Title: Candles Against the Sea
Author: Laura of Maychoria
Category: Angst, Drama
Timeframe: Pre-TPM; Obi-Wan is 13
Summary: It is several months after Melida/Daan. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon have been working to re-establish their bond. It’s been going well. Qui-Gon seems perfectly satisfied. But Obi-Wan is not . . . .
Rating: PG-13 or T (violence, mature themes)
Spoilers: JA #1-#8
Disclaimer: Not mine, making no money, blah blih-blih blah. I’m just borrowing a couple of my favorite people from Uncle George. The others are mine—ask to borrow.
Author’s Note: Okay, I know that this story has been written before, many, many times, by a number of very talented writers. The whole story of how Qui and Obi deepen their relationship from the boring, work-a-day master/apprentice relationship of the books to the vibrant, wonderful father/son relationship we all know and love from good fanfic. It could almost be a genre itself. This is merely my version of how it may have happened, which I’m hoping to complete with a minimum of Obi-torture. (Not that I dislike Obi-torture. It’s just . . . been done.) Don’t worry though, there will be lots of angst. Bunches and tons and truckloads of angst. Nothing good ever happens to these two without a little suffering, be it physical, mental, or spiritual.
Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 1: Frustration
“Master, may I go for a walk? Outside?”
Qui-Gon looked up from the datapad he was studying. “We’re in the downtown district of the most dangerous city on Sylelius.”
Obi-Wan did his utmost not to fidget where he stood. “Yes, Master.”
Qui-Gon waited, one eyebrow lifted.
Obi-Wan sighed. “But . . .”
The older Jedi nodded in satisfaction. “Yes, I knew the ‘but’ was coming.”
“Yes, Master. But Ambassador Grenik did say that it isn’t all that bad, really, and that Jedi are revered here, so we’re very unlikely to encounter any trouble, at least not from the citizenry.”
Qui-Gon leaned back against the plush couch he sat on. “Obi-Wan, you are thirteen years old.”
“And I am a Jedi.”
“Please, Master, I just want to get out for a little fresh air. I feel . . . a bit stifled.”
The austere Master allowed a smile at that, the flesh around his eyes crinkling in deep amusement. “Padawan, you’ve been all but bouncing off the walls everywhere we go. You were ready to fly apart at a touch. I didn’t dare put my hand on your shoulder for fear you’d explode and we’d never collect all the pieces.”
Was that really why Qui-Gon hadn’t touched his shoulder for so many days? Obi-Wan shook it off, trying to contain his dismay. “Was I that obvious, Master? I truly did my best not to be disrespectful . . .”
“No, Obi-Wan, you weren’t obvious. I doubt anyone noticed besides me. Still, I could tell that your control was becoming a bit . . . strained.”
Obi-Wan nodded, his shoulders slumping in defeat. Qui-Gon would probably make him stay in now, do some extra meditation and concentration exercises. He obviously needed the practice.
Qui-Gon closed his eyes, and the Padawan knew that he was reaching out with his awareness, listening to the Force. It always impressed him, how easily Qui-Gon was able to fall into a light trance, finding answers, while it took Obi-Wan hours and hours of meditation to reach the same state. Another skill he desperately wanted to learn from his Master, but feared he would never reach.
The Jedi Master opened his eyes. “I don’t sense any danger, at least not to you, a thirteen-year-old Jedi.” He smiled warmly, and Obi-Wan felt his spirits lift a bit in response. “The Force is telling me to let you go. You need the fresh air, I know. We were cooped up in that little transport ship for far too long, and you are young.”
“Thank you, Master. I’ll be careful, I promise.”
Qui-Gon nodded. “Don’t wander more than five or six blocks from the hotel, all right? Go on, Obi-Wan, cool yourself off a bit.”
Obi-Wan bowed and departed, letting out a breath in relief once he was outside their suite, standing in the hall of the posh hotel. He wondered why it felt like he had just escaped from imprisonment. Had it really become so unbearable in such a short amount of time?
Yes, it had, he decided, hurrying down the hall to the lift. Once on the first floor, he all but ran across the marble floor of the lobby, narrowly missing collision with a valet, and burst into the cool late afternoon of downtown Reshifc.
He closed his eyes and let the breeze wash over him, taking some of the flush from his cheeks. Then he started walking briskly down the street, taking time to pull his mental shields up tight, and finally let it all pour out into his conscious mind. Sith, it hurt.
The pressure had been building inside him for a couple of weeks now, just growing and growing until he really might have exploded if he hadn't gotten a chance to work it out in his mind. He was mildly surprised that he had survived it for this long. Force, there was just so much . . .
Gingerly, he dared to prod the mess with a mental finger, attempting to sort out the tangled emotions and thoughts that he had kept bottled up for such a long time. Fear, guilt, shame, longing, heartache, confusion. Questions he didn’t dare ask and couldn’t answer himself. And most of all, frustration. Even with all this excess energy crackling about him like a storm ready to break, his spirit was tired, tired to the very depths, as if he had been pushing against an unyielding wall with all of his strength until his arms simply buckled and he fell to the ground.
What was wrong with him? He had to figure out the central question, then he could work outward and lay it all to rest, hopefully without going insane. And without going to Qui-Gon. He couldn’t go to Qui-Gon with this.
Because it was all about Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan closed his eyes briefly, an involuntary moan escaping his lips in the barest breath of air. Something was definitely wrong with him. They were getting along. Their bond was strong and vibrant—they could even speak across it, sometimes, if the need was great. Obi-Wan knew that many Master-Padawan teams never developed their connection that far. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were getting on well—they trusted each other, worked together as a unified team, even enjoyed each other’s company during their rare moments of relaxation. To all signs and purposes, they had a wonderful working relationship.
So why was Obi-Wan frustrated and confused? What had changed for him, weeks ago? He paused for a traffic signal and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to remember. He could not recall a specific incident that brought this on—the feeling had simply crept up on him. This feeling of dissatisfaction, of stalemate, of longing for, for . . .
For what? Somebody jostled the Padawan’s arm, and he started, eyes flying open. The signal was green. Slowly he crossed, head down, pondering. He supposed he really ought to be observing the populace. They had come here on a mission of observation and information: the government of this Outer Rim planet, Sylelius, was considering joining the Republic, and they had asked for a representative to visit. The Senate had also asked the Jedi to report on whether the planet seemed ready for this step. If Obi-Wan had thought of it, he might have used the need for observation as an argument in favor of this walk.
But he hadn’t, and he wasn’t paying much attention now, anyway, too caught-up in his private struggle. Sylelius seemed like a decent world—no slavery, no blatant corruption, a moderate poverty percentage and crime rate, pretty average for planets this size. They were getting along well as a sovereign world, but Obi-Wan supposed that they simply wanted more.
Wanted more. That was it. He wanted more. Obi-Wan’s step faltered and he stopped walking, a still rock in the stream of pedestrians that flowed around him, heading home from work or shopping. Why in the galaxy did he want more? Why couldn’t he be happy with what he had? Force, what was wrong with him?
Qui-Gon was the perfect Master—caring, dutiful, trusting, wise, strong, even affectionate at times, teaching without oppressing, instilling discipline without unnecessary sternness. He was happy with their relationship, with Obi-Wan’s progress, with everything. All the unhappiness was in Obi-Wan, and it had no cause, nothing to justify it. Just this silly, inarticulate longing. He wanted Qui-Gon to be more than a Master, a teacher, or even a friend. He wanted . . .
Force, he wanted a father. Obi-Wan clenched his fists, swaying a bit where he stood. He was such a fool. Numbly, he started walking again.
Where did that word come from? Why had he even thought it? Father. The word meant nothing. Jedi did not have family, or rather, all Jedi were family, to each other. Everyone who had taught him was like a mother or a father, and every initiate and Padawan he had learned with was like a brother or a sister. So where did this yearning come from?
And here came the guilt and shame. It was foolish of him to have these longings, wasn’t it? Childish and immature and utterly, utterly stupid. This heart-craving would not, could not be satisfied. Was it wrong to even feel this way?
Unexpected tears stung Obi-Wan’s eyelids, and he pushed them back with a disdainful sniff. It probably was wrong. He was probably committing some sin against the Force. But he had no idea how to atone for it.
Because the longing wasn’t going away. Even now that he had brought it out into the light and identified it, untangled all the things he’d instinctively been packing away behind his deepest shields for weeks, even now, it wasn’t fading. If anything, the craving had intensified now that he knew what it was.
Despair beginning to steal icy fingers around his heart, Obi-Wan continued walking into the fading sunlight.
Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 2: Desperation
Qui-Gon answered a knock on the suite door to find Ambassador Tyril Grenik standing there. He was a tall, thin, nervous-looking human with pale hair and eyes and long fingers that twitched as he spoke. “Ah, Master Jinn! I trust you are settling in well?”
Qui-Gon nodded deeply and stepped back to let their official liaison into the room. “We are indeed, Ambassador. Obi-Wan and I are not usually accommodated in such luxury.”
“Ah.” A thin chuckle emerged from the long, white throat. “Well, you are very welcome, to be sure. Nothing but the best for the Jedi. Do you have any questions, needs, concerns? I am at your service for the length of your stay.”
Qui-Gon indicated the datapad he still held in his right hand. “You have given us quite a good overview. Tomorrow when we meet with regional representatives to talk about what citizenship in the Republic can do for Sylelius, I hope I’ll be able to answer all of your questions and concerns.”
Grenik smiled, only a little shakily. Qui-Gon was a bit surprised that the planet had chosen for its liaison a person who seemingly wore his emotions on his face, but he found himself liking the man, nevertheless.
The Ambassador glanced around the apartment, some of the tension leaking from his body. “Has your apprentice retired so early? We have a small reception planned in an hour that you are both invited to attend.”
“Obi-Wan asked for permission to go for a walk, and I granted it. I asked him to stay within five or six blocks of the hotel, though, so I’m sure he’ll be back in time.”
The ambassador’s pale eyes widened suddenly, shoulders tensing up again. “But, Master Jinn, five blocks away to the west is one of the worst neighborhoods in Reshifc! Oh, I do apologize, I am so sorry you weren’t informed, this area of town is very well developed, but we are still working to control the low-rent district, and the crime just keeps resurfacing, especially down on Onorda Street, oh dear, I hope he doesn’t get into any trouble—”
“Ambassador Grenik,” Qui-Gon interrupted, trying to calm the man’s rising panic, even as his own small, sick fear rose in his heart. “Ambassador, there’s no need. Obi-Wan may not have even headed in that direction. And if any trouble arises, he can take care of himself. I do not sense any danger for him.”
“Oh, but, Master Jinn, are you completely sure? He’s such a young boy, and I know you Jedi are special, but anything can happen, and it certainly would be a tragedy if—”
“Obi-Wan is strong and smart and capable,” Qui-Gon said firmly. “He’s been through much worse than this before. He even helped stop a centuries-old civil war, and he has escaped unharmed from situations that would have killed many a man much older and stronger than he.” But not by himself, his heart whispered. Not when he was unaware of the danger. And he hasn’t escaped completely unharmed, has he, Jinn?
Qui-Gon sighed. “He can handle one bad neighborhood,” he concluded gently. Still, after he had calmed the man down and persuaded him not to send out a search party, and after he had procured the location of the reception and kindly seen the liaison out the door, the small sick fear in his heart still had not gone away.
He sat down on the couch, a small frown forming between his eyes. The Jedi relaxed against the cushions, closing his eyes and reaching out. Still he felt no danger. He accessed their bond, and came against some incredibly tight mental shields. Obi-Wan didn’t want him in his head right now, and Qui-Gon would not betray the trust they had built by forcing his way in.
The Master tapped gently along the border of the shields, wanting to at least get an idea of what his Padawan was experiencing. At one point the shield was stretched rather thin, and Qui-Gon was disturbed by the turmoil he sensed roiling within. He couldn’t get a sense of what was causing it, only feel that Obi-Wan was in a great deal of emotional distress. That was probably why he’d wanted to take a walk, to have a chance to work it out for himself.
Qui-Gon withdrew, the small frown playing on his lips, now. He had noticed the tension in the boy before now, the hunched shoulders, the guarded glances. How long had it been? A week, two? The Master had left it alone, sure that Obi-Wan would eventually come to him with whatever was bothering him. He was only thirteen, after all, still a child in many ways, edging cautiously into adolescence. Youngsters at that age were usually a bundle of nerves, struggling to make sense of the changes in their bodies and their spirits. If the boy couldn’t resolve it on his own, he would seek Qui-Gon’s help.
Still he sensed no physical danger to his apprentice. The walk would do him more good than harm, Qui-Gon was sure. He opened his eyes and sat up with a slight sigh. The Padawan’s distress was troubling, but hardly unusual. Obi-Wan would be fine.
Qui-Gon went back to his reading.
