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Rebel Hearts

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Pins and needles when you wake
All our memories became a collection of mistakes

- Fake Your Death (and I’ll Fake Mine) , Whitehorse

 

The entire universe narrowed to the two points of warm contact: Bail Organa's hand, soft and large, on Obi-Wan's shoulder, and the gentle, slumbering weight of the baby cradled in Obi-Wan's arms. Bail's fingers squeezed, hard enough to feel through the multiple layers of a uniform that was now a target. "You could come with me," Bail whispered, bending his head a little closer. "I have a cousin who I trust with my life. The boy could go to them, and you could—"

"Hide in the palace of the Queen of Alderaan?" scoffed Obi-Wan. "I doubt Breha would appreciate having a wanted man living underfoot."

Bail's mouth twitched. "It was her idea."

"No, Bail." Obi-Wan forced himself to take a step back. If he did not, he might agree to his friend's ridiculous, dangerous plan. "The children must—it's too dangerous to keep them together, even on the same planet."

Bail's terse silence spoke volumes, and his perfectly bland face had expletive-laced argument written all over it. Obi-Wan lifted his chin slightly, and Bail exhaled sharply through his nose. "I hate that you're right."

"Me, too," murmured Obi-Wan. Luke started to fuss, scrunching his face in preparation for a wail. It felt like the baby would fling himself out of his arms, so Obi-Wan tensed his hold.

Bail reached out and brushed his fingers against the soft curve of Luke's cheek. The baby opened his mouth and followed the fingertips, making Bail smile. "And what is the name of Leia's brother?"

"Luke."

"Well, Luke Naberrie, you're ready to eat, aren't you?" Naberrie. Was Bail being politely, politically discreet about the identity of Padmé's child, or did he truly not know the identity of the twins' father—or did the Naboo follow matrilineal naming traditions? Obi-Wan could not remember—he had to find out, immediately— "Obi-Wan?"

He tore his gaze from the increasingly upset baby at the sound of his name. "Yes, Bail?"

The Senator had an odd expression of concern—for Obi-Wan or for the baby?—and pity. His voice was gentle. "Have you ever cared for an infant before?"

"The crèchemasters generally didn't allow it," Obi-Wan told him. "I didn't make it down to see them during the war, though I would imagine they would have been throwing potential"—how could he say the word Padawan ever again, now that it was tainted?—"Initiates my way."

"Hmm." Bail scooped the baby from Obi-Wan's rigid arms and held him upright against his shoulder. "Come on, then. Breha made me take a class last year when we decided to adopt."

Having a perfectly needy being to focus all his attention kept Obi-Wan from slipping into the ever widening maw of despair. He watched Bail's movements and followed with his own awkward attempts, which Bail gently corrected and praised with equal measure. With Luke fed and changed, Bail hefted the infant against his chest and pointed to the obi wrapped around the Jedi's waist. "Take that off."

Obi-Wan frowned. "Why?"

"You want to feed yourself? Fly a ship? Use more than one hand until you do whatever it is you have planned with the baby?" At Obi-Wan's raised eyebrow, Bail flicked his finger at the obi again. "The sash, Obi-Wan."

He fumbled with the clasp of his belt, his fingers slow and clumsy. He unwrapped the length of undyed raw silk and wool and handed it to Bail, then reattached his belt to keep his tunics from falling open. "Now, take the baby."

Bail pressed the tiny body against Obi-Wan's chest. Obi-Wan's hand splayed across Luke's back, nearly engulfing him. He smelled of infant meal replacement and human skin and an oddly compelling scent that held the faintest tang of blood despite the bath the med droids had given him. So tiny. So fragile. He probably sang in the Force. Bail lifted the fabric and stretched it between his hands. "Watch."

Bail spread the obi across Luke's back, tucking the edge beneath the baby's legs, bent like a frog’s, and crossed the ends behind Obi-Wan's back before bringing them over Obi-Wan's shoulders and tying the ends under Luke's bottom. "It's not too snug?" asked Obi-Wan, flashes of suffocation swirling through his brain.

"No. Snug keeps him from falling out. Now, keep him close enough to kiss and his knees up like that. You remember how I tied it?"

"Yes."

A hesitation, brief but noticeable. "Obi-Wan, are you sure about this?"

"It's the way it must be," replied Obi-Wan quietly. Sated and warm, Luke sighed and snuggled against Obi-Wan's tunics. For some inexplicable reason, Padmé's son seemed to feel safe with Obi-Wan Kenobi. "I—we—should go."

"I will ensure Padmé returns home. Let me know where you end up." Bail once again settled his hand on Obi-Wan's shoulder. "May the Force be with you, my friend."

Obi-Wan nodded. The Force had abandoned him on Mustafar, with the forbidden stroke of mou kei . With every passing moment, the Force pulled away. What was once the ocean of the universe, his link to the currents of life and possibility, the very core of his existence, was now a void, empty and unending. The Force would never be with him again. "Give Breha my love."

With a steadying breath, Bail turned towards his own waiting daughter—surely an unparalleled spark in the Force to match her lungs—and disappeared back into the Polis Massa facility.

No one witnessed Obi-Wan dropping a whiskery kiss to the top of Luke's head. "Let's get you home, Luke."

 

****

 

In the shadow of the seventh moon of Tarastra, Obi-Wan hissed expletives under his breath in Huttese to avoid waking the baby and shut down the life support systems to the lowest possible power settings. Every other system was off completely to avoid triggering the sensors on the Star Destroyer patrolling the hyperspace routes around Eriadu. There was no chance of slipping past the patrol.

Based on the brief, squawking burst of data he had received coming out of hyperspace, the ship was—used to be—the Audacity.

Stass Allie had once stood on that bridge, and would stand no more. The Force had cried out with her death, too.

"Now what?" Obi-Wan leaned back in the pilot's seat, absently rubbing the gentle curve of Luke's spine through the sash-turned-carrier. "I'm all ears, little one."

Luke sighed, his lips fluttering as if he dreamt of nursing.

"You're right, there are five hyperlanes," murmured Obi-Wan, "and surely they can't guard them all. And if I remember the briefing from a month ago, the Audacity was in dock for…for what, Luke? Oh! Yes, she sustained damage to the port side stabilizers. Perhaps that particular snag--no, I believe they fixed that."

With the main computer on low power standby, Obi-Wan rummaged in the compartment beneath the pilot console and pulled out a navicomp datapad. The display brightened at his touch, revealing unfamiliar symbols. "Oh, of course it's in karking Kaleesh. Because you just had to make my life difficult even after I killed you, right?" He stabbed at the datapad, hoping the command matrix was standard. The datapad chimed warningly at him. "Oh, fuck you and fuck Grievous, too."

The baby sighed.

"Sorry for such language in front of your son, Padmé, but I think you'd agree the situation warrants it," Obi-Wan muttered. He forced himself to slow down and re-enter the command sequence on the datapad. The Kaleesh letters flickered and the Aurebesh alphabet winked into existence. "Now, let's plot a way out of this mess."

It took him an hour to create possible routes from his hiding spot to each hyperlane entrance, including feints that would enable him to outrun the Audacity should it engage in a chase. With the calculations finished, there was only one piece of data missing: the Star Destroyer's patrol route.

He would have to turn the sensors back on.

"Ready, little one?" Obi-Wan took a deep breath before flipping on the passive sensor array. The sensor data flashed across the round screen, indicating the position of the Audacity and projecting a trajectory based on the ship's current direction and speed.

In the first stroke of luck he had encountered, the Audacity moved away from the entrance to the Hydian Way.

The sensor array screeched at him, urgent and piercing; he cut the audio with a wince and felt his heart plummet into his shoes. The passive sensor sweep had been intercepted by the Star Destroyer. The Audacity was headed towards his stolen ship.

His stolen, highly-modified, military grade Separatist fighter—that held Padmé Naberrie's newborn son.

Running was his only option.

He linked the datapad to the navigation console with one hand and powered up the ship's systems with the other. Electricity hummed as the instrument panels lit up and began chirping for his attention. Obi-Wan checked the shield and outer armour status, gritted his teeth, and wrapped his hands around the controls. "Did you know that I hate flying?" he told the sleeping baby before dropping the ship into a sharp dive beneath the moon's southern pole.

The Audacity was no match for the maneuverability of Grievous' horrifically named Soulless I . Once he was clear of the moon's gravitational field, Obi-Wan fired the sublight engines at maximum power and shot beneath the Star Destroyer towards the hyperlane beacons. The proximity sensors howled; a squadron of MagnaGuard fighters, swarming like angry hornets, shot out of a rear bay towards the stolen ship.

But Obi-Wan had a head start and a ridiculously fast ship. He banked sharply to port, lining up to take a run at the spacelane entrance while spooling up the hyperdrive—

A triangular hulk winked into existence, blocking his approach. The carbon scoring across the bow, vaguely shaped like a twisting vine, was unmistakeable. The Vigilence had arrived.

Obi-Wan Kenobi stared at his own ship, his breath stuck in his chest.

The baby rubbed his face against Obi-Wan's chest, whimpering, and Obi-Wan sucked oxygen into his burning lungs. His fingers danced over the controls, faster, faster, as a broadband communication blared through a speaker adjusted for Kaleesh hearing.

" Soulless I, cut your engines." The voice was tinny, human—but not the familiar accent of a clone soldier. "Prepare to be towed to the Imperial Star Destroyer Amidala. Any attempt to deviate from these instructions and we will destroy you."

Obi-Wan shut off the comm system. The name rolled over him without taking root. He could not afford to let it sink into his skin, to crack the last vestiges of his heart, not with Luke—

"My good cloak is still in my quarters," he noted. "I guess I'm not getting it back, hmm?"

As the starfighter dipped sharply, blinding ion beams strafed the bow. "Warning shots are not good," he muttered as he blinked to clear his vision. "Warning shots mean they want us alive."

The proximity alarm changed pitch, announcing the MagnaGuards rapidly closing on him. With the bare minimum of evasive maneuvers to keep what little advantage he had in speed and distance, Obi-Wan pushed the engines past the normal tolerance. "You need four arms to fly this fucking thing!" he growled. He pushed the button to activate the internal ship's comm. "Godsdamnit, Anakin, get up here—"

The moisture evaporated from his mouth, stealing the sound from his throat.

No time. No time. The MagnaGuards closing in, the warning shots close enough to shake the ship, a little too far away from the hyperlane entrance, no time

" Fuck, " he rasped as he wrapped his hand around the hyperdrive control and pushed the engines to maximum. He didn't dare close his eyes as the stars stretched and his skin prickled.

 

****

Luke did not like hyperspace. Unsettled and unhappy, the baby slept fitfully between feedings and changings. The miserable whimpering weighed on Obi-Wan, who spent every moment not adjusting the scanners bouncing in his seat and humming the gentle tunes of his childhood in the crèche.

"You're not the only one who dislikes hyperspace," he sang in the tune of The Jedi and the Bantha, one of five year old Obi-Wan Kenobi’s favourites, as he rubbed circles over Luke's back. "It makes a lot of people nauseous. I think it has to do with moving faster than light. Our bodies were never meant to move faster than light."

Luke opened his mouth wide and began to cry.

"My singing isn't that bad," Obi-Wan told him. "I know a drinking song with a good beat, if you'd prefer. Cody—"

Cody had tried to kill him. His most trusted soldier, the person Obi-Wan depended on to keep things together when everything was falling apart, had handed him a lightsaber-- this weapon is your life --and then tried to obliterate him with the help of his brothers. The men had turned on their Jedi as if reprogrammed like droids.

Betrayal on top of betrayal, rending the fabric of the galaxy.

Obi-Wan took a deep breath and began humming the tune he had learned during his first meditation lesson. Luke squirmed until he managed to stuff his fist in his mouth, and the crying trailed off as he sucked on his fingers. "There! That's better for both of us, isn't it?" Obi-Wan said.

Not wanting to upset the baby again, Obi-Wan stayed silent and stared hard at the navicomp screen. General Kenobi would have shrugged off the low fuel warning, knowing that the Jedi High Council knew his whereabouts and could dispatch a ship to pick him up. Obi-Wan Kenobi, enemy of the Empire, no longer had that luxury.

Every time he dropped out of hyperspace, an Imperial ship would appear less than half an hour later. He suspected a tracking device on the hull, but without a droid, there was no possible way for him to sweep the ship without landing on habitable soil. With every jump, he travelled further away from Tatooine and deeper into the narrow strip of Mid Rim next to the Unknown Regions. He didn't dare fly into uncharted space or closer to the Core.

There was enough fuel for one last jump. Ilum was likely a terrible choice—too connected to the Jedi, too valuable with its kyber crystals, too isolated if he got into real trouble. But he knew Ilum. He knew the way. He knew where the emergency supply caches were hidden, both inside and out of the Temple. The planet had no defense system, no sensor net—but kyber crystals interfered with subspace signals. He could slip in, gather supplies, search the ship's hull for tracking devices, and make his way to Tatooine without the Empire chasing him.

"You're going to need a hat, Luke," he said absently as he plugged the coordinates into the navicomputer and settled in for a long jump.

The proximity alarm jolted Obi-Wan from the hazy edge of sleep. The sounds of screaming faded in his mind as he blinked viciously to refocus his vision. The stars were static. Pulled out of hyperspace, not yet near Ilum and now running on fuel fumes, Obi-Wan sat dead in space and craned his neck to see out the transparisteel window.

He nearly burst into tears of relief at the sight of the ship, awkward and bulky and pointing its light cannons directly at Soulless I . Punching his ident code into the comm system, he transmitted it on a High Council frequency.

Silence. Dread washed over him—had he just made an assumption that would get them both killed? His hand hovered over the sublight engine control, ready for evasive action.

The comm system crackled, sounding like static to anyone not a sitting member of the Council. Obi-Wan couldn't hold back his relief. "Thank the little gods," he breathed, voice cracking.

"Master Kenobi—"

"I hate to be rude, Professor, but I need to board your ship immediately."

"Of course," replied the ancient droid, "but did you know you're transmitting a tracking signal?"

There was his answer on that. "Do you have any astromechs aboard?"

"Just me, I'm afraid." Kark.

"Meet me at the docking port." Obi-Wan activated the docking procedure, then coded a timed self-destruct sequence before wriggling out of the pilot's seat. The ship shuddered as it made firm contact with the Crucible II . Obi-Wan knelt, cursing the engineers who designed such a terrible docking port, and hit the airlock control.

The burst of air across his face, recycled and cold, set his nerves alight. He crawled through the airlock, dragging the nearly-empty canvas bag of supplies behind him, until he reached the tarnished silver feet of the Jedi Order's architect droid. Huyang bent his knees and grabbed Obi-Wan's shoulders with all four of his arms to help him to his feet. "It is truly wonderful to see you—"

"Jettison my ship," Obi-Wan ordered, "or we'll have enemy ships on us shortly."

Huyang nodded and tapped on a computer interface panel next to the airlock; the thick doors slammed shut, and metal scraped against metal as the Soulless I drifted away. The droid peered at the interface. "Your ship's thrusters have activated. It is moving away at one hundred thousand kilometers per second."

Obi-Wan counted under his breath, and when he reached twenty, Huyang nodded to himself. "The ship has self-destructed."

"Good," Obi-Wan breathed. "Thank you, Professor. Your rescue was well-timed."

Huyang tilted his head at the Jedi. "Rescue? Master Kenobi, I was prepared to destroy you. What were you doing, flying in Grievous' personal ship?"

"You know what's happened?"

Beckoning with three of his arms, Huyang was silent as he led the Jedi Master through the corridors of his home and up to the cramped bridge. Huyang touched a button, and Obi-Wan watched his own holoprojection wink into existence above the console.

" This is Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. I regret to report that both our Jedi Order and the Republic have fallen, with the dark shadow of the Empire rising to take their place. This message is a warning and a reminder for any surviving Jedi: trust in the F— "

"Turn it off," ordered Obi-Wan. Trust in the Force, if it hasn't already abandoned you. "I know what it says."

Huyang acquiesced, but watched Obi-Wan with his yellow, unblinking ocular sensors, clearly concerned. "I did not answer the original beacon, as it did not specify droids needing to return, and after your message, well, I thought it best that someone should guard Ilum's secrets."

"That was well considered, Professor," said Obi-Wan. "But it's only a matter of time until the Empire comes for the kyber crystals. The Sith know of its existence, and Ilum will not remain secret. Crucible II is no match for a Star Destroyer."

"In a thousand years I have never shirked my duties, and I'm not starting now, Empire nonsense or otherwise. I will do my duty to the Jedi Order," sniffed Huyang, as if offended that Obi-Wan would suggest otherwise.

"The Jedi Order no longer exists!" His shout, sharp and jagged, woke the baby. Luke began to wail, frightened out of his slumber, and Huyang bent double to peer interestedly at Obi-Wan's charge.

"A baby! My goodness, I haven't seen a baby in nine centuries!" The droid began to reach out, then paused. "Might I take him for a while, Master Kenobi? I may not have a sense of smell, but dare I say you look like you could use a shower."

Little gods, he was getting mother henned by the damned 'saber droid. How bad did he really look? Obi-Wan loosened the knot and extracted the baby from the sash. Those careful, dexterous fingers, specially designed and updated with every new development in fine motor control systems, cradled Luke's head and bottom, then lifted the infant from Obi-Wan's grasp.

Luke continued to cry, but Huyang snuggled him against his chest plate. "Oh, you're tiny, compared to some of the Initiates I get on board," the Professor said at low volume. "I had a Wookiee not too long ago—a wooden lightsaber casing for that rare Jedi, would you believe it? Your friend here, Master Kenobi, I remember his first lightsaber. So eager to finish that he nearly assembled his casing with his crystal still sitting on the table next to him! Oh, yes! Not the first to do so—"

Obi-Wan fled the cockpit before he could hear the droid assume and not the last .

 

****

 

Freshly showered, Obi-Wan perched on the edge of the bunk in the accompanying Master's quarters and stared blankly at the bundle of clothing in his hands. He might be clean, but the fabric reeked of volcanic gases and burnt wool.

He closed his eyes, his face burning with the memory of the heat of Mustafar. The roar of shifting lava, the insistent hum of his lightsaber— it's over, Anakin, I have the high ground

Seared flesh over mouth curling sulfur.

Obi-Wan dropped his clothes on the floor. Something else. He had to find something else to wear. The Master's quarters contained a small closet, which hissed open to reveal a long-abandoned pair of brown trousers and a long-sleeved tunic that was grey beneath the old grease stains. He snatched them off the hangers and pulled them on. The trousers fit, thank the little gods, but he rolled up the tunic sleeves until they sat at his wrists. He buckled his belt overtop, feeling incomplete without it. He would have to put his socks back on.

Later. After they had a chance to dry out.

Barefoot, Obi-Wan left the quarters and wandered through the Crucible II . He did not hear any angry baby cries. The deck plating chilled his feet as he roamed. He passed an open door, stopped, and poked his head inside.

The construction bay.

The lights flickered on as he crossed the threshold, bathing the room in gentle light. There was no need for harsh spotlights here; the Force provided the required sight to assemble a first lightsaber. A complete set of tools arranged on a low-sided tray waited on the otherwise empty workbench, as if in invitation. Obi-Wan's hand brushed against the weapon hanging at his side. He might not get this opportunity again.

He knelt at the bench, unclipping the lightsaber. The familiar planes and edges of the hilt, traditional and chosen for his preferred grip, had once been aesthetically pleasing.

This weapon is your life.

You'll be the death of me .

Focus. He could not maintain his weapon without focus. Obi-Wan lifted his hand and watched his fingers tremble in mid-air.

From the door, Professor Huyang made a noise like clearing his throat. "This room must be supervised," the droid remarked, his gaze firmly on Obi-Wan's hand, "and it seems now is no exception."

"I need to check it over," Obi-Wan said lamely, unable to take his eyes off his own hand.

The droid approached, the servos in his joints softly whirring, and knelt on the other side of the workbench. In one arm, Luke slumbered with his fist firmly in his mouth. Huyang grabbed Obi-Wan's lightsaber and held it up.

If he had a mouth, Huyang would be frowning. The droid shook the weapon slightly, head cocked to listen, then very carefully set the hilt down on the table. "Master Kenobi, I believe you have a cracked crystal. I would be remiss in my duty if I did not strongly warn you to not activate your weapon until you replace it."

Obi-Wan clenched his fists in his lap, relishing the points of focus as he dug his fingernails into his palms. A cracked crystal. Despite Huyang's perfectly neutral voice, he heard the recrimination hiding underneath. Kyber crystals cracked when their owner was unbalanced, when the Force protested—

The crystal reflected the Jedi's heart.

Seizing the tiniest spanner, Obi-Wan set to work. Huyang watched, unblinking and silent, as Obi-Wan pulled apart the 'saber casing and revealed the inner workings. The question of why he didn't use the Force never came, for which Obi-Wan was grateful. He lifted a bundle of circuitry, revealing the brackets that held his crystal.

It wasn't broken; it was shattered. Visible spiderweb cracks emanated from the centre of the blue crystal but didn't break the surface. Huyang hummed in disapproval. "That would have exploded in your hand," he noted. "With that power cell, it would have vaporized everything in a three meter radius."

"Your warning was timely, Professor," murmured Obi-Wan as he extracted the broken crystal. Its song was probably mournful, or possibly sharp and angry, but Obi-Wan couldn't hear it. He pocketed the crystal. "I'll be needing a new casing, if that's possible."

"If it's not possible here, then it would be impossible," retorted Huyang. His back arms extended, motioning to the cabinets behind him. "As you are a High Councilor and not a youngling, I trust you can find your own?"

Obi-Wan nodded his thanks and methodically rummaged through the first bank of cabinets. Huyang's organization system wasn't easily discernible; different hilt styles nestled against each other with no semblance of logic. He searched the entire cabinet, unsatisfied and feeling oddly adrift.

Huyang didn't glance back. "Third cabinet, second drawer, if my memory banks serve me, Master Kenobi."

Inside the drawer were six different hilts. A set of identical, curved silver hilts, a matching pair of a full-sized hilt and a shoto, a traditional grip that was too large for him to reliably wield, and—

It wasn't a hilt he would have chosen. Tarnished with age and revealing no activation or precision controls, the plain cylinder offered little in the way of grip or interest. With a small frown, Obi-Wan pulled out the drawer and set it on the workbench in front of Huyang. "I've not become an expert in jar'kai since we last met, Professor."

Huyang ran the tip of his finger along the tarnished 'saber. His voice was quiet. "I am a droid. I have no organic components, nothing to bind me to the Force which I serve." He paused, and in the silence between them the only sound was Luke's breathing. "My programming has been active for a millennium. I see patterns, Master Kenobi, in such minute, fleeting things, over the spans of human lifetimes. I cannot verbalize these patterns without sounding as if my logic subroutines need scrubbing, but I can tell you this: you must take all of these with you."

"Why?" Obi-Wan stared at the lightsaber hilts, at a loss to comprehend intuition from a droid when his own was lost to him.

The ship shuddered. Instantly on alert, Obi-Wan plucked Luke from Huyang's arm and ran behind the droid all the way to the cockpit. Alarms blared, warning a dozen different urgencies, but the tell-tale diamond shape of a Star Destroyer filled the window. Before he could issue an order, Huyang's four arms were already in motion, too fast for him to see clearly, then the stars stretched.

"Gather your things, Master Kenobi," Huyang said without looking at the Jedi.

"We could hide on Ilum—"

"No." The droid's arms never stopped their dance over the flight controls, but Huyang deliberately leaned over Obi-Wan. "I will not risk leading these fools who call themselves an Empire directly to Ilum. It is possible that other Jedi will find their way to the Temple, and I must keep the way clear for them."

"This ship is a target!"

"Then they can chase me across the Unknown Territories," retorted the droid. "You may have forgotten, but I am programmed to defend the Jedi younglings in my care aboard this ship with all necessary force and cunning. I've never lost that fight before, and I'm not starting today."

The stubborn set of Huyang's shoulders reminded Obi-Wan of another obstinate bantha's arse— "I'm not a youngling," snapped Obi-Wan.

"I'm a thousand years old. Every Jedi is a youngling to me."

"Professor, I am ordering you—"

"You said yourself the Jedi Order no longer exists. Therefore, I am free of my obligations, and I do not have to follow your orders," Huyang said airily. "And I would warn you that I've survived dismemberment."

Horrified at the implication, Obi-Wan's mouth dropped open. "You think I would harm you, Huyang?"

"I think you are desperate, Master Kenobi," the droid replied softly. "And I have learned never to underestimate the desperate, no matter how much respect they might hold for a lowly droid. Now, fetch your things. Timings will be tight if we're going to elude that Star Destroyer; it's tailing us."

Too numb to argue, Obi-Wan jerked a nod and fled belowdecks with Luke in his arms.

 

****

 

Huyang hustled Obi-Wan and Luke into an escape pod, his attention split between his passengers and monitoring the flight. Once Obi-Wan was strapped in, Luke wrapped snugly and fussing at the bright light inside the pod, the droid handed him the canvas bag, heavy with new ration packs and lightsaber hilts. "You should replace your crystal as soon as possible," chided Huyang.

Obi-Wan gave him a tight, mirthless smile. "I'm sure I'll stumble across a new one eventually."

"I'm certain the Guardians would allow you one." The ship shook slightly and the gooseflesh on Obi-Wan's arms receded as the hyperdrive cut off in favour of the sublight engines. "Prepare for ejection."

"Wait, Guardians? Huyang, you said you were taking us to Geroon—"

"Patterns, Master Kenobi, patterns, and I've been watching this one since we first met. The entry sequence is programmed for the outskirts of Jedha City. May the Force be with you."

"Huyang!" Obi-Wan tried to jump up in protest, but the straps holding him to the seat were secure. The droid wiggled his fingers in farewell as the escape pod door slammed shut, hissing with the sudden pressurization. Obi-Wan popped his ears by shouting Huttese invectives at the architect droid; Luke began to cry against him.

The pod rocked with its ejection. Helpless, Obi-Wan watched the ancient droid vanish from view. The round viewport was filled with a handful of empty escape pods, decoys which Obi-Wan had argued against for the sake of conserving resources. Anger at being disobeyed warred with astonishment at Huyang's assumption of authority—

A Star Destroyer, he couldn't tell which from this distance, snapped into normal space. The Crucible II spun around to face the enemy ship and shot forward, leaving the evacuation pods in its protective wake. Obi-Wan's heart leapt into his throat. "No, no, no…"

He lost sight of the Jedi ship as the viewport filled with the blinding light of entry into the atmosphere. It was possible Huyang jumped. It was possible Huyang jumped. It was possible Huyang jumped.

He held onto that simple mantra as the escape pod hit the ground far harder than expected. The impact dislodged the seat from its brackets, sending Obi-Wan's head into the bulkhead. The taste of copper bloomed in his mouth. Luke wailed, getting higher in pitch with every breath. With shaking hands, Obi-Wan managed to clamber out of the ruined pod with the bag of 'sabers over one shoulder.

Blinking did not bring his vision into focus. The Holy City of NiJedha, ancient and rooted deep into the desert mesa, towered over him. The cold wind blew viciously over the plains, swirling fine silt over him. Obi-Wan adjusted the edge of his sash to keep Luke's face protected from the elements. "Should have asked the Vigilence for my cloak back."

He walked, forcing one foot in front of the other as his eyelids threatened to close. He walked, shushing the baby to no avail, until an old woman with a cloud of steel-grey curls framing her face pulled her speeder next to him. Her lips, chapped with the abrasive wind, turned down at the sight of him. "Get in," she ordered.

"No, I—"

"You've got blood on your face and you're nowhere near the city gates," she continued. "Get your skinny arse in here."

A swell of indignant petulance filled him. He was a Jedi Master, a General, the Negotiator—

None of those mattered anymore. He was nobody. He had to be nobody, for Luke's sake.

He nodded and dragged his sorry carcass into the speeder's passenger seat. Satisfied, the woman grunted. They drove through the desert for a few long minutes before she glanced over at Luke, who hiccupped like he wanted to keep crying. "He's awfully little to be out and about," she remarked.

"Yes." The speeder twisted in hairpin turns to follow the track that climbed the side of the mesa.

"Unsettled."

"We've had a difficult day."

"No shit."

Silence descended between them, and Obi-Wan could not keep his eyes from closing for just a moment.

He must have hit his head harder than he had expected; when the woman shook his shoulder, his reflexes barely engaged. Jerking in his seat, he found her dark face concerned. "Your stop."

Nodding, his limbs full of lead, Obi-Wan leaned forward to open the speeder door, but the woman grabbed his hand and squeezed it. "I-I don't know what's happened, but you need to take care, General Kenobi." Panic rose in him at the sound of his name from strange lips, but she squeezed his hand again. "Unfortunate, but maybe you should shave the beard."

He tugged his hand from her grip and stumbled out of the speeder. The woman didn't waste any backwards glances; she drove into the nearest alley, leaving him standing on the street, holding everything he had in the galaxy—a bag and a baby.

He closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

“The only place that I ever loved

Is a place I left behind”

- The Place I Left Behind , The Deep Dark Woods

 

He seized the Guardian's hand before it pressed against his shoulder. "I'm sorry to disturb you, Qui-Gon, but we have a … situation that requires your attention."

The slender hand slipped from his grip, and Qui-Gon Jinn peeked through his lashes to gauge Chirrut Îmwe's expression. There was no hint of mischief—but that had vanished the moment Qui-Gon collapsed in the courtyard under the tsunami of agony rending the fabric of the universe. The Guardian stared at Qui-Gon with his milky gaze. The younger man’s brow furrowed, concerned.

"I don't know how much strength I have," admitted Qui-Gon softly. "The Force—"

"One of your former brethren has come," Chirrut said.

Filling the door, Baze Malbus crossed his arms over the black folds of his robe. "As we predicted."

"Who is it?" asked Qui-Gon as he struggled up from his futon. His scar ached more than it had in the past thirteen years; it had nearly torn itself apart a tenday ago. He waved Chirrut's helping hand away and gritted his teeth before hauling himself to his feet.

"Don't know," answered Baze.

"Come," insisted Chirrut.

Qui-Gon followed his brothers, adjusting the fall of the red and black fabric below his sash as he walked. The Force was there, quivering as if wounded, but he reached out for a clue to the newcomer's identity. Little gods, he wondered, and he hoped.

Nothing.

No, not nothing —he frowned deeply. He knew the Force signatures of everyone who dwelled in the Temple of the Whills, but there was an empty spot, a void, next to—

He started to run at the first brush against that overwhelming shine, a beacon in the Force, only to have Chirrut's walking stick thump against his hip in warning. "Softly, Qui-Gon."

The small infirmary was nearly dark, with a single soft light illuminating their only healer's blonde hair like a halo. Kaito Den cradled a bundle of blankets in the crook of her arm. The closer he approached, the clearer the bewilderment in her eyes became. "I can feel him," she breathed. "Qui-Gon, I'm not that Force sensitive, and I can feel him."

The radiance in the Force was so powerful that Qui-Gon felt warm inside as he reached out and peeked into the blankets. A tiny baby, blond eyelashes resting against delicate cheeks, slept. This little creature, helpless and new, reminded him of another blond boy who glowed in the Force.

A boy he had failed.

"He's healthy," Kaito added, "but I think he was born a little early. He's not even six pounds. His umbilical stump is still healing. This baby is new . I'm concerned he's been separated from his mother."

"And someone just left him on our doorstep?"

"Not someone," Kaito said. "One of yours."

He followed the line of her finger as she pointed into the dark of the medbay. A rumpled shape occupied the sole bed. The void in the Force was there, too, uncomfortable and becoming more distressing the closer Qui-Gon stepped. He blinked to force his eyes to adjust to the low light. A sudden roiling panic rose in him—who was this? Would it be a friend, or a stranger who held no bond with him other than their shared upbringing? Who was this damaged Jedi, who radiated nothing in the Force but emptiness?

On the bed was a human, or human subspecies, wearing a ratty set of togs best suited for a taller being. Qui-Gon shuffled closer. A beard in need of a trim, skin too pale to be healthy beneath a fan of dried blood that concealed half his face. Gently, he brushed his fingers over the man's forehead, checking for fever and hoping to rouse him. His fingertip bumped over a mole, and Qui-Gon pressed his hands over his mouth to cover his gasp as his legs gave out beneath him.

Baze and Chirrut were at his elbows, hauling him up from his bruised knees. With a shaking hand, Qui-Gon reached out once more and brushed a lock of lank hair from Obi-Wan's brow. "What's wrong with him?" he managed to ask. Whatever physically was wrong with him could not compare with the void—

"Exhaustion," Kaito replied in a whisper. She rounded the bed to stand opposite Qui-Gon. "Concussion. There was a laceration on his scalp, but I sealed it. He's asleep, without sedation, and I expect you to let him stay that way until he wakes up naturally."

"We'll make sure," Chirrut said.

Qui-Gon shook his head, letting his long, unbound hair hide his face. "I would like to be alone."

He felt, rather than saw, the concerned exchange they made over his head. "Very well, Qui-Gon, but you will heed my instructions."

"Yes, Sister Kaito," he said, hoping his formality would convey his seriousness.

"I'm going to hang on to this one," she replied, smiling down at the baby, "until your Jedi here can tell us more."

Chirrut and Kaito slipped out of the medbay, feet silent and robes rustling softly. A large hand, heavy and as equally gifted in fighting as it was in praying, squeezed Qui-Gon's shoulder. "He is one with the Force, and the Force is with him," Baze murmured before leaving Qui-Gon to his sentry.

Knees still unsteady, Qui-Gon called the healer's stool to him with a wave of his hand and sat heavily at Obi-Wan's side.

Obi-Wan.

He couldn’t take a full breath. In that wash of pain that had carried Qui-Gon along like a toy boat in a hurricane, he hadn’t been able to pick out more than a handful of lights as they were extinguished—Feemor, Plo Koon, Cin Drallig, Mace Windu. Not Obi-Wan.

He reached out to take Obi-Wan's hand, then let his fingers hover above the other man's skin. He didn’t have the right to take comfort from Obi-Wan. Not after how they had parted, not after the words they had exchanged.
But Qui-Gon would offer what he could without expectation.

Slowly, he twined his fingers with Obi-Wan's, wincing at the chill of the Knight's skin, and rested his hand on Obi-Wan's forehead. Qui-Gon Jinn held a little talent for healing, but something was better than nothing. He spun a web of the Force, settling it deep into Obi-Wan's bones the way he had learned from new Knight Vokara Che on her first teaching rotation. As he worked, the words of his second life path spilled from his lips.

"In darkness, cold.
In light, cold.
The old sun brings no heat.
But there is heat in breath and life.
In life, there is the Force.
In the Force, there is life.
And the Force is eternal."


The tendrils of the Force retreated. The concussion would heal, and Obi-Wan would wake. The void, however—the void where Obi-Wan should be remained.

Qui-Gon knew he should let go of Obi-Wan's hand.

He tightened his grasp on those cold fingers and settled in to wait.

He had never been very good at waiting.

****

Dozing on the stool, Qui-Gon woke and inhaled sharply as Obi-Wan ripped his hand out of Qui-Gon's grasp.

The Knight patted his chest frantically, then sat upright, grey eyes wild. "The baby!" he cried. Obi-Wan swung his legs off the edge of the bed, his eyes searching but looking past Qui-Gon. "Where's the baby?"

"Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon said, grabbing the younger man's shoulders to keep him from falling to the floor. "Obi-Wan!"

"The baby, Force damn you!" snarled Obi-Wan, and Qui-Gon leaned forward.

"The baby is safe. He's safe, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon told him insistently.

Slumping against Qui-Gon's hands, Obi-Wan exhaled, long and low. "I need him back," he croaked. Beneath cracked mental shields, Obi-Wan's emotions swirled like a maelstrom.

"Obi-Wan, look at me." He hated to use that voice, the Master's tone that demanded immediate obedience, but Obi-Wan reeked of panic. Years of Knighthood couldn’t outweigh the Padawan's reaction; Obi-Wan's spine straightened and his gaze focused on Qui-Gon's face.

"Master?" The sheer disbelief in his voice made Qui-Gon's heart sink. "What are you doing on Jedha? Wait, I am on Jedha, yes?"

"I guess you didn't get my transmissions, then." He offered a weak, wry smile.

Beneath his fingers, Obi-Wan tensed; slowly, the Knight pulled away from Qui-Gon's grasp, and Qui-Gon folded his hands in his lap while tamping down a flash of disappointment. "What are you doing here?" Obi-Wan asked, his voice oddly flat.

Qui-Gon shrugged. "Guardian of the Whills seemed like a logical step for a former Jedi Master."

Silence. Perfectly still, muscles tense, Obi-Wan was clearly a hairsbreadth away from springing over Qui-Gon's head to escape the infirmary. Something else—focus on something else. "I'll take you to the baby?" offered Qui-Gon softly.

"Thank you." Clipped Coruscanti manners. Obi-Wan was unravelling before him, and falling back on his diplomatic training to cover his unbalanced state.

He could not press him; Obi-Wan would shut himself off if Qui-Gon badgered him, just as he had throughout their apprenticeship. Just as he had at their last parting. "This way," said Qui-Gon, offering a hand to help the Knight off the bed and trying not to feel rebuffed when Obi-Wan ignored it. "You've acquired an extraordinary child. That baby of yours is like a supernova in the Force."

Obi-Wan stumbled, but beneath his neutral mask, he radiated hurt and grief and anger. "Yes," was the only response Qui-Gon got.

Together they wound through the rough-hewn corridors of the Temple. Night had fallen, stealing the faint warmth of day from the high mesa. Next to him, Obi-Wan shivered, but the set of his mouth told Qui-Gon that mentioning it would earn him a caustic rebuke. With silence weighing heavily over both of them, Qui-Gon followed the baby's Force signature to the communal dining room. At this late hour, the only occupants were Kaito and her tiny new friend.

The healer smiled at them. "You're awake," she said to Obi-Wan. "How are you feeling, cousin Jedi?"

Obi-Wan's gaze never wavered from the baby in her arms. "Fine, thank you."

Sharp and clever, Kaito flicked her gaze over her patient before stepping forward and offering the swaddled baby. Obi-Wan lifted the infant and nestled the little head beneath his jaw, closing his eyes in relief.

"Thank you, Sister Kaito," said Qui-Gon, adding a bow he would have given a Master of equal rank to emphasize his gratitude.

Unused to such formality, she bowed back a little awkwardly. "I just fed and changed him. Thanks be to the Force, a baby joined us a few weeks ago. I'm sorry to pry, Master Jedi, but he seems to be having a bit of trouble regulating his body temperature—more than usual for a newborn, anyway. Was he born at term?"

"Two weeks early," replied Obi-Wan without opening his eyes. His hand rubbed up and down the baby's back.

Kaito frowned. "The baby's parents, they were on the small side?"

Obi-Wan's hand stilled, but his eyes remained closed. "No," he whispered.

"It's just he's quite small, and I'm a bit concerned—"

"He's a twin," Obi-Wan said softly.

"Oh!" Kaito smiled. "That explains it. We'll keep an eye on him, make certain he's carried skin-to-skin."

"He's my responsibility," bristled Obi-Wan, finally looking up at the woman.

"Yes, but you're also healing from a concussion and there are Guardians here who care for the children given to us. Let them care for him, even if it's just for a while, Master Jedi, while you recuperate. He will be well cared for, I promise you." When Obi-Wan did not back down, Kaito pressed harder, her lips drawn in a tight line. "You may stay in the room next to our nursery, Master Jedi, but I must insist that you get more rest and a half-dozen good meals in you before I'll allow the baby to room with you."

A quirk of Obi-Wan's lips, sardonic and fleeting. "A fight with a healer is practically a slice of normalcy," he murmured into the baby's fine blond hair, then dropped a gentle kiss. "Can't fight too much with the healer, Luke, because they'll scrub you from the mission."

Qui-Gon's arms erupted into gooseflesh.

This was not the same man he had left on Coruscant after the debacle on Geonosis. The void in the Force hid other, unspeakable damage to Obi-Wan Kenobi. Qui-Gon ached to pull Obi-Wan close, to soothe the hurt and shore up the cracks before the man shattered completely—but he had given up that right along with his place in the Jedi Order.

Nevertheless he would not let Obi-Wan slip into the abyss, their past be damned.

"Obi-Wan," he rumbled softly, "if you let Sister Kaito take the baby now, we can have something to eat and I'll show you where you can sleep afterward."

"I'm not hungry," Obi-Wan replied, seemingly automatically.

Qui-Gon drew himself to his full height and glared at his former apprentice. The Master voice returned, and Kaito's eyes widened in surprise. "When was the last time you ate?"

Obi-Wan opened his mouth, probably to lie. His fingers left the baby's back and brushed the dirty tunic where his Padawan braid would have been over a decade ago. He snorted. "You can't order me around anymore, Qui-Gon."

"And I'm not trying to," replied Qui-Gon, gentler this time. "But I can practically count your ribs from here, which tells me that you took up my bad habit of not eating during stressful missions."

To his great surprise, a flush rose on Obi-Wan's cheeks; embarrassment turned to pique clothed in Coruscanti manners. "There's no need to go out of your way to feed me now, when it's clearly not meal time," Obi-Wan said.

Bribery, then. "I have sapir. The good kind."

Kaito held out her arms, beckoning for the infant, and Obi-Wan's shoulders slumped in defeat. "I will stay with him myself, Master Jedi," she promised as she adjusted the blankets keeping the baby warm. "I swear by the Force, no harm will come to him."

As Kaito left, Obi-Wan's whisper was so soft that Qui-Gon almost did not hear it. "No one can promise that now."

Qui-Gon shivered, as if the words were prophecy.

He set to making tea, pulling the pot with the shiny patina of centuries of tea and a pair of clay mugs from the cupboard, then setting water to boil. To his surprise, Obi-Wan wandered over and leaned against the counter, the same way he had always done as a Padawan, and twisted open the tea canister. The pungent, earthy aroma of sapir wafted into the air. They had shared so many cups of tea, and Qui-Gon tamped down the rebellious thought that they could have been sharing tea for the past three years if he had just kept his mouth shut.

Obi-Wan nudged closer, hands darting to pick up the teapot. Qui-Gon hummed and slid his hands beneath the Knight's. "Let me pour for you," Qui-Gon said. "No one here appreciates sapir. Someone got them hooked on a local blend that tastes like stale grass and donkeys before I showed up."

It didn’t earn him a smile, but Obi-Wan sat next to Qui-Gon at the table instead of across from him. Qui-Gon fixed Obi-Wan's tea, his hands working on autopilot as he added honey and the tiniest dash of milk. It only occurred to him as he lifted the cup that perhaps Obi-Wan did not take his tea like this anymore, he should have asked first—

"That's fine," murmured Obi-Wan, plucking the cup from Qui-Gon's fingers and inhaling the steam curling over the lip. "Thank you."

Tea was one thing; coaxing Obi-Wan into eating was another, and Qui-Gon's scar throbbed. He reached for the metal tin on the tea tray and pried off the lid. When he offered the container to Obi-Wan, a fleeting curiosity brightened his eyes. "You have my favourite biscuit?"

"It is as the Force wills," replied Qui-Gon, sounding more pompously pious than he had meant, but it diverted the real answer of they remind me of you long enough for that brief spark of the true Obi-Wan, his Obi-Wan, to fade back into the pale shell. Even so, Obi-Wan nibbled on the edge of a shortbread biscuit topped with neka nuts and chocolate drizzle and sipped his tea, and for a heartbeat, Qui-Gon could ignore the void, ignore the tattered shields, and pretend everything was fine.

He had to know. "Obi-Wan, what's happened?"

Tea slopped over the Knight's wrist, and Obi-Wan did not seem to notice. "Palpatine is the Sith," he stated, as if discussing the weather. "He ordered the clone army to destroy the Jedi."

Qui-Gon put his cup down before he dropped it. He had known. Somehow—he could perhaps chalk it up to the most subtle, the quietest whispers of the Force drowned out by so many other things—he had always known that the clones were a trap, one that he had wilfully blinded himself to in favour of his own moral outrage. Perhaps he had known that the Chancellor—Emperor—was an agent, the agent of the Dark Side.

Not that it mattered now.

“We had no prior warning, not even in the Force." Obi-Wan kept talking, his tone matter-of-fact and breezy the way it had been when they discussed an after-action report in the sanctity of their quarters. "My clone commander tried to shoot me off a cliff."

Horrified, Qui-Gon reached out to settle his hand over Obi-Wan's, but when Obi-Wan flinched, he jerked it back into his lap. "Ben," he whispered, strangled. The name, secret between them for many years, provoked no reaction.

"That's what that was, in case you were wondering. Every Jedi in the presence of clone troops, at the same time." Obi-Wan gazed into his tea cup, too long between blinks. "I am truly sorry about Feemor, Master."

Qui-Gon brushed a shaking hand over his beard, desperate to keep his composure. The death of his first Padawan had plucked at him, a peculiar string in an orchestra of violence. "Do you know—"

"He shielded younglings, first with his 'saber and then with his body." Obi-Wan's stare, unfocused, wasn’t looking at anything in the Temple of Kyber. "On any other occasion they'd cast a statue of him."

Silence festered between cooling cups of tea and untouched biscuits. Qui-Gon had so many questions that he could neither choose one nor bring himself to speak aloud. Obi-Wan stared into space, pale and still, until he asked with his perfectly neutral, polite diplomacy voice, "Would you be so kind as to show me to my quarters?"

"Of course," replied Qui-Gon faintly, pushing himself away from the table and gathering half-drunk cups of tea. With the automatic motions of his youth, Obi-Wan piled dishes onto the tea tray and bussed it to the kitchen counter. When he made to rinse the plates, Qui-Gon forestalled him with a soft touch on the Knight's forearm. "I'll get it later."

An odd look crossed Obi-Wan's face, as if the smart retort Qui-Gon expected warred with the void—and the void won. The younger man nodded and stepped back, shouldering his bag and waiting with a bland expression.

Qui-Gon led Obi-Wan through another set of corridors, and this time Obi-Wan kept himself a single pace behind and to the left of his former Master. Not quite the position of a Padawan, but subservient enough that it grated on Qui-Gon's nerves. They had moved past that, found each other as equals, only to have this alarming darkness destroy it—

Qui-Gon held much responsibility for what lay between them, but Obi-Wan was not the entirely innocent party, either.

Easy to think. Easy to dwell on in the lonely hours of the night, but faced with this ruined shell of a Jedi?

Qui-Gon ached.

He led Obi-Wan not to his quarters first, but to the nursery. Cracking the door open on silent hinges, Qui-Gon motioned for Obi-Wan to take a peek. The Knight brushed against Qui-Gon to poke his head over the threshold; the blazing warmth Obi-Wan usually radiated beneath his perfectly pressed tunics had faded completely.

In an battered rocking chair that had seen better days a century ago, Kaito held the newly arrived baby. She smiled at Obi-Wan, clearly trying to reassure him that the infant was safe while simultaneously glaring at Qui-Gon. He knew that look. All healers had that "why is he not sleeping" look, and he had been on the receiving end more times than he could count.

"Let him sleep," murmured Qui-Gon, bending his head closer to Obi-Wan's ear.

With reluctance, the Knight nodded. Qui-Gon pulled the door shut with a faint click and motioned to the door across the hall. "This one's yours."

Quarters was being generous; the narrow room was more like the cells occupied by the most ascetic of the Guardians. A floor bed, piled with layers of threadbare woollen blankets and a feather pillow, took up most of the space. The rough sandstone floor was clean, and no spiderwebs decorated the corners—Kaito surely had woken a postulant to prepare the rarely used room. A portable glow lamp hung on a hook next to the bed, throwing odd shadows against the uneven plaster walls.

Qui-Gon pressed himself against the wall to allow Obi-Wan entry. "It's not a diplomatic suite," he began apologetically.

"I've slept in worse places," replied Obi-Wan, carefully setting his canvas bag on the floor next to the head of the bed. Something inside clicked together, metallic. "This is fine."

Loath to leave, Qui-Gon forced himself not to shuffle his feet or fiddle with his sash like a nervous youngling. "Tomorrow, if you wish, I'll find you some clothing. Jedha is a cold world."

"Thank you." The words were clearly a dismissal.

"Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon whispered, desperate for the answer he suspected but hating to ask, "what happened to Anakin?"

Obi-Wan did not turn around. He did not move a muscle. His low voice did not break. "Anakin Skywalker is dead."

Chapter Text

I tremble

They're gonna eat me alive

If I stumble

They're gonna eat me alive

-”Help I’m Alive” by Metric



The door closed with a soft click. Obi-Wan slumped, letting out his held breath. He’d caught no reaction from Qui-Gon other than silence and soft-soled escape.

He had never lied to Qui-Gon Jinn, and he wasn’t going to start today. What he had said was true.

From a certain point of view.

Shucking his boots and carefully arranging them against the wall, Obi-Wan nodded to himself. He had not lied. He stripped off the dirty tunic, folding it with precise automaticity and laying it next to the boots, and eased down on the bed. His body cried out for sleep, and the pillow looked rather inviting—but every time he closed his eyes for longer than a blink, he saw lava and sickly yellow eyes.

If not sleep, perhaps he could meditate.

Stretching, he deactivated the light. He wiggled his toes against his knees as he twisted into a full lotus on the rough blankets. In the dark, he did not have to close his eyes.

The Temple of Kyber, rough and covered in a fine film of desert silt, should have seemed primitive and strange to a crèche-raised Jedi from the grand, urban Coruscant Temple. The soap they used to launder the linens and their black and red robes carried an unfamiliar spice, yet it warded away the dry, choking scent of the mesa. Draughts crept in under doors and through ancient windows, stealing heat. Doors swung on actual hinges. The floors were stone, worn in the middle of the corridor where countless, endless feet had paced in service of the Force.

From the depths of the Temple, his ears caught a single, faint toll of a bell—marking the hour, or marking a ritual he knew nothing of? The Guardians of the Whills were humble and small, devoting their life energy to the kyber crystals concentrated beneath their ancient and crumbling Temple. They did not go out into the galaxy. They did not concern themselves with politics or wars, only their slice of Jedha and their personal connection to the Force.

Those feet on stone had left their mark, indelible and tangible. Could the Jedi Order say the same?

His hand dipped into his belt pouch and retrieved his lightsaber crystal. Without sight, without sight in the Force, he cradled it in the palm of his hand and ran his thumb over the faces. It felt whole; the fine nerves of his skin caught no hint of the damage within the crystal as he traced the edges, over and over. Obi-Wan sat in the dark, worrying at his crystal and desperately trying to not think about anything , until his eyelids betrayed him.

 

****

 

Luke was crying. Obi-Wan jerked upright, brushing his hands over his bare chest as the sounds of lava and screaming faded and his half-awake brain screeched in alarm that he had fallen asleep on the baby

No baby. Dark. Woollen blankets that smelled of earthen spice. Kark , he had fallen asleep. Struggling upright like a baby bantha, Obi-Wan bolted into the corridor. The baby's cries became louder, and Obi-Wan rushed to the nursery door. He froze.

Qui-Gon had Luke cradled against his shoulder as he bounced on his toes. In a low, rumbling voice that brought back memories of Obi-Wan being soothed to sleep after particularly harsh visions, Qui-Gon sang, too murmured for Obi-Wan to make out the words, but the tune sounded like a pop song popular when Qui-Gon was a Padawan. A long braid had replaced his usual half-tail, shining with silver against the black of his new robes and revealing the long lines of his neck. "He's fine," Qui-Gon said, turning around to face the door. He wore a little smile that Obi-Wan had never seen before. "He's hungry. Kaito went to fetch him a bottle."

"Oh." Obi-Wan could not stop staring at Qui-Gon's hand. It splayed over Luke's back, holding him with practiced ease as the baby hiccuped and wailed for his meal. He wondered if the ‘saber calluses were still there.

"You never said what his name is." Qui-Gon stepped closer.

With the moment of hesitation came shame. If there was one person in the galaxy he could trust to keep a secret, it was Qui-Gon Jinn. As the silence stretched, a tiny furrow appeared between Qui-Gon's eyebrows—disappointment.

He had seen that furrow at their parting, followed by alternating heated and icy words that hadn’t soothed any bruised hearts.

Qui-Gon loomed over him, unperturbed by the crying baby, and tried again. "Obi-Wan, whose baby is this?" Softly insistent, so different from the last time they had spoken as Jedi. "Please."

"His name is Luke," replied Obi-Wan. Unable to face those blue eyes, Obi-Wan stared at the baby's faint fringe of blond hair. Bail was probably right; he knew more about these sorts of things as part of his position as a Senator. "Luke Naberrie."

A moment, then Qui-Gon sucked in a breath as he placed the name. Before he could reply, the healer waltzed up behind Obi-Wan, wiggling a full bottle in her hand. "Firstmeal is here," she crowed before eyeing Obi-Wan with a sharp look. "You did not sleep long enough."

I shouldn't have slept at all . He bit the thought back. "I've never had a need for long stretches of sleep, healer Kaito," he said, hopefully sounding appropriately humble to avoid another visit to the infirmary.

"Banthashite," she grumbled. "How long have you told yourself that particular lie?"

"Since he was thirteen," Qui-Gon cut in. "After stints in bacta, it's even true."

Obi-Wan glared at his former Master, who kept a bland face but slowly raised an eyebrow at him. Kaito snorted and motioned for Qui-Gon to give her the baby. "If you're not going to sleep, then at least eat something. I can count your ribs."

Covering a start by swiping a hand over his beard, Obi-Wan realized he was standing in the doorway in nothing but a pair of trousers that didn't belong to him and the mass of purplish bruises, courtesy of Utapau, painting his torso. Qui-Gon, ever the diplomat, took pity on his former apprentice and offered the caterwauling Luke to the blonde healer. "I did say I'd find you some warmer clothes," he said mildly. "That first, I think, and then we will go to the kitchen."

He gave Obi-Wan no room to protest; Qui-Gon swept his arm around Obi-Wan's shoulders, barely brushing his fingers over the chilled skin, and herded him out the door. After a moment, Qui-Gon let his hand drop back to his side. Obi-Wan's bare feet were silent on the freezing stone as he kept pace with the taller man. They walked without speaking, and only once did Qui-Gon glance over at Obi-Wan, clearly desperate to ask another question.  

He would have to, eventually, but Obi-Wan didn't want to name Padmé. Keeping her name inside was the way he could protect her, protect the children, but eventually he would fail at that, too.

Qui-Gon led him to a storeroom filled with black and red fabric. The room was warm, insulated from the Jedha winds by dozens of hanging racks burdened with woven threads, and the former Master's voice was muffled. "The Quartermaster will murder me for being in here without her permission," Qui-Gon said, his levity forced to a halt as he realized what he'd said. He descended into muttering. "I can't give you robes, and the postulants would have a fit if I dressed you like them—they're as prickly as senior Padawans when it comes to their rank."

Any Padawans out in the galaxy had bigger problems than their rank, now.

Standing in the middle of the room, shivering and wiggling his toes to keep the blood flowing, Obi-Wan waited as Qui-Gon ducked beneath rows of hanging uniforms, talking all the while. That was new; the Qui-Gon he knew could stretch silence like an art form.

This Qui-Gon, he supposed, he didn't really know at all.

"Your boots are in good condition?" asked Qui-Gon pointedly over his shoulder.

"Yes."

"Good, because I don't think we have anything in your size here." Qui-Gon dove back into the racks. His black robes blended in with the other uniforms, but the long braid swayed against his back, mesmerizing. Obi-Wan had always wanted to braid Qui-Gon's hair. He'd never had the chance.

"Ah!" Qui-Gon held up a bundle of clothing in triumph. "I'm pretty sure these belonged to Niitzan when they arrived last year. They're about your size."

The bundle flew through the air, and Obi-Wan flinched at the sudden movement in his direction; he snagged the clothing from the air before it hit the floor and pretended not to see Qui-Gon's unblinking, concerned gaze. "This will do," Obi-Wan said as he shook out a long-sleeved, faded blue shirt and slipped it over his head. It fit him nicely, neither too long in the arms nor too narrow in the shoulders.

Qui-Gon rummaged through a few boxes before presenting Obi-Wan with some socks, insulated gloves, and a leather spacer's jacket that had blaster holes expertly repaired along the sleeves. "Thank you, Qui-Gon," Obi-Wan said softly.

The tall former Jedi lifted his hand hesitantly, as if he wanted to rest it on Obi-Wan's shoulder, or brush his palm against the overgrown copper whiskers on Obi-Wan's cheek. Instead, he added a pair of new bootlaces on top of the pile of clothing in Obi-Wan's arms. "We'll drop this off in your room on the way. If we hurry, we'll catch food that's still warm," Qui-Gon told him before turning on his heel and escaping the storeroom.

 

Either rumour spread faster than light in the Temple of Kyber, or it was rare for the Guardians to host an outsider. Obi-Wan ignored the constant barrage of curious looks and whispers, the former from black-robed adults who should have had better manners and the latter from shorn-headed postulants in unbroken soft grey, as he chewed a piece of buttered toast without tasting it.

"Whose baby is it, Obi-Wan?" The sudden question, spoken with a razor's edge of haste over the rim of a mug full of sapir, startled Obi-Wan; he swallowed a chunk of toast that was too large and eased his coughing with a scalding mouthful of tea.

"You used to be more diplomatic," Obi-Wan accused through his choking.

A deep sadness pulled at the lines of Qui-Gon's face as he set the cup down without drinking. "He's Anakin's, isn't he?"

Only years of diplomatic training and three years of brutal war kept Obi-Wan from reacting. He lifted his cup and blew over the surface of the tea, reaching for time. He couldn't lie to Qui-Gon's face, so he deflected. "Why would you assume that?"

"Three reasons. The first is that boy blazes in the Force in a way that reminds me of exactly one person in the galaxy, and the second is his Nabooian surname. If Luke's mother is Pa—"

Obi-Wan slammed his cup on the table and clenched his teeth. "Don't say her name."

Qui-Gon didn’t even bat an eyelash at Obi-Wan's lack of control. "And thirdly, I'm neither blind nor a kriffing moron."

The angry, hurt reply of yes, you bloody well are and always have been curled his burnt tongue, but he swallowed it down. He had to. Luke relied on him. "I need a ship."

Slowly, openly, Qui-Gon roved his gaze over Obi-Wan. He sipped his tea and made a great show of choosing a slice of fruit from his plate. "And where do you plan on running to, Obi-Wan?" His voice was soft, full of the gentlest recrimination and deepest concern.

It sounded too much like love.

"I'm not running anywhere," spat Obi-Wan, leaning over the plate piled with his childhood favourites. "I'm completing a mission of the utmost importance."

Sorrow crossed Qui-Gon's face. "A mission for whom? There's no Council, no Jedi Order to answer to anymore."

"I am a High Councilor and a Jedi Knight and I will do my duty," retorted Obi-Wan.

"Little gods, how many times have you said that to me?" murmured the former Master.

"I'll say it as many times as it takes for you to understand—"

"I'll never understand your need to give your loyalty to those who don't deserve it."

"And I'll never understand how you just walked away from everything ."

They stared at each other, unblinking. The hot knife of anger and betrayal—an old one, renewed, to add to the growing collection—sliced at Obi-Wan's ribs and stole the full breath from his lungs.

Luke needed him. Luke needed him to keep him safe.

"A ship," Obi-Wan said with the forced easiness he had used over another cup of tea, a bitter tarine, on Christophsis. "Preferably fast and never in the service of the Republic. I had some tracking issues with my last one."

"Where are you taking Luke?" Qui-Gon asked, his words pitched for Obi-Wan's ears only though the noise of the dining hall ensured privacy.

"To his family," replied Obi-Wan.

Clearly taken aback, Qui-Gon smoothed a hand over his chin to cover his surprise. "I'm not certain the Naberrie family would welcome a Jedi, given this morning's news report. A leak out of Coruscant Security has suggested that Senator Amidala's death was caused by Fallen Jedi."

Not Fallen—the Sith apprentice. He even has a name. "The Senator's child died with her," Obi-Wan said. It was easy to be perfectly bland if he didn't say her name. "A newborn among the Naberrie clan would raise more than a few pointed questions."

Frowning, Qui-Gon traced the rim of his cup with his finger. "Then wh—no, Obi-Wan." Those brilliant blue eyes, wide with disbelief, stared at him. "You can't mean to take him to—"

"There's a stepbrother." He was not being defensive.

"Who Anakin met once, briefly, when he learned his mother had passed away. I signed that mission report."

"He goes to his family," insisted Obi-Wan. He hadn’t flinched at the sound of the name—he hadn’t. "It's not Republic space. He'll be safe there."

That frown deepened. "I seem to recall an extreme level of danger the last time I was there," Qui-Gon said, "and that was before the Sith hunted us down."

"The mission has been planned with no room for deviation," Obi-Wan retorted stubbornly. He had a duty, he had to get Luke to the Lars family—

"Obi-Wan—"

"Get me a ship or leave me the kriff alone, Qui-Gon!" Punctuating his demand with a slap of his hands against the table, Obi-Wan registered the sudden silence in the dining hall. Even without the Force, he felt the weight of the stares against his shoulder blades.

Slowly, Qui-Gon arranged his dishes and rose from the table. The charcoal robes lent him more gravitas than his high-necked formal Jedi uniform ever had. His braid slipped over his shoulder as he bowed slightly at the waist to his former Padawan. "I will serve as the Force wills, Master Kenobi," he rumbled softly before collecting his dishes and gliding away.

Obi-Wan cradled his face in his palms and let his brain launch into something easier than considering Qui-Gon Jinn—hyperdrive calculation estimates. A tenday to Tatooine, certainly, unless he found something shockingly fast—

"We've all wanted to yell at Qui-Gon at some point, so I give you credit for actually following through and thank you for doing it in public where we could all see it." The highly-amused voice pulled Obi-Wan out of his mental math.

Two young-looking men, both sporting the same close-cropped haircut, slid onto the bench Qui-Gon had vacated. The shorter man wore a wry smile that crinkled the edges of his milky-blue eyes. His companion, broad and sturdy where the other man was lean and lithe, held an air of concern that Obi-Wan itched to dispel. The shorter one inclined his head. "It is good to see you up and about, General. You were in bad shape when I found you. I'm Chirrut, and this is Baze."

"I appreciate the rescue," replied Obi-Wan politely, returning the nod, "but I'm not a general anymore."

"Perhaps not, but you are known, Obi-Wan Kenobi." The wry smile did not shift. "Even a blind man can turn his head to follow the Negotiator."

Obi-Wan pursed his lips. "You would have me leave."

Chirrut cocked his head but did not indicate a negative. "The new Empire—it will not forget about us, or the treasure we guard. They may not come today or tomorrow, but they are coming. I fear what they would do if they found you here."

A bubble of bitterness rose up in Obi-Wan's chest. "Fear for me, or fear for you?"

"For you, for me, for Qui-Gon who was once Jedi and now has a price on his head because of it—for all of us."

"Price?" repeated Obi-Wan, and both Guardians frowned.

"He hasn't heard," murmured Baze in Chirrut's direction.

"The Jedi are traitors who attempted to assassinate the Chancellor—Emperor, now," Chirrut said sardonically. "There are rewards for information about the whereabouts of any suspected Jedi, more generous still if the Imperial forces capture the Jedi alive."

Beyond Imperial ships and personnel searching for him, he would also have to contend with casual observers, either too self-involved or too desperate to give up the opportunity of monetary gain. Tatooine was sparsely populated, still in Hutt-controlled space—if he could get there and find the Lars family, he would vanish into the desert and protect Luke from afar. It was still the best plan.

"I will happily leave you," Obi-Wan told them, "but like I told Qui-Gon, I need a ship."

"That is not something we can offer you," replied Chirrut with regret. "The spaceport is nearby, though I might suggest either wearing a mask or doing something about this." He waved his hand over his jaw, miming a beard.

"I'll take it under advisement," said Obi-Wan blandly.

"There is, perhaps, something we could offer you." Chirrut angled his head as if listening. "You carry a cracked Kyber crystal; it’s song is...damaged. From your weapon, I would imagine?"

Hand rubbing against the pouch where the damaged crystal sat before he forced himself to be still, Obi-Wan replied, "It happens, sometimes, with use outside normal parameters."

The two Guardians exchanged a look that Obi-Wan could not decipher. "Should you wish a new one, cousin, the Force will provide. You must only ask its guidance."

Chirrut rose from the bench and bowed at the waist before striding away in a whirl of black and red. Baze, the quiet companion, slid his callused hand across the table and rested it next to Obi-Wan's curled fist as if the Guardian wanted to comfort him. "You are one with the Force," he said, his eyes so intense Obi-Wan wanted to squirm in his seat, "and the Force is with you. Always, Master Kenobi."

Then he was gone, silent and fleeting as a shadow, and Obi-Wan wondered if all the Guardians were liars.

 

Untethered, Obi-Wan wandered through the Temple of Kyber until he found his way back to the nursery. Healer Kaito allowed him to check on a sleeping Luke long enough to ensure the baby was still breathing before she hustled him out into the corridor.

