Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn stood serenely before the Jedi Council, hands folded into the sleeves of their robes. The Council was a bit less serene than usual. If it weren't for subtle use of the Force, Qui-Gon suspected many of them would have long since bolted from the room.
If someone told them they looked horrible, Qui-Gon would take it as a compliment. Their clothes were caked through with mud and plant matter, with dried blood still visible through the muck. Obi-Wan was pale, his face smeared with grime and marked by exhaustion; Qui-Gon knew he looked much the same. He ached, and he wanted to burn what he wore and bathe in disinfectant.
To say that the two of them smelled would be akin to saying that the pungence of a slaughterhouse made an excellent perfume.
At last, Mace spoke, his expression one of resignation. Even Jedi Masters could only filter out so much. “Was your mission to Kelin VI successful, then?”
“As much as can be expected, yes,” Qui-Gon answered, well aware of the Council's reaction to their current state and enjoying every minute of it. Through the pair-bond, he could sense Obi-Wan’s gleeful amusement.
Qui-Gon had protested the assignment the moment it had showed up on his datapad. Obi-Wan had agreed with him, arguing with Mace that Kelin VI was a pit at the best of times, and if they were serious about the negotiations, then a team of six would be the wiser choice.
The Council had sent only himself and Obi-Wan, anyway. They damn well deserved to share in the experience.
“It took longer than expected for the treaty between the Kels and the Yellin to be signed, but the outcome was agreeable to both parties,” Qui-Gon said, and though he longed to be gone from the room, he was fighting hard to bite back a smile.
The Kel/Yellin Alliance had provided them with a return vehicle shortly after documents were signed and witnessed. With the conflict resolved, it was a polite request to Leave Now from the new ruling party. The freighter had been on severe water restriction due to ongoing mechanical problems with the cooling system, compounding their current…predicament.
You mean opportunity, Obi-Wan sent.
I thought no such thing, Qui-Gon replied, pretending to be affronted.
Yoda and Yaddle, with their swamp-dwelling physiology, were the least affected by the odor permeating the chamber. Depa Billaba looked ill; Saesee Tiin was glowering at them, his nostrils flaring. Adi Gallia had not even bothered to pretend at decorum, and had her hand clasped firmly over her nose.
It was Ki-Adi Mundi who broke the silence, as if he could stand it no longer. “Couldn't you have showered, first?” he asked, plaintive.
It was Obi-Wan who answered, his voice humble as he addressed the other Knight. “The Council did say that they wished to see us as soon as we arrived, Knight Mundi. Neither myself nor Master Jinn had reason to defy the Council in this matter.”
Mace, who was already scowling at Qui-Gon, turned his glare upon Obi-Wan. “I wish you would not pick and choose your times to be defiant.”
Obi-Wan inclined his head, a politely disinterested expression on his face. “Yes, Master Windu.”
“Fooling me, the two of you are not,” Yoda said with a small chuckle. The little being looked amused, as if he understood what point Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon had decided to make. “Report you will, but then clean yourselves, you must. Traumatize the younglings, you may!”
Does he mean the Initiates or the Council? Obi-Wan asked, his mental laugh soft and warm.
Qui-Gon was kept from guessing at an answer by Mace. “Yes, please,” he said, waving one dark-skinned hand. “Tell us of your mission.” As fast as possible, was Mace's unspoken comment.
Qui-Gon paused a moment to gather his thoughts, then launched into a description of events from their landing on Kelin VI onward. The entire mission had been as messy as their appearance, but he did keep the story brief.
He and Obi-Wan traded off on duties such as this, and it was his turn to debrief the Council. Obi-Wan interjected on occasion, to offer further information when Qui-Gon might have forgotten to include it. Otherwise, his partner was still and silent, until Qui-Gon drew the narrative to a close.
Out of the corner of his eye, Qui-Gon saw Obi-Wan twitch. It was subtle, but it was definitely a twitch. Obi-Wan?
Oh, dear. Obi-Wan jerked his right shoulder in agitation, his eyebrows drawing together.
Mace, who still looked unhappy with them, noticed the uncharacteristic movement. “Something wrong, Knight Kenobi?”
“Er,” Obi-Wan said, and then his eyebrows shot towards his hairline in surprise. He began patting his tunics hurriedly, looking for something.
“Obi-Wan?” Qui-Gon looked at him in some concern, especially when Obi-Wan shoved a hand inside his clothing. He worked his hand around inside his tunics for a silent moment, a studious look of concentration on his face. What the hell are you doing?
Qui-Gon couldn't help but take a step back in surprise when Obi-Wan drew a long, slender brown snake out of his trousers.
“Hmm.” Yoda seemed unperturbed. “A passenger you seem to have acquired.”
“Yes, Master,” Obi-Wan said, holding the snake out at arm's length with a wide-eyed look on his face. He didn't seem to know what to do with it, even though the snake was busy trying to coil itself around Obi-Wan's arm.
“How in the worlds did you bring that all the way from Kelin VI?” Depa asked. Qui-Gon observed that she had quickly and neatly folded her legs up underneath her, sweeping her robes up off of the floor. The Jedi Master repressed a smile and added “fear of reptiles” to his anti-Council arsenal listing.
“The snake probably couldn't tell the difference between Kenobi and the planet,” Eeth Koth said with a faint smile. Like most of the Council, the Zabrak Master was trying very hard not to breathe in.
“They do make good pets,” Saesee Tiin pointed out, attempting to be helpful in the face of the young Knight’s bewilderment.
Obi-Wan didn’t even hesitate. “I don't keep pets there.”
There was a moment of silence before a wave of laughter struck the Council Chamber. It was quiet humor, but Qui-Gon was hard pressed not to break down in tears of hysterical laughter right there on the floor, exhausted as he was by the long mission. Thank the Force Micah had retired from the Council; that man would not have been able to resist the evident dirty joke.
Obi-Wan's elegant, indignant expression held for just a moment more before he smiled as well, shaking his head. “Come on, up you go,” he murmured, lifting the snake’s tail to allow the reptile better purchase for climbing.
Qui-Gon brought himself under control with effort, just in time to notice Adi Gallia wiping moisture away from her eyes. He smiled at her, and she grinned back, unabashed. It wasn't often that laughter was heard in this chamber.
“Is there anything else, Qui-Gon?” Mace asked, steepling his fingers together in a visible sign of regaining his center.
“I believe that covers everything, Masters,” Qui-Gon affirmed, he and Obi-Wan both bowing as the Council dismissed them. It looked a little bit odd on Obi-Wan's part, as he had a brown, clingy snake wrapped around his arm, but the young man managed it with his ever-present grace.
“Qui-Gon, what am I going to do with this thing?” Obi-Wan asked as soon as the Council doors closed behind them.
“I don't know,” Qui-Gon said, pausing to get a better look at the snake. It was a pretty thing, with its tan and black-striped belly. There were subtle black markings underneath the overlaying brown top. Qui-Gon suspected it was due for a shedding. “We can't release it into the gardens.”
“I doubt those meditating there would appreciate this little fellow crawling up into their pants,” Obi-Wan grinned, running one finger along the snake's back. The reptile was radiating feelings of warmth and contentment.
“How the hell did you not notice it before now?” Qui-Gon asked. “I know we’re tired, but it moves.”
“I think it must have been sleeping,” Obi-Wan guessed, while the snake’s forked tongue flickered in and out, scenting the new, cleaner air. “Believe me, I would have noticed the invasion much sooner, otherwise.”
