The mission Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi received to encourage cooler heads to prevail between the Trade Federation and Naboo - mostly on the Trade Federation's side, given they were the aggressors in the conflict - has turned into an utter and complete mess.
Well. That wasn't entirely accurate. Obi-Wan rubs the seams of his robe sleeve between his fingers, keeping his restless hands busy as he descends further and further into the Temple's lower reaches. The situation has escalated wildly beyond something to be blamed on their bad mission luck. This is no longer about the Naboo mission, and it hasn't been for some weeks now - this is a disturbance that is affecting the entire Order. It just so happens that Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon are somehow in the middle of it, as they do so often find themselves.
Similarly, Obi-Wan finds himself entering parts of the Temple that he never gave much consideration to existing, despite the fact that it is his home. As with nearly all buildings on deep Core worlds, the Order's Temple is measures again larger compared to the architecture of many other planets, built over itself upon layers. There are entire cities in the galaxy smaller and less populous than the Jedi Temple - the massive, beating heart of peace for the last thousand years.
And yet, in its depths lay secrets - perhaps even forgotten by the Jedi who live there now.
If they have been, they aren't for Obi-Wan to rediscover. The path that Master Windu set him upon is clear and singular, without much opportunity to deviate from it unknowingly: a lift down, and then a spiraling staircase down into the dusty depths, and at the end of it a wide, barren hallway. Though he's been told that nothing sinister or dangerous awaits him down there - or at least nothing that threatens him - Obi-Wan feels a creeping sense that something ferocious and wild lurks in the heavy press of the raw Force.
It feels like a test, or another Trial - and he should know: his Knight's Trial was only a handful of days ago. He hopes that the Council would not set another before him so soon, but he can't deny the possibility. His learnership was uncertain, fraught with perils and its own tests of faith. He is a Knight raised at the knee of a maverick stubbornly flying in the face of the Council. And this? This descent into the heart of the Temple? It very much reminds Obi-Wan of the stories of the ancient Jedi who came before him.
The air down here is almost stifling - or maybe it's the Force itself, restless and wild. The upper reaches of the Temple are wide and tall: halls and windows open to the Coruscanti sky, allowing the sun to break in and cast light over everyone that walks inside. Where he is now is far from the center of the Temple, but there are still tons and tons of stone and duracrete around him, the build of a structure meant to last rather than uplift. There is no art or grace to the pillars that support the ceiling overhead and the Temple far above: they are thick, and sturdy, and strong.
At the far end of the hallway, in plain view and with plenty of warning, stand two sentinels outside a single heavy doorway. He does not recognize them by their manner, or their weapons. It shouldn't trouble Obi-Wan; outside the Council, it seems unlikely that even after a lifetime, every Jedi would meet and come to recognize each other. He still feels as though he has suddenly uncovered something strange and twisted beneath a surface appearance of rationale and rules.
He half expects the sentinels to move to block the door from him as he completes the long walk down the hallway to them, but the one on right only stirs to reach over and palm the door open. They unlock and part slightly slower than most: the metal is thick, with many layers. He recognizes that it would take some time to cut through it even with a lightsaber on the highest setting.
There is no ominous clunk when the doors lock open to allow him through, and yet he hesitates. The hallway within, pocked with entrances left wide open and dimmed, is lit so that no shadows are cast on the floor or walls. It still seems somehow unnaturally dark within - almost black, filled with impossible shadows. A sense of tension crackles the air, hot and heavy like an overhead storm about to burst.
The shallow nod he spares the two sentinels is one part respect and one part pulling his defenses up: breathe in, breathe out, and listen to the Force.
It tugs him gently inside.
Obi-Wan steps through the doorway without hurry, listening to it slide and lock shut behind him. There's no point in stalling any further. He's not sure what the Council expects of him, only that he's been sent down here to hear out their 'guest' - he'd gone to Qui-Gon for advice, even, puzzled and upset. It had been a singularly unhelpful experience. Qui-Gon had looked at him with one of his strange looks, the same he levels at most contacts they meet on missions that Obi-Wan thinks he feels an affinity for, but doesn't necessarily like.
"You are a knight now, Obi-Wan," his former master had said. "Trusting your own judgement isn't something you have had issue with before."
Obi-Wan had not quite managed to bite back that he'd never dealt with a time traveling Sith before, either. That predictably hadn't garnered him any help from Qui-Gon Jinn. Besides which - the path down here has been more than long enough that Obi-Wan has had ample time to remember all the times his judgement has lead him astray. It seems folly to try relying on it now, when facing a threat that the Order had thought a thousand years behind them.
