Coruscant: Republic Standard Date 5199, Fourth Month, 12th Day
Transcribed Audio Feed
“I take Anakin Skywalker as my Padawan Learner.”
I said those words today. I stood in front of the Council and claimed Anakin as my own, with Qui-Gon at my side.
I should be happy. I should be—after all, hasn't the Force granted my fondest wish? A second chance to do the right thing?
Of course, if someone had asked me years ago if I would wish for this, I don’t know what I would have said. I think my ultimate desire, towards the end of my time on Tatooine, might have involved fine brandy and a dreamless night’s sleep. Second chances were nothing but frivolous dreams that I couldn’t afford.
Still, the opportunity presented itself, and I took it. I would have been foolish not to! Instead of relief, I find that I'm holed up in my quarters. It’s hours after midnight, with the only illumination provided by the glow from ever-passing traffic, and from buildings whose electronic facades never dim.
I suppose you could say that I’m—what did Sal'kintar call it? Ah, yes: “Burning the midnight oil.” Quaint saying, but it was a quaint planet. It was our last mission, before the mud pit that was Kelin VI. We settled an agricultural dispute involving trade with three sectors out on the Rim. I enjoyed it, and asked Qui-Gon if we couldn't retire out there once this Jedi thing was over. He laughed; I don't think he realized I was serious.
I'm digressing, avoiding my own thoughts. I have to admit I've done it more often than I thought possible these past few months. Yoda keeps glaring at me. Probably suspects something of the sort, and is probably trying to decide when to hit me with that stick of his. Will have to find that recipe for Nauf'la cookies and give it to him before he gets nosey. Bribery has always worked very well on Master Yoda. Or at least, it will give me a few days leeway—and I can’t stop doing it. I’m talking to myself in the middle of the night, and still I’m dodging painful truths.
There it is, for posterity: Jedi Masters are flawed human beings.
I'm avoiding sleep. With the cycle going, I wouldn't be getting much rest, anyway. And I can't help but wonder: Is it a sign, perhaps, that the cycle of nightmares began the day I decided I was going to train Anakin?
My therapist says I'm not supposed to think negatively. ::Audio recorded a short burst of laughter::
I know what my friends would say. I know what Qui-Gon would say. It seems like anyone who has seen Ani and I interact believes that we have the strongest bond ever witnessed, and we still haven't even bothered to officially create a training bond! Or recreate it, as the case may be. They say it was meant to be.
Force and gods as my witness, I'm starting to hate that phrase!
::Audio picks up faint sounds and unintelligible words. No clear recording available.::
The truth is…I'm afraid. I'm afraid that I'll fail Anakin as badly as I did once before.
I can debate my “experience” with the best of the Temple's philosophers. Was it a vision? A past life that I needed to recall, and my mind simply translated it the best way it knew how? A gift from the Force, giving me my life back? I think Jocasta and I have argued about them all. She does not quite know what to make of me any longer. She’s not used to people younger than Dooku winning the argument. If you could call it winning.
I stood before the Council at the age of sixteen, certain that the entirety of my life was real. But with the passage of time, I find I am less confident. Things have been different—missions have been different. I expected this, but at the same time, those differences leave me struggling with my own doubts. At first, those changes made me happy, since I have actually done very little to alter some of the dire things that happened in the four years between my sixteenth and twentieth birthdays. Now, those changes just make me nervous.
There is a part of me that doesn’t want it to have been real.
Perhaps it was merely a vision, a dark representation of what might have happened if Anakin had been lost to us. A Force sensitive that powerful, growing up as an angry, embittered slave—yes, that could certainly have put a damper on things.
Regardless of its reality, I'm still sitting here in the dark, afraid that I'll do the same wrong things over again. I ask myself if Anakin wouldn't have been better off with another Master. One who could take that brilliance and mold it into the finest Jedi the Order has ever seen, without knowing any of the sordid details of his possible past. Anakin doesn't seem to remember much of it. Why weigh him down with the possibilities that I know of?
I have too many questions and know of too many possibilities, and I have no answers. I'm just a man burdened by a life he doesn't seem to have lived.
Anakin will finish moving into the smaller Padawan room of my quarters tomorrow. Before, I could offer him very little. This time he has friends to help him move, and two Masters that want only the best for him. I keep telling myself that that's what I need to focus on. I can't do anything about events that haven't happened. All I can do is try to make sure that they never happen.
Life would be so much simpler if I didn't think so damn much.
* * * *
The sharp rap on his door startled him, and only when Obi-Wan Kenobi lifted his head from the back of the couch did he realize he had fallen asleep at all. Bright light shining around the blinds told him he’d missed his typical dawn waking, and his mouth tasted like something had curled up and died in it.
The knock on his door was repeated before he could contemplate hiding. “Come in,” Obi-Wan said, giving up.
The door opened and closed; a moment later, a steaming cup of caff appeared under his nose. “Oh, gods bless your very existence,” Obi-Wan murmured, snatching the drink and taking a sip. There was enough sugar in the caff to class it as a dessert.
Garen Muln dropped down onto the couch next to him, smiling. “I can’t make tea for shit, so enjoy the caff. Sleep much?”
“A little. I spent most of the night talking to myself,” Obi-Wan admitted.
“And you wonder why we think you’re crazy,” Garen replied, giving him a gentle nudge. “You’ve got enough time for a shower and a change before Master Qui-Gon, your new Padawan, and a bunch of Initiates descend upon this place, by the way.”
“It’s almost eleven?” Obi-Wan blurted in shock.
“It is eleven,” Garen corrected, grinning at him. “Master Qui-Gon picked up on restful somnolence from your pairbond, and pushed the scheduling back a bit.”
“Restful?” Obi-Wan repeated, his system lighting up as the caffeine hit his bloodstream like a launched missile. That was why he liked tea, thank you very much. Tea was subtle. Caff was a sledgehammer attached to a parade horn.
“You don’t sound like that’s a good thing. I figured after what happened the other morning, restful would be good.” Garen neatly plucked the mug from Obi-Wan’s hands and took a sip; Obi-Wan glared at him and stole it back.
“Actually, I’m thinking of enlisting a babysitter.”
Garen made a face. “I elect it not be me. I’d love to help, but you need someone who can pin you down when you start hitting things.”
Obi-Wan rubbed at his face and resisted the urge to sigh. Sighing didn’t help. “Right! Shower for me, then, before the swarm of younglings shows up.”
Obi-Wan gave his friend a curious look. “Yeah?”
Garen’s expression sobered. “You’ve gotta do something about this, you know.”
Obi-Wan nodded. “Believe me, I know.”
* * * *
Jale Terza awoke to find her face pressed into the cushions of her couch. She sighed, stretching as she sat up. As she suspected, the soup she'd made for herself was sitting on her table, stone-cold. It wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened, and probably wouldn’t be the last, either.
Her wrist-chrono told her she'd slept only seven hours. She stripped it off, rubbing at the red impressions left on her arm from trapping it between her body and the cushions too long. “Not bad after a twenty-hour shift,” she mumbled, before using her forgotten tea, cold but not unpleasant, to rinse her mouth.
She threw out her congealed dinner and went for a shower, dressing in civilian togs after tossing her tunics down the laundry chute. Tunics were all well and good, but she enjoyed her rare days off—not that she ever stopped working. She had stepped into the role of a workaholic too long ago to quit now.
She grinned at her reflection in the ’fresher mirror after combing out her long red hair, amused that she still stopped to consider such things as her waistline. She was only two years shy of her fifth decade, but repairing Jedi had kept her fit and trim, despite her lax physical training.
When she’d eaten at last, and enjoyed a solid hour of uninterrupted meditation, Terza turned her attention to the medical folder she’d brought home early that morning.
Once upon a time, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s medical file had been stored with the others in her office, just another bit of data that she kept on-hand to keep track of the hundreds of Padawans she considered her charges. Then, four years ago, a visibly distraught Master had carried his unconscious Padawan into her Ward, and everything changed. The folder had come out of the cabinet, to be quickly filled with physical copies of every bit of Temple medical history there was to be had on Kenobi, Obi-Wan. It had remained on her desk ever since, one of the very few files that never made the return trek back into her office cabinet.
At first, it had been mere curiosity. A case like the young Padawan’s had not crossed her path before, and research into the Temple Archives told her there was nothing quite like it in the Order’s history. Comas, mental injuries affecting the physical body, visions that incapacitated the victim—Terza could find mention of each of those. No file in the Archives spoke of those things happening all at the same time, to the same patient, with such unprecedented results.
Six months after bringing Anakin Skywalker to the Temple, Obi-Wan had darkened her office doorway once more, offering her tea with a shy smile. His foreknowledge of her had unnerved Terza, but she had buried it under professional curiosity that quickly passed into personal warmth. Obi-Wan was easy to like, with his wry sense of humor and quiet manner. He was not hard on the eyes, either, even then.
She had transcribed the entire visit later, to keep accurate notes, but it had proven superfluous. She had never forgotten anything he told her.
Obi-Wan sat down in one of her office chairs while Terza uttered happy sounds over the mug. The boy made her tea-making efforts seem amateurish. “Glad you like it,” he said.
Terza nodded, trying not to inhale it all at once. Ten hours into a shift that should have been a mere eight hours meant that his gift couldn’t have been better timed. “Thank you, yes.”
She gave him a quick, appraising look, intrigued by the changes even a mere six months had granted. His dark hair was much lighter, revealing more of the red and copper only hinted at before. Obi-Wan and his Master (partner, she corrected herself) must have spent significant time in the sun recently, for his pale skin had tanned. It made him seem older, especially when paired with the personality shining in those bright, intelligent eyes—eyes which were red-rimmed and marked by restless nights.
His hands were folded in his lap; she glanced down just in time to see him attempting to conceal a nervous twitch. “What brings you to see me, Obi-Wan?” Terza asked, thinking she already knew part of the answer.
“I’m having…trouble sleeping,” he said.
Terza nodded. “I’ve got plenty of time until they need me again, Knight Kenobi.”
“Obi-Wan,” he corrected, smiling.
She couldn’t help smiling back at him. “Very well, Obi-Wan. Why don’t you tell me about it?”
And he had. About the nightmares that he could never remember, the cycle they occurred on, and how he didn't dare sleep sometimes until he was sure it was over. Obi-Wan had suffered through one cycle of nightmares already, when they had brought young Anakin back to the Temple. This, it seemed, was cycle number two for the year.
“Why didn't you tell me when this first happened?” she'd asked, trying not to voice her frustration.
Obi-Wan had the grace to flush at the gentle rebuke. “I don’t know how you feel about my…my experience,” he’d said, choosing his words with care. “But when I dealt with these nightmares before, I didn’t have to worry about anyone on a day-to-day basis but myself. If an entire week passed and I didn’t sleep, it hurt no one but me. Now, it’s different. I am needed, and often. I am depended upon—my partner depends on me. I have to be able to do my job.”
Obi-Wan had leaned forward, an intent look on his face. “I must be able to do my duty, and until this happened again, I hadn’t yet realized how difficult it would be. I need to find the cause of these nightmares. They have to end.” His mouth had quirked up in an endearing, self-deprecating smile. “I doubt the Council would be happy about tendering leave on a regular basis because of a little insomnia.”
She’d refrained from remarking that the Council would probably bend over backwards and invert gravity for Obi-Wan, if he asked, no matter the reason. The Council was quite entranced by his and young Skywalker’s midichlorian counts, to the point where Terza had been driven to distraction trying to keep nosey Councilors out of her hair.
In the four years since that first discussion, they had accomplished little. Well, aside from the time three Healers had almost killed Obi-Wan before anyone had realized that their attempts at breaking the mental block in his head were having disastrous results. Terza didn’t consider that an accomplishment. She’d shipped one of those Healers to a permanent station in the Outer Rim afterwards.
Despite that fiasco, something had affected the block. In two years, there had been almost no cycle to speak of, and Terza had tentatively considered the problem to be solved.
Then, three days ago, Obi-Wan had shown up in the Ward again, with his now-typical offering of tea.
If Qui-Gon hadn’t told her already of the cycle’s return, she would have known the instant she saw him. He already looked like death warmed over. “I have a Padawan, Terza,” Obi-Wan said, his mouth set in a grim line. “Break it.”
“And what if we break you?” Terza had snapped in response, not in the mood to be lulled by tea. She had not been overjoyed to learn that the damnable block was up to its old tricks again.
“Well, I’d prefer we didn’t break me,” he’d replied, his familiar, wry smile making an appearance. “But this is getting ridiculous.”
Terza hated feeling helpless. She hated feeling inept, and that damned block had tried her patience long enough. She didn’t want to see the day when exhaustion landed one, two, or all three members of the new team of Masters and young Padawan in her Ward.
She chewed on the end of her stylus until the cap was shredded, then put it and the file back down on the table. “Voice identify Master Healer Jale Terza, recognition code Ay-One-Zith-Four-One-Zith.”
:Acknowledged. Proceed, Healer Terza.:
“Journal Entry, Classified Status. File: Knight Kenobi, Obi-Wan. Galactic Standard Date Fourth Month, Fifteenth Day.” She picked up her abandoned wrist chrono. “Ninth hour.”
“For four years now, I’ve worked with Knight Kenobi on trying to remove a Jedi-created memory block. After an unexpected two-year lull in the cycle of nightmares the block creates, that cycle has returned. If appearances are anything to go by, it’s worse than before. Or perhaps he is unused to the intensity,” she added, thinking it was a distinct possibility.
“Were it not for some physical and mental results created by our prodding, I’d wonder if the block was designed to be opened at all. I’ve had my patient work with every mind healer I’ve had the authority to call in, with little to show for it. Knight Kenobi has shown urgent willingness to begin pushing for the situation to be resolved once more.
“I have one pair of healers left to try, and they’re a rare set. I’ll have to badger the Council into calling them in, but I think it may be a worthwhile effort. Su’um-Va and Ra’um-Ve are new in the field, Healer graduates from the Corellian Temple, but in the past three years alone they’ve racked up an astonishing number of satisfactorily resolved cases.
“Huh. All I should have to do is mention that Obi-Wan or Anakin’s health is at stake, and I should be able to plow straight through the stubborn gits. I bet the troll would make a fantastic striking ball.”
She grinned and shook her head. “Computer, delete those last two sentences from the file and then end recording.”
:Acknowledged. File 230057, Classified Entry, now complete.:
* * * *
Master Healer Jale Terza’s request has been discussed and meditated on by the full Council. It was argued that removing the two requested Healers from their fieldwork would possibly do more harm than good. Su'um-Va and Ra'um-Ve are in high demand, and there are still many that need their services.
It was mentioned that when the twins finish their current assignment, they were due for rest days, and unless someone tied them down and made sure of it, they would never sleep. A Master who will remain nameless motioned that an official entry should go into the Council logs that all Healers are insane. Motion did not carry, though not without some dispute about the nature of Healers and Duty.
It was then argued that the sooner the Healers arrived, the sooner Knight Kenobi's particular difficulty could be dealt with once and for all, and the sooner that Healer Terza would stop pestering them. While that idea appealed to all, others still cautioned that the needs of the many must be considered above the needs of the few. For some reason, this elicited an outbreak of theory and discussion on the prophecy of the Chosen One, what roles Obi-Wan and Anakin might play, and an argument on the merits and demerits of prophecies thousands of years old.
Those in the group with significantly higher intelligence recognized that the entire argument was worthless until Master Tahl and her Padawan returned from Ossus, and wisely remained silent.
When all considerations were weighed and measured, the Council finally agreed the time had come for Su'um-Va and Ra'um-Ve to visit Coruscant.
Mace Windu looked up from the datapad and glared at the Master seated across from him. “This is how you summarized tonight’s meeting?”
Micah Giett grinned. “I said nothing that was not true.”
Mace sighed. “I’d forgotten the necessity of strict definition sets for your job assignments. I can’t file this!”
Micah shrugged. “You’re the Head of the Order. You could file a report that said nothing but ‘Flaming Kowakian monkey-lizard arses’ and a thousand years from now it would stir a debate about what sort of classified mission you were referencing.”
“I’m not certain what disturbs me more: The fact that you’re thinking about flaming monkey asses, or that I think you’re right.”
Micah laughed and stood up, shrugging back into his robe. “That’s nothing. You should see some of the reports Yoda filed when he got bored.”
* * * *
Tahl made a noise that was meant to encourage further words, but didn’t stop running her fingers along the brittle parchment laid out on the table. Furthermore? Furthermost? Compost? She gritted her teeth and tried again.
“Er, does the Council know that we’ve left Ossus? Or that we went to Ithor? And that we’re on Arkania?” Bant asked.
Tahl stopped what she was doing, turning her head partway towards the sound of Bant’s rough breathing. Poor dear—the dry air of this particular library wasn’t good for her Padawan in the slightest.
“Why do you ask?”
“Well,” and there was some amusement in Bant Eerin’s voice, “our credit line hasn’t updated. We may have to float home.”
Tahl started swearing and didn’t stop until someone three rows away attempted to hush her. It didn’t work very well; Tahl was too busy repackaging the damaged scroll in its environmentally controlled box to worry about shushings of any sort. “I’ve just made a decision. From now on, you’re in charge of updating the Council on our whereabouts. I, apparently, cannot be trusted to comm home, comm my spouse, or remember to eat,” she finished, when her stomach created an alarming gurgle.
Bant laughed. “Yes, Master. We can contact them after I make sure you eat. Dinner has already been arranged.”
“You know, I’m supposed to take care of you, not the other way around,” Tahl attempted to grumble.
“It works both ways, Master,” Bant said, the warmth in her voice telling Tahl that her Padawan was smiling, in good humor. “Shall I arrange for our return to the library tomorrow?”
“Don't bother,” Tahl said, shaking her head as she sealed up the scroll’s box. The pneumatic hiss told her that everything had sealed and pressurized correctly, but at this point it wouldn’t do much good. It had been difficult to read the impressions in the paper, and Tahl was half-certain that her translations were useless. The ink was too far gone to be viewed by Bant; unless the machines could pull the remains of the ancient script, more of Master At’Ka’Thon’s writings would be lost. Perhaps if it had been scanned one hundred years ago…
“We're done here, Padawan. It’s time to go home.”
“I didn’t think we’d found everything you wanted to, Master,” Bant said, helping Tahl to re-pack all of her scattered notes.
Tahl sighed. Defeat tasted sour in her mouth. “We didn’t.”
* * * *
Obi-Wan Kenobi opened his eyes to darkness, and wondered what had awoken him. He remained in bed, quieted his breathing, and listened for anything out of place.
Rain. He glanced at the small window and watched as beads of water trickled down the transparisteel barrier. The occasional passing air car threw beams of light through the water, creating an orange symphony of reflected light. For all the time that had passed since the event that had altered his life, Obi-Wan couldn’t train himself out of the habit of listening for water.
Obi-Wan was tempted to sink down further into bed and ignore every responsibility he had until morning. The soft sheets were an indulgence he figured he had earned, while the quilt had been a gift from Bant. He smiled; Bant’s occasional gifts seemed much like pointed nursemaiding, but he could appreciate a warm blanket, regardless.
Rain also prompted wakefulness. He sighed, got up, and dressed in the dark.
Out in the main room, clear signs of habitation were evident. There were parts scattered over the table in the common room, standing out in stark contrast against the coral the table was made from. That one had been another gift from Bant. Obi-Wan had smiled and thanked her for it, though later Qui-Gon had summed up what he thought about the table in one word: Atrocious.
He stepped into his Padawan’s room. Anakin’s bedroom looked the most lived-in of them all, even after a bare month’s occupation. There were items everywhere, with just enough organization to make things presentable.
It’s such a charming mix, too, Obi-Wan thought, touching the plant that hung in front of the window. Anakin had inherited the valeris plant, along with his new Padawan title, challenged with the task of keeping the stubborn plant alive and healthy.
There was a collection of mouse droids sitting on the floor beneath the plant. They all belonged to the Temple, and Anakin was their unofficial mechanic. Almost every mouse droid the Order employed had been tinkered with by Anakin for some reason or another, and the tiny machines were fiercely loyal.
One shelf held only a single item, a holo of their shared family. Shmi Skywalker stood next to Cliegg Lars, with Owen sitting on the ground in front of them with an easy smile on his small, round face. Obi-Wan stared at them, thinking that two years was too long to go between visits. They were due on Coruscant at the end of the year, and Obi-Wan made a mental note to make sure the Council knew that he and Anakin were to be home for the visit. He had neglected his family once before, and it would never happen again.
Obi-Wan turned his attention to the bed, and realized that Anakin was awake, sitting up and looking at him. “Ani?”
“I woke up and couldn’t fall back asleep,” Anakin explained in a soft voice, glancing over at the water that was now streaming down the windows.
“I guess I’m suffering from the same problem,” Obi-Wan replied, sitting down on Anakin’s bed. Anakin picked up a corner of his own quilt—a gift from his mother—and draped it over Obi-Wan’s bare shoulders. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Anakin said, a thoughtful look on his shadowed features. “Do you think something’s wrong?”
Obi-Wan started to say no, and then sighed. “I don’t know. I’m no wiser than you are, Padawan.”
Anakin giggled, a bright, cheerful sound at odds with the dark silence of early morning. “I wish,” he said. “You’d be more sympathetic when I bomb my tests.”
“I had to struggle through the coursework same as you, once upon a time,” Obi-Wan retorted, tugging on Anakin’s small Padawan braid. It was an eerie moment; he thought for certain they must have had a conversation much like this one, long before. “You’ll muddle through it as well.”
“Yeah, I know,” Anakin grumbled. “I just don’t like the history we’re doing right now. Most of the stuff they make us read is dryer than Tatooine dust.”
“Ah, but you have to learn it,” Obi-Wan said with a smile. “After all, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
A peal of thunder broke the early morning silence, and they both glanced at the window, startled.
* * * *
“I'm starting to feel like a gangster,” Micah Giett said, watching as Mace Windu activated the unit that would shield the room from prying minds.
“Starting to?” Qui-Gon shook his head, palming the privacy switch for the windows when Mace glanced his way in silent request. The filters turned the glass smoke-colored, blocking out external light. “I've felt that way since this whole mess started.”
“We should put that feeling to work, then,” Micah said, thoughtful. “Make it lucrative. You know, try our hand at some gambling, some smuggling...”
“All you need is a patch and you'd look the part,” Qui-Gon agreed, sitting on the floor next to Yoda's chair. He glanced around, taking a mental tally of those Mace had invited to this, one of their more unusual clandestine meetings. The full Council was present, minus Master Yaddle, who had left two weeks ago to conduct research with Jocasta Nu at a new portion of the old Library that was being excavated on Ossus.
He, Micah, and Tahl were the usual additions. Tonight they were joined by Bant, Tahl's Padawan, along with Shaak Ti and Quinlan Vos, two younger Jedi Knights who had long since proven their worth—as well as their ability to keep secrets. With Quinlan was his own new Padawan, a blue-skinned Twi'lek named Aayla Secura. Bant looked much more comfortable at her Master's side than poor Aayla did. If it had not been un-Jedi-like to hide behind her Master, the girl probably would have done so.
Micah glared at Qui-Gon, and then patted the brace on his right leg. “Don't pay any attention to him, love. He doesn't know what he's blathering about.”
Adi Gallia, who had given up her chair for Micah and now sat on the floor next to Tahl, rolled her eyes. “Tahl, be a dear and get your mate tested for senility.”
Tahl grinned as Micah sputtered indignantly. “I already have. He keeps confounding the Healers by passing their tests every time.”
“Terza likes me,” Micah whispered to Qui-Gon and Yoda. “Those tests could tell the Healers I was a gibbering maniac and she'd still say I was fine.”
Qui-Gon couldn't resist the comment. “You are a gibbering maniac,” he whispered back.
Micah sat back in his chair, a miffed look on his face. “See what happens when you resign from the Council, Master Yoda? No one respects you anymore.”
Yoda, who had long grown used to Master Giett's inanities, merely smiled. “A meeting we will conduct, and then dinner we will eat. A long day it has been.”
