“Ahsoka,” Vader says.
“Anakin,” his wonderful, brilliant, amazing padawan whispers, pushing herself to her feet with all the grace he’d taught her (and she’d always had within her), and then: “Come home.”
“There is a disturbance in the Force, Lord Vader,” Sidious says, ghostly blue holo form wavering like a pale mirage, the color of sunlight through deep water, vaguely remembered from that one Clone War campaign on Mon Calamari. “You must go to Malachor.”
Malachor - Vader recognizes the name. The Jedi had always warned them away from it, because there’s an ancient, Old Republic-era Sith Temple below its surface, one filled with secrets that Vader’s Master has never been able to crack.
There is a power there, my Apprentice, Sidious had said, once. Knowledge, and a weapon with the ability to turn life into stone. My Empire needs this power.
Your Empire has me, my Master, Vader had said then, and soon we will have the Death Star. We have the clones, the loyalty of every major galactic power, and all those who dare defy us will die. What more do we need?
Unlimited power, Sidious had said.
“Yes, my Master,” Vader says, bowing his head, taking deep, measured breaths through his ventilator. (He wishes he could be free from the suit. He knows there’s technology out there that could at least let him show his face again, though he’s not sure anyone would want to see it, scarred and old as it is.)
“The boy rebel and his Master will be there,” Sidious continues. “Kill them both.” He’s quiet for a moment, and Vader lifts his head again to observe his Master from his position, kneeling on the floor. “Your old apprentice may be there. If she’s willing to come with you, you may spare her - I will give her to you, to keep, as she is yours. But she must give up the location of what Jedi remain.”
“I understand.” Vader knows already he will do everything he can to keep Ahsoka with him; he lost her once (she walked away and he needed her and she left him), and he will not do so again. “Is there anything else, my Master?”
“That will be all, Lord Vader.”
Vader still, after fifteen years, has to swallow the habitual may the Force be with you.
“We are going to die here, Ahsoka,” Vader says, indicating the rapidly-closing stone walls of the Temple, red crystal arcing with violet lightning.
“Not if we work together,” she says, stubborn and proud and determined, and he hates, suddenly, that he never had the chance to see her become this. “Help me lift the stone, Anakin, there’s enough room for us both in the Phantom, we just have to hurry.” She’s almost desperate, he thinks, looking over her face, the pleading in her eyes.
He can’t let her down, not this time.
So Vader hooks his saber on his belt, steps forward, past his once-padawan, and lifts one hand up and out, draws on all the will and power he possesses and commands the stone to hold.
Ahsoka steps up next to him, and he can feel the command she has over the Force now, the strength and the clever, skillful way she uses that strength showing that she’s grown so, so much in the last fifteen years, and Vader-
He should’ve been here to see it.
He’d thought he had nothing, after he lost Padme and the baby, after he helped kill all the Jedi and sent Obi-Wan away broken (and he’s still not sure how he feels about his former Master), after he woke up ensconced in metal and aching from burns to hear it seems that, in your anger, you killed her - but he was wrong.
He’s had Ahsoka too, all this time. His little sister, his padawan.
Together, they step under the heavy red stone, Ahsoka’s arm shaking a little with the effort, and Vader takes on more of its weight, forces it up high enough that Ahsoka doesn’t have to duck at all (he does, of course, but he’s always been tall), and then together they release the Force and step back, and the stone slams down once more.
The boy Jedi- no, Ezra Bridger, Vader needs to remember his name, is staring at them.
The other Jedi, Kanan Jarrus, has turned unerringly towards Vader as well, though his face is still covered by the ancient Temple guardian’s mask - he’s blind, then.
“Ahsoka!” Ezra shouts, even though he doesn’t have to, “that’s- the Sith Lord, what are you doing with him, he’ll kill us all-”
“I’d like to think,” Vader says, chokes a moment as his ventilator whines and briefly fuzzes out, “that I have more self-control than that, boy.”
“Be polite, Anakin,” Ahsoka chides, almost absently, grabs his arm and yanks him towards the shuttle, nearly dragging him (he almost loses his balance, has to use the Force to compensate). “Ezra, I’ll explain once we’re in hyperspace, but I need you to trust me. We don’t have much time before that Temple explodes.”
Ezra backs up a couple steps, tugging Jarrus with him, but he shakes his head. “I do, but, Ahsoka-”
“Ezra,” Jarrus says, low and firm, a thread of pain running through the word, and Vader watches the man’s body language, thinks he has to be in enough pain it’s a miracle he’s still on his feet.
“I’m sorry, Kanan,” Ezra says, and he really is just a child, Vader thinks.
The same age his child would’ve been, if he hadn’t lost it because of his own foolish, reckless, desperate actions.
Ezra clearly doesn’t like it, but he relents, nods and helps Jarrus the rest of the way into the shuttle - the Phantom, Vader remembers - and Ahsoka follows, gives Vader a stern look that clearly promises severe bodily harm to the parts of his body that aren’t durasteel if he doesn’t follow.
There’s some kind of droid flying the shuttle, Vader notes, because as soon as he’s inside the small space (cramped with four of them in it, especially with his suit) the ramp closes and the ship lifts off, soaring out through the same hole in the planet’s surface that he used when he arrived - and not a moment too soon, because they’re barely above ground when there’s a roar of sound and a ripple of lightning and the Sith Temple explodes.
“Ahsoka,” Vader says, air whistling out through the shattered half of his mask, “are you sure this is a good idea?”
“Yes,” Ahsoka says, nodding firmly, confident and carrying herself like- like Padme, he can’t help but think. She’s a leader now, in a way she hadn’t been before, as just a commander. “Your knowledge of the Empire will be invaluable to the Rebellion, you can learn to heal and be yourself again, and there’s- a couple people you need to meet, when you’re more stable.”
“He’s the Sith Lord, Ahsoka,” Ezra says again, sitting down next to Jarrus in one of the seats. “How can we trust him?”
It’s a fair question, Vader thinks. Though, of course, wrong: “I was the Apprentice,” he corrects, and then considers that for a moment. Was. It feels almost-wrong, in a sense, to refer to himself that way, but then again- In a way it feels strangely right. Freeing.
“He’s Anakin Skywalker,” Ahsoka explains. “Remember me talking to you about him, Ezra?”
Ezra’s jaw drops, and Vader can’t help but wonder just what his padawan told the child.
He doesn’t have to wonder long.
“You said he was kind, and always cared about his friends,” Ezra says slowly, “and Kanan said- that he was the best warrior the Jedi had.”
“No,” Vader says, thoughtlessly, and Ezra startles. “That was Obi-Wan. Even if I-” He stops, suddenly, shakes his head. He can’t - he doesn’t know what he feels, still, yet.
“How many battles did we lose?” Ahsoka asks, raising an eyebrow at him.
Vader shakes his head again. “I had you, Obi-Wan just had Cody.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Ezra interrupts, lifting his hands, “you’re telling me that Vader, who tried to kill us multiple times,” and he gestures at Vader himself, “was your friend and Master? If that’s true, then- You said he protected his friends, so why would he attack you?”
