There were no other guests in the ship docked against the Fortuna, and it took a very few minutes for the two Jedi to round up their prisoners. Those without fingers were remarkably cooperative, no doubt fearing what further confrontational efforts might cost them. The leaders, however, offered token resistance to being captives rather than captors, but a touch of the Force and Qui-Gon's considerable mental pressure was sufficient to make them stop snarling and march them, like obedient little lerrils, into their own, cramped shuttle. They settled quietly into their seats, with those sans hands having to be strapped in the Jedi with their leaders seated passively nearby.
With the last pirate secured, Obi-Wan slipped behind the controls. "Give me a few seconds, Master, and I'll have us underway."
Buckling himself in beside the younger man, Qui-Gon reached for his comlink to contact S'pex. Both Jedi winced at the stream of invectives issuing from the small instrument once the connection was made. Hastily, Qui-Gon turned down the volume.
"You're welcome for the rescue," Obi-Wan murmured. "Of course it was no trouble, thank you for asking," he assured the strange instrumentation before him.
A muffled cough caused Obi-Wan to glance at Qui-Gon, uncertain if the noise had been an aborted laugh or a reaction to the pungent scent of stale spice smoke that blew through the ventilation ducts, a scent as unwelcome as the stream of invectives cycling just as endlessly from the poor abused comlink. Sharing a look of long-suffering with Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon sighed and stared balefully at the Fortuna which still floated dead in space off their bow. When, after a few seconds, S'pex showed no signs of slowing, he bellowed.
Dead silence descended. Obi-Wan grinned.
"S'pex, we have removed the threat and your ship is free," the Master said softly, with a dangerous edge to his voice. "Obi-Wan and I are on our way to the Corellian, where we will secure our prisoners and the ship. Kindly do not get underway until you hear from us again. Do you understand?"
"Understand," came the sullen acknowledgment.
Qui-Gon switched off the link and secured the instrument in his belt.
"I half-expect the thrusters to fire and S'pex to leave us among the stars," Obi-Wan commented, half-amused.
"She wouldn't dare," Qui-Gon all but growled.
A few clicks later, they docked the shuttle inside the bigger ship's hangar and reached with Force-sense to ascertain that the ship was deserted before herding their captives out and setting foot on the deck. Turning to the Corellian captain, Qui-Gon gestured.
"You'll take us to your holding cells," he said in Corellian, "and lock yourselves in."
"I'll take you to our cells," the pirate repeated, "and we'll get locked in."
Stomping past Obi-Wan, he led himself and his comrades through the maze of corridors, deep into the bowels of the ship. In short order, he and the others were behind forcefields, sitting and staring dazedly at the walls as they awaited further orders from the Jedi.
"That will hold them until we reach Coruscant," Qui-Gon murmured. "Let's find the bridge, shall we?"
The bridge was a gleaming religious experience, engineered within an inch of its polished titanium life and featuring every piece of instrumentation and augmentation that Obi-Wan could imagine, as well as a few things that he could not.
/Anakin would love this,/ he reflected, smoothing a hand over one of the levers controlling the cloaking device. /Of course Anakin would also have it all in pieces within moments, and it would be days before it was reassembled, probably with extensive modifications./
"Can you pilot her?" asked Qui-Gon, waiting and watching as Obi-Wan completed his visual inspection.
Pilot her? As though bidding that such a power lady fly was a difficulty? He shot Qui-Gon a grin. "With pleasure, Master. Or would you like the honor?"
"No, thank you." Scowling, the Master glanced over his shoulder toward a problem not visible through the walls of the bridge. "I need to deal with a small disturbance in the Force." Wincing, he retrieved his comlink once more.
"She's still seething?"
"She'll take months to stop seething, Padawan. No need for us to wait for what isn't coming. Fire up the engines and make the necessary calculations while I attempt to soothe our erstwhile pilot's ruffled pride."
Qui-Gon's second conversation was much quieter with the Twi-lek, but Obi-Wan suspected that was because he had the volume turned down. Nevertheless, they were underway soon, with Obi-Wan guiding the big ship alongside the Fortuna, dwarfing the tiny transport with its sleek muscle. He gentled the power of the borrowed ship, coaxing it to hover motionless.
"Whenever you're ready, Master."
Qui-Gon grimaced, then lifted the comlink once more.
"We'll follow you in to Coruscant," he ordered S'pex swiftly, ignoring the niceties this time. "We don't wish to be fired upon, so kindly inform air control and the Temple that we're on our way in a borrowed pirate vessel." He closed the connection before the Twi'lek could begin her litany of complaints yet again. "Go, Obi-Wan. Let's finish this with all possible speed, shall we?" Qui-Gon sank into the co-pilot's seat, waving Obi-Wan toward the sea of stars before him. "Please, take us home."
Obi-Wan's hands danced over the instruments. "Ready for the jump to hyperspace whenever you give the word, Master."
"The word is given. Follow her in."
