The coliseum still stands. Holos and old-fashioned two-dimensional bills proclaim it thus all over Mos Espa: the upcoming Boonta Eve Classic is in only nine days, and it promises all the thrills and explosions a sentient can ask for, young or old, local or migrant, rich or poor.
Obi-Wan Kenobi could not care less.
He skulks through the port town with Padmé’s infant son in his arms, holding the bundle so close to his chest that he could be only a vagrant’s precious cargo. All a broken man owns, all he has left of a life in ashes. The boy certainly feels that way, a weight in the Force if not in Obi-Wan’s arms. He has his father’s eyes, but that could change.
Then again, nothing changes on Tatooine. The same grains of sand cake Obi-Wan’s shoes as thirteen years ago, curled into the same rippling dunes. The same scrapyards and cantinas, the same slavers and the same slaves. The same waterless backwater that eroded Obi-Wan’s Master and grit away his life over those thirteen long years, and irritated the galaxy into culturing one exceptional child. One exceptional, aberrant, impossible child.
Luke gurgles in his sleep, fidgeting against Obi-Wan’s chest. In the shadow of the coliseum, Obi-Wan peels back his cloak to shush and soothe him.
Another child cries across the dark and distant sands, as red and gold as the setting suns.
This morning is precisely like the last. After he wakes, he checks the moisture gauge, carefully rations out enough for him and the eopie, and takes care of that first. Thereafter, he cleans: first the hut, then the appliances, and then himself. His wounds from Utapau and Mustafar are healing cleanly. His hair and beard are not yet in need of a trim. And who would care?
“Master,” Anakin whines, “I’m bored.”
Obi-Wan trains, for an hour or so, before the true heat of the day makes the place unbearable. It’s harder, with less water, and his throat is burning when he settles down to meditate. Master Yoda said that he would find Qui-Gon’s secrets, here, in seclusion. Well, he’s not finding much of anything else.
“Master!” The boy tugs on Obi-Wan’s hair, right at the nape of his neck where it’s long enough to hold. “Master, it’s not working!”
Nothing is there when Obi-Wan’s eyes flash open. Just this hovel, and the whispering scrape of sand against the walls.
Again, he settles down, slows his breathing and empties himself to the Force. The Jundland Wastes are not so aptly named: there is life in this desert, a million interconnected pinpricks like an astrogation map zoomed all the way out. Qui-Gon must have sensed it all those years ago. And if what Yoda said is true, he’s still here, burrowed somewhere in the sand. Adopting creatures, as ever. Taking in strays.
“Master,” Anakin whines again, louder, “help.”
This should not be possible. Then again, the Force.
Across from Obi-Wan, there he is, fidgeting in his robes, perched on the bed. It’s almost a memory, a day early in his apprenticeship, all of ten standard years old. His hair is uncomfortably short except for the Padawan braid, which is threaded with more strands of Obi-Wan’s and Qui-Gon’s hair than his own. His skin is still whole. His eyes are still wide. They’re also Sith gold.
“I tried to help you, Lord Vader,” Obi-Wan says, as evenly as he can.
“You didn’t try hard enough.” The boy is the perfect picture of petulance, all scrunched fists and puffed cheeks. “Meditation just doesn’t work. Can’t we just try something else?”
So it is a memory, albeit twisted. Obi-Wan tries to remember what he said then, call it back to make this ghost leave him in peace. “Perhaps,” he says, stalling. “What have you already tried?”
He counts on his fingers. “Sitting still. Being empty. Listening to the Force. Um, pacing. But it doesn’t work, Master. None of it works.”
“I think you haven’t truly tried keeping still,” Obi-Wan remembers. The Force around him is warm but remote, a distant setting sun. Or two. Two, this is Tatooine, not Coruscant. “I’ve seen you keep stiller than this.”
When you’re dead on Mustafar, Obi-Wan will not say. “When you’re working,” he says instead. “When you’re flying.”
“Is it really? What do you see, when you’re neck-deep in the chassis of a droid?”
His gold eyes flash, then wrinkle down. “Their parts,” he murmurs. “And how they fit together.”
“That’s the Force too.” Obi-Wan remembers the relief, the potent thrill of piecing together how to teach the boy, how to get through to him. How to negotiate with a child who hadn’t been raised in a créche and thought patience was punishment. “Think of it like a grand schematic. Organic, yes, but also a system that you can read. Close your eyes,” Don’t look at me with Vader’s eyes out of that face, “and sense it.”