Obi-Wan reaches the alcove lit by a blazing red energy field, and catches the tail end of a prowling pace that sends the remnants of of a shaky shudder up his spine. For a moment, Obi-Wan doesn't see a human man - he sees the creature they fought on Naboo, the stark tattoos, the savage snarl of a grin, the glaring poisonous yellow of its eyes. If it weren't for the energy field between them, Obi-Wan would reach for the lightsaber he wasn't allowed to bring down here.
Calling the thing a 'warrior' is a slight to warriors - this is a creature of violence. It moves with a loose and sinuous spine, more predator than reasonable sentient, strength gather into shoulders that yet remain dropped and ready. Its steps roll and its focus swings and sweeps and searches for weakness. It is the manner of an animal forced into a cage much too small for it, with eyes that seem to glow like hot coals in the artificial shadows cast by its own malevolence.
Those eyes light upon Obi-Wan. Recognition flashes across its face, (human; of course, human, not the horned visage of a zabrak at all), and the shadows surge and ebb. "Obi-Wan," it says - rather: he says, urgent and glad, and rushes to the front of the cell as if Obi-Wan is here to rescue him. "You're back."
"I'm back," Obi-Wan agrees lightly, at a loss as to what else to say. He studies the Sith, unable to stop comparing this one to the one they faced on Naboo, and find the comparison now lacking. Despite the unpleasant prickling of his presence and the embers of his eyes, he isn't anything like the zabrak. That creature had been tight and vicious like any variety of hand-sized blades meant to be stabbed into guts or organs and twisted before being torn free.
This Sith, secreted into the belly of the Jedi Temple, is nothing short of a roiling storm, more a force of nature than anything so precise - even in glad relief, he towers like tidal waves come to dash against Obi-Wan's shields. With efficient familiarity, the Sith looks over Obi-Wan, as if he has done it a hundred million times before, and his sickly bright eyes flicker oddly when he belatedly takes notice of the right side of Obi-Wan's head.
"Qui-Gon?" he asks, frowning. It isn't concern, not quite - it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is.
"Master Jinn is fine, if tired," Obi-Wan says mildly. He feels the absence of his padawan braid keenly. It's been a part of his life for many years, and though he has always looked forward to no longer wearing it, a large part of him misses it.
"He's alive," the Sith says, surprised and triumphant. The air seems to crackle strangely; Obi-Wan feels the hair on the nape of his neck stand on end, and his skin prickle with chill.
"Yes," he answers briskly. Through luck or skill or forewarning, they made it through the Naboo mission relatively unscathed. The Sith had called them a 'vision of the past' - the reminder of a future that had originally seen Obi-Wan's master dead makes his words sharper than he means them. "He has been preoccupied lately with his campaign to convince the Council to train the boy, so you'll have to forgive his absence."
Young Anakin Skywalker's once-future hears the edges but doesn't acknowledge them, caught in some kind of strange revelation of his own. The same one, perhaps, that Obi-Wan himself had when the creature had fallen dead and Qui-Gon still stood living: the future is mutable. If the Sith's words and warnings can be believed in, things have changed from how they once played out.
Obi-Wan is sorely aware he understands too little of the Sith to navigate this situation safely. It feels much longer ago than it is since Qui-Gon and he arrived at the landing pad closest to the Temple, with the Queen of Naboo and young Anakin in tow. They'd parted ways - the Queen with the Senator from Naboo, and the Jedi back to their Temple, with the boy. Obi-Wan had already drawn the obvious conclusions about his master's behavior and the midichlorian test he'd performed. He'd thought the boy would be sent to the Corps - a fate he himself only narrowly avoided, but that would be a massive improvement to whatever life young Anakin had been living on Tatooine.
It's a rare chance to observe someone seeing the Temple with fresh eyes. Obi-Wan had been amusing himself with young Anakin's overawed expression at the foot of the Temple doors when the Force had - done something. It was difficult, even with weeks and countless meetings, to describe what the Force had done, except that it had been terrible. Frightening. Catastrophic, even. And then, as if from thin air, the Sith had appeared.
Until Windu and Yoda had called for him earlier today, Obi-Wan had managed to forget the way the disoriented Sith had focused on him, had accepted his suggestion to go before the Council when they'd realized the Sith was no immediate threat, and wouldn't be, not when faced with thirteen masters. He hasn't forgotten how quickly both the Sith and Qui-Gon arrived at the decision to conceal the Sith's identity from the other Jedi. He's still isn't sure he's forgiven himself for going along with it.