The proper sequence of commands was entered. Obi-Wan sent their ship hurtling after the Fortuna a moment after the smaller ship had winked off their viewscreen. It was a simple enough computation; Obi-Wan had done this innumerable times for his other Master, and he braced for the disorienting feeling as the stars stretched and streamed before them. But the big ship had its own way of traveling into hyperspace, and smoothly was not its preferred means: the Jedi were slammed back in their chairs, clung to the armrests and struggled to breathe. When Obi-Wan could open his eyes again, he was relieved to see a familiar starstream hurtling by.
"My apologies, Master," he managed once he could inhale again.
Qui-Gon panted. "You've never piloted such power?"
"Yes, but never without warning. They've made a few modifications, apparently. S'Pex could never have outrun them. I'm not sure any ship could." He ran an appreciative hand over the console as though caressing the powerful ship. "I just pointed her in the right direction. A pity the Council won't let us keep her; she's magnificent."
"She is, indeed." Reaching out, the Master laid a hand on Obi-Wan's shoulder and squeezed. "You've done well, and I need to send a message to Xanatos. If you'd like to check on our prisoners--"
"Of course, Master." Interpreting the older man's words as a request for privacy, Obi-Wan fumbled with the safety harness, rolled out of the chair, and all but bolted from the bridge. He missed the puzzled frown Qui-Gon gave him, didn't know that the Master stared after him long after he'd quit the bridge.
* * *
The prisoners were exactly as they'd left them - Force-drugged and dozing, peacefully awaiting whatever fate awaited them next day on Coruscant. Checking on them was a simple matter of staring at them through the restraining field. Obi-Wan looked at them, and they stared back at him with dull, disinterested eyes. They blinked, he shrugged, interview over. It was something that could easily have been accomplished from the command center of the ship where Qui-Gon was.
Obi-Wan felt a flush of embarrassment that his Ma--... That Qui-Gon had to make such a transparent request to get rid of him. He should have known. Should have anticipated that the Jedi needed to have a private conversation.
He began wandering back toward the bridge, but not too quickly. The Master needed his privacy; Force knew that he'd not had one moment alone since Obi-Wan had been dropped into his life. He and Xanatos probably had much to discuss. Yes, much to discuss, not the least of which was what to do with the strange knight that had wandered in and stayed.
Letting his booted feet wander where they would, Obi-Wan took a few corridors not travelled and passed through rooms furnished with instruments of torture, smelling of blood and fairly vibrating with the memory of pain... Past more personal chambers furnished in early garish, filled with the treasures and trophies acquired over a career of piracy, and armored cargo doors beyond which he had no desire to explore. There was no life behind those doors; beyond that, the Jedi didn't care what they held.
He continued his explorations, but after finding the common area had been fitted with Bantha Horn chairs upholstered in smelly Bantha hair that hung in sagging, shaggy folds down to droop over a Bantha footstool, Obi-Wan was honestly afraid to explore any more. Even a Jedi Knight could only take so many ugly surprises in one day.
Climbing from the cargo bays and holding cells up to the upper levels, Obi-Wan headed instinctively for the stars. Eventually, he made his way to a narrow viewing deck at the top of the ship. Stepping onto the deck, he was momentarily startled when it shimmered and seemed to dissolve beneath his feet. The wall before him did the same, seeming to leave nothing between him and the universe.
/It's an illusion deck,/ he realized.
Turning in place, he saw that the final wall was mirrored, which allowed a star reflection to complete the illusion.
/Different kind of spacewalking,/ he thought, wandering further down the deck. /Warmer. Less cumbersome without the pressure suit./ Standing still, he watched the stars stream past while he stood alone in the darkness of space.
The last of his adrenalin bled away, then. With it went the superficial bond he and Qui-Gon had established before the battle; he felt it thin, grow fuzzy, and finally dissolve completely. Now that the need had ended, so had the bond's usefulness. He was left inside of himself again, alone and lonely and already missing his Master, or missing his Master still. Obi-Wan wasn't quite certain which it was.
The bond had carried him through the battle at Qui-Gon's side, had allowed him to act as half of a whole, to respond instantly and automatically as he'd been trained to do. Now that the crisis was past, everything faded as though it had never been. The quiet, companionable presence that had been this Qui-Gon at the back of Obi-Wan's mind was gone, every bit as completely as his own Master's presence. Obi-Wan found himself wishing deeply that it wasn't so.
The aloneness was even worse now. Now he missed two masters... who were the same master... but different....
Sighing, he sank down to sit crosslegged on the transparent deck. He tried to gather enough focus to meditate, to find peace despite the turbulence that seemed to have taken up residence in his soul since Naboo. He tried to settle his heart as he'd been taught to do from the creche, to find his center and simply 'be' until he could think rationally and dispassionately about the events of the last few hours. But tranquility slipped through his mind like sand through a sieve, long out of reach and overwhelmed with a familiar anguish.
And again, he was alone.
* * *
The conversation with Xanatos was been brief, lasting just long enough assure Qui-Gon that all was well back on Coruscant, and that they would be allowed to dock the Corellian ship at the spacepad for the Temple. Obi-Wan should have been able to see to the prisoners in an equally brief period of time, and so Qui-Gon leaned back in the surprisingly comfortable chair, awaiting the younger man's return. But Obi-Wan did not return.
