Hello, everyone. It's the start of term, and I was rather ill over the past few days, but I hope this chapter makes up for the wait. Thank you all for your patience; in this chapter I am evil, evil, and evil. I really shouldn't be but there you go. All you other sadists out there will love this. And I made this one quite a character study, too, to all those who were interested.
Replies to guest reviews:
ErinKenobi2893: Yes, Obi's overdone it. Impressively so. And actually, I sort of based Qui-Gon over my own history teacher, too. He once did this amazing talk in class about Stalin, and had us all horrified and laughing in turns. Thank you bunches.
Fanfic Lurker: I'm enjoying the mission quite a lot more than Obi is, too. Remember the vines. They're quite important! Thank you as always!
Queen Yoda: Your wish is my command…and conjuring up odd pictures is, unfortunately, what I do all the time. This is probably proof of that. I do hope it fulfils what you expected it to be, though. XD
little_china_girl22: And here we are! Sorry 'bout the cliffie…I usually can't resist ending with one. XP And haahahaha 'May you have speedy writing skills' made my day.
Anonymous: Finished! Though the sugar on top thing mightn't be what you get, unless you like angst undiluted, straight up. Thanks for reviewing!
If you wish for proof of my evil, by all means, read on.
As he steals along the hallway towards the principal's office, Huei Tori is all too aware that he is a shadow eclipsed by the deeper penumbra of his master.
Somewhere behind him, horrified screams issue from the refectory. Kenobi must have accomplished his task, and quite admirably. But the thought is but a fleeting flash of a guttering candle in the empty hollow of his mind, smoothed into the pool of grey tranquility that is the Force for a Jedi Sentinel.
He was born to be a Shadow.
Focus, Padawan, his master has always instructed. Focus. There is the mission. Nothing else. Do not fear the unknown depths. Sentinels are meant to fall – and there will be no one to catch you if you drown. But you will join the shadows, because you must.
Huei takes a breath.
The water closes over his head, and Huei Tori ceases to exist.
Grey is his name. Grey is the world, bleached from colour into the solitary focus of the mission. And grey is the Force.
No. Not the Force. The Force still glows within the depths of his soul, formless, dim. Luminous beings are we; not this gross matter. Sometimes, Huei feels as though he is drowning, and he is simply a captured bird that yearns to reach for that tiny glimmer of light through the bars of its cage.
In all their shared meditations, Master Dooku's light had always been harsh, unyielding, contrived. It is the frozen light of diamond-cut purpose, like the hollowed tubes of fluorescent white that illuminate the deepest mines of Phindar.
The guttering candle in Huei's heart flickers once more, choking on its own smoke. It is the smallest flutter of warmth in a cold wasteland. And as he steps onto the soft carpet of the principal's office, Huei knows that all he needs to do is to blow out that tiny flame. Extinguish the candle, and his mind would be barren of all but the mission, lit only with the artificial fuel of his own determination.
But he can't quite bring himself to do so.
Perhaps it is because of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
The other boy is a bonfire in the Force, ablaze, radiant. Huei can see clarion-clear that all who pass within Kenobi's circled firelight are touched by it, drawn to the glorious purity of his luminance. Huei has felt it too. He is…no, not jealous. He simply yearns to burn in the Force forever, as Kenobi does, an undying star.
Would this dishonour his teaching?
Huei draws in a quick breath, unbalanced by this single choice that cleaves the Unifying Force into an abyss before him.
He centres himself on his purpose in the present. The principal's office is empty as a tomb, all neat lines and navy patterns. Three tall holo-book cases cut off his line of sight to a corner. Huei's careful observation over the last few days has paid off; the principal takes her midday meal in the refectory every other day. As of now, she is no doubt trying to right whatever chaos Kenobi wrought there.
The Force chimes to him softly from the lowermost drawer on the dark metal desk. Crouching, Huei gives the drawer an experimental tug, to find it immovable as stone. A flashing pattern of cybernetic squares flares over the smooth, mirrored metal. Locked. But closer inspection reveals there to be thin gap where the top of the drawer does not quite meet the base of the one above it. Wide enough for a credit-chit or card, no more. Huei's slate-grey eyes narrow in a grim frown.
The Force shrieks a warning.
In one smooth movement, Huei pivots, throws himself soundlessly forward and rolls behind the bookcases to his left.
