Qui-Gon jerked awake. Force, he had not meant to drift off again. He sat up, realized immediately his apprentice was not sitting beside him. He cast his eyes around the darkened cell and saw Obi-Wan at the door, peering between the bars of the tiny window.
“Master, I think I see them again.”
The older Jedi sighed and unfolded himself with a guttural curse. He was old to be captured. Not just because he should know better, but because it was so uncomfortable. He rose gracelessly and crossed the cramped space. “Do you?” He asked Obi-Wan softly. The sallow light from the hall limned his Padawan’s face. Qui-Gon grazed the stubble-covered chin with a thumb tip, then looked out the window. “Ah, but I don’t see any at all.”
Obi-Wan frowned. “Forgive me, Master, but how can you not? They’re covering the walls.”
The concern that needled the back of Qui-Gon’s neck felt little different than a real firebeetle’s sting. “Remember what we discussed, Padawan? Your senses are not trustworthy at the moment.”
Obi-Wan continued scanning the empty corridor, scratching absently at his wrist. “You have told me to trust my senses since I was twelve years old. Suddenly I should...should…” He shook his head, as if to clear it, and turned to Qui-Gon. “There are too many of them. They’ll devour us if they get through the door.”
Qui-Gon squeezed his shoulder. “They won’t get through, Obi-Wan. I promise you.”
Obi-Wan was trying to focus on him, but his grey, dilated eyes strayed, following some unseen distraction. Perhaps a firebeetle. Yesterday it had been a gundark, growling on the other side of the door. “You should let them eat me first. It will give you time to escape, warn the Council about the outbreak.”
Qui-Gon’s gut twisted at the earnest tone. He smiled, ran his fingers down Obi-Wan’s wilted Learner’s braid. “That would make me a sorry excuse for a Master, wouldn’t it? I think the first line of my oath said something about not allowing you to be eaten.”
Usually such a comment would be met with a smile, or a wry comeback, but Obi-Wan just compressed his mouth and glanced out the window again. He raked his nails over his wrist.
Qui-Gon winced, gently laying his hand over Obi-Wan’s palm, stilling the frantic scratching. “No more of that.”
“It’s still itchy from the last time.”
“It’s been itchy for six years?”
Obi-Wan huffed. “I think the smallest ones, the infants, have found their way inside here. I am not imagining the itch. It’s terrible.”
“I’m sure it is,” Qui-Gon conceded. “I think it would be wise to stay away from the door then.”
“I agree. We shouldn’t make it easy for them.” Obi-Wan said, following Qui-Gon back to the opposite corner of the cell. He sat and drew his knees up to his chest, cowl tucked around his face.
Qui-Gon was accustomed to the cold duracrete floor by now, but his bones still whined as he hunkered down and settled into meditation position. He leaned his head back against the wall, closed his eyes, breathed in the stale cell air slowly. Without looking, he rested his hand on Obi-Wan’s leg. “Together.”
He felt fingers wrap around his. Warmth bled into his anxious heart. They had been through worse. He knew, because Obi-Wan had hallucinated half of those harsh memories since their imprisonment. It was becoming more difficult to convince his Padawan that they were in a cell on Zaria, and not Tanaab, or Telos IV, or New Apsolon, or…
“Do you hear them?” Obi-Wan whispered.
Qui-Gon smiled in spite of himself. Even with several drugs in his system, half-starved and sleep deprived, Obi-Wan sounded like a member of the Coruscanti upper crust. “I don’t hear anything.”
“Count yourself lucky then, Master. They’re...skittering.” Obi-Wan shivered.
Qui-Gon drew an arm around taut shoulders and rested his chin on the top of Obi-Wan’s head. He did hear something. Footsteps, in the distance.
Would they come this way?
Would they take Obi-Wan again?
He pulled Obi-Wan closer against him. He could feel the too-quick pulse, smell the sweat on fevered skin. Obi-Wan shifted, pulling away enough to scratch at the crux of his left arm.
“It won’t heal if you do that,” Qui-Gon admonished.
Obi-Wan rolled up his sleeve. “They don’t heal. They multiply. This one wasn’t here before.”
Qui-Gon swept his fingers along the needle marks. Too many. Their captors were getting impatient. “We need to redirect our focus. That will help with the itching.”
“We should redirect our focus from the imminent threat of deadly invaders?” Obi-Wan sounded so skeptical, so flabbergasted. The long-suffering student of a renegade teacher. He crossed his arms. “I know it’s not my place, Master, but that seems rather...unwise.”
Qui-Gon could not suppress a small chuckle. “You make a compelling point, young one, but if we were to meditate, and stay very still, perhaps they would not sense us, and redirect their focus.”
Obi-Wan mulled it over. “The problem is I cannot meditate. Or seem to stay still.”
Qui-Gon pat his arm. “I know,” he murmured, “And that isn’t your fault.” It was Qui-Gon’s fault, because he would not surrender, would not end his Padawan’s slow torture. Any Jedi would make the same decision, bound by duty and the Code, which was not at all comforting, just now. “There are Force dampeners of some kind surrounding us. I cannot meditate very well either.” He was able to touch the Force, but it felt distant, muddled.
He could only imagine how it felt for Obi-Wan.