“He was my brother,” Ahsoka says, and then turns just enough to meet Vader’s gaze, not flinching away from the mask or the gold in his one visible eye. And there’s a ghost of a smile on her face when she says, “Right, Skyguy?”
“You’re not so snippy anymore,” he says, very quiet, and then he sighs and turns to look at Ezra (and Jarrus, though he doesn’t think the Jedi’s Force senses are good enough to know that, yet - he’ll need practice at seeing with the Force before he’s able to sense anything so specific). “I made poor decisions to try and save the ones I loved,” he says, heavy. “I failed, I lost everything I wanted to save, and I remained with Sidious because I felt I had no other choice. I justified my mistakes to myself until the justifications felt true.”
“You made mistakes,” Ahsoka agrees, “but you’re not alone, Anakin. You have me, and Rex, once he’s done getting angry at you, and you have a chance now to fix your mistakes.”
“I killed Padme,” Vader admits, in as close to a whisper as he can. “And the baby…”
“And now’s your chance to atone for that,” Ahsoka says firmly.
And Vader… he can’t argue with that. Not with the way she looks at him, so strong, determined, fierce as she’s always been, since she was fourteen and walking into a warzone on Christophsis. So: “Alright, Ahsoka,” he says, has to smile just a little (for the first time in what feels like a lifetime) at the relief on her face.
“For the record,” Ezra announces, to no one in particular, “I still think this is a bad idea.”
It’s a few hours’ journey in hyperspace to make it back to a small planet, Atollon, where the Rebels have apparently been hiding out recently - during the flight, Vader spends his time on Ahsoka’s datapad (it is the cornerstone of the Rebellion in so many ways, and he could kill everyone in this shuttle and take it back to Sidious, and the Emperor would reward him greatly - but then he looks back at Ezra’s youthful suspicion and at Ahsoka’s intent face, and knows he cannot), connecting to the Imperial mainframe through the highest encryption he can manage, using his clearance codes to download every classified document he can.
“What’s this?” she asks, stopping him once to indicate a folder titled Stardust.
Of course she’d pick that one out right away, he thinks. “It’s a compilation of all the files on our- on the Empire’s newest superweapon,” he explains, and Ezra looks up, startled, from where he’s sitting, wrapping bandages around Jarrus’ ruined eyes. “A planet-killer that uses kyber crystals.”
“Force,” Ahsoka says, echoed by a kriff from Ezra, and Vader nods, heavy and slow. “What intel do you have on it?”
“Ahsoka,” Vader says, slowly, “I am entirely outside the military hierarchy of the Empire, and I am one of its two most important people. I have access to everything.”
Jarrus huffs, just a breath. “How long will that last?” he asks. “As soon as you don’t report back in, they’ll lock you out of the system.”
“And by that point,” Ahsoka says, triumphant, “I’ll have everything I need to know downloaded, and I’ll have enough information to bring the Empire crashing down in a matter of months.”
Vader looks away from his former padawan to Ezra, considering the boy’s dubious expression. “Do you think so highly of the Empire that you believe it can recover so quickly from this loss?”
There’s silence at that, a silence that lasts nearly the rest of the way back to Atollon, broken only by occasional quiet conversation that dies out within a handful of moments; Jarrus is too injured, Ahsoka too focused, and Ezra clearly doesn’t want to talk to him, Darth Vader, the killer of so many.
When the shuttle lands on Atollon, all red dirt and mountain crags and scraggly brush clinging to life, Vader can sense a crowd of people waiting - too many, all of whom will want to kill him on first sight, and one of them familiar like Ahsoka is to his senses: Rex. His Captain. The one who betrayed- no, Vader reminds himself. They did not betray him; he betrayed them, even- Obi-Wan. (He has had fifteen long years to think on this, to dream of Padme stroking his hair and kissing his forehead and whispering that everything will be alright, my love, if only you just come back; to hear Obi-Wan’s voice, torn raw by ash and smoke and horrified desperation, you were my brother, Anakin, I loved you!)
Rex will not be happy to see him, Vader thinks. Even less so than the rest of the rebels crowded around, waiting.
“You should leave the shuttle last,” Ahsoka tells him as she gets up, as Ezra helps Jarrus to his feet and towards the lowering ramp. “It might help with the shock.”
“They’re going to try and kill me,” Vader informs her, but he stands also, tucks his hands behind his back and follows his one-time padawan to the shuttle’s ramp and out into the late afternoon sunlight.
The people are murmuring to themselves, quiet, the Twi’lek pilot lunging forward to hug Jarrus tight - but when Vader steps out behind Ahsoka, a towering menace even with the long crack down his helmet, revealing one Sith-gold eye, a hush falls heavy and thick and absolute, broken only by the sound of a few scattered blasters priming.
“Don’t shoot,” Ahsoka says, quietly. “He’s with us, now.”
“What in the hells,” snarls one of the people holding blasters, a human man who looks to be around forty years old - plenty old enough to have been around while the Republic was fighting the Separatists and to have known what that fight stood for. He’s glaring, fierce and furious, ready to pull the trigger. (He would have been in his early twenties during the war, maybe even still an older teenager. Did he idolize Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi the way so many others did? Does he still remember the Jedi?) “If you think we’re letting that monster into this base, you’re insane.”
Monster, he says. It’s tame compared to what they could be calling him. It’s tame compared to Sith Lord.
Vader reaches down to his belt, to his lightsaber, sees everyone freeze, tense, even more blasters coming up than before. He ignores them, though, turns to Ahsoka and offers her the weapon, hilt first (she could ignite it right through his stomach right now, if she wanted, and he wouldn’t be able to stop her. It’d kill him and still be just as big a blow to the Empire as this is, whatever this is), and she takes it, nodding slowly at him - even though she more than the rest of them knows that no Jedi or Sith is ever truly unarmed. “Thank you,” she says quietly, “for the show of trust.”
It… isn’t trust, not exactly, though Vader doesn’t tell her that. More - he knows they will want to kill him, and by this point it might even be the smartest thing for them. He does not want to die, now, but in a way it’d be fitting, he thinks. After what he did to Padme and the baby…
“You absolute fekking bastard,” Vader hears in a too-familiar voice, and then something (a fist?) slams hard into the weak point of his mask, sending more cracks spiderwebbing through the plastic and shattering a few pieces off. “Haar’chak, that hurt.”
“Rex,” Vader says, turns back away from Ahsoka to look at his old Captain.
Rex stares at him, flat and cool - he’s gone bald and grown a beard and put on some weight, but his amber eyes are sharp as ever, and he doesn’t look at all pleased. Not… exactly surprising. “Vader,” he says, cold, and walks over to pull Ahsoka into a tight hug. “Welcome back, cyare.”
“Rex,” Ahsoka sighs, pulling back but leaving one arm slipped around Rex’s waist, “you didn’t have to punch him.”
“You got to bust his helmet,” Rex grumbles.
“Yes, and now so did you. Happy?” Ahsoka’s smiling, just a little, and it almost hurts, how natural this looks for them, familiar and easy.
No, indeed. Vader suspects Rex would only be happy if he got to punch Vader several more times. In sensitive spots.
