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“Ben’s? You want to go to Ben’s?”

The man nods, faintly. Hasn’t said a word to Will throughout their whole conversation (if anyone could call it a conversation), though Will’s not gonna pry overmuch. Guy looks like he’s seen some shit.

Will shrugs, instead. “Dunno why you’d go out in this rain to a bar, man,” he says, looking out at the road and the rain coming down hard around them, “but, eh, who am I to stop you, huh?”

The man shrugs as well, gives a faint smile. It looks odd on him, as if he hasn’t genuinely smiled in a long, long time.

“You’ll find Ben’s down there,” says Will, flicking his hand out to the general direction of ol’ Ben’s bar. “Just a hop and a skip away. But if you’re looking for the homeless shelter--”

The guy shakes his head, the smile vanishing. Now he just looks scared, shrinking into his hoodie even further than Will would’ve ever thought possible.

“All right, all right, yeesh,” Will mutters. “Was just asking.” He shoves his hands into his pockets and fishes out a pack of cigarettes, “Say, you got a lighter on you?”

Another shake. Still no actual words. Guy’s probably shy or something, Will thinks. Maybe he just likes the silence.

“Be that way, I guess,” he says, with a sigh, tucking the pack away into his pocket again. “Well? Get on with it. Rain’s getting stronger every second you spend here. You wanna miss the worst of it, you best get going.”

The man nods, ducks out of the bus stop, his hands tucked securely in the pockets of his hoodie. Weird, he’d looked kind of familiar to Will--hard to tell, with the hood up.

It’s kind of been a long day, anyway, he won’t begrudge the man if he wants a good, stiff drink in the middle of all this rain.

God knows Will wants some too.

--

It’s raining when Obi-wan hears the knock on the door. A dark and stormy night, in fact, the kind horror stories are made out of. Obi-wan half-expects to see a ghost when he goes to open the door, a brusque reminder on his lips about the sign at the front.

“We’re--” he starts. Stops.

Anakin blinks down at him, left hand raised to knock again. His right hand is--not there, Obi-wan quickly realizes when he sees the tied sleeve, the way Anakin holds his right arm close to his chest.

He opens his mouth, as if to say something, then shakes his head and shuts it again, shoves his one hand into a pocket.

Obi-wan lets out a breath, says, “Come in,” and steps aside to let Anakin in, dripping wet and frighteningly quiet, dumping his bag with little ceremony onto a nearby table. “I thought you’d be at your wife’s.”

Anakin shakes his head, tugging his hood back. There’s a bruise blooming just below his right eye, a scar cutting across his left brow, and something like a tattoo peeking out from under the collar of his shirt. He’s soaked through, shivering and miserable, hunched in on himself. Obi-wan doesn’t need to use the Force to know that much.

“Andy,” he starts.

Anakin shakes his head again, sending droplets of water everywhere.

“Anakin,” says Obi-wan, instead.

Anakin nods.

Obi-wan lets out a breath. “When?” he asks.

Anakin exhales, and pulls up a chair. He sits down, picking idly at the knot of his right sleeve, not meeting Obi-wan’s eyes.

Well. Clearly he’s not going to be getting anything out of Anakin on when he remembered, or any other topic.

He sits down across from him instead, takes in the hoodie and the dark circles under his eyes, the hunched-in manner as if he’s trying to make himself seem smaller, less threatening. “I’ll get you a drink,” says Obi-wan. “On the house.”

Anakin shakes his head again.

“Then why come to a bar?”

Anakin huffs out a breath, glances upward at the door leading to Obi-wan’s upstairs apartment, then ducks his head downward again.

“There’s a homeless shelter just three blocks away,” says Obi-wan.

Anakin breaks into a fit of half-hysterical laughter in response, grabbing hold of the edge of the table with his good hand to keep himself steady. The fit dissolves into choked almost-sobs soon enough, though, and Obi-wan’s hand is reaching out before he can even stop himself, to brush over Anakin’s fingers, to reassure him.

Anakin freezes at the touch, like a deer caught in the headlights, eyes wide and surprised.

“No shelters, then,” says Obi-wan, drawing his hand back. “What about your children?”

Another shake of the head, and a guilty glance away, tells Obi-wan more than he wants to know about Anakin’s current feelings on sleeping anywhere near the twins. Or his wife.

“Don’t feel like talking?” he asks instead.

Anakin shrugs, his hand jerking away from Obi-wan’s and going up to his own throat instead. Then, again, he shakes his head.

Right. Well. That’s going to be something of a problem, but Obi-wan can deal with the issue of Anakin’s sudden loss of speech later. For now, he looks his old friend up and down and says, “I have a guest bedroom you can sleep in, until you can get your feet back under you. Is that alright with you?”

Anakin nods, and smiles faintly.

Obi-wan huffs out a breath, thinks, what have I gotten myself into?

--

“What in heaven have you gotten yourself into, Ben?” says Satine, when she walks inside and spies Anakin wiping down the tables, diligently not looking up at her or anyone else. He’s gotten surprisingly good at doing things with one hand, had gotten dressed in the clothes Obi-wan’s last ex had forgotten to take back in the split. “Is that--”

“Yes,” says Obi-wan, with a sigh.

Satine squints at Anakin. “He looks--different from what I expected, from someone who was all over the news a decade ago,” she says.

“That’s what a decade in prison will do to a person, I suppose,” says Obi-wan. And what remembering everything can do to a person, he doesn’t add, but the way Satine’s eyes cut away from Anakin to him, searching, is enough to tell him that she heard it. “I think that’s enough,” he calls to Anakin, “you’ve wiped that one down already.”

Anakin blinks, then straightens up, shoves his good hand into a pocket along with the rag. He crosses over to the counter, looking away from Satine, takes his good hand out and taps a finger against the counter.

“You are not getting a free drink for that,” Obi-wan tells him. “I’m letting you sleep in my guest bedroom already.”

Anakin raises a skeptical eyebrow.

“Still a no,” says Obi-wan.

“I am right here, you know,” says Satine, acidly.

Anakin looks away, eyes settling on Satine at last. Then he looks down, eyes half-lidded, fingers picking at the hem of his shirt.

“You could say something,” says Satine.

“He hasn’t said anything since he got here, actually,” says Obi-wan.

“Hm,” says Satine, her brow furrowing in worry. “I have a friend who happens to be a therapist. If you so want, I can send you her way.”

Anakin shakes his head in answer, looking between her and Obi-wan and running his teeth over his lower lip.

“You’re sure?”

He huffs out a breath, nods.

Satine sighs, turns to Obi-wan, “Well, just say the word if either of you need anything. Especially legal help.” Her eyes cut to Anakin, as if wondering if he’d be a threat, which Obi-wan kind of doubts--his old friend seems much more inclined to keep to himself these days. “I hope you have some idea of what you’re getting yourself into here, my dear friend.”

“I wish I did,” says Obi-wan.

--

It takes three days before Obi-wan hears Anakin’s voice again, and even then it’s an accident.

And, if Obi-wan were asked, he’d probably have said that he would much rather have taken longer to hear Anakin’s voice again than to hear it in the middle of the night, pulling him out of a good night’s sleep.

The scream jolts him awake, first. It drags him out of a dreamless sleep and back into reality without so much as a warning, and Obi-wan nearly knocks himself on the head with his alarm clock trying to reach for a weapon that no longer exists.

Then he feels the--the storm, there’s no other word for it, in the Force.

The storm coming from his guest room.

The guest room that Anakin is in.

It doesn’t take long for Obi-wan to figure out what could have possibly set Anakin off so badly, because the moment he gets within a few inches of the door there’s a flash of images, of fire and ash and death, of grey walls and agonizing pain.

It’s enough to send him reeling back, breathless, as though someone’s punched him in the gut. He puts a hand against the doorway, inhales and exhales, then lets his hand drop to the doorknob even as another image flashes across his mind’s eye--

--“stop now,” she’d cried, “come back, I love you,” and what had he done to her what kind of monster--

“Anakin!” calls Obi-wan, hastily shielding himself from the onslaught of images, of memories, and nearly gets an alarm clock Force-thrown directly at his head for the trouble. “Anakin, you have to wake up--”

“Padmé,” whimpers Anakin, and that, Obi-wan supposes, answers the question of whether he can still actually speak at all, “please, I’m--I’m sorry, wake up love please--”

Obi-wan crosses the room fairly quickly, dodging only one or two flying objects aimed at his head.

He doesn’t manage to dodge Anakin’s fist, though, the moment he puts a hand on his shoulder to try and wake him up.

The punch knocks Obi-wan back onto the floor, tasting copper in his mouth. He’s pretty sure a tooth’s gotten knocked loose from the impact, but he’s going to have to worry about that later. Right now Anakin’s nightmare keeps leaking through Obi-wan’s shields despite his best attempts, and at this rate, there’s not going to be much of a guest room left, either.

Grabbing hold of Anakin proves--difficult, to say the least, not helped by all the things that keep being thrown at him--the clock, the lamp, the few books Obi-wan left on the bedside table--but eventually he manages it, pinning Anakin down to shake him awake.

“Anakin--Anakin, wake up, it’s me, it’s just me--”

Anakin’s eyes snap open, and Obi-wan’s blood runs cold at their red-and-gold color.

It’s the second to the last thing he sees before Anakin flicks his left hand out and sends him flying across the room, slamming into the door.

The last is the blue seeping back into those eyes, the way they widen in horror. The last he hears is his name, Obi-wan, I--

Then the world goes black.

--

When he next wakes up, he’s lying on the couch with a warm blanket over him and a cup of coffee on the table, fresh enough that he can see steam rising from the top. For a moment Obi-wan wonders, fuzzily, what on earth he’s
doing on the
couch.

Then Anakin’s head emerges from the kitchen, eyes bloodshot but blessedly blue, and Obi-wan remembers: the alarm clock, the nightmare, Anakin’s eyes burning like the fires of Mustafar.

What has he gotten himself into?

“Anakin,” Obi-wan says, “I, ah. Are you alright?”

Anakin blinks at him, then huffs out an exasperated sigh and rolls his eyes upward to the ceiling. He creeps out of the kitchen, posture slouched, shoulders hunched in, and sits down on the floor beside Obi-wan, raising the stump of his right hand to his hair for a moment before dropping it, as if remembering.

“Well, I’m all right,” says Obi-wan. “At the very least you were gracious enough to provide coffee. Though next time try the tea, Anakin.”

Anakin rolls his eyes toward the ceiling again. Then he waves his stump near Obi-wan’s head, questioning.

“I told you I’m fine,” says Obi-wan. “I’ve taken harder blows than that.” It’s not even the hardest blow that Anakin’s ever dealt him, if he’s honest.

Which is apparently the wrong thing to say, because Anakin’s eyebrows go up in alarm, disappearing into the messy fringe of his hair.

“You can stop worrying about me,” says Obi-wan.

Anakin leans back, supporting himself with his good hand, and shakes his head. He’s never going to stop, Obi-wan can see that much.

He changes the subject instead and says, “I asked after you, though--are you alright? I tried to wake you up, but you protested rather spectacularly.”

Anakin pauses, then curls up, pulling his knees to his chest. He’s barefoot and wearing a low-cut white shirt that should not be a size too big on him, and Obi-wan can see more of the tattoo’s design now, a dragon’s tail curling like a lash around his collarbone.

He hasn’t seen Anakin this small and sad since their first few months as Master and Padawan, a long, long time ago.

“I take it that’s a no,” says Obi-wan.

Anakin actually laughs--if it could be called a laugh. It’s short, bitter, weary, and Obi-wan’s reminded of the man he’d seen on the television screen, ten long years ago, walls and guards all torn down and stripped away. How observant, Master, he imagines Darth Vader saying, in that awful mechanized voice.

But this is Anakin, who’s been strangely mute since he showed up soaked on Obi-wan’s doorstep, who now ducks his head down, rubs the heel of his palm against his eyelids.

“Sorry,” he rasps, the first word Obi-wan’s heard from him in ten years outside of a nightmare, voice hoarse from disuse. Or screaming. It’s a little deeper than it used to be, scratchier, weighed down with guilt and grief. “Um. I can leave.”

“To where?”

Anakin pauses, shrugs. He waves his good hand in the general direction of the homeless shelter--apparently he’s talked enough for the day.

“They’re rather crowded today,” says Obi-wan. “Perhaps you can try next week? Or--well, I meant what I said. You can stay until you have your feet back under you.”

Anakin exhales, the sound of it tired, and scoots closer. Nods, slightly, meeting Obi-wan’s gaze for the briefest of moments before he looks guiltily away again.

“For what it’s worth,” says Obi-wan, “I’ll admit that we were both disoriented and tired, and that you should really get some sleep, Anakin.”

Anakin shakes his head, waves his stump at the guest room, and has the decency to look apologetic, brow creasing and eyes looking downward. Obi-wan doesn’t even want to look at the state of his guest room, at all the things that must be scattered all over the place.

“You can have the couch once I’ve vacated it,” he proposes. “If you don’t mind getting a crick in your neck, that is.”

Anakin sucks in his lower lip, chews thoughtfully. He lets go with a sigh, then nods, before glancing at the cup of coffee, now cooling rapidly. When he looks back, there’s a faint spark of annoyance in his eyes, in the way he almost seems to pout.

“Yes, yes, I’ll drink your muddy water,” Obi-wan grumbles, and gets a none-too-gentle shove for his comment.

--

A month back, somewhere between New Jersey and Michigan, it’s not really all that clear when he thinks back, Anakin had ducked into a library, sat down in front of a computer that had perhaps seen the beginning of the Stone Age, and Googled selective mutism.

It hadn’t been very helpful then--most of what he’d found talked about children, or adults who’d been silent since they were kids. There’d been very little about adults who spoke perfectly fine, up until something in their horrifically shitty lives took their voice from them. Or their words.

(He doesn’t think about the exact point, where he stopped talking and just--kept quiet, instead, because it made life in prison just a little less hellish, a little more survivable.)

He’d also Googled reincarnation, but that had turned nothing up either, besides the Wikipedia article and pages on Buddhism and karma, and one list that purported to provide scientific proof of reincarnation.

He’d left the library with a sinking heart and an empty stomach, and had slept that night in a dumpster somewhere, curled in on himself and trying to forget what it had been like, to sleep next to someone he loved, to be warm and loved and happy.

Most days he almost does forget.

Most days the memory of warmth fades away, the cold seeping into his bones instead and wrapping skeletal fingers around his heart, driving away any memory of anything else. Most days he’s too exhausted to feel much of anything at all, by the time he goes to sleep.

But some days--he almost misses the suit, and how it kept him isolated from the rest of the world. A worn grey hoodie with a faded design doesn’t quite have the same effect, just marks him out as another homeless person, and the stump marks him out as easy pickings.

But then he sucks in a deep breath, exhales on his own power, and he’ll take the stump and the hoodie and the cold and the pain and the silence, everything, because here and now, he can breathe.

He can breathe.

About four days after he moves himself and his lone messenger bag into Obi-wan’s apartment, and hours after his nightmare, he steps outside of the bar just below. He leans against the glass window, watches a few kids walk by, and breathes in the smell of the ground after the rain.

“What are you doing out there?”

Anakin opens his eyes, glances to the side to see Obi-wan poking his head out, a bruise purpling underneath his eye. He shrugs, doesn’t say anything--there’s a smart remark there, but the words weigh heavy on his tongue and he swallows them back.

“No answer today either,” says Obi-wan. “Well. I should be getting used to that by now, really.”

Anakin lets his head fall back against the glass pane, turns the words over in his head. They’re there, is the thing, he has the capability, but getting them out there is, evidently, a different matter entirely. He’d barely been able to get the apology out just hours ago, and that had been important.

“I’ve had an idea, actually,” says Obi-wan, “come inside?”

Anakin follows him inside and to a table, hand and stump tucked into the pockets of his hoodie. They don’t have very many people in today, since it’s a weekday and most sensible people are working in the morning, so Anakin turns a chair around and settles in it backwards, arms resting on the headrest. Obi-wan scrunches his nose up at him, but Anakin couldn’t care less--it’s comfortable, this way.

“We should start working on our shields,” says Obi-wan, placing his hand down on the table. “Both of us, seeing as your nightmare managed to slip past my defenses.” He huffs out a breath, adds, “I haven’t had the opportunity to shore them up in some time, living here.”

That’s what you get, living in a bar in some small town in fuck knows where. Anakin doesn’t say it out loud, of course, though he wants to. He swallows it back, as he always does these days, and settles for a soft, disbelieving snort through the nose.

“I didn’t think I’d need to,” Obi-wan retorts, as if Anakin had voiced it anyway. “Do you still remember how to meditate?”

Meditation. Well. It’s gotten a lot easier for him. Probably. If one can count just checking out as meditation, but from what Anakin remembers of his meditations, that’s sort of the point. Empty yourself, they’d said, and he’s gotten very, very good at that.

He nods, takes Obi-wan’s hand. He breathes in, breathes out, and--lets go.

--

An interlude:

Once upon a time, there was a boy named Andy Walker, and another boy named Ben Kennedy. They met in elementary school, had an instant connection from the moment Andy crashed into Ben and called him his friend.

Once upon a time there were two boys, full of light and hope and dreams. Andy got married and took up law, was mentored by a kindly old man, and Ben took up writing for a newspaper.

Then the rot set in, and Andy walked deeper and deeper into darkness until he was hardly recognizable. Ben didn’t notice, so busy was he with chasing after stories, meeting deadlines, keeping his head afloat.

Once upon a time two men met on a planet of fire and ash. Neither one left.

Once upon a time, Ben Kennedy watched his best friend walk away, feeling as if his heart had been torn out of his chest. He went home, drank himself to sleep, and at some point during the night, died.

Obi-wan Kenobi woke up instead.

Once upon a time, Andy Walker walked out of jail a free man, worn down and broken and guilty, guilty, guilty. He’d no idea his time was running out, had only wanted to keep his head down and keep quiet--he’d learned his lessons, trapped inside, learned to wrap silence around himself like a cloak.

There was a gang, an alleyway, a shattered right hand.

Anakin Skywalker woke up in the hospital, choking on his words, a dragon whispering in his ear: your fault, your fault, all your fault, Skywalker.

All your fault.

--

Anakin’s mental shields are, charitably speaking, something of a shambles.

Obi-wan--doesn’t quite know how that happened. Anakin is still strong in the Force, even now, blazing like a star against the black sky when Obi-wan feels for him. In most cases even untrained Force-users have some kind of rudimentary shield in place, something that keeps their emotions and thoughts from leaking out unless under high stress.

Only.

Only Anakin’s been under high stress for a while. A decade in prison, and somewhere along the way, the loss of his hand and the memory of his first life crashing back down on him--those are circumstances stressful enough to bring down the strongest of rudimentary shields, maybe even shields as strong as a trained Jedi Knight’s.

“Oh, Anakin,” he says, soft and sad. “What happened to you?”

No answer. He should really get used to not getting those, he supposes.

Still, there’s a solid foundation, at least. He can work with that. He lends out a little of his own strength, feels Anakin’s shields repair themselves under his touch, shattered glass slotting back into place. It isn’t perfect, by any means, there are still holes and cracks that need sealing, but it’s enough that Obi-wan’s reasonably certain last night’s messy incident won’t happen again.

He steps back, lets go of the Force, and blinks awake.

--

Obi-wan’s shields are impressive, Anakin realizes. For someone out of practice with much of the art of the Force, his shields are practically solid, unyielding stone, and Anakin envies him for that, a little.

At first glance, he can’t force his way in. How then, he wonders, did his nightmare do so?

Then he finds it--a flaw in the stone, a crack and a hole in the shields. A new one, he thinks, just days old, and Anakin feels a sudden wave of guilt crash over him.

This is his fault, he thinks. Not even stone can stand against the force of a nightmare like that. He’s almost reluctant to try and fix it, all he’ll do, he’s sure, is make things even worse than they already are.

But he’d agreed to this. And he owes Obi-wan so much, now--for taking him in, for enduring him, for all the things Anakin has ever done to him. So he huffs out a breath and touches the crack, imagines a flowing river filling it up, making it new. Making it whole.

He steps back.

Well. It’s not too bad, he supposes. In fact it actually looks pretty good.

Anakin lets go of the Force, then, and blinks his eyes awake.

“You can let go of my hand now, Anakin,” says Obi-wan.

Anakin lets go again, this time of Obi-wan’s hand, fingers brushing over Obi-wan’s pulse for the briefest moment before he lets his hand drop to the side. It beats against his skin, feather-light and quick, and Anakin’s own traitorous heart beats a little faster in response.

“Your defenses are--” Obi-wan starts, gropes around for a word.

A mess, thinks Anakin, wryly.

Obi-wan blinks at him. “I heard that,” he says.

Anakin’s breath catches in his throat.

Well, shit.

--

“What did you do?” says Mindy, looking up from her magazine after Obi-wan shows up at her salon with Anakin in tow. There’s a refreshing bluntness to her tone that Obi-wan has never seen from her past as a Jedi Master (who, she’s never said), but then, not everyone is him and Anakin. Not everyone considers their other, happier selves to have died after remembering. “No, what the fuck did you do?”

She pauses, squints at Anakin, who shrinks away, trying to vanish into his hoodie. “Shit, did you bring Andrew Walker?” she asks. “What the hell?” She pauses again, before saying, “And who cut his hair, it’s grown out all uneven--”

“I brought Anakin,” says Obi-wan. He glances at a mirror, sees Anakin tug self-consciously on a lock of his hair.

“Oh, because that’s so much better,” Mindy retorts. “Fucking Christ. Ben. What is an asshole like him doing in my salon?”

“You were a Jedi Master,” says Obi-wan, and he glances back to see Anakin’s eyes widen, see him look between the two of them in shock. What in the fuck, he can hear Anakin thinking. “We. May have suffered a small mishap trying to fix each other’s shields.”

“Fucking goddamn motherfuck,” says Mindy, after a moment, sinking into her seat and massaging her temples.

Anakin, silent as always, very quietly sits down in a chair. He picks at the knot of his right sleeve, radiating nervousness. Obi-wan should know, he can feel it on Anakin’s end of their bond--their bond, long since gone, and yet here it is again, as though it never snapped with Anakin’s fall.

“We need your help,” says Obi-wan, as gravely as possible. “At least in figuring out just what happened.”

“What happened was you two dolts formed a bond, again,” says Mindy, her tone more irritated than solemn and grave. “And not even a training bond! What did both of you do? Fuck or something?”

Or something, Anakin pipes up in Obi-wan's head.

I can hear you, Obi-wan sends back.

“Or something,” he echoes. “We were only trying to fix each other’s shields. He had a--rather vivid dream, I was the only Force-sensitive in the vicinity.”

“Is that why you look like you went two rounds with Muhammad Ali?” says Mindy, acidly.

Anakin, in his seat, chokes back a laugh.

“Yes,” says Obi-wan. “This is. Well. Not ideal, you can imagine.” He shrugs. “We tried to fix each other’s shields for a measure of privacy. That did not work out too well.”

“Why not go to Satine?” says Mindy.

“She would never let me live it down,” says Obi-wan. “I’m asking you for advice. Is there a way to fix it?”

“You can’t get rid of it,” says Mindy, simply. “It’s not a training bond, you can’t just cut it like a fucking ribbon and call it a day. It’s a--I think they used to call it a partner bond? Much tougher to break. Used to be a thing when Jedi could and did get married.”

I’m already married, Anakin says, somewhere in the back of Obi-wan’s head.

You’re divorced, Obi-wan shoots back. We’ll fix this.

“How do we fix this?” says Obi-wan.

Mindy raises a brow, eyes darting between the two of them as if she can’t quite believe what he’s asking, before she snorts out a laugh. “Nah, you’re fucked,” she says. “But you mentioned you improved each other’s shields? As far as I know, partner bonds were about lending and borrowing strength to and from each other, shit like that, so probably that did something. Also, great fucking, too.”

Sometimes Mindy’s refreshing bluntness can get a little too refreshing. Obi-wan coughs, trying not to look at his scarlet face in the mirror, and says, “Do you have any lore on it?”

“You fucking wish, Ben,” says Mindy.

--

They trudge back to Obi-wan’s bar in silence, with the hood of Anakin’s hoodie drawn up to keep his face from sight. He’s hunched in on himself again, trying to make himself look smaller out of habit.

It’s a strange habit on him, to say the least. But then Obi-wan’s much more used to seeing Anakin stand straight and proud, with a defiant lift to his chin and a cocky smile.

Prison changes a person, he supposes.

“Well,” he says, opening the door to the bar to let Anakin duck inside first, “you heard her. There’s very little we can do about this.”

Anakin pushes his hood off, hops up onto a bar stool and stares at Obi-wan, brows creasing together, lips pressing into a thin line. He’s radiating worry in the Force, in their restored bond, and Obi-wan settles into a bar stool next to him and almost, almost reaches out.

Then he catches himself, and draws his hand back. “I won’t intrude,” he says, trying for a reassuring smile. “If that’s what you’re worried about.”

Anakin blinks, once, twice, head tilting slightly to the side, confusion winding around his worry in the Force. Then he swallows, huffs out a breath and pushes his hair back with his hand.

Sometimes Anakin’s easy enough to read, and other times Obi-wan wishes he’d say something, anything, just to make things a little bit easier.

Heard that, Anakin’s voice informs him, in the back of his head, startling him nearly out of his seat. Obi-wan manages not to smack him for that, or for the snort of laughter that escapes Anakin’s mouth, smothered with his hand.

“You’re just going to be difficult about this, aren’t you,” Obi-wan grumbles, easing himself back into his chair. “I could’ve thrown my back out.”

A corner of Anakin’s mouth turns upward.

“I’m forty-nine,” says Obi-wan, distinctly aware of how old that sounds. “There’s a very real risk.”

Anakin grins, and Obi-wan’s stomach flips.

--

The guest room’s still a mess when Obi-wan opens the door: the bedside table’s on its side, contents spilled everywhere, and the books he’d left there are in disarray, spines broken open. He has to push aside the alarm clock’s sad remains with his foot.

Anakin follows him inside. He glances around, runs his teeth over his lower lip, looks down at his bare feet.

“The good news is,” says Obi-wan, trying to be cheery, “this is all fixable. Except the alarm clock, but I was going to replace that anyway.”

Anakin nods, distractedly. He sits down on the bed, picking at the sheets with his left hand.

“Though I may need some help with the bedside drawer,” says Obi-wan, picking up his books and shutting them closed.

Anakin gets to his feet as Obi-wan puts the books on the bed. He steps over to the bedside drawer, kneels down to take hold of one corner in his hand.

Obi-wan takes hold of the other side, and together, they manage to right the damn thing, even if what little is left inside of it spills out in the process.

Anakin kneels down, picks up a sock with a bright Starfleet pattern, and looks up at Obi-wan, arching an eyebrow.

“You have very little right to judge me on my tastes,” Obi-wan informs him.

Anakin shrugs, then starts sorting through the mess of socks on the floor. Obi-wan bends down as well, lining up his socks to better match them to their partners.

