Acknowledgements and disclaimers: I have shamelessly swiped from everybody because I'm not getting paid for this. It's just for fun. Lord George Lucas owns it all!
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Mos Eisley was thick with stormtroopers. More than I'd ever seen there before. I wasn't sure why. They weren't after Ben, I knew that much. They weren't after me, either. But as long as they were at it, they were gonna pick me up.
Long Snoot owed me plenty of favors and repaid them all at once by letting me know that the Empire had my name. My birth name, not the name I'd gone by for twenty years. Maybe they'd torn it from some poor wretch. Maybe it had been culled with other birth names from the central crèche records. I still don't know how they found out I wasn't just Nia Lee of Tatooine.
I stole a speeder and headed for the nearest used speeder lot. I left the thing idling outside and almost trampled some farmboy in my dash to the dealer. Like an idiot, I didn't remember until facing that good creature that even the scummiest dealers in town wanted at least token proof of ownership. To sell hot goods, I should go to the Jawas in the boondocks.
That shows just how scared I was, forgetting the basics like that.
I left the dealer to dicker with the farmboy and stumbled back outside. I was a dead woman. I wouldn't last an hour in the boonies. Mos Eisley was no garden party, but I knew my way around. I didn't know the desert. It sometimes killed even native-born humans, with heat or dehydration or sandstorms or Sandpeople.
I was desperate enough to try. I had enough fuel to get to Ben's house. I'd never been there; hell, I'd never set foot out of town before, but I knew where it was. Ben would know what to do. Ben would save me!
So you can imagine how happy I was to see him hanging around outside the used speeder lot. He took one look at my face and gestured me into a side alley.
I all but sobbed the story, trembling with cold terror even in the sweltering heat of midday. Babbling, all dignity gone, they're after me, you've got to help me, if they catch me I'll talk, I like to think I'm tough but you know what they'll do to me, I'll crack and spill and—
He hushed me with a finger to my lips. Closed his eyes for a moment, opened them again, looked right into my head. He cupped his hand to my face. "What is your name?" he asked, very gently. His first words to me that day.
Damn, he looked tired. "Niriamne Bel-Thrackan." A whisper. I hadn't said the name in twenty years; it felt rusty. I turned my face into his palm. Everything would be all right. Ben wouldn't let anybody hurt me.
"Do you have any money with you?"
"Yes." My emergency stash was the first and only thing I'd stopped to grab after Long Snoot gave me the good news. A pitiful amount, but on top of cash for the speeder maybe I could buy my way off this rock, no questions asked. Maybe Ben could whammy the dealer into not knowing or caring that the speeder was stolen. Then I could go— anywhere. Maybe Alderaan. That desperate hope was almost too sweet to endure. I'd always wanted to visit cool, green, peaceful Alderaan—
There was pain in Ben's face. "I'm sorry, Niriamne." Pain, but beneath that, more than that, diamond-hard determination as he dropped his hand to his belt.
I stared at him, aghast, disbelieving—
"I'm so sorry."
And then he killed me.
I understand now that Ben was performing triage. I don't like it much, but I understand it. He did the math, ran the odds, and knew he couldn't save me and Luke, too. He just couldn't.
Hell, I doubt he could have saved just me. Every paid informant in Mos Eisley drooled at the prospect of the reward on a former Jedi adept. You could retire comfortably on even a lowly Agri-Corps kid. Both my names had been published, and my face was well known. And I hadn't helped things by stealing a speeder. No doubt a seeker probe droid had recorded the act and squealed to the law, which would put stormtroopers hot on my heels.
The grim fact was, I was a goner. And what does a goner need with money?
Does it sound like I'm trying to justify Ben killing me and taking my emergency stash? I'm not justifying, I'm explaining. Were I he, I'd have done the same thing. Only I'd have been quicker about it.
But at the time, I was royally pissed off. I wanted an explanation, not just a lousy "sorry" followed by a saber to the brain stem. Talk about your wham, bam, thank you ma'am!
Maybe that's how this whole thing got started. I couldn't just die like a normal person. My wounded pride and insanely powerful survival instincts wouldn't let me. The Sith themselves have no wrath like a Force-strong woman scorned, not to mention one most suddenly and unexpectedly murdered.
From Ben's point of view, it was an act of mercy. I heard him think that this way at least it was painless, and everything in me screamed, Am I supposed be grateful?
You have to give the man credit, though. I didn't feel a thing.
The next thing I know I'm convulsing and gasping for breath and looking up into the worried face of Qui-Gon Jinn.
Yeah, I knew the guy. I'd picked him up from Ben's memories. I figured he was welcoming me to the blue glowing afterlife.
He looks even better in person, I thought. "Guhhh" was my witty greeting, as I managed to suck in a sweet double lungful of air. "Wuh," I continued, trying to figure out what I meant to ask him. Oh yeah. Why am I thrashing around, having trouble breathing? This is the afterlife? Well, it's nice and cool like the afterlife should be—
"Thank the Force," Qui-Gon said.
Amen. Oh, lovely lovely oxygen. I'll never take you for granted again. "Where—"
"Shhhh." He stroked hair back from my forehead and smiled down at me. Okay. I'll shhhh. I was no longer thrashing, just trembling a bit.
"I think she's out of danger, Master."
I was belly-up on some sort of diagnostic table. I looked to the other side, at that almost familiar voice, and saw a very young Ben Kenobi.
The man who'd just killed me. I jerked upright and slugged his jaw. "GET AWAY FROM ME!" With no warning, every package, locker, and first-aid kit in sight ripped itself open. I leapt five meters to the other side of the cabin. When I slammed into the wall I had a scalpel in each hand. I didn't know how they'd got there. I gained my footing and slid my back over to the door, Force-fumbling at the controls. "Stay away, STAY AWAY!"
Ben was down, a heap of beige clothing; faster than I could see, Qui-Gon yanked him to his feet. I guess he had noticed that every sharp object in the medilab was floating in mid-air, because he had Ben positioned to cover his back in no time, and their sabers were ready to form a spherical shield when those sharp objects flew at them. Too bad I was in no state to enjoy the show. Molten glass and metal spattered and flew everywhere. One glob hit my skin and sizzled, which caused me to assume the fetal position and close my eyes and shriek with fear. I hadn't escaped after all. I was gonna be tortured to death. Damn you, Ben, why didn't you do a proper job of killing me? Damn you, damn you to hell! I tried to form those words, and found to my complete horror that I'd forgotten how to speak. That meant I was the one in hell. And I could only scream.
The popping of hot glass and metal and the musical swoosh of moving sabers seemed to go on forever. But it was no more than half a minute, tops. Then it stopped. Both sabers hummed quietly for a few heartbeats, and then I heard one turn off. "Padawan." It was an order. The other saber turned off. Blessed silence. Except for the noise I was still making. Qui-Gon broke in. "We're not going to hurt you. We're not going to hurt you." He spoke softly; I wouldn't have heard him if he hadn't Force-powered his voice, trying to break through my hysterics. "Child. Look at me. Look at me. We're not going to hurt you."
I lowered the volume from shrieks to whimpers. Qui-Gon kept on Force-talking, his soothing tone getting through more than his words. I managed to shut up. I suddenly felt very uncomfortable curled up on the cold hard floor. I slowly uncurled the tight little ball I'd made of myself. It felt like I'd break if I uncurled too fast. I realized I was still holding the scalpels. Well, that explained Ben's reluctance to power down. Not to mention my nearly knocking his head off. I was ashamed of myself; of course these nice Jedi weren't going to hurt me. I unfroze my hands enough to drop the scalpels.
"That's right. It'll be all right. We're not going to hurt you. Look at me, child."
I was facing the wall. I pushed at the floor some. Shit, I'd cut my hands. I shoved the scalpels away. Ben inhaled sharply as they skittered across the floor. Leaning on my elbows, I levered myself up and got into a semblance of a seated position, back against the door.
They were at the far end of the medilab, sabers clipped to their belts, trying to look non-threatening. Not hard in Ben's case; he was so young! From where I sat, it seemed he was as tall as he'd ever be, but he couldn't be any more than fifteen standard years. Just a gawky kid. But Qui-Gon Jinn—
Oh . . . my . . . gods!
He was in his prime, younger than Ben's memories. He had a face the word "craggy" was invented for, rough-hewn in the most gorgeous way. Incredible eyes. And that body. That great tall lean body, long-limbed and slim-hipped and broad-chested. A perfectly formed but powerful body that no robes could conceal. He was beauty made flesh.
I gaped at him like a total fool. No wonder Ben had lost it for him.
Then it hit me, with an energizing surge of loathing: You're the one. The one Ben loves instead of me.
My breath caught and hitched on a sob. It hurt in a throat raw with screaming. I pulled myself the rest of the way up the door and snarled at Qui-Gon. The competition. Never mind sharp objects. I was gonna get hands-on. Rend him limb from limb, Wookiee-fashion. That'll teach him to steal Ben!
I took three lurching steps towards him before my vision went gray and fuzzy. Qui-Gon caught me before I fell on my face. Before fainting, I thought, What a nice guy, too bad I'm gonna kill you.
Back to reality (such as it is). Back on the diagnostic table. Restrained this time, strapped down at shoulders, waist, knees and ankles.
"Feeling better?" Qui-Gon was smiling down at me again. Made me go all gooshy inside. We were back to where we'd started. I looked to where Ben had stood. No sign of him.
I felt calmer— mostly because it seemed my brain had shut down for want of even the slightest idea what was going on. My throat was tender. Then I remembered my terror and hatred, the scorched ozone smell of wild Force energy bottled up in the small medilab as I'd tried to kill them both. Yes, it was me who'd done that crazy thing. It certainly was. I looked up into eyes an even lovelier shade of dark blue than Ben remembered. "I'm sorry." Trying to get across how much I meant those words. I thought of all the times I'd been told to say them. Well, I meant it this time. I was ashamed of how I'd acted, even if I had been out of my head.
"You weren't yourself." So who the hell was I? "But you should probably be kept under observation for a while."
I smiled. It must have been a sad smile, from his sympathetic look. "You mean you're going to keep me restrained for a while. Guess I can't blame you." My voice was a raspy contralto.
"Your understanding is most welcome." He put a cool hand to my forehead. "I don't think further restraint is necessary." He hit a control, and the hard straps slid away. He made as if to help me up, but I gestured him back. I still wasn't sure what I might do.
I sat up very slowly, relieved to feel just bruised. I'd hit the wall pretty hard with that crazed flying leap. I looked down at myself. Still female, but shorter and bigger-boned. One thing hadn't changed— no meat on my bones. I wore a generic white tunic; my arms and legs were mostly bare. My skin was a sick chalky gray, patterned with what looked like small scars. I wiggled my toes, examined my hands. They'd been healed. "Am I a human being?"
He took that question in stride. "Yes. You've been ill. Your natural color should return soon." I wondered what color that would be. Maybe it wouldn't matter, now that I was in a more civilized age. "My Padawan is readying a cabin for you."
I remembered hitting Ben. "Did I hurt— your Padawan?"
I remembered just how hard I'd hit Ben. "Did I break his jaw?" Qui-Gon nodded. "Oh shit! I'm so sorry!" Those words again. Like they fixed things.
"His injury was easily repaired." He indicated the medilab with a graceful sweep of his arm. "And we will be able to help you, child. What is your name?"
I reached for the weight at the back of my head. It was a fat braid. "Nia. I guess." A long fat braid; no problem bringing it forward to inspect. The hair was straight and so white it was almost translucent.
"It feels right." I'd come to think of myself as Nia. From the looks of Ben, Niriamne Bel-Thrackan would be born in about ten years. Why confuse things?
But the real reason was, I couldn't stand ever being called Niriamne again.
I'm sorry, Niriamne.
I remembered Ben's face, looking old and strained. As if he bore the weight of the galaxy on his shoulders. Maybe he was bearing that burden. "How old is your Padawan?"
"Obi-Wan is fourteen."
"Obi-Wan? I mean, that's his name?" I asked stupidly.
Qui-Gon nodded. "Obi-Wan Kenobi."
Ben's real name. Which that bastard never told me, not even after I told him mine. I wished I hadn't broken his jaw. I wished I'd broken his neck.
Right, honey. Punish him for something that won't happen for, what, fifty years? "What year is it?"
Qui-Gon must have decided today was his day to answer odd questions. "24,972."
It took my sluggish brain a moment to translate Imperial to Old Republic years. Either I was a mad ghost, and this was all an incredibly elaborate hallucination— or I had hopped back fifty years.
Fuck, I thought. I can't even die right. No wonder they kicked my ass downstairs to Agri-Corps.
I had heard myths and legends of body-jacking, most of which had disclaimers on the impossibility and high blasphemy of the very idea. I was guilty not only of body-jacking but of screwing with the space/time continuum. Fuck! However had I managed that?
The same way I'd managed to jump five meters from a seated position, and levitate all those sharp objects, and fling them at Ben and Qui-Gon. I didn't remember calling on the Force to do all that, or even wishing for that. It had just happened. Straight from my less than stellar subconscious.
Great. If I wasn't dead, I was a live tipped turbolaser, set to go off. Fuck!
I regarded Qui-Gon with some pity. You don't know what you've got yourself into, pal.
Qui-Gon was giving me time to work things through. He didn't speak until I was ready to go on. Very thoughtful. Or clever. Either way, it was getting harder to hate him. He put his fingers to his chest in the universal 'me' sign. "I am Qui-Gon Jinn."
I already know that, you— you— homewrecker!
That was stupid, and I knew it. Ben and I had never had a home. We had stolen hours. Stolen days, when we were lucky. I couldn't conjure up the hatred I was determined to feel for Qui-Gon. All I could manage was weak embarrassment at my foolishness.
He seemed to brace himself. "Do you know how long you were in the mines?"
I probably gave him the blankest look in history. "What?"
"The spice mines of Kessel," he said gently, as if the phrase might set me off.
He was right on that score. "Kessel!" I sputtered indignantly, and almost hollered at him, I've never been to Kessel, you couldn't pay me enough to go there, not after what that shit did to my mother! But I remembered where and when I was. Mom was a little girl, a long way from becoming a spice junkie.
Maybe I could find her and save her!
Maybe I should tell Qui-Gon about Senator Palpatine.
I turned cold. By the hundred tiny gods. If this were real, what would my knowledge of the future do? While surviving Palpatine's rise from Supreme Chancellor to Supreme Everything, I'd thought things couldn't be any worse. But if life's taught me anything, it's that things could always be worse.
I had to get a better idea what was going on. "Tell me about myself," I asked Qui-Gon.
This was the first question to make him look puzzled. I gained some petty satisfaction from this achievement.
Qui-Gon pulled the kind-Jedi-Master mask back on and told me what he knew. Here's the paraphrased version, from what he told me and from what I learned later:
The Jedi Council had sent them to monitor and decode transmissions from the spice mines so the Senate could finish building a slavery case against the owners. Among the transmissions were strange stories about the Wild Woman of the Chasms. She haunted the back tunnels and deep shafts where nobody with a lick of sense would venture, because there dwelt strange creatures. She howled constantly. She smelled like a stack of dead nerfs. She had strange powers. She ate little children and stole supplies and— worst of all— trashed equipment!
I think it was the mention of children that decided Qui-Gon. Of course, he and Obi-Wan were most definitely not supposed to go into the mines. They'd had a string of stressful missions, and this was meant to be a break from all that. And Obi-Wan was too inexperienced for the odds they'd be up against. Evidence first, rescue raids later. But Qui-Gon, the big bad-ass Jedi Master, got all noble and went against orders. (My words, not Qui-Gon's.)
Much to their surprise, they ran across an actual Wild Woman. Yours truly. She didn't eat children; she was feeding them. How sweet. Even if it was true about the way she smelled. Qui-Gon saw potential and decided to rescue her, too. Wild Woman was not happy with this. While conscious, she relentlessly kicked, punched, bit, scratched, kneed, elbowed, head-butted and otherwise pummeled the guys. Qui-Gon had to make her sleep in order to control her at all, and that took much longer than it should have. In the meantime, she howled. So did the kids. They suffered from mixed feelings. They didn't like the way Wild Woman looked, smelled or sounded, but they appreciated the food. And they disliked confusing situations even more than kids with normal lives. And this was very confusing. These strange men in strange clothes claim they're pulling a rescue, and then do a damnfool thing like tangle with Wild Woman. Very confusing and scary, even if it was entertaining. The older kids took odds on who'd win.
Well, obviously the guys won, and rescued Wild Woman, and the kids, too. But with all the ruckus, they never would have got out if some grown slaves hadn't died helping them. I was sorry to hear that. And Qui-Gon was in deep shit with the Council because of it (but I didn't find that out till later).
He fixed me with those incredible eyes. I got distracted trying to think of a poetic name for their color. "You don't remember any of this." It was not a question.
I shook my head no. "I have no memory of ever living in the spice mines." Stick with the truth. Don't volunteer anything.
I could tell he didn't like the sound of that, but he was going to put a good face on it. "You certainly are better at conversation now."
I almost giggled. I certainly was enjoying holding a conversation with this amazingly attractive man. "Where are the kids?"
"The Little Brethren took them to Alderaan."
"They're not here?" What did I care?
"They were here for a while." Rueful smile. "It was quite crowded and— active. We were fortunate enough to find a Brethren transport that could accommodate them. They will be well cared for," he hastened to assure me. I must have looked upset; my intuition was jumping ahead of my logical mind. "We decided it would be best if you went with us to Coruscant."