“Well,” Ahsoka says, strangely light considering what’s going on right now, “you weren’t happy when I told you you couldn’t come to Malachor with me either.”
“He has good instincts,” Vader says, even though everyone stiffens at the sound of his voice, even though Rex himself levels a glare as scalding as the lava seas of Mustafar at him. “You all could’ve died.”
“But we didn’t,” Ahsoka says, calmly, glances over to one side to look at Jarrus, Syndulla, and Ezra. The Mando girl is with them now too, and the Lasat, and they don’t pay Vader any mind as they start walking into the base itself, Jarrus supported between them.
They must be taking him to their hospital. That’s- good. It’s good. He thinks.
(He isn’t quite sure what to think, not completely, because he’s supposed to kill the Jedi, and Sidious always said they betrayed him, but- he has to remember that Sidious wasn’t right about everything. Even if that seems… Well.)
“Ahsoka,” he says, and she looks at him, and Rex stiffens and puts an arm protectively around her shoulders, “I need to talk to you.”
“Of course,” she says, puts a hand on Rex’s chest and gently pushes him back from her, sighing when Rex makes a protesting noise. “Rex, I’ve been around him for the last several hours without a problem, I’ll be fine.”
“I’m coming anyway,” Rex says, sharp, like he’s daring her to tell him no.
Vader almost smiles. He can’t remember the last time he’s done that.
“Fine,” Ahsoka says, with a long-suffering sigh, though she doesn’t really seem that upset. “We can go to my private workroom, the only people who come in there are Rebel commanders and I have the authority to tell them to stay out for a while.”
“That will be sufficient,” Vader says, and as they start walking, Rex giving him repeated suspicious looks (and Vader doesn’t mention that he’s held the heart of the Rebellion in his hands, that if he’d wanted to he could’ve ended them all in a single swift stroke), he wonders where even to start with all of this. From the beginning, he supposes. “There’s some things I need to tell you,” he says, slowly, “about what happened while you were on Mandalore…”
Maybe it will help. Maybe they’ll understand, and in turn, he can learn how to- find himself again.
Ahsoka finds a small group of specialists to help design a new suit and mask for Vader, one that will let him get rid of the bulky helmet and the clunky, outdated life support that has a risk of giving out any time he reacts to something too strongly. They’re all told what they’re getting into before they sign up, which is probably smart. Wouldn’t want any of them seeing his scarred old face and his helmet and keeling over in shock and terror.
Ahsoka’s been trying to get him to meditate. He refuses.
It’s not that he doesn’t want to relearn how to be himself, or that he doesn’t want her help, or even that he doesn’t think the Light would soothe - it’s deeper than that, and he’s hesitant to try and explain.
He’s done so much, and the Dark is so close and instinctive, now. Darkness corrupts, and absolute Dark corrupts absolutely, he remembers a teacher saying, long ago when he was a padawan and the Council had told him he was too close to the Dark already, and it’d seemed like he’d never be good enough for Obi-Wan.
It’s been a long time since he’s felt the Light. He almost doesn’t remember what it feels like.
(He’s been a Sith for longer than he was a Jedi.)
“Just try, Anakin,” Ahsoka tells him one day, and he very nearly snaps.
“Do you think Sith don’t meditate?” he asks, spinning around from where he’s been tinkering with some mechanical supplies he’d found lying around in the hangar - he’s not exactly allowed unrestricted access to the base, no one’s foolish enough to trust him with that, but they’ve given him a workroom and drug a cot in there and he’s allowed to go to the hangar, because Ahsoka’d told everyone that he’s still the best ship mechanic they could find, yes, other than you, Chopper (and that idiot orange droid makes Vader miss Artoo - he suspects his astromech’s been destroyed and it’s too hard for him to think about), and it’d be a waste of his talents to ban him from there.
“I don’t know much about Sith, beyond what you taught me,” Ahsoka says, steady in so many ways she’d never been before, and Vader grits his teeth, forces his breath even again before it can upset his suit. “But I assumed so, yes.”
“They do,” Vader grits out. He’s been making himself new limbs, slowly. He’ll need better material than what he can find in this base to finish them, make them sensitive enough to replace flesh, but maybe he can convince the scientists working on his new suit to let him have some. It’s been a long time since he updated his prosthetics and he can tell. “I have a… retreat on Mustafar, and my meditation chamber overlooks the spot where- Kenobi left me, and I learned to focus on my memories of that day to strengthen my connection to the Dark Side. Pain, hatred, fear - those are the emotions the Dark feasts on. Mustafar was a good reminder of how I killed my wife and child, and of… everything.”
Ahsoka’s watching him, something in her gaze that makes him think she knows something she’s not telling. “Obi-Wan deserved better than what you did to him,” she says, meeting his eyes through his mask. Vader starts to say something and she holds up one hand, cutting him off before he can even get the first word out. “We all deserved better. And now you have a chance to fix that. So meditate with me.”
He’s quiet, for a minute. He’s been with the Rebels on Atollon for two months now, and they still flinch away, surprised, when they see him in the hangar, working on their ships. Their navy has never been in better shape, between his repairs and the ships they’ve stolen with his intel. And still they hate him, still they’re afraid. Still they whisper that he should’ve stayed with the Empire, where he belongs.
“I can’t be a Jedi,” Vader warns, because he doesn’t think he can argue with Ahsoka anymore, and because there’s something like warning in her eyes, like if he continues to fight he’ll lose a chance at something he doesn’t even know yet.
“Well, you’re in good company, then.” His former apprentice smiles a little, and Vader thinks of I’m no Jedi and nods to himself. He should’ve expected that.
Vader sighs and lowers himself, uncomfortably, to the floor, on knees that don’t hurt but don’t bend quite right either, and Ahsoka settles across from him, frowning a little as she pushes aside bits of metal. “Thank you,” she says, quiet, and he nods.
Small steps forward.
They meditate daily, and Vader finds that slowly, it’s more easy to push away the Dark, for seconds and minutes at a time. The first time he feels the touch of something other than the Dark it nearly blinds in its intensity - it’s been so long in the shadows he’d nearly forgotten what warmth feels like. It’s almost too much, at first.
Ahsoka’s always strangely proud. It brings back memories Vader has spent what feels like a lifetime trying to forget - sitting next to the tiny Togruta on Christophsis, telling her how reckless she is; their first few lessons, when things had been so new and unsure and rocky and he hadn’t really been sure how to teach, yet. How was he supposed to be responsible enough to raise a teenager, he wonders now, when he was only nineteen himself? Back then, he’d thought himself invincible, thought he was so mature, that he was ready.
He hadn’t been anywhere near ready.
But it’d been good, anyway, even though neither of them really knew what they were doing, even though they spent all their time in a warzone, and Vader had never really known how to make that part better. Still, Ahsoka’s become something incredible, somehow. Maybe in spite of everything he did.
He says that to her, once, when she’s onworld in between missions making use of the intel he got her, and she just laughs. “You inspired me, Anakin,” she says. It’s all she’ll ever call him, Anakin, even though he couldn’t be further from that man. “I’ve spent the last fifteen years trying to live up to what you taught me, you and Obi-Wan. You were a great teacher and I learned so much about myself from you. Let me return the favor.”
