Ben elbowed his way past a gaggle of junior padawans in the commissary, set his tray of food down on the table next to Qui-Gon, and took a seat. Across the table, Obi-Wan gave him a small wave. Qui-Gon was in the middle of saying:
"-they're ready for that kind of involvement with any interplanetary government, let alone the Republic. I say they should stay away. The fewer cronies that have their eye on it, the better."
"What are we talking about?" Ben asked, spreading a napkin on his lap.
"Qui-Gon's just returned from Comra, where he's been moonlighting as an anti-salesman for the Galactic Republic," Obi-Wan supplied.
"Anti-salesman?" Ben looked to Qui-Gon for explanation.
"Jedi are not meant to sell anything, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon reprimanded his young friend.
The ginger-haired knight snorted. "It's a good thing, too, you'd drive us into bankruptcy." He took a huge bite of his sandwich.
"I only said this planet wasn't ready for an interplanetary alliance," Qui-Gon said in an aside to Ben. "It's hardly got its own affairs under control, and the majority of the population is as of yet too xenophobic to reap the benefits of Republic membership. They need time. I convinced their rulers of their own best interests."
Obi-Wan chewed and swallowed quickly to tell Ben, "Chancellor Valorum isn't very happy about it."
"Chancellor Valorum can be as unhappy as he pleases," Qui-Gon said, chin lifted. "He does not write my mission mandates."
"He did in this case," Obi-Wan said around a mouthful. "He told you to be a salesman."
Qui-Gon glared. Obi-Wan raised his brows in a silent 'tell me I'm wrong'. Ben shook his head. "Anyway," the bearded Kenobi interrupted, finally tucking into his own meal, "It's good to have you back, Master."
"And you as well," Obi-Wan nodded at his older self. "Where have you been? I haven't seen you in days."
Ben laughed at this. "Oh, this and that. Bail's been swamped to the neck with meetings on the Accords. The first generation of Clones are due for immigration in a few months, and there are enough committee meetings about it to keep him booked until then. And with Mace away, I've been playing senate liaison for the Council."
"Still off chasing droids, is he?" Qui-Gon asked.
"Yes. He didn't say when he'd be back."
Obi-Wan shrugged, considering the second half of his sandwich. "When he's kicked all their arses back to Cato Neimoidia, I assume," he said, and bit off a corner. In the past, where Qui-Gon would have chided Obi-Wan for inappropriate commentary, the master laughed softly.
Obi-Wan continued to inhale his food with youthful enthusiasm. Eventually, he finished his meal, drank a gulp of water, and said, "Ben, you might be interested to know that I saw Anakin training in the initiate dojos earlier today."
"Oh?" Mention of the boy never failed to lighten his mood. "How was he? Hasn't hit his growth spurt yet, has he? Last I saw he was dwarfed by a head or more."
Obi-Wan chuckled. "No, still a runt, but held his own and then some, quite the show. Not so sure he enjoyed it."
This went against everything that Ben knew. "How do you mean?"
"He looked bored," Obi-Wan shrugged. "As I said, he's very good. His age mates weren't really offering much of a challenge."
Ben was not sure what to make of this. "Ah," he said, and frowned into his soup.
Qui-Gon's mind was preoccupied with other questions. "What were you doing in the initiate dorms?" he asked, and raised a curious eyebrow. "You weren't threatening to take on an apprentice, were you?"
Obi-Wan gave his former master a withering glare. "I was running an errand for Master Garoon," he explained.
Mention of his old clanmaster made Ben break into a smile. "Lor Garoon? How is that old rascal?"
Obi-Wan smiled back. "Oh, as domineering and beloved as ever. I admit, the Dragon Clan is far… smaller than I remember."
Qui-Gon chuckled. "I'd wager you're far larger than Master Garoon remembers."
"True. He likes talking about me, apparently - I hardly made it out of there alive."
Ben nodded sagely. "Lor Garoon's stories can turn younglings into truly vicious creatures."
"Mmm," Obi-Wan hummed agreement as he finished off his water. After he'd set the glass back down, he said, "One of them asked how I got my scar."
"Oh?" Qui-Gon glanced up with a different kind of curiosity, "What did you say?"