Obi-Wan’s thoughts continued swirling downward. He realized what the word “father” meant. It meant love: fierce, protective, unconditional, all-encompassing love. That was what he wanted so badly. Because as long as Qui-Gon was just his Master, teacher, and friend, there was still the chance that it could all go away, that the Padawan could screw up in such a major way that there would be no chance for redemption, and Qui-Gon would drop him, push him away as he had many times already. Of course Obi-Wan had no intention of ever doing anything that incredibly horrible, but still, there was the chance. He might do it by accident, even. And that would be the worst of all. To see the disappointment in Qui-Gon’s eyes, watch him turn his back, unable to scream that he didn’t mean it, he’d never meant it to happen . . .
Force, why was he even thinking like this? He was a Jedi. Jedi did not fail in a such an egregious manner. Obi-Wan wouldn’t let himself fail, because that would mean he was no longer a Jedi.
Was it wrong to want that kind of love? It was dangerous: it was a strong emotion; Jedi were supposed to be calm and avoid attachments like that. Obi-Wan was sure that it was wrong to crave it, but he could not make the longing go away.
Because, he realized as his heart sank yet further toward the cracked pavement, he already loved Qui-Gon that way. Had from the very first. It hadn’t been a decision on Obi-Wan’s part; it had simply happened. And it was far too late to take it back now. It was part of him.
Qui-Gon would never be able to return this depth of unconditional commitment, Obi-Wan knew. It was unbefitting a Jedi, and Qui-Gon Jinn was a great Jedi, the greatest in the history of the galaxy as far as his Padawan was concerned. No, he couldn’t.
Qui-Gon had an enormous heart, Obi-Wan knew. He was always picking up one pathetic lifeform or another—he lavished his compassion and help freely on all he met. In fact, Obi-Wan thought with a slightly hysterical chuckle, it might be better for him if he weren’t such a good Jedi Padawan. The surest way to get into the big Jedi’s heart was to be small and hurt and weak. If Obi-Wan got himself injured, or deathly ill, or kidnapped by some sadistic megalomaniac and worked over a bit so that Qui-Gon had to come rescue him, it might be a good thing. It might make the Master appreciate the Padawan more, love him more.
No, this was a ridiculous line of thought. Obi-Wan had been beaten viciously by a Hutt on the Monument on the way to Bandomeer, and that certainly hadn’t made Qui-Gon like him any better. He’d simply helped Obi-Wan heal the same way he would help any stray animal he found lying injured in the gutter. And there was no way Obi-Wan was going to let himself get hurt. That would be completely unbefitting of a Jedi. Obi-Wan would not act in a way that was unbefitting to a Jedi. He was strong and well-trained, and he would not disappoint his teachers and Master by being a pathetic fool. Even though he couldn’t get rid of these feelings that were so obviously unbefitting . . . .
He ought to be able to control feelings, but he couldn’t. So he would control his actions instead.
There was no help for it. He was simply going to have to shove this away again, chain it under the strongest shields he knew how to make, and hope that it wouldn’t grow strong enough to break away from his control. Grimly Obi-Wan packed it all away into a neat little box, the love, the longing, the fear, the guilt, the gut-wrenching pain, and buried it in the deepest parts of his mind, tying it down with every control he knew. It was going to be a constant drain on his strength, keeping all of that locked away forever, but he would have to do it. There was no other way.
At last the Padawan stood calm and still in the middle of sidewalk, his eyes closed, slowly regaining his equilibrium. He found his center and relished the sensation of being back in control of himself, and carefully lowered his shields to normal strength. Qui-Gon would never invade his mind and find that box, he knew. It was safe, for now.
Obi-Wan opened his eyes, blinking a little at the sunset as it faded behind the buildings ahead. It was a large red sun, and the sunset was magnificent, with all colors in the warm spectrum: russet, gold, deep orange. It didn’t do much to warm his chilled spirit, though.
“No, no! Lemme ‘lone! I didn’t do nothin’!”
The Jedi turned sharply at that young, shrill voice, hearing an edge of pain beneath the words. He realized that this neighborhood was not entirely savory, and the pedestrian traffic had slowed to a trickle. He couldn’t see anyone for a block in either direction. Everyone was at home.
Except for . . . Obi-Wan took a few steps toward the alley a few meters ahead. He heard scuffling noises, the sounds of boots on pavement, gruff chuckles. It sounded like quite a few people. A gang?
“Don’t matter watcha did, vrelt.” That voice belonged to a young man, and the Padawan heard pleasure and cruelty in it. “It’s sorta just that you exist.”
Obi-Wan jerked at the sound of a blow, followed by low, muffled sobs. The crying was in the voice of a young child, surely no older than ten. More blows. Obi-Wan halted, his hands clenching into fists. It sounded like a gang of bullies had decided to beat up on a little kid. Briefly he reached out to the Force and extended his senses into the alley, making sure that his theory was correct. It was, and he acted without another thought.
Activating his lightsaber and using the Force to amplify his presence, Obi-Wan stepped into the alleyway. “Leave him alone!” he commanded, willing his voice to sound deep and full and intimidating. He swept the glowing blade menacingly through the air, daring them to doubt his authority.
Five or six youths looked up, wide-eyed, from where they were clustered against one wall a few meters into the alley. They saw a huge Jedi, his face invisible in his hood, shining lightsaber seeming to reach to the heavens. Instantly they fled, heading for the opposite end of the alley and the sunset-lit street beyond.
Obi-Wan lowered his lightsaber and rushed over to the small figure they had abandoned, who lay crumpled, deathly still, against the wall.
Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 3: Explanation
Obi-Wan clipped his lightsaber on his belt and knelt by the little fellow, carefully touching the shaking shoulder. He spoke gently and quietly, hoping not to frighten the child, who was obviously used to mistreatment. “Hey, are you all right? Can I help you?”
The boy started at the fleeting touch, and peeked at the Jedi with one dark eye, head hidden beneath the frail protection of his skinny arms. His clothes hung on him in rags, and Obi-Wan could see dark bruises and livid abrasions through the rends in his tunic. His hair was dark, shaggy, and unkempt, but his one visible eye was sharp with intelligence and wit.
And fear, which slowly faded as the child studied the young Jedi. “You . . . you ain’t gonna hurt me?”
Obi-Wan shook his head vigorously. “No, never. It’s wrong to hurt little ones.”
The boy slowly straightened a bit, sitting with his shoulders hunched against the wall, still watching him as if waiting for a blow. “Yeah, ‘m a little one.”
“How old are you?”
The boy held up seven grubby fingers.
“I’m thirteen, and my name is Obi-Wan. What’s yours?”
“Nibbi. ‘M a street vrelt. Dirty. You look like you came from uptown. Don’t wanna be ‘round here, lemme tell ya.”
Obi-Wan sat cross-legged on the filthy pavement, still meeting that frank gaze, as if challenging the little boy to tell him he couldn’t handle himself here. “Do you want me to go away? I would rather not, for a little while.”
Nibbi drew his knees up to his chest and regarded the Padawan soberly. “No, you don’t hafta go if you don’t wanna. I like you.”
Obi-Wan grinned. “Thank you. I like you too.”
“You made the big boys go away.”
“Yes. I’d like to make them leave you alone for good. That was cruel, their deciding to knock you around just because they could. Do they often do that?”
The child’s small sigh held far too much weariness and pain, as if he had seen enough sorrows for a dozen lifetimes. “Yeah. Ev’y time they see me. I usually hide when I see ‘em comin’, but I wasn’t fast enough this time.”
“I’m sorry, Nibbi. Why do they hurt you?”
Small shoulders lifted in a painful shrug, a wince crossing the hunger-hollowed face. “’Cause I don’t wanna give ‘em the credits I beg. ‘Cause I got in their way this one time, called the constables when they was tryin’ to rob this old Bothan who wandered down here from uptown. But mostly just ‘cause I’m here.”
Obi-Wan felt terribly helpless. “I’m sorry, Nibbi.” That one phrase just wasn’t enough to express how sorry he was, how his outrage rose against a galaxy that would allow innocents to suffer like this, how he had to fight to release his anger to the Force. “Nibbi, why are you on the street?”
The boy’s expression suggested that Obi-Wan had just asked for an explanation of why nerfs did not give birth to rancors. “’Cause I don’t got no home.”
“Well, yes, I gathered that, but the information I read indicated that Sylelius had a very good charity and foster system in place. Why aren’t you being taken care of?”
Nibbi’s dark eyes stared away over Obi-Wan’s right shoulder, distant and troubled. “Was in a foster house after my mama and papa died. Wasn’t no good. The dad liked his belt too much, and the mom, she thought there wasn’t nuff food to go ‘round, so I usually got nothin’. I ran away. Don’t wanna go back, no never nuh uh. I hide when the constables come lookin’ for charity cases. ‘M never goin’ back. This’s better.”
Obi-Wan sighed deeply, unwilling to imagine a home so horrible that the street was better. It was amazing that the little boy had trusted him this quickly and completely, sharing his story so freely. He had hoped that a quiet, kind conversation would open the child up enough to let the Padawan touch him. Now was probably as good a time as any to test that idea.
“Thank you for telling me, Nibbi,” he said gently. “Will you let me see where they hit you? It must hurt a lot.”
The dark, troubled gaze met his again. The boy seemed to shrink against the wall, studying the Jedi with sharp suspicion. Obi-Wan restrained another sigh. It hadn’t worked.
But after a moment the boy uncurled from his fetal position, moving rather stiffly, and crawled over to sit in the young Jedi’s lap. With pure, child-like trust, he leaned sideways against the thirteen-year-old’s chest. “I like you,” he whispered. “An awful lot.”
“And I like you an awful, awful lot,” Obi-Wan whispered in his ear. “Now, come on, let’s pull that tunic up and see what’s going on.”
Qui-Gon stood at the window, gazing out at the drizzly street lit now by streetlamps as the last light of the sun faded in the west. The reception had started ten minutes ago. Obviously, he and Obi-Wan were going to be late. If Obi-Wan even showed up.
Qui-Gon turned away from the window with a sigh. It had been raining for thirty minutes now. Surely Obi-Wan had started walking back as soon as it started. How far away had he gotten?
The Jedi Master reached along the bond, but Obi-Wan had raised his shields again, not as tight as they had been at the beginning, but not as loose as they had been for perhaps five minutes there in the middle, either. Something was definitely going on. Yet he did not sense danger. There was darkness out there, certainly, as there was darkness everywhere. But it was nothing unusual.
After another ten minutes, Qui-Gon commed Ambassador Grenik and told him that the Jedi would not be at the reception. Their presence had been optional, anyway—no harm done. But that small fear in his heart was slowly blooming into full-grown paranoia. What was taking the boy so long? He fought it down, allowing just a hint of irritation to replace it. Had Obi-Wan overstepped his bounds?
Qui-Gon was just grabbing his robe to head out himself when the door finally opened, and there stood Obi-Wan on the mat, soaked and dripping, shoulders slumped. He eyed Qui-Gon warily, as if waiting for a reprimand.
But the Master was too surprised to reprove . . . yet. “Padawan, what have you been up to? Where is your robe? Why are you spattered with mud? And—” He took a hesitant step forward, barely able to believe what he was seeing. “You have a black eye! Force, Obi-Wan, don’t you dare tell me you ran into a door! What happened?”
Obi-Wan shook himself slightly, water spattering from his sodden garments. He brushed a hand through his spiky hair, pushing water down to drip on his neck, and tried to keep his teeth from chattering with minimal success. “It’s a l-l-long story, M-Master.”
Qui-Gon stared at his wayward apprentice for a moment, wavering between concern and irritation. The fatigue in the boy’s face finally decided him. “Obi-Wan, get out of those wet clothes immediately. Take a hot shower and put on something warm and dry, then come out here prepared to tell me every last detail of this long story.”
“Y-Yes, Master.” Obi-Wan bowed slightly, gratitude evident in voice and expression, and departed to follow Qui-Gon’s orders to the letter.
Qui-Gon went to the suite’s kitchenette and made some tea. He had two mugs ready and waiting when Obi-Wan emerged, dressed in sleepwear, reddish-sandy hair sticking up in strange places. His face was too pale for the Master’s liking, and the black eye stood out in ghastly silhouette. It was a lovely big shiner, already displaying a mix of purple, green, black, and sickly brown that almost made Qui-Gon ill just to look at. Force, what had Obi-Wan gotten himself into? A lot of strength and anger had gone into that punch.
Obi-Wan accepted the mug Qui-Gon offered with a quiet, “Thank you, Master,” and sank onto the couch. He seemed to melt into the cushions, relaxing for the first time in hours or days.
“Where did you go?” Qui-Gon began, keeping his voice neutral.
“Um . . . I think I ended up on Onorda Street for a while. Wandered about a bit. Met a few people.”
“Did you go outside the six-block radius I prescribed?”
Obi-Wan eyed him guiltily. “Only for a little bit, and I had a good reason.”
Qui-Gon sat up straight in agitation. “Obi-Wan, I will not accept excuses.”
“But if you’ll listen to my reason—” Obi-Wan started and sat up as well, irritation flaming in his voice.
“Padawan!” Qui-Gon was abruptly stern and quiet, reining himself in. “Reasonable disobedience is one thing, but blatant disrespect is quite another.”