She’s gone more days than not, now; something about the Stardust project he’d pointed out to her, hunting down kyber shipments and pinpointing the location of the construction site. Rex goes with her, frequently, claiming she’s too reckless when she’s on her own (which Vader doesn’t entirely doubt, remembering her ready to sacrifice herself for nothing, for him), but not always.
This is one of those times.
“We need to talk.”
It’s sharp, gruff, startling Vader out of his focus; he’s working on one of the Rebel ships and trying out the prototype mask Ahsoka’s specialists put together - they told him, when they were fitting it to his face, that depending on how it works for him it might be something they could mass-produce for people with critical scarring in their lungs from poison. The mask itself is lighter weight than his helmet, covering his mouth and nose and little else, and it’s- good, Vader thinks, that something good might come out of this. It leaves him feeling vulnerable, though, when the ever-present red tinge is gone from his vision and he knows everyone can see what he’s thinking. He’d never been good at controlling his face before, and now he’s completely out of the habit.
“Rex,” he says, neutral, setting down the spanner and turning partway around. His voice doesn’t have the same weight to it, now, without the helmet’s vocoder. He supposes he shouldn’t miss that, just like he shouldn’t miss the weight of his cape on his shoulders. Padme would’ve called him dramatic.
When was the last time, he wonders, he thought of her without it feeling like a knife twisting his heart, opening it wide for the Dark to pour through?
The old clone is standing, arms crossed, wearing his scattered pieces of 501st-blue armor, looking down at Vader with narrowed eyes. It makes him want to straighten, suddenly, leaves him feeling like he’s off-balance, on unequal footing. It’s probably on purpose, on Rex’s part. “Vader,” he says. His feet are wide-set, like he’s bracing for something. “I don’t trust you,” he says, blunt.
“I know,” Vader starts, but Rex shakes his head.
“You’ve hurt Ahsoka too many times already,” he says. “I won’t let you do it again. Maybe you are trying to change - gods know I hope that’s true. And if you are, I’ll be here every step of the way, because little gods, sir, I’ve spent a long-ass time hoping you’d come back to us. But it’s been years, and I don’t trust you anymore, and I… Ahsoka isn’t like me. She’s better than both of us.” Vader nods, because that’s never been a fact he’d argue against. “And she believes in you, completely. So if you’re faking this, for some reason, it will destroy her.” Rex takes a step closer, face going hard. “And I’ll kill you. We clear?”
Vader meets and holds Rex’s eyes when he nods and says, “Yes, Rex.”
Rex looks away, abruptly, swallowing, and Vader watches as he takes a moment to- compose himself, almost, before nodding and looking back. “Alright,” he says, with some effort. He’s quiet for another minute, and Vader looks back to the ship he’s working on, expecting his former Captain to leave - this is the most anyone besides Ahsoka has spoken to him since he arrived on Atollon, which seems fair. Most of the time when the fighters and ships come in torn to pieces, he doesn’t even have the chance to speak to a pilot (which is really too bad, clearly these pilots need advice if they’re getting chewed up this bad by Imperial Academy graduates, honestly), they just hand him a datapad with a record of the repairs needed and leave.
So when Rex instead drops down to sit on a crate next to him, scoots forward, and asks, “What are you working on?” it’s all Vader can do not to jump.
He looks over, sees Rex eyeing the guts of the X-wing with- it’s not exactly interest, not in the mechanics, but he’s clearly actually paying attention. “The sublight engines are busted,” he says, after a minute. “These pilots don’t know how to fly properly.”
“Careful,” Rex says, though not seriously, “they might take offense at that.”
“I’m the best pilot in the galaxy,” Vader says. “I don’t care.”
Rex is looking at him. Vader’s not sure why, at first, and then Rex sighs and says, “When you say things like that, you almost sound like- before.”
Well. Vader’s quiet for a minute. “I’m not the same,” he says, finally. It almost feels like that’s what they want of him - to be Anakin and General Skywalker and Master again, when he’ll never be that man again. No matter what they think of him - no matter the fact that Ahsoka still so firmly believes he can come back to the Light - he can’t go back to who he was, before. Too much has happened. He has killed his wife and child. Living with that… He’s as much Vader as he ever was Anakin. And he has to live with that now. “I won’t ever be the same.”
“We know,” Rex says, and that shouldn’t be a surprise, but- somehow it is. “None of us are the same, Vader. It’s been fifteen years of hell for all of us. Ahsoka and I, we understand you’re not going to be the Jedi we knew, and we’re okay with that.” Vader can’t even breathe. “We’ll be beside you this whole time, if you’ll let us.”
“I don’t deserve it.” It’s the only thing he can think to say.
Rex laughs, the sound startling, almost echoing through the hangar, and Vader notices other people stopping what they were doing to look over at the two of them, the Sith and the clone, whether in curiosity or morbid fascination or something else, he’s not sure. “I know you don’t,” Rex says. “But that’s not what forgiveness is about.” He shakes his head, as if he knows what Vader’s thinking, adds, “I can’t forgive you yet. You’ve done a lot of shit and caused a lot of horrible things to happen. But you’re also working towards fixing those things, making amends, and I respect that.”
Vader pauses, in the middle of screwing in a new fluid line in the X-wing’s engine. “It would’ve been easier if Ahsoka had killed me,” he admits. “For everyone.”
“Yeah, well. No one ever said redemption was easy. Let me help you with that.”
Rex reaches in, his shoulder and arm brushing against Vader’s as he does, and it’s the first time anyone’s touched him since- well, for a long time. And, somehow, it makes everything feel… not easier, but better, maybe.
It isn’t until late that night that Vader realizes what he feels is hope.
They finish his suit, the Rebels sabotage star destroyers and hidden research stations and steal Imperial ships and recruit ever-more to their cause, and Ahsoka and her two other Fulcrum agents hunt down the rumors of a superweapon. No one seems to know exactly where it’s being built - Vader certainly doesn’t, though he knows originally it began on Geonosis and that since then the project’s been moved many times, whenever there was a risk of a security leak or it grew too big to continue being housed wherever it was previously. The Empire continues stripping the kyber mines and temples of Jedha bare, continues to claw Ilum open and tear out its insides through the gaping wounds they created. The Force weighs heavy on anyone who can feel it, now, heavy enough Vader thinks even the non-sensitives can feel the turning point they’re approaching. It’s been six months. Something’s bound to happen soon.
Sidious still hasn’t attempted to reach Vader, whether to kill him or bring him back. He isn’t sure what to make of that, yet, and neither are Ahsoka and Rex. He’d told them his suspicions that Sidious would either come for him himself or send Inquisitors early on, and they’d promised they’d be ready. I’m not going to lose you to him when we’ve finally gotten you back, Ahsoka had said. It’d been… comforting. Now, though, as the months pass with no reaction from his Master - an increase in patrols, certainly, and even more stormtroopers choking the already-gasping economies of planets, but nothing, nothing that says Sidious might’ve even noticed the leak in his classified information - Vader’s getting tense, again.
It makes it hard to focus, now, when he meditates, with or without Ahsoka.
