Sixteen-year-old Padawan Aeden Zared paced the small visitor's chamber next to the Jedi Council's inner sanctum. He'd done it this time and was terrified he wouldn't be able to fix his mistake. His mother hadn't raised a fool. No, he had perfected his idiocy all on his own. He plopped down on the padded bench and raked his hands through his black hair, letting his fingers grab the end of the long braid to tug once. It was his habit to yank it when he did something stupid, hoping the sharp pain would remind him to stop. It rarely did, so he figured it was just his way to punish himself.

It had been a simple assignment Master Kavar gave at the beginning of the term, and he had procrastinated and goofed off and now it was coming back to bite him in the ass. It was a five hundred-word essay explaining the cultural differences between the Jedi and Sith. That was all.

What he thought of as a piece of cake actually turned out to be harder than he imagined and at the eleventh hour he found himself with a blank mind. Well not blank, per se, it was busily occupied thinking about the bonfire and fireworks the Galactic City Council was having to celebrate the end of the Great Sith War. Years before his time, but the idea of getting away from the masters for a few hours was very appealing. Besides, Malak had lined up a couple of dates for them and the idea of getting lucky was to good to pass up. At least Malak said they would get lucky. Apparently, Jedi were sexy and exciting. Hell, seeing a girl not dressed in Jedi robes flipped his switch at this point so he was all for ditching the festivities.

Now he was paying for it and this time . . . crap, he thought. How would he explain this to his mother if he were drummed out of the Jedi for being an ass?

Aeden sat up when he heard the door to the antechamber open. Looking over he found Revan studying him with sad amusement in her brown eyes. She was eighteen, tall, with her brown hair pulled back in a simple clip, but where she had filled out with womanly curves, Aeden was still waiting for his body to catch up to his six-foot two-inch frame. He looked like a stick with a mop of black hair and startling blue eyes. No amount of eating or weight lifting had helped.

"Are they ready for me?" He asked as she came to sit beside him.

"Not yet. They're still . . . in discussion." Each week, a different padawan was chosen to be the council gofer. This week it was Revan. His turn, if he survived the day, was up next.

Aeden snorted. "How hard is it to decide to kick me out?" He sat back, rested his head against the bench, and closed his eyes.

"What were you thinking?"

"About getting lucky," he said with a faint smile. "Ah, Revan," he added on a gusty sigh, "What am I going to do? I don't want to be shipped off to Telos to be a farmer and if I went home my mother would string me up. 'Hey Mom! Guess what? You haven't heard from me in years but your only son fracked with the one opportunity you really wanted me to have.'"

"You've been in tight spots before and have come through. You'll get through this as well," she told him, patting his knee.

"I don't want to be thrown out. With the Mandalorians starting their assault on the Republic, the Jedi are going to be needed to help in the fight."

"If the council agrees to it," Revan murmured looking at the far wall.

"What?"

Revan looked at him. She thought about blowing off the comment, but she liked Aeden. He could be goofy, a smart-ass, but he was a talented Jedi, strong in the Force, and he had the ability to draw people to him, to form bonds. It drove him nuts at times, and caused some resentment among the other students, but the order needed him.

"Don't repeat this or I'll pull out your tongue and use it to beat you to death, but the Senate has already asked for assistance. The council turned them down, preaching patience."

"What?!"

"Keep your voice down!" She hissed. "If they found out I told you, I'd be on my way to Telos. It's early in the game yet, so let's not get to excited." As she spoke, her small comm unit vibrated. "They're ready for you."

Aeden took a deep breath and stood with her. "Wish me luck."

Revan leaned forward on her toes and kissed his cheek. "The Jedi don't believe in luck."

He couldn't hide his surprise at her gesture and wasn't quite sure what to make of it, but he could certainly sense her interest. She gave him a coy smile and began to lead the way to the council chambers. He frowned behind her back. She was the current darling of the academy and the strongest of them all. Suck-up and manipulator came to mind but he dismissed them. Revan was a brilliant strategist, able to see her opponent's next move. Eerie at times and she only did things that would work to her advantage.

"Oh, one word of advice," she said when they reached the door to the chambers. "Watch out for Vrook. I don't trust what he might do."

"Meaning?" He asked somewhat panicked.

Revan shrugged. "I'm not sure. It's just that . . ."

"What?" This was something else she did that Aeden found annoying. Revan would give you just enough information to bait your interest. Whether she did it to appear more important than what she really was, like she knew more than anyone, he didn't know. It was, however, an effective tool to get the other padawans to hang on her every word.

"Sometimes he looks at you like you're . . . the death of all things." She shrugged.

