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A Mouthful of Ash

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I.  Mustafar

 

Every breath of the air on Mustafar smelled like sulfur and dried Obi-Wan’s tongue.  More from the tension than heat, he could feel his strength flagging as he fought with his apprentice.  Matched in skill and similar in technique, their steps and strikes flowed like a dance as they transitioned from walkway to tower to precarious platforms over a lava flow.  

“Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil.”

Anakin looked lithe and strong, as though the heat and the horror was an armor that energized him.  His face was glossy with sweat, lit sharply from below, as he shouted furiously, “From the Jedi point of view! From my point of view, the Jedi are evil.”

The impact of the words was more devastating than a physical blow.  Shocked and struggling to maintain his calm control of his mind and his blade, Obi-Wan retorted, “Well, then you are lost!”

“This is the end for you, My Master. I wish it were otherwise.”

The sith’s expression was hard to read, and harder still to reconcile with his words.  To Obi-Wan’s ear, there was triumph and elation rather than remorse;  as far as he could perceive it, the power flowing through Anakin overwhelmed any emotion that inconvenienced him.   

Anakin jumped onto the platform, and they were once again matched, moving in perfect time.  Thousands of hours of practice and the lingering remains of a deep force bond put their odds even and allowed them to anticipate each other.  Tiring quickly, his thoughts turbulent, Obi-Wan felt that he could die here; this new incarnation of Anakin lacked restraint, where something in the older Jedi was still holding back.

Dancing back a step, he spotted a place where the bank of black volcanic sand came close to their path.  With a lucky jump, he made it to the safety of solid ground and landed awkwardly as the sand shifted.  Mastering his stance, he looked back to his former Padawan.

“It's over, Anakin. I have the high ground.”

Incensed, Palpatine’s apprentice shouted back, “You underestimate my power!”

If Anakin had lowered his blade, Obi-Wan might have let him go; even now, he didn’t feel that he had the strength to end his life.   Let us walk away, let us come back to this when I’ve made a plan.  Anakin, don’t do this. Don’t try it.

“Don't try it.”

Anakin did and Obi-Wan reacted instinctively, bringing his lightsaber up and around in defensive arc.

His stomach dropped at the the sensation of his light saber gliding cleanly through his former Padawan’s limbs, severing bone and muscle as though they were as insubstantial as cobweb.   In that fraction of a second, his heart caved in on itself, almost depriving him of the strength to stand.  They exchanged a few emotionally charged accusations, but his eyes were only half-focused on the scene before him;  all he could think about was how hot the ground felt through his soles of his boots and how it must have been burning Anakin’s skin through his dark robes.

The heat had already burned away Anakin’s thin glove, exposing his metal hand.  He struggled to claw his way up the embankment with his only remaining limb, but he can’t find a solid hold.  He slipped back again and again toward the lava and sweating, moaning in pain, tried to drag himself back.

“You were the Chosen One! It was said that you would, destroy the Sith, not join them. It was you who would bring balance to the Force, not leave it in Darkness,” Obi-Wan cried out in pain, his chest constricted so tightly that he wasn’t sure that he’d ever be able to draw a full breath again.

“I hate you!”

“You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you!”  

As he shouted at him that he loved him, he thought of how wrong it was to say words like that now when he’d never said them before - not the times when the other man was falling asleep against his back, not when Anakin had wordlessly begged for an affirmation that his attachment was returned, not any of the times when they'd been alone with no excuses.

But he'd chosen now , when the only purpose was to hurt him with words that he should have said every time they parted ways and every time they met again.

And now was the time to walk away, to reaffirm himself as that perfect, emotionless Jedi that Anakin should have become.  It was time to let the planet burn him up and swallow him into the lava flow; Jedi didn’t kill, after all, they just walked away and let happen what would happen.

It was the same thing, but with an element of chance that left their hands clean.

And now , with Anakin’s lightsaber in his hand, he realized that this was the last moment that mattered.  It might be the last moment that would ever matter, the moment when Anakin wasn’t alone.  When someone didn't leave him behind, when someone took his pain, his anger, his flaws, and his secrets and shouldered their weight alongside him.  When someone forgave him, when someone carried him.

“Master, help me,” Anakin begged.

Against everything he knew and everything he had ever been taught, Obi-Wan turned back and lifted him into his arms.  Anakin, blinded by a haze of pain, was still save for the bare metal hand that gripped his former master’s shoulder like five broken blades.

