He swam up, up, up toward the shimmering light, pumping his legs and cutting his arms through the murky waters with powerful strokes. The lake had never seemed so deep. Or so cold. Tension gripped his calves. Tighter. Clamping down. He began to thrash mindlessly as the light started to recede. No. No! His lungs collapsed. With a gasp, his jaw sprang open. Fear rushed in with the water.
Qui-Gon sat up with a gurgle, chest heaving as he struggled to draw breath. The young Jedi flopped back on his narrow cot and pressed his arm over his eyes, as he concentrated on pushing back the panic and drawing air slowly into his mouth so it could seep down his clogged throat. Not again, he thought with a strangled moan.
He rolled toward the edge of the bed, tumbling to the floor when the tangled bedclothes wouldn't release him. Qui-Gon kicked his way out of the twisted blankets and pulled himself onto the only chair in the small room. He took a few more slow breaths before activating the light orb on his desk with a touch and watching it rise 30 centimeters as it came to life, floating in front of him like the elusive, receding light in his dream. He shuddered and reached for his tunic and belt.
Standing up to pull on his leggings, Qui-Gon's foot caught in the second leg hole and he tumbled forward. As he landed on the cot, his shoulder smacked the wall with a muffled thud. His breathing turned ragged. Clumsy oaf.
He hitched up his leggings and sat on the edge of the bed, staring at his feet. They ached at the thought of tugging on too-tight boots. Qui-Gon ran his hand through the stubble on his scalp and thoughtfully fingered the Padawan braid that sprouted behind his right ear. He was growing again, if his throbbing toes were any indicator. 1.87 meters and counting. Would it ever stop? He towered over every other 15-year-old he knew. He sighed. Who was he kidding? He towered over most adults, human or otherwise.
His breathing turned shallow as his throat constricted a little more.
Qui-Gon jumped to his feet. With a rueful glance at the tall boots propped against the chair, he stepped through the doorway. His knee bumped against something and he spun in time to catch a fern-like plant before it tumbled from its stand.
Relief hissed from between the young Jedi's lips as he placed the plant carefully back on the wall bracket between the two bedroom doors. Since getting it, his master had doted over that plant, which Qui-Gon gathered had come from Master Yoda's homeworld. An image of pursed lips and flattened ears popped into his head. He received enough reprimands and looks of frustration and disappointment as it was, without giving his master yet another reason to regret his choice of Padawans.
Qui-Gon swallowed hard and hurried toward the main door, snatching his cloak from its hook as he escaped the suddenly stuffy quarters.
The cool floor soaked up the Padawan's footfalls as he strode down the long hallway, slipping into his cloak as he went. Fresh air. That was all he needed. That had done the trick the last four nights, had eased the scratching, swelling pain in his throat.
Without pulling out his chrono, Qui-Gon knew it was 2:30 -- the same time he had awakened each night as this strangling sensation had gripped him. So regular. What could cause something so consistently? Was he being poisoned? That was ridiculous. Who would want to poison an untried Padawan? Unless it was meant to strike at his master.
Qui-Gon jerked to a stop. His labored breathing filtered down the corridor as his mind raced. Of course. A Jedi as powerful as Master Yoda would have many enemies -- but surely not someone inside the Temple. It had to be someone from outside, someone with access. Someone who didn't realize the Padawan was not loved by the Master, that the Padawan was a source of great disappointment to the Master.
The young man's shoulders drooped. He would have to speak of this to Master Yoda, admit to being a possible danger to his mentor. A failure. His knees wobbled as a wave of weakness crashed into him. He braced himself against the wall with one hand and squeezed the bridge of his nose with his other.
As the feeling passed, Qui-Gon ran his fingers down a nose that seemed too broad, too long for his face. His fingers paused by his nostrils, as he measured his breathing, shallow but steady. He traced the high cheekbone that was beginning to carve angles into his smooth cheek and then the jaw that was becoming ever more pronounced. The promise of fast-approaching stubble brought a grim smile to his lips. He had felt Master Yoda's censorious look whenever he was caught stroking his coming beard and he knew shaving his jaw would soon be as regular as shearing his head. But some day. Some day...
Pushing away from the wall, Qui-Gon headed toward the nearest Temple entrance, suddenly anxious to clear his throat and fill his lungs.
Slipping past a silent sentry, Qui-Gon melted into the shadows of the broad patio that led up to the Temple entrance. In the far corner, he sank down to sit cross-legged with his back resting against the stone wall. He stretched his arm out beyond the overhang and caught raindrops in his palm. The refreshing mist stroked his face and soothed his throat. Slowly, slowly the Padawan's breathing returned to its regular deep rhythm.
Tucking his broad hands into opposing sleeves, Qui-Gon let his head fall back against the worn stone. How many other Jedi in training had rested their heads against this stone while meditating their futures? He sighed.