'We decided'. I smelled a womp-rat. If I'd been in such rocky shape, the Brethren could have taken better care of me. Why did I rate a Master/Apprentice escort to Coruscant? I surprised myself by asking, "Could I look at my medical records?"
This question threw him as well. He hid it beautifully, I must admit. But then, he did everything beautifully. "Certainly." Without ado, he brought me a flimsy with the menu for the medical computer highlighted.
"Whoa." My jaw dropped as I realized what I held. "Can you access every computer on the ship with this thing?"
More puzzlement from Qui-Gon. "Of course."
"Can you access more than one at a time?"
"Yes." He was greatly puzzled now. "You can access every computer at once, if need be. Most humans find that too overwhelming to be efficient."
I was stunned. "Can you download every scrap of data from all the ship's systems onto this? Including the main computer?"
"In an emergency, yes. It's not really worth the trouble otherwise." He was having a hard time figuring me out.
My hands were shaking. I very carefully handed the flimsy back to him. "I don't think I should use this. Thank you, but what if I dropped it or something?"
He accepted it with a roguish grin that made my heart skip a beat. "What if you dropped it? Or what if you crumpled it up like this—"
I clapped my hands to my mouth as he wadded up the flimsy in his great big hands. Then like a magician he spread them out, and instead of being in a thousand jagged pieces puncturing his palms, the flimsy unfolded over them like a slow flower.
"Fuck!Don't scare me like that!" I yelled at him. "You have any idea what that thing's worth?"
"Very little. I'm sorry, Miss Nia." Qui-Gon was contrite. "It's common technology. We have dozens, maybe a hundred, in storage. It's not damaged, see?" He returned it to me. "Please, feel free to use it as you wish."
"Stars below," I muttered. I smoothed out nonexistent wrinkles from the flimsy's surface. But it wasn't flimsy. It still worked, all right. The medical computer's menu was as crisp as ever. "What is this called?" I felt like some hick wormie from the boonies, asking a question like that.
I gave him the 'don't-nerfshit-me' glare. A datapad was a big heavy thing Mom wouldn't even let me breathe on. Qui-Gon withstood my glare with admirable serenity. I folded the 'datapad' in half and into quarters and then took the plunge and wadded it up just like he had. No, it wasn't some Jedi Master trick. It unfolded for me, just like it had for him. And it still worked. It looked and handled like parchment, but took punishment parchment never could and bounced right back like nothing'd ever happened. And it would hold all the ship's data. And it was everyday stuff. Shit, Ben was right about how the Clone Wars had set technology back at least a generation.
Better start thinking of him as Obi-Wan.
I started to fold the datapad into a skyhopper, but realized Qui-Gon was having fun watching me play. I quit fooling around and was trying to pull up my medical records when I heard Qui-Gon say, "Ah, Obi-Wan."
I looked up from the tangle of menus I'd made. Obi-Wan stood no closer than politeness demanded, with the look of someone about to be fed to lions. No wonder he'd sneaked in quiet as a pittin. I was surprised to find that I couldn't stand his being scared of me. I would have returned my attention to the datapad, but for the fact that I simply could not take my eyes from his face. He looked so young and vulnerable. I felt an almost overwhelming urge to cuddle him to me and make everything all better. Don't try it, I sternly told myself, and instead tried to appear sane.
"Hello," Obi-Wan almost squeaked.
"I'm sorry I broke your jaw," I blurted. "I didn't mean—" Maybe that would be a lie. Maybe I had meant to. "Maybe I didn't mean to."
This apology made him look even more scared. Oh, great. Way to act sane, girl.
"Let's start over," suggested Qui-Gon. "Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi, allow me to present Miss Nia—" He looked to me, his face a gentle question, like a veteran actor prompting the scared kid understudy to remember her next line.
"Lee, I think." Might as well stick with that. According to my research, 'Lee' was the commonest human surname in this galaxy.
"Well, that will do for now. Miss Nia Lee." He beamed at me approvingly, as if remembering my own name was the greatest accomplishment ever. Made me feel that way, too. I wanted to sink into those deep blue eyes. I was ready to bathe forever in the warm glow of Qui-Gon's approval when I sensed Obi-Wan moving a bit closer. His insecurity was warring with his fear, and insecurity was winning by a slim margin.
Hee hee hee. You're jealous. I have Qui-Gon's undivided attention and you don't, nyah, nyah!
All smug and smirking, I looked at Obi-Wan again—
—and sank into his eyes. Those big beautiful light blue/gray/green eyes. The eyes which had inspired me to wink at crazy old Ben Kenobi in the Mos Eisley marketplace.
I remembered how Ben had glanced about, as if thinking, You mean me?
Ten years ago, but I remembered it as if it were yesterday. Ben's slowly dawning smile as I held his gaze and thought, Yeah, I mean you.
Ten years ago. Forty years from now.
How I loved Ben's smile—
It was Qui-Gon, barking the name as if I hadn't heard it the first two or three times. He was ready to shake or slap me. I jerked back to reality. I had zoned out, had been staring sightlessly at Ben. Obi-Wan. Get it straight, honey. Young, he's Obi-Wan. Old, he'll be Ben.
Bastard never even told me his name.
I burst into tears. Great heaving sobs ripped through me and would have thrown me from the diagnostic table if Qui-Gon hadn't grabbed me. I couldn't even hang onto him. I'd gone fetal again, helpless, drowning in a sea of grief and rage and shame. Cold. So cold. I was shivering. I was a castoff, drifting alone. All alone. No, worse than that. I was nobody. I was nothing. Not even worth considering. I was excess baggage. I was a despised and rejected burden. I had been abandoned, left for dead in a filthy back alley like the filth I was—
I'm— not— filth! I'm not!
I couldn't convince myself. I was crying full out, bawling like a baby, and Qui-Gon crooned to me as if I were one, rocking me back and forth in the warm strong cradle of his arms. I tried to soak up his warmth. But still I shivered with cold. I could sense young Obi-Wan hovering nearby, at a total loss what to do.
Ben would save me!
Yeah, right. The memory of how blindly trusting I had been infuriated me, made me cry even harder.
Qui-Gon was sitting on the floor, holding me in his acres of lap, holding me and telling me, in words, in thought, I'm here with you. You're not alone. You're safe now. No one will hurt you here. You're safe now. I'm with you, and you're safe.
I was terrified of swamping him in this universe of cold and dark and pain and loneliness. I was terrified he'd let go. "Don't," I wailed into his chest. "Don't." Don't what? Drown with me? Leave me?
A faint tinge of mirth seeped into the warmth he was giving me. //I won't drown. And I won't leave you. You'll be all right.//
And I was. I was still in the sea, but now I could swim and before I couldn't. I eased a deep breath past where the giant knot in my throat had been. Whew. Air in, air out. In, out. That's it.
I nodded my face into a section of Qui-Gon's tunic that didn't have my snot all over it. I did feel better. I felt shaky and a bit light-headed, but I was no longer freezing.
He patted my back as if waiting for me to burp. Instead, I hiccuped. "There, there," he crooned, almost a parody of a nanny. I giggled through tears.
Lovely as this situation was, I could feel all sorts of jealousy flying off Obi-Wan. Well, hell. I decided I'd done enough damage to the learning bond for one day. And I still felt kind of bad about breaking his jaw. I leaned back from Qui-Gon and looked up at Obi-Wan, who still hovered over us. "Could I have some water, please?" I was very thirsty. "And a handtowel?"
Qui-Gon confirmed that request with a slight nod. Obi-Wan scowled and all but stomped off. Jerk!
"Help me up?" I mentally kicked myself for not taking full advantage of this opportunity. All that gorgeous sweet-smelling manflesh would have cuddled me for hours if I'd thought I needed it. Obi-Wan didn't appreciate the sacrifice I was making.
He's just a kid— Good gods, I'm plenty old enough to be his mother!
This hadn't occurred to me before. It was a shocking thought. Instead of being old enough to be my father, Obi-Wan was now young enough to be my son.
The implications must have got me glassy-eyed, because the worried look was back on Qui-Gon's face. He slid me from his lap with infinite care. I wanted to cry again. As he stood, he eased me to my feet as if I weighed no more than a feather, his eyes never leaving my face.
I was basking in his tender regard when I realized how far down he was having to look. No, remember, the man is huge, I can't possibly be that short—
Obi-Wan's glowering entrance proved me wrong. The top of my head was about even with his armpit. I glared at the offending armpit. I didn't like being so short. I'd liked being as tall as Ben. Liked being able to look him in the eye. Liked how easy it had been to make love standing up.
That's rich. We had never made love. Ben had just been fucking me. I should have charged him the going rate instead of letting him have it for—
Shit. I'd drifted again. Shit shit shit. At least Qui-Gon didn't shake or slap me. He just covered half my face with one big hand, making me look at him. "Here. Drink."
At that moment, I'd have drunk a river dry for him. I inhaled the water Obi-Wan had fetched. (Young Obi-Wan. Old Ben. I was getting it down. Not that hard, is it?) Qui-Gon wiped my face with the handtowel. He smiled as he cupped my nose in it. "Blow." I honked as instructed, clearing a hefty load from the snotlocker.
"Yuck," I commented. "Uh, listen. It's— I—" How to say it? "I'm— really scared I'll wig out again and hurt one of you." Again. "I don't think that'll happen," I added in response to a wash of fear from Obi-Wan, "but just in case, you boys should probably stay together when I'm out of my cabin."
Qui-Gon started to make at least a token protest that of course that wouldn't be necessary. He stopped at an imploring look from Obi-Wan. "If you think that's best," he finally said.
"I do. After all your kindness, I don't want to take any risks." Like the risk that I'll ravish you if I catch you by yourself, Master Qui-Gon Jinn.
It's true, you know. Once you've had a Jedi Master, nothing else will do. No, I'm not kidding. Old Ben Kenobi could have been kept in high style on Alderaan. He would have had his pick of adoring admirers. Even at the end, when boyish beauty had fled, when his waistline and the hair on the crown of his head had surrendered to their destiny. He was that fine.
Maybe I'd get me some more of that when things settled down. From a Master in his prime, yet. Yeeeehaw!
I confess. The first thing I did after the guys showed me to my cabin was find a mirror.
My previous face had been neither homely nor pretty. It was simply unmemorable. This fact tormented me as a girl, and comforted me as a woman on the lam.
This face was memorable. It was all angles. Little pointy chin. A wide thin-lipped mouth. Narrow jaw. Major cheekbones. A big blade of a nose. The biggest, darkest eyes you ever saw on a human. The whites of the eyes were jaundiced. Yuck.
I looked like a scared, hungry hawk. My cheekbones and the high bridge of my nose seemed ready to poke through my gray skin. Yuck.
I hoped my natural color would return soon. And maybe the face would fill out some if I could put on some weight. Maybe then my face would be— not pretty, but at least striking.
My curiosity with this important matter satisfied, I returned to the less vital matter of my health. Once I could figure out the newfangled (no, old-fashioned) datapad. And the medical database syntax. I had let myself hope that medical programs had better language skills in the good old days. Nuts. I could find no option to dumb down the jargon to the layman's level. I had to juggle between my records and a medical dictionary. It took me a good half hour to translate this much:
Female human being. No individual or family history available. Estimated age approximately sixteen standard years (all right!), based on skeletal formation. (So Master Jinn didn't just call me 'child' because of my size.) 'Patient displays extreme anxiety and refuses to cooperate with standard medical procedures.' (That's being diplomatic.) Borderline malnutrition. Anemia. Chronic upper respiratory infection. Spice addiction, 'pursuant to saturated environment', which meant breathing air thick with the stuff for no telling how long. The spice had eaten my eggs, leaving me sterile as a stone. I felt a slight pang at that. Old soft tissue damage to— to where?
I hadn't stripped to check myself out. Wasn't especially interested— another scrawny body, big deal. Now I was interested. I pulled the tunic off over my head, stepped out of the taken-in underwear— and turned a paler gray at what I saw in the mirror.
Bite marks. Humanoid. On butt, belly and breasts.
They were old marks. Years old, if I understood the records correctly. The many small scars covering me from collarbones to toes etched over the bite marks, almost obscuring some of them.
Like a tri-D switching on, I got the picture. My stomach squicked up like a fist. A little girl, stolen or sold for a slave, used in ways the wicked will use property that can't fight back, summon help, or threaten legal or less formal recourse. Somehow she'd got away. The newer scars were earned from years of living amid raw spice crystals in the chasms. Where she dwelt in the darkness, among strange creatures that were preferable to the true monsters she'd escaped.
I shivered and reconsidered my lousy life. I was really very fortunate in some ways. When it comes to sex, I'd never done anything I didn't want to do. Unless you count the time I stabbed my stepfather. Shit, he didn't get past feeling me up, and I still had bad dreams about that sometimes. I couldn't come anywhere near knowing what this poor thing had had to live with.
Was she still hanging around, wondering who'd taken over her body?
My mouth was very dry. I dressed, got a glass of water, and settled back onto the bed with the datapad.
She hadn't been in bad enough shape to require the care of the Little Brethren. If I understood the dense verbiage correctly, she was remarkably healthy for a spice junkie. Except her mind was shot to hell. She howled and fought and wouldn't eat or drink. Qui-Gon had to put her under and feed her through a stomach tube. Must have cleaned her up in the meantime. I appreciated that. The medical program put gradually decreasing dosages of spice in her stomach gruel, slowly weaning her, but she still showed no signs of lucidity. And the last time Qui-Gon put her under, her heart had stopped and her brainwaves flatlined for no reason the medical program could explain.
There was a reason, all right. She was lucid enough to understand this much: two big men had caught her, had dragged her from the safety of the chasms and trapped her with them on a tiny ship. She just couldn't take any more of what big men would do to her. So she'd checked out.
I knew Jedi could do that. I'd heard how Palpatine could keep Jedi from escaping that way. How he tortured them for the necromantic powers it gave him, or for information, or just for fun. Allegedly he'd kept some Jedi alive for twenty years—
At least she won't suffer.
Ben's thought as he killed me. I roundly cursed the old bastard. I was in no mood to understand his point of view. I was working myself into a fine crying jag of righteous indignation when it came to me: Get back to the now, Nia. What are you trying to not think about?
The poor thing whose body I now wore, that's what. She'd vacated the premises, left it empty for me. Never mind how I'd got here; did she want it back?
In all the body-jacking tales, the soul hung about waiting to pop back into its property once the Jedi Master(s) had ejected the intruder. But I could sense nobody near but Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. Maybe she had fled so far that she was really truly dead. Or maybe I just couldn't hear her—
"Gaaah!"I spilled water all over the bed. Then I realized it was the comlink Qui-Gon had given me. And it was Qui-Gon speaking.
"I'm sorry, did I disturb you?"
"No, no, I was just— thinking hard." Oh, brother. I felt incredibly stupid. My face felt like a heat shield. I wondered if it was getting red. If it could get red.
"Would you care to join us for lunch?"
I smiled at the comlink. "Love to. Give me five to freshen up." I was getting used to my new, deeper voice. Maybe it was even sexy. At least I no longer squeaked like a damn Chadra-Fan.
I was delighted to find that the 'fresher had a water shower. But sonic would have to do if I wanted to make it in five minutes. I didn't want to make Obi-Wan nervous with waiting.
On Tatooine, using water for bathing was an unparalleled luxury. I saved that for when Ben made it into town—
What the hell was Ben doing in a town full of stormtroopers? Not only was he in town, in the middle of all that trouble— he was in public view, in broad daylight, in front of a used speeder lot. That was not like Ben. That man would go to the other side of the planet to stay clear of trouble. He was determined to stay alive until whatever it was he was waiting for got started.
Had it got started?
I knew Ben was not the crazy old coot he pretended to be, but I was certain he was a mite touched in the head on that one topic. I was graciously understanding about it. After everything he'd lost, he had to believe in something to keep him going. If he needed to think he had to stay out in the desert to guard the galaxy's last hope, fine. Long as he made in into town every month or so.
He hadn't told me he was coming to town. He'd never neglected to do that before. Never. That alone meant something was seriously amiss. And when I'd found him, and begged his help, he'd felt the only help he could give me, the only way to spare me 'The Final Question', was to kill me himself. Though I was of the strong opinion that Ben could have saved me if he'd really tried, I knew he hadn't enjoyed killing me. I meant that much to him, at least.
What in all the worlds had happened next? Was Ben Kenobi's final damnfool idealistic crusade for real?
I have neglected to introduce you to my good friend, the Voice of Survival. But it hasn't come into the story before now. You may have noticed I'd been acting sensibly (mostly). Deciding not to jump Qui-Gon (at least not yet), taking steps to ensure I didn't do the boys further harm, keeping mum on who I really was, et cetera. That's not the Voice. That's wisdom gleaned from bitter experience, keeping a low profile until I got the lay of the land. The Voice has been with me from earliest memory. It's not an actual voice (gods be thanked). It's an animal drive. It tells me when to flee, when to take a stand, when to bow my head and bide my time. This one gift was what kept me alive when so many better, stronger beings died. The only time I ignored the Voice, I barely lived to regret it. It was when rumor reached me that Supreme Chancellor Palpatine had allied himself with the Sith, and that he had a new hatchetman who called himself Darth Vader. Together they would bring order to an increasingly unruly galaxy!