It makes him almost miss the Light, the burning heat of it, something other than this icy Dark he’s trapped himself in. (The Dark used to be a comfort. Now it’s a prison.)
“He must be pushing to finish the Stardust project,” Ahsoka says, thoughtful, one day, as they’re sitting in Vader’s workroom, preparing to meditate together. “I’ve sent Cassian out after some rumors that the head scientist and engineer on the project is a weak link - I need him to find and bring back tangible proof that this thing exists. Mon’s been speaking to the other Senators in the Alliance, and none of them want to believe it’s real. Of course, most of them refuse to believe we’ve got Darth Vader in our secondary base on Atollon, either.”
Vader snorts, amused despite himself. “Politicians never change,” he says, taking a deep breath and closing his eyes, reaching out into the Force. “Maybe if you brought me to meet them, they’d change their tune.”
“I won’t count on it, but that’s not a bad idea, actually.” Ahsoka hmms to herself. “Aren’t you in the process of redoing your prosthetics, though? I don’t want to take you to them until that’s done.”
Vader frowns. “I just have one more leg to reattach,” he says (breathe in, breathe out, feel the flow of the Force around you), “and if I focus I should be able to finish that within a week.”
“That’s perfect, actually,” his former padawan says. “I’ll have enough time to get messages out for everyone who can to meet us at Yavin, or at least to be ready for a holo. I think I’ll ask Bail to bring his daughter.”
“Leia, right? The Senator?” Vader doesn’t know much about Alderaanian politics, but he’s always paid attention to the Organa family. Something about the girl they adopted always drags his focus to her, not quite letting him look away. More than likely, she’s Force-sensitive. “Isn’t she a little young to be dragging into this?”
“She’s the same age as Ezra, and older than your wife was when she was a queen,” Ahsoka points out. And, well, she has a point.
Still. Vader doesn’t like the idea of Leia being involved in this fight.
He sighs, doesn’t answer in favor of relaxing more into the meditation, which has grown easier over the months. Vader thinks Obi-Wan would probably laugh, if he could see him now, nothing like the rambunctious child or equally-active teenager who hated meditating so much.
Vader hasn’t thought much about his former Master in a long time; there’s too much emotion there, things so charged with feeling he hasn’t felt ready to even look at them. There’s still anger, rage nearly - for failing him, for leaving him alone, for not understanding why Vader had to do the things he did - but that anger has calmed, these last few months. And it allows him to look at Obi-Wan and his role in Vader’s fall more clearly then he’s been able to before.
He’s known, somewhere in the back of his mind where he refused to acknowledge it, that it was never Obi-Wan’s fault. That Obi-Wan didn’t fail him, that he understood in ways Vader had never been able to truly comprehend, because back then he’d been fire and ice and so deeply, fiercely emotional, clinging so tight to the people he loved because he was too afraid to lose them. Too afraid of what he’d do if he did. He’s still not so good at letting go, but perhaps he’s better, now, at that at least.
Obi-Wan had loved people. He’d had Satine, and Cody, and he’d loved Vader himself (you were my brother, Anakin! I loved you), he would’ve understood, had Vader gone to him. Explained his dreams of Padme, how they reminded him so much of his mother’s death. (Maybe he could’ve trusted Obi-Wan with the weight of what he’d done to the Tuskens, of how that only fueled his own fear of himself.) But instead, Vader had fallen into the very trap he’d been warned about as a child - trusting too much in Force visions, and trying so desperately to avoid them that you bring them about.
A self-fulfilling prophecy.
It has been a long time since Vader forgave someone. Forgiveness is not in the nature of a Sith, because to forgive means to let go, to move past, and when all your power comes from the tight, burning pain of grief and betrayal and anger, letting go of those emotions lets your power drain away. But Vader no longer needs that pain - he still doesn’t trust himself in a fight, and he doubts he ever really will, because the Dark has become as second-nature to him as breathing, but the fact remains that if he had to fight, now - Order Sixty Six killed nearly everyone who could’ve matched him, whether in skill with a saber or skill with the Force, and there’s never been anyone who could match his sheer, raw strength, a strength he had long before he ever fully gave in to the Darkness eating him up inside.
He doesn’t really remember what forgiveness feels like anymore, but he thinks he’d like to try it.
The Force feels softer around him now, like a blanket draped over his shoulders, chasing away a chill, and Vader can’t help a not-quite-smile as he sighs.
“You’ve gotten quiet,” Ahsoka says, lightly, and Vader opens his eyes to look at her. She’s smiling at him, already, but when he meets her gaze she nearly-freezes, something incredulous and joyful lighting up the Force in the room, before her face splits in a wide grin. “Force, Anakin,” she says, and he frowns, tilts his head to one side in silent inquiry, not wanting to speak and ruin the warmth. “Your eyes,” she tells him.
There’s a mirror leaned against one wall, mostly to make it easier for him to attach his limbs when he takes them off for maintenance. Vader turns to look at that mirror, shifting so he can see it easier, and it takes a moment before he realizes-
His eyes are blue.
“Oh,” he says.
Ahsoka hugs him, hard, laughing, still so happy even after a few minutes pass and his eyes have gone back to the yellow he’s so used to them being, because, “You’re really doing it, Anakin, you’re coming back. I knew you could.”
Vader didn’t know, not really, hadn’t even been sure he wanted to. But the way she smiles at him, the way she laughs, it reminds him of the good times, before, when they’d been a family and even with the war going on around them it seemed like the bad times couldn’t ever touch them. He thinks he wants to see that again, because so many things have changed - they have all changed, almost beyond recognition for some - but they still have this. Family.
So alright, maybe he can try this, for her, his little sister.
Ahsoka takes Vader and Rex with her to Yavin IV for the meeting with the Senators. It’s long, and a bit ridiculous, in Vader’s opinion - he’s never been a fond of politics and politicians during war, and given the fact that he nearly gets thrown out of their command center as soon as he says his name, he’s even less inclined to like these ones.
He’s been practicing, working on holding onto the Light, but he still can’t seem to keep his eyes blue for longer than a few minutes at a time. It’s still his instinct to reach for the Dark, and he’s been trying not to be frustrated by it, but he only has so much patience. “You’ve been a Sith for fifteen years,” Rex tells him, once. “It’s gonna take time.”
Rex is still the only person on Atollon who says Vader like it’s something more than a curse.
Vader thinks he frightens these politicians, with his metal limbs and his suit and the mask he keeps over his mouth except for when he wants to talk, his yellow eyes, the aura of menace he can’t help projecting even when he doesn’t need to anymore. It’s just that so many eyes on him, nearly all hostile- Well, he’s been a Sith for a long time, and before that he fought in a war. It’s an ingrained reaction by now. Still, he forces himself to breathe, in and out, slow and even, until he thinks he looks less like he’s about to kill them all with his bare hands and more like the broken old man he feels like he’s become. (Padme would laugh at him, he thinks, for calling himself old when he’s only thirty-eight years old. Force, had they really been so young, back then? She’d been twenty-six when she died.)
