Young Old Man
*Response to Obi-Wan Workshop Challenge, created by o_e and red_rose_knight
*Summary* The affect the events of Naboo have on the survivor of the Sith encounter, shown from a different perspective. A completed vignette.
*Disclaimer* Everything belongs to Lucas
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I'm stirring the stew, a gray concoction of potato chunks seasoned with little more than a few shakes of salt and a dash of pepper (pepper's not what you'd call an abundant commodity here, so it's only used once in awhile, mostly when the soup's tasteless--or when the taste is a bit too overwhelming). The line's dwindled some and the tables are packed with our 'patrons', spooning thick globs into their mouths or taking bites from dry slabs of bread.
Over the din of those who spare moments from their meal to converse with their fellow diners, I hear Taglahan's voice, full-bodied and jovial, as always. "Hey, sweetheart, look who's here!" He shouts, with that unmistakable spike of delight that can only be caused from one source.
I'm already grinning as I wipe the beads of sweat from my forehead with the corner of my apron. I squeeze through the cluster of other servers, wishing for only the twelfth time today that this place better provided for those with less-than-svelte figures, and head toward the sound of my husband.
Taglahan's standing near the doorway, talking with a wide smile to a man that was once young.
Sounds silly, doesn't it? Every old man was young once. Not a very difficult concept, especially for someone whose been working here since before this particular old man was born.
But, not to sound too philosophical, there are different definitions and degrees of aging. Some measure it in years. Others in those lovely lines and wrinkles that tug at even the most stunning face.
I see it whenever the old man looks at me, his eyes worn and haunted.
From those eyes, you'd think they'd seen years upon years of hardship.
But this old man doesn't lean on a cane or cough heartily into his balled hand.
This old man has auburn hair shorn close to his head, unmarred by even a single silvery strand, and smooth skin with vague tints of gold.
I've seen suffering here. Unfailingly every day, shuffling in at all hours, shoulders weighed down by more than sickness or exhaustion. Wrapped in wormy layers of ancient hand-me-downs, they make their way to the soup line. I look into their faces, their lost faces.
And the most I can do is place a bowl of steaming food in their trembling hands.
I know they're grateful for it.
But what do you give the old man who comes here in his sandy tunics, tucked nicely into his belt and cream-colored leggings, who may be a little on the thin side but nowhere near emaciated, who can't spread his hands out and wait for that warm sustenance?
He's not cold and he's not hungry.
But he's here.
To offer charity-not to receive it.
I know I have a big heart in me (big to match the rest of my body, I guess) and it's had to withstand some terrible, wrenching scenes before.
So it's interesting that when I head towards the very worst of them, I'm smiling, my arms lifting to enfold the cleanly dressed, well-fed old man, barely twenty five years old.
"Obi-Wan." I say, sounding like a lonely, old lady when really, only the second half is true. It doesn't matter how many years we find him walking through our crumbling doorway, I can never banish the warm fondness that seems to soak into my voice whenever he's here.
He musters a smile, the wintered man, and we embrace, the dimpled tip of his chin coming to rest on my shoulder for a moment.
I pat his back, eyes sealed. "It's good to see you around, kid. We've missed ya."
His face presses against my neck for a fleeting instant, as if it were something forbidden to him, instead of the comforting gesture it's been for fifteen years.
"I-I've missed you." He responds, hoarsely, before pulling away and mustering a grin.
My husband smiles, pats his shoulder heartily, then moves to speak with a newcomer.
Maybe he's fooled Tag, but I'm not so easily snowed by a bright flash of teeth. He looks into my eyes briefly, a cloud of slate swelled with azure rain, then sweeps his gaze downward.
I'm not a lonely old lady, but I'm certainly an unobservant one. There's a boy standing beside him, toe-headed and reaching only to Obi-Wan's waist. He smiles at me, scrunching his tiny button nose in the process.
I ruffle the spiky, sun-kissed hair. "Well, hello. I didn't see you there. What's your name?"
The kid glances up at the elder man then over to me again. "Anakin. But everyone calls me Ani."
I smile. "It's very nice to meet you, Ani. I'm Requella, but everyone just calls me insane."
I don't think Anakin understands, but Obi-Wan chuckles softly, his old, unwrinkled hand resting on the kid's shoulder.
"Well, Requel, Ani and I had a free day, so I decided he best be introduced. He's my apprentice, the one I told you about."
I crouch down beside the boy, no simple task for a woman of my age. "You know, Ani, your Master seems to like you very much."
That earns me a beaming reaction. "I like him too." He says. "And he even let me eat ice cream at breakfast. But just the one time."
"I expected as much." I touch my fingertip to his nose. "I remember when your Master Obi-Wan was younger than you. A couple'a years younger, in fact."