"It's not that I want to defy you, Master," Qui-Gon whispered to the air. "I wish I could make you understand how strongly the Living Force tugs at me sometimes. I can't disobey it, any more than I can stop breathing. You say, 'stop, think'. It says, 'act'. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
The whisper trailed off into thoughts. He had been so pleased when the diminutive Master had taken him as his Padawan learner. Was still pleased. He greatly honored Yoda. Loved? Yes, even loved him. And it made the disappointed looks, the frustrated sighs cut so deep. Why couldn't he remember looks or words of pleasure, of pride, in a job well done? There must have been some. But not lately. All he could bring to mind were flat ears, tight lips, narrow eyes, and skin a darker shade of green. And a prodding gimer stick. Qui-Gon's hand floated down to rub his thigh.
If truth be known, he would give anything, do anything, to win the respect of his Master -- except ignore the Force's calling. Anything but that. The Living Force was his lifeblood, his reason for being. He could never turn from its call -- not even for a Master he loved above all others.
Qui-Gon sank inwards, away from surface worries, toward his center. The Force wrapped around him, warming and soothing and comforting. The dripping of the rain, the feel of cool stone, faded as the Force shimmered around and through him, carrying him away.
A disturbance niggled on the edge of his consciousness. Not here. Out there. The feeling, the familiar feeling came over him, tugged at his heart and his mind. The Living Force called.
Qui-Gon's eyes flew open. He stared into the night as the urging grew stronger.
The young Jedi stood and looked back at the doorway to the Temple. He wiggled his toes against the damp stone. If he went back to get his boots, Master Yoda would surely awake. He didn't seem to stir whenever Qui-Gon left, but always when he returned.
So be it.
Qui-Gon drew the hood of his cloak over his head and paced across the patio to the suspension bridge spanning the chasm between the Temple and the closest building. He took a breath and, without looking back, stepped onto the bridge and into the rainy night.
Barely half way across the bridge Qui-Gon regretted leaving his boots behind. His feet slapped down into puddles that were icy hard. He gritted his teeth and kept going, pulling his cloak tight around him.
Towers disappeared in the fog above, and were swallowed by the depths below. It was a world suspended in mid-air, through which speeding aircraft buzzed and wove and darted. The planet hummed with life -- was choked with life.
The young Jedi's senses were overwhelmed and his head pounded, until, in a fit of self-preservation, he narrowed his focus to extend barely beyond himself. So much pain. So much need. It would take a lifetime, and still, only a fraction would be, could be, helped. No. He refocused his thoughts. Help one life, and that one is freed to help others. Ripples of light extending beyond his knowing. His tension lifted.
The streets were deserted -- for Coruscant, that is. Myriad figures passed Qui-Gon, almost always skirting around him when they recognized the Jedi garb. He kept to the shadows as much as possible, avoiding curious eyes.
At the first intersection, he hesitated. Down. He was being urged down. Qui-Gon hopped on the closest turbolift. Forty levels later, he exited.
There were even fewer beings now, scattered here and there, mostly hunched against walls and in corners. Qui-Gon became more alert, scanning ahead, treading softly.
Then he heard it. A tiny mewling sound, off to his left. He stopped. There it was again. He glanced up and down the street. No one seemed to hear -- or care. The Padawan hesitated, then entered the murky shadows of an alley. The sound grew louder, more plaintive.
Qui-Gon cautiously approached the pile of crates from which the sound seemed to be originating. He rolled forward silently, heel to toe, heel to toe. The noise stopped. Crouching, he hesitated, listening. A wail sounded, almost in his ear, making him jump.
The young Jedi lowered his head and peered into the crate beside him. Inside, cowering in the corner, was a slender little, fur-covered creature. White with black-tipped paws and tail. Fear glowed in obsidian eyes. Qui-Gon reached his hand into the box, murmuring lowly, using the Force to ease the creature's mind. As he wrapped his fingers around the thing, it started to squirm.
"Shh, shh, little fellow. I won't hurt you," Qui-Gon whispered. He pulled it out of its hiding place. "What's this? A shattered leg. No wonder you're crying."
He tucked the creature inside his tunic, letting his body warmth soothe its hurting leg. As soon as he clamped one hand over its hind quarters so it couldn't move, he felt it relax. A smile brushed the Padawan's lips.
He straightened and headed back to the street. A scream and crash sounded behind him. The creature dug its claws deep into Qui-Gon's side. He flattened himself against the wall, expecting attack. None came. Some feral scavenger scared off, no doubt. He hissed at the creature's tenacious hold, and reached inside his tunic to flick tiny claws out of his skin, one by one.
Qui-Gon relaxed against the cold wall and reached for the Force. As he'd suspected. This little one was not his target. He needed to head deeper into the underbelly of the city. He sighed and wiggled his toes until a measure of feeling returned.
As Qui-Gon stepped into the street, a rough hand grabbed him and jerked him about.
"Just yer credits. That's all I want," a voice rasped.
Qui-Gon looked down at the flickering vibro-blade waving in his face. The thief's eyes slowly travelled up his chest. And up. Qui-Gon scowled, knowing all the thief would see is deep-set eyes and a heavy brow mostly concealed by the hood of his cloak. When their eyes finally met, the vibro-blade disappeared. Qui-Gon watched the man's throat convulse as he stepped back hastily.
"I, I didn't k-know," the would-be thief stuttered. "I, I'd never ... Oh, ... Hutt pus."
