Part 1: Stirrings
"Master Qui Gon said it was just a pretty rock."
Jedi Healer BenTo Li turned the beautiful, smooth stone in the light, holding it softly between thumb and forefinger. He snorted. "It's Force-sensitive. Pretty rock indeed. Such minerals are extremely rare. This one looks as though it has been polished by wind or water."
"He found it in the River of Light on his homeworld. A long time ago."
The healer raised one black and silver eyebrow. "Oh? The infamous Master Jinn has been carrying a pretty bauble around all this time? Tsk, tsk." He handed the stone back to its current owner, who closed his fingers around it and laid back against the medical cot's firm pillow.
"He does have a fondness for strays," this young person said. "Everywhere we go he picks one up. So why not a stray rock?"
The healer stroked a hand along his thin moustaches and beard. "Does that make you his latest stray?" he asked.
The boy shrugged lightly and stared thoughtfully at the high, pale ceiling. "I don't think it's quite like that."
Master Li tapped one long finger against the boy's forehead. "Tell me everything you remember about this rock. What were you feeling while these Phindian schuzzo tried out their memory-wipe droid?"
"What does schuzzo mean, master?"
"You answer first. Then I'll let you in on the secret."
The boy held the rock up before his eyes, turning it this way and that in the light. "I never saw the droid, actually," he said at last. "I knew they were coming, so I decided to…prepare, I suppose. I was holding the rock in my hand, like this-" he closed his fist around it, "- and I felt it warm to the touch. And I felt the Force pulse through it. That was marvelous, because I was…well, I was afraid…"
"That's not a matter of shame."
"Yes, master," the boy said, obviously not believing him. "But the stone let me touch the Force anyway. So I decided to build a wall around my memories. Do you know? Like they taught us in the crèche for shielding, only deeper and stronger. Around everything."
"Did you feel desperate when you attempted this?"
"No. The rock was helping. Well, the Force just pooled around it, at least. I made this wall – around my memories, and then they came. And I remembered to hide the rock inside my tunic, but I didn't open my eyes because I was keeping focus. And I just held on while the droid was working."
"I don't remember." The young Jedi grinned. "Maybe they got that one."
Ben-To Li chuckled. "And you maintained this wall the entire time?"
"Yes - I think so. It hurt rather a lot, and I think at the end, after they turned the droid off, maybe I might have, um, passed out…but I think the wall lasted. And I can remember everything, can't I?"
The healer folded his hands together. "You appear to be perfectly unharmed by the experience. Which is a great relief. You were very lucky to have your stone, I should say. You must thank Master Jinn for the gift."
"Good. Now, of course, after all this time spent with me, you are quite tired."
"…not that weak-minded," the young Jedi muttered, groggily.
"No, you aren't. But you are still going to sleep now."
"That's quite right. You are exhausted."
The healer shook his head at the sheer obstinacy of his charge. But then, given the feat of mental resistance they had just been discussing, was it any wonder?
The boy couldn't even open his eyelids. "What's….schuzzo?"
Ben-To Li leaned forward and whispered in the boy's ear.
"….Oh," he said, with the faintest of smiles, and was instantly and deeply asleep.
Tahl scooped the pile of datachips and holobooks up and deposited them in a nearby armchair. "Enough," she commanded.
"The droids will have your head for that mess," Qui Gon Jinn informed her.
"Your head, I should think. And if you wanted to find out about Offworld, you should have come to me. My information is superior to anything you'll be able to discover on your own."
"Ah." The tall Jedi master stretched out his long legs, his knees cracking loudly in the hushed labyrinth of the Archives. "But your asking price is too high. I've decided to pursue less demanding options. I do have a Padawan now. I might no longer require your services."
Tahl flicked the datareader's screen into standby mode and seated herself on the edge of the desk. "You are going to drag Obi Wan into this obsession?"
"No, I'm not. I've been telling him for months to keep his attention in the present moment. The last thing he needs is to worry about the past- much less someone else's past. This affair is my own."
"I wasn't aware you owned stock in Offworld," Tahl cracked.
Qui Gon stood to leave. "You know whom I mean."
