Part 8: A Beginning
Master BenTo Li stroked his thin beard pensively. "Technically, I can't tell you anything. Information like that is only released to a master or the crèche director. We do observe privacy, Qui Gon."
The tall man shifted in exasperation. "I see."
The healer squinted sideways at him. "You see another regulation you'd like to flout," he observed trenchantly. "It's a matter of principle. For both of us."
Qui Gon sighed. "Will you release him back to Troon's clan?"
BenTo made a face. "No. I don't think that would be a good idea… he's likely to disturb the younger crechelings, with the nightmares and the general post-tramautic symptoms. The younglings are very attuned to one another's moods, of course, and they haven't the experience to always interpret such things aright, nor to deal well with them. On the other hand, your boy's going to drive my staff up a wall if I keep him here. It's a dilemma."
"Did I say that?" BenTo asked, slyly. "A slip of the tongue. Ideally, we would find a resident master willing to sponsor him for a few days, or weeks, until he can return to duty. I understand he's stationed on Bandomeer with the Ag-Corps?"
"Misinformation," Qui Gon replied. "He's entering an apprenticeship as soon as the Council approves it."
"Really?" Master Li's bushy eyebrows twitched upward. "That's not what he told me."
"He's a handful, BenTo. You had better find a proper guardian soon."
The healer snorted. "I think I have. Please, my friend, show compassion and take the boy off my hands."
Qui Gon bowed deeply. "I am here to serve."
The corridors were not crowded at this time of morning. Obi Wan followed sedately in the tall man's footsteps until Qui Gon finally came to a stop and gestured him forward. "Here," the Jedi master said, steering him into position beside him. "I need you where I can keep an eye on you."
They traversed the familiar halls, wending their way toward the residents' quarters, making a brief detour to pick up more holobooks in the Archives.
"More on Vetruvia?" the assistant archivist enquired politely, recognizing Obi Wan at once. She cast Qui Gon a curious glance, wide elliptical eyes brimming with curiosity, but of course she asked nothing. Temple culture valued circumspection above all else.
"No," the young Jedi replied, disappearing into one of the towering library aisles. "Phindar, I think. And some other things." He returned in a few minutes with a hefty stack of glowing volumes.
Qui Gon lifted the topmost and raised on eyebrow at the title. "Historical Battle of Khuat'ar? With detailed analysis of strategic keypoints? What would Master Li say?"
"Master Li thinks the indigenous tribes would have conquered had they not deployed forces into the swamps regions during the second territorial skirmish. I think it hardly matters, because the invasion army had already occupied their only habitable moon by that time, and would have besieged the capitol shipping lanes anyway."
"So you're going to do research to prove him wrong?"
Obi Wan's eyes widened innocently. "To find out the truth."
"It isn't always to be found in books," Qui Gon pointed out mildly as they exited the solemn repository of learning.
"If I can't convince him through rational argument, then I'll have to inspire him instead," the boy informed him, mouth quirking upward at the corners.
"You are supposed to be resting, not picking fights with Master Li," Qui Gon gently chided. "And it is my onerous task to enforce that recommendation. Just a little further. My quarters are on the next level."
But fights had a way of finding Obi Wan, whether he sought them out or not. As they exited the turbolift on the fifth level east mezzanine, they came face to face with Bruck Chun. Qui Gon swept past with only the barest of nods, but his young counterpart hesitated.
Chun's pale eyes narrowed. "Back so soon?" he murmured, in a low and dangerous tone. "Too high and mighty for Ag-Corps, Kenobi?"
Obi Wan excused himself, but the other boy subtly blocked his path. "So," he continued, gaze flicking to the Jedi master waiting a few paces distant, "How does it feel to be taking the lecture instead of delivering it?"
The two boys locked eyes.
"I can still deliver, Chun."
"Tonight, after curfew," the tow-headed challenger hissed.
But Obi Wan adroitly sidestepped him, with a half bow of dismissal. "I don't think so."
"Coward," the other shot after him, but the remark was received with a half-shrug of indifference and nothing more. Obi Wan rejoined Qui Gon, and they headed down the passageway together.
Tahl called the next morning.
"I hear you've adopted another pathetic life form." She entered without invitation, setting the Force alight with lovely radiance. Qui Gon poured her tea without asking.
"He terrorized BenTo and the healers so they've delegated responsibility," he explained.
