"May I sit with you?"
Anakin Skywalker's dirty blonde head tilted up to look into his mentor's face with an earnest, pleading expression – a mute call for rescue from some perceived bit of awkwardness or an unpleasant scene. Obi Wan Kenobi's eyes traveled around the large dining hall expectantly, looking for the occasion of trouble, but he sensed nothing out of the ordinary.
"Yes…but I would think you might prefer the company of some of the other students your age. Look, there's –"
"No thanks," Anakin broke in hurriedly, darting in front of his teacher to help himself to a generous plate of food from the serving area.
"What have you done now?" Obi Wan murmured in his ear, under cover of leaning forward to reach a Twi'Lek dish on the other side of the wide counter.
"Nothing, master!" Anakin protested, a bit too loudly. He blushed and lowered his voice. "I just….feel kind of weird. You know?"
Obi Wan sighed. Oh yes, he knew. The entire Temple knew. The Force was awash with confusion and shock and dismay, as the terrible news which had reached the ears of the Council this morning made its swift way among the ranks of Jedi present here on Coruscant, and across the galaxy. It was a scandal and a tragedy like few he had witnessed in his lifetime, and he had to admit that it left him with a very bad feeling indeed.
"Yes, I understand," he said quietly to the boy.
Anakin beamed, grateful for the moment of sympathy, and continued piling food onto his plate. "Master? Make sure you get dessert."
The young Jedi Knight rolled his eyes and picked up a small dish of tiramisu, setting it in his own tray and threading his way to a table near the back of the spacious eating area, Anakin in tow. At every table they passed, heads leaned together and low, grave voices whispered and murmured. The news had disturbed the serenity of the Jedi Temple as surely as a large rock tossed into a still pond. They set down their trays and Anakin settled himself beside his teacher, shoulder to shoulder, as though craving physical comfort. The boy was super-attuned to disturbances in the Force; if the mood and atmosphere had Obi Wan rattled, then the young ten year old Padawan was surely twice as confused and unsettled.
"Thanks," Anakin said, transferring the extra dessert to his own place, setting it next to his own helping of tiramisu and starting in on his dinner without further ceremony. "You're the best master I could have."
Obi Wan raised an eyebrow and had just opened his mouth to make a sarcastic retort, when he spotted a tall imposing figure wending his way toward them among the other diners. The silver haired Jedi master approached with an air of determination, and sat opposite the two of them without hesitating to receive a greeting – or for that matter, an invitation.
"Master C'Baoth," Obi Wan said, inclining his head respectfully.
"Master Kenobi," the older Jedi replied, his eyes resting curiously on Anakin.
"My Padawan, Anakin Skywalker."
"An honor to meet you," Master C'Baoth said to Anakin. The Padawan swallowed and nodded, uncharacteristically tongue-tied.
Obi Wan stirred, an infinitesimal sign of impatience. "Was there something –"
"Yes," Jedi Master Jorus C'Baoth replied, sharply. "There is something you can do for me, Master Kenobi. I should like a word with your Padawan. Alone, if you please."
Obi Wan shot Anakin a warning glance, but the boy looked and felt in the Force just as stymied and taken aback as his teacher, so he returned his gaze to Jorus C'Baoth. The man was a much older and highly respected member of the Order, a Master with a prominent public persona and an impressive reputation. "Of course, master," he answered politely. "Perhaps after-"
"Now would be best," the other cut him off. "I appreciate your willingness to indulge my request."
Obi Wan blinked, his face stilling into a perfect expressionless mask of calm. Beside him, Anakin tensed, no doubt sensing his mentor's annoyance.
"Ten minutes should suffice," C'Baoth told him imperiously.
Obi Wan rose gracefully and made a very careful, formal bow to the silver bearded Jedi, turning with a last admonitory glance at Anakin, and strode toward the opposite doors at a measured pace. He left a sharp ripple in the Force as he went; not a few heads turned to regard him curiously as he passed.
Anakin watched him go and then turned nervously to his new acquaintance. "Um….hello," he said.
Obi Wan paced along the fifth level concourse, oblivious to anything but his own seething temper. This would never do.
He paused and looked over the railing into the soaring hall below, gripping the curved balustrade with both hands and taking a few moments to calm his breathing. Jorus C'Baoth was a powerful Jedi, over forty years his senior, and – although he had never served on the Council – highly superior in rank and experience. If he wished to dismiss Obi Wan like a wayward Padawan, well then…
He let out his breath slowly, using the Yamalsa technique, counting down twenty heartbeats, each slower and stronger than the last. Don't be asinine, he chided himself. He asked permission to speak to your Padawan. What right have you to feel slighted? This is nothing but evidence of pride and arrogance on your own part.
"You do that so well," a warm voice said at his elbow.
He smiled, and opened his eyes. "Garen!"
The young Knight leaned backward against the railing, elbows propped on its edge. "Tell me you don't lecture your Padawan like that," Garen Muln smiled back.
"I hardly have an opportunity," Obi Wan answered wryly, still trying to smother the embers of frustration and hurt pride.
Garen snorted. "That's good. I was going to volunteer to rescue him from your clutches for a while – maybe take him up in one of the new fighters. They're sweet, Obi. Even you would like them."
