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Anakin watched the jade eyes darken, and a frown appeared on his small face. "What's wrong?"
A crease deepened beneath cracked lips. Yoda's pointed ears flattened to the sides of his head. "Returned, Master Qui-Gon has."
Anakin straightened at the news. "He has?"
The boy's relief was patently obvious to the Master. Though they had made steps toward friendship, no one would rival Qui-Gon Jinn in the heart and mind of Anakin Skywalker. The man had liberated him from a fruitless life of backbreaking labor. More than that, he had promised Anakin a place among the Jedi, and championed the child at every turn.
Bruck joined them, a sullen expression fastened to his colorless face. He stood apart from the others.
Yoda's features took on an unsettled look. "Yes, returned, he has—with Obi-Wan." Of course he had known it was coming, that he was coming. But there was still no preparation to be performed. Every mention or glimpse of Obi-Wan Kenobi was like a harsh clubbing to the old councilors' memory. He had to strive to protect the gentler past from the cruelty of this present. Others would pass acrid judgment on Obi-Wan. They would hate, they would accuse.
Hate was without virtuous use. It was self-destruction.
Obi-Wan had lived that, it would seem…but had yet to learn the lesson.
"I don't want him to be here." Anakin said with absolute conviction. He sat near the Master, legs folded and gaze intense. "He tried to kill Master Qui-Gon. And Padme."
A soft, clawed hand rested on the boy's head. "Hurt anyone, he will not. Push away feelings of fear, you must, young one."
"I'm not afraid."
Yoda smiled faintly. "Seek the truth, you should."
But Anakin couldn't be swayed. He wasn't afraid. He was going to be a Jedi. Jedi weren't scared of anything.
I bet Master Qui-Gon is never afraid.
The tears stopped. The last of the hot, unbidden moisture was purged from his eyes, and then he sat back, dumbstruck by the sudden halt of the uproarious emotion. Since succumbing to the misery welled in his chest, he had existed solely within it, thinking only of his pain, knowing that it was ceaseless and could not be conquered. He was a Jedi Master, but beneath the layers of earth-toned tunic and solemn façade, he was a man, a human being. And humans could not exist without their hearts.
So how was it that he was sitting here, seeing through the smear of what should have been fatal heartbreak?
Obi-Wan was gone. The reason for his existence, the only person who could cause the battered core of himself to contract in love or alarm…
But no. Qui-Gon turned from the bleak void beyond the window, towards the back of the laboring little vessel that was hurtling away from the hellish rock of Melida/Daan. No, he realized, blinking rapidly.
There was another.
He wiped at his eyes and stood. His knees shook, but he took the first steps, and he found that most of his strength had been replenished. He walked through the tiny, weakly lit rooms and down the narrow corridor. When he came to her quarters, his breath fled, and he merely stood in the doorframe, incapable of much else.
Tahl lay on the bed. Beneath the gray linen, there was a suggestion of the slenderness of the body, and the harsh injuries gleaned during her mission were concealed from view. Her chest rose and fell with the uneven pattern of her breathing. In the Force, it was the same, for though her light glowed bright and purely, it too had suffered from her ordeal.
Her head was turned away from him. Qui-Gon moved desperately to the other side of the bed, where he sat and took a too-frail hand in his own, searching for the pulse that would be his salvation. For a moment, he had the manic thought that perhaps his watered eyes had imagined the earlier movement, and that her slim wrist would offer no signs of life. So when her heart echoed against his probing fingers, the second tear sting assaulted him.
He swallowed hard, to hide the sob from her ears.
But she heard. Her face, honeyed skin unnaturally pale and darkly bruised, was strained with the effort of waking. Her cracked lips opened, as her eyes could not.
Her eyes. Eyes that were always in his thoughts, superimposed over everything. Those eyes of jade and streaking gold were his conscience. And now they smothered beneath protective gauze.
"Qui…Qui-Gon." She whispered.
He smiled, leaning forward, and brushing a kiss across her brow. "Yes. I'm here." The smile grew tremulous, " And you're safe."
She rested against the warmth of his face, in the shadows he cast. "And we are…going home." She said with a relieved sigh.
"Yes." He closed his eyes, wanting to disappear in her spirit, in the gentleness that would be a harbor against all impending storms. They were going home, together. What else could possibly matter?
"O-Obi-Wan? Is he…alright?"
And the haven she had created for him was a little cold then. Qui-Gon withdrew from her, sitting upright and running fingers along his beard.
"Qui-Gon?" She rested her hand on his knee, "Is Obi-Wan alright?"
He detected the creeping concern in her lovely voice, and he hated it. He hated that she loved his apprentice, loved him almost as much as he did.
Former apprentice, He corrected himself stridently, with a sizzle of acid, Former.
"He isn't here." He finally told her.
A frown straightened her mouth. "Isn't here? What…what do you mean?" Unabashed panic now, " Where is Obi-Wan?"
She knew there was something terribly wrong with his response. He knew that she knew, just by the lines of her body, the spiking lines in the Force. "Why isn't he…with you?"
Qui-Gon's eyes flickered away from her. It was a question that would haunt him, though he already knew the answer. "He chose them. He chose them over me."
"What do you mean? Who?"
How could he say this? He could barely even think it. "He chose the Young. He chose to stay with them and fight."
"What? How could he do that?"
Qui-Gon shook his head and rubbed at his eyes. "I don't know."
