Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi trudged along the familiar corridor, worn nerf-hide boots pacing out its length with ruminative care, his stride subtly adjusting to a rhythm at the precise median between eagerness and reluctance.
It was good to be home; or rather, it was good to be here, on the cusp of being home. Actually crossing the threshold into arrival proper would entail… well.
It would entail explanations, and apologies.
However, the universe – and the universal vivifying Force that pervaded it, sustained it, bound all things together within it – seldom permitted any one of its sojourners to linger upon the path between past and present for more than a heartbeat's indulgence in introspection. Almost before he had formulated the thought, time and his feet had conspired to carry him past the point of anticipation and headlong into fact. The door to his quarters slid open upon silent pistons, light spilled into the mercifully hushed and dim passageway, flooding over his scuffed boots in an affronted puddle - and then he was abruptly confronted with the but slender undeniably fierce silhouette of his young padawan.
"That was a really choobazzi long time, Master!" the boy greeted him, accusation fairly bleeding from every syllable.
Obi-Wan's brows hovered upward toward an ironic arch. "It is good to see you too, Anakin."
The Force warmed instantly, that strange yet somehow reassuring prickle felt along his nape, deep in his marrow, manifesting itself as mental shields dropped a trifle on either side. The young Knight could feel his learner's silent exhale as a loosening of the knot below his own ribs. He shouldered past, noting the thrust of Anakin's lower lip, the stubborn wrinkling of his snub nose.
"Like months and months!" the tow-headed boy added, clarifying his indictment .
The accused man tossed his cloak over the nearest meditation cushion, deliberately ignoring the mess of circuitry presently occupying the place where his apprentice's backside should by rights have taken up habitual residence. "How time flies," he quipped back, deadpan.
Anakin's arms folded themselves across his small chest, in eerie imitation of his mentor's favorite aggravated posture.
It required a supreme act of will not to instantly mirror the stance. Obi-Wan deliberately hooked both thumbs through his belt instead, shoulders gratefully sagging downward a notch. "Padawan," he began.
But his apprentice was never one to wait for the first strike. "How could you do that?" he demanded, prepubescent voice thinning to a pained squeak. "You just left and you didn't say why and then you never came back and then – "
"I came back just now," the young master protested.
And how very narrowly I escaped never coming back, I shall not tell you.
Anakin read the thought clearly, however. "You almost got killed!" he shouted, irate.
"It happens," Obi-Wan reminded him, brows beetling together. The Force is not a nursemaid.
"Without me!" the boy added, abruptly flinging himself forward and wrapping both arms about his teacher's waist.
The embrace was aggressive – and nearly overbalanced its recipient. Stumbling backward a pace, the young Knight hesitantly returned the unbecoming display of affection. Memory – a harmonic overtone echoing from the distant past – plucked at heartstrings dull from exhaustion. There had been a time when….
"It's all right," he soothed the furious and now sobbing boy. "The Force was with me and I am back, and – " a swift, assessing glance about their disorderly environs, "- there will be a full reckoning made for all malfeasance committed in my prolonged absence."
Anakin stiffened beneath his protective hold.
"….Tomorrow." He hadn't the gumption to play disciplinarian this evening.
The taut bundle of tunics and tousled hair quickly got itself in hand again. Anakin swiped one hand across his nose and then wiped it on a hem – provoking a wince in the spectator – then straightened his spine manfully. "I'll make you some tea, Master," he offered, brightening . "I can tell you're wiped out."
A grave nod. "Thank you."
They parted ways, one trotting eagerly toward the kitchen nook while the other marched resolutely into the suite's larger bedchamber and sank down upon its ascetical sleep cot with a stifled groan.
Surely his boots were fashioned of lead, Obi-Wan vaguely mused, pulling off one offending item and then the other. The unfastened buckled drooped like panting tongues, the scuffs and scars along the leather outers a testament to his harried adventures. He rolled backward onto the mattress – one vertebrae at a time, this is moving meditation, not an ungainly sprawl – and closed his eyes, breathing in the living Force, the peace of home.
Qui-Gon Jinn's presence saturated the small space, the trace of his aura as distinct as the sharp tang of wet earth after rain.
The young Jedi frowned over this for one moment, uncomprehending, then plummeted into dreamless sleep.
"I made tea last night but you passed out," Anakin said, the accusatory tinge in his voice ameliorated by amusement.