“I would imagine that you were the warmest thing it had found in days,” Qui-Gon said, thinking of their journey through the woods. There had been grime and distraction aplenty, at that point, and the curious reptile had no doubt taken advantage. “It must be very fond of you by now,” he teased.
“It only loves me for my body heat,” Obi-Wan said in a mournful tone, still caressing the snake.
Qui-Gon considered that statement, and was unprepared for the hammer-blow of arousal that struck him. He shielded their bond from it on instinct, completely baffled in the space of two breaths. What in the worlds was that?
Obi-Wan didn't notice anything amiss, until he realized Qui-Gon was no longer following him. “Qui?” Obi-Wan half-turned to give Qui-Gon an expectant look. “I know you're fond of abusing the Council, but if the cleaning droids find you out here, they're going to submit you to a very public cleansing.”
Qui-Gon smiled and rejoined Obi-Wan. Reflection on his body's rather unexpected response could wait for the privacy of his own quarters.
The first lift dropped them down to the base of the center spire. A second lift brought them to a long hall, one of the public Temple venues; it took another lift in a different wing to gain access to the East Tower.
Obi-Wan was smiling, amused by the wide berth by which people were avoiding them. Those that weren’t bothered by the smell scuttled away upon glimpsing the snake he carried.
“OBI-WAN!” a little boy shouted.
Less than three minutes, this time, Obi-Wan observed.
I swear he has tracers on us.
The two Jedi waited; after a moment Anakin Skywalker pushed his way through the throng and ran to greet them. His unkempt blond hair was even more disheveled than usual, but his grin was as bright and cheerful as always. “Master Qui-Gon!”
Obi-Wan greeted the nine-year-old Initiate with a warm smile. “Ani!”
Qui-Gon, expecting Anakin to throw himself into their arms, as per his usual welcome, was surprised when the boy stopped short five feet away. Anakin looked back and forth between them, a frown forming on his face.
“You guys look terrible,” Anakin said. He sniffed once, and his nose wrinkled in distaste. “And you stink, too.”
“That's not very diplomatic, Anakin,” Obi-Wan said, raising one eyebrow in subtle criticism.
Anakin straightened and managed a very proper expression and tone. “Master Yoda tells me that I should always be honest with my elders.”
“Not that honest,” Qui-Gon said with a wry smile.
Anakin was unrepentant. “You guys need baths. You,” he pointed at Qui-Gon, “Your quarters. You,” Anakin pointed at Obi-Wan, “Your quarters. Shower. Use all the hot water in the Temple if you have to. After that, we're all going to have dinner in Qui-Gon's quarters. Deodorize them first,” Anakin instructed Qui-Gon, who was hard pressed to contain his amusement at the boy's tone. “Or you'll kill the food.”
“Dinner,” Obi-Wan mused, as if the idea had yet to occur to him. “That is an excellent idea. I'll go—”
“I'll handle dinner,” Anakin interrupted, with the sigh of the long-suffering. “You. Clean. Now.”
Obi-Wan's lips quirked in a smile. “Very well, Ani. We bow to your greater wisdom. But as my small friend here would not appreciate the shower as much as I will...” Gently, Obi-Wan disentangled the snake from his arm and held it out to Anakin.
“Wizard,” the boy breathed, entranced by the reptile. The brown hitchhiker’s tongue flicked out as it twined its long coils around Anakin’s arm. “I love snakes!”
Qui-Gon glanced at Obi-Wan. And a solution presents itself.
Obi-Wan looked pleased. It'll be good for him. He needs something to look after.
Obi-Wan lifted his chin in an abbreviated nod of agreement.
Anakin looked up after the snake had finished settling in. “What am I going to feed him? Where will I put him?”
“I suggest that you go see Master P'charee. He's the resident Temple zoologist. If Master P'charee doesn't already have equipment on hand to loan you for this one's care, I will be very surprised.” Obi-Wan steered Anakin in the proper direction. “Dinner in two hours. And don't forget our food!” he instructed as Anakin strode away, still staring down at his new acquisition.
“Two hours?” Qui-Gon repeated.
Obi-Wan smiled. “I plan to take Anakin's instructions about hot water very seriously.”
* * * *
The three of them met in Qui-Gon's kitchen at the appointed time. His quarters had become their usual meeting place a few years ago. Obi-Wan maintained that it was by virtue of Qui-Gon's home being the largest, but once, under careful prodding, Obi-Wan had admitted that he felt more at home in these rooms than anywhere else.
It made Qui-Gon regret all the more his insistence upon separate quarters for the new Knight, four years ago. In thinking that he would be giving his former Padawan some much-looked-forward-to privacy, Qui-Gon had instead managed to chase the young man out of a longed-for comfort.
Every time Qui-Gon had considered inviting Obi-Wan back, to make up for the callous gesture, he would find reasons to dismiss the notion. They were even true: the Padawan room of his suite was too small for a Knight; it would be inconvenient for Obi-Wan to move in, and then move right back out again when he took his own Padawan. Ultimately, he had failed to make a decision, and now Qui-Gon felt that it was far too late to mention it.
Anakin raided the commissary with precision, and a large sampling of food was spread out on the table. The boy had an instinct for selecting the dishes that were good, and stayed far away from the offerings that were, quite honestly, horrible.
Obi-Wan was sitting at the table, his hair still dripping water at the ends, listening as Anakin talked. Qui-Gon smiled at the chatter; every time he and Obi-Wan went on a mission, Anakin made it a point to tell them every single thing that had happened in their absence. The result was a charming mix of Anakin's own activities, the comings and goings of Initiates, Padawans, Knights, and Masters, and a large helping of Temple gossip. It was almost as efficient as asking Yoda, who knew more about Temple matters than anyone.
“And Master Windu is building a new lightsaber,” Anakin was saying, as Qui-Gon prepared the tea. “It's a lot better than the last one, but it is such a pimp ’saber.”
“Ani!” Obi-Wan said, chastising, but he was grinning.
“It's true!” Anakin protested. “The hilt's a silver base, but all of the outer controls and parts are gold electrum. And he's using purple crystals. Pimp-saber. I saw enough of that back on Tatooine to call it what it is.”
“Anakin, that's not a very nice thing to say about a Master's weapon,” Obi-Wan said, still striving to be disapproving.
“You thought it once, too. And don't you pretend you didn't! I heard it plain as day!”
Qui-Gon stilled his movements, the better to hear. It was not often now that Obi-Wan and Anakin made reference to the strange vision that had struck them both four years ago, and he was, as always, intensely curious.
“Thinking it is different than blurting it out loud, Ani,” Obi-Wan said, and even to Qui-Gon’s ears he sounded defensive. Guilty as charged, then.
Anakin looked vindicated. “So there. And I promise I won't blurt it out loud to anyone else. But I'm not gonna stop thinking it.” Qui-Gon, for his part, decided he needed to have a look at Mace's new lightsaber.
They traded information by agreement during dinner; Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon told Anakin of their mission, which the boy delighted in, and Anakin told them exactly how he was doing in his academic classes. Some subjects were discussed more enthusiastically than others.
During the course of the meal, Qui-Gon found himself studying Obi-Wan. It was something he had done often over the last four years, cataloging the changes as a sixteen-year-old boy grew into a man. Washed free of the muck that had plagued them over the past weeks, Obi-Wan's hair flowed down to his shoulders, long since grown out from a Padawan's cut. It was a burnished red, and held hints of a lighter copper. Both length and color complemented the younger man's fair skin and luminous blue-green eyes.
Obi-Wan was, Qui-Gon admitted to himself, very beautiful. Maybe the spike of desire he'd felt earlier wasn't as out of place as he'd thought.
