A new chapter, in which I am in equal parts kind and utterly despicable. This is up late because I've had a trying couple of weeks, and I got distracted by another fic; thank you all for understanding. And we've gone over 500 reviews! Shout out to Qwae29 for writing the 500th review! Thank you all for following this story. *bows*
Replies to guest reviews:
ErinKenobi2893: Ah, I share your sentiments about Dooku and Zan Arbor. Huei deserves far better than what he as got. He hugs you back, by the way. He doesn't know who you are, but this is the first hug he's ever got, so he's treasuring it.
starwars1885: Thank you so much for reviewing! I shall quote you on that: "The inability to speak does not make one dumb." Very good indeed!
Ari'Lizabeth: I do apologise for the lateness. Suspense absolved! Thanks for reviewing!
Fanfic Lurker: I promise more will happen soon. Actually, truckloads will happen in the next chapter. Thank you as always. Hope this isn't too depressing. :P
Guest: I won't abandon this, don't worry. Life gets in the way sometimes, but I love these characters too much. Thank you so much for reviewing.
Onwards to fluff and agony!
Qui-Gon Jinn runs.
He cares not for the havoc he wreaks as he tears down the main concourse towards the Healers' Wing – what filthy Hutt-spawn had designed the path to the healers' wing to be so stinking long, he would like to know – weaving between the shadowed pillars, his boots far too loud on the polished Selonian marble, sending scandalised masters and padawans darting away on each side as Coruscant's nightfall stretches his sprinting shadow into a formless wraith.
He nearly crashes into Tahl Uvain.
Unconsciously, they steady each other, hands cupping elbows, boots sliding on the slippery marble.
"Qui! I was just about to–" she cuts herself off as she meets Qui-Gon's gaze. Something of Obi-Wan must be writ there, because the next moment she grabs his sleeve, and he continues his sprint with her by his side.
On the threshold of the Temple medcentre, Tahl forcibly pulls him backwards, murmuring urgently, "Calm yourself. Master Che will not allow a rampaging bantha entry."
So Qui-Gon calms himself. Sort of. Mostly.
He still knocks over a cart of samples when Tahl leads him down the spotless corridors and palms open a door.
Obi-Wan's clouded blue gaze snaps up at the hiss of hydraulics, and the next moment Qui-Gon finds his arms full with forty standard kilograms of padawan. Belatedly, Qui-Gon realises this is very accurate approximation; his apprentice is sagging in place, and the Jedi master is, in fact, supporting most of the boy's weight.
Qui-Gon spares a stray thought that Obi-Wan is far too light for his age and height as he settles them both onto the cool plastiform, leaning back against the mercifully closed door. He reminds himself to thank Tahl for this later. She is most likely currently waylaying the furious healers in the corridor beyond in an attempt to give master and padawan the quiet they need.
Obi-Wan is shivering. Qui-Gon frowns and half-rises to reach for a blanket…
The overwhelming relief that had poured from Obi-Wan's Force-presence ever since his master had entered the room turns abruptly to shame, and he pushes at Qui-Gon in his haste to back away. But surprised as he is, Qui-Gon's reflexes are hardly slow; Obi-Wan's flight is halted almost before it begins as two firm hands grasp his shoulders.
Masking his worry as he stares into his padawan's wild eyes, Qui-Gon asks gently, "What is it, little one?"
The reaction is instant.
Zan Arbor's snake-like smile looms out of the Unifying Force, echoing through the intervening days as her cherry-red lips part with the words, "So you are awake, little one." Qui-Gon's vision bleeds into the past, and suddenly, his back is somehow resting against chilled metal, and his aching wrists are rubbing painfully against metal restraints. Something inexplicable and powerful and dark rises in his chest, hammering against his voiceless lips, roaring one soundless sentence, over and over:
YOU DARE USE MY MASTER'S NAME FOR ME?
Nearly drowning in the miasma of shadow, Qui-Gon reaches for the here and now, throwing away the fetters of memory–
He blinks, once.
The floor of the Healers' Wing is smooth under his fingertips. The bond in the back of his mind flares once more, before subsiding. Oh. So that was why Obi-Wan… Rubbing at his temples, Qui-Gon scrubs away the last vestiges of transferred memory, and raises his head.
But Obi-Wan is already bowed before him, forehead pressed to the floor in a pathetic little kowtow.
Qui-Gon stares at his prostrate padawan for all of two seconds before hauling the boy bodily from the floor and depositing him back onto the cot. Obi-Wan jerks with surprise, not-quite-dry eyes flashing, but before he can raise his hands in question, his master has already wrapped him in every available blanket until he resembles a Rodian burrito.