The boy obeys, still tense, still fidgeting. But this time, he doesn’t open his eyes again, or ask for help again. And when Obi-Wan gives up on stilling his own panicked heart, the boy is gone, as if he were never there.
A grand schematic, Obi-Wan thinks. But no matter how many hours he sits, he can’t find where he fits in it anymore.
Which means that Obi-Wan hears the hut itself. Any home or any ship has its quirks, of course, but it doesn’t take him long to learn these. The wiring gutters a few times a day, a few times an hour if the wind is high. A few crustaceans live under the northern wall and enjoy skittering about. The vaporator condenses, as well it should, and overnight there’s enough water to drip and gather.
None of these things should distract him from meditation. Nary a one. He’s held trances mid-combat, while poisoned, while lying half-naked beside Satine for crying out loud; he shouldn’t be jumping at faulty plumbing.
And yet, he is.
Master, he pleads, as he’s plead every time he shut his eyes since he got to this Force-forsaken planet, is this a test?
A wind kicks up and the generator flickers. Anakin curses from the workshop. There isn’t a workshop. There never was one here. But those are his sounds, his tinkering, his scent of solder and ozone and sweat.
Obi-Wan decides to hit Mos Espa for a drink. Possibly the whole bottle, if just to be practical. They almost certainly have alcohol here that doesn’t require refrigeration.
He ought to take his own advice, he thinks. To do as he says, not as he does. And so, he tinkers. It was never his strong suit: in the early years, there was always someone else to do it, someone more adept. And then, Anakin, who could and would fix everything, usually without even being asked.
He can’t help the fond smile, nor the wave of nausea that wells up after it. Anakin is the one constant in his blocked meditation, that’s painfully obvious. The question is whether it’s the Force giving him visions, his own errant memories, or Vader himself seeking him out.
Well, there’s a question to deliberate. Obi-Wan keeps working, lets the Force guide his hands from circuit to circuit, and his mind from item to item. If it is truly Vader here, why has he not sensed Luke? Obi-Wan can feel the boy even now, as content and innocent as he should be at the Lars homestead. If Vader is on Tatooine at all, he’s already won. So that’s a point against his physical presence.
But no memory has been strong enough, distressing enough, to completely bar Obi-Wan from peace before. Not his fear of expulsion before he made Padawan. Not his torment over Satine. Not his rage at Qui-Gon’s death. Not his frustration with Anakin in his youth. Not Cody’s betrayal. Not wounds, not war, not even the sack of the Temple. It is entirely possible that the scale has finally tipped, and that he’s felt too much at thirty-four to unfeel it, even for a moment. And if that’s so, then Vader would be the thing to tip that scale, like he’s tipped everything else.
And the Force is itself, is everything. If memory and consciousness take form--they can, they have, and Obi-Wan has seen it for himself--it is more or less a vision. If the Force intends to bar him, maybe It has grown weak, or averse. Not him.
The sonic shower blasts a jet into Obi-Wan’s face, loud enough to make him drop the wrench. Anakin would laugh. Perhaps Vader does.
This particular Jawa banters with her fellow for a click, probably clarifying Obi-Wan’s needs, and then turns to him nodding enthusiastically. She takes him by the hand and leads him around the pile of scavenged scrap to another, and then a hovercrate longer than it is wide.
The Jawa opens it excitedly.
It contains a man frozen in carbonite. Anakin screams his incoherent hatred, charred black by lava. No, it contains a man frozen in carbonite.
Obi-Wan clears his mind, offers his sleeve forward, and corrects the Jawa, no, like this..
The new bed linens aren’t doing their job. They don’t fit the bed, first of all, but more importantly they don’t keep Obi-Wan asleep. Or perhaps they do their job too well. Or unorthodoxly.
Vader pins him, as much Force as weight. He was so proud to be larger than Obi-Wan, and he’s all smugness now, his smile wedged into Obi-Wan’s throat. His Padawan braid tickles Obi-Wan’s chest, like a brush through the sweat. “Master, I need you.”
Obi-Wan freezes. He shuts his eyes, or never opened them, but it does nothing.
Vader shifts atop him, sinuous and intent. He’s grown now but barely, both of his hands still flesh. Obi-Wan knows this because they’re all over him now, shunting the sheets aside and folding around Obi-Wan’s forearms. No gloves. No barriers at all. His touch is fever-hot, slick, the right hand stronger and harder than the left. His mouth sears Obi-Wan’s scars from Mustafar, and he laughs into Obi-Wan’s skin. “Are these my fault?”