Ahsoka tells them about the planet-killer, and Vader tells them what little he knows about it, that it’s a project that’s been in the making since the Clone Wars, that it does exist, that if it’s not destroyed before it’s finished it’s unlikely the Rebellion will survive. Ahsoka looks at him, when he says that, like it was a mistake. Maybe it was; the Senators standing around the holotable start to talk over each other, the room seething with fear, and he hears more than one person say we have to disband our army, and he’s ready to silence them all with a wave of Force and a snarl when someone shoves through the crowd and yells, somehow louder than them all, or maybe just with the kind of voice that people listen to, “Would you all shut up?”
The young woman turns so he can see her face, dark eyes and dark hair done up in buns, young, so young, but in the moment of silence that follows her shout all Vader can think is, “Padme?”
It’s barely a whisper, but the girl hears it anyway, makes eye contact with him, and now he recognizes her: Leia Organa, from Alderaan. If his legs weren’t metal he’d be on his knees, he thinks, vaguely, staring as she looks away from him, shaking her head just a little. (Ahsoka’s by him, a hand on his arm, and he almost wants to shake her free and run away.) “Listen, all of you,” Leia says. “So there’s a superweapon being built right now that could destroy entire worlds. We’ve known the Empire possesses the kind of technology to ruin planets for a long time, now - just because it’s never been something like this, some kind of moving battle station, doesn’t make it any different. We have the advantage right now: we know what this thing is, and it’s unfinished. We could destroy it before it reaches completion, all we have to do is find it.”
She straightens more, shoulders back and chin high, and Vader is struck by the fact that for all that she looks like Padme, she reminds him of- of himself, when he was young, full of fire and glowing with it. “We are the Alliance to Restore the Republic,” she says, “but more than that, we are the galaxy’s hope. Without us, without the precedent we’ve set, showing that the Empire can be beaten, can lose, the galaxy would’ve fallen into despair a long time ago. Things are more uncertain now than they’ve ever been, it’s true, but we can’t give up, not now, not when we’re so close.”
Vader sees, feels the Senators around him stop their mindless panic, turn and listen, as the girl with Padme’s face and his fire tells them to go home to their peoples and tell them: the Empire is breaking and we have the key to shattering it, the Emperor’s top enforcer has defected and joined the Rebellion. “Spread the word,” she says. “The Empire is going to burn.”
Vader looks at Ahsoka, after everyone’s straightened and agreed and left the room, licks his lips and says, hoarse, “She- Ahsoka, the baby died, I killed them.”
Ahsoka smiles, says, “Remember how I told you there were people you needed to meet?”
He can’t swallow down the hope crawling its way up his throat. “Does that mean- Padme-”
But Ahsoka’s already shaking her head. “Padme died, that part was true,” she says, and she’s quiet, sad, “but your children lived. Obi-Wan got her off Mustafar, got her to a medical station in time for them to deliver the babies.”
He’d be shaking, he thinks, if he wasn’t half made of metal.
“Ahsoka,” he croaks out, shaking his head, one durasteel hand closing so tight around the edge of the holotable that it crumples beneath his fingers, and she puts a hand on his chest, gentle, steadying.
“It’s okay, Anakin,” she says, “just breathe.”
Vader secures the mask back to his face, takes a shaky breath through it, hand clenching tighter as he forces his lungs into a rhythm something like normality, like meditation. He can’t look to see if Organa and Leia are still there, just takes slow, careful breaths until he feels like he can release his death grip on the table without crumbling. Ahsoka stands there with him for as long as it takes, her hand steady on his chest, grounding him, and he closes his eyes, reaches out to the Force and feels warmth reaching back - the Light, for once easy to find. “My child- my children,” and his voice cracks on the word, he can’t quite help it. “Sidious lied to me.” He doesn’t mean to snarl it, doesn’t mean to almost reach for the Dark, but it’s so hard not to. “He told me- I killed Padme and the baby. Everything I’d done, everyone I’d killed, it was for her, I- He was all I had left, I couldn’t go back to Obi-Wan, to you, not after everything. Not when I killed her. If I’d known,” and his voice is breaking, now, he can’t help it, “if I’d known, I would’ve come back.” He’s crying.
“I know,” Ahsoka says, soothing. “It’s okay, Anakin.” She repeats that, over and over again, until the tears finally slow (and he can’t even remember how long it’s been since he cried, since he was able to cry - since Mustafar, maybe) and when he opens his eyes again she’s hugging him, tight. “You’re okay.”
Vader takes a deep breath, rubs at his eyes with one gloved hand, shakes his head. “I didn’t know,” he says, finally, quiet. “I really didn’t know.”
“I believe you,” Ahsoka says. “If I hadn’t before, I would’ve now.” She smiles at him, a little, nods over at the side of the room and says, “Do you want to meet your daughter?”
Vader stares down at his hands, hands covered in the blood of so many, whispers, “I don’t know if I should.” He’s done so much wrong, hurt so many people, and it’s never weighed so much on his soul as it does now, standing across the room from his- his daughter, strong and fierce and watching him with Padme’s eyes, brilliant and warm and oh, he loves her already, so much so he can feel that love boiling over. “She’s so beautiful.”
“She is,” Ahsoka agrees, smiling. “And she’s clever, too, as good a politician as Padme was. I think you should meet her, Anakin.”
“I want to,” he whispers.
“Come on,” Ahsoka says, takes his arm and tugs him gently across the room.
Bail Organa smiles warmly as they approach, squeezing Leia’s shoulder and stepping back towards the wall, nodding a little as though to say this isn’t my conversation, and Leia glances back over her shoulder at him, then takes a visible breath and squares herself. “So,” she says. “You’re my birth father.”
“Yeah,” Vader says, slowly. “I- yeah.”
“Leia, this is Anakin Skywalker,” Ahsoka says, nudging him, and Vader grimaces; that’s not how he would’ve introduced himself, but then again - how can he introduce himself as Vader to his daughter? “He was one of the best Jedi Knights in the Order, before it fell.”
Leia offers her hand, to shake, and Vader stares at it for a moment before extending his own. “It’s- good to meet you, Leia,” he says, slowly, staring at her face - he can’t help it, he wants to memorize it, the way the features are such a perfect blend of his and Padme’s, the fire in her eyes.
“You too,” she says, watches him for a moment. Vader doesn’t know what to do with the weight of her gaze. “I’m more used to hearing about you as Vader, I’ll admit - it was… strange to see you here like this.” She gestures at him and he knows she means the new suit, the lack of helmet, the fuzz of hair slowly growing in over his scalp. He suspects the yellow eyes aren’t much of a surprise.
“It’s strange to see in the mirror,” Vader admits, “not that I- did much of that, in the suit.” He rubs one hand through his short, barely-there greying hair, grimaces. “I’m- sorry, I’m sure this isn’t how you wanted to find out who your birth parents were.” Birth parents, but not her parents. That honor is reserved for the Organas, and Vader- he’s not going to disrupt that, how could he? Even getting to meet his daughter once is more than he ever could’ve asked for.
“I knew a little about my mother,” Leia admits, still just watching him. “That she was kind, and beautiful, and sad, and that she was a good Senator.”