Qui-Gon's shoulders shook as his eyes followed the quickly disappearing figure. "A reputation is a handy thing some days," he whispered.
Ten minutes and two levels later, Qui-Gon sensed he was close. But to what?
The rain had an oily feel at this level. A pungent odor assaulted his nostrils -- a mix of rotting foodstuff, filthy bodies, vehicle gases and feces. Qui-Gon shuddered and glanced over his shoulder. The Temple, framed by vertical slashes of ferrocrete, caught his eye and made him pause.
Peace radiated out from the flat-topped pyramid, caressing the Padawan from a distance. He hadn't gone as far as he'd thought. He let out a slow breath. Did Master Yoda miss him? Not likely. Did he care? Qui-Gon squeezed his eyes shut for a second and turned away.
Skirting around a prostrate body that moaned when he nudged it with a toe, Qui-Gon moved forward in search mode. Prodding with the Force. Scanning every surface. Soaking up every detail.
He turned a corner and stopped. A recessed courtyard, open to the street, led to a seemingly dilapidated structure. Qui-Gon narrowed his eyes. New doors made to look old. The yard oddly uncluttered, except for a few strategically placed dura-crates. No windows. But no signs of any kind of surveillance. This was the place. He could feel it.
The young Jedi took a deep breath and strode forward. Pain slashed through his mind, and he dropped to one knee. He tensed, face scrunched, until the feeling faded. Something terrible had just happened. Close by. In that building. The echoes died out through the Force and Qui-Gon pushed himself to his feet. Was he too late?
Heedlessly he hurried to the door, stepping over another homeless sleeper. He ran his trembling fingers over the seal, searching for a trigger mechanism.
Something grabbed his ankle. Qui-Gon twisted, slipping on a slime-covered stone. His head bounced off the ground and he fought to keep from passing out. Two grinning faces melted into one. Qui-Gon groaned. The sleeper - a watcher.
Three large shadows emerged from the doorway. Powerful hands grabbed the young Jedi's arms, hauled him up and slammed him against the wall. Qui-Gon's head lolled about as he tried to focus. Four faces, swarthy, shaggy, cruel. The tallest drew close, almost looking the tall Padawan in the eye. He recoiled from the vile breath blowing on his face, unable to hide his disgust.
A snort of laughter made Qui-Gon gag. His hood was yanked back. His chin tipped up.
The tall one grunted. "It's only a boy. Your mama know where you are, pretty boy?"
Qui-Gon brought the man into focus and said nothing. He pushed aside the fear hovering near his mind.
"Boss. Look at what he's wearing. This one's a Jedi," said a voice to the side.
The tall one looked down and sneered. "A Jedi, eh? Where's your boots, Jedi?" he asked as he ground his heel into Qui-Gon's toes.
The Padawan tensed, clenching his jaw, biting back the moan in his throat.
The leader pulled back Qui-Gon's cloak. "Where's your weapon, Jedi?" He laughed.
Qui-Gon's nostrils flared as spittle ran down his cheek. He froze as the leader's attention returned to his waist.
"What're you hiding, boy?"
Qui-Gon pursed his lips. Grabbing his wrist, the leader tried to pull his hand out of his tunic. The Padawan's arm shook as he resisted. Another hand joined the tug-of-war. He suddenly relaxed his grip, letting his hand fly, smacking a face to the side. A half smile touched his lips at the yelp his fist coaxed from the ruffian.
The leader pressed his right arm against Qui-Gon's neck and glowered at the Padawan as he reached into the tunic with his left hand. He swore and stepped back, pulling his hand free as he did so. The little creature clung to the man's finger, teeth sunk deep. With a snarl the man started to squeeze the helpless thing.
Qui-Gon jerked against his captors' hold and cried out, "Leave it. It's hurt. Leave it be."
Narrowing his eyes as he glanced from creature to boy and back, the leader soaked in the growing horror in the eyes of his prisoner. Qui-Gon shook his head wildly as the feral look sank into his consciousness.
"No. No!" he pleaded, wincing as the man wound up and whacked the creature against the durasteel door, crushing its skull with a sickening thud, cutting off a high-pitched squeal.
"And now it's dead." The leader casually tossed the limp body over his shoulder.
A look of revulsion spread across the young Jedi's face. Qui-Gon couldn't hide the horror he felt, the loathing at such a senseless act.
The arm slammed back against his neck. The leader snarled. "Wipe that look off your face, boy. Unless you want to be next."
Qui-Gon dropped his eyes as he tried to fight off a growing panic.
The leader jerked his head. Qui-Gon found himself being manhandled down a dim hallway. Grey walls and a ceiling barely two meters high. Stairs led to the left. He was jostled right, down a short corridor with two doors, directly across from each other.
The leader spoke into a comlink and the left door retracted into the wall. Qui-Gon was pushed through it and into a large, empty room. He stumbled to a halt. A blaster was pressed into his back. The leader's voice whispered in his ear, "Move to the center, boy." The blaster dug deeper. "Now."
Qui-Gon stared, transfixed, at the dark stain in the middle of the room. His hands started to shake. He spun to face his captors as fear gripped him.
