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A Dangerous Rivalry

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Obi-Wan Kenobi stared down at the planet they were approaching with something less than enthusiasm. Benabeen was a planet struggling to cope with ecological disaster brought about from their misuse of the planet’s resources. Too many centuries of shortsighted focus on immediate needs at the expense of the future had left the woodlands denuded, the soil barren, and the oceans over-harvested. Finally brought to a realization of their plight by devastating planet-wide combinations of droughts and flooding that had destroyed much of their farmland, the ruling council had appealed to the Senate for aid. AgriCorp engineers had been sent to the planet to do what they could to repair the ravaged planet two years ago. Now the Jedi had been asked to stop by the planet on their way back to Coruscant to objectively ascertain the planet’s status and Obi-Wan expected to be heartily bored. Of course, boredom did make a nice change from fighting for your life…

As the Jedi's courier ship landed, Obi-Wan picked up his master’s bag and his own backpack before following the older man down the access ramp. A stocky, pleasant-faced man wearing an AgriCorp jumpsuit was waiting for them and he smiled in relief as he saw Qui-Gon.

“Welcome, Master Jinn. I was beginning to worry that something had happened to prevent your arrival.”

“Only a minor difficulty getting away from our last assignment,” Qui-Gon said smoothly.

Obi-Wan hid a smile at that; personally, he considered having to deflect laser fire while running for their transport to be more than a minor difficulty but he supposed that it all depended on your point of view. He felt Qui-Gon’s good-humored admonishment over their link and smiled even wider.

“I’m Mordatal, Chief of AgriCorp Operations here on Benabeen.”

Qui-Gon bowed in greeting. “And this is my Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi."

"Let me show you to your rooms first," the Chief said, gesturing for them to follow him. "And then I'll show you our facilities where you can see first hand how our reclamation plan is progressing."

Qui-Gon nodded. "We have heard about the good work that your team is doing here. I understand that the reforestation effort is well underway.”

Mordatal nodded. “Yes, and repopulation of the oceans is in its second cycle following the replanting of the kelp beds. The hatcheries are at capacity and ready for release. Birthrate among the sea-mammals has starting edging up, which is quite a relief as many of the species were nearing extinction. We may still lose one or two species, although we are experimenting with artificial insemination and Naboo has loaned us one of their cloning experts. The coral reefs will take longer to regenerate, although some of my finest Force workers are engaged in that project.”

“I would like to see that,” Qui-Gon said. “I imagine the difficulties in nurturing such a delicate life-form must be tremendous…”

Obi-Wan, following in the wake of the two men, sighed. His master had a far deeper connection to the Living Force than Obi-Wan and could easily spend hours communing with the world around him. Obi-Wan’s own talents lay with the Unifying Force, making him more sensitive to the ebb and flow of time, and the idea of spending hours looking at plants sounded like one of Qui-Gon’s discipline tasks rather than fun. He wondered if Qui-Gon would allow him to remain behind in their rooms instead of going on the tour. Perhaps if he mentioned that he needed to study for the upcoming philosophy test that he would have to take when they reached Coruscant - no, that was a bad idea. Qui-Gon would actually expect him to study. And that was the last thing he wanted to do after spending hours cooped up in a ship without any way to release pent-up energy. What he would really like to do was find an open stretch of garden and work out, practice one of the new katas Qui-Gon had been teaching him. He could almost feel the wind brushing against his face as he spun and somersaulted, feel the Force flowing through his body and making every nerve sing with joy.

Obi-Wan opened his eyes to realize that he had been so lost in his thoughts that he had missed a turning that the two older men had made and now found he was at the end of a corridor looking out over an enclosed garden. Not that he was truly lost, for he could sense his master's presence nearby along their link and could easily follow it if he chose, but at the moment the open area of the garden beckoned to him. He stepped out into it, setting down the bags in his hands, threw back his hood and just breathed in the clear, fresh air.

"Well, well, well. If it isn't Oafy-Wan. What happened - messed up so badly on Bandomeer that they sent you here?"

Obi-Wan knew that voice. He turned slowly and saw Bruck Chun standing on the other side of the garden. He drew in a deep breath, determined not to let the other boy goad him into losing his temper. "Hello, Bruck."

Bruck grinned, delighted to be able to torment his old rival. He had been with the AgriCorp on Benabeen for a year and a half and had been quick to settle into the job, showing a natural affinity for the Living Force that had made him the senior apprentice among the workers in the greenhouse. Still, in a corner of his heart he had regretted his lost chance to be a Knight and now, to be face to face with the one he considered to be the reason for his rejection, was too good an opportunity to ignore.

"Well, just so that you know, I'm the one in charge around here. So you better be nice to me or I'll see you have the worst jobs."

"I'm not here with the AgriCorp, Bruck," Obi-Wan said quietly.

"Then why are you - "

They both heard the ringing sound of booted feet approaching and Obi-Wan felt the presence of his master. He swung around toward the entrance and, for the first time, Bruck saw the flying tail of the Padawan braid and the lightsaber at Kenobi's belt. His eyes narrowed.

Qui-Gon entered the garden and immediately felt the disturbance in the Force. His apprentice was looking towards him with a calm expression on his face but his tension was obvious. The other occupant of the garden wasn't making any attempt to hide his feelings: anger and disbelief rolled off of him in waves. He vaguely recognized the boy as the partner Obi-Wan had sparred against at the Temple before his apprentice went to Bandomeer.

"Ah, there you are, Padawan. I wondered where you had disappeared to." He looked over at the young man - Chun, that has been his name. "Good morning, Apprentice Chun," he said politely then glanced at his apprentice. "Come, Padawan. We have much to do. You can renew your acquaintance with your friend later."

"Yes, Master," Obi-Wan said quietly, following his master out of the garden. And, behind them, they were both aware of the flare of hatred from the young man.


 

Obi-Wan moved quietly around the rooms, settling his master’s personal effects and then his own, careful not to disturb his meditating master. After a year and a half in the master Jedi’s service, he had gotten the routine down pat so that he was able to pack in under fifteen minutes for each of them and unpack in scarcely more than that time. Sensing through the bond that his master was coming out of his meditation, he placed the cup of spiced tea and plate of Qui-Gon’s favorite biscuits within reach, then settled down across from the other man to await his instructions.

Qui-Gon slowly drifted back down from his meditative state, returning all of his consciousness to the physical world he inhabited, and let his eyes open. He smiled at the sight of his padawan waiting attentively and reached out for the cup that he knew would be just where he could reach it.

“Thank you, Padawan,” he said with grave courtesy. Technically, as the care of his master was one of Obi-Wan’s duties, the master Jedi was not required to extend such courtesy to his apprentice – it was rather like thanking the air for being there for one to breathe. Certainly his own master had been quicker to criticize – and that criticism linked to thwaps from his gimer stick if the lanky teen had moved too slowly – than to praise, but Qui-Gon had been a confident young man and had never doubted that he was wanted and loved by his master. But during the first rocky months of his relationship with Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon had discovered a vast well of insecurity in the young boy, a problem that had not been alleviated by his own initial rejection and his reluctance to form a full training bond. Thankfully, he had come to his senses before he had damaged the boy’s self-esteem further. He knew that Obi-Wan no longer had any doubt that he was both wanted and loved by his master, and that initial pit of insecurity was being filled in daily by his own careful balance of praise and criticism. Qui-Gon had no doubt that by the time Obi-Wan reached adulthood he would be confident and sure of his own place within the order without the overwhelming conceit that had flawed his last apprentice.