Ever since his fight with the Sith that had taken the vision in his right eye, it had been Obi-Wan's special dilemma: what to tell others about the scar? It was a particularly thorny problem with younger inquirers. He could hardly tell them about the grisly horrors of the Sith when they'd not yet learned that that the Sith existed. That would not be until their initiate days, and far be it from Obi-Wan Kenobi to corrupt the innocent minds of the crèche.
Years ago, he'd begun making up stories instead. It was a running joke now, as practically every group in the temple below the age of twenty had a different impression of how Knight Kenobi had lost his sight. He'd lost track of how many pretend situations he'd concocted so far; especially in the creche, he tried to never use the same one twice. It was a fun game, and took the edge off of haunting memory.
He replied to Qui-Gon's question straight-faced: "I told her that you were knighting me, and missed."
Ben suddenly choked on his food and turned his head to hide his smile. Qui-Gon sighed heavily.
"That's not funny, Obi-Wan."
Obi-Wan's smile was irrepressible, dimples shining with morbid humor. "Her face certainly was."
Qui-Gon rolled his eyes. Obi-Wan continued to laugh, tossing his hair out of his eyes. Qui-Gon watched him with a scowl, wondering where along the way he'd gone wrong. "Are you ever going to cut that off?" he asked, eyeing Obi-Wan's long ginger locks.
The young knight crossed his arms nonchalantly. "Master, imitation is the highest form of flattery." They'd had this argument dozens of times before.
Qui-Gon resisted the urge to brush back his own hair. He didn't appreciate how thick and wavy his apprentice's hair became when grown out to his shoulders. "Parody is the lowest form mockery," he quipped. "You can flatter me by getting a haircut."
"Are you…" Obi-Wan feigned shock, leaning back and putting a hand to his chest. Ben was eating his soup without looking at it, eyes alternating between his younger self and his old master with rapt amusement. "Are you jealous, master Jinn?"
"I am, in fact," Qui-Gon said in perfect deadpan, "I'm incredibly jealous of those masters whose former apprentices don't embarrass them with poor self-awareness and hygiene."
Obi-Wan snorted. "I see. Perhaps you and Master Dooku could commiserate."
Qui-Gon glowered at him, but any verbal retaliation was cut short when the commlink on Obi-Wan's belt began to chirp at him. "Excuse me," he said, picking it up. "Kenobi."
"Knight Kenobi," said a well-spoken protocol droid on the other end, "The Council requests your presence at the South Spire tomorrow at eleven hundred hours."
"They've an assignment for me?"
"Alright. I'll be there." He cut the transmission.
"They really oughtn't call you master," Qui-Gon said, picking at his food. "Not until you cut that shaggy mane off your head."
Obi-Wan seemed to ignore the jibe until he stood and said, "I only seek to honor your example in all things, oh my venerated Master." He bowed mockingly, almost to the floor, and came up with a flourish, hair falling in waves. Qui-Gon watched him, expressionless.
"I suppose looking like a grown man didn't make your list of priorities."
"Perhaps you never set a good enough example," Obi-Wan flashed a smile and swept away. Qui-Gon scoffed and bit into a leafy wrap with irritation.
"You set yourself up for that," said Ben, quietly collecting soup in his spoon.
"I'll cut off more than his hair if he doesn't watch his mouth," the elder grumbled. "He was never this bad as an apprentice."
Ben laughed. "I wouldn't expect so. But he's a knight now, thinks he can throw his weight around, talk back to you and get away with it. It's what mine did to me."
"He will learn the error of his ways in the dojo. How hot does a saber need to be to cut hair?"
"Low power ought to do it, if memory serves."
"Hmm," Qui-Gon chewed his lunch with a pensive air. "I'll have to remember that."
They finished their meals in silence, and for once it was Qui-Gon who brooded. At length, the older man crumpled his napkin and tossed it on his plate. "I suppose he'll be off on some errand this time tomorrow. Nothing dangerous I hope. I don't want to feel bad about kicking his arse when he gets back."
Ben snorted. "And what about you? Just back from Comra, he's off to… wherever they send him. I thought they were giving you two joint missions still."
