A/N: Fondest farewell to Her Royal Highness Leia Organa. May the Force be with you, General.
"Well I certainly think it's a good choice." Ben and Obi-Wan stepped out of the turbolift together and strode down the hall, matching step for step. "But he is going to say no."
Obi-Wan's jaw hardened ever so slightly. "He might try. But I've been told I can be a very persuasive person."
Ben glanced at his counterpart in mild surprise. As the years passed, Obi-Wan became less and less of the man Ben knew from his mirror. Getting to know this younger, self-assured version of himself was an everyday adventure. "At least ask him in private," Ben warned the overconfident knight. "You don't want to put him on the spot."
"Oh, don't worry, Ben. You don't give him enough credit." Obi-Wan gave his older self a smile far softer than the determined fire in his eyes. "He's not as skittish as all that."
Ben shrugged and let the topic fade. The pair slowed to a stop at the front door of the Jinn/Kenobi residence. Obi-Wan's hand paused above the door panel. "I'm not going to mention this committee business to anyone until it's all settled," he explained, fixing Ben with a conspiratorial eye. The unspoken don't tell Qui-Gon hung in the air.
"You are a knight, you know," Ben told him, "you don't have to ask for permission. Though you ought to tell Master Windu before you go back to the Chancellor. He doesn't deal well with surprises."
Obi-Wan gave a nod. "True," he said, and opened the door. Two heads of grey hair turned to look at them - one long and unkempt, one short and trim. Obi-Wan's face broke into a smile.
"Master Dooku!" he strode in the room, hair swaying. It took the elder Jedi a moment to register who, exactly, he was looking at.
"Force, boy, it's worse than I thought." Yan unfolded himself from the couch and went to stand by his grandpadawan, who had successfully contained his smile, though not his dimples or early crowsfeet. Dooku glanced briefly between Obi-Wan and Qui-gon, and then reached out with one hand and pulled Obi-Wan's long hair back from his face in a similar manner to how Qui-Gon' styled his. He let it drop. "You must be bursting with pride," he commented sarcastically to Qui-Gon.
"Why shouldn't I?" replied his former student, crossing one leg over the other in calculated nonchalance. Dooku turned back to Obi-Wan.
"You ought to chop this off," he advised, gesturing to the ginger locks.
"Leave the man be," Qui-Gon called from his seat, "I think it suits him."
Obi-Wan's face was a picture. Luckily, Dooku turned to glare at Qui-Gon the exact moment Obi-Wan began to gape, thus missing the mis-communiqué between master and apprentice. Qui-Gon stared down their comic expressions without a twitch. He waved them over. "Come on, sit down. I've just made tea. Ben, don't linger by the door."
Upon mention of the other Kenobi, Dooku turned to look. He gave a rare smile. "Ah, Master Kenobi, so good to see you again." He glanced at Obi-Wan. Both of you, I should say.
"Likewise, grandmaster," Ben shook his hand. "Mace told me you have interesting news from Kamino."
"Haven't you been at the Senate all day?" Qui-Gon asked. "How on earth did Mace have time to tell you that?" Ben gave Qui-Gon an amused smile and shrugged
"Another time," Dooku waved a hand, ignoring the interruption. "I shall have to bring you up to speed later, off the record. It's all classified at the moment." He spared a glance for Obi-Wan. "Not that I don't trust either of you," he amended. Obi-Wan held out his hands in surrender.
"No, please," the knight said, eyebrows high, "I've had more than enough of that for one week."
"Yes, Mace refused to tell me about that," Qui-Gon said, "what in Force's name did you get yourself into this time?" Dooku went back to his seat, and the two Kenobis collected a cup of tea before taking their respective spots around the low coffee table.
"It's a bit… complicated. I can't tell you everything, unfortunately," Obi-Wan said, glancing at Ben.
The evening devolved into a casual debriefing. These sorts of conversations were the stock and trade of Jedi friendships. Even with the imposing presence of Yan Dooku, Obi-Wan felt comfortable enough to speak freely. He relayed stories from Naboo, and reflected on his fondness for Padme despite poor first impressions, though he did not reveal her true identity. He even discussed the hasty vote made in the Senate the previous day, and the extremely bad feeling he had about Palpatine's new committee. Ben and Qui-Gon had shared a dark look at that. Luckily, Obi-Wan's blind eye kept him from noticing.
The dark mood lifted when Dooku saw Obi-Wan's lightsaber glinting at his belt and nearly burst with pride - or as close to bursting that a man as collected as Dooku would ever be - and insisted on examining the blade and hearing how his makashi studies were progressing. Swordsmanship was one of the educational disciplines that endured well past the knighting ceremony, and it was, as ever, a popular topic in present company.
"We really must spar sometime," Dooku said as he stood, hours later, "I expect you've gotten far better than last I saw you."