“The blasted things are crawling around in my head,” Obi-Wan said, in his annoyed, matter-of-fact way. “It’s unpleasant.” A heavy pause, then, “I’m sorry, Master. I know my discomfort is nothing compared to the pain Master Tahl must be enduring.”
Qui-Gon rubbed a hand over his eyes. Damn it. Tanaab and New Apsolon. “Tahl is not in any pain, Padawan. I promise you.” A bittersweet ache spread through his chest. How he wished she was here. Clever Tahl. She would have found a way out, spared Obi-Wan this bewildering retread through the past. “Do not hide anything you might be feeling. It is important that I know.”
Because he didn’t> know which drugs were coursing through Obi-Wan’s overworked system, let alone what their effects might be.
“Yes, Master. How are you feeling?”
The ache seeped deeper. He was reminded, again, that he did not deserve what the Force had given him, when it granted him Obi-Wan as an apprentice. “I feel fine, Obi-Wan. Thank you.”
Obi-Wan gazed at him through the night’s shadows. “Should it not be equally important that you tell me the truth? We’re in this together, as you say.”
Qui-Gon smiled. “In this and all things, my apprentice.” He smoothed the dirty, unkempt hair. “Truth be told, I am tired, hungry, sore...and very worried about you.” The last confession was a low rasp. He cleared his throat and sat straighter. We have been through worse. We will endure.
Obi-Wan grasped his hand. His glassy eyes shone with conviction. “You mustn’t worry about me, Qui-Gon. When the time comes, and they get through the door, I must be the sacrifice. You must save yourself.”
That was the core of Obi-Wan, unchanged since he tried to sacrifice himself for Qui-Gon on Bandomeer, all those years ago. It was a trait that Qui-Gon both admired and hated. “Very brave, but unnecessary, my friend. The Force finds a way.”
And I would die beside you before I ever let you die for me.
“Perhaps I am the way,” Obi-Wan said, then shuddered, scratching at his knees, ankles. “It might not matter. They’ll eat me from the inside out first.”
Qui-Gon straightened his legs out in front of him. “Here,” he murmured, guiding Obi-Wan to lay his head in Qui-Gon’s lap. He curled one hand along Obi-Wan’s jaw, slid the other beneath the rumpled tunics and scratched his back slowly, rhythmically. Clammy sweat slicked his spine. “I can sense them retreating.”
Obi-Wan twitched. “I believe they’ve laid eggs.”
“No, no…” Qui-Gon massaged Obi-Wan’s scalp. The tie for his ponytail had been pulled out and lost during a vivid episode involving Phindar. “They could not lay eggs in that environment.”
In the past few days, he had played an expert in the fields of firebeetles, gundarks, mind wipes and other sources of peril. Obi-Wan trusted him implicitly, which helped with the more outlandish claims Qui-Gon made in order to assuage the Padawan’s nerves.
“And what’s wrong with my environment?”
Qui-Gon laughed. “Nothing at all.” He rubbed Obi-Wan’s neck in the ensuing silence. “Do you feel them retreating? One by one…”
Obi-Wan turned his face against Qui-Gon’s leg. “More will come.”
Qui-Gon lifted his eyes to the window. He heard ominous shuffling, was reminded of his student’s gift for prescience. He straightened the braid over Obi-Wan’s shoulder. “We will deal with it.” He answered quietly. “Only when we need to.”
They took Obi-Wan twice more after that. The second time he returned, he did not pace the cell, or ask about Tahl, or mourn Xanatos’s wasted potential. He laid face-down where he had been dropped.
Qui-Gon crawled over to him. He was weakened himself from the prolonged captivity and lack of food. His pulse raced in his throat. “Padawan…” Gently, he turned Obi-Wan onto his back, pulled up his sleeves, and counted the marks. Fresh blood gleamed from four...five new wounds. Panic frayed his resolve. He cannot die for this. Obi-Wan… When they came back, Qui-Gon would...he would…
Obi-Wan’s eyes fluttered open. He licked his cracked, almost colorless lips. “Master?”
Qui-Gon leaned in close. “I’m so sorry.”
“No,” Obi-Wan shook his head, reaching for the neck of Qui-Gon’s tunic. “I’m sorry. You don’t...you don’t have to take me back...I’ve thrown everything away…” Tears slid silently down his pale cheeks. “I’ve disrespected you...when you...when you took a chance on me…”
It had been years since they spoke of Melida/Daan. Qui-Gon wiped the warm moisture away, and kissed his forehead. “You were only a child then. A child with such a generous heart. You didn’t throw anything away.” He glimpsed a slim wrist, covered in long, red welts. He pulled Obi-Wan’s sleeves down.
Obi-Wan covered his face with both hands as a sob wrenched free. “What have I done...forgive me...please…”
Qui-Gon turned to swipe his arm across his eyes before prying Obi-Wan’s hands away. “I would have forgiven you, if there was something to forgive.” He had watched this young man’s heart break, over and over. He could not watch much longer.
And what will I do? Sign a false treaty to spare him? Forfeit the good of many for my student?
He ran a hand through his hair, scarcely able to look at the pitiful state of his apprentice. Their only hope was if the Temple had noticed the sudden cease in communication—
A weak tug on his tunic drew his attention back to Obi-Wan’s face. He used his sleeve to mop perspiration from the sallow temple. “What is it, Padawan?”