Mace sat down, relieved that Yoda had simply and quickly brought order to their meeting. “All right, then. Computer, voice identity Mace Windu, Jedi Master, authorization code Zeta-Zeta-Three-One-Zero-Two-Three.”
:Acknowledged. Proceed, Master Windu.:
“Terminate audio and visual recordings for the Council Chamber until I give the order to recommence.”
:Acknowledged. Recording for Archives terminated until further notice.:
“Whoa, whoa,” Eeth Koth sat upright in surprise. “Since when are we not recording these sessions?”
“Since Adi and I began our investigation into Jil-Hyra's control of the Creche,” Mace said, grim-faced. “After what I've seen, a bit of paranoia can't hurt.”
“I thought that you and Knight Kenobi were going to look into the situation, originally?” Eeth asked, a hint of annoyance on his face.
“Obi-Wan requested that he be left out of it. He feels that his presence in any investigation, even an informal one, would be seen as a conflict of interest. Since he also has a new Padawan, I agreed with him, and requested that Adi join me.”
“Force Bless it,” Depa Billaba said, the exhaustion visible on her face quickly giving way to concern. Qui-Gon understood that she had only returned that morning from an extended mission on her home planet, and duty had called before rest. “How bad is it, Master?”
“The damage is not bad, but it’s not good, either.” The scowl on Mace’s face became more pronounced, and they could all sense his sudden anger. “Dammit, after what happened before, you’d think we’d know better!”
“Caught with our pants down again?” Micah scratched at the bristly hair on his chin. “We're not infallible, Mace. You know that.”
Shaak Ti was sitting cross-legged on the floor across from Qui-Gon, one of her lekku idly wrapped around her left hand. “I was given to understand that the situation in the creche was fine when Jil-Hyra first took the position, last year. During my last teaching rotation at that time, I saw nothing out of the ordinary. What exactly has changed?”
Adi sighed, looking tired. “We have indications that she’s been directing the children in her charge in the wrong direction. Half of the Initiates in the advanced classes, the ones designed for the children we know will become Padawans—believe that they’re going to wind up in the various Corps.”
“Considering that most of these children gained entrance to the advanced classes due to their firm beliefs that they are meant to be Jedi—well,” Mace was shaking his head in irritation. “There are a lot of younglings in the creche who are doubting their own worth. Someone has been discouraging them, and Jil-Hyra has the charge of most of those classes. A few Initiates, when questioned by Adi, even admitted that Jil-Hyra has spoken to them of their failings, but most of the students are terrified that bad-mouthing a Master will diminish their chances even further.”
“Oh, what a mess,” Depa murmured, her dark eyes filled with sympathy. “But there’s more, isn’t there?”
Adi and Mace glanced at each other, both wearing near-identical expressions of regret. “Something we should have caught long before now. As you all know, the Creche Master has the authorization to override teaching and Corps designations for every Initiate.”
Qui-Gon felt himself grow pale; he was not the only one to do so. “She didn’t,” Depa whispered.
Mace nodded, while Adi explained. “She did. I didn’t catch it at first, but upon more careful review of the records, I noticed that there were…discrepancies. This was confirmed when at least four Initiates for the week’s Choosing Ceremony were missing when their Masters went to claim them.”
“Shit,” Micah swore aloud. “What the actual fuck, Mace?”
Mace shook his head, aggrieved. “Micah, that’s why we’re here. This will not be allowed to stand.”
“Those are, unfortunately, the only obvious cases. Shaak Ti, we would like you to continue to review the creche records with Master Allak,” Adi said.
“I thought Allak had retired?” Tahl asked. “He’s got to be pushing a hundred and sixty Standard by now.”
“He did, twenty years ago,” Adi confirmed. “But we needed someone neutral who is already familiar with the creche. We don’t know if any of the other Masters were colluding with Jil-Hyra.”
Eeth winced. “Oh, let’s not go into that just yet. Let’s finish talking about our missing Initiates, first. One massive headache at a time, if you please.”
“This entire situation is a massive headache,” Even Piell said with a scowl.
Quinlan had been absorbing the conversation with an intent look on his face. “Padawan, you were still in the creche when Jil-Hyra was granted the title of Creche Master. Did you notice anything amiss? Hear any rumors? Was anyone reassigned that shouldn’t have been?”
Aayla Secura glanced around with nervous eyes, found nothing but encouragement, and finally nodded. “I did, Master. It wasn't much, really. Maybe I got out before it went really bad. When that attitude, that recitation of my failings, was directed at me?” She ducked her head and shrugged, her entire being screaming awkward unease. “I suppose I thought it was part of our training. You know, carrying on in spite of being told that it isn't meant for you. Persistence, I guess.”
Quinlan smiled and tugged on Aayla’s right lekku, the one bound with the colored strips of leather denoting her Padawan status. “And I’m so very glad you refused to quit.”
“Was there anything else, Padawan Secura?” Mace asked, his voice far more gentle than his norm.
Aayla thought about it in silence for a moment before shaking her head. “I don’t recall anything worse, Masters, but I’ve been gone from the creche for six months. Perhaps the disappearances did not start until after that?”
“Unfortunately not,” Bant spoke up, her silvery eyes half-closed in visible frustration. “I filed a complaint about the disappearance I know of, but it seems I complained to the wrong person.”
“You filed with the Creche Master,” Tahl said, and closed her eyes in realization. “Sweet Force, no wonder nothing ever came of it.”
“Please explain, Padawan Eerin,” Adi said, crossing her arms and giving the Mon Calamarian her full attention.
“I have a friend named Oppona. I was her tutor originally, but when the need for it ended, we remained close. Five months ago, she was sent to the AgriCorps. Oppona was certain that she was meant to be sent home if she wasn’t Chosen by a Master, since she was needed to help with the corals. She can speak to them really well, being Quarren as well as Jedi-trained; anyone who can convince the corals to respond in the way we want them to is direly needed on my homeworld right now. Instead, though, she was assigned to the AgriCorps. When she voiced her concerns, Master Jil-Hyra insisted it was for the best.”
“Oh, blessed—” Mace pinched the bridge of his nose. “Does she need a way home, Padawan?”
“No,” Bant shook her head, smiling a little. “I heard from her recently; she’d been in contact with her parents, who bought out her contract in the Corps to get her home. The last I knew, she was working in the South Sea.”
Tahl started typing on her datapad, fingers flying over the notched keypad. “Yes, I’m noting that we need to reimburse the family,” she said, when Adi opened her mouth to comment. “This is ridiculous.”
“That makes five,” Yarael Poof said. He was sitting in almost complete stillness, a very unusual sight. “I must dare to say I think there will be more.”
“She’s lucky,” Micah said, chewing the end of his thumb until Tahl smacked him on the arm.
Mace leaned back in his chair, brow furrowed. “Yes, and she might be the only lucky one. Jil-Hyra took on many of Zulis Far’s duties even before Far’s official retirement, which gives us at least eighteen months of ground to cover. No Masters have come to us seeking missing apprentices, but perhaps they felt that if the child was Corps-bound, it would not have been a productive apprenticeship, anyway.” He hit the arm of his chair with a fist, making Aayla jump. “It burns me to realize we got rid of one bad Clan Master, only to replace her with something much worse.”
“We knew Zulis Far’s appointment was going to be a temporary solution, and when Jil-Hyra took so many of the duties onto herself, we looked upon it as a relief,” Eeth said, shaking his head. “All of us, Mace, not just you. It’s not your fault any more than it is ours.”
“If only Zulis hadn’t been so close to retirement already, but her health has been poor for years.” Adi sighed. “And at least Brins Elka wasn't intentionally cruel. The woman just firmly believed that every single one of the Initiates in her charge would become a Jedi Knight.”
Oppo Rancisis blew out a breath that stirred the massive beard he sported. “Yet ultimately, that did much harm, Master Gallia. We noticed this damage when she had only taught one generation of the Froxin Clan. Three in her charge had the strength to be Jedi Knights; the others would have made excellent healers, pilots, mechanics, farmers, support staff...and some have done so. Others were too bitter to take on the duties they were originally meant for. It is fortunate for the Order that bitterness, and the loss of valuable personnel, was the only result of her care.”
Adi nodded. “I know, Master Oppo. Brins told her charges so many times that they were to be Knights that the let-down was too great. Some of the children understood, when we explained it to them, that Master Elka had done them a disservice. But the others...despite the training our children receive, they are still children. They have hopes, fears, and doubts that sometimes all the Jedi training in the world can't alleviate.”
“Fortunately, Master Elka still believes we did her a favor by taking the Froxin Clan away from her. She found a Padawan less than a week later, and they're a wonderful team,” Depa pointed out. “If I remember correctly, they’re to conduct a review of the new Caamasi colony next week.”
Saesee Tiin, who of late rarely spoke at all, tilted his head to one side. “Kenobi was one of Master Elka's students, wasn't he?”
“Yes,” Qui-Gon replied. He’d almost forgotten that detail; the way their lives had changed four years ago, certain aspects of Obi-Wan's childhood and training had faded into the far corners of memory. “Though as I understand it, he was one of the three.”
“Even with that knowledge, you still almost managed to make one of the gravest mistakes of your life,” Tahl said with blunt honesty. She had forgiven him for his mistreatment of Obi-Wan and the entire Melida/Daan situation, but she had no plans on ever letting him forget it.
He nodded in quiet agreement, unashamed to admit that it was true. “He was still damaged by Elka’s insistence, I think,” Qui-Gon said. “Obi-Wan understood well enough that I was supposed to be his teacher—even then he trusted the Force more than most of us ever learned to.” If there was a note of pride in his voice, it couldn’t be helped. Obi-Wan’s strength in the Force was as true as Qui-Gon’s own past, stubborn idiocies. “But his ability to trust in others was impaired. I doubt Melida/Daan would have happened in quite the same way, otherwise.”
Yoda seemed surprised. “See your point, I do. But damaged, you were also, Master Qui-Gon. Trusted little, you did, and dark were your thoughts. A burden, the mark of Xanatos had been.”
He didn’t know he was going to say the words until suddenly, he did. “I loved him,” Qui-Gon said, the first time he had ever admitted such a thing out loud. It was easier to admit, now, with the passage of years and the ease of the weight of guilt. His second Padawan had been a mischievous little spirit clothed in pale skin and ebony hair. Xanatos had been a joy to teach, a joy to be with—until the mischievousness ever in his soul and eyes had become Darkness.
Easy to love, harder to let go of, even when the twisted creature bearing his Padawan’s face had tried to kill him.
“Damn, Qui-Gon. Here we thought we had our maverick pegged, and then you bring that out of the closet.” Micah was shaking his head. “I need a drink.”
“The past is past, or however the saying goes,” Mace said, trying to get things back on track. Qui-Gon gave him a grateful look; there was only so much dwelling on that point in his life that he could handle.
Adi spoke next. “We're going to wind up with a whole slew of Xanatos look-alikes unless we put some extra effort and time in with our Initiates. Obi-Wan has already taken charge of the advanced lightsaber classes until we can find a replacement teaching Master, and I’m thinking about asking you, Mic.”
“Advanced Lightsaber Techniques?” Micah looked thoughtful. “A.L.T. would be a nice occupation for me when Tahl’s out with Bant. As long as I could count on some of you to help with demonstrations,” he paused as several of those present immediately volunteered. “Then I’ll do it. It’d be damn difficult for me to teach A.L.T. when I can’t do half of that shit myself anymore.”
“Language, Mic,” Tahl nudged him, though she was more amused than annoyed.
“Is that a good idea?” Even Piell asked. “This Temple has three of the greatest duelists of all time housed within its walls, and two of them are sitting in this room.”
Mace and Qui-Gon shared a glance, both of them shrugging. Neither considered himself to be the best example of lightsaber dueling, even with Mace’s mastery of the vapaad, and Qui-Gon the only Master in the Temple who could occasionally defeat Obi-Wan in an open spar.
Piell snorted at their lack of enthusiasm. “The children might see Obi-Wan's techniques and believe that they're beyond help. Force knows I can’t keep up with that man.”
“If you'd seen Obi-Wan work with the crechelings, that idea would fade quickly,” Ki-Adi Mundi said with a grin. “They practically flock to the man.”
“Of course they do,” Tahl said with an amused laugh. “He bribes them with sweets.”
“And what better way to earn a place in a child's heart?” Micah asked. “Hell, I'd step up to the mat and perform advanced maneuvers from the Seventh Kata if I thought I could get free food out of it.”
There was quiet laughter as Tahl pretended to note that information on her datapad. “We'll get you to converting the rest of the katas yet, love,” she said, smiling at her mate.
“Challenge accepted.” Micah had shocked his primary Healer by converting the First Form for his own use. It was difficult and demanding, but the former Combat Master had successfully finished the Form and added it to the Archives for those with injuries similar to his own.
“Those concerns aside, Obi-Wan is the best choice until Micah is ready to take over,” Mace continued. “Many of the Initiates in A.L.T. are fast approaching the cut-off point for being taken as Padawans, and I think he may be able to start correcting Jil-Hyra's damage, possibly even direct a few Masters in their direction. To lose the older children in that group would be a terrible waste.”
“I agree,” Plo Koon said. “I trust your judgment for the A.L.T., Mace, but the hand-to-hand classes have as much potential for damage control. As I’m between Padawans and pilot trainees at the moment, I’d like to spend time with those Initiates. Master Dubarab is competent, but we all know he’s overworked, what with our current Combat Master on permanent disability.”
“I would like to retire from the duty, you know that,” Micah said, looking frustrated. “There just aren’t candidates for the position. The job needs a broad range of skills, and those who have those talents are either dedicated to field missions, or frankly, just don’t want to do it. And you already said no, Plo, so you don’t get to complain.”
Plo chuckled through his mask. “Perhaps it’s because none of us wish to see you retired. You would become lazy and fat.”
“Before Micah steals his mate’s datapad and throws it at you—Plo, thank you for volunteering. I was not sure who to ask,” Mace said. “Qui-Gon, in Padawan Skywalker’s absence, will you please tell the others what he related to you about his last year in the creche? I’d like to get the last of the Padawan-witnessed reports out of the way before we continue.”
Qui-Gon half-smiled. “Well, I’m sure the gossip mill will have informed you all by now about the confrontation in the commissary that Jil-Hyra instigated.”
“Luminara Unduli witnessed it,” Adi interjected, for the benefit of the others. “She told me that Jil-Hyra seemed angry, thwarted even, by young Anakin’s new apprenticeship. She said she couldn’t understand why—anyone with half a brain and a gram of sensitivity can tell that Obi-Wan and Anakin share a close connection.”
Qui-Gon nodded his agreement. “It was the first I’d seen of it, but Anakin says that Jil-Hyra’s attitude towards him had been strange for months. He said that she was also subjecting Obi-Wan to ill treatment, but Obi-Wan refused to let it become an issue, as it was nothing to complain about.”
“Nothing to complain about, my ass,” Micah muttered. “That boy wouldn’t complain even if he were set on fire.”
“Anakin says that there would be times that Jil-Hyra praised his abilities and his future as a Jedi Knight; others, he would be told that his mechanical aptitude would serve him well in the Corps. At first, he didn’t notice Jil-Hyra mentioning these things to anyone but himself, and took it much as you did, Aayla,” Qui-Gon said, glancing at the shy Twi’lek Padawan. “A challenge to be met with persistence and faith in the Force.
“However, he also says that it is something he witnessed Jil-Hyra saying to many of the other students, with increasing frequency. Initiate Saini was also one of her targets, but some of you know how pragmatic she can be.”
“She’s yet another one that you could set on fire and not expect to hear a word of complaint from,” Depa said with a smile.
Adi smiled in rueful agreement. “Anakin is willing to make his account official, Qui-Gon?” When he nodded, she glanced at Mace. “That’s three complaints, my friend.”
Mace glanced around the circle at the assembled Councilors, each of whom nodded in turn. “Then Jil-Hyra is suspended from her duties as Creche Master, pending the conclusion to our investigation.”
“What shall be done with Jil-Hyra in the meantime?” Tahl asked, curious.
“She's free to do as she wishes, so long as she stays away from the Creche,” Mace said, and waved one hand in the air in frustration when there was a rumble of protest. “No, I don't like it either, but we still have to follow our own laws as well as those of the Republic. Legally she's done nothing wrong. In any court of law, Lofla Jil-Hyra could argue that she was merely exercising her own judgment to accomplish the task that we assigned her, and that would be the end of it.
“But,” he continued, with a quick, harsh smile, “If she wishes to remain a Jedi of the Order, Jil-Hyra is not to perform any service until she receives a full psychological exam from the Healers, with at least three members of the Council present to witness it.”
“Now that, I can agree to,” Depa said, looking approvingly upon her former Master.
Yoda had been listening while resting his chin on the top of his gimer stick. He lifted his head, a peaceful look on his face. “More time in the crèche, I wish to have. Instructor, I have always been, but do more, I wish to. Spending too much time in this Chamber, I am. Now open, the position of Creche Master is?” he asked, glancing at Mace to confirm what had already all but been declared.
“It is now,” Mace said. “Considering it, are you?”
“Mm.” Yoda nodded in agreement.
“You’re really thinking about it?” Eeth asked with a frown. “You are the Master most in demand, inside the Temple and out. Would you have the time to devote to it?”
Yoda turned his head and glared at the other Master. “Plenty of time, we all have. Consumed by trivial matters, we each allow ourselves to be. Too much of our attention, the Senate earns, and too little do we devote to our own. Bad, this is. Bad for the Jedi. Intentional, could it also be?” He added the last as a question, but it was clear to Qui-Gon that it was something Yoda had already considered.
It was obvious that Eeth Koth, however, had not. He sat back, his frown becoming more thoughtful. “Could it be?”
“He would be the first to call himself paranoid, but Obi-Wan thinks that this might be intentional,” Mace said, gaining everyone’s attention. “He suggested that we may wish to interview key support staff, and went so far as to mention optimal shielding.”
Those gathered in the Council Chamber shared a moment of tense silence. Most of them were aware that Obi-Wan had gone through something hellish; Qui-Gon could see the concern in more than one face that this might be a precursor to that dire event Obi-Wan was refusing to speak of.
It is the fourth year, after all, Qui-Gon thought, chilled. Whatever it was, it will be soon. He was not looking forward to finding out what had left his partner struggling with that thrice-bedamned cycle of nightmares.
“We shall talk to the Clan Masters, all of them,” Saesee declared. “If our Clan Masters are the Jedi we believe them to be, they will tell us if anything is wrong.”
“Shouldn't they have done that already?” Micah shook his head. “I mean, we know these people. Some of us are young enough that we still have teachers in the creche. They should have told us about this shit.”
Depa, who had been regarding them all with a thoughtful look on her face, said, “Maybe they've been trying to. Maybe we haven't been listening.” She ignored the faint sounds of refusal and kept speaking. “Master Yoda has already said it—we’ve let ourselves become consumed by other matters, and pay no attention to our own. It doesn't even matter if it's intentional, or if we're being manipulated by outside sources. We're still guilty of compliance. This is still our mess. We will fix it, and then we will seek out what may or may not be.”
“I suspect more of you will find your way down to the creche in the coming weeks,” Shaak Ti said with a smile. Qui-Gon suspected that every Councilor would be abandoning the tower as long as duty would permit. They all understood, implicitly, that the Initiates represented the future of the Jedi Order.
It had been too long since Qui-Gon had visited the creche, himself. Perhaps it was time to resurrect the old habit.
“Let’s table that matter until we know more,” Mace said, and was met with a general air of agreement. “Next order of business.”
“Oh, Force, there’s more?” Aayla squeaked, and then blushed violet when everyone looked at her. She ducked her head and mumbled, “Sorry.”
Quinlan grinned. “That’s okay. If you hadn’t said it, I was about to.”
“Behave, both of you,” Adi said with a faint smirk. “It’s important, and you’ll want to hear this. Tahl?”
Tahl let her gaze drift around the room, a habit that could not be broken. “Some of you know, some of you don’t, but I suppose this is the meeting that makes it official. Master Yoda and Master Windu gave me leave to study the Prophecy of the Chosen One a few years ago.”
“Heavy reading, Master Tahl.” Quinlan whistled. His attention had indeed been captured, though his Padawan just looked confused.
Tahl smiled. “The interest was based on suspicions the Council and others have that the One the prophecy speaks of may already be among us.”
Shaak Ti looked up in surprise. “You mean the boy. Padawan Skywalker.”
“No,” Ki-Adi disagreed. “Kenobi.”
“Whoa. That’s enough of that,” Tahl said, holding up her hands to cut off an argument before it could begin. “We’re not here to begin that particular discussion. You lot can debate it amongst yourselves until your heads fall off, but not before I’m finished.”
Ki-Adi and Shaak Ti subsided, and Qui-Gon hid his own grin as Tahl glared, satisfied there was silence. “Now, then: It may fuel your discussions later, but part of my interest in the prophecy came from a poem that Obi-Wan wrote when he was finishing off his educational requirements after his Knighting. The entire tone screamed a warning to me, and after sharing it with Master Yoda, he agreed with me. If you’re interested in the poem itself, it is in the Archives at Master Kita-Tai’s insistence.”
“If Knight Kenobi managed to impress him, then I’m impressed,” Aayla muttered, an awed look on her face. Kita-Tai was the bane of the Padawans for his strict, demanding course, and his complete willingness to fail anyone who he felt did not live up to his exacting standards. The fact that many beings were not equipped to be poets had never occurred to the bone-thin Master.
Tahl smiled in Aayla’s direction before continuing. “There were also thoughts raised by our other resident expert on the Prophecy of the Chosen One,” Tahl said, tilting her head in Qui-Gon’s direction. “He happened to create the current course-work on the subject.”
“So what made you think prophecy, anyway?” Quinlan asked. There was a look of intense concentration on his face. Given his friendship with Obi-Wan, it was possible Quinlan was gaining answers to many questions he’d never quite dared to ask.
“Anakin’s midichlorian count when he came to the Temple was twenty-three thousand,” Qui-Gon said, which made Aayla’s eyes grow huge.
“Great singing gods,” Shaak Ti whispered. “That’s impossible.”
“Nothing is impossible,” Even Piell countered. “Just highly improbable.”
“How is it we’ve never heard anything about this?” Quinlan wanted to know, the frown line between his eyes deepening.
“Because Obi-Wan asked us, for Anakin’s sake, to keep it quiet,” Bant answered him, giving him a stern look. “And we will.”
Quinlan held up his hands. “I will, that’s no problem. My next question, then…”
“Twelve point five before his Knighting, twenty-two thousand after,” Qui-Gon answered him. “And he doesn’t know.”
Quinlan looked astonished. “Twenty-two—Force, people! How the hell do you keep something like that a secret? More importantly, why? Doesn’t he deserve to know?”
“Honestly, the man has enough to stress about,” Tahl said, before Qui-Gon could reply in his own defense. “I don’t think throwing a prophecy on his head is the way to make him relax, especially when he already knows that his Padawan is a candidate for the prophecy’s focus, too.”
“Okay. Okay.” Quinlan rubbed his face with his hands. “Master Qui-Gon, please continue. I’d like to know more.”
“Unfortunately, there is not much more that I can add. Tahl has discovered that my knowledge is incomplete,” Qui-Gon said. “When I performed the initial research on the Prophecy, I only went back a few hundred years. Not the brightest approach, but it was the thesis of the Padawan I once was, and he was not the most intelligent of creatures. For the purpose it serves, the coursework is fine as it stands, but we needed to know more.”
Tahl nodded. “Nice for our students to know, but mostly irrelevant for the lives they plan to lead. I’ve been digging for almost four years now, and what I can tell you is both interesting and frustrating. Please bear with me; I need to recount some history first.
“Most of us know and understand that the Temple on Coruscant has been here for several thousand years, but what many do not remember is that it only began serving as the central Temple just one thousand years ago, after the conclusion of the last Sith War,” Tahl said. “That was when the Sith were exterminated during the final battle on Ruusan. This is also when the Jedi became more closely involved with the Republic Senate, as it was believed at the time that if the Order had worked more closely with the galactic government, the Sith incursions would have been dealt with much sooner, and war would have been avoided.”
