Qui-Gon Jinn peered critically into the depths of the mirror, noting that what had once qualified as a scattered premature silvering, the subtle dusting of maturity upon a still undiminished strength, had in the course of these last five years expanded its initially timid reconnaissance into full-fledged conquest. His beard, in short, was showing undeniable streaks of grey.
He set about trimming the hairs to a neat and orderly length, reflecting that he was over fifty standard years old, and Jedi or not, a man with more than his share of harrowing adventures under his belt. An ordinary mortal might by this time have had his hair bleached to shocking white by some of Qui-Gon's more memorable escapades and narrow escapes… or, more to the point, by the trials and tribulations of raising his present Padawan.
Yes. That would explain it, he decided. The encroaching signs of age were indisputably to be laid to Obi-Wan's account.
Not that the Jedi master particularly felt his age. Indeed, just home from a ten-day jaunt to the pristine world of Ragoon IV on recreational leave with his apprentice, his heart was full of the glories of the Living Force and his energetic step had more than even his habitual spring to it. He almost whistled as he worked, the joy of a new dawn kindling in his veins. It had been a most refreshing trip, even if Obi-Wan had seen fit to grumble about his numerous itching insect bites during the greater part of their journey home. The older man had eventually offered him an ultimatum: visit the healers, make use of the traditional Wookiee "hacha-liniment" they had purchased in the last spaceport, or hold his tongue. The remainder of the flight had passed in blessed silence, punctuated only by the young Jedi's occasional bout of violent scratching.
Contented with his handiwork, Qui-Gon neatly replaced the tools in their pouch and cleaned up the counter space. His daily routine would start with private meditation, and then tea.
On the way out, he paused to open his Padawan's bedroom door and rap smartly on the doorframe. "Good morning," he addressed the sprawling twist of blankets and limbs upon the low sleep-mattress. "Your turn in the 'fresher."
He strode into the larger common area to prepare a delicate brew of silpa leaves and dried hatha blossoms, ignoring the muttered imprecations against early mornings, insects, and the Sithly universe in general that sounded behind him as his groggy apprentice shuffled across the hall. The phrase blasted auroraphile echoed briefly in the 'fresher's tiled interior before the door slid shut with a tart and emphatic whoosh..
"Brat," the tall man murmured, placidly crumbling the aromatic tea into its ceramplast pot.
Obi-Wan Kenobi peered blearily into the depths of the mirror, scratching absently at a vexatious insect-bite just under his left collarbone. His entire chest and belly – and by the feel of it, his back as well – were a mess of raised bumps and welts left by lamentably ill-disciplined scratching. "Stars' end," he groused. And that wasn't the worst of it. Ragoon IV was a place of unsullied natural splendor – a ravishingly beautiful world unspoiled by colonization or the slightest taint of permanent sentient occupation. It was also, correspondingly, free of certain conveniences of civilization; which meant that every time the inevitable demands of nature had to be met, one exposed oneself to a most pernicious form of attack by the bloodthirsty insectoid denizens of the teeming, verdant world. There was much a Jedi could tolerate with equanimity, but this particular nuisance was, so to speak, hitting below the belt.
He relieved himself, breathing a silent prayer of thanks to the Force for all the gleamingly sterile accoutrements of high culture that he habitually took for granted, and then turned to the matter of personal grooming.
Nearly a fortnight of roughing it had not permitted much time or opportunity for personal vanity. And the result was….
Well. It was intriguing. He ran a hand over the somewhat prickly fringe of reddish gold that had sprouted on his jawline and upper lip, brows rising slowly as he noted that the new growth was gratifyingly thick and perhaps even dense enough to count as a real, genuine beard. And high time, too – he was nearly eighteen standard after all, and secretly dismayed at his seemingly ingrained penchant for being a "late bloomer." This was an encouraging sign.
He leaned closer, forgetting the discomfort induced by the innumerable insect bites adorning his hide. Master Qui-Gon was a renegade, not particularly attached to the minor aspects of the Temple's codified precepts of conduct, including those governing personal appearance. And the tall Jedi was bearded like the pard himself, was he not? Surely he would see the obvious diplomatic benefit of having an apprentice whose solemn demeanor was not ruined by the appearance of dimples upon every slight provocation of humorous circumstance. It was a matter of the greater good. Obi-Wan practiced one or two stern looks in the mirror, pleased by the unwonted air of ferocity his new decoration lent. Unfortunately, his amusement issued into an involuntary smile… and there were the infernal dimples again, peeking through their new camouflage.
A hard rapping on the 'fresher door reminded him to get a move on. "Tea," came Qui-Gon's laconic summons to the new day's ritual beginning.
Sighing regretfully, he fished out a shaving tool and dutifully set to work.
Meditation. Extended kata practice. Very late breakfast. Trip to Archives to upload data gathered on Ragoon IV for Master Pertha's abstruse biological researches. Meditation again. Sparring. Brief rest, and observation of junior initiate saber drills. More sparring. Shower rooms. Walk in arboretum. And, finally, evening meal.
"A busy day," Tahl Uvain remarked dryly, leaning heavily on Obi-Wan's arm as he escorted her into the upper level refectory.
"From a certain point of view," her gracious companion replied, adroitly disguising her momentary stumble as his own clumsy attempt to avoid a jutting table's corner.
Behind them, a Force-borne flare of suspicion and concern told them that Qui-Gon Jinn had not been deceived.
"Find us a seat before your master goes into cardiac arrest," Tahl commanded, tugging on the Padawan's arm.
"Here, master…" He eased her onto the nearest bench, suppressing his own pang of worry at the palpable tremor in her hands. She had lost weight, too; the belt cinching her tunics and tabards about her slim waist hung loosely; her prominent cheekbones were a trifle too defined.
