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Time Without Name, Part I

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Republic Date 5199: 11/25th

Naboo

 

Jale Terza gazed around at those who had joined her in the makeshift conference room.  Some of the Naboo were there, including Captain Panaka and Padmé.  This time there was no pretense that the girl was anything other than the Queen of Naboo, though her wardrobe reflected a much more somber outlook. 

The number of Jedi on the planet had dwindled over the past twelve hours.  Circumstances had forced Adi Gallia, Mace Windu, and Mace’s Padawan to return to Coruscant with the Chancellor and the Senate delegation to deal with a government in uproar.   

Without preamble, Terza said, “The only reason he’s not dead is because of the Sharing, and he almost didn’t survive that.”

Qui-Gon Jinn nodded, his hands tucked into the sleeves of his robe to hide the fact that he couldn’t keep them from shaking.  Part of it was his intense desire to be able to do something to help his mate, which was the reason he was here.  Some of it was the bond-driven desire to return to Obi-Wan’s side.

The rest of it was from the sheer desire to track down Palpatine, Sidious of the Sith, and rip his still-beating heart out through his throat.

He took a deep breath and released it, trying to purge his anger with every rise and fall of his chest.  It was working, up to a point, and at least gave him the ability to concentrate on Terza’s words. 

“Why?” Micah Giett asked.  “I understand that the barrier coming down would be detrimental, but fatal?”  Beside him, Tahl reached out to take Micah’s hand in her own.  Behind her, Bant Eerin was a quiet shadow, her eyes still reflecting the shock that they were all suffering from.

Terza sighed, taking a moment to rub her eyes.  Her skin had a gray cast to it; the Healer was beyond exhausted.  “We were still exploring the block, the twins and I, but what we had already discovered drove us to be cautious.  The reason that we didn’t just bypass the locks and blast the thing open is because it took a great deal of energy to create it.  That energy didn’t dissipate when construction was done.  It remained there, fueling the continued effectiveness of the block.  Master Windu and Master Yoda, of—of that time—did their work so well that the block functioned long past the time when natural circumstances should have removed it.”

Qui-Gon resisted the urge to laugh, knowing that it wouldn’t be a pleasant sound.  Say it, he thought.  Say what we’re all thinking.  He died in that other place, and that block should have fucking died with him!

“When Palpatine destroyed the block, he released all of that energy at once, and it had no place to go.  I think that Obi-Wan didn’t share his memories out of choice so much as his instinctive understanding that all of that energy had to go somewhere,” Terza explained.

“Which is why the effects were so…expansive?” Garen Muln asked.  There were shadows in his hazel eyes now, reflective of the things he had seen, but of all the Padawans who had been forced into the Sharing, Garen was the steadiest of them.  The young man wouldn’t be able to get out of his Knighting this time, not after this.

Terza nodded in response to Garen’s question.  “I think that if Obi-Wan had been more in control of his own mind at the time, had he been less physically damaged...”  She sighed.  “I don’t think he intended for it to go as far as it did.”

Quinlan Vos managed a weak grin.  “I have to say, there are some things I could have done without seeing,” he said, elbowing Garen.

“Yeah, yeah, you’re just jealous because I aged better than you,” Garen retorted, but there was no heat in his words. 

Quinlan’s Padawan, Aayla, blushed a deep cobalt at the exchange.  The Twi’lek was of age for her species, but she was still desperately shy—in direct contrast to Rillian, who wouldn’t enter her sexual majority until her fourth decade and therefore hadn’t batted an eyelash over the racier things she had seen. 

“Then what can we do?” Tahl asked, when no one else seemed willing to speak.

Abella answered for her Master, her eyes full of worry.  “Wait.  Ra’um-Ve and Su’um-Va are on their way from Corellia now, and we have more Healers coming from Coruscant.  We’re going to need their help to fix the mess that the destroyed block left behind.  Obi—Obi-Wan will not be capable of much until then, even when we get the physical damage re-healed,” she added, frustrated.  “I don’t know what Palpatine did, but the wound is resisting our efforts at Force-healing.” 

Qui-Gon gritted his teeth until the muscles in his face screamed with tension.  “How long until the twins arrive?”

“Two to four days, if they land a good transport.  No longer than six days,” Terza said, rubbing her eyes once more.  She was starting to sway again, almost to the point of collapse.  Abella gave her Master a concerned look and moved closer to her side. 

“In the meantime, I’m keeping him sedated.  I don’t know what else to do, and at least it will stop him from injuring himself further.”  There was a bitter thread in Terza’s voice.  Abella leaned over to rest her head against Terza’s shoulder. 

Padmé Amidala stood up.  She was wearing the ceremonial white makeup with no headdress, and the crimson lines highlighted the faint echo of grief that etched her face.  “I have arranged it so that you each have a room in the Palace.  I know that there is much to do, for all our sakes, but please remember to rest when you can.”  She hesitated.  “If I can do anything to help you, anything at all, please ask me.  I will do my best to see it done.”

“In light of all we have seen, Queen Amidala, your words are most kind,” Micah said, inclining his head in gratitude.

The young Queen shook her head.  “In light of all that we have seen, Master Giett, I am Padmé to all of you.”  Captain Panaka uttered a strangled sound, but otherwise made no comment, which caused a faint smile to touch her lips.  Then Padmé frowned, raising her hand and pressing it to her forehead as if pained.

“Are you all right?” Quinlan asked, as Tahl stood up and touched Padmé on the elbow, ready to assist if there was need.

Padmé lowered her hand.  “I’m all right.  I think I’m just tired.”

“Then please, go and get some rest, like I’ve been telling you to for the past two days,” Panaka retorted, but it was obvious to all that he was more concerned than angry.

Padmé nodded.  “I think we’ve dealt with all of the current crises for now.”  She hesitated again, looking at Qui-Gon.  “Master Qui-Gon, do you know where—where Anakin is?”

Qui-Gon was startled for a moment by her request, but he noticed the gentle, sad pleading in her eyes and nodded.  “The public gardens down the street.  Rillian is with him.  He is…” He trailed off, not sure what to say, but Padmé understood.  Perhaps she understood more than any of them. 

“Thank you,” she said.  “I hope to see you all again tomorrow.”

When she departed, Quinlan stood up as well.  “We’ve still got some daylight left.  I’m going to take Aayla back to Palpatine’s residence, see if we can get any further in blueprinting that place.  Anyone want to join me?”

“I will,” Garen said, with a quick glance at Micah for confirmation, who nodded his readiness to go as well.  “There’s got to be something useful in that dump.  With three of us looking—”

“Six,” Tahl interrupted.  “I think the more of us searching, the better.”  She gave Bant a smile.  “Are you ready to be my eyes again, Padawan?”

Bant nodded, and managed to smile in response, but she still did not speak.  The Mon Calamari was by far the most empathic among all of the Jedi who had been part of the Sharing, and Qui-Gon spared a moment to hope that the experience hadn’t hurt her in some fundamental way.  Obi-Wan would never forgive himself, were that the case.

Qui-Gon understood what they were doing.  He could see it in the set line of Quinlan Vos’s mouth, the flashing hazel of Garen’s eyes, and Micah’s restless hands on his staff.  They wanted to do something, anything, to deal with what they had seen, what they had learned.  Traditional coping methods were like sand into the wind.  He repressed a sigh, for the words were so damned accurate—a phrase from the mind of his poetic mate.

Seeking clues to Palpatine’s whereabouts was the only focal point the Jedi had.  They would tear the residence apart until clues revealed themselves, or scattered thoughts settled.

Qui-Gon stood up, but there was no need to explain where he would be going.  Tahl stopped him by the door with her hand on his arm and concern in her wide, green-and-gold striped eyes.  “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Qui-Gon said.  His voice was rough, but he managed to make sure that the hand that touched hers was gentle.  Tahl didn’t seem to believe him, but she let him go.

He walked down the short hall, passing a few of the nurses that had survived the camps, rushing to tend those wounded during the short fray against Palpatine.  Two of Naboo’s guard had been killed as they had tried to block the Senator’s escape, and several more had burns—from lightning.

He closed the door behind him, taking a moment to lean against it.  Yoda looked up from where he was sitting on the bed next to Obi-Wan, his eyes glimmering in the dim light as he gazed at Qui-Gon.  “Arranged, it is?”

Qui-Gon nodded.  “The twins are on their way, as are some of the unoccupied Healers from Coruscant to help the Naboo.  Mace radioed ahead to the Council; Ki-Adi Mundi and Master Rancisis are standing watch over that place in the Industrial Zone, accompanied by Knight Rozess’s security detail from the Temple.  No one is entering it until the others arrive.”  Another group had helped Judicial seal off Palpatine’s offices and apartment near the Senate dome, ready and waiting for those with the right knowledge.

“And you, Qui-Gon?” Yoda asked, caressing Obi-Wan’s hand, held cradled in the old Master’s lap.  “How feel you?”

Qui-Gon found himself staring at the ancient Master’s lined, weathered green hand as it touched skin that was far too pale.  Obi-Wan’s fingers were twitching at random intervals, as if he was dreaming, and the dreams were not pleasant. 

That bitter laugh tried to crawl out of his throat again.  Qui-Gon forced it down.  “I’m fine.  Why does everyone keep asking me that?  I’m not the one who—” and he couldn’t say it, despite everything he had seen.

In the space of two minutes, he witnessed the forty-two years that Obi-Wan had lived, but the peace of the desert sky at night couldn’t touch him, and the joy of the Force seemed distant.

“Hmmph,” Yoda was saying, shaking his head, but his eyes were sad.  “Fine you are not, dear friend of my heart.  Fine, you are not.  See yourself, you should.”

Qui-Gon hesitated, startled; it was the look on Yoda’s face that convinced him.  He stalked to the room’s tiny ’fresher, and he was caught by memory:  Not two days ago, he had walked into this room with Obi-Wan’s arm thrown across his shoulders.  Not two days ago, they had stood together, Obi-Wan smiling despite the pain that had left his face drawn, performing the simple, victorious act of recovery—walking.

It took Qui-Gon a moment to really see what Yoda had meant, and when the realization sank in, his vision swam.  He had to lean over, with his hands clasping the sides of the sink, to keep himself together.

The first wave of shock dealt with, Qui-Gon looked back up.  There were a few more strands of gray in his hair, and that was no surprise, not after the last few days.  It was the rage sparking in his eyes that stunned him—the grim, angry set to his features.  He’d seen himself this way only twice before.  Once, after Xan, when he was still too full of the shocked anger of betrayal to feel the pain of loss. 

Once more, only in Obi-Wan’s memories, hell-bent as he was to destroy a mercenary for Tahl’s death.

He understood what a much younger Obi-Wan had not known, and Qui-Gon didn’t need to have his own memory of that time to realize it.  The rage he’d seen in those memories wasn’t just for the loss of her, but for the loss of Micah, for the loss of every friend whose pyre Qui-Gon had stood over.  Gods, but there had been so many.  In his life, there were so many times when there had been nothing he could do…

Qui-Gon knew they were there without turning around.  He felt his chest tighten, doubly grateful that this triad remained unbroken. 

