The sound of four sets of boots shuffling through underbrush, punctuated by the occasional snapping of twigs, cut through the silence of the otherwise unspoiled wilderness. The only thing louder was the sound of two Jedi masters bickering. Anakin looked over at Ben and the two boys snickered. They knew their masters weren't really angry with each other, still, like true brothers, the pair had argued since coming into orbit over where to land, which direction to go, and even when to rest.
The small party came to a dead stop in a clearing as Xanatos ripped the datapad holding a map from Obi-Wan's hands and moved on ahead, pointing out that he had been here more times. Obi-Wan turned towards the boys and shrugged his pack off his shoulders. "We may be here for a while." He let the pack fall to the ground with a soft thud and rushed off to join Xanatos.
Anakin dropped his pack and turned to see that Ben had already sat down on a large rock. His hand immediately went to the short braid dangling behind his ear and he tugged it lightly. This had gone on every five to ten minutes throughout their hike and Anakin found it highly amusing.
"It's still there Ben," Anakin teased. "It hasn't gone anywhere since you checked ten minutes ago."
"I know it's still there Anakin." The mock sarcasm seeping into his voice put Anakin at ease. Ben was finally beginning to relax a little, but he still had a long way to go. "I just need to keep reminding myself that this is actually … nevermind … I wouldn't expect …"
"I know. You wouldn't expect me to understand." Anakin rolled his eyes, unable to keep a straight face. As Ben let out a laugh, he made room for Anakin on the rock and they returned to watching their mentors.
"You've known our masters longer than I have." Ben paused hesitantly. "Do you think they know where they are going and what they are doing?"
"Survival is not a problem, if that's what you are worried about." Anakin explained. "Obi-Wan told me about a time when he was fifteen that they got a distress signal from my master. The Council had about given up, but Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon tracked him and found him weeks later. He had been on his own in the wilderness all that time." Anakin paused and nibbled at his lip. "What I don't understand is why we came. I mean … well … my master doesn't exactly seem like that much of an outdoors, build a fire, sleep on the ground for fun sort of person."
"I can see that."
"I need you to promise me something Ben," Anakin said, changing the subject to something that had been burning a hole in his chest since they had left Coruscant.
"You and Obi-Wan are going to be sent on missions soon."
"You think so?" Ben asked, clearly unconvinced.
"My master said that Obi-Wan spoke with the Council before we left. That's probably what it was about." Anakin looked at Ben, bearing into him with his gaze. "You have to promise me you won't let anything happen to him."
"Ben, I need a Master Yoda promise on this."
"A Master Yoda promise?"
"There is no try …"
"There is only do … I get it." Ben paused for a moment before looking back towards Anakin. "I promise I will do everything I can possibly do to make sure nothing happens to him."
Anakin noted the deep set determination in Ben's eyes. He had seen it when sparring with Ben and it most often meant Ben was going to win the match. It would have to be enough assurance.
"Ben, Anakin, come here!"
Both boys slid off the rock and joined their masters on the other side of the clearing. Obi-Wan was trying to keep a straight face. "My much more observant friend has stumbled upon a patch of ghermant plants," Obi-Wan said as he knelt down. The leaves Obi-Wan pointed out were deep green with dark red veins spreading out along the underside of the leaf. Ben got closer and reached out to flip the leaf over and Obi-Wan caught his hand. "Some people …" He shot a glance at Xanatos. "Some people have been known to have bad allergies to this plant. I would hate for us to find out the hard way with one of you."
"Is it a serious allergy?" Anakin asked, sounding as concerned as possible.
"No," Obi-Wan said. "Though, I understand the hives are quite uncomfortable."
Anakin nodded, a flood of mischievous possibilities already flittering through his mind. Two hands came to rest firmly on his shoulders and he looked up. Xanatos raised an eyebrow at him and he quickly looked away.
"Obi-Wan can tell you two what happens to insolent padawans who think it is funny to slip this into my bedroll," Xanatos warned.
Anakin couldn't decide which response to laugh harder at; Ben's bewildered, "Master?" or Obi-Wan's sheepish, "Thanks, Xan."
Xanatos walked over and slapped a hand to Obi-Wan's shoulder. "It is my duty to shatter any illusion Ben might have that you were the pinnacle of perfection as a padawan." He then glanced over towards Ben. "Though, you might have to speak to Garen Muln to dig up the worst dirt on your master … the things he didn't even feel comfortable telling me about."
Anakin turned to walk away, making a mental note to look Garen up. As he pressed his hand to a tree, something tugged at his attention through the Force. He paused and extended out with his senses. Too caught up in the fun-filled moment, he had missed the vague imprints, faded with time, each bearing the distinct essence of the two men that had become his family. And then he sensed Qui-Gon.
/Tell those two to stop bickering and make camp./
Anakin paused. He had first heard Qui-Gon while he was held captive by the Sith lord and it had calmed him, giving him strength. But he hadn't mentioned it to anyone, including his master. Xanatos seemed to be very concerned about their sanity after the ordeal, and Anakin was hesitant to admit he was hearing the voice of a dead Jedi master.
"Master!" Anakin called out.
"What is it Anakin?"