Qui-Gon waved a dismissive hand. "No, he's got more of his own these days. Besides, Master Drallig has roped me into teaching Ataru this quarter."
"Oh?" Ben was pleasantly surprised. "I had no idea. Have you met your class yet?"
"I have," Qui-Gon said, and shook his head. "The apprentices get younger every year, I swear."
Ben laughed and stood to his feet. "I know what you mean."
Qui-Gon watched him as he stretched and collected his tray. "You know Ataru," he said with understated interest, "how do you feel about demonstrating for a class full of wide-eyed teenagers this afternoon?"
Ben laughed. "Normally, I would jump at the opportunity to beat up my dear old master," Qui-Gon made a soft noise of derision, "but I'm afraid I have commitments elsewhere."
"Ah," Qui-Gon smiled knowingly and stood. "Give my best to Anakin," he said.
Ben's face cleared in surprise. "How did you-"
Qui-Gon's laugh was the pleased, smug sound that Ben recognized from his padawan days. "He's the only thing you ever make excuses for," the master told him. Ben compressed his lips in chagrin and looked away. "I don't know why you're so ashamed of it."
Ben shrugged, dropping his tray onto a conveyor that would take the dishes to the cleaning droids. "He's not my apprentice."
"He's not anyone's apprentice," Qui-Gon pointed out.
"Yes but he's not my apprentice. He could end up with another master."
"You mean Dooku?" Qui-Gon lifted an unimpressed brow. "You know he shouldn't. No matter how much he wants to, no matter how great a master he might make for the boy, Yan's getting far too old for that sort of thing - as am I, I might add." They exited the commissary and walked together down the large, carpeted halls. Fellow Jedi milled about in twos and threes, talking quietly with each other about missions and scholarship and everyday nothings. Without needing to coordinate, former master and apprentice folded their arms into opposite sleeves in unison.
"Perhaps, in this instance, history should repeat itself," Ben mused, examining a light mote floating in through one of the great temple windows.
Qui-Gon almost tripped from shock, but checked himself and kept moving. "You mean Obi-Wan?"
Ben shrugged. "He's a knight, and old enough for it. Been on his own for several years, now."
Qui-Gon bristled. "He's only just now dug himself out of the pit his Trials left him in, you know that." In the three - almost four - years since Obi-Wan's injury and subsequent knighting, he had been living and working alongside his former master. The arrangements had not been made lightly.
Qui-Gon expected a defense, an airtight argument for Obi-Wan's suitability worthy of a seasoned diplomat. It never arrived. Instead, after the briefest of hesitations, Ben shrugged again, less confident than before. Qui-Gon looked him up and down, examining the creases in his brow and the unfamiliar tension in his shoulders.
"If you haven't put in a request for the boy already, you should," Qui-Gon said. Ben looked even more uncertain than before. "Why does that bother you? I thought it should be obvious."
It took several quiet minutes of walking for Ben to find an answer. "I'm an old man, Qui-Gon," he lamented quietly. "An old man with old fears and too many memories. I failed him once. Who's to say I won't do it all over again?"
It was not often that Ben's seniority was brought up between them. It was an odd sensation for Qui-Gon to be younger than Obi-Wan. Years ago, such paradoxes would have been too alien to make him feel anything but squeamish. But after eleven years, he'd learned to love this man as a friend and a brother, and the unbridgeable gap hurt his heart. "I would give you a pile of evidence citing all the things you've changed for the better, but frankly, I don't know the entire list."
"No, nor do I - the better or the worse."
A fork in their path approached, where Qui-Gon's duties would lead him one way and Ben's another. The taller man brushed his companion's shoulders encouragingly. "Then do not think on it. Keep your mind on the present, and let the future worry about itself for once," he instructed gently, aware he was treading on scars he did not understand. "And tell Anakin hello for me."
Ben mustered a smile. "I'll make sure that I do."
"Master Ben!" Anakin grinned broadly and hopped off the climbing block, cushioning the three-metre drop with barely a thought. He rushed over to the master, stopped, bowed respectfully as he'd been taught, and then rushed forward for a quick hug.