Qui-Gon reached for him through the Force and found only sorrow where a bright presence should be.
/The boy is a riddle, no doubt about it,/ thought Qui-Gon, shaking his head. /What has set him off like that? Or what has he found in this floating spice den that affected him so badly?/
Sparing the controls a quick glance, the Master confirmed that the ship was quite capable of flying without his supervision. He then set off through the ship, seeking his errant... what?
Knight? Padawan? Houseguest?
More questions. But the first one to be answered should be where the riddle himself had gone.
He found Obi-Wan sitting in the the darkness in the middle of an empy deck, with his elbow propped on his thigh and his chin propped in the palm of his hand while he stared out into space. Obi-Wan's shoulders were rounded, and the expression Qui-Gon could see in the reflected light of the starstream looked dismal at best.
"Obi-Wan?" The name carried many questions behind it. Qui-Gon let Obi-Wan choose which one he wished to acknowledge.
Obi-Wan chose to answer none of them. The young man merely turned his head when the big man stepped onto the deck. He stared with shadowed green eyes up at Qui-Gon for a moment, then returned to staring out into the sea of darkness.
Qui-Gon stepped onto the illusion deck, only to freeze in place and stare down at the invisible flooring beneath his feet.
/Oh gods./ He shuddered. /This is not a comfortable thing to see./
Never a fan of high places, much less places without a firm floor to walk upon, the Master repeated a serenity mantra to focus his mind and forced himself to move across the empty nothingness of space to reach the young man. He then forced his knees to bend and his stomach to stop doing the Ardellian flops before he managed to settle beside Obi-Wan.
"You didn't come back," said Qui-Gon. "I was wondering where you'd gotten off to."
Obi-Wan remained silent, staring out at the stars.
Qui-Gon looked around. "Well. This is very impressive, isn't it?"
Obi-Wan nodded, then sighed. "I have to go home, Master."
The words and the misery carried on them sent a chill through Qui-Gon. /Something has gone seriously wrong in the past few minutes./ "We're on our way home now, Obi-Wan."
"No... Not to your world. I have to go back to my own world. I understand now, I can't stay here."
"Because... I can't stay, Master. I have a few credits. As soon as we return to Coruscant, I'll book passage back to Pesca."
Qui-Gon slipped his hand across the younger man's shoulders and began rubbing gently. "Obi-Wan, I thought you had decided to stay with us? The Council is very pleased to have welcomed you into our Temple. I was rather pleased by your decision to stay with me as well."
"No, they shouldn't have. This isn't my world. It's peaceful here, while I'm trained in violence and conflict and death. I need to go back where I belong, before.... Where I belong, Master."
"Before what?" Qui-Gon pressed mildly.
"Before... I cause any harm here. You'll be safe then."
"Safe from what?" he pursued patiently, like a krella nudging its young back into the nest.
Obi-Wan's fingers folded into fists. Wrapping his arms around himself, he shook his head and leaned away from Qui-Gon's touch for the first time since they'd met. "It doesn't matter, Master. I'm sorry."
"And just what are you apologizing for, this time?"
The question elicited the breath of a laugh. "Many things, Master. The list is long and getting longer by the moment."
"Then why don't we start at the beginning of your list, because I don't seem to share your interpretation of events."
Swallowing hard, Obi-Wan began. "I upset you badly last night and probably made you very angry, asking about your Obi-Wan. This morning, I disobeyed your orders."
"How did you do that?"
"I ran ahead without you, just like my Master and your Padawan did. I wasn't fast enough on Naboo and got my Master killed. I wasn't fast enough today, either."
"You weren't fast enough? You seemed blindingly fast to me. And may I point out that I'm not dead?"
"Today I got lucky," Obi-Wan insisted. "You didn't die. But what kind of Jedi nearly gets his Master killed a second time?" He drew a shaky breath. "It's a scary responsibility to keep a Master alive, you know? I don't want to mess this up; the Force led me here and let us meet. I asked--"
He paused to draw a deep, shuddering breath and swipe the back of his hand across his eyes. "I asked for just another moment with my Master. The Force gave me that. Has given me *days* with you. But I can't stay here. It can't be forever, because I'll only get you killed, and the Force is probably running out of spare Master Qui-Gons. I can't hope to find another one. And I don't want YOU to die, even if there are more Master Qui-Gons out there. If I stick around, I'll just endanger you again somewhere, somehow. And I cannot bear to watch you die."
Qui-Gon let out a long, slow breath. /I've never known anyone to take on such guilt so willingly./ Sidling closer, he tightened his grip on Obi-Wan. "You didn't nearly get me killed. I was in no danger of dying today."
"Yes, you were," Obi-Wan insisted. "When I ran ahead and got stuck in the crossfire, and you couldn't deflect the blaster--"
"There are techniques of defense other than deflecting blaster-fire, Obi-Wan. Force-assisted techniques a bit more sophisticated than waiting for the bolts to come to you," the Master said quietly. "I had at least three possible means of defense at that particular moment, and there were probably at least three more if I thought about it for another moment. You did not endanger me. You did endanger yourself, and that was the source of my concern. YOU. Not ME. That is why I called you back."