Qui-Gon's blue eyes betrayed a soft and aching vulnerability behind his tranquil exterior, and then he was gone, to fetch food for the three of them.
Tahl sighed. "Don't let him ask the healers, Obi-Wan. I've put a privacy seal on all my records just to keep him out."
The young Jedi frowned. "But… I thought…"
She grasped his knee beneath the table. "You'll understand, in time. And I can tell you have a morose look on your face, so wipe it off and tell me something cheerful about your expedition to Ragoon."
Cheerful. Yes, cheerful. "Well, I've survived being nearly eaten alive by swarms of tisska flies and gaarsh gnats, so I suppose that's cause for celebration."
"Ah, you are ever the frivolous devotee of revelry, Padawan. Any excuse for a party."
He snorted. "As long as it's indoors and I am permitted to wash up first."
"Poor baby," Tahl soothed him."Dirt under your fingernails and Master Wonder-of-the-Living-Force Jinn's company for ten unbroken days. That's half your Trials of Knighthood done in one fell swoop. I'll put in a commendation with the Council."
He grinned, his mood lightening as her wit lifted them above the grinding realities of the future and the frailty of gross matter.
'Of course," Tahl continued in the same droll vein, "They'll end by posting you as sentinel in some completely uncivilized system, where you'll be forced to live in a cave and subsist upon honey and locusts for decades. Or a drought stricken world where you can only find enough water to bathe every standard month or so."
His grin widened, as he pictured himself as a tattered hermit - with a half-meter's worth of grizzled beard bedecked with twigs and bits of grime, and inhabited by creeping vermin.
Tahl laughed aloud as the image translated across the Force, her voice a cascade of pure notes sounding in its ethereal depths. "I've missed you both. If you were gentlemen, one of you would have had the decency to come home injured or ill so we could pin you down in the Temple for a while."
"Ugh." Obi-Wan shuddered at the idea of being imprisoned by the healers… and then shoved the thought away, too late.
Tahl sighed again, fingertips brushing over the back of his hand. "Shush. You are strictly forbidden to brood. And here comes Qui."
"And what dark conspiracy have you two been hatching in my absence?" the tall man inquired, setting down a heavily laden tray and sliding into the seat opposite Tahl.
"I've been Knighted and posted on Yarbel or some equally dreadful place," Obi-Wan informed him. "But don't worry, master – I shan't fall to the Dark Side unless I'm forced to endure another one of your paeans to the glory of the desolate wilderness."
The Jedi master raised a brow and began distributing food.
"Give me Master Jinn's dessert, Padawan," Tahl ordered, imperiously. "He forfeits."
It was a good meal, well-prepared and eaten with properly civilized utensils.
They ambled slowly along the concourse leading to the residential level, pretending that their laggardly pace stemmed from nothing but enjoyment of the conversation and a general contentment. Tahl walked by Qui-Gon's side this time, doggedly pushing forward as they made their way through corridor after corridor.
"Do not even say the word 'hoverchair'," she warned him as they edged their way up the last flight of shallow steps. Obi-Wan brought up the rear, hands folded into his cloak sleeves, mouth thinned into a concerned line. "And you, Padawan," she shot over one shoulder. "Stop brooding, for Force's sake. It's distracting."
"Yes, Master Uvain."
When she had struggled to the summit of the stairs, they turned into the hall leading to her private quarters. Tahl opened the door with a terse wave of her hand, blind eyes flickering up to meet Qui-Gon's inquiring gaze. A silent communication passed between them.
"Obi-Wan… why don't you continue on to our rooms. I'm sure you must wish for some peace and quiet this evening."
The Padawan bowed, smothering his disappointment. Tahl was tired… and did not need the additional burden of guests. Though, apparently, Qui-Gon did not count as a guest.
"I'll see you later," the tall man added, subtly emphasizing the underlying imperative nature of his suggestion
"Yes, master." And that was that. The young Jedi turned and strode away up the hushed corridor, resigned to an evening of 'peace and quiet' alone in their shared quarters. Not that he had a particular aversion to solitude; on the contrary, he was known to crave it from time to time, being of a temperament easily given to fits of introspection, or of occasional scholarly passion. But…
Well. His aggrieved pace brought him to the door more quickly than he had expected, and he entered, not bothering to turn on the lights, since the Force and long familiarity had stamped every feature of the sparsely furnished dwellings upon his inner eye. It wasn't that he minded being dismissed; nor was it his place to question his master if the latter chose to spend some portion of the evening - or perhaps the entire night, a small and rebellious part of his mind added - engaged in philosophical discussion with his childhood friend. Their time together was limited on the one hand by Qui-Gon's own obligations, which included a rapid-fire succession of important missions, and on the other hand by…
He bypassed the common area and went straight to his own tiny bedchamber, flopping onto the sleep mattress with a muffled grunt, He thrust a hand beneath his outer tunic to scratch at one of the most bothersome insect bites near his navel, and glared at the stretch of blank ceiling overhead. He fancied he could see the faint burn mark scored on the smooth surface where some previous occupant had – apparently – ignited a saber's blade without due attention to surroundings.
It wasn't that he had any true cause for resentment, he sullenly mused. It was simply that… that… did they think him obtuse? A stupid child? Or was he, in point of fact, being a stupid child to even think such a thing of his revered teacher? Or was it even more obtuse to think it was wrong to think such a thing? What did he know, other than the words of the Code he had so long ego committed to heart as memory and guide? As Qui-Gon himself would have gently rebuked him, knowledge is one thing but wisdom quite another.
He released a soft sigh into the darkness. He still had much to learn.