 

II.  Polis Massa

 

As doctors fought to stabilize Anakin, who had gone into shock at the loss of his limbs, Padmé brought two babies into a heartbroken world.  

Her spirit was buried under the weight of what had happened on her behalf - how could she live knowing that her husband had sacrificed others to save her from something he may have imagined?  That wasn’t her choice, but she had chosen him .  She had known he was a murderer since the slaughter on Tatooine and she had married him anyway; she had made the choice out of love, but who would their children become with a father like him?

The weight was heavy and her body was weak; her throat had been crushed by his Force-grip and her lungs were burned by Mustafar’s acrid air.

Obi-Wan took her hand and spoke softly to her as she gave him the names she had chosen for her children.

“There's still good in him,” she breathed, fighting sleep, “I have to believe that.”

Obi-Wan nodded, sighing, “I am so sorry, Padmé.  None of this should have ever happened.  I failed him and this is my fault.”

She smiled tiredly, looking across the room to where the doctors were tending to her babies.  She loved them already, more than she had ever loved anything or anyone else.

“It isn't.  We all made our choices.”

He sighed, feeling little relief from her absolution.  Across the galaxy he could feel the lights of his fellow Jedi being snuffed out and he knew that the danger for them had not passed; Palpatine would want his apprentice, and there was nothing to say that Anakin would accept his first master again in the face of his apparent betrayal.

“You should sleep.  The road ahead won't be easy.  Palpatine will want him back for certain and… and possibly the twins as well.”

She turned her gaze to him only briefly before looking back to her children, “It would be best to separate us from him; we stand a better chance on our own.”

“Will you allow Anakin to meet his children, if he comes through this?”

Padmé didn’t look at him, but the fine muscles of her throat tightened and her desaturated lips pressed together firmly for a moment.

“Perhaps in time,” she said quietly, though her voice was firm.  

He chewed his lower lip, then reached over to rest his hand on hers where it was encumbered by several IV tubes.  Watching her and feeling the depth of her guilt and pain, Obi-Wan knew that once she left the ship, she would leave them all behind.  It wasn’t his place to ask her to stay.

“Can I ask you to stay in contact with me, so that I can see that you’re safe?”

She didn’t mean it, but she scoffed almost reflexively.  She gripped his hand as it turned into a painful cough.

“You’ll be busy enough keeping yourself safe.”

He sighed, unable to deny that.

“I can’t conscience sending you out on your own, Padmé.  It isn’t that I don't think you can handle yourself… only… it is a terrifying galaxy right now.  The clones have turned on us, and there are millions of them at the Emperor’s command.”

She sighed, settling back again.  She turned her answer over in her weary mind, end to end and back again.  When she met his eyes, there was a different sort of kinship in hers, as though she knew the full extent of what they shared in Anakin.  She felt as sad for his loss as her own and just as guilty.  In that moment, they were wed to each other as much as their Sith lover.

“I’m tired, Obi-Wan… I want to sleep.  This has all… this has all been too much.”  

There was a note of tearfulness in her voice that Obi-Wan couldn’t ignore.  He squeezed her hand lightly, then murmured, “You can rest.  We’ll talk again when you’ve recovered. When… when you’re ready.”

She nodded, then turned her head to accept his kiss on the cheek.   After a few moments reflection, he rose to face his next challenge.

However, it would be several days before Anakin would open his eyes, and several more before he would be lucid enough for conversation.

“Where is Padmé?” he demanded tiredly.  

Even as exhausted as he was, mind dulled with pain and limbs grotesquely amputated, there was something terrifyingly powerful about the fallen Jedi.  

“She’s resting… Recovering.”

The blond was still on the bed, dulled by painkiller but still practically smoldering in place with anger.  Through the lingering shreds of the force-bond between them, Obi-Wan could feel waves of sorrow and anger.  The emotions were making him stronger;  they may have been the only thing sustaining his consciousness at that moment.

“I want to see her,” Anakin said.

“She isn’t ready to see you yet, Anakin.”

The anger flared brighter for a moment at the denial, giving him the strength to use his metal arm to pull himself up to sitting.  He hissed in pain, losing the already minimal color in his slim face, as his eyes flashed yellow.

“What do you mean, she isn’t ready?  I… did this all to save her, and she’s saved.  I saved her!”

“You almost killed her,” Obi-Wan pointed out, fighting the urge to fall back a step at the force of his conviction.  “You broke her heart, you terrified her… and she now feels as though your crimes are hers.”

