Chapter 1: In a Lonely Place
Qui-Gon Jinn opened his eyes and regretted it immediately, blinking at the harsh light that burned his eyes.
“Sorry about that,” he heard, and the light went away. His eyes adjusted, and he glanced around. He was in a room with crumbling duracrete walls and one dingy window that told him night had fallen. Qui-Gon was lying on a bed. Naked. Bound. He withheld the sigh that wanted to escape his lips. He'd been through situations like this before, but that didn't make it any less trying.
He pulled with his right arm, testing, and felt metal bite into his wrists. His eyes followed the line of the cuffs, which were secured to the frame of a bed that had definitely seen better days. There was a faint buzz in the back of his mind that spoke of an inhibitor. That was new. Qui-Gon knew they existed, but this would be the first time in his life that he had ever been subjected to one. He tried to touch the Force and couldn't. The energy that was the backbone of his life danced away, just out of reach.
Gods, let Anakin be all right, he thought, hoping his wayward Padawan had escaped whatever fate had befallen them. Of course, that led him to the realization that he couldn't remember what had happened to him. He had last spoken to Anakin before they had split up to investigate Outbound Flight's disappearance. Then...nothing. Nothing until this moment.
All of this went through his mind in the space of two breaths before he sought out the one who had spoken. A black-cloaked figure was standing next to the bed, arms crossed, head tilted to one side. The room's pitiful light meant that he could see no features of his captor's face. “Where is my Padawan?” he demanded, not in the mood to be civil.
The cloaked figure didn't move, but he did reply. “Which one? You've had several, Master Jinn. You do have this bad habit of misplacing them.” His voice was soft, the hint of a broken Coruscanti accent lurking in his words.
That caught Qui-Gon's attention. This wasn't random, this encounter. Whoever he was, he hadn't just planned to capture a Jedi—he was after Qui-Gon in particular. Worse, his captor's voice was infuriatingly familiar. “You did not answer my question.”
“Your Padawan is unharmed, I promise you.”
Qui-Gon tilted his head in mimicry of the other's posture. “Considering our positions, I'm afraid I have to harbor some doubts as to the truth of that statement.”
Laughter answered him. “Oh, how I did miss that. You always knew how to use words to their greatest effect.” The cloaked figure drew closer, moving without noise, sitting down on the bed next to Qui-Gon's left leg. He uncrossed his arms, and a pale hand emerged from the sleeve of his cloak. Qui-Gon stared at that hand, noticing the scars that crossed the back of it, so many he couldn't count them all. His captor touched the lightsaber scar on Qui-Gon's thigh. Qui-Gon didn't flinch away from his hand, as he had almost expected to; the hand was warm, stroking the slick skin of the old burn without malice. “Perhaps, Master Jinn,” his captor said, “you will base your trust on the strength of our past relationship.” He reached up with both hands—his right hand was as badly scarred as the left—and pushed back the hood that obscured his features.
All of his breath left him in a rush as he stared at the man that sat next to him. “Obi-Wan.”
“Now you know where one of your Padawans is, at least,” Obi-Wan said, the hint of a sardonic smile on his lips.
Qui-Gon found himself speechless. He had not seen Obi-Wan since the day he had Knighted him, both of them still bruised from battling that damned Sith on Naboo. Obi-Wan had handed him his braid, stepping away, letting Anakin claim the spot that had been his moments ago...and then five years had gone by, and Obi-Wan had been absent from all of them. The official Temple word was that Obi-Wan was missing in action, presumed deceased. Qui-Gon had never wanted to believe it, but as time wore on with no word, no body, and no hint of him in the Force, he'd been forced to concede that Obi-Wan was gone. Anakin had tried to be there for him during those horrible first years, when Qui-Gon had felt like he was walking around without a heart. It was because of his current Padawan that he hadn't fallen into the same pit of despair that had plagued him after Xanatos's Fall. And then... well, then he'd become too busy to grieve.
At least Qui-Gon knew, now, that the deceased notation in Temple logs was inaccurate.
The man who had once been the most important part of his life was paler than Qui-Gon had ever seen, and harsh lines had formed at his eyes and around his mouth. There was another hint of scarring on his neck, but the cloak hid most of that damage. His hair was no longer the dark red that Qui-Gon remembered, though it was hard to tell in the dim light. It was longer, too, flowing down his neck to disappear underneath the collar of the cloak.
Qui-Gon wished he could see Obi-Wan's eyes, but the light was wrong for that. His Padawan's eyes had always glimmered with what was in his heart. “Where have you been all this time?”
“Here and there. Nowhere in particular. Nowhere you need to know about.” He narrowed his eyes. “I mean it. Don't ask.”
“I thought I just did?” Qui-Gon said, not able to help it, and Obi-Wan's smile became more tangible.
“Picky, picky. Don't ask again. I'm not going to tell you.”
“Then could you at least tell me why your first greeting in five years involved this?” he said, wiggling the fingers of his left hand to indicate his present state. “It's cold in here, you know.”
Obi-Wan's eyes flickered to Qui-Gon's groin and then back again. “Not that cold,” he said, and there was a purr in his voice that Qui-Gon had never heard before.
To his consternation, he felt a blush color his cheeks. “A simple 'Hello' would have worked just as well, you know.”
The smile on Obi-Wan's face became a grin. “No. It would not have,” he said, leaning close enough that the dim light in the room revealed all.
Now Qui-Gon could see Obi-Wan's eyes, and wished that he could not. The warm blue-gray color that sometimes shifted to green in Obi-Wan's more mischievous moments was gone. He swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat. “Obi-Wan. What's wrong with your eyes?”
The sardonic look faded, replaced by something harder, colder. “Sorry, Qui-Gon. It's a little side effect of dabbling a bit too long in the Dark.”
The Sith on Naboo had eyes like those—yellow, reptilian, and definitely not in the Galactic registry of eye colors known to occur in the Zabrak race. It was the yellow of corruption. A mark of the Dark side. There was a thin line of characters tattooed across both of Obi-Wan's cheeks, black and stark against his pale skin. It was the same kind of lettering that marked the Sith holocrons that the Jedi Order kept locked in the Archives, far from prying eyes. Marks of the Sith.
“Force,” Qui-Gon whispered, staring up at him. “What's happened to you?”
“I went looking for something,” Obi-Wan replied, and the sardonic little smile was back. “To my chagrin, I found it. Or rather, it found me.” He stood, shrugging out of the black cloak. “I am sorry about the cuffs, but I did need to make sure that you would speak with me, instead of just trying to lop my head off.”
“Sith,” Qui-Gon breathed out the word, making it a curse.
Obi-Wan tilted his head again, not acknowledging, not denying.
Qui-Gon was bewildered, and in truth, beginning to grow angry. It had been bad enough, watching Xanatos succumb to the dark, ending his life in a pool of acid because his pride would not allow Qui-Gon the killing blow. To see Obi-Wan this way burned him, hurt him in a way that he had thought he would never be hurt again. Was he such an incapable Jedi Master that he could now count two that had Fallen by his hand? “Why?” he bit out. “Do I serve some purpose for the Sith?”
“Actually, yes,” Obi-Wan said flatly, giving Qui-Gon a cold stare. “You do. But that is not why I'm here.”
This time he yanked with both hands, testing the limits of the metal, then tried without success to yank against the bonds that held his feet in place. “Then why!? Why come to me at all? If it's to kill me, then you really need to get on with it!”
There was a flicker in those amber eyes, there and gone, but it was enough to tell Qui-Gon that his Obi-Wan was not completely lost. Not when he could still grieve. He turned away, and Qui-Gon was left to stare at him, to take in the reddish-gold hair that now hung to the middle of Obi-Wan's back. When he shed the cloak, Qui-Gon saw black tunics that were a mirror to the white that Obi-Wan had once worn as a Jedi.
When Obi-Wan turned back to face him, there was a new expression in his eyes that kicked Qui-Gon's adrenaline into high gear: predatory. There was no other way to describe it. He did flinch, this time, when Obi-Wan reached out to touch him, running his fingers up through the fine hairs on Qui-Gon's leg.
“Did you know,” he began to say, a conversational lilt to his voice, “that I have thought of you this way often?” Obi-Wan walked around to the other side of the bed, his fingers drifting across Qui-Gon's toes, then back up, along his right leg, over his knee, just grazing his thigh...
Qui-Gon felt his breath catch. He'd been misreading the predatory expression, thinking he was about to have a fight on his hands.
It seemed that Obi-Wan had a fight of a different sort in mind.
“I didn't know that, no,” Qui-Gon admitted, trying to keep track of Obi-Wan's hand and watch his face at the same time. “Really, considering the way you and Quinlan acted...”
Obi-Wan uttered the same soft laugh that had greeted Qui-Gon upon awakening. “We did have you lot fooled, didn't we? Quinlan and I enjoyed each other's company, that's true. But he had his eye on someone else...as did I.”
Well, that certainly explained why Quinlan Vos had wound up spending most of his time in Cin Drallig's company. It didn't explain this. “But—then why—”
Obi-Wan cut him off by placing his finger to Qui-Gon's lips, pressing gently. Qui-Gon caught the whiff of some expensive oil, one he'd only ever encountered among Coruscant's elite. “You had moved on, Master Jinn. You had other...concerns.”
Anakin. He was speaking of Anakin. Qui-Gon looked up, seeing the muted spark of rage in those amber eyes, and felt anew the grief that had struck him when Obi-Wan's flag in the Temple duty roster had gone from MIA to PKIA before his name had been removed from it. “Then why now?”
“Because the opportunity presented itself,” was Obi-Wan's cryptic answer. The rage in his eyes vanished as if it had never been there. He reached out to touch Qui-Gon with both hands, and flesh that was warm and calloused was pressed against Qui-Gon's chest. “I knew a long time ago that I would never truly get your attention unless I tied you up and then sat on you for good measure.”
Oh, gods. Sith or no Sith, Qui-Gon was forced to admit that the very thought was enough to make his heart race and his cock take notice.
That mischievous grin that he had once loved to see was there now. “See?” he said, and that purr was back in his voice. “Worked like a charm.” He lifted his hands, pulling his tunics up over his head and dropping them to the floor.
Qui-Gon found himself staring at the web of scars that crossed Obi-Wan's torso. They spoke of horrific things, the ideas twisting his stomach like a vibroblade. “Those are lightsaber scars,” he whispered, stunned.
Obi-Wan didn't seem to mind. “Some of them.” Without further comment he pulled down the dark leggings he wore, revealing more pale skin and more scars. He'd been barefoot, which was how he'd managed to move around the room without noise. Now he stood next to Qui-Gon, naked, one eyebrow raised in response to Qui-Gon's wide-eyed stare. “See something you like?”
“I used to,” Qui-Gon said without thinking, and winced at the flash of genuine hurt that appeared in Obi-Wan's eyes. “I—” he licked dry lips, taking in the hard muscles and slim lines that had always made up Obi-Wan's compact frame. Those were unchanged, time only adding fluid grace and the harsh white and red lines that crossed him from head to toe. His face was untouched. The only other thing that seemed to have escaped the Sith's notice was Obi-Wan's cock, which was half-erect, resting on a thatch of darker red hair. “I possibly might find something to like,” he dared to say, almost certain that death was not what his former Padawan had in mind for him.
“Mmm. Well. I guess we'll just have to find out, won't we?” Obi-Wan stepped closer, bent down, and lapped at the hollow of Qui-Gon's throat with his tongue.
Qui-Gon breathed in, catching the scent of Obi-Wan, one that he had missed for five years. Even as muscles tensed and fluttered over the ghostly touches that Obi-Wan was offering, he wondered. Could he really go through with this, ignoring the Darkness that he could sense?
Then Obi-Wan bit him with sharp teeth, not hard enough to break skin, and Qui-Gon decided that he didn't really care. This was one Moment. He would think such long thoughts another time. He shuddered as those warm hands went back to his chest, soothing circles of motion that ended only when Obi-Wan's head moved lower and caught his nipple with a hot tongue.
Qui-Gon gasped and pulled against the bonds, wanting just to grab and plunder the mouth that was working on teasing him to distraction. Obi-Wan hummed against his chest, a sound of pleasure that vibrated against his skin and made his groin burn with want.
He blinked and that mouth was there, hot breath stirring him, lifting him, and Obi-Wan made an approving sound before dipping his head. Qui-Gon watched in breathless fascination as that long, agile tongue licked him from the base of his shaft to the head of his cock, taking away the first hint of pre-cum on the edge of his tongue. Obi-Wan closed his eyes, looking very much like a feline who had just caught his prey, his lips wet and glistening in the dim light. “You taste exactly as good as I thought you might,” he was whispering, the words so faint Qui-Gon had to fight to hear them. “No one could smell as good as you do and not taste like heaven.”
Before Qui-Gon could formulate a reply, Obi-Wan's head lowered again, and warm, moist heat enveloped his cock, bringing him to full hardness, and his hips jerked once before Obi-Wan's hands reached down to hold him in place. The feel of those firm hands, the tongue that was dancing just under the head of his glans... He wanted to say something, but words had gone away. There was only heat and suction, pulling on him, and then he whimpered when that heat vanished.
He looked down and met Obi-Wan's eyes, for a moment confused when he thought he saw shifting colors. Obi-Wan was grinning at him, that same feline smirk of satisfaction on his face. “Don't worry. I did say that I was going to sit on you.” He climbed onto the bed, lipping Qui-Gon's navel as he did so before straddling Qui-Gon's hips, both of his hands resting on Qui-Gon's chest. For just one moment their cocks rubbed, and he moaned at the surfeit of sensation that offered before Obi-Wan moved, raising himself up with one of his hands gripping Qui-Gon's cock. He lowered himself down, surprising Qui-Gon, and then he didn't give a flying fuck because that was slick skin he was encountering, oiled and waiting.
“Force, what did you—”
“Shut up,” Obi-Wan said, swatting him in the stomach with his free hand, and Qui-Gon did shut up because he was forgetting how to breathe. It had been so damned long since he'd had anything like this, hot and tight, slick, that wonderful ring of muscle clenching him even as Obi-Wan sank down fully onto Qui-Gon. He realized that Obi-Wan was going to control this entire encounter because he didn't have enough slack from the bonds to thrust—he threw his head back in frustration, and felt Obi-Wan's amusement even through the stupid inhibitor.
He looked up at Obi-Wan and was further distracted by the open-mouthed bliss on Obi-Wan's face, his eyes squeezed shut, those soft gasps furthering his ardor. In that moment the scars were nothing. Obi-Wan was beautiful, that inner light visible, not yet destroyed by Darkness.
“Obi-Wan,” Qui-Gon whispered, wishing to hold this Moment, wishing that Obi-Wan would hurry up and move.
He smiled. “Pushy, pushy,” Obi-Wan said, and then he did move, rising and falling in a slow, undulating rhythm that made Qui-Gon's heart race, made him fight the bonds that held his hands and feet because he just wanted to touch the man who was driving him mad.
Obi-Wan bent down, his gaze questioning, and without even knowing for certain why, Qui-Gon nodded in response. Obi-Wan smiled, touching his lips to Qui-Gon's, and Qui-Gon opened his mouth to accept what was offered. Obi-Wan tasted of sweetness and morning, and there was nothing Dark in this, not in this kiss which felt more innocent than any he had ever shared. Obi-Wan's tongue touched his lips, questioning, and Qui-Gon smiled and teased that tongue with his own, granting and sharing, and then their tongues slid together, and that combined with the sensations overwhelming his cock made him groan into Obi-Wan's mouth.
Obi-Wan pulled back, just a moment, and Qui-Gon's breath caught; Obi-Wan’s eyes were blue, tinged with green. There was no trace of that amber taint, but there was a hint of searching there as Obi-Wan gazed at Qui-Gon's face, and then he closed his eyes. He kissed Qui-Gon again, that nimble tongue seeking and gaining entry...
...and then Qui-Gon felt the tang of metal on his tongue. Before he could even think, Obi-Wan drew back, leaving that metal on his tongue.
Qui-Gon tongued the bit of metal into place along his gumline. His mind was full of questions, but most of them were obliterated by the new rhythm Obi-Wan set, going down and coming up, the sounds of skin clapping against skin the only sound he heard and the only one he cared about. Qui-Gon pulled against the metal that bound him once again, a growl of frustration escaping him. All he wanted to do was break free, clasp his hands around those slight hips and plunge further into that tight pocket of hot, slick velvet. Even just to reach forward, to grasp that cock that bounced, teasing, with each rise and fall.
Then Obi-Wan grabbed his cock, and Qui-Gon had the visual feast of watching Obi-Wan's eyes drift closed, his lips parted in pleasure as he rode Qui-Gon Jinn and stroked himself to orgasm.
Heat and light were building behind his eyes, his groin full of tingling almost-pain, and it was Obi-Wan's sharp cry that made him fall over that longed-for edge, his vision whiting out as hot liquid fell onto his stomach.
Obi-Wan whispered something that could have been a curse, or could have been Qui-Gon's name, and then slumped down onto Qui-Gon's chest, his breath coming in gasps.
Qui-Gon realized he was breathing just as heavily, and felt sweat run down his forehead and into his hair. He felt stunned, and aware, and...love. Yes, of course he loved Obi-Wan. He just had never realized how much, and how much of that love was for the man, the Jedi, not the Padawan he had once known.
That thought was enough to break his serenity where passion could not. Obi-Wan was not a Jedi. He closed his eyes, surprised by the keen of grief that welled up in his throat, so soon on the throes of orgasm. What the hell was he going to do? He and Obi-Wan could not do this, not while they walked paths that opposed each other.
He was startled out of his thoughts by Obi-Wan punching him in the shoulder. “Are you always so damned unstable after sex?”
He could be honest in his answer. “Only with you,” Qui-Gon whispered.
Obi-Wan sat up, and Qui-Gon felt a glimmer of remorse when his spent cock slipped from its place. The amber was back in his eyes, and that damned sardonic smirk had reappeared. “What am I going to do with you, Qui-Gon?” he asked, and there was a musing tone to his words that told Qui-Gon he already had something in mind.
He smiled, knowing that things had changed, and now was not the time to speak of it. “We could always do this again,” he offered, then wiggled his fingers. “Without these, of course.”
“No,” Obi-Wan said, shaking his head, the genuine smile an odd contrast against the reptilian chill of his eyes. “That wouldn't be a good idea. You're still a Jedi Master, after all, and I'm...” he trailed off, lifting his shoulders in an abbreviated shrug. “You know how it must be.” His hand brushed the side of Qui-Gon's neck. “Find Anakin and go home, my former Master. You won't find Outbound Flight.”
Qui-Gon frowned. “Why not?”
Obi-Wan tilted his head, a wry twist to his lips. “Because I destroyed it.”
“Obi-Wan—” Qui-Gon said, and then the sharp feel of something piercing his skin stopped him. He looked up at Obi-Wan, on the brink of panic as he felt cold, dead weight seep into his limbs. “What are you—”
“Shhh.” Obi-Wan leaned down enough to press his lips against Qui-Gon's, his tongue darting out just enough to tease with the touch. “Goodbye, Master Jinn.”
When Qui-Gon awoke, he was still on that same bed in the same room, but the gray light of morning was filtering in through the dirty window. He was no longer bound by the cuffs. In fact, there was no sign of them at all. He was dressed in his tunics, and his cloak was flung over him, blanketing Qui-Gon from the room's chill. He reached for his lightsaber and found nothing.
He sat up, finding his belt in place, as it should be, but his lightsaber was gone.
He sighed, feeling abused and baffled by the events that had befallen him. There was a painful burn in his arms and legs from where he had been stretched too long in one position. That was what told him he had not dreamed the previous night, even if his sensitive nose could have missed the scent of sex that was still heavy in the air. He rubbed his wrists, finding ligature marks where the cuffs had pressed into his skin, and then dropped his head into his hands. “Obi-Wan,” he whispered, knowing the other was long gone.
The buzz of the inhibitor was gone, too, though he had never felt the device on his body. That meant that they were tiny, a new weapon in a strange cold war against the Jedi. The others would have to be warned. The Force was there as if he had never been absent, taking the muzzy feeling from his head, warming him like no blanket ever could. He touched it, searching for Obi-Wan's presence, but he knew he would not find him.
There was one other thing he had—the square bit of metal that Obi-Wan's agile tongue had slipped him in such a unique manner. He reached into his mouth with one finger, rubbing up along the outside of his gums until he found the tiny bit of metal. He drew it out of his mouth, noticing the data etchings along the side. A memory chip, standard for the readers in use throughout the Jedi Order.
He stared at it, wondering if he dared to look at its contents, afraid of what he might learn.
His data reader was still in his belt, so he unfolded it and powered it up, slipping in the data chip once it had time to dry. The reader's viewscreen brought up file content information. One item was listed, a holographic message that had no name. Qui-Gon hesitated for a moment before he opened the file.
He had expected to see Obi-Wan, but not this way. His former Padawan was still wearing black, but his eyes...his eyes were the same blue that had once graced Qui-Gon Jinn's life. The moan in his throat was a stifled wail, because he could read those blue eyes, and they were full of pain.
“If you're viewing this, well, I hope there's nothing on that reader that you care about, because you need to destroy it when this is done,” Obi-Wan was saying, tight-lipped. “Smash the thing to bits, burn the bits, scatter the ashes to the wind. Take a disintegration rifle to it, if you can find one. If anyone finds a trace of this message, it endangers my life, your life, and the life of your Padawan. Before I left your company, I destroyed the listening devices that were in the room, so it's safe to listen to my little confessional here.”
That was one way to make sure Obi-Wan had Qui-Gon's undivided attention. “What I'm about to tell you originated on a Need to Know basis, and if I was still in contact with the Council, they'd bitch and moan about how you're not supposed to be part of this.”
Qui-Gon almost dropped the reader in surprise. The Council knew that Obi-Wan was alive? What the hell was going on?
“Knowing you, you have a lot of questions. I'll try to answer some of them. But, Qui-Gon: what I have to say to you, you must not speak of it to anyone else, save Master Yoda. I think the two of you are the last people left in the galaxy that I trust. I stopped briefing the Council because I couldn't take the risk any longer, and because anything I said to them in the past somehow got back to the Sith.”
Qui-Gon thought of the scars on Obi-Wan's body, and his brain put the pieces together even as he listened.
“You'll have gotten this message during our little encounter, and I hope you're listening to me and not cursing my existence. I'm—” He hesitated. “All right, I won't lie and say I'm sorry for what happened, because I'm not. Forgive me for being a selfish bastard, if for nothing else,” Obi-Wan said, looking into the recording device with a self-deprecating smile. Qui-Gon smiled back, realizing as the image blurred that his eyes were filling with tears. “I needed what happened between us to look like a subtle form of revenge, though believe me, it was anything but that.”
Obi-Wan blew out a long breath. “You deserve the truth. I think my one saving grace will be knowing that there is at least one person out there who knows that I'm not a fucking Sith.”
“Could've fooled me,” Qui-Gon murmured.
“I know it looks otherwise,” Obi-Wan continued, and his eyes grew troubled. “It has to.” He shook his head, and his tone was once more business-like. “Six years ago, after you severed my braid, a few members of the Council approached me about going undercover to find the identity of the Sith Lord. I was confused, especially since, at the time, it felt like they were asking me to go put my head under the Sith's blade. I'd just helped you kill his apprentice, so he couldn't be thinking all that favorably of me. Instead they—” Obi-Wan hesitated. “It sounds ludicrous, especially right now, but these members of the Council felt that I had the best chance of walking into Darkness...and walking back out again.”
Qui-Gon frowned at Obi-Wan's image. Code and Council doctrine had always been that once a Jedi fell to Darkness, there was no turning back. Once you start down the Dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will! was one of Yoda's most fervent maxims. They had ditched their own beliefs for this. “Dammit, Obi-Wan, tell me which members of the Council gave you this mission!” he railed at the screen.
“I thought about it for days. I knew what they were asking me to do, and I was less confident than they were about my ability to get through this without losing it. Ultimately, though, I said yes...because of you.”
“For a long time, I have wanted a life with you, Qui-Gon Jinn,” Obi-Wan said, and though he was smiling, his eyes were once again full of that unknown pain. “I came to the conclusion that we would never have that life together unless the Sith was found, and stopped. So I said yes, and spent the next year trying to locate the Sith Lord.”
“Word gets around, Qui-Gon,” he said, his voice quiet. “He found me first. The scars you saw on my body are from my first two years in his company, when he spent his downtime breaking me. That was when I stopped bothering to contact the Council. He knew, every single time. After...some things happened, he now firmly believes that I'm under his control. He's wrong,” Obi-Wan said, his jaw set, his eyes flashing with fierce determination. “I'm not his. I've put a lot of time and effort into maintaining that illusion, though.”
“Tell Yoda this: I don't know his identity. He has spent as much time protecting it from me as I have spent protecting what's left of my sanity. I never even saw his face, even when he was—” Obi-Wan broke off, his eyes flashing amber for a moment before returning to their normal blue.
“My Padawan,” Qui-Gon whispered, his heart breaking. He had a pretty good idea of what the Sith would have done to ensure a Jedi's obedience, and his Obi-Wan was nothing if not stubborn.
“It means he still doesn't fully trust me, so when the day comes that he shows me his true face...well, at that point he's either about to kill me, or I'm in serious trouble.” Obi-Wan shrugged. “On the plus side, all of this has earned me his Sith name. He is Lord Sidious, and once he was apprenticed to Darth Plagueis the Wise. He has ties to the Trade Federation, the Banking Guilds, and the Commonwealth. And,” Obi-Wan's expression turned grim. “He has broken the Rule of Two, Qui-Gon. The Council has more Sith to worry about than just him. Or me, for that matter.”
Force bless it all, Qui-Gon thought, mind almost blank with shock. The Sith had held that doctrine for over a thousand years. Sidious had done what no Sith had dared to do since the time of Bane—guide more than one apprentice along the dark path.
“It gets worse. I do have this one's name. I've spent a lot of time in his company. He thinks my presence is...funny.” Obi-Wan glanced away from the recorder before looking back. “I'm sorry, Qui-Gon. Count Dooku has become Lord Tyrannus.”
For a moment, Qui-Gon was certain that Obi-Wan had to be joking. His Padawan and his Master, in the hands of the Sith? It couldn't be. The very concept was ridiculous.
Then again, was it? Dooku had left the Order because of the incident on Naboo, saying that after watching the Republic Senate's ineptitude that he could no longer be part of a government that would condone that level of suffering. Qui-Gon had been tempted to join him, but Anakin had swayed him; that, and the hope that Obi-Wan would return.
“I'm sorry,” Obi-Wan said again. “I know it's bloody unbelievable. It—aw, hell.” He scrubbed his face with his hand, uncomfortable in voice and gesture. “It's not like you can go telling people this without having to explain how you know. Just wait. Watch. Dooku will reveal himself in time, and then you and Anakin and the rest will be able to do something about it.”
“Watch over your Padawan, my Master,” Obi-Wan said, his gaze turning earnest. “This Sidious—he wants Anakin, and he wants him badly. He will let nothing stand in his path. Not me, not Dooku, not you. Right now he considers you a means to an end, but I don't know why, or how. His ultimate goal is the downfall of the Jedi, and the Republic, and he wants Anakin at his side for it all. I have faith that you can keep the Chosen One in line,” he said, flashing that cheeky, impertinent grin. Qui-Gon couldn't help but smile back, even if Obi-Wan wouldn't see it. “Oh, and I took the liberty of stealing your lightsaber. I've got to have my trophies, after all.
“Qui-Gon.” Obi-Wan looked down for a long moment, then glanced back up, and his eyes were muddied, as if that corrupt amber was trying to fight for dominance. “I've done things that horrify me. I know I'm fighting a losing battle. I hope to see you again, but if we do meet again, and you don't think I can be saved, please do me a favor. I think you know what I mean.”
“You're asking me to kill you, Obi-Wan,” Qui-Gon whispered, touching the image of Obi-Wan's face with trembling fingers. “I don't know if I can do that.”
“Other than that—well.” Obi-Wan tilted his head, his smile was back, his eyes shining with that same blue-green that Qui-Gon had just seen in the dim light of a dying lamp. “I love you, Qui-Gon Jinn. I carry with me the hope that you love me, as well. I will keep fighting if you will.”
The feed went dark, though the message still showed that playing time remained. Qui-Gon looked up, staring at nothing, and tried to figure out how to put his life back together in light of everything he had just discovered.
“Oh, and, by the way...” Qui-Gon glanced back at the reader. The video had started again. “You're going to be ill in another hour or two,” Obi-Wan said, and this time his expression was apologetic. “You'll want to visit the Healers the moment you get back to Coruscant. I injected you with a virus—and its anti-virus—before you woke up the first time. I needed it to look like you had suffered an attack at my hands. You're going to feel like hell, but you're not going to die. Once it gets back to the Sith that I tried to kill you, I will be punished for disobeying my Lord Sidious's order not to harm you.” Obi-Wan paused, then grinned at the recorder, and the fire in his eyes lifted Qui-Gon's heart. “What kind of Sith would I be if I didn't try to live by their damned Code?”
Qui-Gon sat back, thoughtful expression on his face. Then he pulled the chip from the reader, brought the Force to bear, and turned it into dust. He did the same thing with the reader, and it sparked and hissed at him in protest before the job was done. He let the remains sift through his fingers, falling to the floor, and wondered if he would ever again see the red-haired imp who had just made off with his heart.
Chapter 2: Defiance
Everything has a price.
He never wanted this.
The hands on him were as abhorrent as the blood that ran down his arms, trapped as he was in a position that strained every muscle in his body. He closed his eyes and could almost take himself past the pain, past the near-pleasure that many years of abuse was starting to trigger in his body.
He never wanted to get to the point that the hated thing ramming into his body, spewing foul words and fouler breath, was something to enjoy. That would break him, where nothing else had quite managed to breach his last tattered bit of self.
Luck or the Force—and he prayed fervently that it was the Force, that light had not abandoned him completely—had given him a chance encounter on far-flung Roxuli. He'd taken advantage of it with all of a Jedi's preparedness and a Sith's conniving.
He closed his eyes, breathing out fetid horror, breathed in remembered light. Qui-Gon, his steel-gray hair fanning out on old white sheets, the sheen of sweat on his skin, the almost-growl on his face as Obi-Wan Kenobi had tried his damnedest to give the man pleasure...and part of the remaining light in his heart.
Remembering that made him remember all of it, clean sweat intermingling, musk of sex, and that kicked in the physical and the remembered feel of Qui-Gon Jinn inside of him, filling him, making him feel like he was still whole, still alive. It had been all too easy to think of those bound hands wrapped around his hips instead, holding them both together as their bodies came together and their pace frenzied…
The memory and the unwanted touch intermingled; when he came it was not a sound of pleasure but a growl of frustration. The dark laughter that blew past his ear made him jerk in his bonds, trying to get away from the fingers still running through the blood-slick skin of his shoulder.
Sidious laughed again, a dark joy that grated on his nerves and made him bite back screams of rage. “If you wish for this to stop, then you have two choices, dear boy,” he said, the melodic accent as always a sharp contrast to the bite of his words. “You can learn to defend yourself, or,” and this time he yanked cruelly on the long hair that Obi-Wan did not keep by choice, “you can obey me.”
The Sith Lord stepped away, his nails offering the shredded flesh of his back another painful slash. Obi-Wan bared his teeth, the feral smile he had never shown to Qui-Gon settling into place. “Conflict and chaos, my Lord Sidious,” he rasped out, his voice ravaged by the screams that had torn his throat. “That is the way of the Sith. Or is it only the way of the Sith when it suits you?”
When Sidious stepped into his line of sight, he was cloaked and hooded, as still and impassive as if he had not just spent gods-knew how much time peeling apart his pet Jedi. “My plans lead to the ultimate in the expression of our Code!” Sidious snarled, backhanding Obi-Wan hard enough that his lip split. Obi-Wan shook his head and spat out the blood that pooled in his mouth. Sidious's lip curled in anger and distaste. “While I take great pleasure in the rage you harbor for your former Master, you will not take his life until I give you leave to do so!”
Obi-Wan found himself laughing, thinking that his life had become some epic parody. There was rage there, true, but he'd had to cultivate it, feed it, basing it on one moment that was and yet was not a betrayal. The problem was that now that he had that rage, he wasn't sure if he would be able to put it aside when the time came. “If he's still alive, then you have nothing to worry about, Master,” he whispered.
Dooku—Tyrannus—stepped out of the shadows of the far wall, and Obi-Wan thought that it was a shame that he hadn't saved the blood. Tyrannus's expensive wardrobe and blood did not mix, and Obi-Wan always took a perverse pleasure in making those dark eyes light up with rage for so slight an insult.
“Yes, he is still alive, though I heard it was a near thing,” Dooku said.
Fucking voyeur, Obi-Wan thought, some part of him distantly wondering how long he was going to wind up hanging from the bonds that pierced his wrists. Then he saw Tyrannus removing his cloak, and this time rage welled up without thought. “Absolutely not!” he growled.
Sidious chuckled. “If you were so willing to disobey me, our little sessions must have been boring you. I decided it was time to give you some...new encouragement.”
When Tyrannus strode forward, he didn't backhand Obi-Wan—he punched him with a closed fist, rocking Obi-Wan's head back and sending blood flying. The strike was hard enough to leave him with white sparks behind closed eyes. When his head cleared, he glared at the former Jedi Master challengingly. “What, is that the best you can do?” he taunted, grinning when Tyrannus's eyes flashed.
“Don't destroy anything that cannot be repaired,” Sidious warned Tyrannus before another blow could be delivered. “If you do, you will answer to me.”
“Of course, my Master,” Tyrannus said, his voice as smooth as synth-silk. Sidious left without another comment, leaving Obi-Wan at the mercy of the Sith Apprentice's brutality. Dooku shook his head at Obi-Wan in mock-sympathy. “If only you would do as you were told, we would not be meeting like this,” he said.
Obi-Wan raised his eyes to meet Dooku's. He thought of breathless passion and cerulean eyes that had looked at him without rancor, without pity—eyes that had looked at him with love. He startled the older man by offering him a wide grin, uncaring when his split lip began to bleed anew. “It was worth it.”
Chapter 3: Shades of Grey
Qui-Gon Jinn follows the path through the in-betweens...
Obi-Wan Kenobi telling Qui-Gon Jinn that he was going to be ill had been something of an understatement.
After five grueling days under the Healers’ care, sniping at anyone unfortunate enough to get in range, Qui-Gon walked out of the Healers’ Wing fifteen kilos lighter, his Padawan fretting and following along behind him. A shower in his own quarters, folllowed by a change of clothes, helped to improve his mood, though the too-loose fabric was a reminder of just how severely his body had been ravaged by Obi-Wan’s parting gift.
He comm’d a set of quarters located some distance across the Temple and made arrangements for Master Yoda to meet him at Dex's. It was the one place on Coruscant he knew could be guaranteed to be free of listening devices. Qui-Gon smiled to himself; sometimes it was useful to have friends who had wallowed around in the seedier side of life.
Making sure that Anakin was going to spend time with the friends he'd made in-Temple, and that he was not going to follow Qui-Gon, was the next step. Anakin didn't protest too much, riding on a sense of accomplishment from giving the Council their mission report by himself—and not attracting anyone's ire in the process.
Qui-Gon entered the diner a few hours later, ducking under the door frame out of habit. He was verbally pounced by Dex within moments.
“Hey, Master Qui-Gon!” the big cook yelled, waving two of his arms in greeting before coming out of the kitchen to see him. “Didn't think I'd see ya here today. Heard you got a bad case of food poisoning!” he said, dropping a wink.
“Is that what they're calling the Chintallah virus nowadays?” Qui-Gon asked, shaking his head in amusement. “Hello, Dex.”
“Eh, you just picked that up as an excuse to come down here and eat my food,” the Besalisk replied. “Grease is good for ya!” His long-time friend's smile faded, and he peered at Qui-Gon with worried eyes. “Are you okay, Qui-Gon? That Chintallah is hell on folks.”
“I'm fine, really,” Qui-Gon reassured him. “Just here for a table. A quiet table,” he said, casual smile in place.
“Company comin'?” Dex asked, just as nonchalant. “I'll break out a good meal for the two of ya, then. You take the booth in the corner, and I'll make sure nobody bothers ya.” Translation: I'll turn on the jammers, and nobody is going to overhear anything you have to say.
“Thank you, Dex. I'm grateful, of course,” Qui-Gon said, making his way to the appointed booth. He'd learned about the diner's neutrality and Dexter Jetster's insistence on privacy years ago, but had never had use for it until he'd woken up in the company of a red-haired imp on Roxuli.
It wasn't long before a transport stopped outside, letting off a slow rush of passengers. The one he was looking for was among them, his cloaked form unnoticed among the bustle. The diminutive Master entered the diner, leaning heavily on his stick as he made his way with unhurried steps to the place where Qui-Gon sat.
“Hmph. Subject me to the food here, you'd better not,” Master Yoda said by way of greeting, climbing into place in the opposite chair. His clawed green hand swatted at the controls set into the table, and the booth rose to a height more appropriate for him. Only then did Master Yoda drop his hood back, glaring at Qui-Gon with unconcealed ire. “A long way I have walked today, Master Qui-Gon. Talked to you in the Temple, I could have.”
“Hello to you, too, my grand Master,” Qui-Gon responded, relishing the flash of annoyance in Yoda's eyes as he refused to be baited.
Yoda stared at Qui-Gon Jinn a moment longer and then relented, smiling. “Confess everything at the drop of the hat, you once did. That scrawny, overgrown Padawan; miss him, I do. Happier, he was.”
That hit hard, probably affecting Qui-Gon far more than Master Yoda expected it to. Qui-Gon swallowed around the sudden lump in his throat. “That he was, Master. That he was. Perhaps he might have reason to be happy again, after all.”
Yoda narrowed his eyes. “Playing with words, you are. My job that is!”
“As you taught me,” Qui-Gon retorted, enjoying the verbal sparring. He knew that the elder Master regretted the long-ago word games, when it was the full Council Qui-Gon practiced his skills upon. When they were alone, it was something of a joke, founded upon long association and not a few moments of mutual frustration.
“Hmph,” Yoda said again, and his ears only twitched when Dex sauntered over and laid two heaping plates of...something in front of them.
Dex grinned at the elder Master's presence, giving him a brief nod of greeting, and then laid his palm on a certain spot of the metal trim on the window beside their table. Through the floor, Qui-Gon felt the subtle vibration of equipment whirring to life. Dex's prized, and oh, so illegal jammers were active. Yoda's eyes widened as he, too, sensed what had occurred, but he said nothing about the privacy field.
Yoda sighed and picked up a fork. “Cook he should not,” he muttered once the Besalisk had returned to his other customers. “Worse than you at it, he is.”
“It isn't moving, at least,” Qui-Gon pointed out, lifting a long green strand of what could have been pasta, or possibly a plant, out of his plate. He chewed on it and decided that there were worse things.
“Trying to poison me, you are,” Yoda said, but he was following Qui-Gon's example.
“No.” Qui-Gon shook his head. “I'm the one who was just poisoned.”
Yoda stopped what he was doing and looked at Qui-Gon in surprise. “Chintallah virus, communicable it is.”
Qui-Gon nodded his agreement. “Of course it is. But there has never been an outbreak on Roxuli.”
Yoda managed to make more of the green sort-of-noodles disappear, frowning all the while. “Certain, you are. Know your poisoner, do you?”
“You might say that.”
Yoda pointed his fork at Qui-Gon, brandishing it like a miniature mutant lightsaber. “Eating this food we are, so suffering enough, I am. Tell me, you will!”
He watched the elder Master's face, not sure what he was looking for. “Obi-Wan Kenobi.”
He wasn't sure what he had expected, but it wasn't the intense shock that Yoda exhibited. “Seen him, you have?” the elder Master burst out. “Well, is he?”
“He's alive. Whether he is well or not—I suppose that's a debatable point. Yes, I've seen him. He slipped me a message on Roxuli.” He smiled at the memory. Master Yoda did not need to know how that message had been passed to him.
The Master leaned back in the booth, breathing out a long sigh. “Relieved, I am. Three years it has been since—” He closed his eyes, and Qui-Gon was startled by the sadness and guilt that etched his ancient features. “Feared him lost, I did.”
“He's not lost,” Qui-Gon said, the fierceness of his voice surprising him. “Not yet.” He told Yoda what Obi-Wan had told him, and the pain in the old Master's eyes when Qui-Gon told him of Dooku's betrayal hurt to see. Qui-Gon had already struggled through his own anger, trying to come to terms with his Master siding with the Sith.
“Surprised, I almost am not,” Yoda said, his eyes lowered, his voice soft. “Long has Dooku struggled with his desire to bend others to his will. Challenged him the most, you did,” Yoda said, and there was a glint of humor in his eyes along with the grief. “A Padawan he would never again take, said he, the day a Knight you became.”
Qui-Gon remembered the extreme ups and downs of his apprenticeship to Master Dooku and offered Yoda a strained smile. “I did not know he said that, but in retrospect it makes sense.” Then he continued speaking, looking at Yoda in worry. “Master, I do not like this. I do not like leaving Obi-Wan in this situation, but I can't think of anything other than to do as he asked.”
“Hmm,” Yoda nodded, looking pensive. “Strong he is, Qui-Gon—this you know. The reason he was chosen, it is. But expected this, we did not. More firmly entrenched in shadow than we wanted to believe, things are,” he said, his voice bitter. “Hidden well from our eyes, the Sith is.”
“Which other members of the Council know about this?” Qui-Gon asked, finally getting to the question that had been burning in his mind for days.
Yoda gave him a curious, neutral look that hadn't fooled Qui-Gon in at least twenty years. “Matter, it does not.”
“It matters to me,” he insisted, his voice quiet.
Yoda blew out a weary sigh before answering him. “Master Windu. Master Gallia. Master Rancisis. Master Giett. Only we five ever knew, Master Qui-Gon.”
All were Masters that Qui-Gon considered beyond reproach. Hell, two of them were close friends, and Yoda was one he trusted above all others. He sighed, frustrated.
“I needed to know. Obi-Wan said that he stopped contacting the Council because, after every communication, the Sith knew.” And punished him for it, Qui-Gon thought, remembering the horrible scars that crossed Obi-Wan's body.
Yoda looked angry. “Known, he could not have. Betray Obi-Wan, we would not!”
“But knew, the Sith still did,” Qui-Gon pointed out. “We need to find out how, Master. Obi-Wan may not be the only one at risk from such a lapse.”
Yoda nodded and pushed his plate away, giving up on even a pretense of eating. “Master Qui-Gon,” Yoda said, looking up at him with something akin to trepidation in his eyes. “Fallen, is he?”
“Darkened, yes,” Qui-Gon said, the words tasting like ash in his mouth. Then he thought of the blue that had flashed, vibrant and alive, in that one hot moment of flesh seeking flesh, his breath a soft whisper of promise on Qui-Gon's face. “But not Fallen. Not yet.”
* * * *
It seemed that his meeting with Obi-Wan on Roxuli had been some unspoken signal. Qui-Gon was starting to see Obi-Wan everywhere—or at least, he thought he was seeing him, and not hallucinating those brief glimpses. He would be working a mission with Anakin, and for a moment would catch the flash of a long fall of copper hair. Just a flash, just a glimpse, nothing concrete. Nothing to say for certain that it was Obi-Wan, but Qui-Gon knew in his heart that it was him.
After it had happened three times in six months, Qui-Gon started to keep track, drawing up a list that noted where he saw those flashes of copper, what he and Anakin were investigating, and when he saw it.
Qui-Gon wasn't certain, but as he looked at that list one rainy day while sitting in Master Yoda's quarters, he was almost certain that Obi-Wan was weaving a pattern. There was information here, and Obi-Wan had never been prone to doing things without reason. Even the scented oil on his fingers had been deliberate.
The addition of the Sith's ties to the banking and trading conglomerates turned everything into a mess of confusion, though. There was no rhyme or reason that he could see in the clues he had been presented with. Right now, Qui-Gon had a list that told him the Sith could be anyone with a taste for money and power.
That didn't exactly narrow things down.
* * * *
Loud music crashed around him, and Qui-Gon did his best to ignore it, keeping a mental tab on Anakin with the Force. The boy was enjoying himself far too much, but he was still doing his job, and that was the important part. They were tracking Senator Greyshade through the intense noise and rhythm of one of Coruscant's lower level clubs. They hadn't caught up with the man yet, but at least they were able to follow his trail. The frightened bureaucrat was trying to get off-planet using black market connections instead of the legitimate transports topside.
Qui-Gon moved through the undulating crowd, trying to be inconspicuous. Not easy, considering he was easily one of the tallest beings present. His tunics might have made it worse, but so many Jedi had been sneaking downside over the years to unwind in the chaotic environments the clubs offered that he barely rated a second glance. The looks he did earn were full of interest that he didn't have the time or the inclination to pursue.
Some didn't settle for just looking, however, and the arms that encircled him from behind weren't unexpected so much as unwanted. He dropped his hands to those arms, seeking to disengage, when skin met skin and triggered the recognition that even the Force hadn't provided. Qui-Gon froze, not sure of what to do, not even sure of what to say.
Laughter matched soft movement against the cloth of his tunics, warming the skin of his back and settling off a chain reaction of immediate fire. “Relax,” Obi-Wan's voice said, laced with dark amusement. “You act like you were just pinned by a krayt dragon.
“My mistake,” Qui-Gon replied, remembering to breathe, to relax into that hold. “Or do you wish to be associated with something else?”
The hands that were resting on his waist drifted lower and then back up again, tracing wide, lazy circles that were making his breath catch. “What I wish is that this weren't such a public venue,” Obi-Wan's voice continued, his whisper just audible above the chaotic din around them. “Then I could pin you in place and take you apart at my leisure.”
Qui-Gon managed to stifle the whimper that word and memory combined to create. “If you don't stop that, I'm not going to be able to walk.”
“Now there's a pleasant thought,” Obi-Wan said, his voice a warm breath just below Qui-Gon's ear. “If we had but time and opportunity, I'd make certain of that.”
“I will hold you to those words,” Qui-Gon whispered. “I did not expect to see you here,” he continued, before Obi-Wan could tease him further.
“Simon Greyshade is a popular man tonight, Qui-Gon Jinn,” Obi-Wan said, and the seductive tone left his voice, replaced by frost. “You should find him before I do.”
The warmth at his back and hips disappeared, and Qui-Gon whirled to find no one behind him.
He drew in a deep breath, chilled. The Sith wanted Greyshade dead. That made it more imperative than ever that he and Anakin find the man first.
He made his way over to where his Padawan was standing, almost lost in a crowd of women who seemed far too interested in Anakin's youth and his Padawan braid. Did you find a lead on Greyshade, Padawan? he asked.
Yes, Master, Anakin replied, raising a concerned eyebrow at the unusual mental communication between them. Two levels down. “Sorry, m'lady,” he said to the brunette who was currently plying him with some absolutely ridiculous questions on what it was like to be a Jedi. “I'm needed.”
“I'll bet you are,” the brunette purred, and Qui-Gon was tempted to roll his eyes. Anakin managed not to look desperate to get away, though it was clear to Qui-Gon that his Padawan was not appreciative of the woman's unsubtle attention.
“Poor choice of company, Padawan,” Qui-Gon said mildly, leading the way to the nearest exit.
Anakin gave him a wry smile of agreement. “Yes, Master, but she was the one who saw Greyshade. I've managed to get Hutts to spill the beans with far less ass-kissing than her ego required.”
Qui-Gon stifled a laugh, trying to get his sudden encounter with Obi-Wan out of his head. “If anyone is up to the challenge, Padawan, it's you.”
Anakin looked put-upon. “I think I should be insulted.”
They found Greyshade on an exposed landing platform two levels down. The entire area was deserted, but Qui-Gon hesitated, for the Force was telling him that something was wrong. The warning was unclear, though. He and Anakin glanced at each other, sharing a mutual look of concern.
“I don’t like this,” Anakin muttered as they walked towards the Senator, who had spun around at the sound of their approach.
Qui-Gon halted, motioning for Anakin to do the same, when Greyshade took a step back, terror on his face. “Stay back,” he warned them, waving a blaster in their direction, his finger pressed against the trigger. “I am getting the hell out of here, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”
“Senator, please,” Qui-Gon said, trying to soothe the man. He looked awful, a far cry from the picture of self-assured confidence he had projected many times before the Senate. “I assure you, we’re here to help you.”
Greyshade shook his head. “Oh, that’s funny. I’ll bet the Chancellor himself sent you lot after me!”
Anakin nodded. “Well, yeah,” he said, giving Greyshade a concerned smile. “He’s worried about you. We all are.”
Greyshade laughed, high and shrill. “Oh, I imagine he’s worried all right. Dear Jedi, I have seen things that no one should ever see. Dark things, terrible things, and there will be no stopping him. We’re in danger, Master Jinn—all of us!”
Anakin and Qui-Gon exchanged another look, both of them at a loss. “I don’t understand,” Qui-Gon said, the tension across his shoulders getting stronger. The Force was almost shrill in its warning tone, but there was nothing specific, nothing to search for. Nothing to find. “What is it, Simon? What’s wrong?”
“The Chancellor, Qui-Gon. He—” Simon broke off, the fearful expression on his face gone in a moment.