Ben laughed. "So energetic. I'm surprised to have found you here, don't you have class?"
"Not right now," Anakin said. A newly lost canine made his breath whistle as he spoke. "My next class isn't for another hour, so Master Zyrha said I could come play with Sar and Mira." He pointed back up to the climbing block, where a gangly Zygerrian and a small Pantoran clung to the colored grips. Mira dislodged a hand to wave at him.
"Hi master Ben!" She smiled, and Ben couldn't help but smile back. Mira was small, quiet and sweet, and could've melted the heart of a warlord. She swung deftly up to where Sarsan crouched on the top of the block and shoved him forcibly over so she could claim it for herself. Ben snorted softly. Sarsan made room and swung his legs over the side. He waved at Ben.
"Hello Master Ben!"
"Hello Sarsan - does Master Zyrha still have you in charge of your library?"
"Yes - I get to pick the books for storytime now, too!"
"Good for you. I'm sure you'll set a good example for the littler ones." He looked back down to Anakin. "Do you come back to play with them often?"
Anakin's smile faded. "Yeah," he said, fiddling with his hands. "I don't…" He looked uncomfortable. "I don't know who else would want to play. You know, between classes, or whatever." It was a poor excuse, and Ben saw right through it.
"I see," he said. "Perhaps you would like to play with me?" He drew something out of his sleeve. "Obi-Wan was cleaning out his rooms earlier this week, and found this. He thought you might enjoy it."
"Woah," Anakin grinned as he took the small starship model. Paint chipped and small electrics hanging out in places, it was a testament to Obi-Wan's age if nothing else. Sarsan and Mira peered from the block to see the gift, but did not make the effort to come to the ground.
"He used to keep it in his room," Ben explained, "when he was your age. It's supposed to fly; perhaps you could fix it up."
Whether he would be able to was a question Anakin did not need to ask. More pressing on his mind was: "Obi-Wan kept a droid ship?"
Ben was amused and offended. "And what if he did? Don't you?"
"Yeah, but he hates droids and flying," Anakin insisted, eyeing the ship and turning it over in his hands. "He's weird." A pause. "And cool, I guess. Did he make this?"
"I believe he did, yes."
"Woah..." he turned it over in his hands again, as if he would see Obi-Wan's signature etched somewhere.
Ben laughed again. "Come on, then, I'll show you how it's supposed to work."
They moved to a corner of the room and sat together. While Ben sat poised with crossed legs and arms, Anakin splayed his legs in a wide V and tinkered with his ship. Ben inquired after Anakin's classes and exercises, how he was getting on in his new dormitory rooms and new classmates. At ten years old, Anakin was the youngest human initiate in the entire temple. Leaving the creche for the dormitories was hard for all; but for Anakin, it had been an especially alienating experience.
"Obi-Wan says he saw you practicing sabers earlier today," Ben said. He had not had to explain anything about the starship model; Anakin hardly needed a lesson in rudimentary electrics. Still, the task provided a convenient distraction.
"Yeah, we were training with Master Pallo today."
"Ah," Ben nodded, "Is she introducing you to Form VI?"
"Yeah," Anakin seemed disinterested, having dismantled his new toy and laid out the wires carefully to reconnect them to their proper ports.
"Obi-Wan told me you were doing very well, that you won all of your matches."
"Yeah," Anakin said in the same dispassionate tone.
The lack of enthusiasm made Ben frown sadly. "Do you like your saber classes, Anakin?"
For a moment, Anakin said nothing, twisting his mouth in concentration as he untangled two thin wires. "I guess," he said. He picked up a circuit and wiggled a loose connection. He spread his fingers and used the Force to put it back into its mount. "Sar and Mira are more fun, though," he muttered.
"How do you mean?"
He shrugged again, head lolling to one side. He did not like talking about his feelings, and normally he would find a way to ignore the question. Fingers occupied with familiar and comforting tasks, he found it easier to explain: "They don't like me."
"The other 'nitiates," He said. He'd not yet learned that there was a vowel at the beginning of the word. "They don't like me because I'm small and I beat them." He manhandled two circuit boards against each other and their frames snapped together.
