This story is set in the aftermath of Field of Dreams; allusions to Antar and the initial distress of the young protagonist are direct references to that tale. -r.b.
A Jedi on active assignment had little time for trivialities such as personal feelings; one mission completed, he was likely to find himself en route to another troubled world or scene of brewing disorder before he had even fully registered the completion of the first. And from thence, on to help the next planet or government or individual that sued for Jedi assistance. And after that, another. And another. The pace was intense; and while respite did periodically come, it might be weeks or even months in the future.
Jedi Master Qui Gon Jin was well accustomed to the life; indeed, he welcomed it. An active and energetic temperament, he had no objection to spending more than half of any given standard year traveling. Before he had taken his current apprentice, he had spent – out of personal choice – the entirety of every year on one long journey mission, returning to the Temple only once annually, and that only at the strict behest of the Council. He had thought it a good way of life, then….after all, it left no time for trivialities such as personal feelings.
Now, he reconsidered the wisdom of that judgment. He and his Padawan had recently spent a grueling span of days on Antar 4, conducting an undercover investigation on a colfillini plantation accused of outrageous labor abuses, before flying directly to Pelion to oversee a delicate treaty signing, after which they had served as bodyguard escort to the Illixi ambassador during his return transit. On Ilux, there had been an unexpected outbreak of rioting in the capitol, and they had been called upon to suppress the worst of it. Now they were headed for the nearest Republic controlled spaceport, on standby for their next marching orders. There hadn't been a moment to breathe, much less to indulge in personal feelings.
But that which is not faced voluntarily soon creeps out of shadow and forgetfulness, and exacts its price, its vengeance for being ignored. His Padawan's dreams were growing worse, when they should grow better, when they should pass with time.
The first two nights after Antar, they had been mere nightmares – lurid images starkly replayed, a hammering repetition of the scene witnessed through the Force in that last, tragically isolated, colfillini field. Qui Gon heard the screams, but did not interfere. His apprentice was too old to be coddled over an uncomfortable dream. On Pelion, the nightmares had shifted into more personal terror, eliciting strangled cries and sobs that stained the Force with unease. Qui Gon had not slept much himself, those nights; he yearned to help, but held himself in check. The boy was nearing maturity; he must find his own way sometimes. Their one night on Ilux had been …disturbed. Obi Wan no longer screamed for Tayvor Mandirly, or in the agonized delusion that he himself was chained to a crude stake, lacerated, set on fire while still alive. Now he moaned and thrashed in the throes of an endless panoply of horrors: glimpses of the past, of the present elsewhere, of the future…? Qui Gon could not say. The images assaulted his own mind, carried on the writhing and grief-laden Force: and in all of them, fire burned. Buildings burned, ships exploded, mountains erupted in spouts of flame, and people – so many different people – died shrieking in fire. The hellish parade dragged on and on. Qui Gon set his jaw and interfered at last, waking his apprentice from a twisted slumber that brought only desolation. But even afterwards, while Obi Wan knelt, hunched upon the floor of their shared quarters, warding off further sleep with measured breaths, keeping a silent and lonely vigil until dawn, the Force still churned with unrest.
And now…now, as they waited in the small hold of their own diplomatic shuttle, moored peacefully in an otherwise empty hangar bay inside the small space station, the nightmares once again returned. Qui Gon had set the ship's therm regulator high, made sure his Padawan downed three cups of strongly steeped laverien root tea, counseled deep Yamalsa technique relaxation exercises before sleep.
But his efforts were doomed. He was sitting in the quiet, dimly lit cockpit, finishing the most recent mission report, when the hatchway to the adjoining compartment slid open with a hiss, to reveal a disheveled and only half-awake Padawan standing rigid in the door's frame.
"How could you do that?' he demanded hoarsely, sweat beading on his face, his rumpled tunic soaked through.
Qui Gon rose, faced him squarely. "What are you talking about?' he said, voice deliberately calm..
"I saw it! You left him to die! How could you do that? How could you lie to me?"
He crossed the space in two strides, reached out a steadying hand, only to have it knocked away with a snarl.
"He was your Padawan! How could you leave him to burn? He was screaming, master! Screaming and burning! I saw it! I saw you cut him down and leave him to die!"
For a soft-spoken young man, Obi Wan could achieve a startling volume when pushed to a rare extremity of emotion. Qui Gon seized him by the shoulders, gripped hard. "Wake up," he commanded, sharply. "That's enough. You need to wake up."
The subtle change occurred in a heartbeat; some of the shimmering outrage and revulsion ebbed from the Force; Obi Wan blinked and looked at him anew, as though truly seeing his face and the cockpit for the first time. His limbs trembled slightly beneath Qui Gon's touch.