His eyes were blank as he raised the blaster and fired. Too late, Qui-Gon realized that the shot wasn’t meant for them.
“No!” Anakin yelled, both he and Qui-Gon running forward to catch the Senator as he fell, his chest a smoking ruin.
“Damn!” Qui-Gon swore, feeling life flee the Senator’s body.
“Master,” Anakin said, his voice quiet. “Look.”
He followed Anakin’s gaze. One of the platforms high above them was home to a lone figure hidden inside a dark cloak. Qui-Gon stared at him, feeling a terrible coldness seep into his chest. He didn’t even have to see the quick glimmer of copper, reflected in the light as the figure turned and disappeared, to know who it was.
“Master, should we go after him?” Anakin was asking, staring at the now-empty platform.
“No, Padawan,” Qui-Gon said at last. “By the time we get up there, it will be far too late. We won’t find him.”
They looked at each other over the corpse of the dead Senator. Greyshade marked one more dead end, one more failure, and one more victory for the Sith.
Chapter 4: Geonosis
The madness in the dark has a name.
Qui-Gon Jinn watched the dark, cloaked form that circled him, offering no comment, no gesture to betray his identity. He didn't have to. Qui-Gon knew that form now, even if he was buried in Darkness.
When Obi-Wan Kenobi pushed back his hood and gazed up at Qui-Gon, his neutral expression was a sharp contrast to the coldness in his amber eyes. “Falling into a Gundark's nest always seems to be a literal thing with you,” he said at last.
Qui-Gon smiled, feeling his lips crack and bleed from too many days in a dry environment and not enough water. The field he was imprisoned in was playing havoc on his senses, on his ability to sleep—and kept him from drawing on the Force. It wasn't as elegant as the inhibitor Obi-Wan had exposed him to four years ago, but it sure as hell did the job. “My Master was never very good at subtle.”
Obi-Wan seemed to sigh. “You have no idea.” He started pacing around the enclosure again, and there was a sense of restrained, predatory energy within him that reminded Qui-Gon of Maul, the Sith's first apprentice. Now, the Sith had two more apprentices. One of them, Qui-Gon had once considered a father. The other—the other, he considered something else.
“I don't suppose you would mind releasing me?” Qui-Gon asked, some part of himself still amused by the entire debacle Geonosis had turned into. Finding Dooku here had certainly gone a long way to confirm that the Separatist movement was a front for the Sith. He wasn't supposed to know that, of course. Very few people in the galaxy knew where Dooku's true loyalties were placed.
Obi-Wan looked up at him, and his lips curved in that now-familiar sardonic smile, joined by a smoldering heat in his eyes that made Qui-Gon's breath catch. “But I like you that way,” he purred.
“I like it better when I've volunteered for it,” Qui-Gon retorted, yanking his arm against the confines of the force field again. The electrical field snagged his wayward limb and pulled it back into place, sending painful shocks up his arm. It did that every time he tried to move. As it was, he’d been stuck in this position so long that he wouldn’t be able to walk when the damned field was shut down.
The amusement on Obi-Wan's face vanished as if it had never been. He turned in place, watching as Count Dooku entered the cell. Qui-Gon's former Master gave him a genial smile, but it was marred when he noticed that Obi-Wan was waiting for him. Qui-Gon stared, curious to see how the two would interact. There was certainly the assumption that Obi-Wan would defer to the former Jedi Master, and Qui-Gon saw anger when Obi-Wan did nothing more than stare back. After a moment, Dooku's eyes flickered, dismissing Obi-Wan's presence as inconsequential, before turning his attention to Qui-Gon.
“It is…good to see you again, my Padawan,” Dooku said. “I wish it were under better circumstances. The Geonosians are a paranoid lot, and do not like uninvited guests. If you had announced yourself, it would have saved us a lot of trouble.”
“Funny. I was under the impression that they were following your lead,” Qui-Gon said.
“This has nothing to do with me, I assure you. I will petition immediately to have you set free.”
Dooku began walking around the cage, looking up at Qui-Gon. His expression was meant to convey worry, but Qui-Gon did not see that concern reflected in his Master's eyes.
“I hope it doesn't take too long. I'm busy,” Qui-Gon said, and saw Obi-Wan hide a grim smile.
“Why are you here, Qui-Gon?” Dooku asked. “You are a long way from home, especially with a Padawan to tend to. Geonosis is not a good place to be alone.”
Qui-Gon decided to play along. It wasn't like he had anything else to do. “I'm looking for a bounty hunter linked to a series of assassination attempts. His name is Jango Fett. I tracked him to this planet but lost sight of him on the approach.” That was the truth, but not all of it. He had already seen Jango Fett working at Dooku's side. Surveillance of that meeting was part of the data he'd uploaded to the Council before those damned destroyers had tracked him down.
Dooku frowned. “There are no bounty hunters here that I am aware of,” he said, and was cut short by Obi-Wan's laughter.
“Lying to him already?” Obi-Wan gave the older man a malicious smile. “Yes, that's certainly going to convince him of your altruistic nature.”
Dooku’s eyes flashed, and for a moment Qui-Gon thought his Master was going to lash out at Obi-Wan. Then he stilled, under perfect control once more. He inclined his head, turning back to Qui-Gon with a thoughtful expression. “Forgive me. Your former Padawan is blunt, but he is right. I will not convince you with lies, but what if I told you the truth?”
Qui-Gon narrowed his eyes. “What truth, Master? That you are steeped in Darkness?”
Dooku nodded, unconcerned. Damn it all, but he had told Dooku hundreds of times that his curiosity about the Dark Side would lead to this! “There is that. It is not the best arrangement, but pertinent to the situation. What if I told you that the Republic was fully under control of the Dark Lords of the Sith?”
Qui-Gon sucked in a surprised breath. “That isn't possible.” He glanced at Obi-Wan, but Obi-Wan wasn't looking at him. He was gazing to the right. Liars look left. Truth, then, but now was not the time to concede the point. “The Jedi would know.”
Dooku shook his head, affecting a sad smile. “The Dark Side of the Force has clouded their minds. Hundreds of Senators are under the sway of a Sith Lord. He is called Darth Sidious.”
Dooku was only confirming what Qui-Gon had known for years, but that didn't make it any better to hear. “How do you know?”
“Nute Gunray was once in league with Darth Sidious. He was betrayed by Sidious after his failure over the Naboo blockade, and came to me for help. He told me everything…with a little persuasion, of course,” Dooku added. “The Council didn't want to hear it; they believed that with the public knowing full well that a Sith had died on Naboo, the dethroned Viceroy would say anything to save himself. I tried to warn them, but they would not listen.”
Obi-Wan glanced right, then left. It had been years since they had needed to communicate in this fashion, but it still worked well enough. Some of Dooku's words were the truth. The rest were lies. The trouble came in trying to figure out which was which.
“You must join us, Qui-Gon,” Dooku said, his voice full of quiet pleading. “Together, we can destroy the Sith.”
“Us?” Qui-Gon said, looking at Obi-Wan questioningly.
Dooku nodded, that genial smile back in place. “Obi-Wan has allied himself with me, for he has seen the danger the Republic faces.” There was a muted flash in Obi-Wan's eyes that told Qui-Gon full well what Obi-Wan thought of being Dooku's ally. “Only from the outside can we hope to loosen the hold the Sith have upon the galaxy.”
Qui-Gon smiled, but it was humorless. “You know, maybe in another time, I would be tempted. But I know where you truly stand…Darth Tyrannus.”
The response from Dooku was not what he’d expected. The old man whirled upon Obi-Wan, his fist cracking into Obi-Wan’s jaw with unbelievable speed. “You fool!” Dooku yelled, no trace of geniality to him now. “He was not to know!”
Obi-Wan stumbled back, his hand going up to wipe away the blood that began to flow. He glanced at the red that stained his fingers and laughed. “Oh, stop acting so shocked, Lord Tyrannus. He already knew that you were not the enemy of the Sith you proclaimed yourself to be.”
“Insolent whelp,” Dooku hissed. Qui-Gon was forgotten as the Sith focused all of his rage on Obi-Wan. “Your defiance will end! You are nothing more than a pet who kneels at his Master’s feet!” he shouted, raising his arms and sending brilliant arcs of blue lightning from his hands.
Qui-Gon watched, his heart in his throat, as Obi-Wan was struck by the Force lightning. No old text could have ever prepared Qui-Gon for the sight of that Dark power.
Obi-Wan stepped back, grimacing in pain. Then he reached out with his hand, collecting the energy in his palm. Dooku’s eyes widened in surprise.
“The pet learns at his Master’s feet, Tyrannus,” Obi-Wan hissed, his eyes alight with inner fury. Then he flung the energy back at Dooku, who was not as quick to defend himself as Obi-Wan had been.
Dooku cried out and dropped to one knee, breathing heavily as the electrical charge dissipated. There were thick tendrils of smoke floating in the room now, along with the sharp scent of burnt cloth and ozone.
Dooku snarled at Obi-Wan. “So—you have,” he said, and he chuckled. He stood up, and his voice was cruel when he spoke again. “How kind it was to introduce yourself properly to your former Master, Darth Venge.”
Obi-Wan’s jaw clenched, but his voice was calm when he spoke. “Get out.” When Dooku merely looked at him, Obi-Wan gave the fallen Jedi a brittle smile. “We have guests, Lord Tyrannus. Skywalker and Senator Amidala are probably ill at ease with their Geonosian hosts. You are supposed to be the public face of the Separatists. Go try your charm on them. I’m sure it will be just as successful as it was here.”
Dooku nodded, and gave Obi-Wan a warning look. “I trust I do not have to remind you to remain hospitable?”
Obi-Wan glowered at him. “Blah, blah, blah, don’t kill him, blah, blah, blah. Don’t worry. I have no intention of ruining your little surprise.”
Dooku stopped in front of Qui-Gon, looking up at him with something akin to the fondness Qui-Gon had once known. “It…may be difficult to secure your release,” he said, and there was a hint of madness in his tone that Qui-Gon had never heard before. With that he left, leaving Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan alone.
Obi-Wan was staring in the direction that Dooku had gone, his mouth open, teeth bared. He was breathing hard, as if the two of them had just battled for hours instead of exchanging a lightning bolt and a few harsh words.
“Darth Venge?” Qui-Gon asked, his voice soft, for part of him had just broken at hearing Obi-Wan named so.
Obi-Wan jerked his head and glared up at Qui-Gon. “Do NOT!” he yelled, furious. “Do not call me that!” His voice was harsh, but his eyes were muddied, as though parts of him were fighting for dominance and neither side was winning.
Qui-Gon nodded slowly. “All right,” he said. “I will not.” I will keep fighting if you will, he sent, not sure if the words would be heard but needing to say them anyway.
Obi-Wan looked away, his eyes overbright and almost—but not quite—blue. “Thank you.”
Qui-Gon thought about Obi-Wan’s words, almost lost amidst the battle of wills that had played out between the two Sith apprentices. “My Padawan is here?”
Obi-Wan nodded, his expression once more cool and distant as he regained his composure. “He is. I followed them here from Tatooine. I do believe they meant to retrieve you, but it didn’t go so well.”
Tatooine? What the hell was he doing there? Qui-Gon wondered, but had no further chance for questions as Jango Fett himself stepped into the room. His helmet was off, and he grinned up at Qui-Gon with malice.
“Well, hello there, Master Jedi. Fancy meetin’ you here.”
“I should have hit you harder,” Qui-Gon replied, eliciting a laugh from the bounty hunter and a smirk from Obi-Wan.
“My turn now?” the bounty hunter asked Obi-Wan, who nodded.
“Have fun, but do not damage him. And,” Obi-Wan paused, giving the bounty hunter a stern glare. “Nothing sexual. Cross me, and anything you’ve done to him, I’ll do to you tenfold with a vibroblade and a lightsaber.”
Jango frowned, looking thwarted. “Count Dooku said—”
Obi-Wan crossed his arms and gave the bounty hunter a chilling stare. “I don’t give a damn what Dooku told you. Just remember who’s paying you, Fett.”
Fett sighed and nodded. “Fine. Whatever you say.”
“Besides,” Obi-Wan added, glancing up at Qui-Gon with that blasted sardonic smile firmly in place. “He likes it too much.”
Chapter 5: Falling Pieces
Let the end begin.
Ten years ago:
Join me. I will give you what you seek.
No. You will never be what I want!
But I offer it freely, child. It is yours to take, if you want it.
All you have to offer me is death.
And yet you live. I did not tear you down to destroy you. I did it to free you.
This is not freedom! This is hell!
If it is a hell, my dear Apprentice, then it is a hell of your own choosing. What you do with your freedom…that is up to you.
* * * *
When Qui-Gon Jinn was a child, listening to Master Yoda’s stories of the war that had torn the galaxy asunder one hundred years before even the ancient Master was born, he had imagined what it might look like. Billions of sentients holding a line that ranged across thousands of stars, holding back a dark tide the likes of which no one had ever before seen. Sith versus Jedi, with the latter throwing themselves against red lightsabers in an effort to defend against an enemy that seemed to have multiplied overnight into an unimaginable force for destruction.
It had been almost three years since the battle on Geonosis had triggered galactic war, and Qui-Gon knew, now, that he hadn’t even been close. There was no imagining the full horror of it. Even seeing it firsthand filled him with disbelief as he rode the winds in open transports, passing over seas of broken droids and bodies armored in white. It left his Knighted Padawan in tears, his lips a tight, grim line, while his wife stood next to him with her eyes full of steel.
They had defied the Council to wed after Geonosis. Qui-Gon had used profanity before that august body for the first time in his life to tell the nine attending Masters that there were certainly other, more pressing concerns in the galaxy to worry about than the marital status of Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala. With that tide turned, a rush of bondings and weddings had followed, Jedi and soldier alike trying to find hope in each other.
Why the hell that had led to Mace and Yoda inviting Qui-Gon to join the Council was anyone’s guess. He’d been asked before, long ago, and had turned the post down. This time, Qui-Gon had considered everything he had seen and learned since Roxuli before saying yes, becoming Depa Billaba’s replacement when madness had seized Mace’s treasured Padawan. Later, Micah Giett had confided that the rest of the Council had been considering Coleman Kcaj, which had made Qui-Gon shudder. Coleman was as hidebound as Poof and Piell, and the Council didn’t need any more of that.
Qui-Gon had to admit, though, that it was nice to argue and rail against the Council without being expected to bow his head in deference. They had probably had the opportunity to regret that they could no longer shut him up when they wished.
The downside was that he was one of the first to see the mission reports coming in from the field (or sent to him in the field) to see the names of the dead scrolling past. It was worse when their killers were listed beside each name.
Asajj Ventress, Tyrannus’s apprentice, a fiery killing machine with hatred in her heart for anything Jedi.
Grievous, the Kaleesh who had been molded by the droid factories of the Separatists into a cunning, brilliant general that was literally a machine. He had cut such a swath through the Jedi that there was a special task force assigned to the single purpose of hunting him down.
Durge, an ancient Gen’Dai bounty hunter, who killed Mandalorians and Jedi alike for sport. At least they didn’t have to worry about that near-immortal enemy any longer. Anakin had saved them all a lot of grief and heartache by flinging the bastard into a sun.
When Venge was listed next to the names of the fallen, parts of him crystallized, and warmth could not touch him.
It was Durge’s death that had given the Jedi and the clone army one singular chance at rest, for the Separatists had pulled back with the Gen’Dai’s defeat. They would regroup, and the surge to push past Republic blockades would begin anew.
Despite all of their efforts, the Separatists were winning, defeating the Republic army with numbers that were capable of near-infinite replenishment. Qui-Gon feared that, before things were over, they would be defending the skies over Coruscant instead of the Inner Rim systems.
He gazed out at Coruscant’s skyline, mulling over the relative calm. We don’t look like we’re at war. Not here, he thought. The soldiers were around, on occasion, but they were men and women on leave and forbidden to wear their armor when not on active duty. It was a move from the Senate to help people to remain calm, and one of the few intelligent things they had done of late. It was also an example of a large body swinging around the last of its power, for the Chancellor held sway, now.
That thought made Qui-Gon’s lip curl in anger, but he had no time to think about it. Micah was there next to him in that moment, a gentle hand on his arm. “Hey now, Qui-Gon. I could feel your anger the moment I stepped off the turbolift. Don’t you go Sith on us now.”
Qui-Gon narrowed his eyes as he glanced at his lifelong friend. “Micah, that is a really inappropriate remark.”
“Course it is,” he said, smiling. The motion pulled at his face, highlighting the lines that had marked him as the war had raged. Qui-Gon had more than a few new lines of his own. “That’s why I said it. You ready for our first big Council meeting since we bullied the others into getting you in last year?”
Qui-Gon blew out a long breath, turning away from the window. The antechamber to the Council room was empty, still, but he could sense the others approaching, exhaustion leaking into the Force from them all. “Not really, Micah. You?”
“Surprisingly, yes. If we’re here, it means we’re not out there,” Micah said, and his eyes lost some of their usual spark. “If more bureaucracy means less dying, I’m all for it.”
He had a point, Qui-Gon admitted. They both turned as Mace Windu, Yoda, and Ki-Adi Mundi stepped off the lift, filing into the antechamber with little more than acknowledging nods.
Mace’s left arm was still wrapped from Grievous’s latest attempt to remove it with his lightsabers. He’d refused a Healer, insisting that others needed it more.
Yoda’s limp was more pronounced than usual, his stick hitting the ground with echoing thumps. The ancient Master had joked that he had walked more in the last year than he had in the last decade, and his hoverchair had been tossed aside as an unwieldy extravagance.
Ki-Adi Mundi looked the least scathed, but his pain he hid within himself, for most of his daughters had been killed during a Separatist incursion on Cerea.
“Let’s get on with this,” Mace said, his tone a grumble, as he waved his hand at the control panel and signaled the great doors to open.
Three hours later, Qui-Gon was no longer sure he agreed with Micah’s assessment on the usefulness of Council bureaucracy. Yes, they were accomplishing much, but it was minutiae, things that others in the Order could have done without them. He knew well enough that strategy was on the agenda as well, but it would have felt less frustrating if they had tackled those issues first.
The great doors swinging inward caught his attention, and his skin crawled when a whisper of darkness wafted into the chamber. “What the hell?” Mace was saying, as Qui-Gon’s eyes locked upon the dark shadow that waited in the entryway.
Twelve Jedi were on their feet at once. Half of the Council ignited blades of blue and green and pointed them in the direction of the cloaked and hooded man, who seemed to be breathing out threat and promise.
“Hold,” Yoda said, his voice like iron, when Luminara Unduli and Kit Fisto moved towards the black shadow. “A guest we have,” the ancient Master intoned, his eyes narrowed with anger. “Harm him, we will not.”
“What, we should just wait until he starts harming us?” Kit asked, a thread of fear beneath his sarcastic response.
The shadow offered the Master a soft chuckle. “Master Fisto, if I wanted any of you dead, I would have chosen a much more convenient, less suicidal method.” He paused. “Though if it makes you feel any better, take a swing.”
To Qui-Gon’s surprise, one of the Councilors took Darth Venge up on his offer. Agen Kolar ignited his lightsaber and swung, only to halt in surprise when his blade died before the attack could be completed. The Master uttered a frustrated growl as he turned his lightsaber hilt upside down. A gentle rain of crystal dust poured down onto the tiled floor.
“Feel better?” the Sith asked solicitously. The Zabrak swore at him, reattaching his now useless lightsaber to his belt. “Hmm. Thought not. Never made me feel any happier, either.
“If anyone else wants to give it a shot, feel free. Though I warn you: Kill me, and you will never stop the Sith. You will never find Darth Sidious.” Venge walked forward, stared at by twelve war-weary Jedi masters. All had lost friends to the man they had once called ally.
“You speak lies, Darth Venge,” Ki-Adi Mundi snapped. “The Sith will be found, and he will be destroyed.”
“Oh, yes.” In the shadows of his hood, Qui-Gon could make out the barest hints of that blasted smirk. “And a bang-up job you’re doing of it, too. For two decades the Sith Lord has thrived under your very noses, and you have yet to notice his existence. If he flees, you will never find him.”
“And you protect your Master, of course,” Plo Koon said, his voice a hiss of anger beneath his mask.
“Of course I do,” Venge said, turning to look directly at Qui-Gon. “He’s forgotten how to fucking duck.”
Despite the tremulous nature of his feelings for the man standing before him, Qui-Gon managed a smile. “I did duck.”
That had been an interesting duel. Facing off against Obi-Wan—Venge, trying to defeat the Sith without killing him. Difficult, considering Venge seemed not to be granting Qui-Gon the same courtesy. What had ended that horrible fight was Anakin’s surprise appearance, his Padawan using a Force-push to shove Obi-Wan off of the landing platform they were fighting on. The Sith had fallen into darkness, and that was the last they had seen of him. Until now.
“Mmm. And only lost half of your hair instead of your head. Good job.”
“Why are you here?” Mace bit out, interrupting whatever response Qui-Gon might have made. His hand still rested on the hilt of his lightsaber. “Speak quickly, Venge, for none of us are in the mood to spare you.”
“At last, someone asks me a question.” Venge’s steps slowed until he stood in the center of the room, at an equal distance from each member of the Council. He received not the serene acceptance of other Jedi, but anger and a barely repressed need to strike. Qui-Gon looked around at the darkened faces of those he called friends and thought: This war has broken us.
“Then you do know the identity of the Sith Lord,” Micah said, staring hard at the Sith.
“I have known for three years,” Venge replied, startling all of the waiting Jedi save Qui-Gon.
Shaak Ti glanced at the three Masters who sat together—Micah, Mace, and Yoda, last survivors of the five Jedi who had once asked a new Knight to do a terrible thing. When the war had begun, they had confessed their role in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s disappearance and subsequent Turning, for Darth Venge’s identity was by then obvious. She looked back at the Sith, her eyes narrowed. “You have known all of that time, and said nothing? Why even come to us now, if not to bring harm?”
“It wouldn’t have done any good,” Qui-Gon growled, the anger he had felt earlier returning in a rush. “We would have taken the information and destroyed ourselves with it.” This time, eleven Jedi Masters all turned their attention upon him, registering varying degrees of surprise.
His features were still in shadow, but Qui-Gon could see that Venge was smiling in genuine pleasure. “I didn’t think it would take you long, not after Geonosis.”
“Three months,” Qui-Gon replied, his voice flat. How frustrating that moment had been, to realize the path Obi-Wan had led him down ended in chaos if he were to pursue it.
Yoda’s ears were lowered, his eyes glittering with ire. “Told us, you should have!” he exclaimed.
“Wise he was, to tell you not,” Venge mimicked. “Or do you think Qui-Gon Jinn a man who would betray you?”
“Why not?” Agen snapped. “You did.” The Sith did not even acknowledge the other Master’s words.
“Makes us do many things, love does,” Yoda retorted. “Sane, most of it is not.”
The Sith laughed, a strange, dry sound that echoed in the Council chamber. “It does indeed. You should know that well, Master Yoda.”
The ancient Master dropped his gaze and sighed, but did not reply. Mace glared at Venge. “Can we assume, then, that circumstances have changed? Or are you just here to gloat?”
Venge was still for a moment before lifting his arms and pushing back the hood of his cloak. Qui-Gon stared at the white that was streaking his copper hair, and mourned. Venge’s eyes were harder, colder, than they had ever been, but he was tired, too. Qui-Gon could see it in the lines on his face, the slump to his shoulders, the hard set to his mouth. The black scrawl of tattoos across his cheeks and forehead did nothing but add to that air of exhaustion.
“Do I look like I’m in the mood to gloat, Master Windu?”
To his credit, Mace inclined his head, acknowledging the Sith’s words.
Venge smiled again, but it was joyless, bitter. “Darth Sidious is well over one hundred years old, yet seems far younger. He bonds with his apprentices, and certain chosen few who can bear the strain. He feeds off of their life force, thriving while they falter and die.”
“He’s killing you,” Luminara murmured, her voice filled with the revulsion that Venge’s revelation brought them. “Is that why you’re here? You want the Jedi to destroy him for you?”
“No. I have already set Darth Sidious’s downfall in motion. Right now, certain members of the Loyalist Committee are presenting evidence unmasking Darth Sidious’s true identity, his treason against the Republic, and the actions he took to instigate a galactic war that has taken countless lives.” He looked at Qui-Gon, and there was a flicker of anger in Venge’s amber eyes, but it was not directed at him. “Knight Skywalker is with them. It is best if he witnesses this firsthand, I think.”
Qui-Gon nodded, stunned at his former Padawan’s audacity. If Sidious reacted the way he suspected—yes, it would certainly convince Anakin of the duplicitous nature of the man who claimed to be his friend. “Manipulative.”
Venge inclined his head. “Learned from the best,” he said, though Qui-Gon wasn’t sure if that was a compliment. “If all goes well, Sidious will retreat to Byss, where he has a hidden base in the northern mountains. There he should meet his defeat, though it will take some doing. If that fails, then there are other contingencies in place that will at least make it difficult for him to ever develop another power base.”
“I don’t understand,” Ki-Adi Mundi said, looking at Venge in irritated perplexity. “If you’re stopping him—and I don’t think you’ll be successful, but that’s another matter—what do you want from us?”
Venge glanced back at Qui-Gon, their eyes locking. The muted amber flickered, and Qui-Gon sucked in a breath, horrified by the desolation he could sense lurking beneath that reptilian surface, coupled with a strange pleading. Then Venge turned his attention back to the entire Council, his jaw set. “I need you to stop me.”
“Done,” Mace said, though Qui-Gon and several others glanced at him in concern.
Venge didn’t seem bothered. “Vengeance for Master Gallia, Master Windu?”
Mace gave Venge a cold stare. It had been no secret that Mace Windu and Adi Gallia had loved each other, though they had never bonded. Mace had not taken her death well. “You have killed hundreds of our number, Darth Venge.”
“Do not seek my death for that reason. You know very well where that leads,” Venge said, the counsel surprising, coming from a Sith. “Better this: The line of Bane must end, or the Jedi will fall.”
Qui-Gon saw the sad, resigned acceptance in Yoda’s eyes, and the part of him that had held out hope for six years grew angry. “There has to be another way!” I do not want Roxuli and death to be all that lies between us!
“Dammit, Qui-Gon!” Venge shouted, shocking him. “All you are is a means of control! That’s the only reason Sidious hasn’t had you slaughtered! You are mine, as Padmé Amidala is Anakin’s! Take away that control and the galaxy burns!”
He drew in a deep breath, eyes near-glowing with anger. When Venge spoke again, his voice was calmer, but it was brittle, doing nothing to hide his crumbling sanity. “As much as it may surprise you, I do not—” Venge’s words became strangled, and he closed his eyes, teeth bared in a grimace of pain.
Before anyone could question what was happening, a halo of dark, violet energy lanced his form, surrounding him in a brief corona.
“I guess that Senate hearing has concluded,” Micah said, and then swore when Venge’s image fluttered, became transient, before solidifying once more. “What the fuck was that?”
Venge opened his eyes, gasping for air. The remnant of Force Lightning—for Qui-Gon knew of nothing else that looked like that—was still sparking off of his body. “I told you…wasn’t suicidal. Think…I’d put myself…in a room with…twelve pissy Jedi Masters?” Qui-Gon had to smile at that, despite his increasing worry. He noticed the rueful agreement on Shaak Ti’s face, found matching sentiment with Ki-Adi Mundi.
Venge paused, trying to collect himself. “Force Illusion—with a few tricks of the Sith thrown in…makes it more real. If you were unwilling to listen, I couldn’t afford to die here. Not with Sidious still alive.” The lightning struck again, and Venge hissed, his teeth clenched as he refused to voice the agony that Force Lightning brought. “Trying…to prove a point. Force Illusion doesn’t get good press with you. Seen as too quick. Too easy. Too manipulative. But…when you ditch the knowledge of your elders…for fear of what it might bring…all you have done is hand your enemy yet one more weapon to use against you.”
The Sith grimaced in pain and sank to his knees, head lowered. The violet electrical discharge kept washing over his slight frame, wrapping around him with vibrant Dark tendrils, seeking to tear things asunder. Somewhere else, far from the Council chamber, Venge was being assaulted by a Sith Lord’s wrath. Qui-Gon couldn’t ever remember feeling so helpless, for there was nothing he could do to stop this.
There had been nothing he could do to stop this for far too long.
Qui-Gon was on his knees next to Venge, not even aware that he was going to move until he had done so. He could not even touch the man before him, who, despite the Sith name the Jedi had helped to brand him with, was still trying to stop the being who had torn the galaxy apart. “He’s destroying you,” Qui-Gon whispered.
Venge shook his head, even as the pain seemed to worsen, his projection fading around the edges. “No, he won’t. He can’t. I’ve killed everyone else he was bonded to, and if I die, he can’t make the first transfer to one of his damned clone bodies. He needs a conduit for that.”
When Qui-Gon drew back in surprise, Venge nodded. “Yes. Dooku, too. He never knew…how much Sidious was…using him. Just a…means to an end.”
“The bastard has clones, too?” Kit Fisto said in disgust. “Thorough, isn’t he?”
“Heh,” Venge breathed out the laugh. “Very.” The cords on his neck were standing out as he lifted his head, though by now his image was almost transparent as his concentration wavered. “Go…to…Byss, damn you all! You can stop him, you have just one chance! Take it!”
“Gods-all, Obi-Wan,” Qui-Gon all but yelled, his hands curled into useless fists. “How does he know?”
Their eyes met, and for one brief, agonizing moment, clear blue overrode tainted amber. “He knows…because of the transmitter embedded in Master Giett’s wrist.” Then Venge screamed, the haze of electricity swallowing up the place where his image had been resting on the Council chamber floor.
Chapter 6: Checkmate
Everything in its place.
It was Micah Giett’s stunned horror that convinced Qui-Gon Jinn that his friend was no traitor. “What he must have done to Obi-Wan,” Micah whispered, still staring at the place where Venge had been moments ago. Then he lifted his hand, staring at his left wrist, looking at the long scar that marred his flesh. He had earned it on Yinchorri, when pirates had taken him captive to demand the Jedi leave their planet.
“It must have happened then,” Mace said, reaching out to grip Micah’s right hand. “Calm yourself, brother. We know our own. You stand with us.”
Micah nodded as Qui-Gon laid his hand on Micah’s shoulder. “Yes. Damned right I do. But I’m all for finding that transmitter and getting it the hell out of me, if you don’t mind.”
“To the Healers, you will go,” Yoda instructed. The Jedi Master pointed with one clawed hand. “Now, it must be. Knows we are coming, the Sith does. Give him more than that, we should not.”
“Of course, Master,” Micah said, heading for the still-open doorway. He paused in the entrance, one hand still clutching his wrist. “Shaak, you might want to give poor Jaris here a once-over. Looks like our visitor scared the pants off of the boy.”
“Oh, bother,” Shaak Ti said, rushing over before kneeling just out of sight. After a moment her voice carried back into the Council chamber. “Just fainted. He’ll be all right. He’s got a nasty bump on his head from the fall.”
Jaris being unharmed seemed to be what pushed Mace into action. “We need information, people. Does anyone have a feed to what happened in the damned Senate a few minutes ago?”
“Would you like eyewitness accounts?” said a new voice.
Qui-Gon half-turned to find his Padawan’s wife, Padmé Amidala, entering the Council Chamber, with Anakin just a step behind. Anakin Skywalker’s hand was gripping his unlit lightsaber as if he expected to fight a battle…or perhaps he already had. “Anakin?”
Anakin was pale, obviously shaken, but his voice was steady as he stepped forward, addressing the Council. “Masters, Chancellor Palpatine has been declared an enemy of the Republic.”
For a moment, no one said a word. For Qui-Gon, it was the end of a long, bitter vigil. At last, the pieces were falling into place. Time to move forward. Time to kill the bastard who had stolen his former Padawan’s light.
“You are shitting me,” Luminara Unduli blurted out. Saesee Tiin gave the other Master a startled look, for Luminara was never given to crude language.
“Palpatine? Truly?” Mace repeated, flabbergasted. “How the hell is that even possible?” he said, glancing down at Yoda. The ancient Master shook his head, for he had no answers for them. If answers were to be found, they would have to seek out the Sith.
Padmé stepped forward to stand next to her husband. She was smiling, the expression full of the same strength and steel that she had once used to retake her planet from the Trade Federation. “Believe me, it happened. Ten minutes ago, Bail Organa of Alderaan presented evidence before the full Senate, before the Chancellor himself. He was flanked by myself and Knight Skywalker, Mon Mothma of Chandrila, Meena Tills of Mon Calamari, and Tendau Bendon of Ithor. Mas Amedda,” she added, her smile turning fierce, “did not want to grant our request for the session, but we pointed out that we still had the right to speak before our fellow Senators, and he had no choice. Bail and I had been handed evidence by several sources who wish to remain anonymous. It took us more than a year to piece together the trail that revealed the identity of the Sith Lord. He instigated a war to further his own power. Even Palpatine’s Senate appointment on Naboo was never legally confirmed.” The glint of anger in her eyes matched the anger that Qui-Gon had fought against for so long. He had been forced to stand next to the Sith Lord on far too many occasions, burying his thoughts lest Palpatine know he was discovered.
“When we presented our findings to the Senate and called for his arrest…” Padmé’s voice faltered. “He went mad. If he had wanted to salvage anything, try to prove his innocence, he lost his chance.”
“He attacked the box from the Chancellor’s podium, Master,” Anakin interjected, rubbing the palm of his right hand with his left fingers. Only then did Qui-Gon notice the burns that streaked his Padawan’s skin. “Zorched Bail pretty good, but he’s going to be all right. I held the lightning at bay, but he vanished before security or any of the attending Jedi could move to apprehend him. Right now, we’ve got no idea where he’s gone,” Anakin said in evident frustration.
“It doesn’t matter,” Padmé said. “Chancellor Palpatine is guilty of treason, and his power is at an end. The Senate has adjourned for the day, but not before issuing one final edict: Palpatine is now within the purview of the Jedi Order. They are calling upon you to see him brought to justice.”
Falling pieces. Everything was falling neatly into place, fitted into little grooves. Pieces that had been invisible until Venge had set things into motion.
Qui-Gon exchanged glances with Yoda, who looked as pensive and ill at ease as Qui-Gon felt. This was almost too easy. Yet…was it? For all Qui-Gon knew, Obi-Wan had been arranging this for over a decade. If that was the case, it was the ultimate act of patience and planning.
“Then I guess it’s a good thing we know where he is—or at least, where he’s going,” Ki-Adi Mundi said.
“I’m going with you,” Padmé said, not backing down when half of the Council turned to give her reproachful looks. “As a representative of the Senate, it is my duty.”
“You’re pregnant, Senator,” Kit Fisto said at last, tilting his head to the side, flushing yellow with embarrassment.
“What, pregnant people don’t know how to shoot back?” Padmé retorted, touching the blaster at her side. The swell of her stomach was unnoticeable beneath her blue robe, but she was already six months along. Qui-Gon glanced at Anakin, who knew his wife best.
Anakin didn’t seem concerned. He grinned. “Master Fisto, pregnant women are scary. I’d rather have her with us than pissed off at us. And since I also plan on going with you, it means I don’t have to worry about any of Palpatine’s allies taking shots at my wife while we’re off saving the galaxy.”
“And you, Knight Skywalker?” Yoda looked up at Anakin, green eyes full of concern. “Your friend, he seemed to be. Your ally, he was. With us, think you should be?”
Anakin stared down at the ancient Master, the one who had once spoken the most fervently against Anakin’s training. “Master Yoda, it’s all right. I guess it’s—no. Master, I knew two years ago that the Sith Lord tried to have my mother killed, just to get to me. He made it look like a kidnapping, had her tortured for a week before she was saved. Knowing that—that it was Palpatine who made the decision to hurt her? Sorry, we’re not friends anymore,” he said, though his eyes were still filled with the echoes of sudden, shocking betrayal.
Yoda nodded. “Very well. Going, we all are. The strength of many, we will need. Light over Darkness. Fooled us all, Sidious did,” he said, his words bitter. “To him, this battle we will take!”
The agreement made, the Jedi began to leave the chamber, preparing to fight an enemy they knew almost nothing about save the face he had shown them for two decades. Qui-Gon watched them go, putting a hand on Mace’s arm when the other Master would have walked past him. “A moment.”
Mace glanced at him, a flicker of surprise in his eyes. “Of course, Qui-Gon.”
“Are you still going to be so quick to kill him, Mace?” Qui-Gon demanded of the other Councilor. “There seems to be much going on that we don’t know about.”
“It’s what he wants, Qui-Gon,” Mace replied, his gaze stern.
“It’s what he wanted six years ago, and it was foolish even then!”
“Qui-Gon, I know that he was once your Padawan, but that man is gone. We…” Mace closed his eyes, his expression pained. “I all but signed his death warrant, and I will never be able to forgive myself for that. But we cannot assume that he has done all of this in good faith! We have to assume the worst, that Venge wants Palpatine out of the way so that he can claim power for himself!”
Qui-Gon stepped away, shaking his head. “I know that, Mace. I do. I just cannot help but feel there is more to all of this.”
“I agree, but until we know what that is, we don’t have a whole lot of options, Qui-Gon. I promise you this. We will stop the Sith. I don’t know if that will mean death for Venge. But we will stop him.”
* * * *
He lay on the floor, nerves still twitching from too much electricity and too little rest. The Sith Lord was coming, returning to the home that he had hidden from the galaxy. He had time, though every few moments another surge would take him, leaving him curled up on the floor, wracked with pain and unable to fight back. Projecting the illusion from the distance he had just managed, across light years…he was exhausted, and it had left him defenseless against his Master’s wrath.
The lightning came through the bond he had with his Master, and it was an abhorrent thing that gave Sidious the means to hurt him when little else did. The bond would die with Sidious, soon…or he would die. One way or the other, Sidious’s last hold on him would be gone.
He could not move to do more than twitch his fingers, and his breath came in harsh gasps, but he could still touch the Force. He had worked hard to maintain that connection, no matter what Sidious did to him, no matter how much of his flesh was laid open.
No matter how much he’d screamed.
He used it now, activating the communications array built into the wall with another flick of his fingers. A holographic image appeared, displaying a clone with the stripes of a commanding officer on his white armor.
“Commander Cody,” he rasped.
The clone wasn’t surprised to hear from him, for they had spoken on multiple occasions. Their meetings had gone undiscovered even by the Jedi whom Cody served with. “Sir. What can I do for you?”
He licked dry lips, trying to coat his mouth and throat with moisture so that his voice would be clear. “In the event that the Supreme Commander of the Republic Army is removed from office, who is next in command?”
Cody hesitated, no doubt searching his memory as he accessed the thousands of orders and special protocols the Kaminoans had, all unknowing, programmed into the clone army. “Ah. Right. That would be you, sir,” he said, saluting him through the holo. If the clone was concerned with the fact that he was addressing a prone commanding officer, he kept it to himself.
He smiled, felt his lip split and bleed. “Rescind Orders Sixty-Six and Forty-Seven. Order Sixty-Six is now an invalid command line. Anyone caught trying to carry out Order Sixty-Six is to be terminated with extreme prejudice. Am I clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Cody replied. “I will pass the message on to the others. Order Sixty-Six is invalid. If Order Forty-Seven is rescinded, do I have permission to put a team together to deal with the Separatist leaders?”
Order Forty-Seven had saved the Separatist leadership multiple times, for it was that order which kept them from being hit by the clones who were ostensibly fighting against them. “Yes, Commander. Take whatever forces you and the other commanders deem necessary. There are hidden bases on Mustafar and Utapau. Wipe them out. No one is to be left alive.”
“Sir,” Cody replied. “We will begin immediately.”
“One last thing,” he said, gritting his teeth as Sidious sent a fresh wave of agony through his body. The whisper in the back of his mind was getting closer. “Initiate Protocol Jenth…Isk…Nern…Nin. You know what to…what to do.”
“Yes, sir. Do you require assistance, sir?” Cody asked, when he could do nothing more than lie there, a scream lodged in his throat. Closer.
“No,” he ground out. “Just do what I’ve asked, Commander. Out.”
“Sir.” Cody saluted once more before cutting the transmission.
He stretched out his hands onto cool black stone, spent. The last step had been taken, the last piece placed. The long game of dejarik was near its end.
* * * *
It took three days to navigate the treacherous paths of the Deep Core, and those were three days too many. Qui-Gon went to Anakin to see if his Padawan could shorten their route, but Anakin had shaken his head. “Maybe if we had more time, Master,” he’d said, staring at the nav-comp readouts. “But there is so much crammed into so little space here. Even I’m not that good.”
Qui-Gon had nodded, giving his former (and final, he knew) Padawan a smile. “It was worth a try.”
Anakin wasn’t fooled. “Master, he’ll be all right. Palpatine has to travel the same distance we do. We’ll get there.”
Now they had arrived, the streaks of hyperspace reverting back to single points of white as he watched from his position behind Anakin’s piloting station. If there was a dark center to the universe, Byss was it. The planet seemed to glow with blue-green radiance, and would have been beautiful but for the Dark energies that they could all feel. Even Padmé’s mouth twisted in distaste when she saw it, and her hand dropped to the swell of her stomach as if to soothe the infants she carried.
They had the strength of the full Council and the Chosen One with them. If that wasn’t enough to destroy a Sith Lord, then Qui-Gon feared for the fate of the galaxy.
Byss had two continents, though one was so barren that the ship’s sensors refused to admit life could exist there. There was a fortress built in the northern mountains of the other, as Venge had said, guarded by a contingent of clone troopers. All of them were marked with the blue stripes that denoted their status as the Chancellor’s royal guard.
With stealth and silence, the Jedi dispatched them all, and no broadcasts were made that would betray their presence. That wouldn’t matter, though. Qui-Gon looked up at the bleak red and black walls that comprised the exterior of Palpatine’s towering base, and knew that the Sith would have sensed their presence the moment they came out of hyperspace.
Mace must have come to the same conclusion; as they gathered together in the open entryway of the citadel, he gave Qui-Gon a concerned look. “You know this has to be a trap.”
“Of course it is,” he replied, his thumb brushing over the activation switch on his lightsaber. “The trouble comes in knowing which part to spring first.”
“So let’s just spring all of it,” Anakin said, giving them a wry grin. “If Venge was telling the truth, there’s only one Sith in there we need to worry about. There are thirteen Jedi here, plus one angry woman with a blaster.” Padmé mock-glared at Anakin and elbowed him in the ribs. He winced before continuing. “If he’s stuck trying to deal with all of us at once, then he might make a mistake.”
The Jedi glanced around at each other. “I’ve heard worse plans,” Shaak Ti said, giving Anakin an amused look.
“We don’t even know what the hell we’re dealing with, to be honest. When’s the last time any of us fought a Sith Lord?” Agen Kolar sputtered a laugh when Qui-Gon, Anakin, Mace, and Yoda all raised their hands, ready to provide dates and details. “All right, stupid question. A better question would be this: Do any of us know what to expect from a Sith Lord that’s supposedly over a century old, and has trained at least three Apprentices?”
“Power, the Sith wields,” Yoda said at last, staring into the dark recesses of Palpatine’s base. “Darkness, we should expect. Danger, in all things. Prepare for this, we can, for Jedi we are. The Force is our ally, the Light is our strength. Stand against the Light, the Sith cannot.”
As one, they stood up and walked into the citadel, grim-faced, pacing down the narrow entry corridor. The corridor ended, and they entered a great room that spanned many meters in every direction. The ceiling was somewhere far above their heads, but banners hung down from it, red and black, and the red flags were like swaths of bright blood. The citadel was silent except for their footfalls, the sounds echoing through the dark.
Qui-Gon glanced around and saw doors and corridors leading off in different directions. Then he ignited his lightsaber against the pervading gloom, casting light upon the floor that they stood on. His skin crawled as he took in the Sith sigils that wrapped in a large, tight spiral beneath their feet. “Can anyone read that?” he asked.
“Who the fuck would want to?” Micah retorted, as he and the others began to ignite their own lightsabers, casting vibrant light against the shadows. “Giving me a headache just to look at it.”
Qui-Gon glanced away, feeling the sudden ache in his skull ease. “He’s right. Don’t try it.”
Anakin looked at him from across the spiral, his eyes wide. “I can sense him.”
Then they all could—the Sith’s dark presence filled the air, coated the breaths they took in slime, made them feel as if they were being crushed by extreme pressure.
Yoda took a deep breath and let it out, his face serene. “Too old am I for such tricks,” he muttered.
Qui-Gon smiled and wrapped himself in the Force, for it was their protection. He could sense the others doing the same, Anakin shining the brightest of them all. He was glad for that, for once Qui-Gon had feared his Padawan would not be able to rise above the darkness that he had fought against most of his life.
“Go, we should,” Yoda said, and now held his ignited lightsaber in one hand, his gimer stick in the other. “Seek Lord Sidious, we do.”
The Jedi stepped forward, ready to follow Yoda, who now seemed to have an idea of where they needed to go. Qui-Gon took a step and then halted, something whispering on the edge of his consciousness. He turned his head, staring at the passageways to the south. He knew that whisper, had chased it through his dreams and across wastelands.
“Obi-Wan,” he breathed.
Micah’s hand on his shoulder stopped him, and he turned to stare into his lifelong friend’s worried eyes. “Qui-Gon, are you sure?”
He nodded. “Certain. I need to go.”
Mace gave him an irritated look. “Qui-Gon, we can deal with Venge later. Sidious is our priority.”
“And Venge is my responsibility,” Qui-Gon retorted. That whisper was maddening, told him nothing other than the fact that Venge’s presence lay in that direction. He could very well be walking into another trap, but he could not ignore that whisper. He could not ignore the blue flash he had seen, lost for years beneath the amber.
“I’ll go with him,” Micah offered. “At least it keeps us from having to face two Sith at once.”
“I’ll go, too,” Anakin began, but Qui-Gon held up his hand, gesturing for silence.
“No.” When he would have argued, Qui-Gon smiled. “Give us ten minutes. If we do not rejoin you in that time, then you can come and find out what’s keeping us so long. Deal?”
Anakin shook his head. “You would pick now to start being reasonable, wouldn’t you, Master? You’ve got ten minutes before I come looking for you, and you’d better still be in one piece!”
Micah was steps behind him as they navigated dark halls together, ascending stairs, following the whisper that only Qui-Gon could hear. Sidious’s base had been in place for several years; there were mature, well-tended gardens behind closed doors, along with combat arenas that were built to be open to the sky. He’d counted two libraries so far, what looked like a meeting room, and several bedchambers. There was nothing here that had not been touched by darkness. Even the plants were twisted by it, for though they grew and flourished, they were not pleasant things to look at.
They encountered no staff, no people of any sort. That made Qui-Gon leery, for a domicile this massive had to have a veritable army to take care of it. He could feel that there had been many beings here, recently, but where had they gone?
“I smell blood,” Micah said, and Qui-Gon repressed a shiver. He could smell it, too, the hint of old blood dancing through the air, teasing him with the hint of destruction.
Then the whispering grew clear, and the blood that he could smell was fresh. Qui-Gon stopped before one final, closed door, stomach clenched, because he did not know what he would find.
Micah was at his shoulder, a soothing, steady presence. “Open it, Qui-Gon. Force knows we’ve come this far.”
Qui-Gon nodded and touched the control panel set into the wall, feeling a rush of dank air strike his face as the door hissed open. The scent of fresh blood grew stronger, coupled with the stink of humans pressed beyond their limits, sweat and foulness and rage and despair.
The room was empty save for a lone occupant, strung up by the wrists from a ceiling joist, his bare feet just brushing the stone floor. Qui-Gon caught the glimmer of copper hair in the dim light and his heart seized. He stepped closer, horrified, aware that Micah had stopped in the doorway.
Venge was covered in so many wounds he may as well have been wearing a shirt made of blood. The dark pants he wore were his only clothing, and even those were shredded, revealing flayed flesh.
Qui-Gon shut down his lightsaber and dropped it from almost nerveless fingers as he rushed forward and touched the Force, releasing the too-tight shackles that bound Venge’s wrists. Qui-Gon caught the smaller man, stunned by the lightness of him, for beneath the blood was the frame of a man who had gone from being too slender to being rail-thin. His body slumped, boneless, as Qui-Gon carefully lowered Venge to the floor. Qui-Gon brushed his hands through disheveled copper, and found even Venge’s hair was tacky with blood.
Qui-Gon felt for a pulse in his neck and sighed in relief as he felt a regular, if faint, heartbeat. Venge’s chest was rising and falling, the motion so slight it was barely noticeable. Then Qui-Gon’s fingers touched something cold, and he took a firm grip on the slight bit of metal. It buzzed beneath his fingers, but the buzz was louder in the Force. An inhibitor. Qui-Gon grimaced and pulled it free.
The response was astounding. Venge’s eyes shot open, and he opened his mouth wide, gasping for air and lurching in Qui-Gon’s arms. “Easy!” Qui-Gon soothed, trying to keep hold of the sorely wounded man he held. “Obi-Wan!”
Venge’s head lolled back and forth, his eyes staring up at nothing. He almost slid out of Qui-Gon’s grasp, his skin was so slick with blood, and Qui-Gon was afraid to hold on tightly, concerned he might hurt the man further.