“I noticed on our last mission that your flying skills have markedly improved. I believe that you should be ready to qualify for your second-class pilot’s license when we return to Coruscant.”

Obi-Wan’s face was suitably impassive as he said, “Thank you, Master,” but Qui-Gon could see the excitement and happiness shining in his padawan’s eyes. With a second-class license, Obi-Wan would be qualified to fly anything short of a bulk cruiser – which could also be helpful on future missions - but more importantly at the moment it would go a long way towards helping the boy build his confidence.

Qui-Gon finished his tea and rose to his feet, saying, “Chief Mordatal will be waiting to show us the facility and it would be impolite for us to keep him waiting any longer.” As Obi-Wan rose to follow him, Qui-Gon turned and said, blandly, “Oh, and Padawan, I will arrange for you to have time to study for that philosophy test.”

Obi-Wan flushed and privately resolved to work on his mental shielding. “Yes, Master.”


 

The rest of the morning was spent inspecting the progress of the AgriCorp at the local facility, meeting the department heads and viewing the laboratories and workrooms. Obi-Wan thought that they must have personally inspected every room in the entire complex before they decided to break for lunch. After lunch, Mordatal led them into the greenhouse adjoining the main building.

“We are a little short staffed in here at present. Since this facility concentrates on preparing crop seedlings for planting and Forcing early growth, and since we are in the middle of the primary growing season, this facility is not as busy as it will be during the winter months. Many of our people are on vacation at the present, but we have maintained a small staff to prepare for the smaller southern continent’s growing season which will begin in another month.” He led them over to the three men who were waiting silently for the inspection. “This is Apprentice Chun, Apprentice Ansel, and Journeyman Wallens who has been in charge of this facility but who will be leaving us in a few days. Bruck’s only been with us a little over a year but he shows remarkable aptitude with the Living Force and has been invaluable to us here. In fact, I’m recommending him for advancement to journeyman when he reaches his fifteenth birthday in a few months. Bruck, will you show Master Jinn over our greenhouse facility while I check with the Breeding unit to see if they are ready for us?”

“Certainly, Chief,” Bruck said and bowed to the master Jedi. “Master Jinn, if you will follow me, please?”

Obi-Wan trailed along behind his master, unacknowledged, but he refused to allow himself to be bothered by the slight. Bruck would like nothing more than for him to demonstrate to his master that he had not yet learned to control his temper. As he followed and listened, he was actually impressed by the depth of knowledge Bruck displayed, not to mention his enthusiasm for the project. His responses to Qui-Gon’s questions showed a firm grasp over the nuances of the Living Force that eluded Obi-Wan. In a similar position – displaced by the Jedi and sent to AgriCorp – Obi-Wan knew that he had not accepted his situation with even half the composure and dedication that Bruck was showing. His opinion of his long-time rival reluctantly edged upward.

Chief Mordatal returned to claim them and the remainder of the day was spent studying the breeding program at the main facility, where many of the natural predators of pests were being reintroduced to replace the chemical reliance on pesticides that had contributed to the damage to the ecosystem. Obi-Wan found this to be much more to his taste, not having completely lost his boyish fascination for insects. He could feel Qui-Gon’s amusement along their link but ignored it with adolescent dignity.

By the time that he fell into bed, Obi-Wan was mentally exhausted and physically over stimulated. While following in his master’s wake and actively listening to the information they were receiving was taxing on his mind, it did nothing to burn off his youthful energy. Meditating and releasing some of his pent-up energy to the Force helped somewhat, but what he really needed was a good workout.

Over breakfast in their rooms the next morning, Obi-Wan could feel Qui-Gon’s eyes silently assessing him, no doubt noting the circles under his eyes as Obi-Wan had tossed for hours before finally being able to sleep. The older man said nothing out-loud but the padawan could feel the silent probing along the bond and repressed the slight irritation he felt at his master’s coddling.

“Today we will be touring the fish hatcheries and the mammal breeding programs on the coast,” Qui-Gon said, “as well as checking the progress of the ocean regeneration. I believe that the attendance of one of us will be sufficient, so I would like you to spend the morning here concentrating on your studies. I have outlined the principal areas that will be covered on the philosophy test and where it will be most effective to concentrate your attention.”

Obi-Wan tried to suppress an internal groan. “Yes, Master.”

“After lunch, I would like you to practice your katas. Chief Mordatal has indicated that the gardens outside these rooms have a large space suitable for working out. When you have warmed up, I would like you to go through the first section of the new kata at half speed. You have the leg movements nearly perfect but some of the arm placements are out of time. When you can run through it perfectly at half speed, you may take it up to full speed. The first section only, Padawan – do not attempt the second without me there.”

“Yes, Master,” Obi-Wan said, smiling happily at his master. While the second section with its aerial movements was his favorite part, he understood his master’s caution and he was content to be able to at least do the first section. It didn’t require as much intense concentration but it was physically exuberant in style and suited his present restlessness perfectly.

Having finished his meal, Qui-Gon rose and pulled on his cloak, securing his saber to his belt. “I will have my comlink with me, should you need to contact me. Stay out of trouble, Padawan.”

Obi-Wan looked up at his master indignantly. “Unfair, Master. I haven’t gotten into trouble – not of my own making, anyway – in a long time! It’s been months since you’ve had to punish me.”

Qui-Gon smiled at his padawan and ruffled his hair. “Which means, if I remember teen-age boys correctly, that you are about due. I will see you tonight at dinner, Padawan.”

With a little mock grumble that he made sure his master could feel along their link, he settled down on the couch with his philosophy text and his master’s notes and, for the next three hours, concentrated on his studies. An interruption by a staff member with his lunch was welcome and, after quickly eating the light meal, he changed into his exercise clothes and headed to the garden with his saber.

The garden, more of a medium sized open space with a surrounding hedge, was deserted and perfect for his needs. Discarding his cloak and putting away his saber for the moment, he ran through his stretches, making a face as he realized that days without being able to work out had made him stiffer than usual. He made certain that he warmed up thoroughly, too aware that inadequate preparation could result in torn ligaments or muscles, and then moved through the basic level one katas until he was certain that he was ready to work on the more advanced one. His master had expressed hope that they would be able to perform it for the competitions in four months, and Obi-Wan had been delighted. It would be the first time that he and his master would be performing together in the competitions, and he was determined to do his best and make his master proud.

Obi-Wan took a few minutes to meditate so he could firm up his shields to ensure that he wouldn’t be disturbed by his master. At the level that Obi-Wan was going to be working at, the distraction of a stray emotion or thought could be dangerous and result in injury. Then, moving at half speed as directed, Obi-Wan paced through the lower body movements of the first section until he was certain that he could perform them without thinking. That accomplished, he turned his attention to the upper body movements that, although not difficult in themselves, were tricky to combine with the lower movements. It took several run-throughs before he felt that he had them down, several more to perfect them, and then he was running through the whole section at full speed. It felt glorious to release all his pent-up energy into this controlled explosion of movement, and by the time he finished he was both high on the adrenaline release and pleasantly fatigued.