"I should hope so," Obi-Wan said. "Last you saw me I was half blind."
It gave Dooku pause, and he met Obi-Wan's one seeing eye with a twitch of a smile. He looked to Qui-Gon and gave a respectful nod. "Very proud indeed," he said. Qui-Gon made a point to not react, but Obi-Wan felt rather than saw the smile beneath his mustache.
Dooku stood, straightened his robes, and took in a deep breath. "I must be off, I'm afraid. I need to finalize my reports on this whole Kamino affair, and the years add up. Do tell me when you're up for a challenge in the dojo, Obi-Wan," he said.
The knight grinned, "Oh, do you know someone?"
When Dooku turned to glare, it was directed at Qui-Gon. "You taught him that," the elder accused, "I know you did."
"He's shown cheek since the crib," Qui-Gon shrugged.
"Hmmph," scoffed Dooku in an aristocratic impression of his old master, "and he'll pay for it, I think." He gave Obi-Wan a sharp smile. "A good evening to all of you."
They bid the master farewell and lounged in their seats. No sooner had the door slid shut than did Obi-Wan whirl back around to squint suspiciously at his former master. "What did you mean,'it suits him'?" he asked. "You hate my hair."
Ben chuckled, but Qui-Gon remained unfazed. He let out a sigh laden with sixty-one years of wisdom. "Obi-Wan," he began sagely, "I have never once agreed with that man about hair, be it mine or anyone else's. I'm not about to start now." He sipped at his tea, and winced upon finding it had gone cold. "But between the two of us, please know that I think it's horrible."
"He certainly wears it better than I did," Ben said, sipping at his tea.
"You wore your hair long?" Qui-Gon was surprised.
"I resent that tone," grumbled Obi-Wan. Ben sat back in his seat, fingers drifting to the short-cropped hairline at his neck.
"There are no still-holos of that hair, for which I am grateful."
"I'll have to make sure you don't have that luxury," Qui-Gon said to his former apprentice. "I'm sure I can find a holocam somewhere around here. Twenty years from now, you'll look back and regret this," he pointed vaguely at Obi-Wan's head before rising to pick up the tea tray.
"Yes, I'm sure," the knight patronized. He stood and took the tea tray from his master's hands. "I'll put it away. I need to be going anyway."
"Oh?" Belligerence evaporated, Qui-Gon looked disappointed. "Where are you going?"
Obi-Wan gave an intentionally casual shrug as he rinsed the teapot and cups and set them out to dry. "Follow-up business about Naboo. I don't know how long it'll take."
"I'm making nuna gumbo for dinner," Qui-Gon said as Obi-Wan went to the door. Not missing a beat, the knight replied,
"In that case, I'll be going to the commissary."
The door hissed shut. "Brat," Qui-Gon grumbled to the air. "He's left his cloak behind again."
"What was Dooku here to talk about?" Ben interjected. Qui-Gon looked over at him.
"Can a man not have his former master over for a social visit?"
"Qui-Gon," Ben fixed him with a dubious look, "Give me some credit, I know you better than that."
Qui-Gon hesitated, jaw muscles wrestling with his expression beneath his beard. Ben recognized the look from his younger days, and knew that if he were still an apprentice, Qui-Gon would look away and make some ambivalent excuse about masters not answering to padawans. Now, however, they were equals. Qui-Gon let out a tense sigh and stood, retrieving the tea kit that Obi-Wan had only just put away. With a flick of his hand, the stove relit itself under the kettle.
"Dooku has requested permission to train Anakin Skywalker," he said, back turned.
Ben's entire body came to a standstill. An unforeseen wave of fear surged through him, icy and stiff. "When?" he asked.
And he'd been busy wrapped up in the Senate. Stupid. "And?"
Qui-Gon was looking over his shoulder, cupboard open, tea in hand. He watched Ben's expression for a moment more. "They said no, of course."
A huge breath escaped Ben, and his body unfroze. Qui-Gon turned back around and crumbled tealeaves into the pot while the kettle began to whistle. "The official word is that Anakin is too young," he brought the entire kit on its tray to sit on the coffee table. He sat across from Ben. "I suspect the real reason is that Dooku is too old. But that is a fragile excuse." He warmed both porcelain bowls and disposed of the water before slowly pouring the tea. He set the cup in front of Ben and fixed him with stern look. "They won't be able to say no to anyone much longer. The boy needs a master, everyone can see that. Dooku will ask again."
"He told you that?"
"I know him well enough that he didn't have to." Qui-Gon sipped at his tea. It was just slightly bitter.
"No one else has asked after him?" Ben said, voice full of dread and hope.
"No," Qui-Gon's tone was almost accusatory. "But you should."
"Qui-Gon, we've been over this," Ben bent and rubbed at his forehead.