Obi-Wan turned his head and caught Qui-Gon's stare, raising an inquisitive eyebrow. “What?” he asked, and Qui-Gon found himself fighting a blush at getting caught staring so openly. “Something wrong?”
“No, no.” Qui-Gon hurried to reassure him. “I was just thinking.”
“Must have been serious.” Obi-Wan grinned. “You were staring at me like I hold all of the answers in the universe.”
It took every bit of willpower Qui-Gon had to reply in his usual manner. “Just a few, my arrogant former Padawan.”
“Arrogant?” Obi-Wan repeated in a mock-injured tone of voice. “How do you like that, Anakin? I only saved us from a tense situation on Juros Minor with a bit of wisdom, and he informs me that I am arrogant!”
“As I recall, the bit of wisdom that saved us was, “Run like hell,”’ Qui-Gon reminded his partner.
“And it worked very well.”
Anakin placed both hands over his mouth, either to stifle a giggle or keep the food he'd been chewing where it belonged. It did nothing to hide his wide, laughing eyes, which were leaking tears.
“I suppose it did, at that,” Qui-Gon allowed. “The Council wasn't very happy with us, however.” If they had any failures, Juros Minor counted among them.
“Bah.” Obi-Wan waved one hand, dismissive. “They're never happy with us. The rebellious, long-haired maverick Jedi Master, and his ridiculously young Knight partner inspire frustration of hitherto unknown proportions. I imagine that in retaliation for today's retaliation for them sending us to Kelin VI, they're going to send us someplace even smellier, in which case we'll be able to retaliate. Again.”
Anakin was now calling on all of his youthful control to keep from laughing himself sick. Obi-Wan was enjoying the silliness of it, playing it up so much that Qui-Gon suspected Obi-Wan was on the verge of exhaustion-induced mania.
Qui-Gon managed to maintain his serene expression for a full minute before he grinned, shaking his head as he laughed. “Oh, Obi-Wan. What would become of me if it weren't for you?” he asked.
He meant the question in jest, but Obi-Wan, for some reason, didn’t take it that way. “You probably don't want to know,” Obi-Wan said, and his gaze went distant and haunted, the same expression that he'd awoken with in the Healers’ Ward four years ago. Qui-Gon didn’t see that look very often, but every time it surfaced, he felt something twist inside his heart.
“You'd probably be cleaner,” Anakin suggested, trying to lighten the sudden gloom.
Qui-Gon felt that phantom ache intensify when only a ghost of a smile crossed Obi-Wan's lips in reply to Anakin's comment. “Obi-Wan?”
“You look quite a bit better than...well, than you did,” Obi-Wan said, surprising both Qui-Gon and Anakin. Besides steadfastly refusing to speak of critical details of his vision with the Council, Obi-Wan also tried to avoid talking about what their lives had been like “before.” One of Obi-Wan’s few allowances was discussion of the training he had undergone in his vision, which had been composed of tactics and techniques that Qui-Gon was forced to admit were exactly what he would have taught Obi-Wan, had the young man remained his Padawan.
“You seemed older than you are now. You were tired, frazzled. Quite a bit grayer around the edges,” Obi-Wan said, reaching out to touch a strand of Qui-Gon’s hair, which held the barest hints of silver.
It was nothing new, that touch, but there was a tenderness in the gesture that made Qui-Gon’s breath catch. If Obi-Wan noticed, he gave no sign.
“As your student, I think I was quite the pain in the ass,” his partner said.
Qui-Gon thought back to the missions, emotions, and close escapes that the two of them had shared in the first three years of Obi-Wan's apprenticeship, and had to smile. “Just enthusiastic, Obi-Wan.”
“Hmph,” was Obi-Wan's disbelieving response. He sounded quite a bit like Yoda, when he did that.
Obi-Wan fell silent, resting his chin on his clasped hands. Anakin looked at him for a long moment before deciding enough was enough.
“Obi-Wan...” Anakin abandoned his chair and went to stand in front of Obi-Wan. “It happened, and it didn't happen. Dwelling on it isn't going to make you feel any better, but it's sure gonna make you feel a lot worse.” The boy reached up and poked the Knight in the nose with his index finger. “Focus on the moment is what you people keep telling me.”
Obi-Wan looked first at the finger that was pointing at his nose, then at Anakin. “Very well. You suggest that I should focus on the moment...”
He leaned back in his chair, studying Anakin in such a way that the boy began to squirm in response. “In this moment, Ani, I realize that you need a haircut.”
Anakin frowned. “Uhm...there's nothing wrong with my hair that a good combing won't fix. Honest.”
Qui-Gon snorted in disbelief; that was like claiming that a good regimen of diet and exercise would have the galaxy populated by fit and trim Hutts in no time. The boy’s hair had been straight as a stick on Tatooine, but within several months of living on Coruscant, Anakin's blond locks had developed a life of their own.
“That's not exactly true, but you've got to have the haircut to go with the Padawan title.” Obi-Wan paused. He seemed uncertain; almost, Qui-Gon thought, fearful. “That is, if you don't mind having me as your Master. I didn't exactly do the most wonderful job the first time around.”
Anakin blinked several times, trying to process what Obi-Wan was saying. “Padawan? You mean it?”
At Obi-Wan's hesitant nod, Anakin let out a whoop of joy and launched himself forward to catch Obi-Wan in a stranglehold masquerading as a hug. “Are you out of your mind? Of course I want you as my Master!”
Obi-Wan hugged the boy in return, his eyes shining with suppressed tears. Watching them, as Obi-Wan started teasing Anakin by tugging on the lock of hair that would soon become a Padawan braid, Qui-Gon was surprised by the sudden resentment he felt. Appalled, he tracked the feeling down to its source and came face to face with jealousy, rearing its ugly black head and fighting for dominance.
What in the Force is wrong with me today?
Qui-Gon took a deep breath and forced himself to think. Logic didn't have much to do with emotion, but it could at least allow him to step back and puzzle things out.
He wholeheartedly approved of Obi-Wan taking Anakin Skywalker as his Padawan. They had been linked from the beginning by the vision they'd shared, and had a very strong bond of friendship and camaraderie between them. They took turns caring for each other, and had a balance between them that most Master-Padawan pairs had to work years to develop—balance that usually didn't occur until the Padawan in question reached maturity.
At a few scant weeks past his twentieth birthday, Obi-Wan might have once been considered too young to take a Padawan, but Qui-Gon knew that to be groundless. In the years of their partnership, Qui-Gon had witnessed first-hand that despite his youthful appearance, Obi-Wan did indeed have a lifetime's worth of knowledge and experience. He was fearless, a pinnacle of such strength that Qui-Gon had found he could depend on him no matter the task. Qui-Gon had accepted this, and tried to be the same for Obi-Wan in return.
Qui-Gon had no doubt that Anakin would become a great Jedi under Obi-Wan's tutelage. Which left him...alone.
After Xanatos, Qui-Gon welcomed solitude, reveled in it, until a thirteen-year-old boy had reached into the shadows to bring his heart back to the light. At the thought of returning to that, he felt nothing but a great deal of sadness. He had known that this day would come, sooner or later, waiting in the wings like the final act of a too-short play. Their partnership would end, Obi-Wan would begin training Anakin in earnest, and the two of them would go their separate ways, seeing each other but rarely.
Of course, knowing that had done little to prepare him for it. Qui-Gon surmised that he was going to be wearing holes in his meditation mat in the coming weeks, attempting to come to terms.
He didn't realize that Obi-Wan was trying to get his attention until the other man waved a hand in front of his face. “Coruscant to Qui-Gon.”
