DREAM NOT OF DYING
A warm wind swept across the landing platform, teasing Qui-Gon's hair as he said good-bye to Obi-Wan. Anakin was already aboard ship, plying the pilots with questions and begging to ride up front for all of his waking hours. At least, for all of the hours not commanded by his Master.
Bowing slightly, his arms wrapped in his robes as usual, Qui-Gon knew himself to be the visual epitome of a calm Jedi Master, but it was far from what he was feeling. What he wanted was to grab the young knight standing before him and bury him in a hug that just this side of desperate. They'd not been apart in more than ten years, a fact of which Qui-Gon was acutely aware. He had thought to be proud of his Padawan, perhaps a bit nostalgic in this moment. But the reality of letting Obi-Wan go was harder than he ever imagined it would be.
"Be careful," he admonished.
Obi-Wan grinned. "We're going to witness a tribal marriage and then oversee the building of a village, Master. I don't think the wedding vows or the construction will take place over blaster fire."
"One never knows."
"All too true," came the quiet reply, and Obi-Wan's green eyes grew shadowed. Those eyes scanned Qui-Gon as if their owner still didn't believe that the Jedi Master had made it back from the brink of death on Naboo--a classic example of how a simple mission could go very wrong. "One doesn't know. At least, I don't think we ever did. Did we?"
"Seldom, my Pada-" He bit back the word, sheer habit making him use it, and sheer embarrassment making him wish he could call it back.
Obi-Wan laughed at his former Master's obvious irritation. "That's all right. I'm still having a hard time calling you Qui-Gon."
He bowed slightly. "All things in their time, I suppose. It's difficult to break the pattern of years in a few short weeks. But your first mission awaits, Obi-Wan, and I'm keeping you from it. I'll worry, so humor me, please? Stay in touch?"
"Every day, my Master." Stepping forward, Obi-Wan did not hesitate to wrap his arms around Qui-Gon and hug him fiercely. "Nothing will happen, I promise. And even if it does, you taught me well, remember? Anakin and I will be back in just a few weeks."
"Yes, Obi-Wan." Closing his eyes, Qui-Gon bent slightly to return the hug. All too soon, his arms were falling away from the new, stiff knight's robes Obi-Wan had commissioned from Stores to replace the well-loved-if-frayed Padawan uniform that had seen him through so many missions. The Master was letting his apprentice go in more ways than one and it made his heart ache, made the still-healing muscles in his chest follow with a dull throbbing that no amount of physical therapy could assuage.
Stepping back, Obi-Wan offered one last, Light-filled smile before turning to the gangway. "I'll see you later, Master."
The ship lifted off a few minutes later, banking gracefully past the streams of civilian traffic and heading for the less traveled governmental lanes even as it awaited clearance to leave Coruscant. Qui-Gon stood and watched until it was out of sight and shivered as the warm wind turned cold.
* * *
Qui-Gon's days fell nicely into a routine, regardless he felt lonely and just a little older than he should.
/You're the one who told Obi-Wan to train the boy,/ he scolded himself. /You're the one who insisted on staying with that request after your recovery. Obi-Wan is gone, doing what you asked and what you trained him to do. Having taken his own Padawan, he is now a Knight of the Jedi Order and is serving where he is needed. Pull it together, old man. See to your own duties. Your own missions will come again soon enough./
/Yes. But now they will be without Obi-Wan./
He left the landing platform to pass an hour in excruciating physical therapy tailored specifically to torture him even as it slowly brought back his strength, stamina, and former musculature. Two months of lying around his quarters and healing had done nothing but make Obi-Wan fret, Anakin restless, and himself cranky and stiff and very much out of shape. Now the Jedi was pitted against the machinery, forced to exercise and stretch a group of tendons that had been only too happy to contract. They screamed, they burned, but they also complied, albeit slowly. The healers were pleased with his progress; in only a few weeks, they thought he'd have full range of motion back.
After therapy came his training session--much as it had when he had been a tenth-year Padawan. The crowd observing him had grown even as word had spread quickly over the last week that Master Qui-Gon Jinn had taken to spending at least an hour a day in the apprentice gyms because that was where the largest collection of rings, catwalks, balance beams, and other equipment that he needed was located. Qui-Gon knew better. It wasn't the equipment that drew him; it was because it was far better to still be lightyears ahead of those with whom he shared the room, rather than to be subjected to the speculative, still competitive, and perhaps even pitying looks of other Masters in their own gymnasium.
He and Obi-Wan had spent half of his former Padawan's life in these rooms, but that spectacle hadn't drawn nearly the same amount of attention as did Qui-Gon, alone, putting himself through the same hellish exercises as the senior Padawans themselves.
Qui-Gon suspected that, given the crowd he gathered day after day, the Order in general had changed its opinion of him. 'You value more what you've almost lost,' seemed the mood of the day.
Valuing Qui-Gon's abilities seemed to involve a great deal of gawking. It was all too obvious that the other Masters had commanded their apprentices, "Go and watch him; learn how to do things properly. You'll never have a finer opportunity than now, while he's regaining his strength and balance and you can see the improvement, day by day."
The crowd seemed to grow daily. They came, they stared, they whispered. Some actually dared to gather their courage and spoke to the great Qui-Gon Jinn. Questions came after the workouts, as the Padawans were polite enough to wait until the great Jinn could breathe again.
"Master, how old were you when you mastered the fifth level Bakarikan kata?" asked a shy girl of about eighteen. She couldn't even seem to gather the courage to look him in the eye, but stared at his boots instead.
"I was sixteen, Padawan."
"My Master says I'm not ready. Could you look at my fourth level and tell me why I'm not?"
Bowing, he indicated his willingness, and then watched the intricate dance as closely as he had watched those of his own Padawan. When the dance was over, he smiled and took his place beside her, commanding her gaze with his own.