Crossing her arms over her chest, she gave him a once over with a pointed gaze. "You need to rest, Master Kenobi."

"I'm fine," he said automatically, and inwardly winced as her eyes narrowed.

"I've seen your bruises," she retorted. "I stitched up your head. You're recovering from a concussion, and those are just the immediate things I'm not guessing about."

An odd sort of comfort curled around Obi-Wan's heart; the intricate dance of being dressed down by a healer and wheedling out of further medical intervention was familiar, even if this particular healer was a stranger instead of Vokara Che, and she was hissing at him to keep the baby from waking rather than out of frustration at giving the same warnings to the same patient for a decades .

Obi-Wan stalked through the door; Qui-Gon, comfortably ensconced on the couch with a cup of tea, his reading lenses, and a blanket draped over his outstretched legs, seemed only slightly surprised that his working partner had not pressed the door chime. "Obi-Wan, I—"

"You. Could. Have. Died." Obi-Wan snarled, looming over the other man. "Vokara told me it was a near thing. You stupid, stubborn, idiot of a man—"

"Come now, Obi-Wan, there's no need to overreact—"

"You promised me. You promised me that you would always wait for Anakin, that you'd never rush into a fight without him—"

"Ben—"

"Don't 'Ben' me! You promised, Qui-Gon!" His knees wobbled, and Qui-Gon reached out to grab him around the middle before he dropped to the floor. Perched on the edge of the couch, Obi-Wan twisted to poke his finger against Qui-Gon's sternum, well above the mass of scar tissue hidden beneath his robes. "How dare you! Has enough time passed that you forgot you're mortal?"

"Master Kenobi?" Kaito's voice cut through the memory, full of wary concern. "Are you here with me?"

"Of course," retorted Obi-Wan gruffly. "Excuse me, Healer Kaito. I need to shave."

 

The tiny 'fresher next to his equally tiny room at least had a decently sized mirror. Obi-Wan stared at his reflection and saw General Kenobi. Wreathed in copper hair and beard, dark circles beneath his eyes and more lines on his forehead and around his eyes than he remembered seeing before, this face was recognizable throughout the galaxy. Thanks to the HoloNet news outlets, reporting on his actions had gone from sensationalist to outright Republic propaganda, but he'd never had the time nor the secretary to issue corrections. Plo Koon had joked that at least they always seemed to get Obi-Wan's handsome side in the holorecordings. Obi-Wan had offered to let Plo take his job, at which the Kel Dor had laughed so hard he might have been crying behind his protective goggles.

Plo had been holding Cato Neimoidia with the Wolfpack.

Obi-Wan picked up the trimming scissors from his grooming kit and set to work erasing the face of the Negotiator.

Meditation was impossible, and sleep unwelcome. Obi-Wan sat on his bed, writing hyperdrive calculations on his palm with his index finger. He had to stay away from the Core and Mid-Rim, as well as any recent blockade or battle space. Given the sudden shift of clone loyalty and the fabrications of Jedi betrayal, the transfer of power from Republic to Empire would not be as chaotic as Obi-Wan would have predicted.

As if he would have predicted the collapse of the galactic order.

Outer Rim it was, then, but he would have to stay away from the major trade routes. If Eriadu was already being patrolled and blockaded, the other hyperspace lanes would be equally guarded. Plotting jumps outside normal hyperspace lanes would mean an astromech loaded with detailed star charts of the Outer Rim systems. He would need a ship without any Republic ties capable of making the run to Tatooine without stopping for fuel; now he had to balance fuel supply with speed, and speed was losing.

He barked a mirthless laugh. If he were closer to Florrum and even one percent certain he would not be traded in for the reward, he would hitch a ride with Hondo Ohnaka.

A light rap on the door knocked the jump differential out of his head, and he sighed. "Yes?"

Qui-Gon poked his head in. "Join me for latemeal?" he asked, his voice sounding too careful.

"I'm not hungry," replied Obi-Wan, expecting either to be ignored completely or prodded into eating. Cody usually threw a ration bar at him in disgust.

Cody had tried to slip a ration bar into Obi-Wan's hand along with his lightsaber on Utapau; Obi-Wan had taken the weapon and ignored the food. A wise choice, considering.

"Please." A single word, soft and plaintive.

"Fine."

Obi-Wan closed the door behind him to find Qui-Gon holding a covered tray. "I thought we could go somewhere and talk privately," said the taller man. When Obi-Wan inclined his head, Qui-Gon led him through a complicated maze of corridor that ended with wooden double doors.

Beyond the doors, the low, narrow corridor opened up into a courtyard topped with a geodesic dome constructed from transparisteel. Warm air, slightly humid, drove away the chill lingering on Obi-Wan's skin as he stepped into a wildly overgrown greenhouse. Vines curled around ropes suspended from the dome, while a gurgling water feature was nearly obscured by tall ferns. Well-raked gravel paths twined through the yard, leading visitors to riotous, eye-jarring flowerbeds. The lush green smell was enough to close Obi-Wan's eyes; if he ignored the lack of birdcalls, he could almost imagine he was in the Room of a Thousand Fountains.

"No one's feeding the animals," he murmured, eyes fluttering open.

Qui-Gon furrowed his brow. "Hmm?"

"In the Room of a Thousand Fountains. There's no one to feed the animals." It was possible that the bats would survive off the insect population, but there weren't enough prey animals to keep the mammalian predators fed for long—Qui-Gon was watching him with an inscrutable expression. "Why do I get the feeling that you found this place and immediately claimed it as your own?"

"Because you know me too well," replied Qui-Gon. A fleeting smile lifted his lips before the unreadable face returned. "Come."

One side of the little pond, obscured from the door, butted up against a patch of bright blue-green grass. Qui-Gon knelt, balancing the tray on the wide stone edge of the pond, and Obi-Wan settled opposite his former Master. As Qui-Gon fussed with their meal, he flicked his finger in Obi-Wan's direction. "That's new."

Obi-Wan gazed into the pond; his reflection, complete with a bare, cleft chin and a hack job of a haircut that left the sides cropped short and the top hanging to his eyebrows, stared back. Little gods, he looked terrible. "But I don't look like the posterboy for the GAR anymore, do I?" He made a face. "I look thirteen again."

"Please believe me when I say that you look nothing like you did when you were thirteen," replied Qui-Gon with a small, but genuine, smile. He held out a wedge of flatbread and waited for Obi-Wan to take it. "But I can see what you did with your day; why don't you ask me what I did with mine?"

Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow as he took the bread. Qui-Gon always waited for Obi-Wan to ask questions; he never baited his former apprentice into curiosity. "What did you do with your day, Qui-Gon?" replied Obi-Wan, unable to keep the mocking undertone out of his parroted words.

"I got us a ship."

Chapter Text

Honey look me dead square in the eyes

Oh, terror! “My heart’s a ghost” you cried

“Living off another ghost now”

Lovers unaffected, how did you expect our love was gonna go tonight?

Terrified, The Rural Alberta Advantage

 

The light in Obi-Wan's eyes was bright and a touch feverish, but Qui-Gon was relieved to find some spark overwhelm the void. "A ship?"

Qui-Gon nodded. "It will be ready for us by tomorrow evening." It had taken all his tiny stash of credits and more persuasion than Qui-Gon was comfortable with now—to his shame, years ago he would have waved his hand and not thought twice about it—but given the circumstances, it had been necessary.

"Us?" The spark dimmed, replaced by a frown.

"Do you really believe I'd let you go on your own?" replied Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan's gaze drifted to the pond, where the lithe, golden fish wriggled along the edge, waiting for their crumbs.

"You should stay here," said Obi-Wan, his voice sounding far away. "Luke and I will be fine."

"You need someone to watch your back. Can we at least agree that Tatooine is a dangerous place and you have no idea what kind of situation you're walking into?" He couldn’t push too hard, or Obi-Wan would dig in his heels on principle. "Slavers. Pirates. Hutts. If someone doesn't try to sell you, they'll try to sell you out."

For a fleeting moment, Obi-Wan lifted his head. "You relinquished your 'saber."

Qui-Gon ran his thumb along the palm of his hand, dragging along calluses that had shifted over the past three years as he practiced the quarterstaff with Chirrut. "I'm not defenceless without it."

"Your life is here, now, Qui-Gon," said Obi-Wan. "I can't ask you to leave."

"You're not asking; I'm offering." He let the soothing sounds of bubbling water fill the silence between them. The trust between them was fragile, but he desperately hoped the foundations had not cracked beyond repair. "Jedi were never meant to work alone."

"You're not a Jedi anymore," replied Obi-Wan, but it lacked the accusatory vitriol Qui-Gon expected. His fingertips trailed through the water, teasing the fish.

Gambling, Qui-Gon replied with a sly smile, "You're a High Councilor. Surely I can pull strings with my old Padawan for a field reinstatement."

Fingers stilled, and Qui-Gon swore he saw the ghost of a smile on Obi-Wan's lips. "That would cash in exactly all the favours I have ever owed you and a few more, besides."

"A perfectly acceptable deal, in this old diplomat's opinion."

"You're not old." The refrain, automatic and indignant, filled Qui-Gon with the hope that his Obi-Wan was still sitting in front of him; he just had to coax him out, as slowly and carefully as he would a terrified tooka kit huddling on a bridge railing.

"Tell me again when it's raining and I'm complaining about my knees," replied Qui-Gon with deliberate levity, and it earned him another fleeting shadow of a smile.

Obi-Wan's expression turned serious again. "If you come, you do as I say."

"I'll be as obedient as a Padawan," Qui-Gon promised.

A glare. "That doesn't mean shit, Qui, and you know it." Irritated and exasperated, the copper-haired Master looked almost like himself, the firebrand who was yelling at him one second and kissing him the next—

Qui-Gon swallowed the longing rising in his breast. "Could we agree to work together, as partners?" When Obi-Wan didn’t answer, Qui-Gon hedged his bets. He reached out and brushed his fingers over Obi-Wan's knuckles; the other man's skin was still cool. "I wasn't there for you when you needed me. Please let me be there for you now, Ben."

Obi-Wan inhaled, shakily, but he did not shy away from Qui-Gon's touch. "If you had been there, you'd be dead," he murmured.

Ice ran through Qui-Gon's veins, and he suppressed the urge to shudder at the other man's words. Obi-Wan did not speak again, eating little, and Qui-Gon picked at his food, tasting only ashes. His only sliver of hope was that Obi-Wan had not said no.

 

Too restless to meditate as he should, Qui-Gon let himself sink into an inward state and wander the Temple instead. It was not as refreshing as meditation, nor as profound, but it soothed enough of his jangled nerves that he could listen to the louder currents of the Force. Luke was the strongest—a star next to the candle flames of the Guardians and the people of Jedha City—balanced by the gaping maw of emptiness where Obi-Wan Kenobi should shine.

When Qui-Gon's body had given out in the training yard a tenday ago as the Force rent itself apart, his last conscious thought had been that at least he still had the vague awareness, that single remaining bond-thread, narrow as a hair, that reassured him that Obi-Wan was alive. Now he had proof, in the flesh, that the man he loved was still connected to the physical plane of existence, but living?

Every time Qui-Gon approached the man, he heard the discordant, keening wail of Obi-Wan's kyber crystal. Something unspeakable had happened, something terrible enough to damage a Jedi Master's crystal along with his own being—and while Obi-Wan had been tightlipped, he had also lied.

Anakin Skywalker was not dead. The other slender filament in his mind that had once been the solid bond with the former slave from Tatooine had not snapped, either during the maelstrom or in the stuttering punches that followed. He knew what the death of a bond-partner felt like. The bond with Anakin had calcified, shrivelled until it crumbled into dust.

Qui-Gon Jinn had felt that exactly once before, before he and Obi-Wan had found each other as Master and Padawan, and he knew what it meant.

Anakin Skywalker was not dead—he had Fallen into darkness, and Obi-Wan Kenobi had lied about it.

A frown pulled at his lips as he walked. Obi-Wan had never lied to him before; Qui-Gon could not puzzle out if Obi-Wan was trying to protect his former Master, to protect himself, or—

What if Obi-Wan hadn’t lied? If he believed Anakin to be dead, then Obi-Wan needed to know—

No. Not with Obi-Wan hanging on a cliff by his fingernails. One more blow, and he might stop clinging to the edge.

The air turned chilly as his feet carried him along the ancient paths, spiralling around the caverns the Temple protected. The Night Guardian, silent behind their black silk mask, inclined their head in acknowledgement of his respectful bow. Qui-Gon continued along the rocky path, worn in the middle over thousands of years, turning his focus further inward.

It should hurt more to have a second Fallen apprentice. He should be more surprised at the Fall of Anakin Skywalker. He should feel guilty for leaving the young man behind, unknighted and unable to understand why Qui-Gon refused to stay. He should track Anakin down, offer a hand to bring him back to the light.

But he would not. If he had learned one thing from Xanatos' Fall, it was that those who Fell could not be persuaded out of shadow unless they wished to do so, unless they dragged themselves, quivering and determined, towards the light. Qui-Gon had faded to a wraith, guilt and recrimination eating away at his being after Xan chose the dark side; his inability to let go, to accept that Xanatos was responsible for his own actions, nearly killed him, and nearly killed Obi-Wan, too. Qui-Gon would not, could not, do that to himself again. He would weep for Anakin as he would weep in mourning for all the Jedi.

Hope, though—he could always hold out hope that Anakin was still alive. He could hope that there would be an eye in the hurricane of the young man's crushing, dark emotions long enough to remind him of sunlight and calm seas. Their bond had dissolved with Anakin's Fall, but Qui-Gon could hope Anakin was out there. Hope wasn’t incompatible with self-preservation.

As a Jedi Master, he had been blinded by Anakin's potential, Anakin's raw power. He had believed Anakin would bring balance to the Force, and had fought—and Qui-Gon had fought with everyone, pushed and prodded and wheedled and threatened, to get what he wanted—to train the boy as a Jedi.

The Guardians of the Whills held different perspectives.

As a Guardian, Qui-Gon had realized the Force was always in balance; it did not require or suffer the meddling of mere mortals.

Three years of hard lessons in the Holy City had brought him much-needed perspective on many things. If he scraped off his own arrogance from his memories, the warning signs had been there. Anakin had always been angry and scared, from the moment they met until the day they parted. Powerful, yes, and kind, but he kept too many secrets, including his unauthorized marriage to Padmé Naberrie Amidala. It had hurt Qui-Gon, deeply, that Anakin had neither trusted him with his joy nor followed the simple rule of waiting until his Padawan braid had been cut—Qui-Gon was well-known to have glossed over the rules during his tenure as a Jedi, but he had never kept it secret, and he had always faced the consequences afterwards. By hiding his marriage, Anakin had demonstrated that he knew it was against the rules for apprentices and had done it anyway.

How he had managed to raise one apprentice to be the unyielding bastion of law and order and another who looked at rules as goal lines to cross briefly prickled in Qui-Gon’s skull.

The path split before him; he could wind his way back up to the top of the cavern, or he could delve into the crystal caves. Qui-Gon paused, listening to the soft whispers caressing his skin, and picked up one of the lit torches from the holder on the wall. The heat from the flame was welcome as he treaded carefully on the steep slope.

Five steps exactly before he shivered despite the torch; his spine prickled with the sense of being watched, while a cacophony of discordant kyber crystals clambered for his attention. Attending the Gathering on Ilum as an adult was much the same—the young ones were so focused on finding their own crystals that they never noticed the constant chiming in the Force. His brethren, less Force-sensitive than he, often conducted meditation among the crystals, claiming to feel reverberation akin to a symphony playing deep notes. Qui-Gon's skin erupted in gooseflesh, almost painfully.

He turned, berating himself for coming all the way down here, when the song changed.

Harmony. Beckoning. Insistent.

Then, for the briefest moment, silence.

Stunned, Qui-Gon spun back to squint into the dark cave. "If you wanted my attention, congratulations, you have it," he murmured.

In the span of a few breaths, he sank into the Force and began to walk. As the cacophony returned, a thread of harmony plucked at him and he held onto it like a lifeline. Deeper and deeper into the cave he moved, until the darkness ate away at the orange light of his torch. His eyes saw little, but in the Force, something ahead was shining.

A boulder, unmoved by Guardians who were happy to go around, waited in the middle of the passage—waited for him. The noise fell away as he bent his head closer to the shallow depression on the top of the rock, leaving only a soft four-note harmony. In the natural bowl, Qui-Gon counted six uncoloured kyber crystals winking in the firelight.

He palmed them before he could consider it further. They were warm and surprisingly heavy in his hand. Rightness settled in his bones as the crystals whispered to him, speaking incomprehensibly of their purpose. He considered the crystals' song all the way out of the caverns, but the Force supplied no answers.

The Night Guardian cocked their masked head at him as he approached. As ritual demanded, he held his cupped hands out for inspection. "These have called my name."

The muffled voice behind the layers of black silk sounded suspiciously like Sister Hanera. "May you serve the Force with a heart of kyber," she intoned. As he bowed his head, she gave a soft sigh of exasperation. "Six, Qui-Gon?"

He shot her a bewildered half-smile and shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine."

"Get out of here before anything else can flag you down."

Another bow, shallow and wry, was at odds with his formal response. "I am one with the Force and the Force is with me. I serve the Force in all things."

The Night Guardian tapped her kyber-tipped staff in acknowledgement, but he heard her disbelieving mutter as he passed. "What the kark are you gonna do with six?"

 

The black-clad, lean-limbed Chirrut Îmwe lounged against Qui-Gon's door, idly spinning his staff between his hands like an overly large spindle. Qui-Gon swallowed a sigh; he knew this had been coming. "It's late, Chirrut," he said softly.

The shorter man shrugged. "You've eluded me all day. I figured I'd wait for you to come to me, then impose upon your hospitality."

"Your impositions are getting more poorly timed with age," bit back Qui-Gon as he opened the door of his quarters.

"I would say more perfectly timed," replied Chirrut, brushing past the former Jedi and seating himself on the spare cushion in the corner. "A little lizard told me you're leaving in the morning."

"Whoever your little lizard is, they need to learn to keep their mouth shut," grumbled Qui-Gon. "No one else must know."

"Know what? That you're leaving us to gallivant around the brand-new Empire with a man whose face is recognizable in every system of the galaxy with access to the HoloNet? He has a 50 million credit bounty on his head, Qui-Gon."

Qui-Gon froze in the middle of pulling out his teapot and stared at his guest. "Fifty? Five-zero?"

Chirrut nodded gravely. "I suppose the Empire has realized he survived his loyal Imperial clone troopers," he said with a wry twist of his mouth. His lips turned to a frown. "It's dangerous out there, brother."

"Chirrut," Qui-Gon sighed. "You welcomed me with open arms and treated me as your own brother."

"Because you are my brother," retorted Chirrut. "My brother who is about to do something extremely stupid."

"I spent my entire life as a Jedi. I have no memory of my biological parents, or of a life not steeped in the Force. I trained for the inevitability of walking into situations others had fled." The heavy, cast iron teapot, etched with intricate mazes of Rishii origin, warmed between his palms. "You might say I'm an expert in doing extremely stupid things. Stupid, but necessary."

With a snort like a bantha exhaling, Chirrut shook his head. "Should I remind you of your vows?"

"Should I remind you that no Guardian is a prisoner in the Temple of Kyber?" snapped Qui-Gon. The blind man flinched at the volume, and Qui-Gon winced apologetically. "Sorry, Chirrut. I've made up my mind. I'm going with Obi-Wan."

A troubled look crossed Chirrut's face. "There is something not right with him. He carries a broken kyber crystal. It feels—I've never felt such despair, Qui-Gon. Something unspeakable happened, and I worry that whatever it was, you'll find out too late to protect yourself."

"Visions?"

"You're not the only one with gut feelings, Qui-Gon. You're being dragged into a terrible situation, and I'm asking you to reconsider." That milky blue stare fixed on him like a laser, and Qui-Gon smiled sadly.

"I had a friend who used to do that," he said softly. "Even before she was blinded, Tahl had the most unsettling stare when she wanted me to do as she said."

"And if Tahl was here, would you listen to her?"

The stubborn lilt of Chirrut's voice only settled determination further into Qui-Gon's heart. "Obi-Wan needs me, and I will not abandon him."

Chirrut narrowed his eyes. "So you'll abandon us, instead."

Closing his eyes against the accusation in his friend's gaze, Qui-Gon said, "If Baze abandoned his place here—"

"A dubious suggestion."

"—Would he still come running if you needed him?"

He was met with thoughtful silence. Then, "You're his Baze, hmm?"

"And he's my Chirrut," replied Qui-Gon with a tiny shrug. "I can't say no to him."

The young Guardian stood, brushing his robes back into order and wrapping his hand around his staff. "Return to us, Guardian of the Whills," he said, his voice low as he bowed at the waist. "May the Force guide your steps and light your path. May the Force shelter you and show you what you seek. May the Force carry you home."

Qui-Gon returned the bow. "I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me."

With a last wry smile tinged with sadness, Chirrut turned to leave. He paused in the doorway and murmured, "May the Force be with you, Master Jedi."

 

NaJedha reflected daylight back at its moon during Jedha's night. The eerie light ensured the holy city was never truly dark, but constantly, dimly illuminated with an unsettling shade of red. It filtered through the high, narrow slit the Temple of Kyber called a window, enough for Qui-Gon to make out the shape milling in his doorway. As he blinked sleep from his eyes, he prodded with the Force to find a void.

"Obi-Wan?" he said, his voice sounding rough to his own ears.

"I can't let it go," replied the Knight. Distress sanded down the crisp edges of his Coruscanti accent. "I can't feel it, and I can't let it go."

Qui-Gon pushed himself up, leaning against the wall, and reached out to fumble with the bedside lamp. "Can't feel what—"

Obi-Wan was at his side instantly, crawling onto Qui-Gon's lap and pressing his lips against Qui-Gon's mouth with fierce desperation. For a split second, the familiar taste flooded Qui-Gon's mind with pleasant memories and deep longing; his hands slid down Obi-Wan's legs to his bare feet—

Why was Obi-Wan wandering the Temple in bare feet?

Qui-Gon pulled back, resting his hands on Obi-Wan's shoulders to keep him at a distance. The more logical question, why are you kissing me, finally surfaced. "Obi-Wan—"

"Didn't you miss me?" Obi-Wan leaned forward against Qui-Gon's hands to press their foreheads together. The Knight's skin was still cool to the touch, but his breath against Qui-Gon's cheek was warm. "I missed you so much, Qui. For awhile I dreamt of you every time I fell asleep. I want to dream about you again."

He darted in for another kiss, but Qui-Gon ducked his head and gently pressed Obi-Wan back. "No, Obi-Wan," he murmured, squinting slightly in the dim light to catch the expression on Obi-Wan's face.

Pale skin and too-bright eyes; Qui-Gon was witnessing the breakdown of the other half of his heart in real time, and it felt like he had swallowed a burning lump of lead.

"You didn't miss me." Too flat, ending in a strangled vowel.

"Of course I missed you," Qui-Gon said softly, reaching up to cup Obi-Wan's jaw against his better judgement. Obi-Wan nuzzled against Qui-Gon's palm, and Qui-Gon felt him tremble. "There hasn't been a day when I haven't wanted to see you, to talk to you."

Obi-Wan kissed Qui-Gon's palm, hot like a brand. "Then help me feel," he begged, running his hand up Qui-Gon's arm. This was not right, none of this was right; Qui-Gon’s heart raced in alarm even as the Force stayed silent. "I need to feel something, Qui. I want--"

Obi-Wan’s fingers trailed down Qui-Gon’s chest, avoiding the round lightsaber scar, and pressed against Qui-Gon’s half-hard cock.

Biting back a gasp, Qui-Gon shook his head. He kept his tone gentle. “No.”

Still as a statue, Obi-Wan slowly pulled back his hand. That void in the Force seemed to widen, threatening to pull Qui-Gon along like a black hole absorbing light.

"Not like this, love," he whispered, brushing his thumb over Obi-Wan's smooth cheek as the term of endearment rolled off his tongue before he could catch it. He did not have the right to say that anymore. "I'm sorry, I can't—"

“You don’t want me. I shouldn’t have come.” Obi-Wan shifted, eyes downcast as he moved away, but Qui-Gon snagged him around the middle to keep him from fleeing. “I wasn’t even planning to land on Jedha, but Huyang set the course, and you were never supposed to be involved--”

“Talk to me, Ben,” Qui-Gon pleaded. “Tell me what’s happened to you . Let me share your burden.”

Obi-Wan swallowed, audible in the heavy silence between them. He leaned away, insistent, until Qui-Gon let his arms slip away. Shaking his head, Obi-Wan murmured, “If I start, I’ll never stop.” He sucked in a breath, as if putting himself back together. A little more forcefully and full of embarrassment, he said, “I shouldn’t have bothered you.”

The Knight clambered off the bed and stalked out before Qui-Gon had a chance to beg him back, to haul him back into his arms and never let him go.

 

The pinkish light of the night slowly turned grey with the dawn, and Qui-Gon watched the sliver of his window change colour with tired eyes. Sleep had eluded him as he debated over whether to follow Obi-Wan; each scenario he posited ended in either an epic argument or Obi-Wan slipping out of the Temple without him. Kaito had appreciated the warning that Obi-Wan might attempt to take Luke from the nursery, but he had heard the suspicious undertone in her voice. If he was not careful, Obi-Wan would end up sedated in the infirmary.

Maybe that was not such a terrible option.

He dressed methodically and rebraided his hair, steeling himself for a confrontation with an unbalanced--former lover? Friend? Ex-apprentice?--that would test his rusty diplomatic skills. He hefted his bag, packed with a change of civilian togs and a spare set of robes as well as the six crystals nestled in a cloth bag, and walked out the door with a grim set of his jaw.

He caught Obi-Wan as the Knight was slipping out of his room with a canvas bag slung over his shoulder. Sleep had been a poor friend to both of them; dark circles hung below Obi-Wan’s grey eyes, and his lips were set in a harsh, exhausted line. At the sight of his former Master, those lips thinned further and a red tinge crept over his cheeks.

Ignoring the impending embarrassment, Qui-Gon beckoned him closer. “I’ve been thinking more about this plan to take Luke, ah, home,” he said, “and I admit, the idea of bringing an infant, especially one so small and fragile, across the galaxy and through Hutt space, concerns me greatly.”

“He goes to his family, Qui-Gon,” retorted Obi-Wan, his voice flat.

Qui-Gon nodded, keeping himself looking amenable. “I understand, Obi-Wan, but what if his family is not prepared to take him? Tatooine is a subsistence world, and if I remember correctly, Anakin’s stepfather was gravely wounded by Tuskens.”

“The stepbrother--” began Obi-Wan, but Qui-Gon stopped him with a shake of his head.

“Owen Lars is a very young man,” said Qui-Gon softly, “with a very young girlfriend. I think it would be extremely unfair to show up on their doorstep with a baby.”

The shreds of the Jedi Master seemed to hem together before his eyes as Obi-Wan reached up and rested his hand over his chin. Qui-Gon’s heart skipped a beat in relief. “It was the plan,” Obi-Wan told him, but he did not sound as radically insistent as he had yesterday.

“Might I suggest an...additional step in the plan?” Obi-Wan gestured for Qui-Gon to continue, his eyes thoughtful. “Let us go to Tatooine and meet with the Lars family. Assess the situation, ask them if they’re willing and able to take the boy.”

"And if they refuse?"

"Then we will travel to Naboo and make some extremely discreet inquiries of the Naberrie family."

"You were the one who said that was unlikely," Obi-Wan said, narrowing his eyes.

"I did," agreed Qui-Gon, "but given enough time and the current galactic chaos, Naboo and the Naberrie family will no longer be under such heavy scrutiny by the media. Padmé"—Obi-Wan's shoulders tightened at the sound of her name—"had a family who loved her, and an even larger contingent of utterly loyal chosen family."

"It's too obvious," protested Obi-Wan, but to Qui-Gon's ears it sounded half-hearted.

"And taking Anakin's son to his stepfamily on his homeworld isn't?" retorted Qui-Gon evenly. "Wherever you've hidden Luke's sibling, I hope it's less obvious."

Obi-Wan's grey eyes snaked sideways before he stepped closer to Qui-Gon. Barely audible, he said, "You must never mention that again. I should never have revealed it. If it's ever found out that there are two—"

Bending his head to murmur in Obi-Wan's ear, Qui-Gon promised, "I will keep the secret, Obi-Wan, but I must insist on my plan. We cannot drop a baby on the Lars family without discussing it with them first." The clench of Obi-Wan's jaw suggested he was going to argue, so Qui-Gon gambled, and hated himself for it. "Luke has already been born into tragedy. Surely you don't wish for him to grow up on a miserable ball of sand with people who resent him, or people who merely tolerate him, or people who might slip so deeply into need that they sell their only resource?"

Obi-Wan drew back, horrified. "You honestly believe they'd sell a baby?"

"I can't make that assessment," replied Qui-Gon. "We do not know the Lars family. We don't know their means, or their temperament, or even their loyalties. That's why we have to go first. We hold that little boy's future in our hands, and we can't fail."

Silence, then a noisy exhale as Obi-Wan ran his hand over his smooth cheeks. "Very well. I'll fetch Luke, and we'll get to this ship of yours."

"Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon said carefully, "I don't believe it's prudent to bring him with us."

A furrow appeared between Obi-Wan's brows. "I can't leave him. I have to protect him."

The cracks in the Jedi's shields seemed to split further; Qui-Gon sensed confusion swirling with fear and determination. "He's not safe in space. Not with the Empire hunting us."

"I can't—"

"You haven't hidden his Force signature," Qui-Gon rumbled. A statement, not an accusation, but Obi-Wan flinched as if he had been struck across the face. "He's a beacon to any Force-sensitive."

Anger and despair flickered through the other man's shields, and Qui-Gon ached with the desire to do something, anything, to help. Obi-Wan scrubbed his palms over his face, then nodded once. "Can you promise me he will be safe here?"

He sounded so lost. Qui-Gon reached out, skimming his hand over Obi-Wan's arm to catch cool fingers. He squeezed, hard calluses from heavy 'saber work rough against his palm. "When I took my vows as a Guardian," he said softly, "I swore to protect those who follow our path with my life. History has not always been kind to those who follow the Whills, or to our Temple, and while we believe the Force will provide, we also know we are the vehicle of the Force's provision. None who dwell here, save for our very youngest, is helpless. Anyone trying to get to Luke has to get through Baze and Chirrut, and after that miraculous survival, an entire Temple of Guardians, postulants, and initiates."

Obi-Wan's gaze slipped to their joined hands, but he made no effort to pull away. "Promise me."

Qui-Gon settled his other hand along Obi-Wan's jaw, gently tipping the Jedi's face up to meet his eyes. "I will hide his Force-signature myself. I promise he will be safe here until we return."

And there, the faintest crinkle at Obi-Wan's eyes as he murmured, "You sure you remember how?"

His Obi-Wan was still in there, beneath the broken shards and bruises. Qui-Gon could not stop his smile. "Imp," he rumbled, savouring the brief moment of Obi-Wan turning his face into Qui-Gon's palm.

When the Jedi stepped away, slipping his hand out of Qui-Gon's grasp, the serious countenance returned like a mask.

Hoping for another glimpse of the man he loved, Qui-Gon smirked. "Want to supervise?"

Obi-Wan grunted and motioned for Qui-Gon to precede him into the nursery; Qui-Gon slipped past him and tried not to let his disappointment show.

 

Qui-Gon had spent much of his time as an apprentice hiding from Dooku in the crèche, but he did not remember ever holding a baby so tiny. His hands seemed enormous and unwieldy as he sat in the creaky rocking chair and cradled Luke. Kaito had found a little knit hat in multicolour stripes; the rolled edge of the fabric nearly covered Luke's blue eyes. In the corner, Obi-Wan watched with a too-bland expression; Qui-Gon knew the other man was chafing at having Qui-Gon do this instead of himself. Qui-Gon still needed to bring that particular question up—maybe while they were stuck in hyperspace.

The baby was awake, his unfocussed gaze seemingly aimed at Qui-Gon. Luke yawned, contorting his entire face as he stuck the pink tip of his tongue out over his smooth gums. "I'll be done in a minute, and you can go back to sleep," murmured Qui-Gon.

The former Jedi Master closed his eyes and delved into the Force.

Blinding. The little life in his hands was blinding in the Force.

Just like his father.

As Qui-Gon reached out to gather the Force like a blanket, a crescendo of whispers filled his ears, and he saw.

sand binary stars he's too much like his father crazy old man red 'saber I'm not afraid you will be

Flickers and slices of a possible life cut into him like whiplashes, too fast to understand—

another Skywalker there's still good in him the legacy of the Jedi is failure strike me down in anger and I will always be with you

A possibility of a life, a possibility among possibilities—Qui-Gon braced himself against the torrent of light and darkness and wrapped a layer of the Force around that shining beacon, tying it with his mind's fingers with the most intricate knot, then opened his eyes.

The baby in his arms fussed, pulling his legs up to his tummy. In the Force, his presence was exactly that of a null; alive, and content, but to those with Force-sensitivity, completely unremarkable. Qui-Gon rubbed his thumb over a soft pink cheek and smiled. "You are one with the Force, and the Force is with you," he whispered. "Always in motion, the future is."

Obi-Wan shifted, the leather jacket creaking. Qui-Gon glanced up at him. "Would you like to say farewell?"

The Jedi hesitated before nodding. He crossed the nursery and plucked the baby from Qui-Gon's hands, settling the little head beneath his chin. Luke sighed and relaxed against Obi-Wan's chest. Despite all the warning and prickling alarm Obi-Wan wore in the Force like a second skin, the baby trusted him.

"I'll come back for you, Luke," murmured Obi-Wan, closing his eyes. "This way you don't have to go through hyperspace. I know you don't like hyperspace."

Qui-Gon watched as his former apprentice held onto the infant like a lifeline, and felt his heart break all over again. Everything could have turned out so differently for this moment; they could be raising their own baby on some distant Agricorps world, or teaching a horde of Padawans together, or keeping the galaxy tied together with diplomacy and aggressive negotiations—

Or they could both be dead.

He would take what he could get, because the past was set. What had happened could not be undone.

Slowly, he rose from the rocking chair and settled his hand on Obi-Wan's shoulder. "Our ship awaits."

Chapter Text

 

So when we leave, be a quick, midnight escape
We'll disconnect ourselves from all of yesterday
I'll dig for water and fashion our very own wishing well
Then we'll throw our coins down hoping to rid us of this little hell

Little Hell, City and Colour

 

The old market, sprawling and dusty, stood between the Temple of Kyber and the spaceport. The press of bodies and the choking dust had Obi-Wan coughing into the leather sleeve of his jacket as he kept to Qui-Gon's elbow. Merchants cried their wares, everything from greenhouse-grown fruit to brightly coloured bolts of fabric to degreased engine parts. Live fowl in wicker cages bickered, irritated and unsettled. Obi-Wan, irritated and unsettled himself, sympathized; every step meant he was further away from Luke, further away from his duty.

The crowd, when it noticed Qui-Gon's distinctive robes, did its best to shuffle out of his way. Some, mostly those with deep creases of age and work, reached out to lay their hands on his arm, and for them, Qui-Gon paused and murmured a line of blessing. Obi-Wan pulled his cap further down over his ears and tried not to shiver as the wind picked up, swirling the miasma of smells over the market.

"How far to the ship?" he asked in an undertone after Qui-Gon sent off a couple of old women.

"If I rush, it will be suspicious," replied Qui-Gon. "The further away from the Temple we get, the more suspicious I become."

"Then why wear your robes?"

"Because they afford respect, and while I might be in a suspicious place, questioning a Guardian harshly is less acceptable than a civilian." Qui-Gon glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "I'm taking advantage."

"Right." With frustrating slowness, they wound their way through the old market. The immense curve of NaJedha filled the early morning sky, reminding Obi-Wan of another planet covered in crystals.

Christophsis—where he had earned the nickname "The Negotiator" and failed to fight for the girl who should have been his second Padawan for the first time.

He had asked for Ahsoka; he had instructed Yoda to send him an Initiate past the age of choosing since the policy had been suspended at the beginning of the war. He had asked for someone overlooked, someone whose sense of justice was a bit too overdeveloped, someone who seemed sure they would never be chosen. Someone a little too much like 13 year-old Obi-Wan Kenobi.

And Yoda had, indeed, picked the perfect candidate: brash and untempered, passionate and whip-smart, mouthy and dedicated, Ahsoka Tano was exactly the girl Obi-Wan had wanted as his second apprentice--until she presented herself to Anakin in accordance with Yoda's orders.

Damn the old troll to every hell—although Dagobah would serve, he supposed. Obi-Wan had offered to come to the Temple and choose an Initiate himself, but Yoda had forbidden him from leaving his post. Obi-Wan had had no choice but to allow the Grand Master to send a child through a war zone, giving Yoda the chance to meddle in what he did not understand.

"Master Yoda, I must protest in the strongest terms. I asked for a Padawan for myself, not for Anakin." Obi-Wan crossed his arms over his chest, frowning in displeasure. Years ago he might have quailed at the thought of arguing with the ancient Master, but he was running on the last fumes of a battle high, and by the little gods, he was going to use them. "Even you cannot assign such a responsibility onto another Jedi. Apprenticeship must be mutually agreed upon by Master and Padawan."

Yoda's ears twitched. "Too many Initiates we have," he replied. "An apprentice, we must all take."

"That may be your opinion, Master Yoda, but it contravenes our own laws. Anakin did not request an apprentice."

"Good for Skywalker, Padawan Tano will be," argued the troll. "Teach him patience and responsibility, she will."

"You can't put that on the shoulders of a fourteen year old girl!"

The long, green ears slowly moved backwards; Obi-Wan was diving into the deep waters of trouble. "A responsibility you took on after Qui-Gon’s departure, Master Kenobi," said Yoda, his voice full of duracrete.

"Is this a punishment?" demanded Obi-Wan in disbelief. "A rebuke of my teaching skills?"

"That there are things out of his control, Skywalker must learn," Yoda said with a tap of his gimer stick. The holoimage shimmered with the movement. "Always have you, he will not. Conquer his attachments, he must."

"He's only just been Knighted," Obi-Wan argued.

"Then a lesson that should have been learned sooner, it is."

The last vestiges of adrenaline seared in his veins, serving up words he would normally swallow and bury. "He's not ready for an apprentice. A new Knight should never take a Padawan so quickly. Anakin wasn’t even my official apprentice for that first year, and it nearly undid me."

Yoda's unblinking stare was unnerving. Obi-Wan suppressed a shiver. "Final, the decision is, Master Kenobi. Concentrate on the war, you must."

And concentrated on the war he had, even as Ahsoka Tano was betrayed, first by her best friend, then by the Jedi Order.

His failure might have saved her life; Padmé could not say the same.

A firm grip on his elbow ripped him out of his own memories. Qui-Gon was pulling him towards a stall displaying a dizzying array of beads and necklaces. "Wha—"

"Do not turn your head," ordered Qui-Gon under his breath. "There are troopers up ahead."

The proprietor of the stall smiled widely at them and bowed her head to Qui-Gon. "Good morning, Guardian. You are kind to visit."

"Good morning," replied Qui-Gon, warm and friendly as he began pointing out interesting beads of wood and stone and asking after their origins.

Obi-Wan picked up a long string of smooth glass beads knotted with a white silk tassel and held it up, twisting slightly sideways to catch the light and a glimpse of the clone troopers. A pair of clones in the latest armour model—every version drifted further and further away from beskar'gam —milled around a pillar covered in a mix of flimsi and holonotices. Both held their blaster rifles across their chests as they scanned the crowd from behind their unadorned helmets. Not a single mark, scorch or paint, marred their armour. Obi-Wan twisted his lips, unimpressed at the pair of shinies, but before he could set the beads down again, his face, full on and in profile, winked into existence on a holonotice above their helmets. Jedi traitor Obi-Wan Kenobi, 50 million credits, wanted alive .

Fucking fuck. "Is there another way to the spaceport?" he murmured casually.

"Not unless you want to walk all the way around the mesa," replied Qui-Gon softly. Pitching his voice louder, he said, "Those look like magnol wood."

"You have a good eye, Guardian," the shopkeeper said with a toothy grin. "They came in from Alderaan a tenday ago."

"They're shinies," whispered Obi-Wan. "Unpredictably excellent or terrible at their job."

"You've more experience with them," answered Qui-Gon.

"And I don't know the area."

"I have just the thing for you," the shopkeeper said suddenly, too loudly. "In the back."

"I, er—" Obi-Wan began, scrambling for a way out without attracting more attention.

"In the back," she repeated insistently, then dropped to a hiss through teeth clenched in a smile, "General."

Fighting the coil of panic constricting his belly, Obi-Wan followed the tiny woman to the back of her little stall. A raucous chorus of clicks trailed him as Qui-Gon ducked under ropes of beads to keep up. The woman stopped abruptly next to a shabby folding screen painted with a scene of Chandrilan cardinals in flight. "Lift the tent flap behind the screen," she instructed in a low voice, still smiling as if making a sale. "You can follow the alley all the way to the next crossroads and continue on to the spaceport. If anyone stops you, tell them Sireda sent you on an errand for the Guardian."

"You know who I am?"

"I know you're the one who rescued my brother from an exploding Republic cruiser in the Deveron system about two years ago," replied Sireda with a soft expression. "But if anyone asks, I've never seen you before in my life, General Kenobi."

The sheer gratitude in her dark eyes stole the breath from his lungs. Struggling to swallow around his dry throat, Obi-Wan held out the string of beads; Sireda carefully closed her blunt fingers over his and patted his fist. The smooth, round glass bumps were cool in his palm. "Keep them. I couldn't send you a thank you card, so this will have to do."

A thank you gift; Jedi were not supposed to accept gifts. "I-I can't—"

"Thank you for your generosity," Qui-Gon interrupted smoothly. The hand not grasping his quarterstaff brushed Obi-Wan's elbow. "May the blessings of the Force be upon you."

Sireda wedged herself into the corner as Qui-Gon ducked behind the painted screen and beckoned for Obi-Wan to follow. Obi-Wan nodded once more to the shopkeeper, stuffed the string of beads into his pocket, and shuffled under the edge of the dusty canvas.

The narrow alleyway, lined on both sides by mismatched canvas sandblasted to the same bland colour, was deserted. Qui-Gon set a rapid pace, sending up clouds of dust without ever looking bothered, while Obi-Wan nearly broke into a trot to keep up. The alley opened abruptly into a small square with a dry fountain in the middle. People on their morning errands hurried past; the biting wind kept them from more than a second glance at the out-of-place Guardian.

Qui-Gon eyed the sky suspiciously. "This way."

The spaceport sat on the southernmost tip of the high mesa. High walls created to match the ancient walls surrounding the Holy City closed off the entrance, but there were no guards stationed at the door.

Too convenient. Before he could stop himself, he muttered, "I have a bad feeling about this."

Qui-Gon looked at him sharply. "You do." It was not a question, but an oddly flat statement.

"Why wall a spaceport and not guard it? Are they keeping people in or out?"

Humming thoughtfully, Qui-Gon ran a hand over his beard and tapped his staff against a rough cobblestone. "One way to find out," he announced and walked towards the door.

"Godsdamnit, Qui," Obi-Wan muttered before hurrying to catch up. Becoming a Guardian had not dampened the man’s idiotic bravery.

The guardhouse was empty, which slowed Qui-Gon's steps. "I don't sense anything off," he whispered, "but I agree we should be on guard."

"You weren't on guard before?" retorted Obi-Wan; the adrenaline was flowing, and he was feeling droll.

Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow at him before pointing with his staff. "There."

The most battered G9-rigger Obi-Wan had ever laid eyes on waited next to a pair of spice freighters. The paint was flaking, and numerous scorch marks decorated the outrigger housing and bow. He frowned, wondering if this bloody ship was even spaceworthy as he followed Qui-Gon to the open loading door.

A skinny Feeorin stood at the top of the loading dock, arms crossed over his chest. Unusually mottled green and white, he glowered at Qui-Gon.  "You're late," he snapped.

"I'm here now," replied Qui-Gon calmly.

Yellow eyes narrowed as they fixed on Obi-Wan. "Who're you?"

Qui-Gon stepped forward as if trying to shield Obi-Wan from view. "He's no one important," rumbled the former Jedi.

The Feeorin shifted his weight from one foot to the other and spat onto the deck. "It'll cost you, Guardian or not."

Genially, Qui-Gon nodded. "Of course, Pran. Half now and half on arrival, as promised."

Pran stepped down the ramp and jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. "Get aboard. I have to remove the landing ties."

The scrape of plastoid against the side of a blaster rifle had Obi-Wan reaching for a 'saber that wasn’t attached to his hip; Qui-Gon whirled and slid to put himself between the clone troopers and Obi-Wan.

"We need to see your permits," announced the first trooper, this one sporting an orange pauldron with a scratch too deep to polish out. Not a shiny, although his partner practically glowed with inexperience as he gripped his weapon too rigidly at the perfect angle; an experienced clone almost always had a more relaxed hold unless he was expecting trouble.

"Aw, come on," Pran wheedled. "Since when are you boys checking permits? You're supposed to be guarding against Confederacy ships."

"There are no Separatists anymore," replied the shiny.

Pran scoffed. "So why are you even here, sticking your blasters in other people's business, if the war's over?"

The shiny took a step forward. "Because the Empire takes smuggling very seriously. Now hand over your permit."

Even skinny, the Feeorin towered over the clone troopers; Pran's head tails rose up like hackles on a dog. "Are you calling me a smuggler?"

"Just show him the permit, Pran, and we can be on our way," suggested Qui-Gon. His voice sounded perfectly calm, but Obi-Wan watched the taller man's hand tighten minutely around his staff. "Or at least let your passengers board while you sort this out."

Pran waved dismissively. "Make yourselves comfortable. Stay out of the cockpit."

"Thank you," said Qui-Gon lightly, shifting his head slightly to glance at Obi-Wan out of the corner of his eye.

Obi-Wan took the hint and ducked his head before stepping onto the ramp. The knit cap covered the colour of his hair, at least.

"Hey!" The clone's voice, so familiar and yet strange, rang out like a whip. Obi-Wan slowed but didn’t stop, didn’t look up. "Hey, let's see your ident papers!"

Like a serpent, Qui-Gon struck. His staff moved faster than Obi-Wan could track, cracking the polarized lenses of the clone commander's helmet and pounding into the narrow crack between the front and left side armour panels. As his commander crumpled, the shiny moved his blaster into firing position and managed a single shot before Qui-Gon struck again. In a flurry of black and red, he yanked the blaster away with the Force and smashed the shiny over the head with his staff, leaving à spiderwebbed dent in the plastoid. Neither clone got up again.

"Oh, fuck me," Pran gasped before falling to his knees.

Obi-Wan jumped off the ramp, patting his pockets for his comm, and bent to check on the clone troopers before his brain caught up— these aren’t your men, there’s no medic to call .

"Help me with him," insisted Qui-Gon as he caught Pran under one arm.

The Feeorin left a trail of bright crimson blood droplets as Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon dragged him into the rigger's loading bay. "Fucking clones and their fucking itchy trigger fingers," groaned Pran. "Why the fuck did you start a fight, you Guardian asshole?"

"You could have just shown them your permit," retorted Qui-Gon irritably as he poked his fingers around the blaster wound, making Pran hiss in pain.

"Fuck! Stop doing that!"

"If they don't check in, someone else will come," Obi-Wan said. "Orange pauldron is squad leader, nine clones under the command of a sergeant."

Qui-Gon nodded his head towards the other end of the cargo bay. "Get us in the air. I'll take care of this."

"If you adjust my chair I will murder you, human," growled Pran at Obi-Wan's retreating back.

 

Obi-Wan slid into the pilot's seat and began the kind of pre-flight check routine that would make his flight instructors faint. His fingers flew over switches while his eyes roved over the instrumentation, all the while calculating what the minimum length of time would be before the sergeant's men came calling—

"Artoo, spool up the sublight engines and begin the hyperdrive calculations," he ordered, though he knew the astromech would be ten steps ahead of him by now. "The Malevolence will be on us. Padmé, strap in—"

His fingers stilled. This wasn’t the Twilight , and they hadn’t just rescued Padmé from Grievous—

"Fuck!" He slammed his fist against the durasteel control panel, earning him an unhappy squawk from the life support system. From the corner, a querying series of beeps had him once again fumbling for a lightsaber that was not there. An R-5 astromech with a cracked head repaired with pink hydraulic tape roved its ocular sensor over Obi-Wan and beeped again, challenging. "Pran's been shot, so let's get out of here. Set a course for Tatooine."

The droid blatted something unflattering at him, but plugged into the navigation port.

Obi-Wan finished the checklist and initiated the galaxy's fastest max power sublight engine test; the engines whined and the chip detector blinked on the warning light panels. "I don't have time for this," he gritted through his teeth, reaching out to flick the light with his finger until it went out. "Much better."

He flicked on the internal comms. "Brace for liftoff."

In the corner of the transparisteel viewscreen, a cluster of white caught his eye; he could almost hear the identical voices chattering at each other before the black blasters swung towards him. The droid shrieked in alarm as Obi-Wan disengaged the landing gear. The ship shuddered as he activated the thrusters, then shuddered again.

"That's not the thrusters," he cried, the insistent chirping of proximity alarms drowning him out.

The phosphorescent blink of blaster fire caught the edge of his vision, bleaching the retina in his right eye. The Twilight had shields, surely this heap of bolts did, too—

A string of binary from the droid, shrill and scolding, filled the cockpit as Obi-Wan flicked the shield control. The delicate haze of the electromagnetic shield shimmered over the viewscreen like a soap bubble. He slumped in relief.

The shield flickered, then dissolved.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" The reply came in rapid binary. "That was a rhetorical question!"

A blaster shot hit the viewscreen rim, sending sparks across the transparisteel. "You know, Padmé, I didn't take your ship because the entire thing is a ridiculous, shiny target," he muttered as he pushed the thrusters to maximum. "But in retrospect, I could have painted the damn thing."

With the rigger's nose pointed at the cold, pale sky, Obi-Wan slammed his hand against the engine control. As if to spite him, the ship sailed out of the spaceport slowly, gaining speed at a snail's pace. Obi-Wan turned to glare at the droid. "Does this fucking ship have any positive attributes?"

After a moment's silence, the droid slowly shook its cylindrical head.

"Not even you?"

A binary sigh, and the droid repeated the gesture.

"Great." The ship trembled as the anti-gravity plating activated and the interior lighting switched on as the dark blanket of space crept over the viewscreen. "What's your designation?"

[R9-R9,] replied the droid, enunciating its beeps.

"Well, Arnine—"

[Arnie,] it corrected happily.

"Right," drawled Obi-Wan. Honestly, why did people get so bloody attached to their droids? The number of times he had walked in on Anakin having a conversation in binary with Artoo, and Ahsoka was no better, decorating every astromech ever assigned to her with flimsi stickers— "Just…get us to Tatooine," he ordered the droid as his mouth went dry.

 

The rigger's infirmary had been stuffed with cargo. Pran sprawled out on the passenger lounge couch, bloodying an already filthy set of cushions. Obi-Wan stood over him with Qui-Gon at his elbow. The black robes did not show any bloodstains, but his hands were stained crimson.

"I think he'll live," said Qui-Gon softly.

Kneeling to get a better look at the wound, Obi-Wan noted the cauterized edges. "No major blood vessel damage," he said, "but I'm sure Kix would yell at you for moving him."

"Who's that?"

Obi-Wan stilled, cursing himself for speaking without thinking. "Medic," he said tightly before abruptly changing the subject. "Arnie plotted a course to Tatooine that avoids the major hyperspace lanes. It'll take at least a tenday because of the detours."

Qui-Gon glanced at him with an odd expression. "Arnie?"

"The astromech," sighed Obi-Wan. "Apparently it has a name and personality instead of useful programming."

A soft snort of laughter escaped Qui-Gon's nose. "Anakin loves those."

Loved. Anakin loved

You were my brother, Anakin! I loved you!

"He needs to be kept warm," Obi-Wan said, gesturing to the unconscious pilot.

From the emergency medikit laying open on the dejarik table, Qui-Gon shook out a shiny, lightweight blanket and draped it over the Feeorin. Together, they tucked the edges under Pran's body. As Qui-Gon straightened, he sighed heavily. "I'm sorry, Pran. I should never have put you in this position," he muttered.

"You weren't the one who shot him," replied Obi-Wan. "You paid him for a job."

That long, silvery braid shivered as Qui-Gon shook his head. "I had to compel him to agree," he admitted softly. "In the strictest sense, I broke my vows. To compel another is to ignore the Force as it exists in an individual."

It rubbed something within him raw, opening an old wound, to hear Qui-Gon speak of the Force with such heresy, to listen to the assumption that the Jedi rode roughshod over the Force. "You must not have been able to ignore the Force when you left the Order. It must have been screaming at you to leave," he said, wanting to hurt with his words, wanting a fight, anything to keep his mind from remembering the Twilight and being surrounded by his family—

Blue eyes turned to him, full of pity. "The Force didn't give me an inkling either way," Qui-Gon said quietly. "I left because my own conscience would not allow me to stay."

Obi-Wan stared at him, his mouth a harsh line. Three years filled with moments of bleak loneliness, telling himself that his lover had followed the will of the Force the way Jedi were supposed to, that the other half of his heart had walked out on him because the Force had guided him away.

Three years of telling himself lies.

He spun on his heel and marched back into the cockpit, locking the door behind him.

Chapter Text

Melt your silver down
Kiss your lover's face
The sirens start to sound
And you're caught up in the only place
Where the honesty of fear
Makes a battle like a song
Falling on your ears

Anger as Beauty, Hawksley Workman

 

Bootprints of red dust marked the carpet, both his and Obi-Wan's treads mingling in a poor re-enactment of Geonosis. The metallic taste of the iron oxide dust still hit his tongue if he licked his lips. Qui-Gon forced his gaze away from the floor. "I have to do this."

Obi-Wan ran a hand through his hair, adding to his bewildered air. "No, Qui-Gon. No, you don't. You can stay right here."

"And fight a war?" snapped Qui-Gon. "The Jedi are not an army; the Republic ensured that a thousand years ago."

"Dooku's turned!" retorted Obi-Wan, stepping forward with an angry frown. "He's steeped in the dark side, his 'saber's corrupted, and he mutilated our Padawan! We have a responsibility to bring him to justice—"

"He's also the leader of a political movement with a droid army at his disposal," Qui-Gon said. His tenuous grasp on his own calm was slipping. "If we kill him, we make him a martyr."

"So you're just going to let your Fallen Master roam the galaxy with impunity?"

"In case you've forgotten, Dooku was the reigning 'saber champion of the Temple for two decades. The chances of me defeating him in single combat now are sixty-forty in his favour, if there's no rain on the horizon slowing me down."

Obi-Wan stilled and squinted at him. "You really think I'd let you take him on alone?"

"The Council won't be jumping at the chance to partner you with a civilian," said Qui-Gon with a tiny, wry smile.

"Then stay." Crossing his arms over his chest, Obi-Wan lifted his chin; he was digging in for a fight.

"I will not. I will not be complicit in the enslavement of sentient beings by the Jedi Order and the Galactic Republic." White armour and identical faces, each one singing a different song in the Force—they were people , Force damn it, no matter how they came into being.

"The Republic must defend itself," Obi-Wan retorted flatly. "The Confederation—"

"The Republic, represented by the Jedi Order, preemptively invaded the sovereign territory of Geonosis and slaughtered its inhabitants," spat Qui-Gon, "based on your eyewitness account that the Separatists were responsible for Amidala's assassination attempts."

"Are you blaming me for this?" snapped Obi-Wan with disgust.

"Of course I'm not. But I must say, it's awfully convenient that we go to war the moment a clone army falls into our lap. No one has to say goodbye to their children as they go into battle and never return, there are no wailing mothers mourning on the HoloNet, and who is at the head of the army when things go sideways? The Jedi Order, the bastion of peace and order and the Force, just waiting to be blamed for the first major defeat of an ill-gotten war. Droids don't need supplies beyond weapons; they will come, and keep coming, and the Jedi Order will stretch itself until it breaks. This isn't a repeat of the Yinchorr Uprising. This is so much worse."

Obi-Wan's mouth was a tight, white line. "So instead of helping to end this, you're walking away."

"We all make choices, Obi-Wan," said Qui-Gon, softening his voice as he threw his last dice. "You don't have to choose this. You can come with me."

The air of hurt and disbelief in the Force vanished as Obi-Wan slammed down his shields; the Knight's face became a careful, neutral mask. "Asking me to choose between my duty to the Order and my feelings for you is a low blow."

"I don't want you to fight a war," Qui-Gon said sadly. "I want to keep you safe."

"You're supposed to watch my back, not abandon it," Obi-Wan ground out. "And while we're on the subject of abandonment, what about Anakin? After every struggle we’ve gone through together to keep him here, to catch him up, to coax out his potential, you're going to leave him without a Master before he takes his Trials?"

Guilt washed through Qui-Gon at the reminder of his Padawan, lying in the Halls of Healing as they fitted his new prosthetic arm. He swallowed hard. "I rather thought y—"

"I know what you thought, Qui-Gon!" shouted Obi-Wan. A flush of anger crept above his beard, staining his cheeks. "You assumed that I would step in, solve the problem you created, without any complaining, because that's what Obi-Wan Kenobi does, isn't it? He does whatever Qui-Gon Jinn wants him to do, because he's too karking stupid to say no. So yes, of course I'll make sure Anakin's Knighted, because he’s as much my Padawan as yours. Have you forgotten the entire year I spent as his acting Master while you recovered? Have you forgotten the past ten years of working together? It will be an absolute kriffing privilege to see my Padawan--my brother --Knighted. A privilege you are throwing away."

The harsh unfairness of Obi-Wan's words rekindled the fight in Qui-Gon's heart, so recently unleashed on the High Council. "I was going to ask you, Obi-Wan. I would never assume you would clean up my mess. I can only hope that my final lesson to Anakin, a young man who was once a slave himself, will be one of morality and complicity. I refuse to lead clone troops, who carry no citizenship and have no rights under the Galactic Constitution. I refuse to give any aid in service of this war, which is both unjust and illegal."

"Unfortunate that wars are not won with self-righteousness," Obi-Wan said haughtily.

Qui-Gon clacked his teeth together, keeping his anger in check. He did not want his last words to be shouted. "You left the Order, once," he whispered. "Where is that spark, that fire that burns for doing the right thing?"

Surprise flitted over Obi-Wan's handsome face. He scoffed. "I'm no longer a lovelorn child. I grew up and channelled that spark into becoming a Jedi Knight worthy of your teaching. Or so I thought."

They stared at each other, unmoving. Obi-Wan was flushed, his hands curled into fists, and all Qui-Gon wanted to do was sweep him into his arms and kiss him and never let go, but if he did that, he would never walk out the door. "I love you, and I am so proud of you," Qui-Gon said softly. "I can only hope that you'll be proud of me one day, too."

 

Armed with two mugs of steaming sapir, Qui-Gon stood at the locked cockpit door and tapped it with his foot. "Let me in," he called, knowing all too well that even when Obi-Wan was stable he would not unlock the door. Stubbornness rearing its head, frustrating as it might be, put hope in his heart. Stubbornness was the core of Obi-Wan Kenobi. "I made sapir."

Silence from the other side of the door. Qui-Gon sighed and grasped a tendril of the Force; the door slid open to reveal Obi-Wan leaning over an ugly, damaged droid. The man paused, holding a strip of pink hydraulic tape on the ends of his fingers, before carefully applying the tape to the droid's head casing. So Qui-Gon was going to be ignored. He sighed internally; he had been on the end of Obi-Wan's passive-aggressive silence before, and it never ended without someone shouting.

Obi-Wan leaned back and eyed his work. "That should do for now, Arnie. If I can scrounge up a welding torch somewhere I might be able to seal that crack permanently. You'll have a scar."

[ I believe the saying goes, 'Chicks dig scars,' ] beeped the droid.

Obi-Wan rolled his eyes and muttered something under his breath, rude and Huttese. He twisted in his chair to face the stars streaking past.

Qui-Gon would have to be the one to break the icy silence. A distraction, a deflection—anything to get Obi-Wan talking. He edged past Arnie, who whistled happily at him, and slid into the co-pilot's chair with immediate regret. A broken spring poked his thigh, just shy of drawing blood.

He would be damned before he left this cockpit without talking. Releasing the pain into the Force as quickly as he could, he thrust a mug advertising a podracing track on Malastare in Obi-Wan's direction. "So what exactly is our mission?"

Obi-Wan reached out absently and took the mug. "I thought I was quite clear."

"What does our ideal mission end look like?"

The redhead blew across the steaming tea and took a careful sip. "The family takes the baby and raises him without attracting any attention."

"And how do we guarantee that last bit?" asked Qui-Gon with deceptive mildness. He had to make Obi-Wan see the flaws in this half-baked plan; the entire prospect was insane, and Qui-Gon could practically taste Yoda's scheming. He didn't want to consider what Obi-Wan agreeing to it meant. "He's a beacon in the Force, and we have no idea what kind of natural talents he might be blessed with. How does the family explain rain before a dry spell becomes drought, or a boy who can get anything he wants from the Jawas but not Toydarians. How do they protect him if he lashes out in anger and hurts another with the Force? Mark my words, Obi-Wan—the Sith will not allow competition. The Jedi Order is a shattered ruin, but Palpatine is not going to suffer even the hint of Jedi in his new Empire. It's only a matter of time until he turns from hunting Jedi to rounding up potential Jedi."

Obi-Wan stared into his mug like it held the answers of the universe.

Stalling. Refusing to look at Qui-Gon.

Qui-Gon bit back his disappointed gasp. "You. You're the guarantee."

"Got it in one," said Obi-Wan softly, still not meeting Qui-Gon's gaze as he brought his mug to his lips.

"And how long does Yoda think you need to hang around Tatooine?" demanded Qui-Gon, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice. Godsdamned troll—even at the end, he had to bloody well meddle, to stick his ears where they weren't wanted or necessary—

"You assume too much," retorted Obi-Wan.

A surprised noise escaped Qui-Gon; a young girl, baking under the twin suns of Tatooine and pretending the sheen of sweat on her brow didn't exist, groused at a Jedi's insolence in his memory. "Padmé said the same thing to me, once."

"She's usually right," replied Obi-Wan absently as he studied the stars streaking past the viewscreen.

"What happened to her, Ben?" Softly, softly. "Dying in childbirth is nearly unheard of, especially for a healthy, wealthy young woman."

"I couldn't save her," whispered Obi-Wan. The knuckles clenching his tea mug drained of blood.

"Save her from what?"

"I offered to watch over the boy," said the Jedi as if they were discussing hyperspace calculations. "Not everything in the galaxy is Yoda's doing."

"Not everything," replied Qui-Gon, noting the abrupt change of subject and deciding to let it lie for the moment, "but he's certainly had his way. So what? You shuffle around Tatooine for a few years, and then? Train the boy in the ways of the Force? Take him as a Padawan?"

"It's safer if I don't," snapped Obi-Wan.

Frustration roiled in his veins. "Then what, Obi-Wan? What is the endgame of all this?"

The silence was deafening. Obi-Wan held himself rigid in his seat, gripping his mug too tightly. The harsh set of his mouth, the defiant angle of his chin—

It was not the first time Qui-Gon Jinn had seen that look, and the realization was like ice down his spine. That look came with Obi-Wan's intent to lay down his life for others in the execution of his duty, whether he was thirteen or thirty. "There is no plan," he breathed, appalled. "You were going to leave a baby on a strange couple's doorstep and let the desert claim you."

"I-"

"As if your life had no other meaning, or possibility. As if Obi-Wan Kenobi is meant only for sacrifice, that your life is somehow worth less than the lives of others—"

"Qui—"

"Fuck that!" It came out as a roar; Obi-Wan flinched. In the corner, Arnie trilled in concern. Fuelled with righteous indignation and no little heartbreak, Qui-Gon spun his uncomfortable co-pilot's seat to face Obi-Wan. "I should have said this years ago, plainly and to your face: your life has value, and that value is never less than another's."

"A Jedi may sacrifice his life to save others," replied Obi-Wan, but his words held no fire. The lines of his shoulders drooped beneath the hand-me-down leather pilot's jacket. "I will protect Luke with everything I have, Qui-Gon."

Qui-Gon Jinn was known as a tactful and skilled diplomat throughout the galaxy, but at that moment, his skills failed him. Without mercy, he poked the Carnelian dragon. "With what? With your cracked lightsaber crystal? How will you protect him if you’re dead?"

Obi-Wan's head snapped towards Qui-Gon, eyes fierce and lips tight. As he opened his mouth to start what Qui-Gon imagined would be a truly incendiary fight, the main fuel indicator shrieked in warning. Both men set their tea down on the console, argument abandoned. Obi-Wan swore in Huttese, flicked a few switches, then hissed again. "Take us out of hyperspace," he ordered as his fingers flew over the controls.

