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the dream of flight persists

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It was easier to get work when the twins were babies. In the aftermath of Palpatine's ascension, there was a lot of chaos as the people who understood what was coming fled to the Outer Rim, and many of them needed a pilot or a mechanic (or both) to manage their pre-war freighters or cruisers. People didn't ask as many questions when they saw a grieving young father trying to care for his adorable infants on his own.

Now, it's more difficult, because the kids can't just be strapped into the copilot's seat while they nap or carried around on his back when he pushes his way through a cantina or marketplace looking for a berth. They talk too much, ask innocent questions that no one wants to answer, least of all Anakin himself, and while his skills tend to allow a certain type of people to ignore his famous face, he hates having to trust his children's lives to that kind of greed masquerading as kindness.

He's tried leaving them with Owen and Beru, but none of them fared well with the separation, though Beru was more than happy to keep them. They've already lost their mother; he's determined they don't lose their father, too. Not after how close they came to losing everything because of his stupidity.

They were the only reason he had to keep living after Padmé died, and it was only for them that he'd pulled himself out of the fog of sorrow that he'd nearly drowned in then. That first year is hazy in his mind, punctuated with sharp bursts of joy at the kids' first smile, first step, first word. Keeping them with him is worth the hassle of finding a family-friendly berth.

Mos Eisley isn't a good place for kids (it isn't a good place for anybody, but especially for kids), and he keeps a hand on both of them as they push through the market-day crowd. He heads for the spaceport; he doesn't want to take the kids to a cantina if he doesn't have to, and sometimes deals can be made directly without having to waste time with posturing or credits on drinks.

Most of the freighters are older models, and any one of them would benefit from his skills, but he likes to get a feel for the captains and crews before he makes a move, and how a captain treats their ship can tell him a lot. Especially since he's going to have the kids with him. Not many freighters will take on temporary crew plus family.

Nothing he's seen so far is striking him, and he wishes yet again that the Twilight had survived the war. Having his own ship would make life a lot easier; he's just never managed to save up enough to buy something.

Luke is practically vibrating with excitement at seeing so many different kinds of ships all at once, and Anakin can feel his indecision as he spots first one and then another that he'd like to explore. He tightens his grip on Luke's shoulder.

"Stay close," he says. Luke gives him a beseeching glance but he doesn't relent.

Though she loves flying as much as the rest of her family does, even at the age of five, Leia is more mission-oriented than Luke. She tugs on Anakin's tunic and he gives her his full attention.

"What about that one?" she says, pointing to an old Firefly class ship.

The Force pings happily and Anakin shrugs. He'll take what guidance he can get. There's a young woman with a parasol sitting in front of the open hatchway. She gives him a wide smile that appears completely genuine, and she includes both Luke and Leia when she speaks.

"You're gonna come with us," she says firmly, a slow twirl of her parasol emphasizing her point. "Serenity is the best ship from the Outer Rim to the Core, and she'll take you where you need to go." She tilts her head and her mouth quirks wryly. "Might not be in the grandest style, but she'll definitely get you there."

"Style's not as important as substance," Anakin agrees. The ship is old but looks to be in good shape. He's never flown in a Firefly, but they have a good reputation among smugglers and salvagers. "Don't have a destination in mind," he adds. "I'm a mechanic and pilot looking for a crew in need."

"Well, we have a pilot and I'm the ship's mechanic, but we could maybe use a gun hand, if you can't pay for passage. Ain't many other crews as'll let you bring the kids along, but our crew is like a family." She leans forward and glances between Luke and Leia, who appear fascinated by the ship. They've never seen a Firefly before; there aren't many still flying these days. "She's got good bones, Serenity does. You can see it, can't you?"

Anakin finds himself nodding along with the kids, even though it's unlikely they'll be going with the woman's ship. Too bad, because the name calls to something within him. He's never found much serenity himself, despite all the meditation he's been subjected to over the years; maybe working on this ship would do it. He doesn't believe in omens, but the Force works in mysterious ways, and sometimes it uses a sledgehammer on stubborn Jedi who don't follow its more subtle hints.

"Not sure what I can contribute if you've already got a mechanic and a pilot." He ignores the bit about being a gun for hire. He's not as vocal about it as Obi-Wan was, but though he's competent enough, he hates using a blaster instead of his lightsaber, and he still considers himself a Jedi at heart. He hasn't yet lowered himself to hiring out as a mercenary, and he has no intention of doing so now.

"You willing to haul cargo?" The voice comes from behind him, flat and female; he turns to find a woman clad in spacer's leathers eyeing him keenly. She's as tall as he is and her dark hair is pulled back into a loose braid and she's got a well-worn gun belt wrapped around her hips. Her eyes widen when she gets a look at his face and he can feel her recognition in the Force, but otherwise she gives no sign of it. "Our usual hand's laid up with the Rodian flu, could use the help."

"Yeah," he answers warily. "I could do that."

"Any good in a fight?" This from a man in long brown coat, which tells Anakin all he needs to know about this crew. Separatists, and not the kind who'd let droids do their fighting and killing, either. Of course, that war's long over now and they're all just trying to get by in the kriffed up galaxy left in its wake.

"I can hold my own," Anakin says, "but I don't go looking for trouble." His natural tendency to brag has been worn away by the last few years; safer to downplay his abilities even among people who recognize him.

"Neither do we," the man says, "but somehow it always finds us."

Anakin snorts. "I know the feeling."

"Wouldn't mind some help in the engine room, Cap'n," the woman with the parasol says. "Hyperdrive's been mighty temperamental lately."

"Ain't got credits for upgrades at the moment, Kaylee," the man in the brown coat replies. He gives Anakin a once-over of his own and then glances at the tall woman, who gives a nod. "Ain't got much in the way of money for payment, either," he says, turning to Anakin, "but in return for hauling cargo and helping out as needed if trouble arises, we can give you and your younglings room and board from here to anywhere on the Outer or Mid Rim for the next few weeks, at least." He squints against the brightness of the twin suns. "We're good at avoiding Imperial entanglements, if that's your concern."

"Might be," Anakin replies.

"Captain Mal Reynolds," the man says, holding out a hand. The name is familiar, but Anakin can't place it. He shakes anyway. "This here's my first mate, Zoe, and you seem acquainted with Kaylee, my mechanic."

"He knows a gem of a ship when he sees one, Cap'n," Kaylee says, and Anakin has to smile at how quickly she's sized him up. She holds out her hands to the twins. "You wanna see your bunk?"

The twins look up at him and he gives them the go-ahead. "This is Luke, that's Leia. I'm Anakin Naberrie."

Zoe and the captain trade another look and another nod. "Welcome aboard."

*

There's another Force-sensitive on board, he can tell immediately--their shields are almost nonexistent but they've found a way to camouflage themselves within the presence of the others. It indicates a modicum of training the lack of shields doesn't, which is an interesting contradiction. It's a neat talent, and one he's never gotten the hang of--Obi-Wan always told him he was too bright in the Force to hide well--and it's probably only his own strength and training that lets him suss the person out. They're unfamiliar and just want to be left alone, so he doesn't prod. He knows the feeling. The Force is coiled tense and close around him, but only with anticipation, none of the dread or danger he's come to associate with the minions of the dark side Sidious sends out in search of him sometimes. (Anakin doesn't know if he knows about the twins, and he has no desire to give him the opportunity to find out.)

He helps them load the crates of cargo--they don't volunteer any information about the contents and he doesn't ask--while Luke and Leia run back and forth from their tour with Kaylee to the hold to tell him about everything they've seen in breathless bursts of chatter.

Reynolds doesn't look thrilled but Zoe watches them with a hint of wistfulness. He knows better than to ask about that, too.

After the crates are loaded, Kaylee takes him on a tour of his own. "That's where Inara's shuttle usually docks," she says, pointing to hatch that says Shuttle 1. "She's a Companion." His surprise must show on his face because she says, a little chill in her tone, "I hope that's not a problem for you."

"No," he says. "Just surprised, is all."

Kaylee nods. "Might not look it, but we're a respectable ship. Used to have a shepherd on board too." That's tinged with sadness, but Anakin's glad the preacher is gone. Even as a believer in the Force, he was truculent enough about Jedi philosophy and how it had conflicted with his mother's faith; he doesn't like dealing with other people's religions. "Anyway, Inara takes work mostly around the Mid-Rim, though she could easily have the best clients in the Core if she chose."

There's a challenge there he doesn't really get, so he just says, "I'm sure." Companion houses are mostly a Core thing, though there's one in Theed, as well. He'd never understood the point, though Obi-Wan always said they all served in their own ways.

That appeases Kaylee, who says, "She's on Arkanis now; we'll be picking her up tomorrow."

"Okay."

Kaylee points out the crew quarters on the way to the passenger dorm. "Jayne's quarantined off-ship with Simon, our doctor, so none of us catch Rodian flu from him." She shakes her head. "Don't want to be passing it back and forth 'cause we're living in close quarters."

"Understood."

"And here you are." The room is larger than he expected, painted a warm, buttery yellow, with a woven rag rug covering the metal floor.

"Thanks." He drops his bag beside one of the beds.

Luke and Leia are already swarming over the other bed. "Ours," Luke says, hanging upside down over the edge.

"Fine, but no kicking each other off."

That earns a giggle from both kids and Kaylee too. She gives him a sidewise glance that might be flirtatious, but he's out of practice and doesn't respond.

The engine thrums under his boots, saving him from any social awkwardness by reminding them that he hasn't seen the engine room yet.

The engine's as patched together as anything he's ever seen in a ship this old, but it all works together in harmony. The space is bright and only slightly cluttered, and he laughs in recognition when he sees the hammock strung up in the corner.

"I sleep better in here sometimes," Kaylee says defensively. "Hum of the engine's better than any lullaby."

Anakin holds up his hands in surrender. "No, I get it. I've spent a lot of nights sleeping in engine rooms myself." He gives her a grin that used to get him out of trouble all the time when he was younger. "Not in anything nearly as comfortable looking, I assure you."