The boy deflated immediately, leaning back against the couch, his face flushing with shame. “Yes, Master,” he said meekly. “I’m sorry, Master. I did not mean to be disrespectful.”
It hadn’t been disrespect, Qui-Gon realized belatedly, sitting back as well. It had been frustration brought on by extreme weariness and the Master’s sharp tone. The momentary flare in his apprentice had drained completely away, leaving a deep, worrying exhaustion. “Obi-Wan, what have you done in the past two hours to wear you out so completely? You look like you haven’t slept in days, while just before your walk you seemed to have enough extra energy to power a city.”
Obi-Wan sighed. “I’m afraid I used a number of rather difficult Force skills that I do not have complete control over, and they took a lot out of me. It seemed to take forever to walk back—I barely had the energy to put one foot in front of the other. I’m sorry I worried you.”
Qui-Gon ignored that last, unwilling to admit that he had been worried. “I’m sorry I snapped at you, Padawan. Apparently you’ve been through a bit of an ordeal. You said you ended up on Onorda Street?”
“Well, at first, yes. I heard some troubling sounds coming from an alley . . .” Briefly he told the tale.
Qui-Gon pondered silently for a moment. “You used Force amplification to scare them off.”
“And it worked very well.” He flashed the apprentice a rare grin. “It was well done, Obi-Wan. So that was the first thing that drained your strength? Then what?”
Well, the first thing had actually been the locking away of his turbulent little box, but the Padawan wasn’t going to mention that. “Yes, Master, I felt normal then, no excess energy. But the little boy, Nibbi . . . he needed help.” He related the homeless child’s story quietly, sadness surging behind the words. “And when he let me lift up his tunic . . . it was horrible, Master. I couldn’t believe it. They’ve been beating him regularly, it seems, with belts and rubber tubes and whatever they found lying around. I wanted to take him to a med center, but he refused, afraid that the authorities would take him back to the home he ran from.”
Qui-Gon could see where this was going. “So you used the Force to heal him.”
“Obi-Wan, that is not your gift, and you have very little training in that skill.”
“I had to,” the boy said, a trifle defensively. “At least the ones that were bleeding!”
Qui-Gon smiled sadly. “You don’t have to explain yourself to me, young one. But that obviously drained your strength much further. Then what did you do?”
“Well, you had given me a little Sylelian currency in case of an emergency, remember? So I took him to a café and got him a decent meal. That’s when I went beyond the six blocks—the closest café was across the street and down a bit, and I didn’t want to make the child walk too far.” He paused, his gaze wary again. “Do you forgive my indiscretion now? I’m sorry I disobeyed you, but to be honest, I really wasn’t thinking much about you at the time.”
“I forgive you, Obi-Wan. Drink your tea.”
The Padawan glanced at the mug in his hand, which he had evidently forgotten. He eyed it doubtfully. “What kind is it?” Qui-Gon was fond of strange herbal concoctions that the younger Jedi found a bit too strong and exotic for his tastes.
“Marjili with cinna. Your favorite.”
Obi-Wan took a cautious sip of the still-hot liquid and favored his Master with a beatific smile, beautiful despite the huge black eye that dominated his face.
“Then what happened, Padawan? You still haven’t explained that bruise.”
Apparently the boy had forgotten about that, too. He fingered it gingerly, winced, and took another, longer sip. “Well, I took Nibbi back to his sleeping place—just a big box in the corner of an alley. It started to rain, and I knew I had to get back, but the poor little one was shivering. So I gave him my robe and put lingering Force heat in the box, just enough to keep it warm for a few hours. I felt horrible leaving him there, Master, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Padawan, long-lasting Force heat is yet another skill that you have not mastered.”
Obi-Wan simply nodded, his eyelids beginning to droop.
“Well, young one, I’m beginning to understand why it took you so long to get back. It’s a wonder you made it at all. Now, who punched you? Surely the child did not?”
The Padawan smiled gloomily at the thought. “Force, no. I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m the best thing since the invention of cheese, or something. No, it was the bullies who have been abusing him. They were waiting for me—I wasn’t paying attention, didn’t feel the danger. Kicked me into a mud puddle and then pinned me against a wall. Leader got in the first shot.” He flapped a hand in the direction of the nasty bruise, the bright blue-green eye within twinkling. “Quite a good first shot, it was.”
Qui-Gon could not suppress a swell of horror at the image of his exhausted apprentice being held against a wall by five or six vicious young men, all of whom must have been much older and bigger than he. “Padawan, I do not share your amusement. I did not realize you were injured beyond that black eye. Do you need me to call a healer?”
“No, I’m not injured. It’s just the black eye, and a bruise where they kicked me.” Obi-Wan laid a hand tenderly against his stomach. “Not bad. I got away. Force wave.”
Qui-Gon sat still, stunned speechless for a moment.
Obi-Wan gave him another tired smile. “I know, I know, yet another skill that I have not mastered. They were all knocked unconscious, fortunately. I could not have done anything else to fight them off. Barely . . . barely made it back . . .” He blinked sleepily at the mug, lifted it as if it was almost too heavy for his strength, and drank deeply.
“Obi-Wan . . .” Qui-Gon began tentatively. “Obi-Wan, do you know how many Jedi in history were able to gather and release a Force wave at the age of thirteen?”
“No, Master.” The boy blinked at him, unable to understand where this question was going.
“I think there might have been two. Perhaps three.”
“Oh. That’s nice.” Obi-Wan drank again. “I didn’t really think about it. I just knew that that was what I had to do. And I knew I could, and I did.”
By the Force, Qui-Gon thought incredulously. How did he manage to walk at all after doing all of that?
He moved to sit next to the boy, removed the empty mug from his limp grasp. “No wonder you’re tired, my Padawan. No wonder at all. Here, let’s see what I can do about that black eye.”
Obi-Wan flinched slightly as Qui-Gon laid a hand against the side of his face, index finger and thumb touching the edge of the bruise, but did not pull away. He looked back at his Master with the serenity of complete exhaustion, not entirely aware of his surroundings anymore.
Qui-Gon closed his eyes and drew on the power of the Force, pulling it in to flow down his arm and through his fingers, closing ruptured blood vessels, soothing swollen flesh, banishing the pooled blood beneath the skin. If Obi-Wan could heal a mass of bleeding wounds, even without a gift for healing, Qui-Gon could heal a simple black eye.
When he opened his eyes the bruise was not completely gone, but significantly reduced, as if a week’s worth healing had happened in the last few minutes. Obi-Wan smiled peacefully, admiration and gratitude shining in his weary young eyes. “Nice,” he murmured.
“What about your stomach?”
The Padawan lifted his tunic without a tremor and let Qui-Gon inspect the discoloration on his abdomen. It was deceptively small, from the toe of someone’s boot, but dark and livid, revealing the power that had gone behind the kick. He did his best to ease that, too, and was relieved to detect no internal injury. Force, they could have hurt Obi-Wan seriously, if he hadn’t been able to escape.
“Now, Obi-Wan, I think it would be best if you went to bed.”
The boy stood slowly to obey, and would have fallen back on the couch if Qui-Gon hadn’t caught him. “Now, now, Padawan, none of that,” he teased gently. “One act of reasonable disobedience is enough for one day.”
He supported the apprentice to his room and got him into bed, tucking the covers under his chin. He was amused to realize that the boy was already snoring, a soft whuffle and wheeze that made him seem about five years old. Then Qui-Gon went back out to the lounge area to finish his tea, and to ponder all that his Padawan had accomplished in only two hours.
Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 4: Trepidation
The next morning, Qui-Gon was not entirely sure whether or not he ought to wake his apprentice. Shadows still lurked under Obi-Wan’s eyes, despite a solid ten hours of sleep. Then again, that wasn’t particularly shocking, considering what the boy had done.
But after Qui-Gon had been watching for only a moment, the Padawan stirred, as if the weight of his Master’s gaze was enough to pierce through the haze of sleep. He opened his eyes and stared blearily at Qui-Gon standing in the doorway.
“Good morning, Padawan,” Qui-Gon said.
“Mornings,” Obi-Wan said slowly and clearly, taking care to enunciate each syllable, “were created by the Sith specifically to torture Jedi Padawans.”
Qui-Gon smiled. “Would you like some breakfast?”
Obi-Wan sat up immediately. “Yes, please.”
The Master chuckled and departed to comm the hotel kitchen. The mention of food was always a sure-fire way to get the apprentice going in the morning
But when the simple repast of fruit, pastry, and tea arrived and the two Jedi sat at the small table in their lounge, Obi-Wan didn’t eat much. For several long minutes he held a half-eaten poli fruit in his hand, contemplating it with a deep, philosophical stare. Qui-Gon sipped his tea, studying the Padawan just as intently. The boy didn’t notice.
“Something bothering you, Obi-Wan?”
Blue-green eyes flicked to the Master’s face, then away. “Just . . . just wondering whether Nibbi is having anything half as nice for breakfast.”
“Ah.” Qui-Gon lowered his eyes, for some reason feeling slightly chagrined.
Obi-Wan took a half-hearted bite of his poli and picked at the pastry on his plate. “Master, are we doing anything important today?”
They had already been over the itinerary for their entire stay, but Qui-Gon decided not to mention the boy’s lapse in concentration. He could allow his Padawan an hour to wake up—that was usually how long it took. “This morning we’ll be meeting with city officials, and we’ll have lunch with the ruler of Sylelius . . .”
Obi-Wan knew he was being prompted, to prove that he’d paid attention and remembered. He blinked, waking up a bit more. “President Rothis Hindegar.”
“Right. We’ll wear formal robes for those functions. The afternoon is free, and we’ll start our observation. I thought we’d find some common clothes and blend in.”
“Perhaps we should split up to cover more ground. There will be a lot to see.”
“Perhaps we should.” Qui-Gon suppressed a frown. For some reason he didn’t like that idea. But it wasn’t the Force speaking to him. It was . . . something else.
Obi-Wan sighed and rubbed a hand over his face, stopping when he touched the left eye, which was still red and puffy. “Master, I . . . I’d really like to . . . I know we’re only going to be here for a couple of weeks, but while we’re here I want to spend some time . . .it might not seem entirely befitting to a Jedi, but . . .”
Qui-Gon finally took pity on him. “You want to spend time with the little boy you befriended.”
Obi-Wan nodded hesitantly. “I want to try to earn his trust, enough so that he’ll let me take him somewhere he can be taken care of. All of the foster homes can’t be like that one. But I think I’ll need to visit him every day, and I didn’t know if we would have time.”
“Padawan, we will make time. This is important. And it is completely befitting to a Jedi.”
“Very much so, yes! I’m glad you’ve found such a worthy project to occupy your time here. I’d hate for you to become bored.”
“Oh, I’m never bored,” Obi-Wan said seriously. He finished the poli fruit in a few bites, then started in on the pastry. Qui-Gon could tell by the glaze in his eyes that he hardly tasted it, busy planning how to reach the hurting child.
The Padawan’s eyes flicked again to the Master’s face, bright with eagerness, yet sober with responsibility. “I want to visit the charities, the government’s systems, and interview those who would take charge of Nibbi. That will be good observation, won’t it? You can tell the most about a people’s character by seeing how they treat the weakest and neediest among them.”
Qui-Gon sat back in his chair a bit, impressed. “That’s very wise, Padawan. Just don’t neglect the other aspects of the world. Talk to merchants, constables, people on the street.”
“Yes, Master.” But the blue-green eyes were distant with thought again. Then they fixed on Qui-Gon once more. “Master, I must ask your permission to do something that may not be entirely befitting to a Jedi.”
Qui-Gon blinked. Again? “What is it, Padawan?”
“I need to fight the leader of that gang. It must be a fair fight, just hands, just the two of us, and I’ll probably have to promise not to use the Force. Once I beat him, they will respect me enough to leave me—and Nibbi—alone. I’ll probably have to beat him pretty badly, though. It won’t be pleasant.”
Again Qui-Gon was impressed by the boy’s wisdom. Why had he never noticed this side of Obi-Wan before? “So you are saying that this fight would be in your defense, and the defense of a child who cannot protect himself? Yes, Obi-Wan, that is befitting to a Jedi. Just make sure that you keep that as your motive, not seeking revenge for the way they hurt you.”
Obi-Wan shook his head. “What, this?” He gestured at the healing bruise around his eye, failing to notice Qui-Gon’s wince. “This is nothing. Bruck did worse than this, and more besides, and I never sought revenge. Though I admit that I defended myself in something approaching anger a time or two.” Obi-Wan took heart at Qui-Gon’s smile, enough to return it and ask hopefully, “Do I have your permission then?”
Once more a protest rose in Qui-Gon, and he quelled it with a faint sigh, accepting the will of the Force. He nodded reluctantly. “I must admit that I don’t care for the idea of you facing a young ruffian twice your size without the Force, but I trust your judgment. If you feel that that is what you must do, then you should follow your instincts. I know that you can handle yourself.”
Obi-Wan’s grin broadened. “Thank you, Master. I won’t let you down.