There was and never would be anything as delightful to a Jedi padawan as the spectacle of his intimidating and omniscient mentor reduced to infantile exhaustion, Obi-Wan reflected. He may as well permit the boy his moment of smug enjoyment. "My thanks anyway," he replied, solemnly accepting the freshly filled ceramplast bowl thrust into his open hands.
He had made neither apology nor explanation yesterday; he owed the padawan both.
"My pleasure," Anakin smiled, happily tucking into his breakfast.
The brew was exquisite, a bled of tapir and some other, more exotic leaf, light on the tongue but teasing the senses with an aftertaste of honey, or… wait a moment.
"Who taught you to make tea like this?" he asked, astounded.
"Master Qui-Gon sir."
"Oh." Yes, of course. How long had his absence extended? Days had unraveled into weeks, and then… "He stayed here with you." That would explain the lingering resonance within the Force.
Anakin colored slightly, keeping his gaze resolutely fixed upon his grain porridge. "I know I was supposed to go to Master Troon's dorm, but all the other kids… I mean initiates… they think I'm weird and you know…. I just…. it was Master Qui-Gon's idea!" he ended, defensively. "He said… never mind."
Qui-Gon would have known… he would have sensed – on more than one occasion – how very perilously close to never coming back his former student had come. He would have felt duty-bound to take Anakin under his wing. Perhaps permanently.
"Anakin – "
The boy shook his head , emphatically. The topic was uncomfortable. Frightening.
Obi-Wan finished his tea, and ran a hand through his overgrown hair. If something does happen to me, though, I must not leave Anakin's fate to the Council. Dooku was waiting in the wings, fascinated by the boy's raw talent, by the hushed implication that he might be Chosen, the child of prophecy, the doomsday harbinger of ill or good for his generation and many to come.
"I am glad you had a mentor and friend in my absence," he said, a chill cascading down his spine.
"He said he was getting too old to have a padawan," Anakin muttered.
Obi-Wan set his bowl down, grasping at levity. "He is." A brief smile. "And so, I have arrived to rescue him from the burdens too great for his encroaching senility to bear. First order of business: why are our quarters a slovenly scrapheap?"
This was more to both their tastes. Anakin offered him a pert smile in return. "'Cause I've been building a droid to help Master Qui-Gon out with all the stuff he's too old to do."
The man's former padawan raised both brows. "Such as?"
"Cleaning up and stuff. Taking care of his plants. Making him tea. Whatever he wants."
"That is what a padawan is for, my young friend."
"Yeah, but he's too old for a padawan, remember, Master?"
Obi-Wan chuckled dangerously. "Does Master Qui-Gon know about this droid servant?"
"Well, not exactly. Not that it's for him and all. I wanted it to be a surprise."
The young Knight felt his appetite return. " I advise you to keep it that way." He spooned a generous helping of grainmeal into his dish, then pointed the utensil and a magisterial glower at his wayward apprentice. "And these rooms will be immaculate within one hour."
"Yes, Master," Anakin peeped, jumping up from his place at table with a pleasing alacrity.
"So… how come you were gone so long?" Anakin ventured, half-trotting to keep pace with his teacher. They passed beneath the soaring arches of a connecting hall, and swept up a broad stairway between shafts of filtered light.
"I did not expect to be absent more than a few days," Obi-Wan told him. "Truly. The mission…."
How to explain?
" It went to the hells?"
The junior level salles were bustling at this midmorning hour; saber instruction and refereed sparring matches occupied every available corner. "We'll find a space on the upper floors."
"I've been practicing," Anakin declared. "Wait till you see my new skills."
"I am all anticipation." The Knights' dojo was incense-laden, spacious and older in design, practice rooms connected to a second-level observation plaza, connected by broad passageways below. They headed toward the west facing side at a brisk clip, both eager for the demonstration.
The last doorway on their left was occupied by a tall figure radiant in the Force., slivering mane flowing past shoulders unstooped by age.
Obi-Wan stopped, a solar warmth suffusing the Force.
"Master Qui-Gon sir!" Anakin greeted the senior Jedi, skipping in place before he recalled his Jedi dignity and made the obligatory bow. "I'm gonna show Master Obi-Wan all the stuff I learned!"
The tall Jedi master waved a hand at the salle's entry. "Go warm up," he ordered, sending the enthusiastic padawan scampering within.