Their fingers brush, for a moment. It sends sparks up his arm, and Anakin stops moving for a second, fingers lingering on his. Their eyes meet, and their bond sings in the Force, jubilant and right.

Obi-wan’s breath catches in his throat, and he swallows, then pulls away reluctantly. “Will you look at that,” he says, grabbing a sock at random and glancing down at it, “I hadn’t seen this one in years. I wondered where it went.”

Anakin glances upward toward the ceiling, lets out an exasperated breath, and just like that the moment’s gone.

But even once they’ve made the guest room a more presentable place, the moment still lingers in Obi-wan’s head: the sparks, the breathlessness, the bright blue color of Anakin’s eyes like a clear sky, the way the bond sang as though it was right. The way Anakin’s fingers, calloused and rough, had felt brushing against his.

Damn it all, this is probably the worst time, and Anakin is the worst person, for him to start entertaining thoughts of--of--

He won’t.

--

Neither of them mention it the next day. Anakin can’t mention it, by default, but he’s managed to shut himself off from Obi-wan, though Obi-wan can still feel some of his stronger emotions through, leaking out from behind Anakin’s cracked shields.

Frustration, for one thing. Though he doesn’t even need to check on their bond for that, all he has to do is find Anakin, wherever he is--and at the moment, he’s in the kitchen, glaring down at a pot full of bubbling stew. His hair, usually loose and falling around his face like a curtain, is tied back in a messy ponytail, held by one of Satine’s old scrunchies when Obi-wan was still dating her.

“Careful now,” says Obi-wan, leaning against the kitchen doorway, “if you put in too much water it’ll be far runnier than you’d like.”

Anakin looks up from the pot, nose scrunching up and brows knitting together, frowning. Obi-wan knows that look--it’s the one Anakin used to make, when he thought he was being nagged too much.

“Really, Anakin,” Obi-wan says, stepping up to look, making sure to keep his distance. It helps that Anakin’s using his one hand to stir right now, his stump hanging by his side. “In fact I’d recommend you add condensed milk instead. I know I would.”

Anakin elbows him in answer.

“I’m trying to help.

Anakin stops stirring, steps away from the pot, and impatiently waves the ladle in the living room’s direction. The message is clear enough: get the fuck out of here.

Obi-wan holds his hands up and goes, settling on the couch with a book and trying not to think about how badly Anakin used to cook, about the day the two of them had to eat burned bacon their first day in college. He can just heat up some leftover takeout now anyway, he’s certain there’s some stroganoff left over in the fridge.

He’s halfway through the book when he hears a loud knock on the wall. He looks up, sees Anakin poking his head through the kitchen doorway, looking slightly apologetic.

Obi-wan lets out a sigh as he stands and goes, and--blinks, when the smell hits him. It doesn’t actually smell like anything burning. In fact, it smells much, much better than that, which is honestly not something he’d expected out of somebody who’d managed to burn soup, once upon a time.

“You took my advice,” he says.

Anakin shrugs, then flails his stump vaguely in the direction of two empty bowls before he turns back to fuss over the pot. Oh, so that’s what he called Obi-wan inside for--extra hands on soup duty and setting the table.

“When did you start caring about cooking?” Obi-wan asks, as he holds out the first bowl for Anakin to pour some stew into.

Anakin shrugs, stirs the pot again as Obi-wan sets the bowl down on the table.

“Right,” says Obi-wan, resigned. He should’ve known better than to ask him something so open-ended. “Well. Was it Padmé?”

Anakin looks up, then shakes his head.

“Luke?”

A nod, then Anakin points the ladle at the second bowl. Obi-wan pushes away the surreal feeling of the whole situation, and holds the bowl out for Anakin to pour some stew in.

But he learned from his mother, Anakin adds in the back of Obi-wan’s head, as Obi-wan’s setting the bowl down on the table. Obi-wan manages not to jump or spill the stew, but he does straighten up to glare at Anakin.

--

One thing Obi-wan’s learned in his time running a bar is that business always picks up as the night starts to fall. People stumble in to forget about responsibilities, about work, about exes, about politics, about students and affairs and everything under the sun when the sun starts to go down.

And it’s one of those nights, when the world seems just a little bit darker, a little less kind. The bar’s crowded, the atmosphere full of tension, and Obi-wan more than once finds himself checking on the baseball bat underneath the counter, just in case. He’s only ever had to use it twice, once to break up a fight and once to throw a guy out of the bar for trying to drug his date. He hopes he doesn’t have to use it tonight.

A young man, blond hair shorn close to his scalp, and a young woman, her longer hair a similar color, walk inside, their canny blue eyes scanning the place as if casing it. Obi-wan checks the bat again, then glances across the bar at Anakin, who’s scribbling idly on a pad he’d found lying around.

Do you recognize them? he asks over their bond.

Anakin doesn’t look up from his pad, but responds: Do you remember the Astarte line?

From Celanon, yes. It had been a Separatist stronghold, during the Clone Wars, and plans had been made to capture it at some point, down the line. All Obi-wan knows about the Astarte line, though, is that they’d been a particularly influential family on Celanon, before dying out. Why?

Meet Aiolin and Morit Astarte, is Anakin’s response, tone darkly bitter. They’re twins, and they were among my potential replacements, once upon a time.

Do you think either of them remembers? Obi-wan asks.

Nope, Anakin answers. If they did, trust me, Aiolin wouldn’t be so near her brother. He pushed her into a lava pit once.

Obi-wan restrains his wince at the thought, and pushes away thoughts of Mustafar. What are the chances this might get ugly? he asks instead.

Very high, is what he gets in turn.

The twins sit down at the counter, their manner casual. Obi-wan smiles calmly at them, a hand brushing over the baseball bat beneath the counter once more, and says, “And what can I get for you?”

“Two shots of gin,” says the girl, the one Anakin had called Aiolin.

“And a little information,” says the boy, easily.

“I can do the gin,” says Obi-wan, “but I’m afraid my memory isn’t quite as good as it used to be.”

“Mm,” says Morit. “Shame. You seem like a guy who remembers stuff easily.” He fishes out a crinkled bill, smiles crookedly up at Obi-wan and says, “Would this help?”

“Not really,” says Obi-wan. “I’ve never found money to be very useful in jogging my memory.”

Aiolin leans forward, smiles sweetly. “So what does?” she asks.

Obi-wan sets their shot glasses down, then the bottle of gin. “A good night’s sleep, if we’re going with what’s been scientifically proven,” he says, jovially. “I never get as many of those as I’d like.”

Are you flirting? Anakin pipes up. Obi-wan glances his way again, meets a narrowed gaze.

I’m trying to turn them down gently, Obi-wan answers.

Anakin looks upward, as if rolling his eyes. You look like you’re flirting, he informs him, and there’s something sullen about his mental tone that Obi-wan can’t quite identify.

Aiolin purses her lips. “You’re sure?” she asks.

“I’m sure,” Obi-wan confirms. “Now, I have other customers to attend to, so unless you want another drink--”

Morit moves first, yanking Obi-wan forward by the wrist and pinning him against the counter face-down. The bar falls silent just then, stunned and terrified, balancing on a precipice.

“Just tell us,” Morit snarls, all pretense of affability gone, “where Will’s gone. He owes Gault a debt.”

“Please, Mr. Kennedy,” says Aiolin, her tone still kind despite her brother threatening a bartender. “We just want to know where he is, and my brother gets so annoyed when someone won’t tell us.” She arches a plucked eyebrow. “You will tell us, right?”

“Do I look,” Obi-wan grits out, “like I know everyone who walks in here?”

“You’re a bartender,” says Morit, “and you know everybody.” He twists his hand, and Obi-wan hisses out a breath. This is not an ideal situation to be in--

Looks like I have to rescue you again. He has never felt so relieved to hear Anakin’s smug tone, even if it’s in the back of his head, or his footsteps.

Try to be careful, he advises nonetheless.

“What the fuck do you want--” Morit starts, and Obi-wan hears his nose break with a satisfying crunch. “You fucking--”

“Not my brother!” shouts Aiolin.

Obi-wan grabs hold of the bat and jumps over the counter to try and pry Aiolin off Anakin, just as the bar explodes into a full-blown fight.

--

Eventually, the only casualty out of the whole debacle is the table one of the burlier patrons went through, trying to restrain Morit. It’s easily replaced, anyway, Obi-wan knows someone who sells furniture who is also willing to give him a little discount in exchange for free drinks.

What’s a bit less easy to deal with are the injuries, among them being the large gash in Anakin’s side that’s definitely going to take much more work than what Obi-wan can do for him, given the meager size of his first-aid kit.

So he takes him to the hospital instead, instructs him to keep pressure on his wound and makes sure not to jostle him too much until the doctors can finally see to him. To the both of them, really, judging from the alarmed way the nurse looks him over when the two of them come in.

“What in the hell, man,” says the nurse, once Anakin’s been whisked away to surgery and Obi-wan can sit down. There’s a bright blue hearing aid just behind her right ear, and she tilts her left ear towards him. “What happened?”

“A bar fight,” says Obi-wan, wincing as she prods at the old bruise, from days ago. “Save for that one, there was--a nightmare.”

“Must’ve been one hell of a nightmare,” says the nurse.

“It wasn’t mine,” says Obi-wan, hissing as she starts affixing bandages to his face.

“What, the one-handed guy with a hole in his side did it in his sleep?” says the nurse, incredulously, carefully dabbing at a small cut on his cheek where Morit had swung a broken beer bottle at him. “Seems like he packs a punch.”

You have no idea, thinks Obi-wan. Absently, he checks on Anakin’s end of the bond, finds it a little fuzzy and tired. All right there?

Did you know Kix is a doctor now? is Anakin’s woozy answer. He’ll take that as a yes.

“Quite,” he agrees. “By the way, ah--who’s in charge of his operation right now?”

The nurse arches an eyebrow, and says, “Dr. Kaiwi. Why?”

“I may have to talk to him,” he says. “My friend is mute. He may get somewhat frustrated if he can’t communicate as well as he’d like.”

“Huh, selective mutism in a guy of about forty,” says the nurse. “Poor guy. Fine, I’ll talk to Dr. Kaiwi and the other nurses, we’ll try and accommodate your friend.”

“Thank you,” says Obi-wan, relieved, just as he hears the familiar click-clack of heels against the linoleum floors.

“Ben!” Satine calls, skidding to a stop just inches away from hugging him. “Oh, um--”

“If you hug him and undo all my hard work, ma’am, no offense, but I’m going to kick you out of the ER,” says the nurse, pleasantly.

“None taken,” says Satine, “I’ll just sit down next to him.” And she does, smoothing her skirt out and sitting next to him. “What happened?”

“Some very insistent thugs wanted information,” says Obi-wan. “I told them, quite truthfully, that I didn’t have the best memory.”

“Bullshit,” says Satine. “I’d even argue that you have a better memory than I, sometimes.” She tilts her head to the side and says, “Are you going to press charges against them, by any chance?”

“No, far too costly for such a trifling thing, even if I was willing to bother you,” says Obi-wan. “But I’m open to putting a restraining order on them.”

“Yeah, well, your face looks like somebody pounded on it with a meat tenderizer,” says the nurse. “Sue their pants off.”

“I’d rather just discourage them from coming near the bar again,” says Obi-wan with a huff. “And I don’t look that bad!”

“She only slightly exaggerates,” says Satine. “Where’s Sky--I mean, where’s Walker?”

“One of them had a knife,” says Obi-wan. “He’s in surgery right now.”

“Sue their underwear off them,” says the nurse. “I’m just saying. Who stabs a one-handed mute guy?”

“Someone whose brother was just punched in the face by the very same person,” says Obi-wan. “Satine, I just need a restraining order. And anything you can get me on Orrin Gault and Will Uhler, as well.”

“What’s he got to do with it?” says the nurse. “And who’s Uhler?”

“I can try,” says Satine. “Gault’s a slippery man, though.” She glances towards the hustle and bustle of the emergency room, and says, “A bit like your friend was, once upon a time.”

--

Obi-wan returns to the bar first, to clean up the place. Satine goes with him, sweeping away bits of glass and splintered wood as Obi-wan rights the tables and chairs that had been overturned in the fight.

“Do you remember when you were new in town,” starts Satine, “and this was Dex’s bar first?”

Obi-wan huffs out a laugh, cleaning down the counter. “How could I forget?” he says. “I came in here, and the very first thing that happened was Dex tackling me to the ground and shouting my name.”

“You looked so surprised he remembered you,” Satine says, dumping the broken glass into a trash can. “It was adorable.

“Well, I’m glad someone found it entertaining,” Obi-wan dryly says, righting some of the containers behind the counter that had spilled over during the fight. “I certainly didn’t.” He smiles down at a pepper shaker and says, “Though I do recall an incident just a week later--”

“I thought we agreed never to bring that up,” says Satine, with an indignant huff. “And besides, I still blame you for it.”

“I did absolutely nothing wrong,” says Obi-wan, taking up a rag to better clean the counter and everything on it. “Might I remind you that you were the one who landed in my arms?”

“Might I remind you that you dropped me immediately afterwards?” Satine throws back. “Though perhaps in hindsight I should’ve thanked you for that, considering you did nearly the exact same thing before.”

“With much more running and being shot at, granted,” says Obi-wan, grinning.

Satine’s calm mask breaks after a second, and she bursts into girlish giggles, leaning on the broom for support. “All right, all right, I’ll give you that,” she says. “I’m glad you stayed this time, Ben. Truly.”

“There wasn’t anywhere else for me to go,” says Obi-wan.

“Same for your friend?”

And there it is. “I’m not sure,” he says. “He hasn’t told me.”

“I really doubt he could, considering he’s mute,” says Satine. “You know what you’re doing?”

“I have a general idea,” says Obi-wan.

“You have no clue,” says Satine.

“I never said that,” says Obi-wan.

“You didn’t have to,” says Satine, crossing her arms. “I know you, Ben. Still a collection of half-truths and hyperboles even after all this time.”

Obi-wan lets out a breath, sets the rag down. “I failed him before,” he says. “I’ve failed him quite a few times, in fact. And yet he came to me, anyway. I can’t fail him this time.”

“You haven’t failed anyone,” says Satine. “I seem to recall telling you that, oh, nearly fifty times already. Would this make it the fifty-first?”

“Fifty-third,” says Obi-wan.

“And yet it still hasn’t sunken into your thick skull,” says Satine, sardonic. “I love you, Ben, but sometimes you can so frustrate me.” She lets out a long breath, massages her temples, “At least tell me you have some idea what you’re getting into, with your friend.”

“I have some idea what I’m getting into,” Obi-wan repeats after her, then adds, “And I mean that.”

“I suppose I’ll have to settle for that,” says Satine, with a sigh. “Although, I still recommend pressing charges. As I did the last time this happened.”

“And as I did the last time this happened,” says Obi-wan, “I’ll have to turn down your generous offer.”

“Of course you are,” Satine grumbles. “At least consider having better security around. You’re lucky your friend packs a punch.”

Obi-wan pauses in cleaning out the inside of the glass. “Huh,” he says. “That, I’ll take under consideration.”

--

The worst thing about waking up alone in a hospital is that the last time Anakin did that, his hand had just been amputated.

So when he finally emerges from his haze and blinks up at harsh hospital lights, the first thing he does is panic and try to sit up.

Bad idea, he realizes quickly--there’s a flash of pain in his side, and, oh, yeah, Aiolin stabbed him, didn’t she? Little shit--

“Whoa, whoa, whoa--” says a nurse, bursting out of her seat beside his bed. Why is there a nurse just hanging out at his bed, he wonders. “Whoa, Skyguy, lie down, you just had that stitched up.”

He’s about to start a fuss when the nickname hits him. He looks up at the nurse, her dark hair swept up in a ponytail, brown eyes watching him warily. She looks different now without her facial markings and her lekku and with a hearing aid in her right ear, he thinks, a little older than she was on Malachor when they met for the last time.

He opens his mouth to say her name, but it sticks in his throat. The word digs its claws into the back of his throat, and no matter how hard he tries he can’t pull it out, it’s important, she’s important, he has to--

“Hey, Anakin,” says Ahsoka, “hey--it’s fine. Obi-wan said you’ve got selective mutism, which is honestly kind of good? Because,” and she taps her hearing aid, winces a little, “I’m kinda deaf.”

Oh.

Anakin lies back. They’re a matched pair, he thinks--Ahsoka’s deaf and he’s a mute amputee. Behold the heroes of the Republic. He glances down at her scrubs, looks up at her, raises a questioning eyebrow.

“Don’t judge,” says Ahsoka.

He shakes his head, musters up the strength from somewhere for a small, proud smile. It fades as soon as possible, but from how Ahsoka ducks her head, smiling as well, he thinks she got it anyway.

“Thanks, I guess,” she says. “I passed the exams about a year ago, but I got started here, what, a month ago or so?” She looks up, shrugs, and says, “Never a dull moment.”

He snorts out a laugh and nods.

“Did you get here recently?” says Ahsoka.

Another nod. It’s just been a few days since he got here, and already he’s in the hospital getting stitches after being stabbed. It could be worse, he supposes. It could’ve been the alleyway all over again.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” says Ahsoka, breaking through his thoughts before they can spiral downward. “I talked to Obi-wan. He’s not pressing charges.”

Anakin sighs, resigned. Of course Obi-wan’s not pressing charges, it’s not as if he wants to fight it out in court with anyone and possibly throw another problem into his well-ordered life. He wonders if Obi-wan can even afford it.

Probably not, he decides.

He shrugs, looks up at the ceiling, and breathes in, breathes out.

“How can you be so calm about that?” says Ahsoka. “You got stabbed, you needed twenty stitches--okay, don’t even try to answer that.”

He exhales, picks idly at his hospital gown. It’s nice, honestly, to not be expected to answer for once.

Ahsoka sighs, massages her temples. “I’m off shift right now,” she says. “I can’t go home because I’m pretty sure my roommate took a guy home, and I’d rather not be scarred for life.” She pulls a leg up onto her chair and says, “And since talking’s not apparently an option right now, do you know ASL?”

He stares at her a moment, then holds his stump up.

“You’ll be fine, I’ve seen people do it one-handed,” says Ahsoka, waving her hand out and grinning at him, that familiar cocksure smile. It’s been a long time, since he saw her smile like that, and it makes his heart ache to remember. “Fingerspelling just needs one hand, anyway, and that’s what we’re going to start with.”

He sighs, then--slowly, trying not to hiss in pain--sits up.

“Okay,” says Ahsoka, holding up her left hand and curling her fingers into a fist, keeping her thumb at the side, “so the thing you need to know about ASL is that it’s a whole different language in itself…”

--

Obi-wan drops in, half a day later. Ahsoka’s back on shift and stuck him with the assignment of fingerspelling his name while she’s gone, so Anakin’s slowly going through the letters, trying to not bounce his hand so much.

He knows Obi-wan’s there from the moment the man steps within ten feet of his room. It’s like--like their bond is vibrating with joy, as though the Force itself is rejoicing. God only knows why, though he’s got a few theories.

Anyway: he can feel Obi-wan’s presence near the room. It’s as if someone’s opened a window and let the sunlight in, warming him from the inside out, and he sits up as Obi-wan comes in. He pulls his knees up, rests his stump on one.

Obi-wan pulls up a chair. “You’re all right?” he asks, quiet, as he sits down.

Anakin nods.

Obi-wan exhales. “I’m glad,” he says, hoisting his messenger bag up. “Do try not to get stabbed next time, though. Hospital bills can be expensive.”

Anakin rolls his eyes, then lifts his stump up. I’m well aware.

Obi-wan huffs out a breath, then pulls out a package, wrapped in brown paper. “I got you something, in the meantime,” he says, as Anakin takes it out of his hands and starts tearing the wrapping apart. “Do you remember when you nearly drove a healer insane out of boredom, after the battle on Excarga?”

Anakin nods again, focused as he is on finding out just what it is that Obi-wan bought for him. He tips the package over, and four brand-new, unsharpened pencils slip out, along with a sharpener. He slides off the remains of the brown wrapping, turns the new sketchpad over, and looks up at Obi-wan.

“Thank you,” he manages to say, dragging the words out of his throat with more effort than speaking should require. His voice sounds rough and hoarse, even to him, and he can see the flash of sorrow, of guilt in Obi-wan’s eyes. No, this isn’t your fault, you had nothing to do with this, he wants to tell him, it’s just me, it’s just my head, nothing about me works right.

He doesn’t. He doesn’t even try to push it along the bond between them, stronger now than it used to be.

Obi-wan smiles at him, soft and sad. “You’re welcome,” he says. “Satine and I cleaned the bar up, by the way. We’re down a table, but otherwise, we came out relatively unscathed.”

Anakin exhales, relieved. He’s gotten attached to the bar, in the scant time that he’s been there, and if he stays for long enough he thinks maybe he might even trick himself into thinking he belongs there.

He doesn’t, of course. It’s Obi-wan’s bar, and Anakin’s long since lost the right to be anywhere near Obi-wan’s life. He didn’t even have the right to show back up on his doorstep, but desperate times call for desperate measures. If he tells himself that enough times, he might even start to believe it.

“I’ve been thinking,” Obi-wan starts, “about hiring on more people. I have for a while, but last night’s events brought the need into stark relief.” He pauses, then adds, “And Satine was insistent I at least consider it.”

Anakin tilts his head to the side. And? he prompts, pushing the thought along their bond. It’s easier like this, the words don’t come half as hard as they do when he has to speak.

Obi-wan’s brow furrows a little. Fair enough, it’s not as if he asked to be bonded to Anakin, but Anakin’s heart twists into an ugly knot anyway.

“And I have,” says Obi-wan. “How do you feel about serving tables? I know it’s a step down from an office with a view of the city--”

Anakin nods, vigorously.

“I can’t promise I’ll pay you much,” Obi-wan goes on, clearly not seeing it. “But I would appreciate it, as it would be one less stranger to hire and train.”

Anakin starts sharpening a pencil. It’s a little bit harder than he thought, doing it with one hand, but he’s doing a good enough job of it, holding the sharpener between his knees and turning the pencil.

“I can’t promise it’ll be easy,” Obi-wan continues, as Anakin brushes pencil shavings off his legs and hospital gown and resettles the sketchpad to better write in it, “the patrons can be unruly at times, and they’ll take some time to warm up to you--”

Anakin nudges the open sketchpad towards him, lets him see the shaky, spiky YES written on it.

Obi-wan blinks down at the pad, then looks up at Anakin. “Oh,” he says, and smiles, pleasantly surprised.

Anakin’s traitorous heart beats faster, harder against his chest. The corners of his lips pull up in a small, hesitant smile.

Maybe he might be able to trick himself into believing he belongs here.

--

An interlude:

“Orrin Gault?” Padmé steps around the desk, dressed as sharply as ever, her heels clicking on the tiles. A pen twirls between her fingers, and the other hand carries a notepad, as reporters usually do. Some habits you just can’t break, apparently, but in this case, Satine is glad Padmé hasn’t broken the habit of carrying pen and paper around, just in case. “I’ve heard of him. He runs the Pika company, doesn’t he?”

“And a million other fronts no one else can get him for,” says Satine, sourly. She’s spent the whole day chasing down leads, following paper trails, pulling threads, and so far there hasn’t been much. Gault is a thorough businessman, unfortunately, especially when it comes to all the legal channels. “I have reason to believe he sent his thugs to attack a friend of mine for information.”

“Shit,” says Padmé, leaning back against the desk. “But you don’t have anything to go on.”

“No,” says Satine. “And unfortunately, as long as I don’t have anything, my hands are tied on this matter.” She lets out a breath and sinks further into her seat, massaging her temples.

“What about Bo--I mean, Bonnie? You haven’t asked her yet,” Padmé says. “She might know something.”

“No, I can’t really talk to her about this,” says Satine, looking up at Padmé. “She’s a smart woman, she’ll know something’s up if I ask her about Gault. And she’ll be direct about it, which is the last thing I need anyone to be right now.”

“So instead you came to a retired journalist,” says Padmé.

“A retired journalist who is well-known for her various exposés on important government officials and her unparalleled fearlessness,” says Satine. “I came to the Woman with No Fear.”

Padmé holds a straight face for all of five seconds before she huffs out a laugh. “Is this your way of flirting with me?” she asks, setting the pen aside onto her table. “Because it’s only slightly better than when my ex stole my pancake off my plate, when we first started dating.”

“Maybe it is,” Satine admits, “but I am also sincerely asking for help.” She stands up, steps forward, and takes Padmé’s ink-stained hand in hers. She’s got a strong grip, Satine thinks, and callouses from years of writing. Up close, she can see threads of silver in Padmé’s otherwise dark brown hair, crinkles at the corners of her eyes. “Will you help me?”

Padmé breathes out. “Well,” she says, with a daring little smile, “retirement’s been getting a bit boring anyway. Yes, I’ll help you.”

--

Obi-wan comes into Anakin’s hospital room on the third day to find a nurse already in his seat, gesturing something at Anakin. Signing something, he realizes, when she turns her head and smiles at him, a bright blue hearing aid sticking out of her ear.

It’s the nurse from before, he realizes, the one who’d patched him up.

“Obi-wan!” she says, cheerfully.

Obi-wan freezes in place, squints at the nurse, and says, “Ahsoka?”

Anakin smiles beatifically from the hospital bed, clearly enjoying himself. Obi-wan shoots him a glare, and Anakin just keeps smiling at him, his good hand tucking a stray strand of hair behind his ear.

He catches sight of the dragon tattoo once more. The tip of the tail curls around Anakin’s collarbone, the red ink a stark contrast to his skin. Briefly, Obi-wan imagines tracing the outline with his finger, then squashes that thought down before it can go any further than that.

“Yeah, I know, I look kinda weird as a human,” says Ahsoka, pulling up another chair with her foot, her gaze trained on his lips. “In my defense you look worse.”

“That’s what happens when you get into a fight,” Obi-wan retorts, sitting down. “Also, I don’t look that bad anymore.”

Anakin taps Ahsoka on the back of her hand to catch her attention, then signs something to her in answer, going slowly. Obi-wan’s never learned very much about ASL, but he knows what Anakin looks like when he’s tattling on him.

Ahsoka’s eyes widen, before she signs back, at a deliberately slow pace.

“Feel free to cut me in any time soon,” says Obi-wan, dryly.

“Oh, you’re not really missing out on much,” says Ahsoka. “We’re just trading gossip.”

“Hopefully not involving me,” says Obi-wan.

Anakin turns an offended glare on him, before he goes back to signing at Ahsoka. He isn’t very proficient in it, that much is obvious even from Obi-wan’s perspective--he’s going too slowly, and sometimes Ahsoka shakes her head and signs something at him that makes him backtrack, re-signing something slightly differently.

Then Ahsoka looks at Obi-wan and says, “My grandma swears by a glass of warm milk before bed.”

“Are you telling her I don’t sleep very much,” says Obi-wan, glaring at Anakin, who sticks his tongue out at him like the mature middle-aged ex-con that he is. “Because, as I recall, neither do you.”