Obi-Wan turns from the Sith, tucking his hands into his sleeves. "The Council has informed me that you've been asking for me," he says, observing the hallway outside the cell. There are many more dimmed alcoves beyond this cell than Obi-Wan is strictly comfortable with; he would like to think they haven't seen use since they've been built, but he thinks, too, that the seams where the fields stretch are far too clean for that - and he does not contribute that to the cleaning droid humming away within the cell catty corner to the one that holds their most reluctant guest.
" - yes," the Sith - the man - says. He sounds unsure as to the question implied therein. There's a faint notion of: shouldn't I have?
He feels the pressure of the Sith's attention on him, and fights to show no sign of apprehension or fear. There are other ways to be dangerous than wielding a lightsaber, when one is sensitive to the Force, but Obi-Wan still sorely misses the weight of his. If he is somehow overcome by the Sith, having it would only serve to arm their 'guest.' The life of a single Knight counts for very little against the Sith's escape - Obi-Wan knows this. It would have made him feel better to have it, though.
Turning his attention from the cells, Obi-Wan pivots to face the so-called Sith again. "I confess I am curious," he says, approaching the energy field with more confidence than he has. Neither of them are armed, which is faintly reassuring - the Sith is a handspan taller than Obi-Wan and likely stronger; an overhead swing would be devastating if it landed directly. "What do you think you could possibly get from speaking with me?"
Haltingly, he says, "I want - I need your help." Simple words that sound pulled and painful. The dark shadows of the room have ebbed, but the electric crackle of the so-called Sith's presence continues to rush in like the tide. His yellow-red eyes search Obi-Wan's face urgently and still with far too much familiarity.
Master Windu said that the Sith had been inquiring after Obi-Wan for weeks, just about the time that they would have made it to Naboo forewarned of the creature that had hunted them down there. His manner is artless and unprepared, as if even with all that time, he hadn't found the words he wanted to use.
"You said Qui-Gon is alive," he says in a rush, imploring and raw. "That means that things can be changed. That means - it doesn't have to happen the way it did before. Don't you understand, Obi-Wan? I can fix things."
"Fix," Obi-Wan echoes in flat disbelief.
With a hot flash of injured dignity, the Sith retorts, "yes, 'fix.' I already did, didn't I? Qui-Gon Jinn is still alive."
"He is," he answers baldly, because there is no quip to make against his former master still alive, and not fallen on the battlefield the way it might have been. This time the Sith seems to sense he's tread too close to something, shifting behind the energy field as though he wants to move closer. He's already dangerously close to it. An errant gesture could leave him with serious burns that would require immediate bacta treatment.
Obi-Wan has the uncanny sense as if they've somehow become shut into a small space together, rather than a cell block with a hallway wide enough for two or three Jedi to fight side-by-side. While normally fairly free with his bodily space, as most Jedi are, Obi-Wan feels the urge to step away from the Sith.
This is not personal, Obi-Wan reminds himself. Though the Sith has saved his former master's life with his warnings, and asked for Obi-Wan by name, he is an agent of the Council in this matter. They would not have allowed him to come down here and speak with the Sith without reason.
He concedes nothing.
"Alright," Obi-Wan says, standing his ground, "so you've saved my Master's life. That earns you my gratitude, not my assistance."
Annoyed, the Sith clenches his jaw for a moment, regarding Obi-Wan with gleaming eyes. "Aren't you at least a little bit curious about all this?" he demands.
Obi-Wan says nothing, offers nothing further, but he is. Of course he is. He fails to see the Sith's point, however - it's not as though he would do something inadvisable for the sake of it. No matter how odd the presence of a Sith that seems to be the first recorded instance of known time travel is. Or how unusual that it was that the man hadn't seemed to have meant to time travel, to his own past at that. After all, he'd forgotten the Sith's existence in the wake of fighting the creature on Naboo that they'd been warned about, and going through his Trials, and - well, there was the matter of young Anakin, who is currently living with Qui-Gon as his ward, but -
Obi-Wan reflects with the realization that as soon as he'd had a moment to breathe, he would have remembered the Sith's presence, and more: his strange reaction to Obi-Wan himself. Barely two words have passed between Obi-Wan and young Anakin since their meeting on Tatooine, and yet his once-future seems to favor Obi-Wan's words over Qui-Gon's. How does a Sith come about learning to listen to a Jedi Knight?