"Sit," the Jedi master ordered, and steered him into the copilot's chair.
His apprentice sat but said nothing, his hands clenched tight into fists upon his thighs, his eyes still gazing distractedly into nowhere.
"I do not know what you saw," Qui Gon said, carefully. "Whether it was dream or vision, whether past or present or future, but it was not I."
"You killed Xanatos. By the fire river. I saw it – he was burning, and you….he was cut to pieces, and burning, and you left him." Obi Wan closed his eyes, as though trying to block the image from his mind.
"No," Qui Gon insisted. "I told you what happened with Xanatos. Obi Wan, you were there when he perished – by his own choice, of his own will. I would never do what you describe. It was a false vision."
There was a long silence. Eventually Obi Wan scrubbed the heels of his hands over his face, against his red-rimmed eyes. A good many of his nineteen years seemed to melt away, leaving a vulnerable youngling behind. "I'm sorry," he intoned miserably. "Forgive me, master."
"There is nothing to forgive."
"I can't watch anybody else burn," the Padawan murmured. The heartfelt plea was clear in his voice.
Qui Gon released a slow breath, leaned back a little and studied his student carefully. They had made no progress since Antar. But a Jedi did not surrender in the face of adversity. There was only one way through this dark valley, and the Force was the only road marking the narrow path. "We shall meditate together now," he decided, as he had so many times in the last days.
If he heard the barely muffled sob of frustration that greeted this declaration, he pretended not to. Leading the way back into the passenger compartment, he settled upon the hard deck and waited as Obi Wan folded himself down beside him. Eyes closed, they sank into the Force together – but not deeply. Qui Gon gently led the way, but his Padawan did not seem able or willing to enter anything more than the lightest of trances, the soothing exercises taught to the youngest initiates in the Temple. He allowed the Force to wash over him, caressing against thought and feeling, bringing warmth and some relief….but he would not touch the Force deeply, nor suffer it to touch his inner spirit. This, for a Jedi, was a slow and painful starvation.
An hour later, Qui Gon rose, refreshed himself but acutely aware that this had brought little but temporary absence of pain for his Padawan. The situation was not one he could address with patience any longer. He left Obi Wan still kneeling upon the ship's deck – eyes closed, mind closed, heart closed , his presence a defensive knot – and thoughtfully slipped back into the cockpit.
He would have to seek counsel in this difficult matter. There had been enough suffering already.
Yoda 's blue hologram looked surprised to see him; the ancient Jedi's long pointed ears twitched upward inquisitively and his wrinkled mouth pursed into a thin line of curiosity as he studied Qui Gon across the countless parsecs.
"Hmmm," he grumbled, his image sporadically interrupted by a static glitch in the transmission. "Troubled you are, Master Qui Gon. Not often, a call for help from you do I receive. Your mission: finished, the Council was told it is."
"The affair on Ilux is concluded satisfactorily," he replied cautiously. "I wish for your counsel regarding another matter."
Yoda shifted, possibly adjusting his cane beneath him. His large eyes gleamed and slid sideways a bit under his ridged brows. "Ah," he snuffed. "Your Padawan this concerns."
A conversation with Yoda was often disconcerting; he seemed to know the topic, the contents, and the conclusion before he was told or asked. "Yes," Qui Gon sighed. "Antar was…difficult for him."
"Injured he is," Yoda supplied, without needing to inquire further. "In body …or in spirit?"
Qui Gon folded his arms across his chest. "Primarily the latter," he replied heavily. "During the mission, I encouraged him to practice tai vordrax meditations, to assist in the task of uncovering recent events. He…succeeded better than either of us anticipated. Indeed, he witnessed a brutal torturing and murder in a vision. His control is imperfect, master; his reaction was severe, and he has been afflicted with dreams and disturbing Force visions ever since. "
"Worried you are."
Qui Gon's jaw clenched. Had he caught an undercurrent of disapproval there? "I am concerned., yes," he responded levelly. "And unsure what to do for him. The Unifying Force is, as you will no doubt point out to me –"
"Not your strong suit," the ancient one grunted, with brutal honesty. "Elsewhere your talents lie, Qui Gon. Tai vordrax, dangerous and disorienting can be, without proper instruction and guidance. Foolhardy to encourage the boy in such exercises when unable to properly teach them. Strong in the Force is he; able to hurt himself more deeply, therefore. More cautious you should have been."
The accusation was a fair one. He dipped his head. "I realize that now. But the damage is done." He studied Yoda's seemingly implacable little figure, its blue edges rippling as the transmission wavered. "He is suffering," he said simply, wishing his own heartfelt plea to be heard.
One gnarled hand came up to point at him. "Your fault that is."
Anger flared , and was quickly extinguished. "Yes, master, I accept that. I wish to help him now. Have you no advice?'