"Sounds like just your sort," she smiled, sipping sedately from the delicate bowl.
They turned in unison to behold a forlorn apparition emerging from the second bedroom. Obi Wan bowed deeply to both masters and then moved to join them at a signal from Qui Gon.
"How are your researches progressing?" the Jedi master inquired.
A deep furrow appeared between the boy's brows. "I think Master Li was right," he admitted mournfully.
"Ah, bitter defeat indeed," Qui Gon said wryly. "Master Li is an expert on the history of galactic warfare and especially guerrilla conflicts. You were rash to challenge him."
Tahl scrutinized the boy carefully. "At least you can admit to error, unlike Master Jinn," she observed. "That's a positive sign."
Obi Wan cast a furtive glance at Qui Gon, startled by the abusive tenor of her remark, then dipped his head politely. "With respect, I only admitted that Master Li was right, not that I was wrong."
Tahl smiled and finished her tea. "You're a brave man, Qui."
The nights were not so cheerful.
On the first, there had been three nightmares; on the second, he discovered the boy curled on the refresher floor, in the aftermath of a sick spell. The Force was disturbed, unsteady, a nauseating panoply of shadow and light.
He slid down the wall and sat on the floor himself. "Why do you think that?"
"I chose death for all those people. And I was angry when the Whiphids attacked me. And I abandoned Mixo Asaro because I was selfish."
Qui Gon centered himself in the Light, anchored them both in its warmth, dispelled some of the ravenous night gathering in the corners and edges of the small room. "I know you see things that way. But I think, in this case, you should admit to error. Tahl was very impressed with you earlier."
"She doesn't know me. I'm no better than Xanatos. Master Dooku should have cut us both down. I'm going to Turn."
The Jedi master frowned over the conundrum huddled beside him. Light danced over the boy fondly, full of promise and hidden purpose. "Is that what you truly want?"
"No! But everything I've done has led to suffering. I tried to leave the Temple.. I tried to fix the situation on the Monument… I tried to save Guerra… it all ended up going wrong. I don't understand."
That was a good sign, though. "Then I want you to meditate on this: what has been lacking in all your choices thus far? I think perhaps that when you discover that missing piece your path will not seem so shadowed anymore."
Obi Wan looked up at him, beleaguered hope battling to overcome a rising tide.
It was a beginning.
Dooku returned to the Temple.
"I'll stay here, if you wish to speak with him privately," Tahl offered.
Qui Gon hesitated, heart clenching in his chest. But the truth must be faced, no matter how painful. "Thank you," he murmured, quietly. Her fingertips brushed against his as she slid past him, across the threshold.
"I'll entertain Obi Wan," she assured him when he did not move.
"Why don't you tell him about your mission to Vetruvia all those years ago?" he suggested. "He has a special interest in the culture."
Tahl's exquisite brows arched upward. "Vetruvia? I won't ask."
He still did not move.
"Go," she urged him.
So he went, letting the door slide closed behind him, an opaque barrier between past and future. He steadied his breath and armored himself in the present moment, and whatever truth it brought.
He went to find Dooku, and his steps did not falter.
He bowed to the Jedi who had once been his master – guide, mentor, teacher… though never quite father figure. Dooku had aged with the passing decades. His aristocratic face was deeply lined, his dark hair streaked with wide swaths of silver. Weariness lurked in his gaze – not a weariness that devoured his sprightly physical energy; rather one that gnawed at the soul. Qui Gon wondered at that. Would he too be so weighted with age in twenty years? Yoda did not seem half the age of this man, though he was well over eight hundred years old.
Dooku's cloak was almost ebony, it was so dark. He nodded grimly in the direction of the outside balcony. "Walk with me," he invited, a degree of softness in his inflection.
"He said Shadows had been sent to watch him," Qui Gon said at length.
There was no question of whom he spoke. The older man's mouth tightened. "Your disapproval is ill-placed," he chastised his former Padawan. "The Order is well aware of the dangers posed by its excommunicated members. A lapsed Jedi is one step from a Sith."
"The Sith have been extinct for a thousand years. And you yourself said that his choice was understandable, a difficult one to make. He chose natural bonds over Force given ones."
Dooku's shoulders rose slightly, then relaxed. "At first."
"To be watched….he was prone to nerviness. Such action may have driven him to paranoia."
"Doubtless," Dooku replied. "A good sculptor, Qui Gon, uses the chisel to best effect upon natural fault lines."