"I sense something. I think this is where we are supposed to be."
It was still dark. Ben was huddled up in his sleep roll when he felt a hand to his shoulder and a gentle surge across his bond with his master. He rolled over and Obi-Wan put a finger to his lips, nodding his head towards the still sleeping forms of Anakin and Xanatos. Ben slipped out into the chilly air, wondering if Obi-Wan could see the scowl he knew was on his face. He was sure this should qualify as a "sleep in" day.
Obi-Wan activated a glow rod and Ben reluctantly followed the light as it cut a path in the darkness. When they were far enough away, Ben asked. "Master, where are we going? It is still dark."
Obi-Wan slowed his steps so that he walked at Ben's side. "There is a ridge not far from here. The sunrise is beautiful." Obi-Wan looked down as Ben nodded his head absently. "And no, I didn't think a sunrise was worth getting up for the first time either."
They arrived, sitting down on the ground in silence as the first rays of sunlight peeked over the horizon and brushed the sky with strokes of purples and oranges. Ben sat in silent awe that something as simple as the sun coming up could be so beautiful. Then he turned his gaze to his master. Obi-Wan's arms were wrapped around his knees, drawing them against his body. The breeze tousled ginger locks, blowing them into his face, but the Jedi didn't seem to notice.
"The constant lights of Coruscant and most urban areas ruin a really good sunrise."
Ben somehow sensed that those words had once been spoken by another master to his young padawan. Obi-Wan picked up a cloth bag from the ground. Placing it in Ben's hands, he smiled warmly. "I believe my apprentice turns thirteen today."
Ben smiled back, trying not to be too eager in grabbing the bag. He had wondered when Obi-Wan would give him his gift, and had entertained many ideas of what it might be. But now that it was actually in his hands, he just stared at the bag for a moment.
"Are you going to open it?"
Ben tugged at the draw string that held the bag closed with fumbling fingers, and pulled out the box inside. He realized instantly that the box itself was the gift. Running his finger along highly polished, intricately carved wood, he could feel the grooves that indicated sliding panels.
"How did ...?"
"I asked around. Your friends and your crèche master were very helpful." He took the box from Ben and flipped it over, pointing to an artisan's marking. "It is from Homna. I understand they are famous for puzzle boxes."
Ben had always loved puzzles; the more mind boggling, the better. And it was quite possible he had just met his match in the seemingly simple box he held in his hands. "Yes, they are masters at it." He also knew that the boxes were costly, and it humbled him that his master would give him something of such great value.
"Thank you, Master." He smiled shyly. "It's perfect." He spoke not only of the gift; it was the entire moment that was perfect, something he would treasure always.
"Now, I'll be highly impressed if you can manage to get that thing open." Obi-Wan smiled, shaking his head. "I had an idea to put something inside, but even with the directions, failed to open it. Perhaps if I had more time."
Ben began to slide the panels back and forth, studying the feel of the box. He itched to get away and begin to work on the small treasure, but Obi-Wan seemed in a nostalgic mood and he couldn't miss the opportunity to learn more about him. "Master … what did you get for your thirteenth life day?"
Obi-Wan smiled and Ben was surprised how much younger he looked when he wore that smile. He reached into a pocket on his belt and pulled out a small velvet pouch. He dumped the contents of the pouch, a small, smooth stone into his hand.
"It is from Qui-Gon's homeworld. Hold out your hand." Obi-Wan slid the stone into his hand and it began to warm as Ben felt stirrings in the Force.
"It's Force sensitive?"
"Yes, it saved me from a mindwipe once by heightening my connection to the Force. I was able to keep my shields strong enough." Obi-Wan bowed his head. "That was our first official mission together."
"Will you tell me more about Master Jinn?" Ben asked. "I understand if you don't …"
"No … I would love to tell you about my master." Obi-Wan stretched his legs out in front of him and leaned back on his hands. "We were quite different. He was strong in the Living Force and a true servant of its will. He didn't care what anyone thought if he was compelled of the Force to do something and it sometimes caused as much tension between the two of us as it did between him and the Council. He was fiercely stubborn … both Xanatos and I inherited a bit of that, and it makes life interesting at times."
"I wish I could have met him."
"I do too. I think you would have liked him."
Ben settled back to listen contently as Obi-Wan began to tell him stories about Qui-Gon. Some were funny and had Ben shaking his head at his master's youthful antics. Others were alarming, making Ben pause to wonder if he was ready for what he would face as an apprentice. And some were incredibly sorrowful, causing Obi-Wan to pause to gain composure at times. Combined, they all gave Ben a larger picture of who the man who had shaped his master had been.
After a time, Obi-Wan paused. "There are so many more I can tell, and I'm sure they will come up in time." He looked over at Ben. "So … I spoke with the Council before we left about the possibility of a mission when we returned."
"Do you think I'm ready? I feel like I still have so much to learn."
"Of course you do. We never stop learning, and you have many years ahead of you in your training. We will get to it all in time, and I hope to learn from you as well."
"Me teach you?"
"I am counting on it," Obi-Wan said with certainty. "My master used to tell me that when the apprentice teaches the master, the partnership is right."