His encomium fell flat. "The last thing Anakin needs is more incentive to worship at the altar of technology," Obi Wan said. "Keep your Dark Side idolatry to yourself, Garen."
The two friends fell silent, idly watching the students and masters passing in the hall below. Garen shifted. "Did you hear?" he asked, far more soberly.
"About Dooku, you mean?"
Garen nodded. There were no words. The Force warped and reverbrated around them, a distant note of sorrow echoing in the back of their minds. The Lost. The Lost Twenty, it would be said from now on. Already the archivists would be recording the great Jedi's choice, his decision to leave the Order after so many decades of devoted service, his denunciation of the Republic and the Jedi themselves. Already the Council would be dealing with the fallout, the public and internal strife sure to follow on such a scandalous and unexpected move.
Garen shuddered. "If he can leave – if someone as strong in the Force as Master Dooku can see fit to abandon his vows…" he muttered, leaving the rest unsaid. If he could fall, then what hope had any of the rest of them? Were there dark times to come, of such power and majesty, that there was naught to be done but despair?
Obi Wan turned away from the edge and set his jaw. "Then it is left to others to uphold the Order and protect the Republic."
Garen met his eyes, his hand briefly clasping his friend's shoulder before falling again to rest on the hilt of his lightsaber. He forced a smile, though his tension still hummed through the Force. "Are you stronger than Dooku himself now, Master Kenobi?" he challenged, in an effort at playfulness.
"The Force is," Obi Wan replied simply.
"Well, goodnight," Anakin said, hesitating in the arched entry to the older initiates' dormitories.
"Sleep well," Obi Wan answered, wondering whether he would be able to do just that himself. Probably not.
"You never asked what Master C'Baoth wanted," the boy added quietly.
Obi Wan nodded. "It was your private conversation."
"Oh." But Anakin did not move away down the corridor. "Um….don't you want to know, master?"
Obi Wan folded his arms. "That's not the point, Anakin. It would be inappropriate for me to pry into your conversation with another master, and I do not wish to pressure you to –"
"Okay," Anakin interrupted. "But can I tell you if I want to?"
Oh. "Of course."
Oh dear. "Of course."
"'Cause it was sort of about you, too."
Oh hells. "I see."
They stepped together into Anakin's tiny quarters. The Padawan hastily pushed some of the spare circuitry and scavenged droid parts off the narrow cot and waited for Obi Wan to gingerly pick his way across the cluttered floor to sit down on the edge of the thin mattress. The small study desk, the single chiar and the meditation pad were all similarly covered in half-finished cybernetic projects. The floor of the closet was also full of storage crates containing bits of metal and tools, atop which a spare tunic and cloak had been carelessly crumpled.
"Where do you sleep?" Obi Wan asked, looking in all directions at the evidence of his apprentice's obsessive hobby.
"On the floor sometimes," the boy admitted. He frowned. "Is that all right?"
"It can't do you any harm, I suppose."
Anakin nodded solemnly. "Obi Wan…" he began, and then stopped.
That wasn't a good sign. The use of his proper name rather than the honorific never meant anything good. Anakin seemed to forget his protocols and lapse into familial intimacy whenever he was profoundly disturbed. A legacy of his unusual upbringing – with a mother. Obi Wan waited for him to continue.
"What do you think of Master C'Baoth?" The boy changed tactics. "He looks like a crazy old wizard. There's a legend they tell on Tatooine about this old magician who used to live out in the Black Hills. His name was Ben-Attur-Yavi. That's what the Tuskens called him. We just called him Black Ben. He was a pirate and a warrior and he used evil magic to lure people –"
"What exactly does this charming character have to do with Master C'Baoth?" Obi Wan interrupted.
"Nothing. Only…is Master C'Baoth sorted?"
"Sorry, master. But he is pretty odd, different from other Jedi. He sort of reminds me of Qui Gon, only in a twisted way. I'm glad I knew the real Qui Gon."
Obi Wan narrowed his eyes and tried to make sense of this rambling statement. "So am I," he said gently, and then, "It isn't my place to discuss Master C'Baoth in quite that way, Anakin."
The boy squirmed. "Okay…how do I say this? " he wrinkled his nose up and looked at the floor before meeting his teacher's eyes again. "He wanted to know how well I like being your student."
Anakin watched him carefully. "He also asked me a lot of questions about my studies and the Force and things I can do, and saber practice and meditation…and, I don't know. Lots of stuff."
Obi Wan tamped down his resentment. "I see. Did that bother you?"
Anakin looked at him. Through him. "It bothers you," he observed bluntly.
"It's my role to be protective of you, as my Padawan," he answered cautiously. "I'm sure Master C'Baoth has your best interests at heart, as well."
"Yeah," Anakin replied unenthusiastically.
"He is a very powerful Jedi. You should be honored that he took such an interest in you," Obi Wan added, with an equal lack of conviction.
Anakin twisted his mouth to the side and frowned.
"I think you should get some rest," Obi Wan said.
"Okay. I mean, yes, master."
But as he made his way back down the corridor away from the student dormitories, Obi Wan couldn't help but think that a good night was the last thing he was going to enjoy.