Anakin pauses in his signing to Ahsoka, then shrugs and begins again.

“Missed a letter, Skyguy,” she says.

--

When Anakin comes back, Obi-wan’s already hired someone--a young boy with dark hair and dark eyes and some peach fuzz on his upper lip, who looks at him with a narrowed glare, whose hand sometimes drifts near a weapon that’s not there. Anakin can’t quite place him, in either life.

Eventually it’s Obi-wan who says, quietly, as the new boy is wiping down tables, “He helped steal the Death Star plans.”

Anakin blinks at him, then at the boy. His shoulders are tensed, and he seems too young to be so angry, so resigned.

Something in his gut churns, uneasily. Had the boy been down on Scarif, fighting on the beaches? He’d have died, he thinks--if not in the battle, then in the blast.

“Hey,” says the boy, snapping Anakin out of his thoughts, “quit staring.”

He shakes his head, fumbles for his pencil and then his sketchpad. Obi-wan’s already turned away, doing inventory and grumbling about the price of alcohol and furniture. He writes, I’m mute, do you know ASL?

The boy looks up at him. “Some,” he says. “I can fingerspell my name, but that’s it.”

That’s fine, the sketchpad’s new and I have a lot of pencils, he writes underneath his question. What’s your name?

“Carlos,” says the boy, after a second’s hesitation.

Any others?

“I don’t see why that’s any of your business, sir,” says the boy, stiffly.

We’re going to be working together, I have to know what to call you, he writes. For example: most people call me Ani. You?

“Ani is a terrible name,” says the boy, with a huff, which is just offensive, his mother used to call him Ani, “but fine. I go by Cass.” He nods to Obi-wan, currently doing inventory behind the bar, and says, “Ben hired me yesterday. Said he needed extra hands. I can see why.”

Anakin huffs out a laugh, waves his stump at Cass.

“I hear you punch pretty well for a one-handed guy, though,” says Cass.

Anakin nods, shifting his weight so he can better balance his sketchpad. I learned young, he writes.

Cass’s expression shutters, for a moment, as if remembering something painful. He says, “Yeah, me too.” He wipes down the last table, stuffs the rag into his back pocket, and says, “So, Ani--what happened to you? If it’s not prying.”

Anakin spins the pen in his hand, looks down at his sketchpad, thinks of choking back the words and strangling his voice to be safer, to be a lesser target. You can’t break someone already broken, after all, can’t get them to scream when their voice is gone. Prison, he writes, in shaky, spiky handwriting.

“Oh,” says Cass, understanding. Even sad. “Sorry.”

Anakin tries a smile, flippant and casual. Judging from the way Cass’s brow furrows, it looks less like a smile than he’d wanted. His breath hisses out between his teeth in a tired sigh, and he writes, Don’t be. Talk about something else, instead. Don’t you have school?

“Haven’t got the funds,” says Cass. “I’m going to apply for a scholarship next year, but I still need money.” He nods to Obi-wan, and says, “He’s a good guy, you know. This might be the first job I’ve had where I actually get paid more than the minimum wage.”

He’s helpful like that, Anakin writes, and it seems so paltry a summary, for everything Obi-wan’s done for him.

“Are you trying to embarrass me in front of my newest employee, Andy?” says Obi-wan, and it takes Anakin a second to remember--right. Andy. Him. The boy he’d been once, the one who’d died in an alleyway.

Anakin huffs out a laugh, and shakes his head. I wouldn’t dare embarrass my employer and landlord, he sends.

Somehow, I don’t believe you, Obi-wan replies, his mental voice as dry as a desert. “When you’re done there,” he says, turning to Cass, “can one of you check the bathrooms?”

Cass’s eyebrows draw together, his nose scrunching up. He glances at Anakin, who shrugs and waves his stump at him.

“All right,” says Cass, with a sigh, “fine.”

--

Just because Anakin’s gone mostly mute, it doesn’t mean he’s gone completely silent. Obi-wan should know--he still wakes up to the man screaming in his sleep, sometimes, and the bond between them makes it even more awful, because he can feel the fear and hopelessness coming from Anakin, the helpless anger that’s sunken into his bones.

The fifth time, after they’ve cleaned up what they could, Obi-wan says, almost recklessly, “Perhaps you might sleep better with someone else in the same bed?”

Anakin whips his head around so hard Obi-wan’s kind of surprised he doesn’t break his neck. What? he asks, the thought accompanied by a strangled, confused noise.

“Do you sleep any better if someone sleeps in the same bed as you?” Obi-wan clarifies. Reckless. “With all our clothes on, of course.”

Anakin opens his mouth, then closes it. His eyes dart around, his lone hand tugging on a lock of his hair. I haven’t done that in a while, he informs Obi-wan, eventually. Slept with someone, I mean.

“It’s your choice,” says Obi-wan. “You can sleep however you like, but just know--my door is open.”

Anakin doesn’t answer, even as Obi-wan walks out of the room.

But a scant hour later, just as Obi-wan’s about to drift off to sleep, he feels the mattress dip with someone else’s weight.

Then he feels much of his blanket get tugged away from his grasp.

He makes a note to himself to send Padmé flowers and a fruit basket, because Anakin, apparently, is a blanket hog, and if this is what she had to put up with across two lives, then flowers and a fruit basket is the least she deserves.

--

Obi-wan opens his eyes early the next day, to sunlight streaming in through his bedroom window and Anakin snoring against his back--

--wait.

Oh. Anakin’s clinging to him in his sleep, like a particularly warm octopus, and drooling a little into his hair. Obi-wan sighs, shifts a little, and slowly but gently extricates himself from Anakin’s tight grip.

Just as well the man seems to sleep like the dead when not plagued by nightmares. Obi-wan’s not quite certain he wants to deal with, ah, talking about certain involuntary bodily functions that crop up during the night, poking into his hip.

The blankets fell off, sometime during the night. Obi-wan picks them up, drapes them carefully over Anakin, who stirs and mumbles something about Padmé before he drifts back into peaceful sleep. Like this, he looks like the boy Obi-wan loved, a long time ago. Like this, he looks almost content.

It breaks his heart.

He brushes away strands of Anakin’s hair, tucks them behind the younger man’s ear. Anakin hums in answer, smiles softly against his pillow.

If he draws in closer, if he presses his lips against Anakin’s temple, if he gently wakes him and says--

He doesn’t. He stands, instead, and slips out of the bedroom, starts his routine: make some tea, take a cold shower, pull on clothes, throw some breakfast together from whatever’s in the pantry.

It’s while he’s buttering the toast that he feels Anakin tugging gently on the bond between them, half-awake now. Right, that. They have to fix that. Perhaps he’ll try Mindy again, or another of his contacts.

You’re up, he sends.

What’re you cooking? Anakin answers. Also, what time is it?

Nine in the morning. He fires up the stove, cracks an egg over the pan. Buttered toast and eggs. We don’t have much left, I should go get the groceries.

I’ll come with, Anakin offers.

Obi-wan huffs out a breath. You don’t have to.

I’ve been here a while, I should at least figure out where to go if I want more Pop-Tarts, Anakin responds, and there’s surely more than that than just wanting to know where to go to satisfy his cravings, but for now, Obi-wan will accept the excuse. I’m mute, not a recluse.

Point. Obi-wan carefully sets the egg onto a plate with his spatula, cracks another one just as Anakin steps inside, yawning.

“Manners,” says Obi-wan, absently. “There’s tea if you want it. We’re out of that swill you call coffee, I’m afraid.”

Anakin kicks lightly at his shin as he passes by in response, as if offended by something that’s just honestly true.

“By the way,” says Obi-wan, as Anakin reluctantly pours himself a cup of tea, “do you know anyone who might help us with our little problem?”

Anakin pauses, brows furrowing in concern. Somewhere in the Force, a thread of anxiety winds itself tight around his presence, so tight that it’s almost a wonder the man is not bleeding. I ran from the only one who could, Anakin sends, at last. Didn’t want to drag him further into my mess. I could maybe ask Ahsoka?

“Please do,” says Obi-wan.

You should drop in on us, Anakin tells him. While she’s teaching me how to sign. I could show you a few things, too.

“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt,” says Obi-wan, at last.

--

An interlude:

Padmé raps on the apartment door, one-two-three. She steps back, looks around and takes in her surroundings--one of the downsides to having been an investigative journalist is that she’s got a habit of slight paranoia now, with all the attempts on her life.

Couple that with her previous life as a senator, and it’s a miracle she still finds it in herself to trust anyone she doesn’t know, sometimes.

The door creaks when it opens, the chain rattling. She can see Satine’s eye through the crack, hear her say, “Oh, it’s you! What do you have for me?”

“Can I come in first?” says Padmé.

“Of course,” says Satine, unlatching the door and opening it further to let her in.

Padmé steps inside, looks around the apartment, all sleek lines and black and white. She passes by an abstract painting of varying shades of blue, broken up by white lines, and neatly sidesteps a small stack of law books holding up a plant.

“That’s one use for them,” she says.

“They’re much sturdier than the stand I was using,” says Satine, showing her to the living room, with its white couch and pillows. “Have a seat. I’ll be with you in a moment--do you like tea, by any chance?”

“Please, I haven’t had tea in years,” says Padmé, as she sits down, smoothing out her skirt.

“Then it’s a good thing I’ve got a pot full of it that I can’t possibly finish all at once,” says Satine, before she disappears into the kitchen.

Padmé watches her go, then picks up a magazine from below the glass surface of the coffee table, flicks through the pages. This one’s more than a decade old, she realizes, when she sees Anakin’s bright smile, reads the confident boast in the article.

How long has it been, since she’d last seen him in the hospital? How long has it been since the last time Luke saw him? Where are you, Ani?

The clink of teacups being set down on the table snaps her out of her thoughts. She puts the magazine away as Satine sits down in the armchair across from her, regal, royal. Dressed in blue and with streaks of grey in her hair, she looks almost like a queen.

Like the duchess she used to be.

“So,” says Satine, snapping Padmé out of her thoughts, “what did you find?”

“A woman named Anne Caldwell,” says Padmé. “She’s partners with Gault--legitimate partners, her husband and Gault were best friends, and she’s carried on the business partnership in his stead.” She picks up the teacup, takes a sip. It’s a little more bitter than she’s used to, but then, she’s used to dumping sugar into her coffee. “She checks out, but I came across something strange while looking over Gault’s finances.”

Satine leans forward. “Hit me,” she says.

“He’s been buying her gifts,” says Padmé. “Expensive jewelry, clothes, the kinds of things you’d buy for someone you were actively trying to court.”

“So you think he might be trying to position himself into taking over Anne’s business,” says Satine.

“I think he’s looking to kill two birds with one stone,” says Padmé, setting the teacup down. “I asked around, and it turns out he owes someone more than a bit of money as well.” She huffs out a breath, says, “That’s probably why he’s started poking all the more into Uhler’s debts. Word on the street is that he’s doing much the same with everyone else who owes him, it’s just that Uhler’s wised up and gone off the grid.”

“Do you know who that someone is?” Satine asks.

“I don’t,” says Padmé, spreading her hands and giving a shrug. “But I figured you’d want the update.”

“Thank you,” says Satine, with a tired breath as she massages her temples. “I know Anne--fairly well, let’s say. She and I were classmates back in college, and she seemed a sensible woman then. Hopefully she’s stayed that way.”

“I’ll keep digging,” Padmé promises. “And--this is good tea.”

Satine brightens, ducks her head and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “Do you really think so?” she asks.

Padmé’s been here before. She knows what love looks like when she sees it, knows what love feels like for her, and she’s not surprised to find herself grinning back at Satine, an odd sort of warmth spreading outward from her chest at her smile.

“Yeah, I do,” she says.

--

“I think you’re getting the hang of it,” says Ahsoka, propping her chin up with her hand. “I mean, definitely you need to work on just about everything, like word order, but you’ve got some of the basic signs down.”

N-O-T-I-C-E-D, Anakin signs, spelling the word out. It’s easier now that he’s been having mostly-regular meetings with Ahsoka in the bar, the two of them signing to each other over a cup of coffee in between Ahsoka’s shifts. Easier than writing, though.

“Yeah, I don’t envy you,” says Ahsoka, with a huff of laughter. “Carpal tunnel sucks.”

It sucks more with just one hand, Anakin signs back, barely managing to keep back a grin. He pretends to wince and shakes his hand out, just for effect, and sees Ahsoka breaking into a laugh. He ducks his head, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth--he’s missed Ahsoka, missed this easy rapport between them. How’s work?

Work’s fine, Ahsoka signs back. There was [something??] last night that ended in a guy in the ER--

Back up, what was that? Anakin signs, leaning forward.

A-N A-C-C-I-D-E-N-T, Ahsoka spells. She holds up her hand to the side of her face, pinky and thumb extended, and flicks it quickly to the other side, so the thumb’s pointing at him. She does it again, slower this time.

That’s M-I-S-T-A-K-E, Anakin signs.

It means the same thing in this [context? situation?], Ahsoka signs.

Anakin sighs, lets his face fall forward into his hand.

“Yeah, I know,” says Ahsoka, sympathetically. “But hey, like I said, you’re getting the hang of it.”

“Are you two trading gossip?” says Obi-wan, dryly, taking a seat at the table near Anakin, near enough that their shoulders bump briefly.

Near enough that Anakin could reach out, take his hand, lean his head on his shoulder. Kiss him, if he wanted to.

He signs, No, instead, and sends it across their bond for good measure.

“We were talking about a guy who ended up in the hospital because of an accident,” says Ahsoka. “Apparently, he couldn’t get a butt plug out of his ass and needed medical help to do it.” She scrunches her nose up, says, “It’s kind of terrible that he was the third one this week.”

Thanks, Anakin signs, trying his hardest to keep a straight face and not dwell on the image, it wasn’t like I needed sleep tonight.

“And that’s more information than I ever wanted to know about a stranger’s sex life,” says Obi-wan, his eyebrows going up. “Anything else interesting?”

“There was a guy who needed his stomach pumped because he got drunk and ate too many dog treats,” says Ahsoka. “The things some people will do, huh?”

Obi-wan gives a snort of slightly horrified laughter, muffled quickly by his hand, his blue eyes wide as he shakes his head. His copper hair catches the sunlight streaming in through the window, and Anakin’s breath catches in his throat.

Hurriedly, he shuts off his end of the bond, before the affection can leak out into Obi-wan’s end. He looks away to Ahsoka, signs something about dog treats and wild college adventures, and steadfastly refrains from looking back at Obi-wan.

It’s getting much harder to tell himself that he’ll be fine, once the bond is gone, and pretend he’s not lying to himself.

--

They head out to the grocery store together a week or so later, Anakin falling into step beside Obi-wan, humming tunelessly, eyes ahead, his right sleeve knotted. Obi-wan fills in the relative silence on their way, talking about books and beer and some asshole hipster opening a microbrewery just two streets over, as if the last few times someone tried to open a microbrewery in this district worked out well for them.

“If they’re looking for hipsters,” he finishes, holding the door open for Anakin to step through, “they’re looking in the wrong place. They should try downtown, there’s no shortage of customers there.”

Anakin shrugs. Downtown’s full of microbreweries already, he reasons as he steps past, and Obi-wan can just feel the quiet amusement in Anakin’s mental tone. Maybe they thought they could bring the hipsters here.

“When did you get the time to go downtown?” Obi-wan asks.

You get a lot of time to do things when you’re homeless, is the evasive answer, and Anakin’s vaguely sunny expression flickers for a brief moment when he looks down. Then he looks back up. Where are the cereals, anyway?

“That way,” says Obi-wan, pointing. “The milk’s at the end of the aisle, but grab it near the end of our trip. The less time it spends outside, the better.”

It’s not going to go bad immediately, Anakin sends, but sets off anyway. Obi-wan watches him go, then sighs and takes up one of the baskets near the entrance, steps into an aisle full of cups of instant ramen. He dumps two cups into his basket, then continues on.

He’s perusing through the store’s selection of instant coffee when he feels Anakin tug hesitantly on their bond. Skim or whole? Anakin asks him.

Whole, skim milk is terrible, Obi-wan sends back. It’s strange, how used he’s become in such a short time to having Anakin’s voice in his head, a constant presence no matter how far one of them goes.

He would miss him, he’s sure, if they ever found
a way to sever this bond.

He should go looking for literature on that, he supposes. But there are other matters at hand that demand his attention first.

I’m going to get as much bacon as I possibly can, Anakin informs him.

We can’t afford that much bacon, Obi-wan sends back, alarmed, and hurries over to the frozen meats, where Anakin’s comparing two packages with each other, cradling one awkwardly close to his chest to make up for having one hand. Anakin! Put those back!

Fine, fine, comes the response. Anakin sets the packages back on the rack one by one, but dumps another one into his cart and, glancing sideways at Obi-wan, sets off in the other direction.

What a pain in the ass.

...he’s missed that so much.

The bond between them hums with Anakin’s cheer, the sort of thing he’s not seen out of him for a very long time. Obi-wan just hopes whatever he’s found won’t put them over the budget.

He heads to the aisle where they keep the tea, stares wistfully at the more expensive brands before he dumps the cheaper swill into his basket with a sigh. Anakin’s presence hums contentedly in the back of his mind, occasionally tugging to ask about an item or, more often, to declare we’re getting this thing and bring Obi-wan skidding down the aisle to stop him from making a terrible, budget-breaking decision.

He’s half-certain Anakin’s just trying to give him a heart attack for the hell of it, the little shit.

“No, we don’t need chocolate-flavored ice cream cones,” he says, after the fifth time Anakin tugs on the bond to declare his intentions of buying something. “It’s just frivolous and expensive.”

Anakin raises a brow but puts the cones back anyway. I think we do, he argues through their bond, setting off for another aisle. Obi-wan sighs, and follows after him. Much easier to stop him from making terrible decisions this way.

“We don’t even have ice cream,” says Obi-wan. “What good is an ice cream cone with no ice cream?”

I’ll fix that soon enough, Anakin promises. It’s an ominous thing to hear. Maybe next week, hopefully sooner. The fridge is making me sad.

“Why would the fridge make you sad,” says Obi-wan, baffled, “it’s a fridge.” He glances around, sees a young man with green hair and a can of Red Bull in hand staring at him in utter confusion. Right, they aren’t in fact the only people shopping here, though there’s fewer customers than usual for the time.

You have stroganoff, is Anakin’s answer.

“Stroganoff is--” Obi-wan starts, before catching the eye of the young man again and sighing. Stroganoff is not that bad, he tells Anakin over their bond, sternly. You’re only biased.

You too, Anakin replies. Anyway, you have to vary your tastes at least a little.

My tastes are quite varied, it’s not my fault you’re picky, Obi-wan retorts. How did Padmé put up with this?

Anakin, reaching for a bag of latte-flavored potato chips of all things, freezes.

A laugh, musical and bright, echoes off in the distance. A warm smile, the faded sense-memory of a deep kiss, that’s all we need, love, let’s go home--

“Oh,” says Obi-wan, quiet, when the memory cuts off there.

Anakin looks down, scuffs the toe of his shoe against the floor, his hand dropping to his side. His mouth twists upward into something that looks vaguely like a smile, if anything so brittle could be called a smile. He tugs ineffectually on the knot of his jacket sleeve, sways on his feet.

Obi-wan reaches out, tentatively brushing fingers against Anakin’s elbow. Anakin looks up again, leans into his touch like a dog starved for affection, his breath stuttering.

If he draws him in closer, if he leans up on his toes, if he--

“We should get on home,” he says instead.

Yeah, echoes Anakin in his head, breaking reluctantly away from him, home.

It takes Obi-wan a moment to realize he meant it in all sincerity, that somehow, Obi-wan’s cozy apartment above the bar is home.

Well, of course it would be--after all, it’s not like Anakin has anywhere else to go. It’s not like either of them have anywhere else to go, so they might as well make the most of it.

The rationalization doesn’t stop the warmth from blooming in his chest, anyway.

--

Cass is pacing around outside the bar when Anakin turns the corner.

It’s alarming enough that Anakin stuffs the stump of his right hand in a pocket, because Cass has his own key to the bar, and what is he doing out so early? What’s drawn him out so early, got him so worried that he’s pacing?

Cass stops in his tracks when he spies Anakin, and breathes out a sigh of relief. “Ani! Ben! Am I glad to see you both.”

“As are we,” says Obi-wan, jovial as always, but Anakin can feel the concern from his end of the bond. “What’s going on?”

Cass sighs. “Blonde lady showed up,” he says, craning his neck up to meet their gazes. God, this kid’s so young. Anakin wonders, with a pang, if he’s looking at the kid at the same age he was on Scarif. “Satine, she said her name was?”

Obi-wan blinks, surprised. “Oh,” he breathes, and smiles a little, as if the very sound of Satine’s name is enough to cheer him up immensely.

Anakin shoves his good hand into his pocket, rocks back on his heels. He summons up a smile for Obi-wan and nods to the door to let him go first, and only lets the smile fall once Obi-wan steps inside.

Cass looks at him. “Well? Go on,” he says.

Anakin huffs out a breath.

“I’m not Ben,” says Cass, somewhat irritated. “I don’t know you well enough to know what you’re trying to say off body language alone.”

Anakin nods, then waves his stump at Cass, before sweeping it towards the door as grandly as possible. The effect would be more impressive, if he was wearing anything more regal than a hoodie.

“You want me to go in first,” says Cass, folding his arms. “That’s thoughtful, thanks, but why?”

Anakin rocks back on his heels and shrugs. God, what a suspicious kid they’ve taken on.

“I’m going to take that shrug as an I’m mute, don’t ask me shrug,” says Cass with a sigh, pressing his fingers to his temples. “Stay behind me, okay?”

Where else do you think I could go? Anakin doesn’t ask. He nods anyway, falls into step behind Cassian, hunches in on himself and ducks underneath the doorway.

He catches sight of Satine’s blonde head almost immediately, her hair pinned into a delicate bun, and of Obi-wan’s smile, more genuine than his usual polite smile, reserved for drunks at the counter trying to engage him in small talk. Anakin’s gut twists into a knot, but he summons up a smile from somewhere anyway.

“You have it bad,” says Cass, quiet.

Anakin points at him, then mimes zipping his mouth shut and throwing away an imaginary key.

“Fine, fine,” says Cass, with a huff. “I’ll just wipe down tables then.”

Anakin nods approvingly, then shoos him off, before looking back at Obi-wan and Satine. Hey, he sends, the word catching on their bond, drawing Obi-wan’s attention.

There are two empty seats, you can come over any time you like, Obi-wan sends back, and Anakin chuckles at the slight impatience flavoring his mental tone, steps closer and slides into the seat beside him.

“I was wondering where you’d gone, this involves you as well,” says Satine, nodding to him in acknowledgment. “I must say, I’ve grown used to seeing you around Obi-wan again.”

Anakin shrugs, signs, Do you know A-S-L so we can talk? My friend’s not here and O-B-I-W-A-N doesn’t know it.

“I’ve had to work with a few deaf clients so, yes,” says Satine. “I’ll just get to the point--Padmé and I have teamed up to root out the extent of Orrin Gault’s corruption.”

“What,” says Obi-wan.

You and P-A-D-M-E what? Anakin signs, frantically.

“I requested her expertise in going after the truth in investigating Gault,” says Satine. “I couldn’t just let him get away with harassing you, Obi-wan, that isn’t right--”

“It was one time!” Obi-wan huffs. “Also, Satine, tell me you’re being careful, the last time--”

“I know what happened last time,” says Satine, curtly. “Trust me, it won’t happen again.”

Why drag my ex-wife into this? Anakin signs. She’s retired.

“Like I said, I needed her expertise, and Obi-wan’s being stubborn about wading into this,” says Satine, unapologetic. “And she was quite gracious about it. She’s fine, by the way, she called not an hour ago to ask me if I’d tracked down Anne Caldwell or Will Uhler yet.”

“And there we are,” says Obi-wan, wearily. “Uhler’s the key to all of this, is he?”

“Something like that,” says Satine, propping her chin up on her hands. “That’s really Anne Caldwell’s role, but Will Uhler’s--let’s say, a person of interest to Gault, which makes him a person of interest to us.” Us, Anakin thinks, being her and Padmé. Maybe a decade ago he would’ve been jealous, would’ve snapped and snarled at her for going near his wife out of some misguided effort to protect Padmé from harm. Maybe if he wasn’t--

He doesn’t have it in him, anymore. All that’s left of that instinct is a tired ache in his chest, and so all he does is sign to Satine, Tell her, be careful. Not from me.

Satine nods, understanding.

“I don’t have any idea where Uhler went, if that’s what you’re asking,” says Obi-wan. “Perhaps I can talk to Anne, though. Her store’s further uptown than I usually go, but I’ve been meaning to go up anyway.” He shrugs, smiles, says, “There was this lovely grand piano that caught my eye the last time I went, I’ve been meaning to have it.”

“It’s always the grand piano with you,” Satine grumbles, and the two of them meet each other’s eyes and crack up laughing. Anakin knows an inside joke when he hears one, and something aches in his chest at the reminder that he doesn’t belong here, that he’s damaged goods and a sack of shit and a horrible person and Obi-wan is--not all of those things, is sunlight caught in copper hair and blue eyes like deep rivers and stardust.

That the bond between them is a freak accident this time around, nothing more.

He forces a smile, anyway, as the two catch their breaths. He signs, Back on track now?

“Yes, yes,” Satine sighs. “All right--as far as we know, Anne doesn’t know anything about Gault’s side dealings. At least she didn’t when we last met over six months ago, but that might’ve changed in the intervening period.”

“It wouldn’t have,” says Obi-wan, distantly. “I know Anne. I knew Annileen. If she knew anything about Gault’s activities, she would’ve distanced herself from him long ago.”

Anakin signs, Maybe not. Obi-wan had thought the same about Anakin himself, and look where they are now. How would you know?

“Not everyone is you,” says Satine, matter-of-fact.

Anakin winces, and ducks his head.

“Satine,” says Obi-wan, quietly.

She’s right, you know, Anakin tells him over their bond. I’m the only person who let you down.

You did let me down, but you are far from the only person to have ever done so, Obi-wan shoots back.

Which is actually kind of nice of him to say, now that Anakin thinks about it.

“All right,” says Satine, looking between the two of them and snapping them both out of their mental conversation, “this is--a bit strange, to say the least. Is this some kind of Jedi ability I hadn’t known about?”

Something like that, Anakin signs.

“Not exactly like that,” says Obi-wan. “It’s--a bond. Think of it like a flip phone, only with an even narrower contacts list and no Minesweeper or that snake game.”

 

Minesweeper was a dumb game anyway, Anakin thinks.

You only say that because you always kept pressing on the mines, is Obi-wan’s wry response.

“Do I want to know how that happened?” says Satine, raising a perfectly-plucked brow.

Mistake, Anakin signs, and his heart breaks as he does. That’s all. He keeps his eyes on Satine’s face, and tries not to look at Obi-wan beside him, or at Cass, who’s stopped trying to keep up the pretense of wiping down tables and is watching them now. So what else?