“I know you won’t. The Force is with you.”
Despite his best intentions, Obi-Wan had a very difficult time focusing on the morning meetings. It was information he’d heard dozens of times before, about how wonderful the Republic was, how the Senate allowed every world to be represented with their fair say, how each planet retained limited autonomy, yet were protected by the best laws and the best security history had ever seen.
“Yes indeed, the Jedi,” Ambassador Grenik had interjected. “The guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy!”
Obi-Wan pressed his lips tightly together to keep from smirking, and felt Qui-Gon’s disapproving nudge through the bond, almost—but not quite—a mental slap. The Padawan schooled his features to calm, not needing to look at Qui-Gon to know that the returning glance would be a glare. His amusement was completely inappropriate, and they both knew it.
Focus, Kenobi, he scolded himself, hearing his own words in his Master’s voice. This isn’t some boring class back at the Temple. This is a real live mission, and bad things can happen at a moment’s notice. A Jedi must be ready for anything.
But nothing happened. Everything was perfectly peaceful, all of the participants in the meeting were perfectly amicable, and Obi-Wan remained perfectly bored.
The first spark of interest he got from the day came during lunch. All right, meeting President Hindegar, that was pretty neat. Obi-Wan hadn’t been sure what to expect from the ruler of Sylelius, but had vaguely envisioned a round, red-faced man with a snobbish manner and gold braid on his uniform. Instead, Hindegar turned out to be a practical, cheerful fellow in his mid-fifties wearing the attire of a middle-class Sylelian, his dark blond hair beginning a dignified edge toward gray.
But what truly captured Obi-Wan’s interest was Hindegar’s daughter. She was four or five standard years older than the Jedi Padawan, honey-colored hair flowing down her back in gentle waves. Her face was soft and rounded, her full, pink-glossed lips perpetually pursed.
This was not what drew the young Jedi’s attention. It was the deep tension in her hunched shoulders, the guarded shields behind her eyes, the sadness that surrounded her Force-signature like a clinging mist. He was astounded that her father seemed totally oblivious. Couldn’t he feel it? Couldn’t everyone feel it? The girl was in pain!
The president caught his eye and grinned. Obi-Wan realized that he’d been staring and blushed furiously. The young lady regarded him with barely-disguised hostility.
“Padawan Kenobi, this is my daughter, Amora Hindegar,” the president said. “Amora, Obi-Wan Kenobi. I believe you’ll be seated next to each other for this luncheon.”
Obi-Wan nodded, a sinking feeling in his chest. He wanted to apologize to Amora, but felt absolutely ridiculous, and his jaw locked up. Unexpectedly he felt the weight of Qui-Gon’s hand on his shoulder, and he gave the Master a grateful look.
“Let’s sit down, shall we?” President Hindegar swept a hand in invitation.
The group had been standing the doorway of the banquet hall as introductions were made, but now they moved into the well-appointed room and took their seats as directed. Joining the Jedi and the two Hindegars were Ambassador Grenik, the mayor of Reshifc, and half a dozen various aides and councilors.
Obi-Wan made several valiant attempts to start a conversation with Amora, and was rebuffed by silence as sharp and enduring as an adamantine wall. Her guard was fully up, and she was not about to let a snot-nosed Jedi apprentice with a childish crush inside. Obi-Wan sighed and surrendered, hoping that she had someone to confide in. Her pain itched at the edges of his senses, demanding relief. It was starting to hurt him, too.
“Would you explain the candle ceremony?” Qui-Gon asked as they dug into the salad course, and Obi-Wan brought his attention swiftly back to the moment. “We saw that listed on the schedule for tomorrow evening, but did not understand its significance.”
“Ah, the Release of Candles,” President Hindegar answered, apparently gratified by the Jedi’s interest. “It is a ritual unique to this region of Sylelius. You know that Reshifc is only two kilometers from the sea? Once a year on tomorrow’s date, the people gather to remember those who were lost during the past fifteen moon-cycles. A candle is lit for each loved one taken by death, and given to the sea in remembrance. It is a symbol only, for we know that each soul has already been loosed to fly among the stars. But the ceremony can be a balm for the grief of those left behind. And it is a lovely sight, all of those lights floating on the waves.”
He reached across the table suddenly to grasp his daughter’s hand, smiling sadly, and Amora looked at him with wide dark eyes and returned the clasp with white-knuckled intensity. The president sighed deeply. “We will release a candle for my dear wife, Amora’s mother.”
“I am truly sorry for your loss,” Qui-Gon said gravely.
“It was almost thirteen moon-cycles ago,” Hindegar said. He gave Amora’s hand a gentle squeeze and released her. “But yes, the grief still bites us sharply at times.”
Obi-Wan let his sympathy show in his eyes, hoping that Amora would see it and perhaps think a little better of him. She did not notice.
And why couldn’t he shake the feeling that something was wrong? This loss ought to be enough to explain the anguish he felt emanating from the girl. But somehow he knew that there was more to it, and he was deeply unsettled by this instinct.
Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 5: Exploration
The bell above the front door tinkled, and Nilla looked up, eager to greet the newest visitor to the Onorda Street clinic. “Welcome!” she said warmly. “Come in, come in! Can I help you?”
The boy paused shyly just inside the door, his hand still on the push-bar that crossed it. He was a slender youngster, perhaps twelve or thirteen, his sandy hair in a short, spiky cut. His garments were ordinary, new-looking, a scuff on one knee. He looked like any one of hundreds of pre-adolescent children in Reshifc.
Nilla’s eye was drawn immediately to the large bruise that covered half his face. It was mostly healed, but Nilla’s lips still tightened in anger. Somebody had punched this child.
She purposely did not focus on it, not wanting to frighten the hesitant boy away. “Well, what brings you here? I’d be happy to answer any questions you have.”
The boy stepped slowly to the desk. “I . . . uh . . . I’d just like some information.”
Nilla started pulling brochures from her desk drawers. “We offer a number of free services: shelter, counseling, med care . . .” She glanced at the pamphlet in her hand, which offered free pregnancy testing, and put it back in the drawer. “You can register anonymously, if you like. No one needs to know. This clinic is meant to be a safe place for those who have nowhere else to turn.”
The boy nodded soberly, his eyes on the sheaf of flimsyplast Nilla held out to him. As his slender fingers closed about the brochures he glanced up and offered a brief, brilliant smile, allowing her a glimpse of sparkling blue eyes. “Thank you. I’ll just study this information for now.”
She watched him wander over to the small lounge area and settle himself into a chair, spreading the brochures on the low table in front of him. That accent . . . it was Deep Core. This boy—or his parents, perhaps—did not come from Sylelius.
Nilla had been a receptionist at the Onorda Street clinic for two years, starting here on recommendation of her sister Mili after she was downsized from the comm part plant down on 122nd Street. It was a good job. She enjoyed welcoming frightened, hurting people into a place where they could be safe and begin to find healing for their wounds.
She felt that her heart had become cold and shrunken in the impersonal surroundings of the part plant. Now it was warm and open again, and seemed to get bigger with each person she encountered. It made her more vulnerable to pain, as her compassion was constantly touched and pricked by the poor folks she met. But it also opened her up to enjoy more of life. The trade was worth it. Absolutely worth it.
Over time Nilla had developed a sweet, welcoming manner that served her very well in this job. It was a gentle kindness, one that offered help without insistence, without pressure. She knew when to speak and when to be silent. Sometimes the right word could draw a hurting soul in—sometimes the wrong movement could send a frightened child away. Nilla had learned all of these words and movements, some by instinct and some by experience, and she could draw almost anyone.
This boy, now . . . There was something about him. Something shuttered and silent, and infinitely sad. It went beyond the healing black eye, but Nilla supposed that the two were connected. This youngster had hidden away a part of himself, finding it a liability in the game of survival.
It happened every day, she knew. Exuberant children learned that attention meant pain, and destroyed their enthusiasm to become quiet and reserved, knowing that seldom noticed meant seldom beaten. Battered women learned that their men would not tolerate any other relationships, and so they hid away their connection to parents, siblings, friends, and even children, fighting desperately to please what would never be pleased. Oh, it was tragic. And it happened every day.
This boy, now . . . this charming young man with the bright smile and the brilliant, subdued eyes . . . What had he lost? Something very important, Nilla knew. Something that, perhaps, could never be regained. Oh, it made her heart ache. And it made her angry. No one should have to go through this kind of pain, least of all an innocent child.
The boy had finished reading the brochures and now sat looking out the window thoughtfully. There were shadows under those blue eyes, Nilla noticed, shadows of weariness . . . and pain? Unaware that he was being observed, the boy let some of the deep sorrow she had sensed rise to the surface. For the briefest moment a look of utter misery flickered on that pale young face, then was gone.
Nilla couldn’t stand it any longer. She bustled out from behind the desk and sat in the couch perpendicular to his chair, angling herself to face him. He turned to look at her, young face once again clear and calm.
She laid her hand gently over his, and he seemed startled, but did not pull away. “Listen, sweetie, you don’t have to put up with this. Who is it? Mom, dad, uncle? Employer? Whoever it is, what they’re doing to you is wrong, and you don’t have to submit anymore. What do you say you step into one of our meeting rooms and have a chat with someone? No pressure, you don’t have to make any promises, just have a nice, friendly little conversation.”
Surprise flickered across blue-green depths. “No one is hurting me. I’m all right, really.”
Nilla nodded gently. Of course he would deny it—few admitted to being abused on their first tentative visit to the clinic.
“Truly, I got this black eye in a fight.”
That did not explain the shadows on his face, the flash of misery she had seen, and the silent sorrow he still concealed.
“Very well. But will you talk to one of our counselors? I promise, no pressure. You don’t have to come back ever again, if you don’t want to. But you should at least know your options.”
He studied her intently for a few moments, giving her a good chance to study those huge eyes that seemed to blaze of their own light. What color were they, after all? She had originally thought they were blue, then blue-green, but in this light they seemed more of a pensive greenish-gray. And even as she watched, they seemed to shift.
“All right,” he said at last. “I’d like to hear more about what you have to offer here. But, no, I will not make any promises.”
“Fair enough.” Nilla clasped the boy’s hand warmly in her own, and they rose together. “I just want you to know what’s available to you, sweetheart. No one should have to deal with pain and grief alone.”
“No,” he agreed quietly. “No one should.”
People were shouting, and a crowd was gathering on Onorda Street. Nibbi slowly stuck his head outside his box, blinking at the afternoon sunlight. He had hidden here after lunch—a handful of nuts he’d found in a can in a recyclobin—to nap. He was napping more and more, lately, whenever he wasn’t searching for food or running from the gangs. Napping required no energy, and he felt no hunger and pain while he slept. Some of his dreams were even kind of nice.
Nibbi cautiously crawled out of his hiding place, leaving the nice warm robe there, where no one could find it and steal it from him. He edged down the alley, keeping close to the wall, his eyes fixed on the crowd gathering on the street outside. Life on the street had not killed his curiosity yet. Crowds like this only gathered for speeder crashes, shootings, and gang fights, and he wondered which one this was.
Automatically his eyes searched the crowd for begging targets. Mostly gang members, older street kids and beggars, some local merchants, a few housewives from the apartments. None of them had any credits to spare for a filthy street vrelt, or so they had informed him on more than one occasion.
The center of the clot of gang members was roiling agitatedly, and everyone’s attention was focused there. Nibbi heard bloodthirsty shouts of encouragement, groans and gasps, sounds of flesh striking flesh. It was a fight, then.
Nibbi insinuated himself into the crowd, wanting to see who was going at each other this time. Rell and Stiner had an on-going feud, and that Sullustan couple from down street—Mr. and Mrs. Bnong, was it?—occasionally took their differences outside, or it might be random members of opposing gangs letting their insults escalate into injuries.
It was no good. The little vrelt couldn’t get close enough for a clear look, and the constantly shifting bodies only gave him occasional glimpses through the legs of the gang members immediately surrounding the fighters. With a thrill of terror, Nibbi recognized Tronak, who took it upon himself to make sure that the urchin got a regular taste of his thick, plastoid belt. That belt hurt a lot—the edges were sharp and bit into his skin more often than not.
Nibbi began inching his way out of the crowd, trying not to touch anyone and draw attention to himself. Maybe he could find a recyclobin or something to climb up on . . . At the edge of the press of bodies he almost ran into a tall, burly man, one he didn’t recognize. He stared up at the human in something approaching awe, completely forgetting the turmoil about him. The man was dressed like any other loser on Onorda Street, but something about him didn’t seem to fit. He held himself differently, without pride, but without defeat. Somehow, he reminded the little vrelt of Obi, the most amazing person Nibbi had ever met.
The towering man held himself in silence, arms crossed over his chest, eyes fixed on the combatants in the center of the crowd. His gaze was intense, focused. It seemed to Nibbi that maybe the big man wanted to join that fight, but he held himself back. Somehow the child knew that he had nothing to fear from this one.
Timidly, trembling a bit at his own daring, Nibbi tugged on the man’s tunic. “’Scuse me, mister.”