She relaxes again and nods in forgiveness. She seems easygoing, but the ship and its crew obviously mean a lot to her. He likes her fierceness, even if he's going to have to get used to negotiating her moods if he sticks around for any length of time. It's been a while since he cared about doing that with anyone but the twins, and he's out of practice at that, too. He misses Padmé with an ache in his heart, and he misses Obi-Wan and Ahsoka and Rex, misses the camaraderie of the Resolute and the battlefield, deep in whatever is left of his soul.

There's a crackle of static and then a woman's voice--not Zoe's--comes over the comm. "Prepare for takeoff."

"That's River," Kaylee says. "She's the pilot."

Anakin mouth quirks wryly. "I figured."

"You wanna see the cockpit?"

"If you think River won't mind."

"She won't mind at all."

Anakin's not so sure about that, since it's likely that River is the presence he feels hiding in the Force, but better to get that potential awkwardness over with.

Reynolds is in the co-pilot's seat, but Anakin's focus is drawn to the pilot. She turns and meets his gaze bravely, though he can sense her fear. She can't be more than sixteen or seventeen, he thinks, no older than Ahsoka was the last time he saw her.

"Eighteen," she says, startling him. "Almost nineteen."

This time, the fear flaring between them is his. He'd deserted, run when Padmé had begged him to go with her, despite Palpatine's plans for him. He should have been on Coruscant, in the Temple, when it all went to hell, and he wouldn't blame this girl if she made those accusations, but he still has Luke and Leia to look after, and that's always going to be his priority.

River eyes him with compassion, though, not anger, a Jedi to her core. She doesn't rise but she does bow as appropriately as she can manage from a sitting position. More than he deserves, really. "Master Skywalker."

Kaylee squeaks and Reynolds makes a strangled noise. Anakin ignores them. "We haven't met." His voice is steady, pleasant, despite the cacophony of fear--his, hers--plucking at his nerves. He sounds like Obi-Wan before a tense negotiation, except without the accent.

River nods jerkily. "We have now."

"Who--" Anakin swallows hard. "Who was your master?"

"Hey," Reynolds says in warning.

River holds up her hand, waves him off. "It's okay." She turns her gaze back to Anakin and he feels as exposed as he ever did in front of the Council. The girl is strong for all that she's scattered. "Purge happened before I was chosen," she says. She looks down at her hands, the tangle of her long, dark hair hiding her face. "I hoped but--" She shakes her head, tossing her hair over her shoulder, and looks up again.

He sees the same devastation in her eyes as he does in his own when he looks in the mirror. "I'm sorry."

"Me, too." She turns back to the console, puts her hands on the stick. "You might want to strap in."

He huffs as soft laugh. "I think I can handle it."

Reynolds still looks angry and disapproving--a reaction that's almost comforting in its familiarity--but River gives him a quick smile over her shoulder, and he feels like he's passed an important test.

*

At dinner, Reynolds gives them the itinerary for the next couple of weeks, with commentary from Kaylee and River. Zoe is quiet and watchful, but she answers all of Leia's questions about her hair and her gun and her job as first mate. Anakin's surprised by her patience with the kids, though maybe that's just because he hasn't found it on other ships. Usually the kids stay quiet in whatever bunk he's been assigned until he's off-duty and available to shepherd them around and away from anyone who might take offense at their presence. Serenity is different. He can already tell.

"There's a chore roster," Kaylee explains. "For example, this week, Zoe cooks and Mal does the dishes, and I clean the common areas of the ship."

"I don't suppose you're any good at cooking," Reynolds says, trying to sound casual but sounding hopeful instead.

It's a shame those are hopes Anakin can't fulfill. "No, but I know half a dozen ways to get engine grease out of anything," Anakin replies, "and I'm pretty good at laundry." He'd learned that from his mother, early on, and used it even at the Temple and on the battlefield.

"All right then," Reynolds says. "Skywalker here will be on laundry duty this week." Anakin's pretty sure he's not imagining the sarcastic emphasis Reynolds puts on his name, but he there's nothing he can do about it now.

The conversation becomes general after that. Kaylee talks about the different kinds of fruit she picked up in the Mos Eisley market--a luxury they don't often get, spending so much time out in the black. Luke quizzes her about the ship and she answers cheerfully and knowledgeably, impressing Anakin yet again, both with her patience with Luke and her expertise. River accepts on her plate the vegetables Leia doesn't want to eat, and Zoe watches everything, like a benevolent crèche master overseeing her clan of younglings.

"Dinner was delicious," Anakin ventures when the meal is done. He looks towards Zoe, who remains as inscrutable as any Jedi Master he's known. "Thank you." He folds his hands and gives Zoe a brief bow. Luke and Leia do the same, which earns smiles from everyone.

Zoe nods in regal acceptance, and the kids follow her out of the galley, peppering her with more questions, this time about cooking.

"We can look over the hyperdrive," Kaylee offers while Anakin looks after them in surprise. It's not that Luke and Leia aren't curious and adventurous, but they don't usually walk away from him without a backward glance. "If you want," she says after he doesn't respond.

"Yeah, yeah, that'd be great," he says finally. He grins at her, eager to learn more about the work she's done with the ship's systems.

They spend the rest of the evening going over Serenity's engines and their various quirks. The hyperdrive is definitely on its last legs, but still chugging along thanks to Kaylee's careful nursing of it. The sublights are newer and more expensive than Anakin expected, high quality KDY engines, and Kaylee's done a genius engineering job to get them integrated into the ship's other systems, but he can see where the patches are wearing thin, and where the old equipment just isn't up to the strain the newer parts put on it.

When he asks about it, though, she looks upset. "There was a, a job," she says, though it sounds more like she means mission when she says it. "We lost Book--that's the shepherd I mentioned, and Wash--he was Zoe's husband, our pilot before River--and Serenity was banged up real bad. The, the client," she practically chokes on the word, the lie of it, "paid for repairs." She looks away. "It was the least he could do."

"I'm sorry," he says helplessly. "I know what it's like to lose people."

She gives him a small, sad smile. "Can't let the sadness destroy us, though, right?"

He returns the smile with a sad one of his own. "Right."

"Kaylee, you good for the night?" Reynolds is in the doorway, looming like a protective Wookiee.

Kaylee doesn't seem to notice his manner, or if she notices, she doesn't care. "Peaceful and easy, Cap'n. Shouldn't be no trouble tonight."

"From your mouth to the galaxy's ears, eh?"

She laughs and Anakin manages a smile.

That's when it hits him, why Reynolds and this ship are familiar. "The Miranda broadcast. That was you."

A year or so ago, the HoloNet had been sliced to beam out footage from a planet that Palpatine had tried to pacify chemically, in secret, years before the war even started. The small percentage of people that hadn't been killed outright had been stripped of every shred of civilization; they still terrorize the Unknown Region and have crept into the Western Reaches, even as the Empire refuses to admit they exist, or that their existence is the Emperor's fault. It had been Reynolds and his crew who'd found the proof and shared it. They're infamous in both polite and criminal society, heroes to smugglers and rebels both. They're as wanted by the Empire as he is.

The knowledge eases the tension in Anakin's gut.

"Now that everybody knows everybody's secrets," Reynolds says angrily, but Kaylee cuts him off with a laugh of her own.

"Not everybody's, Captain." She looks at Anakin again. "He won't tell."

"No," Anakin agrees. "I've got no love for the Empire." His right hand curls into a fist and he forces himself to unclench it. "I won't tell."

*

He's having the dream again. Padmé is screaming in pain and dying right in front of him and there's nothing he can do about it. He knows, even while he's watching it happen, that it's just a nightmare, that she'd survived childbirth and lived long enough to be murdered for speaking out against the Empire a few weeks later, but he's still stuck there in his own head, helpless to stop it.

The scene changes and he's at the Temple, being dragged down the steps by his hair, through the scattered, mauled bodies of the younglings. The figure pulling him along is tall and hooded and familiar; she's surrounded by clones. He's crying and he wants to throw up but they won't let him stop long enough to do it.

Then he's on a table screaming, his arms and legs strapped down as a drill penetrates his skull. He cries and begs for the pain to stop. With a shock he realizes that he recognizes the face leaning over him, greenish-yellow skin tattooed with black diamonds, and wide blue eyes beneath the black hood.

He wakes with a jolt.

He swallows the bile rising in the back of his throat and forces the anger away, because Luke and Leia are both sobbing in their sleep. They're having the same nightmare, and he knows it isn't his. Awake, he can banish it for them, and send a soothing suggestion to sleep over their bond with him. He lays his hands on their backs and waits until Leia's stopped hiccupping before he leaves the room.

There's a light on in the galley, and he finds River sitting in one of the chairs, her knees drawn up to her chest and her hands wrapped tight around a steaming mug. The skin under her eyes looks bruised when she glances up at him.

"Sorry, Master Skywalker."

"We all have nightmares." He shrugs. Her shielding should be stronger, but he can't blame her for having dreams. "And just Anakin, please." Maybe he'd deserved the title and maybe he hadn't--he's no longer sure of anything, except that Ahsoka had been the best of them and they'd failed her spectacularly--but at this point, it's meaningless and will just get both of them in trouble if she uses it in public.

He hesitates, because no Jedi he's known has ever wanted to discuss their feelings, but he can't just leave her alone to stew in her misery. "Do you want to talk about it?"

She shakes her head, which is about what he expects--he always did the same thing when someone asked, even though he wishes now he'd opened up to someone other than Palpatine. He lets out a soft little huff. There's no time like the present.

He gets a mug from the dish rack, pours himself a cup of tea, and joins her at the table. "I used to have visions. They always featured the people I love dying."

"Love," she whispers, like it's still a secret.

"They're gone, but I haven't stopped loving them." He raises his mug but the tea is still too hot to drink, so he lowers it, lets the steam rise like smoke. "I never will." He laughs softly, without mirth. "I never was any good at letting go of my attachments." He's still doesn't think he was wrong about it, either.

"Simon came for me," she says. "Remembered and loved and saved me."

"Simon?"