Ben frowned. "Did you gloat about winning?"
"No," Anakin insisted quickly. "I mean… I did at first, but then the masters said that was bad, so I stopped, but they still hate me."
"Jedi do not hate, Anakin," Ben reprimanded. The downcast initiate sighed.
"I wish they would win more," he confessed quietly. Ben considered it.
"Do you want to let them win?"
"No," the boy muttered, now reassembling the ship's electronics into its miniature hull. "I just want them to…" he trailed off as a tiny screw began giving him trouble. Ben watched the struggle calmly.
"Want them to what?" He prodded.
Anakin conquered the metal and moved onto the last fixtures. "To like me more. I know I shouldn't."
"Because Jedi aren't supposed to want admirition"
"Admiration," Anakin repeated. "Master Zyrha says that seeking admiration and fame is bad."
"Perhaps it is, for its own sake. But wanting friendship is a good thing. Everyone needs friends, Anakin," Ben explained. His heart ached. "I'm sorry you are lonely."
"Sar and Mira are still in the creche, I can go see them," Anakin said in a hopeful tone, and looked up to see his friends, only to find that they were happily playing on without him. "Sometimes." He gripped the side of the tiny ship and snapped the last corner into place. He flipped a switch hidden behind the pilot's canopy and the thing whirred to life, tiny repulsors allowing it to hover over the floor and flit about.
"There's a switch that controls the height as well," Ben pointed. "You can leave it flying around your ceiling, if you like." It was what he remembered doing with it - until he got tall enough for it to smack his forehead.
Anakin got up and fiddled with it some more and set it to wander about. He cheered when he found that he could steer its movements with the Force and sent it wheeling up and down in manic dives around them. Ben remained sitting, eyes and mouth wrinkled into a smile watching Anakin pull complicated maneuvers on a miniaturized scale. Eventually, the boy sat down by the master and leaned slightly toward him, aching for some kind of human contact. "I wish you could play more," he told the man. Ben laughed, but put an affectionate arm around the boy.
"I have duties to attend to, you know that."
"Sarsen, Amira, it's time to go," Master Zyrha appeared in the door. "Ah, hello Master Kenobi, and Anakin too."
Sarsen and Amira clambered down from their exercise and departed through the doorway to join their clanmates, giving smiling, "Bye Ani!"s and "Bye Master Ben!"s as they left. Zryha lingered to greet her former clanling.
"Hello Master!" Anakin rushed over to her. Although he was growing older and had been an initiate for months, he still thought of her as a mother. He held out the ship Ben had brought him. "Look at what Master Ben gave me, isn't it cool?"
"It is," she grinned at him, giving him affectionate but brief attention. "I'm sure the other initiates will find it fascinating as well."
Anakin's smile faltered. "Maybe," he said, looking at the chipped paint and worn wings. His eyes darted up at her, big and begging for comfort, hands itching to reach out and cling to her like he had as a younger boy. Zyrha's heart ached. Weaning the little ones off the creche's coddling was painful.
"They will," she said confidently. "And you ought to go put it away before you have class, shouldn't you?"
"Okay," the initiate lingered for a few more seconds as if waiting for some further assurance, but Zyrha held her own and eventually Anakin drew away. He went back over to Ben, even as the master was walking toward Zyrha. "Thank you Master," he bowed gratefully, cradling the ship against his chest. "Please tell Obi-Wan that I appreciate the gift."
"I will," Ben smiled, and reached down to ruffle the boy's hair. "Now run along, you don't want to be late."
Anakin nodded and scurried off. When he was gone, Zyrha sighed. "He's too young to be an initiate," she said, sounding weary. "But he's too powerful to stay with the little ones."
Ben watched the bouncing mop of blond hair disappear down the corridor. He turned to his colleague and plucked at his beard. "I'm afraid he's too powerful for the other initiates, too. They're not taking to him. He's lonely."
"It's not his fault," Zyrha said softly. It had been her job to see Anakin through every one of his mishaps for the past seven years; now that he was experiencing trouble outside of her jurisdiction, she could practicallyfeel her whiskers turning grey.
"No, it's not," Ben agreed, "but it's the way things are."