“..hurts.” Obi-Wan said, and closed his eyes, laid still.
Qui-Gon sank back onto his heels. If the Force offered any succor, he could not feel it through his helpless fear.
Eventually Qui-Gon was able to drag Obi-Wan to the corner, but it spent the last of their limited reserves. Obi-Wan sagged against him, breaths rapid and shallow.
Qui-Gon wrapped an arm around his Padawan. “I have you.”
Obi-Wan didn’t answer. Qui-Gon blinked; the cell looked different, less sharp at the edges. Darkly, he wondered how long they could last like this. Hunger was gnawing at his insides. He did not want to consider what the chemicals were doing to Obi-Wan.
The duracrete wall was a cold, rough pillow, but he was too tired to care. His thoughts churned together, and while he drifted, he saw long-dead faces from his past, clamoring in his mind, as if they had come searching for Obi-Wan, to retrieve him.
But no one would be taking Obi-Wan. This was Qui-Gon’s final thought before turgid sleep overtook him.
The dreaded creak of the heavy door startled him awake. Qui-Gon instinctively clutched Obi-Wan. “It’s alright. It’s alright. I have you.”
A light step clicked across the floor.
He squinted, making out a tall figure approaching amid the grey pall. The figure stooped and reached for Obi-Wan. Qui-Gon held him tighter.
“Come now, I can’t hold them off forever.” A deep voice said, sounding familiar in its irritation.
Qui-Gon looked up. “Master?” He croaked, surprised and dazed and, somehow, apprehensive.
The man’s features materialized, and Dooku smiled at him with perfect, white teeth. Qui-Gon had always thought Dooku seemed to have too many teeth for his mouth. “You’re lucky I was in the area, and on good terms with the Premier. He’s agreed to your release.” Dooku explained, dark eyes flicking to Obi-Wan, “and none too soon, from the looks of things.”
Dooku began to pull Obi-Wan out of Qui-Gon’s arms, but Qui-Gon dug his fingers into his Padawan’s side. “I have him.”
The elder Master’s brow lifted sharply. “You might have him for two or three paces, and then the ground will have him.”
Qui-Gon had not been a Padawan for decades, but some old and long-buried obedience stirred in him, and he relinquished his grip, watched as Dooku slid his arms under Obi-Wan.
The movement was enough to jostle Obi-Wan to semi-alertness. “No...please…” He fought weakly. “Master…”
Qui-Gon reached for him, but Dooku was already lifting Obi-Wan, silencing the apprentice’s protestations with a single “hush, now”. He looked down at Qui-Gon, cooly evaluating. “Can you make it?” The man sounded doubtful.
No, he had not been a Padawan in many, many years, yet he felt the same rebellion rile his veins, as it had so often during his apprenticeship with Dooku. “Yes,” he replied, getting to his knees and then, awkwardly and painfully, to his feet.
Obi-Wan had fallen unconscious in Dooku’s arms. He shivered and twitched, covered in sweat. Dooku paused to place two fingers against the Padawan’s brow, and Obi-Wan relaxed, limp.
Qui-Gon shed his cloak and tucked it around his student, avoiding the eyes he knew were following his every movement. The door was open; cool, recycled air wafted through the cell.
And the Force, unfiltered and unrestrained, flooded him. It spoke of urgency, of threats merely delayed, and other things Qui-Gon did not have the time nor the mental wherewithal to examine. He limped behind Dooku, toward freedom.
Qui-Gon was woozy by the time they reached Dooku’s ship. It had felt like a long journey, but it might have just been his perception, biased from weariness and hunger. Any other complaints were immediately smothered, for he was a distinguished Jedi Master, and would not be ruffled by his former teacher’s mere presence.
Even if the man seemed bent on reminding Qui-Gon why they had not spoken in years.
Dooku deposited Obi-Wan on an inset bunk in a small, silver-sleek room. Qui-Gon sat on the edge of the bunk with a grateful sigh.
“There is a bed in the next room,” Dooku advised, smoothing his black tunics as he stood straight. “I suggest you partake of it. Your apprentice will require most of my attention. I’d rather you not keel over.”
Qui-Gon clenched his teeth. “He has been...traumatized. He needs me here.”
“He is a Jedi, Qui-Gon. At some point, the trauma must stop being trauma and be accepted as life.” Dooku said in his clipped tone, “The Premier assured me his condition is not fatal. There is a medical droid aboard, for all the good they do. And I am not exactly a novice in dealing with calamity-stricken apprentices.”
Qui-Gon sidestepped the comment. Life, as it was, had become easier once he learned to block Dooku’s verbal strikes. When he was a child, open and vulnerable, those jabs had been more painful than a saber burn and the scars took longer to heal. “I don’t disagree, Master, but he is—“
“Sleeping. And safe.” Dooku brushed some invisible debris from his cloak. “ A vast improvement, I’d say. I don’t require thanks for my efforts, but a modicum of respect would be appreciated, Qui-Gon.”
Qui-Gon smiled. Another blow he anticipated and would not absorb. “I apologize. I am exceedingly grateful to you for rescuing us. It has been a... trying mission.” His hand drifted to Obi-Wan’s forearm.
Dooku surveyed the quiet gesture with distaste. “Treat a man like a child, and he will never reach his full potential.”