He extinguished his lightsaber and tossed it on top of his cloak, picking up the towel he had brought along to wipe the sweat from his face and hair. He shivered a bit, suddenly glad that he had brought his cloak along as the chill in the air seeped through his sweat-soaked clothes.

Suddenly he was aware that the chill in the air had nothing to do with the temperature and he turned slowly to see Bruck staring at him across the garden. The anger he felt flowing off the other teen was like a physical blow, and he took a defensive step towards his saber.

“Hello, Bruck. I didn’t see you there earlier.”

Bruck had been passing along the corridor on his way back to the greenhouses after a late lunch, and the hum of a lightsaber had drawn him like a moth to a flame. Of all the indignities that he had suffered upon being rejected by the Temple, the surrendering of his lightsaber had been the hardest to bear. He had loved his ‘saber, had spent long hours crafting the handle so that it fit his hand perfectly, and had chosen the stones for it with great care. The moment when he had first ignited it had been one of the best moments in his young life.

Seeing his rival with a lightsaber in hand ignited the pain deep inside him, pain he thought he had buried when he left Coruscant. He watched the other boy go through the movements of the kata, betraying none of the clumsiness that Bruck had unmercifully teased Kenobi about when they were initiates, and bitterly realized that even this had been denied him. Kenobi would go on to become a Jedi Knight, blazing a trail of glory across the universe, while Bruck was condemned to spend his life tending crops. Bitterness turned into anger, and now he glared at the other boy across the small space of the enclosed garden, feeling that anger burst from him.

“No, you were too busy showing off – as usual.”

Obi-Wan drew a deep breath, determined not to get angry, to let Bruck’s words wash over him and to release them to the Force. He continued drying off with the towel, not looking at the other boy, trying to turn Bruck's anger into another channel as he had seen Qui-Gon do during difficult negotiations.

“I was impressed by your tour yesterday, Bruck. Your sensitivity to the Living Force is incredible – much better than my own.”

“That wouldn’t be hard. I was always better than you, Kenobi.”

Obi-Wan held up his hands placatingly. “I don’t want to get into an argument with you.”

“Of course not. You’re a Jedi apprentice, padawan to the legendary Qui-Gon Jinn. Why would you want to fight with a lowly AgriCorp apprentice?”

“We all serve the Force, Bruck, no matter how that service is rendered.”

“Don’t spout Temple philosophies to me! I had to put up with that when I was an initiate but I don’t have to anymore.” Bruck crossed the open ground to stand in front of Obi-Wan, glaring at his rival. Obi-Wan refused to back up, to surrender to Bruck, but he also refused to let the other boy goad him.

“How did you do it, Oafy-Wan? You were days from getting tossed on your ear – you were already on the way to Bandomeer, for Sith’s sake! How did you get him to take you as his apprentice?”

Obi-Wan took another deep breath. “Master Qui-Gon simply changed his mind when he got to know me better.”

“Got to know you better, huh?” Bruck said mockingly. “Yeah, I bet. I expect Master Jinn has you spending a lot of time on your knees.” At Obi-Wan’s blank look, Bruck laughed cruelly. “You’re too stupid to even know what that means, aren’t you? But that’s how he likes them, from what I hear – pretty and stupid. At least his last apprentice wised up and turned on him.”

Obi-Wan’s face flamed and his fists clenched involuntarily at his sides. “Shut up, Bruck! You don’t know what the hell you are talking about!”

“Make me. Or are you too scared?”

Obi-Wan’s fist connected with Bruck’s chin, knocking the boy backward. Bruck recovered, tackling Obi-Wan to the ground. The two boys rolled on the grass, kicking and punching, each trying to land a blow. An elbow to his face split Obi-Wan's lip and he could feel the blood running down his chin. He head-butted Bruck in the stomach, making the other boy let go, and scrambled to his feet as the younger apprentice, Ansel, came running into the garden.

“Stop it!” he hissed. “Journeyman Wallens is coming this way – if he catches you fighting, you’ll both be in for it.”

Obi-Wan nodded and caught up his discarded saber and cloak with a glance over at his opponent. Bruck was sporting a bloody nose and bruised chin, and Obi-Wan was certain that one of his own eyes was blackened. He wrapped his cloak around himself to hide the tears in his tunic, but as he started to leave Bruck caught hold of the edge of the cloak.

“We’re not finished, Kenobi.”

“Yes, we are,” Obi-Wan said firmly. “Stay away from me Bruck Chun, or I swear that you’ll be sorry.”

Bruck’s eyes flashed as they met Obi-Wan's equally fierce glare. Ansel’s face paled as he saw the anger in both the faces. “You’re the one who’ll be sorry, Kenobi,” Bruck growled.

Obi-Wan pulled away, jerking his cloak violently from Bruck’s grasp as he did so, and heard the material tear. And, as he hurried towards his rooms, he heard Bruck’s voice echo down the corridor after him.

“Just wait, Kenobi! I’ll get you – just wait and see!”


 

Obi-Wan was relieved to reach his room without meeting anyone and even more relieved to find that his master wasn’t back yet. Testing his shields, he found that they were still up so it was unlikely that Qui-Gon knew what had happened in the garden. He hurried into the bathroom and stared in horror at his blackening eye and split lip – there was absolutely no way that his master was going to miss that. And after he had just been warned earlier to stay out of trouble – Obi-Wan groaned. He was definitely going to be in trouble if Qui-Gon caught sight of him looking like this.

If.

Moving quickly, Obi-Wan stripped off his torn and dirty clothing, stuffing them deep in his backpack, then turned on the shower and stepped in. Standing under the cascading water, he initiated a Force healing, concentrating on repairing the damaged skin and the swollen cells until he could feel that his face was back to normal. He picked up the soap and washed away every trace of sweat and blood. Toweling himself dry, he looked into the mirror again and was satisfied to see that he looked normal.

Unless he looked into his eyes. Looked in there and saw the guilt reflected back at the deception he was attempting.

“Padawan?”

His heart jumped at the voice from the main room and he heard his voice crack as he responded, “Here, Master.”

“Just finishing your shower? You must have had a long workout.”

Qui-Gon sounded in good humor and Obi-Wan’s guilt surged again but he just managed to choke out, “Yes, Master. I’ll – I’ll be right out.”

Qui-Gon frowned at the unusual tone of his padawan’s voice and probed the link to find that it was well shielded although he could detect a rise in the boy’s heart rate. A smile crossed his face and he chuckled as he shook his head. Ah, to be young with rampant hormones, he thought in amusement. He hadn’t realized that his padawan had reached this stage in his adolescence and, thinking back, he hadn't noticed any increase in the water consumption or laundry size back home on Coruscant but he was well aware that his padawan was a very private person. Then he sighed; he supposed it was time and past time to have that talk about personal sexual responsibility with the boy, a talk that Qui-Gon had never been comfortable giving, even if this was his third time around. Only the knowledge that if he delayed any longer it was likely that his own master would step in and "enlighten" Obi-Wan firmed up his resolve. He could well remember his own discussion on the subject of sex with Master Yoda, a discussion that had appalled and embarrassed him - not to mention making him run in the opposite direction from potential partners for the next two years. At all costs, he must protect his padawan from that.