"Don't understand Basic?" the leader taunted, as he nodded.
One of the other men gave Qui-Gon a little shove. He stumbled back a step. A third man sank his fist into the Padawan's stomach, making him fold in half. A knee glanced off his face. A kidney punch dropped him to the floor. A kick dragged a moan from him. Qui-Gon tried to crawl away, but another kick flopped him onto his back.
Qui-Gon reached a shaky hand up to wipe blood from his mouth. The coppery taste filled his mouth and trickled down his throat. Alarm fogged his mind as the leader stepped over him and nudged his head with the toe of a black boot.
"Do you understand Basic, boy?" Heavy sarcasm dripped through the words.
Another nod. Qui-Gon rolled onto his stomach with a moan and dragged himself to his hands and knees. He crawled toward the center of the room. A boot planted itself on his rear, sending the young Jedi flying forward, his cheek scraping the floor. He lay, eyes closed, awaiting the next blow.
Humming filled his ears. Qui-Gon rolled over to see vertical bars lowering from the ceiling, coming to rest mere centimeters from his face.
The leader crouched down and motioned with his blaster. "Touch them, boy."
Qui-Gon reached out his hand and hesitated. The man sneered and nodded his head. Qui-Gon closed his eyes and touched the bar. An electric bolt shot up his arm, numbing it. His eyes flew open in shock as he scrambled backwards, followed by a cruel laugh.
The Padawan fell on his aching arm, his whole body shaking uncontrollably. He watched, wide-eyed, as the leader rose slowly and circled the barred enclosure. Qui-Gon turned, and turned again, to keep the killer in his sight. He eyed the blaster as it waved around. He winced as a red bolt lanced through the air, a meter above his head. He had never felt so helpless. Terror blanked his mind, consumed his thoughts.
The leader stopped and crouched again. "You're no Jedi. What you are ... is dead. Look around, boy. This is the last home you'll ever know."
With that, the man left, followed by his three shadows. Qui-Gon was left alone with his fear.
The Padawan forced himself to his feet and paced the perimeter of his cell, eyes frantically searching for a vent, a window, anything, anything. His breathing came harder. He stood in the center of the cell and spun slowly. Blank walls. Blank walls. Blank walls. Nothing. Nothing except the door and three durasteel plates inset high in one wall.
Qui-Gon sank down and began rocking on his heels. He pressed his head against his knees, moaning, running his hands through the stubble on his head.Force help me. Force help me. His soul cried out for reprieve. Fear mocked him as it clanged through his mind.
The Padawan's little finger brushed his braid. He froze. He sniffled as he slowly wrapped his fingers around the slender tassel of hair. Qui-Gon melted to the floor, his cheek pressed against the cool stone, his hand clasping the symbol of what he was.
What was he? A Jedi? Or not? Beware. Fear, anger, hate -- lead to the Dark Side, they do. Yoda's voice echoed from a far recess of his mind.
His voice was a hoarse whisper. "Help me, Master."
Qui-Gon squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated on relaxing each muscle in his body, one by one. As the tension leaked away, he sensed the Force, a mere glimmer, deep, deep inside. He tentatively reached inwards. Slowly, slowly, it grew, until it burst upon him, flinging the fear aside.
Peace wrapped around the young Jedi. What his tormentors meant for evil, he would use for good. They thought him weak? They thought him helpless? They did not know his ally. And a powerful ally it was.
Was he a Jedi? A smile sparked in Qui-Gon's blue eyes as he slipped into a sitting position. Most definitely. Until he breathed his last.
ui-Gon sat back on his heels, eyes closed. Passive. Waiting. He heard the door slide open, the bars rise. A scuffle. Howls of rage. Of pain. The pain that had drawn him here.
The young Jedi opened his eyes and looked up as the bars lowered and the door closed again. A Wookiee stood across the cage from him, right arm raised, hairy fist shaking as he howled his protest. His left arm hung limp. Qui-Gon let his eyes follow the length of the limb. He froze. No hand -- just a stump that still dripped blood.
Without thinking he stood and peeled his cloak off. The sound of the hem ripping silenced the Wookiee, who cocked his head and stared at the Padawan as he tore a strip off the bottom of his cloak. Their eyes met and held.
Into the quiet, Qui-Gon spoke one of the few Wookiee phrases he knew. May the canopy always protect you. At least, that's what he hoped he said.
The Wookiee's arm lowered as Qui-Gon approached him. They were close to the same size. The Wookiee was young yet.
"Sorry. I don't know your language much." Qui-Gon forced a calmness into his voice he did not feel. "I've never been to visit Kashyyk. Let me try to bind the wound and stop the bleeding."
The Padawan folded the cloth roughly into a rectangle and centered it over the stump. He gazed again into golden eyes.
"Could you hold the bandage? Just for a moment?"
The Wookiee silently clamped his hand over the stump. Through the Force, Qui-Gon felt the flicker of pain and held back his wince. He nodded and ripped another strip off his cloak.
"Thank you," he whispered as he gently pulled the young Wookiee's hand away and began to wrap the cloth tightly around the wrist.
Why are you helping me? The Wookiee's low growling question halted Qui-Gon's hands.