“There’s no guarantee that Gault won’t send his thugs after you again,” says Satine, gravely. “I’ve dealt with his ilk in court in the past. They tend to not like it when someone stands up to them.”

“I wasn’t standing up to them,” says Obi-wan, with an irritated huff. “As I recall, his enforcers started the whole mess when they wouldn’t believe the truth.”

Speaking from experience, that’s not how they’ll see it, Anakin sends his way, fiddling with the knotted end of his right sleeve, not meeting anyone’s eyes. They’ll come back.

“Like I said, all I need is a restraining order and information,” Obi-wan continues, knee bumping up against Anakin’s.

Satine says, “I can get that done, but as a lawyer, as your lawyer, I must advise that you press charges.”

“Seems to me that’s a surefire way to attract their attention,” says Obi-wan, doubtfully.

“A restraining order will only keep them off your back in the short run,” says Satine. “I know you don’t want to attract attention, but you’ve already done so, just by not bowing when Gault wanted you to.”

Plus Morit and Aiolin are going to hold a grudge, Anakin sends. I’m already down a hand, I’d like to keep the other one this time around.

“I know Gault,” says Cass, suddenly. Anakin turns to look at him, sees him perched on a table now, arms folded across his chest. “And Uhler. Him too.”

“Do you know where Uhler is at the moment?” says Satine.

Cass shrugs, says, “Yeah.”

“Can you tell us?”

“That I can’t do,” says Cass. “I know who took him in, but I can’t say where he is.” He pulls up a chair, the legs scraping across the floor, and sits in it backwards, resting his elbows on what should be the backrest. “I can arrange for a meeting, though. There’s a place that’s kind of Switzerland uptown.”

“So I suppose we’ll all be making trips uptown soon enough,” says Satine. “Say--tomorrow morning?”

“No,” says Cass, flatly, narrowing his eyes at her.

“Tomorrow afternoon,” says Obi-wan, before either Satine or Cass can start an argument with each other. “Ani and I will be heading up there anyway to talk to Anne, may as well bring you along.”

Satine sighs, then pulls out a familiar-looking planner from her bag, scribbles out something about the meeting. “Done,” she says, brisk and businesslike.

Anakin thinks--once upon a time, he would’ve been on the other side of this table. Would’ve been the one with the planner and the crisp suit and the calm tone. Would’ve been Padmé’s husband, would’ve been loved, would’ve been something more than the scarred, mute wreck he is now.

--but he wouldn’t have been something worthy of belonging here. Sure, he’s not worthy now. But he knows himself well enough to know he would never have come to Obi-wan’s bar at all.

He signs, instead, See you then.

--

No sooner has Satine departed than Mindy steps inside the bar, bag slung over her shoulder, dark hair swept up in a careful ponytail, held in place by a butterfly pin. “Hey, you two,” she says.

Anakin, who’s been radiating nervousness and self-loathing all through their meeting with Satine, sinks deeper into his seat. Obi-wan bumps against his shoulder, sends affection across their bond, and sees Anakin relaxing, just a little, then pushing himself back up.

He doesn’t quite expect Anakin to lean a little on him, as if needing the support.

“Mindy, a pleasure,” says Obi-wan.

“Who’s she?” says Cass.

“Who’s he?” says Mindy, pointing at Cass.

Anakin hides a laugh into his hand, then glances at Obi-wan. The meaning’s clear enough, in the twitch of Anakin’s lips--you do it.

Obi-wan sighs, and stands up. Anakin budges over to allow him to move away from the table, props his chin up on the heel of his remaining hand and smiles beatifically at Obi-wan, as if to say, I’m mute, this is all yours. Little shit.

“Cass, this is Mindy,” he says, gesturing to Mindy, who raises one perfectly plucked brow. “She’s a friend of mine. Mindy, Cass. He’s a newer employee.”

“You finally got yourself another employee,” says Mindy, with a nod of approval. “It’s a fucking miracle. Next thing you know we’ll be seeing goddamn flying pigs.”

Anakin signs something in answer, but the only thing Obi-wan catches of it are the letters A-S-L.

“Uh,” says Mindy, her dark eyes sliding to Obi-wan. “I have no idea what he just said? Signed.”

Anakin’s face visibly falls, brow wrinkling with dismay. Obi-wan feels a pang in his heart, like someone put a small knife into it and twisted just so.

I’ll just go get my sketchpad, Anakin tells him over their bond, and the problem with having a bond like this is that Obi-wan can tell that, despite the cheery mental tone, Anakin’s still frustrated. Dismayed. Well, who wouldn’t be, when it comes to communication barriers.

You could just tell me, Obi-wan replies.

I can speak for myself, thanks, Anakin says, as he stands and leaves the table, a certain stalk to his movement that reminds Obi-wan, uncomfortably, of Vader’s deliberate walk.

The moment Anakin’s out of eyesight, Mindy looks at Obi-wan as he sits down again and says, “Jesus, Ben. Tell him to get a haircut already, every time I look at him I want to fucking weep.”

“You have your priorities in order,” Cass says, sarcastic.

“I like your new employee,” says Mindy. Obi-wan sighs, massages his temples as she slides into the seat just across from him, where moments ago Satine had been. “Where’d you find him?”

“I put an ad up while Andy was in the hospital,” says Obi-wan, eyes darting to Cass for a moment before he looks back to Mindy, “and Cass showed up not half a day after I posted it.”

“I was the only applicant,” Cass adds.

“Wow, must’ve been really desperate,” says Mindy, nodding to the young man. “So--do you and your boy really want to do that? Fuck with something a hell of a lot stronger than superglue?”

Obi-wan opens his mouth.

Then he closes it, and exhales through his nose.

The psychic backlash from severing a partner bond, especially one as strong as the one between him and Anakin, could potentially render one or both of them comatose, or worse. That had been part of the reason why the Jedi Order eventually forbade them--a partner bond could be the catalyst for a fall to the Dark Side, should one die under shocking circumstances.

And--truthfully, he’s gotten used to Anakin’s presence humming in the back of his head once more. He’d miss it horribly, if it were gone.

“I’d like to have all the information first,” he says.

Mindy arches a brow. “Uh-huh,” she says. “And that’s all you want?”

Cass gives an unconvincing cough.

“That’s all I want,” says Obi-wan. It’s true enough, from a certain point of view--all he wants out of Mindy today is information on any possible severance of a partner bond. Never mind what he wants out of Anakin, right now, because neither of them are in any shape to even consider that want.

“Sure,” says Mindy, hoisting her bag up onto the table. “I decided to ask around and look into some older sources, and this is what I found.” She removes two plain notebooks and a hardbound book from her bag, lays them out in a line.

Obi-wan picks up the one in the middle, leafs quickly through the pages, and sets it back down. “Your handwriting hasn’t improved,” he says. “Thank you, though.”

“I do you a favor and that’s what I fucking get?” Mindy grouses. “God, Kenobi, you fucking ass. And you’re very fucking welcome.”

Hey, comes Anakin’s voice, in the back of his head. Obi-wan glances up, to see him shutting the door to the stairs behind him, a sketchpad tucked under his right arm and a pencil in his good hand. Did I miss anything?

“Not much,” says Obi-wan, out loud, as Anakin sits down beside him again, puts his pencil and his sketchpad down on the table and pushes the hardbound book away to make room. “Mindy was kind enough to provide us with lore on partner bonds, as much as she could remember.”

“And as much as I could get out of some older bastards here and there,” says Mindy. “You’re both sure you want to do this? The risk it carries--it might fuck the both of you up, very badly.”

“Which is why we need this information,” says Obi-wan, as Anakin leafs clumsily through the notebooks, determinedly not looking at anyone. “We need to know more about the risks.”

“Doesn’t get any riskier than your own fucking sanity,” says Mindy. “You know what I think?”

“What?” says Obi-wan, as Anakin glances up, puzzled.

“Neither of you are sure about this at all,” says Mindy.

“I think they like each other,” Cass says, from where he’s been watching them, having long since abandoned the pretense of wiping down tables. Obi-wan shoots him a Look, and feels distinctly disappointed when Cass cheerfully ignores him anyway. “They just won’t admit it.”

Anakin writes something rude on his sketchpad, props it up and turns it around for Cass to see.

“Well, was that really necessary?” says Obi-wan, with a huff.

“It’s true enough, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m right,” says Cass, with a shrug.

“You’re real fucking mature,” Mindy mutters, rubbing at her eyes with the heel of her palm. “And also, trying to dodge around me isn’t going to help either of you.”

“We aren’t dodging around you,” says Obi-wan.

We’re just deliberating right now on doing it, Anakin scribbles out on his sketchpad. He hasn’t looked at Obi-wan once, but Obi-wan can feel his upset and frustration bleeding into their bond, despite Anakin keeping up a nonchalant facade. He can’t really blame him, Anakin’s probably the one with the most to lose if this breaking goes badly.

“The Nile’s not just a fucking river in Egypt, Ben,” says Mindy, leveling a look at Obi-wan. “Hell, I’m having second thoughts about letting either of you near these fucking things. I don’t--”

She stops, and breathes out, shaky, runs a hand through her dark hair and looks down.

“I don’t want to be responsible for this going wrong,” she says, and Obi-wan can’t remember having ever heard Mindy sound so scared. “Dammit, Ben. You’re the only other Jedi around here, and your tagalong here’s the only other Force-sensitive.”

Anakin flinches, beside him, looks down and fiddles with his knotted sleeve.

“He used to be a Jedi too,” says Obi-wan, gently correcting.

“For all that the Council fucked up near the end, they were right about the two of you, you know,” says Mindy, leaning forward onto the table, “you were always biased in his favor.” She nods in Anakin’s direction, leans toward him. “Do you want this? Really want this?”

He expects Anakin to nod. He’s resigned to it, because he knows Anakin would want his own head to himself, would want to keep his feelings and emotions contained from everyone else. He probably misses the days when Obi-wan couldn’t see past a nonchalant smile or arrogant smirk.

He doesn’t expect Anakin to shrink back from Mindy, as if she’s trying to hand him a bomb, nor does he expect him to open his mouth then shut it again, as if reflexively trying to speak.

And he’s not expecting the spike of anxiety in the Force, either.

He reaches out to take Anakin’s wrist, to comfort and reassure him. The moment his fingers wrap around Anakin’s somewhat bony wrist though, Anakin jerks his hand away, knocking his pencil over the edge, bursting with fear and panic in the Force, gogogo--

Obi-wan, stunned, lets him go, watches him rush out of the room and back up the stairs with wide eyes.

Cass says, one eyebrow ticking up, “Jedi?”

“You pick now of all fucking times to ask that?” says Mindy.

“You were having a tense discussion, I wasn’t going to barge in--”

“I have to go,” Obi-wan blurts, worry winding its way around his heart. What had he done, to set Anakin off so badly? He’s got to talk to him, before Anakin works himself up into a fit or a panic attack, they just bought a new armchair--

Something breaks upstairs.

Obi-wan curses, gets to his feet. “Don’t corrupt or poach my employee,” he says to Mindy.

“Fuck you, I need employees too,” says Mindy, fondly.

“If she tries to tell you anything about any unfortunate haircuts I may have had,” says Obi-wan, turning to Cass, “don’t listen to her.”

“Well, now I want to hear about them,” says Cass. “And everything else as well. For example, is Ani--”

“I’ve got to talk to him,” says Obi-wan, cutting Cass off before he can say the name, the one belonging to the black-clad creature that came away from Mustafar, whose ghost is possibly tearing Obi-wan’s apartment apart. “Just--please.”

“Fine,” comes the disappointed chorus.

That’s good enough for him.

--

He finds the shattered vase, first, steps gingerly over the shards and makes a note to himself to clean it up later.

Then he finds Anakin locked inside the guest room, radiating fear and suffering and despair. It drives Obi-wan to his knees, just touching the door.

“Anakin,” he says, his own voice sounding strangely muted and distant to him. He shakes his head, centers himself as much as he can--if Anakin is a storm, then Obi-wan must be the calm eye at the center of it. Has to be.

It’s easier said than done, because of the sheer anxiety he’s feeling now too. What had happened to Anakin, that something unnoticeable to Obi-wan had set him off so badly?

Anakin,” he says again.

He hears a soft whimper from the other side of the door.

“It’s just me,” he says, softly, gently, placing his palm on the door.

Another noise that sounds almost like a sob. With it comes the memory of a laugh, cruel and merciless, the sense-memory of calloused fingers grabbing his--grabbing Anakin’s wrist, hurting, bruising, trapping him in one more cage.

Obi-wan rests his forehead against the door, and closes his eyes. He’s certain Anakin hadn’t meant for that memory to slip out, but--it makes sense. A disturbing amount of sense.

Anger twists around his gut at the thought of it. Someone hurt his friend. He lets himself feel the anger, then pushes it aside to deal with later, focuses on the here and now.

And here and now, Anakin’s having a panic attack.

Obi-wan can’t do anything for him, locked outside. Except--

They have a bond.

Tentatively, he dusts off a sense-memory of his own--Dex, laughing, sweeping him off his feet and spinning him around as if he’d been a long-lost brother, his embrace tight but kind and his laughter booming and warm--and pushes the sense of it along the thread connecting the two of them.

It works. The storm lets up, just enough that Obi-wan realizes he can breathe freer now. Emboldened, he sends along another memory, one of receiving Satine’s Christmas gift--a box of expensive wines, one of which he had downed that very night, playing a frankly ridiculous drinking game with their friends, warm and cozy in that friendship.

He hears a slightly breathless laugh from the other side. A moment later, Anakin’s voice sounds in the back of his mind: you never told me you had wine up here just for yourself.

“Have,” Obi-wan corrects. “And sometimes even a bartender must have a drink or two.” He knocks on the door and says, “Will you let me in, Anakin?”

The door opens, and Obi-wan falls through it, landing flat on his back and looking up at Anakin, uncurled now. He sighs, then twists his body around so he’s lying on his stomach, pushes himself up to better survey the damage.

The guest room is, once again, an unrecognizable mess. At this point, Obi-wan’s just half-tempted to call it a panic room instead and leave everything he doesn’t value inside it, but Anakin would perhaps not take too well to that.

So instead he says, “Are you alright? I felt--”

Anakin looks away, curls up again. His eyes have grown puffy from crying, his lip bleeding from where he bit down too hard on it. His hair, shaggy and uneven, falls around his face like a curtain. From here, he looks nothing like the proud lawyer that Ben Kennedy had once known, or the Sith Lord that Obi-wan Kenobi had defeated on the black glass shores of Mustafar.

From here, he just looks broken, and scared.

I’m sorry you had to see that. The apology rings in Obi-wan’s head, and strikes him as absurd--Anakin might have a lot to apologize for, but what had happened to him is not one of them.

“I’m sorry I saw it,” says Obi-wan, quiet. “It’s yours, and I assume you didn’t want me to know about it at all.”

Anakin looks up again, and gives a slight nod.

“If you want to tell me about it, ever,” says Obi-wan, “I will listen. If you don’t, however, that’s fine. It is your memory, to deal with as you wish.”

You don’t care? Anakin asks, and there’s a hurt to it that surprises him.

“Of course I care,” says Obi-wan. “Someone hurt you, and badly enough that even now you’ve scars from the experience, badly enough that you stopped talking, you liked to talk, and now here we are and you’re fresh from a panic attack because I set you off, I hurt you and--”

He stops. So much for being calm, now he’s gone and worked himself up into a rage.

“I care for you,” he says, lowly. “I care for you so much that it frightens me, Anakin.”

Anakin stares at him, eyes wide and bright.

“And I’m sorry,” says Obi-wan, scooting up so the distance between them is not so large as to feel like the Grand Canyon’s between them, before the silence can stretch on too long. “For setting you off into a panic attack. I hadn’t meant to.”

Anakin breathes out, opens his mouth. Nothing comes out but a small noise, and Anakin shuts it again, frowning.

Then he uncurls, scoots forward, and brings his good hand up to Obi-wan’s elbow, tentative, hopeful. He tugs, and Obi-wan follows, not certain what Anakin’s trying to do.

He realizes it just a moment later, when Anakin practically clambers into his personal space, bowing his head onto Obi-wan’s shoulder, arms wrapping tight around him.

Oh. A hug.

I don’t blame you, comes Anakin’s voice, in the back of his head. There are some things I used to blame you for, but--I’m older and I know better. I’m sorry.

Well.

It’s a start.

Obi-wan hugs back, and breathes again.

--

“...are you going to work today?”

A half-broken laugh.

“Well, I suppose the microbreweries can take our customers for just one night.”

--

The next day dawns bright and early. Anakin’s still shaky from his panic attack, even after cleaning up the guest room, sending Mindy and Cass home, and getting a good night’s sleep, with Obi-wan curled protectively around him, so he begs off cooking duty and lets Obi-wan have a go for once.

Your memory, to deal with as you wish.

Technically it’s Andy’s memory, but Anakin remembers it all just as clearly anyway. Right up to the goddamn alleyway.

Besides, it all happened to his body.

Damaged goods. That’s what they had called him inside, once he’d stopped talking, once he’d strangled his voice. Less fun for them, since he didn’t scream anymore, and it made things a little bit safer for him, but up until then--

--he tries not to think about it, concentrates on the cup of coffee before him.

He’d hugged Obi-wan, the day before. Well, all right, more like he needed someone that he could hold onto before he had another breakdown, and Obi-wan had been the closest person and was blaming himself, god only knows why, but still.

And Obi-wan hugged him back.

Damaged goods. The phrase echoes in his head, taunting, tearing, cruel and merciless. On his worst days when he was sleeping in dumpsters and scrounging up money for just one meal a day, it had been a cacophony. His own personal soundtrack of terrible memories, playing over and over and drowning him, choking him, suffocating until he knew nothing else.

He’s--a terrible person. That’s something he’s come to terms with. No good person would’ve bribed or manipulated their way into winning their court cases, no matter who got caught in the crossfire, and no good person would’ve killed a room full of children.

And yet, Obi-wan had hugged him back. Fallen Jedi, murderer, corrupt lawyer, damaged and broken and hollowed out shell of a human being, worthless, and Obi-wan had still hugged him back.

You’re not that bad a person, Luke’s voice echoes in his head, kind like his mother.

Anakin’s fingers curl around the handle of his mug. He takes a sip, sets it down, glances at Obi-wan, who’s folding a second omelette and muttering something dark about his grandmother’s recipe.

He props his right arm up on the table, sets his chin on his stump. They taste better with a little oregano, he sends.

“We can’t always afford oregano,” says Obi-wan, with a huff, setting the omelette on a plate.

Just saying. Anakin takes a sip of his coffee as Obi-wan sets the plates on the table. About--About yesterday.

“What about?”

Anakin sets his coffee down, picks his fork up. He’s gotten better about eating with just one hand, even if it takes him longer than it’d take someone with both hands.

I don’t want to talk about it, he sends, eyes on his omelette. What you saw, I mean. You’re right, it’s mine to deal with.

“Can’t be healthy, though,” says Obi-wan, mildly.

Luke said that. Bite, chew, swallow. I know it’s not healthy, but what am I supposed to tell the therapist if I ever get one? Because I can’t imagine “I used to be a mass-murdering cyborg in a past life” would go over too well.

Obi-wan winces. “It definitely would not,” he says, tapping his fingers on the table. “But--perhaps I could ask around. I know Satine keeps a file, though I’ve never asked her who’s on it.”

Preferably someone already dead before the Empire, Anakin sends. The things I did--it’d be hard to stay professional in the face of all of that. He pauses, spearing a piece of scrambled egg onto his fork. And I guess in the face of the stuff I did in this life too, he amends.

“Someone who doesn’t watch the news, then,” says Obi-wan, dry.

Anakin nods, chasing a bit of ham around with his fork. So I guess I may just have a therapist after all, he sends. They just need to live under a rock.

“Progress,” says Obi-wan, pointing a fork at him.

Anakin breathes out, spears the bit of ham on his fork along with a little piece of scrambled egg. I don’t like people taking my wrists without letting me know, he sends. Just so you know. And I get tetchy around fire.

Obi-wan slices into his omelette, and says, “I, ah. I’ve an aversion to ties. I’m told that when I tie them they look rather sloppy, but--” He shrugs, a hand going up to his neck.

Anakin thinks of the Zygerrians’ slave collar, the tight line of it around Obi-wan’s neck, the way Obi-wan had flinched almost imperceptibly after the rescue, when it fell away. Yeah, I know, he tells him, over their bond.

Obi-wan smiles at him, faint and sad. Anakin doesn’t want him to be sad, he realizes. He wants--He wants to hear him laugh, loud and clear, like bells ringing out. He wants to be the reason for that laugh, for once, the way he used to be. He wants to touch, to comfort, to make him laugh, as though the rifts between them have never been.

If he could reach out his hand, brush his fingers against Obi-wan’s, bring up Obi-wan’s hand to press his lips to slender fingers--

He won’t. He can’t, he’s already asking so much of Obi-wan, just being here at all.

He locks the affection, the warmth, the love down tight behind his shields.

“Are you up for our trip to town today?” says Obi-wan.

Anakin shrugs. We’ll leave Cass here and take a train up, he sends. I kinda wanna see this friend of yours.

“Anne?” Obi-wan huffs out a small chuckle, ducks his head down, the tips of his ears burning red. “She was Annileen Calwell once--owned a claim on Tattooine, when I settled there. Lovely woman, I don’t want to see her get caught up in this mess again.”

Again?

“The last time I ever met Orrin Gault,” says Obi-wan, meeting Anakin’s gaze, “he was embezzling from a protection fund that was meant to keep its subscribers safe from Tusken attacks, and Annileen was caught in the scandal for how closely she and her store associated with him. Something had happened, some years back, that somehow cut down on the attacks, cut down on the settlers’ need to summon help, and so Gault--improvised, and faked a few attacks in order to get himself out of debt.”

Anakin’s fork clatters to the plate. Mom, he thinks.

(I slaughtered them like animals!)

He shuts his eyes, breathes in and out. Fingers brush against his, tentative, and Anakin latches onto that touch, centers himself on that brush.

“Anakin,” says Obi-wan, soft and worried.

Anakin opens his eyes, and breathes out. I happened, he sends.

Obi-wan looks down, sad and drawn. Anakin wants to climb into his personal space, insist that it isn’t his fault, wants to pull away and run so he doesn’t drag Obi-wan down with him into the murk, only--it’s too late for that now. There’s a bond between them and Anakin, selfish, broken thing that he is, can’t bear to let go of it.

--Obi-wan hasn’t drawn his hand away yet. That’s. That’s probably a good sign.

“I suspected, but I didn’t--I didn’t know,” says Obi-wan. “Not for certain.”

I should’ve told you about that, Anakin ruefully tells him. I told Padmé, and. Well. Palpatine. But I didn’t tell you, I didn’t want to be even more of a disappointment.

Obi-wan props their hands up, bringing up his other hand to loosely clasp Anakin’s good hand, careful not to encircle his wrist. The omelettes lie half-eaten, rapidly cooling, and Anakin’s imagination provides a fun little image of Obi-wan kissing the joints of his fingers, like a gentleman.

He squashes down that image the second it pops up. He’s not sixteen, damn it.

“There are a number of things we should’ve told each other,” says Obi-wan, as regretful and wrung-out as Anakin feels. “Then and now.”

Anakin rubs at Obi-wan’s thumb. This is a start.

Obi-wan smiles at him, and Anakin’s stomach, the traitorous thing, flips.

“Yes,” he says, “it’s a good start.”

--

“Friends of yours, I assume?” says Obi-wan, when he sees Cass talking quietly with a young girl no older than seventeen, her hair done up in a loose bun, and a young boy who looks somehow simultaneously barely old enough to shave and so much older than he should be, from the furtive way his eyes dart around the bar.

Cass breaks away from them, and says, “Yeah--Ben, this is Jyn and Bodhi. Guys, this is Ben, he’s my boss.”

“You’re short for a Jedi,” says the girl, bluntly.

“I’m six feet tall, I am not that short,” says Obi-wan, mildly offended, hoisting the messenger bag further up on his shoulder.

Then he hears Anakin step closer to him, fully dressed and humming a showtune, I have never been the type to try and grab the spotlight. He doesn’t need to look to know that Anakin’s wearing a wide, shit-eating grin.

“Right,” says Jyn, skeptically.

Bodhi, who’s been quiet so far, blinks up at Anakin and steps somewhat closer to Jyn. “Do we know you?” he says, craning his neck back.

Anakin blinks down at him, brows knitting together in confusion, then slowly fingerspells A-S-L.

“I have no idea what you just signed,” says Jyn.

“I know some ASL, but not enough,” says Bodhi.

Anakin sighs, scrubs his hand over his face, then looks at Obi-wan, his eyes beseeching. Is my sketchpad there? he asks over their bond.

Obi-wan, wordlessly, pulls the sketchpad out of his bag, flipping it over to a blank page before Anakin takes it from him and pulls a chair up, mimes writing in it to get one of the newcomers to pass him a pencil.

“This is a Jedi thing, isn’t it,” says Cass.

“Technically, no,” says Obi-wan, cheerfully, and he takes a special delight in seeing Cass’s face scrunching up in confusion. “The Jedi Order hasn’t existed for a very long time.”

“She said you liked to do this,” Cass grumbles, and Obi-wan’s fairly certain he knows who Cass is talking about. “All right, fine--was it a Jedi thing when the Jedi Order existed?”

“The training bonds, yes,” says Obi-wan. “They’re not as strong, but they linked a master and padawan together for the duration of the padawan’s apprenticeship. The master was meant to cut it when the padawan was knighted.” Traditionally, anyway, but he and Anakin were an unorthodox pair, and the bond had stayed even when the braid had gone.

“But this is different,” says Cass, looking at Anakin, who’s written a probably not, I don’t know either of you on his pad.

“It was an accident,” says Obi-wan, quietly. “We were trying to solve a problem with--I suppose you could call it a leak. I fear I might’ve just made it worse for him.”

“Really,” says Cass, skeptical.

“A partner bond is much more difficult to cut than a training bond,” says Obi-wan. “It’s not meant to be severed at all, and if improperly done, the shock of cutting it would hurt more than help.”

“But you’re considering it anyway,” says Cass, squinting up at him.

“Because,” starts Obi-wan, before he falls quiet and looks at Anakin, who’s now sketching something out for the two. Jyn is leaning over his shoulder, and Bodhi is describing something, there was always someone on the steps, a Guardian calling to us, they’d wear robes sort of like the Jedi’s but not. Like this, biting his lip in concentration, eyes bright and keen, Anakin looks almost like he used to, when they were younger and the weight of the things they had done to each other in two different lives hadn’t crashed down on them yet.

“Because what?” Cass prompts.

Obi-wan huffs out a breath.