“Don’t,” Venge whispered, the word barely audible.
“Don’t what? What do you mean?” Qui-Gon asked, leaning closer.
Venge’s eyes locked on his, filled with sudden, startling lucidity. “Turn…around!” he gasped.
Qui-Gon was in motion in record time, on his feet and turning, calling his lightsaber back to his hand. He never made it; his lightsaber dropped to the floor inches from his hand.
It didn’t hurt, and it should have. The green lightsaber pierced his abdomen, bringing heat, then cold, icy numbness. Qui-Gon gasped out a surprised, involuntary breath, and lifted his head, looking into Micah Giett’s crazed hazel eyes.
Chapter 7: Dust & Honor
Hope can be a bitter thing - and a brilliant thing.
Qui-Gon Jinn dropped to his knees as the lightsaber was jerked from his body, and he hissed, for that did cause him pain. He looked up at the face of his friend. He had known Micah Giett for over sixty years, and this made no sense! “Why?” he whispered.
Micah stood over him, his green blade still humming, pointed at Qui-Gon’s throat. “For Tahl,” he said. His face was expressionless, a sharp contrast to the insane light in his eyes. “For her!”
“What?” Qui-Gon stared at him, stunned. Tahl had died long ago, the result of an accident on a mission that no one had foreseen. They had grieved together while Obi-Wan had given them worried looks, doing his best to curb the amount of alcohol they were putting away.
Micah shook his head. “It was never supposed to go this far. None of you should have reached this point, but you raise stubborn Padawans, Qui-Gon Jinn!”
The betrayal Qui-Gon felt in that moment was worse than any wound a lightsaber could inflict. “You volunteered. You agreed to help Sidious, even then. Gods…why?” he asked, feeling hot tears roll down his face. All was forgotten in light of this. Not even Dooku’s Turning had felt like this, leaving him destroyed inside, for the last friend of his childhood had just stolen his life.
“He said he would give her back to me, Qui-Gon,” Micah said, and when he leaned closer, Qui-Gon could see that now Micah was crying, almost sobbing. “He said he knew how to bring people back from death. I watched him rip a man’s soul from his body, and I watched him put it back.”
Qui-Gon felt his eyes widen. “Micah, that’s impossible.”
The lightsaber at his throat inched closer. “I saw it with my own eyes, Qui-Gon.”
Gods. It went against everything he believed in. Such a thing went against the will of the Force.
His heart heavy, Qui-Gon asked, “Is it worth it? You kill me, hoping the Sith keeps his promise?”
“I loved her!” The blade of the lightsaber began to tremble with Micah’s words. “She should be here with me! I am willing to do whatever it takes to be with her again.”
“Then I will be happy to send you to join her!” Venge screamed, and the blade of Qui-Gon’s lightsaber sheared into Micah’s chest from the side, burning through his heart.
Micah’s face registered surprise, and in the next moment Qui-Gon felt him pass into the Force. Then his body fell, shoved aside by Venge as the Sith darted forward. He dropped to his knees in front of Qui-Gon, his face stricken. “Fuck, I told you that you were terrible at ducking!” he cried, his fingers touching Qui-Gon’s hands, where he gripped his midsection. Both of them read the wound for what it was—fatal.
Qui-Gon slumped forward, unable to help it, when that coldness spread outward, touching him with heavy, exhausting fingers. It was his turn to be cradled, Venge holding him in blood-slick arms.
Venge’s eyes were lit from within, filled with feral rage, as if something wild within him was trying to break free. “No, no, no, no—you cannot do this to me!” Venge whispered, and his voice was breaking, full of desperate pain.
Take away that control and the galaxy burns! Qui-Gon stared up at Venge, hearing the echoes of those words. He sensed Obi-Wan clearly, more present in that moment than he had been since their parting after Naboo. “Don’t,” he whispered. “Don’t…let this…destroy you.”
“Dammit, Qui-Gon,” Venge uttered a broken laugh. His face was streaked in his own blood, marring the perfect lines of the Sith tattoos. “I am already destroyed. I—I cannot—I can’t bear to lose you. You are the only thing I have.”
Qui-Gon smiled. “Darkness…can’t heal,” he said. Though he didn’t think even Light could heal this. He knew his own body well enough to know that he was done. The Force was waiting.
Venge shook his head, offering him a terrible smile. “Darkness can heal, Master Jinn. It just always comes with a price.” With that he stood up, holding Qui-Gon in his arms. Venge winced in pain, though his grip on Qui-Gon did not falter, and then he stepped forward.
“Where…?” Qui-Gon managed, feeling that heavy coldness press on his chest, stealing his breath.
“Just hold on,” Venge said, not looking at him as he walked back out into that long corridor, the smell of old blood and new intermingling. “There’s an entire galaxy out there waiting to burn.”
To Qui-Gon it seemed as if they walked for hours, or maybe it was seconds. He drifted, half-conscious, held by arms that grew warmer as he grew colder, and there was a siren song in the back of his mind, bringing him more peace than he had known in decades.
But then Venge would whisper, “Stay,” and Qui-Gon, hearing the lost threads of Obi-Wan in that request, would distance himself from that song, holding on to the last of his own life with his infamous stubbornness.
Scents had come and gone, but now the air smelled and tasted sterile. He forced his eyes open and found himself still alive, still in the arms of the Sith. They were standing in a room lit with green, eerie light, surrounded by a handful of upright cylinders. Each cylinder had the faint outline of a bipedal being inside.
Clones. They were in the room that held Sidious’s clones. Qui-Gon tried to ask what they were doing here, and could not manage more than the faint hint of sound.
Venge was looking around, eyeing the tanks as if searching for something. “Once upon a time, a Sith Lord tore me apart,” he said in a distant voice. “He offered me everything I ever wanted, anything I could ever want. To that end, he created something for me, trying to give me a gift. Trying to love me.”
Qui-Gon stared up at him, feeling the echoes of that destruction, and then he understood the desolation Venge had shown him. The realization brought him a faint hint of strength. “Sith…don’t know how to love.”
Venge smiled, glancing down at him. “And what of me then, Master? Or am I as terrible at being a Sith as I was at being a Jedi?”
“Not…terrible,” Qui-Gon whispered, attempting to smile back. “Brilliant…brilliant fire.” That siren song was loud again, almost drowning out the silence that filled the cloning lab. “I…loved you.”
Venge swallowed, the motion starkly visible. He stepped forward again, bending and settling Qui-Gon down onto the floor. Qui-Gon’s back rested against the cool metal and transparisteel of the cloning tank Venge had chosen.
The Sith knelt before him, looked at him with a faint smile touching his lips. He rested his hands against the sides of Qui-Gon’s face. His palms were warm, a far cry from the chill in Venge’s eyes. Then the chill vanished, replaced by fleeting blue. “I love you, Qui-Gon Jinn, and I made my choices long ago.”
Venge sighed, closing his eyes, and when he looked at Qui-Gon again the amber was back, flickering with fierce intensity. “I know you can hear the Force singing,” he said, his lips close enough that his breath touched Qui-Gon’s face. “I’ve heard it before, too. It’s all right. Let go.”
Qui-Gon felt his breath still, and let go, and he fell—not into the light he expected, but darkness.
* * * *
He sat there long past the time that he needed to, staring at the still form before him, his hands resting on that beloved face. His entire body was tingling, and it wasn’t pleasant. He imagined it would be worse, next time.
The choice had been easy to make, for the Jedi within him could not stand to watch a galaxy burn…but he could be hated. He had been hated for years. He lied to himself, told himself it would make no difference.
When the cold began to register on his flayed skin, he shook himself, reaching out with gentle fingers to close staring blue eyes. He stripped the body with merciless, emotionless hands, laying aside clothing and tools, and tried not to remember the last time he had seen this body bare.
He called forth one of the tending medical droids, and his hands were shaking as he motioned for the droid to do away with the body. Another droid trundled forward, politely asking to tend to his wounds, and the Sith let it. The droid knew from long years of association not to use pain killers, and he clamped his teeth together as antiseptic burned his skin clean. No bacta, though. He didn’t need that. He had been refused bacta treatment for so long that it was a foreign concept, and he would hardly know what to do if offered the option. Scars were his life, his reminders of what failure brought. The scars forced him to remember.
He glanced down at his arms and touched the Force, and the patterns hidden in his skin emerged, black and stark against pale white and streaks of angry red. “Are they damaged?” he asked, surprised by the hoarseness of his own voice.
“No, my Lord. They are undamaged. Remember that the patterns were imprinted down through all five layers of the epidermis. It would take much greater damage than this to remove them.”
He nodded. Sidious had never seen these marks, and even if he had, he would have been pleased, thinking his apprentice was becoming more accepting of his place among the Sith.
That thought made him smile.
He found clothing on a shelf in a nearby storage room, slipping into gentle black silk that lay on his wounds without pulling or scraping. He tied on a black strip of belt, a quick grimace his only acknowledgement of the internal damage the Sith Lord had done when fists had struck him, over and over again, in raging fury.
Further back in that same storage room, among boxes of supplies where Palpatine never ventured, he pried open a panel in the wall. When he touched the silver hilt that lay within the dark compartment his head bowed, and grief assaulted him.
He shuddered and blinked away tears that never formed. He shoved the emotion away, for he couldn’t afford it now. A quick inspection told him it still had enough power for one last battle. But first…
He ignited his lightsaber, the pale blue blade filling the small room with the sound of contained power. He gathered up his hair, long enough to touch his waist, and sheared through it with one quick pass of the blade. Locks reddened with blood fell to the floor, leaving his hair just long enough to brush his shoulders.
Venge had returned to the cloning lab, and was staring up at the tank Qui-Gon had died in front of, when he sensed their presence. He turned, smiling, for he was glad to see them, grateful to know that they were still alive. “Hello, Anakin. Senator.”
Anakin lowered his lightsaber at the sight of him standing alone, though Padmé was not as quick to lower her blaster. “What the hell is going on?” Anakin asked, and the Sith was amused to hear the hint of their Master in the young Knight’s voice.
“That is no easy question to answer. Perhaps you could be more specific?”
“I felt Master Giett die,” Anakin said, glaring at him. “What happened?”
“Oh. That.” He felt his hands curl into fists, and forced himself to relax. “I killed him.”
Padmé’s blaster was definitely pointed in his direction now. “Why?” she demanded.
He ignored her, looking at Anakin. “Did you feel it?” he whispered, wanting Anakin to understand—he needed him to understand. “That current in the Force that should not have been?”
Anakin stared at him, his eyes full of trepidation. Anakin had sensed it, then; sensed it and feared what it meant. “Where is he, Venge? Where is my Master?”
He tilted his head in the direction of the tank. “Right there.”
“What?” Anakin rushed over, any potential enmity between them forgotten. The young Knight stared up into the dim recesses of the tank, spying features that were familiar, yet not. “But that’s—you cloned him?”
“No,” he said, keeping one eye on Padmé as she joined her husband. Getting himself shot at this stage in the game would not help matters. “Sidious did, years ago. He wanted to use it as another means of control, and was not happy when I did not respond as he expected.”
He gazed at features that were diffused by the nutrient bath in the tank. The clone had been aged to just over thirty standard years. It was odd to see him without long hair, for something about the nutrient feed retarded hair growth, kept the keratin from gaining ground. “Looks different with the nose unbroken, doesn’t he?” the Sith mused.
“Did you—did you kill him?” Anakin asked, turning angry eyes on him.
He was tempted to roll his eyes at the younger man’s assumption. “I did not kill him. Master Giett did. Hence, that is why Master Giett is no longer with us.”
Padmé’s eyes widened, and her blaster dropped away from him to point at the floor. “What? I’ve—” she glanced at Anakin. “We’ve known Master Giett for years! Why the hell would he do that?”
“He betrayed the Jedi fifteen years ago. Agreed to hide a transmitter in his wrist that would allow Sidious to hear anything and everything the Council had to say. Nifty little gadget, invisible to scans. He did it because Sidious gave him a false promise to bring a dead woman back to life. Not,” he added, his mouth twisting in a bitter smile, “that Master Tahl would have appreciated the effort. I think he had long since lost the ability to remember her properly.”
Anakin was still staring up at the tank, which beeped, indicating it had sensed the occupant approaching consciousness. His eyes widened in shock. “I can—I can feel him. It’s really him, not just a cloned body. What did you do?”
That question made him sigh. “Something he will likely never forgive me for. Listen now: He will be disoriented when he awakens. Stay here with him, help him through it. He may panic, for I don’t know how this transfer will affect his abilities.”
He did not tell them that he had never done this before, and it was only the constant presence of Qui-Gon Jinn in the Force that told him he had succeeded at all. He turned away, feeling the reassuring weight of the lightsaber at his side. He couldn’t afford to wait any longer.
“Why should we trust you?” Padmé said, though he felt no danger at his back. She wasn’t going to shoot him; it was a question driven by curiosity, not anger.
It was too bad the answer was not one she would like. “You shouldn’t.”
Anakin called after him. “You’re going to kill him, aren’t you? Sidious.”
He heard Anakin sigh. “Obi-Wan.”
That stopped him in his tracks, made his mouth fall open in surprise. It had been long years since anyone save Qui-Gon had called him by that name. “What?” he managed, the word far more harsh than he’d intended.
“I can’t let you just walk off to die,” Anakin said, soft pleading in his voice. “You saved my mother’s life on Tatooine, and I know you weren’t supposed to.”
His stomach clenched. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter!” Anakin yelled, surprising him. “You saved my Master. Hell, I’m pretty sure what you’re about to do is going to save the lives of my children. You’re my brother, Obi-Wan. I can’t let you do this alone.”
His eyes burned, and his vision blurred at last from the tears that fell. He turned around and strode forward, stopping before Anakin and Padmé, both of whom looked at him with something that was, if not love, then at least caring. It was a strange thing, to learn that there might be others in the Light that gave a damn about what happened to him.
“Come here,” he said, his voice rough as he pulled on Anakin’s chin-length hair. Anakin, confused, lowered his head, and Obi-Wan Kenobi planted a kiss on the forehead of his brother.
“You are the Chosen One,” he whispered against Anakin’s skin. “You will bring the balance that the Jedi have needed for more than a millennium, and your children will thrive.” He had worked hard to see to it that Anakin Skywalker never became the tool that Sidious’s Master had meant to create. That, at least, was worth all of the pain, all of the sacrifice.
He stepped back and looked at Padmé, offering her a crooked smile. “Do me a favor?”
“What?” she asked, curious and more than a little suspicious, but that was all right.
“Don’t let him name your son after me,” he said. “That would be fucked up.”
She smiled and embraced him, and he closed his eyes, feeling three vibrant points of light touch him at once. One last comfort in long years where there had been none. That was all right, too.
She backed away, and he nodded at them. “Don’t worry, Anakin,” he added, taking his leave, throwing the words back over his shoulder. “I won’t be alone.”
* * * *
“I feel like we’re being led in circles,” Shaak Ti murmured under her breath, reaching out with her hand to touch the dark walls of the hall they paced down. She and Mace Windu, Agen Kolar, and Kit Fisto had separated from the others, once it became clear that Palpatine was leading them on a merry chase. They’d hoped to pin the Sith down. Instead, they had just found themselves wandering the citadel, the Sith Lord always just out of sight, just out of reach.
Mace nodded his agreement, pausing to step out into another of the open air gardens. They were vile things, the Sith’s gardens, an affront to the Living Force. He brushed aside the thorny vines that seemed to reach out for him. This particular garden was gigantic, stretching the length of the citadel, and Mace wondered if it hadn’t originally been meant as a landing platform.
“We shouldn’t have split up,” Mace said, though he could still sense the others, if he fought his way through the pervading murk of Darkness. “This is getting us nowhere.”
“Master Windu,” Kit caught his attention, pointing up. “There’s a ship.”
“No, there are several ships up there,” Agen Kolar said, and Mace saw them as well. They were, if he wasn’t mistaken, the transports of the Republic Army.
“What the hell are they doing here?” Shaak wondered, waving her lightsaber over her head three times, signaling the transports. “Do you think the Senate decided that we should have back-up?”
“I doubt it,” Mace answered, watching as three of the ships broke away from the main group and veered towards them. They were landing in the garden within moments, and white-armored clone soldiers with green markings began to debark. There was some red and yellow within the mix, but it was the green that intrigued Mace, for he had never seen a soldier with that particular color before.
One of the red-striped clones marched up to them, saluting. “Generals,” he said, before slinging his blaster rifle back up into position. “I am Commander Bly. We are here to assist, per activated Protocol Jenth Isk Nern Nin.”
Several of the green-striped soldiers joined him, and there was a far more casual air to them, not like the clones. Perhaps the non-clone volunteers had finally been given a battalion and ranking system of their own, Mace thought.
Shaak exchanged a curious glance with Kit. “Jinn, huh?”
Mace doubted that the man who bore the name knew anything about this. “Who authorized the activation of this Protocol?” he demanded.
“General Windu, that would be the current Supreme Commander of the Republic Army, Obi-Wan Kenobi,” Commander Bly responded.
Agen spat out something foul in Huttese. “That—little—ingenious bastard! He really is helping us!”
That might have been true, but Mace wasn’t going to let this new element slide past without one more question. “Fine. If you’re here to help us, we’ll take all the help we can get. But first, you’re going to tell me what Protocol Jinn is!”
One of the green-striped soldiers stepped up next to Bly. “I’ve got this one, Bly,” a female voice said, distorted by the vocorder. She raised her hands and pulled off her helmet, tossing her head so that her jet black, short-cropped hair swung free.
She grinned at their floored expressions, her pale blue eyes sparkling with delight. “Hullo, Mace.”
He stared at her, stunned, and could only whisper her name. “Adi.”
Chapter 8: Sacrifice
Thirteen years of waiting in the Dark comes to this.
Mace Windu, flanked by the other three members of the Council, found himself staring around in disbelief. One after another, green-striped, armored soldiers were lifting off helmets, revealing the faces of friends thought long dead. “What the hell, Adi?”
“And why can’t we sense any of you?” Shaak Ti added, turning this way and that as she tried to look at everyone at once.
“Oh! That.” Adi Gallia grinned and reached up to touch her neck, picking a tiny black tab off of her skin.
In the next moment, her presence in the Force exploded into existence for Mace. He smiled and embraced her, swearing at the armor that bruised his ribs. It was truly her—not a doppelganger, not some blasted clone. There was no mistaking that fine sense of her, like mist over water.
“I missed you, too, Mace,” Adi whispered into his ear, her hands warm on the back of his neck.
More presences began filling the dark spaces in the Force with light as Jedi after Jedi, Knights, Masters, and Padawans, removed their inhibitors. “Holy…” Kit Fisto breathed the word. “How many?”
Adi smiled. “Two hundred strong, Kit. We’re the ones that our sneaky little friend could hide away, stealing us from the battlefield, making Darth Sidious think we were dead with the application of a handy little inhibitor.”
“We thought you were all dead, too,” Mace said, trying not to sound recriminating.
“The more everyone believed it, the less chance the Sith Lord would have of discovering our existence. I’m sorry, Mace,” Adi said, taking his hand and staring into his eyes. In that moment, Mace couldn’t remember why they had ever decided it was a good idea not to formalize their relationship. “I’ll make it up to you later,” she promised.
“Not that I’m not appreciative, and believe me, I am,” Agen Kolar interrupted them, though his expression brightened as he noticed one of his former Padawans in the crowd of milling, armored Jedi. “But, why this? Why this level of secrecy?”
“The Sith has to be pinned, has to be trapped, both physically and mentally. As for the rest? How do you destroy Darkness, Master Kolar?” Adi asked, giving the Zabrak a tight smile.
Shaak Ti started to grin. “This might be overkill, Master Gallia.”
“It’s not overkill; it’s certainty. The Sith cannot be allowed any chance of escape, or he could still manage to bring about the destruction of everything we hold dear.” Adi turned to face the armored Jedi. They stared back, their eyes full of serene acceptance and carefully banked fire; some of them had waited almost three years for this moment.
“My friends!” she cried. “Are you ready to end a war?”
* * * *
Qui-Gon was standing on a hill in a place that he recognized, though it had been years since he had seen it last. The grass was green beneath his feet, and the leaves of the tree he stood under were red and gold. The sky in the distance was pink. Sunset had come, but he did not see any stars. Not yet.
Obi-Wan was with him, staring off in the direction of the setting sun. He still wore nothing but those torn, dark pants, but the wounds on his body were gone. All that remained was a series of spiraling black tattoos, comprised of glyphs similar to those that adorned his face. The tattoos wrapped his arms, traced his ribs. There were several lines of glyphs that ran down his back, disappearing beneath the waistband of his pants.
“Those are new,” Qui-Gon observed.
Obi-Wan smiled. “Not as new as you would think, though you are the first person to ever see them.” The dying sunlight stole the color from his eyes, and Qui-Gon could not see if they were blue or amber. At the moment, he wasn’t sure if he cared one way or another.
Then Obi-Wan turned to look at him, and it seemed to Qui-Gon as if his eyes were both colors at once, which made no sense. “Where am I?” he found himself asking. This certainly didn’t feel like death, or the Force, either.
“It’s the memory of a dream. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it’s the dream of a memory.” Obi-Wan sighed. “This is where we were standing when I first knew that I loved you.”
Qui-Gon didn’t expect the spike of sharp agony that struck his heart. Obi-Wan had been eighteen years old when they had come to this planet, mediating a treaty that ended a war before it had a chance to begin in earnest. His Padawan had loved him for several years before he was knighted. That humbled him, honored him, even as it pained him. Blast it all, he couldn’t even remember the planet’s name.
“I should be dead,” Qui-Gon said at last, not knowing what else to say.
It seemed that the sky grew darker with his words. Obi-Wan’s smile became melancholy. “You should be, yes. And as I held you, I gave you this memory. I wanted the chance to say goodbye.”
“There is always the Force, Obi-Wan,” Qui-Gon said, yet he was not sure if he was being truthful. He had always been taught that oblivion was the destiny for those who dwelled in Darkness.
Obi-Wan lowered his head. “I do not think that we will see each other again. I have spent a long time trying to find a way out, and I have not seen it. I am certain that I go to my death. Though I do hope it will be worthwhile.”
Obi-Wan planned to go after the Sith. Qui-Gon was not surprised by that, but it saddened him to know the fate that awaited the man he loved. “Then at the very least, I will soon have interesting company.”
Obi-Wan’s smile vanished. “Perhaps you will,” he allowed. “Do me a favor?”
“What?” Qui-Gon asked, and the sky was growing darker still, but there were no stars. He was starting to grow concerned, starting to feel the first trace of fear within himself. The place they were in began to lose substance. Pale green light started to filter in, and that light was familiar. “Obi-Wan?”
He smiled, but his smile was sad; when Obi-Wan raised his head to look at Qui-Gon, his eyes were full of longing and grief. “When you wake up, my Master…try not to hate me too much.”
* * * *
It wasn’t hard to find Sidious; his Master was sending out warped threads of energy that were misleading the Jedi, forcing them to stalk through corridors and rooms on an unending quest to seek the Sith. Such was the Sith Lord’s mastery of Darkness, for how else could he have hidden in plain sight for so long without attracting notice? If he did not act, the Jedi could roam this place forever and not find Sidious.
Well, perhaps Anakin could, but Anakin had another concern right now.
So far, pieces had fallen into place so neatly that it scared him. Everything needed to destroy Sidious was where it should be. It was only Micah Giett that had thrown him, and that angered him, despite the fact that he had already killed the man. Why the hell had they allowed the Master to guard someone’s back? Did they not even question that maybe, at the very least, the man might have been coerced, compromised in some way?
His eyes were hard as he shook his head. Qui-Gon would not have believed it even if he’d shouted Giett’s betrayal from the fucking towers.
That didn’t matter now. His grip on his lightsaber left him white-knuckled, for he well remembered what had happened the last time he had challenged Sidious, years ago.
Not this time, he swore. He had a different goal in mind.
This time, he wanted to lose.
He emerged from the lift that had taken him to the top of the citadel. To his left was a railing, and beyond that was nothing but a sheer drop to the tiled, spiraled floor, far below. Straight ahead was a long walkway, and to his right was a series of windows that looked out onto the twisted landscape and dark skies of Byss.
Sidious was standing in front of the nearest window, cloaked but not hooded. “So, you have decided to strike out at me at last,” he said, and his voice was rough, angry—what Venge had always heard when in the presence of his Master. It was a far cry from the soft-spoken, pleasant tones that Palpatine had always employed as Chancellor. “Is your confidence in your abilities so abysmal that you would enlist the aid of Jedi to kill me, my apprentice?”
He found himself smiling, and didn’t even need to lie to answer him. “My Master, they are merely here to serve as a distraction, not to kill you. No Jedi will lay a hand on you. I swear it.”
His words caused Sidious to turn and face him. The Sith Lord’s eyes were not the watery, blood-shot blue that his constituents would remember, but a baleful, reptilian yellow. His skin had gotten even worse since he had fled from Coruscant. It seemed paper thin, as if no longer capable of holding back the evil that his body contained. His hair, once a pristine white, had yellowed as well, a further mark of the inner corruption of the Dark Side.
Sidious lifted an eyebrow, taking in the unlit lightsaber in his apprentice’s hand. “You speak the truth,” he murmured, and he smiled, pleased. “Perhaps you are ready to challenge me, after all.”
Venge clenched his hand into a fist, summoning the Force, and a bolt of lightning appeared from the ether to strike the floor in front of Sidious. The Sith Lord’s smile dissolved into a snarl. Some of those misleading threads vanished, but there were still more remaining. He would have to obtain the Sith Lord’s full attention if he wanted them all gone.
Venge offered his Master a mocking bow. “More than ready,” he said, and ignited his lightsaber.
When Sidious saw the blue blade emerge instead of red, he gave Venge a pitying glance before drawing his own lightsaber from within his robes. “I see you have made your choice,” he said.
He smiled. “I made my choice a long time ago.”
* * * *
Qui-Gon opened his eyes to more of that green light, and gods, but that hurt. He blinked against the pain, found himself drawing in a deep, involuntary breath—and coughed, his lungs cramping with effort.
“Easy, Master,” he heard someone say, and those two words were a horrid assault on his ears, which seemed to be working overtime. Then hands touched his skin, and that was almost worse. He was hypersensitive to warmth, to tactile sensation, to sound. The fingers that were holding onto his arms burned like firebrands, but with the branding came recognition.
“Anakin,” Qui-Gon whispered. Even that was too loud, though he resisted the urge to place his hands over his ears.
“Here,” someone else said, her voice soft. Padmé. Weight settled over his body, and rough fabric raked across his shoulders. The cloth also seemed to cushion him, comforting him against the assault of air moving against his skin.
Qui-Gon opened eyes that he hadn’t even realized he had shut again, found himself staring down at a floor that was out of focus. He was on his knees, trying to curl in upon himself. Also, his clothes seemed to be missing.
“What—” and then he coughed again, but it was easier, and his body didn’t try to seize up. “What happened?” Qui-Gon asked, and though he managed the words, talking was strange, and the sounds were slurred. His tongue didn’t want to cooperate, and his mouth tasted like bitter syrup.
He felt like his mind had jumped from one reality to another, then another, in the space of breaths. He was physically and mentally disoriented, and on top of it all his body was trying to contemplate vomiting.
With fierce will, Qui-Gon pushed the nausea back, taking deep breaths until his lungs ceased cramping. The pain in his eyes began to recede, and the blurred floor tiles became clear and sharp. Better.
There was no pain coming from his midsection. Shouldn’t I…hurt? Qui-Gon wondered, still dazed. He was surprised to find himself alive—and in the care of Anakin, no less.
Anakin’s hands were still on him, resting proprietarily on his back, though this time there was the barrier of cloth between them. “Well, Master…” he sounded hesitant. “Remember how I said that you needed to still be in one piece when I found you?”
He nodded, and that felt strange. The floor did not wobble, but he did, like he wasn’t settled into place in his own body. Which was…well, that was a ridiculous thought.
“Well—you’re still in one piece. It’s just…uhm…a new piece, Master.”
Qui-Gon lifted his head, turning to look at Anakin, who was kneeling beside him on the floor. Now he recognized that green light for what it was; he was still in the Sith’s cloning laboratory. “What?” he asked again. His voice was stronger this time, far less slurred.
He should have been dead. Instead, he felt fine. Awkward and naked, bloody cold, but fine. That wasn’t right.
Darkness can heal, Master Jinn. It just always comes with a price.
His heart seized in his chest. Gods, what had Obi-Wan done?
Several ideas hit him all at once, and he jerked upright, staring at his hands. His first panicked thought he could dismiss, for he knew his own hands: the shape and the size of them, the faint wash of hair, and the lines on his palms—but they were wrong, somehow.
He rubbed his thumb along his forefinger, and the texture was slick and smooth, like brand-new skin. No calluses. The scars on the back of his left hand, a constant reminder of one of Xanatos’s attacks—also gone.
“It’s all right. Don’t—don’t panic, or anything. Gods, that sounds idiotic,” Anakin was fretting, but for the moment, Qui-Gon ignored it. He was wet all over, his skin shining and coated in something that didn’t feel like water. He ran two fingertips along the back of his left hand where the scars had been, and the substance was gelatinous but near-frictionless. Qui-Gon lifted his fingers to his nose—also hypersensitive—and sniffed.
A rush of memory accompanied recognition. Kamino. Cloning tanks. Nutrient feed.
“Where is he?” Qui-Gon asked, surprised by the calm tone of his own voice. He didn’t feel calm.
“Who, Master?” Anakin asked, and Qui-Gon looked up into worried blue eyes.
“Venge. Obi-Wan. Where is he?” Some of the calm had leeched away, replaced by demand.
“He went after Palpatine,” Padmé answered—and Anakin jerked back, just shy of snarling, his hands leaving Qui-Gon’s back and pressing against his own forehead.
“Oh. Ow. Ow, fucking hells,” Anakin yelped. Qui-Gon felt brief amusement; of all of his Padawans, Anakin swore the least.
“I think they’ll be able to find Palpatine now, Master,” Anakin said, his eyes squeezed tight against what he was feeling and seeing.
Qui-Gon reached out, and that hurt, too; the Force was there, but not like he was used to. It was faint to him, and his head ached with the strain of exertion in a way that he hadn’t felt in long, long years.
He clenched his jaw and reached anyway, and the whispering currents grew stronger. It took effort, left him feeling tired and more out of sorts than before. However, he would have had to have been Force-blind to miss what was affecting Anakin. There was a huge rift in the Force, a place where Darkness had erupted.
He couldn’t decide which made him angrier—the Sith’s now-obvious presence, or Venge’s temerity. Qui-Gon touched the cloth on his shoulder, and at last his skin recognized the feel of his own robe.
Qui-Gon struggled to get to his feet and could not. He would have fallen, but then Anakin and Padmé were both there, supporting him on either side. “We have to find them,” he insisted.
“Yes, but Master, I’d really prefer it if you’d get dressed first,” Anakin said, giving him a warm, if concerned, smile.
With what? Qui-Gon was about to ask, but before he could do so, a medical droid rolled up to them. “Sir, a towel for you,” it said, offering Qui-Gon a large white cloth.
He took it, but his fingers had no strength, and the cloth slipped from his grasp. Padmé caught it and handed the towel back to him. When he noticed the faint blush staining her cheeks, Qui-Gon decided that yes, clothing was probably a good idea. He wiped slick glop from his face. It hurt; the cloth was probably soft, but it scratched and burned his skin. New skin.
He flinched, tossing the towel aside. They didn’t have time for that, anyway. “Clothing?” he asked the droid, trying not to snap at it.
“Yes, sir,” it said, and it turned and retrieved a bundle of tan and brown from another waiting droid. It offered him the bundle with both arms, and Qui-Gon stared at the neatly folded lines of his tunics. Not just copies, they were his, right down to the dark sap stain on the sleeve, acquired from a plant in the Darkened gardens he’d paced through with Micah. “We have the rest of your things as well, Master Jinn,” it said.
He thought of Micah, lying dead in a room that stank of blood and despair, and the anguish in Venge’s voice. He did not think it had been faked, but then…what was all of this?
“Did he plan this?” Qui-Gon growled, glaring at the unfortunate droid. “Your Master, Venge. Did he plan this?” he asked, the word almost a curse as he gestured at himself.
“I’m afraid I am not privy to Lord Venge’s plans, Master Jedi,” the droid responded, unfazed by Qui-Gon’s anger. “All I know to tell you is that I was instructed to destroy all of the clones that have not been put to use in six hours. All genetic samples are to be destroyed at that time, also.”
“Put to use. You mean, if they don’t wake up,” Padmé clarified, and her hand was back on her stomach, moving in tight, soothing circles. There was a moment’s bulge as one of the twins kicked out in response.
“That is correct, Senator Amidala.”
In the end, they had to help him dress, since Qui-Gon could barely stand on his own. It would have been embarrassing if his attention hadn’t been focused somewhere else, on someone else.
“Well, Obi-Wan was right about one thing,” Anakin was saying, and that snapped Qui-Gon’s focus back to where it should have been—on the two people that were helping him, keeping him balanced, figuratively and literally.
“Right about what?” Qui-Gon asked, not sure if he wanted to know.
Anakin looked at him, his smile uncertain, but there was a hint of laughter in his eyes. “You look really different with your nose unbroken.”
That shocked him. His nose had been smashed in a not-so-brilliant moment when he and his Master were far from Healers, and Dooku had not been capable of much more than minor repairs. He’d been eleven years old. It disturbed him, made the bottom fall out of his stomach, to realize that the next time he saw a mirror he was going to see a stranger. “How—how do I look?” Qui-Gon found himself asking, his voice a tentative whisper.
Anakin paused, bewildered, throwing his wife a “Help me” look. Padmé smiled in response. “You look fine, Qui-Gon,” she said to him.
It was, as answers went, really no help at all.
* * * *
They battled their way across the observation deck in a blur of speed, and there was a halo of sparks around the Sith Lord that told Venge that lightning could rain down upon him at any moment.
Venge was good, and he knew it. He had been skilled enough to best Tyrannus, though arrogance had been the other Sith’s ultimate downfall. He had destroyed Grievous and walked away, but wasn’t foolish enough to consider it an easy victory—
Grievous had come damned close to beheading him. Ventress had been the hardest, for she was the purest of them in the warrior sense. She had lived for nothing else save battle, and her hatred gave her strength and clarity instead of recklessness.
The Sith Lord was better than them all.
Venge ducked to the side and then rolled away as Sidious was suddenly there, his red blade chopping into the floor where Venge had been a second before. They faced each other again, blades at the ready, and for a moment neither of them moved.
“You don’t stand a chance,” Sidious said, and his voice was kind. “End this foolishness now. One day, you will be ready to take my place, Venge, but today is not that day. Oh, I will punish you, of course,” the Sith mused, and the smile on his face was mocking. “But I am beginning to think you like my punishments. How you squirm for me…”
“You know, I think I would rather eat my lightsaber before enduring your touch again,” Venge said, and grinned when the Sith Lord swung at him with a furious growl.
* * * *
Anakin was supporting most of his weight, though Qui-Gon had told him in no uncertain terms that if they were attacked, being dumped on the floor was the least of Qui-Gon’s concerns. Anakin had given him a wry smile before handing Qui-Gon his lightsaber. “We’ve fought in more inconvenient positions, Master,” he’d said. Qui-Gon had nodded in rueful agreement. There had indeed been more awkward combat situations, though right now he was hard-pressed to name one.
Padmé was guarding their backs, having proved at the age of fourteen that she was a crack shot with a blaster. The years had only added to her proficiency.
“Which way should we go?” she asked as they hit the junction of another corridor.
“The fight is somewhere above us—no, wait,” Qui-Gon said, and Anakin halted their steps. His connection to the Force seemed to be repairing itself, and now he felt familiar presences. There were other Jedi approaching.
The others appeared in the corridor after a few seconds. Yoda was perched on Ki-Adi Mundi’s back, his expression grim. Following them were Luminara Unduli, Plo Koon, Even Piell, and a handful of troopers with unfamiliar green striping on their armor.
For a moment, they all stood there, and Qui-Gon felt himself flush as five sets of eyes stared at him in frank amazement. “What?” he snapped.
“What the hell happened to you?” Ki-Adi finally asked, giving Qui-Gon a bewildered look. “Your hair’s gone! What—what happened to your nose?”
Qui-Gon sighed and exchanged glances with Anakin, who raised an eyebrow in response. Even if he were in the mood to answer, he had no idea what to say. “Don’t ask,” he growled instead.
One of the green-striped troopers stepped forward, pulling his helmet off to reveal dark brown hair and laughing gray eyes. “I think they’re wondering why you chose such an inopportune moment for a makeover, Master Jinn.”
“Shit—Garen?” Anakin exclaimed, staring at the other man. “You’re supposed to be dead!”
“Really?” Jedi Master Garen Muln’s smile was brilliant and predatory. “I guess I got better.”
“Met us on their way down, they did,” Yoda said, as the other green-striped troopers lifted off their helmets to reveal the faces of other Jedi, all of them listed as deceased in the Temple rosters. “Hid them from the galaxy, Obi-Wan did, so that one day, help us they could.”
“How do you defeat a Sith Lord? Do something a Sith Lord wouldn’t expect—
throw a bunch of dead people into the mix. Two hundred dead Jedi, to be specific,” Garen said, and his eyes grew hard. “Come on. I never had the chance to thank Obi-Wan for saving my life, and I think us rescuing his ass would go a long way towards repaying that debt.”
Some of the anger Qui-Gon had been feeling melted away, replaced by respect and no little wonder. This level of machination went beyond anything Qui-Gon had expected. It was hard to believe that all of this was the responsibility of one man—and it was the man that Qui-Gon Jinn had trained to be a Jedi.
“Then we need to go,” Qui-Gon agreed. At least it meant that they would stop staring at him.
“Master Yoda, where is Master Yarael?” Anakin asked, glancing around in confusion. “I thought he hadn’t gone with the others when we split up.”
“Dead,” replied Luminara. “He sensed something dark behind a locked door and decided to investigate. Before we knew what was happening, we had our hands full, fending off two hssiss. One of them clawed him across his back. The poison was…fast-acting,” she said, lowering her eyes. “We had no chance to save him before he passed into the Force.”
“Damn,” Qui-Gon breathed. They hadn’t even confronted the Sith Lord, and they were down two Council members, both Jedi Masters of great skill and ability. “Force preserve them,” he murmured.
“This has to end,” Plo Koon’s voice issued from his mask. “Let’s go,” he said, and the gathered Jedi turned to continue on down the passageway that led to the east, where a winding staircase was just visible in the gloom.
They all stopped and waited, watching Anakin with curious eyes. The young Knight had his head lifted as if scenting the air, or the currents of the Force. His eyes were half-focused, and his grip on Qui-Gon’s waist tightened from whatever it was that he was seeing.
“We need to go north. North and down.”
“Certain, are you?” Yoda asked, his eyes half-closing as he sought to find what Anakin saw.
“Yes,” Anakin confirmed, shaking his head and then focusing on the elder Master. “The room with the spiral pattern on the floor. That’s where we need to go. That’s where this is going to end.”
Chapter 9: The Kintan Strider Gambit
The fate of the Sith lies herein.
“We go into the arms of those that remember us.”
-Bush, Golden State
“Do you know the ways of the Force? Do you understand the true nature of the Dark Side?”
“No. But you can teach me. I'm young. I will learn.”
-Darth Bane & Darth Zannah
“The war between the Jedi and the Sith has raged for five thousand years, and it will end here, for all time.”
* * * *
Blood was running freely down his arms, staining the floor in scarlet rivulets. It hurt, gods it hurt. He hadn’t known anything could hurt like this.
“I will teach you everything I ever learned about pain,” Sidious told him, and those hated hands drifted across his shoulders. Nails skimmed his flesh, and he twitched but did not scream.
At first, he’d kept his silence, and that had angered the Sith Lord. Then he’d screamed until his throat had refused to produce another sound, but that had angered the Sith Lord, too. In fact, there was little that did not anger Sidious, so he learned to keep his silence again.
“By the time I am through with you, you will be able to withstand anything,” Sidious promised.
Anything. That almost sounded…promising. Useful.
“As you command, Master,” Obi-Wan replied, and hissed out a whispered curse when Sidious ran his hands through his hair.
It was the only time the Sith’s touch was gentle.
* * * *
He caught a second blast of lightning in his hand, but he was beginning to tire, and some of the harsh energy scorched his palm and sent pain lancing up his arm. He shook his hand in a futile attempt to rid himself of the pins-and-needles burn. He was tempted to chant the litany for serenity in his head, but that felt wrong.
This was definitely not a moment for serenity, and he was not a Jedi.
Sidious laughed, as if hearing the thought. “You are doing better than I expected. Though, as you managed to kill off all of your competition, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”
No, no, Venge thought. Be surprised. I like it when you find that I have done unexpected things. “You taught me well, Master,” was all he said, before launching his own assault of Force Lightning at the Sith Lord.
Sidious parried the attack by catching the energy, cradling the mass of blue lightning in his palms like it was an offering to the Force. The energy soaked into his hands; Sidious closed his eyes and sighed. “Your hate has made you strong, far stronger than I ever anticipated. You should be proud.”
He didn’t speak, didn’t want to, for part of him was proud of what he had learned, and that made his insides twist in revulsion. Instead, he threw himself towards Sidious, lightsaber extended, and hoped his timing was right.
* * * *
Mace Windu and Adi Gallia emerged from the turbolift with four more armored Jedi behind them, all they could cram into the narrow compartment. The others were spreading throughout the rest of the citadel, hoping to block off any potential escape routes.
They stepped onto the observation deck, watching the furious exchange between Sith Lord and Sith Apprentice. Mace noticed the blade that Venge wielded, and it brought a tight smile to his lips. Blue, not the blood-red blade of a Sith. Mace was willing to put credits on the table that it was the lightsaber Obi-Wan Kenobi had carried on the day Qui-Gon Jinn had Knighted him.
Adi ignited her blade, washing them both in deep blue light before he lit his own lightsaber, adding violet to the blue. For the first time since the Senate had dubbed Palpatine a traitor, Mace got a good look at the former Chancellor.
Gone were his gentle mannerisms and soft blue eyes. This was a man possessed by Darkness. His black cloak whirled around him like an extension of self as he fought, keeping Venge at bay by the barest of margins. Mace glanced at Venge and was surprised to realize that the long hair the Sith Apprentice had seemed to favor was gone, hacked off at the neck. Copper strands were glued to his face with sweat, giving him a feral look that matched the ferocity in his eyes.
“Let’s end this,” Mace said, raising his lightsaber and marching forward with Adi by his side.
Venge leapt back, Sidious’s blade just missing his torso. He landed hard next to the railing. Sidious turned and smiled at Mace.
“Master Windu!” Sidious called in greeting; his voice was a ruin, cracked and rough and full of malicious cheer. “How delightful it is that you have joined us!”
Then Sidious noticed Adi, and the joviality vanished. His eyes seemed lit from within as he raised his hand and pointed at her. “You.”
Adi offered the Sith a gracious smile. “Something wrong, Lord Sidious? Do you feel thwarted to find that you do not see as clearly as you thought?”
In answer, Sidious raised his arms. One of the largest manifestations of Force Lightning Mace had ever seen jumped across the room, heading straight for them.
None of them had expected Venge to interfere. His arms were outstretched, the energy of the Force lighting his fingertips. Mace and Adi were shoved back towards the lift as a telekinetic wave roared past them. The lightning veered away, blowing out several of the observation windows and sending glass flying.
Sidious, his hands still streaming Dark energy, glared at Venge. “Fool,” he hissed, and thrust his right hand in Venge’s direction.
There was a strange thrum in the air; the visual light spectrum seemed to twist before Venge was flung out into empty space with a strangled cry. Sidious gave Mace and Adi a dark smile. In a blur of motion he was at the rail and jumping over, following his Apprentice.
* * * *
“What…? You—you killed them! You killed them all!” Anakin’s voice was full of shock and horror.
“You’re very welcome,” he replied, his tone dry, trying to not-think as he shifted the heavy, sleeping burden in his arms. There were bodies all around him. He’d hoped to spare Anakin this.
There had been children in this camp. Children. Part of his soul was still screaming. If he never saw Tatooine again, it would be too blasted soon.
“You—why?” Anakin asked in a plaintive voice as he took his mother from Venge’s arms, cradling her.
He could have answered Anakin. Maybe one day, he would be able to. For now, he could say only one thing. “If anyone asks, young Padawan, do not mention me. You rescued your mother, nothing more.”
“You’re asking me to lie,” Anakin said, staring into his eyes. The yellow would not have been discernable in the darkness, but Anakin Skywalker was no fool.
He smiled. “No, Anakin. You are, after all, taking your mother home. Therefore, you are rescuing her. You will merely be speaking from a certain point of view.”
Anakin frowned, possibly thinking of his Master. “Part of the truth. Not all of it.”
“Yes. Remember the lesson well, Anakin. Even the truth can be used against you, if you allow it to be.”
* * * *
They encountered a few more white-armored Jedi, and Qui-Gon was bemused to see Quinlan Vos among them, flanked by his second Padawan, Ahsoka Tano. Anakin, on seeing the girl they’d worked with on several occasions, couldn’t help but grin. “Aren’t you a little short for that armor, Snips?” he teased.
“Aren’t you a bit tall for a twit, Skyguy?” the Togrutan Padawan retorted good-naturedly.
Padmé was walking beside Qui-Gon, ready to help if he stumbled. She rolled her eyes at the exchange. “Force, they are such children!” she muttered.
It was the first time he could remember smiling since he’d awoken in the labs.
Turbolifts would have been better, but if there were more lifts in the citadel than the three they had found, they were well-hidden, and none went in the direction they needed to go. The staircases were easier to find, though steps had proved to be his undoing. Qui-Gon had filled his head with a foul litany when Anakin had picked him up and carried him.
They were going off to battle a Sith, and he was bloody helpless. Even his Force-sense, though returning, was not reliable.
The stairs were done with, but Anakin didn’t put him down, and quickened his steps. Qui-Gon decided not to complain further, for Anakin’s newfound sense of urgency matched his own.
“We’re here,” Anakin said, helping to settle Qui-Gon back on his feet. Their steps echoed in the silence of the great room, but that silence didn’t last long.
“Look out!” Luminara yelled. Qui-Gon took an unsteady step back as two black shapes, one of them touched with copper, fell towards them from somewhere above.
* * * *
He fought to breathe the entire way down. He’d let himself become too vulnerable, and it had almost cost him his life before the fight had a chance to progress. Venge gasped in a sharp rush of air, feeling cracked ribs protest.
Then Sidious was upon him even as they fell, snarling, and both of the Sith’s hands reached for Venge’s throat. He grabbed those hands, pushing back with the Force but refusing to let go. Sidious shouted at him and then had no choice but to cushion their landing himself, though Venge still took the brunt of it.
His breath left his chest in another pained gasp as he felt the horrible jar of impact all the way down his spine. Ceramic shattered, and it seemed that time slowed, for he could see tiny shards of black fly up from the floor.
Then time rushed back—Venge shoved the Sith Lord away and rolled, feeling broken tiles cut his back. He got to his hands and knees, coughing a mouthful of bright red blood onto the floor.
Lightsaber, lightsaber, where where where— He sensed it and reached, and the satisfying feel of cool metal hit his right palm. He was up on his knees and turning without thought, and caught Sidious’s blade on his own. The Sith Lord was grinning at him, pushing down, using his position and strength to make Venge fall back.
Fuck that, Venge thought, his left hand curling up into a fist. He sent it flying towards Sidious’s face, felt a moment of intense triumph when it cracked against the Sith’s jaw.
* * * *
“Something wrong, Master?” his Padawan asked him, his eyes green in the dim light of the ship’s lounge. That innocent tone hadn’t fooled Qui-Gon for a long, long time.
Qui-Gon was staring down at the Dejarik board, not yet willing to accept defeat. He had to admit, though, that he didn’t see a victory waiting for him. “You know, I had expected to be guiding you through the nuances of this game for some time yet.”
“I’m terribly sorry to have defeated you, Master,” Obi-Wan replied, contrite, but his eyes were dancing. “Perhaps we could play again?”
Qui-Gon found himself laughing. “Of course we will. I have to regain my dignity, Obi-Wan. Now, tell me how you managed to pull a Kintan Strider Gambit right underneath my very nose?”
His seventeen year-old Padawan raised an eyebrow. “Master, in games of strategy, it is considered unwise to tell your opponent how you plan to defeat him.”
* * * *
Qui-Gon watched in horror as Sidious drove Venge into the floor, tile exploding up from the force of the impact. Blood flew, and it was all coming from Venge.
Before Qui-Gon could worry that the damage was done, that they were all too late, Venge shoved Sidious away with the Force and called his lightsaber back to his hand, igniting the blade before their duel commenced anew.
He stared, mesmerized. A blue lightsaber—Obi-Wan’s lightsaber. It was the one Obi-Wan had been carrying when they had destroyed Maul, together, a lifetime ago. The part of Qui-Gon that had given up, that had crystallized in light of what Venge had unleashed upon the galaxy, started to feel warmth.