She smiles wistfully. "My brother. He's the ship's doctor. Stayed on Tatooine with Jayne," she reminds him and he nods.

She takes a sip of her tea. "My parents weren't proud when I started using the Force, they were afraid. I was too loud, too smart, too--everything for them, so when the Jedi came, they were glad to be rid of me." She swallows hard. "The Jedi wanted me to forget them, to let them go, and it was easy enough with my parents. But Simon--" She shakes her head.

"When Darth Ruin attacked the Temple, I hid. She found me and dragged me out." She ducks her head, hides behind the tangled curtain of her hair again. "There were four of us in that place, at first."

"The Inquisitorius?" He has to set his mug down, afraid he might shatter it as she talks. He's heard rumors, but never from someone who'd been there.

She nods. "Over time, they brought more younglings and even a few surviving padawans. She tortured us, tried to turn us dark. Some died. Some fell." She puts a hand over her heart. "Some broke." Her voice quivers but she keeps talking, ignoring the tears spilling down her cheeks. "She called me Little Sister, but with the Jedi gone, there's only one person gets to call me that, and it isn't her. He came for me, and now on Serenity, I'm River again. Still broken, but still me."

"You survived and put yourself back together," he says, taking her hand and squeezing it gently. "That makes you strong and brave."

She sniffs and rubs at the tears with the back of her other hand. She's so young. He can't remember being that young. He can't believe he was allowed to command troops at her age, that they'd made him a general at nineteen and he'd thought it was nothing but his due. What in the nine Corellian hells had they all been thinking?

She huffs in what might be laughter and he realizes he's going to have to be better at guarding his thoughts; actual telepathy is a rare gift even among the Jedi, but she seems strong in it.

"Tell me about Serenity," he says, and her recitation is different from Kaylee's, less focused on specs and systems, and more on the personalities of the crew and the ship itself, and suffused with the joy of flying, but no less full of love for all that.

When he goes back to his bunk, he falls asleep easily, and he doesn't dream.

*

They land on Arkanis the next afternoon, local time, and Zoe asks him to help load more cargo. This time one of the crates isn't properly sealed and he can see it's full of blaster rifles. Reynolds doesn't seem the type to work for the Hutts or Black Sun, but they're not the only groups looking for weaponry like this.

He's avoided the fledgling rebellion. Rebelling already cost the twins their mother. He wants nothing to do with it, at least not until the kids are older. Then maybe he'll go back and help whoever is left take down Palpatine. After all, Jedi are meant to hunt Sith. He's just not sure he's a Jedi anymore. Given the way he broke his oaths, he's not sure he ever really was. And then he laughs at himself; it's unlikely Palpatine will care whether or not he's a Jedi as they try to kill each other.

He can feel Zoe's gaze on him so he reseals the crate and shoves it into the compartment in the hold.

"I don't want to know," he says. "As long as you don't traffic in sentients, I'm not going to ask."

"We ain't slavers," she says. "We ain't always on the right side of the law, but we'll never sink that low."

"Okay then."

They work in silence for a few more minutes, then she says, "I like your kids."

He grins, proud. "I'm pretty fond of 'em myself."

"I thought Jedi didn't have kids."

"They don't." She gives him a surprised look and he shrugs a shoulder. "We're not supposed to."

"But you're glad you did."

"I am."

She nods. "You should be."

The conversation ends as abruptly as it began, but he takes it as a good sign. Zoe might not like him much, but she doesn't actively dislike him, either. She'll accept him for the kids' sake, and that's not nothing.

*

He meets Inara, the Companion, at dinner that evening.

"Anakin Naberrie," he says with a courtly bow, despite the fact that everyone on this ship already knows his more famous name.

"Inara Serra." She inclines her head graciously but her gaze is sharp and measuring. "And who are these two adorable younglings?"

"My children." He corrals them with an easy hand on their shoulders. "Luke and Leia."

"You're pretty," Luke says.

"We like your hair," Leia says.

"Thank you," Inara says. She touches Leia's ponytail, Luke's shoulder. "I like your hair too. And it's lovely to meet you, young Luke."

"Anakin's taking Jayne's place on jobs while he's down with the flu," Kaylee says. "And he's helping me out in the engine room, too."

Inara gives him a practiced smile. "Welcome aboard."

It's his turn to say, "Thank you." He manages a smile in return. "I'll try to keep the kids out of your way."

"I don't mind," she says. Her smile turns genuine as she looks at the twins. "Perhaps you two can visit me for tea and cookies tomorrow."

"We'd love to," Leia says, every inch the gracious daughter of a queen. Luke nods vigorously in agreement.

"That's very kind of you," Anakin says, because what else can he say? There's no malice or subterfuge in the offer, but he's not used to people being so accommodating. It doesn't help that she reminds him of Padmé, with her long dark curls and her fancy clothes and the cool calculation in her eyes.

"The 'verse could use more kindness," she replies, and he can't disagree with that either.

*

They spend the next few days in hyperspace, on the way to Onderon to drop off the guns, and Anakin doesn't think about teaching a group of kids there how to run a resistance, doesn't think about Ahsoka and how she'd grown into being a leader in her time there. His bond with her has never been severed, at least not on his end, and neither has his bond with Obi-Wan, despite the Council's disapproval; they're still there in the back of his mind, occasionally tempting him to seek them out. But he hasn't reached out along either of them in years; he'd gone quiet and hid with Padmé and the babies when word of Order 66 went out, and he thinks they must have done the same or he'd know one way or the other.

He chooses to believe they both survived, though he knows the odds are against them. But unless he's ready to reveal himself, he'll have to live with the uncertainty. Sometimes he thinks it's easier to think of them as dead; that way he doesn't have to feel guilty about not being there for them then, about not looking for them now. He tries to leave it with the Force, but it still keeps him awake some nights.

He meditates with the kids in the common area each morning. River joins them, her presence flowing like her name, sometimes calm and sometimes wild, but she allows herself to be soothed by their company.

Leia sinks deep into the Force with an ease he envies; this type of meditation has never come naturally to him, though years of practice have helped. Luke is too much like him in that way, needing to move or to tinker to get his mind in the right space, but River shares her markers and scraps of paper, and Luke learns to sink himself into a trance while coloring abstract shapes and forms. His and Leia's presence are like a banked fire next to Anakin's heart, and every night he swears to Padmé's spirit that he'll keep them safe no matter what.

They practice with lightsabers too; he'd built training sabers for the twins' fifth birthday, and River has a pair of sticks she uses, and a staff she offers to him when they spar. She's a whirling dervish of jar'kai; he doesn't know why he's surprised by that. She even uses the reverse grip he'd tried so hard to convince Ahsoka was poor form.

"Your padawan was famous among the initiates," she says with a grin. "We all wanted to be like her."

"You couldn't have chosen a better role model," he replies, with a smile of his own. "I learned a lot from her." He knows now why one can't become a master without training a padawan, and he understands a little about why River's brother rescued her, too, because he has a little sister of his own, even if they'd never acknowledged it then. He hopes one day he'll be able to tell her that, to see her be an aunt to his children, and maybe be an uncle to hers. Despite all the prohibitions, they'd been a family, and he can't regret that.

He senses the same thing about the crew of Serenity. He's grateful they've accepted him, though he's going to chalk that up to the twins rather than any charm of his own. He and Reynolds keep out of each other's way--neither of them is any good at tact, so avoidance seems the wiser course.

He avoids Inara as much as possible, as well, though she's more often to be found teaching River, Luke, and Leia calligraphy or painting, or when River asks with sly charm, the stately movements of an ancient pavane as it's still danced on her homeworld of Sihnon.

He also works with River to rebuild her shields. The flashes he gets from her--the drill, the stun rods, the scalpels, the drugs--explain a lot about why she doesn't have them anymore, but everyone will sleep easier if her nightmares aren't seeping into their minds every night. He can protect himself and the twins now that he knows what's happening, but River's strong enough that even the least Force-sensitive person on board is affected right now, and even more than hauling cargo or soldering engine parts, this is something he can do to pay them back for taking him and his family on.

Otherwise, the bulk of his time is spent in the engine room with Kaylee. They overhaul the hydraulics of the landing system while in hyperspace, and then tackle the wiring in the steering console while Reynolds and Zoe drop off the cargo with their contact on Onderon.

There's more cargo to load when Reynolds and Zoe return, mostly spare parts and protein bars, and apparently they got paid upfront, which is cause for celebration. Reynolds reels Kaylee in for a one-armed hug, an unusually bright smile on his face.

Anakin feels a pang of something other than surprise at the easy way the captain hugs her, and he's not sure what it means. He sets it aside for examination later (or, more likely, to be ignored for as long as possible), but he still misses part of what Reynolds is saying.

He tunes back in to hear, "You can take a few days to visit your family's shop if you like."

Anakin glances at Kaylee, who laughs at his clear confusion as she twirls out of Reynolds' hold. "I'm from Saleucami. My daddy runs a garage and fueling station out on the edge of the western desert, last stop for miles." She gestures with her screw driver. "How'd you think I learned how to do all this?"

"Seems to me like you've got a gift for it," he replies, and he would know.

Kaylee beams at him, and he's pleased with himself for the rest of the day.

*

Unfortunately, the hyperdrive stalls when they attempt to use it to actually go to Saleucami, and it's not safe to go back to Onderon. Reynolds is yelling over the shipwide comm and Kaylee is running hither and yon, trying to do too many things at once to do anything useful at all.

"Hey," Anakin says, taking her hands and giving them a comforting squeeze. "No one knows this ship better than you, and no one knows hyperdrives better than me. We got this."

"Yeah," she says with a decisive nod and a squeeze of her own. "We do." She takes a deep breath. "Where do we start?"

He realizes he's still holding her hands--they're small and work roughened, with the nails cut short and rimed with grease--and he lets them go awkwardly and scratches the back of his neck. "Diagnostics. I wish my astromech was here. Artoo could tell us what was wrong in a nanosecond."

"I always wanted to work with one of those astromech droids," she says, plugging her datapad into the port on the hyperdrive case. "Too expensive to get my hands on one, though. Are they really as great as people say?"