Because he’s terrified of failing Anakin again, somehow. Because Anakin is only just re-emerging from the shadows of his deeds, and Obi-wan doesn’t know how to help, just that he has to. Because some tiny little part of him is scared of baring himself to someone once more only to lose them, and a partner bond is exactly that--a baring of his soul to someone else, all his pretenses stripped away, an attachment unseemly for a Jedi Master.

He’s lost Anakin twice before, and both times had left his heart so shattered that something important inside him had died. He can’t go through that again.

“Because he’s had enough problems already, and I’d rather not bring my own to the plate,” he says.

Cass does not bother to hide his eyeroll from him.

Jyn steps away from Anakin then, and closer to Cass. “So is he really--” she starts.

“We do have to go,” says Obi-wan, cutting her off, looking at Anakin once more. He’s already closing his sketchpad, sticking his pencil in the binder before nodding to Bodhi. “Andy?”

Coming, Anakin responds, playful as he stands.

“Still didn’t answer my question,” says Jyn, with a huff.

“Keep an eye on the place while we’re gone,” Obi-wan says to Cass. “The TV’s just been fixed, so if any of you are bored the remote’s just under it.” Anakin bumps his side, questioning, and Obi-wan adds, “We’ll be back before nightfall.”

The last thing he hears from Cass and his friends is Bodhi saying, quietly, “Your friend Ani, or Andy, or whatever his name is, didn’t answer my question either, but--I think Baze has some old newspapers lying around from when he was an editor. We could start there.”

--

An interlude:

The door shuts.

Jyn says, “For a one-handed mass-murderer, he draws pretty well.”

Bodhi hops up onto a table, one leg shaking nervously. “He got Jedha almost right,” he says. “I mean, you could--you could tell it was with his off hand, but. He was good at it.”

Cassian leans against the counter, breathes out. Jedi are frustrating, he decides, they take Chirrut’s habit of sticking to the exact letter of his words, if not the spirit, to a whole new level. “They mentioned Uhler yesterday,” he says, instead, getting his friends back on track and away from the subject of Ani or Andy or whatever he’s calling himself and Darth Vader. “Jyn, how is he?”

“Driving my mother nuts in the car, but there you go,” says Jyn, with a shrug. “They’re going uptown to talk to that lawyer. Speaking of her, what else did you catch yesterday?”

“Do either of you know Anne Caldwell?”

“I know her kids,” Bodhi says. “Colleen and Jay. And, um, her employee Mara, she used to help me out with History homework. Then she moved uptown and, well, we don’t really see much of each other anymore.” He drums his fingers along the wooden surface, out of nervous habit. “I haven’t met Anne herself, but from what I hear she’s a good person. Strict, Colleen complains a lot about all her chores, but she’s--not that bad.”

“Jay hangs out with Gault’s kids, though,” says Jyn. “Way too much, if you ask me.”

“No, you’re right, they’ve been rubbing off on him,” says Bodhi, wincing. “I did hear some stuff about a proposal from Gault, though? The marriage kind.”

“Oh,” says Cassian, something clicking into place. “That woman, Satine--she said Anne had a key role in their investigation. She’s a witness.”

Bodhi says, eyes widening, “And if Gault marries her, then he can invoke spousal privilege.”

“She can’t testify against him in court if they get married,” says Jyn, following the thought to its logical conclusion. “And he gets her business, and access to her accounts.”

“Two birds, one stone,” says Cassian, grimly.

Bastard,” says Jyn.

Something crashes just outside. All three of them look towards the door, the air suddenly tense. Almost like Eadu, Cassian thinks, just without the mission weighing heavy on his shoulders.

Bodhi says, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

“There’s a baseball bat under the counter,” says Cassian, a hand sneaking into his pocket, where his brass knuckles are, as someone knocks on the door. “Jyn, tell me you brought--”

“Yes, I have the baton,” says Jyn, aggrieved, slipping her baton out of her purse. “And the taser.”

“Open up!” comes the yell from outside. “Is Obi-wan--I mean, is Ben Kennedy inside? I wish to have words with him!” There’s a moment’s pause, then the voice, previously a low, menacing baritone, pitches higher: “Just words, I promise!”

Bodhi says, “Can I have the taser?”

--

Anne’s store, compared to the bigger chain stores that dot the uptown district, is a tiny but tidy little affair. A stubborn one, too--there’s a Pottery Barn to one side and an IHOP to the other, both dwarfing the store, but somehow, Danny’s still clings on by the skin of its teeth.

Obi-wan turns his collar up as they step around the corner, looks to Anakin, who’s self-consciously tugging on a lock of shaggy brown hair.

“I doubt anyone there will recognize you,” he says. “As Vader or Andy. You look like--”

He stops, looks Anakin up and down. Almost two months of regular meals and a roof to stay under has done wonders for him, he doesn’t look like the too-thin, soaked-through ball of misery and despair that first showed up on Obi-wan’s doorstep, but he’s hunched in on himself, brown hair grown an inch or two past his shoulders. And there’s the hoodie, ratty and faded, and the knot where his right hand should be.

He carried himself tall and proud, once upon a time. What a difference time in prison makes, and how it breaks Obi-wan’s heart, to see him like this.

Like a homeless person, Anakin supplies. It’s okay. You can say it. I was homeless anyway, so it isn’t that inaccurate.

“Yes,” says Obi-wan, deciding not to finish his previous sentence with not yourself. The thing is, Anakin’s right, he does look like a wandering drifter.

At least I won’t get punched first thing if I step inside, Anakin jokes.

“I wouldn’t let them,” says Obi-wan, sincerely. He wishes he could be surprised by it coming out of his mouth.

Anakin blinks at him, surprise rolling off him in waves in the Force. Then he smiles, a small, startled thing, and it’s as if the sun came out at last to warm Obi-wan after a cloudy day.

“Shall we?” he says, and Anakin nudges his side, flailing vaguely with his stump at the door. “Yes, I’ll go first. Watch your head.”

Anakin rolls his eyes skyward.

Obi-wan huffs out a laugh and opens the door to Danny’s. The bell chimes above him as he steps inside and keeps the door open, and Anakin shoots him a grateful look before he bangs his head on the doorway, letting out a pained noise as he ducks underneath.

“I warned you,” says Obi-wan, mildly.

This door was built for hobbits, Anakin complains, rubbing at his forehead and glaring at the doorway.

“Ben!” a young girl’s voice calls.

Obi-wan spins on his heel, grins. “Colleen!” he says, a split second before Colleen Caldwell all but crashes into him at top speed. “Oof, you’ve grown taller.”

“That’s why they call it growing up, Ben,” says Anne Caldwell, emerging from the room behind the counter. Her blonde hair, dark at the roots, is tied in a haphazard ponytail, and she smiles at Obi-wan and says, “Haven’t seen you in a while. Colleen was starting to go nuts, I figured she’d gone into withdrawal or something.” Her eye catches on Anakin, standing awkwardly off to the side, and she adds, “And who’s this?”

Obi-wan looks at Anakin, who signs something that ends in the letters A-S-L.

“Oh,” says Anne, eyes sliding to her daughter, who breaks reluctantly away from Obi-wan. She says something in Spanish, and Colleen sighs and says, “Mara’s in the back.”

“Then go get her,” says Anne, waving a hand at the storeroom in the back of the store. Colleen sighs again, and flounces off the way only a sixteen-year-old girl can. “Madre de dios.

Kids these days, Anakin fondly notes in the back of Obi-wan’s head, and long practice has made it easy enough for Obi-wan not to jump when Anakin’s voice pops up in his head.

“I’m gonna guess your friend’s deaf like Mara,” says Anne.

“Oh, no, he can hear just fine,” says Obi-wan, as Anakin cheerfully waves at her. “He’s mute. That’s all.”

“Huh,” says Anne. “What’s his name?”

Ani, Anakin supplies.

“Ani,” says Obi-wan, and he sees some sort of realization dawning on Anne’s face. “And, yes, he’s the friend I told you about. The one with your nickname.”

“Ani the coffee-drinking asshole,” Anne breathes. “I thought you were just a myth!”

Anakin turns an offended look on Obi-wan. What have you been telling her? he asks over their bond.

Nothing of importance, Obi-wan assures him, and gets to see him pout at him before turning away, checking the magazines.

“A friend, huh,” says Anne, much less enthusiastic. Too late, Obi-wan realizes: Anne isn’t Force-sensitive, has never been, and she must have interpreted the looks between him and Anakin another way.

“Well, yes,” he says, turning back to her.

“Seems kind of familiar,” Anne continues, squinting at Anakin, and Obi-wan keeps the shock from registering on his face, feels Anakin’s anxiety roll off the man in waves. Unlike Cass and his two friends, Anne must’ve heard something, about the New York lawyer who rose in the ranks of a criminal organization before being arrested a decade or so back. Obi-wan’s never said anything to her, but cut Anakin’s hair, put him in a suit and let him speak--

“But then again,” says Anne with a shrug, unaware of the small crisis going on, “I see a lot of drifters. I didn’t know you were in the habit of taking them in, though.”

Relief crashes over Obi-wan like a wave. Not all of it is his own.

“So what brings you up here?” says Anne, leaning against the counter, drumming her fingernails along the wooden surface. “Did you come up to stare sadly at the grand piano in Xiang’s store again?”

“I knew you and Satine meeting was going to bring me nothing but misfortune,” Obi-wan sighs, and Anne laughs. “No, I came up here because I heard some rumors.”

“Oh, no, not you too,” says Anne, with a groan. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I am not marrying Orrin. I don’t care how public he makes his proposals. I’ve already got two kids.”

“That’s a relief,” says Obi-wan. “Here I was beginning to think I’d have to part with my best wines.”

Anne snorts out a laugh, playfully punches his shoulder. “Don’t worry, your best wines are safe,” she says. “How’s your bar? I heard some asshole tore it up a little while back.”

“Oh, yes, about that,” says Obi-wan, “I do need an extra measure of protection--cans of mace, tasers, the like--as well as any tea or coffee you have. I’m thinking of expanding my menu.”

“Yeah, sure, let me help you with that,” says Anne, straightening up and stretching out. “Since you get lost in my store all the time.”

What, really? Anakin’s amused voice pipes up in the back of Obi-wan’s head. Obi-wan spares him a brief glare, but Anakin’s apparently picked up a harlequin novel, with a young woman being dipped by a man with flowing blond hair on the cover, and thus Obi-wan’s glare goes unseen. What a waste. It’s a tiny store, how do you get lost?

A misunderstanding with one of Anne’s previous employees, that’s all, Obi-wan sends back.

Oh. Anakin’s quiet for a few minutes, and Obi-wan lets himself be talked into buying a better brand of tea than the swill he’s been using before he hears Anakin’s voice again: So--Annie, huh?

Short for Annileen, Obi-wan responds.

She’s nice, Anakin ventures. Plus she seems to like you.

She’s my friend, liking me is something of a prerequisite. “By the way,” Obi-wan says out loud to Anne, “what is Orrin up to, lately?”

“Planning yet another wedding proposal, I’m guessing,” says Anne, sorely, as she leans up on her toes to reach for a bag of coffee. “I swear, it’s like the man thinks no means convince me. If it wasn’t for the fact that he and Danny were good friends, I’d have banned him long ago.” She snags the bag, but it tips over before she can properly take it and collides with Obi-wan’s head on the way down. “Oh, shit--”

It’s not a sack, at least, but it’s still heavy enough that it knocks him onto his ass, bursting and spilling its contents all over him as well.

It’s also heavy enough that he hears Anakin’s footsteps about a few seconds later, before Anakin skids to a stop in front of the aisle, eyes wide with worry, as Anne pulls Obi-wan up.

“I’m fine,” he says.

Anakin opens his mouth, then closes it. You’re sure? he asks, a thread of worry twisting around their bond in the Force.

My ego is bruised, that’s all, Obi-wan assures him.

“Mom!” And there’s Colleen, racing down the aisle and nearly knocking Anakin over. “Oh, lo siento--Ben, Mom, are you guys okay?”

“We’re all right, Colleen,” Obi-wan says, with a smile. “Here, Anne, I’ll pay for the bag--”

“Shit, no, Ben,” says Anne, “it was my mistake--”

“What in the hell?” comes someone else’s voice--another woman’s, around Luke’s age or so, with dark hair dyed a brilliant red and skin dark as night, as well as two orange hearing aids sticking out of her ears. Mara, Obi-wan guesses, and it’s confirmed the second she steps closer and he catches sight of the nametag attached to her apron.

He doesn’t expect Anakin to freeze in place, nor does he expect Mara to catch sight of Anakin and go absolutely still, as if she recognizes him. And not just as a lawyer.

“Anne,” says Mara, eyes fixed on and head tilted towards Anakin, “who’s this?”

--

Of all the people Anakin ever expected to work in a mom-and-pop store, Mara Jade’s not one of them.

But here she is anyway, glaring him down despite being almost a foot shorter. It’s surreal, to say the least--Darth Vader, losing a staredown with his rival. Only Anakin’s not Darth Vader, anymore, not strictly, just a mute and hollow shell trying to figure out how to be a person again.

“Anne, who’s this?”

He thinks, you damn well know.

He signs, Not a threat. He gestures to his throat, signs, I’m mute.

“Ben’s friend,” Colleen’s supplying, and Anne is muttering dark imprecations in Spanish about coffee, as she and Obi-wan set off together to fetch a broom. Anakin’s gaze strays away from Mara then, to watch Obi-wan leave, chatting amiably with his friend. “Um. Do you two know each other?”

Mara tilts her head towards Colleen. “Could you repeat that?” she asks.

“Do you two know each other?” says Colleen, slowing down her enunciation.

“You could say that, yes,” says Mara. “Don’t you have inventory to do?”

Colleen shakes her head.

“That’s weird,” says Mara, “I’m pretty sure the terms of your grounding meant you were on inventory duty for three months. Right?” She shrugs. “Though, I have been doing it for--two weeks, now? I should probably let your mother know about that.”

Colleen’s face goes ashen. Anakin sort of pities her a little, he’s been there. On both ends, which is why he also feels quietly disappointed in her, himself. “Actually, you know what, yeah I will do inventory,” she says, and rushes off, leaving Anakin alone with Mara Jade, formerly the Emperor’s Hand.

In retrospect, he’s pretty sure he deserves this. He’s done a lot of horrible things, this is the least he deserves.

Mara watches him, frowning. Then she says, “You know ASL, huh?”

He nods. Enough of it, anyway, he signs back. I’ve been taking lessons from a friend.

How long? Mara signs. Her face is hard and stern, lips pressing into a thin line, and she eyes Anakin as if he’s a threat, still. He could almost laugh, if he felt like it.

A month, Anakin answers. I’m here with O-B-I-W-A-N, we just want to talk with A-N-N-E about her friend G-A-U-L-T.

There’s three of them, Mara signs, which is a surprise. I assume you’re talking about the father, but he has two children too. Both of them are [something rude?], but at least they’re [honest? truth?] She shakes her head, huffs out a breath. Their father is desperate. You could tell in the F-O-R-C-E.

Anakin thinks of the sign for “force”, how it looked like someone twisting an arm, forcing someone down. It’s an accurate sign for the Force itself.

But you’re going to need proof if you want to convince A-N-N-E, Mara continues.

Anakin pulls up his shirt and hoodie, where Aiolin’s knife jabbed into his side. It has the side effect of exposing the snout of the dragon tattoo, and he pulls the hem back down when he sees the realization on Mara’s face, the way the bridge of her nose wrinkles. So much like Leia, he thinks.

That’s proof enough, Anakin signs.

For me, Mara signs, and Anakin’s heart lifts a little, despite the implication. At least Mara’s on his side, on this much. A-N-N-E had a husband who was friends with G-A-U-L-T the elder. The store carries his name, and the friendship carries on in the same vein. She pauses, then adds, That’s also why she hasn’t banned him from the store despite all the proposals.

About that, we think he wants her money, Anakin signs.

The cold rage that flares up in the Force just then is definitely not his, for once. Mara’s hand falls, her fist clenching, her eyes flickering to a burning red.

Anakin’s stomach churns, uneasily. He steps forward.

Mara steps away, shakes her head, and closes her eyes. After a moment, the darkness around her dissipates, until it’s just a thread wrapped around her presence, almost unnoticeable except if Anakin dives into the Force to take a closer look.

He envies her, a little.

Mara opens her eyes, breathing out. She signs, What are you doing here, anyway? And I don’t mean the store. I thought you’d have gone back to your son’s by now.

Anakin hesitates. He could have gone back. Luke’s door is always open, Luke keeps stressing that the few times Anakin manages to work up both the money and the courage to call him. Luke would always let him in, always.

But Leia wouldn’t. Leia hardly trusts him at all, barely tolerated his presence on her visits, and that had been when she and Solo had an apartment of their own, too small and too expensive for another body. With her baby on the way, no doubt she would come to Luke. No doubt the two of them would come to fight over whether he should stay.

That’s what he’ll keep telling himself, anyway--he left because he didn’t want his children to fight about him. Some days he almost believes it.

He’s got his own life, Anakin signs, eventually. His hand barely shakes.

You’re a bad liar, Mara signs, glaring at him.

I’m generally a terrible person, Anakin replies, ending the sentence with a shrug.

Why K-E-N-O-B-I? Mara signs. He’s got his own life too. It didn’t stop you from coming by. She hesitates a moment, then adds, Or forming a [thread?].

Anakin looks down, scuffs the floor with the toe of his shoe. Absently he reaches his right hand up to brush his hair away from his eyes, before he remembers that his right hand is no longer there.

I wasn’t planning on staying, he signs, looking up to see Mara watching him like a hawk. And the bond was an accident. He holds his hand up to his face, pinky and index finger extended, flicks it to the other side, and tries to keep his face carefully blank.

It had been a mistake, after all, if he looks at it objectively. That’s a fact, plain and simple, and just because he would miss it if it was cut doesn’t change the fact that it shouldn’t have been in the first place.

Mara watches him, her glare still hard. Anakin fidgets, fiddles with the knot of his right sleeve, looks down again. They’d been rivals, the Emperor’s chief enforcer and the Emperor’s Hand, half the time battling each other as much as battling the rebels. Part of it, he thinks, must’ve been Palpatine’s influence, must’ve been him quietly hoping either Vader or Mara would take the other out, somehow.

Here and now, though, out from under Palpatine’s thumb, Anakin just feels tired, resigned to Mara’s anger. His own jealousy and rage have burned out for the most part, leaving behind a hollow, guilty kind of clarity, where he can look back at his actions and think Jesus fucking Christ, I was such an idiot.

Do you know how to cut a [thread?] like this? Mara signs.

Not safely, Anakin replies. We’re trying to figure that out. Do you?

I am the wrong person to ask, Mara signs, just as something outside honks loudly. She winces visibly, takes out a hearing aid as Anakin whips around to the door, rushes to peek through the opening, slouching to get a good look.

“Who’s that?” shouts Colleen.

Mara’s much shorter than Anakin is, so
she doesn’t have to adjust her height much to look. She curses and pushes him back, signs, Get in the back.

Who is that? Anakin signs, frantic, trying to look through the window once more. There’s an old, beat-up pick-up truck pulling up in front of the store, and as he watches, a man with dark brown hair tied back into a ponytail underneath a red baseball cap and a salt-and-pepper beard emerges from the driver’s seat.

G-A-U-L-T, Mara fingerspells, then, slower, get in the [something rude] back, before she turns Anakin around and pushes him toward the back room. “Colleen!” she shouts. “Get over here and--escort Ani to the back. I’ll hold Gault off.”

Mierda,” says Colleen, eyes widening. She taps Anakin on the forearm and says, “Come on, this way.”

Anakin lets her tug him along, offering his right arm for her to drag him by. Along the way, he pulls on the bond between him and Obi-wan, sends, Speak of the devil and he shall appear.

What are you on about? Obi-wan asks, vaguely irritated. Anakin’s pretty sure that means his talk with Anne isn’t going half as well as he would’ve liked.

Gault’s here, Anakin sends.

Oh, dear. It’s an understatement, and Anakin can’t help but shake his head.

Also, has anyone told you anything about Mara Jade? Anakin sends.

I have absolutely no idea who that is, Obi-wan sends back. Should I?

You know all those rumors about the Emperor’s Hand? The one with the red hair, I mean. Anakin waits, counts three heartbeats before he feels Obi-wan’s worry washing over him like a cold shower. I’m okay. She gave me hell but it was a lot milder than I thought I’d get.

And that makes it all right for you, I suppose, comes Obi-wan’s response, his mental tone sour. First the Astarte twins, now an Emperor’s Hand.

She didn’t stab me like Aiolin did, that gets her points, Anakin argues, distantly aware of the absurdity of his situation--arguing for his once-rival, on the basis that she had been barely civil towards him. He’s pretty sure the stump and his general state have something to do with that.

Not stabbing you is the bare minimum, Obi-wan shoots back. I can hear you snickering, Anakin. It isn’t funny.

Sorry, Anakin sends back, but he’s smiling when Colleen opens the door and pulls him inside.

Tio Orrin’s here,” she says. “Mara’s holding him off. I’m gonna go help her.” She points at Anakin and says, “You’re heavy for a scrawny guy.”

I’m six foot one and exercise regularly, Anakin signs. He’s silently glad that Obi-wan was late to the sign language bandwagon, because he doesn’t need to be called out on the fact that the only exercise he actually gets is going up and down the stairs.

“Great,” says Anne, looking immensely relieved. “I’m giving her a promotion. You are still grounded, by the way.”

Mom,” Colleen whines. Anakin quietly marvels at how she can draw out the word into two syllables. It must be a gift all teenagers have.

Grounded,” Anne repeats, in the same whiny tone. She steps forward and pushes Colleen out, shutting the door and giving a sigh. “This,” she says, “does not mean I believe you.”

“Anne, you must realize this is highly irregular,” says Obi-wan, in a weary tone that means he’s said something like it before in the last hour. “Orrin is--”

“My husband’s friend,” snaps Anne. “He’s an asshole all the time and he tends not to listen to plain sense, but he’s not a criminal.”

No, he’s just a douchebag like me, Anakin thinks, loud enough that Obi-wan can hear it.

The difference is that you’re learning not to be, Obi-wan shoots back, and--well. That’s true enough, Anakin supposes. Maybe he learned too late to make a difference, but he’s learning now.

It would be nice if I had a how-to guide, he sends. Banter’s fun, even the mental kind, and it’s nice to know at least one person currently cannot get away from his brilliant lines.

Where would be the fun in learning for yourself? Obi-wan teases. Out loud, he says to Anne, “But you must admit, there’s something suspicious about his activities. And the timing of these marriage proposals.”

“Don’t remind me,” says Anne, sour. “Look, I know him, almost as well as Danny did. You don’t. It’s as simple as that.” She sets her hands on her hips, meeting Obi-wan’s steely gaze with a steady one of her own. “And Danny would’ve said something to me if he thought his best friend was breaking the law somehow.”

Under other circumstances, Anakin’s pretty sure he would’ve excused himself to a tiny little room to have a fit of hysterical laughter. That’s not a good plan now, not with Orrin Gault outside and Mara and Anne’s daughter Colleen holding him off, so Anakin instead finds a crate to sit on, pulling a knee up and resting his elbow on it.

Maybe he was a horrible judge of C-H-A-R-A-C-T-E-R, he signs, sending a thought around the same lines to Obi-wan’s end of the bond.

Anne stares at him, then folds her arms across her chest, glaring him down with all the cold fury of a store-owner offended by a customer’s rudeness. On anyone else it would’ve worked, but Anakin’s been screamed at by enough small business owners for driving them out of business that he just shrugs and signs, It’s true. I thought you didn’t know ASL.

“I know enough, I just called Mara because she’s more proficient than I am,” says Anne. “I also don’t recall asking for your opinion, Ani.”

That works. Anakin nods, signs, I’m not even here, and lets his head fall back against the wall.

“Ani can be crude, but he meant well.” Obi-wan’s voice catches his attention once more. “Perhaps it was possible that Orrin hadn’t been so mired in the underworld, when you and your husband first knew him. But people can change over time, and not always for the better.”

He doesn’t say anything about Anakin himself, but he’s speaking from experience. Anakin shuts his eyes.

He opens them again when he hears a young boy’s voice just outside the door, saying, “--quit it, Colleen! And where’s Mom?”

“Jay,” says Anne, her fury flaring up with her worry in the Force. She marches over to the door before Obi-wan can stop her, yanks it open, and drags in a young boy, wearing a leather jacket and, good god, a nose piercing. And a mohawk. How old is this kid? Anakin despairs of the younger generation, sometimes. “What have I said about hanging out with Victoria Gault?”

Obi-wan inches closer to Anakin. We should not be here, he sends.

Maybe not, but for once I’m not the one getting reamed out, Anakin sends. Hey, do you hear that outside the door? Sounds like a redneck.

“Hey, Cols, is your mother--”

“I almost forgot to ask, Tio,” says Colleen, just outside the door, and launches into a long diatribe about cars while, Anakin thinks, steering someone away from the door.

“You don’t get to control me,” Jay’s spitting in front of them. “You don’t get to control my life.”

“On the contrary, kiddo, I am your mother and I can, in fact, control a lot of things about your life,” snaps Anne.

I should’ve brought popcorn, Anakin thinks.

Didn’t Leia have a rebellious phase? Obi-wan asks.

It’s funnier when you’re not a part of it, Anakin replies.

“It’s not fair!” Jay yells. “You let Colleen get away with everything!”

“I let Colleen do the things she likes because she helps out with the store every day,” Anne says, her tone level. “You, on the other hand, keep shirking your responsibilities. Even the easier ones. You think Mara’s here just to do your chores?”

“She does Colleen’s,” Jay grumbles, and yanks his arm away from his mother’s grip. “You don’t get me! You never understand! You never care, you just want to hold me back ‘cause you get off on controlling people. Victoria and Murray care about me.”

Anne flinches back, as if struck.

Anakin chances a glance at Obi-wan, then looks away, fiddles with his knotted sleeve. This isn’t entertaining anymore, he feels like he’s going to suffocate under the weight of the memories Jay’s snarling words are digging back up.

You never gave a shit about me, he had snapped, once upon a time, mired deep in the murk. Not once.

(Obi-wan’s only holding me back!)

He needs to get out of here.

I have to go, Anakin thinks, very, very loudly.

Obi-wan’s gaze snaps to him, but to his credit, he doesn’t say anything about Anakin’s changing attitude. Instead he silently escorts him out, and thank god, that Anne and Jay are too tangled up in their family drama to pay more than the barest of attention to Anakin’s issues clawing their way to the surface.

The door shuts behind them. Colleen’s near the front of the store, and she and Mara are talking to the guy from earlier, the pick-up truck’s driver.

Obi-wan tugs on Anakin’s elbow, and they move out of sight before the driver can see either of them.

Who’s that? Anakin asks over their bond.

Orrin Gault, is Obi-wan’s answer. For some reason, he sounds like he pities the man. Did you ever--

I didn’t know everyone on Tattooine, Anakin tells him. Does he know you? Now, I mean.