The principal storms in, muttering under her breath as her soberly-coloured but expensive dress swings around her knees.
"Dratted children and their unpredictable allergies…"
In the tiny space between one corner of a bookcase and the next, Huei tilts his head, dark blue headtails swinging. Kenobi. It must be. When Obi-Wan had collapsed at that dinner with Huei and his master, Huei had not known what to make of the sudden cooperation between Master Dooku and Master Jinn. It still is somewhat confusing to him that the unorthodox Jedi could have once been Tamesis Dooku's padawan.
Huei peers through the thin strip of light between the shelf above and the row of books. Still flustered, the principal removes a small chip from one pocket and presses it to the surface of the locked drawer. Pulling it open on oiled railings, she rummages within, withdrawing something too small to see. The principal shoves the object in one pocket and the key chip in the other, before turning smartly for the door.
The moment stretches into infinitude in Huei's mind. He could attempt to take the unknown object, only to find it irrelevant, or he could go for chip, but find nothing of consequence in the drawer.
There is no time at all to think. Reaching into the Force, Huei sends the lightest of breezes across the back of the prinicpal's neck. As she reaches up to scratch at the irritated spot, Huei quickly slips the hidden object out of her pocket, buoying it in the Force an inch off the ground as the door hisses closed behind the principal's retreating back.
Pickpocketing is an art in distraction. Pinch someone on one spot and they will not notice a differing pressure in another.
Master Dooku's words are heavy in his mind as Huei pads silently from his concealed corner. A wave, and the unknown article sails into his hand. Quick examination reveals it to be a key-card, the kind designed to be placed on the surface of a reader.
Moving quickly, Huei slides his communicator out of his pocket, which bleeps softly as he slots in the card. He sets the device to reading and copying the code on the key. Found this in the principal's office, he enters in the accompanying message. The code may be of use; it seems to be a key card of some sort. Code uploaded, Huei taps a short command sequence to send the intel to headquarters, where he knows his master and Knight Fisto will make use of it.
The sharp ringing of the bell in the corridor startles him slightly. Midday meal is over. The card is slid back into the drawer through the thin gap, and with a quick glance around the empty office to check if everything is undisturbed, Huei palms open the door.
Someone is waiting for him behind it.
In a bustling thoroughfare halfway towards the horizon, Jedi Master Tamesis Dooku pauses in his step, clutching his communicator in his suddenly numb hand.
A quick foray into the mind of Obi-Wan Kenobi, as he collapses choking onto the plastiform refectory floor:
Crimson blood rushing in ears, heartbeat hammering against fragile skin of throat that might be about to burst out gushing onto the clean floor, terrified screams that match his own, Oh stars above what's happening to him we need help over here someone get the principal – IneedairIneedairIneedair – Me best friend's dyin' 'ere get 'elp already, hands on neck, tongue heavy in mouth, the Force calling him to shed off the heaviness of his flesh and join the symphony of the stars, cold silence in still, still heart… sharp hand slamming into cheekbone, a really annoying voice in his mind shouting Stay awake young one or I will kill you again myself, and the Force…
It is everything.
Obi-Wan smiles and lets it take him.
A pause. One of those strange little moments where one simply floats, suspended, having fallen through the intangible gap between time and reality.
So Obi-Wan walks the endless wastes of his dreams.
He treads the warp and weft of the Unifying Force, his own timeline a meandering silver thread that weaves its solitary way through a hundred, a thousand, a million other lives. These other strings shiver when he brushes them with awed fingers, notes cascading from their iridescent lengths to join the infinite choir of the galaxy. No. Not the galaxy alone; Obi-Wan raises his head, the great loom of the Force groans, and the galaxy is suddenly a simple spiral pattern in the tapestry of time and the cosmos.
A bubbling little laugh leaps out of him, like the first cry of a new-born child who knows the universe is beautiful, greater than he could ever possibly understand, but it does not matter because the Force is everywhere and inside him all at once and he is so incredibly insignificant and important at the same time.
Only after a moment does Obi-Wan realise he had laughed.
Here in the kaleidoscope of stars, he wets his lips with a strangely dry tongue, and gasps, "Why?"
The word echoes into the song of the Force like a note made of crystal. It is more than a question; and the question has more than one answer.
The Force is silent. The song is, too.
And Obi-Wan begins to understand.
"I don't need to know. Not yet." The last word is a half-chuckle of emotion; too many others rise in his throat. "I'll know when I have to."