“Don’t put words in her mouth, Obi-Wan.  I know you’re against me.  You’ve turned her against me-”

You turned her against yourself,” the older man protested flatly, “And soon she will leave with your children.”

“She will not!  She won’t leave!” Anakin said furiously, “She can’t leave, I won’t let her!”  Belatedly, Obi-Wan’s words struck him and the yellow light faded from his eyes again. “Children?”

“Yes, Anakin, twins.  A boy and a girl.”

“Twins,” he repeated in quiet wonder. “I didn’t even know.”

When Anakin’s expression wasn’t either slack and unconscious or twisted with hideous intent, there was an uncomfortable twinge of recognition in Obi-Wan’s chest.  Looking at the fallen knight, he experienced a strange mixture of emotions that was difficult to dissect.  At the forefront, he felt fear and revulsion; Anakin’s mutilated body was unnatural and jarring to look at, especially knowing his body as well as he had.  More than that, the taint of the dark side was tangible and almost nauseating in its intensity.  Even as broken as he was, Anakin was powerful.

Beneath the surface, Obi-Wan felt pity mixed with anger.  Guilt ached at the sight of his truncated limbs and his ghastly pallor, and something within him demanded to know why he had saved him if only to suffer.

When his eyes were soft like this and his hair was mussed from sleep, he looked almost like the Anakin that he’d known before.  He felt that Jedi, the old Anakin, creeping in and making him unconsciously look for justifications or ways back to where they had been.  There was no return, though; his former Padawan had been the lynchpin in the plan that had destroyed their way of life, and the two had nearly killed each other.  Had Anakin managed to secure the higher ground,Obi-Wan would have been dead.

“They're beautiful,” Obi-Wan finally replied, forcing himself to stay in the moment and in the conversation.

“I want to see them.”

“I will ask Padmé.”

“I'm their father.  I demand to see my children,” Anakin snarled, tiring already.  

“I will ask Padmé,” Obi-Wan repeated firmly, meeting his eyes with a very slight lift to his ginger eyebrows.

He hadn't expected the wave of energy that knocked him back against a bank of monitors and cords; the hard contact knocked the wind out of him so he was already gasping when Anakin, his garish metal hand extended furiously, jerked him back close by his throat.

The Sith apprentice dragged him almost close enough that he could have reached out and crushed his throat with his hand rather than the force.  Even like this, Anakin could kill him.

His body largely immobilized in Anakin’s grip, Obi-Wan struggled to reach for his light saber.  When the movement proved impossible and his vision swam from lack of air, he turned his dark, piercing eyes on his former Padawan.

Anakin drew a sharp breath through his nose and released him, exhausted.  Obi-Wan dropped to his knees, coughing and gasping greedily for air, and did not rise.

It was difficult for Anakin to distinguish between his heady hatred for everything and his specific hatred for Obi-Wan; at the moment, all of his emotions felt the same, and his reaction to every stimulus was incendiary fury.  

“You're not in control of me!  I should kill you for what you did.”

Eyes bloodshot and one vessel blown in his left, the Jedi looked at him balefully.

“You betrayed me,” Anakin continued, riled up enough to spin on without further input. “You came to kill me without even considering what I was doing or why I had chosen what I had -”

“I didn't-” Obi-Wan coughed harshly, his voice a hoarse, forceful whisper. “I didn't come to kill you - I never wanted to kill you!”

Anakin laughed humorlessly.

“I saw Padmé on the ground.  Should I have let you kill me too?”

“You should have come with me - you should have been beside me, you and Padmé!  You should have questioned the Order and what they were doing to the Republic.  That-that war didn't have to be everything, we were lied to.  The Council lied!”

Palpatine lied - he used you.”

“The Jedi used me. They used you too, but you're too blind to see it… look what they've made you do to me,” he said angrily, gesturing to his body with his damaged metal hand.

“I had no choice!  Anakin, we were equally matched, it was a matter of who found an advantage and who struck first.  You would have killed me!” he rasped passionately.

“Not if you’d listened - you never listen!”

“I have always tried-”

The force grip was tighter this time, but Obi-Wan was ready.  Choking as his throat was crushed closed, he pulled his lightsaber and slashed the front two legs of Anakin’s medical bed.  Unstable under Anakin’s uneven weight, it lurched and tilted at a sharp angle that left the Sith clinging to the railing to avoid falling to the floor tangled amidst a dozen IVs and monitor cords.

With Anakin deprived of his concentration, Obi-Wan sucked in a gulp of air and pushed himself back to lean against the wall beside the door.