“Yes.” Obi-Wan’s voice cracks, half of it still trapped in his throat. Vader kisses that too, drags his tongue up Obi-Wan’s chest and neck, ghosting his teeth on Obi-Wan’s jugular.
Peace. Knowledge. Serenity. Harmony. The Code itself feels like a plea.
“It’s always my fault, isn’t it,” Vader says, playful. Petulant. Not a question. His forehead and cheek scrape Obi-Wan’s beard and he kisses behind his ear. “This too.”
Obi-Wan flattens his palms to the mattress. His body’s reactions are not betrayal; he can’t betray a desire he’s already acknowledged. He confessed his love in the past tense, back on Mustafar. His willingness, years ago. And yes, Anakin was always in danger of becoming overattached, but it was better than the alternative. This alternative.
Atop him, Vader tenses, grips him tighter. “No.” His voice is a low rasp, a growl. “No, it’s your fault.”
Something in Obi-Wan plummets, an echo of the fall on Utapau. He opens his eyes to a blast of red, and an empty hut with a faulty sonic shower and scorpions in the walls.
He doesn’t sleep thereafter.
Two of those things can be remedied at once, thankfully. And those sheets need to be refitted to the bed, and the Jawa don’t trade needles and thread. So Obi-Wan takes the eopie to Mos Eisley--farther than Mos Espa, yes, but if he recalls correctly Mos Espa will be bustling with the Boonta Even Classic traffic right about now, and those are the last memories Obi-Wan wants to conjure up.
It’s nearly close-of-business by the time Obi-Wan gets there, and both suns hang over the horizon like accusing eyes. He lets the eopie rest at the public hydrating hole while he casts about for a likely cloth merchant. It’s mostly scrapyards here, a few cantinas and public houses, stalls for repair services and livestock. If it weren’t for his decades of Jedi training he wouldn’t be able to piece through all the hawkers, shouting out their sales for the end of the day. The Force is alive with desperation and connection, the bustling sentience of a city, and Obi-Wan is more relieved than he cares to admit. Not that he has anyone to admit it to.
So many diverse species here, all with coarse Outer-Rim accents regardless of age. A Rodian touts his circuit work, right in Obi-Wan’s ear. A Duros synthskin vendor cracks a hide on the air like immediate thunder. She might have needles, or know someone who does. Her apprentice might too; a little blond human boy--no, girl--with dark smears of sand and oil on her cheeks. Obi-Wan elects not to ask. There are surely others.
The crowd at the day-hire queue almost certainly knows. These are the people who do whatever needs doing around here, surely they’ll be willing to part with some information for trade. Obi-Wan shoulders his way over, up to the ray-fence that keeps the workers in. And on closer examination, that’s not a day-hire queue.
The rates proclaim these slaves available for hour, day, or purchase.
Obi-Wan’s not sure if he’s relieved that so few of them are human. It’s uncharitable and uncivilized to care at all, when sentients are oppressed. But there’s a part of him that’s braced for the sight of a ghost and traitorously glad that he won’t find it here. Nothing else about this is gladdening at all. But he doesn’t need a vision for his heart to break all over again.
Sewing supplies are thin on the ground, evidently. Obi-Wan could make a joke about finding needles in sand dunes, but it wouldn’t be funny, and he has no one to tell it to. Better to listen. Cantinas have always been excellent sources of information, and Obi-Wan’s heard a great deal so far. Palpatine is making speeches on the holocasters right and left. The Republic is over, the Jedi menace eradicated, the galaxy at peace. Despotism is still in its nascent stages where it looks like an absolutely glorious idea to those who want change, any change, and like more of the same to the thousands on the Outer Rim who never cared beyond local Hutt warlords and Black Sun shakedowns. Even if the Empire tries to pass itself off as benevolent, change always comes to the Core Worlds first. The Separatists barely made it out here, the Republic in name only: no one expects the Galactic Empire to be here any time soon.
So the barkeep switches the holocast from a tired old man promising prosperity and peace to a profile holo of the Boonta Eve Classic racers. The rest of the bar places bets, cheering their hometown heroes in a dozen languages.
“What about you?” the barback asks in accented Basic, taking down wagers on a datapad. “You want in, sir?”
Obi-Wan’s first thought is thank the Force he’s a brunet. The young man is dark all over like a Clone, but without that accent or chiseled features. He has a heavily pierced lip and a bright smile and curly black hair, and that cavalier drawl of sir speaks volumes about his intentions.