“I’ve been dreaming of Tatooine since before he awoke that first time, four years ago,” Qui-Gon whispered.  The rage in his eyes softened, but did not go away.  “What does that even mean?”

“I don’t know,” Tahl said, stepping up beside him and laying her head on his shoulder.  “I don’t know what any of this means.”

Micah appeared at his left side, resting his hand on Qui-Gon’s hand where he still gripped the sink.  The feel of warm skin above cold ceramic was soothing. 

“Come with us,” was all Micah said, and Qui-Gon went.  He spared a moment to seek out Obi-Wan’s face, hoping to see life, but there was nothing but closed eyes and the waxen pallor of the invalid to be found.  There was an oxygen line running under his nose.  Obi-Wan hated those, claimed they dried out his sinuses—

Tahl kept his hand in a firm grip, leading him through the door, stepping unerringly down the hallway.  Micah was at their heels, the familiar wooden clack of his staff hitting the floor with each step.  The technicians and visitors and patients and medics gave them a wide berth, as if they understood that something more was going on, more than just their survival of an unexpected invasion.

Tahl didn’t stop walking until they were in the nearby public garden.  There was no sign of Anakin, or of Rillian.  He touched on the bonds he had with them, concerned, and received an immediate response.

We’re with Padmé, Master Qui-Gon, Anakin replied, and Qui-Gon was saddened, hearing the adult quality of Anakin’s mindspeech.  Anakin Skywalker’s childhood was lost, utterly lost.  There was so much to mourn for.

Rillian, as if sensing his thoughts, projected such intense love for him, for Obi-Wan, that he found himself blinking away tears.  I will make Skywalker return with me soon, she said, and even her voice sounded older. For now, there are…fascinating developments, Master. 

There was no anger in her thoughts for Anakin, but that same fraternal affection they had shared before Naboo; amplified, yes, but the same.  He smiled and sent back his own love for his Padawan, who was a blessing from the Force if he’d ever seen one.

“I heard an echo of that,” Micah said, leaning against his staff in lieu of sitting.  “What’s going on?”

Qui-Gon settled onto his knees, his eyes adjusting to the darkness, and felt the sparse drops of the first dewfall soak his leggings.  It was hard to believe that it was the same day, the same evening, mere hours after Palpatine’s escape.  Those events felt like a lifetime ago, faint and almost unimportant.

The silence of the park, far from the bustle of the impromptu medical center, was soothing.  He felt like he could breathe easier once he was in it.  “Anakin and Rillian are with Padmé, and Rillian mentioned something about fascinating developments.  Your own Padawans seem to be missing, by the way,” he added, just now thinking to wonder at the lack.

Tahl raised an eyebrow, and from the look on her face, Qui-Gon surmised that she had gotten a great deal more information from Rillian’s comment than he had.  “I made Bant meditate after the others departed.  She needed it, and Garen is staying with her.  Quinlan wanted to go through Palpatine’s residence first, regardless, hoping that his hands will pick up impressions that the rest of us might miss.”  She sighed.  “There is such a vast difference between knowing what happened, and…”

“And living it?” Qui-Gon finished, surprised at the bitterness in his voice.  “I had seen more of it than any of us, and still it—it—”

“Hurts?” Micah suggested, settling into the grass next to him with a pained sigh.  “Yeah.  I like how Garen put it.  ‘It’s like he’s been struggling to walk two paths, without stepping on anyone’s toes along the way.’”

Qui-Gon nodded; the analogy was a good one.

Anger and will, love and hope.  Midnight hair, velvet eyes and voice, in a place they should not have been.

He was shaking when he spoke again.  “Palpatine destroyed my Xan.”

“I know,” Micah said, taking his hand again, and it was like fire holding him, his skin had grown so cold.

I will not walk this path.

“He—he almost—” and that was too much.  Qui-Gon could not voice those words.

“But he did not,” Tahl said, kneeling in the grass before him.  She placed her hands on his cheeks, smiling, and stared into his eyes as if she could still see him that way.  “You are a protector, Qui-Gon Jinn,” she said, as thrumming warmth surrounded him.  The pairbond he held with Micah was alive with that warmth, and the pairbond he and Tahl shared was soothing, like water sliding over glass. 

They had cornered him like this once before, years ago, when he hadn’t been able to move beyond the rage after Telos.  He’d fought them tooth and nail.  He wanted to fight it this time, but they’d caught him too soon, too early, when the anger was new.

“You’re always at your worst when you can’t defend those you love,” Micah told him.  “I’ve seen it—nothing to fight with but yourself, and losing every time.”

Qui-Gon closed his eyes, biting his lip against the trembling that had overtaken him.  “What the hell do I do, then?” he asked, choking on the words.

Tahl leaned forward, resting her chin on his shoulder, and spoke into his ear.  “Let it go,” she whispered.  “Let it go, Qui-Gon.  Move past the anger, past the pain.  There is a man in that room who has loved you no matter what the universe did to him, and he needs you.

The wall that he’d been building in a futile effort to hold himself together broke apart, and everything that he’d experienced in the past few weeks poured itself out of him with a raging, broken sob.  The shock of finding himself loved, the exhilaration of realizing that he felt the same way, the Naboo invasion, the Temple bombing.  The horror he’d felt, the despair he’d experienced, when he’d thought Obi-Wan was going to die, that he’d wasted so much time!

Seeing himself again, in so many different lights, the things Qui-Gon had never done, the words he’d never said, the death he’d never had—everything that Obi-Wan had faced down without flinching, when all Qui-Gon had wanted to do was look away.

Tahl wrapped her arms around him, murmuring soothing nonsense.  Micah’s arms were around him, too, his friend’s head resting against Qui-Gon’s back.  The Force was wrapping itself around him, also, weaved by Tahl and Micah and the bonds they’d shared for almost fifty years.

There was so much in that other life, so much more than he’d ever suspected, despite the story that Obi-Wan had once told them on Yinchorr.  Qui-Gon felt like he had many things to make up for, though Obi-Wan, doubtless, would tell him he was being ridiculous.

When Qui-Gon could breathe without gasping, he spoke, his words muffled by Tahl’s tunics.  “What would I do without the two of you?” he asked, not sure he could explain how grateful he was. 

They had torn him apart like this before.  He’d needed it then.  He sure as hell had needed it now.  The cold and the rage had departed, leaving him feeling drained, empty….and relieved.

“Apparently, you’d be crazy,” Micah deadpanned.

The answer felt so right that Qui-Gon started laughing, tears streaming from his eyes again.  “Apparently.”

“I am never going to be able to think of your Padawan again without thinking of him naked,” Tahl said to Micah, starting to snicker.

“Then it’s a good thing Garen has no shame,” Micah replied, and that was the last straw—in the next moment, all three of them were howling with laughter.

“This is just brilliant!” Micah cried, pounding Qui-Gon on the back while he laughed.  “I mean—this whole thing is just impossible!”

“This is insane!” Qui-Gon corrected, dashing tears from his eyes and trying to wipe his nose.  Then he discovered anew why mucus and beards did not mix, and had dire thoughts about shaving the entire mess off.

“Oh, do so!” Tahl said, grinning from ear to ear.  “No one’s seen the entirety of your face in so long!”

“Oh, no, I’m not falling for that again,” Qui-Gon said, just before his commlink chimed for attention.  He wasted no time in yanking it free from its place on his belt, worried that Yoda was signaling him—

Tahl touched his hands, giving her head a quick shake.  Right.  Calm.  Yoda would have skipped the comm, anyway. 

Qui-Gon took a breath, released it, and then ran through the most basic focusing exercise he knew.  It helped, as did the effort they’d put into bolstering him against the shock of what he’d faced.  When he finally looked at the origin point for the call, he stared at it and wondered if he was reading it right.

“What?” Micah asked, sitting up in concern.

“It’s the code for the comm-unit in Obi-Wan and Anakin’s quarters,” Qui-Gon said, brows drawing together in bafflement.  Why the hell would…

…and then he knew, and his heart lurched in his chest.  Obi-Wan had been in no shape to issue a recall order. 

Tahl pried his fingers off the commlink before he could snap it in half.  “Come on.  If I didn’t miss the tone, it’s a visual message.  There’s a place down the street that has private viewing rooms for comm calls.  You can take it there.”

“Come with me?” Qui-Gon asked, not caring a whit if he sounded pathetic in that moment.  Obi-Wan wasn’t dead.  He knew that, but it still didn’t stop him from feeling dread at viewing a message that Obi-Wan would have recorded for him gods knew when.

Micah nodded.  “We’ll all go.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

When Padmé found the gardens, she halted her steps and looked up at Captain Panaka.  He glared down at her, unhappy with the events of the past few days and uncaring at this point of who knew about it.  The only reason her Captain was not voicing his displeasure was due to the fact that Obi-Wan’s plan had worked, to a point.  Their sovereignty, at least, was secure from Palpatine.

She fought back a sigh. I don’t have the first idea who to name as Senator in Palpatine’s place.  I hope Governor Bibble has a list of candidates in mind who weren’t all under King Veruna’s thumb.  “Captain, will you do me the honor of waiting here until I return?”

Panaka snorted.  “Not likely, your Highness.  I’m not letting you go anywhere without an escort, not with your identity now public knowledge.”

Padmé smiled.  “I do appreciate your concern, Captain, but I will remain in sight,” she said, pointing out the soft white of Anakin’s tunics up ahead.  “And, I will be in the company of a Jedi Knight and a Jedi Padawan.  I have no reason to fear.”

Panaka frowned.  “Skywalker’s just a child,” he said, his uncomfortable anger back. 

This time she did sigh.  She’d tried her best to explain to him what she’d seen, but Panaka liked hard facts, things he could see and touch and shoot.  The Sharing was not quite any of those.  It was doubly hard to explain such a thing to him when she didn’t even understand why she had been part of it.  She was no Jedi.   

“Not anymore, he isn’t,” Padmé said, and put the steel back into her voice.  “Stay here, Captain.  Be angry with me if you must, but I would like to speak to Anakin and Rillian without an armed soldier standing over our heads.”

Panaka shook his head, a hint of a smile on his lips.  “Go.  Just remember that if someone shoots you, Sio Bibble is in charge, and the old man is starting to forget how to lace his britches in the morning.”

Now there was another unpleasant reality to face.  “Thank you, Captain,” Padmé said, and stepped forward.  The long train of her skirt caught and pulled on the grass.  She frowned and tugged it free, impatient and already longing for the simpler garb of her Handmaidens once more.

The Wookiee Rillian stepped forward to greet her.  The Padawan’s brindled fur looked a bit worse for wear, and Padmé knew the girl had to be tired, but she was smiling. 

[Hello, Your Highness,] Rillian rumbled at her, and Padmé’s smile vanished.