He grins with a flare of mischief in his eyes. "Really? Wow, I never even thought that he could've been a kid!"
I laugh. "Well, that's probably because he's so mature and refined and gallant now, right?" I look up at Obi-Wan, who only smiles with his mouth closed.
"But he wasn't always like that." I continue, momentarily pushing my worry aside. I brace Anakin's shoulders with my hands. "When he was a kid, he came here to help repair this big hole in that wall right there." I point to the spot, which still stands out awkwardly from the rest of the faded plaster. "And he stubbed his toe, hard, on some leftover cement from another project. I saw him, a little boy with messy brown hair, biting down on his bottom lip with his eyes closed after it happened, and I rushed over to see if he was okay. He said he was fine, but he wouldn't open his eyes. So I took him over to a bench and slipped off his boots-they were downright tiny compared to these monstrosities-" I tilt my head toward the old man's long, leather-covered feet, "And told him it was alright, that his toe was just red. So he opened his eyes, just barely, and looked down at his foot."
He crosses his arms over his chest, a leg out and bent slightly, glaring. "That's quite enough, Requel. Anakin has a very full agenda today and I don't think--"
But the kid's having none of it, his wide eyes dancing with glee and wonder. "No! I wanna hear!" He protests, grinning. "What'd he do next?"
With a victorious smirk at Obi-Wan, I continue. "Well, when he finally looked down at his foot, his mouth still clamped shut, appearing for all the world like the perfect miniature Jedi, he saw the swelling toe…
"And started to cry. Huge tears were just rolling down his face and I told him it would be better soon, but that it was okay to cry.
"He stopped for a moment, his lips shaking, and told me, very intently, very seriously, that he wasn't crying. He said that Jedi didn't cry. I tried not to smile, and asked him what those drops were running down his cheeks. He told me, in an instant, without hesitation, that his eyes were just leaking."
Anakin collapses into giggles, switching his gaze repeatedly from me to his Master. "Master, you said your eyes were leaking?"
There's the faintest stir of a flush in the old man's face, only a few shades darker than his normal tone. "Charity's overrated." He grumbles, sparing a moment to ruffle the flyaway blonde hair on the boy's head before heading toward the serving line.
I watch him go, then look down, realizing Ani's eyes had been trained on the same retreating form.
"Your Master gets too intense sometimes." I explain with a smile that isn't entirely happy. "He needs to be reminded of what a goon he can be."
Curiously, that smile isn't reflected on the small, tanned face. "I don't think he likes to be." The voice is soft, and I smooth corn silk strands off his forehead.
Children are about a million times more attentive than adults. It's not that I haven't noticed the pale shadow that clings to Obi-Wan whenever the past is mentioned--but I've known him for a long while. This boy was on a dusty Outer Rim rock a year ago.
"I ask him about things once in awhile." He says, playing idly with the ends of his braid. "Like what Master Qui-Gon was like, what it was like to be his Padawan. It gets hard for him to talk then, like there's something in his throat and he just tells me something really simple. 'He was a good Master' or 'I was a very fortunate apprentice'. I can never get a real answer from him and I…" A breath blows out, billowing his lips. "I get mad about it, even though I know I shouldn't."
I'm no expert in Jedi ideals, I don't know whether his anger is 'permitted' or not, so I lay a hand on his elbow. "He cared about his Master very much, sweetie. He never knew his mother or father, never had siblings. Master Qui-Gon was his entire family and for a long time, he's not going to be able to talk about him the way you want him to."
The boy's been quiet, going almost completely still, his crystalline eyes fixed to a patch of flooring. They lift to meet mine, and there's a mist of sadness that breaks my heart. He's just a baby, really, and such dark emotion shouldn't be felt by one so damn young. "I knew my mom." He reveals, in a low voice. "And I can't see her anymore…for now, anyway. I miss her a lot."
I cup the side of his small face with a hand. "So maybe you can understand why your Master doesn't want to speak about Qui-Gon yet."
He pauses, then nods, a tiny smile at his lips. "I think I can."
His eyes travel to the serving line, fixing on his young Master with the old, old soul, and that tremulous smile is gone. "Can you tell me something about Master? And Master Qui-Gon?"
It's my turn to steal a look at Obi-Wan, and he's seemingly unaware of our prolonged conversation, tearing into a fresh box of disposable utensils. I know he's keeping tabs on the kid, though, if I know Obi-Wan Kenobi at all.
"Let's go sit down, Ani." I lead him to one of the back tables, waiting for him to climb onto the bench before resting on the opposite side, pulling a dishrag from my pocket to mop up a puddle of diluted soup.
He's staring at me with a sharp focus I've only seen in one other child and I have to marvel. A year, and already Obi-Wan's impacted this sprite so much. If there's a 'very fortunate apprentice' around here, it's Anakin. "Obi-Wan was Qui-Gon's student for a long time. Longer than you've been alive."