People shouldn't gossip such evil, I thought when first I heard these wild tales. But the Voice took them seriously. "Run. Hide," it told me.
"Don't be ridiculous," said my logical mind. "The Sith were snuffed out a thousand years ago. Now they're just bogeymen to scare naughty children."
"Run. Hide. Now!"
"'Darth Vader'. Yeah, right! What a melodramatic name."
"Fool!" snapped the Voice.
"Hysterical weenie!" retorted my logical mind.
Fool, said each slowed beat of my heart later that year as I lay still and silent under a mound of corpses. Fool, fool, fool.
I would have listened to the Voice if things hadn't been so good. I was learning to love my work and to accept the fact that I had no business carrying a saber. I had even found a more than decent fellow who actually liked and respected me, flaws and all. I didn't know that ordinary life could be so sweet. I was determined to hang onto it.
After the Posk massacre, I heeded the Voice of Survival without question, hesitation or reservation. The true reason I was scared witless during the late unpleasantness on Tatooine was that the Voice had remained silent, as if giving up its lifelong struggle. Discovering that it still spoke to me in this borrowed body was a pleasant surprise. Or at least a surprise.
It started with our innocent conversation over lunch, in the cramped rec room/galley that served as the dining room. Qui-Gon made it seem like a court banquet. He was almost courtly in his manners. Obi-Wan was rigid with fear and resentment, but followed his master's example of standing when I entered the room.
"Miss Lee," Qui-Gon said formally.
"Master Jinn, Padawan Kenobi," I replied.
"Welcome to our mean repast."
"Looks good to me." A 'social lie'. But nothing would have looked good to me then. One side effect of spice addiction is a severely depressed appetite. When she was bad off, Mom would get skinnier than me, which is saying something.
That reminded me as we sat down and set to. "Master Jinn, I want to thank you for managing to feed me all this time."
"You are quite welcome. Please, call me Qui-Gon."
I wasn't sure how I felt about that. "Certainly." Be pleasant. Make civilized conversation. Appear sane. I turned to his Padawan. "May I call you Obi-Wan?"
I thought the kid was going to flee the scene. "Yes," he managed, staring at his plate as though it would escape him if he didn't.
What could I say to him? I'll do my best not to break any more of your bones? "And you may both call me Nia. Except when we're being all formal over our repast." My food was of the soup and pudding variety. Well, I hadn't been doing any chewing lately. I wondered about the condition of my teeth and gums. I carefully eased some soup past them. I decided it would be too much of a lie to say how yummy it was.
Obi-Wan silently attacked his crunchier lunch.
Qui-Gon heroically plunged into conversation. "From your speech, I'd say you were a Corellian."
"Really?" My, he's polite. He doesn't say, 'You swear like a smuggler.'
"Do you remember your parents?"
And the Voice of Survival returned. I felt the familiar prickle from the base of my spine clear up to the center of my head. The sharpening of the senses. The slowing of time. Whoa, I thought, caught on a knife edge between fear and relief. When the Voice shows up, things are deadly serious. But at times like that the Voice is a dear friend to embrace.
Lie, the Voice told me.
I almost snorted soup out my nose. My eyes watered. I dabbed my napkin at my face and hoped nothing was dribbling from my nostrils. "I— I— don't know who my father was." The truth. A jolt of fear turned my guts to ice. Which meant I'd taken a wrong turn and reduced my life expectancy. The Voice was very clearly telling me to lie like a fiend. It had never been that specific before. It was always 'Run' or 'Fight' or 'Endure'. Pretty primal stuff. My dear friend had got more polished.
Qui-Gon's worried look was back. "Sorry," I gasped. "Went down the wrong way." I blew my nose into the napkin, wiped my eyes, acted like my distress was purely physical. "I don't know anything about my parents." My insides unloosened a notch. Never before had lying made me feel better. First time for everything.
Qui-Gon wasn't buying it. "I would hazard the guess that at least one of them was a Corellian Jedi."
"Why do you think that?" All innocence. That's me.
"Now that you're yourself again, I can sense that you have been trained in some of the Jedi disciplines. Your shielding ability is very strong."
True. My shields and the Voice of Survival were the two things I had going for me. I might have made a Knight if I hadn't been so fucked in the head.
I shook my head with a wry smile. That was long ago. Far in the future. And face it, Nia, you couldn't fight worth a damn.
"What is it?" Qui-Gon asked.
"You say I talk like a Corellian, but that doesn't mean there are Corellian Jedi in my family. Or any kind of Jedi at all. Maybe I learned another discipline. The Jedi aren't the only stars in creation, you know."
The Voice of Survival greatly approved of my improvisation. That's right, muddy the waters.
"Maybe I'm an orphan." My guts had unfrozen. The pudding I was working on actually tasted good. "I must be on the road to recovery. My appetite's improving— Qui-Gon?"
He had zoned out a bit, studying me in a manner that unnervingly brought to mind Ben's face when he knew he couldn't save me. (Wouldn't save me, I angrily amended.) I was about to get scared when Qui-Gon roused himself. "There is a way to determine if you've been trained as a Jedi."
"Oh?" My appetite fled. Damn.
"Obi-Wan, give Nia your lightsaber."
I thought Obi-Wan's silent blast of outrage would knock me from my chair. But like a good little Padawan, he obeyed at once, unclipping his saber from his belt and holding it out to me with exaggerated gentility. He had to restrain himself from clouting me upside the head with it.
"No," I told Obi-Wan. "Thank you, but no." I turned to Qui-Gon. "With all due respect, Master Jinn, are you nuts? What if I wig out again?"
"You won't 'wig out', Miss Lee." He smiled down at me as he rose from the table. "Come, let us dance."
Oh, baby. Say that again.
Get a grip, girl!
Obi-Wan and I were still seated. He still held out his saber. His face had changed from mutinous to almost grateful. I ran a measuring eye over the saber. "It's far too big for me." Obi-Wan blushed. I paid him no mind. Qui-Gon waited, patience personified. I searched my feelings. The Voice of Survival had no objections. I wondered what it would be like to hold a saber again. I remembered how clumsy I used to be. How I couldn't get past the baby katas, no matter how hard I tried. I didn't have 'body memory'; I couldn't make a move without thinking it out in advance. I literally could not feel and flow if my life depended on it. The healers said some people were just that way naturally, but allowed that it might have been the prenatal spice exposure.
Maybe this body wasn't that way.
I slurped the last of the soup straight from the cup. Wiped a forearm across my mouth. Took the saber from Obi-Wan. "Okay. Let's dance."
By this time Obi-Wan was more curious than angry or jealous. This would have eased my mind, were it not full of remembered despair over my total ineptitude at the katas. That was the time in my childhood when I'd been constantly made to apologize, because I was constantly getting into fights over remarks about my clumsiness. My vicious nature became legendary. Some fool kids let themselves be dared into mouthing off at me, but I gave them no quarter. I didn't care about motive. I had a reputation to defend. And once we got into it, I wouldn't stop until we were pulled apart. By then I'd be bleeding, and usually the other party was too. But by all the gods, I'd proved there was nothing wrong with my fists, and everything else I could strike a blow with.
If there is an afterlife where those who served with utter selflessness are rewarded, may the most generous rewards be heaped on those who took me on after Mom dumped me. I was a mess. Mom had declared me incorrigible, and I was determined to prove her right. I was fortunate that the Clone Wars were in full swing (unfortunate as that was for billions of other beings). In the prime of the Jedi, no Temple crèche would have accepted a frightened and angry and depressed ten-year-old, never mind her blood count. But the Clone Wars were kicking the shit out of civilization, and the Jedi needed all the potentials they could get.
For my latest crack at the katas, we stayed right there in the rec room/galley. It was the only place on a courier ship with enough room, once we cleared and put away the table. And the chairs. And some dangling pots, pans, and cooking utensils. Good thing I wasn't Qui-Gon's size; otherwise we couldn't have done even the baby katas. As it was, the two of us could barely squeeze them in. Obi-Wan could watch if he kept his back pressed against the far side of the shallow closet that served as a kitchen.
Qui-Gon wasn't about to put me on the spot by having me perform the individual versions of the baby katas. He would lead me through the dual versions, acting as the mirror partner, and thus jog my memory. And (of course) our sabers were set on extra-low. Qui-Gon tinkered with Obi-Wan's saber in a fashion I could not follow that made sure it stayed that way until told otherwise.
Obi-Wan upped the lights from civilized to harsh. My scalp tingled. Mynocks flapped about in my belly. Qui-Gon faced me, turned on his saber, made the traditional salute. I slowly turned on Obi-Wan's saber. Somehow it felt heavier now. I knew that was an emotional reaction; of course a massless laser blade added no weight to the weapon. An awkward moment passed before I remembered that I was supposed to salute the teacher back. "First kata," Qui-Gon ordered, and so we began.
The baby katas are just that. The very basics. Nothing spectacular or even mildly interesting. No leaps, tumbles, or levitations. No flashy swordplay. No super speed; hardly any speed at all. Just deliberate and very slowly flowing poses. However, class, if you can't get the footwork and arm positions down— not to mention knee, hip, torso, wrist, shoulder, and all the other parts I could never keep in mind— forget about ever wielding a saber in the service of the Republic. The higher katas use all the basic positions. All of them. Even the most advanced katas. No cheating on this, class.
I got through the first kata without a glitch. I couldn't believe it. It had fallen into place. It made sense. I could feel it.
"Very good. Second kata."
Fuck yeah, this is how it's supposed to go! Gods damn, I could flow!
By now I'd got over my initial disbelief and was grinning like an idiot. "Concentrate," Qui-Gon said firmly. Fine, I'll concentrate, but I can't help but grin. "Hold." I stopped in place, as that command meant. He adjusted the position of my wrists and left elbow. "How do you feel?" he asked, still the serious teacher.
I almost laughed aloud. "How do I feel? Are you kidding?!" I couldn't describe it. I can't describe it. I would have to be a great poet to describe it. It was like being blind and receiving sight. Or like being crippled and having mobility restored. Most of all, I think, like suddenly being able to fly, something you knew about in theory, something other types of creatures did, but that you never ever thought you'd be able to do yourself, no matter how much you wanted to.
On top of that joy was the pleasure of watching Qui-Gon move, even in a baby kata. I longed to see him at a Master level.
"I am glad that you are doing so well." Qui-Gon barely let a smile crack his teacher mode, but I could tell he was grinning inside.
What a time we had! We went through all the baby katas, which is harder work than it looks like, even in slow motion. Especially in slow motion. But I didn't care. Time was meaningless. It had slowed to a crawl, but no time had passed at all. My limbs were aching. A stitch burned in my side. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered but the fact that I had taken wing. Gods damn, I was ecstatic not to be tripping over my own feet. I didn't mind one bit that Qui-Gon kept moving my elbows and wrists and knees around. For one thrilling moment he actually had one hand on my waist and the other on my hip.
"You are tiring," he said.
"I don't care! This is great! I could do this all day!" You could say I was enthusiastic.
"Very well. We'll do the first kata of the next level, and that will be more than enough for one day."
I wanted to groan aloud. But I really was getting tired. Guess we had to stop sometime. As we began the next level, commonly called 'baby plus one', I realized: I'd got past the baby katas. It was official. It made me ludicrously happy. A long-abandoned childhood dream, come true!
We'd barely started the first kata when the almost-coldness again corkscrewed up my spine. Distant sounds rushed to my ears. I swear, I could hear Qui-Gon's heart beating. And— gods!— I could see into the infrared and ultraviolet spectra. That had happened only once before, on Posk. I would have been content never to see that well again.
The Voice of Survival was back, with a vengeance. And it was telling me: Power up the saber and kill him. Then the boy. Then take the ship and flee.
Time froze. I froze. I knew what to do. Qui-Gon's big frame was all but crammed into a corner. He was hemmed in. I knew the tiny chink in his armor, that lapse of technique that Ben seemed to dream of every night. In that unforgiving nightmare, Qui-Gon was older and weary from a prolonged duel. That was hardly the case now. I was the weary one in this elementary exercise. Qui-Gon was in his prime, in peak condition, and the greatest swordsman of his generation. But he no more expected a fatal blow from his latest pathetic stray than he would expect a pittin to bite off his head. Careless of him. The saber hilt felt hot in my hands. I could sense the schematic, knew how to override the safety programming with the Force. Time to crank up the saber and push it through Qui-Gon like a hot knife through soft cheese. The death-spot in the center of that broad chest begged me for that final sweet kiss. It would be so easy to slip past his current, almost nonexistent, defense. So easy.
I couldn't do it. I didn't know why, but I couldn't.
My muscles quivered with the strain of holding back. Sour sweat beaded on my skin. The Voice, every instinct I had, shrieked at me to strike him down, that I'd never get another chance, never, that I was dead meat if I didn't kill him, now, and Obi-Wan too while he was still in shock at what I'd done.
In shock at my cold-blooded murder of his beloved Master.
For an endless instant I looked into Qui-Gon's deep blue eyes. I could see the heat radiating from his body. I could hear nothing but the hard angry beat of my heart.
To survive, all I had to do was murder as fine a man as ever lived.
No, I told the Voice. No.
The Voice snorted in scorn and left me alone to die. Time resumed its ordinary pace. My vision fuzzed down to normal. Qui-Gon was very carefully taking Obi-Wan's saber from my shaking hands. Like he did this sort of thing every day. He didn't take his eyes from mine as he switched off the saber, but he didn't look at all puzzled or worried. I wasn't sure what he looked like. Sort of studious. Maybe he looked that way before joining battle. I was still frozen. If not, I would have snatched the saber back from him. Tried to, anyway.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he said, which was exactly what I needed to hear. Smart man. I felt tears tracking my face. Damn, he must think all I do is weep. I heard my breath coming loud and hoarse. Qui-Gon had captured my hands in his, quieting them. I still could not move. "I'm not going to hurt you. It's all right." Those soft, soothing tones. I shook my head no. Things were not all right. He hadn't killed me like I'd been scared of for a second there, but still. Letting the boys live had greatly increased my chances of dying sometime soon. I had no doubt of that. The Voice had never steered me wrong before. I had spared the man I loved and the man he loved, and for what? So they could get me killed? So they could betray me with their deathless love for each other?
Qui-Gon had drawn me to him and was gently holding me. That big beautiful thing had me all wrapped up in those long strong arms, and I couldn't even enjoy it. All I could think of was that still-beating heart above where my ear nestled against his torso. His heart, and all those other vital organs I should have skewered. I was going to die, and the boys were going to forget all about me. After all, they had each other.
Qui-Gon crooned to me, stroked down my sweat-soaked hair. I thought of him holding Ben and went wild with irritation. I shoved myself away from him. Shoved him away from me.
Qui-Gon wisely made no move to re-embrace me. "It's all right. I'm not—"
"—going to hurt me! I know that!" I jeered. Then I remembered my manners. Amazing. Some of the protocol lessons had stuck with me. Lesson Number One: Manners are what keep us from killing each other. And I was pushing my depleted stock of luck with my rudeness. I took a deep breath, tried to calm myself. Managed to speak in a civilized if cold tone of voice. "I'm sorry. After all you've done for me, I'm being a pain in the ass, but I— I just can't help it right now. If you boys would excuse me, I think I need to be alone."
"Are you sure you'll be all right?"
Why does he have to be so kind? My anger dwindled. I really was being a pain in the ass. "Yes, I'll be fine. Don't worry about me. I just need to rest. Maybe I can even meditate some."
Obi-Wan wanted to suggest some topics for me to meditate on, but Qui-Gon stymied that with a look. So Obi-Wan gave me a look that said, plain as print, Fine. Go away and meditate. Go. Away.
That should have hurt, but it didn't. I was worn out from two days of whipsawing emotions. And the way I'd been acting, I couldn't blame Obi-Wan for being happier when I was safely tucked away in my cabin.
I still hate to think how close I came to obeying the Voice of Survival. I think I would have, I truly do, if I hadn't known what Qui-Gon Jinn would mean to Ben Kenobi. That's the only thing that stopped me. I simply could not kill Ben's bonded lifemate.
This was the conclusion I came to in my meditation. I wish I could tell you that I felt noble, or virtuous, or filled with joy at my triumph over temptation. Nope. I felt sick and stupid and scared. Fool! Wimp!
I pampered myself by indulging in a non-traditional style of meditation. I was curled up in bed with the blankets over my head, menu-surfing the glowing datapad. The fetal position was becoming a familiar one. No danger of losing my concentration and drifting off to sleep. I wasn't the least bit sleepy. Seems Qui-Gon had made me sleep almost constantly the past couple of tendays, and not just to feed me. The medical records had a fascinating account of the reconstructive surgery on my anus and rectum. Qui-Gon had remained for the whole procedure, making sure I stayed under as the medical droid patched me up. Well, shit. Pardon the phrase. After that, I could see why he'd be comfortable being on a first-name basis.
This one little bitty ship came with its own medical droid. Why should I be surprised? The Old Republic is still going strong. Or seems to be. Before long, things are gonna go straight to hell.
Am I here to keep things from going to hell?
Am I trying to justify my continued corporeal existence?
I blanked the datapad, turning it into a mirror. Studied my face. Her face. Put a hand to that narrow jaw. Remembered something odd. Ben had suffered more than his fair share of broken bones, including some poorly treated ones that made him a fine weather forecaster, but his jaw was not one of them. I knew that for a fact. Even a Force-healed fracture leaves behind traces of trauma at the cellular level. In Ben's timeline— my timeline— this body had died on the medilab's diagnostic table. Its spirit had fled and never returned. Did I have any business using it? I was already changing history with it— by breaking young Obi-Wan's jaw, for starters. Way to fix the past, Nia.