The music of the spheres begins to play once more, as constant as before.
Obi-Wan glances once more at that beautiful, glorious tapestry, the exquisite warp and weft of the Force, and closes his eyes. He savours the cool sweetness of his voice just one last time, as he lets it sweep over his tongue and out through his lips.
"All right, then."
The perfect song of the Force dissolves into burning lights, voices, and an aching pain in his throat. His heart thuds excruciatingly slowly in the lethargy of his chest.
With a titanic effort, Obi-Wan opens his eyes.
"Feeling better?" the white-robed Iktotchi nurse murmurs down at him, her voice disgustingly sweet. Her elegant cranial horns frame her smiling features. "You were out for six hours straight, with one of the most violent first-time allergic reactions we've ever seen. Quite worried the teacher on lunch duty what-was-his-name Jinnson."
Obi-Wan closes swollen eyelids for a moment, then braves the glaringly bright phosphorescent lamps in the ceiling to blink confusedly at the room.
Tiled floors, scrubbed meticulously clean. White walls, white medi-bunk, white sheets, white light. White-uniformed nurse. Whitened steel door, and…
…is that a biologically coded security lock?
He attempts to push his consciousness through the walls, but is met with a strange resistance. It is as if the walls themselves absorb the Force and nullify it, leaving him stranded on this island of awareness.
His nurse seems to sense his uneasiness. "You're in the private section of the hospital wing, dear," she says, fiddling with some monitor or the other outside his field of vision. "Your grandfather's position merits such treatment for you."
The door clicks open. It is of an old-fashioned design, the kind that swings on hinges instead of sliding on hydraulic pistons. In steps a tall, blonde-haired human woman who somehow wears her lab coat like the royal robes of a queen. The deepening lines at the corners of her eyes and the not-quite-youthful tint of her features do nothing to decrease the sense of presence that surrounds her. Most defining are her clear grey eyes; they speak of a higher intelligence, of unreadable knowledge.
Obi-Wan is startled when the Iktotchi nurse bows to this new arrival in a manner that suggests more servitude than respect. He is instantly on guard, though, when he hears her breathless exclamation:
"Doctor Zan Arbor!"
Jenna Zan Arbor smiles teasingly at Obi-Wan as she dismisses the nurse. The door clicks shut with a thud that belies its thickness.
Obi-Wan is suddenly very glad he cannot speak. Something is crying out unnervingly in the blurred expanse of the Force. He settles for staring unreservedly instead, hoping he looks every inch the curious child.
"Obi-Wan!" Zan Arbor declares, in far too familiar a tone for comfort. Obi-Wan represses a shudder as she settles on the edge of his cot. "You were very fortunate that I decided to visit the academy today," she says lightly. "Who know what could have happened if I were not present! Still," – she pats his hand, and it takes all of Obi-Wan's self-control not to squirm – "you kept me from lunch! I entered with the principal and found the refectory in quite an uproar."
Obi-Wan dips his head in apology.
"You'll have to remain here over the weekend for observation, I'm afraid," Zan Arbor says, rising. "We've already contacted your grandfather. He's quite disappointed at the prospect of not having you home over the weekend."
That, I highly doubt, Obi-Wan muses darkly. A measure of relief bleeds into his system – at least he will not have to spend the next few days in the sole company of Master Dooku.
Zan Arbor turns back to him from where she was examining the readings on the monitors. "I'll be staying to keep an eye on you, young man."
Relief coalesces into uneasiness, clogging his throat. Obi-Wan begins to mime his protest, but Zan Arbor silences him with a look that is equal parts sweetness and authority.
"I pride myself on remaining with each of my patients throughout their time of healing," she proclaims. "I was the first to treat you in the refectory, and you'll see the last of me when I declare you fit to return to your studies."
The Force weaves dark spots around her.
"Now," she says brightly, "rest." Obi-Wan hears the soft beep-beep of the monitor as she instructs it to inject some sedative or the other into the tube leading to the crook of his arm.
The door closes behind her with a strangely final boom.
Obi-Wan tries to center himself. As per usual when he is in a place of medical expertise, he is rather unsuccessful.
Belatedly, Obi-Wan realises he is dressed in the soft folds of a medical gown. Panic rears its snarling head for a moment as he wonders over the whereabouts of his comm, which had been in the pocket of his uniform. But another moment's introspection reminds him that his comlink is keyed to his Force-signature; they would most likely have though it was a broken 'pad of some sort.
