The name burns in his mouth, as anything Skywalker loved burns. Kenobi is a white-hot lance each time he speaks it, Padmé an inferno he cannot even approach.
"Ahsoka." It burns again, his voice raw and strange as the shorted-out processor gives up.
There is another name in his mind, a blinding flame. A name of Skywalker's own devising. A foolish name for a fearless child.
["Don't get snippy with me, little one!"]
He senses fear in the woman who faces him, yet he can see that child. Or perhaps it is only a trick of of the light, unfiltered and unfamiliar in half his sight.
[She is fifteen and ancient, innocent and malevolent. Darkness crawls through her veins, consuming her, mouthing hateful things in a simpering mockery of her voice, and all his power cannot stop it.]
That name should no longer have any meaning for him, should be nothing but cold ashes. On her tongue, though it is little more than a whisper, it burns.
"I am no Jedi," she said, and why should she be? It was the Jedi who betrayed and abandoned her. It was the Jedi who sent children to war.
["I would never let anyone hurt you, Ahsoka. Never."]
"I won't leave you," she pledges. "Not this time."
She admits it! She abandoned him, just as everything was poised to fall apart. He alone stood by her, but when they were all against him, she was nowhere to be found.
["Then you will be forced to kill me."]
"Then you will die."
The boy calls her name, all desperation and terror, and the bottomless well of the Dark Side in this place surges up to answer him. Her power gets there first, pushing him to safety just as the chamber closes.
She has turned her back; that is all he sees. There is nothing but her and him and the clash of sabers between them, and the dark storm of power focusing through his rage. She is his,
["It's the will of the Force that you're at my side."]
not the Jedi's, not even his master's, his , and she has turned her back on him again . Feeble, foolish Skywalker let her walk away,
["Without the Council, and without you."]
but now there is no escape. She has fractured his shell, made him see, made him feel , and the pain inside him twists and sears and demands revenge.
She makes no further move to attack, only blocks and dodges,
["I don't want to fight you!"]
no longer that tiny whirlwind but still agile and lightning-fast.
"Anakin, stop ! We have to get out of here!"
A twist of his wrist around the locked blades, and one white lightsaber is wrenched from her hand and flung away.
["This weapon is your life!"]
She parries desperately with the shoto, but the blade is too short, disengaging from his before she can turn it completely aside, and she cries out in pain as it grazes her upper arm.
The sound does not, cannot, clutch at his heart.
Or so he tells himself as he seizes her wrist, forces her to drop the weapon, holds his blade centimeters from her throat. She is not looking at him but over his shoulder, eyes wide,
[She coughs and opens her eyes, clear blue and confused and alive.]
reflecting a mass of purple-white energy so bright it leaves room for nothing else.
He senses the explosion a millisecond before it comes, and instinctively raises all his power against it.
This cannot be, and yet it is. That in itself should be no surprise.
"The apprentice of Anakin Skywalker lives."
"Are you certain?"
He has not even thought to question. The presence that tried to probe him is bright and clean and fierce, and if it does not shoot off such wild sparks as once it did, still there can be no mistake. She is --
-- still here, he can sense her, but there's no wrench in his hand nor pearl of adolescent wit in his ears. "Ahsoka? Did you hear me?"
He slides out from under the speeder to find she has dozed off, curled awkwardly against the tool chest. He's only twenty, but he's pretty sure he'd sprain something if he tried to sit like that.
"Hey, Snips." He speaks softly, barely touches her shoulder, but she snaps awake, instantly alert, this little live wire they've entrusted to him, this --
-- cornered wild thing, and he made her this. He taught her there's always a way out, ignore the rules if they get in your way, keep fighting until you can't and then watch for your opportunity.
"Commander Tano, stand down!"
"All weapons on stun!" He hears the desperation in his own voice. The troopers will follow his orders regardless, but only those who hear them.
"-- all units -- Togruta female, age sixteen -- armed and dangerous --"
"Set to stun ! I want her alive!"
The hurt in her eyes, trust turned inside-out, as he begs her to turn herself in, listen, please listen, this is going to get you killed, you have to understand! But she doesn't, she can't, because he has trained her to believe they're invincible.
She steps off the edge, falling, falling, twisting at the last second to land on her feet on --
-- a stone surface, cracked and rubble-strewn, and it is a long moment, filled with his own rasping breaths, before he can recall where he is.
His sense that he has not been unconscious long is only that: a sense, a feeling, impossible to verify. Ignoring the pain and the protests of overstressed servos, he levers himself up to his knees and then to his feet. He is on the planet's eggshell crust, near the edge of a gaping hole revealing what remains of the temple. The explosion must have thrown him clear.
There is no sign of -- the apprentice , he thinks firmly. He will rebuild the wall around that name. It will not burn him again.
["Her destiny lies with you, Lord Vader, one way or another. She will be there."]
He could reach out and seek her presence, as she did months ago. He does not.
She did not leave. She met her destiny. It is done.
He makes his halting way across barren stone toward a ship his Inquisitors no longer need.
"I have failed, my master."
"Indeed, Lord Vader." The Emperor does not tell him to rise, and so he remains on one knee, head bowed, as his master continues, "Your pets should have annihilated my wayward former apprentice. Instead they died as cowards, and he escaped in your precious modified fighter. Your time and effort training those useless creatures has gone to waste."
"They did not know what they would face." The excuse rings hollow even to himself. "That he would be in league with the others."
"Ah, yes. The Jedi." He pronounces the title grudgingly, dripping with skepticism. "Who also escaped. Tell me of them."
"Jarrus is of no consequence. But the boy -- "
"Yes. Ezra Bridger. His power grows quickly."
"More quickly than his master knows how to manage." This is, if not quite good news, something the Emperor wants to hear. "It was he who unlocked the power of the temple. I do not know precisely how, but it is clear that he has tasted the Dark Side."
"A promising development. And yet he, and the holocron, are in the hands of the Rebels. This state of affairs must be rectified."
"Yes, my master."
"And... Ahsoka Tano?" He draws out the name, his power stabbing into Vader's mind with such force and focus that no reaction, however slight, will go unnoticed.
"It was as you foretold. She would not stand beside me, and so she fell before me."
The Emperor is silent for a long moment. His presence, as ever, is a black hole, no particle of feeling escaping. Vader can only guess whether the silence is anger or satisfaction or something else entirely.
"Such a waste," his master says at last. He sounds for all the universe as if he actually regrets the loss. "Do you remember her in that courtroom, Lord Vader? So small and alone, and yet so powerful. What might you do with such an apprentice at your side once more?"
"Serve the Empire, my master." He answers without hesitation, verging on haste.
The Emperor hears it too, and chuckles. "Of course. Well said, my friend. Come." He gestures at last for Vader to stand. "Let us discuss your strategy for dealing with the Rebel threat. Young Bridger may yet fulfill his promise. In the end, it seems, Tano was... merely another Jedi."
["I am no Jedi."]
"Yes, my master."