Jedi Master Qui Gon Jinn folded his arms across his broad chest in defiance. "We have spoken on this matter before, and I believe I am more than justified in my refusal," he stated, forcing his mellifluous voice to remain level and calm.
The diminutive green master hovering beside him, seated in his repulsor-chair with the easy imperiousness of a much more magnificent tyrant, twitched his long ears and smiled. A rather smug smile, Qui Gon thought. "Hmph. Testy you are. To persuade you again I will not try. Discussed your decision the Council has. Decided best it would be for all to uphold your refusal."
"The Council agrees? With me? About this?" the tall Jedi asked, his leonine face darkening with the shadow of some emotion. "May I ask why?"
Yoda snorted. "Doubt your own wisdom, do you? The reasons you have already given us, many times over. Tiresome to beat a dead gundark it is."
The emotion faintly discernible on Qui Gon's face smoothed away at the touch of his will. "I refer to the Council's reasons," he corrected, though he knew the ancient Jedi's misunderstanding had been quite deliberate.
"Not your affair are the Council's private deliberations," he was rebuffed. "Enough for you is this: advised you are not to seek another Padawan."
"I see," the tall man replied, though he most certainly did not.
"Good," Yoda chuffed, and with a single burning look at his interlocutor, he directed the chair forward down the hall, away on his next errand.
Qui Gon stood and looked after him for a long minute. Then he released a short, frustrated breath, and strode away in the opposite direction, his long legs carrying him quickly down the broad, light-drenched concourse.
At forty-five years old, Qui Gon still had the energy and strength of a man at least ten years younger; and so it was that he found himself in the senior dojo, happily dispelling any traces of suspicion or ill temper through a vigorous and extended saber training session. He challenged each and every Knight and master to enter the main salle, and a number of their older Padawans as well. Twenty opponents and twenty victories later, he was considering whether he ought to seek out Cin Drallig and challenge the swordsmaster himself – just for amusement – when he was surprised by an unexpected visitor to the sparring arena.
"Why, Qui Gon," the elegant silver-bearded man smiled at him. "I see that time hath not staled thy infinite variety…though I must say, it has frosted your beard a trifle."
The tall Jedi master deactivated his weapon and made the newcomer a very deep bow. "Master Dooku," he said respectfully. The man standing before him had been his teacher for many years, and he this man's Padawan learner, bound to him by an ancient and well-nigh sacred oath. "It has been a long time since our last meeting."
Dooku glanced about the room, his eyes dark and sharp as a hawk's, set deeply either side of his aristocratic nose. When he was satisfied that they had relative privacy, he activated his own saber and saluted his former pupil. Qui Gon noted that it was not a training saber in the older Jedi's hand, but the elegant green blade which he carried always, with its distinctive curving hilt. "Have you forgotten what little Makashi you ever managed to learn?" Dooku queried in a stern voice, half teasing, half serious.
"What is the penalty if I do not meet your expectations?" Qui Gon replied.
Dooku swept his blade around in an elegant flourish. "Dinner with me – and meek acceptance of any advice I may wish to bestow between appetizer and dessert."
"I see," Qui Gon said for the second time that day. Again, he did not quite see at all what his elder wanted from him. However, he was very clear on what he wanted. He flashed into his leading attack as suddenly as a blizzard on Hoth.
The mock duel that followed was a sight to behold, but it did not issue into Qui Gon's twenty-first victory of the day.
"Your Makashi was appalling," Dooku sighed, turning the narrow stem of a wine glass between his neatly manicured fingers. "Still, I must admit you aquitted yourself well. They say you are now one of the greatest swordsmen in the Order. You do your old master proud."
Qui Gon offered a tight smile in return. He refused wine from the droid waiter.
"Don't be offended by the…ah…excess," Dooku warned him, waving a hand to encompass the opulent interior of the exclusive dining establishment in the penthouse level of Coruscant's most exclusive hotel. "The owner is a cousin of mine. The poor fellow takes it as a personal insult if I don't show up once a year or so."