Obi-Wan shook his head, instantly dismissing the threat to his own well-being as having been any sort of a problem.
"And may I present another point of view for your consideration?" Qui-Gon added, interrupting the younger man's misery yet again. "The crux of this crisis--if it is a crisis--is that you're seeing the day as a disaster, when there is no disaster. First of all, you are assigning emotions and reactions to me that simply do not exist. I am not upset or angry that you asked me about my Obi-Wan: if we discuss your old Master, it is only fair that we also discuss my old Padawan."
"But the memories brought you so much pain."
Qui-Gon began carding his fingers through Obi-Wan's hair, working from the front to the back, over and over again. "It hurt, yes. Of course it did. I loved the boy, and he died. But you aren't responsible for my grief, and you certainly aren't responsible for my Padawan's death, so how could this be your fault? Have you considered that even though the memories hurt, talking about them brings healing? Don't the mind-healers insist on talking out traumas on your world?"
"Well, yes, but--"
"It felt like the beginnings of healing for me to be able to finally talk about it. I don't...I haven't...been able to discuss Obi-Wan's death with anyone before. Last night, with you, I could. You helped me look at the memories and find truth along with the pain. I think that is something quite compassionate, not something worthy of condemnation. Rather than brood on the events of the day, you might consider exploring why I was comfortable enough with you to be able to talk about it. Secondly, there is the fact that we fulfilled our mission to save S'pex and have delivered her ship from the pirates."
"But." Qui-Gon smiled. "You like that word, don't you? But. But, what? I think you did admirably, although I'd like to know who taught you to lop off the hands of your attackers. Was that one of your Master's techniques? It's very effective." Qui-Gon paused a moment, watching the stars slip past in a silent, hypnotic dance. "I've never known anyone to take disarming opponents quite so literally."
Obi-Wan blinked. "I... erm... My Master didn't teach me. It's just something I picked up along the way. I didn't want them hurting you, they needed to be stopped, and it seemed the most expedient way of accomplishing that goal in the moment."
Qui-Gon chuckled. "It was definitely expedient; they are indeed defanged, and will never wield a blaster again. In fact, they'll never even be able to pee again without assistance. So it was your own idea? It's not the standard modus operandi in your universe?"
"No, Master." Worried green eyes met his. "Should I have not done it?"
Qui-Gon enfolded him in a hug. "I'm not faulting you for it, it was most effective. Xanatos will be fascinated with your solution. I'll have to remember to put it into the report."
"Fascinated? Is that a good thing?"
Qui-Gon looked thoughtful. "I think so, though I also think that you might consider letting me teach you a few Force-assisted defenses that aren't quite so crippling."
"Those men can be repaired, Master. I know there are biomechanical implants that will allow them to live normal lives. I can somehow see that it's done--"
Qui-Gon rested his hand on the top of Obi-Wan's head, splaying his fingers out to nestle them between the strands of hair. Frowning, the younger man glanced up, as if trying to see the large, heavy hand that had taken up residence there. He also forgot to finish what he'd been saying, which had been Qui-Gon's hope all along.
"Padawan, it's all right. We'll take care of them. They will receive medical care they need and the justice they deserve. They'll harm no-one else, nor will they suffer unfairly. And I had the opportunity to see you fight. You are amazing with a saber. I was most impressed."
"How can you be impressed after I nearly got you killed?" Obi-Wan hissed.
"Back to that, are we?" Shaking his head, Qui-Gon ruffled Obi-Wan's hair before shifting on the hard, invisible decking in an attempt to find a more comfortable position. Once he'd satisfied himself, he deliberately leaned against the younger man, re-establishing physical contact. /If he refuses to allow my words to reassure him, perhaps my touch can help./
"All right, Padawan, tell me again when it was that you nearly got me killed, because I still don't remember it?"
"I ran *ahead,*" he repeated. "I got caught between you and the intruders, without any regard for your orders. I didn't even know what your orders were. Didn't bother to find out before running Sith-bent down that corridor." ,
"Let's look at the things you did right, shall we? You yielded to merely a word from me--not once, but numerous times. You're also one of the most efficient Padawans I've ever seen--a fearless warrior, indefatigable in battle. I'm proud to have had you at my side today; you're smart and fast, and you think well on your feet. Your lightsaber technique is flawless; I daresay you could teach me a thing or two. You can be directed not only with a single word, but effortlessly through any conflict-initiated bond. Do you know what a rarity that is?"
"It's expected that the Padawan will be directed by his Master," Obi-Wan muttered, unimpressed.
"Expected, yes. Achieved? Not often."
"Quiet, Padawan, and LISTEN to me!" Qui-Gon growled, summoning all of his authority through those few words as though they were back at the Temple in the middle of a session inside the Master's wheel. "The problems you are seeing are problems of communication, the sort that are inevitable between two Jedi who have never worked together before. Those problems require a bit of discussion, fine-tuning, and future planning. Most will resolve themselves as we continue working together; they're certainly nothing you need beat yourself up over."