"Your balance is a bit off," he announced gently. "Shift your weigh onto the ball of your right foot, rather than to your heel, sweep your saber down and back rather than upwards as you spin, and make gravity work for you."
He demonstrated, igniting his saber and moving slowly in demonstration. She mirrored his movements with a concentration so intense that she forgot to be nervous of him. Completing the move, she smiled shyly up at him.
He nodded. "That's good. Now pivot faster, drop your left shoulder, and visualize bringing the edge of your saber up against the neck of your opponent. You will be ready for the fifth level when you can execute this move without thinking, and see your imaginary opponent as clearly as you see me."
"Should I practice with someone standing there?"
"No. It's an exercise in focus and imagination, Padawan. Do it once again for me." Dousing his saber, he stepped back, folded his arms, and watched.
It took ten more Padawan and an entire day spent in that particular gym before Qui-Gon realized, to his surprise, that he was no longer simply making the best of an evil situation and offering his patience and advice as any Jedi Master would. The sessions were more blessing than curse as he came to know this new crop of Padawan. Perhaps it was true that spending time with the young made one feel younger as well.
None of them seemed willing to leave after their own individualized time with him. Instead, many wandered off a little way to practise what he'd told them, while others watched hungrily as he instructed the next one.
All too quickly and all too clearly, he came to see where the entire Order was failing in its martial arts instruction. He saw the same vulnerability in opening after opening--all far too common and far too lethal.
/This is what the Sith saw,/ he realized, seeing his own mistakes in the movements. He took the news to the Council, formally approaching them about tending this training lapse himself. They agreed that, however much he was needed in the field, while he continued in physical therpy he should do what he could with the Padawans in the time he had.
And so it was that after the first couple of grumbly hours, Qui-Gon Day found himself looking forward to practicing with those destined to be tomorrow's Jedi Knights. Together, they developed new techniques, new movements to deal with the threat of the Sith that he knew would come again. They became his guinea pigs and were all too happy--even in their blissful ignorance of what had attacked him and Obi-Wan--to be cast in the role.
"Master, did you really fight a Sith on Naboo?" a bold young man asked as they were catching their breath one afternoon. "Could you tell us what it was like?"
The crowd murmured its encouragement, but Qui-Gon shook his head. Neither he nor they were ready for that. "All too soon, you'll find out."
"Master, what do you mean?"
"Copies have been made of the security tapes on Naboo," he revealed, pretending not to notice when a few of them winced--obviously in sympathy with his injuries. "Your Masters will show them to you, and all of you will learn to defend against the weaponry and expertise of the Sith."
"Will you teach us, Master Qui-Gon?"
"I have been doing so, as much as is possible right now. I will continue, time willing." Gaining his feet, he gestured. "For now, however, we have a few imperfections to correct. Shall we continue?"
The mental and physical workouts were good for him-almost as good as having Obi-Wan home to help. But nothing could replace that constant, bright presence that had been at his side forever. He continued to heal the deep wounds gained on Naboo and distracted himself by planning Sith strategies for his new students as a good Jedi Master would, but it wasn't enough. Would never be enough.
/I miss the way things were,/ he reflected. /I suspect that I will always miss it./
* * *
Meditation came next in his day. Out in the gardens, next to a pool of water with curious koi and absurdly happy lily pads, and a waterfall that kept him company. Its flowing reminded him to flow with the river of the universal Force as well as the living Force-to try not to struggle in an impossible effort to have his own way. That, he suspected, was a lesson he'd still be learning when he drew his last breath. Again.
Sitting cross-legged against a tree, he rested his hands on his knees, closed his eyes, and braced his head against the tree. Breathing evenly, in and out, he stilled his restless mind and his lonely heart. Or... tried to. Peace had come easily when Obi-Wan had been with him. It seemed elusive with his former Padawan off-planet.
/What are you trying to tell me?/ he asked the Force, knowing that when such restlessness was his, some message was struggling to reach through. But the Force did not answer. At least, not directly. It could be a fickle oracle, offering nothing concrete. More often than not, Qui-Gon was frustrated with his frequent inability to sense what his mistress wanted.
For he did think of her as a mistress--sometimes a gentle one, sometimes a harsh one, at all times a neutral one. She served him, and he served her. The relationship was more than symbiotic; it had bound his heart from the time his parents had given him over to Master Yoda when he'd been but three days old. He'd never known any other guide, could not imagine having any other guide. But that didn't mean that the path he walked with her had ever been easy.
Releasing his frustration into the Force, he let go the tension and regrets he felt, let them flow out of his fingers even as the water flowed over its rocks just over there. Concentrating on the sound, he became one with it, as still as the pool and as swift as the flow, heavy as himself and light as the ripples on its surface. Duality in unity: one with the earth in which the water rested; one with the air through with the water flowed; one with the sunlit fire with which the water sparkled; and one with the water itself, to cleanse him inside and out.
Another Forceprint intruded upon that of the water, sliding carefully, easily into Qui-Gon's meditation. Opening his eyes, he saw Mace Windu kneeling before him. The man smiled, his brown eyes gentle and welcoming as they never were in the Council chamber. The two men were creatures of duty before they were friends, and more than once that attitude had confused and frustrated Obi-Wan as occasionally neither Master would bend to the other. Qui-Gon suspect that, someday, one of Obi-Wan's own friends would climb the Order's ladder to sit on the Council beside Yoda. When that day came, the young knight would finally understand how tradition, politics, and protocol had to be kept separate from friendship.
"How are you, Qui?"
"I miss my apprentice," he said instantly.
Mace nodded, his eyes twinkling their understanding . "Why do you think I maneuvered and manipulated until Adi was named to the Council?"
"I thought it was because she's an excellent negotiator, or because she so easily gets the Senate to understand why we're so reluctant to walk in and die for some of their causes."
"That was my excuse at the time."