Obi-Wan gives him a polite smile of his own. “No, thanks. I don’t gamble.”
The young man laughs and lays the datapad on the bar, leaning into Obi-Wan’s space. “You’re the type who likes a sure bet, are you?”
It’s only halfway a question. Obi-Wan answers it anyway. “I don’t mind a puzzle, but not where my money’s concerned.” It’s so good to flirt again, it feels like ages. It has been ages. No, if he can’t remember how long it’s been, it’s been an age.
“Then I’ll be honest with you, sir,” he says in Obi-Wan’s ear. “I’m a sure bet.”
“I do hope we’re not talking about pod-racing,” Obi-Wan says: the words are completely truthful but the tone hides as much of his apprehension as it can.
“We’re not.” The young man’s breath is hot against the nape of Obi-Wan’s neck, rustling the same hairs as Vader’s in that dream. “Wait until I get off work and just pay up front.”
“What do you take?”
“How are you paying for your night?”
Credit’s no good on Tatooine. “Droid parts, mostly.”
“I can work with those.” And his hand, evidently; just the ghost of a touch against Obi-Wan’s knee as he pulls back, smiling. “You won’t be disappointed, Master.”
Obi-Wan’s throat throbs as if his heart’s soared up into it. “Come again?”
The young man blinks, twice. “I said you won’t be disappointed, sir. That’s all.”
Years pile on to Obi-Wan like an avalanche rattling down his spine. He takes a long breath, musters the Negotiator’s smile and a nod with clear intent, but can’t say anything.
Anakin could have been this. Done this. Did this, in another capacity, before Qui-Gon brought him to the Order. How many young people turn to prostitution on Tatooine?
Obi-Wan orders another drink.
The words, and the accompanying flicker of his right hand, come to Obi-Wan immediately. “You don’t need to spend the night with me.”
“I don’t need to spend the night with you.”
He extends a spool of superconductor wire and three military-grade stim packs. “You will take my payment as if your services were rendered.”
“I’ll take your payment like my services were rendered.” The trade goods fall into his cupped hands, like water. There’s no betrayal in his dark eyes, no confusion, but no relief either.
Vader would have resisted the mind-trick. Anakin did, a dozen times or more.
“Go home and rest,” Obi-Wan adds.
The words aren’t threaded with command, but the young man repeats them anyway.
I wish I could, Obi-Wan thinks, and shuts himself in the room again.
“You need to get laid,” Vader says, sprawled on the bed, hair mussed and uniform robes hanging open on his shoulders.
Obi-Wan reels back against the door so hard that his skull thuds and echoes.
“Are you done?”
Vader, predictably, is sitting on the edge of the bed. Not laid out as he was yesterday, and older: like he was in his last days as a General. In this low orange light, with dark circles under his eyes, this could as easily be Geonosis, the second time around. Or the assassination attempt on Naboo--which, irony of ironies, Obi-Wan would probably still have foiled, even knowing that the Chancellor was a Sith Lord all along. But it’s not then, it’s now, it’s Tatooine, and Vader--
--is not Vader.
Obi-Wan sits beside the vaporator, fanning out his cloak. Blocked meditation or not, he can search the room for the presence of another in the Force, and Vader’s has always burned bright. Nothing burns here, and no presence is as strong as his own. Baby Luke is a distant star, a few hours ride away. Vader still sits there, regarding Obi-Wan with challenge and annoyance, and Obi-Wan finally sees the threads that bind their presences. All of Vader flows into--or out of, more accurately--Obi-Wan. He’s not here, not physically, and never has been.
“I’m afraid not,” Obi-Wan admits. He offers his cup of water forward. “I don’t suppose you want me to share?”
Vader scoffs and leans forward, elbows propped on his knees so his face is almost at Obi-Wan’s level. “Trying to make up for what you did?”
“Did you have a particular offense in mind?” A long time ago, Qui-Gon teased him about his inquisitive nature, about his tendency to play a game of targeted questions and give no answers away. Satine called him a collection of half-truths and hyperbole. Both memories bring a tentative smile to his lips and a pang of much darker emotion to release into the Force and forget.
“Let’s see,” Vader says, as much growl as snark. “Water’s not going to do much for cutting me in four pieces and leaving me to burn to death, so it can’t be that.”
The image is still heartbreaking and gruesome. Obi-Wan puts it aside and keeps his eyes on Vader’s. “Did you want me to do more?”
“I wanted to kill you.”
“You’ll have to be patient,” Obi-Wan sighs. “Unless that’s why you’re here.”