He looked calmly down at the vrelt, and a gentle smile lit on his face. “Yes, little one?”
In spite of himself, Nibbi’s voice shook. “C-Can you tell me what’s goin’ on? I can’t see.” He realized that his fingers were still wrapped in the man’s tunic, and let go abruptly. Stars and little fishes, but this fellow was big. He could squash Nibbi like a teeny-tiny bug, if he wanted.
The man studied him thoughtfully. “Would you like to see?”
The giant’s eyes seemed to flicker a bit in surprise at that. A polite street vrelt? Without hesitation, the man turned toward the little boy and held out his arms.
Nibbi took a nervous step back, eyeing those big, broad hands with suspicion. He bet it would it hurt an awful, awful lot to be hit by one of those. Then he looked up at the gentle, open face, and the fear faded. He held up his own arms, like the trusting little child he no longer was.
The man picked him up easily and balanced him against one shoulder. Nibbi gasped a bit at the sudden movement and wrapped one arm about the light brown head to anchor himself. “All right?” the man asked, looking at the child with smiling, faded blue eyes.
“All right,” the little vrelt said faintly. “Thanks, mister. ‘M Nibbi.”
“I’m Quig—” The man bit his lip suddenly.
“Quig? Thank you, Quig.”
Quig smiled. “You’re welcome, Nibbi.
Nibbi finally turned to watch the fight. For the second time in as many minutes, he gasped. “It’s Obi!”
Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 6: Vindication
Focus on the moment, focus on the moment . . .
It was incredible, really, how distracted and unfocused Obi-Wan could be. Here he was, in the middle of a fist-fight, for crying out loud, and his mind kept wanting to wander. He had been aware of his Master’s presence from the moment Qui-Gon stepped to the edge of the crowd, but he had deliberately cut off most of his Force sense, and so had no clue what the man was thinking. Was he pleased, proud, disappointed, irritated, disgusted, bored? The Padawan could imagine any of those reactions, but the first two seemed the least likely.
Focus on the moment!
Obi-Wan blocked another punch, side-stepped another sweeping kick to the ankles. This fellow, Tronak, had the vast advantage in strength, height and downright bulk, but he had virtually no training. If the Padawan hadn’t been so exhausted that he couldn’t see straight yesterday, the Sylelian youth never would have gotten in that shot to the eye. An eighth-year initiate could probably take him, even without the Force.
So why is this taking so long? Focus, Kenobi!
Obi-Wan narrowed his eyes. He caught Tronak’s fist in his own as it sailed past his face, but the older youth broke the grip with a slight grunt, exerting almost no effort to do so. Obi-Wan had been fighting defensively, taking a few hits to the mid-section, though no bad ones, ducking or blocking most blows. It was the way a Jedi fought, but it was earning him no respect from these bullies, and respect was what he needed to earn.
“Go for it, Tronak!” a gang member screamed in the cacophony of egging-on that had been continuing since the fight began.
“Rip his eyeballs out! Show ‘im he don’t belong here!”
“Show ‘im he can’t mess with the Gray Knights!”
“Nights?” Obi-Wan asked between pants for air as he ducked another swing and circled, ending up on Tronak’s right side. “You named yourself after a time of day?”
Tronak growled as he turned to face the slippery kid who kept evading his fists. “Knights, you idiot, not Nights! As in ‘the gray knights approach on black horses as the pale moon rides above’?”
Obi-Wan blinked, surprised by the quotation of Alderaanian poetry. “Oh, knights!” he repeated, blocking a strong downward blow with crossed wrists. “As in, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy? Is that why you feel it is within your rights to hurt and belittle a helpless child?”
“What, that little vrelt?” Tronak aimed a blow that should have split Obi-Wan’s lips and loosened half his teeth, grunting with frustration as it only grazed by that smooth, gold-tinted cheek. “He deserves everything he gets! I don’t understand why you wanted to fight over him, of all things. You ain’t no Jedi! Jedi take care of big, important things, like presidents and wars and solar systems under siege. You’re just another do-gooder from uptown, thinking you can stick your perfect nose in here and tell us what to do!”
Obi-Wan was distantly amazed that the gang leader could find breath enough for that tirade. Tronak was panting steadily now, sweat dripping down his none-too-clean chin to splash on faded garments and a worn leather vest. This fight had gone on much longer than the usual fisticuffs Tronak was used to deciding with only a few heavy, well-aimed punches.
The Padawan nodded gently. “Yes, Jedi guard presidents and solar systems. But we also care about children on the streets, and young men who have no direction. It is a shame that the ‘larger’ things so often prevent us from taking care of the rest. All are equally important.”
Tronak paused for a bare moment, delicately balanced with one foot forward and a fist cocked to swing, and gave his opponent a confused look. “You make no sense at all.”
Obi-Wan reflected sadly that that was probably true as the Sylelian launched his offensive again. He blocked three blows in quick succession, then sighed in exasperation. Enough. It was time to end this.
The Padawan knocked the incoming fists wide, and jabbed in with his own punch, lightning-quick, before the bigger boy could react. He jumped back lightly, using a footwork move from the fourth kata. Tronak reeled slightly, then straightened with an almost audible snap, dark eyes blazing.
With a low roar, he leaped for Obi-Wan again, limbs flailing. The Padawan grunted as the spiked boot connected with his knee—he hadn’t anticipated the kick in time, busy twisting away from the flying fists. He really missed the Force.
He used the impetus from the strike to pivot and strike out with his own round-house kick. It caught Tronak in the chest, throwing him back into the arms of his cronies. The tight circle around them shifted a bit as their positions moved. Obi-Wan threw himself after the older youth, aware that he could not waste time, had to take advantage of momentary weakness.
They crashed to the ground, Obi-Wan on top, pinning Tronak’s arms with his knees. Utterly calm, he pounded the gang leader’s face with all the strength he had, the muscles toned by years of intense training making him far more formidable than his youth and stature advertised. He was a Jedi. He fought to defend the defenseless.
And he fought very well indeed.
Tronak hadn’t had any idea what he was getting to when he agreed to this brutal “duel.” Now he began to get an inkling, and realization in his dark eyes quickly flashed to panic, barely visible as Obi-Wan’s fist flashed up and down. With a convulsion of his entire body, he threw the younger boy off and rolled onto his knees, making it to his feet before the young Jedi could recover his position.
They stood for a moment, panting. The crowd around had become tensely silent, the gang members shocked by the momentary defeat of their champion, the bystanders eager to see what would come next. Tronak looked Obi-Wan squarely in the eye, blood dripping from his nose and his chin, and there it was. Respect.
That was it, then. What Obi-Wan had come for. He stood straight, and gave the bully a stiff little bow, never taking his eyes from other’s face.
Tronak aimed a kick at his head.
Obi-Wan snapped straight and caught the foot, twisting it. It had not been a good kick, neither graceful nor balanced, and Tronak started to fall, yelling in surprise and rage. Obi-Wan lunged forward as he released the foot, grabbed the older boy’s collar to hold him up, and slammed one last punch into his face.
Then he let go and let him fall. Tronak crashed bonelessly to the pavement, eyes shut, face mangled with bruises. Obi-Wan looked at the gang that crowded around, a warning in his eyes. He was ready for them, if they decided to break the bonds of the agreement.
The side of his mouth quirked in satisfaction as they swayed slightly back, giving him room. One of Tronak’s lieutenants knelt at his side, trying to wake him.
“Don’t attack me again,” Obi-Wan said quietly, his words carrying to every corner of the small crowd. He held himself straight, like the Jedi he was. “Don’t lay a finger on Nibbi. I did this on my own, as we agreed.” How much do you think I can do with the Force? he implied to the gang, though he said nothing aloud, wanted to keep at least a shred of his cover as an observer—he wouldn’t just shout it out now. “Touch that little boy again, and I’ll know. I do not seek revenge, but I’m a strong believer in justice.”
With the cause of excitement gone, the crowd began to break up. Tronak’s gang dragged him away. Obi-Wan simply stood there, watching. No one said a word to him.
The Padawan turned just in time to catch the little boy who hurled himself into his arms. He grunted softly, staggered just a bit, then caught his balance and hugged the boy tightly. “Hi, Nibbi.”
He set the child down and looked up his Master, who stood a few feet away, his face impassive. “Hello . . .” He wasn’t sure what to call him now, if they should even bother pretending not to be Jedi.
“This’s Quig!” Nibbi said excitedly, tugging on the man’s broad hand. “He’s nice! He sorta makes me think of you. Do you know each other or somethin’?”
Qui-Gon grinned, and Obi-Wan felt his brow wrinkle in confusion. “Um, yeah, Nibbi. He’s . . .”
“I’m his uncle.” Qui-Gon stepped in smoothly. “We’re visiting Sylelius on business. Though Obi consistently finds other ways to occupy his time.”
“Yeah!” Nibbi turned back to Obi-Wan, little face beaming with excitement. “That was so maj, Obi! Tronak went down like a speeder with a busted repulsor. Neeeeowwmm-POOSH!” He demonstrated, gliding his flat hand down as if heading toward the ground, then bunching both fists together and bursting them apart in an explosion of small dancing fingers. He giggled, a broad, crooked grin spreading across his face, and looked almost sleepy with gleeful contentment. “It was maj,” he repeated in a reverent tone.
Obi-Wan was completely taken with that little giggle. He would do quite a lot, he considered, to hear it again, and frequently. The young Jedi carefully lowered himself on one knee, ignoring the new aches and pains that yelped for his attention, and placed a gentle hand on the little one’s shoulder.
“I did it for you, Nibbi,” he said softly. “They won’t bother you again if they know what’s good for them.”
The small boy regarding him soberly, dark eyes suspiciously bright. “No one ever fought for me b’fore,” he whispered. “No one. Not ever.”
“Well, that’s changed now, hasn’t it?”
Nibbi nodded, ducking his head. He picked up Obi-Wan’s free hand in his little ones, intently studying the bruised and bloody knuckles. The child ran small, shaking fingers over the wounds, and Obi-Wan didn’t mind at all that they were a bit dirty.
“It’s all right, Nibbi. It doesn’t hurt much, really. Uncle Quig and I will take care of them when we get back to where we’re staying. Remember how I helped your back?”
Nibbi looked up at the older boy with a bright smile, one tear tracking through the grime on his cheek. “Yeah. I betcha you can do anything, Obi.”
Obi-Wan grinned back, and moved his hand from the little shoulder to wipe away the tear. “Why don’t we get something to eat?”
The little vrelt’s eyes widened in astonishment. “Doncha hafta get back?” He gave “Quig” a wary glance.
“I have a few more people I need to talk to,” Qui-Gon said smoothly. “You two have a nice meal in that café down the street, and I’ll be back in half an hour or so.”
“Fair enough?” the young Jedi asked. “Good thing that café isn’t the nicest in town. We probably look like brothers now, all dirty and scratched up.”
Nibbi giggled again. “Fair enough.” He threw his arms around Obi-Wan’s neck in a tight hold. The Padawan just barely avoided making a choking sound, and hugged him back
Obi-Wan looked up at his Master, and Qui-Gon gave him a deep, measuring look. I think you’re well on your way to earning his trust, the older Jedi mouthed, knowing the Padawan could read his lips. “See you soon.”
And he walked away, still without any indication of what he’d thought of the fight. Obi-Wan fought the sinking feeling in his chest. Just how badly had he done?
Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 7: Hesitation
Qui-Gon returned to the café to find Obi-Wan and Nibbi sitting on the edge of the duracrete stoop, playing Rock, Flimsy, Cutters with sparkling eyes, loud, childlike giggles, and hands flying in animated gestures, fisted or flat or forked in the third symbol. He paused a few paces away, just watching them, how wonderful they were, how beautifully they shone in the Force. Nibbi’s presence shone green and youthful in the Living Force, like any young, growing thing, but Obi-Wan signature, as always, was all but blinding in its brilliance, an untainted white that never seemed to dim in the Master’s eye of the mind. But it was the outer vision that struck Qui-Gon most powerfully.
Neither boy was a truly a child anymore—Nibbi was aged by pain and loss far beyond his years, Obi-Wan by the path he had followed with grave intensity from infancy—but in this moment both were young and pure, glowing with innocent joy as they took delight in a simple childhood game. Both were dirty and scratched, faces and hands a bit battered, clothes rumpled and showing signs of hard wear. Though Nibbi definitely looked worse off, they truly could have been mistaken for brothers, even with the sharp contrast of their coloring: deep brown hair and eyes, fair reddish spikes and sea-colored lumas.
Qui-Gon was surprised by the image of his Padawan as a grubby child of the streets, and it bothered him deep in a hidden part of his psyche—he did not like how the boy seemed neglected and forsaken, despite the cheerful energy in his stance and expression. The man shook it off and took a step forward, clearing his throat. The boys looked up with wide eyes, immediately torn away from their fun, wariness surfacing on open, vulnerable faces. Qui-Gon regretted startling them so badly, and a doubt wormed into his mind. Nibbi’s reaction was understandable, but why had Obi-Wan stiffened so abruptly? Surely he was not afraid?