He reaches for the Force again – only to find it bizarrely out of his reach, like the glowing fireflies he had once reached for in the Temple's outer gardens. Dully, he grasps at the fleeing tendrils once more, but the effort proves too much for him even as his eyelids droop and the falls into the darker oblivion of sleep outside of the Force.
There is only the slightest notion inside his numb mind that something is terribly, terribly wrong…
Outside Obi-Wan's room, Zan Arbor paces down the white corridors lit with harsh fluorescent lights, passing one plain door after the other until she reaches another one that appears just as uninteresting. But she swipes her card before it, inserts her finger into the reader, and pushes open the door. There are two assistiants in lab coats within, one checking biological readouts while the other monitors the environment of the water tank set at the centre of the room.
In the clear liquid, straining against the bindings that keep him submerged under the surface, is Huei Tori. His steel-grey eyes flash in his strained features, and his black-trousered legs flex in their restraints.
"How is our brave little Nautolan Jedi?" Zan Arbor inquires, her smile widening as a predator's does before the kill.
"His vitals are all in the normal range, albeit on the edge," one of the assistants, a Weequay, reports. "We don't know if the Force-blocker is working, of course, but it's quite remarkable, seeing as we decreased the oxygen content of the water to 40% of its normal level an hour ago. The temperature is well below the Nautolan threshold for hypothermia, as well."
"Hmm." Zan Arbor strides over to the tank and plunges a hand into the freezing water, tracing it across the dark blue skin of Huei's forehead. The young Nautolan's face contorts in a grimace of disgust. "Ah!" she exclaims, pulling back her fingers as Huei's white teeth snap together a hairsbreadth from her nails.
"Get him a gag," Zan Arbor snarls as she pivots, flinging drops of crystalline liquid from her fingertips. "And keep lowering the oxygen content. We need to know his limits before further experimentation. And have someone start work on the other Jedi once his allergic symptoms are gone."
"Yes, ma'am," the other assistant, a Rodian, intones.
As she leaves, Jenna Zan Arbor does not deign to turn around and observe how Huei's back arches in agonising protest as a thermoplast plug is rammed between his teeth, or how precious bubbles of air form a silent shout that cascades from his lips.
She has more important things to do, and more experiments to attend to.
It is seldom that Jedi masters Qui-Gon Jinn and Tamesis Dooku meet on such short notice, and in such a state of shared emotion. As soon as the schoolday ends and Qui-Gon barges into the shabby apartment that serves as headquarters, a mere three klicks from the ZAAGC, Dooku knows the Force will not be centred.
"We know, padawan," Dooku interrupts, leaning down next to Kit Fisto to examine the holo-feeds from the laboratory. "Huei, too."
Qui-Gon does not comment on Dooku's slip of tongue. He flings long coat into a corner and starts forward, blue irises icy. "Master–"
"Calm yourself," Dooku growls, glancing up. In that short connection of gazes, Qui-Gon sees multitudes, and knows that Dooku hides much.
With long breath, he slides into a chair beside the Natuolan knight and his former master. "Anything?" Qui-Gon says quietly.
"Huei sent us some intel before they got to him. We caught a glimpse of Huei a few minutes ago," Kit mutters, pulling up the relevant footage. His trademark smile is gone, replaced by a grimace of concentration. "There aren't any holo-cams inside the rooms themselves, so we've been relying on the short space of time when doors open to focus on the interior of the laboratories."
The holo-footage is as short at it is horrifying. Qui-Gon notices Dooku's lined features are a study in neutrality as the shimmering blue image of his padawan's back arches in pain in the churning water, over and over on the looped clip.
Jenna Zan Arbor's transparent blue face grins as she steps out of the open doorway and out of range of the camera, leaving the door to swing closed upon the agony of the room within.
Dooku pauses the holoprojector. The pause weighs heavily in the air, a suffocating pressure, much like the thin, lifeless water that strains through Huei's lungs, every moment the three Jedi stand there, in that darkened room.
Kit is the first to speak. "What do we do, masters?" he murmurs, looking somewhat like a senior padawan in need of guidance.
"We cannot leave them there," Qui-Gon says, sounding once more as his rank and title suggests.
"No, we cannot," Dooku agrees, rubbing a hand over his beard. "Not indefinitely."