Qui-Gon's exasperated slouch almost made him spill tea, which was in and of itself a harbinger of his foul mood. "Force, Ben, stop dwelling on the past for one damned day, and you'll see that that boy needs you now. Dooku means well, and I have no doubt he could teach Anakin a great deal, but we both know he's not suited for it. The Council knows it too, though I doubt they could express exactly why." Qui-Gon sighed and looked to make sure he hadn't spilled any tea before sipping at it. He savored the delicate acidity, trying to let it calm his stormy expression. It didn't work. He took a longer drink. "If you won't take him on, I will."
"You?" Ben couldn't help it when a twinge of hurt entered his frown. "You said Obi-Wan would be your last."
"I thought he would be, but I know for certain the Force would not put Anakin in Yan Dooku's hands, no matter how much respect I have for the man."
"And what, the Force is telling you to train him instead?"
"What the Force tells me is that you're being a block-headed idiot who won't stop and listen," Qui-gon snapped, and immediately regretted it. He sighed and took a gulp of tea.
"I do listen," Ben muttered petulantly.
Qui-Gon bit his tongue and clenched a fist. At length, he asked, "Did you ever tell Obi-Wan about last time?"
Ben blinked. "Last time? What, that I trained Anakin?"
The vindication in Qui-Gon's voice made Ben frown again. "Why?"
"Because if you tell him, it'll put ideas in his head. He's susceptible to notions about destiny, you know."
"So are you," Ben retorted, remembering the light in Qui-Gon's eyes when he'd spoken of the Chosen One all those years ago.
Qui-Gon did not deny it, but glared up at Ben from under his eyebrows. "Leave him be, Ben. Use your senses. This was never meant to be his battle."
"Only mine," the elder Kenobi replied bitterly.
Qui-Gon looked away, sympathetic but remorseless. "I'm sorry."
Ben considered, just for a moment, telling Qui-Gon exactly who Anakin had been, what he could be. But then he remembered the blind ambition that had led his master to abandon Obi-Wan at the drop of a hat. He held his tongue. He sighed, sitting back to finally drink his tea. It was already going cold. "I think he's got other things to worry about right now."
"What's this then? Running around to the Senate and back, I thought you'd be too busy for the likes of us."
Obi-Wan's smile was easy and lopsided. "Missed you too, Feemor."
"Is that Obi?" asked Aola from within the apartment.
Feemor turned his head over his shoulder. "That'll be Knight Kenobi to you, little one," he teased.
"Oh, stop it." Obi-Wan smacked him in the stomach, and squeezed past him into the apartment.
"No please," Feemor smiled, a bit wheezy from the hit, "come in and make yourself at home." He closed the door.
"Is Cody with you?" Aola asked from the table, where she was typing up a report. Obi-Wan ignored Feemor's wit and told the apprentice,
"No, he's at OrbitSec, where he'll stay for the time being." He picked up a date from the plate by Aola's hand and popped in his mouth. As he chewed, he asked, "How is Garen?"
"Sleeping, I bet. Trying to binge on rest before his vigil tomorrow night."
Obi-Wan waited to swallow before he laughed. "I'm shocked he's observing the traditions - he always said he never would." Aola smiled, fingers tapping away at her keyboard.
"He's a softie for that sort of stuff, deep down. He's only contrary to annoy you."
Obi-Wan scoffed, and pretended he hadn't thought of it before. "Prick," he muttered, making Aola smile wider.
"So what's all this business at the Senate?" Feemor asked, coming over to steal more of Aola's dates. She gave him a dirty look and moved her snacks to the opposite side of the table. He ignored her. "I saw the story on G-RAN. Something about the Banking Clan, and a committee?"
Obi-Wan's expression fell, easy smile replaced with a carefully composed mask. "Ah, well, that's actually what I came to talk with you about," he said. The shift in Obi-Wan's mood plucked a corresponding chord in the Force, and Feemor and Aola both looked up, the Force hovering around them in intrigued waves.
"Did something happen?" asked Aola, worried.
"No, no, I just…" Obi-Wan flustered. Diplomacy was a second language to him, but it was different when you had to politic your way around family. "I wondered if I might have a word with you, Master Gard." With monumental effort, he did not even flinch in Aola's direction. "Alone."
All of them could feel Aola's flush of hurt as she looked up in surprise. The two men glanced at her, and Obi-Wan ducked his head in silent apology. Feemor studied Obi-Wan's face. "Give us a moment, eh, lass?" He gave his padawan a quick smile. Aola looked between the two and slowly stood.
"Course," she muttered, and turned down the hall toward her room. As an afterthought, she went back and took the plate of dates. After her bedroom door opened and hissed shut, Feemor crossed his arms and turned to Obi-Wan.
"'Master Gard', is it? What's this about?"