Obi-Wan relaxed at once, flashing a friendly, welcoming smile. Nibbi gradually followed suit and gave the man a hesitant wave. “Hi, Quig.”
“Hello, Nibbi.” Qui-Gon smiled warmly. “It’s time to head back, Obi.”
“Yes, M-my uncle.” Obi-Wan grinned sheepishly, then turned back to his little friend, eyes and voice softening instantly. “Did you think about what I said? Nilla is a really nice lady, and she would love to meet you.”
Nibbi’s lips pursed defiantly. “’M fine. Like my box.”
“I bet you’d like a warm bed even better,” Obi-Wan coaxed.
The child shook his head firmly. “Warm enough.” He crossed his arms across his small chest, glaring at the older boy with a vehemence that did not quite mask his insecurity. He wanted Obi-Wan’s approval, longed for it with the anxiety of a little one left alone and lonely for far too long, but on this issue he would not budge. He was afraid.
Obi-Wan sighed and ruffled the dark, tangled hair. “All right. I understand. Keep thinking about it, though.” A sudden flash of mischief glinted in blue-green eyes, and Obi-Wan reverted to a very childish trick. He pinched Nibbi’s nose between his index and middle fingers and pulled back his fist with the thumb poking out slightly between them. “I’ve got your nose!”
“Give it back!” Nibbi’s mouth dropped open in utter dismay and genuine shock.
Qui-Gon did not resist the laugh that rumbled powerfully from the bottom of his lungs to burst out of his mouth. “By the stars, Obi, he truly does believe you can do anything.”
The corner of Obi-Wan’s mouth twitched in chagrin, and he quickly touched the tip of his thumb to the little boy’s nose, then displayed his hand open, fingers spread, proving that he held nothing. “Sorry, Nibbi,” he said contritely. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Nibbi reached up and felt his nose with both hands, patting it tenderly in obvious relief. He grinned at the Padawan, eyes shining. “’Sall right. Just startled me, you did.”
Qui-Gon would have shaken his head at the hero-worship that gleamed so brightly in those dark young eyes, but the purity of it prevented him. This little one saw Obi-Wan as the embodiment of all that was good in the galaxy, a tower of strength and comfort and delight. It didn’t matter that he was only thirteen years old, a Padawan learner, half-trained, inexperienced and prone to error—to Nibbi he was a Knight. And Qui-Gon could not fault the child for feeling so.
“Obi, we really must be getting back,” he said, surprising himself with the gentleness of his tone. His emotions had been taking far too much control lately, especially when he hadn’t intended them to. He would need to work on that.
“Yes, Uncle Quig.” Obi-Wan rose reluctantly from the stoop, pulling Nibbi up with him.
The Jedi escorted the street vrelt back to his box in the alley, and Qui-Gon understood Obi-Wan’s unwillingness to leave the child there. But for now this was Nibbi’s choice, and he was in no immediate danger, thanks to the Padawan’s fight this afternoon. It would do more harm than good to force the boy into care. Perhaps with a little more persuasion . . .
“I’ll try to see you tomorrow, Nibbi,” Obi-Wan said, leaning down to tuck his own robe around the little one. He glanced at Qui-Gon, and the Master nodded.
“I saw a little park a couple of blocks from here,” Qui-Gon said. “Perhaps you two could have fun there. After our business tomorrow is completed, of course.”
Nibbi nodded, small white teeth gleaming in the dimness of his “home” as he snuggled into the robe. “I’ll be waiting for you.”
Obi-Wan straightened slowly, reluctantly, and followed Qui-Gon down the alley toward the street. They walked back silently, each Jedi lost in his own thoughts. Qui-Gon was aware of the anxious glances Obi-Wan kept tossing him, and he waited patiently for the boy to speak. Perhaps now he would finally find out what had been troubling his Padawan so deeply over the last couple of weeks.
But Obi-Wan said nothing, and at last Qui-Gon broke the quiet himself. “Your little friend seems quite enamored with you.”
Obi-Wan snorted gently. “I wish he had chosen someone else to trust so exclusively and whole-heartedly. Like Nilla at the Onorda Street clinic, for example.”
“I take it your observations there went well, then?”
“Yes, but I don’t think we should stop by right now. With my fresh bruises and your hulking figure, she’ll be certain that you’re abusing me, ‘Uncle Quig.’”
Qui-Gon stopped walking at the boy’s quiet snigger, turning a teasing glare on his Padawan. “Are you mocking my choice of name and relation to you? I could have said you were my clerk, you know. Or my servant boy. Then I would be perfectly justified in teaching you a physical lesson.”
“Slavery’s illegal on Sylelius, Uncle Quig.” Obi-Wan covered his mouth with his hand, but could not hide the shimmer of playfulness in bright blue-green eyes. “And yes, I’m definitely mocking you. I have street cred now, you know. Roughs on Onorda Street respect me. Not much you can do to me now.”
“Oh, no?” Qui-Gon half-growled, half-laughed, stalking toward his impish apprentice. “You’re really asking for it now, boy. I’m still a lot stronger than you!”
Alarm flashed through those expressive eyes, and Obi-Wan backed up a step, then fell to the pavement, hard, as his knee buckled beneath him. Qui-Gon halted instantly, stiffening a bit in consternation. “Obi-Wan?” No more teasing now. This was serious. “Is something wrong?”
“I . . . I forgot about my knee.” Obi-Wan touched it cautiously, then sucked in a breath and drew back his hand. “Tronak kicked it. Spiked boot. Must have stepped wrong, there. Hurts a little.”
Qui-Gon knelt at the boy’s side, not caring about the spectacle they were making for the pedestrians hurrying about them as sunset approached. He hovered one hand carefully over the injured knee, probing it with the Force. “Just bruised and swollen,” he decided with relief. “I’m sure it hurts quite a bit, though. You were limping this whole time, weren’t you? Why didn’t you say something?”
Obi-Wan shrugged, watching as Qui-Gon poured in healing waves. He seemed withdrawn and subdued, suddenly. Qui-Gon was bit disturbed by these abrupt mood-swings. Something was definitely going on with his apprentice, and he wanted to know what it was.
He looked at the boy’s face, and was again bothered to see those deep shadows of fatigue ringing his eyes. Today had been tiring, certainly, as had the day before, but Obi-Wan should not be so exhausted, should he? He turned back to the knee.
“Master?” The boy’s voice was tentative. “I did not mean to be so disrespectful. I guess my mind thought I was still playing with Nibbi . . . silly of me.”
Qui-Gon looked up again, in surprise this time. “Padawan, we were teasing. I teased you back. You were not disrespectful. I think I startled you, though, and for that I apologize. It was not my intent to frighten you. I don’t want you to be afraid of me.”
“Oh.” Again the boy stared at his knee as if fascinated. “I’m not afraid of you, Master. You just . . . surprised me. Turning toward me like that. Jedi reflexes. And I know you’re a lot stronger than I am.”
For the second time that evening, Qui-Gon felt regret. He had enjoyed that playful interlude, as brief as it had been. Now the quiet, troubled Obi-Wan was back, and Qui-Gon had made it happen, as much as he hadn’t meant to.
“There,” the older Jedi said with satisfaction, as he felt the swelling in the knee subside. “You should be able to stand now.” He helped the boy to his feet, steadying him, watching carefully for any signs of distress. “Can you walk? I will carry you, if need be. I’m certainly strong enough for that.”
He tried a joking smile, wanting to recapture that cheery mood of a few moments ago, but Obi-Wan only shook his head quickly, eyes wide. “No, you don’t have to! I’m fine.” He took a few steps forward in proof, showing only a slight hint of a limp, and turned back to look at his Master. “See? I’m all right. Truly.”
Qui-Gon acquiesced, but kept a scrupulous eye on the Padawan for the remainder of the walk. He should have noticed the boy’s limp the moment they left the café, but had been lost in his own mind, which was very unlike him. Wasn’t he always admonishing his student to focus on the here and now?
It troubled him deeply to think that perhaps that image of Obi-Wan as a neglected street child bore some truth in it. Had he been negligent with this precious life, even in the most trivial way? Obi-Wan deserved better.
Qui-Gon did not like this feeling at all. He would do his best to ensure that it never had a basis in reality.
Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 8: Alleviation
Once again Qui-Gon was tending his exhausted Padawan’s bruises before sending him off to bed. He hoped this wasn’t going to become a habit. He didn’t know how much of this he could take.
“Nibbi’s a sweet little boy, isn’t he?” Obi-Wan remarked suddenly.
Qui-Gon glanced up from the Padawan’s knee, his eyes trailing slowly over Obi-Wan’s bruised and torn knuckles laying limp in his lap. He remembered Nibbi’s wide dark eyes, sad and hopeful and amazed, the tender, hesitant way he had brushed his little fingers over those bruises.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “I can see why you want to help him so much.”
He looked back at the knee, probing it with the Force. A few ligaments had been strained, and all the walking afterward had not helped. He should have insisted that the boy allow himself to be carried. Qui-Gon might not be able to ease it enough with the Force—perhaps they should visit a real Healer, or whatever Sylelius had that passed for one.
Obi-Wan, sitting sideways on the couch with his leg stretched out for the Master’s inspection, shifted against the cushions, then stilled his fidgeting with a frown. “It isn’t right,” he blurted. He blushed at Qui-Gon’s curious stare. “Nibbi, I mean. Why would anyone want to hurt him? I don’t understand.”
Qui-Gon ran his fingers gently over the injured knee, watching Obi-Wan’s face. The boy didn’t quite wince, but the shadows in his eyes deepened almost imperceptibly, and his mouth twisted in chagrin when the Master withdrew.
“Sometimes it is better that we do not understand,” Qui-Gon murmured. “You do not want to be intimately acquainted with hatred, fear, indifference or wanton destructiveness, and that is what you would need in order to comprehend such darkness.”
“You’re right, Master,” Obi-Wan said soberly. “I don’t want to understand that.”
Qui-Gon studied his face, again displeased by those persistent shadows. The boy should not be this utterly exhausted. Was he coming down with something? Qui-Gon did not detect anything, and the Force whispered no warning of physical danger, no matter how he strained his ears to listen.
Well, if he couldn’t heal the knee completely, he could at least do something about that new scrape beneath the un-blackened eye, red and swollen, from the street youth’s extended fingernails grazing by. But when he reached out to touch his cheek, Obi-Wan shied away. Qui-Gon looked at him in puzzlement, and the boy shook his head with a rueful smile.
“No, Master. You’d better not heal that one. People on Onorda Street will find it awfully strange that a street kid’s bruises disappeared overnight. Can’t have even more people realizing that we’re Jedi. Same with my knuckles.”
Qui-Gon dropped his hand with an annoyed sigh. He should have realized that. He was letting his concentration slip—disliking his Padawan’s battered appearance and wanting to fix it without giving a thought to the consequences. “Yes,” he grumbled, pushing that away. “And the names ‘Quig’ and ‘Obi’ will never be connected with Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the first Jedi to visit Sylelius in the better part of a century.”
Obi-Wan grinned. “Why, Master! I didn’t know you concealed such depths of sarcasm! “
Qui-Gon gave him a mock-glare, glad that the teasing was back. The boy was very resilient, obviously. It would be a pleasure to explore this new facet of their relationship—he looked forward to it already.
The Padawan sobered suddenly. “Most people see what they expect to see,” he said softly. “On Onorda Street, they see two wanderers, down on their luck. In the President’s chambers, they see two noble Jedi. But almost no one sees two names, two people, individuals with their own lives.”
“That’s true, Obi-Wan.” Qui-Gon recognized ancient Jedi wisdom, but was impressed by Obi-Wan’s ability to apply it to their unique situation. Again the Padawan was teaching the Master. “Well, may I at least tend your knee? Since apparently you are the one giving the orders now.”
“Oh, please, yes,” Obi-Wan said fervently.
Qui-Gon smiled and turned his attention back to the bruised kneecap and swollen tissue surrounding it. Obi-Wan bore it stoically. He truly was a very brave young boy. Every moment Qui-Gon spent with him just cemented that fact more.
“Did you notice President Hindegar’s daughter at the luncheon today?” Obi-Wan asked.
“I did,” Qui-Gon said gravely, and flashed his Padawan a smile. “And she noticed that you noticed her.”
Obi-Wan frowned. “She thinks I’m infatuated with her. I’m not. I’m worried about her. Master—something’s wrong. Did you sense it?”
“She is grieving for her mother, Padawan.”
Brief silence. “Do you think it’s more than that, Obi-Wan? Don’t be afraid to question me, at least not in private.”
Obi-Wan sighed. “I think it’s more than that, Master. But I don’t know what it is. Will we see her again?”
“At the candle ceremony tomorrow night, I believe. Other than that, I’m not sure.”