They stopped. "The Council provoked him into a fall?" Qui Gon felt the hair rise on the nape of his neck, a chill spread from his center out to every limb. His pulse beat hard, defiant, outraged, in his ears.
His former mentor waved a dismissive hand at him. "Such melodrama, Qui Gon. A flawed thing does not break because of the test; the test reveals what is already the case. There was no scheme to destroy DuCrion."
They walked again. "You did not kill him."
"There was no need."
They walked, and Qui Gon did not see the beauty of the Temple around them, nor the others who passed by.
"You volunteered. Why?"
"I felt a concern in the matter because DuCrion was once your concern."
In his foolish youth, Qui Gon might have misinterpreted this as affection, or paternal feeling. He was wiser now, and their relationship was therefore more harmonious, less prone to misunderstanding. Dooku felt responsibility – ownership – for what proceeded in his lineage. That was all.
"He does not care for imprisonment," Dooku remarked coldly. "But time will tell. I will oversee his case myself, of course."
"Of course. Thank you, master."
Dooku nodded, regally. "It is my duty." Gratitude was not necessary, for there had been no gift given.
They stopped at the base to the Coucnil spire. "I must make the report now," Dooku told him. "May the Force be with you."
And then he was gone, the burnished lift doors closing between them, as gleaming and flawless as their former partnership, as the cold and perfect understanding between them.
Obi Wan was chattering animatedly to Tahl when he returned.
"And then he informed me that he made his living on Phindar by means of unstealing items pilfered by other individuals or corporate interests. He's even invented a device for hacking computer security systems. I forget what he called it… but he takes an indecent pride in the accomplishment. I should like to meet this brother of his, though: Paxxi sounds a bit like Garen Muln. He was in the Dragon Clan with me, only he joined the pilot program last year. Did you know him, master?"
Tahl shook her head. "Sadly, no. Does your friend Garen unsteal things as well?"
Obi Wan smirked. "Garen has only ever indulged in straightforward thievery, such as taking extra rations from the commissary, or other people's blankets on a cold ni-" His jest broke off sharply at Qui Gon's entrance.
Tahl slewed about. "Qui."
They all three stood, embarrassed by his grief. Obi Wan discreetly disappeared into the smaller bedroom, trailing his own cloud of misgiving. Tahl frowned after him.
"We'll talk later," he said heavily. "I should.."
"Yes," she agreed. "You should move on."
He nodded. Tahl always understood. He turned to her, wishing to express the gratitude welling in his heart, but she simply smiled and melted away through the door, as elusive as the words which hung unspoken between them.
"He's dead, too, isn't he?"
Qui Gon sat on the edge of the bed, cleared the pile of holobooks off the rumpled coverlet. "No. He is..imprisoned."
"Imprisoned?" the boy repeated. "But –"
"There are… places… where a fallen Jedi might be safely held," Qui Gon explained, cautiously. "In hopes that he will eventually come back to the Light."
Obi Wan watched him, face blank. "Prisons."
"The Dark Side is a prison worse than any other, " Qui Gon replied. "Anything else is merely protection for those outside it."
The boy twisted his fingers together, then deliberately stilled his hands. He looked up, eyes questing over Qui Gon's face, a faint line marring his forehead. "It's worse than death," he said.
"Yes," Qui Gon sighed. "I did not mean to disturb you with my grief, Obi Wan. I will meditate and release it to the Force. And we can discuss it more later, if you wish."
The young Jedi still watched him, pity kindling in his eyes. Qui Gon felt words fail him for the second time. So he rose, and squeezed the boy's shoulder in parting, and retreated to his solitude and what comfort the Force could give.
Obi Wan followed him and knelt beside him on the small outdoor balcony, saying not a word. The sun set, weeping radiance over the city, staining the walls of the Temple, heralding the unseen stars above. And there was a strange peace in the moment, though grief wrapped them both in its heavy mantle.
Dawn brought change. And the first was the crystal resonance of that word, uttered with a new certainty, a subtle shift in connotation. Qui Gon felt the Living Force gather in the moment, filling the interstices between heartbeats, the space between age and youth, smoothing paths and dissolving obstacles. He breathed in. "Yes."
Obi Wan sat across from him, and there was another difference. "You said to find the part that was missing in all my choices." He frowned. "I don't think I can find it on my own. I need help."