He glanced up, letting his puzzlement show. "You are in pain. I help because I should, because I must, because I want to."
The Padawan finished bandaging the wound in silence, tying off the ends as tightly as he could, drawing a soft grunt from the Wookiee.
Qui-Gon stepped back, picked up his discarded cloak and folded it into a cushion. He set it down on the ferrocrete floor and motioned for the Wookiee to sit. He moved a meter back and sank down to rest on his heels, wishing, yet again, that he was wearing his boots. His toes went almost immediately numb as they pressed into the cold surface. He rested his hands on his knees and waited for the Wookiee to join him. A moment passed. The Wookiee sank to his knees on the cloak and Qui-Gon let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.
"I am Qui-Gon," he said with a slight smile.
Jargarumpalla. Humans call me Jarga. The reply was tinged by pain.
Qui-Gon glanced down at the wrapped stump and back up to the tan face with black striping that radiated from the eyes to disappear up over the back of the Wookiee's head. Black stripes ran down his shoulders and down his legs, leaving his chest a solid tan. Jarga? Why did that name sound familiar?
Soon, Qui-Gon, you will hear a buzzer. That is my signal.
"To do what, Jarga?"
To kill you. I refused to kill the last creature they put in the cage. Jarga lifted his stump. I dare not disobey again. I wish to be returned to my family in as few pieces as possible.
Family? Of course. The senator's son from the newsvids. Kidnapped. Ransomed. Qui-Gon grinned at the surprised Wookiee.
"I am not very good at being killed. But I'm very experienced at disobeying." Qui-Gon let out a short laugh. "You could say I'm a master at it."
Jarga growled his anger. Do you think this a joke, fool?
"Of course not. I sense the truth in your words. But two are stronger than one, if you dare. And our captors are cruel and stupid men -- sentients with no intelligence. They don't even believe I'm a Jedi. It will be their downfall." Qui-Gon's blue eyes glittered as he regarded his potential ally.
A Jedi? You can't even grow hair. Qui-Gon heard the sneer.
He smiled as he stroked his jaw. Some day. "A Jedi and a warrior, friend." Softly he added, "Believe it."
Qui-Gon returned and held Jarga's thoughtful gaze. The Wookiee nodded.
Perhaps I would rather die an honorable death, after all.
Qui-Gon laughed again. "You sure know how to make a guy feel good, Jarga."
The bars started to rise into the ceiling. With a glance at the startled Wookiee, Qui-Gon jumped to his feet and stumbled as his deadened limbs responded slowly. He shook out each leg as he turned, surveying the empty room. He could sense Jarga's confusion. The bars had not been raised before, apparently. Qui-Gon poised on the balls of his feet.
A whirring drew the young Jedi's gaze upwards. One of three durasteel plates retracted into the wall to reveal a viewing window and five leering faces. Their captors were giving them plenty of room. They wanted a long and bloody battle. He turned to face Jarga and smiled.
As he started to speak a loud buzzer sounded.
After the sound died away, Qui-Gon asked, "How long before they send someone in?"
Maybe they just gas us. Jarga suggested.
Qui-Gon shook his head. "There aren't even ventilation shafts in this room. Oxygen only comes in when the door is opened. What weapons have you seen?"
"Nothing too serious."
You can stop a blaster bolt?
"You do that sarcasm thing very well."
Qui-Gon raised one brow, then turned and saluted their audience. He planted his fists on his hips and stared at the men. The center one was clean-shaven with shock-white hair. His four goons could only be described as scruffy, and large. Those four he remembered.
Behind him, Jarga shuffled. Whatever he was doing, the white-haired one was growing visibly angry. He jerked his head and the two goons to his left disappeared from sight. Blast. Qui-Gon had hoped to draw all of them at once.
One entrance. That limited their options. They'd come in firing. Qui-Gon motioned for Jarga to move behind him. As the Padawan stood facing the door, he felt the familiar shedding begin -- like an outer layer of skin falling away. The clumsiness, the sense of not knowing this stranger's body, disappeared, and he was filled with assurance.
Qui-Gon unconsciously reached for his lightsaber, halted and flexed his fingers in frustration.
What would Master Yoda say? Doubt in battle there cannot be. Belief, there must be. Belief, in the Force. Reach for it, you will. Qui-Gon nodded and took a deep, cleansing breath.
The door flashed open. The two guards entered and flanked the opening, backs to the walls. As the door closed, Qui-Gon heard the soft clicks of safetys being switched off blasters. Both weapons were aimed at him. He sidestepped. The blasters tracked him.
The guard on the left gave a toothless sneer. "Fight the Wook, kid, or ya die right now."
"What kind of a choice is that? asked Qui-Gon. "Why don't you just set down your weapons beforeyou get hurt?"
Toothless laughed. "Kill 'em, Barg."
Barg grunted and raised his weapon. Qui-Gon reached out and yanked with the Force. The weapon flew out of the shocked guard's hands. As it slapped Qui-Gon's palm, he dove right and rolled. Popping into a crouch, he started firing.
Red blossomed on the toothless one's chest. Surprise painted his features. With a gurgle, he fell back against the wall, the blaster slipping from his fingers.
