Everywhere he looked, he saw white. White carpet, white walls, white-upholstered chair. He supposed it was meant to promote peacefulness, but all it did was make him more antsy. He had been there for what seemed like hours, pacing the confines of the small waiting room. He started toward the door several times, and then changed his mind.
"I'll just wait," he muttered. "They're supposed to be coming to get me, anyway."
He spun around as he felt a presence on the other side of the door, then heard a soft knock.
He cautiously opened the door. Standing outside was a tall, slim girl, with short-cropped silver-blue hair. She wore no robe, merely the simple tunic and breeches set off by the wide leather belt. The major identifying accessory – her lightsaber – was not present.
"We don't need them here," she said, in answer to his unspoken question.
"I see," he replied.
"They asked me to escort you."
He quickly looked around her. No one was there. "Who will be there?"
She smiled. "Everyone, of course."
He retreated two steps. "I … I can't." He backed against the wall. "I just can't."
She looked at him for a moment. "But-"
"No." He raised his hand; she found herself moving backward out of the room, the door closing silently in front of her face. She pondered knocking again for a moment, then shook her head and walked away.
He resumed pacing, and waved the door open without looking as someone else walked up. He turned and stopped short; his mouth opened, then closed, as he stared at the person standing in the doorway.
He opened his mouth again, but nothing came out.
Qui-Gon Jinn smiled and closed the distance between them, then embraced the boy he'd found so long ago on Tatooine. "It's good to finally see you again."
Anakin stood stiffly for a moment, then threw his arms around the man he'd so admired. "Master Qui-Gon!" he half-sobbed. "Everything … I …." He trailed off into silence. Short, jerky inhalations were all that broke the silence.
Qui-Gon patted his shoulder, then stepped back. "Anakin, I haven't been your master for a very long time. One might almost surmise that no one has ever been your master."
Anakin smiled slowly.
"It is time, my friend."
His eyes widened in panic. "I can't. I can't face all those people, Master. They hate me."
Qui-Gon looked at him sternly. "Do you really think that?"
"It was my fault!" he exclaimed. "I wouldn't want to see the person who killed me. Why should they?"
"One of the simplest to explain - but hardest to practice - tenets of the Order, Anakin, is forgiveness. That is what they should have explained when they were telling you about refraining from attachment."
"I don't understand."
"You didn't want to lose Padme, correct?"
A shadow of pain crossed Anakin's face, and he said nothing.
Qui-Gon nodded. "You couldn't stand the idea of her leaving you, as you saw it."
He nodded mutely.
"If you'd been taught the precept correctly, you would have understood that refraining from attachment also encompasses being able to forgive people. Grief is not always rational, Anakin – you sometimes blame the person who died while you're caught up in your own pain. You have to be able to forgive them for 'leaving you,' as it were."
"I suppose," he said, sinking into the chair.
"The same applies here. They have forgiven you for leaving the Order, and for what you've done."
"Because that is what they've been taught. While the Order did stagnate, there were some teachings that have remained vital through the passing centuries, and that is one of them."
He shook his head. "I just don't think that I can face them."
Qui-Gon grabbed Anakin's shoulders and hauled him to his feet. "You spent a lifetime running from what you didn't want to do, Anakin Skywalker. It is time that you stop doing that, and show you're as strong as we all know you are."
"I …." He trailed off and closed his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he opened them slowly and nodded. "But I can't see Obi-Wan."
Qui-Gon didn't say anything.
"Please tell me he's not there." He searched Qui-Gon's face for some sign of confirmation; finding none, he sighed.
"I have a very bad feeling about this," he mumbled, waving the door open.
Right outside the reception hall, Anakin stopped. "Qui-Gon, I can't do this," he said in a panicky whisper.
Qui-Gon's response was to give him a shove toward the open double doors. "Go."