I made my choices a long time ago. Those were the last words Venge had whispered to Qui-Gon as he lay dying in a blasted cloning lab.
He couldn’t help but smile when he saw Obi-Wan’s fist land a blow on Sidious’s face.
* * * *
Sidious jumped back, whirling away from Venge as Adi Gallia and Mace Windu, followed by Neeja Halcyon, flew down from above. The Sith Lord gave the approaching Jedi a cruel smile and waved his hand. Adi blocked the Force-shove, but Neeja was not so lucky, and landed against the far wall with a short yell and a clatter.
If the swearing Venge heard was any indication, Halcyon was fine. That white armor couldn’t block a well-aimed blaster shot or a lightsaber, but it cushioned impacts well enough. He found himself with a twisted, pained smile on his lips. If he had any sense, he would have been wearing the stuff himself.
Time to regain the Sith’s undivided attention. He gestured, and the tile shards that lay scattered about the floor lifted into the air, veering with deadly intent for Sidious’s unprotected neck. They didn’t so much as graze him; the Sith Lord sensed the attack and flung the detritus aside, turning to face Venge once more.
“Now, now, Master,” Venge rasped, offering Sidious a mocking smile. “Before you get to go off and play with the other Jedi, you have to finish dealing with me.”
The Sith Lord stared at him, as if trying to discern Venge’s true motives. “Very well,” he said, and advanced upon Venge with a gleeful smile.
When Master Windu would have followed Sidious, a forbidding glare on his face, Venge shook his head. “Don’t worry,” he said, his tone snide as he waved off the Jedi Master. “You’ll get your chance soon enough.”
Don’t follow, don’t follow, he repeated in his head, thoughts secure beneath impervious shielding. Read between the damned lines for once, Master Windu!
Windu stopped at Venge’s words, though his lightsaber was still raised. “You’re only delaying the inevitable!” he shouted.
Sidious chuckled at the Jedi Master’s words. “He’s right, you know. Even if you somehow defeat me, do you think they will forgive you? Welcome you back into their fold?”
Venge gained his feet and retreated, distantly aware of the Jedi that were beginning to stream out of corridors and from behind closed doors, intent upon their quarry. They did not come closer than the outer bounds of the circle, pausing to watch the duel unfold between Master and Apprentice.
Sidious advanced, his steps taking him to the outer edges of the spiral pattern in the center of the room. “Think carefully, my Apprentice. There are few who truly understand the strength you now possess. There are few who can see you for what you really are. You are nothing but what I have made you!”
Venge stepped back until he was out of the spiral. Now, ancient Sith glyphs, red upon black, were the only thing that lay between them.
Everything that he had ever done in Sidious’s name roared up within him, and with his mind full of screaming voices, he could only whisper: “I just want to go home.”
* * * *
Qui-Gon was standing with Anakin, Padmé, Garen, Plo Koon, and Yoda, and it was only Anakin’s firm grip on his arm that kept him from lurching forward at Obi-Wan’s soft words. He saw Garen’s hands, clenched into tight fists, and knew that he wasn’t the only one who was feeling helpless.
Why aren’t we doing anything? There are hundreds of us! he thought, and from across the room Adi Gallia met his near-frantic gaze.
Not yet, she said, her words clear and strong as she shook her head. You will know when the time is right.
That did nothing to reassure him, and the sound of Palpatine’s cruel laughter chilled him to the bone. Qui-Gon was filled with horrible certainty that when the time was right, it would be far too late.
* * * *
The man who had almost succeeded in destroying a Republic that had lasted twenty-five thousand years laughed at him. “You will find that you cannot escape me so easily, my Apprentice.” The laughter died, and Palpatine sneered at him. “You plan with a child’s sloppiness. No Jedi will defeat me here today. I have foreseen it!”
The bond between them flooded, and Venge gasped and sank to his knees as Sidious ripped him apart with pain from the inside out.
He would not scream. Sidious had kept his promise from long ago. Pain was nothing; Venge could endure.
Through the blind haze of agony and the sounds of shouting (was that Qui-Gon, calling his name?), he felt Sidious approach. When he could see again, the Sith was standing in front of him, staring at him with cold eyes and a false smile. “Was I wrong about you, my fiery Apprentice? I did not think you so weak that you would not even attempt to fight back.”
Venge looked down at the spiral of glyphs that Sidious now stood upon, and smiled. When he looked up at the man he had chosen to call Master, he felt a gleeful madness of his own. “I don’t need to,” he said, and spat another mouthful of bright blood onto the spiral.
The blood soaked into the glyphs like water into desert soil. With a hiss of malice, the glyphs from an alphabet both ancient and terrible began to glow. Sidious had only one moment to stare in consternation at the floor before the glyphs turned bright green and moved.
“What have you done?!” the Sith Lord roared his fury, helpless, for the glyphs that had once decorated the floor were now covering him, wrapping around him over and over again like a serpent trapping its prey. They lit on his robes and on his skin, uncaring, settling into place with the whisper of countless raging voices.
“You always did have little use for the old Sith magics, Master,” Venge whispered. He got to his feet, his head still pounding from Sidious’s last assault on his senses. It had taken him years to find this, this one gap in the Sith Lord’s knowledge. With ancient Sith magic and the sacrifice of what tattered soul he had left, Venge had built a prison that could hold a Sith Lord.
Sidious hissed at him, swearing, pride and fury warring with one another. “This is impossible! The blood needed to create something like this—”
Venge felt his lips curl up in a cruel smile. “Didn’t you ever stop to wonder where everyone had gone? All of your little miscreants, your servants and sycophants? Didn’t you wonder why your citadel was empty?”
* * * *
Qui-Gon stared in horror, aware that most of the gathered Jedi were doing the same—even Adi Gallia, who had seemed to have some understanding of what Obi-Wan was up to. He knew of only two who watched impassively.
Yoda was gazing at the tableau with unblinking, calm eyes, his hands wrapped around his gimer stick. The other was his own Padawan, his eyes hard. There would be no mercy in Anakin’s heart for Palpatine’s fate.
The Sith had stopped trying to free himself, and was now laughing at Obi-Wan, who bore a dangerous, predatory smile. “Oh, you amuse me so!” Sidious exclaimed. “All those years of trying to resist what you were becoming, and here you are, so well-versed in the ancient ways, Lord Venge!”
The smile didn’t fade, but Qui-Gon saw a muted flash of irritation in Obi-Wan’s eyes. “If you hadn’t been so disdainful of your own Master’s research, you would be unstoppable,” Obi-Wan said, tone mild. “I gave you the design for the trap myself as this place was being constructed, and you handed me the keys to your own destruction with a nod and a smile.”
“Do you think that you will remain untouched by the Jedi, my Apprentice?” Sidious taunted, his mouth open in a rictus grin. “This is blood magic of the finest kind.” He raised his voice to address the watching Jedi. “Do you know how many beings your precious ally had to murder to create my cage?”
“Three hundred eighteen,” Obi-Wan answered the Sith’s challenge, his voice flat, face expressionless. “Were I in their position, I’d appreciate not having to fight my way through an army just to get in the front door.”
Sidious’s expression grew petulant, and he cast his gaze about the room. Other men in this situation might be looking for a sympathetic face, but Qui-Gon suspected that the Sith was just looking for a target.
When Sidious’s eyes fell upon Anakin, he conjured up a desperate smile that held little of its former charm. “Anakin, my friend. Are you just going to stand there? We were friends, you and I. Will you not speak for me?”
Anakin just snorted his opinion of that. “You sent Venge to influence the Tusken tribes into attacking my family. You wanted my mother dead. I don’t consider that the action of a friend.”
Palpatine’s smile became fatherly, yet mocking. “But you rescued her, Anakin. Surely you understand me a bit better, now. You are one of us, dear boy, though you do not yet know it.”
Qui-Gon and Anakin glanced at each other, both of them disbelieving. “What makes you think I am anything like you?” Anakin retorted, eyeing the Sith Lord disdainfully. Qui-Gon shook his head, concerned, for he knew that Anakin had responded just as the Sith wanted him to.
Obi-Wan was giving the Sith a hard, angry stare, but Sidious paid him no mind. “Your mother was working on Kabray station when my Master found her,” Sidious said in a soft voice that still carried throughout the room. “She was a healthy slave, one no one would think twice about, still capable of bearing children…and strong in the Force.”
This time it was Qui-Gon’s grip on Anakin that kept the latter from stumbling forward, and the Dark Lord’s words tumbled forth like a hateful confessional. “Plagueis the Wise had learned much of the ancient Sith arts, and with that knowledge he created the tool that would be the fulfillment of prophecies both light and dark! You, young Skywalker,” Sidious hissed, smiling in the face of Anakin’s shock. “You were created by a Sith. You are one of us.”
“You’re lying!” Padmé cried, both of her hands gripping her husband’s. She was a steady, fierce presence, not backing down in the face of Sidious’s words. “Anakin is not like you!”
Palpatine shook his head, laughing at them. “I have never lied to him. Have I, Anakin?”
Anakin was looking down, his eyes wide, and Qui-Gon was at a loss. He had no idea how to handle this, for he had sensed the truth in Sidious’s words. Despite that, he knew that it did not matter. Anakin had long ago proven himself to be a Jedi.
She’s right, he whispered across their old training bond, hoping that he would be heard. You are not like him, Anakin.
Anakin glanced up at him, and it seemed to Qui-Gon that there was a spark of memory in his eyes. “Part of the truth. Not all of it,” he murmured, but Qui-Gon did not think the words were meant for him.
Anakin lifted his head, and when he faced the Sith Lord again his eyes were calm, his gaze serene—for Anakin, anyway. “You have never lied to me, no…but you do not tell me everything. You dole out the truths that are useful to you, that help you to manipulate the people around you.”
Sidious scowled, but it was Obi-Wan who spoke. “What about it, Lord Sidious? Why don’t you tell him the whole truth?”
The Sith Lord glared at Obi-Wan in impotent fury. “Why don’t you tell him what Plagueis discovered—that Darkness cannot create life? He had to step into the Light to create his tool, and it exhausted him. That was the only way you could destroy your Master, by slipping a blade into his heart while he lay in helpless slumber.” Obi-Wan smiled. “Anakin was born free.”
Palpatine hadn’t given up yet. He looked back at Anakin, and his eyes were glittering with malice. “Do you still hide your actions of that day? Do you still think of how much death you wrought because of your efforts to retrieve your mother?”
Qui-Gon almost started, for that was something he had never known. Anakin had only said that he and Padmé had gone to Tatooine when the dreams of his mother had become dreams of her dying, that he had rescued her and brought her home.
He needn’t have worried. Anakin gave the Sith a broad grin in response. “I didn’t kill anyone that day.”
For a brief moment, Sidious’s expression was perplexed. Then he turned to Obi-Wan, and his eyes were filled with rage. “You,” he hissed. “You killed them.”
“You felt the deaths of many killed in a rage, and you sensed that Skywalker was near. You saw what you wanted to see.” Obi-Wan laughed at the Sith. “I told you that your overconfidence would be your undoing, Lord Sidious. You should have heeded my warning.”
Obi-Wan half-turned to look at someone on the far side of the room. “Commander. You’re running late.”
Qui-Gon had been so intent upon the Sith that he had missed the arrival of a new contingent of troopers. Several columns streamed in through the main entryway, spreading out and taking aim at the center of the room where Obi-Wan and Sidious stood. None of these soldiers had the distinctive green stripes the Jedi bore.
One clone trooper with the red stripes of a commander walked forward and saluted Obi-Wan. “Sorry, sir, but mop-up operations took longer than we anticipated.”
“What is this?” Sidious hissed, turning his hate-filled gaze back on Obi-Wan.
Obi-Wan smiled, a slow upturn of his lips that matched the sharp gleam of triumph in his eyes. “I told you the Jedi were a distraction, and still you did not think beyond their presence. You were so concerned about them that it blinded you to the true threat. Bly!” Obi-Wan turned his attention back to the red-striped commander. “Do you have your target?”
“Yes, sir,” Bly responded, the blaster rifle in his arms pointed squarely at Palpatine.
Obi-Wan gave the Sith one last, amused glance. “How many blaster shots can you block at once, Master?” he asked, stepping away from the spiral before issuing one last order. “Shoot him.”
The Sith did better than Qui-Gon expected, even bound and hampered as he was by the glowing sigils that burned into him. He deflected a multitude of shots with the Force, not even flinching when a bolt slipped through his guard and scored his arm. The air filled with the red streaks of blasterfire and rising smoke.
There were many voices shouting out their surprise, for the clones attacking the dethroned Chancellor were not what any of them had expected. Flashes of blue and green joined the melee as the watching Jedi deflected laser blasts that came too close.
In all of the chaos, Qui-Gon was barely aware of Anakin’s grip on his arm, still keeping him steady. Obi-Wan had met his eyes, staring at him, likewise unconcerned by the turmoil unfolding around him. His lips were quirked in a wry, self-deprecating smile, and all at once Qui-Gon felt the spit dry up in his mouth. He knew.
Qui-Gon had never been much of a strategist, preferring to step from Moment to Moment. Over the last six years, Obi-Wan had taught him to become one, feeding him information and clues with gestures and hints. He could put it all together now, and knew this for what it was. Qui-Gon had started it all by introducing his red-haired young Padawan to the game of Dejarik. Obi-Wan was brilliant at it, had bested his Master at the game time and time again.
The clones that would not wake. Even if Sidious managed to get his essence into one, Qui-Gon doubted that the clones were capable of achieving consciousness.
The Jedi hidden away, thought to be dead by friend and foe alike.
Bly’s presence, a clone that would follow the orders of the Supreme Chancellor—but the Chancellor had been dethroned. The Sith had made sure that control of the army would go to his Apprentice, for Bly deferred to Obi-Wan.
The spiral prison on the floor, composed of ancient Sith glyphs, markings that matched the spiraled patterns of black ink on Obi-Wan’s body.
Venge’s projected Illusion, speaking in the Council chamber: If I die, he can’t make the first transfer to one of his damned clone bodies. He needs a conduit for that.
I need you to stop me.
Qui-Gon remembered the words spoken on a hillside they had not seen in almost fifteen years.
I do not think we will see each other again.
I wanted the chance to say goodbye.
“Kintan Strider,” Qui-Gon said, the words the barest whisper.
“What’s that?” Anakin asked, giving him a confused look. His current Padawan had never learned the term. Anakin Skywalker was terrible at Dejarik.
Plo Koon answered for him. “It’s a Dejarik move, a bluff. The Kintan Strider is your strongest piece in the game, but you sacrifice it. It masks the move that will win the game.”
His former Padawan was running the most brilliant Kintan Strider Gambit the galaxy had ever known—and Obi-Wan was using himself as the Kintan Strider. “No.” NO!
In that moment, Sidious was overcome. He died with a cry of rage on his lips and a multitude of laser burns on his body.
* * * *
The death of Tyrannus had taught him what to expect. When that wall of Dark energy spread out, he shielded his eyes with his arms and protected his body with the Force. The energy buffeted him, seeking and shrieking with the echoes of the Sith’s anger…and then it began to pull back.
When he dropped his arms, there was a great mass of roiling, violet energy floating above the floor where Sidious had been imprisoned. In the Force, he could hear the Sith Lord’s voice. Foolish whelp! Cursed Apprentice! When I have form again, you will die!
Venge grinned and spread his arms wide, his voice mocking. “Oh, come now, Lord Sidious! Where do you think you’re going to go?” The glyphs that were branded into his skin started to burn. He’d been right; this was going to hurt.
In a sharp whisper, he said, “You think that I would not plan for this, too?”
The cloud of Dark energy drifted forward, and he could feel Sidious fighting against that unrelenting pull. Sidious would have sensed the children in Padmé’s womb, and knew they would be better vessels for his strength than any clone.
The Sith Lord would never get that opportunity. He would never touch their lives.
What have you done?! Sidious roared.
“The line of Bane will end,” he whispered, and glyphs on his body lit up like fire as they recognized the Sith’s energy and drew it inward.
* * * *
It was bad enough that Palpatine did not dissipate with death. They had all flinched away from that dark explosion of energy, only to look up and realize that Sidious still existed. The dark nimbus that floated above the spiral was his essence unleashed, and in the Force the Sith Lord’s voice was howling his wrath, deafening Qui-Gon with his fury.
Seeing Obi-Wan spread his arms, teeth bared, just before he was swallowed by that violet cloud was one of the most soul-wrenching things Qui-Gon Jinn had ever witnessed. Then all was silent; it seemed to him that the only sound in the room was Obi-Wan’s desperate struggle to breathe under the weight of the malevolence that he now carried within himself.
Oh gods above and below, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon thought, horrified. What have you done?
Obi-Wan rested on his knees, his arms wrapped around himself. There was blood on his lips, and his amber eyes were almost shining in the dim light. His throat worked, and after a long, terrible moment he managed to speak a word. “Adi.”
Adi Gallia was staring at Obi-Wan, her eyes dark with grief. “Obi-Wan, no. Gods, if I’d known what you were up to—!”
Obi-Wan smiled, the expression pained, and Qui-Gon could have been Force-blind and still would have sensed the strain coming from the would-be Sith. “You have…you have to do this.” His head fell back, his smile becoming a grimace as his eyes fluttered shut. “I can’t…hold him…forever! It—he burns.”
“Stand against the Light, the Sith cannot,” Yoda repeated his earlier words, but his ears were lowered, his head bowed. “Do so, we must.”
If Qui-Gon hadn’t already known where this was going, he would have been screaming. As it was, tears were rolling unheeded down his face, burning his skin. Beside him, Anakin was staring at Obi-Wan, his face full of stunned anguish, before he turned and wrapped his arms around his wife.
“How—” Obi-Wan made a strangled sound as he struggled to get to his feet. “How do you defeat Darkness, Master Gallia?” he whispered.
This was brilliant and terrible, and for the first time in his life, Qui-Gon Jinn wanted to curse the Force.
Adi managed a tremulous smile in return. “Force Light, you stubborn, willful bastard. You’ll die.”
Obi-Wan’s eyes cracked open, and there was a flash of blue as he raised one eyebrow. “Then what the hell are you waiting for?” He drew in a deep breath. “DO IT!”
“We are Jedi,” Adi intoned, lifting her hands while tears streamed from her eyes. The tips of her fingers were already alight as she called upon the Force. “The Light is our strength.”
Yoda looked up, his eyes blazing green and vibrant. “The Force is my ally,” he said, and he held out one hand, a bright light appearing in his outstretched palm.
Quinlan Vos, who had battled the darkness within himself since he and Aayla Secura had nearly been driven mad by a mindwipe and the necessity of re-learning how to be Jedi: “We are Lights against the Darkness,” he said, and the light that they were creating grew stronger. The gloom of the room was pushed back, the air of menace dwindling.
Mace Windu, his face solemn. “Life over destruction,” he said, and the first hints of light touched the floor where Obi-Wan was standing. He was shaking, though from fear or expectation or pain, Qui-Gon didn’t know.
Anakin next, still holding onto Padmé, but his eyes were clear. “We are the guardians of peace, and we bring Light.”
Neeja Halcyon, with a bruise spreading across his cheek. “We find ourselves in a Dark place, but the Light will push back the shadows.”
Garen Muln, his voice trembling. “I am of the Light, and I carry it with me always.”
Jedi after Jedi, more than two hundred of them, touched the light of the Force and brought it forth. The room filled with light, reflecting off of all of their faces, leaving nothing untouched.
The Sith Lord was no longer shouting his fury. Instead, all they could hear were the faint sounds of a man voicing his desperation. Sidious, it seemed, felt fear after all.
Qui-Gon looked at the man he had chosen to love, despite the paths they had been forced to walk, and could only breathe out the words. “Love over hatred,” he said, and the Force Light they created became blinding. It centered over the copper-haired man standing before them, bathing Obi-Wan in a column of white light. Not once did he shrink from it. Before they lost sight of him in the purifying fire of the Force, Qui-Gon heard a bone-chilling scream, and it broke what was left of his heart.
The Sith Lord fought them where Obi-Wan did not, shouting and gibbering and trying his best to escape the Light, but there was nowhere for him to go, no place that the Force did not touch. With a last, tortured howl, the Sith’s essence broke apart, swallowed up by the void.
It took long minutes for the light to fade, for the Jedi to release the power they had tapped into. Qui-Gon breathed in clean air for the first time in what felt like an age and barely noticed, for he had eyes only for the body lying on the floor, pale and still. The ends of his copper hair just brushed the broken remains of the spiral.
Adi stepped forward, Mace just behind her, and Quinlan and Garen emerged from the throng of armored Jedi to join them. “Go,” Qui-Gon whispered, and his legs shook from new, unaccustomed strain as Anakin ran to join them.
Qui-Gon and Padmé stood together, both of them weeping. He did not think he could bear this, despite knowing for years that death was Obi-Wan’s most likely fate. Qui-Gon did not want to look down on that beloved, mischievous face and see dead, staring eyes…
It was Adi’s startled curse that captured his attention, and he looked up to find the other Master on her knees next to Obi-Wan. She glanced up and locked eyes with Qui-Gon, amazement on her face. “He’s alive.”
Chapter 10: Wake
All things find their way forward...
In the wake of Chancellor Palpatine’s treason and subsequent death, the Jedi Order had expected to deal with a Republic in turmoil. They had steeled themselves, ready to send out their remaining numbers once more…but the expected uproar never came. A galaxy that had been torn apart by almost three years of unceasing warfare had grown quiet, silenced when the Loyalist committee had revealed the true origin of the conflict.
In the days that followed, many of those who had dubbed themselves Separatist or Confederate put down their arms and called for peace. The Trade Federation unilaterally surrendered; the Techno Union and Banking Clans of Muunilinst followed suit, for most of their leadership had been killed during a Republic assault on Mustafar.
For once, the Senate had stopped its endless bickering. That sobered body had elected a new Chancellor in record time, even if the man in question had looked less than enthused with his new position.
Hostilities might have ceased, but many planets that had been trapped behind Separatist lines didn’t even know yet that the war had ended. Ambassadors from both the Jedi Order and the Senate were being sent to every sector of space to spread the word, allay fears, soothe tempers, and assess damages. The refugees that had fled the Confederate war machine were beginning to return home, ready to rebuild. Trade routes needed to be re-established, and the smugglers who had been running weapons during the war suddenly found themselves in the unique position of being the only ones capable of doing so.
Qui-Gon Jinn couldn’t remember ever being so busy, though he had known since his Padawan days that it was far easier to start a war than end it. When he wasn’t up to his eyeballs in paperwork, reports, Council sessions, and negotiations, the Healers wanted to see him. Qui-Gon would grit his teeth and submit to mental probes and physical examinations, and at the end of the first week he was certain they had drawn enough blood samples to make a new humanoid.
His strength was returning in fits and starts, helped along by intensive physical therapy and meditation. His energy had returned, too, and he was almost chafing against the restrictions that kept him from the training salles.
When Jale Terza returned to the tiny room where he’d been waiting, pacing back and forth, she gave him a smile. “No more caff for you, Master Jinn.”
He forced himself to still; the thought of sitting down was almost abhorrent. “My apologies, Healer. I seem to have more energy of late than I know what to do with.”
Healer Terza nodded. “That’s understandable. You’re a thirty-year-old human male in excellent physical condition. Except for that caff you’ve been ingesting in ungodly amounts, your body is pristine.”
Qui-Gon smiled, though the expression was more of a grimace. To be honest, that youthful energy had come in handy, or he would have collapsed from exhaustion two days ago. He’d arrived at that morning’s Council briefing only to be sworn at by Mace Windu for being too alert. They had all been running themselves ragged, and it showed, but Mace looked like he had last slept sometime in the previous century.
It had been a mark of the other Master’s exhaustion that he hadn’t noticed when Adi Gallia drugged his tea. Underhanded, yes, but at least Mace was finally resting.
“That is…” Qui-Gon trailed off, not sure he knew what to say. She waited while he struggled for words. “There is absolutely nothing wrong?”
“Master Yoda, half the Council, and most of the available Healers have given you at least one mental prod. We sense no Darkness in you. However it was done, there has been a perfect transfer of consciousness, memory, and spirit into this new body. You are genetically identical to every blasted bit of information we have on file for you from infancy through last month. The medical droids from Byss have also supplied us with all of the information from the cloning process.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about something from Byss being in the Temple.” Besides me, he thought. Healer Terza was direct, if sympathetic, but Qui-Gon disliked being reminded that he was walking around in a body he hadn’t been born in. As if he could forget—he’d hung a towel over his bathroom mirror after the first day back in his quarters, just to keep from seeing.
“Oh, believe me, we shared your sentiments. But the droids have said that once we are through collaborating, they wish to have their memories erased.” Jale looked troubled. “Apparently, there are some things even droids prefer to forget. Regardless, they were most pleased to hear that your Force sensitivity has returned to normal. It—you were their first Force-sensitive project, aside from the clones of the Sith.”
Some of what he felt must have shown on his face, for she gave him a reassuring smile. “You are fine, Master Jinn,” the Healer told him. Then she grinned, tucking a strand of long red hair behind her ear. “More than fine. If I weren’t happily bonded, I’d be reassigning myself as your Healer so I could try and strike up a courtship.”
Qui-Gon sighed, smiled, and hoped he wasn’t blushing. “You and half the Temple, it seems. If they’re not staring at me for the…for the first reason, it’s for the other one. Would you—”
“Qui-Gon.” Jale shook her head, but her eyes were dancing. “For the last time, I am not going to break your nose for you. Given your past history, I wouldn’t worry. I’m sure someone will break it for you soon enough.”
He laughed, running his hand through his short, bristly hair. Damn, but that was still disorienting! “Any word on when I’ll have to worry about shaving again?”
“After speaking with some of the medics stationed on Kamino, it looks like you’ve got a month or so longer before your hair growth returns to normal. You’re stuck with a Padawan spike for now.”
“Master Yoda has deigned to mention that it looks better on me now than it did when I was a Padawan,” he muttered. Yoda was taking far too much delight in his discomfiture of late.
“I think that haircut was chosen for humanoids because it looks abominable on children,” Healer Terza replied. “It took me some time to grow into the ears nature gifted me with. My Master nicknamed me ‘Bats.’ You can imagine why.”
“I think the closest my Master ever got to a nickname for me was ‘Gods, Padawan! Go down to the Quartermaster and have him get you some pants that fit!’” Qui-Gon said. The memory no longer made him smile, and that hurt worse than anything Tyrannus had ever done to him.
Her eyes were full of sympathy. “I am sorry.”
“I’m not. Dooku chose his path a long time ago.” Qui-Gon had been given years to contemplate his Master’s betrayal, long before the rest of the galaxy learned of Lord Tyrannus’s existence.
Healer Terza pursed her lips, as if she didn’t quite believe him. “Very well. As far as I’m concerned, you are off physical restriction. You can start training again, though I’d suggest doing so under supervision, so that you don’t push yourself too hard in the beginning.”
Considering the fact that hhe had been waiting for that news for days, Qui-Gon was surprised by his sudden lack of enthusiasm. “Thank you, Healer.” He took a step and then hesitated, waiting for her to release him.
She smiled. “Go on. Go and see him. I swear he seems better in your presence.”
Permission given, Qui-Gon nodded, and she stepped aside to let him pass. He hesitated once more in the doorway. “Will you—will you be there tonight, Jale?”
“Yes,” she said, and rested her hand on his arm. “Tanak and I will both be there, Qui-Gon.”
The room he sought was private, for the sake of its sole occupant, and the lights were kept at half-power. Qui-Gon found himself hovering in yet another doorway, as there was someone else in the room.
“Chancellor Organa,” Qui-Gon said in greeting, offering him a half-bow when the man turned to acknowledge his presence.
Bail Organa scowled. “Oh, don’t you start, Master Jinn,” he complained. “We’re in private, and you’ve known me since I was in diapers.”
Qui-Gon smiled. “I have indeed known you that long, Bail, but you have yet to stop calling me Master Jinn.”
Bail was yet another one who was proving that the only person having a hard time with his transformation was Qui-Gon himself. After an initial curious—and interested—stare, Bail Organa had treated him as he always had.
The dark-haired man gave him a wry smile. “So I haven’t, but please, don’t stand on formality here. I have enough trouble, now that Senator Mothma and Senator Amidala have railroaded me into this position. It should be one of them stuck with this damned job.”
“Bail, I don’t think that the Republic is quite ready for Amidala to be Chancellor. That, and I know she plans to take time off when the children are born.” Qui-Gon did not say that the Republic was not ready for Mon Mothma, either, for her views were too pacifist for the turmoil the galaxy would likely experience in the coming years. The war was over, but there were many riled tempers and grievances yet to be dealt with. Bail Organa, much as he hated the notion, was the perfect middle ground for the Republic to continue on.
“Padmé is absolutely frightening while pregnant, yes,” Bail agreed, grinning. “If the Separatists weren’t already calling for a truce, they sure as hell would be with her at the helm.” His grin faded, and he glanced back up at the bacta tank. “How is he?”
Qui-Gon looked at the man floating in bacta, oblivious to their presence. Obi-Wan Kenobi had been in the tank since their return to the Temple. He had not awakened, had not even stirred when Anakin had cradled him in his arms, carrying Obi-Wan out of Palpatine’s dark citadel.
“Physically, the Healers think that Obi-Wan is going to be fine. If it weren’t for the need to detox, they would have removed him from the tank already.”
“Detox?” Bail raised an eyebrow. “From what?” When Qui-Gon hesitated, Bail gave him a stern look. “Master Jinn, I am asking because he was—is—my friend, not because I have some political ulterior motive.”
“Bail, you know as well as I do that there are many who are calling for the army to hunt down the remains of the Confederacy’s leadership, and Venge is on that list,” Qui-Gon retorted. It was one of the many things that concerned him, kept him from sleeping at night. “Forgive me if I am reticent.”
“No apology needed, Master Jinn.” Bail gave him a tight smile. “As for the rest? Not if I can help it. I won’t pry further about the detox. Since you decided to be specific, however: How is he, mentally?”
Qui-Gon turned his attention back to Obi-Wan, watching his copper hair move and twist, stirred by the currents that kept the bacta gel circulating. It was easier to track those copper strands, for when he looked elsewhere, all he could see were the black glyphs of the Sith.
“He’s—we’re not sure. We—” His voice caught, for his brain was cruel, and he could recall that last, chilling scream with perfect clarity. “When he is no longer sedated, there is no physical reason that he should not wake up. Whether or not he will actually do so remains to be seen.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bail lift his hand and press his palm against the transparisteel tank. “You’d better wake up, you stubborn bastard,” Bail whispered, his eyes glittering in the dark with emotion and unshed tears. “You’re the reason I’m in this mess.”
Qui-Gon almost smiled. Obi-Wan had been called that a lot in the past week. Most of the swearing had come from the Healers, who had discovered they had a patient on their hands with a list of physical problems a mile long. Jale had been the one to tell the Council, flat-out, that Obi-Wan should have been dead, Force Light or no Force Light.
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate the sentiment, Bail.”
“He’d better. I’m about to go risk my political career for him,” Bail replied, but he was smiling. Qui-Gon narrowed his eyes, but Bail grinned and shook his head. “Watch the feeds for this afternoon’s Senate session. You’ll find out. In the meantime, you’ll tell me the moment anything changes?”
Qui-Gon nodded. “I will make sure the message finds its way to you,” he said, giving the new Chancellor another bow. Bail muttered an amused curse as he left the room.
The Chancellor’s visit hadn’t been expected, but Qui-Gon was not surprised by it, for Bail and Obi-Wan had known each other for over twenty years. What had surprised him, awed him, was the number of allies that Obi-Wan had acquired while wrapped in the identity of Venge.
Most of them were the Jedi Obi-Wan had rescued and hidden away during the war. Those Jedi had been running covert operations that had saved thousands of lives, the inhibitors hiding them from Sidious’s dark gaze. (The inhibitors they’d used were unique, fascinating the technicians among the Jedi; while they hid Force signatures, they did not block access to the Force.)
There were several clone commanders who were absolutely loyal to him, even though Obi-Wan’s control of the army had ceased the moment the new Supreme Chancellor accepted power.
Dexter Jettster had been another surprise visitor; Obi-Wan had been running intelligence through the big cook to maintain his Coruscant contacts. Dex had blushed like a sun gone nova when he’d confessed this to Qui-Gon, for the Besalisk had not liked keeping his connection to Obi-Wan secret from his old friend.
This time, it was his own hands he pressed to the tank, his palms soaking up warmth. In the Force, Qui-Gon could feel the bacta, dancing around like tiny fireflies—and he could feel the light of the man within. That was what gave him hope, for the darkness Venge had carried like a shroud was gone, burnt away by the Force Light created by two hundred-odd Jedi.
This was where he spent what little free time he had, having one-sided conversations with his former Padawan in a vain attempt to remember how to speak to someone he no longer had to pretend was an enemy. Anakin joined him on occasion, but for the moment, Qui-Gon was alone.
“The Healers have told me that they’re going to stop sedating you today,” he said, watching Obi-Wan’s hands. They were relaxed, the fingers splayed against the gentle current. Far better than the previous day when, even unconscious, Obi-Wan had been clenching and unclenching his hands until nail marks had lined his palms. The spasms of withdrawal had wracked his frame, and Qui-Gon was grateful that Obi-Wan had not suffered through them while conscious. “I’m sure you’ll hear it again from them, but really, Obi-Wan—five stimulants? They’re almost certain you’ve set a new galactic record for long-term substance abuse.”
Qui-Gon sighed, leaning his forehead against the tank. Jale had estimated that Obi-Wan had probably been consuming the combination for three years at full strength. If prior research was any indication, it had been at least that long since he would have experienced REM sleep. Qui-Gon had been in the Council Chamber with Yoda and Saesee when she’d given that report.
“He’s crazy,” she’d said, plainly worried but disguising the emotion with a thick veneer of irritation. “I mean, he should be clinically insane. I don’t know of any human mind, even among Jedi, that’s withstood a lack of REM sleep for more than a year. If you lot didn’t fry his brains, I’m sure as hell going to be asking him how he pulled sanity out of the figurative chemical frying pan.”
None of them had been able to give her an answer. Whatever skill Obi-Wan had used, it was likely a trick of the Sith.
That line of thought broached, Qui-Gon straightened and backed away from the bacta tank. He couldn’t think about that without remembering what Obi-Wan had done to him. He knew Jale was right, that there was no Darkness within him…but there was Darkness in what had been done to him. It was wrong when Micah had witnessed it, and it was wrong for him to be here, alive, when it was obvious to him that the Force had willed otherwise.
“I know that I love you,” he said, his voice quiet. “But I’m not sure if I can forgive you.”
* * * *
Bail Organa did not like crowds. On Alderaan, crowds were almost unheard of, for his people had taken great pains to spread their population in proportion to their planet, ever mindful of their environment. He couldn’t even say he had chosen the wrong career, for as the Viceroy of Alderaan he had no choice but to be the voice of his people. He’d adjusted years ago to the necessity, bearing the crowds of the Senate with grace and a ready smile.
Being Chancellor, however, was something he hadn’t planned for, and he knew the smile on his face looked plastered on instead of natural.
Bail Antilles, his cousin by marriage and predecessor in the Senate before the Alderaan Ascendancy Contention, elbowed him in the ribs. The motion was hidden by the robes they both wore, and Bail’s smile became even more strained.
“You look like you’re trying to swallow bugs, Cousin,” Antilles whispered. “As your acting aide until a proper Advisory Council is confirmed, I suggest you relax.”
“You try and relax,” Bail hissed back at the man he shared a birth name with. They had mastered the art of conversing without being overheard long ago, which was a good thing, since they were surrounded by a throng of reporters. “I’m going to stand here and panic, thank you very much. When they lynch me, you can be Chancellor.”
Despite the fact that Antilles had once campaigned unsuccessfully for the job in question, he shook his head. “Stop threatening me. No one in his, her, or its right mind wants this job right now.”
“And yet, you’re advising me to relax. I’m not convinced.”
Antilles smiled, watching as Bail’s own traditional Senate aide, Brax, activated the lift that would take them away from the reporters on the ground floor and up into the Senate dome. “Everything will be fine. It’s just business as usual, Chancellor Organa. I’ve got the files, and you’ve got your precedents memorized. You’re just presenting an order of business. The difference this time is that everyone is going to be listening a bit more closely.”
That was why Bail was doing this in the first place—taking advantage of the power in his new position, now, before the first tarnishes on his stint as Chancellor occurred. Of course, this was likely going to be the first tarnish.
“Still not convinced, but I can fake it,” Bail said as the Chancellor’s podium settled into place. Bail looked up at the thousands of other pods that surrounded him and took a deep breath. Right, then. Just another day at the office.
He motioned to Brax, and the young man nodded and activated the audio system that would broadcast Bail’s voice to the far reaches of the Senate chamber, and through multitudes of HoloNet channels.
“Good afternoon, Senators, honored guests. I realize that today is the traditional end of our work week, and we are all looking forward to a day of rest. Before we seek that rest, I have a pressing matter that you must all attend to.”
Some murmurs met Bail’s words, but no shouts. It was a far cry from two weeks previous, when most motions that hit the Senate floor were decried from all sides before the issue could even be considered. It was a damned nice change.
“You all know that the Jedi and the Army of the Republic were working to end the war. We have always appreciated their efforts, and have not been afraid to stand up in support of our brothers and sisters as they sacrificed time, energy, and their lives to defend us.” More murmurs, this time of agreement.
“What you did not hear about are those beings who worked behind the scenes to ensure our liberty. They walked the hidden paths, lurked in the dark places, and have not once been recognized or thanked for their efforts. They were our spies, our double agents, and they risked everything for us. Many of them died in our service, but there are those that survive. I am calling upon you all to hear their names, so that they may be recognized as the heroes they truly are.
“The Bothan Contingent worked tirelessly behind enemy lines to filter Separatist strategy to our generals. They lost many of their number, but did not falter. They are the reason that the people of Honoghr did not suffer the same fate as Ohma-D’un.
“Clive Fax. You know him as a member of the Separatist army, but that was a front. He has been working for us for years, ferrying information to the Jedi Knight Ferus Olin. Also working both sides was Crix Madine. I’m sure you all remember the terrible scandal it was when the man defected,” Bail drawled, and there was a rumble of stunned muttering as the implications were realized. “Yes, his family is welcoming him home with open arms. He contributed a great deal to the Pernellian Trade Route campaign, among others.
“Jinart. She kept the Omega and Delta squads safe time and time again.” He kept rattling through the names, and though there was quiet talk and conferring among the Senators, he was not interrupted as he paced himself through all fifty-two members of the non-Jedi contingent. The ones first named were the only ones that still lived. Bail meant to make damned sure that their families knew of their sacrifices, and that their memories were honored.
He paused, and it was Antilles’ encouraging nod that prompted him to continue. “Last week, two hundred Jedi returned to Coruscant. This would not be a thing of note but for the fact that they were two hundred Jedi the Republic thought dead. These two hundred Jedi had been rescued from the battlefield by one of their own, and have been working undercover for years to stave off disaster. You have never heard of the threat of the Blue Shadow virus because of their efforts. These Jedi have asked not to be named today, though their names are a matter of public record, if you wish to pursue the matter further on your own.” There was a rush of curious, enthusiastic comments, and he let the uproar die down before he spoke again. “I have come to the last of my list, and I have one other name for you: Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi.”
There was a low rumble of anger at that, for many in the audience knew well the true identity of Darth Venge. Out of the thousands of pods, he found Naboo’s, and for a moment met the eyes of Senator Amidala. She grinned at him, and he was tempted to scowl back. It really should have been her, standing where he was now. “I realize that many of you know him under another name—Darth Venge, one of the commanding officers of the Confederacy. What you do not know, however, is that he was there on the orders of the Jedi Council.”
Bail held up his hands, signaling for silence, for this time the roar was just as loud as it had been in the past. It was less his authority and more their overwhelming shock and curiosity that gave him the opportunity to speak again. “What I am revealing to you now, not more than a handful of beings knew about until the assault on Byss. Years ago, after the blockade of Naboo was ended, the Jedi Council instructed Knight Kenobi to uncover the identity of the Sith. There were fears that the presence of a newly arisen Sith could give rise to another galactic war. Which, as, we all know, it did.”
Bail kept speaking, and once more you could have dropped a pin from the top of the dome and heard the sound of its passage. “The young Knight did as instructed, but the Sith was wary, and cautious, and it was almost ten years before Kenobi was able to uncover the Sith’s identity. This knowledge was given to one other Jedi as a precaution, and while we fought a war, Kenobi worked to ensure the Sith’s downfall. It was he who provided the Loyalist Committee with the information that revealed Palpatine’s duplicity. The Jedi Council has informed me that it was through Knight Kenobi’s actions alone that Palpatine, also known as Sidious, last Lord of the Sith, was detained and destroyed.”
There was a string of startled, amazed, angry curses before audio feeds were cut to spare those listening in on the HoloNet. Bail smiled. “Though we have already charged many leaders of the Confederacy with war crimes in absentia, I am asking you all to waive the charges against Darth Venge, and grant Knight Kenobi a full pardon for his actions during the war. I cite the precedent of the Republic Inquisition vs. Jedi Knight Ulic Qel-Droma, Republic Year 3976, case number one one eight nine three zero, Dorn Esk Ven Kreth.”
The senator from Kashyyyk, Yarua, stood up and activated his audio. [You quote a precedent four thousand years old, Chancellor Organa. Why should we abide by something so ancient?] the old Wookiee asked in a challenging howl.
“At last, we come to the crux of our problem. That is the very thing that helped Palpatine lead us down the path to war,” Bail retorted. “So what if that precedent is four thousand years old, Senator? The Galactic Republic is over twenty-five thousand years old, and we use the precedents that the ancients established every day. It was the Separatists that wished to dismiss the wisdom of our elders, Senator Yarua, and look what that has brought us!”
The Wookiee Senator gave Bail an appraising look. [Well said, Chancellor,] he rumbled, before retaking his seat.
Senator Amidala stood next, the metallic threads in her dark robes catching the light as her voice echoed through the chamber. “I motion that we leave Knight Kenobi’s fate in the hands of the Jedi Council, for they are the ones who will know best how to deal with one of their own. We have trusted the Jedi to guard our backs, defend our homes, and secure our freedom. I say that they should also be trusted in this matter.”
Bail hid a smile. The woman’s timing was brilliant, as always, for the motion was seconded in record time by the Mon Calamari senator, followed by the Ish Tibs. He stood next to his cousin as Antilles took over, calling for the vote.
* * * *
There had been no funerals after the Sith’s identity was revealed, though Commander Cody had confided to the Council that in this, they were lucky. During his and Bly’s extended reports, Cody had revealed the existence of Order Sixty-Six, and what it would have meant had the Order been activated.
The ten remaining members of the Jedi Council had been horrified, and it had been yet one more reason to be grateful to Obi-Wan, for his machinations had saved tens of thousands of Jedi. No one would have suspected the clones of deceit until it was too late.
For their actions, the two commanders had been promoted to the rank of general. The two clones had glanced at each other in muted surprise before accepting, bowing in respect to the Council, then saluting their superior officers. They remained stationed in the Temple, helping the Council to sort through the thousands of programmed commands and protocols that would need to be made inactive, or, in some cases, put to use.
Qui-Gon found it strangely fitting that they were here, now. Even sans armor, the clones were still distinctive, for Bly had a long scar that ran down the side of his face. They waited with quiet respect, standing with the other Jedi in the Memorial Gardens. The Order was indeed fortunate that there were only two pyres to light at the close of the war, but Qui-Gon did not feel glad to be standing over the pyre of his best friend.
The Ithorian Master, Roron Corobb, stood next to him, for Corobb had been Yarael Poof’s last Padawan. The bodies of Micah Giett and Yarael Poof were wrapped in deference to their places on the Council. Qui-Gon stared at the tan and green colors that Micah had favored. Though his heart was heavy, he couldn’t find grief within himself.
Mace had pulled him aside earlier, wanting to know why Qui-Gon wished to light the pyre of the man who’d almost murdered him. “Because it’s all I can give him,” he’d answered, his voice soft. Force bless him, Mace had understood.
Mace was standing at the front of the crowd now, Adi beside him, their hands twined together. Jale Terza and her mate, Tanak el Dram, stood together, as did Anakin and Padmé. Padmé was standing in front of Anakin, and Anakin had his arms wrapped around her, his chin resting on her hair. Luminara was with her former Padawan, Barriss Offee. Garen Muln stood alone, prepared to watch his Master’s pyre in silence. There were more present, stretching in all directions, ready to consign their friends to the flames.
At Qui-Gon’s request, the true nature of Micah’s treachery and death was a guarded secret. The war had given them enough of that. He wanted Micah to be remembered for who he had been— not how he was brought low.
The torches were lit with a thought, and he and Roron Corobb touched them to the pyres in the same moment. Flame licked and caught, and Corobb spoke the traditional words. “Ni domtian a laicee,” he said, his voice clear. “Hai’thathrae, mi omani.” Farewell, my teacher.
“Ni domtian a laicee,” Qui-Gon repeated the words, the ancient phrase a balm and a reminder. May the Force bring you peace. “Hai’thathrae, mi danat’a.” Farewell, my friend, he thought. I will miss you. But when Tahl finds you, she is going to kick your ass.
* * * *
Awareness did not return gradually. He was awake in a moment, but consciousness was accompanied by sharp panic. He’d been dreaming about drowning, had found that no matter how hard he struggled, there was no escape from dark, endless waters…
To open his eyes and find himself engulfed in thick liquid, his hands groping against confining walls, left him reeling in terror. He couldn’t take any more of that darkness. He. Wanted. Out.
The Force was still there, and he pulled it forth and released it, letting it spread out in a powerful wave. He heard shattering glass, the shouts of warning from several voices, and one distinct thump. The water dispersed, but the water had been the only thing supporting him.
When he fell, he was still too disoriented to be surprised. His breath left him on impact; it jarred him, quelled the panic. He recognized the feel of a breather mask on his face, and within that mask was the overwhelming smell of bacta. He gasped and ripped the mask off, sucking in a great lungful of air. It still reeked of bacta, but this was fresh instead of stifling.
That seemed to be the last action he was capable of. He lay on his side and watched a fresh wave of bacta go rolling along the floor. He’d been in a bacta tank. Strange. He was never allowed bacta.
People had shouted when the tank broke. Not droids. Now they were talking, and he listened. “Holy hells, what a mess.”
“He broke the fucking tank! Is there even a requisition form for this?”
“I don’t think “Patient made tank explode” is one of the acceptable options.”
New voice: “How about we worry less about the damned tank, and more about the patient?”
Someone was approaching, but he felt no sense of danger. Even if her presence meant trouble, he was in no shape to do something about it. That Force-blast had used up what little strength he had. Gentle hands touched his bare arm, and with that touch came recognition. Healer. Jedi Healer.
Why the hell was he being tended to by a Jedi Healer? Had Sidious captured another one, forcing her to use her talents as the Sith dictated?
That gentle touch continued, rolling him onto his back. Dark red hair, peaceful brown eyes, wry smile. He froze, a tendril of panic returning, for he had no idea what was going on.
“Relax,” she said, touching his face with both hands before subjecting him to a gentle Force probe. “I need to make sure you’re all right. My people were in such a dither about bacta soaking their robes that no one bothered to catch you.” She directed a glare somewhere off to his right.
“Sorry, Healer Terza,” another Healer mumbled.
“Apologies from me, as well. But Master, he scared the crap out of us!”
Interesting. A group of healers, and while there were trace amounts of fear in the air, there was also calm certainty. They weren’t the prisoners, then. He was.
She turned her attention back to him, peering into his eyes. “My name is Jale Terza. We’ve met before, but it was a long time ago. Do you remember?”
He looked at her again, taking in the dark green robes and red hair. A memory tickled at his consciousness but wouldn’t form. He managed just a slight turn of his head.
“I didn’t think so,” the Healer said, not bothered by his lack of recognition. “As I said, it was a long time ago. Do you know where you are?”
He managed another twitch; no, he did not know where the hell he was. That lack of awareness was feeding the thread of panic, making it grow.
The Healer must have sensed it, for she rested a hand on his forehead. He was brushed by a sense of peace that soothed the panic. He started to shake. It had been long years since he had felt anything even remotely peaceful.
“You’re on Coruscant, in the Jedi Temple. The Council brought you here from Byss. Do you remember?”
He closed his eyes against the rush of memory. Yes, he remembered. He remembered the Light that had surrounded him, bathing him in fire that had burned. Purifying fire. It had driven out the Darkness, destroyed Palpatine’s essence. He had listened to the Sith’s screams. He had stood in that fire, unflinching, and waited to die.
He swallowed. He’d waited to die. Instead, he’d awakened in a bacta tank with memories of drowning in darkness. “Why…” he whispered, his voice barely audible. “Why am I alive?”
The Healer gave him a gentle smile that was not in the least bit reassuring. “I don’t know.”
Chapter 11: Drifting
All things find their way forward... except one.
His sense of time was utter garbage, but all he had to do was glance at a summarized HoloNet feed to keep up with the date. Exactly five weeks had passed since he’d tried his damnedest to die on Byss, and Palpatine’s treason was still the topic of choice.