Qui-Gon laughed. "What can I do for you, my friend?"
Reaching out, Mace laid a hand on Qui-Gon's shoulder. "Vanaut has been injured. His records indicate that you should be notified in case of emergency."
/Vanaut.../ Qui-Gon's first Padawan, long a Master in his own right. A "Watch out, POW!" blue-eyed, red-haired little terror long grown into a great, exuberant bear of a man with Qui-Gon's own height, half again his width, with a booming voice and a ready smile, fiercely protective of his old Master. He'd not seen Vanuat in over eighteen years, as he'd been assigned permanently to the Karsban Temple, half the galaxy away.
"Where is he?"
"In surgery for the past three hours."
"Here, or at the Karsban Temple?"
"Here. It doesn't look good, Qui. Palpatine sent him and his Padawan to Mogadare."
Qui-Gon narrowed his eyes. "But Mogadare is in full revolution."
"Five years ago, Vanaut negotiated the only peace on Mogadare that lasted longer than two days. Everyone thought he could handle it again. He thought so, too."
"Obviously, he was wrong." Qui-Gon himself knew all too well how quickly a fanatical guerilla army could turn on its neutral negotiator. "Where is his Padawan?"
"J.J. managed to bring him here alive and is probably waiting for him to get out of surgery. That's all I know, Qui, as the Council's not been updated. The alert came up on our terminal only this morning, before our sessions began. I came to find you the minute I heard the news."
Getting to his feet, Qui-Gon straightened his robes even as he moved toward the garden exit. "Let's go."
Matching Qui-Gon's long stride, Mace continued. "Can I assign this entire matter to you, and ask you to keep the Council and myself informed? I'm needed back in chambers."
They parted at the exit, Windu making for the Council tower even as Qui-Gon headed for the Medical Center.
He all but pushed through the too-slow pneumatic doors leading into the emergency quadrant of the Medical Center. Nurse 'droids skittered out of the way lest they be bitten by his impatient stride.
With a short nod to the healer on duty, he demanded, "I'm looking for the Padawan who's waiting for Master Vanaut to leave surgery."
"That way, sir."
Another set of too-slow doors, and he passed through into the waiting room, blinked in the subdued lighting, and glanced about to locate his quarry.
She sat on a couch at the far end of the room, with her knees tucked under her chin, her arms wrapped around her ankles, and her head back against the wall. Her tunic was stained with dried blood, her hands were smeared and flaking with it.
/That blood must be Van's. It can't be hers, else they'd have done something about it. By the gods, what has she been through?/ Qui-Gon suspected she hadn't moved from the moment she watched her Master be whisked into surgery.
Jolting at his approach, she stared up at him with huge, watchful blue eyes in a too-pale face. Taking the chair opposite her couch, Qui-Gon leaned forward.
Off of her short nod, he continued. "The Council here sent me to talk to you. Can you tell me what happened?"
Drawing a ragged breath, she dragged a hand across her eyes. "We got sent to Mogadare. Landed smack in the middle of a war. That's not unusual; we did the same thing last time. My Master said that they'd remember him, not to worry, everything would be all right." She shook her head. "He was right at first; the locals stopped fighting when they saw the ship, and we made it to command HQ. The clan leaders came to meet under truce, with my Master's word that they'd be safe. Three leaders listened for about half an hour. Then they informed us that they hadn't asked for Senate intervention, had no idea why we'd been sent to interfere, and really didn't appreciate our being there. Said that they rejected the peace efforts of the Jedi. Said that we were nothing but intruders, that they wanted blood and nothing but.
"They gave us five minutes to get off their planet, knowing that it would take us at least to reach the ship. And no, we couldn't borrow transport. Run, they said. So we ran.
"We were about half a mile away when they came after us on blaster-swoops. We were doing all right, deflecting things well. The ship was in sight, I was running ahead. Two swoops came bearing down on me at the same time. I stopped to deal with them, and Master ran up behind me. The Force was flowing around us; we were back to back and as connected as we'd ever been... anticipating each other, the swoops, the shots. But then something must have distracted him, because one of the bolts got through his defense. He was hit on the side of his head, spun around, and fell on me. The swoops took off; I think they thought I'd been shot, too, when I went down.
"Master was unconscious, bleeding all over me. I managed to get out from under him, tried to tug him toward the ship, but he wouldn't budge. I never thought to use the Force, it's as if all of my training went out the window. I was sobbing and panicking, and I knew that he was dying on me.
"That's when one of the swoops came back, whining and blasting away. I took Master's saber because mine was still under him and just stood there, waiting. The blaster bolts flew around me, and I just didn't care. Let them get me, let them take me as well as my Master. I thought he was dead at that point, anyway. But the bolts all missed, and then I just flicked on the saber, reached up, and cut down whoever was riding it.
"I got Master draped over the swoop and took off for the ship. Drove straight into the bay, closed the door, made him as comfortable as I could. I couldn't believe he was still alive, and we hit hyperspace so fast that I can't even remember setting the coordinates. But... we're here so I guess I did it right."
With that, she unclipped the lightsaber at her belt and handed it to Qui-Gon. "I'm supposed to give this back, right?"
Qui-Gon closed his fingers around the weapon, remembered watching Vanaut assemble it. His thumb traced the stylised "V"--his apprentice's one salute to vanity, as if to say, 'This is mine. I built this.' Qui-Gon had allowed it, seeing no harm in it.
"Yes, you're supposed to return it," he murmured, reflecting on how cold the titanium was now, and how wrong it was to be holding the weapon, rather than seeing it clipped to its accustomed place on Van's belt. "Do you still have your own?"
Nodding, she wrapped her arms around her ankles once more and seemed to retreat back to where she'd been before Qui-Gon had arrived.
"I'm sure he'll be all right." Even as Qui-Gon spoke the words, he knew they were hollow.
