“You’ll look after Obi-Wan. If anything ever happens to me?”
It was both a question and not, an entree and not, a command and not.
A plea, and yet not.
Qui-Gon said it, before very mission. Every mission after Tahl, at least.
Mace always replied the same way. It wasn’t easy to pull a six foot five man into his arms, not even with the aid of the Force, but he did it anyway, every single time.
And it was even less easy to whisper into such a man’s ear, but he did that anyway too. Every single time.
“You can count on it, Qui.”
He said it before every mission, after Tahl.
Every mission except Naboo, because council meetings and exasperation between old friends had seemed so very important, then.
After...well, after, they hardly seemed important at all. Nothing much did, after.
Nothing much at all.
“Anakin’s stuck on the roof.” There was incredulity in Obi-Wan’s tone, but it was overlaid by such fond exasperation, it mattered little.
Obi-Wan could grow as many dour beards as he wanted, could look as graceful and composed and thoughtful and wise as he wanted, but to Mace, he would always look so terribly young.
Still that pre-teen boy everyone was far to quick to label as a lost cause.
Mace was snapped out of his thoughts by a shower of crumbling masonery attempting to take their heads off.
The Force Pull that threw them to the side was largely lacking in finesse, but Ahsoka was still young. Still had much to learn.
Her eyes flashing annoyed brilliance and exasperated concern that screamed Anakin in every line of her body, Qui-Gon Jinn’s great-grand-padawan spared the council members an acerbic glance.
“I thought they taught Jedi Masters how to duck.”
Obi-Wan’s laughter was dry and breathy with mortar dust, but it was music to Mace’s ears.
“My dear Ahsoka-” Where that was going, Mace never found out. Because in the time it took his breath to catch painfully in his chest, struck dumb as he was by how very much Obi sounded like Qui in that moment, the rest of the building began to collapse.
Which wouldn’t have been a problem, as Obi-Wan caught the three of them with ease, hovering cross legged where a parapet was moments before, looking as calm as if he was partaking of morning tea.
Which wouldn’t have been a problem, if Anakin blood Skywalker hadn’t chosen that moment to leap out of a falling window, lightsaber whirling, ready for anything.
Except the lack of a floor. Seeing Anakin down right flail in surprise would have been amusing, if he hadn’t flailed his saber right into Obi-Wan’s side.
Mace will always maintain that it was distraction that prevented him from picking up the slack when Obi-Wan’s force catch failed.
It had nothing to do with the frantic lurch he made for Obi-Wan in the moment the saber penetrated the
boy’s, man’s chest. Nothing to do with the blind panic thrumming through his hearts.
Jedi aren’t supposed to form attachments, after all. Mace should know that, better than anyone.
They all try to break their fall. Two Jedi Council Members, the Chosen One, and his apprentice.
They end up in the river anyway. Sometimes, the force of nature is more powerful even than all the Force power in the galaxy.
“How can you not know how to swim?” For someone resembling nothing so much as a half-drowned feline, Anakin manages to look rather smug as he says this.
Mace would retort, but he’s too busy trying not to drown.
Besides, for someone who grew up on a planet that boasts no body of water bigger than a puddle, Anakin is doing a rather spectacular job of staying afloat.
And besides that, Obi-Wan chooses that moment to rocket out of unconsciousness, pulling Mace’s head above the water, a moment before they both were about to slip under.
The debris about them also raise a few inches above the water. Including a piano.
A piano that appears to be home to rather a lot of purple-furry things with rather large eye stalks.
Mace is momentarily transported back in time a few decades. “Qui, we’re not taking the squirrels home with us!”
Obi-Wan actually freezes in Mace’s death grip, for all that the water is actually steaming, it’s so warm.
Ahsoka breaks the moment by bursting out laughing as a magenta squirrel thing alights in Anakin’s hair.
Mace pretends the moisture on his face is from the water.
“When are you going to let me teach you how to swim Mace?” They were fifteen, and Mace had just failed his survival qualifer for the second time.
Mace has responded to the teasing by force pushing Qui into the pool.
Or rather, over it, his already over six foot giant of a best friend merely hovering above the water’s surface, annoyingly smug.
By their next qualifier, Mace had figured out how to do that to.
And thirty years later, he would watch Qui teach it to Obi-Wan.
Later, wrapped in emergency blankets that have seen far too much wear in this war, huddled before a makeshift fire, magenta squirrel things jockeying for a better position in Obi-Wan’s arms, Mace will watch the flames crackle a gentle green, his eyes distant, even as his shivers lessen.
“I’m sorry about earlier, Obi-Wan.” He emphasizes the name. Obi-Wan watches the flames himself, absently stroking the closet squirrel. It had light orange spots in its fur.
“The first time Anakin tried to sneak a puppy into our quarters, I couldn’t decide whether to yell at him or help him hide it. Then I remembered there was no one to hide it from.” Light danced off Obi-Wan’s eyes, highlighting the sheen in them.
Mace rather suspected that Qui-Gon hadn’t minded the odd rescued puppy in the least. It was the Order that frowned upon such things, not his oldest friend.
“I realized last week that I couldn’t remember the sound of his laughter.” Obi-Wan does turn to Mace then, tears now streaking unashamedly down his cheeks.
It was difficult, what with the squirrels and all, but Mace manages to draw his oldest friend’s most beloved padawan into a crushing hug.
And, despite the squirrel tail that almost ends up in his mouth, he manages to whisper into his best friend’s ear, “I miss him too, Obi. Every damn day.”
Later, shivers melted into a toasty warmth by the now evergreen flames, Obi-Wan will watch Anakin and Ahsoka chasing squirrels about, laughter mixing with an oddly soothing, high pitched chirping.
And when Anakin leaps over the fire, his master will let out an exasperated half-bellow, “Children, be careful!”
And when he shoots Mace a look of fond exasperation, laughter in his eyes, and sighs out, “I’m getting too old for this,” Mace watches his oldest and best friend’s son, and finds himself praying that Obi-Wan will get a chance to one day truly be old.
That he will live to old age, as his master never got the chance to.
That he will live, to see his padawan’s great-grand padawan be knighted, and many great-grands after that.
But in the memory of Qui-Gon calling out a warning to Obi-Wan and Bant to be careful, turning exasperated, laughing eyes on Mace and Tahl and exclaiming, “I’m getting too old for this my friends!” In the face of that memory, Mace finds it within himself to muster up a smile.
And when a purple squirrel thing grows particularly bold and begins to nibble on Obi-Wan’s beard, he even finds it within himself to laugh.
“You’ll look after Obi-Wan, won’t you Mace. If anything ever happens to me.”
Qui-Gon said it before every mission, after Tahl.
“You can count on it, Qui.” Mace whispered it back to his friend, before every mission, after Tahl.
Every mission, except the last one.
Mace never quite gets over the guilt of that.
Never quite stops wishing that he'd skipped that council meeting, swallowed his pride and exasperation at his oldest friend, and gone to that landing pad, as he always had. That he'd drawn Qui into a hug, whispered his promise into his ear, as he always did.
That he'd stood and watched Qui-Gon leave, only to stop three steps from the door, as he always did, swing back, as he always had, raise a single hand, and say what he always did, "Farewell there, my friend."
That he'd said goodbye.
But he never stops trying to keep his promise, either.
And he never will.