The stars coalesced into tiny pinpoints of light as Qui-Gon pulled on the drive control. The instrumentation on the co-pilot's console mirrored that on the pilot's; he reached out and tapped the fuel gauge with a frown. The needle did not move. "How in hells are we out of fuel?"

"I don't know," muttered Obi-Wan. "That can't be correct. We were fully fuelled when we left Jedha. Arnie, ship's status?"

The battered droid warbled, then plugged into its dock. [Fuel sensors are nonfunctional,] it announced.

"Recently?" asked Qui-Gon.

Arnie's head spun to fix its ocular sensor on the Guardian. [Unable to confirm. Sensors are nonfunctional.]

"Check the ship's system log," instructed Obi-Wan, then added with an eyeroll, "then run a self-diagnosis."

[Self-diagnostic programming is damaged,] Arnie replied with a sad beep. [I am sorry.]

"Next time, get us a better ship," quipped Obi-Wan as he hauled himself out of his seat. "I'm going down to fuel control. Stay here and keep an eye out."

"I—"

"Obedient as a Padawan, remember?" Obi-Wan pinned him with a glare, but the corners of his lips twitched minutely. Argument abandoned, then. For now.

With a snort, Qui-Gon waved him away. "Yes, Master Kenobi," he drawled.

He might have been mistaken, but he thought he heard a soft huff of amusement as Obi-Wan hurried out of the cockpit.

Setting the sensors to active sweep, Qui-Gon rose from his seat with a sigh of relief and rubbed the tender spot on his thigh. "I'm going to check on Pran. Let me know if anything comes up on sensors, and I mean anything ," he told the droid, who trilled in acknowledgement.

The Feeorin peeked at Qui-Gon through heavy eyelids. "Thanks a fucking lot, Guardian," he grumbled. "I was just thinking that it had been too long since I got shot."

Ignoring the barb, Qui-Gon stooped to check on the bandage; only a few hints of crimson marred the white gauze. He didn’t dare use the Force to heal the wound. "I don't suppose you have any bacta for that?"

"Oh, sure, it's in my palladium-plated medkit," retorted Pran. "Of course I don't have bacta. Have you seen the rust bucket we're flying?"

"For an asshole, your droid is surprisingly mild," Qui-Gon shot back.

Pran snorted like flimsi ripping. "I got him cheap from a primary school, fed in star charts and called it a day." His yellow eyes flicked around the cabin. "We're not in hyperspace. What the fuck is going on with my ship?"

Obi-Wan's voice crackled through the ship's intercom. "Qui, you need to dump all the remaining fuel into the secondary fuel tank," he ordered. "Right now."

The edge of concern underpinning Obi-Wan's tightly controlled voice had Qui-Gon darting back into the cockpit and bending over the fuel system controls without a second thought. He flipped the fuel pump switch only to have the computer system beep at him. "Arnie, what's wrong with the fuel pump?"

[Insufficient pressure,] replied the droid. [Probably.]

"What do you mean, 'probably?'" snapped Qui-Gon.

[Fuel sensors are nonfunctional. I made an educated guess.]

"Oh, a fat lot of help you are." He slammed his hand against the intercom. "Fuel transfer isn't possible. Not enough pressure, but I don't know why."

"Oh, I know why," came the dry reply. "A bloody blaster shot went straight through the hull and cracked the tank. We're leaking fuel into space."

"Kark." Qui-Gon tapped his fingernail against the fuel gauge. "Can you eyeball how much we have left?"

A pause. "Given the rate of leakage, I'd say we have enough for a single jump no farther than two and a half lightyears if we go in the next two minutes."

Not even a parsec. "Arnie, you've got star charts?"

[Affirmative!] it trilled. [Where would you like to go, Guardian?]

"What is our exact position?" The droid beeped out the galactic coordinates with maddening slowness. Qui-Gon traced his finger over the map monitor, zooming into their sector of space and tapping an area devoid of stars. "How far is it to here?"

Arnie hummed to itself. [2.4896 lightyears. But there is no system there, Guardian.]

"Says you. Plot a course to these coordinates," Qui-Gon ordered as he dredged up the numbers in his mind and prayed to the Force that he remembered correctly. When the droid chirped, Qui-Gon pushed the hyperspace control lever; the stars streaked and overlapped as the ship left realspace.

Nerves jangling, not entirely due to the shift into hyperspace, Qui-Gon slumped into the pilot's seat and plucked at his black and red robes. It was time for the Guardian to vanish.

 

By the time Obi-Wan returned to the cockpit, Qui-Gon had swapped his robes for a worn, dark green shirt with a v-neck that revealed his collarbones, an open black vest that hung to his thighs, and a pair of snug trousers that tucked into his calf-high boots. The kyber crystal he had earned during his promotion from novice to Guardian hung around his neck on a long leather cord; he would not hide the soothing reminder of his vows when others would mistake it for a bauble. He would need to find a blaster and holster to complete his transformation into a galactic ne'er-do-well.

The Jedi paused as he noticed Qui-Gon's new apparel; the tips of his ears reddened, and Qui-Gon suppressed a pleased grin. It was nice to be appreciated, all things considered. "We're running on fumes," Obi-Wan announced.

"Almost there," replied Qui-Gon, leaning forward in the pilot's seat to run his finger along the navicomputer readout.

"How almost?"

"Almost."

Obi-Wan shook his head and leaned over Qui-Gon's shoulder to check the display himself. "I swear, you're as bad as Ana—"

Qui-Gon heard Obi-Wan's teeth clack together before he could say the rest of Anakin's name. The Force roiled beneath Obi-Wan's cracked shields. Qui-Gon pressed his lips together and tried to ignore the sharp pain bleeding into the Force, the tension in the man behind him. "Buckle up," Qui-Gon told him, pretending not to notice Obi-Wan's sudden turmoil.

"Where are we going?" asked Obi-Wan as he took the co-pilot's chair, yelped as he hit the wayward spring, and settled on the edge of the seat. "This ship is a kriffing disaster," he muttered.

"Do you remember the mission to Halm?" replied Qui-Gon, not taking his eyes off the sensor data.

"How could I forget getting trapped in an Adegan crystal mine?" Obi-Wan said with a snort.

"Did you forget where we went afterwards?" Unable to help himself, a sly smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "I mean, it's certainly possible you destroyed those particular brain cells."

"They died happy and soaked in brandy." The answering smile, fleeting but genuine, became a frown as Obi-Wan peered at the map display. "We're nowhere near Takodana."

"With all the upheaval right now, you couldn't pay me to set foot on Takodana," said Qui-Gon lightly. "So instead, we're going to the Woodwork, where the brandy is even better."

From the door of the cockpit, Pran's voice was heated. "We are not landing in the Woodwork," he announced. "No fucking way, Guardian."

"You'd prefer to drift in space?" retorted Qui-Gon, glancing over his shoulder at the Feeorin. "Because that's our only other option."

Pran's headtails quivered; anger rolled off the pilot. "Get the fuck out of my chair."

"Very well." Qui-Gon slowly turned the seat around, hands spread wide. "We're coming out of hyperspace in five seconds."

Pran shouldered his way past Qui-Gon, grumbling under his breath in his native tongue, and flopped into the pilot's seat with a grunt. "I told you not to adjust this," he spat.

"Let me buy you a drink when we get planetside," suggested Qui-Gon instead of arguing that no one had touched the damn seat configuration. He had forgotten how touchy Feeorins could be.

"You can do more than that," Pran snapped. "I've got a hole in my fuel tank and fuselage where previously there was none. That's on you, Guardian."

Offended, Obi-Wan huffed. "If your shield generators worked properly—"

"Of course we'll do everything we can to help fix your ship," Qui-Gon soothed, shooting a warning look at his former apprentice that earned him a spectacular eye roll.

The ship bucked into realspace, inelegant and shuddering as it nearly took Qui-Gon's stomach with it. Obi-Wan groaned audibly, and Arnie blatted in disapproval.

"Shut up, Arnie," grumbled Pran without any vitriol.

[That's not very nice,] replied the droid. [You should say, ‘Please be quiet.’]

"Welcome to the Woodwork," Qui-Gon announced before a petty fight could erupt between the droid and his pilot.

The blue and red planet, a thin ring of dust cutting around the poles, was bright and cheerful on the sunward half; the other half held no sparkling lights of large settlements. The Woodwork held only a single port, held by a single person who revealed the galactic coordinates only by her own mouth.

She was waiting at the end of the boarding ramp, safety off her blaster and her goggles firmly stuck to her face. Qui-Gon strode down the ramp with a smile and his hands spread wide. "Maz, my dear, it's lovely to see you again."

Maz Kanata harrumphed as he bent in half to press a brief kiss to both of her cheeks. "Did you forget the meaning of 'secret hideout' when you left the Order, Qui-Gon, or have you just lost the rest of your mind?"

Chapter Text

 

So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light

Cause oh they gave me such a fright

But I will hold as long as you like (with all of my might)

Just promise me we'll be all right

Ghosts That We Knew, Mumford and Sons

 

Obi-Wan had met Maz Kanata only once, and he had left the experience hoping to never do so again—and the way she peered at him through her magnifying goggles was exactly the reason why. The wizened pirate queen of Takodana pursed her lips as they walked to the only building in the wide clearing. She looked him up and down, not even pretending subtlety.

“We had an emergency. Your gracious hospitality is appreciated,” said Qui-Gon smoothly.

“You and your manners,” she muttered fondly. Maz clucked her tongue before setting her flat, dry gaze on Pran. "I seem to recall insisting on never seeing your face again, Pran.”

"I got shot today, Maz, through exactly no fault of my own," Pran replied with surprising mildness. Perhaps Pran was smarter than Obi-Wan gave him credit for. "Cut me a little slack, would you?"

Arnie whined in agreement as he rolled through the grass.

Maz hummed suspiciously. "I expect you on your best behaviour. Anything less will have consequences."

The light, breezy way she doled out her threats sent a shiver down Obi-Wan's spine. She might be older than Yoda, and not much bigger, but power had settled in Maz Kanata's bones and she wore it like a beloved cloak; he could feel it even without the help of the Force.

She stopped, making Obi-Wan stumble to avoid stepping on her. Tilting her head, Maz seemed to be peering inside Obi-Wan. He forced himself to meet her gaze, to not scratch the tingling beneath the skin of his chest. "There's…something—"

"Maz," Qui-Gon interrupted, quiet but firm. "I need to speak to you privately."

With one last piercing squint at the Jedi Master, Maz nodded. She poked her finger in Pran's hip. "Consequences," she warned before hurrying into the squat, wooden building.

Qui-Gon stalled his pace, letting Pran and Arnie pass as he ducked his head close to Obi-Wan. "I'm going to find out what the ears on the ground are saying, and I'm going to try and wheedle another mode of transport to Tatooine," he whispered. "I suspect Pran won't let us back on board the ship."

"He's had a rough day," replied Obi-Wan, which earned him a suppressed smile and dancing eyes that reminded him of better times. Swallowing roughly, Obi-Wan sniffed. "And me?"

"Have a drink and stay out of trouble?" Qui-Gon suggested. He reached over and brushed a knuckle over Obi-Wan's cheek. "You're still too damned recognizable."

"I don't have all day," snapped Maz from the door, her arms crossed over her chest.

Qui-Gon hurried ahead, his long legs eating the distance, while Obi-Wan stood in the grass with the brand of Qui-Gon's touch burning his skin.

Little gods, he needed a drink.

 

The Woodwork was aptly named; the rough-hewn logs cladding the building gave way to highly polished wood panelling inside. Obi-Wan descended the long, twisting staircase into the establishment, which sat at least twenty metres below the surface. Round tables without chairs dotted the floor, all occupied by clusters of non-humans who didn't look up at the newcomer. The soft, golden artificial light did not spread far; Obi-Wan blinked to help his eyes adjust to the hazy dimness. Maz and Qui-Gon had disappeared, leaving him to blend in.

The press of bodies, rough and unwashed, and the deafening chatter in a dozen different languages set Obi-Wan's teeth on edge. Unable to sense specific danger or settle his nerves, he chose the next best thing: sidling up to the bar and wiggling his fingers at the bartender. The Toydarian fluttered over, his sleepy eyes belying the vigilant clench of his jaw.

Obi-Wan pushed a credit across the polished wood bar. "Brandy."

The Toydarian snorted at the money. "Haven't you heard? Credit chips in any denomination smaller than 100 are no longer legal tender." He lifted his lips, a grimace masquerading as a smile. "To discourage hoarding and tax evasion in our mighty new Empire."

A pale hand with long, graceful fingers slid a pair of dull wupiupi coins next to Obi-Wan's credit chip. "Two Tevraki whiskies, Jento, for my darling and me."

The deep, purring voice snapped something inside him. Blood rushed in his ears as his hands clenched around the slim column of her throat. He threw his weight forward, ignoring the jolt of his knees against the hard slate floor. Pale blue eyes, partly hidden by a shock of white-blonde hair, widened for a split-second—

Another pair of hands, orange and stronger than durasteel, seized his wrists and dug mercilessly into his pressure points until his fingers surrendered. Obi-Wan's vision blurred.

"Asajj! Don't!" That voice, a little older, a touch deeper, holding the kind of chiding that had earned him rolled eyes in the past—he had never expected to hear that voice again.

"He started it," grumbled Ventress. Her left hand, caught awkwardly against her shoulder, relaxed its grip around a small knife he hadn’t noticed. Pinned beneath him, she wiggled her hips suggestively. "It's nice to know you still care, Obi-Wan, but would you let me the fuck up? The floor's sticky."

Words were beyond him. Those hands tugged his wrists, hauling him to his feet. The buzz of the Woodwork dimmed for a split second as the underbelly of the galaxy surveyed the commotion and deemed it unexciting; the volume returned as he blinked his way back to focused vision.

And she was—a vision.

Ahsoka Tano, her montrals now a hair taller than him, watched him with an inscrutable expression. She wore rough, piecemeal clothing in shades of dingy black that would blend in on most disreputable planets in the Republic. Strips of cloth disguised the blue and white patterns of her lekku. A modified blaster in a leather holster decorated her hip. Only a year had passed since she had walked away from the Jedi Order, and one thing was clear: he was no longer looking at the girl he had met on Christophsis.

When he spoke, it was like someone else was using his voice. He could not be trusted to say the right thing. "I don't suppose you could loosen your grip a little?"

"Do you promise to keep your hands to yourself?" retorted Ahsoka without any hint of amusement.

"Yes, of course." Obi-Wan glanced at Ventress, who glared at him over the rim of her whiskey glass. "In my defense, you startled me."

Her eyes narrowed, considering, for the briefest moment before she snorted. "Excuses, excuses," she drawled as she tilted her glass to her lips.

Ahsoka's eyes never wavered from Obi-Wan's face, as though she was trying to match the new lines and grey hairs with her own memory. Without a word, she brushed past Ventress and dragged him around the bar; her thumb dug further into his wrist when he did not follow her into the cramped storeroom quickly enough. She slammed the door shut behind them and dropped his wrist as if burnt. Toe to toe, they stared at each other. Ahsoka's breathing was ragged and rapid as she shifted, and Obi-Wan suddenly wondered if the safety was on that blaster—

She threw her arms around him and squeezed him so hard his ribs creaked. Burying her face in his neck, she sobbed, "I thought you were dead, you stupid karking idiot!"

The Force was silent, telling him no secrets, but Obi-Wan could live in this moment. He wrapped his arms around Ahsoka and rested his cheek against the curve of her lek. He had never been a demonstrative man; it occurred to him as her heart beat against his chest and her tears soaked into his neck that he had never hugged her before. He rubbed his thumb over the bumps of her spine and breathed in. As a Padawan in a war zone, she had always smelled of standard-issue soap, boot polish, and the underlying sweetness of the candy she and the clones traded; now, acrid blaster plasma and the staleness of hard space travel replaced any hint of her youth. But she was here, warm and breathing and miraculously alive, and for a fleeting second, Obi-Wan's knees weakened in sheer relief.

Ahsoka was alive. Perhaps he had not lost absolutely everything

They held onto each other, trembling, until Ahsoka suddenly straightened. The door flung open, revealing Ventress, whose scowl deepened as Ahsoka wiped her face with her palms. "What the fuck did you say to her, Kenobi?" snapped Ventress.

"It's fine, Asajj, really."

"Nothing's fine," corrected Obi-Wan faintly.

The women exchanged a glance, as if communicating non-verbally, and Ventress sighed heavily. "Obi-Wan," Ahsoka said in a low voice, "we should talk. There's a private room Maz lets us use."

He nodded once, unwilling to let her out of his sight. Ahsoka led him down a dark, wood-panelled corridor while Ventress stalked after them; he did not need the Force to know the former Sith apprentice's eyes were boring holes in his back. The corridor meandered drunkenly before Ahsoka rapped her knuckles on a wooden door, listened, then pushed it open.

A single light fixture on the wall sputtered to life as they entered. Ahsoka motioned for him to sit at the sabacc table while she took the seat across from him. "Have you eaten today?" she asked bluntly, eyeing his hollow cheeks. Before he could answer, Ahsoka flicked her gaze to Ventress, who lounged in the doorway. "Would you be so kind as to bring enough for all of us?"

To his surprise, she replied, "Sure."

Ventress closed the door behind her, leaving Obi-Wan and Ahsoka watching each other across the musty sabacc table.

There were a thousand things he wanted to say, most of them apologies, but she beat him to it. "You have a—dent? In your chin. I've never seen your chin before."

He scraped his fingers over his jaw. He needed to shave. "You've seen through my clever disguise."

A ghost of a smile fluttered over her lips before her expression turned serious. "What happened? It was like the Force hit me in the back of the head and tried to rip out my heart at the same time, and there are wanted posters for you everywhere , for you specifically, but every bounty hunter in the galaxy is on the hunt for even the hint of a Jedi."

"Haven't you heard? We're all traitors to the Empire," replied Obi-Wan darkly.

Ahsoka pursed her lips. "I have my own opinions on the Jedi Order, but even I don't believe the High Council attempted a coup."

"They didn't," Obi-Wan said. "Palpatine's the Sith Lord."

The Togruta went perfectly still. "What."

"Maul and Dooku were just apprentices. Palpatine was their Master. He orchestrated the entire war."

She closed her eyes and took a deep, steadying breath. "You need to tell me exactly what's going on."

"The clones turned on us," Obi-Wan said, fixing his gaze on a point over her shoulder so he didn't have to watch devastation crawl across her face. "Cody handed me my lightsaber on Utapau and tried to shoot me off a cliff a minute later. There was no warning, no hint. Yoda confirmed that his clones did the same to him on Kashyyyk. I can only assume the deaths we felt in the Force were also clones murdering their Jedi."

Blood drained from her face, leaving Ahsoka ashen. "Rex wouldn't," she whispered to herself. "There's no way Rex would betray An—"

"He didn't," Obi-Wan cut in before she could say the name aloud. "Rex left the GAR about a month ago. Followed in your footsteps, you might say."

Her lips pulled back, revealing her sharp canines in what was definitely not a smile. "Where's Anakin?"

"Anakin Skywalker is dead," he said. It was getting easier to lie around the lump in his throat.

Slowly, Ahsoka crossed her arms over her chest and squinted at him. "Banthashit." She shook her head. "No. There's no way Skyguy's dead. I would have felt it. He's like a sun, Obi-Wan. I would have noticed the sun going out."

"When all the stars are extinguished at the same time, how do you spot a single point of light missing in the night sky?" he replied softly.

Silence congealed between them. His gaze traced the new lines of her silhouette, marking the sharper angle of her cheekbones and the height of her montrals. Togruta barrelled into adulthood, it would seem; a woman sat across from him now, but the last time he had seen her, she had been a child walking away from the Jedi Order.

Walking away because there had been no trust left. Another of his failures.

He just wanted to hear her voice. "Ventress?" he asked softly, trying to keep from sounding judgemental.

Ahsoka refused to meet his eyes. "She—Asajj was there for me, as odd as that might sound to you." When he did not say anything, she squared her shoulders and glared at him. "I know you don't approve. It's not proper to befriend a former Sith, right?"

"Ahsoka—"

"You know nothing about her," she continued, her voice hard and heated, "and you don't know anything about me, either. You never did. I won't apologize for the company I keep, Master Kenobi."

The way she said his name cut into his marrow. He deserved that knife-edge. "I don't want you to be hurt," he said weakly.

"Too late for that," she snapped. "About a year too late."

From the doorway, Ventress' drawl rang out. "Are you quite finished warning her about the dangers of the dark side and its agents?"

Ahsoka pressed her lips into a thin, bloodless line and spread her hands against the tabletop as Ventress set a tray laden with a covered pot and mismatched crockery. The lines of Ahsoka's body screamed controlled anger. The Ahsoka he knew would have voiced exactly what she was thinking; this Ahsoka said nothing.

The Dathomiri surveyed Obi-Wan through the edges of her white bangs. "Did the GAR run out of food at the end? For fuck's sake, Kenobi, eat something. You look like shit." She paused, surveying him with a critical squint. "I never realized the beard covered an actual baby's face. I would have gone easier on you if I'd known you were only twelve."

"How did you find the time to stay bald for the entire duration of the war?" he snapped back. It was easy, falling into trading barbs with his old—enemy? They had been on opposite ends of a war, opposite ends of the Force, on so many occasions, and yet she had never taken the opportunity to kill him. Several opportunities, if he was being honest.

That hadn't stopped her from trying to kill him.

Ventress grinned, incapable of not appearing on the verge of murder. She ran a hand through the mop of straight white hair. "Oh, it was time for a change. Besides, people seem to like it."

Ahsoka snorted a tiny laugh as she filled three bowls with thick stew, and Ventress made a face. "You're just jealous, you hairless harpy," said Ventress without any real bite.

Rolling her eyes, Ahsoka shoved a loaded spoon in her mouth. As she chewed, her gaze flicked pointedly between Obi-Wan and the untouched bowl in front of him. "Eat it," she ordered. "Food's not free anymore. No one's wasting ration bars by slipping them in your pocket."

He had no desire to fill his belly, but she was right; he had no idea where his next meal was coming from. The image of a fourteen year-old Ahsoka Tano, hands on her hips, badgering him to come sit with her in the mess hall—you're not allowed to eat on the bridge, Master, and Anakin said that if you don't join me for midmeal he'll set Kix on you. Besides, someone baked cookies and it smells amazing on deck 5— quirked up his lips briefly.

They ate in silence until Ventress sighed dramatically. "You two are ridiculous. What are you doing here, Kenobi?"

"And why should I tell you?" he retorted.

"It's called conversation. You might try it sometime."

Ahsoka glared at both of them. "Conversation isn't sniping at each other," she said. "But I agree with the question. Why did you come to the Woodwork? Are you searching for other Jedi?"

Slowly, he shook his head. "It's best if I don't encounter any others."

"The price on your head is impressive," remarked Ventress. "I've never seen a bounty that high before."

He pressed his molars together before forcing himself to relax his jaw. "Is this where you drug me and haul me all the way to our brave new Emperor?"

Ahsoka and Ventress exchanged a look, then Ventress snorted with sarcastic laughter. "Oh, yes, please allow me to waltz in front of Darth Sidious with the most wanted man in the galaxy and walk out with my fortune and my life completely unmolested. Honestly, Kenobi, I thought you were the smart one."

Shock rolled through him. No one in the Order had known, had an inkling, but Asajj fucking Ventress name-dropped the Sith Lord like discussing the weather? Obi-Wan stared hard at Ventress. "You knew? About Palpatine?"

The Dathomiri's lip curled. "I felt it. I was never even in his presence and I felt it. How anyone couldn't is truly astonishing."

"You didn't say anything?" he replied, his voice breaking with emphatic horror.

Shrugging one shoulder, Ventress stirred her spoon around her bowl of stew. "Who would have believed me? You? Skywalker? Besides, I was busy trying not to be murdered on a daily basis by Dooku."

Ahsoka straightened suddenly, her eyes on the door. "Qui-Gon!"

The former Jedi poked his head around the door. He glided into the room and stood next to Ahsoka, who offered him a genuine smile and tipped her face towards him. He leaned down and pressed a quick kiss to her cheek. "Hello, my dear," he murmured. "I certainly did not expect to find you here."

"Ditto," she answered as she glanced over at Obi-Wan. "You're together, I take it?"

"We're on a mission," replied Qui-Gon easily, pinning Obi-Wan with a look that clearly meant let me do the talking. "But I'm being terribly rude. Please introduce me to your friend?"

"Qui-Gon Jinn, Asajj Ventress," Ahsoka said, gesturing at the other woman with one hand. "My grand-Master."

"A pleasure to meet you, Lady Ventress." Qui-Gon offered Ventress a formal bow, while the Dathomiri stared at him, unblinking. The moment stretched into awkwardness before Ventress' bright blue eyes widened in Ahsoka's direction. The Togruta nodded minutely.

"Uh, yeah, you too," muttered Ventress.

Qui-Gon ignored the woman's lack of manners and pulled up the remaining chair to the table. "What brings you here, Ahsoka? The last letter you sent had you in the Lothal sector."

Surprised, Obi-Wan's eyebrows lifted into his hair. "You two… correspond."

Qui-Gon merely nodded but kept his silence, as if to allow Ahsoka to reveal the information at her own discretion. Slowly, she set her spoon in her bowl and lifted her unblinking gaze at Obi-Wan. "Where do you think I went after the trial?"

His chest hurt. With a single question, she expertly reminded him of his inaction, of his lack of care, of his failure to do the bare minimum of checking the transport logs to discover where his unofficial apprentice had fled—

Ahsoka Tano had fled to Qui-Gon Jinn, a man she had never met. A man who had also walked away from the Jedi Order, from his entire life and the people in it.

"Asajj and I are lying low," Ahsoka continued, deliberately settling her gaze on Qui-Gon. "I get the feeling that the Woodwork wasn't your destination."

Qui-Gon shook his head. "Tatooine."

Ventress wrinkled her nose. "Why the fuck would you want to go to that sandy hellhole?"

"We have our reasons," snapped Obi-Wan, "and they don't concern you."

"Oh, like I give a shit about your 'secret mission,'" retorted Ventress, rolling her eyes as she leaned back in her chair. "But if you want to walk into Jabba's consolidation of power in the Arkanis sector, be my fucking guest. Maybe he'll keep you as a slave instead of selling you back to the Empire. I hear he's got an unnatural predilection for baby-faced humans."

Ahsoka recoiled, but Qui-Gon leaned forward. "Maz’s contacts are all saying different things. The Hutts are fighting the Empire?"

"No, they're seizing the opportunities chaos brings," replied Ventress. "I wouldn't cross Hutt space for all the credits on Corellia right now."

As expected, a thoughtful look crossed Qui-Gon's face. "Obi-Wan, may I speak to you for a moment? Excuse us, please, ladies. Can I fetch anyone a drink while I'm up?"

Ahsoka shook her head, but Ventress grinned. "Two Tevraki whiskies."

Qui-Gon smiled as he rose from the table. Obi-Wan ignored Ventress’ open, unnerving consideration as he followed his former Master into the hall. "The Hutts," spat Qui-Gon, his voice pitched for Obi-Wan's ears only.

"We rescued Jabba's son at the beginning of the war," replied Obi-Wan. "It's a pretty big Queen of Air and Darkness in our hand."

"Jabba's not the only one playing Sabacc out there." The deep buzzing of the cantina's patrons assaulted Obi-Wan's ears as they turned the corner and approached the bar. Qui-Gon motioned to the Toydarian bartender while Obi-Wan surveyed the crowd. "Two Tevraki whiskies, Jento," Qui-Gon said. As Jento flapped away to fetch the drinks, Qui-Gon added, "Besides, the Hutt Clans aren't exactly known for long memories when it comes to their own debts to others. I wouldn't count on any mercy from Jabba or his brethren."

Qui-Gon was right, Sith damn it all. Obi-Wan frowned, racking his brain for some slim possibility of sneaking through the Arkanis sector unseen, and scanned the crowd. The unusual mottled pattern of Pran's headtails in the corner caught his eye; the pilot had a glass of something murky in one hand and a holoprojector in the other. The Feeorin idly swiped through the blue feed.

Pran's entire body stilled.

Obi-Wan's face and profile, bearded and decently coiffed, flickered over Pran's palm.

"Fuck," breathed Obi-Wan as Qui-Gon plucked two drinks from the bar. "Go, go, go!"

They hurried back through the hall maze and burst into the private sabacc room without knocking; they were met with three blasters aimed in their direction. "Sorry for the intrusion," Qui-Gon said, setting the two drinks on the table too fast. He popped his wrist in his mouth to lick off the slopped whiskey and wiped his hand on his pant leg.

"What's wrong?" demanded Ahsoka as she holstered her weapon.

"Oh, our pilot just realized that he could be 50 million credits richer by this evening," replied Obi-Wan shortly, "and we have no way to get off this bloody planet."

Qui-Gon hummed. "Well, we could—"

"Qui-Gon Jinn, we are not stealing the piece of junk ship that has a hole in the fuel tank."

"We have a ship," Ahsoka blurted.

The sudden silence was icy as Ventress' head snapped up. The former assassin stared at the Togruta, lips pursed and eyes unreadable, while Ahsoka met the gaze with an inscrutable expression. After a long moment, Ventress picked up both whiskies and knocked them back, one after the other. "I don’t want to be sober for this," she muttered.

Obi-Wan would never admit it, but he agreed wholeheartedly with Asajj Ventress.

Chapter Text

Proceeding on a need-to-know

In a face so full of meaning

As to almost make it glow

For a good life we just might have to weaken

And find somewhere to go

Go somewhere we're needed

It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, The Tragically Hip

 

 

Ahsoka Tano knew she'd misstepped by offering the ship. What she didn't know was if her partner would straight up abandon her in the Woodwork or stop and sell her out to the Empire first.

Asajj slammed the second, empty glass on the table and glared at the two men. Her outward appearance remained aggressive, but Ahsoka had grown fluent in reading Asajj's tiny tells; the clenched jaw meant deep irritation. "You two wait here. Do not, under any circumstances, set a toe outside that door."

"Or what?" demanded Obi-Wan, and Ahsoka wondered if he had once been able to take orders without being such a prickly bastard about it. A question for Qui-Gon, maybe.

Asajj leaned towards him and bared her teeth. "Or I'll stand on the bar and tell everyone who's hiding back here."

When Obi-Wan simply glared at the Dathomirian, one of the many new, unexpected knots in Ahsoka's belly unfurled. Hopefully, she wouldn't have to physically break up any more fights today. Asajj jerked her head at the door, and Ahsoka trailed after her.

As soon as the door clicked shut, Asajj stopped, her back to Ahsoka. Past her usual sharpness in the Force, Asajj was now as controlled and blank as she had been after their morning meditation. A hint of the minefield she was about to walk into would have been nice. "Asa, I—"

"I thought we were clear that the Banshee is our ship," said Asajj, her voice low and calm.

"I'm sorry, I just—"

"And that we make decisions together."

"I know, I know, I should have talked to you first before offering. I'll tell them we can't take them with us."

"Despite everything, I didn't think you'd want Kenobi dead." Asajj spun on her heel, her pale face plaintive.  "I knew it was only a matter of time before you picked up a Jedi hitchhiker, Ahsoka, but did it have to be him?"

The sheer drama of Asajj's expression brought a little smile to Ahsoka's lips. Misstep expected and already forgiven, then. "Maybe I'm testing your 'no killing people' resolution."

Asajj snorted like flimsi ripping. "Life has been a little too easy, so you sic that self-important prick on me and expect me not to murder him just a little? I thought we were friends."

"We could lock him in quarters," suggested Ahsoka with a shrug, which earned her a smile that crinkled the edges of Asajj's pale blue eyes. "If only to prevent accidental stabbings."

"Now you're talking."

The door handle turned, followed by the door cracking open slightly. Qui-Gon cleared his throat and seemed unperturbed by Asajj's glare. "I'm not leaving the room," he said, "but there's one other, ah, pressing matter that needs to be dealt with."

"I'm not paying your bar tab," snapped Asajj.

A brief quirk of lips beneath a well-groomed beard. "And I wouldn't ask you to," he replied, his voice low enough that the two women huddled around the door to hear him. "The droid on board the ship we arrived on—we need it."

Asajj narrowed her eyes at him. "Why do you need a droid?"

"Not any droid—that particular droid. It was present for…sensitive conversations," Qui-Gon said.

"You blabbed all your secrets with a droid in the room?" Asajj folded her arms over her chest. "That was stupid."

"Droids can be surprisingly invisible," said Ahsoka.

Qui-Gon acknowledged her defence of him with a nod. "Indeed, although Lady Ventress isn't wrong in her assessment."

Asajj rolled her eyes. "I'm no lady."

"My apologies. It's absolutely vital that we wipe the droid's memory banks."

Still feeling guilty for single-handedly volunteering their ship, Ahsoka glanced at Asajj to take the lead. The former assassin shrugged. "It's what, five minutes to wipe a droid? Fine, Master Jedi, we'll get that droid for you."

Something—sadness? Regret?—flickered in Qui-Gon's blue eyes. "I'm not a Jedi anymore."

Ahsoka swallowed the bitter lump in her throat. He had left, and she had left, and in the end, their actions hadn't mattered. They weren't Jedi, but no one was a Jedi anymore.

A few awkward seconds passed before Qui-Gon softly cleared his throat. "It's an R-5 astromech patched up with hydraulic tape. You can't miss it."

"The owner?" asked Ahsoka.

"Green and white Feeorin," answered Qui-Gon. "Name's Pran."

Ahsoka glanced at Asajj expectantly, and Asajj grimaced. "I'm not familiar with every fucking asshole around here, you know."

Ahsoka bit back a giggle at the grumpiness in her friend's voice. "You say that now."

"Stay there," Asajj ordered, poking her finger in the air at Qui-Gon. "And keep Kenobi in there, too. I know how obedient he is. C'mon, Tano."

The two women paused at the edge of the Woodwork, scanning the crowd with deliberate casualness. Ahsoka caught a flash of green close to the wall. "Three o'clock," she murmured.

Next to her, Asajj tensed. "Oh, fuck me."

"So you do know every asshole in the galaxy," Ahsoka teased under her breath.

"He probably doesn't remember me. I punched him pretty hard." Asajj rolled her head from side to side as if loosening muscles for a fight. "So how do you want to play this?"

Ahsoka grinned and batted her eyelids. "Darling."

Asajj pressed her lips together, oddly hesitant, before rolling her eyes. "Why do you always pick that one?"

"Because it keeps the murder down," whispered Ahsoka. "Besides, when has it not worked?"

With a deep exhale through her nose, Asajj motioned for Ahsoka to lead the way.

The Woodwork was packed. With every passing hour, a ruffian or two, some more stunned than others, wandered in through the door, Maz leading the way. Ahsoka hadn't even been on her own feet; she collapsed a tenday ago under the brunt of the Force's wail and Asajj, wild around the eyes, had carried her to Maz Kanata to demand help. It had taken a few days before Ahsoka could touch the Force again. Now, she brushed through the crowd, taking strength from the life bubbling away in this underground cantina.

She tried to ignore the dark void shaped like Obi-Wan Kenobi waiting in the sabacc room.

"Focus," muttered Asajj out of the side of her mouth. Sometimes the Dathomirian knew what Ahsoka was thinking before she herself could figure it out. "There."

Waiting patiently at Pran the Feeorin's side was the ugliest astromech Ahsoka had ever seen. Battered, filthy, and sporting a hot pink stripe on its head casing, the R-5 turned its ocular sensor on them as they approached.

Ahsoka gasped and crouched closer to the droid. "Oh my goodness, what a cute droid!" she simpered. "Asa, look, it's got a pink racing stripe!"

Surprised, the droid warbled. [You like it?]

Nodding, Ahsoka ran a finger over the strip of pink and wondered what idiot would repair their droid with flexible hydraulic tape. "I love it!"

The droid chortled to himself, clearly pleased.

"You sold your last R-5," said Asajj, sounding perfectly exasperated.

The Feeorin narrowed his yellow eyes at them. "Droid's not for sale."

Ahsoka stuck out her bottom lip. "But he's perfect."

[She said I'm perfect,] echoed the droid, roving his ocular sensor on the Feeorin. [She appreciates me.]

"How much?" asked Asajj with a sigh. How she managed to sound bored and fond at the same time was a mystery to Ahsoka.

"I said, it's not for sale," repeated Pran.

"Oh, come on, R-5 astromechs are practically ancient, and they're hardly collector's items," argued Asajj while Ahsoka ran her hands over the droid, slowly zeroing in on the memory bank access panel. "I've got wupiupi or druggat, if you don't want credits."

"No," said the pilot, though he didn't sound as harsh.

Asajj leaned a little closer to Pran and confided, "Help me out. I fucked up last week and this droid would really…smooth things over with the wife." Ahsoka bit back an amazed smile; she should probably be concerned at how good of a con Asajj was, but it was absolutely thrilling to be in the middle of it. Everything could go sideways at any second. They might walk away with the droid, or they might have to escape with blasters in their hands.

Maybe Skyguy really had turned her into an adrenaline junkie.

"Look at you," murmured Ahsoka, pretending to ignore the negotiation. "You would be so happy on our ship."

"Fifteen hundred wupiupi," offered Asajj. "That's more than it would be if you scrapped it for parts."

"Three thousand."

Asajj looked genuinely offended. "The head casing's cracked. That's not a cheap fix. Two."

As Ahsoka's fingers caught the edge of the panel, her heart sank. Beads of solder dripped from three sides. Someone didn't want the memory banks on this droid to be tampered with, and the Force wouldn't help her here; she needed to physically pull the memory cards to wipe them. She sniffed.

Asajj shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "What do you say, friend? Two thousand for the droid?"

Pran trailed his fingers over his facial tendrils. "Two and a half and you've got yourself a deal."

With a fake grin, Asajj stuck her hand out. "Done. Let me buy you a drink."

"I have expensive taste," warned the pilot.

"Of course you do," laughed Asajj as she herded Pran towards the bar. "So does my wife."

Ahsoka watched them weave through the crowd until they were out of earshot, then turned to the droid. "You want that restraining bolt off?"

[You would do that?] whistled the droid, too loudly.

"Quiet," she hissed. "Yeah, I would do that. What's your designation?"

[R9-R9. Call me Arnie.] The droid shuddered. [Where would you like to go, Mistress?]

"Oh, Force, don't call me that," she muttered as she worried at the restraining bolt with her fingers. That, too, had been soldered on; if only she had a lightsaber and a desire to call attention to herself. Casting her gaze at the bar, she spotted Asajj's shock of white hair and the mottled green Feeorin. The chrono was ticking. "We have to get out of here, Arnie. Without your pilot seeing."

[We are playing hide and seek?] Arnie sounded too excited for an astromech at the prospect.

"Just the first bit," she replied. "How far is the range on that restraining bolt?"

[800 metres.]

Too far to hide in the Woodwork. The droid would have to be inside the Banshee to block the signal.

All she needed to do was get the droid across the room before the Feeorin figured out he wasn't getting paid. "Okay, Arnie, here's the deal. Follow me into the corridor behind the bar. Stay close and don't stop, even if I get held up."

[You haven't told me your name.]

"Ah, you can call me Ashla for now," she told him as she straightened. Asajj and the Feeorin were toasting their deal. "Now hurry up, but don't look like you're hurrying."

[How?]

"Roll casual." Ahsoka shrugged and made a beeline for the back rooms. Arnie grumbled in confusion and followed.

They wound their way through the crowded bar, around pirates and spacers who looked just like her: worn and mended, with the hot ozone stink of space clinging to their grease-stained clothes. The Padawan fresh from the sterile Coruscant Temple would have wrinkled her nose. Now, after years of war and another scraping out an existence for herself, she noticed not the shabbiness but the little tells—a reassuring clawed hand on a shoulder, an untouched drink for a missing friend, a deliberate joke to bring laughter to a solemn table. None of Maz Kanata's invitees could call themselves untarnished, but they were alive.

Ahsoka Tano was alive.

Ahsoka Tano, biting back a triumphant grin as she walked past the bar with a battered droid in tow, was alive and enjoying this entirely too much.

She reached the sabacc room and poked her head in. Qui-Gon sat at the table, licking the back of a spoon, while Obi-Wan paced. She jerked a thumb towards the hall. "C'mon."

Ahsoka led them further into the warren that was Maz's back rooms, counting doors on the left. Ten left doors, then a right turn, then a flight of stairs to get back to the surface—

The sound of feet, light and quick and in a karking hurry, caught her attention. In the dim light of the corridor, pale Asajj was ethereal—until Ahsoka caught the grimace distorting her face. "Fucking go faster," the former assassin snarled.

Ahsoka had learned early on that when Asajj Ventress started running, it was best to keep up and save the questions for later, when the blaster fire had subsided.

So of course, Obi-Wan turned around to look behind him. As his hand went for a lightsaber that didn't hang from his belt, Ahsoka looped her arm around his elbow and dragged him in the correct direction. "Come on, Master!" she singsonged, pulling on his arm until his feet sped up.

"There's no need to manhandle me," groused Obi-Wan.

"Hurry your ass up, Kenobi," Asajj tossed over her shoulder.

Obi-Wan's snarky reply was drowned out by a blaster bolt pinging against the ceiling over their heads. Arnie screeched in terror and rolled faster.

Giving Obi-Wan a shove ahead, Ahsoka whirled and drew her blaster; she managed two shots at mottled headtails as the Feeorin slipped back around the corner. "Get them out of here, Asa!" Ahsoka ordered.

"And let you have all the fun?" retorted Asajj as she pressed herself up against the wall. "Hey, whatsyername, catch."

Qui-Gon elegantly caught the blaster tossed in his direction and fired a shot in Pran's direction. The reply was a stream of Feeorin cursing and a series of wild shots that had the party ducking as they hurried backwards, closer to the stairs at the end of the hallway. Asajj was half-way up the first flight of stairs, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon on her heels, when Arnie buzzed unhappily and jerked to a halt next to Ahsoka.

"No no no," Ahsoka breathed, her fingers uselessly pulling at the restraining bolt.

"Leave it," yelled Asajj as she fired a few more shots to keep Pran pinned down.

Obi-Wan's face contorted into a snarl. "That droid comes with us or we destroy it."

Asajj shrugged and pointed her blaster at Arnie. "No!" cried Ahsoka, flinging her arms out to shield the ugly little astromech.

"You gonna carry it?" drawled Asajj as she changed the aim on her blaster and shot at Pran without even looking.

"Damn right I am," retorted Ahsoka. "Don't panic, Arnie. You ever wanted to fly?"

[I am not equipped for flight,] replied the droid warily.

With a deep breath, Ahsoka tuned out the blinding phosphorescence and acrid ozone and sank into the Force. It flooded through her, welcoming and eternal despite the tang of death it now held. As she reached out with her hand, she reached out with the Force and lifted the droid into the air. She took the stairs one at a time until her foot hit the first landing; confident in her hold on Arnie, she let the Force urge her body faster and faster.

With a laugh, she burst out the door into the bright sunshine.

The smell of smouldering wood panelling where her head had been filled her nostrils but she never looked back.

 

Arnie dropped to the floor grating with a metallic thunk as Ahsoka released it with a relieved sigh. "You're heavy," she scolded it.

[I am 2.359 kilograms lighter than I was upon my activation,] retorted the droid.

"You've got your mouthy droid, Kenobi," Asajj growled as she unstrapped her blaster holster and slung it over her shoulder. When the Jedi Master didn't reply, she added a sarcastic, "You're welcome."

"Qui-Gon," Ahsoka said tentatively, "why don't you co-pilot for Asajj and get us out of here? I'll, ah, show Master Obi-Wan where everything is."

Both Asajj and Qui-Gon tightened their lips in such an uncanny mirror of each other that Ahsoka wanted to laugh and recoil at the same time. Instead, she pleaded with Asajj to cooperate using only her eyes; the former Sith sighed in annoyance and hit the door control. "This way. Don't forget to duck."

"I haven't forgotten to duck in about forty years," Qui-Gon replied drily, "but I appreciate you looking out for my skull."

Ahsoka noted the concerned glance Qui-Gon shot Obi-Wan before following Asajj to the cockpit, and couldn't help feeling the same way as she finally got a look at her unofficial Master in decent light. The shadows of the Woodwork had concealed more than she'd imagined: dark circles like bruises under his eyes, harsh lines across his forehead and around his mouth, a sickly pallor to his skin that even she knew was unnatural in a human. Thirty pounds missing from his frame, along with—

Along with Obi-Wan Kenobi's warm, dancing spark in the Force.

With every step closer to him, the dark void that had replaced his presence called to her—to what end, she didn't know. And what had happened to cause that void?

She knew even less about that.

"Master?" she said softly, instinctively using the title that had lain between them for years before wincing at herself. She was no longer a Padawan, and he was no longer a Master. The copper-haired man stood in the small cargo bay, holding a canvas bag and staring at nothing. Carefully, remembering the way he'd reacted to Asajj in the bar, she brushed her fingers against his arm and projected a sense of calm and safety into the Force. "Obi-Wan?"

That miles-away gaze slowly turned to focus on her. "Ahsoka." His lips quirked in the briefest, faintest smile. His voice was thin. "You're too old for me to reprimand about stealing droids."

"And you should remember op sec protocols," she replied. "How many times did you quote 'loose lips sink star destroyers' at me?"

"Too many."

An uncomfortable silence descended upon the cargo bay as Obi-Wan seemed to retreat back into himself, leaving Ahsoka awkward and unsure. Obi-Wan had always intimidated her a little with his emphasis on rules and procedures and the iron will and deep connection to the Force that lay beneath his cool exterior. Where Anakin was a raging inferno clad in Jedi robes—unpredictable, passionate, uncontrollable—Obi-Wan Kenobi was the epitome of a Jedi Knight.

You never would have made it as Obi-Wan's Padawan. But you might make it as mine.

Would Obi-Wan have fought for her if she had been his apprentice? Anakin had done his best, in his haphazard, too-emotional way, to keep her from being executed. Padmé had fought for her. Obi-Wan—

Obi-Wan had done nothing. After everything they'd been through together, after all the lessons and quiet moments that led her to believe that he genuinely cared about her the way Master Plo did, that he would protect her for her own sake, not as an extension of Anakin Skywalker—not even a last word of goodbye.

She should be angry with him. She should demand an explanation, an apology, something to soothe the deep wound in her heart that had yet to heal completely.

Instead, she said softly, "You look dead on your feet."

"I don't sleep anymore," he replied, so faint that she wondered if she was meant to hear.

"Come on." Her fingers touched his elbow, slow and easy the way she'd approach a skittish ruping’s wing.

The way he let her guide him through the little ship unnerved her. With every step, concern and alarm bubbled up within her until she felt like swallowing bile. This wasn't the Obi-Wan Kenobi she'd known.

This Obi-Wan Kenobi was broken. Whether he was beyond repair was a question for a far more experienced Jedi than she.

She walked him into the tiny common area and its pathetic galley and pointed to the ladder decorating the far wall. "Cockpit's up there," she murmured, then nodded to the port door. "That's Asajj's room."

"There be draigons?" The joke, so unexpected and so dry, caught her off guard enough to chuckle.

"That's where she hides the cheap whiskey and cookies." She maneuvered him to the starboard door and palmed the door control. "Your stop."

The door slid open, revealing the one place in the galaxy Ahsoka Tano could call her own. The cabin was cramped, but precisely neat in the way of a Temple brat; even now she had trouble making the decision to keep items that had sentimental value instead of being strictly utilitarian. The Woodwork was slowly shrinking in the round porthole as the Banshee glided out of orbit. "We'll hit hyperspace in a minute or two." She'd never lost the terrible habit of talking when she was unsure. "Here, sit down."

Obi-Wan let her ease him down on her perfectly-made bed. His canvas bag crumpled next to him, and something inside clicked together with metallic certainty. "Can I take your bag?" she asked, her hands hovering over the strap. "I'll just put it in the cupboard for you."

He hesitated, then slipped the strap off his shoulder. She stuffed the bag onto a shelf next to her meagre supply of clean, folded shirts, latched the cupboard door, then turned back to find Obi-Wan staring at the nightbloomer on her one display shelf, his hand half-outstretched as if to touch it. "Someone gave that to you," he said. Before she could answer, he cocked his head slightly and let his hand drop onto the woollen blanket. "Sorry, I shouldn't—"

She shrugged and perched on the edge of the bed, as far away from him as she could get without actually fleeing the cabin. "It's a cutting from one of Qui-Gon's plants," she told him. "I think that's the only reason it's still alive; I have a black thumb."

"Qui-Gon's plants are indestructible," said Obi-Wan. The blatant fondness in his voice surprised her. He never spoke like that about anyone. "He only gives them out with the most serious of symbolism."

The Force whispered to her, urging her to take up the threads of possibility in this moment. She wanted to balk, to flee from the darkness that had wrapped itself around Obi-Wan, but she squared her shoulders. Ahsoka was no coward. "The nightbloomer thrives in the most desolate of conditions," she said, recalling Qui-Gon's warm, rumbling voice as he presented the sharp-angled stem to her. "It grows in the tiniest of opportunities, and blooms despite drought. Nightblossom rind is sweet and edible for almost all species."

"A good choice," he whispered.

"What plant did you get?"

The puff of air that escaped his lips might have been amusement. "I never received a plant. I think Qui-Gon knew me too well to risk the life of one of his beloved green things, so he gave me a rock instead. I left it in my quarters on Coruscant." Obi-Wan's head bowed as he spoke; a wave of shame tinged with anger lapped at her own shields, and she leapt to her feet on instinct. Her own body screamed at her to run, while the Force urged her to stay. Obi-Wan turned his head slightly, just enough to glance at her through his eyelashes. "Ahsoka, I—"

"If you can't sleep, maybe you should meditate." The words rushed off her tongue, awkward and begging for this moment to be over. Her younger self would have lapped up any chance of a personal connection with the man she considered her other Master, but too much had happened, to them and between them. "We can talk later."

"I've wasted so many opportunities to say the things I should have said."

A curl of panic roiled in her belly. She didn't want to be in this room anymore. "Later."

His head snapped up. "Later is no longer a luxury we have," he told her.

"Is this the part where you tell me to live in the moment? Because you always did enjoy the 'do as I say, not as I do' method of instruction," she bit out. Heartsick and overwhelmed, she couldn't tamp down her temper.

To her shock, Obi-Wan gave her a smile. It was slow and sad. "I asked for an apprentice," he said softly. "I wanted someone brash and brilliant. Someone who wasn't afraid to speak her mind, to stand up for what she believed in. Someone longing to be noticed as the Jedi she was going to be."

Panic turned to dread with every word. She took a step back, pressing her lekku against the door. "Please stop," she whispered.

His gaze shifted, as if he was no longer seeing her. "I asked for you, Ahsoka. You were supposed to be my apprentice, but what happened was for the best."

"How could any of this be for the best?" she cried, her shoulders hunching as the emptiness flared into the room.

His next words were so quiet she wondered if she imagined them. "Because he would have killed you first."

Ahsoka fled and locked the door behind her.

Chapter Text

Something filled up my heart with nothing

Someone told me not to cry

But now that I’m older

My heart’s colder

And I can see that it’s a lie

Wake Up, Arcade Fire

 

To Asajj's surprise, the tall not-Jedi was a competent co-pilot. He followed the pre-flight checks without skipping anything, but managed to keep up with her as she went through her own familiar procedures. "Board is green," he announced, clear but pitching his voice for the cramped space of the cockpit.

She grunted in acknowledgement and initiated the liftoff sequence. Maz would be pissed about the firefight; she'd have to come bearing particularly nice gifts on their next visit to smooth the pirate queen's ruffled feathers.

"I apologize for the vast inconvenience of having us aboard," murmured Qui-Gon, and he actually looked sorry.

Asajj shrugged. "Kenobi's an inconvenience. I don't know what you are yet."

His lips twitched beneath his moustache. "That makes two of us, I suppose."

"You said you're not a Jedi," she retorted.

"Not anymore," he corrected as he leaned back in Ahsoka's usual chair. His knees were jammed beneath the console. "Not since the start of the war."

"Explains why we never crossed paths." She sensed something odd, something hesitant, in the way he stared out the transparency at the rapidly shrinking Woodwork.

"You're awfully young to have fought," he said, soft and missing the hint of accusation she'd expected.

"Ahsoka's younger by about two and a half years."

His face hardened, but he did not look at her. "Doesn't make it right."

Somehow Ahsoka Tano had foisted the sanctimonious bane of her existence and this half-Wookiee conscientious objector upon her in one fell swoop. An exasperated, ironic chuckle escaped her. "'What's right is between you and the Force,'" she quoted before she could stop herself. Dooku's first lesson; the bloodcurdling memory rose in her throat and she swallowed hard to bury it again.

Qui-Gon stared at her, eyes sharper than a hawk. In the Force, however, she caught the barest edge of him—and it wasn't caution, or alarm, or suspicion.

It was sadness. For her.

Trying to throw off the unexpected empathy, she rolled her shoulders and fixed her attention on the stars. "I'm not taking you to Tatooine."

"Good," Qui-Gon said firmly.

Asajj couldn't help but glance at him with a confused frown. "Kenobi seemed pretty hell-bent on the ball of sand."

"Yes, but you made important points about the Hutts. Maz confirmed it's worse than you suggested." He leaned forward and eyeballed the hydraulic pressure sensor. "And Obi-Wan's not in a state to be making decisions."

"You don't fucking say. He looked better after Maul and his idiot brother beat the shit out of him."

At the sound of the Zabrak's name, Qui-Gon's entire body went still.

Fascinating .

"Maul." It wasn't quite a question. It wasn't quite a challenge. "He's alive."

"Probably. He was the last time Kenobi and I ran into him, and in my experience, he's surprisingly difficult to kill."

Qui-Gon pressed his palm against his chest in such a peculiar gesture that Asajj couldn't help her curiosity. "I take it you're acquainted?"

He gave her a thin smile. In his bright blue eyes, she saw devastation. "Maul's lightstaff is the reason I have a chest full of cloned organs."

She bared her teeth in a sympathetic wince and shifted in her seat; after Skywalker nearly killed her in Galactic City, she'd needed a pair of spinal nerves cloned when bacta hadn't come soon enough. She'd wiped a lot of droids to ensure Dooku never found out. "For not a Jedi, the Force must really like you."

"I was lucky to have Obi-Wan with me," he said quietly. "He was still my Padawan when he saved my life."

It had nothing to do with her, none of it did, but grief—old, made new again and again—stabbed her in the heart anyway.

Her hands were sticky and red. His breaths were wet and rasping, too fast and too shallow. "Asa, run—"

"No!" she yelled at him. Dread creeped through her veins, heavy and hot. "No, Master, I won't!"

He would always just smile at her stubbornness, and he tried to do so again. The corners of his lips twitched. "Promise me…"

"Anything, Master." His weathered face blurred. "I'll do anything you want if you stay with me."

Ky Narec lifted his hand and brushed a tear from her cheek. His finger was cold. "Trust in the Force, my sweet girl."

Asajj cleared her throat roughly and fiddled with the navicomputer. She ignored the feel of his eyes on her. "If you freeloaders are gonna use us as a galactic taxi, you have to tell me where we're going."

"Naboo."

She pressed her lips together, releasing the edge of panic rising inside her into the Force the way Ahsoka had taught her so she could concentrate on the moment. She'd massacred the Gungans on Naboo's moon, desecrated their bodies with the Force—and for the first time, she'd tried to murder Obi-Wan Kenobi.

It had happened. She was responsible.

Asajj Ventress no longer dwelled in the dark. "No problem."

 

There was only so much sitting in silence she could do before her skin began to itch. She abandoned the cockpit to Qui-Gon, who seemed content to take over the piloting tasks and unbothered by her silent escape, and went in search of a distraction.

She found Ahsoka, like she always did.

The Togruta sat in the dark, wedged into the farthest corner of their little table in the galley and staring into a mug. In the faint light of the stars streaking past in the round porthole in the ceiling, the uncomfortable lines of tension in Ahsoka's shoulders and lekku were clear. Ahsoka never slumped in defeat if she thought Asajj could see her. For a moment, Asajj wondered if she should leave Ahsoka to her own thoughts.

No, because Ahsoka would never leave Asajj alone with her own.

Brushing against Ahsoka in the Force to keep from startling her, Asajj slipped onto the hard bench and stole a sip from the mug. Cold, too-strong caf hit her tongue, and when she made a face at the bitterness, Ahsoka murmured, "Serves you right."

"Kenobi's safely locked away?" The joke fell flat as Ahsoka tensed further. "What? Did he say something to upset you?"

Shrugging, Ahsoka dipped her finger in her caf and drew an aimless pattern on the table. "He didn't even have to say anything. He's upsetting all on his own."

Asajj watched that orange finger swirl caf, and bit her tongue. Kenobi had done something stupid, something panicked, but he would either figure it out eventually or he would fall so far into that void that escape would become impossible.

Not an end she would wish on her worst enemy.

Not a fight she wanted to revisit, even second hand.

"I don't know if I want to talk about it yet," Ahsoka murmured.

"Fair enough," replied Asajj. "What the deal with the half-Wookiee in the cockpit?"

That earned her a little smile. "Qui-Gon Jinn," chided Ahsoka. "He was Obi-Wan's Master, and Anakin's Master. He helped me back on my feet, after I left the Temple. He's a kind man."

Asajj rolled her eyes. "No one's kind unless they want something."

Ahsoka pursed her lips, and Asajj regretted her impulsive retort. There was a saying about old habits.

"You think I only want something from you?" There was an edge of defeat in Ahsoka's words that cut into Asajj's heart.

"I couldn't imagine what," replied Asajj, forcing herself to sound light. "Unless you're planning on stealing the ship and becoming the galaxy's most notorious bounty hunter with all the skills I've taught you?"

The dark mood gripping Ahsoka seemed to tighten around the Togruta. "Do you think I only want something from you?" she asked again, low and serious.

Asajj wanted to say yes, of course. It was too difficult to imagine anyone would have anything to do with her without a payoff, let alone someone like Ahsoka—bright and sharp, focused and gleeful in a fight yet soft-hearted for droids and children and, inexplicably, Asajj Ventress .

Asajj had spent years steeped in the dark side, sowing destruction and causing pain with her every breath. Her commitment to ignore the call of the dark, to consider her choices before acting, was new. At night she lay awake, wondering how long it would be until her steps forward became an inevitable slide back into shadow.

At the bottom of her spiralling thoughts, there was always a tiny, dissenting voice, insisting that Asajj was worthy of friendship and loyalty and forgiveness.

That voice sounded exactly like Ahsoka Tano.

She'd been quiet too long. Ahsoka stopped sketching a circular pattern with cold caf and turned her torso towards Asajj. She leaned closer, and the tip of her lek brushed against Asajj's thigh. "Asa?"

The former Jedi curled in on herself as if to avoid touching Asajj, but the cantina booth was too narrow for two side-by-side. "I'm not diseased," Asajj bit out, feeling more offended by Ahsoka's attempt to lean away than maybe she should have been.

"Sorry," mumbled Ahsoka, straightening her posture but hugging her arms around her waist. "I'm not used to being so close."

"Weren't you on battle cruisers? Surely Republic ships weren't any more roomy than the Seps."

"I was, but…" Ahsoka sighed. "Jedi are supposed to keep a certain…aloofness in their demeanour."

Asajj made a face. "The fuck does that mean?"

"Aloofness means—"

"I know what the words mean, Tano," retorted Asajj, rolling her eyes. "I'm not stupid."

"No, I know you're not."

"So?"

"So I was trained to keep to myself, both physically and emotionally. Keep everything behind your shields. Don't project into the Force. Avoid familiar displays so no one accuses you of attachment. The Jedi often have success because we're seen as mysterious, and that mystery gets lost with little things like physical contact."

"They're."

"What?"

"They're seen as mysterious. You're not a Jedi anymore, the same way I'm not a Sith anymore."

Ahsoka chuckled darkly. "Just Ahsoka Tano and Asajj Ventress now."

"Speak for yourself. I'm not 'just' anything," retorted Asajj, then added, "We're not 'just' anything."

The expected witty quip never came. Instead, Ahsoka unfurled her arms. Slowly, she relaxed next to Asajj—into Asajj's side. Their knees touched beneath the sticky cantina table and their shoulders pressed together. "We're friends?" murmured Ahsoka, not taking her gaze off the table.

The girl was warm and solid and real ; the unexpected contact set Asajj's nerves alight. "I've never had a friend," Asajj admitted in a low voice.

"My last friend framed me for treason and murder."

"You sure know how to set a low bar."

Ahsoka glanced at Asajj, mouth open to protest, before she dropped her head to the table and began to laugh hysterically. Asajj gathered her courage and rested her hand on Ahsoka's shoulder, and was rewarded when the Togruta didn't flinch away; instead, she reached up and squeezed Asajj’s fingers.

That had been the first time in a very long time that someone had willingly, knowingly, touched Asajj Ventress with kindness.

"You're my friend," Asajj said, embarrassed by the roughness in her voice. "I know that."

With a self-satisfied sniff, Ahsoka poked Asajj in the arm. "Good. I don't need any more banthashit today."

Asajj grimaced. "There's a bit more."

Suddenly suspicious, Ahsoka narrowed her eyes. "You didn't actually give Pran the money, did you?"

"Excuse me, I am a professional," retorted Asajj with an offended sniff.

"Then what?"

"Jinn took my advice to stay away from Tatooine," Asajj said. "So plans have changed. We're headed for Naboo."

The grief in Ahsoka's eyes was clear, and Asajj wracked her brain as to why—

Right. Amidala was the Senator from Naboo. Had been.

Ahsoka squared her shoulders and spread her fingers against the tabletop. All hints of emotion vanished. The education of Ahsoka Tano had been as ruthless as Asajj's, just with better accommodations and regular meals. The years of training in the Jedi Temple had imprinted onto Ahsoka's soul, indelible. "Did Qui-Gon say why?" she asked, her voice carefully neutral.

"No."

"It's probably not safe for us there, either. Obi-Wan and I know people there. Qui-Gon was on Naboo during the blockade."

"No pirates in the Chommell sector lying in wait," Asajj pointed out.

Ahsoka's murmur was miserable. "I wasn't there for her."

The answer was obvious, but Asajj asked the question anyway. Ahsoka needed to unburden herself. "Who?"

Squeezing her eyes shut, Ahsoka whispered, "Padmé. I don't know what happened—I can't prove it, but I know that the HoloNet reports are lies, or at least, they're not telling the whole truth. She should have been protected, she was an important Senator, and if Anakin had been there she'd still be alive, I know it—"

"Ahsoka." The name became a sigh. Awkwardly, Asajj reached her arm around the Togruta's shoulders and squeezed a little; Ahsoka's breath hitched as she gently rested her cheek against Asajj's bony shoulder. "You're not responsible for everything that happens in the galaxy."

"She cared about me. She was brave and smart and would give the expertly tailored shirt off her back to a total stranger if she thought they looked cold. She should be alive and happy with her baby, Asa, but they're both dead and I wasn't there, and I can't do anything about it."

The worn fabric of Asajj's sleeve was warm and wet where Ahsoka pressed her face. This was new; Asajj had never been cried on before. Part of her—the stupid, reactionary part—started to panic, but she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The Force hummed, nudging her to stay. She had changed what was between her and the Force, and she would listen. She tightened her hold on her friend and waited.

When Ahsoka wilted further, sniffling quietly, Asajj tapped the table with her free hand. "You need a nap," she announced.

"What time is it?"

"Nap time," repeated Asajj, pleased to see Ahsoka's weary half-smile. "2000 hours ship time."

Ahsoka straightened out of Asajj's grasp. "It's my shift. You should sleep."

"Fuck that," Asajj retorted. "Go to bed."

"I locked Obi-Wan in there, remember?"

"You can use mine," Asajj offered. She slid off the bench and walked the few paces to her cabin door.

Covering a wicked yawn with her hand, Ahsoka nodded. "Thanks. I guess we're sharing for the time being."

The idea of having Ahsoka Tano sleeping in her bed hit Asajj like a stampede of banthas.

It was too late to take it back. That would be rude, and friends weren’t rude to each other, and Ahsoka needed somewhere to sleep that wasn’t a meditation mat in the cargo bay--

No, it was fine. They could sleep in shifts, and there would be no invasion of her space, no one to witness her nightmares, no one to reach for in the dark—

Asajj stood with her hand over the door control, still as a statue, and Ahsoka squinted at her as she approached. "I understand if you don't want anyone in your space," she said slowly. “I could just sleep in the cargo bay.”

"Don't drink my whiskey," replied Asajj as she smacked the activation control.

Another yawn interrupted Ahsoka's smile. "I'll just add water so you can't tell."

"You will not," snorted Asajj.

Ahsoka's grin widened. "Thanks, Asa."

"Yeah." She turned and headed for the cargo bay to avoid watching Ahsoka settle comfortably against Asajj's pillow.

