A/N: This chapter was co-written with the ever-impressive Mathematica.
"That's my excuse. What's yours?"
"Well," Anakin said, "what the Master said wasn't entirely true." He fidgeted too for a moment, strong hands curling in and out of fists and making leather gloves creak. "About the Jedi, I mean, about the way that they ..." A LAAT/i droned by overhead. The clones were dying out there, somewhere, but Ahsoka had long since forgotten about them. He started again, bit his lip. (Thought about sand dunes and twin suns and shaking hands caked with sand.) "If Jedi have one great fault, it is measuring themselves by who or what they've killed."
She dimly wondered whether she should mark his use of the third person, or whether that too was just another casualty of war. She counted his pauses, too, how many times he inhaled, breath rasping like a sob.
"On Tatooine—anywhere, probably, people have different ways of fighting. They shout, they debate, they curse. They pretend to give in and get even somehow later. They lie. They just refuse to do whatever their neighbor or brother or parent wants them to do, regardless of what's right." A pause. "They kill."
("I killed them! I killed them all!" And all I could see afterwards were my hands, steady, as I slaughtered them, like--)
"Animals aren't like that. They don't scheme, don't plot. They just fight, and the one with the sharper claws gets what it wants."
(And all the rest bleed, even though the surrealist thing, the only one I could latch on to with any sort of sanity that day, was how clean everything would be afterward--)
Ahsoka shivered and looked at the landscape, at the distant soldiers forming white scabs on the bleeding terrain.
"Jedi are warned against revenge and grudges and lies because we're told those things belong to the dark side. Maybe all those things were things sentients evolved to keep ourselves from physically hurting each other, I don't know. Jedi wield weapons because they're taught that other forms of fighting are wrong. Those other forms last longer—resentment, ire, bitterness." A pause. "Anger. Hate."
(And all I could think about then was how everything would be left that day, how time would swallow the bodies and the blood would seep into the sand until there was nothing and --)
"I don't think that justifies killing." A pause. "I don't know what does."
(And all I could think about was how quiet it was, how surreal the silence was when I --)
She said, "That doesn't answer my question."
"Doesn't it?" He looked right at her, meeting her gaze, icy, like anger. "Ahsoka, I don't need to justify myself to anyone." He snarls. "Least of all you."
It was her turn to look away, study the floor. Think, you're avoiding it too. "I know."
And then there was silence, broken only by the sounds of comm-cries, of grenades and blaster fire and damn it sir, we're dying out here --
"I was nine years old when I left my mother." His voice was a whisper, a shadow of itself. "The last thing she told me was not to look back. So, I didn't. I just went on. Without her. I-- I never said goodbye." Someone fired a shell, and the screechhisswhizz of the rockets framed the words as he spoke, as fitting as a frame to a masterpiece. "And when I reach the temple, I get told about some ancient prophecy, some ideal that I'm supposed to fulfil. That I'm meant to be. And I see people I don't know -- people I'm meant to aspire to be -- telling me I'm wrong for living and all I want to do is to run, but I --"
(I wondered what blood tasted like, once. It's like the edges of a credit chip -- bitter, metallic. Satisfying.)
She hadn't noticed when he slipped into present tense, and she wondered if she should have.
"I'm always too late, Ahsoka." He bit his lip, and she could see a faint bead of blood form on the wound. "I was too late for the Jedi. Too late for Qui-Gon. Too late for my mother." A pause. "And no matter what I do, it's never enough, and I --"
She noticed the faint sheen of sweat on his forehead as he inhaled, and wondered whether he was quite all right. He wasn't, though, and no matter how much he wanted the clones and Master Obi-Wan and history itself to see him as perfect, the cracks were there, widening --
"-- want more, when I know I shouldn't. Damn it, Ahsoka, if I'd been born one year earlier, if I'd have arrived one hour earlier, if I'd have done something different, played my cards right, I could have --" He breaks off, the hard leather of his gloves firm, unyielding as he clenched his fists. "I'm not some preconceived ideal of theirs, no matter how much they want me to be. I have flaws. I have weaknesses -- but I'm not meant to, am I?" A bitter laugh. "I'm meant to be bloody perfect, a model Jedi, infinitely powerful. That's all they want, isn't it? Power."
(I strangled the first one, you know, just so that I could feel the snap as its vertebrae popped under my fingers, so that I could see every vein standing straight on my skin as I squeezed, ripe, ready for the picking --)
"And I am powerful." A pause. "I will be."
The blood on his lip was gone. She swallowed, sweat running down her own forehead now, and wondered when he started speaking to her as an equal, and why it terrified her so much.
"But it's never enough, is it? Nothing I do is enough. Nothing. Nothing."
And now she wondered whether perhaps there was something hidden even from himself that wanted to, for once, be the one who was rescued. The one the camera-eye of the Republic did not swing first to see.
Suddenly, he broke the moment, shattering it like splintered glass. "Did that answer your question?" When she didn't answer, he rose, the soles of his boots making muted thump-thump sounds against the decking in time with her racing pulse, anger scratching a crimson flush on his neck. "Damn it, Ahsoka --"
"Yes." She whispered, the stagnant air filling her throat like fog. "It does."
Then there was silence, his anger deserting him like sand falling from a dune as he fell back against the wall again, both hands slightly shaking. (Everything had been so still that day, afterward, no matter how much blood I wept, how much I heard their screams --)
"Thanks." And later, neither of them would remember which one of them said it, or if either of them said it at all. Later, they would say it was of no consequence.