“Fuck… fuck you,” Anakin gasped furiously, clinging to the bed with his metal arm.  The change in position was painful and also highlighted his helplessness and lack of dignity.  The blankets having fallen back, Anakin’s thighs, cauterized just above the knee, were on prominent display. “I kriffing hate you.”

Obi-Wan just watched him, panting silently with a curiously blank expression.  He was waiting him out, the way he would have when he was an angry little kid;  Anakin had always been someone who needed an ally, and even the worst arguments normally subsided when he became upset that he and Obi-Wan weren’t on the same side.

It wasn’t long before Anakin was was trying to scrabble back, trying to keep himself modestly covered by the hospital gown.

“Are you just going to leave me here?  Help me,” he said angrily, though his tone was more petulant than anything else.

“Help you?” Obi-Wan croaked, still managing to convey incredulous hauteur.

“Yes!  I… I need you to help me, Obi-Wan,” he said, looking away.

Making him wait just a moment longer, the Jedi struggled to his feet and walked over to tilt the bed back to rights.  He shimmed a rolling table under the damaged frame, stabilizing it easily.  With the bed approximately horizontal again, Anakin was able to pull himself up and hastily, awkwardly, arrange the blankets around himself with one hand.  Obi-Wan didn’t touch him and he didn’t help.

In frustration, Anakin smoothed and re-smoothed the blankets over the stumps of his legs, avoiding Obi-Wan’s eyes.  His focus remained fixed on a persistent crease in the fabric, which he tried again and again to rub away.  Alone, humiliated, and in tremendous pain, he drew a shaky breath and let it out slowly.

“I thought I was doing the right-”

“Don’t,” Obi-Wan said warningly.

Anakin relaxed back against the pillows, sweating, pale.  He didn’t have anything to respond beyond defense of his own righteousness and attacks on Obi-Wan’s blindness.  Everything that his former master said made him want to finish what he’d started; the idea of Obi-Wan’s eyes dull and his smart mouth slack gave him a strange strength.

“Everyone we know is dead,” Obi-Wan managed. “The clones… our clones, they cut them down.  Palpatine, you -”

“Don't you act like they were in the right, don't you-” he broke off with a breath like a sob.

Obi-Wan cast his eyes to the sterile metal ceiling.  He tried to look within himself for the Jedi’s compassion, but the pain was as suffocating as his former lover’s force grip.

He took a deep breath, then spoke in a gravelly whisper.  “You’ve had a hard life, I know.  You've always… needed more than other Jedi.  I knew that.  I… let things happen that I thought could make you happy…”

He sighed and rubbed his eyes, then dragged that hand down over his mouth and beard.

“I… did fail you Anakin, as your master.  I was too young, inexperienced, I didn't know what I was doing and you were so different.  I should have been stronger, more observant… I should have seen what was happening.  I should have asked for help.”

Anakin was silent, considering that and fitting it into his own internal framing.  It was easier to blame Obi-Wan for everything than to think about the choices he'd made and the secrets that he'd kept.  He'd always known his former master to be oppressively self-critical, accepting responsibility for chance or the failings of others in his pursuit for Jedi perfection.  Rationally, he knew that he couldn't hold Obi-Wan responsible, but it felt good.  Blame could be turned to anger, and that anger could make him stronger.

The rims of his irises shifted to red again, and he was about to speak when Obi-Wan broke the considering silence again with a confession.

“My greatest failing as a Jedi was that I loved you.”

The words hurt; Anakin, who had loved him even as he wanted to kill him, felt a quickening of pain that quickly turned to anger.  

Obi-Wan didn't look at him as he continued, his voice tired and hoarse. “My greatest failing as a man was that I never told you.”

Anakin studied the lines of his face, noticing that the battle and their losses had seemed to age Obi-Wan years.  His shoulders slumped minutely as his fury and pain warred with loneliness and need.

“And now?” Anakin asked, “Do you love me now?”

The older man was silent as he considered his answer; in that space of seconds, Anakin felt like he was inhaling the hot air of Mustafar again and choking on ash.

“I don't know.  I don't know who you are.”

“I know who you are,” he answered reflexively, feeling Obi-wan’s lack of confirmation as a sharp rejection.  “The hypocrite, the ‘perfect’ Jedi.  I know everything and I hate you.”

Obi-Wan reeled from the statement though his expression changed little.  His shields were firmly in place and the force bond that he had shared with Anakin for years was in tatters.  He nodded stiffly.