Aeden rolled his eyes and snorted. "Like any of us would ever be that powerful." His shoulder spiked with pain. Nerves, he thought, and that crappy bench. He gave Revan a wane smile and stepped into the chamber. It was larger, sleeker than the one on Dantooine. The room was still round but the chamber on Coruscant was mostly windows providing a commanding view of Galactic City.

Scanning the room, he noticed not every Jedi Master that served on the council was present. Kavar, of course, since it was his assignment Zared screwed up. Also present were Master Dorak, the Jedi historian, and the three V's: Vandar, Vash and Vrook. The other seven members were scattered to the far reaches of Republic space on various assignments.

"This only proves," Vrook was saying as he approached, "that he treats his training in a trivial manner. Before we left Dantooine, I caught him playing with the younglings on the Khoonda plains."

"Much can be learned in play," Vandar said patiently.

"What does one gain from hitting a small ball with a stick into a hole?"

"Patience."

"Exercise."

"Accuracy."

Vrook harrumphed.

"Strategy," Zared said from the door.

Although they all looked at him, it was Master Lonna Vash who tipped her head and asked, "How so?"

Idiot! When will you learn to keep your mouth shut? "The object of the game is to get the ball in the hole with the least amount of hits." Zared shrugged. "You need to think about where to hit the ball to achieve that goal."

"I see," she said but he doubted it. If they knew of the frustration and anger the game could cause they would ban it and label it a tool of the dark side.

"Yes, well, to the matter at hand. Do you understand why we have requested this meeting?" Dorak asked.

Try not to blow this, he told himself. "Yes, Master." When no one said anything, he took a deep breath trying to calm his jumping nerves and squared his thin shoulders. "I have no excuse. I procrastinated and didn't give the assignment the thought it deserved."

"And what was the assignment," Vandar asked.

"In five hundred words or less explain the differences between the Jedi and the Sith."

"It's certainly less than five hundred words."

"Yes Master Kavar, it is." Zared looked at the man he considered friend and mentor for the first time. Maybe this was the hardest part to face. He admired Kavar, thought him tough but fair with an intelligence that was admirable and open to new ideas. He had let him down.

"Could you explain why you wrote this Padawan Zared," Vandar prompted.

Surprise had him jerking his head in the direction of the council leader. "I beg your pardon?" I sound like a twelve year old, he thought as he inwardly winced at the squeak in his voice.

"Is this what you believe?" Vrook demanded.

When Aeden looked at the crusty old Jedi, Revan's comment flashed in his brain. Wow, he thought, he does look at me like I'm the death of all things. He made a quick scan of the chambers but it was only Vrook he could seem to read so easily.

"Of course. By striving to live in peace and harmony with the Force, the Jedi are able to use wisdom and patience in dealing with our duties as guardians of peace in the Republic. We follow the light side of the Force to effect good among all citizens. I mean that's what we represent."

"And the Sith?" Dorak asked.

"We've been taught that the Sith use their more basic emotions to gain their strength. Hatred, greed, envy, anger all lead to the dark side."

"That was less than five hundred words," Kavar mumbled. When Zared looked at him, his master's face was impassive but for the twinkle in his eye, he couldn't quite disguise.

"Structure and discipline are also tenets of the Jedi yet you don't seem to exhibit this behavior!"

"Master Vrook," Vandar scolded gently.

"Being able to spout the PR about the Jedi does not make one. Serious time must be spent in study, reflection, and meditation. Not playing with children."

Did the man have it in for him? "With all due respect, Master Vrook, showing compassion to others is also a tenet of the Jedi." Zared looked at him. "The order takes children at an early age because the training is intense and I understand the need to break familial bonds, but the younglings are thrown into a strange situation, knowing no one and are frightened. In that case, the instinct is to fight or take flight. Spending time allaying their fears, showing them they are safe, diffuses the anger their fear can cause. Those are dark side traits. This way they feel more comfortable and open to instruction."

"This isn't summer camp!"

"Vrook, the boy has a point," Vash told him.

"So we should ignore the discipline needed to complete the training. Without discipline, there would be chaos. Something the Sith strive for." Vrook sneered at him.

There is no chaos; there is harmony.

"I wouldn't know," Zared snapped, instantly regretting it. "I'm not a Sith," he added in a mumble and noticed Vrook's eyes narrow. What was some insubordination added to this fracking mess he made for himself. Honesty was also a Jedi trait, wasn't it? "Look, from what I've been taught the Sith look out for themselves. Survival of the fittest. They breed fear and feed on it to make them strong."