“You’d like that,” Vader snarls.
“You being patient?”
“Me killing you.”
“You’re right, that’s much truer to your character.”
“You don’t know me, old man.”
“If I did, would I be here?”
Vader pushes off the bed and stands, towering over Obi-Wan. His Jedi armor is scuffed and sandblasted, his hair in disarray and his glare hard and steady, and if it weren’t for those eyes Obi-Wan would call him by another name. “You could have joined me.”
“You couldn’t possibly have expected that of me.”
The apparition shifts, and one of Vader’s arms lashes out--the one he still has. Somehow he’s still standing with the other limbs gone and embers crawling up his clothes, leaving a warped haze like the desert horizon around what’s left of him. Even his hair starts burning and peeling back, leaving only that accusing, screaming face looming over Obi-Wan. “You said you loved me.”
Obi-Wan breathes, twice, slow and willful. “Not you,” he says.
A flash of blinding heat bursts through the room. When it clears from Obi-Wan’s eyes, he’s alone again, but the suffocating heat remains.
The vaporator is empty. It’ll take another few hours for there to be enough to drink.
Well, that’s an idea.
So far, it’s not exactly working. But it harms none.
Fifteen straight hours of meditation. He’s cast his consciousness all over Tatooine, spread out from the center of this insignificant hut all the way to Jabba’s Palace. He can feel the crowds thinning in Mos Espa, the exhilaration of the racers and the celebrations in every cantina on the planet. He can track the Jawa and the Tusken along their routes, picking apart a crash-landing. The creatures beneath the sand are open to him, hungry and cold and waiting. The moisture-farms are like nodes of life in this grand network, as if the planet is a microcosm for the galaxy itself. Core Worlds and Rims and scattered solitaries like him, all one ecosystem. The Living Force.
If there were any time for Obi-Wan to hear his Master’s voice it would be now. Obi-Wan can picture him so easily, posed just like this, even on this very planet, slotted into the web of life where he seemed to belong so completely. Qui-Gon is here, if the Force itself is here. Thirteen years ago Obi-Wan accepted Qui-Gon’s death, watched a cold sarcophagus become the only tangible proof that he was ever here. The Council called it Obi-Wan’s Trial of the Flesh. For Anakin that Trial had been the loss of his hand. Proof positive that a Jedi can overcome physical needs. Like this.
The suns have set when Obi-Wan emerges from his trance, and he barely makes it to the bed.
It’s so strange to feel his own light diminished, but the focus is sharp, and Tatooine is vast. The planet unfurls to him with the dawn, first one sun, then the other, and all of the life on it and around it awakens. The galaxy itself is in pain. Its wounds are nexi of darkness, surrounded by stubborn attempts to heal. The Empire is infection--no, cauterization and replacement. The wounds of absence cannot heal. A severed limb cannot regrow itself. The nature of loss is loss, even on a galactic scale. It is left to the galaxy to accept or reject the intrusion.
Even in trance, Obi-Wan can’t help the wry observation that the here he is, rejecting finality. Qui-Gon is dead, Qui-Gon is present in the Force. Both of these things cannot objectively be true. Anakin is Vader, Anakin is Anakin. The same. Untrue. Impossible. He can’t be both. But the Force makes all things possible. Otherwise, Obi-Wan wouldn’t be here trying to negotiate with it.
Negotiations with the cosmos are quite the headache.
But he still persists. Hours, with only the Force to fill him. Hours of shunting his discomfort aside, even as the discomfort becomes outright pain. There’s a certain ease and acceptance to it, honestly: perhaps when he comes down, he’ll write up his findings on the fasting trance. Some future Jedi, some new hope, might find it interesting.
A spark flares up in one of the dark concentrations, red and bright. Obi-Wan chases it, spirals into the black--
Not yet, Qui-Gon whispers.
“Drink,” Anakin says.
The floor of the hut is warm but not slick. Obi-Wan lifts his head from it as much as he can, looks to the ceiling. Anakin--Vader--sits by the vaporator, a full cup of water in his hand, hovering over Obi-Wan’s face. It drips again, this time onto his cheek.
“You first,” Obi-Wan croaks. Vader is burning, on Mustafar.
He’s also here, perhaps twelve years old, wide-eyed and insistent. He shakes his head, his hair a golden blur. Another sun. “You need water. Your eyes are bugging out.”
Obi-Wan might have tried to laugh, if the burning in his throat is any indication. “Are they?”