“I—I understood you!” she blurted, nonplussed.

Rillian halted, a puzzled look in her bright green eyes.  [And you could not before?]

“No!”  Padmé shook her head, and felt her heartbeat pick up in excitement.  “This is incredible!”

Rillian grinned, showing off all of her teeth.  [Perhaps it is some strange side effect of the Sharing?] she mused.  [If so, I like it.  Being understood without waiting for droids and translators is a pain.] 

“I imagine so,” Padmé said, her eyes already drifting over to Anakin.  He was sitting in a traditional Jedi meditation pose, facing away from them.  She’d seen him once, after the initial Sharing was over and everyone was rushing to do what needed to be done, instead of what they wanted to do.  (Padmé’s choice would have been the option to hide in her ’fresher and hyperventilate for a while, but duty always came first.)  His eyes had still been that same blue, like the skies on Tatooine, but there had been a newfound depth of personality to them that she hadn’t seen before, full of the pain of someone far older. 

Anakin had salvaged the data recordings from Palpatine’s home, thank all of the gods.  She didn’t want to think about how hard it would have been to prove Palpatine’s duplicity without them. 

[Go on,] said Rillian, noticing Padmé’s hesitation.  [I have it on very good authority that he likes you.] 

She managed a rueful nod; they all knew, by now, just how Anakin Skywalker felt about Padmé Naberrie Amidala.

She settled onto the grass in front of Anakin.  His hands were clasped together in his lap, and his eyes were closed, but she knew he wasn’t meditating.  Trying, maybe, but his face was far too pinched to be successful.  Just another thing she knew, now, information provided by Obi-Wan Kenobi’s memories.  “Ani?”

“Hi,” Anakin said, opening his eyes to look up at her.  She gazed at him, unsettled, because after everything she had seen…

“It’s so odd to look at you and see a little boy,” Padmé whispered.  It was almost as if the ghost of the Jedi Knight was just under the surface of Anakin’s skin.

Anakin seemed embarrassed, or shamed, or maybe she was trying too hard to put adult expressions on a child’s face.  “Odd.  Yeah, that’s a good word for it.  Disastrous would be another one.”

“I don’t think it’s a total disaster,” Padmé said, trying to find positive words in the face of what they both knew.  “It just—we’ve just been shown the roads that we should not take.”

Anakin ducked his head, tugged at the Padawan braid hanging behind his ear, and sighed.  When he lifted his head to look at her again, she was startled by the tears running down his face.  “Is it possible that you could ever forgive me?” he whispered.

“Anakin, I didn’t—I saw the memories, but I didn’t live that life,” Padmé protested.  She couldn’t say it wasn’t real; what Obi-Wan and Anakin had shown them had happened.  Every single horror, every single victory, every single loss—all of it real.

“That doesn’t matter to me,” Anakin said, wiping his face with his sleeve.  The gesture resounded so strongly of the nine-year-old boy he appeared to be, and it almost broke her heart. 

“I can’t—I can’t remember a lot of what Vader did,” Anakin said, his voice soft.  “It’s like what Obi-Wan saw, like how Vader and I—we’re like two different people.  But I know that he…that I did horrible things.  Despite all that, I can live with it.  I know I can.  I have to. I just…” He swallowed.  “You and Obi-Wan were the two people I should have trusted above all else, and I didn’t.  I know that Obi-Wan forgives me, because he came for me on Tatooine even when he remembered Vader and I didn’t. 

“But you?” Anakin stared at her, hollow-eyed, his shoulders hunched in misery.  “I can bear a lot.  I can even stand it if you never speak to me again, but I don’t know what I would do if I had to spend the rest of my life knowing that you hated me.”

Padmé had just had the luxury of seeing, from start to finish, how Palpatine had taken a little boy’s trust and used it to destroy the man.  Even if she had not witnessed it all, she had always trusted her instincts.  The boy sitting in front of her was full of genuine regret and misery, and was almost drowning in guilt.  If Padmé could do anything to help, she would. 

“We choose the paths we wish to walk,” Padmé said, considering her words with care.  “I know that you have chosen to walk the path of the Jedi.  I saw you make that choice.”  She put her hands on his thin shoulders, and felt her palms tingle at the contact.  “I don’t hate you, Anakin Skywalker—and I forgive you.”

Anakin shut his eyes, more tears leaking out from closed eyelids.  “You always were so damned forgiving, no matter what happened.  Why forgive me this?”

“Palpatine,” Padmé said without hesitation, the name bitter on her tongue.

Anakin shuddered.  “Yeah, there is that.”

“I won’t say that this isn’t strange, Anakin,” Padmé continued.  “Just yesterday, I was discussing with my handmaidens how I had an entirely inappropriate crush on Ani the Jedi Padawan.  You were this wonderful boy, but I’m fourteen Standard, and you’re nine.” 

“You mean—you…liked me?” Anakin asked, and there was so much disbelief in his voice that it surprised her.

Padmé smiled.  “Ani, of course I did.  Spending time with you felt like…” She hesitated, trying to find the words.  “I felt like I’d rediscovered my dearest friend, though we had never met.”

“It was so hard,” Anakin said, and dropped his head to stare at his hands.  “I remembered you.  Not like now, I mean.  I only had bits and pieces of you, before all this, like moments of remembering how you smiled.  I tried hard to speak to you without seeming creepy.”

“You weren’t creepy.  Sabé wanted to place bets on how cute you’d be in a few years’ time.”

Anakin made a face.  “Tell her to wait at least six years, so that there is less gangly and awkward to deal with.”

Padmé giggled and clapped a hand over her mouth, but Anakin was grinning.  “Only six years, Anakin?  I think you’d need at least nine to date someone who is five years your senior, at least by Coruscant standards.”

“Aw, man,” Anakin muttered, putting his head in his hands.  “Nine. Years.  Nine years!  Who needs Jedi Trials?  This is going to be the ultimate test in patience,” he groaned.  “Though, it’s four years, not five.  Well, four years, five months,” he clarified.

Padmé raised an eyebrow, knowing full well that he had just marked the difference in age between the two of them.  “I suppose we’ll just have to see what time brings.”

Anakin nodded, unsurprised by her response.  “Yeah.  You know what’s funny?”

“What?” Padmé asked, curious.

“You used to make jokes about cradle-robbing, after we—after we got married,” Anakin said, rubbing the back of his neck.  “Except now I’m older, but I’m not, and I’m pretty sure this is absolutely crazy.”

She grinned and shook her head.  “Save the galaxy first, fall apart later,” Padmé quipped, and the moment she spoke, she knew the phrase.

Anakin’s eyes were far too old, far too sad, when he looked at her.  “I used to say that to Snips,” he said, his voice soft with old grief.  Snips, nickname of Ahsoka Tano, Padawan to Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker—killed three months before the Battle for Coruscant.

There was too much hurt there not to reach out.  Their hands met, his small fingers twining together with hers, and the touch was accompanied by the feel of something locking into place. 

Anakin’s eyes widened.  “Wow,” he whispered.  “That’s different.”

“What?” Padmé asked, bewildered by the awe she could sense from him.  “What’s different?”

“Padmé…” He bit his lip and then pointed, his eyes narrowing in concentration.  “Pick up that rock.”

She did, without a moment’s thought.

The problem being, of course, that the rock was a good two meters distant, heavier than Padmé was, and she hadn’t moved a muscle to do so.

The rock crashed back down onto the ground.  Rillian let out a startled bark of shock. 

Padmé stared at it, saw crushed flowers and torn-up earth and shredded grass, and realized she still wanted that time in the ’fresher to hyperventilate.  “You did that, right?”

Anakin shook his head, just as wide-eyed as she was.  “Nu-uh.”

Rillian dropped to her knees next to them as Panaka came running up.  “What the hell happened?” he yelled, his blaster drawn.

Padmé reached up to touch her Captain’s hand, trying not to shake and reveal her own disquiet.  “Just a falling rock, Captain Panaka.  Nothing more.”

[Nothing more, my furry ass,] howled Rillian.  [I think we need to find one of the Masters.]

Anakin nodded, his grip on Padmé’s hand tightening.  [I know just who to see.]

 

*          *          *          *

 

The proprietor of the communications hub waved away any attempts at payment when he saw the lightsabers and tunics of his newest customers.  “Take the last room down on the left.  Best signal in the house, and good sound-proofing,” he said, after taking a long, careful look at them.  “Let me know if you need anything.”

Qui-Gon nodded his thanks, finding the room with ease.  There was enough space on the bench for him to sit with Micah squeezed in next to him, at his and Tahl’s insistence.  His fingers hesitated on the keypad; Tahl placed her hands on his shoulders, warmth spreading down his back at her touch.

It took long minutes, while he waited for signals to connect and transfer.  Then the visual kicked in, resolving on an image of Obi-Wan, visible from the chest up.  There was another pained thump in Qui-Gon’s chest as he took in the shirt—that same green shirt they had soaked during their unexpected tryst in the shower.  The timestamp on the recording told him all he needed to know.

It was the same day, mere hours before they would spend their first night together.

“Hello, Qui,” Obi-Wan said, the barest hint of a smile on his face.  “You know, I’ve recorded this kind of message more than a few times during my life, but…well.  There was never one for you.  Didn’t think of it when I was younger, and when I was older, there was never any need.  I’m hoping that maybe now, you understand why.”

Obi-Wan sighed, taking a moment to rub his eyes before running his hand through his hair, as if aggravated.  “If this message finds you, I’m either dead or too incapacitated to stop it from sending.  I hope it’s the latter, and that things aren’t too dire.  I don’t want to die, truly I don’t, despite having this, as you’ve said, disturbing tendency to throw myself face-first into mortal peril.”  He smiled, but there was a depth of sadness reflected in his eyes, and a surfeit of regret. 

“I wish I could say I don’t have a bad feeling about the rest of this mission, but I do.  I’m not wandering around with the vision of anyone’s death floating around in my head, at least.  I just have memories, and some days I think that’s almost as bad.”

Tahl made a sympathetic sound.  Qui-Gon found himself nodding, and Micah sighed.  They did understand, now—all too well.

“Attached to this message are access codes for the audio journals I’ve been keeping.  You know where to find the physical journals, but those are just for you.  The audio data, and certain other reference files, pertain to my research into the Sith Lord’s public identity, including any evidence I’ve been able to retrieve to prove it.  There’s not much, but if Tahl can’t do something brilliant with what I’ve put together, then at least it will give her and others a place to start.”  Obi-Wan closed his eyes briefly.  “If I’ve failed to honor the promise I once gave to you and the Council, then know that everything you need to hear is in the audio journals.”

Obi-Wan smiled, that predatory expression that Qui-Gon had first seen in Jabba’s Palace.  He now had far more experience with that look than he’d ever imagined.  “I will help, if I can.  I know that these words might not mean much right now, but I’m not going to let a little thing like death stand in my way.