With a fluid motion, Qui-Gon kicks off his boots and vaults nimbly onto the end of the bed, kneeling. "We are going to meditate," he says simply. "Yes, Obi-Wan, we will meditate," he repeats with a touch more authority, as something akin to fear lances across his padawan's gaze.
Obi-Wan shakes his head desperately, writhing in an effort to free himself from the cocoon–
"First meditation postion!" Qui-Gon barks.
Nerves galvanised by a solid decade of crèche masters' bellowing of the exact same command, Obi-Wan immediately folds into a silent ball, curling in on himself until his head resembles a tuft of grass growing out of a pile of snow. The image invokes a memory, of a frosty, open-air garden somewhere in the Temple, and an older Jedi's laughter as Obi-Wan, his point of view somehow lower than it is now, dances through snowdrifts.
Qui-Gon's gentle hands settle on Obi-Wan's temples as he takes this memory of a dream and uses it to tip them both over the edge, into the crystalline abyss of the Force.
The memories turn Qui-Gon's stomach.
His bloodied fingernails scrabble against metal; he doubts he can ever hear the whirr of vibro-saws again without shivering. Azariel; the acid flays skin from muscle. Little one; the Dark whispers at him again, inviting, calling, telling lies of power, of release from this agony.
Beside him, Obi-Wan's Force-signature twitches. Qui-Gon pulls him minutely closer, like a star tugging at its planet, and murmurs, We will weather this together.
The fog of reminiscence gathers about them, thick, imprisoning.
They watch as Vassar's dead gaze stares at them accusingly, a scalpel protruding from one lifeless eye. Pain and exhaustion melts into terrible guilt, and the Dark seems to switch sides, now, muttering murderer into their ears. Qui-Gon senses the change as Obi-Wan crumples, staring at the crimson-stained floor, hands pressed to his ears as a reflection of a blind Nautolan boy shimmers behind their eyelids–
And Qui-Gon reaches out with an immaterial finger and tips Obi-Wan's chin up, towards the ceiling–
But there is no ceiling.
Warm shafts of light cascade down upon the two of them, luminance from thousands of stars, and the encroaching fog of memory dissolves into stardust, lining the warp and weft of the Force with glittering trophies, and there is no pain, now, because the agony and guilt and hopelessness have all turned to gems that shimmer in the vast tapestry of time.
When the mists draw close, Padawan, Qui-Gon whispers, his voice echoing in the emptiness, never forget to look up. The light is always there, should you search for it.
The Force shifts, nudging them back towards a dimmer light, in a room where two Jedi kneel before each other.
Qui-Gon's eyes flicker open. "Little one."
Obi-Wan raises his head, and gives a tired little smile. He barely registers that the words hold no pain for him any more. There is such a feeling of peace within him that he hardly wants to move.
"You should sleep, padawan," Qui-Gon says quietly, shifting to stand by the bedside instead. "But before you do, answer two questions for me."
Settled against the pillows, Obi-Wan can only manage a slow nod.
"When you deflected that scalpel towards that man – Vassar – did you intend to kill? And," Qui-Gon holds up a hand to waylay Obi-Wan's reaching for flimsy, "when the Dark spoke to you, did you act upon its words?"
His padawan shakes his head vehemently.
A small smile plays at the corners of Qui-Gon's lips, "Well, then, my very foolish apprentice; what reason do you have to feel at all guilty?"
Wide, wide blue eyes. Qui-Gon fancies if the boy had text-plates like a droid, they would be displaying the words DO NOT COMPUTE.
"Sleep, little one," the tall Jedi murmurs, "We shall see what we can do to aid Padawan Tori when you wake." He watches as his subtle Force-command yields immediate results: Obi-Wan's eyes close, a relieved, beatific smile on his cherubic face. It is almost…cute. Qui-Gon chuckles even as he tucks the blankets securely around his padawan. The child is making him soft.
Not that he entirely minds, of course.
A muffled voice sounds from beyond the door. "Master Jinn did what?"
Qui-Gon settles into a chair and waits for Vokara Che to enter and rain down abuse on his head. Perhaps she would be less harsh if she were to see master and padawan together.
An adorable padawan has its advantages.
The voice falls through the layers of storm clouds surrounding his consciousness; but it is not a ray of sunlight, or cleansing rain. No. The word, his name, cleaves him in twain and shocks from his healing trance like thunder without lightning, without luminance, without fire.
And so he wakes.