Qui Gon shook his head. Dooku was an ascetical man – but he had very refined taste. It was amusing that his former mentor's idea of compassion should be so conveniently linked to the finest wines and most exotic culinary delicacies.
"It has been too long, " Dooku continued, meditatively. "I was very sorry to hear about DuCrion, you know."
That had Qui Gon jolting to attention. Three years had passed, and he could sometimes forget that… "Xanatos turned," he said heavily. "I do not deserve your condolences. As his master, the tragedy is partially my fault."
"Indeed? The boy was talented, well bred…and he chose to remain at his hereditary seat, fulfilling the role which was his by birthright. I see no great tragedy, only a difficult choice between two paths."
"He turned on me," Qui Gon insisted. "He embraced anger, and he made a vow of revenge. That is the Dark."
"Yes, I am sorry about that," Dooku assured him smoothly. "And when will you take another Learner?"
"You know full well that I have forsworn teaching. And you can easily see why."
"Not at all. You did marvelously with your first Padawan. And DuCrion was ... exceptionalluy well trained."
Qui Gon drained a glass of water scented with citrus and delicate floral essences. "The Council has recommended that I do not take another student," he answered. "SO you see, even Yoda will admit that Xanatos is a failure not to be dismissed."
But here Dooku surprised his guest by breaking into a short, barking laugh. His eyes glittered with sharp humor. "No, no," he said. "You are mistaken. I did not sit on the Council for all those years to know nothing of their internal workings. Xanatos has nothing to do with it, let me assure you. They are simply afraid that you are a…well…unwholesome influence. What? You must admit, Qui Gon, that you are not exactly a company man."
The tall Jedi's face stilled. "You are suggesting that the Council thinks any Padawan of mine will be instilled with rebellious, independent qualities? With a habit of questioning authority? That I will leave a line of mavericks as my legacy?"
Dooku raised one hand in an eloquent gesture and offered a very understated shrug. Qui Gon merely glowered, silently absorbing this all too likely truth.
We'll see about that, he thought.
Master Troon Palo, chaperone and beloved veteran caretaker of the Dragon Clan, widened his deep amber eyes when he opened the doors to see Qui Gon Jin standing placidly on the threshold to the initiates' quarters.
"To what do we owe this pleasure?" the enormous, furry Jedi growled, making a short bow to his human colleague.
"I find myself detained on Coruscant for two days due to a transport delay. I wondered if perhaps you are planning an exhibition tournament in the near future?"
Troon's mouth quirked into a feral smile, his sharp teeth peeking over his deep purple lips. "Not in the next two days, Master Jinn," he answered slyly. "However, you are welcome to join us as a guest. The younglings are just preparing for morning exercise. I'm sure they would be honored to meet you."
And so, before he could change his mind again, Qui Gon found himself introduced to a gaggle of children ranging in age from nine to twelve standard years, a colorful and unruly sea of hair, scales, horns, and lekku sprouting from the top of their heads, which was all he could see of them as they very dutifully made him a deep bow.
"Off you go. A quick snack and ten minutes' break, and then I want you lined up at this door. Stragglers will be dealt with," Troon added in a stentorian voice which rumbled with unspoken threat. The shrieks and giggles this statement inspired brought Qui Gon fond memories of his own time in the protective enclave of the younglings' dormitory.
Brushing aside sentiment, he found himself a seat in the spacious play and living area, and reached into the Living Force to get a feel for thesechildren. He sensed immediately that the vast majority were too shy or intimidated by his presence to approach him on their own initiative. A few were terrified, one or two resentful of his intrusion, and one…Qui Gon opened his eyes, his gaze locking onto that of a chestnut-haired human boy across the room. A pair of blue eyes stared back into his own with open, unabashed curiosity.
Qui Gon waved the boy over with the universal hand gesture for come here, but the boy responded with a tiny shake of the head, a deeply apologetic look, and a short bow. Qui Gon then raised his eyebrows, and was startled to see the boy echo the expression, a fleeting lop-sided smile playing around his mouth. Young scamp, the tall Jedi thought, as he stood to carefully thread his way across the room to where the bold child stood leaning against the wall.