“Doubtful,” Micah said.
Tahl raised an eyebrow but otherwise ignored him. “This is also when the Prophecy of the Chosen One, already thousands of years old, became common knowledge in the Order. The prophecy has been taught with the standard Jedi curriculum for the last seven hundred years, at Master Yoda’s insistence when he attained his Mastery.”
Yoda raised one ear in acknowledgement. “Important, I knew it would be.”
“The problem lies in the fact that the meaning and form of the prophecy had already changed dramatically from the original writing,” Tahl said. “We’ve always learned it in Basic, but I’ve been able to uncover that the original prophecy was written in Gaelanor. And if you know anything about Gaelanor…”’
Qui-Gon closed his eyes, rubbing the bridge of his nose with two fingers. “The Gaelanor definition of numbers is more theoretical than mathematical. Damn.”
Tahl smiled. “Yes. When a Gaelanor refers to one, it's only a vague possibility that he means one in number. But one is also their method for denoting a speaker. And, if you bring math into it, one is typically used to mean three.”
“Oh, yes. I remember that. The triangle fetish,” Eeth said, folding his hands together. “They use triangles in just about everything. Clothing, housing—their religious symbols all incorporate triangles in some manner. It's supposed to be based on their belief that only three working as one can do anything of true importance.” He paused. “Now that I'm thinking about it, I think Gaelanor marriages work that way, too. The sex of the three ultimately doesn't matter, just as long as there are three.”
Adi grinned. “Do they ever get anything done?”
Eeth shrugged. “I’ve no idea. Seems like if I had two mates to worry about, I'd never have time to breathe. One mate is enough work!”
“Well worth it, though.” Tahl glanced up at Micah, a warm smile on her face, before she turned her attention back to the group. “With the prophecy also came the One Master, One Padawan addition to the Jedi Code. It’s interesting how specific they get in the old records—a Padawan may have many Masters, but never should a Master have more than one Padawan.”
“Huh? Why?” Aayla asked, curiosity overriding shyness.
“From the war, the idea came,” Yoda explained, giving Aayla a pleased look. “Many Masters were there, and many students, they each had. Lost students to the Dark Side, these Masters did. Blame was cast; Sith preyed upon the groups, sensing weakness in the Master-Padawan bonds.”
Qui-Gon studied the ancient Master, knowing there was much he was not saying. “How many were known to Fall?”
Tahl closed her eyes, consulting her own internal databank of memory. “Five are mentioned specifically.”
“More than ten, there could not have been,” Yoda admitted. “Though blame was cast upon the groups, unknown, it is, if the Fallen Jedi were taught that way.”
“The records make a big deal of it, and try to give the impression that the problem was greater than it actually was,” Tahl said. “Only five names are ever mentioned, that I recall. Still, it’s an injunction that has stuck with us.”
Qui-Gon snorted in complete disbelief. “You mean to tell me that the Rule of One was established because five apprentices, out of tens of thousands of Jedi, fell to the Dark Side?”
Mace looked uncomfortable. “Qui-Gon, you know the logic makes sense. If two people are working closely together, they are more attuned to each other’s needs than one teacher working with many students.”
“Oh, really? Like it worked with Xanatos?” Qui-Gon recognized his own anger and calmed himself. “Tell me, and be honest: How many of you really believed that Xan would fail his Trials?”
Yoda sighed. “A good Master, Xanatos had. Made his own decisions, he did. Lies with Xanatos, the blame does, for his own path did he walk, his own choices did he make. If trained in a group, still those decisions Xanatos might have made. Little difference enough will those recriminations make, my friend.”
Qui-Gon breathed out the rest of his frustration. “You’re right. But I still find myself asking if those Masters made the right decision a thousand years ago. We know that our numbers are not even half of what they once were. We lose many children that would be Knights, if only more teachers were available. Is it right to see that potential lost, for such a trite reason?” He thought of how he had almost left Obi-Wan to the Corps, and the complete waste that would have been. “Are we really better off this way?”
Yoda tilted his head to one side. “As Master Windu says: Maybe, maybe not. A discussion for another time, that is. Changes it would bring!” Yoda cackled in obvious delight. Qui-Gon glanced at him in surprise; he hadn’t expected to find an ally in Yoda for this particular subject.
Then again, Yoda had always loved a challenge. “Continue, please, Master Tahl,” Yoda invited.
“I’ve been attempting to find the original prophecy,” Tahl said. “But I don’t believe the original document still exists. If it’s not in our Archives, then likely it was destroyed during the cataclysm on Ossus. However, Master Abhin Sal-Tur is the name most associated with the prophecy. He was a survivor of that era’s Great Sith War, and well-known for his precognitive abilities. He was also Gaelanori, which makes him the most likely candidate to have authored the prophecy. I had hoped that finding further records of his writings would lead me to a copy of the prophecy written in its original Gaelanor.”
“I take it that hasn’t been the case,” Adi ventured.
“Like a speeder crashing into a wall,” Tahl said in frustration. “The damn trail just ends. I haven’t found any records of the prophecy even being mentioned prior to the last war.”
Micah leaned forward so that he could rest his hands on her shoulders. “It’s going to be another trip out into the wilds of the galaxy then, love?”
“Yes, but I’ll wait until the issues with the creche are straightened out. The more I consider the matter, the more I think that we’ll need all hands for a few months. I’m horrible with babies,” Tahl admitted, “but there are plenty of book lovers among the older Initiates.”
Quinlan cleared his throat. “Just to make certain, it seems to me that you want those of us in this room to be aware of the prophecy, aware of its possible targets, and…what, alert for big, dramatic changes?”
“Honestly, that about sums it up,” Adi said with a smile. “You and Shaak Ti see the subtle, the quiet, the things that can creep up on us if we’re too busy staring at the picture as a whole.”
Quinlan nodded. “Good to know.”
“And no midichlorian bitching,” Micah added. “Let’s keep that bit under wraps, hmm?”
Quinlan blew out a long sigh. “Sure. I don’t think I could handle that conversation, anyway.”
“Before this gets out of hand, I declare this meeting adjourned,” Mace said. “Go home, people. You’ll be kept informed of everything spoken about this evening.”
* * * *
Anakin wobbled the tiniest bit when Obi-Wan's voice sliced through the air. Lightsaber extended, one foot half-raised, and his other arm crooked into the air behind him, he held himself completely still.
“Now then,” Obi-Wan said, and Anakin's eyes tracked him as he walked past. “Can any of you tell me what Padawan Skywalker did wrong?”
The line of Initiates present shuffled their feet, some glancing around with curious faces to see if anyone was brave enough to venture forth an answer. Obi-Wan waited patiently, a little half-smile on his face that his usual students both liked and loathed. To the children Obi-Wan had taught in the past, that smile meant they were going to learn something interesting, or fun—or they were about to discover a new level of masochism in their instructor. The Initiates in this particular group, however, were unfamiliar with Obi-Wan Kenobi, and their experiences with their last instructor had left them cautious.
“Well, Sia'me? How about you?”
Sia'me, a Twi'lek male with dark red skin, paled to a dull pink in dismay at being singled out. “Uhm...”
His partner in line, an older Wookiee girl, elbowed him with a muted growl. Sia'me straightened up and cleared his throat. “I didn't notice anything wrong, Master Kenobi,” he said, his voice rising above its usual mumble.
“You didn't? Hmm.” Obi-Wan glanced at Anakin, who raised an eyebrow at him in response. “Anyone else have any thoughts?”
The Wookiee who had elbowed Sia'me looked hesitant before growling out an answer. [He didn't do anything wrong, did he, Master Kenobi?]
Sia'me whispered a translation of the Wookiee girl’s words for the two Initiates in the group who didn't understand Shyriiwook, and then, almost as one body, every child in the classroom visibly hunched, bracing themselves for an outburst.
Up until a week ago, Master Jil-Hyra had taught their class. Obi-Wan sighed, remembering what Anakin had told him. Wrong answers had been punished, usually with garbage detail. Correct answers had not fared much better. A group of talented Initiates turned into quiet little wraiths, Obi-Wan thought, working hard to repress his irritation. It was hard enough to train to be a Jedi. Jil-Hyra had taken an already challenging existence and made it so much worse.
Let it go, Obi-Wan ordered himself, finding his center again with the barest moment's concentration. He had other things to worry about right now. He had a small class full of talented Initiates, all of them old enough to be Padawans, some dangerously close to the cut-off age for their individual species.
They might fear Obi-Wan, at least for now, but they had no fear of Anakin. Soon enough, they would have the chance to observe his interactions with his own Padawan, and hopefully realize that there was nothing to worry about. Jil-Hyra was not coming back.
He turned back to the group and noticed that the Wookiee, Raallandirr, had practically shrunk into herself. Of course, I'm going to make things worse if I keep woolgathering, Obi-Wan berated himself.
He crouched down in front of the Wookiee girl, admiring her black and silver pelt before he spoke her in language. [Raallandirr. That's quite a tongue-twister. Do you go by a shorter name?]
Whoa, Master, Anakin said, as seven Initiates went wide-eyed in shock. If they were scared of you before, now you've just blown away the entire lot!
I'd rather have surprise than terror any day, Padawan, Obi-Wan replied.
Raallandirr blinked, her gray eyes almost dazed in surprise at discovering a human that willingly spoke Shyriiwook. [Uh—it’s Rillian, Master Kenobi. Most of the smaller ones can't say Raallandirr, so everyone just started calling me Rillian.]
“Well, Rillian, your answer was correct: Padawan Skywalker didn't do a thing wrong.” Obi-Wan paused, certain that he had everyone's attention. Curiosity. So much better. I was starting to feel like an ogre. Anakin laughed at him through their training bond, which had re-established itself so strongly that they were able to speak to each other with ease, already.
“So, if Anakin wasn't doing anything wrong, why would I stop him mid-kata to question all of you?”
The youngest and smallest of the group, a nimble Zabrak boy, held up his hand with a shy smile. “To make us think? About the kata?”
“Exactly,” Obi-Wan said, smiling back at him. “Most of you were paying more attention to me than you were to Ani, and that's bad. You're allowed your curiosity about the infamous Knight Kenobi,” he said teasingly, and managed to elicit a round of hesitant smiles. “But it's important to learn this kata. Once you get to the Fifth, it becomes a basis for every kata you learn thereafter. Learning the Fifth incorrectly will trip you up for the rest of your life.”
“But he's already so good at it,” Sia'me complained, and then shut his mouth with an audible snap. When the Twi’lek boy realized that Obi-Wan was waiting for him to continue, he piped up again. “Well, he is, and I'm older than Ani. I don't think I could be that good.”
“Wait'll I hit my first growth spurt,” Anakin mumbled, still holding the kata position. “I'll try to do the Fifth and fall on my head.”
Rillian, her sensitive ears hearing what others did not, laughed. [When you do, make sure to let us know. I want to see the great Padawan Skywalker go down.]
Anakin looked miffed. “Sure I'll tell you. When we're all as old as Master Yoda.” Master, please let me go back to starting position. Cramp!
One moment more, Obi-Wan replied, applauding the fact that Anakin had yet to budge. His control was superb, though his Padawan was correct—puberty would certainly knock his skill level down a few notches. “Move back to first position, Anakin, and wait a moment.”
“Phew,” Anakin said, returning to the kata’s open-handed beginning position.
“Anakin may be very good at the Fifth, but he’s been working with Master Windu in his spare time. Master Windu is far more demanding than I am.” Which was not quite true, but it wasn’t a lie, either. Obi-Wan was just particular in different ways, but the Initiates in this class weren’t yet ready to hear about those distinctions.
“Wow,” the little Zabrak said, and Obi-Wan finally placed his name. Tuuvino. “Ani, you are a freak,” he said, but his voice was full of admiration. “Isn't Master Windu kind of a grouch?”
“Nah. Not really. We get along pretty well since we discovered we both like Huttese vocabulary,” Anakin explained.
Obi-Wan sighed. So that's what you two look so secretive about all the time. You must be the one who taught him Naga'nathee pum t'ow.
Anakin’s gaze was full of the projected innocence of the guilty.
“Soon, you will all be good at the Fifth. You just need practice. Believe me, none of you would be in Advanced if the Combat Master thought you unable to learn.
“Now, I want you all to watch Anakin again. Feel the Force, watch how it guides his movements.” Obi-Wan stepped back and signaled for Anakin to begin again.
This time the results were much more satisfying. Seven pairs of eyes were riveted to Anakin—
No, check that, he thought. Six pairs of eyes were watching Anakin. The seventh pair, the clear gray eyes that belonged to Rillian the Wookiee, were not focusing directly on Anakin at all.
Obi-Wan thought about reprimanding her, and then hesitated as the Force informed him of what Rillian was doing. She was watching Anakin solely with the Force, cataloging movements and timing with near-flawless instinct. The more he observed her, the more intrigued Obi-Wan became. Rillian already understood that trying to mime Anakin’s movements would be a futile exercise. She would always be taller, her arms so much longer.
When Anakin ended his kata with the final flying leap and slash, coming to rest on one knee with his lightsaber thrust out to his right side, Rillian knew the Fifth. It would take time for her body to learn the dance, but her knowledge of it was complete.
Obi-Wan stared at her while Anakin chatted with the Initiates who had grown brave enough to ask him questions. He continued the lesson on autopilot, instructing the younglings to partner up and work on the Fifth together. The Initiates would perform the Fifth for their partners, receive feedback and criticism, and then try it again for Obi-Wan to gain further pointers. Rillian and Anakin, he noticed, paired up without needing to say a word to each other.
He shook his head and settled down on a bench to watch, all the time wondering: Why hasn't anyone taken this girl as a Padawan?
He watched Tuuvino perform the Fifth kata, the last student of the day. Obi-Wan gave him his instructions for areas of the Fifth to concentrate on and sent him off to tumble around on the mats with the other Initiates.
Obi-Wan turned his head as the pair-bond began to nudge him, informing him of Qui-Gon’s presence, and found his partner approaching with Micah in tow. Both of the men looked out of sorts, possibly due to the meeting they had been called to attend. Obi-Wan was glad to miss it; this class was as close as he wanted to get to the Jil-Hyra situation. He didn’t think his temper could stand it, otherwise.
Anakin saw who was coming towards the group, and a wide smile bloomed on his face. Instead of the exuberant greetings he traditionally subjected Qui-Gon to, Anakin settled for a decorous bow and quiet greeting. “Master Qui-Gon, Master Giett,” he said, saluting the former Council member with his lightsaber. Micah grinned and returned the salute bare-handed.
Very restrained, Ani, Obi-Wan commented, amused.
Anakin grinned at Obi-Wan. I figured you'd skin me if I tackled them to the ground.
Possibly. Though you would have appalled the Initiates. Skywalker topples Council member!
Yeah, that would have made me real popular, Anakin replied, his delighted laugh echoing in Obi-Wan's mind.
The Initiates formed a line to either side of Anakin, bowing and greeting the new arrivals with varying levels of either shyness and or excitement. Micah was a popular figure among the younglings, but Obi-Wan suspected that much of their enthusiasm came from the fact that Master Jinn had no Padawan.
Tuuvino had become the least shy member of the class, and he wasted no time in making a request. “Master Qui-Gon, Ani says that you and Master Obi-Wan are working on Combat Master Giett’s Eleventh Form. Will you show us? Please?”
A chorus of “Show us!” and “Please!” followed on the heels of Tuuvino's question.
Qui-Gon glanced at Anakin in surprise. “You told them, Ani?”
“Yes Master.” Anakin looked not the least bit cowed. Obi-Wan sighed; he’d wanted that foolery kept under wraps. It was hard to learn Micah’s twisted creation and not look like complete imbeciles granted lightsabers for the first time.
In the end he and Qui-Gon succumbed to the request, though in truth the battle was over before it began. Too many wide-eyed, adoring Initiates—neither of them could say no.
Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon paced themselves through the Eleventh twice over for the entranced Initiates. Micah watched them both with a sour look on his face, and when it was done told them they had botched the entire thing, and the next time they sparred together, he was going to be there to make sure it was done right.
“Lay on the threats, why don't you!” Obi-Wan laughed, shutting down his lightsaber. The Initiates, contrary to their state of fear two hours previous, were now crowding around them, awed and chattering away. Anakin’s little trick had been brilliant.
I will definitely remember that you know how to be sneaky, Padawan, Obi-Wan sent back.
Qui-Gon touched his shoulder and spoke to him over the uproar. We've been assigned a mission. We're scheduled to leave in ten days, and Mace estimates our timetable as a week gone, with a two-day return trip.
Blast it all, I just got through to them! Obi-Wan sent back, frustrated. Then his gaze drifted over to Micah, who was regaling some of the Initiates with the tale of how he’d earned his leg brace. They asked Micah to take over?
Yes. Considering how busy we’re about to become, what with our first mission cycle with Anakin beginning, I thought you wouldn’t mind handing the class over to him, Qui-Gon said.
Obi-Wan nodded in relief. Micah would be able to take up right where he left off, with no harm done. I think it’s a good choice. I know he’s hated being a Combat Master with no students.
He cleared his throat and called for his class’s attention again. The children turned back to him, bright-eyed and eager for their lesson to continue. Obi-Wan looked at them all and then nearly bit his tongue in half as a darker, bloodier image flashed before his mind’s eye—other children, still and silent in the halls of a burning Temple.
Obi-Wan forced the memory away, hoping that the flash of recollection didn’t catch Anakin or Qui-Gon’s attention. He felt ill as it was. “I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news, and some good news,” Obi-Wan told the Initiates, relieved that he saw only curiosity, that no faces fell in disappointment. “The bad news: I’m only going to be your instructor for another week, and then you’ll have a new teacher. I know this is disruptive, but Master Qui-Gon, Anakin, and myself are needed out in the field.
“The good news is that Master Giett will be your new instructor when I leave.”
“We're going on a mission!? YES!” Anakin's cry of excitement was drowned out by the Initiates, all yelling at once, “We're getting the Combat Master!”
* * * *
“Well, this is it.” Obi-Wan sat back in the pilot's chair as their small shuttle dropped out of hyperspace. “Roinall V. I hope.”
Qui-Gon leaned forward, resting his arm across the back of Obi-Wan's chair to peer out the viewport. “Pretty,” he commented, taking in the blue-green world below them. It didn’t seem to have much of a population, and there was no space traffic to be seen. “The coordinates are correct, Anakin?”
Anakin was frowning at the navigational computer, a system that the new Padawan had been in disagreement with since the shuttle was loaned to them a few days before. “Well, it's the right planet, at least, Master Qui-Gon,” he said, scratching at his nose with his left hand as his right hand flew along the keypad. Green text scrolled, highlighting his small face in strange patterns of light. “No,” he muttered, “Stupid computer. I don't want to establish a landing pattern. I want you to—Argh!” That last was much louder, and Anakin stood up from his chair and left the cockpit with a final glare at the nav-comp.
“Getting a datapad,” Obi-Wan explained, with a smile at Anakin's behavior. “I think we're going to be calculating our synchronous orbit manually.”
Qui-Gon nodded and unbuckled his restraints, half-standing in the cramped cabin. “We always manage to receive the smallest ships,” he said. He took two steps forward and dropped into Anakin's abandoned co-pilot's chair before he could brain himself on the console that jutted down from the ceiling. “I feel like I'm traveling with Yoda.”
Obi-Wan laughed, switching the viewscreen to a grid overlay that would allow them to map the planet’s topography. “Let’s give this a go. We can at least attempt to find the coordinates we were given. Anakin will be able to figure out a trajectory for the shuttle from there.”
Qui-Gon nodded, and they set to work, though Obi-Wan was better at it than he was. Mathematics and mapping had never been high on his list of skills growing up, but anyone who traveled often in space learned the hard way that both were necessary evils. Sometime after his Knighting, before his first Padawan, the point had been drilled into Qui-Gon’s brain when his ship’s entire navigation system had blinked out with a pop of abused electronics. He’d had one hyperspace jump left to return to civilization, and no computer to calculate it. After a solid week, floating alone in space and running low on supplies, Qui-Gon had gotten his messy calculations together enough to feel comfortable testing them.
His first manually plotted hyperspace jump had seen him materialize just to one side of an inhabited moon. Qui-Gon had taken care in the years since to become more proficient, and had made certain that his Padawans all learned the skill.
“There,” Obi-Wan said. On screen, he enlarged their target coordinates, revealing a forested area, and not much else. “That’s our landing point.”
“That does not look promising,” Qui-Gon said, and magnified the image further. They could see what looked like a bog, complete with large, flying wildlife. “Maybe the transmission was flawed?” They were supposed to meet a group of people for the tentative first stages of Republic admission…but there didn’t seem to be a populace available to make the negotiations.
“There were no gaps in the data feed. Perhaps the natives are hiding? Wouldn’t be the first time,” Obi-Wan said. “We’ll land there, anyway. Our contact may have further instructions once we arrive. What was that name again?”
“Ars Welve. Interesting name.”
“Easy to remember,” Anakin said, returning with a datapad. “Sort of, I mean. You had to hide this thing in the bottom of your bag, didn't you, Master?”
Obi-Wan shrugged, watching as Qui-Gon stood to allow Anakin his own seat back. “Unintentionally, I assure you, Padawan.”
Anakin smiled and sat down, buckling his restraints. The ingrained habits of pilots, Qui-Gon mused with a smile. “Sure, Master. You've got a match on the coordinates?”
Obi-Wan pointed to the screen, where the new numbers flashed. Anakin's eyes widened in dismay. “Oops. Sorry, Masters. I'll look first next time.” Then he bent his head to the datapad, and both men were amused to see him scowl at the tiny machine almost as much as he had been glaring at the nav-comp. “Okay, we're close already, based on our trajectory when we came out of hyperspace,” Anakin said after only a few moments. “Bearing seven zero one.”
Obi-Wan glanced down at the computer, then nudged the controls, letting the ship fall into a slow dive. “Just a bit spatially north and down, then.”
“Yeah. You know, you could have done this manually and not waited for me to crunch numbers,” Anakin said, staring wistfully at the shuttle’s controls, which were still too far out of his reach.
Qui-Gon knew that Anakin had been looking forward to flying on this mission, his first chance with a real ship since passing all of the simulations in the Temple. He had been less than happy to see that the ship was designed for someone with much longer arms and legs. The boy couldn’t reach any of the flight controls without standing in front of the console. We'll have to arrange for a real ship sometime, he sent to Anakin.
Anakin craned his head back to look at him, grinning. “Corellian?”
Qui-Gon raised his eyebrows. “I'm only a Jedi Master, Anakin. I don't think I could talk the Temple out of a Corellian ship with my reputation.”
“We'll just have to use mine, then,” Obi-Wan said, slowing the ship’s descent as they hit sub-orbital. “And yes, we could have done it manually, Ani, but then you wouldn’t get to practice.”
“I appreciate the chance to practice, Master,” Anakin said in a dry voice.
“Mm-hmm,” Obi-Wan replied, a smirk on his face. Qui-Gon was baffled; there was something to the exchange that he had just missed completely, and suspected it was some addition to a long-standing conversation that had yet to be.
Anakin toggled the grid off, revealing Roinall V’s lush greenery. “Getting weather readouts, now. Looks like we’re just in time for the rainy season,” he said, perking up. “Wizard!”
Obi-Wan smiled. “Desert brat,” he said, and Anakin nodded in agreement.
“You are, too.”
“Yes. However: Rain good, mud bad,” Obi-Wan countered.
“This must be revenge for Kelin VI,” Qui-Gon said, glancing at the clouds that were converging on their landing coordinates. “Looks like everything but the far northern continent is getting drenched.”
Obi-Wan lifted his head and turned to Qui-Gon, a hint of a frown on his face. “Qui, maybe you should strap in. We don’t know what’s going on down there—” he started to say, and then everything went to hell.
“Incoming!” Anakin yelled, dropping the datapad and trying to reach for the controls, yelling something nigh untranslatable in frustration.