I reached out with the Force, called out to the tortured child who'd left behind her fleshly prison for me to inhabit. I could not sense her essence. Nothing of her lingered. Maybe she just didn't want to fool with talking to me.
Maybe I would be joining her soon.
I said a prayer for the solace of her soul. Even if she'd been a major brat like I'd been, no child deserved to endure what she had. I wouldn't treat Palpatine the way she'd been treated. Well, maybe I would, but only for a little while.
Gods, I'm too soft-hearted. What the hell did I owe Ben Kenobi? I should have killed—
Deep breath. Let it out, nice and slow. Release the fear and anger. Diffuse it into the Force.
I'm not very good at that. I'm too good at holding a grudge.
"May the void demons not know you're dead until long after the fact," I murmured aloud. "May you be resting in the arms of angels by then." Half insult, half blessing. How Corellian. "I hope you're with your loved ones," I added spontaneously. Did this girl have surviving family? Did they love her? Or had they sold her?
Later. Deal with it later. Assuming you live long enough to deal with it later.
Time to be honest, Nia. No nerfshit, now. Stop lying to yourself. Yeah, you. You who pride yourself on being clear-sighted and tough-minded. Drag the truth from the dark places in your heart. Drag it into the light of day.
I was enraged by this line of thought, inspired by the Force though it may have been. I responded in the time-honored fashion of the Corellian Jedi: Fuck you, Force. You think I can't face the truth? Lay it on me. Give me your best shot.
I was not always graciously understanding about Ben's desire to make a Force-forsaken, sandblasted hellhole of a desert his home. We'd had a big fight over it about a year ago. Seeing as how we'd never really lived together, it was the only fight we'd ever had. And I had started it. As always, Ben insisted he would never leave his home. Nothing new there. I added the new element to our old conversation by pitching a conniption fit. I told him he really was crazy, there was nothing he needed to be out there in the middle of nowhere for, and he should move in with me, or at least into town, because he was getting too fucking old to live in the Jundland Wastes by himself.
Oh, brother. I'd let my smart-ass mouth get away from me. Ben wanted to slap it clean off my face. He didn't, though. Perhaps he was a mite touched in the head, but he was still a Knight. And after I suggested he remember me in his will so he'd be worth something to somebody once the Sandpeople got through with him, he left without a word.
I lay down on my lonely bed, turned my face to the wall and told myself it was for the best. If Ben was so determined to die in his beloved desert, it was time to break things off. Even though I had work to do, I lay there telling myself that until he came back.
I didn't move. Kept my back to him. "Go to hell." I winced at my unconvincing tone of voice. Wimp!
"Not yet," he replied mildly. I sensed him gesture to indicate the outdoors in general. "It's almost upon us. Can you feel it?"
"No, dear. Shitstorm."
I let myself be shocked by his crude language. I talked that way, not Ben. I didn't let myself think about what he meant. But I did feel it. A shitstorm was coming, all right. Serious trouble would soon hit Tatooine. A crummy rock the Empire didn't even bother to collect taxes from half the time.
I refused to think about it. "You're crazy." Same unconvincing tone of voice.
"I'm sorry," he told me.
I snorted. "For what? For life?"
"I suppose so." Sigh. His weight settled on the edge of the bed behind me. Guess he was pretty sure by now I wouldn't clobber him. "When death draws near, I will leave the desert."
"Don't talk that way." Fuck, I sounded totally miserable now.
"There is no other way." His voice was soft but implacable.
I was trying not to cry. "I'm a total wimp when it comes to you, you know that?" That's the closest I ever came to telling him I loved him. "Fine. You're crazy, but I won't nag you about it any more."
If he'd said something like Thanks, I appreciate that, I would have clobbered him. Instead he stroked my hair. "Don't cry." And he told me silently, //I have never meant to cause you pain. Never. Don't cry over me, Nia. I'm not worth it.//
He meant that. Ben never lied to me. Even though sometimes I wished he would. I covered his hand with mine. //C'mere, you.// Pulled him down to me.
Fast-forward a year. The shitstorm had arrived. The Empire had my name and knew where I lived. Ben's saber was clipped to his belt instead of strapped to the small of his back. He had used it earlier in the day. Had rather enjoyed it. But now—
"I'm sorry, Niriamne. I'm so sorry."
So many regrets. So many had suffered because of him.
At least she won't suffer.
The least he could do. The only thing he could do. One last gift to his last lover. It was more than he'd been able to do for Qui-Gon. That final promise—
It didn't matter. Soon they would be together again. Death was drawing near to Ben Kenobi.
Oh fuck. Fuck this hurts. I hate truth meditation.
You flaming ASSHOLE! Thinking of him while you're slipping me the saber!
That's your oldest and best defense, ain't it, Nia? Turn the pain to rage. That way you can start kicking ass and controlling things.
What a joy it was to meet Qui-Gon Jinn. Strong, beautiful, kind, learned, graceful Qui-Gon Jinn. Everything I'm not. Insert adjective here.
You're the one. The one Ben loves instead of me.
Fuck. Why not? Who wouldn't love Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn? I wanted to do him myself. Couldn't blame Ben for preferring Qui-Gon to me. I preferred Qui-Gon to me.
Fuck this hurts.
I heard Mom's voice. "Apologize to your father." Relentless. Weary. She'd repeated it over and over again.
"He's not my father and I'm not sorry!" And I wasn't, either. I wanted to say I was so Mom would love me again, but I couldn't do it. I simply could not make myself say the words. The Voice of Survival must have known my life wouldn't be worth a dipped decicred if I kept living with Mom and Daddy Deke.
"Why did you do it, Niriamne? Just tell us why."
"I told you why, you stupid cunt!"
I didn't know why Mom got so upset with me for calling her that. Deke had called her that plenty of times, and worse. And she really was being stupid.
And we'd start over again. Over and over again. Deke would never do such a thing. Deke loves me and he loves you. We're a family. This is all a terrible misunderstanding. Blah, blah, blah.
Mom holding Deke's hand as he looked nobly understanding and long-suffering.
Rewind: Deke with both hands down my pants, about to finger-fuck every orifice in there. No misunderstanding what he was up to, Mom.
Deke, down and screaming, those evil hands clutching the spreading red stain where I'd gut-stabbed him. Mom screaming. Believing Deke instead of me. Loving him instead of me.
Mom, the last time she came to visit. She looked like a walking skeleton. The other kids stared and whispered. Deke was out of her life for good. Maybe she'd killed him. I hoped so. But losing him and all her illusions about him just about killed Mom. She was back on the spice, full-time. She blamed me.
My fault. Her family, her last shot at a normal life, was gone. All my fault. For being there to tempt Deke, I guess. For being born.
Fuck. This hurts. Stop it.
Stench and heat—
Oh. Oh no. Oh no, please, no, don't take me there—
Pauek Lee of Posk. About a head shorter and about twice as broad as me. All muscle. His smile and spirit shone like bright twin suns. I told him that his family name was the commonest one there was for humans. "Yeah, the original Mr. and Mrs. Lee were prolific," he grinned, drawling out the last word. "How about it?"
His sweet strong body covering mine as it fermented and rotted in the heat and humidity of summer. As I played dead beneath the truly dead. The stench and liquid press of corpses, slipping and shifting atop me—
Stop it, stop it, STOP IT!
Pounding on my cabin door. Muffled male voices. I was quite unmuffled, yelling "Stop it!" over and over. At least I was coherent. I gasped as an odd stretching sensation pulled through my chest. Snap, poof, the Force trance was gone. One last "Stop it!" before I realized that it had stopped— and that I was tangled up in the bedclothes, as neatly trussed as the lunatic I was sure I was becoming. I struggled to find my way out of a binding cocoon of blankets.
There was a CRUNCH from the general direction of the door. Hands fell on me, unwrapping the bedclothes, and Qui-Gon was almost but not quite shouting, "Nia, child, what were you thinking?"
I blinked up at him. "What?" Brilliant.
He put one hand on either side of my head, making sure he had my undivided attention. Making me meet his fierce gaze. He was actually scaring me. He meant to. "Nia Lee. Do. Not. Ever enter a truth meditation without supervision!"
Right. Good idea. I nodded meekly.
This mollified him only slightly. "Do you have any idea what could have happened?"
I shook my head no. "Hey, was that you? Did you stop it?"
"Yes!" He released my head, stood and threw his hands in the air in sheer frustration. "What fool taught you? No adept faces the Heart of Darkness before they are judged ready for the Trials. Your mind could have snapped under the strain!"
I didn't doubt it. "Fuck," I whispered, trembling with the memories.
"Aye, fuck!" Qui-Gon growled. Damn, he was something to see when filled with righteous wrath. Only Obi-Wan's smoldering presence induced me to tear my eyes from his Master. Poor kid. He had a bellyful of Qui-Gon thinking about me all the time. I sat up, smoothed down my hair, made to wipe my face and was surprised to find no tears or snot there. Maybe truth meditations work that way. Maybe some pain is too deep for tears.
Qui-Gon knelt by my bed again. The iron fist was back in the velvet glove. "How do you feel now?"
"Fine." No, not fine. "Numb." The kind of numb you get after puking and then your mom gives you something to settle you. Mom. Shit. I'm not going there again. Not now.
"We will stay with you until you are recovered."
Big beautiful kind strong Qui-Gon. No wonder Ben had loved him so. I made myself look at young Obi-Wan. Oh, he was simply thrilled to death at the prospect of spending more time with me. Maybe I could make it quality time. Inspiration struck. I took a deep breath, looked Qui-Gon in the face. "Master Jinn, I saw you being killed by a Sith."
Yes. Yes, it feels right to tell him. Maybe that's why I'm here.
Simultaneous shock rolled off both of them. "What?" cried Obi-Wan, scared and angry and indignant all at once.
Naturally Qui-Gon was more composed about it. "Are you sure?" Still kneeling by my bed, looking into my eyes. Maybe I had glimpsed the future, or maybe I was just hallucinating. He was actually more worried about me than about himself. I wanted to kiss him. Probably would have, if Obi-Wan hadn't been there.
"Oh, I'm sure." After all the times I'd seen that nightmare, I could have taken that duel on the road. "We should go back to the galley and have Obi-Wan do the move the Sith got you with. He's a lot closer to the guy's size than me."
"Yes, Master." Obi-Wan's voice was a quiet plea. I smiled at him. He was more reconciled to my presence now. I was almost embarrassed by how much better that made me feel. I knew Obi-Wan just wanted to save his master from the Sith I'd conjured up, but I still felt a whole lot better.
Qui-Gon was doubtful. "Nia needs her rest."
"Nia," I retorted, "won't rest until Qui-Gon knows how to keep his hide intact."
"Please, Master." Obi-Wan's voice had got even quieter.
"Even if I'm imagining things," I begged, "it can't hurt to show you what I saw. Then you and Obi-Wan can practice. So you'll be ready, in case it's real."
Damn straight it's real. The realest event in Ben Kenobi's life. Realer than I ever was to him. I felt a stab of jealousy as Master and Apprentice spoke silently through their learning bond. I could almost hear it, like a humming in the air.
"All right." I jumped as Qui-Gon spoke aloud. "Come, Nia. Show us what you saw. But I won't have you tiring yourself out, not after the day you've had."
I nodded. Right. No wigging out.
As we traveled the extremely short distance to the rec room/galley, Obi-Wan was almost hopping with anticipation. I wanted to stare at him. I tried to surreptitiously study his face. He'd been scowling nonstop since first we met. It had made him ugly. Now that he was happier, he was downright pretty. Scowling or not, I had a hard time seeing the broken-hearted man he would become. Except for those big beautiful eyes.
Winking at crazy old Ben Kenobi in the Mos Eisley marketplace. Yeah, I mean you.
"Nia." Qui-Gon's voice again. I jumped again. So did Obi-Wan. We had arrived, and we had been staring at each other. Qui-Gon looked amused. Obi-Wan blushed red as rubyfruit. Made him even prettier.
"Shall we begin?" Qui-Gon gave Obi-Wan a significant look. Obi-Wan blushed even redder, unclipped his saber and handed it to me.
I rushed in to cover his embarrassment. "I'll play both parts at first. It won't take long. Then you boys can rehearse together."
There was no need to re-enact the whole exhausting, vicious, and extremely athletic duel. Good thing, because there was no way I could do that, even if I'd had plenty of space. What mattered were the last five seconds, which had been quite simple. Maybe that's why Qui-Gon didn't see it coming. Moving at one-fifth actual speed, both parts would take roughly twenty-five seconds apiece. That wouldn't tire me out.
I switched on the borrowed saber. "Okay. Last five seconds of the duel, in slow-mo. I'll do Qui-Gon first." I thought a moment. I knew every move, but coding them down to my tiny height was tricky. "Okay." Pivot. Parry. Block low. Step back. Block high. Step forward. Parry. Block high. Way too fucking high. I snapped my head back, taking an imaginary blow to the chin, and stopped with my arms positioned in the overextension that had left Qui-Gon wide open for the chest shot.
Silence. Obi-Wan was no longer red. He was white as salt. Qui-Gon looked serious. "And the Sith?" he asked quietly.
"That'll be tougher. He had a double-bladed saber."
"A very dangerous weapon. One which requires a great deal of strength and skill."
"No kidding. A whole lot easier to slice yourself with than a plain saber. Maybe I should just use a mop handle, or something."
"Padawan." Obi-Wan nodded and hastened to fetch a mop or something. And I nearly dropped his saber and sliced off my foot when I realized it was on full strength. "Shit!" I hastily turned it off. I was shaking all over. Qui-Gon took the saber from me. This was getting to be a habit. I felt like kicking him. I told myself it wasn't Qui-Gon's fault. I should have asked him to put the saber on low.
"You handle a lightsaber quite well." He spoke in the same gentle, soothing tones he used whenever I was losing it. Made me think of a doting papa telling his baby how wonderful she was in the harvest pageant, comforting her after she'd missed her cue. At any other time, I would have laughed. Now it was all I could do to make myself quit shaking.
Don't wig out, Nia. Not now. You've got to show them how the Sith got Qui-Gon. "H-he," I stuttered, "the Sith, he was a bit shorter than Obi-Wan. But thicker, bigger-boned. A Zabrak, I think. Very strong, very fast."
"And he had worn me down. Else I would not have made so simple a mistake."
I shrugged. "It only takes one." Especially when you're up against a Sith.
"Do you know when this will take place?" Not if but when. Either he was still being gentle with me or he really believed me.
Obi-Wan was back with a long mop. I studied him. Saw his face reflected in the eyes of the dying Qui-Gon. Fought back a return of the shakes. "Obi-Wan was a man full grown. Ready to face the Trials. A Knight himself, or almost there."
"So. Obi-Wan was considerably older. And so was I. Older and slower."
I said nothing. No man likes to face the fact that he's getting older and slowing down. That's why Ben had wanted to slap me silly when I threw that in his face during our one domestic altercation.
Qui-Gon's smile said he knew I remained silent in order to spare his delicate male ego. Gods, I loved his smile. It made me feel safe somehow. "Here." He handed me the mop and Obi-Wan's saber. "Cut it to the right length."
Okay, I could manage that without cutting off any of my body parts. Or anybody else's. "Hmm. I'm going to go with actual size." The mop handle would be way out of proportion to my reach, but I knew Obi-Wan would make extensive use of it in mock combat. He was close enough to that Zabrak's (or whatever's) size that it would fit his reach fine. And it would be better for Qui-Gon to face a Sith-size mop handle in that mock combat.
Slice. A bit too long. Better that than too short. Slice. Just right. "The hilt in the middle was not quite twice as long as Obi-Wan's here." I handed Obi-Wan his inactive saber and took my position. I felt queasy. Time to pretend to do what I'd almost done for real earlier in the day— drill Qui-Gon like a barve on a spit. I took a deep breath. "Last five seconds, slo-mo."
I kept thwacking myself with the mop handle and had to start over a couple of times. Which made me happy I wasn't wielding the real thing. It's true about how dangerous a double-bladed saber is. If you don't know how to use one, you're more of a hazard to yourself than to anyone else. If you do know how, you're nobody to mess with.
Finally I got the feel of the blasted oversized thing and was able to finish that hideous mirror performance. Grand finale: Step right under the imaginary Qui-Gon's overextension. Bring up the hilt hard, in both hands, and crack his chin with it. Back up slightly and run him through with one business end. Watch his slightly dazed expression contort into a gasp of astonishment.
I saw it all, relived it all. Saw Qui-Gon's bronzed face leech to dead white. Heard Ben's agonized cry, felt his shock and disbelief as he saw Qui-Gon fall. Qui-Gon hadn't made a sound. It was all he could do to breathe, and that not for long.
"Do it again." Obi-Wan. I looked over at him. His young, beardless face was pale and intent. I pulled the mop handle from the imaginary Qui-Gon's torso. I had to stop myself from sneering the Sith's nasty little smile. I didn't know what I felt. Anguished. Triumphant. Dizzy.
Not now, Nia. You've got a job to do. "One more time. Then you do it." I looked to Qui-Gon, and he nodded his approval.