He crouched down on eye level with the boy. "Is there a reason you don't wish to part company with that wall?" he inquired, looking the youngling directly in the face.
The child colored a little, ashamed at his minor disobedience, but he quickly looked up again into Qui Gon's face, that elusive smile still tugging at his mouth. "I'm sorry , master," he said in a crisp accent that marked him as the scion of an upper class Core family. "But I don't like to expose my back to a crowded room. Especially at snack time," he added, the ephemeral smile finally blossoming into a full fledged smirk.
Qui Gon felt the tremor in the Force and snapped a hand behind his back to catch the flying muja fruit before it impacted. He wheeled round; the child who had launched the projectile was frozen, mouth open in a small "o" of dismay, his shock of white hair matched by his white face.
Troon Palo's roar of disapproval shook the rafters.
"I hope Master Troon won't be too hard on Bruck, "Qui Gon's new acquaintance confided. He had to take two steps to every one of the Jedi master's enormous strides.
"Why is that?"
"It's difficult to explain. But it would be hard to feel sorry for Bruck and to –um.."
Qui Gon waited, but the child had hastily swallowed the rest of his words.
"You mean that it would be hard to resent him and feel pity for him at the same time?"
Pit, pat, pit, pat,pit, pat. The boy kept pace beside him. "Um…yes, master."
"To feel resentment is unworthy, young one," Qui Gon told him gravely. "You should welcome the feeling of pity if it drives resentment out of your heart."
Pit pat, pit pat, pit pat. The boy was thinking it over. Qui Gon waited, and stopped before a turbolift.
"What if one felt pity for someone who did a wrong thing?" the boy asked as they entered the gleaming lift compartment. "And it drove out resentment of their bad actions? Then wouldn't you feel sympathy for an individual more than desire for the right?"
Qui Gon's jaw dropped momentarily. Since when had Chakora Seva's philosophical conundrums become common texts for the initiate classes? "Where did you read that?" he demanded, more sharply than he intended.
The youngling glanced up, startled by his vehemence. "I -I didn't," he said. "Did I say something to offend you, master?"
"No," the tall Jedi assured him. "You simply took me off guard." The lift slowed and the doors opened, issuing them into the Room of a Thousand Fountains. "Come walk with me some more," he invited, and the boy happily trotted forward, almost skipping in the cool, moisture laden air. Qui Gon chuckled a little at his antics, and turned toward a favorite path. Then he stopped, and deliberately chose a new path, a narrow trail of stepping stones he seldom used. The boy followed him, at once cheerful and solemn, jumping over the stones three at a time, content to leave Qui Gon to his thoughts.
The stone bench provided a stunning view of the waterfall. They sat watching the spray dance and billow in the air, coating the drooping fronds of plants with millions of glistening droplets.
"May I ask you a few questions?" Qui Gon broke the silence.
The boy kicked his legs a little; he was not so tall that they reached the mossy ground. "Yes," he said, still watching the cascade of water.
"Tell me: what is in your heart about the boy named Bruck? The truth."
"Well….I want somebody to make him be good," the boy responded.
"How does one do that?" Qui Gon prompted.
"I don't know. Really he has to make himself," the child amended. "But perhaps someone could inspire him."
The talk Jedi noted the careful, experimental use of a new vocabulary word. "Hm. You mean by example?"
The boy turned to him, eyes solemn. "Possibly," he said. A beat. "Or some other way." His mouth twitched and his eyes began to sparkle again.
"You mean with a saber?" Qui Gon guessed, keeping his expression neutral.
The boy's legs kicked faster. "Maybe," he said. He kept his chin tucked into his chest, fighting down a surge of glee at the prospect.
Qui Gon studied him for a moment. "What about you? Are you trying every day to be as good as you want Bruck to be?"
The child glanced up at him. "No, I want to be more than that," he stated with certainty.