"Artoo is," Anakin says. "He's been with me since--He was a wedding gift from my wife."

"Oh." Kaylee tucks a stray lock of her hair behind her ear. "That's real sweet. She waiting at home with it for you?"

"She died," he replies, and as always, it feels like a vibroblade slipped between his ribs, but he breathes through it. "Not long after the twins were born."

"I'm so sorry." Her gaze meets his and there's nothing but honesty and well wishes in it, and it makes the tightness in his chest ease, just a little. She turns back to look at the readouts scrolling on the screen of her datapad. "I didn't think Jedi got married."

"They don't." The awkwardness is back, and he really should have figured this out by now, but it's still weird to talk about it. "I suppose I wasn't really that good a Jedi."

"That's not what the HoloNet said." She gives him a look from underneath her lashes.

His face gets hot. Those damn propaganda holos. "You--That's--"

"I know you can't believe everything you read on the HoloNet, silly." She hits him with another one of those sweet smiles, this one with a teasing edge to it, and he can admit to himself that he's a little flustered. "But the Captain, River, and Zoe all say the same."

"You've all, uh, talked about me?"

"Only good things," she reassures him hastily, with a hand on his arm.

"Okay," he says. "Okay." He should be used to people talking about him behind his back, but somehow it always stings. At least this time, they're saying good things.

"Come on," she says, still with that teasing tilt to her lips. "Let's do this."

*

The work is difficult and time consuming, because the hyperdrive is dying, but Kaylee is good at making do with the parts she has available, Anakin's good at making broken things work, and together they can do the impossible, or at least, the highly improbable, at least when it comes to starship engines. They have to deplete her stash of extra power cells and engine parts, and strip a lot of wiring from the second shuttle, but Anakin thinks that with a few more days' work, they'll have something that will let them get dirtside before the supplies and fuel cells run out.

"I don't understand," he says one evening over a mug of the awful wine Kaylee brews in the engine room. "The sublights are practically brand new, installed within the last two years, I'd bet, but that hyperdrive is nearly as old as I am."

Kaylee looks at Reynolds, who looks at River, who looks down at her hands.

Zoe, though, Zoe looks straight at Anakin and says, "After everything that happened on Miranda," and Anakin realizes he's stepped in serious bantha shit, "the ISB agent who tormented us paid for the repairs."

"Don't worry, we had some slicers in to make sure they didn't plant no trackers," Kaylee says. She leans her elbow on the table and puts her chin in her hand. "He was real sorry, when he saw the truth of what the Empire did."

"I bet," Anakin says, his voice rough. He knows just how little that kind of an apology is worth in the face of the kind of devastation the people of Miranda, and the crew of Serenity, suffered. He takes another sip of terrible wine and tries not to cough at the way it burns going down. It's an acceptable tradeoff for the slightly giddy feeling of intoxication. He's never been much of a drinker.

"He looked into the face of evil and saw it reflected in his own heart, and he repented," River says.

Reynolds has a haunted look on his face. "Don't know as that kind of evil can be redeemed," he says.

"We have to always look for the light in people," River insists.

Reynolds shakes his head, as if this is an old argument he's too tired to keep having.

"She's right, though," Kaylee says. "Otherwise, what's the point?"

"Inara was right, too," Zoe adds. "Kindness, and helping them as are in need."

"That's what my mom used to say," Anakin says. He closes his eyes against that old pain and pours himself another drink. "Biggest problem in the galaxy is that people don't help each other."

"Wise woman," Reynolds says, raising his glass in a toast, and Anakin figures he's all right.

*

The next morning, Anakin wakes late, with a dehydration headache from the crappy homemade alcohol they'd been drinking. He uses the Force and some of the ship's limited supply of water to banish it, but he's still later than usual to breakfast. He finds Luke and Leia in the common room. Luke and River are sparring playfully, and Leia is having her hair brushed and braided by Zoe while Kaylee plays cat's cradle with her.

Anakin had been good at dismantling the complicated coronets and curls that Padmé had been fond of wearing, and he'd admired the state hairdos with their scaffolding and weaves, but he'd only learned to braid when Leia refused to get her hair cut and he needed to keep it out of her mouth and out of her way once it got long. He thinks he's gotten pretty good at it. Occasionally, on rare holidays, he's even managed to pin it up in a reasonable facsimile of the swirly buns Padmé had sometimes worn, but the deft way Zoe braids and twists Leia's hair makes him feel inadequate.

Leia looks up at him, eyes shining. "Do I look like a princess, Daddy? Would Mama be proud?"

Anakin bends to press a good morning kiss to her forehead. "Your mother would be proud of you no matter what you look like, Leia. But yes, she'd like your hair like that." He grins at Zoe, who smiles back. "Thank you, Zoe."

She ties off the last of Leia's braids and pins it in place with a pleased hum. "You're welcome. I think there's some caf left in the galley."

"Thanks for that, too," he calls over his shoulder. He catches a glimpse of Luke twisting away from River's saber. "Keep your guard up, Luke," he says. "Don't drop your elbow. Be mindful of your footwork. And don't roll your eyes at me."

River laughs, and Luke laughs with her, so he figures he's not being too strict. He worries sometimes that he's training Luke and Leia too hard, or not hard enough. He has no real grasp of normal, or what passes for it among the Jedi. He'd missed out on a lot of the basic training, had spent his first year in the Temple simply trying to catch up, and Ahsoka'd come to him pre-trained, ready and eager for more. That they'd thrown her into a war zone head first makes him question the Council and their part in dragging the whole galaxy down even more than he already had, but he'd appreciated how prepared she was, even if neither of them had ever been prepared enough.

Kaylee's at the dining table with Inara when he gets to the galley, and he nods to both of them before heading right for the caf.

"What's on tap for today?" he asks, as he fills up his mug. He knows as well as she does what work needs to be done, but he tries to let her take the lead. It's her ship after all, and she knows it better than he does.

"Thermal regulators, reinsulating the drive case, and then rewiring the navigation computer," she says.

"Then we'd best get started." He nods again at Inara and heads to the engine room.

A few minutes later, Kaylee joins him, shaking her head. "Inara don't bite, you know. Well, I guess if her clients ask, she does, but you're crew now, Anakin. You don't gotta be so awkward."

"I don't--I'm not--" he sputters.

"Oh, but you are. It's real cute." She laughs, then sobers. "Unless--I thought you said you didn't have no problem with Companions. River don't and she's a Jedi, same as you."

"I don't," he protests. "Seriously, I mean it."

Kaylee's face turns sly. "Are you nursing a secret passion for her? 'Cause I don't imagine that'll end well for you, but I understand."

"No," he says, shaking his head. "I've had my share of secret passion, Kaylee. It's not as great as it cracked up to be."

She holds his gaze, her eyes clear and bright, serious now. "Your wife."

"We married in secret, right after the first Battle of Geonosis," he says, looking down into his mug of caf. "I foreswore my vows to the Jedi, and the scandal of it would have ruined her career." He shakes his head again. "We were young and foolish, living in stolen moments, on borrowed time."

"You were in love and going to war," Kaylee replies, plucking the mug out of his hand and setting it on a shelf away from anything it could damage if it spilled. Then she reaches up and cups his cheek gently. "It ain't no sin."

"I--" He's not sure what possesses him, but he takes her hand and turns into the touch, pressing a brief kiss on her palm. "Thank you."

She takes her hand back, fingers curling, and he wonders if she's going to haul off and punch him, but she just gives him one of those melancholy smiles she shouldn't be so good at. "That's what friends are for. Now let's get to work. These thermal regulators ain't gonna recalibrate themselves."

*

Anakin finds himself thinking about the incident frequently that day and in the days that follow: the warmth of her touch. The scent of her skin. The way heat twists pleasurably in his belly when he thinks about the strength of her hands, the arch of her cheeks, the bow of her lips.

He'd never been interested in anyone but Padmé. He'd had the usual handful of crushes as an adolescent--he's yet to meet a Jedi who hadn't been infatuated with Shaak Ti at one point or another, and there was the brief time he'd wondered about Obi-Wan--but he'd wanted Padmé from the moment they met, even if he hadn't known that's what he wanted at the time (had thought of it only in terms of marriage; desire came later), and once he'd had her he'd never felt the need to look elsewhere. He'd loved her with his whole heart and his whole soul, and with every fiber of his being.

But she's been gone for five years, and Kaylee is something else. Someone he can be easy with, someone kind, someone who makes him laugh. She's impressed that he won the Boonta Eve podrace at the age of nine, but not so impressed that she won't let him know it if his soldering is sloppy or she thinks he's being rude to her friends. It's a heady combination.

She smells like engine grease and the industrial-strength soap she uses to remove it from her skin, and these days, Anakin finds he prefers that to any of the more expensive fragrances women wear. It's comfortable and familiar, and reminds him of his cluttered room at the Temple, and the nights he spent sleeping onboard the Twilight.

He'd never engaged in the typical teenage awkward fumbling and casual hooking up with his peers in the Temple, and then he'd been married and at war, a combination which left him no time or energy for philandering, even if he'd had the inclination. So he has no real idea how to progress beyond awkward flirtation and yet stop short of lifelong commitment.

Before he can figure it out, or screw it up, Kaylee takes the matter out of his hands. They've just finalized repairs on the hyperdrive motivator, and when Kaylee tells River to punch it, the ship lurches into hyperspace. They wait for almost a minute, but nothing explodes or bursts into flames, and the ship remains intact.

"We did it," Kaylee says, throwing her arms around his neck.

It's instinctive to wrap his arms around her hips and twirl her in celebration, and then she tips her face up and captures his lips in a kiss. It sends a bright spark of heat through him and he skids to a halt to concentrate on kissing her, opening his mouth to her tongue, and tightening his hands on her hips.

When she pulls back, her lips are shiny and her eyes are bright with mischief and desire. His fingers curl in the material of her coveralls and he wants to keep kissing her for at least as long as they'll be in hyperspace.