“I know Anakin will be in safe hands with you.  If you ever find out what happened, if Anakin ever remembers…please, Qui.  Don’t let that keep you from remembering the last four years.  That is who Anakin is, the boy you’ve spent all of this time with.  That’s the Jedi that Anakin will be,” Obi-Wan said.

Damned right, Micah sent, nodding.  I think the others need to be reminded of that, too.

There was a hitch in the recording, the timestamp reflecting the passage of an hour when the recording resumed.  “I hope that those annoying little interruptions will have ceased, and yes, I did too notice,” Obi-Wan said, smiling.

What interruptions? Tahl asked, and Qui-Gon didn’t have to be looking at her to know that she was grinning.

“I’ve had words with the cosmos over its bloody timing of late.  I hope that I—that I told you what you needed to hear.  That I heard what you needed to say.”  Obi-Wan laughed, shaking his head.  “You know, this is stupid.  This shouldn’t still be so blasted hard!”

“Say it anyway,” Qui-Gon whispered, staring at dancing blue-gray eyes.  This was the reminder he’d needed, beyond the rage and guilt he’d been forced to move past.  This was his Obi-Wan, the man he’d pledged his life to.  No matter the circumstances, he’d meant that vow with all of his heart.

“I love you, Qui.  If all else fails, know that, for it’s been true for a long, long time.”  The recording had a few seconds left, but before it could terminate, Obi-Wan grinned with forced cheer.  “If I am dead, I hope it’s not from being sliced in half again.  Wouldn’t it be ridiculous to die the same way twice?”

 

*          *          *          *

 

Captain Panaka was grumbling under his breath about being right back where they started as Anakin and Rillian led Padmé down the hall to Obi-Wan’s room.  Yoda’s ears lifted when they entered, and he peered at Anakin in surprise. 

“Thought, I did, that meditation you were seeking, hmm?”

Anakin swallowed, hard, as he came under the intense scrutiny of the ancient Master.  Not the same, he reminded himself fiercely.  Yoda was looking at him in concern mixed with a healthy dose of curiosity.  Not the same. 

“Yes, Master,” he said, “though it wasn’t going very well.”

[Or at all,] Rillian grumbled. 

“Distracted, you were?” Yoda asked, and there was a humorous twinkle in his eyes.

Anakin smiled, and managed enough self-control to not turn bright red.  No, this was definitely not the same.  Yoda had already been coaching Obi-Wan through four years of this—he knew.  Force bless the little green troll. 

“Yes, Master, but I’m not here about that.  I think you should give Queen Amidala the Initiate’s Test.”

Yoda didn’t seem surprised, turning to Padmé and giving her a sober look. 

Panaka made a disbelieving sound.  “She’s a little old for the Jedi creche, don’t you think?”

“Irrelevant, that may well be,” Yoda said, shaking his head.  “Feel it I can, Anakin.  Right, you are.  Your Highness:  Come with me, you will?  A quiet place we will find.  Questions there are, I think, hmm?”

Padmé nodded, the ghost of a smile on her face.  “Yes, I think there are quite a few of those, Master Yoda.” 

She took a step, only to halt when Panaka’s hand came down on her shoulder.  “Captain,” Padmé growled, and Anakin grinned, hearing the distinct sound of lost patience in Padmé’s voice.

“Come with us, you may,” Yoda said, pointing his gimer stick at Panaka.  “Aim your gun at me you can, if makes you feel better, it does.”

Panaka ground his teeth in audible frustration.  “I won’t do any such thing, Master Jedi,” he said, glowering.  “This entire day has just been preposterous.”

[You don’t even know the half of it,] Rillian said, to Anakin’s amusement.

“Sit here, you will?” Yoda said, turning his attention back to Anakin.  “Skin contact, helps it does,” he explained, his voice soft.  “Dreaming, he has been.”

Anakin looked at his Master and bit his lip.  Skin contact might help, but Anakin wasn’t sure that his skin was the best sort of comfort.

Yoda scowled at him.  “Ridiculous you are being, but long the day has been, and too tired, I am, to hit you with my stick.”

Anakin bowed.  “Small favors, Master Yoda,” he said, and received a disgruntled hmph in response.

Yoda wouldn’t leave until Anakin was sitting on the bed, in his place.  With his boots kicked off and his feet tucked underneath him, Anakin just fit without falling off.  Rillian decided to steal the chair, scooting it close to the bed so that they were each sitting at his Master’s side.

Panaka and Padmé followed Yoda from the room, though Padmé threw Anakin one last glance, a mixture of reassurance, curiosity, and confusion on her face.  Damn, but he sympathized. 

Anakin picked up Obi-Wan’s hand, breathing out a sigh.  Even to his Healer-stupid senses, Obi-Wan felt horrible, distant and drained and still too far away for Anakin’s liking. 

[Are you all right?] Rillian asked in a low rumble, her eyes full of concern.

“No,” Anakin said in blatant honestly, shaking his head as his hands started to tremble.  He hadn’t been all right since the moment that Sidious had ditched his persona of Palpatine, becoming the Sith Lord he truly was.  All of the memories that had been spinning around in the back of his subconscious of late, teasing him with random spikes of recognition, had spilled out. 

For a long, horrible moment, it had pinned Anakin in place, shock and horror overriding all else.  Then Anakin had gotten up from the chair in the viewing room, made a copy of the vid feed from Palpatine’s residence in Theed, and run after the bastard who’d destroyed his life. 

Meditation was not what he needed.  A good long session of screaming up at the stars would be nice, but wouldn’t do much to reassure people of his sanity—and Anakin was sane; he knew it and understood it in a way that most beings would never have to imagine.  He’d been a fractured soul for two decades, lost in the cobwebbed recesses of his own mind.  Strength of will had been taken from him, strength of purpose was shattered, and his heart had been torn asunder by his own hand.

[What would make it better?] Rillian asked.  [How do I help my brother Jedi?]

Some part of Anakin quailed at the concern and love he could sense from the Wookiee.  “Why don’t—why don’t you hate me, Rillian?” he asked, bewildered.  He still couldn’t believe it, that he’d faced no wrath from the Jedi he’d once betrayed.

Rillian snorted.  [Because I’m not stupid.  Palpatine is at fault, here, not you.]

“I know he is responsible for much.  But I still did what I did,” Anakin insisted.

[Really.]  Rillian rested her chin in her hand.  [Remember what Master Windu said to Master Obi-Wan, about you not seeming like the same person that burned the Temple?]

Anakin stared at her.  “How can you be so—so analytical, right now?” he blurted.

[I’m a Wookiee.]

“Right,” Anakin said, shaking his head.  “I must’ve forgotten that part, what with the hair and the arms and the ripping droids’ arms off.”

[It was only the once!] Rillian retorted, and they both smiled.  [Anyway.  You know of what moment I speak?]

He nodded.  “Master Windu and Palpatine—I know, I know.  I lopped Master Windu’s arms off and Palpatine blasted him out of the window.  I thought he was dead, thought…”

Oh stars, did I just—oh, fuck, fuck, this is awful, why didn’t I listen to him!

Rillian nodded.  [When did you decide to bow to Sidious?]

“I…” Anakin looked at her in bafflement, for the memory wouldn’t surface.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “I don’t remember much of that time.  I was—I was lost.”

[Yes, you were,] Rillian howled, mournful.  [While I think you were struggling with your feelings during that time, brother Jedi…in the end, I don’t believe Sidious gave you a choice.]

That frightened Anakin, though he knew that had not been Rillian’s intent.  If Palpatine could just shove people off of that precipice and send them into Darkness, what were they going to do?  What could any of them do? 

“I wish you were okay, Master,” Anakin said, feeling his eyes burn as he looked down at Obi-Wan.  “I really need you right now.”

To his shock, the hand that he was holding flexed, locking onto his fingers in a gentle grasp.  I…keep telling you…all you…have to do…is ask.

“Master?” he whispered, latching onto Obi-Wan’s hand with both of his own.

Obi-Wan’s eyelids flickered before he opened his eyes.  “Hey,” he breathed. 

“You’re supposed to be resting, you lunatic!” Anakin berated him, feeling hot tears spill down his cheeks.  Obi-Wan’s eyes were such a pale gray they almost matched the pallor of his skin.  Not amber, thank you Force, I don’t think I could bear it if I saw that color in my Master’s eyes right now—

“Couldn’t…not when my Padawan needs me,” Obi-Wan said, the words so faint that Anakin had to sharpen his hearing to catch them. 

His Master seemed to give in, and switched back to speaking through the shared Padawan bonds.  You’re on the verge of freaking out.  Can’t think of a better qualifier than that.

[Healer Terza is going to hand you your head, Master,] Rillian said, smiling.  [I think she wanted you to stay down until she could get the twin Healers here.]

Healer Terza wants to hand me my head, regardless, I think, Obi-Wan replied, his mindspeech was still too faint for Anakin’s liking. 

Anakin.  You are stronger than you think.

Anakin frowned.  “Strength doesn’t seem to mean a whole lot, does it?”

Obi-Wan rolled his eyes.  Before Anakin recognized his intent, Obi-Wan poked him in the forehead with a stern, if unsteady, finger. 

“Strength…up here, idiot,” Obi-Wan chastised.  Forget prophecy.  You walked through the fire and came out the other side scarred, but healing.  We can all see it.  Don’t start doubting yourself now.

Anakin caught Obi-Wan’s arm when his strength ebbed, lowering the offending limb back down onto the bed.  “But I’m so good at that, Master,” Anakin said with a half-hearted smile. 

[Be an angsty humanoid teenager on your own time,] Rillian growled, amused.  [We have bigger assholes to deal with.]

Obi-Wan looked at her, concern in his voice when he spoke again.  Is it just me, or do you sound older, Raallandirr?

“Yeah, she does,” Anakin said.  “She sounds older, and has more attitude—”

[Do not.]

“And Padmé can understand Shirriwook and lift rocks bigger than she is without even thinking about it now,” Anakin finished.  “I didn’t think Sharings were supposed to be so literal.”

They’re not, no, Obi-Wan said, closing his eyes.  I didn’t make Padmé Force-sensitive, Anakin.  She always has been.  It’s just been a dormant talent. 

Anakin nodded; there was something vague at the back of his mind, like he’d known that once.  Then he looked up, feeling the familiar prod of the Force, and narrowed his eyes. 

“Something’s not right…but not yet,” Anakin murmured.

Rillian sniffed the air and barked.  [Days?]

“Maybe.  No more than a week before we can expect trouble to come calling,” Anakin said.  There was an ebb and flow to his sense of the future, like a pendulum swinging back and forth.  If that wasn’t trouble on the horizon, he’d eat his lightsaber crystals.

Obi-Wan’s lips quirked, as if he’d heard the thought.  It took Anakin a moment to realize that his Master had fallen asleep once more.  He seemed to be more at ease, now.  Perhaps Obi-Wan’s effort at reassurance hadn’t just been for Anakin’s sake. 