Obi-Wan bowed his head. "Master."
"I'm not your Qui-Gon, and you are not my Obi-Wan," the Master continued more gently. "We haven't had years together, and we will both make mistakes as we get to know each other."
Pausing, he leaned away from Obi-Wan slightly and stared out into the starfield for a long moment. The younger man felt the Master's withdrawal, as if Qui-Gon needed to separate himself momentarily from the flow of the Force between them.
/What have I done now?/ Obi-Wan wondered. /Am I disturbing his connection with the living Force? I've got to go home as swiftly as I can get away from him./
"I've hesitated to tell you what else I've observed," Qui-Gon said softly, "but the Force is insisting that you be told."
"Master?" Worried green eyes locked into clear blue.
"The bottom line is this, Obi-Wan: you're not ready to be on your own as a knight. You're uncertain of your abilities and your judgment. You need more time as a senior Padawan assigned to a Master. You need time to settle into what you've been taught -- time that your Council, for whatever reason, was not willing to grant you. You need the chance to find your feet, to gain some mileage and confidence, no matter how long that process might take. Decisiveness comes with experience, and you've had precious little of that. A little more time as a Padawan will provide all that you need to be a splendid knight."
"Time as a Pada..." Obi-Wan shook his head in confusion and looked almost panic-stricken. "*Whose* Padawan, Master?"
"Mine, of course." Qui-Gon thumped his chest and looked perturbed. "I thought that would be obvious, since our little skirmish back there showed me that you need offensive and defensive Force-training that obviously was not provided in your universe. I gather that advanced Force-combat techniques are not taught in your world, else you'd probably be embarrassingly brilliant at that as well. A little time together, and we'll have that up to speed."
"You're... You want..." Obi-Wan croaked, staring in shock at the older man.
"I'm asking you to put your knighthood on hold," Qui-Gon said carefully. "Would you become my Padawan for however long it takes for you to feel ready to be a knight?"
Obi-Wan didn't answer. He didn't appear to be able to answer, and Qui-Gon wasn't certain he'd even heard what had been said. The green eyes had gone dark and wide with doubt and distrust. Settling in a half-crouch, Obi-Wan stared up at the big man who'd obviously lost his mind or was playing a cruel joke on his companion.
"I've made you remember something.... you'd rather not, haven't I?" Qui-Gon realized. Raising a hand, he started to smooth back the hair that had fallen in Obi-Wan's eyes, only to have the knight flinch away, as though afraid he'd be struck. Past words surfaced in Qui-Gon's mind; remembered in Obi-Wan's clear, matter-of-fact voice: 'My Master rejected me five times.'
/Gods.../ thought Qui-Gon, /The boy had dreams that were smashed with those rejections. I'm going about this the wrong way entirely, unless I want him to bolt out of the nearest airlock./
Laying a hand against Obi-Wan's cheek, Qui-Gon pushed gently against the Jedi's fragile shields.
"I'm not him, and I won't hurt you. Please trust me?" he urged on a whisper. "Let me in just a little, Obi-Wan."
Closing his eyes on a sob, Obi-Wan resignedly did as he was asked. The Master nearly fell into Obi-Wan's mind, so quickly did those shields crumble under his mental touch. Pulling back, Qui-Gon whisper-touched his way inside, treading softly and sending waves of affection out before him. /Where did the pain begin, Obi-Wan? Please show me?/
Mindshadows shifted and parted before him to reveal an Initiate-level battle arena in a Temple that was/was not familiar to Qui-Gon. Walking through the shadows, he took his place beside a tall Master who looked much like him, but when Qui-Gon turned to look at the man, he simply faded away.
Lightsabers crackled and hissed. A cry rose up from the crowd surrounding the arena, drawing Qui-Gon's attention to the two opponents within. A slender boy with fiery hair fought another, taller, white-haired boy in that arena. The fire-child attacked with desperate fury, meeting the other boy's weapon with stinging power. Swinging with full power, the fire-child sent his opponent peddling backward until he fell, sprawling, on the mat. The pale one's lightsaber switched off as it flew from his hand and clattered noisily as it went skittering across the uneven floor.
The fire-child backed away, panting. Qui-Gon knew that he was there to watch this child, to evaluate and weigh his abilities. He knew that the boy knew it as well. Yet the child did not meet Qui-Gon's gaze, did not even acknowledge his presence before switching off his own saber and turning to the showers.
Giving the boy time to clean up and change clothes, Qui-Gon entered the dressing chamber just as the boy was tossing his stained tunic into the laundry container.
"Who taught you to fight like that?" the Master demanded, halting before the Initiate, so close that his cloak swirled about the boy's feet. "You've been taught to defend, to conserve your strength and wear down your opponent. Yet you fought like a very dangerous man today."
Green eyes challenged him, hope and anxiety dancing in their depths. "I wanted to impress you. I wanted to win."
Qui-Gon shook his head. "You're better than that, Obi-Wan. Consider your actions: you left yourself open to attack time and again, and relied upon your opponent to take the defensive stance. Your fighting style is risky, and very dangerous."