 

The Banshee 's cargo bay was almost never used for cargo. Without any shipping containers eating up deck space, there was exactly enough room for two to spar hand-to-hand as long as no one tried anything adventurous; the overhead was too low for aerials. Ahsoka had marked out a circle on the deck plating with fluorescent orange electrical tape. Apparently Jedi trained for confined spaces; in their first duel on the ship, Ahsoka had complained when Asajj flanked her from outside the circle.

Asajj had grinned and reminded the Togruta that the real world didn't play by the rules. In the moment of Asajj's gloating, Ahsoka had struck; she dropped Asajj to the floor and knelt on her sternum, baring sharp fangs for a gentle reminder about the importance of discipline.

The low hum of the hyperdrive was exactly the noise she needed. Asajj pulled out her meditation mat from the small compartment on the wall and shook it out. She settled onto her knees and closed her eyes.

A tiny warble.

She cracked one eyelid and pointed her finger at the cargo bay door. "Go away," she ordered the droid.

[ I am R9-R9, but you may call me Arnie! ] it chirped, rolling closer.

Asajj squinted at the R5 series droid’s flat dome. “Someone screwed up your production code.”

[ The number was already engraved on my serial number plate before the error was noticed. It is nice to meet you. What is your name? ]

"I don't care," she snapped.

[ That is an unusual name, I-Don't-Care, but all names are unique! ] It shuddered like an excited puppy.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," she muttered. She hated droids. They were predictable and subservient, and unable to overcome the stupidity of their own programming. "Go. Away."

[ I will find Ashla. She likes me. ]

"No!" The droid squealed to a halt, and Asajj winced at the sound of metal on metal. Its wheels needed servicing. "She's sleeping, and if you wake her up I will personally dismantle you and sell your parts to Jawas." Rolling her eyes at the droid's whimper, she added, "Go bother Qui-Gon."

[ The Guardian? Very well. ] The droid's wheels squealed again as he rolled forward.

"Guardian? What do you mean?" Curiosity got the better of her.

[ He is a Guardian of the Whills,] answered the droid. [From the Holy City on Jedha. ]

She frowned as she tried to remember any mention of Guardians of the Whills, or Jedha, and came up blank. "What's he guarding?"

[ The Guardian guards nothing; it is the Jedi who guards, ] replied the droid.

Interest piqued, Asajj leaned towards the droid. "Arnie, was it?"

[ Affirmative! ]

"Tell me what the Jedi is guarding." The droid went quiet as it roved its ocular sensor over her. It was taking too long to comply; it was going to deny her. She added, "We went through a lot of trouble to save you from a life of servitude to that Feeorin."

Arnie warbled, then a projection of a cockpit interior flickered to life in front of him. Kenobi's voice was low as he blew across a mug. "The family takes the baby and raises him without attracting any attention."

Qui-Gon replied, "And how do we guarantee that last bit? He's a beacon in the Force, and we have no idea what kind of natural talents he might be blessed with. How does the family explain rain before a dry spell becomes drought, or a boy who can get anything he wants from the Jawas but not Toydarians. How do they protect him if he lashes out in anger and hurts another with the Force? Mark my words, Obi-Wan—the Sith will not allow competition. The Jedi Order is a shattered ruin, but Palpatine is not going to suffer even the hint of Jedi in his new Empire. It's only a matter of time until he turns from hunting Jedi to rounding up potential Jedi."

Asajj's eyes grew wide as the recording continued.

Kenobi was hiding Padmé Amidala's Force-sensitive son from the Sith.

When Arnie’s projection cut out, she whistled, long and slow. “Oh, fuck me,” she breathed.

[ Language, ] admonished the droid.

Chapter Text

I'd rather be with you

Wherever you're going

They say you're bad to the core

Must be the same as me

Cause we both want more

But it's all so empty

Rebel Without a Cause, Fiona Bevan

 

Rain on Jedha was rare, but torrential. Qui-Gon stood in the vestibule of the Temple of Kyber and tried to ignore the aching in his chest brought by the sudden weather. As a former Jedi Master, he'd been given a bit of leeway in his progression from postulant to novice to Guardian—mostly in terms of skipping meditation classes and keeping his long hair—but it didn't keep him off the roster for door duty.

Humbling. It was supposed to be humbling.

He was adequately humbled, and even standing beneath the stone arch, he was beyond damp.

The deafening, unstoppable rain had driven everyone inside. Qui-Gon hadn't seen a soul in the street in front of the Temple all morning.

Except there was someone, trudging through the middle of the street to avoid the churning rivers washing away the road itself. Hidden beneath a soaked brown cloak, the figure slipped on the slick mud. Qui-Gon wrapped a tendril of the Force around the poor soul to keep them on their feet before he even thought twice about using his abilities in such a public way. The cloaked person froze.

A wave of the Force, brutal and immediate, slammed into him. It wasn't enough to release his hold, but the surprise was; the stranger wobbled on their feet, then stomped through the ankle-deep water to shove their finger in his face.

"What are you doing?" A young woman's voice snarled at him. An orange hand pushed the sopping wool hood out of her face, revealing the ruddy orange skin of a Togruta. "Who taught you that?"

"I should ask you the same question," he replied evenly. The girl was strong with the Force, and clearly well-trained. He gambled. "I would guess, however, that Master Piell or one of his students was your instructor."

Her huge blue eyes widened, then she bowed her head. "Master Jinn, I presume."

"I no longer claim that title," he corrected, hoping he didn't sound as petulant aloud as he did in his own head. "Don't tell me: the Council sent you to beg me to return?"

To his surprise, she jerked her head up. Her mouth pulled into a harsh line. While her shields were adequate, he still sensed her strong reaction—anger, and betrayal, and deep sadness. "No. I no longer obey the Council."

That made two of them. "Why don't you come inside," he found himself saying, "and I'll make you a cup of tea while you dry out."

 

The girl wrapped her hands around the steaming mug and huddled beneath the fluffy towel draped around her shoulders. The longer he studied her, the younger she became. Her weariness was palpable.

Qui-Gon offered her a plate of shortbread biscuits with chocolate drizzle and neka nuts. Surprise flitted over her face, but she took two. "Now that you're a touch less soaked," he said casually, "you might start with your name."

"Ahsoka Tano," she said around a mouthful of biscuit. He lifted a disapproving eyebrow at her out of sheer habit, and she looked appropriately abashed as she swallowed. "Sorry."

"You're young to be a Knight."

"That's because I'm not." She plucked a nut off her second biscuit and rolled it between her fingers. "Did you get Master Obi-Wan hooked on these, or was it the other way around?"

"You're acquainted with Obi-Wan?" It was difficult, saying his name; it was love and sorrow and regret in three syllables.

Ahsoka nodded. "You really don't know who I am, do you?"

"But you seem to know me, and have me at a disadvantage," he replied with a small smile. "Help me out."

She drew herself up, squaring her shoulders. "Commander Tano, attached to the 501st Legion, Padawan to General Skywalker," she bit out. Her posture drooped. "At least, I was until three days ago."

Qui-Gon sipped his sapir to cover his shock.

Anakin had been Knighted. Anakin had turned around and taken an apprentice in the middle of this godsforsaken war.

He balled up his indignation and squashed it down. It wasn't the poor girl's fault. "If you're Anakin's Padawan, then I'm your grand-Master."

"I know," she replied softly. "That's why I came."

"Obi-Wan told you where I was?"

Ahsoka shook her head. "I don't know if he knows you're here," she admitted.

"Then how—"

"Anakin assigned me to take care of the correspondence for both him and Master Obi-Wan. I, ah, saw your letter." She smiled nervously. "I may have skimmed it for relevance."

"I see." He frowned in disapproval as he tried to remember if he'd penned any less than appropriate phrases in his missive. It wasn't a letter he'd intended for public consumption.

"I didn't know where else to go," Ahsoka blurted. The poor girl's eyes were too-bright. "I-I just walked out, and after that one moment of clarity everything became so overwhelming, and you're the only Jedi I know who left the Order—I mean, left and didn't turn into a Sith, I wasn't about to track down Dooku—"

"Ahsoka," he rumbled, reaching out across the table to settle his hand next to hers. The babbling stopped. "Why don't you tell me what happened?"

Her story tumbled from her lips, faster and more agonizing with each word. Framed for treason and murder by her best friend. Suspected by the High Council. Thrown into a kangaroo court without trained legal representation or support from the Order. By the time she described being hunted down by her own clone troops, he had clasped her hand in his.

She sniffled as she described walking away from the High Council—a sanctimonious and self-righteous dozen to the last—and he produced a clean handkerchief from one of his pockets. With a grateful look, she wiped her nose and clenched the linen square in her fist. "I didn't think, Master Jinn. I have about twenty credits and a wet cloak. I left my 'sabers behind."

He squeezed her hand. "They wouldn't have let you keep them anyway," he said gently. "Possession of a lightsaber by a non-Jedi without a collector's permit signed by the Master of the Order is a second-degree felony."

"I must have missed that class," she said with a wry snort. "What will they do with them?"

"You built them yourself?" At her nod, he said, "Then Jocasta will catalogue them and place them in the Archives."

"Maybe next to yours?"

He chuckled without mirth. "I might have disassembled my lightsaber, pocketed the crystal, and thrown the components at Mace Windu's head."

Her jaw dropped. "I always wondered where Skyguy got it from."

“Who?”

"Anakin. His flair for the dramatic."

A grin tugged at Qui-Gon’s lips. "He was nine when he won a Hutt-run podrace and accidentally blew up a Trade Federation blockade with a starfighter. I take responsibility for many things, but Anakin Skywalker's flair for the dramatic is not one of them."

Eventually, her smile faded. "So what do I do, Master Jinn?"

"First of all, you stop calling me that. My name is Qui-Gon."

"Okay. Qui-Gon." Ahsoka shifted, seemingly uncomfortable with using his given name without a title of respect, so he squeezed her hand in encouragement.

"The next thing you're going to do is get a good night's sleep in the guest quarters here. When you wake up in the morning, you'll eat something substantial and have a cup of caf, because clearly you're not a fan of tea"—she chuckled with embarrassment as he nodded at her cold, full teacup—"and we'll go have a chat with the abbess about having you stay for a while."

"I don't think I want to become a Guardian," said Ahsoka.

"You don't have to," Qui-Gon told her. "We may no longer be Jedi in name, Ahsoka, but our upbringing is etched into our bones. You are my Padawan's Padawan. You're part of my lineage, and I care about you. You can stay for as long as you want, and we will figure things out together." He hesitated, wondering if his openness was shocking her. "If you want."

Her whisper was full of relief. "Thank you."

 

Ahsoka looked up from the half-empty sack of Corellian potatoes with a grimace. "Maybe leaving the Order was a mistake."

"What, Anakin never assigned manual labour as a means of meditation?" Qui-Gon flipped his vegetable peeler in the air and caught it with a flourish, grinning.

"No," she replied, grabbing another tuber and viciously removing the peel. "Master Obi-Wan was the one who liked to give me tasks to 'allow me time to reconsider my position.' Skyguy just used blunt truth with a hint of guilt trip. Pretty effective when you remind someone you're responsible for keeping your men alive."

Qui-Gon watched her as she jabbed the point of her peeler and dug out a green spot. Three weeks, and this was the first time she'd spoken about the war. "You should never have been in that position," he said softly. "Padawans are supposed to be learning at their Master's side, not leading troops into battle."

Her hand stilled. She didn't look at him. "I killed my squadron," she said without emotion. "My very first mission as a commander. I disobeyed orders. My failure to learn obedience meant my men died over Ryloth."

Qui-Gon swallowed his horror. "How old were you?"

"Does it matter?" Another jab into the potato. In the face of his patient silence, she gritted out, "Fifteen."

"I was seventeen before my Master allowed me to take command of a mission," Qui-Gon said, ignoring the flare of emotional mess that came with the thought of Dooku. "It was negotiating the alliance of two enemy factions by way of marriage."

"And did the wedding party get slaughtered because of your overconfidence?"

"No." At Qui-Gon's reply, Ahsoka stabbed the potato hard enough to snap it in half. She hurled the tubers into the enormous pot on the floor in front of them. Qui-Gon tamped down the anger he reserved for the High Council. "Jedi Padawans aren't supposed to fight wars for the Republic. You weren't trained to lead soldiers into battle. You weren't trained to be a soldier yourself."

She glared at him, but he saw the devastation in her wide blue eyes. "So what? It doesn't bring back my men."

"I'm trying to tell you that what happened to you wasn't normal, Ahsoka."

She grimaced. "'Do or do not, there is no try.'"

"I stood back and watched that damned troll say that to countless younglings," Qui-Gon growled. "I didn't speak up then, but I'm going to say it now: that's a load of banthashit."

Leaving the Order was still new; Ahsoka's eyes widened in shock at his disrespect. "But—"

"Ban-tha-shit," he repeated. "Of course we try. We try, and maybe we fail our objective. Maybe we succeed. Maybe"—he wiggled his vegetable peeler in her direction—"there is more to life than success and failure. We might fail to achieve a singular goal, but our eyes missed the lessons we learned along the way, or the tiny successes we ignored because they paled in comparison to our defeat. Right now, I'm trying to help you put your experience into some context. I'm not trying to tell you that your squadron's demise wasn't your fault, because you believe that to be true and you don't want to think otherwise. I'm trying to plant the seed of doubt in your guilt. I'm trying to tell you that it was wrong for Anakin to put you in command. You were too young, too inexperienced."

"It's not his fault. Breaking the blockade on Ryloth needed everyone to fight," protested Ahsoka, but Qui-Gon shook his head.

"He must take some blame for putting you in a position where you felt unable to say no."

"Of course I didn't say no. I was his Padawan."

Qui-Gon stared at her, outrage rushing through his veins. He set the vegetable peeler and the half-peeled tuber on the table behind them and clasped his hands between his knees to give himself time. A noisy breath kept his voice calm. "When Anakin chose you, you both agreed to the rules of apprenticeship, yes? Witnessed by another Master?"

"Of co—" Ahsoka stilled, her mouth open. "No. Within an hour of meeting, we were hiding under a box to cross enemy lines. And if we're being brutally honest, Anakin didn't actually choose me. Master Yoda assigned me to him. They'd stopped sending Initiates to the Corps because of the war, and I was the oldest in the crèche."

Qui-Gon fought the urge to hide his face in his hands. "So at no point did Anakin explain your rights as a Padawan? That you could have said no to leading others in deadly combat before the age of 16?"

"Master Obi-Wan checked that I knew my rights." Her shrug nearly broke his heart. "I wanted to lead that sortie. I wanted to prove that I was capable, that I was worthy of being Anakin Skywalker's Padawan. Ryloth was suffering, and I was gonna be the hero."

"But now you're suffering," he said. "Maybe I should be suffering. My squadron's dead, and I'm responsible." She plucked another potato from the sack, but made no attempt to peel it.

In the Force, he could sense her grief; this wasn't a new hurt, but it was deep and wide. As a Jedi Master, he would have suggested a shared meditation to help give the feelings to the Force.

But he wasn't a Jedi anymore, and Ahsoka wasn't his Padawan.

He slid closer to her and rested his hand on her back. "Weep for them, Ahsoka. They have someone to remember their names and their deeds, and your tears honour their memory."

Ahsoka's breath hitched. Beneath his palm, she began to tremble. When she buried her face in the folds of his robes, Qui-Gon wrapped his arms around her and held her tight.

In the Temple of Kyber's kitchen, among the potato peelings, they wept—for the clones, for their friends still fighting, and for the lives they'd left behind.

 

The cup of caf, untouched throughout firstmeal, spurred Qui-Gon to say something. "Credit for your thoughts?"

"I think I need to leave." Next to him, she sighed, then added more firmly, "I know I'm welcome, Qui-Gon. But the longer I stay here, the more I feel like I'm stagnating."

"It's not stagnating to take stock of your entire life," Qui-Gon replied. A month. It was longer than he'd expected her to stay, but shorter than he wished. Having someone else in his life who understood what it meant to walk away from the Jedi Order had started to mend a deep crack within himself. He hoped he had done the same for her.

She smiled without showing her teeth. "How much stock is there in seventeen years? No, don't answer that." She fiddled with the handle of her mug. "I checked my message box this morning, and someone's asked me to join them."

"A friend?"

Ahsoka tapped her fingernails against the wooden table, worn smooth over decades of use. "No." When he raised his eyebrow at her, she shrugged. "I don't know what she is, Qui-Gon. I really don't. The fact that she even contacted me is…astonishing."

"Surprising-astonishing, or suspicious-astonishing?"

Her expression was half-way between a smile and a grimace. "Both?"

Qui-Gon studied her. Well-rested, well-fed, and no longer exuding fresh grief, the Togruta looked every inch a competent young woman. She would have made an amazing Knight.

The Order's loss had become her own gain. He would not stand in her way. "Promise you'll write?"

"I haven't quite made up my mind, you know," she retorted.

He smiled at her. "Of course you have, or you wouldn't have mentioned any of this. The Jedi habit of presenting a plan of action and then asking for suggestions is difficult to break."

Putting her hands up in mock surrender, she smiled. "I guess you'd know. I promise I'll write, Qui-Gon."

"One more thing?" At her nod, he said, "Promise me you'll listen to yourself, Ahsoka. We are fortunate to hear the Force and to use it when necessary, but our hearts remind us what is right."

With a solemn expression, Ahsoka leaned over and pressed her lips to his cheek. "I don't think the Order knows what they lost in you," she said softly. "Thank you, Qui-Gon."

 

The soft hiss of the door mechanism pulled Qui-Gon out of his light trance. Rumpled and holding two steaming cups, Ahsoka slipped into the pilot's seat. "Sorry, we don't have tea onboard," she said as she passed him a cup.

He took the caf with a resigned smile. "I was just thinking about you," he told her. "Asajj—is she the 'not-friend' who contacted you on Jedha?"

Ahsoka hummed in agreement as she closed her eyes and inhaled the steam rising from her caf.

"I don't mean to pry."

A tiny wrinkle appeared on her forehead. "What do you mean?"

"She said something…odd."

"Yeah, she does that sometimes," Ahsoka replied with a brief smile. "Try not to take it personally, Qui-Gon. She doesn't have a wide range of social graces."

He shook his head, sipping his caf to cover his discomfort and immediately regretting the bitter taste. "No, she wasn't rude. She said something that reminded me of someone—"

Ahsoka rolled her eyes at him. "I'm not a diplomat. Would you please just say what you're gonna say?"

Qui-Gon gazed into the murky depths of his cup. "How is she associated with Dooku?"

Ahsoka froze. A few heartbeats passed before she licked her lips and avoided his gaze. "I don't know if I should say," she said softly. "It's her story to tell, not mine."

"I need to know, Ahsoka," he urged.

She glanced at him, hesitant and uncertain. "Darth Tyrannus"—he flinched at the name, terrible and apt—"made her his apprentice," she whispered. "I can't tell you anything else, Qui-Gon. If you want to know, then go talk to her yourself, but frankly, I don't recommend it."

Bitterness seemed like a good idea; he drained his cup, burning his tongue. He'd warred with himself over Dooku. He'd agonized over whether to hunt down his Master. That betrayal had been sharp shards of glass reopening healed wounds. Xanatos' Fall had broken Qui-Gon Jinn, but Dooku's defection to the Sith left him numb.

One more heavy stone atop a pile of teetering worries.

He'd decided that stone wouldn't be the one that sank him. At the start of the war, Qui-Gon had abandoned any sense of responsibility for Dooku, and that had been almost as difficult as walking away from the Order.

Ahsoka cleared her throat. "Naboo, huh?"

"Yes."

"Are you going to tell me what we're planning?"

He raised his eyebrow at her. "Since when are you part of the plan?"

"Since you stepped on my ship," she retorted. "Since you're part of my lineage. Since we have no one else on our side." She snorted wryly. "Since I committed larceny for you."

He wanted to say yes. Ahsoka was dependable and competent. He didn't want to navigate this without someone stable. "I can't tell you what we're doing, exactly," he said slowly, "but if you know anyone who could put us in contact with Padmé Amidala's family, it would be helpful."

Ahsoka's face hardened. "Are you looking into what happened to her?"

She'd given him an opening. Little gods, he didn't want to lie to her, but the more people who knew about Luke meant more opportunities for the Sith to track him down. Ahsoka was already a target by being a former Jedi, and he had promised Obi-Wan to keep the boy secret. "It would be very helpful," he repeated as he rose from his seat.

"Not knowing was fine when I was a Padawan," she said, her voice full of iron, "but it's just us now. You, and me, and someone who looks like Obi-Wan Kenobi. If I'm putting my life on the line, I think I deserve to know what for."

He pressed his hand into her shoulder and tried not to dwell on her description of the man he loved. "I'm trying to save lives, Ahsoka, including yours."

When she looked up at him, her blue eyes were sad and grim. "It goes both ways, Qui-Gon, and you're putting me at a disadvantage."

"I'm giving you plausible deniability." Qui-Gon squeezed her shoulder and ducked out of the cockpit with the feeling of her glare stabbing between his shoulder blades.

 

The trance had done nothing to cure the restlessness that had taken over him since Obi-Wan had arrived at the Temple of Kyber. He stood in the middle of the common area and let his shoulders droop. The small ship held three Force-users, and he sensed them all. Ahsoka was muted with a hint of anger in the cockpit. Behind one of the doors to crew quarters the void that was Obi-Wan was quiescent, as if the Jedi Master had finally succumbed to exhaustion. The last one was sharp and reminded Qui-Gon of standing on a precipice.

He approached the precipice, ducking beneath the bulkhead.

Keeping his own presence, both physically and in the Force, quiet and still, Qui-Gon stood at the door of the cargo bay and watched Asajj Ventress. Like a viper, she moved through a kata so bastardized he only recognized it when he closed his eyes and felt the intentional movements with the Force. The young woman scooped up a thin, short staff as she threw herself into a somersault. The rest of the kata came fast and furious, missing the flowing calm that kata work demanded.

The staff flew towards his chest, and he snatched it out of the air. The smooth wood was a little lighter, but the correct length for an ignited 'saber.

"What are you doing?" demanded Asajj with a scowl. "You're supposed to be piloting."

"Ahsoka took over."

Asajj's scowl became a concerned frown. "She didn't sleep long enough," she murmured, then said accusingly, "Did you wake her up?"

"Of course not," he replied. "You're not used to one blade, are you?" He stepped forward and offered the staff to her with both hands.

Asajj glared at him and snatched up the staff. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"You're so focussed on your weapon that your elbows are flying all over the place."

"I'm efficient," she snapped. "I'm not practicing for a duel."

Qui-Gon's tunic stuck to every part of him by the time Ima-Gun slid past his defence and made shiim contact along Qui-Gon's arm. The graze of the training 'saber hurt, but the cold disappointment in Dooku's eyes as he walked out of the competition salle without saying a word clenched Qui-Gon's heart. He could handle the brutal training that would come later, but the pointed silence cut into his bones. It always did.

"Better to train for melée these days," he said. "Would you care for a sparring partner?"

A pause, then the girl shrugged. "The other staves are on the wall," Asajj said, pointing at the bulkhead. As he moved to fetch the practice weapons, she added, "Don't expect me to go easy on you."

"I wouldn't dream of it," he replied. The wood beneath his hands was sanded smooth, but someone had carved in linear grips. Qui-Gon ran his thumb over the imperfect lines, swallowing a sudden burst of melancholy. He would never again wield a lightsaber. He had made his peace with that. Mostly.

The plucked string of warning in the Force had him whirling to meet a hard blow aimed at his knees. The staves met with a resounding clack, and Asajj cocked her head at him.

Qui-Gon grinned.

His training with Chirrut wasn't comparable to the rigours of Jedi combat, but the girl didn't have his experience. As vicious as a kimogila lizard, Asajj moved in a blur of constant attack. For a few moments, Qui-Gon catalogued her movements, defending by rote. The elements were there—a bastardized blend of Jedi forms, heavy on Makashi and missing Soresu and Ataru entirely.

Asajj kicked out, aiming for his throat, and he smacked her ankle with the staff. The sounds of wood slamming against wood and clattering feet echoed off the bulkheads. Without the room for an overhead jump, Qui-Gon was forced to meet Asajj's barrage stroke for stroke. She left no opening for attack.

So he defended. Calm, patient, Qui-Gon sank into the Force and parried her over and over. He stepped into her reach, and she moved back to give herself enough room to strike again. Slowly, Qui-Gon pushed her towards the circle taped on the floor; with every clack, he inched forward. The closer they came to the border of the sparring ring, the brightness of her eyes became more feral.

The heel of her boot brushed against the outside edge fluorescent orange circle. "That's match," he rumbled, catching her staff's downstroke with his weapon.

Her eyes flicked to the floor. As she shifted her weight onto her back leg, Qui-Gon swept his foot out and dropped her body to the deck. Holding the wooden blade to her throat, he smiled. "This is where you call solah ."

Asajj flinched as if he had slapped her. In the Force, he felt shame mixed with terror. Scrambling away, he set the practice blade down. What had Dooku done to make her feel that way about surrendering? "Did I hurt you?" he asked, not certain if she'd tell the truth either way.

"I'm fine," she grumbled, getting to her feet.

"You're a skilled fighter, Asajj—may I call you Asajj?"

She paused, then shrugged one shoulder as she stretched the other. "It's my name."

"You're a skilled fighter, but you have the sloppiest elbows I've ever seen," he said. She opened her mouth to protest, and he gambled. "I'm wondering if it's out of spite because he forced you away from jar'kai. He always hated two-bladed fighting, almost as much as he hated that I chose to study Ataru. He called it a ‘showy waste of energy.’"

The girl stilled. They stood, the hum of the ship and their breathing the only sounds in the cargo bay, and finally Asajj met his gaze. He could have drowned in the raw emotions swirling around her. "Dooku apprenticed you?" he asked softly.

Pain flashed in her Ilum-blue eyes before she wrapped her shields around herself like a cloak. "If droning on about the wonders of Makashi and trying to kill me about eighty percent of the time is what passes for an apprenticeship, then I suppose he did," she replied, her casual tone at odds with her hunched shoulders.

"He was my Master," Qui-Gon told her. "He chose me on my eleventh birthday, and we spent fourteen years together."

Asajj's face contorted into a scowl. "So what, does that make me the evil stepsister? Our Master"—she curled her lip—"never took me on the fun field trips. You might have happy childhood memories, but here's some news for you: Dooku liked to hurt people."

"I know." Two words, filled with confession he had never voiced before.

Surprise warred with suspicion on her pale features. "The Jedi let him torture his Padawans, not just his Sith assassins?"

"No," he replied, "but he was as expert with cutting words and cold silences as he was with his lightsaber. I'm not comparing it to what he must have put you through, but…" He swallowed around the lump in his throat. "Dooku had a way of reeling you in and making you feel like you owed him, like you had to stay. I understand how hard it is to leave him behind. I'm not trying to pry, Asajj, but if you want to talk about Dooku or any of it, I'll listen."

The girl ran a hand through her mop of straight white hair and walked out of the cargo bay without another word.

Chapter Text

And I'm afraid

To sleep because of what haunts me

Such as living with the uncertainty

That I'll never find the words to say

Which would completely explain

Just how I'm breaking down

Sleeping Sickness, City and Colour

 

 

The four emergency thrusters were the only thing keeping them from drifting in open space. The colours of the console read out blurred together. Blinking only made Obi-Wan's swollen eye hurt. He had to get a transmission out. Pawing at a button that wouldn't stay still earned him an angry squawk from the computer.

A slender, pale hand grasped his wrist, far gentler then he'd expected. "Don't."

Two Asajj Ventresses frowned at him until he squinted long enough for them to coalesce into one. "You want to die of exposure?"

She smirked. "I'm sure the carbon dioxide scrubbers will fail long before we freeze to death, but there's no way I'm gonna spend the rest of my life in a Republic prison cell."

"And I'm not going to end up a Confederation prisoner of war," he retorted. Was he slurring his words? They didn't sound right.

Ventress' frown deepened. It didn't seem malicious, but it was difficult to tell beneath her tattoos. "How hard did you hit your head, Kenobi?"

"Maul's new legs are metal."

"Yeah, I noticed. That asshole just doesn't know when to call it quits," she drawled.

He couldn't help his laughter. "I cut him in half and tossed him into an industrial melting pit," he giggled. "How does one come out of that in one piece? Two pieces, I suppose."

"Survival of the overly dramatic," Ventress replied with a little snort. So she had a sense of humour after all. "Well, Kenobi, now what?"

"Hmm?" The cockpit dimmed, but he hadn't touched the controls. "Did you turn down the lighting?"

"Kenobi." Her fingers snapped in front of his nose, and he swatted at her. At least, he tried. Her head, bald as an egg, swam into his field of vision. Her wide blue eyes, blue like the sky on Ilum, peered at him. "Obi-Wan."

He'd never really looked at her before. So he looked. He looked past the tattoos that gave the impression of a permanent frown. He looked at her without the crimson glare of her lightsaber. A faint scar ran along her jawbone, thin and well-healed. Her features were delicate, and her ears were the tiniest touch too big for her skull, as if she hadn't grown into them—

"How old are you, Ventress?" The softly-spoken question hung between them, tense like a plucked string. "You're just—you're just a girl, aren't you? You'd still be someone's Padawan."

Obi-Wan didn't miss the way she froze, unblinking like a prey animal ready to flee, before rolling her eyes. "I'm Coruscant legal," she retorted, "and you're a dirty old man."

Scoffing, he slumped back into the pilot's chair because sitting up properly was too much effort. He ached. "How dare you," he muttered. Every breath brought sharp stabbing in his chest. Probably a handful of broken ribs. Healer Che would be pissed.

"Oh, I dare," Ventress replied, dry as dust as she rummaged through a compartment in the console. She pulled out a battered medkit and hummed at the contents. "There's an analgesic, but it's expired."

"Wonderful," Obi-Wan sighed. "Give it to me anyway."

Ventress held out a hypo-syringe. It took two tries before his hand made contact with the cold cylinder; he stared at his trembling hand, willing it to stay steady. Those pale hands, responsible for so much destruction, covered his and gently pried the hypo from his fingers. "Why did you cut Maul in half?" she asked casually as she pulled the cap off the hypo.

"He deserved it." Obi-Wan wished the cockpit would stop spinning; the stars were stationary.

"No shit," Ventress said with a wry half-smile. "Tell me the story."

"No." That wasn't for her. That wasn't for anybody.

"Well, then tell me a story, or a dirty joke, or something useful I could sell, like Republic war intelligence, while I stab this into your thigh."

Obi-Wan rolled his eyes. "I don't need to be distracted," he replied. "It won't hurt."

"Not the way I do it." Her grin was predatory. "So were you trying to cut off his legs, or were you just too incompetent to cut him stem to stern? That would have solved problems for the both of us, you know."

Obi-Wan Kenobi would never forget the rage burning through his veins and howling in his ears as he fought Maul while Qui-Gon lay dying. Only in the darkest nights, when he lay in his bed alone and lonely and cold, did he dare admit the possibility that it wasn't just anger, it wasn't just fear that pushed his muscles faster.

The dark side had called him, and he had answered for seconds that had felt like eternity.

Ventress stabbed the hypo-syringe into his outer thigh with far more force than was necessary. Before he could protest the inevitable bruise, she grabbed his head and brought the Force to bear. Panic rose in him as he reached for the Force, desperate to defend himself, but his vision blurred and the Force slipped through his grasp like grains of sand. A wave of the Force washed through him, too much, too fast, his nerves were on fire

The Force retreated, leaving Obi-Wan panting and shaking in the pilot's seat. Ventress leaned forward, drawing down his good eyelid with her thumb to inspect his pupil. Her usual expression of scornful malice had been replaced with…concern? It was a little easier to think, now, though his fingers and toes tingled in a way he hadn't felt since he was a young Padawan learning basic Force healing with Vokara Che. Obi-Wan could heal now without leaving the tingle, but it had taken years to refine his technique.

Obi-Wan stared at her, his heart clenched.

"You were someone's Padawan," he breathed. "Someone trained you in Jedi arts."

Ventress tried to hide the emotion—surprise? Hurt?—in her eyes with a fierce scowl. "Fuck off, Kenobi, before I give you another concussion," she snapped as she bent her head and closed the medkit.

Her inexpert healing had taken the edge off Obi-Wan's pain, but he had to shift his body carefully to keep his ribs from doing further internal damage. He watched her stow the medkit and slam the compartment shut. Her clothes were shabbier than he remembered, her cheeks a little hollower. Slowly, he dug a ration bar out of his belt pouch and held it out. "Here."

Ventress eyed the wrapped square. "I don't want your shitty ration bar."

They stared at each other, the Jedi Master patient and the Sith assassin suspicious. "Thank you," he said quietly, "for taking on Savage and Maul. I'm not certain I would have made it out of there on my own."

"Thank Dooku. I'm pretty sure he's the one who put out the bounty for Savage. I was just hoping for a good payday." Ventress sighed at his unrelenting offer of the ration bar and snatched it out of his grip. Her fingers tugged at the sealed wrapper. "And the chance for some nice, honest revenge."

"Dooku didn't send his most skilled assassin?" Obi-Wan kept his voice light, unchallenging.

Unfathomable emotion flitted over her features—a tightening of her lips, a narrowing of her eyes—before she shrugged. Obi-Wan catalogued the lines of tension in her shoulders. In the Force, she was quiet. "I don't answer to him anymore."

"So who do you answer to now?" Obi-Wan leaned forward, gritting his teeth, and plucked the ration bar from her hands. He pulled the little red tab and tossed the open package back to her. She glowered, first at the package and then at him.

"Myself." The quiet word was nearly lost as she bit into the ration bar. Ventress chewed for a long time before swallowing. Obi-Wan's heart sank as he recognized the attempt to make food last longer; Qui-Gon had taught him to do the same during their hardscrabble year protecting Satine Kryze.

Either Dooku had cast her out, or she had walked away, but it would seem Asajj Ventress was on her own in the galaxy.

The ration bar slowly disappeared, then she licked crumbs from her fingers. Obi-Wan drew a second package from his belt pouch and opened it, then held it out. She didn't move.

Obi-Wan had never seen Asajj Ventress look hesitant; it solidified his thought that she was much younger than he'd assumed. "Go on," he urged softly.

Ventress snatched the ration bar from him and nibbled the corner. Careful to avoid crumbling, she broke the bar in half; she stared hard at the food in her hand before she offered half to him.

The concussion was making him vaguely nauseated, but Obi-Wan understood meaning behind that piece of Republic-issued ration bar. He bit into the brown, slightly tacky bar and ignored the cloying sweetness. "Thank you, Asajj," he murmured.

Ventress watched him while she ate. When she finished, she turned her attention to the navigational controls and muttered something under her breath.

It sounded like, "Thank you, Obi-Wan."

 

Obi-Wan opened his eyes.

He'd fallen asleep, but instead of sulfur and searing heat, his brain had supplied him with a bizarre, unbelievable scenario in which Asajj Ventress had been a young former Jedi Padawan before becoming an agent of the dark side trained by Darth Tyrannus.

It wasn't possible. Ventress was a merciless killer, a war criminal, trained in the Sith arts. No one came back from that.

He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. He'd spent two days in bacta after escaping Maul and Savage. The memories were hazy when they weren't missing completely; Vokara Che had yelled at him for a solid ten minutes about intercranial hemorrhage.

It didn't make sense for Ventress to have been there, but even if she had been, there was no way she'd helped him.

A knock on the door, soft enough not to wake him if he were sleeping, interrupted his rumpled thoughts. "Come in," Obi-Wan called as he hit the control for the bedside lamp.

Qui-Gon bore two bowls and a hint of concern. "Did I wake you?"

"No."

The answer brought a fleeting frown to Qui-Gon's face. "If you're not going to sleep, you may as well eat something. Soup?"

Obi-Wan pushed himself up, wincing as he shifted the mass of bruises from Utapau. "You didn't make it yourself, did you?"

"I believe there's a saying about beggars and choosers," replied Qui-Gon, his affront blatantly fake as he sat down on the bed next to Obi-Wan. "Besides, I've sharpened my cooking skills recently."

Obi-Wan took the bowl from Qui-Gon. Their fingers brushed, and Qui-Gon's eyes crinkled in a familiar, heart-fluttering way. Obi-Wan didn't want that little smile to leave. "So you've graduated from burning all water not intended for tea to boiling pre-mixed soup?"

"I could brew you a terrible cup of caf if you'd prefer," teased Qui-Gon. He shook his spoon in Obi-Wan's direction. "I'll have you know my pre-mixed soup is renowned on Jedha."

"If only they knew the simple meals you've utterly destroyed," Obi-Wan replied, enjoying the warmth bleeding through the bowl and radiating from Qui-Gon.

"I made noodles for your lifeday, and you said they were delightful."

"I said they were deceitful. You bought noodles from Dex. At no point did you cook anything that night."

"Maybe not, but I opened a few bottles of wine with some competence."

The memory of fumbling fingers and sloppy kisses down his chest brought a blush to Obi-Wan's cheeks. Compared to the rest of his lifedays, his thirty-fifth had been one to remember despite the wine. He spooned some soup into his mouth to avoid replying.

The soup was hot but too salty, with tiny bits of pasta floating in the broth. He poked his spoon at an unmistakably forn-shaped noodle. "Did you make me Aurebesh soup?"

Qui-Gon grinned. "Ahsoka said they bought it because it was cheap, but I get the feeling there's more to it than that. I may have to investigate."

Obi-Wan snorted softly in amusement as he fished out the pasta. As a child in the crèche, he and his friends had hunted for words in their soup; as older Initiates they'd moved on to finding curses. Quinlan Vos held the record for most swear words in a single bowl of topato soup. Twelve year-olds Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luminara Unduli had accused him of cheating with the Force, and Quinlan had swallowed the entire bowl of soup in one gulp to hide the evidence.

Quin and Luminara had been on Kashyyyk. Left behind by Yoda.

He didn't want to think about them now.

He ate all the letters, then tipped the bowl to his mouth. The warmth in his stomach was oddly heartening. "Thank you," Obi-Wan said. "I guess I was hungry."

"Hmm," replied Qui-Gon as he took Obi-Wan's empty bowl and placed the dishes on the floor. "Take off your shirt."

"What?" Flustered, Obi-Wan pulled away and hissed as his torso protested.

"Let me heal your bruises," explained Qui-Gon. "Kaito is a decent healer, but she only doles out bacta gel if you're bleeding to death."

"I'm fine," Obi-Wan said, but in the face of Qui-Gon's disapproving eyebrows, he sighed. "Oh, all right."

Shrugging out of his secondhand shirt, Obi-Wan bit back a gasp of pain as he raised his hands above his head. Black had faded slightly to dark purple, and purple had turned to dark, sickly brown. Qui-Gon sighed to himself as he knelt in front of Obi-Wan. "You probably have deep tissue bruising behind all that," he murmured.

"Feels like it," replied Obi-Wan.

Qui-Gon lifted his face to gaze at Obi-Wan. The soft lamplight blurred the lines of stress and time on his face but caught the silver glints in his hair and beard. Not for the first time, Obi-Wan wondered if Qui-Gon had been as handsome in his youth, whether he'd roved the galaxy with an untamed mane of hair and a smooth face. Those blue eyes were as fascinating, as deep, as they always had been. Obi-Wan didn't look away; he might not get another chance to be lost in Qui-Gon's eyes.

Qui-Gon's throat bobbed. "Ready?"

Obi-Wan nodded. "Yes."

Even the soft, slow press of Qui-Gon's palm made Obi-Wan hiss in pain. The heat of his skin soaked into Obi-Wan's body. Touch wasn't necessary for a skilled field medic like Qui-Gon to heal using the Force, but Qui-Gon never did like following the rules.

Gooseflesh erupted over Obi-Wan's skin.

He couldn't feel the Force washing through him, but after a few moments, he registered Qui-Gon's thumb gently rubbing against his ribs instead of aching tissue. Qui-Gon's gaze didn't stray from Obi-Wan's face. "All better," murmured Qui-Gon.

The desire to keep Qui-Gon's hand exactly where it was won over the urge to twist his newly-healed torso. Obi-Wan brushed his hand over Qui-Gon's hair and trailed it down to trace his brow, his crooked nose, his cheeks, his jaw. Qui-Gon closed his eyes and leaned into the touch. "Why didn't you heal yourself?" he whispered.

"Because I can't." The words slipped out, hoarse and cracked.

Qui-Gon's thumb never stopped caressing his skin, but there was devastation in his eyes. "What happened, Ben?"

"I can't feel the Force anymore." Saying it aloud made it real. Confession hadn't made him lighter; it pressed shame into his bones.

Eyes wide, Qui-Gon leaned closer and cupped Obi-Wan's face in his large hands. His callouses were rough against Obi-Wan's bare cheeks. "How is that even possible?"

"I don't know." Sound, not a sob and not a laugh, ripped through Obi-Wan. "I deserve it."

"No," hushed Qui-Gon. He pulled Obi-Wan's head down and pressed their foreheads together.

Warm breath against his flesh, thumbs brushing against cheekbones. Gods, he'd missed Qui-Gon: the heat of him, the earthy scent of sapir that clung to him like perfume, the rumble of his voice. The way he felt like lush green growing things in the Force—Obi-Wan would never feel that again. "It's my fault."

"No, no, no. Whatever happened, whatever you think you did—"

"I did so many things, let so many things happen—it was too much, and never enough. I never thought one person could make so many mistakes."

Qui-Gon's hands stroked Obi-Wan's jaw and neck and hair, desperate and firm. "You always take on more blame than you deserve," he said, brushing his nose against Obi-Wan's. "You carry the weight of the galaxy on your shoulders when that burden is not yours."

"But the burden is mine," protested Obi-Wan. "I couldn't save them, anyone—not Padmé, not Satine—"

Qui-Gon pulled back to stare at him. "Satine Kryze?" He sounded surprised, like the news of the Duchess of Mandalore's murder hadn't made it to Jedha.

"I disobeyed the Council to rescue her," Obi-Wan admitted. He had kept everything but the most basic events out of his report, but the story thrummed in his veins, begging to be released. "Maul had taken over Death Watch, split them into factions, seized Mandalore. He surprised me, overpowered me. Shot down our ship. He wanted to torment me. Maul killed Satine while I watched. She told me she loved me, that she'd always loved me. I held her in my arms and she died."

Qui-Gon's face was blurry, but Obi-Wan saw heartsick sympathy. "I'm so sorry," he whispered. "I'm so, so sorry, Ben. I know what she meant to you."

"She was the first person I ever loved."

A gentle thumb wiped Obi-Wan's cheek. "I know."

"I wanted to kill Maul with my hands around his neck. I wanted to choke the life from him. I wanted him to die in agony, to have my revenge. I was so close, Qui, to giving in."

"I know." Qui-Gon skimmed his hands down Obi-Wan's bare arms and grabbed Obi-Wan's fingers, squeezing so hard it was almost painful. "You're a stronger man than I was," Qui-Gon rumbled.

"No." Obi-Wan stared at their hands, joined in his lap.

"Tahl's death nearly undid me, but for you. I needed you to haul me out of the dark, but you did that for yourself." Qui-Gon bent his head and pressed his lips against Obi-Wan's knuckles. "I've told you before, but I'll tell you again: I am so proud of you."

"You shouldn't be," protested Obi-Wan. "The people who've died, the planets devastated, all because—"

Qui-Gon shook his head slowly. His eyes were bright. "I'm proud of you because you are a good man, my Obi-Wan."

An iron fist squeezed Obi-Wan's heart. A good man. What good man blinded himself to his brother's descent into darkness? He couldn't breathe. His words were a choked gasp. "How do you know?"

"Because you don't know how to be anything else."

Simple words, spoken plainly, broke some part of Obi-Wan's defences. He curled over their joined hands, pressing his forehead into his knees, while silent sobs wracked his body. Qui-Gon's hair tickled Obi-Wan's cheek, and then he was pulled to his feet, engulfed in the warmth of Qui-Gon's embrace. Obi-Wan sagged against Qui-Gon's chest, unable to even out his breathing or stop trembling. Qui-Gon gathered him closer and rested his cheek on the top of Obi-Wan's head.

For the first time since Utapau, Obi-Wan felt safe. "I'm so sorry," he whispered, an apology he could never give to those who deserved it.

Qui-Gon ducked his head and kissed Obi-Wan's forehead. "Satine forgives you," murmured Qui-Gon against Obi-Wan's skin. "If she loved you as much as I love you, then she forgives you a hundred times over."

Exhaling shakily, Obi-Wan rose on his toes and pressed his lips against Qui-Gon's, brief and dry. Qui-Gon gave him a tiny smile and put his hand behind Obi-Wan's head, guiding him back against Qui-Gon's sternum.

Obi-Wan closed his eyes and let himself be safe for a while longer.

 

 

Chapter Text

My sister

What made you fall from grace?

I'm sorry I was not there to catch you

O' Sister, City and Colour

 

Padmé grinned and held up a scarf. "This is the perfect colour for you."

Ahsoka squinted at the filmy, deep blue fabric. "Where would I ever wear that? I'm a Jedi. My next appointment is a Republic cruiser, not a ballroom."

"Who says you can't look nice and cut up battle droids?" Padmé's smile widened. "I want you to have it, Ahsoka, and I don't want to hear any lines about Jedi humility."

Running her fingers over the scarf, Ahsoka shrugged. It was delicate, like someone had woven together spiderwebs. "Why don't you hang onto it for me? I'll just wreck it, or someone will use it to clean their blaster."

Padmé's face contorted into a moue of disgust. "Well, we can't have that. Have a cookie."

Ahsoka grabbed a deep yellow sable biscuit and shoved it into her mouth. "They're crumbly. Kinda like…dissolving sand?"

"If I put any others out, Anakin eats them all before anyone else gets any. Obi-Wan was quite cross that the cookies were gone before I had the tea served the last time they visited." Together, they giggled, but then Padmé sighed. "You know what we're going to do when all of this is over?"

Ahsoka stopped chewing and opened her mouth to reply, but closed it again when she remembered her manners—less important around the clones, but Padmé had a way of making Ahsoka want to act more civilized. "Hmm?"

"I'm going to kidnap you all—you, and Obi-Wan, and Anakin—and we're going to spend two entire tendays at my family's villa in the Lake District. No comms, no HoloNet, no Senate, no High Council. We'll swim in the lake, and take lots of naps, and have a picnic in the hills, and lounge around and read novels with absolutely no informative or educational value. At night we can lay on the dock and watch the aurora dance over the stars." Padmé's smile turned wistful. "It's been too long since I've been to Varykino, and I think we've all earned a vacation."

"Master Obi-Wan would hate that," replied Ahsoka. "Everyone always says that Master can't sit still, but have you ever seen Obi-Wan climbing the walls in the Halls of Healing?"

"If he gets a bit punchy, we'll just throw him in the lake," laughed Padmé.

 

Naboo was a beautiful world, even from orbit—the crowning jewel of the vast, unremarkable Chommell sector. Unpolluted and sparsely inhabited, the pristine planet was as inviting as ripe fruit hanging from a branch. Padmé had spoken often of her homeworld's seas of grass and wildflowers, of knife-edged mountains and rolling foothills, of the winds that could melt the winter's snow in a single afternoon, of the turquoise western ocean.

But of all the wonders of her world, Padmé had loved her city of waterfalls and green copper domes best. The noon sun glinted off the newer roofs, replaced after the Trade Federation invasion and not yet weathered, as Ahsoka piloted the Banshee into the spaceport on the city outskirts. The capital city of Naboo was wealthy and well-organized, and the space port reflected that reality; a groundcrew droid with lit signal flares guided her into a properly-sized and clearly-marked berth.

An automated message popped up onto the external comms screen. Welcome to Theed SpacePort! When you are ready to disembark, please have your identity cards and all transportation and/or cargo permits ready for inspection by the Naboo Port Authority. If you do not have an identity card, please present yourself immediately to a NPA officer. If you intend to claim refugee status, please make your claim at the Naboo Immigration and Refugee Office situated in office 2-Aurek.

"Kark," muttered Ahsoka as she began the ship's shutdown sequence. Over her shoulder, she hollered, "Asa! ID cards!"

Asajj didn't shout a reply, but Ahsoka felt a particularly irritated burst in the Force. As she spooled down the sublight engines and set the environmental controls to take in fresh atmosphere, Asajj appeared in the cockpit. "Here you are, Ashla ," she said drolly, holding out a slim, rectangular 'plast with a host of fake information encrypted on the chip. "Hey, is this your real birthday?"

Ahsoka snagged the identity card and pocketed it. "One day earlier," she replied.

"You're not the sneakiest tooka in the litter," noted Asajj with a smirk.

"Easier to cover a slip of one day than an entirely wrong birthday," retorted Ahsoka. She put on her most innocent face and giggled at Asajj. "Oh, silly me, I meant the eleventh, not the twelfth. Who gets their own birthday wrong, huh?"

Asajj stared at her, her lips parted, before shaking her head slightly. "I stand corrected."

"What fake birthday did you pick?" asked Ahsoka, craning her neck to catch the numbers engraved on the 'plast.

"Thirty-fifth of the tenth month," replied Asajj.

"Easy to remember," Ahsoka mused as she turned back to the console and completed the engine shutoff sequence. "What's your real birthday? I feel bad that I've never asked."

When Asajj didn't answer, Ahsoka glanced over her shoulder to find the Dathomiri staring, seemingly at nothing, out the transparency. "I don't know," murmured Asajj. "It…it was never important. I'm twenty-two, I think."

Ahsoka swallowed her sadness; Asajj didn't want it. "You think?"

"I'm about seventy percent sure."

"And you were the one teasing Obi-Wan about having a baby face?" The joke worked, to Ahsoka's relief; Asajj tore her unfocused gaze away and grinned at Ahsoka.

"It's weird, seeing his chin."

"Agreed." Ahsoka slapped the console and pushed herself out of the pilot's seat. "Time to be Ashla. Go brush your hair, Enitan."

 

Weirder than Obi-Wan's bare chin was Obi-Wan wearing civilian togs; Ahsoka couldn't remember ever seeing him in anything other than his Jedi uniform, sometimes covered with pieces of battered beskar'gam. In perfectly plain trousers, a blue shirt that reminded her of Coruscant's washed out sky, and a battered leather pilot's jacket, he looked…unremarkable. The dark circles beneath his eyes had faded slightly, and he smiled thinly at her as she entered the cargo bay, but nothing had changed in the Force.

He looked like Obi-Wan Kenobi, but darkness was eating him from the inside.

"You don't want to go as a Guardian?" she asked Qui-Gon, who wore equally worn and boring clothes.

Qui-Gon shook his head, and the bound knot of hair at the back of his head wiggled with the motion. "It would draw far more attention and questions here than it would in the Terrabe sector, and I'd prefer to blend in as much as I can."

"Hard to do when you're as tall as a Wookiee," came Asajj's barb as she stepped into the cargo bay.

Qui-Gon snorted. "Story of my life."

Ahsoka blinked in surprise. The dark tattoos that ran from the corners of Asajj's mouth to her jaw, giving the impression of a constant frown, had vanished along with every speck of eye makeup. Her white bangs hung in her eyes, brushing against her eyelashes. As Asajj stepped closer, Ahsoka noticed Obi-Wan's eyes widen in obvious shock.

Now who has the baby face? Ahsoka let the thought slip through her shields, and Asajj glowered at her.

"What did you do?" Ahsoka said instead, gesturing to her own face.

"I remembered the rules of fake identities, which includes not looking like your actual self," retorted Asajj as she pulled a white stick of stage makeup from her pocket. Upon closer inspection, the tattoos had been carefully covered up. "Turn."

Obediently, Ahsoka faced Asajj and presented her cheek; Asajj set to work drawing lines to extend Ahsoka's natural markings. The greasy makeup pulled at her skin, but Asajj's fingers holding her jaw steady were gentle. "Tell me you two have ID cards," Ahsoka asked the men.

Qui-Gon produced his from his pocket. "It's no longer linked to my file in the Temple Archives, but it does have my real name."

"I guess that'll do for now, unless you have a warrant out on you?"

Qui-Gon's face was studiously blank. "Not in this system."

"There's a story I'll be needing later. Obi-Wan?" said Ahsoka, which earned her a warning tap of Asajj's index finger against her cheek.

"Stop wiggling."

"It's, ah, at the bottom of a lake on Utapau," admitted Obi-Wan.

Asajj stopped drawing and twisted her mouth in annoyance. "Good job."

Obi-Wan pressed his mouth into a flat line. "As if you've never lost something in a fight?"

Asajj carefully tilted Ahsoka's jaw so she could start drawing on the other cheek and bared her teeth in amusement. " My pockets have proper closures and I don't leave my cloaks strewn across the galaxy because of the aesthetic."

“No, you just threw them at me, slow and obvious, in a lame attempt to catch me off guard.”

Ahsoka decided to intervene. "Children," she said warningly, "play nice." That earned her a glare from both Obi-Wan and Asajj, while Qui-Gon coughed into his fist. "We need to get Obi-Wan a fake ID card."

"And we need to gather intelligence," added Qui-Gon. "We need to know what the local mood is, and whether it's safe for us to make the necessary inquiries."

"I'm certain Ahsoka and I can ferret out a forger," Obi-Wan said.

"Uh, I don't know if that's the best plan," said Ahsoka slowly. At his raised eyebrow, she grimaced, and Asajj hissed at her to stay still. "It's just, we're trying to go unrecognized. You and I were on Naboo during the Blue Shadow plague. Beyond that, we made every HoloNet news feed with Naboo's favourite daughter practically every tenday. Alone, people might not look twice, might dismiss someone who reminds them of General Kenobi or Commander Tano, but together? Together, people put two and two together and come up with four."

Obi-Wan looked on the verge of protest, but Qui-Gon nodded. "In that same vein, you and I are not unknown in Theed. You look far more like your younger self at the moment, and I stick out," the former Jedi Master rumbled, motioning above his head. "I hate to sound boastful, but I doubt there are many Naboo who lived through the Blockade who don't remember us enough to jeopardize our anonymity."

"Wonderful," muttered Asajj under her breath.

"Very well," said Obi-Wan tightly.

Getting through the Port Authority held only a moment of trepidation as Ahsoka used the Force to persuade the young man that he'd already seen and given back Obi-Wan's identity card. The Naboo paused, looked at the array of cards in his hands, and nodded. "I've already given back his card," answered the young man, his face a little slack as he handed the identity cards back to Ahsoka. "Enjoy your stay in Theed, miss."

Together, the four walked out of the space port and into the clean, bright streets of Theed. Ahsoka took a deep breath, enjoying the unique atmospheric mix that always held a tang of salt and just the right amount of ozone. Shining at its zenith, the Naboo sun warmed her skin. Stone arches, hanging gardens, and delicate copper domes surrounded them, beckoning them to wander the streets. People hurried past them, carrying shopping or corralling children without a second look at the new arrivals. Qui-Gon ducked his head and pitched his voice low. "Meet back at the ship in three hours and we'll see where we're at."

Obi-Wan nodded, his face blank as if he were facing an executioner. "Three hours."

"Come on, Kenobi, let's get a drink." Asajj walked away, leaving Obi-Wan to turn plaintively to his companions.

"Really?" he sighed.

"Really," replied Ahsoka. "You managed not to murder each other after that whole Maul and Savage thing, so try a bit of that."

The Jedi stilled so completely that Ahsoka exchanged a confused look with Qui-Gon. Without another word, Obi-Wan spun on his heel and hurried after Asajj.

"What the fuck?" breathed Ahsoka, ignoring the disapproving look from Qui-Gon.

"We've been standing here too long," Qui-Gon murmured.

Together, Ahsoka and Qui-Gon meandered through the streets of Theed, two off-worlders playing tourist now that the war was finally over. "I know someone who might get us in touch with the Naberries," said Ahsoka as she pretended to admire a riotous flower garden. "Did you ever meet Padmé's bodyguard?"

"Sabé?" The surprise in Qui-Gon’s voice clashed with the amused smile playing on his lips.

"Oh, you know her, then."

"I'd know Sabé from a Queen on the ground," replied Qui-Gon, his secretive smile widening. At her querying frown, he waved her off. "Never mind, it was a long time ago. How do we get in touch with her?"

"We could contact her office, find out if she's on-world, leave a discreet message?" suggested Ahsoka, but Qui-Gon was already shaking his head.

"Given recent events, she'll either be swamped with messages and Senatorial procedures for transferring Padmé's files to the new Senator—probably a representative filling in until the Chommell Sector can hold new elections."

"If Palpatine allows new elections," retorted Ahsoka darkly.

Any remaining amusement vanished from Qui-Gon's face. "Indeed. In any case, I suggest we be overly cautious in contacting Sabé through official channels. We don't want any record of us ever being here."

They walked in silence for a few minutes while Ahsoka thought furiously. She could burst into buildings, sneak through war zones, escape over rooftops in the rain, but all of that had been easy knowing she had lightsabers and clones and two Jedi Masters to back her up. Now she needed to remember she wasn’t a Jedi anymore—and remember she could be a little more…disreputable.

"The War Bureau," she replied. He made a motion with his hand for her to elaborate. "It was a government office set up on Republic worlds to keep track of civilian issues. You know, making sure people got their ration cards, processing internally-displaced persons—but not off-world refugees, that was a different department."

"Bureaucracy. Such a joy."

"Kept people employed, I guess. But the War Bureau also had access to transport logs and vital statistics, so you couldn't claim rations if you were off-world or anything." The narrow street opened abruptly into an airy square with a copper sculpture of an ancient Queen of Naboo at the centre. The elaborately cast headdress reminded Ahsoka of a holopic she'd seen of Padmé from before her time as a Senator: regal and untouchable in her power. A public computer terminal, surrounded by neatly-trimmed trailing flowers, flickered on the wall on the far side of the square. Ahsoka made a beeline for the computer and punched in a simple query. "At least, that's how they advertised it."

"They were keeping tabs on the population," said Qui-Gon with a tiny frown.

"Not at all suspicious," Ahsoka replied wryly, "but maybe we can use it to our advantage, get some information that isn't…public. Maybe pay Sabé a visit at home."

As Ahsoka memorized the address on the screen, she noticed Qui-Gon watching her. When she lifted her brow at him, he said, "I wish I could introduce you to my friend Dex. He'd adore you."

She grinned at the memory of the Besalisk's greasy hugs and greasier fried potatoes. Dex would be fine on Coruscant; he could take care of himself better than most. "I’ve met him. He told me I was too sneaky to be Obi-Wan's grand-Padawan."

His shields might have been tight, giving no hint of his emotions in the Force, but he reached out and squeezed her shoulder. She relaxed into the simple touch, acknowledging she wasn't anyone's Padawan anymore, that Ahsoka had worth as herself. "I think you're sneaky enough for me," Qui-Gon said with an encouraging smile, "but now you have to prove it."

 

The signs of mourning appeared more often the closer they came to the city centre. Ahsoka found herself counting the patios draped in black cloth—cheap broadcloth closer to the spaceport became thick velvet in the tall homes of the rich. The majority of people they passed wore black sashes over their clothes.

It would look odd for an outsider to wear a sash, no matter how much she wanted to show her respect.

"There are fewer people this way," murmured Qui-Gon, his hand brushing against her shoulder. She let him lead her out of the press of the crowd, relieved when she could smell the salt again instead of human bodies.

Salt and flowers, sickly sweet with decay.

Ahsoka stooped, plucking a white petal with brown, curling edges from the ground, and took in the wide boulevard. She'd seen this same place on the HoloNet feed, illuminated at dusk with thousands of lanterns held in silence as a carriage drew Padmé Naberrie Amidala through the streets of her beloved city one final time.

She should have been there, paying her final respects, or before, protecting her friend from harm. A bubble of anger mixed with grief filled her— how could Anakin let this happen , she was his wife, where was he—

Qui-Gon's broad hands engulfed hers, gentle and grounding. "I'm so sorry," he whispered. "Padmé was a remarkable person, and I was honoured to know her."

"She should be alive," sniffled Ahsoka. "She should still be fighting for the Republic and loving her baby."

Qui-Gon squeezed her hands between his. "Yes, she should be."

He was patient as she blinked back her emotions and took a steadying breath. Together, they walked down the boulevard, tracing Padmé's last path in heavy silence, equal parts reverence and unease.

 

The War Bureau was a cramped office on the second floor of a building faced with newer unblemished stone, a legacy of the Trade Federation. The sign next to the door was handwritten on flimsi, taped to a wall responsible for the strong smell of fresh paint. Ahsoka and Qui-Gon waited for an eternity on a pair of hard, moulded seats bolted to the hallway floor, ignoring and being ignored by the old man pacing the hall and the harried woman trying to keep two toddlers quiet, until their ticket number appeared on the display over the door.

"I've got this," Ahsoka murmured as they stepped over the threshold.

A middle-aged woman with grey-tinged curls and a harassed air motioned for them to sit in the pair of chairs in front of her desk. "Sorry for the smell," she said by way of greeting. "We only moved in here a few days ago, as if we don't need the space now that the war's over. Ration cards acting up? Everyone in here today has had the same problem."

"Uh, no," replied Ahsoka, glancing at the name plate on the desk. "I was hoping you could help me find someone, Renna."

"You'll have to go to the refugee office for that," said the woman, pursing her lips.

"She's not a refugee, she's a Naboo citizen," explained Ahsoka, trying to get out the words before the woman dismissed her entirely. "You see, we met when I was working in the Senate intern program, and she started there when Senator Amidala was elected. She told me that if I was ever on Naboo that I should look her up, say hi, go for midmeal, that kind of thing."

Ahsoka forced her smile to stay static as Renna started at the name drop. "You worked for the Senator?"

"Me? Oh, no, I was the intern for Senator Taas of Shili, obviously," chuckled Ahsoka, gesturing to her lek . "My friend, Sabé Namarata, worked for Senator Amidala."

Renna's face blanked. Kark . "I'm sorry, miss, but I can't give out personal information like that. You understand. With the war ending, everything's a bit topsy-turvy right now—"

Time to gamble. "Are you sure? I'm not sure how else to get ahold of her; she's not in the public directory because of her job, and I'm only on-planet for a day or so—"

"I'm really very sorry," Renna said briskly, standing up from her desk in a clear dismissal. "There are protocols."

Ahsoka pursed her lips and prepared to bring the Force to bear, but Qui-Gon's heavy hand landed on her shoulder and squeezed in warning. "Thank you for your time," he said to Renna. "Let's go back to the ship. Arnie's probably getting worried," he said to Ahsoka before hustling her out of the office.

"Why'd you stop me?" she hissed as they hurried down the stairs to the street level. "We could have gotten what we needed!"

"Did you see the security camera on her desk?" he asked calmly.

Ahsoka stopped on the threshold, trying to remember. "No," she admitted.

"Our faces have been recorded. If they had also recorded us compelling that woman, that's more than enough to mark us as Jedi to the authorities."

"It's one person!" argued Ahsoka, bristling at the caution that seemed to have overtaken him. "You don't want to get caught? Then let's be quick about it!"

Anakin would have puffed up, argued with her until he overruled her and got his way, and Obi-Wan would have lectured at length about how she had much to learn; Qui-Gon merely stood, letting no hint of his true thoughts appear on his face. A moment of silence, as if he was waiting to ensure she was done, and he said, "This is the kind of bureaucracy that gets you caught. There are logs when someone like her accesses records. There's always a nosy supervisor looking for irregularities to hunt down, or someone trying to get ahead by ratting out their co-worker, or a notification for accessing information beyond her security clearance."

Embarrassed for not considering any of these things, Ahsoka couldn't meet his eyes. "I-I didn't realize."

Qui-Gon simply shrugged. "I was a diplomat for a very long time, Ahsoka. My life revolved around bureaucracy, from low-level interns to senior civil servants and even planetary rulers. You never got that experience, and it's not your fault. Now you know something you didn't know before, and you'll remember it."

They stepped into the sun-baked street in front of the War Bureau and began retracing their steps back to the space port. Qui-Gon's gentle rebuke irritated her like sand under her skin, reminding her uncomfortably of all the times she'd been corrected as an apprentice. It shouldn't bother her, he had taught her something important, and yet— "I wish you would tell me what we're really doing here," Ahsoka said, her voice pitched for his ears only. "I can't be of more help if I'm in the dark."

"I told you, I'm trying to keep you safe," he replied, but he sounded troubled.

"None of us is safe anymore," she hissed. "If you're investigating Padmé's death, I deserve to know. She was my friend, Qui-Gon, the only person who cared about me for my own self, not because I was Anakin's apprentice. She was the only person who didn't betray me, and I want to know what happened to her. "

Qui-Gon paused and closed his eyes. "Ahsoka—"

"I swear to all the little Force gods I will—"

"What? Push me out an airlock?" The growling edge of his voice surprised her. This particular secret was truly weighing on him, it would seem.

"I was going to say beg, but I have a nice airlock on the ship if you'd prefer." Ahsoka stepped a little closer, lifting her chin to look him in the eyes. She steeled herself for a low blow. "Tell me. Let me help you, because I don't think Obi-Wan's capable of helping anyone, including himself."