“The best,” Vader says, smiles a little, looking past her into the distance. “We met when we were both young, when I was still a slave and she was a queen. She was the most beautiful woman I ever knew, inside and out. We were only married for three years, but- even if it’d only been a day, it would’ve been the best day of my life.” He shakes his head, looks down, doesn’t say the words hovering on his lips: and I killed her.
“She sounds wonderful.” Leia’s voice is soft, and Vader pulls his gaze up off the floor, smiles at her.
“I wish you could’ve met her,” he says honestly. “She deserved to be the one to make it out of the war.”
“Anakin,” Ahsoka says, quiet, and he sighs, takes a deep breath from his mask. Right.
“Anyway,” he says, manages a smile. “It’s so good to meet you, Leia, really. I never thought I’d have the chance.”
Leia smiles and in that smile he sees himself. “You’re acting like you’ve got somewhere to run off to. This base has a mess, let’s go have lunch. I’d like to get to know my father.” Vader tries not to look too surprised, he really does, but then again, he’s never been good at hiding what he’s feeling. “What, did you think I was just going to tell you to leave?”
Vader looks over at Ahsoka, awkwardly, to find she’s hiding a smile behind one hand. “A little,” he admits, sheepish. “I’ve been a Sith almost as long as you’ve been alive, Leia, I’m not a good person.”
“Good can be subjective,” she says with an elegant shrug. “You’re trying to change, aren’t you? That’s enough for me.”
Vader can’t help a smile, slow though it is. “Lunch, then?” he asks.
Leia’s answering grin is bright as the sun. “Lunch,” she agrees.
And another weight lifts from his shoulders, one he barely even knew was there.
Two months later, the Rebel fleet successfully blows up the half-constructed Death Star.
They pick up the station’s name via comm chatter and via the intel Cassian returns to Yavin with, exhausted and hollow-eyed and bruised in a way that’s more than physical. He’s done the impossible, somehow, brought back information that pinpoints the location of the Death Star, out in the Unknown Regions. They marshal the fleet and send it off and return, a few days later, weary but victorious.
Vader doesn’t go with them. Part of him wants to; he misses the feeling of a ship’s controls under his hands. But half the Rebels still don’t trust him, even though he hasn’t carried a lightsaber since the day Ahsoka brought him to Atollon. He doesn’t need one to protect himself, not really, and he’s still not sure he trusts himself with one. Flying, though, that’s something that’s been in his blood since he was tiny, and he’s never gone this long without piloting something.
Ahsoka’s offered to let him fly one of their X-wings, but he’d told her it was alright. No need to make people any more nervous than they already are, after all.
They have a party at Yavin - nearly all personnel had been moved from the Atollon base to there after the Senators had agreed to launch a full-scale assault against the Death Star, to keep things closer together, and because Kallus, Ahsoka’s current contact inside the Empire, had mentioned Grand Admiral Thrawn knowing where the base was.
Vader remembers Thrawn, briefly, and finds himself glad the Rebels aren’t having to go up against him. It wouldn’t end well.
He doesn’t go to the party, even though even Ahsoka and Rex are going, even though Ahsoka tries to encourage him to go by saying Leia will be there. He does want to see his daughter again - they’ve commed a couple times, since their lunch, and it’s been- good. She deserves to have this night to herself, though, unstained by the presence of an old man with too many memories and too much pain.
So instead he sits in his new room (a real room, this time, and though Vader has permission to wander the entire base if he wants, he still rarely goes anywhere other than the mess or the hangar to work on ships), on his bed, closes his eyes and meditates.
He’d broken his bond with Obi-Wan on Mustafar, in his anger and pain, and for the first time since then, Vader regrets it.
Somewhere in everything that’s happened, he’s forgiven his former Master, for everything he did and didn’t do.
He doesn’t know where Obi-Wan is, isn’t sure anyone does. Obi-Wan had vanished after Mustafar, and even though Vader and Sidious both had known without a doubt that the Jedi Master was still alive, they’d never been able to find him. None of their Inquisitors had come close. Vader knows it’s a good thing they’d never found him, knows it’s not likely Obi-Wan would let him near him for a long time, after everything, but he still… he regrets.
He wishes he could tell his old Master just how important their relationship had been to him, that he’s so sorry for everything he’s said and done, that he’ll never be able to thank him enough for saving his children and making sure they survived.
Vader knows he’ll never deserve forgiveness for what he did. Obi-Wan might give it to him, years from now, but, well- His Master had always been kind and compassionate and so forgiving, but Vader destroyed his life. That’s a different sort of thing to try and forgive.
And Vader doesn’t know how he could ask that of him.
Some time later, he’s not sure how long, there’s a knock at the door; Vader opens it with the Force, opens his eyes to see Ahsoka walk in, smiling a little, though there’s concern in her eyes. “You didn’t come to the celebration,” she says.
Vader shrugs. “Too many people,” he says, which isn’t a lie. “And I didn’t want to ruin their night.”
She looks at him for a minute. “I don’t think they’d mind as much as you think.”
Vader shakes his head, says, “I’ve seen how they look at me. I’m not welcome anywhere, not really. And it’s alright, I understand. I’m a mass-murderer.” He shakes his head again and takes a breath from his mask, sighs. “I was wondering… do you know where Obi-Wan is?”
“I do, actually,” Ahsoka says, looking at him, though there’s something different in her expression now. He tries to parse out the feeling from her Force signature, doesn’t get much; her mental shields are so much stronger now than they ever were when she was a padawan, and they were good then. “He’s been keeping Luke safe.”
“Luke…” Vader rolls the name around in his mouth, feels something spark in his awareness of the Force. “Is he-”
“Your son? Yes.” Ahsoka smiles, says, “I can take you to meet him, if you’d like. Both of them.”
“I’d like that,” Vader says quietly. With their world-killer gone and their fleets ravaged, the Empire has little left to protect it, and neither he nor Ahsoka are needed, anymore, in the fight.
So they pack their things, enough to last a couple of weeks, and early the next morning, before most of the base is awake, they take a ship and leave.
Ahsoka lets him fly. Something feels right about it, about feeling the controls between his fingers again, watching the stars streak by outside the viewscreen, soft blue and white. It’s a beautiful sight, one he could lose himself in for hours, and he breathes in deep and reaches for the Force. It’s warm again, that comforting presence he doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to, and when he looks over at Ahsoka the smile on her face says his eyes have gone back blue.
He’s not sure how long that’ll last, because it never does, not for long, but one can hope.
Vader doesn’t want to go back to Obi-Wan with Sith-gold eyes.
“I can show you Luke from a distance,” Ahsoka tells him, “but we’ll need permission to go talk to him, and that might be better obtained from Obi-Wan.”
“Where are we going?” Vader asks. He’d let Ahsoka set the hyperdrive coordinates.
Ahsoka grimaces, sighs and warns, “You won’t like it.”
Tatooine. Of course. The one place he’d never go, where all his worst memories are, where he’s sure the sands will still scream from all his mistakes.
“Obi-Wan took Luke to your stepbrother and his wife,” Ahsoka explains, quiet. “He’s been living there ever since, watching over him from a distance. He’ll be happy to see you.”
No one is happy to see me, Vader doesn’t say. “I want to see Luke first. Even if it’s from far away, I- need to see him.”