It had been four weeks since he had awoken that first time, destroying a bacta tank in a blind panic. Three weeks and three days since he had collapsed again, his liver announcing in no uncertain terms that it quit. The Healers had dithered about, keeping him alive while prepping for the surgery that would give him a new, cloned organ. It had been worth the bemused look on Healer Terza’s face when he’d confided that this would be liver number four. (He’d been kind enough not to tell her that he’d been awake for every single previous replacement procedure.) Livers and stimulants were not good friends, but he’d needed to keep his awareness enough to avoid dying under the blade of one of Sidious’s Hands. Sleep was counterproductive when you were surrounded by your competition.
Three weeks since he’d awoken in yet another blasted tank (he’d managed not to destroy this one), then dumped on a dialysis machine to make his body purge the remains of the drugs. Two weeks, five days, since he’d awoken to Bail Organa telling him that he had been issued a full pardon by the Senate.
Bail would forgive him, he knew; that man just did not have it within himself to hold a grudge, and his cuts from the flying glass had been minor. Bail had drawn his dignity about himself like a cloak while giving him a terse “You’re welcome,” in farewell.
He’d smiled in response. Being Chancellor was good for the man. Months ago, Venge had funneled money into certain coffers, ensuring that the vote would be swayed by a definite percentage in Bail Organa’s favor.
Two weeks since he’d awoken in a darkened room to find Qui-Gon Jinn staring down at him, his expression unreadable in the dim light. Before he’d had the chance to even contemplate words, the Jedi Master was gone again. It made him wonder if he’d dreamed the entire thing.
One week, four days, since he’d recovered enough to start walking unassisted, ridding himself of most of the tubes and wires that he’d been growling at non-stop while conscious. He’d had black spots dancing across his vision with each step, but it was worth it just to get out of that damned bed.
A week ago he had awoken with Master Yoda perched at the foot of his bed. The ancient Master wore an aggravated scowl, and his ears were drooping with exhaustion. Questions weren’t necessary; his eyes told him everything he needed to know.
There were black scorch marks decorating the walls, and in the corner was a pile of twisted, broken metal and plastic—the remains of his life-support monitoring equipment. After that, he’d slept with an inhibitor slapped on the side of his neck without protest. One of the specialized inhibitors would have been better, as it took conscious intent to use the Force while wearing one, but he didn’t dare ask for it. The Sith inhibitor had been easy to modify, when he’d found it years ago as a discarded project in Sidious’s labs. He’d just never imagined using it for this particular purpose.
Last night, Healer Terza had informed him that he was to be released in the morning, and the Council wanted to see him the moment he stepped out of the Healers’ Ward. At his request, a droid had delivered clothing from the Quartermaster’s stores. His fingers had clenched soft, raw silk, and if his hands were shaking, the Healer had not made mention of it before bidding him good night.
In five weeks, the galaxy had started to put itself together, just as he had strived to ensure. He wished he felt something, anything, about his success.
He wished he felt anything, period.
His hood up, he drifted through the Temple with the sense of Light and life surrounding him, and it couldn’t comfort him. He wasn’t meant to return here. The Council had to realize that, had to know that even if he were ever forgiven for his transgressions, this was not his home. Not anymore.
* * * *
Qui-Gon Jinn rubbed his chin, tried not to scratch the stubble that was finally—finally—starting to grow, and looked over at Adi Gallia. The other Master was shifting in her seat, her normally serene expression touched by impatience.
She met his eyes, smiled, and he realized that he had been shifting in his own seat just as much. Neither of them was prepared for this role any longer, if for different reasons, and they both knew it. Qui-Gon had accepted the Council seat out of a sense of responsibility for what he knew was coming, as well as in acknowledgement of his advancing age. With the arrival of his seventy-fifth birthday, he had found his joints beginning to pain him, found it harder to push his body through the katas. Long years of missions and harsh battles had been catching up to him at last. War had kept him out in the field anyway, and he had worried on more than one occasion that his slowing reflexes were going to get someone killed.
Now, he no longer felt those physical restrictions clamping down on him, and he wanted the hell out of this chair. He already had his replacement in mind, though he suspected that Quinlan Vos was not going to thank him for the nomination.
Today, of all days, though, was not the day to resign. Qui-Gon wanted to be present, even if it was a meeting he was both looking forward to and dreading. He steeled himself when Mace signaled for the doors to be opened, admitting a lone figure cloaked in dark brown.
* * * *
It was strange to be walking through those double doors again. The last time he had done it, he had been seeing both the Council chamber and the darkened communications array in front of him. He’d maintained that contact out of sheer stubbornness, watching transparent Jedi Masters do their best not to cut him down where he stood.
Not that it would have harmed him, but he had worked hard to ensure that they wouldn’t have known. Until Sidious had been forced to flee Coruscant, he’d been managing very well.
The sun was filtering in through the windows with the intense cheer of late morning, giving the room a glow that should have warmed him and did not. He lowered his hood as he walked to the center of the room, ignored the fact that his hands were trembling. Physical exertion, that was all it was.
He looked at each Councilor in turn. Adi Gallia was now seated to the right of Mace Windu, occupying the chair that Micah Giett had held. To Adi’s left…
He dropped his gaze, not wanting to see. He knew full well the anger that awaited him, and was not prepared to deal with it. Not today. Instead he glanced left, to find Yoda in his customary place beside Master Windu. Next to Yoda was Luminara Unduli, and Ki-Adi Mundi followed. Yarael Poof’s empty chair was next, and Saesee Tiin after. The rest of the Council was out of his line of sight, unless he wanted to turn around, or to look at the man seated next to Master Gallia.
Dimly he wondered what they were all waiting for, and then realized his simple, protocol-driven mistake. Old habits, he thought, bitter, and gave the assembled Council a stiff bow that Venge would never have deigned to bother with.
It was Yoda who broke the silence, gazing at Obi-Wan with sleepy, half-lidded eyes that didn’t fool him one bit. “Obi-Wan,” he began. “Well, are you?”
Some part of him that was both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Venge wanted to greet the Master’s words with wry amusement. He was well enough to owe the Healers half of the principal treasury of Telos, considering how much equipment he’d destroyed while in their care.
“I am well, Master Yoda,” he said, his voice just above a whisper. Healer’s orders, that—Healer Terza had given him a scathing lecture about letting her work on his tattered vocal cords have the chance to settle. He’d damaged them many times throughout the years due to Sidious’s sessions, and wasn’t nearly as optimistic as she was about their chance to recover. At least he no longer sounded like he had a throat full of gravel when he spoke.
Yoda gave Obi-Wan a mild glare, but he merely stared back. As far as his physical health went, the answer was true. “Under our jurisdiction, the Senate has placed you. Understand this, do you?”
He nodded. He was at the mercy of the Council, and expected no less.
“Know, we do, of your first year in the Sith’s company,” Yoda said. “Your injuries—you did not tell us of them, then.”
“Would it have made a difference?” he countered, wondering what game the Council was playing. There was an undercurrent here that he did not understand.
“Perhaps,” Master Windu spoke, giving him a calm stare.
“You told me to uncover the identity of the remaining Sith through any means I thought necessary,” he replied, struggling to keep his voice even. He was not ready for this, he realized. For five weeks, he had tried not to think at all, and now he was going to have to confront twelve years of deception head-on.
“That was before you killed over fifty thousand people!” Mace snapped back, his hand slamming down on the arm of the chair.
He did not jump. He had long practice in dealing with mercurial, violent tempers. That did not mean that his heart did not twist, that his stomach was not knifed by familiar horror and grief. He hid behind the formality of words.
“To what are you referring, Master Windu?” he asked, voice as smooth as if they were talking gardening habits. The old Council intimidation games would not work. Strange how an act of temper soothed his nerves where calm serenity could not.
“We are referring to the colonists, crew, and Jedi aboard Outbound Flight,” Adi Gallia said, pinning him with a stern glare. She was back in her element, that was certain. “You informed Master Jinn on Roxuli that you destroyed them.”
“Excuse me?” Mace leaned forward, eyes narrowed.
He was hard-pressed not to smile. The Master who had taught him to mince words with the best of them had not caught his deliberate couching of terminology. “I said that I destroyed ‘it.’”
A moment of silence, and then he heard that familiar, low chuckle. Everything within him froze as he heard his former Master speak. “I can’t believe I missed that.”
Still he dared not look at Qui-Gon Jinn, even if the anger he had expected was not quite in residence. “You were…otherwise occupied.”
“Indeed. Well, then. If you destroyed the ship, Obi-Wan, what became of its passengers?”
He closed his eyes. He’d boarded the ship as it entered the Roxuli system between hyperspace jumps. It had looked so harmless, drifting along in space. All six dreadnaughts accounted for, still attached to the hull of Outbound Flight.
No one contested his approach, and that had been his first warning. Something had been wrong. Terribly, horribly wrong.
“I was…supposed to destroy it. Sidious did not want to miss a prime opportunity to kill nineteen Jedi, and knew that the loss of Outbound Flight would be bad for galactic morale. But, when I got there…”
He could still see them, as he had gone from dreadnaught to dreadnaught. Men, women, and children, standing in place. No matter what he did to them, they did not speak, did not respond. Slack jaws, wide, staring eyes, expressionless faces. No thoughts. No spark of life beyond what was needed to keep their bodies alive. Fifty-one thousand souls, their minds wiped clean on the whim of a madman. Even the crew was the same, the ship on auto-pilot as it followed its pre-charted course.
He blinked and opened his eyes, realized that he was almost starved for air. He took a deep breath even as he registered that Adi had been calling his name. “I’m fine!” he snapped, when he saw her move as if to stand.
“What happened?” Master Windu asked, and this time his tone was gentle. There was a kindness in his eyes that Obi-Wan could scarcely remember seeing.
“Master C’baoth happened. When he acted as the Order’s liaison to the Chancellor’s office, he spent a great deal of time in a Sith Lord’s company. The Chancellor was very receptive, listening to C’baoth’s ideas for Jedi control of the populace. It took very little effort on Sidious’s part to push C’baoth into seeing the extreme reach of his own arrogance. Once Outbound Flight was beyond the range of subspace communication relays, C’baoth set about making his vision a reality. He wiped their minds. Everyone. Blank slates. He was working to turn them into his vision of what they should be—a people subservient to the Jedi.”
He heard Shaak Ti gasp, heard Agen Kolar curse. From Yoda there was horrified anger. From Mace, just anger. “Lorana was right there,” Adi whispered, her hand resting over her heart as she spoke. “She would have noticed something!”
“I do not know if C’baoth’s latest Padawan-turned-Knight discovered her Master’s actions. When I found the ship, all the Jedi aboard had already been slain by C’baoth. When I confronted him, he wasn’t just Darkened. He was stark, raving insane.”
He swallowed. It was the first time he’d been grateful for Sidious’s teachings, for instead of crippling horror at witnessing the Dark powers that C’baoth wielded, the battle between them had been almost routine.
“When I killed C’baoth—” he shook his head, trying to clear the image from his head. It wouldn’t go. It never let him be. “He was the only thing keeping them alive. When he died, they died in the same breath. All at once.”
He’d walked through the ship, step by step, searching for life, his jaw clenched, while horrified, angry tears ran down his face. When he’d found the blue-lipped baby still in his crib, that had been the last straw. He’d turned, running to the bridge of the massive ship, leaping over still bodies and trying not to see anymore.
He’d sent the blasted ship into Roxuli’s sun. Mission accomplished. Sidious had been pleased.
“Why should we believe you?” Kit Fisto asked, and his cheeks and forehead were yellow, expressing shock. “This is—this is a terrible thing to be accused of, especially when the one you are naming is no longer capable of defending himself.”
He considered that for a moment. “I no longer have any reason to lie,” he said. “If you wish to view the events for yourself, I will show you.” That part would be easy. His shields were as lousy as his sense of time.
Kit Fisto nodded but did not ask for admittance into his memories. They knew he was speaking the truth. The rest was unnecessary.
“I really do not wish to say this,” he heard Saesee Tiin speak, his tone mournful. “But it is a dark, dark day when one of our own has committed an atrocity more horrific than anything Sidious visited upon us.”
He wanted to argue with Master Tiin, and he knew that the others did as well. But what would have been the point? He had just told them that Sidious had only brought C’baoth’s own beliefs, subconscious though they might have been, to the fore. C’baoth had already been carrying that Darkness around within himself. He’d even made his stance public, time and time again. Outbound Flight had been the Order’s excuse to get the man and his unpopular opinions out of view.
The Councilors were looking back and forth at each other, communicating in silence. He knew it, but he could not feel it. He knew he was not Force-blind; the damage he’d caused in his sleep was testament to that. Yet even though he could not hear the currents of the Force, he couldn’t bring himself to care. There was no point. He and the Force were done with each other. He had learned that on Byss.
“Why did you kill Master Giett?”
He snapped out of his thoughts to find Mace watching him. “What?”
“Master Giett. Why did you kill him? Certainly you had already proven you were more than capable of restraining Jedi Masters without harming them,” Mace said, giving Adi a quick, pointed glance.
“I had no quarrel with Master Giett until he proved himself willing to kill a friend,” he said.
“Forgive us if we doubt that, Obi-Wan.” Qui-Gon again, but his voice was gentle. “But we all know that he was the reason Sidious knew of your contact with the Council, and we have seen the evidence of that betrayal.”
It took effort to speak, but when he did his voice was steady. “That is true. Micah Giett is the reason that I was beaten within an inch of my life. I bear scars from a lightwhip, a lightsaber, a vibroblade, and fingernails. I have been chained to a post and left to starve for days. Every bone in my body that can be broken by the hands of another was shattered. I have had my mind ripped apart, thoughts dissected, events used against me, words and oaths called into question. I have been raped more times than the infamous prisoners of war on Scaltheti. I have been subjected to every single variant of Sith torture Sidious knew of, and some that I think he made up as we went along. Despite all of that,” he said, and forced himself to turn, to meet those beloved blue eyes, “my words are still true.”
Qui-Gon was beautiful, and it broke some part of Obi-Wan that still wanted to hope that they had a chance. Smooth skin, unlined by the ravages of time and betrayal. Dark brown hair, with no trace of the familiar silver. Qui-Gon’s eyes, if sad, were the same clear, deep blue that he remembered. “How is it that you can say that when even I still struggle with what Micah did?” Qui-Gon asked him.
He didn’t even need to think about his answer. “Because I understand him.”
They gave him a place to live.
It was in the Knights’ quarters, far from the shielded cells where he had expected to live out the remainder of his days. The rooms were bare, ready to be furnished. Someone had promised that his things, in storage all these years, would be delivered once they could be located.
The rest of the Council meeting had passed in a blur. Some part of it was his utter willingness to stare at Qui-Gon, young and hale where he no longer was. The rest of it…
“Obi-Wan,” Adi’s tone was gentle. “We have already subjected you to the harshest punishment there is among the Jedi for those who have Fallen. The light of the Force would have destroyed you, were you truly of the Dark.”
“It is this Council’s ruling that you behaved in an exemplary manner, considering the circumstances,” Ki-Adi Mundi had proclaimed. “In the presence of more than two hundred witnesses, you acted upon the behalf of all to secure our future. You are welcomed back, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, with all of your rights and privileges restored.”
He’d stared at them, his hands clasped together, his head ringing with Ki-Adi Mundi’s words. This was not part of the plan. He had never expected to wake up, let alone be welcomed back by the Council. This was unheard of—had they all lost their fucking minds?
“What do I do?” he’d managed to whisper, dismayed to realize that he was staring at them with wide, distressed eyes.
“Anything you want,” Mace had answered. When he’d given the Councilor a look of disbelief, Mace had amended his words. “Within reason, Knight Kenobi.”
“Try to make sure it’s legal,” Adi had said, giving him a smile.
Now he was standing in new, empty quarters, afraid to step foot outside his own door.
“You will meet with a Mind Healer once a day, after noon meal.”
“Your fellow Jedi have been apprised of your actions, that you were acting under our direction and with our discretion.”
“Fuck,” he said, before collapsing onto soft beige carpet and lying there, unwilling to contemplate anything else. He stared at faint, fuzzy threads of pale carpeting. In his line of sight was the kitchen, a cheerful place of white tile and honey-colored cabinetry that was waiting to be used. Behind him was the open door to a bedroom, with a bed that still had plastic wrapped around a new mattress. The entire place was stark and barren.
His entire world was stark and barren.
He curled up around himself, shaking, and felt carpet scrape his skin raw.
* * * *
“You’re quitting?” Mace blurted, lowering his glass as he stared at Qui-Gon in surprise. “We can’t even decide who to give Yarael’s seat to, and you’re quitting?”
Qui-Gon nodded, enjoying the other man’s discomfort. “I wasn’t happy there in the first damned place, Mace, and you know it. I’m going back out in the field where I can do some blasted good.”
“And you will be followed around by many people wanting to know the name of the clinic where you rediscovered your youthful vigor,” Mace pointed out, this time swallowing the amber liquor Qui-Gon had given him.
He rolled his eyes heavenward, feeling the wind stir his hair. They were standing out on the balcony of his quarters, enjoying the cool night air. “I’m getting enough of that now. The fuss will die down, eventually.”
Qui-Gon had invited Mace over to tell him of his desire to give up his Council seat, but now that he was here, Qui-Gon was glad of the company. Anakin had been gone from the other bedroom for almost a year. After eight years of Obi-Wan’s company, followed by another eleven of Anakin’s, he’d discovered that he no longer liked being alone. “I should warn you that Adi feels the same way.”
Mace groaned, slugged back the remaining alcohol in his glass and reached for the bottle perched on the railing. “Force take you both. Please tell me that you at least have a replacement in mind.”
Mace gave him a twisted smile. “Quin is going to kick your ass for that.”
“He can always refuse.” But I don’t think he will.
“All right. I’ll talk to Adi, too. I hope she’s got a replacement in mind, as well, because that will save us a lot of trouble. I don’t want another Coleman in my Council chamber, so we need to find a third solution, fast.” Mace took another sip, and Qui-Gon watched, content to hold onto the first glass he’d poured himself more than an hour ago.
“Interesting Council session today,” Mace continued, and Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow at him.
“My friend, since the days when you and Xanatos used to conspire together in my living room, you have proven time and again that you are not subtle. Stop trying.”
Mace grinned and leaned back against the railing, his teeth flashing in the dim light. “Fine. I would like you to share your thoughts of Obi-Wan with me.”
That prompted Qui-Gon to take a large sip, feeling the Alderaanian brandy burn all the way down. “Honestly? I think I preferred Venge to that empty shell that stood before us today.”
Mace’s grin vanished. “You don’t mean that.”
He sighed and pressed the glass against his forehead, feeling the headache that had plagued him all day return in force. “No, I don’t mean that. But gods, Mace!”
At least Venge had been full of life. Obi-Wan had seemed dead. No better than the animated corpses he had haltingly spoken of, found aboard Outbound Flight. Lank hair, pale, dry skin, and empty, soulless gray eyes. Venge might have been darkened, but there had been presence in those amber eyes, even mischief. The near-terror in Obi-Wan’s eyes when Ki-Adi had told him that he was restored to the Order, the trembling hands, his hesitant words—“It’s like he’s given up.”
“I don’t think it’s that bad,” Mace said, putting down his glass and staring out at Coruscant’s busy skyline. “I think he spent over a decade planning things out to the last detail, and the achievement of those plans has been his only goal for a long, long time. Trouble is, he didn’t plan for anything that came after. He’s suffering from one hell of a case of inertia, among other things. It’s why we’ve insisted upon the mind healer visits.” Mace paused, giving Qui-Gon a searching look. “I know he avoided you at first, but there at the end he was looking at you like he was a drowning man and you were the shore.”
He failed to hide a wince. “I know.”
“You haven’t spoken with him at all since he woke up, have you?” Mace asked.
He narrowed his eyes and finished the rest of his drink in one swallow. “Aside from the words exchanged during the Council session today? No.”
Qui-Gon knew he was being studied and ignored it, focused on the mundane task of refilling his glass. He’d wanted to get rid of the Alderaanian press for a while now. It was Anakin’s favorite, not his. Tonight was just as good a time as any.
“You’re afraid of speaking to him,” Mace said at last, and Qui-Gon swore under his breath. Someday, he needed to remind himself to hang around with less perceptive people.
When Qui-Gon looked up and met Mace’s eyes, though, and found nothing but concern, he pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers. “You’re correct. I am.”
“Fuck’s sake, man,” Mace swore, disbelieving. “Why?”
“If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t need to have this conversation with you,” Qui-Gon growled, turning to stalk back into his living room, cool stone tile beneath his feet becoming warm, if abused, carpeting. He stopped and leaned against the wall, knowing Mace had followed him inside. “I have no idea what to say to him.”
“You could start with ‘Hello,’” Mace suggested dryly, and Qui-Gon managed a soft laugh. “Anything could help. You and I both know that we don’t have any real idea what we’re dealing with, or what Obi-Wan is going through. He lived a nightmare. He played the part of a Sith. I don’t know if there’s enough therapy in the galaxy to help him cope with this.”
Qui-Gon sighed. There was that. How did you help a man when the Order’s policy for the last thousand years was to destroy anyone who spent that much time in Darkness?
“Why did you do it, Mace? Why did you send him out there?” The question had lingered between them for a long time, but Qui-Gon had never dared ask it before.
There was a long pause. “I didn’t want to,” Mace said at last.
“Why, then?” he asked, turning around to hear the answer.
Mace was frowning down at his empty glass. “Yoda was absolutely certain that Obi-Wan would come back. The troll did, and does still believe, that Obi-Wan’s time in Darkness will make him one of the strongest of us.”
Qui-Gon recalled again that empty shell that had stood before him that morning. Some dark part of him whispered a truth that didn’t bear thinking about—that Yoda was wrong. There was no returning from that. He frowned and shoved the thought away.
“On a more serious note, go speak to your Padawan, Qui-Gon Jinn,” Mace said. “He’s been treading water for a long, long time. I think he wouldn’t mind being rescued.”
Obi-Wan would manage to find him first.
Qui-Gon was in one of the lower level training salles the next morning, working through the ninth kata of soresu. This was his eighth repetition, and he was swearing under his breath; every time he hit the middle of the form he was doing a movement wrong, and it threw the rest of the kata into utter disarray.
“You keep dropping your elbow.”
He swore again and disengaged his lightsaber, turning to look at the shadow lurking in the doorway. “I am not.”
Obi-Wan tilted his head and stepped forward, the room’s light throwing his features into stark relief. He looked like hell, if Qui-Gon were to be kind about it. He had dark circles under his eyes and his hair was lank, refusing to reflect the light. Qui-Gon doubted the man had slept since escaping from Jale Terza’s not-so-merciful clutches.
“You are. Every time you get to the third butterfly pass, you’re dropping your left elbow.”
Sith take it! Qui-Gon scowled and looked away, knowing Obi-Wan was right. It was the same mistake he’d made on Naboo, when they had met up with Darth Maul for the second time. The blow to his chin had stunned him so much that he’d fallen and rolled, slipping down the side of the melting pit before recovering his senses and grasping one of the protruding nozzles with desperate hands. Obi-Wan had told him later that the Sith had jabbed the air where he had been a second before, a move that would have dealt him a fatal blow. Instead, he’d merely had to endure the Sith’s mocking laughter and lightsaber passes above his head, waiting for Obi-Wan to come and finish the battle.
“I spent a lot of time training to avoid making that mistake again,” Qui-Gon said.
When he turned back, Obi-Wan hadn’t moved. His expression was not as tumultuous as it had been during the Council meeting, but his eyes were guarded, as if he were afraid of the reaction his words would bring.
“I do not doubt that,” Obi-Wan said. “But you are working on creating new muscle memory.”
Qui-Gon tried hard not to narrow his eyes at that, wondering if Obi-Wan had some motive for reminding him of this new body—and who was responsible for it. Then he shook his head; he’d viewed Obi-Wan’s persona of Venge with less suspicion. He couldn’t let his anger cloud his judgment, or he was not the Jedi Master others proclaimed him to be.
“True enough,” he admitted. Then Qui-Gon wished he could follow his own damned advice as his mouth betrayed him. “Why are you here?”
“I don’t know,” Obi-Wan said, lowering his eyes.
Drowning man. Mace’s words were haunting him. He had to make some sort of overture, or they were never going to get anywhere. “Children pass down this hall quite frequently. Perhaps you should join me in working to correct that mistake, if only to preserve their innocent ears.”
To his surprise, Obi-Wan shook his head. “I cannot,” he said, still not meeting Qui-Gon’s gaze.
He felt a brief surge of anger and suppressed it. “Why not?”
This time Obi-Wan looked up; he was smiling, but it was laced with bitterness and twisted his features. “It would be dangerous for both of us.”
That startled him. Was he broadcasting his anger so much that Obi-Wan believed he would strike out against him?
Then Obi-Wan continued, and his explanation shocked Qui-Gon to the core. “I can’t focus enough to use the blade.” He laughed, hoarse and caustic. “I can’t even meditate.”
“Have you spoken with Yoda?”
Obi-Wan shook his head in a brief, stiff movement of denial. “No. I am not taking this to Yoda.”
“Why not? I imagine that he could help you.” Better than I could, Qui-Gon left unsaid.
Obi-Wan pressed his lips together for a moment before replying. “Master Yoda is…grateful that I am here. It makes me uncomfortable.”
What? “Why shouldn’t he be grateful that you are here? He is not the only one,” Qui-Gon pointed out, feeling uneasy.
There was stark, bleak honesty in Obi-Wan’s response. “I would rather be subjected to the treatment that I deserve.”
If he thought he couldn’t be shaken twice in five minutes, he was wrong. Oh, so very wrong.
“Why?” Qui-Gon whispered, aghast. This was not right. This broken shell was not his Padawan. The Force had been cruel, not kind, to let Obi-Wan survive Byss.
The question seemed to puzzle Obi-Wan. He drew his brows together, giving Qui-Gon a soft, bewildered look. “Wouldn’t you? Want that, I mean?”
Gods. He strode forward and grabbed Obi-Wan’s hands before the startled man could dance away from him, pinning him in place. “Obi-Wan,” he began formally, “if you would seek my help with your meditations, it would honor me.”
Obi-Wan swallowed, hard; Qui-Gon was close enough to watch his throat move, to hear the sound, to see the startlement in those wide, gray eyes. “If you would guide me in my meditations, I would be grateful,” he responded, just as formal.
Without words, Qui-Gon led Obi-Wan onto the practice mat, getting them both settled onto their knees. Qui-Gon brushed his thumbs over the scars that marred the backs of Obi-Wan’s hands, allowing himself a brief touch that seemed to both rattle and soothe Obi-Wan. With that one moment of contact, he could sense the jagged, discordant place in the Force that was currently Obi-Wan Kenobi.
This was not going to be easy.
* * * *
He started meeting Qui-Gon in that same practice room for morning meditation every day, striking a pattern that felt just as out of place as he was. The beginning of his day was the best, and the worst. He sat across from Qui-Gon Jinn, their knees close enough for fabric to touch but not skin, and wished over and over again that the Force had not seen fit to discard him. He was in hell, sitting in front of the one he loved more than the fucking universe, and knowing that it was never to be.
Yet he could not stop himself from going back. Sitting with Qui-Gon, trying to re-learn how to calm his mind, to immerse himself within the gentle currents of the Light of the Force, was more than he had shared with Qui-Gon in almost thirteen years. He wanted it, craved it, even if he knew he was torturing himself with it. He’d quit the stimulants, only to replace them with an addiction that was destroying him with more ease than ryll.
His days did not improve from there. He took his meals, what he could eat of them, in the communal dining hall. There were ration bars, and he could cook, if he hadn’t forgotten how, but the dining hall suited his mood. He was followed by the whispers of a multitude of Jedi, and his sharpened hearing told him all. They discussed the tattoos that were visible. The scars on his neck, on his hands, and how they had gotten there. His eyes (like a Sith’s eyes, didn’t I tell you? Just flat and gray and he must have looked at Master Tachi with those eyes!) and his wardrobe were always up for discussion, even if he preferred nothing but the dark, solid browns now, nothing of his preference for beige—or black—remaining.
They did not hate him, for Jedi did not hate, but they could shun him, despite the tale that the Council had told to all who would listen. Shun him, they did.
He didn’t care.
Some did not shun him, even if he tried to convince them that it was in their best interest. Master Windu and Adi Gallia wouldn’t leave him the hell alone, and after they left his company he would find his cheeks wet and curse before wiping his face raw. Garen Muln was another, and if Garen didn’t stop giving him the kicked puppy dog stare he was going to lose what was left of his mind.
What time he did not share with Qui-Gon, or the whispers of angry Jedi, he spent in his quarters. Adi had given the bare quarters a glance and made sure he had furniture, so he would curl up on the new couch and stare at the door, or at the ceiling, or at the wall, marking time. What the hell he was marking time for, he couldn’t tell anyone, not even his second Mind Healer.
The fourth day he’d spent with Qui-Gon, trying to learn how to meditate again, he’d made mention of the fact that he’d lost a Healer in record time.
“Oh?” Qui-Gon had asked, raising one eyebrow. “How did you manage that?”
“Healer P’lal decided to start out by comparing my old records to my current ones,” he’d explained, fighting a mad urge to blush with shame. “She wished to know why I was now a vegetarian. I told her that she did not want to know.” He’d paused. “She gave me a long speech about how she was my Healer now, and she couldn’t help me if she didn’t know everything, and that of course it was all confidential. So, I told her.”
This time the shame would not be fought off, and he’d stared at the straps on his boots with such intensity it was a wonder they didn’t catch fire. “Healer P’lal has petitioned the Council for early retirement.”
“I have always known P’lal to be a strong woman,” Qui-Gon had said, his tone gentle. “What was so horrible that she would take such drastic action?”
He’d gritted his teeth so hard a headache had sprouted behind his eyes that didn’t depart until that night’s exhausted slumber. Qui-Gon was like P’lal. Qui-Gon would not be satisfied until he had an answer. His anger had faded, and at least he could spare his former Master the details that P’lal had earned with her grating insistence. “I was marooned on Deliath VI for a number of weeks without supplies. The femoris and gracilis muscles in my left leg are artificial.”
When he’d dared to look up at Qui-Gon, the man had been bleached bone white. “When?” he’d asked, his voice mild, a far cry from the revulsion he had to be experiencing.
“A few months after Geonosis. One of the members of Sigma squad had good aim.”
“Ah,” Qui-Gon had said, still sounding far too normal. “That would explain it. When I saw you again, you seemed a bit…”
“I was going to say ‘deranged,’” Qui-Gon retorted mildly.
He’d smiled before he could stop himself. The expression, once unveiled, was hard to bury again.
He liked the new Healer much better. Master Healer Sheb’zalt al Lien. The reptilian Healer was easier to talk to, even if he was certain that he wasn’t speaking enough to satisfy the Healers or the Council.
Of course, his medical records spoke for themselves, and even Sheb’zalt could be far too particular in his work. “When they put you back together two months ago, the Healers told me they found evidence of repeated penetrative trauma,” Sheb’zalt said one day, apropos of nothing. They were sitting in one of the private gardens, and he could hear the artificial shielding kicked up on high, feel the vibration through the ground. A wise precaution, that.
“Is that what they’re calling it now?” he replied, watching a tiny brown bird dart from tree to tree, seeking bugs. Or nesting material. It was hard to say; none of the creatures that still dwelled on Coruscant followed a natural calendar any longer, and had long ago lost the genetic imperative to watch for changing seasons.
“I’m just curious,” Sheb’zalt said, fanning himself to cool his skin, for he could not sweat. They could have stayed in the man’s dark, cold offices, but Sheb’zalt had insisted upon the gardens for their little talks. “You were a Jedi Knight. Surely you could have defended yourself.”
He said nothing, feeling that defense would have been his obvious response.
“Or perhaps it was consensual?” Sheb’zalt continued, and Obi-Wan bristled.
“I assure you, Healer, there was nothing consensual about being chained into place and raped by that man.”
“You sound so certain. Yet I know that you once subjected Master Jinn to the very same. Was it consensual then?” the Healer asked, his voice maddeningly calm.
He curled his hands into fists, nails tearing into his palms. “No.”
“Hmm.” Silent moment. “Then I suppose you are no better than the Sith Lord who did it to you.”
“Do you hear me arguing?” he retorted, pulling his robe tighter around himself. Blasted wind.
Sheb’zalt regarded him coolly. “Surely there was a difference.”
Need. Deception. Communication. Desperation. “No,” he said again, setting his jaw. Reasons didn’t matter. Actions mattered.
“If actions are what matter, then why does your destruction of the Sith Lord not exonerate you?” Sheb’zalt asked, hearing the thought.
He swore a blue streak under his breath and tightened his shields. “Because the steps that were undertaken to perform that final action were not the actions of a Jedi.”
Sheb’zalt smiled. “The pledge of the Jedi for the last five thousand years has been to rid the galaxy of the threat of the Sith. You upheld that pledge. Therefore, you were performing the actions of a Jedi, Obi-Wan.”
He bit his tongue and glanced up at the trees. The bird was gone, off to find safer territory. Smart bird. “He loved me.”
He shook his head. “No. I mean Sidious.”
Silence. He’d managed to leave Healer al Lien speechless.
“He loved me, and I used that love to destroy him,” he continued on, speaking brutal, hated truth. “What do you think of that?”
Sheb’zalt gave him a thoughtful look, resuming his fanning. “I think you used the means you had at your disposal to do what was asked of you.”
He turned his head to stare at the Healer. “Does that make it right?”
“Do you want it to be?” Sheb’zalt countered.
He scowled. “Answer my question, first.”
Sheb’zalt scratched his eye ridge, half-closing his eyes in bliss as his scales flexed under his claws. “I think that there is a vast swath of gray that stretches between black and white, but it is one that we do not like to discuss. We prefer to pretend that it does not exist, even though we dwell in it every day.”
He looked away. “I don’t want it to be right.”
“Then I will not say that you did the right thing. However, I think that you did the correct thing.”
“Semantics,” he said, shaking his head in disgust.
“Semantics sometimes equals sanity, Obi-Wan.” When he looked at the Healer again, Sheb’zalt regarded him with half-lidded eyes, his tongue darting out for a moment to taste the air. “Was it a matter of semantics when you saved the life of Master Jinn?”
“The method presented itself.”
“And now it is you who is not answering my question,” the Healer replied.
“Yes. No.” He shook his head and tried to burrow further into his cloak. “Perhaps it was both. I just don’t understand why there has not been some…” Inquisition. “I am still surprised that I haven’t been locked in a room and questioned at length about what I did to him. It is obvious from Master Jinn’s attitude that—I’m sorry,” he said, giving Sheb’zalt an apologetic glance. “I don’t think I have the words for what I mean.”
“You’re seeing that Master Jinn is not appreciative of you having saved his life.”
He frowned. That was the entire problem; appreciative was the word that he found inappropriate. “That is one way of putting it, yes.”
“Master Jinn is in the minority on that issue, I assure you. I know that Master Windu has thanked you for keeping his favorite troublemaker around for a few more years,” Sheb’zalt said, smiling. “As for your other concern, the Council was less concerned with your methods and more concerned with the results. To them, you saved a life in the middle of a near-impossible situation. Granted, the method was unorthodox, but a man is alive who wouldn’t have been if not for you. There is no shame in that.”
He didn’t want to say that shame was not the problem; he was glad that he’d saved Qui-Gon Jinn’s life. He just hadn’t expected to have to live with the consequences of that choice.
He’d been spending his mornings with Qui-Gon for weeks, and except for a few aborted moments, wasn’t getting anywhere. He wasn’t sure why, and from his obvious frustration, neither was Qui-Gon.
“Are you actually making an honest attempt, Obi-Wan, or is this some base ploy to spend more time in my presence?” Qui-Gon asked him, opening his eyes and pinning him with a glare.
Phantom pain lanced his chest, made him feel hollow, but he clenched his jaw. Qui-Gon was right. That was all it was, now. Just a ploy to stay, to feel like he had half a chance of belonging. If he was going to connect with the Force again, it would have happened by now. He’d tried; the Force had other ideas.
“I am sorry to have wasted your time,” he managed to say in return as he stood, not even a hint of a tremble in his voice. “Thank you for making the attempt to help me. I am…honored.”
He fled as quickly as dignity allowed, and if he thought he heard Qui-Gon calling his name, he chalked it up to his imagination.
That set the tone for the entire day. When he tried to break his fast during the midday meal in the dining hall, a teenager with long coils of dark green hair walked up to his table and sat down in front of him.
He glanced up, confused. No one shared a meal with him here, save Mace and Adi. This was new. He didn’t like new.
The girl had fair skin, with a smattering of orange freckles across her nose, and her eyes were like Luminara’s—piercing and so blue they were almost indigo. A short stump of a Padawan braid was separated out from the rest of her hair, hanging behind her ear. “I think you’re lost,” he said, his tone as frosty as he could manage. He was not in the mood for speculative conversation, or a young Padawan looking for gossip fodder.
“I’m not lost. You’re Obi-Wan Kenobi.” It was not a question.
When he didn’t respond, she continued. “My name is Jeila Vin. You don’t have a Padawan.”
For a moment, he just stared at her. Him? Have a Padawan? The idea was absolutely ludicrous. There were no apprentices in the future of someone like him, someone so damned blind to the Force he couldn’t even lift a fucking spoon!
“Go away, please. I am in no mood for company.”
“Yeah, I can tell,” she drawled, tossing her hair back over her shoulder. “I’m looking for a Master. Mine was killed in the war.”
“I’m sure you can find a Master with much more savory connotations than I am sure to bring you,” he managed, glaring at this impudent damned child. As if any member of the Council with half a brain would allow him a student, even if he were capable—or inclined—to take one!
“Not so much,” she said, shaking her head, her expression serious. “Many Jedi Knights and Masters were killed in the war, and lots of Padawans, too, but there are a lot more orphaned Padawans than orphaned Masters. There is talk of making Master/Padawan teams to take up the slack, and try to rebuild our numbers, but right now it’s just talk. Also, I don’t want to share. It’s a character flaw, my Master said, and it would take the right kind of Master to cure me of it. I think that’s you.”
Oh, for— He gritted his teeth and counted to ten. “Who was your Master? They neglected to teach you even the basics of diplomacy, Padawan Vin.”
She smiled—smiled—at him as she answered, and the bottom dropped out of his stomach. “My Master was Siri Tachi.”
Dammit, Siri, back off!
I can’t do that, Obi-Wan. I have to know why you would do this. You can’t just betray us all like this!
Tachi, put down the damned lightsaber or this will end badly!
You’ve gone rogue, Obi-Wan! Worse, you’ve gone Sith! You know I can’t put down my lightsaber. You wouldn’t, either!
Don’t make me destroy you!
I’m not making you do anything. It’s your choice.
He was blind. This was a memory he didn’t want, the Jedi he’d been unable to escape from or subdue. There were others, of course, but none of them had been his friend. None of them had cared about him. He’d just been another target.
Siri shouldn’t have been a target.
He ran from Jeila’s sad, stupidly understanding gaze. He ran past uncaring eyes and startled whispers and pelted straight through the outer gardens, skirting the Thousand Fountains’ pond and nearly tripping over a Mon Calamarian Initiate who looked far too much like dead Bant Eerin.
He didn’t stop until his lungs seized and he crashed behind a bush in a ragged, untended corner of the far gardens, and only then did he just lie there, panting for breath. When he managed tight shields, he turned his head and screamed into soft, forgiving earth and wished that the Force Light had burned him free of existence.
Like it had Sidious.
* * * *
Qui-Gon left that evening’s Council meeting with a sense of accomplishment. Quinlan had stuttered and muttered and sworn, but he’d accepted the seat, and Qui-Gon was free of the obligation. Quinlan’s Padawan, sharp tongue that she had, would now learn the art of diplomacy out of self-defense. Padawan Tano certainly hadn’t shown any sign of learning it in the field.
A flutter of brown caught his eye, and he walked towards it, a sharp feeling of déjà vu haunting his steps. Obi-Wan was standing at the far railing that overlooked Coruscant’s sky, and the setting sun made his copper hair seem alive again, and the light was kind to his abused, scarred skin, making him seem younger.
The last time they had stood together on this balcony, Anakin was being tested by the Council. He had been testing Obi-Wan’s patience. There had yet been no arguments between them. No Sith. No distance. No war.
“Obi-Wan?” he called, not wishing to intrude if he was not wanted. After his poorly chosen words of that morning, he would not blame the man. He was still kicking himself, wishing he hadn’t opened his damned mouth. He couldn’t have rid himself of Obi-Wan more expertly without using a thermal detonator to blow a physical canyon between them.
For a brief, horrible moment, he’d seen the bleak devastation in Obi-Wan’s soul, reflected unguarded in his eyes, before he’d fled. Qui-Gon had tried to follow, but Obi-Wan still had Venge’s talents for remaining hidden, and Qui-Gon’s efforts to seek him, to repair that damage, had remained undone.
Obi-Wan half-turned to look at him. His eyes were bloodshot and glassy, and his hands were trembling on the railing. Something had happened, more than just his idiotic stumble during the morning’s meditation.
“Master Jinn,” Obi-Wan whispered back. “I hear you’ve ditched the Council.”
He managed not to wince. Master Jinn, Obi-Wan had called him. Only in his darkest moments had Obi-Wan referred to Qui-Gon that way. His heart full of dread, he approached the railing and stood next to his still-beloved former Padawan.
“They’re glad to be rid of me, I’m sure,” Qui-Gon said.
“You elected Quinlan Vos to replace you. Mace let it slip,” Obi-Wan explained, at Qui-Gon’s raised eyebrow. “No, I do not have access to some hidden remaining bit of Sith spyware inside the Council chamber. I think Quinlan will give them more difficulty than they could ever expect from you.”
He repressed a smile; that was one of the reasons he’d decided on Quinlan. The young Master would keep things interesting. “Anakin has asked about you. He says Naboo is nice, Padmé is glowing, and that everyone is fretting about the early surgery for the twins, even though they’ve proven to be healthy little beasts.”
Obi-Wan nodded, his eyes drifting away to follow the lines of distant sky traffic. “He sent me a missive as well. The surgery is to be next week. I’m sure he’s looking forward to being a father.” His hands flexed on the railing. “I know that Adi has named An’ya Kuro to the Council. Have they decided on Master Poof’s seat?”
“No,” Qui-Gon admitted. This was not what he wanted to be talking about, but at least they were talking. It was more than he had hoped for. “They have gone through a multitude of names, but no one feels right.”
“I think that you should suggest to the Council that they consider Padmé Amidala for the position.”
Apparently, Obi-Wan still maintained the ability to leave him confounded. “A non-Jedi appointed to the Jedi Council? What kind of reasoning is behind that notion?” Qui-Gon asked.
Obi-Wan half-smiled. “Three reasons. The first: She is not Force-blind. Her midichlorian count is high enough that she would have been a Jedi, if her parents had not refused to give her up for training. The second reason is that she will not be willing to give those children up for training, and trained they must be. If she can be here with them, it will ease the transition for both her and the children. She is retiring from the Senate with their birth, and her loyalties would no longer be questioned.”
Qui-Gon thought that Obi-Wan’s summation of the situation was entirely correct. “What’s the third reason?” The first two reasons were sound, but they would not have been enough to sway the Council of old. They were not even enough to sway this Council, and it would be the least hidebound collection of Jedi the Order had seen for one hundred years.
“Recognizing the history of the Jedi,” Obi-Wan said, his voice soft. The sun gave life to his eyes, reflecting the blaze of evening light. “The Jedi did not always hold themselves so apart. They used to hear all voices, not just their own. Senator Amidala would bring the voices of others to the attention of the Jedi.”
It was sound. It was sensible. It would be a miracle if it happened. Then again…
He glanced at Obi-Wan. Miracles were indeed possible. “What was it like?” Qui-Gon asked, and once again damned his treacherous mouth. That was not what he had intended to say.
Obi-Wan did not pretend to misunderstand him. That question had lain between them for far too long, as it was. “When you died, I wrapped myself around your spirit and held onto you with my life.” He lowered his head. “It was the worst temptation I have ever faced.”
Qui-Gon blinked, startled. “I would have…I thought that the action itself might qualify.”
Obi-Wan glanced at him, that familiar puzzled expression back on his face, before he looked away again. “No. It—I held you, and I could feel you, feel all of you. For the first time in years, I was not alone. I could have held you like that forever, left that place, abandoned Sidious to his fate. There were enough Jedi present that they could have killed him. They might have even succeeded in making him stay dead. I wouldn’t have to care. I would never have been alone again.”
“But you did not,” Qui-Gon said, and much of the bitter anger he felt left him, disappearing like threads of smoke in the wind. He was a fool, the worst kind of fool.
“No. I made a different choice.”
Qui-Gon found himself nodding, thinking about twelve years of life apart. This was not the man he was used to, no. But it didn’t have to stay like that between them. “We all make choices,” he mused.
The last rays of the sun disappeared behind the skyline, leaving Obi-Wan’s face in shadow. “Good night, Master Jinn,” he whispered, stepping away from the rail and departing with the whisper of cloak on tile.
“Good night, Obi-Wan,” he replied.
Like the fool he was, he did not realize that Obi-Wan was saying goodbye.
* * * *
There was no immediate decision. He’d left the gardens and returned to his own quarters, and after he palmed the door open he almost walked into a pile of boxes someone had left in the doorway.
He scowled and picked up the piece of flimsiplast lying on top of the pile.
Knight Kenobi, your things from storage have been discovered at last.
–Quartermaster Tanak el Dram
He tossed the ’plast to the ground and touched the seals on the first box, frowning. His Force-sense might be shot, but he knew tampering when he saw it. He’d been trained for it, knew how to infiltrate the best locks and seals and leave no trace behind.
Whoever had done this had not had such training. The naked eye showed no signs of wear, but he knew that these boxes had been opened while in storage. Possibly it was by the Council, trying to uncover clues as to his motives, wondering why he had stopped contacting them.
He didn’t think so, though. He had a feeling that Master Windu, as talkative as he had been of late, would have told him. He ripped the seal open and flung the lid aside. A cold lump settled into the pit of his stomach.
Everything inside had been destroyed.
He pressed his lips together, his eyes hot, his throat closed, and turned the box over, scattering its contents on the floor. Shredded flimsiplast, destroyed flatpics, cracked holocubes and scratched data disks. The second box yielded the same. Clothing had been torn to shreds, and if he wasn’t mistaking the smell, someone had voided on his things. No big loss, that, as none of it would have fit him any longer, but this was a work of vengeance. Someone with hate in his heart had done their best to destroy the evidence of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s life.
Padawans, perhaps, that saw him as the reason they were now Masterless? Masters, who saw him as the reason that they no longer had Padawans? Knights who had lost lovers?
He dumped the contents of the third box, feeling his face growing hot, and found more destroyed life. Mission mementos, things gifted to him by friends. Little things that had graced his room as he had grown older, no longer with a taste for models and games. He’d liked simple things with simple lines.
He picked up the shattered remnants of a ceramic jar that a girl on Wayland had given him. A vessel for the dead, she’d said, to carry with him. It was the place for tears and memories, to store both until it was time to free them.
He cut his hands on the delicate shards as he finished crushing the jar in his hands. No grief to free, no memories to share with the wind. The girl had died in his arms after giving it to him.
The last box was flung against the wall, and its contents flew free to fall onto the couch and the carpet. He saw a glimpse of black and halted, horrified. No.
He lurched forward and dug through the pile, pulling out a black, lifeless shard. “No,” he moaned, no longer conscious of speaking aloud. “No, no, no, no…”
He smeared blood over the stone as he turned it over and over in his hands, searching for a hint of light, just a spark. The riverstone Qui-Gon had given him on his thirteenth birthday had been shattered. Dead.
He screamed and began tearing through the rest of the detritus, tracking blood across that pale, perfect carpet as he scrambled to find the rest of the pieces. There were three in all, split along unseen fault lines. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to break this stone. It would have been well-known, what this stone had meant to him.
He bent double, keening his grief into the carpet as he clutched the broken, lifeless pieces to his chest. No home. No hope. No future. He was not a Jedi. Given what he had been asked to do, he wondered if he ever had been.
“You lied, Master,” he whispered, knowing he would never be heard. “You were wrong.” It seemed that he could endure anything…except surviving.
When he could breathe, he took the remains of the riverstone to the ’fresher, washing each piece, and then his hands, bandaging the cuts so he wouldn’t mar the stones further. Then he left a message for the Quartermaster. The room would need to be cleaned, as it was about to become vacant, and never mind the mess on the floor. It could be recycled or incinerated, as el Dram thought fitting.
He grabbed the least-marred piece of vellum from his destroyed collection of expensive paper, and found a stylus that worked near the comm unit, writing out a note with hands that shook. He wrapped the stones in the vellum and tucked the package away into a pocket of his cloak.
When he faced Yoda in the ancient Master’s quarters an hour later, he was met with sad, knowing eyes and drooped ears. “Certain, are you?” he whispered, his gnarled hands shaking as he patted Obi-Wan’s knee.
He swallowed and forced back down another wail. He wanted this to be home. He didn’t want to be Venge. He didn’t want to hate himself. “I am certain,” he said, and with gentle hands he grasped Yoda’s wrist and placed his lightsaber into the Master’s tiny palm.