Again silence fell. Qui-Gon felt quite comfortable with it, but it occurred to him, belatedly, that Obi-Wan might not feel the same. Perhaps that was why he kept making these abrupt comments, his voice young and uncertain, as if he wasn’t sure he ought to be the one starting the conversation. Now, as the quiet stretched, as comfortably as blanket in Qui-Gon’s perception, the boy began to make small, fidgeting movements, halted before they became obvious enough to disturb Qui-Gon’s work. Finally he laid his head sideways against the back of the couch with a sigh that was little more than a breath of air, and closed his eyes.
Qui-Gon watched the boy’s face, young and freshly-bruised, the half-lidded eyes concealing that blue-green sparkle. Again the little frown made itself known between the Master’s eyes, almost familiar, as it kept returning every time he took a moment to consider his apprentice. Perhaps now would be a good time to ask what had been disturbing the boy’s thoughts lately, as he sat here open and vulnerable, hovering on the edge of sleep.
“Padawan,” he said softly, continuing to pour light into the injured knee, feeling the swelling dissipate, the strained ligaments strengthen. “Is something bothering you?”
Dreamily the boy nodded as his eyes slipped fully shut, then opened partially, then began to droop again. He was halfway along the long, slow slide to slumber already. The hand laid loosely in his lap curled into a gentle fist, then opened again.
The knee was as whole as Qui-Gon could make it. He covered it warmly with his hand, applying the lightest pressure, just to let the boy know he was there. “What is it, my Padawan? What has been troubling you so?”
Obi-Wan rubbed his face sleepily against the couch cushion, as a felicat would rub its head against a friendly palm, then stilled, slumping bonelessly. “Did . . . did I fight very badly, Master?” His voice seemed to echo from a distant plain, soft and sad.
Qui-Gon reflexively tightened his grip slightly, then refrained himself. “What . . . what would make you think that, Padawan?” he asked, voice suddenly strained.
“Well, you didn’t say anything . . . I thought, I thought perhaps you were disappointed. Maybe you thought I was fighting in anger . . . you were always concerned about my anger. I didn’t, Master. I didn’t fight in anger.”
“I know you didn’t,” Qui-Gon said softly. “I felt your desire to protect and help. Anger did not touch you.”
Obi-Wan’s hand gripped the fabric of his tunic sleeve. His body tensed slightly, though his eyes remained nearly shut, his voice soft and dreamy. “I did not want to hurt him. I had to. I fought so they would let Nibbi be. I had to hurt him to make that happen. I didn’t want to.” He shuddered, drawing in a deep breath.
“I know. I know, Padawan. You fought very well. You are a very skilled fighter, Obi-Wan, and you fought for the right reasons. I was not disappointed. Quite the opposite—I was most impressed.”
Oh, the boy sounded so very young and hopeful. It ignited an ache in Qui-Gon’s chest, strange and sweet and sad. He fought it away with a shake of his head, giving the knee a gentle squeeze. “Truly, Obi-Wan. Truly. Now let go, young one. I know you’re tired.”
Obi-Wan relaxed, his hand falling away from his tunic sleeve, his mind falling away into peaceful darkness. Qui-Gon knelt there for a moment, just staring at his sleeping apprentice. Apparently he had been neglecting the boy, however unwittingly. He had forgotten what it was to have a youngster in his care—he’d been treating Obi-Wan as a miniature adult, not the growing, sometimes-uncertain young boy he was.
The knee was almost fully healed, but Obi-Wan would have to take it easy for a few days. Qui-Gon knew the boy would not like that. But right now, he was dead to the world.
He gently drew the sleeping boy into his arms and carried him to his room.
Nilla had been adjusting the new painting on the lounge wall, recently donated by friends of the clinic. She whirled, her mouth dropping open. “Obi! I’m so glad you came back!”
She crossed to his side in three quick strides, already reaching out to take his chin in gentle fingers, turning his head to examine the new bruises. He could see her jaw tightening in anger, and did his best to head it off.
“Nilla, it was a fight. Honest. I know it looks bad, but it isn’t really. I won.”
She released him and took a step back, her hands knotting into fists to rest on her hips, lips still tight. “Obi, you don’t have to lie. Did we not convince you of that yesterday? This is a safe place.”
“I know. Look, Nilla. Defensive wounds.” He lifted his hands and showed her the backs, the knuckles purple and red with the use he’d put them to. “I’m sure you’ve had the training to recognize these, as well as to recognize the difference between accidental and intentional bruising. No one is abusing me. I got in a fight with Tronak.”
Nilla recognized the name. She let her hands fall from her hips. “You beat that bully in a fight? Obi, that behemoth is at least fifty pounds heavier and a foot taller than you!”
“Oh, believe me, I know.” The young mouth twitched in a wry grin. “I felt every gram of that extra weight driving down on me. But I still won. You can ask anyone who was there yesterday, and they’ll tell you.”
She considered this, the flesh beside her eyes wrinkling in doubt. Then her gaze sharpened accusingly. “And what on earth possessed you to get into a fight like that, young man? What possible reason could justify that?”
“The same one that leads me to come here and volunteer my time. Listen, Nilla, I have a little problem, and his name is Nibbi. And I have a plan . . . .”
Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 9: Preparation
Qui-Gon had excused his Padawan from the morning meetings to let him catch up a bit on his studies and katas . . . and to avoid Ambassador Grenik seeing his new bruises. The Jedi Master felt a taut little smile rise as he remembered the ambassador’s just-short-of-hysterical reaction when the Padawan appeared that first day with a faint-but-large bruise. Fortunately, most of the Sylelians had seemed to accept the Jedi’s attempt to pass it off as a training mishap. President Hindegar had simply grinned broadly and quoted some local saying about boys being boys. But a couple of the councilors had definitely looked at the Master a bit askance, and he had suspected that they were thinking the same as Obi-Wan said his friend at the clinic would.
No, far better to avoid another scene like that. They would finish their observation on Onorda Street today, then heal those bruises and go somewhere else. Qui-Gon lifted his chin, casting his senses out as he entered the park. There, on some play equipment—his Padawan twisted and swung, laughing, using the Force to push his little friend farther and faster. Nibbi’s giggles rang high and loud, above the laughter of the other children.
By the Force, they were beautiful.
Obi-Wan sensed his approach and reluctantly let the swinging, twisting apparatus glide to a halt, slowing it telekinetically. Blue-green eyes were a bit dazed—Qui-Gon hoped the thing didn’t induce nausea. Nibbi seemed all right, still giggling quietly, dark eyes sparkling. But the Jedi Master was well-aware of how susceptible his apprentice was to anything that had the remotest possibility of causing queasiness. The boy even got motion-sick in hyperspace, sometimes.
“Hi, Quig,” Nibbi said, a little sadly. “Is it time to go already?”
“Not quite,” Qui-Gon said gently. “I thought I’d join you for a bit, if that’s all right?”
Obi-Wan gaped at him, completely blown away. Nothing they had done in the past six months had prepared him for this. “You . . . you want to . . . play with us?”
“I would indeed, if you have no objections.”
Nibbi bounced excitedly in his seat. “Yeah! Wow, Quig, you’re the bestest uncle I ever met!”
“Thank you, little one.” Qui-Gon grinned, but looked to his apprentice. “And do you object?”
Obi-Wan still looked dazed, and the Master supposed he had a right. He’d just tossed the boy for a ride far more unexpected and dizzying than anything legal play equipment could provide. “No, M-my uncle. Wh-what would you like to do?”
Qui-Gon passed a critical glance over the park. Letting a smile spread across his face like widening morning sunshine, he pointed toward the simple obstacle course a dozen meters off. “Think you can beat me getting through that?”
It wasn’t quite fair, pitting a Jedi Master against a Padawan and a non-sensitive child, so Qui-Gon and Nibbi teamed up. Something new—but familiar in a lost-and-found sense—bubbled in Qui-Gon as he ran through the course, boosting Nibbi over the low wall, dancing through the foot-entangling part with the child on his shoulders, crawling under and around the soft wires, gently swinging Nibbi on the thick rope he was too tall to use. It took him some time to identify the strange sensation. Joy.
Obi-Wan won, leaping off the twisting balance beam with an entirely unnecessary but very lovely Force-enhanced flip, but it was a near thing. And then the three collapsed in the grass, laughing, mimicking each other’s humorous movements and sounds during the race in gestures and ridiculous faces. Qui-Gon leaned on his elbows—grinning, pushing long sweaty hair out of his face, and most definitely not panting, because no Jedi Master would be put out of breath by such a simple exercise. He was part of the childish fun this time instead of observing it from the outside, and he felt young for the first time in many, many years.
Too soon, he had to spoil it all. “You know, Nibbi,” he began cautiously, gently, “Obi and I are almost finished with our business on Onorda Street now.”
The child’s face fell immediately, as he had known it would. “You mean . . . you mean you won’t be comin’ back after today?”
“Actually,” Obi-Wan said with exaggerated casualness, drawing a sharp glance from his master, “I will be coming back every day, but only for an hour, and I’ll be busy during that time.”
Qui-Gon did not remember discussing this with his Padawan. Yes, he had told the boy that they would make time for him to visit with Nibbi, but they had not worked out the particulars yet. He would not be able to condone anything that would interfere with their mission. Obi-Wan’s eyes begged him to be silent, to agree with this plan, whatever it was. Qui-Gon nodded almost imperceptibly, and let the apprentice take the lead in this matter. The boy had shown astonishing initiative and insight over the past few days—perhaps whatever he was plotting would be the best route.
“Busy?” Nibbi asked.
Obi-Wan nodded. “You remember that nice lady I told you about, Nilla? I’m going to be helping her at the clinic. Just spending time with the little ones there, mostly—Nilla said they needed someone to read them stories and play with them while their parents are getting treatment. You’d be welcome to visit with me there, though—then I could play with you, too.”
Qui-Gon fought the grin that wanted to spread across his face as he understood the Padawan’s plan. Nibbi wanted to be with Obi-Wan, but was terrified of the clinic. In this gently manipulative way, Obi-Wan was attempting to use the hero-worship Qui-Gon had almost disdained to overcome the child’s fear.
It might backfire. If Nibbi’s trust in Obi-Wan was not strong enough to over-ride his terror . . .
The Padawan saw his little friend’s hesitation. “You don’t have to stay there,” he said quickly. “They never make anyone stay. I’ll walk in with you, if you want, and I won’t leave you alone, and we’ll leave together. I promise, no one will make you do anything you don’t want to. You don’t even have to tell them your name.”
Still the little boy was silent, hugging his knees to his chest, his face a silent agony of indecision.
“I’d really love to see you,” Obi-Wan said softly. “Uncle Quig and I will be leaving in a week and a half, and we’ll be busy until then. This is the only time I have to spare.”
At last Nibbi nodded. “All . . . all right. I’ll, I’ll try it.” His eyes sharpened as he stared at the young Jedi. “Keep your promises.”
Obi-Wan grinned, and his joy flooded the Force around them so powerfully that Qui-Gon was almost dizzied by it. “I will! You know me, Nibbi. I’d never break a promise.”
The child nodded slightly, his eyes on his fingers nervously pulling at the grass. “I know. I know you wouldn’t.”
The Jedi decided to finish their observations among the vendors on this block. Nibbi tagged along, a constant shadow at Obi-Wan’s left side, sometimes attaching himself to the young Jedi’s sleeve with a white-knuckled grip for a few paces if someone or something unsettled him. Qui-Gon understood—the little boy was used to hiding, keeping to the walls, avoiding sentients who meant him harm. Walking in the open like this took extraordinary courage, for a seven-year-old street child.
He could see that Obi-Wan understood as well. The Padawan did not try to push Nibbi away or draw attention to these subtle signs of fear, merely laid his hand on the boy’s forearm when he grabbed for him. Qui-Gon took a moment to let pride fill him—his apprentice was such a wise young one, and with marvelous depths of compassion the Master had never noticed before in their unintentional griefs and brutal misunderstandings. He felt the pride fully, let it buoy him for a moment, then released it with a brief, regretful sigh.
They spoke to a flower seller, the strong scents of slightly wilted Alderaanian roses and Mimosan violets filling their nostrils. She had no opinion either way about the Republic. A butcher with a small shop on the corner was vitriolic in his railings against the Sylelian government, causing Nibbi to press against his young protector’s side, but knew nothing about the Republic and seemed to feel that any change was for the better. Their next stop was a roasted velinut cart, and the Sullustan who manned it was enthusiastic about Sylelius joining the Republic.
All in all, the people seemed ambivalent or cautiously optimistic about the coming change. This bode well for their mission, if even the inhabitants of the roughest neighborhoods on the planet felt this well about the Republic. Qui-Gon was pleased, though he did not allow himself to believe that all obstacles were now surpassed.
As they began to exit the small marketplace, one last vendor caught Obi-Wan’s attention, crying his wares. It was a cart selling last-minute candles for the ceremony this evening. “Honor your lost ones! All colors and accessories! Only a few hours left to make your purchase!”
Obi-Wan looked to his master for permission, and Qui-Gon nodded. The Padawan stepped closer to the cart full of candles and plastiglass globes, Nibbi’s hand tucked in his. “Would you explain this to me?” the boy asked softly. “I am a newcomer here.”