He'd wondered that the entire flight to Naboo, and only kept thinking: Qui-Gon died.
And when he died, what had happened to the young Anakin and Obi-Wan of that time? What kind of terrible things must they have done to result in the man that stands before him? Who called himself Darth Vader with the rasp of a wounded man, so many weeks ago on the steps of the Temple entrance - more Fallen Jedi than kin to that creature they faced on Naboo.
"Endlessly," Obi-Wan admits shamelessly to the Sith's face. "But if you're looking for rescue, you don't understand me nearly as well as you think you do. Nothing you can offer me is worth unleashing a Sith on the galaxy."
"Or maybe you're just not giving me enough credit," Vader counters with a kind of wounded dignity, as if they know one enough well enough to banter like this, but they must have - in one future.
When he's not flailing around, half in a panic and half in a tantrum, he plays the part of the wrongly accused quite well. Obi-Wan remembers, too, that despite the gratuitous gnashing of teeth that he'd done, he'd allowed the Council to take him into custody, and had not fought against them when he'd been taken away. And he clearly views Obi-Wan as some kind of ally.
"Alright," Obi-Wan says, putting his hands on his hips and cocking his head. "But if you want credit, you'll have to earn it. You have my full attention, Darth Vader."
Vader grimaces. He shifts back from the energy field between them, observing Obi-Wan's posture. "Do you want to save the Jedi or not?" he asks challengingly.
How ludicrous, Obi-Wan thinks - as if the Order has not withstood everything these last thousand years, and even a Darksider infiltrating their home. "I'm afraid it will take much more than a pair of Sith to destroy the Order," he counters, unimpressed. "We don't stand alone. The entire Republic is at our back, as we are at theirs."
A sharp and bitter noise breaks out of Vader, and the ebbing shadows crackle. "The Republic ," he says scornfully. "And since when has the 'Republic' been good for anything? They're a sham ." Sharp, and a little wild, Vader bares his teeth. "They won't save us- their hand will be the one that crushes us! They'll hold us responsible for everything - they'll holostream our deaths and failures at all hours for entertainment and blame us for not trying harder!" His eyes shine with feral light over sharp teeth as he says, "no one is going to save us unless we save ourselves."
The words of a liar or an alarmist, except the Force is too heavy with shadows and strange energy for Obi-Wan to say so with certainty. The Dark surges under the sway of the Sith's towering presence; the hallway in which he stands, brightly lit and barren of living things, feels dark and murky and filled with cobwebs. It does not brighten or sing harmony, nor does it dim or clang with dissonance. Obi-Wan wants to call them the words of a liar - but the angle of the man's brow, the squint of his eyes and the manner with which his mouth turns down even over vicious words? Those incline Obi-Wan to believe that he is telling the truth.
Meeting the Sith's feral, gleaming eyes through the distortion of the energy field, Obi-Wan says, "And if I wish to save the Jedi, what would I have to do?"
Still flushed with emotion, Vader says, "You'll need my help to do it." His breath steadies as he calms a bit, carrying on: "I'm the only one that knows the truth - he thinks I'm on his side, but he no longer holds any power over me." He bites the words out, choppy and sharp and resentful, but his gaze is overly familiar and ungrudging on Obi-Wan. "You'll have to get me out of here so I can put an end to this before it all starts."
"I see," Obi-Wan says, light and dry. "Unfortunately, the Council is unlikely to agree to that. They consider you a danger, you see, and for the time being I'm not sure I disagree." Vader's face darkens reproachfully, and Obi-Wan shrugs. "Traditionally speaking, the Jedi don't take well to darksiders."
"Funny," he says with gleaming eyes narrowed to slits, "that's not the opinion I remember you having."
"That will be then," Obi-Wan says, brushing aside the implications impatiently, "this is now, and now we've only narrowly survived an attack by one Sith, and we have you, claiming to be from a future so awful we should ally ourselves with our natural enemy to prevent it."
"I'm not asking you to ally with every Sith," Vader says tartly, crossing his arms. Hearing the words, he affirms: "As a matter of fact, don't. You can't trust them. I'm asking you to help me."
"And you've made several very compelling arguments as to why I should trust a Sith, Darth Vader," Obi-Wan says, barely biting off the sharpest edges of his taunt. Vader's only response is to look tried beyond endurance, gazing sullenly into the middle distance with an expression Obi-Wan recognizes mostly from the other side. "Doomsay all you want about the fall of the Order," he continues, his fingers digging into his hips, "but until you can convince me that you're committed to changing that, I have very few reasons to help you."