Anakin smiled and planted a kiss on Obi-Wan’s forehead, feeling foolish, sentimental, childlike, and far too damned old for his own good.  “Don’t worry, Master,” he whispered.  “Whatever it is, we’ll handle it.”

[We will, huh?] Rillian rumbled, her eyes flashing with amusement.

“Yes, we will,” Anakin said in a firm voice, straightening his shoulders and lifting his chin.  “I don’t know if Luke and Leia Skywalker will ever exist,” he continued, a grim smile on his face.  “But if they’re meant to be, I want them born into a galaxy that’s safe.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

Quinlan Vos knelt, his hands on the ground, palms in contact with smooth tile.  There was blood underneath his right hand—Obi-Wan’s blood.  Intermingled with that was the dark, reaping power that Sidious had brought to bear. 

In his mind, Quinlan watched as the entire sordid scene between Obi-Wan and Sidious played out.  He winced when the physical and mental pain hit, intermingled with the Sith’s savage glee…and desire.

It was one of the most distasteful things his psychometry had ever shown him. 

Quinlan got up, wiping his palms off on his trousers, trying his best to shake the mental impressions so that they wouldn’t overpower him.  He walked around the main room, tracking doors and the vague sense of paths walked.  Now that he had a sense of that dark power, he could follow it wherever it led.  It was what made him such a good tracker, though Queen Amidala—Padmé—had not known that aspect of his abilities when she’d given him his task before the battle. 

“Master, I’ve got something interesting over here,” Aayla spoke.  Quinlan followed her voice into the bedroom.  The room hadn’t been slept in, but the air was foul to his sensitive nose, speaking of more than just sex.  After the experience he’d just shared with his fellow Jedi, he had little doubt left as to what else Palpatine liked to do for fun. 

Aayla was standing at the far wall, a collapsed and crumpled tapestry lying at her feet.  She was running her hands over the wall’s smooth surface, which seemed the same dull, dark gray as the rest of the room. 

“The only decoration in the room, huh?”  Quinlan stepped forward to join his Padawan.  “Seems kind of obvious.”

“Yes, Master,” Aayla agreed, pursing her lips as she brushed her hands up and down the wall again.  “It’s probably a distraction, or a trap, but better for us to spring the trap than for one of the Naboo Guard to stumble upon it.”

Quinlan nodded, taking a long moment to gaze at his apprentice.  She smiled and blushed when she noticed his stare, but her hands did not still in their work. 

“Master, I’m fine, truly,” Aayla said in reassurance.

“I’m not,” Quinlan replied bluntly.  “If you’re being honest with me, Padawan, then you are possessed of a stronger soul than I.”

Aayla dropped her hands from the wall and blew out a frustrated breath.  “Well, I can’t find the switch,” she said, conceding defeat before she turned to look at him.  “I have to be, Master.  There is still work to do, and—and—” She lowered her head.  “I’m not sure I know what to think.  I didn’t even know of what had happened to Master Obi-Wan, and then…to see it?  To see what he knows of our fate?”

Quinlan shook his head.  “Dearheart, that fate is not going to be ours.  For one thing, we know about it, so I’m not all that keen on strolling around Nar Shaddaa with that in mind.”  Aayla smiled.  “For the second?  I do believe we’ve just significantly altered history, being that a Sith is not currently our Chancellor.”

“Truth,” Aayla admitted after a moment’s consideration.  “But Master:  That isn’t completely reassuring.”

Quinlan looked into his Padawan’s calm blue eyes, and realized he shared that thought.  “No, it’s not.” 

Aayla was indeed handling this well, not just faking it.  In fact, his Padawan was faring better than he could have expected, but then, hadn’t they just gained forty-two years of experience?  Haunting, bitter, wonderful, grieving experience—but experience just the same.  It had matured his Padawan faster than anything he could have done save throw her into the Chamber in the Temple, naked, for her Trials.

“You are not throwing me into the Chamber of Ordeal naked, Master.  I don’t care what ideas Master Tholme has about my training,” Aayla retorted. 

Quinlan grinned.  “Not naked.  I will bear that in mind,” he said.  “Would you like some help, Padawan?”

“Yes, Master,” Aayla said, grinning back.  “I know there’s a door here.  I can sense it, but my hands are not as talented as yours.”

“Be grateful,” Quinlan murmured, his palms already on the wall, feeling for fault lines with more than just touch.  He closed his eyes and watched as the tactile memory unfolded, a vision that told him exactly how to open the door. 

“Surprisingly enough, my Padawan,” Quinlan began, opening the door with three knocks in a certain place and a Force-grip on the mechanism on the other side.  “The entryway is legitimate.  It’s everything else that’s booby-trapped.”

“Want some company, then?”

Quinlan turned in place, smiling.  “Sure, Garen.  I could always use a bulldozer at my side.”

Garen Muln offered him a lopsided smile.  “You only love me for my ability to destroy things.”

“In this case?  Yes,” Quinlan said in complete sincerity.  He switched his attention to Garen’s silent companion.  “Are you all right, Padawan Eerin?”

The Calamarian girl nodded.  Her eyes were huge, silver and soulful and marked by grief.  “I will be,” Bant said, her voice hushed, “in time.  It is not—I am a full empath, Knight Vos, and if not for my Master taking me as her student, I would have wound up training with the Soul Healers.  Most of my life I have ignored that talent, because I had no interest in being a Healer.  Today…today I have realized I neglected this ability too much.”

“You don’t have to come with us, Bant,” Garen said, resting his hand on her shoulder.  “No one will hold it against you.”

“But I would hold it against myself,” Bant replied, straightening and taking a deep breath.  “Palpatine hurt my friend—he hurt all of us.”

Bant smiled, an expression that seemed at odds with the situation until she continued speaking.  “My Master tells me that she’s received data that helps implicate Palpatine for treason.  If there is evidence in this place that will further his guilt in the eyes of the Republic, I want to help you find it.”

Quinlan jammed the mechanism with the Force when the hidden door, sensing no one passing through, tried to close again.  He had never worked with Bant before, but he’d worked with Kit Fisto, and Kit had handled a large percentage of Bant Eerin’s combat training.  If Kit trusted Bant at his back, then Quinlan would, too. 

“Here’s our walking order:  I’m first; Bant, I want you after me, then Aayla.  Garen, you follow at the rear.  Don’t touch a damned thing,” Quinlan added.  “Be mindful, and wary.  I’m pretty sure there are things in this passage that will try to tear our heads off if given the opportunity.” 

“Master, when you put it like that, none of us want to go,” Aayla observed, amused.

Garen snorted out a laugh. When Quinlan looked at him, he smiled.  “I was just realizing that we need to start thinking like Obi-Wan.”

Quinlan raised an eyebrow.  “Without the suicidal tendencies, I hope.”

“Nah, Obi-Wan’s not suicidal.  Crazy, yes, but not suicidal,” Garen said.  “Look, we’ve got an entire city of dead battle droids, and access to some of the smaller control units.  Why don’t we program one to walk the passage first?”

Quinlan stared at Garen, nonplussed.  The passage’s traps might not set off for a non-sentient, but then again, they might.  Either way, a battle droid had vidfeed capacity, and they could watch its progress and find out what was in store for them. 

“Why the hell hasn’t your Master Knighted you yet, Muln?” he asked.

Garen grinned.  “Because I wouldn’t let him.”

Acquiring the droids proved no trouble, though they had to go through the Naboo Guard to get the control units.  The young lieutenant who helped them find a working unit called himself Typho, and after hearing what the small group of Jedi were up to, decided to join them.

Typho grinned at Quinlan’s frustrated look.  “I know how to follow orders.  Uncle Panaka will kick my ass if I do something to screw up your investigation.  Also, having me around means you’ve got a non-Jedi witness standing with you in the Senate, if need be.”

“Dammit, what’s with everyone being so logical of late?” Quinlan muttered, throwing up his hands and waving for Typho to join them.  “Try not to die.  I don’t need Captain Panaka trying to kick my ass.”

Three droids later, they had a long passageway largely free of traps, and only one droid remaining, waiting in reserve.  They booted it up and sent it down the passageway, and the droid muttered in dismay when it saw the pieces of its destroyed predecessors.

After a long journey through the tunnel, the droid stepped out into an immense cave, marked with the landing lights of a hangar bay.  A ship with unfamiliar, sleek, destructive lines was the cave’s only occupant.  Through the audio, Quinlan could hear a muffled, roaring echo.

“That’s the falls above the city,” Typho said, after a moment of listening.  “We don’t monitor that area for traffic the way we do airspace above the city proper.  If the Sith that Kenobi and Jinn killed was using this hangar, chances are we would never have noticed.”

“I want a closer look at that ship,” Garen said, pointing at the screen.  “Look at the shape of those wings.  I’ve seen that before.”

“They’re like TIE-fighter variants, the ones in Master Kenobi’s memories,” Aayla replied.  She had an eye for ships and their abilities, though piloting she tended to leave for others.  “Could this be a precursor?  I can’t recall ever seeing that design on anything currently in production.”

“Me neither,” Quinlan said.  “Droid, do you pick up any energy readings?  Anything we should be concerned about?”

“My designation is 22-D4,” the droid retorted in a high-pitched, grumpy squeak.  “And no, Knight Vos.  My sensors detect no energy readings.”

Garen rolled his eyes at the droid’s response.  “All right, Dee-four.  Take a walk around the hangar.  We need to check for sensor plates in the flooring.”

The droid shook its skinny head and started walking with noticeable hesitation.  “Roger-roger.  Send the droid,” it grumbled.  “No one cares about a battle droid.  Blow up the droid!  We’ve got more!”

Typho grinned.  “I almost hope he doesn’t get blown up.  The little bastard’s got attitude, doesn’t he?”

“He’s got something, all right,” Aayla shook her head.  “I’d have his programming checked out before I decide to adopt, were I you.”

22-D4 completed his circuit of the hangar and reported back in.  “I’m not in pieces yet,” it said in as snide a tone as its programming would allow.  “Awaiting further instructions.”

“Which means the ship itself is probably the last booby trap.  I doubt Darth Maul would just leave that kind of firepower sitting around without one hell of a security system,” Quinlan said. 

“Stay put, Dee-four.  We’re coming to join you,” Garen told it.

“Roger-roger,” said the droid, with something very like an electronic sigh.

 

*          *          *          *

 

When Qui-Gon returned to the improvised medical center with Micah, he found Rillian waiting for them, standing with her arms crossed.  [Master.] she said, relieved to see him.  [Are you less inclined to perform mayhem, the likes of which would make the destructive inclinations of my uncles seem docile?]

Qui-Gon managed a smile at the lengthy speech.  “Yes, Padawan, less inclined.  Are you all right?”

She nodded, hesitating before stepping forward and raising her arms for a hug.  Qui-Gon wrapped his arms around the Wookiee girl, relieved that she was still willing to seek comfort from him.