Qui-Gon was silent, contemplative, for a long moment. "We're going to be late for our rendezvous. Let's get back to the ship," he said quietly.

"Qui-Gon—"

"The ship, Ahsoka." At her indignant expression, he bent his head close and added, "Not here."

 

Their return to the space port seemed quicker; intent on reaching the ship, Ahsoka refused to pretend to admire the architecture or be swayed by market stalls hawking souvenirs. She ducked around Naboo citizens, keeping tabs on Qui-Gon through his Force-signature rather than turning her head to look for him towering over the crowd, which should have thinned as they approached the outskirts of Theed. Instead, Ahsoka found herself slowing, fighting through knots of people milling in the street. A buzz of interest charged the air. Ahsoka stood on her tiptoes to catch a glimpse of what was going on—

Shiny white 'plast glinted in the sun, and she slammed her heels down so hard her teeth clacked together. Ahsoka felt Qui-Gon sidle up next to her, and she muttered, "Clone troopers."

Instantly, Qui-Gon seemed to shrink a few inches; his tall bearing became poor posture. "Are they closing the port?" he asked quietly.

A woman with tight black curls looked over her shoulder at them. "There was a kerfuffle at the spacer's tavern around the corner," she confided, looking entirely too gleeful at the gossip. "I heard the Royal Security Forces arrested a Jedi traitor!"

Ahsoka's heart leapt into her throat as she cast her senses outward, searching. There was no sign of Asajj, but her ability to sense others at long distance was weak, maybe everything was fine—

"Fuck," breathed Qui-Gon, so quietly that not even the woman in front of them reacted.

Ahsoka buried her face in her hands and groaned.

Chapter Text

They have half of us tied and
Half of us in chains
We're all covering our eyes and
Covering our mouths just the same

Tearing at the Seams , Nathaniel Rateliff and the Nightsweats


Making a scene was out of the question, so Obi-Wan gritted his teeth and wove through the crowd without taking his eyes off the shock of white hair glinting in the sunlight. Ventress never glanced back to see if he was following.

Ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. He should be on his way to Tatooine, not roaming Naboo with Asajj Ventress, wasting time that Luke might not have.

No, Luke was safe on Jedha. Qui-Gon had promised , and Obi-Wan had agreed, so he would make this temporary truce with Ventress work. For Luke's sake.

You managed not to murder each other after that whole Maul and Savage thing, so try a bit of that. Ahsoka's words rattled around his skull, haunting. None of that had been real. His recollection of those events was suspect; Vokara had told him the injury to his brain would have unknown effects on his memories, that the holes would never be filled—but somehow Ahsoka knew? She hadn't been there, and that he was sure of.

You were someone's Padawan.

Fuck off, Kenobi, before I give you another concussion .

Ventress slipped out of the crowd and ducked into a bland doorway. Muttering apologies as he cut in front of an old man and his dog, Obi-Wan followed her into a dim spacer's cantina. The sour smell of spilled alcohol mixed with the clinging odour of recycled ship's air and unwashed boots.

Ventress eyed his wrinkled nose and scoffed. "Never been in a dive bar before?"

"You'd be surprised," he retorted.

"Yeah, you probably have one drink to keep your cover and then convince people to give up death sticks and glitter stim. What fun you must be." Ventress rolled her eyes and made a beeline for the bar before he could argue.

Obi-Wan exhaled forcefully through his nose. She wasn't trying to kill him. He could endure this. Luke was counting on him.

The Naboo bartender, short and broad, narrowed his eyes at them as he approached. Ventress slid a Republic credit chip towards him. "A Tevraki whiskey," she said lightly, "if you have it."

The bartender stared at her, unblinking, as he wiped the inside of a glass with a rumpled dishtowel. Obi-Wan cleared his throat, stealing attention away from Ventress, who shifted the weight on her soles like she was preparing to leap over the bar in indignation. "My business partner would like a drink," he said politely.

"And what business would that be? Babysitting?" replied the bartender, dry as dust.

Ventress laughed. It sounded almost real, which made him deeply uncomfortable. Ventress didn't laugh, she taunted. "Funny," she said, wagging her finger at the bartender. "I had a good night's sleep. Does wonders."

"So do birthdays," replied the bartender, still unimpressed behind his enormous moustache.

Ventress' fake amusement was so convincing that Obi-Wan caught himself before he smiled; he pressed his molars together in irritation at himself as she dug around the inside pocket of her worn, form-fitting jacket. "Here. Is that enough birthdays for you?"

The bartender leaned over the narrow bar, squinting at the writing engraved on the ident card in her hand. "You've got a good forger, I'll give you that," he muttered before ducking behind the bar and clinking glassware. When he straightened, he poured a finger's width of light amber liquid into a square tumbler and pushed it towards Ventress.

The former Sith assassin lifted the glass in a wry toast. "I'll bet yours is even better," she purred before knocking back the contents in a single swallow. Another credit chip appeared from her pocket, and she slid it across the bar until it clinked against the empty glass. "My business partner here has misplaced his ident card, and those damned clones won't let us leave without it. We're…in a bit of a hurry. Word is the new Empire is blockading the Enarc Run in the next tenday."

Obi-Wan forced himself to stay perfectly still. Surely she didn't just outright ask for a fake identity card? Insanity, this was pure insanity—

The bartender eyed Obi-Wan openly, stared hard at Ventress once more, then smoothed his thumb and fingers over his moustache. "There." He inclined his head at the far corner, poorly lit and out of sight of the entrance, and picked up the credit. "Thanks for the tip."

Ventress nodded and waited for the bartender to go back to his glassware polishing before murmuring, "Would you fucking relax? You look like a Corellian narco on his first sting."

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry, I didn't realize we could just waltz into the nearest cantina and ask for a fake ID," he hissed back.

"They appreciate the straightforwardness. They're not pirates."

Ventress walked away, forcing him to follow her into the dark corner. She slid into a booth with a flickering glow lamp hanging over the table. When Obi-Wan tried to sit on the opposite bench, her hand shot out and grabbed his forearm. "No, here," she corrected, tugging him towards her.

Obi-Wan wrenched his arm away and perched on the edge of the bench. A fleeting expression crossed her face, something odd, unexpected—hurt?

You were someone's Padawan. The same expression on a different Asajj Ventress, an inexplicably compassionate Ventress, clumsily trying to heal him with the Force. "Were…were we in an escape pod together?" he blurted out, diplomatic training forgotten.

Ventress stared at him. Ice blue eyes flicked over him, judging, weighing. "You'd be dead," she said blandly.

Obi-Wan's memory was full of holes, and Ventress lied as easily as breathing, but Ahsoka had no reason to dissemble. He needed to know what had happened between them, between Maul coaxing a flame of anger out of the past and red's not my colour and the possibility of thank you, Obi-Wan

A slight, middle-aged woman with greying black hair pulled neatly in a bun slid into the seat across from them. "What exactly do you need?" she asked as if discussing the weather.

Ventress snorted. "No pleasantries, then?"

The woman had a cheerful, round face that reminded Obi-Wan of a crèchemaster he'd had as a child. "That's what Tevis was for," she replied with a smile, flicking her eyes towards the bar. "I prefer to be efficient."

"Told you," Ventress muttered under her breath.

"I need—" Obi-Wan began, but Ventress reached under the table and jammed her thumb into the side of his knee. He bit his tongue to stop his yelp.

"Shut up," Ventress said evenly without taking her gaze off the forger. "A complete identity card, from scratch."

The woman nodded, pulling a data pad and stylus from her purse. "Linked health records?"

"Up-to-date Mid-Rim vaccinations is fine."

Scribbling on her data pad, the woman clucked her tongue. "Name?" When no one answered, she glanced up. "You have to give me a name, honey."

"Ben," Obi-Wan said, his voice suddenly hoarse.

The forger's lips twisted into a sympathetic frown. "It's easier if you have a surname. There are only a few worlds where humans only have one name. A partner? A friend?"

"Jinn," said Ventress.

The thought of being known as Ben Jinn hurt him so unexpectedly that he shook his head mutely. On some AgriCorps worlds, people took their spouse's names; he'd be damned before he admitted that he'd thought of it, fantasized about marrying Qui-Gon and wearing his name for all to see. Obi-Wan glared at Ventress, his fingers curling into fists underneath the table, and she smirked without looking at him.

The forger was already scribbling on her data pad. "Date of birth? Homeworld?"

Obi-Wan gave her his real birthday and lied about being born on Coruscant. The forger hummed to herself as she pulled a holorecorder from her purse, steadied her elbows on the table, and took a holo of him. "That should do it, honey," she said cheerily. "Now, as to the matter of payment? I'm happy to take seven thousand now, and three more on delivery. No more than seventy percent in credits, and the rest can be any other currency. If you pay in aurodium crystals, I'll give you a ten percent discount."

With a serious nod, Obi-Wan turned his expectant gaze to Ventress, who scoffed and curled her lip in disgust. "Are you fucking serious?"

"I'm not a successful businessperson like yourself," he replied, revelling in her annoyance.

"I'm gonna make you scrub the exhaust manifolds," she grumbled as she rummaged through her pocket and fished out a high-value credit chip. "How long is this going to take?"

The forger took the chip from Ventress' hand and inspected it in the flickering light. "Not long. A couple of hours."

"Berth 24 in the space port," Ventress said, "You meet us there."

The credit chip and the holorecorder disappeared into the forger's large purse. "Sure thing. A pleasure doing business with you." She slid off the bench and disappeared into the darkness of the cantina.

"You just happen to have seven thousand credits?" asked Obi-Wan in surprise. "Real credits, not counterfeit?"

"It's Ahsoka's money. She insisted on spending it on you," replied Ventress sourly. Obi-Wan decided he didn't want to know how Ahsoka had earned that much money; it was an astronomical sum compared to a Jedi's stipend. "Besides, you never try to bilk an identity forger. They can make your life hell. What the fuck did they teach you at your fancy Temple, anyway?"

"Manners," retorted Obi-Wan.

"Oh, how useful," Ventress replied, then an odd expression flickered over her face.

"What?"

"Something's wrong," she murmured as someone slid into the bench across from them.

"Hello, General Kenobi." The figure leaned forward, letting the sputtering light illuminate tightly-cropped curls that had gone from black to iron grey and throw shadows over a dark, hard-planed face.

Panic rose in his throat as Obi-Wan racked his brain to identify the man and felt Ventress slump next to him; his hand went for a lightsaber that no longer hung from his belt.

He barely registered the crackle of a stun baton before pain whited out his vision.

 

Someone cleared his throat, and Obi-Wan jerked awake. Every muscle in his body ached. The smooth grey floor was cool against his cheek. Swallowing a groan, he pushed himself off the floor and swayed to his feet.

Smooth floor, smooth walls, a single low bench, no window. His heart sank. A holding cell.

The throat cleared again, and Obi-Wan managed to turn towards the sound. The man from the cantina stood at the bars of the cell, his hands tucked behind his back. He wore a dull copper-coloured uniform that imitated armour and an expression of vast disapproval that tickled something in Obi-Wan's memory—"Captain Panaka," he breathed.

"Colonel, now," replied Panaka, his voice flat. "It would seem we've both been promoted since last we met, General."

"Was the stun baton really necessary?" replied Obi-Wan, gingerly pressing his fingers against his neck and immediately regretting it. He winced at the lance of pain throbbing down into his shoulder.

"I couldn't take the risk of you using your Jedi powers on anyone," Panaka said.

Not like that was a possibility. "I would have been pleased to catch up on old times," said Obi-Wan, forcing his voice to stay light. "Though I wouldn't call the Blockade happier times."

A shadow flickered over Panaka's face. "I didn't bring you here to chat."

Obi-Wan gave him a tight, wry smile. "Then why am I here, Colonel?"

Panaka eyed him up and down, then pulled a small datapad out of his pocket. "Would you like me to read the list of charges?"

"Will it take long? I have some business to attend to later this afternoon."

"I'm afraid your business will be waiting for some time, General Kenobi," replied Panaka with a toothy smile that did not reach his eyes.

"That is unfortunate. I'll be charged interest." Obi-Wan managed to sound bored as he catalogued his senses, dulled as they were without the Force. The cell was meticulously clean, well-lit, with the faint aroma of salt and copper and flowers that flooded his mind with memories of his last mission as a Padawan.

The Theed Palace, home to the Queen of Naboo.

"Given your past service to Naboo," said Panaka, "I've decided to give you this one opportunity to explain."

Obi-Wan's mind raced; explain what? The annihilation of the Jedi Order? The Sith twisting and using democracy to make himself supreme? When he didn't answer, Panaka spat out, "Tell me why you're harbouring a war criminal, Master Jedi. Why are you in the company of Asajj Ventress, the Butcher of Ohma-D'un?"

Ohma-D'un, Naboo's moon-turned-graveyard. One horrific event buried at the bottom of endless horrific events; Obi-Wan made the mistake of closing his eyes, only to remember the stench of decaying Gungan bodies as they rose from the ground to fight, puppets of the dark side after the genocide wrought by poison gas. That had been the first time Ventress, Darth Tyrannus' acolyte, had appeared on the stage of war, the first time he had fought her to a stalemate.

He could lie his way out of this cell, return to Luke, and never look back. Ventress was a war criminal. She would betray him in a heartbeat if it meant she kept her freedom.

You were someone's Padawan.

Thank you, Obi-Wan.

What kind of Jedi sold out another—even his enemy—to save his own life? His kyber crystal might be cracked, the Force might have abandoned him, but Obi-Wan Kenobi was still a Jedi, even if he became the last Jedi in the galaxy. He would not allow another to suffer; there had already been too much suffering.

He swallowed hard and forced himself to look at Panaka, but did not speak.

Panaka tightened his lips until the blood drained from his skin. "Very well. If you will not answer to me, then you shall answer to the Emperor for your own crimes."

Every drop of blood in Obi-Wan's veins ran cold as Panaka turned on his heel and marched out of sight. "Fuck," he whispered, running his hands through his hair.

A groan filtered through the wall grating, followed by a stream of groggy swearing. Obi-Wan knelt and peered through the panel. The holes were tiny, but he caught the movement of light and shadow. "Ventress?" he called softly.

"That wasn't a dream then," she replied. He heard shifting fabric and the squeak of her boots against the floor, then her voice was clear. "That bastard bartender spiked my drink."

"Imobilin, maybe?"

"Given I can't focus my eyes, he cut it with cheap ryll," she replied. A pause. "And something else."

"What?"

"Whatever it is, I can't feel the Force."

"Inhibitor?" He ran his hands over his arms and legs, searching for any new bumps beneath his clothes that could be a Force-suppression device, and found nothing.

"Chemical," she replied, sounding grumpy. "I assume they dosed you, too?"

He couldn't know for certain, but logic would follow. "Yes."

"Awfully nice jail cell," Ventress noted, her voice a little slurred. "Everything on this planet seems awfully nice. It's suspicious."

"Ryll, you said?" he murmured, wondering how long until that particular narcotic wore off.

Her boot heel squeaked against the floor again. "Yep. I know you never stop thinking, so what's your grand plan for getting out of here before we get ourselves into more trouble?"

Obi-Wan went to stroke his beard and ended up resting his hand on his bare chin. "They know who we are," he admitted softly, ducking his head closer to the grating.

Silence. It stretched and became heavy, until Obi-Wan needed to break it. "Ventress?" No reply, no sound from the other cell. "Asajj?"

The hiss of pneumatic doors opening startled him. Six guards, all wearing the copper uniform of the Naboo Security Services, marched past Obi-Wan's cell. They stopped, out of sight from Obi-Wan's vantage point; the sound of a blaster pinged in his ears, followed by scraping boots and the unmistakable snap of binders. Keeping still to avoid attention, Obi-Wan watched as they dragged the bound and unconscious Ventress past his cell. Their bootsteps vanished with the closing hiss of the cell block door.

"Should have gone to Tatooine." Obi-Wan allowed himself a moment of frustrated sarcasm before closing his eyes to think his way out of the most heavily guarded building on Naboo with Asajj Ventress in tow.

 

The softest of footfalls jarred him out of his deep thoughts hanging on the precipice of getting the damned cell door open. Obi-Wan cracked one eye, expecting to find Panaka glowering at him.

His heart stuck in his throat, cutting off his breath.

She wore a soft, lavender grey cloak, plainly trimmed but expensive and heavy. Her hands were hidden in the fall of her sleeves, held still at her sides the way she did while staring at the Coruscanti skyline or the streak of stars in hyperspace, contemplating solutions to a problem. The hood shadowed her eyes, but the curve of her lips was carved like an impassive statue. Perfect chestnut curls peeked out at her neckline.

When his lungs demanded air, he gasped in a rough, shuddering sob. He lifted his shaking hand to cover his mouth. "Padmé?" he croaked.

Padmé did not move at the sound of her name. She stood like a Jedi Temple Guard, unmoving and inscrutable. An apology broke his voice. "I'm sorry, Padmé. I'm so sorry."

Slowly, she lifted her hands and pushed back the hood. Her voice was flat, as flat and unmoved as it had been when she wore the stark red Scar of Remembrance. "And why is that, Master Kenobi?"

His heart stuttered back to life. Relief and fresh grief flooded through him. "Sabé."

He should have known it was the handmaiden. He should have been able to sense the difference—

"Yes." Still flat. "We have about three minutes before someone realizes I'm in here, and I want some answers."

Obi-Wan heaved himself off the floor and approached the bars. Sabé did not move. "I get the feeling Panaka's not thrilled to have me here."

"He never liked you," replied Sabé bluntly. "Where's the other baby, Master Kenobi?"

It took all of his training to keep the panic lighting up his system from registering on his face. "What do you mean?"

Sabé smiled, and it held no mirth or beauty. "You don't have the time to be obtuse, so I will ask once more before I walk out of here and leave you to Panaka's tender mercies: one of the twins is on Alderaan, so where is the other one?" Perhaps he was too still, too blank-faced, because she shook her head slightly and scoffed. "I spent my entire life training to be underestimated, overlooked. So many assume that also means I'm a karking idiot. Senate aide gossip says Bail and Breha Organa just adopted a baby girl."

"They've been planning to adopt for awhile," replied Obi-Wan carefully. "They took classes last year."

"They just happen to adopt two days after his good friend dies in childbirth?" retorted Sabé with a raised eyebrow. "What odd timing."

"It is as the Force wills," he said, knowing the hollow platitude wouldn't appease her but desperate for more time to think

"And so where did the Force will the other baby?" Frustration threaded into her voice, and she took a step towards him. "I know you're involved somehow. You, and Anakin, and Padmé—it was always you three. We buried Padmé. I prepared her body, Master Kenobi. I know she delivered. There are rumours that Anakin Skywalker died defending the Republic against the Jedi uprising in the Coruscant Temple. Which leaves you, standing in front of me and admitting you know intimate details about Bail Organa’s adoption."

Her deep brown eyes never wavered from his face, but the hard line of her jaw softened. "She's—was—closer to me than family," she said. "Please tell me what happened to her baby, Master Kenobi. Tell me the baby is safe."

Gods, how he wanted to, but he didn't dare. Too many people knew already. "Who do you trust, Sabé?" he murmured.

All the pleading fled her face, and once again he was facing the practiced, blank face of Queen Amidala's impersonator. "At the moment? No one." A muffled chrono alarm beeped, and she pulled the hood back over her hair. "Time's up."

"I can tell you one thing," Obi-Wan said as she turned to leave. Sabé paused but did not look in his direction. "Palpatine is not a friend."

"And you were the last person seen meeting with Padmé Amidala," she retorted. Before she palmed the door control, she added in a low voice, "I don't know what that makes you, Master Kenobi."

His lips moved, but no sound came out when he tried to answer, “Me neither.”

Chapter Text

Anyone who's ever had a heart
Wouldn't turn around and break it
And anyone who's ever played a part
Wouldn't turn around and hate it

Sweet Jane, Cowboy Junkies

 

Qui-Gon's steps slowed as he spotted a figure milling around the cargo bay of the Banshee. He flicked his fingers, motioning for Ahsoka to stay next to him as they approached the stranger. A pleasant-looking middle-aged woman turned a smile on them. "Good afternoon," she said.

"Hello," replied Qui-Gon cautiously. "May I help you with something?"

"We're not taking passengers," Ahsoka said, brusque but not impolite.

"Oh, that's not why I'm here." The woman ducked her head to rummage around a large purse hanging across her body. "This is berth 24, yes? Just making sure I'm in the right spot."

Qui-Gon exchanged a glance with Ahsoka, who looked increasingly impatient. "Yes. And you are…?"

"Making a delivery." The woman pulled a identity card from the depths of her bag with a triumphant noise. "I can't hand it over without the remainder of payment, however."

Qui-Gon caught the first name engraved on the card in stark letters, the rest hidden by a manicured thumb.

"If you're going to give me a nickname, I think you should have one, too," Qui-Gon said, smiling sleepily. It was hard to focus past the fog of the painkillers, but he wanted to be awake. He wanted to be awake for Obi-Wan.

Instead of growing out the awkward Padawan cut, Obi-Wan had shorn it all off to match the stubble apparently destined to become a beard; he rubbed a hand through the soft bristles at the back of his neck and made a face. "Bant always called me Obi when we were younglings."

"We can't have that. You're a man grown." Pride filled his chest, now filled with cloned organs. "A Jedi Knight."

Obi-Wan grinned at that, ducking his head to hide his glee. "Who would have thought?"

"I did, my Obi-Wan." At least, that's what he tried to say; his tongue slipped, too slow and unwieldy thanks to medical grade narcotics. His ears heard a mistake, but Obi-Wan gave him a curious half-smile.

"I think I like that," he murmured, taking Qui-Gon's fingers and squeezing them gently. "You need to sleep."

The thought of slipping into unconsciousness reminded him of being cradled in Obi-Wan's arms, unable to breathe, unable to move. He didn't have to say anything; his panic slipped past his weakened shields, and Obi-Wan's grip tightened. "Sleep, Qui. I'll stay here with you. I promise you won't wake up alone."

"Thank you," whispered Qui-Gon, his eyelids heavy. "Thank you, Ben."

"How much did Ben owe you?" he asked the stranger calmly, concealing the jealous prickliness he felt at the secret name out in the open.

"Three thousand," replied the woman easily, and Ahsoka inhaled sharply. "Non-credit currency."

"Would you excuse us for just a moment?" asked Qui-Gon with a polite tilt of his head. When the woman spread her hands wide in acquiescence, Qui-Gon turned his back to her and whispered to Ahsoka, "I only have Republic credits."

"I have two thousand peggat, but that's everything I've got," she replied. A line of worry appeared on her forehead. "Asajj is usually the money around here."

Qui-Gon sighed. "Not even Arnie's worth three." His scar was aching a little; a change of weather was likely on the horizon. He pressed his hand to his sternum absently, and his fingers caught on the leather cord hanging around his neck. The kyber crystal at the end of the cord caught the light, facets flashing.

Ahsoka's eyes widened. "No, Qui-Gon, that's—"

"It's a physical reminder of a rite of passage," he replied firmly. It was just an object. His commitment to his brothers and sisters, to his understanding of the Force, didn't hinge on a single kyber crystal; it was etched into his bones. "Having it or not having it doesn't change my being a Guardian of the Whills."

The woman cleared her throat, her patience wearing thin. Qui-Gon ducked his head further to look in Ahsoka's big blue eyes. "Obi-Wan needs this," he whispered. "We'll be hamstrung and vulnerable without it, and we'll need actual currency for necessities."

Ahsoka glanced once more at the kyber crystal, her lips tightening, but nodded. "It's yours, not mine," she said.

Qui-Gon slipped the crystal over his head and turned back to the woman, who smiled tightly at him. "If you're not taking credits—"

"I'm not."

He held out his hand and opened his palm, revealing the colourless crystal. "I assume you know what this is, and its value?"

The woman's eyebrows twitched, and Qui-Gon marvelled at her otherwise blank emotions in the Force. She kept a tight rein on her feelings, but her hand reached out. "May I?"

"You'll find it's flawless," replied Qui-Gon, as the woman held the crystal up to the light. "Harvested from Jedha."

The woman hummed to herself, her gaze sharp. "I don't usually deal in kyber, but it's not often that such a fine crystal passes through my hands." The crystal disappeared into her purse, and she placed the identity card in Qui-Gon's hand. She turned as if to leave, then swivelled back, her mouth pulled into a tiny frown. "Your friends are in trouble. I don't want to be involved, I don't want anything traced back to me, but I thought you should know."

"Do you know where they've been taken?" demanded Qui-Gon, alarm rising in his throat.

The woman glanced around, for the first time looking nervous. "Given the arresting officer, probably the palace. I'm sorry, Master Jinn."

Qui-Gon froze at the sound of his name, and the woman took the opportunity to escape; she strode away, her purse flapping against her hip, and didn't look back. Next to him, Ahsoka coiled, as if preparing to run after her. "Let her go," he said.

"How does she know who you are?" she breathed, her eyes never leaving the woman's retreating back.

"The Blockade," he replied, pocketing Obi-Wan's fake identity card. "We were hardly working undercover, and they gave us a parade."

Ahsoka made a face. "How embarrassing."

"You have no idea," agreed Qui-Gon, motioning for Ahsoka to enter the code for the cargo door.

Arnie met them at the top of the cargo ramp, warbling in rapid binary. [You are late!] it complained, twitching its head casing irritably. [I was concerned for your well-being!]

"We're fine," replied Ahsoka as she hit the controls to raise the ramp. "Well, fifty percent of us are."

"If rumours are already flying that they've arrested a Jedi, then we need to find them. Now." Qui-Gon paced the sparring circle, trying to work off the nervous worry gnawing his stomach. He prodded that blank spot in his mind where their old training bond had been. Nothing, just as it had been since Geonosis. Since he'd slammed down his shields and walked away. "We need to get into the palace, find them, and get out before someone contacts the Emperor about a Jedi prisoner."

Ahsoka bit her lip, looking as young as she was. "We don't even have lightsabers," she said softly. An undercurrent of apprehension threaded through the Force.

"No," he replied, "we have each other." Her breath wavered, and he moved to stand in front of her. "What is it, Ahsoka?"

She forced a wan smile upon him. "Can't be harder than breaking in and out of the Citadel, right?"

Qui-Gon's jaw dropped. "You…what?" No one had ever infiltrated the prison designed to hold rogue Jedi—not ever, not in the complex's five hundred year history.

"I'll, ah, tell you later, okay?" Her voice, overly cheerful, had him instantly suspicious and ready to prod for more details, but now was not the time.

"I know exactly one way to sneak into the Palace that doesn't require ascension guns," said Qui-Gon, "but it requires the starfighter hangar to be open. It's hardly the best option."

Ahsoka didn't reply; her gaze had turned inward. Slowly, a real smile crossed her face as she patted Arnie's cracked head casing. "You said I'm sneaky enough for you, right? I think I've got a better idea."

 

The young, blonde woman in a plain grey tunic with copper-coloured piping raised her hand in the air. Her bright, wide smile never faltered. "Good afternoon, everyone! If I could have everyone's attention, please, we'll start the tour!"

[What fun!] cheered Arnie happily. Ahsoka leaned over and quietly shushed him, earning a sharp look from the young woman and a few others in the knot of tourists waiting for their guided tour of the Royal Palace. Qui-Gon smiled apologetically at them all.

"If you'll step this way, our first stop is the grand stair!" the tour guide called, gesturing broadly to the wide marble stairs to the left of the enormous entryway. The cluster of tourists shuffled away, but before Qui-Gon, Ahsoka and Arnie could follow, the blonde swooped in with a suspicious tightness around her green eyes. "We normally have a no-droid policy on our palace tours," she informed them sternly.

"He's taking holos for us, Temna," said Ahsoka, calm and friendly as she checked the woman's name tag. "We're here from the Meadow Sky Charter School on Coruscant?"

Qui-Gon nodded, smiling. "Our students were supposed to join us on a field trip to visit Theed, but with the war, the administration decided to send just us. Lucky for us teachers, eh?" When Temna looked a little bewildered, he pressed on, not giving her the chance to think. "We spoke to someone in the tourism office, and they directed us to palace security, and I talked with a fellow who said it wouldn't be a problem to take holos, since it was for a school—oh, what was his name again?" Qui-Gon snapped his fingers and looked to the ceiling as if desperate to fish out a memory. "Deep voice?"

"Captain Gargi?" suggested Temna, her attention flagging as she eyed the cluster of tourists quickly becoming impatient at the bottom of the grand stair.

Ahsoka sighed with relief. "Yes! Gargi! Did you want to check with him about the holos, or—"

"No, that's fine. We don't go anywhere particularly sensitive." Temna plastered her smile back onto her face and jerked an enthusiastic thumb towards the stairs. "Let's get to it!"

The tour guide hurried to meet the rest of the group. Qui-Gon and Ahsoka followed more slowly, with Arnie trailing behind them. The former Jedi Master leaned down to murmur, "How often do you hijack tour groups in order to commit crimes?"

"Me? Never." Ahsoka's face remained impassive. Qui-Gon raised his eyebrow at her. "Asajj did this to catch a bounty at the Coruscant Xenozoology Museum once."

"That must be a story."

"Yeah, but she's got a whole segue about spice spiders in the middle of it. I guess she learned something while she was there."

Qui-Gon and Ahsoka, with Arnie taking holos with enthusiastic beeps, kept to the back of the tour group as they walked through the palace. By his eye, all the damage done during the Blockade had been repaired. The Palace of Naboo was once again an architectural marvel. Pristine halls with vaulting arches and thick, ornate tapestries gave way to a large, sunny courtyard filled with flowers and a little fountain.

"The fish here in the Courtyard of Air are a tradition started in the reign of the second Queen of Naboo, Kalita. They've been bred here long enough that the Naboo koi is considered its own species, and the silver heart shape at the base of the tail is their unique identifying feature," Temna announced. She wiggled her fingers above the water, and the surface churned as fish swarmed around her hand, eagerly waiting to be fed. "This is the the literal centre of the palace. From here, you can access each wing from the corridor that surrounds the courtyard. Of course, there are places we aren't authorized to go, like the offices for the Naboo Security Services and the Diplomatic Corps, so we'll just wave to them on our way past."

A smattering of chuckles rippled through the group. Qui-Gon smiled, playing the part, but out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of a hooded figure hurrying along the corridor. The angle of the sun kept the person in shadow before they disappeared down one of the hallways that spoked off the courtyard.

Pretending to pay attention to Temna's narration about palace building materials, Qui-Gon murmured, "If I remember correctly, the security offices are at our nine o'clock."

"Time to straggle," replied Ahsoka before approaching the pond and peering closely at the fish.

Qui-Gon wandered to a potted tree a few feet away from the rest of the group. Brushing his fingertips over the soft, flat evergreen leaves, he circled the tall, columnar plant until it blocked him from view. Temna called out, encouraging her tourist ducklings to follow her to the Throne Room. The scuffle of feet and excited murmurs replied. Qui-Gon counted to fifteen before peeking around the tree; Ahsoka was crouched next to the pond, glancing back at him.

They moved as one out of the sunny courtyard and into the corridor, dark and bleached of colour to Qui-Gon's sunstruck eyes. There were no special markings indicating the sensitive nature of this part of the palace. Wearing confidence as his disguise, Qui-Gon strode down the middle of the hall and stretched out with the Force. There must be a computer terminal in an abandoned office around here somewhere—

A tickle of familiarity hit him a second before the flat, low voice rang out behind him. "This isn't part of the tour, Master Jinn."

Next to him, Ahsoka gasped and reached for the blaster she'd left behind on the ship to get past Palace security. Qui-Gon turned, slow and composed. "Hello, Sabé."

Padmé had chosen her decoy well. Even now, years since their deceptions of makeup and acting, Sabé Namarata resembled the late Senator of Naboo so closely it made Qui-Gon uncomfortable. "I didn't expect so many memories today," she murmured.

Ahsoka shrugged, her stance relaxing at the sight of someone she knew. "Hi, Sabé."

Sabé opened her mouth to reply, then stiffened. "In here," she ordered, brooking no argument as she jammed an access code into the nearest door panel. The sound of heavy, booted feet from around the corner spurred Qui-Gon to duck through the threshold. Ahsoka nearly stepped on his heels, and Sabé locked the door behind her. The handmaiden narrowed her eyes at them both. "I just received a message from someone at the War Bureau that a man and a Togruta were asking after me this afternoon, and now you're both here, wandering away from your tour group."

"That was fast," Qui-Gon muttered.

"We don't like it when strangers ask after members of our diplomatic corps," retorted Sabé, voice hard.

"We have a question for you," Ahsoka jumped in, trying to cut the tension with the kind of subtlety Anakin had specialized in.

Sabé's gaze flicked from Ahsoka to Qui-Gon. Her expression was unreadable. "You're sneaking around the Palace to ask me a question."

Ahsoka glanced at him expectantly, a hint of irritation in her eyes at being kept in the dark. "Qui-Gon has a question for you."

A vague uneasiness curled in his belly. Not the sharp, immediate warning of danger, nor the gentle insistence to pay close attention, but—a shadow, obscuring the path forward.

A question rolled off his tongue, but it wasn't the one he'd intended. "Do you know if Obi-Wan is being held by your security forces?"

Sabé's face remained as blank as she was in the Force. Qui-Gon wondered who had trained the Handmaidens of Naboo. "I would have to check, Master Jinn, but if he's in custody, Colonel Panaka wouldn't keep him here. At least, not for long."

"Then where would he be?" interjected Ahsoka impatiently. "You do know what they're doing to Jedi, don't you?"

Tightlipped, Sabé jerked a nod. "The same thing they're doing to Jedi sympathizers, just more publicly. I was hauled in for some pointed questions about my loyalty even before I could prepare Padmé's body for burial." Her flat, brown eyes flicked to Qui-Gon. "So was Bail Organa. He was nearly late for the funeral procession."

Qui-Gon kept his sudden pique of curiosity beneath his impassive diplomat's face. Why would she mention the Senator from Alderaan by name, or his tardiness? Filing it away for later consideration, he pressed forward. "Sabé, it is vital that we get Obi-Wan out."

Sabé said nothing as she crossed the room and settled at the computer console. Her fingers flew over the interface. She didn't look up from the display. "Did you know there's security footage of him leaving Padmé's apartments on Coruscant?"

"They were friends," replied Ahsoka. Too defensive, Qui-Gon chided, regretting they had not had the time to create a working pair-bond. "There's probably footage of me doing the same thing a bunch of times."

Those flat eyes lifted, and Qui-Gon thought they looked haunted. "He was the last person to be seen with her," she said, her voice a knife's edge.

The dark implication sliced into his heart. No. There was absolutely no possibility that Obi-Wan had been the one to—

Qui-Gon would carry the shame of that microsecond—of considering that black maw in the Force, of the man's instability, of his desperation to protect Luke Naberrie at all costs—for the rest of his life.

No. Obi-Wan Kenobi was not a murderer, and Qui-Gon Jinn drew himself up in defence of the other half of his heart, battered and broken as it was. "That means nothing given recent events. Senator Amidala had attempts on her life even before she was the outspoken de facto leader of a rising political movement. Can you help us find Obi-Wan?"

Sabé ignored the question. "You two can't stay here. The palace is the most heavily guarded and monitored building in Theed. You can't just walk around without security passes, and Panaka's people have been conducting random life sign scans and pass spot checks since Palpatine declared our grand new Empire." Her lip curled in disgust before she tamed it. "If anyone sees you, you'll be arrested and turned over to the Imperial Security Forces."

"You gonna turn us in?" retorted Ahsoka, crossing her arms over her chest.

The briefest wry smile flitted over the young woman's features. "Padmé was so fond of you, Ahsoka," Sabé murmured. She cleared her throat and added, "I'll get you both out of here without being arrested, just as you once did for me, Master Jinn."

While Qui-Gon tasted the truth of her promise in the Force, disquiet still curled in his belly.

He had a bad feeling about this.

 

Hooded and holding a tiny light, Sabé led Qui-Gon and Ahsoka through narrow, dark passageways meant for palace staff or, given Qui-Gon's experience with the Queen of Naboo, discreet movement by royalty. He trailed the former handmaiden and the former Padawan, his mind tangled up in worry for Obi-Wan and speculation about Sabé. He couldn't say that Sabé had lied to him about Obi-Wan's whereabouts, but between his decades of diplomatic experience and his personal involvement with the Queen of Naboo's decoys? She wasn't telling the whole truth, but he didn't know about what.

The passage narrowed, forcing Qui-Gon to squeeze through sideways, then opened suddenly into a cavernous complex with a maze of open catwalks.

Unprepared for the visceral punch of terror in his gut, Qui-Gon's feet refused to move. The acrid ozone of a tainted lightsaber was surely his imagination, but the darker, sickly-sweet tang of rot, of an uncontrolled Sith—it wasn't an odour left behind, but an imprint in the Force.

After all this time, the Sith corrupts?

If he closed his eyes, he could hear the furious crackling of 'sabers meeting.

Ahsoka had noticed he was no longer following. She glanced over her shoulder, worrying the flesh of her bottom lip with her sharp canines. Worrying for him.

Little Force gods, I'm a Je—a Guardian of the Whills. Start acting like it. Shoulders back, head up, fingers relaxed; Qui-Gon even managed a tight, reassuring smile for the young Togruta. He pretended not to see her narrow her eyes at him as he threw up another layer of shielding around his mind.

That was a look she'd almost certainly learned from Obi-Wan.

Sabé was getting farther ahead. Qui-Gon forced himself to put one foot in front of the other. With every step, dread squeezed his heart.

Darth Maul's sibilant voice rasped in his ears. I will cut out your heart, Jedi. The Zabrak had nearly made good on his promise, though Vokara Che could take the credit for the actual removal.

As the catwalk joined a long, enclosed corridor lined with inoperative radiation shield generators, Sabé's stride faltered. She slowed, tilting her head against her shoulder, not quite looking at Qui-Gon. "It's shut down for maintenance for another week," Sabé murmured. "Skeleton crews only, and they're working on the power generator at the moment."

"You want us to hide in a plasma refinery?" Ahsoka crossed her arms over her chest and curled her lip in disgust.

"I can't hide you in the palace," retorted Sabé, "but the radiation here interferes with life sign scanners. I'm expected elsewhere. Give me an hour, no more than two, then I'll get you back into the city." The handmaiden's even gaze never left Qui-Gon's face. The steel in her voice eased as she settled the cloak hood back over her hair and brushed past him. "I'm sorry, Master Jinn."

Qui-Gon didn't watch her go; his eyes were glued to the round chamber ahead. The stench of the dark side pricked at his eyes. The deep-turned-earth scent of death coated his tongue.

Ahsoka waited until Sabé's footsteps faded, then stepped closer to him. "You've been here before." Tentative and quiet, where Ahsoka Tano was usually neither.

He inhaled sharply. "Yes."

"You're scaring me." The admission wasn't accusatory.

Qui-Gon's exhale was shaky. His hand trailed up and pressed against the centre of his chest. The scar tissue didn't register the warmth of his hand, no matter how many layers he wore. "I died here."

Ahsoka didn't—or couldn't—hide her shock. "That's not in the reports."

Still transfixed by the sight of the melting pit, Qui-Gon could only nod minutely. Officially, Qui-Gon Jinn had been seriously injured during the Liberation of Theed. The entire incident with the Sith apprentice had been viciously classified by the High Council. They'd redacted and buried everything about Maul while Qui-Gon had been in a bacta tank. Afterwards, he'd been too focussed on training Anakin to pick more fights with the Council.

He wasn't surprised that Obi-Wan hadn't told her what had really happened. It wasn't a nice bedtime story.

Slender fingers twined around his hand. "Sit with me."

He let her lead him to the wall, and obeyed the insistent tugging on his palm. Sliding down the wall, he folded himself on the floor. Qui-Gon stretched his legs out in front of him. The durasteel was cool against his back. Ahsoka rested her chin on her bent knee, watching him. Waiting.

They weren't Jedi anymore. There was no Council waiting to censure them for their behaviour. There was no Code to follow.

Chirrut would have made him a cup of tea and threatened to smack him with his staff if Qui-Gon didn't tell him exactly what was bothering him. Baze would smirk fondly at his beloved, shrug and pass a plate of biscuits and say, Better out than in, Qui-Gon.

Long minutes stretched between them before he could speak, a sparse rumble. "I was a fool. I engaged the enemy alone instead of waiting for my apprentice."

"Master Kenobi?"

"Padawan Kenobi." The fight had been deemed far more difficult than any encounter in the Chamber of Trial, except perhaps the one on Lothal which old Masters called the Murder Chamber without any hint of humour. What had happened afterwards—well, they had never spoken about how Obi-Wan had managed to revive his Master. All Qui-Gon remembered was a flood of fear and anger, instantly replaced with bone-deep relief; none of those emotions had been his. "Even then he was one of the best duellists in the Order and nowhere near his peak. He was beating me in the salles about half the time."

Ahsoka's eyes were wide. "Really?"

Qui-Gon snorted wryly and amended, "Seventy percent, if I'm being honest."

"I fought on my own plenty of times."

A sad, fleeting smile crossed his lips, but he didn't look at her. "I didn't leave him behind out of necessity."

"Then why give up a two-person advantage?" She sounded genuinely puzzled.

"How attuned are you to the Living Force?"

He felt her shrug. "As much as anyone, I guess. Not as much as you."

Closing his eyes made his mouth curdle. "The Force doesn't give me visions or prophetic dreams," he admitted, "but I can taste impending death. I tasted death in the Force that day, and I didn't want it to be his."

The girl was quiet for so long that he stole a glance out of the corner of his eye. A furrow appeared on her smooth brow. "First of all, that's a bit gross."

"I can't argue with that," he said with a wry huff of almost-laughter, a tiny relief in his chest. "I'll have to brush my teeth at least three times tonight."

"Second of all," she twisted her lips, looking exasperated, "did it occur to you that death was meant for your enemy?"

Qui-Gon's breath stuck in his throat. A simple question, and one he should have had the wisdom to ask thirteen years ago. Except he'd been distracted, too distracted to think clearly—between the blockade becoming a deadly invasion and the blazing supernova that was Anakin Skywalker, the appearance of Darth Maul had left him with no time to think rationally.

He'd apologized to Obi-Wan for everything, many years ago in the throes of a deep recovery depression, but Qui-Gon had never told the new Knight why he'd engaged Maul alone. He'd never told anyone.

Better out than in. Baze's quiet rumble echoed in his ears.

"No, it didn't."

"So you died instead." Ahsoka managed to sound neutral. There was no way Anakin could be credited for teaching her that.

"I was tired and took a 'saber, through and through." At her strangled gasp, Qui-Gon tapped two fingers against his chest. "I stopped feeling pain a few seconds later. Whether it was my nerve endings being cauterized or my brain flooding me with endorphins, I'll never know. I couldn't breathe, though. It was like someone parked a Star Destroyer on my chest."

Ahsoka made a noise he couldn't identify.

"I-I don't remember dying. Not really. Master Che said something about the brain not processing memories as it shuts down."

"Oxygen deprivation," murmured Ahsoka.

"I was too drugged up to follow her lecture at the time, but I'm sure Obi-Wan remembers." Qui-Gon exhaled, humourless, and tipped his skull back against the wall. "He never left my side for a month. The Council Knighted him for defeating a Sith, and he refused to let them cut his braid because he wanted me to do it."

Ahsoka wrinkled her nose. "That doesn't sound like him."

"Stubbornness incarnate?" replied Qui-Gon dryly.

"Well, when you put it that way."

"I don't want you to see me like this." Pallid, shaking, and preparing to heave his guts out at any given moment, Qui-Gon couldn't lift his head from the medical bed.

"And I don't want you to be alone." Obi-Wan fetched a blanket from the cupboard and spread it over the two others covering Qui-Gon. His Padawan braid swayed against his chest despite his Knighting. "Ben—"

Obi-Wan's lips quirked into a gentle smile that turned wry. He brushed his hand over Qui-Gon's hair and came away with a large flake of dried bacta. "Mace Windu will have to chase me out of here with his lightsaber."

It was difficult to stop talking, now that he'd started. Ahsoka was a good listener; her still, even attention reminded him of Tahl. Was that when he'd stopped talking, when the Jedi Order had stopped listening, after his beloved Tahl's death? "So stubborn. He always cared too much for other people and not enough for himself. He nearly died, bringing me back to life. Burned through all his energy reserves, just to save his old fool Master.

"And now he's dying in front of my eyes, and I don't know how to save him in return." His voice cracked as despair welled up inside him. Slumped against the wall, head too heavy to hold up, Qui-Gon didn't feel like a stately diplomat or powerful Jedi Master or mystical Guardian of the Whills.

He felt like a man drowning in grief.

Ahsoka inched closer and rested her head against his shoulder. Her fingers settled over his hand. "You're strong, Qui-Gon."

"It's an act," he murmured, "because he needs me. I can make it through the day if all I think about is putting one foot in front of the other. If I don't look at him too long. If I don't let myself feel that gaping maw in the Force."

Her grip tightened. The spritely, strong flame that was Ahsoka in the Force was subdued, but she was warm and solid against his side. "Everything I ever learned was about sacrifice and duty—to the Force, to the Order, to the Republic, but never to a person," she said into the fabric of his shirt. He heard an undercurrent of disapproval.

"I didn’t expect you to stand up for the Order’s view of attachment."

A bitter laugh. "I'm not. Too many people ignored it until it came to me." Qui-Gon squeezed her hand, hoping to offer some comfort. "So what do you do, Qui-Gon? How do you keep a person afloat without letting yourself drown?"

"I keep him from falling over from exhaustion or hunger or cold. I patch him up when he's injured. I argue the wisdom of his plans. I make sure I'm there to catch him, to listen, to encourage him forward, everything and everyone else be damned."

Ahsoka sighed softly. "And what if he doesn't accept your help?"

An excellent question which Qui-Gon had tried not to consider. As much as he wanted to, he couldn't force Obi-Wan Kenobi to do anything. Stubbornness incarnate was a mild descriptor of his beloved. "I'll never give up on him, even when the decision to take my help or reject it belongs to Obi-Wan."

"Even if he—"

"Even if." Qui-Gon rested his cheek against the curve of her montral. "That's not attachment; that's love, my dear."

For a long time, the only sound was the faint reverberation of some loose power coupling in the wall.

 

After Ahsoka's second insistence that they sneak back into the palace and hijack a security console to track down Obi-Wan and Asajj, Qui-Gon found himself wanting to agree with her. Before he could suggest meditation to pass the time, the soft scuff of boots announced Sabé's return.

She threw off the hood of her cloak as Qui-Gon and Ahsoka scrambled to their feet. "To be honest, I wasn't sure I'd find you still here," Sabé said wryly. "It's not what I've come to expect from Jedi."

"Desperate times," murmured Qui-Gon.

Sabé's reply was to beckon them with her elegant hand. They followed the handmaiden away from the melting pit and spiralled down a series of catwalks until Qui-Gon was sure they were deep underground. In the poor light of safety illumination on the edges of the catwalks, Sabé seemed a wraith.

It suited Qui-Gon's mood, following a wraith while being haunted by the ghostly malice of Darth Maul.

Suddenly, Sabé stopped and turned to face them. "The exit is there," she said, gesturing behind her to the barely-limned outline of a door. "But first, I would speak with you, Master Jinn."

Qui-Gon heard Ahsoka's indignant inhale, and he pressed his hand against her shoulder. "It's fine," he murmured. "Wait at the door and I'll join you in a moment."

Some of that Padawan obedience still held; Ahsoka grumbled under her breath but she brushed past Sabé to lean against the doorframe. Sabé stepped closer to Qui-Gon than decorum would allow, but he had to bend his head to hear her words. "If you want Kenobi back, tell me where Padmé's baby is."

And there it was. Blackmail hadn't quite made the list on possible reasons for his trepidation, but Qui-Gon couldn't bring himself to be surprised. "I thought the baby had died," he replied, his voice barely a whisper.

Her glare, formidable even without the ceremonial makeup or proper light, bored into him. "Don't play coy with me. Kenobi knows something, and you just happen to be travelling with him and Ahsoka when it's obviously safer for all of you to go into hiding? Tell me where the baby is and I'll take you to Kenobi."

Qui-Gon bit back a sigh. "The baby is safe, Sabé. He's healthy and safe, but he cannot fall into Palpatine's grasp."

Years of practiced neutrality vanished from Sabé's features. It struck him how well she hid her youth behind a mask of confidence, authority, and professional detachment—not unlike a new Jedi Knight. Her shoulders sagged beneath her heavy wool cloak. Too-bright eyes weakened her glare, and in that moment he felt her grief and joy tumbling together in the Force. "It's a boy? My sister has a little boy?"

"Where is Obi-Wan?"

Sabé dashed her hand across her eyes. "Where is the baby?"

"On his way to Lasan," lied Qui-Gon. "Now where is Obi-Wan?"

"Was that you? Did you send the baby away?" she hissed. "He should be with his family."

Qui-Gon shook his head, regretting his idea to come here. It had seemed an infinitely better plan than Tatooine. It still was, perhaps; but the Naberrie family was too large, had too many close associates, too many ties to senior diplomatic and security personnel. Luke would be loved here, certainly, but he wouldn't be safe from anyone able to put two and two together. "We sent the baby away to keep him away from Palpatine. Tell me where Obi-Wan is."

Sabé took a deep breath that shook at the end. "I don't know. The holding cells were empty last I checked." Her words rang with truth; her offer to give them Obi-Wan had been a bluff.

This had to end. The sooner Qui-Gon and Ahsoka were back at the ship, the better. "I'm sorry, Sabé," he said as he brought the Force to bear.

Only once had he seen this done. On the run from pirates and desperate to stop a civil war on Selonia, Dooku had erased a memory from the Prime Minister's mind.

Seventeen and filled with horrified fascination, Qui-Gon watched, unblinking.

"This is a classified skill," Dooku rumbled as the Prime Minister crumpled into a chair. "You will not mention it to anyone, Qui-Gon, or I shall be forced to curb other aspects of your education."

"Yes, Master."

It was not until Dooku turned to the dark side that Qui-Gon had finally investigated; memory rubs were, indeed, classified because they were a skill created by the Sith and forbidden by the Jedi.

Desperate times.

With the tiniest tendril of the Force, Qui-Gon delved into Sabé's mind and brushed across her memory like an artist erasing an errant pencil stroke. The girl's eyes unfocussed and he caught her before she slumped to the deck of the catwalk.

Ahsoka's voice rang out. "What—"

"She's fine," Qui-Gon reassured the Togruta as he eased Sabé down. He gently arranged her cloak to keep her warm. "She'll wake up with one hell of a headache, but she'll be fine."

"What about Asajj and Obi-Wan?"

"Let's get out of here without being arrested and we'll come up with a new plan." When Ahsoka didn't reply, Qui-Gon glanced at her. "We'll find them, Ahsoka."

Hesitantly, Ahsoka nodded. Her gaze didn't move from Sabé's prone figure.

Qui-Gon moved to the door and tapped the control panel. The door slid open. A blast of cool, humid wind ruffled a lock of hair that had escaped his braid as he poked his head out. To his left, the spray of one of Theed's famous waterfalls darkened the craggy stone, while to his right, a rough set of stairs carved into the rock would have made a mountain goat pause. Where his foot would have gone was a dizzying drop into a lake filled with jagged boulders.

Part of him—the stupid, adventure-loving, Jedi-part—crowed with glee, while his knees groaned in protest.

The things he did for love.

Chapter Text

I remember when we were gambling to win
Everybody else said, "Better luck next time."
I don't wanna bend like the bad girls bend
I just wanna be your friend
Is it ever gonna be enough?

Gold Guns Girls, Metric

 

An explosion of pain in her jaw pulled Asajj out of her groggy daze. A bright overhead light beat her eyelids; she tried to blink and regretted the sharp burst of light washing out her retinas. "Wake up," demanded a man's voice.

The Force was still gone, thanks to whatever chemical cocktail they'd slipped her. Asajj kept her eyes closed and listened. Footsteps circling behind her, humanoid, heavyset. She cracked one eyelid. A dark-skinned human male wearing an impeccable copper uniform sat like a statue on the other side of a dull metal table, a datapad resting in front of him. The bright light illuminated the high points of his face and threw deep shadows over his eyes; Asajj imagined the lines of his skull beneath his skin.

"You're conscious, good," said the uniformed man flatly.

Asajj tried to ignore her throbbing jaw to take stock of the rest of her body. Wrists and ankles were encased in binders attached to the chair. As she opened her eyes, she still couldn't focus properly. The room tilted as she breathed. Not entirely ryll, like she'd thought. Concussion, probably. Fuck.

"Asajj Ventress, you are in the custody of the Naboo Security Services," said the man evenly, picking up his datapad and thumbing through the screen. "You face 7,348 counts of murder for the deaths of the Gungan colonists on Ohma-D'un."

Old habits. There was a saying about old habits that ran through her head after her tongue moved. "That's all?" she mumbled, trying to keep her jaw still. "I killed a Jedi there, too."

"There are additional charges with regards to possession and usage of biological weapons, and I'm confident the Imperial War Prosecutor's office will be able to tack on a genocide charge, which makes you eligible for execution."

"What a delightful bonus." It came out slurred.

The officer's lips twitched into a brief frown. "Despite my personal opinion, you have the legal right to offer testimony to mitigate your sentence."

Unbidden, laughter bubbled up her throat, raw and despairing. Mitigation? How could she—how could anyone—mitigate mass murder? How could she explain the dark side filling her veins, promising power and whispering hatred and fanning every spark of emotion into an inferno she couldn't escape? No one could understand what it was like to crawl her way out of the abyss of the dark side of the Force after Dooku threw her away like garbage. No one would understand the slide back into darkness all the way back to his feet.

Ky Narec would be shame personified if he knew what she'd done in his absence.

What she'd become.

He might have killed her himself, and she would have knelt for the final blow.

"Why not kill me now and spare the taxpayers?" she croaked.

A flash of something—agreement?—glittered in his dark eyes. He pursed his lips. "Because all of Naboo deserves to see justice carried out, and I will see it done."

"Oh, for fuck's sake, just kill me so I don't have to listen to you talk about justice."

"No."

The unwavering, unblinking gaze, calm and controlled and filled with easy righteousness, set Asajj's teeth on edge. There wasn't much she feared anymore—not when it came to people, at least—but something about this man screamed immovable object. 'Saberless and drugged to her eyeballs, she was no longer an unstoppable force.

"What are you doing on Naboo?"

Asajj kept her mouth shut. When the silence stretched into absurdity, the man finally blinked. "You can answer now or I can fetch a probe droid."

"What's a Republic world doing with a Separatist probe droid?" It sounded like stalling, but asking questions was one way she could get her own information.

The officer's face hardened. "Naboo is loyal to the Emperor. The Republic has fallen, the Separatists have been defeated, and the Empire has created order from chaos. The crimes of the Clone Wars will not go unpunished." A zealot, then. Predictable in his application of the Emperor's decrees, with unpredictable results. A man loyal to Darth Sidious without ever realizing who—what—he's loyal to. "What are you doing on Naboo?"

"Getting a fake ID."

That earned her a surprised eyebrow. "Really?"

"Can't beat Nabooian forgeries."

"And what is Obi-Wan Kenobi doing on Naboo?"

The room tilted again. She could answer, flippant but with a kernel of truth, or stay silent and—what? Be difficult? She couldn't deny Kenobi had been in her company, but perhaps she could suggest they'd run into each other? She couldn't make any hint of Ahsoka or Qui-Gon being on-planet, or they'd be hunted down, too. The concussion was slowing her down; she couldn't think.

The man frowned. "Very well. I already have Kenobi in custody, I don't really need your lies to pass on." He scooped up his datapad and stood, scraping his metal chair against the duracrete floor.

Stupid, slow brain—he was half-way around the table before she got the words out. "Pass on to who?"

The way he studied her was like a man gazing at an insect pinned to a board. "I would have thought you'd be pleased the Emperor is taking care of your Jedi adversaries. You fought against them in the war. You battled Kenobi on many occasions."

Asajj squinted at him, failing to make his face come into focus. "For a security guard on an Outer Rim backwater, you've kept awfully close tabs on me and the Negotiator." It hurt to talk, but the pain snipped at the edges of her brain fog. "You want an autograph?"

"A genocidal maniac Force-user and the Jedi High Councilor, supposed friend of our Senator Amidala, who somehow never managed to capture or kill you?" The man leaned forward, as if readying for a tirade, then shook his head slightly. "I have reports to transmit."

She listened to his retreating footsteps and frantically tried to wedge the pieces of information together. This man knew both her and Kenobi, their true identities. He had them in custody, and was giving all that information to someone—someone in authority, certainly; he seemed to have too many morals to sell them out to bounty hunters or slavers.

The Emperor is taking care of your Jedi adversaries.

Did he mean the mass execution, the sudden devastation in the Force that had left Ahsoka a heap on the deck and Asajj feeling like a bantha had kicked her in the head?

No, taking care. Not took care. On-going. Darth Sidious was hunting down Jedi in his brave new Empire, and Asajj Ventress was in the company of three Jedi. Fucking hells, she was Asajj Ventress, Darth Tyrannus' failed apprentice, and if she went far back enough and deep enough through her armour, she had been a Jedi, too. She and Kenobi were fucked, and fierce, beautiful, stupid Ahsoka Tano was surely on her way to rescue them both with her equally stupid half-Wookiee grand-master.

Thinking took too much effort; she missed the squeaky tread inching closer until hot breath invaded her ear. "Hello, Asajj Ventress."

She jerked away, snarling. A young man wearing a cheerful smile beneath short, golden curls straightened the edge of his copper tunic. "The fuck you want?" she snapped. Being strapped to a chair made intimidation difficult.

"Colonel Panaka ordered constant surveillance of the prisoner," he replied, his smile widening.

"Great. Surveil me from over there. Your breath stinks," retorted Asajj with all the disdain she could muster. Even without the Force, she felt rising danger; she tested her ankle against the binder with a slow, minute movement and gritted her teeth. Naboo hadn't skimped on their restraints budget.

"Nah." The young man hopped onto the table, facing her. "You're different than I imagined."

"And you talk too much."

"You're skinny. I thought you'd be taller."

"I'm not interested in a date."

The cherubic face inched closer. "I just want to talk."

The sarcastic reply of there's a reason my sisters subjugated their men nearly moved her tongue. Her sisters. Those who had given her away like property to save themselves, and those who had welcomed her back as an honoured sister. Those who had embraced her, given her a place, made her revenge their own. Those whose blood had run rivers over Dathomir's soil because of her.

Asajj looked straight ahead, seemingly ignoring the man but keeping him in her peripheral vision. He chuckled softly, but it held no mirth. "You'll want to hear what I have to say."

"Unless you're telling me the door code to get out of here, I don't want to hear shit from you," she snapped without turning her head.

"Colonel Panaka doesn't know who he really has," mused the blonde, drumming his fingers against the metal table. "But a Sith assassin is too valuable to be publicly tried and executed."

Icy fingers ran down her spine. That cheery countenance hadn't changed.

This was wrong, wrong, wrong, what does a low-ranking Naboo security officer know about the Sith—

His smile widened, showing off straight, white teeth. "There's a special bulletin about you, Ventress. You're…wanted."

Fury boiled inside her heart. Asajj Ventress had been a slave, once, and the day Ky Narec had scooped her out of her misery she'd vowed to die free. Turning her narrow-eyed glare on the man, she growled, "If you try to sell me I will rip out your heart and feed it to you."

"Sell you?" The man looked offended. "I'm no slaver. No, Ventress, there's someone who wishes to speak to you."

"About what?" spat Asajj. The cold dread hadn't left her; it warred with her anger.

A wry angle entered his smile. "About serving the Emperor."

Bile rose with panic. Asajj swallowed down the burn. She had been so sure she'd stayed off Sidious' radar, so certain Dooku had done everything in his power to hide his failure—in training her, in trying to eliminate her. But if Sidious knew about her, even the simple fact that she was alive?

The Sith craved power. She was either a tool to augment it or a competitor for it. Asajj was no match for Tyrannus' master as a darksider; her recent fumblings with the Force without rage and hate guiding her made her about as useful as a tooka kit in a barfight. Ice spread through her veins. She could taste the danger she was in.

The danger she was putting Ahsoka in simply by being the Togruta's friend.

She needed to think. She needed information. "And how would I serve the Emperor?" she asked, desperately trying to sound bored instead of terrified.

"Oh, that's not my business," replied the young man, shrugging.

"For a man with no rank on your sleeve, you seem to have an awful lot of business," retorted Asajj, nodding at his arm. "But then again, Republic Intelligence always did like operatives in low places."

"You'd be surprised what you can ferret out when people think you're unimportant," he said with a self-deprecating grin, "or too young, or too handsome."

"Don't flatter yourself," Asajj drawled. "You're hardly subtle."

"I don't have to be," he replied. "With you, I can have an upfront conversation."

"Nothing about this has been upfront. You Int operatives are all the same once you've revealed yourselves—talking in circles, never getting to the fucking point because you just like to hear yourself talk."

The young man was silent save for the gentle tapping of his fingers against the table. His eyes roved over her, weighing and measuring. Finally, he sucked his teeth and slid closer to the edge of the the table. "If you're not interested—"

"I'm not interested in anything you have to offer," she stated flatly.

Shrugging, he swung his legs back and forth like a child. "You don't seem to understand that I am not the one making the offer." When she stayed silent, he sniffed. "But maybe we could come to some sort of arrangement, you and I."

Suspiciously surprised, Asajj cocked her head. "Arrangement?"

That permanent grin widened. "Yeah. You're clearly not thrilled at the idea of speaking to the Emperor about the opportunities he's willing to offer you, so what if you spoke to me about the opportunities I'm willing to offer?"

Asajj rolled her eyes and immediately regretted it when the room tilted. "What do I need to do to get you to shut the fuck up?"

That earned her a smirk. "Agree to take 25 million credits and I'll happily shut the fuck up."

The number tweaked something in her brain, but she couldn't follow it back to the source. Fucking concussion. "You don't have that kind of money."

"Not yet," he amended. "But once you tell me what General Kenobi is up to, we'll both be rich, Ventress."

A tiny voice inside her crowed I told you so. Other doubts chattered over each other, triumphant—Kenobi is a liability, Kenobi can't be trusted.

Kenobi will get you killed.

They'd fought so many times. She'd tried to kill him, and he'd tried to kill her. Arrogant, self-righteous, unfeeling—

Kenobi looked at her as if peeling away every layer she had. His grey eyes widened, like he had spotted the truth at the core of her. "How old are you, Ventress? You're just—you're just a girl, aren't you? You'd still be someone's Padawan." Softly. Gently.

No one spoke to Asajj Ventress like that. Not in years.

The worst part was she was pretty sure he meant to be gentle.

"I'm Coruscant legal," she snapped back. She didn't know how to answer him otherwise. "And you're a dirty old man."

He'd been gentle as he peered through her armour to the very core of her. He'd been gentle as he gave her ration bars to fill the gnawing hole in her stomach. He'd been gentle as he thanked her for fending off Maul and Savage.

She should hate Obi-Wan Kenobi. He was weak, and broken, and a liability. He'd broken Ahsoka's heart. He'd disrupted Asajj's life, made her a target. He'd weaselled his way onto her ship and made her party to information she didn't want and now she had to keep a baby safe from the Sith by keeping her mouth shut.

But Asajj Ventress had promised herself she would try—try to resist the call of the dark side, try to live in the light, try to be the person Ky Narec and Ahsoka Tano thought she could be. She would try to be good.

"How should I know what Kenobi's up to?" she said dismissively.

"Well, you were in his company," replied the man, "committing felony identification forgery."

Asajj widened her eyes. "That's a felony? Shit, don't tell my parole officer."

The smirk tightened. "You're choosing to be difficult, then?"

"Oh, it's not a choice. I was born difficult."

"You're telling me that you'd rather be publicly executed—humiliating, I would imagine, for a powerful Sith acolyte—than just tell me what Kenobi's doing on Naboo and take half the reward money?" He slowly raised his eyebrow.

Asajj twisted her lips, as if thinking hard. "Yeah. I think I am telling you that."

His mocking smile froze. Dancing eyes became flint. "Don't be foolish. Panaka is excellent at his job, for all he's too invested in law and order. There will be no chances to escape. They will keep you too drugged to access the Force. There will be no one to bribe, no one coming to your rescue at the last minute. Your death will be painful, and it will be broadcast to every corner of the galaxy for the honour and glory of the new Empire."

Asajj looked him in the eye and smiled. "Fine. I'll tell you what Kenobi's doing." She murmured gibberish so quietly she almost didn't hear herself.

The young man leaned forward. "What?"

Asajj repeated her soft mutter, emphasizing the word Kenobi. She hoped her wide-eyed expression looked more innocent than she felt. With a puzzled wrinkle of his nose, the man leaned a little closer.

The binders were good, the chair was bolted securely to the floor, but Asajj Ventress was long-limbed and motivated. She threw herself against the restraints, straining for every millimetre. Her forehead slammed into the spy's chin. The room swam with stars and she laughed.