She shook her head, didn't bother looking at him. "My Master isn't all right. He's gone."
"The damage didn't look all that bad, but I can't feel him any more."
He swallowed hard. "The bond between you has been broken? You felt him die?"
"Yes, and no. He's still alive, but... I don't know how to explain it, sir." She spoke calmly, for all that she shivered. "He never should have been injured like this. When you're a Master--"
"We're still human, J.J. We make mistakes, unfortunately," Qui-Gon interrupted. "You did all that you could. Now, it's up to the healers."
Nodding, she fell silent, as if there was nothing she could say to make him understand, and no reason why he should want to understand. Her tired blue eyes closed. Shivering slightly once more, she retreated into meditation or sleep.
Qui-Gon watched her for a few minutes, wishing she would let him in, would let him help. But her attitude and her body language said, 'I can deal with this by myself,' so he didn't dare reach out or even try offering the comfort he sensed she needed.
Casting his mind back, he remembered the serious, silent initiate Vanaut had described in a holo-letter to him years before-stillness to her Master's storm. They'd never traveled to Coruscant, and so Qui-Gon had never met the child, but he remembered Vanuat telling him in a holo-letter that she'd been christened J.J. in the creche when, as a toddler, she'd connected the pictures in her storybooks with the tall, robed beings who came to read them to her.
"JJ!" she'd proclaimed her word for Jedi, and it had stuck. From all accounts, she and Master Van had become a strong team. Only a year had separated her and Obi-Wan in their respective creches; Qui-Gon now thought that she was probably only a few months from taking her own trials.
All too familiar with war and how bodies could come apart, Qui-Gon could see the images between her words and knew the details she was shying away from voicing. He also knew that she still had to be seeing those images behind her eyelids.
"J.J.," he spoke softly, laying his hand gently across her shoulder, loath to wake her if she were truly asleep and not just guarding herself.
She opened her eyes.
"A younger, less experienced Padawan could not have brought her Master home."
Her expression was more grimace than smile. "Before this is over, Master, I may wish that I hadn't brought him home."
* * *
He left shortly afterward to log a brief report to Mace--who would notify the rest of the Council and schedule a time for J.J. to appear before them and tell her story once again--and to bring back a light meal from the commissary, which he knew she wouldn't touch. When he returned to the waiting room, it was to discover that she was no longer there.
"Master Vanaut is resting comfortably and his Padawan is with him," the desk duty droid informed him. The room number followed that announcement.
Leaving the tray of food behind, Qui-Gon slipped inside the sterile room, only to be met with machinery that was all too familiar to him now. Respirator, heart monitor, and the accompanying tubes and wires made him tense instinctively; his own experiences with all of this equipment was far too recent.
J.J. looked up at him from where she sat next to the bed, holding her Master's limp hand. His eyes were open, staring unblinking at the ceiling. J.J.'s own eyes were red, and she was still crying. Resentment reflected in those eyes, only to be replaced almost instantly by resignation at the intrusion. Qui-Gon was startled to realize that she very much objected to his presence.
"You'll want an update," she murmured, caressing Van's long fingers. "The healers tell me that he'll live, but there's severe brain damage. I think our bond is still there, but he can't answer. He's trapped somewhere in his mind, unable to reach out. The healers also said that he's not coming back. Ever."
Crossing to the bed, Qui-Gon picked up Van's free hand, closed his eyes, and reached out through the remnants of the training bond he still maintained with this man.
Nothing answered but a black emptiness feeling of death and cold. Prodding a bit further into the emptiness, he felt the mental void surround him and suck greedily at his own mind. Whirling in that emptiness, he grabbed for any consciousness he could contact, only to encounter the ragged ends of the training bond Vanaut had established with J.J.
In desperation, he flung his thoughts out across it. /Help me./
She answered instantly, no matter her startlement that another Jedi was speaking through her Master's bond. A moment later, Qui-Gon shakily regained his mental balance and opened his eyes to find himself back at the side of the bed and staring at J.J. across it. Knowing himself an intruder in more respects than one, now, the Master gently, respectfully withdrew from J.J.'s mind.
He sensed rather than heard her soft, involuntary protest as she was once more left with the black void of her Master's mind. With the protest came a wave of loneliness that she struggled unsuccessfully to hide before Qui-Gon noticed. Needing his own reassurance, Qui-Gon instinctively reached for his own bond with Obi-Wan.
/Master?.../ came the instantaneous, if bewildered, answer.
/All is well, Obi-Wan. I just wanted... Never mind./
The warmth sent back to him through the Force, across lightyears of space, offered warm comfort. /I miss you too, Qui-Gon./
Drawing a deep breath and infinitely grateful that his former Padawan had suggested that they transform and continue their training bond rather than dissolve it, Qui-Gon stared down at the Jedi Master in the bed before him.
/All too easily and far too often,/ he realized, /it could have been me where Vanaut is now./
Sitting in silence, J.J. wiped away her tears. Her shields were once again intact, her control was complete, and Qui-Gon knew what that had to be costing her. Given the condition of her Master's mind and the useless bond tying her to his emptiness, for the first time in her life, she was alone. There was no Master's presence to guide her, only her sense of the Force and her connection with it. What had been there for over a decade was gone without a trace.
Qui-Gon now understood that from the moment the blaster bolt had hit Vanaut, it was as though he had stopped existing.
/Living death./ Qui-Gon released the hand he still held, tucked it beneath the sheets. /I'm so sorry, Van./
"Pardon pardon me if this sounds rude, Master," J.J. murmured, her eyes glittering with unshed tears, "but you just climbed inside my training bond without so much as a 'do you mind' and had a look around. Even if the Council did send you, I still don't know who the hell you are."
Under other circumstances, her rudeness would have earned her a reprimand. As it was, Qui-Gon understood her feelings entirely, knew that in her place he probably would have reacted much the same way.