Qui-Gon's Force-signature withdraws into a sharp crystal of incredulity. "If you would clarify, Master Dooku," he states slowly, softly, half-rising from his chair.
"That," Dooku says, pointing at the frozen holoprojector, "may not be sufficient evidence to bring Zan Arbor to trial."
There is another pause, disbelief and fury blooming in the Force this time, a red thundercloud that seems to swell into being between the two Jedi masters. Kit sinks a bit further in his chair, glancing away.
"Are you–" Qui-Gon finds that anger chokes his throat, and he has to begin again. "Are you suggesting we allow our padawans to be tortured like labroratory O'cerries?" His voice has dropped into a snarl, dripping with rage.
Dooku's grey eyes return his former padawan's stare with ineffectual coolness. "If necessary to ensure Zan Arbor's incarceration, yes."
Qui-Gon closes his eyes for a moment, seeking peace, to anchor himself in the Force once more.
When he opens his eyes, his gaze is brittle and hard, the same burning glare he would throw in his master's direction during particularly effusive arguments in his padawan days.
"Our mission is to acquire intel of Zan Arbor's exploits, nothing more," he says, striving to keep the simmering fury from his voice. "Now we have proof of what she is doing to the students, we can pull out and report our findings to the Council."
"And what would the Council's next step be?" Dooku challenges, something akin to exasperated anger flashing through his narrowed eyes. "We need evidence. Those few seconds are hardly enough – we have no proof for the Council to show the planet authorities."
"This is torture, Dooku." Qui-Gon ignores the glimmer of unbalance in Dooku's gaze at this form of address. "The code does not speak expressly of it, but this is far beyond what would qualify as a trial. How could you suggest such an action?"
Dooku draws himself up to his full height, allowing his dark cloak to sweep back over his shoulders. Qui-Gon realises for the first time that his former master is dressed in the resplendent silver and black of a count, while he is in the simple shirt and waistcoat of a teacher.
"Because Huei can take it." Dooku's words are chilled into the icy edge of utter certainty.
Qui-Gon finds his retort fading on his lips.
"My padawan can take it," Dooku repeats, one elegant hand fingering the hidden hilt of his lightsaber. His gaze skewers Qui-Gon's, unyielding and harsh. "Can yours?"
A long, long, moment, wavering on the edge of an abyss in the Force. Qui-Gon stares at Dooku, wondering why he had ever once thought of the sentinel as his mentor, and friend.
"Yes." The word falls hollow into the still air.
"Are you certain?"
"Yes." Qui-Gon repeats, though his eyes are shadowed now, dead. "But here lies the difference between you and I, my former Master."
Kit studies the tabletop as the two masters stage a war of wills.
"The difference," Qui-Gon says quietly, "is that though we both are confident of our padawans' abilities, I will not be his torturer, while you will."
"No more, Master. No more." Qui-Gon runs a hand over his mane of hair as he turns back towards the door. The prime window to attempt an extraction will be tomorrow night." His voice is emotionlessly flat as he states each fact. "Even particularly workers will likely return home for the last day of the week. The laboratory will be running on a skeleton staff."
"Very well." Dooku turns away from the silhouette of his former apprentice, facing the holo-feeds again, as though he faces an intangible opponent. "We have a night and a day to plan the extraction."
Kit releases a long breath as the Force slowly uncoils from its knot of tension, leaving frayed edges of what was once a familiar bond.
When he speaks, Dooku's words are oddly heavy. "Necessity. What I do to Huei now…if it was necessary, Qui-Gon, I would have done to you."
Qui-Gon knows it shouldn't affect him. He has had decades to distance himself from his former master, and he himself is a Jedi Master now, seen battle and war, blood and agony, felt the lives of friends slip through his fingers.
And yet this is painful anyway.
He glances over his shoulder, a mirthless smile playing on his lips. "I don't doubt it. And that is why I refuse to do the same to Obi-Wan."
The awful truth settles in the Force. Former master and padawan face each other once more, their once-vibrant bond whittled down to nothing more than a bridge of sheer necessity.
And far, far below in the laboratories, Obi-Wan wakes, and Zan Arbor begins.
Don't kill me. I admit I found it outrageously refreshing torturing Huei…though I do feel sorry for him. We shall commence real agony in the next chapter. I shall see you all then. Review please! Did you all like Huei?