[You do feel better.  Master Micah must have hit you with his stick.]

“Just the mental equivalent of it,” Micah agreed, smiling, as Rillian stepped back to face them both once more.  “He needs that sometimes.  Pretty soon you’ll figure out how to administer it yourself.  Now, what about those interesting developments Qui-Gon told us about?”

Rillian straightened her bandolier, touching her lightsaber briefly before dropping her hands.  [Well, Padmé is with Master Yoda receiving the Initiate’s Test.  She seems to be telekinetic now, though Obi-Wan said that it was always a potential of hers, not something he did.]

“Yoda is what?” Micah sputtered.

A fourteen-year-old planetary ruler with sudden Force-sensitivity would have held more sway in Qui-Gon’s thoughts, if it hadn’t been for the last part.  “Obi-Wan’s awake?” Qui-Gon asked, giving his Padawan a startled look.

[Just for a few minutes,] Rillian said, taking her Master’s hand.  [Come sit with us, Master.  He needs you.]

Qui-Gon nodded, managing a small smile.  If the truth were to be told, Qui-Gon was coming to realize that he needed Obi-Wan as much as Obi-Wan needed him. 

He allowed his Padawan to lead him back down the hall, and sent a small prayer to the Force that they could all get through the rest of the day with no more surprises.  There had been enough stunning revelations for one blasted day.

 

*          *          *          *

 

Yoda, Grand Master of the Jedi Order, felt old.

Oh, he knew better, of course, to think that death was near.  He had seen the time left he had to his life—perhaps even longer, if the stress of losing ten thousand Jedi in the space of a few heartbeats never came to pass. 

For over eight hundred years, Yoda had trained Jedi, and in all that time, he had done his best for the Order and the Republic he’d served.  He had been born under the strict confines of the Ruusan Reformation after the last Sith War, but those confines had grown ever more structured as the years wore on.  Yoda had thought it best to support such things, even if a distant part of his mind murmured that perhaps it should not be so. 

Yoda was just one Master in the face of thousands, though, and in the first few hundred years of his life, unity was the face the Jedi had desperately needed to present to the galaxy.  Unity within had been important, too, the path of the Unifying Force superseding all others.

In Qui-Gon Jinn, apprenticed to his last Padawan, Yoda had seen the rebellion he sometimes felt, and nurtured it, invoking Dooku’s anger on more than one occasion.  Meddling old troll.  Foolish ancient Master.  What good will the Living Force do him?

If want him to know of the Unifying Force, your job that is, Padawan, Yoda had often replied, and gone right back to his meddling.

When Yoda had looked into the eyes of Obi-Wan Kenobi almost five years ago, felt the training bond between them, and sensed the Jedi Master lurking beneath the surface, it had shocked him to his very core.  Not of the Unifying Force, nor of the Living, was Obi-Wan—an embodiment of the Jedi of old, he was, like the ancestors the Order revered but did not imitate.  Even Yoda’s own Master, two hundred years old, and close to death when he had trained Yoda, had not had such a presence.

Still, Yoda had not spoken.  Even acting as confidant to a man out of his place and time, hearing the tales Obi-Wan had spun for him when the stress of nightmares and memory had become too great to bear, still had not convinced Yoda to speak of his misgivings.  Speak of his worries, he should have, long before this.

Yoda opened his eyes to find the Queen of Naboo staring at him, her eyes full of concern and no little discomfort.  They were kneeling together in a darkened corner of the building, ignored by everyone else after a judicious touch of the Force.  Her cautious Captain stood guard nearby, his back to them, trying to give them privacy.

Such a Jedi, she already was.  Few humans of her age had the strength of will and heart that Padmé Naberrie possessed.  A youngling she still was, and yet… 

Yoda sighed.  “Seen much in my life, I have, young Amidala.  Long are the centuries I have trained Jedi.  Seen the end of my own kind, I have.  Children, I never had; thought of each Padawan as my child, and their many Padawans, my grandchildren.” 

She smiled in sympathy at his words, and Yoda nodded his thanks.  “Fifty years ago, I would not train one so old as you, no matter the circumstance.  Four years ago, train you as a Jedi I would refuse, but advocate for your teaching, I would have.”

“And now?” Padmé asked.  Yoda sensed no eagerness from her.  No, not from Padmé Amidala.  She knew what the life of a Jedi was like, had just seen the harsh paths the Force could lead a Jedi down. 

“What should I do, Master Yoda?  I have a responsibility to many, and yet now I feel a responsibility to the Jedi, to join the fight in this ancient war against the Sith,” she said.

Yoda gripped his gimer stick, last relic of his lost home, and caressed it with his old, clawed hands.  “The Initiate’s Test, passed you did.  Easy you found it, hmm?”

Padmé paused, a brief flash of confusion in her eyes.  “Yes.”

Yoda nodded.  “Want to be a Jedi, do you?”

“I don’t know,” she answered, and he was pleased by her honesty.  “Yesterday, I could have told you what my plans were for the next twenty years of my life, Master Yoda.  Things are different, now.”

Different, indeed.  “How feel you, Padmé?”

“Adrift, Master Yoda,” she said after a moment’s thought.  “It’s been hard to reconnect.  And then…there is Anakin.”

“Loves you, he does,” Yoda said, watching closely.

Padmé flushed and nodded.  “Yes, he does, but I never want to be used against him again.  I don’t wish to be a tool of the Sith—or anyone else.”

Yoda closed his eyes and pondered the flow of the Force, tracing the paths of possibility that lay before the young Queen.  “Choices you have.  Many choices.  A Jedi you could be—yes, yes.  Strong in the Force you are, and understand the dangers, you do.  A great Jedi could you be.  The Almas Academy, accept you they also would, but their training…right for you, it is not,” Yoda decided after brief consideration. 

“Other paths, there also are.  Training you should receive, for control you will need to learn.  Use those gifts to help others, if in the political arena you stayed.  Your silence you would need to keep, if in the public eye you remain.  Dangerous, others would see you as.  Fearful, they would be.”

“I can’t abandon my people now, not after this invasion,” Padmé said quietly.  “My term has barely begun.  It will be over three years before the new elections.”

“Time you have,” Yoda said, smiling.  Oh, yes; a great Jedi, this one would be.  “If you stay, a Jedi will always be nearby.  Unprotected we cannot leave you, not until the Sith is found.  When you are ready, come to me, you may.  Train you, I will.”

“I’m too old for the creche as it is,” Padmé said with a wry smile.  “It might be four years before I can completely absolve myself of my responsibilities here.  Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

Yoda shrugged, dipping one ear in mischievous acknowledgement.  Padmé had seen, in those memories, what his notion had once been on training a nine-year-old boy, let alone twenty-three-year-old Luke Skywalker. 

“When almost nine hundred years old you are, stubborn and willful, you will also be.  Different, things must become, or lose themselves, the Jedi will.”  Yoda huffed out an amused breath.  “After my inscrutable Dooku, no more Padawans did I want.” 

Yoda paused, still hoping against hope that his last Padawan was not lost.  It would not be the first time one of his own had Fallen, but he had never wanted to repeat the experience.  “Changed my mind, I did.  Change will come, young one.” 

Then Yoda reconsidered his words, feeling the ebb and flow of the Force with each breath he took.  “Change is coming.”

Padmé nodded.  “Then your Padawan, I will one day be,” she said, and to his surprise leaned forward to plant a soft kiss on his forehead.

 

*          *          *          *

 

Su’um-Va and Ra’um-Ve arrived three days later.  Qui-Gon knew this because he sensed and heard a sudden flurry of activity among the staff in the rest of the infirmary.  The twins were well-known among the medical community for their innovative solutions for the Force-sensitive and non-sensitive alike.  If they had been holo stars, the entire capital would have been hounding them for autographs.

Ra’um-Ve managed to free herself first, leaving her brother to deal with sorting the Coruscant volunteers that had arrived that morning, to collect messages, and to confer with the Naboo healers.  She slipped into Obi-Wan’s room, her short-cropped black hair sticking out in every direction.  Between the dim light, Ra’um-Ve’s indigo skin, and her dark robes, the Healer looked like a shadow in motion. 

When she saw Qui-Gon, she smiled, tilted her head, and then grinned at him.  “Congratulations.  That is a fantastic bond the two of you put together.”

Qui-Gon was getting used to those sorts of comments.  “Thank you, Healer.”

She snorted.  “Stop that.  We know each other’s names, Qui-Gon Jinn.  We certainly spent enough time in mutual company while trying to crack open your mate’s block.”

Qui-Gon nodded, his hand involuntarily flexing around Obi-Wan’s fingers.  “I suppose so.  My apologies.  Between my time here, and my time spent counseling Amidala and her retinue on dealing with the political fall-out, I’m exhausted.” 

Finis Valorum had also contacted him several times, seeking advice.  Qui-Gon had given it without hesitation, not caring anymore about any concept of neutrality. 

“I’m afraid that yours and your brother’s efforts were ultimately in vain,” Qui-Gon said softly.

Ra’um-Ve offered him a sad smile.  “I heard.  Terza filled me in on the way from the spaceport.  May I?” she asked, lifting her hands. 

When Qui-Gon nodded once more, she bent down and rested the tips of her fingers against Obi-Wan’s temples.  He was still pale, but the alarming dark smudges under his eyes were fading.  His aborted conversation with Anakin and Rillian was his last moment of consciousness, though, and Qui-Gon knew Terza was worried.

“Oh, gods,” Ra’um-Ve whispered, horrified.  “How could he—he must have known what this was going to do!”

“Who?  Obi-Wan?” Qui-Gon looked up at the Healer, bewildered.

“No, that blasted Sith Lord that everyone is talking about!” Ra’um-Ve bit out, shaking her head.  She opened her eyes and glanced at Qui-Gon.  “He—just—destroyed it!  Terza was right.  If Obi-Wan hadn’t used up the energy that was released in such a unique manner, it would have killed him.  At the very least, he would have suffered a massive stroke!”

Qui-Gon drew in a deep breath.  “Will he be all right?”  That was the one question he wanted an answer to, one that Terza had been unable to provide.

Ra’um-Ve pursed her lips, frowned, and closed her eyes, turning her attention back to Obi-Wan.  She ran her fingers across Obi-Wan’s forehead, as if tracing paths only she could see. 

“Eventually,” she murmured.  “The last time he awoke, he was coherent?”

“Anakin said he seemed fine, if exhausted.”

“He’s going to get a lot worse before he gets better,” Ra’um-Ve said, lifting her hands from Obi-Wan and settling down into a chair next to Qui-Gon.  She breathed quietly for a few minutes, still and focused.  Qui-Gon let her collect herself, noticing for the first time the sweat beading her forehead. 