"It's nothing she can't hear about, but I didn't want her being here to pressure you." Obi-Wan glanced down the hall where he could see Aola's door. "Is there somewhere we could talk where she won't eavesdrop?"
A deliberative wrinkle had developed between Feemor's eyebrows, but it lessened gently as he chuckled. "You know her too well. My room should be far enough away."
Once sequestered in the privacy of Feemor's quarters, Obi-Wan gave his pitch. Feemor absorbed it, slack-jawed.
"Me?" he asked incredulously. "You want me to sit on a Republic committee?"
"With me, yes," the knight said.
Feemor sat back on his meditation cushion. On the cushion opposite, Obi-Wan sat cross-legged and patient. The master squinted at him. "Did Qui-Gon put you up to this?"
"Qui-Gon doesn't know I'm on the committee yet, let alone that I'm to choose a second representative."
Feemor blinked. "And I'm, what, your… third, fourth choice?"
"No, you're my first choice, actually."
Feemor scoffed. "Why?"
Obi-Wan sighed. "Valorum's only roped me into this because Palpatine dislikes me and because my low rank won't stir the pot. He doesn't want Mace or any of the Councilors involved. He's using me."
"So you think I'm low-ranking enough to become your accessory?"
It hadn't sounded so bad in Obi-Wan's head. He huffed. "No it's not- look, I'm going to need a friend to turn this mess to our favor. This committee doesn't smell right. Someone's got to keep an eye on things, and if Valorum thinks I'm going to roll over and play doormat for him, he's wrong.'
Feemor was taken aback by Obi-Wan's fervor. "Why do you care so much? It's how the Senate works, lad."
"Why do you think Ben's spent the last decade neck-deep in it, then?" Obi-Wan asked, and huffed in frustration. He'd spent too much time mulling over the problem in his own head, and not enough looking at it from Feemor's perspective. "The Senate is a hotbed for… certain powers, these days, and the way things have been going, it's about to get complicated. Ben feels it, and so can I."
"Certain powers?" Feemor repeated. "You mean… you don't mean the Sith, do you?" He whispered the name like a curse. In the temple, it was.
"It has to be. The Force is a maelstrom over there. I don't know exactly why; Ben knows the gory details. I have my suspicions, but frankly, I'm afraid to ask. He probably wouldn't tell me, anyway. The point is," Obi-Wan put out a stiff hand to refocus his thoughts, "we need to have boots on the ground there. Ben's bowing out as soon as the Accord is through, and now, by the Force's will, I'm stepping in. And I'm going to need help." He looked Feemor in the eye, gaze beseeching.
Feemor shrugged and gave a scoff. "But… why are you asking me?"
"You know about me, about Ben. You know why he's here. You can understand why this is important."
"In the abstract, yes, but so does Mace and the entire High Council."
"Valorum won't have any of them on this committee."
"So ask Qui-Gon or Dooku," Feemor gestured, as if to indicate an invisible line of qualified candidates queuing outside the door. "Force knows that Dooku could devastate any politician."
"You're gifted with politics too, Feemor," Obi-Wan reprimanded, "You said so yourself.
"Not like Dooku, I'm not," the Master scoffed, "the man bleeds subterfuge."
"Yes, but he's not…" Obi-Wan hesitated, unsure how to articulate himself. "He's too gray. If this really is the Sith we're dealing with," Feemor flinched at the word, "I don't think it'd be a good idea to have him too close."
"He was a shadow, Obi-Wan. He knows the Dark better than anyone."
"And you don't think he was once tempted by it?"
The idea hadn't crossed Feemor's mind. "He's… he's a Jedi. He may be gray, but…" Feemor shrugged, mind wheeling in circles. "He's still a Jedi. He wouldn't."
Obi-Wan couldn't help but smile. "That's why I need your help, Feemor. You're the only Jedi I know who thinks in those terms."
"What terms?" the master was baffled.
"You're so light, no politician, let alone a Sith, will know what to do with you."
The praise sounded familiar, from years ago. "Ben told you that, didn't he?" he asked dryly.
"What?" Obi-Wan was confused. "No, he asked me why I picked you, and that's what I told him. It's true. And besides..." Obi-Wan ducked his head slightly. "If I'm being honest, I have no idea what I'm doing and would really appreciate someone with a bit more experience."
Feemor stared him down for several long moments, searching for something . At length, he crossed his arms. "And would you want Aola along, too? She's not what I would call a 'people person'."
"I had thought of that. I don't see a problem with it. I was tasked with assigning a Jedi to this position, but on paper, a master and padawan count as one unit, so technically, I can assign two for the price of one. And when Valorum finds he can't overturn my decision, he'll be furious. Serves him right." Obi-Wan's smile was one he'd learned from watching Dooku. Feemor squinted at him.