Bowing slightly he murmured, "In my own concern for your Master's condition, I appear to have neglected to introduce myself. Forgive me, please. My name is Qui-Gon Jinn."
Her eyes widened, instant recognition flooding them. "Oh... gods. You're the Master who trained... You're my Master's...." She swallowed hard and tried again. "He talked about you all of the time, told me so many stories as I was growing up. Gods, you were such a legend to him. He loved you so much, respected you so much, and now... Master Qui-Gon, I'm so sorry that I couldn't save him for you."
Her shields wobbled but held, even as consternation and shame flooded through her. She couldn't say the same of her tears. Letting go her Master's hand, she braced her arms on the side of the bed, buried her face, and wept as though her heart was breaking. Coming around the bed, Qui-Gon knelt beside her, stroked her hair. That simple touch seemed to make her cry all the harder.
"You know he would hate being like this," she sobbed. "I should have just let him die."
"We don't know that yet, J.J."
"I know it. This is worse than death. If he were dead, he'd be one with the Force and we could still feel him. But this... This is as if he's totally ceased to exist. All of his knowledge, all of his wisdom, it's all gone." Lifting her head, she leaned into his hand, probably wasn't even aware that she was doing it. "I can't feel him anymore, and I've never felt so alone in my life."
Draping a long arm across her shoulders, the Master hugged her. "What you need right now is to eat something, and then you need to sleep." Rising to his feet, he took her by the elbow. "Come with me."
"I can't leave him!"
At the note of hysteria in her voice, Qui-Gon roughened his. "Your Master isn't going anywhere in the next twelve hours, J.J. He'll still be here when you come back. He asked that in any emergency I be notified and take charge of things. Those things include you. And so, Padawan, I am ordering you to come with me to my quarters, to eat, and to rest. Nothing will change in the meantime; you won't miss a thing."
Years of training and discipline responded instantly to his voice of authority. Squaring her shoulders, she smeared away her tears and met his gaze. "Yes, Master."
Rising from the chair, she took a last look at the man in the bed before preceding Qui-Gon out of the room. In silence, they left the Medical Center, with Qui-Gon leading the way home.
"And there's nothing to be done for him?" Obi-Wan asked, his image thin and his voice faint over the sub-space transmission.
Qui-Gon shook his head. "The healers have taken care of the tissue damage, but his brain has been ripped through. He can't talk nor feed himself, can't care for himself in any capacity. He will be able to sit up and his eyes will open and close. He will sleep and wake. He will make noises rather than speak words. The center has moved him to a convalescent home pending our Council's decision of what is to be done with him."
"It sounds like there's nothing left of him, Master."
Both Jedi considered that summary in silence, their locked gazes speaking more than words ever could.
/You are thinking the same thing I am,/ Qui-Gon knew. /'There but for the grace of the Force, go I.' So easily, Vanaut's fate could have been yours or mine./
"What about his Padawan? How's she handling it?"
"J.J. has submitted to the Council's mindsweep, which essentially made her re-live the entire thing so that they could feed the experience into the memory banks, make a Senate report of it, and force Palpatine to cut off Mogadare from the Republic. J.J. is staying with me now, and is meditating more than she is sleeping. The Council has asked if I will finish training her, but she doesn't appear to want another Master. In her situation, with grief so new, who would?
"And so, she visits Van at the center, performs katas before him and talks to him while he sits in the sun in his wheelchair, oblivious. She's eighteen months from her trials, Obi-Wan, and there are things she still needs to learn. What is to be done with her?"
"What about you?" Obi-Wan prodded. "He used to be your apprentice. How are you, Qui-Gon?"
Stepping closer to the image of his former Padawan, Qui-Gon reached out his fingers as though he could reach through the hologram and caress Obi-Wan's own cheek.
"Van is lost to me," he said finally, quietly. "You are not. I miss you, Obi-Wan. I wish you were home."
Obi-Wan reached out as well, and his transparent fingers swept across Qui-Gon's palm. "I wish I were home as well, Master. A few more days, that's all. The village is finished, but we've been diverted to Laimosh for a few hours. It's a peaceful little planet that's asked the Jedi to come and test several of their children. Anakin and I will be surrounded by little kids and their parents--no safer mission in the galaxy."
"No harm," Qui-Gon agreed. "Still... be careful, my Padawan."
"Always, my Master."
Hang tradition, hang protocol. They were still Master and Padawan, were still connected, perhaps always would be. It had taken Van's living death to teach Qui-Gon Jinn yet another lesson: it was all right to need Obi-Wan, all right to say so, and all right to transform 'Padawan' from a term of training and subordination into a term of endearment. As for Obi-Wan, he'd known and shown Qui-Gon for years that 'Master' just a term of respect, but one of love.
* * *
Qui-Gon sat back against a tree and watched from a respectful distance as J.J. performed yet another kata for her oblivious Master. Oblivious, except for the strange, moaning noises he was making, as well as a subtle rocking forwards and backwards in his wheelchair. She came here every day; today, Qui-Gon had come with her.
"Do you know what he's saying?" Qui-Gon asked as she broke off her kata to go to Vanaut.
"'Get me out of the sun,' probably. Are you too hot, my Master?" Wheeling him into the shade beside Qui-Gon, she knelt and laid a hand against Van's cheek. "We need to shave you again. We'll have the nurse do that tonight, all right?"
The noises stopped after Vanuat had been parked in the shade. J.J. picked up where she'd left off, under Qui-Gon's watchful, critical eye.
"You're not grounded," he murmured. "Close your eyes, center, and do it again, J.J."
On a sigh, she complied, and completed the kata to no greater success just as a service droid brought lunch. She fed Van like a baby, which made her lose what little inner peace she'd gained while doing the kata.
After the meal, she cleaned her Master's face, tucked in his lap blanket, curled up at his feet to lay her head against his thigh. Tipping back his head, Van opened his mouth and went to sleep. Dozing, he drooled.