And that was the second difference. He studied the boy, as though seeing him for the first time again, almost three years ago in the crèche playroom. This beginning had been too long delayed. He released a soft breath of thanksgiving.
"I will help you. But I want your honesty in exchange. Why did you refuse Mixo Asaro's offer of apprenticeship three times?"
Obi Wan held his gaze, through two long breaths, seeking words. Then he seemed to surrender some internal struggle. "I – because I expected you to return and ask me to be your Padawan," he said. "I knew. Because of a vision."
Qui Gon nodded. Another difference. "And why did you refuse me when I did ask, after his death?"
The boy watched him now, coloring a little. He drew in a shaking breath. "I felt responsible for his death. I still do."
"That doesn't answer my question. Why did you refuse an offer of guidance?"
Obi Wan swallowed.
Qui Gon pressed his advantage. "Why did you run from the opportunity for direction and counsel? That is what your bid for an Ag-Corps assignment was. Why did you board the freighter without waiting for an experienced escort? That was asking for trouble, too. Why did you deliberately ignore my orders on board the Monument? You tackled Xanatos alone, recklessly, without help. Why?"
Silence. But Qui Gon was patient. He felt the answer coming, on the horizon, inevitable. And he smiled, because Obi Wan would admit error. They were almost done. And when they were done, they could begin.
"What is missing in all these choices, Obi Wan?"
The boy was Jedi. He did not turn from the truth. "Obedience," he answered quietly.
The Force stilled into a soundless tone, resonant as a saber crystal.
And they started anew.
The Council did not appear nearly so surprised as Qui Gon had anticipated. He stood in the center of the mosaic floor, Obi Wan standing directly before him. His hands rested lightly, protectively, on the boy's shoulders. The declaration of apprenticeship had been issued in ringing tones of certainty, laced with challenge. Yet not a flicker of annoyance did he feel in the Force. Indeed, there was more than a little amusement rippling around the circular room.
"A fine choice," Mace Windu stated, nodding his head. "May the Force be with both of you. The Council approves unanimously, am I right?" He glanced about the room briefly, and collected a handful of nods and small smiles.
Qui Gon was momentarily dumbstruck.
"Something more to say, have you, Master Qui Gon?" Yoda asked.
"Ah…no, master. I simply thought perhaps I might have to argue the case more strenuously."
Ki Adi Mundi chuckled and ran a hand over his pointed beard, now showing substantial streaks of pure white. "You refer to the Council's previous advice that you not seek another Padawan?"
Qui Gon bowed to him in acknowledgement. "Has that judgment been changed?" he inquired.
"No longer necessary is it," Yoda explained, explaining nothing.
Qui Gon could feel Obi Wan shift a little beneath his hands. He pressed down firmly. Control. Patience, young one.
"I do not understand, my masters," Qui Gon protested.
Mace steepled his fingers together and regarded him solemnly. "It's simple," he said, his rich voice conveying a minutely textured enjoyment. "The most effective way to motivate you is to provide an occasion for defying the Council's wishes."
Obi Wan tensed, impish delight flickering invisibly about him, in the Force. Qui Gon squeezed harder. Calm. Control.
"I see," he said, tightly. You will pay for that later, Mace.
"Dismissed you both are," Yoda rasped. "Depart you should, Qui Gon, before your Padawan into unseemly laughing fit collapses."
Master and apprentice bowed as deeply as they could, the latter now crimson with embarrassment, the former grumbling inwardly at the feeling of Yoda's goblin grin of triumph beating against his awareness, an ethereal buffeting of mingled humor and benediction.
They fled the Council chamber together.
Qui Gon twisted the thin strands of hair together, in the traditional ritual, binding and weaving separate elements into a tight plait.
There were three: master, Padawan, the Force. These three were bound in obedience. The younger was bound to the older's guidance, so that he would not stray off the narrow path, so that he could walk in safety in the Light, until he was wise enough to do so on his own. The older was bound to the Force, a sure and steady guide, inalienable compass, inner Light, until he perished and became one with the universal life, no longer able to Fall. The Force bound them to itself, together, to their mutual path, in the ageless and intricate pattern of willing submission.
Obedience. He twisted the braid one last time, admired his handiwork. . "Teacher, student, the Force. They are one," he said, binding the end of the short plait. A tiny strand of crimson thread wrapped around the braid just above the binding.