Yoda grumbled deep in his throat and then chuckled, a deep and almost ironic sound. His eyes slitted. "Ask my advice do you, Qui Gon Jinn, so that ignore it you may? In humility do you ask or in fear, hmmm?"
Qui Gon's mouth thinned. It took many decades of discipline – and a great deal of experience with the Grand Master and his twisted logic, to keep himself from issuing a hot retort. "I am asking," he responded, coolly. "Have you an answer to give, or only riddles?"
He could almost hear Obi Wan's voice begging him not to argue with Master Yoda, not again, master…
"Hhmph. Recalled to the Temple you are. Bring your Padawan home, you will. Into the care of the mind healers, we will give him. Rejoin you he can when recovered he is."
Qui Gon's hand clenched hard about his saber hilt. "That is not what I meant. I did not wish to delegate the task to another – I merely asked –"
"My advice you asked!" Yoda rasped, dangerously. "And now reject it you do, Qui Gon, as always. Trust only yourself and your instincts you do. Why ask for help, hm? Obvious it is, that follow your own path you will. Revealed your intention is."
There was a reason he so frequently butted heads with the Grand Master of the Order…and it had nothing to do with him, Qui Gon was quite certain. He took a calming breath. "Obi Wan is my Padawan," he answered tightly. "My responsibility."
"Your attachment," Yoda accused, sharply. "Learned nothing from Xanatos, did you? Repeat the same mistake with Obi Wan, will you?"
Force help him, but Yoda was the most provoking old troll in the galaxy. With a colossal effort, he trained his voice to remain cool and quiet. "Thank you for your counsel, master," he said tightly, bowing to the flickering image of the ancient Jedi. "We will return to the Temple as soon as possible."
"The mind healers I will inform," Yoda chuffed, his eyes revealing nothing. He nodded slightly, ears twitching. "May the Force be with you."
Qui Gon flicked the holo-projector to standby, vexation simmering in his veins. What had possessed him to seek help from that quarter, in the first place? He released another long breath, banishing tension and aggravation, and then swiveled in the pilot's seat –
-to see Obi Wan standing in the open hatch, shadowed eyes burning with alarm and hurt.
"I'm sorry, master," the Padawan hastily apologized. "I did not intend to eavesdrop. I –"
Qui Gon stopped him with a raised hand and gestured him forward to the copilot's station. "I know I can trust your discretion, Padawan. You will of course say nothing to the person whom the conversation concerned."
There was a fleeting spark of humor in the Force, but it quickly dissipated into dread and doubt. Obi Wan did not meet his eyes, instead choosing to glower at the deck. "Master Yoda thinks I am like Xanatos," he said, at last. "That you…are making the same mistake about me."
Ah….Qui Gon's brow rumpled slightly. That was so far, so very far from the truth, but an automatic rebuttal on his part would not smother the still smoldering embers of self-doubt. "Why do you think that?" he asked instead, a safe and often useful standby.
"I heard him." His apprentice now favored the flight console with a frown that might have melted durasteel. "And what did he mean about the mind healers?"
Teacher and student owed each other the truth, in a mode befitting their respective roles. "He has ordered us back to Coruscant, and thinks that perhaps you should seek the help of the Temple's soul healers."
Obi Wan's arms folded over his chest in unconscious imitation of his master's stubborn posture. His chin came up, and now he glared out the viewport, suppressed emotion playing faintly over his features. "With respect, master…I do not wish to do so."
The Padawan finally turned to him, eyes glinting with a distant, unarticulated hope.
"However," Qui Gon added. "Should I countenance this obstinate refusal on your part, I expect a return in equal measure. If you will not allow the Temple healers to help you, then you must allow me to do so."
The young Jedi's eyes dropped again. "I cannot meditate," he insisted. "I have tried, master, all these days, as you said, but…it isn't possible."
Qui Gon leaned forward. "I have something more radical in mind," he said. "But you must trust me."
Obi Wan looked up immediately. "I trust you," he said, simply.
Looking at the pure, uncomplicated sincerity written all over the boy's face, Qui Gon realized that he was indeed undoubtedly making not only the same mistake he had made with Xanatos, but on a much grander scale. Yet he found that he didn't care; his heart warmed within him. He would follow his own path, as Yoda said. The affliction which plagued his apprentice might be rooted in the boy's connection to the Unifying Force….but it was the Living Force that would show them a way to healing. It always had, and it always would lead him on his path.. "Then we shall depart immediately," he announced.
"No," Qui Gon smiled. "Somewhere entirely different."