She slipped into the doorway to effectively block his exit from the alcove. "He is gone, Qui. Why can't you let him go?"
The tall Jedi paused, giving his friend a thunderous look which had absolutely no effect.
"He is gone, but his legacy is not. Offworld remains a highly lucrative mining corporation, even without his immediate guidance. Who else is involved? For what is the company a front? The last thing the galaxy needs is another crime syndicate on the scale of the Hutt mobs. I will certainly not permit such a thing to grow and spread, not when it has its roots in my own former pupil."
Tahl sighed. "You know better than this."
"Do I?" He pushed his way past, but gently. He turned again before departing. "Then I have much to unlearn."
Tahl watched him stride gracefully away, as self-assured and imperturbable as ever. Then she retrieved the pile of discarded records and went to find an archivist droid.
"He's unscathed, mentally speaking. Indeed, I should imagine the experience has if anything promoted a rare skill. You know he credits his resistance to that river rock you gave him."
Qui Gon Jinn smiled. "It is an ompholos stone. A conduit."
Master Li poured himself more tea. "Which is only a responsive, passive focal point. Of course your Padawan thinks the Force simply, quite inexplicably, happened to flow through the stone when he most needed it. Quite the naïf, that boy."
"He is very young, even for his age."
The healer pointed at Qui Gon. "Which you should keep in mind. I should have you called in for a mind-healing session. How you manage to land a child in a Phindian political prison, replete with illegal experimental instruments of torture, on his own, overnight, while you are busy staging an uprising, is beyond me. Irresponsible."
Qui Gon drank in silence. "I didn't land him there. He has a talent for trouble."
"Well? What do you expect? A boy like that is like the stone. They attract the Force – light and dark."
"Then it follows not that I should try to keep him out of trouble, as you seem to imply, but rather that I should teach him how to deal with it, since it seems inevitable."
Ben-To Li pursed his lips and set his cup down. "You likely should turn that stone into the Archives, at least for examination and cataloguing. It is a rare specimen."
"I know. "Qui Gon smiled widely. He spread his large hands. "But it's not mine to dispose of, so there's little I can do. Besides. I think this last incident proves that Obi Wan is meant to have it, at least until he outgrows such things."
"And just how long have you been carrying that piece of rock with you? Years? I wonder you didn't give it to your previous apprentice."
Qui Gon breathed out slowly. "I did," he said simply. "But Xanatos refused it. He saw it as a thing of no worth, and was insulted."
The memory was clear as the water which flowed over the shallow banks of the River of Light.
Here, Xanatos. This is a wonderful thing. I want you to have it.
A stone, master? Ha.
I am not jesting, Padawan. Take it. It responds to the Living Force.
The raven haired youth shook his head, demure yet unyielding. It's just a pretty rock, master. Are we done here yet?
And suddenly he was done. The water seemed less luminous, the air chill.
Yes, we are done here.
And he slipped the wonderful stone into his own pocket, feeling its discovery was meant to be, and yet at a loss what to do now that the moment had shattered.
It stayed there for a long, long time.
"Well, it made a timely gift, certainly. You can come release him from the healer's wing this evening. Just have a care – such trauma can occasionally stir up dormant memories, incubate dreams and so forth – it's a possible side effect, though generally mild. If he suffers flashbacks or intense nightmares, you need to bring him back in."
"Thank you, Ben-To. I'm sure he'll be fine."
"I'm famished, master."
"When are you not, Obi Wan?"
They stopped at the refectory on the second level, where a disgruntled droid ladled some generous remnant of tonight's stew into a bowl, and jabbed a blunt finger in the direction of a counter where bread still filled the bottom of a large serving dish.
"Leftovers," the boy grumbled, helping himself to four large pieces of a slightly stale loaf and calling an abandoned muja fruit into his hand with a tiny nudge of the Force.
"Obi Wan." Frivolous uses were strongly discouraged.
"I'm sorry, master." They moved toward a table and sat down, by which time half the muja had already disappeared. Qui Gon reached out an arm and confiscated the sticky-sweet fruit.