/It's still dangerous, all these years later,/ Qui-Gon realized. /How could it not be, acquired as it was in a universe where the danger never ends?/
The boy's eyes went wide and filled with a sick realization, and Qui-Gon realized too late that he'd heard the thought. Obi-Wan's shoulders rounded, he bowed his head. He knew all too well that Qui-Gon Jinn would not choose him.
"Yes, Master," he answered dutifully, voice dulled with knowledge of his failure.
Desperate to reassure the young man, Qui-Gon reached down and ruffled Obi-Wan's short-cropped hair.
"I was dangerous at your age, too, you know?" he said gently. "Perhaps all boys are. It took a long time, many bruises, and a broken nose for me to realize that I couldn't count on every opponent to be vanquished under my fury."
Obi-Wan's head came up. Hope glimmered in the gaze locked into Qui-Gon's. "How did you learn?"
Qui-Gon shared a crooked smile. "My Master showed me. It took a lot of patience and many years and *experience*, but I finally learned. Obi-Wan, do you have the time and the patience to let me show you? Are you willing to let me teach you how to fight and conquer with peace? Will you work with me to gain the experience that you need?"
"I... I think so, Master."
"Then come with me." Qui-Gon held out his hand, palm up. "Be my Padawan. I choose you, Obi-Wan Kenobi."
Hesitating only a moment, and looking as if in that moment the offer might be snatched away, Obi-Wan warily slid his fingers across Qui-Gon's palm. Closing his fingers, the older man swallowed the boy's hand, reached out through the Force and claimed him....
The the claiming was warm and safe and welcome. Moving through Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon discovered and dissolved the myriad hurts and uncertain miseries of the boy's sad, shadowed youth. Shouldering past the spiked frustration and torments of his embarrassing battles with Bruck Chun, this Qui-Gon found the exhausting trials of Bandomeer. Cradling Obi-Wan's pain against his own heart, Qui-Gon bathed it with acceptance and light until the impace of the events dissolved, until Obi-Wan sighed and relaxed entirely for the first time since he'd met the original Qui-Gon Jinn.
Obi-Wan's younger, smaller Initiate's fingers entwined with Qui-Gon's, with a strange kind of energy dancing between the palms of his hands and the calloused pads of the Master's fingers. The energy jolted up Obi-Wan's arms, across his collarbones and into his mind, sparking insistent tendrils of Force that wound their way through his mind, joining him in ways he'd never dreamed of to this Qui-Gon Jinn. Slitting opening his eyes, Obi-Wan found that they'd left his childhood memories and were standing on a beach with white sand and rainbows of light dancing in the surf. The Master stood at his side, so solid and so alive that it almost broke Obi-Wan's heart.
/You're safe now,/ Qui-Gon's voice rumbled in his mind. /Safe with me./
Long fingers were still entwined with his. Qui-Gon turned him toward the surf and stood behind him, wrapped his arms tightly around him. The younger man leaned against his Master's long, lean body, laid his cheek against one of the arms encircling him, and closed his eyes. He purred into the touch, and a deep sigh answered him. He felt warm and safe and welcome within the circle of those arms, within the circle of the bond forming between them.
The bond hummed as well, strong and brilliant and never to be denied. Sinking joyfully into it and feeling back along its track, Obi-Wan realized with the jolt that it was foundationed in the jagged remnants of the training bond he'd shared with the other Qui-Gon Jinn.
/Do you mind?/ a worried voice rumbled across his thoughts. /If you do, we can establish another--/
/NO!/ Obi-Wan protested, reaching out with part of his mind and all of his heart to pull the new, shining thing closer. /I want this, Master. I need this, need to belong.... Please..../
/As do I,/ came the sighed acknowledgment. Long fingers tangled in the hair at the back of his neck, caressing. /My Obi-Wan./
He was hugged within an inch of his life, melded heart and mind to this Master now and basking in the strength and Light of the new bond they shared. Obi-Wan hugged back, hard....
* * *
...and felt his ribs squeezed until he grunted because now the Master was sitting behind him on the illusion deck and Obi-Wan was leaning back against that broad chest. Back against this Master... No, against *his* Master, his new Master -- and Qui-Gon's arms were wrapped tightly around him as though he'd never let go, and the new bond was singing and thrumming deep inside of them both.
Qui-Gon breathed in unison with his new Padawan, bracing his chin where Obi-Wan's neck met his shoulder. Starved for such affectionate touching, Obi-Wan settled happily into the bond. He wanted to weep for the joy of finally belonging, and wanted to laugh at the starstream streaking by because the great universe out there hadn't changed. Really, it hadn't. The only thing that had changed was the universe inside of Obi-Wan because he'd been *chosen* as he never had before, by the best and wisest and kindest man alive. Thank the Force, yes, but most especially thank the big man at Obi-Wan's back, who had entwined their minds and was holding on to him in multiple universes as if he'd never let go.