The flushed face of his padawan when he emerged from his bedchamber confirmed his suspicions and he tried to contain his smile.

“Ah, there you are, Padawan. Did you leave any hot water for the rest of us?” Obi-Wan flushed even more and Qui-Gon decided that it wasn’t very Jedi-like to tease the boy. "So, how did your practice go?"

"Very well, Master," Obi-Wan said quietly, not looking up at his master. "I hope that you will be pleased with my progress."

"I have no doubt of that, Padawan," Qui-Gon said warmly. "Are you ready for dinner?"

Obi-Wan swallowed hard. There was no way that he could sit through an evening meal with his master with this on his conscience. "Um, I already ate, Master. I was hungry after my workout."

Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow at that. Over the past two years, Obi-Wan had displayed the usual boyish inclination to eat at any time, anywhere, and in quantities that made him grateful that the Temple didn't charge him for his padawan's maintenance expenses. The only time he hadn't want to eat when was he was ill, injured, or upset. He probed slightly at the bond between them and felt the shields still up, but the boy didn't appear to be feverish or hurt. Possibly embarrassed, knowing that Qui-Gon had guessed what he was doing in the shower. Was it even possible that the boy thought it was wrong or that Jedi didn't succumb to bodily needs? He sighed, realizing that he should have had that talk with Obi-Wan long before this but there was no time now. Mordatal was expecting him for dinner, and it would be an insult if he failed to show.

"Very well, Padawan. Will you be here in the rooms when I return? I believe that you and I need to have a talk about - certain things."

Obi-Wan swallowed hard, his pulse jumping. Force! he thought in despair, Qui-Gon must know something's up. "Um - I thought I'd - meditate in the gardens for awhile."

"Of course." Qui-Gon crossed to his padawan and, to the young man's surprise, ruffled his hair. "It isn't nearly bad as you think it is, Padawan," he said softly. "We'll talk when I get back and you'll see that it's all right."

Obi-Wan's head jerked up and, even through the shields, Qui-Gon could feel relief wash through the boy. "Th-thank you, Master." He smiled and patted the boy's shoulder before leaving the suite, satisfied that he had reassured his apprentice until they could have their talk.


 

Ansel was terrified that he would never get the older AgriCorp apprentice safely out of sight, or that the waves of anger that he had felt on entering the garden would rise up again, alerting every Force sensitive within miles. The bruises on the older boy's face were apparent to anyone who took a good look at him, and the way he clenched and unclenched his left fist boded no good while his right fist was so tightly balled up that he thought Bruck's nails must be biting into his skin. Reaching the relative safety of the deserted greenhouses, Ansel pulled the older boy into the washing room at the back and made an attempt to clean up Bruck's face - not that the apprentice was helping. Instead, Bruck was muttering under his breath about Padawan Kenobi, unpleasant things that made Ansel worry about his friend.

Ansel had never been a popular child, too shy to make friends easily and too uncoordinated to excel in the training drills back at the Temple, although his Force ability was rated above mid-level. He had actually been relieved that no one wanted to take him as a Padawan and his teachers had kindly suggested, at twelve, that he would better suited for the AgriCorp. Still, it had been frightening to leave the Temple after so many years and he had become ill on the trip to Benabeen, arriving at the AgriCorp facility shaken and terrified. He had been introduced to the staff and had become even more terrified at the thought of having to remember all these people's names, and had nearly collapsed in the hallway.

A firm arm around his waist had steadied him and he had looked up in surprise to see an older boy looking down at him sympathetically. "Travel sickness? One of my friends at the Temple used to get it and he swore he would rather take a laser burn. Come with me - I'll get you settled in the Dorms and you can try all this again tomorrow, okay?"

Dazedly, Ansel had agreed and let the older boy guide him into the dorms, pull off his boots and tuck him into a cot. The older boy hadn't talked much, moving with efficiency rather than empathy about his tasks, but Ansel wasn't much of a talker so this was fine with him. Only once had the other boy spoken, when Ansel had lifted his head to watch Bruck leave the room. Bruck had smiled slightly and said, "It's all right, Ansel. I'll look after you."

And he had. Bruck had stood as a buffer between the sensitive younger boy and the world, making sure that he got the tasks with the least pressure and the most solitude, keeping the other workers from teasing Ansel. In return, Ansel had bestowed all the affection of his lonely heart on the older boy, following him around like a pet. Bruck, accustomed to being the leader with followers back at the Temple, found himself surprisingly content with the situation and treated Ansel with tolerant amusement. The fact that back at the Temple he probably wouldn't have given Ansel a second look unless it was to torment him didn't matter here; Bruck missed having followers and Ansel was willing to be one.

Now Ansel looked at his friend anxiously as he wrung out a cloth and wiped at the dried blood on the older boy's nose. "I don't understand - why are you so angry at Kenobi? And if he did something wrong, you should report it to his master instead of fighting."

Bruck pulled away from the younger boy, storming into the main room where flats of seedlings lined the low tables. "I can't report him to his master," Bruck growled. "Master Jinn would never believe me - he was supposed to have picked me but Kenobi went and ruined everything."

Ansel was two age groups behind Bruck and Obi-Wan and only vaguely remembered hearing rumors of conflicts between the two older boys. "But Bruck, that was almost two years ago. Even if Obi-Wan wasn't Master Jinn's apprentice, you're too old to be a padawan anymore. And you're good here - the Chief is going to make you a Journeyman."

Bruck hardly heard him. Instead, in his memory he heard Kenobi's words - "Stay away from me, Bruck Chun, or you'll be sorry." - over and over. A gloating Obi-Wan, smugly self-satisfied with himself after having taken away Bruck's dream, hung before his eyes. He had no doubt that Kenobi had found out that Bruck was here, had deliberately gotten this assignment to flaunt his status as a padawan in Bruck's face. Anger built in him, the Living Force rolling through him like a wave, and the whole world seemed to narrow down till nothing remained but his anger and his pain.

"Stop! Bruck, stop!"

Someone was slapping his face, shaking him, terror in the voice that called his name, and Bruck drew a shuddering breath before opening his eyes. He had to blink a few times before he could focus on Ansel's face, and the look he saw there shook him.

"Ansel?"

"Sith Hells, Bruck! You - you scared me to death!"

Bruck drew another breath, letting the energy in his body disperse back into the Force. "I'm okay. I'll be fine." He looked around him, wondering how he had gotten into the greenhouse, then took another look and swore under his breath.

Ansel looked around and gasped as well. Every flat in a circle out from where they stood no longer contained living plants but instead wilted stalks with blasted leaves. Hundreds of flats, all dead, leaves crumbling as he touched them.

"Bruck…" His voice trailed off. "What are you going to do, Bruck?" Ansel began to shake at the idea of being this close to a Force blast, and his voice climbed in pitch. "The Chief - he'll be - oh, gods, Bruck - what are we going to do?"