“This period of resting will only last a few more days, and then he’s going to be scattered, to put it bluntly.  His mind was damaged by the destruction of the block—nothing permanent,” Ra’um-Ve hurried to say, resting a hand on Qui-Gon’s arm when he sat up in alarm.  “He might not know where he is upon waking.  Not just once, but every time. Aphasia is a distinct possibility, as are memory gaps and trouble focusing.  Narcolepsy might well be another side effect; he could fall asleep while walking or eating, so be alert while he’s conscious.  Be prepared for lots of anger, frustration, and swearing, so gird your ears and don’t let anything he says get to you.”

That almost made Qui-Gon smile.  Obi-Wan was never at his best when at the mercy of Healers, not since he’d been Knighted.  During the exploration of the block, he had saved some of his best invectives for the twins. 

“How long?” Qui-Gon asked, feeling calmer.  He could deal with this.  This was nothing compared to how bad it could have been.

“As his mind heals, all of these potential symptoms will fade, probably within a few weeks.  But between this and the physical injuries that he suffered?”  Ra’um-Ve shrugged.  “Terza told me that the re-opened wound is highly resistant to Force-healing, so it will have to heal in its own time.  Obi-Wan’s total recovery time will be, at best, two or three months.  At worst, a year.  However, I’m putting you, Obi-Wan, and your Padawans on mandatory six month leave, regardless of what you or the Council might say about the matter.  You’re a newly bonded couple, and one of you just suffered several traumatic events in a row.  The bond might be stable, but you need time together, and your Padawans need the two of you more than they need a few missions.  In six months, we’ll re-evaluate his progress and see about surgery to replace that missing kidney.” 

The healer sighed.  “Hells, he’s just lucky that the lightsaber struck where it did.  Obi-Wan wouldn’t have survived, otherwise.”

Qui-Gon tried not to grimace.  As if he didn’t have nightmares about that very thing every night. 

“He should sleep another day or so without help, but after that, I suggest keeping him sedated while he’s scattered.  The longer he’s unconscious, the faster the damage will heal.  What are your plans?” Ra’um-Ve asked, looking at him curiously.

Qui-Gon rubbed the bridge of his nose, reminded of his duties throughout the next few days and not liking it.  If he had his choice, he would stay in this room with Obi-Wan and sleep off a month’s worth of stress.  “With the sudden influx of Healers, I suppose most of us will be returning to Coruscant.”  Quinlan and Aayla would remain behind, lurking behind the scenes as Padmé’s new security detail. 

Ra’um-Ve’s eyes widened.  “Fuck’s sake, Qui-Gon, don’t take him back there!  He’s going to be sensitive to mental input.  You put him in the Temple, surrounded by thousands of Jedi, and it’ll strain his recovery.”

That was something Qui-Gon hadn’t expected, and he resisted the urge to stand up and pace the floor.  “You have got to be joking.”

She looked apologetic.  “Sorry.  I know I’m telling you that you can’t go home, which is a shame, because familiar things are going to mean a lot to him during the next few weeks.  Take him somewhere remote, Qui-Gon.  Dantooine is good, if you can nab one of the cabins from the rehabilitation rotation.”

Qui-Gon was considering the idea—it had been years since he’d visited Dantooine—when the door opened and Abella poked her head into the room.  “May I come in?”

Ra’um-Ve grinned.  “Of course, furball.  He’s your patient, too.”

Abella stepped into the room, giving the senior Healer a glare that Ra’um-Ve pointedly ignored.  “Funny you should mention that,” she said, looking at Qui-Gon with a hesitant smile.  “Master says…” She swallowed, and her eyes brightened with sudden tears.  “Master says that seeing Obi-Wan through his recovery has just become my Healer’s Trials.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

The trouble that Anakin and Rillian had foreseen arrived the evening after the parade had passed through the streets of Theed, celebrating the new alliance between the Naboo and the Gungans.  Cleanup was complete, funerals had been held, and the Jedi were now guests in the palace. 

The infirmary didn’t need their help any longer, and Obi-Wan had Abella for the care that he still required.  Qui-Gon was grateful; if he’d had to do those tasks as well as keep track of the current political arena and the sessions he and the other Masters were having with the Council via comm, the stress would have driven him to the point of collapse.  Instead, at the end of the day, all he had to do was go back to their shared room in the palace and lie next to his oblivious mate, curling his fingers against Obi-Wan’s lax palm.

Qui-Gon had fallen asleep at some point to the gentle background murmur of a mental conversation between Anakin and Rillian.  He woke up when he realized he could no longer feel Obi-Wan’s hand.  Opening his eyes, he discovered Obi-Wan was sitting up in the bed next to him.

Qui-Gon quickly sat up and gestured for the lights, illuminating the bedroom in a soft, gentle glow.  “Obi-Wan?”

Obi-Wan was staring straight ahead, his gaze unfocused.  He didn’t respond, didn’t turn his head to look at Qui-Gon.  In profile, Qui-Gon could see that his mate desperately needed to shave, but his hair was regaining its copper shine, and no longer looked dull and dead.  The day-to-day improvements were reassuring; this sudden change in behavior was not.

Qui-Gon was about to call his name again, to reach out and touch Obi-Wan to confirm that he wasn’t dreaming, when Obi-Wan spoke.  His voice was raspy from disuse, no louder than a whisper.  “Darkness is here.”

Qui-Gon felt all of the hair on his body try to stand up at once.  “Who is here, Obi-Wan?”  Palpatine, it has to be him, he thought, and in the next moment, He’d be stupid to return here.  Whoever it is, it’s not Palpatine.

Obi-Wan didn’t acknowledge that he’d spoken.  He was caught in the grip of the Force, and the Force would not be denied.  “He’s coming to claim his apprentice, the one who was taught to rebel.”  There was a long pause, and Obi-Wan’s voice was hard and clear when he spoke again.  “Sifo-Dyas is dead.” 

Qui-Gon stared, stunned.  “Dead?” he whispered.  Sifo-Dyas should have been safe on Coruscant, under watch by the Temple Guard and the Council lest his name be put to use on Kamino once more.  The older Master had been vastly amused by the entire affair; Adi had reported to Yoda that Sifo-Dyas had been heard to say that he hadn’t had so much company in years.

Obi-Wan’s eyes fluttered, and Qui-Gon caught him before he could fall back, easing him back down on the bed.  “Qui-Gon?” Obi-Wan whispered, the remote stare fading into puzzlement.

“I’m here,” Qui-Gon murmured, brushing Obi-Wan’s hair away from his face. 

Obi-Wan smiled, sleep already claiming him once more.  The sedatives that Abella had chosen did their work well.  “Don’t go alone,” Obi-Wan whispered, and his eyes drifted closed.

“Yeah, like we’d let him,” Anakin drawled.  Qui-Gon turned to find Anakin, Rillian, and Abella entering the room, Abella and Anakin showing signs of having dressed hastily. 

“I felt that from down the hall,” Anakin continued, his face marred by an intense frown.  “What did he say?”

“That we have company,” Qui-Gon said, finding a shirt before slipping his feet into his boots.  “And that Master Sifo-Dyas is dead.”

Rillian barked in surprise while Anakin swore in what sounded like Bocce.  [But the guards—!]

“I know, Padawan.  Abella,” Qui-Gon started, but the Chitanook cut him off.

“I’ll stay with him, and Garen is on his way to join me.  No one’s going to get through the two of us,” Abella growled, her sharp teeth glinting in the light.

“Thank you.  Padawans?” he gestured, his lightsaber in his hand.

Anakin gave him a short nod, opening the door just as Garen skidded through, his ignited lightsaber in his hand.  “Sith fuck, why does this stuff always happen after midnight?” he was grousing.  “Master Qui-Gon,” Garen continued, dropping his head in acknowledgement, but not bothering to apologize for the swearing.  Really, Qui-Gon shared the sentiment.

“Stay here with Abella, Garen.  If you can wake Micah and Tahl, I think the company would be welcome.”

“Working on it,” Garen replied, his eyes unfocused as he sought his Master through their training bond.

Qui-Gon stepped out into the dim corridor, flanked by Rillian and Anakin. There was no sense of danger that he could feel, but that wouldn’t matter.  If their visitor had been trained by Palpatine, he could hide himself and wreak havoc with impunity.

It was Rillian who stopped, raising her nose and sniffing the faint breeze provided by the open pavilions and walkways that were scattered throughout the palace.  [Male, human.]  She paused.  [Older human.  He smells familiar,] she said, baffled.

“What do you mean, Padawan?” Qui-Gon asked, glancing around and igniting his lightsaber.  Green light drove the shadows back.  Rillian’s copper blade and Anakin’s pale blue one came to life, the colors blending together and illuminating the entire area.  He saw no one, but he knew they were close. 

[He smells like—like you,] Rillian said, and his heart lurched in his chest.

Ah, gods; blessed Force, please no.  Qui-Gon swallowed against the sharp lump in his throat.  Obi-Wan’s words made sense, now.  “Anakin, find Master Yoda.”

Anakin bit his lip, glancing around, clearly worried.  “I shouldn’t leave you.  If he’s a trained Sith—”

“He’s not here to kill me.  Not yet, at least,” Qui-Gon said, tightening his grip on his lightsaber.  “You have time.”

There was a flash of understanding in Anakin’s eyes, followed by sympathy.  “All right.  Be careful.  I’ll be back as soon as I can, even if I have to carry the troll the entire way,” Anakin said, and disappeared in a burst of Force-enhanced speed.

Dooku was waiting for them on one of the massive balconies that overlooked the river.  He’d abandoned his Jedi tunics in favor of dark clothing with a hint of a military cut, marked by the silver medallions that denoted his status on his homeworld.  He wore a cloak with no hood, and the cloth’s dark edges fluttered in the warm Naboo breeze. 

“Ah, Qui-Gon,” Dooku said, his smile genuine as he saw Qui-Gon and Rillian approach.  “I thought you would be the one to find me.  Your talents were always remarkable that way.”

Qui-Gon halted his steps, noting that Rillian had done the same.  He lowered his blade but did not extinguish it, and found himself fighting a smile.  His Master had never been one to compliment freely, and Qui-Gon had figured out long ago that a sudden influx of kind words meant that Dooku wanted something. 

“Master,” he said, inclining his head. 

“Lightsabers?” Dooku shook his head, amused.  “I am used to far less violent greetings from you, Padawan.”

“It’s been an interesting month, Master,” Qui-Gon replied.

[That’s an understatement,] Rillian added.

“Ah, and young Rillian!  I haven’t yet offered you my congratulations.  You will find that your Master is an excellent teacher,” Dooku said, bowing to the young Wookiee.  The action made Rillian offer a surprised bow in return, and Qui-Gon could sense her confusion. 

Qui-Gon sent her a pulse of reassurance along the bond, and it steadied her.  He allowed himself a moment of pride; Rillian was handling herself better than she realized.

“The last time we saw each other unexpectedly, you offered me an embrace,” Dooku said, turning his attention back to Qui-Gon.