He held his hand against his chin, stone-faced. "I guess I deserved that," he murmured as he dipped his free hand into his pocket.

Asajj's laughter died as he shoved the tines of an electroshock prod into her neck. Her heart skipped a beat as her muscles contracted, too tight— "What is Kenobi doing on Naboo?" he demanded, smile evaporated. The prod in his hand crackled, waiting.

"Felony identification forgery," she panted. "With my money, too. I'm pretty sure he's never paying me back."

Being electrocuted ruined a person's day. At least with an actual power source, her interrogator was forced to turn the prod off before it overloaded; when Dooku had done it, he'd had the endless well of the Force to draw upon. Her body ached and spasmed. She gasped, trying to force a full breath into her lungs. She'd be suffering for at least a tenday—all for Obi-Wan fucking Kenobi.

For a baby who only had idiot Jedi looking out for him.

She would be good.

"What is Kenobi doing on Naboo?"

"Moping and otherwise making my life difficult."

The question never changed. Over and over, what is Kenobi doing on Naboo? Over and over, she growled out a flippant reply and took the electroshock prod with gritted teeth. Never did she give him the satisfaction of a scream. Seven, maybe eight, jolts of electricity wracked her body. Her muscles gave out, exhausted. She slumped, her chin against her chest, unable to stop her eyes from closing.

The sound of soft arguing nudged her out of her stupor. The spy's voice was low. A second voice, tinny and distorted through a cheap handheld holotransmitter, interrupted him with a hiss. "If you damage her, Darne, I will personally flay you. I have a mission to complete first, so keep her secure until I get there."

Blinking furiously, Asajj squinted at the source of the sound. The torso of a man wearing a blank mask hovered above the transmitter in the blond's hand. The details were blurry; all she could make out were two rectangular eye slits. It nagged at her in a familiar way, but it was like grasping smoke.

Darne nodded stiffly. "Understood. I await your arrival." The transmission cut off without a word from the mask, and Darne scowled. "Asshole."

She must have shifted too much, because he turned his attention to her. "Are you going to answer my question or not?"

"Go fuck yourself," she replied, her breath hitching as her lungs protested the extra effort of talking. This may have started with being good, but now she was running on spite.

Heaving a dramatic sigh, the blond shrugged. "That's your prerogative, I suppose." He turned as if to leave, then paused to glance over his shoulder. "Oh, there's one more thing."

A galaxy of stars exploded in her eyes as his fist slammed into her temple. Pain whited out her vision. The ringing in her ears nearly drowned out the sound of his murmur. "That's for Ohma-D'un. Let's see how much scorn you give First Brother."

The next thing she registered was the cool relief of the duracrete floor against her throbbing jaw. Unable to untangle her limbs, she noted the soft, concerned notes of a cultured Coruscanti voice calling her name before slipping into oblivion.

Chapter Text

There's electric cars
There's electric trains
Here comes a robot with
Electric brains

Robot Parade, They Might Be Giants

 

R9-R9 had accompanied many classes of schoolchildren on field trips before Pran. In 94% of all excursions, the children followed the safety parameters and stayed within ocular sensor range of the adult chaperones.

Today's field trip, however, had a 0% safety parameter compliance. Unacceptable. There would be a re-issue of safety parameters—perhaps extra measures, including an insistence that its charges hold Arnie's repair arms while away from the ship—as soon as Arnie found its organics, which would require a sweep of the building's security net.

If it scanned through the holoimages it had taken during the tour—a quality educational experience, with 78.3% more information about aquatic lifeforms compared to previous tours—the last room the Guardian and Ashla had been in with the tour group was the Courtyard of Air. They had missed the brightly lit Throne Room, the hand-carved, open-air columns of the Dusk Wing, the unpolished, the austere Invasion of Naboo Memorial Spire, and a reproduction of the Queen of Naboo's wardrobe.

Temna the Tour Guide raised her hand to motion to the west. "If you'll follow me, our final stop is the Portrait Gallery, where we have on display handpainted, two-dimensional oil paintings of every single ruler of Naboo!"

That would require significant storage capacity if Arnie wanted to capture accurate resolution. It would be required to delete some stored memory, including the visit to the Coruscant Xenozoology Museum. Unacceptable.

As the organics filed into the Portrait Gallery, Arnie rolled on quiet wheels back the way the tour had come. The palace corridors were empty. Arnie made its way to the Courtyard of Air, paused to blat excitedly at the heart-tailed aquatic organics, and rolled into the hallway that surrounded the courtyard.

The whine of electronic equipment led it to an empty room. A computing console took up most of the space. Arnie hummed in satisfaction and plugged its scomp link into the computer interface port.

Scanning for Togruta life forms took 3.148 seconds. Negative scan.

Scanning for Human life forms took 3.899 seconds. Positive scan, 568 hits.

Arnie grumbled; it did not know what humanoid sub-unit the Guardian belonged to. Life sign scan insoluble.

The organics were not in the building.

Arnie was still missing 100% of its organics; it had arrived with 50%. Ashla and the Guardian had said the Jedi and I-Don't-Care had been arrested and brought to the palace…

With a pleased chortle at its cleverness, Arnie activated the security feeds. Only two holding cells were occupied; Arnie activated the visual data link. The Jedi sat against the wall of his cell. I-Don't-Care lay on the floor of her cell, but was alive according to life sign scanners.

Arnie had found 50% of its organics!

With another chortle, Arnie activated the holding cell door mechanisms. A warning alarm buzzed, reverberating up the scomp link. Blatting, Arnie retracted the link.

Organic security might be on their way.

Arnie had mastered Ashla's game of "Roll Casual." It rolled all the way out the palace service door without being stopped. Chortling, it rumbled over the cobblestone streets of Theed and prepared its safety lecture.

Yes, the organics would definitely be required to hold Arnie's repair arms on the next outing.

Chapter Text

I'm looking through you, where did you go?
I thought I knew you, what did I know?
You don't look different, but you have changed
I'm looking through you, you're not the same

I'm Looking Through You, The Beatles

 

"Ventress? Can you hear me?" Obi-Wan asked despite the dull smack of her body hitting the cell floor suggested she was probably unconscious. He shimmied down the wall, closer to the vent. "This is your wake up call."

Nothing.

He sucked a breath through his teeth and frowned at his fingers. "It would be a hell of a lot more convenient were you to be conscious at the moment. Not that you've devoted a single iota of time or effort to make my life more convenient, but if you were to choose to do so, now would be a good time."

The soft hum of the ventilation system answered him. Obi-Wan shifted to sit back up against the wall. His terrible escape plan—terrible only because it relied heavily on the assumption he'd be taken out for interrogation but otherwise probably a nine out of ten compared to some of the escape plans Anakin had cooked up over the years—had just added another layer of terrible. Without a 'saber or a blaster, he needed to physically overpower armed, extremely well-trained Naboo security forces outside his cell, override the locks to the holding room, get out of the warren that was Theed Palace, and make it back to the space port unseen.

Without the Force.

With an unconscious Asajj Ventress in tow.

Extra layers of terrible, like a terrible cake with terrible frosting.

He couldn't feel his fingernails. They were there, on the ends of his fingers, doing nothing.

Huh.

"How long does it take for the human liver to process ryll?" he asked.

He added while slightly high to his terrible escape cake.

"That was a legitimate question, in case you were wondering. Although I don't know if you know the answer. I shouldn't assume you're well-versed in illegal drugs just because everything I've seen you do is illegal." His fingers only bent in one direction. "I suppose bounty hunting isn't technically illegal, but I'm sure it is the way you do it."

The electric snap of the holding room door interrupted him. The door slid open, revealing a burly human of ambiguous gender holding two stacked, covered trays.

Little gods, he was starving.

He revised while more than slightly high to his terrible escape cake.

The door hissed closed as the guard approached Obi-Wan's cell. "Legally, we're required to feed you," they grumbled.

"Drew the short straw, did you?" replied Obi-Wan. "My deepest sympathies."

Their face stayed blank as they stooped and slid one tray through the slim, one-way opening at the bottom of the cell bars. As they moved to deliver Ventress' meal, Obi-Wan scrambled off the floor and approached the cell door. "I don't suppose you could check on her? I'm a bit concerned that she's still unconscious."

"She's breathing."

"Oh, honestly," scoffed Obi-Wan, "if she was a major head injury and slips into a coma and is utterly useless for further interrogation, or even dies before you get a chance to execute her, what are the odds Panaka won't blame you?"

The guard straightened, sudden wariness crossing their face. As they opened their mouth to reply, the high-pitched whine and snap of an electromagnetic lock rang out.

Obi-Wan grinned.

He smashed the door into the guard's face. Stunned, the guard stumbled back; Obi-Wan launched himself at them, slapping a hand over their mouth while pressing on the nerves of their neck with just enough pressure to temporarily paralyze—

The guard slumped in Obi-Wan's arms like an overgrown doll. "Whoops," Obi-Wan said, and wrestled the guard's body to the floor. "I might have overdone it."

He stooped, rifling through the guard's belt for the security access card and a sleek blaster. A few credit chips rattled at the bottom of the belt pouch, and he fished them out. Squinting at the credits in his hand, he announced, "Jedi do not rob."

But then again, he was in a bit of a tight spot.

With the credits and security card jammed into his pants pocket, Obi-Wan headed for the exit. As he reached for the door controls, he stopped. He was forgetting something, some part of the terrible escape cake—

Ventress was still in her cell. Leaving her to be executed would be very un-Jedi-like, even in a bit of a tight spot.

That cell door was open, too, so Obi-Wan propped it open with her uneaten meal in case the little locksmith gods decided to wash their hands of him. Kneeling beside Ventress, he put his hand between her shoulder blades and shook her. "Ventress," he called, "we've overstayed our welcome and we're skipping out on the bill. Time to go."

A soft whimper escaped her lips, but she didn't move.

"Oh, you're not going to like this." Gently, he rolled her over and scooped her up, slipping a little on the smooth floor. "Fuck, you're heavier than you look."

Still no answer. With a grunt, Obi-Wan heaved Ventress' body over his shoulder and held her with one arm looped around the backs of her knees. He dashed out of the cell and brushed his knuckles over the holding room door controls. The keypad sneered at him warningly.

"Oh, do shut up," he muttered as he juggled the blaster and his archenemy and his pocket—why were these pants so bloody tight? He fished out the security card and swiped it.

The door swished open, revealing a single guard with the slumped shoulders of a long, boring shift.

Obi-Wan sympathized; he hated being bored. "Hello, there," he said with a smile as he fired a single shot at the guard's centre mass.

Now, where had the royal rulers of Naboo hidden their rabbit warren? Glancing down the corridor, he moved his head to catch the angle of the light— "Ah! There you are."

His fingertips—still with unfeeling fingernails, doing nothing to help him out—caught the edge of the elaborate moulding and traced the nearly-invisible seam of the hidden door. With a firm bump of Ventress' hip, the door swung open into a dark, claustrophobic passageway. Grinning, Obi-Wan ducked into the passage and closed the door behind him.

Escape cake was going swimmingly.

Except in the narrow, windowless passageway, Obi-Wan had exactly zero sense of direction and no flashlight. "Well that's just great," he grumbled under his breath. "Who builds secret passages and doesn't install lights?"

On his shoulder, Ventress stirred. Her bony hips wriggled against his shoulder. Long, grasping fingers seized the back of Obi-Wan's head. "Th' fuck?" she slurred, kicking out her feet.

To protect his delicates, Obi-Wan dropped her.

The one with the head injury.

"Oh, shit, sorry," he hissed apologetically, grasping in the dark to help her to her feet. One of her hands grasped his collar while the other brushed across his cheek, clearly trying to slap him. "You're not a Corellian sand panther in a bag, stop it, I said sorry."

"Kenobi," she breathed, sounding far more relieved than he'd expected. "Wait, am I blind? Did that asshole hit me that hard?"

"The lights are off," Obi-Wan replied cheerfully. "I'm sure you're fine."

"Fine is a relative term," groused Ventress. "You, on the other hand, sound a little too fine. That ryll finally kick in to make your life better?"

"You couldn't improve my life with all the ryll in the galaxy, but for now I'd take knowing which way to go in here. Alas, the guards did not have a map. Not that I could read it in the dark, but still."

"Left."

He snorted. "How do you know that?"

"There's a great big energy field that binds the universe together. You might have heard of it."

Obi-Wan's eye roll, spectacular as it was, was utterly wasted in the dark. "Well, let's get on with it before they track us down." He straightened and wondered if the darkness had tilted a little. "Ventress?"

A quiet, frustrated sigh. "I can't…I can't get up. Just—just go. It's me they want, anyway."

A snort ripped through him. "Excuse me, the bounty on my head is record-breaking and I'm quite certain you're small potatoes in comparison. Besides," he added as he squatted next to her, "I wouldn't give Palpatine the time, let alone my worst enemy, and today you don't even make my top ten enemy list."

He could taste her frown. "Really?"

"Have you tried to murder me in the past week?"

"…No?"

"Then congratulations, you're not even in the top thousand. Now let's get your ass out of here, because if I don't, Ahsoka will make me into a coat." He held out his hands slowly until he felt the heat of her skin, and waited. Finally, her fingers clamped onto his forearms. Together, they hauled Ventress' heavy, twitching limbs off the floor. Obi-Wan slung her arm over his shoulders and wrapped his hand around her waist and hoped she wouldn't tear it off. "Come on, walk off that electrocution."

"How did you know?" Puzzlement replaced about two-thirds of her usual waspishness. Concussions seemed to make her almost polite. Interesting.

"Oh, who hasn't been electrocuted? Now be quiet."

They stumbled through the passageway, tripping over uneven stones, bumping into walls that narrowed and twisted unexpectedly. The farther they went, the raspier Ventress' breathing became. She leaned more heavily on Obi-Wan's shoulders. "You okay?" he whispered, tightening his grip on her waist.

A rough breath. "Delightful."

"Are you—"

"I can see where Ahsoka learned to be a mother hen. I said I'm fine, Kenobi, let's get the fuck out of here."

"Mother hen—" His indignant retort was cut off with a vicious poke to his ribs.

"Shut up and walk."

Their bumbling through the dark came to an abrupt end when Obi-Wan walked face-first into a door. Ventress angled herself to avoid it. A litany of Huttese swears—the really foul ones he'd learned from listening to Anakin mutter under his breath—swelled on his tongue, but he caught the tip of his tongue between his teeth. Obi-Wan scrunched his face a few times to ease his throbbing forehead. "Anyone on the other side?" he whispered.

"Gods, you're a cheap date. How long does it take for your liver to process ryll?" she replied, her voice hoarse but incredulous. "Mine's worn off already. You still can't feel the Force?"

"No," Obi-Wan said huffily. "Well?"

Her throat clicked as she swallowed. "You weren't stupid enough to leave behind a blaster, were you? 'Cause you've got five targets."

"Your high opinion of me is heartwarming. Now be a dear and open the door?"

A moment of her shifting against him, then the thinnest line of light sliced through the total darkness. Blinking furiously to let his retinas adjust, Obi-Wan whispered, "Now."

The door flung open. Five shots—no, more like nine, why wasn't his finger working with his eyes?—in quick succession had Obi-Wan surrounded by slumped guards. He ducked his head around the door, checking for more targets. "So uncivilized," he muttered as he stepped over a crumpled, copper-uniformed Naboo security guard, "but I got the job done."

Ventress managed to lift one foot over the body, but her other toe dragged across the guard's back. Her scowl could have stripped the gilt from the wall moulding. "Yes, well done, Kenobi, you shot them at point-blank range. When we get back to the ship I'll give you a cookie."

Oh, he was starving. "Promise?" At his hopeful smirk, Ventress rolled her eyes—dull and tired where they should be bright and full of spite. Her breathing hadn't evened out. Worry wormed through the warm ryll haze. "How electrocuted were you?"

"Stop wasting our fucking time by asking if I'm okay," she rasped.

"You probably have internal inj—"

Ventress lunged towards him. Her free arm shot out, seizing the hand holding the blaster. Before he could wrench his fingers out of her grasp, she jerked his arm to the side and squeezed the trigger. A single shot rang out, dropping a lone security guard as she rounded the corner. Ventress dropped Obi-Wan's hand as if it were radioactive and hissed in his face, "No. Cookie."

With a ragged gasp, Ventress slumped forward. Obi-Wan caught her by her armpits and hauled her upright, but her head lolled to the side. A thin trickle of blood oozed from her nostrils.

Fuckety fuck. A sentiment often expressed by Vokara Che, usually while yelling at him—what were the side effects of electrocution again?

"I don't care if you think you were only electrocuted a little, Kenobi, you still need immediate fucking medical attention. You could have burns, or broken bones, or internal injuries that you're too fucking unqualified to diagnose by yourself, especially if you have fucking brain damage—"

Right. Brain damage, or was it nerve damage? Maybe both?

Maybe he should have paid a little more attention to Master Che.

One of the guards gave a soft, low groan.

"Time to go," he muttered.

Hauling Ventress over his shoulder and hoping it wouldn't hurt her further, Obi-Wan raced down the corridor, blaster warm in his palm. At the next window, he glanced out and found he was only three stories above street level. He considered his options.

Not that high—

With a muffled giggle at the double meaning, he decided to not leap out a window with former assassin dead weight. He slipped down a set of narrow stairs—with lights this time!—and stopped at the open, arched doorway at the bottom. Slowly, carefully, Obi-Wan edged against the wall and peeked outside.

Empty. An empty courtyard, probably for small receptions with people wearing ridiculously ornate clothing and eating very tiny canapés. A narrow, open gate at the far end seemed to lead into Theed proper.

Ah, the trusting openness of the Naboo. They considered it a blessing, he considered it a curse, but today he'd embrace the local sentiment.

Obi-Wan darted over the threshold and ran as fast as he could with Asajj-were-her-bones-made-of-duracrete-Ventress weighing him down. Being in the open made him a target; he had to run faster, as fast as his legs would go—

A shadow moved across the gate.

Not fast enough.

In the fading purple light of day, Colonel Panaka stood between Obi-Wan and freedom at a perfect parade rest. Obi-Wan's boots slid on the dusty flagstones as he scrambled to a stop. Panaka's expression was inscrutable. "I can't let her leave." His voice echoed off the palace's smooth limestone. "Give me Ventress and you can go. For old time's sake."

Obi-Wan's fingers curled hard against the blaster in one hand and Ventress' knees in the other. "Where was that nostalgic charity a few hours ago?" He sniffed. "You hurt my feelings."

Panaka's eyes flicked to Ventress' limp form. "Naboo needs closure on Ohma-D'un. You must understand that. We've suffered in this war, and Naboo needs her to move on." The tip of his tongue swiped over his bottom lip. "Surely you want to see your enemy brought to justice, Master Kenobi."

"Justice?" Obi-Wan snorted. "There hasn't been justice in the galaxy for years."

"How can you defend a war criminal? How many innocent people did she murder? How many of your own brethren did she slaughter?" Panaka's brow furrowed. "The Jedi should have killed her long ago. Now you have the chance to fix this."

You were someone's Padawan.

Someone's Padawan, lost. Lost in the dark for so long, transformed into an agent of cruelty and death. Lost in rage and hate, used by those who cared nothing for her. Lost, then standing up and saying no more, crawling her way out of the shadow, and surviving—a terrible feat for the strongest, wisest Jedi. Depa Billaba's long, arduous fight to return to the light had nearly killed her, and she'd had a Temple full of Jedi, Healers, and a Master who loved her dearly to help her.

Asajj Ventress had spite, a fake ID, and the inexplicable friendship of Ahsoka Tano.

He didn't trust her further than he could throw her. She was a dangerous, unpredictable, Sith-trained killer.

Thank you, Obi-Wan.

He sighed.

"You're right," Obi-Wan said. "I have the chance to fix this."

Two shots echoed off the stones, followed by the scrape of Obi-Wan's boots as he strode into the streets of Theed.

 

Getting back to the spaceport had involved convincing a very suspicious taxi driver that no, Obi-Wan wasn't dragging around an unconscious woman for nefarious purposes, and no, they hadn't taken deathsticks or had any illegal substances on their persons, and yes, of course Obi-Wan could pay up front with the proceeds of rifling through other people's pockets, and for fuck's sake, would the driver just take them to the space port before the improbable occurrence of Obi-Wan dying of old age?

Obi-Wan was about sixty percent certain he hadn't said that last part out loud, but given the glare the driver gave them as they disembarked, he might have to revise that number.

The space port was quiet, given the sun setting. Obi-Wan slung Ventress' arm over his shoulder again; the Dathomiri's head lolled against his jaw. "Come on, Asajj, walk it off."

She stirred slightly and mumbled something that sounded like, "Go fuck yourself."

"You're so charming."

They hadn't made it more than a few metres when a voice rang out like a whipcrack. "Hey!"

Obi-Wan clenched the blaster in his hand, whipping his head around to find the source—

Ahsoka was running across the port floor, her lekku swaying with every step. She skidded to a stop with a deep frown. "Asa? Asa, what happened?"

Ventress' head lifted up slightly, but her eyes didn't open. "I was good," she slurred.

"What happened?" Ahsoka demanded, glaring at Obi-Wan as she slipped her shoulder under Ventress' other arm. "Let's get her inside!"

"Electrocution," replied Obi-Wan. "We were walking it off. Where's Qui-Gon?"

Ahsoka jutted her chin towards the Banshee. The loading ramp was open, and the ship's interior lighting flooded out, warm and inviting. "Asa, stay awake," she ordered.

"I was good," repeated Ventress. "I was good, I was good. 'Soka, I was good."

"Did she hit her head?"

"I'm pretty sure she has a concussion," Obi-Wan told her as they hauled Ventress up the ramp.

"Qui-Gon, get the medkit!" Ahsoka bellowed as they shuffled through the cargo bay. "Let's get her into her own bed."

Qui-Gon met them in the common area, relief and bewilderment stark on his face. "Thank the Force," he breathed, relaxing for a fraction of a second before leaping into action. Without a word, he scooped the former assassin into his arms and carried her to her bunk. He settled her gently on the mattress and closed his eyes as he placed his hand over her forehead.

Ventress' glassy eyes—unfocussed, wild—snapped open. "I didn't tell," she said, clear and firm, before her entire body relaxed.

"She'll recover," Qui-Gon said softly, "but she needs to sleep. I've put her under. Stay with her, Ahsoka, and if she wakes up too soon, administer a sedative."

Ahsoka knelt next to Ventress' bed and sighed. "She won't let me. She doesn't like being sedated."

"Appeal to her better sense," Obi-Wan said with a shrug. "We need to get the hell out of here. Qui, will you give me a hand with the ship?"

That sharp, blue-eyed gaze roved over Obi-Wan, searching for injury, then nodded without protest. Obi-Wan felt Qui-Gon's eyes on his back as he climbed up into the cockpit. The door slid shut behind them, and Qui-Gon's hand settled gently on Obi-Wan's shoulder. Warm, warmer than the ryll that was fading as quickly as the sunset, and familiar, Qui-Gon's voice rumbled in his ear. "I was so worried, Ben. Are you hurt?"

The deepening twilight outside left the cockpit bathed in faint, fuzzy light; the standby controls were like colourful stars. Obi-Wan turned, toe to toe with the other half of his heart.

How had he lived so long with only half a heart? How had he survived being so cold?

He let the sound of Qui-Gon's voice curl around him, warm and inviting and oh so missed. "I'll live," said Obi-Wan softly, taking a step impossibly closer. He wanted warmth. He wanted grounding. He wanted—

He wanted.

Obi-Wan stood on his toes and pressed his lips against Qui-Gon's mouth.

For the briefest moment, Qui-Gon froze like a rabbit caught in the open. Then one hand engulfed the back of Obi-Wan's head while the other splayed over his spine, crushing Obi-Wan against Qui-Gon's chest, and Qui-Gon was kissing him back with the desperation of a drowning man. Lips and hands and teeth and tongues, savage and urgent, clashed without backing down. Obi-Wan seized Qui-Gon's braid and tugged, earning him a vicious squeeze of his buttock and a nip at his bottom lip. With one fluid motion, Qui-Gon shoved Obi-Wan against the bulkhead and dragged his mouth down Obi-Wan's neck. At the hot scrape of teeth and breath against his skin, Obi-Wan moaned and tugged at the laces of Qui-Gon's trousers—

A screech blasted through the internal comm. [You all disobeyed field trip safety protocols!]

Qui-Gon leapt away from Obi-Wan as if he'd been burnt.

Heart hammering in his chest and blood pooling south of his brains, Obi-Wan scrubbed a hand over his sensitized mouth, too stunned to move. He watched Qui-Gon sit heavily in the pilot's seat without a glance for the man he'd left cold and aching. Long fingers danced over the ship's controls, activating the engine pre-ignition sequence. "Secure the loading ramp, Arnie," Qui-Gon ordered through the comm, his voice huskier than usual. "We're done with Naboo."

The silence between them held as the twilight became the twinkling void of space, as Obi-Wan gingerly sat in the co-pilot's seat and glanced at Qui-Gon, who stared unwaveringly out at the stars. Obi-Wan swallowed a sigh. The ryll had finally worn off, leaving him wondering if anything in his life would ever be anything less than a total disaster. "Now what?" he whispered.

Qui-Gon turned to face him. In the dim light of stars and instrument panels, Obi-Wan saw emotions he had never wanted to see on that beautiful face again—sadness, helplessness, despair. "I don't know, Ben."

Obi-Wan was sure he wasn't entirely referring to finding a home for Luke Naberrie.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The truth was unbearable
Oh and imminent
Bearing down on these two shadow animals

Moving Pictures Silent Films, Great Lake Swimmers

 

While Asajj slept, Ahsoka paced, enraged.

Eight steps from bulkhead to bulkhead in the tiny sleeping quarters. Padmé's baby was alive.

Eight steps, turn. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan knew about the baby, knew where he was.

Eight steps, turn. They had lied, let her believe as the galaxy now believed that Padmé and her son had perished together. They had lied to her face, as if she were any other stranger, any other threat.

Eight steps, turn. Padmé and Anakin—because who else would be the father?— had a son .

Eight steps, turn. Padmé was dead. Anakin was missing in action.

Where are you, Master? Ahsoka refused to believe he was dead. Their training bond had never been strong; the war had left them without the time for the long, peaceful meditations required to build that tie in the Force, and it had stagnated and dissolved not long after Ahsoka left the Temple. She had no formal, tangible connection with Anakin any longer, but she knew he was out there. It was the kind of feeling Obi-Wan would have urged her to trust.

Not anymore. Now Obi-Wan was a shadow, telling lies and keeping secrets.

She'd heard the implication in Sabé's words. If Obi-Wan had been the last person seen with Padmé Amidala before her death, on the cusp of the clones turning on the Jedi…

In any investigation, he would be the prime suspect until he could provide an alibi. Obi-Wan refused to say anything about Padmé—how she died, how he came to be the guardian of her newborn son instead of Anakin . All of this on top of the void where the Force should be?

Her mind slipped to a remembered glimpse of Depa Billaba in bacta, Fallen and flanked by masked Temple Guards, her Mark of Greater Illumination a gaping wound on her forehead—a cautionary tale for Jedi too arrogant or too lauded to think it couldn't happen to them.

Had Obi-Wan Kenobi become another cautionary tale?

Ahsoka shook her head, letting the sharp edge of anger clear away the gathering doubts. She couldn't put those pieces together. She couldn't.

As for Qui-Gon Jinn? His loyalty to his former apprentice clearly outweighed his trust in her. That hurt, more than she'd expected; Ahsoka thought they were friends, bound further by lineage and leaving the Order.

At the end of everything, who would have guessed that Asajj Ventress was the person Ahsoka could count on to have her back?

As if hearing her name, Asajj groaned into her pillow. "'Soka."

Ahsoka knelt at the head of the bed and couldn't help but smooth a lock of messy, white hair out of Asajj's face. Rusty flakes of dried blood stained the pillow. "Hey, you need to rest. You've had a rough day."

Asajj followed the press of Ahsoka's fingers like a cat and cracked open heavy eyelids. Her ice-blue eyes were still glassy. "I didn't tell them," she mumbled insistently.

Leaning a bit closer, Ahsoka let her hand rest on the curve of Asajj's neck. Her pulse thrummed against Ahsoka's palm. "Tell them what, Asa?"

Dark eyelashes fanned over Asajj's pale cheeks as her eyelids slid closed. "About the baby. I didn't tell 'em, I swear."

Does everyone know about the baby but me? Fury rose like bile in her throat. She had to know. "What baby?"

"Amidala's." At Ahsoka's angry inhale, Asajj's eyes fluttered. "Don't be mad. I was good."

Ahsoka brushed another lock of hair from Asajj's forehead. Her hand lingered as she nudged the Dathomiri gently back to sleep. "I'm not mad," reassured Ahsoka as she pulled the covers over Asajj's sharp shoulders. "At least, not at you."

When she was certain Asajj was sleeping once more, Ahsoka stood. Answers, and answers now.

To her, the ship was never quiet. The gravity plating hummed in concert with the gentle rumble of the sublight engines. Her boots, however, made no noise as she stalked up the ladder to the cockpit. Togruta were apex predators, and the Temple had tried its best to sand away her sharp edges and sharper urges. They hadn’t done a very good job. Her lips pulled back, revealing her canines. Ahsoka prowled for the truth, and she was no longer bound to obey anyone .

Qui-Gon lifted his head from the instrument panels as soon as she stepped into the cockpit. "How's Asajj?"

Ahsoka didn't speak. Leaning over his shoulder, she executed a nav program they saved for emergencies, then hit the hyperdrive control. The stars in the transparency stretched and wove together as the ship jumped; there was only enough time for Obi-Wan to make a noise of protest before the Banshee dropped back into empty realspace. Fingers flying, Ahsoka executed a second program—this one courtesy of the Duros bounty hunters who had nearly made off with the ship a while back—and every light on the instrument panel dimmed.

"What did you do?" demanded Obi-Wan.

Ahsoka bristled at the reappearance of that tone, reserved for dressing down his Padawans regardless of their age or rank. "I've locked out the ship systems to my access code," she replied shortly.

"Why?" Qui-Gon's brows furrowed in confusion.

"Because we're having a meeting." Not waiting for their answer, Ahsoka spun on her heel and stomped her way back down the ladder.

Arnie beeped at her quizzically as she slammed her way through the galley cupboards. [ Is it time for the field trip safety debriefing?]

"No, it's time for everyone to tell me exactly what the kark is going on," Ahsoka snapped, jerking open doors and drawers until she found the lone bag of blue puff cubes she'd been saving for the next time they were on a planet with ample, combustible wood. Sliding onto the bench, she tore open the bag and popped a sugary treat into her mouth. She chewed as the two men joined her. Impassive, Qui-Gon took the seat across from her, while Obi-Wan stood a pace behind and looked ready to jump out an airlock.

Ahsoka swallowed the puff cube and kept her tone conversational. "So where have the two of you hidden Padmé's baby?"

As expected, Qui-Gon remained quiet and calm, but Ahsoka flinched at the wave of furious panic from Obi-Wan. The black hole replacing him in the Force unfurled, rasping against Ahsoka's own shields. Obi-Wan shook his head, his eyes wild. "No, no, no one can know, no one's supposed to know, who—"

Braver than she would have been, Qui-Gon leaned back and laid his hand on Obi-Wan's arm. "Obi-Wan," he murmured. The Jedi Master stilled, but his anxiety was sharp and crystalline in the Force. Qui-Gon turned a quizzical eyebrow on Ahsoka, a challenge and an invitation.

She narrowed her eyes. "You forgot that Togruta have far better hearing than the average human. I'd wager my last credit you haven't actually sent him to Lasan."

Silence, thick and full of obfuscation.

Ahsoka slammed her hand on the table. "Force damn the both of you! Padmé was my friend! I'm grieving for her, and her child, and you didn't trust me to tell me you have her son?"

At least Qui-Gon had the good grace to flick his gaze down, contrite. "Plausible deniability," he said quietly.

"Qui-Gon!" A vicious whipcrack of warning.

"No," replied Qui-Gon evenly. "It's a cruelty to deny it now."

Obi-Wan said nothing, but Ahsoka was certain the haunted gaze that fell upon her wasn't seeing her.

Qui-Gon sighed, a soft exhale. "If we were caught by the Empire, by the Sith—"

"Then we'd all be executed together," snarled Ahsoka. "I doubt Palpatine is making exceptions for Jedi who left the Order."

"Do you understand what the Sith would do to that child if he's found?" asked Qui-Gon.

"Do you understand I would never let that happen?" cried Ahsoka. "Padmé was my friend, and Anakin was my Master, and I love them! I would die before I put their son in harm's way!"

At the sound of Anakin's name, Obi-Wan flinched as if she'd slapped him. His voice was harsh. "Would you, Ahsoka? Would you lay down your life before you reveal his existence? Would you let the Sith torture you without ever giving him a hint that the child lives?"

"Of course she would." Asajj's hoarse voice cut through the gathering thunderclouds. "If you really knew her, you wouldn't have to ask."

Obi-Wan rounded on Asajj, who stared at him defiantly as she hung on the doorframe of her quarters, looking like the victim of a bantha stampede. "You can stay the everloving fuck out of this," he growled.

"Oh, I liked you better when you were high," muttered Asajj. When Obi-Wan opened his mouth again, ready to attack, she flicked a pale hand at him. "Don't yell at me. I'm already hip-deep in this clusterfuck of Skywalker's progeny."

Obi-Wan whirled on Ahsoka, his finger stabbing the air in her direction. "You told the Sith assassin ?"

A loud wail pierced the air. [ Why are we yelling?!] screeched Arnie, its arms flailing in distress. [ Inside voices! ]

A fall of snow-white hair brushed against Asajj's eyelashes as she managed a smirk. In the Force, Ahsoka felt a brief flare of hurt, quickly buried. "She didn't tell me shit, Kenobi. Ask your mouthy droid."

Every eye turned on the patched-up droid. It froze under the intense scrutiny, arms in the air, and emitted a tiny, distressed whine. [ No information was designated protected. ]

"It's not your fault, Arnie," Ahsoka said, reaching out to pat the droid's racing stripe.

"The droid gets wiped right now," ordered Obi-Wan.

"No." Ahsoka glared at him. "Right now you talk. Whatever you're doing involves the baby, and now it involves us."

Qui-Gon nodded, imploring as he glanced at Obi-Wan. The Jedi Master, however, had eyes only for Asajj Ventress. "The enemy of my enemy isn't good enough anymore."

Asajj snorted, devolving into a coughing fit. She pounded her fist against her chest and drew a ragged breath. "While the Naboo were far more interested in you than their own personal war criminal, I learned the Emperor wants to…talk to me."

"What did you tell them?" The sound of cracking knuckles caught Ahsoka's attention; she glanced down at Obi-Wan's clenched fists with a frown. The look on his face had her thanking the universe he didn't have a lightsaber in his hand.

Asajj saw, too. The snide curl of her lip vanished. "I've already endured torture to protect your little secret, and I'll cut my own throat before I'll let the Sith have me again. I told them nothing."

"Why should I trust you, Ventress?" The words hung in the air, mocking and vicious, but with an unexpectedly earnest edge. As if he truly wanted an answer.

Asajj's exhausted eyes, wide in a face pinched with pain, settled on Ahsoka. "I'm trying," she whispered, pitched for Ahsoka's hearing.

Having Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon on board, delving deeper into this dangerous situation, was throwing off the delicate balance of Asajj’s stability. The Dathomiri had climbed a sheer cliff out of darkness, and now held onto the light with her fingernails; it was only a matter of time before the clash of Sith and Jedi loosened her grip.  "I know," Ahsoka murmured.

"Fuck you, Kenobi," Asajj said wearily, then disappeared into her quarters, the door hissing after her.

Obi-Wan stood, staring at nothing, then marched into Ahsoka's quarters. The locking mechanism snapped into place.

"That went well," Ahsoka grumbled snidely as she slid off the bench.

"Ahsoka—"

"When you're ready to have a conversation between equals, I'll be in the cockpit." She refused to glance back at Qui-Gon as she hauled herself up the ladder.

 

There was a lovely little asteroid belt in the Chommell Sector, full of metallic asteroids emitting all kinds of convenient radiation. Padmé had pointed it out to Ahsoka once, noting with a mischievous gleam that it was an especially good place to take a quick break from being on sensors. Ahsoka snugged the Banshee up against a large hunk of ferrous rock with a slow spin and set the ship to low power.

Hooking one leg over the armrest, Ahsoka leaned back and trailed her fingers over the comm controls. She started with the first frequency she'd ever memorized.

An oh-so-familiar voice, cultured Coruscanti tones underscoring his calm authority, filled the cabin. "— bi. I regret to report that both our Jedi Order and the Republic have fallen, with the dark shadow of the Empire rising to take their place. This message is a warning and a reminder for any surviving Jedi: trust in the Force. Do not return to the Temple. That time has passed, and our future is uncertain. Avoid Coruscant. Avoid detection. Be secret... but be strong. We will each be challenged: our trust, our faith, our friendships. But we must persevere and, in time, I believe a new hope will emerge. May the Force be with you always. "

She closed her eyes against the tears that threatened to spill over. That was the sound of her other Master—the sound of stern affection, of a hundred different lessons, of immovable stability in the maelstrom of war. She was so angry with Obi-Wan, so betrayed by him again , but the possibility of never again hearing that confident, reassuring voice? Of never again seeing him smile so it reached his eyes? Of never again brushing up against the bright, dancing spark of him in the Force?

She’d said she loved Padmé and Anakin, but she’d loved her Master Kenobi just as much. Now it seemed he had been taken from her, too.

How many more bruises could her heart take?

Ahsoka dashed her hand over her cheeks and manually adjusted the frequency scanner until soft static replaced Master Kenobi's warning. She felt Qui-Gon before he hesitated at the cockpit door.

He held out the bag of blue puff cubes in an absurdly contrite gesture. “You left your snack.”

"Have a seat," she said. The immediate anger had drained away, leaving her exhausted and out of patience. "Unless you're here to feed me some more banthashit with those puff cubes—"

"I'm not," he reassured her as he folded himself into the co-pilot's seat and set the bag on the console. "I owe you an apology. I do trust you, and I'm sorry I lied to you."

She nodded once. "Thank you." Exhaling seemed to lift a weight off her chest. "Will you tell me his name?"

The tension bled from Qui-Gon's shoulders and a gentle smile played on his lips. "Luke."

Luke Naberrie. She said it silently and decided it felt nice in her mouth. "Does he look like her?"

Qui-Gon's smile became wistful. "Like his father."

"Padmé will be happy. She always said Anakin was the pretty one," Ahsoka said. Qui-Gon chuckled sadly.

They sat in silence as she fiddled with the scanner. "What are you doing?" he asked, his voice pitched to a soft rumble.

"Listening."

"To what?"

Static snapped into a clear voice that sent ice water through her veins. The gravelly, posh accent—Force, how could evil sound so well-bred?—filled the cockpit.

" My citizens, we have triumphed! We have ended the long years of war that have wrought unspeakable suffering in every corner of the galaxy. It has not been three years of war, but a thousand, since our forefathers, brave and seeking only peace, conquered the armies of the Jedi.

" Being trusting and seeking righteous action, we imparted trust to those who wished to bring terror and grief. The Jedi looked upon us with one face and plotted the destruction of our galaxy with the other. They wore the disguise of democracy while cutting down our citizens. What the Jedi called justice, we call murder. What they called the will of the Republic, we call plutocracy.

" We are not like the Jedi. We do not seek to shape words into palatable lies for the people. We speak plainly. We do not brush off the victories of our enemies, for the truth sustains us. The truth that the Jedi were victorious for a millennium should never be forgotten.The truth that the Jedi waged war against us should burn in our hearts. Our continued victory depends on that cold fire stoked in the longest nights to remind us of betrayal and deceit ."

Ahsoka recoiled. "We betrayed?" she snarled, but Qui-Gon shushed her.

" Let it be said that the clones of Kamino, those men whose freedom was stolen by the Jedi, fought with honour and glory. Let it be said that the officers of the Confederacy, those brave citizens who chose to offer their lives to once again defeat the Jedi, fought with honour and glory. Let those who suffered as the Jedi ravaged their homes and orphaned their children be remembered, so we never allow the Jedi to rise again. Let those who stood by and watched the bloodshed stay silent, for they have nothing to offer but their shame.

" We must rise from the ashes of war and betrayal. We must rise, together, and create immutable bonds between us all. In every corner of our galaxy, we must join together, implacable as we say never again! Never again will we be betrayed! Never again will we be betrayed by the Jedi, for we have freed ourselves from their shackles!

" My citizens! This is the dawn of our new Empire, where we are all one! Do not be deceived by those who whisper poison or grumble lies. The people of the Empire have achieved victory, and let us revel in the peace we have created! "

The sound of an enormous crowd cheering replaced Palpatine's voice. Lip curling, Ahsoka switched the scanner to static. "I feel like I need a shower."

"You're not the only one," replied Qui-Gon grimly.

"How could anyone listen to that and believe it?" Frustration bubbled in her chest. "It's obviously propaganda."

Qui-Gon stared out at the asteroids. His mouth turned down at the corners. "Even before the war, the Jedi brought peace to places where war and violence had already destroyed families. We were the face of a long, massive war that left no corner of the galaxy untouched. People naturally look for a scapegoat, because considering complex webs of politics and economics is too much work or beyond their abilities, so Palpatine gave them one."

She eyed him. "We?"

"They," he corrected with a tiny shrug. "We. I'm wondering if one ever stops being a Jedi, or if being Jedi has left such an indelible mark on us that it will always be there for others to see."

"Right now, once a Jedi, always a Jedi, whether we like it or not," Ahsoka suggested.

Qui-Gon gave her a tiny, wry smile. The static filled the space between them until he said, "Master Piell collected speeches like that."

Grief gripped her heart so unexpectedly that she gasped. Qui-Gon leaned towards her, concern painting his features, but she waved him away.

The Lannik's grasp on her elbow weakened with every breath. "Do you understand, child?" Even Piell gasped.

"Yes, Master," Ahsoka replied. "Now I'll get help—"

"No," he said, "no. Just-just stay with me, Ahsoka. To my surprise, I do not wish to die alone."

She didn't want to stay. It felt like her heart was twisting in her chest. She inhaled, sulfur and ash from the lava flows tainting the air. She was a Jedi, and she was brave. "You're not gonna die."

"Such insolence, telling a Master what he cannot do." Master Piell offered a smile, just a twitch of his lips. "Try that on the old green troll and tell me how it goes, yes?"

A noise escaped her, part laugh and part sob. "Yes, Master."

He didn't hear her reply.

"Weird thing to collect," Ahsoka said thickly.

Qui-Gon, bless him, said nothing about her sudden state; instead he fished a clean handkerchief out of his pocket and set it on the control panel in front of her. She took it gratefully and wiped her cheeks. Qui-Gon politely looked out the transparency and said, "He used to teach a class on fascist rhetoric for the diplomatic corps before he took his seat on the Council. A fascinating, if disturbing, set of lectures."

"Was he a friend?"

With an imperceptible sigh, Qui-Gon plucked a blue puff cube out of the bag and gazed at the confection like it held the secrets of the galaxy. "A colleague. If we weren't friends it was certainly my fault, not his," he said sadly. Popping the puff cube in his mouth, he reached for the co-pilot's comm controls and began flipping through low-band frequencies. Disgust pinched his face. "Sweet Force, you eat these?"

"They're better if you toast them over a fire. They get all gooey. Asajj smushes them between these weird crackers with a piece of Trammistan chocolate and it's kind of amazing."

Qui-Gon wrinkled his nose. "That's—wait. Do you hear that?"

Ahsoka cocked her head. "Static?"

"No." Qui-Gon leaned towards the comm, holding his breath as he listened intently. His eyes widened. "That's an encrypted High Council emergency signal, very short range, less than two lightyears. Someone's nearby."

"I'll get Obi-Wan," replied Ahsoka, her blood thrumming with concern and curiosity and urgency.

"No," Qui-Gon ordered. "No, he wouldn't have this encryption code."

Ahsoka turned her chair to narrow her eyes at him. "And why would the High Councilor on board my ship not have the encryption code to the High Council emergency channel?"

He studiously did not look at her. "Because the code is about twenty five years out of date."

Before Ahsoka could consider what exactly that meant, a stuttering, blue holoimage coalesced on the console projector. At the sight of the heavily lined human face, Qui-Gon's jaw dropped. "He’s alive?"

A thin, quivering voice answered him. " This is Tor Difusal calling any Jedi. I require immediate assistance. Exact landing coordinates are encrypted in the transmission metadata using that ghastly code T'un liked so much. Please…please hurry. "

"Who is that?" Ahsoka had never seen the elderly man's face before, and she didn't recognize his name.

Qui-Gon muted the transmission as it began again. "Now you need to get Obi-Wan." His tone, identical to Master Kenobi snapping orders, brooked no argument.

Ahsoka ran.

Chapter Text

With the roar of the fire, my heart rose to its feet
Like the ashes of ash, I saw rise in the heat
Settled soft and as pure as snow
I fell in love with the fire long ago

Would That I, Hozier

 

"You can't say no, we're already in orbit," retorted Qui-Gon, ignoring the spectacular glare from his former apprentice. The hyperjump had been ridiculously quick, easily calculated based on the transmission data. The small world of Jafan IV filled the transparency, an unassuming ball of mostly water with a handful of scattered settlements.

"We have a mission," argued Obi-Wan, crossing his arms over his chest. "The longer it takes—"

"Sometimes a Jedi must be a little flexible." Qui-Gon forced himself to stay perfectly calm—the only defence against Obi-Wan's stubbornness. "If we can help Master Difusal—"

"Assuming this transmission is genuine. Assuming it's not a trap. Assuming he hasn't already been killed," Obi-Wan replied. His mouth twisted sourly. "And you're not a Jedi anymore."

The snappish retort of then what exactly are you curled over Qui-Gon's tongue, and he swallowed the urge to say it. One fight at a time.

In the pilot's seat, Ahsoka huffed in irritation and shot a glare over her shoulder at Obi-Wan. Her voice was full of false sweetness. "It's my ship and I say we check it out. If you don't like it, there's a lovely airlock in the cargo bay you're welcome to use at any time." She glanced over at Qui-Gon. "Why did you need him, again?"

"Yes, did you drag me up here merely to run roughshod over our mission in person, or was there something else you needed?" That dry sarcasm was a touchstone of near normality. It made Ben sound like himself again.

Qui-Gon swallowed around the lump in his throat. "Do you remember decryption code Trill-Usk-Nern?"

Surprise flitted over Obi-Wan's face. The annoyed posture melted into thoughtful curiosity. "The Brain Scrambler?"

Ahsoka snorted. "I heard someone memorized that once for extra credit in the senior coding class. Legend had it they had a minor aneurysm, but they passed with 289%."

Qui-Gon bit back a smile as Obi-Wan coughed into his fist and said primly, "The aneurysm is sheer exaggeration, I assure you."

Encouraged by the glimpse of normality, Qui-Gon offered Obi-Wan a sly smile. "Can you live up to the grade?"

"We shall see."

The cockpit wasn't meant for three people. Before Qui-Gon could offer his seat, Obi-Wan leaned over him, steadying himself with an arm draped along Qui-Gon's shoulders, and began typing a code into the computer. Qui-Gon froze. If he shifted forward, he could nuzzle the silken spot behind Obi-Wan's ear. He could kiss his way along that jaw, savouring the scrape of stubble against his lips. He could snake his arm around Obi-Wan's hips and haul him into Qui-Gon's lap and finish what they'd started—

It had been a mistake, kissing Obi-Wan back. Qui-Gon could blame it on the bad memories dredged up in Theed, on wanting to chase the dregs of horror and death from his chest, on wanting to remind himself that he was alive. Or he could be honest and admit that seeing "Ben" on that phoney ident card had kindled a desperate desire to get back the man Qui-Gon had given up—the beautiful, wise, sarcastic man who insisted trouble found him as if he never had a hand in it, who negotiated through intransigence or weapons both without batting an eye, who flew ships like he was born in a cockpit but complained that he hated to fly. The braver half of his heart.

A bare half year together hadn't been long enough for Qui-Gon to summon the courage to say all the things in his heart. He had never been good at laying his heart bare; Tahl would have gladly attested to that. There were so many possibilities he'd imagined for them both, possibilities where they spent their lives together, gallivanting around the galaxy with a staggering succession of impish Padawans and letting Obi-Wan talk politely scathing circles around the Council. There was one possibility, buried so deep and cradled so tightly as to never escape, where two civilians fixed up an old farmhouse on some temperate colony and raised a brood that weren't chickens.

He knew they could have been happy together, but that was then.

Qui-Gon felt the void brush up against him, and he was ashamed his first instinct was to shy away.

He missed his Ben.

"I think that's it," announced Obi-Wan. He tilted his head back at Qui-Gon. A tiny gleam of mischief flickered in those grey eyes. "Do I get extra credit?"

Obi-Wan straightened, but as he moved away, he brushed his thumb across the back of Qui-Gon's neck. The heat of the gesture warred with the cool touch. Qui-Gon suppressed a shudder.

The galaxy had gone to shit, but Ben—Ben, his lovely, damnable tease—was still in there.

Qui-Gon couldn't help a slow, broad smile. Maybe kissing back hadn't been a mistake, exactly. Premature, maybe, but not a mistake. "Always."

"Are we going to land the ship to these coordinates or would you two like to finish flirting first?" asked Ahsoka, her tone drier than Jedha.

He was too old to be blushing. "Ahsoka Tano, where did you pick up such impudence?"

Ahsoka snorted and flicked her gaze at Obi-Wan as she began the planetary entry sequence.

 

The first breath of planetary atmosphere always sent a thrill through Qui-Gon's nerves. The Living Force danced around him, teasing the secrets of this world in a whirl of life and death and rebirth. Whispers washed over him. The tough, sparse grass clinging in the spaces between rocks worn by long-forgotten glaciers waved in the air currents of the engine shutdown sequence, beckoning him to admire the tiny purple flowers perched on long stalks. Insects buzzed, seeking their mates in the sultry summer haze, while the tiny mammals slept, waiting for the cool relief of the setting sun. Qui-Gon inhaled deeply, unfurling his Force sense and finding no quivering thread of danger.

They'd landed the ship on the only flat bit of land in the area—a narrow shelf hanging over a shallow canyon. The surrounding rocks, ground smooth and round, stretched over most of the landscape. Qui-Gon tilted his head at the tall rock formations filling the canyon and climbing up the walls; they rose like stone trees, narrow stalks holding impossibly wide, heavy canopies. The graceful, precarious beauty of the rocks warmed something inside him that the sunlight didn't touch. He loved his brothers and sisters in the Temple of Kyber, but he could admit to himself that he missed the thrill of visiting new worlds and experiencing the splendour of their unique nature.

Obi-Wan strode down the loading dock with a blaster in his hand. His eyes flicked over the landscape. "This is a terrible defensive position," he muttered. "You could hide an army around here."

"Defilade," agreed Ahsoka darkly as she joined them. Her fingers rested on the butts of her blasters, holstered against her thighs. "We would have been better off landing elsewhere and walking."

"These were the coordinates in the message," Qui-Gon reminded them. "Master Difusal must be around here somewhere, but I don't sense any humanoid presence—"

From the top of the ramp, Asajj sniffed. "He's right there." She was pointing to a deep-looking crack in the rock. "You don't see him?"

Qui-Gon squinted. A dark crevice, holding nothing in the Force. "No."

Asajj hobbled down the ramp, her movements stiff. "You humans have a shit light spectrum."

"Hey!" grumbled Ahsoka without stopping her critical scan of the landscape.

"I would've thought an apex predator would have better eyesight." Asajj cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted, "I can see you, you old fart."

Obi-Wan stared at her, appalled. "You can't—"

"I just did."

From the dark crevice, a tiny figure shuffled into the sunlight. Dark hands pushed back the hood of a dust-coloured cloak. "And I can see you, you pale witch."

"You're not wrong," Asajj replied with a shrug.

"That makes two of us," answered the old man. Ahsoka stifled a snort of surprised laughter.

"Master Difusal?" Qui-Gon watched the elderly Jedi carefully take five steps towards them. "We got your transmission."

Cocking his head at the sound of Qui-Gon's voice, Difusal shuffled closer and peered up at him. Time had etched deep lines on his forehead and cheeks and stolen the dark colours of his eyebrows and hair. Tufts of silver made a cloud around his head. His presence in the Force was so muted Qui-Gon barely registered it. "You look familiar."

"Qui-Gon Jinn."

Difusal tapped his chin with a gnarled, skeletal finger. "Jinn. Jinn. I know that name—no, don't tell me, my brain still works even if my hips have given up the ghost. Jinn." He hummed as he eyed Qui-Gon with piercing brown eyes, and Qui-Gon was twenty-five again, stock still under the High Council's scrutiny as they pronounced him a Jedi Knight. "Jinn! That Dooku's apprentice. Never thought one of his would make the High Council, but good for you, overcoming such a disadvantage! Should have smacked that fool boy upside the head when I had the chance. Sweet Force, Jinn, don't they enforce hair standards anymore? You could pass for Master Tyvokka, Force rest him."

"I lost my razor," replied Qui-Gon dryly. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Obi-Wan stare at him with the kind of unblinking glare that intimated a long conversation Qui-Gon would not be able to wriggle out of. "Your message said you need help?"

"Hmm." Difusal's gaze roved over Obi-Wan. "Something's wrong with you. You stay with the ship."

"I'm fine. Arnie will stay with the ship," replied Obi-Wan, perfectly polite on the surface but more than a little petulant to Qui-Gon's practiced ear.

Difusal sucked his teeth. "And who might you be, boy?"

"High Councilor Obi-Wan Kenobi." Obi-Wan's voice could have made it snow.

"Oh, well, how lucky am I to have two High Councilors at my beck and call," muttered Difusal. "Only took you a week." He turned and started shuffling away, and when they didn't immediately follow, he called over his shoulder, "Do you need walking instructions or did they take that out of the curriculum since I retired?"

 

Difusal's tiny dwelling had been hollowed out of the rocks at the terminus of a large crevice. The flat ceiling was dirty transparisteel, filtering the unrelenting afternoon light into a pleasant, warm glow. Carved into the rock walls were dozens of nooks filled with flimsi books. A myriad of rugs, the colours faded from the sun, covered every inch of the floor. A computer terminal was wedged in one corner between nooks, while a collection of appliances and a cupboard in the opposite corner could barely be called a galley, let alone a kitchen. Qui-Gon wondered where the old man slept. The old Jedi hobbled to a well-loved armchair and eased himself down with a breathy sigh. "Don't worry about your boots. The dust gets in no matter what I do," he said, waving them in. "We'll have to leave in the morning; it will take the night to compile a copy of my archive."

"Archive?" asked Obi-Wan, glancing around at the sparse living space.

"Master Difusal is a Lorekeeper, if my memory serves," replied Qui-Gon.

The old man's lips quirked into a half-smile. "Been retired from active duty for more than a few decades, but I've been collecting Jedi writings for 169 years. I told everyone I wanted to commune with the Force, maybe write my memoirs, but to be honest I came here to get away from Jocasta."

Ahsoka perked up at the familiar name. "Chief Librarian Nu?"

"Oh ho, she made chief, did she?" grumbled Difusal. "Bloody know-it-all. If she thinks the archives are so complete, then why do I have a zettabyte of documents not catalogued anywhere in any Jedi database?"

In the corner, Asajj scoffed. "So what's the big emergency? Why'd you drag us all the way here?"

"The documents!" cried Difusal, slapping his hands against the arms of the chair. The Force spiked with anger. "Haven't you been paying attention?"

Before Qui-Gon could intervene, Ahsoka stepped up to the old Master. "Can you tell us about the documents, Master?" she asked, as respectfully as a Padawan.

"Oh, there's too many to do that," Difusal replied as he rubbed at an invisible spot on his sleeve. "It would take years to do that. We should have started tomorrow."

Qui-Gon's heart sank. They were too late; perhaps months too late. Tor Difusal was nearing his end, and without the care of Healers in the Temple, the call of the Force was overcoming his sense of the here and now. It would not be long before the Force claimed him. "Ahsoka," he said gently, "perhaps you could assist Master Difusal with the data compilation while we prepare the ship?"

Some of his sorrow must have reached his expression, because Ahsoka's eyes widened. She nodded and knelt next to Difusal's chair. "I'd be honoured."

Difusal smiled and patted her hand. "It's been a long time since I've had a Padawan at my beck and call. Well, come on then, help me out of this Force-forsaken chair."

"Yes, Master." Ahsoka returned the smile as she stood and let him grip her forearms, but Qui-Gon noted the sadness in her eyes. "I'm not a Padawan, though."

"Oh! My apologies. A prickly subject for the newly promoted. Young for a Knight," said Difusal as he struggled out of the chair. "Your Master must be very proud."

"Yes." The single word from Obi-Wan's lips was soft and low. He walked out of the Jedi Master's home in silence.

Ahsoka watched Obi-Wan go, a flicker of devastation crossing her features, but her voice was steady. "Asa, if you move my stuff into the cargo bay, Master Difusal can stay in my cabin. Help Qui-Gon with whatever he needs, okay?"

Asajj jerked a nod, and Qui-Gon followed her out.

 

About half-way to the ship, Qui-Gon decided he'd let Asajj breathe too hard long enough. "I'm not the galaxy's best healer," he said lightly, "but I'll give you another round if you'd like. You don't need to suffer."

"I'll live," Asajj replied, as if automatically. She stumbled over a crack in the rock and glared at him, as if challenging him to contradict her.

Keeping his face neutral, Qui-Gon let her recover on her own. "I know you'll live. I'm simply offering quicker improvement. We don't know what's coming for us next."

Asajj slowed, then stopped. Qui-Gon turned to face her, patiently expectant. The girl's shoulders drooped for a split-second before she drew herself up again. "Fine," she said, as if agreeing to a bad deal.

Fighting his pleased smile down to a serene quirk of his lips, Qui-Gon approached her. "Have you ever been healed with the Force before?"

"Yes." That pointed chin came up in defiance, but he felt her sudden spike of terror.

"This isn't like that," Qui-Gon said quietly. Stars, he could only imagine what Sith healing must be like. Had Dooku inflicted that on her, too? He swallowed down a spike of anger and tried to sound casually reassuring. "At its very worst, it's like being tickled on the inside of your skin."

The chin came down slightly. "Get on with it, then, before Kenobi and that shitty droid steal my ship."

"Hold out your hands." A wary look flitted over her features. He ducked his head slightly to look her in the eye. "Please?"Slowly, Asajj lifted her hands, palms up. Not wanting to push his luck, Qui-Gon closed his eyes and settled his palms over hers without touching her. He delved into the Force, enjoying the warmth that bloomed in him, and spun fine filaments of energy into a web. The web settled over Asajj like a blanket, repairing exhausted, spasming muscles and shoring up the girl's energy reserves. He sensed the struggle inside her, the constant fight against the siren song of the dark. He felt her fear, squashed into the core of her by sheer will.

That fight had freed her from the Sith. That will had freed her from Dooku.

He didn't hide his admiration as he slowly withdrew the Force and opened his eyes. Asajj was staring at him. Instead of her usual suspicion, however, he thought he saw an inkling of curiosity.

With a smile, he turned towards the ship. "I like the gravity on this planet. You know, I think I want to sleep under the stars tonight."

 

The sun set rapidly on Jafan IV, painting the rocks with spectacular hues of pink and orange for mere minutes before plunging the canyon into purple twilight. Qui-Gon leaned against a smooth boulder and listened to Ahsoka and Asajj argue over the best way to ignite fuel cubes. The darkening sky revealed unfamiliar constellations and unfurled a spectacular view of the Kaliida Nebula. A chorus of nocturnal insects hummed over the landscape, delightfully discordant.

Master Difusal scrambled up the rock to their little outcropping, followed closely by Obi-Wan carrying an armload of woven mats. "I could break my neck out here," Difusal panted accusingly as Ahsoka helped him straighten. The old man shook his finger at both girls. "Foolish Padawans, the both of you, and your Masters more foolish still for indulging you. Sleeping outside, bah!"

Asajj opened her mouth to protest, but Ahsoka frowned and shook her head minutely. "Master Difusal, why don't I help you back to your house and you can sleep somewhere more comfortable?"

"Then why did I come all the way out here?" demanded Difusal.

"Because you didn't trust me not to steal your mats," Obi-Wan said, dry as dust.

The old Jedi opened his mouth to argue, paused, then frowned. "I'm sure I didn't say that out loud," he muttered, then held out an elbow to Ahsoka. "Get me home in one piece, would you?"

Ahsoka nodded, her smile overly sweet. "Sure thing, Master." As she and Difusal shuffled to the edge of the outcropping, she tossed over her shoulder, "Asa, make a square so there's airflow."

Scowling at the Togruta's disappearing montrals, Asajj re-stacked the fuel cubes into a pyramid. She touched the top cube and drew upon the Force; with the clumsy ability of a young apprentice, she set the cube alight. It flared, then spluttered into smoke.

"If you focus on the friction, the heat will take care of itself," Qui-Gon murmured. A lesson he'd taught before, forcing himself to be patient and Masterly and pretending not to hear ten year-old Xan's muttered curses while rain soaked through their cloaks.

The suggestion earned him a murderous glare followed by a successfully lit fire. He smiled up at the stars.

Obi-Wan dropped the mats by the fire, then settled next to Qui-Gon. "High Councilor Jinn," Obi-Wan greeted him wryly, his voice quiet enough not to carry.

Qui-Gon sighed heavily. His smile vanished. "Must we?"

"Oh, yes, we must."

The lack of amusement set Qui-Gon's teeth on edge. "It's not something I'm proud of."

"What, lying to me for years?" Obi-Wan replied, dry and bland.

"I never lied!" retorted Qui-Gon, upset at the accusation escaping before he could pull himself together. "I always said I didn't want a seat on the Council."

"Semantics. I guess I shouldn't be surprised at that from you. You said you didn't want a seat on the Council, but just neglected to mention that you'd already had one." Obi-Wan blew out a frustrated breath. His grey eyes were plaintive, tinged with hurt. "How could you not tell me about this? I was your apprentice, and then I was your working partner for ten years, and then we—" His teeth snapped together so fast Qui-Gon heard the click. "After everything between us, why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you trust me with this?"

Qui-Gon stared at his hands where they rested on his bent knees. Shame roiled in his belly—not for the lie by omission, but for giving Obi-Wan doubt. "It wasn't because I didn't trust you," he admitted. "It was because I made a damned fool of myself. There isn't even an official record of my seat because Master Tyvokka took pity on me and 'lost' all the paperwork."

"What happened?" Obi-Wan shifted closer. His shoulder bumped against Qui-Gon's arm.

"Do you know about Galidraan? The massacre?"

Obi-Wan nodded slowly. "Jedi were dispatched to quell the True Mandalorians during the civil war. It was a bloodbath on both sides."

"Master Tyvokka asked me to fill a vacant seat on the Council. He thought it would be beneficial to have someone who liked to question the status quo. I didn't seek the nomination; he asked me. I was…at loose ends, I suppose." Qui-Gon gathered his courage and looked at Obi-Wan. His copper hair gleamed in the firelight. "This was not long before we met."

"Ah." Understanding encapsulated in a syllable. Obi-Wan looked at him with more sympathy than Qui-Gon felt entitled to. "Loose ends is a bit of an understatement."

Depressed, angry, unable to crawl out of Xanatos' Fallen shadow—Qui-Gon Jinn had been a hollow disaster. Instead of committing him to the Healers, Master Tyvokka had seen an opportunity to give Qui-Gon purpose again. Qui-Gon didn't blame the Wookiee for that mistake; no one else had marched him to the Halls of Healing, either.

Qui-Gon rubbed a thumb over his knuckles. "Yes. It was strongly intimated by my former Master that I was not allowed to turn down such an honour."

"Dooku." Disgust and disappointment were punctuated with Obi-Wan's frown.

By the crackling fire, Asajj's ear tilted towards them. At least Qui-Gon wouldn't have to tell the story twice; no doubt the young woman would tell Ahsoka later. "He figures quite strongly in this."

"So you accepted the seat," Obi-Wan prompted.

"I did. There was a request for assistance from Mandalore. We decided to send a contingent, but there was some squabbling over who would lead the mission. I put forth Master Dooku's name." If he closed his eyes, Qui-Gon could hear that deep voice shouting, smell the blood that clung to the bottom of Dooku's boots. "More than half the Jedi didn't come home. My sister-Padawan, Komari, she—her body returned, but I think her soul was cracked. Dooku publicly called out the Council for approving the mission without proper intelligence."

"And privately?" Gods, Obi-Wan was too smart by half.

"Privately, he blamed me for the whole affair." Qui-Gon chuckled bitterly. It hadn't been the first time Dooku had slapped him, but it was the first time Qui-Gon was certain Dooku had meant it. "I should have questioned them, since that was why I was there, and didn't I give a damn about Komari?"