"Hush!" Bruck snapped, slapping Ansel across the face to stop his hysterics. Ansel whimpered and held his hand against his reddened cheek, staring wide-eyed at his friend. He drew a deep breath, trying to think. There was no way that he could hide this, someone would have noticed the Force storm and would come to investigate. Misuse of the Force like this was a serious offense, one that would go on his personnel file, one that could even result in his being dismissed from AgriCorp. Anger stirred in him again. Damn Kenobi! The other boy just kept finding ways to ruin his life.

Ansel whimpered as he saw the fire building again, and Bruck's anger died down. He reached out to shake Ansel, saying fiercely, "Don't fall apart on me now! I need your help."

"What - what are you going to do?"

Bruck released Ansel, shaking his head. "I don't know." He looked around him, searching for answers, and then his eyes caught on a scrap of cloth at his feet. He picked it up and realized that it was a piece of Kenobi's cloak, the piece he had been holding when Kenobi ran away. A slow grin crossed his face.

"I know exactly what we are going to do."

"We?"

"Yes." Bruck turned to his friend, holding Ansel's eyes with his own, and held up the cloth. "And my old friend Obi-Wan is going to help us."


 

Qui-Gon relaxed back in his chair, enjoying an after-dinner drink with Mordatal. He had enjoyed this mission immensely, and loved the opportunity to soak up the richness of the Living Force that surrounded the AgriCorp facility. Most of his missions were either wearing on his mind or his body, and his tired soul welcomed the tranquility surrounding him.

"Chief?"

Mordatal stopped in the middle of telling Qui-Gon a funny story about his first mission to reclaim a swamp bog and looked over at Journeyman Wallis in surprise. "Wallis? What is it?"

"A problem in the main greenhouse, sir. I think you're going to want to take a look. And Master Jinn - you might want to come, too."

The two older men exchanged a puzzled look and then followed the Journeyman out of the main building, across the courtyard, and into the greenhouse. Qui-Gon followed them through the front rooms to the back where the young seedlings were nurtured and grown. He stood in the doorway, sensing that a recent burst of Force-energy had taken place here. In front of him he saw that the entire room full of seedlings had been blighted, the formerly green stems and leaves now twisted brown stalks that crumbled before his eyes.

"Who did this?" he asked, amazed at the thought of the energy this would have taken.

Journeyman Wallis sighed. "I saw the shadow of a boy leave the area just before I found this but didn't get a good look. As you know, we're between staff assignments and we've only got two boys here. Ansel couldn't have done it - he was hurt in the attack and just doesn't have the skill. Bruck wouldn't have done it - this room was in his charge and he had nothing to gain. That leaves only one other young man with Force sensitivity on the planet."

Qui-Gon's head jerked up. "Obi-Wan? Impossible."

Wallis' eyes met his directly, sympathetically. "He was with you all evening, then?"

"No," Qui-Gon said reluctantly, exchanging a look with Mordatal. "He wasn't hungry and went to meditate in the garden. Nevertheless, Obi-Wan would not do this."

"Ansel," Wallis called and a thin young man slipped into the room, holding a thermapack against his head. "Tell Master Jinn what happened."

Ansel glanced at Qui-Gon and looked down, licking his lips. "I was - I was working my frames in front when I heard someone - in the back. I looked up - he came running past and knocked me down - and I - hit my head. It was - Kenobi, sir."

Qui-Gon's eyes narrowed. There was something - not evasive but almost frightened about this young man, something he was hiding. "I don't believe it. Why would he do this?"

"I found Bruck sleeping in the dorms and spoke to him. Evidently he and your apprentice have a long-standing grudge," Wallis said. "It appears that Kenobi did this to get back at Bruck."

Qui-Gon shook his head. "It makes no sense. Obi-Wan had nothing to gain from this action."

"There's something else." Wallis held up a jagged piece of cloth. "We found this caught on one of the frames. It appears to be torn from a cloak similar to that which your apprentice wears."

Qui-Gon took the cloth and his heart sank. He recognized the cloth - the texture and weave were identical to Obi-Wan's and there was something of his Force-energy lingering on it. He looked up into the sympathetic eyes of Mordatal.

"I'll leave you to handle this as you see fit, Master Jinn, but I'm afraid that I shall have to make all AgriCorp facilities off-limits to your apprentice."

Qui-Gon nodded, sick at heart. "I understand." His hand clenched around the cloth. "And I assure you that I shall handle this."

Mordatal watched the tall Jedi stride off and shook his head. He wouldn't want to be in young Kenobi's boots for all the spice on Corellia.


 

Obi-Wan had spent three hours meditating in the gardens and had still not come up with a solution to his problem. Every instinct screamed at him to tell his master about the fight and take whatever discipline was coming to him. It probably wouldn't be so bad - loss of privileges, extra meditations. Surely this wouldn't be enough to warrant a spanking. And Qui-Gon already knew something was wrong and would be angrier if he found out the whole story himself. That would almost certainly earn him a trip over his master's knees.

He took a deep breath and opened the door to their rooms. A dark shadow rose from a chair and he gasped, startled.

"Where have you been, Obi-Wan?"

"Master?" He saw that his master was fully dressed, even at this hour, standing with his hands tucked into his sleeves. "Is something wrong?"

"Answer my question, Padawan."

"I was meditating in the garden, as I told you I would, Master."

"Were you seen?"

Obi-Wan was puzzled by the question. "No - I don't think so, Master." He drew a deep breath. "I have something to tell you, Master."

Qui-Gon could feel the guilt through their bond and his heart felt heavy. "I already know, Padawan." There was another surge of guilt from Obi-Wan.

"You do? How - "

"You were seen." He gestured for Obi-Wan to sit. "I think that it is time for a long talk, Padawan."

Obi-Wan's heart sank. That phrase had become synonymous for his master's hand doing most of the talking on his bare backside. He should have told Qui-Gon sooner, he thought wretchedly. He sank to the floor, folding his cloak around himself, and waited.

"All right, Padawan. Tell me why this happened."

Obi-Wan sighed. "Bruck and I were age-mates at the Temple. Ever since we were children, Bruck and his friends would find ways to tease and torment me. He even tried to have me sent away before you came back to the Temple so that you wouldn't consider me as a padawan."

Qui-Gon's expression was bleak. "Have you been holding onto this grudge, this hatred, ever since, Padawan?"

Obi-Wan blinked. "Force, no, Master! I never thought to see him again."

"And yet, when you did you took your revenge on him."

Obi-Wan began to suspect that Bruck had been lying about something again. "Master, I would have done nothing. Bruck began the confrontation. I know that I should have walked away, and I am sorry that I have disappointed you, Master. I will endeavor to work harder on controlling my anger."

Qui-Gon sighed. "And in the meantime innocent people have been made to suffer, and our work here has been sorely damaged by your actions."

Obi-Wan stared at him blankly. "Master?"

"The seedlings you destroyed represent weeks of work. They can be replaced but the loss is significant."

Obi-Wan frowned. "Seedlings? What are you talking about, Master?"

"I am talking about what you did - "

"I am sorry, Master, but I don't understand how a - a fist fight between Bruck and myself could have damaged anything."

Qui-Gon frowned. "You got into another fight as well, Padawan?"

"As well as what, Master?"

"Obi-Wan, do not play games with me. An entire room of seedlings was destroyed by Force energy."