"Well...," the boy said, that ghost of humor fluttering over his features and down Qui Gon's spine. "I want to be inspirational." He turned back to the waterfall, eyes dancing.
It had been a long time since Qui Gon had laughed so hard.
"Are you hungry?" the tall Jedi asked two hours later.
"Most the time," the boy admitted.
"No surprise. I remember well how it felt to be growing so fast. How old are you now?" Qui Gon led the way out the west exit, and headed down the corridor for a dining hall on that level. It was time for noon-meal, and they should be able to find a small table.
"Ten. But it would be forty-nine on Vetruvia."
"Forty-nine? Stars. Perhaps I should call you master."
"Oh, no," the boy prattled away. He hesitated, doing some mental math. "You would be, um.., three hundred something I think."
Qui Gon winced at the implied estimate of his age.
"And Master Yoda," the youngling continued cheerfully, "Would be about a million years old there. They have a birthing day ceremony, you know, which involves this intoxicating drink called fermis. And you have to drink one cup of it for each year of life, so I was just supposing…"
"Best not to think too much about it," Qui Gon advised. "Here. Sit down. I'll bring us back some food." He ignored the questioning and curious looks which he earned from others in the hall. If he wished to eat noon-meal with some particular youngling for no particular reason, was it anyone's business but his own?
True to his word, the boy proved to be quite hungry and laid into the meal with a relish that suggested this was his ordinary condition. "Do you ever skip meals on a mission?" he asked Qui Gon conversationally.
"I'm afraid so," the Jedi master smiled.
"Then you should eat more now," the boy advised.
"Perhaps I have better focus when I'm slightly famished," Qui Gon suggested.
The boy tilted his head to one side, considering. He considered through the next three mouthfuls and a long drink of blue milk.
"The Vetruvians fast for a week when they want to consult their oracle," he said at last. "But Madame Nu said that was a form of auto-flagellation."
"She did? What does that mean?"
"I don't know," the boy shrugged. "But she frowned so it's bad."
Qui Gon could well imagine the archivist's dour expression as she made this remark. "So you've been studying Vetruvia. You must enjoy the Archives."
The child nodded. "But not as much as saber practice."
Of course not, Qui Gon thought. Of course not.
"Obi Wan?" Troon Palo repeated. "No, nobody has made a request for him yet. But he's only ten, you know. And human males are notoriously immature at that age. I don't really expect-"
"Tell me the worst of it now," Qui Gon ordered.
The clan master leaned back in his chair and waved the office door shut with one enormous furry hand. "Impatient," he said.
"Sharp tongue. Impertinent little blighter."
"Intelligent," Qui Gon decided.
"Too much so. Very cunning. Wicked sense of humor, too."
"Not necessarily a fault, Troon."
"Granted. What else? Eats his weight each day, but that's normal. Occasional insomniac. Nightmares and so on. Might have prescient visions."
"You asked for the worst. Imagine that at fifteen, my friend."
"Three levels ahead of age group in saber. Might give you a run for your money."
"I doubt it. Three levels?"
"Burned Senior Padawan Asaro last week during a demonstration."
"Yes. Djem-So attack three right across the backside. Very fast and hard."
"Good for him," Qui Gon grunted. He did not care for Asaro's inflated ego.
"The boy's cute."
"How is that a fault?" Qui Gon asked, perplexed.
Troon leaned forward. "Because he'll wrap you right around his finger. You'll fall in love with him, fail to discipline him properly, indulge all his vices, and make a monster out of him. That's the worst part of all."
"I take it you don't approve," Qui Gon replied, eyebrows raised.
"Approve of what?" Troon grinned. ":You haven't requested anything."
"That's right," Qui Gon shot back, and took his leave.
"Made inquiries in initiate quarters, you did." Yoda's tone was rich with disapproval.
"I have the right to do so," Qui Gon pointed out mildly. He kept walking.
"Hmmph. Not looking for Padawan, are you?" the ancient master asked pointedly.