Qui-Gon shot upright, hitting his head on the upper console and not even feeling it. “Where—”
“There!” Obi-Wan had his hands on the controls, fighting with the sluggish ship, but it was too late. The small transport was not designed to move quickly in space, let alone in atmosphere. All of the piloting skills in the world couldn’t make the shuttle defy its design. “Two incoming, port side!” he snapped. “Impacting!”
Figures, Qui-Gon had a moment to think, realizing too late that his combat instincts meant that he’d done the exact opposite of what Obi-Wan had suggested. The first missile struck the shuttle with enough force to send him flying into the back wall of the cockpit. Qui-Gon fell heavily onto his back, registering the second impact before his head slammed down on the decking and everything went black.
* * * *
He woke up, and wished he hadn't. His head was pounding, he was soaking wet, and he couldn’t tell if he was chilled or numb.
Wet? Qui-Gon thought, confused, and made an attempt to sit up—and screamed in startled pain when his back protested, firing off every nerve in his body.
“Easy,” someone said in a soft voice. A hand that was only a touch warmer than Qui-Gon’s skin rested on his forehead. “Lie still. You wrenched your back pretty good, and that’s a hell of a knot on the back of your head.”
Recognition and memory came to him, driven by the pain-charged wave of adrenaline flooding his system. “Obi-Wan?”
“Yes, Qui, it’s me,” Obi-Wan replied. Qui-Gon felt the younger man’s fingers brush through his hair, leaving the tingling feel of Force-healing in their wake. “Open your eyes.”
Qui-Gon obeyed, and the view wasn’t as bad as it could have been. There was faint light above, filtered through clouds and trees and part of the wreckage of the shuttle, resting above them on a mass of gnarled old trees that had grown twisted together.
There was also Obi-Wan, looking tired and wet, but smiling down at him. Qui-Gon’s heart eased at the sight, and then thudded in alarm when he noticed watery blood trickling down the side of his partner’s face. “You’re hurt,” he said, reaching up with one shaking hand to wipe the red drops from Obi-Wan’s skin.
Obi-Wan shook his head, capturing Qui-Gon’s hand and lowering it with gentle pressure. “Not bad, truly. It’s just a shallow cut, and the bleeding’s almost stopped. I’ll deal with it when you’re in one piece.”
Qui-Gon sent faint acknowledgement through their pairbond, and then turned his head to the side. The rest of their shuttle was in a heap of scrap a few meters away, with steam from overheated parts rising into the air. “That…” He coughed, cleared his throat, and tried again. “That must have been one hell of a crash. I’m glad I missed it. Anakin’s all right?”
“Anakin’s just fine,” Obi-Wan said, and Qui-Gon closed his eyes in relief. “There is a cut above his right eye, and his arms were scraped up, but I already took care of that. His lightsaber was the only one to survive the crash intact, as well, so he volunteered to circle the crash site. New power cell for me, new casing for you,” Obi-Wan explained, when Qui-Gon cracked his eyes back open in consternation.
He let out an amused sigh. “Crystals needed updating, anyway. Getting old.” He was starting to feel warmer, despite lying on wet, muddy ground. The warmth was accompanied by a wave of drowsiness. “Are you…?”
Obi-Wan was still holding Qui-Gon’s hand; his fingertips were running back and forth over Qui-Gon’s skin. “Just relax and let me work. You need to be able to walk out of here, because I don’t think help will be coming any time soon.”
Qui-Gon sighed and sank into the healing, knowing from experience that arguing would do no good. “What about you?” he asked, still worried about his partner. Sleep was swiftly overtaking him, and he fought it just long enough to hear an answer.
“I’ll be fine, Qui,” Obi-Wan said, faint exasperation in his voice.
When Qui-Gon awoke later, the sky was dark, but the pain from his head and back was all but gone. He sat up, slowly, and realized he was damp but no longer soaking wet. The fire that Obi-Wan and Anakin had kindled under the shelter of the shuttle carcass might have helped; he got up and walked to it, relieved that he was stiff but not sore.
Obi-Wan was sitting next to the fire in a crouch, feeding the blue-green flames from a motley collection of scrounged firewood. He looked up as Qui-Gon settled down onto the ground next to him, lips quirking in a faint smile. “Better?”
“Yes, thank you.” Qui-Gon held up his hands close to the blaze, flexing fingers that wanted to seize in protest. Oh, blessed warmth. He was a creature of simple comforts, and right now fire was high on his list of favorite things.
Obi-Wan’s smile grew. “Part of the job description, Qui. You’re welcome. But please, next time, use the restraints.”
Qui-Gon ducked his head, an embarrassed smile on his face. “That occurred to me right around the time we were hit. You’re certain you’re all right?”
Obi-Wan considered the question—a kindness, Qui-Gon thought, since he could now remember asking about Obi-Wan’s well-being at least twice before. “My ankle feels stiff, and everything is itchy,” Obi-Wan said at last.
“If that is the limit of our shelter, we may begin to molder in this environment before long,” Qui-Gon said, shaking his head.
Anakin walked out of the mist that was gathering around their haphazard campsite, bearing another armload of the malformed wood. When he saw Qui-Gon, he grinned. “You’re okay?”
“Thanks to your Master,” Qui-Gon replied, watching as Anakin dropped the wood near the fire to dry before hopping over to give him a muddy hug. Qui-Gon returned the embrace, glad that they were all still alive and unharmed enough to do so.
“Next time,” Anakin said, sitting back with a grin, “Buckle up.”
“I’ll try to remember that,” Qui-Gon returned in a dry voice. He was never going to hear the end of this one, and worse, he deserved it. “Is there any sign of our aggressors?”
Obi-Wan shook his head. “I get the sense that we’re not out of danger, but that could be due to the fact that most of our supplies are useless. We may have to see if those flying creatures are edible, sooner or later.”
“They look tasty,” Anakin said, a thoughtful look on his face. “Tastier than ration bars, anyway.”
Being given the choice between starvation and dubious food, Qui-Gon usually chose the food. Choosing between ration bars and dubious food merited the same answer. “I’m with Anakin on this one.”
“I ran the numbers, and Master Obi-Wan managed to crash us about five kliks east of our original coordinates,” Anakin said, plopping down on the ground between them and holding out his hands to the blaze, just as they were doing. The temperature wasn’t frigid, but there was still enough chill in the air that the dampness was making it worse. “I walked over there while I was scouting earlier, and there’s nothing, not even a broken transponder system. So far as I can sense, there’s us, flying lizard things, and a lot of swamp.”
“I told you, Kelin VI,” Qui-Gon said, which made Obi-Wan smile briefly. “Though I daresay Roinall V is now topping my list of disagreeable missions.”
“Anakin might not be able to sense anything local, but I don’t think this planet has ever been settled at all,” Obi-Wan said, his brow furrowing.
Anakin poked at the fire with a stick, his eyes rising to track the red-gold embers that flew up into the air. “There has to be someone, Masters. The missiles we were hit with didn’t just pop outta nowhere.”
Qui-Gon pulled his legs up, resting his chin on his knees as he accessed his short-term memory. There was only a brief moment between recognition of the threat and impact. He slowed down the memory, trying to view each second. There had been something he had glimpsed out of the corner of his eye… There. He froze the image in his mind, studying it, a technique perfected out of long practice.
“Considering Roinall V’s lack of economy, I don’t know where any of its possible residents would have acquired the funds to get a pair of Barriak concussion missiles. Still illegal in Republic space, aren’t they?”
“And the more expensive for it,” Obi-Wan agreed, placing another malformed log onto the fire. “Lucky for us, we’re currently on neutral soil.”
Anakin shook his head, grinning at his Master’s sarcasm. “Oh, illegal or not, Republic space or not, you can get them. I had Master Tet Wuq last cycle, when he offered the extra class on mechanics and weaponry. You know, the one he teaches that’s not required? Anyway, because of all the time he’s spent out on the Outer Rim, he’s starting to teach it as a specialty class because Master Tet Wuq has just picked up so much useful stuff. He says that the problem isn’t acquiring Barriak missiles, anyway. If you really want them, the Barriak Corps accepts land in trade. Not whole planets, since the Republic would get antsy about that kind of deal. Just enough to cover the cost…” Anakin frowned and scratched in the dirt with his finger, running a calculation that many sentient beings couldn’t comprehend without a computer. “Thirty thousand acres per missile.”
Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan exchanged a glance. “That's a lot,” Obi-Wan said.
Anakin nodded. “Lots of people are willing to trade for it, too. Master Tet Wuq says that Barriak is doing very well for itself, and their land holdings have increased big time in the past ten years.” He paused, biting his lip. “And I know that you guys know that Barriak missiles are meant to be used in space. For those things to have come from the planet, there would have to be a launch tower around here somewhere.”
“Did they come from the planet, though?” Qui-Gon wondered.
Obi-Wan shrugged. “I didn't have the time to find out, and the shuttle's systems...well,” he trailed off, a wry smile on his face as he glanced around at the wreckage. “You can see how that went.”
“Master, when it gets light, I want to see if I can get to the shuttle's memory banks. We might not be able to do anything with it here, but maybe once we're back home I can retrieve our last half-hour of flight,” Anakin said. “I kinda want to know who just did their best to blow us up.”
Obi-Wan nodded, though he didn’t seem thrilled by the idea. “All right. We may need that data. But it's going to wait until we're ready to leave. That's the only roof we have—”
“And we’ll be very wet until we get off this planet,” Qui-Gon finished, not looking forward to the prospect. The Healers will probably try to diagnose us with pneumonia again.
Try? Obi-Wan repeated, amused. I seem to recall much wet hacking.
I don’t want pneumonia! Anakin protested, with an undercurrent of enjoyment from being able to participate in the mental conversation. …What’s pneumonia?
“A pain in the ass,” Obi-Wan said out loud. “You don’t want it, trust me.”
He awoke the next morning with Obi-Wan’s hand on his shoulder. Qui-Gon blinked up at him and felt his senses surge into high alert. Obi-Wan’s expression was tense, his eyes flickering around as if cataloging and re-cataloging their surroundings with every breath. “What?” he whispered. What is it?
“Company is coming to call, and they’re not friendly,” Obi-Wan murmured back. Anakin.
Already packing, Master, Anakin replied, stuffing a duffle with their scavenged supplies with the swift, practiced movements of those well-used to getting up and out in a hurry. Qui-Gon tried not to smile at the sight. Anakin’s subconscious picked the strangest times to spew out old information for the young Padawan’s benefit.
They ate fast, sharing out a ration bar before tossing its wrapper into the hot ash of their fire to burn. Anakin used a bit of scrap metal to shovel mud onto the coals, putting them out with an angry hiss before wiping his hands on his tunic front, leaving black streaks behind.
“Good thing we don’t need to be presentable,” Obi-Wan said, but his face was still raised, as if scenting the wind, while he listened to the Force. “We keep going east. The woods will be thick and slow us down, but it’ll slow down our mystery guests, too.”
Qui-Gon nodded, taking the pack from Anakin and slinging it over his shoulder. He didn’t question his partner’s instincts; his own were starting to scream at him that they had no time to linger. “Let’s go.”
* * * *
The day became a blur of rain, mud, and rough terrain. They slept for two hours that night in a tree to avoid the damp ground, wrapped in their cloaks against the pervasive rain. Qui-Gon shifted in place until he was comfortable, reflecting grimly that his lightsaber remnants, wrapped and packaged in their single pack, had chosen a very bad time to be useless. None of them were defenseless, but the sense of danger they felt from whatever or whoever was pursuing them did not abate.
Qui-Gon didn’t like it. It frustrated him that they were being chased for no reason he could determine. It wasn’t as if this hadn’t happened to him often over the years (a lot, really) but he couldn’t recall a time that he wasn’t aware, on some level, of what supposed offense had created the situation.
They continued traveling on foot for three days, trudging through thick forest, wet, cold, tired, and hungry. At least four times a day, they hid underneath twisted branches or clumps of vines as the whine of speeders came from above the dense canopy. Qui-Gon took a moment each time to be thankful for their surroundings, certain to confound any lifesigns detector their hunters could employ.
On the fourth day, Anakin led the way through a final barrier of large trees with sprawling root systems, and they found themselves on the edge of a swamp.
“Well, fuck,” Obi-Wan said in dismay, looking out at the expanse of mist and bog.
“That will slow us down,” Qui-Gon said, thinking that it would provide no such barrier for their pursuers. There would be no escaping discovery if they were caught in the open.
Anakin gestured at one of the nearest trees. “I’ll take a look, okay? Maybe I can find the shortest distance across.”
“Go,” Obi-Wan said, jerking his head. “Quick. I don’t want to spend any more time here than we have to.”
Anakin scrambled up the trunk like a monkey lizard searching for fermented fruit. Obi-Wan closed his eyes and raised his arms over his head in a full body stretch. “East?”
Qui-Gon nodded. “I think so still, yes.” He wasn’t sure why, had sensed nothing in that direction beyond a sense of safety…as long as they survived long enough to get to that point. “You’re all right?”
“Ankle’s still stiff. Want a shower, aside from the natural one pouring down on our heads.” Obi-Wan tilted his head. “Food.”
“Just the basics, then.”
“Mm,” Obi-Wan agreed. “You?”
“Bath,” Qui-Gon said, and looked at the murky water. “Not that kind.”
Anakin scuttled his way down the tree, shedding bits of bark and twigs. “Okay, I see a path. We might have to swim some of it, but it looks like if we go southeast for two kliks along the shore, then cross going northeast, it’s the shortest way to get back in the woods and head east again.”
“You’re leading, then,” Obi-Wan said, allowing Anakin to take point.
The swamp water was warmer than the rain falling from the sky, but not by much. Really, between this and their last handful of planetary assignments, Qui-Gon would have been glad to see a desert.
For about five minutes? Obi-Wan asked, sloshing through the muck ahead of him. Anakin, still leading the way, was short enough that he was swimming through the water with a look of supreme distaste on his face. A few moments later, when the water deepened and they were forced to swim as well, Qui-Gon realized why. The water stank of fetid mold and decay.
Five minutes just became five hours, Qui-Gon sent back, not pleased.
He didn’t find thick mud beneath his feet until their crossing was almost done. All told, it had taken no more than five minutes, but he had felt every passing second keenly, alert for discovery.
In front of him, Obi-Wan lurched and fell into the water, submerging completely before rising, spitting and swearing. “Found a hole,” he announced with a grimace.
Qui-Gon skirted the area. “You’re all right?”
“No,” Obi-Wan said, shaking his head, still making his way to the shore in determined, slogging steps. “It’ll keep, though. I want trees overhead before those speeders come back.”
Obi-Wan refused to stop even when they were under cover; Qui-Gon eyed him but went along with it, and Anakin was too busy clearing their path to give his Master’s dunking much thought.
When dusk crept up on them, he called a halt. “Enough,” Qui-Gon said, dropping their pack to the ground. “I haven’t heard anything this evening. I don’t know about the two of you, but I’m just about done in.”
“Oh, thank you,” Anakin said, his shoulders drooping. “I want a nap. Except I think I’m too itchy.”
“Tree?” Obi-Wan asked.
“That one,” Qui-Gon pointed, choosing a tree that had a smooth bark and thick branches. “It looks like paradise after the thorn tree.”
“I’m still sorry about the thorns,” Anakin said in tired protest. “Can we stay the entire night? Please? The Force is awesome and helpful, but I feel like garbage right now, Masters.”
Obi-Wan walked forward and lifted Anakin up over his shoulders until the Padawan could reach the first thick branch. “I haven’t sensed anything since the swamp,” Obi-Wan said. “Maybe they’ve given up?”
Anakin jumped and wiggled his way onto a higher branch. “That’d be nice. But then we’d still need a ride off of this rock.”
“One problem at a time. I think we’ll find whatever we’re looking for some time around noon tomorrow,” Qui-Gon said, tossing the pack to Obi-Wan after his partner jumped up to the second branch. Obi-Wan caught it and handed it to Anakin, both of them moving aside as Qui-Gon performed his own leap.
He had been right about the bark. Not the best bed, but preferable to being caught on the ground by the larger, reptilian predators that were roaming Roinall V at night. They shared another ration bar in silence, though Anakin looked longingly at the single remaining bar before closing the bag.
They settled onto a cluster of branches in a clump of wet cloth, sharing body heat and presence for comfort. Sleep claimed them just as the last of the day’s light faded from the sky.
They were an hour into the next day’s walk when Obi-Wan muttered, “Blast,” and sat down on a rotting stump. He had been favoring his left ankle all morning without a word of complaint.
“Stiffness getting worse?” Qui-Gon asked, helping to remove Obi-Wan’s boot. He winced in sympathy when Obi-Wan hissed in a pained breath.
“Oh, definitely worse,” Obi-Wan said with a tight smile, pulling off his wet sock.
Qui-Gon nodded in Anakin’s direction, who smiled encouragement at Obi-Wan before climbing a nearby tree to keep watch, and pick out their trail. It was a good learning experience for the boy, though the circumstances were less than ideal.
He shook his head at the angry purplish-red shade of Obi-Wan’s ankle, noting the swelling. He rested his fingertips on the inflamed skin for just a moment before he glared up at Obi-Wan.
“I know,” Obi-Wan said in a low voice.
“How did this happen?” Qui-Gon demanded to know, shedding his cloak and belt and removing his sash. He wouldn’t be able to wrap Obi-Wan’s ankle very well, not without leaving him barefoot in an environment ripe with opportunities for sliced feet and infection.
“I think that lingering stiffness was a hairline fracture, probably from the crash,” Obi-Wan explained as Qui-Gon cut about a third of the cloth from the sash with his boot knife. “I was fine until I found that damn hole in the swamp.”
Qui-Gon subjected his partner to a look of fond exasperation. “Only you could mistake a broken bone for a sprain,” he said, and before Obi-Wan could protest he grabbed the man’s ankle with both hands and set the break in the outer bone.
Obi-Wan’s eyes went huge; he threw back his head and cursed through clenched teeth. “You. Are. A. Bastard.”
He grinned without humor. “Sometimes,” Qui-Gon said, and bound Obi-Wan’s ankle with the cloth. Between that and the stiff leather of the boot sheath, it would pad the injury and grant his partner some relief while he walked.
He knew better than to offer to carry Obi-Wan, not when he was still conscious and able to move on his own. There were some battles that were not worth fighting.
“Thank you,” Obi-Wan said when it was done, smiling at Qui-Gon. The expression was somehow made far more endearing by the splatters of black mud on his pale face.
Qui-Gon had to fight the urge to wipe the dirt away with his fingers. Not yet, not now; he was still working through his sudden, conflicted feelings about a possible romantic relationship between them. Qui-Gon wasn’t going to do anything until he was certain. Obi-Wan deserved that consideration, and he would damn well have it.
“That should hold up for a few hours, but if it gets worse, you have to say something,” Qui-Gon said, diving behind the emotional safety of issuing familiar instructions, ones that were usually disregarded.
Obi-Wan shrugged. “The Healers will just re-break it when we get home, then.”
“Break what?” Anakin asked, joining them.
“Your head, coming out of a tree like that,” Obi-Wan drawled back, reaching up to brush bits of moss from Anakin’s hair. “See anything useful?”
“There’s a clearing about ten kliks that way,” Anakin said, pointing southeast. “I know it’s not quite where we were going, but…”
“No, no,” Qui-Gon said, glancing in that direction. In the Force, he could feel the rightness of Anakin’s choice, like a thrum in his bones. “Good job, Anakin.”
Anakin smiled, his eyes shining like lamplights amid the muck that covered him from head to toe. “Let’s go, then. I wanna see my tenth birthday, and whoever those guys following us were, they weren’t bringing cake.”
“Oh, don’t mention cake,” Obi-Wan groaned as he got to his feet. “Or tea.”
“Nerf steak,” Anakin said, and then grinned. “Steamed sweetroot and herbs. Butter.”
“You are a naughty child,” Obi-Wan muttered. They started walking again, with Obi-Wan once more in the middle. Qui-Gon slung their pack over his shoulder and followed, impressed by Anakin’s largely cheerful attitude. He was hard-pressed to hold onto his own calm in moments like these.
He’s seen worse, Obi-Wan answered, moving without the slightest hint of the pain Qui-Gon now knew him to be suffering. Stubborn man.
Worse? Qui-Gon asked, wondering if the boy was recovering more memories of the experience he’d shared with Obi-Wan.
Not consciously, no, Obi-Wan said. Not much of anything in all these years, thank the Force. Subconsciously, however, I think it’s all there. You’ve seen evidence of that yourself.
Qui-Gon nodded his agreement. Anakin is light years ahead of other Padawans his age. Mental, intellectual, conversational—Anakin Skywalker was well-versed in the more mature concepts, even if he still acted and emoted like a nine-year-old boy.
He’s no diplomat, though, Obi-Wan said, a hint of laughter drifting through the bond. Never will be. It’s not in his nature.
Conversation ceased for a while, as they maintained their trek through the woods. The rain had slacked off at last. They were still sodden and chilled, but no longer blinking rain from their eyes.
Qui-Gon thought about the ankle he had just treated, and the white pattern of scar tissue on the foot attached to it. How did you get the scars, the ones that look like a spider’s web? he asked. Sometimes, he could ask random, harmless questions, and be rewarded with fond stories. At other times, he would be met with stony, grim silence.
When Obi-Wan turned around and favored him with a wide grin, Qui-Gon knew it would be a story. My foot was crushed.
Obi-Wan faced forward again, leaving Qui-Gon to stare at him in astonishment. He didn’t see how that could be funny.
A building fell on it, Obi-Wan continued, his shoulders rising and falling with silent laughter.
What’s so damn funny about a building crushing your foot?
I suppose you had to have been there, Obi-Wan said, pausing and allowing Qui-Gon to assist him over a cluster of fallen trees after Anakin scrambled across. The gesture warmed him, and he helped his partner clear the debris with a smile, enjoying the fleeting brush and clasp of hands.
Sithdammit. Qui-Gon really needed to sit down and meditate on his feelings, and soon.
Don’t you dare gain my curiosity and then not tell me this story, Qui-Gon threatened. There was so much of his partner’s life that was unknown to him. Even a war wound’s amusing tale was better than nothing.
Not this time. In fact, I think it may be necessary. You may need the information, anyway, Obi-Wan said. As far as beginnings went, it was a damn cryptic one.
Did you know that your last Padawan was a bed-hopper?
Qui-Gon raised one eyebrow. Not…consciously, no, he said. Given Xanatos’s later, hedonistic tendencies, it wasn’t much of a surprise. Even while still a Padawan, Xan had been leaning towards becoming a vain, overgrown peacock.
He expected a flash of hurt, the old friend that visited whenever Xanatos was mentioned, and felt only muted sadness. I’m getting over your loss, Xan, Qui-Gon realized, and the thought was an unexpected comfort.
He felt a moment of support and commiseration through the pairbond. A prolific bed-hopper was he, Obi-Wan said. Xanatos has three children resulting from his various unions.
Three? Qui-Gon repeated, amused. He definitely remembered informing Xanatos that excellent birth control existed, and he was to use it without fail.
Yes, three. One of those three, the youngest, is Force-sensitive. Her mother brought her to the Jedi when she was born. Her name is Saini.
Qui-Gon halted in shock. Saini? Anakin’s friend Saini?
The very same.
Qui-Gon thought about the dark-haired child with laughing brown eyes…and Xanatos’s perfect, pale skin. Now that the comparison had been called to mind, the resemblance was acute. How in the hell had he not noticed?
Perhaps because she’s nothing like her father? Obi-Wan suggested. Except for that pristine skin, she shares almost nothing in common with Xanatos’s line. Mace kept his name from Saini’s public records to keep her heritage safe while among the Initiates. Most beings are too busy worrying about Saini’s mother to concern themselves with who Saini’s father might have been.
Qui-Gon thanked the gods that Mace and his fellow Councilors had been in a sensible frame of mind on that day. And the others? he asked, realizing that it had been one of Xanatos’s children to cause the scars on his partner’s foot.
Another girl, the oldest, adopted out by Xanatos himself. No one knows if it was a moment of altruism, or if Xanatos was disappointed that she isn’t sensitive. Xenia du Kithrin, adopted by House Kithrin on Telos. She’s a political leader, working with the Reform Party.