"Ben-To was sad to see you go," he remarked, as Obi Wan laid into the stew and bread with ravenous grace. "Though I can't imagine what the appeal might be."
The Padawan swallowed, shrugged, relished his next three mouthfuls without a word of reply. He paused between the third and fourth. "My brilliant conversation," he grunted laconically, promptly carrying on with his absorbing task.
"Hm," Qui Gon snorted, watching the boy polish off his enormous meal with an unembarrassed enthusiasm suggestive of another impending growth spurt.
"Better," the young Jedi sighed when not a crumb or a drop remained. Qui Gon returned the muja, and they proceeded back to the main concourse, its broad tiled floor softly reflecting the lights, muted to a soft evening glow. Robed figures passed them here and there. The nighttime hush absorbed their footfalls, the whisper of their cloaks as they walked.
Stairs and a side corridor carried them toward the residents' wing. "Master?"
"Don't tell me you're hungry again. The Temple won't be able to sustain the burden of feeding you."
"The stone you gave me on my life-day. I was speaking about it with Master Li. It's not just a pretty rock, is it?"
Qui Gon smiled, pondering the best answer. "For anyone but you, Obi Wan, I think it would be." They reached the door to their quarters. He waved it open.
"Frivolous," his apprentice teased him.
The tall master raised an eyebrow.
"Here. I want you to have this," Obi Wan smirked, as he slipped through the doorframe past his mentor.
Qui Gon reflexively opened his palm to receive the small gift deposited there… and then favored his Padawan with a puzzled frown. "And what is the meaning of this?"
The boy swaggered across the common room toward the balcony, not even looking over his shoulder. "For anyone except you, my master, it would be just a pretty rock."
It was the muja pit.
"There's more to this than money. I can feel it."
They strolled along the third-level concourse, gazing down on one of the central halls from a colonnaded balcony. Students and masters scurried hither and thither below. It was well past the noon-hour.
"Power," Tahl decided. "Connections. To all the most influential and least scrupulous businessmen and corporate interests in the galaxy. It's a networking gambit."
"But that comes down to money again. He isn't interested in money, not in that way. You don't know him as well as I do."
"Qui," Tahl said impatiently, "It's political."
The tall Jedi's face twisted briefly.
"You know there have been increased rumors of an incipient secessionist movement. That means money and connections. And you know I'm right."
Qui Gon stopped abruptly and leaned over the balcony railing. His hands tightened on the curving rim. "That's an act of treason," he said slowly. "Not so much the Dark side."
Tahl's expressive eyebrows inched upwards. "Some might equate the two."
"But not everyone." He smoothed his ruffled thoughts into order. Offworld. Secessionist oragnization, under economic protection. Trade Federation. Xanatos. It was an ingredient list for the most obscene conspiracy theory ever concocted in the mind of a sentient being, bricks for the fabrication of a delusional card-house. He snorted at his own folly; the Force told him nothing, only flowed on in its placid currents. But then, his gift did not lie with Unifying vision.
He would have to ask Dooku.
Tahl peered at him sideways and quirked her full lips into a faintly mocking smile.
"Keep your mind on the present moment, Qui."
"I am. I'm going to watch Obi Wan's saber class now."
They parted ways, but the surreal after-image of his suspicions haunted him all the way down to the student dojo.
The Padawans were blindfolded this afternoon.
"Begin." Cin Drallig's baritone rang even in the lofty roof girders. The dissonant clash of training sabers ground against the audience's eardrums. Qui Gon folded his arms and observed carefully.
The others in the high balcony leaned forward, in rapt admiration. Except one.
"Ataru form dueling can be needlessly aggressive," Adi Gallia commented, her piercing azure gaze narrowing as a slender blonde was hammered down beneath a spiralling blow delivered by a foe sailing in a neat backflip over her head. The girl was felled, sprawling on the mat. The victor spun to dodge another strike and joined with the next attacker, seamlessly, in a fluid dance. And then the next, and the next, rolling, turning, leaping, twisting, a wild sprite in cream tunics, a dervish bearing a blade of light.
"And effective," Qui Gon added, neutrally.