Vader nods. “And your skin’s loose.” He reaches out a hand, the one not holding the cup, and pinches Obi-Wan’s cheek. There’s pain, yes, but it doesn’t quite spread. “I was born in the desert, Master. I know what it’s like. Drink.”
It’s hard to argue with that logic, and it’s always hard to argue with this impetuous Padawan for whom logic is only an occasional acquaintance. Obi-Wan reaches up for the cup and folds his fingers around it. The water is warm for one moment, then cold and painful the next. He draws the cup down to his lips, tilts up the best he can, and drinks.
“Go slow,” Vader says. “You don’t want to throw it back up.”
Obi-Wan obeys. Anakin took care of him like this, once. He was about this age, too. They’d been training on Serri II, on the salt flats, interrupted by a rather large representative of the local fauna. The journey back to civilization was cut short by their running out of water. Anakin said he used Obi-Wan’s lightsaber to spile a plant. It took days to get all the sap out.
The cup is still half-full when Obi-Wan pauses, just to let the water sit on his lips. They’re chapped. Funny how easy it is to ignore that when you’re casting about in the Force. He looks into Vader’s eyes over the rim of the cup. They’re definitely Vader’s eyes, but in Anakin’s young face.
“You’re letting yourself go,” he says.
Obi-Wan chuckles, propping himself up on an elbow. It’s easier now. “Is that what I’m doing?”
Vader nods, pouting. “I’ve seen it. It’s not walking into the dunes, but it’s close. Slower.” It’s so hard to think of Vader when he’s like this, an awkward little cherub if not for those hateful Sith eyes. But Obi-Wan can’t think of him as Anakin either, not quite.
“I assure you, that’s not what I’m doing.”
“You’re not very convincing, Master.”
The other thing that’s incalculably strange about this is Vader’s Force signature. Anakin, even in his darkest moments, burned. Even weakened. Even when Obi-Wan was weak. The Force was so strong with Anakin, so concentrated on him, that for the first few years it hurt to meditate in his presence. He was a nebula of primordial energy, bright enough to diminish Obi-Wan’s own static star. But Vader, here, is in shadow--no, in eclipse. His essence is blocked by Obi-Wan’s. Or perhaps it is the other way around.
Or both, the Force itself seems to say.
Obi-Wan takes another long drag of water. “Why are you here?”
“You said you wanted me,” Vader says. His cheeks scrunch down, his eyes narrow. “Is that not true anymore?”
The answer is too complicated to be voiced.
One long blink, and Vader is gone: Obi-Wan is collapsed beneath the vaporator, keeled on its side and dripping into his parched mouth.
He chokes down another mouthful of saline and amends that: at least a month.
Once he’s ate all he can manage, and stored what can be saved, he fully intends to crawl into bed and stay there. He hasn’t felt this decrepit and malnourished since Zygerria. But here at least he can rest.
His shoulders chill: that means the food is working. He sets his alarm to wake him up in four hours to have more water, then falls into bed and tangles himself in the sheets.
Right, they still need refitting.
It’s a humorous enough thought to sleep on, and it works well enough. The alarm goes off, but Anakin Force-pushes it off the nightstand. “Too early,” he groans, and burrows into Obi-Wan’s side.
That weight is so familiar. So’s the protesting. Obi-Wan laughs, his throat still dry, and pats Anakin’s head. His hair is long enough to hold a curl, braidless. A Knight’s cut, or lack thereof. His breath condenses in the crook of Obi-Wan’s shoulder.
His thigh presses over Obi-Wan’s hips, on a trajectory for--no.
Obi-Wan shoves him out of the bed. Surprisingly, even Force-induced hallucinations go thud when they hit the floor.
“What in the Sith hells?” Vader shouts, scrambling to his feet.
“How are you still here?” Obi-Wan gets to his feet as quickly as he can, and the floor is scalding beneath them.
“Maybe because you keep thinking about me!” Vader’s face simmers in oranges and golds, whether because of the setting suns or the memory of Mustafar, Obi-Wan doesn’t know. “Ever consider that?”
Obi-Wan gathers himself with a breath, lets his hands fall to his sides. “You make it difficult not to.”
“No!” He flails out his metal arm, fingers trembling. “Stop putting it off. Stop pushing me away. That’s not how it works!”
“So you’re here to tempt me.” Obi-Wan sighs, still calm, still even. “I should have known.”
Vader yells again, the same wordless screams that fire forced out of him. But here, his body doesn’t crumble, and his hands go straight for Obi-Wan’s throat. It takes him a second too long to dodge, and the touch burns, as much Force as anything else.