Qui-Gon stared hard at the man who had raised him to Knighthood.  He sensed no danger.  Dooku seemed the same as always, his gaze was warm—more welcoming than usual, actually, not his usual cool professionalism.  Qui-Gon wondered for a moment if Obi-Wan’s own experiences with Darth Tyrannus had colored the warning from the Force.  Then again…

“You’re here in the middle of the night, without warning, and you’re hiding yourself from our senses,” Qui-Gon replied.  “Forgive me if I’m cautious.”

“There is that, yes,” Dooku agreed, nodding.  “I thought it best, under the circumstances.  Please, put away your blades.  If I wanted to harm you or anyone else, I wouldn’t be bothering to stand here and converse with you.” 

Qui-Gon acknowledged the point by shutting down his lightsaber and reattaching it to his belt.  Rillian copied him, rumbling something dire under her breath.  Qui-Gon knew she didn’t think it the wisest course.  “Why are you here?”

“I’ve come to tell you that…” Dooku’s smile faded, and he seemed to sigh.  “I’m leaving the Order, Padawan.”

Qui-Gon wasn’t surprised by that admission, wouldn’t have been even if he hadn’t seen Obi-Wan’s memories.  Dooku had been spending longer and longer periods away from the Temple, and didn’t even keep permanent quarters there any longer.  “Why now?” he asked instead, curious.  “You have to admit that the timing would concern me.”

“It was this very event that cemented my decision, Qui-Gon,” Dooku said, clasping his hands together in front of him.  “I know you asked me once, about Galidraan and Jango Fett, and I told you that I didn’t have an answer for you.” 

When Qui-Gon nodded, Dooku smiled, but the expression was not pleasant.  “When our team of Jedi slaughtered the Mandalorians on Galidraan for resisting arrest, Fett killed six of us in vengeance—justifiably so, considering the plot that we later uncovered.  The governor of the planet and a member of the Death Watch had conceived the entire thing, framing Fett’s people.  By the time we uncovered this information, it was far too late,” Dooku said in a quiet voice.  “It was that moment that made me begin to lose faith in the Republic I served.  I was long used to acting on the Republic’s behalf, to safeguard our government, and yet, time and time again, I found myself on the wrong side.  More and more often, the insurgents, the so-called criminals, were in the right, and the Republic was moving to crush them.”

“There are ways around that, you know,” Qui-Gon started, but his Master interrupted him.

“Why do you think I’ve been spending so much time on the Outer Rim?” Dooku asked him, and then shook his head.  “I have tried it, and my successes have been minimal at best, limited as I am by being a member of the Republic I’m trying to safeguard people against!”  His eyes flashed in anger.  “It is high time I tried something new.”

Qui-Gon didn’t know he was going to ask the question until the words came from his mouth.  “How long have you known Palpatine’s true identity?”

Dooku lifted his chin, one of the more imperious gestures that Qui-Gon remembered from his childhood.  “What makes you ask me that sort of question?”

“You’re hiding yourself within the Force, an ability that I know only three other people in the galaxy to be capable of,” Qui-Gon said.  “One of them is dead.  One of them is sleeping in my bed.”  Dooku raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.  “The third is now a fugitive.”

Dooku glanced away from them, gazing out into the darkened city, and his face hollowed; in that moment, he seemed older than his eighty-four years.  “I have known of Lord Sidious for two years now.”

Qui-Gon closed his eyes, hope bleeding out of him at his Master’s words.  “By the Force, Dooku!”

“It is not quite what you think,” Dooku interrupted him, a touch of pleading entering his voice.  “At first, we were simply two collectors who had met by chance, men who shared an interest in the history of the Sith.  You and my Master both shook your heads over my desire to learn from our Sith holocrons in the Archives, but I knew that there are things the Jedi have forgotten in the past millennia.  The holocrons, the artifacts, were nothing but a tool for research.  Then, I discovered that I could incorporate some of the Sith techniques, use the Force in that way, and not be Darkened.  Do I feel Darkened to you, my Padawan?”

“Tell, we cannot,” Yoda said, hobbling up to stand next to Qui-Gon and Rillian.  Anakin ghosted out of the shadows behind him.  He held the ancient Master’s gimer stick in one hand, his unlit lightsaber in the other as he looked at Dooku in thinly disguised distaste.  It was a mark of Qui-Gon’s current disquiet with his former teacher that he hadn’t noticed the two of them approach. 

“Hiding from me, were you, my Padawan?” Yoda asked.

Dooku narrowed his eyes.  “Of course I was.  You’re as likely to break that stick of yours over my head as you are to listen to me.”

Yoda shook his head, his eyes full of sadness as he looked up at Dooku.  “Listening to you, I now am.  A story you were telling, yes?  Wish to hear more, I do.”

The older man hesitated before nodding.  “Fair enough, my Master.”  His presence flared to life in the Force.  Qui-Gon focused on it, searching for the signs of corruption, and found none.  It was not as bright as it should have been, as if Dooku’s place in the Force was shadowed, but he was not Dark.  Not yet. 

“Are you satisfied as to my good intentions?” Dooku asked in a stiff voice.

“Well, you’re not trying to slice anyone to pieces yet, so I think we can work with this for now,” Anakin said, still frowning at Dooku.

Dooku bowed his head.  “Thank you, young Skywalker.  While not a glowing endorsement, I appreciate your patience.” 

Through the training bonds, Qui-Gon heard Anakin mutter:  Words, words, words!  Talk, dammit!  Rillian coughed, barked, and coughed again.  Her eyes were bright, but she managed to maintain excellent control over her expression.

Dooku resumed his tale.  “I had been discussing such possibilities with my Senator friend before, so when I confided in him that I had accomplished my desire to combine Sith techniques with the Jedi ways, he was…enthusiastic.  After several more conversations, he asked me how much further I wished to extend my education into the Sith ways.  I said that I wished to extend my education as far as it was possible to go.” 

Dooku paused.  “I have to admit, when he admitted his identity to me, I did not believe him.  Then, once he proved to me what he was capable of, I disregarded part of my vows.  I did not report him to the Council, nor try to eradicate the threat of the Sith.  I suppose you’ll want to know why?”

Yoda nodded, his eyes glittering with anger.  “Yes, Padawan.  Wish to know this, I do.”

“Throughout the years that I had known Senator Palpatine, and conversed with him, I found that we agreed with many things—chief among them the present decline and corruption present in the Republic.  He had already been helping me fund my interests in the Outer Rim, setting up defense funds for those wrongly accused, and other such projects.  We both want to put an end to the corruption.”

Anakin sighed; Qui-Gon glanced over to find the boy rolling his eyes at Dooku.  “He wants you to start a war.”

Dooku looked amused.  “I should hope not, or else my little independence movement is going to be wiped out by Judicial before we even figure out what it is that we want.  Regardless, I have no intention of war.  I only want what is best for those who have asked for my help.”

The spiel was so familiar, if not yet twisted by Sith intentions, that Qui-Gon felt like crying.  “Are you sure this is the path you want to walk?” he asked.

The man who had raised him to Knighthood looked at Qui-Gon, his gaze serious and intent.  “Yes, Qui-Gon.  I have no wish to ever be responsible for another Galidraan.”

[What if this means that you become responsible for more things like Galidraan instead of less?] Rillian asked, the howl sounding mournful.  It was as if his Padawan was giving voice to the grief that Qui-Gon was not yet ready to face. 

Dooku bowed low to the young Wookiee.  “Dear Padawan of my Padawan, I give you my word that I will, to the best of my ability, see to it that such a thing never happens…but I cannot continue as I am.  Will you forgive me, my Master?” he asked Yoda.

Yoda sighed.  “Nothing wrong you have yet done, my Padawan.  Foolish you are, but your intentions are good.  Lose sight of your intentions, you should not.  Farewell,” he said, and turned, making his way quickly from the balcony after retrieving his gimer stick from Anakin. 

Dooku sighed.  “Farewell, Master,” he whispered.  “Qui-Gon?”

Qui-Gon shook his head and stepped forward, giving his Master the embrace he had not offered before.  “I think you’re being foolish, too, but you are far more stubborn than I could ever be.  I wish you luck, Master.”

Dooku chuckled as he stepped back.  “I will take what I can from that statement, Padawan.  I know that we never got along, even though I tried my best with you.”

“I understand.  I love you as well, Master,” Qui-Gon said, and then rested his hands on Dooku’s shoulders.  He stared into the man’s black eyes, and when he spoke again, his voice was cold.  “If you ever do side with Sidious, I will hunt you down.  There will be no mercy in my heart for you.”

Dooku had the audacity to smile at his threat.  “Like Xanatos, Qui-Gon?”

Qui-Gon resisted the urge to snarl.  “Sidious is the reason that Xanatos is not capable of standing here with us today.  Don’t let Palpatine do to you what he did to my Xan.”

Dooku’s eyes widened, his shock genuine.  He nodded once.  “I will take your warning to heart, Qui-Gon.  May the Force be with you, your Padawans, and your partner.”

“My Lifebonded,” Qui-Gon couldn’t resist correcting.  The subject of relationships and love had long been another bone of contention between them.

Dooku smiled faintly.  “Congratulations,” he said, and strode off the balcony, disappearing into the shadows.  The three of them watched him go before walking back the way they had come, finding Yoda, Micah, and Tahl clustered together a short distance away.  Qui-Gon was almost certain that Yoda had been crying.

“I’m sorry, Qui-Gon,” Tahl said, reaching out for his hand.  He took it, letting their fingers twine together.

“It is what it is,” Qui-Gon said, dropping his other arm across Rillian’s shoulders when his Padawan leaned in close.  “He is lost to us, but not yet lost to the Dark, and I will take what comfort I can get from that.”  Yoda looked up at his words, nodding in surprised agreement.

“Mace comm’d before we left our rooms,” Micah said, his face drawn and tired as he leaned against his staff.  “Sifo-Dyas is dead.”

“We know,” Qui-Gon replied, and looked at Anakin.  “Thank you.”

“For what, not trying to take his head off?”  Anakin managed a terse smile.  “I’ve used up a lifetime of stupidity, already.  I don’t need to add to it.”

“I have to get back to Coruscant,” Micah continued, rubbing his eyes with his free hand.  “No one has any idea how Sifo-Dyas died, or how the assassin managed to get through our security.  That, and with the trial-in-absentia starting soon for Palpatine, we need to get the evidence we’ve procured to Coruscant and begin reviewing it with the Chancellor and the Council.  Since you can’t join us, I’m going to have to get a vid from all three of you speaking about what you witnessed here from Palpatine and the Trade Federation.” 

Micah’s words were punctuated by a huge yawn that made Tahl smile.  “Have you lot decided where you’re going to go, yet?” he asked.

Qui-Gon nodded.  He’d been thinking about the matter since his talk with Ra’um-Ve; both she and her brother had made suggestions when he’d decided against Dantooine.  Obi-Wan had healed enough from his physical wounds to travel, so there was no reason to linger on Naboo any longer. 

Someplace familiar.  Someplace remote.  “We’re going to Kaazcint.”