"Are you sure you don't know what you're doing, Kenobi?"
The younger man shrugged. "Only sort of." He let his smile melt away to expose the desperation and hope in his eyes. "Really, Feemor, I need your help with this."
All of Feemor's growing wrinkles showed as he frowned in consideration. "Let me think about it," he muttered, not meeting Obi-Wan's gaze. "I'll talk about it with Aola and let you know in a few days."
"Alright." Obi-Wan rose and straightened his robes. "Thank you for hearing me out."
"Of course." Feemor was scrubbing his chin, where salt and pepper stubble hissed against his fingers. "How long would this assignment be?" he asked.
Obi-Wan paused. He couldn't help but think of how Ben had spent nearly eleven years embroiled in senate affairs. "I'm… I'm not sure," he said, now frowning for his own sake.
"Alright." Feemor said, looking away. "I'll let you know."
"Oh, and watch your footing on the way out. Aola's probably lurking somewhere outside."
Obi-Wan paused at the door and looked over his shoulder. "You sure she's not meant for politics?" he whispered. Feemor raised his eyebrows.
"Sneaking around isn't the problem; it's getting caught that she needs to work on." His wrinkles reappeared and cast dark shadows across his face. "I imagine a senator is less forgiving than an eopie in that regard." The idea of his apprentice being caught sneaking around the senate, potentially by a Sith, made him run a hand over his face. He forced a smile. "Best not to trip over her, at any rate."
Obi-Wan forced a smile of his own for Feemor's sake. "Force be with you, Master."
"Aye, you too lad."
Once Obi-Wan was gone, Feemor rubbed his face and sighed.
"Don't say that," Anakin pulled out a screwdriver and wrestled with the stripped head of his target. "You're only four years old. That's only half as old as I am."
Anakin scoffed. "Okay one year less than half. I was rounding up. Stay still, would you?" Arbie-one stilled, his longsuffering repulsors thrumming with age. His optical lens pivoted impatiently while Anakin attempted to tighten the joists that held up his mechanical arms. His screwdriver slipped and the metal end banged into Arbie's round hull. It would have scratched the paint, if there had been any paint left to scratch.
"BrrrEEEEEE," the droid complained.
"It couldn't hurt, you big baby. Your preservation protocols aren't that sensitive. Stay still." Anakin finished tightening the screw and gave the arm an experimental tug. It wobbled slightly, but less so than it had before. "How's that feel?" He let the hovering ball go, and Arbie shimmied in the air. The arm twisted and moved, its two-pronged hand snapping experimentally. After some consideration, the droid gave a satisfied blip.
"As good as new," Anakin smiled.
'New', in the case of the affectionately named Remote-Ball One, was relative. Professionally manufactured droids could last decades, if treated properly. Unfortunately, RB-1 had been constructed by a seven year-old whose only building supplies at the time had consisted of condemned remote units and cast-off shipyard scrap. Judging solely on his origins, Arbie was a shining beacon of success. Measured against any other standard, he was a spark-spitting wad of garbage that only continued hovering by the grace of the Force - the Force, and an extremely determined ten year-old.
"Breep breeeeeeee," Arbie rattled, top half of his sphere rotating around so his lens could face the dormitory door.
"Who is it?"
Arbie considered the question. A circuit sparked. "Breeeup bop."
Anakin's heart sank. "Sithspit." He used the Force to sweep his tools under his bed. He stood up to hid in the 'fresher, but just as he did, the dormitory door opened.
"Oh, here you are," said the boy at the front of the procession. Half a dozen other boys followed him, most of them still sweaty from saber practice. Anakin paused by the 'fresher and abandoned his hiding place.
"Hi, Aren," he said in polite monotony.
"Where were you Ani?" asked a more cordial, blue-haired boy, who was wiping his forehead on his shirt. "We missed you at practice."
"Yeah," laughed a Twi'lek, who'd swung up to a top bunk and now kicked his legs over the edge. "We didn't have enough for six pairs - Hedun had to fight Master Drallig, it was a riot!" The others laughed, and the blue-haired boy glared.
Anakin smiled. "I just twisted my ankle, is all. Master Che said I should stay off it for a while."
"Twisted your ankle?" Aren snorted. "I thought you'd have Master Dooku plaiting your padawan braid by now."
"The Council said no," Anakin said, taking Arbie into his arms before the droid ran away. He fiddled with a bent antenna. "They said I'm too young."
"Good," Aren spat, and marched over to the younger boy. At not quite thirteen and already making strides through puberty, Aren dwarfed Anakin by nearly a foot. From Anakin's perspective, the boy loomed in shadow. "You should have to wait, just like everyone else. It'll be good for you." The Force coiled around the teen in muddled shades of grey, flickering from dark to light and back again. He shrugged them off, and turned away to his own bed. "Leave enough Masters for the rest of us."