Not in both senses of the term, Obi-wan responds. We’ve met a few times, but he’s never indicated that he remembers me. Perhaps that’s for the best. He was somewhat furious when we parted.

Anakin’s about to ask what he means when memories slide across their bond: a man in Tusken garments, unmasked (a false Tusken, for they never went unmasked alive or dead); that same man struggling to his feet, to a speeder, snarling, did you hear me, Jedi? The Empire will destroy you, and everything you love; smoke from that same speeder rising from a canyon in the Jundland Wastes.

Yeah, I can see why, Anakin sends. Then something clicks into place. But he doesn’t know me. And he would definitely underestimate Anakin--after all, what could a mute amputee in a faded hoodie hope to do?

Obi-wan’s brow furrows, and he looks up at Anakin, nose faintly wrinkling. Tell me you are not planning what I think you’re planning.

I promise I’ll be careful. To prove it, he holds his pinky out.

Obi-wan stares at him, jaw slack. Then he sighs, and massages his temples. If I try to dissuade you, you’re just going to say yes and do it anyway, are you.

Anakin only feels slightly terrible when he replies, Yes.

I’ll come with you, Obi-wan decides.

He knows you, you’ll stick out, Anakin argues, letting his hand drop. No, I’m going alone. And I will be careful, I won’t even make a sound. He smirks a little.

Somehow, that just makes me even more worried, Obi-wan sends. Fine. But if I don’t hear from you in two hours, I’ll come after you myself.

--

No one really makes note of a wandering drifter. Anakin takes advantage of that as he follows the beat-up old pick-up truck, pulling his hoodie up and stuffing his hand and his stump into his pockets, ducking his head as if trying to avoid looking at anyone.

He keeps the Force cloaked around him, just in case, keeping people from really seeing him. It works a little too well, not even the Salvation Army fellow on the corner notices Anakin passing in front of him, but considering the Salvation Army once kicked Anakin out on his ass, that’s probably a good thing.

Eventually, he tracks the truck to the city’s warehouse district. A Force-jump over the fence later, and he’s quietly slipping into a warehouse full of crates and boxes ahead of his quarry, ducking behind cover and peeking out to watch.

And all without a noise made. When he gets back to the bar he’ll treat himself and Ahsoka to ice cream.

Orrin Gault enters first, taking off his baseball cap and fanning his neck with it. His eyes rove around the warehouse, as if checking to see if anyone is there, and Anakin retreats a little, drawing the Force around him tighter. Don’t notice me, he thinks.

Gault doesn’t see him, thank fuck. Anakin waits for a few more seconds, before he peeks again to get a better look. Gault’s pacing the warehouse floor, running his hand through his hair, muttering dark imprecations under his breath--he catches a curse about Mara, and holds back a chuckle.

Smart girl.

--someone else is coming in. Anakin barely even breathes, when he sees a man with greying hair and keen, icy eyes walking inside, a sheer white cape sweeping out from behind him as he walks inside.

A cape? Anakin’s sort of impressed. He hasn’t had a cape in a while. He’d buy one, but considering the budget he and Obi-wan have to deal with, he’d only be able to afford the cheap, costume kind. This man’s clearly fastidious enough about his appearance to care about adding a cape, and one made out of a higher quality fabric than a Halloween costume to boot.

Just for fun, he passes the image along to Obi-wan.

Really. Obi-wan’s mental tone is all but unimpressed, but there’s a note of amusement lying underneath. Anakin can’t help but smile to himself. He did that. He made him laugh. Do you know him?

Krennic, Anakin sends back, along with a mental image of Director Orson Krennic, when he’d landed on Mustafar to demand the Death Star be turned over to him. He’s got an inflated sense of his own importance. One of these days he’ll choke on it. Under other circumstances, he’d giggle at his own joke. Right now, he settles for a grin.

I do not even want to know why you sound so pleased with yourself, Obi-wan responds. There’s a faint pinprick of pain, but before Anakin can ask, he adds, Also, are you allergic to cats? And have you kept up on your shots?

No on the cat allergies, yes on the shots. It was the first thing I got after my hand got amputated, Anakin sends. Why?

How would you feel if I brought a cat home? Obi-wan replies, and Anakin blinks, mouth twisting into a small smile at the thought.

I’d feel great, and even better if we could get it to a vet first. Anyway, let’s talk about this later. He shuts his end of the bond off after that, watches Gault skid to a stop in his pacing.

“Orson!” says Gault. “What a surprise, I thought--well, I figured you’d be sending a representative. I’m flattered, really.” Nervous, more like, Anakin can see the way he keeps scratching at the back of his neck, the wide parody of a smile he’s wearing.

“Gault,” Krennic greets, coolly. “You’re behind on your payments. And those properties you promised.”

Once upon a time, that would’ve been Anakin standing there, coolly intimidating, and Krennic sweating in Gault’s place. Once upon a time, he had been. How people change.

“Yeah, y’know how it is,” says Gault, pulling at his collar, the grin still plastered on his face. “Sometimes someone holds out. Look, I can still--”

“Still what?”

Let him finish, dumbass, Anakin thinks. After all, I let you finish.

“Get you what I promised,” Gault says, the aw shucks personage slipping further and further down. The man is desperate, deep in debt. “But you can’t just expect me to somehow conjure up all that money out of nowhere.”

“Why not?” snaps Krennic. His own cool facade slips, exposing his rage at being stymied. Anakin reins in the urge to laugh at him--between the two of them, Anakin’s pretty sure he can still keep up a mask of cool indifference despite being pissed off, even now, even with his stump, even as a nervous and jittery wreck. Krennic, in comparison, sucks at it. “You certainly felt free to give me that impression.”

“Ain’t you ever heard what they say about assumptions?” Gault shoots back, just as angry, but Anakin sees the exact second when the fear kicks back in and he shrinks away from Krennic, whose shoulders are shaking with suppressed rage. “I’ve got most of the money already, promise, there’s just a few holdouts--”

“Holdouts that you said were only a matter of time until you had them in hand,” Krennic says.

“And it is! Still a matter of time, I mean,” says Gault.

“And it occurs to me,” says Krennic, barreling on anyway over Gault, and
Anakin cannot believe these idiots are the ones currently running a number of rackets and trying to “improve” their hometown, “that you still haven’t tracked Uhler down. Did you know that damn blonde bitch got the Woman with No Fear on her side? Did you know they’re looking for him now?”

Anakin strangles the laugh in his throat. Between the two of them, Padmé deserves the title more than he does. He’s not sure she actually has a sense of self-preservation.

Sure, his isn’t great, right now being a great example of why it doesn’t work half as well as it ought to, but at least he has one. Padmé’s an investigative journalist, though--and one with multiple famed exposés under her belt, and even more enemies gunning after her. If she ever had a sense of self-preservation, it’s long since taken a vacation somewhere in the Bahamas.

“I’m looking,” Gault half-yells, voice echoing in the warehouse. “Kenobi wouldn’t say!”

Kenobi.

Anakin’s heart very nearly stops. He pulls the Force even tighter around himself, horror twisting around his gut, worry stabbing into his heart.

The last time Obi-wan had ever seen Orrin Gault, the man had threatened to reveal him to the Empire, a last-ditch effort at saving his skin, a curse spit in his last hours. Anakin doesn’t doubt that Gault still remembers that promise, still holds a grudge against Obi-wan.

And it sure as hell doesn’t help that Obi-wan’s so tied to Satine, or that Anne’s friends with him.

Fuck, they’re in trouble.

Anakin is in a hell of a lot more trouble, if he doesn’t somehow get out of here soon. He knows who Gault is getting his funding from, he knows Gault remembers who Obi-wan is, and he knows Krennic knows who Obi-wan is as well--

“I’ve sent someone to his bar to make sure he does,” Krennic says, shortly.

Oh, no.

Oh, no.

--

It takes Anne and Jay three minutes to finish their argument, with Jay storming out of the room and screaming I hate you at his mother on the way out for good measure.

Obi-wan flinches at the shriek. For a moment, he’s back on Mustafar, staring down at Anakin, grieving the loss of his dearest friend. For a moment, he’s back in the court’s corridors, missing his best friend all the more with each step he takes away from him.

But Anakin is there, in the back of his head now, his presence reassuring--he hasn’t been swallowed whole by the darkness. Maybe he’s not whole, but Obi-wan will take Anakin in any shape or form, as long as it’s Anakin.

Colleen winces as her brother storms out, reaches out to try and touch his elbow. He slaps her hand away, spits something at her that makes her face turn ashen before he marches away, slams the door behind him.

“Jay,” she starts.

Mara bumps her shoulder. “He’ll come back,” she says.

“Damn it,” curses Anne, emerging from the back. “Mara--”

“I’m off shift,” says Mara, fiddling with the hearing aid in her right ear. “I’ve got to get home now anyway. My show’s on.”

“Right,” says Anne, huffing out a breath. “I’ll go after him.”

“I’ll come with you,” says Obi-wan. “I have--some experience, in dealing with this.”

“You have a kid?” says Anne, raising a brow.

Obi-wan manages to choke back his initial reaction. “I had an argument along those same lines with a friend of mine once, who’d gone astray,” he says instead, as vaguely as possible. “Jay is not as far gone as--as my friend used to be.”

Anne’s eyebrow ticks upward. She’s smart enough to figure out who Obi-wan is referring to, he’s sure, smart enough to connect Ani to the friend who’s gone astray, and smart enough to simply say, “Fine. But he’s my boy.”

“The final decision’s yours,” says Obi-wan, nodding in deference. “I wouldn’t dream of interfering.”

“Seems to me you like to do a lot of that,” says Anne. “Colleen? Keep an eye on the store.”

Sí, mama,” says Colleen.

Obi-wan falls into step behind Anne, as she marches out of the store. “You must realize, something is off about the timing of his proposals,” he says.

“Something is off about everything, these days,” Anne admits. “What with Gault proposing nearly every damn time I see him, and Jay acting out, and Colleen’s college applications, and the store--” She cuts herself off with a sigh, never breaking her stride. “I’m keeping up as best as I can. But, Dios, I just don’t know if that’s good enough.”

It’s a sentiment Obi-wan can sympathize with. How many times has he thought himself not good enough, before and after Anakin’s betrayals? Too many to count, by now.

He doesn’t know what to offer, that could comfort Anne. Actually, he does, but it would be a lie, and Anne is smart enough that he’s certain she would call him out on it. And seeing as he’s still trying to convince her that her friend Gault is a criminal, the lie would hypothetically hurt his chances of being able to talk her around.

He says instead, “You’re doing the best you can. It will have to be good enough, and I have faith that it will be.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re not great at being reassuring?” says Anne.

“Multiple times,” says Obi-wan, sheepish.

“A for effort, though,” says Anne, rounding the corner and marching up to a small circle of teenagers kicking something around. One of them’s a young woman with the same brown hair and smile as Gault. “Jason Caldwell! What in the hell are you doing?

Jay freezes, eyes wide in fright.

The other teens scatter, leaving behind a small, mewling cat, battered and bruised and hurting. Obi-wan rushes forward to scoop it up in his hands, get it out of the way of the Caldwells’ family drama.

The cat, only a small, battered, dirty kitten, mews pitifully at him, then tries to bite his finger.

“You’re going to a vet,” says Obi-wan, before he looks up at Anne and Jay.

“--didn’t teach you that! In fact, I distinctly recall telling you to stay away from Victoria Gault!”

“She’s my friend!”

“She is not your friend!”

Obi-wan sighs. He tugs on the Force a little, sends a small amount through the kitten in his hands to help it heal better. The kitten meows inquisitively, and squirms in his hands.

“Shh, little one, it’s all right,” he murmurs. “I won’t hurt you.”

He wonders how Satine and Anakin are doing, right now, in their own tasks. Hopefully much better than he is.

--Anakin’s tugging on his end of the bond again, trying to catch his attention. Obi-wan holds back a snort of laughter when Anakin sends him an image of a man, dressed in white, with an ostentatious cape flowing behind him. Judging from the glee weaving into their bond, Anakin’s just as delighted by the unnecessary cape, the hypocrite.

Really, he sends. Do you know him?

Krennic. The name comes accompanied with another memory, tinted red and smelling of sulfur and ozone, this time of a man in white, demanding the Death Star. Obi-wan’s gut twists, and in his hands, the kitten gives a soft meow and nips at his thumb, bringing his attention back to reality. He’s got an inflated sense of his own importance. One of these days he’ll choke on it.

There’s that amusement again, but this time there’s a bitter tang to it. A private joke, Obi-wan’s certain, judging from Anakin’s dark, bitter tone, as amused as it still sounds. He decides not to ask--if bleak and bitter humor is how Anakin chooses to cope with his past, then Obi-wan will take it.

At least it’s not murder, anyway.

I do not even want to know why you sound so pleased with yourself, he sends. The cat nips at his fingers again, the mistrustful little thing, at least Obi-wan’s been keeping up with his shots. Also, are you allergic to cats? Have you kept up on your shots?

Confusion weaves into their bond, before Anakin answers, No on the cat allergies, yes on the shots. It was the first thing I got after my hand got amputated. Why?

How would you feel if I brought a cat home?

The confusion clears, and a wave of surprise mixed with uncomplicated delight washes over Obi-wan. Anakin’s delight, he realizes quickly, and he smiles down at the cat.

I’d feel great, and even better if we could get it to a vet first, is Anakin’s gently teasing answer. Right, they should really do that, god only knows what kinds of diseases this kitten could be carrying. Obi-wan prods vaguely at its Force presence, but as far as his admittedly uneducated eye can tell, the kitten seems well enough, besides the injuries from the abuse earlier. Anyway, let’s talk about this later, Anakin adds, graver this time, and before Obi-wan can protest he’s shut off his end of the bond.

Well. That’s just rude of him.

“--brought Ben with you! Ben!

Obi-wan glances up from the kitten, to see Jay waving frantically at him.

“I’m just here to back your mother up,” he says. “The Gaults are in much deeper trouble than you realize, Jay. Take care not to be dragged in with them.”

“You’re not even a part of this family, asshole,” Jay spits. “You don’t get to tell me shit, and neither does Mom.”

“On the contrary, I get to tell you shit because I am your mother,” snaps Anne. “And Ben gets to tell you shit because I’m letting him on a conditional basis.”

“The condition being, she gets the final say,” says Obi-wan. “And she is right. You must know that, deep within yourself.”

The cat meows pitifully.

Jay runs his teeth over his lower lip, and for a second Obi-wan can see his resolve crumbling, the uncertainty flashing across his face. He’s only a boy, trying to be impressive, trying to be someone that his friends could perhaps start to like.

Then a car pulls up to the curb. The window rolls down, and Satine leans out and says, “Ben! I see you’ve found Miss Caldwell.”

Anne looks between the two of them, her eyes cutting from Obi-wan to Satine and back again. “You two know each other?” she says. “God. It’s a small world.”

“We used to date,” says Satine. “Now I’m his lawyer.”

“How does your head manage not to explode?” says Anne.

“A lot of compartmentalization,” says Satine. “Ben, did you--”

“Of course I told her,” says Obi-wan. “She didn’t believe me, but perhaps if you gave what proof you had--”

“A surprising amount,” says Satine. “Uhler proved to be incredibly talkative once I offered to help him and his wife get witness protection.”

“What the hell does Uhler have to do with this?” says Anne. “And--witness protection?”

“What’s going on here?” says Jay, brows creasing together in confusion. “What--What happened with Uhler?”

“A lot of things happened,” says Satine, looking up at Anne. “We should really talk about your friend Gault. I imagine Ben’s been incredibly vague and made some strange and alarming pronouncements about him?”

Obi-wan’s suddenly very glad Anakin isn’t around to hear this, because he’ll never hear the end of that, like he never heard the end of it the first time around. “I don’t do that very often,” he says, defensively.

Anne turns to him, and raises her brow. “You were doing that not ten minutes ago,” she says. “Why do you think I didn’t believe you? You are terrible about being specific.”

“Does that mean you believe me now?” Obi-wan asks, hopefully. The kitten in his hand meows just as hopefully.

“Let’s table that for later,” says Anne, evasively, before she grabs hold of her son’s arm, eliciting an angry hey! from the young boy. “Right now I am going to ground you for, oh, the whole century.”

“That isn’t even possible!” howls Jay. “You can’t do that, that isn’t fair--”

“Perhaps save the grounding for later,” says Satine, stepping out of the car and saying something to the driver, who nods and pulls away from the curb. “I’ve come to talk with you about Gault. And unlike Ben, I have the evidence to back it up.”

“Finally some fruit after all this time, then?” says Obi-wan.

Satine smiles, and there’s something almost dangerous there. For all her idealistic and peaceful ways, Satine’s one of the few people Obi-wan knows who actively goes up against people like Gault regularly.

“Yes,” she says, “but I’d rather not do this out here in public.” She throws a worried glance over her shoulder, a habit drilled in by years of working against corruption in high places. “Do you know a place we can talk?”

“I’m not volunteering,” says Obi-wan, automatically. The cat in his hands meows, as if agreeing with him. “My bar has been through enough.”

“I won’t ask,” says Satine.

Anne sighs, says, “My store’s nearby. We can talk there.” She looks at Jay again and says, “And you’re going to go help your sister start her shift.”

“Colleen can handle her own shift,” says Jay, stubbornly, trying to wrench his arm away from his mother’s grip.

“Colleen is one person and we’ve left her alone in charge of the store for too long already,” says Anne. “And you need to do something more productive than kicking around cats that haven’t done anything to you.”

The cat in Obi-wan’s hands meows on cue.

Satine looks at Obi-wan and raises a perfectly manicured brow. Obi-wan can’t exactly read her mind, but he knows amusement when he senses it, and he knows this particular flavor of amusement.

“Do not say anything about Qui-gon,” he says.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Satine returns, but she’s smiling at him like she’s thinking it anyway. “All right,” she says to Anne, “let’s talk.”

They make it all the way back to the store before Obi-wan feels a flash of pain in the Force, and knows almost immediately who it belongs to.

Oh, no.

--

Of all the people Anakin has ever counted on to rescue his ass, Mara Jade has never been any of them.

They’d been rivals, once. Then he’d died, and she had lived, and by default he supposes that means she won. He should probably congratulate her, he supposes.

And now here they are, in her apartment. Her leaky apartment, Anakin notes with a huff, when something drips from the ceiling into his hair. He scoots to the other side of the worn sofa, curls up and presses an ice pack to his eye, hissing at the pain.

Mara steps into the living room. Do you run into the A-S-T-A-R-T-E twins often? she signs.

Anakin shakes his head. He’d sign back, but he’s only got the one hand, and it’s preoccupied with his black eye right now.

They knew you, she signs.

Anakin lifts his index finger up off the pack.

Mara frowns at him, and signs, I’m not your [man-friend? lover? boyfriend].

Anakin blinks at her, confused, before it sinks in that she hasn’t seen him interact with any other guy besides Obi-wan. He sets the pack aside and signs with cold fingers, O-B-I-W-A-N is not my boyfriend.

Sure, he isn’t, signs Mara, but her raised eyebrow betrays the sarcasm behind the statement. What did you mean, with your finger?

I met them once before now, this time around, Anakin signs. One of them gave me that scar I showed you.

Mara, at least, has the courtesy not to say that Aiolin should’ve aimed higher.

Anakin picks the ice-pack up again, presses it to his bruised eye. Morit had gotten in a lucky shot, when Anakin had tried to slip past them through a small hole in the back of the warehouse, and would’ve gotten in more had Anakin not desperately Force-shoved him back onto his sister.

Not his best decision, using the Force in full view of two witnesses. He can’t even hope both of them were too in shock to realize, he’d Force-jumped in front of them multiple times in the ensuing chase through the district.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. He’s supposed to be smarter than that, damn it, he has a degree in law.

Then again the degree hadn’t stopped him breaking the law.

You’re lucky I followed you, Mara signs.

Anakin stares at her. He sets the ice-pack back down again and furiously signs, How did you know where I was going? I was careful!

You cloaked yourself using the F-O-R-C-E a little too well, Mara signs. People barely saw you, not even the Salvation Army guy, and he talks to everyone. You forget, I was trained to sense exactly that.

Right. Anakin’s never been one for subtle, he supposes he got lucky it was just Mara who realized why there seemed to be a gaping hole in the crowd. Why did you follow me? he signs.

Because L-U-K-E cares for you, [deity? god? Force?] knows why, Mara responds, hands signing a little faster than Anakin can process her words. If it wasn’t for him, you wouldn’t be here.

Luke. It always comes back to Luke, and Anakin’s chest aches a little, at the thought of his son--he hasn’t contacted him in two months, in any way. He should, at least to let him know that he’s still alive, but the thought of it scares him, just a little. It’s irrational, because Luke is his son and maybe the kindest person Anakin knows, but there it is.

Lucky me, he signs. Then: Don’t tell him I’m here.

You can’t avoid your son forever, Mara signs, eyes hard and stern.

I’m not trying to, Anakin signs back, hand shaky and aching.

Mara watches him for a long moment, eyes narrowed, arms folded. Anakin meets her gaze for a second, then looks down, fingers fiddling restlessly with the knot of his right sleeve.

He looks up, and she signs, Now I know where he got it from. You’re a bad liar.

How can you tell I’m lying if I’m not saying anything? Anakin signs back, with an indignant huff.

You just told me, Mara signs, and it couldn’t have been more smug if she’d spoken it. Some of the old anger flares up in Anakin’s heart, a brief spark of heated indignation before it dies away, for lack of anything to feed on, damn it, she’s got a point.

Rex had once joked that it was stupidly easy to clean him out of credits, in another life, and in this one Padmé had cheerfully cleaned him out of every last penny and then his clothes, when they played poker. Years working under Palpatine had made him a better liar, but it had gone to rust. Mostly.

Still, there’s a tiny part of him that’s honestly offended. You caught me on a bad day, Anakin signs.

Just one? Mara responds.

Anaki glares up at her, then reaches for the ice-pack and presses it against his black eye once more. Mara rolls her eyes at him and walks back to her kitchen, and Anakin catches a snatch of her grumbling about some fucking broken toaster.

Then he feels Obi-wan tugging worriedly on their bond. Oh, right. He would’ve felt the punch, the way Anakin had felt a flash of pain when that bag of coffee had fallen on him.

Oh, shit.

Hey, I’m not dead, he sends.

Obviously, Obi-wan answers, but there’s a palpable relief in his mental tone. Anakin smiles to himself. What happened? I felt--

Morit Astarte punched me in the face, Anakin tells him, and blinks at the flare of worry and concern, a quiet anger flashing for a moment across the bond. You okay? I have even more bad news.

I’m fine, Obi-wan sends back. You, I’m worried about. Did anything else happen on your investigation?

Mara Jade saved my ass, Anakin sends back. I’m in her apartment right now, in fact, the one on the corner of 11th and 38th. Want to hear more bad news now, or when you get here?

Let’s just get it over with now, is Obi-wan’s answer.

Anakin sighs. Krennic knows who you are. So does Gault. They sent someone to the bar, so you’ll have to check on that.

He’s almost envious of the ensuing burst of curses from Obi-wan’s end of the bond.

Creative, Anakin observes.

We need to get back downtown, Obi-wan sends. And I have to call Cass.

His stomach twists into a knot. Cass is just a boy, and he might’ve been harmed, him and his friends, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s not--He’s not--

Where are you? he asks over their bond.

Nearly there, Obi-wan sends back, reassuring. I’m just calling Cass now.

Is he all right? God, Anakin’s grown to like the kid, even knowing the role he must’ve played on Scarif. He hopes Cass is all right. He hopes Jyn and Bodhi are, too.

It’s a full two minutes before Anakin gets an answer. In that time he manages to undo the knot of his right sleeve, from picking at it so much, and runs through a hundred scenarios in his head, starting with broken bones and ending in fire. He’s teetering on the edge of a panic attack when Mara Jade pokes her head out from her kitchen, hands covered in soot, and signs, annoyed, I can hear you from over here. Calm down.

Sorry, Anakin signs back. He has to re-sign it twice, his hand is shaking so badly.

Don’t break anything, Mara warns, then ducks back into the kitchen. The sound of something fizzling out follows soon afterward, and Anakin curls up on the couch and tries to tamp down on the terror.

He shuts his eyes and breathes in, breathes out. Panicking over Cass won’t help anyone, least of all Cass--he has to believe the boy can handle himself. And he can’t have a breakdown in Mara’s living room. Cass will pick up the phone.

But if he doesn’t? If Anakin and Obi-wan come back, and Cass and Jyn and Bodhi are hurt or worse, and Obi-wan’s bar, and apartment, their home--

“Skywalker. Skywalker.

That’s not his name, that is his name--

“Skywalker, for fuck’s sake--”

Someone grabs him by the shoulders. He chokes on nothing, his chest constricting and his heart trying to escape his ribcage, gasps for air, pushes back against who’s touching him leave me alone please help me don’t touch me I’m nothing I’m dying please--

Anakin? someone else’s voice, sounding in his head, asks, worried and scared. Anakin, I’m coming.

Leave me alone, he wants to scream, and please help me, the words are clawing at his throat trying to get out, scraping him raw and suffocating him, breathe, breathe--

Noise. Someone’s there, someone’s talking, but he can’t hear them, he can just hear the sick sizzling noise of a lightsaber cutting through flesh, the scream of rusted hinges, the cruel laughter, the sound of his own ragged breath, you can’t save them you can’t even save yourself how could you hope to save this boy who you may as well have killed before--

Someone’s touching his shoulder. He flinches.

“Anakin, it’s just me.”

Obi-wan. It’s Obi-wan.

Something breaks through the panicked haze. It takes him a moment to realize: it’s just the memory of a sunset, buzz building in the back of his throat, illicitly-gained cold beer in hand and already half-empty.

Anakin breathes in, then out. He holds the memory close to his chest--he remembers this, the two of them had quietly stolen some beer off of one of Andy’s (Anakin’s) uncles, and had climbed up to the rooftop to watch the sun begin to set.

He blinks up at Obi-wan, who’s laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. It occurs to him, suddenly, that in the months since he left Luke’s, it’s really only been Obi-wan who’s held him like this, like Anakin’s a person--one that could fall apart at any moment, but a person nonetheless, with worth and dignity, deserving of warmth.

It scares him, more than prison, more than dying, more than anything. It’s been years since he was anything other than a hollow shell, a shadow, anything more than the shattered shards of the people he used to be. He’d grown used to it, to the cold.

What does he do with warmth?

“Anakin?” says Obi-wan. His hand’s still on Anakin’s shoulder, warm and kind.

All the memories you have and you pick the one where I puked up on your shoes, Anakin sends. Typical.

Obi-wan smiles at him, sunshine bursting through the stormclouds.

Then a meow sounds, and Anakin tilts his head up to get a better view over Obi-wan’s shoulder, of Mara holding a small, grimy kitten in her hands. The cat meows again, wriggling around in Mara’s hands.

“I’ll get that,” says Obi-wan, standing up. Anakin uncurls, and breathes out, looking everywhere but at Mara. His gaze eventually fixes on a corner of the table, but he’s certain she’s still watching him. He doesn’t know which would be worse to see from her--pity like so many others, or disgust, or triumph, or untempered hatred.