Qui-Gon blinked a few times, realizing he'd sunk into a light trance right there at the table. “What?”
Anakin was gazing at him with narrowed blue eyes. “I dunno where you were, but it was a million light years from here.”
He smiled in apology. “Sorry. What did I miss?”
“I was asking you if you minded me taking Anakin as my Padawan,” Obi-Wan said. He was smiling, and seemed to be relaxed, but his eyes were a peculiar shade of gray that Qui-Gon knew spoke of troubled thoughts.
“Of course not,” Qui-Gon replied, puzzled. “Why would I mind?”
“Well, most working pairs tend not to incorporate Padawans. You'd have to deal with Anakin as much as I would, and I know you weren't exactly inclined towards Padawans when we began my Apprenticeship. That is...” Obi-Wan trailed off, uncertain, as Qui-Gon stared at him in confusion. “I mean, if you want to continue working together. I'd just assumed...”
Qui-Gon looked at him a moment longer as he struggled to grasp what Obi-Wan was saying. Finally, it clicked; he grinned, feeling more relieved than he cared to admit. “Of course I don't mind, and of course I'd like to continue working together. I was just sitting here, rather miserable, consumed by the notion that our partnership had just ended.”
“Ended?” It was Obi-Wan's turn to give him a blank look.
“I suppose I made a faulty assumption.”
Obi-Wan smiled, shaking his head. “I think that, pair-bond or not, we need to work on our communication skills.”
“Agreed,” Qui-Gon said, still feeling foolish. They hadn’t misunderstood each other that badly in at least a year.
“I don't get it,” Anakin spoke up, looking back and forth between them in confusion. “What does you guys working together have to do with anything?”
“Personal preference, in most cases. Working teams share a bond that, potentially, a training bond can interfere with. The simplest solution is for all members of the team to develop a training bond with the Padawan, but resentment on anyone's part can throw a hydrospanner into the entire works,” Obi-Wan explained. “I don't think we'll have to worry about that, however.”
“Oh,” Anakin said, mulling it over. “You would both be my Masters?”
Obi-Wan gave Qui-Gon a questioning look. “It could be declared official…”
That was something that neither of them had considered. It was no hardship, however; Qui-Gon liked Anakin, and the Force was nudging him, telling him that this would be something right and true.
“I am not opposed,” he said, and a breath later he had his arms full of new Padawan. He smiled and returned Anakin's enthusiastic hug. Obi-Wan was looking at them both with a mix of approval and...hope? Qui-Gon almost frowned, wondering at the emotion revealed in his partner's eyes.
When the door chime sounded, Qui-Gon went to answer it, leaving Anakin and Obi-Wan to clear the table. One of the Temple's many service droids stood in his doorway, bearing his clean laundry in a crate. With a muted groan, Qui-Gon noticed that, once again, Obi-Wan's laundry had been included with his own. “We've been over this. Knight Kenobi's rooms are that way,” Qui-Gon snapped, pointing down the hall while glaring at the droid.
“Master Cal-Sin Diones programmed me himself, Master Jinn. Rest assured that Knight Kenobi does indeed live here.”
Qui-Gon cursed under his breath. No sense wasting good vocabulary on a droid that might scuttle off in an insulted huff, taking his clothes with it. He resolved to have a talk with Master Diones about the matter. Again.
“Fine. Thank you,” Qui-Gon said in as polite a tone as he could muster, accepting the crate of laundry and closing the door.
Obi-Wan came out of the kitchen, a stack of plates in his hands. “Mine too, huh?”
“Yes.” Qui-Gon shook his head, hefting the crate and heading to his bedroom. “I'll leave yours in the crate. And it looks as though the clothing we sent down this afternoon is in here, as well.”
“Clean?” Obi-Wan asked in disbelief.
“Looks to be.” Qui-Gon inhaled deeply. No swamp. “Smells to be.”
"Force-blessed miracle," Obi-Wan said with a grin, retreating back into the kitchen.
Qui-Gon made short work of putting the laundry away. His robe was on the bottom of the crate, and he pulled it forth and buried his face in the soft folds. Clean, wonderfully clean. No mud, no blood, no mystery stains.
Anakin and Obi-Wan hadn’t emerged, so he headed back to the kitchen. The least he could do was help wash his own dishes.
“So, are you gonna tell him or what?” Anakin was saying. Qui-Gon paused midway through the common room, intrigued.
“It's not that simple, Ani,” Obi-Wan said over the clatter of dishes.
“Sure it is,” Anakin replied. “Master Qui-Gon's not going to bite you.”
Ah; they were talking about him. Qui-Gon stepped back, further from the kitchen but not so far away that he couldn’t overhear. He was eavesdropping in a shameless manner, but announcing his presence wouldn’t allow him to discern the meaning behind Anakin’s words.
Qui-Gon decided to meditate on this character flaw. Later.
“I know that,” Obi-Wan said, sounding annoyed.
“Well, then again...” Anakin continued in a wheedling, conspiratorial tone. “He might.”
Qui-Gon was well able to imagine the expression on Obi-Wan's face. He thought it would match his own. He closed his gaping mouth, wondering what in the hell Anakin was getting at.
Anakin giggled, unrepentant. “Padawans are supposed to be honest with their Masters.”
“Not that honest.” Obi-Wan repeated Qui-Gon's earlier statement with a growl.
“Look, it's been how many years?” There was a sound Qui-Gon identified as Anakin hopping up to sit on the counter. “I know I don't remember everything, but I know how you feel. Blind Gundarks know how you feel. Are you going to wait until you're fifty—again—before you tell him you love him?”
Qui-Gon's heart soared upwards and settled somewhere near the vicinity of his throat. Obi-Wan loved him? His Obi-Wan, his partner of four years? Loved Qui-Gon?
They were a working team, pair-bonded for expediency. Emotional baggage was part of the package when dealing with any sort of bond, and theirs ran deep. Some days it felt like they lived in each other’s heads. How in the hell could he have overlooked something like that?
Stunned, Qui-Gon took a deep breath, not sure what to feel. Now he didn’t give a damn about the questionable morals behind eavesdropping. He had to know. He swallowed, his mouth dry, and did not breathe as he waited for Obi-Wan to respond, to confirm or refute.
There was a tired sigh. “It's really not that simple,” Obi-Wan said again, his voice so soft that Qui-Gon almost didn't hear.
“Sure it is!” Anakin retorted. “Maybe it's because I'm a kid again, and everything's a lot simpler when you're so close to the ground. But it's not as complicated as you think it is.” Qui-Gon listened as someone scrubbed a baking pan—used only to re-heat the food Anakin had snatched from the commissary—with a great deal more enthusiasm than was necessary.
Anakin wasn't finished. “Did you know half the Temple is placing bets on when you're going to get up the nerve to say something to him?”
The pan hit the floor. “What!”
Qui-Gon wondered if his jaw hitting the floor made as much noise. Gods, but he was the most oblivious Jedi Master in the Order.
Anakin sounded smug. “Uh huh. And the other half is placing bets on when Master Qui-Gon is gonna wake up and notice that you're not sixteen anymore.”
“I thought I was a bit better at hiding my emotions than that,” Obi-Wan whispered. There was a great deal of barely restrained tension radiating from the kitchen. Qui-Gon bit his lip in response to the sensation, aware that there was nothing of the sort coming through their bond. He’d suspected that Obi-Wan filtered out a great deal, but that more than confirmed Qui-Gon’s suspicions.
“Well, yeah, you are,” Anakin said. “There's usually not even a hint of what you feel through the Force. But you're broadcasting right now.”