"It's too demanding. That style can't be maintained long in a real combat situation," the regal council member declared, her headdress' ornamented tails brushing over her shoulders as she straightened.
"I've seen it employed quite successfully by my Padawan."
Adi's face hardened. "With you covering his back. It's just showmanship. No substance."
"Saber style bespeaks inner truth, Adi. Not all of us are staid and unimaginative."
She projected a shockingly ferocious thought, and he feigned indifference.
"May the Force be with you, Jinn. It looks as though my Padawan needs bacta for a burn – delivered by your acrobat."
He bowed deeply as she left, elegant bearing proclaiming nothing of the irritation simmering beneath the surface. Qui Gon chuckled very quietly to himself.
Obi Wan looked up at him expectantly. "Did you see Siri go down –"
"Padawan." Gloating was both natural and inappropriate. "I saw your success; not the failure of others."
The boy was still emanating delight at the mental picture of Padawan Tachi tumbling to the floor beneath his brilliant offensive, a joyful combative rivalry that only thinly veiled more inchoate feelings, infant stirrings of something else.. Qui Gon sighed. "Are you tired?"
There had been a great deal of talk about Padawan Tachi lately. "Two laps around the Temple perimeter. Now, before evening meal."
Obi Wan's sharp inhalation was an embryonic gasp of protest, but more than a year as Qui Gon's apprentice had banked his inner fires into something useful, a forge hammering raw impudence into steel nerve. He clamped his mouth shut and gazed at the Jedi master with burning eyes, ones that mingled present hurt and a promise of playful future retribution.
"Off you go." It wasn't a punishment, though the boy likely interpreted it as such. But Qui Gon remembered what havoc untamed adolescent hormones could wreak on one's focus. Better an exhausted Padawan than a distracted one.
"Yes, master." Obi Wan trudged away to work off some of that abundant…energy… of his, and Qui Gon tactfully avoided Adi and her apprentice on the way out.
Dooku wasn't in the Temple, or even on the planet.
"His assignment is sensitive," Mace confided in Qui Gon. "It concerns the next Chancellior election. I can't say more. Was the matter urgent?"
Qui Gon pondered this. "No," he decided. "I'll speak with him when he returns."
Mace led the way through the towering arcades of rigidly trimmed junta trees in the outdoor garden, their shadows barring the gravel path ahead in stark delineation, purple dusk laid upon glaring white stone. Coruscant's sun wept its way down the eastern ridge of the sky toward night.
"Qui Gon," the Korun Jedi murmured after a pause in which their measured strides beat a soft dirge upon the groomed walkway, "I wanted to speak to you about Phindar and Gala."
A warm breeze, tainted with speeder emissions and the nameless ash form far-flung industrial sectors rose and toyed with their cloak hems, lifted strands of Qui Gons' hair in its oily fingers. The sunlight faded, and the shadows deepened to solid walls of black, barriers slashing across the path. Mace plowed through the veils of darkness without flinching, his gaze turned up to the diffuse ambience of the heavens, where specks of traffic streamed their orderly way across the planet's duracrete horizons.
"Something I left out of the Council report?" Qui Gon asked.
"No. A personal misgiving." Mace paused in the very center of the ancient garden, where the sentinel trees stood like so many pillars of green flame, pointing upward parallel to the Temple's spires. "That mind-wipe droid the Syndicat had on Phindar," the dark skinned master said slowly. "That's a prototype design known only to …certain interests. We've had Shadows tracking down its possible places of manufacture for years without success. It was the will of the Force that you discovered it. But on Phindar of all places. It makes no sense."
Qui Gon's eyes ascended the confident boughs of the junta, the limbs always thrown heavenward, reaching past the material plane to the realm of distant purpose. "I know," he muttered. 'There is something connecting the points of darkness in the galaxy, Mace. A unifying factor that hasn't been there before."
The other Jedi nodded. "I feel it too," he murmured. "Is this what you wished to speak to Yan about?"
"In some way, yes."
Mace reached out a strong hand and grasped his arm. "You have a young light to nurture, Qui Gon. Let the Council bear the burden of this coming time, at least for now."