The other boys were silent as Aren stormed to his bed. Hedun, his bunkmate, was very pointedly not watching him as he climbed up. Aren saw it. "What?" he demanded. Hedun shook his head quickly, lips sealed. Aren sighed in annoyance and flung himself into the mattress.
"Breeep bbRUUUUP," complained Arbie in Aren's general direction. Anakin slammed a hand over the droid's speaker. Droidish abuse echoed metallically from the smothered sphere.
"Didn't Master Ulo tell you keep that thing out of the dormitory?" Aren snapped without turning around. Anakin wrapped the irate ball in both arms and went for the door. "Sorry, Aren," he said, and scuttled out of the room.
Some time later, while the other boys slept or showered after their workout, one of the older initiates, a tall, amber-skinned human, followed Anakin into the common room. He found the boy sprawled out on one corner of the room, talking to his droid and fiddling with its attachments. It was behavior typical of Anakin Skywalker; he did not have many friends who were not built of circuits. "Is your ankle alright?" the older boy asked conversationally. Anakin looked up, a bit startled. He relaxed upon seeing who it was.
"Yeah, it's fine, Pel." He fiddled a bit more with Arbie. "How was practice?"
Pel shrugged and sat cross-legged beside Anakin. "You know me. I'm not one for sabers," Pel grinned. "I'm sure you'd dance circles around me even with a twisted ankle," he laughed. When this failed to elicit the desired response, his smile faded. "You mustn't mind Aren, you know. He's just nervous because his lifeday's next month and he hasn't found a master."
"Your thirteenth lifeday is next week," Anakin pointed out. "Aren't you nervous?"
Pel shrugged. "I know I'm not going to find a master. I'm going to the Education Corps, Master Nu's already promised me a spot."
"And you're sticking around for the trials?" Anakin's nose wrinkled. He disliked tests. "When you know you're not going to pass?"
Pel shrugged. "It's the principle of the thing."
Metal squeaked against metal as Anakin wrestled another loose part into submission. Arbie chirped in indignation. "Are you disappointed to go to the Education Corps?" asked Anakin. Again, Pel shrugged.
"No, not really. I've always liked the archives, and I've got a good head for the stuff. I'll be good there. It's the Force's will for my life."
Anakin let Arbie go and slumped against the wall. Arbie darted away, muttering mechanically. "And you just… know that sort of thing?" Anakin asked, eyebrows twisted in confused introspection. Pel watched the younger boy in sympathy.
"You're disappointed that Master Dooku won't train you?"
"Yes. No. I… I don't know…" Anakin sighed, and drew his knees up to his chest. He sat there for a bit. Two initiates, talking amicably, came in through the main door and disappeared into the sleeping hall. "Is it my fault?" Anakin asked when they'd gone. Pel turned to look at him.
"Is it my fault that Aren can't find a master?" Anakin peered up at the older boy. "I mean. Master Dooku should've asked him first, right?"
Pel blinked, blindsided by the skewed logic, and shook his head. "No, that's not how it works. Master Dooku can ask to train anyone he wants. Aren needs to come to terms with the Force's will." It sounded callous, but it was true.
Anakin pursed his lips, the innocence of his baby-fat cheeks at war with the serious furrow in his brow. "It feels like my fault," he said.
"It's not," Pel assured, resting a hand on the boy's shoulder. Anakin shrugged, and huddled into his knees. After a few moments of silence, Pel looked around himself. "I need to shower. Evening meal is in about an hour, make sure you hide Arbie before Master Ulo does her inspection, alright?"
Pel stood and went to the door. "Pel?" Anakin asked. The older boy turned.
"How do you know what the Force's will is for your life?"
The question gave Pel pause, but after a moment of thought, he said, "I suppose I just listen to it. It's a quiet sort of thing. The thing I'm meant to do just feels… right. Like it's always been that way."
This did not satisfy Anakin's curiosity, but he didn't have the energy to interrogate. "Oh. Okay."
Pel nodded, slowly leaning back toward the door. "Force be with you, Ani," the teen said to the distraught boy, and went into the other room.
Anakin continued to mope. When Arbie looped around the room, Anakin drew him close with the Force and powered him down with a quiet apology. Listen to the Force, he thought. He wanted to listen to the Force, he did. It was what they were taught to do. But whenever Anakin tried, things happened. Stuff spun in the air, whether he'd asked it to or not. Lights turned off, and could not be turned on again. He fought better than initiates twice his age. People got hurt. Bad things happened when Anakin tried to listen to the Force. His teachers told him he needed to learn control. He told his teachers that he thought he'd had control. He didn't. It showed on their faces that they didn't know what to do.
It feels right, like it's always been that way. Something about that sentiment rang true. Staring off into nothing, Anakin allowed himself to be drawn into the idea, turning it over in his head like a puzzle cube. Something clicked into place.