He counts his heartbeats, until Obi-wan comes back to him. The cat meows softly, and Anakin blinks down at it, grimy and battered, as it scurries forward into Anakin’s cupped hand.

It swats a wary paw at his hoodie, as he brings his right arm up to act as a crude barrier to keep it from falling off. Then it meows again, looks up to meet his gaze with grass-green eyes.

He likes this little cat already.

“Good news,” says Obi-wan, and Anakin glances up from the kitten testing its stubby claws on his ratty hoodie, “Cass is all right. When I called, he said that he and his two friends had taken care of the threat already.”

Anakin breathes out, a weight falling off his shoulders. They’re really okay? he asks over their bond.

“They are,” Obi-wan reassures him, mouth curving into a little smile. Anakin likes seeing him smile, he doesn’t do that as often as he should. Probably Anakin’s fault, a lot of things are. “We should get moving and check on them, though. I’ve a feeling Cass was downplaying the damage done to the bar.”

Anakin nods, keeping the cat close as he pulls himself to his feet. He finally looks at Mara, who’s watching him with a carefully blank expression.

On their way out, she stops him, grabbing his shoulder. He flinches away from her grasp, but manages to hold himself together.

“You and Kenobi,” she says.

Anakin shakes his head.

“That’s a surprise,” she says, and jerks her thumb towards a conspicuously empty spot on a stand. “You owe me a vase, Skywalker,” she says.

Anakin squints at the empty spot, then sheepishly waves his stump in its general direction.

“I have no idea what you’re trying to tell me,” says Mara.

The kitten meows, reaching out to bat at Mara’s face.

--

When they get there, the police are leading Maul away in cuffs.

And it’s definitely Maul, Obi-wan recognizes the burning hatred in the Force. He’s sure Anakin does too, from the choked noise he makes to the way he steps closer to Obi-wan, as if to ensure his safety.

I can throw a punch, you realize, Obi-wan sends.

Yeah, and he once beat the hell out of you, Anakin replies.

Their nameless cat meows from its hiding spot in Anakin’s hoodie, heedless of the goings-on around them.

“Ben!” Cass calls, waving a hand from the ambulance where he’s seated. Obi-wan walks over, Anakin falling into step behind him. It’s disconcerting, how used Obi-wan’s become to the sound of Anakin’s footsteps behind or beside his once more. “You never said you had an archenemy,” Cass says, pressing an ice pack to his temple.

“I actually don’t,” says Obi-wan, with a shrug. “Are you all right?”

“A little bruised, but fine,” says Cass. “Bodhi and Jyn are okay too, before you ask. Bodhi even roped one of the cops into talking about cars.” He waves his free hand over to Bodhi, chatting excitedly with a police officer about something, the two of them exchanging notes. “Jyn’s a little concussed, but we’re okay.”

Obi-wan breathes out a sigh of relief. “I’m glad,” he says.

“Did you find anything out uptown?” says Cass. He glances at the cat poking out of Anakin’s hoodie and says, “Besides a cat.”

Anakin snorts out a laugh, then unzips his hoodie, gently letting the cat into his palm. The cat meows again, and jumps into Cass’s lap.

“Gault apparently doesn’t know the meaning of the word no,” says Obi-wan, suppressing a smile at the scene, at Cass absently scratching the cat behind the ears affectionately. “From what Anne told me, he’s attempted to propose to her multiple times. And I don’t think he’s doing it for love--he’s in debt too, and to someone very dangerous.”

“Ah,” says Cass, still scratching. “Any chance I can get a name out of you?”

Anakin fingerspells a name, but all Obi-wan catches of it are five letters, K-[?]-E-N-N-I-[?]. Krennic, he knows.

Cass seems to know it too, because he goes completely still. The cat gives a confused mrow. Cass stares up at Anakin, eyes narrowing.

“I need everything you know about Krennic,” he says, and just like that, the boy playing with a small kitten slips away, leaving the hardened soldier behind. The grief, an old and familiar friend by now, twists in Obi-wan’s gut. “In this life and the other one. If he’s behind Gault, then--”

“Then we’re going to tear down everything he’s created,” says Jyn, coming to sit down next to Cass. Her fingers brush against his, and Obi-wan’s treated to the rare display of his employee ducking his head and blushing. He’s never seen Cass blush like that before, not even while dealing with drunken jokes about people’s genitals. “We’ve done it before. We can do it again.”

Scarif ended in significant losses, I kind of doubt that, Anakin’s voice pipes up at the back of Obi-wan’s head.

Please don’t tell them that last part, you’re on thin ice already, Obi-wan reflexively responds, and mentally slaps himself when he sees Anakin’s mouth twist into a grimace.

Guess that’ll be easy, Anakin notes, and Obi-wan can taste the bitterness on his tongue.

“And how exactly do you plan on doing that?” Obi-wan asks them out loud. “You and Bodhi are a couple of teenagers. I don’t doubt your commitment, but you may have trouble convincing others of any evidence you might have.”

“You’re already working on Gault,” says Cass, and resumes scratching the cat, who purrs delightedly. Obi-wan is a little jealous of how contentedly ignorant the little bastard is, satisfied merely with a scratch behind its ears.

“Satine is working on Gault, along with Padmé,” Obi-wan corrects. “I just keep getting caught up in it when all I wanted was a restraining order.”

That probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway, Anakin sends. Trust me, a good chunk of what I did for Palpatine was finding ways around restraining orders.

“D’you think Gault has records?” Jyn pipes up. “Just in case.”

Obi-wan sighs, and says, “Yes, he would. But I imagine he’d be keeping them somewhere that outsiders can’t easily access.”

“I can break in,” says Jyn.

“Or we could just ask Baze,” says Bodhi, sliding into the space beside Cass. “He’s an editor.”

“Baze and Chirrut,” says Jyn, her face lighting up as if she’s five and it’s Christmas. “And my parents must know Krennic, or whatever he’s going by now, I’ll ask them--”

We should probably go take a look, Anakin points out. See if Maul wrecked anything.

He’d better not have, thinks Obi-wan, heatedly, I just got new tables.

Anakin smiles at him, a shy little upwards twist of the mouth, before he ducks his head and huffs out a small laugh. Obi-wan almost reaches his hand out to touch his elbow.

He doesn’t, and they leave the kids to their planning.

--

The bar has seen better days. Obi-wan can admit that much to himself, when he takes in the chaos that he can see from the doorway, where the cops have cordoned off his bar for the time being.

“I can clean up my own bar, thank you,” he says, tartly, to the nearest officer.

The officer shrugs. “You’ll have it back in a few hours, sir,” he says, “we just need to take a statement from you and your friend here.” He nods to Anakin, who rocks back on his heels and smiles, tightly.

“He’s mute,” says Obi-wan.

“He looks kinda familiar,” says the officer, tilting his head.

Obi-wan looks at Anakin, who shrinks further into his hoodie, nervousness wrapping tight around him like a straitjacket. “Does he?” he says, mildly. “Do you?”

Anakin shakes his head, and Obi-wan feels a little bit terrible for his discomfort.

The officer frowns at them both, then sighs. “It’s just statements, it won’t take long,” he says, reassuring. “And I think Lt. Wesley knows sign language.”

Anakin relaxes visibly, but he still tugs the hood forward, as if self-conscious, as the officer leaves to flag down Lt. Wesley. Obi-wan steps back, nudges his side lightly.

I can give the statements by myself, you know, Obi-wan sends along their bond. It won’t be much, anyway.

Yeah, but then they’ll be suspicious and wonder what I’m keeping back, Anakin replies. Besides, one of them knows ASL, I’ll be fine.

All right, but if you need anything--

Anakin glances upward at the sky, gives a snort. You’ll know, he tells Obi-wan over their bond, as a young woman in a police uniform, her dark hair tied back into a severe bun, walks over to them.

“Mr. Kennedy,” says the woman, “and--friend. I’m Lt. Nora Wesley.” She nods to Anakin and says, “If you’ll come this way, sir?”

Obi-wan watches her guide Anakin away, then checks briefly on the bond between them, the action coming almost instinctively by now. He turns to the bar once more, and huffs out a breath. Maul’s attempted attack hasn’t claimed much in the way of casualties, and Obi-wan’s deeply glad that Cass and his two friends are all right, but god. Did they have to use the chairs in their fight?

“Jeez, Obi-wan,” says Ahsoka, walking up to him. “I thought your bar wasn’t that popular.”

“What are you doing here?” says Obi-wan, tucking his hands into his pockets. “And usually it isn’t. It’ll fade in time, I’m sure.”

At least he hopes so, anyway.

“I kinda doubt it,” says Ahsoka, cocking the right side of her head towards him, as if to better catch his words. “Do you want any help cleaning up? I have a lot of days off just waiting to be used anyway, I can take one and help out here.”

“I’d appreciate that, thank you,” says Obi-wan, with a tired but grateful smile. Cass is pretty good at what he does, and Anakin’s adapted well to having just the one hand, but they and Obi-wan are just three people. Having an extra pair of hands, even just for a day, would ease Obi-wan’s life so much.

De nada,” says Ahsoka, with a smile. It vanishes when she says, quiet, “So, uh, you and Anakin.”

“What about me and Anakin?” says Obi-wan.

“You’re sure about this bond-breaking thing?” says Ahsoka.

“How did you learn about that?”

Ahsoka shrugs. “How do you think I get my hair this nice?” she says. “I’m going to guess somebody already told you how bad an idea it is already.”

“You would guess right,” says Obi-wan.

“Especially if you’re not completely sure about it,” says Ahsoka. “I was your padawan for three years, remember? Or Anakin’s padawan, but considering how close you two were, I’m not that far off.” She lifts her head up to meet his eyes. “And--I just got you guys back,” she says, her voice trembling with a hint of fear.

Oh, thinks Obi-wan. Order 66 had left them--the survivors, the ones who’d run, the ones who’d left--all bereft, cast them all adrift in a galaxy that wanted what was left of the Jedi dead. He had tried his hardest, on Tattooine, not to think about them, not to hope, especially not for Ahsoka.

Because she’s right. She hadn’t just been Anakin’s padawan. Obi-wan had cared for her as though she was his own padawan, and he still cares for her even now.

He thinks of Mindy’s notebooks, their heavy weight in his hands, the thread of doubt curling around his heart. He thinks of the bond that he’s grown so used to now, of Anakin looking up at him with blue, blue eyes and a vulnerability Obi-wan had never seen from him, before his appearance on Obi-wan’s doorstep.

“You’re not going to lose us, Ahsoka,” says Obi-wan. They’re Anakin’s words, really, or as close as he can get, now that Anakin himself can’t say them anymore. “I’m certainly not going anywhere. I quite like my bar.”

“Oh, good, I kinda like it too,” says Ahsoka. “Where is Skyguy, anyway?”

Obi-wan glances over at Anakin, sitting on the hood of a police car, signing to Lt. Wesley. “Giving a statement,” he says to Ahsoka. All right there? he asks Anakin over their bond.

I’m okay, Anakin assures him.

“He’s all right,” Obi-wan adds.

“Oh, good,” says Ahsoka. “I’ve got some stories to tell him anyway.”

“You could tell me,” says Obi-wan.

“Stories about strawberries going places strawberries should not be,” says Ahsoka, with a shudder.

“On second thought,” says Obi-wan, hastily, as the officer from before walks toward them as if to shoo them away from the yellow tape, “I believe I’ll leave Anakin to hear those stories for himself.”

He and Ahsoka step away from the doorway, to the ambulance where Cass is.

And Cass is--

“Tell me you haven’t named her yet,” he says, as the cat happily nuzzles up against his cheek. “Can I name her?”

“You guys got a cat?” says Ahsoka.

“She is the sweetest,” Cass declares, to the cat’s contented meows. To his side, Jyn scowls, and nudges him in the ribs. “Ow, Jyn!”

“Yes, you can name her,” says Obi-wan. “And yes, we have a cat as of--two hours ago? Less than that. We were hoping to get her to a vet first.”

Ahsoka raises a brow, and it takes Obi-wan a moment to realize why: he’d said we.

“You’re in luck,” she says lightly, “I’ve got a friend who’s a vet. Well, a veterinary intern.”

“My mom’s a vet too,” Bodhi puts in, clambering up to sit beside Jyn. “If you need a second opinion, I can lean on her a little.”

Or if Ahsoka’s veterinary intern friend knows who Anakin is, Obi-wan thinks. Out loud, he says, “Ah--I mean, my dear friend, can we talk for a moment in private?”

Ahsoka’s face scrunches up, her nose wrinkling. Then she sighs and says, “Sure, okay.”

They step away from the ambulance, and Obi-wan leads her to an alleyway two buildings away from the bar. He looks around, spies a fire escape and a rude proclamation spray-painted on the dirty brick wall, but no one around who can overhear them.

He turns to Ahsoka, who says, “My dear friend. Really? I mean, it’s flattering, don’t get me wrong, but--” She trails off, flaps her hand between them. “Cass knows.”

“But Jyn and Bodhi don’t,” says Obi-wan, or at least he’s sure they don’t know everything, “and didn’t you notice the crowd of police officers?”

“Oh, yeah, that,” says Ahsoka. “So, why’d you bring me down here?”

“Your veterinarian friend,” says Obi-wan. “I find myself more than a little curious about them.”

“Her,” says Ahsoka, looking down and shifting her weight from one foot to the other, scuffing the ground with a toe. “It’s Barriss, before you ask.”

Obi-wan opens his mouth. Then he closes it. Then he says, “If I say anything, you’re going to point at Anakin, aren’t you?”

“Say what now?” says Ahsoka, looking up again and squinting at Obi-wan’s mouth. “I didn’t catch that.”

Obi-wan sighs, and says, “If I say anything, you’re going to say that Anakin’s living with me.”

“Oh, yeah,” says Ahsoka. “You’d be right.”

“That wasn’t what I was going to ask about,” says Obi-wan. “Does she remember? Because she and Anakin, when I last checked, were not on the best of terms.”

“She doesn’t know,” says Ahsoka. “And--I’d kind of like to keep it that way. She’s a good person, Obi-wan, she’s my friend, and I don’t want to see her weighed down by the things she did in a past life.” She breathes out a sigh, tucks her hair behind her ear, exposing her hearing aid all the more.

Not like Anakin, she doesn’t say, but Obi-wan hears it all the same. Not like Anakin, crushed underneath the weight of his dark deeds. Not like Obi-wan himself, with all his failures hanging around his neck, dragging him down.

“We won’t remind her,” Obi-wan promises.

Ahsoka breathes out, relieved. “Thanks,” she says. “You guys take good care of that cat of yours, all right?”

“Of course,” says Obi-wan.

--

The bar remains cordoned off for the rest of the night, so for the time being, Obi-wan’s bunking down in Ahsoka’s spare room, with Anakin in tow.

“Her name’s Maria now,” Cass informs them, cheerfully, the kitten purring contentedly away on Obi-wan’s shoulder, as an old convertible pulls up to the curb. Jyn and Bodhi have long since left, fetched by Jyn’s mother in a little Volkswagen Beetle.

Anakin, fresh from giving a statement, signs something to Ahsoka, who laughs and signs back. She turns to Cass and says, “He’s glad you picked a good name for her.”

“I didn’t tell you the rest of her name, did I,” says Cass, just as a very large man, long dark hair pulled back to expose his ears, climbs out of the driver’s seat. “Oh, hey, my ride’s here.”

“Cass!” the man calls. Obi-wan squints at him, trying to place him--he’s seen this man before, he’s sure. Maybe not in this life, but something about the way he holds himself, something about how his eyes rove quickly around as if checking for threats, makes Obi-wan wonder.

“Coming, Baze!” Cass shouts back, then he turns to Obi-wan. “So, uh, I’ll come in tomorrow?”

“Take a few days off,” says Obi-wan.

Cass’s right eyebrow ticks up. “You gonna clean up the place with just one guy on hand?” he asks, nodding to Anakin.

“Two,” says Obi-wan. “My friend from earlier has agreed to help for the day tomorrow.” Maria, on his shoulder, meows to punctuate his statement. “Take the day off. For tomorrow, at least, if you insist on coming in as soon as possible, but it would perhaps be better for you to take more than that.”

“I don’t know,” starts Cass. “I mean, I like Maria.”

“She’ll be safe with us,” Obi-wan promises.

Cass looks briefly at Anakin, as if considering, then sighs. “All right,” he says. “Be careful, Ben.”

“You too,” says Obi-wan, and Cass nods in acknowledgment before he turns and walks to the car.

Maria, perched on Obi-wan’s shoulder, gives a plaintive little meow. Absently, Obi-wan reaches up to rub her between her ears and gets grime on his fingers.

Anakin nudges him. Let’s go, he sends.

They fall into step beside each other, never more than an arm’s length away, and more than once Obi-wan almost, almost reaches to take Anakin’s hand.

Almost.

--

An interlude:

Of all the people Ahsoka expected to be putting up in her ex-roommate’s old room, Anakin’s not really one of them. Neither is Obi-wan. The both of them at once, ha.

But here they are.

Ahsoka picks up a fashion magazine and shoves it under her coffee table. “Sorry about the mess,” she says, straightening up. “My roommate moved out like two days ago. Way too many noise complaints.” She sighs, and kicks away a pizza box under the table. “She left some of her stuff behind.”

Anakin shrugs, slowly turns in place as if taking in her apartment. Then he turns back to her and signs, It’s better than the sidewalk, thanks, and finishes off by “cutting” through the air with his index and middle fingers.

Snips, she knows what he’s trying to say immediately. She smiles, and signs back, I should hope so, finishing off with the signs for sky and man.

She sees him smile, unguarded and bright.

Then the cat meows, apparently wanting to come down. Obi-wan, who’s inspecting Ahsoka’s bookshelf, sighs and reaches up, letting the kitten hop down into his hands, purring cheerfully.

“I can’t believe you guys got a cat,” says Ahsoka.

Anakin signs back, She’s a cute cat, we couldn’t resist her.

And there’s that we again. Ahsoka looks between him and Obi-wan, sensing the bond pulsing and humming with life and love between them, the Force twining around the two of them like vines in a well-tended garden.

It’s almost like the way things used to be.

Then Obi-wan ruins the moment by saying, “Oh, Anakin, about the vet--”

“She’s Barriss,” says Ahsoka, deciding to get it over with fast.

Anakin, who’s running his finger along the spines of her books, goes horribly, terribly still. Except for his hand, shaking with rage, and his eyes, flickering from blue to a yellow that stands out against the purplish bruise around one eye to blue again. His presence in the Force blazes bright with anger for a second, before it’s abruptly smothered as Obi-wan startles from the couch.

Anakin,” he says.

Anakin breathes out, and his hand stills, settles on her books, drumming nervously on their spines and diligently not looking at her.

Anakin, nervous. If it hadn’t been for Ahsoka coming regularly to teach him sign language, she’d be surprised. As it stands, she steps nearer to him, taps his shoulder lightly.

He startles, and Ahsoka jerks her hand back from his shoulder, suddenly afraid that she’s set him off. A heartbeat passes, then two, then Anakin looks up at her and signs, Does she know?

She breathes a sigh of relief, at the clear blue color of his eyes.

She doesn’t, she signs, just as Obi-wan folds himself into a seat next to Anakin, a hand dropping gently onto his shoulder. Ahsoka watches as her former master relaxes under Obi-wan’s touch, leans just the slightest bit into his side.

Maria the cat purrs delightedly, and clambers onto Anakin’s shoulder from her perch on Obi-wan’s.

“Feel free to fill me in on what you’re talking about any time soon,” says Obi-wan.

Anakin reaches up, and the cat rams her head into his hand. He smiles, small and sweet, and Ahsoka cannot remember the last time she saw him smile that way. Maybe he never smiled so contentedly around her ever.

“Here, let me take her,” she says, offering her cupped hands as a platform for Maria to hop onto. The cat jumps down from Anakin’s shoulder, sniffs Ahsoka curiously, and meows in what she hopes is approval. “Aww, aren’t you a cute little thing?”

Anakin, his hand free, signs, I know, with a dopey grin.

“She seems to like you,” Obi-wan observes, leaning back on his hands. He glances at Anakin, who looks back at him, and Ahsoka scoots a few inches away from them once it sinks in what they’re doing.

This is a private moment, something that belongs to Anakin and Obi-wan alone, the way her and Anakin’s signed conversations belong mostly just to the two of them. Sure, she can’t deny she’s curious, but if they’ll talk to her about it, she’s sure they will.

--All right, no, she isn’t, considering Obi-wan’s aversion to details.

So it’s a pleasant surprise when Obi-wan breaks his gaze away from Anakin to Ahsoka and says, “So where does Barriss work?”

“She works in a veterinary clinic the next district over,” says Ahsoka.

The bus ride’s going to be fun, Anakin signs. I get the window seat.

“You’re not going on a bus,” says Ahsoka. “I’ve got a friend who owes me a favor and drives a taxi, we can take a cab there as long as Maria behaves herself.” She looks down at the cat in her hands and coos, “Isn’t that right? You’re gonna behave and we’re gonna take you places!”

Maria meows, then bends down to start licking at herself.

“You’re lucky you’re cute,” Ahsoka tells her. “If you weren’t this cute and you hacked up a hairball I’d have banned your ass.”

Anakin taps her shoulder, lightly. She looks up, and he signs, I call shotgun.

“You always call shotgun,” Obi-wan absently grumbles, attention all on the books on Ahsoka’s bookshelf. Ahsoka lets herself feel slightly jealous of him for a moment, for having the easiest way of communicating with Anakin and thus an easy translation of much of what he’d be signing, before she lets it go.

The cat meows again, sounding distressed, and Ahsoka passes her off onto Anakin. And just in time too, because the kitten proceeds to hack up a hairball right onto Anakin’s hoodie.

Ahsoka meets Obi-wan’s gaze, and she sees the laughter coming almost a second before they both crack up, laughing hard enough that Ahsoka has to lean on Anakin, who nudges her side with his elbow in a half-hearted attempt at vengeance.

Obi-wan says--something, and she taps her hearing aid, winces at the burst of feedback, tilting her head closer just in time to catch the words, “--seen this coming.”

He falls silent for a second, and all Anakin does is reply with an audible hum. But something must’ve accompanied it through the bond, because the next thing Ahsoka hears is Obi-wan’s snort of laughter.

“I can find you a better hoodie when we get home,” he promises. “I’m sure my ex left some lying around.”

Maria meows, uncaring of the hairball she’s hacked up on Anakin. Anakin himself doesn’t seem too freaked out about having been the target of a hairball, just resigned.

Ahsoka asks him about that later, once they’ve cleaned up her apartment and put the kitty to bed with a makeshift litter box. You okay? she signs, as he’s tugging an old hoodie of hers on. If she tilts her head and listens, she’s pretty sure she can make out the sound of the shower running, and Obi-wan splashing about.

I’ll need to wash my jacket, but I’m fine, Anakin signs back.

I mean, are you okay? Ahsoka signs. With being somewhere new. With everything. And also with having been hacked up on, you didn’t react like I figured you would.

Anakin taps his fingers against her kitchen counter, then turns around and hops up to perch on it. He gives a pained noise when his head bumps against her cabinet.

You’re too tall, she signs at him.

I noticed, Anakin signs.

You haven’t answered my question, Ahsoka signs back.

Anakin’s heels bump against her cabinets. He looks down at his hands, picking nervously at the hem of his right sleeve.

Ahsoka’s seen this before. She gets all kinds, working in a hospital, and she saw all kinds in the Rebellion and the Clone Wars, and one of them’s people like Anakin: beaten, broken, hollowed out shells of who they used to be. In both the wars she had been in, she’d seen good men like Rex get worn slowly down by the war they fought, seen the endless death and hopelessness take their toll on a person, seen how it warped even the kindest people.

In this life, she’s never fought in a war. But all the same, she’s seen how it’s broken the people who’ve come home. She’s seen how some people wage their own private wars, and how it’s fractured them from the inside out.

She’d just--never thought Anakin would be one of them.

He signs, still looking away from her, I was imprisoned and then homeless for a while, I’ve had a lot worse on me than cat puke.

Ahsoka huffs out a breath. Out loud, she says, “You know, generally, when people sign, they look at each other. If they don’t, they end up missing some details.”

Anakin looks up at her, and signs, I mean it. I’ve had a lot worse.

I can imagine, Ahsoka signs, feeling helplessly frustrated, angry at whoever and whatever broke Anakin so badly. But are you okay?

Anakin looks away again, eyes fixing on her clock. Then he breathes out, looks back at her, and shakes his head.

Ahsoka hops up onto the counter beside him, careful not to touch him. Anything you want to tell me? she signs.

Anakin runs his hand through his hair, tucking the stump of his right hand into a pocket. He signs, I have nightmares. I haven’t had them in a while, but that was because I started sleeping with Obi-wan.

Ahsoka’s jaw drops, her hands dropping to her sides. If Anakin has been sleeping with Obi-wan all this time--but if Obi-wan’s still trying to find some way to sever the bond between them--

It isn’t like that! Anakin signs, wide-eyed when he catches her about to sign incredulously at him. I just sleep beside him. Nothing happens, Snips, I swear.

Which makes sense.

The bed’s not that big, signs Ahsoka. In the guest room.

We’ll manage, Anakin signs, a corner of his lips turning upwards in a bitter half-smile. It’s not like I take up that much space anyway.

He’s wrong. She wants to tell him that, suddenly--for all that he keeps trying to shrink into his hoodie, for all that he keeps trying to make himself seem smaller and less of a threat, there’s no escaping the fact that he’s still easily the brightest star in the Force. He fills up a room just by being there.

She knows what he was like, when he was a Jedi, always kind of cocky. She wonders what he must’ve been like ten, twenty years ago, as a lawyer at the top of his game.

Now he just looks like any other homeless war vet passing in and out of the hospital.

She musters a smile, hopes it isn’t tinged with the sadness she feels. Judging from the way Anakin’s half-smile gives way to a softer, more reassuring one, she’s pretty sure it didn’t work.

He scoots closer, elbow bumping against hers. He signs, I’m better now than I was in the past.

She doesn’t have to ask which one he’s talking about. The last time she had ever seen him, before he showed up in her hospital, his eyes were a blazing yellow behind a black, skull-like mask. Compared to that, almost anything would be leagues better.

Almost.

I don’t know about that, Ahsoka signs.

I can breathe, Anakin replies. He places his hand on his chest, mimes the rise and fall of someone breathing, in and out. He does it twice, for emphasis. It’s not the best life, and most of that’s my fault. But I can breathe on my own, and I can start figuring things out from there.

Ahsoka looks out, towards the general direction of the bathroom, and signs as she looks back to Anakin, What have you figured out?

Anakin opens his mouth. Closes it. Signs, That I was a D-O-U-C-H-E-bag.

Ahsoka snorts out a laugh, signs, You could spell the whole thing through.