I got through another full performance without thwacking myself. Ben's memories were still with me, but I was braced for them, so it ran a lot smoother the second time. I was so into it that I actually did sneer as I yanked out the mop handle, and gave it the same twist the Sith had.
"I'm convinced." Qui-Gon actually sounded satisfied. I couldn't fathom it. How could he feel that way about an undress rehearsal of his own slaying? Me, I'd be running to the 'fresher to puke. Obi-Wan came to me and held out his hand, silently requesting the mop handle. He was surprisingly polite about it. I was glad to hand it over.
"Thank you," Obi-Wan said. And he meant it. The look in his eyes got me all wobbly. I backed into the alleged kitchen and watched him play the part of the Sith. At full speed. He performed flawlessly, but stopped before the sneer and the twisting pull-out.
"Does that look like what you saw?" Qui-Gon's voice interrupted my reverie.
"Yes," I breathed. "Exactly." Damn, the boy could move.
"Indeed," agreed Qui-Gon.
The shock hit an instant before the concept did: Qui-Gon had heard me thinking. I glared at him, then dropped my eyes in pure mortification.
"Forgive me, I couldn't help it. You are tired. Your shields are weakened."
Lovely. He'd caught me lusting after his pubescent apprentice. I might as well have been drooling on my bare feet. I stared down at my feet, noticed the exposed skin was still that sick chalky gray. I raised my arms for inspection. Maybe some natural color was peeking through between the scars. Maybe.
"Please, watch me again." Obi-Wan stood before us. His face changed drastically when I looked from my arms to him. "I, I just want to go through it again, make sure I got it right," he stammered fearfully.
I had no idea what my face looked like. I had no idea what I was feeling. I hoped I wasn't going nuts. I'd be fine and then hysterical and then fine again. It was getting old. Maybe it was the spice. Maybe it was the body. Oh yeah, there was the little matter of being struck down by Ben and popping up in a totally different time and place and body. I think you could safely call that a stresser.
Obi-Wan was still as a statue, like he was afraid to move. I couldn't look away from him. I closed my eyes, felt something like an eddy in the Force as eye contact was broken. Dear gods, had I been whammying him? I really was going nuts. Well, there was one thing I could do about that. And also about increasing my odds of survival, while I was at it. "Have I had any spice today?"
There was a caution in Qui-Gon, like when he'd first mentioned Kessel to me. "Yes. In your meal."
He was worried I'd go off again. I made myself speak in a low, soft tone. "I want off that shit yesterday." At least attempt diplomacy, Nia. "Please, could you help me go into a healing trance? You could stash me in the medilab, have the droid keep an eye on me."
"Have you ever done a healing trance?"
"Yes, but I'm not that good at it." I couldn't stop a shudder as I remembered Posk. I had nearly died there, had nearly slipped from playing dead to really dead. It's a tricky thing, slowing down your heartbeat and respiration that much. I'd thought I wanted to die, but the Voice of Survival had other ideas. It kept me going until it gave me the all-clear to move again. And I had slowly crawled out from under Pauek's bloated leaking corpse. And kept crawling. I did not look back. No time to look back. And I'd wanted to remember Pauek the way he had been— cheerful and kind and full of life.
"Nia." Qui-Gon's stop-drifting voice. A firm tone, not quite a bark. Guess I hadn't drifted too far. I opened my eyes. No Obi-Wan. Maybe he'd gone to the little padawan's room to change his pants. Poor kid, I'd scared him half to death. I looked to Qui-Gon. "How long do you want to stay in trance?" he continued, as if the pause in our conversation had been a perfectly natural one. His face and body were relaxed, almost casual, but I could tell that he was watching me carefully.
As if he were waiting for something— "Until I'm no longer a junkie. I wanna go cold duck."
"That could take some time." He was waiting for something.
"I'm not doing anything else right now." All I felt now was weary. It was a relief to know what I was feeling.
After the barest hesitation Qui-Gon nodded decisively, mind made up. Something seemed to have fallen into place. Or maybe he just wanted to get me out of his tresses for a while. "Best void your bladder and bowels first."
I was sure he didn't talk that clinically to Obi-Wan. Which reminded me. "Please make my apologies to your Padawan. Maybe I won't be as crazy once I'm clean."
He smiled an 'I understand' smile, gave a slight bow. Damn, he reminded me of Ben. No wonder I had the hots for him. And as if things weren't weird enough, I was starting to get that way about Obi-Wan. Why did I always have to complicate things?
Qui-Gon sensed my disquiet. "You're right, you know. You'll feel much better once you're 'off that shit'."
I couldn't help but chuckle. He even had Ben's way of making me feel better when I worried too much. Of course. After all, Qui-Gon had taught Ben how to be a Jedi Knight.
As the omniscient author, I can tell you now what I myself didn't find out until much later. (And I'm still rather vexed about that.) After helping me enter the healing trance and stashing me in the medilab, Qui-Gon composed an addendum to his report to the Jedi Council. Upon sending it, he received an almost immediate reply. In diplomatic language, it said: Get your butt back here so we can kick it for you. After we finish that, we'll take a look at this Chosen One of yours.
Time moves at its ordinary, mundane pace when you're in a healing trance, even though your body is slowed way down. It's nothing like other forms of meditation, where time can speed way up or slam to a halt. Maybe it's because you're concentrating on the realm of the physical, on patching up your crude matter. So I had a lot of time to think.
I thought only briefly about the truth meditation Qui-Gon had pulled me out of. He was right to growl at me about that. I'd been a damned fool, biting off way more than I could chew. Daring the Force to hit me with its best shot. What was I thinking?
Huh. So at least part of facing the Trials means facing the Heart of Darkness— your worst nightmares. Your worst fears. No wonder none of the Padawans were in a hurry to take that step.
None of that. Not now. Remember the good times. I'd seen some bad times in my life, but many beings had endured far worse and survived to enjoy good times again. Like Ben. Compared to his life, mine had been a picnic in the park.
Don't think about Ben. Not now. Maybe later. Think about . . .
Mom. Mom, when she wasn't sick. That was the only way I could stand to think of her recurring bouts of addiction— as a chronic sickness. Mom was a fine strong woman when she wasn't into the spice. I had that much to hold onto. Some kids didn't even have that. Those memories soothed me like precious water in the deep desert. I thought of Mom's gentleness and sense of humor. Her beauty and dignity. Her musical laughter. Her wide range of expertise. When I was little, it seemed like she knew everything. When she was well, with infinite patience she taught me everything she knew. Everything I needed to know myself, to survive in these dark times. With the greatest of pleasure, I remembered her teaching me how to use a blaster. Remembered what a crack shot she was.
Maybe she'd got Deke between the eyes and then dumped him out an airlock. With all the other trash. The very thought got me all warm and tingly. Of course, I couldn't be sure she'd chosen just that method to break things off with that Sithspawn— but knowing Mom, I'd put good money on it.
Oh, Mom. You shouldn't have let the truth about Deke kill you.
Ha. I'm a fine one to talk. She got a better jump on Deke than I got on Ben.
Not now. Remember the good times.
I thought of my Protocol and Procedures teacher, a cranky old Wookiee whose name more or less rendered into Basic as Laliknarra. Everybody called her Professor Lala. I remembered her because I actually learned something in her class. Only because she took me aside after my first day and told me she knew I had a reputation for meanness, and she respected that, but I should keep it outside. Fair warning. If I got into any fights in her class, she would take me apart.
She was not being figurative. I was a model of decorum in her class. Eventually I began hanging around after class with her informal study group. Heavy philosophy was mulled and mused over. I was too ignorant to participate much, but it was restful. Sometimes I got tired of having to fight all the time. And Professor Lala's grunted approval when I asked a question that wasn't quite as dim as usual— that was a warm, warm memory.
Doubtless Professor Lala had perished in the Jedi purges. I hoped she'd had the opportunity to dismember some stormtroopers before she met her end. She certainly would have done so, given half a chance. That would have been something to see.
I thought of Pauek Lee. Yeah, it hurt some. Maybe not as much as it should have. We hadn't been together that long. We were just a couple of dumb kids, fooling around and having fun. Maybe it would have turned into something deeper, once we'd grown up some. I'd never know. I was just a silly girl then. And Pauek was just a goofy boy. But I'm sure he would have been a good man. There wasn't a grain of meanness in him. I never could figure out what he saw in me. Maybe it was a case of opposites attracting.
I prayed that Pauek was with the original Mr. and Mrs. Lee and all their descendants. The good ones, anyway.
I thought of Momaw Nadon. The time just before I met him was a bad one. I was worn to a frazzle. The Voice of Survival had been my constant companion for a solid standard year. It relentlessly harangued me clear across the galaxy, getting me away from the consolidating Empire. Posk had been a mere warming-up exercise. The killing machine was still getting the bugs worked out, but was learning fast. The Voice would not risk another encounter with it. I heartily concurred. I hid on and hired out on various scows until I ended up on Tatooine. For no other reason would I have gone to Tatooine. Believe me, it's not a world you go to. It's a world you end up on. I hated it on sight. The first time I saw it from orbit and the Voice insisted I get off and stay off there, I hoped the planet would improve on closer inspection. I jumped ship at Mos Eisley and tried to stroll about casually but purposefully.
Tatooine did not improve on closer inspection. No sir. Close up, it looked worse. Much worse. Gods. I thought I was tough. I thought I'd seen some nasty-ass hives in my time, but Mos Eisley scared me stiff. Mom had always kept me on board and kept herself to the docking bay in the hardest ports. Mos Eisley more than qualified as such a place. It was packed with creatures as desperate as I was. Some were even more desperate, and had far fewer scruples. And I didn't have so much as a one-shot blaster. And the suns were setting. Looking back on it, it was funny— in a horribly pathetic sort of way. Nineteen years old, stranded in the worst spaceport on the Rim, terrified but trying to act tough. Yeah, that was me. Hard to believe.
Keep going, said the Voice. Keep going, unless you're tired of living.
I was not tired of living. Never would be. The Voice led me to the very edge of town— and fell silent. I nearly fainted with fear. I slumped against a wall and fought to remember my toilet training. A large house loomed before me. It had a sturdy front door with a sophisticated lock. A booby-trapped lock, yet.
Thank you, Mom, I prayed as the door slid open. I was pretty sure she was dead; if so, she would hear me. Thank you, Mom, for teaching me how to pick any kind of lock.
I closed the door behind me and collapsed with weary relief as the Voice returned just long enough to whisper, Hide in this house. You're safe here.
The adrenaline letdown hit hard. I was asleep before my head met the carpet of grass. The air was sweet with water and flowers. Didn't smell like Tatooine at all. I dreamed a strange dream of a queen who carried twins in her womb. She was stronger and braver and definitely more beautiful than I was. But she also was running. And she was even more scared than I was. Poor thing.
I slept a long time, dreaming strange dreams. When I woke up, an Ithorian was looking down at me. He had been looking down at me for some time, waiting with the fortitude of his long-lived species. I could not read the expression on his face/head/snout, but I sensed his joy, an almost religious rapture. "You are one of my kind," his flute-like voice whispered solemnly from his double mouths.
I gawked up at him in horror. I thought he'd flipped and wanted to claim me as his bride. Whatever it takes, I told myself grimly. As long as he lets me stay here.
Yes, I was that desperate. The streets of Mos Eisley would eat me alive and spit out my bones one by one. I had to have shelter. If this was how things were on Tatooine— well, better a Hammerhead than a Hutt.
Before Posk, I would have been incapable of such cold strategy. But I'd lived through too much to let a little thing like sexual orientation keep me from continued survival. I told myself that at least Ithorians were gentle, patient creatures who wouldn't hurt a fly. That's why they make such great nannies.
Fortunately, Momaw Nadon had no sexual interest in me, or any other humanoid. Besides, he was already married, and Ithorians take their vows seriously. What he meant by 'one of my kind' was that I was a fellow student of plants. It took a good Tatooine month of squeamish flinching in his presence before I got that through my head. Momaw wanted to teach me. That was all. He said he'd been waiting for a pupil, and the Force had sent me to him. I didn't argue with him. Hell, maybe he was right. Out of all the locked front doors on all the houses in Mos Eisley, why had I picked his?
Once I got to know Momaw, I was very glad he didn't know what I'd first thought. His feelings would have been terribly hurt. Ben got a good laugh out of the very idea of an Ithorian desiring a human. They think we're mean and ugly.
Do not think about Ben.
Well, you know how it works. Trying not to think of something is sure to make it come to mind. After a while I abandoned that for the strategy of keeping my mind on the good times we'd had. I remembered when Ben first set foot in what was now my house. Momaw gave me the place when he went home to his wife and kid. Ben looked about at the greenery taking up every spare nook. Looked at me and smiled slightly. "Agri-Corps," he said. An identification. I smiled back. Yes. He knew who I was. And I knew who he was. "Knight," I replied. And neither of us was afraid.
We just stood and looked at each other for a bit. And then, after two whole words of conversation, we fell on each other.
It's hard to explain. We were just so lonely. Starved for others of our own kind, who understood what it was to feel the Force. And, gods damn, it had been waaaaay too long for both of us.
You want details, dear reader? You're not getting them, you filthy-minded slob. It was great, all right? It was always great. Ben could have set up shop and had a queue outside circumnavigating Tatooine, once word got around.
Yes, we'd had plenty of good times. I truly tried to keep my mind on that. But it kept coming back to our last encounter. To that last horrible instant when I realized why he was apologizing.
Gods damn it all, Ben! Why? Why?
I was in a dim, enclosed space. I saw Ben. He stood no more than an arm's length from me. From where I stood. I was standing on my own two feet, looking him right in the eye.
Shit! This was no memory, it was happening right now.
I grabbed for the knife and blaster I packed whenever I set one toe outside the house. They weren't there. Made me feel naked. I looked down and saw my previous lanky body. It was clothed, and in a favorite dress, but still— what was I doing back in it? I looked to Ben in complete bewilderment. Made me think of when I woke up to find a Hammerhead watching me. I was shaking; whether with fear or anger or both, I did not know. I did know how I longed for both knife and blaster. Especially the knife. Yeah. Time to make a sacrifice to Saint Loreena of the Sacred Shears.
Okay, I was angry. Quivering like a hurt cornered beast ready to fight to the bitter end. "You bastard," I hissed.
"That's why," Ben said, and pointed.
I did not look where he pointed. I backed away and looked everywhere else. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I made out a spare but clean ship's cabin. The almost subliminal background hum and faint vibration under my feet told me we were in hyperspace. Ben was sleeping in a bunk. But he was also standing before me. "What the flamin' Sith hell's goin' on?!"
"You called me. I had to answer."
"Nerfshit. Let me go!" I whispered. I had sensed another man in the cabin. He was also asleep, but had the good sense not to let his psyche wander about.
"What's the use, if you're going to keep haunting my dreams with 'Why?'" Ben wasn't whispering. Wasn't shouting, either. I'd never heard Ben shout. He spoke in his normal tone of voice, as if we were having a normal conversation.
"I'm not haunt—" Possibilities occurred to me. Yeah, haunt him! Drive him to madness! Then I thought, But I'm not dead— am I? I ran a hand through my hair. It was short and curly like it used to be. I held that hand before my eyes. I could see Ben through it. My stomach dropped down to my toes. My ephemeral stomach. "Damn." I'm a dead woman. All that other weird shit was just a hallucination. The fevered vapors of an unstable mind. I'm a mad ghost. "Have I been haunting you?" I lowered my hand for a better look at Ben.
"On occasion." Dryly.
"Good," I said spitefully. "Boo." I took the evil-Sith-Lord pose found in bad kiddy tri-D's.
Ben regarded me with a weariness bordering on impatience. "Nia, I haven't much time. Do you or do you not want an answer to your question?" He pointed again.
I did not deign to reply. But curiosity got the best of me, and I looked to where he pointed. To the other man, asleep in his bunk. "Whoa." I knelt beside the kid. Man-sized, but still a kid. He couldn't be past twenty. And I had never felt such power in a single being. "Well, fuck me sideways," I breathed reverently. I leaned down, inhaled the boy's scent into my insubstantial lungs. Yes. It was there. Raw, untrained, but he had what the Empire dearly wanted. He looked familiar somehow. "Where'd you get him?"
"No need to whisper. He can't hear you."
"Don't change the subject. Where'd you get him?"
Slight hesitation. "He was entrusted to me."
I looked from the boy's face to Ben's, and back again. "There's more to it than that. You his dad?" I tried to fit the boy's face to the young Obi-Wan's. They were both pale and pretty. Both prettier than me, I thought with some bile. Both had lovely cleft chins.
Ben was carefully choosing his words. He steeled himself. "The subject of Luke's paternity is not open for discussion."
Gods, he was being real fucking paranoid if he wouldn't even discuss it with the dead. Anger flared anew, then died as I remembered: The farmboy in the used speeder lot. That had been Luke. Undoubtedly. He'd given me a dirty look when I shoved him aside to get to the dealer. He'd also been trying to raise enough cash to get the hell off Tatooine. And Ben had been just outside, standing guard. Watching over Luke. My stomach did another drop. "You couldn't save us both." That explained a lot of things. Like why Ben asked if I had any cash on me. Just before he killed me. "Gods." An oath, not a prayer. Weariness settled on me like a shroud. I lay my forehead on Luke's pillow. "Gods." I wanted to howl like a wounded nek-hound.
Get a grip, girl. Get a grip!