Rising, the Master wrapped his cloak about himself and left them together. Only then did he notice two other figures watching them from a distant rise. From the inequal heights, he knew instantly who they were. /Mace and Master Yoda./
* * *
Mace found Qui-Gon again late that afternoon, as he usually did--seated against his favorite tree, beside his waterfall.
"J.J. doesn't want another Master," he informed the Councilman, not bothering to open his eyes as he recognised Mace's Force signature--a swirling cloud of purple and blue. Lately, Qui-Gon had noticed that his sensitivity to such things was becoming more acute, perhaps because of his own upset over Van's fading life Force. "It would be wrong to force her to let me train her."
"We can't force her," Windu agreed quietly. "Her loss is too great. And it will always be her choice, Qui-Gon. Always. If it were up to me, I'd knight her now, given what she went though on that accursed planet."
Qui-Gon shook his head. "She still has lessons left to learn. Her heart and spirit are Jedi, but she still has lessons to learn."
"Like letting go, my old friend?"
"Like letting go." Drawing a deep sigh, Qui-Gon thought of Obi-Wan and sought his own center as Mace left him to his meditations.
* * *
Qui-Gon knew that it was best he keep tabs on such deep grief, even if his presence wasn't welcome, even if J.J. wanted very much to be left alone. Right now, keeping tabs had meant accompanying J.J. back to their home at the Temple on Karsban where she had been asked to sort through her Master's possessions in anticipation to the quarters being assigned to another Master/Padawan team.
"After all," J.J. had said bitterly, spinning the comp monitor about so that Qui-Gon could read their orders after she'd reviewed them. "It's not as if we'll be needing them again, is it?"
The assignment was hard on Qui-Gon as well. Stepping into Van's rooms was like stepping back into the past; the holographs of his knighting were displayed prominently, and the quarters felt like him. Qui-Gon scowled at a picture of the young knight he'd been on the day Van had been welcomed into the Order.
/Did I ever look that young? No wonder J.J. didn't recognize me... Short-haired, no beard, twenty years past, and I'd not forgotten how to smile, then./
She'd offered him her Master's old room to sleep in, but he'd refused instantly. Taking the couch, he'd not regretted his choice when, the morning after their arrival, he'd found J.J. curled up in her Master's bed.
His role so far had been to escape to this Temple's garden and meditate while J.J. tried to decide what to keep, what to send to storage, and what to send on for other Jedi to use. He interrupted her at mid-day so that they could have mid-meal together, after which time she went to class, studied, and spared as she had whenever she'd been on-planet with Van. In the late afternoon, she usually sought out Qui-Gon in the gymnasium he'd chosen to continue his workouts.
Today, she had not. Returning late from his own exercise session, he threw a damp towel across the kitchen chair and moved cautiously toward Van's old sleep room.
The door was open, and boxes were spread across the floor; some were half-packed, others awaited their contents. J.J. looked up without surprise at Qui-Gon's entrance.
"We've missed evening meal." He was careful to keep his voice level, without condemnation or accusation.
"We have?" She glanced at the wall chronometer. "Master, I'm sorry. I've been putting this off and wanted to get this done this afternoon. I guess I lost track of the time."
He settled on the edge of the bed. "What are you doing?"
"Packing Master's things." She considered the book in her hand-a history of galactic war, a volume Qui-Gon had given his apprentice. "A message came for me this afternoon. Master's family has asked that everything be sent ahead, with him to follow soon."
"Follow..." Qui-Gon shook his head, incredulous. "His family on Tatooine want him back?"
"That's what they say." Her eyes were haunted as they met his. "After thirteen years, we're being separated. Finishing what began on Mogadare, I guess."
"How do you feel about that?"
She shrugged. "I've given up denying what exists, I think. He doesn't know me now, doesn't know anyone. I'm just someone with kind hands who comes every day. If I didn't... When I don't, it... it won't matter."
He watched her sort through Van's things. Two piles grew very quickly: what the family wanted, and what would be meaningless to them. J.J. set aside a third pile, a small pile, that would mean nothing to anyone except her.
"May I?" Qui-Gon asked, leaning down to pick up a holocube.
The holo was of a huge bear of a man who had to lean over to hold the hand of a skinny little girl.
"Was this made the day he chose you?"
She had been gawky and all teeth, holding tightly to his hand and grinning like an idiot. 'Hey, I've been chosen,' said that grin.
"He was like a father to me," she murmured, watching Qui-Gon's finger trace his old apprentice's face. Drawing a deep breath, she sat on the floor, surrounded by memories. "Does being left behind ever stop hurting?"
"Some pain never goes away," he replied softly. "Eventually, we learn to live around it." Leaning forward, he handed the holo back to her. "The years you spent together, the lessons and the missions-Those will always be with you. You need a new Master, J.J. Someone offering new lessons, new memories. Not to replace those you have of your Master, but to continue what he began. You know that I'd be honored if you'd let me be the one to help you do that."
She tilted her head up to look at him, and her eyes swam with unshed tears. He could almost hear her thoughts: 'He trained Master, and I know that Master would approve.' The child whose first word had been Jedi whispered, 'Accept the offer -- he's one of the best among them.' But the grieving daughter was still saying, 'I can't. It's too soon.'
Even as Qui-Gon watched the battle, he saw the daughter win.
"I can't make that decision right now," she whispered. "Part of me finds this entire situation so horrible, I want to run away from the Jedi and from him. Can you believe that? I want to run from the man who raised me, made me everything I am, everything I've ever hoped to be. He guarded my dreams, helped me gain the skills to attain them. If Master could still speak and think, he'd tell me to take your offer and not look back. After all, what's to say no for? He'd tell me to stop running around with my head in the clouds, wanting things to be different. Accept my reality for what it is and use that as a basis for life."