"I promise you, master, that I am not looking for a Padawan," Qui Gon answered tranquilly. "Nor will I be for quite some great number of years."
"What?" Yoda's ears perked in mock surprise. "Submitting to advice of Council, are you, Master Jinn? Call a healer should I?"
The tall Jedi took a few more paces. "No, master," he said beatifically. "I feel quite well." He offered his deepest bow and turned a convenient corner.
"There's something different about you today," Tahl said, her golden eyes sliding across him, penetrating his façade with ease.
"I'm a day older and a day wiser," he suggested.
"You're forty years older and a day wiser," she corrected him.
"As you say." Qui Gon drew in a deep breath and savored the subtle aroma of the tea. His two hands dwarfed the tiny porcelain bowl, but he held it with practiced grace.
"Hm." Tahl drank from her cup and returned it to its place, held between two hands level with the solar plexus. "You're plotting another act of defiance."
Qui Gon took a drink in his turn and returned the bowl to starting position. He met her gaze levelly. "I am plotting nothing."
"Liar. You're …already well-entrenched in an act of defiance."
"I do things besides wreak havoc and sow mayhem," he said peevishly.
"I should like to learn of such things," Tahl quipped.
He set his bowl down and she echoed the action. Silence stretched between them.
"You're taking a Padawan!" she exclaimed.
"I'm leaving on an extended mission at first light. Don't be ridiculous."
"That's ironic coming from you."
"And that's a compliment, coming from you."
Tahl gathered up both bowls, her strong fingers brushing lightly against his. "Come back safely," she said. "May the Force be with you."
"Will you meditate with me tonight, little one?"
"I – oh. Yes, Master Jinn. Only-"
"I've already informed Master Palo. Don't fret."
The boy pattered along beside him again, only his mood was intangibly different. There was a stormcloud overshadowing the bright, lively mind.
"You're leaving tomorrow, master, aren't you?"
Qui Gon found an empty meditation room, just a spare chamber off the hall, outfitted with a lamp and three or four round cushions. A simple floral inlay adorned the walls, nothing more. He pointed to one of the cushions and waited while the boy settled himself down, moving through fidgets and then restlessness to a ready calm. He sat cross legged opposite.
"I have a mission, yes. And it may take a little while. Several weeks at least. I would like to speak with you again when I return."
The child nodded, wide eyed.
"Tell me why you were looking at me so intently yesterday morning, when I entered the clan playroom."
To Qui Gon's astonishment, the boy blushed deeply. "Oh. I recognized you," he muttered.
"I don't remember meeting you before," the Jedi master prompted.
"I…had a dream," the boy explained. "You were in it. Not a regular dream," he added. "One from the Force. Do you ever…?"
Qui Gon shook his head. "Not often. But some Jedi do. If you do, then it is important for you to learn how to manage them and how to understand them properly. Will you tell me what happened in this dream which I stumbled into?"
A tentative smile. "You were not so tall in the dream."
"No. You were only a little bigger than me, actually. And we were fighting together. With sabers. Mine is blue."
"In the dream?"
"Well….I mean, it's going to be blue. We were fighting and running. And swimming too I think. You were fast and it was hard to keep up but I'm pretty fast too when I try hard. Bant is ridiculously fast, but she's Mon Cal.:"
"Is that all that happens in the dream?"
"I don't really remember. I'm sorry. Master Troon said not to grasp at it."
"He gave you sound advice. It's not important. Now, are you ready?"
Qui Gon waited patiently. "What's bothering you?"
"You're not coming back." The youngling said simply, his blue eyes pleading for some sort of reassurance or solid evidence to the contrary.
Qui Gon released a breath. "Whether I come back or not, it is the will of the Force," he said finally. "You must keep your focus in the present moment, little one."
It wasn't what the boy had wanted, but he dipped his head. "Yes, master."
Qui Gon left the next morning, his heart full of this conversation and their shared meditation afterward. He did indeed come back – but not for two and a half years.
And he found that much had changed.