There is no anger. “Ah, but would you say I’ve reached mine?” Certainly Dooku had ascribed to that stoic method. Qui-Gon could not remember a wound severe enough to earn the man’s simple compassion. “We are all children sometimes, Master.”
“Perhaps you are right. When I look at you, for instance, I cannot help but see the gangly boy who never listened.” Dooku said. He walked to the door, paused and glanced over his shoulder. “You know best, of course. But young Kenobi might be better served by a Master who has eaten and slept.”
He swept out of the room in a furl of dark cloak, uttering an audible tsk.
Qui-Gon looked down at Obi-Wan. He had to admit, Dooku’s sleep suggestion had worked well. This was the longest his Padawan had been able to rest since their capture. Just seeing him comfortable and content eased some of the tension in Qui-Gon. He exhaled, took Obi-Wan’s hand, and waded into the Force’s soothing waters.
He surfaced when he felt pressure on his shoulder. Qui-Gon sat up with a start, wiping the corner of his mouth.
Dooku was holding a medkit. “Really, Qui-Gon. When you insisted your Padawan needed you here, you didn’t specify that he needed your drool on his tunics.”
“I..” Qui-Gon swallowed, his throat suddenly dry, “I must have nodded off.”
“Obviously.” Dooku drawled. “There are rations and water. Take care of yourself, and then you can take care of your Padawan.”
Qui-Gon wanted to protest, but a headache burned behind his temples, and his need for food and sleep was becoming unbearable. He spread his palms over his knees, preparing to stand, but hesitated. “You’ll wake me if—“
“Yes, yes,” Dooku said as he opened the medkit out over a side table. In the ship’s low lights, Qui-Gon noticed new lines carved into the man’s face, faint brown spotting across his prominent knuckles. He seemed transfixed by his task, the Force gathered like a cold mist around him. “Now, leave him to me, and go meditate on mortality. Perhaps you would not think I seem so aged if you had bothered to see me in the last several years.”
Dooku waved his hand, still looking down at the bandages and salves. “After saving his life, I would hope you would not begrudge me a few hours’ company with my grand Padawan. It is likely the only opportunity luck will allow. Luck, or you, Qui-Gon.”
Qui-Gon flinched. The first strike to land. He felt the tips of his ears burn. “We are busy—“
“Aren’t we all?” Dooku intoned softly, folding Obi-Wan’s sleeve up to his elbow. He tutted at the angry welts slashed over the white wrist.
Qui-Gon scooted closer to Obi-Wan, ready to take over, when Dooku met his gaze. “I would suggest you devote some of your meditation to the dangers of attachment. His scratches will heal even if you are not the one who tends to them.”
As your Padawan, I never needed to meditate on the dangers of attachment.
He bit off his reply and gave a tight smile. “Thank you, my Master.”
Dooku had left him water and food in the room across from where Obi-Wan lay.
Qui-Gon drank the lukewarm water, chewed and swallowed the unflavored ration bars. He did this until his overtaxed body was sated enough for him to sleep. He looked out the door. He could only see the hallway, but he would hear if Obi-Wan called to him, would sense the distress across their connection.
Still, he was ill at ease as he reclined on the bunk. Force knew he was exhausted, could sleep for a day—two—if he was in a position to do so. But his mind was just catching up to the day’s unusual events. It was difficult to quiet his thoughts when his Padawan, Obi-Wan, was under Master Dooku’s care. He remembered being the subject of the man’s detached ministrations, the passionless voice directing him to ignore his pain and stifle his unbecoming groans.
He started to rise, because he could not abide his confused apprentice being treated as if he was weak, or a nuisance. Qui-Gon was sure he could locate a cot somewhere on the ship, drag it into Obi-Wan’s room. They would both sleep sounder that way.
Dooku appeared in the doorway, a dark column of shadow and rebuke. “Kenobi, at least, has the excuse of cruel drugs for his leaky shields. Rest easy, Qui-Gon. I will endeavor not to scar him irrevocably.”
Qui-Gon winced as his sore muscles pulled. Defeated, he lowered himself to the cot. “Thank you, Master.” He closed his eyes as Dooku’s footfalls retreated, brushed against Obi-Wan’s slumbering presence in the Force, and then surrendered to oblivion.
He dreamed of Xanatos, of Tahl, of the gundarks and firebeetles and his own Master. He dreamed of losing Obi-Wan and not finding him, of Dooku raising Obi-Wan instead and tying off his braid, and how horrible it would have been to not know Obi-Wan at all.
And he dreamed of the thing that came for Obi-Wan, a roaring void that devoured his apprentice’s Light, while Qui-Gon was trapped, mute and numb, helpless to stop it.
He woke with the particular disorientation of someone who does not know what day it is, or how long they have slept. The burning ache had moved from his head to his neck; he realized he was in the same position, probably had not moved for...however long he had rested.
Qui-Gon rolled onto his back and reached blearily for the water on the nightstand. He heard Dooku’s low voice, muffled by the air recycler. Qui-Gon paused, straining to detect a second voice. A moment later, he heard Obi-Wan, across the hall and across the Force, albeit quieter, more subdued. He swung his legs off the cot, and straightened his stiff back.