Qui-Gon shook his head. "You're not at the point where you can do that. The offer stands, J.J. Think about it, at least?"
He left her there, among her memories. Returning to the common area, he set about preparing a light meal. He thought she'd follow once she was ready, or once hunger overwhelmed her sorrow. Eventually, she'd exhaust herself by clinging to the dark, dying silence surrounding her Master and her memories. Eventually, she'd start hungering for the light again, for the living presence of the Force in the form of a Jedi Master and the completion of her lessons.
It didn't matter whether Qui-Gon or someone else trained her. All that mattered was that she reach for the light, like a drowning child reached for he rescuer. In the meantime, all Qui-Gon could do was use the tattered three-way bond between her, Vanaut, and himself to send feelings of calm affection and support. Hopefully, she would sense them instinctively, as she wouldn't accept them consciously.
* * *
A week later, the door chime to Qui-Gon's own quarters sounded, even as the Master ended his meditation. Padding barefoot to the door, he palmed it open even as he murmured, "J.J., you needn't chime. Just come in -- Obi-WAN!'
Hauling his grinning apprentice across the threshold, Qui-Gon snatched the shorter man into a bear-hug and held on.
"You're back! Gods, but I've missed you. When did you get back, and why didn't you tell me? You know I'd have met the transport. How was the wedding, the village, and Laimosh? Do you know how to build a house or sink a well now, and did you bring home many little initiates?"
With his nose squashed against Qui-Gon's shoulder and his ribs all but crushed in that hug, Obi-Wan could do little more than wheeze. "I missed you, too, Master. If you let go just a little, I think I might be able to breathe."
Feeling more than a little sheepish, Qui-Gon released him. Straightening the young knight's tunics, he smiled. "It's been too long, my Padawan. You should have told me you'd be arriving. Why didn't you?"
"Because we brought back two babies and three toddlers, and I was in no mood to be sociable until after Anakin and I had seen them safely to the creche."
"And where is Anakin?"
Obi-Wan shrugged. "He's in no mood to be sociable, either. Needs some down time as badly as I do. When last we growled at each other, he was amusing himself by digging deep into the innards of some abused, rejected kitchen service droid."
Leading the way into the common room, Qui-Gon stopped to retrieve a bottle of wine and two glasses.
/I've missed even the sound of his voice,/ he thought as Obi-Wan continued relaying details of the mission. /His very presence at my back... his presence in these rooms./
"How are you, Master? And how is J.J.?"
"I'm fine, now that you're home." He poured the wine, handed a glass to Obi-Wan. "As for J.J., she is deep in misery this evening as her Master's family has claimed him. We just returned from the Temple on Karsban, where she sorted through his things. She is to deliver them, without so much as a thank you, to the shipping level tomorrow. His family wants them and him home on Tatooine."
"Home?" Obi-Wan frowned. "By all of the little tin gods, why do they want him to come home? The facilities are much better on Coruscant. He won't get very good care on the Outer Rim."
"I agree. But there's nothing to be done. The family refused to sign custodianship over to the Temple or to J.J. Legally, her Master belongs to them."
"But why would they want him?" Obi-Wan pursued the question like a determined wieong pursues a flock of lekas.
"You'd have to ask them that question, my Padawan. I haven't the answer, nor the inclination to speculate as we have no choice but to send him home. I do, however, have another question for which I'd like an answer."
"Yes, Master?" Obi-Wan sipped his wine.
Setting his glass aside, Qui-Gon leaned forward, braced his elbows on his knees, and steepled his fingers. "I am most unhappy that you and I are now assigned separate missions. If you feel the same, I propose that we petition the Council to send us out together from now on."
The knight arched an eyebrow. "Am I to presume then, that the healers have officially declared you fit for duty?"
Qui-Gon nodded, and Obi-Wan's shout of laughter filled the small room. "I was going to ask you the same thing once they did that. Master, it felt so wrong out there, without you along. We need to be together, and I'd like it if we were."
"Then it's agreed? Let me know when you're due to submit your report to the Council, and I'll go with you to pester them about our petition."
Obi-Wan narrowed his eyes, even as he slouched lower in his chair. "You realize, of course, that if we travel together, you're not going to be able to get out of helping me train Anakin?"
Qui-Gon shrugged. "There's a price to everything, my Padawan. Perhaps the boy is meant to have two Masters."
"I'm sure there's something, somewhere in the code, that says that sort of thing is forbidden."
"I'm sure there is." Qui-Gon looked calmly back at his apprentice. "And your point is?"
Shaking his head, Obi-Wan laughed again. "Incorrigible."
"Of course I am. It helps me get my way."
"So what are your other plans for Jinn and Kenobi, Ltd.?"
The two Jedi talked long into the night, plotting and planning their new partnership.
The next morning, J.J. appeared at the edge of the circle of Padawans who watched Qui-Gon in the apprentice gymnasium. Waiting patiently until he had finished his session and had dismissed the last student, she began without preamble when he approached her before showering.
"I've come to ask if you'll come with me to see my Master off tonight?" she asked quietly, unwilling to be overheard by the other curious Padawans..
"He's being sent home, then? To the Outer Rim?"
When she offered no more commentary, he asked, "Have you meditated or practiced today?"
Hesitating only a fraction of a second, she shook her head and stared at the mat. "I was busy tying up some loose ends with the medical escort that Master Windu recommended."
"Would you like to practice with me?" Qui-Gon asked equally as quietly, without expectation or consequence if she refused. "Try to dissolve some of the tension you're feeling?"
Taking a deep breath, J.J. considered for a moment. Qui-Gon knew all too well that even as she'd kept up with her practice, she'd not sparred with anyone since Vanaut had fallen.
/Will you dance with me?/ Qui-Gon wondered. /Will you show me what he taught you, and not feel that you're betraying him?/
Nodding abruptly, decision made, she unclipped her lightsaber. "Give me ten minutes to warm up. I'll be ready."