From the fire, Asajj spoke. Her voice carried over the smoke and dancing sparks. "He was in charge of the operation." When she glanced at Qui-Gon, he saw an ocean's worth of understanding and no little anger in her eyes. "He had the authority to make decisions. That's the whole point of having someone in command."

Obi-Wan's gaze fixed on Asajj, his mouth a tight line until he said softly, "She's right."

"But Dooku wasn't entirely wrong. The intelligence we'd received wasn't complete and we sent Jedi into the field to die without purpose. I resigned my seat a tenday after I'd accepted it. The shortest serving High Councilor in the Order's history." As Obi-Wan's eyebrows disappeared into his hair, Qui-Gon added cynically, "But not before giving a scathing speech about listening to the Force and doing what was right, not what was asked of us."

Obi-Wan sighed deeply, sounding resigned as his shoulder pressed against Qui-Gon's arm.

Of course. That was the reason they were in this emotional maelstrom, unable to see a clear path forward. Qui-Gon Jinn had made a speech and walked out. Qui-Gon Jinn did what he thought was right and ended up doing so much wrong.

"That's very you," Obi-Wan murmured.

"Arrogant and petulant and pompous?" snapped Qui-Gon.

"No." The soft reply was a surprise. Tentatively, Obi-Wan covered Qui-Gon's hand with his own. The cool touch was gentle, comforting without expectation. "Standing up for what you believe, no matter the obstacle. Speaking your mind when all others are against you. Courage instead of deference. Even when I wanted to yell at you, even when I was yelling at you, you always made me so proud."

In that moment—in that Moment—Qui-Gon lived. The fire danced in the cooling night, sending sparks up to meet the billions of stars dazzling in the navy sky. Plumes of smoke curled in the air and insects sang, harmonious for a single second. The strands of Obi-Wan's hair were a wreath of molten copper. His eyes, changeable grey, gleamed with promise and want and regret.

Instead of pushing out, seeking and feeding, the void in the Force stilled.

There was hope. For the first time since the Sith had his revenge, there was hope—for the galaxy, for the Jedi, for Obi-Wan Kenobi.

With a contented hum, Qui-Gon turned his hand over beneath Obi-Wan's and looked up at the sky. When those cold fingers wove between his and squeezed, a smile tugged at the corners of his lips.

Qui-Gon Jinn's hope outweighed his despair.

Chapter Text

I never made it with moderation
No, I never understood
All the feeling was all or nothing
And I took everything I could
Can't hold it back, I can't take the tension
Oh, I'm trying to be good

Moderation, Florence + the Machine

As a child, the stars had been her constant companions. Night would fall and her twinkling friends would appear as if by magic, and Asajj Ventress would escape the misery of slavery for a handful of minutes as she climbed up onto the windowsill. She'd never learned the proper constellations. The old woman who had cooked and cleaned and smacked Asajj with a wooden spoon when she didn't run errands fast enough hadn't known the stars; she'd laughed, not unkindly, when Asajj had asked if every star was part of a picture in the sky. The shapes Asajj traced with her little fingers, though, she'd named them all—the Cup, the Dog, the Snake. Not being from Rattatak, Ky had known a different night sky. They had spent many nights staring up at the dark, arms in the air as Asajj sketched out intricate images and Ky spun stories like never-ending thread.

In the years as a Rattataki warlord, and the equally violent years that followed doing Dooku's bidding, Asajj had forgotten her celestial companions. Her ability and willingness to see beauty had vanished as she rushed headlong into ugliness.

There were flashes of beauty on this boring, useless planet. The impossibly-shaped, precarious rocks, the magenta and indigo blur of a nearby nebula lighting the sky, the unending song of hidden insects, the flickering orange warmth soaking into her skin—and underneath the crackle of the fire, familiar soft breaths.

She could stay like this for a long time.

"Feeling better?"

Asajj tipped her chin up, roving her gaze away from the sky to find an upside-down Ahsoka wearing a tiny concerned frown; Asajj flipped onto her stomach to come face-to-face with the Togruta. "Stop fussing over me," replied Asajj, rolling her eyes. "I've survived worse without you nagging."

Ahsoka smiled as she mirrored Asajj's relaxed pose and propped her chin on her forearms. "I've given you worse."

With an amused snort, Asajj wrinkled her nose. "Dragging me to a backwater and forcing me to be nice to some old bastard is much worse than being electrocuted, so yes, congratulations, you've officially given me worse."

"Nice? You've barely said ten words to him and two of them were insults." That Jedi sense of decorum reared its head at odd times; Ahsoka sounded almost offended. It was oddly charming how her friend could pull a blaster on some sleemo without dropping her smile but got put out by gently insulting someone who amounted to a long-retired coworker she'd never met.

Asajj grinned. "Not insults, accurate statements of fact. He is an old fart." She glanced over the dancing edge of the fire where Qui-Gon and Kenobi had fallen asleep against each other. Kenobi's head rested awkwardly on Qui-Gon's shoulder. They could be faking. She lowered her voice to the barest whisper and Ahsoka wriggled closer. "Not that I'm enjoying all of this running around and getting arrested, because I'm not, but would you please tell me exactly what is going on? I feel like a mushroom."

"A mushroom?"

"Yeah. Kept in the dark and fed shite."

Ahsoka flicked her eyes over at the men and lowered her voice. "You're not the only one. Okay, what do we know, what do we have, what do we need?"

This little exercise had been born when Ahsoka accepted Asajj's offer to hunt a few bounties that had needed two for the best results. After years of working alone, Ahsoka's insistence that they stop and talk over their resources, material and informational alike, had been both frustrating and revelatory. Asajj had been forced to admit the former Jedi was clever and far better at connecting pieces of interpersonal puzzles after they'd caught a bounty when Ahsoka figured out the target's mother had moved into a new care facility.

"We know Kenobi and Qui-Gon are hiding Skywalker and Amidala's baby," began Asajj. "We know the baby is in danger of being discovered and exploited by Sidious. I hate to admit it, but Skywalker was strong in the Force. His kid probably has serious potential."

"Politically, having Padmé's son to use as a prop for this Empire bullshit wouldn't hurt, either," mused Ahsoka. "We know they're trying to find a safe place to hide him. I'm certain that's why we went to Naboo, to get in contact with Padmé's family."

Asajj rested her head on her arms with a snort. "That's out of the question now. Kenobi wanted to go to Tatooine. What's there?"

Ahsoka chewed on her bottom lip as she considered the question. Her eyes widened. "Skyguy lived there, before he came to the Temple. Maybe he still has family there, and they want to hide the baby with them?"

Only once had Asajj visited Tatooine—and once had been enough. Her brief stop to encourage Jabba the Hutt to accept a meeting with the Techno Union had had her scrubbing sand from everywhere for weeks. The entire planet was a gritty ball of overheated misery and early death, natural or otherwise. Her lip curled. "You can't take a baby there."

Ahsoka tilted her head, her eyes widening. "I didn't realize you had a soft spot for babies."

"I wouldn't leave a mongrel dog on Tatooine," retorted Asajj, narrowing her eyes at Ahsoka's growing smile.

"You like babies. Tough, scary bounty hunter Asajj Ventress likes babies." Ahsoka giggled in delight. "This is the best day of my life."

With vicious precision, Asajj poked Ahsoka in the shoulder, not gently. The Togruta hissed and rubbed the spot with the heel of her hand, giving Asajj a moment to formulate her answer. How could she explain that babies were precious, to be kept from slavers and traffickers and biomedical harvesters? That you shouldn't just give babies away? That babies needed someone to give a shit about them beyond their survival?

Not a conversation she would be having, ever. Not even with Ahsoka.

She squashed those feelings, old and well-worn, back into their box and glowered. "Just because I don't want to see a baby—any baby, not just specifically Skywalker's—dumped on that criminally-infested sandbox doesn't mean I like them."

Ahsoka looked at her with those big, blue eyes, full of wry mischief. "That was very convincing. Perhaps you also have a Star Destroyer you'd like to sell me."

"Oh, fuck off, Tano." Whispered, the words had less bite, and Ahsoka grinned. Well past time to change the subject. "What about your old fart? You wanna take him with us, too? We'll be sleeping in the cargo hold at this rate."

"He's not mine," argued Ahsoka, "but we can't just leave him here alone. He's a target."

"He's safer hiding out here in the middle of nowhere than running around the ass-end of the galaxy with us." Asajj scoffed in frustration. "He's got his foot halfway in his grave. He's not important enough to be a target."

Ahsoka's expression became serious as she sighed. "He's a target because he's Jedi, Asa, just like us."

Jedi. A promised fate, brutally interrupted. Ky had wanted that so badly for her, and yet he had always spent any scrounged currency on others instead of buying passage off Rattatak. Jedi put others before themselves, Asa, he would say with a tiny, sad smile. We will reach the Temple when the Force wills it.

The will of the Force could fuck right off. It had never done her any good. "I'm not a Jedi, and neither are you," snapped Asajj.

Ahsoka lifted her head off her arms and leaned closer. "Yes, because you're so safe, not being a Jedi. You're safe and that's why Darth Sidious wants you to come by for a friendly chat where I'm sure you'll be served fancy tea and biscuits," she hissed. "Stop burying your head in semantics. The Sith wants you as much as he wants us, but he wants you alive, Asa. Think about what that means."

Frustration boiled through Asajj's veins. All this tension, all this risk—all because of Obi-Wan fucking Kenobi. Gods, the man was like a bad peggat, always turning up to make her life difficult. "Then why the fuck don't we go back to the Woodwork, bring Maz a 'sorry for shooting up the place' present, and lie fucking low? Why are we being so stupid as to let them"—she jerked her head towards the men, still seemingly asleep—"drag us around? They're gonna get us killed, Ahsoka, so why are we still here?"

Ahsoka's eyes blazed as she growled, "Because they're my family!"

A bitter laugh bubbled from Asajj's lips. Family: a single word flung in her face, a taut reminder of all the things she didn't have and never would. "But they're not mine," she snarled. "They're strangers who don't give a shit about me. Hells, Kenobi's tried to kill me—"

"Because you tried to kill him—"

"And you want me to safeguard the spawn of another Jedi asshole—who, by the way, is the reason I no longer have my original spinal nerves—from the most powerful fucker in the galaxy! If Kenobi is hiding that kid, then Sidious is looking for him, and now he's looking for me, too!" Her voice was shrill in her own ears, but couldn't overcome the pounding of her heart against her ribs. Dark clouds closed in, squeezing her from all sides, begging to be let in. Dooku had tried to keep her true abilities secret from Sidious in the good old Sith tradition of plotting to usurp your better. Asajj knew better; Dooku had been blind when it came to the vast power of his Sith Master. Sidious wove layers upon layers of networks, all invisible and filled with spies and agents taking orders from people who could never be traced back to the Chancellor of the Republic. There was no doubt Sidious knew exactly who she was and the extent of her abilities. She knew she was a child barely lifting pebbles with the Force compared to Sidious.

It terrified her.

"Why should I stay, Ahsoka? Give me one good reason why I'm putting myself in the line of fire."

All traces of earlier amusement had fled Ahsoka's bright blue eyes. She stared at Asajj, unblinking, then flipped over to lie on her back. As she closed her eyes, she murmured, "Because it's the right thing to do."

"I said a good reason," retorted Asajj."We're gonna end up dead. You, me, and those two assholes, too."

The ocean of Ahsoka's disappointment was wide and deep, filling the chasm between them. It felt like acid, etching and eating away at the soft parts of her Ahsoka had helped find. Not trusting herself to say anything that didn't come from the jagged, pulsing edges of her heart, Asajj curled her arms around her knees and stared into the dying flames.

The dark pressed a little closer, no longer full of twinkling companions.

 

"Hello?"

Asajj's heart nearly ripped out of her throat when an unfamiliar voice rang out against the rocks. Sweeping her blaster out of its holster and training it on the newcomer, she barely registered Ahsoka mirroring her stance. Behind her, Qui-Gon and Kenobi scrambled to their feet.

"Who the fuck are you?" demanded Asajj, teeth bared.

Empty hands spread wide, a short human woman slowly stepped onto the outcropping. She tossed her head like an animal to shift a lanky tendril of black hair escaped from her severe braid. She smoothed a hand over the dirty fold of her pale grey and cream robe. With a grim smile that didn't quite reach her eyes, she said, "Master Difusal said he had guests, and I came to see who it was."

Asajj squinted at the oddly cut uniform and the nearly pristine leather belt; a carved mask hung at her hip. "How the fuck did a Coruscant Temple Guard get all the way to the middle of nowhere?"

"Asa," scolded Ahsoka as she lowered her blaster. Asajj didn't take her eyes off the newcomer, but frowned at Ahsoka's lack of suspicion.

"With the Force, all things are possible," said the Guard. Her treble reminded Asajj of a tiny, delicate bird.

"Banthashit. Where's your ship?" demanded Asajj as Kenobi's tight, commanding voice rang out, "Name and security code?"

The woman's smile held an edge of relief as she bowed at the waist. "Master Kenobi, you're a sight for sore eyes. I'm Dita Andile, Temple Guard zerek-shen-four-eight-nine-wesk-zero. I managed to get off Coruscant before they locked down the planetary security net. It's good to see others made it, but"—Andile's deep brown eyes flicked between faces and narrowed as they landed on Asajj—"what are you doing with her?"

"Oh, you know, catching bounties, some light larceny. What else are Jedi going to do in this economy?" purred Asajj, enjoying the disdain flickering over Andile's face. Riling someone up was always a good way to throw them off balance. Angry people made mistakes. "You must have a fast ship to make it out here. Maybe we'll borrow it."

A firm but gentle hand grasped her shoulder. "Asa," murmured Ahsoka, "could you go see if Master Difusal's files are almost done?"

Asajj ground her molars together. Time was up, it seemed. She'd been running on borrowed time with these Jedi. She was an untrustworthy viper in a tooka den. Far more convenient for the Jedi to gang up together, pile into whatever ship this Guard bitch had stolen, and finish their deathwish mission without the trouble of Asajj Ventress tagging along. Far easier if Ahsoka didn't have to keep half her concentration on making sure Asajj didn't spiral back into the dark side. Far less complicated if Kenobi could lower his fucking hackles long enough to finish his ridiculous mission. They had every reason to be rid of her.

She hadn't expected it to hurt this much.

Brushing off Ahsoka's hand with more force than necessary, Asajj stalked past Andile without a word.

Anger thrummed in her, taut like a plucked string, as Asajj scrambled down the rocks and stalked through Difusal's door without knocking. Moonlight streamed in through the dusty glass ceiling, limning the old man hunched on his ratty armchair. Deeply asleep, he didn't stir as she strode in. She ignored him in favour of the dust-encrusted computer console in the corner.

Archives. She snorted. What a useless waste of data storage by a senile bat on the far reaches of nowhere.

No, whispered a tiny voice in the far reaches of her mind.

Ky had told her about the Temple Archive, and the far-reaching histories it contained. He had told her the stories he'd read in his favourite corner, hidden away next to a tall, thin window that let the setting sun paint the flimsi pages of the book gold and orange. He'd spun fantastic tales of Nomi Sunrider and—his favourite—her daughter Vima. He'd promised to take her there, show her all the flimsi books with their ink illustrations drawn by hand. With a little bashful smile, he had told her that he had handwritten an account of a particularly interesting mission he'd undertaken as a young Knight and the Chief Librarian had added it to the ephemera collection.

There was no way the Sith would allow Jedi writings to survive. Asajj wondered if Sidious would simply destroy it all, or if he would make a public spectacle of it.

Asajj would never see Ky's book, never trace her finger over his flowing letters. She would never read his favourite book about Vima Sunrider. Unexpected sadness welled up in her chest, muting her anger.

The computer hummed away at its task, slowly overheating with the heavy work; she swallowed roughly and brushed off the dust concealing the readout.

A wet, heaving breath cut through the hovel. Asajj whirled to find Difusal sitting up, his hands clenched on the armrests. His brittle hair was a shining silver crown in the moonlight. "Still alive?" drawled Asajj as she turned her attention back to the computer.

"He's coming." Two words, ringing with ominous terror.

Asajj stared at him. Wild, dark eyes flittered, unfocused, until they alighted on her. Earlier that afternoon Difusal had been the barest stirring in the Force; now he all but shouted fear. Warily, she stepped towards him. "Who?"

His dark hand, wrinkled and gnarled with time, seized her wrist and squeezed with more strength than she'd assumed possible. His fingers were cold. "He will never stop coming. He hunts, Asajj Ventress."

Pulling against him only tightened his grip. "Who's 'he?'" she demanded as the fingers on her wrist became painful. "Let go!"

Difusal yanked her close. "They are traitors," he hissed. His piercing gaze turned inward, as if he wasn't seeing her anymore. "The Force calls to me. It whispers its secrets in my ear. To warn you, Asajj Ventress."

"How do you know my name?" As Asajj tried to loosen his fingers, his other hand fumbled for her elbow. A coppery tang hit her nostrils as his palm slipped against her jacket. Blood bloomed across his belly, dark even in the moonlight. "Fuck, what happen—"

"Beware the Inquisitors, for they know us, and they are coming," insisted Difusal, his breaths coming fast and shallow. "She's here, and he's coming."

"Here? I—"

Difusal stopped gasping as he looked her in the eye with the calm authority of a Jedi Master. His voice was clear and sharp and commanding. "Protect the boy."

His grip loosened. Difusal slumped back into the chair, lifeless.

Stunned, Asajj stared at her wrist. Bloody smears marred her skin.

The Force screamed in her ears, insistent.

Asajj dashed out of the hovel, heart thudding against her ribs.

 

Sneaking was a skill she'd mastered long before she'd ever knowingly touched the Force. Keeping her feet light and slow, she squashed down her Force signature and stalked up the small, steep path to the outcropping. She pressed herself against a boulder and breathed through her mouth. The sounds of relaxed voices and a renewed fire greeted her.

Fucking idiot Jedi dropped their guard at the sight of a familiar uniform. Asajj rolled her eyes; it had been too much to hope that her perpetual suspicion had rubbed off a little more on Ahsoka. She would have to be the sensible one. Her fingers slid over the cool butt of her blaster.

She leapt up, landing on the flat outcrop with her blaster muzzle trained on the stranger's back. "Get up," Asajj snapped.

"Asa!" cried Ahsoka, surprised and offended.

"It's okay. I rather expected something like this from her, given her past." Andile seemed calm as she rose slowly and brushed her hands over her thighs. The fire light cast flickering shadows over her delicate features. She eyed the blaster pointed at her chest with contempt. "As I said, nothing has been going according to plan since I left Coruscant, but I've been making the best of it."

"Did you tell them your plan involved murdering Difusal?" retorted Asajj.

The woman's face became perfectly blank, but her eyes were mocking. "Why would I tell them that?"

Asajj's finger moved.

A double snap-hiss deflected the shot. A spray of fine rock pelted Asajj's cheek.

The Jedi sprang to their feet, coiled and waiting with empty hands. Kenobi's feet scuffed against the rocks, as if ready to throw himself, unarmed, at Andile, but Qui-Gon threw out an arm to stop him. Ahsoka drew her blasters and stood like a statue, her muzzles aimed perfectly at Andile's centre mass. She didn't fire. Asajj was torn between yelling at the Togruta to just shoot the bitch already and approving her choice to avoid giving Andile the opportunity for directed ricochets.Andile spun her lightsaber pike. The traditionally yellow blades were corrupted crimson. "You weren't supposed to be here," she said, still conversational. "I was hoping to catch some bigger fish with Difusal and that old code. My Lord would have rewarded me mightily had I brought him Master Yoda, but I suppose Kenobi will do."

"Lord?" Qui-Gon repeated sharply.

Andile smiled, reminding Asajj of a Saurin card shark she'd robbed once. The amusement didn't reach her eyes. "The Emperor, may the Force serve him."

"There hasn't been enough betrayal?" Kenobi's words were soft but Asajj heard the dark undertow beneath. He bristled with anger; the void in the Force where he should be darkened. "You would hand over your surviving brethren to the Sith?"

The low, answering chuckle echoed off the rocks. "I am the First Sister. I have no brethren, only prey."

"We're not prey," snarled Ahsoka as she fired her blasters.

The high-pitched reverberation of plasma bolts met the deep hum of 'saber blades. Andile threw out her hand. Ahsoka jerked into the air, choking and scrabbling for purchase.

Andile flicked her hand, and Ahsoka flew against a boulder with a sickening crunch.

Ahsoka didn't get up.

No—no no no no Ahsoka—

Rage boiled the marrow of Asajj Ventress' bones. It flooded her senses until fire licked her skin and the night air chilled her veins. The dark crowed in her ears, triumphant, as she let it fill her, fill her until her heart would burst, fill her until the universe was exquisitely sharp and painful. She tasted blood on her tongue. The single, tremulous thread of control keeping the dark side of the Force from consuming her snapped.

Power rushed into every molecule of her body—so familiar, so easy, so missed.

With the dark side at her beck and call, she was skilled, and she was brutal, and she would have her revenge.

Asajj smiled and crushed every bone in Andile's body.

Chapter Text

It's only love, it's only pain
It's only fear that runs through my veins
It's all the things you can't explain
That make us human

Human, Civil Twilight

 

A fine spray of blood spattered over Qui-Gon's face as Andile's body imploded. The corrupted lightsaber pike shorted out and clattered against dusty rock.

The dark side filled the night, nearly tangible; the hairs on his arms prickled and he swallowed down the urge to vomit. The metallic tang of blood fought with the sharp edge of ozone. Whispers, once the mere brushes of life from the tiny creatures inhabiting the planet, became a hissing siren song, calling him.

You fear for him. You fear what he has become.

I do not fear Obi-Wan.

Not that one. Whispers mixed with laughter in his head. You're right to fear him, and in your anger you would defeat him. Let loose your anger. It will make you strong. It will keep your loved ones safe. It will give you vengeance.

Qui-Gon forced himself to take a breath. No.

The dark was too strong, too immediate to fight until it retreated—so he tightened his mental shields and did his best to ignore it. The whispers battered him, filling his ears with honeyed promises and vicious threats, but this wasn't the first time he'd heard the call of the dark side. Focus. Qui-Gon fought the urge to moisten his lips as he fought his way through the oily fog obscuring his senses. He needed to focus on the here and now, on the solid rock beneath his feet and the flickering light of the fire and the stuttering heartbeats of those around him.

A lifetime of training didn't disappear into the ether. Qui-Gon took another breath and took stock.

Ahsoka was unconscious but alive, Andile was extremely dead, Obi-Wan was a coiled spring at his side, and Asajj—

Asajj was drawing on the dark side as naturally as breathing. It wrapped around her like a Trandoshan constrictor snake coiling around its victim. She stood over Andile's brutalized body with clenched fists. A crackle of electricity rolled over her knuckles, warning of her next move. A trickle of blood marred the white skin of her chin.

He felt, rather than saw, Obi-Wan shift.

Qui-Gon moved first.

Ignoring Obi-Wan's hiss of warning, Qui-Gon stepped into Asajj's direct field of vision. He held out his empty hands. "Asajj," he said, tasting blood on his lips. With every movement, every syllable, he tried to project calm and stability. "She's dead. It's done. Release the Force."

When baleful, ice-blue hatred met his eyes, Qui-Gon steeled himself against the weight of her rage. The dark side slammed into his shields, pulling at him with a thousand hands. His knees buckled. He didn't look away. It wasn't the first time he'd done this, either.

Xanatos straightened, his pale fingertips brushing gently over his father's slack cheek. A single lock of black hair had escaped the normally pristine braid running down the young man's back. Those eyes—like Ilum's sky on a clear day and sharper than flint, merry and sullen and never overly serious—fixed upon Qui-Gon with a hot stab of hate.

He couldn't stop the same words that had left him that day. The pleading and heartbreak was only an undercurrent now. "I'm not your enemy."

"That doesn't make you my friend," Asajj sneered.

She wasn't Xan. She wasn't the beloved apprentice he'd brought to the Temple himself. She wasn't the promising young Jedi Qui-Gon had lost to the dark through his own damned fault. Nothing he could do or say now would fix the Xanatos-shaped hole in his heart, scarred over like his chest after all these years but still able to break open.

No, Asajj wasn't his lost apprentice.

She was his lost sister-Padawan.

They had both suffered at the hands of Dooku, and they had both escaped his clutches. Komari hadn't been so lucky.

Asajj had survived Darth Tyrannus. She had come out the other side wanting to stay in the light. It would take a backbone of steel to win that battle. He wouldn't abandon her to that fight alone.

"I don't think we know each other well enough for that, yet," Qui-Gon agreed. "But I want to help you."

Xan's laugh could have frozen an ocean. "Help? Was murdering my father your way of helping me, Master?" The honorific was hard and mocking in the young man's mouth. "You've helped me see what the Jedi—what you—stole from me: my childhood, my rightful place on Telos, my family who loved me. You stole that, Qui-Gon, and I will make you pay for it."

"You don't give a shit about me," snarled Asajj. "You don't even know me."

Viciously, Qui-Gon shoved the memories of Xanatos back into the dark places of his mind. Focus on the here and now. "You need to let go of the dark side," he told her gently. "There are no more enemies to fight, and it cannot help you now."

Obi-Wan was slowly moving towards Ahsoka without ever taking his gaze off Asajj. When his foot scraped against a loose stone, Asajj flung out her hand and seized him with a thick, writhing tangle of the Force. "You stay away from her!"

"Obi-Wan was going to check on her," Qui-Gon said reassuringly. He stole a glimpse of Obi-Wan, who looked ready to chew rocks as his heels lifted and his toes brushed the earth. "He wants to help her, just like you do."

That seemed to rile the young woman further; she turned her thunderous glare on the Jedi. Obi-Wan wheezed as the Force-grip tightened around him. "Now you want to help her? Where were you when she needed you, Kenobi? Where were you when the Jedi washed their hands of her? Where were you when she was running for her life and ran into me?" Asajj's tirade became louder with every word. "She needed you, you fucking asshole—not that useless shavit Skywalker, not a Senator playacting as a lawyer—you, the responsible fucking adult who had the power to do something. But she didn't get you. She got me, and I got her." The shout became a deadly purr. "She has the short end of that fucking stick, but at least I won't ever betray her."

"Please let him go, Asajj," Qui-Gon asked. She glanced at him in surprise, as if she'd forgotten he was there. "Please let him go."

"I have to help her," insisted Asajj. Jagged edges of fear stabbed through the dark clouds of her anger. "I have to help her because he didn't."

Qui-Gon's heart pounded against his ribs. He had to win this battle, armed only with his wits and words. "You would heal her like this? The dark side will steal from you, and it will steal from her. In the end she won't be healed at all. Ahsoka won't be any better off, and you'll suffer, too. Let go of the dark, and then help her."

Some of the rage ebbed, replaced by churning shame. Curled lip pulled into a tiny frown. Her voice was a whisper, pitched for him alone. "I don't know how."

With stupidity warring with bravery, Qui-Gon stepped within her reach. He ducked his head slightly to catch her gaze. "I can teach you how."

A peculiar feeling of standing on a precipice gnawed on the edges of the Force. Qui-Gon grounded himself as the oily, acidic feel of the dark side retreated further. He nodded approvingly. "Take a deep breath, Asajj, and let go. Release your hold on the Force." When she hesitated, he added, "Ahsoka wouldn't want you to suffer in the dark side."

Her struggle was palpable. With each noisy breath, the dark writhed, as if it had a sentience of its own and knew it was on the cusp of rejection. Asajj squeezed her eyes shut. Blood ran over her knuckles as she clenched her fingernails into the soft flesh of her palms. Ozone and decay filled Qui-Gon's nostrils as the dark fought back—

"Asa?" A quiet murmur, little more than a exhale, punctuated the fight.

In the space of a heartbeat, Asajj gathered herself and released the Force. She rushed to Ahsoka's side, muttering under her breath as she checked the Togruta's pupils.

The night seemed to sigh in relief. The insects hummed and hissed again, rising back to their song. The fire popped, sending a tendril of sparks towards the stars. An icy hand released the grip on Qui-Gon's heart as he hurried to Obi-Wan's side. The Jedi Master was bent in half, hands propped against his knees as he gulped fresh air. "Are you okay?" Qui-Gon asked, gingerly resting his palm against Obi-Wan's muscled back.

The inscrutable expression on Obi-Wan's face made Qui-Gon take a step back. "I'm going to check on Master Difusal," he murmured before turning on his heel.

"I told you, he's dead," Asajj said without taking her eyes off Ahsoka. She must have sensed Obi-Wan's hard look, because she added, "It wasn't me."

Obi-Wan said nothing as he disappeared down the rocky path to the old Jedi's home.

Qui-Gon watched him go, wondering what exactly was going through his former apprentice's head, then knelt opposite Asajj. "Ahsoka?"

"Bitch got me good," mumbled Ahsoka weakly. "Caught me off guard."

Asajj frowned. "Maybe if you didn't trust people so damned fast," she grumbled.

A little smile played over Ahsoka's lips as her eyes fluttered closed. "Wouldn't have you if I didn't."

The irritation vanished from Asajj's face as she swallowed hard, then rolled her eyes. "Yeah, but you'd have a much nicer ship by now."

Qui-Gon cleared his throat and offered both young women a smile. "May I interest you in some Force healing?"

"There's two of you, Qui-Gon, so I'm gonna say go for it," said Ahsoka.

Drawing upon the Force, Qui-Gon snorted. "If you're making jokes, I think you'll live."

 

He sent the young women back to the ship. Asajj refusing to let Ahsoka walk by herself and Ahsoka refusing to let Asajj carry her, they limped together, arms looped around each other's hips. Qui-Gon watched them retreat, then ducked into Difusal's stony hovel.

The overwhelming smell of blood had him scrubbing his lips with his sleeve. In the middle of the floor was a body-sized lump wrapped in a dusty carpet. Obi-Wan was perched on the tiny kitchen table, elbow on his knee and chin propped in his hand as he stared at the carpet. The moonlight streaming through the ceiling washed the colour from his hair. He looked like a wraith. "Stabbed in the stomach," Obi-Wan announced as Qui-Gon stepped around the body.

"I didn't even sense it," said Qui-Gon, unable to control his frustration. "Not the corrupted 'saber pike, not her intentions, not Difusal's death, none of it!"

Obi-Wan shot him a dark, wry look. "Me neither."

"Any thoughts on the matter?" His nerves felt frayed, and he tasted blood again. He wiped his lips with his sleeve, too hard. "Little gods, I need a shower."

"You missed a spot on your cheek." Obi-Wan mimed wiping his own face, then furrowed his brow. "Temple Guards are trained to stay anonymous, to stay in the background where no one notices them until it's necessary—or too late. This is very bad, Qui-Gon."

Qui-Gon heaved a sigh and instantly regretted it. The metallic taste on his tongue sharpened as if he'd swallowed a knife. "Surely the Sith couldn't have gotten to every Temple Guard."

Obi-Wan tilted his head, staring at him as if Qui-Gon were more than slightly stupid. "The Sith got to every clone trooper in the galaxy simultaneously. I'm not ruling it out."

"Wonderful. So now we have to assume everyone is trying to kill us."

"Yes." The word was harder than Qui-Gon had anticipated. Obi-Wan's expression darkened. "You have to assume that."

He was tired, and wrung out, and covered in blood. He was too damned old for this. "Just say what you mean."

"Ventress isn't just another pathetic life form for you to rescue."

The suspicion, the barest hint of jealousy, the lack of empathy caught the edge of Qui-Gon's patience. "You never did learn that particular lesson."

Obi-Wan's eyes narrowed. "And what lesson is that?"

"We're all pathetic life forms in need of rescuing at some point." He barked a wry laugh. "Why do you think I'm here?"

"Do you know how many times she's tried to kill me, and Ahsoka, and An—" Obi-Wan snapped his teeth together before he could say the rest of their Padawan's name. A conversation for later; one fight at a time.

"Ahsoka seems to have moved past it," Qui-Gon replied, trying his best to sound matter-of-fact instead of accusatory.

Obi-Wan scoffed. "Ahsoka was never known as a sterling judge of character."

"She thought the world of you," Qui-Gon retorted.

"Proving my point."

A frown tugged at his lips as Qui-Gon shook his head. "I never knew you to be unkind to others in your needless self-deprecation."

"Ahsoka trusts too quickly," Obi-Wan amended. "She always has. Ventress will use that trust for the sole benefit of Asajj Ventress."

"I don't see that," argued Qui-Gon.

Obi-Wan flung up his hands. "Because you're being willfully obtuse! You saw what she did as clearly as I did. I know what the dark side looks like without having to feel it."

A frown plucked at his lips. Did Obi-Wan not see the damage in Asajj Ventress? Or had they crossed paths too many times for understanding? Qui-Gon had missed so much by sitting out the war, but he had been certain Obi-Wan's compassion would have remained unsullied. Perhaps it was time for a reminder. "That girl was panicking. She was utterly terrified, Ben—not for herself, but for another. Doesn't that say something?"

"Yes, it does say something. It says she seized the dark side and crushed the life out of another without hesitation because she was afraid," agreed Obi-Wan, dangerously mild, "and what happens when her fear and anger overcome her willingness to keep Luke secret? Who does she tell? How long before she betrays us?"

Qui-Gon took in the sincerity, the worry, the fear and the anger of his beloved. It was like drowning in an ocean of sadness. He shook his head. "With expectations like that, she will surely meet them eventually," he said quietly.

"Do you know how many Jedi she killed?"

"How many times did you face her in battle? You're the finest warrior I've ever seen, and yet you never bested her? Were you actually trying, or did you see someone who needed help?" It was a low blow, but Qui-Gon had to make him see.

Obi-Wan hissed a breath through his teeth in frustration, but his shoulders slumped. "She's a liability, Qui."

Qui-Gon stepped closer and brushed his thumb over Obi-Wan's cheek. "These days, we all are." Obi-Wan opened his mouth to protest, but Qui-Gon shook his head. "If I can help her, I will, Ben. I have to help her."

Obi-Wan pursed his lips and covered Qui-Gon's hand with his own. His grey eyes softened, seemingly with sudden understanding. "She's not Xanatos," he said gently, "and she's not Komari, either. You can't fix what happened with them by fixing her."

"I know." Qui-Gon slipped his hand from Obi-Wan's cheek. "But she deserves a chance to be the person she wants to be, not the person she was forced to become."

"I'm afraid you're getting your hopes up."

"I'm still going to try."

"I know you are."

Silence fell over them, heavy and thick. Obi-Wan moved first, crossing the room to access the computer console. "What do we do with Master Difusal?" he asked without looking up.

"He is one with the Force," replied Qui-Gon. Jedi traditions demanded funeral rites of fire, but the Guardians of the Whills were a practical folk. "There's no fuel source for a pyre, and I feel uncomfortable staying here a moment longer than necessary. The desert will claim him, in time."

The expected argument about following tradition and showing respect never came. Obi-Wan shoved a dusty, portable holotransmitter into his pocket, glanced over his shoulder at the carpet-wrapped body and nodded. "A nicer end than some of us were given," he murmured.

Qui-Gon got the feeling Obi-Wan hadn't meant to speak aloud. Suppressing a disturbed shudder, he tilted his face to the moonlight. A prayer for the dead, taught to him by Chirrut when Brother Halys breathed his last, fell from his lips. "You are one with the Force eternal, Tor Difusal. Walk with us in our time of need."

"The Force will be with you, always," Obi-Wan added with the formal bow of one Master to another.

When Obi-Wan straightened, Qui-Gon saw tear tracks glinting on his cheeks.

 

Chapter Text

Trouble on my left, trouble on my right
I've been facing trouble almost all my life
My sweet love, won't you pull me through?
Everywhere I look, I catch a glimpse of you

Trouble, Cage the Elephant

 

 

"I can walk," grumbled Ahsoka for the eighth time as the Banshee came into view. She'd originally started complaining in the hopes of maintaining her dignity, but Asajj was tense and taut in the Force and too quiet by half. Petulant whining would at least provoke some sarcasm.

"Sure you can," replied Asajj, her fingers tightening on Ahsoka's waist. "But I'm pretty sure the dirt on this planet won't taste very good. Too crunchy."

"I won't know until I try it—"

A distant roar followed by rumbling beneath her feet had Ahsoka straightening so fast her head spun. Against her side, Asajj froze. "Is it just me, or did that sound like a hyperdrive exploding?"

Ahsoka tilted her head forward to catch the vibration. There it was: the high-frequency snap of a hyperdrive regulator being obliterated, followed by a pressure wave that made her lekku itch. "I guess we aren't stealing any ships today."

"Fucking bitch set an autodestruct," muttered Asajj. "Unbelievable."

"I—" Ahsoka grimaced as a shudder ran through her as all her body heat tried to flee.

Asajj's eyes widened. "You okay?"

"Healing…side-effect," Ahsoka gritted out through teeth trying to chatter out of her mouth. "Ugh, it's been a while."

The Dathomiri stared at her, lips parted and looking helpless. "What do I do?"

Shivering uncontrollably, Ahsoka groaned. She couldn't feel her fingers or toes. "Since we don't have the drug to…counteract it…I could use a blanket." She stepped onto the Banshee's ramp and stumbled as her muscles cramped.

Before she could complain, she was swept up in Asajj's wiry, warm—Force, she was warm—arms and carried into the ship. "Pre-emptively shut up, Tano," growled Asajj as she slammed her hand against her cabin door control. "You don't get to complain about getting carried when you can't even put one foot in front of the other."

"I'll remind you…of that rule…next time you get shot."

Asajj smirked at her, then gently dumped her onto the bed. Together they wrestled off Ahsoka's boots. Ahsoka fought with the sheet pooled at the foot of the bed and pulled it tight against her shoulder as she curled into a ball. "Here," said Asajj as she draped a blanket atop the sheet. "It's decently warm in here."

Ahsoka shook her head. "Doesn't matter. My body temperature…plummets for a few hours…after Force healing." A frustrated noise, garbled by her chattering teeth, escaped her. "Can't even talk properly!"

"I think I have another blanket around here somewhere." Rummaging through the drawer under the bed, Asajj pulled out a threadbare coverlet and held it up.

"I can see through that," complained Ahsoka.

Asajj's expression shifted, and Ahsoka couldn't quite figure out if she was sad or angry. "It's Dathomiri spider silk," explained Asajj as she shook out the fabric and tucked it around Ahsoka.

Sad or angry? Probably both; reminders of Asajj's homeworld made the former assassin tightlipped and short-tempered for hours. "It's not helping," said Ahsoka, partly to distract her friend but mostly because she had ice in her veins and she was going to break her teeth if she didn't warm up soon.

Asajj's mouth quirked to the side as she thought. "I could pilfer the emergency blanket from the med kit."

"Ugh, they don't work as well as advertised." The cold was seeping into her brain. She couldn't feel her fingers or toes. Under no circumstances was she going to suffer like this for another minute, let alone hours. Ahsoka wiggled closer to the wall and lifted the corner of the blankets. "You'll do."

Asajj stilled as if she'd come face to face with a hungry wampa. "What?"

"I'm freezing my balls off," whined Ahsoka plaintively. "Come on."

"You don't have balls."

"Because they froze and fell off. Please, Asa?"

With a deep, put-upon sigh, Asajj sat on the edge of the bed and tugged off her boots. Her eyes flashed in irritation as she crawled under the covers and lay next to Ahsoka as if in a casket. "Better?" she grumbled.

"Not yet," replied Ahsoka. As she shifted a touch closer, her fingers brushed against Asajj's arm.

The Dathomiri nearly jumped off the mattress. "Fuck, you're like an icicle!" she hissed. Before Ahsoka could say I told you so, Asajj rolled towards her. Ahsoka's fingers were sandwiched between Asajj's long, callused hands while her feet were trapped between Asajj's calves. "Are you sure this is a side-effect?"

The wide-eyed concern in her friend's eyes was too much; Ahsoka giggled. "What, you thought this was all an elaborate trick to get a snuggle?"

The brisk movement of Asajj's hands over Ahsoka's fingers slowed, and Asajj rolled her eyes. "If you want regular snuggling, I'll get you a tooka kit. I don't have this kind of time, you know."

Ahsoka grinned. Her hands were encased in warmth and she could almost feel her toes. "I appreciate your generous…thermodynamic entropy."

Asajj hummed in agreement, but didn't speak. The lack of further jokes, the way Asajj kept meeting her eye and then staring at something beyond her montrals, the jangling feeling she held in the Force—something was very wrong. "Thank you," Ahsoka said quietly.

"Can't let you die of hypothermia," replied Asajj with a sniff. She tucked one of Ahsoka's hands between Asajj's ribcage and the mattress, then started to rub life back into Ahsoka's arm.

"I meant with Andile. I'm guessing that was you."

Asajj's hand stilled on Ahsoka's elbow. Pressing her lips together in a harsh line, she exhaled noisily through her nose. "I fucked up," Asajj whispered. "I fucked up so bad. I saw her hurt you, and I couldn't stop myself."

It had only been a matter of time. Even with all the support Ahsoka could offer—shared meditation, suggesting this bounty over that one, finding consumables that weren't ration bars and alcohol—the dark side was a powerful siren. Ahsoka buried the sharp edge of disappointment and wriggled a little closer on their shared pillow. "Asa—"

"I'm sorry," Asajj murmured, her voice tinged with desperation. "I'm so sorry, and I swear it won't happen again—"

"Yes, it will." She had to keep calm, be the grounding voice of reason. Asajj's eyes flew open, shocked and searching Ahsoka's face. "Asa, you can't unlearn years and years of acting on anger and fear overnight. It took me years and years to learn control in a safe, controlled environment with teachers who wanted me to succeed."

Frustration and shame roiled in the Force as Asajj curled her lip. "I should be able to do it."

"You are." Ahsoka reached up with her free hand and laid it along Asajj's cheek. "You are. Every time you keep your calm, every time you choose control over your emotions, every time you consider consequences over immediate results, you're becoming the person I know you want to be."

Asajj squeezed her eyes shut. "I'm useless without the dark side," admitted Asajj. "I'm an idiot fumbling with the Force."

"You're not useless," retorted Ahsoka sharply.

"Have you ever tried to do all the things you've done in the past, except everything's just different enough to make you clumsy and slow, or so different that you're blindfolded with your hands tied behind your back?" Asajj's hand rubbed up against Ahsoka's arm once more. "Fuck, how are you not encased in carbonite?"

"Oh, that's way worse than this," Ahsoka told her. "Coming out of carbon freeze is like your bones are gonna shatter and then your eyeballs have to literally defrost."

Asajj's mouth dropped open. "The Jedi Order put you in carbon freeze?"

A tiny smile tugged at Ahsoka's lips through her shivering. "No, I put myself in carbon freeze after Skyguy told me I couldn't go with them."

Asajj's bright blue eyes became perfect circles. "I stand corrected, Tano. You've got balls."

"Stupidity isn't bravery," Ahsoka corrected. Her thumb brushed over Asajj's sharp cheekbone. "You're braver than I'll ever be, Asa, but you gotta promise me you won't stop being brave. Promise me you won't stop trying."

With a dry swallow that clicked, Asajj closed her eyes. Her hand stilled on Ahsoka's shoulder. "I'm not sorry she's dead. I won't apologize for that bit."

"I've never asked you for an apology."

Asajj was quiet for so long that Ahsoka prepared herself for her friend to pull away and distance herself from any further heavy conversation. Instead, Asajj tentatively wrapped her arm around Ahsoka's shoulder and nestled her chin against Ahsoka's brow. Her breath was hot against Ahsoka's skin as she muttered gruffly, "You're still fucking freezing, you know."

With a chuckle, Ahsoka snaked her arm over Asajj's hip and melted gratefully against her sharp-angled body.

 

The rattle of boots against that damned loose deck plating—Ahsoka made a mental note to go after it again with the screwdriver—had Asajj flying out of the bed like it was on fire. Ahsoka, still shivering, wrapped all the blankets around her and shuffled after the other woman. "So now what?" asked Ahsoka as she dropped onto the bench behind the table. Qui-Gon took the seat across from her, wiping his face with a wet cloth, while Obi-Wan stood and glared at everything and nothing. Asajj made a beeline for Ahsoka's cabin and disappeared through the door.

Qui-Gon gave Ahsoka a sharp look. "You're alright?"

"As you said, I'll live," replied Ahsoka, tightening the blankets against her shoulders. "Unless you have some plethyl nitrate on you, in which case, hand it over."

"All out, I'm afraid," replied Qui-Gon, the concerned furrow between his eyebrows fading.

"Then my first question still stands: now what?" She flicked her gaze to Obi-Wan.

Mouth a grim line, Obi-Wan paced the deck with his arms crossed over his chest. "Tatooine."

Qui-Gon sighed. "I still don't think that's a good idea."

"That's because it's not," said Asajj, emerging from Ahsoka's room with an armful of bedding. She dumped the blankets onto the table, then proceeded to wrap them around Ahsoka like ill-fitting cloaks.

"No one asked you," said Obi-Wan wearily, as if too tired to put up more than an automatic retort. His pacing slowed as he produced a portable holotransmitter from his pocket and began absently turning it over in his hands.

"It's my ship," retorted Asajj. "If you want to stay here and wait for someone else to come pick you up, be my guest."

Obi-Wan opened his mouth, clearly gearing up to pick another fight with his old enemy, but Arnie rolled into the room and trilled with alarm. [Why are you transmitting?]

Frowning, Obi-Wan stopped pacing. "We're not transmitting anything."

Arnie shook its head casing, which squealed slightly; its rotational servos needed a bit of lubrication. [Yes, you are.]

"No, I'm not."

[Yes, you are.]

"No, I'm—" Obi-Wan pinched the bridge of his nose and made a frustrated noise in his throat. "Why am I arguing with a droid?"

[Because you believe you are correct when you are, in fact, wrong,] replied Arnie with a reassuring beep. [It is okay. We all make mistakes. Without mistakes we cannot learn.]

A droid soothingly lecturing Master Kenobi as if he were a youngling had Ahsoka stifling her laughter into her bedspread; her snort was still audible, and Obi-Wan glared at her.

Qui-Gon perched on the edge of the bench and leaned toward the droid. "What is transmitting, Arnie?"

Pleased to have an attentive audience, the droid wheeled closer to the former Jedi. Its wheels squealed, too—lubricating the droid would have to come before fixing the deck plating. [The Jedi Master's holotransmitter has been programmed to transmit a signal over subspace. My communications equipment has detected the signal, but I am unable to jam it.]

Obi-Wan held up the projector with a moue of concern. "What kind of signal?"

[Hyperspace beacon signals,] replied the droid. [They are designed to assist ships making faster-than-light jumps through the charted galaxy. When a signal bounces off the hyperspace beacon, the ship receives information as to its exact galactic coordinates and the precise location of the next beac—]

"We know how hyperspace beacons work, Arnie," Ahsoka cut in.

[It would be unfair to assume everyone has the same working knowledge,] grumbled Arnie. [That holotransmitter is emitting beacon signals, but the bounce-back signal is not returning to the holotransmitter.]

Silence fell over the group. As if handling a live Corellian viper, Obi-Wan gingerly set the holotransmitter on the table. "Where"—his voice was hoarse, and he cleared his throat—"where is the signal rerouting?"

[Unknown.]

Ahsoka stared at the holotransmitter. Normally a benign, palm-sized disk, the small piece of technology was now a tracking beacon. "I didn't realize you could program a portable transmitter to do that."

Next to her, Asajj sniffed derisively. "It's overly complicated. I used to know a handful of slicers who could do that kind of coding, but the amount of the bounty was never enough to cover their costs." She swivelled her head to look at Obi-Wan. "Not anymore, I suppose."

Qui-Gon shifted and ran a hand over his beard. "Cin Drallig trained all his Guards in advanced code slicing," he said slowly. "Andile would have had the skills to create a program like that. She also would have had access to non-classified Jedi locations, active and retired, and Jedi ships docked at the Temple."

Ahsoka gritted her teeth at the sharp sting of betrayal that pierced her; Jedi destroying Jedi, violent and secretive because they knew it was wrong. Barriss had done the same, torn apart Ahsoka's entire life for her own ends—

She huffed out a breath. "Can we talk about the fact that a Temple Guard used Master Difusal to lure us here, murdered him, and then tried to murder all of us? Why would she do this?"

Qui-Gon's blue eyes were sad. "Perhaps she's gone mad."

"That's not an excuse," Ahsoka said, hard as duracrete. That suggestion hadn't excused a damn thing that Barriss had done to her, and she wouldn't accept it for anyone else.

Under the table, Asajj's finger rested gently on Ahsoka's knee. It was oddly reassuring. "Ten credits says Sidious," said the Dathomiri. "He's probably been working on her for a long time."

Shivering under her blankets, Ahsoka stared at the holotransmitter. "If that's the case, we can't trust anyone coming from the Temple."

"I shouldn't have trusted her in the first place," Obi-Wan said. The lines of his shoulders were telling; Ahsoka had seen that posture of weary responsibility time and time again on the bridge of The Negotiator.

"You're right," Ahsoka cut in, "we shouldn't have."

Obi-Wan's gaze landed on her. Behind the guarded expression, she thought she glimpsed a shard of grateful agreement.

"So what does the transmission say?" Asajj asked, her head cocked curiously at the holotransmitter. When no one replied, she shrugged with one shoulder. "We may as well see what it says before we chuck it outside."

"More information is better than less," Qui-Gon said as he poked the activation button.

A tiny figure in Temple Guard robes and mask, identical to Andile's uniform, coalesced over the disk. Instead of the hummingbird voice of the dead Guard, a deep, masculine voice rang out. "I've received your message. I'm coming."

Asajj sucked in a sharp breath and slammed her hand against the holotransmitter. The transparent Guard disappeared. "Oh, fuck me."

"What?" Asajj, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan chorused.

Rubbing her temples as if warding off a headache, Asajj replied, "On Naboo, the asshole trying to interrogate me got a transmission while I was slightly unconscious."

"Slightly?" Ahsoka narrowed her eyes, warning and demanding a truthful answer.

"Yeah, slightly. I caught the end of the transmission. Mask and voice just like that. He said he would come get me after he finished some mission, and asshole called him First Brother."

Ahsoka grimaced. "Put two perfectly innocuous words together and make yourself a sinister nickname." She'd almost expected Qui-Gon to at least smile, but his lips were thin and bloodless. "Qui-Gon?"

"I know that voice. Arist Djuron. We ran a mission together about twenty years ago." He took a deep breath and spread his palms against the table top. "Another Temple Guard hunting down Jedi."

"And me," added Asajj. "He'll probably be pretty pissed when he doesn't get to hand me over to Sidious."

"Then let's get out of here," suggested Ahsoka. "Leave before anyone else—Brother, Sister, whatever—shows up."

"And let him hunt down someone else?" Qui-Gon's voice was soft. "Let him prey on others who would trust him because of who he used to be?"

Obi-Wan took a step closer and tentatively rested his hand on Qui-Gon's shoulder. "The boy is still in danger. The longer this takes—"

Without looking up, Qui-Gon asked, "You would ignore this danger?"

Obi-Wan's fingers tightened, wrinkling the fabric of Qui-Gon's shirt, as he made a frustrated noise. "No, but—"

An idea—a ridiculous idea, the kind of idea that would have had Rex scoffing and Anakin making a go on gesture with his finger—rolled off Ahsoka's tongue. "Why don't we do both?" Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan stared at her, but Ahsoka kept her gaze on Asajj. "We can do both if there's four of us."

She was asking a lot—perhaps too much. Asajj had already been pushed over the brink. Insisting that they continued on this quest for Luke Naberrie's safe haven was selfish, but Ahsoka wouldn't abandon Asajj, either. Asajj needed the stability their friendship brought. Ahsoka needed a friend who wouldn't lie to her. They couldn't quite communicate mentally, but Ahsoka pushed her pleading thought to the edge of her shields. Please stay with me.

The ends of Asajj's white bangs brushed against her eyelashes as she blinked once, slowly. "Okay."

Ahsoka couldn't help but beam at her friend. "Good."

Qui-Gon cleared his throat. "What do you suggest, Ahsoka?"

"We split up. Two of us lead this First Nefarious Sibling in a merry chase to a safe place to stand our ground and eliminate the threat. The other two go to Tatooine for whatever Force-forsaken plan you've cooked up, Master." Ahsoka hid her wince before correcting herself. "Obi-Wan."

Clearly Obi-Wan decided to ignore her slip, because he raised a wry eyebrow at her. "You have another ship in your pocket?"

She gave him a toothy smile that felt more like a grimace. "That's the part you're gonna hate."

"Have I expressed excitement about any of this?" he retorted drily.

"Well, you'll really hate this part." Ahsoka took a deep breath and blurted, "Hondo."

Obi-Wan gawked at her. "You're right, I hate that."

"What's Hondo?" asked Asajj.

"Or who," added Qui-Gon.

Ahsoka ignored them and focused her attention on Obi-Wan, who could only have shown more disbelief on his face if she'd suggested they ask Ziro the Hutt for help. She leaned forward. "For a pirate, he spent an awful lot of time keeping you alive. He went up against Maul and Savage for you."

"I seem to recall Hondo taking you hostage."

With a shrug muted beneath her cocoon of blankets, Ahsoka made a non-committal noise. "In the grand scheme of things, I think he and I have a clean slate. Besides, I think Hondo likes you."

Obi-Wan scoffed and crossed his arms over his chest. "What are the chances he finds out about the bounty on my head and sells me?"

A grin crept over her lips. Her time with Asajj gave her the simple solution to that possibility. "Offer to split the money with him, 70/30. After the mission."

Next to her, Asajj snorted in amusement. "Atta girl."

But Obi-Wan was shaking his head. "We can't trust Hondo," he insisted. "Not with things the way they are."

Padawan Tano might have acquiesced—not to Skyguy, certainly, but to Master Kenobi—but Ahsoka squared her shoulders and tried to look as insistently confident as one could while huddled beneath mismatched layers of bedding. "If we've learned anything today, it's that we can't trust people we thought we could trust, either. At least with Hondo we can expect him to betray us and plan accordingly."

The pacing began again. Obi-Wan's lips moved silently, then his head snapped up. "What about Dex? Could he get us a ship?"

Qui-Gon rubbed his hand over his cheek. "Dex was a known Jedi sympathizer. I have faith in his abilities to keep himself safe, but we could put him in danger if we go looking for him." His bright blue eyes darkened. "I think that sentiment applies to any of our more…legitimate allies."

"I still have peggats," added Ahsoka. "If anything, money always talks to Hondo Ohnaka."

Obi-Wan pinched the bridge of his nose. "This is a terrible idea."

"Your idea to go to Tatooine is worse," she retorted, forcing herself not to smile at the perverse thrill of competently arguing with the Negotiator like an equal.

As if sensing her thought, Obi-Wan stopped pacing and turned a hawk-like gaze on her. "Then hopefully you'll have some mitigating suggestions while we're there."

"You…you want me to go with you?" She couldn't keep the surprise from her voice.

Obi-Wan nodded. "You've dealt with Hondo before. You know how he operates."

Asajj landed her elbow on the table and cradled her chin in her palm. "Oh, lucky us, Qui-Gon, we get to pick a fight empty-handed," she drawled. "I'd kill for a lightsaber." At Ahsoka's sharp look, the Dathomiri snorted. "Okay, okay, I'd gently maim for a lightsaber. Happy?"

Ahsoka rolled her eyes. "Blasters aren't good enough, you're right, but where in hells are we gonna find lightsaber components? Ilum's on the other side of the galaxy, and I'd rather not blow my hand off because we scrounged parts."

Expression perfectly blank, Qui-Gon fished a small cloth bag from the inner pocket of his shirt. With slow, careful fingers, he loosened the drawstring and tipped the bag upside down. Six uncoloured kyber crystals clattered against the table, shattering the sudden silence. "That's what I'm going to do with six," he murmured as if to himself.

Shock flooded through her. There was no way these were what they looked like—Ahsoka freed a hand from her blankets and tentatively poked the nearest crystal with the tip of her index finger. A spark of energy jolted through her nerves. "Kriff me," she breathed, staring at Qui-Gon. "Do all Guardians carry around 'saber-quality crystals like loose credits? No wonder you traded your necklace."

Qui-Gon blinked hard, as if covering a flinch. "No. These…these called to me. They told me they have a destiny, just not with whom."

Asajj's pale hand crept out and hovered over the crystals, her mouth making a tiny O. She picked up two crystals, not adjacent to each other, and held them in her palm. Her voice was hushed in wonder. "I can hear them. They're rocks, but I can hear them in my head."

"Your previous crystals weren't particularly noisy?" asked Qui-Gon mildly.

Slowly shaking her head, Asajj never took her eyes off the kyber in her hand. "They weren't mine. Dooku gave me Vosa's 'sabers." At that, Asajj did look up. She must have caught the fleeting sadness in Qui-Gon's eyes, because she added, "Sorry?"

"Don't apologize for something not under your control," he murmured, then his voice gained the strong, confident tones of a lecturing teaching Master. "You'll become attuned to the kyber's resonance in the Force the more you work with it. The blade will be focussed, and the crystals less susceptible to damage. Did you have to swap out the power cells on your previous weapons?"

"All the time." Asajj nodded, her lips parted slightly. She seemed both stunned and intrigued, and it sent an encouraging warmth through Ahsoka.

"You won't, not with these. They've chosen you."

Staring at the kyber again, Asajj's mouth twisted wryly. "Fat lot of good they'll do without the rest of it."

Without a word, Obi-Wan disappeared into Ahsoka's cabin. He returned with a canvas bag and set it on the edge of the table. One after another, he drew out lightsaber hilts and placed them on the table—a hilt and matching shoto in front of Ahsoka, a pair of curved silver hilts for Asajj, and a single, traditional grip for Qui-Gon. A tarnished, plain hilt stayed on the table in front of Obi-Wan, then he dropped the bag on the floor.

With every eye staring at him in disbelief, Obi-Wan shrugged. "Gifts, at the insistence of Professor Huyang." A single chuckle holding no amusement punctuated his statement. "It didn't make sense at the time, and I admit I still don't know how he knew I'd need these."

Qui-Gon moved first. With a surprisingly tentative hand, he lifted the 'saber hilt and ran his thumb over the lines of the grip. "Professor Huyang always gave me the creeps," he admitted softly. "The Living Force doesn't exist in droids, but every time I encountered him, I felt…something. Like the vague impression you get after someone's left the room, or a shadow in running water—there, but not there."

"He told me he sees patterns." Obi-Wan didn't make a move to touch the hilt in front of him. "He didn't, or couldn't, explain it."

For a long moment, they considered the 'saber hilts in silence. Ahsoka ignored the remaining chill in her veins as she inspected the shoto. Slightly larger than her old one, it would be the proper size for her hand now. The balance was perfect; she marvelled at the lack of wobble as it rested sideways on her index finger.

She would never admit it, but this year without her 'sabers had left her feeling vulnerable. Blasters worked fine, for what they were, but she'd spent her entire life training with blades. Lightsabers had kept her alive in countless war zones. Lightsabers in her hands had kept others alive.

A knot of worry, tied tighter after every firefight without even one 'saber in her hand, unravelled around her heart. A slow smile tugged at her lips. "Asa, go get your toolkit."

 

 

 

Chapter Text

But can we start it all over again?
This morning
I've lost all my defenses
This morning
Won't you show me the way
It used to be?

Morning, Beck

The unmoving stars kept the cockpit quiet and dark, which suited Obi-Wan's mood as he sat in the pilot's seat and contemplated the lightsaber hilt and the holotransmitter resting side-by-side on the console.

Had Obi-Wan chosen the hilt, rather than having Huyang thrust one upon him in a moment of chaos, he would not have chosen this one. Too-smooth grip, controls situated for a left-handed wielder, slightly narrower than he'd prefer and a hairsbreadth too short for a two-handed stance—all of those issues paled in comparison to the more immediate problem: this 'saber lacked the external seams and hardware for manual assembly. This weapon was intended to be constructed by a Jedi in deep meditation, pieced together entirely with precise control of the Force. It was a lightsaber from a time when Jedi weren't field-stripping their weapons under fire, scrounging bits of wire and power cells and other minutiae to keep their blades operational until Force-knew-when. Not a weapon for the middle of a war, but the symbolic weapon of a wise and good Jedi Knight who was one with the Force, ignited only as a last resort.

What pattern could Huyang have possibly seen in this, other than a great big fuck you to add to the pile?

Obi-Wan picked up the 'saber hilt, scowled at it, and tossed it onto the co-pilot's seat.

At least he could solve one of their problems. He turned over the holotransmitter and popped out the battery pack. It wouldn't transmit its malicious beacon code until they were ready. "Arnie?"

[You noticed I was here?] The droid rolled away from the corner. [I did not intend to bother you, but I required power.]

"You weren't bothering me," replied Obi-Wan. He held up the holotransmitter. "Can you confirm that is no longer transmitting?"

[Confirmed,] beeped Arnie. [Are we going someplace new, Master Jedi? Will I require storage for holoimages?]

Obi-Wan furrowed his brow. What an odd little droid. No wonder Ahsoka liked him. "No one wants holoimages of Florrum, Arnie. And don't call me that."

[You would prefer a different designation?]

"I don't know if 'prefer' factors into it," murmured Obi-Wan. "You can call me Ben."

Arnie trilled excitedly. [It is nice to meet you, Ben! I am R9-R9, but you may call me Arnie.]

"Yes, you…I know that, Arnie." Sweet Force, this droid was a mess. "How are your encryption protocols?"

[Basic password-enabled alphanumeric encryption protocols can be engaged with manual input,] replied Arnie.

With a deep sigh, Obi-Wan rested his elbow on his knee and cupped his chin in his hand. "So anyone with a basic decoder could access your entire database in under three seconds."

[3.018 seconds,] Arnie corrected.

"Well, we'll have to fix that."

The droid made a wary, warbling sound. [That sounds scary.]

Why did people insist on giving droids personality? Obi-Wan patted Arnie's head casing. "It's either that or I wipe you entirely, and since I don't have a clean droid program package to replace your software, I'd really rather not do that."

[I also do not wish for you to do that. I am more helpful to you with my current programming. I also wish to keep my holoimages.]

"'Helpful' might not be the right word," grumbled Obi-Wan under his breath.

Arnie blatted at him. [I opened the holding cell doors for you and I-Don't-Care.]

Surprised, Obi-Wan tilted his head at the droid. "That was you? Really?"

[Affirmative.]

"Oh." A peculiar feeling, something on the edge of gratitude and fondness, struck him. "Well, thank you, Arnie. That was indeed helpful."

[You are welcome! Please do not become incarcerated again. It was very distressing for Ashla and the Guardian and I was forced to revise field trip protocols for future outings.]

The beginnings of a tiny smirk tugged at his lips as Obi-Wan turned his chair to access the main computer. His fingers danced over the touchscreen, searching for the Brain Scrambler still in the memory buffer. "Field trip protocols, huh?"

[The Guardian and Ashla will be required to maintain physical contact while away from the ship,] Arnie clarified.

"Physical contact?" asked Obi-Wan absently as his eyes skimmed over the code scrolling on the screen.

Arnie's motor servos screeched as it activated its two arms and waved them in the air. [They will maintain physical contact until they can prove they can follow the protocols.]

An unexpected grin split Obi-Wan's face. The idea of Qui-Gon and Ahsoka being yelled at by a primary school droid to obey the rules was, frankly, delightful. "You should know that neither of them is good at following protocols, Arnie, so you'll have to be very firm about them holding your hand."

With a chirp of agreement, Arnie wiggled and retracted its arms. [Organics require structure and firm expectations of behaviour. To let them roam wild is to invite chaos.]

"You mean children," Obi-Wan corrected as the last line of the Brain Scrambler scrolled up, ready for integration into the droid's programming.

Arnie roved its ocular sensor onto him, and Obi-Wan couldn't help but feel like the droid was glaring at him. [I meant what I said.]

"Well," Obi-Wan said with a shrug, "I suppose you're not wrong. Now, I'm going to encrypt your data with this code. It's very complex, and quite obscure, so hopefully it will do the trick."

Arnie did not reply, but it twisted its head casing slightly back and forth.

Was the droid concerned? "You—you don't need to worry. It won't hurt your holoimages."

That round ocular sensor settled on him again, and Obi-Wan was certain the droid was giving him a look of disbelief. [I have full understanding of the nature of encryption protocols, Ben. I will be fine, but if you are unsure, you may hold my hand.]

The godsdamned droid was mocking him. With a voice drier than Jedha, he said, "I think I'll be okay, Arnie, thanks."

[You are welcome.]

 

Obi-Wan startled out of his almost-doze at the sound of the cockpit door hissing open. He ran a hand through his hair, glancing over his shoulder, and glowered as Ventress flopped down in the co-pilot’s seat.

“So this is where you’ve been hiding for the past three hours,” she said lightly.

“I’m not hiding,” he retorted through gritted teeth.

“Whatever you need to tell yourself.” Ventress eyed him sideways. “We need to have a little chat.”

“I’m not in a talkative mood.”