To Qui-Gon’s pleasant surprise, the vendor immediately dropped all the crassness of commercialism, looking at the thirteen-year-old with compassion. “You are grieving a loss, young one?” he asked with the same softness.
Obi-Wan hesitated, then nodded, swallowing hard. His eyes were suddenly too bright, the angle of the late afternoon sun striking them too harshly. Qui-Gon’s heart clenched. He had forgotten. How could he have forgotten? Obi-Wan had said nothing, but the man knew that not all the wounds of the events of past months had healed. Some, perhaps, would never heal.
The vendor lifted one of the transparent globes, explaining how it was actually two spheres, lubricated between so that the inner one would remain upright with the weight of the candle fixed to the bottom, even as the waves tossed it, which would allow the flame to burn longer. Small, optional capsules held time-release oxygen, also prolonging the candle’s life, as the globe would be sealed. The globes came in a variety of colors, a translucent rainbow, and some had recesses for a small hologram or memento. Mourners could buy plain candles, or ones that burned with colorful flames, or even spat sparks, if the spirit of the lost one was especially fiery or fun-loving.
The boy turned beseeching eyes to his mentor. “Master, may I?”
Qui-Gon did not correct the honorific. They were leaving this area anyway. And he could not deny that sorrowful plea. “How much for a globe and candle?” he asked the vendor.
“Two, please, Master.”
He looked back to the boy, surprised. “For Cerasi?”
Obi-Wan nodded. “And for Bruck.”
Ah. No, Qui-Gon could not deny this wish to honor the dead. “Two,” he said to the vendor.
Obi-Wan chose a green globe, and a clear one, and two plain candles.
Before they left Nibbi to his box, the little one wrapped himself around Obi-Wan’s waist in a fierce, empathetic hug. “I’m sorry,” he murmured against the Padawan’s chest. “I know it hurts.”
Obi-Wan simply hugged him back, at a loss for words.
Candles Against the Sea
Chapter 10: Illumination
At sunset, a flotilla of barges pulled out into the calm sea, which, shifting in gentle swells of indigo, reflected red-gold crescents from the sinking sun. The sky was smeared with deep green above the burgeoning redness, clear and thick like opaque azhali balm, healing but suffocating, determined to bury the stars that struggled to shine through despite all efforts to hide them. No candles would be released until the last sliver of the sun vanished beneath the rim of the world.
The Jedi were honored guests aboard the Presidential barge, but in this ceremony they were not the center of attention, and nothing was expected of them. This event was for the lost, and those left behind. Silence reigned, only the gentle slap of the ocean against the wooden sides of the barges loud enough to be heard, steady and solemn as the rhythm of a dirge.
Qui-Gon kept his eyes on the western sky, very careful not to spy on his apprentice, who was attempting, very cautiously, to make an opening with Amora Hindegar. It was obvious that the girl was having none of it. And truly, Obi-Wan might have a chosen a better time. The girl was deep in grief, and every moment only seemed to widen the rift between not only the two young people, but also between Amora and rest of the world. She was losing herself in a whirlpool of dark emotions, the Jedi Master sensed. Obi-Wan was right—something had to be done.
At last Obi-Wan surrendered, his shoulders slumping as he stood by the railing a few paces to Qui-Gon’s right, his gaze dropping to the darkening waves. Amora stood straight, brittle, head and shoulders taller than the young Padawan. Her gaze was empty and broken, fixed on the dying sun. A few more moments of heavy silence, and the last corner of the sun disappeared, though the entrails of its bloody death still stained the sky in fading red.
Immediately Qui-Gon saw the pinprick flickers of yellow flame on some of the surrounding barges, though most mourners were choosing to wait until the night deepened. Rothis Hindegar stepped forward and wrapped an arm around his daughter’s shoulders, and she leaned her head on his arm as he murmured to her. Obi-Wan stepped away, giving them space, and joined his Master in gazing at the first candles beginning to bob on the billowing waves.
Qui-Gon looked down at the blue-green eyes almost lost in the twilight, seeing the grief rise to the surface for the first time since they had left Melida/Daan. The boy had buried it deep—too deep. They had never worked through it, too busy bolstering their own shattered relationship. Qui-Gon had not given thought to what his Padawan had lost, what he would need to recover from it, and he regretted that oversight. Now that they were on a firm footing, their bond healed and vibrant and shining brightly between them, it was time to look back with clear eyes and remember what had been forgotten.
“Whenever you’re ready, my Padawan,” he said gently. “This is your time. Did Ambassador Grenik tell you about the traditions?”
Obi-Wan nodded. “I asked him to explain them twice. I wouldn’t want to misuse them . . . don’t want to offend their heritage.”
Impulsively, Qui-Gon laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “Not what I meant. I know you would never intrude on a culture or twist a rite. I just wondered if you knew that this is meant to be a time of freedom for mourners. Don’t think you must follow any set pattern, but take what seems good from the traditions. Do what feels right to you. Every grief is different, and heals in its own time. The Release of Candles is meant to help that process along, not force a false expression of ritualistic reverence for death.”
“Oh.” Obi-Wan nodded thoughtfully. “I think I will wait until it is fully dark then, Master. And . . . and I will say a few words. But I won’t describe memories, or pray, or sing their favorite songs.” He chuckled, very faintly and sadly. “I don’t think I can, in any case.”
Qui-Gon nodded. “Would you like to release them alone?”
Obi-Wan raised a hand to touch the large one that still rested on his shoulder. “No. No, I want you to be near.” He looked up hesitantly. “Unless, unless you’d rather . . .?”
“It’s all right, Padawan.” Qui-Gon gave him a smile, as soft and gentle as he could make it. “I’m glad—honored—that you want me near.”
Obi-Wan smiled back, a little wanly, and slowly sank down to sit on the wooden deck in a classic meditation pose, feet tucked under knees, back straight, eyes closed, hands laid loosely in his lap. Qui-Gon pondered for a moment, then chose to sit next to him. He watched the candles multiply on the waves, seeming to brighten as time quietly passed, brushing by like feathered wings softly parting the night. He knew it was not the flames that burned more brightly, but the darkness that grew more complete with the fading of the day, yet the illusion was welcome.
Rothis and Amora released their candle, and the elder Jedi heard the Sylelian girl softly singing a lullaby, her voice cracking at times, the melody sweet and soothing in a melancholy way. The President talked quietly, his voice pattering a continuous reminiscence of his lost wife's likes and dislikes, the way she made vuerma tart so sweet and light that it melted on the tongue, her reluctance to rise in the morning and her sleepy beauty when at last she opened her eyes. He laughed softly at times, at others seemed just short of sobbing. After a time Amora stopped singing and simply leaned against him, listening.
When the last shreds of sunlight bled from the sky, leaving only star-scattered blackness, Obi-Wan opened his eyes, surfacing from the light meditation with a long, nearly-silent sigh. He drew the two globes and candles from the folds of his tunic and assembled them, setting the candles in their holders through the small, sliding gaps in the outer spheres, pinching the oxygen capsules to set the time-release. After a moment of consideration he set the clear globe in his lap and lifted the green one to his face. So many candles floated in the waves all about that there was enough light to see, albeit it dimly, all edges and colors made soft and gray by the warm, multicolored light.
“Cerasi,” the boy murmured. He took the tiny laser torch from his utility belt and lit the candle, then sealed the globe. Still he sat looking at it for a moment longer.
“I remember you, Cerasi. I remember how surprised I was the first time I saw you. A young person, my age, not a Jedi, but your passion for your cause burned as brightly as mine. You were willing to give your life for peace. You did give your life for peace. The world around you was so dark, Cerasi, so broken, but that just made your spirit stand out the more clearly. You . . . won me over. I thought nothing would ever sway me from my path as a Jedi, but you . . . you had that power. Regardless of my faults, my ignorance and stupidity and disloyalty, and what that did to me, I cannot blame you for that. I can only admire all that you accomplished.”
He pulled in a deep breath, running his fingers over the green globe as it warmed in his grasp. “They say green is the color of new birth. And it’s the color of your eyes. It is because of you, Cerasi, that Melida/Daan is reborn, on the path to healing. More than what I or Nield or anyone else did, it was what you said and felt and did. I wish I had done more to help you. I wish . . . I wonder what the galaxy would have been like if you had become an adult, and perhaps turned that passion to heal a broken universe as you healed a broken world. I truly believe you might have been able to do it. But even so, you did so much. I wish you could see it. Perhaps you can.”
Obi-Wan leaned forward and reached through the wide gaps in the railing, gently setting the globe on the wave that seemed to surge upward to accept it from his shaking fingers. “We don’t need luck, Cerasi,” he whispered. “Be at peace.”
For a moment he just sat, resting his forehead against the rail, gazing vacantly at the globes that drifted by. Each was unique: engraved with small images, glowing with colored lights, sputtering with sparks that managed to be serenely solemn in their playfulness. Slowly, Obi-Wan lifted the clear globe from his lap. With deliberate movements he lit the candle and sealed the sphere, and then he simply sat, staring at the white glow of the flame, bright and pure.
Qui-Gon did not move, did not speak, even as time trickled slowly by and the boy continued to stare. He knew this was hard. He was amazed by the apprentice’s forgiveness, and eloquence, the peace that radiated from him even as tears tracked down his cheeks. This was Obi-Wan’s time, and he was using it very well.
At last the youngster began to speak, slowly and haltingly. “This is . . . more difficult than I expected. Bruck. I . . . I remember you. But now I must . . . I must choose how to remember you. And I choose . . . I choose to remember you as a Jedi.”
He paused for a moment, overcome, and then his voice strengthened, almost rang with clarity and power, though he still spoke quietly and reverently. “I remember you, Bruck, a Jedi Initiate a few months younger than me. You wanted to be a Jedi so badly. You fought hard. You trained hard. You were passionate in your desires, so passionate that . . . but I will not remember that. I will remember the Light, and . . . and I will honor it. You were filled with Light, once, and it burned brightly in you. That’s why I chose a clear globe, so that there would be nothing to cloud the flame. I wish I had done more to help you. It doesn’t matter what else was in you, not anymore. I choose to remember the Light.”
Slowly he leaned forward, shaking harder than he had with the last one, and almost had to lower his arm to the shoulder to set the globe in the water. “Be at peace, Bruck.”
He sat back with a weary sigh, hugging himself and shivering slightly. Qui-Gon saw the fatigue lacing the young features and could not blame him. That must have been exhausting.
The Master tilted his head back toward the benches that lined the cabin of the barge. “Why don’t you go sit down, Padawan?” he suggested kindly. “Watch the candles floating in the sea. I think you will find the sight soothing.”
Obi-Wan nodded and rose, a bit stiffly. He kept his eyes on the sea as he wandered back to the bench and sank down, slumping bonelessly. A stringed instrument began to play on one of the nearby barges, signaling that it was an hour into the ceremony. Now the Sylelians would honor their dead with music, as well as with candles and words of remembrance. It was a sweet tune, sad and lonely. Soon other instruments joined it, swelling in an outpouring of sorrow that filled Qui-Gon’s spirit with light even as it reminded him of the darkness.
Still he sat by the railing, looking out at the waves. After a time, he sensed his Padawan’s attention wandering, fading in and out. All to the good. The boy deserved a rest.
Qui-Gon hesitated a moment longer, then drew the ice-blue globe from his tunic and stared at it in contemplation. He had bought it on impulse the other day, while Obi-Wan spent time with Nibbi. It had struck him as an odd thing to do, and he had not allowed himself to understand why he was doing it, what it represented. Now he had to decide whether to release it, or simply hold on to the candle as a symbol of a grief he could not yet acknowledge, much less heal from.
Obi-Wan’s words had struck a chord in his spirit, he realized with a slight shock. They rang still, echoing and rebounding, whispering encouragement.. Clutching it to his chest would do no one any good, and would only harm the relationship that Qui-Gon was beginning to realize was the most important in his life, the most precious, the most valuable.
This ice-blue globe was the past. The boy sitting on the bench behind him, half-aware, drooping now as sleep descended, was the future, his legacy, his message to the generations to come. There was no better time than this very moment to release this small, lone candle and all that it meant.
With great care Qui-Gon set the candle in the holder, lit it, pinched the capsule, and sealed the globe. He gazed for a moment longer at the bright little flame that bathed his face in azure radiation, but he already knew what he needed to say. Obi-Wan had shown him the way.
“Xanatos. I remember you, Xanatos. And I will choose, in this moment and ever after, to remember you as a Jedi. The Light burned brightly in you, my Padawan. You would have been a great Knight. I wish I had done more to help you. There are many regrets, many things I could say, but I choose to leave those be. I remember and honor the Light in you, and only the Light. Be at peace, my Padawan, my son.”
Tenderly, he gave the candle to the ocean. Then he settled into a meditative pose, gazing over the water, listening to the slow dirge, the gentle rhythm of the clashing waves. He watched the candles shining against the sea.
Main Random Scribblings Fanfiction Star Wars Fanfiction Blog