"He'll start repressing himself to get friends, you know," Zyrha confided. "He's done it before, he'll do it again." She heaved a mother's sigh. "And then he'll crack, and he'll explode something on accident or hurtle someone across the room when he's surprised, or have a vision and disturb the entire creche in his sleep, the list goes on." She rubbed a paw over her face, smoothing down the fine fur on her snout. "He needs a master."
Ben was surprised. "He's only ten years old," he said. "He won't even be eligible until next year."
"He needs a master," Zyrha repeated. "It doesn't matter how old he is. His powers are too much for a ten year old to handle alone - much less in a group of eleven and twelve year olds." She had a point, Ben thought. He bit his lip.
"Have you told the Council this?"
"Yes. But except for Yoda, they never come down to see him. Only you do that." She smiled at him, and then fixed him with an steely gaze. "If you ever intended…" she paused, not wanting to presume. "He needs a master now, Ben. I'm doing what I can, but… he needs guidance."
Ben swallowed. "I'll bear it in mind."
She watched him, trying to find an answer to the unasked question. She found none, and eventually turned away. They could both hear the muffled crowd of younglings chittering and laughing on the other side of the wall. "Have a nice afternoon, Master Kenobi."
"And you as well, Master Zyrha."
The following day, Ben went to the Jinn/Kenobi apartments to wish Obi-Wan well on his mission, but found Qui-Gon and Aola instead. The latter was covered in raised welts.
"Force, what's gone on here, then?" Ben asked, as Qui-Gon carefully wrapped his grandpadawan in medicated bandages. Aola glanced up at Ben, keeping herself as still as possible.
"Master Gard upset a hive full of Endorian bees," she related bitterly. "I told him not to use his saber on the brush - the smell upsets them something fierce - but did he listen? No." She huffed, and stifled a wince as Qui-Gon had to clean a swollen cluster of stings by her collarbone. The grandmaster glanced up from his work, silver hair falling over his shoulders.
"Feemor's still in medbay," he explained.
"Ah," Ben said, stepping around to see Aola's poor state. Her right side had suffered the most damage.
"As soon as he wakes up I'm going to smack him." She glanced down at her swollen right hand, and then at her less damaged left. "With this hand," she said, flexing it.
"When he wakes up?" Ben asked, concerned.
"He's the one who made them angry," Aola explained, aggravated tone making it clear that Feemor was not, in fact, in any grave danger. "They went after him the most, sent him into anaphylactic shock. Oaf."
"Padawan," Qui-Gon warned, "watch your tongue. He is still your master." Aola was unperturbed.
"He is, but if he makes another stupid mistake like that with something more dangerous, he won't get to be anyone's master." And there was the worry that her tone had missed before.
"But he's alright?"
Aola huffed. She was unable to cross her arms, so she glared at the far wall with a severity that conveyed similar sentiment. "I suppose," She said, "from a certain point of view."
Ben chuckled softly. "And so the apprentice must teach the master. He ought to put you through your trials after this," he joked. Aola only ticked an eyebrow. At twenty-two years old, it was not unthinkable. But they all knew she had a few years yet.
"Is there something you came for, Ben?" Qui-Gon asked, working gently as he removed old bandages from Aola's lekku and applied new ones.
"I was looking for Obi-Wan, actually, to wish him well, and relay a message from Anakin."
"Oh? Well, I'm afraid you missed him. He left nearly as soon as the Council was done with him."
"Oh. To where?"
Qui-Gon shrugged. "Not sure. I expect he'll comm me in transit if it's not too short a journey."
"Of course. If he does, let him know that Anakin appreciates his gift."
Qui-Gon chuckled. "Of course."
After Ben made a polite but swift exit, Aola, staying as still as she could to avoid itching, asked, "Where do you suppose he's off to?"
"The Senate, I expect," Qui-Gon told her. "He's been tied up as our Order's representative there."
"Hmm," Aola hummed, looking out the windows on the far side of the room, where she could see one curved edge of the Republic Senate building. "I think I prefer the bees."
Qui-Gon laughed aloud, and she smiled to feel the deep rumbling reverberate in her own chest. "Yes, I think I would as well."