"I thought so," she murmurs, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth and another to the tip of his chin. "Didn't want to overstep, but you were a little slow on taking the hint."

"I'm bad at this," he replies, mouthing at the hinge of her jaw, breathing in the scent of her hair. "There was only ever Padmé before."

"I know," she says. "It don't have to be no secret love or epic romance. But I like you and I think you like me. So we can just be two people who like each other having fun and getting off." She waves a hand. "For however long we have." She guides him to the nearest wall and pushes him down so she can climb into his lap. The way she fits over his hips is a revelation, her slow easy movements making his eyes roll back in his head, and they haven't even gotten their pants off yet.

"Yeah," he says, helping her pull his shirt off and then tugging hers off over her head. "I can do that."

Her skin is smooth and warm under his fingertips. There's a blaster scar on her shoulder that he kisses gently, and when she pushes her coveralls down, there's another puckered scar on her abdomen. None of them have survived unscathed, he thinks vaguely, the fingers of his flesh hand brushing over the scar lightly, making her quiver.

She lays a hand on the clasp of his glove with a question in her eyes. He nods once and unhooks it, peeling the glove away to reveal his metal arm.

"It's beautiful," she whispers, running her fingers along the black and brass durasteel lines of it, making him shiver. "You have feeling in it," she says, surprised.

"Synth-net neural interface and electrostatic fingertips," he answers, and gasps when she brings the hand up and presses a kiss to the tip of his index finger. "I built it myself."

"Of course you did," she replies with a knowing grin, and after that, their mouths are too busy to talk much.

*

Anakin spends the rest of the trip to Saleucami and then back (there isn't time for Kaylee to visit her family, because of their engine difficulties) in a sex-addled haze. It's been so long that he'd forgotten what it was like. He takes his lead from Kaylee on what to tell the others, but she doesn't try to hide it, so neither does he, though neither of them comes right out and tells anybody, either.

Reynolds sits in the co-pilot's seat one night when Anakin's flying the ship, and Anakin thinks this is it, the lecture or the threat, or if he's really lucky, both, but Reynolds just gives him an annoyed side-eye.

"This about Kaylee?" he finally asks.

Reynolds grunts. "Kaylee's a grown woman. She's gonna do what she wants and I ain't seen a thing in the 'verse yet that could stop her. I just have to hope she knows what she's doing."

Anakin composes himself, years of practice helping him keep a straight face as he says, "Oh, she knows what she's doing all right, Captain."

Reynolds looks like he's bitten into something sour. He mutters something scathing in Huttese and exits the cockpit in a hurry. Anakin waits until he's out of earshot to burst into laughter.

*

Somehow, dishwashing and cleaning the septic vac have landed on Anakin's list of chores along with laundry and emergency engine repair, but he doesn't care. He spends the time daydreaming of Kaylee, of the way her breasts feel against his lips, the sounds she makes when he kisses them, the slick twist of her hips when he's inside her, and the way it makes his brain go blank with pleasure.

He's startled out of his reverie one morning after breakfast by Inara, who gives him a wide, phony smile that sends a chill down his spine as he dries the dishes.

"Kaylee says the engine repairs are complete."

"Yes," he answers warily.

"Then you'll be free to have tea with me this afternoon."

"Yes," he replies, caught. He can still hear Obi-Wan's scolding voice reminding him that in many cultures, it's the height of rudeness to refuse an invitation to tea, even though he can't stand drinking the stuff. "Of course. Thank you."

She glides from the galley elegantly and he mutters a curse at his poor luck. He'd been doing so well at avoiding her, too.

"You should be more mindful of your surroundings, Master," River says from the doorway Inara just exited, and her smile is completely genuine and amused. "Focus on the here and now."

"Very funny, River," he calls after her. "You're a real riot." But he indulges in a huff of laughter at himself, too.

He puts on his least wrinkled tunic, which is easy, since he only has two, and presents himself at Inara's shuttle at precisely fifteen hundred hours.

"Come in," she calls, as poised and commanding as any planetary ruler he's met.

He brushes past the red silk curtains that sway in the entrance to her domain and into the main cabin of the shuttle. He hasn't been inside it before--he's let Kaylee handle whatever minor repairs have been needed, and she's been happy to do so. He appreciates that Inara is her close friend, but that doesn't mean that he wants to be here.

"Good afternoon, Inara." He sweeps into the appropriate bow.

She nods elegantly in response. "Good afternoon, Anakin." She's dressed up as well, in a dress of red and gold silk that drapes artfully over her curves. She should remind him of Padmé, with her heavily embroidered gowns and her insistence on always being properly attired even while sitting the ship's lounge, but she smells like jasmine while Padmé had always favored attar of roses, and the comparison had faltered quickly after that. Inara's calm superiority reminds him more of Obi-Wan in the years before the war, when his master had been the most sought after negotiator and diplomat the Jedi had, despite being younger by far than most of the masters.

Anakin sits down at the tea table across from her and immediately recognizes the configuration of the bowls. His gaze flicks to her face and but her expression is smooth and beautiful and gives away nothing.

"The Naboo tea ceremony," he says.

"Yes, I thought it might be a taste of home for you, Master Naberrie." She stresses the last name like she doesn't believe he's entitled to it.

"Ah, there's been a misunderstanding, then. I'm deeply sorry for the confusion." His smile is a meaningless stretch of lips. "I'm from Tatooine. My wife was from Naboo."

She blinks, heavily mascara'd lashes fluttering, and he thinks he's surprised her. "I'm sorry, as well, Master Jedi. I apologize for my lack of tact."

He moistens his lips and goes on the attack. "Had she lived, had it been safe, I would have taken her name when we lived openly as husband and wife." He forces himself to hold eye contact; there aren't many people who can outstare a Jedi, and he's willing to use that to his advantage here. "As you know, among the Naboo, the spouse of lower status takes the name of the spouse of higher status."

"There aren't many who have higher status than a Master Jedi," she replies.

"Padmé did."

She nods, as if he's confirming what she already knows. Maybe she does. He hasn't held his tongue with Kaylee and hasn't asked her to keep quiet, either, and he knows friends talk.

"I met Queen Amidala a few times," she says, and this time, he's surprised. This conversation is like walking on shifting sand in the midst of a simoom.

"Oh?"

"I did a year of training at the Companion House in Theed during the second term of her reign. We--the girls of the Companion House--were sought out escorts to events at the Palace." Her smile this time is warm and fond. "She was a good queen, and an even more remarkable woman."

Anakin looks down at his hands. "She was."

"I see her in your children. They're quite charming." Inara's voice is friendly now, even warm.

Anakin can't help the pride in his voice and expression now. "Me, too. Thank you."

She puts a hand on the teapot. "Black tea for you, yes?"

"Yes," he says, "when I drink it at all."

"Ah." She huffs a soft, genteel laugh. "Well, I suppose I could boil up some of the sludge you and the captain call caf, but the tea is hot and I have honey."

"The tea is fine. My master was very fond of it."

"General Kenobi," she says, pouring his tea and then her own.

"Yes." He raises an inquisitive eyebrow. "Did you know him, too?"

She laughs again, this time loud and ringing and not socially acceptable at all. He's beginning to understand why Kaylee likes her so much. "No, and there was great consternation among all the Companions I knew at his lack of interest in engaging us."

"Fear not, Lady Serra," Anakin says with gallant good humor, "he'd have liked you."

"So then he's gone?"

Anakin adds a spoonful of honey to his tea and stirs slowly. "I don't know. My first priority is the twins and I haven't--" He swallows hard. "I prefer to operate on the assumption that he's alive, but I also have to face the very real possibility that he isn't. Sometimes it's easier to accept the worst, and then perhaps be pleasantly surprised someday in the future." It was Obi-Wan's own philosophy; to him, the glass had usually been half-empty, but it had taken Anakin most of the war adopt that philosophy himself.

She nods and sips her own tea. "I have a number of contacts on Persephone," she says, "and I've been told that there are rumors of a Jedi sighted near the Southdown Abbey. A Jedi who may match Master Kenobi's description."

The Force tilts and swirls around him, new possibilities opening up, puzzle pieces slotting into place, and Anakin sucks in a shocked breath. "Persephone is our next stop."

"Yes."

"I--Thank you, Inara." He takes a long gulp of tea, practically draining the cup. "I didn't expect--Let's just say I thought this conversation was going to go very differently."

Her mouth quirks in a knowing half-grin. "Oh, don't worry. If you hurt Kaylee, your next cup of tea might be poisoned, but she's an adult and makes her own choices. I'd be quite the hypocrite to condemn her for that." She leans back and gives him an appraising look. "Do we have an understanding between us?"

"We do," he replies with a smile.

Five years ago, he'd have been offended. Now he's just glad Kaylee has friends who look out for her. It's a precious gift in a galaxy that's only gotten rougher with the passing of time.

*

They land on Persephone mid-morning local time, and after he helps load the cargo onto the mule and gives Kaylee a kiss, Anakin takes the twins to the speeder rental place she recommended. He haggles the speeder dealer down to a reasonable price for two hours of rental time, straps the kids in, and heads to Southdown Abbey, which the map Inara gave him says is located on the southern outskirts of town.

It reminds him of the Temple, rising out of the dusty landscape as if it belongs there, sandstone buildings interspersed with gardens and fields of crops. It doesn't feel the same, though. The monks here are not devotees of the Force, but rather some ancient religion the rest of the galaxy has passed by, and Anakin would prefer not to be proselytized into.

There's a Besalisk in gray robes at the gate when Anakin pulls up and he looks at them skeptically. "We don't run a school or an orphanage," he says.

"What?" Anakin glances at the twins and realizes how poorly planned (how completely unplanned) this expedition is. He doesn't even have any spare credits for bribes. If he does find Obi-Wan here, he's going to hear about that. He finds himself eagerly anticipating the lecture, something that's never, ever happened before. "Oh, no, I'm here looking for someone. I heard he was seen in the vicinity. Calls himself Rako Hardeen?"

The Besalisk shakes his head. "No one here by that name, friend."