There was an audible snort. The aura of tension vanished as if it had never been.
“You shield so well, sometimes it's like you're not even there.” Anakin's voice had gone from teasing to soothing in the space of a breath. “It's just... Well, Jedi are observant, Master.” To Qui-Gon's knowledge, it was the first time Anakin had called Obi-Wan that, but there was no hesitation at all when he used the title. The boy slipped into its usage with familiarity and warmth. “You don't give anything away, but you stare at him an awful lot when he's not looking. But lately, you've forgotten to make sure no one else is looking, either.”
Excellent shields and one oblivious Jedi Master, Qui-Gon thought.
Obi-Wan's voice was tremulous. “Do you think he knows?”
“Second round of betting, remember? Oblivious.” Anakin didn't seem concerned.
There was humor in Obi-Wan's voice when he spoke next. “Does this have anything to do with why Master Diones keeps ‘forgetting’ that I don't live here anymore?” Anakin's delighted giggle was the answer.
Deciding that he'd skulked about long enough, Qui-Gon stepped into the kitchen. He packed away all knowledge of the overheard conversation into a far corner of his mind.
Anakin was indeed perched on the counter next to the sink, and he grinned when he saw Qui-Gon. “You're just in time for the easy part.”
Judging by the lack of tension in the air, neither of his guests had noticed Qui-Gon’s close proximity before now. “The easy part, huh? Pulling the plug?”
“Close,” Obi-Wan said, smiling and throwing a clean towel at Qui-Gon. There was no trace of what Qui-Gon had witnessed on his face, or in his eyes. “I washed, you get to dry, and the new Padawan will levitate the dishes into place.”
Anakin made a face. “Do I have to?”
“Yes, does he have to?” Qui-Gon placed protective hands over the wet dishes. “I rather like this set.”
“Yes. And yes.” Obi-Wan gave them both a stern look. “Besides, if he drops them, there are two Jedi in the room capable of catching plates.”
“I'm not gonna drop them,” Anakin muttered in his own defense.
“Prove it,” Obi-Wan challenged, crossing his arms.
"Just don't drop the pan again. I don't think it'll survive a second fall," Qui-Gon said, relenting. Anakin giggled, Obi-Wan rolled his eyes, and Qui-Gon smiled and toweled off the first dish. He watched as it left his hands and floated its way up and into the proper cabinet.
“Sorry about the pan. It made such a racket I'm surprised you didn't dart right into the kitchen to find out what we were destroying,” Obi-Wan said, watching Anakin maneuver dining ware. He was sorting all of the utensils at once, an impressive feat of telekinetic prowess for a brand-new Padawan.
“It looks to be intact,” Qui-Gon replied, drying that very item. It floated into the air without a hitch, and Qui-Gon relaxed. He hadn't spent a lot of time observing Anakin’s creche training, but his levitation skills, at least, were adept.
Qui-Gon was drying the last dish, and another one was in the air, when the kitchen was assaulted by a bloodcurdling, bone-jarring scream. Anakin yelped in surprise, the floating dish dropped, and Qui-Gon was so startled that he snapped the dish he was holding neatly in half.
An invisible hand caught the other dish before it could shatter. Anakin and Qui-Gon both turned identical glares upon Obi-Wan. The young man leaned back against the counter with a smug grin on his face, the rescued plate rising up and landing in his hands.
Qui-Gon found his voice. “What in the Sith hells was that?”
“Krayt dragon,” Obi-Wan replied, his eyes dancing in amusement. “Native to Tatooine. Very big, very frightening. Very loud. Works well to deter Tusken Raiders, Jawas, nosey neighbors.”
Anakin sighed in disgust. “I'd forgotten all about that. I hate it when you do that!”
Qui-Gon began to chuckle. “I can't believe I fell for that.”
Obi-Wan raised one eyebrow. “Nor can I.” He held out the plate he'd caught, giving Anakin an expectant look. Anakin grinned in sheepish surrender and motioned with his finger. The plate responded, jumping out of Obi-Wan’s hands to join the others.
“Very good,” Obi-Wan said. “Distractions aside, anyway.”
“I'm going to have a very interesting apprenticeship this time around, aren't I.” Anakin wasn't asking, but the smile on his face was cheerful and accepting, if a bit resigned. At Obi-Wan's nod, Anakin shrugged, dropping down from the counter and tugging his clothes back into place. “Oh, well. Better than the alternative. Now, if you Masters will excuse me, the new Padawan still has homework to do, and a snake to feed.”
“What have you dubbed the hitchhiker?” Obi-Wan wanted to know.
Obi-Wan didn't seem to find that very appropriate. “Jawa?” he repeated in disbelief.
“Sure.” Anakin grinned at his Master. “He looks like a Jawa.”
“Right,” Obi-Wan said, deciding acquiescence was the better part of valor. “Jawa it is. Though if you're that homesick, I'm sure we can arrange a visit to Tatooine...”
“No thanks,” Anakin said, shuddering. “Good night, Masters,” he said, bowing to them both. Qui-Gon inclined his head in return, though Obi-Wan reached out and tousled Anakin's perpetually messy hair. The boy grinned and left the kitchen; a moment later Qui-Gon heard the door to his quarters open and close as Anakin made his way back to the creche.
“Here,” Obi-Wan said, gently taking the two halves of plate that Qui-Gon realized he was still holding. “Since I'm responsible for this, I may as well fix it.”
“That's not necessary, really,” Qui-Gon protested. “I'm the one who broke it.”
“And I'm the one who screamed like a mating Krayt dragon. Besides, I could use the dexterity practice,” Obi-Wan countered, laying the two halves down on the counter.
Qui-Gon could feel the Force gathering around them both, and sensed tiny movements in the molecular structure of the ceramic as Obi-Wan began to repair the break. He watched in silence, feeling the familiar awe and not-too-little pride as Obi-Wan worked. The young man had a control of the Force that even the old Masters envied.
Qui-Gon picked up the plate when Obi-Wan was done, turning it over in his hands. “Nice work,” he commented, tracing his finger down the center of the plate. Not even a line remained in evidence of the break.
He put the plate to rest in the cabinet with the others; he and Obi-Wan finished cleaning up the kitchen in companionable silence. Qui-Gon wanted to speak of what he had overheard, but resisted. He wasn't certain if it was the Force, or his own doubts whispering in the back of his mind. He opened his mouth to say something harmless, to break the silence, but Obi-Wan beat him to it.
“I met up with Master Vanalli before dinner, and let her wheedle me into taking one of the morning meditation watches for the Initiates,” he said, covering a yawn with one hand. Qui-Gon watched, and wondered at how Obi-Wan could manage even the simplest movements with such fluid elegance. “I should probably get some sleep. Tomorrow is going to be busy enough without waking at dawn.”
"You wake up at dawn, anyway,” Qui-Gon said.
Obi-Wan nodded, conceding the point. “But I don’t often subject myself to other people until I can be a civilized person.”
“True, and it's not every day you take on your first Padawan," Qui-Gon said, reaching out to tuck a strand of Obi-Wan's long hair back behind his ear.
Obi-Wan looked up at him, surprise touching his smile, and Qui-Gon's heart lurched in his chest. He swallowed, nervous. “Would you like some company when you take Anakin before the Council?”
Obi-Wan grinned. “You had better be there, Qui. Otherwise, I'll have the Council breathing down my neck for trying to force you into working with Anakin without your consent.”
Qui-Gon snorted, though it did indeed sound like something the more conservative minds on the Council might suggest. “I'll be there. Shall we meet for breakfast in the commissary, ninth hour?”