“Hate me!” Vader begs. “Fight me! Feel something!”
His body passes through Obi-Wan’s like a heat wave, and is gone.
The alarm goes off again. This time, it’s within reach, and Obi-Wan turns it off himself.
He failed his Initiate Trials three times, and never took the Padawan Trials at all. He’d been an exception, after Naboo: the first Padawan in several years to bypass the formal Jedi Trials entirely. There should have been five. There was no need for the Council to construct a course for him, or fabricate a mission, or ask the Force where he needed to be to advance to Knighthood. It came down to one day, one mission, one justification.
The Trial of Skill: he faced a Sith Lord and survived. He fell four stories and made his way up through a shower of sparks and a gauntlet of doors.
The Trial of Courage: he faced a Sith Lord and survived. He pulled himself out of the reactor core and cut a sentient being in half at the waist.
The Trial of the Flesh: he faced a Sith Lord and survived. His Master didn’t.
The Trial of Spirit: he watched his Master die, and didn’t Fall.
The Trial of Insight: he emerged from the reactor and told the Council that he would train Anakin, no matter what objections they raised, in Qui-Gon’s name. They did not object again.
Which means, in a way, that he passed no Trials at all. The true skill of a lightsaber is never having to use it. Courage may have been accepting death, not resisting it in the same leap of faith that would nearly kill Anakin thirteen years later. His loss did not make him any more ready to teach, and his choice not to Fall was no choice at all, and the only difference between foolishness and insight is a certain point of view. And after Obi-Wan became a Knight without Trials, dozens more Padawans followed, after battlefield promotions and hasty justifications and the collapse of the Order in its desperation to keep up with the troubled times.
Vader screams in the walls with the wind and the scorpions: Master! Please! I need you! and Obi-Wan knows exactly what this is.
He walks past the corpses of the younglings on the Temple floor, his cloak brushing against their faces. He leaves the hut on Tatooine behind for the Room of a Thousand Fountains, and the sound of rushing water is as calming, as resolute, as ever. There is no carnage in here, though there was when last Obi-Wan saw this place: the paths wind green and silver through a maze of waterfalls, and all in the room is alive. It was Qui-Gon’s favorite place in all of Coruscant. Obi-Wan, in the desert back in the physical world, now understands why.
Vader waits for him, sitting on a rock between two grand falls. He’s as out of place as he ever was, a beacon of fire and sparks in this room of water and earth. He looks up from the disassembled saber in his lap, its crystal glowing all the way up to his eyes.
The crystal is the same color: a core of blue, an edge of red and gold.
“Master,” he says, low, coarse, but not a threat. There’s room to sit beside him on the moss, and Obi-Wan does. Water drums in his ears, louder in the right where the fall is closer. Vader’s crystal floats in his cupped palms, glimmering in the light reflected a thousand times on a thousand inconstant surfaces, change the only constant here. “Tell me why you keep calling for me.”
It’s not a question, it’s a demand. But that’s true to him, Obi-Wan thinks, and cedes his answer. “Because you’re still there.”
Vader laughs once, bitterly, and tightens his left fist around the crystal. The right is all machine, no glove or synthskin. “Is that why you left me to burn?”
“Yes,” Obi-Wan admits. It’s easier, somehow.
“You should have killed me.”
“You left me to die. You cut me into pieces and then left me to die. I couldn’t even crawl, just lie there and burn. I forgot how to breathe. I forgot how to see.”
“And you say it’s because you couldn’t kill me,” he snarls, drumming his fist on his knee, “when you really just watched me die over and over again.” The light of the crystal creeps between his fingers, like Dooku’s lightning about to strike. “Why?”
“I told you,” Obi-Wan says. “I loved you.”
“You don’t know what love is,” he spits. “No Jedi does. You pretend, with compassion, but you don’t know love. Love doesn’t stand by and let people suffer. You watched me struggle for years, Master. You kept me from Padmé, from my mother, from Ahsoka, from you, from anyone getting in the way of the Order. You never loved me. If you loved me you’d never have let me fall!”
The waterfall thunders, and the air grows thick and stifling. Obi-Wan breathes, the best he can. “It wasn’t a matter of letting you. I did what I had to, what I thought was right.”
“So it was right to leave me?” Vader gets to his feet, and Obi-Wan tries to follow but is shoved down by his ice-cold metal hand. “It was right to hack me into pieces and pick and choose which parts of me survived?”