The jump through hyperspace was long; how great a detour from their planned course to Coruscant did this new destination entail? Obi Wan studied the nav computer closely, but he did not recognize the hyperlane in which the ship now sped beyond the bounds of light, nor the far-flung sector and sub-quadrant to which it led. The nearest star system to their plotted reversion point was labeled with an anonymous and uninformative series of numerals. Nothing more, not even the obligatory population and geographical stats.
He glanced up at Qui Gon, aware that the Jedi master was studying him intently.
"This place you are taking me to," Obi Wan couched his question carefully. "It's not in the ship's Republic database. But you know of it from past experience."
Qui Gon gave a small affirmative nod.
"This is a planet known only to the Jedi Archives – one of the secret places. Like Ilum."
Qui Gon's gaze turned to the sworls of hyperspace idly twisting outside the viewport. "The universe is a wonderful place, " he mused. "It is full of secrets and truths. But that does not mean that every one of them should be proclaimed from Coruscant's highest rooftop."
Obi Wan mulled on this for a moment. There were those, he knew, who would find the suggestion that the Jedi kept secrets such as this….offensive. Outrageous. "Is it..inhabited?" he wondered aloud. How much of a secret was he about to encounter? Should he be…concerned?
Qui Gon's eyes warmed a little as they returned to him. "I thought you trusted me?" he teased. "And here you are anticipating a hostile reception or a sinister encounter."
The young Jedi colored slightly. "It is a bad habit, master."
But Qui Gon seemed to be in an indulgent mood. "A habit, perhaps. Only bad if it becomes a distraction. But be at ease: I anticipate that we will be the only sentient beings on the entire planet."
"Pulchris is a world strong in the Living Force, Padawan. There are few places, if any, that can be compared to it. To be there is to breathe the very Force, to feel and touch it, to be filled with its power. Without meditating," he added softly. "It is a conduit."
Obi Wan shook his head, a nameless fear thrilling in his bones. "I…master, I do not think…I cannot go to such a place. Not now. Not after Antar, and Mandirly."
"Do not center on your anxieties, Obi Wan."
That was unfair; were they not headed to this exotic world of Pulchris precisely because of his anxieties? "Master," he objected, forcing his voice to remain level and calm, "I wish to be free of visions, not to incubate more. This does not strike me as wise." For here, and now, he could remain safely sheltered from the Force's cruel revelations; he could remain aloof. In such a place as Qui Gon described…he would drown, be consumed.
"Nonetheless, we are going there."
"I can't! I can't bear it!" the words escaped him before he could regain control. For surely in such a place, the Force would descend upon him in all its pitiless majesty, stripping his soul naked and scourging him with merciless visions, with unbidden truths, with boundless vistas of pain.
"I do not think that is true," Qui Gon assured him gently.
But it was. "My heart will break," he said, trying not to plead. "I cannot do it."
"You have done many things you thought you could not," Qui Gon reminded him. "This will be no different."
Obi Wan inhaled shakily, swallowed. His choice, then, was a simple dichotomy: he could return to Corusacent and the Temple, in pathetic disgrace – a Padawan who had inflicted self-damage while practicing a difficult Force skill, like a clumsy youngling that burned itself with a training saber in the dojo – and hope that the serenity of the Temple and the skill of the healers could soothe his ravaged mind; or he could throw himself headlong into the devastating reality which lay at the invisible terminus of this hyperspace tunnel.
"Yes, master," he said at last, tunring his face away from Qui Gon, hoping to hide at least some of his anguished doubt. He feared the Force itself. Was such a feeling a path to the Dark side? Fear leads to anger, to hate, to suffering. He did not wish to so much as set a foot on that road, but he felt himself dragged inexorably toward despair. It was the Force itself that had violated his spirit on Antar, ripping a hollow wound in his heart, into which evil and cruelty had been poured like bitter acid, burning poison. He had drunk his fill of what the Force offered, and he still reeled with it, sick and weary in spirit. The Dark seemed, in this moment, when his sure refuge and center had betrayed and turned upon him, invincible and omnipotent, overwhelming the beleagured strength and wisdom of the Light.
He closed his eyes and let the chill take his body. He would surrender his heart last of all, but how long he could withstand the protracted siege, he did not know. Bitterness welled up from within; what had he done to deserve such a punishment from the Force he was sworn to serve? Had he been damned from the beginning?
"What did Master Yoda mean when he said you are making the same mistake as you did with Xanatos?" he asked again, the suspicion of a dreadful answer already half-formed in his mind. Let it not be so. He would rather die this instant than have it be so.
Qui Gon's eyes registered surprise and then concern. "That conversation was not for your ears," he replied gently. "You must put it out of your mind. My personal disagreements with Master Yoda are my own."
