” He left the implications open.

Anakin pulled back just enough to look into his face. “Didn’t you spend all day meditating? You can’t have the patience for more.”

“I had a different technique in mind.” He let his expression turn idly ogling, brazenly wandering down that long, graceful body. Took joy in the red that came over Anakin’s cheeks. In his bitten lip and the way his bare toes curled into the grass. He was primed to react to Obi-Wan’s touch, to shiver and pant and ache with want.

Desire built fast when fueled by faith and insight. Obi-Wan knew Anakin--his belief and his strength. His fears and follies. His wants as well as his needs. And he knew he was seen in turn, understood down to the bedrock of his soul.

He entertained thoughts of pleasure. Of relearning Anakin’s body, and the sounds he made when he lost himself. It had been so long, and he wanted so fiercely. They could rediscover themselves in the Force, sex and lust bringing on a higher understanding. A stronger connection. It was so easy to fall into Anakin’s hot kisses and demanding temptations. To remember that this, too, was a part of their connection.

He kissed Anakin slow and thorough, like he could memorize all parts of him from that single point. Let his hands hold him close. Just because he wanted to do so. He was beginning to believe that intimacy may just be another core of the Force, another tenant worth striving for. For as hard as it had been to achieve, the results left him breathless and bewildered.

Anakin pulled back with a soft sound, something in his memory coming up. “I have something for you,” he said. Obi-Wan mightly resisted hauling him right back against him. Pressed into him pleading for another caress, another kiss.

“Uh--oh, where did I put it,” Anakin muttered to himself. Then, to Obi-Wan’s astonishment, he reached out and plucked something from seemingly thin air.

“How,” Obi-Wan cut himself off. It was useless to ask a Skywalker that. Gremlins, indeed.

Anakin held a circlet of flowers between them. Intent and determination radiated from them like ions. Intrigued, Obi-Wan passed a hand over it. Power, an intense braiding of the Force, made his palm sizzle. There was patience, fidelity, and faith built there. Strength and devout chivalry. It felt like...well, it felt like him. Or, at least, him as seen through Anakin’s eyes.

“Irises,” he identified with some confidence, rubbing the bright blue petals between his fingers. He picked out the others he recognized, including the red clover that littered Anakin’s yard and the mint he could pick out even at his most distracted. “It’s beautiful.”

“It’s yours if you want it.”

“Are you giving it to me?”

Anakin whined at his obstinance. Shifted his weight. Sighed a great deal. But he didn’t leave the circle of Obi-Wan’s arms. “Why are you like this?”

“I told you once, there’s nothing I want that needs to be taken.”

Anakin really did wear exasperation well. “I remember making you pay for comments like that.”

He placed his mechanical hand on Obi-Wan’s shoulder. With that steady pressure, he sank to his knees. A cool knuckle grazed the line of his beard in gratitude.

Obi-Wan hadn’t thought to expect anything when Anakin crowned him. What he got was a burst of energy, hot and exhilarating, running through him like quicksilver and lightning. The live oak broke through the greenhouse. Through the confines of his walls. Through any barrier he thought to place on it. At once, a bond truer than anything he thought to hold dear took hold. Gripped him at his most essential self and shook him.

When he was crowned, Obi-Wan drew on faith and adoration in the Force. Rose to his feet. Let Anakin kiss him again.

When Anakin spoke, the Force stood still around them. “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.” In each line, Anakin kissed him, again and again. Pressing his oaths into Obi-Wan to make them real. “When you teach me, I swear to live and to thrive, and to pass those lessons to the next generation. I have started, alone and in the dark. I stand alone, no longer.”

Energy welled around them. Hung on the edge of a pin. Anticipating. They weren’t done. “The Force is waiting for something,” Obi-Wan realized.

“It’s waiting for you to give me something. That’s the other part.”

“What do you want?”

“That’s not how this works.”

Obi-Wan hummed. Leaned in. He could smell the flowers around him. “What do you need?”

“I’m not going to make this easy for you.”

“Oh, I know. Look at me, Anakin Skywalker.” Obi-Wan stared into the eyes of a child of the Sith, a brilliant soul made to match his own worn and battered self. “I give you freedom.”

Hands closed around his face. Anakin pulled him in. Kissed him in short and messy bursts. Passion and longing meshed with unbridled lust. Hot breath panted across his lips. Adoration and delicate, fluttering awe bubbled around them. The crown was a ring of bright pleasure through him. Weighing him down and sending him scattered into the universe with equal measure.

Anakin nipped at his mouth. “Freedom is nice and all, but you owe me music and dancing,” he whispered into the sliver of space between them. “A whole night of it. And all the food and wine I want. You owe me company and laugher and indulgence. Got it?”

“Of course, wildheart.”

Anakin’s pleasure glowed around his face. The Force was a triumph of love and celebration around them. Obi-Wan was sure he could have asked for the moon and had it handed to him.

Worry budded into his peace. A thread of fear--such power over someone, granted so willingly, was a terrifying thing. Because Obi-Wan was suddenly convinced that Anakin could deliver anything he asked for, simply because it was him asking.

After all they had been through, all they had endured reaching this place, he had to be sure. He gripped Anakin’s hair. Pulled him back just far enough to see his face. Tightened his hold enough to make those gold eyes go hazy and pliant. “Tell me where the children are.”

Anakin didn’t hesitate. “No,” he whispered like a prayer.

Relief was sweet on his tongue. He released Anakin to fall once again on his shoulder. “Never doubt how proud I am of you right now.”

“Don’t be,” his Padawan growled into his shoulder. “That was miserable.”

There was no helping it; Obi-Wan was. Deeply, assuredly, and devotely proud.