Anakin stepped in front of the double doors and stopped short. The reception hall was massive – high rectangular windows on the walls, angled beams of lightwood crossing the ceiling. Standing in precise parallel rows was every Jedi the Order had ever had, from those who fought in the Sith War to those wiped out as the Emperor took control of the galaxy. There was a dais in the front of the room, but Anakin couldn't see who was up there.
Go, Anakin. Don't just stand at the doorway.
He tried to steady his shaking hands as he walked down the aisle formed between the two columns of Jedi. His eyes darted back and forth, noting faces of people he'd known through his fifteen years in the Order. He stopped short, feeling his chest constrict as a young boy broke ranks and ran up to him.
"Master Skywalker!" he shouted. "You're back!"
Anakin shakily dropped to one knee. "And … and you're … happy about this?" he whispered hoarsely. "But I …." He couldn't finish his sentence.
"You were lost, Master Skywalker," the boy said matter-of-factly, touching his arm. "Kind of like when my brother told me about Master Kenobi coming in to ask Master Yoda about his lost planet." He beamed. "But Master Kenobi found his planet, and you found us again."
The tears standing in Anakin's eyes spilled down his cheeks. "You would have … made a fine Jedi," he finally managed to say. "I'm sorry."
The boy held his hand out to help Anakin up. "They're waiting for you," he said, motioning toward the dais.
"Who is?" Anakin asked as he slowly got to his feet.
"You'll see," the boy smiled as he melted back into the sea of Jedi.
Anakin had to concentrate hard to will his legs to move. Now he stared blankly ahead until he got close enough to see the dais, and the Jedi who sat in a half circle on it.
"The Council," he said to himself as he approached the steps. "But Obi-Wan is missing." He stopped at the bottom step and looked up at the arranged Jedi apprehensively.
Yoda – still using his gimer stick – walked forward. "Lost you were for a long time, Anakin Skywalker," he said.
Anakin nodded, but said nothing.
"Back you are, I see."
He nodded again.
A small smile crossed Yoda's face. "And happy about it, we are," he said gently.
Anakin's eyes widened in surprise. "You are?"
Yoda beckoned toward the assembled Jedi. "All this if we didn't care, you think we'd do?"
"No, Master," he replied quietly.
Yoda turned to the assembled members of the Council. "Anything to say to Jedi Skywalker, have you?"
Mace Windu stood. Anakin took an involuntary step backward.
"While you took longer than any of us thought you would," he said gruffly, "and did a lot along the way you shouldn't have, you not only destroyed Sidious … you gave the Order a fighting chance."
"Not intentionally, though," Anakin said quietly.
"Prophecy is … not always fulfilled the way we think it will be, Skywalker. Keep that in mind." He turned to walk back to his seat, then paused and faced Anakin again. "Welcome back, Jedi Skywalker." He sat back down.
Anakin looked at Yoda, an unspoken question on his face. Yoda pointed toward a side door, then went back to his seat.
He turned to look, and froze when he saw Obi-Wan standing there. The Jedi Master walked toward him, stopping a short distance away from Anakin.
Once again, Anakin found himself speechless.
Obi-Wan smiled. "Nothing to say, Anakin? That is most unusual for you."
The corner of his mouth quirked. "I … I thought you might like the change of pace, Master."
Obi-Wan took Anakin's hand in both of his. "Don't you remember what I told you?"
Anakin chuckled. "About which subject, Master?"
"I'm not your Master anymore, Anakin. You have passed perhaps more trials than the rest of us will ever know."
"But Mast- … Obi-Wan, I brought them upon myself."
"And learned from them, my friend. That is what matters." He paused for a moment. "I did my best for you, Anakin, but I shouldn't have been your teacher." He looked toward the back of the room. "I could never be for you what Qui-Gon could have been."
"But you tried, when a lot of people wouldn't … and you cared, when a lot of people didn't," Anakin replied. "And you made sure my children were cared for. For that, no thanks will ever be enough."
Obi-Wan closed the distance between them and threw his arms around Anakin. "Welcome home, my brother."