The reply hurt. It rang hollow in the Force, empty of comfort. But what had he expected – a soothing denial? Qui Gon would not lie to him, ever. What if he were stained with the dark already? A Jedi who feared the Force must be Dark; a Jedi whom the very Force afflicted and tormented must be Dark. Pulchris was perhaps a place of great Light – or why would Qui Gon speak of it with such joy? And if that was so, then perhaps the Jedi master intended it as a test.
He had taken Xanatos back to Telos, to test him. This might be the same. It must be. He saw himself burning, burning with fear, and with the anger that fear inspired, And anger leads to hatred, and thence to suffering. If he fell, would Qui Gon kill him? He hoped so; he dearly hoped so. Would Qui Gon love him enough to kill him before he could be utterly consumed in those flames? He would rather die than burn alive in hatred, burn alive chained to a stake of fear, screaming in the hollow flaming dark, a charred mockery of a Jedi, of a man…
The dream that had so tortured him earlier. It flashed before his mind again. It wasn't Qui Gon and Xanatos he had seen….it was not a scene from the past but from the future. The one left mangled and burning, writhing on the shore of a hellish river, was not Xanatos at all. "It was me," he groaned, "Master! Master – don't leave me there, don't leave me. Kill me, please. Please."
The name barely penetrated his consciousness. For a moment, he could not even say to whom the appellation belonged. But he recognized Qui Gon's gentle wisdom in the voice.
"Where is your center, young one?"
He blinked, gasped in a long breath, feeling Qui Gon's hands clasping the sides of his face, the cold sweat prickling on his skin, the panic drumming beneath his ribs, clawing in his belly. "Master."
"You are badly off-balance, little one."
The endearment was ridiculous; he was nearly grown. "I'm sorry. I –"
"Hush." Qui Gon was a firm anchor, immovable and serene. The panic dissolved, ebbed away. He breathed, slowly. The here and now. Darkness howled and clamored for entrance, for dominion, but here and now there was a fragile sanctuary. "You haven't meditated properly in many days. You haven't reached deeply into the Force in all that time, Padawan. You are adrift without it. "
"Yes, master." His diaphragm spasmed. Adrift and sinking into black waves…he jerked his focus back to the present moment, to Qui Gon.
"We are going to Pulchris, as we went to Ilum so many years ago. There you found a lightsaber crystal; here you must find something even more precious."
Cold with foreboding, he nodded once. "Yes, master."
"You must trust me," Qui Gon said again, gently, one hand still pressed against his cheek.
And he did. At that moment, though he did not trust himself, though he did not even trust the Force, he could still say with certainty and truth that he trusted Qui Gon Jinn. He held firmly to that trust, that beacon and refuge, as the ship bore them ever closer to the mysterious world of Pulchris, and whatever awful mysteries it might hold.
Qui Gon's heart rejoiced to see the dull curve of Pulchris' horizon once again. Like so many other treasures, it presented no spectacular invitation to those who first approached it. Indeed, as they dipped from open space into the world's thin atmosphere, the barren surface stretching below revealed itself to be a desolate wasteland, a crater-pocked and apocalyptic battlefield, a dead plain of dust and shattered rock, devoid of life, devoid of beauty. He glanced sideways at his Padawan, staring at this desolate sight through the viewport, a deep furrow of confusion or concern carved between his eyebrows. The planet's surface was empty and joyless, a perfect mirror of the young Jedi's interior state.
Things are not always as they appear. A smile tugged at his lips; Pulchris was a startling exemplar of this ancient wisdom. He guided their ship over the northern hemisphere, seeking that which he had left behind with great reluctance all those years ago. Soon enough, he recognized the subtle landmarks, the distinctive cracks and scars upon the planet's face. There. He drew nearer to one of the largest craters, a massive hole punched in the planet's crust by some meteor in eons past, a round valley born in fire and violence, sunk deep below the grey waste above. The ship reached the rim of this mighty fortress, descended inward, toward the hollow created by its rough-hewn walls, sank beneath the layer of swirling mist which filled it like the froth of a witch's brew…
Obi Wan's sharp intake of breath was audible over the thrumming drives.
Here, below the planet's deserted and barren surface, embraced by the sides of the crater, a tiny walled paradise thrived – an exquisite garden of hanging plants and flowering trees, fluttering insects and graceful winged creatures. Waterways coursed through it, fed by rains and perhaps by some unknown subterranean spring, meandering among the towering forest and the pockets of meadow, cascading in rippling falls over the terraced stairs of living rock, pooling in bright basins where the flutter of leaves and wings was infinitely reflected. And as they descended yet lower, the Force began to sing.
Qui Gon could feel the sharp thrill of mingled fear and longing seize his apprentice. He lowered the shuttle on repulsors, sinking it onto the soft turf of a small clearing inside the crater's confines, and opened the ramp.
"Shall we?" he suggested.