* * * *
He should have seen it coming, and Qui-Gon cursed himself for his blindness. The crumpled vellum on the kitchen table was louder than any explosion, and he crossed his quarters on unsteady legs, forcing himself to march forward, to touch that innocent-seeming piece of paper.
Qui-Gon unrolled it and felt three heavy rock shards tumble into his hands. He whispered something, not even sure what he said, for he recognized the stone. The paper momentarily forgotten, he held up one of the shards and saw no spark, no sign of the life within. His senses told him that the riverstone had been broken long ago.
His heart heavy and aching in his chest, he picked up the parchment and found the still-familiar, formal scrawl of Obi-Wan’s handwriting.
This is all that I have left.
It is yours.
Chapter 12: Tatooine
Healing comes in many forms.
He stood under the dubious shelter of a canvas lean-to, a strip torn from his sleeve tied around his nose and mouth. Goggles protected his eyes, and the leather jacket protected his upper body. Sand scored his hands, his cheeks, his scalp, and abraded his legs even through the thick cloth of his pants. He wiggled his toes—yes, sand in his boots, too. There was shelter available in Mos Eisley, but he was in no mood to share cramped bar space with dozens of sweating strangers, half of them possessed of slippery fingers and inebriated wits.
He’d hated Tatooine the first time he saw it, thirteen years ago. He’d hated it when he’d returned, slaughtering an entire tribe of Tusken Raiders for having the audacity to be caught up in a Sith Lord’s game.
He really, really fucking hated it now. He still wasn’t sure what had possessed him to return to this Sith-forsaken rock, but it seemed part of him was still delirious enough to hope for some chance at a life. If his father threw him out on his ass…then, well, perhaps it would be time to contemplate either copious amounts of drugs or a good, old-fashioned mind wipe. Both were readily available in the Outer Rim. He’d let his decision hinge on which option he found first.
He had plenty of time to regret not emptying the sand from his boots as he made the long trek to the Lars homestead from Anchorhead. His feet had gone from feeling abraded to numb to too warm, which made him suspect that the quartz grains had shredded his skin and he was soaking his socks with blood.
He spent the long walk pointedly not thinking. This was difficult, since the scenery was composed of sand and yet more sand, along with a great blue-white horizon unbroken by clouds. The suns beat down on him, hammering him with the strength of a forge. His cloak helped to keep the worst of the heat at bay, and his hood shielded his eyes. Some part of him recognized that he was an idiot, walking across an arid, inhospitable desert in the middle of the day, but the rest of him wasn’t paying any attention.
His vocal cords had healed well (to his intense surprise) and after the third hour he began to sing some of the old, tawdry ballads that Master Tahl had once been fond of. His voice was rusty, and he couldn’t remember half the words, but the sounds echoing through the air were better company than the memories he couldn’t quite suppress.
The suns were sitting just above the horizon when he spied a dome that he knew was the right place. The spies he’d tasked with guarding the homestead had kept watch, making sure no other lackey of Sidious arrived to set upon his family. Possibly they were still there—silent, watchful eyes in the desert. The bank accounts that dispensed automated payments to anonymous employees had never been discovered. One day, he needed to get around to letting the Senate and Council know that over half of Sidious’s accumulated wealth was still unaccounted for.
He stepped up to the edge of the compound, peering down at the courtyard below. No one was in sight; more than likely they were preparing to retire for the evening. His lip curled up as a childhood verse stumbled merrily into his thoughts: All good children found snug in bed; good night, good night, dear lady. All good children lay down their heads; good night, good night, my pretty.
He shook his head at the nonsense and took the stairs down, one at a time, and wondered what he was going to say. Hello, perhaps. Then what? He’d been on the Republic’s Most Wanted list for two years. Even on Tatooine, that had to have been news. What could he expect, really?
Well. He had killed Jabba when the worm had tried to back out of a deal with the Confederacy. Leaving Tatooine’s economy in a state of utter disarray from the power vacuum that had caused probably warranted him a blaster shot to the head, at the very least.
His lip quirked; he should be so lucky.
He touched a button set into the stone at the bottom of the stairs, and within moments a young man around Anakin’s age appeared. Owen Lars. He looked like the father that lurked in Obi-Wan’s memories from decades ago, right down to his golden brown hair and pale blue eyes.
They stared at each other for a full minute before Owen narrowed his eyes. “What do you want?”
Yes, he had expected outright hostility. That didn’t mean he’d figured out how to respond to it. He didn’t even know how to answer his brother’s question.
“Hello. It’s been a long time, Owen.” He had last spoken to Owen when he was nineteen years old. Fourteen years was a long time to leave an argument hanging.
“Probably not long enough,” Owen replied, looking him up and down.
He hadn’t tried to hide the tattoos, though only the ones on his face were visible. He was wearing tough brown pants, a simple tan shirt, and a leather freighter pilot’s jacket that had survived the obliteration of his things. He suspected that it might once have been Garen’s. The pack on his back held what little he’d bothered to purchase to keep himself clothed and fed. He looked like a vagrant, and in spaceports that meant he was left alone. Here, it made him uncomfortable. Just what in the hell had possessed him to come here, anyway?
“Where is…our father?”
“He’s around,” Owen said, giving him a brief, snide smile. “How’s that shiny new pardon treating you?”
He clenched his jaw. Hell, no. He didn’t leave behind a Temple full of accusing eyes and cold words to put up with it on this fucking planet. “It treats me the way that pardons generally treat people. It earns them more enemies than they had before the damned piece of paper was issued,” he snapped, turning around. Option Two sounded like a fantastic idea.
“OWEN!” He glanced over his shoulder just in time to see his brother flinch in response to their father’s bellow. “What the hell are you doing out there?”
“We have a guest, Dad!” Owen yelled back.
“No, you don’t!” Obi-Wan muttered, managing one more step before the ground tilted. He swore as nausea welled up; it had been a while since he’d suffered from heat exhaustion, but he remembered well what it felt like. He was a thrice bedamned idiot.
The last thing he heard was the sound of running feet before the ground tilted back the other way and he fell, his vision graying out as consciousness fled.
He fucking hated this planet.
* * * *
He woke up in a dark room that was cool, and the air no longer smelled like dust and acid. His feet felt numb, and his head…
Oh, gods. He groaned and dropped his head back down on the pillow. His head felt like someone had crammed it full of destroyer droids armed with construction equipment. It had been a long time since he’d felt this blasted miserable.
It took him a moment to realize that it was the first time he had awoken in a dark place and not been seized with panic. He couldn’t remember the last time waking up had simply been a process, and not something to dread.
“Drink this,” someone with a soft, if exasperated, voice said, and there was a straw pressed to his lips. He sipped, expecting water, but it was sweet and tart. Fruit juice, from local produce, perhaps. He’d never bothered to sample any before, but right now it was wonderful. “Heat exhaustion,” she said. “I would have thought you knew better.”
He found himself smiling. He knew that voice. “Apparently not, Lady Skywalker. Or is it Skywalker-Lars?”
“Just Lars,” Shmi Lars replied, a smile in her voice. “And if you call me anything but Shmi, I will be very cross, Obi-Wan Kenobi.”
His body must have been soaking up the sugars in the juice in record time, for the headache was already receding. He sat up, relieved when nothing tilted, and found Anakin Skywalker’s mother sitting on a chair next to the bed, giving him an inscrutable look.
“You look…well,” he managed, not sure what else to say. The last time he’d seen her, she had been almost unconscious, bleeding from many wounds. There was almost no evidence of the torture she’d suffered remaining, though a long, shallow scar ran down her cheek. He wasn’t sure if he felt guilty for that, or if he was grateful. It had been his decision to leave her to the Tuskens’ doubtful mercy for several days, making sure her pain resonated in the Force, made sure it attracted Anakin back to the planet he’d once called home.
Plans within plans within plans. He was sick of thinking that way all the time.
Shmi gave him a gentle, understanding smile, so like the one that Jeila Vin had offered him that it made his chest hurt. “Rest, Obi-Wan. Tomorrow, the day is new.”
The next day he was fine again, and that surprised him, too. Was he so used to being tired and worn that to be healthy again was a shock?
Apparently, it was. He got up, half-expecting his feet to be sore and was almost gratified to find that they were. There were no wounds, but a container of bacta gel on the table next to the bed that told him there might have been.
He found his pack and dressed in clothes that were less sand-caked. He left the relative cool of the bedroom, stepping out into a bright hallway, and followed his nose to find the homestead’s residents. He walked across the courtyard and took two steps down into a kitchen filled with bustling people who, thank the gods, ignoredhim.
Shmi, he was amused to see, was swearing under her breath at a malfunctioning kettle. Standing next to her was the girl, Beru Whitesun, who Owen had started dating a few years ago. They were still together, which was a sign that either they were good for each other, or no one else was available. She seemed happy, so he guessed it was the former. There were two men standing further down the row, sorting produce into dehydration containers—those would be the workers that Cliegg and Shmi had hired to help manage the farm, now that it was running at capacity.
His father was at the table, looking as grizzled as ever. The hoverchair had been abandoned; he had two legs, so Anakin or Padmé must have made sure he’d received a prosthetic. Owen sat next to his father, and his hands were busy stripping some weird purple vegetable to retrieve the seeds. Both of them were giving near-identical scowls to the datapad Cliegg held in his hands. Occasionally, though, eyes would drift, and Cliegg would glance up at his wife, while Owen’s gaze sought out Beru’s.
It was so obvious that they were family they might as well all have the Lars name stamped on their foreheads. He repressed a sigh. Fuck. He felt like more of an outsider than ever. Wasn’t it enough that he’d been renamed before being handed over to the Jedi? Did he really need more of a confirmation than this that he did not belong here, either?
“Obi-Wan, can you cook?” Shmi tossed the question over her shoulder at him, still fighting with the obnoxious kettle that was now beeping at her for good measure.
He thought about it, trying to ignore the glare that Owen gave him, or the distant, curious stare from his father. “I haven’t tried to in several years. Might be a bad idea.”
“That’s fine.” She lifted the entire unit off of the counter and handed it to him. He grimaced as he took hold of the malfunctioning unit, which had just enough autonomy to know how to do its job, and still it had developed an attitude problem. “Can you fix it? I swear it likes Anakin better than any of us, and only works right when he’s here to keep an eye on it.”
That sounded like Anakin, all right. He’d heard the story about the Temple mouse droids. “I can try, but it might be easier just to blow it up and replace it.”
The kettle released a jet of steam into his face. Owen smirked; Beru bit her lip to hold back a smile. “Threatening it doesn’t work,” Shmi said, her tone just mild enough to tell him that she was laughing, too.
“I gathered that,” he muttered, turning the offending device around in his hands as he took a closer look at it. He considered wiping its memory back down to factory specs, but he had the impression Shmi needed it for the meal they were busy preparing. He was not the deity Anakin Skywalker was with machines, but he had his own gift for it. The Force would have helped, but he didn’t need the Force for this.
He popped the secondary access port with his fingernails and found the culprit. One of the sensors for the thermostat had come loose, leaving the kettle with conflicting readings about cooking time. He was so busy adjusting screw heads with his fingernails and swearing under his breath as it blasted him with another jet of steam that he didn’t notice when Owen handed him a multi-tool.
That morning seemed to set the tone for interactions with his family. When he was around them, Shmi would talk to him, and sometimes Beru would speak, though Owen and Cliegg were both far more reticent. He was always handed something to do, or asked to perform repairs on some piece of equipment. The work kept his hands busy and his thoughts locked on the problems of mechanical failure. It had been decades since his life had been narrowed down to such simple things.
When he hid in the garage, or the guest bedroom that he’d been encouraged to stay in, they didn’t bother him. He didn’t understand it, but he appreciated it. He worked himself into exhaustion and fell into bed with a sense of accomplishment that was almost foreign, and slept with only the barest hint of bad dreams at the edge of his consciousness. When he did have nightmares, he couldn’t stand to be around other people, and he hoped that the stone walls were as soundproof as they looked.
More and more often, though, he could not bear to sit alone in the dark, and the days spent with his erstwhile family began to far outnumber the ones he spent by himself. He walked the perimeter of the farm with Owen to retrieve the vaporator water harvests, and as it grew into a routine they started to swear at each other as they worked. It felt less like fighting and more like a warped form of sibling affection.
He learned enough Jawa chatter to squabble with the junk dealers that stopped by the farm in their giant Sandcrawlers. He had arguments with the family droid, C-3PO, about linguistics, and when the droid huffed and puffed about manners and protocol he realized he had a huge grin on his face.
“No, really. I’ve been to Malatris’sx. Bowing in respect to the head domo will get you beheaded.”
“But—but!” the poor droid sputtered, sunlight reflecting off of his steel-gray casings. “My programming specifically states that bowing in respect to the head domo is of the utmost importance!”
He paused in the midst of fine-tuning the coolant release valve on the family speeder. “Are you sure you weren’t owned by someone with a death wish?”
The droid paused, his head tilted to one side. “Well, that might explain how I came to be on the rubbish heap in Master Anakin’s place of—er, servitude all those years ago. I don’t remember it, myself, but he did say I was in several pieces.”
“At least you weren’t melted down,” he said, snapping the tool case lid closed and handing it to the droid. “Can you put this in the garage for me? One of the perimeter sensors is acting up, and I said that I would look into it before dark.”
“Of course, Master Obi-Wan,” the droid replied, and continued to prattle on in the cheerful, whiny way he had, even though Obi-Wan hadn’t followed him. He was standing out in intense desert heat, covered in gooseflesh. He shied away from his name as it was, but to hear the words said…
He caught himself wondering if Jeila had been serious, and squashed the thought.
He shook himself and hiked out to the sensor array, feeling a sharp gust of wind stir his hair. He brushed long strands of dull copper away from his face and knelt down next to the array. Then he swore in some of the more creative Bocce combinations that Owen and the droids had taught him. The array wasn’t malfunctioning. It looked like someone had smashed it with a rock. Repeatedly.
He stood back up, scanning the empty desert around him. The wind had been blowing hard enough in the past few days that there were no footprints to be found. Dammit.
He found his commlink and activated it, felt his cheeks burn with that familiar awkwardness. “Father?”
“Bit busy right now, Obi-Wan,” Cliegg responded after a moment, and he could hear the sounds of fussy electronics in the background. “What is it?”
“That perimeter sensor you asked me to take a look at—you need to come out here.”
“Can it wait until tomorrow, son? We’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do before sunset, and it’s getting late.”
For a moment, he stared at the commlink in his hands, nonplussed. His father had called him son. Cliegg Lars had barely spoken five words to him since he’d arrived.
He gritted his teeth and shoved that impending emotional storm aside. “Trust me, this is important. You need to bring me the spare sensor array from the garage, and that toolkit Owen’s been hiding behind the other speeder.” He did not want to spend a night here with one-eighth of the homestead’s defense perimeter down.
His father arrived faster than he expected; he had resorted to the hoverchair to make the trip, which was faster than walking out over loose sand with the prosthetic. Cliegg took one look at the array and began swearing in Huttese. “I sure as hell don’t like the looks of this,” he said, as both of them finished disconnecting the damaged array.
“Have you had any trouble like this before?”
Cliegg shook his head, shoving sweat-soaked hair away from his forehead before squinting at the connections on the new sensor array. “The only trouble I’ve ever had out here, aside from the occasional curious Tusken male, was that bunch of Sand People who raided the farm and took Shmi.” He hesitated. “I never thanked you.”
He looked up from the connections he had been piecing together, surprised. Shmi must have told him, or perhaps Anakin had, once there had been no reason to keep his involvement secret any longer. “You…don’t have to.”
“Hmm.” Cliegg breathed out a long sigh. “Anakin explained what was going on, when I comm’d him and asked him to.”
He paused in his work and then continued, hooking up the last connection before booting up the terminal. The array made itself known to the security network without a single glitch, and he double-checked the sensors as an excuse not to have to look up again. He did not want to have this conversation, ever. He especially did not want to have it while they were both huddled over a sensor array at dusk, while a saboteur with unknown intent was hiding somewhere out in the desert.
“Tomorrow, you and I are going into Anchorhead. The locals go there to raid the supply depot or have a drink at the only good watering hole outside of Mos Eisley. We can check with the other farmers, see if anyone else has had equipment destroyed lately.” Cliegg snorted. “It’ll be a nice change of pace. Usually we just have to worry about the Jawas stealing it.”
Confused by the subject change, but grateful, Obi-Wan nodded his acceptance. With luck, they would overhear something useful.
They were in Anchorhead before noon the next day, leaving Owen to run the farm with the help of Shmi and Beru. The two farm workers, Brigath and Tarn, had the week off, and were visiting their families in Mos Espa. He hadn’t been surprised to learn that Anakin had known both men as children.
He’d barely glanced at the settlement on his way through the first time, and what he saw now left him unimpressed. It was little more than a gathering point for the locals, with bored teenagers making up the bulk of the shifting population. He was doing a better job at blending in today, wearing some clothing that Owen had donated, and a floppy-brimmed, beaten, ugly hat that shaded most of his face from view.
They spent several hours in the local bar, where he nursed a single glass of some of the worst brandy it had ever been his misfortune to imbibe. His father spent his time talking, chatting up locals he was familiar with.
He was left to his own devices, so he listened to the conversations his father had with his neighbors, and to the ones going on around him. In two hours he knew that the sabotage wasn’t limited to just the Lars homestead. It was widespread, but the level of damage was so insignificant that no one saw a threat. More often than not, he heard the blame placed at the feet of vengeful Tusken Raiders, though one rare individual wondered if it might not just be a bunch of bored kids. They had them in epic numbers on Tatooine.
He knew better, and he was alarmed. This was not wanton property destruction. He was convinced that someone kept watch, observing how long it took for the damage to be noticed. Someone was preparing to move against the settlements, but to what purpose? There was more finesse here, more planning, than any Tusken clan had ever shown the initiative for.
He frowned and tossed back the rest of that gods-awful brandy. Before he could make up his mind to ask for more, or to demand something drinkable, another man slid into the unoccupied chair across from him. “Hello, sir. Gone native, have we?” he asked, his voice just loud enough to be heard by Obi-Wan and no one else.
He raised one eyebrow in response. He should have expected this, but after spending two months on Tatooine and receiving no contact, he’d begun to think that no one had remained behind.
The newcomer had a tousled mass of light brown hair on his head, a deep tan from the twin suns, calm gray eyes, and a single black sigil tattooed above his left eyebrow.
“Not native, Solo,” he said. “Just incognito.”
Jonash Solo grinned at him. “You do it very well then, sir. It actually took me a full minute to realize it was you. Would you like my report?”
“If you’re still working for me, then hell yes, I would very much like to hear what you’ve been up to for the past few months,” he replied. “Let’s start with what you know about our little instances of vandalism.”
“Ah. That.” Jonash raised one finger, signaling the barkeep and receiving a glass of Rylothian Ale a minute later. “I didn’t see who did it, but the next morning there were Bantha tracks leading away from the site.”
Wild Banthas were common enough, but he didn’t think it was a coincidence. He doubted that Solo thought it was, either.
“Who’s your friend, Obi-Wan?” Cliegg said, striding up to stand next to their table. His expression was neutral, but there was a glint of suspicion in his father’s eyes.
“Just a long-lost member of the family, Father,” he said, keeping his own expression bland. “Would you care to join us? We were catching up.”
“Sure,” Cliegg replied, eyes narrowing. “I always like to meet long-lost family.”
He sat down, and Jonash offered the man a charming grin that oozed Corellian sincerity. “Relax, old man. I work for him,” he said, jerking a thumb in Obi-Wan’s direction. “If I wished you harm, I would have let his other two employees kill you and the rest of your family while you slept.” Jonash’s smile didn’t dim an iota. “I’m so happy with my current employment that only the gods will ever know what happened to the traitorous bastards.”
Well. That explained why he hadn’t heard from anyone. “There should be one more of you.”
Jonash’s smile vanished. “Right before Javat and Fel decided that killing and robbing a bunch of dirt farmers was a good retirement plan, Etarin tried to knife me in the back. I fed him to one of the local Sarlaccs.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose, frustrated. That had been the problem he’d faced time and time again while working to dethrone Sidious. Sometimes you could pay someone enough money to buy a planet, and it still wasn’t enough to make them loyal. “Thank you for dealing with that.”
“No problem, sir,” Jonash replied, his cheerful demeanor returning. At first, it had seemed detrimental for a spy to behave that way, but Jonash Solo had proved able to glean more information with his charm, looks, and roaming hands in ten minutes than most of Venge’s spies had been able to manage in ten years. “Now, if I were you, I’d be on the lookout for a war to erupt on this little dustball.”
Cliegg’s mouth settled into a grim line. “Go on.”
Jonash gave Cliegg an appraising look before speaking. “Well, there is definitely someone behind this, and whoever he is, he’s good. I’ve got confirmation on at least three tribes that have joined together under one banner. I think they’re going to move soon, and I’ve been hearing whispers that they will go after the settlements, one farm at a time. Something about territory reclamation.”
He frowned. He might not be native, but he’d done his homework ages ago. The Tusken Raiders were notorious for waging war against each other, and alliances were almost unheard of. “When?”
Jonash shook his head. “I don’t know. Sooner rather than later. If I were you, I’d consider taking a vacation, or at least finding a nice place in Mos Eisley until this blows over.”
Cliegg shook his head, glancing at Obi-Wan. “I can’t do that. If I leave the farm undefended one time, they’ll just keep coming back.”
Jonash shrugged. “Whatever. I’d tell you that you were damned crazy, but my boss here has dealt with crazier shit. You’ll be fine as long as he sticks around.”
He found himself smiling. “I’ll still be here, Jonash, but you won’t.”
“Sir?” The Corellian’s eyes widened in alarm. “Are you firing me?”
“Relax. You’re not being fired, you’re retiring.” He pulled a data disk from his belt pouch, one of eight he kept with him always, and slid it across the table. “Take it.”
Jonash palmed the disk and shoved it inside his jacket pocket, still looking confused. “Sir?”
“That’s full access to an account on Malastare with the Independent Banking Guild.” It was one of the few banks outside of the Core that was still fiscally sound, for they had never allied themselves with the Confederacy. “Consider it a bonus for saving my family, Jonash. Go home and see to yours.”
“Yes, sir.” Jonash still looked stunned, but he was smiling. “Thank you, sir. I’ll send you a message during the holidays.” He stood up, paused, and glanced back down at Obi-Wan. “I’m glad you survived, sir. I wasn’t just doing this for the paycheck, even though it was a very nice paycheck.” He gave Cliegg a two-fingered salute and walked off, disappearing into the boisterous crowd of farmers who had come inside to escape the midday heat.
He found himself staring into space after Jonash departed. It had been the first time he’d touched anything from that part of his life since Palpatine’s death. It had been easier than he’d expected to slip back into that role, and he couldn’t decide if that was comforting or frightening.
He focused his attention back on his surroundings to find his father giving him a thoughtful look. “How much did you give him?” Cliegg asked.
His lip twitched. “There’s enough money in that account to buy a fleet of ships and pay the crew for a decade.”
Cliegg whistled. “Hell of a gift for a long-lost family member.”
The smile he’d been fighting vanished into the ether. “Solo’s family has been destitute for years. When his son was born, Jonash decided he was going to do his damnedest to make sure that he could secure his child’s future.”
“Why not keep the money?”
He shook his head, a thread of revulsion curling up from the pit of his stomach. “It’s blood money. I don’t want it.” He couldn’t give it to his family, either. He knew without having to ask that Cliegg would refuse to take it.
Cliegg sat back in his chair, a silent counterpoint to the movement and belligerent shouting that seemed to characterize this time of day in Anchorhead. “You know how to make blood money clean, right?”
When he gave his father a puzzled glance, Cliegg smiled. “Do something good with it.”
* * * *
Beru woke him one night with a hand on his shoulder. It was a measure of how much of himself he’d recovered that he didn’t send her flying across the room. A moment of tension, and he could breathe again.
“There’s a call for you, from the Jedi Temple,” she explained, as he sat up and blinked sleep from his eyes. “Owen tried to insist that it could wait, it being the middle of the night here, but Master Windu insisted.”
Mace Windu was calling him? Here? For a moment he frowned and thought dark things about family gossip chains. Shmi would have told Anakin, who—well, no. Anakin probably wouldn’t have given up his location unless the need was dire.
That thought made his heart clench in near-terror. He had not sensed anyone’s death, but what could he sense at all, lately? He swung his legs out from under the covers, pulled on a shirt, and followed Beru back to the communications terminal sitting off the corner of the main room. Anakin at work, that—the station had been refitted and added to until it had full holographic transmitting capability.
When he sat down in front of the screen, Master Windu looked concerned but not grave, and some of the fear left him. “You know, it’s three in the damned morning,” he said, irritation quickly replacing his concern.
Mace gave him a short, humorless smile. “Good morning, then. I assure you, this couldn’t wait. I need information.”
He frowned. “What about?”
“Yesterday, at approximately ten in the morning, galactic standard time, the star of the Horuset system went nova. The resulting wave took out the entire system, Korriban included. It’s already been confirmed that the star wasn’t due to collapse for several million years, give or take. There’s nothing left, Obi-Wan.”
He stared at the viewscreen, stunned. “It's gone?”
“Well, the system will make a pretty asteroid field,” Mace amended, though he didn’t look amused. “What did you do?”
That got his attention. He glared at the screen. “I did nothing,” he snapped. “Though I imagine Jeng Droga did plenty.”
“Jeng Droga?” Mace glanced at someone off-screen, telling him there must be other Council members present. It wasn’t every day that the homeworld of the Sith was obliterated, after all. “We don’t know that name. Who is he?”
He hesitated, unsure what had made him spit out Droga’s name…but then, his instincts had always served him well. Jeng Droga was a man of sly ambition, with a great lack of common sense. Droga had been one of the few of Sidious’s lackeys that he’d never found; it was almost too easy to piece together what must have happened.
“Droga was one of Sidious’s Hands. He was working his way up the ranks when he fell out of favor. Sidious exiled him, and told Droga that if he wanted to earn his place back, then he needed to bring the Sith Lord something of great power. Droga swore he would find it, return, and use it to destroy Sidious. I guess he finally found what he was looking for.” And good riddance, he thought.
Mace shook his head. “I thought all of the ancient Sith warships were destroyed thousands of years ago. Force, Obi-Wan. The last thing we need is a madman running around with a ship capable of making more Cron Drifts.”
“Korriban was full of unlikely hiding places,” he replied. He’d been there once, with Sidious. He’d been forced to stand in the Valley of the Lords and listen to restless, dark spirits chatter and berate and whisper false promises of immortality at him.
That had been the first time that he’d tried to kill Palpatine.
“Regardless, I don’t think you have a problem. If Droga found one of the old ships, then he’s likely dead and the ship destroyed. They were suicide devices, Master Windu. They weren’t capable of building a ship able to withstand the detonation of a star. It’s why the Sith were so unwilling to use the ships, themselves.”
The Councilor sighed. “Thank you, Obi-Wan. I’ll tell the watchman for the sector to keep an eye out, just in case, but I think you’re right. Are you all right?” he asked, looking at Obi-Wan with concern.
The question was well-intentioned, but it was early, his dreams had been good (for once), and by the gods, he’d quit the damned job already. “You’re speaking to me. That implies some manner of wellness.”
Mace only smiled in response. “Yes, it does. I have other news for you, now that I have you pinned down. Do you remember the passcodes to your old credit account for the Temple?”
That gave him pause. “Yes, but what the hell would I need them for? The account should have been deactivated a long time ago.”
“It should have. Funny things happen when you leave a little green troll in charge of accounting, though. It still exists, and I discovered yesterday that you’ve been receiving your hazardous duty pay for the past thirteen years.” Mace leaned back, crossed his arms, and gave him a pleased look.
For his part, his mouth was hanging open. “Thirteen bloody years of hazardous duty pay? Master Windu, that has to be obscene.” He’d seen greater amounts of money, of course. Hell, he was hiding a literal fortune in bank account passcodes in his belt. This was different, though; this was money he could actually consider his.
Mace nodded. “Use it well.” He hesitated, glancing off-screen again before looking back at Obi-Wan. “I know it would not have seemed that way to you, especially given the manner of your…departure. But many have been asking as to your well-being. I thought I would pass that along.”
He stared at the screen, uncertain as to what to say. He wasn’t even sure if he believed it, but Mace, at least, was being sincere. “Tell them I’m working on a farm. That should amuse people.”
“Whatever you’ve been up to, you seem healthier. Jale will be pleased. As to the matter of your belongings, the Quartermaster disobeyed your instructions and salvaged what he could, then tracked storage access until he knew what had happened. I can’t even tell you that we’re holding the culprits responsible. They all died in the war,” Mace told him, his face sober. “I’m sorry. If it helps, the attack wasn’t personal. Not one of them had ever even met you. They were attacking an ideal, not a person.”
His eyes burned. He blinked fiercely, blamed the dry air, and drew in a deep breath. He was going to kick Tanak in his damned teeth. “It—it only means that Quartermaster el Dram is going to have to deal with more clutter in his stores,” he managed to say.
Mace eyed him, but nodded, and even he knew that the Jedi Master didn’t believe the casualness of his words. “Take care of yourself, Obi-Wan,” he said, and terminated the call.
He sat back in his chair, shut his mouth, and remembered to breathe. He’d probably killed them, the children who’d tried to destroy the evidence of his other life. Or perhaps he had not, and it had been Durge, or Ventress. Perhaps Tyrannus himself had dispatched the children—and he couldn’t stop thinking of them as children, as young Padawans who had yet to grow into the mindset of a Jedi.
No. Don’t think about that. Don’t ever think about that again, he ordered himself. Instead, he focused on the news Mace had given him, and tried to do the math based on what had been left in the account at his Knighting. After a while he gave up and decided to check the account in the morning. The amount had to be ludicrous. Astronomical. What the hell was he supposed to do with that kind of money?
Owen walked over, resting a hand on the back of his chair. “Well, rich boy. Now what are you going to do?”
Korriban was gone. Thousands upon thousands of years of Sith history and artifacts, destroyed. The tombs that housed the spirits of the Dark Lords were no more. No one would ever step into the trap that was Korriban ever again.
He smiled. “I’m going back to bed.”
Owen nodded, putting a hand on his shoulder for a brief moment. “Fantastic idea.”
* * * *
He let the laughter and chatter that he was surrounded by wash over him. Owen was telling some awful joke about a Jawa, a Naboo priest, a Bantha, and a bar, and Beru kept shifting between scandalized and laughing with her hands plastered over her mouth. His father was smoking a long, thin pipe from which fragrant, sweet-smelling smoke rose in silver threads, watching as Obi-Wan and Shmi cleaned up after the evening meal. It was calming work, sorting dishes and leftover food, and he was content to do no more than listen. Shmi gave him a sidelong smile as Beru’s helpless laughter escaped, despite her best efforts to contain it, while Cliegg grinned and launched into an older, dirtier retelling of the joke.
“Owen’s asked Beru to marry him,” Shmi confided through the noise, unheard by the others.
“Took him long enough,” Obi-Wan replied, handing her the next item to stash in the sterilizer. “They’ve only been dating for six years.”
Shmi shrugged, unconcerned. “As long as I have known him, he has always been a cautious boy, especially where the feelings of others are concerned. He loves her too much to risk her heart on a failed marriage.”
He nodded. It had taken him a long time to realize that his family’s seeming reluctance to engage him in conversation wasn’t reluctance at all. Cliegg had later confided that he had been afraid that the wrong word would send Obi-Wan scurrying for the closest transport off Tatooine, and none of them had wanted that. Owen’s hard edges had masked a far deeper concern for his elder brother, and Shmi and Beru had kept watch, giving him work to do when he’d needed it and keeping the rest of his family at bay at the right times. He’d been too gratified by that understanding to be insulted at the thought of being treated like one of Qui-Gon Jinn’s pathetic strays. He had been a pathetic stray. In many respects, he still was.
He could function during the day, now, even if he still had a tendency to stop what he was doing mid-sentence, caught by a memory that words or sound would trigger. He knew at times that he seemed wraith-like, especially after he suffered through a night filled with crippling, sanity-shattering nightmares.
He shook himself, forced himself to attend the conversation at hand. “Do they have a date set?”
“Well, they were planning to wait for Anakin and Padmé to be able to attend, which means waiting until the children are old enough to travel. Leia and Luke were born healthy, but they were still premature, so they are taking no chances.” Shmi smiled at the thought of her grandchildren. “It will be nice to hold my dear ones instead of a holo.”
He did a quick mental count of the days since their birth. “They shouldn’t keep you waiting much longer, then.” He paused in his work, amazed. Had he actually been on Tatooine for three months? Time flies when you’re skull-fucked, he thought, bemused.
“Hopefully.” Shmi gave him a stern look. “No disappearing when they visit. You are a part of this family, and you will be here to greet them.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he responded, surprised to find a pert smile on his face. “Whatever you say, ma’am.”
She shook her head, smiling. “He used to talk about you all the time, you know.”
“No,” she said, giving him a look that he couldn’t interpret. “I mean Qui-Gon.”
His froze for just a moment before handing her the next plate to stack in the sterilizer. “I hadn’t realized I’d been a topic of conversation.”
Shmi nodded. “Oh, yes. I first heard your name the second night Qui-Gon and Padmé spent in our home, before Anakin competed in the Boonta Eve. Neither of us could sleep, worried as we were about the outcome of the next day, and he passed the time by telling me about you.
“I…” she paused. “I already knew that Anakin was going to go with him, when they left Tatooine. I didn’t need Qui-Gon to tell me about his arrangement with Watto. I could see it.”
At his curious look, Shmi smiled. “Anakin does get some of his Force sensitivity from his mother, Obi-Wan. I could see his path, though I worried for so long about the parts of it that seemed so dark. I asked Qui-Gon how he could bear taking a young man like you into danger, over and over again, knowing the risks were so great. He said that you were the very definition of a Jedi Knight, despite not yet having the title. He said that he could always trust you to make the right choice.”
The conversation left him unsettled. When Shmi and his father retired for the night, and Owen asked him to stay and share a drink with himself and Beru, Obi-Wan accepted.
“It’s not that slop they serve in Anchorhead, is it?” he asked, not sure if he was up to another glass of that, brother or no brother.
Owen shook his head. “Hell, no. I save that for people I don’t like.”
He sat down in the chair across from Beru, who was busy unbraiding her hair for the evening. “I thought I was on that list.”
Owen raised an eyebrow. “My gods, you’re an idiot.”
“That’s true, but—”
His brother slapped his hand down on the table. Obi-Wan jumped; Beru gave her fiancé a reproving glance. “Dammit!” Owen growled, glaring at him. “Argue with me! Tell me to shut the hell up, say anything other than repeat this soulless head-nodding you’ve been doing!” He went on, his voice growing quiet again. “I miss my brother. I’d like to have more of him back than just this shell that came home from the war.”
He hesitated, watching as Owen poured three glasses of a violet-colored liquor that smelled potent and was probably illegal in Republic space. “I don’t know how much of your brother is left, Owen,” he said, feeling weary, weighed down by more than just a long day’s work on a desert moisture farm.
“Try,” Owen said tersely.
He was tempted to roll his eyes. “I haven’t run screaming into the desert yet. Can’t you be content with that?”
To his surprise, Owen grinned. “That’s better. Now: Do you want to ask, dearheart, or shall I?”
Beru smiled. “After that little display, I think I’d better.” She turned back to Obi-Wan with a serious expression, but her eyes were dancing. “It would honor us both if you would stand with Owen during our wedding.”
He blinked, not expecting that. “I would…of course I will. But I don’t know where I will be six months from now, so if you keep dragging your feet…”
“Hey, we already took the slow path,” Owen interrupted, giving his future wife a brilliant smile that she returned in full measure. “You think after six years, we’re going to put this off any longer? We’re getting married as soon as our step-brother and his wife decide to put in an appearance, and I know you’ve already been ordered not to miss that.”
“Padmé is bringing me a dress as a gift. Considering her wardrobe, I imagine I could sell it after the wedding and buy a new homestead with the money,” Beru said, ducking her head. “There will be less than ten people at this ceremony, and I don’t need anything that fine.”
“And I keep telling her that weddings are for wearing uncomfortable, scratchy, frilly things that you’ll toss in your closet afterwards and never look at again, but she doesn’t believe me,” Owen said, raising his arms in an exaggerated shrug.
For a moment, he looked at them, and wondered at the pair the two of them made. Owen was boisterous, outgoing, temperamental, and swore like a smuggler. Beru was quiet and demure, painfully shy, but stiff-spined when the situation called for it. Once, she had knocked a Tusken on his ass with the warrior’s own gadaffi staff when he had come a little too close to the homestead.
Really, they couldn’t have been more well-matched. “Wear the dress. You’ll be able to shut him up without saying a word.”
Beru grinned, pleased, while Owen muttered something about being ganged up on.
He smiled. For the first time in ages he felt like he wasn’t screaming into the wind. He no longer had a desire to rip everything he’d done from his own mind, no longer felt like he was clinging to a ledge over an endless abyss.
Sheb’zalt had been right, damn the man. Distance brought healing. He just didn’t think the Healer had meant for him to flee to the edge of the galaxy in order to find it.
* * * *
When Anakin Skywalker, Padmé Naberrie Amidala-Skywalker, and the twins arrived three weeks later, he found himself lurking in the garage instead of greeting the ship. He had no reason to fear their presence, but he wasn’t yet ready to seek them out. He had not seen them since Byss, though he’d been told by Jale Terza that they had both been by to ask about him while he was in bacta.
He spent the time trying to repair the rock-crushed sensor array. No other acts of vandalism had occurred, but he didn’t think that meant they were safe. Far from it; the quiet of the last few weeks made him nervous. Conflict was coming, and he didn’t have so much as a blaster to his name. It was hard to prepare for a fight when the identity of his opponent was unknown.
He had the array disassembled, swearing about the lack of replacement parts, when Anakin joined him. They didn’t speak; Anakin merely eyed the mess, walked over to the shelf for a fresh bundle of wiring, and settled down to help him put the blasted thing back together.
It felt wonderful. The last time they had puttered with broken machinery, Anakin had been just shy of his tenth birthday, tugging constantly on his new Padawan braid. Obi-Wan had been tempted to pull on it, too, since his own had been gone, gifted to Qui-Gon Jinn. It was the last night he had seen either of them before leaving the Temple to seek out the Sith.
When they closed up the sensor array, the control panel lit up green when he ran a basic diagnostic. Anakin smiled, and the scar that ran down his face served to make him seem less boyish and more roguish. Anyone who knew Anakin Skywalker would know that it was just superfluous—on the inside, the Knight was still happy to be a wide-eyed kid from a backwater planet.
“Well, you’re out of work,” Anakin said, giving him an amused look. “Guess you’ll have to meet my kids now.”
“I suppose so,” he said, letting Anakin give him a hand up from the floor. “They don’t scream at new people, do they?”
“No,” Anakin said, leading the way back to the main part of the house. “They just throw up on them.”
“Ah,” he said, not sure he knew what to say to that. He’d served his time in the creche, of course, but this was different. These children were his niece and nephew, by marriage if not by blood. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to be liked, or if he wanted to get as far away from them as possible, still pressed by a mad desire to protect them from the Sith.
Shmi was holding one of the twins in her arms, smiling down at the baby with joy in her eyes. He caught a hint of near-white blond hair on the infant’s crown, but could see little else, clustered around Shmi as everyone was. Then Padmé saw him, smiled, and pressed a swaddled white bundle topped with fluffy dark hair into his arms. He cradled the baby and froze. For a moment, he forgot to breathe.
“This is Leia,” Padmé said, as the baby woke up. He stared down into tiny features, pale and perfect. Of course, Anakin and Padmé would make gorgeous children. Leia blinked up at him with inquisitive, muddy brown eyes. Not quite Padmé Amidala Skywalker’s eye color yet, but approaching it fast.
“Hello,” he whispered, not sure what else to say to the tiny girl in his arms. He was distantly aware that the rest of his family was watching in silence, observing his interaction with the baby. No sense of fear, no hawk-like watchfulness. Just…interest. As if something important was going on, something he couldn’t quite see.
She yawned in response, smacking her tiny lips before waving her fist in the air. He shifted her enough to free his other hand, and she grabbed onto his finger and cooed. He smiled, looked into her eyes, and time stuttered—
“Master, you are being overprotective again,” Leia said, giving him an impish smile.
He yanked on the long brown braid hanging down behind her ear. “I am not.”
“You are! You don’t know anything about Han—”
“Correction, dear one. I knew his father, and hence, I know the Solo clan. They’re quite a bunch of charmers.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes, Master. But perhaps it’s the charm I’m interested in? Force knows you don’t have any.”
“I do too have charm.”
“Master, your version of charm is usually accompanied with a lightsaber.”
He drew in a deep breath, shaking off the unexpected vision. Leia hadn’t let go of his finger. She cooed at him again, content with her place in the universe.
“Gods,” he whispered. “Take her, take her, I can’t do this, I can’t—”
“Easy,” Anakin murmured, taking Leia from his now shaking arms. “It’s all right, Obi-Wan.”
“No, it isn’t,” he whispered, his teeth beginning to chatter. The Force had ignored him for months, only to dump the impossible onto his head. That could not be. It would never be.
He turned and stumbled away from the others, not sure where he was going, but only certain that if he didn’t get away from that possibility right now, he was going to fall apart. He staggered across the courtyard, made it to the bed in his room, and collapsed next to it, trembling and unable to stop. Why? Why now? Why the fuck now? Not when he’d begged or pleaded to gain some part of his life back, no. He had to hold a child that could have been his Padawan, see a future that would never exist.
The next thing he knew, Anakin was in front of him, gripping his face with hands that felt like brands. “Look at me,” Anakin ordered, his tone full of the authority he’d learned to wield as a Knight. “Right now, Obi-Wan. Look at me.”
He stared into Anakin’s eyes, though he couldn’t stop shaking. Blue. Blue and he could sense Anakin’s presence, sharp and strong, filling the room. “Oh, shit,” he whimpered, because it fucking hurt.
“You’re in shock, you idiot,” Anakin told him, maintaining his grip on Obi-Wan, keeping him from lurching away. “Is that the first time you’ve touched the Force since you scared those Healers witless?”
He managed a nod, reaching up to grab Anakin’s wrists, trying like hell to center himself. Focusing on the supernova in the Force that was Anakin Skywalker was possibly not the best idea, but Anakin was the brightest, most stable point that he had.
“Breathe,” Anakin said, nodding encouragement when Obi-Wan pulled in a fresh lungful of air. “I had to walk Master Qui-Gon through this, too. Remember when Ventress had him on Rattatak?”
The inhibitor, the torture that he’d had to turn a blind eye to. He’d wanted to tear Ventress apart for that, but Qui-Gon had survived despite it all. Anakin had rescued him with Ki-Adi Mundi at his side, Padmé Amidala guarding their backs, and the rest of Arc 17’s squad tearing up the sky. “Y-y-yes.”
“Right. Long-term absence from the Force, following it up with everything coming back in a rush. Healer Terza explained it to me, once. Your mind starts to forget how to deal with all of the input after enough separation.” He smiled. “Now, keep breathing, keep your focus on me, and we can get through this. Padmé?”
He tried looking up, but Anakin redirected him instantly. “No, no. You keep your focus right here, where it belongs,” Anakin said, snapping his fingers in front of Obi-Wan’s eyes for good measure. “Ground and center, right here. I know you can do it. You’ve been doing this longer than I’ve been alive.”
A blanket was draped onto his shoulders, and then tucked into place around him. He recognized then that he’d been shivering as well as shaking himself to pieces. Warmth helped, eased some of the shivering. He tightened his grip on Anakin, fighting to attain the calm center of the Force.
A memory of Yoda struck him, from a time when he was still too small to worry about earning a Master. Focus you must have. Determines your reality, it will. Calm your thoughts, younglings. Center yourselves, touch the Force. Do this, you must, or a Jedi Knight you will not be.
“I am…not…a Jedi Knight,” he growled at the memory.
“You are a Jedi Knight,” Anakin insisted. “You were a Knight before Sidious. Now he’s dead, and you’re still a Jedi. Don’t let him take that from you.”
He found himself staring into Anakin’s eyes again, no longer glaring down at the caring, yet demanding, teacher he had once had. “There we go. No backsliding, you,” Anakin said, nodding his approval as Obi-Wan began to relax. “Stop fighting it. The Force is your ally, not your enemy.”
Stop thinking about it, Padawan. Just feel. The Force will guide you.
He managed a smile. Anakin gave him a suspicious look. “What?”
“Just…thinking,” he said, as the tremors started to fade, as long-lost warmth began to fill him. “You…need a…Padawan.”
“Ohhhh, no. No way. I already told Master Yoda that I’m not taking a Padawan until the twins are out of diapers. I have enough crazy in my life, thank you,” Anakin retorted.
He felt a laugh bubbling up and tried to suppress it. Then he wondered: Why? He let it free, and despite the shaky, tremulous nature of it, it was a joyful sound. He literally couldn’t remember the last time he had laughed. It felt…odd. Freeing.
The Force was dancing under his skin, long lost but found, bringing him the peace that he thought had deserted him forever. Not abandoned. Not forsaken. He was just walking the slow path.
“Welcome back, brother,” Anakin whispered.
Chapter 13: Finding the Path
Easier than one thinks, harder to accomplish than it looks.
The day of Beru and Owen’s wedding dawned with dark, ominous clouds gathering towards the western horizon. Beru had taken one look at them and bounced up and down with glee.
“A good omen!” she cried, when Obi-Wan gave her a mystified look. “Rain for a wedding on Tatooine is a blessing, not a curse.”
He stared at the distant clouds while Owen went to go wake the rest of the household. “You mean it actually rains on this rock?”
“Of course it does,” Beru grinned. “If it never rained, what would we harvest?”
“Sand,” he replied. “You could ship it offworld to resorts that want pretty beaches.”
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Beru said, and went back down the stairs to dress for the day. He listened to the sounds floating up from the complex, paying particular attention to Owen pounding on Anakin and Padmé’s door to rouse them.
“Please, have mercy!” Anakin yelled back, accompanied by what had to be the sound of an ex-Senator swearing. “We have children!”
“Yes, we know,” Owen responded, sounding far more cheerful than usual. “We had to listen to you feed them all night long!”
“I miss being an only child!”
“I love you, too, stepbrother!” Owen said, ducking back into the house proper.
He grinned. He was starting to like home.
He meditated, kneeling on the sand above the homestead while a near-constant breeze kept the heat from stifling him. The first time he’d managed this, three days ago, Anakin had joined him. They had sat together in a shared meditation, and tears had run down his face the entire time. He’d missed this, had forgotten this, for the Light always made him feel welcome, cherished, where Darkness had left him cold and isolated.
He was still getting used to having the rest of his senses back, and knew that he had a long road to walk. Yet he could see where that walk might lead him, now, whereas before he couldn’t even find a path.
He opened his eyes as the second sun rose up over the horizon, frowning. There was something…something trying to catch his attention. He tried to follow that elusive thread and was confounded, for it dwindled off into nothing.
Anakin came up the stairs, one of his children slung over his shoulder. He wore a shirt that looked like it was ready for a recycler, which made it perfect for hauling around babies with a penchant for burping up everything they ate. When he saw the clouds, his face lit up with a broad grin. “Morning, Obi-Wan.”
“Good morning. Sleep well?” he asked, managing a properly solicitous smile.
Anakin glared at him for a moment. Then he lifted his head, glancing around as he shifted Luke from one shoulder to the other. The baby didn’t so much as twitch in response.
Of course. Now they were sleeping. He was tempted to lay credits on the fact that Luke and Leia would wake up and scream during the important parts of the wedding.
“Did you…hear anything?” Anakin asked him.
He shook his head. “I sense something,” he said. “I just don’t know what it is.”
“Hmm.” Anakin spent a moment with his head tilted in contemplation before shrugging. “I guess we’ll just have to keep an eye out for trouble, same as always. Here, hold this,” Anakin said, and bent down to thrust Luke into his arms.
He looked down, up, and then over, since Anakin had already retreated to jog back down the steps. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?”
Anakin grinned at him. “It’s a baby. You hold him long enough for me to take a shower and find clothing that hasn’t been barfed on repeatedly.”
Obi-Wan glanced down at the infant in his arms. Luke opened his eyes, saw him, and began to cry. “I’ll bet your father still takes long showers, too,” he muttered, rocking the baby in his arms. “Why can’t you be more like your sister? She just dumps visions on my head. You, my little friend, are loud.”
In the afternoon, the storm clouds on the horizon had been joined by an entire legion of thunderheads. The sky was dark and heavy with rain waiting to pound down. They were all standing out in the sandy courtyard in what finery they had, waiting to be soaked by it.
Beru and Owen were exchanging vows under the watchful, kind eyes of the local priest, a man who followed the Force and a few gods Obi-Wan had never heard of indiscriminately. As Beru had suspected, Padmé had gifted her with a simple yet elegant gown of white lace whose value could have bought half the property in Mos Espa. It was a beautiful dress, though, and Owen had been stunned into silence when she’d emerged from the homestead proper with Padmé at her side.