The talking continued. Qui-Gon padded with bare feet into the hall.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
Obi-Wan. Qui-Gon’s heart contracted. So his Padawan was not yet recovered from the drug’s effects. He cursed himself for sleeping when Obi-Wan needed him. The younger Jedi was already confused, without adding the complication of Dooku, a man Obi-Wan knew only from reputation (and very few words from Qui-Gon, over the years).
“Don’t be silly, child. What have you to be sorry for?” Qui-Gon barely recognized the soft voice as belonging to Dooku.
“I failed you...I know I have…”
Qui-Gon stepped into the room. He did not expect to find Dooku leaning over Obi-Wan, stroking his arm as he spoke. “You only fail yourself with such thinking. You are what a Jedi should be. What they used to be, anyway. I foresee that you will be the finest among us, one day.”
“No...I…” Obi-Wan shook his head, and Dooku cupped his cheek, stilling him.
“Few are the men who challenge my word, young one.”
“And foolish,” Qui-Gon added.
Dooku turned. The compassion in his black eyes shifted seamlessly to critical aloofness. “You’re looking a little less like the undead.”
“That’s the best I could hope for under the circumstances. Or any circumstances,” He said with a smile.
The corner of Dooku’s mouth quivered. “You always set lofty goals for yourself.” He sobered, sighing heavily. “Your Padawan here is slower to improve.”
Qui-Gon felt another stab of regret. Obi-Wan was conscious, but his fevered gaze wandered, eyes blue-grey and too bright. Qui-Gon combed his sweaty hair back, and it stood in endearing spikes, reminding him of that child of years past, back when it had been easier to protect him.
Dooku lingered beside Qui-Gon, as if to say something else. When Qui-Gon glanced at his Master, Dooku was studying Obi-Wan. “I will leave you to him, then.”
Qui-Gon opened his mouth to respond, but the man was already walking out the door.
The weak whisper drew him back to Obi-Wan. He sat in the chair vacated by Dooku and took Obi-Wan’s hand. “I’m here now, Padawan.”
Obi-Wan’s brows knit. “You never left.”
It was not worth arguing the point. “No, of course not.” Being confused with Dooku rankled, which was ridiculous. Obi-Wan was not in any state of mind to differentiate between Qui-Gon and a bantha. “How do you feel?”
“Tired.” Obi-Wan said. “I worry that I won’t sleep again. I can’t remember sleeping.”
“You slept recently. You don’t remember because you were asleep.” Qui-Gon explained.
Obi-Wan’s eyes widened; he grabbed at Qui-Gon’s sleeve. “Oh, yes. I did fall asleep, and when I woke up, you were old.”
“I suppose I should be flattered you don’t wake up every day and think I’m old.” Qui-Gon noticed Obi-Wan’s face was shaved, his braid tidy. He shook his head. Only Dooku would be concerned with the appearance of a Padawan Learner suffering through disorientation and withdrawal. “Meanwhile, you look younger. I was growing accustomed to the beard.”
Obi-Wan carefully touched his jaw and frowned. “Do I not always have a beard?”
Qui-Gon found himself at a loss. He tried to count the days since the drug was first forced upon his Padawan. The Premier had assured Dooku that the drugs were non-lethal. But that didn’t mean Obi-Wan would be left unscathed by the government’s callous attempts to sway Qui-Gon.
“I’m afraid his moments of lucidity have been few and far between.” Dooku reappeared, carrying a steaming mug between his hands. “But he did ask about tea.”
“Thank you,” Qui-Gon said softly and accepted the mug. The familiar, rich scents of Dooku’s personal favorite brew wafted around his face. “Is this—-“
“Pepper tea, imported from Serenno. I always bring some with me, as I find the offerings on most missions...lacking. Your apprentice had a conversation with me about the merits of good tea. Quite a long conversation, as he repeated himself several times.”
Qui-Gon helped Obi-Wan sit up, bracing his back with a hand before giving him the tea. “Easy.”
Obi-Wan stared up at Dooku, eyes narrowed. “I don’t...I don’t understand.”
“That’s alright.” Qui-Gon murmured. He dashed away the droplets that had already spilled on the blankets. “Master Dooku brought you tea, Obi-Wan. Very good tea.”
Qui-Gon had hoped to trigger Obi-Wan’s inherent sense of manners. Instead the Padawan looked from Dooku to Qui-Gon, down at the tea and then back at Qui-Gon. “But that can’t be right. You hate Master Dooku.”
He could not recall many times in his life when he had truly been struck speechless. Qui-Gon guided the mug to Obi-Wan’s mouth, sensing Dooku’s eyes burning through him. The Force simmered. “Drink your tea, Padawan.” Qui-Gon said.
As the hours ground on, Obi-Wan stopped eating, lapsing into hallucinations and flashbacks. He became terrified of Dooku, clutching Qui-Gon’s tunics and shouting about severed hands. He only calmed when Dooku left the room, but his eyes remained fastened to the doorway, watching, his chest heaving.
“It’s not real,” Qui-Gon soothed, sweat rolling down his forehead. Obi-Wan was a senior Padawan, and a formidable warrior. It would have been difficult to restrain him even if Qui-Gon was at his full strength, but he was not, and his arms ached from the struggle.
His heart, meanwhile, was nearly undone. He was ashamed to admit he wished Dooku would not come back, would be driven away by Obi-Wan’s inconsolable screams; Qui-Gon was too exhausted and preoccupied to navigate the awkward pathways and traps of his relationship with his former Master.