Across the room, a halo lamp exploded. Anakin started, eyes wide, and put his arms over his head as bits of glass sprayed across the room.
"What did you do, Skywalker?" asked a beleaguered Aren from the other side of the door. Anakin ducked.
"Sithspit," he hissed. He heard footsteps from the other room. It could be Aren, it could be someone else. He weighed the odds, rose to his feet, stashed Arbie behind the couch, and darted out the door.
He could just wait outside the commissary before evening meal, couldn't he? Maybe they'd have leftover sweetcakes from lunch.
Anakin Skywalker. Anakin kriffing Skywalker. Little ten year-old, Jedi initiate Anakin kriffing Skywalker, in need of a master, and who had taken up the mantle? Dooku. Of course he had. Oh, he hadn't earned the right to teach him, but he'd be back, and he'd win next time. Poor little Ani was far too unstable these days, only a fool would argue otherwise. The boy would be in trouble if he didn't get a master soon.
Enter Ben Kenobi, time traveller extraordinaire and unsung hero of innumerable lifeforms. What did the Force's chosen messenger want to do about it? Quite frankly, he wanted to run and hide. Instead, he went to the temple dojo. By a stroke of luck or fate, he found Mace Windu there, running through complex Vaapad katas.
There was a suppressed maelstrom churning in the back of Ben's head, and the buzz gave off a familiar tone. It rang in his ears like a klaxon, and in the old days, there had been only one way to make it stop. He marched toward Master Windu, ignoring the councilor's quiet concentration.
"Mace, would you do me a favor?" he asked, still walking as Mace broke his kata and glared at the newcomer.
"You want me to break your ribs?" he said in deadpan irritation. Ben's expression did not change.
"I want you to try," he said, honestly. Mace stopped moving. Lightsaber still humming by his side, he looked Kenobi up and down. It was a well known fact that Ben Kenobi did not duel often. In fact, as far as anyone else knew, the man maintained his lightsaber prowess almost entirely in katas and, occasionally, by giving demonstrations to classes of padawans. But there was definitely a hunger in his eyes now, a razor-sharp look that said he was itching for a brawl.
"Are you sure that's a good idea, Ben?" Mace asked. He felt the Force around them carefully, expecting to find a cloud of anger roiling around his friend. He did, but it was under control, tightly fisted in Ben's unbreakable composure.
"Please, Mace," Ben said shortly, "I need to fight someone, and you're one of the few who can give me an honest challenge."
Mace's eyebrows rose. The words were pure conceit, but coming from Ben, they sounded like plain truth. "Alright," he said, and tipped up his saber. "You ready?"
Ben drew his own saber, and nodded. Without preamble, Mace launched into an attack.
Ben responded with silent fervor. While Mace fell into his blows with kiai and emphatic grunts, Ben was utterly silent. Mace's violet saber whirled around in a swift, cutting attack, but Ben caught it easily on his own and guided the interlocked blades in a circle. The momentum threw Mace's blade into the ground. He recovered with the speed that made him a master swordsman and attacked low from the other side. Ben jumped over it and swung at Mace's unprotected left side. The councilor parried just in time, and the two exchanged a quick volley of blows and blocks, bursts of light crackling like lightning between them.
Face illuminated by their blades, Ben's eyes were far away. His mind wasn't truly in this fight. His body was working on muscle memory, decisions fueled by prompts from the Force itself. He never looked at Mace, or even at their lightsabers. He looked at the floor and the wall, and the air, and eventually he closed his eyes altogether.
Mace darted around him in attempts to flank him, surprise him, or overpower him, but only landed one grazing hit for his efforts. He struck to the right, and found Ben's parry exactly where he expected it. But then he dove and struck at his knees, where he knew the man couldn't move his guard quickly enough, and impossibly, there was a blue blade shining there, waiting for him. The real heart of Vaapad strategy was to overpower your opponent by taking them off-guard. It was damned near impossible to take Ben Kenobi off-guard.
Mace tried to ignore the sweat on his forehead as he watched Ben spin his saber in a wide circle to block the incoming blows, before ducking out of the way of what would have been, to anyone else, an unexpected sai cha maneuver. Ben ducked under it as though he'd seen it coming miles away. He hadn't even been looking. Frustrated, Mace opened his mouth to make a pithy comment, but just as the words formed on his tongue, Ben turned back to face him, and he caught sight of the man's face.
Ben's eyes were closed again, but his forehead was wrinkled in lines of concentration. They weren't the angry V-shaped lines of a man in a duel, but the confused, wobbled lines of a man trying very hard to sort through a deeper, more tender problem. Curious, Mace reached out his senses and found Ben in a state that he could only compare to deep meditation. The councilor put out a hand and Force-pushed Ben back two yards. The man's eyes snapped open, but the meditative air about him did not waver. Ben charged back toward his opponent, and Mace braced for impact.