Ben chose his son over his sometime sweetie. Okay. I could understand that. I would like to think that my dad, whoever the hell he was, would do the same for me. I laughed a short, mirthless laugh. This was the stuff of Wookiee opera. Debts of honor! Conflicting loyalties! Such angst! Too bad I didn't get an aria before I died.
Ben laid a comforting hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry."
I almost shrugged off his hand, almost snapped You already said that, but held it back with truly heroic effort. It wasn't Ben's fault he'd had to make that choice. Hell, maybe I should have left Tatooine when he'd told me about the coming shitstorm. I'd have had time to sell the house and the business. But where could I have gone?
No telling how many millions, billions even, were in that predicament. Out of places to run. Maybe that's why the shitstorm got started in the first place.
I don't have to run any more. My troubles are over. I'm a mad ghost. I can do anything I want. "I love you," I blurted. I lifted my head from the pillow, stared at Luke. "As much as I'm able. It's not— I know it's not like what you had with Qui-Gon." I shook my head in awe. "He's— whew." I couldn't think of the right way to put it. I'm no poet. "He's really something." Such inadequate words. "He's not scared like me. He loves you all out. No holding back. I— I just can't do that."
Thoughtful pause from Ben. His hand still lay on my shoulder. He was carefully choosing words again. I feared he was going to do the polite thing and lie and say 'I love you too.' That's what men do when a woman confesses her love. It must be hard-wired into their brains. I stood abruptly and faced him. "Don't lie to me." It was meant to be a demand; it came out a plea.
He sent me a wordless thought, a reassurance that he was not about to start lying to me now. "You're not the only one who's been afraid."
"What's that supposed to mean?" A defiant question, but my tone was just puzzled. Nuts. Well, now was probably a good time to drop the 'tough Corellian girl' act.
"I have been afraid for you, afraid for Luke, and, I must confess, afraid for my own sorry skin. Don't idealize me."
I snorted. "Don't get a big head. I know you're a mere mortal like me." Okay, there's some tough Corellian left.
"If you didn't idealize me, you wouldn't think I could fix everything." Very softly.
"I've never thought that." It was almost a snarl. Simmer down, I told myself. "When I begged you for help I was desperate. Scared out of my mind." It came back to me, that fear. That last gut-clenching hour. The choking dry heat of midday, and me in a muck sweat, freezing to the bone as it hit home. As I knew, I knew there was no getting out of this one. "Guess I had to believe you could rescue me." The fear was still with me, but there was no point to it now. I managed a too-casual shrug. "My luck ran out. I can't believe it lasted as long as it did. Twenty years of hiding from the Empire. Look, it doesn't matter now. What matters is—" Deep breath. "What matters is, you didn't kill me out of hatred, or indifference, or for fun."
"Of course not." Ben's voice was a bare whisper. "It was the only thing I could do for you."
He hated saying that. Maybe he wished he could fix everything. He looked so tired. So old. I knew he was plenty old enough to be my dad, but he'd never seemed that way to me before now, not really. All his years seemed to have fallen on him at once. Pity welled up in my spectral breast. I still wasn't thrilled with the situation, but I no longer wanted to punish Ben. His life had beaten me to the punch. "You kept me from the Question. That's what really had me scared." That, and one other thing. "Did you destroy my body?"
"Yes, dear." He assumed a henpecked-husband attitude. It was a little joke of ours.
"Thank you. I appreciate that." I know that's a bizarre exchange. You have to keep in mind, the Empire had my real name— and had cloning technology. Ben had made sure no Dark Side slaves would be stamped from my DNA. He must have used the Force to do me that final favor, pressed for time as he was. An extra danger for him. And for Luke. "I truly do appreciate that." But I was tired of being around Luke. "I've never seen your house."
Faint surprise. "I was under the impression that you didn't want to see it."
"I didn't before now. I'm curious now."
And we were there, just like that. "Gaaah!" I found that I'd grabbed hold of his arm. "Dammit, Ben, don't scare me like that!" I yearned to shake his teeth loose. I let go of him before I could even try such a fool thing.
I almost hollered at him to stop SAYING that. Another heroic effort was required to restrain myself. I leaned my forehead against a comfortingly cool pillar. "No, I'm sorry. I—" Deep breath. Let it out slow. "I've been jumpy of late." I looked about, got the first impression of massively thick walls of duracrete, or a cheaper local substitute. "Are you still dreaming, or are we here for real?"
Reassured that I was not about to pitch a fit, Ben took a seat. "I'm asleep, but strictly speaking I am not dreaming. This is my memory of my humble abode." He made a gracious-welcome gesture.
"I like it." It was small, but large enough for one man. A lot of thought had gone into its construction. I noted the passive engineering that kept the place warm at night and cool in the daytime. No tubes or pumps or electronics were needed to keep the temperature level and keep moisture from escaping. I hated to be disloyal to Momaw Nadon, but it was better designed than the house he'd left me. Who'd get that house now? I tried to remember if I'd ever filed my will. I remembered being furious over the required bribes. "Nice and cozy." Get back to the subject at hand, Nia. "So. You're asleep. Look, I haven't meant to haunt your dreams. Really. I've just been . . . sort of confused." To put it mildly.
"There are tales of that happening, in cases of sudden death."
I had wandered over to an impressive display of bladed weapons mounted on one wall. "Expecting trouble?" Oh, that's witty. Honey, the man said he was low on time. Finish saying what you have to say. "I'm sorry I picked that stupid fight with you." Thinking of it made me blush. There'd been no call for me to carry on like that.
"You were right, though." Extreme reasonableness from Ben. "I was getting too fucking old to live in the Jundland Wastes by myself."
Basic diplomacy— find some common ground. But I blushed further that he remembered exactly what I'd said. "I didn't have to be such a bitch about it." I made myself look at him and was surprised to hear myself say, "I knew you weren't crazy." Where'd that come from? "Deep down, I always knew you had a job to do out here." Deep down in the Heart of Darkness, where the truth resides. "But I wanted you in town so I could have you all to myself."
That provoked an almost abashed smile. "You are very good for an old man's ego."
"You're a good man, Ben. You were always straight with me." I had to use language from a comedy of manners to convey my feelings. "Your behavior towards me has never been anything short of impeccable, and I thank you for that, sir."
"Don't idealize me. I could not return your feelings. That in itself was unfair to you."
I automatically shifted back to tough Corellian mode. "Has life been fair to you? Get real. I was the only other alpha-class Force-strong humanoid on the bloody planet." Not counting Luke. "And you told me how things had to be. You laid it out, right at the start. I knew duty came first, I knew about Qui-Gon, I knew your heart was ashes and you weren't going to lose it for me like I did for you. I knew, and I took up with you anyway. Life's a trade-off, and we can't have everything."
He grinned. "I have always enjoyed your sense of balance, and your brutal honesty."
I decided not to tell him what I'd always enjoyed about him. I wasn't exactly in the mood. "For someone who's so brutally honest, I've been lying to myself a whole lot." All this truth had worn me out. I wanted to wrap things up. "I guess that concludes our business." I cast about for comforting words, like the benevolent spirit I was now trying to be. "Would you like me to give your love to Qui-Gon?"
Ben inspected me for sarcasm and decided I was on the level. "If you don't mind." There was also no sarcasm in him. "I will join you soon, so it doesn't matter."
I wanted to protest Of course you're not going to die, but decided against it. Maybe he was right. Besides, death held no terror for Ben. If anything, the prospect was a relief. "You might live through what's coming. I don't know. But in case you do, and in case you don't see me again, you should know that I ain't sorry." I was amazed how good it felt to say that. "I ain't sorry about a thing."
In Corellian Basic, the non-standard contraction 'ain't' adds emphasis. Ben knew that. "No regrets?" he asked quietly. I shook my head no. A painful lump was forming in my throat. I resumed my tour of Ben's humble abode as he reminisced, "I remember you telling me how things had to be. How you laid it out for me. Right at the start." I heard the fond smile in his voice. "You said you'd kill me if I gave you any diseases or if I ever even tried to 'whammy' you."
"Yeah." I smiled, too. A smile somewhere between fond and fierce. "And I meant it. I'm such a romantic." I couldn't figure out what kind of wall hangings he had.
"You were always straight with me." I turned to stare at him. Couldn't help it. Even though it hurt a little. What was he doing, parroting my words like that? But his next words, delivered with a merry, lewd grin, really floored me: "Wanna fuck?"
My jaw dropped. That was my line! My traditional greeting to him. A laugh burst from me at his sheer audacity; propositioning me like that, and under these circumstances! But it was not a painful laugh. It was a giddy, almost joyous laugh. All the hurt and anger and awkwardness left me. "And here I thought you were short on time!"
"Time has no meaning here."
I did not ask what 'here' meant. I was intrigued by the fact that there'd be no rush. I meandered to where he sat. "I don't have any gossip for you." That was Ben's excuse for coming into town every month or so. I'd give him all the uncensored news.
"Oh, you know me. Pleasure before business."
Another one of my lines. I could not help but smile; the nerve of the guy! But I'd always admired his nerve. He had shed a couple of decades; he looked the way he did when I brought him home from the marketplace. Made me think of my own appearance. "What's the deal with me showing up in a nice dress?"
"You are as I think of you."
I glanced down at my scrawny self. No rush. I can toy with him a bit. "As long as you're thinking, how about giving me some padding?"
He just gave me a look that said, Oh, come on! I know better than to fall for that. However, out of gallantry and/or the simple desire to get laid, he was ready to ritually protest that he liked me just the way I was, that I was beautiful to him. Laughing, I hushed him with a finger to his lips. We'd settled that nonsense long ago. My face was average, my body had none of the extra stuff a man likes to hang onto. It didn't matter. I could have been the most exquisite creature that ever existed, and it wouldn't have mattered, because I wasn't Qui-Gon. But I was Force-strong, and I was there.
We were like a couple of cripples propping each other up. Nothing wrong with that. It wasn't a life-bond, but it wasn't bad. I sent Ben the memory of what I'd told him after our first memorable all-nighter. //I know I'm Jabba's choice.// Local slang for closing-time pickings, because Jabba, not to put too fine a point on it, would fuck anything with a pulse. //I know. I'm still glad to have had you.// And I followed up that memory with a soft kiss, a slow bare brushing of my lips to his. "I'm still glad," I murmured.
A slight tug and I was in his lap and we were kissing and groping like two horny kids. "You sly Jedi, you," I giggled into his neck. Indeed. Crazy old Ben Kenobi, Master Diplomat. He'd led me from wanting to carve him to wanting to fuck him— and made me like it. "Let's take this outside." I'd never really seen the Tatooine night sky, what with all the light pollution in town.
I didn't have to tell him twice. He scooped me up and carried me outside into the sort of soft, balmy night unknown to Tatooine for a few geological eras. No bitter cold wind, no grit in the air. "Whoa, look at that!" I gaped up at the beautiful stars and all six moons. Ben laughed and spun me around and around in the safe cradle of his arms. The stars danced overhead as we collapsed onto an obliging sand dune.
A coldly furious voice from above interjected: "Knock it off, you two."
Things got mixed up for a moment. The owner of the angry voice had yanked me to my feet before Ben and I had even left off grabbing each other. Ben let slip a combination //DAMN!// and //What the hell?//, and then I heard his saber turn on.
"Ohhhh, I'm so scared," taunted the apparition. "I'm in your fucking head, Kenobi." Yes, it was an apparition. A real ugly one. "You can't hurt me with your imaginary laser sword."
The creature had taken one hand off me so he could make contemptuous obscene gestures with it. I wrenched free of its other hand and ran like the sensible coward I am.
"Aw, don't go, Niriamne! The fun's just started!"
The thing knew my real name—
I stopped in my tracks. Bloody hell. I knew that voice. I'd just never heard it raised in anger. I turned and stared. Then felt like I'd been kicked in the gut. "Pauek?" I gasped. "Pauek Lee?"
"In the flesh." He guffawed. A nasty laugh, totally out of character for Pauek. His back was still towards me as he faced a wary Ben, whose saber was at guard. Unless I was mistaken, Pauek had undone his fly and was wagging his willy in time to the humming laser noises he was making. One organ I could clearly see was his brain. That's not normal for humans.
Dear, brave Pauek. When the shooting had started on Posk, he'd stepped in front of me— and got the top of his head blown off for his pains. That would uglify anyone.
The memory made me queasy. Don't go there, I thought. To my great surprise, Mom's polite-but-firm voice issued from my lips: "Pauek, stop being a jerk. And make yourself presentable."
To my even greater surprise, Pauek complied. He stuffed himself back in his trousers. He ran one hand over the missing part of his skull, like slicking back his hair, and it was whole again. He turned to me. His face was hard with anger. "I can't believe you're still going at it with this loser."
I was too busy drinking in the sight of him to answer. Pauek wore the same workout togs he'd had on when he was killed. He was barefoot and barechested. "You look good," I whispered without thinking. He did look good. He surely did. Pauek was plain in the face like me, but unlike me, he had the sort of body that primitive peoples pray to. And also unlike me, he had a sunny disposition and a habitual smile to match.
At least, he used to. I could not match the set of Pauek's face to my memories of him. Very confusing. Even more confusing, my spontaneous observation seemed to goad him. "Never mind the sweet talk," he snapped, "you're coming with me." He reached to grab me again.
You won't believe this, but I was so thrown by Pauek's surprise visit that I'd forgotten about Ben. I don't know if he made the Force-push gesture, but Pauek flew back and hit the sand with a furious grunt. He scrambled to his feet and made to launch himself at Ben.
"Stop it, both of you!"I shrilled. "STOP IT!" And they did. Maybe I'd finally got the command voice down. Or maybe I sounded like I was about to come unglued. I don't know. I do know that I wanted to weep. Here we were under a glorious night sky, enjoying the sweet soft breeze of an imaginary Tatooine night— and the two men I'd loved as much as I knew how were at each other's throats. This was not how I'd planned on spending eternity. My men just stared at me, Ben with his saber still at guard and Pauek in a crouching run position. I turned on Pauek. "I'm not going anywhere with you, not if you're gonna act like this! What's wrong with you?"
Pauek straightened from his crouch. Something in his posture made me turn cold as his eyes drilled through me. I wanted to look away, but willed myself not to. I did take a step back. "What's wrong with me?" Softly mocking. "What's wrong with me, she asks." His voice was sweet as a vibroblade. "This is what's wrong with me—"
The top of his head flew apart like a smashed rotten fruit. An unholy mist of blood and brains and bone sprayed me. I screamed. I couldn't help it. I clapped my hands over my mouth to stifle the screams I couldn't stop. My legs wouldn't work as Pauek advanced on me, eyes glittering madly through a wash of gore. "I'm DEAD is what's wrong with me!" His voice was a raw cry of rage and pain. "I got blasted, and you got to live and fuck Jedi Masters!"
I would have fled, but I was frozen. I would have protested that he was being unfair, but I couldn't think. Pauek had sucked me into the same loop he'd been stuck in for twenty years. We were back on Posk, his cooling corpse sprawled over my unmoving yet very much alive body, the Voice of Survival keening at me to keep living, fool. Keep living. Whatever it takes, keep living.
I was so tired. I was no longer screaming. I was too tired to scream. My hands had dropped to my sides. I was still looking into Pauek's eyes, eyes that were almost gentle now that I was joining him. As I should have joined him twenty years ago. I wanted to forget the Voice of Survival and join him. Leave all the pain behind. No more struggle, no more tears.
The loud hum of a swiftly moving saber filled the air. Pauek flinched. His face took on a look of almost comic befuddlement as his head neatly toppled off his neck. I yelped, stumbled backwards, and fell hard on my too-bony ass. I felt gratitude towards the sand for providing a cushion. Then I thought, What a crazy way to think! Then I thought, Stars below, I forgot about Ben again.
The breaking of Pauek's spell left me fluff-brained. I sat and watched with a not unwelcome detachment as Pauek's body turned to face Ben, hands on hips, arms akimbo in an attitude of exasperation. Pauek's head was almost at my feet. It spoke, and the voice was soft and deep like it used to be. "I am not impressed." Didn't even sound mildly irritated. "You trying to kill me like you killed Niriamne?" Pauek's head defied all laws of gravity and floated up into the welcoming grasp of his hands. He casually re-headed himself, leaving not even a seam where Ben's saber had severed his neck. "Won't work, Kenobi. I'm already dead." He favored Ben with a sunny smile. "You're in my realm now. My reality, my rules."
I saw a slight change in Ben's face, the faintest shadowing of his eyes that had taken me years to learn how to read. With dawning horror, I realized that he had absolutely no idea what to do next. The Jedi Master was fresh out of tricks.
I began to silently weep. I felt like a ninny for weeping. I didn't know why I felt like a ninny. But looking back on it, I realize that I wasn't scared of what Pauek might do to us. I was just thoroughly rattled by the fact that Ben had run up against something he couldn't handle. The very idea crushed me. I thought Ben could handle anything.
I should have known better than that. If Ben could handle anything, he wouldn't have spent twenty years hiding from the Empire, same as me. He certainly wouldn't have been on Tatooine, living in the middle of nowhere and waiting for things to start up again.
He wouldn't have had to choose between saving Luke and saving me.
How could I have been so petty? It was like when I was little and thought Mom knew everything. Here I was nearing forty standard years, thinking the same foolishness about another mere mortal!
There was now no denying that Ben could not handle everything. Even more upsetting was the fact that Ben had been right about my idealizing him. I had needed to believe he could fix everything. Don't ask me why I needed that. I just did. Maybe I still do.