After years of trying and never succeeding in being the perfect Padawan, Obi-Wan felt as though his universe had finally righted itself. Perfection wasn't required, he was already accepted and thought special, wanted and needed. All of the wrongs hadn't been made right, but the rejected twelve-year-old was leaping up and down inside of Obi-Wan and shrieking, "I'm a PADAWAN!" and the knight-made-too-early was grinning from ear to ear and well-pleased that he'd been demoted back to apprentice.
/This is right,/ he thought across the bond. /This is proper and major fitting./
He felt the indulgent smile through the bond. /You approve then? You're pleased, my Padawan?/
/I do, and I am,/ he confirmed without hesitation. He sent Qui-Gon the image he'd had earlier - that of himself as a younger Padawan, leaping for joy at their joining. /Perhaps you'd like to join me in celebrating, Master?./
/You wish to see someone my size, hopping about? That would look silly,/ came the amused reply, accompanied by a light chuckle. /But yes, I might at that - as long a we don't do it in front of Xanatos and completely wreck my serene, non-emotional reputation./
Obi-Wan snorted. /I don't know Xanatos very well yet, but I can still imagine his reaction to your leaping about, Master./
/Such exuberance might help remind us that we're alive, so doesn't that make it worth the effort?/ Qui-Gon continued, ignoring his Padawan's skepticism.
/Later, perhaps./ Obi-Wan sighed and settled closer. /I'm too comfortable to move right now./
/As you wish, my Padawan./
Obi-Wan had never known such deep-down joy before; it hadn't seemed right or proper or fitting for Qui-Gon Jinn's apprentice to have ever exhibited, much less felt, such enthusiasm because, when it came right down to it, Padawan Kenobi he hadn't been chosen. Not really. Oh, he'd been accepted, finally. Assigned and entered into the Temple records and registered for classes and stamped with Master Jinn's beads and braid at the very last possible minute, practically, but chosen? In the way that Initiates lay awake nights dreaming of being chosen?
No. Never before.
/All of that has changed now,/ Qui-Gon reminded him, tightening his grip even more, until Obi-Wan thought he might never breathe again, but didn't care.
It had all changed with a touch and a hug and a quiet, "Trust me." Obi-Wan would trust this man for all of his days in ways that the Padawan had never dreamed he could trust. *This* was the way life was meant to be; *this* was why the Force had brought him to this universe. Dreams were allowed here, allowed to come true as well, it seemed. A new bond sang between him and his Master, tumbled joyously between their minds, ensorceling their souls. There it was, that bond, laughing at them both and welcoming Obi-Wan home like cool rainwater sluicing over his head on a hot day, soaking into all of the empty places inside and humming, "This is where you belong," in Qui-Gon's voice.
Obi-Wan wanted to be there, wanted to belong just there, curled up beside this Master's heart and soul, hearing that hum and song and beloved voice until the end of time. The Force said yes, it was possible, had been made real in this moment so that there was very little chance of turning back. They were bonded, Obi-Wan been chosen, and Qui-Gon was still purring his contentment through the bond, was removing Obi-Wan's hair from his mouth after it had tangled in his beard, was muttering that his new Padawan's hair needed a proper Padawan cut. Above all, the Master was waiting for the bond to settle completely and for he and his Padawan to begin their life together.
"There will be lessons, you know?" whispered Qui-Gon, his lips close to Obi-Wan's ear. "You must learn to manipulate the Force as completely as I can."
Closing his eyes, Obi-Wan sank into the moment and just listened. If the Force offered a heaven, surely his Master's voice at his ear and his Master's heartbeat at his back was it. "I would be honored to learn anything you might teach, Master."
"There will be missions and adventures as well. Adventures unseen and unimagined."
/Unimaginable,/ Obi-Wan thought, /if past adventures with my Master are anything to go by./ That was fine with him.
"And there will be dancing with lightsabers?" Obi-Wan asked almost sleepily, intoxicated with the joy of belonging with someone rather than to someone for the first time.
"We will dance with life itself, Obi-Wan. With the Force."
They would. In a universe offering more hope and welcome and love than Obi-Wan had ever thought possible, much less known. Qui-Gon breathed at his back, his Force-signature resonated through the bond, was entirely tangled with Obi-Wan's. The younger man tightened his grip on the bond, only to feel Qui-Gon's arms tighten around him.
"The only thing missing is the Padawan braid," commented Qui-Gon regretfully. "I'm afraid we'll simply have to imagine it being there until you can manage to grow a bit of hair here." Qui-Gon's thumb caressed the woefully bare spot behind Obi-Wan's right ear.
"But I do have one," he murmured. Laughing softly, he twisted beneath Qui-Gon's arm to dig inside the rear-most pocket of his supply belt. The Master made a quizzical noise before making room for the digging, since bony, pointy elbows were coming his way while Obi-Wan rummaged. Qui-Gon laughed outright when Obi-Wan surfaced with his prize: a two-foot long Padawan braid.
"I didn't know what to do with it," Obi-Wan confessed softly. "Master Yoda cut it, and I know that I was supposed to offer it to my Master, but he was about to be immolated. The guests were already arriving for the ceremony and we had to hurry, so I just stuffed it in there. I forgot about it until now."