Pieces, Obi-Wan thinks. Fragments. The durasteel hand is cool against his forehead, its sensors twinkling like stars. Parts of a whole, composite, connections. Vader is more than Mustafar, more than the purge of the Temple. He’s been behind Obi-Wan since he met the child on Tatooine, since he chose to train him, but more than that: he’s not someone else. He was never not there.
“I haven’t left you,” he realizes, “Anakin.”
He reaches up to cup Anakin’s face, and draws him closer.
Anakin needs no other invitation. He crushes their mouths together, cards his fingers through Obi-Wan’s hair and holds him where he wants him, and Obi-Wan doesn’t push him away. He tastes of sweat and that faint metallic tang of city water, and Obi-Wan is parched enough to drink him down. He settles his hands on Anakin’s neck, tentative, almost surprised that he’s still here to touch, and he smoothes his thumbs down Anakin’s throat into the dip between his collarbones. The ash of Mustafar is on him, right there in the hollow. Obi-Wan accepts it, chases it with his tongue.
He feels more than hears the choked-off sound in Anakin’s throat, a hard and sudden vibration against his teeth. Anakin tackles Obi-Wan to the floor, pins him flat and holds him by the hair and grinds down, his body hot enough to feel through layers of armor and coarse cloth. Obi-Wan remembers the first time they did this, years ago, Anakin’s fear of rejection, his desperation, and Obi-Wan shows him now what he showed him then. He’s here. He’s wanted. He’s missed. He’d let Anakin in through the Force if he could--can’t, like this, through layers of vision and illusion--but he holds him tight and soothes him, kisses his throat and shoulders and lets their bodies fit together.
“I need you,” Anakin grits out, like he’s in pain.
He is, somewhere not here.
“I know,” Obi-Wan whispers. “Forgive me.”
Anakin seizes his face and kisses him again, hard, punishing, completely without compromise. For all the heat of the desert, Anakin’s skin is scalding, but Obi-Wan won’t pry his hands away. He fights with the belts and knots until he can press his palms flat to Anakin’s back, feel the stubborn ridges of his spine and heaving ribs, his life, his strength. It’s familiar, piecing through each other’s clothing, getting skin to skin, rutting in a pile of clothing on the floor because there’s nothing else to hand.
Peace. Knowledge. Serenity. Harmony.
There is no death; there is the Force.
“Anakin.” Obi-Wan calls him by name, just to say it, just to believe it. He reels away from the kiss to look Anakin in the eyes. They’re still Vader’s eyes, red and gold and bloodshot, but Obi-Wan has seen that face on Anakin before and welcomes it. He kisses him again, short, true. Sweat drips from his forehead onto Obi-Wan’s, sears the corner of his eye.
He shoves his hand into Obi-Wan’s pants and grabs hold. Tight, sudden, welcome, Obi-Wan had no idea how much he missed this, needed this. Two sharp pulls from slick durasteel and he’s already thrusting off the floor, fumbling through Anakin’s clothes to return the attention. Almost as soon as he gets one hand where he wants it Anakin captures the other and yanks it to his mouth, bites the heel of Obi-Wan’s palm and sucks enough to bruise.
“Remember me,” Anakin growls, right into Obi-Wan’s skin.
White heat shoves the words out of Obi-Wan’s throat. “I do.”
Anakin tightens his grip, drags his thumb along the slit. “Keep me.”
“I will.” The Force surrounds him, weighs on him and supports him all at once--Anakin is swollen and hot in his hand, soft and wet on his fingertips, bearing down on him like he could drill them both into the earth and fix the world in place--he’s beautiful like this, and terrifying, all his strength and focus brought to bear on Obi-Wan’s skin, all that uncontrolled want driving him up and on, binding them together--
“Come for me,” he demands, and Obi-Wan knows he means it in more than one light.
It doesn’t take long; Obi-Wan cants his hips up once, twice, and gives over. His shields come down, and Anakin is there, Vader is there, a supernova in his mind of pleasure and want and pain, and Obi-Wan lets him in. Lets him know, lets him have. He fucks Obi-Wan’s hand and keeps coming, his breath all harsh catches and choked sobs until his hips finally still.
Obi-Wan rests his palm against Anakin’s cheek, draws their foreheads together to rest.
“I will,” he swears, to an empty hut on a barren planet.
At high noon, under both suns, he sits down to meditate.
Well done, Qui-Gon says, his voice like a mild autumn breeze. But come. You still have much to learn.
“I do,” Obi-Wan admits. “But I am ready, Master.”