But Huei Tori has quickly come to realise that waking is the worst part of being blind. There is always a few befuddled seconds when his drug-addled brain forgets that he cannot see, so his eyelids flutter pathetically over sightless eyes before he remembers–
–And the realisation slams into his chest like a violent Force-push, every single time, leaving him breathless, foundering in this anchorless waste of unvarying shadow.
But no, it is not blank, after all. There is something, sitting there in the emptiness of his mindscape. Something that might once have been a star, now compressed and chilled into a frozen ghost of light. The cold star has a name…
"Master," Huei falters, past vocal chords rough with disuse. "Have you come to take me home?" Unspoken: With you? The pause is lengthier than he had expected; perhaps he should not have so rashly named their shared quarters as home. But the medication is so cold within his veins, the ache behind his eyes already so tauntingly familiar, Huei desires nothing more than to hear the well-worn echo their quarters.
Dooku remains silent. Huei becomes aware that his master might not even be seated by his side; the subtle currents of air that mark the Sentinel's breath originate too far above him for that. And then, a faint shifting of heavy cloak and tabards, and a glass is pressed against his hand. Huei's webbed fingers grasp at the low-grade transparisteel, feeling the ghostly warmth left left by Dooku's fingers.
The Nautolan padawan takes a long, long draught of water before proffering the glass. "Thank you, master."
Dooku makes no movement to accept the container.
"Master?" Huei murmurs, his voice clearer now. There is something unsettled about the Force, like a distant toll of bells reverberating through the ground to shiver at his fingertips. A probing inquiry into their training bond finds it closed off completely, as though the veins and arteries carrying the lifeblood of the Force are shut tight, in preparation for amputation–
The Jedi Master speaks. "Huei."
A pause. "You are no longer to address me as such."
The words are delivered in a tone as smooth as obsidian ice, but Huei feels their impact as though they were physical blows to his scarred abdomen, sharp, unforgiving, like a gravedigger's spade in frozen earth.
"What?" The question comes out in a half-sob of horrified disbelief. His face must be a picture of agony, Huei knows, utterly unbecoming of a Sentinel's padawan – but Dooku has not called him 'padawan' since he woke.
It is this, more than anything, which seals Huei's understanding.
But apparently his body has still yet to come to terms with this revelation; the logical part of his mind snaps back to consciousness and realises his mouth is moving, and he is babbling, "Please – if I have done anything, Master – if I have done anything to be unworthy of your teaching, say it – say the word and I shall renounce it, whatever it is, please, I beg of you, if there is anything I have done…"
And then Huei stops, because he realises it is not something he has done. No, he is no longer a padawan because there are things he can never do again, things he will never be able to do.
Because he is blind.
Perhaps he should be sorrowful, pained, angry. Perhaps he should throw the glass he still clenches between pale blue fingers he cannot see, scream betrayal to the Force–
But he doesn't.
He straightens his spine, moving the half-empty glass to the side and somehow placing it precisely on his bedside table. He shifts, moving barely-healed muscles between the sheets, and kneels facing where his master's – no, Dooku's – voice had come from.
Huei Tori presses his forehead to his folded hands in a full kowtow.
"I thank you for all you have taught me," he intones clearly. Without emotion, as Dooku had drilled him to do. "May the Force be with you, my former Master."
A heavy hand, rough with age and callouses, lands on Huei's splayed headtails. "May the Force be with you, Huei Tori." The palm shifts, its warmth turning into heat, into a burning blade that scythes into his mind like a guillotine's fall.
Their bond shatters like wrought crystal tossed into a furnace, whiplashing back to score bloody furrows across both their minds.
Huei might have screamed. He doesn't know.
And then the man who was once his master is gone from side, and he hears the rustle of healers' robes around him, walling him within the prison of his bed. Hands that should be smooth flicker across his sweating brow, rearrange his nerveless limbs on the thin mattress, tuck the sheets tight around his shivering body.
Something cold enters his vein, and the twisting darkness bleeds not deeper in shade but tugs him deeper within himself, turning black consciousness into a doze, into what might be an artificial sleep. His cheeks are wet and raw, like fresh rain on a newly-closed grave. And despite the drugs, pain blossoms to the left of his breastbone, a winter rose watered by the rain, pushing its way up through the earth to open sable petals to the weeping sky.
And as sleep – the younger brother of death – claims him, Huei sees something strange. He had thought the darkness of his vision was absolute, before; but now his bond with Dooku is gone, it is as though the candle within him has been snuffed out. If he could sleep forever, he would; then he would never have to wake to the empty darkness again.
Falling forever, Huei wonders if he imagines the warm touch to his forehead.