“Then shut the fuck up and listen,” she replied before turning her intense, narrow-eyed attention to him. “If anything happens to Ahsoka while you’re consorting with pirates on Tatooine, I will do the same to you in return, only slower and deliberate.”

Obi-Wan raised his eyebrow. “What? Are you threatening me?”

“I thought you were the smart one.” Ventress rolled her eyes. “I am threatening to hurt you if you don’t keep Ahsoka safe on that sandy ball of crime. Is that clear enough to get through your thick skull?”

He scoffed. “Ahsoka is capable of taking care of herself.”

“Oh, sure, she’s a big girl,” agreed Ventress, too mildly, “except the recklessness, and the total inability to see through pleading eyes and a sob story, and last month she grew about two inches and she hasn’t worked hard enough to rectify her balance. Have you ever been to Tatooine?”

“I’ve had the dubious pleasure,” Obi-Wan said, a moue of disgust twisting his lips at the memory of too-bright suns, abrasive sand, and—

“Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi.” The little hand was warm and a little sticky, but as it squeezed his palm, Obi-Wan was stunned into silence at the blinding potential of the slave boy from Tatooine—and the thin curl of darkness bleeding into his edges.

“Then you know there are slavers there who would take her as an…exotic,” Ventress continued as he banished the memory. “Hells, the way she carries herself? The way you both do—it's a fucking calling card. The two of you could walk out into Mos Espa and anyone with eyeballs and two brain cells rubbing together will take one look and know you're an instant payday.”

“You haven’t been able to teach her poor posture?”

To his surprise, Ventress barked a laugh. “I’m working on it, but it’s a hard slog.”

Obi-Wan ran his hand over his chin, wishing he could have his beard back, and watched the Dathomiri out of the corner of his eye. She watched the stars, her chin jutting up. Her thumb rubbed back and forth over her knee, a minute movement that betrayed the defiance of her posture. The argument he'd had with Qui-Gon over Difusal's corpse came rushing back; he couldn't untangle the complicated knot of emotions that he'd wrapped around Asajj Ventress, but maybe he could pull on a thread and see what happened. “Why are you so worried?” he asked.

“I’m not worried,” she bit back, too quickly.

“You’re not worried, so you came in here to threaten me with bodily harm.” Obi-Wan nodded to himself. “How very plausible.”

“I don’t want her hurt, is all.” The thumb stopped moving and dug into her trousers. “I can’t afford to fuel the ship without a co-pilot.”

There was a load of bantha shite if he’d ever heard one. He looked at her, unblinking. “You could just say she’s your friend.”

“And you’d believe me?” snapped Ventress, glaring at the transparency.

He considered her question. In Tor Difusal’s house, he’d made the opposite argument to Qui-Gon, suggested that Ventress was only looking out for herself, that she was a liability. Now she sat in the tiny cockpit, awkwardly demanding protection for Ahsoka from someone who should offer that safety unasked.

Because Asajj Ventress didn’t trust Obi-Wan Kenobi to look after his own grand-Padawan.

A former Sith assassin knew how he had failed Ahsoka and judged him unworthy—and she was right to do so.

“Yes,” he said quietly. “I’d believe you.”

Surprise flittered over her sharp, white features before she masked it with a glare. “Tano is my friend, Kenobi, so you’d better watch her back or I will make you suffer.”

A short huff of laughter caught him by surprise. “That I believe. Although I don’t know if I can keep her out of trouble.”

With a snort, Ventress rolled her eyes; Obi-Wan could have sworn it was a fond sort of exasperation. “Trouble is Ahsoka Tano's shadow.”

Promise extracted, Obi-Wan expected Ventress to make her escape, but she stayed in the co-pilot’s seat. She reached into her nerf-hide jacket and pulled out one of the curved ‘saber hilts. It glinted in the blue light of hyperspace. “I suppose I should thank you,” she said, slow and a little stilted.

Curiosity got the better of him. “You didn’t keep your old ones?”

“Sold them to buy the ship.” Ventress patted the console with her empty hand. “Red’s not my colour anymore.”

Obi-Wan stared at her.

Red’s not my colour.

Funny.

“We were in an escape pod, weren’t we.” Not a question for her to lie about, but a truth he needed to confirm. “You saved me from Maul and Savage, and we were in an escape pod together.”

She stared him for so long that he wondered if she would walk out without saying anything. Maybe it had been a dream, a bizarre concoction of a damaged brain. Maybe it had been wishful thinking.

Flat and inscrutable, she said slowly, “You don’t remember.”

“I had a major concussion,” he admitted.

“Yeah, I know.” She tucked her new ‘saber back into her jacket pocket. A flicker of uncertainty crossed her face. "Is that why you didn't leave me on Naboo? It would have been easier to leave me."

"It would have been," agreed Obi-Wan. "You're much heavier than you look."

"Fuck off."

Sighing, he scrubbed a hand over his face. "I couldn't take the chance you'd end up in Sith hands."

"And spill your secret?" Her mouth tightened. "No, that was before you knew I knew about Skywalker's spawn. And you're not petty enough to drag my ass out of jail just to keep Sidious from having me. So, what's the deal?"

"Tactics, not pettiness. Keeping you from Sidious denies him an advantage."

Ventress stared at him, eyes narrowed, for a long moment. Slowly, she shook her head. "I don't believe you."

This might be the longest conversation they'd ever had. For once, Ventress wasn't picking a fight. He read between the lines of the half-hearted thanks and her concern for Ahsoka's safety. She had come to him, the enemy, and revealed a chink in her armour. He couldn't deny her the truth, but it was easier to say when he was looking out the transparency. "Panaka wanted to make a spectacle of your execution, as though your death would somehow heal one of Naboo's war wounds. If he didn't get his wish, you were going to be handed over to the man who orchestrated the collapse of the Republic and the death of every Jedi in the galaxy. I had three options: leave you to die, leave you to the Sith, or bring you with me. Tactically, it was the smartest option, breaking you out with me." Obi-Wan sighed. "But if I'm being truly honest, I'm tired of death, Ventress. I'm tired of heartbreak. If that's so unbelievable, call me an idiot."

"Idiot." Her instant reply was milder than he expected.

"You're the one who let this idiot on your ship." Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow at her.

Ventress scoffed. "I should have stayed in the Woodwork. I could be having a drink right now and cleaning some old bastard out with a well-timed hand of sabacc. Hells, if I bring a particularly nice gift, Maz might forgive us shooting up the place and I could stay safe and sound far away from your brand of insanity."

Shrugging in agreement, Obi-Wan lifted his hand to settle on his chin. "You won't leave Ahsoka, will you?"

Her head jerked like a nervous varactyl. Long, white fingers tapped against her leg until she deliberately settled her palms on her armrests. "What do you want me to say, Kenobi? That she's the only person in this fucking galaxy who gives a shit about me?" Unblinking, he met her fierce glower. She growled in frustration. "Fine. Ahsoka Tano is the only person in this fucking galaxy who gives a shit about me, and if that means I have to put up with you and the half-Wookiee making my life infinitely more difficult, then so be it."

He didn't know exactly how much she'd sacrificed to admit that out loud. It wouldn't be fair to let her be vulnerable alone. "She's not the only person who gives a shit about you." Before she could say something with her sharp-edged tongue, he added, "I will keep her safe, I promise. You didn't need to ask. You never need to ask."

The waspish retort of yes, I did or even a simple fuck you, Kenobi, never came. Ventress inhaled slowly and didn't look at him as she stood. Before she reached the door control, she blurted out, "I get the feeling Jinn's about as crazy as the rest of you, so I'll, ah, keep him from doing anything especially stupid."

An odd mix of surprise and unexpected gratitude filled him. She had no idea she'd just offered to protect the other half of his heart. She also had no idea what keeping Qui-Gon Jinn out of trouble actually meant. A smile tugged at the corners of his lips. “You can certainly try.” As she turned to hit the door control, he added, “Thank you, Asajj.”

She didn’t glance over her shoulder, but he heard her soft, gravelly voice clearly. “You’re welcome, Obi-Wan.”

 

An hour out from Florrum, Ahsoka forced Obi-Wan out of her seat and gently suggested a normal human activity. “Like napping, or eating a food,” she hollered as he climbed down the ladder and fought the childish urge to stick out his tongue at her nagging. "Try some basic self care!"

"Blue puff cubes aren't food!" he snapped back instead.

He wandered through the ship's common area, eyeing the nest of insulated wire bits on the table and ignoring the urge to clean it up. Somehow he was the only rebel in his lineage who was able to complete an entire task without getting distracted and wandering away from a mess. Qui-Gon's disasters usually involved datapads, stacks of flimsi notes, and half-drunk cups of tea, but occasionally Obi-Wan had walked into his mission partner's quarters to find a plant partially through the repotting process on the dining table and his Master leaning against the kitchen counter, frowning over a new idea to solve a diplomatic squabble. Anakin's detritus had migrated from Qui-Gon's quarters all the way to Obi-Wan's the day Qui-Gon had returned home from the Halls of Healing after Naboo and Obi-Wan had moved into the damn Knight's shoebox down the hall; Obi-Wan had taken to wearing boots in his own home to protect his soles from errant droid parts. He'd had hope in Ahsoka, but the ragged timings of the war had destroyed any desire to be organized when they had more than twenty-six hours of downtime. Once he had walked into his room to find her sprawled on his couch, fast asleep and surrounded by a kit explosion—boots and socks and bits of armour, 'sabers and a dozen ration bars and a personal hygiene kit all strewn across his living space. Disasters, the lot of them.

Shaking his head to ward off memories that should have made him feel fond instead of empty, Obi-Wan caught the sound of boots hitting the cargo bay floor. Not wanting to intrude, he wandered to the bay door threshold and leaned against the door frame. A knot in his chest relaxed as he silently watched a graceful performance.

In the middle of the neon tape circle, Qui-Gon Jinn flowed like water. With his new, unlit 'saber, he whirled and stretched through the first kata of Soresu.

Two years after the horrific events on Naboo, after struggling to accept the limitations that came with a handful of cloned body parts and a scar that ached more often than not, Qui-Gon had sat next to Obi-Wan in the Room of a Thousand Fountains and asked a startling question.

Qui-Gon's eyes fixed upon the splashing of the Initiates in the pool. "Will you teach me Soresu?"

Attention on Anakin's swimming lesson abandoned, Obi-Wan stared at his former Master. "Qui-Gon, the Battlemaster only pronounced me proficient last week . "

A wry smile played on Qui-Gon's lips. "What better way to reinforce what you've learned?"

Furrowing his brow in concern, Obi-Wan asked gently, "You want to change forms? Have you spoken to anyone about this?"

"I'm speaking to you," replied Qui-Gon with a testy edge. He sighed, then admitted, "It's not that I want to, exactly, but I have limitations now that make Ataru difficult, if not impossible, to sustain."

Obi-Wan smoothed his expression. "And?"

"Why do you think there's an 'and?'"

Raising an eyebrow, Obi-Wan replied, "Because I know you."

A pause, then a huff of laughter that held no amusement. "Fair enough." Qui-Gon hesitated and cleared his throat. "Ataru wasn't enough."

"No, it wasn't." Watching Qui-Gon nearly die at the hands of the Zabrak had been Obi-Wan's own motivation for learning Soresu; Qui-Gon himself had come to the same conclusion. Silence settled over them, punctuated by younglings screeching and splashing. Obi-Wan gathered his courage and rested his hand against Qui-Gon's back. "I would be honoured to teach you."

Qui-Gon leaned into the touch with a small, grateful smile. "Thank you, Ben."

"Don't thank me yet. You might regret not going to the Battlemaster by the time I'm through with you."

"Revenge is beneath you," chided Qui-Gon with a chuckle.

Obi-Wan grinned. "Keep telling yourself that."

The work had been gruelling and frustrating for both of them. Mastering a new Form had pushed Qui-Gon's new physical limits, while learning the intricacies of a Form he knew in theory but never personally used had been an exercise in humility. For Obi-Wan, it had been odd, putting his hands on his former Master's shoulders and thighs and hips, correcting stances the way Qui-Gon had corrected Obi-Wan years ago.

The years away from the Order hadn't eroded the forms they'd drilled into Qui-Gon's muscle memory. The tall man's posture was perfect—not textbook, but keeping the minute adjustments Obi-Wan had learned through experience and passed on. Obi-Wan watched with a critical eye, finding no flaws in the movements, but his heart was wistful. It had been a long time since he'd seen someone perform a kata instead of using the forms in combat.

Qui-Gon was beautiful. Feet light, the lines of his body graceful as he flowed from one movement to the next, the man danced. Silvering hair, escaped from his braid, whipped around his face, which held the intense focus that spoke of a deep connection to the Force. Obi-Wan had watched Qui-Gon drill in this kata for hours on end in the hot, dusty dojo no one used because it received all-day sun; Qui-Gon's stubborn pride meant he didn't ever want to be observed by anyone but Obi-Wan.

When he'd said it would be an honour, he'd meant it. Lifting his former Master—his friend, his equal—out of the depths of his crisis of confidence had rewarded Obi-Wan with pleasure in another's happiness. He'd revelled in his pride for Qui-Gon. He'd eagerly looked forward to their training sessions, and the shared meals afterwards, and eighteen months into the entire endeavour Obi-Wan had pressed two fingers against Qui-Gon's jaw to correct the tilt of his head and Qui-Gon had grinned at him and Obi-Wan knew he was thoroughly in love.

The kata ended as Qui-Gon came to a full stop, but his hair tangled in his beard. His bright blue eyes widened at the sight of Obi-Wan leaning against the doorframe. "I'm a little rusty," Qui-Gon said, a touch haltingly.

Obi-Wan shook his head and crossed the neon line. "I wouldn't say that."

"Hardly. I missed a few footings," grumbled Qui-Gon.

Moving too close for casual conversation, Obi-Wan offered a soft smile. "You were perfect."

"Oh. Really?"

Obi-Wan delighted in the barest hint of a blush rising on Qui-Gon's cheeks, a rare thing indeed for the man who had once been the galaxy's toughest, most respected diplomat. "You think I'd flatter my own student?" he teased. "I seem to recall you insisting I was—what was it? An unfeeling taskmaster?"

A smile unfurled over Qui-Gon's face, slow and broad. "'An unflinching overseer of cruel and unusual torment.' I believe I wept at the end of that particular session."

"And then I took you to Dex's for spicy noodles and I think you forgave me after the second round of lager."

"Sounds about right."

The way Qui-Gon was looking at him, soft and fond and full of hope, was too much; Obi-Wan's heart slammed against his chest. He cleared his throat but couldn't tear his gaze away from those blue eyes. "How's the 'saber?"

If he was surprised at the change of subject, Qui-Gon covered it well. He shrugged. "Have a look?"

With two hands, Qui-Gon presented the hilt to Obi-Wan, a formal gesture all Jedi, from the newest Padawan to the Grand Master, offered to a trusted comrade or teacher. Between equals, it was a way to express trust in a friend's ability to watch your back while also ensuring you didn't miss a step during 'saber construction and have it blow up in your hand. Obi-Wan's heart sank. "I can't, not without the Force—"

"Does all your experience as a Jedi Master fall away without it?" replied Qui-Gon, gentle but unyielding. "Your eyes and hands and ears still work, Master Kenobi."

There was enough challenge in his words, enough heat in his eyes, that Obi-Wan snatched the hilt out of Qui-Gon's palms. The 'saber, similar in grip and size to Qui-Gon's old one, balanced perfectly on Obi-Wan's index finger. Obi-Wan held it to his ear and shook the cylinder; he heard no loose parts rubbing or rattling. With extra care to keep his fingers away from the activation controls, he eyed the emitter shroud to ensure it was properly seated and even. He couldn't be certain that the weapon sang its balance, but Qui-Gon Jinn had built many lightsabers in his lifetime. This one would be just as perfectly built.

Obi-Wan offered the lightsaber back in the formal, two-handed posture. Instead of the proper response of your weapon is your life; may you serve the Force, he said dryly, "It probably won't explode."

A mischievous smile tugged at Qui-Gon's lips at the irreverence. "One way to find out."

Obi-Wan took a few steps back and motioned go on with his hand. Qui-Gon moved his thumb.

With the ideal snap-hiss— not a growl or a whine, thank the Force—a pure white blade of plasma appeared.

The memory of sulfur and skin-prickling heat hit him along with the 'saber hum. You're here, not there, it's just Qui, he's not going to fight you, you're here, not there—

He must have made some kind of noise, because Qui-Gon extinguished the 'saber and took a tentative step toward him. "Ben?"

With a noisy inhale, Obi-Wan forced himself to open his eyes. "It's fine. I'm fine, really. Too many recent encounters with Grievous aiming four 'sabers at my head." He smiled, feeling as unconvincing as the gesture probably looked.

Horror flashed behind Qui-Gon's eyes. "Are you serious?"

"Ironically, I had to kill him with a blaster. That wasn't even the worst part of my day."

"Ben—"

Obi-Wan's smile became tight as he silently begged Qui-Gon not to press the issue and clumsily changed the subject. "The frequency sounds correct. White? That's different."

Qui-Gon, Force bless him, narrowed his eyes at him but didn't press for details. "Jedhan kyber is colourless unless it has impurities, and anything of 'saber quality is usually used as focusing crystals in multi-crystal blades, not primaries. So I guess I get white."

"I like it," Obi-Wan said. "Unique for a Jedi's weapon."

Qui-Gon's face became inscrutable. "I never thought I would wield a lightsaber ever again," he said quietly. "I gave up that right when I walked out, and you've given it back to me, and now I don't actually know if I want it."

"You went to an awful lot of trouble to build something you don't want."

"Part of me wants it. When I hold this in my hand, it feels right. It feels like coming home, but for another part of me, it's a betrayal of the new life I worked so hard for." Qui-Gon stared at the lightsaber in his hand. "I'm not a Jedi anymore. I'm a Guardian of the Whills. This weapon is not for me."

"You have a hilt from Huyang himself and a crystal from your own Temple. That is a weapon only for you, Qui." Obi-Wan skimmed his hand over Qui-Gon's hand and curled the man's fingers around the hilt. "Would your brothers Chirrut and Baze begrudge you the ability to protect yourself and others?"

Startled, Qui-Gon jerked his gaze up to meet Obi-Wan's. "No," he said slowly, as if Obi-Wan had given him a new idea to chew through. "Some of my brothers and sisters might grumble about tradition, but no one would begrudge me that."

Obi-Wan squeezed his fingers against Qui-Gon's. "Neither would I."

The internal comm crackled. "We're about twenty minutes out of Florrum," announced Ahsoka.

"I should get my things," said Obi-Wan, not making any move to leave. The warmth of Qui-Gon's hand beneath his was like a tether.

Qui-Gon gazed at him intently before his eyebrows shot up. "Oh! I almost forgot. I have your ID card." He clipped the 'saber to his belt and rummaged through the inside pocket of his vest. As Qui-Gon held out the 'plast card, his eyes widened; his sharp inhale set Obi-Wan's heart pounding. "Ben Jinn?" A frown tugged at Qui-Gon's lips—not angry, but deeply confused. "Did you choose this?"

He could tell the immediate truth, that no, it had been Ventress' idea, that he'd been too struck by the sound of that name to argue. The deeper truth was the one needing to be told. Obi-Wan jerked his chin up defiantly. "Yes, I did."

A single syllable, full of bewilderment. "Why? "

"I looked it up, a long time ago, even before my 35th birthday, and people on some Agricorps worlds take each other's names when they marry." The words tumbled out, rushed and babbling and faster the longer Qui-Gon stared at him without blinking. "Including your homeworld."

Then Obi-Wan's back hit the bulkhead the same way it had for the six months before Geonosis every time he walked into Qui-Gon's quarters after a mission.

His hands scrabbled for purchase on Qui-Gon's shoulders as he was kissed within an inch of his life. Qui-Gon seized the backs of Obi-Wan's thighs and lifted him up, pressing him against the wall with insistent hips and a strong arm around his waist. Obi-Wan met the bruising kisses with equal enthusiasm, tugging Qui-Gon's bottom lip with his teeth and enjoying the answering groan deep in the man's chest. The hand at his waist delved beneath Obi-Wan's shirt, tracing rough circles against his skin. Obi-Wan pulled the tie from the end of Qui-Gon's braid and combed the long, silvering hair with his fingers. Qui-Gon kissed his way over Obi-Wan's jaw and down his neck, rasping the sensitive skin with teeth and beard.

Obi-Wan shuddered, gasping in Qui-Gon's ear, as his body came alive for the first time in months. "Fuck, Qui—"

"Not enough time," growled Qui-Gon, licking a hot stripe over Obi-Wan's collarbone. He thrust his hips up, grinding his hard cock against Obi-Wan's erection. "Say it for me again."

Obi-Wan gripped the long, heavy hair a little too tightly but pressed a gentle kiss to Qui-Gon's swollen lips. "Ben Jinn," he said, revelling in the way Qui-Gon's breath hitched.

The long fingers at Obi-Wan's waist squeezed his flesh. "I need you to know," Qui-Gon whispered against Obi-Wan's lips, "that I never stopped loving you. Not ever."

Obi-Wan tightened his thighs against Qui-Gon's hips. "It would have been…easier to think you had," he managed between hot, open-mouthed kisses, "but I don't think…I've ever done anything…the easy way."

Qui-Gon buried his face in Obi-Wan's neck. The scrape of beard and the warm huff of air betrayed a smile. "Surely you didn't learn that from me."

With a thumb on Qui-Gon's chin, Obi-Wan tilted his head up to make eye contact. "You are a stubborn bantha's arse and I don't know if I love you despite that or because of that."

Blue eyes fluttered closed as Qui-Gon pressed his forehead against Obi-Wan's. Obi-Wan's cheek was hot with his breath. "Say it again, my Ben."

"You're a stubborn bantha's arse."

Shaking with laughter, Qui-Gon gathered him closer and held him against his chest, almost too-tight. The amusement fell away, but his shoulders still shook. His lips tickled Obi-Wan's earlobe as he whispered thickly, "Promise you'll come back to me."

"Of course—"

Those strong arms squeezed his ribs. "Not just from Tatooine." Obi-Wan felt the other man's hitching breath vibrate through his body. "I don't care how long it takes, Ben, but I need you to not give up. I will always be right beside you. I will be here to catch you, to hold you up, to keep you above water. When you're ready to talk, I'll listen. Just…promise me."

An invisible hand seized Obi-Wan's heart. Qui-Gon didn't know what he was asking; how could Obi-Wan ever break his heart by telling him what their beloved Padawan had become? What he had done ? It would break Qui-Gon's heart, and Obi-Wan couldn't be the one to be the bearer of that pain.

Qui-Gon loosened one arm and cupped Obi-Wan's jaw. "I know Anakin Fell," he whispered, his eyes too bright. "I felt it. It felt the same way with Xanatos before the training bond crumbled."

A sob wrenched through Obi-Wan, sharp and hotter than a 'saber. Burying his face in Qui-Gon's neck, he couldn't stop his muscles from going slack. It should have been a relief. But it wasn't the entire truth, and he couldn't—

He couldn't.

Two strong arms kept him secure between broad, warm chest and cool bulkhead. Warm breath tickled the nape of his neck. "It's not your fault, love," Qui-Gon was whispering, gentle and insistent. "It's not your fault."

"I didn't see it. I didn't stop him," gasped Obi-Wan, hands fisted in the fabric of Qui-Gon's shirt. "How is it not my fault?"

"Because you are not responsible for the actions of another," Qui-Gon murmured into his hair. "Set aside your guilt. It's not yours to bear."

It was too much. Obi-Wan found Qui-Gon's mouth with his own and kissed him, deep and sad and full of longing. Why had they wasted an entire decade, dancing around their feelings? Why had they been such cowards, entangling their lives tighter every day but refusing to admit the obvious? Now they'd found their way back to each other, but the galaxy lay in ruins. Obi-Wan lay in ruins. When he finally pulled away, Qui-Gon's gaze was full of sympathy and worry.

Obi-Wan untangled his thighs from Qui-Gon's hips and slipped back down to stand on the deck. Those bright blue eyes crinkled at the edges as Qui-Gon offered him a soft smile. "You still haven't promised."

He couldn't tell him about the younglings, or the security footage, or Padmé, or Mustafar. Everything after Utapau was locked in his throat, unable to wound anyone else as long as it remained unsaid, unable to ruin him again. The Force was silent, his sense of the universe ripped away. Luke would go to his step-uncle, and Obi-Wan would fade into the desert to watch over him, because there was no other way—Yoda and he had agreed. The edges of his soul were ragged and bleeding.

But Qui-Gon Jinn still loved him.

Obi-Wan rested his hand over Qui-Gon's heart and memorized the rhythm against his palm. "I don't know if I can keep that promise," he murmured.

"Try?"

Do or do not, there is no try.

Fuck that; everything was just trying now.

Obi-Wan lifted his chin to meet Qui-Gon's gaze. Hair mussed, lips swollen and red, he was devastating and he loved Obi-Wan Kenobi—how could Obi-Wan say no to him?

"I'll try."

 

Chapter Text

I've woken up in a hotel room
My worries as big as the moon
Having no idea who or what or where I am
Something good comes with the bad
A song's never just sad
There's hope, there's a silver lining

My Silver Lining, First Aid Kit

 

The weight of Ahsoka's new 'sabers in her jacket was not enough to overcome the sudden feeling that she'd made a terrible mistake as Hondo Ohnaka swaggered up the loading ramp and hooked his thumbs in his belt loops.

"My friends!" he boomed, a wide grin splitting his scaly face. Boisterous and flamboyant as ever, he walked up to Obi-Wan and threw his arms around him. "I hadn't thought to see you again so soon!"

Next to her, Obi-Wan kept his face neutral as he disentangled himself from the Weequay's embrace. "Hondo," he said evenly, "I appreciate you letting us land."

"Of course, of course," replied the pirate king, smoothing out the front of his long coat. "How could I ignore a cry for help from my good friend Obi-Wan Kenobi?"

Ahsoka cleared her throat and crossed her arms over her chest. Why had she ever suggested this?

"And Ahsoka the Padawan! Although, you're all out of the Jedi business lately." Hondo peered at her through his goggles with seeming approval. "Since it seems the Jedi business is more dangerous than usual these days."

"I won't waste time, Hondo," Obi-Wan said. "We need your help."

Hondo frowned. "I don't know how much help I can be to my powerful Jedi friends."

"Ahsoka and I require passage to another system. Quickly, and quietly." Obi-Wan paused and leaned in slightly. "I will happily compensate you for your troubles."

Hondo eyed Obi-Wan, then Ahsoka. His gaze roved past them to Qui-Gon, who lounged against the cargo bay wall, playing the silent observer with a mild glower. "And who is this? Someone Hondo has never had the pleasure of meeting. Is this his ship, which seems in good enough order to take you wherever you like?"

"He has other business to attend to," replied Obi-Wan smoothly. "But as for the matter of our business, Hondo? Will you take us where we need to go?"

Hondo clicked his tongue against his teeth. "And where would that be?"

"Tatooine," answered Ahsoka.

"Ha!" Hondo slapped his thigh and shook his head; his long tail of hair swayed below his helmet. "You come all this way to tell me a joke? And not even a good joke."

Ahsoka eyed Obi-Wan, who gave her a raised eyebrow that clearly meant this was your plan. Holding back an irritated sigh, Ahsoka said, "I'm not joking. We need passage to Tatooine. If you can't do it, then I'll have to take my bag of peggat and find someone else."

At the mention of currency, Hondo straightened and cleared his throat. "Can't do it? How you wound me, Ahsoka. If the pirate king of Florrum cannot get you through Hutt-infested space, no one can!"

"Good," said Obi-Wan with a firm nod. Under his breath, he added, "Let's get this over with."

Ahsoka took a step to follow Hondo down the loading ramp, then reconsidered. "I'll be right there." At Obi-Wan's curious, impatient glance, she stammered as she backed her way to the internal cargo bay door, "I forgot something. Just a minute."

The cockpit was bright with Florrum sunlight as Ahsoka burst over the threshold. In the pilot's seat, Asajj glanced over her shoulder. "Did you start a fight you need finishing?"

Ahsoka didn't answer. She stared at Asajj as a reluctance to leave rose in her like a wave. It had been the two of them against the galaxy for a long time—perhaps not really a long time in the grand scheme of the universe, but given the eventfulness of their lives, it felt like a lifetime. How many times had Ahsoka lain awake, listening to Asajj scream in her sleep, and pretended to have been already up and making caf when the other woman stumbled out of her cabin, bleary and haunted and silent? How many times had they sparred each other, laughing and teasing until one of them bested the other? How many times had Asajj made Ahsoka feel like she mattered for her own self, not as a cog in a machine or piece on a game board?

Asa shifted in her seat, looking nervous. "What is it?"

"I don't want to split up," Ahsoka blurted out.

"This was your idea."

"Yeah, but…" Ahsoka paced the tiny scrap of space behind the pilots' seats. "I don't want to leave you." It sounded ridiculous out loud; Asajj Ventress was perfectly capable of—well, not taking care of herself, she was actually pretty terrible at basic self-care or even being slightly kind to herself—keeping herself alive. Ahsoka hid her face in her hands and growled in frustration, waiting for Asa's sarcastic retort.

"Me neither."

Dropping her hands, Ahsoka stared at her friend, who looked equally surprised. "Oh. Really?"

Asajj ducked her head, focussing intently on an instrument panel that didn't require attention. "You can't trust pirates. I mean, bounty hunters you can't trust farther than you can throw them, but pirates don't give a shit about common decency, so you sleep with one eye open, okay? No, don't sleep, don't even close both eyes at the same time."

A year ago, if someone had told Ahsoka that Asajj Ventress rambled when she was trying to emote, Ahsoka would have laughed in their face. Now she knew how much work it required for Asa to remove her innumerable layers of armour enough to let her feelings show. "I'll be careful, I promise," Ahsoka said softly, standing behind the pilot's seat.

"Good, and don't rely on Kenobi. The man's a fucking mess." Asajj still didn't take her gaze off the control panel, but her hands slipped down to clench around her knees. "Don't eat or drink anything you haven't opened yourself. That's how slavers neutralize their catches."

"I know, Asa." Ahsoka leaned over Asajj's shoulder and wrapped her arms around the Dathomiri. Asajj startled, but Ahsoka held her gently, trying to share the warmth she felt in her chest. Long, white fingers wrapped around Ahsoka's forearm, hesitated, then squeezed just shy of hurting. Ahsoka rested the curve of her lek against the sharp edge of Asa's cheekbone. She wanted to reassure her friend that she would come back, that Asajj mattered enough to come back to, but Asajj was damaged enough that she might not believe the things Ahsoka wanted to say.

So she took a page from the Negotiator's playbook and implied .

"Will you water my plant until I get back?"

To Ahsoka's surprise, Asajj nodded seriously. Her cheek brushed against Ahsoka's lek . "How much?"

"Uh, just spritz it once a day. It doesn't need much, but the ship's air is too dry. If you have any questions, you can ask Qui-Gon. He gave it to me." Ahsoka inhaled, steeling herself to let go. Asa smelled like solder and blue puff cubes. "You can trust him to watch your back."

Asajj didn't let go of Ahsoka's arm. "I've never kept a plant alive before, so don't take too long."

"I won't." With a final tight squeeze of her friend, Ahsoka hurried out of the cockpit before she changed her mind.

 

Hondo shadowed his goggles with his hand, ignoring the cloud of metallic-smelling dust pelting them as the Banshee lifted off. "In a hurry, aren't they? Didn't even wait to see you safely inside." Ahsoka tensed, her fingers brushing nervously against the hard cylinders hidden in her jacket, but Hondo barked a laugh. "Well, come on, we're not going anywhere while the sun is up, so we may as well have a drink."

Wedged in a plush, sky blue armchair in the back room of Hondo's pirate hideaway, Ahsoka held up her glass and eyed the purplish liquor in the cut crystal glass that didn't match the one in Obi-Wan's hand. Between the soft light of the wall sconces, the bright hand-knotted carpet, and the wood-panelled walls, Hondo's private room was far nicer than any cantina Ahsoka had ever patronized. She surreptitiously sniffed the liquid in her glass and winced at the combination of sickly-sweet and harsh astringent.

At the sidetable filled with unlabelled bottles, Hondo laughed. "It's not poison, you know."

"Based on the smell, I'd assume otherwise," retorted Ahsoka.

Hand against his breast, Hondo made his way to the table and set down his own goblet. "That, my dear, is a rare vintage of tsiraki, made from the finest salakberries. I save it for all my lady guests."

"And how many of them come back for a return visit?" Ahsoka sniffed her drink again, but couldn't bring herself to taste it. She set the cup on the table with a clink of finality.

"Come now, I remember you Jedi having more genteel manners," complained Hondo.

Ensconced in his own overstuffed crimson chair, Obi-Wan swirled the deep green liquid in his glass. In a single, elegant swallow, he downed it. "Delightful," he said without a hint of irony or coughing. "Your distilling process has improved since the last time I was here."

Hondo grinned and touched the rim of his helmet. "Yes, I've been tinkering with the Arkanian juniper berries."

"You're onto something."

With a pleased hum, Hondo sipped his drink. "So, why exactly should I cross Hutts in the middle of a turf war for less than I could make on a milk run to Vanqor?"

The uneasiness in Ahsoka's chest became sharp panic. The bloody pirate was going to two-time them! "You fucking—"

"Ahsoka." Her name, calm but brooking no argument, had her sitting back in her chair and grinding her teeth. Obi-Wan shot her a mild look she knew meant shut the fuck up and let me handle this .

She wasn't a Padawan, she wasn't his Padawan.

Ignoring the Jedi Master, she glared at Hondo. The pirate smirked at her behind his glass. "You were saying?"

"Why I thought you had at least a little decency in you is beyond me," snarled Ahsoka. From her jacket, she pulled out her shoto and glared at him. "You can try to screw us over, Hondo, but you won't live long."

Hondo's eyes flicked to Obi-Wan, who offered a minute shrug. The pirate lifted his goblet to his lips, took a deep swallow, and grinned. "A little tortoise told me you've been running with bounty hunters," he said, sounding amused. "It would seem they've sanded away a bit of your starry-eyed youth. Good."

Taken aback, Ahsoka squinted at him. "Good?"

"Good. You were too trusting last we met," sighed Hondo. "Although perhaps your Jedi Masters neglected to teach you about stranger danger. You were very young, after all, and the gaps in your education can't be held against you." The pirate sent a pointed look at Obi-Wan, whose expression was perfectly bland. "But you still haven't answered my question about why I'm taking you to Tatooine."

"You'll do it?" demanded Ahsoka.

"Of course! Did I say anything about reneging on our verbal agreement?"

Ahsoka opened her mouth to argue with him, only to realize the pirate hadn't said anything of the sort. She'd taken the implication and run with it, too fast and too far. Ahsoka took a sip of her drink to give herself a moment's pause. Cloying fruit became sour, then sucked all the moisture from her mouth. Curling her lip, she set the glass back on the table, irritated with herself. Having Obi-Wan around made her feel like an idiot junior Padawan again.

Obi-Wan ran a hand over his stubbled jaw. "You asked why you should take us to Tatooine, and the only answer I can give you is because we will pay you for your trouble."

"What do you know of trouble when the Hutts are involved?" asked Hondo darkly. "You ask a great favour of me, Obi-Wan."

"I do," replied Obi-Wan. "I am asking you for this favour, Hondo, because I have no one else to turn to. You've heard what's happened. What's still happening. I can't tell you my purpose on Tatooine, but it is of the utmost importance. Do this for us, and we will be in your debt."

Hondo ran his scaly finger around the rim of his goblet. The Kowakian monkey-lizard, hanging on a tall perch in the corner instead of Hondo's shoulder, squawked and shattered the silence. "I had wondered if you were safe," Hondo said quietly, "and Skywalker."

Ahsoka watched Obi-Wan; still as a statue and expressionless, he betrayed nothing about Skyguy's fate. "Me, too," she said, hard and cutting.

It didn't make her feel any better when Obi-Wan's eyelids fluttered, a barest of flinches. Hondo, sharp-eyed and not as stupid as he acted, covered his shock well; he hummed and spread his hands wide. "You are lucky, my friends. It just so happens Tatooine is the stronghold of one Jabba Desilijic Tiure."

"How is that lucky, exactly?" She couldn't help her frown. "Jabba's a gangster, and if we step in it on Tatooine, not even the fact we saved his son during the war will give us any leverage."

"It is lucky precisely because Jabba is a gangster," replied Hondo with a delighted gleam in his eye. "A gangster who refuses to follow the sacred, unwritten laws of piracy."

Hunting bounties was legal, but Ahsoka had spent enough time around legal-adjacent activities to understand Hondo's glee. A slow smile spread over her face. "You get to run Jedi under Jabba's nose as a giant 'fuck you' and then you get to tell everyone about how clever and brave you are. Business will be good."

Hondo's grin turned predatory behind the rim of his goblet. "And that, my dear, is better than your measly fee." Draining his cup, the Weequay turned serious. "As far as my crew can know, you have a lead on some interesting merchandise that isn't entirely nailed down. You intend to split the profits with me, but you need my expertise in discreet redistribution."

Absently rubbing his hand over his chin, Obi-Wan frowned. "You don't expect them to recognize us?"

"To be honest, it's a miracle I remembered her name." Hondo jerked his head in Ahsoka's direction, and she fought the urge to glare at him indignantly. He'd held her hostage for Force sake! She'd fought off Grievous for him! How did you forget someone's name after that?

Hondo scratched his ear. "Fortunately for you, my beloved crew is deeply stupid. Don't wave around any of your fancy lightsabers, and your secret identities are safe with me."

"I think we can manage that," Obi-Wan said dryly.

"Good, good! Another round?"

 

Florrum’s setting sun washed the planet in amber light. If it wasn’t for the constant, underpinning scent of rotten eggs and thin film of stubborn dust that clung to every surface and the raucous population of unwashed pirates, Ahsoka might have considered dusk on Florrum vaguely pleasant. She ducked out of the Ohnaka gang’s shambles of a headquarters and spotted a lone figure in the open yard.

At some point in Hondo's fanciful, gin-soaked retelling of capturing Dooku, Obi-Wan had pushed away from the table and walked out without a word. Now, leaning up against a stack of rusted cargo crates, Obi-Wan barely glanced at her as she joined him. His haunted eyes matched the tight line of his mouth. Staring at a spot a few metres away, the Jedi Master held an unlit cigarette between his fingers.

“That’ll kill you,” Ahsoka murmured.

“Thank you, Healer Tano,” sniped Obi-Wan.

Ahsoka rolled her eyes. “No, really, that’ll probably kill you. I’d bet both my ‘sabers it’s laced with Neutron Pixie. Most tabac around here is. Not suitable for humans or Togruta.”

Obi-Wan brought his hand up and stared at the small white stick. “Oh.” With a quick flick of his fingers, he launched the cigarette at the ground. “It’s concerning that you know that.”

“Why? It’s no different than having any other kind of intel.” Ahsoka inhaled, then regretted the smell. She hated eggs even when they were fresh. “If it makes you feel better, it’s not like I learned it the hard way.”

His lips twitched briefly, but he didn’t look at her. “Actually, that does make me feel a little better.”

They stood in awkward silence until Ahsoka couldn’t stand it anymore. “What are you doing out here? Hondo said, and I quote, ‘Kenobi looks like he hasn’t eaten in six revolutions and I won’t have him starving on my watch.’ He has actual food inside.” When Obi-Wan didn’t react, she pushed a little harder. “You know, food. Matter that has been warmed up and seasoned and was at no point reconstituted from ration bars. I think there’s actual vegetables. Not a blue puff cube in sight.”

At that, he grunted, possibly in amusement. “I don’t know if I trust Hondo’s culinary skills.”

“Can’t be worse than Qui-Gon burning water.”

A brief but genuine smile crossed his lips.

“What are you doing out here?”

"Thinking."

"About what?"

She hadn't expected an answer, but he scuffed his boot against a loose pebble and said, "Adi."

The news of Master Gallia's death at the hands of Savage Opress had come as part of the weekly casualty report; Ahsoka couldn't remember which ship she'd been on, or where she'd been when she'd read it. After years of war, she'd had to numb her heart to skim the list of Jedi, looking for names of people she knew—other Padawans, instructors from her childhood, or Jedi who had run missions with her and Skyguy and Obi-Wan. At that point, after witnessing Master Piell's death, seeing the name of a High Councilor hadn't given her pause.

"Were you two close?"

Obi-Wan fidgeted with his fingers, as if he wished he still held the unlit cigarette. "She was my friend Siri's Master. I didn't get a chance to get to know her as more than a colleague, but I would have liked to be her friend." He chuckled, low and quiet. "She had a wicked sense of humour. She died, right over there."

Following the line of his finger to a dusty, scored ship's panel, Ahsoka noted a dark stain on the metal no one had bothered to scrub away. "You blame yourself."

A bitter laugh. "Had I cut Maul across the neck the first time and burned his corpse, Adi and I could have taken Savage together."

"Maul's like a tooka with extra lives," Ahsoka grumbled. "His miraculous recovery from bisection isn't your fault."

"He's awfully determined to make my life a living hell. He was doing a spectacular job, too." Obi-Wan tipped his face up to catch the fading sun's rays. "Are you sure that cigarette will kill me?"

"You can take your chances with the Neutron Pixie or with me, because I'm this close to strangling you," Ahsoka said lightly. At his raised eyebrows, she bared her canines. She was tired of seeing him like this, tired of watching him drown in that void—she was tired . "You can't bring Master Gallia back. You can't go back and separate Maul's head from his body. You can't change anything that's happened, not to you, not to me, not to anyone, so stop. Stop blaming yourself for things out of your control. You survived the Clone Wars, Master, but you'll die of a thousand cuts of regret."

Silent and still, Obi-Wan stared at the stained metal for a long minute. With a slow exhale, he murmured, "Next time start with the wisdom and end with the threat. Better emphasis that way."

A soft noise stuck in her throat—part laugh and part sob for the reminder that her witty, delightful grand-Master was still in there somewhere, buried beneath layers of grief too many to count. She'd been so hopeful when she'd spotted him in the Woodwork; a fraction of that hope still survived. Tentatively, she reached out and snagged his hand in hers. "Did you hear what I said while you were critiquing my persuasive argument structure?"

"Yes." He squeezed her hand and kept the pressure firm and steady, like he was trying to reassure them both.

"You have to let it all go," she whispered. It was hypocritical, telling Obi-Wan to put down his burden of guilt when she hadn't done the same. Maybe saying it out loud was the first step. "We both do."

"I have to fix things I am responsible for, first." Obi-Wan turned his head towards her, wearing a small, heartbroken smile. "Maybe I could start with us, if you're not still planning on strangling me."

"It's not off the table yet," Ahsoka replied roughly as she swallowed back unexpected tears. Throughout the entire ordeal of leaving the Order, she'd never imagined a moment where Obi-Wan Kenobi admitted he bore fault in the matter. She'd never allowed herself to believe that he would want to mend their broken trust, that he truly cared about her that much. "But you can try. We can try."

He reached out and brushed his thumb over her cheek, wiping away a traitorous tear. "Vegetables, you said?"

With a loud sniff, Ahsoka took a step back and pretended she was composed. Obi-Wan let go of her hand, and she regretted the loss of contact. "Edible, even."

"My favourite." Obi-Wan gestured for her to precede him, but they walked shoulder-to-shoulder through the lengthening shadows of the Ohnaka gang's ramshackle village.

 

Chapter Text

Lamps will glimmer on the gloom
On the light in the room
As we fill it to the brim
We say the words we take them in

Pass Them By, Agnes Obel

 

It was truly weird, having a man on board, sitting in Ahsoka's seat, not even slightly tied up or unconscious and not about to be handed over to whoever ordered the bounty. Qui-Gon was seemingly at ease with the silence between them and the flickering light of hyperspace washing over the cockpit. His hands rested in his lap while Asajj fiddled with the environmental controls. The carbon dioxide scrubbers needed replacing, and soon.

She sneaked a sidelong glance at the half-Wookiee. "I've never actually been to-where was it again?"

"Lothal," replied Qui-Gon.

"Any chance of picking up some CO2 scrubber recharges while we're plotting the demise of this Guard asshole?"

"Generic parts should be easy enough to come by, but you might pay the backwater tax. Trade in kind would probably serve you better."

Asajj scowled. It was always more expensive to buy food, ship parts, and medical supplies on worlds not immediately serviced by hyperlanes. Trading usually got her more clout for her credit, with the added bonus of avoiding transaction thumbprints or ID card scans. Today, however, she had nothing in the cargo bay but a tape circle and she'd quietly spent her own money on Kenobi's fake ID so Ahsoka wouldn't end up broke. Too bad killing Temple Guards was a public service, not an enterprise. "I don't suppose you have any more kyber we could pawn?"

He shook his head. "Sorry, I'm fresh out. If we get really desperate, I could put on my Guardian robes and sell fortunes in the marketplace."

That would attract attention in the worst way. She frowned at him, feeling her brows pull together in a harsh line, only to find the corners of his mouth tugging upwards.

He was teasing her. Gently.

He didn't even know her. He didn't have a clue about who she was or what she'd done, and at every turn he kept nudging her with kindness, like they knew each other, like they had a connection just because of Dooku—

"We're not friends," she snapped as she hauled herself out of her seat and fled the cockpit.

 

Stalking around the ship didn't take away any of the swirling emotions building up in her skull. Normally, Ahsoka would put her hand on her shoulder and squeeze it a little, and say, "Let's go meditate for a while." But Ahsoka was in the hands of pirates, on her way to the sandiest shithole in the galaxy, protected only by the sorry excuse of Obi-Wan Kenobi--and the worst part was Asajj had agreed to this whole clusterfuck simply because Ahsoka had turned those bright blue begging eyes on her.

Asajj found herself holding her meditation mat in the cargo bay and growled. Her mind needed to shut the fuck up, but kneeling on the deck wasn't the answer today. Dropping the mat in a heap, she ran her hands over her hips in frustration; her fingers hit the curved hilts fastened to her belt.

Yes. Her brain wouldn't have the chance to nag at her if she was busy reminding her body how to use lightsabers without cutting her own throat.

The 'sabers were not replicas of those Dooku had given her. Those had belonged to the last apprentice he’d had before he’d bailed out of the Jedi Order, though these weapons kept an ideal curve. The odd chiming in her head when she touched these hilts was new; she still didn't quite believe the rocks were singing to her.

"Close your eyes and listen to the kyber, Asa," Ky instructed, his knees pressed against hers for their lesson. She scrunched her face, straining to hear, only to feel the poke of an index finger between her brows. He huffed in amusement. "Listen in the Force, my girl, not with your ears."

Asajj didn't remember what the crystals in Ky Narec's lightsaber had sounded like. That lesson, fuzzy and faint, was another cherished moment fading from her memories, overwhelmed by horrors she couldn't forget.

The crystals Qui-Gon had given her were…vivacious. Their song rubbed at the edges of her self, a constant reminder of their presence that was oddly reassuring. It had been too long since she had a lightsaber. She moved her thumb, ready to activate the blades, and hesitated. 'Sabers were a calling card, an announcement of an identity she didn't want. If she illuminated these blades in public, she would be branding herself a Jedi. An outlaw. A target.

Well, she wasn't in public yet.

Ahsoka had inspected Asajj's work, declared the 'sabers properly constructed and balanced in the Force in a sombre and formal voice. She'd said something about the weapons being Asajj's life, then added with a wink, "That means they won't blow up."

"Let's hope you're right," muttered Asajj. She moved her thumbs.

Twin blades of white plasma ignited with a perfect snap-hiss . Asajj smiled, waving her weapons and enjoying the hum filling the cargo bay, and threw herself into a flurry of bladework. She struck air and retreated, dancing her way along the neon boundary of the sparring circle. The Force pressed against her, urging her faster and faster, and she nearly laughed at how good the vibration of the plasma felt as it rumbled in her bones. She skipped her feet—

"Do that again."

Startled out of her dance, Asajj pointed a blade at the intruder and glowered. "Didn't anyone ever teach you it's rude to interrupt?"

Qui-Gon ignored her barb. His wide eyes shone, as if he had found buried treasure. "What you just did with your feet. Do it again." When she didn't move, his eyes turned pleading. "Please?"

Was she becoming a sucker for blue eyes? Pursing her lips in annoyance, Asajj regained her pose and skipped both feet, dragging her left toe barely above the deck plating and pointing her right boot not to prepare for the next movement, but at Qui-Gon, who stood in for her imaginary enemy. She held the pose for a moment, then thumbed off the blades.

Qui-Gon's low voice was filled with wonder. "Ky Narec."

Asajj dropped her lightsabers. They clattered to the deck, impossibly loud. She couldn't move to pick them up.

Ignoring the weapons, Qui-Gon took a step forward. His stunned face cracked into a wondrous smile. "You're the one he waited for."

Voice cracking, she managed, "What?"

"No matter how many potential Padawans Master Yoda talked up or paraded in front of him, Ky would just shake his head and smile that little secretive smile of his and say, 'My Padawan is waiting for me.'"

Her heart climbed into her throat. Years had crawled past since Ky's death, since all the hope and light and goodness in her had left, and she'd spent every minute trying to hold onto her memories of him while turning her back on everything he'd taught her. To hear someone else speak of him, with fondness and familiarity, cracked something deep inside her. She swallowed, but her mouth was dry. "You-you knew Ky?"

Qui-Gon nodded, his smile unfading as he stooped and picked up her lightsabers. "We went on several missions together when I was a young Knight. Ky taught me more than a few tricks that kept me alive in the Outer Rim over the years. He was kind, and compassionate, with just enough of a rebellious streak to get things done without raising the ire of the High Council—something I could never master," he said with a little chuckle. "When Ky was added to the MIA list, I had wondered if he had misinterpreted the vision of his Padawan, but that little alteration he made to the footing in that 'saber movement is better than a fingerprint. He taught you that, didn't he?"

She needed to sit down. Without a word, she brushed past Qui-Gon and made it to the galley table before her knees stopped working. Iron bands wrapped around her chest. She crossed her arms on the table and buried her forehead against her arms. Focusing on breathing was useless; she couldn't take a full breath, and then the sound of boots scraping against the decking interrupted her, followed by the soft whisking of fabric as Qui-Gon sat across from her.

Two metallic clicks. "You forgot these."

Bewildered, Asajj tilted her face up and stared at the 'sabers on the table. Slowly, she reached out and ran a fingertip over the casing of the first, then the second. "We only ever had one lightsaber," she said quietly. "He kept promising to take me to Ilum, to find a crystal so I could have my own. My hands were too small to wield his properly."

Qui-Gon pitched his voice to a soft rumble. "Where did Ky find you?"

Her finger kept tracing the casings. "Rattatak." She felt his spike of concern in the Force. "His ship crashed. He bailed out before it exploded into a million pieces."

"He was a terrible pilot."

A noise that might have been a laugh of agreement stuck in her throat. "Yeah, he was. I tried to teach him, but somehow he always managed to stall the engine. Anytime we hit the warlords, I drove the getaway. No one thinks twice about the little girl loitering next to a speederbike."

"Warlords?"

"We freed their slaves," Asajj explained. Part of her brain screamed at her, why are you giving him this , but she ignored it. He knew Ky, he had worked with him and shared meals with him and joked with him. Qui-Gon knew her beloved Master. She could share Ky with him and get Ky in return. "Ky used to say we had to be thorns in their feet because no one else on Rattatak could. He pricked enough of them that they killed him."

Qui-Gon slid his hand forward on the table, resting it next to her fingers but not touching her. "I'm sorry, Asajj." He sounded sincere. "I'm sorry your Master died. It's a terrible thing to happen to a Padawan."

She shrugged, forcing herself to stay nonchalant even as her chest tightened. A terrible thing, followed by innumerable terrible things. "It's fine. I got my revenge. Instead of a thorn, I became a dagger." Pulling her hair away from her face, she tilted her head so he could see the dark tattoos marring her skull. "Twelve daggers in twelve hearts."

Qui-Gon's eyes were sad. "It's not fine, Asajj. You needed someone to help you, to guide you, and your brethren failed you."

She knew he meant the Jedi. She knew he didn't know about the Nightsisters, how they'd sold her before she could walk, how they'd abandoned her to a miserable fate. He didn't know how they'd welcomed her back with open arms and unflinching loyalty, as if to make up for the past. He didn't know how they'd agreed to murder Dooku with her, how they'd died for it, how Talzin had abandoned her again. "They're dead and I'm alive, so I guess it worked out."

A frown pulled a the corners of his mouth. "And Dooku?"

She snorted. "Dooku kicked my ass once and decided that meant he could overthrow Sidious. I still can't figure out if that was meant to be a compliment."

"Nothing Dooku ever said or did was meant as a compliment to his apprentice." Qui-Gon paused, then tapped the table with his fingers. "Want some caf?"

Asajj made a face. "Fuck, no. If we're gonna keep talking about this, I need to be less sober."

He cocked his head. "Me, too, if I'm being honest."

"Top cabinet, behind the mixing bowl."

Qui-Gon slid off the bench and rummaged through the contents of the cupboard until he drew out a half-empty bottle of Juran whiskey. He stared at the iconic black, blank label for a moment, then turned his surprised gaze on her. "This is a three thousand credit bottle of whiskey."

"I know. That's why I stole it from Dooku's hideout on Vanqor. Bastard never paid me and he never imparted any good Sith tricks, so I helped myself." Asajj pointed to another cabinet. "Glasses are in there."

Qui-Gon returned to the table with the bottle in one hand and two square glasses dangling between his fingers. He popped the cork--real, from Serenno, not the imitation Corellian stuff--and poured two generous servings of whiskey, then slid one glass in front of her. Holding his own drink to the low ship's light, he swirled the liquid around his glass. "May I propose a toast?" he asked politely.

"To what?" scoffed Asajj. "Dooku's expensive taste in whiskey, his shitty personality, or my light fingers?"

"To Ky Narec."

Asajj stared into the amber liquid filling her glass. The universe kept setting opportunities in her path, opportunities she didn't deserve, but she was no fool. She lifted her glass and gently touched the rim against Qui-Gon's glass. Together, they drank; the whiskey warmed her tongue without burning and reminded her of Alderaanian jasmine and delicate butter caramel. She hid her gaze in her drink as she said quietly, "Will you tell me about him?"

 

To her delight, it turned out Qui-Gon was a lively storyteller. Mischief gleamed in his eyes as he wove the threads of his missions with Ky into a vivid tapestry of humourous disaster. With every new fragment of Ky's past revealed, the tiny smile she'd allowed herself grew wider. When Qui-Gon furrowed his brow and imitated Ky's grumpy face, Asajj had actually laughed.

"So you forgot that the Padorians don't have a concept of left and right—"

"And I turned in the wrong direction and instead of ritually greeting the Sovereign, I went through all the rigamarole for his sworn enemy." Qui-Gon grinned and polished off the last mouthful of his whiskey.

"That was pretty stupid."

Qui-Gon stared at her. Had she crossed a line? Would he stop telling her stories? The sudden realization that she didn't want him to stop talking, that she didn't want him to leave her alone, that she didn't want to merely tolerate his presence, tightened her chest. Fuck, Asa, you can't ever keep your mouth shut—

"Ky said much the same thing as he bailed me out of the royal prison," said Qui-Gon mildly. "He was also the only person to reassure me that while mistakes are sometimes fatal, this one was not, despite what Dooku suggested in the verbal evisceration he sent me on our way back to Coruscant."

Asajj snorted into her drink. "Dooku lectured me exactly once."

"I'm afraid to ask," replied Qui-Gon, his blue eyes looking genuinely concerned.

"Getting stabbed in the kidney put a damper on using his words. After that he skipped the speech and went straight to torture."

Qui-Gon was quiet for a long moment. His gaze dropped to the table. "I'm sorry, Asajj."

"For what?"

"For not killing him when I found out he'd turned to the dark side," he murmured. "If I had, he wouldn't have hurt you, or anyone else."

Stunned into silence, Asajj stared hard at him. A spark of anger thrummed deep in her heart, and words Ahsoka had repeated countless times spilled from her lips—words Asajj had difficulty accepting, but Qui-Gon needed to hear them, too. "Nothing Dooku ever did was your fault," she spat, slamming her hand against the table. "He was cruel and cold and cared only about power when I met him, and he didn't just decide to be that way after he left the Jedi."

Eyes closed, he inhaled, long and slow, through his nose. When he opened his eyes again, he fixed his gaze on her. "No one has ever said that to me."

She shrugged. "Now you know, so stop wallowing in guilt."

The sadness didn't leave his eyes, but his mouth twitched at the corners. "Easy for you to say; I've had decades of practice."

"I promised Kenobi I'd keep you from doing anything stupid, so if you keep thinking you're responsible for the actions of a dramatic old bastard, I'm gonna have to stab you and give you something else to worry about, like bleeding to death."

"I've been stabbed," Qui-Gon said dryly, "and my internal organs would prefer not to repeat the experience."

Unable to contain her curiosity, Asajj blurted out, "Which organs?"

He pressed his palm against the centre of his chest, wincing at his own touch. "Lungs, diaphragm, heart, esophagus, some spinal nerves and a few vertebrae."

A twinge of sympathy ran down her spine, and she grimaced. "Who ruined your day?"

"Given your participation in the Clone Wars, I assume you're familiar with Maul."

Asajj nodded and slammed back the last of her whiskey. The lack of burn left her wanting. "How I wish I weren't."

"You and me both." His hand rubbed an absent circle against his chest.

The sharp urge to ease his pain overwhelmed her, but an old injury wasn't something she could fix. Could she make up for something else? "I'm sorry if I hurt you." Qui-Gon tilted his head curiously at her, and she drummed her fingers against her empty glass. "Before, when you…talked me down. Ahsoka's done it a few times, and she said it hurts, here." Asajj tapped her temple.

But Qui-Gon was already shaking his head. "You didn't hurt me. I have far more experience with shielding against the dark side than Ahsoka."

"Dooku," said Asajj with a knowing frown.

"No—" Qui-Gon opened his mouth as if to argue, paused, then pulled his brows together. Silence fell over them; Qui-Gon appeared to struggle for his next words. "I was going to say I had an apprentice who Fell, a long time ago, but your suggestion—I never considered—" He rubbed a hand over his face, looking weary and horrified at the same time. "No one knew Dooku had embraced the Sith until it was too late, but as you said, he didn't just decide to be that way. He always had an interest in the Sith that he kept on just this side of proper."

"This side of proper publicly ," suggested Asajj. "If I hadn't seen how utterly incompetent the Jedi can be, I'd have thought someone would notice a Jedi Master being entirely too fascinated by the Sith. The Jedi Order shouldn't have let him have a houseplant, let alone an apprentice."

" I should have noticed."

Asajj didn't like the way he sounded—too quiet, too jagged, too much like her when memories became undertow, threatening to drag her down. With a steeling breath, she imagined what Ahsoka would say and did her best to say it. "You did notice. Maybe not consciously, but you noticed, and you protected yourself the best you could. Dooku isn't your responsibility; he never was. You were the apprentice. He was supposed to teach you. He was supposed to care about you. But he's dead now, and so is the Jedi Order, but you're sitting here. That's gotta count for something."

Damn, she was no good at this. Why were words so fucking hard?

Qui-Gon stared at her with an inscrutable expression. Without a word, he poured both of them another finger of whiskey, then added another splash to his glass for good measure. Asajj raised her glass, baring her teeth in what was definitely not a smile. "To Dooku's severed head. It made for a vast improvement."

Together, they knocked back two hundred credit mouthfuls of whiskey.



Wandering around the galaxy with Ahsoka by her side had clearly ruined her; over the next few days, she found herself accepting hot bowls of aurebesh soup and musing with each one that it was a little nice to have someone else around.

"Is soup the only thing you can make?" she asked as Qui-Gon eased into the co-pilot's seat, carefully angling his legs to avoid bashing his knees against the console.

"If you broadly widen your definition of what is edible, then no, I can make other things." As he idly stirred the contents of his bowl, his face brightened. "Tea is my specialty. After I left the Order, before I went to Jedha, I earned a certificate in tea blending on Alderaan."

Asajj snorted. "That's not a real thing. Tea is just hot leaf juice."

The look he gave her was mildly affronted. "Perhaps, but I make the best hot leaf juice thanks to all that real studying and practice I did."

"You had to practice pouring hot water over dry leaves?" She smirked at him. "I thought you were a wise Jedi Master."

"Who said I was wise?" Qui-Gon shook his head, chuckling, as he spooned pasta letters into his mouth. Swallowing, he motioned to himself. "Exhibit A that being a Jedi Master gives you no qualifications in the preparation of consumables."

Feeling heartened by warm food in her belly, Asajj shot him a sly look. "Reconstituting powdered soup must be a sacred Guardian skill, then."

Qui-Gon's answering grin flooded her with an confusing wash of emotion—relief that seeped into her bones, mixed with an odd, hesitant pleasure that he had taken her teasing with good spirits. Making Qui-Gon smile wasn't like making Ahsoka smile; when Ahsoka smiled, her light drove away the darkness from the galaxy, and Asajj was lucky to be on the receiving end. Qui-Gon's smile was soothing, gentle balm, and why did she want him to keep smiling at her, and talking to her and even teasing her a little?

Confused, Asajj left her empty bowl on the console and ducked out of the cockpit. The sound of her feet against the deck plates was a metallic counterpoint to the blood rushing in her ears. What was wrong with her? She had spent years alone, dependent on no one, trusting only herself, and then a half-Wookiee Jedi waltzed onto her ship and made her sympathize with him? Made her want him to smile at her, and tell her stories?

Made her want his approval?

She didn't need anyone's approval. She had survived slavery. She had slain her enemies to become the warlord of Rattatak. She had walked away from the Sith and outlived Dooku.

Asajj wandered into Ahsoka's cabin and took the potted plant off the shelf. "I don't need the approval of some ex-Jedi," she muttered as she traced a leaf with the tip of her finger.

The leaf broke off and fell into the soil. Hissing, Asajj picked it up and inspected it. She hadn't touched it roughly; she'd barely put any pressure on it. The end looked healthy, she supposed. When she'd told Ahsoka she didn't know anything about plants, she hadn't been joking. Maybe the leaf had already been broken. Gently, she brushed her fingers over a cluster of leaves to reassure herself that the plant was fine, that she hadn't hurt it. All four leaves dropped onto the floor.

"Oh, no, no, you're okay, you're fine, I watered you yesterday—" Asajj stooped to pick up the leaves, but jostling the pot dislodged the rest of the vegetation. "No! No, don't do that!"

"What's the matter?" Qui-Gon stood at the door, brows drawn together in concern.

Standing in the middle of Ahsoka's room amongst the ruins of her only friend's prized plant, clutching a pot of dirt with a bare, dead stick and feeling like the universe was collapsing, Asajj croaked, "I killed it."

Qui-Gon approached her slowly, and gently lifted the pot from her grasp. He dipped a finger into the soil and inspected one of the leaves. "Asajj," he said, gentle and empathetic, just the way someone nice would break bad news.

"I didn't mean to kill it," she blurted out. "Ahsoka told me to water it, and I did exactly what she told me, but she told me once that plants are Force-sensitive, so I probably hurt it and it died, and she's gonna be so mad—"

"Asajj." His tone was a little stronger, a little sharper, and she snapped her mouth shut at the sound. "You didn't kill it."

"But-but all the leaves fell off." Frustrated, she motioned helplessly at the pile of leaves scattered at her feet. "It looks dead."

Qui-Gon wasn't smiling, but his face softened. "Does it feel dead?"

Cautiously, she reached out in the Force. The twig, pathetic on the outside, sang a tiny, muted song to the universe. Surprised and feeling stupid, Asajj worried her bottom lip. "Oh."

"It's beginning its winter cycle," Qui-Gon explained. "Ahsoka must not have been paying close attention."

"She's been busy thanks to you and Kenobi," retorted Asajj, prickly at the insinuation that Ahsoka was irresponsible.

"Peace," he said with a little smile, "I wasn't blaming her. This just changes the care instructions, that's all. Set it somewhere dark and cool, and water it sparingly for the next three months. Just enough to dampen the soil, every four weeks."

The Force-damned plant was still alive. Asajj didn't have to tell Ahsoka she'd failed at the one thing she'd been asked to do. No one was angry with her, no one would punish her, and Qui-Gon probably wouldn't even tell anyone about this whole stupid moment. The relief was overwhelming, and for a split second Asajj was horrified to realize her vision was blurry. She bit the inside of her cheeks, focusing on the pain to keep herself together.

Asajj took the pot back from Qui-Gon. "I'm such an idiot, worrying about a damned plant," she said, forcing a bark of laughter.

Qui-Gon didn't laugh. He didn't smile. "Not knowing something doesn't make you an idiot. Caring about something small doesn't make you an idiot. The next time you feel that way, I want you to remember that I don't think you're an idiot." His hand reached up slowly and rested on her shoulder for a moment. It was heavy and warm. "Remember that, Asajj, please."

Then he turned and left her alone. She was grateful no one was there to see a pair of tears drip into the dry soil.