Obi-Wan shuddered. “I'll meet you there, but I believe I'll pass on the meal. I can cook, and at worst there are perfectly good ration bars in my quarters.”
Qui-Gon smiled. It was a long-standing joke between them, even though they had both eaten far worse things than commissary food out in the field. “A wise decision.” He caught himself as he moved to reach out to the young man again, and forced his fingers to stillness. “Good night then, Obi-Wan.”
Obi-Wan looked puzzled, as if sensing there might have been more to be said. “Good night, Qui. Sleep well.”
* * * *
Yoda was not very surprised to find Qui-Gon on his doorstep in the middle of the night. The ancient Master grunted in acknowledgement and waved Qui-Gon into the humid air of his quarters.
“Troubled, you are,” Yoda muttered as Qui-Gon knelt on the floor, a dazed look on his face. “A cushion, you should use,” he continued, noting that Qui-Gon had neglected to find one.
Qui-Gon obeyed, one hand reaching out to snag a sea-green feathered creation of a pillow, a gift given by one of the Initiates several cycles ago. “He loves me,” he said, expression still blank.
“Hmph. News to me, this is not.” When no other responses were forthcoming, Yoda settled into his chair. It was an overstuffed monstrosity with a foul appearance, but had a most comfortable squish, perfect for old bones. “Known for years how Obi-Wan feels about you, I have.”
“Oh.” Qui-Gon looked up at him, his expression bewildered. “Years?”
“Mmm. Told you, did he?” Yoda asked, hopeful. Behind schedule, they were.
Yoda's ears drooped. Stubborn, stubborn old Padawans! “Unexpected, that is. Unfortunate, also. Hmm. So then, Padawan of my Padawan: How come you to discover this love?”
Qui-Gon turned red. Startled, he must have been, to lose so much of a Jedi’s control. “I, er, happened to overhear them speaking in the kitchen. Anakin was very persistent.”
Yoda narrowed his eyes. “Ill-mannered some consider it, to listen in on the conversations of others! Encouraged this habit of yours, your Master should not have.”
Qui-Gon pulled himself together enough to offer Yoda a teasing smile. “But my Master swears it was a tactic taught to him by you. There is, after all, no one who knows the goings-on of the Temple more than Master Yoda.”
Yoda sighed, as if put-upon. “A clever tongue you have, Master Qui-Gon, one that you have used to the benefit of all many times. Nearly unmatched you are in the field, Master Qui-Gon, for your successes. Owe their lives to you, many do.”
Qui-Gon seemed surprised by the compliments; Yoda was glad for this, for he did not offer them often. “Thank you, Master. Though I don't know how it applies to—”
Yoda cut him off by waving his gimer stick in the air. “Hmph. Think for yourself, but not of yourself, hmm?”
Qui-Gon opened his mouth to speak, but changed his mind and remained silent, frowning. Yoda nodded, pleased.
“Better. Never too old to change are we, Master Qui-Gon. Apply your talents to your partnership, you should. Information you will gather, conclusions you will draw, things you will learn. Perhaps, oh most stubborn of my old crechelings,” Yoda chuckled, “new things you will even learn about yourself!”
“I...understand," Qui-Gon said, his brow furrowed.
“Lie to me, you never could,” Yoda pointed out, rapping Qui-Gon on the leg with his cane. Qui-Gon flinched but didn’t protest. “Understand you will, in due time.”
Yoda leaned forward, feeling ever so mischievous. “No bad thing it would be, to love your old Padawan, hmm?”
Qui-Gon leapt to his feet, and it was all Yoda could do not to chuckle. “I don't know,” Qui-Gon said, discomfited. “I need to go. I—thank you for speaking with me, Master Yoda.”
“A pleasure as always, Master Qui-Gon,” Yoda replied, watching as his guest hastily departed. Then he chuckled, feeling like the manipulative old troll his dear friends named him as. “A bet I want to win!”
* * * *
The next morning Qui-Gon overslept, cursed, and flew through his morning rituals. He wasn't sure why his internal clock had malfunctioned, and to make matters worse, he didn’t feel rested. His sleep had been broken by bits and fragments of disturbing dreams.
With the extra effort, Qui-Gon was only a few minutes late as he snatched his robe off the wall and left his quarters. Obi-Wan would likely offer him a warm smile, tease him for his tardiness, and then threaten him with the rubbery, greenish creations the commissary droids called fried eggs.
He checked his pace in front of the commissary when a young human, Qui-Gon's height but much broader, stepped up to him. “Master Jinn?”
“Padawan Muln,” Qui-Gon greeted him, his smile fading as he noticed the man's look of trepidation. “What is it, Garen?”
“I'm on my way to class, but I thought I should warn you.” Garen yanked on the sleeve of his coat, a nervous gesture that Micah was trying to cure him of. “It's Obi-Wan, Master Jinn. It's...well, you'll see for yourself soon enough. It's probably better that you aren't broadcasting shock when you see him.”
Qui-Gon resisted the urge to yank on the Padawan's coat himself, knowing that it was Garen's genuine concern over Obi-Wan that made him reticent. “What's wrong with my partner?” he asked, using bluntness to drive through Garen’s nerves.
Garen sighed. “The cycle's back.”
Qui-Gon closed his eyes, cursing under his breath. The cycle of nightmares Obi-Wan carried from his vision had been harsh, beginning just after his Knighting. Obi-Wan had gritted his teeth and accepted it as due course, which had horrified Qui-Gon at the time. The cycles had kept them Temple-bound three times a year, leaving Obi-Wan a grey-eyed wreck of a human being after each one.
Then, two years ago, the cycles had changed, coming at irregular intervals until ceasing completely. Obi-Wan had been hopeful that they would not return.
It was a hope that Qui-Gon shared, as the Temple Healers had been unable to help his partner. That strange block in Obi-Wan's mind was the culprit; not even the most gifted mind-healers among the Jedi could breach it.
The latest theory put forth was that the block would weaken with age. Obi-Wan had laughed at the Healer who had tried that approach.
“Thank you, Garen,” Qui-Gon said, steeling himself. At least now, he knew the source of his own discordant dreams. The pairbond between them was too strong for Qui-Gon to have felt nothing. “I appreciate the warning. How bad is it?”
Garen managed a weak smile. “Bad.”
Garen’s words, his expression, should have been enough to prepare Qui-Gon, but they weren’t. When he entered the commissary, he stopped short as he caught sight of Obi-Wan.
Gone was the bright-eyed young man who had graced his quarters the evening before. Obi-Wan was slumped at a table, his eyes dull and focused on nothing. There were dark rings under his eyes; his mouth was set in a harsh line. Despite iron-clad shields, it was easy to discern the aura of frustration and muted sadness that surrounded him.
The commissary was almost empty, since prime time for first meal was two hours previous. Some Temple personnel were milling about, enjoying the caff, which thickened to the consistency of motor oil when it sat in the warmers too long. The Jedi in evidence kept throwing Obi-Wan concerned glances that the man was oblivious to.
It had been a long time since a single night of the cycle was enough to leave Obi-Wan like this. Qui-Gon drew in a deep breath and went to his partner, his jaw clenched, feeling helpless in the face of something that could not be changed.
The younger man blinked a few times before looking up at him, his eyes empty and grey. “Hello, Qui-Gon.”
“Good morning, Obi-Wan,” Qui-Gon said, sitting down and leaning forward. “You should have comm’d me.”
Obi-Wan stared at him in silent confusion, as if the idea hadn’t even occurred to him. “Sorry.” He glanced away. “I thought they were gone. I should have known better.”