So that's how this is going to go, thought the councilor, and engaged again. He stopped paying attention to Ben after a while, and forgot about any snide comments. There was the fight, and only the fight. While Ben sank deeper into his own world, Mace pulled on the whirlwind of light and dark that made Vaapad what it was. They were both drenched in sweat and heaving for breath, but the fatigue did not show in Ben's expression. Mace flipped over him in a Ataru move from his apprenticeship days and shouted as he struck at Ben's neck.
Ben blocked it with a vicious upward cut that sent Mace rebounding backwards, shoulders falling first and sending him off-balance. He rolled and rebounded upward, but Ben kicked his shin and kept him near the ground. Mace struck at his ankles, and Ben danced out of the way. Mace leaped off the floor, sending alternating strikes to the thigh, arm, and stomach as he went, but they all bounced harmlessly off of Ben's defense. Once on his feet, Mace struck straight down, the force of the blow catching Ben's inevitable parry in a pause, and wrenched the blue blade to the left. To his surprise, Ben let it happen with absolutely no resistance. The force of his own movement sent Mace off-balance once more, and he stumbled to the left. Ben lifted his hand ever so slightly and Force-pulled Mace's boots out from under him. The floor hit his back, the air left his lungs, and Ben summoned Mace's brilliant purple blade into his own hand. He pointed both at the fallen Councilor, who was groaning as he righted himself. He was too surprised to say anything at first.
Ben's eyes flitted open, taking in the state of his victory. He slumped suddenly, as if feeling the fight for the first time. He saw the blades in his hands and disengaged them.
"Sola," said Mace. Ben nodded, and helped the other Jedi to stand. He handed back Mace's saber without a word.
Both Jedi could feel eyes on them. They turned as one to find Qui-Gon Jinn, accompanied by his junior padawan students, who were staring in awe at the two duelists. Mace Windu was accustomed to such attention, but was not accustomed to witnesses when he lost a duel. "Master Jinn." He nodded politely at the agog young faces and their more composed master.
"Well fought, Master Windu," Qui-Gon nodded back, and glanced at Ben. "Master Kenobi."
"So it was." Since they had an audience, Mace turned to bow to Ben. The other man was flushed from the fight and twitchy under the sudden scrutiny. He gave a curt bow.
"Yes, thank you, Master Windu, that was most helpful," he said. The maelstrom had gone quiet, leaving him alone with quiet thoughts more harrowing than a storm. "I must be going." He brushed past Qui-Gon and his entourage and swept out of the dojo. The padawans turned to watch him go in abject hero-worship.
"Alright, then, go on into the next salle and resume your exercises," shooed Qui-Gon, breaking the younglings' collective reverie. They scuttled into the larger hall, leaving Qui-Gon alone with his old friend.
"What was that about?" he asked, bringing the Korun a towel.
"You know, I'm not entirely sure," said Mace, wiping his face.
Qui-Gon turned to look at the doorway through which Ben had left. "I've never seen him fight like that."
"I've never seen anyone fight like that, except in holovids." Mace shook out a sore wrist.
"How do you mean?"
"It appears as though your old pupil has resurrected the practice of battle meditation. I'm guessing he picked it up during the war." He looked around to make sure there was no one to eavesdrop. "I've noticed he reverts back to old habits when he's stressed. He must be working through something nasty."
"Hmm." Qui-Gon's expression darkened. "Anakin, no doubt."
"Anakin?" Mace raised an eyebrow, and then slumped in realization. "You told him about Dooku?" his disapproval showed in his voice.
"Someone had to. You know Dooku's not right for the boy," Qui-Gon defended.
"And you think Ben is?" Mace gestured with his saber, incredulity all over his face. "Ben, who quite clearly suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome and works through it by handing my ass to me on a platter? Ben, who has seen the end of the Galaxy as we know it and is balancing all his hope for redemption on that boy? Do you mean that Ben?"
"All his hope?" Qui-Gon interjected. "That's playing it up a bit, isn't it?" His voice faltered upon remembering that Mace was Ben's only complete confidant. The councilor sighed.
"Anakin needs a master."
"My point exactly. And you know better than I do how important it is to put him in capable hands."
Oh, Mace knew alright. He'd lost sleep over it. He'd had nightmares about the memories Ben had shown him. Old ghosts aside, time was running out for everyone involved. Anakin was still just a boy, and Ben was thinking of him as something else. The Master of the Order sighed. There was little to be done about it. He brushed himself off and strode to the door. "Next time, I should just break his ribs first thing," he muttered, rubbing at his sore side.
"What?" Qui-Gon asked, confused. Mace waved a dismissive hand.