And he had to shield some emotions from Obi-Wan in the Force, others from Dooku, while keeping his connection to his beleaguered apprentice open. It was quite the balancing act for a man who felt like he could fall over merely sitting in his chair.
Obi-Wan reached for his hand with an odd hesitance. Qui-Gon felt the cold tremble in the fingers, and wrapped both his hands around them.
“If I fall asleep, will I not find you again?” Obi-Wan asked, cautious.
He brought the tangle of fingers to his lips, brushed a kiss across Obi-Wan’s knuckles. “When you sleep, I will be right here. When you wake, I will be right here.”
He did not understand why Obi-Wan embraced him then, holding on so tightly, burying his face in Qui-Gon’s neck. “I can’t...I can’t endure this...you seem so real…” Obi-Wan began to weep against him.
Qui-Gon pulled his apprentice onto his lap. “You are confused, Obi-Wan. I wish I could help you…”
Obi-Wan shook his head between hitching breaths. “There is no help now. Gods, Master, there is...is nothing…”
Qui-Gon clasped Obi-Wan’s head to his chest. “How can there be nothing, my Padawan, when there is always the Force? Always, Obi-Wan. Even now.”
Miraculously, the words seemed to break through, and Obi-Wan nodded, still clinging to him. “Your heart is beating so fast.”
Qui-Gon chuckled, despite the prick of incipient tears. “That is because I’m worried about you. Having an apprentice who attracts trouble is hard on the heart.”
“Yes...I know what you mean…” Obi-Wan answered. “He’ll be the death of me, I think.”
“I think you are tired,” Qui-Gon said, ignoring the nonsensical statement, and strangely reserved quality to Obi-Wan’s voice. “And I think you’ll feel better if you sleep now.”
It was not a sleep suggestion, and it didn’t need to be. Obi-Wan stilled in Qui-Gon’s arms, having released his jumbled concerns to the Force. Qui-Gon exhaled with relief, tipping his head back. His natural sense of time was skewed. How much longer until they were free of cells, small rooms and this ruthless, damnable drug?
“Two standard days,” Dooku supplied, stepping through the open door, bearing two mugs.
Qui-Gon could only guess the tableau he and Obi-Wan made: his grown Padawan curled up on him like a child. He steeled himself against Dooku’s inevitable carping.
“The poor thing,” Dooku handed him the mug of hot tea. “Quite out of his mind.”
Qui-Gon took a drink, and savored the feel of it running down the back of his dry throat. The tea really was exceptional.
Dooku glanced around the spare space, finding only the cot to sit on. He drew aside Obi-Wan’s sweat-stained blankets and settled on the edge of the mattress. “A young man so abused and disoriented can be forgiven for certain confessions.”
Qui-Gon met the dark eyes. He felt something long-dormant stir in his chest, and he was surprised by how it moved him. “I’ve never…Obi-Wan is mistaken about some things.”
Dooku smiled, testing the tea himself. “He is perceptive. Very bright, in the Force.”
A rare point of agreement. “He is.”
“I remember you had not wanted another student, after…” Dooku politely trailed off. “I am glad you reconsidered.”
Qui-Gon did not know what to do with that sentiment, or the lump in his throat. So he swallowed them both, and steadied Obi-Wan against him. “So am I.”
Dooku crossed his legs, studying them. “If I was not pleased for you, I would be patently envious. He is worthy of your tutelage.”
“I did not think that such a high compliment in your estimation, Master.”
“Ah, but unlike you, Qui-Gon, I look back on our time together with fondness. I knew from the outset that I had chosen a special pupil, and you have only strengthened my lineage with Kenobi here.”
Qui-Gon felt a rush of gratitude that Obi-Wan was not awake to comment on the speed of his heartbeat. “As I said, Master, Obi-Wan...I didn’t tell him…”
“I suppose you didn’t need to tell him. As I said, he is perceptive.” Dooku smoothed a finger across his thick brow. “I cannot change what lies behind us. But I do hope there is a different future for you and your Padawan. Chasms appear where you least expect them, Qui-Gon.”
He did know that. In Obi-Wan’s apprenticeship, they had avoided several already, as the drug-fueled flashbacks reminded him. Yet he could not envision a future where Obi-Wan was not in his life.
“Kenobi seems the opposite of a chasm, however. I look at him and see what the Order could be, if the Council only realized their mounting missteps. You have fostered his light well, old Padawan.”
“When I am not mired in my own problems with attachment?” Qui-Gon countered, referencing Dooku’s recent observations in this very room.
“Yes, well, another pitfall for the Jedi Master. My own Master had no such issues, and impressed on me from an early age the threat of attachments. It was the way I knew to do things, the way I had been taught. But you were always independent, Qui-Gon, following your own ideas. You and Kenobi don’t seem bothered at all by the dangers my Master warned of so strongly.”
Qui-Gon laid his palm against Obi-Wan’s back, and felt the reassuring thrum of life. “Obi-Wan is far more concerned about the Code. He is mortified by my flouting of the rules, most of the time.”
“He will learn that the Order could use more rule-breakers.” Dooku said, and there was a heavy knowingness to his voice that made Qui-Gon uneasy. “While you slept, he suffered a terrible waking nightmare. He thought you had been killed by a dark warrior. I nearly activated the medical droid to sedate him.”