Obi-Wan's eyes widened. "And you think I - "

"You were seen leaving the room."

Obi-Wan realized that he had been set up again and that he was in serious trouble, far beyond what a simple fight would give him. "Master, I swear to you that I was in the gardens for the past three hours!"

"Give me your cloak, Obi-Wan." Qui-Gon felt another surge of guilt wash over his apprentice as the young man obeyed. He found the tear in the cloak and pulled out the scrap of cloth. It fit.

"This cloth was found at the scene, Obi-Wan. It matches a tear in your cloak, a tear that was not there this morning."

"Bruck grabbed my cloak when I tried to leave and tore it," Obi-Wan said desperately. "I swear, Master, I had nothing to do with what happened to the plants."

"Two witnesses and evidence from your own cloak tell a different story, Padawan."

"Evidence can be planted - "

"And the witnesses?" Qui-Gon looked at him sadly. "I am disappointed by this, Padawan - not only by your actions but by your refusal to tell the truth."

"I am, Master! I swear!"

Qui-Gon sighed and rose, moving to sit in a chair. "I am sorry, Padawan, but I will have to discipline you severely for this. Come here."

Obi-Wan rose, panicked, and backed toward the door. "Master - no - "

"Come here." There was Force command in that voice and Obi-Wan had no choice but to move to Qui-Gon's side. "Pants down, Obi-Wan. You know the procedure."

Obi-Wan could feel desperate tears welling in his throat even as his fingers moved to obey. "Master - no - please - "

Qui-Gon pulled Obi-Wan down over his knees, one large hand pushing the clothes out of the way and then anchoring the young man. "All right, Padawan - what is this spanking for?"

Tears were already streaming down Obi-Wan's face. "For - for fighting." A large, hard hand struck his behind, making his breath catch.

"I thought that I had already expressed my displeasure with your tendency toward public brawls. Did I not make myself clear on that subject?"

"You did - ow! - Master! I won't - I won't forget again."

"Good." Qui-Gon's hand smacked him several more times. "What else is this spanking for?"

"I - Master - I didn't - "

"I asked you a question, Padawan." Obi-Wan shook his head even as sobs wracked his body and Qui-Gon sighed. "I shall answer for you then. You misused the Force to extract a petty revenge. You are never, ever to use the Force in such a manner. Am I understood?"

"I - didn't - "

Qui-Gon smacked his bottom hard. "I said, am I understood?"

"Y-yes, Master."

"And now there is the matter of lying to me." Qui-Gon paused in his spanking and picked up a switch he had cut on his way back to their rooms. Obi-Wan, still draped across his master's knees, sobbing, was suddenly stunned by the burning slash across his ass.

"Sith Hells!" he swore, trying to draw in a breath. "Master - ow! - Master, please!"

Qui-Gon continued to lay down a series of stripes across the reddening bottom. "I have already told you this once. I will not tolerate lying, Padawan. When you make a mistake, I expect you to admit it and accept what is coming to you. Am I understood?"

"Y-yes, M-master." Obi-Wan was sobbing uncontrollably now, his entire backside feeling as if it was on fire. "Please, please, stop!"

One last stroke and Qui-Gon dropped the switch to the floor. His hands ran soothingly over the boy's back, waiting for the sobs to lessen. Finally, when Obi-Wan was reduced to hitching-breaths, he pushed the young man up.

"All right, Obi-Wan. During the remainder of our stay, you are restricted to these rooms and the garden. Do you understand?"

"Didn't - do it - Master."

"Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon said sternly. "Do I need to repeat this spanking?"

"N-no, Master. B-but - "

"I think some time in the corner is required." As Obi-Wan started to pull up his pants, Qui-Gon said, "Leave them down. Once you've had some time to think, you and I are going to have another talk."

Fresh tears sprang to Obi-Wan's eyes at the thought that his punishment wasn't over yet and he slowly shuffled over to the indicated corner. Behind him, he could hear Qui-Gon moving around the rooms, settling things for the night. He fought to control his tears, desperately trying to think of a way to prove to his master, to everyone, that this was set up by Bruck. But he was so tired, and his ass was so hot and sore, and his heart ached at the knowledge that Qui-Gon didn't believe him, might never trust him again. Exhausted, he leaned his head against the wall and let his eyes drift shut.

Qui-Gon returned to the main room a few minutes later to find his apprentice had fallen asleep on his feet, leaning against the corner. For a moment, he contemplated waking Obi-Wan to continue their discussion, but the tear-streaked and exhausted face of his sleeping padawan softened his heart.

Carefully, he lifted the sleeping boy into his arms and carried him to his bed, carefully laying him face down on the mattress. He removed boots and pants and covered the sleeping boy with a blanket. Tomorrow, he thought to himself with a sigh. There would be plenty of time to finish this tomorrow. He turned off the light and went to his own bed.


 

Obi-Wan woke mid-morning, aware of the lateness of the morning, the emptiness of the rooms, and the soreness of his backside. He wasn't sure how he had ended up in his bed - the last thing he remembered was standing in the corner. Master Qui-Gon must have put him to bed, then. He rolled gingerly over onto his back, wincing at the pain that jolted through his backside.

The thought of Qui-Gon made his heart ache. How could he prove to his master that he hadn't done this, that Bruck had destroyed the plants and set up this trap for him? If only I had told Master Qui-Gon about the fight earlier, he thought wretchedly; I would have had the perfect alibi - standing in the corner with a sore backside with Qui-Gon as a witness. Instead, I still have the sore backside - worse than I would have had - and I am in so much trouble… Misuse of the Force was a serious infraction, one that required notation on his permanent files at the Temple, one that could result in him being dismissed from the Temple.

He slid out of bed and went into the bathroom, showering swiftly and avoiding the mirrors after catching sight of the stripes along his backside. He dressed in his oldest and softest pair of pants, then pulled on his tunic. Sitting on the bed to pull on his boots was pure agony.

The main room was empty but he had already known that Qui-Gon was gone. Breakfast was on the table along with a pad detailing the studies that his master wanted him to attend to in his absence; Obi-Wan saw that the list included his least favorite subjects and additional meditation time. Qui-Gon was still angry with him. He would have put his head down on the table and wept but he was all out of tears.


 

Hours later, Obi-Wan slowly wandered through the gardens, too sore and heart-heavy to work out. He had no idea how he was going to get himself out of his mess. All that he knew was that somehow, someway, he must find out the truth. Perhaps then his master would forgive him. Maybe even give him the hug that had been omitted the previous evening for the first time ever following a spanking.

He caught sight of the younger AgriCorp apprentice crossing the complex and had a sudden idea. Perhaps this boy - Ansel, wasn't it? - might know what had really happened. He hurried after the boy, out of the garden and behind the main buildings.

"Ansel - wait!" The younger boy stopped and looked around, his eyes widening as he saw it was Obi-Wan. "Please - I won't hurt you! I just want to talk."

Ansel looked at him nervously. "What - what do you want to talk about?"

"The greenhouse - do you know what really happened there?"

Ansel swallowed hard, looking around nervously. "I - I - "

Obi-Wan caught sight of the bandage on the younger boy's head. "You're hurt," he said in concern. "Did that happen last night?" As Ansel's indrawn breath, he said, "You were there? Please - I'm in a lot of trouble for what happened."