Obi Wan rose and followed him like a man going to his own execution – collected, serene, smothering dread beneath Jedi calm.
They disembarked into peerless beauty. The entire world contained within the curving walls was alive with a joyful vitality, a deep resounding complexity and unity, the Force concentrated here to such a degree that Qui Gon himself at first felt dizzy, inebriated. He reached a hand to steady Obi Wan, who nearly stumbled into him. He lifted his head and drank in the vision, the smell, the sound….this hidden retreat had not changed. Time did not seem to exist here, in this sanctuary of the Living Force. He breathed deeply, letting its light penetrate his every fiber. And yet it overflowed, spilling endlessly past him, limitless, tremendous.
"Come," he ordered, leading the way into the nearby forest, along the banks of a dancing stream, up a short mossy incline, through a shadowed grove of flowering bushes, into a clearing encircled by a stand of towering, graceful trees. Smooth boulders were scattered through the grassy expanse. Beams of light reached gently through the fretted branches to caress their surfaces, to spill liquid gold upon their faces. Insects fluttered happily in the ascending pillars of fire.
Obi Wan balked at the edge of the clearing, as though hitting an invisible barrier. And indeed, the Force seemed to take on palpable form, filling and pervading the small space until the very sunlight shimmered with a second, ethereal fire. "Master," he pleaded.
Qui Gon reached out to grasp his arm again. "You are Jedi," he reminded the boy. "This is your birthright, and also your burden. You cannot live without the Force, Obi Wan. You cannot turn your face from it without being destroyed. We will meditate here." He stepped forward into the ring of trees, firmly drawing his Padawan along beside him.
They approached one of the largest boulders, a low swell of deep-hued stone rising gently from the earth, its edges worn to silky smoothness by the passing centuries. Sun played along its upper edges. "There," Qui Gon directed. "Lie down."
It was an unusual command, but after a moment's shivering hesitation, Obi Wan obediently stretched out supine on the warm surface, relaxing one anxious muscle at a time and releasing a long calming breath. Qui Gon groped in one of his belt pouches and withdrew a small stone – a polished river rock that Obi Wan had given into his keeping before the Antar mission. He wordlessly handed the tiny object back to his apprentice now.
"My rock," the young Jedi smiled. A gift from Qui Gon on his thirteenth life day, he had carried it on his person ever since.
The tall Jedi stretched out on the warm boulder beside his Padawan, hands folded atop his chest. "Warm it," he suggested.
Obi Wan cast him a suspicious glance – one which said that he knew this was a trick to make him access the Force, against his better judgment - but he closed his eyes and turned the river stone over in his hand once or twice. The Force thrummed around them, responsive, heavy with delight. A moment later, the rock beneath their backs warmed too, as though answering a call, in silent counterpoint to the smaller stone in Obi Wan's hand.
The younger Jedi's eyes flew open. "This boulder…?"
"Yes," Qui Gon murmured. "It is the same. A Rare mineral indeed. All the rock here is. This whole place is. I told you – Pulchris is strong in the Living Force." The stone pulsed with welcome heat beneath their limbs. The air sang, the Light danced, the Force swelled and washed over them, insistent, stirred to motion by their presence.
"We're focal points, aren't we?" Obi Wan whispered, the realization striking him with a cold clarity. "For the Force here."
Qui Gon nodded again. "Yes. The crystal is the heart of the blade; the Jedi is the crystal of the Force. Here, on Pulchris, where the Living Force abounds, you and I are like saber crystals. Relax, Padawan. Let the Force move through you. Let it heal you."
Hand closing tight about the small river stone, Obi Wan bolted upright. His breath came too fast, rippling the Force with echoes of melting dread.. "Master! I don't…I can't …"
"That doesn't matter," Qui Gon told him. "You said you would trust me. Now relax."
His apprentice reluctantly lay back down, tense with awful expectation. Moisture leaked from the corners of his tightly closed eyes. The rock beneath them radiated a soothing heat, suffusing their limbs. The sky overhead slowly darkened. The Force resounded form the earth, the trees, the water, the creatures silently flittering in the air above. It formed a low chorus of infinite elemental voices: rock, water, air, light. It was a rising, ever-present wave, and they were rising upon its crest – no, swimming in its depths, breathing it in, drowning in its radiant depths.
Obi Wan whimpered.
"Relax," Qui Gon commanded, gently. He shifted slightly, pressed one hand flat against his Padawans' belly, just below the ribcage. Muscles tensed beneath his touch. "Obi Wan. Trust me. Trust the Force. You must let go."
"Hush. Stop fighting now. Let go."
And with a colossal act of will, of bottomless courage, his Padawan obeyed. Together, they sank into the Force's embrace.