"So now we're Sith, scaring younglings?" Vrook snorted.

Why was this so hard? He had lived and breathed his training for the past nine years. Maybe that was the problem. It was something he just did and explaining why was akin to asking why many of the Hutts were crime lords. They just were. He turned toward the others. "As Jedi we work to avoid or diffuse potentially explosive situations using logic. When that's not possible and we have to step in, it is to protect the innocent." He inwardly frowned when he saw them shift uncomfortably. He pushed aside the niggling doubt that sprang forth. It's what we do, right? He couldn't think about what Revan said right now – about the Republic's request for help against the Mandalorians.

"The Sith," he went on, "on the other hand believe that those who are the most cunning and can achieve their goals are worthy to have them fulfilled. As I said, they are selfish and think only of themselves, not the greater good for all."

"So by spending time with the children . . ."

He squared his shoulders once more. "I wish to lead by example and show them they are not alone, won't have to go it alone." And I like them better than most.

"And to create a bond?" Vrook demanded in a subtly snide way.

Now what the hell was this about?

"A bond of comfort, showing that giving of oneself is a strength, not a detriment."

"Why did you not put these opinions in your paper, Padawan Zared?" Dorak asked. "The points you have made, after all, are valid."

If it had been just him, he would of told them about wanting to sneak out of going to the festival, but Malak was involved as well and he wouldn't rat out his friend. This situation was his doing so sink or swim he would go it alone. "As I said, Master Dorak, I have no excuse."

Master Vash addressed him next. "Hypothetically, if you were a Sith how would you have approached this assignment?"

"Ma'am?" His eyes widened in surprise and he knew his mouth hung open like a gulping fish.

"Pretend for a moment that you are a Sith student that has to describe the differences between the culture of the Sith and Jedi."

He thought for a moment. Was this a trick? Some wily test to prove his worthiness? When Master Vandar raised a brow, Aeden took a deep breath.

"I suppose I would say that the Jedi are weak. That working toward peace and justice allow the pathetic of a society to drag down the strong. The Jedi's use of the Force for knowledge and defense is a waste of its true power. Showing mercy to their enemies serves no purpose.

"Where the Jedi control their emotions, the Sith are stronger because they use theirs to exert their control. They feed off the fear, anger and rage of others, like a thirsty man feasts on water in a desert. Those emotions and others, can gain them power and the stronger, or more free they are with these emotions, makes them all-powerful.

"The Sith care nothing for the weak so have no compunction about kicking them out of the way so they can be the strongest. The only thing standing in their way to galactic domination is the pitiful Jedi."

There was stunned silence and his stomach joined his twitching toes in his battered boots.

There is no emotion; there is peace.

Shoot me! Shoot me now! No, stab me with my own saber after you cut out my runaway tongue.

"That was . . . effortless," Vrook stated.

Telos, here I come. "Of course it was." He turned to the old geezer and pinned him with his eyes. "It's much more difficult to explain why one would stay on the path of the light side. After all, what are the Sith but fallen Jedi?"

Vrook looked like he was about to go apoplectic.

"Padawan!" Master Vash cried out.

Zared turned to her. "I won't apologize for stating the truth. For years the Jedi were warriors, just as the Sith see themselves. Realizing the dangers of that mindset, the Jedi turned away and sought peaceful ways to aid and protect.

There is no passion; there is serenity.

"Many Jedi didn't share this belief, thought the Jedi were cowards for willingly giving up the power they had tasted so they left. The Sith taught their followers that there was weakness in the honor the Jedi professed."

He turned to Vrook. "You preach about discipline and control. Well doesn't it take just as much energy to lie, cheat, and steal on a constant basis as it does to be honorable?

"The Jedi work together to be decent, not always an easy feat when working as a collective with differing opinions and personalities. Can you honestly tell me that is easier than only having to watch your back?"

Shut-up, shut-up, shut-up!

"Padawan Zared, are you questioning your beliefs as a Jedi?" Vandar's voice seemed to explode in the ensuing silence.

Was he? Was that why this assignment had been so difficult? Was he tired of the masters hammering away at him about the dangers of the dark side? The forbidden fruit, so to speak. He would be a hypocrite to deny that sometimes bloodying a nose was a quick answer, but he knew, in his heart, it wasn't the right solution.

"No. The assignment was to explain the difference between the Jedi and the Sith." Not attack the skinny kid. "Knowledge of all sides to an issue leads to a balanced and fair assessment of a situation, as you have taught me.

"If you ignore one aspect of an argument you run the risk of missing what could be a key distinction. The past isn't always pleasant, but sticking your head in the sand doesn't pretty it up."