Qui-Gon couldn't stand it; he reached across the table and covered Obi-Wan's cold hands with his own. “How bad?”
“I woke up with my lightsaber in my hands.” Obi-Wan shrugged. “Bad enough.”
“I take it Master Vanalli handled morning meditations, then?” he asked.
“Yes,” Obi-Wan said, rubbing his face with his free hand. “I didn’t want to terrify the little ones.”
Obi-Wan fell silent, and Qui-Gon drew back his hands, uncertain of what to do. The only thing he knew to offer in this situation was the capacity to listen, but Obi-Wan could not tell him of dreams that he couldn’t remember.
When Anakin arrived a few minutes later, he had no such difficulties. He took one look at Obi-Wan and climbed into his new Master's lap, wrapping his small arms around Obi-Wan and laying his head down on Obi-Wan’s chest. “I'm sorry.”
Obi-Wan sighed, draping one arm around Anakin. “I know.” He dropped a kiss into Anakin's messy hair. “Don't worry about it, Ani. This too shall pass.”
“Like Bantha droppings,” Anakin muttered.
The non sequitur caught Obi-Wan’s attention. “Well, yes, but then you’re left with a mountain of sun-dried Bantha shite.”
“Exactly!” Anakin snorted. “You’re awful at platitudes, especially when you haven’t slept.”
“There you are!”
Qui-Gon glanced up to find Master Jil-Hyra standing over them, frowning, her hands planted on her hips. Master Zulis Faar had retired the previous year, and Jil-Hyra had been appointed Creche Master in her place. She had always seemed to be a caring woman, but Qui-Gon knew she had a reputation, and was said to be able to intimidate even the older Masters when it came to the young lives under her care.
“Initiate Skywalker, I've talked to you many times about running off like this,” Jil-Hyra said, giving Anakin a stern look.
Anakin frowned. “But Master Jil-Hyra, I had already asked for and received permission to meet Master Jinn and Knight Kenobi from Master Kuunhra!”
“That may be true, but neither of you obtained permission from me,” Jil-Hyra snapped.
Force, is everyone in a bad mood this morning? Qui-Gon wondered. He had dealt with Jil-Hyra before, but this irritation seemed out of place.
Obi-Wan made a face. You’ve no idea.
“Master Jinn has better things to do than watch after you when you run away from the creche!” Jil-Hyra was saying. “You're not special, you know!” Jil-Hyra turned to Qui-Gon. “Master Jinn, I'm terribly sorry. I've told him about this.”
“That's quite all right, Master Jil-Hyra,” Qui-Gon said, wondering at the way her gaze never seemed to include Obi-Wan. “Master Kenobi and I don't mind at all. Do we, Obi-Wan?”
Obi-Wan didn't even blink at the title, for all that it had yet to be confirmed by the Council. Tired or not, he could still maintain an impassive mask. “Of course not, Master Jil-Hyra.”
Jil-Hyra glanced at Obi-Wan, and Qui-Gon was surprised to see bright, baleful scorn in her eyes. It saddened him; yes, there were those in the Order who still believed Obi-Wan unworthy of his Knighthood, but no one aside from former Padawan Davrin had ever showed it in such a blatant, disrespectful manner.
The Creche Master turned her attention back to Qui-Gon, the picture of calm apology. “Again, I'm sorry, Master Jinn. Anakin, you're to return to the creche, immediately. You have lessons to attend to.”
“I'm afraid Anakin will only be returning to the creche to collect his things, Master Jil-Hyra,” Qui-Gon replied in a pleasant voice, despite his growing distaste for the entire conversation. Had Anakin been dealing with her obtuseness all this time?
Obi-Wan’s voice was laced with the steel Qui-Gon would hear during the harshest of situations. Has she been causing trouble for you and Anakin? he asked.
Attempting to, yes, Obi-Wan said. She's a bit nastier when I'm alone with her. Such a wonderful example of a Jedi. We should all display such merit.
Indeed, Qui-Gon said, trying not to wince at the bitter acid lacing Obi-Wan’s words.
Jil-Hyra was giving him a smile, and yet, Qui-Gon didn’t trust it. Her countenance seemed too bright, and that usually meant falsehood. “Is it true, Master Jinn? You are to take Anakin as your Padawan? That is thrilling news!”
“Indeed, it is thrilling to see Anakin become a Padawan Learner,” Qui-Gon agreed, smiling at Anakin. “But I will not be his Master.”
Jil-Hyra's smile faltered, vanishing when Anakin made a point of tightening his hold on Obi-Wan. “No. You cannot mean that Kenobi is to become Skywalker's Master!”
“I do mean it.” Qui-Gon pitched his voice low, well aware of the attention they were attracting. “He and Anakin will have one of the strongest Master-Padawan bonds the Order has ever seen.”
“Ridiculous!” Jil-Hyra scoffed, her voice carrying through the entire room. “No play-Knight will be teaching one of my students!”
There was a stir in the commissary, at that. The other Jedi present were glancing at Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, waiting; a brazen public insult was worthy of intervention, at the very least.
No, Obi-Wan grumbled, dismissing the implied concern with a quick, sharp turn of his head.
Jil-Hyra’s eyes darkened. “The Council will hear of this, Master Jinn!”
“Actually, the Council already has, Master Jil-Hyra,” Mace Windu said. Distracted as they all were by Jil-Hyra’s ire, Mace seemed to appear out of nowhere as he stepped up behind Obi-Wan and Anakin. “The official ceremony was to be later this morning, but the Council has already agreed that Initiate Skywalker is to be young Master Kenobi's Padawan.”
Jil-Hyra's eyes narrowed. “And if I cry Challenge, Master Windu?”
Then my partner will wipe the floor with you. Perhaps it was uncharitable of Qui-Gon, but the only Jedi in the Order who didn’t recognize Obi-Wan as one of the most-skilled duelists of the century were complete idiots. Even Mace raised an eyebrow at the question.
Under the table, Obi-Wan kicked him. Oh, fuck, shut up, I don’t want to fight her! It won’t matter after today anyway, Qui!
To their surprise, it was Anakin who stood up, glaring at Master Jil-Hyra. His shoulders were lowered, his jaw set, his eyes glittering. (Obi-Wan had once referred to the stance as the Infamous Skywalker Stubbornness.)
“Master Jil-Hyra, if you cry Challenge, it is I who will fight you for the right to be with my true Master, as the Force wills it,” Anakin said, the words low and measured, full of grim determination. “And I will defeat you.”
The back of Qui-Gon's neck prickled as stared at Anakin, and what he sensed confronting Jil-Hyra was no child, but a man grown. For a moment, he could almost see a tall, striking figure of a man in Anakin's place, willing to fight for what he believed was right.
Obi-Wan stood up to place a hand on Anakin's shoulder, and the sensation vanished. “Master Jil-Hyra, there is no need for this. Anakin will be fine, and has flourished under your astute tutelage.”
Jil-Hyra's anger seemed to evaporate. “You're right, Knight Kenobi. There is no need for this, and Anakin will be fine. Forgive me, Initiate Skywalker,” she said, bowing before Anakin. “Congratulations on your Choosing. I am sure you will bring great honor to the Order.”
Anakin bit his lip, but bowed in return. “Thank you, Master Jil-Hyra. You were an excellent teacher, and I am grateful for all I learned in the creche.”
Jil-Hyra nodded to the other Masters and turned away. Obi-Wan watched her go, and then slumped back down into his chair. “Phew. I'm glad she wasn't Creche Master when I was your age, Anakin.”
“How hard did you push?” Mace wanted to know, taking a chair and joining them at the table. “I didn’t even feel that.”