He was aware of the sun setting, of the planet moving beneath him. Of the swelling power that surrounded them, of Qui Gon quiescent beside him, deep in the same moment, in the Living Force. He trembled, paralyzed by the spiralling silence, by the hushed expectation of something he knew was coming, that he could not stop….he could not remember what. Eyes closed, he saw the heavens overhead melt into a thousand shades of red and gold; the unifying tone sounding in the Force parted, softly, into a thousand separate notes, and he melted with it.
Life stirred and moved around him, through him. The Force. He abandoned fear and surrendered to whatever it might show him, his spirit uncoiling into its music. He saw the outward and felt the inward at once, without distinction, as the gardens of Pulchris unveiled their hidden treasures for his enjoyment, edification, healing.
In the dusking light the meadow revealed a new presence: millions of small flowers, sheathed in dull green corollae, slowly opened their petals and released their fragrance into the cool air, the low thrum that was the Force joined now by a mellifluous new note, a simple melody weaving in and out of the deep sound beneath all sound.
As the light faded further, and the ceiling of the sky cloaked itself in blue and indigo, rustling sounds and the patter of hundreds of small feet, the scurrying and clawing of scaled and furred things, the beating hearts and quick pulsing breaths of tiny lives, made themselves felt in the forest and the long grasses all around. More notes joined the chorus, a multitude of voices each singing a separate thread into existence within the music of balance.
Soon insects began to flutter and hum in the softness above, dancing in the nearly extinct light, exquisite wings and bodies tracing the air with luminance. Larger animals were present, hidden in the deep foliage. A mammal, warm blood pulsing like a tide, simple mind curiously regarding the intruders upon the rock. The circadian rhythm of the plants changed, shifted; photosynthesis ceased, to be replaced by nocturnal expansion and growth, rooting in the rich ashy soil, minute spreading of leaves and fibers, budding and splitting and reaching. The many melodic elements were too many to be felt separately; but he coursed along the knot, the pattern, their fluid living unity, their balance.
Finally, the light faded entirely as the planet turned its ponderous mass slowly on its axis, and the sun disappeared behind the horizon. The atmosphere, no longer suffused by borrowed radiance, was rendered transparent. The endless vault of open space was revealed above. But emptiness was an illusion; the Force flowed everywhere and reduced sizes and distances to points of unity; behind the surging melodies was not silence but a bottomless tone, a plenitude of sound that encompassed all possible sounds. The nature of empty was full.
One by one, the stars and nebulae appeared, bright ornaments strung in the dark heavens. In the fullness beneath and around particular lives, in the Force itself, Tayvor Mandirly was still present in some manner. His actions remained, a living imprint on the Force, a breath of song heard faintly beneath the galaxy's wordless music.
His mind wandered, abandoned, at peace, from the overlapping, interlocking rhythms of lives and elements to the individuals themselves and then back again to the whole harmony, too complex to fathom. Life begot life; unity and beauty fell and rose again in the cycle of being. Darkness was present at the edges, at the center. It struggled against light for supremacy. In the struggle there arose a strange novelty, another dimension – life blossomed into willful purpose, into history, into choice, a focal point for Light or Dark. The struggle and chaos themselves produced a counter-harmony, a new theme, a narrative expressing itself in time rather than timeless rhythm.
And within this theme there was another presence. He was suddenly aware not only of the world around them, but of Qui Gon and himself, both attuned to the Force, witnessing and poised to act within the sphere of interlocking harmonies. Their own lives were contained within the music, the struggle, and yet also outside it, hearing and comprehending it. His own life, Qui Gon's appeared as words within the chorus, voices improvising and building upon the theme – accepting the vast pattern, serving it, but somehow creating something new within it.
Fluttering moths appeared all about them, brushing against his hands, his face. They sparkled like stars. One landed, briefly, on his open palm resting limp against the warm rock. It lingered, luminous wings gently wavering. He did not try to grasp at it. The beautiful creature moved onward again, like a vision, like an insight, like a memory….the past and the present, the balance of action and stillness, the play of free will within the whole cosmos, fluttered around him n a living stream, an enchanting carillion, inviting him to join, to sing with the Light or to embrace utter silence with the Dark.
I stand with the Light.
And then the whole rising music: melody, harmony, underlying unity, chorus of voices, all of it, appeared for one blinding moment together, a stunning impossible refraction of light into color and tone and motion, the Living Force itself, unveiled. It was a sweet blow, a devastating piercing discovery, far more powerful than the glimpse of darkness that had so crushed his heart when he found Mandirly in the fields of Antar. The sheer beauty of it threatened to shatter him; he could not remain, he could not stay present within it -
Abruptly, he was himself. The boulder still hummed with warmth beneath his stiff back, aching limbs. His breath rose and fell, his heart pounded slowly. Overhead, dawn light crept into the sky. His spirit was awash in a deep peace, his balance restored. Pulchris sighed in contentment, its quiet splendor veiling itself with the rising sun. He squinted at the silhouettes of the trees appearing in purple outline against the faint light. Dawn….he had been in a meditative trance all night ?