" Fine," Vader spits, glowering at him. "You want a 'compelling argument,' master? How about the complete extinction of every last Jedi on the order of the Sith Lord? All of the Jedi. Every last one - branded traitors, and hunted down, and murdered. He would have the entire galaxy believe them betrayers. You don't understand ." His eyes brighten, feverish and cornered, and he gestures widely, his gloved hand grasping. "The - the power this Sith Lord holds. He's the most powerful Sith in millennia. You won't be able to defeat him without me."
Obi-Wan watches him, muted. The so-called Sith's composure has broken, like it was when he first appeared at the Temple entrance, and his gaze is too familiar as it dashes to and fro over Obi-Wan's face, reading him with ease.
"He'll kill everyone," Vader says desperately. "Even you."
His life has been threatened before - it is a given as he is a Jedi, and with the Sith in the picture Obi-Wan has already accepted the fact that his life will be in danger until the Sith are removed. Darth Vader dooming him to his face does not disturb him in the least.
What disturbs him is what doesn't get said. What disturbs him is how Vader holds him apart from the other Jedi, in special esteem, and calls him 'master' with ease and comfort. What disturbs him is the implication that young Anakin did not learn the Force as a Sith, but perhaps first as a Jedi. What disturbs him is that Darth Vader foretold of the creature on Naboo, Darth Maul, and said: Qui-Gon will die.
"I see," Obi-Wan says. He does. He does, or at least a great deal more than he did. The world beneath his feet threatens to spin away into oblivion, but Obi-Wan locks down on the sensation, and packs it up and sets it aside to deal with later.
Darth Vader's stakes in the situation are much more personal than Obi-Wan had assumed - than perhaps anyone had. Obi-Wan can not make that same mistake. Taking a moment, he carefully removes the 'I' that has been shoved into the equation by Darth Vader, and looks clinically at what he has been presented with so far.
"Well," he says momentarily, "you are powerful, but one Sith lord and one Jedi knight can not possibly be enough to defeat this master Sith. I'm not sure how you expect the two of us to succeed where you think the entire Council can not."
"The Council failed me before," Vader snarls, his hands flexing restlessly. "I told them everything, and they failed me! They'd let her -" He cuts himself off, jaw clenched and eyes burning as he glares through the energy field. His thoughts and his feelings are getting the better of him, but he struggles against them, his jaw working and his chest heaving. The Dark power that he's venting like a starship vents heat crackles faintly like lightning threatening to strike.
"It has to be you," Vader says with all the faith and certainty of a zealot. He says, "it has to be you, Obi-Wan. Both of us, together. We can stop the Sith from taking over. None of it has to happen - not the way it did before. We can stop all of it."
Obi-Wan studies the man behind the energy field, crossing his arms across his chest. He understands very little of Darth Vader's dire warnings of the future - the Order fallen, the Jedi eradicated, a Sith lord in a place of power to turn the Republic against them. Someone much more clever and subtle than the creature they faced on Naboo. It had taken two masters and Obi-Wan, nearly a knight, to take it down - and even then they only narrowly succeeded.
And in Vader's future, the entire Council failed to defeat the master Sith.
"You have failed to convince me to break you out, Darth Vader," Obi-Wan says plainly. He watches the imploring expression on Vader's face fade and curl, like burning flimsi - hot edges of hurt leaving only sullen ash behind. It stings, but he can't take the words back or change them, not here. "I suppose you can try again the next time you see me," he adds, dropping his gaze to the seams of the energy field. "It should be soon enough. I look forward to the attempt."
He doesn't need to look at Vader to sense something like durasteel blast doors crashing down around him. Vader stands stock still, his arms hanging, his fists clenched tightly at his side. Obi-Wan fancies that the feral light of his eyes are like blaster bolts, searing his skin, accusing him once more.
It's as if Vader doesn't know him at all.
Obi-Wan inclines his head, as would have been appropriate from one Jedi knight bidding farewell to another, then turns on his heel and heads back to the heavy, plated door that accesses the rest of the Temple. He has a great deal to think about, and to plan - and at least one master he needs to consult with, whether that master likes it or not.
Although certainly first, he will have to face Masters Windu and Yoda, and what they would have overheard. It is a pity the future Obi-Wan never taught young Anakin to sense being listened in on as Quinlan Vos once taught him. If this partnership works out, he will certainly have to rectify that at some point.
And he will be back.