"Trouble?" Ansel asked tremulously. Somehow, when he had agreed to help Bruck, he hadn't thought about anyone getting hurt or in trouble.

"Yes. Big trouble. If you know the truth, you have to speak it."

"I - I - " Ansel looked around him desperately, seeking for advice on what he should do.

Obi-Wan made his voice gentle as if calming a frightened child. "It's okay - I know that you're probably afraid of whoever did this to you, and I promise you that I won't let you get hurt. I just need to know what happened."

Ansel swallowed hard. "I - didn't know - "

"You didn't want anyone else to get hurt, did you?" He watched Ansel vigorously shake his head. "And you didn't do it, right?" Ansel nodded. "But you know who did. Was it Bruck?"

Ansel hesitated. "It was an accident. He - he got so angry - he couldn't control - "

"Ansel!"

Both boys swung around, startled, to see Bruck storming towards them. Ansel shifted his feet nervously, his anxious eyes on his friend.

"Bruck - "

Bruck glared at him. "Shut up! I should have known that you'd start crying and tell everything to the first person who asked."

Obi-Wan glared at Bruck. "Leave him out of it! You got me into a lot of trouble, Bruck - again! And you're going to get me out."

Bruck sneered. "And how do you figure that?"

"You're going to tell Chief Mordatal what really happened."

"Do you know what'll happen to me if I do that?" Bruck exploded. "I could get in a lot of trouble!"

"Yeah - like you got me into!"

"Oh, what's the matter, Oafy-Wan?" Bruck taunted. "Master yell at you? Slap your little hands and take away your toys? Send you to bed without supper?"

Obi-Wan flushed, and Ansel uneasily noticed the stirrings of the Force around Bruck again. The last thing that needed was another display like last night. "Bruck," he said tentatively. "We can't - we can't let him get into trouble for something he didn't do."

Bruck gave Ansel a disgusted look. "Why? He took everything I ever wanted! It's his fault that none of the masters took me as a padawan! And if he hadn't come here to gloat - "

Obi-Wan gaped at him. "I didn't come here to gloat! We were sent here!"

"You have everything!" Bruck snarled, currents of the Living Force beginning to circle around him. "And I have nothing!"

"You have a life here!" Ansel protested. "You have a good job - they'll understand if you tell them it was an accident. I'll make them understand."

"Good," Obi-Wan said in relief, smiling at the younger boy and taking Ansel's arm. "We'll find Chief Mordatal - "

"No!" Waves of anger were building up inside Bruck and he growled at his hated rival. "Take your hand off him, Kenobi! He's my friend, not yours!"

Obi-Wan dropped his hand, startled, and began to get alarmed at the anger he saw so clearly on the face across from him. What was that favorite saying of Yoda's? "Anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering"? It certainly looked as if Bruck intended for Obi-Wan to suffer. He looked around anxiously, looking for someone older, someone with a cooler head who would take control of the situation, and realized that they were far outside of the main compound. He tried to send a probe to his master, only to find that the shields were tightly raised against him - Qui-Gon must still be angry with him. Hoping that backing off would give Bruck time to cool down, he backed slowly away from the other boy, his hands raised placatingly to show that he meant no harm.

"All right, Bruck," he said quietly. "I won't say anything to anyone - I'll let you make up your own mind when you've had a chance to think. I'll just go back to my room now."

"You're not going anywhere," Bruck said ominously. He wasn't fooled by this meek attitude - he knew that Kenobi was just waiting for him to turn his back, drop his guard, and then he would attack. Probably get that little traitor Ansel to help him, too. No, he had to settle this thing now without waiting for the adults to make up their minds. He advanced on the padawan, forcing him to continue backing up.

Obi-Wan realized that he had made a tactical error in not knowing the lay of the land when he surrendered position. A rushing sound behind him made him suddenly aware that there was a cliff somewhere behind him, a cliff with a drop into a lake or river of some kind. He swallowed hard and stood his ground.

"Bruck, you don't want to do this - "

"Oh, yes I do!" he snarled.

Bruck felt the currents of the Force flowing through him, even stronger than he had felt the previous night, and he laughed at the sheer joy of the power that filled him. Then he laughed at the sight of the terror-filled eyes facing him, reveling for a moment in the knowledge that this time Kenobi was going to pay for everything. He pulled the Living Force into him, winding it into a spinning ball of light and energy, and then threw it at his hated enemy with all his might.

"Bruck! No!"

Horrified, Bruck realized that Ansel was racing forward, throwing himself in front of Kenobi in an effort to take the impact of the Force ball. With all of his strength, he pulled backward on the ball of light, drawing it back towards himself like a comet even as he desperately sought to disperse its energy into the atmosphere. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Obi-Wan Force-shove Ansel out of the way, saw the comet's tail slap into Kenobi and send him hurtling over the cliff. Then the main body of the ball was on him, slamming him into darkness, and he knew nothing more.


 

Qui-Gon sat in a meeting room with Mordatal and the heads of the different AgriCorp units, trying to concentrate on the datapads in front of him. It was a hopeless effort; his mind was firmly fixed on his padawan, hearing over and over the plaintive sobs of innocence and seeing the exhausted face with its tracks of tears. He was troubled in heart and soul. Never before had Obi-Wan persisted in lying to Qui-Gon once his misdeeds had been discovered, and it was almost enough to convince the master Jedi that his apprentice was telling the truth. Only the combination of evidence against the boy kept him from acquitting Obi-Wan of the crime, and his heart was heavy at the thought of what would happen when they returned to Coruscant. The Council would be called in to examine the incident, and the least that Obi-Wan could expect would be a black mark on his record that might make it impossible for the boy to ever be knighted. At worst - Force-blinding and/or expulsion from the Order. Qui-Gon shivered at the thought of losing the bright, irrepressible young man.

"Are you all right?" Mordatal asked in concern.

Qui-Gon nodded and once more turned his attention back to the matters at hand. Suddenly, he felt a cry over the link to his padawan and his head jerked up, trying to assess the danger.

/Obi-Wan?/

There was no answer, just an ominous sort of silence, and he sent a desperate pulse through their bond. Not dead, but hurt and badly.

Qui-Gon was on his feet and out of the room in an instant, unaware of the consternation on the faces of the others in the meeting. Several of them hurried after him, including Mordatal. They were just leaving the building when Ansel burst into the foyer, breathing hard, panic all over his face.

Mordatal caught him by the shoulders. "Ansel, what is the meaning of this?"

"Master Jinn - come quickly - Obi-Wan - " Ansel gasped, trying to catch his breath and speak.

Qui-Gon placed a hand on the boy's shoulder and said in a voice that commanded obedience, "Deep breaths, boy, and relax. What is this about Obi-Wan? Where is he?"

Ansel tried to still the surge of panic as he gasped out the news. "Cliffside - Bruck tried to hurt him - I tried to - stop him - Obi-Wan saved me - hurt badly - "

"This way!" Mordatal said, realizing immediately the area that Ansel was talking about.

/Hold on, Obi-Wan! I'm coming!/

But the other end of the link was oddly quiet.