My Padawan. Qui-Gon tightened his arms around Obi-Wan’s sleeping form. “He will need to visit the mind healers when we return. This has all been too much.”
Dooku held his mouth in a tight line, eyes on a shadowed corner of the room. “Tell me, Qui-Gon,” he began without looking up, “Have you noticed the boy experiencing visions?”
“Not especially,” Qui-Gon lied, on instinct. “No more than any other of my apprentices.”
Dooku stood and took the empty mugs. “Of course. It must be the drugs then. The pitiful child. You know, he was mortified when he woke at one point, and realized he was, in his words ‘scruffy’. He was not satisfied until I had shaved off the scruff and fixed his braid. A predilection for an orderly appearance that he must have inherited from me.”
Qui-Gon shrugged. “Well, we both know he didn’t get it from me.”
“The face of the Alusian dignitary when you arrived at the peace talks in your sodden, muddy cloak is forever etched in my memory.” Dooku chuckled. “I never could get you cleaned up. Even now, you attract dirt.”
“I come from the soil and one day I shall return to it.” Qui-Gon said, quoting a philosopher the name of whom he could no longer remember.
“Let us hope that day is far from now,” Dooku added, and laid his hand over Qui-Gon’s, where it rested on Obi-Wan’s back. “The universe grows ever more dangerous.”
Qui-Gon had harbored the faint hope that Obi-Wan would avoid the typical physical effects of drug withdrawal, but a few hours later, the younger Jedi was drowning in fevered currents, swept between past and the present and some bizarre, dark future, and unwilling to drink even the pepper tea. He thrashed in the bed, leaving new, deep scratches down his arms and belly.
Dooku and Qui-Gon took turns addressing the odd questions and desperate worries. Dooku continued to surprise, speaking to Obi-Wan with patience, responding as if in the midst of a typical conversation.
“Yes, I believe you mentioned the draigons on Bandomeer before. That sounds like a harrowing adventure for a new Padawan.” Dooku felt Obi-Wan’s forehead and turned to Qui-Gon. “No cooler.” He reported quietly.
“I’m not a Padawan.” Obi-Wan extended his fingers to Dooku’s arm. “No one chose me. I have to accept that, but it’s…it’s difficult. It doesn’t seem…harmonious. I tried to do better, but it wasn’t enough.”
If the drugs had any useful purpose, it was that now Qui-Gon was aware of scars Obi-Wan hid deep under his wry, dutiful exterior. Once Obi-Wan was recovered, and he would recover, Qui-Gon planned on sitting him down for a long talk.
But presently, all he could do was comfort his protege. Qui-Gon leaned forward in the chair and ran the thin braid between his fingers. “See? You are a Padawan, Obi-Wan. I chose you. You chose me. You have been my Padawan for many years.”
Qui-Gon searched for the dawn of recognition in Obi-Wan’s eyes; he was disappointed. Obi-Wan wiped at his face. His tunics were soaked with sweat and his skin glistened with it. “How could I ever be enough?” Obi-Wan asked, as if it was the most simple and natural question.
“You are, young one.” Qui-Gon felt the weight of old guilt settle on his shoulders, as if it had never left.
When Qui-Gon was a senior apprentice, he contracted a deadly virus while on his first solo mission. He was confined to the intensive care ward of an alien hospital for weeks, and it was only days before his release that Master Dooku arrived, complaining of the accommodations and interrogating Qui-Gon on his behavior.
It was a bleary and painful time, but Qui-Gon could not remember his Master hovering over him, or uttering one soothing phrase. He could not be sure if Dooku had so much as brought him water during his initial convalescence.
He watched the same man tending to Obi-Wan, and did not recognize him. Dooku brought Obi-Wan water and tea, encouraged him to eat, and spoke of archaic Jedi history when the Padawan was too restless for sleep. Dooku’s attentiveness allowed Qui-Gon moments of respite (especially during the archaic history lessons of Master Vrook Lamar) and when only a day remained of their journey, Obi-Wan began showing signs of improvement. He slept, without twitching or muttering.
Qui-Gon sat beside him on the bed. His eyes strayed to the Padawan braid, last woven by Dooku. It should not have bothered him that Dooku took up a task that had been only Qui-Gon’s since Obi-Wan was a boy. It should not have bothered him that Dooku never took up the task at all when Qui-Gon was a boy.
He started to reach for the colored thread, but stopped himself. He was going to wake Obi-Wan from good, healing sleep just to make a point to someone who would not notice and would surely not care? He was just tired, and his nerves were frazzled.
“Sometimes I want to lock you away in a box, where you’d be safe.” Qui-Gon murmured, tucking the blankets around Obi-Wan’s chest. His auburn hair stood out among the white linens.
“Ah, but he would find a way out.” Dooku said. “They always do.”
Qui-Gon had thought the man was asleep, but it was harder to sense him, now. He glanced up from Obi-Wan and smiled. “I would appreciate the peace of mind while it lasted.”
Dooku chuckled. “Now there’s a novel concept. Peace. We are not exactly destined for it, are we? Ours is an existence comprised of violence and uncertainties. He has survived this, but he could still die tomorrow. Or you. Or I.”