Qui-Gon remembered hearing mention of her. Xenia du Kithrin was one of the younger supporters of the group dedicated to creating lasting change, wiping away the remnants of Crion’s damage to Telos. She was popular with many on the planet, and there were rumors circling that she would be up for the governor’s seat if the Reform Party hadn’t been working to abolish the old single-rule position. He grinned at the thought, wondering what his former Padawan would have thought of his own daughter undoing everything that Xanatos had once supported in Crion.
And now we come to the crux of the matter, the troublemaker, Obi-Wan said, and for a moment the pairbond darkened with memories of old troubles. Xanatos’s second child is a boy named Granta Omega. It sounds self-assumed, but his mother was actually a woman from disgraced House Omega.
Omega House had participated in the Offworld attempt to put Telos IV under corporate control. Oh, that’s not sounding good, Qui-Gon said.
Obi-Wan nodded without turning around. He looks nothing like Xanatos, but takes after him in every other way.
Dear gods. Qui-Gon shuddered. Another rogue Force-user.
Worse, Obi-Wan said. He’s completely Force-blind, and his father left him with the parting notion that it was a failing on Granta’s part to have no Force ability.
Xanatos, I could strangle you for that, Qui-Gon thought to himself, despite his own developing peace with his lost Padawan’s fate. No child deserved that burden. It was bad enough to find it in the Temple creche.
Still, this was a tale based upon something that had yet to happen. “But that was part of your vision,” Qui-Gon said aloud, forgetting mindspeech as he considered Xanatos’s children. “Wasn’t it?”
“Originally,” Obi-Wan said, watching as Anakin put his hands on a tangle of vines blocking their path. The boy was asking the greenery to part enough to let the group pass. Qui-Gon had taught him the trick the previous day, and Anakin was delighted by it, saying the plants thought his requests were funny.
But I’ve already encountered two of Xanatos’s children in both times, Obi-Wan continued after they slipped past the vines. Xenia du Kithrin was on Coruscant last year. Bail Organa introduced us. Saini you’ve met, also. The only one I haven’t seen again yet is Omega. I’d say that things are progressing much the same, at least as far as Xanatos’s offspring are concerned.
All right, Qui-Gon replied, uneasy, though he couldn’t have explained why. Tell me what happened when you met Granta…before.
Granta Omega blamed you for his father’s death, Obi-Wan began, and Qui-Gon couldn’t help it: he flinched.
Obi-Wan looked back to give him a sympathetic look. It was not your fault, no matter what Granta believed, then or now.
I know, Qui-Gon sent back, swallowing hard. Keep going.
He decided to make up his failings to his dead father by becoming more of a thorn in the Order’s side than Xanatos ever bothered with. He’s the one that caused a building to fall on my foot. Well, actually, on all of me, but Anakin was with me, and the spider-web scarring wound up being the worst damage we took.
Qui-Gon frowned. You still haven’t told me why any of that is funny.
The silent laughter was back. You remember how good Xanatos was at laying out the perfect taunt. He learned verbal sparring from you, and he excelled at using it to manipulate those around him. Granta did not share in that ability. It was the nature of his challenge when he confronted me and Anakin that made it funny.
Obi-Wan turned around, a grin on his face as he looked up at Qui-Gon. He was trying to sound tough. He said: v’neth shakah ru mish Sa’ta pae.
Qui-Gon burst out laughing, startling Anakin and a flock of birds that had been nesting in the trees above.
Anakin faced them and put his hands on his hips, glaring at both of his Masters. “What’s so funny?”
Obi-Wan, with an expression of perfect serenity, repeated the phrase out loud.
Anakin snorted laughter and clamped both hands over his mouth, turning a bright shade of red.
Obi-Wan smiled. “I’m so glad I have a Padawan raised on the coarser languages the galaxy has to offer.”
“Force gods,” Qui-Gon said, still sputtering with laughter. “Did he realize he’d just announced his intention to defecate on himself while singing a Corellian drinking ballad?”
“Not until we fell over each other laughing, he didn’t,” Obi-Wan said, a definite smirk on his face. “He just didn’t take it very well.”
“You mean Granta?” Anakin asked.
Obi-Wan’s smile faded. “Yes. What did you remember about him, Padawan?”
“That he was even more of a whiny brat than I was,” Anakin said with a shrug. “Also, he liked explosives a lot. Can we go now? We’re only two kliks shy of that clearing. Maybe our magic safety point has food.”
“Let’s go, then,” Obi-Wan said, and Anakin nodded and darted ahead, in good spirits.
So much for limited conscious recollection, Qui-Gon said.
He could almost hear Obi-Wan grinding his teeth. May it always be like that. I don’t want his life, his psyche, to be the speederwreck that mine is!
We will get rid of that block, Qui-Gon promised. Your life won’t always be at the mercy of that damned construct.
Obi-Wan hesitated in his steps and then kept walking. As nice as that sounds, my psyche is a speederwreck even without that thing’s influence.
Qui-Gon had to smile. Obi-Wan’s quirks were part of what made the entire package so endearing.
I keep forgetting that you have a fondness for the disreputable, Obi-Wan grumbled.
Can’t get much more disreputable than a flamingly sarcastic Jedi Master, Qui-Gon agreed.
They both stopped on their makeshift trail ten minutes later. Qui-Gon tilted his head, almost certain there were new presences approaching. Obi-Wan had a similar look on his face.
“Hey, guys!” Anakin came running back towards them. “There’s a ship coming this way!” he yelled, and by the time he’d finished speaking, Qui-Gon knew the identity of at least one entity onboard.
“Well,” Obi-Wan said, smiling. “Looks like we’re rescued.”
The approaching ship was louder, and much larger, than the speeders that had dogged them for days. When they reached the clearing, it was settled on the grass, hissing steam as systems cooled down from a long flight.
“Large enough to have sleeping quarters,” Anakin said happily.
“Large enough that it better damn well have water-based showers,” Obi-Wan noted. That was enthusiasm enough to have them each hasten their steps.
Micah Giett was waiting at the bottom of the lowered boarding ramp, ready to greet them. “Hello, you ragged bunch of miscreants. How’s Roinall V?”
“It’s the ass end of civilization, Mic,” Qui-Gon said, feeling the last five days catch up to him all at once.
Anakin let out a whuff of air, and leaned over to rest his hands on his knees. “Okay. Yeah. I think I’m ready for this mission to be over with.”
“Where’s your shuttle?” Garen Muln asked, striding down the ramp to join them. “I’m sure you’d know it. It’s large, and unwieldy, made of metal, seats two and a half…”
“If you really want it back, it’s in a lot of pieces to the west,” Obi-Wan said. He was smiling, but the expression was starting to look pinched. “Got a medical bay on this crate?”
Garen looked offended. “This is not a crate. It’s a G Three Class Hipnotus cruiser, and she’s a beautiful lady.” He paused and gave his friend a searching look. “Would you like me to carry you there?”
Obi-Wan glared at him. “Would you like me to set you on fire?”
“Well, that certainly answers your question, Master,” Garen said, waving his hands in invitation. Obi-Wan didn’t hesitate, and trudged up the ramp, his limp growing more pronounced as he went.
“I’m going that way, too,” Anakin said, and marched up the ramp. “There is food in here, and it has my name on it.”
“For fuck’s sake, what happened, Qui-Gon?” Micah asked, his expression sobering. “Granted, you two tend to attract trouble, but this was supposed to be a meet-and-greet, a Padawan-acclimating mission.”
Qui-Gon shook his head. “I didn’t get one of those, and neither did you, or Obi-Wan, and with Anakin, the tradition lives on. Garen, I think you’re the only one who’s managed normal.”
“Yeah, but I made up for it by blowing up a shuttle and a Judicial cruiser,” Garen pointed out with a smile. “I’ll go make sure the kiddo doesn’t eat everything we’ve got in the galley,” he said, and went inside.
“We were shot down, Mic,” Qui-Gon said, before Micah could ask. “Barriak concussion missiles, not long after we dropped into a sub-orbital position. Then we were pursued for days on an undeveloped planet. No identities for them, since we decided to stay hidden.”
“No wonder you guys look like swamp waste,” Micah said. “Come on inside. We’ll break through the programmed water restrictions to get you all three hot showers.”
Qui-Gon sighed at the thought. “Bless you. How did you know to come looking for us?”
“Temple transponder on the shuttle stopped transmitting not long after your estimated arrival,” Micah said, following Qui-Gon up the ship’s ramp. “Between your last few missions and that crap going on in the creche, Mace decided he was taking no chances and asked if Garen and I wanted to make a run and see if you needed a hand.”
He found Obi-Wan in the ship’s small medical bay. He had slipped off one boot, sliced the other one free, and ripped his leggings up to mid-thigh on his left leg. There was a liquid bandage already hardening in place around his ankle, and Obi-Wan was holding three hyposprays in one hand while sterilizing the big muscle in his thigh with the other.
“Obi-Wan,” Qui-Gon said, and held out his hand.
Obi-Wan looked up and handed over the hyposprays without arguing. “I know. I don’t have to do everything myself.”
“There is certainly no doubt that you can,” Qui-Gon said, giving the labels on the hypos a quick glance. Anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, and one hell of a painkiller. “You aren’t normally fond of this last one,” he said, injecting his partner with each drug.
Obi-Wan went glassy-eyed as the last one hit his system. “No, not normally,” he said, his voice just shy of a tired mumble. “I’m just…not in the mood to bother with it all,” he confessed. “I don’t have to fight it, so I’m not going to. Drugs and sleep for me.”
“Let’s stand you up in a shower, first,” Qui-Gon said, helping his partner down from the bed.
“Nifty,” Obi-Wan said, and when Qui-Gon slung one of Obi-Wan’s arms over his shoulder to support his partner, Obi-Wan was not shy in the least about pressing in close to Qui-Gon’s side.
Oh, Force, Qui-Gon thought, and was too conscious of Obi-Wan’s warm, heavy weight all the way to the ship’s ’fresher. The only thing keeping him from a leave of his senses was the overpowering funk of fetid swamp emanating from them both.
“Stand there,” he ordered, and went to see if their rescuers had brought anything of theirs from the Temple. By the time Qui-Gon returned with an emergency pack that Garen had brought from Obi-Wan’s quarters, the shower was running and the ’fresher was filling with steam.
“That’s not where I recall telling you to wait,” Qui-Gon said, amused.
“Still in the same room,” Obi-Wan countered from behind the shower door.
“Fine,” Qui-Gon said, and amended his orders. “Don’t fall asleep or drown in there.”
He left the clothes in the ’fresher and went to go find his own. Anakin was in the ship’s galley, as promised, mowing his way through a sandwich. “Goof foof,” he said.
Good food. Qui-Gon smiled. “I’m glad. There’s a duffle for you on the second bunk. Shower when you’re done stuffing yourself.” Anakin nodded ready acceptance.
Out of curiosity (and while waiting in line for the ship’s single ’fresher), Qui-Gon pulled the shuttle’s data core from their abused pack and hooked it up to the small cruiser’s computer. It only took him minutes to discover that the data was largely useless. Yes, they could confirm the Barriak missiles’ approach, the date and time of impact, and the shuttle’s acknowledgement of the impending crash, but that was it. There was no discernible point of origin for the missiles. No transmissions came from the planet before they were fired upon, or during the crash.
Dead end. Unless someone came forward and confessed to trying to murder their requested Jedi representatives, there were no leads left to pursue. Qui-Gon sighed, rubbed at his face, and decided not to worry about it.
* * * *
The first day back in the Temple after Roinall V, Qui-Gon did nothing more than decompress. Just because he could be ready for any eventuality did not mean it was not a draining circumstance when it arrived.
None of them seemed to have picked up anything from the swamps except for a case of damp. The Healers cleared them, and then ordered both Anakin and Obi-Wan to eat more.
“I eat fine,” Obi-Wan grumbled as they left, with Anakin riding pickaback on Garen’s shoulders. Qui-Gon could tell that Obi-Wan was still favoring his ankle, mended with Force-healing before they got back to Coruscant.
“No, you guzzle tea just fine,” Garen retorted. “What’d you have for breakfast?”
“…toast,” Obi-Wan admitted grudgingly.
“I think I agree with Terza,” Qui-Gon said, and earned a glower from his partner.
“It’s good toast,” Obi-Wan insisted.
Qui-Gon invited them all back to his quarters, and then sent Garen out at noon for lunch purchased from a restaurant on the edge of the Temple District. Obi-Wan watched the food get unpacked in the kitchen and said, “Okay, yes, toast is boring, now gimme,” and proceeded to devour a carton of vegetables fried in sauce spiced hot enough to burn Qui-Gon’s eyes from across the room.
The next day, Qui-Gon gave in to the inevitable and went to down to the labs. Callero was working alone; Qui-Gon handed the older Master the defunct artificial crystals from his destroyed lightsaber. Perhaps other Jedi didn’t mind the use of artificial crystals, but Qui-Gon was going right back to natural stone. A year was long enough for that experiment.
Callero nodded and waved his hands around the lab. “Pick what you like, Master Jinn. You know your way around this place well enough to find what suits.”
There was no question that Qui-Gon would be using more than one crystal in the new lightsaber he constructed, a habit that had followed him for decades now. A search of twenty minutes led him to new crystals, a dual set packed away in an unlocked drawer.
He picked up the two stones after removing them from their padded case, and let them rest in his palm. They sang with the rightness of his choice, and Qui-Gon was almost certain that they could handle what he was about to ask of them.
After collecting the necessary parts, recycling a few from his old lightsaber, and reclaiming the rest, Qui-Gon sat down to work, feeling cocooned by the lab’s quiet and grateful that he was alone but for Callero, who kept himself occupied in one of the two offices in the rear of the lab.
“Building a new lightsaber?”
Mace’s sudden question would have startled Qui-Gon under other circumstances; as it was, he was so closely attuned to the Force as he worked that the words fell neatly into a gap of expectation. “To reveal the obvious: Yes. Regardless of my last lightsaber’s fate, I would have been down here soon enough, anyway. The artificial crystals were suffering from exhaustion.”
Mace used tongs to pick up one of the small crystals. “Huh. That’s one of the Adegan Kasha sets. Interesting choice.”
“Even if it’s just a tradition, I could use clear thoughts in combat situations,” Qui-Gon said, putting his hands down on the table and weaving together the wire-work with the Force. Obi-Wan liked to build his lightsabers with his own hands, and to a certain extent, Qui-Gon did, also, but he enjoyed this intense period of connection with the weapon he was building.
“Most of us don’t put in the same time in the field that you and Obi-Wan do,” Mace said, watching the lightsaber come together. “From the reports I’ve seen, the artificial crystals just aren’t up for heavy use, though there is some noise being made about researching how to extend their usefulness. Mind if I join you?” Mace asked.
“You must be really bored,” Qui-Gon said, settling new brackets into place, “if you’re willing to watch me build a lightsaber.”
“It never stops being a fascinating process,” Mace said with a faint smile. “Besides, I’m not bored, I’m hiding. The troll wants me to teach the sexuality class to the junior Padawans.”
Qui-Gon paused in what he was doing, glancing over at Mace. “Well, he does have a point. You’d have the entire group chaste for years, just in fear of what Councilor Windu would do to them if they forgot their training and impregnated some Senator’s offspring.”
“Your sympathy knows no bounds,” Mace said with a sigh. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to teach it for me.”
Qui-Gon chuckled and returned his focus to his lightsaber, tightening each individual connection running from power cell to insulator to lens. “Masters with Padawans are excused from the teaching rotations, as they must devote all of their time to said Padawans,” he quoted. There were definite benefits to sharing a student with his partner.
“We always take volunteers,” Mace reminded him, still hopeful.
“You get me as a teacher, or you get me on the mission rotations, not both,” Qui-Gon replied. “We both know I’m of more use to you out there than I am in the Temple.”
“You’re saying I’m doomed,” Mace said, leaning forward to rest his chin on his hands.
Qui-Gon spared him another glance. Mace was usually not so reluctant, and had gladly served many teaching rotations in the creche, even when he had a Padawan and a Council seat. “Actually, I’m saying that if you want to escape teaching this cycle, take another Padawan.”
Mace jerked himself upright. “Me?” he asked, as if the idea had yet to occur to him.
“Why not you?” Qui-Gon asked, enjoying himself. It wasn’t often that Mace overlooked the obvious. “It’s been fifteen years since the Council Knighted Depa, and Echuu Shen-Jon has been proving his worth for over three years now, especially after Yinchorr. You’ve been tutoring Anakin in bladework because I know you enjoy it, not because it’s necessary.”
“If Anakin hadn’t been so attached to Obi-Wan, I would have asked him,” Mace admitted.
Qui-Gon nodded. Mace wasn’t the only one who had been interested in apprenticing Anakin Skywalker. “It isn’t like we have a lack of Initiates to choose from. That little Zabrak boy in the A.L.T. class worships the ground you walk on.”
Mace frowned. “Adoration or not, I’m too old to take a Padawan.”
Qui-Gon gave the younger Master a disbelieving look, and then rolled his eyes. ‘“Too old,’ he says. That didn’t stop you from being a complete pain in the ass about me apprenticing Obi-Wan eight years ago, and I’m fifteen years older than you are.” Still immersed in the flow of the Force, Qui-Gon looked at Mace again and smiled at what he saw. Yes, Mace definitely was due for another Padawan.
“Here,” Qui-Gon said, catching Mace’s attention. “Watch this.” He stroked his finger along the edge of the first crystal, felt the answering vibration, and was pleased when it cracked in half in a flawless line.
Mace didn’t jump, but he did rear back in surprise. “How in the hell did you do that?”
Qui-Gon grinned at him, merciless. “Magic.”
Mace glared at him. “Qui-Gon…”
“Take a Padawan and I’ll tell you.”
Mace scowled. “Fine, Yoda,” he said, and stalked off.
Qui-Gon bent back to his work in a much more cheerful frame of mind than he’d started with. The second crystal chimed under his fingertips and split apart. Qui-Gon lifted the four shards into the air with the Force, directing them into their respective brackets. Almost done.
Qui-Gon couldn’t think about lightsaber crystals without recalling the first inadvertent lesson Obi-Wan had granted Qui-Gon…but for the first time in years, he remembered the strange jolt of contact as their fingertips had brushed over the Ilum sapphire.
Oh, he thought, and it was a good thing his lightsaber was finished, because Qui-Gon had just lost the ability to concentrate on much of anything except his own startled breathing.
* * * *
The next time they met over creche matters, it was a smaller, informal group. Mace sat in a chair in Micah and Tahl’s shared quarters, their Padawans holding up the nearby wall. Qui-Gon sat on the couch next to Tahl and Micah; Obi-Wan was perched above him on the sofa top, and earning a glare from Micah for his ill-treatment of the furniture.
“All but ten of the returned Initiates were Chosen,” Mace was saying, a pensive look on his face. After scouring the records, Adi and Shaak Ti had found at least forty instances of Initiates sent to the wrong Corps when their abilities would serve better elsewhere. The decision had been made to bring them home, and a near-firestorm had erupted because of it. Mace took a sip of tea and then looked up at them, his eyes troubled. “All but ten.”
“It’s not the biggest group to ever be apprenticed at once,” Micah said, trying to soothe their friend. “This bunch probably had the sympathy vote—”
Mace cut him off, shaking his head. “Mic, I’ve seen the files of the children we brought back. According to their Clan Masters, less than a third of those children ever showed the potential to be Knights!”
“At least, not according to the standards they are usually held to,” Obi-Wan said in a quiet voice. “The best of the best, remember?”
Mace shook his head, unconvinced. “Obi-Wan, I remember a time when the Creche Master was convinced that you would never be a Padawan.”
Obi-Wan inclined his head. “Exactly my point.” Mace grumbled something inaudible in response.
“The ones that were Chosen—do they have that Knight potential now?” Tahl asked.
“Yes, though some more than others,” Mace admitted. “Because of their assigned focus before they were sent away from the Temple, some of those children have quite a bit of catching up to do.” He set his still-full mug of tea down on the side table. “Force! Master Tratecek wants to take both of the Sandrunner twins as his Padawans, and is throwing a fit because we won’t let him.”
“Why not?” Obi-Wan asked, still in that same neutral tone.
The senior Master sighed. “Because it’s just not done, that’s why. You know the rules as well as anyone, Obi-Wan. One Master, One Padawan.”
“Forgive me for sounding like my old Master,” Obi-Wan said, nudging Qui-Gon’s shoulder with his knee, “but most rules were meant to be broken.”
Qui-Gon smiled. “Are you quoting me, or Yoda?”
There’s a difference? Obi-Wan replied with a silent laugh.
“It sounds like a good idea to me,” Micah chimed in. “Tratecek isn’t likely to favor one Padawan over the other, not being clan-based like he is.”
“What does Yoda have to say about it?” Qui-Gon asked, even as Mace opened his mouth in protest.
“He’s worried,” Mace said after a moment of contemplation. “Which, in turn, means that I’m concerned. Yoda says that the Force knows what is needed. We may run our teams ragged on occasion, but we have always had enough Jedi to meet the needs of the Republic.”
Micah snorted his opinion of that. “Not according to our population numbers, we don’t.”
Mace was shaking his head. “What in the hell could happen that we’d suddenly need so many potential Knights?” He glanced at Obi-Wan as he asked the question, but if Obi-Wan knew the answer, he was keeping it to himself.
* * * *
Qui-Gon Jinn stared at the sand-roughened features of the man that sat cross-legged in front of him, watching—something he found himself doing a lot, lately. He didn’t mind, however; Obi-Wan Kenobi, known as Ben Kenobi to the local desert settlers, would always be worth looking at. Despite the white that was creeping speedily into his ginger-colored hair, a beard that looked a bit unkempt, and the lines that showed on his face more and more with each passing month—to Qui-Gon, he was still beautiful.
“Stop staring at me, dammit,” Obi-Wan said, opening his eyes as he emerged from his meditations. “It’s creepy.”
“I am not creepy.”
“You’re blue and you glow in the dark. From my perspective, you’re quite creepy.” The words were delivered in an annoyed tone, but that teasing spark was shining in Obi-Wan’s eyes.
“I shall strive not to glow so much,” Qui-Gon returned dryly, surprising a laugh out of Obi-Wan, as had been his intent. “Just remember: One day you will be just as blue, and just as luminescent.”
“That’s a morbid thought,” Obi-Wan replied, though he looked contemplative.
“It’s not so bad,” Qui-Gon said. At least, not now, he thought to himself. The first years after his death had been…difficult. “You’ll have the benefit of not having to learn how to do so after you have already died. Learning it post-mortem is…hmm. Frustrating.”
“I wish that I’d been able to undertake this set of lessons under normal circumstances,” Obi-Wan said. He had been frustrated to find that the lessons were actually meant to be taught upon being named a Jedi Master, a practice that had fallen out of favor a few decades previously.
“I did argue against the change,” Qui-Gon said, watching as Obi-Wan flexed his hands, which were becoming a dark golden brown from constant exposure to two bright suns. “But they were seen to be of no practical use.”
Obi-Wan shook his head. “It would have been of better use than what we were doing, instead. I had to be gallivanting about the galaxy in the middle of a war, being shot at on a daily basis, and…flying.” Obi-Wan shuddered.
Qui-Gon raised one eyebrow. He knew it wasn’t the flying that had been the problem. “The methodology leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to the actual circumstances. Despite how many learned the lesson, I’m one of the only ones to utilize it in recent years, and had to get the rest of the proper means from someone else.”
“Yes, but the original lessons should have been enough. You were always terrible at interpreting the Code,” Obi-Wan pointed out.
Qui-Gon opened his mouth to argue—something they seemed to do quite often, though not as vehemently as they once did—and realized all of a sudden that
He was awake, and staring up into the darkness of the transport. Beside him on the narrow bed, Obi-Wan was pressed against him, breathing quietly. Anakin’s much lighter form seemed to be trying to burrow under Qui-Gon’s legs.