Qui-Gon sighed. “I can't believe you had to resort to Force suggestion.”
“I can’t believe it worked,” Obi-Wan said, shaking his head. “But I couldn’t think of anything else to do, not without things getting even more awkward than they already were.”
Qui-Gon rubbed the bridge of his nose, trying to ease the tension headache that wanted to bloom behind his eyes. “What were we thinking, appointing that woman Creche Master?”
Mace was shaking his head. “That’s twice in a decade we’ve made the wrong call. You would think a group of full-grown Jedi Masters would know who to put in charge of their children,” he said, sighing. “She is good at keeping order in the creche, but that's about all she's good at. The Council had already been considering reassignment, but that just cinched the decision for me.”
“The suggestion calmed her down, but it's not going to last long, Mace,” Obi-Wan said, massaging his temples. “She'll be up in arms again soon enough. She's been at this for months, but I'm not sure why.”
Mace nodded in understanding. “The Council will be publicly confirming your new Padawan's status, Obi-Wan, and after that it won’t matter. What do they say out in Corellia? ‘A day late and a credit short.’” He turned his attention to Anakin. “Congratulations on your apprenticeship, Padawan Skywalker.”
Anakin grinned at the other Master. “Thanks, Master Mace. I just never thought I might actually have to fight for it!” He paused. “I totally would have won, though.”
Mace nodded, his expression grave and solemn. “You totally would have,” he said, and dropped a slow wink.
Obi-Wan was fighting a smile. “Stop encouraging him. It’s bad manners to usurp someone’s Padawan before he’s even been Confirmed.”
Mace inclined his head in polite acknowledgement, but made no audible promises. Instead, he gazed at the doorway Jil-Hyra had vanished through. “It may have saved us a full-fledged public outburst, but it concerns me that you were able to subject Jil-Hyra to a Force suggestion in the first place.”
Qui-Gon considered it and frowned. Obi-Wan could deliver a Force suggestion with ease, without the slightest gesture or change in tone to betray his actions, but it was still a suggestion, a mental directive that could be resisted. Jil-Hyra, a Jedi Master of long standing, had not even sounded token resistance.
“The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded, Master Windu,” Obi-Wan said, and concern etched his features as he realized anew what had just been said.
“Something's wrong, I take it,” Qui-Gon said, feeling uneasy. The Force whispered to him of the truth of his statement, but little more than that; seeing the future was not his talent. Sometimes he wished that his Master had insisted a little more on developing that ability, despite Qui-Gon’s own reluctance.
“Mace, I have... a suggestion to make.” Obi-Wan placed his folded hands upon the tabletop and gave the senior Council member his full attention. “Will you hear it?”
“You have yet to steer anyone wrong, Obi-Wan,” Mace replied. “Speak.”
“The Council might wish to meet with certain individuals in the Order. Knights, Masters, Padawans, support staff; those in key positions,” Obi-Wan said. “Make sure everyone's shielding is optimal, that no one's slipping in that area. And if they are, help them repair it. Make sure…”
“Make sure of what?” Mace was frowning, one of his thunderous expressions that left student and teacher alike quaking. Obi-Wan wasn’t fazed, and Anakin was used to worse, since he had accepted private sparring lessons from the senior Councilor.
“That we're safe.” Obi-Wan pressed the heel of his hand against his forehead. “I don’t even know why I’m suggesting that. It’s just—it may be important, later.”
Mace gave Obi-Wan a sharp look. “Prescience, or vision?”
Obi-Wan considered the question. “Perhaps it’s both.”
Qui-Gon suppressed a shudder, noticing the fear in Anakin's eyes. We're not ready for this, he thought. Whatever danger they Saw, we're not ready, and we have to be. I don't know if I could handle another Xanatos.
Obi-Wan must have sensed where his thoughts had gone, and was shaking his head. “Xanatos was a child playing with matches, Qui. I'm more worried about a thermal detonator the size of a planet.”
Anakin’s eyes grew huge. “Did you mean that literally, or—?”
“Figuratively,” Obi-Wan insisted, looking grim. “Please, Force, figuratively. Come on. Let’s go grab your things from the creche before that little nudge wears off.”
“Great idea. See you for Confirmation, Master Qui-Gon!” Anakin said, and followed his new Master from the commissary.
Mace watched them go, his expression sobering. “Padawan Muln mentioned that those damn nightmares were back.”
Qui-Gon nodded. “They are. To my great displeasure.”
“Agreed.” Mace heaved out a long sigh, relaxing back in his chair. “The timing couldn’t have been better, though. Since Obi-Wan has just claimed young Anakin, I have a legitimate excuse to keep the pair of you grounded for the next few weeks.”
“What? No throwing Anakin out into the wilds of pirate-patrolled space?”
Mace gave him a toothy, predatory grin. “Old friend, if you had done as you were supposed to when Obi-Wan was young, there would have been no mission to Bandomeer.”
He narrowed his eyes at the younger man. “Am I to be reminded of that for the rest of my life, then?”
Mace laughed at him. “You should be so lucky.”
* * * *
“Anakin Skywalker, step forward.”
Anakin did so, not quite able to hide the smile on his face as he stood before the Jedi Council. He had not been in this room since his acceptance into the creche four years earlier, but he knew them, now. Master Mace was his teacher; Master Yoda his ally; Master Depa was his warm-hearted counselor; Master Adi was his mother’s friend; Master Plo Koon was Anakin’s fellow racing addict; Master Yaddle his tutor.
Despite his happiness, the memory of another, far less pleasant encounter with the Council surfaced. Anakin had not been much older than he was now, standing cowed before Jedi that wished to have nothing to do with him.
Anakin pushed that moment away. It wasn't like that anymore.
Obi-Wan placed a warm, comforting hand on his shoulder, and he glanced up to find his Master smiling down at him. No, it definitely wasn't like that anymore.
“Anakin Skywalker, you have resided in our halls for four years. Now, one steps forward to claim you as a student, to train you in the ways of the Jedi,” Mace intoned. “You know your rights, and understand that you may accept or decline. Choose wisely, and trust in the Force.” There was a glint of mischief in Master Windu's eyes. Anakin knew that they were both aware of what his answer would be.
“I know my rights, and I will willingly accept this one as my Master, if he should Choose to accept me.”
Ki-Adi Mundi spoke when Anakin voiced his assent. “Master Kuunhra, you are here in Master Jil-Hyra's absence. As a creche teaching master, do you believe Initiate Skywalker is ready to begin this journey?”
Kuunhra was a male Trandoshan that Anakin was inordinately fond of. He looked like an aged, scaly monster, but his Force presence always reminded Anakin of stars. “Indeed,” Kuunhra replied. “Initiate Skywalker has mastered all that we in the creche have to teach him. He is ready to move onto the path of the Jedi, though he will be missed.”
Anakin blinked away unexpected moisture. It was not as if he would never see his favored teacher again, or his friends in the creche, but he was going to miss everyone.
“Hmmm. Very well,” Yoda said, nodding his approval.
Obi-Wan rested both hands on Anakin's shoulders in the final part of the Ritual of Choosing. Anakin again fought to keep from smiling, feeling his body tingle all over. He had never had this, before. Obi-Wan had fought for him, then, but they had never gotten to stand before the full Council and claim it.
This was where things would change. This was the point of divergence, when all would be made new. They had both Chosen. Everything would be different now; Anakin could feel it, a hope that outshone all of the potential shadows awaiting them.
Obi-Wan's voice was strong and clear, warm as the twin suns Anakin had spent his childhood under. “I take Anakin Skywalker as my Padawan Learner.”