"What is that for?"Obi Wan asked. Colored threads signified achievements or important life events in an apprenticeship.
"Crimson is for a trial of spirit," Qui Gon said, tying off the end of the thread. "An unusual color for your first marker, but we do not choose our own paths. I honor your ordeal at Xanatos' hands."
The boy fidgeted. "I don't think –"
"Padawan," Qui Gon said severely. "You would do well not to contradict me."
Obi Wan flushed, in imitation of the crimson thread. "Oh. Forgive me, master."
"With pleasure. Don't ever exhibit such brazen insolence again."
"Yes, master." A moment of quiet, in which the boy fingered the end of his braid, curious and pleased. A shadow fell over his face. "Master?"
"What is it?"
"We never did discuss the consequences of my insubordination, as you said."
Qui Gon paused. "Hm. I cannot absolve you of them entirely. But I will grant you this reprieve: you are spared any punishment until the occasion of your second egregious offense, at which time you can pay both debts in full."
Obi Wan considered this gravely. Flickering tongues of mischief leapt and played in the Force. "Yes,master." He tucked his chin down and studied the floor with gleaming eyes. Qui Gon waited for the punchline. "I shall be sure to make that second offense worthwhile, then."
Qui Gon kept his face straight. "Master Dooku – who was my teacher – would have deemed such flippancy worthy of at least forty push-ups," he said conversationally.
"But you are not Master Dooku."
"No, Obi Wan, I am not. Our relationship is different."
The boy's smile could light up a whole room.
"…Which is why you will be doing sixty for me. Right now." He pointed to the floor, sternly. His apprentice dropped into position with a grimace, and Qui Gon placed a foot lightly on his back.
"Master!" Obi Wan grunted as he struggled to rise with Qui Gon's boot exerting a firm pressure between his shoulder blades.
"Fifty-nine to go, my insolent Padawan."
BenTo Li was no less smug than the Council had been.
"Well," he drawled, "I see you have decided to make the adoption permanent."
Qui Gon glared at him. "Just give us clearance for full active duty."
The healer chivvied Obi Wan into the exam room and set to poking and prodding.
"No lingering stiffness? Good. Let's see… yes, that shoulder is fine. Lie back. Hm. Yes… does that hurt? No? What a pity.. Hold still, Padawan, I'm not done with you yet. Hm… no, I think you're fine neurologically, though I must say Master Qui Gon would do well to continue using an electrocollar – ha! Now, let's see..oh yes. Nightmares recently?"
Obi Wan looked to Qui Gon.
"Yes, but we're dealing with them as they come. There's no need to get the mind healers involved again," Qui Gon assured him.
Master Li harrumphed. "I suppose there's no harm in releasing him. I'll be seeing one or both of you after your next mission, anyhow, so why should I fret overmuch about it?"
"Don't' mind him, Padawan, he takes delight in tormenting his victims."
The healer signed the release and promptly evicted the pair of them from the medical ward, muttering harmless imprecations under his breath.
"Good to see you again, Obawan! Looking much better, I think!"
"Are you staying long, Guerra?"
"Yes- taking a vaction here, extended stay and luxury accommodations. Not so, I lie! Back to Phindar for me. Much to be done, and many people waiting. But I came to be saying good bye and thank you again, true fact."
Qui Gon watched the boy allow the Phindina to embrace him. He took it with diplomatic equanimity. Indeed, one who did not know better than to think such a thing of an aspiring Jedi Knight would suppose that he actually enjoyed it, that his participation in the gesture was more than obligatory good manners.
"May the Force be with you, Guerra."
"No worries, Obawan! I am fixing all of Phindar's problems by my own self."
"Not so, you lie."
Qui Gon bowed to the enthusiastic Phindian. "If ever your people require help, Guerra, Obi Wan and I shall be at your service."
"I am holding you to that promise, Jedi Gon – no lie!"
They watched his cloudcar retreat into the busy skyline, aware that the promise had not been made lightly.
"Do you think we will ever go to Phindar and see him again, master?"
"If the Force wills it. In the meanwhile, we have two and a half years of wasted time to make up for. Shall we?"
He reached out an arm, and pulled the boy sideways into a one-armed embrace, which Obi Wan again endured with perfect diplomatic equanimity…even smiling a bit.
They walked back into the shelter of the Temple, side by side, master and apprentice, in a gentle accord. And the Force was sonorous with approval.
END BOOK I