 

They found Bruck immediately, lying on the ground five feet back from where he had been standing, knocked that far by the Force ball he had pulled back on himself. Qui-Gon dropped to one knee beside him, feeling for a pulse, and glanced up at Mordatal.

"Still alive but he needs the Healers immediately."

Mordatal nodded in understanding and pulled out his comlink. Qui-Gon turned back towards the cliffs, following the link that connected him to his padawan. Kneeling on the edge, he cautiously looked over the side and was relieved to see the young boy lying on a ledge several feet below him. A quick Force scan told him that the boy was badly hurt but alive, and he drew in a deep breath to calm his racing heart. Drawing the Living Force to him, he surrounded the injured boy with a cushion of energy and slowly drew Obi-Wan up the cliff to safety.

Healers were waiting with a floating med-stretcher and he settled his padawan on it, watching as they secured him and ran scans over the pallid figure. Ansel looked guiltily at the pale figure being attended by the Healers and his conscience overwhelmed him. He looked at the stern Jedi master standing beside the stretcher, his attention focused on the boy, and swallowed hard.

"Master Jinn?"

Qui-Gon turned towards the anxious, white-faced boy and realized that he had been badly frightened. "Are you all right, young man?" he asked gently.

Ansel nodded and drew a deep breath. "Master Jinn, Obi-Wan didn't do it. Destroy the seedlings, I mean."

Mordatal heard him and turned away from the Healers securing Bruck for transport, frowning. "What are you saying, Ansel?"

"Bruck did it. He was mad at Obi-Wan - he couldn't control the Force and before we knew what had happened, he had blighted them. That's when he decided to blame Obi-Wan - he asked me to lie for him - " His voice broke. "He was my friend, the only friend I ever had."

Qui-Gon put both his hands on the young boy's shoulders and said, gently, "What happened out here?"

Ansel drew a sleeve over his eyes. "Obi-Wan knew that Bruck did it, and he asked me to tell the truth. I was going to but Bruck - " His voice shook again. "He was so angry. He made an - an energy ball and threw it at Obi-Wan, only I got in the way so he tried to call it back, but it was too late. Obi-Wan pushed me out of the way and saved my life." He swallowed hard. "He knew I lied and he did it anyway." He looked up at Qui-Gon anxiously. "Master Jinn, are they - are they going to die?"

"Not if we can help it," Qui-Gon said gently, and hoped with everything that was in him that he was right.


 

Several hours later, the Senior Healer gestured for them to come into the hospital ward and Qui-Gon immediately moved over to the side of his unconscious padawan. The boy was so still and pale, so unlike his normal exuberant self, that it brought tears to the master Jedi's eyes. He took one of the small hands in his own and looked up at the Healer.

"How is he?"

"He's alive, which is a miracle in itself. If that energy ball had hit him full on, he would have been smashed to pieces. As it is, the fall has left him with multiple fractures including several ribs, his left arm, his spinal column, and a serious concussion. One of the ribs punctured a lung, collapsing it. We've managed to repair the spinal cord and lung damage and we've set the breaks, but even with accelerated healing, we're looking at least two to three months convalescence."

"Is it all right to move him? I'd like to take him back to Coruscant."

The Healer nodded. "As a matter of fact, I highly recommend it. My staff is preparing a stasis chamber to minimize the possibility of movement during transport, and I've asked the Temple for the fastest transport available - it should be here within an hour."

Qui-Gon frowned. "What is it that you are not telling me?"

"A moment, Master Jinn. You should see this first." The Healer led them over to the other bed where Bruck lay, and Qui-Gon could see that the boy's eyes were open although he stared around him with a blankness that was oddly disturbing.

"What's wrong with him?" Mordatal asked.

"He attempted to draw the Energy ball that he created back into himself and disperse it into the Force so his shields were completely down. When the ball ignited, it wiped his mind completely."

"Will he recover?" Qui-Gon asked.

"In time," the Healer said with a sigh. "But he will never be the same again. His Force centers have been completely burned out. And he will require a great deal of time and attention, something that my limited staff can't give. I recommend sending him to a rehabilitation colony - "

"I'll take care of him."

They turned to see Ansel standing in the doorway. Slowly, the boy came into the room until he stood beside the bed and looked down at his friend. "It's all right, Bruck," he said softly. "I'll look after you." Then he looked up at Mordatal.

"He was nice to me, the first real friend that I ever had," Ansel said quietly. "And he was hurt because of me." He looked up at Qui-Gon squarely. "I know he was trying to - hurt Obi-Wan, but when he realized that I was going to be hurt as well, he tried to stop it. He would have been okay." He looked back at the older boy and smiled at him, taking his hand. Bruck smiled back, innocent as a child, curling his hand trustfully around Ansel's. "I owe him for that. And besides - we're friends." He looked up at Mordatal. "If you send him to a colony, I'm going with him."

Mordatal put his hand on Ansel's shoulder. "All right, Ansel. I'll see that arrangements are made. And Bruck's lucky to have a friend like you."

Qui-Gon remembered the way Bruck had looked during the tour the previous day, the knowledge and skill he had displayed, his obvious connection to the Living Force, and looked at the boy as he was now. Not for the first time, he felt anger with a system that raised young people with hopes and expectations and then discarded them when they failed to meet a certain standard at a certain age. If Bruck Chun hadn't been sent from the Temple, if there had been someone to counsel him and heal his broken heart, then none of this would have happened. Two bright young people wouldn't be lying in hospital beds.

He walked back to his unconscious apprentice and then looked over at the Healer. "Is - is Obi-Wan damaged like that?"

The Healer shook her head as she joined him by Obi-Wan's bedside. "No. Padawan Kenobi's shields were up and that prevented his mind from being wiped. However - "

"However?"

"The impact on the shields was so violent that it compressed his mind and, in some places, the shields shattered. We have done what we can to ease the pressure and remove the slivers, but this is beyond our ability to heal. That is why I'm recommending that he be taken to Coruscant. The Healers there have the skill to try to repair the damage."

Qui-Gon stiffened. "Do you mean that there is a possibility that they may not be successful?"

The Healer's eyes met his unflinchingly. "Yes, Master Jinn. It is possible that your apprentice may be permanently damaged. There may be - physical or mental handicaps, or he may be Force impaired."

Qui-Gon looked down at the boy that he hadn't wanted, the boy that had come to mean so much to him over the past two years, and touched the pale cheek with fingers that wanted to tremble. The thought of the bright flame that was his Padawan's presence in the Force being silenced was more than he could bear, and once again grief at the loss of an apprentice filled his very being. He wanted to rail at the Heavens, he wanted to turn back time to the previous evening. If only he had listened to his apprentice when he protested his innocence, if only they had known and confronted Bruck.

He barely felt the Healer's hand on his shoulder, heard her grave words. "I think that you should be prepared for the worst, but we'll try to do everything we can to save him - all of him."

A flood of warmth suddenly filled him, a familiar presence, and he burrowed into the Force presence of his former master as desperately as he had when he was a padawan. Comfort, reassurance, and love wrapped around him as certainly as a physical presence, giving him strength and the courage to face whatever came his way. He straightened and turned to the Healer with a tranquil smile.

"With all respect, Healer, I do not accept that. And there is no try, there is only do or do not. And Obi-Wan will definitely do."

 

The End