/Gods above and below, was there nothing of this Jedi's knighting that wasn't somehow tainted?/
"Will you give it to your master now?" Qui-Gon asked softly, holding out his hand.
Obi-Wan wound the braid into the large palm and watched as the slender length coiled up on itself, looking small and insubstantial as Qui-Gon's fingers closed over it. Taking the offering, the Master held it up by its severed end, smoothed its length and cleared away bits of belt-pouch fuzz before setting the thickest end against Obi-Wan's temple and summoning the Force.
A lightning jolt struck the side of Obi-Wan's head. He winced before raising his hand to probe and inspect the joining, while Qui-Gon's fingers busied themselves at the ends removing ties and beads. He held the late Qui-Gon Jinn's unique bead up to scrutinize it in the flickering starlight, then nodded in satisfaction.
"Close enough," he commented, dumping the beads and delicate ties into Obi-Wan's hands for temporary safekeeping. And then the Master was separating the braid into three sections, was pulling a few strands of hair from his own head to mingle with the sections, was entwining his own hair with Obi-Wan's.
Closing his eyes, the new-made Padawan smiled at the sensation, so beloved and cherished and missed. Qui-Gon drew breath to speak, his voice rumbling in Obi-Wan's chest as he intoned the age old phrases of a Jedi Master claiming an apprentice.
"Padawan, Master, Force," he christened the strands, weaving them as the bond had woven their souls together. "Bound threefold to you, my Padawan."
Obi-Wan subtly leaned against the hand at his cheek as the long fingers moving deftly to weave the braid, and answered the ancient ritual. "Bound to you, my Master."
"Bound within the Force and within the Light, to learn and teach and serve...."
"...with love and compassion and strength," Obi-Wan murmured. "Always together."
"Never apart, we are Master and apprentice."
They remained on deck for a long time while the bond settled between them. Qui-Gon leaned against the deck's wall with Obi-Wan lying back against his shoulder, just watching the stars streak by. Long fingers stroked through his hair and he relaxed into the touch, basking in the steady feeling of belonging, of finally having come home.
/I can't remember every having felt such contentment before,/ he thought, knowing Qui-Gon could hear him. /Thank you, Master./
/No, my Obi-Wan. Thank you./
Qui-Gon stirred long moments later. "Do you understand now that your former Master didn't die because of you," he ventured softly, "but because of the decisions he made, every moment of his life?"
Turning his head, Obi-Wan bumped his nose against Qui-Gon's chin. "Yes, Master."
"You were good enough," Qui-Gon continued, shifting slightly as his leg was going to sleep, and tightening the grip of his other arm to prevent Obi-Wan from moving away. "You were more than good enough. Qui-Gon simply made the mistake of not waiting for you during the battle on Naboo."
"He should have waited, and he didn't," Obi-Wan admitted slowly. The truth resonated through the Force, cracking him open. Tears tracked slowly down his cheeks, a gentler pain and mourning than he'd known before. "Why didn't he wait for me?"
"Two reasons, I think. First, he had the Sith on the run and didn't want to give him any time to breathe. Secondly, I believe he wanted to protect you, much as I wished to protect Obi-Wan in our last battle."
"I didn't need his protection. He should have waited. He should have."
"Yes," Qui-Gon agreed.
They sat in silence for another long moment, while Obi-Wan closed his eyes and sank closer to Qui-Gon within the bond. Almost desperately, he reached to touch his Master's calm, with Qui-Gon tenderly answering that need.
"I knew I wasn't ready when they knighted me," Obi-Wan admitted. "Before Qui-Gon cast me aside, he made it clear that I had another two or three years to go, to just practice what I knew at my leisure, at his side. But then came Anakin and the Sith, and Master Qui-Gon made me promise that I'd train the boy, and to do that I had to be--"
"A knight. And so the web was woven; your Master died, you killed the Sith, the Council had no choice but to consider the battle as your trials, and there you are."
Obi-Wan considered the scenario for a moment. "I suppose there was no way they could have justified to the Temple, or to another Master, that I still needed time as a Padawan after I'd killed a Sith."
"And so, my knighting was political more than actual?"
"Not necessarily, Obi-Wan. As I said before, you possess all of the technique and tools necessary to be a Jedi Knight. Perhaps they suspected that assigning you to another Master would prove impossible: the bond that you and Qui-Gon shared touched every part of your life. Given the depth of your mourning, I seriously doubt you could have established a bond with anyone else."
"Except you," Obi-Wan said quietly.
A tight hug was Obi-Wan's, and those long fingers were in his hair again. /It's almost as though he can't stop touching me... No, that's not right. It's almost as though he has to touch me to feel comfortable./
/I like touching you, Padawan./ Warm amusement danced down the bond. /And you seem to like it. I'll stop if you wish--/
"No!" A hand came up, clamped almost desperately on the Master's. He arched under the affectionate touch, desperate to reassure the older man. "It's... nice."
"Then I'll not stop."
"And you will always wait for me?"
A reassuring nod, with the beard rasping his cheek. "I will always wait for you, my Padawan."
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