There is no ignorance; there is knowledge.

"Do you believe the Jedi ignore their past?"

"No, Master Dorak. The Jedi teach from what they have learned over the millennia; that peaceful solutions can be achieved through patience, knowledge, and determination.

"We do this because we learned that using a bludgeon, while effective, is often an easy course of action, but not always the path to a solution.

"The Sith disagree and we do ourselves a disservice if we only look at our side, the light side, of the Force."

"Thank you, Aeden," Kavar said quietly. "You may go."

It wasn't difficult to see where this could lead. Vrook's animosity toward the boy was curious to be sure, but baiting Aeden seemed unnecessary.


When he reached the quarters he had been assigned with Malak, he threw himself facedown on the skinny bunk and groaned.

"Went that well, huh?" Malak asked turning in his chair at one of the two desks.

"Do you think the archives have books on farming?" The meager pillow muffled the question.

Malak chuckled and Aeden opened one eye to glare at his roommate. They got along okay. Well, actually, well enough to know that Malak had the hots for Revan and was constantly trying to impress her in a non-obvious way. How shaving your head and getting a tattoo on your skull was non-impressive, he didn't understand. At least he had the foresight to keep his braid lest he suffer the wrath of the council, but now he looked like a bald Gizka pup with a long tail.

"Hey, if it means anything, I think your essay rocked."

"Yeah? Vrook thought it lacked discipline. And he caught me out on the Khoonda plains playing with the younglings. And he thinks I make bonds to manipulate people. And, he thinks I'm either a Sith or the end of life as we know it." He rolled to his back and stared at the ceiling. "I'm not sure which is worse, Sith or the harbinger of death."

There is no death; there is the Force.

"Sith," Malak told him then shrugged at his friend's sharp, narrowed look. "Hey, at least we'll all return to the Force if you're the harbinger of death."

Aeden nodded as he swung his legs over the side of the bunk. Can't argue with that. "I should pack. Shouldn't take to long to decide to throw me out."

"Aeden, you're one of the best Jedi I know. They're not going to throw you out."

He looked at Malak and shook his head. "Master Kavar won't have a choice. I screwed up. Big time." And he told Malak what had transpired.

It was the following morning when pounding on the door awakened Aeden from sleep. He had stayed in his room, missing classes, meditating and letting his anxiety eat a hole in his stomach.

He stumbled to the door naked and demanded "What?" when he flung the door open to find a startled Kavar mid-knock.

"Not a morning person, are you Aeden."

"Master. I . . . uh . . . um . . ."

Kavar patted his bare shoulder as he moved into the room. "Good thing I didn't send one of the girls to get you."

He gave Kavar a blank look then remembering his state of undress quickly grabbed his robe and put it on.

"Gong somewhere," he asked nodding to the small backpack at the foot of the bed on the floor. Malak had cornered him last night and demanded to know if Aeden was going to be transferred to the Agricultural Corps on Telos.

Be a man, Aeden told himself. "I don't know. Am I?"

Kavar studied the young boy in front of him. He was strong in the Force and would be a formidable Jedi in the near future. It was the long-range outlook that was murky and difficult to read, especially after the meeting yesterday. Whether for good or ill, the boy had a destiny that they would play a part in starting but wouldn't be around to see finished.

He nodded. "As a matter of fact, you are. You'll need this," he told him pulling an object from his robe.

Zared took the crystal. "What is it?"

"A more powerful focusing lens for your saber."

He studied the crystal-clear lens and mumbled, "Expecting the veggies to go vigilante?"

Kavar didn't stop his smile. Damn if he didn't like this kid.

"I've been asked to check out some intel we've received about the Mandalorian threat." Zared's head snapped up. "If I'm taking you in the field with me, your saber needs to be powerful enough to meet any threat we may encounter."

"I . . . you want . . ." I don't understand.

"We leave in a couple of hours," Kavar told the stunned Zared. "One more thing." He tossed a datapad at him before he left.

Zared sank to the rumpled bed unable to believe what he was just told. He wasn't going to Telos. He was going on assignment.

He glanced down at the data pad in his hand and winced. It was his essay. Screwing up his courage, he turned his head, squinched his eyes shut, and hit the power button. A few heartbeats later, he opened one eye then began laughing.

"You lucky son of a bitch," he murmured. "The Force is definitely looking out for you."

Next to his name at the top was one comment: Concise interpretation. Next to that was his grade: B.

He didn't need to scroll down to see what he had written. After all, how much room did it really take to write: Jedi rule. Sith drool.