He just nods, and I can guess that he's heard a few bits of the introduction before.
"And there was a strange, constant shift in balance between them. In the beginning, Obi-Wan tested Qui-Gon's patience, his resolve, everything. Then, as your Master grew, he matured, he became more mild. Qui-Gon was the one offering the challenges, forcing Obi-Wan to question his points of view so that when he secured them as his beliefs, he would know for certain they were worthy of him. Your Master---Likes order, if you haven't gotten that yet, he stays to that Jedi Code as closely as he possibly can."
Anakin laughs, then nods with a feigned, exaggerated look of long-suffering.
"But Qui-Gon wasn't like that. He would defy the guidelines if he wanted or needed to, defy the Council. This absolutely horrified Obi-Wan, but at the same time, he was obligated to follow the rules, and the number one rule for an apprentice is to obey and trust in their Master. So to stay true to his own convictions, Obi-Wan had to break rules along with Qui-Gon. I could tell that sometimes it irritated your Master, but when they came here together, the only thing evident between them was love. Qui-Gon stayed close to him in the beginning, guiding him as he always did, making sure he was doing alright. When he knew that Obi-Wan could manage on his own, he gave him more freedoms here, to do what projects he wished. But mostly, Obi-Wan followed where his Master went, and they did some incredible work."
The kid leans his chin on his hand. "Like what?"
I'm reluctant, at first. After the break-in, I closed off the area. It was simply too painful to have the reminder, neon and scribbled and violent, in sight at all.
But the most beautiful fruit of their labors at the shelter was what Anakin needed to see. To truly comprehend what had changed in Obi-Wan, what brought the weight of years to a young, lithe body.
I take his small (and unsurprisingly grubby) hand in mine. "Come on. I'll show you."
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The hallway couldn't be boarded up, despite the little jab I feel in my stomach each time I walk down it. There're three rooms: a lavatory, a storage facility and what was once a recreation area. The first two are still functioning components of the shelter, but the last was destroyed beyond repair by some strictly cold-blooded vandals. They came in here with their spray paints and cheap weapons, took in the sight of what had taken years to collect, a few round tables with generic game board designs painted on the tops, soft, plush bean bag chairs (with only a few rips or stains) scattered around, a couple repaired holoscreens, dingy but effective--and the mural.
It still comes in dreams, in watered fragments, reminding me that it doesn't matter what good people strive to do, there'll always be someone to counteract it, to ruin what was achieved.
Yet, it also reminds me of what beauty can be produced from ash. The rec room was a gray space half-full with files and various knick knacks. Tag had the idea to clear those out and make use of it, a goodly sized room with pretty decent air circulation.
We had gone as far as moving certain donations, the items I mentioned, into the place, dusting everything off and setting a few bright glow rods on the tables. We were proud of our work, I admit, and I guess I must've been talking about it to Qui-Gon, because the next day he showed up at the door around daybreak, a smiling (and thoroughly awake, a teenager!) Padawan in tow. They were both carrying large canvas sacks and the Master asked if they could see the recent addition to the shelter.
I was a little confused, especially when neither of them would let me see what treasures they had hidden away in those bags. But I complied, leading them to the cleaner, but still unrelentingly drab, room.
Qui-Gon wondered if he and Obi-Wan could have the room to themselves for the day, that they would do what they could to 'give it a little spirit'-Obi-Wan's words.
I just laughed and said it was fine by me, I had plenty to do elsewhere and it was always nice to have them there-even if they would be locked away in another area of it.
So I left them to their mysterious tasks, and for about two days (the kid forced me to promise not to go inside the room after they left that first day) I waited for their surprise. Tag and I and some of the regulars had a good time trying to figure out what the two Jedi, in their colorless wardrobe and with their Spartan way of life, would be able to do with the concrete walls and stained ceiling.
Well, the day they unveiled their work, Tag and I and those regulars had a helping of foot, served in heaping portions, right to our mouths.
But I guess I can't say they 'unveiled' that little showpiece. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, who at that time was a great deal younger with more freedom in his shoulders, finished up the night before and departed quietly for their Temple, small, tired smiles on their faces. Every so often, I would see a shared look on those faces, a similar gleam in two sets of eyes, and I would think, for only a moment, that one would easily mistake them for father and son…even me, who knew very well that they weren't.
There'd be no making that error anymore--Qui-Gon Jinn was never an old man on his worst day.
I wanted to wait for the morning, but Tag insisted it would be alright to sneak a peek. After all, they never warned us against taking a look. I gave in, too excited to decline by then, and we entered that recreation room, a few of the shelter's residents at our heels.
I remember the first word I heard after we all saw it, once someone had gathered their bearings enough to speak. It was hushed, it was reverent---and one of the strongest curses I've ever heard.