"No, Qui-Gon, HOW could he do that? He's…he's only a first-year apprentice. He's not nearly old or experienced enough to…" Then she shook her head, despite of the pain it surely caused her, "You…you left him there, didn't you?"
"No." He said, with powerful, unshakeable conviction. He held to that conviction, and wouldn't let anything trespass. "I didn't leave him there. He left me, to stay there."
"But…" Her breaths were ragged, "He's only thirteen. He's just a child, Qui-Gon. To the Jedi, and …and virtually every other civilization in the Universe. How could he choose to stay there if you didn't want him to?"
Qui-Gon catapulted to his feet. "Because he wanted to take this ship to help fight that ridiculous war! He wanted to jeopardize your health, Tahl, to volunteer for that death crusade, and I wouldn't let him." He shook his head feverishly. "I wouldn't let him ruin my life, or yours."
"So you've simply…allowed him to ruin his own?"
The words slammed into him, and he had to take a moment to gather a meager breath, "You don't understand," He said with deliberate slowness, "He disobeyed me. I tried to get him to come with me, but he wouldn't. He just stood there, and defied me. He may be a child, but he was also a Jedi."
"Was?" Tahl's frail fingers clasped to the bed sheets. "Oh Qui-Gon, what have you done?"
"I didn't do anything!" He nearly shouted, "He knew what he was doing. I told him the consequences. And in the end, he was headstrong, and stupid. He did what he wanted to do."
"Qui-Gon…" She murmured wearily, as though attempting, in undertones, to calm him, "Of course he was headstrong and stupid. A year ago, he was still in the initiates' wing. He's too young to make a decision like this, Qui-Gon."
"But he's already made it. I did what I could. I-I took him in my arms, and told him it would be all right, that we'd defer to the Council about what was to be done about the Young. But he didn't listen. I tried to scare him into coming, but he wouldn't move. There was nothing more I could do."
"But there's more you can do now. You can go back for him. Turn around and go back, Qui-Gon. Please. You know it's right."
"You know he belongs with the Jedi, Qui-Gon," The injured woman countered, "You know he belongs with you. It took you so long to understand that. You caused yourself so much pain…and now…now, do you want to go through it again?"
"Of course not," Qui-Gon whispered, turning completely away from her, seeing in the black blanket of space the gnawing oblivion he had suffered through those empty years, "But he chose this for himself AND for me. I told him I loved him and he didn't care."
"That doesn't sound like Obi-Wan."
He wheeled around, selfishly grateful that she couldn't see the tears snaking from his eyes, "Maybe Obi-Wan isn't who we thought he was. I never thought…" The next words were lost in a gusting sob, swirling in his chest, and he shook his head, "If I go back, it will be like absolving him of what he's done. I warned him I wouldn't come back. This is what he wanted."
"No. He wanted to stay with them. So I'm letting him stay." He started for the door, then paused, glancing backward, "I was right about him, you know. Everyone had to push me to accept him, and look what he's turned out to be. I was right all along."
"Yes," Tahl said very quietly, her skin suddenly leeched of more color, "You seem to believe that. So tell me, Master Jinn: is that knowledge worth what it cost?"
On a path of ancient, gray stone, two shadows were spilled across it. In the secluded area leading towards a distant vessel, the shadows, and those who cast them, were the lone travelers.
The man who had once been Obi-Wan Kenobi was currently staring out at the fading Naboo day, aware that the man who had once been his Jedi Master was staring at him with that same, singular focus.
He sighed. Subtlety was obviously not Qui-Gon Jinn's forte. "I won't be performing any tricks this evening. My charming accessory prevents that, if you didn't know."
"I am unfamiliar with the Dark Side of the Force, being a Jedi." The older man coolly retorted. "I'll take no chances with you. Let that be a warning."
"My very heart trembles," Obi-Wan drawled.
Qui-Gon's steps slowed. "It should. You'll get nothing less than you deserve, Obi-Wan."
Cerulean eyes captured a molten flit from the sinking sun, and the gaze was abrupt conflagration. "Obi-Wan deserved far more. And he already suffered the punishment."
"And what was the punishment?"
A smile stretched across the pallid face. "Death."
"I see," Qui-Gon studied him a moment, then picked up his previous gait, "So if Obi-Wan is dead, who are you?"
"The Jedi give all to the Force, or so they claim. But you each have an individual identity, a sense of self. And that's where you lose the ultimate connection. You are not of the Force, nor is Windu, or even the fossilizing troll. I have no name. I am the Force."
In answer to this appalling claim, Qui-Gon could only laugh. "Then the Order's been getting it spectacularly wrong all these centuries. The Force isn't a binding energy that unites the Universe. It's a twenty-five year old attempted killer," He snorted, "Forgive me if I don't believe you."
"I'm not asking for your belief. I'm telling you. If you're planning revenge against me, it is ill-advised." Obi-Wan turned to him, and the frost of a thousand winters rhymed his pupils. "You would be no match for me."
"And you appear to be no match for my apprentice," Qui-Gon smirked. "If you are so unmatched in power, why do you not escape me this very instant?"
Obi-Wan's lips were touched with a small smile, "I've been away a long time. I'm looking forward to seeing my old friends again. Although, of all the meetings in store for me, none have been so anticipated as mine with you, Master Jinn."
"And why is that?"
"Because you were my closest friend…and for the closest friend, one always saves the best things."