Qui-Gon jerks awake in his chair as the Force snaps painfully, sending the air shuddering with the backlash.
A quick glance at Obi-Wan shows him curled into a ball as though to protect his soft stomach, swaddled in too many layers of blankets and too deep in the Force to be affected by the disturbance. The child sleeps on; though Qui-Gon muses that Obi-Wan really should not be called a child much longer. He cannot remember the last time this apprentice had even cried; there had been a slight mistiness to Obi-Wan's eyes a few hours past, but it too had quickly faded.
Qui-Gon finds he doesn't quite like the thought that Obi-Wan is growing.
But there are other pressing matters. Nursing the crick in his neck, he turns to the door and steps out into the hallway.
Dooku almost collides with him.
Qui-Gon supresses a momentary flare of irritation, but the emotion fades quickly, replaced with an ample amount of confusion. Given the terms of their last parting, it is strange that Dooku does not seem to have noticed his former apprentice at all. Rather, the tall sentinel's shoulders are weighed down with an invisible burden as he paces swiftly around the corner, the long cloak flickering after him like silken demons at his heels.
The Sentinel seems to be missing something, but it takes Qui-Gon a long moment to see it; perhaps he did not want to believe what the Force murmured sorrowfully in his ear.
There was no flicker about Dooku's Force-signature that signalled a training bond.
Qui-Gon's gaze swivels down the corridor, to an open door that pours and swallows healers and orderlies in equal measures. His feet carry him towards the commotion, and before he can draw breath, he is standing there, framed by the threshold.
He watches Huei Tori weep.
The healers fuss over the Nautolan pada– no, Nautolan boy, but the sedatives do not seem to be enough. In two bold steps Qui-Gon crosses to the bedside and brushes a finger over the pallid blue skin of Huei's forehead, sending the broken child into the refuge of slumber.
Qui-Gon straightens, and is met with the disconcerting sight of a half-dozen healers looking at him with gratitude. Normally it would have amused him, but another glance at Huei's tear-streaked face does away with that. Forcing a tired smile, he excuses himself with as much haste as dignity allows and returns to Obi-Wan's room. A glance at his chrono reveals the late hour, and Qui-Gon grimaces. It is far too late for evening meal.
He is a contemplating returning to quarters and scrounging up a miserable snack for himself when his comlink chimes.
The voice that replies is somewhat mechanised by the voice replicator, but its musical tones and familiar warmth brings a sudden fit of nostalgia.
"Well, well, old gundark. I knew you would be up this late. Fancy a midnight snack and a nightcap to welcome your former padawan home?"
Qui-Gon cannot help it; a laugh bubbles up out of him. He hasn't felt so light in weeks. "Feemor," he chuckles. No other title is needed; the name is familiar enough.
"Master," his erstwhile padawan returns, his voice mimicking Qui-Gon's world-weary tone. "Meet me at my quarters prompto! You'll be required to give a report on Temple comings-and-goings, I'm afraid. Extended missions tend to leave you out of the loop. And what's this I hear about you taking on a new padawan?" Wry question or not, Feemor's excitement is all too evident. The static crackles with the unexpected rise in volume.
Qui-Gon shushes him. "Restrain yourself, Feemor. You'll wake him."
"Oooh, so you tuck the tiny padawan into bed?" Feemor cackles. "I'm gravely wounded in the heart, Master. You never did that with me."
"You were out like a light every night," Qui-Gon retorts. He sobers, though. "We're with the Healers."
"Ah. I trust he is not too badly injured?"
"He's on the mend," Qui-Gon mutters as he collects his cloak. "I'm on my way, Feemor. Regale me with your adventures."
The pause at the other end is somewhat longer than is natural. Feemor is not one to miss how his former avoided the question; but he lets it go with good grace. "Well, the council has laid down the law. It is now time for me to take on another padawan."
"Ah, yes," the older Jedi answers as he gives Obi-Wan and the room one last sweeping glance. Satisfied, he heads for the door, smiling softly. "The requirements of rank and reputation, old friend."
Feemor's voice is distinctly mournful. "Well, unless you have any recommendations, I'm going to attend a tournament next week."
Qui-Gon lets his former padawan's chatter wash away what subtle shadows remain in his heart, and for the moment, he is content to be grateful that his current padawan is safe in the lullaby of the Force.
Admittedly, I'm being rather mean to Huei. To those interested, the memory Obi-Wan had of playing in a snow-filled garden is a reference to another fic of mine, Midwinter Meeting. A LOT of stuff happens in the next chapter…and I'll have it up soon as I can. Thank you all for your patience in waiting for this chapter. Review please!