There was only friendship in the offer. Qui Gon remembered why he loved this man, his childhood playmate, this unquenchable fire in the Force.. They watched the sun die, and then turned their steps back to the Temple's doors, from which golden shafts of effulgence still spilled, unsullied and pure.
When he returned to quarters late that evening, Obi Wan was already asleep, fully clothed and stretched out with a kind of elegant abandon upon his sleep couch in the smaller bedroom. An active datareader blinked forlornly up at Qui Gon from the floor, where it had landed after slipping from lax fingers.
He placed the object on its shelf and shifted some of the boy's sprawling limbs into a more comfortable position before dousing the lights with a flick of his fingers and sliding the door halfway closed.
Sleep and Obi Wan were uneasy friends, at the best of times. It was good to see such rare amity settled in the confines of these rooms. He turned his steps toward his own bed and surrendered to the quiet himself. He dreamed of the River of Light, where he had found the omphalos stone, and flowed down its sinuous, coruscating length until dawn.
The next day they received a holomessage from Guerra Derrida.
"Obawan! Jedi Gon! My dear friends, terrible news from Phindar…not so, I lie! Paxxi has given up the life of unstealing and is getting married. Yes, it is so! I do not lie. We are inviting you to the celebrations, but only if you bring many expensive gifts… not so, I lie! Paxxi and I would love to see you there. True fact."
When the shimmering image of their ebullient Phindian acquaintance had faded into thin air above the projector, Obi Wan looked hopefully up at his teacher's face.
"We cannot make a special trip all the way to Phindar for a wedding, Padawan," Qui Gon broke the news gently. "Though we will of course send our felicitations. Perhaps you can speak to Paxxi and his bride personally."
"What about a gift?" the boy wanted to know.
He shook his head. "We have nothing to give, of material value. The Derridas know this – you should not fret over it.
Obi Wan's mouth thinned into a pensive line. Qui Gon smiled a little. "I said not to fret over it."
"But Guerra's feelings will be hurt."
"Ah. But that means you must practice your diplomatic skills when you politely and regretfully decline the invitation."
"Besides," the Jedi master continued, lightly. "Are you truly so eager to return to Phindar? That is a strange kind of nostalgia, Padawan."
It was a mere jest, but the boy's eyes were hard, lit with a blue flame like a saber's pure blade. "It's not nostalgia," he told Qui Gon eagerly. "I should go back, to face my fear. I realized that in meditation today."
Qui Gon nodded. "Ah. But fear is not in a place. You carry it in here." He tapped his apprentice's chest. "You don't need to set foot on Phindar to grapple with its memory."
It was Obi Wan's turn to nod. He thought this over, carefully, the familiar line deepening between his brows.
"I sense that something else lies behind this, Obi Wan."
The young Jedi squirmed. "I… master, I would like to go to Ilum. To look for a saber crystal."
The tall man exhaled slowly. Yes, he should have seen that coming. "Obi Wan," he replied carefully, "Ilum is a dangerous place. There are other ways to find a crystal. There are other ways to build your first –"
"Ilum is traditional." Obi Wan insisted, as though this trumped all arguments. "And I'm supposed to go there, anyway." And this last bit as though there were no argument. "I know about the cave of visions. That's why I need to face Phindar first. I was afraid, so I have to –"
"Padawan." Disappointment was already leaching some of the high color from the boy's cheeks, wilting his youthful bloom of determination. But something remained in the background, burning steadily in the Force, a beacon flame atop a cold mountain, a clear signal to those who could see. He's right, blast it.
"Your path may take you through Ilum's caves," Qui Gon grudgingly admitted. That was a lonely path, a bleak one. "But you will not run headlong into those caverns without preparation or guidance."
The boy bowed his head. "No, I won't. I'm sorry. I promise I will heed your counsel." These were renewed vows, reminders of the oaths binding them as teacher and student.
"Very well." He should not give any concession, he should be content with obedience… but his heart was as maverick as the rest of him. "And I shall give consideration to the matter of Paxxi's wedding."
And the look of gratitude he received in reply was enough to confirm him in such rebellion for the remainder of his days.