The perils of limited accommodations, he thought, managing to shift enough to be comfortable without disturbing either sleeper. Space was at a premium on Republic cruisers like the Radiant VII; despite the ship’s massive size, creature comforts had somehow not found their way into the design.
At least this second mission had been less eventful than their first. Every single aspect of it had been uneventful, and they were already on their way back to the Temple to take another assignment.
He pillowed his head with his left arm, and realized his careful movements had still managed to rouse one of his bunkmates. Obi-Wan lifted his head. “Why are you awake?” he asked.
“Sorry,” Qui-Gon said in apology, his voice pitched low so as not to disturb Anakin. “I didn’t mean to rouse you.” Granted, he could have carried on a normal conversation without concern. Unless there was danger present, Anakin would continue to sleep like something dead.
“Being apologetic is not a reason for being awake,” Obi-Wan muttered, shifting until he wasn’t glued so solidly to Qui-Gon’s side. Qui-Gon kept his dismay mute, because he wasn’t sorry for disturbing Obi-Wan so much as he was sorry that Obi-Wan, now that he was awake, was trying to move a polite distance away.
Well. Polite considering the circumstances, anyway.
“I know. I was dreaming, and I awoke before we could begin to argue,” Qui-Gon explained.
Obi-Wan sat up further; Qui-Gon could feel the sudden intensity of his gaze. “You argue with me in your sleep?” he asked in disbelief.
“It seems that way,” Qui-Gon said, amused.
Obi-Wan snickered and lay back down. “Glutton for punishment.”
Qui-Gon smiled. “It’s not punishment if I always win.”
“You’re a true Jedi Master, Qui-Gon Jinn,” Obi-Wan said, yawning. “Big liar.”
“Little tales tend to be destructive. Big tales mean songs get written about you,” Qui-Gon replied, their banter much more interesting than staring into the blackness of their cabin.
“So you say. I’ll sing the song written about you and Mace during the Stark Hyperspace War. Then we’ll see if you change your tune.”
Qui-Gon groaned at the pun. “You’re an ornery bastard in the middle of the night.”
“Yes,” Obi-Wan agreed. “And this grumpy bastard is going back to sleep, and suggests you do the same. I really doubt we’ll be in the Temple long enough to sleep before we go out again.”
“Yes, Knight Kenobi,” Qui-Gon said, grinning as Obi-Wan only snorted in response. A moment later, a quick nudge with the Force confirmed that Obi-Wan had already put himself under.
Qui-Gon, meanwhile, was still wide awake, thinking of the dream. Since Obi-Wan had collapsed four years ago, there had been many like it, the first one occurring while Obi-Wan was still comatose in the Ward. It had taken him almost two years to realize that the old man in his dream had been Obi-Wan. It had been months of meditation to reconcile the horror he’d felt at that realization.
The dreams occurred in no particular order, with no real way to gauge the passage of time but for the changing color of Obi-Wan’s hair. Qui-Gon would fall asleep and find himself in the middle of a conversation, or standing as silent witness as Obi-Wan dealt with something or someone else. The dreams were lucid, but he could not control them. His script was predetermined, as were his feelings. More often than not, Qui-Gon would awaken bewildered by something he or Obi-Wan had said or done.
Qui-Gon had no idea why he kept catching glimpses of Obi-Wan’s life on Tatooine, though it gave him an idea of the extra training, the lessons Obi-Wan had learned in the desert.
It also felt like the Force was trying to give Qui-Gon credit for something he had nothing to do with.
Qui-Gon resolutely closed his eyes. Turning those thoughts over again and again in his head was not getting him anywhere closer to an answer that it ever had. Who’s supposed to be comforted in those dreams, anyway? Me, or him?
* * * *
“Does he hate us that much?” Obi-Wan asked, raising startled eyes to his partner.
Qui-Gon grinned at him. “Finis hates neither of us.”
“He’s got a funny way of showing his affection, then,” Obi-Wan said, glaring back down at the flimsiplast invitation Qui-Gon had handed him over lunch. “Tell him we’re unavailable. Tell him we’re dead. Dead men don’t attend Senate galas.”
Obi-Wan was aware that his partner was trying not to laugh at him. “It’s not something I enjoy, either, but consider it a favor performed on behalf of the Supreme Chancellor,” Qui-Gon said. “He’s worried about the current political climate, and is asking us to test the waters.”
Obi-Wan narrowed his eyes. He hadn’t kept as close an eye on Coruscant politics as he’d wanted to, but things had seemed no worse or better of late than they had for the previous ten years. “He has concerns, then?”
Qui-Gon hesitated. “I believe Finis wishes for us to confirm that he’s jumping at shadows.”
“Do you think he is?” Obi-Wan asked, trying not to hold his breath. He didn’t want there to be a problem at all. He’d already seen the results once before, and had no wish to repeat it.
Qui-Gon took the invitation back from Obi-Wan, folding over the ’plast until it resealed. “I think his concerns about The Flail are valid. I’m uncertain if he has anything else to be worried about. Even if there is a problem in the Senate, there is little we can do about it.”
Obi-Wan nodded, relieved. No worse than he had already surmised. “Then I guess I’ll go get ready, and make sure Anakin is presentable. Meet you topside at 20:00?”
“The main landing platform, yes,” Qui-Gon agreed. “Finis is sending an aircab for us, and Anakin should enjoy his first taste of Senate nonsense. He does like to meet new people.”
Obi-Wan felt his heart clench; his instincts were screaming that he didn’t want Anakin anywhere near any part of the Galactic Senate. Which was patently ridiculous, and he willed himself to relax. “At least one of us will enjoy the evening, then.”
At the end of their training day, Obi-Wan pushed and prodded at his reluctant Padawan until he was showered, dressed, and squirming—Anakin disliked his formal tunics with a fiery passion, an opinion that had begun with the starchy Initiates’ formal whites. Obi-Wan took his own shower, bound up his hair in a tail with a brown leather cord, and dressed in a set of tunics he kept pristine and bagged in his closet, ones that were never meant for field work.
Even with Anakin’s fidgeting and random moments of distraction, Obi-Wan still managed to get them to the landing platform five minutes early. Qui-Gon was already waiting, and Obi-Wan drew in a breath at the sight of him. His partner always wore formal tunics in the same shade of brown as his trousers; the solid block of color emphasized Qui-Gon’s height, and the long, muscled lines of his body. While he had elected to wear his hair tied back, Qui-Gon, for once, had left his loose. The entire effect was elegant, and very distracting.
“Now that makes dealing with this nonsense worthwhile,” he muttered under his breath. Anakin grinned up at him in silent humor at his Master’s emotional predicament.
Qui-Gon turned as they approached, and for a moment Obi-Wan saw a flash of appreciation in his eyes, and it made his heart start beating faster.
Oh, Obi-Wan thought, and was unable to keep a wide smile from blossoming on his face.
“Hey, Master Qui-Gon!” Anakin called, darting ahead. “You should have been with us for sparring this evening.”
Qui-Gon smiled at their shared Padawan. “I wanted to see Master Tahl off on her latest venture, but I’m sorry I missed it. Did you win?”
“Shyeah, no,” Anakin said, shaking his head. “He kicked my tail all over the salle. But it was fun!”
“Micah used us as a demonstration for his A.L.T. class,” Obi-Wan explained. “And he asked me to remind you that we’re both due for another session of trying to complete his Eleventh Form.”
“He’s a cruel man,” Qui-Gon said as they boarded the aircab. Discussions of lightsabers, classes, and Micah’s ability to turn lightsaber katas into torture kept the three of them occupied all the way to the Senate Dome.
The enclosed speeder dropped down and settled into a line of other cabs. Obi-Wan noticed the flash of many lights ahead, and made a face. “Oh, no. He did not.”
“Ah, the celebrity entrance,” Qui-Gon said, and Anakin left his seat to press his nose against the glass to look.
“They’re going to take holos of us?” There was no mistaking the excitement in Anakin’s voice.
“Is it illegal to put slimy creatures into the Supreme Chancellor’s bed?” Obi-Wan asked.
“I don’t know what you’re complaining about. You take great pictures,” Anakin said, turning his head so he could grin at his Master. “Twenty feet high, on display—”
“Oh, please shut up,” Obi-Wan said with a disconsolate whimper. “I’m trying to forget about that.”
Qui-Gon gave him a curious look. “Is this one of those things I’m not supposed to ask about?”
Obi-Wan sighed. If they were going to be on display, he needed to get his distaste for the proceedings under wraps. “It was a P.R. campaign,” he said by way of explanation. “Don’t ask. It was embarrassing.”
The aircab pulled up to the carpet, a deep navy blue in honor of the Chancellor. Qui-Gon went first, with Obi-Wan holding up a hand when Anakin wanted to dart out next. We emerge to establish rank, not relationship, he said, and Anakin nodded his understanding.
Obi-Wan emerged from the aircab, a Jedi’s serene mask firmly in place, and refused to flinch when at least one thousand cameras tried to blind him. He was going to have a stern talk with Finis Valorum. There were quiet entry points on this building. He, Qui-Gon, and Anakin could have attended this function in a show of support without this very public display.
Political games are afoot, if Finis thought this necessary, Qui-Gon commented.
The aircab retreated after Anakin climbed out; his Padawan was grinning at the attention, enthused by the entire process. Anakin was not a diplomat, no, but he once was able to charm the socks off the most hardened Senators with his relentless cheer.
They walked in a group, not quite together, with Obi-Wan about two handspans behind Qui-Gon and Anakin the same distance behind Obi-Wan. Protocol, protocol, protocol, security vetting, lightsabers tagged, Anakin striking up a casual conversation with members of the Chancellor’s Guard just because he could, protocol protocol blah blah blah, official greetings at the door, yet more cameras—
Stop, stop, Qui-Gon begged, his mental voice full of laughter. How you can keep up such a diatribe and yet look so proper and professional, I’ve no idea.
Practice makes perfect, Obi-Wan replied, bowing in precise respect to the Allamadi Senator, who was already attempting to corner them. Force, this place is packed.
This place is amazing, Anakin countered, trying to look everywhere at once. Do we have to stay together the entire time?
No, but first we must greet the Chancellor. Then you can explore and speak to whomever you wish. Just remember that you represent the Jedi Order right now, not yourself, and mind your manners, Qui-Gon told him.
And protocol, Obi-Wan added, just to make Qui-Gon smile. They were close enough to hear strains of music, blended with the constant babble of hundreds of voices.
Whoever had designed the flow of arrival for transitioning into the main hall needed a promotion, Obi-Wan thought, when they were in the Chancellor’s company within minutes. Finis Valorum greeted them with a hint of a smile. There were new signs of stress around his eyes that Obi-Wan didn’t like seeing at all.
“My friends, I’m so pleased you could make it,” Valorum said. “You have done excellent work for the Republic in recent weeks.”
“Ah, so that’s your excuse,” Qui-Gon said in an undertone, while another flock of reporters with cameras took record of the Chancellor greeting the Jedi.
Valorum’s smile became more genuine. “It just so happens to be true.”
“Orn Free Taa?” Obi-Wan asked, and knew he was right when Valorum’s eyes widened.
“Unfortunately,” Valorum said, and turned his attention to Anakin. “It is good to meet you at last, Padawan Skywalker.”
Anakin accepted the hand of the Chancellor with a bright smile. “You too, sir.”
An aide was motioning them to move on; Finis ignored the instruction, keeping them a moment longer on the staging platform. “If it’s not a difficulty, I would appreciate your presence beyond your usual hour’s attendance this evening.”
Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon glanced at each other. “I’m surprised you didn’t invite Mace, if that’s the case,” Qui-Gon said.
Valorum nodded. “Oh, I did, as well as Master Gallia, but I was informed this morning that they would be arriving late. They have mentioned that the situation with the Initiates has taken up a great deal of time. Is it going well?”
“Well enough,” Obi-Wan said, “in that it seems largely resolved. How has it looked from this side of the glass?”
“Politically, all is well for the Order. It could have been a disaster, but the matter was dealt with so quickly that the press just had wind of it as the Council began making amends. I have to say, it did help that many of the Initiates who were brought back to Coruscant became Padawans in such a short amount of time.” Valorum seemed pleased with that detail.
“Because then the story looks to have a happy ending,” Qui-Gon murmured with his own trace of cynicism.
“Does it?” Valorum asked.
“I think it might,” Obi-Wan said, smiling reassurance, and then they were moving on, through the receiving line and out into the milling crowd of guests.
“Orn Free Taa?” Qui-Gon repeated, when they were able to escape to a quiet corner of the hall.
“I hope he’s just blowing hot air,” Obi-Wan said of the corpulent Senator. “But I don’t think so. I think it’s just starting.” And damn, if that didn’t irritate him.
“Explain, please,” Qui-Gon said, crossing his arms and pinning Obi-Wan with a firm stare.
Obi-Wan debated with himself for a minute before deciding it was worth sharing. They were so close to the incident in question that he didn’t think the timing mattered, anyway. “Orn Free Taa was a vital element in Finis Valorum’s political downfall, leading to his removal from office at the end of this year.”
Qui-Gon sighed and glanced in the Chancellor’s direction. “Force. His position is shaky because of The Flail, but not enough to warrant a vote. He still has two years of his second term remaining.”
“It hasn’t happened yet. It might not happen,” Obi-Wan cautioned. “Orn Free Taa needs something to work with, aside from just his words.”
“We’ll know in a couple of months, believe me. The incident is large enough to gain galactic notice, and set the entire Senate in an uproar,” Obi-Wan explained, and then ducked his head. “It doesn’t help that I can’t actually remember what the specifics are.”
Anakin, who had been listening closely, piped up. “You know, I could wander over to Senator Taa’s enclave and, you know, try and make friends.”
Obi-Wan raised an eyebrow. “Friends, huh?”
“Well, sure,” Anakin said, smiling. “I’m just a young, innocent Padawan n’ stuff.”
Obi-Wan made a shooing motion with his hand. “Well. Far be it from me to prevent you from making friends. Have fun. Come find us again in about an hour.”
Anakin saluted with his hand and disappeared into the milling crowd, too short to be noticeable unless he started making a great deal of noise. Qui-Gon watched their Padawan’s progress. “Not a diplomat, hmm?”
“Not in the least,” Obi-Wan confirmed, looking up at Qui-Gon and fighting a smile. “But I never said that he didn’t know how to be sneaky.”
“Then where does the failing lie?” Qui-Gon asked, curious.
“His general inability to sort the true tales of woe from the false ones, especially when the false ones are blended with truth.” Obi-Wan watched as Anakin reappeared near Orn Free Taa’s people, catching the attention of Taa’s Lethan Twi’lek consort. “Oh, that should work nicely,” he murmured, and then said, “He used to go out, soak up all of the evening’s stories, and relate them to me so we could figure out what was going on together.”
“Ah. I wonder who taught him that?” Qui-Gon wondered, warm humor shining in his eyes.
“Oh, I have no idea,” Obi-Wan drawled. “Meet you by the fountain in a bit?”
Qui-Gon inclined his head in agreement and wandered off. It wasn’t long at all before he was pounced upon by two representatives, who were squabbling over policy and thought Jedi mediation would be the solution to their problem.
Obi-Wan skirted the crowd, following the pathway of the line of pillars that supported the balconies and connecting walkways overhead. He caught snippets of conversation here and there—mostly the inane exchange of pleasantries—and paused on occasion, when something interesting was being said. As he’d suspected, Senator Orn Free Taa of Ryloth was stirring up unhappiness with words alone, but Obi-Wan was not pleased with how well the verbal poison was spreading.
Valorum had never been the most popular Chancellor the Republic had ever seen. No one had been, really, not in at least a century, as bureaucratic squabbling had become more prevalent. Still, he had done his job, and the most fuel gossipmongers in the media could come up with was his tendency to love females just a bit too much, too often. It was hard to decry a man as scum when every single ex-companion had nothing but good things to say about her time with Finis Valorum.
No, there’s no fuel for this, Qui-Gon agreed with him, even as he exchanged pleasant greetings with Senator Bail Antilles on the other side of the hall. But I have heard worse things being said about Finis tonight than I can recall for the entirety of his time in office.
Which I don’t understand at all, Obi-Wan sent back, pausing to say hello to Ginia Ella, Senator of the Bormea sector. His and Mace’s handling of The Flail incident was considered well-done, not two weeks ago. Now it seems as if half the Senate’s turned against him!
Senator Ella was giving him a careful once-over. “Are you doing that mind-talking thing with your elder partner right now?”
He smiled. “It is not usually so obvious.”
She shook her head. “My daughter does it all the blasted time when I come to the Temple to visit her. I don’t care how well you Jedi follow a given conversation, I can always tell. Your eyes start to look odd.”
“Perhaps that’s your own bit of Force-sensitivity alerting you?” Obi-Wan suggested. “You are not a null, Senator.”
“Hmm,” was Ella’s noncommittal response. “How is my daughter of late, Knight Kenobi? Has she developed any noteworthy friendships?”
Politician, Obi-Wan thought. “She and my Padawan are close friends, Senator. Your daughter does not want for companionship, I assure you.”
“Good girl,” Ella said. “A Padawan of yours is a good ally for my daughter to have.”
“I am not a cog in your political bid to get re-elected, Senator,” Obi-Wan reminded her with a frown.
Ella treated him to a thin smile. “Then you should not have stuck your neck out two years previous, Knight. You earned the notice of those in power, and now you must deal with the consequences.”
“Well, my lady Senator, as long as those consequences are limited to dealing with beings like you, I might find myself in interesting company,” Obi-Wan replied, taking her hand and placing a courtier’s false kiss above her fingers.
“Oh, you’re good,” Ella said, a glimmer of real amusement in her eyes. “I’m not certain if you just insulted me or not. Have a pleasant evening, Knight Kenobi. When next you see my daughter, offer her my greetings and good thoughts.”
Xanatos and Ginia Ella, hmm? Qui-Gon sent.
Without stabbing each other, even, Obi-Wan confirmed.
Force preserve us all.
He met Qui-Gon by the fountain later, not sure if he felt bruised or entertained by the gala. Maybe both. “Learn anything interesting?” Obi-Wan asked, taking a fluted glass of bubbling water from a droid with a tray. No alcohol for him, not in this place, as it tended to be too sweet or too sour.
“Four extra-marital affairs,” Qui-Gon said, accepting a glass of white wine from another server.
Obi-Wan eyed the wine. “Alderaanian press?”
Qui-Gon smiled. “To my pleasure.”
Uneducated tongue, Qui-Gon said.
Bran-dy, Obi-Wan insisted, and snorted a laugh into his water when Qui-Gon issued a put-upon sigh. “I think one of my overheard affairs was a third wheel to one of yours. Senator Brae?”
“With an inclination to blame Senator bel Iblis,” Qui-Gon added.
“That will go over like a brick to the skull. The good Corellian Senator would be able to promptly lay that at the feet of the failing trade treaty between his system and Brae’s.”
Qui-Gon nodded. “I think Garm is looking forward to the attempt. He hasn’t been in the news for starting a pissing war in at least six months.”
“Huh,” Obi-Wan said, and then tilted his head, listening as the orchestra began the opening strains of a new song. “Hey, isn’t that a cover?”
“They’ve been playing covers all evening. Haven’t you been listening?”
Obi-Wan shrugged one shoulder. “I was paying less attention to the music and more attention to everything else. Pelting Rain and Dirty Sky?”
Qui-Gon lifted an eyebrow. “Sometimes it really bothers me that you know more about music from my third decade than I do.”
“Serves you right for not paying attention, then,” Obi-Wan said, following along with the music in his head. It was kind of disappointing. “This song works better with the lyrics.”
“And yet, without the lyrics, the melody is open to further interpretation than the words alone can provide.”
It took everything Obi-Wan had not to freeze in place. His heart started beating faster, cold fingers grasping and prodding at the back of his neck.
That voice, that voice, that voice.
Obi-Wan turned at the same moment as his partner, not letting his jaw clench, not letting any bit of his sudden apprehension show at all. The man before them: red hair, thinning and beginning to turn white as age stole its color, pale blue eyes, warm smile, elderly, kind face; garbed in the Naboo colors of dark blue and gray edged with green, cut in subtle mimicry of the Chancellor’s robes of office.
“Senator Palpatine,” Qui-Gon greeted him, offering a short bow that Obi-Wan copied automatically.
So many things had just become clear to him—his head was full to bursting, his thoughts were screaming with it all.
“And you,” Palpatine said, turning to Obi-Wan and meeting his eyes. “I have been looking forward to meeting you, Knight Kenobi.”
Obi-Wan wasn’t sure how he made it through the rest of the conversation. When it was over and done with, and the Naboo Senator had gone on his way, he couldn’t even remember what had been said, not by any of them.
Qui-Gon touched Obi-Wan’s arm with his fingertips, rousing him from the cacophony of his thoughts. “You all right?”
“Of course,” Obi-Wan said. His voice sounded normal, unconcerned. “Just fine.”
Coruscant: Republic Standard Date 5199, Eighth Month, 14th Day
Digital transcription of written entry:
I have to start at the beginning. I’ve tried at least three times to write this out in a way that makes sense, and it just looks like the ravings of a madman—or the ramblings of the sleep-deprived.
To recap: Chancellor Valorum requested my, Qui-Gon’s, and Anakin’s presence at a formal affair of the Senate. Some bureaucratic gathering, I don’t even recall what its initial purpose was. Either way, we were his personal guests in honor of the work we’ve performed for him of late. (I wish to state, for the record, that he really need not have bothered. The next time Finis wants to thank us, gift certificates would be nice. Dex’s grease is more enjoyable, really.)
Granted, he only had the pleasure of our company because our third scheduled mission fell apart, and thus, there we were, available. He should have asked Luminara Unduli. She does a much better job at being political and looking ornate.
Pointless addendum. Stop that. Keep going.
Anakin remembers more of our past life than he lets on, I think, though I have yet to see anything that worries me. If anything, tonight it came in handy, when he did a deft job of collecting information and interesting tidbits from Orn Free Taa’s contingent. It was a good distraction for him, else I think being in that hall tonight would have blown all of his fuses. He gets so excited by those sorts of things.
That’s beside the point tonight, even though I’d much rather focus on that level of intrigue. It would be easier.
Last night, we were formally introduced to Senator Palpatine of Naboo.
Needed tea. Needed to gather my thoughts. I have to get this finished, as Anakin will be awake soon.
I keep getting distracted, far easier than I should be, especially considering the nature of the subject material. I’m writing it down as it comes to me, because otherwise I’m forgetting.
There are many questions about the things Anakin and I experienced in our past, about our vision, as we’ve called it for lack of a better term. I find it worrisome that I have fewer answers than I once thought. When we returned home last night, I began a long-delayed investigation into Palpatine of Naboo.
Gods, I’m such a damned fool. I should have done this years ago.
Why didn’t I?
On Senator Palpatine:
Palpatine is his political name, just as Amidala will one day be the political name for another Senator from Naboo. That bit was easy enough to find. My first stumbling block is this: He doesn’t seem to have any other name at all. There was once a House Palpatine on Naboo, denizens of the southern lake country, but the records of them end abruptly some years ago. I may have to speak to someone old enough to remember the House’s demise, because I’m not finding it in the archives.
His public records indicate he was born in 5150. Like hell he’s a decade younger than Qui-Gon. The Naboo have long lifespans; I’d guess his age to be eighty, perhaps eighty-five.
Palpatine was asked to run for office by the last ruler of Naboo, King Veruna, when Senator Vidar Kim was murdered. He won the election with ease, despite having minimal political successes previous to that. Almost immediately thereafter, rumors of corruption began to hound Veruna.
Damn. From what I’ve read, if not for the peace that Naboo has enjoyed for generations, that planet would be in real trouble. Veruna being accused of inefficiency would almost be a compliment, considering his office track record.
Since his election, Palpatine has enjoyed popularity among the Naboo, the Chommell sector, and his contemporaries in the Senate. The Naboo are looking upon him as the only thing Veruna did properly during his last term.
Palpatine has arranged for Naboo’s interstellar trade economy to be boosted by an alliance with the Trade Federation; the planet’s finances are doing very well from that collusion.