The wind blew constantly, ruffling his hair, making Anakin’s cloak billow out behind him in the breeze. It was the most chaotic, informal wedding he’d ever attended, and it was already his favorite. Even the droids were present, standing as witnesses. For once, they were quiet, not bickering back and forth about—well, whatever it was that droids argued about. C-3PO and R2-D2 seemed to dither more than most.
“Beru Whitesun, do you vow to honor and to cherish, to protect and to love this man, the mate of your heart, for as long as you both draw breath?” the priest intoned, giving Beru a kind smile.
“Yes,” she replied, smiling radiantly at Owen. “For as long as I draw breath, and ever after.”
“And you, Owen Lars. Do you—”
“Yes, I do, ever and after and always,” Owen interrupted. “Yes! Can we please skip to the good part?”
The priest chuckled at Owen’s impatience, Shmi covered her mouth with her free hand to hold in her laughter, and Padmé exchanged an amused, loving look with her husband. Beru pinned her husband-to-be with a glare that melted into a forgiving smile when Luke began chirruping happily from his place in his grandfather’s arms.
He started to smile, but the expression died before it could form. He was unused to the entreaties of the Force, still, but something…something was…off. He lifted his head and smelled the air, uneasy. What the hell?
A few feet away, he noticed Anakin begin to glance around, a half-frown on his face. Padmé gave him a questioning look. The priest, oblivious to the exchange, carried on with the ceremony. “I have been assured that no one here will ever step forth to stand between the love you share, so I will come to the end. I now pronounce you husband and wife, Owen and Beru Lars.”
“Kiss her, you idiot!” Cliegg roared, when Beru and Owen did nothing more than stare at each other in unabashed delight.
They kissed, the droids and gathered humans applauded, and the first peal of thunder sounded. None of it was enough to mask the lowing of a Bantha, followed by the peal of the perimeter alarms.
“Get inside!” Anakin shouted, his lightsaber already in his hand. His family, long-used to the dangers of Tatooine, needed no further instruction. Owen grabbed the arm of the priest when the old man hesitated in confusion.
“Time to go, gramps!” Owen yelled, and Obi-Wan heard the almost deafening sound of thunder. No, not thunder—this was the sound of a massive amount of Banthas running, and they were all headed in the direction of the homestead.
He made sure he was the last one in as they all ducked inside the shelter of the homestead. A quick run through one of the short corridors led them into the back end of the garage. Weapons were stored there, and, if the worst happened, the speeders were close. Escape was possible, but as far as the family was concerned, it was the last option. On Tatooine, you defended what was yours, or you lost it.
“Well, at least the defenses for the dome are up,” Cliegg said, pulling a blaster rifle down from the wall and tossing it to Owen. The next one wound up in Beru’s hands. Both of them handled the weapons well; he had no concerns there. “They’re not going to get in here easily.”
“Yes, but we’re also surrounded,” Anakin said, taking Leia from C-3PO’s arms and handing her to his mother, who had already taken Luke from Cliegg. Shmi cradled the twins and offered them soothing words, but the babies were silent, looking around with bright interest at the commotion. “They’re not going to stop until they burn the place to the ground.” Padmé took a moment to unpin the veil from Beru’s hair, and her new sister-in-law nodded in thanks.
He wanted to fidget in place as he thought of and dismissed one plan of action after another. The war that Jonash Solo had warned them about had arrived on their doorstep, and he had no blasted idea what to do.
There was another rumble, this one coming from above their heads, as the storm decided to remind them of its presence. “They would choose today, of all days,” Owen grumbled, slinging the blaster rifle into place over his shoulder.
“It could be worse,” Padmé said, checking the charge on the blaster that Owen presented her with. “You could have been on your honeymoon.”
“Kalarba was nice, wasn’t it?” he said, drawing Padmé and Anakin’s attention.
Anakin scowled at him. “That was you?”
“Of course it was,” he said, the barest hint of a smile on his face. “Why do you think no one died that day?”
Padmé released a quick laugh. “That explains so much.”
“I’m so glad there’s amusement to be had,” he murmured, but in truth he was thinking of what came after. Sidious had not been pleased to discover that Venge had been unable to assassinate Senator Amidala in the midst of her not-quite-sanctioned honeymoon with Anakin Skywalker. It was the only time the Sith had ever lost his temper with him, icy control melting into insane fury. He remembered almost nothing of that following few days, and memory problems had plagued him for weeks afterward.
Another rumble of thunder broke the momentary silence, and what followed it chilled him to the core.
“VENGE!” a harsh, angry voice cried, the word echoing along the passageway. “I know you’re there!”
Not here, he thought. He broke out into a cold sweat, his hands trembling. Please, not here.
“I think I know who that is,” Anakin said, tilting his head as he did when he wanted to listen to the fine whispers of the Force. “I’m almost certain that’s—”
“Come out, traitor! I will have blood for what you’ve done to my people!”
“A’Sharad,” he whispered, finishing Anakin’s sentence. A’Sharad Hett, Jedi Knight, Tusken Raider by birth and by choice.
“Well, that explains how he managed to unite the tribes.” Anakin said, but he barely heard the words. He reached up, his fingers resting for a moment on the black line of sigils that crossed his left cheek. When he drew his fingers back, he was surprised not to find blood there, so often had it been his companion.
He looked up to find everyone staring at him, but not with the scorn he’d almost expected to see. There was only love and concern for him in their eyes, along with a healthy dose of apprehension for the dire nature of the situation at hand.
Beru was standing with Owen, their hands clasped together, determination in their eyes and in the way they carried themselves. Padmé was next to them, looking fit and ready to mow down a few dozen Tuskens with her bare hands, if need be. Shmi stood with the twins in her arms, her gaze filled with a serenity that he didn’t share. His father had his hand on Shmi’s shoulder, his mouth a stern line as he prepared once more to take up arms to defend his family and home. The priest knelt on the floor a few feet away, his eyes closed, mumbling under his breath. Praying, he supposed.
Anakin was giving Obi-Wan an intent, measuring look. “You don’t have to go out there,” he said. There was no fear to be found in the man his brother had become.
He had no reason to fear.
“Yes, I do,” he said. In the next moment, as jeers and catcalls began to echo from the Tuskens that surrounded the homestead, an old piece of knowledge presented itself, made him smile. “Give me your lightsaber,” he said to Anakin. “I have an idea.”
There was a pause, and then Anakin grinned and shook his head. “I can do something better than that,” he said, and with his free hand fished around on the inside of his robe for a moment. He withdrew a second lightsaber hilt and placed it into Obi-Wan’s palm.
He stared at what he held in surprise. “This is my lightsaber.”
“It had better be, or else I’ve been carrying around the wrong one,” Anakin said, grinning even more broadly at his bafflement.
“What the hell are you doing with my lightsaber?” he demanded, igniting the blade with a snap-hiss that was as familiar to him as the sound of his own breathing. He’d quit the Jedi Order. Quit. Didn’t anyone know the meaning of the word quit anymore?!
“I thought you might need it,” Anakin replied, sounding far too pleased with himself. “Looks like I was right. I took the liberty of replacing the power cell. Hope you don’t mind.”
He had only used it once in twelve years. He remembered being amazed that it had survived Byss, that it was much the same as it always had been. He, on the other hand, had changed so much it seemed odd that the lightsaber had been built by his hands. “I don’t mind.”
“Well?” Owen said, catching his attention. His brother looked cross. “Let’s get on with this idea of yours, Obi-Wan. Some of us have a transport to catch later.”
That made him smile. “Let’s go, then,” he said, and led the way back down the passageway to the courtyard. He looked up; there were Sand People standing all around the rim of the dome, held at bay by the shield that protected the homestead. One among them stood apart. He held a yellow lightsaber in one hand, and there was a sharp, acrid feeling in the Force that he knew intimately.
A’Sharad Hett was fighting a losing battle with the Dark Side of the Force. It made what he had to do easier, and harder. Too many had died by his hands as it was. He thought of Leia as he’d Seen her, a strong and forthright Padawan, and his resolve hardened. He would never be her Master, but Leia Skywalker was going to have the chance to become a Jedi.
He stared up at A’Sharad, and the ghost of a mocking smile curled his lips. “A’Sharad Hett!” he shouted. “I challenge you!”
The Tuskens bellowed back and forth at each other, the grating howls echoing in the courtyard. “What are they saying?” he yelled over the din.
“A’Sharad is trying to deny the challenge, but enough of them understand Basic to know what you said,” Anakin said. Hett was swinging his lightsaber in a wide arc around him, howling back at the Tusken warriors he stood with.
“Now what?” he asked, and felt Anakin hesitate. “Well?” The Tuskens had finished their argument, and he had the distinct sense that A’Sharad was not pleased with the outcome.
“They’re saying,” Anakin said, his voice soft, “that they will go no further while the Vengeance of the Night is standing before them.”
“They are calling for their leader to fight the Vengeance of the Night, so that the souls he stole will be returned to them.” Another crash of thunder sounded, accompanied by lightning, and for a moment the day became lit twilight.
“And if your idea is letting Hett kill you, try to keep in mind that they’ll slaughter us the moment you’re dead,” Anakin added. “I’m good, but I’m not that good.”
“Sorry, I’m all out of suicidal right now,” he replied faintly. He’d wanted to get away from Venge, had fled halfway across the galaxy to escape all the reminders of his existence. Instead, he found that he had become a dark legend, even here. When this was over, the Tusken Raiders would never forget Darth Venge. The thought filled him with frustrated anger.
No. Not that path. Not that way. He drew in a breath and released it, letting his anger fade with it as he had learned to, long ago. No matter what, Venge would be no more. The line of Bane had ended.
“Challenge accepted,” Hett shouted back at last. “Come up here and face me!”
The first drops of rain fell from the sky as he spoke, hissing in the hot desert sand. He glanced over at Anakin and nodded. Anakin nodded in response, understanding passing between them.
By the time he climbed the stairs, stepping through the defense shield that would let things out but not in, the rain was pouring down and he was drenched. It wasn’t the first lightsaber battle he’d had in a downpour, and he doubted it would be the last, but the setting was damned surreal.
Hett stepped forward to greet him, a snarl flowing out of his breath-mask. The other Tuskens left the dome to gather in a great circle around them. I do not think this was the blessing that Beru had in mind, he thought.
He raised his lightsaber and saluted A’Sharad with it before returning to the ready position. It felt odd to take the defensive, but right, as if he were taking yet one more step on his long path.
“Do not mock me,” Hett hissed, swinging his lightsaber in a sudden, swift motion. He dodged and caught the next swing, the blades squealing as they both fought for dominance. A’Sharad was not Darth Sidious. The Knight’s skill was great, but he already knew who the victor of this duel was going to be.
He leapt back to escape the locked position and jumped forward, flying at A’Sharad with his blade extended. The Tusken let loose another frustrated growl as he was forced to step back to counter, losing ground he could not afford to give up and still maintain his reputation with the tribes.
He made sure that A’Sharad kept retreating, their blades singing back and forth over the desert sands. The rain and the clouds meant that their lightsabers cast stark yellow and blue light in dizzying patterns as they fought. His teeth were clenched, watching for an opening that he knew would come…
There. He darted forward, under and within A’Sharad’s defense, and scored two cuts before ducking and rolling away. He sensed A’Sharad’s blade passing just a millimeter from his backside as he leapt back up into place, ready and waiting for the results of his action.
The cloth that covered A’Sharad’s left arm came apart, a line parting through multiple layers of cloth from wrist to shoulder. The Tusken Knight’s bare skin was starkly visible.
A’Sharad halted mid-stride, and the surrounding warriors silenced their howling. “No,” A’Sharad whispered, horrified. “What have you done?!”
“Ended a war,” he replied. “It’s sort of getting to be a habit of mine.” He’d learned years ago that bare skin was the utmost taboo to the Tusken tribes. Once a Tusken Raider had shown his skin to the rest of the world, he was no longer of that tribe—no longer a Tusken.
The warriors that had surrounded them retreated in silence, heading back to their mounts. With their warleader exposed, the alliance was broken. They would go back to their villages, and the old blood feuds would start again. It was, he reflected, not the greatest solution in the world, but the farmers and settlers of Tatooine would breathe a bit easier.
He didn’t think A’Sharad would let that be the end of things, and he wasn’t disappointed. “YOU!” the one-time Jedi screamed. “You destroy everything!” With that Hett attacked him, putting the full strength of his anger and fury into the blows. Before, A’Sharad still had some semblance of Jedi control remaining. In this, there was none.
He’d weaned his Sith teeth on such displays. He immersed himself in the Force, let time slow, and danced. The rain poured down on his skin, the sands became mud beneath his boots, and the lightning tore apart the sky as A’Sharad Hett did his best to take him apart.
It didn’t matter that he hadn’t picked up a lightsaber in almost six months. He had trained almost his entire life for moments like these. His body refused to forget, and the Light was with him, filling his mind and heart with the strength to defend against the Darkness that A’Sharad tried to clumsily use against him.
When the first signs of exhaustion touched A’Sharad’s limbs, he shook his head. “Enough,” he murmured, and made a simple gesture with his free hand.
A’Sharad flew back, parted from his lightsaber by the powerful Force shove. He landed on his back in the mud, howling his rage up at the sky.
He collected Hett’s lightsaber as he approached, attaching it to his belt before he pointed his own lightsaber at A’Sharad’s throat. “Would you mind being quiet for a moment?” he asked, using the same tone he’d once employed during diplomatic negotiations.
“Kill me, you bastard!” A’Sharad screamed back, his voice agonized. “Kill me like you did my Padawan!”
He frowned, and for a moment was honestly puzzled. “Bhat Jul? I—I did no such thing!” he retorted, flummoxed. “When was the last time you caught the news, A’Sharad?”
“I don’t need the HoloNet to tell me what I know!” he growled. “You killed children, Venge! I will never forget! You killed Bhat! You will remember him, damn you!”
He sighed, lowering his blade. “I did kill children. That’s true. But Bhat Jul is alive, A’Sharad. He’s on Coruscant, with the rest of the two hundred Jedi that I didn’t kill.”
“I don’t believe you,” A’Sharad whispered, but there was a flash of hope in his eyes.
“Believe me, then,” Anakin said, his voice strong and clear. They both turned; Anakin was standing a few meters away, his arms crossed over his chest. His hair was hanging in dripping wet strands down to his shoulders, which told him that the other Knight had been watching for some time.
“Anakin?” A’Sharad blurted in surprise, ripping off his mask to reveal mismatched eyes, a short crop of black hair, and stark black tattoos on his face that reminded Obi-Wan eerily of the glyphs that marred his own skin.
“I saw Bhat on Coruscant not two weeks ago, A’Sharad.” Anakin stepped closer, giving the fallen Tusken an earnest smile. “He’s been looking for you for months, hoping that he doesn’t have to accept a new Master to finish his training.”
A’Sharad looked back and forth between them, puzzled. His anger was starting to fade, replaced by another emotion that he knew—desperation. “It has been so…long,” A’Sharad whispered. “I watched so many die. To think that Bhat is…alive…”
Desperation started to fade, replaced by dawning horror. “I cannot return to him. I have betrayed the teachings of my Masters. He deserves more than I can give to him.”
He shut down his lightsaber and knelt down in the sand next to A’Sharad Hett, looking into the eyes of someone he had watched earn his place among the Jedi. “You have a choice, A’Sharad.”
A’Sharad frowned at him. “What is this choice you speak of?”
“You can choose to stay here. I’m sure that there are other tribes who’d be willing to wage war against the locals. You could start again, unite them, have your war, destroy lives. You can stay here and become everything it is that you hate about who I used to be,” he said, selecting his words with care. The Force was whispering to him, and he saw possibilities in A’Sharad Hett’s future that made his skin crawl. Darth Krayt. Remaking that which was made broken. Leader of all, bringer of Darkness. He shoved the imagery aside.
A’Sharad looked horrified. “Or?”
“Or you can go home,” he said. “Be who your father trained you to be, keep following the path that Ki-Adi Mundi and Master Kuro helped you to find. It isn’t too late to go back and find yourself again, A’Sharad. You are still a Jedi Knight, and there is a Padawan waiting for you, ready to continue on the journey that you once walked together.”
* * * *
In the end, A’Sharad Hett chose to return to Coruscant with Anakin, Padmé, and the twins. They all stood together the next evening at dusk, clustered around the boarding ramp of the sleek Nubian cruiser that Padmé had retained once her tenure as Senator was over. Shmi and Cliegg were saying goodbye to both of their children and their wives, for Beru and Owen were catching a ride on the ship to meet their transport in Mos Eisley. They were due for their own honeymoon on Kalarba, one that would be uninterrupted by assassins and war.
He stood back, watching them interact, and a hint of longing passed through him. He was their son, and he was welcome, but he knew that he didn’t belong on Tatooine. This place had brought him more healing than he could have ever expected, but he couldn’t stay here.
“What will you do?” A’Sharad asked him. The Knight had been quiet since Anakin had explained all that had gone on in the galaxy since A’Sharad had absented himself from it. Now, A’Sharad regarded him with watchful eyes, waiting patiently for an answer.
“I don’t know. Anakin asked me to come along, and perhaps, one day, I will go back,” he said. “But not yet.”
A’Sharad gave him a thoughtful look. “No, not yet,” he agreed. “But I ask you this: Can you go back to being the man you were?”
He opened his mouth to say yes, and was surprised to find himself saying no. “No, I can’t.” He swallowed, trying to put his jumbled thoughts back in order. A’Sharad had just touched on one of the things that had been bothering him for months, though the problem had not been clear until that moment.
“I think,” he said at last, “that there is too much time and distance between the man I was and the man I am now. I don’t know how to be Obi-Wan Kenobi anymore.”
“Hmm. Then it sounds to me as if you have a choice to make,” A’Sharad said, crossing his arms against his chest.
He raised an eyebrow, amused to hear his own words used against him so quickly. “Oh? And what’s that?”
A’Sharad smiled. The expression brought warmth to his eyes, and made the harsh lines on his face seem less grim. “You need to choose who, and what, you’re going to be.”
Anakin strode forward, then, meeting them with a smile. “Are you ready to go, A’Sharad?” he asked.
The Tusken Knight nodded. “It would seem, my friend, that my only baggage is up here,” he said, touching his finger to his temple.
He couldn’t help but laugh. “I know exactly what you mean.”
Anakin nodded his agreement before turning to him. “I have something for you,” he said, digging around in his robe again.
He was starting to wonder just how much Anakin was carrying around in his pockets when the young Knight flashed a triumphant smile. “I knew it was in here somewhere!” he said, and presented Obi-Wan with a flat box about the size of his hand with a flourish. A piece of real paper rested on the top, folded and tied into place with several loops of brown leather. “I’ve been holding onto it for awhile. Almost forgot I had it.”
For some reason, he was hesitant to accept what Anakin was offering. “What is it?”
“It’s a letter and a box. You read the letter, and then you open the box,” Anakin deadpanned.
He glowered at him for a moment. He knew well enough where Anakin would have picked up that little habit.
He accepted the gift from Anakin, and knew the moment it passed into his hands who it was from. His heart stuttered in his chest, and for a single, crazed moment, he was tempted to fling it back at Anakin in stark refusal.
Then his fingers closed around the box, feeling soft paper and real wood, and nothing shy of death was going to remove it from his grasp. “Thank you,” he whispered.
Anakin nodded. “Now get over here and give us all a proper farewell,” he said, grinning. “And when you leave home, don’t forget to keep in touch.”
Amused at the man’s foresight, knowing Anakin was correct about his eventual departure, he walked across the cooling desert sands to say goodbye.
* * * *
Full night had fallen. Anakin and Padmé, Beru and Owen, Luke and Leia, A’Sharad and both droids had gone. He had attempted to meditate, but after reading the letter attached to his gift, his mind had become a very chaotic place. He was still on his knees, but he was looking up at the stars, letting the tiny points of light soothe him. The letter was in his right hand, the paper occasionally fluttering in the breeze. The still-unopened box sat on the ground before him.
His father walked out, his long pipe tucked between his fingers. Cliegg settled onto a chair, putting the pipe into his mouth and taking a long pull. Smoke jetted from his nose, and they sat together in comfortable silence.
He broke it at last, voicing a question that had been bouncing around in his mind all evening. “When you—when you and my mother gave me up to the Jedi, why did you change my name?”
Cliegg frowned for a moment, then tapped out the ash from the pipe and sat it on the arm of the chair. “What brought this on?”
“I was curious,” he answered. “I have to admit it’s been on my mind more than once, of late.”
He was quiet for so long that Obi-Wan didn’t think his father would answer, and was surprised when he did. “It was not your mother’s choice, though she did choose your name. When we made the decision to give you to the Jedi, I was ashamed of the name I had given you at your birth.” Cliegg scratched the back of his neck, clearly uncomfortable. “Ben Lars seemed so plain for the name of a man who would one day be a Jedi Knight—and no, I never questioned that a Jedi was what you would be,” he added, giving Obi-Wan a self-conscious smile. “I wanted you to have something special, something that would set you apart from such a poor beginning. Aika thought I was being idiotic, but I am a stubborn man.”
He stared at his father, nonplussed. Of all the reasons he had suspected, this was one that had never occurred to him. “Who am I named for, then?”
“Obi-Wan was the name of her father’s brother. She thought the world of him, but he died when she was still a child, killed in some damned skirmish over a border dispute.”
Loss and memory. Now that was a theme he was familiar with. “It is interesting to discover the real reason I shared a naming style popular among people of my Master’s generation instead of my own,” he murmured.
“Kenobi…” Cliegg hesitated. “Kenobi isn’t a family name. It’s an old Ator word for puzzle-solver.”
That explained a lot. Searches on his own genealogy as a child had been doomed to failure because there was no such family for him to have been named for. “Why puzzle-solver?”
“I wanted you to have a name you could take pride in, something unique. Obi-Wan Kenobi turned out to be a fine Jedi,” Cliegg said, stuffing a fresh lump of tabbac into his pipe before lighting it. Red embers flashed in the dark as strands of smoke began climbing towards the sky once more. While his father smoked, he mulled over what he had just learned.
At last, Cliegg stood and stretched. “I’m heading in. Good night, Obi-Wan.”
“Good night.” He considered the matter for a moment more and spoke again, catching Cliegg before he could make it through the doorway.
“Wait…Dad?” he tasted the word, found it not nearly as awkward as he’d feared.
Cliegg half-turned in the doorway, looking back at him. “What is it, son?”
He swallowed, feeling a smile struggling to form on his lips. “I think Ben Lars is a great name for a Jedi.”
Cliegg gave him a wide, pleased smile before ducking inside. His eyes lingered on the doorway for a long time before he turned his attention to the letter in his hand once more.
He was not Venge. He was no longer capable of being Obi-Wan Kenobi. He was, however, coming to terms with the fact that he could still be a Jedi.
He lifted up the letter and read it again by the brilliant light of Tatooine’s three moons.
My dearest Obi-Wan,
My hope is that you will read the words of one old man, and allow me to voice the regret that I carry in my heart. In many ways, I owe you more apologies than I can ever give to you in one lifetime. I let anger guide my actions, and as a Jedi Master I feel such shame for the words I spoke on the day you left the Temple…and for the words I spoke on so many of the days before that.
As a man, I feel unimaginable loss.
I remember the dream you left me with on Byss. With your parting words, you showed me how well you knew me, how much you understood me. It took me long months and a great amount of time spent on my knees to see my life as the gift you meant it to be, and not the curse I wanted to call it. Without realizing it, I had become as crotchety and hidebound as I used to accuse certain members of the Council of being. I wish to say that I am old and set in my ways, but every time that I do so, Yoda hits me.
I have an incredible number of bruises of late.
The night that you left, I tried my best to find you, but you have long since perfected the art of disappearing into the ether. I had thought of you for years as my copper-haired ghost, so I’m not sure why I suddenly expected to be capable of tracking you.
In those first weeks, when none of us knew where you had gone, I discovered it was possible for my heart to feel as if it were broken anew. I had lost you once, before my heart had whispered the true nature of my feelings for you, and even then I felt as if I had lost part of my soul.
When I lost you again, through no fault save my own blasted foolishness, I felt much like the ghost I had once named you. Everything that I was, everything that I am, is tied up with you, and I ache with such intensity when I think that I might never see you again in this life.
I am a Jedi, and I still breathe. I will go on, and be the man that you gave me the chance to become. The loss of you will always be my greatest mistake, but you would never forgive me if it also became my undoing, for I would be dishonoring your gift, and all of the sacrifices that you made.
You gave me life and hope in the midst of blackest despair. You gave me your heart, even knowing that there might never be a chance to receive mine in return.
Know this: You have held my heart since Roxuli. It will always be yours to keep. I love the man you have become, and the Jedi you have always been. Know that you have my forgiveness for every step that you took to end the line of Bane. While the path was Dark, your intent and commitment to the Light are undeniable.
I hope that, one day, you might forgive the wrongs that I visited upon you. I ask your forgiveness, Obi-Wan.
I had wished to speak these words to you in person, once Anakin finally relented and gave us the knowledge of your location. Considering the interesting words you had for Tatooine during the Naboo fiasco, I find myself bewildered but amused by the choice. It is not to be, however; my attendance at the wedding of Beru and Owen has been superseded by war breaking out on Malatris’sx. Because of our presence there, years ago, it seems I am now uniquely qualified to soothe frayed tempers.
How I wish you were going to be there with me once more. I fear, if left to my own devices, that I might settle for knocking their skulls together and having done with it.
If Anakin does not lose it in the voluminous pockets of his robe, this letter should be accompanied by a gift. There is a message contained within; the words are meant as one Jedi to another, though once there was a lesson in the item for one brave, stubborn, shining Padawan.
How I miss you, my love. No matter what, I hope that the Force will bring you peace, for none deserve it more than you.
A drop of water fell onto the page, and he wiped at his face impatiently. “You always did know how to use words to their greatest effect, Qui-Gon,” he whispered, but he was smiling.
At last, he took up the wooden box, lifting the tiny, delicate latch with his fingernail. Inside was a soft layer of white foam, cushioning a black rock. His hand was trembling as he reached inside and picked it up. The last time he’d seen the riverstone, it had been in three pieces.
He turned it over and over in his hands, confirming and re-confirming that it was the same stone, that Qui-Gon had not simply returned to his home planet and retrieved another one. His heart in his throat, he held it up to the moonlight and found the sparks of reddish light dancing within. The life-force within the stone felt as it always had, warm and whispering familiar bits of a wordless song.
The message Qui-Gon had mentioned was on a tiny slip of paper, resting on the foam where the stone had lain.
What was once broken can always be made new.
Chapter 14: Your Arms Were Here, Waiting
We all make choices. Sometimes we make the right ones.
It had been a long time since she wasn’t cold. The snow always fell, dusting her cheeks with delicate, icy touches. She wanted to be warm, but warmth never came, and at some point she’d realized it would never come again.
Then, one day, the snow stopped falling.
She was sitting up in a bed that she did not know, leaning against pillows that had been stacked up to support her twisted back. She had no feeling of alarm, for she was warm and comfortable, and she had missed those sensations so very much. Her hands were bandaged and heavy, but she could wiggle her fingers.
So strange, she thought, staring down at the soft white cloth that was wrapped around her skin. When had she damaged herself?
“Ah, you’re awake. I thought it might be soon.” She looked up at the sound of words falling into her empty space. A young man stood there, a beautiful young man, with shoulder-length hair and smiling, gentle blue eyes. No, not such a young man, she realized; there were lines of weariness at his eyes and around his mouth, but the kindness she could sense made the evidence of passing time inconsequential. There was a scrawl of glyph-like text running across his cheeks in a thin black band. She frowned for a moment, for there was a memory associated with those marks.
“How are you feeling?” he asked her. “Are you well?”
“I—” she paused, startled. Her voice was rough, so much coarser than she remembered. “I believe so. Where am I?” What’s happened to me? she thought, but did not voice the question
“Nam Corvis. A long way from home to find yourself. Are you hungry?” he asked, sitting down on a chair near her bedside.
“No,” she started to say, and then realized that she was ravenous. He smiled, as if he understood, handing her what looked like a ration bar. There the resemblance ended, for it smelled wonderful and tasted like ambrosia, and she consumed it in what must have been seconds before looking at him in hopes of more.
“No, not yet,” he said, shaking his head. “You’ve been on nutrient feeds for a few days, but if you eat much more solid food right now, you’ll regret it. Give it time. Your body hasn’t recovered as much as it feels like.”
She looked at her hands again. Recovered?
“What—what am I doing on Nam Corvis?” she asked, hesitant. She did not want the snow to begin falling once more. Oh, how she dreaded it, it always came when she thought it might stop, and she would wake up and find herself in some new place…
“I don’t know,” he told her. “I wasn’t following you. In fact, we just about stumbled into each other. I didn’t even know that you were alive.”
She tested the motion of her fingers once more. She was thought dead. She had thought herself dead, or close enough for it not to matter.
He surprised her, though, when he spoke again. “You were poisoned, insidiously so, and it may have caused you more problems than the ice you fear.”
Her eyes snapped to his at that statement. The soothing serenity of a Jedi was in his gaze, and she relaxed. I know this boy, she thought, nonplussed at thinking of him as a youth. He was certainly no child. “Poisoned?”
“You were given a toxin by Dooku, before he left the Order. He gave it to Eeth Koth as well, but Master Koth died before the toxin could take effect. It’s a horrid substance, one that clings to the cells and refuses to let go. It entered your system and lay dormant. The first time you felt anger, true anger…the toxin activated. You have not been yourself for quite some time.” He leaned forward, resting his hand for a moment on her bandaged left arm. “I imagine that, aside from that cold you keep thinking about, that your memories have been unreliable.”
“Yes.” Unreliable, indeed. “I know you,” she whispered, staring into his eyes. There were echoes of the cold she feared there. He had fought against the snows, as well.
“You’re the boy we sent away.”
“Sort of,” he replied, smiling.
“But…you’re not him,” she said, reaching up to touch the black scrawl on his face with the tips of her unbandaged fingers.
He caught her hand with his, shaking his head. “No.”
She hadn’t felt this clear-headed in a long time. It had been ages since she felt able to trust her own instincts, but she believed him.
“The snow…will it come back?” she asked, her voice faint. If it came back…
He shook his head again. “It will not come back.” He hesitated. “They’re gone. All of them.”
The choking fear and anger that had driven her into the snow surfaced for just a brief moment before swirling away. Freedom had taste and substance, and brought her the first joy she could remember in years.
He offered her another gentle smile. “We have a long road ahead of us, but we will take it one step at a time, and start simply. Can you tell me your name, Master Jedi?”
She smiled, radiant once more. “Yes.”
* * * *
It had started out with Skywalker’s grinning delivery of A’Sharad Hett to the Council. The unmasked Tusken Jedi had peered at each face, seeking out his Master among those seated, before practically running across the Council chamber to fling himself at Ki-Adi Mundi’s feet. Ki-Adi had been surprised, but grateful, to have his first Padawan returned to him, a great deal saner than he had been after parting ways with the Jedi during the war.
Then others had started to trickle in, under their own power, and it had stunned Mace Windu to realize how many of their number had almost lost their souls to the Dark because of the Sith’s war. Jedi that had been consigned to the rosters of those killed or missing in action appeared in the Council’s doorway, hesitant but hopeful.
Aayla Secura arrived a few weeks after Hett. She could only remember bits and pieces of her life, and her lekku had been stamped and patterned with the ownership marks of a brothel on the Outer Rim. Suffering a second mindwipe had been near-disastrous, considering the one she had been subjected to as a child, but she had regained enough of herself to make the journey back to Coruscant. The Healers were confident that with time and meditation, the Knight would be able to reclaim her status in the Order.
Next had been Aalto de’Ya, hauled in over the shoulder of Wookiee Knight Raallandirr. The two of them had been trapped behind enemy lines for so long that news of the war’s ending had just reached them. Raallandirr had only commented that Knight de’Ya had been in no hurry to return to Coruscant, or stop fighting, and with help she had restrained the man long enough to board a transport back to the Inner Rim.
With help; that was the common theme. Aayla had been rescued from the brothel, while de’Ya had been clocked over the head with a lightsaber hilt when logic and reminders of who he was had failed to reach him. That same help had sent another handful of Jedi back to Coruscant in the months since de’Ya’s return. What had been the rarest of things—a Jedi fallen into Darkness, walking back into the Light once more—was getting to be almost commonplace. It was not easy for those who returned, or for the Jedi waiting to greet them, but time and distance brought healing…and, maybe, forgiveness.
Perhaps, Mace mused, resting his hand on the arm of his chair, the Jedi were able to learn new things, after all. Or re-learn old things, he thought, glancing over to find Yoda with his eyes half-closed, humming under his breath and looking far too pleased with himself. Usually that meant the troll was up to something, but the ancient Master was keeping his own counsel as to what that might be.
Mace put those thoughts aside and concentrated on the matter at hand, which revolved around the newfound Corporate Sector Authority’s growing refusal to let the Republic Army patrol Corellian space. Time enough to pester Yoda later.
* * * *
He stared at the closed doors for so long that his companion reached over and nudged his arm. “I thought I would be handling this badly,” she said, giving him a nervous smile.
He lifted his shoulders in the barest approximation of a shrug. “The last two times I walked through those doors, I thought I would never see this place again. I’m wondering if the third time is the charm.”
She raised a gray-tinged brow at him. “Don’t be daft, dear.”
He nodded in response and motioned for the doors to open. Once again, he was breaking protocol, but it wasn’t his fault that Council Secretary Jaris was hiding underneath his desk, avoiding his duty.
Well, maybe he was a little bit to blame for that.
His companion stayed in place as he stepped forward, his cloak shielding his face from the sunlight that spilled forth from the room beyond. There was an immediate hush as he walked towards the center of the room, facing Master Windu, Master Mundi, Master Yoda, and…
Well. They’d taken his advice, after all. He smiled; Padmé Amidala-Skywalker looked like she was biting her tongue near in half to keep from grinning at him. “Masters,” he greeted them, dropping into a soft bow. “Lady,” he added for Padmé’s benefit.
“Imp,” Padmé retorted before anyone else could speak. “Why didn’t you tell Anakin you were coming back to Coruscant?”
He smiled and pulled his hood back, letting the light and warmth of the room caress his skin at last. “He didn’t ask.”
“This wasn’t on the schedule,” Quinlan Vos drawled, crossing his arms and looking pleased to see him. The edginess he’d expected to find in the other Council members didn’t seem to exist. As he glanced around, he found more genuine smiles than polite nods, and that warmed him even more than the sunlight.
“My guest, he is,” Yoda spoke up, climbing down from his seat. The tiny Master made his way to where he stood with surprising speed, peering up at him with bright green eyes that shone with pleasure. “Surprise I wanted it to be, for a new Master joins us today.”
He was tempted to roll his eyes. “Don’t be daft, Master,” he said. He was not Jedi Master material. The very thought was ridiculous.
Yoda swatted him with his gimer stick. “Manners you once had,” Yoda grumbled, but spoiled the effect by smiling broadly. “To the Council, I say: Jedi Master Ben Lars, this is. Welcome home, young one.”
Ben dropped to his knees and embraced Yoda, the Master he had known for almost all of his life, ignoring the excited murmur that rippled through the Council chamber. “Am not,” he murmured, so only Yoda could hear.
“When Padawan you take, redundant your argument will be,” Yoda replied, just as quiet, but his smile never wavered. “Stand up, you shall, or run me over, they will.”
He stood up and was immediately captured in a bone-bruising embrace by Quinlan Vos. He let out a startled gasp and returned the hug as Quinlan pounded on his back. “You took your fucking time,” his one-time lover scolded him. “I was starting to think I was going to have to go out and drag your ass back here.”
“Like you would have found me,” Ben challenged, giving Quin a mischievous smile. Then Padmé was there, pulling on the collar of his shirt to yank his face down. Satisfied by what she saw, she planted a firm, swift kiss on his lips, grinning at his bewildered expression.
“We missed you, you ninny,” she informed him, before stepping back and giving Master Windu room to approach.
For a moment, they stared at one another. The rest of the room paused in consideration of the air of tension between them. Ben well knew that Mace had been ready to destroy him, destroy Venge, once upon a time, but the older man had also been one of the few to champion Obi-Wan Kenobi’s return to the Temple. He had no idea what to expect.
He was still harder on himself than others could ever be, he realized, as Mace shook his head and subjected Ben to the same fierce embrace that Quinlan had. “Welcome back,” the Master said, and when he stepped back, there was a teasing light in his eyes. “Are you thinking of sticking around, this time?”
He grinned. “I was thinking about it, yes.”
Mace nodded, crossing his arms. His visage was stern, but Ben knew better, now. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
Ben thought about it for a moment. “Almost,” he answered. “I think I’m in the right place for the last of it.” He repressed another grin at the raised eyebrow that Mace gave him. “I have a guest of my own, Masters,” he said, half-turning and looking back at the still-open doorway.
A woman stood there, waiting with the barest hint of a smile on her face. Her skin was paler than it used to be, and her once-luxurious black hair had turned the color of dull steel. She appeared much older than her true age, now, but her eyes were clear, and her hands held no trace of the trembling that had plagued her during her recovery on Nam Corvis.
“Depa,” Mace breathed.
Ben watched as the Haruun Kal Master stepped forward, uncertain. Depa Billaba may have been ravaged by the Sith toxin that had driven her to madness, but her smile was brilliant when she saw her Master, and she raised her arms in acceptance of the embrace that he offered.
* * * *
Every time Qui-Gon Jinn cleared the landing platform, stepping through the force-field and onto the polished stone of the Temple, it felt like coming home. He drew in a deep breath, scents striking his nose that he had known for almost eight decades.
There was anguish in his heart that never faded, but at least he was once more among friends. One of them was waiting to greet him, wearing the broad grin that had been Mace Windu’s constant companion since Qui-Gon had witnessed his and Adi Gallia’s bonding ceremony.
“Welcome back, Qui-Gon. How was Neimoidia?”
“It was possibly the most boring visit to that planet I have ever had,” Qui-Gon replied, hefting his pack back over his shoulder so that they could walk together. “It brought me a great deal of relief. Hello, Mace.”
Mace nodded, falling into step with him. “I have to admit, it feels strange to wake up and realize that there is no longer a Trade Federation out there. The Techno Union is defunct now, too. Quinlan accepted the paperwork that dissolved their partnerships just this morning.”
“Sith,” Qui-Gon said, shaking his head in disbelief. He’d grown up to the squabbles of those lumbering corporate giants. Soon enough, someone else would slide into the space they’d vacated, but for now, he looked forward to quieter newsfeeds. It was strange to think that it had been over a year since the confrontation with Sidious on Byss. “So much has changed.”
“And yet, so much of it remains the same,” Mace countered, a rueful expression on his face. “We accepted the Skywalker twins into the creche this morning.”
Qui-Gon felt a large grin stretch across his face. The twins’ first birthday would have been yesterday, and he’d hated to miss it. This news, however, more than made up for it. “Is it official, then? Padmé Amidala Skywalker is sitting on the Council?”
“After much bitching and moaning from our dear friends Agen Kolar and Oppo Rancisis, yes. It’s official; we have a non-Jedi on our Jedi Council. Agen was too professional to storm out, but Shaak Ti is sure she caught him muttering under his breath that it was the end of the world,” Mace said.
“And what does Yoda think, now that the issue is settled?” Qui-Gon asked, curious. The ancient Master had long been silent on the matter of Padmé’s candidacy for a Council seat.
Mace looked at Qui-Gon. “Yoda caught Lady Skywalker working one of the twins’ Force puzzles.”
“Did he, now,” Qui-Gon said, resisting the urge to laugh at the put-upon expression on the other Master’s face. “That’s quite an accomplishment for someone so old, with no formal training to speak of.”
“Mmm. We questioned Knight Skywalker about it. He looked baffled and swore up and down that he had no idea his wife had gained any such ability. Then Adi started making jokes in my head about roaming midichlorians and midichlorian injections—”
This time he did laugh, and he was surprised by the rusty quality of it. Had it been so long since he’d laughed? He thought about it, and realized that the last time he’d found true amusement was in watching Obi-Wan glare at Mace during that early morning comm call to Tatooine. The laughter faded.
Mace must have noticed Qui-Gon’s change in mood, but he was kind enough not to comment on it. “Being bonded to that woman will take some getting used to.”
“I’ve heard that’s usually the case with bonded couples,” Qui-Gon said, voice mild, but inside, some part of him that had been wishing for the same chance continued to crack along old fault lines, bringing more pain to his heart. He’d stopped asking Mace if he had heard from Obi-Wan every time he returned from a mission, but it was a hard habit to break.
With Anakin he fared better; Anakin could at least reassure him that, wherever he was, Obi-Wan was all right. After the wedding of Anakin’s step-brother, Obi-Wan had left Tatooine, dropping off the galactic radar. His whereabouts remained a mystery to Qui-Gon, and his family would not betray Obi-Wan’s confidence unless the need was dire.
As the months had gone by, and no reply to his letter had been forthcoming, his hope had begun to wither. If Qui-Gon were to be honest with himself, he knew that he deserved no less.
Mace’s comm chirped, and the senior Councilor looked like he wanted to throttle the device. “I have to go. We’re reconvening an earlier session with all twelve chairs full for the first time in over a year. It’s bound to be interesting.”
Qui-Gon paused, touched. Mace had used one of the rare recesses the Council granted themselves to greet his transport. “Good luck, Mace,” he said, managing a sincere smile.
Mace nodded in response and strode off, his face settling into the calm, studious mask he used during Council sessions. Qui-Gon watched him go, no longer in such a hurry to return to his empty quarters.
When he stepped off of the lift, forcing himself down the hall to his own door, he was surprised but pleased to see a familiar, green-haired figure waiting outside. “Padawan Vin,” he called. She was one of the few orphaned Padawans who remained without a Master. He had considered taking her, despite once believing that Anakin would be his last apprentice, but the Force kept telling him not to. Instead, they had become friends, spending time together between his missions and visits with the Council hierarchy.
She turned to see him, and her face lit up. “Master Jinn,” she said, smiling. “It is a pleasure to see you returned from Neimoidia.” She bowed, a correct and formal movement that he had despaired of ever seeing her master.
He lifted an eyebrow at her choice of words. The girl who had once been Siri Tachi’s Padawan had never before managed such politeness. “You have been practicing,” he said, returning her bow of greeting. “When I left a month ago, I recall a far more foul-mouthed Jeila Vin seeing me off.”
She grinned. “You haven’t caught up on Temple gossip, which means I get to tell you myself. I’d hoped to be first,” she said, and below the Padawan calm, he sensed that the girl was ready to vibrate her way through the floor.
Qui-Gon paused as he palmed his door open, taking a more careful inventory of Jeila’s appearance. She was wearing new tunics of deep, dark, blue that emphasized her eyes and pale skin, and she’d pulled her normally unruly coils of hair back into a tail. His eyes lit upon the Padawan braid that hung behind her right ear. Fresh blue and white beads marked the braid, and there was a new lock of pale brown hair intertwined within the green.
Qui-Gon smiled as he gestured for her to precede him into his quarters. The lights came up, revealing the familiar sights of home. His plants looked green and healthy, which meant Yoda had been sneaking in to water them. Thank the gods—if the task had fallen to Anakin, he would have discovered a room full of dead brown stems.
“Congratulations, Jeila,” Qui-Gon said, and dropped his pack just in time to catch an armload of excited teenage girl. “Who is the lucky Master?” he asked, returning her enthusiastic hug.
Jeila stepped back, smoothing her tunics self-consciously back into place. “Master Lars,” she replied, a wide, happy smile on her face. “I was starting to think I was going to be a solitary Padawan until I was Master Yoda’s age, but then he came along, and it’s wonderful.”
“I am very happy for you, Jeila,” he said, trying to ignore his own sense of loss. He had so few friends in the Temple, now; death had claimed many of those he had known. With Jeila apprenticed once more, her time in the Temple would be short, just like his own was.
Jeila nodded, launching into the specifics of what her new Master had been teaching her. Diplomacy Qui-Gon had already noticed, as well as further lessons in expanding her vocabulary and language sets. Jeila did have the steel to be a fierce negotiator, and apparently this Master Lars had noticed, too.
“I have never heard of a Jedi by that name,” he said, when Jeila stopped for breath. He had once tried his best to keep track of every Master based in the Coruscant Temple. “Tell me about him.”
The new Padawan paused, her gaze turning thoughtful. “Well, he’s in his mid-thirties, and he’s full human, not a blend like me,” she grinned. “He had just returned from a—a posting in the Outer Rim, and he came and found me. Would you like to meet him, Master Jinn? I’m supposed to be joining him in one of the lower training salles in a few minutes.”
He considered the matter as he shed his travel cloak, though his first inclination was to wait for a later opportunity to meet Jeila’s new Master. He no doubt had enough work to catch up on that it would mean hours spent at his terminal…
Qui-Gon changed his mind. Temple matters could wait another day. He’d resigned from the Council a year ago, and still his workload felt just as heavy.
He glanced back at Jeila, and though the Padawan’s expression was guileless, there was a suspicious glimmer in her indigo eyes. “Padawan Vin,” Qui-Gon began, his tone stern, “Are you trying to play matchmaker?”
Both of her eyebrows came up in a protracted expression of innocence. “I most certainly am not, Master Jinn. I never play at anything.”
He sighed. This was the last thing he wanted, but he supposed Jeila Vin thought she was trying to be helpful. No one that young wanted to see misery in those they considered friends. Siri Tachi, you were a horrid, horrid influence on this child, he grumbled.
“Lead the way, Jeila. I will meet your new Master, but try not to be too disappointed if your skills are rusty.”
“Yes, Master Jinn,” she grinned in response, not cowed in the slightest.
They walked together, and though he could tell that Jeila wanted to dance ahead, full of excitement, she did an admirable job of pacing him. Her smile was wide and engaging, and she was one of those intriguing individuals who wove a conversation with her hands as well as her voice. She was in the midst of explaining a horrible joke about a Bantha and a Naboo priest; to his delight, it was the crude version he’d grown up with, and not the watered down tale the other Padawans were sharing.
An animated cheer floated down the hall, interrupting the punch line of the joke. They were close enough to the salle to explain the noise; both doors were standing open. Another cheer rolled out into the hallway, followed by a quick burst of laughter. “It sounds as if your Master has company,” Qui-Gon commented.
Jeila rolled her eyes. “It sounds like he and Knight Skywalker are showing off again,” she said, with the air of the long-suffering.
He gave her a thoughtful look, and his heart started beating a touch faster. It couldn’t be. Not after this long silence…but the recognition sang out in his thoughts. He knew an entire group of people named Lars, after all.
Except that the hair in Jeila’s braid had been brown, not copper.
He followed Jeila into the salle, finding a place in the surrounding crowd of Padawans, young Knights, and a few of the older Masters. Adi was standing not far away, a near-feral grin on her face. She was watching the training arena with her arms crossed, occasionally offering murmured commentary to Knight Secura and Master Unduli.
Qui-Gon took note of the training arena below and fought a smile of his own. It was one of the obstacle courses, not meant for traditional katas. This was a landscape of challenges and shadows, and Anakin Skywalker was stalking through it with a thwarted look on his face. Qui-Gon had only seen a ghost of that expression after Anakin’s Knighting, which meant that the young man had been hunting his opponent for some time without success.
“You can’t hide forever!” Anakin called out, holding his lightsaber up to illuminate the boxed ceiling of space above him. There was no answer to Anakin’s challenge except for a ripple of amusement in the Force.
Qui-Gon could feel Anakin searching his surroundings for the elusive Master Lars, but the Force probes were being diverted. Given enough time, Anakin was going to pinpoint the source of those diversions, but he had to wonder if Lars would allow Anakin that time.
What interested Qui-Gon, gave him pause, was that he could observe all of the arena from his vantage point, and there was no other person in it. He glanced at Jeila, tempted to ask if her new Master was still playing the game, but Jeila was watching Anakin’s progress with intent eyes.
Anakin turned around, heading back in the opposite direction. Qui-Gon managed to catch himself before he took a step; he still wanted to follow Anakin’s progress, keep track of the emotions crossing Anakin’s face. Sometimes it was hard to break the teaching habit, and Anakin had been a Knight for over two years.
His curiosity was made moot a moment later. Someone with the same pale-brown hair he’d seen in Jeila’s braid rose up out of the shadowed floor behind Anakin, seeming to melt out of the ether and into existence. Qui-Gon saw that the man’s dark robe was still partially merged with the shadows, and sucked in a startled breath.
Another shadow-walker, he thought, stunned. I had no idea that Master Kuro had passed that talent along to anyone. Mundi sure as hell never managed it. The ability to phase through solid objects was among the rarest of talents, and in three generations of Jedi, only An’ya had ever mastered it. She always claimed that shadows were easier, and he’d always retorted that in terms of physics it made no blasted difference.
The man’s hair was loose, just touching his shoulders, and it gleamed in the light as he stepped forward, pointing a pale blue blade at Anakin’s back.
Anakin froze. “That is cheating,” he said in obvious aggravation.
The moment Lars spoke, Qui-Gon didn’t need to see the man’s face to know him. He knew that voice, had dreamed of the time when he would hear it once more.
“I did not cheat. When Knight Skywalker set the rules, did any of you hear him say that I wasn’t allowed to shadow-walk?” Obi-Wan Kenobi demanded of the watching crowd, a cheerful lilt in his voice.