So I wept like a bewildered child, with the rage and disillusion only a child can feel. I wanted to yell at Ben that he wasn't the man I thought he was and I didn't love him anymore. It occurred to me that he would not exactly be crushed by this. It was maddening.
I should have asked myself why I was so angry with Ben because he couldn't fix everything after all. I did not ask myself that. Instead, I thought of Qui-Gon Jinn. If he were to drop in and say "I don't love you anymore," Ben would be devastated.
It wasn't fair that Qui-Gon, who was decades dead, should have that sort of power over Ben. It just wasn't fair. Qui-Gon, Qui-Gon, Qui-Gon— that's all Ben ever thought about, that misbegotten son of a moons-maddened bantha bitch—
It took only one crowded moment for this entry's chaos to run through my muddled head. (Temple training helped me think faster, but not better.) So it was scarcely a heartbeat after Pauek's last taunt that I saw Ben's face light up with the sort of joy I'd rarely seen on any human face. A joy I had certainly never seen on his face.
A joy caused by the appearance of Qui-Gon Jinn. Strong, beautiful, kind, learned, graceful— everything I wasn't—
Including naked. Not a stitch on him. That got everyone's attention. His golden-brown hair hung loose about his stern face in gorgeous disarray. But he held his lit saber aloft in the position of one readying to attack.
Forgive me, dear reader, for going off on a tangent now.
Perhaps my feelings for Ben were mostly about my own needs, but there was a spark of selflessness in my cramped heart. Before Pauek so rudely interrupted us, for just an instant, I was one with the Force. I was no longer jealous. I was actually glad that Ben was no more than very fond of me. If he were truly madly deeply in love with me, he'd be a basket case. Unable to do his job. The way he'd been after he couldn't save Qui-Gon. And this last job was one he could not screw up. Too much was riding on it.
In that instant I unflinchingly faced the fact that I was not in Qui-Gon's league. Even if I had been, even if I were a paragon of humanity, Ben was not about to risk his heart again. I can't blame him. He couldn't afford to take that risk.
One sweet, pure instant of enlightenment. And not long after that touch of ineffable grace, I took a wrong turn. Not in deed or word, but in thought. No, that's not quite right. The first step was beneath the level of conscious thought. I came down with a case of Major Bad Attitude.
Maybe I couldn't help it. In case you haven't noticed, I am of a rather violent and suspicious nature. Enlightenment goes against my grain.
It's funny how things work. My shortcomings were what saved me from the Jedi purges. I was too angry and too clumsy to be a Knight. I was smart enough to be a Healer, but lacked the necessary patience and empathy. And, wouldn't you know it, the Knights and Healers were targeted first. We weed-pullers were the lowest priority.
My flaws were not my salvation this time. I guess it was understandable to be shook up with all this craziness. That's only human (pardon the phrase). But I knew better than to take that wrong turn. At the very least, I should have stopped a few steps down that path and saw where it led and turned back.
Of course, not only Jedi adepts fall to the Dark Side. But now that I had all this power— well, it's like comparing Palpatine and Daddy Deke. They were two of a kind. Both had a Mister Nice Guy facade over all the hatred and anger and contempt inside. I don't think Palpatine was any rottener than Deke. I really don't. Palpatine was slicker, though. He never showed his true colors until he'd got what he wanted. Deke, now, sometimes when he was stoned he'd curse me and Mom and life in general. Then when he sobered up, it was 'Oh, honey, I was high, I didn't mean it.' Manipulative, self-serving bastard—
Shit. I've turned out just like him.
Where was I?
What I mean is, the only difference between the two creeps was that Palpatine was Force-strong. Therefore, he could do a lot more damage than Deke. And I could do a lot more damage than I'd ever imagined with all this wonderful fun power I'd never had before. And I have dealt all sorts of damage. I have had my revenge on Ben Kenobi.
It's some small comfort to know that at least I'm not a murderer. I am, however, a rapist.
Gods damn it! Why is everyone so upset with me? Why am I so upset with me? It ain't like I held the guy down and forced myself on him!
Shit, there I go. Trying to justify what happened.
There I go again. 'What happened'. It didn't just happen. It was something I did.
I'm not sorry. I'm not. I should be, but I'm not. But for some reason, it hurts to realize where I started to go wrong, long before I actually did wrong. Which is why I'm recording my story in this handy-dandy mini-holocron here. The exercise is supposed to help me organize my thoughts. Supposed to help me work through my feelings and figure things out.
I should get back to the story. I really should. It will do me good.
Okay, here goes. Hope you can make some sense of it. That's what stories are for— making sense of a seemingly random and uncaring universe.
Tatooine disappeared. Ben disappeared. However, Qui-Gon and Pauek stayed right where they were.
I know it makes no fucking sense. I know that, all right? Believe me, it made no sense at the time, either. Pauek felt the same, I'm sure. He stared about so wildly I feared his head would fall off his neck again. We were in the medilab of Qui-Gon's and young Obi-Wan's courier ship. Pauek stood between Qui-Gon and me. I was sitting on the diagnostic table, clutching its sides for dear life. Felt like it was trying to toss me off. The medical droid cowered silently in the farthest corner. The lights were off; eerie illumination shone from Qui-Gon's saber. Bare as he was, he was cloaked in power and authority. His voice rang in a chant of archaic Basic as he sprang towards us: "Begone, o malevolent spirit, o fiend of darkness!" He swiftly cleft Pauek through from shoulder to hip once, twice, while bellowing the single word above the shriek of his saber: "Begone!"
Pauek did not merely flinch this time. He screeched like a krayt in a leg-hold trap. I think I did too. I know I fully expected Pauek to slide apart into cauterized chunks. Instead, his image grew indistinct and then flickered out like a candle in a typhoon. Qui-Gon dropped his saber— dropped it!— and in two great strides had gathered my tiny terrified self to the warm wall of his chest. "It's all right. It's all right. He's gone now." I was sobbing aloud. "He's gone." Qui-Gon lifted me from the diagnostic table. "Shhhh." He tucked the blanket around me more securely and began to pace back and forth, still holding me. He repeated the four paces it took him to traverse the medilab over and over again. I wound the fingers of one hand through his slightly damp hair. He sang a soothing nonsense song to me, as if I were a colicky infant. I snuggled up against him and gradually stopped crying.
I don't know how long Qui-Gon paced and rocked me. I do know it was heavenly. I don't know when Qui-Gon began to very gently ask me: did I know who that apparition was, had I known him personally, why was he so angry? I answered: yes, yes, he died and I lived. I was happy to answer Qui-Gon's questions. I'd have given him my life story if he'd asked. But he hadn't asked, so I didn't tell him. Just as well. It would have made no sense.
I did not trouble myself with the implications of what had happened and why I was bouncing back and forth in the space-time continuum. My dragging Pauek into it should have given me pause; he hadn't even been born yet! But I didn't want to think about Pauek. All I knew was, in this place and time, I was alive. And I fully intended to stay here. With Qui-Gon. He'd protect me. He'd been able to dispatch Pauek, after all. If anyone could shield me from the impending death threatened by the Voice of Survival, it was Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn.
I decided that maybe I shouldn't pull on Qui-Gon's hair. As I was persuading my hand to release its death-grip, Obi-Wan entered the medilab. He switched on the lights, and Qui-Gon stopped pacing; this distressed me. Obi-Wan's expression of happiness tinged with exasperation said, There you are! "How do I look?" he asked.
For some reason Obi-Wan was all dolled up in the most formal of Jedi garb. I didn't care why. I thought, //Go away, boy. You're not half the man Qui-Gon is and you never will be.//
I think Obi-Wan winced as if he'd heard me. But it was so fleeting a look that I couldn't quite tell.
No. Might as well 'fess up. (Ha ha.) Obi-Wan heard me. I meant for him to hear me. That was a low blow, I must admit. In fifty years, old Ben Kenobi would still have a weak spot there. About how he'd never measure up, about how he'd let Qui-Gon down, blah blah blah. I was heartily sick of it.
Obi-Wan's pain at my gibe was short-lived; he frankly stared at the strange tableau we made. Great glowing globs of galaxies. I'd totally forgotten that Qui-Gon was naked. Maybe he'd been showering when he'd sensed Pauek's presence. Suddenly I was embarrassed. I desperately cast about for a topic of conversation. "How long have I been under?"
"A tenday and one," said Qui-Gon.
"Whoa! Lemme down. I bet my breath could kill a bantha."
//You're right about that,// I heard Obi-Wan think a split-second before he actually said it. In reply, Qui-Gon delivered a sharp look of reproof that Obi-Wan took like a blow. His face almost crumpled as he stared at his feet.
Lords, the kid was getting bitch-slapped every which way. I should have pitied him, but I didn't. I was enjoying myself too much. Between Qui-Gon and me, Obi-Wan would be singing soprano in no time. No need for a sacrifice to Saint Loreena. We'd just psych him out.
"Tend to the droid," Qui-Gon almost snapped as he gently deposited me on the diagnostic table. He took the opportunity to wrap my blanket around his waist. (Nuts.) "You appear to be much recovered," he said approvingly. He brushed the fingertips of one huge hand to my forehead.
The thought of how I smelled stopped me from reveling in this attention. Your body may be slowed down in a healing trance, but your odor-making bacteria keep going full blast. I begged to be excused. Obi-Wan had soothed the traumatized medical droid, and once it checked me out, Qui-Gon was reassured that I was free of apparitions and as healthy as could be. He allowed me to retreat to my cabin with a restorative drink prescribed by the droid.
"I think you'll be pleased at the results of the healing trance," Qui-Gon told me, smiling slightly.
I was past being merely pleased as I studied myself in the cabin mirror. I was enraptured.
I did not yet know what I was planning. But my dumb, rotten, sneaky subconscious knew that my immensely improved appearance couldn't help but make things easier. Much easier.
Turns out Mace Windu bought Qui-Gon a little time to make his case that I was the Chosen One (oh, brother!) by sending the boys to a state funeral on Alderaan. Somebody had to go, and it was only a slight detour.
Even if I'd known this at the time, I wouldn't have cared, so delighted was I at the prospect of seeing that lovely, legendary planet. Alderaan! I'd finally made it to Alderaan! I wanted to see the endless grasslands and study genera of plants I'd only seen in books. I wanted to tour Aldera, the famed capital city. I wanted to go sailing. Dammit, if I couldn't escape death, at least I could squeeze in a little sightseeing first.
Before the funeral, the only Alderaan I saw was the inside of the docking bay and the inside of a transport and the inside of the guest quarters. The walls were closing in. I wanted to run away. I hadn't felt that desire since childhood. Maybe I should have taken this continued infantilism as a warning. I didn't even pay attention when Qui-Gon told me who the wake was being whistled for. Some princess or other. The blessing of it was, she'd lived to a ripe old age. Like I cared. I have no use for royalty. Maybe because I'm a fatherless junkie-spawn, which is about as far from royal as you can get.
The boys were perilously close to being late for the funeral, which was why I'd only seen enclosed spaces so far. Despite some strategic moaning and bitching on my part, I was hastily if diplomatically ensconced at the princess's summer estate on the outskirts of Aldera. My safety was entrusted to the princess's strong right arm, a hulking Talz called BlasTech. He looked like he could eat the boys and have room left to snack on me— and think nothing of it. Quite grumpy for his species. I'm sure Qui-Gon had no idea the poor creature would curl up into a quivering fuzzball of grief two minutes into the vid-cast of his mistress's funeral.
An unexpected break. I'd been getting more and more antsy. A merciless drone had set up shop in my skull: Get out. Get out get out get out. It wasn't the Voice of Survival, not quite, but I could tell that my dear friend was in the mail. Oh yes. The Voice would soon arrive with details on how this damnfool wimp could get out of this one with a whole coat. So when the now-unemployed bodyguard gripped my whole arm in one paw and hustled me from the guest quarters to the princess's parlor, I ruled out brute force. Patience, I told myself. Wait for the Voice.
Talz can move a lot faster on those short thick legs than you'd think. I followed closely, not wishing to lose track of my arm. BlasTech barged through the parlor, switched on the tri-D by kicking it into submission (I huddled even closer in case the chandelier decided to fall) and knelt before it, all without breaking stride and without releasing me. I was wondering if he knew Basic, and if so, was there any talking my way out of his protection, when the tri-D's picture focused— and BlasTech whimpered. Pain spiked from him like banked embers flaming to life. The tri-D's sound clicked on; music swelled. His paw slid off my arm. The eulogy was starting. He fell on his face with a thud that rattled the chandelier, then curled up tight as a tick, still whimpering.
Okay. Maybe all the nice things they were saying about his princess were true. I should have remembered that Talz are almost as sensitive as Ithorians. Out of pity, I scratched his silky white head. (Talz find that soothing.) He cooed. I stopped scratching. He kept cooing. Okay. Maybe that's the sound Talz make when they're sad.
Or insensate, said the Voice of Survival with no small sarcasm. Now might be a good time to leave, if it's not too much trouble.
I backed away from BlasTech. All the way out of the room and into the hall. He did not seem to notice my absence. His soft coos followed me down the hall. Score one for the Voice.
Damned if I was gonna step outdoors on style-conscious Alderaan sporting bare feet and Obi-Wan's borrowed tunic. I donned a dress and slippers in a room-sized wardrobe to which the Voice of Survival had led me. It even helped me make the selection. I couldn't believe it. The Voice had never been one for fashion. You want me to run away? Leave Qui-Gon? Fine. I hate to do it, but fine. Which way do I run?
This way, said the Voice. Walk, don't run. Unbraid your hair.
Unbraid my hair? On Alderaan? But the few people I passed had their hair down and loose. I got it; a sign of mourning. The evening was moonless and almost muggy. Almost. The way people talked about Alderaan, the weather was never less than perfect. I longed to dawdle and take in the sights, but the Voice led me at a brisk pace. My vision was tunneled down to the bare essentials. I got a dim impression of quiet fountains and lavish lawns. At least I could enjoy the sweet rich air. It made me think of Momaw Nadon and his house and everything he'd taught me.
Lake Aldera was in sight when something made me stop. I could have sworn I'd heard Momaw's fluting voice calling after me. I looked about, did a complete 360 and saw no one. No Ithorians or any other kind of sentient being. I shrugged in puzzlement.
Take the boat, said the Voice of Survival. Cross the lake.
The lake spread before me, silent and silver, and a small sailboat was moored on the nearest dock. I hesitated. It did seem that this was the wrong direction. I thought the docking bays were on this side of the lake.
Take the boat! hectored the Voice. Take it, and see what you need to see in order to live!
What the hell did that mean?
FOOL! Are you tired of living?
The only thing I've ever been sure of: I'm not tired of living, and never will be. I carefully stepped into the boat, not wanting to get the stolen slippers wet. I loosed the line and Force-shoved off. I had to use the Force to fill the boat's one sail. That would not have been necessary if I were a skilled sailor, or if there had been more than the slightest breeze. The lake was almost a mirror. Almost. Glancing into it, I practically jumped out of my skin when I thought I saw Momaw looking up at me from its depths. Taking a closer look, I laughed at my overwrought imaginings. Great fat fishes with solemn eyes skimmed just beneath the lake's surface, red and green and gold under liquid silver.
"Hello, fishes," I greeted them in a sing-song chant. "Hello and best wishes." My heart was light. Woohoo, I was gonna live!
I sang silly children's songs all the way across Lake Aldera. For all the tales spun about that storied body, it is surprisingly small. It took less than a slow hour to cross. On its western shore crouches one of Aldera's most ancient and historically significant buildings, the Old Chapel. On most other planets it would serve as a fortress. Big ugly thing, really, but it had been built more for defense and provisioning than worship, and added on to hodge-podge ever since.
There was the funeral, still going full blast and still standing room only. My high spirits drooped a bit. I'd expected the Voice to find me a ship. Mourners spilled onto the cobblestones and untrimmed grasses outside the Old Chapel. I sensed sorrow, and weariness, and relief (both guilty and uncaring). Overall, the group gestalt was more stunned than anything else. Perhaps this particular princess was supposed to live forever.
Go inside, said the Voice.
Bloody hell, a ranat couldn't squeeze in—
Are you a ranat or a woman? Go inside.
It was almost frighteningly easy. I persuaded whomever was by that I was a huge mutant Gamorrean with an ax in either hand. That parted the crowd like a pox. Once inside, the Voice guided my steps, and then prepared to leave me, at least for now:
There, whispered the Voice. There stands what is yours. Do not hesitate. Take what is yours, fool.
That cold perspective should have tipped me off. Not who is yours, but what is yours. As far as the Voice of Survival is concerned, I am the only who there is, and everyone else is a what. A thing, to be used. I should have known the Voice would stop at nothing. Had it not told me, hardly more than a tenday ago, to murder Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon?
There they stood, not ten of my small paces away. Qui-Gon's hair was loose. Obi-Wan's braid and ponytail were unbound. Qui-Gon reached out to touch Obi-Wan's shoulder. A light touch, giving strength. Obi-Wan was fading with the long ceremony and the pressing heat of the crowd.
I sweated, but not with the heat. Gods. They were so beautiful. Not because of their formal attire. They were beautiful together. They belonged together. They were incomplete without each other. I sensed their learning bond, and its potential to become a life-bond. Even if I hadn't known the future, I could have tasted that potential, like a fine sweet rubyfruit fit to become tart wine. Not a life-bond, not yet, but the Force merged their auras as they stood side by side, enfolding them in a tender flame. All ye with eyes to see, this is what love is meant to be!