Anakin frowns. Obi-Wan has used other aliases on occasion, but most of them have slipped his mind. After all, Hardeen's the only one that worked to hide him from Anakin. "He's human, late thirties, about one point eight meters tall? Has a beard and a Coruscanti accent?"

The Besalisk narrows his eyes at him. "Old Ben?"

Anakin barely refrains from rolling his eyes. He's not sure how he forgot that one, but it would be like Obi-Wan to use a name so close to his own and then claim to be hiding in plain sight when he got caught. "Yeah."

"Who's asking?"

"His brother."

The Besalisk nods. "That man could use some family. This time of day, he's probably sleeping it off on a bench down in the red-blind district."

Anakin sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. The Force is pinging with warning and he doesn't know why--this guy isn't lying to him. Maybe it's just the time wasted on this trip when Obi-Wan is so close and clearly in need of help, or at least a kick in the ass. "Thanks."

"Hope you find him before that woman does. She didn't seem the friendly type."

"Woman?" he asks around the sudden lump of fear in his throat. He breathes through it, releases as much of it as he can to the Force and pushes the rest down deep to where he keeps all the other messy emotions he's not supposed to feel. It still scrapes at his nerves, but he can manage it.

"She was here this morning asking about him." The Besalisk shakes his head and flails two of his arms. "Never saw anything like it. Dressed all in black, she was, and carrying a lightsaber. She put old Brother Barnabas in the infirmary when he couldn't answer her questions! Why do you think I'm on gatekeeper duty? We don't hold with that Force business here. I thought the Jedi had been wiped out."

"Me, too," Anakin murmurs. "Thanks again for your help."

He turns the speeder around and hightails it back into town. Obi-Wan can easily handle one Inquisitor, but not if he's passed out drunk on a park bench.

He takes the chance and reaches out along their bond for the first time in years. He can feel the muted spark of Obi-Wan's presence in the Force, diffuse and swathed in layers of distraction, but enough for him to follow. It grows brighter as he nears the city's red-blind district. He wants to stop at the spaceport, where Serenity is docked, and drop the kids off, but the closer he gets, the stronger Obi-Wan's presence becomes. He's awake and he's in danger.

Anakin floors it, pushing the speeder past the redline and muttering about how poorly the engine in it has been maintained as it whines in protest. Luke and Leia are silent in the backseat, and he can feel their excitement about traveling fast bleed away into anxiety. He sends a soothing pulse of calm towards them, and towards Obi-Wan too, for all the good that will do.

He brings the speeder to a screeching halt in front of a statue depicting naked dancing Twi'leks outside of a seedy looking brothel.

"Stay here," he tells the twins, and then hops out to find Obi-Wan arguing with the local police. It appears they've gotten lucky, and there's only a light Imperial presence on Persephone at the moment, leaving things like rousting the homeless and rounding up the drunk and disorderlies to local law enforcement.

"Ob--Ben," he yells. "There you are." He turns to the first officer and plasters a fake smile on his face, the kind he'd used for holoreporters back during the war. "Thanks so much for finding him." He turns to Obi-Wan and lets some of his relief leach into his voice when he says, "We were so worried when you didn't come home the other night."

Obi-Wan stares at him as if he's seeing a ghost, his eyes bloodshot and red rimmed, and the skin beneath them smudged dark with care. His beard is long and unkempt, and his robe is crusted with dirt. "Anakin?" he asks, reaching out a trembling hand.

"In the flesh. Well, ninety-seven percent." He grins for real this time at the old joke and takes Obi-Wan's arm gently. "I'll see to him, officers." He lowers his voice and leans in confidentially. "He's not well."

Obi-Wan grumbles unintelligibly, but the officers let him off with a warning and Anakin doesn't even have to mind-trick them.

Anakin steers Obi-Wan to the speeder, trying not to gag at the smell of cheap Taanabian gin and body odor emanating from his robes. "You always did overcommit to your disguises," he says, wrinkling his nose as he straps Obi-Wan into the speeder, since Obi-Wan is still staring at him as if he can't believe he's real.

"Luke, Leia, meet your Uncle Obi-Wan."

Luke grins and waves.

Leia says, "Hi, I'm Leia and this is Luke," in a bright voice.

Obi-Wan looks over his shoulder and the expression of shock on his face is priceless. "Twins?"

Anakin grins. "Yeah." He glances back at the kids. "He's usually much more self-possessed. You're not seeing him at his best."

"Indeed," Obi-Wan rallies. "It's a joy to meet you, young ones." He gives Anakin something close to his usual gimlet-eyed glare. "You might have contacted me sooner."

"I thought you were dead!"

"When has that ever stopped you?" Obi-Wan asks, and then turns green as Anakin accelerates out into traffic. The Force is still pinging with warning, and there's still an Inquisitor on the loose, after all.

"If you're going to boot, do it over the side. This is a rental and I don't have the credits to clean it," Anakin says.

"Drive like a civilized being and I won't," his mouth pinches, as if he's not the one reeking of cheap alcohol, "boot, as you so charmingly put it, all over the speeder."

"Where's the fun in that?" Anakin replies, and he can hear the kids laughing in the backseat. He shoots a triumphant grin in Obi-Wan's direction. "I've missed you, Master." The title rolls off his tongue affectionately, as if it had never hung angrily between them.

Obi-Wan grins back. "And I, you, Anakin." There's a depth of feeling in the words that leaves Anakin speechless for a few moments.

"Of course you did," he finally manages, and if his voice is a little hoarse, it's just because he's shouting over the wind.

Even with afternoon traffic, the trip back to the Eavesdown docks is quick at the speed Anakin's driving, and he's on full alert when he jumps out of the speeder. "Keep an eye on the kids," he says to Obi-Wan. Then he turns to the kids. "Keep an eye on Obi-Wan, okay?" They nod, and Obi-Wan huffs, and Anakin has to hope that what he's sensing is correct, that the Inquisitor is already on the ship and they're safer outside.

He ignores the blaster at his hip and slides his lightsaber out of his forearm holster and into his hand instead as he eases silently up the gangway.

"I know you're here, Little Sister." A compact, muscular figure in black and gray is stalking across the catwalk above the cargo hold. "Come out, come out, wherever you are."

River's voice comes over the speakers. "You don't get to call me that."

"Time to stop this foolishness and come back where you belong."

"I belong on Serenity," River says. "And you can't take that away."

Anakin bends his knees and jumps. His boots clatter on the catwalk and the Inquisitor turns, surprised. She's Pantoran, and her yellow eyes widen as she recognizes him. She gets her lightsaber up and barely manages to block his first strike. He hasn't fought for his life in a while, but he's never forgotten how, and there's an overconfidence to her that doesn't bode well for her chances.

"Well, well, what have we here?" she says, trying to sound nonchalant and failing. He can practically taste her fear in the Force. It's bitter and metallic, or maybe that's the adrenaline from the fight.

"Someone way out of your league, lady," he answers. After another thrust and parry, he disarms her easily. She attempts to Force push him and he swats her like a mosquito, pesky and persistent but no real match for him. She calls her lightsaber back to hand and blocks his next strike, but she misses the one after that and finds herself impaled through the chest on his blade. She gasps in shock and dies; the miasma of darkness polluting the air dissipates and Anakin releases a relieved breath.

He prowls through the ship, making sure there aren't any other Inquisitors hiding in the ship's many nooks and crannies, though the Force is telling him the coast is clear.

River rushes out of the cockpit and gives him a tight hug. He strokes her hair comfortingly, the way he would Leia's, and says, "She's gone. You're safe now."

"She was after other prey," River says, the words tumbling over themselves as she clings to him. "I distracted her, lured her in to give you time. She thought I'd be an easier mark." She sucks in a deep breath. "Is he safe? Did you find him?"

"Yeah, I found him. Come on."

"We have to let Kaylee know it's safe, too."

Anakin's heart lurches into his throat again. "Kaylee? I thought she was with the captain and Zoe."

"She came back with lunch for me and some engine parts, wanted to do some tinkering."

"Where--"

"Engine room. It locks up tight when there's trouble."

Having heard about some of the trouble Serenity's crew has run into, Anakin can only be thankful they added some safety measures when they rebuilt the ship. He raps his knuckles against the durasteel plated door and Kaylee's face pops up in the window, her eyes wide and anxious. When she sees him, she pushes the door open and flings herself into his arms, and once again he finds himself being hugged tightly. The motor oil and soap scent of her is calming, and his heart stops beating quite so frantically.

"Kaylee? You okay?" He brushes a hand through her hair and tips her chip up so he can kiss her tenderly.

"I am now. Are you?"

"Yeah." He kisses her again, letting the sweet taste of her drown out the acidic tang of adrenaline in his mouth.

He pulls away at the sound of someone clearing his throat, and Obi-Wan is standing there with the kids. He raises an eyebrow when Anakin doesn't disengage from his embrace of Kaylee, but when he speaks, all he says is, "We seem to have a body to dispose of. Sith?"

"Inquisitor," River says. "Second Sister." The she really looks at who she's speaking to and she gasps in recognition. "Master Kenobi!" And then she wrinkles her nose and takes a step back.

Anakin bites back a snicker. "Occupational hazard?" he offers, earning a laugh from the others. If there's a slightly anxious tinge to it, Anakin can't blame them.

*

They've gotten rid of the body by the time Reynolds and Zoe return, though Obi-Wan hasn't yet had time to visit the refresher. Reynolds looks them over and mutters a nasty Huttese curse Anakin refuses to translate for the kids, and then says, "Of all the boats in the 'verse, how in the nine Corellian hells did I end up with Kenobi and Skywalker on mine?"

"Common enemies make for strange bedfellows," Obi-Wan says in that annoying 'wise master' voice he likes to use on people who've just met him.

"Hey!" Kaylee says in mock outrage. She presses her face to Anakin's shoulder to muffle her laughter and he tightens his arm around her waist in solidarity.

"Watch what you say about Kaylee, General," Reynolds says. "I can still put you out the airlock."

Obi-Wan takes a breath and draws himself up, which would be a lot more impressive if he didn't still smell like the refresher of a cantina after fleet week, but Anakin stops him with a shake of his head.