Qui-Gon tossed his blaster to Jarga. He dashed toward the other weapon, even as Barg reached for it. Qui-Gon launched himself feet first. His heels connected with Barg's temple, using the jolt to flip himself to the side and land upright, the Padawan dropped to one knee and reached under the unconscious guard to retrieve the blaster.
A strangled gasp drew his eyes to the wounded guard's face. The gaping mouth moved soundlessly. The guard tried to focus on the young Jedi, drew a raspy breath and expelled a whisper, "Fooled us..."
He slumped and stared sightlessly over Qui-Gon's shoulder.
Qui-Gon jumped back, teeth chattering. He willed himself to stop shaking. He'd seen death before. Then he remembered his audience. Clenching his jaw, he looked up at the viewing window and gave what he hoped was a careless shrug.
Raising the blaster, Qui-Gon fired a bolt at the transparisteel. The three men ducked as the red bolt ricocheted harmlessly off the window. Just as he thought. Blast-shielded.
My apologies. Jarga's growl interrupted Qui-Gon's thoughts. You are indeed a brave warrior.
Qui-Gon took several steps back. Glaring at the crumpled bodies, he muttered, "Right. That was some victory."
But the guards are down.
"But the door's still locked," the Padawan snapped. He blew out his frustration. "Sorry, Jarga. I don't like killing that doesn't need to happen."
But it was necessary. He was trying to kill you.
Qui-Gon shrugged and looked away. The window was empty. He blinked rapidly.
"Was it just the five of them?"
What... began Jarga.
"The five men," interrupted Qui-Gon. "Is that all there were? Are there more? Think."
As he spoke, the young Jedi herded Jarga to the far side of the room, away from the door.
I, I don't know. Maybe more. Why?
Qui-Gon waved his hand down. "Crouch. Become a smaller target." He glanced at the young Wookiee, sensing his uncertainty, his fear. "I'd like to know how many more are about to come through that door, that's all. Don't fire unless fired at. They might forget about you if you don't draw their attention."
The Padawan moved away from his friend. He heard scuffling in the outer hall.
"If they leave the door unguarded, run for it."
What about you? Jarga asked.
Qui-Gon straightened and faced the Wookiee with a grin. "I'll be fine." As he turned back, he muttered, "I hope."
The door jerked open a few centimeters. Qui-Gon crouched and took aim. "The Force be with us," he whispered.
The door slid into the wall. A small brown-robed figure back-pedalled into the room. Qui-Gon lowered his weapon. In a familiar sling on the figure's back, perched an even more familiar figure.
Qui-Gon straightened. Shock filled his voice. "Master Yoda?"
No reply made its way past those tightly sealed lips.
The hood of the figure carrying the Jedi Master dropped. Qui-Gon gaped.
"Remi! What are you doing here?"
A gleaming white grin split the brown face of Qui-Gon's friend. "Here. We're about to have company," Remi said as he tossed a silver cylinder to his friend.
Qui-Gon dropped the blaster and caught his lightsaber, echoing his friend's smile.
"Go you must, in the corner," Yoda said to Remi.
"Ahhh," Remi started to protest.
"Now," Yoda said softly.
The young boy obeyed with a sigh.
The thundering of boots on ferrocrete pulled Qui-Gon's attention to the task at hand. His green blade leapt to life. Three men spilled into the room, weapons spitting fire. Then three more.
Qui-Gon twisted and parried red bolts. His blade snapped and sizzled. The Force flowed down his arms, directing his movements. A flip. Deflect two shots. Spin. Parry.
The Padawan caught a glimpse of Master Yoda standing in front of Jarga and Remi, his own lightsaber shielding the three of them. Qui-Gon grinned. Remi would be chaffing.
Another deflection. A body fell. Then another. Qui-Gon ran at the nearest man, flipped over him. Spun. Cut him down. He wheeled, his long reach slicing through the blaster barrel of the adjacent man.
Qui-Gon stepped back as the two remaining men hesitated in the door. The Padawan cut a lazy figure eight through the air, then lunged. The men startled, glanced at each other, then sprinted down the corridor. Qui-Gon listened to their retreating footsteps with relish. He turned to see the fellow with the useless blaster, frozen, except for the ruined weapon dangling from a shaking hand. Qui-Gon raised one brow and powered down his lightsaber. He paused, then jerked his head. The man took off after his retreating compatriots.
Battle adrenaline still pumping through his veins, Qui-Gon turned to the three beings in the corner. His nostrils flared as he pointed at Remi.
A snarl laced the Padawan's voice. "What were you thinking? Bringing him into such a dangerous situation?"
Yoda's eyes widened slightly. "Nowhere to be found, was my own Padawan."
Dismay washed over Qui-Gon as he realized what he'd just said. He fell to his knees. "Forgive me, Master. I wasn't thinking."
Qui-Gon hung his head, fighting back tears that suddenly threatened. He stared at his shaking fingers and wrapped them tightly around his lightsaber's hilt.
"Your problem, that is. Rarely, do you think. Always rushing to act, you are." Yoda's voice rose and fell.