Qui-Gon's ivory cassocks fell in regal folds to the polished floor, their hems somewhat marred by a tell tale stain of soil here and there, the faint darkening of a 'saber blade's near-miss grazed along one sleeve. Retirement suited the maverick master well; he was as cavalier in his disregard for its inherent limitations as he had ever been of the Council's and the Code's strictures. He chuckled now, stepping forward to grasp his young friend firmly by both arms. "It is good to see you, Brat."
Obi-Wan opened his mouth to speak but found words elusive.
"You should take the boy next time," Qui-Gon advised, in a low tone.
Preposterous. "I barely survived as it was, Qui-Gon. It would be foolish to – "
" - Go without him. You should have confidence in his ability."
Obi-Wan released a short breath of disbelief. "Master, you cannot be- "
"I am, though. Quite serious. If you believe the Force intends you to be together, master and padawan, then you must take it at its word. Let the boy accompany you."
"He might easily have been killed."
But the tall man merely tilted his chin up, short silver beard bristling. "So might you have. But the Force shows us a way, even when we cannot find it ourselves. Am I right?"
The younger Jedi admitted temporary defeat. "As you say, Master."
Qui-Gon released him, eyes twinkling. "I am glad that lesson has stuck, anyway."
A soft snort as they ducked beneath the low lintel together. "And thank you for taking my padawan during my absence. He… needed guidance while I was away."
They paced across the time-worn floorboards. "More than you know. I think you underestimate your role – even in regard to the boy's presence here in Temple. If he is not with you, then I fear he is without a proper place at all. And that is dangerous."
The other initiates think I'm weird. Dooku, waiting in the wings, fascinated…. The Council circle, aloof and wary, words of an ancient prophecy hanging like stale incense in the Force.
Obi-Wan halted at the salle's far end. "I will meditate upon it."
A broad hand brushed over his shoulder. "Besides, I am getting too old for this sort of thing."
They spared a quiet laugh together at that, and settled upon a bench to witness Anakin's display of swordsmanship.
"I was great, huh, Master?"
"A Jedi does not crave adulation, young one."
"That means yes," Anakin blithely interpreted, satisfaction springing in his every step.
"You have made much progress while I was away." Obi-Wan pushed the lift activation panel. Humor quirked one corner of his mouth upward. "Perhaps I should routinely make a lengthy hiatus, for the sake of your education."
But the jest came too soon on the heels of perceived abandonment. Anakin's mood instantly imploded. "That's not funny, Master. "
The lift doors sealed them in burnished silence.
An apology was still in order. "Anakin – "
"You still didn't tell me why you were gone so long, Master. What were you doing?" The boy addressed the far wall, petulance shadowing his eyes, pulling his mouth into a straight and displeased line.
Obi-Wan sighed. "I cannot tell you. Or anyone. The mission was classified."
"But I'm your – "
"Only Master Yoda, Master Windu, and Chacellor Valorum know the details. And I swore not to divulge any relevant information. "
"Even to Master Qui-Gon?" the padawan grumbled, smudging the polished floor with one boot-toe.
"Yes. He didn't ask, because he understands." A pointed pause.
The lift lurched softly as it reached the fourtheenth level concourse. Anakin's shoulders hunched. "It's still not fair."
The Force is not a nursemaid, and .."We come to serve; service means we must sometimes renounce what we consider our fair share."
The boy shrugged this platitude off, and stalked along the corridor a pace ahead of his master.
The disgruntled padawan turned, eyes like newborn stars burning with a peculiar hurt.
Explanation was forbidden, but apology surely was not fettered by the same constraints?
He dropped to one knee, bringing them to eye level. "Padawan, understand this: I will do what I must, and this mission was no different. But I am still sorry that my path carried me so far away and for so long. I owe you far better, and I ask your forgiveness."
The boy's face stilled, resentment fading into mere childish relief. "It's okay," he hiccupped. "Master."
A halting pace or two forward, and he was close enough to touch. Obi-Wan fingered the tufted end of his apprentice's plait. " You will accompany me next time, regardless of circumstance."
Anakin nodded, sobering. "Promise?"
"I give you my word." Obi-Wan stood, hand resting on 'saber's hilt.
"All right, then," his padawan decided, falling into place beside him. "I hope it's somewhere totally wizard."
And they walked on, picking up where they had left off, without missing a step.