“I accept that.”

It wasn't the response that Anakin wanted; he had wanted his mentor to be wounded and to beg for his forgiveness.  At that moment, he needed to find strength in someone else’s pain to distract him from his own.

“No,” he protested weakly, “You’re just saying  that.”

“What choice do I have?  I can feel the hatred in you Anakin, the darkness.  You would have killed me on Mustafar and you would kill me now.”

“Yeah?  But I’m the one lying here without any kriffing legs, without a weapon or a friend in the galaxy!  I wish you had just killed me.”

“Jedi don't-”

“Don't kill people?  Yeah, they don't do a lot of things that you did,” he said bitingly.

“Anakin, please.”

“Why did you save me?” he demanded, if not for love implied in his tone.

Obi-Wan met his gaze again, resolute in this despite his confusion and guilt surrounding other details.  There were certain things that he knew for certain.

“I didn't want you to be alone.”

Anakin looked at the darkening marks on Obi-Wan’s throat and imagined similar ones on Padmé. They were different than marks left by fingers, more solid, more blocky.  Strangely regular.  He swallowed hard, feeling a swell of panic at the sudden knowledge that the cracks in his control were no longer just that; he didn't know how to hold his temper or fight through pain without transmuting it into violence.

He took several deep, calming breaths and tried unsuccessfully to catch on to a line of the Jedi code for meditation.

Obi-Wan was outwardly calm and his words seemed almost over-rational.   So Jedi.  Through the force he could feel Obi-Wan’s quick pulse and he could almost see him leaning forward into Anakin’s next response, practically holding his breath.  Maybe he wanted forgiveness, though that was not something that Anakin was going to give him.  For certain he wanted Anakin calm, whether for his own self-preservation or for his former apprentice’s benefit.  

That was so different from what Palpatine had wanted; he’d wanted Anakin angry and out of control.  When he was just feeling and acting, he wasn't thinking.  When he wasn't thinking, he wasn't questioning.

Should he have questioned?  Should he have questioned why Padmé cried, what changed between when she ran to him and when she pulled away?   Because of Obi-Wan?  Because of what you did.   He stared, unfocused at a point beyond the other Jedi’s booted feet, lost in his thoughts.  He could scarcely remember who had drawn his sword first.  No, it was Obi-Wan, he knew that.  But he had declared Obi-Wan his enemy first.  Why couldn't his master have just renounced the Jedi? Obi-Wan had always sided with him before, he had been brushed over and disrespected by the council before too.  

I loved you!

Had he?  And Palpatine had felt it, seen their dependence on each other?  He’d told him to leave Obi-Wan behind after the battle with Dooku; he’d said that Obi-Wan had been seen leaving a senator’s room in the early morning.  Had the implication been that it had been Padmé’s, as though the two had been conspiring against him?  And finally he'd split them up again, sending Obi-Wan to Utapau.  It should have been Anakin, but it was the same end.  Palpatine had wanted him isolated and afraid.  Had those visions even been real, or were they the emperor's creation?

Obi-Wan’s last words to him before he left to Utapau, his last words before Mustafar, were branded on Anakin’s heart:   You are strong and wise, Anakin, and I am very proud of you.

His chin slowly dipped forward as his head bowed.

Palpatine would never want him to feel peace or connection.  His mind was roiling and chaotic, demanding comfort but unwilling and unable to accept even the barest gesture of kindness.  It hurt as much as his physical injuries and he hated it.

“I need you to help me, Obi-Wan,” he said suddenly.

His voice startled the other man, who had wondered if Anakin had lost consciousness again during his long silence.

“What does that mean? Now?”

“I don't know what I'm doing. I just… I can't do this.”

The Jedi moved closer finally, tired.  He was within arm’s reach, but neither reached out.

“I can try.  I will try.  I need your word - your word, Anakin - that you will try to fight the emperor’s influence, that you won't hurt Padmé.”

The words I'd never rose quickly to his lips, but he realized in the same second that he already had; in his rage, he’d almost killed her.

“You would take me at my word even now?”

“I need to believe I can.  I need to believe what Padmé said, that there is still good in you.”

Anakin paused, caught in the middle of his wife’s faith, then nodded slowly.

“I will, then. I give you my word.”

Obi-Wan finally reached over and laid his hand on his shoulder.  In surprise, Anakin felt the hot press of tears as his throat constricted almost painfully.  It was the first contact he’d had in what felt like forever, aside from the clinical touch of doctors.