Qui-Gon and I have both been concerned by a sudden upswing in anti-Valorum sentiment, and I now know why. Palpatine’s fellow Senators have joined Palpatine in vocal criticism of the Supreme Chancellor, gaining momentum from the general unrest stirred by The Flail. They do not hesitate to label him a good man (surprising), but speak often of Valorum’s lack of ability to deal with the problems he encountered upon his election as Chancellor six years ago. Here’s a quote, and it gives me chills: “[Finis] Valorum has done his best, but in this day and age, the best efforts of an armchair politician from an ancient, outdated lineage are not enough. In the eyes of the public, he is a failure.”
It’s complete rubbish…and yet, people are starting to believe it.
I have just stumbled onto further proof that my life was real. (That’ll make Jocasta Nu uncomfortable.) Padmé Amidala recently finished a two-year term as governor of Theed. After a landslide election, she became Queen Amidala several months ago.
How did I miss that? Hers is a name that I’ve been actively looking for!
I don’t like that at all. Between overlooking Padme’s political rise, and not even thinking about Palpatine…
Frankly, I’m terrified.
I don’t have time to put further research into the matter at the moment, but I will. However, I’m also a paranoid realist. If this entry is never finished, and becomes the property of friends, then here is my warning for you.
Do not trust that man. He may not be the enemy I fear, but he is not all that he seems to be, either.
I didn’t want this to happen.
Damn it all.
* * * *
Anakin stumbled out of his room, yawning and rubbing crud from his eyes. Shower. He needed a shower. And his Master needed tea, if the rumpled state of his clothes and thousand-meter stare was anything to go by.
“Didn’t you sleep?” Another yawn punctuated the question.
“No,” Obi-Wan said, still gazing at nothing in particular. He was tapping his fingers on the couch, a paper book open on his lap and a stylus marking the page.
Oh. One of those nights, Anakin thought, and skipped his shower and went straight for the kitchen. He made two mugs of tea, giving his Master curious glances as the leaves steeped. The fragrant steam perked him up a bit, and he carried both mugs over to the couch to share.
“Bless you, Ani,” Obi-Wan said with a grateful smile.
“So, what’s up?” Anakin asked, when they had sat together in silence for at least three minutes, sipping tea and watching the light in their quarters get brighter as the sun rose.
Obi-Wan dropped his gaze to his tea. There was an expression on his face that Anakin couldn’t begin to translate, intense and a little creepy.
“I’m going to ask something of you that I usually would not. If our situation were normal, I’d let you form your own opinions. You know that, right?” Obi-Wan asked, glancing at Anakin.
O-kayyy. Anakin nodded. “Sure. Learn from my own mistakes and stuff. I get it.”
“Promise me that you will not trust Palpatine of Naboo.”
“Er…the Senator?” Anakin asked, trying to make sure he placed the name. “Older guy, dresses kind of like he wishes he were Chancellor?”
A faint smile curled Obi-Wan’s lip at Anakin’s description. “That’s him. Do you remember him at all?”
Anakin was aware of the fact that most people could be asked that question without there being so many implications in it. That one was easy, though. “Nope, not at all. Why, is he a jerk?”
“I don’t know,” Obi-Wan said, a faint line appearing between his eyes as he frowned. “I still don’t have your word, Anakin.”
Anakin shrugged. “Okay, I promise.” He could tell that it was important to his Master, even if Anakin was clueless as to why. “No hanging out with the old guy. If I’m going to hang out with old people, I’ll stick with you.”
Obi-Wan rolled his eyes. “Brat,” he said, but he seemed less tense, and even managed a real smile. “New class today?”
“Yep!” Anakin replied, glad that the previous topic of conversation was over with. “What are you doing today, Master?”
“New Healers,” Obi-Wan said, and tapped his forehead with his fingertip.
“Oh,” Anakin said, some of his enthusiasm for the morning disappearing. “You think it’ll help?”
Obi-Wan shrugged. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
* * * *
Obi-Wan was not in a good mood. It wasn’t the greatest headspace to be in, not when he was meeting new Mind Healers in just a few moments, but he couldn’t seem to shake a general feeling of unease. His early-morning conversation with Anakin had helped, but still, he felt…off.
Terza took one look at him when he entered her office and ordered, “Sit,” pointing to the empty chair in front of her desk. She yelled at the closest Healer Padawan, and in a short time there was a mug of tea in his hands, one of the calming blends.
“This is the second time today I’ve had tea forced into my hands,” Obi-Wan commented, taking a sip when his primary Healer did nothing more than stare at him in expectation.
“You cannot go into a session with these two in this kind of mood,” Terza said, perching on her desk and crossing her arms. “What’s going on? Nervous?”
“Not about this,” he said, shaking his head. “I just learned some interesting news last night, that’s all.”
“Mm,” Terza said, knowing from long experience that Obi-Wan would not elaborate. “Do you want to reschedule?”
“No!” Obi-Wan protested, perhaps too quickly. “Really, no. It’s okay. I can pull myself together enough for this. Honestly, I’m so sick of this problem that I’d invite your newfound Healers to go after the block with a tactical warhead, if I thought I’d survive it.”
“That’s what the last idiot tried to do,” Terza said with a frown. “Yerla is still on clinic duty on the Outer Rim on my orders.”
“Yerla was only trying to help,” Obi-Wan pointed out in the young man’s defense.
“Yerla already knew that trying to use figurative explosives in any mental situation was not acceptable,” Terza countered. “When I’m certain he’s learned the lesson, he can work in my Ward again, but not before. Come on. Let’s go meet your new torturers.”
Obi-Wan hesitated after swallowing more tea. “That is not reassuring in the slightest.”
Ra’um-Ve and Su’um-Va were waiting for them in one of the private patient rooms, seated in chairs on opposite sides of an exam bed. Obi-Wan had guessed them to be siblings, judging by their names, and was not disappointed. The humanoid fraternal twins were the same height (almost as tall as Qui-Gon) both possessing sleek black hair and pale indigo skin, though Ra’um-Ve was much darker in color than her brother. She had violet eyes; his were pale gray. They were also, to Obi-Wan’s surprise, not much older than he was.
“The mental paths have always been our mutual talent, even in the creche in the Corellian Temple,” Ra’um-Ve told him. “We’ve been training for this pretty much since growing out of toddlerhood.”
“Early apprenticeship, early Mastery,” Su’um-Va explained. “We’ve been told you have a very stubborn problem, Master Kenobi.”
He smiled. “It’s still Knight.”
Su’um-Va peered at him for a moment. Obi-Wan could feel the man’s Force-sense crawl over him like thousands of tickling, tiny feet. “Like hell it is,” he said. “Did you know you have two layers of memory?”
Obi-Wan blinked in surprise. He’d never quite thought of it that way before. “I’m aware, yes. I’m less worried about that and more concerned with the fact that several months of my life have been stuffed into a locked mental box.”
“Oooh, that sounds fun,” Ra-um-Ve said, rubbing her hands together. “Let’s get started!”
Obi-Wan looked at the exam bed and resisted the urge to cringe. “Please don’t make my head explode.” He hadn’t been able to talk right for two days after the last attempt, and the lingering aftereffects had made Obi-Wan put his foot down and say No More. Until the nightmare cycle had restarted, it was a decision he had not regretted at all.
Terza chuckled and prodded him in the shoulder. “I told you that Yerla made him shy.”
“Yerla is an idiot,” Su’um-Va retorted. “We are not. I promise you, we will be gentle.”
“This time,” Ra’um-Ve tacked on, and Obi-Wan didn’t like the sound of that at all.
“Your bedside manner is atrocious,” Obi-Wan told her as he settled himself on the bed. There was no escaping it; he was very, very nervous.
“Would you rather have me lie and say that everything will be rainbows and baby Banthas and kittens and glitter?” the Healer asked.
“Let me think about that,” Obi-Wan said after a pause, which made both Healers chuckle.
“Terza, dim the lights as you leave, please,” Su’um-Va instructed, exchanging nods with the Ward’s senior Healing Master. “Now, then. The three of us are going to breathe and be still, and we will explore this block of yours as a group. During that time, you will be guided into a trance state, the better for my sister and I to study your problem without any conscious disruptions from you. You will be able to watch, see, feel, hear, and understand. All right?”
Obi-Wan took a deep breath, let it out, and nodded. “Yes.”
* * * *
Qui-Gon glanced up from his terminal, distracted from the drudgery of sorting a mountain-load of incoming messages by the insistent beeping from his comm. He reached for it and answered the call, wondering if it was his partner, or their Padawan, both of whom probably needed to be reminded of lunch.
“Master Jinn, I am Healer Ra’um-Ve,” a female voice responded to his greeting.
He tensed and then relaxed; the Healer’s voice was clear and calm. Not an emergency. “What is it, Healer?”
“I want you to come down to the Ward, as soon as you are able. It’s not an emergency, but we could use your assistance in regards to your working partner,” she said. “Healer Terza can let you in.”
He frowned, curious. From the pairbond there had been nothing alarming, and right now it was in a state of calm that felt artificial. “Did you drug him?”
The Healer laughed. “That is a hell of a pairbond you two have built, Master Jinn.”
Qui-Gon shook his head, hearing the implications in the Healer’s tone. Not yet we’ve not, Healer. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
Terza escorted Qui-Gon to one of the private rooms and slid a card through the security lock. “To make sure they were not disturbed,” she explained. “The twins do delicate work, and Ra’um-Ve would likely tear someone to bits if they were interrupted and a patient was hurt in the process.”
The twins rested on chairs placed on each side of an exam bed, which was reclined in a seated position for Obi-Wan’s benefit. Qui-Gon could almost mistake things for normal, but for the blank, unfocused look on his partner’s face. “Is he—”
“He’s fine, I promise,” the male Healer said, rising from his chair. “I am Su’um-Va. This is my sister, Ra’um-Ve. We have had a successful session, actually.”
“Well, except for this last bit,” Ra’um-Ve said, an amused smile on her face.
Su’um-Va nodded. “He is in a trance state that we use for our initial explorations when we work with the mind. However, now that we’re done, he isn’t responding to our voices, and doesn’t seem able to snap out of it on his own.”
“There are tracks in his mind that are very similar,” Ra’um-Ve said. “You have brought him out of such a state before, so we thought it wisest if you were to do so again.”
“Yes,” Qui-Gon said, stepping closer. The catatonic lack of blinking was starting to worry him. “The previous situation was far more dire, however.”
“Things are fine, now. There is no danger at all,” Su’um-Va promised. “Come close; allow him to sense your presence in the Force. Use words, not the pairbond, as mindspeech might be startling at the moment.”
“We gave him quite the mental scouring,” Ra’um-Ve said, rubbing at her temples. “The man’s got a complicated brain.”
That made Qui-Gon smile. “Indeed he does,” he said, and bent over Obi-Wan’s head, close enough to smell the clean soap-tang of his hair. “Obi-Wan?”
“Hmm?” The response was immediate, though Obi-Wan did not move or otherwise physically respond. Qui-Gon turned his head and gave the Healers a questioning look.
“It is a rather useful state for our patients to attain,” Ra’um-Ve said, looking a bit smug.
“Except when they get stuck,” Su’um-Va added.
“He’s the first to ever manage that,” Ra’um-Ve agreed. “Like I said, he’s complicated.”
“Obi-Wan, what are you doing?” Qui-Gon asked, curious; the twins nodded encouragement.
“I’m really close,” Obi-Wan said, after a moment of what seemed to be intense (if blank-faced) contemplation. “Really close. I can almost see it from here, but this is as far as I can go.”
Qui-Gon sighed. The last time Obi-Wan had been in mental viewing distance of the block, things had not gone nearly as well as this. He had no wish for Obi-Wan to veer any closer to the damned thing. “Do you know where you are, right now?”
Obi-Wan hesitated, and the first hint of expression appeared on his face. “I think so. I—I just…I’m having trouble. Will you…My hand, will you—?”
Qui-Gon took hold of his partner’s hands, though Obi-Wan’s fingers did not wrap around his in response. “That’s me. Can you feel that?”
Obi-Wan’s head dipped forward. “Okay. All right. I can—” he blinked and was fully aware, his hands tightening on Qui-Gon’s, his eyes gaining focus as he looked around the room. “What happened?”
“You weren’t listening to us,” Ra’um-Ve told him. “We had to call in your partner to get you out of our trance.”
“Oh,” Obi-Wan said, and glanced down at his lap, where their hands were still joined. “Why—”
“You asked,” Qui-Gon said, quirking an eyebrow when Obi-Wan blushed.
“Did you learn anything?” Obi-Wan asked the Healers.
Ra’um-Ve tilted her head. “Enough to know how to proceed safely.”
“Get him out of here, take him back to his quarters, and make sure he winds up in a bed,” Su’um-Va ordered. “To sleep,” he continued, when his sister started to grin. “He’ll be loopy for a while. My professional opinion is that a nap is required.”
Obi-Wan shook off both instructions and (gently) Qui-Gon’s hands, sliding off of the bed before standing up. “I’m fine, I can…whoa.” He gasped in surprise as his knees buckled.
Qui-Gon caught his partner by the elbow and glared at him. “No, you are not.”
“Told you,” Ra’um-Ve laughed, her smile relentless and unsympathetic. “Enjoy the nap, kiddo. Next session is going to be worse.”
Obi-Wan hesitated. “Worse? How much worse?”
“Migraines,” Su’um-Va said.
“Vomiting,” Ra’um-Ve added.
“Fierce desire to rend us to bits in retaliation,” Su’um-Va said, and from the look on the Healer’s face, Qui-Gon knew that he was serious.
Obi-Wan went pale, but he nodded his acceptance. “If it works, it’ll be worth it.”
Anakin met them in the corridor outside the Ward. “Is he drugged?”
Obi-Wan chuckled; he was managing to walk without sinking to the floor, or veering off in the wrong direction. “I kind of feel like it.”
“Yeah,” Anakin said, grinning as he became a matching bookend to help Qui-Gon escort his loopy partner home. “I stood up in class and suddenly everything was sideways. It was kinda wizard, except for, you know—sideways.”
Anakin realized long before Obi-Wan that they were going in the wrong direction. Obi-Wan glanced up at the door when they arrived, a puzzled look on his face. “Pretty sure I don’t live here.”
“You’re taking that prescribed nap on my couch,” Qui-Gon told him.
“Oooh. Couch. I like that couch,” Obi-Wan said, his words starting to slur together as they entered Qui-Gon’s quarters.
Qui-Gon smiled. “I know.”
Together they got Obi-Wan reclined on the couch without incident. Anakin yanked his Master’s boots off and took them back to the doorway to set them against the wall. “I have to go back to class. Or lunch. One of those things,” Anakin said. “Tell him I’ll bring dinner here later.”
Qui-Gon glanced down to find Obi-Wan already asleep, curled up on his side with his back to the room. “That’s a good idea. Commissary scouring?”
Anakin saluted. “My specialty.”
Anakin left; Qui-Gon went into his bedroom and pulled an unused blanket from his closet, spreading it over his partner’s still form. He hesitated, and then caressed Obi-Wan’s long hair once with his fingertips. Copper silk. “I should have just given you the couch. You use it more often than I do, anyway.”
* * * *
Their last mission, the one that came before Naboo, was by far the most peaceful of their work that year. At least, it would have been, Qui-Gon admitted, if it had not been for Obi-Wan.
Valan’halar had been an agrarian world, at least until civil war erupted. Now that the fighting was done, there was hope that it would be beautiful again, given time. When he, Anakin, and Obi-Wan arrived, the air was still heavy with the scent of burning and ozone from blaster discharge. In a month’s time, the Valan had almost destroyed their entire civilization.
It was not their place to negotiate a ceasefire; that had already been done, by a Master and Padawan team a week before. If not for Master Drace Vol taking a serious injury during one of the Valan’s last battles, they would not even have set foot on the planet. They saw Padawan Galla Brak off with her Master on the transport that brought them to Valan’halar. She had done the duty of calling for a new negotiation team to take over diplomatic proceedings, and after introducing Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan to the lead Valans, was grateful to wash her hands of the matter and return home with Drace Vol.
Normally, the first team would be responsible for stopping the fighting and putting Valan’halar’s government back together. Qui-Gon was glad that, for once, it was only the latter that was their responsibility, and turned to comment as such to Obi-Wan before the words dried up in his mouth.
Obi-Wan’s expression was pleasant, as he exchanged words and reassurances with the heavily armed women who made up much of the Valan delegation. No, there was no offense taken at all; their weapons and caution were understandable after such a terrible conflict. Qui-Gon’s partner was the perfect image of reassurance, unless you knew him very, very well.
Anakin glanced up at Qui-Gon, slipping his small hand into Qui-Gon’s much larger one. He’s worried about something. Danger here? Soon? I can’t really figure it out.
Qui-Gon looked over at Obi-Wan, who he had learned to read very well in the past seven years, even with the changes wrought four years ago by Taro Tre. There was a tense set to his shoulders, a tight clench to his jaw—Obi-Wan was on high alert.
What’s wrong? he asked, as they followed their guides through a grassy field that was spotted with char and clumps of torn-up earth.
Obi-Wan glanced at Qui-Gon from the corner of his eye, and then shrugged one shoulder, a movement that would have gone unnoticed if Qui-Gon had not been watching for it. Just a bad feeling. Valan’halar did just end a massive conflict. It never hurts to be cautious.
Anakin looked around as they walked, taking in the relaxed postures of the women leading them, the soldiers of both genders milling in the background, and the faint sounds of birdsong rising from the sparse woods to the east. I don’t feel anything, he said, sounding petulant.
Obi-Wan smiled and draped his arm across Anakin’s shoulders, a move that was noted with fond smiles by their Valan escort. Then I shall take that as a good sign, Obi-Wan said, and Qui-Gon hoped that would be the end of it.
Obi-Wan’s guard stayed up through days of establishing governing logistics, and no matter what, neither Anakin nor Qui-Gon could get him to explain why. Ten years ago, Qui-Gon would have found the situation intolerable; now, he wisely held his tongue. He had a partnership to maintain, a young, impressionable Padawan in tow—and Obi-Wan’s temper, when roused, had roasted stronger psyches than Qui-Gon’s own. If he had any hopes of entering into a romantic relationship with the man, picking a fight was not the way to get laid any time this century.
The war on Valan’halar was itself unusual, and had come about as a rebellion on the part of the overabundant female population, tired of a patriarchy that had ceased to listen to their voices. The men of the planet had maintained total control over religion, politics, and family life, acting with impunity. Where once there had been trust and respect for long-established culture, too many Valan males had taken their power too far.
The Valan women had decided that it was time for a change, wanting their fair share of responsibility; the men of the Ruling Council had been foolish enough not only to disagree, but to start imprisoning any citizen who joined in the protests. Drace Vol and Galla Brak had sided with the rebellion outright upon their arrival, to the Council’s consternation.
Given that the Valan women comprised ninety percent of Valan’halar’s standing army, the short civil war had not produced a very high body count. The collateral damage to Valan’halar’s infrastructure and economy was the worst of it.
“Are you kidding?” Anakin was staring down at the first governing documents the Valan had put together with Padawan Brak’s help, a grin on his face. “That’s what it took for the Valan to stop being stupid?”
Qui-Gon was hard-pressed to contain his own smile. “The solution is…unorthodox.” The rebellion had issued an edict that the Valan males could do whatever they pleased when the conflict was over, even if it meant brawling among each other every day, so long as they helped continue the family bloodlines. The Valan women would oversee mundane matters, the tasks that their men had kept to themselves. The odd part was how quickly the Valan males had agreed to the rebellion’s terms. The few that wanted to hold onto the old ways were either incarcerated, or had died in the fighting.
“Well, keep in mind that the Valan women don’t need males to reproduce,” Obi-Wan pointed out. “The army could have decided to summarily slaughter every male and start over fresh with a new generation.”
“Oh,” Anakin said, taken aback. “Tell me again why the Council thought that sending three guys here was a good idea?”
The Valan Ruling Council was re-established, with nine females and one token male (Obi-Wan’s suggestion) who preferred politics to fisticuffs. Padawan Brak had left behind coded notes in the initial treaty documents, hinting at a suspicion of Master Vol’s that a majority of the non-ruling Valan males had wanted the new arrangement from the beginning.
Frustrated, and tired of feeling tension through the pairbond, Qui-Gon decided it was time to do something about it. Distraction was in order.
With much of the capital in ruins, the Valan were living in domed hide tents in the fields around the city. They had each been granted a tent, even Anakin, who declared it was roomier and smelled more pleasant than bunks on Republic cruisers. Qui-Gon knocked on the hide flap that made up the door of his partner’s tent, and then pushed it aside without waiting for an answer.
Obi-Wan, who was seated cross-legged in the center of the tent on a pile of furs, opened his eyes. “Most people wait for permission to enter before barging into someone else's tent.”
Temperamental. Off to a good start, then. Qui-Gon was still, technically, outside the tent, but decided not to voice that opinion. “I suspect that you could use some company.”
Obi-Wan raised a copper eyebrow, highlighted by flames from the brazier hanging from the support poles that crossed the tent’s ceiling. Living fire, Qui-Gon thought. That was Obi-Wan—the luminescence of his universe, clothed in the body of a man.
Qui-Gon almost smiled at himself, wondering what Tahl would say if she knew his former Padawan had turned him into a poet, and an awful one, at that. “I happened to notice that you seem tense.”
The second eyebrow joined the first. “Just happened to notice, did you?”
Qui-Gon was almost certain that the annoyance was a mask. “Yes, and I’ve decided that something must be done about it. May I come in?”
“So you’re asking properly?” The mask slipped, revealing a mischievous smile underneath. “I could say no.”
Qui-Gon ducked through the short entryway, sitting in a crouch after pulling the door closed. The tent was made for a much shorter race of beings. He removed his pack, placing it on the dirt floor. “No, you can’t. Lie down and take off your shirt.”
Obi-Wan’s smile widened. “So, what, we’re playing doctor?”
Qui-Gon considered the question. He was tempted, Force knew he was, but not yet. “There will be no playing here, I’m afraid. And you have yet to obey me.”
Obi-Wan laughed, removing his tunics and rolling them up as a pillow for his head. His skin was pale, just barely sun-kissed; the deep tan he’d acquired during their three-month rotation on Ragoon VI last year had almost faded. “Yes, Master,” he said as he rested, stomach-side down on the furs. “Will there be anything else, Mast—ow!” he yelped, when Qui-Gon delivered a slap to his rear. “What was that for?”
“Cheeky impertinence,” Qui-Gon told him, rummaging in the pack for a small vial. The oil went just about everywhere with him, a habit begun during his apprenticeship. After a month spent on a dry world that had turned his skin to cracked parchment, and no safe relief for a human in sight, Qui-Gon had damn near marinated in the oil upon return to the Temple. It was a perfect balm for chapped lips, reddened skin, or, in this case, tense muscles. “Will nothing ever cure you of your disrespect for your elders?”
Obi-Wan snickered. “Since I’m older than you? No.” He was still smiling, and Qui-Gon was glad to see it.
“Good,” Qui-Gon replied, and drizzled cold oil on Obi-Wan's back. That earned him a string of curses, and he grinned, capping the vial before working the oil into Obi-Wan's skin.
“Guhhh,” was Obi-Wan's incoherent response. Qui-Gon sought out the knots in Obi-Wan’s shoulders, kneading with his fingers until the stiffness began to ease.
“This is your own fault, you know,” he said, working his way down Obi-Wan's spine, satisfied when several loud cracks announced that tension had been released.
Obi-Wan muttered something into his shirt as Qui-Gon continued to work on de-stressing overwrought muscles. When everything that could be persuaded with pressure had been dealt with, Qui-Gon changed tactics.
Soothing passes of the hands, now, fingertips brushing skin to stimulate nerve endings and increase blood flow. Yes, he was still maintaining professionalism, but he was also going to use the moment as an opportunity to explore. The firelight above brought out golden tones in Obi-Wan’s skin, revealing a light smattering of freckles across his shoulders that had refused to fade with childhood.