Ahsoka just nods, quiet, like she understands the unspoken words. She probably does; somehow, she still understands him, still knows him, so well, even after all these years and all the distance between them. Sometimes it scares him, a little, but he thinks he’s finally begun to move past that - it’s easier, now, to let her and Rex sit with him, talk, draw a smile out of him. It feels like friendship, like almost-family, and Vader thinks that as time goes on, that will feel more real, too, more natural. He does still have a family, even if it’s strange to think about, even if he can barely believe Leia wants to get to know him and Rex doesn’t want to kill him and Ahsoka’s found it in herself to forgive him. He can’t let himself hope that Luke will want to know him, too, the same way, but it’s still there, something soft in his chest, keeping the Force around him Light and warm as he brings the ship out of hyperspace, lands her at the Mos Eisley spaceport as directed by Ahsoka.
“I’ve never actually been to this city,” he says as they leave the ship behind and walk through the streets. Vader gets a few odd looks, courtesy of his suit, but he can’t sense any fear or disgust from the people around him, just vague interest, people calling out in Huttese and Basic both to try and sell their wares. Vader pays the hawkers no mind; there’s something oddly reassuring about the normalcy of all this, if he doesn’t think too hard. Life on the Outer Rim goes on, and no one cares about him, his fears and regrets, the things he’s done. None of them even know who he is.
That anonymity is a comfort, now.
“Never?” Ahsoka asks, and he shakes his head, then corrects himself.
“Well- once. But we didn’t go in, we flew straight to the farm where my mother- was supposed to be living.” He can’t bring himself to say more on the subject, and thankfully, Ahsoka doesn’t press.
She rents them a pair of swoop bikes and asks directions to the Lars farm, and they leave the city behind them, speeding across the waves of sand stretching out to the horizon in every direction, broken up by smears of cliffs in the far distance, rock formations spread out - they’re near the Dune Sea by the time they stop, not far from a familiar farmstead that Vader recognizes as the place he met Cliegg Lars for the first time. A young man stands near one of the vaporators outside, sandy blond hair blowing into his face, and Vader stares at him, because even from a distance he can see the resemblance.
“Luke Skywalker,” Ahsoka says, quiet, nudging him, but he can’t look away. “Hopefully, you’ll be able to meet him later tonight. We need to go ask Obi-Wan about that, though, Anakin.”
It’s still a long minute before Vader can make himself look away. “That’s my son,” he says, shakes his head. “I don’t deserve this, Ahsoka.”
“We all deserve a second chance,” she says, and he huffs, looks down at her next to him.
“When did you get so wise?”
“When you and Obi-Wan left me to fend for myself,” she teases. “Someone had to come up with proverbs, and I was the only one around. You should’ve met my friends on Coruscant, Trace and Rafa - you’d understand.”
There’s a story there, one she hasn’t told him yet. Vader doesn’t press, though, just smiles and says, “Well, let’s get going, then… Snips.”
The smile she flashes him rivals the brightness of the twin suns above them.
It’s not a long drive, across the edges of the Dune Sea, but it’s still late afternoon by the time Ahsoka slows them down; there’s a cliffside that’s been drawing steadily nearer the longer they drove, and now that they’re close to it, Vader can see a hut built partly into the wall of rock. It’s so far out from civilization, but there’s a bantha resting nearby in the shade the cliff casts and a few beat-up vaporators spread around, all clearly in use. “Is that-” Vader stops himself, because of course it is, why else would they be here? “We should go.” He’d wanted this, but it almost feels like too much. He doesn’t know how he’s going to manage to handle the rejection that’s coming.
“I’m sure he knows we’re here already,” Ahsoka says, almost coaxing, and Vader knows that’s more than likely true, so he sighs and grits his teeth against the pain he’s sure to feel, reaches to the Force for comfort, and starts up the bike again.
They leave the bikes some twenty meters from the hut, against the cliff, and Ahsoka has to go first, because now that he’s here, there’s something like dread freezing Vader’s feet, leaving him unable to move, just staring at the door to the hut. How’s he supposed to do this?
The door opens.
The man who emerges is dusty and worn, wearing faded tan and brown and grey layers, pant legs wrapped up against his boots and a staff in one hand, and his beard has grown longer and his hair greyer but Vader recognizes him immediately, a rush of emotions he can’t even begin to understand hitting him like a tidal wave. Obi-Wan’s Force-signature is still so familiar, even after all these years, and even after everything that’s happened between him it feels like safety. Vader just wants to run to him, like he did when he was a child, having nightmares, and let his Master hold him, cry into his shoulder and have Obi-Wan promise that everything’s going to be okay, it’s just a dream, Anakin. Just a dream.
(Except they weren’t just dreams, in the end, were they?)
“Ahsoka?” Obi-Wan says, wary, walking closer, like he hasn’t quite figured out who Vader is, yet, or maybe like he doesn’t want to acknowledge him. “I didn’t know you were coming.”
“I’m sorry about the surprise, Obi-Wan,” she says. “We wanted to meet Luke, and thought it’d be easiest for you to talk to Owen on our behalf. Besides, he wanted to see you,” and out of the corner of his eye Vader sees her gesture to him.
Obi-Wan takes another few steps, until he’s close enough Vader could reach out, take two steps and touch him, and he-
Vader falls to his knees in the sand.
“I’m so sorry,” he says, hoarse, “I didn’t- know, about the children, and I made so many mistakes, I never should’ve doubted you, Master.” He’s staring at the sand, at Obi-Wan’s boots, hands clenching tight around nothing, voice so choked it’s a wonder he can speak at all. “I don’t deserve- I did so much wrong, I’ve hurt so many people, and I- I’m sorry.” Obi-Wan steps closer, but Vader can’t look at him. “If you want to kill me, Obi-Wan, I won’t stop you, I deserve it after everything I’ve done, to you, to our family, to the Jedi, to the galaxy as a whole.” He isn’t crying, but it’s just the dryness in the air, reminding him of old, water-saving habits even when he doesn’t need to, anymore.
There’s silence, echoing with all the things Vader can’t find the words to say, and he wants to look up but can’t, almost. He waits for the sound of a lightsaber igniting, or for Obi-Wan to turn around and leave, or a thousand other things he can almost see in front of him, swallows hard and presses one hand into the sand around him, letting it sift through his fingertips to return to the ground.
(It was never the sand he hated.)
And then Obi-Wan speaks.
“Anakin,” he says, so soft, and Vader hesitantly looks up and his Master is- is he crying? Oh, Force. “Anakin, I never could kill you, whatever gave you the idea I could?” The tightness in Vader’s chest seems to ease, unwind, and he can’t even believe it, but he doesn’t get the chance to speak. Not yet. “I forgive you, of course I do, you’re my brother.”
I forgive you.
Just like that, like it’s easy, even though he knows it’s not. But then again, that’s always who Obi-Wan’s been, and really, he was a little bit silly to think that would’ve changed over these years, when Ahsoka’s compassion didn’t.
Vader fell to his knees before a Jedi Master, in the late-afternoon golden sunlight.
And Anakin Skywalker rises, to hug his brother, and to finally, finally, go home.