“No, Master Lars!” the young Padawans called back, grinning and laughing at the pout that graced Anakin’s lips when he turned around. There were a few more congratulating calls from the Padawans, and a spattering of applause from the other witnesses.
“You know, when you gave them that speech about being mindful of ways to utilize your environment, I don’t think that’s what most people have in mind,” Anakin said, shutting down his lightsaber.
“Then they’re not using their imaginations,” Obi-Wan retorted. He turned his attention back to the crowd. “Our class seems to have multiplied greatly in the past half-hour, Anakin,” he continued in an inscrutable voice.
“I don’t think this course is big enough for everyone,” Anakin replied, fighting a grin as he tried to match Obi-Wan’s tone. Anakin was as horrible a diplomat as he was a dejarik player. No wonder the brat had forgone visual communication while Qui-Gon was on Neimoidia—he wouldn’t have been able to keep this particular secret.
“All right! If you’re here because you belong in my class, get down here. If you’re not part of my class, get out! Unless you’re my Padawan,” he added, sparing Jeila a quick glance. Then his gaze drifted up.
Their eyes locked, and for a wonderful, heart-wrenching moment, Qui-Gon stopped breathing. The emptiness that had filled Obi-Wan’s eyes after Byss was gone; they were blue and alert and lively. Yes, a trace of the old desolation lingered, but it wasn’t the soul-wrenching horror Qui-Gon remembered.
Obi-Wan smiled at him, a wide, inviting movement of his lips that held Qui-Gon transfixed. He had always been able to convey so much in such simple gestures.
Hello, he said now, and Qui-Gon found he could breathe again.
Hello, he echoed, too shell-shocked to think of anything more elegant than that.
Obi-Wan turned back to Jeila, who wore a poor attempt at an innocent smile. “You brought a guest, Padawan?”
“Yes, Master,” she answered.
“You were late.”
Jeila offered her Master a quick shrug. “It’s not my fault Master Jinn walks slowly.”
“You should always time your activities according to those you are pacing yourself against,” he said, and quirked an eyebrow. “Introduce me to your guest, Jeila.”
The Padawan needed no further encouragement. She grabbed Qui-Gon’s hand and led him down the steps into the training arena, and as they approached he used the opportunity to take in Obi-Wan’s altered appearance.
His eyebrows, even his eyelashes, matched his hair, and no trace of the old copper remained. This was no simple dye job, and he wondered at the change.
Obi-Wan was no longer pale, but it was more than that; his skin was glowing with health in a way that Qui-Gon had not seen on his former Padawan in years. The narrow band of black glyphs still graced his cheeks, but the ones on his forehead were gone. Removed, perhaps, or hidden by Force Illusion as Obi-Wan had once hidden the other tattoos on his body. The glyphs that remained held no trace of the old malice.
He’d ditched his tunics, as well, wearing dark pants that looked to be made of thick, durable leather, topped by a black shirt. With the dark brown cloak in place, the effect was both simple and striking. He looked more like one of the Corellian rogues than a traditional Jedi, but Obi-Wan Kenobi was anything but traditional, anymore.
Obi-Wan’s hand, held out to accept the one that Qui-Gon unthinkingly offered, was free of the scars that had crossed and re-crossed his skin. They touched, and Obi-Wan’s palm was warm, and Qui-Gon gave up on solemnity as his thoughts started tumbling over each other in a merry jumble. The spark of familiarity that greeted him was enough for broken things to begin healing. More than enough.
Qui-Gon realized he had a huge, delighted grin on his face, and didn’t care one bit.
“Master Qui-Gon Jinn, this is Master Ben Lars,” Jeila said with an impish smile.
He still hadn’t let go of Obi-Wan’s hand. “Ben?” he whispered, almost tasting the word.
“Well, it is my name,” Obi-Wan replied, a hint of a wry smile on his face. “It’s who I— who I choose to be,” he said, and Qui-Gon didn’t miss the careful emphasis.
He nodded, and felt a brief moment of mourning. His Padawan had given up his name, the one he had borne while earning his knighthood.
Perhaps that was all right, though. Obi-Wan Kenobi had given himself up to his cause and his duty, sacrificing his life and reputation for the greater good—the survival of the Jedi and the Republic. It seemed it had even been recognized; Jeila had introduced him not as her Master, but a Master.
Qui-Gon had a long list of people he needed to throttle for not telling him about this. Any of this.
Then he thought: He’s here. Obi-Wan is here. He has a Padawan, and he’s right here.
Qui-Gon’s smile not dimming an iota, he bowed over their clasped hands. “It is one of the greatest pleasures of my life to greet you, Ben Lars.”
He stayed to watch Obi-Wan’s class, which Anakin was volunteering to help with for the day. Wild Banthas, the entire Council, and a fleet of ships couldn’t have dragged Qui-Gon away, and part of his control must have cracked, because he couldn’t stop smiling.
Obi-Wan and Anakin sniped at each other good-naturedly as they worked with the Padawans, teaching them how to duel with their lightsabers in an untrustworthy environment. The class was a brilliant choice for Obi-Wan’s skill-set, and Qui-Gon could almost see Yoda’s clawed hands behind the assignment.
Jeila attended her Master, as well as helping the younger children with grip and footwork when she noticed problems. Now Qui-Gon realized what Jeila Vin had seen last year, when she’d confronted Obi-Wan in the commissary. The ease between herself and Obi-Wan was obvious, now that they shared a training bond, and the Force thrummed its contentment at the pairing.
When Qui-Gon wasn’t taking note of what the class was being taught, he was staring at Obi-Wan. His body language was open, expressive, almost languid, and yet it spoke to Qui-Gon of a near-manic thought process. There was an intensity to the man’s gaze now that drew him in, as if somehow Venge and Obi-Wan had combined to create a more primal being, one that was firmly entrenched in the Light, yet nonetheless fully aware of what went on in the Dark. His way of speaking, as Qui-Gon listened, was more blunt than it had been before, as if he no longer wished to waste time with words. His humor was sharp, but his voice was kind.
Qui-Gon thought of all the times that Venge had appeared and disappeared, and grinned. Shadow-walking. The sly, sneaky, little bastard.
Obi-Wan paused in what he was doing, looking up at where Qui-Gon sat cross-legged on the edge of the training arena. Then he grinned, bowing low to Qui-Gon and letting the Jedi Master know that his comment had been heard.
The class ended within an hour, with some Masters coming to collect their young charges. There was caution in their eyes, but none of the hostility that had once marked their regard for Obi-Wan.
Time brings healing, even for us, Qui-Gon mused. The war would have destroyed the Jedi mindset, even if Palpatine had not. It was through the actions Venge had taken that the conflict had ended, opening the paths to peace that otherwise would have been nigh-impossible to find.
He wanted to stay. Gods, how he wanted to stay, but at the moment he was at a loss. After almost a year with no word, he was unsure of exactly how welcome his continued presence would be.
Qui-Gon was just drawing his robe around himself, still undecided, when Anakin bounded up the steps to meet him. “And just where do you think you’re going, Master?” he asked, grinning.
Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow. “I had thought to go home, Padawan. I’m sure that there is enough paperwork waiting for me to drown in.” Of course, when he put it like that, he really didn’t want to go.
“Paperwork can wait, as you taught me. Life comes first, bureaucracy after,” Anakin said, a conspiratorial grin on his face. “Come have dinner at Ben’s place with the rest of us.”
The man in question glanced over at them as he saw off the last Padawan. “The who and the what, now?” Obi-Wan asked, giving them both a baffled look.
“Dinner, Master,” Jeila repeated, nudging her Master gently with her elbow. “Remember?”
There was a moment where Obi-Wan seemed to go inward, as if searching for something. Then his eyes lit up. “Oh! Right! Yes, that. Dinner. Birthdays. I’d forgotten.” He paused. “And why are you inviting people to my home?”
“Because you didn’t remember to, and Master Qui-Gon is one of the invitees, anyway,” Anakin drawled, which elicited an eye-roll from Obi-Wan. “We put off the twins’ birthday dinner by one day, since you wound up running late,” Anakin explained, turning to Qui-Gon once more. “Padmé and I didn’t want you to miss it. Still in the mood to go home?” he asked, smiling.
He looked at Jeila, who was nodding her head up and down in rapid succession. Encouragement aplenty, there. Obi-Wan just looked at him, his expression neutral, but there was no mistaking the quiet request in his eyes.
“The hell with the paperwork,” Qui-Gon said, and Obi-Wan rewarded him with a brilliant smile.
Dinner passed in a blur. Qui-Gon spent most of that time staring at Obi-Wan, though no one was cruel enough to comment that his attention was most certainly elsewhere. The twins, sensing his preoccupation, wasted no time in flinging cake at his face.
He tried to wipe it off, but by that point it was too late. Once the children discovered that they could Force-toss their birthday treat, there was cake everywhere. They giggled like loons while the adults tried their best to contain the disaster. Padmé saved them all by procuring the cleansing wipes normally reserved for diaper changes, handing out fistfuls to everyone present.
His robe Qui-Gon gave up as a loss, knowing from past experience in the creche that it would need to be laundered. He wiped his face, his hair, and found himself using another handful of wipes to retrieve cake from inside the collar of Obi-Wan’s shirt. Obi-Wan was half-bent over, laughing, as Qui-Gon swore and tried to rescue globs of cake before they could escape further down the man’s back, and as he worked he realized three things.
The first was that he couldn’t stop grinning, as before, but at the moment he was hardly the only one. The second was that Obi-Wan’s skin was warm and smooth, and Obi-Wan’s hair kept brushing his hand, which meant that Qui-Gon’s heart rate soared up into the triple digits and stayed there.
The third thing he realized, as he brushed the wipe over clean, lightly tanned skin, was that the black spirals that had once covered Obi-Wan’s body were gone.
He tossed the used wipes into the disposal unit that R2-D2 pushed into place for easy reach, while C-3PO whimpered and carried on about sugar clogging his joints. Jeila gave Qui-Gon a very unsubtle look before turning to her Master and announcing that she was going to bed, since she had an early class. The droids were directed towards a lube bath in the maintenance wing, the twins were picked up by both parents and hauled off towards the ’fresher for an emergency bath, and he and Obi-Wan remained at the table, cleaning up the rest of splattered birthday cake.
Their hands brushed together as they worked, so often that Qui-Gon was almost certain it was deliberate on Obi-Wan’s part. Not that he objected. By the time the table, floor, and surrounding area was spotless, he was damned-near biting his tongue off, he wanted to touch Obi-Wan so badly.
Gods. Had he been this easily keyed up the first time he’d been thirty?
Obi-Wan stood on tip-toe as he opened a cabinet, filching a bottle full of something pale from a shelf.
“That better not be my porvignon, Ben!” Anakin called from the ’fresher. “I brought it for everyone, not just you!”
“Wouldn’t dream of drinking all of your porvignon!” Obi-Wan called back, giving Qui-Gon a shifty look; Qui-Gon nodded in approval of the theft.
“Whatever. There better still be at least half a bottle left!”
“Come on,” Obi-Wan said, lifting a shoulder in invitation as he led the way out onto a precariously small balcony. “Bath time is loud time, and I’d like to preserve what hearing I’ve got left.”
Qui-Gon smiled. Any time was loud time with the twins, it seemed. “Wise decision.”
He took a moment to snag their empty glasses from dinner, since Obi-Wan had neglected that step, and followed him outside. Of course, the way his body was reacting, Obi-Wan could ask him to do just about anything and Qui-Gon would agree.
Coruscant had been unseasonably warm when he’d departed for Malastare last month. Now it was almost cold, and their breath left their lips in silvery gusts. Qui-Gon held up the glasses in invitation, and Obi-Wan looked sheepish. “Mmm, yes, thank you—I forgot. Not that I’m opposed to swilling directly from the bottle, but glasses are more civilized.”
Qui-Gon frowned at that, thinking about the bafflement Obi-Wan had expressed earlier in the day. “Are you…having memory problems?” he asked, not certain he should.
The other man didn’t mind. “Somewhat. I’m fine when I stay focused, but little day-to-day minutiae still seems to slip through the cracks. It’s something that became more obvious as this past year progressed, but it doesn’t appear to be getting any worse.”
Obi-Wan raised his glass. “First drink of the evening. Should we toast to anything?”
Qui-Gon hesitated. “To being home,” he said, and his voice cracked on the last word.
Obi-Wan tilted his head but said nothing, only moving so that their glasses could clink together. Qui-Gon took an experimental sip (Anakin’s taste in alcohol had improved due to his wife’s influence) and watched in amusement as Obi-Wan made his portion disappear in one swift movement.
“I do believe this particular vintage was meant to be savored,” he commented.
Obi-Wan set his glass upside down on a small table that sat by the door. “I’m not much for patience anymore, I guess,” he said, and turned back to Qui-Gon, meeting his eyes.
Qui-Gon’s breath caught. Obi-Wan’s eyes were blue, vivid blue tinged with green. He’d seen that color once before, years ago. Only once.
Obi-Wan walked towards him, one careful step at a time, as if he worried that Qui-Gon would flee. When he was close enough that Qui-Gon could feel body heat, Obi-Wan raised his arms and embraced Qui-Gon, pressing himself against Qui-Gon’s chest, his head tucked into place below Qui-Gon’s chin.
“Force,” Qui-Gon whispered, stunned, as he wrapped his arms around Obi-Wan. He couldn’t seem to think of anything else to say. All he was processing was the warmth of Obi-Wan, the scent of his hair, and the hands caressing his back in slow, gentle circles.
Obi-Wan tightened his grip. “I missed you,” he whispered into Qui-Gon’s tunics, his voice thick. “Gods, how I missed you, I thought I would never have this again—”
“Anytime, anywhere. Ask and it’s yours,” Qui-Gon murmured back, and now he could feel the echoes of that old desperation, both his and Obi-Wan’s. He wrapped it in the Force, held it as much as he was holding Obi-Wan, seeking to warm what had been cold for far too long.
Obi-Wan sighed in his arms, pulling himself closer, and Qui-Gon was happily astonished at the feel of warm hardness that pressed against him. It was a fair match for his own, and there was a deep, pleased chuckle from the man he was holding.
“Oh, don’t I have ideas for that,” Obi-Wan said.
Someone’s commlink warbled for attention, and Qui-Gon started swearing as they both fumbled for their own devices. The culprit turned out to be Obi-Wan’s. They stared at each other as the commlink sounded again, determined to be answered.
“I’ll give you every credit I have not to answer that fucking thing,” Qui-Gon said.
“Language, Master Jinn. We have time,” Obi-Wan replied, his eyes dancing. “Lars,” he said, engaging the comm before it could signal again.
“Sorry to bother you, Ben. I know you have guests this evening.” It was Mace. Qui-Gon thought of the many dire ways he was going to inform the man of his very bad timing.
Obi-Wan closed his eyes, swearing under his breath. “It’s Bail, isn’t it?”
“Yes. The Chancellor wishes to speak with you immediately.” Obi-Wan rolled his eyes at the emphasis. “There is a group from the Outer Rim with the Advisory Council right now. They need information about some of the things they’ve discovered while cleaning up battle debris, and you’re one of the only people that can give them those answers. How soon can you get there?” Mace asked.
“I’ll leave now. Pass on the message that we’ll arrive as soon as traffic allows,” Obi-Wan said, shutting down the comm.
“We?” Qui-Gon asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I saw that look you were giving me,” Obi-Wan replied, a quirk of a smile on his face. “Though, I’m sure you still have that paperwork waiting for you.”
“No, thank you,” Qui-Gon shook his head. “It will keep.” Then he smiled, sheepish. “I daresay you could tie a cord to me and lead me around, and I’d happily follow you anywhere.”
The blue-green flare of Obi-Wan’s eyes intensified. “We’ll have to try that later.”
Qui-Gon did not whimper. Any strange noises, he attributed to distant traffic.
He’d wondered on the trip over if the presence of two Jedi, when one had been expected, would have ruffled any feathers. Hell, he’d wondered what kind of reception Obi-Wan was going to get.
To his surprise, and bafflement, Obi-Wan’s presence seemed to soothe the planetary contingent. Qui-Gon spent several hours listening and sometimes commenting on the information that Obi-Wan gave to them. They’d come across one of Dooku’s abandoned works, it seemed, and it was a nasty piece of technology, requiring special care before it could be disposed of safely.
Obi-Wan ran them through the process twice, made sure that there were recordings and written transcriptions of what he’d given to them, before seeing the contingent off with polite words and well-wishes. The moment that Bail Organa took over, escorting them and the rest of the Advisory Council away, Obi-Wan went down, collapsing into Bail’s chair. His forehead impacted the surface of Bail’s desk with a muted thud.
Alarmed, Qui-Gon walked over, resting his hand on Obi-Wan’s back. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” was the immediate response, though Obi-Wan’s voice sounded thick again. The tension Qui-Gon could feel beneath his hands confirmed that.
“Sometimes I just wish it was over,” Obi-Wan continued. “But it’s not going to end. I’ll be cleaning up this mess for the rest of my life.”
Qui-Gon had no idea what to say to that, not without broaching topics that they might not be ready to discuss. “Let’s go home,” he suggested quietly. Obi-Wan didn’t reply, but he did stand, both of them escaping the Chancellor’s offices before the Advisory Council could involve them in some new problem or dispute.
On the ride back, they didn’t speak, but Obi-Wan relaxed against Qui-Gon’s side. With the man’s warm weight on his arm and the scent of Obi-Wan’s hair teasing his nose, Qui-Gon didn’t notice the lack of conversation.
They walked back to Obi-Wan’s quarters, passing the occasional Jedi or Senate page, and at some point Obi-Wan’s hand found its way into Qui-Gon’s and stayed there. An echo of the earlier grin touched his lips, and at his side Obi-Wan made an amused sound.
Stopping in front of the closed door to Obi-Wan’s quarters, Qui-Gon found that he didn’t want to go, but knew he should. Whatever lay between them should not be rushed, he believed, even if they had started walking side by side as if they had never stopped. Except they had never walked in such a manner before, for there had been no time for each other after Obi-Wan’s Knighting. This was new. This was…this was different.
Without thought, Qui-Gon reached out and brushed his fingers along the black glyphs that still decorated Obi-Wan’s cheeks. Then, for the very first time, he noticed something that should have been obvious from the start. “These glyphs aren’t from the Sith alphabet, are they?”
Obi-Wan met his eyes, and Qui-Gon stared into clear gray depths. “No.”
“But—you didn’t alter them,” he said, thinking of the missing spirals. His fingers traced the lines that made up the glyphs, stunned. War with the Sith had forced him to become more familiar with the Sith alphabet, and now that he was looking, really looking, he could see subtle differences.
“How did he not notice?” Qui-Gon asked, and after he voiced the question he was no longer certain who he was speaking of—Palpatine, or himself.
Obi-Wan lifted his shoulders in the barest approximation of a shrug. “People see what they want to see,” he said. “They always have.”
Qui-Gon nodded his agreement. Even he, for all his talk and insistence that Obi-Wan could be saved, had been willing to see the worst from the very beginning. It had been a hard lesson to learn, one that had left a bitter taste in his mouth and heart. “What is it, then?”
With an impish smile, Obi-Wan shook his head. “You’ll have to find that out for yourself.”
Qui-Gon stared at him, and all of a sudden it was like a switch was thrown. He opened his mind, his heart, and allowed himself to truly see the man who stood before him.
“Ben,” he whispered. Jedi Master Ben Lars—stronger in soul than Qui-Gon could ever comprehend being.
“Yes?” Ben looked at him in bemusement.
“Rest well, Ben,” Qui-Gon murmured, bending just enough to plant a soft kiss on Ben’s lips, receiving a muffled, surprised, indignant squeak in response.
Then Ben grabbed the collar of his tunic before Qui-Gon could back away, something between a growl and a purr in his voice when he spoke. “If you’re going to leave me aching for the night, the least you could do is offer me a real kiss.”
A hot rush left Qui-Gon’s limbs tingling, and he took a deep breath before answering. “If I give you that, then I won’t leave, and I think I should. For now,” he continued, before Ben could speak, noticing the temperamental spark in those blue-green eyes. “We have time.”
Ben sighed, a ghost of the old sardonic smile gracing his lips before he stepped back. “You always did have this annoying habit of being right. I will see you tomorrow, Qui-Gon Jinn. And if I discover that you’ve accepted some mission or hitched a transport, I will track you down and tie you up and do whatever I want with you.”
Qui-Gon sucked in a breath. “Ben, that isn’t a very good way of convincing me not to go and do just that.”
Ben tilted his head to one side consideringly, offering Qui-Gon a surprised, then sly, smile. “Hmm. Guess not. But please, try to stay on Coruscant? I am supposed to be proving that I’m responsible, and dragging my Padawan to remote locations on whims is not the best way to do that.”
“Right. Until tomorrow, then.”
“Tomorrow,” Ben repeated, and slipped into his quarters, the door closing with a soft hiss of air behind him.
It took several minutes and a few focusing exercises before Qui-Gon could force himself to return to his own quarters. I am so, so screwed, he thought.
A moment later he realized he was grinning like a madman.
His own quarters were dark, and felt dreary and empty after the evening he’d had. Qui-Gon withstood the urge to sigh, flinging his robe over the couch as he skipped the lights and went straight to the bedroom, knowing that he wouldn’t be sleeping for a long time. Worse, he had a raging hard-on, the sort that strikes a man rarely and won’t be tamed by anything but another body or the passage of time. If cocks had the means to communicate, he knew full well that his would be swearing at him for passing up the first option.
He stripped and slipped between sheets that were deliciously cool. He rolled over, hissing when the cloth raked too-sensitive skin, and lay so that he could face the window. The traffic was distant, but the patterns were soothing. He let himself drift, trying not to think, focusing only on the memory of blue-green eyes.
At some point he must have dozed off. When he awoke, Ben was there, kneeling next to his bed and looking at Qui-Gon with a curious expression.
“Don’t you remember how to knock?” Qui-Gon asked, unsurprised to discover the man in his bedroom.
“No,” Ben replied. “Besides, you never changed my old security code for the door. I didn’t need to knock.”
“I never changed it?” Funny; he’d thought he had, especially after the war began.
“Nope. I’ve been in and out of this place for years. I always thought you’d change the code one day, but that day never came.”
Qui-Gon sat up, resting his weight on his elbow. “Wait a minute. You were just…waltzing into my quarters whenever you felt like it?”
He should have been outraged. Instead, he just felt a very strange sense of relief that he wasn’t sure he understood…or maybe he did. Qui-Gon had been Obi-Wan’s anchor, the thing that had kept Venge in check. He saw the reminder of that fact every time he glanced in a mirror.
“Well, we’ve already established that I have no sense of boundaries,” Ben said with a faint smile, though the expression quickly faded back to that curious gaze. “Tonight was… Are we—are we really all right? Just like that?”
He swallowed, nodding. “I think so. It seems like there should have been something more, doesn’t it? A bit more drama, perhaps?”
Ben shook his head. “I don’t know about you, Qui-Gon, but I’ve had enough fucking drama to last me the next six lifetimes. I’m happy to skip that part of the relationship and move right on to the fantastic sex.”
Qui-Gon chuckled. “Pushy, pushy.”
“Yes,” Ben agreed, leaning over to rest his head on the bed next to Qui-Gon’s chest. Qui-Gon felt his breath catch at the inherent trust in the gesture.
He lifted his hand, hesitated, and placed it on Ben’s head. The hair beneath his touch was like warm silk, and as he ran his fingers through it, Ben released a deep sigh. It was all the encouragement that he needed to continue the caress.
“I noticed that you seem to be missing a few tattoos,” he ventured, recalling the tantalizing glimpse of bare skin he’d seen.
Ben chuckled. “Mmm. It was a great deal harder to get them off than it was to have them put on. Figured I might as well lose a few dozen scars in the process.”
That explained that, then. “How did you do it?” Qui-Gon asked, curious.
“Well,” Ben said, sitting up enough to prop his chin on his hand, his elbow resting on the bed. He gazed at Qui-Gon as he spoke. “The scars weren’t that hard, but the glyphs? It took me some time and a lot of digging to find someone who was willing to remove tattoos inked into all five layers of my skin. The process does require that you grow new skin to replace what gets sliced off.”
Qui-Gon made a sympathetic, horrified sound, but Ben shook his head. “I wanted them gone, Qui-Gon—I needed them gone. There are some things I don’t want the reminders of. I spent four months out of contact because I was going through that process of removal and regrowth. A lot of that time, I was wondering what I could ever say to you when I saw you again.” He smiled. “I read your letter so often I was seeing it in my sleep.”
Qui-Gon reached up, tracing the path of Ben’s nose with one finger, then caressing his cheek with his palm. “And the hair?”
Ben closed his eyes and leaned into the touch, but when he spoke again his voice was a cracked whisper. “He loved my hair. I couldn’t look into a mirror without—without—” He shuddered, and Qui-Gon sat up and pulled Ben into his arms, holding him in a tight embrace.
“Shhh. I don’t care about the hair. You could be bald and I would still love you,” Qui-Gon said, and Ben shook for a moment, this time with laughter.
He looked up; Qui-Gon placed his hands on Ben’s face, staring into those eyes—green-tinged blue, something he now understood was just for him and no one else.
“There are some things I don’t need reminders of, either,” Qui-Gon said, and kissed him.
The kiss they’d shared once before, years ago, had felt innocent. There was none of that innocence in this one. Ben opened up to him with a groan that drove every thought out of his head. He pushed his tongue past responsive lips and found moist, solid heat that was agile and teasing. The contact was so intense that he lost his breath and pulled back, resting his forehead against Ben’s.
Ben didn’t seem to mind, and he could hear amusement when the other man spoke. “I thought we were waiting until tomorrow.”
“Is it after midnight?” Qui-Gon asked, running his hands through Ben’s hair, addicted to the sensation and to the purring sighs that Ben released when he did so.
“Mm-hmm,” Ben said.
“Then it’s tomorrow,” Qui-Gon said, and kissed him again.
Ben laughed against his lips, warm breath and tongues intermingling. Ben wrapped his hands around the back of Qui-Gon’s neck, grazing bare skin with gentle nails. Qui-Gon found his eyes rolling back, and Ben wasted no time in climbing up onto the bed, settling onto Qui-Gon’s lap without breaking the kiss.
Qui-Gon did that himself, gasping in reaction as that welcome heat touched him, and he thrust up against it just once before Ben gripped his shoulders and whispered, “Not yet.”
He nodded shakily, drawing in a deep breath. “Sorry—it’s just—”
“Intense, like the back of your head’s ready to come off?” Ben whispered next to his ear, and Qui-Gon shuddered when Ben’s tongue traced the curve of his ear with a feather-light touch.
“I think eight years of pent-up lust will do that to you,” Ben said, and Qui-Gon paused in the midst of reaching for the hem of Ben’s shirt.
Has it really been…?
Yes. There was a flash of muted sadness in Ben’s eyes, but he lifted his arms in invitation. Qui-Gon swallowed and pulled the material up and over, tossing the shirt aside. He ran his hands up Ben’s ribs, brushing his shoulders, letting his fingers ghost up Ben’s neck. His skin was smooth, unbroken by the myriad scars that had once painted his lean frame.
“You are as beautiful now as you were then,” he whispered, and latched onto the side of Ben’s neck, nibbling with gentle pressure. The scent in his nose—a touch of spice, the suggestion of rich tea leaves, the barest hint of sweat—was too much to resist, and he tasted skin and found it delightful.
Ben let loose a startled, pleased whimper, his hands finding Qui-Gon’s hair while grinding his hips down. Qui-Gon purred out a deep, bass rumble, feeling fire light in his veins. Ben mumbled something under his breath and the grip on his hair tightened. Qui-Gon made his way back up to trace Ben’s jawline, enjoying the sensation of just-emerging bristle against his lips.
“Wait,” Ben said, taking a deep breath and putting his hands on Qui-Gon’s shoulders. “Wait-wait-wait.”
Qui-Gon paused in what he was doing, and for a moment he felt a flash of horror. He’d read the reports that Healer al Lien had composed, knew what Ben had once gone through, and was wondering if he’d pushed too far, too fast. “What is it?”
“Got to get rid of these pants or I’m going to injure myself,” Ben muttered, struggling with the button on his trousers with trembling fingers. “And get those thoughts out of your head before you kill a perfectly good erection. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be.”
He let out a relieved breath and leaned forward, taking soft, reddened lips in his own for just a moment before speaking. “Let me,” he said, and with sure hands unhooked each button in turn, releasing Ben’s heavy, leaking erection into his waiting palm.
Ben hissed in reaction, and Qui-Gon squeezed with gentle fingers. The hiss became a breathless stutter as Ben arched up in response, shoving himself further into Qui-Gon’s grip.
“Not yet,” he whispered, repeating Ben’s earlier words, and Ben swore at him, visibly trembling in effort to still himself. “Roll over,” Qui-Gon instructed, trying to obey his own counsel and not drive Ben to immediate distraction. “Pants need to go, or I’m going to go find scissors and remove them.”
Ben paused. “That…could be fun,” he said, his voice like smoke over water.
Qui-Gon bit his lip in reaction, thinking of golden skin revealed inch by slow inch…
“I win,” said Ben, happily rolling over to lie on his back, still half-dressed. “Come take these off and tell me what I’ve won.”
Qui-Gon growled and walked on hands and knees to Ben’s feet, the sheet that had covered him sliding off and falling away as he went. Ben made a delighted sound low in his throat while Qui-Gon grabbed the cuffs of the resistant leather pants and pulled them off with one quick motion, revealing more of the skin he was craving.
He nosed his way back up, nuzzling the pale brown hair that dusted Ben’s legs, taking a moment to taste the skin at the back of his knees and eliciting a surprised laugh from him. Qui-Gon used his hand to nudge Ben’s legs apart, and smiled at the image of Ben, his Ben, lying pliant and sultry-eyed.
Ben raised an eyebrow, a ghost of a smile on his lips. “See something you like?”
In answer, Qui-Gon dipped his head, brushing his lips against the heavy sac just below Ben’s weeping erection. Pleased when he found soft skin, he lipped, then licked, and smiled when Ben uttered a soft whimper.
“I do,” he murmured. “Do you remember what you said I tasted like?” he asked, looking up at Ben.
Ben stared back at him, his lips half-parted and glistening, and his breath hitched in his chest as he answered. “Yes.”
“You never gave me the chance to find out if the same was true of you,” Qui-Gon said, and licked at the clear line of fluid that had leaked out to pool at the base of the glans. Musk that was thick with the scent of tea leaves and spice greeted him, a bittersweet taste that left him wanting more. The answer was most certainly yes.
Ben shouted at the contact, lifting up off the bed, and Qui-Gon chuckled and grabbed Ben’s hips, pushing him back down. He used his tongue to clean up every trace of fluid, smiling when Ben started gripping the sheet in clenched, white-knuckled fists.
Qui-Gon paused, running his tongue over his lips, and thought: I want…want…
“Please,” Ben whispered, and it was all the encouragement he needed to take that thick, hot length into his mouth.
Ben moaned, a long, desperate sound, and Qui-Gon could feel the man’s body trembling beneath his hands. He laved his tongue across the head and sucked, and received a startling, erotic verbal assault—please, please keep doing that I want to come from the feel of you doing that—
He paused in what he was doing, getting a faint echo of that plea out loud in response. There was near-desperation in Ben, something that went beyond the intensity they were feeling together. This? he asked, and wrapped his hand around the base of the shaft, squeezing as he teased with his tongue.
Ben’s body arched, and it took a surprising amount of strength to hold him down. Yes, that, please waited so fucking long to feel this with you don’t make me wait I can’t— I can’t, please—
I will, but you have to do something for me, Qui-Gon said, and lifted his head, finding Ben’s eyes locked onto his.
Anything, I’d do anything, please…
He took a deep breath, shaken by the promise in Ben’s words. “I want you to ride me like you did before,” he whispered. “But this time, I get to touch you.”
Ben sucked in a deep breath, and in his hand Ben’s cock leapt, twitching in response. Taking that for agreement, Qui-Gon lowered his head, inch by inch, knowing that Ben was watching. He blew a gentle breath across the head of Ben’s cock, and the man whimpered and growled out something impatient. Qui-Gon smiled, had mercy, and swallowed him to the root.
Ben’s growl shorted out, replaced by a shocked, startled curse that quickly became a long hiss of pleasure as Qui-Gon sucked hard, rubbing his tongue up and down slick skin.
Ben fought his grip, fought to thrust up into the intense heat and pressure that Qui-Gon offered. Godsgodsgods— Qui-Gon, and he knew Ben was close, so close. He swallowed around Ben’s cock. Ben shouted and let loose a low, keening wail as he came, sending his seed straight down the welcoming channel of Qui-Gon’s throat.
Qui-Gon let the softening cock slip from his mouth, taking a moment to nuzzle the inside of Ben’s thigh, amused by the man’s muttered swearing. Ben was trembling under his hands, so Qui-Gon crawled up and lay over him, resting his chin on Ben’s chest. He felt far too damn smug, and keyed up beyond belief, but observing Ben, limp-limbed and bleary-eyed, was too good an opportunity to waste.
“I don’t think I need to ask if you enjoyed that,” he said, grinning.
Ben shook his head, smiling; his dark lips, flushed cheeks, and shining eyes sent another slow, burning wave of lust through Qui-Gon. The first beads of sweat were forming on Ben’s skin, and the scents that intermingled were intoxicating. Ben held up his left hand with all five fingers splayed, then held up his right hand with only one finger raised.
“What’s that?” Qui-Gon asked, curious.
“That,” Ben said huskily, “is the number of times I’ve been with someone and actually enjoyed coming. Want to make it seven?”
For a moment Qui-Gon’s heart fluttered in his chest, and then he shoved the feeling aside. Not the right time for that. “I want to make it as many as we are physically capable of managing,” he purred instead, and Ben dropped his hands and laughed. “There’s a bottle in the drawer, over there.” He pointed at the short table next to the bed.
Ben raised an eyebrow and rummaged through the drawer with the Force before pulling out the bottle of oil. Qui-Gon snatched it out of the air, shaking his head. “Didn’t I teach you not to use the Force for frivolous things?”
Ben grinned at him. “One could argue that telepathy during sex counts as frivolous.”
“Details,” Qui-Gon retorted, much to Ben’s amusement. He removed the stopper from the bottle, breathing in the scent inside. He’d searched for this particular blend for quite some time after his introduction to it.
“You are a very strange man, Qui-Gon Jinn,” Ben said, recognizing the oil’s scent as the heady mix filtered into the air. “I love you for that.”
Qui-Gon paused, and his heart was stuttering in his chest for a very different reason, now. “Oh?” he managed, wedging the bottle into an upright position against the mussed sheets so it wouldn’t spill. “Is that the only reason, then?”
“Of course not—aaahhhh!” Ben arched up off the bed when Qui-Gon grabbed his cock with both of his oil-coated hands.
“Too sensitive?” he asked, keeping his touch light.
“Oh, fuck no,” Ben said, trying to relax back down into the touch. “Not. At. All. I just—you haven’t—”
“Not much point if I don’t make sure that you enjoy it with me.” Qui-Gon made his touch firmer, stroking Ben’s cock back to full hardness with each pass of his hands. “Besides,” he said, leaning down to whisper next to Ben’s ear. “The only place I want to come tonight is inside you.”
Ben whimpered, his eyes widening, and in Qui-Gon’s hands he felt several answering spasms. “Force, what have I gotten myself into?”
“Hopefully me, tomorrow,” Qui-Gon deadpanned, and Ben laughed again. Then he squeezed with both hands, and the laugh became an indrawn hiss of pleasure.
“You’re—stoppit and let me talk, dammit!” Ben sputtered, when Qui-Gon squeezed and stroked again. He had mercy and stilled his hands, though he was hard-pressed to keep them that way. Teasing Ben was far too much fun. Making Ben flushed and dark-eyed, making him gasp for breath—that was even more fun.
“I haven’t—I haven’t done this in a while. If you want my participation, if you don’t want to have to wait…” Ben’s eyes rolled up in his head as one of Qui-Gon’s fingers stroked lower.
Qui-Gon plunged an oiled finger into that tight crevice, pleased when Ben responded by writhing closer. “Not…bloody fragile,” he gasped out. “More, dammit!” Qui-Gon complied, sliding two fingers in and out once before adding more oil and doing it again. Ben pushed himself down, forcing Qui-Gon’s fingers beyond each ring of muscle when he would have hesitated. Each push was accompanied by a soft gasp that made the blood roar in Qui-Gon’s ears.
“Enough, enough,” Ben whispered, his eyes half-closed, mouth parted. He grabbed the base of his cock, and his entire body was thrumming beneath Qui-Gon’s hands. “I don’t think I could manage…to come three times in one night. Not that young anymore.”
“Are you going to lie there and complain to me about old age?” Qui-Gon grinned.
Ben scowled at him. “I’m older than you are, now, and I’ll force-feed you the entire damned lecture if you don’t get down here and kiss me, you bastard.”
That was a brilliant idea. He met Ben’s lips with his own, tasting salt and that pervading hint of tea, and pushed his tongue inside. Ben drew in a shared breath and thrust up against him, and Qui-Gon groaned and ducked aside, biting hard on Ben’s shoulder in the effort not to explode right then and there.
“Having problems?” Ben murmured, smug. “I thought you were going to fuck me.”
Qui-Gon growled, wrapped his arms around Ben, and rolled them over so that Ben was on top of him. “Better?”
“Much,” said Ben, sitting up to straddle him, grabbing Qui-Gon’s cock. He squeezed it, intense pressure just shy of pain. “You may touch,” Ben said, his instructions a soft whisper. “But you asked for me to ride you, which means I control this. Not you. If you try to take over, I’ll stop.” He gave Qui-Gon an impudent smile, one eyebrow raised. “Think you can handle that?”
“Anything,” Qui-Gon promised, skimming his hands down Ben’s sides, coming to rest on the slight curve of Ben’s hips. “Anything.”
“Then watch,” Ben said, and lifted himself up, pausing before lowering himself down.
The moment the head of his cock encountered oiled, hot flesh, he had to clamp his hands down on Ben’s hips to keep from thrusting up. Ben hissed between clenched teeth, grabbing Qui-Gon’s hands and signaling his encouragement of the fierce grip. And then Qui-Gon was enveloped, surrounded by slick fire; oh, he’d missed this, this was bliss.
“Move, please move,” he said, holding onto his self-control with everything that he had.
“Are you begging me, Master Jinn?” Ben asked, a faint hint of the old sardonic smile on his face.
“Yes, dammit!” Qui-Gon shouted, squeezing his eyes shut against the visual assault on his senses. “Please!”
Brief flash of amusement, and then, gods, there was movement, sweet friction travelling up and down and sending waves of heat through his body. Sweat broke out all over his skin as the fire passed through, leaving nothing untouched, nothing that didn’t burn for the man who was riding him.
“Qui-Gon,” Ben hissed out his name, and Qui-Gon opened his eyes. “Better,” Ben said, with a short, sharp smile. “Want you…to watch.”
He watched, and the sight of Ben moving up and down on him, his skin shining with sweat, hair plastered in thin strands to his forehead, mouth parted—everything in his body seemed to draw inward, coiling closer and closer…
“Close,” he managed, his throat just as tight as the rest of him.
“Then touch me, touch me, please, don’t leave me behind—” Ben pleaded in a ragged whisper.
He grabbed Ben’s cock, still slick with oil, and the moment his palm contacted skin he could feel Ben’s pleasure, the sharp echo of his own impending release. That undid every last shred of control he still had, and he started chanting, “Ben, please, please.”
“Yes!” Ben cried in answer, and Qui-Gon met his thrusts, their pace becoming frantic. He felt himself start to slide off the edge, stroking Ben’s cock.
Ben’s mouth fell open, a near-silent whisper of air as his eyes shut. Warmth spilled over Qui-Gon’s fingers, and that intense slick-hot pressure clamped down. He shut his eyes and saw white, gasping out wordless nonsense as he came.
He was shaking, shuddering, the release had been so intense, when he realized he was still lying on the bed and Ben had collapsed in a heap on top of him. He carefully extricated himself from under the man’s deadweight, wrapping his arms around the hot, inflamed skin of Ben’s back.
“Murgle,” said Ben.
“Is that a word?”
“Mmph,” Ben said, and nuzzled Qui-Gon’s chest. “Is now.”
They lay together quietly, neither of them in any great hurry to move. “Thought you were into whiny instability after sex,” Ben murmured after a time.
He grinned, feeling relaxed and pleased and ridiculously in love. “Not with you.”
“Mmm?” he replied, sensing a sudden shift in Ben’s mood. Nothing dire, he felt, but enough to catch his attention.
“The glyphs.” Ben lifted his head, looking Qui-Gon in the eye. “Do you still want to know?”
He stared into depths that were still that shining blue-green, if marked by hesitation. “Yes.”
Ben swallowed heavily before speaking. “My path is dark, but I remember light.”
Qui-Gon wrapped his arms around Ben, pulling him close, burying his nose in Ben’s silken hair. Gods. He had expected many things, but not that. “My feet are heavy, but my heart still beats,” he murmured, speaking the next line.
Ben made a choked sound. “My life may be forfeit, but the sacrifice worthy.”
“We walk together, or not at all.” Qui-Gon realized there were tears streaming from his eyes, but he didn’t care. Volth. At last, he could remember the planet’s name, where he and Obi-Wan had once shared a spectacular sunset, standing under the blood-red and gold leaves of a t’chahc tree. “I can’t believe you remembered that silly bit of nonsense.”
“It wasn’t silly,” Ben protested, his arms tightening around Qui-Gon. “I have ever kept your words close to my heart. You gave faith to one tired, sore, mud-covered Padawan that we had done the right thing. Standing on that hill, far from every sign of the war we had averted… It was the first peace I’d known in days, and you had given me that peace. In defiance of the Sith I wrote your words on my skin, using the glyphs of a dead race.”
For a moment, Qui-Gon forgot to breathe, and his heart swelled in his chest. “I have never been more honored,” he said softly, planting a kiss in Ben’s sweat-touched hair. “I love you.”
“And I love you,” Ben said, looking up at him once more. There were tear-tracks on his skin, and Qui-Gon leaned forward and kissed them away before returning his attention to Ben’s lips.
“You know something?” Qui-Gon asked, with one last teasing nip to Ben’s lower lip.
“What?” Ben asked, raising a curious eyebrow.
Qui-Gon rolled them over in the bed again, grinning up at Ben. “I have this strange inclination to try for number eight,” he announced, and Ben let loose a peal of delighted laughter.
* * * *
Someone’s commlink was calling for attention. Damn all comm-links, anyway. Qui-Gon was just starting to contemplate going for his, though he really didn’t want to move out of this comfortable, tangled pile of legs and arms he was a part of.
Ben beat him to it. He reached across their bodies, snagging the comm that was lying on the bedside table and flicking it on. “What is it, Padawan?”
“Master, are you planning to be home at all today? I’m only asking because it’s morning, and I need to go to class,” the Padawan in question responded.
Ben, who had yet to open his eyes, finally cracked them open. “It’s morning?”
“It is?” Qui-Gon repeated, trying to call forth the energy to turn his head and find a chrono. Oh. Right. It was on the floor, along with just about everything else that had been on his bedside table. He decided to trust Jeila, who seemed to have her sense of time well in hand. He glanced to his right to find light streaming in around the shade over the window. It was certainly bright enough to be morning.
“Yes, Master, it’s morning,” the girl confirmed, sounding amused. “Good morning, Master Qui-Gon,” she added.
“Good morning, Jeila,” he rumbled.
“Master, I need you to at least look over my calculations for the flight paths I was supposed to put together, and tell me if I’ll be responsible for our deaths should the nav computer die,” Jeila continued.
Ben looked amused instead of alarmed. “Well, since we can’t have that, I’ll be back around noon. That should give us plenty of time to review your work, since the class meets two hours later.”
“Yes, Master. Have a good morning, Master,” Jeila Vin said, sounding far too pleased with herself before she terminated the call.
Qui-Gon groped around on the floor with his hand and finally located the errant chrono, holding it up. “It’s only seventh hour. That gives us a bit more time to sleep, if we want.” Qui-Gon knew that he had nothing pressing to attend to, and he would have been disinclined to find interest in it right then, anyway.
“Sleep’s boring,” Ben said, knocking the chrono out of Qui-Gon’s hand and back onto the floor. “There are plenty of other good uses we can put this bed to in the meantime.”
“I seem to recall saying ‘No.’”
“I’m asking for your blessing, not your permission, Master.”
“I remember when you understood Basic standard, Padawan. You’re sixteen years old—you have no idea what you’re getting into.”
“Master, you are being overprotective again,” Leia said, but there was no requisite teenage sigh following her words. That meant she was serious. This needed more attention than he had previously thought.
Ben paused in the midst of his hike up the hillside, turning to give Leia Skywalker a piercing look. She stared back, her eyes like steel. Oh, yes; he knew that look.
“I am not,” he said, giving her long Padawan braid a quick yank.
“You are!” she cried, and now he heard the last vestiges of the ‘You don’t understand me!’ adolescent bent. “You don’t know anything about Han—”
“Correction, dear one. I knew his father, and hence, I know the Solo clan. They’re quite a bunch of charmers.”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Yes, Master. But perhaps it’s the charm I’m interested in? Force knows you don’t have any.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I do too have charm.”
“Master, your version of charm is usually accompanied with a lightsaber,” she said, grinning.
He drew himself up indignantly. “I’ll have you know that very nice things have been said about that.”
They halted their steps as they encountered the third member of their party, who had been watching them approach. “Nice things have been said about what?” Qui-Gon asked, giving Leia a hand-up onto the observation platform he’d appropriated.
Ben hopped up to stand beside Leia. “My lightsaber,” he said, doing his best to look innocent.
After fifteen years together, Qui-Gon knew better, but chose to play along anyway. “Indeed,” he said, his lips quirking in a smile. “Many nice things have been said about your talents with your lightsaber.”
Leia put her hands over her ears and gave them both an exasperated look. “Every word you add means more therapy later,” she reminded them.
“Right,” Ben said, mindful of the fact that his Padawan could be damned-near prudish at times. It more than made up for her brother’s tendencies; Luke Skywalker was in the midst of avidly courting one of the Temple pilots and Quinlan Vos’s red-headed Padawan.
Then again, if she kept pursuing Lieutenant Han Solo of the Corellian Corporate Sector, Leia wasn’t going to be able to protest her own innocent ears much longer.
“What’ve we got?” he asked, and Qui-Gon handed him a pair of macrobinoculars without another word. Despite the dim light, he could see lines of tension on his mate’s face. Damn.
He peered through the lenses, hit the max distance they could magnify, and enhanced his eyesight with the Force. The first thing he noticed was the steam rising from several open pits in the ground, as warmer air from below struck cool air above. The second thing he saw was the chain-gang—a group of teenagers of mixed backgrounds and species, linked together with energy cuffs, being forced to work the mines that the Dolsh Conglomerate had ripped into Korashi’s soil. “Double damn,” he muttered under his breath.
“They’re not the only ones I’ve seen, but they’re the youngest,” Qui-Gon murmured. There were bitter threads in his Force-sense, and a great deal of anger. Ben couldn’t blame him. Slavery. By all the Sith hells, there had been no mention of that in their mission briefing.
“So we rescue the slaves and then blow the place back to hell,” he said, passing the macrobinoculars on to Leia, who peered through them and shook her head.
“We can’t do that. Evidence, Master. Remember?”
“Right. Evidence.” Ben sighed. “Got any other ideas?”
If Qui-Gon had them, he wasn’t given the chance to elaborate. Leia’s commlink chirped for attention, and from the excited light in her eyes, Ben could guess who the caller was.
“Hey, sweetheart,” the Lieutenant said, and Ben repressed a growl. “Are you guys seeing what Knight Vin and me are seeing?”
“If you mean slaves, then yes, we see them too, Han,” Leia replied. “Any thoughts?”
“Yeah,” the Corellian replied. “We rescue the slaves and blow this place sky high. The locals will thank us.”
“We’re not blowing it up, as much as I appreciate the sentiment. Give us a moment—we’ll think of something,” Ben said, stepping close enough to be overheard. The moment Leia terminated the connection, he gave her an innocuous look. “You have my blessing, Padawan.”
“I spend weeks formulating logical arguments to sway you, and Han offering to blow the place up is what changes your mind?” Leia sighed, rolled her eyes, and shoved her commlink back into her belt. “You’re impossible, Master.”
He grinned. “Padawan, you have no idea.”
Qui-Gon took his hand, threading their fingers together in a long-familiar gesture. “Let’s put an end to this. I may have some thoughts on how we can stop the Conglomerate without losing our evidence.”
Ben smiled up at Qui-Gon, who had long ago proven himself to be Ben’s better, logical, steadfast other half. “I still think explosives would be more fun.”
Qui-Gon smiled at him, the faint lines that had started to form again around his eyes becoming more pronounced. “I know.” I love you.
Love you, too.
Leia sighed. “Less mawkishness, more battle plans, please?”
They exchanged amused glances before Ben took pity on her. “Lead on, Padawan. I think we have some slaves to rescue.”
In a Lonely Place, begun December 2nd 2008, and finished December 28th 2009.