Qui-Gon peered into Dooku’s face, seeing both the strict Master and the gentle caretaker, wondering which version was authentic. If either of them were, ultimately. “There is one certainty, my Master. Yoda will outlive us all.”
“You’re right about that.”
Qui-Gon’s eyes fell to Obi-Wan again. He was not a stranger to any of this: the violence and uncertainty, the looming threat of death. Perhaps it was the dreams, taunting him with their vagueness. Or perhaps it was just that he loved Obi-Wan very much, because he bowed his head and covered his face in his hands.
He heard the shifting of fabric. A hand clasped his elbow. “It is a slow learning. And a hard learning.”
Qui-Gon nodded, the anguish coming upon him all at once. “So many times I have asked the Force...please not him...not now….”
“You have always been this way. I did not know how to make you be any other way. I knew it would mean your heart would break. Yet, it is better to have a heart, even if it must break.”
He had been brought to a crystalline moment with Dooku, the kind that shivered under the skin, a moment that would linger when most others had been forgotten. Qui-Gon found the slender fingers and laced them with his. He pictured them in the Force, finding each other through the flotsam of misunderstanding, gossamer threads entwining like a Learner’s braid.
Dooku. Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan.
“If he died, it would not break my heart, Master. It would destroy it.” Qui-Gon had never given voice to that deepest truth inside him. He felt lighter, and like he could collapse. He touched the brown freckle on Obi-Wan’s cheek. “There are times I look at him and feel...an infinite sadness.” He turned toward Dooku. “Something unspeakable will happen to him. You feel it too.”
Shadow lingered in the hard lines on the older Master’s face. His voice was soft. “Yes.”
Qui-Gon slumped forward, and laid his forehead against Obi-Wan’s.
“A hard learning, Padawan,” Dooku whispered, then left him alone.
Qui-Gon was awakened by a bare foot scraping against his leg. He opened an eye and saw two eyes, grey-blue and clear, looking back at him.
He was laying half on top of Obi-Wan, could smell the waft of sour-metallic breath, a trace of sickness. Only a trace. Obi-Wan was relentlessly polite, and if he thought it was strange to wake with his Master huddled with him on a narrow cot, he did not behave like it was. “Have we...did they free us?”
Qui-Gon rolled to his side. He didn’t see Dooku, though he could sense him nearby, probably asleep in the next room. He decided the ship must be close to Coruscant. He cleared his throat and rubbed his eyes. “They did.”
Obi-Wan nodded, visibly trying to piece the days together. “I don’t remember.” He said.
“That’s for the best. You were drugged.”
“Oh.” Obi-Wan sank against the pillow. “That must be why my head hurts.”
There were no days or nights in space, but Qui-Gon felt he had awakened to a new morning, finally shedding the constant dread of this mission. A headache he could handle. Thank the Force. He breathed out, laid two fingers on Obi-Wan’s forehead.
“That’s not necessary, Master, I can—“
“Of course you can.” Qui-Gon interrupted, “So can I.”
Obi-Wan gave a small smile. “Yes, Master.” He closed his eyes. “Was I quite ill?” He asked, after a few minutes.
“I recall...something about Master Vrook Lamar...and being told I was a good boy?”
“You were unable to separate the past and present. You thought you were an initiate, and sometimes it was better to go along with you.” Qui-Gon patted Obi-Wan’s arm. “I can assure you, Master Lamar has been dead for centuries, and didn’t resurrect to call you a good boy.”
Obi-Wan snorted. “I must have been on some interesting stimulants. He told me to take care of you.”
Qui-Gon’s chest ached. He swallowed with an audible click. “Master Lamar looked after you well.”
“I’m guessing he had a bit of help.” The weary fondness in Obi-Wan’s eyes reminded Qui-Gon of those glimpses of him as a more mature Jedi. He wanted to rail against Time. He wanted Obi-Wan to stay beneath his wing.
But it was not the way of things, for them. Obi-Wan did not belong to him, even when Qui-Gon wept in fear for him, even when the Padawan called for Qui-Gon through his pain and confusion. A hard learning. Dooku had learned too well, possibly before Qui-Gon ever knew him.
And Dooku was right. Qui-Gon’s heart was made to be broken.
Obi-Wan covered a yawn with his hand.
“You should sleep, little one. We’ll land soon and the healers will want to poke and prod you.”
“You have not called me that in a long time.” Obi-Wan said, resting his cheek on Qui-Gon’s shoulder.
They had been through worse. They would go through worse. Obi-Wan would go through things that Qui-Gon could not fathom.
Qui-Gon stroked his hair. “Humor your old Master.”
“You’re not old.” Obi-Wan insisted through another yawn. “Compared to Master Vrook Lamar, at least.”
He chuckled. “Sleep, before your compliments grow too flattering for me to accept.”
Qui-Gon dreamed of walking with Obi-Wan along a green and unbroken path. He dreamed of the first time he wove the Padawan braid, how Obi-Wan had looked up at him. He dreamed that something dark came for Obi-Wan, but Obi-Wan was Light, and could not be taken.
The telltale rumblings of a ship landing roused him. By the time he helped Obi-Wan sit up, and the docents came with the stretcher, Dooku had already left the ship.
And Qui-Gon had to report to the Council, and then he went to the healer’s ward, and brought Obi-Wan water.