Qui-Gon could see the Jedi's green toes as Yoda paced back and forth in front of him. Shame washed over him. He could do nothing right in his master's eyes. A tear tracked down his cheek and he surreptitiously swiped at it.
"Leave not the Temple without my knowledge, I say. Obey, I say. Defy not, I say. But, you do, what?"
Qui-Gon worked the lump in his throat.
The gimer stick tapped his shoulder. "You do, what?" repeated Yoda.
"I defy," whispered Qui-Gon.
"Yes. Defiant, you are. And repentant, not at all."
How can you speak so to such a great warrior?
Qui-Gon cringed at Jarga's boldness, wishing his friend would stay out of it. Guilt niggled at the relief he felt as his Master's attention bore down on another.
A sharp tap sounded -- a gimer stick against ferrocrete.
"You, are who?" Yoda demanded.
The Wookiee's voice was measured. I am Jargarumpalla. Qui-Gon saved my life.
The Padawan raised his head to see his master's ears perk up and his eyes grow round. "Is that so? Looking for you, many are, young master. Very worried, your family is." Suddenly, Yoda's eye's became slits. "Took your hand, did your captors?" His lips pursed. "Sent it to your father, they have. Let him know you are safe, we must."
A moan sounded from near the door. Qui-Gon twisted around to see Barg starting to move. He was up and across the room before the others could react. The Padawan reached down and hauled the heavy man to his feet. He propped the guard against the wall, supporting him as he scanned him for injuries. The welt on his forehead was the only thing Qui-Gon could spot.
Dread filled Barg's eyes as he realized who was holding him. Qui-Gon shook his head slightly and sent out a wave of calm to soothe the man.
"Who was the white-haired man? Your boss? He wasn't in this fight. Where'd he go?" he asked the guard.
"Don't, don't know. Never heard a name. Don't know nothing," whispered Barg.
Qui-Gon sensed the truth in his words and sighed. "Listen, Barg. Your friends are all either dead or have run away. Take my advice. Find new friends."
Barg's eyes enlarged as he took in the sight at his feet. He mumbled something about nosy Jedi, then pushed away from Qui-Gon and staggered down the hallway, one hand braced against the wall.
"Return to the Temple, we must." Yoda's voice cut off Qui-Gon's thoughts.
The Padawan's shoulders sagged imperceptibly. Another failure. They'd never know who did this to Jarga.
"Yes, Master," Qui-Gon whispered. As he retrieved his cloak, he paused by the black boot of the tall one, looking as cruel in death as he had in life. Qui-Gon sighed and returned to Yoda's side to don the sling.
Remi helped Yoda get settled on Qui-Gon's back. The foursome headed out in silence, Qui-Gon flanked by Jarga on his right and Remi on his left.
As they neared the Temple, Qui-Gon sensed Remi's growing jitteriness. He glanced down at the boy. He didn't even reach Qui-Gon's shoulder, but Qui-Gon knew the heart of Remcil Windu was bigger than most. The boy was what? Eleven? Even so, he was a good friend. Qui-Gon winked at him. Remi's face lit up.
"You were great back there," Remi whispered.
"Shhh," was Qui-Gon's only reply.
"I'm going to fight as good as you someday," Remi continued.
Qui-Gon couldn't resist answering. "Not unless you grow some, Mynock Hatchling."
Yoda cleared his throat and the two fell silent, but Remi's admiration lightened Qui-Gon's steps. At least someone thought he was doing something right.
When they reached the patio leading to the Temple entrance, Yoda ordered them to stop. Remi helped the Jedi Master to the ground. Yoda took two mincing steps, each punctuated by a tap of his gimer stick. He turned and faced the three young males.
"To the infirmary, you will take our friend, Remcil. Talk to my Padawan, I must." Yoda paused. "Contact your father from there, you can, young master."
Will Qui-Gon join me there? Jarga's tone was tentative.
"Soon." Yoda's curt reply dismissed the Wookiee and the boy.
Qui-Gon sank to his knees with a sigh, enduring his Master's stare until the others disappeared into the Temple. He let his chin fall to his chest as Yoda began to pace.
"Right, young Remcil is," Yoda said.
The Padawan's head jerked up.
"A powerful warrior, you will be." Yoda nodded to himself. "Powerful warrior."
Qui-Gon froze, hardly daring to breathe. Hope bubbled up.
Yoda spun and poked Qui-Gon's thigh with his stick. Qui-Gon flinched.
Yoda bit out each word. "But you are reckless."
"No!" Qui-Gon blurted. He felt himself deflating as he repeated a whispered, "No."
Silence. Qui-Gon swallowed once, then met his Master's narrow gaze. "I never placed anyone in danger, Master. I only fought because Jarga was willing to take the risk."
"Reckless," declared Yoda. "Rushed in without knowing the danger, you did. Foolish, you were. Killed, you might have been."
"But I felt ..."
"Always with you, it is feeling. Thinking, never. Acting, only. Meditating, never."
"But the Force ..."
Yoda threw down his gimer stick. "The Force. The Force."