"Neither common nor strange," he says, pressing a kiss to Kaylee's hair, "but I think we can clear up some other confusion with some honest talk."

"So you admit to being dishonest when we took you on," Reynolds says, like he's known it all along. Which, Anakin has to admit, he probably has.

Anakin glances at Obi-Wan. "I told the truth." He can't help the half-grin his mouth curves into. "From a certain point of view."

"Lies of omission are still lies," Reynolds replies, cranky since he's not in on the joke. "If you knew this Inquisitor was after you when you got on my boat--"

"After me, too," River interrupts, but Reynolds doesn't stop glaring at Anakin.

"As fascinating as this is," Obi-Wan says before Reynolds can work up a real head of steam, "I'd really appreciate a shower before I get spaced."

"Nobody's getting spaced," Zoe says, shooting a look at the captain. "But I think we'd all appreciate you having a shower, General."

"Come on," Anakin says. "You can use the 'fresher in our room."

*

"This robe is unsalvageable," Anakin says, kicking it away in disgust after Obi-Wan's stripped off and stepped into the shower stall.

One good thing about being planetside is that the water tank's been topped off and Obi-Wan can have a real shower instead of relying on sonics. Anakin passes him a bar of Kaylee's industrial-strength soap and lowers himself to sit on the floor by the towel rack.

"I might have gone overboard on the not showering," Obi-Wan admits.

"And the cheap gin."

"Ah, that was to add character. And wearing it was less painful than drinking it."

Anakin snorts. "I bet."

"I did some of that, too, of course." There's a world of pain in that admission, and Anakin opens himself to it, trying to help Obi-Wan bear the burden of sorrow, of lost friends and lost years.

He lets none of that show in his voice. "No one would blame you. We've all done our share since the Republic fell."

"You seem to have landed on your feet."

"You know me, Master. I always do."

Obi-Wan hums noncommittally. "I am sorry about Padmé. She's the twins' mother, yes?"

"Yes. Thank you." Anakin laces his hands together and looks down at them. "I'm sorry for deserting when you needed me most."

The door to the shower stall slides open and Obi-Wan pokes his head out. He looks so serious that Anakin doesn't reprimand him for wasting water and getting the floor all wet.

"I'm just thankful you survived, and something tells me that if you'd been on Coruscant--" He shakes his head, spraying Anakin with droplets of water. "Things might have gone very differently, and not for the better."

Anakin swallows hard and nods. "Because Palpatine is the Sith Lord."

"Yes."

"And I trusted him when I should have trusted you."

Obi-Wan's mouth twists behind the mess of his wet beard. "We all made mistakes, Anakin."

"If I hadn't left--"

"But you did. No use speculating about might-have-beens." Obi-Wan's sudden smile is surprisingly fond. "Concentrate on the here and now, my padawan. Your focus determines your reality."

Anakin ducks his head, hiding his pleasure in hearing words that once used to drive him mad. "Shut the stall door, Obi-Wan. You're letting all the water out." He flutters a hand in Obi-Wan's direction. "No one wants to see all that."

"Hmph, you'd be surprised." But he shuts the door.

"Not really." Anakin laughs softly. "I remember all the rumors about you."

"You shouldn't listen to Temple gossip, Anakin." But there's no bite to the words. "Tell me about the twins. And this ship. However did you find Padawan Tam?"

Anakin settles himself more comfortably against the bulkhead and talks himself hoarse. It feels good--right--to share these things with Obi-Wan, all the twins' milestones that he'd missed, and all of Anakin's hopes for their future.

When he's done, Obi-Wan is showered and shaved, his hair trimmed as neatly as Anakin can manage with the shears from his medkit, though grayer at the temples than he remembers. Obi-Wan's eyes are clearer and less haunted than they were a few hours ago, and he smells a million times better. Anakin's spare trousers and tunic hang slightly long and more than a little loose on his lean frame, but that's nothing a few months of good meals won't fix, and Anakin's determined to provide that, whether Obi-Wan wants him to or not.

"You've done well," Obi-Wan says, putting a hand on Anakin's shoulder and squeezing. "I'm proud of you, my padawan."

Anakin smiles and pretends tears aren't stinging his eyes. "And what of you, my Master?"

"Oh, not much to tell there." Obi-Wan waves a dismissive hand and bumps Anakin's shoulder with his own as they sit next to each other on Anakin's bunk, shoving the kids' clutter to the floor. "At the end of the war I was on Utapau. I can't remember if you knew that." Anakin shakes his head and Obi-Wan shrugs. "I finally met Grievous. Killed him with a blaster, if you can believe it! So uncivilized."

"If the tool does the job," Anakin murmurs.

"Ha, yes. It's odd to hear you parroting back one of my aphorisms." He grins. "I could get used to it though." He brushes his lower lip with his thumb and squints at the rug on the floor, lost in a memory.

It's a few minutes before he speaks again, his voice solemn now. "After Order 66, I managed to get back to Coruscant and reverse the beacon. The Sith apprentice murdered the younglings."

"I know. River was there."

There's not much even Obi-Wan can say to that. "Do you know who it is? This creature calling itself Darth Ruin?"

Anakin looks at him, surprised. "You don't know?"

Obi-Wan shakes his head. "The security holo was destroyed."

Anakin clenches a fist and then slowly eases it open with a gusty exhale. His anger with her has never dissipated, despite the years that have passed. "It's Barriss Offee. She took River and a few of the older initiates hostage. Tortured and experimented on them."

Obi-Wan rubs his chin. "This Second Sister wasn't fully a Sith."

Anakin shrugs a shoulder. "No. She wasn't particularly well trained, either. From what River's told me, they're sent out to hunt whatever Jedi remain, and to gather up Force-sensitive children for indoctrination and experimentation. But Sidious doesn't want them to get too powerful and make a play for his throne." The words taste sour on his tongue, not just because of what that means for Luke and Leia, or because of what was already done to River.

"Have you heard from Ahsoka?" He girds himself for Obi-Wan's response, but Obi-Wan just shakes his head.

"I'd hoped you had." He strokes his beard again. "Perhaps this is one area where no news is good news. I know that Bail Organa has been organizing rebel cells. It would not surprise me at all if Ahsoka were involved." His grin now is wry. "Things have a habit of exploding on their missions in ways that remind me of her." He tilts his head. "Or Rex. Couldn't find him either, after."

Anakin remembers Rex's urgency, his and Fives', and how he hadn't believed them, hadn't thought Palpatine capable of that sort of deceit. "He had his chip removed before we left him on Mandalore. He could still be out there."

"They're probably safer wherever they are than here with us," Obi-Wan says gently, hopefully.

"I know. I don't like it, but I know." Anakin sighs. "We're not going to be able to stay on Serenity much longer, either."

Obi-Wan frowns, bemused. "They can drop me on Boros or Zeitooine, but you don't have to leave." His expression turns sly. "You seem content here."

Anakin smiles sadly. "Serenity is a great ship, with a great crew, and I'm lucky to know them. But I don't think you and I do all that well without each other."

"No," Obi-Wan agrees softly. "I don't think we do."

"And anyway, there's two crew members even I haven't met yet; once they're out of quarantine, it'll be mighty crowded on board, and I'll be out of a job."

"I see." Obi-Wan cups the nape of Anakin's neck and gives it an affectionate squeeze. "The Force will guide us, I'm sure."

"Of course, Master," Anakin responds automatically, and they grin stupidly at each other for a moment. "Kriff, it's good to have you here."

"Likewise, Anakin," Obi-Wan says. "Likewise."

*

There are still things Anakin wants to do before they leave Serenity, but a new hyperdrive isn't going to materialize just because he wants to replace the old one, so he focuses on the one thing he can do before he goes.

After their joint meditation the next morning, he takes a small pouch out of his pocket and hands it to River. Obi-Wan nods when she glances at him, and she smiles.

"I've picked those up here and there over the years," Anakin says when she spills the kyber crystals into her palm. "In the hopes that one or another of them will work for Luke and Leia when they're old enough to build their own lightsabers."

"We're old enough now," Luke insists. Next to him, Leia nods vigorously.

Anakin shakes his head. "Don't need you losing a hand before all your adult teeth are even in," he says. Luke sits back with a huff but doesn't argue.

Anakin turns back to River. "If any of those resonate with you," he levitates a box of odds and ends over to sit in the middle of their circle, "Kaylee kindly provided some parts that might help you build a new lightsaber, or," he exchanges an amused glance with Obi-Wan, "since you seem to favor jar'kai, a pair of them."

When he'd told her what he planned to do and requested any spare parts she might have lying about, Kaylee had looked his lightsaber over in fascination. She'd asked him to take it apart and put it back together for her, as she couldn't do it herself, since it required the Force. Still, she'd had some interesting ideas about how to keep the intensity of the blade steady at higher settings, while making the power cells more efficient in the process. He'd been very appreciative afterwards.

River coughs and Obi-Wan raises an eyebrow, and he realizes he's let some of those memories slip out past his shields. He clears his throat and ignores the way his ears are burning. "Anyway, we thought it'd be a good idea for you to do this while we're here to help."

River looks up then, her gaze meeting his and then flitting away as she realizes what he means. "Shiny," she says, focusing on the box of scraps, but he can feel her sadness in the Force.

She picks out a pair of crystals, wonder replacing melancholy as they resonate for her, and while it's not a special trip to Ilum with Yoda, Anakin figures it'll do. They spend an interesting day picking out parts and putting them together in various configurations, and then River settles in to meditate.

The next evening, she shows them almost complete versions of a saber and a shoto, still in need of better grips and what few personal flourishes she might want to add, but when she turns them on, they shine bright white in the low light of the lounge.

She looks startled at the color, or lack thereof, but Obi-Wan smiles. "You've done well, young River."

"I don't understand," she says. "My old lightsabers were blue."