Ten minutes later, he awaited her on the mat. Refusing to disperse the crowd, he let them remain for J.J. had to face her peers as well as her fears sooner or later. It was far better to push her now than later. Besides which, Qui-Gon had every confidence that she'd not worry about them once he began torturing her.
Pacing onto the mat, she flexed her fingers, powered up her saber, and met his gaze. Within three minutes, she had relaxed and they were definitely dancing. Leap, parry, thrust, circle... She answered him instinctively, knowing his technique as he knew hers in the circle of learning that had been created between her, her own Master, and Qui-Gon.
/She fights like I do,/ thought Qui-Gon, without pride. /Is that what Van taught her to do?/
The crowd surrounding them murmured their approval, began rooting first for her and then for him, shouting encouragement and bantering amongst itself.
Qui-Gon grinned, appreciative of her technique, her grace. Sparring with her was very different than sparring with Obi-Wan, who was even now still trying to attack everything. Even his defensive moves had an aggressive edge. J.J. flew with the saber, making it an extension of herself, with footwork so light and daring that more than once Qui-Gon found himself running to keep up with her. She played, lured, teased, tested him and his new strength as much as he was testing her.
Pressing her, challenging her, he also distracted her and forced her to live in the moment, and knew the moment she began enjoying herself. Dancing for him, she danced around him rather than actually engage him to any great length.
"Is that the best you can do?" he mocked.
"No, Master. THIS is the best I can do!"
Lunging forward, she began with a swift downward stroke that made him answer with a tooth-jarring upswing. Disengaging abruptly, Qui-Gon spun tight and dropped low to catch her unguarded left side. Backpedaling to escape, she swiped at him in a clumsy, hopeless attempt to recover.
Straightening, he stepped back, saluted her, and began again in the ready position, signaling that she'd made a fatal error and another bout was to begin.
She laughed at her failure, determination on her face, even as she blew hair from her eyes. "What you just did? Do it again."
He cocked his head in inquiry. "With or without teaching you how to defend against such an attack?"
"Without, first. Let me see if I can figure it out."
She figured it out with no help from him, which told Qui-Gon that Vanaut had taught her well. J.J. then spun and leaped and ran circles around him in her joy of having learned something new; grounding within the Force and her movement, Qui-Gon let her. She was beautiful, she was in the moment with the Light, and her soul connected with him to soak up every bit of Force energy he willingly fed her. Once again, she was learning what it felt like to be alive. Taking bits of Qui-Gon into her hungry, empty heart, she threw her happiness joy back at him with every movement.
Vanaut had trained her well, but there was so much more Qui-Gon knew that he could teach her. More that that, he found himself wanting to teach her, to finish the journey Vanaut had begun.
Standing and gasping at each other at the end of the session, they powered down the sabers. Qui-Gon wicked back the dripping hair threatening to blind him, and J.J. burst out laughing, leaned up against him, and kissed his bearded cheek.
"Thank you for everything, Master. I'll see you tonight: seven hundred hours, on the northern Temple transport platform." Giving him a slight push and a wave, she was off through the crowd, on her way to the showers.
The crowd dispersed as Qui-Gon headed for his own shower. All but stumbling toward the locker room as most of his adrenaline drained away, he saw Obi-Wan leaning against the wall. Arms folded, one booted foot planted flat against the wall, his former Padawan gave a sardonic grin, unclipped his saber, and arched an eyebrow.
"Gods," was Qui-Gon's somewhat desperate-sounding, whispered reply, even as he unclipped his own saber and turned back to the mat.
* * *
Qui-Gon exited the elevator emptying onto the transport platform late that night to find J.J. and her Master already waiting for him. Seated in his wheelchair, Vanaut glanced past Qui-Gon and moaned, as he was always moaning. Kneeling beside the chair, Qui-Gon tucked the brown cloak closer about the now-frail body and regarded his former apprentice one last time.
There had been no time to mourn the Padawan or the knight Qui-Gon had known: he'd tucked that grief far behind his shields in order to serve J.J. The only time he'd thought of his own pain at all was when he had allowed himself to speak of it to Obi-Wan. More words remained to be spoken, more grieving remained to be released to the Force. But it was far better to love the living than to be consumed by the dead, and Obi-Wan was very much alive.
Laying a hand over Vanaut's, he murmured softly, "The Force be with you, my friend." /I'll look after her. You have my word. Thank you for showing me how deeply I should value every moment I have with those that I love./
Lifting the hood over Vanaut's head, Qui-Gon slipped an arm around J.J.'s shoulders, squeezed lightly. "How are you?"
"I'm all right." Her gratitude washed over him. "Thank you for being here."
The medical escort arrived a few seconds later. Nodding briefly to J.J., the healer assigned to take Vanaut home indicated the readiness of the ship standing just a few feet away. Vanuat's eyes remained focused somewhere over her head, perhaps on one of the distant skyscrapers, when J.J. took his hand one last time.
"I love you, Master," she murmured, kissing his cheek. "I'll miss you."
Folding his hands in his lap, she nodded at the escort and let the healer wheel her Master away, up the gangway. Backing away, she stood quietly with Qui-Gon, who couldn't help remembering the last time he'd stood on a transport, while saying good-bye to Obi-Wan. That young man was safely home tonight, and Qui-Gon thanked the Force that it was so.
Drawing a deep breath as the ship lifted and joined Coruscant's crowded flight lanes, J.J. turned to look up at him. Drawing a deep, shaky breath, she asked, "Does that offer you made to finish my training still stand?"
He nodded, hearing the unspoken question as well: Do you have the patience and faith to let my aloneness heal itself as I work beside you?
Drawing her into a hug, he kissed the top of her head and gave a smile. "Yes, J.J.."
He did. And he would.