There were scars, also. Qui-Gon couldn’t help but trace them all. Some he had seen Obi-Wan earn, first as Padawan, and then during their partnership. Others were a product of the memories Obi-Wan carried, and their cause was still unknown to him.
The newest, larger one, Qui-Gon brushed his fingers over. There was a rough circle of white skin, too close to the spinal column, from a blaster; a slashing line veered up from there to greet Obi-Wan’s shoulder blade, inflicted by a large knife. Both wounds had been earned during the same battle.
The image of Obi-Wan’s still form draped over Micah’s bleeding body had haunted his dreams for months. Micah had been injured with a slugthrower, would have bled out if not for Obi-Wan. During the distraction of performing the healing necessary to save Micah’s life, he’d been hit from behind. The realization that Qui-Gon had come close to losing his partner and one of his oldest friends, at almost the same moment—that had shaken him, and left Qui-Gon fearing what might have been.
“It didn't happen,” Obi-Wan's quiet voice broke into his thoughts. “He's still here, Qui.”
“I know,” Qui-Gon said, stroking Obi-Wan's back. “And so are you.”
Obeying an impulse that he couldn't quash, Qui-Gon bent over and planted a soft kiss between Obi-Wan's shoulder blades.
“What are you doing?” Obi-Wan asked. There was honest puzzlement in his voice, but no displeasure.
Qui-Gon smiled. “Taking care of you.”
He could tell that Obi-Wan was still watchful after that evening, but the bonds were no longer seething, thrumming lines of tension. The only purpose Obi-Wan’s wary state seemed to serve was driving Anakin to distraction as the boy sought to discover whatever it was that Obi-Wan had claimed to sense. He came up short and grumbled under his breath about intentional vagueness. When Qui-Gon asked the Padawan what that meant, Anakin sighed and said that was what he wanted to know.
Their work was completed two days before their transport was scheduled to return. The Valan insisted that they stay for a celebration. Obi-Wan had accepted on their behalf, as there was nothing else for their team to do in the meantime.
The celebration turned out to be a drinking contest, cleverly disguised as a new public holiday. Qui-Gon was hard-pressed to stay sober, even when using the Force to clear the Valan’s potent liquor from his system. Obi-Wan was at his most relaxed that day, a state that Qui-Gon suspected was related to the vast amount of alcohol that Obi-Wan consumed.
“They are thinking of naming a new religious figure after your ability to imbibe,” Qui-Gon said, crossing his arms and resisting the urge to steal his partner’s glass.
Obi-Wan gave him an amused look. The only sign of his possible lack of sobriety was a faint flush to his cheeks. “My liver is epic.” I’m really all right.
I know. Qui-Gon did know; Obi-Wan could drink hardened pirates under the table.
Obi-Wan had drunk hardened pirates under the table.
Ah, fond memories, Obi-Wan said, and participated in the next round with the new male Councilor and his two wives.
The final day, the watchful wariness returned tenfold. Obi-Wan’s eyes never seemed to settle, always checking their surroundings for the slightest change. It bordered on paranoia, but since Obi-Wan had not done anything in four years without good reason, Qui-Gon was willing to wait and see.
It was driving Anakin crazy, however. During the walk back to the landing field, Anakin had his teeth clenched together. He took hold of Qui-Gon’s hand as they walked. Qui-Gon didn’t comment on the unlit lightsaber in Anakin’s hand, because he found it difficult to keep from doing the same. When they stepped onto the transport’s loading ramp, Qui-Gon realized he was holding his breath.
The moment they left Valan’halar’s atmosphere, Obi-Wan dropped into a chair in the ship’s small lounge. He bent over, resting his elbows on his knees, and breathed out the rest of the gods-awful tension that had been plaguing him for days.
Anakin planted himself in front of his Master and said, “Now can you tell us what that was?”
When Obi-Wan looked up, his expression was baffled. “I guess it couldn’t hurt at this point.”
“No, and it may help,” Qui-Gon said, glad that the bonds were quiet again. It had been like working in combat conditions. “I’d like to understand what happened, as well.”
Obi-Wan nodded. “It’s…a certain element I expected to come into play—it did not.”
Anakin’s firm glare melted into confusion, but Qui-Gon understood what Obi-Wan meant. “You’ve been to Valan’halar before.”
“Yes. Before,” Obi-Wan repeated, a quintessential word that now had a double meaning for all three of them. “Same time period, same mission, same circumstances. The last time, we were attacked on the final day, though it was never clear why it happened.” He rubbed at his eyes, fatigue from his heightened state of alert beginning to reveal itself.
“Is this the first time this year that something we’ve done has matched previous experiences?” Qui-Gon asked, curiosity roused, irritation forgotten.
Obi-Wan hesitated, nodding. “There have been…little things,” he said. “Becoming more frequent as the year progresses. This mission is the first major alignment.” He suddenly looked exhausted, more worn than any man of twenty should be. “I was starting to think that everything would be all right—that just the small changes that have come about from what I know would be enough to nudge things in a different direction. Instead…” he smiled. “That hypothesis seems to be incorrect.”
“Well, that attack didn’t happen,” Anakin pointed out, trying to be logical in the face of Obi-Wan’s dejection. “That means things aren’t the same, right?”
“Maybe,” Obi-Wan admitted. “But, now that I’m thinking about it, I believe you were the variable, the reason the attack didn’t happen.”
Qui-Gon realized what he meant a moment later. “That’s right—the Valan’halar look upon children under the age of twelve as sacrosanct. No group, no matter their feelings as to the war’s outcome, would willingly endanger a child, even a child outside their species.”
“Because they believe the cost to the soul is damning in the Valan afterlife,” Obi-Wan finished, nodding. “I’d forgotten about that, even with the absolute lack of children on the casualty lists.”
Anakin smiled. “Then I guess it’s a good thing I’m still nine?”
Obi-Wan sat up, blinked a few times, and then slapped himself in the forehead. “Oh, gods, I’m an idiot. It’s the missions.”
“What about the missions?” Qui-Gon asked, though he was starting to think that he knew.
“We have a Padawan,” Obi-Wan said, a faint smile on his face. “I was still a Padawan, last time. We’re getting assignments meant for that kind of team, something that started with Roinall V.”
“You were a Padawan still? When you’re not that far away from being twenty-one?” Qui-Gon asked, baffled.
“Huh?” Obi-Wan gave him an equally confused look. “Why?”
Qui-Gon shook his head. “I don’t care what’s changed. I would have been a great fool not to have seen you to your Trials at the beginning of your twentieth year, if not the year before that.” He could remember seeing that path when Obi-Wan turned sixteen, at how adaptable his Padawan was, how he could soak up knowledge and use words as delicate instruments or bladed weapons.
A fond smile appeared on Obi-Wan’s face. “You were no fool.”
The ship was a size larger than the one they’d traveled to Valan’halar in, affording them each rare private berths. Qui-Gon stopped by Obi-Wan’s room that evening with oil and towel in hand, and spent more time using his hands and heat to wring leftover tension out of his partner’s lean frame. If his hands lingered a bit too long, or if the firm strokes of a massage sometimes faltered into a gentle caress, neither of them felt the need to make mention of it.
* * * *
Home meant relaxation, and contemplation, and perhaps further pursuit of the gentle, quiet courtship that seemed to be developing between himself and his partner. Home was not supposed to mean Micah Giett appearing on Qui-Gon’s figurative doorstep at dawn, heckling and jeering until he agreed to another session at bashing out the wrinkles in the Combat Master’s torturous Eleventh Form.
Qui-Gon flinched when Obi-Wan’s lightsaber slammed down on his own. Gritting his teeth against the fierce vibrations that traveled up his arms from the brutal hit, he lashed out with the Force and pushed hard.
Obi-Wan fell into the shove, turning it into a graceful tumble that left him crouched on the mat in a battle-ready stance. Sweat ran down his face, but he didn’t look tired at all. Qui-Gon took a moment to be jealous of that easy stamina and then launched into the Eleventh’s third variant, an attack pattern they had been working on for months, when time allowed.
“You know, it’s not really fair,” Qui-Gon said, pleased when he didn’t sound near as winded as he felt. They exchanged a series of the strike-and-parry combinations that comprised the variant.
“What’s not fair?” Obi-Wan asked, tossing himself backwards to avoid a hit that could have beheaded him if their lightsabers were not set to training strength. The blades were still to be avoided; a burn to the neck was not pleasant.
“Well,” Qui-Gon said, and drew in a too-quick breath. He was fast approaching his limit. Dueling with Obi-Wan was like trying to compete with a hurricane. “You’re practically half my size, and your hits make my teeth rattle.”
They entered the final steps of the attack, blades crossing. The beams snapped and hissed as their contained energy sought an escape. Obi-Wan narrowed his eyes. “Are you calling me short?”
“Perhaps.” Their blades parted; this time it was Qui-Gon who sought a quick escape to avoid Obi-Wan’s lightning-fast response.
A blur of motion told him that his partner had anticipated the move. Qui-Gon stuck the landing and succumbed to the inevitable, not surprised to find Obi-Wan’s lightsaber point hovering near his throat.
“Should I be insulted?” Obi-Wan asked, quirking an eyebrow.
Qui-Gon grinned at him. “Your height is to your advantage. You can enter transport hatchways without needing to duck.”
Obi-Wan laughed and powered down his lightsaber. “You shouldn’t have given up at the end.”
“I did not give up. I chose to yield to a better opponent.”
“Is it just me, or do you become more full of shit with age, Qui-Gon?” Micah asked.
Qui-Gon turned to regard his friend. During the intensity of the duel, he’d just about forgotten their standing witness. “You think you can do better, then?”
Micah smirked. “When it comes to the art of the crude rebuttal, most certainly. But against Obi-Wan? No way in all the Sith hells, not even before I needed the brace. The only people in the Temple who come close to that level are you and Mace, possibly Yoda.”
“Mace quit sparring with me when I palmed his credit pouch a few months ago, right in the middle of an open spar,” Obi-Wan told them, wiping sweat from his face.
“Sore loser,” Micah said with a shrug. He straightened as much as he could, the brace on his leg jangling a bit as he assumed the air of a Combat Master. “You two didn’t do all that bad, today. Better than last time, that’s for sure. Qui-Gon, your footwork needs some watching during the second and fifth movements when you run through the first variant. In fact, practice that section without a blade for a few days, just to concentrate on your steps. You almost tripped yourself at one point.”
Qui-Gon grimaced. “I know. I think that threw off the rhythm of the entire session, at least for the first variant.” Pure instinct had saved him. He had no qualms about falling on his face in front of Obi-Wan, who just accepted it as part of training. Micah, however, would crow about it for weeks on end, and Qui-Gon was not in the mood to throw his best friend from a Tower rooftop.
Micah nodded and turned to Obi-Wan. “During the eighth movement, watch those hands. You almost lost your lightsaber.”
“I did lose my lightsaber,” Obi-Wan admitted. “I called it back without even thinking about it.”
“Smart man,” Micah said in approval. “Dooku can bitch all he wants about cheating, but Dooku teaches classical form. He’s not in the field all the time with his ass on the line, not like you two are.”
“That’s not fair, Mic,” Qui-Gon protested out of habit. “Learning the classical forms does have some benefit.”
“Yeah, but not against another Jedi,” Micah said, frowning. “Knowing classic Form II katas didn’t do you much good when it was Xanatos raising a blade against you.”
Qui-Gon glowered at him, then sighed and looked at Obi-Wan. “Dear former Padawan, will you please tell Micah that it was delightful of him to remind me of that, and for him to kiss my ass?”
“Promises, promises,” Micah taunted him. “Best not say that in front of my wife, else Tahl might want to watch.”
“Only because she’d say you deserved it,” Obi-Wan said. “I need to hit the showers. I have an appointment in an hour.”
Qui-Gon restrained a grimace at the reminder. “I’d forgotten about your session with the twins today.” Obi-Wan had attended four sessions with the Healers, now, though the last two had gone better than the second. Obi-Wan had not muted the bonds beforehand; the nerve-wracking, shrill, pounding headache pain of the block’s exploration meant Qui-Gon had dropped what he was doing and gone straight to the Ward, hard-pressed not to strangle Su’um-Va and Ra’um-Ve. Anakin had met him at the door, white in the face and with fierce protective anger blazing in his eyes.
Obi-Wan muted or blocked the pairbond and training bond from then on if he had a session with the twins. Qui-Gon was not pleased with the arrangement, but Obi-Wan would not be convinced otherwise.
Anakin had not been happy, either, calling his Master a stubborn Bantha’s ass. Obi-Wan’s retort had been to emit a pitch-perfect Bantha call.
Still, there was something else Qui-Gon could do, instead of arguing or fretting. “Would you like me to come and get you when it’s done?”
Obi-Wan smiled in obvious relief. “That would be nice.”
Qui-Gon went back to his quarters to clean up, and when the pairbond went silent, spent the entire time in deep meditation just to avoid that lack of presence. It was far too reminiscent of Taro Tre’s aftermath.
When he went down to the Healers’ Ward two hours later, Obi-Wan was rubbing the back of his head. There were dark circles under his eyes, his hair was a mess, and he was too damn pale. It was like seeing a resurgence of the nightmare cycle, which wasn’t due for another month. “You look like you got hit by a transport.”
“I feel like it,” Obi-Wan croaked, his voice hoarse and uneven. “I always thought Healers were supposed to be nice. These two just root around in my head with mining drills and ill-tuned lightsabers.”
“If you’re making jokes, then you’re fine,” Ra’um-Ve said, though to be honest, she didn’t look much better than Obi-Wan at the moment. The Healer turned water on at the sink and ducked her head under the tap, soaking her short-cropped hair.
Obi-Wan glared at her. “I’d tell you what you could blow, but I don’t like women.”
“And then I would be jealous, and that’s unbecoming of a Jedi Master,” Qui-Gon said, and plastered on his best innocent smile when Obi-Wan turned that ferocious glare upon him. “Did you know that you get downright vulgar when you visit with the Healers, of late?”
Su’um-Va chuckled and rested his hand on Obi-Wan’s shoulder. There were tight lines of stress around the Healer’s eyes, but he didn’t look near as wrecked as his sister. “I don’t quite agree with my twin,” he said, “though you are correct. The session you just experienced was the mental equivalent of us digging around in your head with heavy machinery.”
The Healer rested his fingertips against Obi-Wan’s temples, closing his eyes. Qui-Gon could sense it when Su’um-Va used the Force to ease Obi-Wan’s obvious discomfort, but nothing else, as Obi-Wan had not yet released the block on the pairbond.
Ra’um-Ve grabbed a towel, wiping her face dry. “We haven’t accomplished as much as I’d hoped, considering we’ve been working on that stupid block for months now, but today the lightsaber-and-drill method has given us some very exciting results.”
Su’um-Va nodded. “We will tell you when Master Yoda and Master Windu arrive.”
Qui-Gon looked at his partner, who shrugged and put one hand over his eyes. Th’light hurts, he sent, opening up the bonds again in the same moment. Qui-Gon winced as he sensed the blossoming migraine.
We can go back to my quarters when this is done. I’ll turn off the lights, and you can shove your face into a couch cushion and sleep this off.
Bliss, Obi-Wan replied with a sigh.
Mace arrived, with Yoda clutching onto his back. “This couldn’t have waited?” Mace asked after he lowered his passenger to the ground. “We were in the middle of a Council meeting.”
“Healer’s Privilege,” Ra’um-Ve said in a bright voice, her smile verging on a smirk. “Besides, I bet you were bored, anyway.”
“Not today, we weren’t,” Mace said with a frown.
Yoda chuckled. “Impertinent you are, Ra’um-Ve. Respect you should have for your elders.”
“I am always respectful, Master Yoda,” she replied, dropping into an elegant curtsey that belonged in a royal court function.
Su’um-Va leaned in close to Qui-Gon. “She’s just this way because she and Mace used to sleep together,” he confided in a whisper. Obi-Wan looked amused, especially when Mace glanced in their direction with suspicion written all over his features.
“Fine, Healer’s Privilege,” Mace agreed, crossing his arms. “What’s so important?”
Ra’um-Ve drew herself up to her full height, the image of a professional Healer not marred in the slightest by her still-dripping hair. “We called for the two of you because we have, at last, made significant progress on the block Knight Kenobi bears. He knew when we began our exploration that the block had been placed by Jedi, but did not recall who had done so. We’re still not certain why the block was created, but we were finally able to confirm the identification pattern built into the block.”
Su’um-Va continued the explanation. “It is actually a particular sort of mental block, one that only highly trained Mind Healers, and perhaps a few of the more learned Masters, would know how to build. It has a specific function: the block is designed to allow the Jedi or Healer who created it to access specific memories without the patient gaining awareness of them.”
“In short, it’s a therapy tool,” Ra’um-Ve said.
Her brother nodded. “Basically, yes. Anyone possessing this sort of block is supposed to be in a therapy program. Memories are released as the patient develops the ability to cope with the content. As therapy progresses, more memories are revealed, until the block’s usefulness is complete. At that point, it doesn’t even need to be dismantled, as the construct is designed to fade on its own.”
“It is not a tool that is used lightly,” Ra’um-Ve added. “It is reserved for situations in which the patient has been highly traumatized.”
Qui-Gon closed his eyes for a brief moment. That didn’t seem possible, considering that his partner was poised much of the time, his Jedi serenity almost never lacking.
Obi-Wan didn’t seem surprised by the information, though he had a slight frown on his face. “Do you mean physical or mental trauma?”
“Physical?” Ra’um-Ve pondered the question. “Sometimes, maybe.”
“In your case, it was definitely mental,” Su’um-Va said. “The physical markers aren’t there. Besides, we already confirmed the mental stimulus.”
“There seem to have been problems in the block’s construction,” Ra’um-Ve picked up the explanation again. “We think the block was built in a hurry. The Jedi involved knew what they were doing, but it’s still a rush job. There’s enough of a gap for certain stimuli to emerge; in this case, Knight Kenobi’s cycle of nightmares. His inability to consciously recall them is the block attempting to do its job.”
“Of course, what’s really interesting is the identity of the two Jedi who constructed the block,” Su’um-Va said, and turned to Mace and Yoda.
“Ah,” said Yoda, raising an ear. “Curious.”
“I suppose that’s the reason you requested us, then,” Mace said, his lingering irritation becoming concern.
“It didn’t seem possible,” Ra’um-Ve said, “But there is that second layer of memory Knight Kenobi possesses. Which we had to pester him into telling us about.”
Obi-Wan lifted his head, looking bruised and tired. “I told you when it became necessary.”
“Idiot,” Ra’um-Ve retorted. “We needed to know first, not last!”
“But yes,” Su’um-Va said, shaking his head at his sister. “Master Yoda, Master Windu: The two of you created the block in Obi-Wan’s mind. Your signatures are coded to its door.”
“In retrospect, it makes sense,” Obi-Wan said, when Yoda gave him a questioning look. “I thought, perhaps, it was a different Healer, but…well. The two of you were the only other Jedi around at the time.”
“Understand I do,” Yoda said, walking over to Obi-Wan’s chair and giving his knee a gentle pat. “If access this block we can, then help Obi-Wan, we may?”
“Yes,” Su’um-Va confirmed, but he still seemed worried.
“Oh, fuck, please not tonight,” Obi-Wan protested in a plaintive voice. “I’d pass out the moment they tried to start.”
“Oh, no, not today at all,” Ra’um-Ve agreed, giving Obi-Wan a narrow-eyed look. “I’d stab you with a sedative if any of you tried.”
“I must warn you of the danger, however,” Su’um-Va said. “Again, this is a block designed to contain trauma. If you access the block, Masters, you will experience what it contains.”
“You’d be stuck with my nightmares,” Obi-Wan clarified, when Mace only frowned. “Worse, you’d remember them.”
“Damn,” Mace breathed, and sat down in the room’s only other available chair. “Well, I do consider this excellent news, but you two have the worst timing in the galaxy.”
“We do?” Su’um-Va tilted his head in confusion.
“News to us,” Ra’um-Ve replied.
Yoda nodded, his expression grave. “Unfortunate, it is, to learn of something useful at such an inopportune moment. A mission we have, for Master Qui-Gon, Knight Obi-Wan, and their Padawan.”
Qui-Gon considered their usual rotation schedule and sighed. “That didn’t take long. Can it be put off for a day or two?”
“Uh, no,” Ra’um-Ve said, shaking her head as she scowled. “When we send Master Yoda and Mace into that block for the first time, I’m mandating that at least a week’s recovery will be needed. This isn’t a two-day fix, Master Jinn. That block hasn’t been touched in—”
“Twenty-two years?” Obi-Wan hedged a guess.
“Sweet Force,” she spat. “Yes, no. You’re going to hate existence when this process gets started.”
“Even without the issue of the block, there isn’t time,” Mace said. “We received a priority call from Chancellor Valorum an hour ago, the reason why the Council was in session. He has requested Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon to mediate a delicate matter.”
“Oh?” Obi-Wan’s eyes seemed to shine with a bit too much innocence for Qui-Gon’s liking. “What sort of delicate matter?”
“The Trade Federation agreement with the Chommell sector is failing. They are trying to force a contract negotiation with the new Queen. The Naboo have refused, and the Trade Federation blockaded the system.”
“Worried, Valorum is,” Yoda said, visibly troubled. “More there is to this situation, I fear.”
Mace looked up at Qui-Gon. “The Naboo have been disarmed for a century, and don’t have the resources to remove the blockade themselves. The Senate is being tied up by Lott Dodd, who is successfully arguing that the blockade is legal. Letting this situation remain will set a dangerous precedent.”
Qui-Gon rubbed at his beard, glancing at Obi-Wan as he did so. There was a careful, neutral expression on Obi-Wan’s face, now, and Qui-Gon was well enough aware of what tended to hide behind that. “If they are allowed to succeed in a blockade of Naboo, they would try it again.”
“And again, and again, if not stopped,” Mace agreed. “The Chancellor wants a settlement, and he wants it now. That blockade has to come down.”
“Dangerous, this is, to attempt Jedi negotiation without Senate approval,” Yoda said. “Go to Naboo, will you?” he asked.
“We can’t let them tie this up in the courts,” Qui-Gon said, making his decision. “Obi-Wan?”
“We’ll go,” Obi-Wan agreed. “Will we be on our own?”
“Not entirely,” Mace said, his relief obvious. “We’ll send your team out on the Radiant VII, which will look to the Trade Federation as if you’re negotiating with the full authority of the Order and the Senate. The Council will see to it that you’re well-funded. Try not to spend it all in one place.”
“Force, if that happens, we’re all in for it,” Qui-Gon muttered.
Obi-Wan glanced up at Su’um-Va. “Am I all right to travel?”
Su’um-Va nodded. “The headache will pass in a day or so. Sooner, if you can hole up in a dark room for a few hours. I hate delaying the block’s investigation further, but nothing will be harmed from waiting a few weeks to open the door.”
“We’re so damn close, though. Terza’s going to throw a fit,” Ra’um-Ve said with a grin.
As soon as Qui-Gon could get Obi-Wan alone, he cornered him. Literally. “What’s wrong with Naboo?” he asked, almost certain that Obi-Wan knew all about Naboo, already.
Obi-Wan pretended to consider the question. “Well, it has a temperate climate, pleasant native as well as colonial populations, nice architecture, fertile lands, clean water…but I could see as how you might have difficulties, given what planets we routinely visit.”
“I’d laugh, if I knew you weren’t so upset about it. I know you, Obi-Wan,” Qui-Gon said in a quiet, intense voice. “I know when you’re bothered, and I thought for a moment you were going to leap from the window when Mace and Yoda mentioned Naboo. Tell me: What’s got your knickers in a bloody twist?”
Obi-Wan grinned at that. “My knickers in a twist?”
“Picked it up from one of the Valan,” Qui-Gon said, unable to resist smiling in return. “Don’t change the subject. What’s wrong with Naboo?”
Obi-Wan’s grin vanished, his entire demeanor suddenly slumping melancholy. “It’s the beginning, Qui. It’s the beginning of everything.”