And no wonder. The room was marvelous.
The ceiling was coated in glossy orange, instantly bringing light to the space, and three of the walls were a light, powdered blue.
The other wall was where the mural was, where the manifestation of their inherent goodness and affection was…
Where now, there are harsh lines slashed across, along with symbols of a local criminal gang.
But then, it was only the beautiful, spanning painting, Coruscant's skyline at sunset, black bleeding to purple with tinges of yellow, and a series of slightly abstract buildings in an uneven row.
It didn't look like a realistic holopic, and it wasn't supposed to.
Amid the well of tears in my eyes, I read the initials, nondescript and tiny, at the bottom left corner of the wall. Q.J. O.W.
Tag tried to stop me, but I was already out the door, running toward the Jedi Temple. The receptionist allowed me to wait in an alcove while the Master came down, a robe concealing his sleep clothes beneath, pillow creases on his face.
"Gods, Qui-Gon."I said in wonder, looking up at him among the blue moonlight. "It's beautiful. How could you just…walk away from that? Without letting me thank you?"
He smiled that roguish smile he was known for and shrugged. "It was late. Obi-Wan has a test in the morning."
I cocked a brow at him. "Yeah. I really believe that."
The man sighed. "Why would I wait to be thanked by you--when I should've been the one thanking you, Requel?"
"What're you talking about?"
He reached out and laid a wide hand on my arm. "Your shelter gives me a place where I can teach my apprentice what this place," He indicated the Jedi building with a sweep of his hands, "just can't. All his life, he sacrifices in the name of the justice, in the name of the Jedi.
"But when he's at the shelter, he doesn't sacrifice. He gives. From his heart. Without the push of the Order's responsibilities. If he feels any obligations to the shelter, they originated within himself. " His eyes, as beautiful, in their own way, as his protégé's, sparkled fondly. "Sometimes, it can be difficult to find Obi-Wan, pure Obi-Wan, amid what's been drilled into him, and out of him.
"The mural…is Obi-Wan."
I looked up at the towering figure, a noble remnant of a more civilized age, thrown wrongly into the crazed, deteriorating arena of Coruscant. "And yet there are two signatures." I corrected softly.
Qui-Gon shrugged. "It was a large wall. He needed some help with the filler."
"Ha." I grin. "There's no filler in a masterpiece."
And there's no justice in the Universe, no protection for what should truly be treasured. Politicians stride around their conference halls in velour, flanked by about a thousand armed guards, while the loving work of two humble volunteers is left to the ravages of scum. Crude words graffiti the painted skyscrapers, clouds of black smothering entire sections of the wall, where a fire was climbing.
But the tiny signatures remain untouched, a fragile miracle in a scorched tangle of tragedies.
The little Jedi sees them almost instantly, as if he knew somehow they would be there. "Did my…" His wide, astonished eyes look to me. "Did my Master do that? I mean, Master and Master Qui-Gon?"
I nod, placing my hand on his shoulder.
He drinks the mural in, a flowing kaleidoscope stream. "When'd they do it?"
"Oh, a long time ago."
"It's…wow…it's really…good." He smiles, while conflict knits his small brow. "Master did this?"
It must be hard for him to imagine,. Old, knotted fingers grasping a brush and creating something so vibrant and vivacious.
Maybe he thinks most of Obi-Wan's life was required, in exchange for this, a trade. The youth had to be drained from him, in order for the mural to be flushed with it.
"Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon made this. It was their time, their skill. A picture…of what they were, when they were together." I blink away a sheen of warm tears. "Some people broke in here. That's what happened to it."
He nods numbly, his teeth chewing at his bottom lip. "What'd he do…when he saw it?"
I don't know quite which one he means, but it doesn't matter. "Neither of them saw it afterwards. I closed off the room and besides…I don't think they wanted to."
Anakin stands beside me for a moment, silent and still, then walks up to the charred wall and places his hand on an unmarred patch, running his thumb along the blue brushstroke. "It's still good." He whispers.
I smile. "Yeah."
And after a few minutes, he wordlessly follows me out, through the corridor. A flat hallway, but secretly composed of steps, stairs Obi-Wan can no longer climb, with his bowed back and trembling knees.
He isn't weak. He isn't tired.
I wish I knew what he is, as I watch Anakin race up to him and wrap his short arms around his torso.
He looks surprised, laughing and lowering his head to meet the sparkling eyes of his apprentice--
But a split second before, his own eyes, yellowed at the rim and veined with red, go very still, looking from one era to another, from fresh layers of paint to faded, scarred ghosts…
And I know I'll never be certain what he is or what he's thinking…
Maybe some day he'll reach for a cane, for something that can help him up that painful flight of stairs.
Or maybe he won't.