How could mere mortals endure that sort of purity? A purity of blinding light, of cleansing fire—
Something inside me writhed and tightened like a sick snake. Some mortals dwelt in that purity, and endured. More than endured— thrived, flourished. Lived! Truly lived, tasting life in a fashion utterly alien to my sad, bitter, frightened soul.
I will never have that, I thought. It is possible that I will soon die, without ever having had that deep and fearless and undying love.
I wept, unnoticed amid the weeping crowd. It was all I could do not to wail aloud. No, I told myself. No. It's not fair. I should have that.
And beneath it all, I realize now, the subconscious conviction: It's mine by rights. Ben chiseled me out of any chance at it, the old cheat, the old fraud. It's mine, and I intend to have it.
Do you notice a certain distortion of reality, dear reader?
That's when it started. That's when I took that first step down that dark path.
I really don't want to talk about what happened next. About what I did next.
I will take the opportunity to vouch for Alderaan. There's no better place for a honeymoon. Maybe I can rig an endorsement deal with the Alderaan Chamber of Commerce. (Ha ha.)
Even without mind-blowing sex, Alderaan beats the hell out of Coruscant. Lords, but I hate this planet. Always have, always will.
Well, it looks like I'm gonna be stuck here for a while.
Be honest, dear reader. Think about it. If you were given the power to make your dreams come true, to have everything you've ever desired— could you resist that temptation? Or would you take what you wanted, even if it meant treading on others? Could you resist the opportunity, even if the rest of creation has to go to hell?
I've sent Qui-Gon to hell. But he'll find his way out, and be stronger for it.
Am I trying to justify what I did to him? Maybe. But I do know that he'll be all right. In the very long run, perhaps.
And I did save Qui-Gon's life— didn't I? By telling him and Obi-Wan about the Sith.
Big deal. Big fat fucking deal. I saved Qui-Gon's life, and then I drove him insane.
It's his fault. He should know better than to take in every stray that crosses his path. 'Chosen One', my ass.
I did save his life. I did. And I've permanently cured him of taking in strays. So I did him some good.
I just woke up. I was having a confused dream about Pauek. He was in what seemed to be a swamp. At least that's what I thought it was. It was hot and humid. Made me sweat. Pauek appeared perfectly comfortable. He was sitting on the ground with no concern for getting his butt muddy, in deep discussion with a little green troll. Professor Lala appeared out of a wall of fog. She paced back and forth, popping in and out of sight depending on where the fog was. She was threatening to dismember a certain smart-ass shrimp if he didn't start talking straight. I hoped she didn't mean Pauek. Professor Lala's feet sloshed loudly in the squishy ground. I could see caked mud between her toes. Then she turned in my direction and roared something I couldn't make out, and I woke up, panting and trembling and drenched in sweat.
I don't understand what it means. Maybe it doesn't mean anything. I'm just glad Professor Lala didn't get her paws on me. I'm almost glad to be safe in Jedi Jail.
It's not so bad here. They let me have a little garden. That makes things a lot better. I can lose myself in making things grow. I wear a Force-inhibiting collar now, but I've got enough juice left to work the plants. And I've got all the peace and quiet I could ever want.
Let me tell you, after Posk, by the time I got to Tatooine, I was cured of craving adventure and excitement. My nerves were shot. All I wanted was peace and quiet and eventual death by old age.
I've got plenty of peace and quiet now. As for eventual death by old age— that remains to be seen. As Mom would say, God only knows, and She ain't talking.
I'm convinced that my mother was a closet monotheist.
This body is having a growth spurt. Never thought I'd go through that again. I've been letting out the seams of my clothes, with mixed success. It passes the time. Maybe my eyebrows will eventually reach Qui-Gon's armpit rather than Obi-Wan's. I'm sprouting honest-to-Force tits— a new experience! My pelvis is widening, and I'm storing food for the winter on my hips and thighs. It's aesthetically pleasing, but it's throwing my balance way off.
When our unhappy trio arrived on Coruscant, the Jedi Council would not believe that I was capable of whammying Qui-Gon into bed— a little skinny thing, and no more than a child to boot. They thought Qui-Gon had done the deed, and was covering his ass, and had coerced me into backing this ridiculous story.
Maybe I should not have whammied Mace Windu into standing on his head. That pissed him off no end. (How was I supposed to know that he goes regimental?) But I didn't know how else to convince the Council that I had overpowered a Jedi Master. According to Qui-Gon, no living human has stronger shields than Mace.
So the Council stashed me here until they can figure out what to do with me. I've been charged with rape; in a way, what I did was worse. Really. I turned off Qui-Gon's free will, turned him into a different person. Turned his own weaknesses and fears against him. Trapped him in an exceedingly subtle prison of his own making. I succeeded for a little while. Before it became obvious to me what I was doing.
Me, overpower a Jedi Master? Go on! He wanted it—
I made him want it. I cranked up the sexual attraction and removed his inhibitions and made him fully aware of just how tired he was of risking his life for an ungrateful populace. How angry he was about that. How scared he was of losing another Padawan. How he just wanted to dump the whole never-ending burden and say to hell with them all.
Palpatine did shit like that. He could ensnare you with your own weaknesses— and strengths. He could enslave your mind and make you perfectly happy to be that way.
I can't get Qui-Gon's face out of my mind. It's not a happy image, the way he looked after Obi-Wan helped me break the bond I'd Forced on his Master. Qui-Gon gazed at me in reproach, with the numb incomprehension of an abandoned lover, and then he remembered who he'd been and understood what I'd done, and pain and terror and hatred warred in his face all at once.
And revulsion. Also revulsion.
Worst of all, revulsion.
I can't blame Qui-Gon. I touched him with the Dark Side. And now he's receiving intense psychiatric care from the mind-fuckers. (Excuse me, "soul-healers". Excuse the hell outta me.)
I keep trying to blame someone else, but I can't. That's what really gets to me. I can't lie to myself any more. I can't. That's how this got started. Lying to myself. I hurt Qui-Gon. I did. There's nobody else to blame.
I can't blame Mom. She did the best she could, and that's all anyone can do. After what my dad did to her—
No, Mom didn't tell me about it. She only told me the good stuff. She said my dad was a beautiful boy and she'd loved him dearly. I didn't notice until years later that she didn't say anything about him loving her. Maybe his dumping her on Kessel after she got pregnant gave her a few clues there.
I can't believe I didn't figure that out before now. I know some math. Maybe I should be glad the Sithspawn didn't kill her. Poor Mom—
I'm getting off topic here.
No, maybe it's on topic. I can't blame Mom. And I can't blame my dad either (may he freeze in the coldest Devaronian hell). Evil is not hereditary. It's a choice. And I chose to hurt Qui-Gon. I hurt him. That wonderful man who'd been so good to me, who'd done everything in his power to help me, and that's how I repaid his kindness.
Looking back on it, I can see why I did it. I was scared. I was lonely. I missed Ben. I wanted revenge on Ben. I was jealous of what he had with Qui-Gon. I wanted my own personal Jedi Master mind-slave, to give me all the love and protection I could possibly handle.
I got what I wanted.
It could be worse. I'm glad this body is sterile as a stone. I truly am. I could not bear it if I'd dragged a baby into this.
I don't want to do this any more. I'm sick of it. I don't care that's it's supposed to be good for me. It's nobody's business, anyway. Take this, you little—
[ scratchy static ]
Huh. They really knew how to build holocrons back then. I do wonder if a blaster or saber would crunch the little bastard. For obvious reasons, I only have access to rocks here.
Maybe I should tell you. Maybe it will make me feel better. I hope so.
Obi-Wan came to see me. I couldn't believe it. Such a sweet boy. He's always had that brave, generous heart. He brought me a Dantooine daisy bush. He told me that I'm not so bad, that once I realized what I was doing I stopped and let them take me in.
I wanted to return the favor with some comforting words of my own. The truth would have done the job: I foresee that you will become a great Jedi Knight. In fifty years, you will be the greatest Jedi Master alive. And you'll be great in the sack, too. Yeah, Obi-Wan would have loved hearing that. No need to tell him about the torment he would endure to reach that exalted state. No need to tell him that in fifty years he'd be the greatest Jedi Master alive because he'd be the only one alive.
I remained mute with confusion. Maybe I'd changed the future. Maybe all those wonderful and terrible things wouldn't happen.
Obi-Wan misunderstood my silence and assured me that nobody here would harm me. He told me that the Healers want to study me. Specifically, this body. It has absolutely no midichlorians, but it's Force-strong anyway. That's supposed to be impossible. According to theory, this body can't manufacture the energy to live. Every known life form has as least a few midichlorians per cell. Hell, extremely primitive life forms that don't even have cells pack some Force-cooties in their plasm.
I wasn't surprised. Professor Lala often declared that this midichlorian crap was just that, a great steaming crock of crap. She said the Force wasn't something you could put in a box. She said reliance on blood tests would be the end of the Jedi. Maybe she was right. Maybe she was also right about midichlorians being leftovers from a most ancient bio-war. It's possible. I wouldn't know. The math of her proofs is way beyond me. Professor Lala was a high-powered statistician, as well as a philosopher and logician.
At this moment, my greatest regret is that I didn't take the opportunity to obtain a first-rate education, right here at the most ancient Temple in whose bowels I now dwell. Guess I was too steamed at Mom and at life in general. Or too miserable living on this tin-plated planet.
Maybe if I were better educated I wouldn't have done such a dreadful thing— but weren't some of the most heinous criminals in history well-educated?
Gods. Listen to me. Trying so hard not to think about Obi-Wan. He came to see me and talk to me, and I couldn't talk back. I just couldn't. So he hits me with the 'Little Lost Bantha Cub' look. The look Ben would give me when he'd bring some quivering Rebel to my house and ask me to stash 'em in my basement until he could get them off the planet . . .
. . . which is probably how the Empire found out about me, and why he ended up killing me, oh, that BASTARD! That moth-eaten, worm-ridden, nerf-herding old bastard. I'm glad he'll never have Qui-Gon. I'm glad I got there first. I'm glad.
NEXT TO LAST ENTRY
I didn't feel better after writing the last part. I felt worse. I missed Obi-Wan so much I cried. I missed Obi-Wan, and Qui-Gon, and Mom, and Ben. I missed Professor Lala and Pauek and the Hammerhead. I even missed all the rotten kids that used to pick fights with me. I cried and cried and couldn't stop. The attendants summoned a Healer, who gave me something to make me stop.
Then I had an almost nice dream. It was vague and undefined, but strangely reassuring. I saw Obi-Wan and this hunky little Zabrak, dirty dancing together in some nasty-ass dive. What clothing they wore was wonderfully bright and tight. Their torsos and faces shone with oil and glitter. They were all but providing a free show, but it was more than that. It wasn't just sex. They were happy. Lovers in every sense of the word.
I've screwed up Qui-Gon's life, but maybe, just maybe, I haven't screwed up Obi-Wan's life.
Also, I did teach Obi-Wan how to hot-wire any make of speeder. That counts for something, doesn't it?
We'll see what Master Yoda has to say about that when he returns from his retreat.
It's crazy, but I'm looking forward to meeting the man. He was Qui-Gon's Master; he can't help but take this personally, but still, I'm curious. He must be a century if he's a day. I wonder if he's still a great warrior.
I have good news and bad news.
The bad news is, Mace Windu wants me dead. Not that I can blame him. But I'm surprised how it hurts. What really hurts is the memory of his face, so much like Mom's, but set in cold lines that completely killed that dear likeness.
He talks like Mom, too. (What is it with Jedi Masters, anyway? Are they required to speak Bloody High Basic? Do they learn it at Jedi Master Finishing School?) And his princely manner is like Mom's. She always comported herself in the genteel manner of the Ancient Houses. You'd think that wouldn't fly in smuggling circles, but it worked for her. If a situation required volume, Mom believed in letting her blaster do the talking. Of course, I adopted a foul mouth in order to annoy her.
In a just world, Mom would have been a great leader. A warrior queen, or a mighty judge—
I'm going off on a tangent again. Can't afford that now. Got to try and think straight.
I shouldn't be surprised by Mace's attitude. I know how deep a friendship he holds with Qui-Gon. So naturally Mace is righteously wroth at the shape Qui-Gon's in now. It's been six months since our arrival on Coruscant, and the soul-healers still have Qui-Gon under suicide watch. That's what Mace says. He also says he intends to argue to the Jedi Council that it's not worth keeping me locked up, that I'm too dangerous to hold and should be put down like a mad nek-hound before I ravish another Master.
It's funny. It hurts now, but when Mace said that I was hard put not to laugh in his face. All I could think of was Qui-Gon's memories of him. Memories of Mace the Monk. Mace the Extremely Discreet is more like it. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I am also a very private person.
Damn. I should have gone after Mace. I really should have. Nice body, great ass, starting to get a gut— reminds me of Ben. And I find Mace's resemblance to my mother most comforting.
Hell, as long as I'm dreaming, I'll go after the whole Jedi Council. Dream about having the whole lot of them in a big eager pile in my bed.
The good news. I need to tell you about the good news. Good from a certain point of view. The kind and benevolent Senator Palpatine is coming to visit me tomorrow. Checking out conditions at the Jedi Jail. What a great guy.
I know what he wants. My talents, my service, my fealty . . . I bet he wants to study this body, too. In every way. Yuck.
If I accept Palpatine's offer, he'll find a way to spring me. If I turn him down, he will most certainly kill me. There's no denying it.
What a situation I've got myself in. As the old sad song goes, I'm sick of life but scared of death.
The Senator will be accompanied by his young Zabrak ward. His name is Maul. If it's not the same guy who will strike down Qui-Gon, it's his clone or twin brother. He doesn't have the scarlet tattoos yet. Just the velvety black pittin-like pelt. It's also the same guy I dreamed was dancing with young Obi-Wan. Just a few years down the road.
Maul loves Obi-Wan. Maul slays Qui-Gon. I don't know if that's one path or two.
I do know one thing: the Dantooine daisy bush Obi-Wan gave me can be very easily persuaded to yield a quick and deadly poison. Well, it's easy if you know how. Momaw Nadon managed to teach me something in the decade I studied with him.
An odd thing: Once I began to venture out of Momaw's house, and became known in Mos Eisley, there was rude talk about 'Lee and the Hammerhead'. I ignored it with a dignity and restraint that did not come naturally. But after Momaw went home and I took up with Ben, there was never even a whisper about my actual relationship with him. The man was great at hiding, at not being noticed.
No tangents now. The important thing now is, Ben did teach me a thing or two about not being noticed. Can I sneak the poison to Palpatine?
Or should I just use it on myself?
I've got to stop kidding myself. I'm not really sorry about what I did to Qui-Gon. I've got to face that. All this time I've been crying and carrying on, what I've really been sorry about is the fact that I'm not sorry. I know I should be sorry. Intellectually, I realize what an abomination it is to whammy someone for your own pleasure. But I don't feel the sorrow and disgust and remorse that I should. I treasure the memories too much. The memories of our brief span of bliss together. All the little things— How Qui-Gon's face used to light up when he saw me. How my name sounded on his lips. How when he touched me, even the lightest caress, I felt like the most precious thing that had ever existed.
Palpatine will offer to restore that to me. He'll do a song and dance about how wretched Qui-Gon is now and how he can be happy again, about how we can both be happy again. Which is perfectly true— from a certain point of view, ha ha!
I'm kidding myself again.
Palpatine won't kill me. He won't have to. If by some miracle I resist his tempting me with what I so desperately want, he'll just whammy me. Won't even raise a sweat. He's real good at turning even the resolute, not to mention the likes of me.
I'm certain I can kill myself. I'm far from certain I can kill Palpatine . . .
I'd botch it. I don't want to kill him. I want to accept his offer. All I have to do is fail to kill him; then he'd whammy me into doing evil. That way it wouldn't be my fault. That way I wouldn't be bothered by any remaining dregs of conscience, and I would enjoy Qui-Gon to the fullest.
Gods, I want him. My Qui . . . gods, how I want him.
This is just too ironic. I whammied Qui-Gon for my own selfish ends. Now I'm thinking it might be best to die before risking that sin to be wrought on me.
Fuck! Why should I have to die? Palpatine's so much worse than I ever thought of being—
Which is why I can't let him use me. I can't become his tool. I can't.
Sick of life but scared of death. That's me. I'm so tired. Worn out from feeling what I shouldn't. From trying to feel what I don't. I'm so lonesome for Qui-Gon. I'm not sorry I Forced him into a life-bond. If I get half a chance, I'll do it again.
I'll turn Qui-Gon back into my sweetie-pie, my honeybun, my cupcake, my stud-muffin, my stuffed Wookiee, my Jedi Love Master.
My very own Jedi Master mind-slave. Mine. Mine. Mine. All mine. As if Qui-Gon Jinn were a thing and not a person.
Is this what it means to face the Trials? Facing how cruel and selfish you can be?
The sickly little potted plant Obi-Wan was able to afford now flourishes in its place of honor in my garden. It is happily producing poison at my polite request. You really have to be very polite with plants.
Perhaps . . . perhaps I should cry out to my mother's singular God for aid, for wisdom and courage. It can't hurt. And Mom would appreciate it.
God help me. God help me. Help me figure out what to do, and then help me do it.
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