I know how to sign B-A-G, and you got the message, Anakin signs back, and he’s grinning too, and Ahsoka thinks--

They’re going to be okay.

Then Obi-wan yells, “Why are you out of conditioner?” from the bathroom, and Ahsoka meets Anakin’s gaze, sees the trembling of his lips before they both break into laughter and his head hits the cabinet again.

Yeah. She knows.

They’re going to be okay.

--

They visit Barriss’s clinic the next day. Or--actually, it’s the Paws-itive Thinking clinic, which is the kind of terrible pun Anakin would’ve made once upon a time to make his children groan, but that time has long since passed and Anakin can’t not think of it as Barriss’s clinic. Even if Barriss doesn’t actually work as a vet there.

“That is a horrifying pun,” Obi-wan comments. Maria, in an old pet carrier Ahsoka somehow begged off somebody, meows inquisitively, excited to be somewhere new.

It’s a great pun, Anakin argues over their bond, purely for the sake of argument. Obi-wan rolls his eyes, but doesn’t respond.

Barriss’s clinic is somewhat more crowded than Anakin had first thought it would be, full of people and their pets waiting on a veterinarian or a nurse to call them. He shrinks into his hoodie, suddenly conscious of people looking, and prays none of them thinks he looks even vaguely familiar.

Ahsoka nudges his elbow, and signs, If this is too much, I know a place that serves great ice cream.

No, I’m okay, Anakin signs back, and slumps into a seat.

There are maybe ten, fifteen people in the clinic, many of them holding cats or dogs or rabbits or even a snake, for one of them. Anakin eyes the snake with some trepidation, then the owner of the snake, a girl playing Candy Crush on a phone with a Game of Thrones case.

She looks up at him, wrinkles her nose, and scoots further away from him, taking her snake with her.

Anakin looks back down at his stump, picks idly at the knotted sleeve. He feels conspicuous, in his too-small hoodie and secondhand jeans, compared to everyone else, dressed in clothes that fit them with pets that seem mostly okay, if somewhat droopy. Any moment now someone’s going to look at him and say--

“I’m here,” says Obi-wan, sitting down next to him, fingers briefly brushing over Anakin’s arm. Anakin looks up, sees kind blue eyes, then leans a little against Obi-wan’s shoulder and lets go.

It should concern him, maybe, that he’s grown so close to Obi-wan again, even knowing about Mindy’s notebooks taking up space under the floorboards. He should tear himself away, minimize the damage to the both of them when the bond breaks, get ready to leave, but.

But he doesn’t want to. He’s found maybe the closest thing to home here, and certainly Obi-wan’s cozy apartment is a lot better than a cardboard box in a dirty alleyway. He wants to stay, he wants to stay so badly that his heart aches with the yearning.

But.

If he stays--If he stays, Obi-wan might get dragged down into the murk, because of him. And Obi-wan doesn’t deserve that, doesn’t deserve to be dragged into Anakin Skywalker’s darkness just because of an accident.

But god, he hasn’t felt warm in years, and Obi-wan has been the only person in months to touch Anakin as if he deserves it, as if he’s worthy of something other than the cold and the murk and the darkness he’s been mired in for so long. As if he’s something, someone more than whatever’s left of who he was, a long, long time ago.

The cat meows from her pet carrier, snapping Anakin out of his thoughts. Curious little thing. He reaches over to poke his fingers through the bars, and is rewarded with Maria nipping playfully at his fingers.

She seems to like you very much, Obi-wan observes.

Anakin blinks up at him, then down at Maria, who’s licking at her paw. She’s a cat, he reasons, she doesn’t know any better.

On the contrary, Obi-wan sends, I believe she knows more than you think.

Anakin’s about to ask him what he’s talking about when a young woman’s voice rings out: “Ashley! Oh, it’s so nice to see you--who are your friends?”

He blinks and looks up, sees a freckled young woman in scrubs about Ahsoka’s age hugging her. For a second he’s not sure who she is, but Ahsoka shoots him an imploring look and he knows.

Barriss. It’s Barriss, only he has never seen her look so happy, never seen that strange crooked smile on her face. Obi-wan stands up to talk to her and shake her hand, introduce her to Maria, and Anakin’s pretty sure that in the time he knew her, Barriss would’ve never cooed so loudly at a cat, so mindful was she of being the model padawan.

But there she is, cooing at Maria through the bars of the pet carrier.

This is Barriss, now, Anakin’s certain: surer of herself, less nervous and less haggard. Without a war wearing her down, she just looks like any other veterinary intern, and the bags under her eyes are the same size you’d expect from an intern with a good-sized workload. Anakin looks back down at his stump, his hoodie, and once more feels the weight of a hundred, a thousand eyes watching him.

It isn’t fair, some part of him thinks, jealously.

It’s more than fair, the rest of him answers. After all, you were much worse than she ever was.

“And who’s this?”

Anakin’s head jerks upwards. He signs, Do you know A-S-L? I can hear you, but I’m mute.

“Oh,” says Barriss, understanding. She’s watching him with--pity, Anakin would know that look anywhere. He supposes he should be glad it’s not disgust. “I’m Beatrice. Ashley says you and your, ah, roommate? Are bringing in a cat.”

Anakin stares at her in dumb shock. Then he looks at Ahsoka, who quickly signs, I didn’t say anything, she saw you two and went from there.

He’s not sure what’s worse: the fact that Barriss’s first thought was that he and Obi-wan were dating, or the fact that he--he wouldn’t mind the assumption. He wouldn’t mind dating Obi-wan, he thinks, because of all the people in Anakin’s very tiny social circle, Obi-wan’s the one person who touches him regularly.

It’s sort of hilarious, really, if he thinks about it, in this dark, bleak way. Of all the people to end up falling for, he had to fall for Obi-wan. He had to fall for one of the people he’s wronged the most, and for maybe the only person right now who knows everything that Anakin’s ever done and lets him sleep next to him, anyway.

And they even have a cat together.

“Hello?” Barriss’s voice snaps him out of his thoughts, drags him away from working himself into a nervous frenzy. “Are you all right?”

Anakin blinks. Sorry, he signs to Barriss. I’m a mess. My name is A-N-I.

“Like the little orphan girl,” says Barriss.

Obi-wan says, “He wasn’t much of a good singer even before, though.”

Anakin flips him off. I was an amazing singer and carried our garage band through its entire existence, he sends, for good measure. What did you do?

I thought we agreed never to bring the garage band up ever again! Obi-wan huffs.

You started it, Anakin informs him.

Maria meows.

“Yeah, we’ll get you your appointment,” says Ahsoka, lightly tapping Anakin on the shoulder with her fingers. Anakin only barely startles, and gets to his feet as Barriss picks up the pet carrier, resuming her cooing at Maria the cat.

Anakin is vindictively pleased to see Maria batting angrily at the carrier’s bars, as if annoyed by the cooing. Good cat. When they get home, he’ll buy her all the kibble she can gorge her tiny kitty body on.

--he’s going to unpack that thought later. Maybe, hopefully, never.

--

They stay at the clinic for more than two hours--apparently Maria’s life on the streets exposed her to multiple risks, and the doctor checks her over at least twice after some treatment before declaring her healthy.

“Just keep her on this diet,” she says, handing over a slip of paper. Obi-wan tries not to wince at the horrifyingly bad pun in the clinic’s name, and squints at the near-indecipherable handwriting instead. “And I’ll want to see her again three days from now.”

“We’ll come by,” Obi-wan promises.

Barriss--Beatrice waves goodbye at them, hugs Ahsoka on their way out. Ahsoka hugs back, and Obi-wan sees her happy smile twist into something sadder, as if she still misses her friend. Something twists in Obi-wan’s gut, and he glances at Anakin, silently rocking back and forth on his heels, looking everywhere but at the two girls talking.

Soon enough they’re back at the bar. Obi-wan breathes a sigh of relief when he doesn’t see Cass hanging around the front door, but when he opens the door--

“You really need to get that restraining order, Ben,” says Satine, tapping her fingers impatiently against the polished wood of the counter. There’s a dent where Maul’s head had gotten slammed in, right in the middle of it. “This is, what, the second time?”

“And good morning to you too, Satine,” says Obi-wan, dryly.

“It’s nearly noon,” Satine shoots back, before she spies Ahsoka and says, warmly, “Oh, you’re the nurse from the hospital! The one that patched Ben up. I never got to thank you for your good work. And for backing me up.”

“I just did my job,” says Ahsoka, modestly, ducking her head and smiling before she looks back up at Satine’s face. Obi-wan glances back to see Anakin nudging her forward, and feels Anakin’s quiet pride in the Force. “Really, it was nothing.”

“And now you’re here to help clean up,” says Satine. “I never did catch your name either, come to think of it--”

“Ashley,” says Ahsoka.

“It’s Ahsoka,” says Obi-wan. “She looks a bit different, I know,” he adds at Satine’s incredulous look. “Much taller, for one thing. And lacking a pet carrier--the cat’s Maria, by the way.”

“Ahsoka Tano,” says Satine, wonderingly. “Well! I never thought we would ever meet again. It seems as if I have more to thank you for than I first thought.”

Ahsoka’s brow furrows, her smile fading, and says, “You--You really don’t have to mention it, you know. Mandalore wasn’t--”

She falters, shoots a glance at Obi-wan, then at Anakin.

Anakin inches closer to her, fingers resting on her elbow. I’ll talk with her, he sends over to Obi-wan, before they slip away to the alley beside the bar, Anakin signing apologies to Satine.

Honestly, Obi-wan’s pretty sure Anakin wanted some excuse to get away from Satine for a few moments, maybe coo at the cat. He can understand the urge--neither of them are huge fans of each other, and Anakin does seem to have taken a liking to Maria.

Satine watches them go, then turns to him and says, “So who was it this time?”

“You won’t like it,” Obi-wan warns her.

“I don’t like any of it,” Satine retorts. “But I want to know. Nay, I have to know.”

Obi-wan sighs, vaults over the counter to check on everything there--the baseball bat, the bottles, the petty cash. “Someone’s added to the petty cash,” he says, pleasantly, and turns away from Satine to pick out a bottle of whiskey that’s remained miraculously intact.

“That would be Cass, I imagine,” says Satine. “Obi-wan. You’re doing it again.”

“Doing what again?” says Obi-wan, getting a frustrated noise out of her in turn.

“You know damn well what,” says Satine. “This is why we broke up, remember?”

And--well, she’s got him pegged right there. For a lawyer, she’s incredibly fixated on being told the truth. He sighs, reaches for a glass, and pours her a shot. “On the house,” he says.

“You can’t bribe me into leaving it alone,” she informs him.

“I’m not,” says Obi-wan. “It’s just that you may not want to be sober for this.”

“Nonsense,” Satine scoffs. “Just tell me who Gault sent to try and rough you up this time.”

He looks at her, then. He’s long since memorized the shape of her face, her sharp eyes, the curve of her mouth, but even without that, he would still remember her death as if it happened just a week ago. He would still remember Qui-gon’s death the same way.

He breathes out. “Maul,” he says, quiet. “He sent Maul.”

Satine goes horribly, terribly still.

Then she downs the whiskey.

“Is he--” she starts.

“In jail,” says Obi-wan. “And, hopefully, there for the rest of his life.”

“Oh, he will be,” says Satine, darkly. “I’ll make damn sure he stays there.”

“Assault,” says Obi-wan. “He did try to beat up three teenagers.”

Satine nods, silent, and pushes her glass slightly towards him. He pours her another one, and passes it into her waiting hands, his fingers brushing briefly over hers. She had touched his cheek, before she died, and whispered that she loved him.

He wouldn’t mind at all, if Maul stayed in prison for the rest of his life.

“You realize you’re tangled up in this case now, right?” says Satine.

Obi-wan sighs. “I am not getting even more entangled than I already am,” he says. “I just want to pour beer for people, I find it relaxing.” And maybe make Anakin smile again, real and true and wide.

“Weren’t you a journalist?” says Satine. “Didn’t you once have this drive, to seek out the truth no matter the cost? What happened?”

Obi-wan lets out a breath, thinks of a snarling voice, spitting out venom and breaking his heart.

“I was,” he says, the exhaustion and grief familiar friends to him by now. “I’ve been retired for years, Satine. I just want a little peace and quiet.”

“I’ve never known you to be one for peace and quiet,” she comments. “Or cats.”

“You’d be surprised what twenty years on a desert planet can do for you,” says Obi-wan. He doesn’t say, and the loss of everything you’ve ever known, because the way she looks away signals her understanding anyway. “And I wasn’t going to abandon her. You saw what she was like when I found her.”

“Yes, a grimy, dirty and strangely adorable little kitten,” says Satine, propping her chin up on her hand. “Do you know, that’s maybe the second stray you’ve adopted, in these past few months?”

“I haven’t adopted Anakin,” huffs Obi-wan. “And he’s not a stray.”

“He showed up on your doorstep in an atrocious state after living on the streets for a significant period of time,” says Satine. “He counts. And--” She hesitates, and sighs. “I’m still not sure if he’s not dangerous. Even down a hand.”

“He isn’t,” says Obi-wan. “And not just because he’s down a hand.”

“Forgive me for saying this,” says Satine, pointing her glass at him, “but you’re not exactly the most reliable judge here. You’ve got this mental bond with him that I won’t even begin to pretend to understand, and you’ve known him for years. You’re rather biased towards him, Obi-wan.”

He can’t argue that point. Anakin has always been something of a blind spot, and Obi-wan is well aware of the part that had played, in blinding him to the danger his padawan posed. But--

But now is different. He’s aware of the danger, and walking into it with eyes wide open. He hopes he is, anyway.

And Anakin’s a mess, mute and shellshocked and raw, hurt so deeply that it left his shields a wreck and his mental state horrifically scarred. It hurts him to see his friend so uncharacteristically quiet and lonely, for all Anakin’s ever done to him and to the people he had once sworn to protect.

The least Obi-wan can do is just to be there for him.

“I suppose I am,” says Obi-wan. “He’s my friend, Satine. For all that he’s done, right now, he needs help.”

“You realize it’s possible you’re not the right person to give that help?” says Satine. “I can still give you that number. She isn’t a half-bad therapist.”

“I might not be,” says Obi-wan, “but he came to me.” He huffs out a breath. “I’ll ask him if he wants any therapy. If he says yes, I’ll ask for that number.”

“It wasn’t just Anakin Skywalker I was talking about, you know,” says Satine. “You’re not exactly a shining beacon of mental health, either.”

“I spent years in journalism,” says Obi-wan. “No one who’s ever worked in journalism comes out of it a shining beacon of mental health.”

“Which is why I recommend you go see someone,” says Satine. “Just once, Ben. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to go.”

“And how do you think your therapist friend is going to feel when I tell her about having once been in space?” says Obi-wan, a little sharper than he means to be.

Satine only lifts an immaculately-plucked eyebrow. “She already knows,” she says. “Just one time, Ben.”

Obi-wan lets out a long, tired breath. “I’ll consider it,” he concedes.

The side door creaks open, and Anakin holds the door open for Ahsoka to step through, the two of them signing rapidly to each other. Obi-wan only catches a few words every so often, but he sees the matching grins on their faces and knows that whatever Anakin was hoping to do, he’s managed to succeed at it.

Maria the cat, meanwhile, has somehow managed to migrate from the inside of the pet carrier to Anakin’s shoulder, watching everything around her with great interest.

Hey, are you letting her have free whiskey? Anakin’s mental voice pipes up in the back of his head. I want free whiskey.

Absolutely not, Obi-wan informs him. If you want anything that isn’t upstairs, you’ll have to pay for it like a regular customer.

Shoot my mood down, why don’t you, Anakin huffs, but his smile doesn’t falter, giving away the lie.

--

Four days later, Obi-wan walks in on Anakin cooing at the cat.

Which is a surprise, considering up until then Anakin hasn’t said anything to the cat either. At least he’s surprised, anyway, until he realizes that Anakin’s not actually saying anything, just making noises at Maria.

Sometimes he’s not completely sure how Anakin’s head works, and he’s got the ability to peek in on it, if he so chooses.

He sits down next to Anakin and says, “I can actually see some similarities between the two of you, you know. You just need to work on your purring.”

Anakin doesn’t startle. Instead he snorts out a huff of laughter, reaches over to flick Obi-wan’s ear. Obi-wan scoots away, denying him access, and Anakin rolls his eyes at him before he scoots toward Obi-wan, hand reaching.

One thing leads to another, and--well.

“Um,” says Obi-wan, flat on his back underneath Anakin. Up close, he can see the exact shade of blue of Anakin’s eyes, the tail of the dragon tattoo peeking out from under the collar of his shirt. Up close, Anakin’s dark hair brushes against his cheeks, Anakin’s heart beats inches from his, muscle and skin and clothes and not much distance in between them.

You need a haircut, he doesn’t say.

I’ve never known you to be one for tattoos, he doesn’t say.

I would very much like to kiss you, he absolutely cannot say.

He opens his mouth. Closes it. Finds himself staring up at Anakin’s face, wanting to trace Anakin’s jawline with his fingers. For a brief moment, he almost does.

Between them, the Force sings delight, longing, yearning.

Then Maria meows beside them, having hopped off the couch.

Anakin startles away, shakes his head as if shocked out of a trance by the cat meowing. He makes a little noise, reaches his stump up to his hair as if to brush his hair back with nonexistent fingers. He blinks, drops his stump to his lap, and blushes faintly red.

So I’ll just--I’ll go make coffee, Anakin offers.

Do that, Obi-wan answers, too dazed by the moment to really summon up a witty answer.

The second Anakin’s gone off to the kitchen, Obi-wan turns to look at Maria.

“I don’t know whether to reward you or to take away your favorite toy,” he tells her. “Really. That was just rude of you, but--it was awkward, so. Thank you for saving me.”

The cat, unmindful of Obi-wan’s indecision, just licks at her paws.

Obi-wan sighs, and scratches behind her ears.

--

“So how many sketches of Ben are there in that sketchpad anyway?”

It isn’t just Ben, Anakin writes in the margins. This is, what, his third pad this month? The other two are filled up with sketches and responses, half a conversation contained in their pages and coexisting alongside landscape drawings and sketches of people. I have a varied array of interests.

Cass doesn’t quite lean over his shoulder, but Anakin does see his eyebrow go up. “I’m sure you do,” he says, a tad sarcastic. “By the way, you sketch him more than anything else.”

Stop looking at my sketches, kid, Anakin writes.

“You leave them lying around all over the place, what do you expect me to do, not look?” Cass hooks a foot around a chair, pulls it closer with a noisy scrape that makes Anakin wince a little, and takes a seat. “But you do sketch him a lot more than you sketch anything else.”

Anakin glances up at the counter, where Obi-wan’s polishing the glasses with a clean rag. His beard could use a little trimming, Anakin supposes, and he’s humming something from a musical Anakin half-remembers dragging him out to, when they were still friends.

He looks down at his sketchpad, at the half-finished sketch of Obi-wan, sipping tea in the dim light of Anakin’s quarters in the Resolute. He thinks he must’ve gotten the tabards wrong, and rubs out the offending detail, sketches in a new one.

“Not half-bad, though,” says Cass.

I used to draw a lot when I was a kid, Anakin scribbles in the margins. He’s nowhere near his previous skill, owing to his remaining hand not being the dominant one, but it’s at least viewable. And he has the time to work at it. If you sit still long enough I can do one of you.

“I’ll think about it,” says Cass, just as the phone rings.

“I am not getting that,” says Obi-wan.

I’m not getting that, Anakin writes.

Cass sighs, and gets up from his chair to answer the phone. Anakin looks away from him and back to Obi-wan, catching the curve of his smile.

He looks down at his sketch, and starts redoing Obi-wan’s smile, trying to keep the soft curve of it from slipping away.

--

Anakin doesn’t stay up through the night often, now that he’s regularly crawling into Obi-wan’s bed to ward off his nightmares. Still, some days not even that can keep him from reliving his worst deeds over and over, so he retreats into the kitchen to dig out a tub of ice cream.

Maria pads up to him and meows sleepily. He bends down to absently scratch her behind her ears, only remembering too late that he’s using his missing right hand to do it when he bangs his stump against the chair leg instead.

He gives a pained hiss, letting his spoon clatter to the table’s surface. He clambers off the chair and bends down to better scratch Maria behind her ears, and gets a contented meow and a nip to the fingers for his troubles.

At least you’re happy, he thinks.

Maria rams her head softly against the palm of his hand, evidently seeking more pettings. He obliges her, until she ducks away and pads back to her bed.

He huffs out a breath. He should probably attempt to go back to sleep--

--something’s wrong.

For a second he’s not sure what it is, just that one moment he’s all right, the next he feels familiar dread twisting in his gut. Then he checks on the bond, and gets hit with the smell of cooked flesh, the weight of Satine in his arms almost as heavy as his master’s so long ago, her fingers brushing against his cheek, the scent of sulfur and brimstone, someone snarling I hate you I hate you--

That’s not his nightmare. For one thing, he’s awake.

That’s Obi-wan’s.

Anakin loses no time, rushing back to the bedroom. He scrounges up a happy memory from somewhere, the two of them half-drunk off freedom and gin during spring break, the musical sound of Obi-wan’s laughter warming him from the inside out, and pushes it towards Obi-wan’s end of the bond with very little finesse.

Obi-wan’s nightmares, outwardly, manifest differently from Anakin’s, enough that if he didn’t feel the bone-crushing, heart-stopping terror from the other end of the bond, he’d just think Obi-wan was a restless sleeper. He tosses and turns, brow faintly creased, murmuring something Anakin can’t quite make out.

He steps closer, scrounging up another memory, sifting through the murk to find something that shines: Luke at age one and a half, laughing and waddling closer to his uncle Ben. You can do it, buddy, Anakin (or Andy, he supposes) had called, and even more than twenty years after, it still makes his heart swell with pride.

He bundles it up with care, and pushes it across as he sits on the bed, his hand resting on Obi-wan’s shoulder. Wake up, he doesn’t say. I’m here, I don’t hate you.

Obi-wan settles, after a heartbeat. He opens his eyes then, blinks blearily up at Anakin. “Oh,” he says.

Hi, Anakin sends. You want to go back to sleep or you want to stay up with me? It’ll be just like when we were kids, with less trading cards. And more like the war, he supposes, when neither of them could sleep for all the worry they held over so many things.

“Did I wake you?” Obi-wan says, pushing himself up. Anakin doesn’t drop his hand quite yet, and he’s surprised to see Obi-wan slightly leaning into it.

I was already awake, Anakin sends. I was contemplating the meaning of life over a tub of ice cream, which is probably melted by now.

“What a tragedy,” Obi-wan says, but he doesn’t sound quite as sarcastic as usual. More shaken instead. Anakin knows exactly how it feels. “Are you alright?”

I’m not the one who just had a nightmare, Obi-wan, Anakin replies.

“You’re the one staying up,” Obi-wan points out.

We can stay up together, Anakin sends. I need the company anyway. Maria went to sleep.

“At least she has better sense than we do,” says Obi-wan, finally breaking away to swing his legs over the other side of the bed. Anakin lets his hand drop to his lap, fiddles with the hem of his shirt. “About. About my nightmare--”

I don’t hate you, Anakin sends, striving for reassuring and trying not to give anything else away. Not anymore. Your girlfriend’s alive, though I’m not all that sure about her self-preservation instincts. And we are nowhere near fire, and thank god for that.

“You get tetchy, I know,” says Obi-wan, moving around on slippered feet to nudge his side. “You mentioned something about ice cream?”

Anakin smiles up at him, and leads him out of the bedroom.

--

It’s the tail-end of another busy night at the bar, and Obi-wan is cleaning down the counter around a lone unconscious drunk passed out in his favorite spot when Anakin slides into a seat, sketchpad tucked underneath his arm.

Your birthday’s coming up, he starts without any preamble whatsoever, as he flips his pad open to a blank page and pushes the pencil out of the binder.

Please don’t make a production out of it, Obi-wan begs over their bond.

I won’t, I won’t, Anakin replies, sketching something out. He glances up from his pad, squints at the drunk, then looks back down. I can’t afford to anyway. I do want to ask, though, what kind of gifts are you into?

Socks that don’t have holes in them, Obi-wan sends. New curtains, perhaps. And the dent in my counter fixed, we can’t forget that.

I don’t know about the counter, but the curtains and socks are doable, Anakin sends, though he doesn’t raise his head above his sketchpad. But--really, that’s it? That’s all there is?

That’s all there is, Obi-wan confirms.

If you say so, Anakin sends, but there’s a skepticism in his mental tone that Obi-wan privately thinks is well-founded, because. Well.

He wants him to stay, for a good long time.

God help him, he’s certain he wouldn’t even mind the bond between them. He hasn’t minded it in a long while, hasn’t pried loose the floorboard hiding Mindy’s notebooks in a while.

But he can’t just ask Anakin to stay, now, can he? They’re already teetering on the edge of something, and Obi-wan is terrified of finding out what it is, exactly, if it’ll be something good or if it’ll just be heartbreak for both of them. And Obi-wan’s heart is in barely any shape to take any more heartbreak. He’s willing to bet Anakin’s sick of heartbreak, too.

He’s not going to fall. He’s great at not falling, or at least keeping himself from going over the edge.

Now if he can just keep telling himself that, maybe he can almost start to believe it.

Anakin looks up once more. The dim light seems almost to wash over him, giving a soft glow to his features. He absently spins the pencil in his hand, staring at the drunk before he looks back down at his sketchpad, running his teeth over his lower lip as his pencil scratches on the paper.

In the dim light, he looks like something almost divine.

Obi-wan looks away.

He’s not sure he’s even on solid ground anymore, in truth.

--

When Obi-wan comes back to his apartment from a visit to the vet with Maria riding on his shoulder, there’s a plain brown package on the table.

“Oh,” he says. He sits down, and Maria hops off and paws curiously at the box. Anakin? he sends.

There’s a sleepy acknowledgment on the other end of the bond between them, but otherwise, Anakin doesn’t exactly answer. At least not coherently, but he can chalk that up to Anakin sleeping the afternoon away.

He tears away the paper, opens the box, and smiles.

He lifts up a pair of clean, white socks, just his size. Then he lifts up a few packets of tea--not enough to last him even a week, if he drinks it as regularly as he usually does, but he knows this brand, this flavor.

Maria meows, jumps into his lap and makes a circle. Obi-wan bites back a hiss of pain, he really needs to clip her claws so they don’t dig into his skin so much, but he lets her put her head down and curl up, trapping him on the couch.

He turns a packet over in his hand. This is not an easy brand to come by, especially not in a small town like this, which means that Anakin must’ve spent most of his time just looking for it. And the price--there’s not even a week’s supply here. Still, that Anakin had gone to all this effort--

Obi-wan smiles to himself, then drops a hand to idly scratch Maria behind her ears. She purrs contentedly.

Thank you, he sends to Anakin. Thank you so much.

Anakin’s end of the bond, still fuzzy with sleep, pulses with a pleasant warmth in response.

--

to be continued.