"You're not the same person you were when you built them," Obi-Wan says. "Your training was violently truncated, and your path has been rife with trials of both spirit and flesh, but you've passed through them with grace and courage, and found what serenity you can." A brief grin crosses her face at the pun. "You serve the light and the Force, and I would have been proud to have you as my padawan had things gone differently." Anakin shoots a sharp look at him but Obi-Wan ignores it. "You are not, perhaps, a Jedi in the old style, but your light will brighten the galaxy for years to come, Force willing."

River blinks rapidly, and then gives them a blinding smile. She deactivates the blades and then bows low. "Thank you, Master Kenobi, Master Skywalker. May the Force be with you."

"And with you as well," Obi-Wan and Anakin both answer, with bows of their own. It's strange and familiar at the same time, and Anakin feels the usual ache of sorrow at what they've lost, but also a bright flare of pride and hope at what they've found.

Later, he says to Obi-Wan, "I didn't know you'd planned to take another padawan. I thought I'd put you off the idea for life." He's joking. Mostly.

Obi-Wan tips his head back to lean against the wall and closes his eyes. "I hadn't really planned on it," he says. "But I saw how well you were doing with Ahsoka and I thought maybe, once the war was over, I might like to give it another go. Master Yoda suggested I meet River. He seemed to think we'd be a good match."

"She's brilliant," Anakin says, "and I don't mean just in the Force. But what Barriss--Darth Ruin--did to her--" He shakes his head. "You would have been a good team."

"Alas, we shall never know," Obi-Wan replies. "Though I do see another Skywalker in my future." He nods towards where Luke and Leia are sacked out on the other bed.

"You might have to fight Ahsoka for the privilege," Anakin says. "And you're getting old."

Obi-Wan laughs. "What I lack in agility I more than make up for in cunning. Ahsoka, being your apprentice, has always preferred the more straightforward approach. She doesn't know all my tricks yet."

"You'd be surprised at how many of them I taught her." Anakin sighs. "She's out there somewhere, Obi-Wan. I can feel it."

"And we will find her when the Force wills it, Anakin. You must believe that."

"I do. I just--"

"You found me, didn't you?"

Anakin smiles. "You're right. I did." He pats Obi-Wan's knee and then gets to his feet. "Have a good night. I'm nearby if you need me." Obi-Wan waves him off, but none of them sleep all that well at night. He's been sleeping in Kaylee's bunk since they brought Obi-Wan back, and he needs the comfort of her warmth now, to remind him that the galaxy might be vast and lonely, but there's goodness in it too.

Ahsoka's out there, a light in the darkness, he tells himself, and they'll be reunited when the time is right.

*

Anakin's not sure which is worse--having to tell the twins or having to tell Kaylee that they'll be leaving soon.

Luke and Leia cry but are easily comforted with the promise of a few months with their aunt and uncle, and lightsaber lessons with Obi-Wan.

Kaylee takes it much harder.

He knows she's not in love with him--not the way he understands it, anyway--any more than he's in love with her, but they have something good together, something that makes them both happy, and they both know how rare that is in the galaxy.

"I knew you weren't gonna stay forever," she says, cuddled warm and soft against him in the hammock, "but I thought we'd have a little more time."

He drops a kiss on her forehead, her nose, the corner of her mouth. "I know. But Obi-Wan and I together, not to mention River and the twins--it's not safe for anyone with all of us in one place."

She huffs. "I know. That don't mean I have to like it."

His mouth curves at the echo of his words to Obi-Wan. "I don't like it either, but if it's a question of your safety or--"

"Don't," she says, pressing her lips to his. "Don't go calling trouble's attention to us." She slides a leg over his hips and kisses him fervently. Then she teaches him that it is, in fact, possible to have sex in a hammock, if you have determination and strong thighs and don't mind the swaying.

*

It's a good thing they've already decided to leave Serenity soon, because at dinner two nights later, Reynolds tells them he's received a wave from Simon, saying he and Jayne are ready to return to the ship whenever they next make planetfall on Tatooine.

"Quarters'll be a mite crowded," Reynolds says, "but I'm sure we can make do. Kenobi, you can keep sleeping in with the twins, since Skywalker seems to spending most nights in Kaylee's room."

Anakin flushes and Obi-Wan laughs at him, earning a kick to his shin under the table. "Thank you," Anakin says, "but I believe we'll be taking our leave of you on Tatooine."

They all look at him and then at Kaylee, who purses her lips and says, "I ain't happy about it, but their reasoning is sound."

"Too dangerous," River agrees sadly. "But we can visit."

"Whenever you stop off in Mos Eisley," Anakin says, directing a wicked grin at Kaylee. "You have my comm code."

*

The evening before they make planetfall at Mos Eisley, Inara shares a bottle of fine Corellian whiskey with the crew. She and Obi-Wan get along like Jawas in a junkyard, and they're facing each other over a beautifully carved chess set Inara has produced from somewhere in her shuttle.

Kaylee and River are chasing Luke and Leia around in a complicated game of tag throughout the ship that Anakin has long since given up trying to figure out, and he and Mal and Zoe sit on the catwalk above the hold, drinking Inara's good whiskey from beaten old metal cups.

"This is good stuff," he says in surprise. Then again, they have been drinking Kaylee's engine room wine for the past few weeks. Even lesser quality stuff would probably taste good right now.

"Course it is," Reynolds says. "Inara wouldn't have no cheap Felucian swill."

"Gods," Zoe says, "remember that rotgut Bendis brewed before we shipped out for Hera?" Her mouth twists in a complicated expression of disgust and nostalgia.

Reynolds nods. "Tasted like he'd strained it through his socks, but it sure packed a wallop."

"Hera?" Anakin says, puzzled, and then the name clicks. "Battle of Serenity," he murmurs. He'd wondered about the name of the ship more than once, but hadn't really thought to ask; it seemed a little too personal and he and Reynolds weren't that friendly at first.

"Yeah," Reynolds says, his eyes gone faraway in an expression Anakin is only too familiar with. "Hell of a name for a battle."

It had been one of the last major battles of the war, Anakin recalled. The Separatist leadership that wasn't in Sidious's pocket had withdrawn its support from its ground troops--mostly sentients from planetary defense corps, which explained Reynolds and Zoe's presence--and tried to surrender to the new Emperor and save itself. They'd all been slaughtered, troops and leadership alike, by Palpatine's Sith apprentice. He'd listened to the holonews reports about it while Padmé slept, with the twins, only days old, cradled between them on the bed.

Knowing that makes their attitude make so much more sense.

"You know the whole war was one long con job by the Emperor, right?" he says suddenly. "We were all being set up to lose."

"Explain," Zoe says, punctuating the command with the tap of her fingernail on her cup.

"Palpatine is a Sith Lord," Anakin says. "He was running both sides of the war to bring down the Republic and the Jedi."

Reynolds lets loose with an impressive string of profanity and then gives Zoe a rueful smile. "I'm glad I let you talk me into running those guns for the rebels."

"Yes, sir," she replies, deadpan, "I'm the one who talked you into that."

Reynolds grunts and takes another sip of whiskey.

"He tried to get me to join him, he made a martyr of my wife, and he hunts my friends and my children," Anakin says softly. "We'll bring him down, one day." He grins viciously. "As Obi-Wan likes to say, Sith lords are our specialty."

"We'll be cheering for you when you do," Reynolds says. "Might even take a few shots at him ourselves."

"That's what I like to hear." They clink their cups together and Anakin has to laugh. "You ever think you'd be making toasts with Republic generals?"

Reynolds lets out a bark of laughter, too. "No, but the 'verse is full of stranger things," he says. "Guess Kenobi was right about common enemies making strange bedfellows."

"Hey now, Captain, I wouldn't step out on Kaylee like that," Anakin says.

"You're damn right you won't," Reynolds replies, and they're okay, Anakin thinks. Crew, and maybe family, if not always the most comfortable of friends.

*

Anakin spends his last night on Serenity with Kaylee. They don't sleep much. He wants to imprint every last moment and every last inch of her on his memory--the way she sighs and gasps when he slides his fingers inside her, the way her thighs quiver just before she comes, the dreamy look on her face afterwards, when he knows he's made her fly all on her own. His own pleasure is secondary, but Kaylee does the same for him, and he wonders how he went so long without this, and how he's going to get along without her once he leaves.

"We come by pretty regular," she says in the morning, and he's not sure if she's trying to reassure him or herself. "There's always work to be had in Mos Eisley."

"I know." He kisses her, annoyed that they're dressed and will be landing soon. "Be careful who you deal with, though."

She rolls her eyes. "Even when Mal ain't got the sense god gave a nerf, Zoe knows better. You ain't gotta worry about us."

"Zoe does have a good head on her shoulders."

Kaylee gives him a wry look. "I'm sure she'll be glad to know you think so."

"What? No. Don't tell her I said that. I don't feature getting shot on my last day. I think even the captain has finally come around on me."

That makes her laugh and he's glad; he wants to remember her laughing.

*

Mos Eisley is as miserable as usual, the heat fierce and the sand irritating even early in the morning. It feels right to be here, though, give how many important things in his life have happened here.

Anakin, Obi-Wan, and the twins part from the crew of Serenity with ostentatious hugs and surreptitious tears, their packs laden with small gifts and mementoes of their time together.

"You comm me before you replace the hyperdrive," Anakin says. "I can help you with that."

"I will," Kaylee promises. "Probably be a few months before we got that kind of money on hand."

"Doesn't matter how long, you call me." He kisses her one last time, then gathers the kids in his arms and follows Obi-Wan to where Owen is waiting with a speeder.

He'll never be as happy on the ground as he is in the sky, but his time on Serenity reminded him of how to take good things where he finds them, for as long as he has them. He's leaving the crew of Serenity, but he's got Obi-Wan back, and that's something he no longer wants to do without.

It's only a matter of time until he takes to the stars again, and maybe next time, he'll be able to find the rest of his little family, and help save the galaxy along the way. In the meantime, the Force hums with quiet rightness, and he knows he's where he's supposed to be.

"Hey, Owen," he says, climbing into the passenger seat of the speeder. Owen gives him a nod and a smile in return. He's not even going to complain about not getting to drive. "Let's go home."

end