"Master?" he croaked. His voice came out a mere whisper.
Qui Gon's chuckle seemed to echo a music he had heard somewhere….someplace..
"Here." The tall Jedi handed him a canteen. He drank thirstily of Pulchris' pure spring water. Nothing had ever tasted so sweet. He handed it back empty. The sun rose higher, birds twittered.
"I'm tired," he said. He was empty, and yet full. He looked at Qui Gon helplessly.
Another smile, a mere crinkling of lines around the master's grey eyes. "It has been a day and a half. I should not be surprised that you were."
Obi Wan gazed in disbelief at the clearing, the sentinel trees. A day and a half? Light broke over the walls of the crater, and golden beams warmed the air. He slid off the rock, onto the soft turf beside it, his legs shaking beneath him.
"Easy," Qui Gon advised, lowering him to the ground and sitting down beside him. They leaned against the warm boulder's mass, side by side. "How are you, Padawan?"
The light filled the grove, warmed the stone behind them, wafted in the scented air. The Force hummed with peace. "I'm…fine, master." What words could he say? He no longer feared the Force, or its commands, or its visions. He was Jedi; he would accept it all, no matter how difficult. The light outshone the dark, always and everywhere. He had found his center again.
"Good." Qui Gon's arm came around his shoulders. Morning light caressed them, chimed in the warm air, swelled in his every breath, a tranquil lullaby. The Force.
A still-unanswered question floated into his blurring mind. "Master? What did Yoda mean about making the same mistake with me as you did with Xanatos?"
Qui Gon's sigh was also a resigned laugh. "Persistent as ever, I see." He paused. They watched the morning unfold. 'Master Yoda accuses me of having formed an unsuitable and deep-seated attachment."
His head tipped forward, drifted down against Qui Gon's shoulder, the warm folds of his cloak. "Defying the Council again," he muttered.
"Hm." Qui Gon didn't seem to care. He never did. The light was warm, soothing, tranquil. The arm around his shoulders tightened. He relaxed, empty and yet full. The Force surrounded them, pervaded them.
He slept without dreaming.
Qui Gon allowed his Padawan to answer Master Yoda's comm. directly. He made himself busy checking the ship's nav computer, the drive regulators, their fuel gauge. Then he opened the small refuse incinerator and shoved in the four crushed flight ration containers that remained after their hasty meal. One for himself; three for a ravenous Obi Wan, whose appetite had returned in full measure with his mischievous wit.
"Ha!" Yoda's hologrammatic ghost exclaimed. "Young Obi Wan! Good it is to see you, it is. Expected back at the Temple two days ago, you and Master Jinn were."
"We made a detour, master. I am sorry for the delay. It was my fault."
The ancient Jedi's eyes narrowed, but his expression was mild. "Detour, hm? Ready to return now, are you?"
The Padawan glanced sideways, off-camera, at his mentor. "No, master, not if there will be healers on the docking pad. I should much prefer to stay in the field."
Yoda's snort was a sharp rebuttal. "Meet you myself, I shall. Avoid me also, will you?"
"Ah…no, master. Of course not."
"Speak to your master I will then, also.. Avoid me he cannot either."
Obi Wan's smirk, this time cast over his shoulder in Qui Gon's general direction, was alight with subtle merriment.
Qui Gon raised a repressive eyebrow.
"Yes, Master Yoda, I'm sure he is looking forward to that meeting."
The revered Jedi master raised his gnarled stick at the Padawan. "Need your irony, I do not," he chuffed. But there was little real bite in the words.
Obi Wan bowed his head, not quite repentant. "Forgive me, master. We will be arriving in eleven standard hours."
The diminutive Grand Master signed off, leaving them in relative peace inside the shuttle's cockpit. "A valiant effort," Qui Gon observed, "But you are, I fear, in for a thorough grilling by the mind healers when we arrive back at the Temple."
Obi Wan shrugged. "They will survive the experience, I'm sure," he said diffidently.
Qui Gon suppressed a chuckle at this bit of impudence.
"Besides, master, it looks as though you are in for a thorough grilling by Master Yoda." Some of the sparkle faded from the young Jedi's eyes.
Qui Gon placed a hand on his shoulder. "It was well worth it," he assured his apprentice.
Obi Wan offered his own small smile in exchange, and turned back to the console. A moment later, they had disappeared into the smearing light of hyperspace, leaving Pulchris, and many dark memories, behind.