Yoda shimmered in Qui-Gon's blurry vision. His Master turned away. This was it. The end. Master Yoda was going to renounce him. Why? the young man cried silently. I don't understand.
The silence stretched. The misty drizzle condensed into large raindrops, painting the bridge a darker shade and spattering the edge of the patio. Yoda reached out his hand and let the soft rain bathe it. Qui-Gon watched and waited for the vibro-axe to slice into his heart.
"Know you, why I took you as my Padawan?" Yoda asked quietly.
Qui-Gon sighed. "No. I only know you regret it."
Yoda slowly turned to face his student. "Foolish ideas, you have. Regret it, I do not."
Qui-Gon frowned. "But ..."
Yoda raised his hand for silence and pointed to his gimer stick. Qui-Gon swallowed hard as he retrieved it and handed it to his Master. No regret? How could that be, when every action, every word ...?
"I don't understand," he whispered.
Yoda began to pace again. After a few moments he stopped in front of Qui-Gon and met his Padawan's puzzled gaze.
"Strong, is your connection to the Living Force," Yoda said.
Qui-Gon only nodded.
"A stronger one, I have not seen. Not for many generations." Qui-Gon returned his Master's thoughtful look with uncertainty. Yoda continued, "Trained, you must be. Encouraged, always, to strive for balance. Or chase shadows all your days, you will -- pointless tasks, meaningless quests."
Qui-Gon found his voice. "Is that what tonight was? Meaningless? Is Jarga's restoration to his family without merit?"
"Deliberately misunderstand me, you do."
"But, but ... isn't the Living Force connected to the Cosmic? Follow either path, and light is served. Isn't it, Master?" Qui-Gon struggled to put his thoughts into words. "I, I feel the rightness of following the Living Force's lead. How can it be wrong?"
Yoda sighed. "Wrong, it is not. A waste of energy, it often is."
"But it's my energy. My life. Shouldn't I be free to choose?"
Yoda pursed his lips for a moment. "You would turn, from the Cosmic Force's path? Greatness, I sense for you there. Leave that, would you? For what? A narrow path, winding in pointless circles?"
Qui-Gon hung his head. "I must follow my heart, Master." A tremor shook his voice. "I'm sorry I disappoint you."
Qui-Gon heard Yoda grunt as he crouched down. The Master's voice was soft. "Disappoint me, you do not. Frustrate me, yes. For fail to understand you, I do." He sighed. "Emotions, I show not well. But care for you, I do, my young Padawan."
Qui-Gon wiped his nose with the back of his hand and looked up. He blinked rapidly. Master Yoda cared for him? Truly? He saw the sincerity wreathing his Master's face and one corner of the Padawan's mouth twitched.
"Does that mean you aren't going to release me?" Qui-Gon's tone was quietly hopeful.
Yoda snorted and leaned on his gimer stick as he rose. "Ready, the galaxy is not, to have you loosed upon it."
Qui-Gon suppressed a smile. "No, Master."
Yoda narrowed his eyes. "Now tell me why, without your boots you are."
"They pinch my toes, Master."
Yoda shook his head slowly. "Growing again, you are. Soon, this must stop."
"I hope so, Master." Qui-Gon hesitated. "There is something I must tell you."
"I think I'm being poisoned, Master."
When Yoda's ears only wiggled, Qui-Gon went on to explain the breathing problems he'd had for the last few nights.
Yoda nodded. "Being poisoned, you are. But the culprit, I am."
Confusion blanked Qui-Gon's mind. He opened his mouth and closed it.
"React this way, to the tula plant, many humans do. Especially in close quarters." Yoda sighed. "Hoped I did, that you would not."
Plant? He was allergic to his Master's plant? "I, I'm sorry, Master," the Padawan stuttered.
Qui-Gon started when he was poked.
"Apologize never, for something you did not. No fault, you bear. Move the plant to the fountains, I will."
"I'm sor..." Qui-Gon bit his tongue. "Yes, Master. Thank you."
"Join your friends, you should."
Qui-Gon jumped to his feet and turned away. He halted suddenly and pivoted to face his Master. His expression softened as he looked down at the small, dignified Jedi.
"Master? I, I want you to know that, that I care for you, too."
Yoda harumphed, even as his ears perked upwards. Qui-Gon smiled and started to leave.
Yoda's voice stopped him. "You must promise, young Padawan, that happen again, this will not."
Qui-Gon's chin fell to his chest. Without looking back, he replied, "Please don't ask me to promise something I might not be able to do, Master. I'll try. But I can't promise."
"Surprising, your answer is not."
Awaiting the reprimand to come, Qui-Gon concentrated on his breathing. Several moments passed.
Finally, Yoda's voice broke the tension. "Stand you there, for what? See you must, how young Jarga fares."
Relief soared through Qui-Gon's limbs. Joy filled his reply. "Yes, Master."
The Padawan burst forward, darting across the patio. He bumped into the doorjamb, muttering, "Sorry," as he spun and kept running. He flipped through the air, his shout of happiness drawing several curious stares. He rounded a corner and collided with another young Jedi, sending practice sabers skittering across the hallway.
"Sorry," Qui-Gon shouted as he ran away. He couldn't stop. His friends were waiting.
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